The River Meets the Sea

The River Meets the Sea

“A happy ending isn’t really the end. It’s just the place you choose to stop telling the story.” – Leah Stewart from her novel “The Myth of You and Me”

Sometimes the best you can say about a place is that it’s just the place you end up. For a while it was Missoula. New York City. He’d spent some time in the vampire ‘Mecca’, New Orleans. For a while, longer than he would have anticipated, it was Sunnydale. Los Angeles was one of the only conscious choices he’d ever made. It was the compromise: far enough and close enough. Not far enough and not close enough. Depended on how he looked at it on any given day.

He scanned the flat he had let in Chelsea. This was a deliberate choice. A long time ago he’d shared these streets with some of the most famous artists and writers of the day. Once, he recalled, he’d shared a scullery maid with Algernon Swinburne, a man whose predilection for sadomasochism had almost matched his own.

Angel liked London. It was a civilized city, a city without irony. And it felt good to leave America, which he found increasingly like a copper penny: shiny, but not worth very much when you got right down to it.

Chelsea had changed, of course, in the two hundred years or so since he’d last been here. The bohemian artists who had once lived in the brownstones could no longer afford to live here and instead bankers and movie stars now walked the neighbourhood streets. Still, it didn’t matter to Angel; he wasn’t likely to be having anyone over.

The woman who owned the building was, thankfully, disinterested in his reasons for wanting the apartment she couldn’t seem to rent because it lacked much natural light. One small window in the galley kitchen faced north and the two narrow windows in the main room, which would be both living and sleeping, faced an alley. A bathroom with a shower stall, toilet and sink completed the living space. All for the bargain price of 750 quid per month. She handed over the keys and took the signed lease and that was that. Angel had a new address.

*

“Yes?” Giles said without looking up.

“There’s a gentleman here to see you, Mr. Giles.”

“Who is it?” He continued to scan the document prepared for him by one of the members of the Slayer Recruitment Team.

“Hello, Giles.”

Giles lifted his eyes and set his jaw.

“That will be all,” he said to receptionist.

“Shall I bring in some tea?” She asked.

“I don’t think so,” Giles replied.

When the door closed, Giles stood. He didn’t want to be at a height disadvantage, although he didn’t necessarily mind the barrier his large oak desk offered.

“Well,” Giles said.

“I thought about calling,” Angel said, “but I was afraid you might not agree to see me.”

“Yes.”

“It just seemed easier.”

“Ah, yes, barging in is often more effective.”

“I’m sorry. Was I disturbing something?”

“Nothing that can’t wait a few minutes.” He gestured to the leather sofa and moved around to join Angel.

Angel sat and cleared his throat. “You look well.”

Giles smiled delicately. “Is that why you’ve come all this way? To compliment me?”

“Where is she?”

“That’s better,” Giles said. He stood and walked to the bookshelf on the opposite side of the room. Sliding back a panel, he reached for a bottle of whiskey and two small glasses. He poured without asking Angel if he cared for a drink.

“I expected you years ago,” Giles said handing Angel the tumbler.

“I wanted some time to think things through.”

“Really? And this is still the conclusion you came to?”

“Look, I understand--”

Giles narrowed his eyes. “Do you, Angel? You really think you know how I feel about this? Do you even know how Buffy feels?”

“Of course not, that’s why I want to see her.”

“And what makes you think she wants to see you?”

“Are you protecting her or punishing me?” Angel asked.

Giles considered the question. “Perhaps a little of both.” He took a drink of his whiskey.

“I just need to see her.”

“And that’s that?”

It was Angel’s turn to be silent. The truth was, when it came to Buffy that was never that.

*

She lived in a flat off Portobello Road. How ironic that in a city the size of London she should be so close.

It was easy to adopt old habits, so Angel lurked. Part of the reason he’d managed to avoid a random stake through the heart or decapitation by evil lawyers was his ability to stay hidden in plain sight. And Buffy seemed oblivious to him.

About once a week he followed her to a little Balti house where she met Giles for dinner. He remembered Giles’s parting words to him when he’d left their awkward meeting: “I won’t be telling her I’ve seen you. But I would suggest that you seek her out sooner rather than later, Angel, because she’ll know you’re lurking. She always did have a sixth sense about that.”

He watched them from across the street: their familial greeting and hug, the same table and waiter who smiled in greeting and brought them two Kingfishers without even having to be told.

She looked lovely. Older, of course, but elegant and – Angel tried to think of exactly the right word- content.

It occurred to him while watching her that everything had changed except for him. He was suddenly aware that he might be reaching out for something that no longer existed.

*

One whole wall in Angel’s flat was devoted to books. It had been a long time since he had felt settled and an even longer time since he had had the desire to collect items of a personal nature. He remembered when a book, its pages creamy under his fingertips, had offered an escape from his own reality. London was a perfect place to start rebuilding his library.

He was standing in a little used book shop on Charring Cross Road holding a rare and beautiful volume of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins when someone said his name. He turned his head and saw Willow standing there.

“Am I…?” she started. “Are you…?”

“Hello, Willow,” Angel said. He wasn’t sure what the protocol was in a case like this. Was he meant to embrace her?

Before he had a chance to consider it further, Willow was pressed against him, her hands squeezing his biceps.

“It’s broad daylight, Angel,” she said taking a step back and looking up at him. “Are you…?”

“The owner of the store lets me come up through the cellar,” Angel said. “He doesn’t discriminate against the undead.”

Willow cocked her head trying to figure out if he was joking before she let out a burst of delighted laughter.

“It’s the way of the world,” she said. “I’m so glad to see you!”

“You, too.” He found that he truly meant it.

“Buffy didn’t tell me you were in town. I’m going to take that as a good sign.”

Angel looked down at the book he was holding.

“Angel?”

“She doesn’t know I’m here,” he said quietly.

“I don’t understand,” Willow said. “I mean, sheis why you’re here, isn’t she? Why else would you come?”

“It’s--”

“If you say complicated I will,” Willow paused, considering the possible punishments, “cast a very evil spell on you.”

Angel smiled. “I though you were out of the black magic business.”

Willow crossed her arms and gave him her sternest look.

“I saw Giles,” Angel said in an effort to appease her.

“And he hasn’t told her? What did you do, threaten to send Angelus after him?” As soon as the words were out of her mouth she looked horrified. “I’m sorry. That was insensitive. I’m an oaf sometimes. Hello, mouth, meet foot.”

“It’s okay, Willow. He said he wasn’t going to tell her.”

“Really?”

“I’m the last person he wants back in her life.”

“Do you want to be back in Buffy’s life?”

“It’s--”

“Complicated,” Willow said.

Angel quirked his mouth.

“I have to tell her that I saw you, Angel,” Willow said.

“I know.” He reached into his pocket and took out a fountain pen. “Do you have a piece of paper? I’ll give you my address.”

*

He wasn’t sure how long he would have to wait. He could imagine Willow inviting Buffy around for a cup of tea or a glass of wine. He could see her twisting her hands and biting her lip as she waited for the perfect moment to tell her long-time friend that she’d seen a ghost; then realized he was remembering Willow the girl, not Willow the woman.

And that was the whole problem. Time had passed and while his life was essentially unchanged, Buffy and Willow and all the others had changed. He could only mark the passage of time, really, by measuring his life against theirs.

In the years since he had last seen her, Buffy had lived a life that had nothing to do with him. He couldn’t even be sure that she would welcome the opportunity to see him again. Frankly, he wasn’t sure of anything.

*

She came at dusk.

When he opened the door she was standing there in a white coat, her hair twisted in a simple knot. Her cheeks were flushed, like she’d run a long way.

He didn’t say anything and neither did she. He held open the door and she walked through it.

“Nice place,” she said.

“It’s nice enough.”

“Not a lot of light.”

“Still part of the deal.”

“How long have you been in London?”

“About seven weeks.”

She sat on the edge of his sofa and folded her hands in her lap, a gesture that reminded Angel, not fondly, of the old ladies who used to visit his mother for afternoon tea.

“Can I get you something?”

“You have something?”

Angel nodded. “I was optimistic.”

“I’ll have whatever you’ve got,” Buffy said, “except, you know, I don’t want blood.” There was the girl: seventeen and both accepting and mortified by his diet.

“I have wine or a beer or juice,” he said. “Or I can make tea.”

Buffy considered the choices. “Wine, I guess.”

“Red or white?”

She chuckled, a sound which bubbled low in her throat. “Red is fine.”

Angel crossed the room into the little kitchen and rummaged in the drawer for a corkscrew. He uncorked the Shiraz and poured Buffy a glass and then went back into the room. She was standing in front of his bookcase, running one finger along the spines of his books.

“These are alphabetized,” she said, turning to accept her wine.

“And organized by genre and category and however else I could think to arrange them.”

Buffy raised an eyebrow.

“I was trying to keep busy.”

“Why here?” She asked.

“Here’s as good as anywhere,” Angel replied. The lie was ridiculous.

“So my being here didn’t have anything to do with it?”

“Can I take your coat?” Angel asked.

Buffy smiled. “Yes, you can take my coat, Angel,” she said.

She shrugged off the garment and handed it over to Angel. He went back to the coat stand by the front door and hung it carefully.

“Willow was pleased to see you,” Buffy said. She had resumed her seat on the couch.

“I was pleased to see her. I was surprised.”

“It’s always a little freaky to see someone you’re not expecting to see in a city that isn’t home.”

“London isn’t home?”

“Sunnydale is home except for that whole thing where the bottom fell out of the real estate market.” Buffy laughed, pleased with her joke.

“Yeah, L.A. was a bit like that in the end.”

“It’s amazing how much damage a single fire-breathing dragon can do.”

“Well, a dragon and an army from hell.”

“Literally,” Buffy added.

They smiled at each other. This was familiar talk: Armageddon and hell-beasts. They could do this.

“But it’s not my life anymore,” Buffy said finally.

“Nor mine.”

“But you’re still a vampire.”

“Yeah- hard condition to shake, actually.” He paused and then said: “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For assuming that you’d be happy to see me. For thinking this would be okay,” Angel said. “For a lot of things.”

“I am happy to see you, Angel,” Buffy said. “But things aren’t the same anymore; I’m not the same.”

“But I am.”

Buffy met his eyes. “Yes. You are.”

“I don’t know why I came. Things ended in L.A. and I drifted for a while looking for--”

“I think the preferred term is closure,” Buffy said.

“Yeah, maybe,” Angel said quietly.

Buffy put her wine glass down on the small table beside the couch and twisted to look at him.

“I don’t romanticize you anymore,” she said reaching out to touch his hand. “I used to imagine us together and it was as though I blocked out every potential obstacle. We could never have a baby, no problem. We could never go to the beach, whatever. You’d never die, but I would. I rationalized it all because all I could see was you. I was a girl in love with the idea of love.”

Buffy smiled a little, sadly Angel thought, and then continued.

“I think we would have been okay for a while and then maybe you would have started to get bored with me or I would have been distracted by school. Necking in the cemetery wouldn’t have sustained us forever.”

“No, I don’t suppose it would have.”

“From this vantage point, you did the right thing by leaving,” Buffy said gently.

“And you’ve moved on,” Angel said.

“I thought I would never get over you, Angel. I thought my heart would never heal. But I also never thought I’d turn 25.”

“I never doubted it.”

Buffy smiled. “I got lucky.”

“So did I.”

*

Angel never considered leaving. London was as much a place to call home as any other place he’d ever lived, with the added advantage of being familiar and relatively demon-friendly.

He read. At night he walked. Sometimes he helped a newbie Slayer in a dark alley. Once Giles called him about a demon; a phone call that had made Angel happy for hours afterward. Angel felt the tendrils of his past closing in on him, wrapping him in what he would like to believe was contentment, but which he understood was more likely acceptance.

And for now, this is where he chose to stop telling his story.

THE END

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