Stopping the Rain

 Author: Diane


E-Mail: aria5@vt.edu
Rating: PG
Synopsis: A dark look at the fate of the fang gang.



The smell of antiseptic pervades my nostrils as I hobble forward, the wooden cane taking baby steps before my tired legs follow. I'm old. Old, and tired.

My bones ache, and there are days that I wish I could just sleep. Sleep and sleep and sleep until there is no sleep left in me, and I'm dead.

The days are hard. Harder than they used to be when all of us were young. Well, Angel was never young, but you know what I mean...

I still get the visions.

They have me crumpled in my apartment with Dennis, crying, and crying for hours on end because there is no one. No one who can help anymore. I don't know why They send them to me. They know Angel won't help. He can't. Not anymore.

Perhaps, it's my punishment. For what, I really don't know. But I decided a long time ago that everyone deserves a little bit of good punishing.

I walk a few steps further, wondering for a moment, why I'm not creaking. Creaking with age and weariness. The orderlies and the nurses give me glances occasionally. I can see the sympathy in their eyes.

They know me, even if they don't know me.

341.

I stare at the etched room numbers. Blink. They blur a little bit as my old eyes strain to focus. Sometimes I forget my glasses and Dennis is too busy doing whatever it is that he does to remind me to take them.

Wearing them has never become a habit for me.

My knobby knuckles tap on the door. Tap, tap, tap. Like a bird pecking at a window, as I move slowly into the room.

He's there. As always.

But he doesn't know I'm here. I think, maybe, that he's asleep. That small hope makes me happy, and I breathe a sigh of relief when I hear him panting.

I bend, slowly, not sure my back will be able to take the strain, and pull out a chair. It slides across the floor, soft, like a snake rustling over the grass. I commit to it, finally releasing the burden on my feet and cane to oblivion. At least, for a time.

I take his thin, warm hand in mind, caressing the knuckles, caressing life back into the warm fingertips. His eyes slide open, and when I see that look, I sometimes wonder if I should be complaining that I'm tired.

For a moment, there's confusion, but when recognition sets in, he relaxes, the muscles of worry in his face flattening away. Sadness.

"You came," he whispers, the words phlegmy. He coughs, terrible hacking coughs. I can see his panic, and I rub his chest until he calms.

When he's breathing normally again, living off the stale air that the pale tubing under his nostrils provides, I finally take the time to smile. "Of course I came," I say.

I always come. Every day. Unless something is wrong, like a vision. Or when I'm sick and I don't want to give him anything more than what he already has.

And still, he always manages to seem surprised. Surprised that I bothered to come and see him. Surprised, and something else that I've never been able to place.

I think, sometimes, that he forgets just how important he really is, to all of us. The same way that when this first happened, he always forgot that he wasn't a vampire. He would flinch in the sun at first, at crosses, attempt to do things that humans just couldn't do. Long jumps. Examples of strength.

There was one time he came to me, terribly embarrassed, a peanut butter jar in his hand. "I... it's stuck," he had whispered, looking at the floor as though the situation were as dire as the apocalypse we had just averted.

I used to worry then, when he went out with Wesley to go stop the evil that lurks, that he wouldn't come back. He was too vampire. Too unaware of how much he couldn't do anymore. And Wesley had been old, too. Old, and tired. Like me. Not a demon hunter anymore.

And yet, it hadn't been that.

Not at all.

The very same Powers that gave him his Shanshu had caused this, through that very same gift. It made me angry sometimes. Ok. All the time. That Angel, who, that first day had spent the sun's entire journey across the sky tanning on the roof and getting the mother of all sunburns. That Angel, the one who had smiled when he got a paper cut that stayed open more than a few seconds. That Angel, the one who spent hours upon hours just staring at the mirror in awe, touching his hand to the cool plane of glass as if he expected himself to wake up from a dream at any moment.

That Angel was the one forced to be here, in this maze of antiseptic and white walled immaculate death, barely thirty.

After the first week, he'd gotten a runny nose. He had been happy about that, marveling as he ran about with a box of tissues, saying this was the first cold he had had in over two centuries and that cough medicine was really as terrible as everyone said...

And then, one day shortly after, we had come to work to find him draped over the couch in the lobby like discarded goods, barely moving as his chest heaved, struggling to suck up the air that he now needed. Panicked, me and Wesley broke all laws of the Powers and man to get him to the emergency room, where some dispassionate nurse took down his paperwork, which, of course, we had to make up. All while Angel was curled up in the waiting room chair, wheezing so frantically that I thought he'd surely die.

We sat with him for hours before anyone would see him. The way he had curled up and shook, his head in my lap, had terrified me. I don't remember the last time I had ever been that scared. Not even in Sunnydale when Buffy and the freakiness she followed swept me up into its whirlwind.

I had just sat there, running my old, swollen fingers through his hair, whispering that things were going to be all right, while Wesley ran about, trying to get someone, anyone, to take time out of their busy schedule and make a diagnosis.

Acute pneumonia, the doctors had said.

Angel was bedridden for days, the doctors puzzling over why such a normally harmless strain had decked him so badly.

Wesley and I lived in the hospital for the following stream of endless hours, every waking moment giving each other and Angel support. It was at least three days before we were sure he was going to be all right.

We brought Angel home to his big, dark home, two weeks after -- his arms draped over our shoulders. He was still weak, and shaky, but getting better. "I was wondering what the bad side of all this would be," he'd said. Joking, as he collapsed, out of breath, onto the couch, the very same that we'd found him on.

Two weeks after that, Angel had been back at the hospital again.

And again.

And again.

The doctors started to recognize him. Started performing tests. Grew curious as to why he was getting struck with so many things that should never have been much of an issue. They couldn't figure it out. According to them, Angel should have been as healthy as your standard Olympic athlete...

Should have been.

Wesley was the one to realize what was going on. Angel's immune system had been inactive for so long, that most of the diseases of today just hadn't been around when he could have been susceptible to them.

And so was the price of mortality.

We scrounged up funds to have him immunized with every vaccine known to man.

It still wasn't enough.

We may have saved him from hepatitis, and anthrax, and that year's version of influenza...

But those weren't his enemy.

And so, four years, and he's still in and out of the hospital so often that it's like a home away from home for him. I wonder how he can stand it. How he can look at me, so tired, and weary, and sick of being sick, but with such hope... Never once has he complained. Never. He takes it with such quiet grace that I almost feel bad for feeling angry.

Angry, that a man who should be in the prime of his life, is expected to live a few more years if he's lucky. And, if not, tomorrow could be the day I walk in and he doesn't ever hear me coming.

I can't help but wonder if the Powers had really meant this as a reward.

Remember what I said about everyone needing to be punished?

I lied.

Because if anyone deserves it least, it's the man lying here before me, struggling for air, thin and sickly. And yet, he seems to be getting a share meant for the very things They've enlisted us to fight.

I touch his face.

He doesn't flinch as I trace the warm skin. Smooth, slightly clammy with illness...

I would gladly take his pain into me. If I could.

"How is everyone?" he asks, soft, barely able to collect the strength he needs to be audible.

I muster a weak smile. It hurts, but Angel always asks. "I planted a new rosebush for Wesley. Gunn got daisies. I told them you said hi and that you'd come to see them when you could."

Angel nods and his eyes slide shut for a moment. He's tired. I can tell. But then, when was the last time I can remember that Angel wasn't tired?

I really can't recall.

Reaching into my old leather bag, I pull out what we've been working on, but something makes me pause.

I look at him.

As if he can sense my eyes peering into him, attempting to discern his soul, his lids flutter open again.

"Why do you do it, Angel?"

He blinks, and I can tell that he's confused.

"Why do you keep going?"

His worried look relaxes, and he resumes his quiet gasping as he ponders. I grip his hand as he does so. Angel Pryce, the bracelet that wraps around his thin, bony wrist says in worn faded, letters. At the time, Wesley had been the only one with resources to create fake papers for him, and he had reasoned that it'd be easier to make Angel seem like a family member. I'd always wondered at that, how Wesley had done it. I suspect in the black market. But I never asked, and Wesley never told.

The gasping stops. "Because the time between is worth it," he wheezes.

I nod, unable to do anything else. The time between is never more than a month. But he knows this quite well.

"Don't you ever get angry?"

"No."

He starts to cough again. Heavy, racking spasms, so bad that I wonder how his lungs remain in his torso. "Shhh," I try to calm him. My hand is on his face again, relishing that soft, warm feel of living breathing skin.

I barely remember the days he used to be cold.

His eyes widen a bit as I massage his throat and his chest, trying to give him some relief. Any relief.

And then he's calm again.

"Sorry," he mutters.

I blink, feeling the sting of tears burning down my cheeks. "Never be sorry," I reply firmly.

He nods. No protest.

I wonder if tomorrow really will be the day I come in and find him gone, but the thought passes quickly from my mind as he speaks again. "So?" he prods.

I feel his hand weakly squeeze my own.

Surprised, I look down and see his fingers entwined in my own. I hadn't even realized I had taken it again, the movement had become so natural.

"So," I reply, teasing.

That actually gets me a smile, weak, and pale, and barely there though it is. But he doesn't laugh. I don't think he ever does that anymore. Not that I can recall.

"I want to find out what happens to Bob," he finally pleads, after he can stand my sad stare no longer.

"Really, Angel," I demand. "Why don't you ever get angry?"

I don't like the look on his face. It's that look that makes me remember exactly how old he is. Older than me, despite obvious appearances to the contrary. Old. Old, and tired. Just like I am.

There's no consideration this time. It makes me wonder if his hesitation before was really just him contemplating an answer, or him contemplating how best to lie.

"It's just a means to an end," he whispers.

An end.

I blink, refusing my body the tears it so badly wants to shed. My old muscles protest as I lean forward and hug him to me, my chest heaving with sobs that I don't want. I can do that, especially now, when he's so emaciated.

I hold him there, tightly. He gasps, and I can feel his bones shuddering against my own, all for an entirely different reason. I feel his whisper lick at my ears, soft, desperate. "I want pansies," he says, such mournful longing in his tone that my heart is crushed.

I cry, even as I nod in understanding. I really just can't help it.

I wonder if I'll ever run out of tears for him.

I somehow doubt it.

After many moments, I lean back and release him into the prison of his heaped pillows.

Shakily, I reach into my bag and pull out the book. "So. Bob the Martian is more exciting than me, eh?" I joke, realizing that the ludicrousness of this situation is not in the fact that it's a book about Bob the Martian, but that Angel seems so enthralled with it. This is the last book in the series, and we've followed the poor klutz everywhere from Jupiter to some other weird galaxy that I don't recall the name of.

Angel, the one with Hemingway, and Copperfield, and Faulkner, and Victor Hugo adorning his bookshelves like a tapestry of words, and he likes spending his time with Bob, the Martian.

I wonder why.

But I don't ask.

And so I begin to read, and read, and read until the words begin to blur into a big polysyllabic mess, and I'm very tired. Hours. The nurses never even threaten to kick me out anymore, because they know I won't leave until I'm good and ready.

The End.

The words finally register.

I look up as the book folds closed and comes to rest in my lap. His deep, chocolate eyes are staring off into space, somewhere that Bob, most likely, has visited.

"Angel?" I whisper.

"So," Angel wheezes. A cough. I begin to wonder if he'll break into another fit.

He doesn't.

"Bob gets the girl and lives happily ever after. I always wondered what that was like..."

He is wistful, not condemning. The curiosity that burns in his tone sends shivers down my spine, icy fingers dripping along the skin on the small of my back. So similar. So similar...

<Why do people die, daddy?>

He starts to cough then, so soon after that I don't really have time to think more about what he's said. I try everything, this time, but eventually it is the nurses that have to stop it. They try what I've tried, and a few other things, until finally they end up sedating him.

He is out quickly, and the gasping resumes.

Quiet, little gasps.

Sucking up life.

I wonder why he'd try so hard to keep going if he thought this was an end.

"Angel, I'm sorry..." I find myself whispering. I touch my hand again to his warm face, my other to his slack fingertips. "I'm so sorry. You never should have been given this gift..."

I spit the word with such vehemence that I surprise even myself.

Angel is still, oblivious to my outburst, his face lax and peaceful. He looks beautiful that way -- a true image of his name.

The sadness is gone.

I blink, and stare more closely, even going so far as to press my hands across his face, attempting to mold that strange look whenever he lays eyes upon me back into his face. That look of sadness and happiness at the very same time... I try and try and try until my eyes blur with tears, but I can't.

This is the first I've noticed it -- I realize where my apology has spurted from. I suppose a part of me has always known.

With a sad smile I lean back and let my eyes droop wearily. "Angel, I want you to be happy, damn it, don't stay because..." I choke, unable to finish, tears spattering my face, even though I know he can't hear me.

He remains still.

The little whistles of air wrenching into his lungs and the jerking of his chest are all that reminds me he isn't gone.

And suddenly, I feel it. His fingers twitch softly against my hand, like the beating of a butterfly's wings.

"Angel?" I ask.

His eyes open blearily, still under the powerful influence of sedatives. "You're still here?" he mumbles, his voice slurred and drunken. I can barely understand him.

His breathing is calmer now. He seems at peace.

I lean over him, tears still cascading down my face. "Did you hear what I said? Because I meant it..." And all the while, I pray that he doesn't make me repeat it, because I really don't think I can. I don't think I have the strength while he's staring me in the eye and I know for sure that he can hear me.

He blinks. "Thank you." There is relief hiding there under that weak, sad sound.

His answer is enough to convince me.

I stay there for a long eternity of moments, and we keep each other company, although he's more out of it than not. When I see how much his eyelids are drooping, as if someone had attached tiny weights to them, I touch his face one more time, and I stand, ratcheting upwards to my full height, short though it is. My bag, I strap over my shoulders. "I'll be back tomorrow," I whisper.

My legs groan as the cane stands up and begins walking forward. When he doesn't answer, I think that perhaps he's fallen back asleep. I wouldn't be surprised.

"You came..." he whispers suddenly, breaking the steady, jarring rhythm of his breath. Perhaps, it's the sedative speaking. I don't turn around, granting him at least that small privacy.

"Kathy."

I pause at the door as something cold and dead begins to grow in my chest. Throbbing. Like ice. I know that name. Staring ahead, I falter, and pause altogether.

"Kathy..." Angel whispers again.

And then all is silent.

"I'll be back tomorrow," I repeat.

But I don't think he will.

FIN



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