Rating: All of the horrors contained herein are real. If I could make them NC-17, I would. This story about them is rated PG-14
Spoilers: Set after Afterlife.
Disclaimers: I don’t own Buffy, Angel or any of their friends. I suspect that the people who do would have let us see this meeting if they could. But they can’t so it’s up to us.
Summary: Buffy faces some horrors that she can’t fight.
"Oh, thank Kuan Yin you’re here," Tara said as she opened the door to the arriving Scooby Gang. "I’ve t-tried everyth-thing, and I d-didn’t know what else to d-do."
Only Giles and Willow understood the appeal to the Bodhisattva of Mercy, but not even Dawn or Anya could miss the resurgence of Tara’s stutter. Something was terribly, terribly wrong, and she felt helpless to do anything about it.
"What is it?" Giles asked, surging as close to panic as he ever came. "What’s wrong?"
"What’s happened to Buffy?" Dawn demanded.
"I g-guess she wanted to c-catch up on what happened while she was…g-gone," Tara said. "So she went through the recycle box of newspapers."
The entire gang stood there for a moment, floored. Once again, as they had with the coffin, they had forgotten something simple, yet critical. Something that should have been self-evident. In their moment of stunned silence, they heard what they hadn’t been able to hear over their rush and panic: a soft, monotonous sobbing.
"Oh, god," Xander said into the silence.
"We haven’t taken that box out for a month," Willow said miserably. "How could we not have taken it out for a month? Are we such slobs?"
"No, honey. It’s not that," Tara soothed, taking her hand. "It’s just—we forgot. That’s all. We kept forgetting. Every garbage day would come and go, and one of us would say ‘oh, darn, we forgot to put the papers out again.’ We just…kept forgetting."
"Oh, God," Xander repeated. It was all anyone really had to say.
Giles led the way into the darkened living room. The lights were off and the curtains were drawn, so the room was only lit by what came in from neighboring rooms, and the few sunbeams that managed to filter in. Buffy sat in the middle of the floor, an empty box beside her, surrounded by newspapers. She rocked and sobbed as she sat there, clutching a newspaper to her chest.
"Buffy?" He called tentatively.
"Uh?" She turned her head and looked up at him. She was responsive. That was good. He’d been remembering and dreading the catatonic state of the previous year.
He took a few steps across the room, while the younger members of the Scooby Gang clustered in the doorway behind him. Cowards, he thought resentfully. "I suppose it would be foolish to ask if you’re all right."
"They’re gone, Giles."
"Who’s gone, Buffy?" he asked. He knew perfectly well who—and what—she meant. But he hoped to draw her out.
She thrust out the paper she was clutching: a month-old edition of the Sunnydale Herald with the all-too-familiar picture of the Towers with huge, gaping, smoke-billowing holes in their sides. "The Towers," she answered. "The Towers are gone." She drew the paper back in and stared at it. "I always wanted—I’ve never been east of Las Vegas, did you know that? I always meant to go. As soon as I got old enough to travel myself, I was going to go to Ft. Lauderdale for spring break, Washington DC for the Smithsonian, and—since I was an Early-Cordelia-Level shallow, materialistic ditz when I made these plans—New York for the shopping. But I also wanted to see the Statue of Liberty, and I guess that’s still there; and the Empire State Building, and I guess that’s still there, too; but I also wanted to see the Twin Towers and now I never will, because they’re gone. And even if they rebuild them it won’t be the same, and I know it’s incredibly selfish but I have to think about the Towers because if I don’t, then I’ll start to think about the five thousand people who are all gone." She sobbed and crumpled the newspaper to her face, then spread it out again and began paging through it. Giles winced when she stopped to stare at a picture of a person in free fall from one of the Towers.
"Buffy," He said as he went down on one knee beside her. "We know that this is a terrible tragedy."
"Do you?" she said tonelessly into the paper.
"Of course we do," Willow said. "The day it happened, there was nothing else on the TV. We watched for hours. Giles closed the Magic Box, Dawn came home from school—"
"Giles cried," Anya added. "He was really quiet about it, and he said he was just rubbing his eyes ‘cause they were tired from watching TV for so long, but I could tell."
Paying no more attention to them, Buffy began to pick up newer papers from the floor and report what she found there. "No survivors have been found since the day after. It’s just a cleanup operation now." She picked up another. "The rescue dogs are so depressed about finding nothing but dead bodies that rescue workers are hiding themselves for the dogs to ‘find’." She shook her head. "Huh. That’s fair enough, I suppose. We’re human. It’s our mess to clean up. But there’s no reason for the animals to suffer."
She slapped the paper closed and flung it away. "Why did you bring me back?" she demanded.
They all froze, dumbfounded. "Beg pardon?" Giles finally managed.
Buffy stood and stepped past Giles to the Scooby gang while he stumbled to his feet behind her.
"Why." She said to Xander, thrusting her face into his.
"Did you." Willow.
"Back?" She bit the question off in Tara’s face, sending the larger, but shyer girl a few steps backward into the kitchen.
Willow opened her mouth to explain, but Buffy lunged across the room and snatched a paper up from the floor. "Was it so I could defend a world like this?" She held up the first paper, with its full-page picture of the smoking tower. She grabbed another paper and thrust a half-page of Osama bin Laden and the words "Dead or Alive" at them. "Full of people like this?"
"I wouldn’t say that the world is full of people like him," Giles said. "There are a few, but—"
"A few?" Buffy turned on him, her eyes glittering maniacally. "A few?" She reached into the box and pulled out an even older newspaper, one that showed a blond-haired, rosey-cheeked little girl crying into her father’s jacket. "Little girls being stoned on their way to school because they’re Catholic and have to walk through a Protestant neighborhood to get there." She slapped the paper into Giles’ gut. "Ireland."
She bent and picked up another, glanced at it, glanced up at Dawn, then closed her eyes and swallowed hard, as if suppressing tears and vomit at the same time. "Little girls raped because there’s some damn folk tale that having sex with a virgin cures HIV." She handed it to Dawn, who dropped it like it was on fire. "South Africa. One of them was nine months old."
Another. She glanced at it, then tossed it to Willow. "Those Israelis and Palestinians just can’t stop killing each other, can they?"
She scooped up another paper and barely had to look at it before she tossed it to Xander. "Neither can the Hutus and the Tutsis."
Another flew at Anya, and she had to snatch it out of the air almost in self-defense. "Or India and Pakistan."
Buffy dropped to her knees amidst the papers and the Scooby Gang started forward, but they jumped back again when she snatched up two great handfuls of news. "Is this the world I’m fighting for?" She shouted, shaking the wads of paper at them. "Is this the world I’m defending? Is this the world I’ve given my life for? Twice?"
She threw the paper away, and her head and shoulders drooped "Hell with it," she said to the floor. "Let the demons have it."
"Oh, Buffy, don’t say that," Willow whispered.
Xander decided to take a more active approach. "Hey, now, what the hell kind of talk is that?" He said, dropping to one knee beside her and wrapping an arm around her shoulders. "The Buffy I know isn’t a quitter."
"That’s just the problem, Xander." She looked up at him, and tears were already starting to cut snail-trails down her face. "I don’t know if I’m the Buffy you know anymore."
Aghast, the entire Scooby Gang was about to break into a babbling mass-response when the front door suddenly slammed open. Cordelia burst in and held the door open, waving someone outside into the house and shouting, "Clear! Now—go! Movemovemovemovemove!"
Angel came barreling in the door, a blanket held over his head. Wesley, unaffected by the sunlight, but spurred on by Cordelia’s drill sergeant barking, followed at a jog. Angel didn’t lower the blanket until the door slammed behind him.
"Sorry about the entrance," Cordelia apologized. "But we came the instant we heard, and I do mean the instant. Mr. I’m-Gonna-live-forever-but-I-can’t-wait-‘til-sunset insisted. You’d think—" She paused as she took in the scene before. "We arrived in the middle of another crisis, didn’t we?"
Angel heard her words, but they flowed through his consciousness like water through a sieve. Buffy was there. She was alive, and she was right there in front of him, kneeling on the floor. The fact that he hadn’t been there, that he hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye, that he still had so much left to tell her—none of it mattered now, because she was back.
His unbeating heart swelled. It was true. It wasn’t just another dream. And now his most precious dream, the Bright, Shining Hope of the Shanshu, the hope that they could someday be together, was renewed.
In a way, it was good that his heart was torn at the same time it was exalted. If it hadn’t been, his soul might have been in very real danger.
Angel found himself walking across the room, unaware that his feet had already started to move toward his beloved. He didn’t know if the Sunnydale Gang parted for him, or if he wove or shoved through them. For him, at that moment, they didn’t exist. All he could see was Buffy, rising from the floor, staring at him with her eyes shining.
And her face streaked with tears.
In the living room of the Summers house, which was dark enough in the middle of the afternoon to be perfectly safe for him, despite its large windows.
He could smell her, too, and as much as it was the smell that he loved most in the world, it was overlaid by the smell of despair. It was the smell of clothes that should have been washed rather than worn, of the last traces of soap that had last been used days ago, of breath that hadn’t been sweetened by toothpaste. It was the smell of someone who couldn’t muster the spirit to take care of herself, but it was too faint for her friends to notice. Yet.
"Angel!" She cried, launching herself at him. When she landed, she wrapped herself around him completely, arms and legs, and showered kisses on his face.
He was a bit startled—he hadn’t expected a greeting this enthusiastic—but he gladly returned it.
"You’re here, you’re really here!"
"It’s true. I didn’t believe it, but it’s true. Oh, god, I missed you. I’m so sorry."
"Don’t be sorry, it’s okay, everything’s—"
It was then that Angel realized what he was feeling. He’d felt it, sensed it, from the moment he entered the room, and it had surged each time her lips touched his face, her skin touched his. As she said "Everything’s okay," he finally realized what it was that he was sensing, and his eyes flew open. "My God," he gasped in horror. Buffy froze, and drew back to stare at him. He looked into her eyes, and what he saw there broke his heart. "What did they do to you?"
Buffy was off him, away, and up the stairs before he realized what was happening, leaving him and both the LA and Sunnydale contingents staring up after her.
"Okay, what is with the mood swings?" Cordelia said at last.
"She spent the afternoon catching up with current events," Xander answered, waving at the paper-littered floor.
"I can see why that would be upsetting," Wesley said. "Still, her reactions are—"
"Well, she was in Hell for months," Willow defended.
"Hell?" Angel asked, only twitching his head in Willow’s direction, not actually turning it. Oh, Buffy…
"Months of our time," Willow continued. "Who knows how long it was for her? So who knows what ‘normal’ reactions would be?" She glared at Wesley and Cordelia, daring them to say something else against Buffy.
Instead, Cordelia pointed at Angel. "He does."
"That’s right!" Dawn breathed. "You know what to expect, how we can help her."
Angel felt all eyes turn on him. He knew what Buffy was concealing, and he understood why. He wouldn’t be the one to give her away. "Well, I don’t know," He said. "She might have been in an entirely different place than I was."
"Good point," Anya agreed. "Experience in Tartarus won’t help you with someone who’s been in the Hell of Boiling Oil."
"Anya? Honey?" Xander said. "A point-by-point analysis of which Hell Buffy might have been in is about the last thing we need."
"No, no, the first step in helping is figuring out the nature of the problem," she insisted.
"Maybe I should go talk to her," Angel said, starting for the stairs.
"Are you sure that’s entirely wise?" Giles said with deceptive mildness.
Angel paused, his foot on the stairs, and looked back. The Watcher stood with his arms crossed, frowning.
"I second that," Cordelia added. "Whenever you two have one of your talks, you usually come out feeling worse."
"I say we give him a shot," Xander said.
Everyone turned and stared at him.
"What? He’s the only one of us who has any clue at all. Besides, how much worse can it get? We have to try something."
"Go on," Dawn said, waving him up the stairs. "Hurry, before she goes out the window."
The window was, indeed, open when Angel arrived in Buffy’s room. Still, between the shade from the tree outside her window, and the fact that her room was on the east side of the house, Angel was safe enough from the setting sun.
Angel closed the door, crossed the room, and sat down on the bed, facing the closet. "This is a clever set-up," he said. "You knew that we’d expect you to bolt, and that we’d try to track you down if you did. But you wanted to avoid yet another heartbreaking sewer talk, so you decided to hide and send us on a wild goose chase instead. Unfortunately for your plan, tracking by smell isn’t even child’s play in a space this small—the child would get bored. And I can hear your heart beating from here."
He could, too. Her heart was pounding wildly. He wanted so much to crawl in with her, hold her in his arms, stroke her hair, and soothe her. But she was the one who had run from him; it was wiser to soothe her at a distance until she came to him of her own accord than to pursue her.
"Xander tells me that the news upset you. I think I can guess which story." He waited for a response. Hearing none, he continued. "September 11th was a bad day for all of us. Cordelia kept asking me: Why she didn’t have a vision about this? What good were they if they couldn’t prevent something like this? Wesley spent hours flipping through books, trying to figure out what kind of demon could be behind this. When he finally admitted that the terrorists, the planners—everyone involved—had been human, he kind of broke down. It’s hard to describe. Fred—" He caught himself. "Oh, yeah. You never met Gunn, and you never had a chance to meet Fred."
"We called Sunnydale, of course. They weren’t handling it any better than we were. Willow was looking for some kind of time-spell so she could go back and undo it, but she couldn’t find one. Oz called to let us know that he was all right, and find out if we were. Dawn went to bed at six in the evening. Xander and Anya would only come out of the bedroom to eat. I guess they needed to feel alive. Giles got out his guitar—did you know he has a guitar?—and he and Tara were singing. I couldn’t believe it." He paused again, listening. Her heartbeat had slowed down. He smiled. She was listening, and she was relaxing. "I even understand that Spike made a few calls to government agencies, offering to eat Osama bin Laden if they’d just take the chip out of his head. They hung up a lot."
There was a burst of muffled laughter from the closet, and the rustle of clothes being pushed out of the way. After a moment, the closet’s knob turned, and the door slowly creaked open. Buffy leaned against the jamb, but came no closer. "So what did you do?" She asked.
"Hit my punching bag." He answered "For hours." He patted the bed beside him. With a sigh, she crossed the room and sat down. He wanted to put his arm around her, but he knew it wasn’t time yet.
"Sometimes I think I should just let the demons have it," Buffy said bitterly. Sometimes I think that they’re better people than humans. At least they don’t do things like this to their own kind."
"Some are," Angel admitted. "But they aren’t the ones who would take over if we stopped fighting."
"You know, I think everyone went through what you’re going through now when it first happened."
"Somehow, I doubt it." She muttered.
"I don’t mean the special circumstances—" She looked up at him sharply. "I mean the questions. The doubt. Why do they do it? Why do they bother, if this is how people use the world we protect for them?"
"They?" She interrupted.
"Beg your pardon?"
"You said ‘they.’ What about you?" She asked suspiciously.
He sighed. "I’d already been there."
He told her the story of the previous year, of Darla’s resurrection and Wolfram & Hart’s manipulations, of Darla’s re-vamping and his own end-run toward Doomsday, including his final attempt to storm the Gates of Hell. "And when the elevator finally opened, we were right back where we’d started," He said, wrapping up the story. "The Home Office is here. He even explained it to me: ‘If there wasn’t evil in every single one of them out there, why, they wouldn’t be people. They’d all be angels."
"So what did you do?" She asked, entranced. She’d never figure it out. Sometimes Angel could barely talk, other times he could tell stories like a bard.
Angel looked at the floor. "I’m not going to give you details about that, because I am deeply ashamed. If you ever need to know, I’ll tell you. Until then, suffice it to say that I attempted suicide. And I did it in a way that put a lot of people at risk, which is why I’m so ashamed."
"So not the best example to follow, then," She grinned.
He chuckled weakly. "No, I guess I wasn’t. But after I attempted suicide, I started to remember that even if everyone on this Earth has evil in them, they all have good, too."
"Everyone?" She asked cynically.
Angel considered mentioning the heroes of September 11th. The passengers who had attacked their hijackers and saved thousands of lives at the expense of their own. The firefighters and police who had charged headlong into the falling Towers. The ordinary people who had helped each other to safety.
Then he remembered how many of those heroes had died, and he decided to try another tactic.
"Well, some people do ignore theirs. Or confuse the two. But most people are trying. And believe it or not, they are succeeding, Buffy. The world is getting better." He thought about it for a moment, then he added "Slowly."
"Angel, as much as I appreciate your attempt to cheer me up, I don’t need you to feed me this ‘It’s a wonderful world’ crap."
"But I’m not."
"Oh, you really expect me to believe—"
"You’re forgetting how old I am. I remember a time when Kendra and my friend Gunn would both have been slaves. You and Dawn would be prostituting yourselves to survive. Cordelia, too, most likely. Willow would be tucked away in a ghetto somewhere, and her relationship with Tara wasn’t even considered possible. Our friend Fred is a brilliant physicist, but she—"
"She? ‘Fred’ is a she?"
He nodded. "Her full name is Winifred. And she would be at home minding the children, because a woman doesn’t need an education. Of course, that’s all assuming that none of you had died of disease or in childbirth yet. Meanwhile, Giles and Wesley would be investing in trading interests based on products from the Empire’s colonies."
"I get the picture."
"Good. Now, what I decided, is that our job is to protect these good people while they improve the world. If we give them enough time, I really think they’ll get it right. We just have to give them the chance."
"So. We’re buying time for the good people, so they get a chance to improve the world. That sums up your view of our mission." Buffy said.
"That sounds worthwhile," she said, relaxing and leaning against him. He felt it again as she touched him, and he had to swallow tears. "I think I can live with that."
"I’m glad." Tentatively, he hooked an arm over her shoulders. When she snuggled and settled into his side, he took encouragement and held her tighter.
"What are we going to tell the people downstairs?" She asked. "I freaked out at them."
"Drusilla on crystal meth."
"Ouch. Well, it should be fairly easy to explain as trauma from your time in Hell combined with the sheer badness of the news."
"Good point. After all, from what you told me, they didn’t take it well either."
"Or you could tell them the truth."
The old Buffy would have snapped up and stared at him. This Buffy just sighed, and that worried him more than anything else. "How did you know?" She asked.
"I honestly don’t know," he replied. "Maybe it’s because I’m a fellow Champion of Good. Maybe it’s because the combination of vampire and soul resulted in something totally new, and who knows what I can do. Whatever. I’ve been to Hell, and I’ve been in the Temple of the Oracles—which is kind of like Heaven’s information booth—and I know which one you feel like. You never saw Hell."
"I can’t tell them, Angel. Ever. It would destroy them."
"They’re tougher than you think."
"They still don’t deserve the burden."
"You can’t carry it yourself," He countered. "It’ll destroy you."
She said nothing for a long time. Then he felt her start to tremble. "It’s already destroying me," She sobbed. "It hurts so much to be here. It’s harsh and bright and hard and sharp and it’s so cold."
Angel held on tight as she sobbed frantically into his side. He stroked her hair with his free hand. "I can’t begin to imagine what you’ve lost, my love," He said. "And I know that there’s nothing I can say to you that could possibly make you feel better. I can’t even promise that I’ll always be there for you. Our lives are too dangerous for that. All I can say is I love you, and I’m here for you now."
It was hours later when a weary Angel descended the stairs. The Scooby Gang and Angel Investigations sprawled listlessly around the Summers living room, half-eaten cartons of Chinese food in front of them. They started to their feet as they spotted him.
"How is she?" Giles asked.
"Sleeping," He answered, rubbing the crick out of the back of his neck.
"Yes, but how will she be?" Dawn asked anxiously.
"I don’t know," He answered. "She’s been through—well, she’s been through an awful lot."
"Did you figure out what Hell she was in?" Anya asked.
Angel stared at her incredulously for a long moment. "No."
Then he looked back out at the group in general. "She’s a lot stronger than I am. It took me weeks to remember my own name when I got back from Hell. Still, she’s in a pretty bad way."
"Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?" Wesley offered.
"Probably," Angel agreed. "She’s going to need all the help you guys can offer, and maybe some professional help besides."
"Professional--?" Dawn stared at him as if he’d just accused Buffy of murder. "Buffy’s not crazy!" She yelled.
"Of course she is," Angel sighed, dropping into the nearest armchair. Everyone stared at him, mouths hanging open. "None of you know where she’s been. I do. It’s nothing short of a miracle, and a testament to how strong Buffy is that she’s still functional."
"Still, what ‘professional’ could we take her to?" Giles asked. "Counseling requires discussing things that would give away her secret identity."
Angel looked at Wesley. "We have a friend in LA who might be able to help. We’ll talk to him when we get back, and we’ll call you with his answer."
"You’re talking about Lorne, right?" Wesley asked.
"I don’t think it’ll be a problem," Wesley assured them.
"What kind of help did you have in mind?" Xander asked. "For us, I mean."
"Indeed. We don’t want her to become too dependent on us," Giles said.
"Well, we need to work out something about money, for a start," Angel said. "A twenty year old with only a partial college education can’t afford this house, and running—and worrying—herself ragged trying to won’t help. If we can get her back to school—"
Suddenly, Angel Investigations’ beepers all went off. Wesley snatched his off his belt and looked at it. "There’s been a murder. Someone’s hung a gutted Brakken demon outside of Caritas." He looked up at the rest of his team. "We need to leave."
Angel’s first instinct was to refuse. But then he realized that there was no point to staying, at least none that outweighed the death of an innocent. Buffy was asleep, and the only ‘help’ he could offer was planning. They could do that over the phone.
He rose from his seat. "Let’s roll."
Spike was standing in the shadows as they walked out the door, and he fell into step beside Angel as they walked toward the car. Wesley and Cordelia looked nervous, but Angel was merely annoyed. He stopped, and Spike stopped with him. "You go ahead," he told them. "I’ll catch up." Then he turned to Spike. "Okay, what do you want?"
"I heard you in there," His grandchilde answered. "Yammerin’ on about how to help her."
"Now, I hate to admit it, but you can be pretty sharp when you want to be. I reckon you figured it out as soon as she touched you."
"So you know it’s all bollocks, right? You know there’s no help for her."
"It’s not bollocks," Angel answered. "But it’s not going to be easy. She’s going to need all the help she can get. Even yours."
Spike grinned triumphantly. "What’s that, mate? Asking me to fill in while you’re away?"
Angel caught the younger vampire by the throat and lifted him effortlessly off the ground. Sometimes Spike forgot just how much more powerful Angelus, the Scourge of Europe was than William the Bloody. Sometimes he needed reminding. "Listen to me carefully, Spike," Angel said, in the calm quiet voice that instantly told Spike that his head was an inch away from coming off. "I don’t like you. I don’t trust you. I have several reasons to kill you. But I also know that, in your twisted, psychotic way, you care for her. I also know that you’re the only one in Sunnydale who knows the truth. So I’m leaving you here, and I’m telling you to watch over her. If anything happens to her, it had better be over your pile of ashes. Is that understood?"
Spike nodded helplessly.
Angel dropped him to the ground. "Don’t fail her again."
With that, he turned and disappeared into the night.
Upstairs, Buffy Summers wept in her sleep as she dreamed vague memories of Heaven.