Just Before Dawn
"You’re not serious."
"I’m sorry, Cordelia, but I am," Wesley apologized. "It says right here:" He pointed at the book he held in his hands. " ‘The Seer shall be presented to the Gods as the Gods presented the Seer to the world.’ It’s fairly clear that means that you must be…unclothed for the ceremony."
"I was covered in blood when I was born, too," she countered hotly. "Are we gonna dump Angel’s breakfast on me? Oh—and how about the placenta, huh?"
"Uh—a few symbolic markings in red body paints will do for the blood. It would be useful if you had your placenta, but it’s not necessary. That’s part of the reason some indigenous peoples save it. It’s a connection with the pre-living world--"
She waved her hands and cut him off. "Fine, great. I don’t want to hear any more about it. Are you sure there’s no mistake in the translation?" She demanded.
He shook his head. "It’s just classical Latin, Cordelia. I read it almost as easily as I do English. But just to be sure, I checked with Mr. Giles and Angel."
Cordelia turned to seek out the men in question and confirm that statement for herself. They were close at hand: they were both down on the floor. Angel was sponging the old chalk lines off the floor, while Giles drew new ones. Both had apparently been listening, so they spoke up as soon as she turned to them.
"It’s true, Cordy." Angel said.
"Yes. It’s—um—really quite clear," Giles confirmed.
Cordelia glared at them, and prepared to accuse them of making it all up. Hey, this was naked here.
But just then, Joyce arrived, carrying several large white candles. "They even checked it with me," she supplied. "And I just took a year or two of Latin in High School. When I told them that I didn’t have my old dictionary with me, they asked Anya, and she confirmed it."
A nightmarish--and no doubt accurate--image of Anya spreading the word among the Scoobies who had been sent upstairs to "get some rest—and keep resting until we tell you it’s okay" flashed into Cordelia’s mind. She buried her face in her hands, then threw her hands up in defeat. "All right! Fine! Whatever! We’re doing something that could fry my brains out, so what does it really matter what I’m wearing? Or not wearing!"
"That’s the spirit," Giles said, sarcastic but not particularly mean.
"So who’s going to be there?" She demanded.
Wesley flipped to the appropriate page in his book and scanned it, then pointed to the pertinent line, though she couldn’t read it. "It says here that the Rite shall be performed by the Priests and the Priestesses—"
Giles stretched and rubbed his back. "That’s the ideal situation. What we have are two sorcerers and two witches. It’ll have to do."
Wesley waved the concern away without looking up from the page. "And it shall be witnessed by the Champions of the people—"
"I still think Faith should be standing in the middle," Angel said to Giles, finishing the last of the old chalk lines. "I’m the Warrior of Night, Buffy’s the Warrior of Day, and Faith is Twilight. We should be right in a row."
"Yes, but then we have an imbalance of male and female forces. There are going to be far more women present than men as it is. That could create problems if we don’t place everyone just right."
"—And also by the Seer’s parents," Wesley finished.
"See, right there, we have a problem," Cordelia said.
Wesley didn’t need to ask what. One of Cordelia’s parents was in prison. The other was living in a studio apartment in Sunnydale. Neither was present.
"Not necessarily," Giles said, rising to his feet. "This ritual was created in an era when it was entirely possible that both parents would be dead, so the Seer can appoint others to bear witness on the parents’ behalf."
"You know," Wesley said, a step ahead for once, "It’s allowed—even expected, really—that one or both of the seer’s parents would be among the participating clergy."
"Gosh, I wonder who I’m going to pick," Cordelia said. "Just give Giles the Daddy-mark and tell Joyce where to stand and let’s get to this"
"Very well," Wesley said, closing the book.
"Nine people," Angel commented. "That’s a good omen."
Wesley pointed to the foot of the stairs, where the two witches were waiting. "Willow and Tara will be your attendants. They’ll help you prepare."
"Great," she groused. "The only two women around here who might be interested in handling me naked, and they’re the ones in charge of it."
Wesley shrugged helplessly. "If the Seer were male, it would be up to Mr. Giles and myself, but—"
"But it’s me. Yeah, yeah. Let’s just do this."
Wesley heard her voice waver on the last word, and it suddenly occurred to him that she was embarking on a potentially fatal experience, and all she was doing was complaining about the details. Once, he would have mistaken that remarkable courage for shallowness, but he had learned better since then.
He wanted to reach out and do something comforting. Pat her on the back, perhaps, or even hug her. But he was too slow. She had already turned and gone.
"I mean who am I going to pick for my parents? Really? Spike and Anya? I’d almost rather that Giles and Joyce were my parents. I can certainly count on them better."
Cordelia’s rant was loud enough for the whole room to hear, and it drew an "Amen" from Willow and absurd, proud smiles from the ‘parents’ in question.
The first step was a ritual bath. That meant it had to take place in Angel’s apartment, as it had to be an actual bath, and all of the guestrooms only had shower stalls. It was short but it was scalding, and they insisted that they use Angel’s unscented off-the-shelf bar soap and shampoo. Cordelia complained that now she would "smell like boy", but they held firm, saying that the fewer artificial substances tainting her skin—including the perfumes in the hygiene products she would have preferred—the better. After a moment or two of wrangling, she settled in and allowed Joyce to wash her hair, which was apparently the "Mother’s" duty.
The bath was just starting to cool to a comfortable temperature when Joyce left and Cordelia had to get out of the bath. Willow and Tara dried her with Angel’s towels, anointed her hair with some sort of oil—she wasn’t too happy about that part, but they’d sworn it was a good conditioner—then began to apply the ritual paints. She didn’t bother to ask why the oil and the paints were less "artificial" than her perfumes. They were probably organically based or something.
First, they applied symbols that were sacred Woman symbols: a red spiral over her womb leading into a downward-pointing arrow, symbolizing her fertility. She asked what symbol a man would have, and they answered a simple, straight arrow.
Next, she had two round, red moons painted on each breast, with a white drop on each nipple. She didn’t need the symbolism of those explained.
She felt Willow’s hand trembling as she started the moon on her left breast, and she realized that the purpose of giving her female attendants was at least partially defeated by the fact that these two happened to be lesbians. In that moment, she had a flash of insight. It was almost a vision, minus the skull-rupturing pain: She was maybe the third real person Willow had seen completely naked in her entire life. To the best of her knowledge, the formerly shy, nerdy Hacker had never been skinny-dipping or so much as peeked when Buffy was changing clothes.
Rather than embarrassment or annoyance, Cordelia felt the kind of amused compassion she might have felt for any other virgin or near-virgin—Wesley, perhaps—who approached her, trembling with fear and desire and most of all, awe at the simple fact that he was going to have contact with a naked human being.
She caught Willow’s small, trembling hand, and held it for a moment, turning her head to look at the red-haired witch. Willow was looking at her own feet, her face flaming.
Cordelia squeezed her hand.
Willow looked up.
Cordelia nodded, and Willow sighed in relief and returned to work, her hands no longer trembling.
The Woman symbols complete, the two witches moved on to the symbols that signified Cordelia’s status as a Seer: a flame-shaped blue mask around her eyes and a blue crescent moon on her forehead.
Finally, they added the paints that Wesley had mentioned, the ones that symbolized her birth-blood. These consisted of simple red streaks: one on each cheek, one on each shoulder, one on each flank, one on each hand and foot.
The preparations done, they each took her by the hand, and led her out into the lobby.
The preparations for this ritual had driven the point home to Angel that simply painting a circle on the floor would be a bad idea. This ritual--a sacred, priestly ceremony of High Ritual Magic--was entirely different from the more "mortal" magic they’d used in the past several days. The etchings were entirely different. First, as an appeal to the Powers, the spell required an invocation to "seven gods." It hadn’t specified which seven, so they had made a ring of seven modern holy symbols on the floor: a cross, a Star of David, a Crescent-and-Star, a pentacle, an Om symbol, a yin/yang symbol, and a simple Buddhist mandala. They had done this in the hopes that "living" symbols, invested with the belief of the faithful, would be more powerful and effective than the symbols of forgotten gods and dead religions.
The three Warriors each stood on a holy symbol—Buffy on the Cross, Angel on the Star of David, Faith on the Crescent-and-Star. As prescribed by the ritual, each of them wore the closest thing they had to armor. For them, that meant leather pants and leather jackets all around. Each of them also carried a sword, instead of their usual weapon of choice. Angel had a massive broadsword, Buffy a simple long sword, and Faith had borrowed Cordelia’s Katana (which had, of course, been borrowed from Angel in turn). Wesley and Giles, dressed in togas made from scavenged bed sheets, waited in the center of the circle with a brazier and a wineglass.
Angel could feel his skin itch. Giles had purified the ceremonial space with a short ritual of salt and water and chimes. Apparently his soul made him pure enough to remain, but he was still enough of an "unclean thing" that the ritual made him uncomfortable.
Then the door to Angel’s apartment opened, and Tara and Willow led Cordelia out into the lobby. Joyce, who’d been waiting outside the door in a makeshift toga of her own ("I haven’t done this since college!" "Mom? What did you do in college?" "Nothing."), took one of Cordelia’s hands from Tara, wrapped her other arm around the girl’s shoulders, and led her down into the circle with the two witches following in procession behind.
Wesley picked up the book, which already lay open to the pertinent section. "Who brings this woman before the gods?" He asked as the procession entered the circle.
"Her mother and I," Giles answered. "The gods gave her to us, and now we offer her back up to them."
"So let it be," Wesley pronounced.
Everyone took position: Cordelia standing before the brazier and the wineglass, with Joyce on the other side of it, and the "priests" and "priestesses’ on either side of her. Once everyone was in place, they glanced surreptitiously at Angel. After nearly 250 years, he had learned to sense the moment of the Sun’s rising.
He held up a hand for them to wait…wait…
An unpleasant, prickling heat flashed across his skin.
His hand snapped down to point at Giles.
Giles raised a chime and struck it. "The Sun rises, and the gods’ revealing light is once more upon the world."
"We call upon Apollo, god of inspiration and dreams and prophecy," Wesley said.
"We call upon Gabriel, messenger of Yahweh," Willow added.
"We call upon the Kachinas, messengers of the Great Spirit," Tara finished.
"All messengers of the gods who can hear us, we call," Giles proclaimed. "This seer is your lighthouse before us. Without her, we die on the rocks. Without her, our Champions are blind."
"But our guide is in darkness" Willow said. "We beseech you to show her the way."
Tara, who had been holding the wineglass since the ceremony began, handed it to Cordelia. "Let this drink set her feet on the path," she said.
Wesley leaned forward and lit the bay leaves in the brazier. "Let this smoke guide her to your realms, as it once guided the oracle at Delphi."
Now it was Cordelia’s turn to do something: she had to drink. She raised the glass to her lips. As another such glass had done for Oz the night before, this glass contained red wine and a mixture of things that Cordelia didn’t really want to ask about.
She hesitated even less than Oz had. Maybe this was dangerous, but getting her mind flash-fried by a vision of the gods had to be better than anything Angelus had in mind. She drained the glass in one long swallow, and the world went dark.
If there was a dark tunnel with a light at the end of it, then Cordelia missed it. Maybe she went through it really fast.
Instead, she found herself on what looked to be the richest street she had ever seen. Each house was actually a mansion, grand and ornate, with a long, gated driveway. None of the gates were closed, though, nor did they have anything that looked like locks.
It was night—the sky above was clear and starry—but the street was well lit. Not just by streetlights, but by lights from the mansions. There was a party going on at each mansion, but the biggest party, with the brightest lights and the loudest music, was going on at the biggest mansion.
Somehow, she knew that that was her mansion, and that the party wasn’t one of her parents’ cocktail parties for making connections, it was for her. A birthday party? No. A welcome-home party.
Great, but she was hardly dressed for—
It was then that she realized she wasn’t naked anymore.
She was dressed in a simple but elegant burgundy cocktail dress, floor-length but slit to the hip. She also wore a diamond necklace, simple but clearly the finest piece of jewelry she’d ever seen, let alone owned.
"Ohmygod," she giggled joyfully, looking down at herself. "Is this Heaven?"
"It’s yours," a soft voice, like a whisper of breeze, answered. "Many people create something very similar for themselves before they’re able to leave such mortal things behind and see this place as it truly is."
Cordelia whipped around, searching the empty street for the speaker. "Who’s there?" She demanded. "Where are you?"
"I am the messenger you called for," the voice answered.
"Show yourself!" She challenged. Then she remembered where she was, and realized that such belligerence might not be a good idea. "Uh, sorry about that," she apologized. "It’s just that I, uh, hang out with your, uh, Champions a lot, and usually it’s bad news if we can’t see something."
"I understand," the voice answered. "But I can’t show you a face here. We’ll have to go to a neutral Heaven."
Cordelia looked longingly over her shoulder at her mansion, her party. There were hot guys—was Doyle one of them?—waiting in the hot tub, and a new Queen C waiting in the driveway for her.
She sighed and fixed her gaze straight ahead. She had work to do. "All right, let’s go," she said.
The next moment, she found herself standing in the middle of an endless plain of fluffy white clouds. The night sky still hung above her, the stars sparkling down. Funny, she’d expected Heaven to be sunnier.
"Okay," she called. "I’m here. Can I see you now?"
"I am here, Cordelia," The voice came, but this time it was not just a voice but a Voice. It filled the world, and it filled Cordelia’s senses. It was as warm and soft as summer sand at the beach, it smelled and tasted like the breakfast that Joyce and Angel had served—the first meal that the Scooby Gang and Angel Investigations had eaten as a family. To her ears, it was a beautiful and musical voice, but it was somehow all genders and none, as if a choir was singing each word in absolutely perfect unison.
"I know," she said, more humbly than anyone back in the physical world would have believed. "But I’d still like to see you, if that’s okay."
"Very well. Look up."
She obeyed—and dropped to her knees in awe and terror as the sky started to open.
Two lines of light—miles long and miles apart—shot across the star-spattered sky. Then, slowly, they started to widen, revealing a world of swirling, blazing, rainbow color beyond.
Was the owner of the Voice going to emerge from one of those openings, accompanied by a Heavenly Host or choir or whatever from the other?
Suddenly, in another flash of insight—perhaps there was an actual upside to being a Seer after all?—Cordelia realized something that curled her into a ball, pressing her hands tight to her eyes.
The owner of the Voice was not going to emerge from those holes in the sky. Those holes were…
The owner of the Voice was opening its eyes.
"I will condense my substance, so it will be easier for us to speak," the Voice said.
Although she hadn’t been cold before—far from it—Cordelia was relieved at the sudden feeling of sun-warmth on her back.
Slowly, cautiously, she came out of her tuck. Her head was only raised for a moment, before she brought it back down again. Groveling was all she could do—all she could imagine doing.
The Speaker was huge. Impossibly, unbelievably huge. It towered hundreds of feet into the sky. It was shaped like Belial had been—humanoid, with a halo made of stars, glass-pane wings, and eyes like blazing rainbows. But looking at the Speaker was like looking at the night sky: body, wings, and hair were all a clear midnight black, with stars glittering and dancing in them. In the brief moment that Cordelia was watching, a comet shot across the Speaker’s chest, and the spiral-arm of a galaxy swirled through one of its wings.
"Rise, daughter of Gaia," the Voice said. "Don’t you know that you and your kind are the Children of—" The next phrase he spoke came to her "ears" as "the Powers", but she somehow knew that whatever she "heard" was a crude translation of this being’s true language. Somehow, whatever word it had just spoken to her was both singular and plural, and her mind had just heard the closest thing it could comprehend. "—not servants? It is unseemly for the children to bow and kneel and grovel. Stand up!"
"I can’t," she moaned. "I can’t! You’re too—too—you…you’re…"
"Ah. I apologize. I shall take a form that you may be more comfortable with."
She felt the world shift around her as the Speaker did so. Her senses reeled as Heaven realigned itself to allow for her mortal fragility. She was awed, humbled, and honored at the same time: why would such a being change itself to suit her needs, unless—
"There now, that should be better." The Voice had become a mere voice, and it was definitely masculine now. Masculine, with a British accent. What was more, it was a vaguely familiar masculine, British voice.
Not quite believing her ears, Cordelia looked up, and saw Alan Rickman, as he’d appeared in the movie Dogma, standing before her.
"Is this better?" The Speaker asked.
"Uh, yes. Thank you," Cordelia answered blankly.
"Good." He reached down to her. "Please. Stand up." Still staring blankly, she allowed him to help her to her feet.
"You saw Dogma?" was the first question that blurted out.
He nodded. "It was actually pretty popular around here. It was hilarious, of course, and Kevin Smith really did his homework. I especially liked the way they portrayed me." He patted his chest.
"You?" Cordelia asked incredulously. "You mean you really are that Metric guy?"
"The Metatron," The Speaker corrected. "That’s right. I’m the voice of the Powers." Once again, Cordelia heard "Powers," but knew that the Metatron had spoken that odd, mind-bending singular-plural word. "For the very reason that was mentioned in the movie: if you saw the true face of the Powers, your eyes would be burned blind. If you heard their true voice, your mind would collapse and your heart would burst in your chest. Now: what can I do for you?"
In the physical world, Cordelia—who had been standing for the past several minutes with her head bowed—suddenly looked up. The other participants, who’d been watching and waiting for something like this, were startled nonetheless.
"Cordelia?" Willow asked. "Are you okay? What did they say?"
Cordelia looked toward her, but it was instantly and abundantly clear that Cordelia wasn’t there. There was none of Cordelia’s essential humanity in the face that was turned in her direction. Something unimaginably old and huge and powerful and terribly, terrifyingly Good was there instead.
Cordelia turned away again, her Seer marks starting to glow a soft blue, and her eyes turning into pools of blazing color, filling the whole room with light. She clasped her hands between her breasts, over her heart. Then she held them out: cupped in her hands was a seed, roughly the size of a peach pit, but smooth and silver. Perhaps such seeds existed somewhere in the mortal universe, but none like it had ever been seen on Earth.
Cordelia’s mouth opened and a Voice emerged, but it had no relation to hers or, in fact, to anything human. It sounded like an entire choir was singing each word in perfect unison. "Take this seed," the Voice said. "Take this seed, and let the Lifeweavers make of it a tree, watering it with holiness as it grows. Then let a Warrior take the knife that was the salvation of the world, though it was bought in evil and quenched in blood, and cut a staff from this tree. Let the Builders carve it with holiness, seal the words with metal that is precious beyond all price, then quench it with holiness. So shall you make the spear that must pierce the Heart of the Darkness."
That said, Cordelia just stood there, silent and waiting, holding out the seed. Slowly, tentatively, Willow reached out and took it. She was just starting to ease back and away when Cordelia’s hand snapped around and caught her by the wrist, eliciting a screech of surprise.
"But beware," The Voice said. "Should the Darkness break its bonds, the shadows shall drip with blood. And the merest touch of blood or shadow shall fill you with the Darkness’s own hunger."
With that, the light left Cordelia’s eyes and her hands dropped to her sides, but her Seer marks continued to glow softly.
The Metatron stood silent, its now-human eyes distant as the focus of its consciousness was on Earth, delivering its message. Nonetheless, Cordelia could hear the words that her mouth was speaking. That was good—it was a sign that she wasn’t dead, if she still had a connection with her body.
"Carve it with holiness?" She muttered to herself. "Precious beyond all price? What does that mean? If these guys are so omnipotent, why can’t they give a straight answer?"
"Actually, we can," The Metatron answered, its eyes returning to alertness.
Cordelia’s blood—if she had any here—ran cold. Suddenly, she realized that her customary grousing about the Powers might not be entirely wise in Heaven. "Oh. G—I mean, oh, jeez. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—"
"No, it’s all right," the Metatron said. "I can give you a straight answer on this, and I believe you’re entitled to it."
Entitled? What happened to "we are the gods, do what we say"? Or maybe she’d had the wrong impression of them all along. After all, Metatron had been nothing but nice so far…
"The Powers can’t give straight answers, especially on the questions that you and your friends bring them, because that could be considered direct intervention, and that would be against the Rules."
"Rules?" Cordelia asked incredulously. "What ‘Rules’? Aren’t the Powers the ones who make the Rules?"
"Only partially," the Metatron answered. "They agreed on the Rules with the Lower Beings—the Deep Lords of Misrule. They would compete for the world’s destiny through proxies—the Lower Being’s slaves and loyal champions like yourselves—rather than fight it out directly. Both sides are forbidden to intervene directly, but if one does, the penalty is that the other side is allowed to do so as well, to restore the balance."
"You make it sound like a game," Cordelia said, her anger overcoming her awe for good this time. "Is that what it’s all about? Our lives—everything we’ve suffered through—it’s just a game to you?"
"The alternative is even worse," The Metatron answered.
"What, the Powers fighting their own battles?" She demanded. "Would that be so awful?"
"If the Powers and the Deep Lords turned to open war, it would be chaos," the Metatron said. "The Walls would fall. The Wheel of Time would break off its axle. The Powers would win, but your world couldn’t possibly survive. We take the chance of your world being destroyed, rather than take actions which would ensure it."
"Oh." Suddenly, a lot of things made a lot more sense.
"Instead, they give your people the means to save themselves. The plan works because the Lower Beings want to rule the world, not destroy it—mostly. They even follow the rules, most of the time. Unless they see a vulnerable point, a chance for a knockout punch. As the First Evil did the Christmas that it tried to drive Angel to suicide."
"He told me about that," she said. "So the snow--?"
"A bright miracle to counter the dark one."
"Wait a second," she said. "Don’t you have one of those coming now? I mean, if Belial showing up in the world and pulling Angelus out of Angel so he’s an Old One now doesn’t count as a dark miracle, what does?"
"Very true," the Metatron agreed with a strangely proud smile. He looked like a teacher whose student has just made a sudden leap of comprehension on a difficult concept. "And now, Cordelia Chase, I must bid you farewell."
"Farewell?" She cried as Heaven started to fade around her. "Wait! I still have questions! Are you going to—"
"Tell Giles and Wesley to check the Elysian prophecies," he called after her. Then he was gone.
* * *
Cordelia’s eyes fluttered open in the physical world.
"Cordelia?" Wesley asked. "Is it you, this time?"
"Angel, Wesley, you’re not gonna believe this," she said. "But I just got a straight answer from the Powers that Be."
Forging the Weapon
The other members of the Scooby Gang and Angel Investigations had been told that it was now safe to stop resting, and they had hurried downstairs, eager for an explanation of the hotel-shaking music.
Well, most of them hurried. Xander had responded to the knock at his locked door by calling, in an out-of-breath and strained voice, that he and Anya would be down in a few minutes.
"We must not have heard them over all the bloody singing," Spike commented.
"Funny," Willow said. "I thought she squealed loud enough to be heard over anything."
Cordelia sat on one of the couches, wrapped in Angel’s bathrobe. It was black, of course, and of course she was nearly lost in it. She may not be as small as Buffy, but Angel still had her by nearly eight inches in height and his shoulders were about twice as broad as hers.
The crackly dryness of the paint was starting to irritate her skin, and she picked absently at her Seer mask and the other marks on her face. She couldn’t wait for this little interview to be over so she could get a shower.
She was already forgetting what Heaven had been like, and the Metatron’s greater form (let alone whatever awesome Trueform had been hidden behind Heaven’s night sky) was fading into a vague memory of immensity. But she doubted that she would forget a single word that it had spoken to her. Ever.
Xander and Anya finally arrived a few minutes later, hurriedly adjusting their clothes. No point in trying to deny the obvious—they just did their best to delay the proceedings as little as possible.
At Giles’ prompting, Cordelia related everything the Metatron had said, especially the prophecy.
Some of it was easy to figure out. "Well, that confirms it," Angel said when she got to the warning about the shadows dripping blood."
"Confirms what?" Wesley asked.
"Compare her warning to my vision, and it becomes pretty clear that Angelus is going to have the ‘Aspect of the Demon’ power when he reaches his true form."
"The Old Ones that vampires come from must have been creatures of disease," Giles said. "Modern vampires are only infected shadows of the real thing, many steps removed from the source. That’s why it’s so difficult for them to infect someone: they must drain a human to the point of death. Only then is the human’s body vulnerable to the demonic infection in the vampire’s blood. But now that Angelus is pure—"
"It becomes like poison ivy," Xander finished.
"Exactly," Giles agreed.
It was agreed that, if Angelus reached his true form (whatever that might be), the mortals would pull back and leave Angel, Spike, and Lorne’s demon brigade to handle him. Better that than give Angelus an elite strike force of vampires with the combined powers of the Scooby Gang and a pack of Master vampires.
The Metatron’s revelations as to why the Powers never seemed to get off their divine duffs and do anything were fascinating, but they could be discussed later. That left the central prophecy: the weapon.
"Okay," Riley said in what Buffy and Willow both recognized as his TA voice. "Let’s break it down, take it one piece at a time. Who are the lifeweavers?"
"That would be Willow and Tara," Wesley answered promptly. "Or perhaps Mrs. Summers."
"That was easy," Oz commented.
"How are you so sure?" Buffy asked suspiciously. She hadn’t been present to witness Wesley’s bloom into competence, so she still couldn’t quite trust it.
"Because—er, as politically incorrect as it might be to say—um, uh—Mr. Giles?"
"Because they’re women," Giles answered. "Specifically, Willow and Tara are witches, and they served as the priestesses in the ritual. Joyce is the only woman present who’s actually borne a child. It certainly can’t hurt for all three to take part."
"That’s how we know who the Builders are, too," Wesley continued. "According to the same magical symbolism wherein women are the sources of life, men the makers and builders of artificial things. That leaves it to Mr. Giles and myself to perform the rituals on the spear. Though…" he looked embarrassed again. "If any of you gents are a bit better at wood carving…"
"I can do that," Angel said.
"Okay, then," Riley said in his patient-but-insistent, let’s-move-this-along TA tone. "Next piece, probably another easy one: ‘Water it with Holiness’?"
Willow, Tara, and Joyce planted the seed in the courtyard, and watered it with Holy Water. It grew with miraculous speed, reaching the size of a sturdy young tree in minutes. As they’d expected, it didn’t look like any tree that had ever appeared on Earth. For one thing, its bark was silvery, and its leaves were shiny and golden.
Faith used the knife Mayor Wilkins had given her to cut an appropriately-sized branch off, but then it was up to the "Builders" to carve it into a spear.
Carving a spear can take time. Carving holy symbols and prayers into the spear—their best guess at the meaning of ‘engrave it with holiness’—would take longer. Time they didn’t have. They ended up using a spell to shape the branch into a spear ("Very popular among tribal shamans who wanted to be sure they never went unarmed.") and placing a craftsman’s charm for speed and accuracy on Angel’s tools. It would still take time, but with Angel’s own speed included in the equation, it became a matter of hours, not days.
That left them with the one thing they hadn’t figured out yet.
"A metal precious beyond all price?" Wesley repeated as he stared helplessly at the crucible they’d set up in the middle of the Holy Circle. "What could that possibly be? Gold, silver, platinum—everything has a price. Even if it’s so high that no one could possibly pay it, there’s still a price."
"There are elements that only exist in labs," Willow suggested. "Things that there are only a few grams of on Earth."
"Which means that their dollar value is in the billions," Giles said in frustration. "But if you counted the labor of the scientists, the materials and tools they used, and the rarity of the item, you could probably arrive at a price."
"Even it was something that didn’t occur in our dimension, like the sword that Buffy and Angel described," Wesley said. "How would we get it? Cash? Barter? All of that establishes a price. Even if we stole it or if it was given as a gift, that doesn’t mean that it had no price at home."
"And the Metatron said ‘beyond all price’," Cordelia said glumly.
"Damn," Faith said. "They don’t leave any loopholes, do they?"
Wesley shook his head.
"I have it." Joyce said. But rather than a triumphant shout, it was just a sad sigh. She took off a necklace she was wearing and held it up: a plain gold ring hung from the chain. "This is my wedding band," she said. "I don’t wear it on my hand anymore, because, well, I’m not married anymore. But I just can’t get rid of it. It reminds me of the good times that I had with Hank. Buffy’s birth." A sudden, fiendish grin bloomed on her face, though it was still sad around the edges. "Buffy’s conception."
"Mom!" Buffy protested, her face flaming as most of the rest of the people in the room snickered.
Suddenly, Joyce stepped up to the crucible and released one of the ends of the chain, letting the ring slide off and into the crucible. "There," she said as she watched the gold start to soften and puddle. Her voice stayed steady, but tears welled up in her eyes and silently overflowed. "Now it’s gone. Nothing can ever bring it back or replace it. I can buy another plain gold ring, of course. Easily. But it’ll never be the ring that Hank Summers put on my finger twenty-five years ago."
They all looked at each other. She was right—she had to be. It was the only answer. None of them looked happy at the heart-rending sacrifice they would have to make.
Riley was the next to step up, pulling a set of dog tags out of the breast pocket of this shirt and a pocket knife out of his jeans. "Will that crucible melt something a little harder than gold?" He asked.
"Both the crucible and the flame are enchanted," Giles answered. "They’ll melt anything you care to put into them."
Riley nodded and began to cut the hard, black rubber off the edges of the dog tags. "Forrest was my best friend," he said without preamble. "Not just in the Initiative, or in the army, or in college. We went to high school together—junior high—elementary school. We’ve been buddies as long as I can remember. Longer, really. His parents and mine were friends before we were born. No matter what happened, he was always there for me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we followed each other around. We were across the country from each other for the first two years of college, before we joined the Initiative and were sent to Sunnydale. But even when we were that far apart, he was always there for me." He dropped the dog tags into the crucible. "Now he’s gone."
There were other things he could have said: that Forrest had died because he, himself, had failed to be there for him. That he’d been too busy fighting Adam’s control to even grieve at the time. That he’d been the one forced to burn Forrest’s body—or rather, the cyber-demonoid that it had become.
But he said none of those things as he turned away from the last sliver of his best friend’s life as it melted away.
One person in the group, however, already knew those things. He’d shared them with her during the long, dark nights. As he turned away from the crucible, Buffy caught him in a fierce hug. Riley returned the hug, and he sighed deeply, but his eyes stayed dry. He had no tears left for Forrest, or himself.
While they were doing that, Faith stepped up to the crucible and, without a word, snapped the blade off Mayor Wilkins’ knife, and fed it to the flames. That done, she disappeared upstairs into the hotel, still silent.
They all followed in quick succession. Everyone had something to sacrifice to the flames. From the pewter angel pin that had belonged to Gunn’s sister , to Tara’s locket ("J-j-just l-let me g-g-g-get th-the pic-pic-picture of m-my m-m-mother ou-out."). Some said a few words about their sacrifice, others were silent. They would never know, for example, that Gunn had promised Alonna that as long as she was wearing the pin, he was watching over her—and that she hadn’t been wearing it when she’d died. They would never know the significance of the novelty flattened penny that Oz flipped into the crucible, but considering the fact that he made an actual sad expression as he did so, it was just as precious to him as anyone else’s was.
Buffy and Angel went last. There was no question what their sacrifice would be.
They came one after the other, not together. Angel went first, Buffy second. Each claddagh ring made a small, unimportant plunk as it dropped into the silvery pool in the crucible, which was actually rather sizable by now.
Angel dropped his in quickly, before he could talk himself out of it. The words Surely there’s already enough in there were just starting to cross his mind as the ring dropped into the molten metal. Without a sound, he turned, stalked across the room, dropped down on a couch that was turned toward the wall as if all the strength had gone out of his legs, and buried his face in his hands.
Buffy paused for a moment, studying her ring before she threw it in. Hands for friendship. Crown for loyalty. Heart for love.
Cutting a chip out of his chest with a piece of broken glass to save her. That was love.
Giving up his chance at humanity to save her. That was love.
When did it all get so complicated?
"Forever, that’s the whole point," she murmured, too softly for even Oz to hear as she dropped her ring in.
The impromptu ceremony over, the last remnants of the group scattered back to their rooms.
Giles and Wesley poured the metal into the symbols and prayers that Angel had carved. Then they quenched the spear in holy water, and it was done.
As they worked, Giles found himself pondering. He was half again as old as Wesley, the next-oldest magician among them, and he thought himself safe in believing he had seen and experienced far more than any of them.
But he had never witnessed any magic as deep or as true as what he had witnessed here today. He could feel the power humming in the spear every time he touched it. The power of fourteen people—two sevens—willing to give up everything precious to them to keep the rest of the world safe.
Magic as deep and true as the roots of the World Tree. Magic forged in blood and pain and love. The kind of magic that you use when making your stand against a reborn Old One on the ultimate, shining edge of the West.
Yes. Here’s where we make our stand, you murderous bastard.
And you’re going to go down.
On High School Musicals and Decisions Made
"Those were your wedding rings, weren’t they?"
Riley had found Buffy on the roof, staring out at the morning-lit rooftops of LA. She wasn’t the only one up there: he’d spotted Giles and Faith, and he suspected there might be others, but everyone seemed to be keeping to their own private section of roof.
"The rings you and Angel sacrificed," Riley repeated. "They were your wedding rings, weren’t they?"
She opened her mouth to answer, but found she could only sigh, close it again, look back away across LA, and nod.
"What did you say?"
She looked back up at him sharply. "What?"
"You said something when you put it in. I saw your lips moving, but I couldn’t hear it."
"Nothing," she answered. "It was nothing. Nothing important, anyway." She couldn’t tell him. It would be needlessly cruel, and besides…
He wrapped his arm around her and rested his chin on the top of her head, looking out at the same vista she was. It made him a little claustrophobic. He’d grown up on a road where cars came by maybe three times a day, and gone to school in a town that was maybe a mile or two in each direction, and not one building was more than three stories tall. His time in Sunnydale had made him more accustomed to more crowded living conditions, but this endless landscape of artificial mountains was still overwhelming. The cacophony of traffic and the scum of garbage and litter on the streets just made it worse. He couldn’t really understand what comfort she derived from looking at it.
"I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t pretty sure it was important already," He said. "Please, Buffy. We promised: no more secrets."
She closed her eyes and heaved another deep sigh. "Forever, that’s the whole point," she answered.
"It’s what we said to each other, the night we gave each other those rings. We promised each other forever. Forever, that’s the whole point."
He could feel his heart cracking open in his chest. "Is that your decision, then?" He asked, forcing his voice to stay even. "Forever? That’s the whole point?"
…And besides, it might make him jump to conclusions.
"I haven’t made any decision yet," she said hotly, pushing him back and his arms away. "I don’t know if I can."
She turned on him. "How the hell am I supposed to decide?" She demanded. "It’s like asking me to decide between night and day. If you take away either, you only have half a life." She began pacing like a caged lioness. "You know, once upon a time, all I wanted was one normal boyfriend. I didn’t think I’d ever have even that, ‘cause slaying did so much damage to my social life. Instead I get two men—two!—who’ve given up everything for me. I don’t deserve something that wonderful even once—nobody does. How did I get it twice? How do I handle that? How do I tell one ‘thanks but no thanks’?"
"Lord, give me strength to endure my blessings," Riley said.
"Something my mom used to say when we’d gotten all muddy or something like that where we hadn’t done anything wrong—we were just being a trial by being kids. Sounds like you have the same problem she did: too many blessings."
Buffy chuckled and leaned against the parapet around the edge of the roof, her tension momentarily broken. "Yeah, I’d say nine is a few too many ‘blessings’," she agreed. "But at least she had control over that. You two just kind of snuck up on me."
"Sorry," he apologized, a grin appearing on his face to give the lie to his words.
She shook her head and turned away, looking back out over the city. "I don’t know what I’m going to do, Riley." She said. "Angel and I went through hell together. Sometimes literally. We took turns saving each other’s lives, but then you and I do that, too. But we went through hard, terrible times, and we supported each other. We were there for each other. We got each other through."
"Except when ‘each other’ was the source of the problem," Riley observed.
Buffy looked back at him suspiciously for a moment. If the source of the comment had been Xander, she would have smacked him. But then, if the source of the comment had been Xander, it would have dripped with bitter sarcasm. Riley was just making a note. Finally, she nodded. "Right," she agreed. "We tried so hard to make it work, but in the end it was just too dangerous while the curse was in place. He had to leave. I tried to deny it at the time, but it was true. I could still kill my mother for going over my head about it, but it was true."
Then she looked away again, staring out at the sun reflecting off the skyscrapers. "Then we come to you. We’ve been through some hard times, too, but nothing that compares to some of the crap I went through with Angel. Instead," She paused and took a deep breath. "Instead, you’ve made me happy. He made me happy, too, but so often it was mixed in with the pain. You brought me out into the sunlight. You showed me what simple happiness could be like."
She paused and looked down at the cars driving by. "He’s my husband, and I guess he has been since I was seventeen," She continued. "But he’s been gone. You’re my lover, and you’re the one who’s been here. Day or night, Riley? Which half of your life do you give up?"
Riley stood and watched her for a moment in silence, memories and recent experiences that had been percolating in his mind for hours finally coalesced.
"Neither," he said.
She looked back over her shoulder at him, a quizzical expression on her face.
He held out his hand to her. "I think I have an idea," he said. "Come on."
Angel opened the door of his apartment to Riley’s insistent knocking. He’d been taking a nap, and he was a little bit dazed. Vampires can move around in the daytime as long as they stay out of direct sunlight, but the instinct for them to sleep if there’s nothing that they must do is still strong. That being the case, he was too confused to even protest when Riley barged into his apartment, leading Buffy by the hand and saying "We need to talk."
"Uh, okay," Angel agreed in confusion as he closed the door.
Riley guided Buffy to a chair and then began to nervously pace the floor and crack his knuckles, clearly gathering his thoughts for something.
Angel sidled up to Buffy, keeping his eyes on the agitated young man the whole way. "What’s this all about?" He whispered.
"I’m not sure," she answered out of the corner of her mouth, keeping her own eyes on her boyfriend. "We were up on the roof, talking about our relationship, when he got an idea of some kind and dragged me down here."
"What were you talking about?" He asked.
Buffy sighed and dropped her eyes to her lap. "How I can’t decide between you," she admitted. They both deserved better than this. She wouldn’t blame them if they both said ‘Screw you, enough games’ and left her alone. "He’s my day. You’re my night. How do I choose?"
Angel laid a hand on her shoulder. She knew that she wouldn’t get the blame that she probably deserved from him—not yet, in any case—but she flinched anyway.
"Don’t worry," he said, turning the clasp into a pat. "We’ll think of something."
"I think I may have," Riley said, stopping in his pacing to turn and look at them. "Have either of you ever seen Paint Your Wagon?"
Angel nodded, but Buffy shook her head, each with identically blank looks of confusion on their faces.
"You have?" Angel asked, surprised.
"I played Pardner in high school," Riley replied.
"I’m surprised your town allowed a play like that to be shown in the school," Angel said.
"There were some complaints," Riley admitted.
"Um, excuse me," Buffy interrupted, raising her hand. "Could we get some Cliff’s Notes for the culturally illiterate, here?"
Both men started apologizing and explaining at the same time. They stopped, looked at each other, then Riley waved Angel forward. "You go ahead," he said.
Angel gave a nod and a loose, two-finger salute, then continued: "Paint Your Wagon is a musical. First it was a play, then a movie with a young Clint Eastwood in it. It’s set in the California Gold Rush, and it actually captures the conditions pretty well—minus the violence and disease. It’s a comedy, after all. Anyway, the show centers around a grizzled old mountain man named Ben Rumson and his Pardner. Now, one of the problems in the mining camps was that there were no women. At all. The men were terribly lonely—"
"And horny," Buffy smirked.
"And horny," Angel agreed. "And the men also missed the work that women used to do for them back home: cooking, cleaning, etcetera."
"My heart just bleeds with sympathy for them," Buffy said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
"I can smell it from here," Angel grinned.
"So you can imagine what happened the day a Mormon arrived in the camp with both of his wives," Riley interrupted, his ‘teacher instinct’ refusing to allow the conversation to get off track.
"The show goes from a wholesome fifties musical to ‘The World’s Biggest Gangbang’?" Buffy guessed.
That brought him up short. He glanced at Angel as if to say ‘Was she like this when she was with you?’ But Angel just shrugged, grinning. "Not exactly," Riley said. "But the men are jealous to see a man with two of what they have none of, so they offer to buy one of them."
The smile dropped from Buffy’s face. "I see. Slavery. How romantic. Tell me again how this applies to our situation?"
"Just hold on," Riley said, holding up his hands defensively. "We’re getting there." He glanced at Angel. "Keep talking, Big Man, you’re doing just fine."
Angel shrugged and did as he was told. "The husband pretty much agrees with you," He said to Buffy. "But the second wife, whose name is Elizabeth, is ready to be sold. Her husband and the first wife treat her like dirt—in the movie, they come riding into camp with her walking behind them, if that gives you an idea. She’s been especially discontent since her baby died a few weeks before—which the husband is kind enough to bring up in front of everyone. Of course, she still has to take care of the first wife’s baby."
"I guess I’d be ready to be sold off, too," Buffy admitted.
"So they start the auction," Angel continued. "Meanwhile, she’s off in a tent nursing the first wife’s baby. Ben happens to catch sight of her, and drunkenly offers to double whatever the last bid was."
"Which makes his bid $800 and some supplies," Riley said. "Astronomical for the time."
"So she brought in a good price," Buffy said, the acid-dripping sarcasm back. "What an honor."
"He acts more or less like you’d expect," Angel said. "From a man who hasn’t even seen a woman in months and had most of his experience with prostitutes. But before he tears off too many of her clothes for a ‘wholesome fifties musical’, she pulls a derringer on him and explains that she 1) will damn well be treated with some respect and 2) wants a cabin so she’ll have something when he moves on, as she knows he will."
"Strangely enough, this wins his admiration," Riley said.
"Not so strange," Angel disagreed. "The first time I met Buffy, she kicked me right to the ground."
"Hmph," Riley grunted in mock resentment. "We had to get a couple dates in before she’d do that to me."
Buffy said nothing. Her face—currently the color of Willow’s hair—said it all.
"So anyway," Angel continued. "He starts getting all jealous and possessive. After all, the rest of the men in the camp aren’t any less horny, and she’s the only woman for miles. To solve that problem, he leads an expedition to hijack six French prostitutes on the way to another camp."
"Now kidnapping. You know, for a comedy, there’s a lot of things in this show that aren’t funny."
"You could say the same thing about Animal House or Revenge of the Nerds," Riley said. "There’s a lot of things that wouldn’t be funny if they really happened—especially if they happened to you."
"Anyway," Angel interrupted. "While he’s gone, Ben asks Pardner to look out for Elizabeth—he trusts her, but not the other miners. But while he’s gone, feelings grow between Pardner and Elizabeth. By the time Ben gets back, she loves them both and can’t choose between them. But they hit on a solution: this is California. Wild country. They make their own rules here. She’s just come from a marriage where a man had two wives, so why can’t she—" Angel’s eyes widened as understanding dawned, and Riley started to nod encouragingly. "Have…two…husbands." He paused, returning Riley’s expectant stare with one of disbelief. "You’re joking."
"Nope," Riley answered, shaking his head.
"Are you serious?" Buffy asked. She had the same disbelief on her face, but it was being rapidly replaced by dawning hope.
"Why not? Willow, Oz, and Tara are trying it."
"Those are special circumstances," Angel protested.
"And these aren’t?" Riley countered.
"It’s not the same," Angel said. "How would everyone react to something like that?"
"Which ‘everyone’ are you referring to?" Riley challenged. "Willow, Oz, and Tara, who are doing the same thing? Xander, who’s dating an ex-vengeance demon whose body count makes yours look paltry? Faith? Spike?"
Actually, the "everyone" that had been at the forefront of Angel’s mind was his (God’s wounds, teeth, and toenails!) Mother-in-law. "Look. Wait a second," he said, holding up his hands. "You’re trying to convince the wrong person, here. Buffy, what do you think?" He asked, turning to where she still sat in her chair.
She sat there, staring at her hands, a look of stunned wonder and hope growing on her face. When she looked up at them, there were tears shimmering in her eyes, but a blazing smile spreading across her face. She didn’t deserve this. She knew she didn’t. Did anyone? Ever since her father left, she’d been convinced that something about her drove men away. Angel’s departure, necessary as it had been, and Parker’s game-playing, hadn’t helped. She generally blamed her Slayerness. Not only did it make her keep secrets and have a weird schedule, but how many guys want a girlfriend who can kick their butt at, well, everything? But she’d always wondered if there was something else, something inherently wrong with her, that drove them off.
Never, in her wildest girlhood dreams of knights and princes on white horses and rock stars, had she dared to imagine that she would ever be loved so much.
"Do you really think we can do it?" She asked, her voice charged with hope. "Do you really think we can make it work?"
Riley and Angel looked at each other.
Riley’s expression was that of everyone who’s ever made an outrageous suggestion and suddenly found that suggestion much closer to implementation than he ever though it would really get: excitement, hope, uncertainty, and more than a little fear.
Angel’s face was unsure and confused. He was used to sudden violence, but in any other area of his unlife, he was unaccustomed to snap judgments and swift action. It was something that made participation in the shooting-star life of Buffy Summers a challenge for him.
In fact, he probably came off as indecisive to the humans around him as they carried him along in the riptide of their lives. That wasn’t the case, really. It was just that, with forever stretched before him, he could take time to contemplate and consider decisions carefully…
Okay, so maybe he was a little indecisive.
Both of them were thinking the same thing: can I spend my life, not just with Buffy, but with this man?
They hadn’t started off on the right foot. There was no question of that. Sure, Angel had beaten up an entire Initiative squad, but the poor dupes hadn’t known any better but to attack anything that wasn’t on the same evolutionary tree as them. Riley might have, but he’d been primed by Xander to expect the worst. Both men, spontaneously and separately, decided to have a little talk with Xander about that. Angel, remembering other situations where Xander had given other people the worst possible impression of him—Thanksgiving of the same year, his introduction to Faith—decided that it would be a long talk, but decided to forebear punching him in the face, out of gratitude for the previous morning’s rescue.
Both of them were embarrassed to remember the macho pissing match in Buffy’s dorm room that had followed.
That was their history, before this nightmare had begun. One fight. But even in that fight, they had developed a certain measure of admiration for each other, once they’d stopped being furious: Angel had won the fight, but only barely. He’d defeated an entire initiative squad, which earned Riley’s regard, but this one human had nearly taken him. And this was when Riley’s super-strength had mostly faded. Sure, he had used weapons. But that’s what humans do when confronted with demons. That’s how humans survive.
Since then, since the last few days of hell had begun, they’d found a great deal to like and admire in each other, despite their initial inclination not to. They worked well together.
What was more, Angel had noticed that, several times in the past few days alone, Buffy’s well-being had required both of them. Riley, who wasn’t used to the workings of destiny and the Powers, didn’t necessarily see anything in that. But Angel wondered if it was a message…
Angel realized that the moment had stretched into an uncomfortable silence, and that both humans were staring at him. Then he realized why: it was Riley’s idea, so he was in favor of it by default. Buffy had already expressed her excitement. That left him.
"We can try," he said softly.
If this was a TV show or a movie, that would have been the moment that there was a commercial or a cut to another scene. Instead, the three of them were left standing or sitting around the room, looking at each other as the uncomfortable silence stretched on.
Finally, Angel did something that he didn’t often do. He broke the ice. "So," he said. "Does this make me ‘Ben’?"
"Well, you are her husband," Riley chuckled.
"But what does that make you?" Angel asked. " ‘Cause son, you ain’t no Clint Eastwood."
"You know," Buffy said, cutting off Riley’s retort about being a real farmer and not just playing one on TV. "We’re going to need a bigger bed." She looked at her two hulking lovers and put a hand to her mouth to smother a giggle. "A much bigger bed," she said in a voice choked with laughter.
With that, the tension snapped like an overtuned guitar string, and it took them nearly five minutes to stop laughing.
What wise, mad god made humans to laugh when they’re tense or afraid? All of them, Slayerettes and Angel Investigations, had spent so much of these last hellish days laughing like fools, and it had helped like nothing else could have.
"So," Buffy said when she finally regained control of herself. "We’re going to try."
"I guess that’s the plan," Riley said.
"Yes. Try." Angel agreed.
"Do you want to try now?" She asked.
That left them both a bit confused. What had they just agreed to, if not—
It hit them both at the same time, and their eyes widened in unison. "Oh."
"Try? Now? Uh—" Riley.
"Are you sure?" Angel.
Without another word, Buffy rose from her chair, walked across the room to Angel’s bed, sat on the edge, planted her feet wide apart, and held her arms out.
She was sure.
Suddenly, both of them understood what Buffy was doing: talk is cheap. This was the first test. Could they something even this simple—relatively speaking—together and make it work?
Time to find out.
They crossed the room and knelt in front of her, one on each side.
Buffy was afraid. Could they get through this without jealousy destroying everything that they had built out of pretty words? Besides—taking on two men at once. That was slut-work. That was something the skankiest ho in Sunnydale did at a victory party for the football team. Is that what she had come to? But then, she had done things with Riley that had had the potential to be almost as humiliating and degrading. Things that she had silently sworn to never do when she’d first found out about them. But with him, it had been okay. With him, things that could have been humiliating and degrading had been exciting and fun—no, not just fun, joyful.
So she opened her arms and opened her legs and surrendered to her men and trusted them to make this something joyful.
Then it began, and all thought dissolved into a swirl of sensation.
Kisses. Frantic kisses all over her face. Hungry kisses chewing at her neck, one pair of teeth blunt and unafraid to chew hungrily. The other pair needle-sharp, scraping delicately over the fragile skin. Kisses on the pale, soft, rounded tops of her breasts as her shirt was carefully unbuttoned and peeled open by two sets of hands. Long, hungry, greedy kisses, unwilling to leave her mouth empty for a moment. Two mouths waiting impatiently for their turn: one hot and moist, sweet-tasting, like root beer and apples. The other dry and cold, tasting of wine and a faint, distant, copper-salt tang.
Hands. Big, strong, thick-fingered hands. Hot, callused hands stroking across her now-bare stomach. Cool, smooth, dexterous hands sliding up her back to unhook her bra strap with practiced ease. Hot hand cupping a breast, stroking a thumb across her nipple. Cold hand sliding up one leather-clad leg, pressing into the throbbing need in her crotch, already feeling the heat that was bleeding through.
Hot hand cupping her bottom, pressing her hard against the cold hand, and the knowledge that they’re working together meets the sheer physical ecstasy and it is joyful and she sucks in her breath and she knows she’s going to have to cry out and—
Courtesy taken care of, at least in theory, Cordelia swung the door open. "Hey, Angel, you’d better Oh, my God, I’m blind!" She snapped her face away and covered her eyes with both hands.
Riley and Angel leaped back like Buffy had just burst into flames.
"Close the door!" Buffy shrieked as she pulled her shirt closed.
Angel was across the room and hustling Cordelia out the door before the words were all the way out of Buffy’s mouth.
Cordelia Chase was not accustomed to being hustled out of a room like that. With Angel’s speed thrown into the equation, it was a pretty dizzying experience.
She turned around, trying to get her bearings, and the door slammed in her face as she did so. Needless to say, she was not pleased. Once again, Buffy was at the absolute center of attention of not one but two of the three hottest men in the vicinity (and the third was sniffing around Faith. Damn Slayers!). She could easily learn to hate her all over again. No time for that right now, however.
"Look," she announced to the door, in a voice that was just below a shout. "I don’t care what you’re doing in there. Your freaky lifestyle choices are your own business. Just get dressed and get downstairs. There’s something you need to hear." She paused, considering what it would take to pry Angel out of a room once he’d scented Buffy in heat.
"Lindsey’s on the phone."
"Hello, Angel. I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything."
"Nothing I can’t pick up later. Now what do you want?"
"I want you to do a little job for me."
"I’m not in the mood for jokes, Lindsey. Call me back when you’re ready to be serious."
"Wait just a second! I think you’ll actually like this one."
Angel snorted. "This, I have to hear."
"I want you to kill Angelus."
Stunned, both by the words themselves and the fact that Lindsey really meant it, Angel sat down heavily.
"Angel? Still there, Big Man?"
That startled Angel even further. Riley and Lindsey independently coming up with the same nickname for him? Did it mean anything? He shook that off as a topic for later. "Yeah, I’m here. I just would’ve thought that you’d be working with him."
"I see. And you’re throwing him to me because…?"
"I have my reasons."
"Why don’t you tell me some of them? Just to lay my mind at ease."
"That’s really none of your business."
"Convince me it’s not a trap, Lindsey," Angel said sharply. "And be persuasive. Angelus will find out about this, and if he does so before we come after him…well, I don’t even know what Angelus would do to someone who actually betrayed him. He’s tortured more than one man to death just because he didn’t like his face."
"Two days ago, Angelus came into my office and killed Lilah and Bryce. He’s taken Wolfram & Hart hostage and forced us to do his bidding. We’re the ones who contacted the Scourge for him. Not many of our demon clients are happy with us for that."
"My heart weeps for you."
"Look, he’s not even a paying client. Even if he was, his goals run counter to the company’s overall plan: he wants to destroy the world. We just want to change it to our advantage."
"I see. He wants to make the world a physical wasteland, not just a moral one, so you feel the need to stand up to him. Be more persuasive."
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. When Lindsey finally spoke again, his voice was toneless and tightly controlled. "Yesterday, I get into my office and find him sitting there, waiting for me. It seems that, after eating two police officers to help him recover from fighting you, he came straight to Wolfram & Hart. After walking straight through our front door, looking very much like a supernatural being, he set up camp in my office and ate six interns."
"Getting annoyed that he’s leaving such a mess for you to clean up?"
Lindsey ignored him. "I actually liked the last one, but he got to her when he wasn’t really that hungry anymore. I assume you know what that means."
Angel winced. He did.
"I really don’t care to go into detail, but if you’ve ever seen a horror anime, remember that Angelus has tentacles now. If you don’t get it, ask your friends. I’m sure at least one of them will."
"I’ll do that," Angel said. "Just a moment." He looked up and waved Xander over.
Xander pointed to himself in confusion. Me?
Angel nodded and waved him over again. When the younger man arrived, he covered the phone’s mouthpiece. "Horror anime, female intern, Angelus’s tentacles. Ring a bell?"
Apparently, it did. Xander’s face went white, and he swallowed hard. Then he took a deep breath and swallowed hard again. Angel realized with a sudden start that Xander was trying very hard not to puke. "Bad," Xander said queasily. "Very bad. Now, please excuse me. I need to go get some ginger ale or something."
Angel removed his hand from the mouthpiece. "Okay, I’m convinced." He said.
He filled Angel in on the rest of the situation: the misfortunes that had befallen half of the Scourge, the address of the dockside warehouses where Angelus and the remaining Scourge were holed up gathering their strength, and the fact that several hundred remained.
When he’d finished with that, Lindsey offered to provide them with whatever tools and weapons they needed.
"Well, we have what we need to fight Angelus," Angel replied. "It either will work or it won’t. But there is something you can do…"
The Mirror Shatters
Angelus looked in the mirror, which was just as useless as it had ever been. All he saw reflected in it was the Spartan bedroom he’d made out of an old office. That was just as well. He knew what he would see: Liam. It seemed that after nearly 250 years, Liam was his "default" form. The form that his injured body healed toward.
The thought disgusted him.
Not that it mattered anymore. He had absolute control over this body now, and he could mold it like putty, into any shape he wished. But even that seemed rather pointless. This body had become a hollow shell, a crust over his true self. It mattered no more to him than a rather beat-up old suit of clothes that he’d never really cared that much for in the first place. If Liam and his little friends showed up—as he was sure they would—expecting that battering at his body would actually affect him, as it had before, they were in for a surprise.
All he had left to do was break the shell and shed it. The cracks were already showing in some places.
Soon. Tonight. But not yet. Right now, he had to go out and talk to his dupes.
Troops. Of course he meant troops. The face that he found so repulsive quirked into a sarcastic grin.
Time to make history…end.
"This is crazy."
"It’s going to work."
"This is suicide."
Wesley sighed, lowered the binoculars he’d been looking through, and glanced up at Xander.
Both of them were in the top floor of an abandoned building across the street from the Scourge compound, waiting for nightfall. There’d been some discussion of attacking in daylight, in the hopes that the sun would still have some effect on Angelus, but that plan had been scrapped on the grounds that it took two of their most powerful Warriors out of play. Besides, there were several hundred Scourge who didn’t mind sunlight at all.
They’d been watching for hours, since soon after Lindsey MacDonald had called. Wesley, taking his turn, was crouched in front of a broken window. Xander stood beside it, careful to keep himself hidden behind the wall.
"It’s going to work," Wesley repeated more forcefully. "Unless you can think of something better, in which case, please speak up because this is the best we have."
"I don’t know—have Riley call in the National Guard?" Xander suggested. "We don’t have to tell them they’re demons. We could say it’s a neo-nazi terrorist group."
Wesley paused and thought about that for a moment. It made a surprising amount of sense, considering the source. The boy seemed to have grown a brain since he’d last seen him—and why not? Hadn’t he, himself, grown a spine since then?
After a moment more of thought, Wesley shook his head. "They’d be slaughtered. And if Angelus reached his final form, we’d be faced with several hundred Kakistos-level vampires with assault weapons."
"Damn. Good point."
Wesley turned back toward the window, raising the binoculars back to his eyes. The Scourge had been surprisingly bold, patrolling the warehouse compound and even the neighborhood, as if they really were Nazis—in the Germany of 1940. They hadn’t really been noticed because this street, for some distance either way, was an abandoned wasteland just waiting for the politicians to get their kickbacks in order before the demolition crews started their work. The only inhabitants had been the homeless, and they had either fled or suffered unpleasant fates in the past few days.
Now the Sun had set into the Pacific, and only a last tint of scarlet light stained the sky. The Scourge patrols had pulled in from all parts of the compound and neighborhood, locked the gates behind them, and started to gather in front of the largest warehouse.
Wesley put down the binoculars, pulled out his cell phone, and flipped it open.
The two Amalthiss demons who had been left at the main gate never even had the chance to raise the alarm, despite their heightened senses and telepathy. They were standing at their posts one moment, the next moment two crossbow bolts flashed out of the night and struck each of them in their third eye, and they were down.
The Scooby Gang emerged from the shadows, crossbows up and at the ready. Firearms were kept holstered. It was too early to announce their presence.
Buffy stepped forward and tugged at the gate, to no avail. "It’s locked," she whispered back over her shoulder. Of course, between her, Faith, Angel, and Spike, a locked chain-link gate was little obstacle. But breaking the gate down created the same problem as gunfire.
"Do you want to pick the lock, or should we?" Willow asked Giles, holding up the hand that she had clasped with Tara.
"Let me try first," he said. "Magic might be sensed." He stepped toward the gate and Cordelia’s hands flew defensively to her hair, but rather than steal a hairpin from her, he pulled a pouch of lock picks out of his breast pocket and set to work.
"Glad to see that you’ve stocked up on the proper tools for your juvie skills," Cordelia said.
"These are Angel’s," Giles replied without looking up from the lock.
A number of surprised faces turned to Angel, but he just shrugged. "Sometimes subtlety is better than force," he said. "As we’re seeing right now."
"Ah." Giles stood and slid the gate open. "And voila."
They had a parking lot to cross. They didn’t like that—too much open space. But what else were they going to do?
They crossed carefully, avoiding the pools of light from the lonely, scattered lampposts and scurrying between buildings.
They could have just walked boldly up to the back of the crowd. The entire Scourge was gathered in front of the largest warehouse like a cult awaiting a revelation from their god—and wasn’t that just what they’d become?—and their full, rapt attention was on the door. Nothing else.
After a few more minutes, when the last of the sun-stain had faded from the sky and the stars twinkled down from the ice-clear blackness above, a motor suddenly whirred to life inside the warehouse, and the great door started to rattle upwards.
Angelus, dressed in his customary black leather pants and wine-colored silk shirt, emerged from the mouth of the warehouse, and a murmur ran through the Scourge ranks. Only the officers had been in to speak with the reborn Old One until now. Why had their messiah chosen to take such a repulsive form?
Angelus mounted the makeshift stage and surveyed his audience. One by one, the Scourge grew silent.
The Scooby Gang crouched deeper into their hiding places, trying to see, but even more importantly, trying to avoid being seen.
Angelus stepped to the lip of the stage and raised his arms. The silence became absolute. "My brothers!" He boomed. "The Night is upon us!"
The Scourge broke out into applause, but Angelus did not lower his arms, and after a moment, they quieted.
"Tonight is the night that demonkind shall rise up from the cracks and crannies where we have hidden, and throw down our human oppressors!" He closed his hands into fists and slowly began to lower them. "Tonight is the night that we shall purge the human infection from our races, and we shall destroy the collaborators who live among humans, live like humans, and sell out their own kind!"
The Scourge began to applaud again, and this time, Angelus simply stood with his hands at his sides and let it come. He resumed speaking when the applause started to fade.
"The humans will not easily surrender what they have stolen," He warned. "And many of you will die. But have no fear. You will die in service to the most glorious cause history has ever seen, and you will die knowing that our cause will spread like wildfire among all the true demons of the world." He gave a wide sweep of his arm, illustrating that worldwide fire-front. "And when the world has been cleansed, and only the purest children of the Old Ones remain, that is the day that the Old Ones shall return, to find the world finally made right!"
His arms shot into the air, and the Scourge burst into uproarious applause that just went on and on.
Fools. Saints below, how he despised them. When he was finished with the Earth, there would be no pie-in-the-sky demon paradise. There would be no return of the Old Ones. Maybe he would have settled for that once, but not now. He wasn’t going to end human history just to have demon history take its place. No, he would burn it all down and salt the Earth so there would be nothing left, and nothing would ever rise from it again.
His vision had grown even beyond that vision that he had shown to Liam. He would descend into the depths, yes, but not to pick his teeth with a few fish, no. In the days since his release from the prison of Liam’s body, he had realized the reason that a disproportionate number of vampires were male, and why women were such a favorite food. He had realized the true purpose of the vampire race itself. A purpose he could now accomplish, since he was no longer bound to blood as his medium for devouring life.
He would descend into the depths and devour the very life force of the planet, drink from the throat of Gaia Herself. He would accomplish what vampires had been created to accomplish, what each secretly wanted in their unbeating hearts. He would murder the adulterous Earth Mother.
Then he would rise up from the depths as the Earth and all potential she would ever have to support life—including the Old Ones—died around him, and he would laugh in the face of the widowed Sun. Oh, the Sun had his eight other barren lovers to shine upon, yes, but Angelus would murder his wife and children. The Sun’s scream of rage and grief would burn him away, yes, but he would laugh even in the flames and his laughter would echo among the stars forever.
The skin on his palms cracked, and blood started to drip onto the ground and run down his arms. And it wasn’t human blood. Oh, my, no. The blood was alive. And as it struck and writhed away, the wood—even the blacktop—was left warped, pitted, and scored. Scarred.
Stigmata. Under other circumstances, a holy miracle. A twisted blasphemy now.
"I know this, for I have seen the signs," he said. "I know that this is the Night, for tonight is the night—" Black claws slid from his fingertips. Blood trickled from the breaks they made in his skin. "—that I shall be—" He hooked his claws into his shirt and tore it off in wine-colored shreds.
Underneath, the skin of his chest looked like translucent, flesh-colored glass. Beneath it, showing through, was a moving, writhing darkness. It began to flow up his neck into his face and out his arms, as if it had been concealing itself until then, and now felt free to reveal itself.
Darkness flowed into his eyes, and they were transformed into depthless black orbs.
Angel, who’d been holding his broadsword up over his head for the past minute, let it drop.
Half a dozen crossbow bolts and a volley of gunfire tore into the back ranks of the Scourge.
A few of the gray-suited demons fell silent to the ground. A few more fell writhing and screaming. The rest turned to face their attackers.
The previous day, the Scooby Gang and Angel Investigations had faced the vanguard. Dozens of Scourge.
They’d nearly lost.
Now, they faced hundreds. Two Slayers, two witches, a werewolf, two vampires—one of whom had a soul—and eight normal humans stood against hundreds of angry demons and a reborn Old One.
Best to strike first then. And make it count.
Before the Scourge could fully get their bearings and realize what was happening, the assembled heroes charged.
The five Warriors, Spike, and Oz formed a flying wedge, with Buffy at the point, flanked by Riley and Angel.
Their initial hit was devastating.
Riley, ecstatic to have an actual assault rifle in his hands again, poured fire into the Scourge ranks. Maybe bullets didn’t kill all of their opponents. But they sure didn’t feel good.
Meanwhile, Oz, with feral grin and a laconic comment that "The rules are different this time," once more unleashed red-furred death among the gray-clad demons.
Faith, having learned her lesson about reach the last time, had perhaps overcorrected. Still, the huge claymore she had borrowed from Angel, nearly as long as Buffy, was doing its job perfectly well.
The second rank was composed of everyone else except Willow and Tara, who were in the very back, holding hands and chanting.
The initial charge slowed, starting to bog down. There were hundreds of Scourge. Hundreds. Might as well be millions. Sooner or later, this clumped, flat-footed mob would regain its wits and start surrounding them. Even if it didn’t, the Scourge could just keep coming at them in never-ending waves until the Scoobies were too exhausted to run or fight, and then finally take them down like deer pulled down by wolves.
They couldn’t win. But that was okay. That wasn’t the plan.
Now the Scourge were starting to push back. Oz, who had gone off on a bit of a merry rampage of his own, returned to the relative safety of the line, throwing a few shuriken—some of which were cold iron or silver, because hey, who knows?—to cover his retreat.
Now they were starting to lose ground, and the second rank stepped up to join the first, firing guns and slashing with swords and axes and Anya swung a staff into the spot on a Shinmeer demon’s side where the ribs didn’t quite cover the lung.
The Scourge just kept coming. Riley had already slapped in a third clip and soon that assault rifle would be nothing but a particularly unwieldy club, but it didn’t matter.
All they had to do was hold the line. Just a little longer.
Tara and Willow finished their chant with a triumphant shout.
A hole appeared in the middle of the Scourge ranks as a ten foot by ten foot square of ground fell out from under them, dropping them into the sewer.
"Go!" Buffy shouted.
With a final heave and volley of gunfire, the Scoobies hurled their opponents back, then turned and ran.
With a cheated, enraged howl, the Scourge gave chase.
Angelus shook his head in disgust. Idiots. If he gave a damn one way or the other how this fight came out, he’d be pissed.
More and more Scourge fell into the hole, pushed and driven by the surging mob. Still, it wasn’t that far of a drop and none of them were really hurt. Maybe humans would have been, but not demons.
One of them, a lieutenant whose mostly humanoid body had a spiky, crablike carapace, wondered if they were really that stupid, or if they had further plans.
Several valves started turning by themselves, and it had its answer.
It only had time to say something in its native tongue that was roughly equivalent to Oh, shit! before the gas main ignited and the steam conduits opened.
Openspaceopenspace must get to open space.
The Scooby Gang burst out of the cluster of warehouses and into the parking lot.
Safe! Or safer at least.
Manhole covers flipped into the air like coins throughout the compound, propelled by geysers of fire and steam, spewing clouds of searing, scalding death into the Scourge. The largest such eruption, of course, was the hole down into the sewers. Square in the middle of their ranks.
Similar explosions ripped through the warehouses, setting them afire and turning their windows into fusillades of whickering glass shards.
Several such shards sliced Angelus. He stood calmly, ignoring the damage to his body entirely as more of the living blood started to trickle from the new wounds, and tendrils of darkness started to rise from them like black smoke.
Stung, burned, and furious, the Scourge howled on in raging pursuit. Some of their victims in the past had fought quite hard, but never had so few caused so much damage.
Some of them had already taken to the air. There was no way the heroes would even make it the hundred yards or so across the parking lot, let alone escape.
But that was okay. That wasn’t the plan.
"That’s the signal," Lorne said as he saw the entire warehouse compound burst into flames. He raised his sword over his head and waved it to catch the attention of the fifty or so demons gathered behind him. "Charge!" He shouted
Angel didn’t even slow down when the first flyer landed in front of him, attempting to cut him off from the rest of the retreating group. He just brought his axe up to his shoulder and swung it with his full, running momentum behind it.
The vulturelike creature fell out of his way in two pieces, but then Angel noticed that the rest of the group had turned to stand.
And he saw what was coming behind them, and oh, wasn’t it a beautiful sight?
Upon first seeing their prey slow and stop, the pursuing Scourge had sped up in anticipation of victory. Upon spotting the approaching mob of demons, they’d slowed down. Then, their triumphant grins turned to scowls, they speeded up again. Just a bunch of half-breeds. What could they do?
Lorne, dressed in studded leather armor that he’d also brought from Pylea, his sword raised high, led the charge through the gate. Mowl, who’d been right at his side, just lowered his shoulder and crashed through the section of fence right beside the gate.
The two forces came together with a sound like rolling thunder, and at first the Scooby-led spearhead of Earthbound demons made good headway into the disorganized, wounded mob that the Scourge had become. Mowl stampeded right over these threats to his coming calf, and Lorne danced through them with razor-edged grace. But it was still dozens against hundreds, and the Scourge was on familiar ground now. Perhaps human weapons, human magic, and human ingenuity had confounded them, but they could fight other, impure demons. Killing demons was their purpose, killing demons was what they did.
The Scourge didn’t see the irony. And if anyone on the other side did, they didn’t think it was funny. Naturally powerful and aggressive they might be, but many of Lorne’s demon force weren’t as experienced in combat as the Scoobies, and things started to get ugly rather quickly.
An Anomovic bridesmaid took a venomous porcupine-quill in the eye. A scorpion-demon’s stinger impaled the Brakken groomsman who’d been diving to prevent it.
Oz dodged just an instant too slow, and a quadruple-line of slashes appeared across his right shoulder.
Faith took a bludgeoning tail-slap to the knee. Anyone but a Slayer would have been crippled. She was a Slayer, and she was left hobbling and dropping back from the front line.
A Ru-shando demon in Lorne’s force had been keeping the Scourge disoriented and easy prey with its telepathic abilities until its reptilian, antennaed head was bashed in.
Joyce chopped down the scorpion demon, but a creature like a three-foot, bat-winged lamprey latched onto her neck. It was pulled away and killed before any serious damage could be done, but it still left a ring of bleeding pinpricks behind.
A group of Asclepians had joined Lorne’s force in order to avenge their fallen brother. He might have been an embarrassment, but he was still a brother, and he had died for refusing to breach his ethics as a healer. They were at the rear, trying to return the wounded to action as quickly as possible, but there were getting to be more wounded than they could handle. And they could do nothing about the dead.
For a brief moment, Lorne found himself back to back with Buffy in the chaos of the melee. "It’s getting bad out here, little sister!" He shouted. "I hope there’s a plan B!"
"We expected this to happen!" She shouted back. "It’s all part of Plan A! Just have your people fall back!" She raised her voice even higher and shouted "Willow! Fireworks!"
Angel, the nearest member of the Scooby Gang, heard her shout and raised his own voice. "Fireworks!"
Riley, his voice accustomed to shouting orders in a situation like this, bellowed "Fireworks!"
The word leaped from one member of the Scooby Gang to another, until it reached Willow where she and Tara were, back near the Asclepian demons.
"That’s the signal," Tara said.
"I’m on it," Willow said as her hand filled with crackling energy. In a moment, her hand had disappeared into a sparking blue orb.
"Here goes nothing," she muttered as she drew her arm back and hurled the orb into the sky.
It shot up like a just-launched comet until it hit the peak of its flight and exploded into a shower of blazing, multicolored sparks.
All up and down the street, engines roared to life.
Four Hours Earlier
"So how do we tell the good monsters from the bad monsters?" Gunn’s second-in-command Jamal asked. Gunn and Lorne’s people had arrived at the designated rendezvous point—a closed railroad bridge—at almost exactly the same time, and there would have been a fight if Gunn hadn’t explained very quickly. As it was, the two groups were standing around eyeing each other suspiciously.
"Shirts and skins," Gunn answered.
"Don’t jerk me off, Gunn, this ain’t funny."
"I’m not," Gunn answered. "What I mean is, every one of the bad guys is gonna be wearing a gray Nazi uniform. Our boys are in their street clothes." He glanced over to where Lorne was chatting with Wesley, dressed in his studded leather armor. "Mostly."
"Now what the hell is this?" Jamal exclaimed as the roar-cough of an old, neglected, and now overtaxed engine approached.
Gunn turned to see what Jamal was looking at and couldn’t help but agree. A dilapidated, primer-red pickup truck, stacked high with wooden crates, was approaching. It pulled to a stop near the other vehicles, and Lindsey MacDonald climbed out. He was dressed in work boots, worn blue jeans, and a flannel shirt, and he had a crow bar in his good hand. He looked around the assembled people and demons, apparently looking for a familiar face, until he spotted Gunn, who he waved over with the crow bar.
Gunn went, wondering just what the hell was going on, with Jamal following close on his heels.
"There’s some gifts for you in the boxes," Lindsey said as they arrived. "There should be enough for all of your people, if the count you gave me was right." He held out the crowbar. "You’d better unpack them. I can’t do it with this," he explained, holding up his prosthetic hand.
Jamal snatched the crow bar from his hand. He was reluctant to take orders from a white man and a stranger, however polite, reasonable, and beneficial those orders might be. However, he was entirely unwilling to allow Gunn to do so. "What do you know about all this, redneck?" He challenged.
"Me?" Lindsey asked as he reached back into the cab. Gunn noticed that the faintest hint of a drawl had entered the lawyer’s voice. What kind of game was he playing? "I’m just along for the ride." He pulled a sledgehammer out of the cab and slung it over his shoulder. "City slicker."
"He came himself?" Cordelia asked, flabbergasted.
"Why are you so surprised?" Angel asked from the darkness under the bridge. "You knew he likes to fight his own battles."
"Dressed like that?" She demanded.
"Guess he didn’t want to ruin his suit," Angel said.
"So what do we do?" Buffy asked. "I’m glad he’s here and I’m glad he brought his arsenal with him, but we’re still too outnumbered for that to matter. Somebody better have a brilliant plan."
The Battle: Fireworks In the Air
"There’s the signal, Kentucky!" Jamal shouted from the back of Lindsey’s truck.
Lindsey shook his head as he punched the engine. Kentucky. Ah, well. He’d been called worse.
All up and down the deserted street, engines roared to life. A dozen vehicles, each stuffed with Gunn’s people, converged on the warehouse compound.
Four Hours Earlier
Everyone turned to where Spike was standing in the shadows beneath the bridge.
"Beg pardon?" Buffy asked.
"Agincourt," Spike repeated.
"Gesundheit," Xander said.
Spike shook his head and rolled his eyes at the absolute gits he had to deal with. "Back me up on this, Watcher," he said to Giles. He directed the rest of remarks to the Colonials in his audience. "It’s English military history. You might’ve read it in Shakespeare if an American education was worth the paper the books are printed on."
Giles, Wesley, and Angel were all nodding impatiently. "Yes, yes, Spike, I’ve heard of it," Giles said. "Please get to the point."
"Hey, if you’re going to be pissy about it—"
"Henry V is invading France, and he gets cornered at the field of Agincourt," Spike said without preamble. "The French charge, and they focus on what they think is the major threat: the English knights. Problem is, they don’t know about a little technological innovation the English have with ‘em: longbows. They have a range like nothing the French have ever seen, and they punch right through armor. The French never knew what hit ‘em. Legend has it the English lost a couple dozen compared to 10,000 or so French. They just kept focusing on those knights while the archers cut ‘em down like wheat."
The Battle: Archers of Agincourt
The chain-link fences had been half torn away by the explosions already, and the vehicles roared right through them.
Cars and trucks barreled across the parking lot, closing in on the Scourge column from both sides, and for a moment it looked like they were going to ram into the surging, gray-suited demons. But at the last second, they turned parallel to the column and raced up its length, away from the hand-to-hand battle.
The vehicles’ passengers pulled out Lindsey’s "gifts"—uzis, assault rifles, and all manner of handguns—and started to pour fire into the Scourge’s flanks. Some of the weapons fired lead, but others were loaded with iron, silver, and various other exotic payloads. Weapons and ammunition both were saturated with spells of poison and death. The Scourge fell like dominoes.
Even then, the Scourge could perhaps have carried the day. They still outnumbered their enemies—though the odds grew more even by the second—and they had flyers in the air. They could have overturned or disabled the vehicles, overcome their new attackers with force or magic.
Instead, they did exactly what Spike’s plan called for them to do: they ignored the pathetic humans and their silly toys and focused on the "real" threat: the Scooby Gang, Angel Investigations, and Lorne’s demons.
Within minutes, the Scourge was reduced to about fifty demons who were too closely engaged to be shot without endangering allies, so the cars and trucks circled up and formed a perimeter, trapping the few remaining Scourge.
The drivers and passengers poured out, joining the melee fresh and ready. Lindsey, one-handedly wielding his sledgehammer with brutal skill, quickly gained the respect of those who’d never expected a lawyer to fight his own battles. Whatever else he was, Lindsey MacDonald was a top-drawer brawler.
The librarians and the lounge singer who were leading the attack weren’t particularly surprised.
When the last of the Scourge infantry had been decapitated by Faith, and the last Scourge flyer had been shot out of the sky, the allied forces came to a stop, caught their breath, and looked around at all the gray-uniformed corpses they’d made as they realized they’d won.
"We done here?" Jamal asked as he leaned against Lindsey’s truck, carelessly dangling a bloody crowbar from his hand.
"No," Angel answered worriedly. "Where’s Angelus? We haven’t seen him since—"
"Look!" Faith shouted suddenly, pointing.
Everyone obeyed. For a moment, their eyes squinted and watered against the midnight sun that the blazing warehouses had become.
Then a shadow stained the light.
The shadow resolved into a man-shape, then clarified until it was Angelus.
Or whatever he had become.
He was naked. Perhaps he had thrown away his shirt, but his pants had clearly been shredded from his body by the fusillades of glass and debris. Not that it mattered. He barely looked like a man anymore anyway. The darkness swirled and billowed inside him, growing and filling in the few remaining areas that were still a natural color. Tendrils of darkness rose from every break in his skin like wisps of black smoke, except that they whipped and grasped and curled like living things rather than merely blowing in the wind.
Though the blacktop had softened and melted in the heat of the burning warehouses until it was almost liquid, Angelus left no footprints where he walked. Instead, he left a trail of his living blood behind him, writhing and grasping for food that was out of reach. The blood sizzled and died in the heat, but he didn’t seem to care.
"That our target?" Jamal asked, his voice tight. Part of him—some deep, instinctive, spinal-reflex part of all of them—knew that this thing, this dark, hollow, manshape thing coming at him across the fire-lit parking lot was a Bad Thing. Perhaps the worst Thing he would ever, could ever encounter. And if it reached him, death was not the worst thing that could happen to him, but the best.
Every human there, and most demons, wanted nothing more than to scream and run away at that moment.
"Yes," Angel answered. "But—"
"That’s all I needed to know," Jamal said. Then he raised his voice to a bellow. "Waste him!" He roared.
"No!" Angel screamed, but it was too late. Gunn’s followers drew their weapons and emptied the remainders of their clips at the approaching Angelus.
Many, blinded by the fire and ancestral fear, simply let fly in random directions, punching into burning buildings and splashing into the melted blacktop.
Others did not miss.
A bullet struck Angelus above the left eye, tearing away a quarter of his skull. Darkness began to billow from the gap like black smoke from a factory smokestack, and he started to laugh.
"Stop!" Angel shouted uselessly, unable to make himself heard over the gunfire. "You’re helping him!
A bullet punched into Angelus’s chest, blowing an exit wound the size of a fist out his back. Darkness billowed and spread behind him like wings, eclipsing the fires.
His laughter just grew louder.
"Damn it," Buffy cursed. "In the end, those things never help. Willow!" She shouted. "Spear!"
Here a runnel was dug in the empty flesh of a shoulder, there a finger was blown off, there a kneecap shattered. All it brought was more of the living blood, more whipping, snapping, grasping tentacles of living darkness, surging and pressing against their prison.
And more laughter.
Willow held out her hand, and the spear—cached safely away from the battle in one of the "observation posts" they’d taken—flew into her grasp.
More laughter, echoing impossibly off the brick and soft asphalt, growing louder rather than fading away.
Willow slapped the spear into Buffy’s hand.
Buffy took two steps, drawing her arm back and instinctively taking an Olympic-perfect javelin thrower’s stance despite the fact that she’d never done so before in her life, and hurled the spear.
A bullet shattered Angelus’s jaw, but the impossible laughter continued. A writhing tongue of darkness lashed out from the gaping, ruined hole that had once resembled a human mouth and slapped the spear to the ground in mid-flight.
Silver fire flashed, and Angelus stopped laughing and bellowed. Threads of white light stained the tentacle where it had touched the spear, but were quickly swirled away into the darkness.
"It hurt him!" Anya shouted triumphantly. "We can hurt him!" For the first time since Belial’s rising, hope seemed justified.
"I missed," Buffy gasped. "Oh, God, I missed."
Willow, just a step behind Buffy, snapped her hand toward the spear, and it shot back toward Buffy’s waiting grip.
Angelus roared again, and it sounded like something ancient, powerful, and hungry, like a tyrannosaurus or a forest fire. But mixed in with the roar was the sound of chanting, the thunderous baritone of dozens of Angeluses chanting in a language so old that even demons had forgotten it.
Willow screamed and collapsed, bleeding from her ears, and the spear clattered to the ground.
The roar turned back into the mad, roaring laughter, but the chanting continued.
No jokes, no taunts. Whatever shreds of humanity Angelus had stolen from Liam of Galway had been burned away. Only the darkness remained.
Still laughing, the darkness and the living blood spreading below him like an oil slick, Angelus rose into the air. Then he stopped laughing and his primary voice joined the chanting and all of those united against him were blasted to the ground and the darkness erupted from his eyes and engulfed him at last.
The Warriors were the first to raise their heads, but slowly, one-by-one, everyone began to pick themselves up. Tara cradled a pale, shivering Willow, while Oz gently dabbed away the blood that had run from her eyes like tears.
Everyone else stared at where Angelus had been. Now an orb of darkness ten feet in diameter hung in the air like a hole in the night. Blood still dripped from the darkness, but it was quiescent now, simply gathering in a pool.
"Is that…it?" Joyce asked. "Is that all that’s going to happen?"
As if in mocking answer to her question—and perhaps it was, perhaps Angelus retained enough of his cruel sense of humor for that—the orb began to pulse.
"I kinda think maybe fuckin’ not," Faith answered, backing away.
Everyone followed her lead as the orb began to pulse and surge, expanding with each cycle.
The voices began to mutter their chant again.
Four more inches.
Angel watched the spear out of the corner of his eye. He was the only one who had contributed to it that could approach Angelus now.
What was happening? Was it waiting for something?
The orb exploded outward, spreading like a manta or an oil slick, blotting out the light of the fires and the stars, lashing with tentacles of pure darkness. The chanting erupted back out to a shout.
"Run!" Angel screamed as he dove for the spear, hoping his friends would be able to hear and obey.
He caught the spear and rolled, feeling the chill of one of Angelus’s tentacles as it passed within a hair’s breadth of his legs.
His hands were already blazing with the same silver fire that had burned Angelus when he completed the roll and came to his feet.
Not now. Oh, please, if anyone’s up there listening, don’t let this happen now.
The pain was fantastic.
The spear was a holy thing, consecrated in water and pain, its very wood a gift from the Powers. It rejected his corrupt touch violently.
But as he came to his feet, he saw his friends and allies, human and demon, stumbling away from the writhing, spreading darkness.
Why wasn’t Angelus’s chant affecting him? He could barely hear it. Was the spear protecting him even as it rejected him?
It didn’t matter. Let the spear reject him. He was the only one who could carry it to the Heart of the Darkness now.
He set his face, gripped the spear more tightly with his burning hands, and plunged into the darkness.
Angelus’s spell of pain lashed at the humans and demons of the resistance, but it struck hardest at the magic-users and the servants of the Powers. Riley carried a writhing Buffy while Gunn did the same for Faith, both forcing themselves to ignore both the bleeding slashes and whip marks that appeared on the (God, she’s so tiny) women they carried, and their own spasms of pain. Joyce supported Giles, while Wesley leaned on Lorne. Cordelia, screaming that she was blind again, oh, God, not again, oh, God, it hurt, was guided by Xander. Oz had staggered a few steps, trying to support both Tara and Willow, who were in a state of collapse almost as complete as the Slayers, before Anya arrived to take Willow. Perhaps he might have preferred the opposite, but he was stronger than Anya and Tara was bigger than Willow.
Spike was looking out for himself.
"Riley?" Buffy moaned as she stirred in Riley’s arms.
"I’m here, Buffy," He said.
"He’s okay," he said. "He’s right behind us." In truth, he was too focused on carrying her and fighting the ripping pain in his gut to even notice where Angel was.
"No," she moaned, starting to struggle in his arms. "No, he’s not, he’s—Angel—" Her eyes flew open just in time to see Angel, gripping a spear made of silver fire, splash through the dripping blood and plunge into the wound in reality that Angelus had become. "Angel, no!" She screamed, thrashing violently in his arms as the flaming spear—now the only part of Angel visible—descended like a shooting star into Angelus’s impossible depths.
Riley couldn’t very well hold a struggling Slayer against her will, even if she was weak and injured. He gripped her tight to his chest anyway. "Buffy, stop!" he said. "You can’t go after him. He’s the only one who can do this!"
She might have kept struggling anyway, but a bolt of pain like a hot iron spike drove into her back, bending her entire body into a bowlike rictus of agony. When it passed, she was left limp and weeping in his arms.
It was about then that Riley noticed the ever-spreading pool of living blood was all but lapping at their heels. "Come on," he said. He staggered as pain bloomed in his right knee on his next step, but he gritted his teeth and kept walking and it was gone as abruptly as it had come. "Let’s make sure you’re still here for him when he gets back."
Angel was falling through the darkness. And the darkness was vast. It was an infinite abyss, a pit where he could fall forever without ever even seeing another creature, a void that could swallow worlds and be no closer to full.
And the darkness was cold. Cold as the darkness at the bottom of the deep sea trenches. Cold as the empty reaches of space. Angel could feel the cold settling into his bones, making them ache, feel old and brittle; could feel his stolen blood slowing and turning to sludge in his veins.
But worst of all, the darkness was alive. And the darkness was hungry. A human would have been devoured by the first touch of the darkness. Perhaps he would have been, too, his life or his soul or whatever it was that made him something other than a corpse drained away and made one with the darkness.
But the spear kept the darkness at bay.
So you’ve come.
The darkness was speaking. Unlike the awesome Voices of the other mighty supernatural beings he had encountered in the past few days, it was a familiar voice. It wasn’t even particularly loud. It was, of course, his own voice. But he couldn’t pinpoint where it was coming from, or even if it was in his ears or in his mind.
"That’s right!" He answered, shouting back out into the darkness. "I’ve come to kill you!"
I see. Prevent my dastardly plans. Avenge my victims. Kiss the girl and ride off into the sunset. Is that the plan here? And all you bring with you is that little toothpick? You’re really not very good at this, are you?
Angel didn’t answer. It had been a mistake to speak before. He remembered being Angelus—the slightest chink in your armor, and he could psychologically gut you. Angel didn’t have any armor from Angelus.
Aw, going all strong and silent on me? Give it up, Liam. Just let it go. It’s like the First Evil said: you’ve never been very good at anything but pain. So I’ll tell you what. You toss that little splinter over the side, and I’ll remake you. You’ll never be me again, of course, but you’ll be a hell of a lot better than you are now. If you want, I’ll turn Buff, too. Think about it. You, her, forever. You won’t even have to share. What do you think?
"I think Belial was much better at temptation than you are," Angel answered absently. The light from the spear (Why haven’t my hands burned to ashes by now? It hurts like hell, but…) was shining on something. Some object floating in the dark, empty forever. If it was what he thought it was…
Don’t test my patience, Liam. You know what happens to people who test my patience. Just let it go.
"Why is it so important that I let it go? What are you afraid of?"
I tried to do this the easy way.
A punch flew in from the darkness, sending Angel spinning. A kick slammed into the small of his back, and it would have driven him to his knees if there were any ground to fall to in this place. Then they were all over him: hands, burning cold hands, punching, tearing, grasping. One grabbed his throat and another planted itself over his face, and if he were human he would have suffocated.
Then some of the hands started to tear at his fingers.
"No!" He shouted, thrusting the spear out like a quarterstaff. The silver fire blazed and he howled in agony as he felt the designs searing into his hands, but the fireburst drove the attacking shades back.
It also allowed him to see them.
"No. Oh, no."
Yes. Oh, yes.
All of his friends were arrayed before him. They had been Turned, and they were showing their demon-faces. Worse, it was immediately clear that they had been Turned by Angelus himself, as they were more completely demonic than the Master or Kakistos had ever become. Giles sported horns, while Joyce lashed a barbed tongue. Faith had huge, ripping claws. In fact, her fingers had lengthened and stiffened and grown a bony ridge on their undersides, so each finger had become a scythe-blade. Oz was in his man-wolf form, but he was clearly rabid now, dripping living foam from his jaws.
And Buffy stood at the head of them all, flapping a pair of batlike wings.
"Hello, lover," she said.
I caught them not long after you came in here.
Angel whipped around. The object that he’d spotted rose up out of the depths to hang in the emptiness before him. As he’d suspected, it was what remained of Angelus’s physical form. It was a hollow shell: the eyes and lower jaw were gone, as was the skull above the left eye. One leg was missing below the knee, and the other was missing its foot. One arm was missing its hand, the other just a finger. Bullet-holes and glass-slits littered the torso. And through all of these gaping wounds, Angel could see nothing but emptiness. As he watched, one of the remaining fingers crumbled and fell away into the abyss.
Am I? Sorry to disrupt your comforting little fantasy, Liam, but they’re all right there in front of you.
"How do I know they’re not just little pieces of you that you shaped to look like them?"
What do you think a vampire is, Liam? I’m giving you one last chance: throw the spear away, join me, and you can live forever with them. Otherwise, you die here.
Something had been wrong with this whole conversation, and Angel finally figured out what it was. "Why don’t you just take it away from me?" He asked.
"You heard me. Back when I was you, I never made deals with my victims. I just took what I wanted. If this spear is such a problem for you, why don’t you just take it away from me?"
Be careful, Liam. I may not be so generous as to kill you. Maybe I’ll destroy them instead. Spend forever with them, or spend forever without them. It’s your choice.
"You can’t touch it, can you? You can’t even touch it." Then something else burst into his mind, full-grown and unquestionably correct. It came with the memory of the Scooby-things tearing at him, tearing at his hands and fingers, but never touching the spear itself. "And neither can they."
SHUT UP! Angelus screamed through both his own mouth and those of the Scooby Gang. I’m done reasoning with you, Liam! No more chances! Now DROP THE SPEAR!
"My name—" Angel drew back his arm. "—Is not—" sighted along its length as if he had all the time in the world, as if Angelus’s Scooby-horde wasn’t charging at his back. "—Liam!" and hurled the spear with all of his strength.
The Scooby-vampires fell into dust and dissipated into the darkness.
Oh, God, Angel thought. If that was really you, Buffy, please forgive me. I’m so sorry, but I know you wouldn’t have wanted your body to be use the way he planned to use it.
The shell of Angelus hung in the air, staring with empty eyes at the length of wood that had pierced its hollow chest. The spear’s flame had gone out, though the characters engraved in it still blazed with hot silver light.
"Please, God, don’t let me have guessed wrong," Angel prayed.
Then the spear’s light flared to sun-blinding brilliance, and Angelus threw his head back and screamed.
Outside, the wracking pain came to an abrupt end as Angelus’s voices stopped chanting and started to scream. The tentacles, which had been making teasing passes and no real effort to catch them, as they easily could have, suddenly began to whip and writhe like dying snakes.
Riley, his strength returned, began to carry Buffy away more quickly. In his arms, her eyes fluttered open. "Buffy?"
"He did it," She murmured. Then, as if realizing what she’d just said, her eyes lit up, and she looked up into his face with an expression of pure joy. "He did it!"
Angelus had never experienced such pain. He had been tortured by Holtz, but that was nothing. He had inflicted untold agony in the centuries he had existed, but if all of it was condensed into a single moment, it was nothing. He could feel the holy symbols and prayers burning into him, each letter, each symbol a branding iron in his guts.
Guts? Hadn’t he left his body, his vulnerability, behind?
Apparently not. Apparently no vampire, not even him, was safe from this.
He’d been mad, he knew. Insane with his vision. And he’d been a fool not to see the other side of that vision: if it was every vampire’s unknowing ambition to murder the Earth Mother, if every vampire was her enemy, then She was also theirs. Every stake, every spear, every piece of wood that sent a vampire to dust was Her self-defense, and Her vengeance on the demons that murdered Her children.
But he’d been stronger than that. What was this force, this power that was burning him away from the inside?
Then it came, and there was no more thought.
The Coming of the Light.
The mewling, writhing pool of living blood gave one last wail, then burst into flame.
Light exploded from Angelus’s eyes, the gaping cavity that had been his mouth, and his wounds. The light was blue-red-green it was white and it was colors that no eye had ever seen before. It was all colors and none and when it blazed up the screams doubled, trebled, and erupted from all corners of the Void.
Angel added his own cry of surprise and fear to the hell’s chorus of pain as the Light blasted him away from the Heart of the Darkness.
A shaft of white light punched through the surface of Angelus’s darkness, and Angel was thrown free. He hit the ground hard, skipped across the pavement like a stone two or three times, then rolled until he came to rest at the feet of the Scooby Gang.
Buffy, Wesley, Cordelia, and Faith’s faces quickly filled his blurring field of vision.
"Angel! Are you okay, honey?"
Run, Angel tried to say. Run, get out of here, it’s not done, it’s still happening! All he heard was some kind of rusty grating noise, but it seemed to have the intended effect: all four of them looked in what he assumed was Angelus’s direction, and started to move. He felt a strong arm slide under his back, and another under his legs.
"Are you sure it’s safe to move him? He could have brain damage."
"We don’t have much of a choice."
Angel felt himself rising up off the pavement, then the world blurred and went dark.
The pain had been had been unbelievable, fantastic, like nothing he’d ever imagined. But with the Coming of the Light something even worse had begun. Fourteen people had put a piece of their souls into the weapon, the bar of white light through his chest. And now those pieces flowed into him.
Angelus had never had a soul, something he’d always been proud of. Souls were a weakness, a sickness, the things that had Oz living in cages and Liam living in sewers. They were the things that took away the nerve to follow one’s true desires, they masked one’s true nature. Why, that pathetic, souled shadow of himself lacked the stomach to kill or torture even the most deserving, and he limited himself to drawings and poetry while denying himself the greatest art.
He’d never known.
He’d never imagined.
To have a soul is to be on a mainline to the reactor core of eternity. And now he had fourteen.
For the first time in his existence, he knew what it was to walk under the sunlight. To feel the warmth on his shoulders, to see the grass green beneath his bare feet, to feel the blades tickle at his toes.
He tasted chocolate in his mouth and knew it wasn’t some bonbon fed to him by Darla, but a birthday cake, baked by his mother.
He looked in the mirror and saw his own face—and was that a wrinkle? A gray hair? Were there more hairs than there should be in his comb?
He took a bite of a hot steak, finding it juicy and delicious.
Clear stars, glowing moon—the holy night that he blasphemed just by existing.
The sweet tang of a blackberry, plucked from a wild bush, made all the sweeter by the black juice staining his fingers and the briar-scratches on his hands.
Hot blacktop, then hot sand burning his feet, a plunge into cool water, then breaking the surface and filling his lungs with fresh, precious air.
Life. This was all life. Things that he had remembered from Liam, but had never experienced for himself—
Breaking his front tooth in his first bicycle crash.
He saw Willow (his girlfriend) and Xander (his boyfriend) making out. He/She had been coming to rescue them, and now this! Pain of betrayal, pain of an iron spike piercing through him, and pain—like taste—was so much sharper when he was alive.
A slap across his face from a man smelling of sweat and whiskey.
Falling down, skinning his knee while chasing after Xander and Jesse.
Finding an empty closet and an "I can’t stay" note on his daughter’s bed.
"I’m sorry, Riley. Forrest is dead."
Sharp, shattering pain, finding his lover dead in the bed that they’d shared.
Watching Buffy/himself vanish into the smoke, knowing that it’s necessary, but unable to bear it nonetheless.
Watching Alonna dissolve into dust.
Something terrible happening in the darkness, another man smelling of sweat and whiskey and something else "Now don’t tell anybody, this’ll be our little secret" and the terrible, burning pain.
Slow, grinding fear of waiting every day to find out if today is the day his beloved daughter will come home, or if a police officer will appear at the door and say "I’m so sorry, Ma’am."
Faith is going to kill Angel he’s so weak will I make it there in time?
Spike is coming back any minute—what’ll we do? (What, me helpless before Spike? That’ll be the day) Or worse, what if he just leaves us here? What if they never find us? Hold me…
The window was open last night, and Xander fell asleep. I might be a murderer.
They’ve come for me. Oh, Blessed Goddess, they’ve come for me. Donnie’s here, and they’re going to take me away. What if they reveal that I’m a demon? I can’t let that happen.
"The Master will Rise and the Slayer will die." No…
That huge dragon rising from the school, all these vampires—this is insane. Watcher training never prepared me for this. I won’t disgrace myself again, I won’t.
Their tiny, pathetic, human sins and failings speckled and defaced his own titanic, monolithic evil.
"Kick his ass."
The cowardice that allowed him to poison the girl he loved like a daughter because he was "just following orders".
Every person that Angelus kills or hurts (wait a second I’m Angelus, aren’t I?) is my fault, because I can’t muster the guts to kill him.
Weakness, lust, cheating on Cordelia/Oz/Willow.
"I wanted a happy, normal daughter. Instead, I got a Slayer." Placing the torch to the books.
Stabbing Lester again and again and again and won’t the blood ever come off my hands?
The previously delightful sensation of feeling the stupid computer teacher’s vertebrae snap beneath his fingers.
I’m not a demon! Ow, my nose hurts. But they were ready to fight for me even before that. A family—I’m part of their family now.
Alive? Oh, dear God she’s alive. I don’t know how they subverted the prophecy and I don’t care. She’s alive!
So this is what a peaceful picnic in the sunlight is like. I’d almost forgotten.
My boyfriend’s in the band!
Yes, I’d like some eggs, tea…a job. Thank you for taking me in. I won’t let you down.
What a beautiful apartment. I don’t think I would have turned it down even back when Daddy still had his money. I can’t believe it’s mine. Well, I guess I can, now. I’ve had to fight for it. Hello Phantom Dennis. Hello, me. Welcome back to your life.
Oh, Buffy, I love you so much…
This is dangerous. This is stupid. He’s human. He’s male. That means he’s evil. I first came here to punish him. I’ve spent 1,200 years punishing men like him. Why does he have to be so kind and gentle and brave and funny? It makes it so I can’t get away from him. Besides, he has nice buttocks.
I’m sorry, Buffy, this is the last thing I want to do, but life with me is no life for you.
Wake up, Willow, please. You’ve always been there. What would I do without you?
Pain. Relax. Breathe Pain! Press down. You’re doing wonderful honey. Shut up and just hold my hand, Hank. Pain. Press down again. Breathe! Push! Pain! Almost there, I can see the head. Just one more time push! PAIN! There now, Mrs. Summers, it’s a girl. Tiny person, warm and soft, put in his (?) arms. Wailing. Is she hungry? Oh, she’s so beautiful. Love of the husband who helped make this child, love of the tiny life in his arms. Of little Buffy.
Forever. That’s the whole point.
It was too much, too much! Too much love, too much pain, too much joy—desires, hopes, dreams, disappointments, sadness, anger and love co-existing.
Sex—making love, not just a gratifying grapple in the shadows. About pleasure or pain, yes, but also blood-deep intimacy, becoming one with—
Then fourteen voices in a chorus, saying to someone, sometimes each other, sometimes someone else: "I would die for you."
How could they stand this? It was unbearable, but this was their life every day, every minute, every heartbeat every breath of their mayfly, shooting-star lives. Feeling the time pass, feeling themselves die moment by moment, but even one of their tiny lives was too much for him to bear.
The Light blazed inside him, piercing into every last shadowed corner. The pain was burning him away, but he welcomed it. With this pain came death, and he welcomed death now.
Angel returned to consciousness with a snap, rather than the usual slow fade, and found himself staring into the grave face of an Asclepian demon.
An ordinary person might have been, to say the least, a bit put out to wake up and find a huge snake’s face in his own. Angel was more concerned to see that something nearby was giving off light bright enough to wash out the demon’s usually richly colorful scales.
"No time for that!"
Two hands hooked under his arms and hauled him to his feet, and the next thing he knew, he was stumbling down an alley between Riley and Gunn as they dragged him along. "Buffy?" Was all he could manage to get out as he did so.
"She and Faith tried to carry your heavy ass, but we ended up with the honor," Gunn informed him.
"Yeah. They may be stronger than us, but there’s something to be said for having enough height to keep you off the ground," Riley said.
"Still dyin’," Gunn said.
The darkness, pierced in a score of places by beams of light, finally broke open and Angelus, his body restored to the image of Liam, rose up out of it. Impaled on a spike of light that sank deep into the Earth and pierced straight out to the heavens, light pouring from his eyes and his mouth, slowly rotating on his blazing axis, Angelus rose into the sky. Fifty feet. One hundred. More.
The light pulsed once, and Angelus was suddenly an indistinct shadow in the brilliant column.
Another pulse. Angelus vanished.
A third pulse and Angelus, encased in this terrible light, more merciless than the Sun itself, screamed for the last time.
The light exploded, filling the world with white, unflickering fire.
One Last Look
Tentatively, one by one, the Slayerettes, Angel Investigations, Lorne’s demon troops, and Gunn’s people all raised their heads to look around and see if it was over yet. All of them had wisely dived to the ground and behind various solid-looking objects as soon as Angelus had started to scream.
Not finding the widespread devastation that they had feared and more than half expected, they slowly rose to their feet and surveyed what they had wrought. What they discovered brought gasps and exclamations of shock, including some truly inspired swearing and appeals to various deities.
The docks and warehouse complex that had so recently housed Angelus and the Scourge were gone. Not reduced to charred ruins. Gone. The Pacific now washed on a golden beach where they had been. Rolling dunes had replaced the blacktop, and there were even some grass and palm trees. Sitting, unharmed, in the middle of the dunes, were the trucks and cars that Lindsey and Gunn’s posse had brought.
"It’s beautiful," Willow said, speaking for them all. And it was.
"We’ll have to come back and enjoy it later," Riley said. "Somebody’s going to be here to check this out soon. With all this noise, the only question is if it’ll be the police, or the National Guard."
"Wait," Buffy cried, pointing. "Look!"
They all followed her pointing finger, and when they saw what she’d seen, their expressions turned from awe to horror.
Standing in the middle of the new beach, beyond the vehicles, was a black, gleaming skeleton. The skeleton’s face was turned up, and its arms were raised in warding positions, as if trying to protect itself from something it had seen in the sky. The spear was nowhere in sight.
With a weary sigh, Giles removed his glasses and began to polish them. "It seems we’ve one last task to accomplish before we leave. Best take care of it quickly then. I’m sure Mr. Finn is correct. Angel, would you do the honors?"
Angel nodded silently and started across the dunes. As he did so, he had only one thought on his mind: It’s over.
One hundred fifty years of unparalleled evil. One hundred years of madness. It all ended tonight. This last gesture would put the seal on it.
He reached the skeleton and paused. Interesting. Its fangs and brow-ridges were prominent, and even its ear-holes could be recognized as slightly deformed. Curiouser and curiouser. There wasn’t even a hole in the chest.
He reached out and took hold of the sternum, threading his fingers through the ribs. This was for every life that Angelus had ended or ruined. This was for his family. Their friends. Their friends’ children. This was for Drusilla, for William, for Penn. This was for Jenny and Willow and Buffy and Giles. Even poor old Holtz.
"But most of all, you bastard," he whispered. "This is for me."
He suddenly twisted and squeezed with all his might. The sternum crushed in his hand and the skeleton fell to dust.
Giles replaced his glasses on his face. "Well then," he began. Then he paused, trying to think of something appropriate to say for such a momentous occasion. Then he had it.
"It is finished."