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Summary: Sometimes things don’t go as they were intended. And sometimes worse has to come to worst before things can get back on track.
A small blonde woman stands beneath a spreading tree, hidden in the moon shadows. Her pale silk dress and green velvet cloak are the height of fashion, and her coiffure is of the first elegance. She is as out of place in this village graveyard as a flower in the desert. But she has a purpose. There’s been a funeral here today.
A fist punches through the new pile of cold, dark earth and a young man pulls himself out of his grave with painful effort. Like her, he’s dressed in his best, but crumbs of wet soil cling to his skin and his clothes. She doesn’t care about that, or perhaps she doesn’t notice. There’s something important to be done.
She helps him to his feet.
“Welcome to my world. It hurts, I know, but not for long. Birth is always painful.”
The young man breathes hard from his efforts, not yet aware that he no longer needs to do so. “I could feel them – above me – as I slept in the earth,” he says, in wonder. “Their heartbeats – their blood – coursing – through their veins.”
Darla smiles in delight. “Yes.”
The newly-born vampire-who-will-be-Angel asks her, “Was it a dream?”
“A dream for you. Soon, their nightmare.” She has great hopes of this one.
The groundskeeper comes up, holding a lantern. “You there!” he calls out. “What have you done?” A truth, the wrong truth, hits him. “Grave robbers!”
Angel slowly walks towards him, then looks back at Darla who nods at him.
“You know what to do,” she assures him.
Angel turns back, his face changed from familiar beauty to unknown horror.
The groundskeeper seeks the only sanctuary he can, garbling the words in his fear. Accuracy would not have saved him.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. Give us this day our daily...”
There are no more words, only a scream, as Angel bites him. When he has finished, and the groundskeeper is a huddled body on the grass, he takes some deep breaths and then turns back to Darla. He is in human face.
“It all makes sense now, doesn’t it?” she asks him.
“Perfect sense.” His voice is more assured.
“You can do anything, have anyone in the village. Who will it be?”
His smile is as tempting as that of a fallen angel, and Destiny’s breath hitches as her knucklebones fall into the wrong pattern. “You promised to show me things I’ve never seen. I’ve seen the village. Show me something else instead.”
Buffy stands back in horror, her once-only lover pierced through the heart by the blessed sword. She’s heard that when you drown, your life passes in front of your eyes. So, she must be drowning. Perhaps that’s why she can’t breathe, and why her life is unrolling before her in a few fractions of a second. Her life with Angel, at least.
She loves him. She’s seventeen and she loves him. She’s The Slayer, he’s a vampire, and she loves him. And she has thrust the blessed sword into his heart because the stony stare of Acathla has changed into the gaping maw of Hell.
Angel, the vampire.
Giles had told her that he’d been like any other vampire, no better and no worse than most of them, although he’d survived for longer than usual. There was nothing much to mark him out, and it had been because of sheer bad luck, and Angel’s sire, Darla, that the Kalderash had sought out the darkest of magic and cursed him with a soul. In the chaotic days just prior to the Second World War, Darla had stolen one of the Kalderash’s young women as a birthday feast for Angelus, and the gypsies had given him more than he had bargained for. Giles suspected that the curse had been meant for Darla, much the worse of the pair.
Almost sixty years later, he’d turned up out of nowhere, come to Sunnydale to help the new Slayer, and they’d fallen in love. And Darla, the Scourge of Asia, had followed to claim her lover back.
Now, Angel has staked his sire and her dust still drifts on the slight air currents in this spacious room. And the petrified demon with which she threatened Sunnydale, in the quest to force Angel back to her side, threatens the whole world.
In the game of blackmail and bluff, Angel’s blood had been the real thing, the key to Acathla, and the tragedy began to unfold. Giles had said that whoever’s blood opened it, only the same blood, shed by the blessed sword, would close it, and because of that Angel has the sword in his chest. But she cannot let him die.
“Help me get over there.” He’s sunk to one knee, bowed over his pain.
“Buffy. You have to let me go.”
“It’s only your blood that’s necessary!”
“I doubt it.” Angel knows enough about blood prices.
But he doesn’t stop her when she pulls the sword from his flesh. It’s dripping with blood, running down the blade, over the hilt, and onto her hand. It has to be enough. She flings the weapon into the growing ring of fire. For an instant, the ring shrinks as though sated, and then, with a roar of frustrated fury, it blasts outwards, engulfing Buffy, Angel, Sunnydale, the whole of the Earth.
Angel stands on the rocky brow of a hill, watching the first sliver of sun gilding the harsh landscape. This sun is not the Sun that shone on the Earth. That is long lost, presumably still sailing serenely through its own space with one less planet at its skirts. This sun doesn’t hurt him, although he wishes that it would.
Buffy lies in shallow, exhausted sleep in the cave beneath his feet. Last night, they made love, in the surety of approaching death. He’s only ever done that once before, on the night before Acathla swallowed the Earth, when they both were afraid that they would die. Better they had done so than that everyone else should have died screaming, in this terrible place.
More than anything else, he wants to go inside to her and make love to her again, but the time for that is past. He’s locked the precious feeling away, to strengthen him here at the end.
The first rays of sullen light show him the landscape around the hill. It isn’t Earth, not any more. They’ve seen the land bleed and weep like a living thing, as it swallowed cities whole. All that is left is desolation, a desert swept clear of all things made by Man, just as Mankind has been eradicated from the face of this Hell.
Everyone is dead. Everyone they know and love, and everyone who is a stranger to them. Death has taken them in more inventive and colourful and horrific ways than Angel could ever have conceived, even with Darla’s encouragement. Now, only he and Buffy are left, unfinished business for the horrors that waited for them at the other side of that ring of fire.
Movement in the distance tells him that the pursuing army has found them, but he responds to the movement closest to him. Buffy is awake. He jumps down lightly to greet her.
“They’re coming,” he tells her.
She doesn’t finish, and he gently prompts her.
“What do you wish?”
She shakes her head.
“You wish you had killed me and saved the world,” he says grimly. “So do I.”
“No. It’s too late for that. I wish that we could have had a normal life together.”
He looks out at the black tide rolling towards them over the desert.
“I wish that, too,” he whispers.
“And I wish that we could have made a difference here, that we could have found a way to save the people.”
He’s quiet, as he feels her hand slip into his.
“Do you know what day it is today?” he asks.
She shakes her head mutely, knowing that he doesn’t mean it’s their final day, although it is, but not knowing what else he might mean.
“It’s Christmas Day. Or it would have been.” He glances down at her puzzled expression, and shrugs. “It’s a vampire thing, always knowing when it is, counting the years sunrise by sunrise.”
“We’ve only been here for seven months? It’s feels much longer than that.”
“Seems like it, doesn’t it?”
When he lets go of her hand it’s like cutting his arm off, but he does it anyway, and strides closer to the edge of the shallow cliff.
“There will be no saviour here today, come to redeem the sinners,” he tells her, his voice harsh in the surrounding silence.
“Humanity is already redeemed,” she says gently. “And their souls have been saved from this place.”
“You think that?”
He’s startled by her certitude. They’ve never talked about the afterlife, or their own beliefs. She surprises him again.
“I’m sure of it. And you, too. You’ve fought to save people, even when there was no chance of success. You’ve earned forgiveness. Today, we’ll be together, after... you know... I promise we will.”
The approaching hordes are closer now. There isn’t much time. She ducks back into the little rock shelter that has protected them for the night and comes back with their swords. They’re crude things, taken in battle, but strong enough. Angel spent a long time last night sharpening them both on a piece of rock that seemed less rotten than the rest. She tosses one to him, but he thrusts it upright into the ground and closes the distance between them. He takes her into his arms for one last bittersweet kiss.
“We could run again,” he says eventually. They’ve been running for days.
“And face this every morning? Or have them catch us when we’re too tired to fight? Let’s make an end of it, now.”
He smiles for her, and moves round behind her, pressed up against her back as they both watch the monsters encircle their stronghold.
“I love you,” she says. “I’ll love you forever.”
He doesn’t reply at first, except to tighten his hold on her. Then he says, “I shall love and protect you for as long as I exist.”
He bends down to kiss her neck, and then his fangs slide into her flesh and he feels the hot spurt of her blood.
She struggles, but he tightens his grip. He wishes that he could enjoy this first and last taste of her, as he swallows down her life, but it’s like ashes in his mouth. He hears the dull clatter as the sword slips from her hand, but he doesn’t finish until he hears her heart flutter to a stop.
His face is stony as he lays her body on the rough ground in the mouth of the little cave. This was the best he could do for her, the last expression of his love. Not for her the agonizing death that has met billions of others. He had considered turning her, but only so that there would be no body left to defile. She would have hated that, though, so he didn’t. He’s been careful. There is no blood on her, just his marks on her neck. She’s pale, but she’s so peaceful she might be sleeping. He strokes her hair, and makes her a promise.
Filled with her strength, a sword in each hand, he stands to face the onslaught. The small cliff slows them down a fraction, but not much. They come at him in a mindless, murderous rush. They don’t want to kill him here, though. They want to enjoy his prolonged death somewhere else. He and Buffy have been a thorn in the side of these monsters. They’ll have to take him alive, first, and he won’t make that easy for them.
If they are vicious, violent animals, he makes sure he’s worse. His swords are soon nicked and blunted on bone and armour and on muscle as hard as rock. He never moves from his chosen position, standing over her body in this last act of protection. She’s spattered now with his blood, blood that is returning to her.
The fight is ferocious, the dead mounting up in front of him, until he is too badly hurt to swing the swords any more. He chooses his moment, a clumsy but powerful sweep of a crude metal weapon, meant to disable him, not kill him. He ducks to match the shorter opponent and then, graceful even at the end, he stretches his neck to meet the bite of the blade.
The monsters howl in frustration, but there’s nothing left of him except dust, clinging thickly to the body of the Slayer, blanketing her in a last embrace.
Souls do not think or feel in any way that a living human would understand, but, having been freed from the trials of life and found their way into the ether, they are suffused with peace, contentment, and perfect happiness, part of a great whole in which there is no individuality.
Except for one.
Her essence bleeds, weeping golden light from wounds that will not heal. She is surrounded by the love of family and friends, but she feels pain and emptiness in the hollow of her side, where someone else should rest, but does not. Perhaps she remembers, in some ethereal way, hopes shared and promises made.
She is restless, disturbing those around her, causing ripples of unease, of fear, of loneliness to flow through the mass of sleeping souls. Her loss, her inability to find peace, prevents the throng from joining in rapture into one united whole, fracturing them into patterns that constantly form and reform and break up again. These souls have all been denied the chance of new cycles of life, but there can be no final peace for any of them until that single bleeding soul is satisfied.
The woman walks the ethereal roads. Her face is lined and seamed, her hair long and white, but her back is not bent, nor her shoulders stooped. She has her own power, but not enough to put right what has gone wrong. No one has that power. And what she has is not without conditions.
This Creation is predicated on free will, and free will has brought it to this pass.
But this Creation is also predicated on Balance, and the Balance is now so far out of true that it has generated the power that she needs. She can draw on it for more power than she could otherwise dream of. So can the Others, the ones who are part of the Earth and its various planes. Not all of them are on the same side as she is. There has to be balance there, too.
There’s still the matter of free will, though.
She chooses a place between time and space, and there she creates a mirror. But it is a mirror without a reflection. What it shows is the Abyss, a roiling cosmos in all the shades of black, the beginning and the end of everything. She raises her right hand, placing her palm flat against what ought to be glass, but isn’t. The black inferno fades, replaced by a shadowy figure. As the features clear, she sees a young woman, pretty, with long white hair. Willow. Willow as she never got to be, in the Earth that has met its end. Willow, who might have become the woman standing in front of the mirror, or might have been an Earth-bound avatar of that woman. The cycles of time are tricky things. But it is through Willow that the woman can do what needs to be done.
She frowns in concentration, pressing her hand harder against the not-glass, allowing more of her power to seep into the not-reflection. The features of the not-reflection shimmer and fade, and then it’s Willow-who-ought-to-have-been who stands before the empty space of the mirror. This appearance will help in what is to come.
She allows her power to seep into the not-glass again, calling out to the restless soul who has so disturbed the peace of the others. Another reflection forms, another young woman, pretty, with long, dark blonde hair. It’s the Slayer. Buffy.
She’s disoriented at first, at this transition from soul-stuff to a simulation of her old self, to human sentience, but good warriors are quick to adapt, and she was always the best.
“Willow, you’ve turned white.”
The woman runs her fingers through her hair, and smiles a soft Willow-smile.
“That’s something that ought to have come, but didn’t. The Earth died when it shouldn’t have.”
Buffy’s gaze drops.
Willow stays silent.
Something stirs in Buffy, something that might be memory, or might be much deeper than memory. Drops of golden fluid course down her neck, their colour deepening and darkening until they are blood red, running from the marks left by a vampire’s fangs.
“I know I’m dead,” she says, “and maybe you are, too. We saw you die... You were still a redhead then. But Angel... Where is he? If he’s dead, he should be here. I’ve missed him.”
She reaches round to hold her hand against the wound, as though that might allow her to touch her lover. “Is he still alive? He must be.” Her human fears flood in. Tears sparkle on her eyelashes. “Is he still there? Is he suffering? We have to rescue him!”
This is going to be far harder even than the woman had imagined.
“Take my hand.”
Buffy places her hand flat against Willow’s upraised palm.
“He hasn’t been sent to Hell, has he? He can’t be there. He can’t!”
“He isn’t anywhere, Buffy. Surely you know that? He’s gone. Completely gone.”
The warrior in Buffy responds to this. So does the woman in love. She exerts all her strength to tear free of whatever holds her, but she cannot. She struggles like a fly in a web. The woman tries to soothe her, through the bond of their joined hands.
“You knew this, Buffy. So did he. He wasn’t human. He was a demon.”
“So what? He was good! He had a soul!”
Blood and soul-stuff are pouring down Buffy’s neck, now, the red and the gold twining together in a cascade of life-force.
“Be at peace, and I will tell you!”
Buffy subsides, and the red and gold river slows. But the Slayer is still at the surface, waiting for an explanation.
“Human souls have short lives on Earth, a blink in the eye of Time, but they are eternal. They live forever. They learn and grow during their lives, and they have peace and happiness in the afterlife. But things are different for a demon spirit, an eternal demon like a vampire. What they call final death really is that. When their body dies, so does the spirit. The demon has an eternity of life, but there is no afterlife, nothing to come after death except oblivion. This is part of the Balance.”
“No! I don’t believe you!”
Memory comes back, of his last words to her. ‘I shall love and protect you for as long as I exist.’ Did he know? Did he know that there could be no forever for him? No forever with him?
“And even if it’s true, Angel had a soul. Where is his soul?”
The woman presses her forehead against the not-glass. This is so important. She hopes that she can find the right words.
“A soul is made up of parts, Buffy. Did you know that?”
Buffy shakes her head mutely.
“The first part animates the body, gives it life. That part lives in the blood, and is replaced by the demonic life-force of the demon when a vampire takes the body. That is why the blood is so important, and why the body must die before it can become a vampire. The second part gives a human their emotions and feelings, their innate morality. And the third part is about intellect and life-learning and spiritual understanding. Both of those parts escape when the body dies, and they are joined by the life-force to become a whole soul. That is what you are.
“For an eternal demon, though, the spirit that is born from the new demonic life-force in the body is not the same as the soul. It uses the memories of the person who has died, but it has no morality, no ability to learn from life-lessons. It is passion and desire, hunger and lust, with no control. That is what Angel is.
“When the Kalderash gave him back his soul, the one that used to belong to the body, they did it without any care for that soul. They couldn’t recover it all, and so they tore the heart from it, the conscience, and thrust it back into his body. They left the rest behind. He was never again going to be the rebellious Irish lad from Galway who made a mistake. You never knew that young man. You knew the demon, given a conscience. As for the remnants of the mutilated soul, the intellect and life-force could not survive without the heart, and they withered and died. And when Angel met his end, the heart of his soul had nowhere to go, and that, too, was lost.”
Buffy gapes at her in horror.
“There’s nothing left of him? Nothing at all?”
“That can’t be! Where the hell is the justice in that? The mercy?”
The woman stays silent. How could she possibly explain the Balance, on which all depends?
“You’ve got magic, Willow. Can’t you reach back and save him before he... before he ends?”
“I’m sorry, no. There are some who might have the power to bring a spirit forward, but we’re at the end of all things. There is nowhere to bring him to, except more annihilation.”
Buffy won’t give up on him, though. “Can’t you make him live again, give him chance to be saved? We belong together, it has to be made right!”
She holds out her hand, painted red and gold, but the woman shakes her head.
“Giving life back to him would change nothing, Buffy. His spirit, the being that you love, and who loves you, is the demon, not the mute soul. He never has been human. Whenever his body dies, he will be gone.”
“Then make him human! Fix it! He doesn’t deserve annihilation, and I don’t deserve an eternity of misery!”
“No demon has ever been made human. That would require an act of recreation to remake him... And the will of a Higher Power.”
“But it could be done?”
“Perhaps it could be earned. Perhaps.”
“How could it be earned, if he’s gone?”
The woman stills completely. Free will. This must be about free will. And the price of salvation for humanity.
“With free will, there’s no such thing as predestination. The future is the result of billions of decisions from the past to the present. The death of the Earth was different. It was a fixed point in time and space, a bottle neck in history. All the decisions of all the people on Earth would always lead to that. And only one course of action would ever have been enough to save it.”
“Angel,” Buffy says, her voice flat. “He had to die.” She looks up at Willow’s sad face. “I had to kill him. No. I had to send him to Hell, alone.”
She seems to shrink in on herself. She’s remembering what he said. ‘There will be no saviour here today...’ He was wrong. Fate had marked him out for that role, that obscene destiny.
The woman knows what the soul in her mirror is thinking.
“Both of you,” she says. “It needed both of you to do exactly the right thing.”
Buffy straightens. As she begins to use the logic of the warrior, a new thought needs her examination.
“Why are you here?”
“You were restless. I was called.”
Buffy gestures to herself. “You could have done something about me without all this, so there’s more to it. What do you want from me?”
“I should ask you that. What do you want from me?”
“I want Angel saved. And I want the Earth saved.”
“In that order?”
Buffy shrugs. The Earth is important, but her whole instinct is to put Angel first.
“Can you give us a second chance? Have you got enough magic for that?” The Willow she remembers was busy trying to lift pencils, but she knows this isn’t the same woman. Not really.
The woman does not answer her question directly. Not yet.
“You understand, for magic such as that, there is always a price to pay?”
Buffy nods. Nothing comes free, but this price might be a big one. After all, the prize is pretty much everything.
“There will be much pain and loss for both of you.”
Buffy has noted the ‘will’. Not the less certain ‘would’. “I know it was our fault,” she offers. “So long as we can remember, and do the right thing next time.”
Willow shakes her head. “If it can be done at all, then there must be a fresh start. No one will remember anything.” Including her. “What has happened must be completely wiped away. Space and time must be changed. You will know nothing of the future.”
“Then what will stop us making the same mistake again?”
“You must follow the wisdom of your souls, no matter how much pain that brings.”
Buffy looks defeated already, but only for a moment.
“You said that Angel is not a soul. How can he follow the wisdom of something he doesn’t have? How will he find the strength?”
“His morality must come from the fragment of soul that he is given. His inner strength and his passion are those of the demon. He must learn how to meld all those together.”
That’s essential for the act of recreation, the woman knows. If this goes as it should, Angel will have earned that, a recreation that no other demon has ever experienced. To be able to step into the human cycles of life and death and to have a true eternity. But like a chrysalis, before there can be recreation, there has to be destruction. So that he can earn a second chance, that is what Angel will be tested to. Destruction. And Buffy must be both life and death to him, while carrying her own burden of pain. That is her purpose.
“Why us? Why does the fate of the Earth rest on us?”
“I don’t know. I truly don’t.”
She isn’t lying. She has no idea. She looks with compassion at the young woman in front of her, at the weeping wounds on her neck.
“Are you sure that this is what you want? You could accept what is, accept that Angel had his time, and that he isn’t suffering. You could allow yourself the peace and happiness of Heaven?
“Not without him. Besides, none of those other people had their time. The planet shouldn’t have died screaming.”
“You understand that it won’t just be tinkering with time. Everything – everything – must be annihilated back to another fixed point in time. That has a lot of consequences. You do this of your own free will? You take those consequences on yourself?”
Buffy nods, then uncertainty mars her features. “What about Angel? If free will is so important, he can’t say what he wants, what he is prepared to do.”
“No, he can’t. You know him. You must speak for him, if you think that he would place his future in your hands.”
There’s no choice, of course. Buffy wants to save Earth and humanity, but she wants to save Angel even more. She thinks he would agree. The thought occurs to her that, since he has no afterlife to hope for or to dread, if she has misjudged his strength, a vampire can always walk out into the sun. But she dismisses it. He would never do that. He would fight for his future, if he knew about it.
“He must be given hope,” she blurts out. “He must know that he has a future to fight for. If he... if we aren’t going to remember anything about the future, if he knows that a demon has no afterlife, there must be something for him. A... a prophecy, or something.”
The woman considers that request.
“Yes. I’ll do what I can.”
And she will. She will have to prepare carefully. One of the Others can manipulate time better than she can. A prophecy could be planted in the past, to give Angel hope when he most needs it.
“Thank me if we get a different outcome this time,” she says drily. “I’ll see you again, then, Buffy.”
She stands before the empty mirror, bowed by the weight of what must now be done, and by the half-truths she has told the woman who will be her friend. She has no idea why these two should be the fulcrum and lever of the Earth’s salvation. There must be a reason. She suspects that there is a history, perhaps a higher purpose, but she has no idea what it might be. Or perhaps it’s serendipity. Perhaps Angel is simply where the two sides of the Balance meet, and he will break under its weight, or not. All she and the Others can do is walk the paths in front of them and do what they can.
The breaking of the Balance gives them the power to change the past, but not all will agree how. The side that is currently favoured, the side of destruction, of evil, of darkness, whatever humans have called it, will demand a substantial penalty for giving up their advantage, even if it’s an unwanted one. Neither side wanted a useless apocalypse.
Concessions must be made, and one of those will be Angel. She knows this as surely as though the agreement had already been made. He will be enmeshed by evil all his life, and he will have an almost unbearable struggle to free himself from it. He will fall further than even she can fully comprehend. Every time he tries to rise, he will fall again, until the Balance is satisfied.
She sets off, back down the ethereal road that brought her here. She will meet with her peers from both sides of the Balance, and they will change time and space. As she travels, she draws more and more power into herself. She will save some small part of it, keep it for afterwards, against urgent need. A spell to save his soul, perhaps, or a way out of hell if he needs it, small pieces of benign interference for which she might not otherwise have enough power in her early years. She won’t remember why it’s there, of course, and she hopes that she can access it, that she won’t abuse it, but that’s all she can do. Hope.
If there is a higher purpose, let it be with her now...
A small blonde woman stands beneath a spreading tree, waiting for the newly-born-vampire-who-will-be-Angel, but who must first be Angelus.
A fist punches through the new pile of cold, dark earth and a young man pulls himself out of his grave with painful effort. She watches with approval as he drains the groundskeeper dry.
“It all makes sense now, doesn’t it?” Darla asks him.
“Perfect sense.” His voice is more assured.
“You can do anything, have anyone in the village. Who will it be?”
Darla nods encouragingly.
His smile is as tempting as that of a fallen angel. “I thought I’d take the village.”
She is delighted. This one will be a legend. She wonders whether she will be able to keep up with him. She’s going to have to find him so many new delicacies to keep his interest.
He strolls off with his maker, relishing his new-found strength, his heightened senses, with no thought for the future, and what waits for him.
This new cycle of life brings a Kalderash for whom vengeance has become a living thing. A slight or hurt to one of their number is a hurt to them all, and is paid back ten or a hundredfold. Nothing is ever forgiven or forgotten. For supernatural enemies, they have always had magic. Now, their spells become deeper, darker, more destructive. More vengeful.
Far away in time and distance from the events that will make Angelus what he must become, in a sacred space of learning, a scholar transcribes a fragile text on the crumbling inner bark of an ancient tree. The words are far older than the tree on which they are written. Perhaps they date back to the beginning of time itself. He hesitates over one unfamiliar word, and then starts to carefully write it. Shanshu.