Giles took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. The stairwell was almost unbearably humid, and the air seemed to get thicker with each step downward. It looked like the stairwell had been cut out of solid rock, a spiraling stone passageway that did not want to end. There was light, oddly enough: a scarlet glow that emanated from the steps, a level of brightness sufficient to find the next step without slipping.
The Watcher alternated his attention between the steps and the leader of their motley group, the Slayer. He couldnt stop himself from staring at her, analyzing her every move, her every word. Three months ago, she was his charge, the daughter he never had, the young girl who always went to him for guidance and wisdom. Now, well, she was a woman, confident and self-assured, the sharpness of her gaze revealing the active intelligence within. They still hadnt had time to talk about her journey, but he already knew that she was different. Harder, maybe. He remembered seeing glimpses of the true leader she always was back in Sunnydale, but whatever had happened over the last three months had burned that role into her psyche. He thought about the vampire, Steven. Buffy had told him that she would let him go after he had finished helping them, but now Giles wondered. Would she really let a vampire go, especially when she knew that he would kill again? Yet she gave her word. The old Buffy would have agonized over this betrayal for days, but the new Buffy Well have to see, thought Giles.
The stairwell was getting brighter, and a few seconds later, they found themselves in a large bowl-shaped cavern about a hundred feet in diameter. In the center was a ring of stones, and within the ring, colours danced in complex but discernable patterns. Giles guessed that this ring of stones and colour was the portal to Hell. However, between them and the ring of stones were three demons, one of which had red, armour-like skin much like a Balasta demons, and the other two were big, hulking creatures that probably had the intelligence of network executives.
The Balasta demon stepped forward with arms raised in a welcoming gesture.
Excellent! I was hoping that you would make it down here. I have had so few opportunities for entertainment in the last several decades, so I hope youre up to the challenge.
Buffy smiled. I take it youre The Boss?
I am indeed, little girl. Please, make my day and tell me youre a Slayer.
Ill tell you what. Ill kick your bony butt all over this place for a while, and then Ill let you decide for yourself.
The Boss laughed. Oh, but youre feisty. I like that.
Buffy turned to look at her friends. Is it just me, or are the tough talkers always the ones who go down easy?
Giles arched an eyebrow. Are you referring to our adversary or yourself?
Her mouth opened, then her face changed to something a little less arrogant. I wish I was sure about that.
Here they come, guys, said Xander anxiously.
Giles pulled a short sword from the sheath strapped to his back. Before he could say anything, Buffy took command.
Spread out to give me room, Ill take the big guy, and be careful.
* * *
Xander groaned and shook his head to clear it. His back felt like it had been stepped on by an elephant. He supposed that was from being thrown against the rock wall by Mister Bossman. Oh, the fight had started out okay. He and Oz had taken on one of the big dummy demons, and after he had tripped the bastard with his spear, Oz had driven a sword into the things spine. Meanwhile, Giles and Willow had fought the other big dummy demon, and it looked like a fancy light show, what with all the spellcasting and such. What he had not seen was Buffy being tossed across the room like a rag doll, although he had heard her yelling as she went by. That was it, of course. They had all converged on The Boss with murderous intent, but the next thing Xander knew, he was crashing into a rock wall.
He got to his knees, panting. I guess my back isnt broken if I can get this far, he thought. He struggled to his feet, blinked, and shook his head again. Near the ring of stones, The Boss was standing over Buffys unmoving body, chuckling madly. Xander forced himself to get closer. He couldnt see the others, although he didnt try turning his head. For some superstitious reason, he thought that if he took his eyes off Buffy, the demon would kill her.
Such a waste, The Boss was saying, and I thought I would get a decent fight out of you, Slayer. You didnt even make me bleed!
Xander coughed. Hey, ugly. How about picking on someone your own size?
The demons head swiveled slowly to stare at the teenager.
Well, I wasnt necessarily talking about me, of course. I mean, Godzillas been kinda bored lately, and I hear King Kongs talking about coming out of retirement.
The Boss grunted. Are you finished, human?
Oh, I can babble for quite some time yet. It seems that whenever my life is in imminent danger, I can talk nonsense for hours on end. Its an unharvested talent, really, much unappreciated by my peers, and
The Balasta demon had moved away from Buffy and now stood right in front of him. I prefer silence. He raised his fist, and Xander closed his eyes in anticipation of the inevitable. Okay, Buffy, now would be a good time to wake up and take care of business, huh, what do you say, Buffster? No rush or anything, but Im about to die, so any help you can give would be just ducky, Buffy. Hey, ducky, Buffy, that rhymes, what do you know? Uh, shouldnt I be dead now?
He opened his eyes to see an arm as thick as his torso, and a hand on the end of this massive arm clutching The Boss by the throat.
Balrog, The Boss said hoarsely, you cant hurt me. The spell forbids it. Now release me before I get angry.
Xander ducked out of the way and staggered over to Buffy, who was still unconscious. Buffy? Come on, Buffy, youre missing the best part. Suddenly Josh was there, and they pulled her over to the side.
Sorry we were late, said the bartender. Balrog had a hard time getting down the stairs. Those wings, you know.
Xander turned his head to look at Balrog, who made the word large seem inadequate. Right.
Balrog still had his hand around the Boss throat, but it looked like he was faltering. Want go home, said the massive creature in shattered English. You get me home.
Home? Let go of me first. Balrog hesitated for a few moments, then released his grip. The Boss coughed a few times, massaging his throat. Home? You imbecile! Youre working for me! Youre the best bouncer Ive ever had, Im not letting you go now.
Buffys eyes fluttered, and she said in a weak voice, Balrog, I wouldnt take that if I were you.
Shut up, you little troll. Now you listen to me, you big lummox! Get back upstairs, find those two idiots that let these humans in here, and rip them apart! Got me?
Balrog turned his head to cast his sad eyes on Buffy. Balrog no hurt boss. Balrog want hurt boss, but He flexed his hands. No hurt.
Buffy smiled. Throw him into the portal, Balrog. That wont hurt him at all.
What? yelled The Boss. Dont you dare! This is my club, and youre my bouncer, now
Balrog grabbed The Boss by the neck again and lifted him off the ground. The bouncer made a noise that sounded like a chuckle. Boss go hell, spell gone?
Only one way to find out, Balrog, replied the Slayer.
The Boss struggled to free himself from the larger demons iron grip. No, Balrog, Ill set you free, I promise, just let me go.
Balrog brought his burden up to the ring of stones. Inside the ring, a pool of dancing colours waited hungrily. He reached over and, with a expression that Xander figured was a grin, dropped The Boss into the pool. The Balasta demons angry yell reverberated around the room, and then he was gone.
Slam dunk, my man! cried Josh happily.
Balrog turned, and immediately started to fade. Balrog go home, he said. Raising his hand in a wave, he disappeared.
* * *
Xander and Josh helped Buffy to her feet.
Thanks, guys. She nodded at the bartender. Your timing was pretty good.
Im all about suspense, Josh replied, grinning. Willow was helping a limping Giles over to the group. Buffy caught a movement out of the corner of her eye, and she spun around, pointing a stake at a vampire who was trying to sneak his way out.
Not so fast, pal.
Steven held his hands out in surrender. Oh, come on. Were done here, arent we? The bad guys gone to Hell, the good guys have won, and now I can go.
Buffy walked over to the vampire and took him by the arm. Look, you knew all along what was going to happen, right?
What do you mean? Steven asked warily, although Buffy could see in his eyes that he did know after all. Giles had a curious look to him, too.
I cant let you go. Im the Slayer, remember? I cant let you go back to your human-killing lifestyle.
But I helped you. Without me, you might never have gotten this far.
Thats true, but there was always something else in it for you, right?
Steven hung his head. My memoirs.
Buffy glanced at Giles, and bless his heart, he knew what she wanted.
Well, said the Watcher, I have a publisher friend in London. I can give her your memoirs and she can try and get them published.
Really? Youre not yanking me around here?
Watchers Honor, Steven. I promise.
The vampire had looked defeated, but now, with the hope that his memoirs might get some readers, his demeanor had changed for the better. He sighed.
All right, then.
Okay, Steven. I need one last good deed from you.
* * *
He didnt look at all nervous, standing there at the edge of the pool, watching the colours spin and curl around. Buffy thought she would have been nervous. Heck, she had actually considered being the one to do this in the first place. However, the weeks since Whistlers stunning announcement had shown her that her place was here, with her friends, doing good things, saving lives. It struck her suddenly that through all her adventures, not once was she able to get the job done on her own. Each time, she had needed help. She glanced around at her friends with a smile. How foolish she had been, to forget something as simple as that.
Steven looked back at them. So Id be going to Hell either way, right?
Giles saved her from answering. Im afraid so.
And Im doing a good thing here?
Most definitely, replied Buffy.
Steven returned his gaze to the colours. Quietly, he said, Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, somebody might notice the good amongst all the evil. Perhaps a moment might be spared to consider forgiveness.
I think thats how it works, said Willow.
Steven smiled. I hope hes worth it. He jumped.
When he hit the Portal, time seemed to stop, then reality spun around them like a carousel out of control.
The colours leaped into the air, resolved themselves into a human form that flew over them in a slow arc, landing on the cavern floor with a thump, and thats when everything went back to normal.
Buffy rushed to the humans side.
She took his head in her hands and whispered, Angel.
Angel opened his eyes and whispered, Buffy.
They kissed, and the world seemed to spin around them again before doing a slow fade
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