Her mouth is full of ashes. Every time she closes her eyes she sees the spoils of war: charred flesh, the Preacher’s thumb tearing through the melony flesh of Xander’s eye, her hand fused with Spike’s. She sees the girls who didn’t make it, the ones she lost.
Her mouth is full of ashes and her heart is full of glass.
The city is a wasteland compared to the glittering oasis of her youth. She looks for him in all the usual places: alleys, sewer access tunnels, burned out buildings. By day, the sun burns down through the grit and smoke left behind by the endless fighting; at night, things aren’t much improved, but at least she doesn’t have to look at the horrified shock on the faces of the people she passes. At night the streets are empty except for the occasional vampire looking to take advantage of the injured or disoriented. Buffy barely wastes any puns staking them. She doesn't have any words left.
She calls Giles every morning when she gets back to the motel.
“It’s bad, Giles,” she says. “We should have been here.”
“There’s no point in feeling remorseful at this juncture,” he says.
“Speak English,” Buffy says.
“It’s too late to cry over spilled milk.”
Buffy rolls her eyes and hangs up the phone.
She calls upon every ounce of intuition she has left. When she stopped being one girl in all the world, she let down her guard. She wasn’t always so concerned with watching her back. Sometimes she wasn’t concerned at all- which is how she got the scar across her shoulder blade and the sunset of a bruise high on her ribs. Her injuries now are a small price to pay compared to the injuries suffered by those who fought by her side.
She is as determined as she has ever been. Finding him, rescuing him- if that’s what she needs to do- will balance the scales once more.
“I don’t know where else to look.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t wish to be found and if that’s the case, you won’t find him,” Giles says reasonably.
“Oh - for God’s sake, Giles.”
“Well, I just mean--”
“You think I should come back.” She doesn’t mean it as a question.
“Does it matter what I think?”
She will not be defeated. Not now. If she ever believed that they were connected, she calls on that belief now with her whole head and her whole heart. She stands in the rubble on the street where Angel and the others fought the hordes and she listens.
But when she opens her eyes the alley is empty. It smells of decay and it echoes with the sound of blades slicing through bone and flesh.
It is possible that there is a worse scenario than Angel simply not wanting to be found. Perhaps he’s so badly injured that he can’t be found. And Buffy is suddenly all too aware that Angel was right all those years ago: L.A. isn’t her town anymore. She doesn’t know where to look. And wanting to find him, hoping for it, won’t be enough.
On the other hand, finding Spike is easy.
“Bloody hell,” he says without turning to face her.
He’s hunched down over his whiskey, a cigarette sending up smoke signals in the ashtray beside him.
“Hello, Spike,” she says sitting down beside him. “What’s a nice vampire like you doin’ in a dump like this?”
He turns his head and smiles a little. “’S’pose one dump’s as good as the next these days.” Then he smiles big. “How are you, Buffy?”
“Can I have a beer?” Buffy asks the bartender. She can’t quite decide whether he’s human or not.
Spike raises his glass. “May as well bring the bottle, it’s gonna be a long night.”
When they have their drinks Spike twists on his stool and says: “Yes, I know where he is; yes, I’ll tell you, but answer me this: why in the hell didn’t you come when you could have actually done some good?”
Buffy drops her eyes. “Our intel was--”
“Your intel?” Spike bites off a bark of laughter. “Since when did you ever rely on intel, pet? What does intel have to do with anything, least of all Angel.”
“I shouldn’t have believed it,” Buffy says. “Any of it.”
“Bit late for that now.”
“I guess. But now I need to find him.”
“Well, he’s not far,” Spike says. “Drink up.”
“Isn’t this the--”
“One and the same,” Spike says pulling open the doors to the hotel.
Buffy has never been here, of course, but she’s heard all about it. Now standing in the ruined lobby, she can see why Angel had chosen it. It is big enough that he could get lost. It’s big enough to sprawl out, if you had a team of people who needed to sprawl.
She turns to look at Spike.
“I’m not staying,” he says. “He’s down stairs.” Spike nods towards the hall on their right.
“Okay,” Buffy says.
Spike turns to go.
He stops. Waits.
But Buffy knows enough than to make promises she can't keep.
Buffy stands at the top of the wooden stairs waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness below. When she can see down to the bottom she says: “Angel.”
There is no reply and she heads down the stairs, cautiously.
The basement is gloomy- murky light and shadows- and Buffy reaches into her waistband for her stake. Well, Kendra’s stake - which she carries like a talisman. Holding it is a natural reaction to the unknown and she does it almost without thinking. After all, she doesn’t really expect to have to use it. The back of her neck prickles.
Why would Angel be down here when he could have his pick of rooms upstairs, Buffy wonders.
She wishes she had thought to ask Spike about Angel’s state of mind. She should have questioned him more about what had happened in the alley and how Angel was coping now that Wes and Cordy and the others- names she knew belonging to people she’d never met- were gone. These are questions one should ask.
There is nothing in the main room and Buffy heads towards the arched entryway on the other side. She can hear something dripping, water from a pipe, and she heads towards the sound.
And then she hears another sound, a moan or a whimper. She begins pushing at the metal doors that line the hallway. Each one squeaks open to reveal dark, musty rooms piled with junk: boxes and old washing machines, soiled mattresses and assorted furniture. When she reaches the end of the hall she stops.
There is a scraping sound to her left and Buffy moves in that direction. She steps into a big square room and stops, listening.
She scans the room and then she sees him, slumped against the wall.
She moves to his side quickly, crouching down beside him. His eyes are closed. His chest is exposed and she can see the thin lines of dried blood- a telltale pattern of injury. It is only now that she can see that he is chained to the wall.
His eyes open slowly, focusing on her and then drifting away.
“Did Spike do this?”
Angel remains silent as Buffy rattles the chains, assessing whether or not she can break them with her bare hands.
“Magic,” he says suddenly.
“The chains. They’re charmed.”
Buffy sits back on her heels. “Are you okay?”
In the dim light his face looks almost skeletal, the tender skin under his eyes faintly blue.
Angel ignores her question and says: “What are you doing here?”
“I’ll answer your question if you answer mine,” she says.
“Who did this to you?”
“I did it to myself. What are you doing here?”
“You chained yourself to a wall in the grungy basement of your hotel?” Buffy raises an incredulous eyebrow.
“I answered your question, you answer mine.”
“I came because I didn’t come before.”
Angel sits up straighter, his mouth grim.
“When you needed me,” Buffy whispers.
“Guilt.” Angel says with a crooked smile that doesn’t nudge his face any closer to looking normal. “I can relate to that.”
“Who chained you up?” Buffy asks again.
“I told you. I did it.”
Angel is silent for a long time. He waits until Buffy has met his eyes before he says: “I needed some time.”
“I don’t understand,” Buffy says.
He sighs. “You don’t need to.”
Angel shifts and his shirt gapes open even more. His white skin glimmers in the light, the criss-crossed lines where he has been cut look like a garish roadmap.
“Could you move a little further away?” Angel asks.
Buffy stands, wiping her hands against the seat of her jeans. She steps back, away from Angel and he closes his eyes.
She watches him for hours. He hasn’t said anything. It’s impossible to tell whether he’s even awake; he is so still.
Buffy’s ass is asleep, the muscles bunched up under her skin from sitting so long on the damp cement floor.
“You should go,” he says.
“Is this like a self-flagellation thing?”
Angel purses his lips and looks away.
“Because if you’re looking for someone to hurt you.”
“Who says I’m hurt?” He asks.
Buffy stands up. “You look hurt to me.”
He twists his face back towards her and she can see the glint of gold in his eyes.
“What’s going on?”
“Bullshit,” she says crossing the room. “You look like shit. Someone has been playing tic tac toe with a razor blade on your chest and magic chains, my ass!”
“I just want to be left alone,” he says after a moment of silence.
Buffy returns later. She kneels beside Angel and waits for his eyes to focus. His ribs are bruised: a new injury.
“I brought you some blood,” she says quietly.
“I don’t want it,” he says.
“You have to or you won’t heal, Angel.”
Angel shuts his eyes and pulls his lips into a thin, dangerous line.
Buffy sighs. She doesn’t know how to penetrate the wall he’s built around himself or to fight this unseen enemy.
“Can you at least tell me who did this?”
“Buffy,” Angel says and his voice is tired. “Go home.”
“Not getting anywhere with him, are you?” Spike says.
He’s in the same stool, at the same bar, hunched over a glass of the same whiskey.
Buffy sighs and sits beside him.
“Stubborn blighter,” Spike says.
“He keeps insisting that he chained himself to the wall,” Buffy says.
“And you don’t believe him?”
Buffy raises her eyebrows - oh, please.
“All this time I thought you knew what he was all about, but you really were just in it for his brooding good looks,” Spike laughs.
“That’s not true,” Buffy says unconvincingly. “I know he’s got this guilt complex thing-y.”
Spike reaches for a cigarette, lights it and blows out a mouthful of acrid smoke. “That’s putting it mildly.”
“Okay, so it’s a big guilt complex, but he saved the world.”
“Yes. He did.” Spike taps ash off the end of his smoke. “But he lost a lot in the process.”
“He didn’t lose you.”
“Yeah. Small comfort, really.”
"He didn't lose me," Buffy adds.
Buffy’s shoulder’s sag. “I don’t know how to help him.”
“I’m not sure you can, really.”
“But I want to. I have to.”
Spike turns to face Buffy.
She looks down at her knees and then up at Spike.
“He once asked me if he was a thing worth saving and I didn’t—I didn’t answer him. It was a long time ago. Truthfully, I was just thinking about me…about how if the sun came up he’d be gone and I couldn’t bear it.”
“I still couldn’t bear it,” she says.
Spike shrugs and then softens the gesture with a small smile. “He gets under your skin, true enough.”
“What do I do?”
Spike narrows his eyes. “You’re asking for relationship advice—from me?”
“Not relationship advice, just—advice, advice.”
Spike takes another sip of his whiskey. “I don’t know.”
The bruises on Angel’s ribs have faded, but there are new scars across his chest, deeper than the previous ones. The hollows beneath his cheeks are more prominent. He isn’t even pretending to breathe. He turns his head when she enters the room with fresh blood.
“You will drink,” she says settling beside him. She slides her hand behind his neck and tilts his head up, pressing the cup to his lips. “You will drink this or I swear to God, you’ll be drinking me.”
Angel slants his eyes up to her and she’s sure she sees something lustful in his gaze. Dutifully, he parts his lips and she tilts the cup, pouring the viscous liquid down his throat. After a few small sips, he stretches the chains and grasps her hand with his, tipping the cup forward and drinking in huge gulps.
When the cup is empty, Buffy reaches for another.
“No,” Angel says. “No more.”
“Angel,” Buffy says.
Already he looks better- the blood working through his shriveled veins, his skin somehow less pale.
“This is a stalemate, Buffy,” Angel says quietly. “It’s never going to be anything else.”
Buffy is dreaming: Angel standing in the rain. She can hear other voices, too, some speaking in a language she doesn’t recognize. The air is hot and smells of smoke and gasoline. She hears the flapping of wings and she looks up and sees the dragon.
Buffy startles awake. She is sitting beside Angel- close but not touching. Angel is looking up at her, his eyes expressionless.
“No,” Buffy pauses. “Yes.”
Angel nods. “You want to talk about it?”
Buffy shakes her head.
“I want to talk about you,” Buffy says. “I mean, I want you to talk and I want me to listen.”
“I don’t have anything to tell you,” Angel says.
“It shouldn’t be a question of having to, I just thought maybe you’d want to,” Buffy replies. “Talk, I mean.”
“I really don’t have anything to say.”
Buffy calls Giles.
“I found him,” she says. “He’s alive.”
“Well, that’s good then.”
“Good being a relative term,” Buffy amends. “He’s chained to a wall, covered in cuts and bruises and won’t eat much or talk hardly at all. I don’t know how to help him.”
“At the end of the day, Buffy, the only person we can really help is our self,” Giles says sagely.
“Giles, have you been watching Tony Robbins again?”
“Never mind,” Buffy says. She sighs.
“Are you alright, Buffy?”
“I’m just tired, I guess. Jet lag.”
“Well, perhaps it would be best to get some rest.”
Angel is standing on the edge of a cliff. The sky is not quite black; it’s the colour of an eggplant and she can see the faint, pink light that signals dawn. He looks back at her, his eyes wise. Her fingertips are tingling.
“Angel,” she says.
“It’s alright,” he says.
Something wet hits her face just as he takes a step off the cliff. A snowflake. It melts against her cheek.
She doesn’t know where she is when she opens her eyes. Her cheek is damp and she lifts her fingers to wipe away the moisture.
She looks down to discover that Angel is beside her, watching her carefully.
“You know that jumping off a cliff won’t kill me,” he says.
“I—how did you know that’s what I was dreaming?”
“You’re in my dreams, too.”
Angel’s injuries never seem to heal completely. And they seem to appear by the same magic that keeps him chained to the wall. Although Buffy never sees the welts and cuts happen, and although Angel makes no sound to signal he is being hurt, there is always some fresh mark on his skin and it makes Buffy cringe.
He submits to her cajoling and drinks, but never more than a cup.
“I’m sorry about Cordy,” she says.
Angel says nothing.
“And Wes, too.”
“There’s always a price,” Angel replies. He looks at her and seems to want to say more.
“Sometimes the outcome isn’t worth the price we pay,” she says.
“No, sometimes it isn’t.”
She wakes up and for a second she doesn’t know where she is. The room is dark and smells damp. She has slept in worse places (a grave, for instance), but her limbs feel distant and she aches all over.
She twists her head and his face is right there. She blinks.
“I must’ve fallen asleep.”
“Yeah,” he says.
She thinks: I wish you would touch me.
Maybe he can read her thoughts because he smiles a little.
She needs a shower and a comb. And a toothbrush. But he is looking at her as if she is the most beautiful creature in the world. He looks at her the way he used to look at her.
She inches closer and reaches up to touch his cheek.
Angel says: “Tell me about them.”
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Tell me everything.”
Buffy smiles a little. “Everything is a lot.”
Angel presses her hand against his cheek. “I know.”
She didn’t know how she felt about losing them until she told him. She has her own invisible scars. When she is finished revealing them, Angel is gone, the chains that bound him coiled harmlessly at her feet
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