The Nature of the Beast

The Nature of the Beast

Spoilers: Angel lost his soul once too often. I like audience participation, so you choose the occasion. Dawn and Faith still came into the picture; Spike and Buffy still had sex. As to the rest, it matters not for this fic.
Rating: Possibly R for a tiny bit of sex.
Content: B/A(us) Alternate future reality (although who knows, might become canon if they keep slipping Angel's soul out...) and character deaths
Summary: Forever, that's the whole point, right. But how? And who?

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The vampire, true to his nature, slipped unnoticed into the hospice. Unnoticed by all, that is, except for one young nurse, fresh from her training. She was fetching clean bed linen for Mr Elsom who had had his third accident of the night. And it wasn't 10.00 o'clock yet. This girl had inherited more from her grandmother than she knew, and that mystic touch meant that, unlike her oblivious colleagues, she clearly saw the tall, broad-shouldered figure, a dark-haired man in his mid-twenties, slip silently down the corridor into room 101. A shudder went through her, but she bent to her task and tried to forget both the casual beauty of the man who had just passed her by, and the way he had made her neck itch.

Inside the room, Angelus paused to look at the sleeping woman, laying his coat over the arm of a chair as he did so. Satisfied that she had not roused, he moved silently into the small bathroom area and carefully cleansed his mouth. He had just fed, a glorious kill filled with pain and terror for his chosen victim, although it had held no pleasure for him this night, and he did not want to come to her with the taste of blood on his fangs. It would only upset her. His ablutions complete, he returned to the bedside chair and sat, waiting patiently for her to awaken, trying to ignore the overpowering smells of the hospice. Humans entering any hospital can smell disinfectant and death, whether they recognise it or not. It was so much worse for him, with his heightened senses, like a knockout blow to his sinuses, threaded through with the reek of tainted blood that coiled and knotted in his belly. And some of it came from her.

He saw that she was old now, her bones small and brittle as a bird, although her skin remained remarkably fresh and firm for all her 93 years and her hair, although white, was still thick and lustrous. A legacy, he thought, of her slayer healing powers. She was still beautiful to him. The cancer, however, had almost finished eating her away. He could tell that she had little time left - a day or two at the most. Its progress had been quick and there were few external marks, but he could smell her approaching death. And he knew that she was in pain. All the others were long gone, her family, her friends, her loved ones, but he would be there for her at the end. His obsession. His golden girl. Buffy.

Once, many years ago, when he was still plagued by the soul, he had given her a claddagh ring; it was a simple thing of inexpensive silver but wrapped within its circle had been the hopes and dreams of the soul. She hadn't worn it on her finger for long after that soul had slipped away, but he could see it now, on a silver chain around her slim neck. Somehow, that worried him more than he cared to acknowledge.

Instead of the claddagh, she now wore a wedding ring on her finger, a plain gold band that had been there for almost 70 years, and a platinum and diamond eternity ring that she had worn for 50 years. Perhaps it *was* almost an eternity for a human, but sitting in this chair, now, he would gladly have sacrificed all the years still to come for him to buy more life for her.

She stirred then, and opened her eyes, the pain in them washed away by the sight of him.

"Angel, you came back to me."

He swallowed past the lump in his throat. "Always, my love."

He drew the chair closer to the bed and took her right hand in his. She was almost as cold as he, now.

"Let me look at you," she whispered, and he leaned closer, his eyes searching hers before he pressed a tender kiss to her brow.

"Let me see you," she whispered again, and he knew what she meant. He allowed himself to change, and her left hand, the one that he hadn't caught in his own, came up to touch him. She didn't have the strength, though, so he caught that hand, too, and guided it up to the harsh planes of his face. She gently ran her fingers over the face of the demon, feeling the bony ridges and angles, then lower, touching his mouth and fangs. Deliberately, she pressed one finger to the sharpest fang and was rewarded by a few drops of blood. His tongue licked out and he tasted her, savouring her as a famished man savours his last morsel of food. The only chemical in her system was morphine, given to help the pain, and that gave her blood a hint of poppy. But otherwise, it was pure Buffy, sunlight and daffodils. And it was still Slayer's blood, rich with power.

He wanted to lose himself in that taste, but a small noise at the door brought him back to himself, and to his human face. Just in time. A middle-aged, motherly woman, one of the senior nurses, came in, carrying a supper tray. She smiled at him as she set the tray down on the bedside table.

"Hello, Angel. How's Buffy tonight?"

He wanted to rage at her, to scream, to slice through her flesh until she was in as much pain as Buffy, then ask her how Buffy felt. The question was not a stupid one, though, and he fought back the bile. The nurses had discovered that Buffy would not tell them how badly she was hurting, so how could they adjust the doses of her painkiller? He knew, though, and he was the one who told them. Tonight was not encouraging.

"Worse. The morphine doesn't really work at all now."

The nurse frowned, and he knew what she was thinking. A larger dose would probably kill her. Was that what he wanted? The unspoken question hung between them until a weak but imperative voice cut across their silent communication.

"Hello! Patient here and conscious! Morphine doesn't work, then no more morphine. So, you can just take this damn thing out of my arm."

She was scrabbling ineffectually at the needle that delivered regular shots of the drug. The nurse looked a question at Angelus. He hesitated, then nodded. No point in keeping Buffy subject to the little pains as well as the big ones. The nurse knew that he hadn't forgotten her first unspoken question, and that he would seek her out if he decided that the answer should be yes. She removed the patch holding the canula in place, then pulled the needle free. Hesitantly, she ran her hand gently over Buffy's hair before giving her an awkward little hug. Then she was all business again.

"Don't let supper go cold," she warned, and bustled out of the room.

The tray held a small bowl of sweet, creamy rice pudding and some little almond biscuits that would melt on the tongue. The bed was reasonably wide, and Buffy was tiny. There was just room for Angelus to drape himself beside her. He did so now, toeing his shoes off and then propping his upper body against the mound of pillows that supported her. Gently, with no tubes and needles left to get in the way, he eased her onto his lap, her head resting in the crook of his neck, his arm tenderly curled around her shoulders. Then, between kisses and caresses, he began to feed her. They had almost finished when the nurse returned, carrying a tray of tea, the thin china cups rattling slightly as she pushed the door open. She frowned when she saw the lover-like embrace. She had no idea what these two were to each other. They shared the same surname, so they must be related. Grandmother and grandson, perhaps. Or great-grandson. She knew Buffy's age, and the man couldn't be out of his twenties yet. And they clearly loved each other. She had watched them for days now, and there was love in every touch and every word.

One of her more gutter-minded colleagues had confided the view that this was a man who preyed on the elderly and vulnerable, out to make sure he benefited from an old lady's will, but she knew love when she saw it. And whilst she had a sense that Angel could be dangerous if he chose, she couldn't see him as a predator on the weak. Still, what did it matter? No one else had visited Buffy. No one else had telephoned to enquire about her health, or sent cards or flowers. Just this man, who had been here for the whole three weeks that Buffy had been here. Who had insisted that Buffy have a west-facing room so that she could watch the sunset over the cliffs outside, but who also insisted that the curtains be drawn for the rest of the day so that she could nap whenever she needed to. Just this man, who only left her side for an hour or so each evening and who attended to almost every need. And whose pain and loss seemed real enough.

So she simply put the tea tray down and cleared away the supper remains. When she left, Buffy still rested in the circle of Angelus' embrace, her head on his chest.

He knew that she was half asleep, her hands resting on her stomach, so he simply let her be, dropping the occasional feather-light kiss onto the top of her head. As she breathed, her hands rose and fell slightly, and the light glinted off the rings on her finger. His rings. His mate.

The wedding, a civic one, with no religious symbols involved, might not have been quite legal - his documents were forged, to give him an existence - but it had been a marriage for all that. For him, the vampire mating ritual by which he had claimed her, and she had claimed him, had been the true, and eternal, binding, but Buffy had wanted to be married in the sight of God and man. He gave a bitter smile. More like in the face of God and man, but he had done it, and willingly. The soul had slipped away once too often to ever return, and when he had left behind the insanity of those early days after his release from its nauseating grip, when he had admitted his need for her and his love, when he had made her realise that she belonged to him absolutely and irrevocably, he had been able to deny her nothing. Certainly, Soul Boy had loved her, but that had been a candle to the sun of the demon's devotion. The demon, who was all about passion and excess. That was just the nature of the beast.

They had had almost 70 magical years, but he thought now of what had not been. There were no children. He couldn't, of course, but only his jealousy had prevented her from conceiving. He could never have permitted her to be touched by another man, that was understood. But even the thoughtof using a sperm bank had been too much for him. She had insisted that she didn't want children anyway (although he'd known that she lied); that what she had was more than enough. Now the thought that nothing of Buffy would remain alive when she was dead sent a chill down his spine, and he knew that the Earth would be the poorer for it. Sure, there had been Dawn, created from Summers' blood. But the monks, good as they had been, hadn't been good enough, and Dawn had proved to be as barren as he was.

There was nothing to hold him here once his mate was gone, and he could not, would not, face eternity without her. Throughout her life, he'd never allowed himself to contemplate an existence without Buffy, and even at her age, when he should have been expecting it for years, he had been unprepared for losing her. There were times when she had wanted to talk about her mortality, but fear and panic had overwhelmed him at the thought, and he had not permitted further discussion.

Well, this night, his plans had been made. He had arranged the funeral, and a solitary affair that would be. The grave plot was chosen and paid for, the headstone would be ready, inscribed with just her name - the name he had given to her at their marriage - and the word 'Beloved'. When it was all done, he would sit on the grave and wait for sunrise. His ashes would eventually mingle with her remains, but the stone would bear no reference to him. The world needed no reminder, and the Earth would breathe easier once he no longer stalked it.

He was supremely indifferent to the fate of his territories once he met his final death. Spike was long gone, dust at his hand, punishment for encroaching where he was not permitted, and Drusilla would never be accepted in his own place. He had never made another childe. His generals would fight over the carcass - let them. He held the underworld of the entire hemisphere in an iron fist, with Buffy as his consort. He controlled four Hellmouths, 3 of them dormant and one semi-active. There was plenty to fight over. His empire would almost certainly go the way of Alexander's, torn to pieces by the survivors. Buffy would have cared, but she would be gone.

Already the fragile alliances were strained during his prolonged absence. He knew that from his phone conversations with his aides. They wanted him to come back and deal with the bickering and posturing before it turned to outright breach, or rebellion. They would wait a long time for that. When the cause of her illness had been diagnosed, it was Buffy who had wanted to come here, to reconnect to humanity, to die human. He could deny her nothing, and he would not leave her while breath remained in her body.

Why, he wondered, had he never turned her? She could have been at his side for eternity. They could have ruled the world, together. But he knew the answer. It was her humanity that he loved. Her spirit, her warmth. Her soul. He could have re-ensouled her - he knew how to do that now - but she still would not have been his golden girl. His Buffy. She would be the torn and pathetic creature that he had been, whilst the soul was in residence. And so, somewhat to her surprise, perhaps, he had left her human, and revelled in her.

He felt her move in his arms and relaxed his hold a little. She grimaced, and her eyes were clouded with pain. He knew that it wouldn't stop now, and he thought that he would seek out the dark-haired nurse, would give his mate surcease that very night. His own agony would not last long afterwards.

But seventy years with a soul mate is a long time, and something of his thoughts must have shown on his face.

"Angelus", she whispered.

He frowned. She only ever called him Angelus formally, when others were around to hear. In private, she had never broken the habit of calling him Angel, and although he had raged, and even beaten her for it, after a while it had ceased to matter.

"Angelus, I know what you plan to do when I'm dead."

How could she know? No one knew, except him. And if he didn't do that, then the world would burn to assuage his rage and pain. She couldn't have borne that, so he wouldn't.

He caressed her face and took evasive action. "Hush, my love. It will be OK." He stroked her back, unaware of the little soothing sounds that he made to comfort her. She struggled a little to face him.

"No, it won't. I don't want you dead, I want you to live for me."

Bile rose in his throat and, to his surprise, tears to his eyes. Since when did demons cry? And he suddenly needed to be honest with her. He closed his eyes against the tears.

"I can't do it, Buffy. I can't face a day without you on this planet. And never an eternity without you. I need - oblivion."

"Do you think you'll get it?"

That gave him pause, and he searched her face for meaning.

"You haven't thought it through, my love. You and I may not know enough about the hereafter, but we know more than most. Where is Angel's soul now?"

"Resting in the heavenly aether." His words were clipped and sour.

"And where will my soul be, when I'm gone?"

The sour taste was still in his mouth, and it was all he could do not to roar his fury. Moments passed as he tried to calm himself for her. He couldn't help it. He felt his fangs extend, and a growl rumble through him. She was still patiently waiting for him to answer.

"With his," he managed to say.

She smiled a little. He wasn't the only one with issues about possessiveness.

"And where will you be if you suicide?"

Not with them, that was for sure. He said so, with some asperity.

She tried to pull away from him a little, the better to look him in the face. He relaxed his hold further, to let her.

"Do you truly think that the dark powers will grant you oblivion? Do you?" She paused, to make sure her point had driven home. "You'll be suffering the torments of Hell, and you know it. You like pain..." She paused again, and gave him a small, secret smile, "But that will be a whole different dimension of it, won't it? Do you think I'll let that happen? Do you think I'll leave you alone there? Do you think I won't come and find you?"

She was serious. His dead heart clenched within his still chest. His golden girl, entering the fires of Gehenna for his sake. Never.

He tried again, although his throat closed against the words, and forcing them out made his voice quaver a little.

"You still love Soul Boy. You know that. You can be together. It doesn't matter what happens to me. Go to him, have your promised eternity with him. You and he had a destiny, and I made it mine. I'll never be sorry for that, but you will not come to Hell with me. I utterly forbid it!"

She laughed in his face. "Fool," she murmured, lovingly. Fear gripped him then. She really would do it. She would find a way. He didn't care about the soul's feelings in the matter, but he really, really cared about hers.

"What must I do to persuade you?"

She smiled again. "Live for me," she whispered, and her strength seemed to fail her for a moment.

He was about to deny her, but she rallied. "What have we been doing for the last seventy years?"

He was bewildered. They had been savouring every nuance, every inflection, every taste of their love. But that wasn't the answer to her question.

"I don't know what you mean."

"I know you don't. My destiny with Angel was to save the world. When you took his place with me, you took his place there as well."

How could he explain? He knew she would understand the words, but not believe. She always saw him as something better than he was. She was the Slayer. She was his mate, his consort, his love. His possession. His responsibility. He had fought by her side to protect her, nothing more. True, he had also fought instead of her when she grew too old and fragile, and he had deemed direct intervention necessary, but that had been only to please her. If he had saved her friends in the process, it was not for their own sakes. If protecting her meant saving the world as well, so be it. That was simply a side effect of his primary actions. And she loved the world as it was - how could he have let it go to hell with her still in it?

No new slayer had come forward after Faith's death. Buffy was, therefore, still the primary slayer, and she intended to protect the world. He had only made that possible. He could deny her nothing. He had established his empire not solely because he got off on power, but because it was easier to control the underworld than to keep fighting it. Peace, of a sort, had broken out. Demons obeyed his rules or were slaughtered without mercy. And his rules were the ones that she could live with. As for the humans, those he fed from now were generally those who threatened this fragile balance. Weak or powerful, it made no difference; they became his next meal and the peace held. Just. When he was gone, things would change.

He could never hide his emotions from her, and he no longer tried. She read his face and his heart like an open book.

"Whether you meant to or not, you took Angel's place, and you did his job. Perhaps better than he would have done, because you were so much more ruthless about it. You did things he would never have done. But you did them with no promises for the future. No reward. No..." She hesitated, searching for the right words. "No offer of redemption."

There had been a reward of course. Her. But redemption? His words were soft, because his throat was hurting even more with unshed tears.

"There is no redemption for a demon. You know that."

"No. I don't. There are plenty of souled humans who behave like demons. What's the difference between a soul and a demon?"

He struggled to reply, to make her understand, but she continued. "Soul or demon, Angel or Angelus. It doesn't matter; it's all you. I couldn't have loved you otherwise."

So much effort had exhausted her, and her head fell back onto his shoulder. He held her close to him, drinking in the underlying scent of Buffy, trying but failing to ignore the overlying scent of approaching death. And he was utterly terrified. If there were no oblivion to be had, what would he do? How would he go on? The unshed tears overwhelmed him then, and ran wet and chill down his cheeks. Buffy lay there, for the moment spent, her beloved demon weeping into her hair.

A little while later, the nurse returned to remove the untouched tea tray. She thought that they were both sleeping until the man raised his head. His eyes were red and his expression hag ridden.

"Is she...?"

"No. We're...fine"

She hesitated. "I'm just down the corridor...if you need me?"

He understood, and nodded. She left the room quickly and quietly. There was no need for that - Buffy was still awake, and wondering how to extract the promises she needed from her demon. She eventually decided on her usual approach - full frontal attack. Why change a successful strategy now, when all depended on it?

"Angelus, she whispered,

There it was again, he thought. She had said that, Angel or Angelus, it was all him. Why was she deliberately differentiating now? Perhaps it was the remaining morphine in her system, mazing her thoughts.

"I'm here," he responded, touching her cheek. She opened her eyes. Her voice strengthened.

"What if this isn't the only time - what if we get another go round? I want you here, waiting for me. Can you do that? Could you wait for me?"

He was silent, weighing the question, trying to find out whether he had the strength to answer it in the way she clearly wanted and expected. His throat hurt even more, and he was reduced to monosyllables now.

"Yes."

"And if that doesn't happen, if eternity is elsewhere, I want you there with me and him. Can you do that? Could you share me with him? Forever?"

Pain lanced through him, holding hands with hope.

"Buffy..." he groaned, unable to articulate more.

"Can you?" she insisted, her voice more imperative.

Hope wrenched the answer from him.

"Yes."

Where had that come from? Could he really share with Soul Boy? With blinding clarity, he realised that he could, if that was the only way of keeping her with him. But could Soul Boy share with him? The answer didn't matter. It was an impossible question anyway. There was no redemption for a monster such as he. Only Hell awaited him. Not as an honoured addition to the ranks, though. His actions in establishing a peace for humanity would certainly make him more of a welcome entertainment. He needed to tell her, to make her understand, but he couldn't speak. It was a physical impossibility just now.

He didn't have to put it into words. She understood.

"You've kept me safe and loved me. Why wouldn't he accept you? Especially when you are he and he is you. And even a bit of spiritual male posturing might be better than the alternative, don't you think?"

He nodded, dumbly.

She pressed on. "I want you to promise me two things. I want you to give me your binding oath. Swear to me. Swear!" She was fierce in her insistence, showing a strength he didn't think was left to her. She gripped his hand tightly.

He swallowed hard and found his voice. "What do you want from me?" His voice was hoarse, the sounds of a stranger.

She was half way there. No faltering now; she might not get another shot at this. She rallied what was left of her strength.

"I want you and Angel and I to be together forever, wherever that might be. I want you to go for the redemption that was promised to him. You must have gone a long way towards earning it now. You've only saved the world like a zillion times. Make them give you a backdated agreement!"

He couldn't help it. In times of stress, she was still the teenager who had bowled him over, him and the soul both, and she was a balm to his wounded spirit. He flashed her a billion megawatt smile and hugged her close. She never ever accepted that he was completely evil; she always saw him as better than he was. Now she thought that there might be redemption. He thought back on his deeds, his casual, selfish, relentless evil, the pleasure he had taken in it, and knew there was not, even if he wanted it. He could not give that oath. And he couldn't lie to her. Nor could he look at her, to see her disappointment in him when he told her this, so he continued to hold her close.

"There is no redemption for a demon. You ask what will never be given."

Sheer willpower gave her the strength to pull away and see the agony on his face.

"Buffoon," she hissed. He pulled back a little further, startled.

"Tell me why Angel's soul is in the aether, or in heaven or whatever. Why isn't he in Hell, suffering for the people you've killed?"

He sighed. "Because Angel had a good soul. He made some human mistakes, but they weren't much to speak of. When I took his body, and his memories, his soul was gone, and not responsible for anything I did. You know this."

"If I know this, then why don't you?" Her look was measuring, weighing his understanding of what came next. "If his soul needed no redemption, why was he offered it? The powers that be don't make unnecessary gestures."

He hadn't thought of it like that, but he believed he knew the answer.

"Because they wanted a vampire to jerk around and they played him for his guilty conscience. It was an offer *he* thought he needed, and it let them get him by the short hairs. Perhaps they even kept the promise and gave it to him. Perhaps that's why he's where he is."

She appeared to consider that for a moment.

"No, I don't think so. And even if it's true, the offer was made to both of you - you were sharing the same body, the same thoughts, remember. But I really think the offer was made to you. Or the part of the both of you that is you. The demon. The Scourge of Europe. The one that has actually done the evil that Angel was willing to pay for. And I think the offer is still open."

Another regret, he thought. Why did I never let her talk about this before? Why wait until now, when her strength was almost gone? There seemed to be possibilities here that he needed time to discuss with her. Or perhaps it was all delusion. How could he ever tell?

And what, indeed, was he prepared to do, to keep her by his side forever? At least he knew the answer to that. Anything, whatever the cost to himself.

She saw the indecision play across his features and pressed home for the kill.

"You don't know whether the offer was meant for you, do you? And you'll never know, if you take an early morning nap on my grave. I want you to give us a chance at eternity. Swear to me."

He thought what it might mean, to be in servitude, no, enslavement was a better word, to the powers that be, and was startled to find sympathy for the soul. He could imagine only two things that could possibly be worse. Buffy spoke again, reminding him of one of those things that was, indeed, worse, the loss of her for eternity.

"Swear to me!"

In despite of his nature, and much to his own everlasting surprise, he did.

She chewed her lip. Now for the really hard part.

He kissed her eyelids.

"You said there were two things?"

She took a deep breath. "I want to die in your arms."

He took a deep breath, too. An unnecessary one in his case, but even so, it hitched in his chest.

"I'll be here for you. I promise."

She let her gaze run over his beloved features again. She was so tired, and in so much pain. So was he, or he would have understood.

"That's not what I mean." She tilted her head sideways, exposing the column of her throat. "Die. In your arms."

For a moment, for an eternity, everything ceased for him; time was of no meaning. He understood, finally, what she had demanded of him. The tears came again, this time accompanied by deep, racking sobs. Weak, he was so weak. Compared to this, Soul Boy had been a pillar of strength. Why could he not be stronger, as strong as she? Still the sobs shook his frame.

She was amazed that he would cry like this for her. With a supreme effort, she raised her hand to his cheek. He pressed against it like a child seeking its mother's comfort. It isn't really that these years have changed him, she thought, but that he's allowed himself to be more than just evil, to put his passion to other uses. A fallen angel, with more love to give than he ever understands. A demon ready for salvation.

He forced back the grief. Words were quite beyond him now and he simply nodded. No better than a dumb beast, was his thought. I'm supposed to be comforting her, not breaking down like a weak, spineless soul.

As she watched him struggle with himself, another wave of agony rolled through her. He felt her stiffen, knew the cause.

"When?" he whispered, knowing the answer.

"Now," she replied, knowing that he already knew.

Panic sank its claws into him. There wouldn't be time to tell her how much he loved her. But there could never be enough time for that. How could he lose her?

Again, she knew.

"In seventy years, we've said all that needs to be said. I know you'll remember how much I loved you. And I do know how much you love me."

Yes, he would remember. Everything. A demon's memory was an eternal steel trap. It would become his own personal torture chamber.

And again, she was ahead of him.

"Please - don't turn me into an object of torment and grief. I couldn't bear that." She glowered a little. "And if I catch you doing that - and I *will* know, I swear it - I'll come back and haunt you!"

"Promise?" he teased.

She nodded.

"Remember us with love. Let me be a comfort to you." She hesitated, on unsure ground this time. "When you...take me...you can do it so that a little of me stays with you forever?" The pain in his gut felt like a reflection of hers. He nodded. This could be done, with a vampire's mate.

Again, the agony ripped through her belly, and she gasped.

"Please, do it now my love. And no goodbyes."

Gently, he shifted her position a little. She would not meet her ending in pain. She looked askance when he deftly untied the fastenings of her lacy nightgown.

"Hey, mister! Deathbed here. Show some decorum." Her voice was growing even weaker, now, but was still full of fire.

He mustered a rakish smile for her.

"You want to go out with a bang, don't you?"

Her laughter was bright, and full of joy. He ruthlessly tamped down every emotion. This was for her. Nevertheless, his body reacted in anticipation and, in her intimately close position, she felt it and gave a tiny wriggle. True coupling had been off the agenda for years now, but she still liked to be pleasured from time to time. He bent his head to her breast and took the nipple into his mouth, playing with it and pleasuring it. Her gasp told him that those nerves were still working, so he persisted, first one nipple, then the other, until he could smell her arousal.

With one arm still wrapped securely around her shoulders, he leaned her backwards slightly, then let his other hand roam up her thighs, to find her hidden, secret flesh. Flesh that belonged to him alone. His instinctive growl, even now, was possessive, and made her smile. He dipped a finger into her juices - not as copious now as they had once been, but enough - then moved to find the hidden nub of flesh that would be the seat of her final pleasure. He worked gently but surely, knowing just what pleased her. Her eyes were smoky with love, and he bent to her for one final kiss.

Finding strength from somewhere, she raised her hand to his neck, feeling his cool flesh and his silky hair.

"You know," she murmured "I'm glad I decided to keep you." Her lips welcomed his.

Then the tremors began, washing over her, gentle compared to those of her youth, but enough to overcome her pain, even if only for a moment. His lips on hers were tender but insistent, as he drank down the sweetness of her, tasting her breath one last time. Then, careful not to dislodge her hand, he broke the kiss.

"Until.." He couldn't finish.

Neither could she, as another wave of rapture crested within her. Her word was almost a cry.

"Yes..."

Her hand still on the back of his neck, his hand still working to bring her to completion, he moved until he could seal his lips over the pulse point in her throat, where he felt her scar, left from the mating ritual. He had a small, crescent-shaped one over his heart, made by her human teeth. It was the only scar his demonically animated body had accepted, and it would remain until his final death. He gently licked his mark on her and focused his mind. His fangs descended, and tenderly, delicately, he broke through the skin and found her lifeblood. She felt no pain, only rapture.

The sweet, rich blood hit his tongue, and was almost his undoing. But he refocused his mind and reclaimed her in the way that would leave a reflection, an echo, of her warmth and her sunlight within him forever. He thought that even final death might not take that away. With his memories, that would always be there for him.

Her hand tightened on his neck as he drank down her life, and her death, and still he knew that she felt no pain. It was as if he was taking all of it into himself, along with her sweetness. Then her grip slackened, her hand fell away, he felt her heart slow, falter, then still, and it was done. He licked his fingers clean, taking in the last drops of her honey, needing every last taste of her that he could get. And then he was left bereft.

Only now could he admit that he had been her possession, as much as she had been his, and acknowledge the depth of that possession. The tears and racking sobs came again, and this time would not be denied as he held her close.

***

A long time later, he swiped the back of his hand angrily across his eyes. There were tissues on the bedside table, and he reached for one to blow his nose. He wondered just when had been the last time he had needed to do that.

A difficult future faced him, no doubt full of pain and grief, but he had given her his solemn oath. Once a demon's word was given, it would never be broken. Not with this demon, anyway. He had kept one part of that oath; now for the other. His bark of laughter was harsh and mirthless. So, the powers that be had wanted Angel and would now find themselves with Angelus. He wished them well of the bargain, if that was what it was. They might have another vampire to jerk around, but he could swear by his love for Buffy, by all the lost saints of his childhood faith, that they would rue every second of his enslavement, until they gave him what he wanted.

He wondered how it might be, sharing her with the soul, if that was the outcome. He shrank in horror as some small part of him suggested that perhaps the previous experience of sharing with the soul hadn't gone so well, and maybe he ought to have some more practice at that. The horror grew as that same small part considered whether reclaiming that slippery soul would leave her bereft and alone in the aether, or whether she would expect him, require him, even, to do it. He rather thought he knew the answer to that, and it wasn't comforting. Angel and Buffy had never done things the easy way if a harder way had presented itself. It seemed that he might be following in Angel's footsteps here, at least.

He wondered again what she had meant when she said that, Angel or Angelus, it was all him. And then a thought came to him. When a being, entity, call it what you will, took on flesh and joined the cycle of life and death, what if, what if it became splintered, fragmented. And what if those splinters of self went their own separate ways, but were always seeking to rejoin, like drops of mercury on glass. Not like the pull of soul mates, but the pull of self to self, the absolute need to be whole again. Might that be what the Buddhists tried to express when they spoke of their ultimate goal, nirvana? The perfect bliss and release from karma, attained by the extinction of individuality. Perhaps, just perhaps, not the extinction of the individual in a mass of others, but the extinction of those splinters of self by recreation of the whole self. A release from karma, not just for an individual, but also for each of those splinters as they worked their way back to self. Could it possibly be? Could a spirit that was broken actually be fixed? If so, each splinter would have to achieve its own release, and Buffy would be right. Redemption would be available to the splinter called demon. And the demon's redemption would surely be necessary before his whole self could claim its soul mate for eternity. If he failed her then she would never have a complete soul mate, only the hollow man that the soul alone would be. He could never permit that.

Perhaps Buffy had already achieved her release, which was why she always shone like a sun to him, beckoning him on. Perhaps the splinter called soul had, too, hence its nauseating goodness. Or perhaps not, in which case, surely the dance would continue and they would, as Buffy said, get another go round.

Then he thought of what a slayer actually was: purity of purpose driven by the power of darkness. Perhaps, perhaps such a being demanded a like soul mate, different to all the rest, angel and demon together. Perhaps it was not that he need ever become like that sickening soul - he didn't see how that could ever come to pass - but something different, a power that could come to terms with Angel's purity. Aspects of a being in cosmic balance, light and dark in perfect harmony and at peace with each other. And a match for her. A different quality of nirvana.

He didn't know the answers, but he knew someone who should. Some ones. The Powers that be.

Once again, hope took grief's outstretched hand. Grief had one final try. What if, what if it was only that, once the powers got you by the short hairs, they just never, ever let go? What if there was simply an inertia to history, and things that were meant to be simply came to pass, somehow or another, sometime or another? Angel, Angelus, perhaps they just didn't care which one they had on a chain, and there was no promise, no redemption, no second go round and no nirvana. He snarled, fangs bared, although he was unaware of it. If that were the case, the harrowing of hell would be as nothing to his harrowing of heaven. They would have a dragon by the tail, and he still had plenty of fire and venom left in him. He would leave heaven an empty field, with no trace of its previous inhabitants, saving only that which he called his own.

Hope soothed grief's brow. Then again, he thought, perhaps we are our own salvation. Or each other's.

He knew where to start. And he might have all the time in the world, but he resented every heartbeat of time away from her. He would move as swiftly as possible. He would first have to see his mate laid to rest in the earth, but he knew what he would do from there. He pressed the call button for the nurse, licking away the few remaining drops of blood from Buffy's neck as he did so. The wounds were tiny, and would be hidden by her hair. There would be no autopsy for this death, anyway.

Sunrise was close, perhaps an hour away, and if he could bring himself to allow them to take the cooling body from his arms, to prepare it and lay it in the chapel of rest here, he had just time enough to start things into motion before taking shelter for the day. Hope smiled at grief and grief smiled back, faint and watery, but a smile none the less. As he heard the nurse approaching down the corridor, he resumed his human face and felt inside himself for that small reservoir of warmth and light that was Buffy's echo, the scent of daffodils forever in his blood. He had a long, hard road ahead of him, and he would need that comfort in the dark times to come. He knew that it wouldn't fail him.

***

Somewhere, in another dimension perhaps, a woman, a being - goddess was one possible description - smiled a small, secret smile. She turned her face to hide the smile from her companion, a man, shadowy and indistinct. There, yet not there, a figure of smoke and mirrors. Then she returned her attention to the gaming board between them. He gave her a silent gesture to carry on. Now that she had returned to the table, the next go was hers. She sorted through some small figures lying tumbled next to the board and selected one, a fearsome male bearing a sword.

"I return The Champion to the Game," she announced, placing the figure carefully on the ornate board, and sat back triumphantly to await his next move. He didn't disappoint, and that, after all, was the nature of the beast.

THE END for us, anyway.

Go on to the next part of the series, To Kill A Cat.

***

Author's note: Spot the nod to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet XLIII From the Portuguese and the Orwellian reference.
Feedback: Pretty please. This is my first ever fic, so be gentle. Send it to
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