Who is it whom I address? Who takes down what I confess?
There was nothing left but the shell and it refused to crumble, so Angel dragged it along like an albatross, all through the endless, meaningless nights and places. Her light had gone out and the world was a prison.
He'd kept Spike close like a memento mori, like a crippled conscience, like a rack to break himself on. Buffy was dead, so he'd kept Spike close.
Or, more accurately, Spike wouldn't leave.
He stayed, with his never-ending smokestack of a cigarette, pacing circles, talking. The endless stream of crap that came out of his mouth. The only thing Angel wished for was solitude, but in almost two hundred years Spike had never taken what Angel wanted into account. He didn't start now.
So instead of telling him to fuck off, Angel took a bone-deep comfort in ignoring him. It felt right, somehow, to have a thorn in his side. Things were as they should be. He'd turn away and let Spike's words wash over him, each with its own barb attached. In silent sewers, in dank hovels, in grand piazzas; in all the manmade wonders of a dead world, Angel trudged along, mute, carrying the burden of his failures on his back, the symbol of imperfection at his side.
Then one night his devil disappeared.
Angel awoke to a ringing in his ears. It took a moment to figure out what was missing, and then he laughed. One after the other, Heaven and Hell had abandoned him, and all he had left was the Earth. Ashes on his tongue and an empty world to wander. He stopped keeping track since it didn't matter anymore. With time and space folded up neatly in his head, Angel ceased to exist.
Sometimes she'd talk to him.
"You left me." She was dressed in white when she came; white was the color he remembered best. Delicate like a dove's wing, cool and dry against the hovering moon.
"Angel." Her breath was velvet against his ear.
The stones beneath his head were older than he was. They were colder, too, but just as lifeless. "I didn't know."
"We needed you. I needed you, and you didn't come."
"I would have, if I'd known, but you didn't-"
"You killed them all. You killed me." She looked so young, standing there, with her arms folded over her heart. She looked so fragile, but he knew it was a lie. She was the strongest of all.
"I didn't. I thought-"
"You thought you were right?" She turned away and he followed her gaze to the window, and to the hillside beyond.
"I had tickets to that show, but now I have to miss it. It's not every day that you get to watch the making of a saint. Well, this is better anyway." She smiled at him, and for a moment, Angel remembered the warmth of the sun. "Sebastian has to be tied down. You, on the other hand, are going to stab yourself."
She walked over to the window, and her sky blue dress floated away from her body, fluttering in the blood orange reflection of the setting sun. Through the crack in the curtains, he saw a man tied to a tree. Her hand was poised there, preparing to draw one panel aside.
She let the curtain fall and turned to him. "Why? You don't want to live, do you?"
His lips cracked when he spoke and turgid blood slipped past his tongue. "I'm not-"
"You have all the time in the world. Angel, I was never your responsibility." Her hand, as it caressed his forehead, was warm. Such a small hand, that carried so much. He was on his knees, at her feet, as he should be. So careful of her, as she stroked his hair with her small hand.
Oh God, her skin.
She glowed. Wine-dark sheets, hair spread out like gold, she glowed. They were alone, the bed like a coffin on the sea, the only thing left in the darkness. Her body was luminous, blazing, and she offered it freely.
"But you'd never believe me. You couldn't have changed fate. Angel, it was never your choice to make."
Angel knew the exact moment when the smell of burning incense gave way to the smell of burning flesh. It was a sin for him to call anything holy, but her body would be his rosary. He counted off his penance in kisses. Every bead an indulgence, every breath a prayer.
He could still hope for peace. She was… She was- She.
The dawn broke as she lay in his arms, sleeping the sleep of the loved. He pressed a ghost of a kiss to her temple, where the grey was starting to come in, and she stirred, smiling at him like a lily opening to the sun.
"Buffy." He whispered it so low only he could hear. Her name. He kept it like a secret. "You saved me and I couldn't do the same. Buffy, I-" He clutched her close, buried his head in her arms. "I'm sorry."
A breeze lifted the curtain and Angel was cold. She didn't respond because like every other time, like always, she was gone.
He opened his eyes and William was there. Hair curling, honey gold like hers; dressed like he never was in life: a soldier's jacket and trousers crisp with starch.
Angel rolled over and laughed.
Even his hallucinations wanted to torture him. It wasn't Spike, now, all brash and rude, or Connor, or Cordelia or anyone whose righteous wrath he would have welcomed. Angel lay on his back, hand curled over his heart, and accepted. For whatever reason, his unraveling mind had given him William.
"You were beautiful once."
The apparition rolled its eyes.
Angel reached out, connected with solid flesh and bone.
"Get up. Buffy needs you."
Buffy. In heaven. It was time, and he was ready. Of course she'd send Spike. That only made sense. Lucifer was a messenger of the Lord.
"I'm going to hell," he said, and Spike cocked his head.
"Need a bath first. And a shave. Show up like this and she'll turn you away. When was the last time you fed?"
"It's just the albatross. It's not coming with."
Spike was hoisting him to his feet and Angel noticed where he was. Had been. People were staring, men and women on their knees, turning their heads from their supplication, and he looked up to the vaulted ceiling where none of them could see, the faint trace of moonlight causing the stained glass windows to glow.
"Spike, stop. I don't need to be clean where I'm going."
Spike paused with the cloth still in his hand. "France? 'S just a myth. They're as clean as any other country."
"Buffy's in France you git. Now come on, haven't got much time here. Sit up."
Angel did sit up, sloshing water on the floor and twisting Spike's shirt in his hand. "Buffy's dead."
"She's alive, in France, and she needs us. Told 'em we'd be there by dawn so shift yourself."
Angel let go of Spike and sat back with a splash. "What?"
"Yeah, I know. Would have been good of her to let on before now," Spike rubbed the soap over his hair with something close to gentleness, "but you know now, yeah? That's what's important. Least, that's what's important to Herself."
Angel watched grime and soap form patterns as they swirled together in the water. "How long have you known."
Spike sat back on his heels with a sigh. "'Bout a month."
Slowly, Angel raised his eyes from the water and said, "A month."
Angel hauled off and punched him.
"Have you…" Seen her. Touched her. Watched her smile. "talked to her?"
Spike didn't take his eyes off the road. "No."
"Then how do you-"
"Spoke to Xander." Spike chuffed a laugh. "Still got her people."
"Why are you dressed like a Prussian soldier?"
Spike looked over at him then. They were both nursing black eyes and worse. Spike's face was a mess. "How long you been in that church?"
Angel looked out the window, tracing the line of the sloping hills in the blackness.
Spike lit a cigarette. "Should rest. We'll be there in a few hours."
Angel couldn't finish the sentence. He didn't know what he wanted to know. There were too many questions; not enough answers in the world.
Buffy was smiling. She was saying something, but he couldn't hear. They were too far apart, and she was standing in the light.
Things aren't how they're supposed to be. Angel ran to catch her but the darkness only followed him, pushing her further out of reach. He could almost feel her.
He ran for years, through empty, charred streets, across deserts that never ended, through sewers choked with blood and all the while, she beckoned.
His body broke down. First his legs, then his arms, torso, hands. Finally his head. He lay down and waited for it to end. His heart knocked against his ribs and he wished he had hands, to feel it beating. He closed his eyes and then he was thrumming with life. It coursed through every limb that he'd lost, and there was no sin.
She was there, outlined against the bone colored sky. Her smile faltered and she knelt down, touching him low on his belly. With infinite sorrow, she pulled her fingers away, covered in blood. One word reached him before the darkness overtook them both.
Someone was shaking him. Angel sat up with a start.
"Angel, there's something you should know."
"We stopped. Where are we?"
Spike ducked his head to scan the horizon. "Italy still, I think. Look, there's- you need to know. I don't know exactly when you-" Spike waved a hand at him "-lost touch with your sanity, but from the looks of you, it's been a fair while."
Angel watched him light a cigarette. The smoke bloomed in the space between them, violet and sinister.
He felt raw, liked he'd been flayed. He unclenched his fingers from the fists they were making. "Tell me."
Exhaling, Spike continued. "The apocalypse came, and you missed it."
Angel blinked. "What?"
"Portal opened a few years back. Anyone who wanted to live got out of North America right quick."
"Is safe. Kid's a good fighter. Helped us contain the damage to one continent." Spike raised an eyebrow, "Coulda told me he was yours, you know."
Angel winced. Telling Spike anything about his son would have been anathema. The fact that they'd even met made his fists clench up again. "Connor's- he's fighting?"
"Yeah, should be proud of him, too. He's in charge of the Northern Front. Course, don't know for how much longer, what with the lack of aging."
"Spike. Wait. He's all right?"
"And he's here?"
"Yeah. No. He's not with her. He's safe, though. In Europe." Spike flicked his ash on the floor and took another drag. His expression was inscrutable in the shadows.
"I never wanted him to fight."
Spike pursed his lips and looked away. "I know. Didn't have much choice. Everyone fights, now." His voice broke on the last word, and Angel studied him in the moonlight. There was more in Spike's tone than he wanted to know.
"So, the uniform?"
"Necessary evil. The humans have all banded into fascist states. What's left of 'em, anyway. All of Western Europe's one bloody military dictatorship at the moment. So," he rolled down the window and flicked the cigarette into the night, "goes without saying, I suppose, but anyone twigs to what we are, and they'll stake first, ask questions later."
Angel sat, watching the dark forms of trees bending under the hand of the wind. She was wearing blue. Did she still wear blue?
Spike sniffed, staring out the windshield.
The air in the car was stale. Angel shook his head. "There's no more America."
"No." Spike started the car. Angel turned back to the trees.
It was the layers closest to the heart that were the hardest to peel away. Angel never could examine the substance, the fabric, of who he was. Not until it was too late. He watched the hills as they deepened, grew into mountains, blanketed in snow tinged blue under a cloudless night sky. He felt the ascent as they climbed, gravity giving way its tenuous hold. Soon he would see her again. The fulfillment of a wish he'd never dared to make, and he wasn't ready. He'd mourned her so long and so well.
And he'd have to start all over again.
He would go on. Mourning her, watching men and monsters destroy everything, until there was no more world. And nothing would change. He would just go on, out of place; meaningless.
He should have ignored Spike better; should have refused to be tricked by his solidity. Spike would always be a ghost, no matter how good it felt to punch him.
"You're not the only one, you know."
Angel turned to take in Spike's profile, but didn't speak. He wondered if ignoring him now would have any benefit.
"Thought she was dead, too. For a long time. Didn't stop me from doing what I knew she'd want, though."
"Spike." It was a warning, punctuated by a growl.
"'M serious. You think you're some kind of martyr because she died and you couldn't go on, when the real truth is you gave up. You took the first excuse to-"
The car was swerving across the narrow, ice-slick road; Angel's hand was bleeding and the glovebox was smashed to hell.
They came to a stop with the nose of the car hanging over the edge of a cliff. Spike took in a deep breath and didn't let it out. Angel watched the moonlight turn black blood red, like sunlight on stained glass.
"You fucking cunt."
Angel didn't reply, just opened the door and slid down the hillside until he was underneath the engine. He heard Spike open the driver's door and slam it.
He made sure his footing was solid before he pushed with all his strength, heaving in the thin air. Over the sound of his own effort he heard Spike muttering things like piss poor, and hundred bloody years, and whinging tosser. The car finally rolled back onto the road just as the gravel under his feet started to give. With one last push, the car was righted and he fell a few yards further down the mountain.
"Fuck." Angel sat down hard to stop his descent. The ground was frozen, and the cold seeped through his clothes fast. Both hands were bleeding now, and there was a gash on his leg that he didn't remember feeling before.
He tilted his head and saw Spike, upside down, staring at him. He grunted.
Angel hoisted himself to his feet and climbed the slope until Spike reached out and pulled him the rest of the way up. When they were both on the pavement he noticed that Spike had turned on the hazard lights, and they lit up the deep cut in the mountainside with a sickly yellow glow. He looked back over his shoulder at the drop and realized they were at least a thousand feet above a nearly vertical chasm.
Spike lit a cigarette and Angel took it from him, inhaling deeply.
"Help yourself." Spike got out the pack and lit another one. "How's your hand?"
Angel blinked and exhaled, examining his hands in the regular pulse of yellow light. Already the worst cut was healing over, blood turning brown. "Fine."
"Can smell you're bleeding. Got some first aid stuff in the boot."
Spike could smell he was bleeding, and Angel could smell Spike. He was aroused. Involuntary reaction, maybe, but no less annoying. One more reminder of how things never changed. They'd never be men, no matter how good they were at imitation.
Spike walked away and Angel dragged his hands over his face. God he was tired. "I said I'm fine. Let's just go."
"You might be fine but I'll be damned if you bleed all over my interior. No idea how hard it is to nick a car as nice as this one."
Angel finished his cigarette and flicked it into the abyss behind him. Wondered if it would set the mountain aflame.
Spike came back with an armload of tins marked with red crosses and tugged on his arm until he sat down. "Here. Lemme see."
Angel felt like a petulant kid when he sighed, but he let Spike roll up first one sleeve, then the other, turning his hands this way and that; scrubbing at him with gauze.
Angel stood up, unbuckling his belt and pulling down his pants. "I can do it, give me the gauze."
Spike was kneeling at his feet, and he brought his fingers up to touch the wound on his thigh, hissing a breath. "This is bad. Might need stitches. How the hell did you get so banged up sliding on your arse? Ungraceful lug."
"I don't need stitches. It'll heal in a couple of hours, so stop playing Florence Nightingale and let's go."
"Angel, I'm telling you, this isn't gonna heal anytime soon. Probably can't see it over all your flubber, but I'm looking right at your bone."
"Shut up, Spike." It was a reflex. "Really?"
"Sit down, I'll see what I've got in the kit." Angel watched him rummage through boxes, examining everything before discarding most of it.
"Aha." Spike smiled over his shoulder and brandished a bottle of whiskey. "In case of emergency, break glass."
Angel didn't say anything when he took the bottle, just opened it and took a drink.
His wound was on his inner thigh and it was uncomfortable, having Spike bent over him as he lay back. "Ow."
"Stop squirming and give me the bottle back."
Angel took one last swig of the whiskey and handed it over. "It's not like it's gonna get infected."
"Know that." Spike took a long swallow of the liquor and set the bottle on the ground. The hazards were still on, and their regular beat was starting to make Angel feel jittery, like he wanted get this done faster, just to make them stop.
"Couple of more inches and you'd have been singing soprano."
"Shut up and finish already."
"Sir, yes sir. Quit your wriggling. I've got a needle not two inches from your favorite organ, here."
Angel took the bottle back and drank deeply. Maybe he himself was a ghost. For her. Maybe he and Spike were like…relics. Interchangeable. Inconvenient. "Why'd she send you after me? You could have done whatever it is by yourself."
Spike was bent to his task, focused. He sat back and met Angel's eyes, then said, "Thought about that. It's obvious, innit? 'S a suicide mission. With both of us, it's more likely one of us'll live long enough to succeed."
"She wants us to close the portal."
Spike shrugged. "Are you gonna tell her no?"
Angel gestured to the black line zigzagging up his leg. "You done?"
Spike gathered up his supplies. "Yeah."
The air changed. It was thicker, laced with the medicinal smell of lavender. They were almost there.
His leg ached and his clothes were shredded. Spike's face was still a mess, and he was pretty sure his had looked better. They were quite a pair. Angel scanned the sky, sensing dawn's approach. "You want me to drive?"
"It'll be daylight soon."
"Exactly. You drive like a grandpa, and I don’t fancy your ugly mug being the last thing I see."
Silence fell over them again. The descent on this side was gentler, like the Earth had them in the palm of her hand. He couldn't feel the weight of world, even though he knew it was slipping back around him. He hadn't asked where they were going yet. Didn't know if this was her home, now, or just some station on her way. If she was as homeless, as anchorless, as he was. His heart ached at the thought.
She was alive.
When he tried to remember the last time he saw her, the last real time, all he caught was a flash of golden hair. Eyes brimming with tears she wouldn't shed. Angel flinched. So many moments, and not one of them was the last.
Spike was drumming a rhythm on the steering wheel. "Knock it off."
"The tapping. It's annoying."
"The stereo's broken, so unless you feel like unclamming and telling a story, I've gotta listen to something."
"Just. Be quiet. Smoke a cigarette."
They were gliding smoothly on flat roads now, through a patchwork of farmland and forest. Aside from the car they were in, and the black road cutting through it all, the landscape looked as untouched as it had been the first time he'd been here. The countryside was as deceptively peaceful now as it had been, then.
Appropriate setting for another coup d'état.
"Tell me what we're looking at here. Is she- Are they- Are the slayers part of the government?"
Spike let out a long breath and side-eyed him. "No. It's like I said, Europe's a fascist state, yeah? Part of the platform is Earth for the Humans or some such rot. Nothing supernatural's allowed. 'S why Connor's got to stay undercover."
Angel sat up. "Why's that?"
"Told you, he's not aging. Least, not as fast as other people do. Near as I can tell, he looks the same as the last time you saw him."
"Huh." He couldn't help but grin. He'd get to see his son again, and maybe this time… No. There'd be no 'this time' and he needed to stomp on that hope immediately.
"But the stupidest part of it all is, they need us. All of us, and they don't even know it. Can't count the number of times the Council alone's saved the sodding world."
"So nothing's changed."
"Nothing except for the fact that a large chunk of what used to be New York's now a giant, swirling vortex to hell."
"Right." Angel shifted in his seat. "Aside from that."
"Is your head in this game or not, Angel?"
Spike hunched forward, leather squeaking on leather, and said quietly, "You need to forgive her."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"She did. The girl you loved is gone and in her place is a woman. The woman you knew she could be, with no one holding her back."
"I never wanted to hold her back."
"She made you care about life. And it's convenient, laying it all at her feet. Letting her memory be the reason you can't… She left you behind."
"I was the one who left."
"Yeah. Way to get the point there."
"I got your point, but you're wrong. She's not the one who- Just. Shut up."
"I don't think you do get the point. Look at yourself. You're a wreck, Angel. How long would you have wasted away while the world collapsed, if I hadn't made you get up?"
"I thought Buffy was dead. I was in mourning."
"You were in hiding. Tell me, what's gonna happen if she really does die before you?"
Angel swallowed hard. Nothing was making any sense and he was so tired. "I don't know."
"Yeah, well, you need to-"
"I know what I need, and it isn't a lecture from you. I'm not- I'm not proud of myself, alright? And I don't know what's going to happen, but. I'll deal with it."
Spike's laugh was more than a little sarcastic. "Sure you will. 'Cause you're so good at dealing with things."
Angel didn't rise to the bait. This, right here, this thing that Spike was doing, was exactly what he'd learned to ignore. All Spike wanted was a fight and there was no point in listening, so he didn't.
The miles slipped past in silence and Angel watched the headlights swallow the night. He knew he shouldn't give into the urge he felt, the fist of rage in his gut, but he'd never been able to let Spike have the last word. He remembered the story of St. Sebastian, offered up for martyrdom by soldiers under his own command. The patron saint of the weak.
"Whatever she needs." He said it in a whisper, half hoping he hadn't been heard.
Spike looked at him for a full minute before responding. "Even if it means dying?"
"I'm not alive."
Spike turned back to the road. "That the best reason you've got?"
Angel shifted in his seat, trying to find a more comfortable position. In the dream, her eyes had been sorrowful. "She's a leader."
"And you're what, just a foot soldier?"
"I'm- I don't know anymore."
Spike tapped another rhythm on the steering wheel. "Suggest you figure it out."
He remembered that last shining day, when she was there, in his bed --when they were both alive and happy-- and the gulf, between that day and this, was deep enough to crack the Earth.
So much time that she didn't remember. So many moments, stolen, for him alone to keep. Everything that he'd hoarded, like a miser with his gold. The feel of her hand in his as they walked through snow; both of them together, limbs tangled, his heart following the beat of hers; the way she looked, standing at a window in a sky blue dress, haloed by the sunset.
The car turned a bend in the road and headlights caught the stone façade of an enormous building. Spike said, "We're here."
Angel leaned forward. "This is it?"
"Slayer Central. For the moment."
The road curved again and the view was blocked by trees. The sky was bleeding violet into rose. They were going to have to run for it. Spike picked up speed, going dangerously fast around the final bend.
And then they were in front of it. Not one big house, but a compound, surrounded by a low stone wall. Angel recognized it.
"I know where we are."
"Been here before, have you?"
"This used to be a convent."
Spike laughed. "That's bloody priceless." He narrowed his eyes at the sky, hand on the door. "Ready?"
Angel looked up at the cross, a black slash against the emerging dawn. "No."
"Right then. Let's go."
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Author's Notes: Rating: PG Summary: Italy, 2018. Angel heard that Buffy was dead. He heard wrong. Notes: Who is it whom I address? Who takes down what I confess? Title and epigraph come from the song, Teachers, by Leonard Cohen Beta Read by (and thanks extended to): apreludetoanend, yourlibrarian, germaine_pet and danna7001. I'm awestruck by how kind you guys are. Thank you for your time and effort. Special thanks also need to go to thatotherperv for her encouragement and to chrisleeoctaves for hosting the marathon.