This is Vivere, the Story That Should Not Be. This fic includes everything - and I mean everything - I always swore blind I'd never do: futurefic, alt universe, non-canon romance, Angel's shanshu, first person narrative... No, I have no good excuse. Yes, you may mock me freely.
Vivere began as a short vignette written soon after Epiphany aired. It expanded until it was a three-parter. Then a four-parter. And here it is, in its full five chapter glory. With an epilogue. Blame Yahtzee, Nestra and LJC, and everyone else who kept saying, 'But it isn't finished yet!'
Vivere sticks with canon right up to Epiphany, then diverges. Imagine, for a moment, that Dead End never happened and that Lindsey stayed with Wolfram & Hart. Imagine that things went on much as they had for another couple of years. Then one day Angel went to fight something called the Sakkaresh... and never came back.
This was a struggle to write, and so huge thanks (even more huge than usual) are due to everyone who held my hand and offered advice and constructive criticism along the way. Thanks, guys.
Round Table happens once a week, on Wednesday mornings at ten o'clock. The only excuse for non-attendance is illness, injury or—on one memorable occasion—being turned to stone by an unpleasant but fortunately reversible enchantment. Otherwise, everyone is always present.
Cordelia attributes this to the doughnuts. And the pastries and muffins and scones (including, just for me, whole bran and date) which she buys fresh on Round Table morning from the bakery on the next block. "You gotta entice people sometimes, Wesley," she tells me. "Give 'em something to look forward to."
There may be some truth to this. But I think it is also the case that we all take varying degrees of comfort from this one fixed point in our weeks, which by the nature of our work often lack any kind of pattern or routine. Out loud, I say, "There's never a dull moment," but the accompanying emotion is invariably silent amazement. Somehow, we have surmounted the crises of the previous seven days and once again we are sitting at our usual places at the big table in the second floor meeting room, ready to go another round.
It is invigorating.
"Tea," says Cordelia, handing me a cup of English Breakfast, not too strong, very hot, just as I like it. She pours herself a cup of what Americans, in all seriousness, seem to think is coffee and sits down. I look over my notes and wait while the others drift in, one by one. By ten past, we are ready to begin.
We always start in the same way.
I clear my throat and tap my pencil twice on the table. When I have the room's attention, I say, "Five new cases, twelve open, four closed since last week."
Four cases closed is an exceptionally good week, and I can sense the slight buzz the mood around the table acquires. But I am quietly astonished by something else, and when I look to my left, at Cordelia, and see her mouthing the word "Five!" and smiling, I know she feels it too. We can remember sitting for days—weeks—in an empty office, listening to the phone not ringing and watching the door not opening. And now five new clients in a week.
But, back then five new cases in such a short period would have been equally disastrous: we had neither the resources nor—I'll be honest—the expertise to manage them. It's different now. Angel Investigations employs seventeen people, and fills the lower three floors of what was once the Hyperion Hotel and is now an attractive and somewhat unusually designed suite of offices. Cordelia points out that we have another three floors still to fill, and wants to know when we're going to start recruiting again. Last year we took on a full time accountant; Gunn decided to interpret this as the final portent of impending legitimacy, and claimed he felt depressed for weeks afterwards.
Currently he looks anything but depressed. He helps himself to another doughnut and asks with interest, "What's the five?"
I don't need to look at my notes to tell him. "Three normals and two specials."
It's a shorthand we all understand. Normal cases pay the ground rent, the phone bill and keep us all in food and clothing from month to month. They tend to be people with unusual problems, who've heard of us through word of mouth or personal recommendation. Specials come through other channels. Those are the clients who get our services for free; those cases are why we're here.
Cordelia still answers the phone with the words, "Angel Investigations, we help the hopeless." She says it bears remembering.
"What are the specials?" asks Gunn.
Cordelia says, "One packet of painkillers and two hours lying down in a dark room." This gets a laugh.
"The first is a project South Central," I say. "The residents are being terrorised by vampires."
"I went down there yesterday and talked to a few people," says Kate to the room at large. She leans forward and rests her elbows on the edge of the table. "I didn't have a lot of luck. They're scared, and they're not in a frame of mind to trust outsiders."
"Go again, I'll come too," offers Gunn. "They'll talk to me."
"Yeah." She nods, accepting this as the simple statement of fact it is. "It wasn't a total wash out, though; I got some information. It sounds like the vamps are trying to drive them out rather than kill them. Like they want the site for something."
"Why squat in South Central when Beverly Hills is across the valley?" asks Cordelia. As usual, the question comes out sounding shallow and inconsequential. And, as usual, it isn't.
Thinking out loud, I say, "The site may have some significance to them. There are certain types of magic which have to be performed in particular places. Raisings, for example."
Gunn raises an eyebrow. "How much do I not like that idea?"
"We need to get in there," says Kate. "Persuade them to let a team of our people stay the night. Then when the vamps turn up, maybe we'll get some answers."
"I'm in," says Faith immediately. She's eaten three doughnuts already and is now licking the sugar off her fingers from the fourth. "I haven't killed anything in days."
Sternly I say, "This would be an undercover assignment—"
She bridles. "Jeez, I know. But, c'mon, if we're gonna do our own version of When Vampires Attack on Fox, you'll need a Slayer there."
As loath as I am to admit it, she has a point. Faith and I…well. There is an awkwardness between us, always. Friction, often. Occasionally out-and-out hostility. But we sit at the same table because we have both changed, not completely but enough. Because we are both needed. Most of all, perhaps, because we both need to do this.
"I'll head up this gig," offers Gunn. I would not have cast him in the role of peacemaker between Faith and, well, everyone who isn't Faith, but he fills it effectively and with almost inexhaustible good humour. Faith pouts and glowers and declares often and loudly how much she doesn't need a big brother, but it is increasingly plain that she has one regardless, and she needs him. Perhaps almost as much as he needs her. "How 'bout it, Slayer? You'n'me playing happy families."
"I'm not cooking for you." Faith is doing her best to maintain a scowl, but her voice betrays her delight.
"What's the other special?" Kate asks.
It's Cordelia who answers her. "His name's Karl Birch, he lives in Pasadena. Used to work in the big auto plant there, 'til they closed it down. So Karl's short of cash and he's got a family to support, and he's wondering what he's gonna do when one night he starts talking to this guy in a bar. Real friendly guy, Karl says. This guy offers Karl a loan and he's so desperate he takes it, and signs this itty-bitty unimportant piece of paper to get the cash. That was six months ago, and last week our friendly neighbourhood loan shark turned up to collect."
Gunn looks nonplussed. "Not to diss the guy's situation, but ain't that a little mundane for the PTB?"
Cordelia holds up a hand: she hasn't finished. "Loan shark guy is part of the underworld, and I mean that in the literal sense. Turns out Karl signed away his first born."
Gunn gives a low whistle. "And that's why you should always read the small print."
"Have we got a copy of the contract?"
It is the first time Lindsey has spoken. So far this morning, he has been sitting silently beside Kate, making notes on a legal pad in a right-hander's illegible left-handed scrawl. When we are together in a group, like this, he rarely says anything unless it is to ask a question or make a specific point.
Cordelia nods. "Demon loan shark guy nailed it to Karl's door. It's written in blood on sheepskin vellum." She wrinkles her nose in distaste and, lowering her voice, adds: "It kinda smells."
Lindsey makes another series of entirely indecipherable marks on the notepad. "I'll start reviewing it this morning, maybe figure out where the loopholes are."
Kate is skeptical. "In which part of 'We will take your first born' do you think you'll find a loophole?"
"Believe me, there's no such thing as a watertight contract." Lindsey almost smiles. "Except for the ones I used to write."
He looks at Kate, and she looks back at him, disconcerted and amused in almost equal parts.
At last she says, "Then I guess we're pretty lucky you're not working for the opposition any more."
"They paid better," admits Lindsey. "But we never got muffins at breakfast meetings."
"That's evil for you," Cordelia says sagely. "Too busy plotting the apocalypse to take a minute to enjoy jelly filling and sprinkles."
"So we're fighting for truth, justice and the right to consume high cholesterol snack food?" asks Gunn. He grins at my pained expression, and raises both hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Just checkin'."
I sense we have achieved everything we are going to this morning and end the meeting before it turns into a breakfast-food related free-for-all. Gunn and Faith swiftly immerse themselves in enthusiastic plans for their upcoming excursion and leave together. So do Lindsey and Kate.
"Sparkage," Cordelia says knowingly as she clears away the cups and plates. "Definite sparkage there."
"Kate and Lindsey?" Even as I say it, I realise I am not so much questioning Cordelia's instincts as testing how the names sound together.
Cordelia shrugs. "The way I figure it, Lindsey's always gonna need someone to tie his shoelaces."
"She needs someone whose shoelaces need tying."
I don't know precisely when it happened, but at some point in the last decade I've become fluent in CordeliaSpeak, and this line of reasoning makes perfect sense to me. I should probably worry.
She is piling plates on top of each other, moving around the circumference of the table from place to place. Kate, Lindsey, Faith, Gunn, herself, myself.
"It's kind of weird, isn't it?" she says, and again I know exactly what she means.
"Yes. We don't have much in common."
Cordelia has finished clearing the plates and moves on to the cups. "We have one thing in common. Well, one person."
It's odd, I suppose, that while we say Angel's name ten times a day when referring to the agency, we rarely talk about him. Perhaps it's simply because we don't need to: his influence underpins our lives to such an extent that speaking of it, and him, explicitly is almost unnecessary. "I wonder what he'd say, if he were here. I think he'd be pleased."
"He damn well should be," snorts Cordelia. "Did the agency ever make money while Mr Tall, Dark'n'Broody was in charge?"
It's a perfect impression of the old Cordelia, the silly girl who cared about money and what it could get her and little else. But that child grew up a long time ago, and the woman I know now only pulls her out and wears her briefly like a mask when she needs an extra layer of protection from the world's sharp edges. And grief, I suppose, makes the deepest cuts of all; it has been eight years, and Cordelia's have not healed entirely. Nor my own.
"He'd be more than pleased," I say. "He'd be proud."
"He put a lot of work in," says Cordelia. "He should have been here to see it come together." Her eyes widen in the way they always do when she's had an idea that's too good not to share. "You know what? We should drink a toast."
But the notion is almost killed at the source, because she has finished her coffee and my tea has long since cooled. Cordelia frowns and casts about for alternatives. "I know, we'll eat a toast."
She lifts the last remaining doughnut and breaks it into two pieces. Creamy custard filling oozes on to my fingers as I take the half she offers me.
"To Angel," I say, "who left us his name. And so much else besides."
"To Angel," echoes Cordy, "who was alive in all the ways that count."
We munch silently and solemnly, like participants in an intimate and sweetly sticky communion. Then the last doughnut is gone, the table is cleared, and it's time to get back to work.
"I'm going to see Karl Birch this afternoon," says Cordelia. "I'll take Lindsey with me."
"Let me know how he gets on."
"He'll be fine," she says, as if she's already seen it in a vision. Maybe she has. Lately Cordelia projects such an air of conviction in respect of so many things that I wonder if maybe she knows more about the future than she's letting on. "Come round for dinner tonight. Dennis is cooking."
If past experience is anything to go by, I can look forward to an evening which is ten per cent dining and ninety per cent cleaning up after a poltergeist with more enthusiasm than restraint. Somehow I don't mind. "I'd love to."
"Good," says Cordelia, and smiles that smile of hers, the one I didn't think could get any brighter or more vibrant but which is somehow growing more radiant as time passes . She picks up the last of the empty cups and goes, and I am alone.
I sort through my notes and papers and start to leave, but I hesitate at the door for no good reason. I look back at the big circular table, the one we have met and argued and celebrated around for ten years now. We bring so much to it, as individuals—our skills, our knowledge, our accumulated years of long and often painful, bitter experience. But we take away so much more. I know who we have to thank for that, and I wish I could tell him in person.
I leave, pulling the door shut behind me. There is a lot to do; it's going to be another busy day.
I like the times when we're all together best.
God only knows why. It only takes the five of us—six, now, I guess—to be in the same room for ten minutes before we've got at least two fights and a serious difference of opinion on our hands. Although I guess I gotta admit that the biggest slice of the friction pie is usually carved up between me and Faith and Kate. Wesley is pretty good at keeping order these days and Gunn's always been pretty easy going, but us girls—well, none of us exactly come under the sugar and spice designation. Gunn used to use the phrase 'cats in a sack' to describe our livelier disagreements. Then Faith overheard him, and he didn't do that again in a hurry.
But there's something special, you know? There's something about Round Table on Wednesday mornings, or the late night research sessions where we all end up hitting the books, or the times we go out for dinner to celebrate cracking a tough case. It's like one of those science experiments Willow used to get so jazzed about back in high school, where you lay charged metal rods beside each other and watch them crackle and spark. There's a power there.
And maybe there's something else too. A feeling of gratitude, because we could all have ended up in worse places than sitting around that big table on the Hyperion's second floor.
Hey, Angel. Are you getting any of this?
* * *
Get a life, I used to tell him.
Unrelieved black-on-black and Olympic-class brooding and reading existentialist philosophy for fun and never going out unless it was to kill something evil.
Get a life, I used to say and yes, I am aware of the irony.
But you can live without breathing, and God knows there are plenty of people with heartbeats who make the journey from maternity ward to funeral parlour without ever really being alive.
In the end, Angel was.
* * *
I made sure Lindsey got an office at the back of the first floor, overlooking the Hyperion's courtyard and Angel's tree. It's pretty small and poky, but it gets a lot of light. He hasn't said if he likes it or not.
I hear Wesley's voice before I reach the open door. "Even for a dialect of ancient Etruscan, this is obscure."
"It's legalese," replies Lindsey. "It's going to be obscure no matter what language it's written in."
The smell hits me as soon as I walk in the room. "Okay. Who's wearing Eau de Dead Sheep?"
Wesley looks up from the parchment he's been studying through a big, old fashioned magnifying glass and smiles. "It is a little pungent, isn't it?"
"I was gonna go with pukeworthy, but whatever. Lindsey, ready to go?"
He answers me, but he's still looking at the contract that has Karl Birch's name at the bottom. "Yeah, two minutes. Wesley, what about this clause?"
Wesley shakes his head. "Hard to say. This word—right here—usually means 'substitution', but one doesn't usually see it in this context."
"Substitution as in, someone else could take the kid's place?" asks Lindsey with interest. He hasn't been this animated since he resigned from the Dark Side of the Force, and it's kind of nice to see, even if the focus of his curiosity is a graffiti-covered sheep's butt.
"No…" says Wesley, frowning. Then his face clears. "Ah, there's the modifier. It means representation: the Parliament of the Interregnum will hear the case if someone agrees to argue it on behalf of the contractee."
Lindsey's interest ratchets up another notch. "So basically this means we can take them to court."
"It appears so. Although I've never heard of mortals entering the Interregnum…" Wesley looks thoughtful. "Well, not entering and coming out again alive, certainly."
"Maybe we'll leave that part out when we tell Karl," I say.
* * *
I remember bits and pieces. Not all of it makes sense, and even the clearest parts have a weird detached feeling, like I dreamed it or it happened to someone else.
I remember the fire of the Sakkaresh; the fire that was going to burn the world up. Except it wasn't like regular fire: no toasting marshmallows around these flames. This fire was black and oily, and as it spewed up out of the ground it seemed to suck the warmth and life out of everything around it.
I remember we were there because there was a prophecy that said nothing living could put out those flames, featured word, living. There's always some dumb prophecy that says someone you care about has to die and there I go sounding bitter again.
I remember that Wesley and Gunn were supposed to be coming with whatever magical Macguffin we needed this time to make the whole mess go away, and they weren't there. I was mad at them, and I felt pretty guilty about that when I was hanging around the hospital waiting for them to wake up in the days afterwards.
What I remember most of all is the look on Angel's face.
He said, "It's better this way," and although his voice was just about convincing, there was this expression in his eyes like he wasn't sure about that at all.
I thought that as last words go, those sucked. I said as much.
He said, "There was a time I could have done this, and I wouldn't have cared. There was nothing to leave behind. I didn't think I'd ever have anything to regret losing," and he sounded amazed as he said it. Amazed and awe-struck and terrified all at once.
I told him he couldn't do this, because there was a word on a parchment that read shanshu and meant that however bad things seemed, they were always going to work out okay in the end. I told him he couldn't die because he had to get the chance to live.
He said, "I am alive right now. You have to be alive to hate the idea of dying this much," and he was smiling this old, sad smile as he said it.
I saw words weren't working so I just grabbed him and held on as tight as I could.
He said, "Try to let go. Try to let go of everything," and I'm still not sure if he was talking to me or himself.
He leaned down and kissed me on the forehead. His lips felt like a silk ribbon brushing over my skin, cool and dry.
He said, "Lindsey, put the stake down unless you're going to use it," and I looked past him and wondered how I'd forgotten about Lindsey.
Lindsey stared at Angel, then at the stake in his hand, then at me. Finally he turned around and faced the whirling vortex and the Sakkaresh fire that Wolfram and Hart had summoned. Then he dropped the stake and, when it hit the ground, he just kept staring at it. He looked stunned and shocked and later—much later—I wondered if that was the second he started to realise he didn't really want to be the guy who let the world burn up in a black, cold fire.
And when you think about it, who would want that on his resume?
Then Angel pushed himself away from me and walked towards the vortex the Sakkaresh was about to rise out of. I didn't want to watch, but I had to, because I had to make sure he didn't look back. I had to know he could go without looking back.
I wish I'd held on tighter.
He looked back.
* * *
We take my car and inch through the grid-locked hell that is the L.A. road system. Sometimes I wonder why we need supernatural evil when we already have freeways.
Lindsey sits in the passenger seat of my car and studies his case notes, although I can't believe that anything that looks like it's been produced by racing ink-dipped spiders on drugs across a page can contain significant meaning. I wonder if maybe he can't understand it either, and he's just pretending to read to have an excuse not to talk to me. Guess who else used to do that?
He doesn't look up until I pull the car off the road and park. "Why are we stopping here?" he asks, frowning. "This is a grocery store."
I feign surprise. "Well, yeah, how about that? And here I am, needing groceries. Happy coincidence or what?"
The frown deepens. "We have a client meeting to get to."
"Plenty of time," I say breezily. I open the car door, but Lindsey doesn't move, so I turn off the air conditioning and take the keys out of the ignition. "You can stay out here and bake or you can help me shop."
Wisely, he forgoes the opportunity to parboil slowly and follows me into the minimarket. He's dragging his feet like a five year old and I'm already beginning to regret this, because there's no reason why I couldn't have waited until after our meeting with Karl Birch and done this by myself in half the time. But I've always worked on instinct, and my instincts are good. Lately they're so good they're scaring me a little. This feels right. Go figure.
I take out my list, grab a basket and start cruising the aisles. Pasta, salad, French bread, meat, tomato sauce, vegetables. Later tonight, I'll do the chopping, mixing and grating, and leave a stack of flat lasagne leaves on top of the breakfast bar beside a bowl of meat bolognaise and a bowl of béchamel sauce. And later again, I'll tell Dennis how proud I am of him when he manages to get most of it in a dish in the right combination, and float the dish into the oven. Dennis can't really cook, but the apartment feels a little happier, a little more content, on the nights he tries.
It's all about trying, I guess.
I lift a mushroom and examine it critically. "Does this look mouldy to you?"
"It's a fungus. It is mould," says Lindsey irritably. "Cordelia, could we move along here?"
I ignore him. "You know what mushrooms are great in? Stir-fried beef with green pepper and black bean sauce."
Dryly: "I'll add it to my recipe book."
"Kate likes Chinese food," I say casually, bagging a handful of button mushrooms.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Loftily, I tell him, "It's like Eastern poetry. You take your own meaning from it."
Turns out baiting Lindsey is almost as entertaining as teasing Wesley used to be, back in the day. He snatches the list from me and glares at it. "You need carrots and canned tomatoes. I'm going to get them. Then we're going to leave. Okay?"
Without waiting for an answer he stomps off along the aisle on his little ex-lawyer, ex-evil legs. And I hope he's far enough away that he doesn't hear me start laughing, because it's kind of funny. Poor Lindsey, so desperate to get things right after getting them so wrong for so long, so scared of screwing up his shot at redemption that he can't lighten up for long enough to buy groceries or enjoy the sunshine or accept that someone might actually like him.
Well, Angel got over it. I'm going to make sure Lindsey does too.
And he will because not only does he have me cheerleading for him—which oughtta be enough for anyone—but because I know he's going to be all right now. I know it the way you hear a musical harmony and know it sounds right or the way you feel warmth in the air and know summer's coming. I know it the way I seem to know a lot of things these days, hard and solid, like a rock in the ocean.
I'm sure of it the same way I'm sure I'm going to see Angel again.
* * *
We didn't have a funeral because, without a body, there wasn't a lot of point.
I didn't go back to look. At first, it was because I couldn't: I had enough to do worrying about Wesley and Gunn and trying to think up a semi-convincing explanation for how we'd blown up two and a half blocks of prime downtown real estate. Later, when they were both conscious and the city authorities had taken the path of least resistance and gone with my gas-leak story, I kept putting it off and putting it off. I didn't want to find a couple of scraps of charred leather and pile of dust and ash; as endings go, that one didn't strike me as possessing a whole lotta dignity.
Instead, when Gunn's cast came off and Wesley didn't need the crutches any more, we held a service in the courtyard at the Hyperion. Wesley gave the eulogy; he said a lot of things I wanted to except he said them a whole lot better than I could have. A couple of people who I really didn't expect to come made the trip from Sunnydale to be there, and that was pretty cool too.
Almost as soon as they'd left, I went out and bought a spade and a hoe. I spent the next three days digging up the weeds that'd been choking up the little lawn in the courtyard ever since the last guests had checked out of the Hyperion a couple of decades earlier. I cleared a patch of earth, and in it I planted a tree for Angel.
It felt right, because it meant there was something real to remember him by, something that lived and got stronger in sunlight, and I knew he would have gotten a kick out of that. Sometimes—when the guys weren't about—I used to go out in the courtyard and sit on the stone bench under the awning and just think about it growing. Some days, if I closed my eyes I could imagine Angel was sitting beside me—even though it was daytime—and I could almost hear him say, "That's nice. That tree. It's nice." Because Angel never was particularly verbal.
And sometimes when I shut my eyes I got a sense of not being alone that was so strong I just started talking to him. I told him when I had my first vision after the Sakkaresh, and we realised that even though Angel was gone the need for what he'd done wasn't. Angel knew Kate was going to join us pretty much before Kate did, because she kept right on being Denial Girl until she was spending six days out of seven at the agency. "I don't work here," she'd say: "I'm just helping out." But I knew different and I told Angel it wouldn't be long before she was drawing a pay cheque. And I was right.
I told him what happened when Faith got out of prison. I told him about the cases we were working on. The morning Giles called, the first thing I did was go outside and sit under Angel's tree and tell him about Buffy, because I figured he would have wanted to know.
And when I arrived at the hotel one morning and found Lindsey waiting for me with dark hollows under his eyes like he hadn't slept in days, I told Angel about that too. I told him how I fought with Wesley and Gunn and Kate and Faith about whether to trust Lindsey when he explained what Wolfram and Hart were planning to do and why he wanted out. I told Angel I believed Lindsey was telling the truth this time because I recognised the look on his face. It was the same look he'd had when he dropped the stake and let Angel go to face the Sakkaresh; a look that said he'd just realised what he was and he didn't want to be that person any more. And we've all been there.
The sapling that came up to my waist when I put it in the ground is twice my height now, and it's a whole lot better informed about demonology than most trees. The day I planted it, I figured there'd be a time when I wouldn't need to come and sit by it any more, and that'd be okay, because it would mean I'd moved on. But it's been eight years and I'm still coming, and lately I'm thinking about Angel more, not less.
When I was younger, I thought you could wipe out the past and start clean. Leave home and go to the big city; declare yourself a different person to the one who'd done all those things you were ashamed of and just start fresh. I thought it was simple.
Now I realise that nothing's ever simple. The past defines the present; who we were creates who we are. Angel knew that, and now I do too. But it's not a bitter knowledge, and for every time I sit on the bench next to the tree I planted for him and cry, there are ten other times I leave feeling good, remembering post-slaying breakfasts or blood with cinnamon sprinkles on top or one of those rare, real smiles of his. The grief and the joy all come wrapped up together, and you can't have one without the other.
It's a package deal, and it's called being alive.
* * *
Karl Birch lives with his family in a shabby neighbourhood backing on to rail tracks. The road surface is potholed and uneven and weeds push up through the cracks in the sidewalk. Time was, I would pulled out my nails with tweezers rather than be seen any place this far from a decent-sized mall. Now I knock on the door and notice how there are no weeds in the Birches' front yard, and how the path is swept clean, and suddenly I'm all out of condescension.
Karl begins to thank us almost before we're inside, and he keeps on thanking us until it starts getting awkward. Unexpectedly, Lindsey's the one who saves the afternoon from turning into a schmoozefest. He switches into detached, professional mode and starts quizzing Karl on the finer points of his problem that the PTB didn't see fit to include in my vision. It isn't long before Karl's concentrating on getting the details right and Lindsey's nodding and listening attentively. Suddenly we're not the people Karl's depending on to save his family any more; we're just professionals giving him the benefit of our expert opinion. It's not the truth, but pretending it is makes this easier on everyone.
"Is your son around?" I ask Karl when Lindsey's finished. "There's one other thing we have to do."
Vampires need an invitation to enter an occupied home; most demons don't. But there are other measures you can take to keep them out, and Wesley's researched a charm to protect the Birches in their own house. It'd be nice if they didn't wake up one morning to find their kid had been snatched in the night and taken to one of the less pleasant hell dimensions.
We make the grand tour of the house, stopping at every external door and window to daub a mixture of oil and fragrant herbs on the threshold. When this is done, Karl goes to get his kid, and Lindsey and I light candles and turn the mirrors around.
Karl's son is ten; he's called Nicky. He has fair, curly hair and a wide-eyed expression which is equal parts shyness and keen interest in his Dad's weird new friends. Karl stands the kid in front of himself and puts his hands on his shoulders. He's not just resting them there: he's holding on so tight his knuckles are white. He's holding on as if he's scared to let go of Nicky for a second because if he does something will swoop in and take his son away from him forever. You've got the right idea Karl, I want to tell him. You hang on tight there. Hold on to what you love and don't let go for an instant.
We've almost completed the preparations when my cell phone rings. I excuse myself, step into the hall and answer it. "Hi?"
"Cordy, it's Willow."
One thing I learned way back is that calls from Sunnydale are never good news.
"Jeez, Willow, another apocalypse? What started it this time?"
On the other end of the line, I hear her laugh. "No, no apocalypses. Or is that apocoli? Well, whichever, it's not the end of the world. I mean it's not the literal end of the world. It's just a guy. Do you remember someone from high school called Adam Michaels?"
I think, but the name is conspicuously failing to trigger ringing noises. "No."
Willow makes a small 'hmm' noise. "He called me asking about you; I don't remember him either. Call it witchy wicca intuition, but after I talked to him I felt… weird."
It took a long time, but Willow and I have learned to respect each other's instincts. We'll never be best pals, but when she calls to say something's up, I pay attention. "So you didn't tell him anything, right?"
She hesitates. "I kinda gave him your work details. Sorry."
Great. Some guy who was neither sufficiently cute nor sufficiently wealthy to catch my attention in high school is actively looking for me. "Ooh, fun. I've always wanted my own stalker."
Willow is obviously regretting her lapse in judgement, because she says, "I know a couple of pretty effective warding spells. I could e-mail them, if you'd like."
"No, it's okay. If he turns up and he's trouble, we'll just let Faith work out a little of that excess aggression of hers on him." I hear a noise and look up to see Lindsey waving at me from the door of the lounge. "Willow, I'm in the middle of something here. Thanks for the heads up. I gotta go."
"Sure. If you change your mind about the spells, let me know."
I thank her, turn off the phone and rejoin Lindsey, Karl and Nicky in the Birches' lounge. "Face painting time," I tell Nicky as I scoop the last of the salve from its container and, using my fingers, mark a line just above his eyebrows. As Lindsey recites the charm Wesley told us to use, I mark two more lines on Nicky's face, one under each eye. "Check you out," I say as I finish: "It's GI Joe."
"Go look at yourself in the bathroom mirror," says Karl, and Nicky doesn't have to be told again. He scampers off, thrilled.
When we're alone, Lindsey says to Karl in a low voice, "From now on, he doesn't leave the house. Keep him away from school. Don't let him play outside. Don't even let him take the trash out."
Karl nods. "Yeah. I understand. I, ahh, I mean… thank you. Thank you for this." He shuts his eyes for a second and shakes his head. "I never thought… I made a mistake, a terrible mistake…"
It's just as well Karl's eyes are closed, because for a second Lindsey's UltraProfessional demeanour cracks and his expression changes to one of understanding; maybe even compassion. It's a new look for Lindsey. It works on him.
"Yours isn't the worst mistake anyone ever made," he says. Then he blinks, and suddenly he's all lawyer again. "Just sit tight, Mr Birch. We'll be in touch very shortly. We're going to win this for you."
* * *
I bought a book called 'How to Grieve' because I didn't think I was doing it right.
I'd always thought of myself as the pragmatic type. I don't bury stuff: I deal. It's my way and it works for me. When Doyle died I went through six boxes of tissues in a week. I cried. I bawled. I threw things. I screamed and raged against the unfairness of the universe. But I never, not once, refused to accept he was gone for good.
Angel was another story.
It was weeks before I remembered not to talk about him in the present tense; months before I stopped expecting him to walk down the stairs in the Hyperion. Wesley started hinting that maybe I should get some counselling, and he didn't know the half of it. I never told him about the dreams, for instance: the ones where I went back to the place Wolfram and Hart had summoned the Sakkaresh and searched through the rubble and found him, bleeding, unconscious, alive. Really alive. In those dreams I felt his pulse and wept with joy, but when I woke up I always had my hand wrapped around my own wrist.
Eventually the dreams stopped. But I couldn't shake the conviction that underpinned them. I couldn't believe Angel was gone.
I never did manage to get my head around that.
Lately I've been dreaming about him again, a different dream. I'm in a field of lilies; all I can see are lilies carpeting the ground all the way to the horizon. The sky is a perfect, deep blue and I'm sitting next to Angel in the sun. It's neat you can do this now, I say to him.
Angel nods but he's not really listening to me. He's sketching something, but he doesn't seem satisfied with the way it's turning out. It doesn't look how it's supposed to, he says, frustrated.
He's trying to draw the tree I planted for him. Somehow I know it's the same tree, although it looks different. It's huge, for a start, and its branches stretch outwards and upwards, breaking the blue sky and forming a leafy canopy over the flowers. It's beautiful.
Come on, I say, getting up. Race you!
I start running to the tree, and Angel's right behind me. But when I get to it and turn around, he isn't there. The field is empty, and I'm standing under his tree by myself.
Next time I'll take his hand and walk slowly to the tree. I'll make sure he gets there. I'll bring him home.
* * *
The ride back to the hotel is interrupted by another call, except this time it's for Lindsey. "Who was that?" I ask as he pockets his cell phone.
"Wesley. He's been looking at the contract again. It seems that if Karl nominates someone to plead his case to the Interregnum, they have to hear it."
Sounds good to me. "So let's go for it."
He hesitates. "The down side is, if the appeal goes against him, both Karl and his representative are eviscerated."
I make a face. "So let's not go for it. Time to revert to Plan B."
"We don't have a Plan B," points out Lindsey.
"Well, unless evisceration is your idea of a fun evening's entertainment, we'd better think one up pretty fast."
He doesn't answer me; he's looking out the car's window, thoughtful, intense, and for a second he reminds me of someone else. This afternoon, Karl Birch stopped being the name at the bottom of an interesting legal problem to Lindsey and started being a real person. Maybe he'll look back some time and realise today was the day redemption stopped being about easing his own conscience and started being about helping other people because they matter.
Yeah, Lindsey's going to be all right. But he really needs to lighten up. He needs to get a life.
That's okay, because he has me looking out for him now.
"She'd say yes," I tell him.
He's still off in LindseyWorld and doesn't respond, so I prod him to get his attention. "If you asked her out, she'd say yes."
I'm expecting a blunt response, or else no response at all, and I'm pleasantly surprised when Lindsey opts for the hitherto unexplored third option. Glancing sideways at me, he asks uncertainly, "You think?"
"I know," I say with conviction.
I'm in a good mood by the time we arrive back at the hotel, and it gets better when I notice all the regular places in the parking lot are taken: Gunn's pickup, Wesley's Volvo, Kate's Subaru, Faith's Harley. There are always a couple of active cases, and apart from Round Table we're rarely at the Hyperion at the same time these days. It's always a little bit special when we are.
There's another car parked right in front of the hotel, one so familiar it gives me the shivers for a second. It's a coincidence, of course: after the Sakkaresh, Angel's Plymouth was only fit for scrap and besides, there's more than one classic black convertible in L.A.. But it's good to be reminded, and as I reverse into my space and kill the engine, I imagine that maybe he does call by sometimes, just to check we're doing okay. It's a nice daydream.
Wednesday night dinner is usually just Wesley and me - and my dead roommate - but as I get out of the car I figure I might as well ask everyone along, since they're here. I'll have to buy extra food on the way home, but that's no big. We'll eat and talk and argue and spend half the evening cleaning up after Dennis. I'm looking forward to it already.
I like the times when we're all together best.
My name is Adam Michaels; I'm thirty seven years old. Except it isn't, and I'm not, and the only two facts I have about myself are convenient fabrications.
Adams was the name of the nurse who spent most time with me in those first days out of intensive care. Michael was the name of my physical therapist's brother. So neither is my own, and neither has ever really felt like it means me. But everyone needs a name, and this one seems to serve its purpose adequately on official forms and credit cards and rental agreements.
They had to name me, because I wasn't carrying any ID when I was found, and neither my face nor my fingerprints could be found in official records. I came into this new world of mine like an infant—nameless, blank, fragile, needing to be fed and bathed. Unlike a newborn, however, I was clothed. All black, they told me: black shoes and pants and shirt and coat. I never saw those clothes; they were destroyed long before I'd regained my faculties sufficiently to wonder about them. I was angry, at first, that they'd taken away my only link to whoever I'd been before, but there had been good reasons. The clothes were ripped and shredded and heavily stained with blood. Not all of it was mine.
Like my name, my age is a mystery. I feel older than I look, although this may be purely due to the residual effects of my injuries: I still take medication and get tired easily. I know I wasn't always like this—one of the many doctors who helped me during my long convalescence told me I must have been in exceptional physical condition before whatever happened to me to have survived at all. My survival, he told me, was nothing short of miraculous: I was dead when I was found, my heart unbeating and my skin cold. The paramedics had been about to tag me as a corpse when I suddenly began to fight to breathe.
"You're a lucky man," he said. "Not many people get to come back from the dead."
That day—the twenty first of March—he decided I was probably about thirty. That was eight years ago and now annually, in March, I add one year to my age. I don't call it a birthday, and I don't mark it in any way.
* * *
I work as an illustrator in a large publishing company.
For this I owe thanks to the same doctor who told me about my resurrection. His brother-in-law is a partner here, and he found a job for me when I discovered a talent for art while I was recovering. My physiotherapist had suggested drawing as a way to improve my dexterity, and although I was reluctant at first, I quickly found that not only did I enjoy it, I had ability too. I have a steady hand, an accurate eye, and I can draw as well from memory as from life.
For a long time I liked my job; it satisfied me. I could spend hours building an image layer by layer, losing myself in the details of some imagined landscape. But more and more, in recent months, I have started to find my work hollow. It's just a way to occupy my hands and the conscious levels of my mind so I don't have to think about other things, like who I am, or who I was, or what happened to him to turn him into me.
More recently still, I've started to feel the same during my regular sessions in the local gym. I run and lift and punch and all the time know it's only a way of temporarily hitting the 'mute' button on the background noise in my skull. I seem to have constructed a life the chief goal of which is to distract myself from living, and I don't know why.
I draw for pleasure too. That's not a distraction.
After work, after the gym, after dinner has been cooked and cleared away, I bring out a sketch pad and draw. Sometimes in pencil, sometimes charcoal, occasionally pastels, but always the same subject matter. I draw portraits, faces of people I don't remember meeting.
There are a lot of different faces, and many I have drawn over and over again, and the folders I keep them in bulge these days. Some of the portraits are vivid and detailed; some are no more than a few sweeping lines delineating the essence of a face. There are men and women, old and young, smiling and severe. The only thing that ties them together is my solid and unshakeable conviction that I have known them all.
Here's a man; half-smiling, gaze keenly intelligent. The first picture I drew of him was perfect, but completely wrong. It wasn't until my third or fourth attempt that I realised I was drawing his physical age to match the maturity I saw in his eyes, and that in fact he should be some twenty years younger than I had made him. I tried again, and from the pencil's lead fell a face I recognised.
There's a girl, dark eyes, high forehead, her whole face a challenge to me, the world, whoever dares take her on. There's a woman whose whole aspect is brittle, as if she might break open at any second, but is somehow finding the strength to hold together from within. There's a young black man who smiles easily from between the charcoal lines, confident and calm, but with a hint of hidden grief behind his eyes. And there's another man whose face I cannot read at all, although I see in it pain and regret and a lot of myself.
Then there are the two faces I've drawn most of all.
They're both women, both young and uncommonly attractive, both vital and strong and alive. The resemblance ends there. One is always drawn in gold: hair and skin tone and eyes, she is living gold, as strong and as delicate as fine jewellery. Most of the faces I draw have one expression only, but I can draw her face joyful, sad, peaceful, angry, as if I have seen and known it in every possible variation. The power her picture exerts over me scares me; like Pygmalion, I am unnerved to be so controlled by my feelings for something created by my hand.
The other female face is a study in bronze, lustrous and vibrant. Sometimes I have drawn her pouting but more often she is smiling for me, and I am charmed by her. She has regal bone structure and full lips, and these I can capture exactly as they appear in my mind. But the sketches I make of her always disappoint me, because I can never reproduce her eyes as I know them to be: the gaze I capture on the flat page is never deep enough, it never sees enough. A living gaze from those eyes would see everything possible there is to see.
It is a pathetic admission to make, but these nights, when I am alone in my small, empty apartment, hunched over a sketch pad with pencil in hand—these nights are the only times I feel even half-alive.
I feel I am waiting for something, and increasingly I am afraid it has already happened and I missed it.
Drawing, working, resting, eating, exercising: this is my existence. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a life.
Then one day it changes.
* * *
"What's this?" asks Abby.
I reach down a second too late to stop the half-finished sketch flutter on to the floor beside my desk. Lately I've started drawing these faces I can't exorcise from my mind during working hours as well as at home.
"It's not nothing," she says, reaching down and picking it up.
Abby is one of the assistant designers; we share an office and, occasionally, a conversation. She wears chunky bangles made from wood and pottery beads and hums when she works, so that her jewellery clicks against the drawing board in time with the movement of her hand and the notes of the melody.
Abby studies the drawing for a moment, then breaks into a wide smile. "Who's this? A girlfriend? Don't tell me you've been holding out on me all this time and you've actually got a personal life."
"She's not my girlfriend," I say.
She looks at me quizzically. "Is she real? Or is she just your fantasy woman?"
"She's real," I say with certainty. "I used to know her."
Immediately I regret saying it, because Abby is inordinately curious, and regards my unwillingness to talk about myself or my past as a challenge to be surmounted. But the expected barrage of questions doesn't come; instead she keeps looking at the drawing, her expression gradually changing. Finally she says, "Hey, you know who this looks like?"
I shrug, expecting her to name some television actress or model I've never heard of.
"Cordelia Chase. Girl I was at high school with." She gives the page back to me and laughs. "A real queen B. she was, too. God, I haven't thought about Cordy in years. I wonder what happened to her?"
I look at the drawing, then at Abby. "What high school did you go to?" I ask.
* * *
There are things about myself that puzzle me, as my survival puzzled my doctors.
For example, the way my face still has the capacity to surprise me.
When I glimpse my reflection, in the paintwork of my car or shop windows or the mirrors in the restrooms at work, it always causes me to start, and for a split second I wonder who is this stranger who shadows me. Another doctor—a psychiatrist, this time—told me this is not unknown in amnesiacs like myself. As I have forgotten my life, so I have forgotten my face. What I don't understand is why, after eight years, I haven't re-learnt to recognise these features.
I have a tattoo, and that puzzles me too. It covers my right shoulder blade and part of my back; I can see it best if I strip to the waist and, standing in front of a mirror, twist my neck around as far as I can. The tattoo shows a mythical creature, a gryphon, ornately depicted, its body and tail entwined around the letter A. This is one of the reasons my carers at the hospital named me Adam: "We figured anyone who put up with that much pain to get an 'A' etched on his back probably wasn't called Zechariah."
I don't know what the 'A' stands for—although I'm sure it's not Adam—and I can't guess what significance the gryphon might once have had to me either. A few years ago, I made some enquiries around the tattoo parlours in the city, claiming I wanted to extend the image but had forgotten the name of the artist. I discovered that the design is Celtic, but no one I spoke to knew who might have been responsible for it.
Other things about myself which puzzle me—
I love sitting in the sun, although I burn easily. I love the raw heat on my exposed skin, the red glow permeating my closed eyelids… I can spend a day lying in the sun, and not see the time pass.
I am drawn to old buildings, most of all those with religious connections—churches, convents—although I dislike excessive religious symbolism, especially crosses. The past in general fascinates me, and I have an expert's knowledge of historical detail in many areas. Sometimes this knowledge of the past spills over into confusion regarding the present. More than once I have set out to find a library or gallery I am sure I have visited, only to find it was knocked down fifty years ago or more. On these occasions I return home unsettled.
I read a lot; I don't own a television. I am obsessively neat. I enjoy art, classical music and Italian food. I believe absolutely in the paranormal, for no reason I can readily explain. I want to visit Ireland some day.
How much of what I am is innate, I want to know, and how much was inculcated by time and experience into that other man, the one I don't remember being? Who was he, and what legacy did he leave, other than a picture on my skin?
Who are these people I can't stop drawing?
* * *
I tell Abby I am running tight on a project deadline and need to work late. When she has gone and I have the office to myself, I log on to the Internet through the computer we both use for design research. I navigate to the one of the largest search engines, type "Cordelia Chase + Sunnydale High" into the space provided and click "Find."
And she is found.
It is fast and almost too easy. The third site the search returns is called "Sunnydale High Alumni".
The site is organised chronologically, with group photographs of each graduating class. The girl I draw is young, but I don't know if I am showing her as I knew her or as she would be now. I start at the first available year, 1990, and work forward.
I am methodical and thorough, scanning every face in every photograph, overlooking none. And then, in 1999, there she is.
She smiles at me across the years, happy and proud and—something else. I look harder, and name the expression. She is triumphant, as if the simple fact of being here to be photographed is a victory to be hailed and lauded. I am blinking hard as I print the image; here it is, proof these faces aren't ghosts, figments of an empty mind's imaginings. She has a name; she is real. She is Cordelia Chase, and I have been drawing her as she was when she was eighteen. She would be thirty now.
And then I glance again at the printed picture, and see another face I recognise.
The instructions at the side of the screen cheerily tell me to Click on my face to find out who I am! I obey hesitantly; after being in complete ignorance for so long, I feel almost overwhelmed by this sudden rush of information.
I try saying the name out loud, but it means no more to me when spoken than it does glowing on the screen in red type on a pale peach background. But the face, her face…
The text at the foot of the photograph promises me that double clicking on a individual will provide current information. Cordelia's pop-up window reads, cryptically and unhelpfully, Still battling evil in L.A.! and Buffy's is simply empty.
L.A. is a big place.
It is frustrating, to learn so much so quickly and then suddenly hit a wall. I am at a loss what to do next until I notice that the site is maintained by Willow Rosenberg, and that she has a contact telephone number.
I note it down, look at it, check the time. It's getting late. This is probably a bad time, for any one of a hundred reasons. There is always tomorrow.
I realise I'm frightened.
I lift the phone, and call her.
I open my mouth to speak, then shut it again. I haven't thought at all what I'm going to say.
"Hello?" she repeats.
Finally I find my voice. "Hello. I was wondering… I'm trying to track down some people I used to know. They went to Sunnydale High. I thought you might be able to help."
"Oh sure," she says brightly. "I'm information central on all things Sunnydale. Who are you looking for?"
"Cordelia Chase," I say. "Or Buffy Summers. Either, really."
There is a silence on the other end of the line.
"They were in the class of '99," I add.
"Yes," says Willow Rosenberg, distracted and faint. Then, uncertainly: "Who is this? Do I know you?"
"My name is Michaels. Adam Michaels."
"Oh. I'm sorry." She sounds unsure, and even upset. "Buffy was a friend and the way you said her name you sounded just like…" She trails off. "I don't usually give information out over the phone."
"Please," I say. "It's important."
The line goes silent, and for a moment all I hear is the sound of Willow Rosenberg's uneven, ragged breathing.
"Please," I repeat.
There's another silence, and when she speaks again, the words come out in a rush. "I can't give you a home address, but I guess… I could let you have Cordy's work details. Is that okay?"
"Yes," I say. "Thank you."
* * *
Cordelia Chase works for a private detective agency called Angel Investigations. There's a stylised picture of an angel beside the firm's entry in the L.A. yellow pages, although it's poorly rendered and not instantly recognisable as such. I can't help thinking I could do better given ten minutes and the back of an envelope.
I arrive unannounced; I haven't called the number Willow Rosenberg gave me. The only answer I need I will get face to face, or not at all.
I pull up outside what seems to be a converted hotel, an unusual building with a distinct air of faded grandeur. Inside, much of the original style has been preserved, and the agency's lobby still retains a faintly decadent ambience. The girl sitting behind the desk looks up as I walk in. "Hi there. Help you?"
"I'm looking for Cordelia Chase."
She smiles apologetically. "Ms Chase is meeting a client this afternoon. But she's expected back soon."
"Do you mind if I wait?"
"No problem. Take a seat."
But I can't sit still, and after a couple of minutes I have to get up and walk around. I briefly distract myself by studying the various pieces of antique weaponry displayed around the reception area, ending at a pair of seventeenth century Bavarian axes positioned above a door leading to a small courtyard in the middle of which a tree is growing. It's not a large space, and the building obstructs the light on every side, and the tree is growing upwards instead of out, its branches straining vertically towards the high ceiling of blue directly overhead.
Maybe I keep looking out at the courtyard a little too long, because from behind me I hear the receptionist say, "You know, there's a story about that tree—" But she doesn't finish, because I hear the main doors open and close as someone walks in.
I turn around, and she is there.
Her hair is short where I have always sketched it falling in waves on to her shoulders, and she is a woman rather than a girl, but these small changes cannot mask what I recognise in her. The structure of her face. That gaze, now directed at me. This is Cordelia Chase, and I know her.
More importantly, she knows me.
"Oh, my God," she says.
I stand up. I didn't plan past this moment; actually, I didn't plan for this moment. Hesitantly, not sure what kind of reaction to expect, I say, "I'm…"
"Angel," breathes Cordelia. "Oh, God. Angel. Angel?"
The door opens again, and a man enters behind Cordelia. Haunted eyes widen in shock, and he freezes halfway across the threshold.
Cordelia doesn't take her eyes off me as she says, "Uh, Lindsey? Did I, you know, maybe fall over and hit my head and not notice? 'Cause I think I'm hallucinating."
"You're not hallucinating," Lindsey replies quietly.
"Oh," she says faintly. "Good."
"Cordelia." I say the name carefully; it feels weighty on my lips. It's my magic word, my open sesame; it's all I've brought with me, all I have to offer here. "Cordelia…"
She makes a tiny sound, half way between a gasp and a swallow. She crosses the lobby in two steps and grabs me, pulling me towards her with a violence so unexpected I almost lose my balance. She's holding on to me as if she doesn't dare let go, and she's saying that word again, over and over. "Angel. Oh God, Angel. Angel."
Suddenly she stiffens and leans backwards, still holding on to the lapels of my jacket. She stares at me. "You're warm." Her smile is getting wider and wider, and now I'm smiling too, because it is so familiar to me, from so many sketches, so many portraits. She lifts my hand and feels my wrist. "You're all warm—and pulsey. Oh my God, you're—you're alive."
"Cordelia, the reception area is hardly the place for public displays of—good God in heaven."
The voice coming from behind me is crisp and English-accented. I turn around—awkwardly, because Cordelia is still holding on to me—and see another face I know.
"Wesley," says Cordelia. "Angel's back. Angel's alive."
Not just a word. A name. My name. A is for Angel.
Wesley blinks rapidly behind his spectacles. "Cordelia, perhaps you should, ah, step away."
She gapes at him as if he's gone mad. "Wesley, look. It's Angel."
"Doppelgangers," says Wesley. "Illusions. Shape shifting demons. Evil spirits capable of taking the form of the dead. Cordelia, I see what you see—I want it to be—" He stops. "We don't know who or what this is. Please, move away slowly."
More footsteps approach, and as doors open around the lobby, I find myself surrounded by a sea of unfamiliar familiarity. Nameless faces I have until now only known as static images in shades of grey are suddenly presented to me in technicolour, animated, three-dimensional. I stare at them and they, in turn, stare back at me with varying degrees of surprise and disbelief.
Cordelia hasn't let go of me. "Angel, tell him. Say it's you." She stares at me, confused and now almost pleading. "Angel, say something."
"I'm sorry," I say. "I'm sorry, I don't know you—"
I look around the circle of faces. The silence is taut, expectant.
"Please, can you tell me who I am?"
* * *
They lead me upstairs, to a large wood-panelled room on the second floor dominated by a circular meeting table. I sit uncomfortably, the sole focus of attention. I feel like an insect, on a pin, under a magnifying glass.
They have a lot of questions.
I tell them about the Sunnydale High alumni site, about talking to Willow Rosenberg.
"You're Adam Michaels?" says Cordelia incredulously. I show her my driver's permit, and she studies it intently, fascinated.
I tell them about the doctors who could find no physiological reason for my amnesia, and the psychologists who said I might remember everything tomorrow or nothing, ever. I tell them about the long months of physical therapy, the time it took to re-learn how to perform the simplest tasks. I tell them about the surgery, and the weeks of drifting in and out of consciousness in the hospital. Finally I tell them about the first moment of panicked clarity, when I woke up to dull, drug-dimmed pain and found everything I should have known had been wiped clean away.
As I speak, I am aware that they are all watching me, examining me, comparing me to some other version of myself. I wonder how I measure up.
Cordelia in particular is scrutinising me carefully. Suddenly she reaches out and runs a hand through my hair. "You're going grey," she says with wonder. "You're getting older." Her fingertips run down to my cheek, and I try not to flinch as she brushes them lightly over the grid of scars she finds there.
"Unbutton your shirt," she orders me.
The dark-haired girl with the Boston accent rolls her eyes. "Jesus, Cor, time and a place for everything, huh?"
Cordelia regards her with disdain. "Oh, please. Not everybody has your one-track mind, Faith. Angel—Adam—whatever: stand up and take off your shirt."
I do as she asks, and she walks around me to look at my back. After a moment I feel her hand on my right shoulder blade. "The tattoo…" She breaks off and looks at the others. "It's him. It's Angel."
"The Sakkaresh," says Wesley. He nods, as if a suspicion has been confirmed, and tells me, "We thought you were dead. Apparently you were anything but. Self sacrifice… the willingness to give up existence—I'm a damn fool. I should have realised—that was the prophecy. That was what shanshu meant."
I button up my shirt and sit down again. Sakkaresh? Shanshu? Prophecy?
Faith looks up. "So it's like, because he was willing to die, he got to live?" She gives a low, appreciative whistle. "Neat-o."
"But what's the point of the Powers giving Angel a life if they took away everything that made him Angel?" asks Cordelia.
"Perhaps that was part of his reward," suggests Wesley. "Freedom from guilt."
"Without letting him choose whether he wanted to remember what he was? Whether he wanted to remember us?" Cordelia is getting angry. "Well, that sucks."
"If we've learnt anything, it's that the Powers' decisions are often somewhat abstruse. Besides, the amnesia may have nothing to do with their intervention. It may simply be a side-effect of his extensive injuries."
"He just said they told him there's no physical reason. The Powers must have done it."
I feel I'm missing something important in this discussion.
"What do you mean, remember what I was?"
A sudden and awkward silence falls on the table. Significant looks are exchanged. No one will meet my eye.
Cordelia reaches out and pats my arm reassuringly. "It's not important. What's important is that you're back now. You're home."
"What's important," I say, "is that I've spent the past couple of hours answering your questions and no one's answered any of mine yet. What do you mean, what I was?"
Cordelia hesitates. She leans forward. "You were—"
The man who was with her when I first met her this afternoon—Lindsey—cuts her off before she can say more. "Cordelia, maybe you want to think long and hard before you say anything. Because once it's out there it can't be taken back."
"He wants to know," she insists.
"I'm not sure he does," says Lindsey.
"Cordelia," says Wesley softly. His tone is more gentle, and although he's speaking to her, he's looking at me. There's pity in his expression, and for the first time I begin to feel afraid. "Consider what he has forgotten. Consider he might be better off not knowing."
I look around the table, meet six gazes which are as familiar to me as they are strange. "Tell me."
Cordelia looks to Wesley, seeking permission; he turns away, disavowing responsibility.
She grips my hand, as if to lend me strength to face what's to come.
"Your name is Angel," she begins.
Weird thing about life: just when you think you've got it figured, everything changes.
You think you're trapped in the same dirt-poor backwater existence your parents never managed to escape, until you get the scholarship everyone said you weren't good enough to win. You think you've got it made, with a law degree and a the offer of a job at the firm with the most lavish offices and the biggest bonuses, until you realise what you've signed up for. You think there's no place lower for you to go, until there is. You think there's no one to turn to, until someone offers to help. You think you'll never give a damn about anything again, until one day you wake up, blink in the sunlight, and start remembering what it felt like to care.
And then something happens and everything changes again.
Angel is alive.
* * *
There's an odd atmosphere at the Hyperion the day after Angel returns, and not much work is getting done. Although I guess there's a reasonable excuse: if old Henry walked through the doors at Ford, you can bet not many cars would get shipped for a while.
I spend the morning and afternoon in my office with the door closed, ignoring the hum of excited conversation drifting up to my window from the courtyard below. At one point I hear Beth, the receptionist, say loudly, "Angel's back!", which cracks me up. She never met him. At least Cordelia and Wesley and the others have a reason to trip. He meant something to them: friendship and apple pie and whatever other Disneyland sentiments you want to throw in the mix.
I, on the other hand, never liked the guy even when he was dead, and the last time we saw each other face to face, I was trying to kill him.
And did I mention he cut my hand off? Because, frankly, I'm still pissed about that.
So yeah, Angel's back, but pardon me if I don't rush to join in the conga line. Instead I try to get some work done, reading and re-reading the text of the contract Karl Birch signed. Except I can't concentrate on it, because every two minutes my mind starts wandering, and I hear Karl apologising for being so stupid, for making a mistake. Fucking saying sorry, like it's his fault he was screwed over.
And then it's Angel I'm hearing in my head, standing in the Hyperion's lobby and apologising for not knowing anyone. For not remembering.
I'm not concentrating well today.
I'm not ecstatic Angel's back, but I admit I am curious.
I decide to stop by Cordelia's on the way home.
* * *
There are only two cars parked outside Cordelia's apartment: one is hers, and the other is a black convertible which must belong to Angel. Apparently amnesia hasn't eradicated his taste in expensive transportation. The door's unlocked, and I let myself in.
They're in the kitchen, sitting at a table strewn with photos and newspaper clippings and all the tangible junk people use to give their memories substance. They haven't heard me come in, so I knock on the door frame to draw their attention. Angel looks up blankly; Cordelia with relief, as if she's grateful for the interruption. "Hey, Lindsey. Angel, this is Lindsey McDonald. Lindsey McDonald," she says again, as if saying my name repeatedly will make it more recognisable.
"I remember," says Angel.
Cordelia beams, misunderstanding. "You do?"
He looks uncomfortable. "I mean - from yesterday. We met briefly. Yesterday."
"Oh." Her face sags, and I sense this isn't the first time she's been disappointed today.
I hold out a hand and smile professionally; we'll do this the guy way. "We weren't properly introduced. Pleased to meet you. Call me Lindsey."
"Adam - " he starts. Corrects himself. "Angel. I'm going with Angel now." We shake hands; his grip is warm, not particularly strong. Now I can study him up close, I see the lines around his eyes, the threads of white in his hair. A mesh of white and pink lines marks one side of his face, from ear to cheek. Vampires don't carry their scars visibly; people do.
"Where is everybody?" I ask Cordelia. "I kind of figured they'd all be here."
"They were. All last night and today. Most of them went home to get some sleep. Except Faith. Faith went to the gym." Cordelia's voice is unusually hoarse, as if she's been talking non-stop for too long. As she finishes speaking, she stifles a yawn.
"I guess you had a lot to catch up on."
"It's not easy turning two hundred and fifty years into the Reader's Digest Book of the Month," Cordelia says casually. I look at Angel, expecting some kind of reaction. There's none. She turns to him and says suddenly, "Oh, I just remembered where I put it. Wait here. Don't go anywhere."
She vanishes, and I'm left alone with Angel, which is not a scenario I was prepared for. When the silence starts to get oppressive, I make an attempt at small talk. "So, ah, what have you been doing these last eight years?"
"I'm an illustrator," says Angel. "Children's books."
It's an effort not to laugh. The Scourge of Europe has a nine-to-five job drawing pictures for kiddies' story books. And I thought I'd changed a lot.
He looks up, makes eye contact with me. Gestures at the assorted clutter on the table. "They told me I was… That I used to be…"
"A vampire," I say. "Yes."
Angel nods, and looks grateful that he didn't have to say the word. He tries again. "I was expecting… I don't know what I was expecting. Not this."
He looks lost, swamped by a deluge of history he can't relate to or process effectively. I wonder if any of them paused long enough to wonder if they were really doing him any favours. Or did they just heap revelation on revelation, spill out facts and names and dates and assume he'd be able to deal with it because at some level he's still their Angel?
I'm not sure he is.
"I'll be right back," I say.
Cordelia's in the bedroom, rummaging through a box she's retrieved from the back of a closet. I join her and shut the door behind me. "How much did you tell him?"
She looks at me. "Well, everything."
"Jesus, he's practically in shock. Couldn't you have, I don't know, broken it to him gently?"
"Right," says Cordelia witheringly. "So, maybe start with 'You really didn't used to tan well', and go from there?"
She has a point, but still. "You don't know how he's going to deal with it."
"He's Angel," she says determinedly. "He's going to deal with it fine. Lindsey, he wants to remember."
"No, he thinks he wants to remember. There's a difference."
"Here it is," says Cordelia, ignoring me. She lifts something from the box and marches out of the bedroom and back to the kitchen. I follow, and arrive just as she is putting it down in front of Angel.
It's a photograph, a posed group shot that looks like it was taken at a school prom. I look closer, and see my first guess was a good one. There's Cordelia, eighteen and with hair down to her waist, one arm linked with that of a younger-looking Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. I look at her. "You dated Wesley?" Primly, she says, "There was one date. Singular. That's not 'dated'. 'Dated' implies ongoing. Anyhow, that's not the point."
Immediately I see what she means. Because at the extreme left of the frame is Angel, as he was, looking uncomfortable in a tuxedo and standing next to a pretty blonde girl in a lilac dress. "That's the only shot I have of the two of you," Cordelia says to him. She sighs. "You disappeared any time anyone pulled out a camera. Xander used to say he was going to start carrying an Instamatic instead of a cross…" She trails off; Angel's expression has changed. He's frowning, struggling with something.
"That's right." Cordelia's smile widens. "That's right. See, you are remembering."
He shuts his eyes. Shakes his head. "No, I… I know her face. Her name's on the school alumni web site. That's all."
Cordelia blinks. Angel's staring at the photograph as if he could will it to be more than it is, a faded record of hairstyles and clothes that haven't been fashionable for over a decade. Cordelia's leaning over him and the chasm between them is so wide I'm surprised she doesn't have to shout to make herself heard. Angel can't say what she wants to hear any more than she can stop asking him to say it and, Christ, this is pathetic. It's like watching a dumb animal being tortured.
Cordelia puts her hand to her mouth just in time to cover a sob, and we all decide to pretend it's another yawn. "You're exhausted," I say. "Why don't you get some sleep."
She looks doubtfully at Angel. "I was going to fix dinner. You must be hungry."
"We'll go out." I wonder for a moment if it's really me saying this, or have I been temporarily possessed by one of the more subtle non-corporeal demons. I guess I like Cordelia more than I realised. I know I don't like seeing her like this. To Angel I say, "I'll show you the city. How well do you know L.A.?"
"I don't. I've never been here," he starts, and again he has to correct himself. "I don't remember being here."
"Good," I say. "It'll all be new."
Which is how I end up volunteering to buy dinner for the guy who cut off my hand.
* * *
There's a bar just outside Silver Lake called Fowler's where I seem to end up often enough to think of myself as a regular. The furniture's battered, the beer's weak, and the staff are indifferent to the point of open hostility. I don't know why I keep coming back. Maybe it's because they have all the sports channels.
I order two specials and a couple of bottles of beer - I'm sure they water down what's on tap - and we take a free booth near the bar. There's an old-style wide-screen television above the bar, and tonight's Lakers game is in progress. We watch in silence for a while, until I remark that Bell isn't playing well, and Angel agrees, and then we're talking about basketball in general and the Lakers this season in particular.
And I guess if you walked in here right now, you wouldn't look twice at us. Just a couple of guys having a beer and watching the game.
Fuck it, I'm not even fooling myself.
Because I'm pretty sure we're the only two people in here who have very nearly been responsible for bringing about the Apocalypse.
Suddenly I realise why I like Fowler's. The bar represents an oasis of Thursday-night normality, a type of existence I rejected before I understood enough about it to know what I was giving up. Now all I get is visiting rights, a brief glimpse through the glass into that simpler world I can't go back to, ever.
Angel got to go back.
That isn't fucking fair.
"You're an idiot," I tell him, and take another slug of beer. "If you think you want to remember it - any of it - you're an idiot."
Angel says nothing for a moment. Then, quietly: "I'd prefer to be an idiot who knows who he is than one who doesn't."
"You do know who you are. Hell, Wesley'll draw you a timeline with cross-references if you ask him to."
The food arrives and we eat, tensely. Angel consumes his meal like he's following a plan: first the burger bun, then the meat, then the fries. One taste, one texture at a time, as if attempting a combination any more complex will overload his sense of taste.
"There's a difference between knowing and remembering," he says as he finishes.
At last, something we can agree on. "Yes, there is. And you want to stick at just knowing because, believe me, you do not want to remember."
"I think I'm better placed to decide that," he says. There's an edge of anger in his voice that he quickly shuts down, but it's there. Is this what a couple of drinks do, I wonder? A few beers and mild Adam Michaels in publishing feels that old, half-smothered rage bubble up and thinks about how good it would be to hit something, to break open flesh and snap a bone or two. Maybe he really has convinced himself he wants to know where that comes from. He doesn't.
His tone more subdued, he finishes, "If I've done - things - if I have regrets - that's a price I'll pay."
I put the bottle of beer down harder than I mean to, and the glass base slams against the wood, sending tremors through the table. "You have no idea about guilt, have you? What's the worst thing you've done in the past eight years? Parking violation? Exaggerated an expense claim? Guilt is when the last thing you think about at night and the first thing you think about in the morning is how badly you fucked up. Guilt is knowing that no matter how much you do now, you're never going to be able to balance out what you did then. Guilt is every crappy thing you ever did bouncing around inside your skull twenty-four seven. Don't say you want that back because you don't have the slightest fucking clue what you're talking about."
Angel reaches into a pocket and takes out his wallet. He opens it, revealing a driver's permit and an American Express and a Visa, all neatly stamped A MICHAELS. There's something else in there too. He wipes the table clean and reverently places the photograph between us on the beer-free patch he's just created. It's the one Cordelia was showing him earlier, the group shot from her senior prom. I hadn't noticed he'd lifted it.
He points at the girl standing beside him in the picture. "Did you know her?"
"Met her once."
"Cordelia says I loved her," says Angel quietly. "I want to remember that."
I don't think I can take much more of this. "I have to piss."
I get up and leave the table, go to the men's room and do the needful. I don't go back to the booth immediately. When I've made the call, I put away my cell phone and return to where Angel's waiting.
"Love is transient," I say. "Guilt lasts. Let's leave."
* * *
Maybe Angel's a little drunk, or maybe he's just preoccupied, but he doesn't notice that the walk back to the car is taking longer than it should. Or that the neighbourhood we've wandered into is suddenly a whole lot rougher.
He doesn't notice the vampires until it's too late.
The first one drops from a ledge somewhere above and lands directly in front of us on the sidewalk, blocking our path. A couple more move in from behind, and we are very quickly and effectively surrounded. They're all wearing their human faces, but I know what they are. There are at least a couple of nests around here, and the last of the human street gangs were driven out months ago.
"Hey, McDonald," says the vampire facing us. "How's it going?"
Angel looks at me. "You know this guy?"
"Sure he does," says the vampire. "He got my sire off homicide charges in '96. What happened, Mac? We thought you were a brother."
He's smiling at me - leering - as he says it. Meetings like this are an occupational hazard these days, which is why I never go out alone after dark. I have a lot of enemies, and unfortunately most of them are immortal. "I had a change of heart," I say.
"Ohhh," says the vampire, drawling the syllable out for several seconds. "How about I change it back for you?" He grins. "Literally."
His face changes, and beside me I hear Angel gasp. I glance at him and see he's rooted to the spot.
The vampire lunges for me, and I jump to one side just fast enough to avoid it. It spins around impossibly fast, bearing down on us from a new direction. Its face is twisted with savage rage and it's growling. Inhuman. Bestial.
Angel stares at it, paralysed.
It's four vampires against two slightly drunk middle-aged men, both of whom are eligible for disability allowances. Yeah, we're pretty much dead here.
Maybe I should have thought things through a little more before I went and did something this fucking stupid. And isn't that just the tag line for my life.
The vampire stops. It looks down at its chest, and the crossbow bolt sticking out of it, in mild surprise. Then it crumbles to dust.
A car screeches past us, brakes hard and spins to a halt at the end of the street. In the few seconds before it starts to accelerate again, I see Kate behind the wheel, and Faith leaning through the passenger side window, crossbow in hand.
She dumps the crossbow and leaps out of the moving vehicle, landing lightly between us and the remaining three vampires. There's a stake ready in her right hand by the time her feet hit the ground.
"So," she asks brightly: "who's first?"
The vampires think about that for a moment. Then they run.
Faith checks her watch, and counts off the seconds. "…Eight, nine, ten." She puts her hands to her mouth and hollers down the street: "Ready or not, here I come!" And then she's running, a five-foot-five force of nature in black jeans and a tank top, a Slayer on top of her game. She's almost out of sight when she remembers something, and pauses long enough to call back to us: "See ya later, don't wait up!"
Kate brings the car around in a wide U-turn and pulls up beside us. She gets out, frowning.
"Thanks for coming," I say.
Kate explodes. "Jesus, Lindsey, you call me and tell me you're about to go for a stroll in the most dangerous neighbourhood in this whole damned city - what did you expect me to do? What the hell were you thinking? What was the point of this little escapade supposed to be?"
Angel's staring at the place where the vampire disintegrated. His lips are moving, but he's not making any sounds; his breathing is fast and shallow, and his hands are shaking.
"That thing," he says at last. "That thing. That was—"
Kate looks at him, then at me.
"Oh," she says flatly. "That was the point."
* * *
I'm lucky Cordelia isn't a Slayer, because if she were I'd be dead by now. As it is, the looks she's giving me are sharp enough to stake.
"Stupid," she's saying as she paces up and down Wesley's office in the Hyperion: "Dense. Dumb. Brainless. Moronic. Did we do stupid already? I just want to emphasise the stupidity angle because that was a really, really stupid thing you did."
"No, I don't think it was." It's the first time Wesley's spoken since Kate told him what happened. While Cordelia's railed and hurled invective at me, he's stayed quiet. I think he knows what happened tonight. Or suspects. "Irresponsible, perhaps. But not stupid. You knew exactly what you were doing, didn't you?"
Cordelia says sharply, "Yeah. He was trying to get Angel killed."
"No," I say. "Ask Kate. I called her before we left the bar. I told her where to meet us. I told her to bring Faith."
"And then you went out to find some vampires." Cordelia is shaking her head in disbelief. "Hello? Death wish much? Why?"
Wesley says, "To show Angel what he was."
Cordelia falls suddenly silent.
"You can give him history lessons ad nauseam," I say, "but it's never going to be real to him. You can't make him remember if he's not ready for it. He's not ready; tonight proved that. There's such a thing as being cruel to be kind."
"Yeah, and then there's just being cruel," Cordelia shoots back. The look she's giving me is angry, hostile. Betrayed. It's harder to take than I thought it would be. "What you did was wrong. It's not fair on him. He can't remember, he doesn't know, he can't deal—he's not Angel any more."
She stops abruptly, as if she's shocked herself into silence with the truth. Her face twists with the effort of not crying, and Wesley places a hand on her shoulder.
"He's not Angel," she repeats. "I want him to be and he's not. It's not fair. I never grieved because I always knew he was alive, and now I'm going to have to start mourning the day after he gets back. Because he's not Angel. Angel's dead."
Wesley puts his other arm around her and embraces her. He rocks her for a moment, then looks at me.
I don't need to be told to go.
* * *
Since I'm not welcome around the Hyperion right now, I go home. I dump my jacket on the sofa, flip on the music system and check my messages. There's only one.
"Uh, Mr McDonald? This is Karl. Uh, Karl Birch. I hope you don't mind me calling you at home, it's just, uh, Ms Chase said someone would be in touch today, y'know, just to let us know how it was going and, uh, I was wondering - I was hoping -"
I kill the volume on the playback so I don't have to listen to the rest. Go find yourself another hero, Karl.
I pour a drink and let Ella Fitzgerald fill the apartment. When the door buzzer sounds, I seriously consider not answering it.
"Police!" yells a voice from outside. "Open up!"
I get up and open the door. Kate smiles innocently at me.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," I tell her. "After the whole thing with the Senticosis demons, I'm already on the residents' association eviction list."
"Sorry," she says, insincerely. She walks past me and into my kitchen, where she fills the kettle and starts hunting through my cupboards.
"Come in," I say dryly. "Make yourself at home."
She's spooning instant coffee into two cups. Casually she says, "So. What the hell was that about tonight?"
She's looking at me like she expects me to say something, and I don't know what. Suddenly I'm tired of trying to work out what everybody wants from me. "Please, save the lecture, because I've had my fill for tonight. I'm sorry. I was stupid. Mea maxima culpa."
She shakes her head. "No lecture."
"Why do you care if he remembers or not?"
"I don't," I say. "I don't care."
"Right," she says, raising an eyebrow sceptically. "And tonight you nearly got both of you killed just to prove a point. Way to demonstrate that total lack of concern, Lindsey."
I shift uncomfortably. For an ex-lawyer, I'm doing a piss-poor job of mounting a convincing defence.
She hands me a cup of black coffee and sits down on the edge of the sofa. Kate always sits on the edges of things. Never gets comfortable. Always ready to move fast. "Do you think it's a reward? To be allowed to forget?"
I hesitate. After a second I sit down next to her. "In his case? Yes."
"Are you jealous?"
I'm too exhausted to lie. "Yes."
"I'm not," says Kate. "You know why?"
"Let me guess. Because for every bad memory there's a good one; snow on the daisies and kittens on the beach and lah-dee-dah."
She scowls. "I hate kittens. No, it's because living means moving forward. Dead things can't change; we can. Memory records experience, and experience takes us some place new. If I couldn't remember the last dozen years, I wouldn't know what I was fighting for, or why."
I wish I could see it like that. "It's just a burden. And if Angel doesn't have to carry his around any more, the least he could do is be happy about it."
Kate is looking at me oddly. "If you could wake up tomorrow and be some guy who looks like you but hasn't done any of the things you have, would you choose that?"
I'd be that other guy in a second. I don't say anything, but I guess the look on my face makes it perfectly clear.
Kate shakes her head. "I don't think I'd be able to love him."
I stare at her.
"Yeah," says Kate: "You heard right."
* * *
I wake up in the dark, warm, touched, limbs threaded through limbs, skin resting against skin; the soft, lazy thud of a resting heartbeat not my own. It's been a long time.
Then I realise why I'm awake. The phone's ringing.
I stretch across the bedclothes and pick it up. "Hello?"
It's Gunn. Angel's gone.
* * *
Kate showers and then dresses while I tell her what Gunn told me. It's pretty straightforward. Cordelia went to make coffee and when she got back he wasn't there.
"Shit," says Kate, pulling on her jeans. "Shit, shit, shit. We should have gotten an address, a telephone number, anything, why the hell didn't I take details, I used to be a fucking cop—"
"We'll find him," I say.
"No, we won't," she says. "Not if he doesn't want to be found."
And I know she's right. If Angel wants to vanish, he will be able to, because it's only been a day and all we have is a name that isn't really his anyway. He's probably on the freeway right now, getting the hell out of L.A., heading back for that other, safe life he's been living these last eight years.
And until right now I would have thought it was better that way.
"I'm going to the hotel," she says.
"I'll come too."
"Bad idea. Cordy'll rip your eyes out," Kate says matter-of-factly. "Now isn't the best time. Come around tomorrow morning. We won't be able to do much tonight anyway."
And then she's gone.
* * *
But I don't go over to the Hyperion the next morning, because that would require courage, which has never been one of my featured attributes. Instead I sit in the apartment and wait for someone to come round, or the phone to ring, or something.
By the time morning becomes afternoon, it's clear to me I need some kind of coping strategy. I review the options available and settle on getting very, very drunk. I shrug on my jacket, lock the door behind me, and head out to Fowler's, with the firm intention of staying there until they run out of liquor, or I pass out, or the world ends. And I know better than most people that number three is a genuine option.
I'm a little surprised to find Angel there.
I see him before he sees me; he's sitting in the same booth we took last night, and his reflection in the big mirror above the bar is right in front of me as I walk through the door. He barely reacts as I sit down opposite him, and we sit in silence for a long time. Or it feels like a long time.
Finally I say, "I thought you'd be far away by now."
"So did I," Angel says.
"Why'd you come back?"
He gestures around the bar's grimy interior. "I couldn't pass up the chance to make a return visit to a classy joint like this."
Yeah, real funny. But I have to wonder, why here, when there's a bar on every other block. Maybe Angel wanted to be found.
Maybe all any of us really wants is to be found.
Might as well get this over with. "I owe you an apology."
"No," he says quickly. "I needed to see that. Before, it was just fairy tales. It's real now."
"That's not the kind of real you need." Hell, it's not the kind of real anyone needs.
"I need some kind of real, because nothing else in my life is." He sounds angry again and, for the first time, maybe bitter too. A second passes, and then he says, "I drew pictures of you."
Okay, now this is getting surreal. "Excuse me?"
"I remembered faces," he continues. "Nothing else. I drew these faces, the way I remembered them looking at me… I couldn't get those faces out of my head. I wanted to know what I'd done to make them look at me like that." He looks at me. "What did I do to you?"
I look down at my fake hand. Christ, if I start answering that question in detail, we'll still be here this time tomorrow.
Or maybe not.
"I asked you for help," I say. "A long time ago. And you couldn't give it, or didn't want to; I don't know which."
"I'm sorry." This strikes me as a pretty pointless thing to say under the circumstances, until I realise he isn't finished. "I'm sorry I don't remember."
And suddenly it doesn't matter as much as it did. Because I'm not the same man who summoned the Sakkaresh any more than Angel's the same person who took a scythe to my arm all those years ago. I think about what Kate said, about memory and experience and always moving forward. It makes sense now.
Redemption isn't lightening and thunder and bolts from the blue. It's sharing a Friday lunch time beer with someone you used to hate. It's when someone who used to hate you tells you she'll accept you just the way you are. Fucked up and inadequate and with a lifetime's worth of mistakes on your conscience, and she says she can love you just the way you are.
And that's the Angel Cordelia wants back. Not blameless Adam Michaels.
He says, "I feel like I'm waking up. Coming alive. And it's - frightening. Last night I wanted to walk away and not come back. I couldn't. I can't. I can't stop wanting to remember."
At last, I understand.
"If you really want it," I say, "you'll have to talk to the Powers who made you human. You'll have to ask them to restore your memories."
He looks blankly at me. "How?"
"You can appeal through the Parliament of the Interregnum -" I begin, and then stop, because Angel just looks confused. "It's complicated. We'd have to open a portal to their dimension, and you'd have to go there and make a formal representation. There's no guarantee they'd even listen."
He closes his eyes for a second, trying to accommodate this fresh example of the fantastic. "But they might."
"They might," I concede.
He looks at me. "Will you tell me how to do that?"
"No," I say, and feel a weight lift from me. My own burden, dropping away and rolling down the hill. I think about the expression of gratitude on Karl Birch's face, the way he held on to his kid, how much he needs someone to help right now. That's what this is about; that's what it's been about all along.
"I won't tell you how to do it; I'll speak for you. I'll be your advocate."
* * *
We perform the ceremony in the parking lot at the back of the Hyperion, just before sunrise. I'm not the first to get here; Wesley's already spent hours setting things up. Cordelia and Gunn arrive next, bringing Angel, then Kate, who's picked up Karl on her way over. Faith's last; she hops over the high fence at the back of the lot and announces she's just swinging by on her way back from patrol to wish us luck. No big deal, she insists. But she's here; we're all here.
Wesley straightens up. "That's it. We're ready."
Faith frowns. "Isn't there an incantation or something?"
"In this case, the first rays of the morning sun are all that's required." He gestures towards a gap between the Hyperion and its neighbour, where the eastern sky is starting to grow light. "Dawn is at 5.12 this morning. Four minutes."
I go to get Angel, who's standing with Cordelia and Gunn. "It's nearly time."
Cordelia turns to Angel and gives him a brief, hard hug. "Last time you walked away from me you didn't come back for eight years."
He almost smiles. "I'll try to be quicker this time."
"You do that." She looks at me. "And as for you - don't get disembowelled, okay?"
"Believe me, it's a major goal."
I lead Angel away and we step inside the pattern of symbols Wesley's spent the past hours chalking on to the ground. Karl's waiting for us; both he and Angel look nervous. And this isn't even going to be the difficult part.
Karl glances at Angel. "You part of this outfit?"
He hesitates. "They're helping me too."
"They're good people," says Karl.
Angel looks at Cordelia, Wesley, the others. Me. Nods silent agreement.
"One minute to go," says Wesley. He frowns. "Lindsey, you are clear on the correct form of address to use? We could run through it again, quickly."
"It's okay. I'm clear."
"And you're certain you're comfortable with the protocol? Because—"
"Wesley," I say firmly: "I know what I have to do."
He nods. "Thirty seconds."
Kate looks at me and smiles. Just smiles.
The sun comes up, and as the first bright shafts of light hit the ground, the symbols beneath our feet begin to shimmer with golden iridescence. A rippling curtain of solid sunlight coalesces out of nothing, an incandescent wave of motion. It's as if the air is coming alive around us.
Everything's coming alive now.
We walk into the light.
people like us
People like us. People who've made bad choices; people who've screwed up. People with a lot on their consciences; people who regret things. People who still hurt, even though it's been a long time and the rest of the world's moved on. People who want to be different today to how they were yesterday.
People like us.
* * *
The sun's well above the Hyperion's roof now, and I'm getting real bored waiting for something to happen. "How much longer are they gonna be?"
Wes shrugs. "Hard to say. There are a number of theories concerning the comparative flow of time in relative dimensions. One increasingly popular view is that the subjective experience of time passing actually determines the length of—"
Cor rolls her eyes. "Wesley!"
He gives a resigned shrug. "It'll take as long as it takes."
"Heads up," says G. suddenly: "Incoming."
The air in front of us starts to shimmer and wave like it's been blasted out of a jet engine. There's a whistling noise that starts off faint and gets louder and louder, and suddenly a flat disc of white light forms about six feet off the ground. The light's so bright I have to shut my eyes, but as I turn away I hear three solid thuds and three different-pitched grunts.
Then the light fades, and when I open my eyes Mac and Angel and Karl are lying in an undignified heap in the middle of the gravel.
Mac sits up and checks his fake hand's still attached. He looks upwards, at the place where the portal was. "The only way to fly," he says hoarsely.
Kate starts helping him to his feet. "You okay?"
Mac says something that might be an attempt at 'yes', except it sounds more like the kind of noise a frog would find a real turn-on. He swallows and tries again, with marginally more success: "I feel like I've been talking for days."
Kate hauls him up, while Wes and Cor start helping Angel and Karl. Kate says, "You look like you've been talking for days," and she's got a point. Mac's stubble has serious aspirations to beardhood, and the others aren't far behind him. "How'd it go?"
"I see no signs of evisceration," says Cor, dusting Angel down. "Which I interpret to be of the good. You talked to the Powers, right?"
"We talked," says Mac. "And talked. Jesus, can they talk."
"And?" I prompt.
Karl breaks into a smile that's so big it could qualify for independent nation status. "We won."
"They annulled the contract," clarifies Mac.
"We won," Karl repeats, like he needs to keep saying it until it sinks in. He thanks us, then thanks us again. Then he thanks us a couple more times, just in case we're not on board with the whole gratitude riff. Maybe I'm losing my cynical, hardened edge but by the time Kate ushers him back to the hotel so he can call his family and tell them the good news, I'm getting a warm glowy feeling all over.
Angel hasn't said anything yet.
Cor looks at him as if she's gotta ask the question but knows she's not going to like the answer. "What about you?"
It's Mac who replies. "We made the appeal. They listened."
"And they said…?"
"They didn't say anything," says Angel dully. "They just sent us back."
"No answer is not necessarily the answer no," says Wes with false optimism.
Angel shakes his head. "I don't remember anything more."
Cor gets real quiet, and the buoyant mood evaporates a little.
Then she takes a breath and puts on her best smile. It's almost convincing. "You're all back safe and no one got their insides extracted. I for one still feel celebration is justified."
Angel smiles back at her. But it doesn't go all the way to his eyes.
* * *
There's a brief pause after I knock at the motel room door before I hear the chain being taken off and it opens. Angel looks out at me, pleased but clearly puzzled. "Faith. Hello."
"Figured I'd pay you a surprise visit," I say, walking past him into the room. "Are you surprised?"
"Uh, yes," says Angel. "But in a good way," he adds quickly.
I sling my backpack and helmet on to the end of the bed. The motel room is like every motel room I've ever been in - functional, impersonal, bare. After prison, places like this make my skin crawl. Give me junk and clutter and week-old take out on the floor and then maybe I'll think about moving in. "Jeez, this place has so little ambience it's into ambience deficit. How much are they charging you a night?"
"Not enough to guarantee hot water in the mornings."
We operate out of a hotel with twenty-five - count 'em - empty bedrooms and Angel's paying for his accommodation in L.A.. He isn't any easier to figure out now he's got a body temperature than he ever was. "Why are you staying here?"
He shrugs. "They gave a better rate than the Hyatt."
"No, I don't mean why are you staying here, I mean why are you staying here? Cor's got a spare room."
"She offered," concedes Angel. He seems uncomfortable. "But… I don't feel I know her well enough."
"And you're not gonna get to know her sitting here by yourself."
Angel nods, like he's had this conversation with himself a lot recently. Finally he says, "You've all made me very welcome. It's just… it's hard to be around people who know me better than I know myself."
"I can help with that," I tell him. I take off my backpack and open it up. "I've got something for ya."
I lift out the bundle of letters from the bottom of my bag and give it to him. Angel takes it, frowning as he unties the cord holding them together. He glances at the first couple, then at me. "This is my handwriting."
I lift the uppermost letter from the pile and show it to him: plain white writing paper covered in old fashioned, super-neat joined-up writing. I used to be able to tell which letters were from Angel just by the way he wrote my name on the envelope.
That, and the fact he was the only person who ever wrote to me.
"There're four years' worth there," I tell him. "Some gaps from times when you were having, well, issues, but otherwise a couple every month. I figured you could read them - be like getting to know yourself again."
"Thank you." Angel leafs through the bundle, handling the pages with something like reverence. "Faith, thank you."
I never used to buy into that line about how it's better to give than to receive. But the way Angel's looking at those letters, like he just got a piece of himself back, I could change my mind.
"Yeah, well, don't thank me before you've read them. Most of it's demon slaying techniques and the difficulties of finding reasonably priced pigs' blood. Limited interest, y'know."
Angel chuckles and turns over the top envelope in the pile. "So where were you when I was writing…" He reads the address and stops.
"Block five of the San Pedro Women's Correctional Facility," I tell him. "I always meant to send you a postcard, but the pictures never did it justice."
"I, uh…" Angel looks at the envelope, then at me, then very quickly away again. He's embarrassed and it's clear he doesn't know how to react.
"It's okay," I say. "The others all know. It's no big secret."
"Oh," says Angel. He's still studying the envelope, although he must have read it a dozen times over by now. I realise he's not looking up because he doesn't know how to meet my eye. The Angel I remember was able to look me in the eye.
"Homicide," I tell him, because he must be wondering, and it's clear he's not going to say anything unless I do. "And so you don't have to ask the question: yeah, I did it."
"Oh," says Angel again. "I'm… sorry." He says it like he's not sure it's the right sentiment to voice. Maybe it isn't.
I stay a little longer and he thanks me again for the letters, and he says it'd be nice to talk some more after he's read them. But I'm not convinced he means it because really, would you want to spend time alone with an ex-con who happens to be strong enough to snap your neck without breaking a sweat? The last thing I see before the motel room door closes behind me is the look in Angel's eyes, and I can tell he's relieved to get rid of me.
I don't think those letters are going to be much use to him, because this shiny new guilt-free Angel won't get why he ever wanted to know a killer.
There are people like me and people like him, and we used to be people like us.
* * *
I'll try to explain how it was back then.
"I'm gonna snap," I said.
Angel didn't reply. He just sat and waited for me to expand on the theme. Some days I wished I had the same kind of visitor as the other inmates – fat, middle-aged women who talked non-stop for thirty minutes about daytime soaps and Uncle Enrico's hernia. But when Angel started coming to see me, it wasn't long before we both realised most of the conversational spadework was gonna happen on my side of the glass barrier.
At first I thought he had some kind of reverse psychology thing going on - like if he didn't talk, I'd have to. Later I started to get that he didn't say much 'cause he just didn't know how to talk to people. The idea of one-on-one time probably would've given him heart palpitations, if he'd had a heartbeat. But he still came to see me.
"There's this girl," I said. "She's a total space case. A complete bitch. She's always on my back. If I have to keep listening to her I'm gonna go crazy."
Angel's eyes hardened like he'd just added someone to his shit-list. "What's her name?"
"Faith," I told him.
That made him smile. Just a little smile, but a smile. "Oh."
"I'm not joking," I said. "I have all this time—and nothing to do with it except think—and it just goes round in my head. I did things and they didn't bother me when I did them but now they're there, in my head all the time, and I can't make it different or undo any of it and I can't live with it…"
"Faith," said Angel gently.
I hadn't finished venting. "I thought this was supposed to make me feel better. I just feel worse. Every day I feel worse and I can't stand it any more."
One of the guards walked past on Angel's side of the partition, and we waited for him to pass. I wondered if they ever noticed that of all the people who sat there every second Wednesday, Angel was the only one who didn't reflect in the reinforced glass barrier separating inmates and visitors.
"Say something," I said. "Make me feel better."
Angel looked at me. Finally he said, "I know where you are right now. I've been there."
"And it gets easier, right?" I asked. Tone-wise, I was pitching for 'hopeful' but hitting 'desperate'. "It's gotta get easier."
"It gets easier to live with," said Angel, and I could tell he was choosing his words with care.
"That's not the same thing."
"No," he told me. "But it's the best there is for people like us."
* * *
"Left roundhouse. Right roundhouse. Right jab. Right jab again. Right crescent—oooof."
My last kick comes off a little harder than I intended, and G. sails across the basement training room. He hits the padded wall with a dull thump and slides on to the floor.
I hold out my hand and offer to pull him up. It's not easy to find a willing sparring partner when you're the Slayer. Mostly for exactly this reason.
"S'okay. It don't hurt too much… Yet." G. waves me off and uses the bars attached to the wall to stand. He unbuckles the padded vest he's wearing. "You wanna tell me what's with the lack of restraint today?"
I don't, as it happens. "You're not my shrink."
G. shrugs. "Nope. But I am the guy you're beating to a bloody pulp. Be nice to know why." He looks at me. "Figure I have an idea, though."
I grab a towel and rub my face and arms; then I spend a couple of minutes getting a cup of water from the cooler. But the training room is mirrored on all sides, and there's nowhere I can stand to avoid G.'s gaze.
"It's a weird deal for everyone," he says. "Give him time."
Nice theory, but time isn't the issue. A hundred years isn't going to bring back the old Angel.
I pull on my sweats and follow G. up from the basement to the offices on the ground floor. I'm just about to head home for a couple of hours' sleep before patrol when Cor steps out of Wes's office, right in front of me. She's holding a brick. "We have a problem."
"Looks more like a brick to me," says G.
Cor gives an exasperated sigh and walks back inside. I look at G., and after a second we follow.
In the office, Wes is paging through an open book and Angel is trying not to look out of place. He doesn't meet my eye as I come in, which is probably easier for both of us.
Cor puts the brick down in the middle of the desk, and I notice the series of symbols scratched into its surface. "This was thrown through the Birches' kitchen window last night."
"Etruscan demons?" says G., frowning. "I thought we were cool with the PTB on that."
Cor scowls. "Turns out evil child stealing demons don't always do what they're told. Feel free to express your sense of shock and disillusionment."
Wes sounds personally affronted as he says, "If there's one thing I dislike more than child-stealing demons, it's child-stealing demons who don't follow the rules. It's just not cricket."
"I have a plan," I say. "I'll beat the crap out of them."
"That's always your plan," says G., grinning at me.
I grin back. "Because it's always a good plan."
Wes holds up his hand. "In this instance I think we should delay resorting to extreme physical measures, as much as the prospect obviously appeals to Faith. For a start, we haven't yet managed to locate the demons' lair. We're going to have to wait for them to come to us."
G. nods. "We'll keep up a profile at the Birches'. Stay visible 'til the Etruscan heavies get the message to steer clear."
Cor lifts the brick and runs her fingertips over its etched surface. "That's our message," she says. "Wonder what theirs is."
Wes taps his books. "That's what I'm currently trying to ascertain. However, if I had to make a bet, I'd wager it translated as something along the lines of—"
"What was yours is now ours," says Angel suddenly. It's the first time he's spoken and when we all turn to him, he looks suddenly uncomfortable.
Wes nods encouragingly. "Yes, very probably."
"No," says Angel with certainty: "That's what it means."
Cor looks at him. "Angel?"
"I can read it. It looked familiar and I kept looking and—it makes sense to me. I remember how to read it." He looks amazed with himself, like a little kid who's just taken his first steps: "I remembered something."
"Oh my God. Oh my God!" Cor grabs him and pulls him into a hug. "You're getting your memory back! This is awesome!"
"Cordelia." Wes is attempting to sound stern, but the smile he's wearing undermines the effect. "Let's not overreact."
"I'm not overreacting. I'm being calm and mature." Cor pauses for about a half a second, then waves her arms and squeals with joy. "Now I'm done with being calm and mature. Angel's remembering!"
"Wait," I say. "I don't get it. I thought the PTB said no."
"They didn't give a definite answer either way. Besides, this may not be their doing," suggests Wes. He turns to Angel: "You remembered enough to find us. Maybe the additional stimulus of being back in familiar surroundings, with people you know, will be enough to break down the remaining barriers."
"Maybe," says Angel. He's smiling like he hardly dares hope it. "That'd be—good."
"It'd be better than good," says Cor: "It'd be perfect."
* * *
Vamp-hunting takes me to the east side of the city tonight, and by the time I'm finished I'm closer to the Hyperion than home, so I decide to crash at the hotel. Some nights I stay there after patrol even if my place is closer, just 'cause I like it. It's big and empty and quiet, and if you'd spent six years in the same eight by ten cell, you'd crave a little big'n'empty too.
I'm halfway across the lobby and heading for the stairs when I notice the thin bar of light seeping out from under the door to the main office. The post-slaying high hasn't worn off yet and I'm not ready for sleep so the prospect of a little conversation appeals. I go on in.
Angel's sitting in the chair in the corner. He's got a pile of paper and a pencil, and he's drawing intently. So intently he doesn't even look up when I enter.
"Still a night owl, huh. Guess old habits die hard."
Angel grunts, keeps drawing. He's leaning on his knees, hunched over so much he's almost folded in two. I can't see what he's sketching.
I hop up on to the desk. "Whatcha drawing?"
He doesn't answer immediately. He just keeps drawing, gripping the pencil so hard his knuckles are white. He isn't sketching on the paper; he's gouging something into it. "It isn't finished," he says in a strained voice.
I'm getting a nagging little itch at the back of my skull, the same way my vamp-radar pings when I'm patrolling. Something real bad is real close, and my Slayer-sense knows it even if my brain doesn't.
There's a whole pile of screwed-up, torn sheets of paper scattered on the floor at Angel's feet. At first I think they must be rejected first attempts of whatever he's trying to draw, until I see the writing on them and realise they can't be. There's a cold twist in my gut as I lean down and pick up the nearest shredded sheet. It's mangled so bad most of it isn't legible any more, but a couple of sentences have survived the assault.
'…am thinking about you and I hope you are finding the days more tolerable. What we carry is not an easy burden, nor should it be. But in bearing it we become more than what we were. Faith, never forget you are not alone…'
I shove the torn scraps of paper under Angel's nose, and I'm so mad my hands are shaking. "You ripped up my letters! I gave you my letters and you ripped them up!"
"I remember now," says Angel in an oddly flat tone. "I don't need them any more."
"Yeah, well, I need them! I still read these! They were letters to me, that makes them mine, and you died and they were all I had left to—" As usual, my brain's ten steps behind my mouth. When I finally register what Angel just said, the words just dry up. "You remember? Everything?"
"Everything," says Angel. His voice slips into a weird lilt, and he starts to recite something that sounds like some kind of corny poem: "I remember, I remember the house where I was born, the little window where the sun came peeping in at morn…"
"That's, uh, nice." He hasn't stopped drawing and he hasn't looked at me. The itch in my head is an open sore now and every instinct I've got is screaming we're rapidly approaching a shit/fan interface situation here. "Hey, uh, Angel…"
"Is that my name now?" asks Angel. He stands up abruptly, and the drawing he was obsessing over ten seconds ago flutters to the floor, forgotten. He walks out of the office and into the lobby, and I go after him. "I've had a lot of names and it's getting hard to keep track. When I was alive I was called Liam." He spins around and eyeballs me: "Did you know that?"
I didn't, but it'll be a killer trivia question at the next staff pizza and quiz night. "No. C'mon, Angel—"
"Angelus," he corrects me. He stands up straight and walks across the lobby, swaggering all the way, owning the space. He turns around and raises his hands like he's waiting for applause. "I went back, and she invited me in because she thought I was her sweet dead brother's angel. She was eight years old and she tasted of fresh-churned butter and meadow flowers and the salt sea breeze. And I took it for my name because I thought it was funny. I laughed and laughed because it was so funny." His voice rises to a shout on the last word, and it echoes around the Hyperion's high lobby.
I should call someone. Or restrain him. Or something.
I didn't know he drank his sister.
Angel blinks, and the arrogance drains out of him. His arms drop to his sides and he sits down, right in the middle of the floor. "The joke's on me. It always was. What's my name? Angel, Angel, Angel, they say. And always her voice the echo: Angel, come in." His head snaps up and he scans the room. "Who's there?"
Oh fuck, he's losing it.
"It's me." I take a cautious step towards him. "Faith."
"And now," says Angel, "these three remain: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is…" His voice drops away, and he shivers.
Did I say losing it? Correction: it's lost.
I'm the Slayer. Show me a vamp and I'll stake it, a demon and I'll hack it to pieces. I know how to kill things, not how to make them better.
I'm way out of my fucking league here.
"Angel," I say. "Angel, man."
He shakes his head. "No. No, I'm not." He holds up his hands and stares at them. Then he looks at me, confused. "Why can't I stop breathing?"
"Because you're alive. The Powers made you alive. Remember?"
Angel's expression changes to one of relief. "I remember. I remember…" Then his face twists and he puts his hands to his head, like he's trying to stop his brains leaking out his ears.
"I can't stop remembering," he says in a low voice. "Please. Please help me stop. Take it away again. Please."
Then, carefully and deliberately, he crawls under the reception desk, buries his head in his arms and curls up into a ball.
I watch him for a few minutes, until it's obvious he's not planning on going anywhere any time soon. Then I go back in the office and lift the phone. I'm still trying to decide who to call when I notice the picture Angel was drawing. It's lying where it fell, right beside my feet, and when I pick it up and hold it to the light, I get a good look at just what's going on inside Angel's head right now.
* * *
I argue with myself for about ten minutes, then call Wesley. Sometimes I can even surprise the hell out of myself.
Wes and I have this great communication system worked out: we talk to each other when we have to and otherwise we don't. We hit our groove when he figured out I don't take orders, and I realised having a Watcher around is actually kinda useful. We're not the shining example of Slayer-Watcher bonding we should be, but the arrangement works as long as nothing unexpected happens.
Something unexpected just happened.
Wes is half-asleep when he answers the phone, but by the time I've constructed a sentence involving the words 'Angel' and 'breakdown' he's all woken up. He walks into the Hyperion twelve minutes after I put the phone down, which has got to be some kind of record.
"Where is he?" he asks.
I point at the space behind the reception desk. Wes slows up, and looks around the edge of the desk real careful, like he's afraid of what he's going to see.
Angel hasn't moved since before I made the call. He's curled up in the corner under the desk, and for a big guy he's managed to make himself way small, with his legs folded up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. He's shaking and rocking and although his eyes are open, he doesn't look like he's making sense of what he sees.
"What happened?" asks Wes quietly.
"He remembered," I tell him. That seems to cover it.
Wes has this weird look on his face: thoughtful, intense, pained. He goes toward Angel, real slow, and then bends his knees so they're at eye level with each other.
"Angel," he says softly, making the name sound like a one-word prayer. "Angel."
Angel blinks and stares at him, and for a long while his expression doesn't change at all. Then, uncertainly: "…Wes?"
Wes smiles reassuringly. "Yes."
Angel shifts his position, leaning forward slightly. "Have you… have you seen them? Because I need to tell them how sorry I am. I need to tell them all how sorry I am."
"It's all right." Wes's voice is soft. Comforting. "They know."
"I broke her neck," says Angel. His hands twitch as he speaks, as if he's doing it again in his head. "I twisted her head all the way round and I felt the bones snap like driftwood. I need to tell her… I need to tell her…" He closes his eyes.
"It's all right," repeats Wes.
Angel's eyes open again as he whispers: "It felt so good." His voice breaks on the last word, and he starts crying, heaving dry sobs that make his whole body shake.
And it's weird, because I've seen things that'd make most people run screaming, and I've fought demons uglier than Michael Jackson after the surgery and I've looked them all in the eye without flinching, and the first thing I've ever had to turn away from is Angel weeping. I can't watch.
I go back into the office and sit down in the chair in the corner but I can still hear him sobbing through the open door so I get up again and close it. Then I wait maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, until the door opens from the outside and Wes comes in.
He crosses the room without looking at me and goes straight to the cabinet next to the bookcase. He unlocks it and starts looking for something at the back of a shelf. When he turns around, he's holding an almost-full bottle of liquor and two glasses. He sets the tumblers on the desk and opens the bottle. Fills them both up to the top. He offers me one and we drink up silently. It's whiskey; the good stuff. Wes, you sly old dog you.
"I've put him in one of the old bedrooms on the fourth floor," says Wes at last. He glances at his watch: "I should go back up. He's in no fit state to be left alone."
But he doesn't move, and when I pour both of us another shot, he lifts his glass and drinks with me again.
"I gotta show you something," I say, and hand him the picture Angel was drawing when I came in.
Wes studies it for a moment, half-frowning. Then he realises what he's looking at, and puts it down quickly. The sketch lies on the desk-top between us, like the bloodied knife in a murder case. It's of a woman, arms above her head, wrists together, legs splayed, and if you looked at it quickly you'd mistake it for a diagram from a medical text. Look a little longer and you start to notice things: the way her arms are pulled straight, as if she's hanging from something, or how her mouth's open like she's screaming.
I guess I'd scream too if someone had skinned me alive.
Wes stares at the picture a second more. Then he lifts it and, with one quick motion, rips it in half, and half again, and half again. When the page has been reduced to so much confetti, he sweeps the shredded paper into the trash.
In a dull voice Wes says, "He wanted to remember, and we helped him. And now it's too late to go back."
"It'd better not be," I say. "He can't deal."
Wes's expression is bleak. "He already remembers. The question is whether he can reconcile his past with who he is now. Who he's been for the past eight years." He shakes his head tiredly: "Eight years is a long time. Long enough for the memory of a real person to start to harden into an ideal. What we wanted back wasn't Angel but what he meant to us… we did our damnedest to turn whoever he was trying to become back into that. And he didn't know any better than to let us. Poor fool."
And now I get it. Yeah, poor Angel. When he finally came home, he found out it wasn't him we were waiting for. Maybe he never wanted to remember at all; he just thought he did. What he really wanted was just to belong somewhere.
"There should have been some other way," says Wes. "Perhaps if Cordelia hadn't told him so much, so quickly…"
I look down at the floor, where the remains of the letters Angel wrote me are still scattered over the carpet. "It wasn't just Cor."
"No, I suppose not," concedes Wes. Then, unexpectedly: "I'm as much to blame."
He downs the rest of his drink, like he's bracing himself to make some kind of confession. When the liquor's all gone, he holds the empty glass in his hands and says, "I always thought of myself as merely… minding the shop. Not really in charge, just keeping an eye on things. A part of me always believed there would come a day when I could hand over the reins again and say 'Look at what we've achieved'. That I might even be told… I had done well."
He stops, which is partly a relief and partly scary, because it means I'm going to have to think up some kind of response to that. Wes doesn't talk like this. Or at least, he doesn't talk to me like this.
And yeah, I wish it was different.
Because I still remember the way Giles and B. were together, how she always looked to him first, how proud he was of her. That ship sailed for me and Wes a long time ago - if it ever docked in the first place - and we'll never really see each other past the scar tissue. But right now I'm the Slayer and he's my Watcher, and we're actually saying things to each other. This is as good as it's gonna get for us, and I guess it's enough.
"I think you've done pretty good," I say.
Wes looks at me, then smiles a startled, sincere smile. He's the second man I've managed to make real happy recently without taking my clothes off. I think I've slipped into some weird parallel universe.
"Thank you," he says. Then he nods and stands up decisively. "I'm going back upstairs. Faith, I'd like you to go to his hotel. Settle his bill and bring his things here."
I look at Wes. "He's going to stay here?"
"For the meantime, at least."
"Yeah, but…" Something jumps into my head from when I took English classes in prison: "We're gonna keep him up there like Jane Austen's mad woman in the attic?"
Wes's expression softens. "That was Jane Eyre, Faith."
Okay, I said I took the classes, I never said I passed them. I can't even remember what Jane Eyre wrote. "Point being, what if he never snaps out of it?"
Wes goes to the door, opens it. "Then we'll take care of him," he says. "For as long as he needs to be taken care of."
Translation: for the rest of his life.
* * *
What goes around comes around. After eight years, Angel moves back into the Hyperion.
The agency stops on the third floor of the hotel, and there's nothing on the fourth except musty, disused hotel rooms and a couple of stores where the old files are kept. Wes tells the staff the whole floor is off limits for a while, so Angel gets to go fruit loops in private.
At first, Wes and Cor and G. take on most of the babysitting. But pretty soon the strain starts to show and they're walking around with circles under their eyes like they're taking part in a sleep deprivation experiment. Kate volunteers to take a few shifts, and then Mac surprises everyone by doing the same. Love of a good woman and all of that, I guess.
I'm exempt 'cause I have duties. Or that's what I tell myself.
I haven't seen Angel since the night he cracked up, and I don't want to either. I haven't asked the others how he's doing, locked away up there, but I can tell from their faces after they've been with him for six or eight hours he sure as hell isn't getting any better.
I do my shifts at the Birches, patrol as usual, and find reasons not to be at the hotel the rest of the time.
The last time I felt like this was back in prison. When all the days are the same, when you can't imagine the future being any different to the present, you slip into a kind of trance inside your head. You keep on keeping on, and you don't think about tomorrow because it's all you can do to get through today.
Something's gotta give.
* * *
I'm at the end of a long night when I run into a whole gang of vamps in a neighbourhood I thought was clean. It's a rough fight, and at the end of it I don't feel the slaying buzz the way I normally do. Maybe the torn ligament in my right leg and the deep gash on my forehead have something to do with it.
Maybe I've got other stuff on my mind.
I'm in no shape to ride my Harley, and it's a long walk home from here. I limp ten blocks to the Hyperion. The lights are on up on the fourth floor, but the rest of the building is dark, and I figure I can be in and out in twenty minutes. No need to bother whoever's on Angel Duty tonight.
I let myself in and go straight to the first aid room, where I bandage my leg and clean my cuts. Seems like I'm taking more collateral damage lately than I used to. Guess I shouldn't be surprised: Slayers are like professional athletes – we come with a limited shelf life. Only difference is, all those ex-tennis players and sprinters have a rosy future filled with coaching gigs and lucrative merchandising deals to look forward to when they retire. When my slaying time is up, I'm not gonna be around to do infomercials for Faith Stakes.
By the time I'm done taping my leg back together the post-slaying munchies are hitting so I decide to raid the refrigerator in the staff kitchen.
She looks up from her coffee as I walk in, notices my newly acquired limp and bandages and does a double take. "What happened to you?"
"Rough night." I sit down at the table; now I'm closer to Cor, I can see her eyes are blotched from crying. "What happened to you?"
"Rough night." She pushes a sheet of paper across the table at me; I only need to glance at it to see it's another of Angel's artistic endeavours. At first, they didn't let him have paper and pencils—mostly out of concern over what he might do with anything sharp and pointy—but it only made him worse so they gave in and let him draw. In the past week, Angel's produced enough disturbing art to mount an exhibition that'd give Stephen King bad dreams.
This one is of a man, strapped into a chair. His arms trail down at his sides, the fingers bent back at unnatural angles. His head lolls and his face is swollen, and for one sick second I'm looking at the picture I carry in my head of what I did to Wes. But Cor's staring with disgust at the page, not me, and suddenly I realise I've got the right idea but the wrong Watcher. "That's Giles."
Cor nods. "Giles after Angel tortured him. I saw this and I just had to get out of there for a while." She smiles a faint, bitter smile. "I thought we were doing him a favour. Some favour. Welcome back, Angel. Come on in and check your sanity at the door."
She shakes her head, puzzled and uncomprehending. "I thought—I was so sure—if he remembered he'd be able to deal. He did before. Sure, he was always much with the brooding, but—he coped. He didn't come apart like this."
Maybe, I think, he just never came apart that Cor saw. Sometimes the only thing that holds you together isn't strength within, it's pressure from outside. You keep going because there are people watching, and the only thing worse than breaking down is breaking down in front of someone whose opinion of you is the only thing you give a damn about.
I remember visiting hours when I barely said a word because I was scared if I started to talk I wouldn't be able to stop, and I'd end up beating the glass barrier from the inside and screaming. Those times, Angel didn't ask me what was wrong, and he didn't try to talk me round. He'd just sit and wait, offering silent support. Strength. Most of all, understanding.
We understood each other; we always did. And although Cor cares, I can tell from the way she's staring with revulsion at the drawing of Giles with blood running down his face like tears and his fingers tied in knots that she doesn't understand.
There are two kinds of people in the world, the ones who don't know what it's like to feel good about inflicting pain and the ones who do. People who don't know what guilt is and people who do. People like them and people like us.
People like us need to stick together. We need to look out for each other.
"I'll take the rest of tonight," I offer.
* * *
I stand outside the door of Angel's room for several minutes without hearing any kind of noise from inside. I don't know if that's a good or bad sign. I decide to go with 'good' as a working assumption and revise it later as appropriate, and go in.
For a second, it seems like the room is empty. I can see the decades-old furnishings, the old-fashioned bed and the frayed throw covering it, the sink in the corner. But no Angel.
Then I hear a noise, the faint scritch-scratch of pencil lead on paper. I look again, and see the top of Angel's head, just visible at the far side of the bedspread. He must be sitting on the floor, leaning against the side of the bed.
I close the door behind me and walk around the bed to join him. There's no indication he's even aware someone else is in the room with him. "Cor's taking a break. It's just you and me 'til breakfast."
I move around him so I'm almost, but not quite, looking over his shoulder. I wonder what he's drawing this time - torture, rape or just run of the mill degradation. But as soon as I get near Angel hugs the pad of paper to his chest, hiding it.
"Okay, don't share with the class. Whatever."
I flop into the easy chair at the foot of the bed and put my feet up on the dresser. Now the adrenalin's washing out of my system, I'm tired and sore and in an ideal world I'd be lying on my couch right now, eating peanut butter out of the jar and watching the late night movie.
Guess this isn't an ideal world then. Who woulda thought.
But the thought of television and Mr Peanut licked off the back of a spoon is enough to send me to a good mental place. Plus the chair is big and deep and its springs aren't so rusted that I can't get comfortable. A little too comfortable. I decide to rest my eyes. Not falling asleep here, just resting the eyes. Yep, strategic eye resting.
I'm woken by Angel pawing my face.
We're both lucky I'm not firing on all cylinders tonight, because it means my brain gets a few extra vital seconds to get up to speed and head off the slayer/slayee instincts before they kick in. It'd be ultra-ironic if Angel got made human and I accidentally staked him. Or maybe, based on my past record, it'd just be tragic.
I sit real still as he tweaks the bandage I put over the gash above my eye. Very carefully, he eases it off. "Your dressing needs to be changed," he tells me.
He lifts the bandage away and I see it's almost soaked through with blood. My head's thumping, and some cautious fingertip exploration of my face confirms my suspicions: I took more damage tonight than I realised. If I were normal—as if—I'd be in hospital now getting stitched back together. As it is, I feel like shit.
Angel dumps the soiled dressing in the trash can by the dresser and goes to the sink. He's moving slow, like he's gotta think that much harder about everything, but he isn't acting crazy.
"Buffy, you have to be more careful."
Angel pulls a wad of tissues from the box by the sink and soaks them under the flow of water. He comes back to where I'm sitting and kneels beside me. Then he begins, carefully and gently, to clean the caking blood off my face. "How'd this happen?"
I briefly consider telling him I hurt myself chasing Bugs Bunny through the cheese caves on Jupiter, just to see if it makes a difference. "I was patrolling. Let myself get taken by surprise."
He looks at me severely. "You could have been killed."
"Yeah, but I'm here to tell the tale, so happy day, right?"
Angel drops the damp and bloodied tissues and takes me roughly by the shoulders. Urgently he says, "This isn't training. This is real. The night you make a mistake is the night you die. And I need you too much. If anything happened to you, I couldn't go on."
He stares at me, intense and a little wild, and I wonder if he's reliving something that really happened or just tripping on fumes from all the old memories burning up the inside his head. Either way he's stuck in an emotional feedback loop, holding on to B.'s ghost. Just the same way we've all been clinging on to his.
Then he leans forward and kisses me.
I kiss him back.
You want reasons? I kiss him because there was a time I wanted Angel as much as I wanted anything else B. had and I didn't. Because it wouldn't have taken much for things to have been different and I still wonder sometimes. Because a while back Wes let slip that no Slayer's ever made it past her thirtieth birthday and I'm twenty nine next month and lately I'm starting to think about last chances and this is one of them. Because it feels good.
And then the moment passes and I push him away, because if I let this go any further, we'll both end up screwing a memory. In every sense.
Jesus. I guess I finally went and grew up.
Angel stares at me, wounded and uncomprehending. He raises a hand and makes to brush my hair off my face, like he thinks he's done something wrong and a touch will make it all better. But as he notices the dried blood on his fingertips—my blood—he freezes. He draws away from me and stares at his hands, horrified.
"You're hurt," he says, as if he's just seen me for the first time. Apparently the Angelic short term memory's kinda fried too.
He looks from his hands to me and back again. He seems confused; then his expression clears for an instant. Which I figure is good until I recognise the look that replaces it. It's guilt and terror and nausea all wrapped up in a gift package, tied with a shiny bow of shame. "I hurt you," says Angel, putting two and two together and coming up with something approximately equal to the square root of fifteen.
"No. No, it's okay, you didn't—it wasn't you—"
But Angel's tuned out of the reality station. He's holding his hands away from himself, like he wishes they weren't attached to his arms. He's saying he's sorry, he's so sorry, he's sorry for everything, he's sorry, over and over and over again and the only thing stopping me from slapping some sense into him is the knowledge I'd probably just add concussion to all his other problems.
"Don't," I say. I clamber up out of the easy chair. The torn muscles in my leg are stiffening now, and it's difficult. "Angel, you don't need to apologise."
"I'm sorry," says Angel again. He brings his hands to his face and clasps them together, and for one weird second he looks like he's praying. For all I know, maybe he is. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry…"
I half-shuffle, half-slide on to the rug in front of him. His eyes are closed, so I grab him and shake him until he has to look at me. And he does. He opens his eyes and everything he's ever done is in there, and all the guilt and shame and regret that goes with it, and it's such a vast black mass I'm surprised it hasn't swallowed him up already.
It nearly ate me.
But I got lucky; I had someone to stop me from going under. And maybe it's time I returned the favour.
I open my mouth, take a breath, close it again. There are plenty of demons here but stakes and swords aren't going to help the cause and the only weapons I've got are words. And I don't know how to use those; I never have.
I wish he hadn't torn up the letters. I need those words now. I need them the way I needed them at four in the morning on the bad nights, the way I needed them after Wes came and told me why Angel wouldn't be coming to visit any more, the way I still need them when things get rough even after all this time.
Here goes nothing.
"Angel, listen to me. Get above the mental smog for a second and listen. I know where you are. I've been there. And it doesn't get any easier, but it does get easier to live with."
That's my big speech? Christ, can't I do better than that?
I should have put more effort into those English classes.
I try again: "What I mean is—"
And then I stop, because Angel's looking at me. Actually seeing me, seeing me, for the first time since I came in. Hesitantly, cautiously, he asks: "Faith?"
"Yeah," I say. "Right here."
Angel starts to cry. This time I don't turn away.
Instead I hold him and try to ignore the fact that my leg is killing me and the gash on my head has re-opened for the third time tonight. After a while I start talking to Angel. I don't tell him everything's gonna be all right, because that's not how it is, but I do tell him he's not alone. It's not perfect, but it's the best there is for people like us.
As I'm whispering to him, I look over his shoulder and see an almost-completed sketch lying on the floor. I'm expecting another bad memory rendered in fine lines and shades of grey, so it comes as a surprise when I realise the subject matter is something completely different. Angel's latest drawing is of a tree.
It fills the page, branches spread wide and hung with fruit. It looks just like the one growing in the field behind my Aunt Carol's house in Connecticut that I learnt to climb in when I was a kid. Or it would, if I'd had a tree-growing Aunt Carol who lived in Connecticut. Point is, this is the kind of picture that comes with good memories attached.
I'm still trying to figure what the hell that's all about when the door thumps so loudly for a second I think it's gonna fall off its hinges.
Since there's only one other person in the building, it's no big surprise to see Cor standing in the hallway. She's wearing a scowl that's either post-vision or pre-menstrual tension, and she's holding to her head one of the ice packs that are kept in the staff kitchen's ice box for exactly this purpose.
Cor doesn't reply. She takes me by the arm and pulls me out into the corridor with her, closing the door. Then she heads off in the direction of the stairs, leaving me to limp after her. When we reach the ground floor, she dumps the ice-pack, goes straight to the windows and starts checking the locks.
"This update brought to you by the Cordelia Chase Vision Network," she says over her shoulder. "The Etruscan demons are back. They're going to hit the Birches in force."
"Shit. Have we got people there tonight?"
"Wes and Gunn," says Cor. There's a slight catch in her voice that gives away just how worried she is. I make for the phone on the reception desk, but she shakes her head. "I already tried: the Birches' home number is disconnected and I can't get either of the guys' cells."
"I need to get there."
Cor takes one of the reception sofas and starts to haul it into place against the main doors. "You're not going anywhere. Help me with this."
"Jesus, it's only a scratch, Cor." I try to walk towards the blockaded front entrance, which is a mistake because after two steps it feels like someone's set fire to my leg.
She positions herself in front of me. "You're not going anywhere because there's no need. You haven't heard the rest of the vision yet."
"There's more bad news? How much worse can it get?"
"The demon racket squad is coming here," she says, making me sorry I asked. "And from the overriding sense of impending doom I got in the vision, I'd say we can expect them—"
A car crashes through the glass double-doors at the side of the lobby, scattering glass over the carpet.
"—Any second now," finishes Cor.
But it isn't demons. The car door opens and Kate gets out, pulling Mac after her. There's so much blood on his clothes I can't tell straight away where he's hurt, only that it's bad. The look on Kate's face says she's worked that much out too.
"Sorry about the windows," she says. "We're in big trouble."
* * *
We prop Mac up on one of the lobby sofas. He's conscious but in a lot of pain; he's not wearing his prosthetic, and while one sleeve of his sweatshirt hangs limply the other is rapidly starting to soak through with blood. We cut the fabric away to reveal a deep cut that rivals mine, although my injuries will heal a hell of a lot quicker than his.
"They came after us at his apartment," says Kate, briskly looping bandages around his good arm and tightening them into a tourniquet. "I heard a noise from outside and when I looked out they were scaling the fire escape. Hold that."
I stretch the bandages tight while Kate ties them. "How many?"
"I counted at least seven. We barely got out of there before they broke in."
Mac tries to move his arm and winces. His breathing's fast and shallow, but he's still making sense. "Probably trashing the place right now. Damn. I really liked that apartment. How'm I gonna explain this to the residents' association?"
Okay, he's almost making sense.
"You're a target because you represented Karl," says Cor.
I notice Kate's wearing one of Mac's college T-shirts. "And you were in the wrong place."
"No. I was in exactly the right place. If I hadn't been there…" She lets the sentence hang unfinished. "I think we lost them but I can't be certain. They might follow us here."
"Drop the 'might'," Cor says. "They're coming. They went after the Birches tonight too."
Kate's expression freezes. "Wes and Gunn?"
"I don't know—" starts Cor.
She's interrupted by a familiar voice calling from the hotel entrance: "Yo. Somebody yell for us?" Then it breaks off, coughing.
Relief makes me grin like an idiot as I turn around, just in time to see G. crash through the empty space where the windows used to be. He's supporting Karl Birch; Wes isn't far behind him, shepherding Karl's wife and kid inside. G. lets Karl down gently on to the sofa next to Mac while Wes guides his family to the free chairs nearby. Karl's clothes are blackened and every other breath is a hacking cough. Already the whole lobby smells of smoke.
"Lemme guess," says Kate: "The big bad wolves couldn't get into the three little pigs' house so they decided to burn it down instead."
G. nods and coughs up more ash; Wes looks a little singed around the edges too. Grimly he says, "They'll come here next. There are ten of them; perhaps more."
This is not good news. "And this would be in addition to the small army chasing Mac?"
"How long before…?" begins Wes.
Cor interrupts. "Not enough time to do anything useful. Such as, for instance, run like hell."
We're not just fucked; we're lying in bed the morning after listening to the front door close. And we all know it.
At last Wes clears his throat. "Then we'll make our stand here. Cordelia, Gunn: help the Birches and Lindsey upstairs. Somewhere out of the way—the top floor. Move Angel up there too. Everyone else—take a weapon."
There's a sudden flurry of motion as they get to it. Wes looks me up and down, and although I haven't seen a mirror since I got back from patrol, I'm guessing I'm no cover girl, unless 'walking wounded' is the hot look this Fall. "Will you be able to fight?"
"Sure," I say. "Just give me something sharp and somewhere to stick it."
"Faith," says Wes: "I mean it. If you're injured, go upstairs with the others. I don't want you to be killed if it can be avoided."
And the weird thing is, I can see he does mean it. He really doesn't want anything to happen to me, and not just because it'd spoil his patrol schedule for the foreseeable future. But getting killed can always be avoided: all you have to do is walk away. That's not me. I've always been a fighter, even when I was fighting the wrong things; it's all I'm good at and I'll keep doing it until the night I fall down and don't get up again.
"I'm cool to fight," I say. "C'mon, Wes. Me, sit it out? As if."
Wes nods again. "Thank you," he says, and unexpectedly puts a hand on my shoulder. "Now listen: this may be crucial. If you can, get close to their leader. Etruscan demons have a strong pack mentality—they won't carry on if their leader is seriously injured or killed. That's our best strategy."
Like I said, Watchers not without their uses. "Got it. How will I know—"
But it's too late for any more questions, because the demons are here.
Cor and G. are half-way up the stairs supporting Lindsey between them when the front doors of the hotel burst inwards and they start to flood into the lobby. Kate throws a crossbow to Wes and a sword to me and vaults over the reception desk, getting between the Birches and the demon front line of attack.
Wes lifts the bow and takes out the first one through the door without even shifting position. He may be a sack of wet wool hand-to-hand, but the guy can aim.
I catch the sword and spin into attack position. For a split second, the world stops. We're out-numbered and out-classed; I'm operating at sixty per cent, maximum, and the part of my brain that deals with the strategy side of things knows there's no way any of us are going to get to the other side of this breathing. But I don't give two shits, because I'm going to go down slaying, fighting for something worth fighting for, and if you can't change what you did yesterday, at least you can go out knowing today meant something.
Now that's the speech I should have given Angel.
The crowd of demons parts, allowing one individual to approach the front. While the others are plain grey-skinned-scalies, he's got a bright red mohican-style crest.
"That's their leader," whispers Wes to me.
Correction: watchers are useful when not stating the fucking obvious. "And I thought it was the Corn Flakes rooster."
Demon-in-charge smiles at us, baring his teeth.
"Bring it on," I say.
And they do.
A demon makes a lunge for me, but he's not expecting slayer-strength behind the return blow, and he still looks vaguely surprised as his head topples off his shoulders and falls to the floor with a thunk.
After that, it's just flashes.
Wes firing the crossbow again, taking out a demon bearing down on me from the side—
Gunn and Cor retreating up the stairs, trying to keep between Mac and the advancing line of attack—
Kate yelling, "I need some backup over here!" as she attempts to protect the Birches—
Gunn leaping down from the stairs and landing beside her but now Cor's on her own—
Demon-in-charge making his way through the fray towards Cor and Mac—
Pain down my right leg as I try to turn and can't—I'm holding my own but my injuries mean I can't kick or jump so I'm pinned down and getting tired—
Demon-in-charge bearing down on Cor—
Demon-in-charge stops. He looks down at his chest and, in particular, at the sword handle sticking out of it. He lifts his hand and makes an ineffectual clawing motion around the wound. Then, with a low moan, he collapses on to his knees and pitches forward, green sludge oozing on to the carpet under his chest.
The demons around him stop fighting. They freeze. The stillness spreads like a ripple on water until the silence is complete.
The Etruscan demons throw back their heads and howl as one.
The noise is high-pitched and eerie, like a broken distress siren. Then, as if on command, it stops and for a second it's us and the demons facing each other across the hotel lobby, like we're all waiting for the bell to ring for the next round.
There is no next round: the fight's over. And we won.
The two demons closest to their leader's body move in and retrieve the corpse. As they retreat the others fall in behind them, pouring out through the mangled hotel entrance into the night. The last one trails out less than a minute later, and it's just us in the hotel lobby again.
I sit down on the floor, right where I'm standing. It's either that or fall over.
G.'s beside me; I didn't see him coming because one of my eyes is sealed up with clotting blood. He's got a few fresh cuts of his own. I grin at him. "Shit hot."
And I am, because any state that isn't dead is shit hot. I'm alive, and no matter how much it hurts, it sure as hell beats the alternative.
"Is everyone all right?" asks Wes.
"No," says Cor. I turn my head—and God, that's painful—to see her propping up Mac next to the shattered remains of a filing cabinet. "We're gonna need to call an ambulance."
G. helps me stand, and I lean on him so I can stay that way. He looks around the ruined lobby and sighs loudly. "Tell me somethin'," he remarks to the room at large: "How come this kind of trouble keeps finding us?"
Wes smiles. "Because we go looking for it."
G. grins back. "Oh yeah. I forgot about that. Guess people like us got it coming, then."
"That was a pretty fucking neat move with the sword," I tell Cor.
She looks at me and shakes her head. "I didn't—"
And then I see Angel.
He's standing on the mezzanine landing, breathing heavily and staring at the place where demon-in-charge fell. His expression is faintly confused, like he's trying to remember what just happened. The display of antique weapons on the wall behind him is missing a sword.
Cor stands and limps up the stairs. I'm the only one close enough to hear her when she whispers, "Thank you." But there's no response from Angel, and after a moment she puts her arm around him and tries to turn him around. "Okay, that was way past your daily excitement quota. Let's get you back to your room."
Angel doesn't move. Then, slowly, he turns to her. "Cordelia?"
"Yeah," she says automatically. "It's okay. All over."
He's really staring at her now. "Cordy?"
Cor looks at him. "Angel?"
He gestures at the stained carpet. "I… uh. Etruscan demon. You have to take out the leader. They won't fight without the leader." He hesitates. "I saw… it was going to hurt you and I remembered… about Etruscan demons."
He stops for a second, like he's afraid someone's going to contradict him. Then he looks around the lobby, studying each of us in turn. And when he looks at me, it's the same expression he had back upstairs earlier tonight: it feels like he's not just seeing my face, he's seeing everything I've come through to get here.
He starts to speak a couple of times without making it the whole way through a sentence. Finally he decides what to say. "I've been gone… a long time?"
"A long time," Cor confirms. "But you're back now."
"I'm… back?" Angel takes in the lobby, the ruined furniture, the demon-goo smeared on the walls. The place looks like a war zone. Karl Birch is sitting with his family next to the buckled and shattered front entrance. He's got one arm around his wife and one around his kid, and they're both clinging on to him and to each other. Mrs Birch is having quiet hysterics but Karl's calming her, telling her everything's okay now. It's over and they're together and nothing's gonna separate them. Not now and not ever.
Kate's taken Cor's place at Mac's side. Wes sits down at the reception desk; at the same time Cor moves around Angel so she's facing him, holding his hands in hers. We're all watching him like he's the only show in town.
Angel looks at us again. With more confidence he says, "I'm back."
"You're back," agrees Cor. "Welcome home, Angel. Welcome home."
Los Angeles. Wide angle.
On clear days it feels like you can see half the city from the big bay windows at the back of the apartment. As usual, this morning's sunrise is slugging it out with smog, but for once the new day is getting the upper hand. The sun punches sword-shafts of light through the haze; slanted pink-gold beams fall to earth at random points all over the city like escalators to heaven.
Cordelia's in the kitchen, singing along to the radio while she cracks egg after egg into a big mixing bowl. A slop of milk, a shake of salt and a twist of pepper and she mixes it carelessly, splashing egg on to the table top. Bacon hisses under the grill, the toaster pops, and coffee filters drip by drip into the biggest pot we've got.
Just as the pot's about to brim over, Cordelia rescues it and carries it over to the diverse collection of differently shaped, sized and coloured mugs sitting on the breakfast bar.
"Do you have syrup?"
Faith's holding a bowl of Frosted Flakes in one hand while opening random kitchen cupboards with the other. "Top shelf, at the back." Cordy wrinkles her nose in distaste. "You are aware that cereal is ninety per cent sugar already?"
"Yup." Faith finds the bottle and squeezes a generous stream of maple syrup over the bowl's contents. She puts down the bottle and scoops up a huge spoonful of mapley Frosted Flakes. She crunches loudly, grinning at Cordelia's expression. "Mmmm. Taste those empty calories. How long 'till the real food?"
"Soon as the eggs cook." Cordelia replaces the coffee pot and indicates the cups, now steaming aromatically. "Do me a favour and hand those round."
Faith finishes her cereal and lifts the tray. She heads into the lounge, where Gunn is stretched out on the sofa, long legs overshooting the end so his feet dangle beyond the armrest. He reaches for the offered mug and winces. "How come you got more beat up than me but I feel worse today?"
"Me: Slayer," says Faith, pointing at herself and enunciating the words clearly and slowly. "You: not Slayer."
She moves to pick up the tray again, but the blare of the television in the corner catches her attention. "Hey, cartoons. Move up." She lifts Gunn's legs and swings them round, ignoring his grunt of pain. She makes a space for herself on the sofa and settles beside him, waitressing duties forgotten.
"What happened about that coffee someone was going to make a half hour ago?"
Gunn looks around to acknowledge Kate; Faith's giggling at Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff and doesn't look away from the TV as she says, "On the floor. Help yourself."
Kate lifts the tray and carries it down the hallway leading to the rest of Cordelia's apartment. She puts it down on the low table outside the main bedroom and, lifting two cups, takes them inside. She takes a sip from the first and sets the second down in front of Lindsey. "I want to get some things straight before we start," she says.
He looks at her. "Isn't a pre-nuptial a little premature?"
Kate ignores him. "Here are the rules. Our after-hours relationship will in no way alter our working relationship. When we go out, we will each pay our own way. You will not hold doors open for me. You will not address me as 'honey' or 'sweetheart'. There will be no kissing in public." She leans forward: "There will be no writing of love letters. We're adults, not hormonal sixteen year olds."
Lindsey thinks about that. "What about sexually explicit emails?"
"Only if you're good."
Lindsey reaches for the coffee cup with his left hand, winces and forces himself to follow through. But by the time the mug is almost at his mouth, it's clear he's in a lot of pain.
Kate watches for a moment, then puts out a hand and steadies his wrist. He drinks, and they lower the cup together.
Lindsey says, "Okay. I accept your terms." He thinks for a second: "Should I maybe draft something we could sign…?"
Kate smiles. "That won't be necessary."
"Ah. Um. Sorry to, umm, barge in…" Wesley shifts, as uneasy as only an Englishman confronted with uninhibited colonials can be. "This coffee. On the table. In the hallway. Would that be… oh, you have some. Right. I'll just, umm… Right."
Kate draws back and turns an interesting shade of pink. "There goes kissing in public," she mutters. Lindsey grins.
Wesley closes the door again and takes the last two cups into the den. He gives one to Angel and leans against the bookshelves. He's almost finished his coffee before Angel speaks again. The last few days have been one long conversation, carried out slowly and with lengthy breaks.
Angel says, "If I'd been there—"
Wesley cuts him off. "She would still have died. Of that I am quite certain. The decision, in the end, was hers to make and she made it. Just as you did."
Angel looks up. "But she died. I got to live."
"Yes," says Wesley. His voice is solemn, almost harsh. "You were given a life. Now don't waste it mourning."
There is another lengthy silence, broken again by Angel. "I'd like to make the trip. Visit the grave."
Voice softer, Wesley says, "Of course. You remember how to get there?" Angel makes as if to reply, then stops and closes his eyes. They stay closed a moment too long. "Angel?"
Angel exhales heavily before giving a wry, thin smile. "I try to remember road routes and get flashes of the Crimean war. This is… still difficult." He nods to himself, more certain. "Yes, I remember how to get there."
"Good." Wesley puts down his cup. "And after?"
"Well, I haven't been to work for three weeks, so it's unlikely I've got a job to go back to."
"You have a place with us," says Wesley simply. "If you want it."
Quietly, Angel says, "I'm not who I was. I can't do—or be—" He breaks off. "I'm not who I was."
"We won't ask you to be," Wesley tells him gently.
"Breakfast!" Cordelia's voice can be heard throughout the apartment. "Come and get it before Faith eats everything."
Angel stands up and smiles. "Some things don't change."
Wesley follows him into the hallway. "You'll find a lot that's familiar."
"I keep meaning to ask—why isn't Faith still in prison? I remember she wasn't due for parole until…" He thinks: "…At least next year."
"Ahh. There's a funny story about that," begins Wesley. "Well, perhaps funny isn't exactly the right word…"
They head back to the kitchen, behind Kate and Lindsey. In the lounge, Faith's already digging into a high-heaped plate, dropping egg on the carpet as she laughs at the television.
"Dennis," yells Cordy: "OJ, please."
I swing open the refrigerator and lift a carton of fresh orange juice on to the breakfast bar. The small kitchen quickly becomes crowded with warm bodies, and also with something else. Physical existence is the iceberg's tip of living: it's what lies below the surface—the mass of character, experience, memory, history, recollection—that gives weight to a life. I don't think the living really know that. I'm certain I never did.
They talk and eat, fight, forgive and love, bring the essences of their lives within these walls and rarely pause long enough to appreciate the magnitude of the gift they have each received.
To me, this moment is a privilege, an opportunity to share again the miracle of simply being alive. To them, it's just breakfast.
One by one, they move out of the kitchen and back to the lounge. Cordelia's the last to go, and she hesitates by the door, holding a plate in one hand and a glass of juice in the other. "Hey, Dennis," she says. "Don't take this personally, but—it's good to be alive, y'know?"
I know. To show I'm not offended, I open the kitchen window blinds as far as they go, allowing morning sunlight to stream into the room. Cordy smiles and carries her breakfast into the lounge.
The sound of life being lived calls me, and I follow.
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