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.
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.
Angel, alive and living to die.
Angel extends his right hand, flexes his fist and stares at the ghost of a long-forgotten ring.
“They’re dead. Doyle. Cordy. Spike.” The stone shatters beneath the brick, emerald shards spin into the sunset and dissolve. “All mine died. Wes. Gunn. Fred. Hers didn’t. Not Xander or Giles, or Willow… or you.” Angel stands and motions into the next room. “Why do you think that is, Oz? You guys on the better side of the fight, or what?”
“I didn’t know, Angel,” Oz says, following close behind.
“Angel,” he says. His words fall measured and slow. “There is no Angel. Angel is dead.”
Oz steps forward. “He was a friend of mine,” he says, and reaches for Angel’s wrist. The pulse beats hard on his fingers. “Angel is dead. Long live Angel.”
~~from Camera Obscura
I Laurel Canyon Los Angeles, California
Whatever human scent could have clung to the soot-streaked windows had been taken by the Santa Ana winds or devoured by the ceaseless hunger of autumn brushfires.
There was a time that sense alone would have brought him to this place, a time before the thwarted apocalypse; a time when lightning breached the womb between hell dimensions and prophecies promising rebirth were bought and sold in blood. A time when he was a child in a man’s skin, feral and consumed by the hunt.
Now he peers through a grimy window for a glimpse of the father he once denied, presses a long-broken doorbell, and resorts to pounding his fist on the glass.
He doesn’t recognize the man with pale beryl eyes who lets him in at the mention of Angel’s last chosen name, but it doesn’t matter. He moves amid the remnants of Angel’s human existence with the small, quiet tour guide, touching canvases and sketchbooks, broken bits of charcoal and pots of gesso, tubes of cadmium yellow and hellebore red, glass and vine tables, a bed clothed in simple smooth cotton, and the chipped rim of a majolica plate.
Connor sits at the kitchen table and sips a mug of herbal tea and links fragments of memory regained in a shattered spell to a time and place that no longer exists.
“Oz,” he says. “Cordy talked about you. You had a band. And you’re a werewolf.”
“We never scheduled gigs on nights of the full moon. It was too frantic.” Oz lifts his shoulders. “Cordy… she…”
“I know.” Connor lowers his eyes as if to find words in the steam curling out of the cup. Silence gathers and settles. Eventually he nods in the direction of the paintings leaning neatly against the far wall. “I think she’s my mother. My birth mother.”
Oz follows Connor’s sightline.
“Buffy,” he says, head still turned.
“Darla,” Connor corrects. “Who’s Buffy?”
II Academy of the Assumption Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts
Eight days since the phone calls. A string of evenings spent sitting at the old Mother Superior’s desk as dusk falls over sugar maples and evergreens, staring over the hills until night falls and exhaustion forces him to close his eyes.
Pens and paper stay hidden amid invoices and rolled up schematics and manila folders thick with subcontractors’ paperwork and design specs; knowing that e-mail isn’t the right vehicle for his message, his laptop says shut after the worksite shuts down for the day, after spreadsheets are updated and accounts are balanced.
Eight days ago Xander believed that abandoned convents just happened to be the perfect architectural fit for the new Slayer Academies, but that was before the truth behind his subconscious choices came home to roost with the sound of Willow’s voice on the other end of the phone.
The icy bier of disbelief and dread lifted him above the construction site, exposed and insubstantial, an altogether new kind of panic built on the improbability of her news. Angel had lived, she said. There was some kind of prophecy fulfilled and he’d lived. Taken a new name and made art that hangs in galleries, she said, you can go to the web and see them. Paintings of Buffy and Cordy and a series of the gardens at the Anguilla retreat. His name was Niall, she said. Niall Gallimh. Gaelic for Galway, the gallery’s web page said.
“He planted the gardens and built the pool at the retreat house.” It was the last truth spoken on Xander’s side of the conversation. “He looked like Angel but he was alive, so I chalked it up to coincidence.”
The stonework for the pool was complete and the initial plantings were in place. Xander had become an addendum to Niall’s routines; they would dine out and drink wine; sometimes they would fuck in Xander’s room, other times at Niall’s place. They spoke of their lives in the generalities of substitute lovers, asking careful, noncommittal questions and finding common ground at the place where skin glides on skin, dark to light.
“Tell me about the girl you loved best in high school,” Niall whispered just before Xander drifted into sleep. “The one above all the others. The one you would have killed for.”
The name dropped on Xander’s breath, dreamlike, wanton, almost but not quite sweet.
“Buffy. Buffy Summers.”
“Tell me about her,” Niall purred. “What she looked like when she walked. How she smelled. What her voice sounded like when she laughed. Show her to me.”
He did as he was asked and came with Niall buried to the hilt in him and his fist viciously tight around his own dick, choking out her name. As the world reverberated on the echoes of his desire he looked into his new lover’s eyes. Savage and familiar, the beast with the beatific smile regarded him with gluttonous indifference, freezing the lust-borne sweat on his skin to ice.
He knew what he was seeing then, who coaxed his darkest secret to light. Murderer and penitent, monster and savior.
Buffy’s true love.
He flew out of Anguilla later that morning and let his foreman cut Niall Gallimh’s final paycheck.
When Buffy called she asked only one question.
“If he looked so much like Angel why didn’t you ever mention him to me?”
“I thought it would be cruel.”
III Rendezvous Bay Hilton Anguilla, British West Indies
“He loved the sun.” It’s a statement so obvious that it feels clichéd, even for him. Oz presses a fingertip over an invisible line of demarcation on Connor’s hip; a line that would mark the meeting place of tanned and pale skin if one existed. His frame yields only shades of blue-pale milk, degrees of translucence and opacity; rich deserts of light that burn with sex and freeze in sleep.
“I didn’t love Angel like you’re supposed to love a father. I guess it’s pretty bad that I love him more now.”
“Sometimes an idea is all we get,” Oz says.
…and sometimes we get substance: tongue-tips trembling at contact and breaking deep and full into hot kisses that lift the world from our backs and sometimes we get a memory. Sometimes we are left to wonder why we were the chosen, the witnesses, death’s mute and stunned attendants…
“He had a thing for wolves. Dated one for awhile. She was an artist, made pottery.” Connor shrugs, shoulders back, filling his lungs with air and scent, pressing his belly up to Oz’s touch. “Like you.”
“I’m more of a casual appreciator of art, but fine pots are nice to have.”
Connor’s face shines in curious surprise. At first Oz doesn’t know whose smile he’s seeing, then recognition floods him, hot and close, stopping his breath.
“Did you make him laugh?” The question stills the air in the humid little room; before Oz can answer Connor shakes the query away and pulls himself up to rest his back against the painted wall. “Yeah, guess he wasn’t the laugh-out-loud type.”
“We should go.” Oz suggests, rolling off the narrow bed.
Connor tucks the damp sheet around his waist, suddenly modest in the presence of a stranger. He curls off his father’s bed in the opposite direction and picks up his clothes and dresses quickly, as though he is alone.
They don’t speak in the cool sanctuary of the rental car until they begin the climb up the hill toward the old sugar plantation where the converted convent sits.
“I don’t know what to say to her,” Connor tells the tinted passenger-side window.
“There’s no script for this,” he admits.
...would you tell her that the last person to touch your ex-lover just spent the afternoon losing himself in you, drawn to something he hasn’t begun to understand, united in life by death and missed opportunity and karma and I am sorry it wasn’t you, Buffy; it was supposed to be you.
Maybe it was.
…would you beg her to explain the story he told in the last moments of his life? “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl sends boy to hell. Boy comes back from hell, slits his son’s throat, saves the world and becomes a real boy,” or would you stay silent, complicit in his end?
“We’re here.” It’s just another pointless thing for Oz to say, but that doesn’t stop him.
IV The Convent of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux Slayer Academy Retreat House and Training Center Anguilla, British West Indies
Buffy breaks the embrace reluctantly. “Thank you,” she whispers, and looks over Oz’s shoulder at Connor.
“I’m sorry,” he says. She takes his wrists and leans up to kiss his cheek.
“I’m sorry, too,” and she knows she should be weeping, broken, hanging on to this beautiful, somber man, but her ability to command tears is impossible as she tries to recall Darla’s true face. “Thank you for coming all this way. I could have come to you…”
“I had to come here. I wanted to see where he lived.” Connor shields his eyes and squints out toward the white stone and stucco building. “It’s very beautiful.”
“It’s an old convent,” Buffy says simply.
A slow, wide grin crosses Oz’s features. “He was consistent.”
In the blink of an eye he’s crushed tight in her slender arms and he could be 18 again, holding tight to Sunnydale High’s Class Protector, at home once more.
“I’ve missed you,” Buffy says, and at last the tears are free to fall.
After Connor excuses himself and walks off into the direction of the car, Buffy leads Oz past the tiny graveyard, past the neat row of pitted stones where the bones of the old sisters rest. They speak of Angel in generalities and share a casual and tender retelling of his place in their lives, a version suitable for a romance novel or a youngster’s collection of adventure tales until the silence builds and they stand on the ledge of uncomfortable truths.
“I don’t know why he didn’t try to find you,” Oz tells her. Unprepared for the depths in her eyes, he looks towards the fields of violet and scarlet and marigold.
“I do,” she says.
He can see Angel as she tells the old story, see him covered in salt and twisted in agony, damned by the loss of his monstrosity and the powers that made him her partner and equal, desperate to fight for her, to fight with her, to die for her.
Absent the thing that made him inhuman, all he could do was recreate echoes of love on canvas and in the ground: creating the remainder of life out of linseed oil and lily seeds, vines and brushes and the last of his hope.
A tall shadow drapes them, and for a moment Oz can feel him there as he was on the last night of his life -- watching over L.A.’s endless night before surrendering himself to it.
Niall stood atop the retaining wall at the far end of the cliffside pool, shoulders glistening, arms spread like Christ of the Andes, water coursing in rivulets down his chest.
“There’s a million stories in the naked city, Oz,” he laughed, rich and full. “They’re all pretty much the same. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl sends boy to hell. Boy comes back from hell, slits his son’s throat, saves the world and becomes a real boy. Think that’s a good one?”
“I was around for the first act. Everything after that’s kinda murky,” Oz said.
Niall turned to face the glittering ocean of lights in the L.A. basin and spoke to it with a lover’s awe.
“You see it at night and it shines,” he said, and dove into the shimmering sea.
Oz remembers his heart stopping and the bitter burn of chlorine in his nose and throat as he floundered, screaming, for the side of the pool and a way to pull Angel back from the brink. What he thinks of now is how warm and still the air seemed, as if something momentous and thrilling was about to take place. Feels those seconds of blissful peace that surround all endings, that fleeting sense of confidence that everything will be fine when nothing ever can be again.
“Am I interrupting?” Connor asks.
Buffy accepts the carved box he proffers. Oz steps back and her eyes flash. “No,” she whispers. “Stay.”
She traces the symbol etched into the mahogany lid.
“You should have this. Him.” Connor says gently. “It’s what he would have wanted.”
“Is it?” she asks.
For a moment she is just a girl standing on the docks, praying to any and every god to keep her love from leaving. The world is not yet hers to save, and all her notions of eternity live in a dead man’s touch.
“My people -- before I was changed -- they exchanged this as a sign of devotion… the hands represent friendship, the crown represents loyalty... and the heart... Well, you know...”
“Don’t go,” she sighs.
Oz knows the plea is not directed to him nor to Angel’s son. Pressing his palm into the warm valley of muscle at Connor’s waist, he leads him back to the old convent, into the shade.
Making love in tombs and propped against gravestones, bliss culled from the ruins of flesh and bone. Memories coaxed from carved and polished rock, smudges on parchment, a sharp-edged story blurred more with every retelling.
This was all she recalled of desire.
There was happily, there was ever, and there was after; disparate concepts belonging together only in cartoon fairy tales and in the dreams of the very, very young. Once upon a time she dreamed of the sun but lived for night, when the dust of the dead would seep into her pores and lifeless hearts would complete her.
She dreamed of the sun and so did he.
Chipped seashells give way to the manicured lawn as Buffy steps into the garden. Sandals left at the edge of the green, toes flexed against the warm, moist earth, and this is the childhood she wanted: sun hot on her shoulders, bright flowers flush with daylight brushing her calves, the ocean sighing in the distance, endless azure sky overhead.
She doesn’t ask what have I done to deserve this? It’s enough to stand amid the oleander and camellias and listen to the beat of the sea against the shore.
Besides, for every question there is an answer and for every answer there is a price.
The topiary cross is wide and high, a four-cornered maze where some of the Potentials go to hide, to dream, maybe even to steal a kiss or a touch in the shelter of that blessed weapon. She’d wandered the Villa dei Medici thinking she’d never seen anything as lovely, but at first sight the colors and scents of the vibrant garden at the remodeled convent brought tears to her eyes that she couldn’t explain.
Now Buffy walks the shadow of the cross towards the hibiscus hedge that rings the cliff and mourns.
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Author's Notes: Rating: R Summary: There was happily, there was ever, and there was after; disparate concepts belonging together only in cartoon fairy tales and in the dreams of the very, very young. This is the third in a trilogy that began with Pentimento and was followed by Camera Obscura. The important points from those stories are incorporated here, so if you hven't read them you'll be up to speed. Disclaimer: Not mine in the least Dialogue snippet by Marti Noxon, from Surprise Beta by Sweptawaybayou For my favorite and most beloved muses, Snow and Chrislee.