Part 7

Buffy held the portal talisman tightly in one hand, her mind working overtime for an answer she knew wouldn’t come. She had been so sure she would be able to find a way to bring Angel back with her. She’d convinced herself of that, mistaking a distant hope for a sure thing. Of all places, Hell should have held the answer. But there was no answer, none that she could find, anyway. And to stay any longer in hopes of finding one would only risk trapping both of them in the demon plane forever.

Whistler and his damned choices.

She looked toward the center of the courtyard of Prophet’s palace, where Angel was sitting on a stone bench. He was watching the supernatural breeze ruffle the flowering garden Lillith had planted in this realm of death. Why she had wanted this small patch of beauty, Buffy couldn’t fathom. Perhaps it was simplistic to think of Elder Powers as either good or evil. Maybe they were something more complicated than that. People were, certainly. Why not Powers, too?

She approached Angel quietly. He looked so very content for the first time she had known him, as if the weight of the universe had been lifted from his shoulders. He was happy. How could she possibly tell him the truth?

“It’s time to go,” she said.

Angel turned and smiled at her. “I forgot to pack.”

“We’ll pick you out a new wardrobe when we get back home,” she said. She hoped her smile was convincing.

“So, do you want a big wedding or a small one?” he asked, rising and taking her hand.

She fought back tears and tried to steady her voice. “Big. Definitely big.”

With a deep breath, she crushed the little crystal talisman between her thumb and forefinger. A hush seemed to fall over the courtyard, and several feet away, the air was rent by a bright, argent sliver. The sliver lengthened, forming a thin upright bar of light ten feet high. Then it began to widen into a gray-blue oval of swirling energy.

“Ready?” asked Buffy. “You first.”

Angel gazed at the portal for long seconds, his smile faltering, then vanishing completely. He looked down at her, his eyes sad. “I love you more than life, but please don’t try to trick me. That’s a Leiffert Gate. One person, one time only. If I go first, you can’t follow.”

“I won’t leave you behind. Not after I sent you here. Not after I made you vulnerable again to every dark thing that infests this place,” said Buffy.

“You know you have to go. The world needs the Slayer. And I wouldn’t let you stay even if you weren’t.”

Tears welled up in her eyes and she nodded. “Damn you, Angel. I knew, if I told you, you’d have to be the knight in shining armor. Why the hell do you have to be so noble, huh?”

“Because you made me that way,” he said.

“We can’t seem to catch a break, can we?” she asked, her voice choked.

“Doesn’t seem so.”

She sighed raggedly. “I hoped I could think of away, that I’d find something here to change it. But I can’t change it. I failed you. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’ll find a way back to you. I promise.”

Buffy nodded and reached behind her neck to unclasp the delicate silver chain that held her crucifix, the very cross he had given her all those years ago in a dark alley in Sunnydale, the night they first met. She handed the necklace to him, holding her palm in his much longer than necessary.

“Remember me,” she said quietly.

“Always,” Angel said.

She embraced him, holding him tight, afraid to let go knowing that to do so would be to never hold him again. She looked up into his face.

“Close your eyes,” she whispered.

He did, and she kissed him deeply and for a long time. Then in one smooth, lightning-quick motion, she took him off balance and shoved him hard toward the yawning portal. Surprise and momentary incomprehension flashed across his face, then understanding even as the portal caught him in its inexorable grip.

“No!” he shouted.

“I love you,” she mouthed silently.

He managed to reach out. His fingers brushed hers for an instant, and then he was gone. The portal flared bright and then contracted to a small, silver point hanging for a brief moment in space before it vanished, leaving only silence in its passing.

“I love you,” she said aloud.

Buffy sat in the courtyard of the empty palace for a very long time, her mind lost and wandering. Numbness slowly edged out sadness, and with the numbness came a strange sort of clarity she’d never really known before. A clarity and, more importantly, a sense once more of who she was. For so long, it had seemed a choice between being Buffy Summers and being the Slayer, as if they were two beings inhabiting the same body. Now she understood that they were one in the same, and that to deny one was to destroy the other as well.

She stood, feeling strangely calm, and looked out into the vast expanse of Hell. She smiled.

Angel was home. And so was she.

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