She had been gone, and then she had returned. Had been gone. Was that the pluperfect? Hell if he knew. He’d always had difficulty at school with obscure grammar, and it had always got him into trouble. Now, his trouble seemed focused around just that one piece of grammar, that one verb tense. Pluperfect. Past perfect. More than perfect in the past. And it had been, for both of them.
He pushed back a little on the hard surface, pulling his feet up onto the rough-hewn tabletop, tucking his knees into his chest, forming a small, defensive ball against his enemies. Strange how his body still did that automatically, a relic of his time in hell, even when the enemies were all inside his head. Memories. Thoughts. Demons. He tried to remind himself that too much thinking led to locked doors and lawyers in wine cellars. Or worse. It was too late, though; his thoughts, like vultures, had spotted the carcass, and there was no stopping them from circling now.
She had been gone. No, wasn’t that the past progressive? Well, as it turned out, the past had been pretty damn progressive, depending on your definition of progressive, of course. His old schoolteacher, cane in hand, stepped into his mind’s eye. Ah, yes. An action still in progress, that was it. No matter what else happened, it seemed their pasts were still in progress, Buffy and he, and who knew what terrors were still to come?
Or, perhaps it was the passive voice? And wasn’t that just the truth? The truth of his life at present? It seemed that he was the passive recipient of every bit of shit the Universe could find to throw at him. Not that he blamed it, and so far as he could see, future imperfect seemed set to stay.
He lowered his knees and sat cross-legged on the wooden table, trying to keep control. His chest rose and fell as he started to breath, reaching unsuccessfully for the calm that the regularity should bring. His fingers twined together tighter, pressing hard against his knuckles. Fingers that only yesterday, for one hairsbreadth of time, one blindingly white moment of sacrifice, had been covered in heart’s blood, soul’s blood, son’s blood. Fingers that tonight still carried a trace of her scent, overlying the lingering scent of that blood, as his lips still carried the lushness of her taste. He’d come here because he’d had an amulet that she needed, and because tonight he’d needed what only she could give him. Comfort and hope. More than ever before, he’d needed to lose himself in her, to find a few precious moments that weren’t perfect despair. She’d given him her answer. (‘I need you gone.’) No pluperfect there, then, except of the other sort.
Even the Romany language had a pluperfect – it would, wouldn’t it? They’d had to know all about more than perfect – and he wondered whether they’d simply cursed Buffy for loving him, or whether the happiness clause was catching, like syphilis.
Damn it all, why was he thinking like this? Well, even to him, the answer to that question was obvious. To stop him thinking about the rest of it.
Buffy and Spike, for one. Spike. Buffy. Together. He hadn’t wanted to find out about that, especially after what he had just done, yesterday. Done, because of her. A cat-clawed tangle of emotions swept through him, separate and yet inextricable, one from the other. Anger. Shame. Hate. Love. And that tiny thread of arrogance, of pride, that made him want to deal with Spike, once and for all. He had to fight back the demon when it whispered to him that he should go and reclaim what ought to be his, should find in her the solace that he needed. He’d thought he’d lost all of that arrogance, but apparently not.
On the road to Sunnydale, he’d wondered whether what he’d learned over the last couple of days would change his feelings for her. He needed to be honest here, and the truth was unusually brutal, even for him. The hell that had been his life for the last months had ultimately been her doing. Even the edited highlights were appalling. Cordelia, as good as dead; Connor lost forever; the world almost lost to Jasmine. And would the world have been such a loss, the darkest parts of himself asked? She hadn’t known what she had brought about, but that didn’t stop it being true. After all, he had lost his soul over her, once before, and he hadn’t known that would happen. Ignorance hadn’t saved him from hell, or the condemnation of her coterie. Ignorance was no excuse.
No, he’d lost his soul to her, and later he’d lost the demon, but he’d asked for that back, because of her. To keep her alive. It hadn’t kept her alive for very long, as things turned out, and there was the crux of the matter. Now, it was the soul’s turn again. He’d willingly handed it over to the powers of evil, and nailed to it had been all his remaining hopes and dreams. Because of her, and the pluperfect. It had been traded for Connor, but she’d been the cause of it, and the wound in his heart was raw and weeping.
Unconsciously, he shifted his position again, wrapping his arms around his raised knees. He bent his neck, resting his brow on those handy knees, because he didn’t think that he could hold his head up any longer, without help. He sat quietly, breathing in the pine-scented air, sole after-dark ruler of this tiny picnic area in the mountains overlooking Sunnydale, the high place to which it seemed the devil had led him, to show him what could be his, if he just used his new resources at Wolfram and Hart. And the devil knew, he liked high places.
Perhaps he should. Perhaps he really should just quit the battle, allowing himself to be moved like the knight on a chessboard. One step forward, two steps sideways, walking the crooked path.
He hugged his knees closer and wondered whether he’d get to hug anything other than himself ever again. Prey, slayer, son, all had been held in that same, intimate embrace. Then he wondered whether she was hugging Spike and decided he’d prefer to think about his knees.
He should go. Unless he intended to bend his neck to the tempters, there was no profit in staying here. Only pain. But wasn’t that what he did best? The First had told him once that the only thing he had a talent for was cruelty, and perhaps it was true. That cruelty, like everything else, was turned in on himself tonight. There were several hours of darkness left to agonize in, and he wouldn’t need to leave here until the sun threatened to char his bones to ash. After all, he now had twelve really cool cars, all with necro-tempered glass, and he could use any one he liked. The one he’d liked was just a couple of yards away, gleaming darkly in the starlight. So he stayed, and watched and brooded.
He’d known that Spike had a soul, before he came here tonight, and that had shown the difference between the two of them, now. The balance had been the other way around, a century ago, but not any more. He’d never gone looking for a cure for the happiness clause, because he didn’t believe there was one, and because he didn’t think he could bear the inevitable disappointments. He was a prisoner, judged guilty of his crimes, caged and punished for the rest of his existence. It was an eternal life sentence, and he couldn’t ask her to share it. He’d persuaded himself that she would find a normal man, and not be miserable like him. Not be miserable with him.
The shanshu prophecy had changed all that, a promise of hope, marking the end of his sentence. It was a promise he had believed he must wait for, until the Powers found him worthy. And there was the difference.
Spike, of course, had seen what he wanted, and simply gone and found a way to get it, exactly as Angelus would. Some part of Angel’s soul – and just how many different parts were there, he wondered, each with their own piece of sin – some mean and contemptible part, had decided that Spike had simply gone to get the chip out of his head, but when presented with the opportunity of a soul, had decided to give it a go, at least partly to take away from his grandsire the imprimatur of being the unique souled vampire. And to take away the girl. Let’s not forget the girl.
So, Spike had made the world provide what he wanted, and Angel had waited for the Powers That Be. Now, of course, he’d actually seen the Powers That Be, or one of them at least, and he was damn sure he didn’t want to see any of the others, nor accept anything that they were offering.
The soft, dying cry of a small animal drifted down from the upper slopes, bringing with it the scent of blood, and pulling him from his reverie. He hugged his knees more tightly, and his thoughts circled back to the beginning, trying to find a more profitable direction. Just as all roads led to Rome, though, every direction seemed to lead back to her.
She had been gone, taken into the bliss of Heaven, and then she had returned, and that pluperfect had come back to bite him in the ass. Well, first of all, it was he who had been gone, to the torments of the demon dimension, and then he had returned. Strange, how so much of what they did mirrored each other. That was especially ironic when you considered his relationship with mirrors. Maybe that was how it would be forever, now, with those he loved being forced into the role of the mirror of his ugliest reflections. And perhaps he was still in that first hell. Acathla’s Hell.
Everyone seemed to think that he had been dead and his soul had been in the Hell of fire and brimstone and God and the Devil. Everyone was wrong, though. No, Acathla’s Hell was somewhere real enough, a thing of flesh and blood and pain, but the demons there hadn’t been imaginative enough for this torment. If there was a biblical Hell, he hadn’t been there. Not yet. The place he’d been was bad enough, but even there, nothing lasted forever.
That one perfect day was eternal, though, if only in his mind. His wilful soul, as tempting as the demon, reminded him again of its joy, its pleasures. Its pain. (‘How can we be together if the cost is your life?’) He wondered if the Mohra demon had lied. (‘A great darkness is coming… Together you were powerful. Alone, you are dead.’) Here was a great darkness, coming to Sunnydale, and he might as well have stayed human, for all the use she was going to let him be to her. He dragged his thoughts away, but the only other place to go, on this night, was the well-worn rut of their other perfect moments.
His had led him to hell. (‘Close your eyes.’)
Theirs had led him somewhere worse. (‘I’ll never forget.’ … ‘Can you carry that burden?’)
Hers had led him here, by way of a very rocky road.
There was someone else who had been to hell and back. Connor. The baby who he’d seen as perhaps the sign of his salvation but who had returned as the instrument of his damnation, as damaged as eighteen years in hell could make him. Now he knew that it was because of her and her own pluperfect moment. He’d killed Connor, because of it, and then he’d given Connor away, to be a normal boy, and walked into that damnation because of it, his head held as high as he could. Yesterday. It had only been yesterday.
The pain of that decision was knife-bright, and he knew that it would be polished and honed every single day of his existence because of the price he’d agreed to pay. He could sit here, in this high place, and tell the demon to begone. Down there, though, in one of the cities of the plain, he hadn’t been able to look at his son, at the wreck that Buffy’s period of perfect happiness had eventually created, and tell Wolfram and Hart to begone. So he’d sold them his soul, knowing that Buffy had condemned him to a different kind of hell. Again.
That was one of the reasons he’d come here tonight. To die.
She’d needed Wolfram and Hart’s amulet, and he would have brought it to her come hell or high water. What he’d wanted, though, was to stand shoulder to shoulder with her and wear the amulet that stank of death, and to sell his life for hers. At least that way, he could earn the nothingness that surely must come afterwards. After all, he had the best possible reasons not to believe anymore in a biblical Hell and damnation for the soul. Hell hadn’t been anything other than flesh and blood and pain, and he’d just ended Heaven, hadn’t he? Technically, he supposed that Connor had delivered the killing blow, but the responsibility had been Angel’s. In the cold light of day, Heaven hadn’t been what anyone had expected. No Heaven, no Hell. He’d been right, it seemed, that Hell was here on Earth, and for him, now, it lived at Wolfram and Hart. Abandon hope, all ye who enter this snazzy glass edifice.
So, he’d wanted to put an end to his controlling interest in this blasphemous, dysfunctional and disparate trinity that he seemed to have unwittingly created, of longed-for lover, miraculous son and unholy revenant of the dead, before they had any more pluperfect moments between them, and finished up putting an end to everything else that made humans, well, human. The other two would do much better without him. He’d sold his soul for the son, to see him established in a life of sanity and normality, and he’d wanted to lay down his life for his lover, to ensure a future for her. But, she had sent him away to this new hell, and chosen another to stand in his stead.
He was as sure as he could be that she would give the amulet to Spike. To start with, who else was there to give it to? For another thing, he had scented Spike not just on her but fresh, inside that pagan temple. He was certain that she would be with Spike now, and here he was, alone, in his high place.
Did he still love her? Ha! When he woke each day and carried out the existential audit that all living beings would recognise – although perhaps his was a little different than most – it was always the same. Arms, two; legs, two; guilt, 100%; blood habit, unchanged; soul, one; demon, one; Buffy, one. She was stitched into every cell in his body, every mystical glimmer that made up whoever he was or might ever be. The only thing that had been harder than walking away from her tonight had been giving back his humanity, on that long ago November day.
Once more, his mind shied away from that past decision, the pluperfect day par excellence that was a source of endless pain, and circled back to Buffy’s own more than perfect. He should have seen it earlier. He should have understood. At the time, though, when he’d been suckered into releasing Billy, he’d been so caught up in Cordelia’s suffering, and in remembering how desperately he’d prayed for his own release from torment, that he hadn’t started to ask the obvious questions. His lip curled. Cordelia had been right. He’d never had as many smarts as Angelus.
He’d taken Skip at face value. Fool. Sure, he’d thought that he was rescuing a soul from Hell (‘Oh, him? Oh, he's supposed to be here. Do you have any idea how monstrous a guy has to be before he gets sent to us? We're a *very* high-end institution.’) but he’d never asked himself why an incarnate body should have been judged and sent there. It was only later that he’d remembered, and questioned and understood. Much later. A couple of days ago, in fact, when it had been far too late.
He should have had it weeks ago, when they’d seen Skip again. When they’d killed Skip. At the very least, he should have asked himself why Skip knew that a slayer had returned from Paradise. Skippy – and here, his lip curled again, and he could feel his fangs trying to lengthen – Skippy had known that Buffy had been released (‘Whoa, wait. Nobody comes back from paradise. Okay, a Slayer once but…’). She’d been brought back from the dead the day after he first fought Skip to win Billy’s release. Had that traitorous demon known even then that it would happen? Oh so long afterwards, they’d learned that Skip hadn’t been working for the Powers That Be. Or at least, not their own set of Powers. He’d been in the pay of something else, and now Angel knew that those things were connected… He couldn’t help thinking that he should have seen something, sensed something, two years ago. Even then the game had been afoot, and he should have realised. But he hadn’t.
Skippy had certainly bragged about how he’d taken a dive that first time. About how long it had taken to set up heaven on earth. About how Angel wouldn’t be around to see it (‘You die never knowing what really happened to the woman you love.’) He’d thought Skip meant Cordelia, but he hadn’t. He really had meant the woman Angel loved. Buffy. Angel knew, now, what had happened to her and how long the plan had taken. It had taken since that terrible May, when Buffy had died and gone to Heaven. Just as she would never know from him about the day that he’d given back, he could never tell her that heaven had all been a lie.
He hadn’t known any of it, until two days ago, in the desolate kingdom of the bugs, and hadn’t that just been a revelation of apocalyptic proportions. There, that goddamned priest had delighted in pouring his venom of truth into Angel’s ear. When Buffy had thrown herself into that dimensional rift created by Glory, killing herself to save the world, she might well have found that welcoming tunnel of light that everyone talked about, but it hadn’t been angels (of course it hadn’t), and pearly gates and joyous reunions with those who had gone before. It hadn’t been any sort of biblical Heaven at all, nor anything envisaged by the monotheistic religions of Earth.
Her body had lain broken on the ground, but the essential Buffy, all unknowing, had found her way through that hellgod-created rift into one of those other dimensions that Dawn’s blood had opened up. Just as he had been pulled into Acathla’s portal, Buffy had been pulled into Glory’s, and she had been caught by a Power That Was, wanting to be a Power To Come. She’d thought she’d found Heaven, but its name was Jasmine.
Willow had been right after all. Buffy had been in Hell, just not one that she could ever recognise. He could never tell her that the only paradise she’d gone to had been maggot-eaten Jasmine’s. Jasmine, who had tired of her bugs, and abandoned them to hunt out juicier game.
Two days ago, he’d stood in her empty temple, bruised and bloody, holding the Keeper’s head in his hand, its lips sewn shut against that final breath, and then he’d spared a moment for the High Priest. The creature had laughed at him and, even dying, had refused his help.
He remembered the High Priest’s words exactly, forced out between gobbets of blood coughed up from where the spikes on the wall had pierced its lungs.
‘You think that she went to your Heaven, don’t you? The one you love, when she died? You think that, if you work hard enough, live long enough, you might get there with her? One day? Or you did, until recently, but it’s harder now, isn’t it, dead thing? A thing who kills his own son – can he ever hope for that?
‘I’ll make it worse for you, because truth is always worse for you, isn’t it? You like to hide behind hope. There is no hope, except through the one who left us, and who will return, when she’s tired of soft and whining humanity. Can you look to your heavens and find this paradise of yours? No, you cannot. Your Heaven is a place you find in wishes, not in death. Your Powers That Be are not so kind as she is.
‘Your woman did not find a Heaven with your Powers. She found one with ours. Our own goddess.
‘Let me tell you what our goddess saw when she looked into your lover’s soul.
‘She saw pain, dead thing, and much of it was from you. But she saw the pain of your world. The hatred, the strife, the betrayals, and that was just from your circle of… friends? Were they ever friends, your friends or her friends? Ask yourself that. And your own…friends. Family. How often have they failed to stand by you, to see into your own heart? So much distrust of you, so much treachery.
‘Would you not wish an end to all that, dead thing? Would you not welcome a world of all-encompassing love and peace? You had it, for a few days, and now you hurt for its passing.
‘And what of the rest of your world? Millions dying every day because of hate and greed and selfish interest. All those souls you can’t save because it isn’t your world that’s killing them, it’s their own. It isn’t vampires, and demons. It’s people, just like themselves.
‘Your woman felt like that, dead thing. She was glad to go, at the end. She was tired of the fight. Glad to leave it all behind. Glad to leave you behind. She found peace and beauty, and her friends took that away from her, just as you would take it away from everyone else. What gives you the right? You aren’t even one of them. How can you know what they want? They are a different species. Do you think they would not be prepared to sacrifice a few of their own, for the love and the peace that she offers? They’ll think the price is such a small one…
‘Know this. When no one else wanted your woman, The Devourer took her in, kept her close, loved her beyond all things. Learned about your world. Learned about you.’
The High Priest had laughed, then, a sound of pure malevolence, before coughing himself into silence; but it wasn’t just the blood. Like Angel, he’d been feeling the memory of the warm arms of that love, holding his soul, and known they had gone forever, reaching for something else.
He remembered his reply, words that were hard to find from his own slough of despond.
‘I don’t believe you. You can’t know any of that. All you can see are my fears. Dead thing.’
The High Priest’s smile had been one of bright malice.
‘She allows me to see these things. You know I am right,’ and then he’d died.
Had he been right? Had the monstrous goddess found Buffy’s soul and looked deep into it, seen from the pain there how much she could exploit this dimension. (Did she die to leave me behind?). Had Jasmine known how quickly she would be welcomed? It all had the dismal ring of truth. The thought of her capturing Buffy’s soul with chains of love, all the while searching for the path back to the suffering humanity that the Slayer had left behind, made him want to vomit. Worse, perhaps Jasmine never would have found the human race; perhaps she would have remained blind to this dimension, except that Willow’s call to Buffy’s soul had shown her the way.
And Buffy had shown her Angel. Jasmine had seen the tools that she needed and had used them. He wondered if that could have happened if he’d decided to keep the gift of the Mohra demon. If he’d stayed human with her, found a life with her, would that have broken the chain of events, and denied access to Jasmine? He didn’t know, and it was profitless to speculate, but the thought of it almost broke him.
The things that Jasmine had told him had been lies – how she had woven together the strands of people’s lives, going back almost to the time he’d come to Los Angeles. He knew well enough how to twist the truth to his own advantage – as Angelus, it was his greatest weapon – and he was sure these were lies. Untruths to make them believe that he and the others had done nothing out of free will, achieved nothing other than to bring Jasmine about. He couldn’t bear to believe that.
Still, he almost couldn’t bear to believe the other, even though his heart knew it was true.
His own first moment of perfect happiness had threatened to bring Earth into hell, with eternal pain and torment for its inhabitants. Perfect happiness for Buffy had brought heaven to Earth, and an end to humanity’s strivings, provided humanity didn’t mind being farmed, and culled daily, like cattle. Angel and Buffy, mirrors of each other. Along with the venomous words of the High Priest, he’d brought back from that cursed temple the Word that ended Jasmine’s power; he had taken away that eternal peace and happiness and pitched humanity straight back into the cut and thrust of the struggle for life. Back into hell on Earth. See? Catching, like syphilis.
His own soul bled from the loss of that perfect happiness, so few hours ago, but losing it had been too much for his already tormented son (‘I really do love you, Connor’… ‘So what are you going to do about it?’… ‘Prove it’). Buffy had been stronger than that, when she’d come back from the grave, but she’d still hit out at those around her, used them to try to feel, to reconnect. He didn’t know it all, but he knew that much. He felt the same loss, tonight, and he wished he had been there for her, wished he could have done differently for Connor.
The aftermath of his own exclusion from paradise was tangled around with the ache of the loss of his son, and now Buffy had sent him away with no solace at all, except that single kiss. The only comfort he had was the touchstone of his soul. He’d basked in Jasmine’s perfect peace and happiness, and yet he’d kept that slippery soul. Ergo, the happiness was false. It was never real, could never be real. That was right, wasn’t it? But, the doubts clung to him like lice. How much was real in this hell on Earth anyway?
He wondered, now, whether the shanshu prophecy was as much of a fraud as Jasmine had been, whether there were any Powers That Be other than those that were best seen from the end of a sword. He wondered whether he would ever be able to leave the hell of Wolfram and Hart; and he thought that perhaps Heaven and Hell and continued existence after death were just tales for children, a carrot and stick to get them through the daily struggle. What would there be now, for humanity, at the end of all things? What had he left for them? Nothing more than oblivion? Had he taken away the only heaven there could ever be?
He shivered at what he might have accomplished. The inner demon whispered in his ear. If there were no Heaven and no Hell, if all there could ever be was the here and now, perhaps he should just turn Buffy tonight and lose his soul in her again. Only if he did that could they ever find an eternity together. Everything else was just smoke and mirrors. He tried to ignore the demon, but the urge was strong, fuelled by the image of her in Spike’s arms, and the memory of Jasmine’s empty promises. He hugged his knees harder, for the sake of having something to hold, something solid between his arms and his chest, and looked down at what was spread before him. If this was all there ever could be, he was pretty sure that the two of them could re-make it in their image, given time enough. So, he sat in his high place, and the demon whispered.
It was a long time before he moved from the picnic table, as dawn threatened. He thought he might have felt better if he could have cried, but it seemed to be far too late for that. Instead, he climbed into tonight’s choice of car and drove back into this new hell, wondering whether living with more than perfect could possibly have been worth the price, and hoping that it was not. Knowing that he still loved her more than life itself. Not knowing whether she still loved him as she had on that perfect day.
Miles behind him, in Sunnydale, Buffy lay curled in Spike’s arms, waiting for daylight, with the taste of Angel still on her lips. Spike could never take that away.
Angel had brought her an amulet that even to her felt greasy with magic. He’d said he’d come to fight with her, and then he had smiled for her, but there had been something in his eyes. A shadow. Something in his kiss. A farewell. He hadn’t expected to live, she was sure of it. She couldn’t allow that. She’d sent him to Hell once, but this time she wouldn’t let him get in the way of any magic swords, or magic spells, or even magic amulets. Not again. She hadn’t lied to Angel. Spike was in her heart. But, he wasn’t the right man. If it came down to it – and she rather thought it might – she would sacrifice him to save the world, as she would sacrifice everyone else, including herself. But she couldn’t kill Angel again, couldn’t send him to Hell a second time, couldn’t risk him until she knew that his soul could be safe in that remembered Heaven with her. So, she lay in the arms of the wrong man, dreaming of the times when it had been more than perfect.
Feed Jo Visit Jo
Summary: It’s about their moments of perfect happiness.
Spoilers: Immediately post-‘Home’ in AtS (4-22), and during ‘Chosen’ in BtVS (7-22).
Disclaimer: Usual stuff…
Notes: Written for the IWRY Fic Marathon, November 2005. Thanks for hosting this, Chrislee.
Thanks go to Lisa, who said something to spark of the idea for this story, and who made me go back and rewrite it until it was better…