disclaimer in part 1

everything is in rags
and there's nobody to blame but me
and it would be so easy
if there was no one to hurt but me
but now everything that i do
coming out of me
will just tear through you
in and out of you
up and down your life
like a curse

-the waterboys

Three Doors
by: Rebecca Carefoot

Part Seventeen

Angel ran, familiar strength coursing in his veins like a reclaiming of self. With the exhilaration of remembered power came the deep pang of loss and the loathing of self that defined him. He was a mass of hurt, of wounds, but none of them penetrated with the raw edge of humanity. His head swam with the blood that dripped from his eye. He swiped at it with his hand and licked his fingers. The taste shivered through him, and he flicked his tongue nervously against his teeth. He could hear the panicked rhythm of Buffy's footsteps falling in front of him, and he made out her shape in the dark. Her scent wrapped around him as he drew closer, the smell richer, penetrating deeper than it could in his human body. The air tasted of her blood and his mingling from the fight that seemed so long ago. The world overwhelmed him with a dizzy barrage of heightened senses and new memory.

The fight flashed in his memory from a disorienting double perspective. Vision and emotion conflicting from two places at once. Crawling fear. Burning, consuming hate that mingled unsteadily with feverish lust. His foot connecting with Buffy's abdomen. His hands dragging her with him to the ground. Her body rigid against him. Watching himself hit her while he fell under a gang of vampires, his hands flailing ever weaker against their fists and feet and the sharp tearing of their teeth. He was doubled, separate and inseparable, forgetting where one half ended and the other began.

The memories continued to fall, slipping into already occupied spaces, crowding. Willow. The stench and hissing sizzle of burning flesh. His knees jarred by feet pounding against the pavement as he chased Buffy. Words spoken quietly, lying harmless between them before turning red hot, burning with shame and fear and doubt. "You're not my equal." His mouth on Willow's skin. Blood. Warm. Life on his tongue. A knife sinking into flesh. An ax whirling in a deadly silver circle. An arm lying motionless in a pool of thick darkness.

He ground his teeth against the confusion of images, and reached out when he saw through the haze of memory that Buffy was just a step in front of him. He steadied himself with the touch of her. He grasped her elbow and stopped her forward motion, swinging her back toward him with a jerk of his arm. She whipped violently around, crashing into his chest as her balance and momentum conspired with him against her. He caught her against his body, trapping her with his arms. She struggled weakly for a moment, then stopped, limp and unresisting, pressed tight against him.

"I don't understand," he said through clenched teeth. Buffy stood silent, her head tilted into his chest as if she were too tired to lift it. "I need to know why." The top of her forehead pressed against his dead heart, touching the absence that lay inside him.

"It was selfish," she said dully. "I-" She looked up, and her red-rimmed eyes were dry.

"Why?" he said. She shook her head. "I never thought I would have the chance to be human, and now..." He gritted his teeth against a flash of dark red pen and a gush of clear fluid from a broken eye.

"I'm sorry," she said, her nostrils flaring as tiny breaths jerked through her lungs. "I'm sorry I took it from you. I don't expect you to forgive me. I know I don't deserve it. If you want to leave I'll understand." Her eyes begged him to stay. To see the need that clutched at her, the loneliness and the regretful joy she found in killing, the isolation she didn't have to pretend not to feel when she was with him. She asked him to see the selfish fear and to forgive her for it. His eyes met hers in the dark, but he saw nothing through the jerky exhilaration of pressing Willy's throat to the wall.

"The memories," he choked. "I remember what he did. What I did. Was. Am."

"I know," she said. "The Dagnu told me you would." He closed his eyes.

"You wanted me to be human just as much as I did." His voice was tight with confusion. "To give you all the things you dreamed of, all the things you should have."

"A normal life," she whispered.

"Yes," he said. "Sunlight. Normal dates. Children." He grabbed her arms, squeezing tight. She met his eyes, the need hidden now behind her guilt. "Now I can't give you any of that," he said. He shook as a terrible possibility flooded him. "You want to have it with someone else?" he asked, and his chest ached as if he held his breath, though his lungs needed no air. She didn't want him. She didn't want to make a life with him. He tightened his hold on her arms to keep from falling. "Do you want me to leave?" She shook her head, her mouth crumpling as her chest heaved with unvoiced sobs.

"It doesn't matter," she said, desperate. His fingers were points of pain digging into her arms, but she did not struggle to free herself.

"No," he said. "It does matter. Tell me. Explain-"

"None of that matters," she said, feeling like they were looking past each other, their words twisting from their mouths and falling with different meanings against uncomprehending ears. "The normal life. It's not true. It's not possible. I'm the Slayer. Normal doesn't come with the package. I see that now."

"But it could," Angel started. "If I were human I could have-"

"Died," Buffy said bluntly.

"You don't know."

"Angel, even if you were normal, I never would be." His eyes slid away from hers, dark and unreadable. "And in my world, normal is dead."

"You don't understand," he said, helplessly. "The way it felt not to have something so evil inside me. Not to have to fight every second."

"There's evil inside all of us," Buffy said. "And some things are worth fighting for."

He shook her slightly, his anger rumbling in his throat. "I was free," he said. "And you can't judge what that was worth." She twisted small fingers in the cloth of his t-shirt, digging at his waist.

"I know," she said quietly, and looked away, her eyes casting for something to settle on in the dark tunnel.

"I don't-" Angel started, then stopped. "I'm tired," he said. "I'm tired of hating myself."

"You don't have to hate yourself," Buffy said, her hand slipping beneath his shirt to grasp his side. Her fingers dug into his flesh, pressed tight against his ribs. "You're a good person," she said. "And you don't ever have to stop being that."

Angel met her eyes, and his face morphed, vampiric ridges sprouting over his eyes. He bared his fangs. "A good person?" he said, mocking what he was with biting sarcasm. "How could you chose this?" he asked, and her eyes filled with tears as his fingers crushed her arms in his grasp. "How could you want this? How could you want me to be this?"

"I love you," she said into his face, her fingernails pressed so tight against his side they drew blood in half-circles from his skin. "I love this you. The one I don't have to protect. The one who doesn't flinch at the sight of torture. Who knows what it is to kill. What it feels..." She shook her head. "I didn't want to lose you." He stared at her, and slowly eased his hands away from her arms, loosening his grip, then letting her go. She staggered, leaning briefly against him before her fingers trailed away from his side. "I was losing you," she said so softly he wouldn't have heard her with human ears.

"I was human for two days," he said. "You didn't give it a chance."

"Well the Dagnu didn't exactly let me, did it?" she snapped. "I had to make a choice now, today, and whatever I chose was for all time." She turned her back on him, and took a step away. "I knew I might lose you either way," she said. "And maybe I was wrong." She spun on her heel and faced him again, her hands tucked tight against her chest. "But the human you isn't the you I fell in love with," she said. "And I chose the man I love."

"What you chose isn't a man at all," Angel said.

"I don't care!" Buffy yelled. "I'm not human either. Not like Xander and Giles and the others."

Angel stood with his head bowed, a long moment passed in silence. Buffy scuffed her feet against the rocky ground, and listened to the puffs of dust that rose with the movement. She lifted her eyes and tried to read Angel's expression in the darkness. She shook her head, and closed her eyes tight against the pressure behind them. "I..." she finally said. "I'm asking you to forgive me." She paused, her throat tight. "I chose what I needed. Not what you needed. And I know I don't deserve--" She stopped as Angel's arms wrapped close around her, lifting her up and squeezing the air from her lungs. She put her arms around his neck and pressed her face to his shoulder.

"I need you," he whispered.

Her hand stroked the side of his face, and she felt the wet slick of his tears as her fingers drifted over his cheek. Her own tears slid unnoticed to dampen his neck and the cloth on his shoulder. Angel lifted one hand to her hair, slipping his fingers underneath the mass of tangled strands and cradled her skull in his large palm. She kissed his shoulder softly, then the salty skin of his neck. She tasted the rusty crust of blood drying on the underside of his chin, and the dampness of his cheek. He shifted her in his arms and their lips met softly, a tentative touch.

"I never deserved your forgiveness," he said, pressing the words against her lips. "But you gave it to me." He rested his forehead against hers, and she closed her eyes. "And you could never hurt me so badly that I would turn away from you." He shook his head, his skin rubbing rough against hers. "I don't-" he said. "I can't agree with your choice." She jerked slightly against him, and he pressed his lips to hers again, this time more firmly. "But it was your choice, not mine." She pulled at his lip with her teeth, and he smiled. "And my choice is you. Whatever it takes."

"I love you," she whispered. He lowered her slowly to the ground, where she stood for a moment, her hands around his waist. Her head pressed against his chest. She remembered the way it felt to hear the steady thump of a heart inside that chest, and she touched her fingers to his torso in a silent good-bye to that man, that dream. Then she stood beside Angel in the dark and pressed her palm to his. He closed his fingers around her hand, and she started them walking with a tug.

"We've got to get back," she said. "To make sure the others are okay."

"How long do you think we've been down here?" Angel asked.

"No way to tell," Buffy said. "I'm not even sure how long the fall took."

"Willow?" Angel asked.

"I don't know," Buffy said. "I think she hit her head when we knocked her chair over."

"I remember what I did to her," Angel said, subdued. "It was bad."

"We should hurry," Buffy said. She walked faster, though she wished they could stay a while longer in the dark, where the taste of tears and sweat and blood was enough to drive away blame and misunderstanding. Angel matched her pace and they followed the tunnel blindly, waiting for it to spit them onto the surface.

The sun slipped below the horizon as they reached the end of the tunnel and stepped out into the dim reddened haze of dusk. They were in the middle of an abandoned property, the dusty earth studded with forlorn shrubs and the stunted beginnings of trees. Buffy turned her head, attempting to orient herself. Angel tilted his face into the sight breeze.

"We're near the church," he said.

"Which way?" Buffy asked. She dug her fingers into his hand, tightening her grip as he pulled her to the left. They moved more quickly in the open, their hurried walk turning into an easy lope as their feet hit the road. The blocks fell away easily and the house with the blue door came into view. Buffy's insides jumped and she tried to steel herself against hope, prepare herself for the worst. Angel ducked his head as he silently entered the doorway.

Wesley and Cordelia crouched beside the jagged edges of floor that opened around the gaping hole which had swallowed the Slayer and two Angels. Wesley fed rope into the hole, watching coil after coil disappear into the depths.

"This is hopeless," Cordelia said. "There's no way they could have survived."

"We don't know that," Wesley insisted, continuing to lower the rope.

"Buffy?" Cordelia yelled into the hole. She turned her ear toward the hole as she listened for an answer.

"We're here," Buffy said, an amused smile on her face. Wesley looked up, dropping the rest of the rope into the hole in his surprise. Cordelia stared at them, her mouth open.

"You fell practically to the Earth's core," she said.

"And lived to tell the tale," Buffy answered.

"And you have nothing better to do than scare us?" She shook her hair out of her face as she climbed to her feet, her annoyance barely masking her relief. Wesley rose beside her, a broad smile on his face.

"Yes, well, I knew we didn't need to worry," he said. He awkwardly shook Buffy's hand, then pulled her into a sudden, short hug.

"But how?" Cordelia said as he released the Slayer. "You couldn't have walked back from China this fast." She smiled.

"It's a long story," Buffy said. "Where's Willow? The others?"

"They took her to the hospital," Wesley said. "Willow was unconscious."

"But she's alive," Angel said softly. Wesley nodded.

"She's in good hands."

"We should go," Buffy said.

"I'll drive us," Cordelia said. "We'll have just enough time for a long story."

Wesley climbed into the passenger's side of Cordelia's sporty red car, and Buffy and Angel slid in the back seat, their hands lay against the leather interior, just barely touching.

"So," Cordelia said. "Tell."

"I must admit," Wesley added. "I am curious as to how you survived the fall."

"Yeah, especially because you don't have that immortality thing on your side anymore," Cordelia said, giving Angel a look in the rearview mirror. "And where's Angelus?" Cordelia asked. "Did you finally kill him?"

Buffy looked at Angel, unsure of how much to say. "Not exactly," she hedged.

"Well?" Cordelia said.

"The short version," Buffy said. "It was the Dagnu. That's how we survived."

"Of course," Wesley said. "I had my suspicions when Giles said the earth opened up as it did, but as earthquakes have been known to occur in Sunnydale, I couldn't rule out a natural explanation."

"Dagnu?" Cordelia said.

"An extremely powerful, some might say, godlike demon," Wesley filled in snootily.

"Oh, the thing that split Angel in two?"

"Right," Buffy said. "Anyway it brought us down there, and probably I should wait to tell the rest."

"Whatever," Cordelia said. "Anyway, we're almost there." She turned into the hospital parking lot, and parked the car. They piled out of the car and headed into the hospital. Buffy and Angel walked together, and Buffy sent Angel another look asking him how much to tell the others.

"Any information you could give me on the Dagnu would be invaluable," Wesley said, interrupting the moment of silent communication. "We have so little detail. Mainly myths, passed down for generations, no doubt twisted in the telling."

"There's not much detail to be had," Buffy said. "I didn't even see it this time."

"Who cares about the Dag-thing?" Cordelia said. "I want to know what happened to big evil vampire guy who wants to kill all of us." The glass doors of the hospital slid open, and they walked inside. "Priorities, anyone?" Cordelia led the way to the front desk, and asked where Willow Rosenberg was. They hurried down the corridor in the direction of Willow's room.

Xander and Oz sat outside the door, disheveled, worried, but unharmed. They rose to their feet as the group approached. Xander embraced Buffy in a tight hug.

"Man, am I glad to see you," he said with a smile.

"Can't get rid of me that easily," she said. "How is she?" she asked as she pulled away from the hug.

"Not great," Oz said. "But alive."

"What did the doctors say?" Angel asked.

"Besides, you can't come in here?" Xander said. "That she's lost a lot of blood. She has a concussion. But she regained consciousness in the ambulance so they don't think it's as bad as the coma last year."

"She had a lot of wounds," Oz said. "Like cuts and burns. From when he-"

"But she's going to be okay?" Buffy broke in.

"Physically," Oz said. "Yeah. But she'll have scars."

Giles hurried up the group with three cups of coffee in his hands. He quickly handed them off to Xander, and Buffy wrapped him in a tight hug. He stroked her hair gently once. "We feared the worst," he said, a slight tremor shaking his voice. She tightened her squeeze reassuringly, then released him and stepped back.

"I'm okay," she said.

"What happened?" Xander asked.

"The Dagnu brought them down there," Cordelia answered. "Like anyone cares! Get to the part about Angelus."

"Well, he's gone," Buffy said.

"You killed him?" Xander asked.

"No," she answered. "I mean..."

"I'm not human anymore," Angel said, filling her awkward silence. She gave him a silent look of thanks. "I'm as I was, a vampire with a soul." He touched her hip lightly.

"So the Dagnu just took it back?" Xander said. "That sucks, man."

"It was my choice," Buffy said. She looked at her hands. Xander turned to Angel, shock written on his face, while the others shifted uncomfortably, unsure what to do with the information. Oz's jaw clenched. Angel placed his hand between her shoulder blades, the flat pressure a silent reassurance.

"Geez, Buffy. Selfish much?" Cordelia finally snapped, her eyebrows arched.

"Excuse me?" Buffy said. "_You're_ calling me selfish?"

"Takes one to know one," Cordelia said, with a sarcastic tilt of her head. "And yeah, I think you're more selfish than I'll ever be." She put her hands on her hips and leaned forward. "That's fine if you want to risk your own life the next time he has a moment of happiness, but what about the rest of us?" Cordelia said. "Did you manage to spare any of us a thought since we tend to be the ones he tries to maim and kill?" She looked at Angel. "No offense."

"None taken," Angel said.

"Angel can never lose his soul or be human again," Buffy said. "That was part of the deal."

"Fine," Cordelia said. "So that makes you selfless? You're saying you made this choice for his sake? That he'd choose to be all tortured and whatever?"

"You weren't even around the last two days," Buffy snapped. "You have no idea what you're talking about."

"It doesn't take a genius," Cordelia said bluntly.

"Obviously," Buffy spat.

"Buffy's reasons are her own," Giles said firmly, his voice shutting down any further argument or interrogation. "She does not have to explain herself to us." He turned to Buffy. "And I assume you have already given an explanation to the person you owed one." He eyed Angel's hand, still pressed to her back, then turned a slightly hard edged gaze on his Slayer. She nodded an affirmation, and he bobbed his head once in acknowledgment.

"Are they going to let us in to see Willow any time this century?" Cordelia asked after a moment of silence no one quite knew how to break. "Because I have stuff I could be doing right now."

"Nice, Cordy," Xander muttered.

"Hey, I'm here, aren't I?" Cordelia snapped.

"Maybe you should ask if they have any spare Midol sitting around," Xander said. Cordelia rolled her eyes at him.

"I'll go ask the doctor again," Oz said, his subdued voice just slightly strained. He walked down the hall toward the desk. Buffy put her fingers to the healing bite on her shoulder, then slid to the ground, leaning against the wall.

"Do you want me to get you a chair from the waiting room?" Angel asked. She shook her head. He sat down next to her and tipped his head back against the wall. He closed his eyes. Giles stood with his arms crossed over his chest, his head bowed in thought. Xander offered him a coffee, but he shook his head. Xander handed the coffee to Wesley, then gave one to Cordelia.

"Is this decaf?" she asked. He snorted and shook his head in annoyance. "Just asking." She took a small sip, and he smiled at her over his cup. Oz returned with a doctor in tow. The doctor looked over the large crowd congregating in the hallway.

"I'm going to let you see her," he said. "But only one or two at a time, and don't stay too long. She's been through a lot, and she's still very weak."

"You should go first," Xander said to Oz, and the smaller boy inclined his head in thanks.

"We can both go," he said. Xander gave him a lopsided smile, and followed him into the room. The door closed behind them, and Cordelia sighed. Wesley turned his gaze to Angel.

"Would you mind satisfying my curiosity on one point?" he said.

"What?" Angel asked.

"I'm not clear on what this transformation entails," he said. "What do you remember of the time you were separated in two, how do you remember it?"

"I remember all of it," Angel said, his voice dull. "Both sides of the split."

"Then you remember Faith," Wesley said tentatively. Teeth tearing flesh, scent of blood, taste of Slayer. Power. Angel winced.

"For God's sake, Wesley," Giles said, his voice crisp with annoyance.

"If it's too painful, of course," Wesley said. "But if you could tell me anything." He stopped. "I have to complete the Watcher diary concerning her life. Anything you could tell me. Perhaps it could help a future Slayer..." Lips pressed together with hungry violence. Angel straightened against the wall.

"She turned," he said. Her body crushed against the wall, writhing against him.

"What?" Giles asked, his head rising from its study of the polished white tiles.

"She was working for the Mayor," Angel said. "She came to me, or him, Angelus, to get me to join them." He dug his fingers into his bent knee. The Mayor's odd smile. Crunch of cookies.

"I should have known," Buffy said. "She's been undermining us; she could have gotten any of us killed."

"Well, it's certainly too late for that now," Wesley said gently.

"I know," Buffy said. "It's just-- I trusted her with your lives. I wanted to believe..."

"That must be a weight off your shoulders," Cordelia said to Angel. "Since you know, you don't have to feel so bad about killing her." Angel stared at her with hard eyes. "Or you could feel bad anyway," Cordelia said, huffing a strand of hair out of her eyes. Buffy wrapped her hand around Angel's arm.

"The Mayor was the one who sent those vamps after me," Angel said. Buffy pressed her head against his shoulder. "He brought me into his office and forced me to agree to take her place and work for him."

"Do you remember anything else?" Giles asked. "Perhaps about the Ascension."

"Graduation," Angel said. "He wouldn't tell me much, but he did mention that. And he's invulnerable. He healed right in front of me when I stabbed him." He frowned.

"He had no idea that there were two of you at the time?" Giles said.

"I don't think so," Angel said. "None of his vamps survived the attack to tell him I was with Buffy or that she had to fight them all off by herself." He brushed his cheek against the top of Buffy's head, shifting blonde hair under the movement.

"Then there's no way he could guess you're no longer Angelus," Wesley said, seeing where Giles' thoughts were headed.

"You want me to play along," Angel said. Buffy tensed against him.

"If you could get any information, it would be invaluable," Giles said.

"All right," Angel agreed. "I can act that part." Buffy pressed her forehead to his arm, and closed her eyes against the material of his shirt. She nodded slightly, resigned.

Xander emerged from the hospital room, and Oz followed a moment later. Both boys looked shaken. Xander rubbed his forehead absently with an unsure hand. Oz stared, his mouth set in a hard line.

"Me next," Cordelia said, then looked at Buffy guiltily. Buffy waved her ahead. She ducked inside the room with Wesley. The door clicked closed behind them, and Xander glared at the floor. Oz's eyes focused on a spot somewhere above Buffy's head. His jaw clenched.

"Oz?" Buffy said. He inched his gaze closer to her head, but refused to meet her eyes. "Is she okay?" He took a deep breath, and opened his mouth, then turned and walked several feet away. His fists curled, and Buffy rose to her feet. She stood next to him and put her hand on his shoulder. He flinched away from her. "What is it?" she asked.

"I can't talk," he said after a long moment. "Because what I want to do is scream." He whirled on her, his eyes bright. "Maybe you'll understand when you see her."

"Understand what?" Buffy asked, shrugging in confusion.

"You put the thing that did that to her inside him," Oz said. He turned his head to the wall, his jaw jumping nervously.

"I--" Buffy said. "It's not like that."

"I know what it's like," Oz said. He pressed his clenched fist hard against his chest. "I know what it's like to have this thing inside me."

"The wolf isn't the same," Buffy said.

"How do you know?" Oz asked.

"Because the vampire is part of him, he doesn't become it three nights a month."

"You're right," Oz said. "It's worse for him. He can't tell where it ends, and he begins. Most of the time I can see the line."

"No," Buffy said. "He's one person. His soul and his demon are both part of who he is." Oz shook his head.

"Maybe when you see her." He turned and walked to the men's bathroom. Buffy watched the door slam behind him, and turned to the wall. She leaned against her balled fists and gritted her teeth.

Xander tapped her on the shoulder, then stuffed his hands in his pockets. She turned, her eyes bright. He looked at her for a moment without speaking, his shoulders hunched. She waited.

"I'm trying to understand," he finally said. "But I keep seeing the look on his face when he was talking about how it felt to be human. And the joy in his eyes." He stopped. Buffy looked away; her drifting eyes caught on Cordelia and Wesley leaving Willow's room. Angel stood up, and Giles entered the room. Xander grabbed her face in his hand and pulled it until she was forced to meet his eyes. "You say you love him," he said.

"I love him," Buffy said, and jerked her head from his grasp.

"Then how could you take that from him." Buffy met his eyes, and the guilt and fear reflected in her gaze was so deep he almost cringed.

"I need him," she said simply. "It was the only way we could be together." He searched her eyes.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because of who I am," she said.

"It had nothing to do with the demon?" he said. "With your obsession with the demon? Or your fascination or whatever you want to call it?"

"What are you talking about?" she said.

"It's like you wanted him evil," Xander said.

"No," Buffy said. "He's not evil. He's not a human, or a vampire. He's something different. Something more."

Xander nodded slowly. "Maybe you're right." He paused. "But I don't think he sees it that way." He shrugged his shoulders. "It's none of my business, I know. And if he's okay with it, then I guess I am too." He brushed a lock of Buffy's hair behind her ear. "But he would do anything for you, Buff. And it feels like you did this for yourself."

Buffy chewed at her lower lip thoughtfully. "So what are you saying?"

"Nothing," Xander said. "Maybe just that you owe him one. A big one."

Buffy nodded. "I know."

"Then I'm done," Xander said. Buffy watched thoughtfully as he slouched back down the hallway. Giles emerged from Willow's room, and after he said something to Angel, the other man hesitantly reached for the door and slipped inside.

Angel entered the hospital room slowly. He closed the door with a quiet click and skulked against the wall. Willow turned her pale face to him and met his eyes. He flinched.

"You can come in," she said. Her voice was soft and scratchy, but her tone was steady. He took a cautious step or two forward.

"Did they tell you?" he said.

"That you're a vampire?" She absently scratched at the bandage that covered her burned chest, and winced at the sudden burst of pain. "Yes."

He cleared his throat nervously. "I don't um- I don't have to be here if it makes you uncomfortable. I just wanted to make sure you were okay." He backed up a step and reached for the doorknob.

"Angel," she said. He stopped. "Come here." He approached the bed silently, urged forward by her wide green eyes. The hospital gown draped awkwardly over her thin shoulders. Bandages nestled on her shoulder, peeked out of the top of the thin white gown, hid against her hairline. Angel reached the side of the bed and closed his eyes.

"I'm so sorry," he whispered.

"Don't be." Her hand circled his, her grip weak, but warm and steady. His eyes opened and he looked at her long white fingers, holding his hand with comforting pressure.

"You should hate me," he said. He rubbed his thumb lightly over the back of her hand, then stood motionless, letting her keep him there, waiting for her to let go, hoping she wouldn't.

"I don't," she said. Her voice was rough with pain, and he stared at the purple bruises on her throat.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because it wasn't you that did this to me." He shook his head regretfully, and pulled his hand. She tightened her grip, and he stopped pulling.

"The thing that did this to you is inside me," he said. "It's part of me."

She nodded. "And a part of me will always fear you," she said. "That part of you." Her lip trembled. "I will never forget. I can't." She pulled on his hand, and he knelt so his face was level with hers. She released his hand and gently stroked his cheek. "But what you are now is not what did this to me."

"I remember it all," he said.

She shook her head. "It wasn't you, as you are now, that did this. I know that with your soul you would never hurt me. I trust you."

Angel bowed his head. "How can you be sure?"

"How can you doubt it?" she asked, and her smile was broad and friendly. It hid no hatred, no resentment. It was like the sun peeking through the clouds. Angel kissed her gingerly on the forehead.

"Anything I can do," he said. "Ever. All you have to do is ask." She patted his cheek gently and he rose to his feet.

"You don't have to be defined by your demons, Angel," she said. He heard her, and nodded, but inside he wasn't sure. He didn't know how to define himself in any other way. He couldn't feel the separation she made so easily.

Buffy entered the room, and touched his arm as they passed each other. Willow smiled, and Buffy hurried to her side. Angel watched for a moment, then slipped out the door. He sat down again across from the door, and after a moment Xander sat down next to him. The boy faked a punch at his arm and grinned.

"Where are Cordelia and Wesley?" he asked.

"Cordelia went home, Wesley went back to the library to work on the Watcher Diaries."

Angel nodded, and they both subsided into comfortable silence, watching the door. The doctor emerged from another room and approached them. He poked his head inside the room and told Buffy to wrap it up. "I think Miss Rosenberg's had enough excitement for one day." After a moment, Buffy exited the room.

"You should go home," the doctor said to the group in general. "Get some sleep. You'll be able to spend some time with her tomorrow." They milled around in the hall for a moment.

"I'm going to stick around for a while," Oz said.

"Me too," Xander agreed. "I plan to amuse myself by hitting on the candy-stripers." Buffy snorted and hid a grin.

"Someone should take a look at your wounds," Giles said to Buffy and Angel.

"They're not serious," Buffy said.

"Still," Giles said. "No harm in cleaning them up is there?" She shook her head, and looked at Angel. He nodded.

"Lead the way, oh Watcher mine," Buffy said with a smile. Giles shook his head in amusement. "We'll be back," she said to Xander. She and Angel followed Giles to the parking lot, and climbed into the back-seat of the car. She snuck looks at Angel from the corner of her eye, taking in his bowed head and the thoughtful set of his jaw.

"Everything all right?" she asked. His eyes refocused, and he looked at her with a brief smile.

"Just thinking," he said. She nodded.

"You know," she started. "I um- if you change your mind about what you said before..." She paused, unsure of herself. "I mean, I would still understand."

"I'm not going anywhere," he said.

"I just..." She stopped, and her eyes slid past him. "I don't really understand how you could forgive me," she said. "For what I did."

"You don't earn forgiveness, Buffy," he said. "It's a gift. A gift you've given me." He smiled, and brushed her cheek with his thumb. "And you're an easy person to forgive." He cupped her cheek, and she placed her hand cautiously over his. "Besides," he said. "I was there. I saw just like you did that my being human changed things between us."

She cast her eyes down. "But..." she said.

"I choose you," he said. "Over anything else." She smiled, and he kissed her gently. "I love you."

They rode the rest of the way to Giles' apartment in silence, but their hands were laced together on the seat between them. When Giles parked, Buffy slid across the seat and got out on Angel's side so their hands would stay joined. He smiled as he helped her out of the car, and she almost forgave herself for what she'd taken from him.

Giles unlocked the apartment and opened the door. "I'll get some disinfectant," he said. He lightly touched the skin beside the bite on Buffy's shoulder. "That looks fairly painful." Buffy shook her head.

"I barely even feel it," she said.

"At some point, you've been in pain so long you forget," Angel said.

"Is that intended to reassure me?" Giles said, raising his eyebrows with a small smile.

"I suppose it doesn't sound that healthy out loud," Angel admitted, smiling ruefully. Buffy touched the back of the hand she held, and bit her lip thoughtfully. Giles climbed the stairs to his bedroom.

"I'll be right back," he said.

When he reached his bedroom door, Buffy turned her head to look at Angel's face. "I don't want you to live like that," she said.

"Like what?"

"Like you hurt so much you can't even feel it anymore."

He touched her waist, his hand cool and firm, pressing against her through her shirt. She took a step closer. "You make me feel, Buffy," he said. "Since the first time I saw you."

"Is it worth it, if it means you feel more pain?" Buffy said softly. He slid his hand to the small of her back, and clutched at her shirt. She put her hand on his chest, lightly, then curling her hand against him.

He nodded. "Yes."

His eyes met hers, and warmed her with their trust, their truth. She circled her arm around his body, and rested her head against his chest. He lowered his chin to her head, and stood. She sighed against him, allowing herself to accept his forgiveness. Her soul loosened its anxious, guilty hold on self-doubt and questions, though she could not quite let them go. Behind closed eyes, and in his arms, she felt a kind of peace in knowing she could not have chosen anything else. Right or wrong, no other choice was possible.


Author's Note: If you're wondering about a sequel...well, it's possible. I do think there are some loose ends that it would be nice to tie up in terms of the mayor and the difference between Angel and his demon. But...it all depends on whether I can come up with a decent plot that will sustain an entire sequel. So I may continue, but don't hold your breath because I can't promise anything.

Major thanks to everyone who sent me feedback on this story.


Buffy&Angel // Rebecca Fic