Rating: Hmm. Let’s call it PG-14 for the most part. There’ll be an NC-17 chapter later on, though, so beware.
Spoilers: Devil’s Truth and Face to Face. Read those before you read this, or you’ll be pretty lost.
Disclaimer: I don’t own anything. I wish I did—this is far too much work to do for free. Obsession is a terrible thing.
Summary: The final chapter of the "Devil’s Truth" trilogy. On the eve of Beltane, the heroes confront the one foe that has always defeated them.
*Let the Revels begin, let the fire be started.
-"Tonight is What it Means to be Young." From "Streets of Fire"
Puffing and red-faced, Xander dropped an armload of logs on the already impressive pile, brushed off his hands, and looked around in disgust at the blasted moonscape of the desert.
"Are you sure this is the right place?" He asked, as he had after each load of logs he’d carried.
"Quite sure," Giles answered, his tone clipped. This was the last time he was going to say this. "The prophecy says that the Merlin shall lead them into the holy wastes. I’m Buffy’s advisor, and a magician to boot. That makes me the Merlin. And these are the holy wastes."
Xander was about to ask "what makes you so sure?" for the third time when Willow, who was nearby, drawing the ritual’s prescribed glyphs on a flat boulder, piped up:
"I don’t know. It just seems weird. I would’ve expected a Beltane rite to be held someplace that had more—well, trees."
"I would as well," Giles answered a bit more patiently. This was just Willow’s first time asking. "But it does specify ‘wastes’, and this is a holy place. A nexus of good to counterbalance the evil of the Hellmouth."
"And it’s just been doing a bang-up job of that," Anya said as she arrived with a box of ritual oils, some of which had been specified, and others which were "old standbys" that had been brought "just in case."
"They were more evenly matched when both were desert wastelands," Giles explained. "This place was visited by Chumash warriors seeking visions and power to fight the monsters that came to the Hellmouth. But then the Chumash were destroyed and Sunnydale was founded, and the balance was broken. The Hellmouth grew bloated on a century of death, while this place, bereft of its tenders, declined in power."
Willow and Tara looked at each other.
"Quote?" Tara asked.
Willow shook her head. "Paraphrase," she declared. Then she looked at Giles. "Giles?"
Giles deflated. "Paraphrase," he admitted. "Failed quote. I could only remember the gist of a few lines."
Buffy was the next one to come over the ridge into and down the path into the sandy bowl in the rocks that formed the holy place. She carried more than Xander, but not really so much more. Slayer strength didn’t make her arms any longer.
Buffy had tried to use the "old-fashioned gal" dodge she’d used to avoid digging up graves during the Epps brothers’ search for the perfect woman. Unfortunately for that, Angel was on hand to point out that his idea of an "old-fashioned gal" wouldn’t be attending college, seeing boys without a chaperone, driving—ever—or wearing pants.
The ensouled vampire in question was the next to come over the ridge. It had been wise to wait until sunset to start this job. Heat stroke issues aside, it would have been foolish to start the heavy manual labor with one of the superpeople unable to participate.
"You know, I almost wish Spike was here," Buffy said as she dropped her load of logs. "Another pair of super-strong arms would definitely make the work go faster."
"What makes you think he would help?" Angel asked.
"With two Slayers and a whole bunch’a wood around?" Buffy countered.
"Good point," Angel agreed. "Too bad the ‘Demon of the Iron Nails’ is forbidden on pain of suffering ‘that which he fears most’."
"I like this prophecy," Willow chirped. "We all get such cool names."
"Like what?" Xander asked, sitting down on a rock and taking a swig of water. "I haven’t read it."
"You’ll see," she answered. "It’s part of the ritual."
"That’s the last of it," Riley announced as he and Gunn dropped their armloads onto the pile, which stood shoulder-high on Riley by now. Gunn’s pickup had been stacked high with logs. "Do we have everything we need?
Giles pulled the Elysian Prophecies out of his back pocket and flipped through it for a moment. "Let’s see," He said. "Logs. Check. Herbs?"
"Check," Willow answered, holding up a shopping bag filled with ziploc bags full of various different herbs and powders. Once again, it was a case of bringing along some extras "Just to be on the safe side", in addition to the ones that they’d been directed to bring.
"Oils—Anya, put that back!—check."
He quickly ran through the rest of the remarkably clear section of prophecy, and found that they were all set.
Neither Giles nor Wesley had ever seen a prophecy so helpful. It read like a poetic grocery list. From the candles, to the incense, to the tambourines and hand-held drum, to the various props and costume pieces, it had all been laid out.
It made everyone a little bit nervous.
"So why don’t we get started?" Gunn asked. "If we got all the gear, what are we waiting for?"
"Midnight," Giles answered, shutting the book.
And so they waited.
They built another, smaller campfire, and gathered around it. They roasted hot dogs over it (Tara’s were tofu) and had their dinner. Afterward, Oz got out his guitar, Willow got out some ingredients for s'mores, and Xander noticed someone was missing.
He found Faith sitting among the rocks, looking down on the dell.
"Hey," she greeted him.
"We’re making s’mores down there," he said, holding up the one he’d brought with him. "Want one?"
"You sure?" He took a bite of his. "Ah cun get um good an’ gowden brown." He swallowed. "Or are you a ‘charcoaled’ girl?"
"I’m sure," she snapped. "Thanks anyway," she added, softly, after a moment.
Xander had, in the past, been guilty of obliviousness, poor grades, and various other shortcomings of perception, attention, or comprehension. But he was far from stupid. It was absolutely clear that Faith wanted to be left alone up here. It was just as clear what he needed to do:
Redouble his efforts.
"You should still come down. You need to hear Giles sing ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’. I’m risking my sanity saying this out loud, but even Tara says its kind’a sexy."
Faith wasn’t stupid either. Xander had clearly been hanging out with the girly-girls too long, and seen one too many romantic comedies. Well, she’d dealt with guys who thought "not interested" meant "try harder" before. She’d try talking before she resorted to her usual method.
"Why don’t you give it up?" She snapped. "Being nice isn’t really your specialty."
But he’d expected this, and volleyed right back. "What, you’re the only one who can turn over a new leaf?"
Turn over a new leaf. It was a grotesque joke. How could she get back to even with the house if she wasn’t allowed to pay what she owed? She’d been enjoying the furlough, sure, but she’d fully expected to go back.
Anyone else might have said these things. Faith didn’t talk about her feelings. It wasn’t that she thought talking about your feelings was a sign of weakness or anything—she had once, but she’d learned better—but talking didn’t really help her. She couldn’t talk about some of this shit, anyway. She just didn’t have the words. Instead, she needed to do something. Gunn understood. But she did have something else she needed to talk to Xander about.
"That reminds me," she said. "You’re the only one I haven’t gotten to yet."
"The ohnly wun whut?" He asked around the last mouthful of marshmallow and graham cracker. Then he started to suck the sticky remnants off his fingers.
"The only one I haven’t apologized to," she said. "I talked to Red, and B, and Mom, and Wes, and Cordy—but not you."
He waved it off. "Don’t worry about it."
"Xander, I tried to strangle you. You don’t just wave and not worry about it."
"Sure you do." He gave large, exaggerated waves. "Don’t. Worry. About. It," he mouthed slowly and precisely.
They sat in uncomfortable silence for a moment. Knowing that the silence would last until midnight if he waited for her, Xander tried a new topic: "So! Uh…where’s Gunn?"
"I told him I had to piss."
"Your man’s a little gullible, huh?" He asked, nudging her in what he intended to be a good-humored, conspiratorial way.
"No, I really had to piss," she answered. She thrust a thumb over her shoulder. "Marked my territory back there, out of the circle. Didn’t want to piss off the gods."
"Me and him don’t hang all over each other, like some people do," she said, nudging him back. He glanced at her and was delighted to see the first ghosts of a smile on her lips. "He won’t necessarily notice I’ve been gone too long any sooner than anybody else."
"That’s gonna be pretty soon," Xander pointed out. "We should get back."
"I don’t know if I should," she said, the smile fading from her face. "I don’t know if I belong anyplace that’s holy."
The simple, frightening truth that Xander heard in her voice was that she believed that. That was just too big for him to deal with. Someone else—perhaps Gunn—would have to get her past her self-hatred. All he could do was get her back to the fire.
"Well, that’s too bad," he said, forcing cheer back into his voice. " ‘Cause that’s where the family reunion is, young lady, and you’re going."
He didn’t get the weak chuckle he’d hoped for. Instead, she sighed. "That’s another thing that’s hard to get used to," she said. "All this…’family’ shit. I mean, my family wasn’t exactly what you’d call Norman Rockwell."
As was said before, Xander was not stupid by any means. Sometimes he could Have Thoughts, and Plans—but right now he was having an Understanding. Faith was uncomfortable with all of the attention and closeness, yes, but that was something she could get over. But the fact that she felt unworthy of something good—because of her own family (oh, he knew how that could mess you up), and because of what she’d done—that was something different. She needed to know that she wasn’t the only mongrel pup the Scooby Gang had adopted off the street. "Neither was mine," Xander said.
"I don’t know what my father would talk about if he wasn’t drunk," he said. "And hell, I’m not the only one. Willow’s parents treat her like a psychology experiment, Cordy’s dad raised her with his checkbook—we’re all messed up. Even Giles and Wesley, I think. Why do you think we all made our own family?"
"Xander?" A voice called.
"Where’s he gotten to?"
"Oops, looks like we waited too long," Xander said.
"We?" Faith retorted. "They’re looking for you."
"Wait, where’s Faith?"
"Faith? Where are you?"
Xander looked at her archly. "You were saying?"
Stunned, she allowed him to take her by the hand and start leading her down the trail. They hadn’t gone far, however before she stopped, bringing him to a jolting halt. "Wait," she said. "Before we go, I have to know something."
"What’s that?" He asked.
"How can you just…" She waved her hand. "…Like that?"
He shrugged. "I never really held it against you," he said. "I don’t know why—maybe it was because the very next second you got hit upside the head with a baseball bat. Anyway, even if I did hold a grudge, I’d forgive you. I’m turning over a new leaf, you see, and it’s something I was never very good at before. Now, come on."
Xander led Faith back into the dell. Giles scolded them briefly for staying away so long and worrying everyone so. This may be a holy place, but they were facing a Big Bad tonight, and Big Bads liked to pick off stragglers. It was part of what made them Big Bads.
Faith looked dutifully contrite and mumbled an apology, but Xander could barely restrain a grin.
The scolding over, Xander led Faith to the fire to make the s’more he had offered. Giles, watching them go, shook his head helplessly and turned away, only to nearly crash into Joyce, who’d been standing at his shoulder with a disapproving expression while he’d been scolding. They both froze, their eyes accidentally locked. Then the moment passed and they hurried away from each other like people who’ve shared too much of themselves, and don’t have the courage to find out if it had been a mistake.
Riley sat down on a boulder beside Willow, a stick with a charred marshmallow on the end in one hand, a graham cracker and a piece of candy bar in the other.
"Look at that," he said, gesturing with his stick.
"Look at what?" Willow asked. She was already watching the fire. Oz had offered to make Tara a s’more, but she’d replied that no one else could make marshmallows the way she liked them. Oz’s wolf-instincts had taken the challenge, and now they squatted on opposite sides of the fire, each trying to get a marshmallow perfectly golden brown, but not the slightest bit singed. Xander had just arrived to a hug of greeting and a smack on the head from Anya.
"Why isn’t Anya acting all jealous?" Riley asked. "Xander disappeared into the rocks with another woman."
"Do you think something happened?" Willow asked.
"Anya knows him, too. Better than you."
"I should hope so."
"Besides, that’s not his ‘just got laid’ face. That’s his ‘just helped someone and a little washed-out because of it’ face."
Riley stared at her blankly. "I guess you really know him."
"Best friend since babyhood. I hope I know him."
Riley inserted his marshmallow between the halves of the graham cracker and pulled it off the stick. "So…" he said. "This prophecy. I heard you telling Xander that we all get cool names."
"Yup," she chirped. "Actually, some of us have more than one." Then she pouted. "It seems like the more of an ‘in’ you have with the PTB’s, the more names you get." She glared up at him. He apparently had a lot of names, and she seemed to suspect him of brown-nosing the PTB’s to get them.
"Really," he said, carefully hiding his amusement. An angry Willow was a terrifying thing. A petulant Willow was too cute. Then he mentally brushed aside the distraction and returned to his serious purpose. "Will we be hearing all of those names in the ritual?" he asked
She shook her head. "Nope. Just one name apiece."
"You mind telling me some of the names that I won’t get to hear, then?" He asked carefully. "I’m curious."
"Well, you’re the Galahad," Willow began.
"And Giles is the Merlin. Does that make Buffy the Arthur?"
Galahad. Arthur’s purest and most noble knight. He liked that. Still, there was one knight whose name was even more renowned. "Is there a Lancelot?" He asked.
"Um…Angel," Willow said.
Angel. Lancelot. Arthur’s mightiest warrior, dearest friend, and second-greatest traitor. The one who had broken both Camelot and Arthur’s heart, though neither had ever been his intention.
Riley wouldn’t be surprised if he asked and discovered that Faith was the Mordred. At least Lancelot and Guinevere had never meant to hurt anyone.
Willow apparently realized that she had stumbled into dangerous territory. She was beginning to babble in what she probably hoped was a distracting way. "This whole Arthurian thing actually works really well, you know? Because—you know—‘the King and the land are one’, and whenever Buffy’s in a bad way, Sunnydale suffers, but when she's at her peak, Sunnydale thrives. And Xander’s the Percival, did you know that? And that works, ‘cause he’s not the mightiest knight or anything, but he’s the one who healed the King—"
"Is there a Guinevere?" Riley asked softly.
"—and then the Carmina Burana started playing, and—sorry?"
"We have an Arthur, a Lancelot, and a Galahad. Is there a Guinevere?"
"Um—uh—" She glanced back at the fire anxiously, to see Oz blowing out his sugary, gooey torch while Tara grinned up at him triumphantly (oblivious of the fact that, while her attention was diverted, her own marshmallow was catching) and Xander offered to eat it. Just a little longer—
"Please, Willow. Just tell me."
"I—I really shouldn’t," She said. "You’re not supposed to—"
She sighed and dropped her head. "Yes," she admitted.
"Who is it?"
"That’s the problem," she said miserably. Sometimes it seems to be referring to Angel, sometimes you. Sometimes it changes in the middle of a stanza—the middle of a line, even. That’s the part of the prophecy we really can’t figure out. It might refer to either, or even neither of you."
"Or maybe both," he said.
Willow watched her own two lovers approach, rueful grins on their faces and s’mores in their hands. Well, "lovers" wasn’t quite the right word. She hadn’t re-consummated with Oz yet. What would she call him then? It was all so confusing.
"Or maybe," she agreed.
Maybe…The word spun in his head. Maybe he hadn’t been such a fool after all. Maybe…maybe…
After Faith and Xander’s brief disappearance, it was decreed that no one should wander off into the night alone. Everyone who left the circle of the firelight would have at least one companion, preferably one of the superpeople. This was no great hardship for the women, for whom going to the bathroom in packs was the natural order of things. For the men, it was a bit more of a trial.
"You done?" Buffy asked as Cordelia emerged from behind her chosen rock. The men of Angel Investigations would have been stunned at how little time she’d taken. The reason was simple: there were no mirrors out here. Anyone else might have taken a second or two less and emerged zipping her fly or buckling her belt, but Cordelia Chase refused to be seen with anything out of place.
"No," Cordelia replied sarcastically. "I still have to pee. I just thought I’d go back to the fire and find someone else I’d rather duck into the rocks with."
Buffy felt heat rising to her cheeks, and she was glad Cordelia couldn’t see her blush. It had been a dumb question. "Good," she said as she turned away. "Let’s go."
"Wait," Cordelia said.
"What?" Buffy snapped, whipping back around.
"Aren’t you going to make some kind of joke about deviant sexual practices?" Cordelia asked. When Buffy just stared at her blankly, she rolled her eyes. "God, I just gave you a perfect opening for a nice, tension-relieving bicker and you completely drop the ball. What is the matter with you lately? You’ve hardly spoken a word since LA."
Buffy was still staring at her blankly. "You find bickering…relaxing?" She asked.
"Hello, that whole topic? Done already," Cordelia said. "Try to keep up. What I’m asking is why you’ve been so closed-off lately."
Buffy was still staring, but her face was no longer blank. Instead, it was a mixture of suspicious and incredulous. "Are you serious?" she asked. "You really don’t know?"
"Me? How would I know?" Cordelia asked.
Buffy could only shake her head in disbelief and frustration. "Cordelia, you should know…better than anyone."
Cordelia had never been accused of the deficits of perception that Xander had. Her entire life, before she had thrown in with the Scooby Gang, had been based on reading other people. She made the necessary connections quickly. "Oh, you mean because I walked in on you?"
"Well, I can see why you’d be embarrassed around me," Cordelia allowed, "But why are you being so antisocial around everyone else? Especially Angel and Riley? One minute, you’re about to boff them both, the next you’re barely talking to either. How does that follow?"
"If you think about it, you’ve answered your own question," Buffy answered softly.
Cordelia cocked her head and stared at the girl she’d once thought of as her nemesis in confusion. For the first time, she really noticed that Buffy’s shoulders were drooping, and that she refused to meet her eyes. A dozen tiny clues that she’d only half-known she was collecting fell into place, and she understood. "You’re not embarrassed," she said, amazed. "You’re ashamed."
Buffy chewed on her lip for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. I guess I am," she admitted.
And Buffy was back to staring blankly. "Why? But…two guys…slutty…taking advantage…how could I tell…"
"What, you’re ashamed because you were going to have a threesome? In terms of perversity, that’s nothing compared to the fact that one of them is dead."
That rocked Buffy even further back on her heels. She hadn’t thought of it that way. And it was pretty ick-worthy, so she would think of it that way as little as possible. "Uh, good point."
"Besides, who were you afraid to tell in this bunch?" Cordelia scoffed. "Haven’t you noticed a high proportion of what you might call, oh, slightly non-traditional relationships? Faith and Gunn have the interracial thing going on, and I think they’re the closest thing to normal we have. Xander’s boinking a thousand-year-old ex-vengeance demon who used to destroy men, but now just squeals loud enough to destroy windows. Willow has a bisexual threesome with three nights a month of bestiality, how does your drama measure up against that?" She paused, considering her next words. "I, myself, fell in love with a spiky-headed demon."
Cordelia rolled her eyes and shook her head. "No. His name was Doyle. You met him for about a minute or two the time you came stomping into our office, pissed off that Angel had rescued you. He had a demon face, like Angel, but his looked just like the groom’s family from that wedding party."
Buffy had heard what had happened to Doyle, and she wanted to say ‘I’m Sorry.’ But Cordelia had, more than once, said how much she hated it that people said ‘I’m sorry’ when they learned that someone’s loved one had died. Generally, it wasn’t their fault, and it never changed anything. Instead, Buffy said "It’s funny how it doesn’t seem ugly when it’s someone you care about, isn’t it? You learn to love the demon face just as much as the human one."
"Yeah," Cordelia said softly, her eyes taking on a far-off look. "It’s a face you can learn to love." She paused for a moment, then shook herself back to reality.
"Look, I don’t want to get either touchy or feely about this, but my point is this: you have two hot guys who absolutely adore you, and you love both of them, and can I just say how much I envy you? I don’t blame you for wanting to keep both of them, and if I can’t blame you, and they don’t seem to blame you, then who will? It’s not like you just picked them up off the street."
"No," Buffy murmured. "It isn’t." Wheels were beginning to turn in her head. This was Cordelia who was saying this. Cordelia, who had traditionally grabbed everything she could possibly use for ammunition and aimed it at weak points. If Cordelia wasn’t judging her, maybe…just maybe…
"I say, if you want to spend the remainder of what’s likely to be a very short life with both of them, then go for it."
Buffy winced, and her train of thought derailed. "Thanks," she said dryly.
"Come on," she said, taking the May Queen-turned-Seer by the arm. "Let’s get back to the fire before you cheer me up some more."
But as they headed back to the fire, confusion and wish were spinning in her head, blending into a single word: Maybe…maybe…
Angel had just had a conversation with Wesley, much like the one Riley had had with Willow, and he was sitting, stunned, on a boulder just out of ranged of the warm circle of firelight.
Two…? What could it mean? Could it…? No. Of course not. That’s impossible.
His fevered musings were interrupted when Joyce sat down beside him. "Hi," she said tentatively.
"Buffy just went off with Cordelia," Joyce said. "So we have a moment. I was just wondering—I mean, I’m not trying to be…I know I’m not supposed to…I don’t mean to pry, but…" She paused, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. "I couldn’t help but notice that Buffy has seemed depressed," she said very slowly and carefully. "Do you know what happened? I’m trying not to be intrusive, but I’m still her mother."
Riley and I tried to have a threesome with your daughter, and it didn’t work out, killing any hope of straightening this thing out between us without somebody getting hurt. That’s why Buffy is depressed.
No, he didn’t think that one would fly very well. "I’m sorry. I think that’s Buffy’s to tell," he said.
"I know," she sighed, staring at the rocky ground. "But I’m always the last person she tells. Do you know what that’s like? She’s the person I care about—worry about—most in the world, and she always comes to me last. After everything is already over." She kicked a stone away, sending it bouncing into the desert. "Daughters aren’t supposed to protect their mothers. It’s supposed to be the other way around." She sniffled, and the next words came out as a sob. "Damn it."
Once again, Angel found himself in a position he never thought he would be in, wondering how he got there, contemplating just how complicated his existence had become since he’d entered his orbit around Buffy Summers’ life.
He reached out to pat Joyce on the back, but at the first contact she’d turned, thrown her arms around him, and buried her face in his shoulder. Awkwardly, painfully conscious of just how much she smelled like Buffy, he wrapped his arms around her and stroked her back in a way that he hoped was as comforting for her as it was for her daughter. He was glad that they were out of easy view of the people at the fire.
"Shh," He murmured. "It’s alright. It’s okay. Everything is going to be okay." It was weak, and he knew it was, but he couldn’t think of anything better.
"How is it okay?" She demanded. "What can’t she tell me? I know that she’s in love with both of you. So what? What does that matter?"
Leave it to a Summers woman to completely rock him back on his feet. "Huh?"
"I wouldn’t have cared—or even really been surprised—if she’d come home and told me she was in love with Willow. What does it matter who she loves? She’s still my daughter, and I love her. I accepted that she was the Slayer, but I took so long. Is that what’s wrong? Did I mess up so badly?"
Angel took her by the shoulders and held her out away from him, looking her directly in the eye. "You did the best you could," he said. "That’s all anyone can do, and you did better than many. I understand, and I’m pretty sure Buffy understands. If she doesn’t, she will." He paused, and his face grew perplexed. "I’m just surprised that you understand."
She knew what he was referring to. "She’s still my daughter," she repeated. "And I know that both you and Riley are…doing the best that you can."
"Thank you," he said. "That means a lot." Then something occurred to him. "Isn’t there someone whose shoulder you’d rather be crying into than mine?"
Her face grew downcast again. "I don’t know," she said. "After the fight with Angelus was over, things just kind of…got weird. This is the second time that we’ve been together in an emergency and…done things we ordinarily wouldn’t. Now I’m wondering if it wasn’t all just a big mistake. Maybe I went too far too fast and scared him off. Maybe we would have been better off staying just the mother and father."
"Maybe he’s having this same conversation with someone else," he said. Then he considered that for a moment. "Or, more likely, with himself. He is British."
"Do you really think so?"
He glanced across the fire, to where Giles was apparently drawing in the dirt with a stick. Angel hoped he didn’t absent-mindedly summon something. The Watcher looked away just a moment too late, and Angel realized that he’d been watching a good portion of the conversation, despite their secluded position.
"Yes," He answered. Then he stood up, and laid a hand on her shoulder. "One last thing: traditionally, the mother and father are also husband and wife. Or at least lovers. It’s how the children get here in the first place, and it helps the two to work as a team."
Joyce restrained herself from demanding if he was passing some kind of eighteenth-century judgment on her divorce. As far as she could tell, Angel didn’t judge anyone. What he was saying was encouragement, not criticism.
Not everyone was as judgmental as her mother.
"You two already have all the children you could ever want, probably more. Somebody else made them, but abandoned them to you. But that doesn’t mean that you have to give up the other half, does it?"
She shook her head.
"Good answer." He patted her on the shoulder and walked away.
She looked across the fire at Giles, and once again he looked away too slowly, and their eyes met.
It was easy to forget that Angel was not, as he appeared, several years younger than she was. That he was, in fact, hundreds of years older. He could be her great-grandfather, many times removed. Perhaps his advice was worth listening to.
And in two more minds, the word was spinning: