He is aware of being restrained, chained down by flesh and iron to earth. His eyes sting from a blinding flash of light -- a flash that he both remembers and doesn't remember. Divided against himself, for a moment there seems to be two separate consciousnesses in his body.
Then with a force that nearly destroys him, the two merge into one. A century or more passes before the pain -- physical, spiritual and psychic -- lessens enough to let him lift his head. Five figures surround him, one at each point of a pentagram scrawled on the ground. He looks up -- into her eyes.
One moment, two passes. And then he throws back his head and screams his rage to the sky. A demon's howl, coming from a human's soul.
**The winter here is cold
**Chills us to the bone.
The apartment was cold, musty. Disuse had left its marks in the dust on the floor, spiders spinning ragged lace in corners. He hadn't seen the place since he had turned around and left Buffy shaking and crying in the middle of the room. The blood in the old refrigerator had spoiled, making the enclosed, airless space smell like a butcher's shop, turning his stomach.
The memories turned it more.
**Haven't seen the sun for weeks
**Too long, too far from home
Drawing littered the desk and walls, drawings of his past. Somehow, after he met Buffy, he was able for the first time to resurrect the images of his family, friends, human life.
For the first time in two centuries, he could look into his mother's eyes and remember her as the woman she had been, and not the broken corpse he had left her.
Now her eyes stared down at him from the wall, accusing, the goddess Nemesis herself.
**I feel just like I'm sinking
**And I claw for solid ground.
Angel scrubbed his face with his hands, clutching the thin thread of his control. Before, there had been nothing but rage. The demon had been furious that its merry devastation had been checked; the soul had been anguished at being ripped from its rest and returned to hell on earth. Within the vast confusion of the whys and wherefores, there had been no room for anything but anger.
The shame had come later.
**Pulled down by the undertow
**Never knew I could feel so alone
**Oh, darkness; I feel like letting go.
He didn't have that blessed period of abeyance now. He knew exactly what he had done, to whom. He knew how much it would torment and destroy. And he had done it so cheerfully, so full of demonic pleasure. Every act, every moment, seen and imagined, had been a banquet for his senses, the faintest drop in the ocean of his hatred for the girl who had made him love again.
The pain was a living thing, twisting in his belly, clawing its way out of his throat in a tortured scream. Blinded by pain and fury, he ripped the drawings from the wall, reduced the desk itself to deadly shards of splintered wood, shattered the glass case of Kwan Yin and the figure within, venting his fury at God and fate and himself on silent, dumb objects. Things that were unable to see, unable to care. Futilely beating his fists against the wall, he wanted to shatter it, himself, the world, to end the existence of anything and everything so that this moment itself could end.
He should have learned by now that random destruction didn't help anyone.
Slowly, his face pressed to the wall, he sank to the floor. Lost amidst the shards of glass and wood, the only sound were strangled, choked sobs of defeat. He no longer had the shell of nearly a century of solitude to protect him from the pain. It had been ripped away by the pity in the Slayer's eyes when she asked him if he knew what it was like to have a friend. Somehow, he thought that he was unlikely to regain that protection ever again.
Scattered on the floor, his drawings faced him with a thousand accusing eyes. It was time to face the living ones.
**If all of the strength
**All of the courage
**Come and lift me from this place
**I know I can love you much better than this
**Full of grace.
**Full of grace, my love.
The library was silent, dark except for a streak of light from one corner. He purposefully timed it so no one would be here but Giles. He couldn't face them all at the same time. He needed to do this one by one.
Moving forward, he could see a figure hunched over the desk, finger tracing faded lines of text. Behind him was a cot, bedclothes rumbled and flung across its narrow, monkish width. Giles had not spent a night at his home since he had found his beloved lying dead there. Angel didn't blame him.
Angel's hands curled into fists, fighting the urge to escape. This needed to be done. He needed to do this. Slowly, he moved forward until movement out of the corner of his eye caught Giles' attention. He turned sharply, then stumbled back when he looked through the window of his office and recognized the figure before him. Automatically, Giles reached for the long sword he kept with him at all times now. Then his mind overruled his fight instinct, recalling the spell, the ceremony, a soul returned. The hilt of the sword slid through his fingers and thumped gently back to his desk.
"Angel." One word, uninflected and unemotional. Last time they had faced each other, alone, just the two of them, a baseball bat had been blazing in Giles' hand and anguished rage had burned in his eyes. Now those eyes were flat grey and empty, expressionless through the clear glass that separated them.
"I wanted to thank you."
Giles almost laughed, a little puff of air that had little of humor in it. "I hardly thought you would thank me for what I did."
"You stopped me from...," Angel paused and gritted his teeth, continuing with honesty rather than evasion, "destroying everything I touched. I am in your debt for that, if for nothing else."
"I did it for Buffy, and for the people in this town, and all those who you would have gone on to destroy," Giles said low and clearly.
"I know." There wasn't much more to be said. An apology would be a hideous joke, a promise to make it up would fall as flat as the impossibility it was. "I'm leaving."
Giles' hand jerked, slightly. After a moment, he said, "I think that would be for the best. Where will you go?"
After a moment, Angel answered, "Telling anyone would defeat the purpose of leaving." Giles acknowledged that by barely inclining his head. After a moment, Angel dropped the slender folder he carried onto a table and silently left the library.
It wasn't until much later that Giles moved out into the open part of the library. He opened the folder to find a drawing of Jenny, eyes alive and lively, laughing as she coaxed him into dancing with her the night the Master died. There was humor and personality in her cheerful, challenging grin, beauty and vulnerability in the fragile curve of her neck. And when she looked up at her unseen dance partner, there was love in her eyes.
Giles stared at it for several long moments. Then he gently closed the folder and put it aside.
**It's better this way
**Haven't seen this place before
**Where everything we say and do
**Hurts us all the more
A path of light seeped out from Willow's upstairs bedroom, spilling across the grass. The home had been barred to him, but that hardly mattered. Angel leaned against a tree in the front yard and worked on his courage again. He had no intention of going in there. What he needed to say could be said through an open door.
"What the hell are you doing here?" a furious voice demanded. Angel turned to see Xander advancing on him, fists clenched and jaw leading the way.
Spreading his hands to show that they were empty, Angel shrugged. "I'm leaving, don't worry."
"Stay away from her. Stay away from Buffy. You've hurt them enough."
His hands dropped limply against his sides. "I know. I know exactly what I've done." Tired, he rested his head against the tree behind him, closing his eyes. He opened them to find Xander staring at him, fury beginning to be replaced by confusion. "It was easier when I was the bad guy, wasn't it? Really simple. Sorry. Nothing's that simple any more." Shrugging away from the tree, he started to walk away.
Xander caught his arm as he went by. "You *hurt* her," he burst out. "Both of them. How could you *do* that?" Bewildered anger shaded his voice.
Of all of them, only Xander had ever seemed to understand that the demon had always been a part of him. The others -- even Giles, once he was accustomed to the presence of a vampire in his inner circle -- seemed to see the soul and the vampire as interchangeable parts. Why had Xander been the one to always be aware of the demon?
Even then, they'd fought side by side. They'd locked horns equally with each other and whoever was attacking Buffy at that moment. Xander's grudge against him had never interfered with their ability to fight together.
"I did it because I wanted to," Angel said finally. It was the only answer he had. Of all of them, Xander was the only one he had never struck directly against. It hadn't been needed. He had known that Xander would suffer more by having those he loved suffer.
The quiet answer seemed to enrage the teenaged boy. Without another word, he hauled off and hit Angel. Staggering back, Angel was off-balance. He fell to his knees with the next punch, fighting against fighting back. He let Xander pummel him for as long as the demon would stand, and then caught the boy's fist in his hand. Xander tugged against Angel's hold futilely, maddened by the fact that he had only been able to beat him up because Angel allowed it. Angel pulled himself to his feet, still holding Xander's fist. Knowing the uselessness of speaking, he still tried. "You can't protect them. You'll never be able to protect them enough. Either of them. All of them. They are going to get hurt. And you get to watch." He took a deep breath, wincing at the slash of pain in his ribs.
Xander wrenched his hand away and backed up several feet. "You son of a bitch," he said, but with little heat.
"Yeah. That's what I am. I tried. Xander, believe me... I tried. I should have left before any of this happened. But I didn't."
Xander squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. "I don't understand it," he said finally, sounding both much too young and much too old at the same time. "Any of it."
"You're better off this way. Just... keep an eye on her."
"I thought you said I couldn't protect her," Xander asked.
The slight flinch of the vampire's eyelids was the only indication of a direct hit. "It never stopped me from trying."
Xander opened his mouth to say something... and sat there, speechless in understanding. Before he could think of any answer to give, Angel had left him alone.
**It's just that we stay too long
**In the same old sickly skin
It was several long moments before there was any movement in the bedroom in response to Angel's gentle tap. He'd begun to wonder if Willow had not heard or was ignoring it when the balcony door opened. They both started back slightly when their eyes met. Willow recovered first, stepping back to lift her hand and start to invite him in. But her hand froze in mid-air and she closed her mouth, looking up at him anxiously, memories of pain and fear paralyzing her.
Angel shook his head, taking a step back away from the light from the windows. "I shouldn't come in. I just wanted to stop by and see... how you were."
Willow nodded, a bit hesitantly. "I'm okay. I mean, after that last night and all, but... I'm okay. And... you? Are you okay?" Willow's voice was breathless, and her hands twisted in the hem of her t-shirt, but her eyes were large and steady on his, and wouldn't let him lie.
"No. I'm not."
Nodding, Willow bit her lip. "I guess it's silly to think that you'd be okay. But you will, right? I mean, you got okay last time this happened and..."
"What?" Her hands still twisted nervously and she kept her eyes fixed on him as if when she looked away he would be gone.
"I came here tonight to say good-bye."
"Good-bye?" Willow blinked. "For how long?" When Angel didn't answer, she blinked again, harder. "Good-bye? Like, that's it? You're leaving? For good?"
"It's for the best."
"No, it's not!" Impatiently, Willow backhanded the tears slipping down her cheeks and took a step forward again. "You can't say that! You can't believe that! After everything that's happened, how can you just go, 'It's for the best', huh? Why does it have to be for the best?"
Behind her, light shone through a fish tank, drained of water and with an artful rock garden arranged in it. "Because I killed your friend, your teacher." It was incredibly hard to face those damp, pleading eyes, but Angel kept his on Willow's. "Because I nearly snapped your neck and would have used your death for no other reason than to make Buffy suffer."
"But that wasn't you," Willow denied immediately.
"Yes, it was."
Willow opened her mouth a few times, trying to speak. Finally, almost inaudibly, she whispered, "It was?"
"I'm sorry." Angel hated how useless those words were, but he had nothing else to say. "I wish that I could make it so that it had never happened. I can't."
Willow swallowed. "So you're leaving? Is that how you're going to make it like it never happened?"
"It's the only thing I can do." When Willow didn't speak again, just stared at him with her big eyes, Angel finally turned to leave.
Without turning back to her, Angel stopped.
That made him turn back. Willow had stepped fully from the shelter of her house, clinging lightly to the door frame. Slowly, he smiled, one corner of his mouth turning up. "Thank you," he whispered.
**Pulled down by the undertow
**Never thought I could feel so alone
**Oh, darkness; I feel like letting go.
Buffy wasn't at her house. She wasn't at the Bronze. She wasn't skulking around the graveyard, looking to kick some demonic ass. She wasn't at the school. Every hour that went by that he couldn't find her made his resolve slip, made it harder. He wanted -- needed -- to get this done this night. If he didn't, he doubted he could ever go.
Down by the playground he spotted a familiar red car. Wryly, he shrugged. He'd spoken or intended to speak to everyone else who had been with him the night he had his soul restored. Might as well be thorough about the matter.
Cordelia sat on one of the swings, her dark head tilted against the chain, idly staring up at the stars. She was completely oblivious to his presence until he scuffed his feet in the sand lining the playground. At the slight noise, she jumped, nearly losing her perch on the narrow seat. When she saw who it was, she nearly strangled herself on the chain in an attempt to get away. "Uh... uh... demon begone!" she intoned, holding her fingers up in a cross.
"Cordelia, I'm not going to hurt you. Remember? The spell?"
Slowly, Cordelia lowered her hands, still looking suspicious. "Yeah, but what if it didn't work?"
"It worked. Believe me."
"Oh." Relaxed, she sat down on the warped, rusted merry-go-round. "Good."
He claimed her vacated seat on the swing, rocking slightly, letting the chains squeak. "You shouldn't be out alone at night."
Cordelia shrugged, picking a one of the faded remnants of paint left on the carousel. "I guess... this was a place that I was safe when I was a kid. It never occurred to me that it would be anything else but safe."
Angel shook his head. How many times was she going to nearly die before she realized that she was in danger. "You need to be more careful."
"Careful," Cordelia said scornfully. "What good is careful? Would careful have saved Kevin? Would it have saved Miss Calendar? You don't think about being careful until you don't think you are safe anymore.
"So be careful now."
"Why? I mean, it's over, right? You're... back, the bad guys got blown away. The movie's over, and I'm going home."
"As long as you're around Buffy-- "
"Well, I don't intend to be around Buffy," Cordelia cut in. "So I guess that solves that little tricky problem. I'm going to get as far away as fast as I can from Buffy and her little freak show." Pushing off from the sandy ground, Cordelia pulled her legs into the merry-go-round. Wobbling drunkenly, it carried her around and around, so that Angel could only catch glimpses of the top of her head, bowed over her bent knees, on each revolution.
The carousel drifted to a stop, leaving Cordelia in profile. She had her arms wrapped around her knees and was holding on for dear life. It would have been kinder to get up and leave her alone. But he hardly had been kind that night. "Do you think it will be that easy? Do you think that you could leave them? And if you did, that you could forget?" Cordelia lifted her head slightly, but didn't turn toward him, staring blankly out into space. "You can't go back to when you didn't know. You can't forget what has happened. You can leave, physically at least, avoid them, pretend." She still didn't react. Sighing and cursing his meddlesome helpful urge, Angel rose to his feet. "No matter what, you're always a part of them."
He stood there long enough to see the sheen of tears on Cordelia's cheeks before turning for his apartment. "Hey, Angel," she called after him. He paused without looking back. "Ever listen to your own advice?"
**If all of the strength
**All of the courage
**Come and lift me from this place
**I know I can love you much better than this
**Full of grace.
It didn't take much to pack up a life. There wasn't much he needed. Objects retained memories, and those were what he was trying to leave behind. The tangible evidence of his life was packed into one duffel bag. The rest... he was resigned to carry it, whether he wanted to or not.
She was waiting for him when he opened the door to his apartment. Her hair was skimmed tightly back from her face and her eyes were large and stern in her face. For several moments they simply faced each other, staring. Angel wondered if somehow they couldn't just get through this without saying a word. They both knew what the other was thinking. Words couldn't heal the scars, fix what was broken. All words could do was open new wounds.
"I heard you were looking for me." Buffy broke the silence without moving. Her stance was deceptively casual, hands in the back pockets of her tight black pants, head tilted back and to one side. Angel knew better. She'd set herself up as the bait to lure him into the spell that had restored him with the same careless grace. Her eyes never left his face, not even to flick over to the duffel bag he carried.
"Who told you?"
"Who didn't?" Buffy countered. "So. You're leaving?"
"I have to. I can't... I can't stay here." His hand tightened convulsively on the bag he carried, searching for control again. "If I stay here, no one will ever forget. They'd see me and remember. I won't do that to them."
Buffy didn't react for several moments. Then she swallowed and gave a short, tight nod. "I understand."
Still, she didn't move. The girl who had once kissed him farewell with aching tenderness and then, unable and unwilling to admit that any goodbye could be forever, whispered, "See you around?" didn't exist any more. She believed in forever now, and knew how lonely it was.
Angel couldn't stand still and stare at her any more. In another moment, he would never be able to leave. Without another word, he brushed past her to go up the steps.
For a moment he thought the words were his. He'd promised himself he wouldn't say them, not to her. Those two words were so obscenely inadequate. But the voice had been hers.
He turned back to face her. Her back was to him now, her head bent as she stared at her hands. Slowly, his duffel bag slipped from his grasp and thumped gently to the concrete floor. "What did you say?"
"I'm sorry for what I did to you." She didn't raise her head or look at him. "I was... stupid. Selfish. Careless."
The world was tilting under his feet, making him dizzy and sick. "I killed your friends. I tortured you and everyone you loved. And you are apologizing to *me*?"
"It's my fault." Buffy finally turned and looked at him. Tears streaked down her cheeks, but her eyes were steady and determined. "I wanted... everything. You warned me, but I wouldn't listen. And I destroyed you and everyone around me because I was blind and greedy and--" The poise was cracking, and she closed her eyes tightly. "I'm sorry," she whispered again.
"Don't say that!" Startled by the venom in Angel's voice, Buffy opened her eyes and stepped back. Angel stalked her that one step, moving forward with his clenched hands holding tightly onto his control. "I hated you. Do you understand that? I was sick with it. Do you want to know why?" He didn't bother waiting for her answer. "Because I still loved you. Every moment. You made me feel, and I hated you for that. I wanted you to suffer as much as I was suffering."
Buffy flinched and turned her head aside. "I know."
He recoiled as though she had struck him. "And you did."
She nodded slowly, still not looking at him. "Yeah. I did."
"I wish..." His voice broke and he paused a moment for starting again. "I was torn in two. I remember the half of me that wanted to destroy you. I wish I remembered the part that wanted to protect you as clearly. It -- I -- must have watched you, tried to protect you, all those months. But I don't remember," he ended on a whisper. After a moment, he clenched his jaw. "Why don't you hate me?" he demanded.
At that, she looked up again. "I do."
He absorbed the blow without a word. After a moment, he had collected himself to speak. "I knew... I knew from the beginning I would hurt you. If I had known how much..." Disgusted with himself, Angel rubbed his eyes with his fists. "Who am I kidding? I couldn't have left you alone. I tried."
"I didn't want you to," Buffy said softly.
There didn't seem to be anything left to say. After a moment, Buffy reached into her pocket, fumbling slightly. The silver claddaugh ring caught a beam of light and flashed brightly for one moment. Then it turned in her fingers and gleamed dully in the dim light.
**I know I can love you much better than this.
She held up her hand, the silver ring cradled in her palm. Their eyes met and held. Slowly, he closed his hand over hers, feeling the ring press between their skin, an endless circle, never beginning, never ending.
When he slid his hand away, the ring was in his own hand. He closed his fist over it tightly, feeling the edges bite into his skin. Loyalty, friendship and love. Each one he had betrayed. Closing his eyes, he turned and walked away without a word.
**It's better this way.
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