It seemed like an eternity.
Cordelia’s stomach was somewhere near her throat, the drop fast but seemingly endless. She felt Angel’s hand tighten in hers as he looked down at her, the love and fear equally matched in his eyes.
It made her feel creeped out and comforted all at once. She was getting used to that.
“Jesus,” Riley swore, holding on tightly to the railing at his side.
“I can feel my lunch coming up,” Xander said unhelpfully. The elevator continued down, faster than Cordelia felt comfortable with and somehow not fast enough.
Then, all of a sudden, it jerked to a halt. Kate stumbled backward and Wesley and Buffy grabbed her, keeping her steady. The doors opened slowly and Cordy held her breath, terrified of what would be on the other side.
Angel stepped out and tentatively, they followed him. Cordelia blinked in confusion at the sight before her. The floor they’d alighted onto looked identical to the one they’d just left behind.
“What the hell?” Riley voiced aloud what everybody was thinking, “Did we move at all?”
“We did. This is it. Just how it was last time.” Angel said, not elaborating further and yet Wesley nodded in understanding beside him. Cordelia suddenly empathised completely with Xander as the reality of the situation began to dawn on her, nausea churning violently in her stomach.
“Not exactly…” Faith said suddenly, her voice full of warning. There was motion from the cubicles a few feet in front of them and Cordelia’s jaw dropped as several figures stepped out from hiding and into the corridor and its adjacent open space.
Years of doing this job had honed her instincts and Cordelia scanned the approaching threats quickly, identifying each one of them. Vampires. Eleven of them. Five demons. One werewolf. One –
“Zombie?” Faith said incredulously, her voice filled with fear and disgust, “You’ve got to be kidding me…”
“That thing I said about tempting fate?” Buffy quipped wearily, though Cordelia could tell she was frightened, pissed and itching for a good fight, “I apologise.”
Cordelia unsheathed her sword, watching guardedly as Buffy’s fingers tightened around her hurling axe and Faith pulled a knife and a stake out of her pocket, flipping them upright in either palm. Behind her, Xander and Riley unzipped the bags they were carrying, each standing armed with a loaded crossbow. Wesley pulled out a stake from his suit and Kate pointed her gun firmly in front of her, the tremor in her hand not compromising her aim.
The stand-off held its breath, each of her friends poised and at the ready, various weapons in hand as the onslaught inched slowly forward. Time slowed and then suddenly sped up as a vampire lunged towards them, fangs dripping and feral in the harsh lights of hell.
All at once, they jumped into the fray.
“Protect Willow!” Wesley shouted, as the redhead ran in the opposite direction, dropping to the ground and setting down her belongings. Cordelia flipped her sword, slamming the hilt into the nose of one vampire and elbowing another in the ribs. She ducked as a vampire took a swing at her, shoving her sword deep into his chest. He sputtered, coughing up blood but lashing out with his free hand, slashing her across the cheekbone.
The right side of her face stinging, Cordelia jerked her sword out and lobbed it in a graceful arc, slicing cleanly through the neck of the previously impaled vampire and decapitating him. She gasped as she was grabbed from behind in a chokehold, her head slammed against the wall. Adroitly, she planted her feet against the wall and pushed, using the pressure at her back to walk up the surface and flip over her assailant. Landing behind it, she rammed her sword into the back of the demon that had attacked her, straight through its heart and into the brick wall.
It slumped, dropping to its knees and she pulled the sword out angrily, her eyes darting around.
Buffy kicked a demon in the gut, landing two hard punches to either side of its face. It roared and grabbed her shoulder, squeezing so hard she heard her bones click. She punched its arm with her free hand, powering through the pain when it dropped her and kicking it in the head. It fell backwards and she leapt on top of it, swinging her axe high over her throbbing shoulder and then down into its skull with a sickening crunch.
Angel had a vampire by the throat and nearly a foot off the ground. He pulled a stake from his blazer, plunging it into the creature’s chest and snarling through the dust that followed. An arrow whizzed past his right ear and into the chest of another vampire that had crept up behind him.
“Thank you, Riley,” Angel said dryly, turning to face the grinning boy.
“Bros over psychos!” Riley yelled, quickly reloading.
Willow moved fast, drawing a large circle into the carpet around her with red chalk. Inside it, she drew a five-pointed star, scribbling sigils into the outer triangles. Taking two wide steps behind her, she dropped to her knees and began placing candles in a larger concentric circle around the smaller one. Around the candles, she drew a third and final circle, placing the silver bowl at its edge and dropping the animal bones, runic stones and incense into it.
She was breathing heavily when she opened the smallest pocket of her bag, pulling out the materials Jenny Calendar had couriered. She carefully placed the Orb of Thesulah and the scroll of paper down in front of her, scanning the incantation in Romanian and Latin. She had read it over several times since she’d gotten to Los Angeles, then several times again when Jenny had helped her amend the ancient language in part of the incantation pertinent to the perfect happiness clause.
Willow closed her eyes and felt a multitude of emotions all at once – joy for Cordelia, hope for Angel, fear that she would get it wrong and guilt that she would get it right. Jenny Calendar had been helpful, unconventional, but weary. The gypsies carried a long history of resentment and hatred towards Angelus and whilst Jenny didn’t entirely empathise, Willow knew it had been a much harder decision than she had let on to Angel and Cordy.
In the end, Jenny’d relented. Willow’s explanations of how Angel was far from Angelus and all the good he’d done in the past century of being cursed had swayed her. Times changed, people changed, and the conventions and grudges of her ancestors were not hers to bear. She’d amusedly wondered aloud if her clan would be after her for this but Willow had sworn to protect her identity and the knowledge she had imparted.
The young witch shook off the guilt and focussed on what she knew – Angel was a good man, and he deserved this. So did Cordelia. So did Buffy, Faith, Wesley and anybody else that the possibility of ever unleashing Angelus could do harm to.
Swiftly, she got back to work.
Faith yelped when a demon latched onto her back, pushing her down to the ground. She rolled, coming out on top, flipping her legs forward and launching into a standing position. She blocked a punch with her elbow and kicked the demon in the side, sending it flying a few feet away where Kate stood waiting, unloading a round of bullets into its skull. It jerked madly for a few seconds, then lay still.
Wesley had managed to fend off the zombie by stabbing it several times in the head and chest but it had him now, down on the floor and pinned underneath it. Turning from the vampire he’d just killed, Angel pulled the zombie off him, one hand on its head and the other on its arm. In a sharp, quick motion, Angel severed its head completely, tossing both useless body parts to the ground.
Wesley, Xander and Riley went green.
“Angel, over here!” Willow called out from across the room, and all heads turned towards her. She was standing outside two concentric circles, one drawn with chalk, the other lit with candles. In her left hand, she held a piece of paper, while her right cradled a small, glass orb.
A vampire made a lunge for her and Xander quickly recovered from his stupor, firing the crossbow at him. The arrow hit the vampire in the shoulder, slowing him down and Angel didn’t miss a beat as he strode in Willow’s direction, stabbing him deftly with a stake from behind.
Cordelia closed her eyes and turned, trusting that he would be okay and focussing on the battle in front of her.
“Hi,” Angel said softly, smiling at Willow, “What do you need me to do?”
Willow grinned at him, her heart thundering in his ears. She looked nervous but strong, sure. Apologetically, she directed him into the smaller of the two circles, “I need you to step into the devil’s trap.”
Angel quickly complied, feeling the air shift around him. He put his hand forward, testing that he could not escape from the confines of the pentagram. An invisible barrier pushed against his palm and he looked up at Willow, nodding.
“Okay,”Willow breathed out, taking a seat across from him and pulling out a small mortar from her bag. In it, she crushed some herbs she’d pulled out from another pocket, their smell earthy, pungent. She held the bowl in her left hand and took a step towards him, a small knife in her right.
Angel’s eyes narrowed.
Willow looked sheepish, “I’m sorry. I need your palm.”
Angel held out his hand over the mortar and she nicked his finger with the knife, letting a drop of blood onto the herbs. He didn’t flinch and Willow looked slightly intimidated, stepping backwards and exchanging the knife for a pestle. Wordlessly, she crushed the herbs and the blood together, only looking up when she was finished.
“Here we go.”
Buffy threw her axe into the back of another vampire that leapt at Kate, yanking it out quickly and chopping off its head. She coughed through the dust that remained, looking up, eyes locking with Kate’s. The detective’s eyes widened and Buffy had only a second to ponder that before she was knocked over, the weight of something heavy and foul smelling hovering above her.
The werewolf flipped her, snarling with yellow teeth and eyes black as midnight. Buffy bucked, unable to dislodge it as it grabbed her throat, rearing its head back to strike.
“Buffy!”Xander yelled but it was Kate who was there, loading a new cartridge into her gun and firing every bullet into the werewolf’s neck and back. It howled, a horrid, agonised sound and Buffy bucked again, managing to free her right leg. She lashed out as hard as she could, rolling to her feet as the werewolf collapsed backwards. Buffy gave it a hard kick in the side for good measure.
“Silver bullets, bitch,” Kate said breathlessly, leaning against the wall to support herself.
Faith held a vampire in a headlock, ceasing all movement as he flailed before she twisted hard and broke his neck. Riley fired his crossbow, missing a vampire who Cordelia dropkicked and beheaded in the same breath. Wesley brought his axe down onto the demon under his boot, green goo spurting out and covering the sleeve of his jacket.
A wind picked up suddenly out of nowhere, whipping Buffy’s hair around her face and making her ears cold. She looked around, as did everyone else, the battle momentarily paused as humans, vampires and demons curiously searched out the source.
Red hair blew haphazardly around her face but Willow kept her eyes closed, speaking in Latin. Angel picked up words here and there but didn’t understand half of it. He held steady against the wind around them, the candles flickering but staying alight.
Willow opened her eyes, “Venio.”
Angel squinted, looking around the room.
“Venio!” Willow said louder, raising the mortar in her left hand.
The room stood still, holding its breath. Every head faced them, curious, concerned. The wind picked up, papers from desks left forgotten flying everywhere.
Willow bared her teeth, “VENIO!”
Something flew past Angel’s right ear, a crackle of a sound. The wind stopped. He glanced down, noticing a scroll in the bowl at the edge of the outer circle that wasn’t there before. Immediately, he recognised it, his heart dropping to his toes.
Distracted, Faith didn’t catch the fist coming her way until she felt a solid hook to her left cheekbone, landing hard against the wall. She spat out blood, her eyes furious when she looked up.
The vampire grinned toothily at her, “Had enough?”
“Not even close.”
She launched at him, catching him in the leg with a kick to his upper thigh. He dropped and latched onto her waist, knocking them both over. Faith felt the wind go out of her as the vampire straddled her, pushing her arms down. She wrapped her legs around him as tightly as she could, grinning like a maniac.
“Bad move, bud, this is my favourite position.”
It took every ounce of strength she had to flip him over, yank out the stake in her boot and slam it into his chest. Faith looked up, watching Buffy leapfrog onto a demon’s shoulders, flipping the sword Cordelia threw her and shoving it downwards into its skull. It dropped to its knees and she got off gracefully, pulling the weapon out as it slumped to the ground.
Wesley staked a vampire from behind, helping Kate to her feet from where it had knocked her over. Riley failed to load his crossbow in time, grinning gratefully at Cordelia as she kicked the legs out from the vampire two feet away from him, severing its head from its shoulders.
Silence settled over them as they looked around the room, their opponents defeated. Faith swallowed, glancing over at where Willow and Angel stood.
Their greatest battle was yet to be fought.
Willow stepped forward again, lifting the bowl of objects and the scroll from the edge of the circle. She pulled the scroll out unravelling it and nodding, “Okay. We’re good.”
“What now?” Angel asked.
Willow bit her lip, glancing everywhere at once as Cordelia, Buffy, Faith, Wesley, Kate, Xander and Riley approached the devil’s trap. They each took up position around Angel, circling him.
“I’m going to extract your soul,” Willow said softly, taking a seat cross-legged outside the second circle. She removed a small glass container from her bag, which caused the group to squint and shield their eyes. The stone inside it glowed bright as an ember.
“Will it hurt?” Cordelia asked timidly, rubbing her hands up and down her arms.
Willow looked up, wrapping her hands around the glass and momentarily shielding it from view. “I don’t know. I hope not. But once Angel’s soul is removed, I can perform the spell to release him from his contract with Wolfram & Hart.” She looked over at him, “I’ll need about a vial of your blood.”
Cordelia stepped forward immediately, taking the vial Willow gave her and stepping into the devil’s trap with Angel. Faith handed her a knife and she kept her eyes downcast and away from his face, sliding the blade gently across the flesh of his palm. She collected enough blood to fill the vial, corking it and handing it to Buffy.
Angel’s throat was full, his palm stinging, “Cordy…”
She looked up then, her eyes moist, wracked with emotion. Slowly, she lifted his palm to her face, kissing the flayed skin and laying it against her cheek. “Come back to me, Angel.”
Angel closed his eyes, taking in a breath he didn’t need, unable to say a word.
“Come back to me or I’ll never forgive you,” Cordelia murmured, skating another kiss across his palm, then wrapping her hand around his neck and pressing her mouth to his, quick and hard. She released him and stepped out of the circle, the mask of stoicism back on her face.
“Ready?” Willow asked, and it was unclear which of them she was speaking to.
Angel nodded, bracing himself, “Do it.”
Willow opened the glass container, carefully pulling out the brightly lit stone. Holding it in her left palm, she stared evenly at Angel. This time, when he nodded at her, she started to chant.
Buffy bit her lip, looking nervously at Angel, then at Xander. He shot her a reassuring smile, though it came out more as a grimace, and her heart cartwheeled anxiously.
For a few seconds, there was nothing but the sound of Willow’s nonsensical words, over and over in the small space between them. Then just as it had before, the wind picked up around them, Willow’s chants getting louder, her body swaying as her eyes closed.
Buffy took a concerned step towards her but Wesley caught her arm, stopping her and shaking his head. Willow’s body swayed again, her hair flying in every which direction, the lights flickering from their sockets in the ceiling as the wind continued to swirl around them.
Faith made a strange sound, pushing her hair out of her face and glancing at the ceiling, “This is comforting.”
Buffy stared at Willow, watching in horror as her eyes flashed open, the stone in her hand crackling with electricity. It hovered above her palm, flickering like a ball of forked lightning.
Beside her, Cordelia tensed.
Willow chanted louder and louder, rearing her arm back, the stone in tow. Like a cracking whip she launched her arm forward, the stone flying from her fingers and hitting Angel square in the chest.
“Angel!” Cordelia cried out, feet rooted helplessly in place.
Angel shook with the force of the impact, bolts of lightning shuddering through him. Everything glowed, light pouring from his eyes, his mouth and the tips of fingers until it culminated in one spot in the centre of his chest, forming a sphere.
Suddenly, the light shot out and away from him, straight into the Orb of Thesulah, now in Willow’s right palm. Angel took a desperate, heaving gasp, dropping to his knees, his arms coming forward to support his weight as he fell forward.
This time, Cordelia took a step towards him.
“Cordy, no!” Wesley barked out, making her stop in her tracks. There was pain her eyes, though she only had them for Angel and Riley stepped forward, grabbing her hand and intertwining their fingers together, squeezing.
Angel groaned, still on all fours, confined within the devil’s trap.
Cordelia’s voice was barely a whisper, “Angel?”
Slowly, Angel pushed against his knuckles, taking his weight onto his haunches. His face was still hidden from them as he rolled his shoulders, left, then right, lifting himself carefully into a standing position. His eyes were closed as he stood to his full height, his features coming into view.
The room held its breath. Angel’s lips pulled into a slow, satisfied smirk. His eyes opened.
Kate gasped. Opposite her, Faith took a step back and Wesley swallowed hard. Empathetically, Buffy sucked in a breath, knowing why.
She’d relied on her instinct for years, since she’d met Wesley, Cordelia and Faith, since she’d fought a thousand battles in the city she had sworn to protect. That tingling beneath her skin that alerted her to the evil, the supernatural, or the not quite human.
But despite what they knew he was, Angel’s eyes had been some of the most expressive they’d ever seen, full of every possible emotion and the spark of humanity that set him aside from other vampires. Even when he was angry, his eyes were rich with the warmth of his soul, full of the love he felt for Cordelia, the gratitude he felt towards them all, the compassion he felt for the people he tried to save and the guilt he carried for every memory from his years as a soulless killer.
They were void of all that now, obsidian and cold. All Buffy saw when she looked into his eyes was death.
That wasn’t Angel anymore.
The vampire rolled his shoulders again, freeing the cricks from his neck. When he spoke, his voice was smooth, silky, the disinterested taunt of a demon as Angelus’ eyes roved up and down Cordelia’s form.