Author: Dark Star
Summary: It’s a long way home.
Rating: Adult. Almost…
It stank. The green demon pinning him to the ground was sticky and rancid, making Angel want to retch. The small part of him that wasn’t battling to stay alive recognised it would have been so much worse if he’d had to actually breathe, and, gathering his strength, he heaved the Sliak to one side and rolled over.
Behind him, the glutinous pool that the Sliak called home broiled restlessly, oozing over the edge and out onto the rock. Picking himself up, he noticed with disgust that green strands of… something - he didn’t care to speculate what -speckled all over his clothes and itched at his hands. The whole cave floor was covered with Sliak excretions, making just standing up into an ordeal.
The Sliak gazed longingly at home, decided to make a run for it, and dashed straight for the churning pool. Angel, equally determined to stop it, threw himself in the path of the fleeing demon, slid on the green gunge on the floor and toppled backwards into the pool with the demon in his arms.
The deep slurping sound he made when hitting the surface would have been disgusting if he’d had time to think about it, but he was too busy trying to hang onto the Sliak and not get pulled under. It was like trying to stay afloat in rotting vegetation, but smelt much ranker. The pool was trying to pull him under, and the demon seemed to be squirming against him, before its weight abruptly vanished, and he would have been more alarmed by that if he wasn’t battling just to keep his head above the foul liquid.
Hands outstretched, trying to find purchase on the rock, legs kicking against the vile fluid, looking for something to push against but finding nothing, he used everything he had to pull himself out of the pool, but he knew he was losing. The pool was sucking him further into its depths, and nothing he could do would stop it inching further and further up along his body. By the time it reached his face, everything else was submerged and he was panicking. He tried so hard to keep his head above the fluid but the end was inevitable. Just before the fluid claimed him, he closed his eyes in a futile attempt to stop the stuff getting in them. As the stuff spread across the top of his head and finally pulled him under, he had time to think just two thoughts.
I’m going to die.
Underneath the gunge, his flailing hands encountered a metal ring. He grasped at it desperately, using every ounce of strength he possessed and hauled himself up, and out of the pool. The stale air in the cavern had never smelt so fresh, and using his legs as a lever he slithered out of the dreadful pool to land gasping on the hard rock. He had no idea how long he’d been underneath the surface, and he thanked whoever would listen that he hadn’t needed to breathe, or he would never have got out again.
The journey back to the Hyperion seemed to take forever, though it wasn’t helped by his need to keep out of sight, since he was covered from head to toe in nasty green slime. As he approached the hotel, head down and footsteps heavy, he decided, for the thousandth time, that his life sucked.
As he turned the corner to enter the hotel’s courtyard, he stopped dead. The lights were on in the lobby, and he knew he hadn’t left them on. He scanned the yard for signs of forced entry or ambush, and instead noticed potted plants spread around the yard that had not been there earlier.
Curious, he moved silently to the door and opened it enough for him to step quietly in. The lobby was not as he had left it. It was a different colour, had different drapes and furniture, and somewhat bemused that an intruder would break in to redecorate, he jumped when a male voice said,
“Ah. You found the Sliak, then?”
Spinning round, he saw Wesley standing behind the counter, looking at him with a mixture of disgust and sympathy. Wesley.
Oh, crap. I’m dead again.
“Are you okay, Angel? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“You’re here,” he said lamely.
“Well, yes,” Wesley frowned. “I said I’d wait until you got back.”
He was saved from having to answer that by the side door opening, as a woman’s voice said, “Angel’s back?”
Skin prickling, he watched Buffy come rushing through the door, her welcoming smile draining away once she saw the state he was in.
“Euw, Angel! You’re dropping gunk all over the floor! Go and have a shower, will you?”
Yeah, that was a good idea. Scurrying off, he hurried up the stairs, only vaguely aware he was leaving droplets of green behind him on the stairs. His mind was in turmoil. What was going on? Was his room in the same place? The room was certainly in occupation, and he assumed it was his. The shower would give him time to figure out what was happening and what he was going to do.
The clothes dropped in a messy pile on the bathroom floor, Angel turned the shower on and stepped inside. He let the hot water run down over his back as his mind tried to make sense of what had happened. Where was he? What was going on? He assumed that he must be in some kind of alternate timeline, but he had no idea what to do next. Talk to Wesley, maybe? Or was this really some kind of hallucination and talking to Wesley would be of no help at all? He sighed. Well, he’d get this gunk off his skin first, and then he’d be better placed to figure out what to do next.
With the water cascading down over his head, and shampoo in his ears, he didn’t hear the bathroom door open quietly. He didn’t hear the movement in the room, and he’d just washed the shampoo off his hair and was reaching for the soap when his hand closed over something warm and human.
He jumped. Buffy had found the soap first and was lathering it up.
“What are you doing?” he squeaked.
“Manly,” she laughed, applying the soap to his back. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
He pulled sharply away from her. “I can manage.”
“I know,” she said, moving closer again and resuming her vigorous soaping. “But I want to do it.”
Something warm and fleshy rubbed against his arm and it suddenly dawned on him that she must be in here with him, stark naked, and what was left of his cognitive thought scattered.
“Please don’t,” he managed to get out, and his voice sounded so pained that Buffy stopped.
Why not indeed? What could he possibly say to her that would make sense?
“This stuff is nasty. It itches.”
She laughed, resuming her soaping. “Don’t be such a baby.”
“You don’t want it on you,” he added helplessly.
“You can wash it off,” she promised, amused at the way the muscles in his – very manly - bottom had gone rigid with the stringent soaping. “Turn round,” she ordered. “So that I can do the front.”
From somewhere he found his voice. “No.”
“No?” she stopped abruptly, and she sounded hurt. “You don’t want to soap me?”
Oh, god, yes.
“It’s not that,” he tried, feeling ridiculous for talking to the tiled wall. He didn’t dare turn round. Clearly, she thought he was somebody else. If he turned, he would see that she was naked, glistening from the water, and that thought only inflamed the third reason he didn’t want to see her. If he turned, he’d want to touch her, and that was a very bad idea.
“I’m not…” he started to say, then realised that telling a naked slayer he wasn’t her lover wasn’t likely to go down too well. “I’d rather finish it off myself,” he muttered, his voice sounding pathetically lame to his own ears.
“Fine.” The soap slopped back in the dish and she stormed out of the shower. Angel groaned and leant against the tiled wall for support. He suspected that things were about to get very interesting.
Once the shower was done, and he had rinsed the residual gunge down the plughole, he turned the water off and stepped outside. He pulled one of the white towels from the rail, hoping he’d chosen the right one, and started to dry himself briskly. He noticed then that his clothes had gone from the bathroom floor, presumably taken for washing – or possibly, disposal - by Buffy. Great – now what was he supposed to wear?
Wrapping the towel around his waist he moved out into the bedroom. The first wardrobe was stuffed full of women’s clothes and he moved on to the next. More women’s clothes. How many closets did she need? He was just about to shut the door when he noticed the outfits at the end of the rail. He couldn’t resist taking a peek. Was that a nurse’s outfit? A schoolgirl? A French Maid…? Oh, Lord. He snapped the door sharply shut and moved on the next set of doors. The third, thankfully, did hold men’s clothing and he rummaged for something that he would want to wear. Didn’t the man have any black?
Finally settling on some dark underwear, black trousers, and charcoal sweater, he pulled on some shoes and went downstairs. His aim was to get out of the hotel, find out where he was and try to figure out how to get home.
As he crossed the lobby, Buffy came in from the kitchen. He braced himself for her anger, but she didn’t seem too ruffled. He wondered if he’d be able to get by her without being stopped.
“Give me hand, would you, honey?”
Apparently not. Honey?
“Sure. What do you want?”
She gave him a sweet smile, before going to the weapons cabinet and unlocking it. “Wes wants an inventory of the new weapons we took from the vamp nest. You know, the ones we took last week?”
Again the sweet smile. “And remember that vamp with the big head? What was his name? Malachi? Moose? Meladrome?”
“Malachi,” he guessed. Well, he had a one-third chance of getting it right.
“Yeah, that was it,” she agreed, leaning into the cabinet and pulling out a sword. “Malachi.”
Next second she turned, moving fast, and he found the sword pointing straight at his throat. Wrong guess, then…
“Who are you?” she snapped.
She scowled. “You’d better talk fast if you want to keep your head.”
Wesley looked up from his journal, where he’d written several pages of notes from Angel’s account of how he had arrived with them.
Angel stood the other side of the table, trying to wait patiently, and hoping that Wesley would pull a rabbit of the hat and tell him how to get home. Buffy stood over the other side of the room, arms held protectively over her chest, and it was obvious that she was in a bad mood. The sword lay on top of the table next to her, and within easy reach.
“Well,” said Wesley. “We seem to be left with portals and hallucinations of some kind. Assuming it’s not a spell, that is.”
“What do we do about it?” Buffy barked, and Angel had the uncomfortable feeling that if he said a word he’d find himself back on the end of that sword.
“Research,” Wesley said almost gleefully and both Buffy and Angel groaned. Wesley waved his hand toward the kitchen. “This could take a while. Why don’t you find Angel something to eat, and you can come back and help me later?”
Buffy hesitated. She hated doing research, preferring to take the action missions, but she wanted her Angel back, and she didn’t want to have to spend time with his impostor, feeding him. On the other hand, said impostor might be able to give her a clue as to what was going on and she reluctantly agreed.
Sitting on either side of the kitchen table, Angel, a hot mug of blood in his hand, said awkwardly, “How did you know?”
“That I wasn’t the Angel that belongs here?”
“Turning up in clothes that I’d never seen before was a big clue,” Buffy responded curtly.
“Yes, I imagine it would have been.” He sipped his blood. He hadn’t realised he was so hungry. “Anything else?”
Buffy’s brow furrowed as she considered what had alerted her. “You felt wrong, you know…inside…?”
He knew. He nodded and waited for her to continue.
“Angel has a small scar on his back. In the shower… you didn’t.” She shrugged. “Not rocket science.”
They both dropped into silence, and if looks could kill, Angel had the feeling he’d be a pile of ash on the floor.
“He’s bigger, you know.”
“It’s all this good blood,” he offered, knowing she was referring to her own Angel.
“No,” she snapped. “I meant he’s bigger. You know, from when we were in the shower? I noticed.”
Angel hesitated before replying. He doubted she would have seen anything from where she was standing, and it was rather… sweet that she felt the need to protect her man’s honour in such a fashion. He considered responding with something nasty, but instead he said softly, “Of course he is. He has you.”
Her mouth dropped open in astonishment, but before she could reply Wesley entered the kitchen.
“I’m trying to figure out at what point your dimension split from ours. It might be important. Would you mind answering some questions?”
Of course he didn’t mind – anything to get him home again. After a lot of questions, Wesley decided that the split had happened around the time Angel had taken over the Hyperion. Cordelia had not survived the onslaught of visions brought on by Vocah and Buffy had gone to LA to see if he was okay. Buffy joined them at that time, and they had decided to make things work, and this didn’t appear to be the case in Angel’s dimension. With more information on hand, Wesley set off to do some more research. Angel rose to go after him, and Buffy said awkwardly, “Thank you.”
Angel gazed sideways at her. “For what?”
“For… in the shower. You… could have taken advantage of the situation.”
“No I couldn’t,” he replied. “I don’t have a death wish.”
Buffy paused, and caught his eye. “Are you sure?”
Angel held her eyes before shrugging. “Maybe.”
“You told Wes that in your world I’d never gone to live in the hotel with you, so I wondered… who do you have at home, Angel?” Buffy asked, wondering why she cared if this Angel was lonely or not.
“I don’t… there isn’t anyone,” he said solemnly.
Buffy frowned. “You and I… we aren’t together there?”
“No. We found it too hard.” Even as he spoke, he realised how ridiculous it sounded to be telling this Buffy that it wouldn’t work.
“Of course it’s hard!” she snapped at him. “Why do you think it shouldn’t be? But if you want it enough, you can make it work! Didn’t you want it?”
“Of course I did!” he shot back. “But she deserves better than I can give her. She deserved a better life than shambling about in the dark. She deserved…”
He blinked. “What?”
“What is it with you bloody vamps? Did you even think about asking her what she wanted? She’s made to stand in the dark – that’s what slayers do. What she needs is an equal. Somebody to love her, protect her back, and be there for her. Where were you when she needed you?”
“Pylea,” he said softly.
“Py-what? What’s that?”
Angel scowled. “The wrong place at the wrong time.”
Wesley gave a little shout, gesturing at the open book on his desk. He looked excited.
“I think I’ve got it.”
Buffy and Angel looked up from their own books, hope blossoming within them both.
“Everywhere I looked, Convergence kept cropping up, and then I came across an ancient reference to the ‘Convergence of Seven.’”
“Seven what?” asked Buffy. “Dimensions?”
“Yes,” Wesley replied, scanning the book’s text to make sure he had his facts right. “But it’s more complicated than that.”
“It always is,” Angel added.
“Nothing human would survive the gateway but there are a few cases of demons doing so. Even so, if they have no natural dimension-walking expertise, the occasions are extremely rare.”
He paused to read the book, and after a few minutes Buffy said impatiently, “Wes? Still waiting.”
“Yes…” he hesitated, trying to find the right words to explain what had happened. “I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept that dimensions co-exist. Events in them are the same up to a point, when something happens and they split, and then those dimensions starts to do things differently.” He paused to make sure they were with him. Then he continued.
“Some events continue to happen even though the worlds are moving differently. Fixed events, in effect. Seven is recognised by many to be a very magical number. With regards to the dimension pool, if there is a fixed point in seven of the dimensions, happening simultaneously, in theory a traveller could pass through. However, in order to all travel, they must all be thinking the same thing at the last minute. Angel… can you remember your last thoughts?”
“I thought I was going to die.”
“Well, yes, you would, but I don’t think that would have done it. Anything else?”
Angel hesitated before reluctantly saying, “No.”
Wes noticed the discomfiture, and he noticed the involuntary flick of the eyes toward Buffy. Ah, yes… that kind of emotional turmoil could well have been the trigger.
“If the occurrences need such specific conditions to apply,” Angel was saying slowly, “Then the chances against re-creating them in order to go back will be astronomical.”
He heard Buffy’s little cry of distress, but Wesley was shaking his head. “I don’t think we need to. The journey will have left an energy trail we can follow backwards – dimensional breadcrumbs, if you like.”
While Wesley tried to pinpoint the details of sending Angel home, and hopefully reclaiming their own vampire, he sent Buffy and Angel out of the room so that he could concentrate. Eager to accelerate the chance to get back to normal, they were willing to comply, but before leaving the room Angel couldn’t help stealing a glance at the man he thought he would never see again. If they succeeded in sending him home, it would be to a world that didn’t have him in it.
They retreated to the garden, to sit on the wooden benches. They spent some time discussing the details of their worlds and how they differed. Eventually, Angel asked Buffy how they had made their relationship work with all of the obstacles that they faced.
Buffy considered her response before saying soberly, “It nearly didn’t work, you know. Too many things against, too much… history.”
She glanced at him to make sure he understood before carrying on. “We tried everything, but every time something happened and it all fell apart. It was difficult.”
Angel watched her struggle with some internal conflict, clearly trying to decide how much to tell him. Then, awkwardly, she blurted out, “He wanted pain.”
Angel stared at her, his throat closing. “He hurt you?” The thought of anyone – especially another version of himself – causing her unnecessary suffering made him want to hit something.
Buffy shook her head. “I don’t mean like that. He never used it on me.”
“He likes pain,” Angel offered when she had been silent for a while.
“Yeah,” she grinned. “But then, you know that.”
Not sure what he was supposed to say to that, he said instead, “You used it for play?”
Suddenly realising his indelicacy, he apologised but Buffy just shrugged. “Not really. He had this thing… you know, where he thought that pain would make things right?” She hadn’t finished so Angel said nothing while she collected her thoughts and remembering. She’d been wondering how much to tell this other Angel, but there was so much she had never been able to tell anyone, and surely… he would understand, wouldn’t he? At least some of it?
“We tried to be together, but it wasn’t going well.” She shrugged, “I guess we had too many issues.”
Angel watched the breeze ruffle the foliage on the potted plants, awaiting her halted comments. Talking to Buffy, like this, was intriguing. She was talking about him, or at least, another him, and he’d never had that perspective from her before.
“Angel… blamed himself. For everything that Angelus did, for everything he couldn’t control, for everyone he couldn’t save.” She chuckled. “He was seriously messed up, you know?”
Yes, he knew exactly what she meant. How did they get over that? Then suddenly, he thought he understood.
“He thought pain would help, didn’t he? That if you made him suffer enough, he could do penance for everything?”
“Yes,” she said, but her expression was sober. “It didn’t work very well. He made me tie him up and do horrid things to him. I didn’t want to, but he said he needed it, and I tried. But there was so much that he felt he needed to make up for, and sometimes I hurt him so badly, and…” She paused, and Angel could tell she was blinking away tears and he felt angry at the other Angel for causing her such pain. Was that his function? Was that why he was in these dimensions – to cause her pain? “It was never enough. And I hated doing it. I didn’t want to cause him suffering, and I didn’t want to see him suffer, because... it hurt me, too.” She smiled sadly. “So I found another way.”
Intrigued at what would work when penance didn’t, he asked, “How?”
“One day, I tied him up as normal. He expected pain and suffering, and I meant to, but… I couldn’t do it. I’d had enough. So I… left him.”
She looked sheepish suddenly and Angel blinked. She left him? Confused, he said, “You went back home?”
“No, I didn’t mean that. I mean, I tied him up and then left him there. I told him he could stay there until he came to his senses and started behaving sensibly.”
Angel frowned, not understanding how that could possibly work and he said so.
“It nearly didn’t. But, you see, I didn’t just leave him there – I ignored him. I went about my daily business and I wouldn’t talk to him, wouldn’t touch him.” At Angel’s disapproving look, she added, “I offered him food. He wouldn’t take it, though.”
Puzzled, he said, “That worked? He was better?” He could see that Buffy ignoring him would hurt, but…?
“No. So after three days, I started… touching myself, you know? So that he could see? I thought it would make him realise what he was missing and give up. It didn’t work.”
“No,” Angel agreed. “It wouldn’t. He’d just think that he didn’t deserve to be the one touching you, and you were better off without him.”
Buffy gave him a funny look. “Is that what he thought? Oh. I thought he didn’t care.”
Angel suppressed a sigh. How could she not understand how important she was to him? But then he pulled himself up. He was jumping to conclusions. He couldn’t imagine ever not wanting her, but he had no idea what was happening in this world, or if other-Angel thought the way he did.
“I think he cared,” he said softly. “He cared enough to try to redeem himself for you, didn’t he? He let you put him through suffering so that he could be worthy of you.”
“He was always worthy,” she said crossly. “He was the only one who thought otherwise.”
“So, how did you get through to him?” Angel asked, trying to get the conversation back onto safer ground.
“After a week, he was still tied but wouldn’t give in. He wouldn’t eat, and he wouldn’t let me cut him down. I didn’t know what to do. I thought… I was going to lose him all over again. After two weeks he begged me to talk to him, but I wouldn’t. I needed to get through to him but he still wouldn’t let me cut him down. I don’t know how long that would have gone on for if something else hadn’t happened.”
She looked so miserable that Angel had to fight the urge to reach over and take her hand. This was not his Buffy, she belonged to another – and the very thought made him jealous. How could he possibly be jealous of himself?
“I got into a fight with a Meshca… vicious bastards they are. It kicked my ass, Angel. I barely got back to the hotel alive. I was pretty beaten up and it was all I could do just to crawl to our room and crash out. Angel was frantic. He begged me to untie him but I was too exhausted. I just curled up on the bed and ignored him. I was angry with him, too. I should never have faced the Meshca alone. He should have been with me.”
“The man is an idiot,” he offered awkwardly.
“That’s what I told him,” she said with a sad smile. “Afterwards, he was so… ashamed that he hadn’t been there for me and I couldn’t stand it. We had a really long talk and decided to make a fresh start. Ignore the baggage of the past, and try to make it work.”
Buffy got up, stretching out her arms as she added ruefully, “It wasn’t easy. There were problems at every turn. I suppose we should have given up but I couldn’t. Or maybe wouldn’t is a better word.”
She waited for Angel to rise before sayings seriously, “When you get back, go to her. She needs you. Make it work. It’s hard, but it can be done. We’ve proved that.”
She blushed under his intense scrutiny and added, “If you want it to, that is.”
Yeah. When he got back. If…
The glutinous green of the Sliak pool didn’t look any better the second time around. The thought of willingly stepping into the broiling mess was definitely not appealing, but it was the only way to go home. Next to him stood an excited Wesley, chattering about dimensional differences and theories and a subdued Buffy trying not to wrinkle her nose in disgust at the stench coming from the nearby pool.
“Remember,” Wesley was saying to him, “All you have to do is think of home, and that should be enough. You’ve already made your way through once, so the passage is open – you don’t have to wait for the Convergence of Seven.” I hope, he added silently.
Angel nodded, turned to Buffy. He wanted to say goodbye but didn’t know how. Fortunately she took the imitative, leaning forward to kiss him on the cheek. It took all his willpower to not pull her toward him for a bruising hug, but he appreciated her gesture.
“Safe journey,” she said. He pulled away, stepping backwards to the pool. Wesley had said he didn’t know if entering the pool the wrong way would make any difference and to be safe he should enter the same way as before. He felt the edge of the pool against his boot and he hesitated. He really didn’t want to get in the pool, and he gave a grim nod to Wesley. If this worked, he would never see the man again. He nodded to Buffy, slightly hurt that she wanted him gone so that she could claim her own Angel. But there was nothing but sympathy in her eyes, and he latched on to that gaze for the strength to take that final step backwards.
The slurp on landing in the pool was definitely disgusting, and this time he tried not to fight the suction of the fluid and let it pull him under, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath as it did so.
He stood in the lobby of the Hyperion, fresh from the shower and looked around. The journey home had gone without a hitch, exactly as Wesley had said it would. He supposed he should feel glad to be home again, but he just felt sad. That other Angel had a nice home, a good life, a friend, and most of all – he had Buffy. What did he have? Everyone was gone, and he was tired of being alone.
He found himself drifting toward the phone. He picked it up, and put it down again. What was he doing? That other world was different from his. He couldn’t have the things that other-Angel had; it wouldn’t work. He turned to walk away.
She needs you.
He couldn’t help himself. He dialled the number and waited for her to pick up.
“We need to talk,” he said.