Forty-Eight People


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This one is for Molly Anne, who asked me for a fic where Buffy makes a HUGE mistake, feels very guilty for it, and Angel has to get through to her. I think it might suck, but it's the best I could do.


Every time I turn around
When I'm lost and when I'm found
Like an angel standing guard
There you are

"Oww!" Buffy cried, as the muscular vampire on her left slammed his boot against her jaw. She had happened into the cemetery on patrol and ran straight into six vampires. After she had managed to dust three, the final three surrounded her and attacked. Rolling fast, she shot to her feet and grabbed a stake from the waistband of her tight blue jeans. She maneuvered around the vampires so that all three were in her sight, then tossed the stake into the chest of the one closest to her.

The other two looked surprised for a few long seconds, long enough for her to grab two more stakes from her bag, and then they charged her. Buffy jumped onto a headstone and leaped into the air, throwing both her legs out in a spread eagle, and slammed both vampires in the chest with her boots. As they fell backwards, she landed on her feet next to the biggest one and staked him quickly.

Spinning, she raised her hand, poised to take out the remaining one, but he was no where to be seen. She frowned and scanned the area, straining to hear his retreating footfalls. With a shrug, she kneeled down to collect her belongings. As soon as she reached into her bag, she felt the gritty dust of vampire remains and grimaced. When she had kicked the vampire, he had fallen back onto her crossbow. She would have to remember that move.

Buffy pulled her cell phone from the bag and then swore loudly. Not only had the vampire been dusted, her phone had been dusted as well. It was smashed, and as she held it up to examine what was left of it, the back fell off. "Just great!"

Tossing the phone over her shoulder, she began the trek back to the UC- Sunnydale campus - her new home of only two weeks. At the edge of the cemetery, a sudden movement caught her attention. She ducked behind a circular headstone as four deadly looking demons stepped away from a copse of trees and paused, sniffing the air. Buffy held her breath, taking a mental stock of what she had in her bag to kill large, gray, slimy demons with antlers.

Not a thing.

Another movement caught her attention and a man stepped in behind the demons. He cleared his throat and handed one of them a box. "Your prisoners are in place. Forty-eight in all."

"And you?" one demon asked, his voice deep and rough.

The man shook his head from side to side. "I told you that I would see to it that your sacrifices were secured. It's up to you to do the rest."

Before Buffy could even think of making a move, one of the demons leaned down and speared the man through the back with its horns. She sucked in her breath, then covered her mouth to keep from crying out as the demon tossed the man into the air and he fell against the horns of another.

"Enough," cried the demon who has spoken before. "Much work must be done before light."

Leaning low, Buffy pressed her back against the headstone and prayed they wouldn't walk past her. She dared a quick peek when their footsteps moved in the opposite direction and shook her head. There was no way she could call for backup. If she risked running to a payphone to call the gang, she wouldn't be able to pick up their trail again. Forty-eight lives were in her hands, and she had to do something.

She hoisted her bag over her shoulder and silently followed. The plan was to find the hostages, assess the situation, and then call the gang for assistance.

It was a good plan.

<><><><><>

Buffy kept a good distance between herself and the demons. They crossed the main highway and moved toward the west side of town. Their voices carried back to her and she used that as her guide, rather than try to get close enough to keep them in her sight. If she could see them, they could see her. There was a loud rustling ahead and the demons shouted something in a foreign language. Several thumps followed and then more shouting. Freezing in place, she waited until she heard them start up again and then let her breath out. It was going to be a long night.

A few seconds later, she encountered what had caused the commotion. There was a barbed wire fence running across her path. It was only four feet tall, but in the moonlight, she could read the sign that indicated that it was an electric fence. It separated the woods that she had come through from a large clearing. She could make out the four silhouettes of the demons as they shambled across the field, heading toward one of the old mines in the back of the military base. Buffy waited until she saw them vanish into what appeared to be a cave before she jumped over the fence and followed.

She ran across the field, not anxious to have some army person asking her what she was doing trespassing. At the mouth of the cave, she kneeled down and pulled a small knife from her bag. It would most likely only serve to anger the demons, but she needed to make sure the hostages were in there before she went for help.

Buffy laid a hand on the wall to guide her and made her way further inside. She turned to the left, following the layout of the cave and was surprised to find torches hanging on the walls, each one a few feet from the other, illuminating the cave. She broke one off and held it in front of her, her other fist clutching her knife. With the torch burning bright, she squared her shoulders and picked up her pace.

It was several minutes later that she heard a woman scream. A chorus of wails followed and she could pick out several men and quite a few children in the mix. She hopped over a large rut and almost fell straight down a large incline. Her eyes widened as she took in the scene below her. She was standing a few feet above a pit and people were racing back and forth in it, horribly outnumbered by antlered demons. She tried to count the people, but they were little more than a blur.

"Help us!" cried a small voice suddenly.

Buffy glanced downward and saw a small blond child staring up at her imploringly. His small arms were stretched upward and his face was marred with blood and dirt. She put the torch down beside her and lay flat on her stomach, reaching down into the pit. Her fingertips grazed his and he cried out again. "Shhh," she shook her head back and forth. "Be quiet."

"Please, do somethin'," the little boy cried again. "I want my mommy."

Buffy gripped his wrist and tugged upward. A woman saw what was happening and latched onto Buffy's upper arm, almost dragging her into the pit. Buffy flailed, kicking her feet out in an attempt to keep her balance. The torch was knocked back and rolled against the wall. Something hissed loudly and she half-turned, trying to see what had happened. Before she could see, the weight was gone from her arm and she turned back to the pit, just in time to see one of the antlered demons spear the woman.

The little boy was clawing his way up the pit and Buffy reached for him again. One of the demons rushed forward and she reached behind her for the torch. When she didn't feel it, she turned and her eyes widened. The hissing that she had heard was dynamite. The walls were lined with it, their fuses rolled together into one large rope. The torch was burning that rope.

Buffy jumped to her feet, trying to block out the screams and the pleas that were still coming from the little boy. The fuse was only about twelve inches long. She glanced back out at the sea of faces, many of which had gathered underneath her and bit her bottom lip. Gripping her stomach, she shook her head. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

There was nothing she could do. With a scream of her own, she turned and fled, her hands cupped over her ears to drown out the voice of the child and the symphony of despair that followed her. Her tears ran cold down her cheeks and as she drew closer to the mouth of the mine, she leaped. It exploded around her, blasting her out into the field on her stomach. She rolled to her feet and half ran half-limped as fast as she could. She was hurt. Badly. But she had to get away.

The explosion had been so loud that all she should have been able to hear was the steady ringing in her ears. Instead, she heard the screams. She heard the wails and the cries, even as she stepped onto the highway and watched the police cars whiz past her. She didn't register the sirens, she didn't remember the walk to her mother's house or even why she chose to go there instead of her dorm. And as she sat on the steps, not even bothering to go inside, she didn't let herself pay attention to the pain from her cuts and bruises.

All she let herself feel was the guilt and the steady throb of shame.

She was a murderer.

<><><><><>

Giles pulled up to the curb in front of the Summers' home. He pulled his glasses off, cleaned them, then cleaned them again as he tried to collect his thoughts. It wasn't an easy task to tell a child's mother that her daughter was missing and that her phone had been found destroyed in the cemetery. Especially when that child was the Slayer and it was his duty to protect her.

He turned his ignition off and laid his head against the steering wheel. Buffy had made plans the night before to help him index some of his books. When she had been over an hour late, he figured that she was just stalling because of the task at hand, but when she had still not shown up four hours later, he had called her friends. Xander had informed him that Buffy left his place for patrol early in the evening and he had not heard from her. At Giles' urging, Xander had assembled the group to comb the areas that she was likely to check out.

Now he was left with facing a mother to tell her that her child may not come home again. He stepped out of his car and checked his watch. It was almost seven a.m. and Joyce should be awake by then.

He saw her the second he stepped up on the bottom step. Buffy was curled in a fetal position, her pants hanging around her legs in tatters and the back of her shirt ripped open, exposing her bra and the cuts and bruises along her back. He rushed forward, terrified that she wouldn't be breathing, but his loud stomping startled her awake, causing her to cry out and sit up. She appeared to be in a daze, for the instant she saw him, she slid away quickly, her eyes wild. He watched in horror as she huddled in the corner, covering her head and hugging her legs to her chest.

"Buffy, what happened to you?" Giles removed his coat when he saw the chills convulsing through her small frame. She struggled under the weight of the heavy wool, flinching and trying to push away. He held it around her and kneeled beside her. "It's me. It's Giles."

She blinked several times and stared at his face. "Giles?"

"How badly are you injured?" He put a hand under her chin and tilted her face upward, cringing at the swollen eye, blue bruises and gash on her cheek.

"Injured?" Her forehead creased in confusion and she licked her lips, unsure of what had happened. Somewhere in the distance, a car backfired, causing her to cry out and memories slammed into her. The people, the children, that one little boy, the torch, the dynamite and her running away. The Slayer abandoning her duty to save her own life.

Buffy shot to her feet and shook her head. "I have to go. I had a class today."

"It's Saturday." Giles stood as well and took her arm, ushering her toward the front door. "Let's go inside and you can tell me what happened."

"No." She pulled her arm free and shook her head. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Buffy-"

"I got jumped by some vampires," she lied. "It was bad. I guess I must have made it here and fallen asleep."

"You fell asleep outside? Buffy, you know better than that! Anything could have attacked you in your slumber. Haven't I taught you-"

She tuned him out easily as the screams in her head intensified. Over and over again, she heard the little boy begging her to help him. When she blinked, she saw the faces of the people who had gathered under her, reaching upward and pleading with their eyes. She gagged when her mind rambled back to the man who had been speared in the cemetery, and she leaned over the railing to vomit as her stomach twisted.

Giles stopped speaking and laid his hand on her back. With the other, he pulled her hair away from her face and held it at the nape of her neck. "Buffy, have you been drinking?"

"No." She shook her head back and forth roughly, trying to make him let go of her hair. If her hair was down, he couldn't see her tears.

"Did someone give you something to make you sick? Buffy, did you drink anything at all last night that someone could have slipped a drug into?" He smoothed her hair, ignoring her attempts at pushing him away. Judging from the state she was in, it was entirely possible that someone, or some-thing-, had sexually assaulted her.

"No, Giles." She dragged her arm over her mouth and stood up. "I told you what happened."

Before he could reply, Joyce opened the front door and peered out. "I thought I heard voices. Oh my god, Buffy, what happened to you?"

Without looking at either one, Buffy walked past her mother, up the stairs and into her old bedroom. She walked around the room, picking up stuffed animals and fingering the perfume bottles on her dresser. She looked down at her hands and cringed when she noticed the dried mud and bruises that covered the backs of both of them. One of her knuckles had cracked completely open and one of her fingernails had been lifted from the nail bed. Licking her lips she tasted blood and sobbed again. The explosion had definitely hurt her badly and she deserved that. She had her life and she didn't deserve -that-.

Crying harder, she dropped the stuffed bear she was clinging to and hurried into the bathroom across the hall. She had to undress slowly because so much of her body ached. In all her years as the Slayer she had never felt such pain. Buffy turned the water on and stepped under the spray slowly. It pounded her already tender flesh, making her aware of only the physical pain for an all too brief moment. She scrubbed with the loofah and the wash cloth, but still felt dirty.

With the water as hot as she could stand it, she huddled in the corner, letting it beat against her.

She deserved worse. Much worse.

<><><><><>

Sleep was a hard won battle in the days that followed. More often than not, Buffy found herself tossing and turning, watching the sun rise and set with the same hooded eyes that had cried until they were dry. Curled in a ball on her bed, she barely spoke to her friends when they stopped by and refused to join her mother downstairs for meals. She ate only when the pain in her stomach from lack of food was unbearable, and she tried not to think at all. Every moment, every second, she tried to mute the sounds in her head, the screams, the pleas, the explosion. And she failed continually.

On the sixth day of her self imposed exile, a scream from somewhere in the distance punctuated the night and she sat up. Her Slayer senses were on red alert; muscles tensing, stomach aching, body betraying her by flushing with excitement. She dressed quickly, pulling on a pair of baggy sweat pants and a T-shirt. Dropping to the ground via her window, she clutched her stake, the only weapon she had bothered with, and she ran. Her lungs gladly accepted the cool night air, a welcome change from her stuffy bedroom, and her body felt reborn.

By the time she reached the cemetery, the young girl that had screamed was dead. Buffy jumped over her prone body and sent a kick flying at the vampire's head. He caught her leg and swung her, using her own momentum to propel her into the side of a mausoleum. The pain sliced through her, punishing and sharp.

Deserved.

It was a welcome distraction. Instead of blocking the foot that was flying at her head, Buffy let it connect, crying out as stars exploded behind her eyelids. Firm hands gripped her and yanked her upward and she was limp, almost agreeable as the vampire slammed his fist against her jaw. Over and over, the creature hit, kicked, and clawed her. And over and over she relished what she considered to be her retribution. Her body protested, the fighter inside of her commanding her to block the attack, or at the very least, to fight back, but she held off, waiting for the physical pain to override the emotional pain.

When she could taste her own coppery blood in her mouth, she decided that she'd had enough. The vampire was dusted easily and she sank to the ground, staring at the young girl's body. The child couldn't have been more than fifteen. Her eyes were wide, fastened to something in the starless sky. Leaning forward, Buffy brushed her hands over them, closing the girl's lids. Shivering, she watched the blood pool from duel puncture wounds on her neck and bit back a sob. She had been too late and yet another person had died because of it.

Staggering to her feet, Buffy was lightheaded and woozy. She gagged, bile rising in her throat from a combination of the aches and the taste of her blood, but she held it down. With her arms wrapped tightly around her, she made her way home, pausing at the liquor cabinet in the dining room. The bottle of vodka was half empty and was quickly drained on the spot. Gripping a full bottle of peach schnapps, the Slayer ascended the stairs and went to her room, not even bothering to wash the blood from her body before she crawled back into the bed.

<><>

Three Weeks Later

The knock on Giles' door was expected. The Englishman put his teacup on the table and quickly moved across his living room, a look of relief on his face when he saw that his visitor was indeed the one he had been expecting. "Angel, do come in."

The vampire entered wordlessly, his hands in his pockets, and his face grim. "How is she?"

"I've no clue," Giles replied in a low voice. "She won't say more than a few words to me and those are generally in passing. Her friends and I have tried, unsuccessfully, on three occasions to have an intervention of sorts, but she refuses to speak to us at all." He pulled his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. "It's been like this for a month now."

"A month?" Angel's eyes widened. "And I'm just now hearing about it?"

"I do apologize." Giles made his way around his sofa and lifted his tea. He motioned for the vampire to sit down and took a seat in his armchair. "As I explained to you on the phone, something happened to her a few weeks ago. She's never confirmed anything and I suspect that she won't. It's my opinion that she was assaulted," he paused and studied the man's face before he added, "Sexually."

Angel had taken the proffered seat on the sofa, but when Giles finished speaking, he stood and paced toward the window. "Are you sure?"

"No, I said it was my opinion. She denies it," Taking a sip of his drink, Giles kept an eye on the vampire. "Please, Angel, have a seat? There's more I need to tell you that I didn't mention on the phone."

Nodding, Angel returned to the sofa. He kept his eyes downcast so the man wouldn't see how close he was to losing the battle with his demon and letting it come out. The thought of some man harming Buffy that way ... "Go on."

"She's been drinking. A lot. Every day. I don't know where she's been getting it. As soon as Joyce caught onto it, she stopped bringing it into their home."

"Willy," Angel told him.

"Quite possibly, but that's not why I called you here." Putting his cup back on the table, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Angel, she's been allowing demons to get the upper hand on her and beat her to a bloody pulp before she kills them. Xander and I followed her one night and watched."

"And you didn't intervene!?" Angel shouted.

"Of course we did!" Giles replied just as loudly. "Good god, Angel, do you honestly think I'd just stand there? We killed the demon and she was livid. The following night is when we confronted her for the first time, hoping that if she was faced with all of us she would let down this wall around her. It didn't work. She's gotten progressively worse; dropped out of school, lost weight, refuses to train. She's unreachable."

"Where is she?" Angel stood, intent on finding her and seeing for himself that what Giles was telling him was accurate. There was no way he believed that Buffy was unreachable.

"Her mother was supposed to be stalling her until you arrived." Glancing at his watch, Giles stood and reached for his coat. "The others are going to meet us there in thirty minutes."

Angel shook his head. "Maybe I should talk to her alone first."

"I considered that, but I don't think that's the answer. Whatever it is that's going on with her - she needs us all."

<><>

The house on Revello Drive was eerily quiet, despite the number of occupants who sat in the small living room. When Angel and Giles had arrived, the gang was already there, and Joyce was apologetic, informing them that Buffy had gone to 'patrol' despite her machinations. Oz and Willow sat next to one another on the sofa while Xander sat alone in the floor, picking at his dirty shoelaces. Angel stood near the fireplace, watching the others. The sinking feeling in his gut, as he took in their demeanor, told him that it was a lot worse than Giles had indicated.

Joyce came into the room carrying a tray full of cookies and milk. She sat it on the table and took a seat in the chair opposite Giles, folding her hands in her lap. No one made a move for the snacks, not even Xander, who usually couldn't get enough. Angel's gaze drifted toward the clock on the wall and he shifted uncomfortably. It was almost one in the morning.

Joyce cleared her throat, causing Willow to jump at the loud sound. The woman gave the redhead an apologetic smile and turned her attention towards Angel. "I was wrong that day I came to see you."

Angel's eyes flicked over the others, who were watching him with interest. "About what?"

"Buffy hasn't been the same since you've been gone. I thought that what she felt for you was some kind of school girl crush, but it's not. I can't help but believe that we wouldn't be in this situation if I hadn't insisted that you leave."

Willow gasped, her eyes round in her face. "You told Angel to leave?"

"She implied it," Angel told her before Joyce could answer. "Miss Summers, I didn't leave because of what you said. I left because what you said was right."

"And look at where it's gotten us." Joyce stood and walked toward the vampire, pausing when she was a few inches away. "Angel, my little girl has ached for weeks now. When you first left, I'd hear her sobbing at night and I couldn't go to her because I knew she'd see the guilt in my eyes. Do you know what I did?"

"No, ma'am," Angel whispered, reaching down and squeezing her arm reassuringly.

"I read her diary!" Joyce faltered over the last word and began to cry. "I read it a couple of days ago, thinking that I'd find the answers to what happened to her to cause this. Do you know what I found?" She studied the vampire through watery eyes. "I found the greatest love story I've ever read. She hasn't bothered writing in it since whatever happened to her occurred, but every entry up until that moment was beautiful and so full of hope and love for you. God, Angel, she chronicled everything. Meeting you, falling in love with you, what it was like for her when you lost your soul. And then you came back and she loved you all over again. And you love her." Covering her mouth, Joyce shook her head. "And I took that away."

Angel pulled the woman against his chest and rubbed her back, soothing her with whispered words in her ear. Joyce sobbed, understanding finally that his chocolate gaze and strong arms were exactly the way Buffy had described in detail. She was instantly calmed. He wasn't the evil creature that had come into her yard, telling her about making love to Buffy, he was the savior that Buffy had written about in her loopy teenage handwriting. He was the man who had saved her daughter time and again, willing to give up his own life for Buffy's sake, and she had denied her that. Composing herself, she stood and wiped her face. Xander handed her a box of tissues and she gratefully accepted them. Turning back toward Angel, she whispered, "Whatever it is, Angel, whatever is destroying her, you'll make it right."

"We'll make it right," he corrected. He watched her walk back to her chair and sit down and then he looked at the others. He had only been gone for four months. Four devastating, painful months, but things in Sunnydale seemed completely different. It felt like time had changed everything. There had been no quips from Xander, no insults about him being a 'Dead Boy'. Willow's hair was shorter and she seemed much more confident, dressed in a colorful skirt and sweater. She saw him looking at her and gave him her innocent smile though, and he returned it. Oz looked as stoic as always, but Angel could sense his unease, his worry. And Giles, the poor man was sitting rigid, his palms flat against the arms of his chair as he stared at nothing.

Angel let his gaze wander to the mantle and he lifted a photo of Buffy wearing her graduation gown. He recalled the conversation they'd had a few weeks before her prom. She had told him about ordering her cap and gown, bemoaned the colors and style, and then brought it to his house to model it when it arrived. He thought she looked lovely as she tried to figure out how to keep the hat on her head and what kind of shoes to wear. Instead of packing weapons in her bag, she had been armed with so many shoes Angel had to laugh at her. Their laughter quickly turned to kisses, which quickly turned to her in his lap - pressing against his erection.

She had felt it. He had seen it register on her features before she quickly covered it up with a change of subject. She had almost leaped from his arms, telling him he was wrinkling her gown, but he had known that the only thing that had been wrinkled was their future. Thinking back on it, that was probably the first night he had ever considered leaving her. Of course, as he watched her slip the burgundy fabric over her head and expose her workout clothing, he had easily been able to push the notion out of his mind. They had done Tai-Chi after that, standing alongside each other, and it had relaxed them both, allowing them to fall back into something that resembled peace and serenity.

God, how he missed her. Truth be told, his lifestyle wasn't much different than hers had become. He tried to drink her memory away daily, relished the fights with other demons, and the most traumatic thing he had ever survived had triggered it: leaving her.

He replaced the photo on the mantle and looked at the clock again. It was so late. He was about to let the others know that he was going to look for her when he heard the backdoor open and the kitchen light came on. Everyone stood, tense and wide eyed, and he took a step back when she walked into the room. She didn't see him, but he definitely saw her. Her clothes were baggy, tattered, and she had leaves in her hair, something that reminded him of on of their first attempts at a date at the Bronze. The only difference was, the girl from that time was vibrant and healthy, and the girl who stood before him now was pale and gaunt. He said nothing, simply stood, unnoticed, as she glared at her mother.

"Do you honestly think this is going to work?" Buffy asked, her voice a calm monotone and she brushed a trickle of blood away from her eye. As usual, the demons she opposed had gotten in a few choice shots. She glanced at Giles, who stood next to her mother and shook her head. "I'm going to bed."

"You are not going to bed." Giles blocked the doorway and crossed his arms, indicating that he wasn't budging.

Something inside of her snapped and her nostrils flared. She was in excruciating pain, worse than she'd ever felt, and all she wanted was to lie in her bed and wait for sleep to consume her. "Do I have to move you?"

Giles nodded. "Yes."

Joyce stepped between them, laying a tentative hand on Buffy's shoulder. "Honey, we just want to talk to you."

"Mom!" Buffy finally let her temper dictate her manner and her voice rose. "You've tried this same tired bullshit before. It didn't work then and nothing has changed."

"Yes it has." Angel stepped out of the shadows and moved in behind her. She spun to face him, her eyes widening in shock. "I wasn't here the other times."

Buffy thought her legs would turn to jelly as she registered that he was really there. Her gaze took in the broad width of his shoulders, encased in his familiar duster, and she forgot all about the pain in her side from the newly inflicted wound. Licking her lips, she gazed at him from head to toe. His face mirrored the pain she was feeling, but unlike hers ... his was unmarred, as beautiful as it always was. As quickly as the joy at seeing him came, it evaporated, replaced with anger that he would dare show his face again after how he'd left her - without so much as a goodbye. And she was able to feel just a touch of shame and look away before rage eclipsed everything else.

Turning to face her mother, she shook her head. "This was fucking low. Even from you." She started out of the room, but a hand gripped her elbow and pulled her back. Spinning angrily, she looked up at Angel again, shaking his hand off of her. "Don't touch me!"

"Buffy, you -will- listen to what they have to say," he growled, his eyes burning into hers.

"What 'they' have to say? What? You're just here to mediate? Cat got -your- tongue? Oh, that's right, you're better with unspoken things, aren't you?" She pushed away from him and let her gaze fall on Xander, who was standing beside Willow with a shocked expression on his face. "Let's start with you, Xander. What life altering statement do you have to make to me?"

Xander licked his lips and swallowed hard. "I'm worried about you." He took a step toward her, then stopped and shoved his hands in his pockets. When Willow had planned the first intervention, she said that -I- statements were the best thing to do. He bit his lip and took a deep breath. "I don't want you to keep doing what you're doing. You're killing yourself and I can't just sit here and do nothing."

Cocking an eyebrow, Buffy tilted her head. "And what else is there for you to do? When you're not sitting there doing nothing, you're insulting my choices, blaming me for Miss Calender, and almost getting me killed."

Willow's eyes widened and she put her hand on Xander's arm. Frowning at Buffy, she said, "That's not fair, Buffy."

"Fine!" Buffy shouted. She pulled a flask from her pocket and took a swig of the strong whiskey she had taken from Willy. "We'll move on to you, Willow. Do you want to tell me how much you miss me? How scared you are for me? How much I'm hurting myself? Because you're so fucking insightful, aren't you? The genius, the brain. I've heard you speculating on what's wrong with me. If you were half as smart as you thought you were, you'd figure it out without me spelling it out."

Turning toward Giles, she continued her rant. "And you! It's always about my sacred duty! How honored I should be that I'm the one girl in all the world. The Chosen One." She drained what was in her flask and tossed it over her shoulder. Gripping a small phone table, she sat it in the middle of the floor. "This is a pedestal, Giles." She grabbed a photo of herself from the mantle and set it on the table. "And this is me on the pedestal that you put me on." Before anyone could comment, she grabbed the photo and threw it as hard as she could, letting it shatter against the wall beside his head. "AND THAT'S ME OFF OF IT!"

The sudden movement of throwing the photo caused the knife wound in her side to rip even wider and the bloodied shirt she had wadded against it fell to the floor. Angel opened her jacket, trying to see her side. "You're hurt!"

"Let me go!" she shouted, but she clung to the lapels of his coat. She wanted to fall in his arms and let him hold her until it went away. "You're supposed to know me! You're supposed to know me better than I know myself!"

"Buffy, you have to tell us what happened." He brushed his hand under her eye, catching a tear that fell silently. "Tell me."

"Look at me!" She tightened her grip on his coat, shaking him slightly. "Can't you see it! Can't you see what I am? What I did? It's all over me! I look in the mirror and I don't see myself at all."

Angel studied her face. Slowly, it began to add up. The drinking, allowing herself to be beaten by demons, the pain on her face. It was guilt. "You killed someone."

She sobbed in half relief and half disgust and reached into her pocket, pulling out a faded newspaper clipping. "I killed forty eight someones."

The vampire looked over her head at Giles, secretly relieved that she had not been raped. The ex-Watcher was obviously breathing a collective sigh of relief himself. Moving gently, Angel took the newspaper clipping from her trembling fingers. Buffy walked toward the fireplace, shoulders slumped and wracking with sobs. Reading aloud, Angel said, "The search continues for the missing choir from the San Jose Catholic Church. Forty-eight people, mostly women and children, were on their way to a convention in Los Angeles, but they never arrived. The bus was found submerged in Lake Rencott, a privately owned piece of property in Southern Sunnydale. There were no bodies on the scene and when divers dragged the lake, they came up empty handed. Investigators believe-"

Buffy interrupted him, her voice barely above a whisper. "I killed them all."

Giles moved to stand beside Angel, glancing at the article in the vampire's hand. He recalled the story, but had been so preoccupied with Buffy's situation that he hadn't paid it much thought. "What happened, Buffy?"

She didn't turn to face them. Couldn't turn. Couldn't see their contempt or their disappointment or disgust. She felt it enough for all of them. "I was patrolling. These demons came out of nowhere and I had to hide because I had no weapons. I had used everything I had on this gang of vampires." She drew her jacket sleeve across her face, sniffling loudly. "They met this guy who told them that the sacrifices were in place. My phone had been destroyed, so I decided to follow them." She turned her head slightly, adding, "I was going to find the people and come get you guys to help me."

Giles started to speak, but Angel held up his hand. He picked up the box of tissue and pulled out a couple, holding them out to her. When she moved to get them, he stepped back, forcing her to turn and face them, and then he gave her the tissues. His fingers brushed over hers when she took them and he gave her a small squeeze of reassurance. "Go on."

She blotted her face and collected her thoughts. Her fingers felt numb from where he had touched them. Buffy wanted nothing more than to crawl into his lap and let him make it better, but his lap was a place she never deserved to be again. She was a killer. "They went into the mines near the army base. I should have turned around right then and gotten backup, but I followed them inside. There were torches everywhere and I took one off the wall. Those people were in a pit, this dug out hole that was too deep for them to climb out of, and they were outnumbered by demons anyway. This little boy saw me standing there," Her mind flashed to the boy's unruly hair and tear streaked face and she swayed.

Angel was beside her immediately, one hand on the small of her back and the other on her stomach, steadying her. "You should sit down. Buffy, you're hurt. You're bleeding."

"I deserve to bleed," she cried. "I deserve to bleed until I die for what I've done!" Holding up her hands, she stared at the blood on her palms and fingers. "Do you see this blood on my hands? It's mine, but when I look at it, I see their blood! I feel their pain! I hear their cries for help. It should have been me!"

"Stop it!" Angel gripped her shoulders and shook her roughly. "I do know you! I know you would never intentionally hurt anyone!"

She sobbed loudly, burying her face in her hands and he pulled them away, pulling her to his chest instead. Clinging to her, he looked over at Willow. "Could you go get a glass of water and a wet cloth?"

Willow nodded and left the room, followed by Joyce who mumbled about showing her where the wash clothes were. Angel clung to her, his face buried in the top of her hair until Will returned, then he urged Buffy toward one of the chairs.

"No, I'm bloody." Buffy shook her head. "I'll ruin it."

Angel sat down and pulled her into his lap, quieting her protests with a finger on her lip. "You can't ruin me."

Accepting the glass of water, Buffy took a small sip and held it between her fingers. Her mother returned, pausing in the doorway to take in the sight of her daughter in the vampire's lap, then handed Angel the dish towel. He rubbed it over Buffy's face and then gave it to her.

"Don't leave us hanging, Buffy," Oz spoke up for the first time that evening. "What happened next?"

Focusing on the water glass in her hand, and the feel of Angel's arms around her, she recalled the events of that night. "That little boy started clawing at the dirt, trying to get up to where I was. He was begging me to help him, so I laid the torch down and tried to reach him. But this woman grabbed my arm and almost pulled me down too, so I had to kick out to keep my balance. I kicked the torch and it rolled."

She took a pregnant pause. "The walls were lined with dynamite. My torch lit it."

Giles covered his mouth and kneeled down next to her. "Buffy, it was an acc-"

"Don't tell me it was an accident," Buffy's hands had begun to shake so badly that she splashed water on her leg.

Willow took the glass and put it on the table. "Yes, it was an accident, Buffy. You didn't do it on purpose."

"No, but I ran on purpose. I didn't even attempt to find a way to save them. I just turned around and I ran." There was a great relief at having told, but it was short lived, because now that they knew, she was convinced that they would hate her. "Don't try to sugarcoat it. I should have stayed there with them. I should have died trying to save them, but I saved my own ass instead. That makes me a coward. And that makes me responsible."

"No, it doesn't." Giles' voice was strong. "Think about this rationally. You just said that the people were outnumbered by demons. You couldn't have fought that many demons and won, even with our help." He moved a little closer, laying a hand on her. "You probably saved them all a world of suffering and stopped some kind of ritual that could have gotten us all killed."

Pulling away from Giles' touch, and out of Angel's arms, she stood. "So that's it? That's the way you rationalize it? They're better off? I did a good thing? If that's the truth then why in the hell does it hurt so much?"

"Survivor's guilt?" Xander asked no one in particular. "That could be it."

Buffy looked at him. "Survivor? How about loser guilt? How about coward guilt? How about shirk my duty and run guilt?"

"You didn't shirk your duty," Angel rose to his feet as well, towering over her. "You lived! That's what you're supposed to do. You're the Slayer. It's your instinct to keep fighting."

"I lit that fuse. Mistake or not, accident or not, I did it. I'm responsible."

Angel regarded her for several minutes, then nodded. "Then you should do the responsible thing. There are forty-eight families out there tonight who are grieving themselves to death over an unsolved mystery. They deserve closure."

Her eyes brightened a little. "You're right. I should let them know where they are."

"Maybe in doing so, you'll find a little closure of your own." Angel said.

Buffy didn't look convinced. "It's a start."

<><>

"Was it wrong of me to give them an anonymous tip?" Buffy asked. She was standing in the woods opposite the cave, watching as the workers dug through the debris. Angel hadn't made his presence known, but she felt him, just like she'd always done. Just like old times.

Smiling a little, he stepped from behind a tree and joined her, staring down at the workmen. "No, it wasn't wrong. You can't exactly explain what you were doing chasing down demons."

She sighed. "I guess not."

"Your mom told me that you had to get stitches in your side. Are you sure you should be out?"

"No, I probably shouldn't," she replied. "But there was no way I could stay home. I- I need to see this." Pointing downward, she added, "They've been at it all day. They should be getting the bodies out soon."

He studied her profile. Her hair was pulled away from her face in a ponytail, revealing mottled bruises and scrapes on her face. He swallowed hard when she looked up at him, her large green eyes full of remorse - and fear. Taking her hand in his, he looked back down at the mines. "I'm not going back to Los Angeles. I've decided to stay here."

Buffy gasped and turned her full attention toward him. "What?"

"I'm miserable there. You're miserable here. No reason we can't be miserable together." He grinned, smoothing back a lock of her hair that had fallen out of place.

Her eyes clouded at his familiar touch. "I was never miserable with you. Ever. And there are a million reasons why we shouldn't be together. We both know it."

"Name one," he challenged her, a small gleam in his eye.

"Your soul."

He took a deep, unneeded breath. "Do you have a stake?"

She pulled one from the waist of her pants. "Yes, why?"

"Give it to me." He held out his hand.

"Why?" she asked, but handed it to him without hesitation.

"So that you don't literally give it to me when I say what I have to say." He shoved it into the pocket of his duster and took her hand again. "My soul's permanent. I knew that before I left Sunnydale and I left anyway."

Her face fell immediately and she made a move to step away. He clung to her, wrapping his arms around her fully. "Buffy, just let me apologize and see if you think you can accept it."

"Fine," she growled, angrier than she'd been in a long while.

"I was a fool. I didn't find out that it was completely restored until a couple of days after the Prom. Giles came to me and let me know that if that was the only reason I had for leaving you, I could stay."

"Giles knew too!?" Buffy cried. She was successful at prying herself out of his arms and stomped her foot angrily. "God! Of all the underhanded, dirty things to keep from someone!"

"In his defense, Buffy, I think he was humiliated enough just telling -me- that we could have sex. Now, let me apologize!" He pulled her back into his arms, chuckling a little at how hard she had made herself. "As I was saying, I was a fool. I had already convinced myself that you deserved better than me, so when he told me, it really didn't make much of an impact. I mean, I wanted to make love to you, but I honestly felt unworthy. Giles isn't the one who put you on a pedestal, Buffy. It was me."

"I don't understand."

"I left you because I felt like you were too good for me. Like I didn't deserve you. Hell, Buffy, I still feel like that. But I finally realized that I make you happy. And baby, no offense, but you don't look like you've been happy in a long time."

"Not since you left."

"I'm back now. And I want to stay with you."

"Just like that?"

"Why not?"

"Because things have happened. Because I'm not the same person. Because you hurt me. Because this time, -I- don't deserve to be happy." She turned back toward the mines, watching as two men carried out a body bag. "Because forty-eight people died."

He turned her gently, tilting her face with his fingers. "Buffy, there have been a hundred mistakes made between us. A million tears, a thousand questions. And those people who died, those forty-eight people, that's forty-eight reasons out of a zillion why we should be together. We're better fighters when we're side by side. You give me a reason to get up and do something. And I watch your back and I keep you safe. Together, we'll save other people and these people will not have died in vain." Dropping down to his knees in front of her, he laid his head against her chest. "Hearing your heart beat is what keeps me alive. It doesn't just sustain you and I can't hear it all the way in Los Angeles. I feel like I die every day that I don't see you."

She hugged him, laying her head on top of his. "I know exactly how you feel."

Angel looked up at her, still clinging to her. "Then you know that this is right. I'm apologizing to you. I am sorry for leaving you, for doubting what we had, what we could have. I'm sorry for every time I hurt you. I'm sorry for everything and-"

"Don't." Buffy laid her finger over his mouth and shook her head. "We're gonna be okay, but it feels wrong to be this satisfied right now." Putting her arms under his, she pulled him to his feet and spooned her back to his chest, turning her attention back down to the mines. "Do you believe in God and Heaven and stuff?"

He brushed his lips over her ear and whispered, "Yes."

"I never did before." She watched as another body was brought up from the rubble. "But I do now."

"Oh? Why's that?"

"Because I prayed for you and there you are. When I found out that I was the Chosen One, I prayed for a Guardian Angel because I was scared. It just dawned on me that I got what I asked for."

"I did too."

"What did you ask for?"

"Salvation."

Buffy turned to face him, tracing the cool contours of his face. "I was expecting you to say me."

"I did."

-Fin

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