Wesley poured the tea with a shaking hand. Two things affected the tea's journey from teapot to cup: age and shock. He could barely lift his eyes to meet the other man's, but he didn't want to seem rude. On the other hand, he wasn't sure if he'd be able to prevent himself from staring.
"I'm sorry, Wesley. I can't imagine you're prepared for this."
Wesley sat, uncomfortably, in the armchair. His hip was still bothering him, months after the surgery. How could the Queen Mum have gotten two hips replaced and been dancing at the Royal Ball after her 100th year, and him only just sixty-five, barely able to get around his small flat? Modern medicine, pah!
"I don't think I imagined that it would happen at all," Wesley commented, dryly.
The other man laughed. "Well, better to err on the side of caution, I guess."
Wesley smiled tightly. "Why now? Why have you come now?"
Angel shook his head, took a sip of the hot tea and let his eyes linger over Wesley's lined face. Still handsome, dignified, he thought.
"There's a lot to say. I guess I just don't know where to start," Angel said, quietly.
"Well, I guess you could start at the beginning," Wesley said.
"Yes. I could do that. But perhaps you don't want to hear all that…" Angel said.
Wesley snorted, softly. "You think I might have something better to do with my day, Angel? Some place else to be? A friend to visit?"
Angel frowned at the tone of Wesley's voice.
"I'm sorry, Wesley," he started and then stopped as Wesley held up his hand.
"You needn't be sorry, Angel. You did what you had to do, as did I. It's in the past now. The distant past, I should think."
Angel nodded. But then, why did it feel like only yesterday?
The room shook with the force of the earthquake. Glasses and plates fell from their shelves, pictures slid down shaking walls, Connor wailed. A beam burst from the ceiling, ripping wires in its wake. Angel barely had time to push Wesley out the door into the relative safety of the hall; a fraction of a second to grab the precious bundle that was his son. He didn't feel the wound to his head, or the river of blood that drenched his face, his son's blanket, turning baby blue cotton clouds to red. Just a second to meet Wesley's startled eyes before Wesley stood, shoved a stake into Angel's chest (nowhere near the heart) and wrenched Connor from his arms. Angel took a step back, called, "Wesley," and sank to his knees. Wesley had rounded the corner of the hall by the time Angel could extract the stake from his chest, pressing his fingers over the already closing wound. Wesley was gone…somewhere…by the time Angel slid into the lobby. Angel howled while the fired upstairs raged.
"How is he?" Angel asked?
"He lives, if that's what you mean," Wesley responded.
Angel nodded. "Yes, that's what I mean. Don't tell me any more than that."
"I don't intend to," Wesley said, firmly. "Although, Angel, I suspect that you could find him if you set yourself to the task."
"Yes. I could find him. But then what?"
Wesley's eyes filled with sympathy for his long lost friend.
"I don't know," Wesley said, quietly.
Angel laughed sharply. "Yes, you do. Sure you do." He placed the cup and saucer on the table and stood.
Wesley shook his head sadly and watched Angel's eyes fill with tears. "She never really got over you leaving. Never quite managed to be happy with Groo, although he was a good man, good to her."
Angel nodded in agreement. "Yes, a better man than me," he said.
"No. Not better, Angel, just different."
Angel shrugged huge shoulders and sat back across from Wesley.
He wanted to ask after the others, but he knew that eventually the list would dwindle and he'd be left with the only name that really mattered to him. He wasn't sure that he could stand to hear what had become of her although he knew he would be unable to prevent himself from asking, eventually.
"Where did you go, Wesley?"
Wesley shook his head. "It hardly matters, Angel. Not now."
Wesley regarded the vampire across the rim of his porcelain teacup. Angel's eyes reflected nothing but Wesley's own face. Still, Wesley sensed that this meeting would not be concluded until Angel knew two things: Wesley's motivation for kidnapping Connor and Buffy's fate. Forty years had passed, and yet Wesley knew that Angel was still the same, still wanted the same things.
Wesley shifted in his chair, the slow ache from his hip snaking up his spine.
Nothing he could say would ever heal Angel's wounds. But he would say the words anyway. Why else had he lived, if not to tell?
"I'd met with Holtz, you know, Angel," Wesley began. "I'd already deciphered the prophecy. I'd already been losing my mind over what I thought it meant. I knew that Holtz was planning something…something terrible and I'd hoped to intervene on your behalf, reason with the man."
Angel sighed, a short hissing sound. Wesley rushed on, afraid of what Angel might think of any allegiance with Holtz. "Holtz, I could see, was beyond reason. It must have taken a certain heartlessness to come across time the way that he had and retain his sanity. He was so focused on you, on the baby, on his twisted version of what would balance the scales. I could see that the band of lost souls he had assembled to help him were unreachable, as well. But frankly, Angel, I didn't know what to do about any of it anyway, and so I did the only thing that I could do; I took Connor and I ran."
Angel nodded, a small precise gesture; really just a tip of his chin.
"For the first little while, we ran without a plan. Aimless. I couldn't contact any of the others for fear that their feelings for you would undermine my intentions. Then, we went to England. After a few months, I calmed down and I contacted Cordelia. It was she who told me that you had gone. A few weeks later I returned to LA and although it wasn't ever the same for any of us, we did manage to piece together a sort of life. It hardly matters what we've done all these years. Your son is well into adulthood, Angel." Wesley took a breath and added, "Well beyond your reach."
"I've forgiven you, Wesley," Angel said, noting the defensive tone of Wesley's voice during his too brief account of the life of Angel's son. What of baseball and school and girls and the colour of his eyes, he wanted to ask, but didn't.
"Yes, well, be that as it may, I have not yet forgiven myself," Wesley said, hoisting himself out of the armchair and beginning the task of carting the tea cups back to his small galley kitchen.
Picking up the teapot and cream and sugar dishes, Angel followed him. Wesley moved slowly, in obvious pain, and Angel felt a twinge of regret.
"Does he know?" Angel asked, setting the things on the spotlessly clean counter.
"He knows everything, Angel. I couldn't deny him that. Doubtless I should have left out some of the grimmer details, but I couldn't see the point."
"You could have let him believe that you were his father. He wouldn't have ever needed to know any different," Angel said.
"I don't believe that you can right a wrong with another wrong, actually," Wesley said, busying himself with the washing up.
"He must hate me. He must think me a monster," Angel said, almost to himself.
Wesley turned to face his old friend. "Angel," he said, "after all this time, how can you still think that of yourself? We never did."
"Perhaps you were wrong," Angel said, quietly.
Wesley shook his head. "No, I don't believe we were."
"Yet, you took Connor away from me," Angel murmured.
"Yes. I did," Wesley said. "It was a long time ago, Angel. Sometimes my reasons for such a dramatic gesture seem flimsy, even to me. Nonetheless, the passage of time hasn't really made me doubt my decision, so much as…."
Wesley stopped and Angel placed a strong hand on his shoulder, "It's all right, Wes, I know."
Wesley smiled. "Why have you come now?"
Angel took a step back and smiled, enigmatically.
"Oh my God," Wesley said.
"Oh, Angel. Your shanshu? Now?"
Angel smiled bitterly. "So it would seem."
Wesley moved to a wooden chair and sat down awkwardly. "It hardly seems fair, after all this time….after so many people…"
There was a sudden silence as the two men regarded each other and then Angel asked:
"Is she alive, Wes?"
"She never left, Angel. She stayed in that damned town, in that same house. She never left."
Angel swallowed. "I should go there," he said. "I should tell her."
Heading for the door, Angel turned and said, "Thank you."
"But you still haven't told me why now?" Wesley said.
"I was afraid that you were right, Wes, about the prophecy. I was afraid that I might harm my son. I've spent the last few decades as I should have lived all along: alone. Fighting the evil, yes, but fighting it alone. After you left, so did I, and I never came back, never sent word, cut you all off like useless limbs. I closed in on myself and worked at doing the job that was given to me, the job that was complicated by falling in love…with Buffy and then, in a way, with all of you."
Wesley nodded in understanding.
"So, you see, I am not blameless here." Angel smiled, sadly. "I have to go. There isn't much time."
Angel opened the door and stepped through into the hall. He paused there and said, "Good bye, Wesley."
Pushing the door closed, Wesley whispered to the wood, "Goodbye." It was only after he had settled back into his armchair that he wondered why Angel had made the comment about the lack of time.
Angel drove with the top down, relishing the feeling of warm sun and cool breeze, even though he'd been human for several weeks. He wasn't sure what he would do when he got to Sunnydale, wasn't sure whether he'd have the courage to go to the door and knock. He hadn't had enough time to think about any of this. One day he was vampire, the next day he was not.
He caught his eyes in the rearview mirror. They were eyes that had seen too much, knew too much, revealed too much.
But knowing did not mean he could turn away from this last journey.
Buffy worked with good-natured vigor in her flower garden, even though it always seemed that the weeds got the best of the dirt. It was just past three and the sun warmed her back pleasantly. She reached for the glass of iced tea on the paving stone beside her and took a sip, savouring the taste of lemon and mint on her tongue.
She surveyed the garden and smiled. Had anyone asked her when she was much younger, whether or not she could have imagined her life forty years down the road, Buffy knows she would have shrugged and offered a dry comment. But here, now, she can barely remember her life then.
She'd stayed in the house she'd spent her youth in, changing very little. She'd worked her way through college and graduate school. She'd visited Giles in England, becoming godmother to his two sons. She'd mourned the passing of Xander, a heart attack at 50. She met Willow once a week for dinner and a movie. Her life had been pleasant and the not so pleasant stuff seemed sufficiently far away.
Sometimes she dreamed of Spike. The third slayer after her had reduced him to dust, long after she should have done it herself. Her addiction to him had seemed endless, painful and yet she'd survived: even better than he had. Nothing less attractive than a maudlin vampire, she thought.
All she'd ever wanted was to be a normal girl, have a normal life but when she'd turned 25 and they'd called a new slayer, retiring her except for the odd consultation, she found that she didn't know how to behave in a world of Monday to Friday, nine-to-five.
None of it had been easy. Nothing in life ever is.
Not even gardening, Buffy thought turning her attention back to the delphinium in front of her.
Then: a passing cloud blocked the sun. Buffy shifted under the sudden coolness, waiting, without moving, for the warmth to return. Then: an alarming feeling rushed over her, not altogether unfamiliar, and she could feel her heart start to race, pushing blood along her veins at a furious rate.
Then: the sun returned and Buffy turned, leveling a steady hand in a salute over her eyes. Then: Angel.
Buffy blinked, but the apparition did not move. In all these years she'd never once hallucinated him into her life. She hadn't had private conversations with him. She hadn't dreamed him gathering her into his arms, peeling back the layers of self to reveal the hurt and love and anger and remorse that lay beneath. She hadn't written letters she couldn't have sent anyway. She hadn't done anything more than know.
Still, him standing there, looking exactly as he had all those years ago, caused a small tremor in Buffy's heart which threatened to break it cleanly in two.
"Hello, Buffy," he said.
"Hello, Angel," she replied.
They smiled foolishly at each other.
"May I join you?" he asked, indicating the patch of grass next to her.
She nodded. "I've been waiting."
"I know," he said. "Me, too."
"I should have known," Buffy said, risking a glance at his devastatingly beautiful face.
Angel reached for her fingers, the claddagh ring their only adornment. He lifted them to his mouth and kissed their tips, closing his eyes as he did.
Buffy felt a ripple of something unnameable run through her and she trembled.
"I'm mortal, Buffy." Angel said.
Buffy could feel her throat tighten and her eyes burn and knew the tears were inevitable. She wondered how it would feel to cry after all these years. She couldn't honestly remember the last time she'd reached for a tissue to blot her eyes. Even when Willow chose particularly sappy movies, Buffy sat stone-faced beside her weeping friend. It was as if he'd taken her ability to cry away with him.
"Did you hear me, Buffy?" Angel asked.
"Yes, I heard."
"We need to go inside now," he said, releasing her fingers with great reluctance. He didn't know whether she'd be insulted with an offer to help her up, but seconds later she was standing next to him; reed thin and lovely.
Angel followed Buffy up the stairs to the back door. The kitchen was cool and dark. She led him wordlessly down the hall and up the stairs to her bedroom, pausing only briefly before stepping inside.
"Nothing's changed," Angel said.
Buffy smiled, softly. "Not true. I have."
Buffy lay on the bed, kicking off her scuffed Keds and motioned for Angel to join her. For a long moment he stood by the door, afraid. This wasn't how it was meant to be and a part of him wanted to rail at the stars for being so unkind. Hadn't he paid his debt? But then, as he watched her lying there in the faded afternoon light, Angel's heart brimmed with the knowledge that this was an exquisite moment. Life was too short for regrets.
He toed off his shoes and padded over to her. She shifted her small frame to accommodate his much larger one and they lay there, not touching, for a while.
"I waited for you," she said, breaking the silence. "I wasn't sure I'd be able."
"I know," he replied, scooping her closer. "I'm sorry I couldn't come sooner."
"It wasn't our time, Angel," she said. "Was it?"
"No love, it wasn't," he said, simply.
She nodded, tucking her head under his chin.
He brushed a gentle kiss against her hair, no longer golden, but beautiful just the same. "But that doesn't mean our time won't come."
Buffy sighed deeply, ran her hand across the sloped plane of Angel's chest (so long since she'd felt muscle and skin), traced his jaw and lashes and felt the familiar trip of her heart.
When she closed her eyes, the light was waiting for her as it had been many times before. This time, joyfully, Buffy went.