The box floated down, spiraling through the blackness of the sea, a seamless drop through nothingness. He felt no panic. He closed his eyes during his weightless, peaceful descent to the ocean floor. His mind was empty, uncluttered: the concerns of the human world no longer his.
A bump and he hit, skidding with accumulated propulsion along the sandy bottom before resting beside a bank of coral. A school of fish, eyes bugging foolishly, skittered past the small window of the box. The quiet was deafening.
Hours passed, or maybe days. He had no sense of time. In some ways, he welcomed the thought of passing into oblivion. The ocean wouldn't kill him, he was safe from predators, and he could live a long time without blood. Since death wasn't an option in the foreseeable future, perhaps this was a just punishment for his crimes. Locked in a cage, away from the people he cared about more than anything, nothing but time on his hands to contemplate where he was and who he'd become.
Angel willed his mind to remain blank. There was limitless potential for insanity and Angel could not allow himself to be sucked into that void. Bad enough that he had allowed himself to be fooled by Connor.
He should have killed Justine when he'd had the chance.
Angel wasn't sure how long he'd be able to prevent the memories from rushing through him. While his body was relatively strong he might be able to put a stopper in his brain, but he knew that the slow filter of past transgressions and triumphs would be inevitable. At some point he would be held prisoner by his memories.
He jolted awake, his surroundings unfamiliar. His mouth felt dry, his tongue shriveled in his mouth. He searched for some landmark and then remembered. I'm at the bottom of the world. He felt the first tickle of panic, a scratching at the back of his throat. He flipped through his decades of memories, looking for something pleasant to recollect: his parents, siblings, DrusillaPennDarlaHoltzLilahWesley…the list kept growing and there wasn't a friendly face among them. Was this the sum total of his life?
There must be others. He blinked pushing through the faces and frantically trying to recall one person who might have looked at him with anything other than distrust or disgust.
Angel sucked in a long, calming breath. There was no air, nor was it necessary, but it made him feel better to do it.
Francis Doyle. Half-breed. Wit as sharp as the whiskey he was so fond of. Disarming sense of the ironic. In love with Cordelia.
Shit. Cordelia. What must she be thinking? They were to have met there at the cliff, to exchange vows of…She'd been late and Angel had wondered whether or not she had changed her mind about what she had been going to reveal to him about her own feelings. Angel remembered the phone call: We need to talk. I have something to tell you. He'd known with certainty what the words would be, had practiced his own confession many times over. I love you, Cordelia. The words sounded fake and alien to his ears and he could only imagine the impact they would have on Cordelia.
I. Love. You. Cordelia.
His reaction if she'd said she loved him? His stomach flipped: the thought of her loving him made him recoil. Still, he had been prepared to say it; had been willing to hear it. At what cost? He hadn't even considered the price of trespassing beyond the circle of their friendship.
He pictured Cordy in his mind. How much and little she'd changed over the years since they'd been aligned in Los Angeles. He wondered when his feelings for her had changed because he had to admit to himself that they had changed.
He'd been jealous when Groo had shown up. Jealousy was a feeling that Angel rarely indulged in. Being jealous served no purpose other than to remind him that he was not human. But Cordelia's reaction to Groo, her obvious affection for and attraction to the other man, had made something sour travel through Angel's veins.
It wasn't just the warrior's sudden arrival in LA that had made Angel notice Cordelia. He'd noticed her all along: breasts bursting out of her skimpy tops, tattoo at the curve of her lower back, long brown arms dusting half-heartedly, looking for ways to stick around when there was really nothing for her to do. Her caustic remarks to Doyle had made Angel chuckle inwardly and he had allowed her to pass through the safety net he'd built around his life. But he had never fallen in love with her. Not in the way Fred and Lorne had assumed that he had.
But he would have said the words to her. He would have said the words because he had no other words to say. Everyone expected him to be okay and he would need to prove to them, to himself, that he was. It would be a lie of the cruelest kind, but he would say the words. Maybe he would have lain her down there on the sand where they were supposed to have met. Maybe he would have kissed her, slipped his tongue into her mouth, placed his large hands on her breasts, squeezing tentatively. Maybe he would have gone all the way, keeping his eyes closed and trying to remember to be gentle.
Angel shifted in his prison. The cold air pressed all around him. He was thankful he was dead and didn't feel claustrophobic, although he wished that he could move his arms; they were beginning to ache.
What sacrifice had Cordy made to become part demon? She'd given up the false life that Skip had shown her. She'd taken the visions back from him. He remembered the kiss vividly: a cool, soft, slide of her lips across his and the power that passed between them, power that had nothing to do with her flesh on his and everything to do with the manufactured magic. Nevertheless, she appeared to have done something selfless. What Skip didn't know was that Cordy's desire to be a famous actress had ended months before the visions had ever started to make her sick. It was all a pipe dream anyway, Angel thought, a way to get rich, to be the center of attention. At the very heart of her, Cordelia was a kind and thoughtful woman and had been an asset to Angel both as a friend and a co-worker; but just beyond, nothing had changed. She was as superficial as she'd ever been. A few new outfits had proven that her loyalty could be bought.
Wes was another story and as much as Angel dreaded thinking about him, he was helpless to prevent it. Angel could have never imagined calling Wesley a friend when he had met him all those years ago in Sunnydale. He'd been a prissy, meticulous, play-by-the-rules Watcher, called to replace Rupert Giles, a man for whom Angel had a great deal of respect and admiration.
When the Council had dumped Wesley he had left Sunnydale, but he hadn't been able to leave his life of demons behind. He'd come to Los Angeles, a rogue demon hunter (a title that never failed to amuse Angel) and that's where he and Angel had met once again.
Wesley hadn't been a better fighter, but he was more humble than he'd been and suddenly he'd taken up the slack left by Doyle's death. Wes was an asset: smart and keen to learn. Now, in a fight, he could more than hold his own.
In his whole life, Angel couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so betrayed by another human being. Wesley had done the unthinkable; he'd taken Angel's son. It didn't matter that he thought he'd done it for all the right reasons. All that mattered was that he'd done it and it had all gone wrong. If Justine hadn't slit Wes' throat, Angel was sure he would have done the deed himself.
He knew that Gunn had gone to him for help when the hotel had become infested with sluks. He knew that Wes had met with Lilah Morgan on several occasions. He even suspected that Wes had fucked her. It didn't matter. Angel was done with Wesley Wyndam-Price. Not even Connor's unexpected arrival back in LA had changed the way Angel had felt about Wes.
He could rot in hell.
Angel drifted up from sleep. For a moment he was afraid and then he remembered where he was and he was satisfied by the knowledge. He didn't deserve any better than this.
He contemplated his relationship with Holtz. There were few moments in his life, the whole long length of it, for which he was truly grateful. The night in the alley, the night Connor was born, was one of them. Angel knew that Holtz hadn't spared him because of compassion. Holtz had merely discovered that there would be a better, more painful way to hurt Angel. He would steal his child, the child that wasn't meant to be. That was the worst punishment you could ever inflict on another, Angel knew that now.
So, in the alley, rain streaming from the sky, Holtz had regarded Angel with something akin to understanding. Holtz knew. Knew what it was to be a father; knew what it was to love something more than yourself. Angel had had that opportunity only once, and even then, that experience was incomparable. So, Angel and Holtz had regarded each other across the length of Holtz's crossbow. Angel had held Connor, a naked, shivering bundle of human flesh and blood and, suddenly, out of nothing and nowhere, the most precious thing in Angel's life. He had met Holtz's steely, shrewd eyes and had known; not that he was about to meet his dusty end, but that the worst was yet to come.
And it had come. The painful all-encompassing feeling of love and adoration he'd been unable to turn away from, all wrapped up in a sweet smelling blanket. The dreams of the future: Connor's future and Angel's future, twined together like they were meant to be. Connor playing baseball, Connor's first day of school, Connor's first tooth.
And the fear that Connor would turn away when he knew the truth about his father. And, then, too soon, he was gone. A horrible choice had needed to be made and Angel had made it: chosen the lesser of two evils. Holtz versus Wolfram and Hart. Sounded like a bad movie.
Gone: fingers pushing through rock and dirt; sky, inky and starless, gone.
What might he have done to make the pain go away?
Nothing could have lessened that pain.
Angel's eyes shot open.
He'd been dreaming one of his rare dreams. He had stopped allowing himself to indulge in thoughts of her after she'd come back from the dead, after they'd met and relinquished their hold on one another.
It didn't matter that she seemed so far away from him now; without effort, he filled his mind with her essence. They were linked, would always be linked by blood, but it was more than that, too. If he sent his thoughts out, Angel knew she would hear them. He made a conscious effort to push her away and immediately mourned the loss of the comfort the thoughts of her brought to him.
He clenched his jaw, stretched his fingers out, testing the bars that locked his arms down.
The longer he was down here, the weaker he'd become and the less likely he'd be able to find a way out of this mess. He was of two minds about that. He could just stay forever, accepting the fate the powers had delivered to him or he could call upon reserves of strength, find reasons to fight.
Connor. He needed a chance to mend his relationship with his son. He needed to be able to prove to Connor that he wasn't the monster that Holtz had portrayed him to be, not anymore.
Cordelia. He needed to find a way to put his feelings for her in perspective.
It was pointless to try and reason with himself when it came to Buffy. There was no reason. It just was. The feelings between them were something alive, a twisting, living, breathing entity which he had been unable to fight against. He wasn't going to lie here, trapped beneath the ocean and recount his past mistakes when it came to his relationship with the Slayer. He wasn't going to lie here and mourn what he had lost and could no longer find. He wasn't going to lie here and pretend that loving her wasn't the single most valuable thing he'd done in his whole, long life.
Darla had said that making Connor was the only good thing they had ever done together, but when Angel recalled the night he and Darla had had sex, the memories didn't offer any happy pictures. There was just need; raw and horrible, and the desire to hurt someone who could not be hurt, at least not by him. That a baby had come out of it had been unexpected and awe-inspiring and Angel had looked upon Connor as someone who might be able to help him redeem himself in the universe, set things straight.
In the end, Angel learned the lesson that he always seemed to fail to grasp. The only person responsible for setting him on the path to redemption was himself. Connor couldn't do it. Saving Darla didn't do it. Loving Buffy…Angel stopped himself from carrying the thought any further. Buffy had shown him the way. Seeing Buffy for the first time had dragged his sorry ass from the alley and given him a purpose. He had turned away from that. It wasn't her fault.
Angel could feel his stomach shrink and his veins collapse with the lack of blood. He ran his dry tongue along the cracked rim of his lips, but it didn't ease the burning. He had lost track of how many days he'd been underwater. He had lost track of the lives he'd been tallying: killed and saved. He was still sure he had killed more than he'd saved.
If he were a man who believed in God, he would say that he must have some purpose here on this earth. Back in the day, he had gone to church with his family, sat in the pews, listened to the stern priest in the pulpit, bowed his head and knelt when required, and muttered long remembered psalms and prayers, although the words were meaningless to him.
Later, when he discovered a new temple, the temple of flesh and earthly delights, Angel had abandoned the church and his family. When the bell rang in the morning, sending people from his village along the cobbled streets to offer up their souls to God, Angel was generally pressing into the plump flesh of a local barmaid. His mother had wept when Angel had denounced the church. His father had struck him, a hard-boned, fisted blow that had skimmed across Angel's high cheek and sent him backwards, laughing.
"You good-for-nothing-lazy-scoundrel," his father had said, stepping forward and grabbing him by the scruff. "You'll not sleep in this house if you're not prepared to worship our Lord and Master."
Angel blinked back tears remembering his father's harsh words and his own dismissive response. He'd been young, foolish, disrespectful. But it wasn't until he'd become a father that he'd truly appreciated the position he'd put his own father in. Not a day had gone by since Connor had been born that Angel didn't think of his father and lament the fact that he had been such a cruel and selfish son.
But he couldn't go back. He couldn't change anything in the past. And he couldn't torment himself with thoughts of what might have been. Did he regret the night Darla had lured him into the stinking alley across from the pub? She'd had an aura he couldn't resist, although she wasn't the type he was normally attracted to. She fairly gleamed, her blonde hair coiffed in bubbles and ringlets, her dress immaculate, her bosom heaving with excitement. Her fangs in his throat had only hurt for a moment and then, the power coursing through his newly dead body had sent him tumbling from dizzying heights.
Nothing had mattered after that: not the cruel, bloody death of his simpering mother and hostile father, not the pale and forgiving face of his younger sister as he crushed through her veins, lapping up her virginal blood. Nothing. Everything Angel had been in life returned to him two-fold, a hundred-fold in his life after death.
Darla had proved to be a willing and capable teacher. Insatiably cruel and deviously skilled in the ways of pleasure and pain and Angel had been an apt pupil. He feared nothing and no one, loved nothing but carnage and destruction and the look of rapt fear on the faces of his victims. Driving Drusilla insane was, Angel figured, the crowning glory is his unlife. She'd been a lovely, pious thing, destined for a life with God and Angel had swept it all away. And he'd done it gleefully.
Angel was sure he could hear his heart pounding in his chest. It wasn't possible, of course. His heart didn't beat, couldn't beat no matter how much stolen blood he drank. He missed that. Drinking blood fresh from the neck of a human: rich and thick and coppery. The last time he'd done it was outside that warehouse, fangs buried in Kate Lockley's neck. It didn't matter that he'd only done it to save her life, the same feelings existed: euphoria, lust, the barely controllable urge to rip her throat out. Still, he'd managed to keep those feelings in check for the better part of a century, choosing instead to drink blood from plastic bags and coffee mugs, the equivalent of vampire fast food.
Before that night with Kate had been….
Angel blinked. He'd lost track of the time. He should have devised some way to mark its passage, but it hadn't seemed important. All that mattered down here was keeping thoughts of her out of his head because he knew that once he let her in there would be no getting her out.
Suddenly, Angel wanted out. He opened his mouth and wailed, a long, mournful sound that vibrated against the walls of the box and echoed back to him.
Angel felt his face explode with pain. When his vision cleared, he saw her standing there, her face set with grim determination.
"Drink," she said.
He shook his head. The pain was already gone and he braced himself for the next blow. He was weak and his ability to resist her was almost nonexistent. He narrowed his eyes against her fist and when his head snapped back he knew she was looking at him in his true form.
But instead of stepping away from him, she stepped into him, twisting the frail column of her neck to give him better access to her life's blood. That's all he could hear, the sound of her essence pounding through his brain and he sank his fangs into her willing flesh hesitating with only the merest whisper of remorse.
As the first taste of her rich blood filled his mouth he keened, certain she could feel him, hard against her. They fell to the floor in a boneless heap. He remembered thinking of Spike's bragging reports of the taste of Slayer blood and feeling ashamed of the thought. He remembered the smell of her hair: clean, herbal. He remembered the breathless sobs sighing from between her parted lips. He remembered knowing the exact moment she came.
It was all he could do to tear himself away from her, to release his painful grip on her and let her slide, a pale ghost, away from him.
What did he love more: Her or the knowledge that she loved him?
With effort, Angel's depleted flesh slid through the shackles that held his arms down in the metal box. He could feel, faintly, the skin scrape off the edges of protruding wrist bones, but he hadn't the strength to do much more than wince. Hands free, he stretched his fingertips up and scratched a suddenly itchy spot on his thigh.
He wasn't any better off, not really, but he felt victorious, nonetheless. His head filled with sudden, explosive thoughts of tracking Justine down and wrenching her life from her as cruelly as his had been taken from him. He saw Connor's blank, rebellious eyes staring down at him, and behind, Justine's own eyes: full of hatred and fear.
He couldn't imagine that this was where it was all going to end, although he supposed it was better than the dirty alley where Whistler had found him years ago, dirty and smelling of rodent blood. He thought he had done everything right, made all the right choices at the forks in the road, but he'd been misled. When it all came down to it, Angel supposed, he was no closer to redemption than he'd been on the night he'd walked away from Buffy. That was supposed to have been the ultimate sacrifice, the first time in his whole life he'd done something unselfish.
Angel wondered if he could break free of the bars across his chest. Did he have the strength? And if he did break free, what then?
There wasn't any doubt in his mind that life back on dry land was anything but chaos. Gunn and Fred would be half-crazy trying to figure out where he'd gotten to and, he knew, would have assumed the absolute worst. Who knew what had happened to Cordelia. Perhaps Groo had taken her away on some white steed, thick arm clasped protectively around her middle, galloping off to Pylea with possessive glee. Wesley and Lilah were probably pounding each other into oblivion.
He twisted his shoulders from side to side, testing the strength of the bars.
If he did manage to get out this is what he would do:
Kill Holtz. Again.
He couldn't remember whom he was supposed to kiss.
Angel shook his head. He knew he should know at least that much. He was going crazy; that seemed obvious. He threw himself forward against the bars. Maybe if he could tip the box over he could use the weight of his body against them. Wait. Wouldn't he be weightless down here?
What would be waiting for him if he ever did get free?
Not her. Without knowing how he knew, he knew nonetheless that her silken skin was sliding against Spike's fingers now. Angel felt his chest expand with rage. Had Spike bitten her? Had he taken even one tiny drop of Buffy's blood? Had he murmured even one word of endearment? Had he sipped the nectar from between her parted legs? Had his fingertips traced the raised flesh of her dusky nipple?
Angel tried to shut his mind against the picture of Buffy and Spike, a tangle of naked limbs. He tried to imagine Buffy fighting him and winning; eventually finishing him with a sharp wooden stake. But when he closed his eyes, all he could see was Buffy, impaled on Spike, Spike's head thrown back with the force of his orgasm, Buffy's eyes open and staring right at Angel.
"You see what I've become," she seemed to say. "I am what you made me. I am this. Nothing but this, Angel."
Angel felt the box drift, forward and then backward. He pitched ahead, his head thumping against something hard. End over end, the box cart wheeled along the sandy ocean floor, and Angel felt his stomach shift, considering ways to empty itself. It wasn't so dark here. And then Angel could hear something in the distance; a loud rumble and a bell, he thought. He peered out into the murky water, searching for something recognizable.
Off in the distance he saw a glimmer; faint white light coming closer and closer.
Cordelia. Her hair swam around her face, floating tendrils writhing like garter snakes.
She pressed her face up close to the little window.
"Well, isn't this a fine mess you've gotten yourself into, Angel," she said.
He didn't reply. He stared at the apparition trying to determine if she was real or just a figment of his overworked imagination.
"This would be Connor's work, I suppose? But he didn't come up with this scheme all on his own, now did he?" Cordelia mused.
Angel opened his mouth to speak.
Cordelia shook her head. "Just think, Angel. I don't need your words."
He thought. Help me.
"I thought that's what I was doing, Angel," Cordy said, sadly.
His eyes reflected his confusion.
"Silly boy," Cordelia said, her lips a thin, dismissive line.
Is this my fate, then? He thought.
"Is it?" Cordelia mused. "Did you think you were destined for more? For better?" she asked. "I certainly did."
Am I dreaming?
She nodded and Angel watched her drift backward, hair blocking the serene look on her beautiful face. Soon she was nothing more than a prick of light and Angel slept.
If he could do it all over again, what would he change? Would he have allowed himself that first kiss in her bedroom? Would he have indulged in the foolish fantasy that he was just a boy and she was just a girl and the kiss meant nothing more than they'd go steady and go to the prom; pick out china, have two kids, and die old and happy in each others arms? Because that was what this was all about, he thought, that dream.
More than anything he wanted to see her again, to stand in front of her and say he was sorry, to touch with his fingertips the very human-ess of her. He didn't want to kiss her or make love to her, he just wanted to breathe in the scent of her and know that she was okay and know that, because all was right in her world, all was right in his.
Frankly, he knew this was not true; could feel her misery and confusion and anger and loss deep in his bones. Angel knew that Buffy was not okay.
Somehow, the casket, box, prison, Angel had been trapped in for hours, days, months had started to move again. Angel had never been on an amusement part ride and yet he suspected that this was what it might feel like: pitching end over end, his equilibrium shifting with nauseating regularity. He spread his long, bony fingers against the smooth floor of the box and pressed, hoping that keeping contact with the surface would help him maintain his sense of balance.
Angel closed his eyes against the water rushing past the little window Connor and Justine had so thoughtfully provided for him. He didn't need a window to see the mess he'd made of his life. If there was one thing having your soul restored to you after decades of pigging out at the all-you-can-eat humanity buffet, it was that it offered you a clear, unobstructed view of where you'd been and what you'd done.
Angel had the sudden feeling that he was crawling with bugs, millions of them marching up and down his arms and legs, tiny rows of army ants and leeches and June bugs with their hard, purple-black shells. It was a hallucination, of course, and he willed it away. Angel had learned, in his almost 300 years of living, to control his mind. Yes. He was good at that. Unfortunately, it seemed, he had no control over his heart.
The sensation of crawling bugs went away and Angel felt calm restored to him. He longed for food and imagined he must look a sight. Nothing more unattractive than an underfed vampire. Angel was angular and lean at the best of times, but God only knew what toll this time underwater had taken on him. He needed to feed. He needed to fight, but he didn't know how and somewhere, distant, was the feeling that he didn't have the right. If he wasn't willing to fight for her, what gave him the right to think that he was worth saving?
He tried to open his eyes, but they felt gritty, full of sand.
The air smelled different: clean, salty, night-air.
He moved his lips, but no words came out. His chest felt crushed and freed simultaneously.
A different voice.
"Angel. Angel?" He heard rustling and then whispering and then footsteps and then breathing. Someone sat beside him and he felt fingers against his scalp, tensing and relaxing against his tired head like a cat preparing a place to sleep.
He smelled blood and he didn't hesitate when the warm flesh of someone's wrist was placed at his mouth. He barely had the strength to reach for it with the tip of his tongue, but as the first drops of blood trickled into his mouth he had the sudden urge to clasp the limb closer, suck harder, live.
He knew instantly: Slayer blood.
With great deliberation he opened his eyes and allowed them to focus. He followed the pale slope of her wrist, the tender hollow of her elbow, the lean muscles of her biceps, the sharp bone of her collar, up to the place where he had marked her before and he moaned around her life-saving flesh.
"It's going to be okay," she whispered, removing her wrist from his mouth gently.
He closed his eyes again and felt her powerful blood race through his decimated body. It was a dream. It had to be a dream because she wouldn't know where he was, what had happened. Even if she did, she was lost to him. She wouldn't come to save him, to offer herself up to him so willingly and unquestionably that it broke his heart. He didn't deserve her.
"We have to go. It will be light soon," she said.
He opened his eyes again, saw through the filter of his lashes the remote moon and blinking stars.
"How did you…" he broke off, coughing around his dry throat.
She leaned forward, stroking his face with careful fingers.
"Angel," she said, her breath smelling of apples and cinnamon. "I will always find you."
"Is this a dream?" he asked.
She smiled. "Of course it's a dream. You've forsaken me for another."
He shook his head.
"Oh, but you have."
"No," he said.
"Do you love me, Angel?" she asked.
His mind formed a response and his mouth opened to let the words free, but she was gone.
There'd be nothing left of him, he figured, and that was good. They'd never know what had happened, and that was good, too. He hoped that Connor would leave the others alone. He'd asked them to take unreasonable risks with their lives, mortal lives, risks that he didn't face. He'd never properly thanked them or compensated them for turning their lives over to him. Now it was too late.
It seemed to Angel that no matter how many years you got to live, it still wasn't possible to get it right. He'd acted like some sort of super-hero, when really all he was, was a bad guy given a chance to redeem himself and he hadn't made much of that second chance. Of course, he supposed not many people did. Second chances were a dime a dozen.
That it had all come to this was somehow humorous.
Not funny ha ha, but funny just the same.
Angel didn't have many memories of returning from hell. But one thing did stand out in his mind, a light at the end of a long, dark, ugly tunnel: Buffy.
She was the first thing he remembered as his head had cleared that day, chained to the wall at the mansion. With sudden clarity he'd known that she was in trouble and he'd yanked the chains so hard he'd pulled plaster and iron from the wall. He'd followed his instincts to where he'd found her, battling with some guy in a remote part of the school. He remembered that. Her face filled with wonder and disbelief, so beautiful he'd been drawn forward despite his fear, his fear that this was just another way to torture him, another in a long line of ways hell had broken and mended and broken him. Still, he moved toward her and watched her eyes widen with something he could not name, but recognized just the same.
Hers was the first name he spoke.
"Buffy." He tried the name on his lips now, spoke it reverently, said it to the silence around him, the still, moist air of his prison.
The name felt familiar, safe and he felt better just for having said it. "Buffy."
It would be a comfort to think of her. He wouldn't think of what he had done wrong, he would only think of how much he loved her. He would think of how he imagined the sunlight looked, filtering through her halo of straw-coloured hair. He would think of the way she had accepted his weaknesses, bolstering them with her strengths. He would think of her tiny feet and fierce heart and unshakable belief in their destiny.
She would be the last thing he would think of.