“I’m not really thinking that far ahead. That’s kind of the point.”
Angel was quiet for a minute. “Things have really changed, huh? I mean, a few years ago you were just so full of… pep and life. Always thinking about the future, never wondering about whether or not it could actually happen.”
“I was a kid,” said Buffy. “I grew up.”
Angel was still staring off at the tomb. “I see that. I think— I think maybe I’ve grown up too.”
Buffy laughed. “What? 240 wasn’t grown up enough for you?”
Angel was quiet for a while. “The source of the papers and the necklace I gave you is a law firm called Wolfram and Hart. They’re evil. Big time. And I just agreed to head their LA branch.”
Buffy looked over at Angel sharply. “You gave me a dangerous amulet from huge evil? I gotta say, Angel, I kinda preferred the ring.”
Angel looked away.
“And-and how come you’re doing the evil thing again? I’ve got enough on my plate with The First. I don’t have time to fight you too.”
“And you’re all soul-having. Aren’t you?”
“Well, yes but-“
“So why, Angel? What is it with you and the evil?”
“I’m trying to change them. From within. My team and I, we’re hoping to make a difference.”
“I don’t have much faith in hope these days, Angel. And that’s just about the dumbest plan I’ve ever heard. You can’t be that stupid.”
Angel looked over at Buffy. She was still so young. She’d called her high-school self a kid, but she didn’t see that right now she was one too. Not that you could ever tell by looking at her. Her clothes and her hair were set in a kind of no-nonsense way, like she’d grown tired of those short little miniskirts getting in the way and had settled for a more drab, more practical outfit. Her shoulders were set stiffly, like they could hold any burden dropped on them without a moment’s notice. And her eyes… her eyes were ancient. Angel had known vampires, old vampires, with eyes less haunted than those.
But she was still twenty-two. Twenty-two years old. She should have been finishing college. She should have been just starting to worry about finding a job, and partying all night, and finding her one true love. But she’d been Called young, and she’d met her true love at sixteen, and she’d had to kill him at seventeen. She’d never been a teenager, and it looked like she’d skipped over being a young adult too.
She reminded Angel of another girl who’d missed out on too much. A girl who had lost a friend at eighteen, had been pregnant at nineteen, had been dying slowly for two years by the time she was twenty. A girl who had smiled down at his baby son as she rocked him to sleep. A girl he’d last seen unconscious with bombs strapped to her chest by that very same son. A girl he had failed.
“I made the deal to save the people I love,” said Angel.
This, at least, Buffy could understand. “The evil law firm threatened them? Do I need to kick some lawyer butt?”
“No, it wasn’t like that. It was… Buffy, I have a son.”
“What?” Buffy’s tone was entirely disbelieving. “Angel, get serious. You’re a vampire.”
“Gee, thanks for the reminder.”
“You can’t have a son.” Buffy sounded slightly hysterical.
“His name is Connor. He’s seventeen.”
“Oh my god. You have a son and he’s Dawn’s age. How the hell do you have a son that’s Dawn’s age? Why did you never tell me?”
“He was born two years ago, but he grew up in a hell dimension. He and I don’t have the best relationship, and… well, you wouldn’t understand.”
“You don’t have kids, Buffy.”
Buffy laughed. “It really has been a long time.”
Angel just stared at her like she’d told him she’d grown another head. “You don’t have kids,” he repeated. “Right?”
“No, Angel, I don’t have kids. But that doesn’t mean I won’t understand. I’ve been raising Dawn for two years. I’ve made her breakfast, and sent her to school, and had to deal with her sneaking out. I’ve grounded her and dealt with her crushes and taught her how to use a sword.”
Angel looked at Buffy with new eyes. She wasn’t just an adult because she was the Slayer. It was also because she was a mother. He’d seen the same exasperated-but-loving look in Cordelia’s eyes sometimes, when she looked at Connor. Before that look had turned into something else and he hadn’t known how badly he could want to rip them both to shreds, the two people he loved most in the world.
The two people he loved most in the world…and neither of them was the Slayer in front of him. He loved her, he did. He probably always would. Buffy was his fate, his destiny. There were the tragic star-crossed lovers.
But he and Buffy were a tragedy playing on loop. He brought out the desperate, naive high-schooler in her, and she brought out the possessive monster in him. They weren’t good for each other, even though they were made for each other.
Cordelia had pointed out his mistakes as he made them. She’d stood by, silver tongue at the ready, always eager to tell him when he was being a jerk.
“I can’t do this,” he said. “Not now.”
Buffy jumped towards him as he tried to leave. “Now hold on a minute there. I know I said I was cookie dough, but you’re the one who was pushing this. So what’s the what, Angel?”
“It’s too soon,” he said.
He was scared to tell her why. Cordelia was so special but Buffy had never known her as more than the vapid teenager. She would say biting little things that he once would have found funny, before he’d gotten to really know Cordy. Little things that would break his heart. And Cordy wouldn’t be there to piece it back together.
“Too soon after what?” asked Buffy.
“You wouldn’t get it,” he said. He could see her beginning to get frustrated.
“What won’t I get, Angel? I think we’ve just established that you don’t know me as well as you think you do, so maybe just tell me. I might understand.”
Angel hesitated. “Too soon after someone else. Someone who was never really mine in the first place. But now she won’t ever really be mine.”
Buffy was quiet, staring pensively at the ground.
“Who?” she asked finally.
Angel just shook his head. “You wouldn’t get it. You’d never be able to see past who she is.”
At that, Buffy got mad. “Angel, you have no clue what I’d get. I’ve had that relationship, you know. The one that you have to keep secret. The one with the person that everyone else only sees one side of. The one with the person who understands you when all your other friends don’t. The one who you kept at an arm’s length because you were selfish and stupid and now everything’s too fucked up for you to ever make up. And I hate him for ruining what we didn’t really have, because now we’re stuck nowhere and everywhere and I can’t find my way without him.”
Buffy panted heavily, looking guiltily embarrassed at her outburst.
“You’re talking about Spike,” said Angel flatly.
Buffy replaced the mask he hadn’t realized she’d been wearing before: the cooly calm, collected adult one. Then her expression turned resigned.
“Go on. I’ve heard it all before: He’s a liability. He’s evil. He’s using me. He can’t really love me. He’s a thing. He’s selfish. I’m selfish. I’m stupid for not hating him. I’m a bad general. I’m a bad Slayer. I’ve never been able to make it work with a guy.”
Angel watched her silently, surprised at the familiarity of the look in her eyes. The one that said she would feel the pain of every word he threw her way like a carefully sharpened knife, but that she’d fight to defend the one she cared about.
He’d seen it on a broken Wesley who’d struggled to justify his actions in stealing Connor. It was a weary look, and seeing it on Buffy’s face broke his heart.
“I’m in love with Cordelia,” he said.
Buffy looked startled, first at the change in topic and then, as she processed them, at the words Angel had said. She opened her mouth not a second later, and Angel braced herself for whatever she was about to say.
“So go get her,” said Buffy simply, and the words were so un-Buffy that for a crazy second Angel suspected that she was possessed.
“I waited too long, and now there’s no hope for us,” said Buffy, not clarifying if it was Spike or Angel himself that made up half of the “us” she was referring to. “Don’t do the same thing.”
“She’s gone,” said Angel hoarsely.
Buffy didn’t sound shocked. She didn’t sound sad. She sounded like a general being told that she had lost some men: sad at the loss of manpower but carefully unemotional.
“No,” said Angel. “But she might as well be. She’s in a coma. They don’t think she’ll ever wake up.”
“That’s what they said about Faith,” Buffy reminded him.
“Faith’s a Slayer.”
Buffy shrugged. “As far as I know, Cordelia has never in her life done what anyone told her to do. If they tell her she’ll stay asleep, and I’m sure she’ll wake up.”
“I’m not sure what I would do if she woke up,” admitted Angel. It felt like a dirty secret, but suddenly it felt okay to share with Buffy. Like maybe telling her that he was in love with another girl had changed their relationship in some infinitesimally small way. Maybe they could talk to each other now.
“Sounds like a fairytale ending to me,” said Buffy.
“A lot has happened,” said Angel ominously. “She’s done a lot of things I’m not sure I can forgive.”
And suddenly Buffy looked small and young and lost again. “Does forgiving a person mean that you think their actions were okay?”
Angel thought of Cordelia, taking him back after all the terrible things he’d done when Darla was around. How she’d made it clear that he couldn’t walk all over her. He thought of Wesley, and the tentative balance they’d found that allowed them to work together even after Wesley had taken Connor. He thought of Fred, trying to forgive Gunn for killing a man she herself had wanted to kill.
“I don’t think that’s how it works.”
Buffy looked up at him with big hazel eyes. “Then forgive her. Don’t wait until you’ve grown so far apart that there’s nothing you can do to fix it. Forgive her.”
Angel thought of Cordelia’s lies and Lilah’s death and seeing Cordelia and Connor through his son’s bedroom window.
“I will,” he promised Buffy.
Her solemn, too-old eyes met his, and he realized that he couldn’t find the girl he fell in love with inside her.
He was in love with two ghosts.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Then he laid his hands delicately on her hips and leaned down and captured her mouth with his. It was everything that a goodbye kiss should be: sweet and tender and soft and just a little bit heartbreaking.
“Sorry?” echoed Buffy, when they finally pull away.
“I think I’m cookies,” said Angel.
Buffy nodded, and Angel thought he saw disappointment. Like yet another future was disappearing before her eyes.
Angel turned to leave. Then he stopped. He wasn’t going to do this to her again: leave her with nothing while he disappeared.
“You know,” he said. “Spike’s really pathetic.” Buffy’s eyes hardened but he kept going. “I mean, he was always incompetent, but mostly he’s just a fool. He never gives up on people, even when they think they deserve it. He’s just dumb enough to take someone back after they’ve grown so far apart that she thinks it’s unfixable.”
This time, when he turned to leave, Angel didn’t look back. He didn’t need to. Because for once, he wasn’t leaving Buffy looking devastated. There was something else in her eyes.