Touch a hundred flowers (and pick none)

Author: Rivrea

Rating: PG-13 (for the odd bit of sex'n'violence)

Pairing: Buffy/Angel (AU)

Summary: A stalker's unrequited love in the alternative universe of the S3 episode The Wish.

Length: > 4,300 words

Notes: 1) Title from a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

2) There is no reason whatsover why this fic should exist at all (I usually don't do doomed romance), but I think I spent the last seven or eight hours getting the bloody thing finished because the idea had been bugging me for weeks. Now it's the longest story I've ever written (laugh at me, o ye veterans of nanowrimo or the 100-chapter epic on FF.net), and I want to inflict it on people who are not me, damnit. So there.

*****


Love at first sight had never been something he could believe in. He protested it, too much, when sweet-talking some girl or woman. His lover’s oath was drawn in like the scent of the red roses he stole from his mother’s garden to go a-wooing. One tickled their noses, the other their fancy. If they were fools enough to take him at his word, they deserved the consequences.

After his turning (the consequence of a lovely first sight in an alley), there had been no love, only the stench of the slaughterhouse, a hunger for pain that couldn’t be sated and a thirst for blood that wouldn’t be quenched. Eventually, when his soul was thrust upon him, he had mostly kept his distance, watched humans from afar, too far to touch or be touched. He didn’t trust himself, neither the demon nor the man.

When Angel first saw the girl who wasn’t quite the Slayer yet, he understood the need for sentimentalism. She was sitting on a low stone wall next to the school building, popping gum and dangling her legs. Her sundress, dark blue with white lily flowers, was bunched around her tanned knees; the beach sandal had almost slipped off her right foot, showing off both mauve-painted nails and a sole black with dirt. All of a sudden, he longed to drop to his knees and kiss the dust from her toes.

It caused him some uneasiness because she seemed so young. He had seen her immaturity as she waved goodbye to her giggling friends. He was seeing her freedom from care and worry, he thought, as she leaned her head against a concrete pillar and closed her eyes to bask in the sun. (The gesture reminded him of Darla baring throat and breasts to the moon.) And he would see the strength which was radiating from her.

Angel inched closer to the car window, fighting the temptation to reach for her, out there in the sunshine, a few yards away. He noticed the elderly man approaching her, although the traffic was too loud to hear their conversation, noticed her expression change from joy to apprehension to confusion. Innocence lost, or a calling found.

Later, in the graveyard, he hoped she had been summoned to her vocation. Fear gripped him, when he watched her lunge at a vampire, miss the heart and receive a blow to shoulder and neck instead. (Darla had warned him against Slayers: A note of amusement had crept into her voice while she told him about those killed by the first undead they stumbled upon.) Fortunately, her instincts took over. The vampire exploding into dust, there was a new-found grace in her movements, and, so Angel liked to imagine, the hunter’s predatory pride in her eyes.

But when he followed her home, in the shadows, she appeared merely exhausted: Welcomed by a lecture from an absent-minded mother, she slouched through a house too large for the two of them. Even from where he was hiding in the bushes, Angel spotted the patches on the wall-paper in the living-room, empty places where, until recently, furniture or pictures had been.

Against the bathroom tiles, her skin looked washed out, and her cheeks were flushed from crying. She was sobbing like the child she was, blubbering and snivelling; it took her some time to stop. As she began to take off her shirt, the bruises and scratches on her back stood out starkly, like scarlet blossoms. Angel wished he could lick her wounds clean. (The idea was strangely arousing, and he remembered the last time he had done something similar. Darla’s chuckle resounded in his ears.)

"I want to help her," he said to Whistler. "I want to help Buffy."

It was the first time he said her name: unfamiliar in his mouth, a shape he couldn’t quite grasp or wrap his tongue around.

"I want to become someone, to believe in something."

Whistler regarded him with compassion and contempt.

*****


Angel saw her daily, or rather nightly. He cursed California for its sunshine, but he loved watching its last rays vanish behind the skyline from the attic of the abandoned building he’d nested in. Although he bought a car, a 1971 Plymouth with a rosary still attached to the blank driving mirror, he didn’t follow her around in it too often. Old-timers with paint smeared across the windows tended to attract attention, even in the traffic chaos of L.A.

At night, he trailed her at a safe distance, tracing whiffs of blood, sweat and honeysuckle perfume, or he looked up to her window with longing. It hadn’t been love when she caught his eye on that day, he admitted, but infatuation. Forever desperate for one more glimpse, he fell in love at second sight, at the third and fourth one, over and over and over again.

Whenever she sang along to her favorite pop tunes, she was tapping her feet, propped up on the window-sill, to the music. Sometimes, snatches of the melodies drifted down through the half-opened window. Angel didn’t know most of them, but her untrained voice sounded sweet to his ears. (He’d never been able to sing, and Darla had mocked him mercilessly. She loved music, but only profane compositions, meant for courtship, not worship.)

She liked musicals, too, the kind that made him feel a little less old and didn’t taunt him with the colors of daytime. She would curl up with her mother in the living-room downstairs, the TV would flicker in black and white, and after they turned up the volume, he’d recognize the refrain of ‘Night and Day’ or ‘Cheek to Cheek’.

On other occasions, she was struggling with her homework after patrol, staring into space over her textbooks and toying with her pens until they broke. He imagined himself sitting next to her, telling her stories from the Great Depression for a history project or quizzing her about French vocabulary lists: le soleil, la fille, s’éprendre de quelqu’un, la solitude, la mort.

In the beginning, her study sessions were interrupted by phone calls, from her high-school friends and some boy or the other. He was jealous of the guys, ridiculous and petty as it was, and he envied the girls for knowing her. During these talks, Angel heard a new edge in her tone, although he couldn’t make out her words: wariness and resentment and yearning, always yearning, room for him to live in.

She was getting fewer and fewer calls these days.

So she sat there, holed up in that cheerful-looking room, both haven and prison. He wanted to shake some sense into the mother who never saw her child, but then, the older woman looked rather care-worn herself.

She took to flicking through glossy, brightly-colored magazines until she was overcome with exhaustion, put on her pajamas and collapsed between the piles of pillows and stuffed toys on her bed.

Even if the curtains were drawn properly, Angel closed his eyes while she undressed. There was nothing chaste about the gesture.

Back at his place, touching himself hastily, guiltily, he fantasized about her every time. Sometimes, he was on his knees in front of her, his tongue pressing into her warmth, into that salty taste so much like the tepid seawater pools of a little fishing village long gone. Sometimes, it was her who was kneeling, swallowing him down, swallowing him whole, his fingers leaving pink marks on her shoulders in his need to keep her close. (And sometimes, it was Darla’s eyes looking up at him from a familiar face framed by sun-bleached hair.)

"Buffy…"

He always came in his clenched fist, a litany on his lips that was one word only.

*****


At first, he simply checked the cemeteries she used to patrol before she’d show up or after she’d gone. Every vampire staked, every fledgling dusted meant one possibly fatal encounter less for her, five more minutes of rest.

Angel even started frequenting the demon haunts of this city’s underworld. He might pick up a few useful rumors there. (He could have told her about an entrance to hell, not too far away, where the head of the Aurelian Order was holding court, but he feared the woman at the Master’s side. No, not his destiny any longer.)

At some seedy bar, he heard about the missing teens, with someone reverently whispering the name ‘Lothos’. (Darla had mentioned him once, explaining he was the only vampire master to have killed two Slayers, and William had sneered at the flicker of awe under her feigned indifference.)

As Angel watched her go to bed the following night, curling up into a tight little ball, he knew he had to warn her.

"Do you and your Watcher know about a local vampire king who calls himself ‘Lothos’?" the note on the window-sill read. "He seems to be targeting the teenage population, and he isn’t fond of Slayers, to put it mildly. Do take care."

Following a whim, he’d stopped at the nearest 24/7 and bought a bar of strawberry-yoghurt chocolate to keep the page, torn from a twenty-year-old diary, from fluttering to the ground.

It dawned on him he might have made a mistake when she appeared both skittish and angry for the rest of the week, staring into the darkness that shrouded him. Her mentor was even more anxious. The stern man − Merrick, if Angel had understood his name correctly − paused every so often and checked each street corner for an ambush.

The letter he sat down to write took him almost three days. While it sounded a little old-fashioned, he hoped she would consider it sincere.

"Please, don’t be frightened. I’m sorry if I have scared you. This isn’t an attempt to lure you into a trap – I’d never even think about hurting you. (Oh, you do, my darling boy, when you can’t hold your … other fantasies at bay. Think about the sound of her screams, the touch of a lifeless hand, the taste of her heart.) I know who and what you are, and I was merely trying to help you: I lost my entire family to vampires. (His mother had pleaded, his father begged. Only his younger sister – Kathy, Kath, sweet Kathleen – had died in silence.) It’s good that you’re there to keep others safe. But don’t expect me to approach you – I have seen the evil that lurks in the dark, and I’m afraid of what might happen. (After all, he didn’t need a mirror to pry into his heart.)"

He signed it, "a friend."

There wasn’t a single lie in these lines; they contained all the truths he wanted her to discern, his hidden worthiness, the reflection he would never see in a bold and loving gaze.

Angel didn’t mention love, either, nor would he ever send her one of his many pictures: quick charcoal sketches of a schoolgirl at her desk, her face buried in her arms, or detailed imaginings of her beauty, flesh and blood in white and pink and bronze. He began to leave her other presents instead: hair-clips with patterns of sunflowers and forget-me-nots in vibrant gold and blue, a bag of candy, a pretty notepad for school, a cheap bracelet that lots of teens at the mall wore, picture postcards with black-and-white views of old L.A., a plain crucifix.

That way, he could always be with her, in his fashion, despite having to avoid her and her suspicious Watcher for a while. One evening, though, he found an envelope on the window-sill of her deserted room.

"Thanks a lot, o mysterious and socially challenged friend! Buffy"

This was all her message said, in round, girly hand-writing with carefully dotted i’s, turquoise glitter pen on the new notepaper he’d given her. After reading it, again and again, Angel felt twice as screwed up as usual, and yet he wanted to believe that his trinkets could restore her smile, serene and untouched, that artless purity could be bought back with candied fruit and apple-red rhinestones. He kept the letter in his wallet, treating it like a holy relic, tracing her name with reverent fingers, folding and unfolding the paper until it was creased and nearly came apart.

*****


The vampiric activity in the city was increasing. On the way to cemeteries, her home, or his house, he came across numerous passers-by, teens and elderly ladies, couples and fifty-something tramps, struggling in vain against their attackers. So he started helping these helpless people, too. Afterwards, Angel would vanish without a word – staying around would have been too high a risk. It cost him most of his willpower not to grab them and suck from their wounds, not to dig his teeth into the bodies of those he couldn’t save. They all smelled of fear, heavy and sickly and intoxicating, like tuberoses.

Maybe these encounters explained his recent dreams (of Darla, covered in flowers, exotic or homely, orchids or daffadown dillies, blotches of violet and yellow and, always, always, violent red). On waking up, Angel felt disoriented and frightened.

One night, he overheard the snatches "Slayer" and "school gym" in a dive he suspected to be the favorite haunt of Lothos’s minions. If he’d been alive, his heart would have been racing. He left her a message before the morning sun drove him away, but putting an envelope on her window-sill wouldn’t suffice. He had to speak to her.

The following evening, her window was dark and empty, though, and no lights were turned on when Angel threw a few pebbles against the pane. With all the courage he could muster, he walked over to the phone box at the nearest street corner and, his fingers trembling like those of any mortal man, he dialed a number he’d never used but learnt by heart.

"Joyce Summers," a female voice said, warmer and deeper and older than hers. "Hello?"

"Is your daughter perhaps at home? It’s kind of urgent, I'm afraid."

"No, she said she had to go to cheerleading practice tonight. Who am I speak--"

Angel hung up the phone and ran to his car.

He was too late – he could already see this before reaching Hemery High. The sky was ablaze with a false dawn, the apricot of parrot tulips, oranges flames streaked with smoke. The school building must be burning. He still possessed enough presence of mind to stop his car and force a stranger to send for the police and the fire-fighters. They wouldn’t have to worry about any more vampires, not with a damn conflagration around. It was Buffy he didn’t dare consider.

She was kneeling in the courtyard, away from the ruins and the heat, bent over a body. Only when he was standing close enough to reach out to her did she notice him.

"Listen, do you perhaps have a cell-phone? I need an ambulance, quick." Tears streaked her soot-smeared face, and sobs strangled her voice.

"Some guy I was passing called 911, I guess. I … I wanted to see what’s up. If there was anything I could do."

"Help me put him into recovery position. He’s still breathing and stuff, but he’s unconscious, and he could choke on his own barf."

Buffy was so focused on her Watcher that it didn’t occur to her to wonder what Angel was doing near a school gym in the middle of the night. Merrick was moaning, as they rolled him over, his burnt skin peeling off, his legs limp and useless. Spinal injury, poor devil, Angel thought, and it never crossed his mind that he could have caught fire from the sparks in Merrick’s clothes.

The stink of smoke filled his nose and mouth with every needless breath, but not enough to overpower the aroma of the old man’s blood, trickling from his wounds, staining the white daisies on Buffy’s shirt and the black coat Angel had stripped off to cover him. Struggling for self-control, Angel drew his gaze away from the helpless Watcher and let it settle on her instead. Her skirt was ripped and torn, her left leg bare right up to her hip, where he’d held on to her in his dreams: rosy flesh with the throb of her femoral artery underneath, pulsing through thigh and groin (that’s my darling boy…).

The blare of the siren was his opportunity to steal away. There was a faint hint of bile on his tongue, last proof of any humanity he might have left. Pressing his forehead against a wall in shame, Angel groaned.

"Buffy, I wish…"

That Lothos was history, that Merrick would be saved, that she would find comfort in her mother’s arms, that a Slayer’s story could have a happy ending, that she would neither recognize nor remember him. Futile wishes, as he would learn, save the first one and the last.

*****


Even after Lothos’s downfall, his dreams didn’t stop. On the contrary, they became more detailed, clearer and clearer with each day.

(Darla’s dress was printed with narcissi in lively yellow; it fluttered in the breeze at dusk, revealing calves and ankles. With pretty clothes and charming smiles, she could have been any graceful woman, but the possessiveness beneath her simper hinted at ferocity and cunning. Tearing apart her clothes above her chest, she spoke to him of a mother’s love. Blood was oozing from her nipples like milk.)

As he finally realized what these dreams meant, it was once more too late. The police-officers carried out Joyce on a stretcher, the blanket slipping to grant him a glimpse of her waxen face and mangled throat – ripped out with claws or fangs. In low voices, the detectives talked about "gang violence" and "victim found collapsed on her own doorstep" and "what about the daughter".

A stranger led Buffy into the house, tugging impatiently at her arm. Angel had never seen the guy with the glasses, seersucker suit and slicked-back hair before, but he caught a British accent and the sentence, "the Council will take care of you as their ward now." It had to be her new Watcher, and Angel wanted to run over to the porch and beat him to a bloody pulp. In Merrick’s gruff tone, there had been some measure of respect and kindness, not this supercilious officiousness.

Didn’t he see that his ‘ward’ was moving in fits and starts, like an automaton, a clockwork puppet somebody had forgotten to wind up? Angel was longing to pull her into an embrace, hold her until the jerky movements would stop, rock her until she would fall asleep against his chest. More than one invisible barrier was separating him from her, and he just stood, unable to move or look away, watching her pour coke and tea without spilling a drop. This feat worried him more than anything else.

Later, when the police had packed up and driven away, when some doctor had jabbed a syringe into Buffy’s arm and ushered her into her room, when the lights had gone out in the house across the street, Darla stepped out of the shadows. There were actually daffodils on her dress, and almost as many splashes in reddish brown. She reeked of old blood and of the familiar perfume Buffy must have borrowed from her mother.

"Hello, Angelus," she said.

"Did you dream of me, too? We can feel it whenever those we sired are near, and I’m wondering if the reverse applies as well. Sweet dreams you must have had, my boy, probably sweeter than mine."

Although Angel didn’t reply, his silence didn’t seem to bother her.

"I could really think of more entertaining things than my subconscious having to put up with your silly crush on some blonde cheerleader whose roots are showing. Oh, and who hunts and kills our kind."

"Not my kind anymore."

He rammed the stake into her heart before she had any chance of reacting. An accusing glance, half surprised, half hurt, and Darla crumbled into dust. Now that he had unmade the one who’d made him, he finally had proof that he could change. He swallowed hard to fight his nausea.

(Darla stayed in his dreams for another day, the trickle from her breasts – red, always, always, violent red – turning into a stream which seeped into the earth of Joyce’s grave.)

Angel started to harbor a terrible suspicion, and he had nobody to share it with. While the current Watcher – Whatever-Price or something – didn’t appear very shrewd or efficient, Buffy was the last person on Earth he would’ve liked to confide into.

The night after the funeral, he went straight to the cemetery where Joyce Summers lay buried, carrying enough stakes and cross-bows to tackle a vampire army. Buffy and her Watcher were still lingering beside the half-open grave. He expected her to drop a small wreath of flowers, lilies or chrysanthemums, before he noticed the stake clutched in her fist. If he ever got his hands on that brainless, heartless moron of a Watcher, who had taken her there…

Then, Angel heard it, hands clawing their way out of a coffin, scratching under the soil. The Watcher whispered something to Buffy, urging her on. She didn’t move; she waited.

The woman who had been Buffy’s mother had half-risen from the tomb already, when her daughter raised the stake, her expression both anguished and resolved. Angel drew a deep breath he didn’t need to still the shaking of his own hands and aimed. The missile from his cross-bow hit Joyce before the Slayer could touch her. She wouldn’t have missed her mark, but that hadn’t been the point.

"I’m sorry, Buffy," he whispered as she dropped to the ground, pressing her cheek into the dust and digging both hands into the earth.

*****


On the following day, she was gone. He heard her Watcher shout into the phone, voice cracking, declaring her missing and reckless and irresponsible. Mad with grief and loneliness and despair would have been a better choice of words, especially as Angel managed to climb into her window without any difficulties: This house was no longer a home for Buffy, or he couldn’t have entered it. (Or she could have been killed, lying dead and bleeding in some alley, but he refused to believe that.)

The British guy had fallen asleep in front of the TV; strangely enough, Angel wasn’t tempted to sneak downstairs and give him a well-deserved thrashing. It wouldn’t bring anyone back. Feeling like some pervert about to go through a girl’s underwear drawer, he was standing in the middle of her bedroom, as reverent as a believer in a church, too awed to dare touch the altar-cloth.

In the end, he left quietly and quickly, taking only three things with him: the perfume bottle from her nightstand, a snapshot of hers at an ice-skating rink, pink and glowing and radiant with joy, and the glittery pen he recognized from the letter in his wallet.

He used it to sign a card. "I’m sorry," it read, "a friend." Together with a big bouquet of pansies in many colors, as bright and cheerful as the room decorations in the entire house, he dropped it on Joyce’s desecrated grave, instead of the prayers he should have said for her soul. Her daughter should have been here, too, to hold a wake, and he could have held her small hand in his, to see her through the darkest hours before dawn.

For days and weeks and months to come, Angel wandered the streets of L.A., but whenever he spotted a blonde head from the corner of his eye, it was never her. The girl who resembled her most was the victim whose dripping neck wounds he drank dry, even though he threw up her blood, a watery pink fluid, in the gutter some minutes later.

During the same night, he packed his few belongings to move to Sunnydale. If there was a place destined to wait for a Slayer, it must be a Hellmouth. The rosary in the car singed his hands when he brushed against it, and his fingers lingered on the beads.

Buffy, however, didn’t come to this town, either, where light and color were draining away, where the children were plucked one by one, like flowers. He was hovering in the shadows, hiding from the local Watcher, as lonely as Angel himself, helping any strays careless enough to stay out after dark. He couldn’t save the cute, vulnerable red-head and her loyal, brave, stupid friend, though; it was probably some irony of fate that they ended up at the Master’s side and he ended up in the Master’s dungeons.

Sometimes, the girl came to see him, kneeling down with him, straddling him and babbling about the roses of pain she burnt into his flanks. (Pressing his eye-lids shut, he could imagine her as Darla, or even as Buffy, grinding her hips against his, murmuring indistinct endearments. His keep-sakes had been taken from him; memory and fantasy were all he had left.)

When the Slayer arrived, at last, she was aged beyond her years, scars in her face and upon her heart. Angel couldn’t believe she was there, living, breathing, touching him to free him from his chains. At first, he thought he had gone mad, and then, he couldn’t find the right words. This warrior, with her hatred of demons, would never believe that he’d bought the cross she was still wearing, warmed by her skin.

"Buffy…"

Angel dies reaching for her, her name on his lips again, trying to close the space between them. She doesn’t quite look back, moving forward, moving on, determined and deadly. He will not have to see her die; for him, this moment will last forever, like the dried rosebud in the crystal pendant around his mother’s neck, beauty and affection timeless and unchanging.

Love at last sight is something he does believe in.


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