He is not getting any older.
All around him is shiny perfection, the slick, efficient, lavish look and feel of Wolfram and Hart. He has ordered them to stop referring to him as 'Mr. Angel.' For the first week, most of the employees couldn't understand why; eventually, he snarled at a few interns in the lobby, flashing a bit of fang and amber eye. No one calls him Mr. Angel anymore; for the most part, they try very hard not to address him at all. Wes acts as an intermediary and that suits Angel just fine.
Wes seems to be getting younger.
Wesley does not remember their rift; the easy friendship they shared before he decided to start taking life tips from a giant hamburger slipped back into place with the effortless simplicity of a total mind warp. Angel has his best friend back, a man he thinks of as a brother, when he thinks in such terms, and he cannot remember a dearer friend in his life. It makes him a little sad that, Doyle notwithstanding, he has never had a relationship like this with anyone.
Things are different now. The world is different. Having lived through one total reversal of time and space, Angel sort of assumed he would be used to it. Before, it was a single day taken back, a single day of memories he had to carry. This was over a year; a year of being a father and not being a father, of betrayal and hatred, love and forgiveness. A year of saving his son and killing his son and a lie being just enough to grant salvation, after all.
So much more than Angel's rift with Wesley is lost now. Also lost was Darla's death, the act of it and the intention behind it. She was still alive, somewhere in Europe with Drusilla wreaking havoc, as usual. He brought it up with the others once; Fred said they'd 'stake the bitch' if she ever showed her face again. Buffy said this time they'd make sure she stayed dead, and cast a concerned glance his way. She sensed conversation about Darla's death was difficult for him.
If she only knew; if any of them knew . . . their hatred for Darla was on his behalf, and he wanted to scream at them to stop hating, to stop speaking Darla's name with such malice. The travesty of their scorn claws at him and he longs to howl the truth, the sacrifice Darla made, the soul she shared with their son for just long enough to count. He longs for that memory he carries with him to be honored.
But he does not howl; Angel is well used to the heavy burden of hidden knowledge.
He cannot decide if Cordelia is getting any older or not.
He wonders sometimes if his eyes play tricks on him when he visits her, for it shouldn't be possible she's remained unchanged all this time. There are no wards to keep age from her (though that had been one of the benefits of her Wolfram-and-Hart-sponsored care Lilah had offered); after his own experience with timelessness, Angel felt denying anyone the right to age, to grow and change, was deeply wrong. Cordelia might disagree when she woke up, but he would deal with that shrieking denouncement when (if) the time came.
Angel watches Cordelia sometimes, and he wonders, does she remember Connor? When (if) she wakes up, will she blink doe-brown eyes at him and inquire after his son? While Angel desperately wants someone to share his burden with, he does not think he could bear it if she remembered. He wants his friend back, the woman he trusted and relied upon, his Vision Girl with the wicked sense of humor who was always honest with him, no matter how much it hurt, and who never, ever slept with his son.
Connor is getting older.
Instead of choosing a school as far away as possible, Connor attends UCLA. Angel is proud (it isn't Notre Dame, but Connor isn't really Irish anymore, is he?) and more than a little concerned about the steady stream of girlfriends Connor has. His high school romance fizzled out, and in his first six months at college he had six different girlfriends. Things always end between them, but Angel has observed that they never end badly. Connor doesn't use, doesn't whisper promises he doesn't mean. Angel gets the distinct impression that Connor is searching for something, something to make him whole.
Sometimes, Angel likes to pretend that Connor is searching for him.
A glimpse, that's all he wanted, all he'd asked of Lilah after they'd struck their bargain: all he needed was to see that his son was all right. He'd call himself a fool if he'd actually believed the quick lie at the time. Even as he convinced Lilah, he'd known better. One glimpse would never be enough, and so he watches Connor in the night, watches his son surrounded by friends, basks in the casual normalcy that clings to his boy, the easy happiness Angel had silently prayed a thousand times for over Connor's crib before so much (too much) time had gone by.
Fred asks him if the demon population at UCLA has grown high, if he suspects a new Hellmouth. Wesley and Giles and Buffy have asked the same question. He does not know how to answer them, so he says nothing at all, and they do not push. Sometimes, he wonders if they suspect the truth. Buffy, at least, realizes Angel goes to watch someone. She is touched, because she believes he is watching Dawn for her, Dawn who has recently started classes and refuses to live in a dorm, but spends much of her time in the dorms of friends, anyway. Angel lets Buffy believe this because he does not know how to tell her the truth. And he watches Dawn, too, because he does not want to lie to Buffy, even if she never asks him a question. He has given truth -- however thin -- to her assumption.
He watches, and he reflects upon how he no longer has a son. He had one, he remembers him, but he is alone in this memory. He lived as a man for a day and a father for a year and a half and both live in him still, clawing to be set free, caged as surely as he cages the monster howling at the gates.
He is not a man or a father, not human and not a beast, and he is not allowed to howl or scream because he must always, always remain in control. He does not feel like a hero, and so long as he is in possession of his soul, he is not well suited to being a villain. A contradiction caught in ageless memories; his only future a circular no-one-ever-really-wins battle lost in the endless night.
Buffy is in his life again, and for all the new problems this brings, it gives him a wary kind of peace. They see each other almost more often than they had when he'd been living in that decrepit old mansion in Sunnydale. Now, instead of time spent huddled in the dark, alone with each other but far apart, they fill their time together with other people, his friends (family) and hers, fighting the good fight, using every weapon in their arsenal in whatever way they can. The light he clung to so hard has dimmed, but he goes whole hours pretending it is still there, that it burns bright as ever. He secretly believes hope will one day drive him mad.
He still has trouble believing what he knows to be true. He replays the last conversation they had before her big apocalypse, the one where he let her call the shots and gave up an amulet that came to him through less-than-savory channels. A file and an amulet, that's all it was, after all, and if she wanted to play it her way, in her town, for her apocalypse, who was he to say otherwise? Besides, what she said made sense: if she didn't make it, it would be up to him. It was his destiny to save the world; Wesley had a scroll to prove it.
It was his destiny.
When she called him, a few weeks after everything was over, she asked him for a favor. A long, rambling explanation followed her query, and he remembers that, once he'd gotten the gist of what she was asking, and why, he let the enthusiastic timbre of her voice fade into a pleasant white noise because it had been so long since he'd been afforded the opportunity to do so.
During the phase of their relationship where it could almost be called one, he'd done this quite frequently. Buffy babbled, and it was adorable, but there was still only so much a two-hundred-and-forty-year-old vampire could hear about school gossip, what Cordelia said to Willow that day, and chemistry finals before he had to draw the line. When Buffy began her running commentary of the day she'd had, Angel would put on his active-listening face and focus on the tone of her voice, her mood, the way she trusted him enough to give him an inside glimpse of the inner-workings of her mind, and wait her out.
Because it was inevitable that she had something else to tell him, something important, something he would immediately detect was forthcoming by the change in her posture, the altering of her tone, the slightest hitch in her breathing. He could not read her posture over the phone, but he felt the change in her as easily as ever.
"So basically, there are all these girls now and they're . . . they're just like me, Angel."
"I sincerely doubt that." He imagined her smile at that; maybe he just hoped for it.
"They're Slayers," she clarified. "And . . . there's no Council and I don't really think there should be a Council anymore, because how many stuffy Watchers turn out to be like Giles and Wes?" He sensed she didn't really require a response from him, and he was right. "The others -- Giles and Xander and Will and Dawn, even Faith -- they sort of . . . they want me to -- anyway. I had this idea."
They always look to her for guidance, for answers. Even in the face of her near-normalcy, she told him later, they still looked to her for the future, for leadership, for something to do.
"What do you want to do, Buffy?" she parroted to him later, half-drunk on an exceedingly good, especially old bottle of wine. "Where do we go from here?"
It would seem that even Slayers who have just saved the world from an evil older than time are not at all dissimilar from Superbowl champs, because she decided they were going to Disneyland.
They laid siege to the Happiest Place on Earth with the same intensity they'd laid siege to the mouth of Hell. Sunnydale had not survived; the Magic Kingdom had. Buffy mailed him a postcard from Main Street, signed with hugs and kisses and a hastily scribbled "wish you were here."
No "thanks for the amulet that turned out to be make-or-break at crunch time."
No "don't worry about the second front; we made it out alive and relatively unscathed."
No "I'd say the cookies should be ready in about one to three years."
Their relationship was the sort that transcended such simplistic details. Never express an honest thought when a comment barely veiled with longing and melancholy would suffice.
Something he has learned about Buffy in the interim of their newly defined relationship is that she doesn't mind his curse nearly as much as he does. Her cookie-dough-deficiency-epiphany (her words) has prompted an interesting realization in Angel: he also doesn't mind his curse nearly as much as he used to.
Buffy blames a lot of things on herself, but their mutual emotional infancy (his words) is not one of them. Angel has spent a hundred years trying not to get close to people, and loving one of them more than his own existence doesn't break a ten-decade-old bad habit. The curse might actually be the best thing to ever happen to their relationship, now that they mutually recognize it for what it is. Acknowledging its existence and the limitations it places on their relationship, gives them a strange sort of power.
They are not frustrated around one another (well, sometimes . . . ) and they do not long for things they cannot have (much) -- mostly, they try not to spend too much time alone together, and when they do, they resist the urge to kiss or touch. In public, they are almost disturbingly tactile with one another, because in public, there is no danger. He has trouble remembering the last time that he kissed her in the privacy of her bedroom, or his.
"I want to help them," she told him over the phone, on the cusp, he realized later, of something tattered, but brand new. "I need to. That's what -- that's what I want to do. But I need somewhere to do it. Somewhere with plenty of room, located in a big city, preferably driving distance to some of the best shopping around, because Angel, these girls need to learn how to slay, I know, but they've also seriously got to learn how to shop. And laugh. And cry. And live in the world. And--"
"And live in an old hotel Willow heard from Fred we're not using anymore?"
Things were good for awhile; they always are. They are especially good shortly before someone ambles by and rips your heart out, so really, he should have known.
"How is this possible?"
Her eyes, big and wide, filled with tears. Her voice, a barely there breath eased between lips that hung open.
The hotel was filled to the brim as it hadn't been since Jasmine's love filled and overflowed L.A. These girls were here by choice, though, real choice, and they were being taught by the Original One Girl in All the World. They had come from all over, and every couple of weeks, a new girl would arrive. Their ages varied, as did their personalities. Different as night and day, but all sharing a common destiny, a power they did not understand, could not yet wield properly. But there was a place for them at least, a home where they could be safe and learn everything about the power within.
On a particularly sunny day, Angel and Wesley had paid a visit to the hotel. Angel was flirting with Buffy while trying to pretend like he wasn't flirting with Buffy and they were demonstrating to a group of a dozen or so Slayers exactly how to evade a vampire that possibly knew more about martial arts than they did. The front door opened wide and Angel thought, Here comes another one, and he'd been grinning a little, because it had been a long time, before Cordelia's coma, before Connor, before Buffy's death, since he'd held such innocent, near-giddy belief in what he'd been doing.
"Hear some feisty little Slayer's running a home for wayward souls."
Everyone turned and Angel felt his heart thump. It was his imagination, obviously, but the reaction remained the same.
"'Cause honestly, this soul's about as wayward as they get."
He didn't want to look at her, but not looking at her was apparently as likely as Spike bursting into flames in direct sunlight now was, because he found his gaze filled with nothing but her shocked countenance.
"Hello cutie," Spike said, and he was smiling, slow and sweet, the way Angel remembered him smiling at hundreds of victims in the past. Angelus had found that smile to be one of the truly useful tools William possessed. The difference now would be apparent to a blind man; the nearest to that they had was Harris, and he seemed to be as stunned as the rest of them.
Buffy walked slowly toward Spike, her steps stilted. She placed a hand on his chest, over his heart, and felt what Angel had heard the moment the blond entered the lobby.
"How is this possible?"
A look came over Wesley's face, and Angel caught the other man's eye. Understanding passed between them and Angel knew he could count on Wesley's silence.
He did not look back as he quietly slipped up the stairs to his old room.
Shanshu is not something Angel shares with Buffy. Despite certain protestations to the contrary, Angel does not want her to spend her life waiting for something that might never happen. If she can love someone, a human someone worthy of her, he wants that for her. He wants everything for her, wants to be the man to give it to her, but it has been a long established fact that he is not a man, and so what he wants is rendered (as it often is) moot.
Giles knows. He and Wesley had melded Watcher minds shortly after the Sunnydale gang relocated. Giles is fascinated by the idea of an ancient prophecy foreseeing the ensouling of a vampire, of a destiny mapped out for a being other than a Slayer. He also understands Angel's reluctance to tell Buffy and agrees with it, as he has often agreed with Angel's decisions where Buffy is concerned. He makes one concession, however, to the role of Buffy's father, and asks Angel to consider what Buffy would want.
Angel is under the (correct) impression that Buffy does not know what she wants. And, should the time come that she does, talk of Shanshu was best left until then.
Now, talk of Shanshu ended. Buffy blames herself, blames herself so easily, and she would blame herself for this, for his lack of heartbeat and eventual senility, and he buries the prophecy where it belongs, down deep in one of Wolfram and Hart's vaults, never to be spoken aloud again.
Buried as soon as he tells Spike, of course; everyone deserves to know why they've been brought back.
Spike does not care about being human. As a vampire, he hadn't spent a great deal of time missing the sun. Even after regaining his soul, the taste of food, the warmth of natural light on his face, the occasional sneeze or cough, the simple pleasures of mortal men, were not things he yearned for. There had only ever been one thing he'd truly yearned for, and he'd had her briefly, and it had nothing to do with being human. Being a man, sure, but not being human.
It is not big secret that Spike enjoyed being a vampire. Immortality suited him, ageless grace and eternal perfection had tempted greater men than young William, especially when they came as a package deal with an exquisite -- if slightly disturbed -- brunette goddess.
He realizes that it kills Angel to watch him do simple human things. Buffy offered a room at the hotel, and Spike gratefully accepted. He has nowhere else to go, no family, no friends, and Buffy and her lot were the closest he has ever come to belonging since Angelus ate one gypsy too many.
Sometimes he misses that time, the four of them cutting across the countryside together, stopping where they liked, eating who they liked, taking what they liked. He and Angelus hated each other, but that sort of hate was easy. He belonged and they would never kick him out, never abandon him, even if Angelus did grow fond of beating him within an inch of his life. Vampires are complicated, but ever so much simpler than humans. They are creatures of want and desire, without boundaries, without borders, creatures of whim and fancy, lust, and malice. There are no difficult choices, no hard solutions, and if you find the right pack to run with, there is a sense of something oddly like family.
The best time of Spike's life was spent as a vampire. His human existence had been dull and staid, his mother the only light in it. His vampiric existence had not been marred by lack of feeling or lack of love; on the contrary. Dru, he believed, had loved him with all her dead heart; what piece of it didn't belong to Angelus, that is. The first time he felt true closeness had been as a vampire, and the first time he felt his soul, blinding and painful, cutting him open and setting him free, had been his last eternal moments.
So Spike does not covet humanity, as Angel does. Angel has longed for it, ached for it, bled for it. He watches Spike with jealous eyes as the blond eats lunch with Buffy during breaks from training new Slayers; he waits for Buffy to come to him and announce her undying devotion to the former vampire.
Spike knows he waits in vain; and he wonders how Angel could love Buffy as much as he does, and know her heart so little.
It is all he was able to say for the first few minutes. Angel is torn between amusement and anger.
Their history is long and bloody, much like the history Angel shares with most of those closest to him, the near and dear(ly departed). A trail of bodies, a few bad decisions, a lot of laughs, and everyone dies at least once.
"Do you have any questions?" It takes all his patience to ask the question. He doesn't care if Spike has questions. Spike is about to have everything Angel has ever wanted; he can live with a few blanks.
But he doesn't ask anything. Quiet sifts through the air between them until they are both completely still, afraid to move, afraid to do anything that will disrupt the room. Finally, just as Angel is about to leave, Spike breaks the silence.
"Isn't it ironic?"
"What?" The word is bit out between clenched teeth. The demon is very close to the surface. Only the reminder that Spike is human now, frail, so easily broken, keeps it at bay.
"My whole unlife you've taken everything from me, had everything I wanted, kept me firmly in your shadow. The Great Imitator, that's what I felt like, got a soul and it didn't matter, 'cause you got yours first; had Buffy for awhile, but it didn't matter, 'cause you had her first, had her best, had her always."
"If there's a point, I'd suggest you come to it before I forget you're human."
"One big thing keepin' you and her apart. One big thing there's no getting around, no compromising with. You're supposed to have it, a big reward, and because she's so goddamned concerned for you, so desperate to keep you safe, trusts you so much more than anyone else, you both lose and I hit the jackpot and still end up with nothing."
"Nothing!" He is enraged. He stalks over to Spike and pulls him from the chair, continues to move, does not stop until Spike's back presses firmly to the wall and Angel's vampiric features snarl in his face. "You. Have. Everything."
"Still don't have her," Spike chokes out. He needs air now, needs it to live, not just to feign living, and Angel eases up on his hold a little. "It takes more than a pulse to have that girl, or hadn't you noticed?"
"Don't be so sure." Angel lets Spike sink to the ground and turns away.
"Idiot!" Spike yells after him.
For the first time in his long association with Spike, Angel is compelled to agree with him.
He sees it in her eyes now. An unspoken answer to a vow he made her. She hides it and they go about things as they always have, but it is there, lying in wait beneath the surface, waiting to crush the small peace they have made between them.
"Gin," she says, happily collecting her winnings. The 'winnings' include one of his favorite broadswords, and he wonders why he let her talk him into making the game 'a little more interesting.'
"That's it," he sighs, "I'm done."
"Baby," she taunts.
"Don't you have somewhere else to be, anyway?" He stands and paces away from the coffee table in her room. "It's a Saturday night. You've got to have something better to do than play cards with a dead guy."
"Sadly, I don't. And thanks so much for the chilling look into the reality of my life."
He does not crack a smile, and she sighs.
"Is this about Spike again?"
"It's not about Spike," he says. And it isn't. Not really. If it isn't Spike, it will be someone else. He's sure of it.
Because he watches Buffy, too. He watches her lead those confused, chosen girls every day and an imaginary egg timer ticks in his head. She won't stay here forever, forsaking the life she's always wanted for herself, the life she's dreamed of since the day she was Called.
Someday, she's going to be done. And when she is, they will be, too. This time, for good.
"You still don't get it, do you?" Her head tilts and she looks at him curiously, as though he were an oddity beyond comprehension.
Come to think of it . . .
"I want you," she continues. "I don't want some guy who could never understand me, or even Spike -- I want you. Even if I have to wait for you. I don't think -- Angel, I'm no good to anyone else."
He wants to believe her. He wonders if his inability to do so stems from a deeper understanding of her psyche or his own raging insecurities. Sometimes, it doesn't matter, because he is so sure of her, of them, that he is dangerously close to perfect happiness.
Those moments are few and fleeting in the weeks since Spike has been back. Wesley tells him he's overreacting, that perhaps Spike's return to the mortal coil has nothing to do with Shanshu . . . Wesley always trails off, just like that. He never sounds very convincing, but Angel loves him dearly for trying.
Buffy sighs, and he realizes he has not said anything in response to her declaration. She changes the subject before he can piece together a reply that is not coated with bitterness.
"Faith is going to be in Arizona next week," she says. "I'm thinking of driving down to meet her."
"That'll be good for you." He does not know what Faith and Buffy do together when they meet at various places around the country a few times a year. He believes it is safer for everyone this way.
"Come with me."
"You don't want to--"
"Come with me," she repeats. Her voice is firm. He is wavering, but still erring on the side of caution. A wicked look fills her eyes. "You know I can't drive that far by myself. And Faith would love to see you."
Guilt stabs at him, the reminder that he hasn't seen Faith in nearly a year, compounded by the look on Buffy's face, hits him sharply in the solar plexus. He caves. And as she hugs him, he remembers a conversation they had, a promise he made her that he'd intended to reassure her that, whenever she was ready, he would be waiting for her. His promise had meant more than she'd known, had been filled with his own hopes for his future. Now, the promise held a different meaning for him, one weighted down with unfulfilled longing, and the imagined answer he knew she would one day give him.
I ain't gettin' any older.
"He knew the things that were and the things that would be and the things that had been before." -- Homer, The Iliad
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