Angel got two presents this year.
Gunn gave him a toy for Christmas. For the CEO in my life, he'd said, wearing that smile he's taken on, where everything in the world amuses him but he's not about to clue you in.
A line of steel balls suspended on wires; move one on the end, and it click-clacked through the others until the one on the opposite end kicked out, then repeated the motion. Better than a rosary, because he can touch it, it means nothing beyond itself. Perfectly formed balls without a mar or flaw, shiny and clean. He can make it click and work all day long.
It was slowing down when she appeared. Clacking desultorily in the dark room and he sat at his desk trying to decide when to set it going again.
When she came to visit, her hair was darker. Drier, too, and it smelled liked air-conditioning and muted perfume. Like a woman's hair, soft waves around her face, and she'd lost all the baby-fat that he used to stroke with the back of his hand, soft cheeks, powder that smeared his hand. Her cheekbones were prominent now, cast their own shadows. Her eyes were bigger, farther away.
Everything was different and he was still the same.
Christmas is dead victims and giving up, guilt and impossible snow. Tiny girl at his side sliding off the sidewalk, snow sparkling on her scarf, cheeks redder than any poinsettia leaf.
He doesn't like it. Hasn't celebrated it since.
Would have, used to think about going out to the country and buying a fir tree, scotch pine, something huge for the lobby. Winding it in the tinsel and lights they use now. Plans like daydreams, thin as tissue paper and less real. Piling red packages underneath for Connor to crawl among, clutch at with tiny hands, toys and books and eggnog and laughter. Like on commercials for cameras.
Stephen flew home for Christmas break from Chicago, into the San Francisco airport, on the 18th. He sat in seat 3A, because Angel bumps all of his flights up to first class. A window seat, because he's always liked the sky. His grades were extraordinarily good for a freshman, although he won't get the report until the new year. He'll have a white Christmas surrounded by friends and family. Exactly what he deserves, and more.
Time is emptier than ever. There's a tree in the corporate lobby, wreaths on every office door, and Angel works late. Every day is going to be like the next and he needs to -.
Accept that. Keep chipping away at the inbox, setting little things to rights, putting out fires of office politics. He's a big branch in the Hudson or Mississippi of time, usually half-drowned, this year for whatever bullshit reason riding high and dry.
When she walked in, he waved his hand and didn't look up. He knew the drill, knew someone needed something he didn't have time or energy to give, and told the visitor to get out.
"Make me." Soft voice, hoarser than it used to be, a little tired.
Angel looked up. He'd done this once before on Christmas Eve: Seen the impossible, been given Important Messages from the beyond, and time is empty and full of repetition. More than he suspected, apparently. Time's a fucking rosary without hope of anyone hearing, just plastic beads clicking against each other. A steel toy working on its own slowing motion.
"Funny. Don't feel like going through this one again," he said.
She looked around, unbuttoning her dark coat and undoing the green silk scarf around her neck. "Nice to see you, too."
Angel snapped a pencil in his hands and tossed it at her. The vision of Jenny was incorporeal; might as well check this one.
She clapped her hands around it. Caught it in midair and smiled faintly before slipping it into her pocket. She sat down carefully on the nearest chair, smoothing the dark skirt over her legs, and shook her head.
"Incorporeal is as incorporeal does," he muttered. Spike had shown him that much. "Look, what do they want?"
She touched her hair with her palm; it must have been raining out, because there was the odd spangle over the dark blonde waves. "Angel. You're being an asshole."
He nodded. She smelled real, smelled like herself, and had since he looked up. New perfume, of course, and weariness, and the chill of controlled environments, but herself. "Yeah, Buffy. And maybe you're actually here."
She huffed out a sigh, bottom lip extended, like she still had bangs to clear from her eyes. "Maybe definitely," she said, and leaned over his desk. The scarf slithered down and off, into his inbox.
He last saw her six months, half a year ago. An entire lifetime for Stephen, nothing at all for him, and just six months for her. Significant, but not overwhelming.
She was thoughtful and drawn then. That's the best he can remember. He was -- . Not himself. Entirely himself. Stink of Connor's blood, the hot spray of it across his face, hovered close and real, realer than Sunnydale, him, her. Blood like ether, alcohol, laughing gas -- strong things that don't affect him, made him manic. Hot-eyed, half-crazed, and he doesn't remember much more than that. Errand after errand, moving from his son's corpse to the office then back to Sunnydale, motion like shedding his skin, sloughing off all the best parts of himself -- Connor, then Buffy.
At the end of the day, he didn't expect anything to be left. Felt disappointed that there was, in fact, another day to come. Countless ones after that.
"You look good," he told her. She did. Not like herself, not like his girl, but an attractive woman shaking out her hair and shifting in one of his chairs.
"You look tired."
"Am tired," he said. "So do you."
She fixed the drape of one earring, tilting her head. Her collar hid the scar from his bite. She'd been young; it was probably invisible by now. "Jetlag," she said and straightened her neck. "You - it's different."
"What're you doing here, Buffy?"
She blinked and he couldn't tell, couldn't put his finger on it, but she stiffened. "Can we go back to you doubting me? Tossing stuff? That was fun."
"Sorry about that," he said. Unlocked his fingers and leaned forward. "I'm not -"
"Angel. Kidding. Jesus." She shook her head, lips in a tight, nearly straight smile. Looked just like Joyce for a moment.
He had the urge to touch her. Poke her, pull her hair; knew it was her, but didn't believe it. Couldn't. And he didn't know what to say. Easier if it had been a vision, even a haunting.
"Seen Spike yet?" he tried.
"And you're asking why?"
He poked the edge of a manila folder, pushed it back in line with the rest of the pile. Muttered. "Politeness. Mutual acquaintance, you're unexpectedly in town, made sense -"
"Right." Her laugh was like the sound off one of the steel balls, bright and short. Sharp. "That's all. Of course."
He brought his fountain pen in line with a pencil, then switched their positions. Uncapped the pen, tested it on the blotter, then lined it back up. "So, seen him?"
Buffy leaned against the arm of the chair and crossed her legs. "You?"
"Of course I've seen him. Everywhere I turn, there's Spike. Hi, Spike. Lurking Spike. Worse than my fucking shadow."
She nodded, and the smile she wore curved a little. "He's good at that."
"Yeah," Angel said. Pushed back from the desk and gripped its edge. At this point, he'd usually be on his feet. Pacing, fingers twitching at his side, looking for something that crashed well. But he wasn't alone. Worse, *she* was here. He sighed and pulled forward. "Good at a lot. Good at reminding me of --. Everything, actually."
"Might try letting go," she said. "One of these days, give it a shot."
There had to be a protocol for this. He was sure of it. Strip the metaphysical insanity of the undead thing and the former nymphet and the *other* undead thing that claimed to love her, and there had to be a script to deal with this, where your ex-girlfriend shows up and you're able to talk about the guy she loved after you, the guy you --. The guy you know better than you know yourself.
If there was, he had no idea where to go about finding such a script.
"Yeah," he said. "Sure."
She tilted her head the other way, rearranged her hair, and matched his sigh. "What's he remind you of?"
"You. The past. Dru. The soul. Everything. I said everything. Meant it."
"Happens," she said. "Know someone long enough -"
"Except he's the funhouse mirror and I can't look away."
"Not really fair. To him."
Now he got to grab the edge of the desk again and lean forward and let the growl build at the back of his throat. "Excuse me? Since when do I care if I'm being unfair to *Spike*?"
She leaned back, and maybe he was supposed to think that she was relaxed. She looked relaxed, maybe amused, but her eyes looked too intent for her to be that relaxed.
"Don't know," she said. "I care, though. And making him your mirror --. Unfair. Still means you get to be first. Original. Better."
His fingers released the slick wood and he slumped a little. Of course *she* cared. It was Spike. Everyone cared about Spike. Especially Buffy. "Small favors at this point," he said. "Believe me. Let me have my mirror, because he's getting everything else."
"You can't know that."
"I do know," he said and felt old wine, bitter and vinegary, filled with grit and sand, in his throat. "Better than anything at this point."
She sat up, straightening the hem of her shirt and opened her mouth. Closed it, shook her head a little, then said, "You like Dawn, right? Care about her, think she's a good person?"
"Yeah," he said. Never could follow Buffy's logic, and now he wasn't sure he had the patience it took to wait it out. Three years playing catch-up with the infinitely twistier paths of Cordy, Wes, Fred's minds, but he was right back to utter confusion faced with her. "Of course I like her. Why?"
"Treating Dawn like she's just -- just -- a clone of me, inferior version, that'd be wrong."
He nodded and flexed one hand. Buffy never used to stammer.
"Same thing," she said.
"No. Not the same thing. He's *different*, Buffy, always has been, but -" She sat back when he leaned in again and he had to remind himself not to barrel over her. Of all people, he owed her that much. "Look. Impossible to explain. Trust me on this. Not -"
"Going from being alone to not?" Her voice was quiet and she barely looked at him when he spoke.
"No," he said. "Well, yes. Exactly the problem. But -"
"One girl in all the world, Angel. Remember that?"
He shook his head. Hated words, hated arguments that turned on definitions and interpretations. Left that up to Wes and handled the hitting and killing. Those things he knew. "Hasn't been like that since -"
"Fine," she said. Sat back and crossed her arms in her lap. "But a Faith in jail isn't much of a rival or a partner. Let alone a mirror."
"Yeah, but -" He stopped, spun the fountain pen, and glanced back up at her. Tinier than he ever remembered her, but stronger, too. She used to be flexible *and* indomitable. Now she was more rigid, made of stiffer stuff. "Not like *you* handled it all that well at first, either."
She smiled then, the smile he remembered, full of life. Then it was gone. "Think I get a pass for being seventeen, don't you?"
Of course she did. In his mind, she got a pass for just about everything, good and bad, including Spike. Spike was his fault, had been since her great-grandmother was learning how to walk.
"Yeah," he said. "You do. It's just -"
"These days, it's like it's harder to find a normal girl than a superpowered one," she said. Small voice, the tone you use to talk to yourself, and Angel stayed quiet. Let her go silent and fiddle with the buttons -- small seed pearls -- on her finespun cardigan.
He could stay still and silent until she was gray and senile. That thought, though, was the last thing he needed. Regret and guilt were familiar; letting them happen when it came to Buffy was habitual; *seeking* them out was impossible.
"Buffy? Why are you here?"
She looked up, startled, then angry, and then her face recomposed itself into something friendlier. "Came to see you. Wish you a Merry Christmas, see how you're doing. Give you this -"
She unlatched her patent-leather purse and took out a small box wrapped in shiny red paper. Placed it just before his hand on the blotter. They still hadn't touched, he realized, and the more time that passed, the less likely any kind of touch became possible.
"Can you open it?" he asked. Took it, held it in his palm, weighing it, but asked her anyway.
Buffy's brows wrinkled and she looked about to shake her head at him again.
"Just -" he said. "Don't trust packages much any more." "Save it then," she said.
He thought of all the girls around the world. Remembered feeling the magic happen, the reverse of what happened when Connor became Stephen. That was dark and windborne, a harsh sour gust; the Slayer magic was just as rapid, but full of sunshine and pink skies, incredibly powerful but reassuring. He'd asked Wes what it was, Wes who thought they were still friends, who thought that Wolfram and Hart had just somehow become theirs. Wes who didn't ask questions any more.
Buffy was at the window, saying something and he ducked his head, apologizing. Rose and joined her. "Sorry?"
"- we could talk. Be friends, even. Something bizarre and grown-up like that," she said. Looked up at him finally, and they were close enough to touch, and they didn't. "Asked why I was here."
He'd told her once this was his town; that was, objectively, more true than ever. He had the business cards to prove it. Certainly didn't feel like it, though, unless the bird's eye view counted. It didn't. The view was like any map, distant and flat, depersonalized and drained of any hint of activity. Brassy light and blue sky bearing down on glitter and tinsel. Lifeless during the day, batting and dust, worse at night, bright and broken.
He didn't let himself think of the others, except as names in a liturgy, chips of mirror on a string, what they were for him. The ones left behind -- all of them, all the way from Penn through to Connor. Buffy, Dru, Doyle. Connor. It would be easy to think of them, any of them, all. Empty building, however many people, things, demons were crawling all over usually, but empty all the same. More so tonight, literally empty.
He was supernumerary, extraneous, powerful in name only. Like the business cards, chairmanship of the LA office was, it turned out, purely literal. He ruled *this* room.
He might have inadvertently summoned her. Maybe he'd been looking for something to happen. He'd never been any good -- didn't expect to improve, either -- at expecting the normal. Didn't even know what mundane meant.
So he didn't know what to tell her. What to reply, because this must happen all the time, getting reacquainted with an ex. Trying to be friends.
"Okay?" he said.
She was still looking up at him and her smile was small and incremental. Terribly slow. "Try again," she said. "Little underwhelmed on the sincerity here."
"You want to be friends?" he asked. Maybe he'd missed something. That had been happening more and more recently.
She nodded, deliberate patience clear all over her face. "Thought we could try, sure."
He rolled his shoulders and checked the view. Still dark and full of tiny lights. Unchanged. "Thought we were," he said. "Friends."
"Angel. Could be wrong here, but you're still shaky on the whole *boyfriend* thing. I'm supposed to believe you know what friends are?"
She really was smaller than she used to be. Cheekbones, tendons in her neck, all the structural elements so much clearer than they had once been. He wondered if her skin felt different, expected that it did. Drier, probably, like her hair, even slightly rougher.
"I've got friends," he said.
She sounded so doubtful that he nodded vigorously. "Yeah."
"Yet, in spite of this apparently vast and deeply felt social circle, you're sitting alone, in your office, on Christmas Eve? Just an accident?"
He swallowed and when he blinked, he saw the poinsettias arranged over Cordy's headboard, the small tree on the bedside table that Fred brought her, winking jalapeno-shaped lights scattering red and green over Cordy's still face. Vinegar and salt in his throat again, still.
"You have friends," he said. When in doubt, go on the offensive. "Where're *your* friends?"
Buffy glanced up from twirling a silver chain around her wrist. "Exactly."
He didn't know what that meant. Couldn't possibly figure it out, and didn't know how to ask. So he sat down on the windowseat, wondering for the hundredth time why a corporate office came with a windowseat, then remembering all over again that he was a figurehead. It didn't matter how long he spent sitting here, at what hour of the day or night, he could sit until the sea-levels rose and drowned the view and he was Noah, last man in the world. It wouldn't matter.
"What's it like?" he asked and Buffy sat next to him, half a cushion between them, poised as any girl he'd interviewed when he thought he could still get rid of Harmony. Good posture, eyes that wouldn't meet his, a stranger. "All the Slayers around?"
Because he was alone and she'd pretended not to understand that. He wanted to be more alone. To have Spike conveniently decorporealized, or, failing that, reposted to Peking. Not Peking, he could still see the Pacific from this window. Moscow. Maybe Cameroon.
"Lonely," she said softly. Looked sidewise at him and rubbed her palms up and down on her skirt. It was silk and whispered under her touch. A lock of hair stole over her cheek and before he knew what he was doing, Angel reached out. She inhaled sharply. He touched it with two fingers -- dry and dark, not the glossy spungold of the girl he'd known -- and tucked it back behind her ear.
Buffy only exhaled when his hand was back in her lap.
"Thanks," she said. She frowned, took another breath, and shifted slightly closer. "It's not so bad. All the slayers. Just -- weird. Sorry I lit into you about, you know. Spike."
"Don't apologize," he said. Remained still, hoping and dreading she'd continue to move closer. Friends, he thought. He didn't have any, not any more. "Sore subject, that's all."
"Tell me about it," she said, and he didn't know what she meant. He hadn't known most of what she'd said since she arrived, but her voice then was sharp as a blade, quiet as a scalpel. She coughed and turned to him, silk of the skirt whisking over the velvet of the upholstery, and he could tell she was trying to smile. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas," he said. "I'm -"
Buffy closed her eyes and there was a moment when a cloud must have moved, something, but her face paled, then glowed, and it wasn't pink and red like it had been the last Christmas he saw her, it wasn't youth, or memory, just a moment that he hadn't expected. Couldn't have expected. Like candlelight off gold, reflected on linen, her skin was alit, and then it wasn't. There was no hair in her eye, nothing that would give him an excuse to touch her, but he cupped his palm around her shoulder anyway.
She opened her eyes, hazel and holly, and leaned against his hand. "Don't say you're sorry."
"Okay." Now he really didn't have anything to say. There wasn't anything *to* say, except sorry. There are, he knew at least, a thousand different ways to apologize without using the word. "I don't -- don't really do Christmas."
"I know," she said. "Me neither."
Cordy slept under poinsettias. Fred left for Knox's grandmother's house, singing a song about it the entire week prior. Gunn was in Receda with an ancient great-uncle eating turkey and watching football. He didn't know where Wes went, what he'd do for Christmas. When Spike is the closest thing you *do* have to a friend, maybe it was time to start rethinking.
"Don't have anything for you," he said, realizing he still held her gift in his hand. Uncurled his fingers and looked at it. The box was as small as the box that held the necklace he'd given her the third (first) time he'd seen her.
She nudged her shoulder against his other hand. "This is fine."
He nodded, leaning back against the window. She came with him, and he wasn't holding her, not like they used to, leaning against gravestones like the weight of the world pressed them together. More like resting, just together, and the image, unbidden and certainly unwanted, came to him of Spike. Resting after a chase-hunt-fight-kill, it didn't matter, collapsing and sinking, shoulder to shoulder, relishing and reliving.
The crown of her skull still fit his cheek, still nestled against his face like they'd been carved together, and he stayed like that as long she let him, breathing in the new-old scent of graves and death, girl and light. He held the box in his hand, leaned against Buffy, and everything had changed.
Everything was different, and she would leave in a few hours, and he would still be here, still master of the office, balls still clicking against each other, and the sun would rise and this Christmas morning, thanks to faustian bargains, mystical shortcuts, chemical treatments, he could look at it. Would look at it, watch it rise, glimmer, gather strength, and maybe this time things would be different.
Maybe definitely. She didn't curl against him, just stayed there, quiet, her thoughts her own, the way they'd always been. But she was here. Here, not there, not away, not elsewhere, and he let himself smile.
"What?" she murmured, looking up.
"Presents and presence," he said. "Kind of a homophone thing."
"Willow's gay," she said. "And I'm not uncool with it."
"Homo*phone*," he said, and grinned, and it was easy all of a sudden. "Not homophobe."
She punched him lightly, right on his breastbone, and settled down again. She was tired, and he knew it had to be more than jetlag. More than time.
He didn't remember ever consciously letting her go, but he must have. Maybe time passed and took most of the obsession and passion with it, like erosion, like wind through trees. Pieces moving away, disappearing, impossible to track. He must have, must have resigned himself to something, because she was back now and he welcomed it. If he hadn't let go, he wouldn't feel like this, like something different and new for all the familiar trappings, like she had returned. Even if, maybe because, she'd be going again.
When he stroked her hair with his palm, she sighed.
Summary: Friendship's something bizarre and grown-up for these two.
Spoilers: Vague for aired s5 eps.
Disclaimer: Characters belong to Joss, Greenwalt, Kuzui, Sanddollar, Fox; I borrow for hubristic self-stimming purposes.
Notes: flowery_twat put the friendship/parallel stuff in my head. This is for Kita.
Summary: Friendship's something bizarre and grown-up for these two. Spoilers: Vague for aired s5 eps. Disclaimer: Characters belong to Joss, Greenwalt, Kuzui, Sanddollar, Fox; I borrow for hubristic self-stimming purposes. Notes: flowery_twat put the friendship/parallel stuff in my head. This is for Kita.