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The Closing Distance

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The boat has barely slid away from the dock when one of the sailors asks, “That your girl?” from over Angel’s shoulder. The German-accented words are unaccompanied by anything actually rude, but the leeringly appreciative tone is enough. Angel turns, just as he sees Buffy straighten. A second later, a hard piece of asphalt hits the sailor on the shoulder.

“Was zur Hölle?” He spins in a stupid circle, trying to figure out how anyone could hit him, or even hear him. Angel sniffs, wipes at his eyes with his thumb, and laughs dryly.

“Yeah, that’s my girl.”

He spends the next few hours exploring the ship, getting a sense of things. Something bothers him with each step, and finally he realizes that it is the loneliness and guilt which were his most constant companions, the ones that withdrew deeper into his heart each time he earned one of Buffy's smiles. Now they spread themselves out like floodwater within his chest, giving him a lethargic smile as they remind him of how familiar this is. He did this for decades, and soon California and Buffy and worth will be blinked away, and he will return to the natural dark and filth.

He pushes the feelings away as much as he is able. They snicker as they go.

They'll be back soon.

Strange how this morning Buffy was at his door, and now he is sailing away from her. But Angel has had a few centuries to get used to how quickly things shift. He has no more lamentations for the eyeblinks that mean a change. Killing a young girl, seeing one on sunlit school steps; these things took seconds and changed everything.

Most of the crew is German, the rest a tight-knit group from Brazil who chat together in Portuguese. Sunnydale is the last stop before open ocean, so everyone is sighing in relief, glad for some time to sleep instead of forcing themselves awake to hit the next port on the coast. Within an hour, they’re down to a skeleton crew, and Angel is free to examine the interchangeable metal hallways.

He encounters no one until the kitchen. They keep it cleaner than he’s used to or expected, ingredients tucked away, the table wiped down, and one man standing over a sink full of dishes. Angel starts to back out, but the man turns, a heavy pan still covered in soap your hand. He grimaces, embarrassed, and Angel ducks backward.

“Sorry,” the sailor blurts, turning to drop the pan into the sink. It comes out, unexpectedly, in Russian. Angel can no longer see his face, but his shoulders squeeze inward, young and awkward, and then he repeats himself in English.

“Don’t worry,” Angel says. His voice is hoarse and he speaks slowly, but his Russian is perfect, as if the language is something he stored in an attic chest, one he just creaked open to find it pristine. “It was my fault. I startled you.”

“No, no. You must be the new passenger. Here, sit.”

Angel takes the offered chair gingerly, as if he is unaccustomed to sitting, or to politeness. The sailor overlooks that easily, likely because when you’ve spent time on an ancient, patched cargo ship such as this, you find that the people who choose to use it as transportation are rarely normal.

The sailor peers into one of the pots waiting for washing on the sideboard. Angel protests, but a moment later there is a bowl of stew and a few slices of bread in front of him.

“My grandmother would visit my dreams if I didn’t feed a guest,” says the sailor, going back to the sink. “And she would be very unkind.”

“It’s a difficult thing, being haunted by those you love.” It comes out grated, as if Angel is barely speaking to the other man. “Particularly when they have only unkind things to say.” He stands, walking over to the sink. That human instinct sets itself in, the subconscious knowledge of a vampire’s danger, and the sailor steps away, but Angel only slots himself beside him and picks up a dish and a sponge. Logic and politeness win out. The two of them wash together in silence until everything is shined clean and then they nod to each other and go to bed.

Angel hopes that the man did not notice that he rinsed his bowl without eating anything.

Three nights later he sees him again.

“No one seems to know what to call you,” says the sailor, transferring flour from a bag to a container. He doesn’t spill any, which is disappointing. Messy kitchens, messy ships, attract more vermin for eating. Pushing the thought of starvation rations away, Angel unbuttons his sleeves and rolls them up, filling the sink with water.

“I’m Angel.”

“Noether.” They have been speaking Russian, but he pronounces it with the up-and-down cadence and restrained syllables of German. Seeing Angel’s look, he grins. “My grandmother was a teacher of mathematics and physics. Emmy Noether was one of her heroes. Einstein called her ‘the most significant creative mathematical genius’ since women were allowed education in universities.” Noether has a thin, friendly face, but it is the speed of his words that makes Angel think that he does not have much chance for deep conversation, considering the language barrier.

That feels familiar.

“Your grandmother raised you?” Angel turns away as soon as the question is out, hoping that Noether will not see the startled look on his face. He is not a small-talker, and he doesn’t know where the words came from.

“Yes, me and my brothers and my sister. My brothers are Euler and Feynman, and my sister is called Sofia.” Angel looks over, hands still swiping a plate clean. “After Sofia Kovalevskaya, but she thought that would be cruelty for a child.”

“A name like that would have been part of a long national tradition, anyway,” Angel says dryly. He’s known Russians with enough syllables in their names to christen three people.

Noether laughs. “And what about you? Brothers or sisters?”

He has been asked the question before, by store clerks, and seatmates, and all manner of well-meaning, barely interested strangers. And he has for decades, without considering otherwise, lied or turned away or remained silent. But here in the belly of the ship, without considering otherwise, he says, “My sister’s name was Kathy. She was murdered. A long time ago.” The words tuck into themselves, collapsing beneath centuries of grief. He knows that he has a reputation for being mysterious- Buffy has admonished him for it more than once, although he is more open with her than he has been with anyone else- but the pain that comes from him is so clear-eyed that Noether turns away.

“I shouldn’t have asked that,” he mumbles after a moment, examining a chipped plate with impossible thoroughness. “I apologize.”

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” says Angel, the words padded with self-recrimination. But he’s grown spoiled in Sunnydale, relaxed into his old selfishness because he was doing a drop of good, and he does not want to spend untold months in oceanic silence. He adds, with a bit of desperation, “I have a girl I left back in Sunnydale, where you picked me up.”

Noether’s face moves cautiously back into a smile. They haven’t spoken long enough for it to be comfortable, but it might be a start, Angel thinks. “A girl is good. Let us get you back to her soon.”

“Tell me about your girl.”

It is weeks later, another kitchen midnight. Everything is folded away except the mugs of tea in front of them. They are somewhere off of South America. Later tonight, Angel will go out and look at the stars and imagine the miles between here and what he thinks of now as home.

“Her name is Buffy,” Angel starts, and then pauses. Noether was not above deck when he came aboard, had not seen Buffy walk with him and fight with him, accept Angel’s ring and match his tears with hers, and send him on his way with only a strange box and a heart turned inward. Angel does not know the words for her.

“She makes me smile,” he tries, and it is more inadequate than he ever could have thought, and still simple, buoyant truth. Noether lifts his mug and takes a sip. He looks as if he is being told a bedtime story.

"She knows just how to be cruel," Angel says. He thinks of Buffy after the summer, still haunted by the Master, the digging ease of her words. "And it just reminds me of how kind she is, how easily she could turn that against people but how she puts it away instead and uses herself to help people, even strangers." He lowers his head. His voice hushes against the table. “She’s open with her heart. Sometimes more than she should be.”

It is something he’s come to think about more and more, away from her. How it could hurt her, being with him. Put her in danger, yes, but also ruin her youth. Because although she has more responsibility than anyone he’s ever known, the weight of lives and lives, she also has her own, and it is such a young one. He wants to be sure that she doesn’t look with regret on these months spent with him, the cliffside love with someone whose life is endlessly futureless.

He has thought these things before, but now there are no more touches or smiles or words or moments of helping people to turn him into an optimist, to make him forget that every part of him is bloodied and he let Buffy touch that.

Noether’s face looks all made of angles, intersections of night and weariness. “Whatever thoughts you’re having, stop,” he says, brushing a hand through the air. “Choose something that doesn’t make you look as if you’re six feet beneath the ground.”

Angel lowers his head, takes a minute to build himself into a place where he can flick a smile onto his face and pretend that he is able to make his thoughts disappear.

Giles had suggested a place for the arm, a remote island about two thousand miles off the coast of South Africa. (“I’m afraid Nepal has become a bit overdone in the last few decades as a supernatural hiding place,” he had said with one of his private Giles smiles.) In addition to the protection of water and distant inconvenience, it had some sort of history of mystical worship that left it well-protected.

“That will make it difficult for you to approach,” Giles had warned. It’s something Angel is familiar with, and he has been preparing himself for it, for a burning or a repelling force.

He doesn’t expect to be overcome while they’re still a week away from even reaching the first stopping point on his journey at Valencia. One morning he goes to sleep, and cannot get out of his bed for five days.

Each minute lasts endlessly, filled with the minute memories of all the things he has done. He is trapped in remembrance of Liam’s petty violences, and dreams Angelus’s dreams, of screams and selfish, inevitable hunger and a grin filled with blood. His mind reminds him over and over of the rats he has eaten in alleys and occasionally below these decks and how they are nothing compared to a wriggling, warm human. And when he does not dream, the pain blots out everything, sinking and rising so that he feels as if it must collide and dissolve at some place inside him, but instead it manages a physicist’s trick and stretches everywhere.

When he finally opens painless eyes, he feels cleaner than he has in a long time, somehow open and filled at once, the way a deep sigh of early morning air once felt in his lungs. He thinks it is twilight, the time of Baudelaire’s blue-wet horizons. Noether sits by his bed, eyes forward. Between clasped hands, he holds a stake.

Ships have transformed like so much else. Angel doesn’t know where he found the wood in all this metal.

“My grandmother was not my grandmother.” They have talked night by night over weeks and Angel has never heard Noether’s voice like this. “She found me, found my brothers and my sister with no one to care for us, and took us in.” He looks at Angel with a midnight gaze. “You know where I grew up.”

“Near Norilsk.” They’ve talked about it before, about the town near the freezing top of the world and a childhood of snowy, smoky air that made him want to leave as soon as he was grown.

“We have times of short days, months of no sun. It makes a perfect home for vampires. Everyone knows not to leave home after dark without a stake or to let anyone in who cannot cross your doorstep on their own. But sometimes the precautions don’t matter. They didn’t help my parents or the parents of my siblings. So when the woman I called Grandmother found us and took us in, she taught us to be more careful.”

Angel wants to stretch, to sit up. It makes no sense; his muscles haven’t needed it for so long, he should have surely overcome the instinct by now. He ignores the feeling, and very carefully does not move. He recognizes Noether’s hurricane-eyed fury.

“You don’t move like other vampires,” says Angel’s friend. Angel understands that, too. Most vampires walk with an arrogance that is noticeable if you are looking.

“How did you figure it out?” Angel’s voice stays quiet, defeated rather than accusatory.

“Well, you didn’t need to eat or use the bathroom for nearly a week.” Some of the humor comes back into his words before he represses it. “And then you tried to say the Hail Mary in your sleep, so I brought a cross for you.” He gestures, and Angel looks down and notices for the first time the burn edging across his palm.

“Why didn’t you just kill me before?”

“I’ve met vampires. I’ve killed vampires. I’ve done it on this ship. Do you think you’re the only one who has tried to cross the world on my boat? But none of them have helped me clean my kitchen and touched no one on board and spoken about a woman they love.”

Angel feels his face give a reserved twitch of guilt. “That was a dangerous choice,” he says.

“You seemed to lack danger, crying there in your bed.” This time, as much as Noether tries to prop up his rage, the words still soften, sounding almost friendly, like worry and teasing all in one. The phrase A century, alone, echoes around Angel’s head. “What happened to you?”

“I’m not sure.” That seems troubling for the first time since he woke up, but there’s little to do about it. He blurts, “I have a soul,” which immediately seems like a foolish, patchwork excuse, especially for someone who knows only the vicious basics of vampires. After a gathering pause, a second to listen to the ship moving through the water, he adds, “I’m still mostly a vampire, though. I shouldn’t be able to get sick unless something supernatural is going on.”

“Your Buffy. Does she know what you are?”

“Yes.” It almost brings a laugh from him. “She tried to kill me almost right away. Gave me less benefit of the doubt than you did, at first.” The memory is tinged with fondness; he has to work to push it away.

Noether is staring at him. His knuckles have relaxed around the stake. “I’m guessing it’s a long story?” he asks.

“One that isn’t over.” Angel stretches finally, allowing his arms to push his frame up against the curving metal of the wall. He glances around the dim room, then speaks to the gathered blankets in his lap. “I’m supposed to go home to her. I promised that. I want that.”

A century, alone, echoes Angel’s mind, as Noether pushes a leg forward and says, “In my experience, you would not mention that unless you were going to break the promise.”

“She is very young,” he starts. “She has a lot of responsibility and a dangerous job that doesn’t have great life expectancy statistics, but she’s still young.”

“And there’s always the matter of law,” Noether says, head tipped sharply. Angel winces. Although he’d known girls who married at that age when he had been young, despite the way the image of his time has somehow been transformed in the centuries since, married women had mostly been in their twenties. If that was true then, he could likely get arrested today if anyone in Sunnydale was paying attention.

“But even if she were older, the problem is me. The things I did before my soul live in my head, but I would never want to let them out so anyone I loved would know about them. But if it’s all theory to her, then how can she truly know the person she is with?”

“You need someone named after a moral philosopher, not a mathematician.” Noether leans forward a bit. “But I will tell you this: breaking your promise doesn’t solve this problem, it just makes you a coward, and I didn’t think you were that.”

Angel rubs the side of his thumb against his jaw. “I don’t know if that’s true. Sometimes I still wonder who I am.”

“If you don’t know by now, that sharply limits the hope for the rest of us.” The dryness there makes Angel’s shoulders sink as he smiles. Noether smiles back. “You know,” he says abruptly. “I’ve killed many of your kind and never lost a second of sleep over it. But I think I would have lost sleep over you.”

With a bit of a humorous exhale, Angel tells him, “I appreciate that,” and finds that not only is his head clearer, the refrain that lives there (A century, alone) has become a whisper at least for now.