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Author's Note: This episode continues from where the first left of, as I vent a lot of the bitterness I felt after watching the cannon episode, Dead Man's Party, which this ignores entirely. Buffy and the group continue to deal with their emotions here, coming to terms with the events which occurred after her birthday and during her absence, as well as her return, and realising that someone else must return as well, or they will have the slayer back, not Buffy herself. There are some elements of the first version; such as a certain dream sequence, and the research session. There are also some lines from the cannon Anne, which I decided to move to this episode as they fitted better here. Enjoy.

Acceptance.

Of all the scenes she had imagined would occur when she returned home, this was not one of them. Instead she expected a silent, awkward standoff, full of accusing expressions, all aimed at her with powerful intensity, until she was unable to withstand the onslaught any longer, whereupon she would fall to the floor in floods of tears, apologising for every wrong they had ever done her, taking all the blame they felt her unexplained absence granted them the privilege of bestowing towards her. A tried and tested routine, used frequently for whenever she chose to disagree with their opinions.

Though, or perhaps because she was the slayer, they thought themselves far more mature and experienced with regards of matters concerning the real world, and usually resented it when she always proved them wrong. They had used these methods when she caused Angel to lose his soul, making her feel guilty for her impulsive instincts ever since. Xander in particularly had gloated over his superior hindsight, reminding her constantly that she should have listened to him in the first place. This expectation, this fear of the very real possibility that such scenes might occur, were what kept her from returning to the hellmouth. Even now, if she thought she had a choice, returning would not be what she decided.

Giles embracing her as a father would his daughter, was something she had never dared to hope for, even though it was the kind of relationship she nearly always felt they had. Nevertheless, this embrace was the reality she was currently experiencing, and soon further evidence of its truth came her way, as she felt a sudden wetness on her hair, which could only have come from his eyes. Emboldened, she clung back, taking what comfort he was offering her, worried that it might soon end, and she would have to endure what she had previously expected to happen. Due to this, she did not cry aswell, despite the almost overwhelming temptation to lose her self-control completely in his arms. She also feared that once she began, she might not stop.

All too soon he withdrew, placing an arm around her waist to usher her the rest of the way inside, then closing the door with his other. Slowly she took in her surroundings, noticing for the first time the other people gathered in his living room. She was surprised to see her mother there, for she knew that Giles' place was one her friends usually went to when the library was barred to them inside a locked high school. She was also surprised to see nothing of the anger which had taken residence in her mother's expression the last time they faced each other, in the aftermath of her being outed as the vampire slayer. Instead there was a nervousness that matched her own, with hope that her daughter had forgiven her explosive reaction and disownment to the shocking news she discovered almost four months ago.

Door closed, her watcher ushered to the nearest empty spot on the sofas and gently forced to her sit down, before placing a cup and saucer of soothing Earl Grey on her lap. Taking several deep breaths, she took a sip, then looked at all of them cautiously, waiting for some kind of sign on where, when and how to begin. Fixing on Giles, who was crouching to her left, brushing the hand which carried her claddagh, she took that probably comforting gesture as an answer.

"I guess you want to know what happened after Xander got you out of the mansion," she said, her voice a little hoarse from her nerves and her recent excursion into the realms of alternate dimensions.

"Only if you're ready to tell," Giles replied softly. "Whistler informed us of the outcome, but he seemed rather pressed for time, and we were too shocked at our failure to ask him to go into further details."

"I wondered where he had gotten to," she remarked, "I found him here raiding your drinks cabinet when I came looking for........." she sighed, "I'm not sure what I was looking for. Anyway, he gave me his version of a pep talk and sent me to the Mansion. Where I met Xander, who told me...."

"That Willow said to kick Angel's ass," Xander finished shamefacedly. "I'm sorry, Buffy, I shouldn't have said that. I know now that I should have told you that Willow was trying to curse him again."

"Anyway, I saw you and then I entered the mansion," Buffy continued, inwardly pleased that things seemed to going so well. "He and I fought, until Acathla was released, then we fought some more until I gained the upper hand. I was ready to....." she hesitated, struggling to get out the next word, "kill him, when all of a sudden he was Angel again." She breathed, trying keep control. "H-he didn't remember anything. Nothing since the night of my birthday. I wanted to take him in my arms, to tell him......" she blinked away her tears, "but Acathla was open, and only blood could seal him. So I told him I loved him, then I asked him to close his eyes. Then I put the sword through his stomach, sending him to hell." She stopped, swallowing her tears with soft, audible cry.

"Oh god, Buffy, I'm so sorry," Giles said, taking her hand in his with a comforting clasp. "I had no idea it would be so hard."

She couldn't take his well-meaning words in. Retelling the events had brought memories of the night once more to the forefront of her mind. Openly crying now, she uttered something she never imagined telling them. "It was my fault. If I hadn't persuaded him to.... love me, none of this would have happened. I couldn't even kill him right. He was still alive when Acathla sucked him into hell, looking at me. He blamed me, I could see it in his eyes."

"Buffy, no," Giles uttered, taking the cup and saucer from her lap before taking her into his arms once more. "You had no idea, none of us had, that his curse wasn't without a clause. I'm sure he doesn't blame you."

"He should do," she uttered, her voice slightly muffled by his embrace. "I consigned him to years of sufferings. Time passes differently there, I know. One day here could be years to him. And he'll be tortured, because he isn't pure demon, until all he can remember is who sent him to endure that fate."

"Angel's stronger than that," Giles tried to assure her. "He survived over a hundred years with a curse I'm almost certain that the Kalderash expected would cause him to take his own life. He will survive, Buffy, and may be find a way to return to tell you not to blame yourself. Others are at fault here, not you."

"He won't return," she sobbed, soaking his jumper. "They won't let him return. I've damned him for eternity."

 


"He was right."

She heard the voice, over and over, resounding inside her subconscious mind, calling to her like a siren song, luring her inward, into the darkness.

"He was right."

She could see now. The caverns were lit with flaming torches, emitting crackling sounds as they burned away the accelerant coating on the wood. A shadowy setting, full of invoking sensations, unsettling and creepy. Ceremonial, and ritualistic.

Above all, evil.

"He was right, and so were you," the voice said, behind her now, causing her to turn, to gasp, if she was capable of doing so, as she saw him. He was as his demon counterpart, visible by the clothes he wore, and the expression of evil upon his face.

"He is stronger than that," he continued. "It's annoying actually. He was always such a coward before. All he cared about was drinking and whoring. He was lucky not to catch a disease before Darla noticed him. Ironic really, when you consider what her human form was dying from before the master granted her immortality."

The caverns widened around them, revealing surroundings of a sunken church, similar to the Master's hideout over a year ago. Flaming torches continued to crackle and burn, as the sound of distance cries joined their chorus.

"I changed all of that," he said, in reference to his words before. "I made him knuckle down, gain some intellect. Most of what you love him for was my influence you know. If I hadn't intervened he would have died of a drunken bout a long time ago. Thanks to me, he lives forever."

Cries were louder now, and closer too. She tried to peer into the shadows, but they remained dark to her, refusing to give up their sources.

"And thanks to you," he continued, "he's suffering forever too."

Suddenly the shadows lessened, and the cries turned into agonised shrieks. Suddenly she could see him, shackled to the cavern wall, the chains biting into the skin around his wrists. His body sagged under the strain, twitching and shivering, physically insensible to the temperature and conditions. His eyes were closed, his head constantly shaking, his mouth emitting incomprehensible mutterings to himself.

Instinctively her hand reached out to touch him, somehow knowing it could, even though he was too far away for her to succeed. Nevertheless, her hand did grace his cheek, bestowing a gentle caress, stilling him for a moment.

He opened his eyes and looked straight at her. "You," he whispered. "You sent me here. This is all because of you!"

The darkness closed around her, sucking her down into it's depths, joining with his last words, to consume her forever.

 


She woke to screaming, insensible of the source until Giles put his arms around her, and she realised the sounds came from herself.

"Buffy, it's alright, it was only a nightmare," he said to her, as she clutched at him, the scream turning into sobs.

He held her till the worse was over, till enough of her grief was spent to calm her. Then slowly he drew back so he could see her face.

"Where is everyone?" She asked, glancing around to find that she was lying the bed of his guest room, and gathering from the light streaming through the curtained windows, that it was the next morning.

"Your mother's in the living room," Giles replied, "she spent the night beside you. You fell asleep soon after you finished telling us what happened. As for the others, they've gone to school."

"Oh, Giles, you're missing the first day," Buffy began, ready to apologise for all the trouble she was causing him.

"It's fine, Buffy, don't worry," He assured her. "I was there a few minutes ago, actually. Persuading Snyder that it was in his best interests to rescind your expulsion."

"How ever did you manage that?" Buffy asked him curiously.

"I have my methods," he replied, causing her to remember when he told her of his wilder youth. "I even managed to persuade him that you needed some more time off to recuperate after the horrible trauma he caused you when he had you charged with murder."

"Thank you," Buffy uttered, nervously smiling a little. "How does Mom feel about all of this?"

"She agrees with me," Giles replied. "She came over yesterday, and we had a long talk about everything. She's taken it very well, Buffy. I'm sure she'll tell you that and more herself." He paused to rise from the bed. "Why don't I leave you to freshen up, and then you can come down for some breakfast."

"Thank you, Giles," Buffy said again as he walked to the door. "For all you've done. I'm not sure I deserved at least half of it."

"You deserve all of it," Giles replied. "And more besides," he added, before closing the door.

Buffy got out of bed, attended to her ablutions, changed into the freshly laundered clothes she spotted lying on a chair, then emerged into the living room, where she found a selection of breakfast stuff spread out on the coffee table.

"Are you alright?" Her mother asked, pulling her into a hug almost as soon as she entered the room.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Buffy replied, allowing herself to ushered to the sofas once more. "I just had one of my dreams, that's all."

"Dreams?" Her mother looked from her to Giles, who placed the pot of freshly brewed tea he had been carrying on the table before he spoke.

"Buffy can have prophetic dreams, of what's to come," he explained. "Usually they're deeply symbolic warnings, preparing her in some respects." He paused, sitting down. "I've never heard of a slayer screaming because of them though, which makes me think that it was nothing more than a nightmare."

"What else could it have been?" Buffy countered as she took a seat. "I was there, Giles, in hell. He was being tortured. He told me it was all my fault."

"Did he?" Giles sought to confirm.

"Well, Angelus did, and so did he. He yelled that it was all because of me."

"Buffy, that could have been nothing more than a reaction to your own insecurities," Giles remarked. "A product caused by misplaced guilt."

"He's right, Buffy," her mother added, taking a seat too. "You've been carrying this guilt around with you for almost four months. It has to have affected your mind, your emotions. You need to learn to accept that there was nothing you could have done to change the outcome."

"I can't," she uttered, shaking her head. "Not while I know he's suffering. It would be admitting defeat. Saying that our love was all for nothing. Proving all of those who thought we were wrong to fall in love, right."

Silence met that, neither Joyce or Giles sure of what they could say next, unable to deny that there was some truth in her words. Quietly they ate the breakfast, making sure she ate as heartily as they thought was needed, musing on what they could do to restore her happiness, short of the impossible.

Bringing Angel back.

 


"You came to visit me," Willow uttered happily as her boyfriend suddenly joined her passage through the corridor at the high school. Abruptly she noticed what he was carrying. "You came with books? Are they books for me?"

"Well, actually, they're kind of for me," Oz revealed.

"I don't get it," Willow returned.

"Well, it's sort of a funny story," he added as they resumed their walking. "You remember when I didn't graduate?"

Willow thought for a moment. "Well, I know you had a lot of incompletes, but that's what summer school was for."

Oz nodded. "Yeah. Well, you remember when I didn't go?"

She turned to him in shock. "But you never said anything. How am I supposed to react to this rather alarming news?"

"Well, actually, I was pretty much banking on you finding it cute," Oz informed her.

"Well, traditionally, you know, repeating a grade isn't exactly a turn-on. And you're practically a genius. You're Mr. Test Scores. It's all a little weird."

"So the cute thing is out?" Oz queried.

"I'm trying to get to cute, really," Willow assured him. "But I'm still sorta stuck on strange."

"Well, I'd be willing to bargain down to eccentric with an option on cool," Oz offered.

"Hey guys," Xander greeted them as he and Cordelia joined them. "Any news on how Buffy is this morning?"

"Giles said that he was gonna check in on her during recess," Willow replied. "I hope she's alright."

"We all do," Cordelia agreed. "Last night was freaky. I've never seen Buffy cry like that before. I always thought she was so strong."

"I think she hides that from us," Willow said. "To protect us. She doesn't want us to worry too much when things are bad."


"So what do you want to do today?" Giles asked her when breakfast was over.

"I think I better check in with school, even if I'm not going back yet," Buffy replied. "See what work I need to do to catch up. I'll just stick to the library though. Try and keep a low profile."

"I'll join you," Joyce remarked. "I have people covering at the museum for me. Besides I'm running out of rooms to clean or washing to do at home."

"Mom," Buffy began nervously, but she shook her head, rendering the words unnecessary.

"Buffy, it's me who should apologise, not you. I was wrong to react the way I did when you told me what you are. I have no excuse, save that I've been so worried that I would lose you along with your Dad."

"You'll never lose me," Buffy replied. "At least as long as I have a say in it. I can't guarantee that the vampires won't object."

"I know that now," Joyce added, smiling at her. "And I wanted to say that I'm proud of you. Not many kids could handle what you did at fifteen. I know I couldn't have."

"I didn't handle it too well," Buffy mused. "I got my first watcher killed and I set my first high school on fire."

"You had to, to slay the vampires," Joyce pointed out. "Giles told me all about it. And Merrick's death wasn't your fault. A vampire killed him, not you." She paused, before adding. "I'm also a little envious, if you don't mind my saying so."

"Envious?" Buffy echoed.

"You have this life full of new, exciting possibilities. You had the kind of love that only comes once in a lifetime. And you have a career doing something useful for the world. Making a difference."

"Yeah, shame it doesn't grant me a salary though," Buffy returned. "Thanks, Mom, for being so understanding."

"If I was anything else, I wouldn't deserve to have a superhero for a daughter," Joyce replied, causing Buffy to blush.


The three of them arrived at Sunnydale High School during lunch recess, gaining entrance to the library via the emergency exit at the end of the stacks. When they arrived at the stairs which led to the research table below, they found the rest of the Slayerettes waiting for them.

"Hey guys," Buffy greeted, and suddenly she was swamped by them as they all hugged her, nearly toppling her over, but for the strength of the primitive within. She revelled in their welcoming, until she needed space.

"Okay guys, losing oxygen here," she uttered, causing them to part and return to their seats. "What have you all been discussing?"

"Nothing much really," Xander replied. "Just wondering if we could maybe help with something."

"What something?" Buffy asked.

"Getting Angel out of hell," Cordelia revealed.

"Could it be done?" Willow asked Giles, while the slayer stared at them, a mixture of emotions swirling in her thoughts.

"I'm not sure," Giles answered. "Opening up portals to other dimensions is not an exact science."

"Well, we must have something like 'Idiot's Guide to getting souled vampires out of hell?'" Xander asked.

"Not exactly that copy, but I'm sure I could find a translation or two," Giles returned, walking over to where the index cards were located. "Oz, put that sorting sign outside the door, and then let's begin."


Joyce Summers looked up from her numerous books and once again marvelled at the sight before her.

It was two hours later. The Library of Sunnydale High had been overtaken by the 'Scooby Gang' - one pop culture reference that Joyce did understand. Piles of books lay scattered across the table and its surrounding floor and stairs, each being sorted through by one of the seven people that occupied the room.

Rupert Giles was in his office, collating all the information that had been found and scanning the Watcher and Slayer diaries for reference to Angelus, Acathla and the dimensions of hell to see if any had dealt with something like this before. Xander and Cordelia were on the stairs, pouring through the occult section on demons, hells and everything else under the sun. Willow was at the table, dividing her time between internet supernatural chatrooms, search engines and the Wicca collection that Giles owned for any spells or rituals that might bring someone back from hell. Oz was beside her, reading the classical and philosophical volumes of the ancients and the renowned to see if they could provide an clue.

Joyce turned back to her own volumes she had been studying. The Codex, a chronicle of Slayer prophecies, most of which she had been shocked to find out had actually happened. Especially the one that had caused her daughter's own brief end. Joyce sighed, angry for herself not realising that she had been upset for just more than a date to the Spring Fling. She glanced at her daughter, who was reading through the religious section to see any keys lay there. Every now and again she would pause, her right hand drifting to her left, twirling a silver ring that sat on her third finger. It was a piece of jewelry which Joyce had never seen before and apart from the cross that adorned her neck, it was the only thing which she was wearing. The ring was never fully seen by her and for the past two hours Joyce had been debating over whether she had the right to ask Buffy about it.

Suddenly, as if she had heard her thoughts the slayer looked up. "Have you found something?" She asked hopefully.

"No," Joyce replied sadly. She glanced round the room, and seeing that the rest were engrossed, decided. "Buffy, may I ask you something?"

"Sure." The Slayer tried to mask her fear at what the something might be.

"May I have a look at that ring?"

Buffy hesitated, then took it off her hand and handed it carefully to her mother. Joyce held it before her, her experience in art identifying it instantly. "Who gave this to you?"

"Angel," Buffy whispered. "Its a claddagh ring," she explained listlessly. "Before he was changed his people exchanged them as a sign of devotion. The hands represent friendship, the crown represents loyalty and the heart represents love." She paused, the last words shaking her. Gathering her strength once more she added, "wear it with the heart pointing towards you means you belong to someone." Buffy closed her eyes. She shivered again, as the night that he had given it to her came back to her mind. Despite the situation and the brief time that it took, that night had been one of the most romantic moments of her life. Lately she had been using it as a distraction from the dreams that haunted her nights. She would close her eyes and picture him and his voice, as he said the words she had just used. Now it seemed to bring her even more grief. The one person she had belong to, the only one who had the ability to make her feel safe, she had sent to hell.

Joyce looked at the ring in her hand with nothing less than surprise and awe. Thanks to her job at the museum she knew well of the legends surrounding the claddagh rings, yet she had never imagined that one day someone would give one to her daughter. She knew instantly that Angel meant for every one of the legends to apply for his age belied any reference to the contemporary. He had promised his heart, his love and his soul to her. "Did he tell you that wearing it on the left hand pointing in usually means the wearer is married?"1

Buffy shook her head, tears forming in her eyes, even though she was smiling over her beloved's sentiments. "No, he did not, but then he was nervous about telling me that he loved me," she confessed.

"There are a collection of some of the earliest examples at the museum," Joyce explained. "One usually said when bestowing the ring; 'with my hands I give you my heart, and crown it with my love.'"1

"I never knew that," her daughter replied, before taking the ring back, sliding it on to her finger in the same position once more, causing her mother to smile as she caught the unspoken message within the movement.

Then they both returned to their books.


Buffy walked through the doorway that led to the master bedroom of the mansion. She felt herself gasp as her eyes settled on the figure who sat upon on the bed. "This is a dream," she heard herself uttering.

Angel stood up and came forward to stand in front of her. He took her hands, cradling them with his own as though they were the most precious things in the universe. "Yes it is," he replied huskily, stroking her hands. "But there is a way for it to become reality."

Buffy felt her tears start to fall as she remembered what she had been trying to ignore. "It can't," she choked out. "We've been looking for four hours. If there was anything........."

Angel suddenly cupped her face with his hands, brushing away the tears. "Shush," he commanded tenderly. "Do you trust me?"

Buffy felt herself replying even before she was ready to. "I trust you with my life. With my heart. And with my soul." Like all the others she had no control.

His lips replaced his hands, kissing away her tears, as his hands moved to wrapped themselves in her blond tresses of hair, now seemingly reverted to their natural colour. She felt her own go around his neck, as her lips met his in a passionate kiss.

Then suddenly they were on the bed, and their clothes were being pealed away. His hands caressed her, his lips worshipped her, and Buffy was powerless to stop it. Even if she wanted to. She had wanted him for so long.

The blankets covered them, as she felt her bare skin connect with his.

"There is a way," Angel repeated huskily, his voice near her ear. "You have the key," he kissed her shoulder blades.

Buffy stilled, remembering their first time, and then her emotions took over as she experienced a more powerful bliss and a greater peace than any she had ever known. She felt him roll off her, gathering her body into his arms, clasping her left hand in his. The last thing she remembered was the clash of their rings as they met and four last words from him. "There's nothing to forgive."

 


Buffy opened her eyes. She was back at the library, where, judging by the looks she was receiving, she had been sleeping for awhile. She also saw something else in those glances, a deep despair and guilt that after six hours of research they had found nothing.

"Buffy," Giles began tenderly, his fatherly concern showing, "I am so sorry......."

"It doesn't matter," she found herself replying. "I know what needs to be done." She got up and left the table, coming to a brief halt before her mother. To that person's surprise she hugged her. "Did I ever tell you Mom, that you're a genius?" She asked rhetorically before walking away.

For a while the Scooby gang just stood there, watching the swinging doors that showed her departure. Then all at once they looked at one another and followed her.


The mansion was deathly quiet. The Slayer came to a halt in the main room, her eyes on the stone floor, tracing its edges, as if somehow it would give her hope as to what she was about to do. Slowly she stretched out her shaking hands. For a moment she hesitated, fearing to take off one of the few things that had kept her going over the past months. Then she resolved herself, taking a deep breath. Tears clouded her eyes as she slipped off the ring, falling to the floor to surround the claddagh's new resting place.

Her task now done she collapsed on the floor, her eyes never leaving the spot where her ring lay. Unable to form the words she began to pray silently in her head for the first time. Hoping desperately that she had correctly interpreted the message from her dreams.

Hours seemed to pass by, each remaining unnoticed by her. The Scooby gang soon joined her vigil, although their presence was likewise not detected by her. She just remained fixed on the floor, her eyes afraid to close, fearing to do anything different in case it changed everything and prevented him from returning.

Suddenly the mansion began to shake. The ring once still, started to rattle on the floor along with it. The space around it started to glow a murky yellow, reminding everyone of his feral eyes, then promptly driving that and every other thought from their minds as the ceiling opened up above them. A body, naked and curled up, shivering with cold and exhaustion, despite his species' immunity to the former, dropped to the floor. Unknowing to the those who watched it retained enough presence of mind to retrieve the thing that had brought it back, clasping it in a fist, unwilling to let go of it, even for a second. Sounds came from within, neither human or animal, or even vampire, varying between grief and relief.

For a moment the Slayer knelt dumb struck. Then her emotions took off and she rushed to him, clasping herself around him, assuring herself that he was real. Angel had returned.

The End.
To Be Continued In....

An Uncertain Return.

1) Visit the Wikipedia. URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claddagh_Ring, for more information.