When it happens for the first time, he thinks he's losing his mind. Which, on second thought, could be an appropriate finale of the mess he made.
The first days after Buffy’s death he felt numb. He tried to not think about her. He tried to forget about the amulet Spike had thrown in his face, snarling that the bleeding thing had killed her. "I wanted to wear it - but we had a row. Because of you. And she kept the bloody trinket. And that thing killed her. It's all your fault. She's dead because of you."
Since that day Angel keeps the amulet in a secret drawer in his bedroom. He's acutely aware of the amulet's presence although he never dares to open the drawer. Sleeping in the same room with the thing that killed the woman you loved might be too small a punishment, but that's all that's left. That's all he has to deal with - steady, dull pain, silent reminder of his guilt.
Then one day, he goes to a bar, meets Spike, who is roaring drunk, and forces him to tell the whole story - about the fight in the Hellmouth, their near-defeat, the amulet's awakening. "I snatched the damn mojo from her neck but it was too late," Spike concludes. "She had just vaporized."
That night Angel finally takes the amulet out of the drawer and contemplates it for a long time. Until he notices somebody's presence in the room.
"It's not your fault."
He raises his eyes. Buffy is sitting in a chair in front of him.
"You're not real," he says hoarsely. "You're the First Evil."
She grins. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," he ventures, feeling very unsteady on his feet.
She rolls her eyes.
"I don't argue with drunks. Still, it's not your fault, Angel. It was my decision."
He spends the next day in a haze and goes upstairs in his apartment as soon as he can. He takes the amulet out of the box and waits.
Nothing happens. After hours of tense waiting Angel decides to go to bed. He goes to the bathroom and when he comes back there she is, sitting on his bed, her chin on her knees.
"Bad day?" she asks.
He reaches a trembling hand, but it grasps emptiness.
"So," he says. "The First came into my town. You’re lucky you’re immaterial."
She rolls her eyes.
"Ask me something only you and I know. Ask me what you told me in that alley behind the Bronze."
"What alley?.. oh, that."
He glances at her. She looks so different than the girl he met in Sunnydale. She's not a girl anymore. Her eyes are sad, her body is hardened by battles.
He shakes his head. She's not a Buffy at all.
"You told me you're a friend," she says. "But not necessarily mine. Remember?"
"It doesn't prove anything." He feels utterly stupid; the conversation sounds surreal. Yet he says, "If you're figment of my imagination it's natural for you to know everything I know."
She thinks it over.
"Fair enough. Let's do it differently. Has Spike told you what he said to me in the Hellmouth?"
"Just yes or no."
"He told he snatched the amulet from your neck... From Buffy's neck," he corrects himself hastily. "But it was too late."
"But he hasn't told you what he said."
Angel shakes his head.
"He said: 'Slayer, your martyr complex surpasses even Peaches'. Ask him if it's true."
Spike is very suspicious when Angel invites him to an Irish pub nearby. But the temptation to make Angel to pay a bill is too big, and he grudgingly agrees. By the end of the night both of them are so drunk that Angel almost forgets why he brought Spike here. Only when the demon bartender reminds them his joint closes in 10 minutes does Angel recall the reason of their little outing.
"Pretty decent whiskey," Spike says, tasting the last drops of liquor in his glass. "I wonder if it's the only thing that quells your martyrdom or..." He waggles his tongue.
Good opening, Angel thinks.
"So, you think I have a martyr complex," he says. And, off Spike's gleeful nod, he goes on. "And you think Buffy has it too."
Spike's too drunk to notice the present tense in regard to Buffy. Or he might think that Angel's too drunk to reason clearly.
"Yes, she had it in droves. Her martyr complex surpassed even yours."
"Have you told her about it?"
"Have you? Have you?”
"Relax, Peaches," Spike looks back at demon bartender who scowls at them and Angel realizes he's shouting. "They don't like brawlers here."
It rains outside and Spike curses as he tries unsuccessfully to lit his cigarette. "You can't go on like this," he says as he finally inhales.
Angel nods. "I know. Just tell me. Have you told her that her martyr complex surpassed mine?"
Spike smokes silently and Angel notices that his hands are trembling.
"Well, yes," Spike says when he finishes his fag. "I told her when she was burning there in the Hellmouth and refused to go with me. Yes, I'm a heartless brainless bastard. Happy now?"
Angel wakes up in Spike's basement apartment. His head is splitting and the events of the previous evening are lost in haze. Everything except their final exchange in the rain is a blur.
"I'm going to Cleveland," Spike says, giving him a mug of warmed blood. "Faith is a crazy bird of course, and Harris has his moments too, but they're not wallowing in misery as deeply and persistently as you do, Peaches".
For a second Angel is tempted to tell him. But he quickly squashes the temptation.
That evening Buffy is waiting for him in his apartment and Angel tells her that Spike has left.
She hesitates, then smiles mischievously. "Good. His hair is stupid. And your wonderfully epic penis is so much bigger." Off Angel's shocked expression Buffy starts to giggle. "Sorry, couldn't resist. That's what I would say if I was a figment of your imagination, wouldn't I?"
And at this stupidest moment of his unlife Angel finally believes that it's her. Only real Buffy can make him so happy, angry and embarrassed at the same time.
"But seriously," she continues, "I'm not ready to deal with two immature jealous vampires at once. One at a time is enough."
Not again, Angel thinks. I can't lose her again. I can't let her fade away. Panic overwhelms him as he notices that she becomes more and more transparent. In a desperate attempt to keep her he tries to grab her hand but it slips away and she disappears.
It's grief, they tell him. Grief and nerves. And drinking, Wesley adds reproachfully.
They may be right. Buffy doesn't appear anymore. Angel can't stop thinking that it was his attempt to retain her that scared the spirit away.
He tries not to think of her but it's impossible. He reads books on ghosts to find a way to bring her back. After finishing the tenth thick volume he realizes that he won't find anything helpful. Frustrated, he recalls that that he was drunk when he saw her initially, and uses it as an excuse to start drinking again. Every time he notices Wesley's reproachful gaze, he says to himself that he does it with the best intentions.
But drinking doesn't help. It neither dulls the pain nor brings Buffy back.
Then, one day, he starts drawing absent-mindedly abstract patterns on a sheet of paper and suddenly realizes that he had drawn her face. There. Again. He feels her presence and he's so afraid he doesn't dare to raise his eyes.
"Stay," he says hoarsely, without looking. "Please, stay."
And she does.
"I'm definitely not in heaven," she says. "When I stop being here it feels like I fall asleep. I suppose I just cease to exist. And you can make me exist again... from time to time."
She lies on Angel's bed. She's pretty comfortable. She comes every night and he narrates events of his day to her. And then Angel falls asleep.
It’s a weird, grotesque idyll. A vampire and a ghost. Every now and then he tries to convince her that they should tell the others about her. Every time she flatly refuses.
Still, today he tries again.
"And then - what?" she says. " They re-corporealize me, I go away and live my life and you live yours? Besides, there will be big nasty concequences."
“There's always consequences. Always.”
He doesn't dare to push. Partly because he’s afraid she'll disappear again, partly because he doesn't know what would they do if she becomes solid. Buffy scowls.
"If you’re uncomfortable with a ghost in your bed I can go away..."
"Or you can just destroy the amulet..."
"Buffy, how could you even say it?"
"You're so funny when you sulk."
Relieved, Angel smiles too.
"How can you talk about your death so easily?"
"I suppose I got used to it. When novelty wears off, it becomes tedious."
"There definitely are advantages to being a ghost!"
Buffy looks scornfully at Pavayne in his cell.
"I can't touch or feel - but at least I can go anywhere I like."
"And you, Reaper - you get to live forever, unable to move, to touch, or to feel... or to affect anything in the world around you." He grins maliciously. "But don't worry - I had 'em give you a window. Welcome to hell."
He can't hide his glee. OK, it's unworthy of a champion. But these past few days with Buffy appearing and disappearing - frightened, lost, desperate – have taken a toll on him. His inability to help her was maddening. Angel will never forget these days - Buffy's trembling lips, Wesley shock at the realization that Buffy isn't a figment of his imagination, Fred's sudden efficiency and determination.
Thank goodness it's over. And turns out every cloud has a silver lining. Buffy has finally gotten scared enough to agree to re-corporealizing.
"There definitely are advantages in being solid." She smiles derisively. "Even if I won't be able to haunt you anymore. Even if you'll leave me for that werewolf girl."
"What? She's blonde and cute. And, unlike me, she has a nice pair of tits".
"And she's your biggest fan. Isn’t she?”
It's not easy, Fred says. The amulet is a transreality amplifier and it’s hard to figure out the way it works. But one thing is certain: the stronger is the tug of the reality, the bigger Buffy's chances are.
Angel nods. "So, the more I think of her..."
Wesley shakes his head. "Not think. Talk. Interact. Try to reach her. She needs to feel connected to our reality. She needs to feel at home."
Angel looks around. He doesn't like the idea of W&H being Buffy's home.
"I mean figuratively," Wesley explains.
"He wants to say that you are her home," Fred adds and rolls her eyes. "God, it sounds so corny!"
"I'm 16 years old. I don't want to die!"
Could ghosts feel shivers? Buffy definitely feels them when she hears Dana's words. The day of her first death flashes in front of her eyes.
"Dana, it wasn't you who died. It was me. And I didn't die."
Dana stares at a ghost and giggles. The absurdity of the situation strikes Buffy again.
"Look, I know how weird it seems but it's not what you think. That death had a happy ending. Really. With a great party at Bronze. It's another death that made me a ghost..."
"You did it. You killed me. Still won't help your boy, though. You shoulda been there, B. Quite a ride."
It definitely won't help her boy. Angel is lying unconscious on the floor, yellow syringe propping from his shoulder. Buffy looks around desperately.
"Daddy's gone. He can't hear you. "
"Dana, listen to me," Buffy pleads. "We're here to help you. The man who hurt you - he's dead, Dana."
Crazy girl doesn't pay attention to Buffy anymore. She takes a saw, slowly approaches Angel, bends over him and something snaps inside Buffy. She instinctively leaps at Dana.
"Don't touch him!"
They both fall to the ground. Dana is confused. Buffy is stunned. But she doesn't have time to think about her newly-found ability to affect the material world. She hits crazy girl as hard as she can, sending her into a shattering knock-out.
"So... can I materialize if we both want it bad enough?" Buffy asks. She sounds skeptical, yet Angel hears a note of hope in her voice.
Fred shakes her head. "The amulet transforms your emotions into reality but it doesn't happen the linear way."
Buffy sighs. "I just don't understand why I could destroy the whole Hellmouth with this thing but can't do something small and simple."
Fred smiles. "It's a wonder that you learned to move things... to touch them. But you're still a... not a ghost, but..."
"Something go-throughable," Buffy prompts. "Angel can't touch me."
Fred starts to explain. Buffy listens intensely, frowning a bit and for a moment Angel wonders if she understands Fred's scientific lingo. Because he doesn't.
He stops listening and just contemplates Buffy. She is not the girl he once knew. She's a woman. These recent days they’ve spent together he found out a lot about her. Now he knows what she felt when she was brought back from heaven. And how desperate she was when she couldn't connect with anybody. He knows that she likes connecting. What initially attracted him to her was her desire to connect, to live in the normal world even though she wasn’t really a part of it anymore - because he was the same way. Her newfound ability to touch turned their nights together into sweet torture, with her stroking, licking, kissing and him moaning and roaring in rapture.
"...Your emotions feed the amulet," Fred concludes. "And it feeds them. Angel, close your mouth. Or take a drool bucket".
"I can't stand it. My stupid soft fingers that can't grab a sword. My tiny soft legs that can't run quickly."
"Your round eyes are so cute. And your hair..."
"Cute? I'm supposed to fight evil, you know?"
"My nose comes off."
"Oh. Really? Could you take it off? Just for a second."
"That so? I wonder if other dangly parts of yours are also velcro-attached."
"Buffy, stop it."
"Seriously. Because Fred says I need more tactile experience to root me in this world."
"I did it with souled vampire, I did it with chipped vampire but I never did it with puppetized vampire."
Angel gives up. Buffy never ceases to amaze him.
"See," she giggles. "In extra-special cases even felt can turn hard."
"Can ghosts have babies?"
"I mean - if vampires can have babies, ghosts also should."
Angel's short laugh sounds a bit like a sob. Buffy smiles innocently as she climbs on Wesley's table.
Former Watcher doesn’t mind. Buffy became Wesley’s hero after exposing a conspiracy to use Fred’s body as a vessel for something nasty. Angel suspects that if it were not for Buffy, Wesley would have left after breaking the Orlon window and discovering the truth about Connor.
Angel half-smiles, remembering how he dreaded Buffy’s reaction to Connor. In days past he couldn't imagine that she'd accept his existence without a single word of reproach. Once he told her, though, she became the first person with whom he could talk about his son. He never had a chance to talk about Connor with anybody before and when Buffy started asking about him, a dam broke. They talked about Connor all night.
And now she thinks she's ready to have children.
"Maybe you'd better wait until you materialize?" Wesley smiles tentatively. Obviously he can’t figure out is she serious or not. "No need to hurry."
Buffy shrugs. "Come to think of it, ghost pregnancy has a lot of advantages. I don't feel gravity. I may be pregnant without human side-effects. You know, without morning sickness, swollen ankles..."
"And hopefully without mood swings," Angel murmurs.
"What's that?" Buffy demands suspiciously. Another idea occurs to her. "Hey, I can fight with my pregnant belly! Since nobody can touch me, nobody can hurt my baby. Hey, I could even have twins. Or even triplets. And still give Jackie Chan a run for his money".
Fred coughs. "Actually..."
"What?" Buffy frowns. "Do ghosts get stretch marks?"
Fred shakes her head.
"I wanted to talk to you... To both of you..." She hesitates, looks at Wesley. He sighs and nods.
"It's about the materialization thing..." Fred looks at them guiltily. Both Angel and Buffy tense.
“It’s not good news,” Buffy says. “You look like you’re at a funeral.”
Fred shrugs helplessly.
“The amulet works on the flow of human emotions. To transform the flow with a spell we need a conduit. It should be the person closest to you.”
Buffy nods and looks at Angel.
“And the catch?” she asks cautiously.
“I can't calculate the exact scale of the process but it’s dangerous.”
“Then we won’t do it.”
“No, we will,” Angel counters.
Wesley coughs. “I’ve checked the books… All available sources indicate that the aftereffect of the spell is mortal for the conduit.”
His voice is dull and he doesn’t look at them
“Are you sure?” Angel asks finally.
“Literal translation from Sumerian is "the conduit changes into the one who dies." In Thrax'kar the description is quite obscure, "he who guides the ghost to the plane of existence gets punished by – unknown word - mortal." Ancient Latin sources mention that aftereffects are dangerous and irreversible.”
Wesley still refuses to look at them.
“The decision is yours, guys, but…”
"Buffy, we don't know exactly how it works. Maybe it's nothing serious."
"You've always been a lousy liar, Angel."
"It's just a badly translated phrase in an old book."
"Wesley doesn't think so."
"You know how many times Wesley screwed up when he was dealing with prophecies?" Angel tries to calm her down, but he can't. "Buffy, it's a useless conversation. I made my decision and I won't change it."
"So, you decided for me. As usual."
"You decided to use that amulet in the Hellmouth. I’ve decided to use it now."
"You're cheating and you know it. I had no choice in the Hellmouth. I had to stop the apocalypse. And there's no imminent danger here. You just decide for me. As usual. The best for me. You're going to leave me again."
She's on the verge of tears. Angel desperately wants to hug her, to comfort her, to hold her tight and never let go. Instinctively he reaches out to grasp her hand, belatedly recalling that he can't touch her. Does it seem to him that his fingers momentarily feel her skin, or it was real touch? She might also feel it, as she looks at him with amazement.
"What did you just do?"
"I will always be with you. In your heart. In your soul."
“You’re always leaving me.”
"Then you should be used to it."
"Remember, reality bends to desire," Fred says as she switches on her frighteningly complex machine. "Your emotions resonate in the amulet and..." the rest of her speech consists of long and obscure terms.
Angel feels utterly stupid. He's helpless, his hands and feet are tied to the machine, his nose itches and he can't scratch it. Buffy doesn't look at him. She hasn’t said a word to him since they had that conversation yesterday.
"Buffy," he says softly.
"What?" Her tone is flat and hard.
"Um... my nose itches."
"I mean - could you scratch my nose?"
Fred casts them a quick glance but doesn't interfere. Buffy slowly approaches to Angel, her fists clenched.
He manages to smile. "They say the nose itches when somebody wants to hit it. Hey, I totally understand..."
Her lips quiver, her eyes full of tears, she hugs him tight and starts to think about thousand things they could do together.
Darkness engulfs him and the next moment there is harsh light, and cold hard tiles of the floor, and Buffy's tears.
Her tears are different. They are salty but they don't smell like all that desperation and hope and the death of thousand vampires and demons. They're just salty. He realizes that everything about her smells and looks and sounds differently. Yet she's Buffy. His Buffy.
"You're different," he says.
"No, stupid." She wipes her tears. "You are."
"You - how do you guys say it? Without footwear?"
"You became mortal," Wesley adds. "I guess the prophecy was about becoming mortal, not about spell being mortal for the conduit."
Buffy smiles through tears. "So, Angel was right when he told me that you get screwed up when dealing with prophecies."
"Oh." Wesley wipes his glasses.
"Thank goodness you do."
He feels weak as a newborn puppy. Buffy lies in bed next to him, stroking his chest and belly. He doesn't have strength to reciprocate. They say tomorrow he'll be stronger. Maybe he'll even be able to walk a bit. And in a week he'll be OK.
He'll be as strong as the next human.
"I'm useless to you," he says.
"Not at all. You have very tasty lips I love to kiss... and this naughty tongue... and... mmm... have I forgotten something?" Her hand slides down his loins and he shudders.
"I'm serious." His voice is thick and he struggles with every word. "You need somebody who's as strong as you are."
"Sorry, sweetie, but Superman exists only in comics."
"Oh, I completely forgot! They made a film about him!"
She smiles mischievously "Come on, you're just anxious that you can't smell anymore if I cheat on you." Off his indignant look she shrugs. "You know, my nose also can't tell me if you have kissed somebody behind my back. Big deal. I trust you."
She gives him a tentative smile and he grins back.
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Summary: What if it was Buffy who wore the amulet?
Disclaimer: Characters belong to Joss. Ideas belong to Stanislaw Lem ("Solaris") and Jorge Amado ("Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos"). I just married characters and ideas.