Home Before Dark
by Debbie Nockels



Proud winner of a 2003 Buffy Angel Pulitzer Award for Best B/A Series!


COPYRIGHT:  October 2001
RATING:  PG-13 (so far at least)
SPOILERS:  BtVS: Seasons 1-6, through "After Life"; Seasons 1-3 of A:ts, through "This Old Gang of Mine"
DISCLAIMER:  I don't own any of the characters from BTVS or ANGEL.  They're owned by Joss Whedon (who ought to treat them nicer), MutantEnemy, Kuzui, Sandollar, David Greenwalt, the WB, UPN, Fox, etc.
SUMMARY:  Sequel to "Out Of The Woods"
NOTES:   I decided to ignore that silly business with the demon ghost thingy that Buffy brought back with her in "After Life," because as far as I can see there's no significance to it.  So that whole day and night just didn't happen.  When Buffy wakes up the next morning, it will be to see Dawn off to school.
NOTES 2:  Lyrics below are from the Broadway play Into The Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.
THANKS:  To Anja, my beta-reader, because she always has a word of encouragement as well as help.  You're the greatest!
SPECIAL THANKS: To Lynn, my BATB friend, who drew the two illustrations in here. They're wonderful and so are you. Thank you.
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//Into the woods then out of the woods
And home before dark! //


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       Buffy sank onto the bed and slowly gazed around.  Unlike the rest of the house her room looked just the same.  Not a thing had been touched; there was even a discarded shirt folded across the foot of her bed, right where she'd left it that last day.  Except that obviously someone had come in at least occasionally to clean, because the floor and furniture were relatively free of lint and dust.  But everything was in its accustomed place - the pictures on top of the dresser, a strange-looking seashell picked up on a trip to the beach when she was ten that also lay there, and many other treasured keepsakes - each item lay exactly where she remembered leaving it.

       She stared ahead of her with dull eyes.  Her mind was clear now.  The shock and trauma of having to claw her way out of her grave had receded and she remembered not only the circumstances leading up to her death but what had come after.  What she still wasn't sure of, though, was exactly why she'd been brought back.  She shook her head a little; she didn't want to think about that now - or about how strangely Spike had acted a few minutes ago, wanting to bandage her hands and staring at her the way he had, almost with tenderness.  Instead Buffy took a deep breath, then, before she lost her courage, grabbed the phone and dialed a number she knew as well as her own, although she'd never actually called it before.  The clock-radio caught her eye.  It was after three a.m.

       "Angel Investigations."

       Buffy's heart began to pound.  She tried to speak but nothing came out.

       "Hello?"  He sounded tired.

       "Angel," she managed to whisper, "it's . . . it's me."

       "I'm sorry, can you speak up?  I can barely hear - " He broke off.  There was dead silence, then - "Who is this?" he asked sharply.

       "It's me," she said again, this time a little stronger.

       More silence. "Buffy?"  Now his voice fell to a whisper.

       "Yeah."  Buffy cleared her throat.  "I'm, uh - I'm back."  Silence.  She hurried to fill it.  "Uh, Willow and Tara and, well, everyone, worked a spell tonight to, to bring me back from . . .  to bring me back."

       Another silence, a longer one.  Then, "Are you all right?"

       She knew what he meant.  Are you really you, Buffy?  This was deep, powerful magick that had been used to resurrect her, not something to trifle with.  "I think so, but - " She suddenly couldn't go on, her throat choking with unshed tears.

       "I'm on my way."

       The tears fell.  How did he always know what she meant, what she needed?  "Thank you," she whispered brokenly.

       "Buffy?"

       "Hmm?"

       His voice grew soft, gentle.  "Get some rest."

       Buffy nodded, even though he couldn't see it.  "I will."  Then she set the phone down, crawled between the cool sheets, and sank into slumber so profound that not even the sound of Willow and Tara talking as they came up the stairs to go to bed, or the light on her face when Willow opened her door to check on her woke her.

       When she opened her eyes again the sunshine for which Southern California was sometimes mistakenly famous bathed the room in its brightness.  Buffy lay there for a minute marshaling her strength for the ordeal she knew lay ahead, then got up and headed for the bathroom.  She needed another shampooing to wash away the feel and the smell of graveyard dirt that still clung to her hair.  Afterward she went to her dresser, opened the drawer containing her jeans and surveyed the contents.  No, she needed something . . . dressier.  She was back from the dead; that deserved a celebration.  Her friends and Dawn would certainly think so at least.  Going over to the closet she selected a long skirt and matching top, dressed, and headed down the stairs.  

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       Angel sank heavily into the nearest chair, too stunned to think clearly.  Buffy was alive.  However it had been accomplished, whatever the consequences, she was back - and right now that was all that mattered.  He rose to his feet, took the stairs three at a time, threw a few things into an overnight bag, scribbled a note that he taped to his bedroom door, then raced for his car.

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       "Mornin', English."

       Wesley looked up as Gunn entered the lobby, his usual cheery self.  "Good morning, Gunn.  Did you sleep well?"

       "Like a baby," Gunn answered.  "You?"

       "Thank you, yes, I spent a restful night."

       "Cordy taking a day off?" asked Gunn, not seeing her.  "Not that she hasn't earned one, what with boils and burns and everything."

       "She certainly has," answered Cordelia, coming into the lobby and slapping down the morning mail on the high counter top, "but as we all know so well she's a slave to duty, so - here I am!  And, thanks to Angel, as good as new."  She paused, sending her eyes around the lobby.  "Speaking of our fearless ex-leader, where is he?"

       "He's not down yet?"  Gunn glanced at the upper landing and reached for the coffee pot.

       "Angel appears to be having a bit of a lie-in this morning," replied Wesley.  "Let him sleep."

       "No way," Cordelia declared, marching up the stairs.  "If I can be up and about at eight o'clock in the morning after everything that's happened, so can he."  She disappeared into the corridor.  A moment afterward a loud "Oh my God!" floated downstairs.

       Gunn and Wesley abandoned their coffee and ran.  They met Cordelia halfway down the stairs, waving a piece of paper at them.  "Oh my God," she wailed.  "We've got to do something!"

       "What is it?" Gunn grabbed for the paper but couldn't catch it.

       "He's gone!" Cordelia told them, her eyes wide with distress.

       "What?"  Wesley snatched the paper from her and read it.  His jaw dropped.  "My God."

       "What?" demanded Gunn, out of patience.  He took the note from Wesley's unresisting hand.  "What?"  He looked up.  "He says that Buffy's alive and he's gone to see her.  What does he mean?"

       "It means he's bonkers."  Cordelia made a dramatic gesture at her head.  "Flipped his wig!  Oh God, I should have known that holding in his grief like that would make him go crazy!  He's totally lost it this time.  Wes, we have to go after him!"

       "Wait."  Wesley started down the steps, his brow furrowed in thought.

       "Wait?"  Cordelia trotted after him.  "What are we supposed to wait for, the men to come and put him in one of those white jackets with the really long sleeves?  What are you doing?" - as he picked up the phone.

       "I'm calling Giles," Wesley said, punching the appropriate button.  After a moment - "That's very odd."  He looked at the others, bewildered.  "I got a recording saying that his number is no longer in service and referring me to the number for the Magic Box."  He dialed again.

       "Hello?  Yes, may I speak with Mr. Giles, please."  He listened.  "He's what?  Gone back to England?"  Cordy gaped in surprise.  "No," Wesley said testily, "I'm not deaf.  I heard you perfectly well; I just don't believe it.  No, I'm not calling you a liar.  I assume this must be Anya?"

       He listened.  "Just a lucky guess from what I remembered of you.  Listen, is, uh, Willow there?  Oh, this is Wesley Wyndham-Price.  I'm . . . yes, that's right, the wimpy Watcher who replaced Giles after the Council fired him.  I see you remember me, as well."  His voice was dry.

       Gunn stifled a grin and Cordelia gave a distinct snort.  Wesley glared at them both before turning his attention back to the phone.  "Hello, Willow?  I'm glad I caught you.  This is Wesley and I'm afraid I have something rather, well . . . rather worrisome . . . to tell you.  Angel left L.A. sometime this morning, I'm not sure when.  We just a few minutes ago found his note saying that he was going to Sunnydale because - well . . . because he thinks Buffy's alive.  I'm really afraid that he may be - "

       Cordelia and Gunn saw his face grow pale as he listened for long minutes without speaking a word.  Cordelia chewed at her bottom lip, all but vibrating with impatience to know what was being said.  Gunn watched intently, puzzled and concerned but not as anxious as Cordelia, until Wesley finally uttered a faint, "I see.  Well, when you see Angel would you ask him to give us a call sometime, just to let us know he's all right?  Thank you."  

       Wesley hung up the phone and gazed at them, obviously dazed.  "Angel was telling the truth.  Buffy is alive.  Willow and the others did a spell to bring her back to life."

       "They can do that?" Gunn asked, stunned.

       "Apparently so."

       "Willow couldn't put a spell together to tie her own shoelaces!"  Cordy protested.  "And remember Amy the rat?  How long has Willow been trying to find a way to make her human again?  God, Wesley, Angel's going to get there and find . . . Zombie-Buffy!"

       "No," said Wesley.  "Willow said that Buffy seems just fine.  She was a little disoriented last night after she . . . returned, but she slept for several hours then got up and made Dawn's lunch for school and - she seems fine."

       They stared at one another.

       "Well," Gunn said eventually.  "If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's that nothing comes without a price."

       "Right," said Cordelia  "I only hope Angel isn't the one who ends up paying it."  They resumed their tasks quietly, without further discussion.

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       "Bye!" Dawn waved cheerfully over her shoulder as she strode down the sidewalk, her brown hair swaying from side to side, gleaming in the morning sunshine.

       Buffy watched her until she disappeared around the corner, then continued to stand there, rubbing her arms absently as she decided what to do. She knew now just why the Scoobies had brought her back, from things Willow and Tara had said that morning as they all congregated in the kitchen getting breakfast. It wasn't from selfish motives, simply because they'd missed her so much or because the Hellmouth was getting too scary. No, because she'd died in a "magical" way, similar to Angel's death during the Acathla affair (even though it turned out that he hadn't actually died) they'd been afraid that she too had been sucked into hell or at least into a hell-like dimension, especially since the portal had opened into Glory's home world which, based on the evidence Glory had presented, wasn't exactly Mayberry RFD.

       Finding out how wrong they had been would crush them. So, she couldn't tell them. It was as simple as that. The last thing Dawn had said went through her mind. ("It'll be better now, now that they can see you being happy. That's all they want.") With a tiny, bitter smile she walked back into the house and puttered around for a while doing simple household chores, then located her purse and the car keys and drove off to the Magic Box.

       When she entered the shop the gang was all there, replacing books that had tumbled off their shelves during the violence the night before. They turned to her with the bright yet uncertain looks she'd grown accustomed to since her return.

       "Buffy, hey!" Willow greeted her.

       "You get Dawn off to school okay?" Xander wanted to know. " ‘Cause I was thinking, if you need help picking her up - "

       "It's okay; I've got it," Buffy told him, then paused. "Look, guys, there's this . . .this thing. So I'm just going to say it." Willow's face clouded with apprehension. Buffy took a deep breath. "You brought me back. I was in . . . I was in hell." The word seemed to stick in her teeth.

       Horror and an "Oh God, I knew it!" look replaced the worry on Willow's expressive face. Buffy went on, "I can't remember much about it, but - I felt like the world had abandoned me there. Then, suddenly, you guys - did what you did."

       "It was Willow. She knew what to do." Tara was anxious to give credit where it was due.

       Buffy managed a smile of sorts. "Okay. So, you did that" - glancing briefly at Willow - "and the world came rushing back. So I just wanted to say thank you. You guys gave me the world again, and I can't tell you what it means to me. And I should have said that before."

       "You're welcome." Willow smiled through wet eyes and came over to give her a hug.

       Xander, who'd been visibly upset by her confirmation that she'd been in hell, said brokenly, "Welcome home, Buffy," and joined the embrace, his muscular arms wrapping around both her and Willow. Tara and Anya, not as close to her as the others, stayed where they were, but Buffy didn't have to look at them to know that they too wore mixed expressions; pity and dread for what she'd endured during the months she was dead, and happiness because they'd rescued her from that torment and she was back where she belonged, with her family and friends. Buffy closed her eyes, feeling suffocated.

       Just when she knew she could endure no more the bells over the door chimed. Angel came in, his coat held over his head to shield him from the deadly sunlight. That it had only been partly effective was obvious from the smoke rising from his clothing. Willow and Xander broke the hug, stepping back, and she could breathe again. Angel let the coat drop, his eyes fixed on Buffy as if on a vision.

       "Angel!" Willow exclaimed. "Wesley called a little while ago and said you were coming here. But how did you know? That she was back, I mean. Did you - did you sense that Buffy was alive again, or something?"

       "I called him," Buffy said simply. Willow looked crestfallen at this prosaic explanation of her romantic imaginings. Buffy walked over to Angel, stopping in front of him to gauge his reaction to her presence.

       "Buffy," he whispered, and suddenly she was in his arms, her head against his solid chest. He held her tightly, whispering her name over and over. She was enveloped in his love, and the ache deep inside her was comforted. For a while at least.

       "Well, I, uh, guess we'll leave you two alone," Xander said.

       "Right." That was Tara, with Willow's "Yeah" chiming in an instant later.

       Buffy heard their departing footsteps and whispers, Anya's especially - "Are you sure it's all right to leave them alone? I mean, what if they, you know, and he loses his soul?" Xander's reply was inaudible because it coincided with the opening and closing of the door. When finally she raised her head again they were alone.

       She looked up into the brown eyes that had haunted her dreams for so long. "I thought you'd be here sooner," she murmured. Instantly she regretted it; she didn't want to sound accusatory. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean that the way it probably sounded. It's just . . . I wanted to see you."

       "I ran out of gas," Angel said, simply, "an hour out of L.A. It took me forever to find a gas station that was open, then I had to walk back to my car. I'm sorry."

       "It's okay," Buffy told him. "You're here now."

       "Buffy - " Angel choked and his eyes filled with tears. She reached up and brushed away the moisture from his cheeks. "Don't cry," she whispered. "I'm here and I'm fine."

       "I was watching through the window," he said. "I heard what you told them, about being in hell."

       "You did?" No wonder his clothes were smoldering! Buffy wavered for just an instant. She'd already decided that she couldn't tell Angel the truth either, for it would hurt him just as much as the others, but oh, it was so tempting to just blurt it out. No, she reminded herself, he has enough to deal with in his life; he doesn't need this burden too.

       "Yeah," she said out loud, "but I don't really want to talk about it right now. Maybe later, okay?"

       "You weren't in hell, Buffy," he said, much to her shock. "You were lying."

       "What?" She tried to laugh. "Why would I lie about it?"

       "You haven't been anywhere near that dimension," Angel stated. "There's no hell-stench about you, and believe me, I'd know."

       Buffy allowed Angel to lead her to the large reading table at one end of the store. He pulled out a chair for her and sat down next to her, turning their chairs so they were facing each other. "Besides, I know you, Buffy, and everything about you screamed that you weren't telling the truth. I don't know why Willow and Xander couldn't see it."

       "Probably because they didn't want to," Buffy whispered. "They were so sure I'd been trapped in some sort of hellish dimension, like you were."

       "Because magic was involved," he nodded, understanding her allusion, "not to mention a gateway into another dimension, just like there was with Acathla."

       "I had to lie, Angel. I couldn't hurt them by telling them the truth ," Buffy continued, tears springing to her eyes.

       "Where were you, Buffy?" Angel whispered, his eyes telling her that he was afraid he already knew.

       "I was happy. I don't know where it was, but I was happy . . . at peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it." Angel's already pale face grew even whiter as she talked, and his eyes showed his anguish. "Time didn't mean anything. Nothing had form, but I was - still me. You know?"

       She glanced at Angel, who nodded. She continued, "And I was warm, and I was loved. And I was finished. Complete. I don't understand theology, or dimensions - or any of it, really . . . but I think I was in heaven." She swallowed. "And now I'm not. I was torn out of there . . . pulled out, by my friends . . . and everything here is hard, and bright, and violent."

       Her voice quivered. Angel took one of her hands in his own and gently kissed the still raw knuckles as she went on. "Everything I touch, everything I feel . . ." She couldn't go on, just allowed the tears to fall freely and tried to keep from actually sobbing.

       "This is hell," Angel said, his voice rough. "Right here. It's not home anymore, it's . . . just a place where demons roam the streets and you're expected to fight them when simply getting through the next moment, and the next one, and then the one after that, takes all your strength. Because you keep remembering what you've lost . . . and all the time you're crying inside because you're here instead of there."

       Buffy could only nod, but then she caught herself and shook her head. "Not all the time, Angel. Not right now." Leaning forward she held his wet gaze. "When I'm with you, it's not as bad."

       "Buffy," he murmured, kissing her hand again. "Remember I told you after your mother's funeral that I could stay as long as you wanted me to?" She nodded. "That's even more true now."

       "I'm even needier now," she whispered, blinking fast trying to keep her eyes tear-free.

       "I can handle it," he answered, just as he had that awful, wonderful night. Except that she remembered that he hadn't been able to handle it. Within seconds their gentle, comforting kiss had blazed into passion, and Angel had been forced to pull away from her. Seeing her doubt, Angel cupped her chin in his hand. "Trust me," he said quietly.

       "Always," Buffy whispered as their lips met. The kiss was soft and gentle, and lasted less than fifteen seconds, but the sweetness of it pierced her to the core, opening the door to other emotions she'd been suppressing for long hours, and that proved more than she could handle. Buffy burst into sobs.

       Angel pulled her onto his lap and cradled her tenderly, while she poured out her heartache and anger and sense of loss. "Let it out," he murmured. "Don't hold back." At long last she was cried out and simply lay like a limp rag in Angel's arms, sniffling occasionally and feeling very weak and fragile. There was another emotion too.

       "I feel peaceful," she whispered. "Like I did - there." She craned her neck to look up at Angel.

       "Thank you," he said, and meant it with all his heart.

       Buffy managed a wavering smile. She stroked his cheek. "Thank you for coming here, Angel."

       "Always." Then he kissed her again, and it was just as wonderful and soft and comforting as the first one had been, filling her with warmth and love. She melted against him, relishing the feel of his strong arms supporting her and his lips caressing hers. They kissed over and over again, gently, lovingly - and needy though Buffy was, she was able to curtail the stronger emotions begging to be allowed to rise, and concentrate on the kiss itself and on being with Angel again.

       "Bloody hell!" It was Spike, of course. Buffy sighed and sat up.


END OF PART ONE

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