Chocolate Chip Shanshu

 

One

Dying didn’t hurt. Not much. It was a blessing, really. He was an old man, and he’d suffered a long time. Mental and physical, his constant pain blended over the years to the point he couldn’t tell the ache of his heart apart from the wounds of his flesh.

Death brought an intense, but brief, stabbing end to the pain. It was over in an instant. Just a flash of bright agony, then disintegration, then nothing.

Nothing was all right. There was peace in it. And besides, he’d slain the dragon. His life was complete. Wrapped up. And the dragon was dead. Nothing and nowhere were just fine—a hell of a lot more comfortable than who and where he used to be.

So when he felt the sun beating down on his bare skin, he screamed not because he’d been dead, but because he knew he was alive. He screamed, refusing to open his eyes even when coarse, unfamiliar hands grasped and shook him. He blocked out the loud and curious voices surrounding him, and screamed himself back into the void.

 

Two

 

He couldn’t sleep through the annoying beeping. Groaning, he attempted to roll over and swat at the snooze button, but he couldn’t lift his arms.

Instant panic, and he was wide awake.

A middle-aged woman smiled down at him. “Hey! Welcome back.”

Welcome back. He was back. And that annoying beeping . . . that wasn’t . . . it couldn’t be . . .

Craning his head toward the sound, he tried to sit up, but he couldn’t move.

“Whoa, there, cowboy. Don’t even try. You’re restrained.”

“Restrained?” he asked. His throat hurt. Dry. He needed water.

“For your own protection,” the woman said. “They had a hell of a time getting you into the ambulance. Do you remember any of that?”

“No. Ambulance? Where am I?”

“County General. My name’s Jeannie. What’s yours?”

“Angel.”

“Angel what?”

“Just Angel.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Just Angel. Are we going to have a problem if I take these restraints off?”

“No.” Damn, he really needed some water. Just one of the hazards of breathing, he guessed.

And he was breathing. Not just for show, but because he had to. And that annoying beeping really was reporting his heartbeat. This time, they’d brought him back alive, in the most literal sense.

Why?

“Good,” Jeannie said, unbuckling the restraint on his left wrist. “But just incase you decide to change your mind, I think you should know I have a black belt in karate, and I won’t hesitate to put a big hurt on your backside. We square?”

Angel nodded. “We are. Can I have some water?”

“Absolutely,” Jeannie answered, releasing the last restraint. Angel sat up slowly, so not to alarm her, and rubbed at his wrists.

“You brought that on yourself.” Jeannie smiled and handed him a plastic cup half-filled with water. “You mind me asking what happened to you?”

Angel emptied the glass and handed it back to her. “I don’t remember. Where did they find me?”

“The doctor will be in to talk to you,” she said, giving him a reassuring smile.

Angel grabbed her arm. “Please?”

“The doctor will be here shortly. Is there anyone I can call for you, Angel?”

Buffy.

Angel let go of her arm. “Um, maybe. I’d rather make the call myself.”

“Sure. Right after you talk to Dr. Marsters. I’ll go get him.”

 

Three

 

Dr. Marsters was a cordial, balding man who looked to be in his early sixties. After checking Angel’s vitals and asking a lot of questions Angel didn’t know how to answer, Marsters finally told him he’d been found starkers in the alley behind the Hyperion. Naked, but without so much as a scratch on him.

“You’re as healthy as a horse, which is why the memory loss is so befuddling. At this point, I might assume amnesia brought on by traumatic stress, but I have to tell you the condition is so rare that most neurologists consider it a myth. And considering your physical condition—the lack of physical trauma, I have a hard time swallowing that theory myself. So the question becomes, Mr. Angel, why are you lying to me?”

Angel glowered at him. “When can I leave?”

The doctor sighed and shook his head. “Be straight with me, and I’ll sign you out of here this afternoon, providing you have someone to take you home, wherever that might be. Keep lying to me, and you’ll stay in that bed until Psychology can see you on Thursday.”

“What day is it?”

“Tuesday, September the sixteenth.”

Angel’s breath hitched. September? He died in the alley in May. Three months, assuming. . .

“What year?” Angel whispered.

“Thursday it will be, then,” Marsters said, scribbling on his chart. “And it’s 2004, just for the record.”

Angel released his held breath. Only three months. Not that it really mattered. Nothing mattered until he could figure out why he was back, who brought him, and what they were going to throw at him next.

Nothing mattered.

Still, he was relieved he’d only lost three months. It might have been three years. Or three-hundred. It might have been a whole different world.

“The nurse, Jeannie . . . she said you’d let me make a phone call.”

Marsters gestured with his pen to the table beside the bed. “Dial nine for an outside line, then zero if you need long-distance.”

“Thank-you.”

“If you decide to change your mind about waiting for Psych, have the nurse give me a holler. But decide quick, because I’m leaving in an hour,” Marsters said, walking out of the room.

Angel looked at the phone. He stared at it for a long time before he found the nerve to pick it up and dial.

His muscles grew more taut with each ring.

“Hello?”

“I have a collect call from Angel,” the operator droned. “Will you accept the charges?”

An endless two seconds of silence followed. “Yeah. Sure.”

Another endless two seconds as the operator clicked off.

“Listen, asshole. I don’t know who the hell you are, but if I ever find out, I’ll . . .”

“Connor. It’s me.”

Angel heard a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line. “Dad?”

The word echoed through his head, and Angel smiled. “Yeah.”

“Dad,” Connor breathed. “Where have you been? I went looking for you, but the other one said you got dusted. His words. He saw it happen, he said. Lying son-of-a-bitch. I should have known better than to believe a vampire, but he was one of yours, so I figured . . .”

“Connor.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m at County General. I need you to come get me. Can you?”

“The hospital? What are you doing at the hospital? Is someone hurt?”

“They seem to think . . .well, they think I’m crazy. Can you come?”

“I’m on my way. I’m walking out the door.”

“No. Not now. Tonight, after visiting hours. You’ll have to sneak in, and find a way to sneak me out. Can you do that?”

“Sure, but I don’t understand . . .”

“You will when you get here. Oh . . . and do you think you can bring me some clothes? I kinda . . .don’t have any.”

“This just keeps getting weirder.” Connor sighed. “Yeah. Just don’t expect anything fancy. My wallet can’t handle leather and Armani.”

“Shoes, too.”

“Weirder and weirder.”

“Thanks, Connor.”

“Midnight,” Connor said. He hung up.

Angel held the dead phone in his hand, thinking. Spike. Spike told Connor he was dead. Which meant Spike wasn’t.

Good. Great. Spike wasn’t dead, but was he alive? That was the question. Had Spike received the Shanshu, like Angel believed he would?

He needed to know. If Spike Shanshued, then it meant that he, Angel, did not. And that put a whole new spin on the beating heart issue.

He needed to find Spike.

But then, that shouldn’t be too hard.

 

Four

 

True to his word, Connor eased into Angel’s room just as the big hand met the little one at the top of the clock.

Angel sat at the end of the bed, the edges of his johnny tucked under his butt to keep it closed. “Hi.”

Connor staggered. “Dad?” he gasped.

“I thought we got past all this on the phone.” Angel chuckled, once again almost giddy at the sound of his son calling him ‘Dad.’ Then he noticed Connor’s wide eyes and slacked jaw. He jumped up. The cold air tickled his ass, but he didn’t care. “Connor, are you okay?”

“I was planning on beating the hell out of some fruitcake voice impersonator,” Connor said, regaining himself. “You know, because most hospitals don’t keep the morgue on the second floor.”

“Don’t tell me that means you didn’t bring clothes.”

Connor tossed him a plastic shopping bag. “I still hoped I was wrong.” He smiled.

Angel dumped the contents of the bag onto the bed. “A T-shirt, sweatpants and flip-flops?” he said, scowling. “What happened to all that cash I handed you before the apocalypse?”

“Didn’t figure you’d want me to blow it all in one place,” Connor said, obviously trying not to smirk. “And like I said— I thought you might be some asshole lunatic.”

Angel pulled on the sweats, dropped the johnny, and then held up the T-shirt. “Beavis and Butthead?”

Connor snorted, trying not to laugh. “It was a good deal. Only three-fifty.”

“Give me your shirt.”

“No way!”

“I’m not wearing this.”

“He gets a heartbeat, and suddenly he’s too good for Beavis and Butthead. Geez.”

“I was too good for Beavis and Butthead when I was dead,” Angel growled, tugging on the shirt.

He grabbed the flip-flops. “Pink?”

“It’s the new color for men this year,” Connor said, his chest shaking with silent laughter. “Now put ‘em on, and lets get out of here.”

“I look like a freak.” Angel said, staring down at his pink shoes.

“Yeah, so I guess some things never change,” Connor said, turning toward the door. “Come on.”

Angel followed him out into the dim hallway. “You still hate me, don’t you?” he whispered. “You’re punishing me.”

“Shut-up before I bust my gut and get us caught,” Connor hissed back. “Two more rights, and we’re at the stairwell. Home free. And then I’m gonna piss myself laughing.”

 

Five

 

Angel listened to the foreign ring of an international connection, silently reminding his heart to keep beating. It felt like it was about to seize up . . . and maybe implode.

“Ciao! Summers . . .um, damn! Casa?”

Dawn. Thank god, it was Dawn. If Buffy had answered . . .

“Um, hello?” Dawn said, reminding Angel to breathe.

“Hi!” he said, a couple octaves higher than normal. “Is Spike there?”

“Spike? That’s funny . . .”

Angel’s stomach jumped into a nauseating dance of relief and apprehension. He wasn’t there. So where . . .

“I haven’t heard anyone call him that for a while. Not since he, well, got over his allergy to the sun. The only one who can get away with it is Buffy,” Dawn babbled. “He’s going by William, now. You must be an old friend?”

“Yeah,” Angel said, forgetting his disguise.

“Well, he just left for work,” Dawn said, her voice distinctly cooler, “but I can give him a message.”

Angel hung up.

Connor stepped back into the room, loaded down with packages from the dorm vending machine. “Sorry, not a whole lot of selection. The pizza places stopped delivering over an hour ago,” he said, dropping everything on his bed, “but there’s a twenty-four hour Denny’s just down the street, if you’d rather . . .”

“No. That’s fine. I’m not hungry.”

Connor threw him a look of concern. “Ten minutes ago, you said you were starving.”

Angel shrugged. “Got over it.”

“If it’s the clothes,” Connor started with a smile, “we can drop by Wal-mart on the way and get you something a little more you.”

“Yeah, we should probably do that,” Angel muttered, rising from his chair. He paced the small room, staring down at his wrestling thumbs.

“You found Spike.” Connor stated.

“Yeah. Yeah I did.”

“He’s with Buffy?”

“Yeah.”

“Dad . . .I’m sorry.”

“He’s also, apparently, alive.”

Connor gasped. “How? You’re alive, so how . . .”

“He got the Shanshu. I didn’t. From what I picked up from Dawn, it sounds like it happened right after the battle.”

“Well, he was still a vampire when I saw him. Anyway, how do you know he got the Shanshu? Maybe he just brushed up against one of those demons during the battle. You know, like the one that made you human that one time.”

“The Mohra? I told you about that?”

“Well, no. Actually, I stole your journal after I got back from Quar’toth. Anyway, isn’t it possible?”

Angel shook his head. “The change happens immediately. The Mohra would have had to been the last demon left standing, and the odds of that are slim to none. Spike Shanshued. He got the goblet first. I knew then it was meant for him.”

“The goblet,” Connor snorted. “You mean the joke filled with Mountain Dew? Dad, that doesn’t mean anything.”

“It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t real. What matters is he got to it first. That means something. And I know damn well I didn’t tell you about that.”

“You left me everything before the battle, remember? Sent a key in the mail to the storage place? The journals were there. I read them. And it doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

“At the very least, it means he wanted it more. More than I did.”

“Well, maybe it was meant for both of you, then.” Connor shrugged. “He’s alive. So what? So are you. That’s what matters.”

Angel leaned against the wall and looked at Connor. “Only one of us could Shanshu. Spike did, which means I shouldn’t be here. I need to find out what brought me back, and why.”

“I’ll be straight with you,” Connor said, and Angel saw the man he’d soon become staring out at him from Darla’s blue eyes. “I think you’ve been given a gift, and I think if you keep looking for a curse, you’re going to piss this chance away. I think you should live. You’ve earned it. But if you’re hell-bent on finding a reason to be miserable, I’ll help you look.”

“I love you, Connor. I hope you know it.”

Connor’s eyes shifted to the floor. “I do. You more than proved it.”

“Then you’ll understand why I can’t be around you.”

His eyes snapped up to Angel’s, startled. “I doubt it.”

“Connor, if something is using me—if something evil, maybe Wolfram and Hart, brought me back, then it’s not safe for you to be anywhere near me. And I’m nowhere near as strong as I was when I was a vampire. Not even close. I wouldn’t be able to protect you.”

“Duh. But did you ever consider the fact that you might need me to protect you? Your demon might be dead, but I still have his strength. Weird genetics, or whatever.”

“Can’t let you do that. You might be able to kick my ass, but you’re still my kid, which means I protect you, not the other way around.”

“Maybe I will kick your ass. Knock some sense into you.”

Angel smiled. “Can’t. My skull’s too thick.”

Connor sighed. “So what are you going to do? Where are you gonna go?”

“Are my things still in storage?”

Connor nodded. “Most of them. Except for the cash and the journals. I still have most of the cash though—some of it here. Your journals are in the closet.”

“Keep them. They’re yours. The money too—most of it, anyway. Kinda have to eat now.”

“You still haven’t answered the question.”

“Well, first, I’m going to grab some decent clothes out of storage, and then we’re going to head to that Denny’s and order everything on the menu. Then we’ll come back here and sleep until at least noon. I’m exhausted.”

“And then what?”

“I’ll know tomorrow.”

 

Six

 

A little after three o’clock, Connor pulled the car up in front of the small bungalow, and frowned at it. “Are you sure about this?”

“Not at all,” Angel said, grabbing his duffle bag from the back seat. “Wait until I give you the thumbs up before you take off.”

“Sure. You’ll keep in touch, right?”

“When I can, and if it’s safe.”

“I still think you’re making a mistake.”

“I know,” Angel said, taking a long last look at his son. He pulled the boy into his arms and hugged him fiercely. “I love you.”

Connor hugged him back. “I know, Dad. Take care of yourself.”

Angel let him go, and got out of the car.

The walk up to the front door was one of the longest of his life. He had no right to be taking this path, but he needed someone. An ally. He didn’t want to be human and alone.

His finger trembled as it pressed the doorbell.

Beyond the door, he heard a rush of footfalls. A dog barked, and a woman shushed it before opening the door.

She looked exactly the same. Her dark blond hair framed her creamy face, and her blue eyes lit up at the sight of him.

Those eyes widened as she realized she was seeing him standing at her door in the middle of a bright, sunny afternoon.

“Angel?” she whispered, reaching out to run her hand over his cheek. Tears welled in her eyes as she touched him.

“Hi, Nina.”

“You’re alive.”

“Yeah. Strange, huh?”

“No. Not strange. I always knew you’d . . . I prayed for it. For you.”

He turned his head in her hand, and kissed the inside of her palm.

“You came back to me. You said you would, but I didn’t believe it.”

“Where else would I go?”

Nina’s eyes grew distant for a moment. Dark. And then they cleared. She smiled, glancing at the car, which still idled by the curb, and then looked down at his bag. “Is that everything?”

Angel nodded.

“I’ll clear a spot in my closet,” she said, turning back inside the house.

Angel looked over at Connor, and gave him the thumbs up.

 

Seven

 

Every night he patrolled, watching and waiting. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he was confident it wouldn’t be long before it found him.

Night after night there was nothing. Nothing of significance, anyway. A random vampire or two here and there, which were easy to identify and easy to avoid.

He felt like a coward, running from the things that went bump in the night, especially when he spent better than two centuries as one of them. Once upon a time he would have walked up to one or a dozen with a smirk and a snarl, and dusted the number without breaking a sweat. Now he was weak. He was prey. And though he worked out vigilantly, keeping his muscles and his senses strong, he knew even the most fledgling and awkward of demons posed a mortal threat. Without his preternatural strength, speed, and dexterity, he was . .

He was human.

His new, human body also fatigued easily. As a vampire he slept because he wanted to, most of the time, not because he needed to. Now, after only a few hours of walking the dark streets surrounding Nina’s neighborhood, he was drained. Hours before dawn his body forced him to bed, his muscles screaming, his bones filled with a dull ache.

Morning, and the necessary, but discouraging, job hunt always came too soon.

A week passed, and then another, and the time brought with it a dull, established routine. From eight to five he pounded the pavement looking for a decent job, giving himself an hour off for lunch at noon. At six, he had dinner with Nina. From seven to nine, he worked out and practiced Tae Chi. After his shower, he hit the streets again, looking for answers. Looking for a reason for being.

Sometimes they had sex before he left. But as the weeks graduated to a month, sex with Nina dwindled to a rare and obligatory occurrence.

He realized he was avoiding her.

When he came back at night, he slid into bed next to her slowly, often holding his breath, his muscles rigid, praying she wouldn’t wake up.

When he dreamed, he dreamed off Buffy. He spent his nights holding her, making love to her, fighting with her, pleading with her, begging, being accepted and rejected, and, through it all, feeling more alive than he did when he was awake.

He still lived for the night.

But morning always came, filling Nina’s cozy bedroom with golden light, and leaving him hollow.

 

Eight

 

He knew the number by heart, but now he had it on speed dial.

After two months, the tone of the over-seas connection was familiar.

She answered on the forth ring, sounding groggy, and more than a little pissed off. “Hello?”

Buffy never answered with ‘Ciao.’ With Buffy, it was always ‘Hello.’ ‘Ciao’ meant Dawn or Andrew. ‘Yeah,’ meant Spike.

As always, his heart beat faster at the sound of her voice. He loved the sensation.

“You know, it’s four in the morning, and some of us have to work in a few hours. Now, damnit, I said ‘Hello’!”

Angel closed his eyes, and saw her glaring at him. He ached to touch her—to reach out and smooth the wrinkle from her forehead.

“Hello, hello hello!”

She’d hang up soon. It always amazed him how long she stayed on the phone.

And then she did something she’d never done before. She made his heart stop. “Angel?”

His breath hitched, and his heart jumped to his throat, blocking his airway.

“Angel?” she whispered again, and he swore he heard tears threatening in her voice. Pain and hope. “Is that you?”

He didn’t answer. He couldn’t.

Across the world, he heard her scoff. “Stupid, Buffy. Get a grip,” she muttered, before raising her voice, “Stop calling here, Creepzoid.”

She hung up.

It felt like forever before he drew breath, and another eternity before he found the strength to set down the phone.

He felt ripped-up and empty, like something vital had been torn from him. His liver or a lung. Something important.

It would be a long time before he dared to call her again.

Angel lay back on the bed and cried.

 

Nine

 

Six months passed since the day he moved in with Nina, and still, he waited for the bomb to drop. He prepared himself for every eventuality. He lived out hundreds of scenarios in his mind. Whatever they threw at him, he’d be ready.

But when the bomb finally did drop, it wasn’t like anything he’d imagined, and it took him completely off-guard.

Two months before, He found a job cashiering, days, at the Seven-Eleven on the corner of Seventeenth and Pleasant. He had to make a living somehow, and since he was no longer a vampire Champion, he learned he was qualified to do absolutely nothing. He spoke seven languages fluently, and read nine, but without a degree, he might as well have been mute and illiterate. There was more history stashed in his head than in all of the books in the Los Angeles public library put together, but again, without that stupid piece of paper, he might as well have been born yesterday.

Working at the Seven-Eleven sucked beyond the telling of it. It also ate up the better portion of his research time. After six months, he was no closer to finding the answer to his existence than he was since he’d found out Spike was human.

But he wouldn’t allow himself to mooch off Nina. Not much, anyway. He did what he could.

The bomb dropped after his shift one stormy Thursday afternoon, and it wasn’t delivered by a demon, or Wolfram and Hart, or by some other big nasty, but by Nina, herself.

He walked into their bedroom to find her folding his clothes into one of her good suitcases.

“Hey. Are we going somewhere?”

“Not we. You.”

“I am? When?”

“Right now,” she said, shoving down on the suitcase and closing the clasps.

His stomach clenched. His blood heated and ran faster. “What is it? Did something happen?”

Nina’s laughter dripped with hurt and sarcasm. “You mean, did I find out the great, grand answer as to why you’re breathing? Sorry, no. Are you asking if I met this imaginary evil that supposedly brought you back as its pawn of destruction? Again, sorry, but no. I deal in reality, not illusions of grandeur.”

“Nina, what’s . . .”

“But I do know something,” she said, calming, despite the tears trickling down her cheeks. “A few things actually. And I did discover something—though I guess it’s not much of a discovery. Somewhere, deep down, I always knew.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Let me clear it up,” she said, grabbing a large envelope off the dresser and handing it to him.

He looked at her, worried and confused.

“Just open it.”

Angel flipped back the unsealed flap of the envelop and pulled out the contents; a phone bill with six calls to Italy circled in red, five hundred dollars in cash, and an open one-way ticket to Rome, which bore the same name as that on his fake and outdated passport.

The answers to his questions.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Me too. Go to her. Forget the rest of the bullshit, and just go.”

“Nina, I’m sorry. I do care about you. I do. I lov . . .”

“Don’t,” she said, cutting him off with a raise of her hand. “Don’t say it. You don’t. You never did. If you loved me, Angel, you would never have come here.”

She was right. He wouldn’t have. He felt like an ass, and he knew that’s exactly what he was.

“I wondered for weeks why you came to me instead of going to her. You’re alive. There’s nothing preventing you from being with her . . .and then it came to me. It was so obvious, so. . .”

“Nina . . .”

“I guess I’m pretty slow. But you’re so convinced that you’re back because some evil force wants you back, and you wouldn’t put her in danger. Not Buffy. But me . . .that was an acceptable risk, wasn’t it?”

“No. I never meant to . . .”

“Just shut up and go.”

Angel shoved the contents back in the envelope and held it out to her. “I can’t take this.”

“You can, and you will. I’ve known what the deal was for months, but I just kept hoping that if I gave you enough time . . . I consider it the price of my stupidity. Paid in full.”

She hefted the suitcase and threw it at his feet. “Now, get out.”

Angel picked up the suitcase. Five minutes later, he walked north up Harrison Avenue in the rain.

Ten

 

He refused to call Connor. Angel needed answers, and chances were good they might be a long time coming. It wasn’t fair to drag his son into it. The kid had a life.

He knew of only one place in the city that might possibly lead him to the answers he needed. But with the Oracles dead, it was an outside long-shot. An effort in futility, but the only place left.

The ingredients for the incantation came to less than ten bucks.

He entered the sewers from the basement of the crumbling Hyperion. The old hotel took a fatal blow during the battle Angel had wrought. Climbing through the wreckage was both stupid and dangerous, but he didn’t know of any other way to access the chamber beneath the Post Office.

It amazed him that he remembered the old, Latin chant to gain access. It felt like a lifetime since he’d last used it.

It still worked. He poured a handful of powder into the concave pedestal with the final words of the incantation, and a moment later he was spinning helplessly through dimensions.

Then he was standing in the gold-marbled chamber, alone. He turned slowly in a circle, hoping to see someone. Anyone. “Hello?”

“I was wondering when you’d finally show up. Took you long enough. Now I owe Wesley twenty bucks. You suck.”

Angel spun around to face the voice behind him. “Cordelia?”

“That’d be me.”

Her hair was longer, but otherwise, she looked exactly the same as she had when he’d last seen her. No golden skin. No blue veins. No silly toga. Just the same Cordelia, dressed in khaki’s and a blue cashmere sweater.

“You’re an Oracle?’

“Well, yeah. Duh. You’re a little slower than you used to be, aren’t ya?” She held out her arms.

He rushed to her, scooping her up and hugging her fiercely. “God, it’s so good to see you.”

“Not God. Oracle. Say it with me. Or-ac-le. And it’s good to see you too. Slowpoke.”

Angel stepped back and held her at arm’s length, taking her in. “You look fantastic.”

“Much more than I can say for you. What in the hell have you been doing, Angel? Hiding in the shadows, cutting yourself off from everyone you love, constantly looking over your shoulder? I’m starting to wonder why I bothered bringing you back.”

Angel’s mind spun. “You? You brought me back?”

Cordelia grinned and nodded.

“Why?” he asked, letting her go and backing away. “What do you want?”

“Well, right now I want to make you an appointment with a good shrink, ‘cause, man, can you say paranoid? Geez.”

Angel looked at her sheepishly. “Sorry,” he muttered. “It’s just, since Spike got the Shanshu, I just figured . . .”

“It was never meant for him, Angel. But then you went and got yourself killed, and he was the only vampire with a soul left standing. He won it by default. Don’t know about you, but I thought that sucked, so I pulled some strings and made it right. I’m Paying for it, too,” Cordelia added, wrinkling her nose. “I have to spend the at least the next thousand years working with Wesley ‘I’m a British know-it-all’ Windham-Price. I’m telling you, this gig has puffed up his head. And it was pretty big to begin with.”

Angel smiled. “You know you love him.”

Cordelia feigned a scoff, and then grinned. “Yeah. I do. He’s family. Like you. Gotta look out for each other.”

“So where is he?”

“Out running an errand, and taking his sweet time about it,” she said, just as Wesley entered the chamber.

“A thousand pardons, your Highness,” Wesley cracked. “I’m back. Hello, Angel.” He gave Angel a brief hug, and then handed him a manila folder.

“What’s this?” Angel asked, staring at Wesley, who looked fifteen years younger and about five hundred years wiser. “Wow.”

Wesley grinned. “Say it. I look smashing, don’t I?”

“Yeah . . .how . . .?”

“Long story short, the Powers needed Oracles, they recruited from the home team’s recently dead, and a sixteen page application later, here we are,” Cordelia answered.

“It was a three page application. She exaggerates, like always,” Wes said. “Take a look inside the folder.”

Inside, Angel found a birth certificate, a driver’s valid license, a passport, and several other documents that proved he was an actual, living person, and a legal resident of the state of California. A well educated resident. According to the folders Angel Summers held a PHD in international studies.

“Angel Summers?” Angel asked.

“Her brain-child, not mine,” Wes said, thumbing a point at Cordy.

“You need a last name,” Cordelia defended. “You didn’t have one, so I figured I’d just make it easy, and give you hers. You’re going to end up together anyway.”

“Cordy, enough. You don’t know that for certain,” Wesley admonished.

“Please! It’s a no brainer.”

“Proving, yet again, the very point I’ve always suspected. You have no brain.”

“Bite me, Wesley.”

“Angel Summers,” Angel whispered. “I don’t know. . .”

“Well I do,” Cordy said, exasperated. “But if you don’t like it, I’ll have Wesley run out and get it changed.”

“Bite me, princess,” Wes dead-panned.

“She’s with Spike now,” Angel said, not bothering to hide the hurt in his voice. “Or The Immortal. Or both. I can’t just show up on her doorstep and claim her. Besides, she’s probably not done baking yet.”

Cordelia sighed heavily. “You really are thick, you know it? You don’t have to claim her, Angel. She’s yours. She always has been. Now go get her before her grief makes her do something stupid. Like letting Spike knock her up, or something.”

The thought of Buffy having Spike’s baby made Angel feel like puking.

“He looks a little green,” Wesley whispered to Cordelia.

“Plane. Go. Now.” Cordelia said, pointing at a door, which materialized behind him.

“Thank you,” Angel said, hugging her again. He turned to Wes and did the same. “Thank you both.”

 

Eleven

 

His plane landed at two in the morning. Instead of taking the shuttle to the hotel room Wesley booked for him, he rented a car and drove to Buffy’s apartment building.

Hours passed as he sat in the car, trying to steel his nerve.

The sun rose. At seven-thirty, Spike trotted down the front steps, running a hand through his mop of bleach-blond hair. Lifting his face toward the sun, he closed his eyes and smiled.

This was the moment he’d been waiting for. Angel got out of the car, his heart hammering in his chest, his mouth paper dry.

At the slam of the car door, Spike’s attention snapped toward him. The smile died on his face as Angel approached, and his mouth widened into a comical ‘O’.

“Spike.”

Spike recovered quickly, his startled wonder smoothing into understanding. “Angel. Looking pretty solid for the contents of an ashtray. Looks like you’ve been bit by that ‘Real-Boy’ bug, too. Must be catching.”

“Looks that way.”

“I’d tell you it’s good to see you, but I respect you too much to lie.” Spike smirked. “Well, actually, I don’t. It’s good to see you, Peaches.”

“How’s Buffy?”

“Miserable. Only happy when she’s sleeping. Though I expect that’ll change in about five minutes.”

Angel’s stomach fluttered and filled with lead, sinking to his groin. “What’s wrong with her?”

“You really are a Wanker. What do you think is wrong with her? The only man, and I use the term loosely, she's ever loved gets himself dusted, and then, for the last half year or so, he haunts her every bloody night in her dreams. I thought the girl might need some professional help, but I guess I was wrong. Been a real-boy for a while now, haven’t you?”

Angel stared at him, searching for some sign of a lie as he registered everything Spike said. “You mean, you’re not together. I thought . . .”

Spike gave a sarcastic chuckle. “Yeah, I thought I had a shot with her too, being human. A real man. But no, we’re not together. Not in any way that really counts, anyway, though not for lack of trying.”

“You’re sleeping with her,” Angel growled.

Spike shrugged. “Not anymore.”

Clenching and unclenching his hands, Angel fought with the urge to run his fist through Spike’s face.

“Oh, calm down, Captain Forehead. Do you blame me? I love her. I took what I could get. Actually, you should be thanking me. Got rid of the Immortal, at least. Better me than that Ponce, right?”

Angel glared at him.

Spike eyes met his anger and stood firm. “Take care of her. Make her happy, or I’ll stick a stake in you, just for old time’s sake.” He brushed past Angel, walking toward a moped parked at the curb.

“Where are you going?” Angel asked, his anger suddenly replaced with gratitude. In relation to Spike, it was an odd, but, surprisingly, not an unwelcome emotion.

“Work. Gotta go clothe the tourists.” Spike mounted the moped, and stuck a key in the ignition. “Oh, by the way—the bedroom at the end of the hall is mine. I come home and smell you in there, you’ll be wearing my boot-print a foot inside your arse.”

Angel smiled. “Message taken.”

“Good,” Spike said, starting the bike. Angel watched him zip up the street and out of sight.

With Spike gone, there was only one thing left to do.

He pulled open the front door and climbed the three flights of stairs to her apartment, his wrestling thumbs mimicking his wrestling emotions and buzzing nerves.

Outside her door, he took a deep breath, and then rapped twice before he had a chance to talk himself out of it.

“Geez, Spike,” he heard her grumble as she approached the door. A second later, it swung open. “What did you forget. . . . Angel?”

One look at her, and he was both home and homesick. He quivered, aching to touch her, but not daring, suddenly sure this was all a dream and even a wrong breath would shatter the illusion. “Buffy . . .”

Inside, he was sinking, desperate, ready to throw himself at her feet and beg her, if it came to that.

“Angel,” she gasped, throwing herself into his arms. He automatically encircled her, pulling her close. She clutched at him, her fingers kneading into his back. “Angel.”

Moaning, he stared down into her upturned face, and kissed her.

Buffy returned the kiss, deepening it, daring his tongue to duel with hers as she twined her fingers in his hair and pulled him closer.

The kiss was endless, and entirely too short.

She stared up at him, her eyes bright with tears and realization. “You’re alive.”

Angel nodded.

“But . . . Spike said . . .” Her eyes darkened. “How long?”

“About six months. Spike didn’t lie to you, Buffy. I died. I was dead, and then . . .I wasn’t.”

“Six months,” she whispered. She nestled her forehead into his chest for a moment, and them pulled back to look up at him. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you come?”

He didn’t know what to say. “I called. Remember?”

She clung to him, burying her face in his chest. “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. You’re here. It doesn’t matter.”

He rested his head on hers, breathing deep the familiar scent of her hair, his lungs filling with the thick ache of want. “Buffy, I love you.”

She sobbed, and her small frame quaked, sending tremors through him. “I love you, Angel. I tried to stop, but I couldn’t, not even when I thought . . .”

“Shhh,” he whispered, raining kisses on the top of her head, as the tension drained out of him. “I’m here. I’m here, now.”

She clung tighter to him. “I’m never letting you go.”

Angel smiled. “Does that mean you’re done baking? ‘Cause it turns out I’m getting older by the minute."

She turned her tear-stained face up to his, and smiled. “Shut up and make love to me.”

Angel swept her into his arms and carried her into the apartment, kicking the door shut behind them.

 


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