She was not there the first time he woke, but he could smell her – and her lover – and other oxymoronically comforting things.
The next time he wakes, she’s right in front of him. One hundred percent blonde Slayer goodness and he warms in her pleased gaze. She looks better, less thin than when he last saw her. But her smile is a little guarded and after her initial happiness she seems cautious, uncertain. She holds out a chunky yellow mug of blood with a straw. He hurts all over.
He remembers the dragon. Gunn hollow eyed behind him. He doesn’t hurt as much as he should.
He doesn’t breathe either. That seems as it should be too. “Angel.” His name is a caress on her lips, and she pushes the straw closer to his dry mouth. Reminds him to drink. Her finger brushes his softly as he sucks gently. Tries to be discrete. The sun beats fiercely down, and it’s too hot to be outside really, but it’s too tempting. The dark haired man slopes along side squinting in pale shorts and a wife beater, the jerky swirls of his sprawling tattoos peeking out from underneath. They look like snippets of numbers, runes. Lindsey?
The blood’s good. It’s hers.
By the third occasion Angel manages to revive himself from his slumber he has healed a lot more. He croaks at the empty room until his vocal chords start working again. “Buffy.” It’s more of a plea that anything else. He can’t seem to build up the energy to call for her. He wonders as he says her name, fills his senses with information about her previous visits.
She must have just been here. There was blood on the side, still just about warm enough. He struggles until he can pull himself up enough to lean against the wall beside the bed, half sitting half slumped within reach of the mug. It’s not hers this time. But it’s otter and needed, and he can feel the strength returning to his limbs. He should check his wounds, but he doesn’t. Being wounded doesn’t mean anything.
Instead Angel concentrates on her smell, it’s everywhere. She’s been here a lot, he can tell. He can almost taste her blood, sweet and spicy like nectar. More recent than the time he saw her, mixed with dirt and antiseptic wipes. She must’ve patched herself up here after a fight. He smells sex and arousal too. The want… it must be for her lover. He hasn’t been in here, though she has carried his trace with her. Whoever the boy is they are familiar though Angel can’t place them precisely.
He tries not to be jealous but he was and would always be. Buffy was his. If it’s Spike clutching his Sanshu he’ll beat his ass. Again.
He smells his friends, but it must be from his clothes; because they are all dead.
Instead of a long timeless gap Angel woke normally the next night and as he opened his eyes he was pleased to have largely healed. That the rest has bought him back to normal. Though normal seemed blank to him now. Empty space with no clear direction to go forward.
Buffy was on the other side of the door, and already he couldn’t help but cling to the soft muffled sound of her voice. Angel sat as deftly as possible, raising aching arms to check his hair. After God knows how long unconscious he would have sold his soul for a mirror and a reflection, but the room was almost bare bar the bed, chair and dresser. He noted automatically the two doors and window – though he wasn’t looking to escape from Buffy.
The door opened and Buffy was there, stifling the smile that graced her lips as she tried to remain professional and cautious. She was dapperly dressed in a midlength skirt and blouse, the kind of thing Fred used to wear to the lab, it seemed strangely formal for the situation. “Look who’s back from the dead.” Buffy grins wryly as she steps inside, before pausing as worry dances across her face. “Well, sort of.”
Suddenly Buffy seems shy and nervous. Instead of sitting in the chair by the bed she hangs back hovering and fluttering around the room. “I can’t believe you’re here.” For a moment she can’t help but stare at him intently and her eyes seem so much softer than the last time he saw them.
“Can’t say I was expecting to see you either.” His voice is cracking from underuse. He rubs his neck and the action pulls him back. That dragon digging it’s claws in his neck probably hadn’t helped either. “Were you there for the fight? Are Spike and Illyria-” He can’t bring himself to finish.
Buffy tilts her head curiously at him. “Angel…” She doesn’t want to give too much away, he can tell. She perches on the chair and leans closer to him. He wishes she’d come closer still. “Do you know how you got here?”
“Got where?” Angel looks around properly for the first time. “Is this the Hyperion?” It looks odd. Everything is pale and plain. White walls with a blue stripe near the ceiling, like the wooden picture rails that came in and out of fashion. The furniture a functional polished steel but curved at the edges. There are soft throws and cushions in pale shades of blue. He doesn’t remember a room like this.
Buffy smiles lightly, a little relieved at his recognition. “Yes.” She runs her hands along her thighs in her familiar nervous reflex. “And you remember me?”
Angel frowns. “Buffy – of course I remember you. If I were blind I would know you.” Angel bites out. His thoughts fly chaotically around his head. Something isn’t right, but he can’t work out what it is when every blink, every second his eyes are closed brings cold and dark and rain and noise of steel on flesh as demons – he stumbles to his feet, tries to shy away from Buffy. Buffy is a temptation –
“What’s wrong?” He demands. Keeps his eyes firmly open, locked on her as she rises and follows that much more gracefully than his own panicked movements to the center of the room. She stands in front of him careful not to touch. Her skirt is white with pale blue flowers. It matches the room’s minimalist décor. He doesn’t remember a room like this. He doesn’t remember her like this.
“Where are the others?” Angel demands again, and Buffy comes closer fills his vision. He can hear her pulse in her throat, a little faster than usual. She doesn’t stop his rambling, doesn’t touch him still. Just stays so close the rhythm of her body breathing and beating and hurting for him is a balm.
“I don’t know.” She is quietly resigned. “We’re not totally sure what’s happened. But Angel…” She’s in front of him and he can feel her but he can’t seem to see her. Doesn’t want to know what she might say about the others. About Spike and Illyria, the only ones with even the smallest chance.
“Angel this isn’t your world.”
For a second there is only her caught breath, her nerves as she waits for his reaction. Everything is confusion. Then. “Oh.” The air rushes back into her lungs and Angel steps away again, desperate not to be so attuned to her while he thinks her words through. She catches his eye. We fight alone. “Like Pylea?”
“Yes,” She’s relieved at his calm. “You’ve been there too?”
He doesn’t reply, just nods mutely as she leads him back to the bed and settles with him there. She’s so small perched next to him. He always forgets how tiny and fragile looking she seems. Can’t forget her strength though; he loves it too much. “We need to talk about how you got here and about exactly which world you’re from so we can, ah, send you back.”
“Back?” Fire and cracked black tar oozing like molten lava under his feet. “Not sure there is a back.” Angel knew he had wanted a better LA but when he fell… he’d left it burning. “Or if anyone would be glad to see me.”
Her hands cradled his face, forced him to look down at her and those searching eyes. “I think I’m right in saying other Buffy would have something to say about that.”
“Maybe. There’s a cookie thing.”
Buffy laughs and it’s not desperate or jaded, but joyous to him. “You’re not the same as her.”
She shakes her head, thoughtfully, regretfully. “No.” That wicked grin flashes by again. “Big fan of cookie dough ice cream though.” She brushes her hand through his hair again and everywhere she touches feels warm and glowing after so long without her. He wants to pick her up and slide her under him. That kiss, the way the cold caught at her cheeks and nose and blushed them red while her hot breath puffed out in little curls of vapour. He wanted to hide his face. She didn’t even notice.
“Sometimes I miss you like this.” She breathes and she is ethereal to him, sliding her fingers over his forehead where his brow furrows in darker moments. He knows exactly what she means.
“You kissed me like that.” He whispers back. “After the Order of Taraka came after us at the ice rink.” He remembers it perfectly still.
Buffy pulls her hands away somehow chastised by his words and she fidgets as she delivers her message. “Wesley’s outside; he wants to fact check with you. Try and get this whole sliding door realigned.”
There’s a beat where she should move and doesn’t, where he’s not thinking about what she said but that he has to leave her, then his Slayer is gone and Wesley walks in.
“Angel?” Wesley. Tired and stubbly but alive and… struggling for breath a bit. Angel looks down and realises he’s got his best friend wrapped in a suffocating hug. Slowly he lets go, but can’t quite abandon him totally, keeps hold of his arm and spends an age drinking in every detail the wonder of Wesley Wyndham Pryce. “Are you quite alright?”
Wesley’s dead. It smacks him in the gut like so much ammo. This is other Wesley. He has to think of them like that. Light Happy Other Buffy. Not Dead Other Wesley. Are there others here? Cordelia? “Yes. I’m fine.” Angel steps away and motions to the chair. “Shall we start?”
Wes smiles faintly a little confused and uncomfortable but takes the seat. “Did Buffy tell you about our research?”
There’s a window, Angel notices properly for the first time. It’s dark outside but he knows the view - it’s the side of the hotel that overlooks the alley; and he knows when he saw it last that the closest block had been destroyed. But not here. Still standing Angel can see there are cars, street lights and flickering neon signs that light up the sky in a permanent orange glow.
“Not the specifics. But this is not the LA I left.” He tears himself away from the window. “I need to go back.”
“Of course.” Wesley flicks open his yellow legal pad full of copious notes. “As far as we can tell, this is not a prophesised event. If you could give us some details of what happened before you arrived here…” He moves to a clean page and looks up sympathetically. “You were very injured when we found you. You’ve been unconscious for several months, was there a battle?”
“Apocalypse, I guess.” Angel goes back to the bed and slumps down in the dirty sheets. “I was CEO for Wolfram and Hart with you, Gunn, Fred, Lorne and Spike.”
Wes looked surprised. “Spike?”
“He was good. In his own way. Bitched like hell about it.”
“He had a soul?”
“I had one first!”
Wes laughed and it was even worse than hearing Buffy do the same earlier. What had happened in his own world to destroy everyone around him so deeply? “You say that here too.” Wesley chuckled.
“There’s Other Me?” It was confusing to think about. “Am I here?”
“You’ve been away for a while, it seemed best. Willow mentioned something to do with imploding universes if you met. I’m not entirely sure she was joking.”
“Willow…” It had been a long time since the red head had helped him. Angel’s universe was getting very small very fast.
Wesley seemed to know what he was thinking. “Most of Buffy’s friend’s pop in from time to time, when they’re not busy with the Slayers. We help too, sometimes, but largely Wolfram and Hart, along with AI’s business concerns keep us occupied full time.”
Wes cleared his throat. “That’s quite similar. Wolfram and Hart offered us all jobs. It was only Fred and Spike that took them though… Spike has had a soul for two years I believe. Had a part in Buffy destroying the hellmouth. Is this all sounding familiar?”
“Yes.” Fred… “What happened to Fred?”
Grief pooled in Wesley’s eyes and Angel closed his own in response. It was easy not to want to see his friend voice something that had hurt them all so much, and Wesley especially deeply. “She died earlier this year. It was-”
“Illyria.” Apparently this wasn’t the only dimension Angel has saved Fred just to fatally let her down later. He hoped there was a world she had never gone to the law firm. Had never met Knox. Again he felt the dull hollow rightness in the lesser mans death. “And Spike, is he?”
“He’s fine.” Angel felt a knot unclench inside him and carefully didn’t examine his relief. “But you’re not really friends here.”
Angel smiled, and finally there was a spark of real pleasure in it beyond the mechanics. “Not there either.” The smile died as quickly as it arrived. “The battle I was in… it was with the Senior Partners after we killed off the Black Thorn. The Senior Partners tore open the entrance to several hell dimensions to destroy us.”
“Well.” Wes coughed again into his hankie and Angel wondered if he was sick or if he looked closely amongst the stubble there would be a scar here too. “From what I understand of what happened with Glory it may well be that a rift was opened into this world at the same time… at any rate since we know the same major players it’s likely that our worlds diverge a little earlier than the your last altercation.” He made a few notes before continuing, and the scratch of the same pen on paper was achingly familiar to Angel. “Can you tell me when you arrived in Los Angeles?”
“Late ’99. After the major’s ascension in Sunnydale.” After he left Buffy.
“You came here alone?”
Wes ticked something off his list. “Prior to this you were in Sunnydale, helping Buffy?”
“Yes.” He’d never really talked about Buffy much with Wesley. “We were together there, but the curse… it was too dangerous.”
“Our Angel, he did the same.” Wes seemed sympathetic. “Started working with Cordelia and Doyle soon after?”
“Are they here?” Angel wondered aloud.
Wes took off his glasses and fiddled with the arms absently. “I’m sorry. Doyle died slightly before I arrived here. Cordelia last year… it was the strain of the visions. She’d already been in a coma for six months when-” His voice cracked, it was still too raw to talk about all this death. Especially those people they had loved and needed so much. They’d been lucky for so long. Not lately.
“It wasn’t because of Connor and Jasmine?”
Wesley shook his head slowly. “No. I don’t know those names, I’m sorry.” No Connor. “Let’s get back to your arrival in Los Angeles. Our Angel has quoted the arrival of the Mohra demon as the next significant event.”
“The Mohra?” It wasn’t a day he was going to forget certainly, but it also wasn’t one he was prone to sharing, ever. Doyle had been the only person he’d even mentioned the basics too and he’d been gone for many years. “I killed it.” It hadn’t been very significant in the end anyway, life had gone on much as before.
Wesley frowned, pouring over his notes for some detail. “At a salt factory in Redondo?”
But that… “In my office. Buffy had just arrived.” The second time.
“And you weren’t wounded? Our Angel, his blood mixed with the Mohra’s.”
Then he got it. “Your Angel is human.”
“It happened that way the first time.” He made his voice dead, casual, though questions were screaming in his head. He was briefly glad that Buffy wasn’t here. She might not be his Buffy but he was pretty sure she would still take violent exception to his decision. “I had the oracles take back the day. They said Buffy would die if they didn’t.”
“Really? I- I mean, I wasn’t here at the time, but I was under the impression that the opposite was true. The oracles refused to help Angel, they told him…” He read off his notes. “‘Together you are powerful, alone you are dead’?”
“Did she live?” Angel demanded.
“Of course-” Wesley flustered. “You just saw her, she’s here.” If he’d stayed human, chosen Buffy, could he have saved her? Not left her to go through the torment of being brought back. It didn’t make any sense. “If in one world you are a vampire-with-a-soul and the other human that seems the obvious place for the worlds to have separated.”
They talked for a while the pair of them about all the things that changed because of that forgotten day. How Buffy’s mother had died at the same time in both worlds, but here Dawn had been lost too shortly after when Buffy had been too late to save her from Glory. He grieved for this Buffy, the way he couldn’t imagine he would when he saw her careless smile earlier. Darla had never returned apparently, and Angel was sad for that too, that his sire had never had the chance to redeem herself. More than that he wanted to cry for the lack of his son.
Other Angel had compensated for his lack of strength with a heavy reliance on magic and Fred’s inventions. She’d been tempted away to Wolfram and Hart intending to act as a spy when Illyria found her. Currently they were searching for Gunn; missing for several months after never returning from patrolling in his old neighbourhood.
On both sides the death toll was too much. But here, a human Angel had just scraped by and managed to save more than he with his enhanced strength. It wasn’t making Angel feel good about any of the decisions he had made. The way he had approached things. Eventually when Wesley was sure he had enough to pin point Angel’s world precisely he left Angel alone with his thoughts and a change of clothes. There were things Angel hadn’t shared and he thought about them as he stripped down to wash. Telling Wesley he was the one to have mistranslated the prophecy regarding Connor had been too much. It had been hard enough to watch him realise before when the spell had broken in his world. Telling this other Wesley everyone was dead was enough to bear for now.
The bathroom was as sparsely decorated as the rest of the place, decked out in an icy blue but somehow still more homely than the one at his penthouse. Not being paid for by evil probably a key factor there. Inside the booth, the spray of water was hard and warming against his cool skin and he stared mutely at the white tile walls as he stood immobile and naked, water dripping off his flesh. Beyond him, the world he’d left behind was broken. Dead and cold as him. As he’d expected to truly finally be. Here, everything was soft and gently alive beyond the basics. Buffy was here, a Buffy that loved him resolutely - albeit in a different hotter skin. A world where he concentrated on Buffy, focused on making the world better for her, not for unspecified goals and vendettas was whole and functional. Would it be possible? To go back to his world and make it better? Could anyone? Was there nothing left but to tear down that dysfunctional canvas and start again? He would go back, of course he would. For Connor and for his Buffy - the one who had never quite come back to life. But would he do anything different when he got there?
The next night Buffy came to ask him to patrol. She was kitted out more practically than he’d seen her last. Snug jeans and a checked button up shirt, half hidden under the camel coat he knew from experience was specially adapted with extra pockets by her mother.
Briefly, Angel thought about being cautious. About what Other human him might think of his spending time with his girlfriend. He thought about imploding worlds and just how desperate he was to get out of his increasingly cell like suite with it’s uniform whites and blues and greys. “Am I allowed to leave the hotel? Wesley mentioned imploding worlds?”
“Oh, that’s just if you meet other Angel, Willow said that might cause all kinds of bad juju, which is a shame, because I definitely gave that possibility some thought – but, uh – my Angel’s not here. We should be safe.” She was blushing furiously and looking away and he couldn’t help but smirk a little. He loved that she thought about him like that.
The reassurance that Buffy’s lover was in fact a human version of himself was unendingly strange, when he’d started to doubt if he was who she would chose in the end – let alone if their relationship could ever function properly. Looping her arm in his Buffy led him from his room through the cheerful yellow corridors. Everything smelt fresh and recently decorated, chemical odours from the paint lingered in the air.
Buffy gestured toward wet paint signs on some of the doors. “We’re going to be using some of these rooms for Slayers when they’re in town on assignment.”
“Plenty of evil to go around in LA.”
Her smile died a bit. “Yes, more than before. When the hellmouth closed everything oogly just kind of drifted this way.”
They rounded the corner and stepped onto the sweeping balcony that over looked the lobby of the old hotel. It had been a favourite place for Angel to stop and take in the world before. Wesley was standing near the reception desk and yelling at a sullen dark haired girl as she chewed gum, supposedly manning the phones but apparently mostly missing messages. An elderly couple were being led in the huge double doors by another tall and lithe girl with dark cornrows tight against her skull. Glancing up she waved at Buffy and himself before double taking and narrowing her eyes. Another Slayer then. Buffy nodded reassuringly and motioned for the girl to continue.
He couldn’t believe he’d spent so long up in the law firm’s tower away from all this. Two more new girls were pouring over some paperwork and ancient texts at a temporary desk in another corner. The offices were out of sight but everything he felt below him buzzed, like standing on a wasp’s nest. There was a lot going on here that he hadn’t been told about. That was fair, really, when he was a sort-of stranger to them, but it was unnerving all the same to have his place so full of women whose natural urge was to stake him. “Where did you send the other Angel?” He asked pulling at his shirt collar uncomfortably.
Buffy frowned more. “He went to Cleveland. Faith needed a hand with a new group that’s set up there. It seemed best that he was away with you here, so…”
Angel felt his lips twitching into a smile. “Still jealous?”
“I’m not jealous!” She pulled a face. “Much.”
Angel couldn’t help it. He drew her closer, tugging on Buffy’s sleeve until she fitted in next to him like she was supposed to and leaned down to capture her lips in a gentle kiss. It was soft at first like so many tender kisses they’d shared in the dark, but her heart beat tightly against his chest, the staccato soaring to new heights in her distraction. There was a wound that hadn’t healed and she smelt of her blood: viscous and lusciously sweet. Fangs locked. Pinning her on the floor as drugs strangled his veins and poisonous thoughts fought with his soul. She writhed and moaned under him as he lapped up the sweet elixir of her blood, her scent was hot and heavy fiercely turned on, and him struggling to stop way past the point when he should've and her pulse began to slow.
“Angel!” She sprang away, hands covering her mouth locked in a shocked o. “What?”
“Buffy I-” The apology died on his lips as he spotted the picture behind her. It was just a snapshot on the beach but he was drawn towards it transfixed. Brushing past Buffy as he snatched it off the wall and inspected the profiles inside. It was a group shot – maybe a work day out. Wesley, Gunn and Cordelia were at the front pulling faces, Cordelia was half turned and her feet were kicking out, like she had run back from setting the camera’s timer and not quite made it in time. Behind them Buffy and Fred were hugging a giant stuffed panda. Fred was pretending to feed it an ice cream cone. It was cute. It was worrying. Just behind Buffy standing with the slightly awkward artificial pose of someone born in the 1800s was Angel. He wore pale shorts and a white wife beater. From underneath sneaked out the edges of huge sprawling tattoos, like glimpses of numbers or runes. “This is not normal.”
Buffy was staring at him in utter confusion eyes darting between the photo and himself with ill disguised mistrust. One hand hovered near her pocket portentously. No sudden movements then. “Angel. What in the name of all that is moderately holy is going on?” She shifted uncomfortably. “What did you just do to me?”
Raising his hands in an innocuous a peace gesture as he could manage Angel inched round. “I’m not sure exactly. But I’ve got a plan.”
“Great! Okay plan, what plan? Tell Wes you’re messing with my head?”
“I don’t think it’s just me that’s doing the messing here, I’ve been seeing crazy things too. Now will you calm down and listen to me?”
She looked like she was about to argue, but sighed and gave up. Flicking her palms upwards in a matching pose. “What are we going to do?”
“I’m going to think of something that happened since our worlds separated. You do the same. Or something I definitely won't know about.”
Deep scepticism was written across her face. “Okay. I’m thinking of something. What now?”
“Now.” He inched a little closer. “Hold my hand.” He held his palm out and concentrated on his memory. It had been hard to pick something out. But in the end, because it was playing on his mind and Wesley had probably told Buffy anyway he concentrated on holding Connor. Wrapped in a coat in the pouring rain on the day he was born. He saw Connor’s pink face screwed up and yelling unhappily, the little fists balled up by the side of his head. The way he could have fitted down the length of his forearm and left room spare. He remembered how everything fell away and he forgot about the chaos around them and just –
Buffy’s small palm slipped inside his and the visual assault was instant. It was hard to hold onto to his memory the rain the cold while everything smelt of new books. That crisp smell that was less musty these days and more plastic. Soft new pages that felt like clay. He felt really short, and the books were up very high. Willow was there but he couldn’t seem to hear exactly what she was saying. He had to jump up to try and grab the thick text he was looking for and as he grabbed it, he knocked down the pile and a couple tipped over the edge smacking resolutely onto the head of a sandy haired boy. He stood up smiled in a distracted way as he rubbed his head.
“Riley?” He dropped Buffy’s hand. “You picked a Riley memory?”
“Oh.” She blushed. “I didn’t know you knew him.”
“Knew him!” He near growled at her. “If you want to see me beating him up I have some excellent memory options.”
Buffy narrowed her eyes at him. “Don’t be such a grouch. You were the one that told me to move on. That was pre-split, you can’t deny it!” She stalked closer and pocked him in the chest eyes darkening with anger. “And what’s with your memory? You had a son? How did you not tell me about this?”
“Have I missed something?” Wesley was hovering at the top of the stairs. Angel could see the curve in his jacket that he’d tucked a stake inside. Other Wesley. Not very trusting. Mind you his Wesley wasn’t always either.
Buffy moved to send him away but Angel grabbed her arm, careful to only touch her sleeve. There was no need to put each other off with whatever it was that was happening but Wes might still be able to help.
“I think something went wrong when I came here.”
“Oh?” Wes’s scholarly face slipped in, and a rush of sadness nearly tripped Angel up before he could finish explaining.
“Whenever Buffy and I touch.”
“Skin touch.” Buffy clarified. “I mean – not bad skin touching. Just like handholding. Normal friendly, ergh, I’m gunna stop now.” She moved a bit further away from Angel as if to clarify her innocence so that his arm that had clutched at her swung back uselessly.
“What happens next?” Wesley prompted.
“It’s like we can read each other’s minds.”
“Perfect snapshot.” Buffy echoed. “With surround sound. And emotions. And slurpy noises.”
“Slur-” Wes held up one hand. “I didn’t ask. Just tell me when this started.”
“The first I can think of is seeing this-” Angel gesticulated to the photo he was still grimly clutching in one hand. “Not all of you. Just the Other Angel. I remember the tattoos. The beach. The sun was hurting his eyes.”
“When did you see this, try and be exact?” He was impatient pulling a little notebook out of his inside pocket and flicking through it. More notes littered the pages and Angel tried to remember anything significant.
“I – Buffy was there. I had some blood. It was the first thing from here I remember properly.”
Wesley wasn’t looking scholarly anymore. He looked livid. Rage was boiling under the surface as he rounded on Buffy.
“Blood? Buffy – we talked about this.”
She threw up her hands and glared him out. “He was going to die! Do you understand that Wesley. Dead. Not living. Big pile of dust. He needed blood. I gave it to him. There isn’t anything else to say.”
“Yes there bloody well is! This-” He gestured emphatically “-is a major problem. You’ve got tied up in the huge amounts of magic that sent him here. What if we can’t send him back? What if trying to hurts you? What do you think your Angel is going to say about that Buffy?”
“Back off Wesley.” Fangs slipped out and he growled a warning at the smaller man. “This isn’t going to help. I know I shouldn’t be here. You all know I shouldn’t be here. This is probably just some stupid trick the Senior Partners have pulled to try and keep me away from my world and kicking their sorry asses back to hell. Now.” He addressed Buffy. “Want to go pummel some bad guys?”
“Please yes.” She almost crumpled at the kindness of the offer. Turning to Wesley she sighed. “I didn’t know what to do Wesley. Please don’t tell my Angel.”
Deflated he nodded. “I’ll do my best to see what we can do. It might be a temporary effect anyway. I’d suggest you don’t, uh, touch too often though.”
“Absolutely.” Angel nodded and carefully steered Buffy by the elbow down the stairs and out those epic double doors that he hadn’t seen in so long. They left a trail of curiosity in their wake, and at the reach of Angel’s preternatural hearing he could hear young Slayers whispering about what might have happened. Curse came up a lot.
It always seemed to.
Determined to change the topic Buffy had started chatting casually about the Slayer operation she now loosely headed. “I’m the puppet.” She moaned. Oddly Xander seemed to be in charge. She wouldn’t tell him where their headquarters were. Not in Rome. But it was cold, and she seemed delighted to be able to come back to Los Angeles visit her boyfriend and get a tan at the same time.
“Not possible with me I’m afraid.”
“No.” There was wistfulness in her voice as she shot him a sidelong glance. “There’s a lot of not possible with you.”
Adding touching to the list hadn’t exactly done much for Angel’s current status. His skin ached to be so close to Buffy and not even able to slip his hand around hers, or bury his head in her hair while they hugged was incredibly frustrating. He couldn’t have felt more dead if he was six feet under. “There’s always midnight picnics.” He prompted happy to continue the easy conversation at least.
“And no end of bickering.” She replied brightly. He chuckled. “Don’t get me wrong, my Angel and me, or I, I can never remember which is right there.”
“Angel and I,” she continued, “we’ve had some epic fights. Until he got his mojo going the ‘lets try and protect Buffy and get beaten up instead’ fights broke records. Both for length and volume.”
“We always seem to be breaking records in that area.”
“Absolutely. Not as many swords post humanity though.”
He quirked an eyebrow at her. “You miss swords.”
“It’s silly I know. Most of those sword incidents were life and death. But the other ones. The hand to hand we used to do. Mage’s have to hang back, survey the scene. It’s like fighting with Willow.”
“You – like this - are my best fighting partner by far.” Angel agreed.
“Me too. Just don’t tell Giles. On the other hand feel free to tell Spike.” Throwing her hands up in the air in frustration Buffy turned around a kicked a gravestone. “What is this? Where are the vampires? A tiny demon? Anything I can kill?”
“I’ve got an idea.”
“Does it involve killing bad guys?”
Angel shrugged obliquely. “Maybe after. If you’re good.”
“Please tell me you’re joking.”
“I rang Wesley, he thought it was a great idea.”
“Seriously, Angel, you are not selling this to me.”
“Oh, baby baby how was I supposed to know…” a blue skinned Cr’Kan warbled tunelessly from the stage at their left. “…that something wasn’t right, yeah.” Lorne was already winding his way through the crowds towards them in a typically vibrant yellow suit. Much like the Hyperion the inside of Caritas was decorated in a style that seemed halfway familiar to Angel and he couldn’t help but compare it’s slightly different style and design. A sprawling neon bar with a couple of attractive barman served up cocktails to a large crowd of thirsty punters. The décor was red crushed velvet and bronze, a halfway house between nightclub and bar.
“There are so many people here.” Angel was noticing that too. Way more than when he’d frequented the place. “And I use people in the loosest sense of the word.”
“It’ll be fine, sweetness.” Lorne was in Host mode, all green charm behind his pointy red horns. “With a face like that, how could your voice not be gorgeous?”
Buffy didn’t look convinced. Lorne brushed her shoulder gently as he pointed to the song books. “Here for your post rescue thank you freebie? What took you so long! Just pick a number and then we’ll talk. And remember, Xena, there’s a no violence rule here. It applies to everyone including impatient Slayers, got it?”
For a moment Lorne cocked his head at Angel and then he seemed to brush it away. “Now – I didn’t expect you. Not from around here are you? Well. Sing and we’ll see what I can do but no promises. Dimension travel always messes with readings for a while.” Lorne was gone quickly as he’d arrived, waving at the barman and yelling for seabreeze as he took aside a small hairy bundle with ears poking out the top and a fag sticking out halfway through the midst of mousy brown locks.
“Together or separately?”
“Drunk or sober?”
It was a pertinent question. “Drunk.” Buffy replied resolutely. “A swirly haze of liquor is the only way I’m going anywhere near that stage, and yet drinking never ends well for me... I guess we'll see what wins out.”
Angel nodded in agreement and started slipping through the crowds to the bar. “What would you like?”
“Something strong.” She yelled after him, before turning back to flick through the catalog with a grim look on her face.
It was strange. People recognised Angel here, but perhaps because of his dark long sleeved shirt and slacks that kept any tattoos (or in his case the lack of) almost invisible it was a different kind of fear he felt. Demons and vamps still skirted around him, not keen to piss him off, but the humans did too. It was unsettling. Human but magical Angel was not a popular puppy.
Apart from with the barman apparently, who called Angel quickly to the front of the thrumming crowd pressed against the bar in the rush to drown fear and sorrows before heading on stage. The barman was as tall as Lorne, but very lean and almost vampiricly pale. He smelt human, but with a touch of other about him and as he held out his arm to shake hands Angel noticed the pointed ridges that ran in three strips down the back of both hands. The half breed demon’s eyes narrowed slightly as he noticed Angel’s cool palm and his eyes flickered to the tattoo free skin visible at the v of Angel’s shirt before he stepped back a little. “Have you talked to Lorne yet?”
Angel nodded. “He seems to think he might be able to help. If I sing.”
The barman didn’t quite manage to hide his grimace quickly enough. “Of course. What’s your pleasure then, friend?”
“Straight bourbon, and the strongest cocktail you’ve got.”
“No problem.” Watching bartenders is always mesmerising, and the swirls and tricks of the staff throwing bottles around as they poured out spirits and filled orders always reminded Angel of bloodier days. When Spike delighted in showing off to Dru with bottles of drugged blood.
Moments later the half-demon barman had finished and was garnishing Buffy’s tall cocktail glass with fruit and sugar. He hadn’t even asked what it was, but the bartender was that kind of guy. Come back in two hours ask for the same again and he’d remember you exactly.
When he found Buffy perched on a stool by a high table he asked her who the barman was. Hunting through the crowds with her eyes she picked out the man he meant and she smiled and waved at him. “Oh! That’s Lenny. He’s Angel’s friend.” Other people’s friends can be tough to hear about when yours are gone, but Buffy was not a dweller of any kind and she tapped against the song book with one fingernail. “So who’s your Diva?”
Angel looked alarmed. “Diva? That sounds bad.”
“Sounds better than Lennon.” Buffy slurped at her cocktail experimentally, and apparently gave it the mental thumbs up as she started downing it way faster than is recommended. “And the whole kum-bah-yah Sunnydale thing.”
“Did I ever tell you how glad I was to miss that?”
“Oh, please, you’d have loved it – a little Barry Manilow here, a little retro theme there.” She eyed him knowingly. “Maybe not the dancing.”
“If Lorne had to read auras via the medium of dance I’d be dead many times over.” He glanced at Buffy covertly. “We could sing some Manilow.”
“No!” Buffy yelled so emphatically a circle or punters around them fell into silence - before realising who the super powered couple were and studiously ignoring them.
“Frankie?” He teased.
“No.” She paused for a moment. “Actually maybe. What song?”
“‘A day in the life of a fool?’”
Buffy frowned. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“But it’s short.”
She waved another drink over. “Next, Angel.”
“‘New York, New York?’”
Buffy shuddered visibly. “Did I tell you about the talent show? People say competition is good, High School talent shows just prove that people talk too much. And also sing. With very little talent.”
“‘I did it my way?’”
“Reminds me of Spike.” Angel couldn’t help it. He slid one hand over hers and everything was grief it rolled over him like waves of solid loss and loneliness. The room was smoky and over the rumble of conversation and the clicking rhythm of a little machine kittens meowed pitifully. Buffy snatched her hand away. “What are you doing, and why are you thinking about Spike laughing a lot?”
“Nothing.” Angel muttered petulantly. “What about ‘All by myself?’”
Buffy hadn’t let it go, but played along waving her empty glass at him as a waiter delivered the next round. “Not drunk enough yet.”
She threw her hands up in frustrated. “Anything from this century Angel? You’re worse than Giles sometimes - it’s been a while, there must be something you heard on the radio.” Buffy narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “I bet you like early Coldplay.”
Angel feigned innocence. “Who?”
In the end, they were more than drunk enough, and Angel half propped Buffy in a chair they dragged on stage with them as they warbled into the microphone; “when I was young I never needed anyone…” and Buffy giggled about making love for fun while Angel tried to remember that the audience would pin the blame for his atrocity on Other Angel.
The thought cheered him immensely as he struggled not to touch not-his-lover’s skin and keep her upright at the same time.
Maybe this Lorne wasn’t as consummate a professional as his was, because he didn’t look very pleased as the pair of them stumbled down to see him before the last chords of the song had even died and the smattering of half-hearted applause had rung out. “Sit down munchkins.” He ordered and waved at Lenny for another seabreeze.
“Lorne.” Angel leaned on the table so he could catch the Pylean demons eye. “You need to think about trying another drink.” Somehow he slumped into a chair and Buffy flopped down beside him, shifting her chair closer to snuggle under his arm, carefully winding herself around Angel so that she didn’t touch his skin. “That is all.”
“I commend the cocktails. Night baby.” Buffy mumbled.
“Hey!” Lorne snapped his fingers at the Slayer. “Eyes open. We have talking to do, and you cookie dough, need to use your evil fighting ears, not your snoozled ones.”
Buffy blinked wearily, and sat up a bit more in response. “Listening.”
Lorne flicked through his pockets, pulled out a small white rectangle and held it out to Buffy “I’m giving you a card.” He hinted, and she took it. “That’s a great PR guy. Look, cherry pie, I can’t really tell you anything in this situation. There are big players involved – plans. All stuff I am not getting involved in. Too much to do the hokey cokey with and shake out the righteous path, so all I’m saying is. Ring this guy. You’re going to need him on retainer.”
Mutely Buffy nodded and slipped the card into her jeans as Lorne turned his attention to Angel. “I’m betting this was your song choice, honey bun, nice of you to slaughter a favourite there.” He waved Angel’s protest away. “Wes seems pretty worried about your little touch sensitivity problem. Don’t fuss about it, when the blood works it’s way out of your system the effect will wear off. Two days, maybe sooner, if you keep active. Or you drown it out with bourbon, totally your choice. Though I recommend something gin based if that’s the way you’re leaning” Lenny arrived with Lorne’s drink and the host gulped it down joyously. “You met Lenny?” He nodded at the half-demon’s retreating back as Angel confirmed that he had. “Great isn’t he? Such a fantastic seabreeze. And those are hard to find, he’s an empath though. What would you go for? Great drinks on tap or a night off occasionally? Anyway-” He cut off Angel’s reply again.
“Your other issue. The pan dimensional one. It shouldn’t be that hard. It was plain old magic that got you here. A protective spell and a reversal should cover it. But and this is important Angel. They’ll need an anchor for this plane. Don’t want to rip a hole in this universe and not be able to close it. Send someone up to Belleview in the morning,” Lorne grabbed another business card from his pocket and handed it over. “I gave this guy, Malik, a call already. He’s put aside some crystals and ancient bones for the spells. All spell’s contain anchors: blood, bones, sand but you need old – last week’s chicken leftovers is not going to cut the mustard.”
“Thanks, Lorne.” Angel finally managed to edge in.
Lorne smiled resignedly, and there was a little twinkle in his eye as he gazed at the pair of them. “You know I’d do anything for that crumpet you’ve got there, and more than enough for you as well. But Angelcakes, whatever shell you’re in you’ll always be a conundrum to me - you never seem to quite put two and two together about anything – let alone that she is yours and you hers. On this plane and any other. It doesn’t always end well. The universe doesn’t work like that. But your soul and this Slayer’s are always significant to each other. That’s not meaningless. And Angel, life is going to get complicated. You need to be sure of what you’re doing and why in the days ahead. None of this running in without thinking about it. Greater good is fine – greater plan is better. Do you hear me?”
“As long as you don’t mention Kyerumption, Lorne, the future can’t possibly get worse.” Lorne snorted at the vampire’s reaction and with a few goodbyes hurried off to this next customer. The Cr’Kan that had been singing when they came in had somehow made it back on stage again and was happily butchering Lady GaGa with a new very drunk friend.
“Are we going?” Buffy mumbled, and Angel realised she had snuggled back in under his arm without him really noticing. “‘cause my ears are hearing badness, and I’m not really sure where it’s coming from. That’s über bad right?”
“Sure, my love.” More fluidly than any drunk person has a right to be Angel got her up and wrapped his arm around her as he led her out and into the night. Tomorrow he might be going home. He’d wanted a plan, a direction to go in and Lorne seemed to agree. The problem was knowing he needed one wasn’t the same as having one and he had no idea where to start.
“Why do you fight?” Buffy yawned, stroking her fingers gently against his sleeve where his wrist curled around her shoulder as he led her down the alley towards home. “Is it for me?”
Angel frowned. “No. I fight because it’s the right thing to do. I do it to protect people from things they don’t even know about. So they don’t have to know about them. Or something. There were some speeches I said. I think that was the gist. And you. A bit. Hey,” he laughed, “don’t blame me! You’re a hottie.”
She giggled too. “Well you’re a muppet.”
“Do not call me a puppet.” Angel warned darkly. “Besides what did I do? Apart from save lots of people – and I put up with Spike haunting me for a year. I could be a saint just for that!”
“Somebody’s got puppet issues.”
“I’ll puppet you in a minute.”
Buffy quirked an eyebrow at him. “Where did you get that from?”
Angel shrugged. “Gunn, I think.”
“The point is – that you’re stupid. You’re here moping, switching between being all Mr Broody in the dark on your own and getting drunk and not talking about your world. You left it, you left your friends dead.” Buffy pulled away from Angel to look at him properly, and whatever slightly drunken wobble there had been vanished in a moment. “I know what that’s like Angel. I understand the greater good. I know there's more you're not telling me." Connor. Always Connor now. "And I don’t play that game anymore. I heard what Lorne said, and I know you’re going to go back and get some master plan in your head about making everything better. I’m asking you not to Angel. I’m asking you to ring up Other Me and talk to her. Please?”
“Buffy…” Angel almost reached for her then changed his mind not wanting to touch her and let her see in. “The other you. She doesn’t trust me anymore. She wouldn’t help me with Fred. Wouldn’t even send Willow. After everything that’s happened I think we’re doomed.”
“Did you talk to her? Buffy personally?” She demanded hotly, eyes flashing angrily. “Because there have been communication issues in the past.” Buffy sighed, almost defeated. “Please Angel, promise me.”
He shook his head slowly. “I promise to love you. I did that a long time ago and it will be a long time, if ever, before that changes." He ran one hand through his spiky hair. Wishing it was her fingers. That this wasn't another showdown in an alley, but hypothetical conversations whispered in the dark of their room. "I can’t promise to do what you say just because you say it Buffy.”
Buffy’d turned round and left him in the street after their fight in the alley outside Caritas, and when Angel had finally made it home he’d been through every alley fight they’d ever had and mentally re-written the endings in his favour.
The next night Wesley was buzzing with excitement as Angel made his way down the sweeping staircase to the lobby. Three slayers were busily working there, clearing everything away from the center of the floor and it he didn't need to touch Buffy to be flooded with memories of this scene so many times before. Of Connor bursting through the portal from Quor’toth. He kept the image of Connor in his mind, not that Connor, but the newer one with better hair and so much happier as he studied and battled normal teenage evil at college.
Buffy appeared from somewhere in the back and studiously ignored him, approaching Wesley instead to ask about the details for the night. She looked extremely displeased when Wesley almost immediately waved him over. Not feeling much inclined to spare her feelings as he might normally Angel quickly crossed the floor. He could feel the tension in the slayers around him ratchet up as he passed. Tough to be a vampire in a house of Slayers, it had been hard enough when it was just Buffy and Faith – he wondered for a moment how Spike had felt at that final Sunnydale show-down surrounded by newly chosen Slayers. Hungry probably.
“Angel.” Wesley smiled lightly at Angel and it seemed he had got used to the vampire’s presence just in time to say goodbye. “Lorne’s contact was invaluable, Caritas was an excellent idea.”
“We worked together a lot, in my world.” Angel replied modestly, and Buffy rolled her eyes next to him.
“Please, you just love to sing.”
Wesley looked faintly bemused but carried on, “It’s all surprisingly simple. You need to wear this token which contains the protective spell – should keep you in one piece – then we do a reversal spell. Should have you back in your LA in no time.”
“You seem very sure.” Angel said doubtfully, taking the small smelly bag of herbs, and what felt like squishy stones. It smelt of viscera and he rolled it around his palm cautiously. “There’s no amulet in this is there?”
Wesley laughed. “I think you’re safe. Malik seemed very trustworthy, besides Lorne recommended him. Just put it in your pocket.”
“He recommended the priest that tried to kill me too.”
“Really?” Wesley’s face fell. “We can wait – double check?”
Angel glanced at Buffy “No. It’s fine.”
“We just need to be sure the blood has filtered out of you system then. Hold hands.” Wes ordered matter of factly.
It was Buffy who offered her hand first and Angel appreciated the gesture. Carefully he chose a memory she might appreciate, dancing with her at her prom and slipped his palm over hers.
There was nothing but her hand. Small and light and perfect in his. His guts lurched at the painful normality of it.
“Anything?” Wesley inquired.
“Nope.” Buffy tugged at his hand, not wanting to let go just yet. Drew him a little closer. “All clear.”
“Excellent. Well, if you’ll excuse me I’ll set the spell up.” He was off in an instant, barking orders and reminding Angel of the great leader he had been.
“If Wesley had been born when I was,” Angel told Buffy, “he would have made a great Captain.”
“Really?” Buffy frowned. “Isn’t he kind of chicken for that?”
Angel shook his head. “No. Not at all. My team here in LA were all fantastic. They were here and they did amazing things. All our dead friends - they saved the world as many times as we did, more probably.”
“I know.” Buffy replied. “Jump in without power and come out world savers. They save the world when we can’t, and help us when we can. We all fight every day to keep this world as safe as possible. There’s no doing it alone.”
“Your speeches have got shorter.”
There wasn’t much to be said or done beyond that. Paint and blood was daubed on the floor in a giant pentagram that bought back rushes of unshared memory. Amulets and giant bones three feet long from ancient demons marked out the points and a small Slayer with dyed platinum hair moved fluidly between the talismans scattering sand and earth as she chanted tightly under her breath.
Buffy pulled Angel aside once more, hugged him tightly. Brushed a kiss against his chest almost imperceptibly amongst the crowd. She whispered that she loved him just loudly enough for his preternatural hearing to pick up. It hurt to let go, to leave her with the Other Angel who got to see her in sunshine. It hurt that life could have been so different for the sake of his humanity.
Angel was standing at the center of the controlled magical chaos a few moments later wrapped in his duster and clutching a blanket just in case it was sunny.
Fifteen Latin couplets and some stinky herbs later he was gone.
The tar was hard and his skull cracked against it heavily as he dropped down against the molten hub of rock that had somehow been thrown into the wreckage of the once glorious hotel. Definitely cursed this place. Dust, ash and mud coated him liberally as he crashed down through the collapsing floor into the former cellar.
“Fuck.” He muttered. Groaning he rolled himself off his back and stumbled up onto his feet in one jerky movement. The duster was ripped and his feet were toasty warm from the spell.
A gnarled fist smacked into his face.
And life was one long fight again.