Buffy’s dreams burned. Bright, searing, terrifying.
The cemeteries of Sunnydale were on fire — the same graveyards she had wiped right off the map. She could see the flames licking up the tombstones, kissing the feet of a familiar stone angel and turning its wings to black.
The safety of the pale morning light brought no comfort. She trembled, cold even under sun-warmed sheets, remembering the all-consuming blaze.
She asked Giles to check what remained of his library for any apocalypses foretold. She asked Willow to use her magic to try to trace back the source of her dreams.
But in the end, it wasn’t tattered books or magic spells that helped. It was turning on the TV. She saw smoke rising over a grainy Los Angeles, an eerie glow suffusing the streets. And she knew.
She knew, and she wished she didn’t.
It could have been worse.
That was what everyone kept saying. The “fire” had been limited to one city block, where only the Hyperion Hotel still stood, blackened but intact.
The stories about what happened were wild, practically nonsensical, but they’d been smoothed into an official account — a freak lightning storm that had made the sky look like it was splitting open and then set the block on fire. Pretty much everyone had evacuated. There weren’t any deaths on record, and only a few dozen injuries.
But Buffy knew that didn’t mean everything was OK.
In her dreams, it was the dead who were burning. The stone angel that was crumbling.
This wasn’t about the living.
And she was right.
(Or she would have been right, if...)
There was no mystery about where he would be.
Buffy walked up to the door of the Hyperion Hotel. It was hanging from only one of its hinges and she had to kind of pick it up to get inside, but that wasn’t a problem. She was the Slayer — a Slayer. She still had to remind herself of that sometimes, even after almost a year of being one of many.
She put the door back in place, wondering if she should explore the main level or head straight up to the guest rooms. The hotel must’ve been beautiful before the fire. Now it was a combination of ashen and damp. Of course he would stay here, moldering away in a moldering place.
The kitchen was empty — no real surprise there. Except there was one. There wasn’t any blood in the refrigerator. Buffy felt worry knot tighter in her stomach. Was he not eating? Or had something happened — something that had him going straight to the source?
She tamped the thought down violently. Andrew had made a lot of noise about Angel going to the dark side, but she didn’t believe it. And he wasn’t working for Wolfram & Hart anymore, that much was clear.
She closed the fridge too forcefully and it rattled. Angel had to have heard her by now, if he was in the building at all. So that meant he wasn’t going to reveal himself voluntarily. She was going to have to find him.
She took the steps upstairs carefully, watching for weak spots or hazards, but they were still intact. At the top, she was greeted by a long hallway of similar doors. Nothing to indicate where Angel might be. She closed her eyes and thought back to that very first night in The Bronze, when Giles had asked her if she could sense vampires. For a moment, she tried the whole reaching-out-with-her-mind thing, but it just brought an ironic smile to her lips. She couldn’t hear anything. She couldn’t see anything.
The most straightforward plan would be to just start opening every door. That was probably the sensible thing to do. But Buffy had never really gone for the sensible thing. So she closed her eyes a second time and focused on Angel’s face. When she opened her eyes again, she took several steps forward before coming to a stop about halfway down the hall.
Even before she opened the door, she knew he would be inside.
He started when he saw her. He was sitting against the wall, on the floor. He was almost curled into a ball, his arms hugging his knees. It looked like he’d been crying.
“I’m sorry,” Buffy said, shaking her head. “I should have knocked. Are...are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” he said, looking at her with haunted eyes. “You didn’t need to come. Everything is...fixed.”
Buffy looked around her. The upstairs rooms looked a little better than the downstairs ones, but that didn’t mean they were in great shape. “This is fixed to you?”
“It’s livable. Better than I deserve.”
Her brow creased. “Angel, what happened?”
He looked back down, away from her gaze. “Gunn’s in the hospital,” he said, his voice sounding far away. “He’s still in a coma, but they say he’ll recover. They say he’ll be OK.”
“Gun?” Buffy said, even though the name sounded vaguely familiar. “Like bang bang?”
“He was wounded when we went into the fight,” Angel continued, ignoring her question. “She said he wouldn’t last 10 minutes. I guess that’s when she decided.”
“Illyria,” he answered, like that meant anything to Buffy. “She said she could open a portal that would send all the demon life back to hell — the Senior Partners’ whole army. She said that meant us, too. Her and me … and Spike.”
“Spike?” Buffy echoed quietly. That was another of Andrew’s tall tales that she hadn’t let herself believe. He’d really been back? And he was already gone again? She felt a phantom burning sensation in her hand and she asked, more pointedly, “What happened to Spike?”
“He’s in hell,” Angel said, his voice rising. “A hell dimension. With Illyria. I was going to go too. I was ready to go. But I didn’t. I didn’t.”
“Is he...is he coming back?” Buffy felt herself shaking. Something was wrong with Angel. There was a buzzing traveling down the back of her head, telling her something was off, but she tried to shake it away. She couldn’t believe it.
“Maybe,” Angel answered. “Illyria’s an Old One. If anyone can bring them back, it’s her.”
“An Old One. Like big snakey mayor Old One?”
Angel finally seemed to realize he was actually talking to her, not just a figment of his imagination. There was something almost like a smile around his eyes. “Kind of.” Then his face grew grave again. “Ask me why I didn’t go to hell, Buffy.”
She didn’t want to. And she didn’t understand quite why she didn’t want to, but suddenly her vision was all blurry.
“I didn’t go to hell because—”
“You’re not a demon,” she choked. “You—you’re human.”
And she did the only thing she could.
When she went back a couple of hours later, Buffy was more prepared.
She’d taken a cab to a 24-hour Target. She didn’t even know why exactly, except that shopping was always the best first answer to all of life’s most impossible questions.
She didn’t know what he already had, so she bought everything she could think of that a new human might need. Lots of Tylenol. Band-Aids. Chocolate. Sunglasses. Bottles of water. Peanut butter. Sunscreen. Toilet paper. Cans of fruit and vegetables. Tissues. Swim trunks? She put those back.
Then she stopped at the liquor store. Angel probably still had plenty of whiskey, but this stop was for her. She bought the most expensive bottle of vodka she could — it would go down easier, and she thought she might need a lot of it.
He was in the same place she’d found him before. She dropped all of her white plastic bags with their red logos on the floor of his room.
“We need to talk about this,” she said, more confidently than she felt. She was trembling again, but this time it was because she had allowed herself a little bit of hope. The whole drive over, her brain had been an endless loop of Angel’s human, Angel’s human, Angel’s human.
It was literally a dream come true. But then so was the stone angel’s wings turning to black, and a dozen other terrible things she had dreamed before she ever knew what they meant.
And this was nothing like her ten zillion fantasies about Angel turning human. Those always included a scene where Angel was striding toward her across some field or beach or something, haloed by bright sunlight. And then he kissed her and they lived happily ever after, obviously.
She didn’t know what to make of the sad-eyed man haunting the Hyperion.
But looking at him now, looking at the way he was looking at her, at her humble discount retail offerings, she knew that nothing had changed when it came to how she felt about him. I’ll love you, even if you’re covered with slime. I’ll love you, even if you breathe oxygen and have a heartbeat.
“Why are you here, Buffy?” he asked brokenly. “You didn’t come before. When it would have mattered.”
And that was a punch to the gut. Could she have come sooner? Should she have believed Andrew’s ridiculousness? But she immediately scraped the thoughts from her mind. She had learned long ago that she could second-guess every move she made and it wouldn’t change a damn thing.
“I’m here because you’re alive,” she said with irritation. “And I’m apparently one of the very few people who care. In this dimension, anyway.”
He winced and looked away and she felt the anger explode fruitlessly in her chest. She didn’t want this. Angel was human, somehow, by some strange miracle, and she didn’t want to waste any more time on regrets. Hadn’t they wasted enough time already?
She sat down next to him on the floor. “How, Angel?” she asked. “Was it...Illyria?” The syllables tasted strange in her mouth. Illyria. If she were powerful enough to open a portal to a hell dimension and send an entire demon army through, then turning one piddly vampire back into a human couldn’t be too much of a stretch.
He kept staring off into the distance. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know anything. I don’t know why, or how, or—” He broke off, distressed. “I just know they’re all hurt, or—or gone.”
“I’m here,” she said soothingly. “I’m here.”
He looked at her like he was drowning in some vast ocean of blackness and she had just thrown him a rope. She reached out then, and she touched him, and like so many times before, that was all it took.
One touch was all it took.
“Buffy,” he groaned, leaning closer, staring right down into her soul. “You’re here.”
She was defenseless against the pull of him. She put her hands on his face and felt a sparking in her chest. Hadn’t they wasted enough time already? He was right there and he was human and she had no means to resist the urge to kiss him. So she did, hard and relentless. She needed to make him feel it — feel every emotion that was bubbling up and out of her, like a shaken-up bottle of soda that had just been uncapped.
“Yes, I’m here,” she gasped into his ear when their mouths broke apart. “And I’m still yours — if you still want me.”
He gulped air — noisy, hitching breaths that were clearly not for show. He had to breathe now. It wasn’t just muscle memory or an affectation. She kissed him again and he touched her shoulder, her back, his hands tentative at first, but growing surer, and she remembered. Oh, she remembered.
“Do you?” she panted.
"Oh, god—Buffy—yes," he whispered.
And it wasn’t anything like what she thought it would be, if they ever got this chance again. It was fast and desperate and nothing at all like their first time, all worship and tenderness.
And it wasn’t that she liked this better, exactly, but it felt honest. To show him that she was different now. She was still his, but she was no longer his girl. She was no longer a girl at all. She had known pleasure and pain at the hands of others and she had liked it. But it had never been like this. It had never been him.
In some ways, it was the biggest mindfuck of her life. To finally have his mouth on hers and his cock inside of her and to have it be this perfect. After all the buildup, all those dreams and wishes, shouldn’t it be disappointing? Shouldn’t the reality be less erotic, less exhilarating?
She was already on the edge when he bit her neck, right over her old scar, and she didn’t know if it was the sharp sensation or the blossoming memory that sent her hurtling into bliss. She gasped out his name until he covered her mouth with his and stole her breath away.
He was so warm. They were collapsed together on the floor, a ball of fire, a supernova. She was licking at the salty skin of his chest, already feeling ready for another round, when she realized that she never even considered that Angel could get her pregnant now.
She was on the pill, so she wasn’t really worried, but something about the thought of it, that he was alive, that they could make life together, made her attack his mouth with renewed hunger.
He seemed more subdued now, stroking her hair and ratcheting down the tension of her kiss until it was soft as a sigh. He picked her up and carried her across the room to his bed, and then it was like that first time, all worship and tenderness.
But it felt just as honest. Maybe because her wounded heart was bleeding with every exquisite kiss, every slide of his body against hers. She could feel now what was stolen from her so many years ago, a punishment far beyond the weight of any of her sins.
He was whispering words of love into her skin, her hair, her lips, and they were lighting her up inside, turning her golden, making her shake. And after, when they were curled in each other’s arms, she could feel without seeing that he was crying again.
She lifted her face to his and pressed their cheeks together, so his tears dampened her skin. She ran her hand through his hair, murmuring soothing little nothings, pulled the covers over them and took him with her into sleep.
Her dreams didn’t burn.
But when she woke up, he was gone. The bed next to her was cold.
It was cruel, she thought, for him to do this to her. Anger flared hot inside her before she spotted him at the window, looking out over a moonlit night.
She wrapped the sheet around her, suddenly feeling every inch of her nudity. It dragged behind her as she crossed the room to stand beside him.
“You should go.”
“What?” She raised a hand to her cheek, as if he had slapped her. She could feel the sting. Everything was telling her to hide, to run, to protect herself from the shock of his coldness. Was it me? Was I not good?
But she wasn’t a girl anymore. She was a woman, and a Slayer, and she wasn’t going to leave without a fight.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said defiantly. She let the sheet drop to the floor, squaring her shoulders.
“I have fought so hard and so long. There’s no reason anymore that we can’t have this. That we can’t be together.”
“You should have more,” he said flatly. “More than I’m capable of.”
“That’s what you said five years ago, and I’m still waiting for the more. I’m still waiting for someone who won’t leave.” She swallowed back a wave of sadness, letting it evaporate in her righteous flame of frustration. “I want it to be you.”
She picked up his hand and pressed it against her chest, right over her heart. “Who loves me like you do? Who else can make me feel as good you just did? This is not something that you find just anywhere.”
He didn't speak.
“So that's it?” She dropped his hand, shaking her head, taking a restless step back. “You don't care how much this hurts me.”
“That's not true,” he said, looking at her sharply.
“I can’t have this. Being with you—it feels like a reward. And I don’t deserve that. If anything, I should be...”
“Punished?” she finished exasperatedly. She put her hands on her hips. “So we can only be together if what? If I punish you?”
She meant it sarcastically, but he gave her a naked, pleading look, his eyes as big as she had ever seen them.
“You—you would do that?” he breathed, and her heart almost stopped.
She thought maybe her heart stopped.
They started the next night. It was the stupidest and craziest thing she had ever agreed to in her life, but she’d done it. She’d agreed to it. There was some part of her that felt it was the only way. Either she would figure out how to make this work, or he would punish both of them by turning his back on her completely.
Tying him up was easy enough. After all, she’d done it before — when he was feral and snarling, instead of penitent and compliant. She didn’t really want to hurt him, even if that seemed to be what he was after. She used soft ties instead of chains. After all, he was human now.
“Should we have a safe word?” she asked, surveying her handiwork, looking at him stretched out on the bed, still fully clothed.
“That’s the last thing I want,” he answered.
Buffy swallowed. What did he expect her to do to him? She knew she couldn’t hit him, or do anything that might bruise or break his skin. Her only real option was to torture him in the same way the universe had taunted them for years — with the wanting wanting wanting and the not-having.
That part, too, was easy enough. Especially with all those memories of him tackling her in the woods coming to the forefront of her brain. She’d start there.
She stood at the foot of the bed, and she told him, in detail, exactly what she’d wanted him to do to her. How she’d imagined him claiming her, the way an animal would claim his mate — no guilt, no shame. And when he was gasping and pulling against his bonds, his pants tented and straining, she stopped. She forbid him from moving, pulled each tie until it gave way, and left without a backward glance.
She repeated the ritual again, and again, and again. Each night, she wove a different tale. She told him how she closed her eyes and thought of him while she was sleeping with other men. How it was always better for her when she imagined him. How no one else could touch her like he did.
One night, unable to stand it herself, she’d stripped off her clothes and showed him exactly what she’d done alone in her bed on the many nights over the last seven years when she wanted wanted wanted and couldn’t have.
He whimpered and he moaned, but he never said a word, never asked her to stop, never asked her to stay.
The next night, she felt a heaviness in her chest as she tied him up again. When she was done and she looked at him, it just slipped out of her. “I love you,” she said. And then she repeated it, over and over and over again, until tears began to stream down his face. She cried, too, cried hard enough to fill an ocean, never stopping her refrain.
I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
And when her voice was hoarse and she couldn’t say it anymore, she untied him and she curled up against him, and, exhausted, they slept.
The bed was awash in sunshine when she woke. The curtains were wide open and the golden light was caressing Angel’s face. He was looking at her.
“Buffy…” he said.
Her eyes were still aching from crying, her voice was still hoarse, but she knew exactly what she wanted to say.
“I know you think you should be in hell,” she began. “That you were supposed to go there too. But Angel, you spent 100 years in hell and it didn’t change anything. It didn’t make you feel better about anything. And this won’t, either. Even if I keep going for the next 100 years.”
He sighed. “I know. I thought...I thought this would keep you with me, in a way that I could stand. But it didn’t really go how I expected. I should have expected that, with you.”
Buffy bit her lip. “You’re not in hell because your work here isn’t finished. I think...that’s why I’m still here, too. We have to find a way to live with this. You have to let me help you.”
“You—you would do that?” he breathed, and her heart beat faster.
This time, her heart beat faster.
“Yes,” she said. “And I know just where to start.”