His tears are hot against her belly, and that mystery is the only part of this that her mind seems capable of containing. Why should his tears be hot when the rest of him is so cold, always so cold? Is there a drop of hellfire left within them, a souvenir he took from a place that just might burn in the literal sense?
The questions are too heavy and her feet can’t bear the extra weight. She sinks down in slow motion, but everything after that is a whirlwind: he clutches handfuls of her jacket along with her body, she hugs him with more force than is strictly safe, his hellfire tears fall into her hair, her forehead presses into his neck. It doesn’t feel timeless at all. It feels like every second is the end of a deadline that’s going to take him away from her all over again.
She can’t count how many deadlines have passed, though, and eventually she’s convinced that his presence here is some kind of reality. It’s not the kind that makes sense, but it means that all the usual rules are still in play. He’s still a vampire, she’s still a girl with a secret, and the world still makes its regular rotations—all of which means she needs to move him somewhere secure before the sun comes around to trap him.
Something digs into her side as she tries to disentangle herself from the embrace, and she realizes with a pang that it’s his manacles. The key for them is back at the mansion. “Angel,” she says, her voice sounding ridiculously small to be conveying such an enormous concept. “Stand up.”
It’s clear as she watches him follow her instructions that he’s weak, much weaker than she would have guessed from his performance since she found him in the woods. Most of his energy must have come from raw animal fury, and now that he has his sentience back, those last reserves have been drained out of him. He rises with just a little help from her hands, but he’s unsteady, and his chains rattle along with each movement.
The walk back to the mansion is agonizing. She can’t tell how badly it’s hurting him, and she can’t offer much more support than an arm around his waist will give him. He holds his chains in front of himself like Marley’s ghost, staring down at them, and walks as slowly as she’ll allow. He’s made no attempt so far to act independently in any way. From time to time he says, “Buffy,” but when she encourages him to continue, his shoulders tense and he falls silent again. Once, he says her name and then goes so far as to turn slightly toward her, his mouth opened in indecision. She waits hopefully, but he concludes by shaking his head and saying, “No,” and then again, with finality in his voice: “No.”
The sad thing is, it’s still the most he’s said at once since she found him, and she’s clinging to that little word as if it actually means something. She herself can’t find words with meaning, though from time to time she has to stop herself from murmuring something like, What did they do to you? He might not know it’s rhetorical, and she can’t run the risk right now of hearing an answer.
She breathes a sigh of relief when they make it inside the mansion, and leads him to the wall where she’s hung the keys. He flexes his arms automatically when the restraints come off of them, but does nothing else to take advantage of his freedom. It kills her to see him being so passive, and she leads him into another room just so that he’ll be doing something other than standing there.
It’s a bedroom. His own? Spike and Drusilla’s? He doesn’t react, of course, so there’s no way to know how he feels about his surroundings. She sits him down on the bed and then slips off her shoes and seats herself against the headboard, noticing for the first time that she too is tired, mentally drained and physically worn out from the struggle with Pete. Angel glances her way nervously, and she takes that as a good sign and carefully pulls him down until his head is in her lap. Soon his eyes are squeezed shut, and though he won’t make any move on his own to reach for her, when she slips her hand into his he grips it tightly.
This time it does feel timeless. She runs her other hand through his hair and down his bare back, her eyes centered somewhere between his cheekbone and temple. Her vision has adjusted to the darkness enough to see him clearly, but he’s stark black-and-white, deprived of the subtle intricacies of color that only artificial light can reveal in his skin. He’s motionless, but the pressure on her hand shows he’s not asleep. He’s in pain, she thinks, though she’s not sure how she can tell. He’s beautiful.
The only problem is that sitting here with him is making her start to think, and she doesn’t feel ready for that yet. There’s a past that wants to be acknowledged, but it’s an ugly one and she fears it. There’s a future, too, but that promises terrors of its own. If only she could concentrate on his cheekbone hard enough to make everything else disappear.
Years of wielding a Slayer’s power have imbued her with an automatic reaction to seeing her loved ones hurt: she wants to find the one responsible for this. She wants blood.
This time it’s not so simple, of course. Taking revenge would mean taking her own life, and she can’t do that.
Eventually he opens his eyes. Their interlocked hands are right in front of him, and he slowly slides his out of hers and then touches it again, frowning: his fingers have left an ashen smear there. He takes a look at the rest of his body. He’s coated in a layer of grime—she can see it on his skin and feel it in his hair. She knows how he could never tolerate the feeling of being dirty, and the thought that this is something she can actually fix with action is a huge relief. “Do you want to get clean?” she asks.
He nods. She helps him off the bed, and this time when she walks he follows her without needing to be directed. The plumbing still works in the mansion, and having that information handy makes her feel marginally justified in the secret visits she made here when he was still dead. It shocked her when she went into the bathroom one day and found the faucet still functional, and she still doesn’t have an explanation for it, but vampires of course have their own ways of conducting business. It’s not as if Angel and the others here were paying utility bills in the first place.
In moments she gets the water running hot for him, then unbuttons his pants and makes him lean on her hand as he steps out of them and into the shower. Using more efficiency than common sense, she shucks her own clothes and follows. He won’t even give her enough eye contact to show if he’s surprised.
There’s already soap and shampoo in there, and she picks up the bar and gets to work, starting with his back—she wants to see his tattoo again. It’s an icon of intimacy that burned itself into her brain the first time she saw him shirtless and haunted her every night of her summer alone. Sometimes she could picture it so clearly, every dark line that made up the gryphon, every taut muscle playing beneath it, that it seemed completely plausible that she could just press his shoulder and he would roll over and take her in his arms. Then the absence of a real solid form corresponding to the vision would drive her to hysterics and she would need to leave her bed, still holding her pillow, touching every object in her apartment in an attempt to compensate for her lover’s incorporeal existence.
Over the space of those months, her memory seems to have altered the tattoo’s design. The wings have more of a curve to them, she sees now. Having this error corrected for her makes her realize how insufficient her own mind is as a vessel for containing him. The full truth of Angel is here, and only here, and the ink on his back can’t lie. As he once was, he still is. Eternally.
His head hangs down in front of him as she scrubs his back and shoulders clean, and he keeps one hand flat against the shower’s tiled wall. It’s hard to believe that someone as strong as she remembers him being would ever need to support himself just to stay standing, especially since she now has such a close-up view of his trained and sculpted body. Whatever he suffered in Hell, it’s left no visible mark on him. Even the dirt he’s accumulated seems to be solely from his recent feral days in the forest, and underneath it, his skin is unblemished and his physique appears to be in top condition. He’s eternal, she thinks again as she turns him around to work on his front, ever unchanging.
Something about that thought makes her heart drop. She doesn’t know why, so she pushes it away to consider later.
The silence between them endures. It’s not that she doesn’t know what to say to him, or that she’s afraid of how he’ll reply. It just feels like the most important subjects should come first, and she can’t assemble a phrase more crucial than “I’m sorry,” and those words are too inadequate to speak. Besides, everything about his body language has been saying the same thing to her. If she had to make a wager she would say that what he really wanted was forgiveness, but she isn’t about to start with that when she doesn’t believe he’s to blame for anything that happened between them. Silence must be permitted, for now.
She’s stayed away from his lower body so far, and it doesn’t yet seem like a good idea to mess with that policy, so she sets down the soap after washing his chest and arms and picks up the shampoo instead. She can’t help noticing that he closes his eyes right when she looks up into them, but he bends to allow her access to his hair and even tries to help lather it in until it becomes clear that she’s doing a better job of it on her own. His hand returns to the wall, and she aims the showerhead to rinse him off.
His withdrawal is disconcerting, but it’s her ongoing fascination with his body that’s really eroding her mental battlements. When she decided to get into the shower with him, her intentions were naively but genuinely single-minded; she hadn’t even considered that desire might be an issue under these conditions. But the last time she saw the real Angel before he lost his soul was also the first time that she had been this close to his nudity, and memories are hitting her like crossbow bolts. She winces when she remembers that he can smell her arousal, and again when she glances down and sees that it’s affecting him too.
It takes longer than it should for her to find the right reaction to this new development. There’s no reason to believe that the curse has changed, and testing it now would be idiotic in any case. But that’s logic, and the primal feelings always come first, and in her case they’re manifesting in the thought that she’s never given a blowjob before and it can’t be that hard. The impulse is easily checked, but the source of it hasn’t changed. Angel seems to be cringing and remaining perfectly still at the same time, and part of her wants to take him in her hand and bring him to climax just to ease his discomfort.
She has never seen him in this state, and she realizes that it’s likely nobody else has either—not in this world, anyway. He once threatened everyone she loves and violated everything she believes, but then he had no soul. Mere hours ago he snarled at her in bestial rage from the end of a chain, but then he had no mind. The true Angel is the one standing before her now, exhausted and ashamed and powerless to conceal his unwelcome lust, and this is his true rock bottom.
She doesn’t touch him. He’s humiliated enough as it is.
“Can you finish up by yourself?” she asks, and he nods. She makes her exit. There are towels already in the bathroom, and she rubs one over her body briskly and then wraps it around herself and scoops up her clothes from the floor. The air is chilly outside the bathroom, but she shuts the door behind her and practically runs upstairs.
The bedroom downstairs wasn’t his, she discovers. The one she has just entered has his coat hanging in the corner, and seeing it forces a sob from her throat that she didn’t know was there. To distract herself she drops the towel and gets dressed, then sets about searching the closet for some clothes for him. There are plenty to choose from, but all of them are drawing up one memory or another, and her vision keeps getting more and more blurry. Silk or cotton? Demon or soul? Forgive or apologize? Finally she sees a comfortable pair of pants and takes them down along with an undershirt and boxers.
Her hair is still dripping, and she pauses to towel it off, taking her time so that she won’t get caught without a task to keep her busy. While she’s on her way back down the stairs with the clothes in her arms, though, she hears the sound of the shower turn off, and then there’s a loud crash from the bathroom and suddenly she feels horrible for leaving him alone.
When she rushes through the door, heart pounding, he’s on the floor, partially covered with a towel. His erection is gone, but he’s slumped against the wall and breathing heavily. Frantically her mind tries to figure out what it means when a vampire breathes heavily, even as her body knows better and kneels at his side, cupping his face in her hands. “Oh, Angel, I’m sorry,” she says, and immediately her subconscious is screaming at her. She said it. She said those words. She can’t say those words, or…
”I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” Her voice feels shredded, her cheeks wet with tears that burn even hotter than his did. One of her hands plants itself on his shoulder, but the other tries to cover her face as if she can really hide from this.
Then he touches her of his own accord, finally, his fingers threading through hers but letting her eyes remain shielded. “No. Buffy. No.” He almost sounds like his old self, so steady and compassionate, and she can’t believe how selfish she must be to let herself fall apart like this when he needs her support so badly. But he’s touching her and he’s talking to her, and she’s been so alone, and he was dead, he was gone forever and now he’s back just when she was learning how to live without hope. Her body twists and lowers until her head lies against his arm, and he manages to stay sitting up thanks to the leverage of the wall behind him.
Warmth radiates from his freshly showered skin where it touches her cheek. It would be a comfort to let herself imagine he was generating it himself, like a human, but she can’t even draw that association with body heat right now. It just makes her think of hellfire again. She almost wishes he would cool down to his normal temperature—it would be easier to fabricate comfort out of that type of familiarity.
She wipes off a few stray tears with the back of her hand and says, “I brought you some clothes.”
Getting him into the clothes is just a thin premise for keeping herself manually occupied, but even so, it has complications of its own. She tries not to look at him as she’s pulling the boxers up his bare legs, and he tries to help her cover him up more quickly, and soon he’s panting again and she’s feeling worse and worse. “Okay,” she says, without attempting the rest of the outfit. “Let’s just get you out of here so you can rest.”
He turns his face away from her and addresses the tile floor. “Hungry…”
The sickening blend of guilt and panic that’s becoming habit for her strikes again. “I didn’t bring anything. I, I, I’m sorry. You’re probably—oh God.” As she’s speaking, her wrist rises slightly in front of him, the beginning of a gesture that she doesn’t realize she’s making and wouldn’t easily understand even so.
Angel understands, though. His instincts take charge of his physical strength again, and he catches her wrist with a movement too fast for the eye to follow. Only after pushing her arm back toward her chest does he release her, as if returning a possession that she loaned him. “No,” he says with soft vehemence, then struggles in the ensuing silence to form some new words. It takes a few false starts before they emerge: “I can wait.”
She has to accept that; there isn’t really any other option. “The shipping room at the butcher’s will still be open,” she tells him. “But it’ll take me a little while to get there and back. Do you think you can sleep until then?”
The look that he gives her is so devoid of comprehension that one might have thought she had just started a discussion on quantum mechanics. He hasn’t yet regained his full mental capacity, she realizes, and what she just said to him was too much information, too fast. She’ll have to keep their dialogue to the basics for now. A treacherous voice in the back of her head asks her whether she’s sure he’s ever going to improve from the point he’s at now, but she ignores it. Maybe he won’t; what does it matter?
“Yes,” he replies unexpectedly, and even reaches for his pants.
Her plan was to forget the pants and just get him into a bed, but he seems determined and she offers her help again. It’s easier than the boxers were, but she decides to quit while they’re ahead and let him go without a shirt. Then it’s the clumsy, frightening process of helping him stand, and then she’s finally walking him out of the bathroom with his arm heavy on her shoulders.
He looks better now that he’s clean. Aside from the expression on his face, he looks like her Angel…who, aside from the expression on his face, looks exactly like her worst enemy. Suddenly she realizes what it was that felt so ominous about his unchanged appearance. Oh God, she thinks, trying not to show any outward sign of where her mind is going. Nobody is ever going to trust him. Come what may, her secret has to remain a secret.
When she guides him toward the downstairs bedroom he resists her and forces out a few more words to explain: “Not the. Not the bed.” She acquiesces silently and lowers him to the floor beside the coffee table instead, and he lies down on his side on the cold stone, curled up like a dead leaf.
She checks the windows to be sure that light won’t hit him when the sun rises, and then stands up and turns to go. Before she’s taken two steps, though, he lets out an anguished cry, and she’s back at his side instantly. “What is it? What’s wrong?” she asks, kneeling before him and searching his face for answers. It’s hard not to think about how stupid it is to be asking him what’s wrong, but she lets herself off the hook for that one. It wouldn’t have made any more sense to ask him if he was okay.
“Nothing,” he says, and covers his face with his forearm. “Go.”
Torn, Buffy stays hovering in her spot for a moment, then gingerly reaches out and moves his arm back down to the floor. His eyes are closed again, and she uses a soft command to fix that. “Angel. Please look at me.”
As she expected, he can’t or won’t disobey her, but it’s almost as hard for her to meet his eyes as it is for him to meet hers. He’s so full of fear that it seems he should be trembling, so full of remorse that she would forgive him anything. He doesn’t lift his head, and an inane thought jostles into her mind, that it’s strange and uncomfortable to be looking down at him. She takes a deep breath. “I’m not going to let you do this alone. Whatever happened to you, you’re here now and you need me. But I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me.”
Was it enough to get her point across? Too much for him to handle? She waits, refusing to let her gaze drop from those tragic brown eyes, and after what seems like an eternity, he moves his head in what might be a nod. Before he speaks he works his mouth for a few seconds, still struggling with the acquired skill of matching thought to sound, and the words he forms are scarcely louder than a breath. “How long?”
She doesn’t need to ask what he means. “Five months.”
“Oh.” There’s dull astonishment there, but whether that length of time is longer or shorter than his expectations is unclear. He might not know himself. “Is any. Is they. Any.” He makes a fist and squeezes so hard she can see every muscle in his arm tense. “Is anyone else dead?”
He might not remember Miss Calendar, Buffy acknowledges, and it’s her responsibility to inform him. But not yet, not like this. Besides, he said anyone else, which could be a sign that he knows he has killed. She goes with her original strategy of simple answers. “No. We’re all okay.”
Without giving him time to react to that information, his body convulses, accompanied by a strangled wail that could indicate just about any kind of suffering, physical or mental, that she can imagine. Watching it is almost too much to handle, but if the past year has taught her anything it’s that she can bear the unbearable if she has to, and she’s usually given no choice. She sets her hands on his face and shoulder and rubs gently, murmuring the usual words that one murmurs when attempting to give comfort. Presently he stops shaking and looks up at her one last time before closing his eyes again.
“I’m going to get you some blood,” she tells him. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Stay here. Rest.”
She runs most of the way to the butcher’s shop. When she arrives she discovers that she isn’t carrying any money.
All he can gather of his sanity is telling him that the only thing to do is obey her. He isn’t hoping that if he behaves she’ll make everything better. There’s nothing ‘better’ known to him in this world; so far, it’s just pain, hunger, and her. He remembers another life, a self that he’ll need to become once again if he survives, but it’s too complicated to consider any further. She knows. She has all of the wisdom and awareness that he lacks. Following his own mad instincts rather than her orders is unthinkable.
So when she tells him to rest, he truly intends to do just that, but after she leaves, he’s unable to fall asleep. His last few days are fading fast from his memory, but he knows he hasn’t slept since his harsh rebirth, and his exhaustion is far beyond the point where it should have knocked him out cold. He’s afraid of being awake any longer, but he’s even more afraid of what awaits him on the other side of consciousness. Willpower isn’t enough to control the dreamworld, even if he was sure he could count on his willpower.
Even now he’s employing all he’s got, trying to remain as Buffy left him instead of reverting to the thing she first encountered. It’s much harder without having her as a focal point. The vital thing is not in her immediate presence, but in the knowledge that she still exists, alive and herself. Logic says that she does. Logic means nothing to him. Chaos has been the rule for much longer than reason has made a difference. It’s belief, not intellect, that convinces him that Buffy lives on after she leaves the room.
To keep himself from slipping once again into senselessness, he concentrates on the way she looks and smells and sounds, but against his intentions the visualization turns into memories and the memories are evil ones. She was fighting to save the world and he tried to kill her. She was sleeping and he contemplated the merits of raping her. She was crying and he laughed at her. It’s too much for his shattered ego to take, but he can’t prevent the cascade now that it’s begun. He whimpers uselessly and claws at the dirty floor, wondering if it would have been better to take the bed and let its disturbing scents and overwhelming softness provide a distraction from these thoughts.
No. He doesn’t deserve distraction. And he won’t succumb to madness again. Buffy told him to rest, and he’ll rest, and he’ll heal, because she wants him to and there’s nothing left except what she wants. He stops his whining. He’s not sure what it would sound like if there were anyone there to hear, but he knows it wouldn’t sound human. I’m not an animal, he tells himself, and then repeats it a few times for good measure. Soon it’s become a litany and then it’s suddenly just a trail of discorporate words. Meaningless. Ipso facto the exact opposite of what it was meant to indicate.
He finds a new phrase. She’s coming back. She’s coming back. This one is even worse, in its way. It would be better for her if she didn’t come back, if she left him to find his own way and forgot that there had ever been such a thing as an ensouled vampire in her life. He wants to want what’s better for her, but he doesn’t have the strength to hope not to see her again. It’s a failure on his part, a betrayal that she’ll forgive offhand if she even understands that it happened, and knowing that is almost as bad as knowing what he was to her without his soul. She’s coming back. What if she doesn’t? What if he recovers anyway and survives without her? He almost whimpers again, but stops himself and lies there silently. Good. He must be regaining some control.
Still, it would be so easy. Discard the memories. Go back out into the night. Be slain or forgotten or both.
“Buffy,” he whispers, and gives himself to the mercy of the dreamworld.
Slowly he heals in both body and soul, but one will eventually surpass its former strength and one will continue to cripple him in ways that nobody ever sees. It’s still more than she dared to hope for him. It’s enough to let him go.
One night, after she’s brought him his daily blood and checked up on his condition, she takes the risk and spends a little extra time at the mansion. She’s noticed his speech improving and wonders if they might attempt to converse. “How long was it for you?” she asks quietly.
When he glances up to meet her eyes, he suddenly looks so old that she thinks the answer must be nothing short of millennia, but his voice is gentle and artless when he answers: “Sense of time is the first thing to go.”
It’s the most discussion they ever have about what he endured in Acathla. Part of her wants to know more, to understand it as much as a living person can, but there’s no way she can rationalize making him talk about it. She shows she cares by keeping him alive, and he returns the favor by letting her. They try not to get too close to each other. The past is avoided and so are most other topics.
On two separate occasions he loses himself enough to attack her, both incidents sparked when she finds him asleep. The first time, she rouses him with a hand on his shoulder and is fighting him off an instant later. The second time she knows better and tiptoes around to avoid disturbing his slumber, but his subconscious awareness alerts him anyway and again she is forced to throw him to the floor before he returns to his senses. Once the struggle comes to its abrupt finish, it’s difficult to say which of them is more terrified. She knows he’s still no match for her, but five seconds of witnessing his reversion to killer instincts is five seconds too much, and he refuses to even glance her way until she leaves.
Nevertheless, by the time she visits again they’re already pretending that it never happened. Even without speaking they’re always pretending: that he isn’t staring too hard at her legs and mouth and neck, that she’s only there to help him recover, that he is ready or will ever be ready to hear about Scott Hope.
Angel was broken when she found him. Angel is held together now by thin strands of memory and love. Buffy tries to give him back to himself, but in her heart she’s afraid to let him stop belonging to her. Anyone else might throw him away.
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Summary: Angel's back from Hell. Buffy does what she can.