Pavayne: Beginning to understand, aren't you? The soul that blesses you damns you to suffer... forever.
Hellbound, AtS season 5
"But he's not supposed to be here!" Buffy winced at the Dawn-like adolescent whine in her voice, but she just couldn't seem to help herself.
The big, armoured-all-over horned demon sitting the other side of the high counter winced too. Then he adjusted his glasses, which were small pebble-rimmed affairs that kept sliding down his flat nose. Behind him, rows and rows of shelving divided into numbered pigeonholes stretched away into vertiginous darkness, making him look like a sort of weird hat-check guy for eternity.
"He's on the list," the demon said, in the tone of someone whose patience is being sorely tried. "I keep telling you that, lady. Why won't you listen?"
Buffy wiped a damp tendril of hair off her sweaty face. She shifted her weight from foot to foot. The Scythe, which was balanced on her shoulder, was beginning to feel heavy, like it wanted to drop into her hands and become a little more proactive. It was still too early for threats, though.
"I am listening," she insisted. "It's just that you keep not making any sense. Like I've told you a million times already, if he is on your list it's a mistake – because he's not supposed to be here."
The demon heaved a deep sigh. Little puffs of smoke issued from his nostrils as he exhaled, wafting gently downwards to mingle with the layers of smoke, like dry ice, that veiled the rough stone underfoot. Smoke wreathed around Buffy's ankles in curling white tendrils and blew in dense clouds from under the heavy wooden door with its brass lettering over the arch: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.
The effect was very sinister and would have been more so if not for the hand-written sign tacked to the door lower down saying Under New Management, and for the constant clattering of what sounded like an old manual typewriter from somewhere out back.
"Okay," the demon said, wearily. "From the top, explain to me again why the second worst vampire in the history of the world isn't supposed to be in Hell now he's dead, cuz I'm really not getting it."
They'd been through the whole thing several times already of course, but maybe Buffy hadn't explained herself very well? Talking wasn't her strong suit these days. She'd lost the knack a couple of apocalypses ago. She took a deep breath and forced herself to smile pleasantly.
"He was only the second worst vampire in history when he didn't have a soul. He got himself one and now he's a hero. He saved the world – died for it. I saw it all– well, until he told me to get clear. He burned up from the inside out."
It must be the tension, she thought, bringing the tears to her eyes. She blotted them on her sleeve.
When the demon behind the counter said nothing, she repeated her mantra for what felt like the gazillionth time: "Heroes don't belong in Hell."
She'd been saying this to herself over and over all through the wild inter-dimensional ride that had brought her to this place, and a bunch more times since she'd gotten here. The demon didn't seem too impressed by it, though.
"And anyway, " she finished lamely, when he still didn't respond, "he has a soul now, like I said."
The demon just twizzled a fancy-looking fountain pen between his big fingers and looked bored.
"Well, duh he has a soul," the demon said. "Otherwise he wouldn't be here in the first place."
"What?" Now she was getting confused. Hell was for bad people, right? Who could be badder than a vampire without a soul, except maybe lawyers or, going by the song, Michael Jackson? And she so shouldn't have thought about lawyers because it made her remember Angel and right now, Angel made her grouchy.
"Duh, he has a soul," the demon repeated. "If he didn't have, when he died he'd have gone like that – poof!" And he snapped his fingers to illustrate his point. "His demon would be gone to wherever vampire demons go when their human host dies and that'd be the end of him."
She gaped at the demon while she tried to process what he was getting at. This was deep stuff. She wished she'd paid more attention in Philosophy class during her one year of college.
"You're saying," she ventured in the end, "that he's only in Hell because he has a soul? But having a soul is a good thing."
The demon was doodling on his notepad now.
"Well, sure it is," he said. "For one thing, you can feel guilt, can't you, if you have a soul, and only the guilty go to Hell."
This sounded way too clever and maybe not quite kosher. Not for the first time, Buffy wished that Willow had been able to make the whole trip with her to handle the metaphysical side of things, but it just hadn't been doable. Opening the portal had taken too much out of her, not to mention playing all those games along the way with slippery Hell gods who wanted to cheat you rather than keep their promise to allow you safe passage through their domains.
Buffy had thought that final game of chess was going to last forever - so, so boring! – but it would've totally been worth it if things had been going a little better just now.
Instead, she decided she needed to sit down for a while. Her legs felt sort of wobbly and so did her lower lip.
"Give me a minute?" she asked, and at the demon's dismissive, "Sure," she retreated to the long lines of uncomfortable wooden chairs that were placed in rows facing the check-in desk, most of them already taken by the glummest bunch of people she’d ever set eyes on. Some of them wore weird old-fashioned clothes, like they'd been here for a long time, and all of them had the same grey, furtive expression. She didn't like the look of them much, but then they were the damned so she supposed that was only to be expected.
She sat down in the front row next to a fat guy in a cheap suit who was clutching a battered briefcase.
"Next!" the check-in demon said and the fat guy half stood up but then seemed to think better of it. Instead, he hunkered down in his chair and ducked his head, hugging the briefcase tighter.
"Whenever you're ready," the demon said to him, an edge of sarcasm in his voice.
The fat guy had gone pale. He wouldn't look at the demon but instead turned to Buffy.
"It's not the way I imagined it," he said, in a loud whisper.
"Huh?" Buffy jumped in surprise when the fat guy spoke to her. She'd been staring at the Scythe in her lap, not seeing it but instead the caves under Sunnydale while Spike went up in flames and the ubervamps burned like dry kindling.
"No, I guess not."
"I mean," the fat guy went on, "I was expecting fire and brimstone – devils with pitchforks – the whole nine yards – not this. It looks like a waiting room for something – maybe the DMV – you know, if it was in a cave? And that guy, well he's got horns all right but he's wearing glasses for fuck's sake."
"Yeah." Buffy didn't much want to talk to the fat guy but he obviously wasn't going to shut up unless she answered him. "He's probably near-sighted."
The fat guy stared at her as if she was crazy. Sweat was pouring off him in the oppressive heat of the room and there were big damp patches on the underarms of his suit jacket. He took a man-size handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his forehead. Then he held out his hand to her.
"Marvin Kreutz," he said. "And you are?"
Buffy regarded the proffered hand warily. It looked big and fat and sweaty, with fingers like raw sausages. In the end, she took the very tip of one finger in her hand and shook it once before letting go in a hurry.
Formalities over, Marvin became talkative.
"I'm – or I guess I should say, I was – an insurance salesman," he informed Buffy, like he really thought she’d be interested. "At least, until the accident."
"Accident?" Buffy wondered how to tell Marvin to shut up without being rude. She thought of saying she had to go to the bathroom and then sitting somewhere else after she came back, but there didn't seem to be any signs for a bathroom. Maybe there were no bathrooms in Hell – or Hell's waiting room, or whatever this place was?
"That's right," Marvin was leaning towards her now – a little too close for comfort, what with the sweat. "I was driving to the airport – and I swear I wasn't speeding, or not much – but I must’ve run a red light and that's when the truck hit me."
"Oh." Buffy glanced up at the demon behind the desk, but he was busy ignoring them both. He must hear this kind of stuff all the time.
"Aren't you going to ask me why I was on my way to the airport?" Marvin said, but before Buffy could say no – or anything at all - he hurried on. "I was heading for Mexico with all the money I'd swindled out of my clients – every last one of whom was elderly or sick or vulnerable in some way. I was a con-man – a real shit – and I guess that's why I'm here."
"I guess." Buffy eyed the briefcase, wondering how much money was in it – not that it would do Marvin any good where he was going.
"If it helps," Marvin went on, "I feel real guilty about it."
"Er – that's good, I guess." Buffy glanced at the check-in demon again in time to see him roll his eyes. So he was listening to them.
"In any case," Marvin continued, a whining note creeping into his voice, "it's not like I did anything that bad, is it? I mean, I never killed anyone – well, there was the guy who committed suicide, but not directly. And anyway what did they need all that money for? They were sick. They sure as hell weren't gonna enjoy spending it like I would."
He wasn't speaking to her at all now, Buffy realised, but more to himself, and his face looked mean suddenly.
"You're not sorry at all, are you?" She edged away from him.
Marvin's gaze jerked back to her. His eyes narrowed.
"'Course I am. I’m real sorry. What would you know?"
There was an uncomfortable silence. The check-in demon was still looking down at his notepad but now he had a sort of I-told-you-so sneer on his face. Marvin drummed his fingers on the suitcase, looking shifty. Then, just like that, he'd shaken off the sudden awkwardness.
"So what are you here for?" he asked Buffy, brightly. He indicated the Scythe across her lap. "Did you kill someone?"
"No!" Buffy scowled at him. "Well – not lately, and only demons. I'm here to collect a – a friend of mine. He's been sent here by mistake."
"That can happen?" A look of wild relief appeared on Marvin's face. He leaned closer. "Do you think if I explain how guilty I feel they'll let me off with a warning?"
"I don't know." But judging by Buffy’s experience so far, it didn't seem too likely.
"You can ask," she suggested, but Marvin looked doubtfully at the demon behind the check-in desk. He shook his head.
"I'll think about it for a while." He waved a hand towards the forbidding wooden door with its brass lettering. "Not ready to face that yet."
"You do that." And since there really didn't seem much prospect of having any peace and quiet – probably in short supply here at the best of times, what with the constant type-writing, which sounded like the person doing it was mad about something - Buffy stood up, hefted the Scythe and marched back to the desk. Thinking wasn’t her strong suit anyway.
"Can that happen?" she asked.
The check-in demon looked at her crossly. Then he put his pen down – not that he'd been doing anything with it except more doodles. "Can what happen?"
"Can people genuinely be sent here by mistake?" A crazy idea occurred to her. "I mean, what if people's names are on the list but then they do something that ought to disqualify them from being on it but the list doesn't get updated?"
The check-in demon blinked at her. He sighed again, blowing out more smoke from his nostrils. Then he said, as if it was a vast concession, "Well – yeah, sometimes the paperwork gets lost in transit or sent to the wrong department or tied up in red tape. That's bureaucracy for you – it drives you crazy but the system can't function without it."
He leaned forward confidentially. "Between you and me, there've been some – let's say, teething troubles since the new management took over."
This sounded more hopeful. "I bet you your bottom dollar that's what's happened with Spike." Buffy tried to sound breezily confident. “Any moment now you’ll be getting the memo and you’ll realise I’ve been right all along.”
The check-in demon stared at her. There was a long silence, during which someone coughed, setting off a whole chorus of coughs that eventually died away to an expectant hush. Everyone was listening. Even the typewriter paused momentarily before going on with its endless angry clattering.
"Well, okay," the check-in demon admitted at last. "If your guy really did save the world, it's a possibility, I grant you."
"Ahem!" Marvin cleared his throat. "Hey, buddy. How about if you didn't exactly save the world but you're just overwhelmed with guilt?"
The check-in demon looked over Buffy's shoulder at him. Marvin was sweating more than ever. His upper lip was shiny. The check-in demon frowned and his heavy brow furrowed like corrugated metal.
"Do I look like the kind of guy who's impressed by a guilty conscience?" he growled
"Hell, no," Marvin said, quickly. "I mean, no sir. Not. At. All."
"Good." The check-in demon glared at Marvin a little longer and Marvin sweated some more, like he might turn to liquid altogether and drain away into the ground.
Then the check-in demon said, in a somewhat less hostile tone, "Not that we don't welcome remorse here and hey, it could be worse. The hell for hardcore unrepentant sinners two blocks down is your classic hell – what you were talking about before? Fire and brimstone? Soundtrack by Napalm Death? This here's kind of the MOR version."
"Oh." Marvin looked relieved. "Thanks. That's very reassuring."
"Don't mention it." The check-in demon grimaced then turned back to Buffy.
"My brother used to manage Classic Hell," he said, morosely, "until he took off after some chick. Mom won't even have his name mentioned at home now. She finds it too upsetting."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Buffy hoped she sounded a little less insincere than she felt. "If we can just get back to the point –"
The check-in demon waved his hand irritably, displaying an impressive set of long, curved claws, very neatly manicured. “Can we please not go through all this again? Okay, so maybe your guy is here by mistake – maybe there will be a memo – but believe me, it won’t happen for a while and even when it does, think of the red-tape there’ll be to cut through. My best advice to you is to go away and try again later.”
That sounded a little more hopeful, and Buffy did have stuff to do after all. Her friends needed her and Slayer armies didn’t build themselves.
“How much later?”
The check-in demon sucked in his breath through his teeth in a considering fashion.
“I’d give it a few hundred years to be on the safe side.”
At this, Buffy felt her jaw drop. Her knees were wobbly again too.
“A few hundred years? I don’t have a few hundred years.” Suddenly, there were tears in her eyes. “I’m human. We don’t live forever. I can’t wait that long.”
The check-in demon gave her a sympathetic look. “That’s too bad.” Then he went back to his doodling. "Have a nice day," he said.
It was the last straw. Although her eyes were still welling up, Buffy felt her temper snap like an over-stressed elastic band. Before she had time to even think about what she was doing, the Scythe was off her shoulder and flying down with a wicked-sounding whistling of air to bisect the check-in demon’s notepad – and his pen – neatly in two. The pieces of fountain pen went flying off in opposite directions, one to bounce off the wall, the other to disappear without a sound into the inky depths between the shelving. Buffy never heard it drop.
Fortunately, the Scythe blade didn’t stick in the wood of the desk. She spun it around so the pointy wooden stake at the other end was digging into the check-in demon’s throat – though whether he could feel it through that scaly stuff, which was either armour or skin, was impossible to tell.
He looked startled, though – maybe even scared – and behind her she was aware of a mutter of excitement going through the throng of depressed-looking onlookers. The sound of the typewriter, however, suddenly took on a jaunty note.
“Woah! Woah!” the check-in demon protested. “I don’t make the rules, lady – and besides, I said I was sorry, didn’t I?”
“Not good enough!” Buffy leaned in hard on the stake to make her point with its point and the check-in demon flinched.
“Listen, mister.” She glared at him. “This is one pissed off Slayer you have here and one magical ancient weapon, Hell for the harrying of."
The check-in demon opened his mouth to say something but another jab with the stake dissuaded him. He shut it again with a snap.
"My guy is behind that door," Buffy went on, "and he shouldn’t be and I want him back, and I’m not waiting five more minutes, let alone a hundred plus years, so I suggest you fix it for me in a hurry or your mom’ll have something else to get all upset about.”
The check-in demon swallowed hard, while behind Buffy, Marvin called, “Hey mister, need any help?”
Buffy glared at him over her shoulder. “Stay out of this – brown noser!”
She didn’t know what kind of look was on her face but it seemed to impress Marvin because he shrank down in his seat again, muttering about crazy chicks with permanent PMS.
“You didn’t say you were a Slayer,” the check-in demon croaked. “How was I to know you were some kind of celebrity?”
It was on the tip of Buffy’s tongue to ask him, in as sarcastic a tone as she could muster, if he thought the Scythe was just the latest must-have fashion accessory. But she was beginning to think he was stalling her so she just pressed harder.
“Okay, okay!” The check-in demon held up both hands in surrender. His glasses had slipped down his nose again. “I’ll call upstairs – get them to expedite the paperwork- and in the meantime you can go fetch him.”
“I can?” The relief was enormous but Buffy didn’t relax the pressure just yet. “What’s the catch? There has to be a catch.”
There always was in these get-out-of-hell deals. She remembered that from the Greek mythology book Giles had made her read in school.
“No catch,” the check-in demon protested, but when she dug deeper, “Well, only kind of. If you’ll just let me get a decent breath, I’ll explain it all, I promise.”
Abruptly, Buffy reversed the Scythe in her grip again so the shining blade was right before the check-in demon’s eyes. “Okay then, but it’d better be good.”
The check-in demon pushed his glasses back up his nose and regarded her sullenly.
“It’s like this. You may think this vampire of yours doesn’t deserve to be here – and can I just say - vampires and Slayers? Eww! What's that all about? -but your boy has a soul now. He may just not agree with you.”
Buffy’s cheeks flamed up at the vampire/Slayer remark. Why did everyone think that? “That’s insane! Who in their right minds would want to stay here if they didn’t have to?”
The check-in demon gave her an inscrutable look. “Oh, you’d be surprised. And haven’t you read what it says on that door about abandoning hope? No one goes through it until they have.”
He indicated the rows of people sitting in their chairs, staring at them both. The rows of people went right on staring, but then they had nothing else to do.
“Some of these people have been here for centuries. They all think they deserve to be made an exception for, so they sit and wait. But they all go through in the end. Your guy, though, he marched straight through that door –" and the check-in demon cocked his head towards it –"without a backward glance the moment he arrived.”
“I don’t believe you.” Buffy gaped at him. Then she shut her mouth and glared. He had to be kidding her. “Spike wouldn’t do that. Why the hell would he do that?”
The check-in demon was looking sympathetic again, which was worse than anything somehow.
“Because he believes this is where he belongs. In fact, he probably thinks he deserves worse. And unless you can persuade him otherwise, you’re wasting your time here, lady.”
Buffy gripped the Scythe handle harder. “I’ll persuade him. I know what he needs to hear – what’ll give him hope again.” She waved the Scythe at the check-in demon. “You just get on with this – this expediting thing.”
The check-in demon heaved another of his exaggerated smoky sighs. Then, without taking his eyes off her, he suddenly shouted, "Tamika!"
Buffy jumped. Who was he yelling at? She half-looked over her shoulder, but none of the rows of people behind her looked much like a Tamika – certainly not Marvin, who was still trying to catch the check-in demon's eye and smile ingratiatingly at him.
There was a short silence, filled with a few coughs, some foot-shuffling and some increasingly angry typewriting. Then the check-in demon shouted again.
Abruptly, the typewriter stopped dead and an uneasy silence fell. The check-in demon had broken out in an unhealthy looking sweat – because sweat shouldn't smoke, should it? – and Buffy felt her ears ringing. She hadn't realised quite how loud the typewriter was until it stopped.
Then a girl's voice yelled from somewhere in the depths of the shelving, where faint lights, like distant stars, seemed to twinkle softly in the blackness, "Yeah?"
Whoever she was, she sounded pissed as hell.
The check-in demon wiped sweat from his brow. Then he wiped it from his horns.
"Call upstairs," he shouted, still looking at Buffy. "Tell them I said to take another look at the William the Bloody file."
There was another short, angry silence. Then the unseen girl's voice yelled back, "Okay, but these reports aren't gonna type themselves." Then, as an afterthought, "Asshole!"
The typewriter started up again.
The check-in demon gave Buffy a put-upon look. "That'll start the ball rolling."
Then he reached under the counter and brought out an inkpad and stamp. “Hold out your hand.”
“Why?” Buffy glared at him suspiciously, but the check-in demon just held up both hands, palms open, trying to look unthreatening.
“Gotta give you a guest pass,” and at her disbelieving look, “You don’t want to be stuck in there, do you?”
Of course she didn’t. She really did have things to do. “Okay.”
Warily, she held out her left hand and the check-in demon turned it palm-down and pressed the stamp onto the back of it. It hurt, almost like burning, and when he released the pressure, there was a strange shape burned into the skin, like a dog all mixed up with a goat – and there was a moose in there somewhere too, or at any rate something with antlers.
“You have until that fades completely to get him back here,” the check-in demon said. "And it has to be of his own free will or it doesn't count, okay?" He gave her a suspicious glare, like maybe he thought vamp-napping was a big feature on her resume.
"When the mark disappears, you’ll be returned here whether or not you've managed to persuade Blondie, and if you haven't, you’ll have to leave him.”
He pointed at the Scythe. “Oh, and you’ll have to check that in, in Left Luggage"– and he indicated the creepily infinite spaces behind him. "You can’t really go harrowing Hell. Only one guy can do that. It’s written into our contract.”