Fire and Light
Rating: If you’re old enough to watch the show you’re old enough to read this.
Setting: The first Christmas after ‘Not Fade Away’. The comics do not exist.
Summary: That would be telling. Angel, Buffy and Willow.
Fire and Light
Even magic never seemed to stop strings of lights from tying themselves into impenetrable knots, Willow thinks, as she juggles the string of tiny lights in her hands. But it’s Christmas, and Christmas demands lights, among other things.
It might not be her religion, but she really doesn’t mind that. It’s a jolly, happy festival, and they need all the good-natured jollity they can get, after the things they’ve seen. After the things they’ve done. And definitely after the things that Angel had just done.
Diwali, Hanukah, Tazaungdaing, all of them Festivals of Light, and Light is oh so much better than Darkness, especially in the long darknesses of midwinter. Even Fire Festivals are good to celebrate, when it comes to beating back the darkness. Beltane and Imbolc, Samhain and Sadeh are others on which she lights the Hanukah candles, a link between festivals. She hasn’t tried Up-Helly-Aa yet, but she thinks that might be next on the list, with its burning of a dragon boat. In fact, that should definitely be on the list, after what Angel has done.
With a sigh of relief, she finally manages to unravel the last knot, turning the wire from a hangman’s noose to a single harmless strand. Buffy should be here soon, and she wants to be ready.
So far as they know, they are the only two of the old gang still on this side of the Atlantic, and still alive. The only two of either gang, the Sunnydale Scoobies or the Los Angeles crew. That’s a rate of attrition that doesn’t bear thinking about.
The Christmas lights glimmer softly now in the gathering dusk. She puts candles into the menorah, and lights them, the flickering flames comforting and hypnotic, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. Could souls find comfort in such artefacts, she asks herself? Might souls be gathering around now, to warm themselves at the tiny fire, and to bathe in the light? Might they be souls that she knows?
Angel would give almost anything for darkness, including, perhaps, his immortal soul. Well, almost anything. He is running through fire. Not through a fire, or a house on fire or even a bonfire. He is running through a world of fire. Curtains of it, in thundering firefalls; cliffs of flame towering into a molten sky; forests of twisting, shivering fire; oceans of it, breaking in waves over rocky infernos. He’s been running through it for days, and he is almost spent.
The fire burns him, but it leaves his flesh untouched. It wouldn’t be Hell if you were consumed in an instant, now would it? Or maybe he is consumed and reconstructed instant by instant. Then again, perhaps his flesh is long gone and all he is is spirit. He doesn’t know. He only knows that this is a fire that burns the soul and the mind and the heart, a constant agony, without the possibility of the final mercy of death.
If he doesn’t run, it’s worse. If he gives up, or seeks a refuge, the fire clots and thickens around him, taking on the consistency of molasses so that he must fight his way through its clinging caress. If he runs, it’s unimaginably terrible. If he stands, it’s unimaginably worse.
When he can truly run no more – and the fire knows exactly the moment – only then does he find a refuge, somewhere to lie cowering in terror, to fall into snatches of nightmare-ridden sleep, to wait for the next torment.
Because, it isn’t only fire. This Hell in which he finds himself seems to be fond of fire, but there are so many other forms of torment. He thinks he might have suffered them all, he’s been here so long.
Or, perhaps he’s still standing in the fiery furnace of the dragon’s breath, and he’s experiencing an eternity in the last micro-second of his existence.
He stumbles, and the fire leans in to him, with the air of an old friend offering him a hand. He’s up and running again, but he is weary beyond belief, and he knows he can’t do this for much longer.
It’s been a long time since Buffy was last on a bus, and she’d like it to be a long time before she has to ride on one again. But then, she shouldn’t blame the bus for her complete failure. She’s been to L.A. She should have gone before, but she didn’t know. She had no idea what Angel had done, and she still doesn’t really understand it now. After all, there is no-one left to tell her.
She didn’t feel him go. Even after all this time, she’d thought that she would feel it if anything... final... happened to him. But she didn’t, so what does that say about the whole soul mates thing?
She shifts irritably on the seat, but her irritation is aimed squarely at herself. How far away from Angel had she grown, that he wouldn’t want to come to her for help? Or even so that she could beat him over the head and tell him that he was a thick-headed idiot? That’s what you did with people you loved. You told them when to stop.
It was weeks before rumours reached Giles of something happening in L.A., something very, very freaky. More weeks had passed in trying to contact Angel. Then Giles had made the decision to send a couple of Slayers to investigate. Something in Buffy had stirred, uncurling from a dormancy she hadn’t known about.
‘No,’ she’d said to Giles, gently but firmly. ‘This is something I have to do. I’ll take Willow with me.’
And that’s what had happened. They’d gone to stay with Willow’s parents, who were still in California, although not in Sunnydale, of course. That was still a hole in the ground. The phrase ‘with Willow’s parents’ assumed some sort of parental presence. But, Willow’s parents were off doing their own thing – Buffy hadn’t listened to just what that was, because she was too busy listening to her own heart as they got closer to California. And too busy listening to her own fear.
Now she has something to be fearful about.
Angel is curled up into as small a ball as he can manage. He’s in what might have been a riverbed, although never a river of water. Whatever scoured out this coiling, snaking depression in the landscape has undercut the banking here, making an Angel-sized recess into which the fire herded him. When he fell into an exhausted parody of sleep, charred tree roots made a curtain for the tiny refuge.
Awake again, he raises his head, still tired beyond belief, and the roots are gone. In their place are sword blades, hanging in all directions. He won’t be left to lie here, so he’s going to have to push his way out through them. Even as he thinks that, more blades begin to drive through the earth around him. He feels the razor-sharp slice of every gash, and then he accepts the inevitable and presses through the barrier in front of him. The blades are everywhere. It’s a landscape of glittering steel.
He’s been here before. He knows that he is going to be cut to ribbons, but he is still going to have to run. Already, he can feel the flow of blood over his skin from wounds large and small, yet when he looks down at himself, his flesh is unmarked, pristine. Again, he wonders whether it is true flesh or spirit flesh, but he still has no answer to that question. Blades have now lacerated his back and agony flares along every nerve. It’s no more than a gentle reminder, and so he grits his teeth and runs.
The doorbell rings just as Willow puts the last of the food on to cook. They could have had takeout, or she could have magicked dinner up, but Willow somehow feels that the magic of domestic science is more appropriate. She hopes she’s right, and that they don’t finish up with burnt offerings. She knows that she is no domestic goddess.
She’s learned to pause before answering a door, any door, with gay abandon. That way lay the final termination of many a life insurance policy, not that she’s got one of those.
“Yes?” she asks, standing in the hall and twisting the tea towel into ever more complex shapes.
“It’s me, Will.”
Buffy sounds tired and drained, but she sounds like Buffy. Willow opens the door. Her friend smiles a thin smile as she steps over the threshold.
“Smells good, Will. I’m going to have a shower first.”
Willow does some quick mental arithmetic, and resigns herself to a little magical tinkering.
“Sure,” she says. “Twenty minutes?” She can see that the shower is something of an excuse, that what Buffy wants is perhaps a little alone time, hard to find on a bus. She will worry over that until she knows what Buffy found in L.A. Or, more likely, what she didn’t find.
Buffy nods and heads upstairs to her room. It’s half an hour before she reappears, and clearly she might have washed her face in soap and water, but she’s washed it in tears, too.
There’s nothing like a roast chicken dinner, and that’s what Willow serves up now. For a wonder, the chicken is cooked through, and the roast potatoes aren’t charred black. Buffy eats with every evidence of relish, but Willow is pretty sure that her friend hasn’t tasted a bite. She’s just going through the motions to please her. At last, Willow can’t stand it any longer. She’s beginning to wish she’d gone to Los Angeles with Buffy, although it’s always been clear that the Slayer wanted to go alone.
“Buffy, what did you find?” she blurts out, as soon as Buffy stops pushing around the last of the food and puts down her knife and fork. At the look that Buffy turns on her, she feels as though she’s going to hyperventilate. She takes a deep breath. “Did you find Angel?”
“I think he’s gone, Will. I think Wolfram and Hart finished him.”
“No! No, that can’t be!” It’s an almost physical pain that Willow feels. These two were supposed to conquer all obstacles and have a future together. She’d set herself that goal, the task of finding a way to make Angel’s soul safe, and if Angel is truly gone... It just can’t be.
“Start at the beginning,” she commands, sounding more masterful than she feels.
“Everything looks normal, except that the Wolfram and Hart office block is completely empty. But then, so is the Hyperion. But the hotel looks as though Angel and his team just walked out of there this morning. Wolfram and Hart looks as though it’s been abandoned since the turn of the century. The last century.”
“But?” Willow prompts.
Buffy sighs. “Angel must have done something, because there are... groupies, I suppose you’d call them.”
“Groupies?” Willow squeaks. She’s finding it hard to visualize Armageddon with groupies.
“Nutjobs,” Buffy amplifies.
“But did Angel really summon a dragon?” This is the rumour that crept its way to Giles, words hidden in the dark, embarrassed to see the light of day.
Buffy shakes her head. “Let me show you what I got. There was this guy staking out the alley next to the Hyperion. He said that was where all the action went down, and there’s a whole group of them on Facebook, taking turns to keep a watch on the place. They’ve got pictures but... Will, I don’t understand it. They can’t seem to see what’s in the pictures!”
Willow is mystified. “What do you mean?”
Buffy bends down to her bag and takes out her phone. “I got him to download the pictures to me. He was the one who took them, but he was drunk when he did, coming home from a stag night. He’d thought about taking a cab, but decided the walk would do him good before he got back to his Mom and Dad’s.”
She’s shuffling through pictures, and Willow pulls a chair round to sit next to her.
“He said they were all out of focus, or he’d have made a mint by selling them. This is the first one.”
The picture that Buffy shows her will definitely improve by being on a bigger screen, but Willow can see clearly enough for now. It’s pin sharp, despite the darkness of night, as though the camera has picked up some other source of light. There’s an alley, and it is full of horrors. Space seems to have acquired an extra dimension, because an alley couldn’t possibly hold an army, and yet it does. She’s heard something before that describes it perfectly. It’s bigger on the inside.
She can’t see who is opposing this army, because all these horrors have their backs to the camera, but she can make a pretty good guess.
“He couldn’t see the image?” she whispers.
“None of them could. All the group have copies, but they think they’re useless.” Buffy thumbs the screen. The second image is even more shocking.
A huge shape blots out the demonic army, its wings causing a cloud of dust and detritus as they beat backwards to settle the huge beast behind the army. It’s a dragon, there can be no doubt. Wings, long snaking neck, a head that looks too much like a crocodile on steroids; no, there’s no doubt, because Willow can see them clearly.
“It came to help Angel?” she asks, hoping against hope.
“No.” Buffy thumbs the screen again. The picture is filled with fire. The dragon has opened its jaws and it is breathing out an inferno of white flame. Inside that inferno, like Daniel in the fiery furnace, a man is limned against the searing light. He is holding a sword, and it is raised to attack, as though he would leap down the beast’s throat and attack it from within, just as he said he would do with Wolfram and Hart. Because it’s him. Willow would know that silhouette anywhere, and Buffy knows it so much better. It’s Angel. He’s trying to slay the dragon, but it looks as though the dragon has just slain him.
Silently, Buffy thumbs the screen again. There’s just the alley. There’s nothing else at all. It’s as though the whole army has been swallowed up by that extra dimension in space that allowed them to be there in the first place. Army, dragon, Angel, they are all gone. And more than that. The alley is pristine. It has been swept completely clean. Willow and Buffy could have eaten their chicken dinner off the floor of it.
“It’s magic,” Willow says, dully. “The reason the groupies can’t see it on the pictures. Magic is protecting it. Only people like us can see it.”
She shuts up before she starts to babble, because she’s thinking as well as talking. She can feel the magic, even through the camera, but it hasn’t got the stickiness of dark magic. What if... what if it’s the other way round, and the magic is the only thing allowing the two of them to see these pictures? What if a different Power has done this just for them? The question then would be, Why?
Her train of thought is interrupted. “He’s dead, Will. He couldn’t possibly have survived that. I’ve walked that alley again and again. It’s still too clean to be a real alley, and there is no trace of anything. No ash, no nothing, but he couldn’t have lived.”
Buffy’s bound to be right, of course, but what if...
Angel has woken to a new hell. Now, it’s raining, but it isn’t anything that could be recognised as rain. Overhead, a bruised-looking purple and green sky is weeping razor-edged shards of glass, steel blades heated to white heat and ice-rimed stones heavy enough to break bone. His body is one entire locus of agony, but he has no choice except to run. A while ago, he reached the point of believing that the torments could not be worse, and he curled up against a rock face. He learned his error, though, as the downpour of projectiles thickened around him, swirling into a tornado intended to flay his flesh from his bones. So now he runs.
He flinches as a fragment of glass lays his cheek open. A blade scores a burning, bloody furrow down his back, from shoulder to thigh. A piece of iron meteorite the size of his fist cracks his cheek bone. Yet, his skin is unmarked and his bones whole.
He remembers the Hell that Buffy sent him to, and this is so much worse. He lost his mind then, but it still didn’t stop the pain. He hangs on to his sanity now because only with all his faculties does he have a chance of finding the slimmest hope of escape, but he’s been here for so long that he’s hanging on by his fingernails.
There’s a horizon. He doesn’t know how close or how far that horizon might be, but it’s lined with towering clouds. He doesn’t know what they are clouds of – smoke or steam or dragon’s breath, but from hell to hell he’s learned that when the clouds are overhead, his surroundings change. Where there is change, there might be an edge, and an edge might mean a gap. He starts to slant towards that horizon, as the sharp and burning rain sleets down harder.
Both girls have tossed and turned all night. When Willow gets down to the kitchen, Buffy is pouring orange juice and making scrambled eggs.
“I was thinking...” they both say together. They stop, uncertain.
“You go first,” Willow says.
Buffy stirs the defenceless eggs savagely. “If Angel’s dead, what if Wolfram and Hart have trapped his soul?”
That has occurred to Willow. “You want me to call it back?” She knows how to use an Orb of Thesulah. In fact, she feels well-practiced at that particular piece of magic, thanks to Angelus. She’d feel happier with a body to put the soul into, though. Otherwise, she’ll have to find out how long you can safely keep a soul in the Orb. But she’s had other thoughts, too, and so has Buffy.
“But he’s done so much, saved so many. What if he’s dead, and his soul has gone to Heaven? I couldn’t... wouldn’t... ask you to pull him out of there.”
Buffy turns a stricken face to Willow, and sees that her friend’s face wears the same look, but for a different reason. Buffy can never forget the all-encompassing love and peace that she lost; Willow can never forget that she brought the Slayer back to Hell on Earth.
Buffy turns back to the eggs. “Put some toast on, Will,” she instructs in a colourless voice, and Willow obeys.
“Or,” says Buffy, still in that same colourless voice, “he could still be alive, and a prisoner somewhere.”
That is what Willow has been turning over in her mind: how to know which is right. She hasn’t found an answer, and there is only silence as they both consider the possibilities.
“So,” she says, as she butters the toast, “if we pick one, we’ve got a one in three chance of getting it right, but a two in three chance of saving him from an appalling fate?”
Wordlessly, Buffy scrapes the eggs onto the toast, and puts the plates on either side of the table.
“Will, could you find him? And if you did, would you know whether we should... leave him.”
“Have you got something of his?”
Buffy hesitates, then pulls Angel’s silver cross from under the neckline of her top.
“Can you work with this?”
The claddagh ring would be better, but Willow knows that is lost and gone. Is the cross enough?
“Did you make any promises on it?”
Buffy is silent for a moment. “No, but he said he loved me at first sight, so when he gave it me, he already loved me.”
The cross and Buffy... Willow steels herself to ask the most difficult questions, questions that have stood unasked and unanswered between them for long enough, now.
“Are there any promises still between you?”
Buffy wonders whether half-done baked goods counts as a promise, and decides probably not, or not enough for Willow’s purpose. She has to go back further, to a promise that she knows in her heart is still true.
“Sometimes, he would ask me if I was still his girl.”
“And what did you say?”
“Do you still love him?”
Buffy looks down at the congealed egg on her plate. “Yes.” Her voice is small, as though whispering a secret that should never be said aloud.
Willow knows that Angel was told that they no longer trusted him after he went to Wolfram and Hart – sold out to Wolfram and Hart. That Buffy no longer trusted him. Nothing will work if that much is true.
“And do you still trust him?”
Buffy remains silent.
“Buffy, love is an act of faith, an act of absolute trust. Do you still see the truth of him?”
Buffy’s reply is anguished. “Yes! Yes, I do. I can’t help it. I know that as long as he’s Angel... Even despite Wolfram and Hart. I was just so angry with him...”
Now that that boil has been lanced, Willow thinks she has something to work with.
“Hold the cross between your palms.”
She arranges Buffy’s hands so that she seems to be praying. The silver chain hangs from them. Then she places her own hands over Buffy’s, interlacing their fingers so that they are both touching the silver cross.
“Now think about him. You must allow your feelings to... you know... Well, focus on how much you love and trust him.”
“Is this going to involve any black veins, Will? Because that was pretty bad. Or any white hair? We can do without any of that.”
Willow shakes her head vigorously. She can definitely do without either of those. But, this is something she learned from Rack, so she isn’t entirely sure about the black veins. She doesn’t say anything, in case Buffy hears the half-lie on her lips.
Buffy seems satisfied, and closes her eyes. Willow starts to work. She gently tugs at the strands of natural magic all around them, weaving them together until they are strong enough. Then she anchors them to the cross between their conjoined hands, and sends each strand questing for the desired object. Now Willow has access all areas.
It isn’t the same as if Dawn had been a glowing green gas, and opened up the dimensions. Willow thinks of it more as plugging in the TV and twiddling the aerial until you find what you’re looking for. She shuffles through the things she can see, knowing that Buffy can see them, too. Then she finds what she’s looking for, and her stomach wants to empty itself. Her breath catches in her throat, perhaps held by her heart, which seems to have taken up residence there, and left her chest an empty cavity. She feels rather than hears Buffy’s sob. It’s worse than her worst fears.
Angel is running through a world of tooth and claw. With every step, something lunges at him, trying to bring him down. Great, curving claws lash out of undergrowth or swirling mists, grappling his legs, his arms, his body. Yellowed ivory fangs, as sharp as scimitars, rip at shoulders, thighs, ribs.
He stumbles from a long finger of forest, where every tree concealed a monster, where roots grew claws, and branches grew horns. Before him, a plain stretches out for miles, under drifting patches of fog. Dark lines of forest surround the plain. He knows what to expect there now, but the plain is something new.
A fistful of talons rake down his back, as though to urge him forward. He stumbles over tussocks of coarse grass, and then he learns of the fresh horrors waiting for him. With every step, the ground opens up, in front of him, or to the side. The pits are the homes of monsters, wanting to swallow him up.
He’s hardly managed a handful of strides before a fang-filled maw gapes open beneath him, dragging him down until he’s waist deep. He sobs as the knife-like teeth dig deep into his flesh, and the monster tries to pull him down. He grasps the edges of the pit, heaving himself up. The fangs slice through muscle and he can’t help but scream as he hauls himself back up, shredding flesh from bloody bone.
He’s got both elbows on the ground when a huge, muscular, reptilian tail, wrapped around with heavy chains, lashes out at him. It breaks his shoulder and almost takes his head off. He kicks out at the jaws around him, and then heaves with all his strength. The teeth slide through his hips, his thighs, his lower legs, and then he’s free. The tail crashes into him again, and he feels his pelvis snap. He’s whole, of course, but the agony is no less for that. His legs won’t hold him yet, but he can’t stay here. The earth rumbles beneath him, foretelling another opening maw, the great, punishing tail swings at him again, and he wants to weep, but all his tears were shed long ago. Instead, he pushes himself to his feet, and he starts to run again, stumbling until his muscles and tendons remember how to work.
Willow and Buffy are frozen in place at the kitchen table. Willow could break the contact – and she must, soon – but first she needs to establish exactly who they are watching; Angel’s soul; Angel’s demon; or the complete Angel, alive and in the flesh. She reaches out to him while trying to remain undetected by the Powers that rule that place, using the tiniest strand of magic to find out which Angel it is.
She knows the feel of Angel’s naked soul. It has touched her magic before, when she’s had cause to give it back to him. She would recognize it anywhere. It was steel, wrapped around with passion and regret, and stitched with a surprisingly gentle compassion. She has never felt the touch of his naked demon, and she’s glad of that. But she has to know. If this isn’t his soul, if it’s Angelus in this Hell, she should leave him there.
The magic slides over him, and he stiffens, raising his head to look around.
“Angel!” Buffy cries out, and he swivels round. He hears her, and the agony of disbelief on his face wrenches at Willow’s heart. A creature, hidden by the mist, spears him through with a horn as long as he is, and he screams again as he tries to push himself off it.
Willow has seen enough, and she doesn’t want Buffy to have to see any more. She withdraws her magic and closes the connection. She has its measure now. She can find it whenever she needs to.
She opens her hands, and that gives some sort of signal to Buffy. The Slayer jumps to her feet and paces in the confined spaces of the kitchen.
“Will, is it him? Really him?”
One look at Buffy’s face tells Willow that Buffy has already made her mind up, and she’s right to do so.
“Yes.” She only had glimpses of his soul, wrapped in flesh as it is, glimpses made possible by the unnatural magic of the place, but she’s certain. “Yes, it’s him, and he isn’t dead.”
“It’s all my fault.”
“Buffy, you can’t say that. It’s Wolfram and Hart, it has to be.”
“No, Will. I mean, he wouldn’t have done this if I hadn’t let him think I didn’t trust him. He must have felt he had something to prove. It is my fault. He... he can’t have been down there for long, can he? It’s only been a few months.”
Willow recognizes the plea for what it is. They can both remember Angel’s disclosure that he’d been in Acathla’s Hell for a hundred years. Willow’s thought about that a lot. Angel was mindless when he returned, incapable of anything except raw instinct and the raw power of the soul over the demon. He certainly wasn’t capable of keeping track of the calendar. So, he might remember a hundred years, but how long was the period when he didn’t remember? Time in that Hell didn’t march in step with Time on Earth, and Willow has no reason to suppose that this one is any different.
“Of course it’s only been months,” she says quickly, trying to look as though she believes it, and hoping that Buffy doesn’t notice. Then she sees Buffy carefully not noticing, and stands up to take the Slayer into her arms.
“Can you get me down there? I have to help him, get him out.”
“No, Buffy, I won’t do that. You would be trapped there, too, and it’s a place made for him, not you.”
Anger and despair colour Buffy’s expression in equal measure. “You have to!” she hisses. “We can’t just leave him!”
“We won’t! I promise.”
That is something Willow is feeling more and more confident about. She’s learned a lot of things about magic, and she thinks she knows how to do it. There are a few things she needs to check, and things she’ll need to buy, of course. It isn’t as though she’s done this before...
And then there’s the fact that it’s a Wolfram and Hart Hell, she’s sure of that, and something to do with that wretched dragon. It’s as though Angel has been caught in a web of torments made from the dragon.
The magic she’ll need is largely the magic she learned from Rack, with a few bells and whistles. So, it might involve some of the black-veined Willow. She trusts Buffy, though, and she trusts Angel. She loves her friends and, as she said to Buffy, love is an act of trust. She trusts them to bring her back, if necessary, just as she will bring back Angel.
It was her fault that he was sucked down into Acathla’s Hell. She was too weak, too late in restoring his soul. If she had been quicker, that need never have happened. She owes him for that hell, and it’s her responsibility to get him out of this one.
She knows about Epiphany, and the Magi with their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, and before Epiphany arrives, she intends to give a gift more valuable than any of those. Angel’s restoration.
“We need to start making a list,” she declares firmly, and then, when Christmas Day is done, and the buses are running again, she’ll send Buffy back to LA, in case Angel reappears in that alley. But come back he will. She promises it. When he’s safely home, she will light the Hanukah candles and make her own festival of fire and light.