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15 November 2011 @ 09:49 pm
Fic: Rewards (8/8)  
Summary, Notes, and Warnings are located in the Table of Contents.

Chapter 7: Decisions
Angel felt as if time stopped as they waited for her decision.   He couldn't tell by her expression what she would say.  Liz Snow was everything she had ever said she wanted.  And it would be safer for her, he would make sure of that.  But now, he and Buffy could really have had a chance.   They hadn’t had much chance to talk about what the future could be like for them, everything was happening so fast.  He knew it was selfish, but he couldn’t help hoping that wanting to be with him was at least factored into her decision.
Linwood was well into his rant as to how severely they had screwed this one up when he was interrupted by simultaneous rings on Lilah’s and Lindsey’s phones.  Each checked their incoming texts.  Lilah looked up with a smile on her face.
“We’re ready to break through the hotel’s defenses, sir.”
She took a deep breath, walking toward the now silent group.  As she spoke, she kept her eyes on Angel.  Her decision would certainly impact him as well. 
“You know, Whistler, for being all-powerful, your Powers really are not all-knowing.  For instance, almost always what a teenage girl says she wants is usually the worst thing for her and rarely what she really wants.  Almost always.”  She smiled at Angel. 
“Me and normal?  I don’t think it was working for Liz as well you might think.”  She stopped Whistler’s automatic protest with a raised hand.  “I know, you’re just going to say that it was reality rewriting itself and that everything was hunky-dory before now.  I’m not so sure I want to take that on faith, you know?”  She was now standing in front of Angel, looking into his eyes.  She shrugged in a resigned fashion.  “I’m Buffy. I don’t think I know how to be anyone else.”
Angel couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  “You’re,” he faltered, not even knowing how to put his question into words. 
She grinned.  “Yep.”  He moved forward to hug her, but she stepped back quickly.  At his crushed look, she hastened to reassure him.  “We will definitely get to that.  But right now, I’ve got everything balanced in my head just so and I don’t want to knock it all off-kilter.”  Looking toward Whistler, she added, “So, what do I do?”
“You want to hold a thought or a memory in your mind, something unique to the life you want to return to.  And when you’re ready, you smash the stone.”
She looked around.  “Who’s got the stone?”
Cordelia grabbed it from where it was sitting on the counter.  She brought it over to Buffy and unwrapped it.  “You ready?” she asked.
She nodded.  “Yeah.”  She smiled at everyone.  “See you guys in a minute!”
Cordy handed her the stone and instantly her mental equilibrium vanished and she was filled with battling images.  She stood there struggling to find one concrete image from Buffy’s life to hold on to.
As they watched her swaying in the center of the lobby, they became aware of noises from outside, just instants before a group of Wolfram & Hart’s lackeys poured through the door.  Their orders were clear and simple: retrieve the girl and the stone at any cost.  It was rumored that tempers were flaring back at the office, so no one wanted to fail. 
Angel and his team instantly sprang into action.  No one knew how long it would take for Buffy to come back to herself again, nor what physical and mental condition she would be in when she did.  Nor did they dare move her while she was like this. 
With the exception of Giles, they had all worked together for years and Wesley, Gunn and Angel immediately moved to surround Buffy while Cordelia and Fred ran to grab weapons.  The attack was well-planned and well-implemented and Angel and the others were already fighting desperately by the time they got weapons.  Angel couldn’t help but think that Wolfram & Hart must practice these hotel incursions regularly; this was too good to be improvised.  To the side, he saw Giles fighting off one of the mercenaries, looking decidedly out of practice.  Everyone else was holding their own, but they were definitely outnumbered.  He chanced a glance back toward Buffy, only to see that nothing had changed.  She was still swaying, trancelike.  The stone was still whole.
She opened her eyes, startled to find that she was no longer in the hotel.  A warm, white haze surrounded her. It took her a moment before she realized that the chaos in her brain had gone.  In fact, Liz had gone.  She smiled, in spite of her concerns at her sudden relocation.  It felt so good to be herself again. 
The euphoria was dampened a little as she noticed two figures emerging from the mist, a male and a female, their skin either dyed or painted so that they simultaneously seemed a part of and apart from their surroundings.  She looked from one to the other.
The male spoke first.  “Slayer, you are to be returned to your new life.”
Buffy tilted her head, then shook it. “Nah, don’t wanna.” 
“You were granted a boon in return for your service to the Powers,” said the female.  Her voice was gentler and Buffy decided that she was definitely the one she preferred. 
“I didn’t do it for the Powers.  I did it for the stupid kids and the soccer moms and because it was the right thing to do.  As far as I’m concerned the Powers are just these stupid, selfish puppeteers who have a whole lot to learn.”
“Such insolence will not be tolerated,” the male intoned.
“Look, if the Powers had really wanted to give me a reward and, apparently Angel too, then what was wrong with making it so that we could be together?  I mean, really, what is the big deal with keeping us apart?  Do they get points for thinking up new creative and cruel ways to mess with our lives?”  Frustration welled in Buffy as she looked at the unperturbed faces of these two beings.
“You may not defy the Powers That Be.  You cannot return to your life as Buffy Summers.”
“Watch me.  Because if you turn me back into Liz Snow, I guarantee we’ll be facing the same problem again and again and again.”
“The Champion has more sense than to endanger your alternate self by provoking such a situation.”
“But I don’t.  And if your Powers don’t see that something in me is screaming to be with him at any cost, then I don’t know what they’re looking at.”  She looked at them defiantly.  “You can try, but I will fight you in any way that I can.”
The two looked at each other, sharing some private communication that she was not privy to.  “The choice must be made now.  The danger is growing.”
“I’ve made my choice!” she cried.  Then as the rest of the statement seeped in, “What danger?  What’s happening?”
“We will return you now.  Good luck Slayer,” said the female. 
The colors began to fade from the room, leaving the white misty haze.  She began hear sounds as if from a distant fight and tried to look around her to see where the danger lay.  Suddenly, her limbs felt heavy and she couldn’t move.  Her eyes closed, her brain swept back into the whirl of Liz versus Buffy.  The sounds were louder now and all around her.  Trying desperately to focus her mind, to find her memory, she felt the weight of the stone in her hands. 
Settling on the first time Buffy had seen Angel, she focused on that memory: the cool evening air; the feel of his chest beneath her foot; the way his eyes had, even then, taken her breath away; the sound of his voice.  Freezing that moment in her mind, holding on to it with everything she had, she opened her hands and dropped the stone.
The shockwave rippled through the hotel.  Angel chanced another glance and was awed by what he saw.  There was no question in his mind that this had worked; that look in her eyes, her stance, her smile all belonged only to Buffy.  She threw herself into the fight with a furious vengeance that quickly skewed the balance.  The mercenaries, having seen the stone scattered to dust on the floor, and facing a very pissed-off Slayer in addition to everyone else, quickly began to retreat.
As soon as they were gone, Angel ran to Buffy and pulled her into his arms.  She buried her face against his chest and snaked her arms around him.  All around them, everyone was checking on injuries or just resting.  Just as Wesley knelt down to check on an unconscious Giles, the older man groaned and sat up, rubbing a bump on his head.  Cordelia looked at the pair embracing in the middle of the lobby, apparently unaware of anything around them and shook her head.  “Back to this again,” she grumbled half-heartedly, unable to hide a smile at the joy emanating from the two.
After a minute, Angel and Buffy disengaged and began helping to clean up the worst of the wreckage, sneaking looks at each other, yet not willing to talk in so public a space.  Buffy sat next to Giles and tried to help him with the icepack that Fred had produced, seemingly out of nowhere.   Giles stared at her, silent and overcome with emotion for a minute. 
“I can’t believe it,” he finally said. 
“I’ll pinch you,” she offered, holding her hand next to his arm.
“No,” he answered, grabbing onto her hand tightly as if afraid she would slip away.  “Buffy, I’ve missed you.”
She looked at the man she had thought of as a father for so much of her teenage life and felt so grateful for this chance.  “You’ll have to catch me up on some stuff.  Do you know what’s happened with the rest of the gang?”
Having finished all the cleaning they were going to do, the others came and sat down while Giles brought Buffy up to speed on her friends from Sunnydale.  Xander and Anya had gotten married; Anya was still running The Magic Box while Xander was foreman of his own construction crew.  Willow and Tara were still together as well, and still practicing magic.  They often lent their expertise to assist Spike who had determined to carry on Buffy’s work in protecting the residents of Sunnydale. 
She shook her head.  “So, Spike’s change of heart was really real?  Wow.”  Angel snorted and she shot him a look.  Turning back to Giles, she asked the question most on her mind.  “What about Dawn?  Was she okay after...  the thing with Glory?”

Giles nodded slowly.  “She was as okay as one could expect.  She was heartbroken over your, well, death.  We all were.  But she hung in there and, after one bad year at school, was able to turn things around.  She’s a junior at UC Sunnydale, majoring in art history.  You will be quite proud of her, Buffy.”
Buffy smiled broadly.  She couldn’t have asked for more.  Her friends and her family were doing well.  She looked down at herself.  Her shirt was still stained with the professor’s blood, her hands and legs dirty from sitting on that floor.  “I think I’m going to go get a shower, get cleaned up.  I’m gonna need to borrow another outfit, Cordy.  Then maybe a major shopping trip.  Somehow, I get the feeling that erasing Liz’s life may have erased her apartment and clothes as well,” she said regretfully.
Buffy took her time in the shower, acclimating to the relative silence of her thoughts.  She was also stalling before her conversation with Angel.  She had no idea what to say to him or what he expected.  She knew what she wanted.  Her choice to return to life as Buffy was not made solely to be with Angel, but she couldn’t deny that it factored heavily in her decision.  But everything had been so crazy, they hadn’t had any chance to talk about it beforehand.  When he told her the curse had been lifted, maybe that had been a precursor to telling her that he was involved with someone now.  It felt almost like no time at all had passed for her since that jump from Glory’s tower; for him it had been six years.  Of course, he must have moved on.
Feeling decidedly discouraged by the time she got dried off and slipped on the robe that Cordy had left for her, she wandered out into the bedroom only to find the object of her musings sitting and waiting for her.
“Nice to know you’ve kept up with your lurking skills,” she said sulkily.
Angel narrowed his eyes.  Obviously her mood had changed since she had come upstairs.  Not that some emotional turmoil wasn’t to be expected, but was she regretting her decision?  “What’s wrong, Buffy?”
She sighed as she sat in the middle of the bed.  There was no reason to take out her bad mood on Angel.  “Nothing.  I’m sorry.  Just thinking.  You know that’s always dangerous for me.”  She tried to smile at him, but found it difficult to look in his eyes.  She didn’t want confirmation of her fears.
Angel wasn’t sure exactly how to approach her.  He had come up here away from the overly prying eyes of Cordelia to try to get things straightened out with Buffy.  But he wasn’t sure it would be wise to initiate a discussion with her in this mood. 
She snuck a glance at him out of the corner of her eye.  Maybe it would be better just to get this over with.  “I was thinking about asking Giles to take me down to Sunnydale to go see everybody.  We can probably be out of your hair tomorrow.”  She was staring down at her hands, so she didn’t see the look of frustration and disappointment cross his face. 
He thought for a minute and then got up and sat next to her on the bed.  She looked up at him, feeling the pull she always felt when he was near her.  She couldn't be this close and not touch him; just like all those years ago in Sunnydale.  Back then it had been he who had left.  But she barely had the strength to leave now; if she stayed any longer...
He saw the uncertainty in her eyes and dared to think that maybe he had a chance.  Maybe they had a chance.  He brushed some damp hair off her cheek, letting his hand follow her arm down to her hand.  “Buffy,” he began.  “I know you want to see everyone.  And how much they need to see you.  But I don’t want you to feel like you have to leave right away, or that you can’t come back.”  She looked at him, not sure what he was saying.  Was he just being nice?
He kept talking.  “In fact, I’d really kind of like you to stay for a while, or maybe I could come to Sunnydale with you.” 
“You’d come back to Sunnydale with me?” she asked tentatively. 
“Of course I would.  I’d go anywhere with you.  I’ve finally got you back and I’m not letting you go until you make me.”
She smiled coyly, her heart rejoicing as she began to understand his intentions..  “What if I don’t want to make you?” she teased.
He pulled back pretending to think.  “Then we might have a problem.  We might just have to spend the rest of out lives together.”  He leaned in toward her, smiling.  “Think you could put up with that?”
Her heart pounded in her chest as he neared her.  She could smell his scent surrounding her.  His eyes were fixed on hers, waiting to see if she would wave him off.  “I think,” she said softly.  “I think I might even enjoy that.”  And she leaned in the remaining distance, sealing his lips with hers as they both found the only reward they had ever cared about.

The End