Pentimento

Pentimento

By Lostakasha
Author's Notes

Los Angeles

At the moment of reanimation the mark of Aurelius fled his skin, vanishing like his immortality and the life he knew. Piss Alley was a long crawl as birth canals go, but he remembers little of those first moments, scrabbling over asphalt coated in the blood and dust of fallen comrades, pink-skinned and starving.

He only remembers that the shredded flesh on his palms took days to heal.

Nothing of his life remains: not the city he guarded nor the people he loved or befriended. Trapped in his cage of living flesh and bone he can offer nothing of substance to the good fight. Cast away, he is simply human now; bereft of commonality with destiny’s foot soldiers, and with anyone he truly loved dead or corrupted or reigning over a luminous army of slayers that doesn’t need his kind.

Angel, fallen.

Alive and living to die.

Anguilla, British West Indies

The hands of an aesthete are no longer his. Worn tough from gripping wood and metal and rock, they are hard as the ground he breaks for the gardens he plants and the hardscape he lays; darkened by the sun and as callused as his beating heart.

He craves sun as junkies crave their next taste; revels in the sweat coursing down his back and in the burn of lactic acid in his muscles as he turns black earth near ancient graves and sets saplings to root amid pitted marble stones.

When Sister Jeanne D’Arc calls to him from the motherhouse he looks up from the ridge of hibiscus that frames the burial ground, half expecting to see her carrying a tumbler of sweet tea for him as she has done nearly every day since his arrival. On this day she carries nothing in her clasped hands. He wipes the sweat from his face with his stained undershirt before slipping it back on as a gesture of respect.

She steps down the path in a habit whiter than the early day sun or the wisp of thinning hair curling from beneath her wimple. Worry shines in her pale eyes as she speaks to him in her native French and touches his hand as she apologizes to him, as if the decision to sell the convent had been hers and not that of a distant bishop. She calls him by his most recent chosen name and shakes her head sadly.

“C’est la volonté de Dieu,” she tells him, and turns away.

God’s will.

Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Be it unto me according to thy word.

Angel knows better.

He carves the tall hedges into the shape of a cross that can be seen from the sky and from the convent’s upper floors. With every twig and leaf that falls away he thinks of Buffy and imagines that she is just beyond his reach on the other side of the cliff, sunbathing on the beach and smelling of coconut oil and pungent, ripe sweat. Christ's cross of redemption or a beguiling blonde girl are simply interchangeable symbols now. Legendary repositories of false hopes.

The news doesn’t interrupt the routines he’s worked a year to construct. He arrives at the convent as the morning Angelus bell chimes and departs at the evening bell. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. In the evenings he returns to his tiny stucco cottage on the narrow beach road near White Rock Cay, grills fish and fixes rice and reads until his sight blurs and the base of his skull aches. On some nights there’s wine and a lungful or two of delicate ganja smoke and he falls asleep with Buffy’s name and the taste of his own come on his lips.

He paints when the mood strikes him: landscapes, dreamscapes, abstracts. He has no patience for recreating the human form or face. The only portrait he’s allowed himself to paint hangs over his bed to hide the pale ghost of a long-forgotten crucifix. Connor smiles down from the canvas, content in a time and place where Angel can never be.

In his dreams Connor’s eyes are sapphire-dark and the blood weeps black and tarry from the slit in his perfect throat.

The convent’s new owners arrive on the day Angel takes the last of the nuns’ furniture to the new house at the foot of Signal Hill. There’s nothing left to do on the grounds; he merely wants to get a look at the colonials who’ve paid a magnificent sum for the old sugar plantation-turned-retreat. He plays at taking the rotting wooden trellis off the side of the main entrance and waits for a cadre of developers to arrive wielding briefcases and architect’s tubes. He doesn’t look when he hears the car pull up, and longs for his vampire hearing to help him judge how many sets of feet will come tramping up the crushed seashell walkway.

He might as well be deaf and blind for all the good his human senses are, muted and useless in a decaying body that dies a little more with every passing moment. Angel is neither strong nor swift in his own estimation, regardless of how he’s judged by other fit men of his new and allegedly youthful age. Details of his past elude him, and, while there are many he is grateful to have lost, he lies awake nights grasping for dates and times and places that fade away with sleep’s descent.

He can’t recognize the sound of the steps, but he can and does recognize the voice calling to him in greeting. He waits a long beat before turning and lets the breeze catch on the wide leafed palms as though he were a child of the island moving slowly and deliberately in the late afternoon heat.

A surge of familiar enmity rises in Angel’s gut on a wave of recognition and ebbs as quickly, replaced by death-sheet dread at the sight of Xander Harris.

He holds his tongue as Xander gapes at him, sputtering and choking and looking skyward as if to accuse the sun of shining at the wrong hour. After a long moment Xander croaks a genial apology and extends his hand.

“Xander Harris. You must be Niall. One of the sisters mentioned you might be finishing some things around here.”

Unsmiling, Angel returns the handshake and corrects Xander’s butchered pronunciation of his name. “There’s not much left to do,” he says. “I can show you around if you want.”

He watches Xander in his peripheral vision as they walk. His shoulders are straight and he’s friendly enough, but Angel sees the way his fingers pluck at his belt and at the pocket seams of his chinos as he fumbles for something to do with his trembling hands.

It’s no surprise to see that Xander has aged. It looks good on him. He's slender and serious and the heaviness in his gait betrays a difficult path to adulthood.

He doesn’t see the eye patch until Xander removes his dark glasses in the hallway of the motherhouse. It’s an oddly comforting reminder that he, too, is ordinary -- just a man with physical limits and a lack of powers beyond the organizational.

They discuss the stone and stucco buildings, the square soapstone sinks in the refectory and the ancient ice box that Angel keeps running with WD-40 and sheer will. Mahogany planks creak beneath their feet as Angel steers his unlikely guest toward the chapel, and as he parts the heavy velvet curtain that served as a door, his heart twists in his chest. For a moment he forgets that he stands with Xander Harris, and breathes in the comfort of oil soap, sandalwood, and beeswax.

He will miss the sounds of the sisters in prayer. Their new house is just that, a dwelling, not a convent. There is no chapel, no stained glass panes of the Blessed Mother and her only begotten son bleeding in her arms; no statue of her anguished progeny with his heart circled in thorns and pinned to the outside of his chest. The building could hold a newlywed couple or a group of septuagenarian brides of Christ and you’d never guess it from the outside. Angel believes the relocation does the sisters a grave disservice, but it’s their employer’s choice to make -- not his.

“This is beautiful. How old do you think it is?” Xander examines the rim of the alabaster holy water font, tracing the seraphim with an appreciative touch.

“When the first nuns came in 1930 they brought it with them from their motherhouse in Lyon. It was carved by one of the priests.”

“Et renovabis faciem terrae,” Xander reads. “Terra? Something about renovating earth?”

It may be Xander’s voice that speaks, but Angel hears Willow in the reading.

“Pretty much. And thou shalt renew the face of the earth.

“Lucky guess. I’m not great with Latin. Is that a prerequisite for working in a convent?”

“Not lately,” Angel laughs, and lets the curtain close. He pauses to watch Xander climb the curved staircase toward the sisters’ residence. He could be seventeen and in the corridor of the deserted high school all those years ago: climbing to warn, climbing to fight, climbing out of the demon’s reach.

Buffy and her warrior family are ghosts to him now. Ghosts, every one but the one who hated him from the beginning.

The convent grounds are carpeted in flowers. Splendid banks of color that mimic the richest of the canvases Angel covers with thick, heavy oils undulate beneath the midday sky. He designed the gardens to bring joy to the women of Saint Thérése, to brighten their lives in such a bright, hot place and to satisfy his need for artistic expression. “Fleurs por le petit fleur,” Jeanne D’Arc had laughed, hand to her mouth. “Flowers for the Little Flower.”

Gardening gives Angel a chance to tear at the ground beneath his feet and open wounds in the earth into which he can bleed.

He takes the steps two at a time and tries to decide which direction Xander may have taken. An appreciative whistle draws him to the left; he finds his quarry at the end of the hall, staring down over the balcony.

“You did all this?”

“There were some hibiscus hedges and palms, but I put in the rest.”

“Did you do that topiary cross yourself?”

“Yeah. You’ll be tearing it out, I assume.” The question is a taunt that amuses Angel no end and pulls the corner of his mouth up. Xander always struck him as the type who craved the false comfort of insurance. Angel knows the hedge will stay.

Xander laughs. “Hell no. It’s perfect. How the did you wind up here? The resorts in town could use landscaping like this.”

“That’s where I’ll probably go next,” Angel responds. “There’s a place in Rendezvous Bay that’s hiring.”

Xander turns and looks at Angel as though he’s never seen him before.

“Listen, I hope you’re not in any rush to leave. I have some things in mind for this place...” Smiling, he checks his watch and scans the horizon. “I haven’t had anything to eat yet today. What do you say to a late lunch and a couple of boat drinks?”

Angel recommends a fish shack by the harbor where the coconut prawns are crisp and the beer is cold and the scenery is sufficient to lower Xander’s guard. He needs to hear where Buffy is, even though he’s fairly certain; he wants to know if she believes that he is dead and if she mourns his loss.

He needs to breathe the air of someone who has seen her, held her hands, smiled with her, taken a meal with her. He needs Xander Harris.

Angel raises his beer and smiles. His face is so open, so friendly, so easy to read.

“Mahalo.” Xander laughs, shaking his head as if he can’t believe his fortune.

“Sláinte.”

Her paladin will become his messenger, no matter how long it takes.

It’s easy to deduce why Xander is in Anguilla: he’s the shepherd of the potentials. What interests Angel is not the story he tells to satisfy the curiosity of mere mortals, but the players. The first piece of the puzzle becomes clear before the second round arrives: The Convent of Saint Thérése will become an elite private spa and physical fitness center for women. The second piece is delivered soon after: the woman who will oversee the place is nobody Angel knows. Another pair of beers and another plate of shrimp, but not one recognizable name leaves Xander’s lips.

Xander talks about the need for a swimming pool on the grounds, and offers Angel the chance to design the project and supervise the outside crews. Angel shrugs and names an exorbitant price - thinking of Giles and his fey motherfucker minion and trying to keep the flush of anger from his cheeks – as if soaking the Watcher’s Council for digging a hole in the ground could begin to compensate him for their murderous indifference.

Xander wipes his hand with a napkin before he extends it to seal the deal.

“Glad to have you,” he says.

What Angel will make on the job is more than the nuns could afford to pay him in a decade. It’s not nearly enough, but he’s worked for worse.

They’re riding down the coast in the twilight toward the bed and breakfast where Xander is staying when Angel turns down one of the less traveled beach roads and stops the truck. The Caribbean is a diamond in the dusk sparkling lazily against the pale sand. Angel knows he’ll never tire of the sight of it, even if he can’t bear to get close to the water.

“You’d think oceans would all look the same at night,” Xander says. “But they don’t.”

Angel watches his face from the side, remembering the way the desire and anger and fear would leach from his skin in waves. Remembering how his eyes would become liquid with lust and worry when Angel would stand too close or speak too softly or hold his gaze for a second too long. Remembering the bitter almond taste of his anger in the air of that hospital corridor.

It’s good to know that when the chips are down and things look grim you’ll feed off the girl who loves you to save your own ass.

Angel knows Xander told the lie that sent him to hell. That evens things up.

Xander turns to face him, mouth poised to speak. He flinches as Angel raises his hand and glides his fingers over his eye patch, but doesn’t pull back.

“What happened?” The question is raised in a voice so familiar and obvious that even Angel is startled by it.

“I … pretty nasty fight,” he answers, whispering. He offers no resistance as Angel lifts the band, slides the patch over his head, and traces the scrollwork of scars with work-hardened fingertips. The stitched flesh is smooth and sunken in the valley centered in the surrounding arc of bone.

The distance between them is easy to close with the span of Angel’s shoulders. He leans and grazes Xander’s mouth with his, and in the second before they touch he swears he can catch a trace of arousal on the humid evening air. Xander responds with a half-gasp of surprise.

Angel hasn’t kissed another living soul in years.

He hasn’t held or caressed or fucked another person in so long he can’t really remember. He knows his heart wasn’t beating and that stolen blood sang in his body; beyond that he can’t recall. The way a warm body feels against the one he inhabits escapes his understanding and in the moment Xander’s mouth opens beneath his and his tongue seeks entry he is lost.

It’s less than he needs and more than he can handle and he struggles to remember to breathe.

The air between them cools as Xander pushes away.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I thought. . .you seemed. . .”

Angel stares at him, shakes his head.

“It’s been a long time,” he says, and it’s the one true thing he’s offered of himself.

“Me too,” Xander admits, reaching to skim his palm against Angel’s neck. He draws his head down and Angel allows it, led without a struggle into a deeper kiss.

He can feel it in the insistence of Xander’s mouth, in the sure grip of the fingers around the base of his skull: he’s neither new at this nor afraid of it. That sudden epiphany snaps live-wire quick through Angel’s mind, freezing the sudden heat and longing into something vaguely familiar.

The moment would have called for game face, once upon a time.

Swift fingers move to Xander’s waist and skim cotton twill and the hardening flesh beneath it. Belt buckle, button, zipper teeth part and Angel bends low before the impulse leaves him, wishing he was cold enough to appreciate the sudden pulse of heat in his fist and against his cheek.

Xander’s hands are light on the back of his head, as if to touch and hold him would somehow force him away. He doesn’t need to be held; the act is enough. Angel licks and pulls and devours and for awhile it doesn’t matter that the slender, succulent cock in his mouth belongs to Xander -- the simple act of coaxing muscle and tissue to respond to his touch lets him disappear blindly into the sensation and the illusion of control. He feels the energy build, the breathing quicken, and he knows his ears are not betraying him when he hears Xander’s voice.

“Jesus, Angel…

Angel smiles around his cock and fights against the impulse to acknowledge the slip. Instead, he treats it like an endearment, works and squeezes and licks until whatever else Xander attempts to say becomes incoherent and useless. He reaches beyond his lap to the door handle and swings it open. Xander’s hands drop to his shoulders as if he’s afraid he’ll fall out of the truck, but it doesn’t stop his hips from thrusting upward. Angel twists and sucks and coaxes, and digs his fingers hard into Xander’s thighs as he comes.

When the last of his jizz sputters into his mouth, Angel pulls off, leans across Xander’s lap, and spits into the sand. There’s a hint of a brogue in his voice as he sits up, cups Xander’s chin in his hand, and smiles.

“Of all the things I’ve ever been,” he says, wiping his mouth, “an angel’s never been among them.”

He sweeps closed lips across Xander’s open mouth and settles back behind the wheel.

“When are you looking to have the preliminary plans?” Angel asks. For a moment the only sounds in the truck cab are that of a zipper closing, the snap of a metal prong in a belt buckle, and the whisper of a slim elastic headband against a smooth shock of hair and skin.

“Soon as you can get them to me.”

They take the rest of the short ride in companionable silence, or at least that’s what Angel tells himself. He swings the truck to the door of the B&B. He lets the engine idle and glances to the passenger side with a wry smile.

“You sure about this?”

“Which … this?” For all the ruin he’s seen, Xander still sounds the same as he did that Thanksgiving night on the university quad.

When Angel smiles it feels genuine for the first time in hours.

“The job. Look, I understand…”

Xander reaches out, brushes his fingers against Angel’s tanned forearm. “Niall, it’s cool. We’re good. You’ll do a hell of a job.”

Xander is essentially correct about Angel’s unfailing need for self-preservation. For all the nights he could have slept in the alley where he fell, rat’s blood skittering in his veins and the faces of the dead howling behind his eyes, when a single beam of sunlight could have turned all his remorse to dust, he always crawled into the shade. When the madness of starvation lured him out of his mind there was always another morsel to be salvaged, another mouthful to sustain him for another day. And when morning rose on that singular Christmas Day, her love alone kept him from vanishing.

Slayers and vampires understand the unspoken coda to want, take, have: want what you desire, take what you can, have what you need to get by. It works for humans, too.

It’s not what he planned, but Angel finds himself leaning over, leaning in and kissing his new boss -- who kisses back without a moment’s hesitation. Angel can feel him smile against his mouth as they break.

“Hell of a job with this, too,” Xander murmurs, slips out of the cab, and slams the door. Tiny white seashell fragments burst beneath the truck’s tires as Angel plunges into reverse, just barely glancing into the rearview.

There are impulses that will never leave Angel’s soul until the day he draws his last hard-earned breath. Angelus thrives within him, his influence manifesting as a random cascade of petty urges and anger-fed judgments; some of them are near-genius, but most of them are just poor.

Angel doesn’t worry about the choices that lead him to pursue his very first rival for Buffy’s affections. He was never one to rubberneck at accidents and knows better than to loiter at the scene of the crimes he commits.

Two days later he returns to the B&B, plans in hand. Xander approves and says as much, choosing a plan without asking for revisions. Leaning over the low dresser he studies the design, unaware of being watched in the same wide mirror that hangs over every low bureau in every hotel room in existence. His skin is as pale as Angel’s is tanned, and he is leaner and more muscular than memory serves.

One step, maybe two, and Angel is pressed hard against Xander’s back.

Angel may be mortal now, but there are graces from his past that he’s retained. He doesn’t permit Xander to face him as he traverses his body with hot, heavy hands and Xander doesn’t insist, allowing himself to be stripped and prepped as he watches Angel’s every movement.

When Angel slips his sheathed cock into him without prelude, without speaking or whispering or asking permission with a kiss, Xander’s eyes widen with the barest trace of panic. Long fingers curve around his neck, drag his head back, and Angel makes eye contact through their shared reflection.

“Isn’t this what you wanted, Xander? Isn’t this what you’ve waited for?”

When Xander swallows hard, closes his eyes and whispers that yes, it is, yes he has, and yes, yes, it feels so good, Angel smiles and sinks blunt teeth into his shoulder, watching.

Two weeks and the stonework for the pool is nearly complete and the initial plantings are in place. Xander has become an addendum to Angel’s routines; they dine out and drink wine; sometimes they fuck in Xander’s room, other times at Angel’s place. They speak of their lives in the generalities that substitute lovers use, ask careful, noncommittal questions, and find common ground at the place where skin glides on skin, dark to light.

Xander stares at Connor’s portrait as he lounges on Angel’s bed but doesn’t ask about him.

Angel knows with corrupt certainty that he Xander’s talent for shielding the truth matches his own, but he didn’t need to share his bed to know that.

You’ll feed off the girl who loves you to save your own ass.

Breathing slowed, eyelashes still, and Angel knows Xander is treading the edge of sleep. Mouth to his ear, teeth grazing the curve of cartilage and soft skin, he arcs his arm over his chest in a gesture that might have indicated possession but because Angel can’t forget their shared past it’s merely a way to rest a tired limb.

“Tell me about the girl you loved best in high school,” he whispers. “The one above all the others. The one you would have killed for.”

Xander rolls his shoulders and sighs beneath the pressure of Angel’s touch, mistaking it for something secure.

“Buffy. Buffy Summers.”

Angel is unprepared for the way her name drops on Xander’s breath, dreamlike, wanton, almost but not quite sweet.

Aufer a me, Domine cor lapideum, aufer cor coagulatum… O Lord, take away my heart of stone, my hardened heart…

…da mihi cor novum, cor carneum, cor mundum …and grant to me a new heart, a heart of flesh, a clean heart…

Angel understands worship’s most damaging truth: sometimes prayers are answered, leaving victims in their wake.

“Tell me about her,” he whispers. “What she looked like when she walked. How she smelled. What her voice sounded like when she laughed.” He barely recognizes his own voice, so distant and hollow beneath the viscous curtain of need that suffocates the last of his common sense. “Show her to me.”

Her memory imbues his every act, he carries her in every step. It doesn’t matter who is dead or who controls eternity, or whose body he uses to sate his lust; she is at the root of everything. And he is of no use to her in a fragile body that lacks speed and precision and invulnerability. He can neither save nor protect her, nor make love to her until she collapses into the shelter of his arms.

He can no longer save the world or himself, so he listens to the voice of someone who wished him dead describe his beloved’s beauty and spirit. He pulls Xander closer as his cock swells against the small of his back, and when he protests with a strangled laugh Angel coaxes him to keep talking. Demands to know the color of her eyes, the shape of her upper lip, the curve of her wrist, the size of her hands.

It never occurs to him that he’s freeing Xander, giving him something he’s needed since the day Buffy saw nothing in the world but a handsome vampire; since the day the passion that fueled his schoolboy heart smothered beneath that immovable weight. Xander’s needs are none of his concern.

Angel’s prodding becomes more graphic, darker, more insistent, and Xander follows the twisted curves of his own desire to satisfy them both. When he comes with Angel buried to the hilt in him and his fist viciously tight around his dick, he chokes out her name.

Sometime later, as Angel snores in sweat-soaked sleep, Xander shrugs out of the bed and into his clothes and steps out into the afternoon heat.

He’s gone the next day.

Xander’s departure doesn’t interrupt the routines he’s built to accommodate his new duties at the slayer’s retreat. By day, he oversees the last of the outdoor construction and plants roses, oleander, camellias and frangipani -- but never, ever jasmine.

In the evenings he returns to his tiny stucco cottage on the narrow beach road near White Rock Cay, grills fish and fixes rice and reads until his sight blurs and the base of his skull aches. On some nights there’s wine and a lungful or two of delicate ganja smoke and he falls asleep with Buffy’s name and the taste of his own come on his lips.

He paints when the mood strikes him: landscapes, dreamscapes, abstracts. Half-finished canvases lean upon one another in all four corners of his bedroom: portraits of Buffy as lover, slayer, goddess. Maiden, mother and crone.

In his dreams Connor kneels at the foot of a carved ivory cross, rivers of dust running through elegant fingers, bloody tears outlining the high ridges of his cheeks.

Weeks later, when the pool is completed and the subcontractors are dismissed, Angel brings Sister Jeanne D’Arc to see the new addition. It puzzles and delights her, but she sees no practical need for a pool when the ocean is only a few yards away.

“You can drown in a pool just as well,” she tells him. “Or a puddle.”

“It’s not the depth that’s dangerous, Soeur,” he reminds her. “It’s the pull of the tide.”

The End

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Author's Notes:
Rating: NC-17
Summary: Post-Chosen, Post-NFA, Post-Shanshu. Angel understands worship’s most damaging truth: sometimes prayers are answered, leaving victims in their wake.
Disclaimer: Property of Mutant Enemy and all that jazz
Pairing: Angel/Buffy, Xander/Angel
Author’s Notes: Thank you to copperwash who encouraged me to tell this story and served as its midwife, and to sweptawaybayou for her patience and thorough beta reading.

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