Weight of Life

By Anna/bite_or_avoid
Author's Notes

Years since LA fell and rose again, but he is still trapped in the shadows.

The shadows of the city he ruined, the shadows of lives he couldn't (didn't) save.

There is no Shanshu, because his work will never be done. He can never live up to his purpose.

He does not seek her out. Does not wish to see the golden hair, the pink lips, the green eyes that drove him to madness and brought him back again. He does not wish to hold her yielding flesh, taste the silken skin that once lured him more assuredly than the smell of human blood. He does not wish a lot of things he once did, when he was closer to a man than he is now. He does not wish to ever lay eyes on her again. He could not bear it.

Of all the hurts he's shouldered, this is the one he cannot carry.

She's searched for him, he knows. Still tied into the demon grapevine, he hears whispers of her where he least expects them.

Slayer. Not 'a'. The. She, who once was 'only'.

Looking for a vampire? Ridiculous. Must be the one who got away. Heard she was tougher, but I guess old grudges die hard. Oh, a vampire with a soul? Even better.

The answer that greets her is always no. Even demons sometimes feel loyalty to their own kind. She is forever ten steps behind him, and her threats echo ahead to reach his ears. But none of them will tell her.

He can be scary too.

It is a relief when the echoes, the whispers, grow fewer and then dry up altogether. She has a life. She should live it.

Upscale demon bar in Arizona, and the place feels so familiar that he half expects a green-skinned demon in yellow lamé to pop out from the back room and make him sing karaoke. It still wouldn’t do any good though. Not even Lorne could read his destiny now. Not when he no longer has one.

He’s just about ready to give up on his contact ever showing when he feels it. Tingle down the back of his neck. Saliva in his mouth, ache in his gut. Even his cock twitches a little.

Power.

Slayer.

Not some recently called girl; the ache is too strong. Not Buffy; the ache is not strong enough.

He turns away, nursing his glass. Whiskey, not blood.

She slaps a bill down on the bar, the buckles of her leather jacket jangling.

“I’ll have what broody over there’s having.”

Her voice takes him back to the days when he was still worthy, still hopeful. When he had something to offer besides misery and death. In her, he saw his own salvation.

How blind he had been.

He swirls his glass and takes another sip. Stares straight ahead. It’s like that with Faith— no eye contact necessary.

“You’re a long way from Cleveland.”

She chuckles a little, not really all that surprised that he’s kept tabs on her.

“You’re a long way from dragon food.”

“Yeah, well, not for lack of trying.”

“So we heard. Sorry the Apocalypse didn’t turn out all that great for ya.”

“World’s still here.”

This time, the chuckle is a full-blown laugh.

“Yeah. In all its miserable glory.”

She doesn’t sound as bitter as she used to.

They drink their drinks, sharing a comfortable silence. He is stretched thin, unable to fight the possibility of human connection that he once held so dear. For a moment, there is nothing to stop him from reaching. He turns to look at her, a person he saved, the dark to Buffy’s light.

“You look good, Faith. Taking care of yourself?”

She looks back, curling blood-red lips. Sees into him, through him. Sees everything he was and everything he can never be.

“You know me. Five by five.” And then— “You look like shit, Angel.”

He lets out a harsh bark of laughter. The first in… he can’t even remember how long.

“That’s a gratifying thing to hear from an old friend.”

“Yeah, well, whachya expect when this is the first anyone has seen you since Operation Kamikaze?” She shakes her head sadly. “Never took you for an idiot, big guy. Or a coward.”

“You’re not the best judge of character.” He sighs heavily. There’s no doubt he deserves it, but he didn’t expect to get the third degree from Faith.

“Bullshit.” Her dark eyes narrow, and it brings to mind hell hath no fury, even though he has never scorned her. “Bullshit, Angel. Look, I’m all for staggin’ it. Your gig is your gig, right? Fine. No one understands walking their own fucked up path better than I do. You got your reasons, and I get that. I do. It just would have been nice to know that you were still the walking undead, you know? Not a little pile of ash blowing around somewhere.”

He doesn’t waste words, offer platitudes. Doesn’t tell her that it was better, easier, if he stayed away.

(Easier for who, jackass? Cordy would have said. She would have had a point.)

“Sorry, Faith.”

She graces him with that sardonic smile that once horrified him and delighted his demon. It was so easy to forget in those days that she was just a girl, like Buffy. A sociopath, but a girl regardless.

“It’s not me you need to be apologizin’ to.”

He doesn’t know if he can ever express how grateful he is that she leaves it at that.

Faith stands, downing the remnants of her drink in one giant gulp. Wipes her hands on the backseat of her black jeans.

“Well, gotta go, man. Places to go, demons to slay. And— don’t worry. My lips are sealed.”

She saunters away, that familiar sway of her hips bringing a small quirk to his lips. Stops, suddenly, turning back to him.

“Hey— you know that thing about practicing what you preach?”

He tips his head slightly, unsure where she’s going with this.

“You really suck at it.”

She has always found his confusion endlessly amusing but, for once, Faith isn’t laughing.

“You taught me how to ask for forgiveness and mean it, Angel. Thing is though, sometimes you gotta forgive yourself.

“Yeah? Talking to yourself is kind of tough when you don’t have a reflection.”

She stares at him for another moment, and with a quiet see ya slips away into the night. He watches the empty mirror behind the bar and thinks about forgiveness.

Absolution is not his to have.

He’s glad he can’t see his own face.

Like so much of his life, it is pure chance. A minute later, a minute earlier, and if he hadn't forgotten the client's number back at the bar it never would have happened.

He's in New York; the halfway mark between California and Europe. As far from both sides of her as he can get. It is fitting, he thinks. This is where Whistler plucked him from the sewage and made him into a cleaner, shinier monster.

He turns in the alley, intent on using the rear door to get back inside. It opens even as he reaches for it, and he laughs bitterly. Everywhere in the world and nowhere, and they are still bound by blood.

“What, no hug for an old Hellmate?”

“Spike.”

The name carries no resentment now. With no Shanshu to claim, no Buffy's heart to wage war over, all that's left is a long road of mangled lives far behind them. He no longer fancies himself better than the other vampire.

Spike is the only mirror that will ever cast his reflection. He always has been.

“Found yourself a new city to plunder, did you?”

His broad shoulders lift wearily.

“Just passing through.”

“Aren’t you always?”

“Why are you here, Spike? I thought you were in Europe.”

A dark eyebrow lifts pointedly. The younger vampire has always been one to cut with a word, or a glance, as assuredly as any dagger.

“Still keeping tabs on the competition, mate?”

“You’re not competition.”

He suddenly remembers what it’s like to want nothing more than to wipe the smirk off Spike’s face with his fist. “No, I suppose you effectively took yourself out of the running when you vanished in a swirl of billowy cape. Bit dramatic, wouldn’t you say? Even for you.”

“Still love to hear yourself talk, huh Spike?”

“Oh, sod off. I’m not complaining. Been right invigorating, it has. Lack of gloom and doom like a breath of fresh air.”

“You don’t breathe,” he grates through clenched teeth.

“Details, that.”

There’s a cigarette in Spike’s hand, twirled between his fingers. They both know this dance by heart, but Angel is too tired to stick to the beat.

“Well, it’s been great. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d really rather go drink some holy water and nail myself to a cross.”

He turns on his heel. Screw the client. He’ll find some other way to make contact.

But Spike was never one for letting someone else have the last word.

“You always did have a knack for turning self-flagellation into an art form.”

He spins back around. Stalks towards his grandchilde, towering. Fuming.

“You. Know. Nothing.”

“I know pain. To feel it, to inflict it. You taught me both.”

“What do you want?”

“You should see her.”

It’s the last thing, the very last thing he expected to hear. From anyone, really. The fact that he’s hearing it from Spike makes him question his sanity a little. So he just stands there, blinking stupidly, thinking about the last drink he had back at the bar and whether or not someone had managed to slip something strong enough to affect a vampire into it. Spike must be equally moved by having said the words, because he’s silent too. He digs into the ever-present trench coat for a lighter. Leans against the grimy brick behind him. Blows tiny smoke ringlets as he stares at the moon. His face is all prominent hollows and sharp angles, every dip and turn a roadmap of worlds Angel would do anything to forget.

“She’d stake me for that, you know.”

“Is she alright?”

“You know our girl. Tough as a Fyarl demon. Damn city’s infested with ‘em, by the way.”

Not so tough, Angel thinks. Not underneath it all.

“It’s what you wanted, Spike. Buffy, all to yourself.”

A sharp laugh answers, but there is no mirth in it. Blue eyes pin him with their knowing gaze.

“What I wanted. Right. You know, Angel, it’s amazing. Nearly three-hundred years on this rock, and you're still dim as a head of cabbage.”

For once, he can’t argue with that assessment.

The blond vampire stubs out his cigarette against the wall. Shrugs nonchalantly.

“Ah well. Better off, really. Her happiness isn’t worth the weight of your everlasting penance anyway, right?”

This time, it’s Spike that turns on his heel.

“Idiot,” Angel calls after his retreating form.

“Drama queen,” Spike tosses over his shoulder.

He watches the slim figure disappear into a pillar of steam from a sewer grate around the corner.

Maybe it is not pure chance after all. Maybe none of it has been.

But he hasn’t listened to Spike in a hundred and twentysome years. Why on Earth would he start now?

He’s knee deep in grimy sewer water and covered in demon sludge. Pretty annoyed about the whole thing, actually. He just got these shoes. The thing is a huge snarling mass of scales and teeth; snout like a rhino, claws like a bear. But it bleeds crimson, like it has a right to that association with humanity.

It rears back, strikes, and he feels the flesh of his cheek tear under its claws. He grasps the offending arm, twisting sharply. The creature cries out, somewhere between a whine and a roar, and lunges for him with its other arm. His foot kicks out, connecting with the belly of the attacker, sending it sprawling in the murky shallows of the passage. Angel stands over it, axe at the ready, prepares to swing...

His vision blurs. He staggers backwards, dropping the axe. Lands on his backside, even as the M’hashi scrabbles away. He is falling, falling, falling, alone and powerless, into the dark…

There are images flickering across his eyelids and voices in his ear. They are real, as real as he is, but he cannot touch them.

Doyle’s fedora is crooked, sliding off his head, as he burns into a pile of ash.

The good fight, yeah? You never know until you've been tested. I get that now.

Cordy smiles wide, that grin he couldn’t help but answer, as the creature inside devours her golden flesh.

You're a living, breathing... well, living, anyway - good guy, who’s still fighting and trying to help people.

Wesley pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

Angel, you're the reason we've all come together. It's your mission which animates us.

And then he’s smothered by a pillow, as blood pours from the gaping wound in his belly.

Handsome man saved me from the monsters, says Fred, before Illyria consumes her soul.

He cries out, reaches, but they do not hear him.

There are no recriminations. Only words of love and support as he expends their lives for his own selfish purpose. For his own promised reward.

He sees them all.

He screams.

She is the last in the barrage of sins he owns. Young, soft, full of life and hope. Loss and death have not yet aged her. She clings to him as if he were her lifeline, and not the anchor that will pull her down into the dark and stormy depths. Her eyes hold the future, one he never imagined, and he accepts all that she offers without a thought as to what he is taking from her. For all the years he’s roamed, he should know better. Yet he does not care to, and in this choice he is as naïve as she.

But not nearly as innocent.

He takes that from her, too.

He sees her fanned out, glowing; feels her wet, tight, perfect around him as he slides inside her untouched flesh. She gasps as he breaches her barrier, as it yields to his gentle thrusts, as he fills her to know this pleasure once and only once and never again. She writhes and moans beneath him, trembling, feels him inside so deepdeepdeep that he’s a part of her now and always. She tightens, clenches, claws his muscled back, gasps out his name in ecstasy. She feels like the world, like the earth and the heavens, and everything that he thought he could never have, never in his long, long life, and if he could have only this for another moment he would gladly give up eternity. They belong to each other now, forever, he thinks, as he shudders his release inside her. A moment of perfect beauty, utter hopefulness; when he is cleansed and made whole, just before his soul is torn from him in payment.

She whispers her love, even as his demon coaxes forth her tears.

He is there, in those moments, knowing what he knows now, and he can’t change a thing.

He thinks he can stand no more. Everything he is—is breaking.

He sees himself.

He stands on a rooftop, sword in hand, as the skies weep overhead. There are rivers of blood below him, on the ground where Gunn and Illyria fell, where Spike still fights like a loyal soldier. The dragon he claimed slithers toward him, nostrils flaring. There is water in his eyes and steel in his heart, as surely as in his hand. He grips the sword tighter. This is a death befitting a champion. A better death than he deserves.

The dragon opens its maw, enveloping him in fire.

He burns.

But there is no guilt in him for this act. The others are heavy in his heart, still chest pained to bursting. So, why is he seeing this, when it is the one choice he would not take back?

He remembers what happened when the Mohra’s blood mixed with his.

He thinks he understands now what Spike was trying to tell him.

In the sewer where the M’hashi left him, Angel comes to. His head is throbbing, and he desperately needs a shower, but he’s otherwise unharmed. The cuts on his face are already healing. He sits up, cursing loudly at the damage to his attire, and makes his way back to his hotel room. Somewhere between stripping out of his ruined clothing and standing under the water whose warmth he can never absorb, the decision is made.

Does he owe her an explanation? Probably.

Is it a terrible idea? Definitely.

He goes to her anyway.

It’s not hard— just a few well placed phone calls, and he’s on his way. Kind of disturbing, actually, how easily a vampire can discover the whereabouts of a Slayer on business in New York. Her hotel isn’t far from his own, but he spends the travel-time figuring out what the hell he’s supposed to say to her.

Sorry for leaving you to wonder if I’d been dusted.

I love you, but I don’t deserve you.

I got slimed by this demon, and it made me realize some things.

Why were you screwing the Immortal?

Somehow, none of those seem like fitting conversation starters.

He wonders if she’ll even let him make it past the door.

The whole thing is a lot less dramatic than he had envisioned it. He knocks twice before the door opens, and she’s standing there. Hands on her hips, head cocked to the side, looking like she’s been expecting him. Same old Buffy.

Only very, very not.

“Angel,” she says, in that breathless way his name has always left her lips.

“Buffy,” he answers. It is still worship, sacrament, entreaty, rolled up into a word. “Can I—can I come in?”

“Be my guest.” She sweeps her arms in a grand arc, then frowns at his sheepish face. “Oh, sorry. Come in.”

He is barely across the threshold and her arms are around him, strong as ever, pulling him inside and shutting the door in one fell swoop. He stumbles a little, his own arms coming around her tiny body, wrapping her up into him. He breathes her in, inhales her, takes her into himself once more. She has never abandoned residence in his heart, as permanent and unchanging as everything about him, but memory had replaced reality for a while. In this moment, there is nothing more real than her.

Buffy is first to shrug off the embrace. She steps back from him, arms crossed protectively over her middle.

If only she had been as vigilant ten years ago.

But she is not that girl any longer. He can see it, smell it, feel it, down to his very bones. She is a woman, ripe as the apples he stole from Aignéis O’Flannery’s tree fifteen years before he drank her dry.

It only makes him love her more.

“I’m royally pissed, you know. Don’t think that hug means I’m not.”

He ducks his head.

“I don’t.”

“You owe me a hell of an apology, Angel. Not to mention an explanation.”

“I know.”

“And… and another thing! What the hell gives you the right to start an Apocalypse without me? This was my gig long before it was your gig, and just because I’m semi-retired and you were holed up in Evil’s home office doesn’t mean that you have the right to just leave me out of world-in-peril stuff! I know what Andrew told you, and I know what Giles did, and I was too busy living a life of non-slayage to pay attention at the time, but you should have trusted me, you big moron!”

“I’m sorry.”

“Well, it’s no fun yelling at you if you’re all agree-y.”

She huffs a little, blows out her cheeks, and it makes him smile despite himself.

It seems her ability to be completely endearing hasn’t diminished with time.

“I—are you ok, Buffy?”

He’s not sure how to ask her what he wants to ask her.

“Peachy.”

But she has never been a very good liar, especially with him. Her eyes are not as bright as they once were, the planes of her face not as soft. She is rougher around the edges, not something fragile to be safeguarded.

He sees that now.

Sees the way she stands up straight, even with the burdens she carries.

She has her own demons to slay. Somehow, that makes this easier.

“Really? Because I had this interesting run-in with a M’hashi, and I was wondering…”

Her mask of bravado wavers. The tears begin to gather in those stormy eyes, but she does not allow them to fall.

“Nasty things, aren’t they? Don’t even get me started on that goopy stuff they spit. Ruined my favorite jacket.”

“And did it— did you… see anything?”

Buffy sighs, meets his gaze.

“I didn’t understand, at first. Giles went into research mode, of course. I’m beginning to think it’s the only coping mechanism he has.” She smiles at the thought, and Angel feels his anger with the former Watcher ebb a little in the face of her love for him. “Anyway, the M’hashi have a nifty little self-preservation thing they do. When their blood mixes with yours, it makes you see things. The things you feel responsible for, you relive in vivid Technicolor. For a normal human, it’s enough to crush their soul.”

“But…” he prods gently. She manages a grin.

“But… I’m not a normal human.”

He shakes his head in wonder.

“No, Buffy. No, you’re not.”

“So, I guess since I’m part-demony Slayer gal, I didn’t get the regular soul-crushing responsibility version. I got the soul-shattering, vampire-with-a-guilt-complex special.”

His shock, his confusion must be written so plainly on his face that she spares him the pain of asking.

“I didn’t see my ‘whoops- sorry I got you killed’ moments, Angel. I saw yours.”

This confirms it; in his own trance, it was not just his guilt he was seeing. It was hers, too.

Her guilt, for the war he waged without her.

He knew this. He thought it was because her blood, the blood she had offered so freely and he had taken so recklessly, was mixed with his.

That she had seen the horrors he carries, taken them up as if they were her own, is more than he can bear.

He wants to sink through the floorboards into oblivion. Wants her to punch him, stake him, throw him out of her life. Anything, anything at all, if only that knowledge could be taken from her.

Yet another in the long list of wrongs he’s inflicted.

“Buffy…” he croaks out. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, Angel.” Her hand reaches out, fingertips brushing lightly across his cheek. The touch is… electric. His skin feels like it’s alive. “I’m sorry. All those people, all those things that happened to you. I should have been there.”

“I left you. It was my life, my responsibility. I failed them, and don’t you dare make that your fault.”

“It’s not my fault. I know that. But you were always there for me when I needed you. When my mom…I don’t know how I would have made it through that night without you. When Willow brought me back. The fight with the First. And I didn’t think… Even when I knew that things were bad in L.A., I didn’t think that you might need me. That I should come, even if you didn’t ask. I’m sorry for that, Angel.”

He curls a strand of her hair, gold between his fingertips.

“Don’t ever be sorry,” he whispers.

“I’ll make you a deal, ok?”

He can’t hold back a chuckle. “Buffy Summers, have you embraced the art of diplomacy?”

“More like bribery. That’s about the only way to have any say over a bunch of teenage girls with superpowers.”

“I’ve been known to drive a hard bargain. What’s your proposal?”

Her palms, radiating warmth, rest against his chest.

“You brood a little less. Let yourself off the hook once in a while. Maybe not cry ‘woe is me’ for a few minutes a day.”

“And the flip side of that arrangement?”

“Well, if you’re tolerable, I might let you take me out for a cup of coffee sometime. We can even go slay something after.”

All the potential protests, the hesitation, the insistence that this is a bad idea die in the face of her confident smile. When it falters, when she bites her lip, he brushes a finger against her cheek. He feels a tenderness that had died a thousand fiery deaths come alive again within him. Thinks that the woman before him may keep him bound to her in a way the girl never could.

“Angel…” she says, and there is a strength in her voice he never imagined. “Are you finished?”

“What?”

“Your lone vamp routine. Whatever it is you needed to get out of your system. Finished?”

To be truthful, he’s not sure. He’s not sure the shadows will ever release their hold on him. But he’s willing to try, has a reason to try.

The reason for everything—it has always been her.

He nods.

“Good. Me too.” Her slender fingers play with a button on his shirt, and she smiles. There is sadness in it, and wisdom, and the knowledge of a long road ahead. “It took us long enough.”

When his lips come down to cover hers, to taste her and claim her for his own once more (even though she’s always been his, will always be his), it’s not like the sweet kisses he remembers. It’s new, and thrilling, and dangerous, and the passion behind it is borne of experience. The Buffy and Angel they are is not the Buffy and Angel they were.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

He kisses her fiercely, crushing her to him, and she matches his possessive embrace.

She thinks he tastes like melancholy and forever. He thinks she tastes like a future he doesn’t deserve, but may have anyway.

She knows the weight of his burden now. Knows how to help him carry it.

And maybe, just maybe, he’s learned to let her.

The End

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Author's Notes:
Rating: R
Summary: Absolution is not his to have. Post-NFA.

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