I picture you in the sun wondering what went wrong
And falling down on your knees asking for sympathy
And being caught in between all you wish for and all you seen
And trying to find anything you can feel that you can believe in
May God's love be with you
May God's love be with you
I know I would apologize if I could see your eyes
'Cause when you showed me myself I became someone else
But I was caught in between all you wish for and all you need
I picture you fast asleep
A nightmare comes
You can't keep awake
'Cause if I find, if I find my own way
How much will I find?
If I find, if I find my own way
How much will I find you?
—Joseph Arthur, "In the Sun"
Giles hears worrisome rumors and Willow has a bad, bad feeling so Buffy calls Faith and Xander rallies the troops and they all show up with an army of reinforcements to save the day.
The battle is already over by the time Buffy gets there. The battle is over and Angel is dead.
That's what Spike tells her as she stares at the scorched pile of rubble that now encompasses four city blocks. Angel is in there somewhere, she thinks. An indistinguishable pile of dust buried underneath a much larger pile of dust and bricks and broken, blistered bodies.
Soot in the air and soot in her lungs, soot washing away in rivers of rainwater that flow into the gutters, through the sewers and out to the sea where it is lost forever. Broken glass crunches under her feet and she can't form the words to ask how Spike is still alive when Angel is dead, but he reads them in her eyes anyway and looks away.
Faith kicks the broken asphalt and screams at the sky. Xander stays silent, his mouth settling into a frown, while Willow sits down on the hard, wet ground and cries. Giles stands at Buffy's side, his hand resting lightly on her shoulder.
She wonders why she isn't crying like Willow. Maybe she's forgotten how. Or maybe the part of her that was soft and vulnerable and cared enough to cry is gone. Maybe there's only dust where her heart should be.
Other people have died tonight, too, Spike tells them. Wesley, whom Buffy remembers only as an incompetent and an annoyance. And others, names that mean nothing to her. People who fought at Angel's side. People who were his friends. People she never knew, though apparently Spike did. She can't seem to care about them, though she knows she should.
She only has enough grief in her for one soul, and it is far less than he deserves.
A figure stands in silence on a nearby rooftop, dark and shapeless against the ash-colored sky, breathing in the world before him. He stands without fear before the morning and gazes curiously at the people on the ground below—people he knew once in another life—as they go through the motions of mourning.
From this distance their features appear soft and blurry. His eyes aren't what they used to be, he realizes, and wonders if he needs glasses.
His muscles ache with a bone-deep weariness that he hasn't felt in over two hundred years. An open wound in his leg seeps a slow trickle of blood; scorch marks throb across the palms of his hands. It will be weeks before they heal completely.
He can't be sure, but he doesn't think Buffy is crying. There's something of hardened resolve to the set of her shoulders and it reminds him of the first time he ever saw her. He watched her secretly then, too.
Tears well up behind his eyelids at the memory, blurring his vision even further. He shakes his head to clear them away.
Down below, Spike turns sharply, his keen eyes immediately finding his on its rooftop perch. Angel nods in response, knowing it will be seen and knowing also that it's a pathetically inadequate gesture to encompass all that he wants to convey. Gratitude. Sympathy. Farewell.
He can't be sure, but he thinks he sees Spike's mouth curl into a smile before the vampire slips invisibly into the shadows of a nearby building. For once, he knows he can trust Spike to keep his secret.
The first watery rays of sunlight are just beginning to peek over the horizon and he turns to face it, throwing his head back like Titian's penitent Magdelene. As the warmth begins to seep into his very human flesh Angel smiles, for the first time in weeks.
During the day he takes long, aimless walks in the sunshine. Other times he simply stares at his reflection in the mirror, marveling at the sight of his own face. In the evenings he sits in front of the TV in his cheap motel room eating In-N-Out burgers and watching the coverage of the L.A. earthquake that wasn't an earthquake. Only the Fox affiliate bothers to interview the people who claim to have seen dragons in sky that night.
Eventually he gets a job unloading trucks at a warehouse because he likes the feel of the sun on his back and an honest sweat on his brow. It's kind of a novelty at first, having a "normal" job. But it's hard, mindless work that leaves him drained and exhausted at the end of every day. He needs the money, though, so he keeps going back. (His carefully hoarded wealth crumbled along with Wolfram & Hart's masonry walls.) His evenings consist of microwave burritos and reruns of "Law & Order."
He's almost gotten used to the sight of himself in the mirror but he is surprised to discover that it is only now, in life, that he is keenly aware of the decaying of his flesh. Each day he can feel himself aging a little bit more, the life force he has sacrificed so much to gain slipping away from him.
His sense of his own weakness begins to wear him down. All those years playing superhero, and now he feels undone by a few aches and pains. Everything he does—from the moment he rises to the instant he lies down and closes his eyes—seems to take so damned much effort. How do humans stand it?
It's the nighttimes that hit him the hardest, though. That's when the ghosts of all the people he sacrificed to achieve his precious mortality come out to taunt him. Wesley, his dark eyes hooded and accusing. Gunn, smiling as he bleeds from a dozen different wounds. Fred, vomiting blood that turns from red to blue before his eyes. And others. Lindsey and Darla and some whose names he can't even remember. Only Cordelia's visage eludes resurrection in these ghastly nighttime visitations. Small favors.
He keeps a bottle of Bushmills on the nightstand to dull the pain. Drinking is one of the few things that's actually better now that he's human. He can feel every delicious, numbing drop coursing through his veins, washing away his cares.
Before long he switches to the cheap stuff, because he's going through two and three and sometimes four bottles a week. He loses his job at the warehouse after he shows up drunk one too many times. A week later he gets another job, washing dishes this time. It seems he doesn't have many marketable skills.
One of the guys in the kitchen where he works introduces him to crystal meth. He doesn't like it much, though, because it makes him feel too alive. Alive is the opposite of what he wants to feel. Heroin, though... heroin turns out to be just the thing. Soon he's spending most of his days in a chemical-soaked haze and doesn't even remember when he stopped going to work.
As it turns out, he doesn't make a very good human. He should have remembered this about himself.
It doesn't really take Buffy that long to get over Angel's death.
She's a little ashamed of this, but not surprised. She learned a long time ago that the world doesn't actually come to an end when you lose your heart's desire. Besides, it's not the first time he's died. She didn't deliver the killing blow this time, but deep down, in the darkest corner of her heart, she knows that by her absence at his side she allowed it to come to pass.
Willow wants her to talk about it. Giles looks at her with pity in his eyes. Xander avoids her, though he doesn't think she notices. (She does.) Faith takes off for distant shores without even saying goodbye. And Spike, who followed her back to London without an invitation... Spike keeps giving her reproachful looks, and she doesn't know why. She doesn't care, either.
Buffy decides to follow Faith's example and takes an assignment in Bolivia. Six weeks hunting Jaarvlen flesh-eaters in the rainforest is just what the doctor ordered. She is a whirling, ravening instrument of death. She is a storm, empty of emotion or weakness or fear. When she comes back she is all hard edges and golden brown skin, and she hardly thinks of Angel anymore.
Unless you count the nights when she dreams of him. In her dreams they're always somewhere overlooking the ocean, and there's sunlight caught in his hair and reflected in his eyes as he takes her in his arms.
After a year the dreams finally stop, too.
All things fade away, in time.
"My name is Liam, and I'm powerless..."
His fingers nervously squeeze the medallion in his pocket as he speaks. He's been working the Program for a year now—he just got his anniversary medallion last week—but speaking at meetings never seems to get any easier for him. That's why he keeps doing it.
He is only alive today because of Spike. The knowledge of that is tremendously humbling. It was Spike who tracked him down (for reasons he will never understand) and found him living in a cesspool shooting smack between his toes. Spike who told him what a bloody asshole he was being and dragged him kicking and screaming into rehab.
When he got out of the center Spike helped him relocate to New York. Gave him some money, found him a decent place to live and then disappeared again, as abruptly as he'd reappeared.
Once, he might have resented Spike for being his savior, but no more. Every day that he wakes up with his heart still beating in his chest he gives thanks to the Powers That Be for this second (third? fourth? he's lost count somewhere along the way) chance.
He started going by the name Liam again when he moved to New York. It seemed appropriate, somehow. He has a decent job now, teaching self defense classes at a studio a few blocks from Prospect Park. You could almost say he's helping the hopeless again.
His prized possession is a framed cross-stitch hanging on the wall of his studio that says "Life is What You Make of It." One of his students made it for him—a 58-year-old divorcee who'd been mugged on her way home from work. There were tears in her eyes when she told him that his classes had given her a new lease on life.
After the meeting he hurries out of the church, bypassing the lemon bars and smiling at the familiar faces as he goes. It's getting late, and he's got a seven a.m. krav maga class in the morning.
There are only a few people standing on the subway platform when he gets there. One of them, a hollow-eyed young woman, catches his attention for some reason. Something about the expression on her face, the look of utter hopelessness, reminds him of his own not-to-distant past, and he shudders.
"Spare some change, buddy?"
Liam fumbles in his pockets and comes up with a couple of dollars for the vagrant beside him, even though the man reeks of whiskey. His knows his sponsor wouldn't approve, but he's got a soft spot for troubled people.
He glances back at the young woman just in time to see her step off the edge of the platform. There's a train due any minute now and Liam doesn't stop to think. If he had, he never would have jumped after her.
The screams of the bystanders echo in his ears as he lands on the tracks beside the woman. He can see the light of a train bearing down on them and he knows he'll never be able to drag her up onto the platform in time so he does the only thing he can—he shoves her into the shallow gutter between the tracks and pins her down, shielding her body with his. And then he closes his eyes and turns himself over to the care of God.
It's as good a way to die as any, he supposes.
He doesn't die.
Three hundred forty tons of subway train passes clean over them, missing his back by no more than an inch. Sparks rain down on him, burning the back of his neck as the train screeches to a stop above them. The smells of ozone and hot steel fill up his sinuses.
"Am I dead?" he hears the woman ask.
"No," he says, letting out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. "We're very much alive."
It's another twenty minutes before the Transit Authority can get them out and the whole time his heart is pounding in his chest so hard he's afraid he might be having a heart attack. He's not having a heart attack, though. It's just the unfamiliar rush of adrenaline pumping through his system.
His limbs are still shaking when he finally climbs out of the railway bed. Hours later, as he's lying in bed listening to the sirens scream past his window, there's still a noticeable tremor in one of his hands.
The newspapers dub him the "Subway Angel." He doesn't appreciate the coincidence.
He's no angel, he says when he goes to his next meeting. Not anymore.
Buffy hasn't talked to Spike in months. He checks in at Watcher headquarters sporadically but often he'll come and go without seeing her at all. She chooses not to care. Why should she? She has her friends, her work, her sister when she deigns to visit. Even the occasional lover, though never anything serious. Life rolls on pretty much as it always has.
It's been two years since Angel's death and he's nothing more than a distant memory to her. She's completely over him, of this she is certain.
That is, until she sees his picture in the newspaper. It's Xander who brings it to her. He's got a team scanning news reports for any signs of baby slayers.
There's no doubt in Buffy's mind that it's Angel in the picture, looking very much not dead.
The accompanying article is about a man in New York who saved a woman who threw herself in front of a subway train. The headline refers to him as the "Subway Angel," but the article says his name is Liam. Liam Chase.
"Why is he using Cordelia's name?" asks Xander.
Buffy runs a fingernail over the newsprint, tracing the familiar curve of Angel's jaw. "Don't you think the more important question is, why is he alive?"
Xander shrugs. He obviously doesn't. "Are you going to look for him?"
"Of course," says Buffy. "Don't tell Giles yet."
"I won't. But I'm coming with you."
Buffy shakes her head. "I need to do this alone."
"I understand. Take Willow instead." He hands her a piece of paper with Liam Chase's Brooklyn address on it, and squeezes her arm as he leaves.
She takes Willow with her to New York. After all these years she's finally learned to take Xander's advice. But she makes Willow stay behind at the hotel when she goes to see Angel for the first time.
The taxi drops her off at the end of his block she stands on the sidewalk outside his apartment building, watching the people hurrying past. Some of them probably pass him on the street all the time. She finds this amazing.
No matter how hard how she tries, she can't seem to make herself go inside and look for apartment 6G.
After ten minutes she gives up and walks across the street. There's a coffeeshop on the corner and she sits down at a table outside with a view of Angel's building. She orders a frappuccino and a bagel and waits. For three hours she sits there futilely trying to work up the nerve to walk across the street and knock on his door.
And then, unexpectedly, he walks out of his building and into the sun
He's wearing glasses, which is weird, but not as weird as the fact that he is standing outside in the middle of the day. Buffy doesn't move. She can't move, because her heart seems to have stopped beating at the moment she realized that he isn't a vampire anymore.
He tosses a gym bag over his shoulder and starts to walk away, striding purposefully down the sidewalk like all the other pedestrians around him. If she doesn't do something soon he'll be gone. And yet she still can't seem to move.
For some reason, though, he stops. And then he turns and stares directly at her, as if somehow he can sense her presence. For all she knows, he can.
She rises from her chair and waits patiently as he crosses the street and walks to meet her.
"Buffy," he says in that same dark, velvety voice that sends pulses of electricity down her spine. That one thing about him, at least, the overwhelming pull of her name on his tongue, hasn't changed.
He stands before her wary and unsmiling. "I knew I shouldn't have let them take my picture," he adds after a moment when she doesn't speak.
She knows she has to say something so she opens her mouth and out comes the first thing that pops into her head: "You're wearing short sleeves." It's an idiotic thing to say but at the moment it's all she's got.
"Yeah, I do that sometimes. You know, when it's hot."
She can't stop staring at his chest, at the way it rises and falls as he breathes, and the flutter of his heart beneath the fabric of his t-shirt. She reaches out to feel it for herself and then stops, her hand frozen in the air between them, because it occurs to her that maybe she doesn't have the right to touch him anymore.
"It's okay," he says quietly.
She lays her hand on his chest and there it is, soft and steady. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. "It's really beating, isn't it?"
"It really is."
For a moment she forgets the years of hurt that lie between them and breathes in the simple wonder of that marvelously beating heart. Then the horn of a passing car blares, jarring her back to the harsh reality of their present.
She pulls her hand away and curls it into a fist, but she can't shake the sense memory of that pulse against her fingertips. "How?" she asks.
"I don't know," he says. "It just... happened." He shrugs, like he's talking about something inconsequential.
"During the battle. I lost consciousness, and when I woke up it was over and I was like this. Spike found me."
And suddenly some of Spike's behavior the last couple of years starts to make more sense.
"So... Liam," she says, avoiding the big question, the one that drew her three thousand miles across an ocean. "That was your name before, wasn't it?"
"Yes," he says simply, without offering any further explanation.
There's sunlight caught in his hair and reflected in his eyes and some small part of Buffy wishes that she'd never seen that newspaper, that she could go back to yesterday, when she was at peace with her loss. Because now her senses are scorched and aching with the nearness of him and he is still not hers.
The silence between them stretches out, heavy and tangled with unspoken questions.
When she can't stand it anymore she says, "Why didn't you tell me? Why did you hide?"
She searches his face for some hint of regret but he betrays none as he says, "I thought it would be better this way."
"Better? How is letting me think you were dead better?" Her voice rises noticeably and several people turn and stare at them.
"It's not just about you, Buffy." He doesn't sound angry, only tired. Worn down. And that's when she notices the lines that etch his face, the shadows behind his eyes. For the very first time since she's know him, he actually looks older. Far older than he should after only two years human.
She lowers her eyes contritely. "Right. Sorry."
"I needed time," he says, not ungently.
"To do what?"
"To figure out how to be human again. To forgive you. To forgive myself."
She feels a swift rush of blood to her face, hot and furious. "Forgive me? For what?"
"For turning your back on me when I asked for help."
"Oh," she says, her indignation melting into shame. "That." She's tried to forget, but she still remembers the phone call and the note of desperation in his voice. It was Giles who took the call but she was in the room. Giles advised her to say no, told her Angel couldn't be trusted, but it was her choice, her decision. Her burden to bear.
"Is it too late to apologize?" she asks, afraid to meet his gaze.
"It's never too late," he says.
"Then I'm sorry. I was wrong." She tries to imbue the words with the full weight of her regret, which is not inconsiderable, but they sound hollow even as she speaks them aloud.
He stares at her, his mouth set in a straight line, his dark eyes impenetrable. "Thank you," he says finally.
The gulf between them has never seemed wider, not since he lost his soul to the demon. But that wasn't Angel, not really. This is him before her now, pure and untainted. And she is afraid, so afraid, that he doesn't love her anymore. Tears burn the back of her throat and spill unchecked from her eyes.
It seems that she hasn't forgotten how to cry after all and the knowledge brings even more tears until she's gasping for breath between the sobs that she can no longer seem to control.
Angel closes the distance between them and draws her into his arms. He smells different as a human, like coffee and spearmint with an undercurrent of something exotic like cardamom. She clings to him, burying her face in his chest and crying away her grief and her guilt and the crushing loneliness that has invaded her life these last few years.
He holds her until the tears have abated and her hitching breaths have calmed. Then he lifts her face to his, brushes the tears from her cheeks with his thumb, and gazes into her eyes.
"Being human," he says, "it's a lot harder than I remembered. I never gave you guys enough credit for that." It's not exactly forgiveness but it's close enough that she feels something tight and barbed in her chest start to uncoil.
"Come back with me." She blurts it out before she realizes what's she saying, before she even knows it's what she wants.
His whole body goes still, but he doesn't pull away. "Come back where?"
"To London. That's where we... where I live now."
He frowns, and his eyes fill with such sadness it breaks her heart in two. "You don't understand," he says. "I'm not the same person I was. I'm not the man you knew before. There are things I've—"
"I don't care," she says firmly. "We'll get to know each other all over again if we have to, but don't you see? This is our chance. After everything we've been through, don't we deserve this much?"
He looks at her a long time before he answers, and she dies a thousand tiny deaths before he says, "I don't suppose you have any use for a certified self-defense instructor?"
Buffy cocks her head at him, and allows herself to smile. "I think we might just have an opening."
He nods solemnly. "Then I'll come if you want me."
"I want you," she says. "You're all I've ever wanted." And she knows as she says it that it's the truest thing she's ever said.
His smile bursts forth like the sunrise, clear and bright and golden, and then his lips are on hers and they're warm, so warm she can't believe it. She's returning his kiss and running her hands over his arms, his chest, seeking the now-quickened rhythm of his very human heart.
"Get a room," yells a guy walking his dog, and their kisses dissolve into laughter, bright and giddy and bursting with joy.
They're not overlooking the ocean, just a trash-filled gutter, but Buffy doesn't care because there's sunlight caught in Angel's hair and reflecting in his eyes—his eyes that are brimming with love just for her as they walk together, hand in hand in the sun.
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Summary: As it turns out, he doesn't make a very good human. He should have remembered this about himself.