Angel stared blankly down the dingy alleyway that was neither real nor a dream. He felt like he had finally removed the blinders for the first time in a lifetime. He felt alive and alone. No, not alone. That wasn't right. Something was missing, but his former connection to Buffy was stronger than ever. He could feel her inside his heart, inside his soul. He was experiencing their connection without interference.
He shook his head sharply, disgusted with himself. For year upon year, he had allowed himself to be influenced by something so slowly creeping and insidious that he hadn't even noticed the change. The darkness had preyed upon his disillusionment, his pain, his quest for vengeance. It had used him as a means to an end.
"You didn't honestly think a mere boy could have defeated Vocah, did you?"
Angel swiveled around and stared at ... himself. He knew it wasn't him. Angel was himself, truly himself, for the first time in as long as he could remember. But the darkness, the demon had taken a form very similar to his own. The mirror wasn't perfect. The demon's flesh was a pale, luminous white and its entire eyes were black as coal. The demon smiled coldly, baring fangs. This was the creature that had slowly been taking over Angel's life, influencing his actions ... until Buffy.
"Oh yes, little Buffy," the demon cooed. "I'm going to love watching her die."
Angel bristled. "You're not getting near her," he snarled.
The demon laughed. "And who's going to stop me?" it asked with a smirk. "You?" It walked around Angel in a wide circle, looking him up and down. "You don't have the strength to stop me. For a decade you've hidden behind me, cowering in my shadow while I greatly surpassed your pitiful potential."
Angel stopped himself from flinching, but the demon's words hit home. Was it right? Had he allowed this creature to act in his stead because it was easier than facing life himself?
Angel knew with a certainty that sickened him, that the demon's words held more truth than he would like to admit. He had indeed allowed himself to be subsumed by the demon, trading his pain and helplessness for power. If it hadn't been for Buffy, Angel never would have pulled out of the spiral. He would have continued to be drawn deeper into the demon until he was no more.
"This is my life," Angel said, "and I want it back."
The demon's smile was absolutely mirthless. "I was hoping you'd say that," it snarled before launching himself at Angel.
"Where is he?" Buffy demanded. "Dammit, help me."
The gypsy's expression was sober. "I can help you no more," she said softly. "He is here, but you must find him."
Buffy pursed her lips together in frustration, but turned away and ran up the dingy basement stairs. She burst through the door at the top and found herself in some dirty, urban landscape. She ran blindly, searching.
Angel lost his balance and the demon took advantage. It shoved him into the wall face first. Angel was dazed and had little time to recover before the demon grabbed him by the nape of the neck and sent him skidding over the grimy, oil-slicked pavement.
He tumbled, rolling until he smacked hard against the far alley wall. The demon was still unfazed, smiling at him with a patient malevolence that chilled Angel to the bone. Maybe this hadn't been such a bright idea.
Buffy ran until she thought her lungs were going to explode. Still, no sign of Angel. She skittered to a halt, her heart pounding in her chest. She stared up at the night sky, or what passed for the night sky inside of Angel's dreams.
"Dammit, Angel, where are you?" she whispered. Inside, she knew something was wrong. She could feel his doubt, his pain. She needed to find him.
She walked over to the front of one of the buildings in this deserted cityscape. She leaned back against it and proceeded to slide down the wall until she was huddled on the sidewalk.
Her pout was interrupted by something digging into her hip. It was hard to wallow in misery when you weren't comfortable. She pushed herself up on her knees and shoved her hand into the pocket of her jeans. She pulled out the Nottis stone.
Buffy stared at the stone for several seconds. Had she had it this whole time? She looked at the carving of the great cat. Tears pricked at her eyes. She had to find Angel. She held the stone in her hand and pressed it over her heart. Her eyes closed and she concentrated on feeling Angel.
Moments later, she jumped to her feet, swiveled around and took off running.
Angel grimaced as the demon slammed him into the wall. He could feel ribs crack. Whether or not they were actually physically breaking, he didn't know, but they hurt like hell and they impeded his ability to move. The demon snarled, lunging for his neck and Angel managed to twist away. Unfortunately, he only made it a few steps before he stumbled and fell.
The demon pinned him to the ground, snarling in his face. "It's too bad that you're going to miss all the things I do to her," he spat. "You always held me back, always kept me from ever being truly vicious. No more. Your sweet little love is going to discover the true meaning of horror at her beloved's hands."
Angel shook his head. "No!" he bellowed.
As Buffy ran, she felt the stone in her hand getting warmer and warmer. She ignored it for as long as she could, desperate to reach Angel, but it began to burn and she was forced to stop. She opened her hand. The stone glowed a white hot. It should have been burning through her hand, but it wasn't. The heat was uncomfortable, but not excruciating.
As she watched, the shape began to writhe and twist. The great cat's shape grew longer and longer as the little square stone transformed itself into a blade. The color changed as the transformation completed and Buffy found herself holding a perfect dagger made from the same black rock as the Nottis stone.
"No!" she heard Angel rage.
Buffy quickly rounded the corner and saw Angel pinned to the ground, a snarling dark shape over him. She didn't have time to think. The demon was going to kill Angel.
She ran towards them, hurling herself at the dark shape. She buried the blade in the middle of the demon's back.
It roared, rearing back, reaching out for her with clawed hands. Buffy could tell the demon had been trying to imitate Angel's form, but to her it looked like a mad caricature. She would never have been fooled.
She skittered backwards and it followed her, crawling after her, blood dripping from its mouth. Behind them, Angel managed to get to his feet and ran, grabbing Buffy as he went. They ran several yards down the alley, well out of the demon's reach.
Angel looked at Buffy, swamped with relief. He'd honestly thought he'd never see her again. He pulled her to his chest, mindless of his wounds. Buffy burrowed against him, crying.
The demon collapsed to the ground, screaming. A white light shown from its mouth and eyes. The light grew brighter and brighter until it burned away everything else.
Buffy woke to find Angel staring at her. The light was a weak pink, signaling the fact that it was just after dawn. The room was empty, save them. She scrambled into a sitting position, her hand automatically going out to cup his cheek. She gasped at the contact, staring at him with wonder. Where his eyes had always possessed a cold, black, vaguely reptilian feel, they were now a rich, dark mahogany. His skin beneath her hand was warmer, pinker, not the bleached alabaster she had always known.
Slowly, he covered her hand with his own and tears flowed down her cheeks. There had always been a connection between them, a bond she couldn't explain, but now that sensation was staggering. She took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. "What happened?" she asked, her voice full of wonder.
"You found me," he said.
She burst into sobs, wrapping herself around him. He cuddled her closer, whispering to her in ShadowTongue as he pressed soft kisses to her forehead. She abruptly pulled out of his embrace, pushing herself into a sitting position, straddling his supine form. She didn't even bother with the buttons, she just grabbed the halves of his pajama top and pulled. His chest was flawless, no bruises, no cuts, no broken ribs.
"It wasn't real," he said softly.
She looked at him, her expression hard. "It was real."
He swallowed thickly, accepting her words. Slowly, his hand came out to cup her cheek. "I love you, Buffy."
She leaned forward, kissing him gently. He didn't want gentle. He'd come so close to losing her and he needed to reassure himself that she was real, that she was his. He rolled them both, pinning her underneath him as he kissed her with carnal abandon.
[End Chapter 20]
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