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Worlds of Longing

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"But Perhaps God Needs the Longing" - Nelly Sachs

But perhaps God needs the longing, wherever else shall it dwell,
Which with kisses and tears and sighs fills mysterious spaces of air -
And perhaps is invisible soil from which roots of stars grow and swell -
And the radiant voice across fields of parting which calls to reunion there?
O my beloved, perhaps in the sky of longing worlds have been born of our love -
Just as our breathing, in and out, builds a cradle for life and death?
We are grains of sand, dark with farewell, lost in births' secret treasure trove,
Around us already perhaps future moons, suns, and stars blaze in a fiery wreath.

****************************************************************************

She returned to his thoughts in bits and pieces, escaping from that small, airtight place where he had locked her away when the Darkness came.

For years, she had dwelt in the forefront of his mind -- a shining beacon of hope against hope, a reminder of how he had become who he was, and why he rose every sunset to do what he did. She was a living symbol of all that he was not. Good to his evil. Light to his dark. Everything he ever wanted.

Angel never would have admitted it, of course -- not aloud to anyone else, or even explicitly to himself -- but the tiny dreamer in his soul believed the true value of his promised reward lay two hours and a lifetime away, in hair of sunlight gold and eyes of summer moss. That to be human again might mean one small chance... someday...

The light at the end of the tunnel.

When he left Sunnydale, he'd still clung to her so tightly, even as he walked away. And later, when she moved on, and he was still in his eternal stasis... he passed endless hours reliving their happier times together. Halcyon nights of passionate kisses in moonlit graveyards and tiny fingers of warm forgiveness entwined in his as they walked innocent paths of the young and righteous together.

He had never let her go... not really. Even after The Day That Wasn't... after their argument over Faith, and the confrontation with Riley... even then, he hadn't been able to put her out of his mind for long. She was the ground of his being... the reason he stood there at all, with a family, a purpose, a definition, and wasn't a withering shadow of death or a pile of dust on some filthy Manhattan street. She was the reason he wasn't still eating rats, and hadn't given up the ghost to some hopeless morning's sunrise long ago. One glance at her was all it had taken to alter him to his very cells... and for a time, he thought that feeling would be his forever.

But even the Eternal change. Time and circumstances faded her memory some... dulled the cutting edges of longing. Fire destroyed most of the mementos, and the place where they had last lay together. He rose and he fell, Icarus of the soul, reaching for the burning sun of redemption, then revenge, his wings of arrogant existential certainty vaporized by its heat.

And oh, how he had fallen... Plunged into a place so utterly without light, that some still-sane part of his soul couldn't bear to sully the memory of her by taking it with him. When he had shirked the bonds of humanity and all its comforts, he had locked her away tightly somewhere where she would forever remain pure and safe... where she would always be Buffy, and his darkness would never, ever touch her again.

But she came back... pieces of her leaking from the container... drifting in fits and starts into his thoughts, even at his darkest hour.

She came that night... with Darla. After he drilled his tormentor into the mattress, searching desperately inside dead skin for something... anything... to take away the gaping, yawning, ripping nothing that had come to nest in his center. And after, when he slept, gathering the shadows around him and hoping never to wake again... she came.

He woke to the crash of thunder, and a screaming agony at the core of his being.

((Strong is fighting! It's hard, and it's painful, and it's every day... but if you die now, then all you ever were was a monster!))

No. He couldn't do it anymore. Couldn't fight, when there was nothing to fight for. Not when there was no battle to be won, no foe to be defeated but the undefeatable in every ((...single one of them out there...)). Even her.

But the pain had driven him from his bed anyway... the pain he remembered so clearly, so perfectly, in each sharp, excruciating detail... the only product of a moment of perfect happiness...

Even now, when he recalled that night, he wasn't certain what had really wakened him. His injuries, the storm, a nightmare... or maybe it was a cosmic boot in the ass from the Powers, the universe sneering at him, as it tugged at the tethers that bound his soul. "Isn't this what you wanted?"

Angel's first clear thought was her name ((Buffy...)), and he stumbled out into the storm, each motion familiar, like a horrible rerun of that last time... his every moment of fear and weakness, his every sign of poor judgment, his every wrong, selfish choice crashing down on him... and because of it, all that he had struggled for... all that he had sacrificed and so desperately dreamed of, was lost.

((Dying.))

He fell, hitting the ground with a jarring force, and for a moment, he thought it was over. His soul screamed in a chorus of damned voices... the pain of thousands dead by his own hand, cursing him, pulling him, tearing him in two and dragging him down into Hell.

((Isn't this what you wanted?))

No. No, please... I'm sorry! Buffy...

((Don't fight it, my love. Just let it happen.))

The sound of Darla's voice was like a fairy whip slicing through the chaos inside and around him. An anchor to this reality that pulled him back, even as she encouraged him to let go.

((It leaves a bitterness... it'll pass.))

He forced himself to his feet... to look into soulless eyes of icy blue into which he had poured his mortal life, two centuries before... and into which, a few hours ago, he had tried to lose his immortal essence.

But he was still there, body and soul together. He realized in an instant that what he was looking at... this thing of incredible beauty and evil... could never break the curse, even if he came inside her a thousand times. All he could see there was damnation... hers and his own. Darkness. Hell.

Not Perfect Happiness. Not all the things he longed for, but was eternally denied.

Not Buffy.

For a moment, it wasn't his Sire, but his life's only love, like a phantom before him, green eyes filled with hurt tears and dying innocence, and he remembered how he had taunted her...

((It's what? Bells ringing, fireworks, a dulcet choir of pretty little birdies? Come on, Buffy. It's not like I've never been there before.))

Perfect Despair. The vision of her face that morning, when she should have awakened in a loving embrace, to a rain of grateful, passionate kisses and promises of eternal devotion, and instead she rose to a nightmare walking...leering at her with a frigid mockery of his smile, and attacking her heart with the ghost of his voice.

The memory snapped him to keen awareness. Wrong. He had been going about it all wrong. Redemption wasn't a goal, a place he had to travel to or a prize he had to claim. Victory wasn't a tangible thing that he could hear or see or smell or hold in his hands. Amends could not be made by sacrificing himself to the magnificent beast that created him. Or to the pain that had so long driven him.

Atonement was found in the simple act of giving, for its own sake. He owed this creature nothing. He had already given her everything he had to give.

It was that simple.

And so he clawed his way back into the noise and the grit of the Home Office, to mend what fences were mendable, to do what good could be done... to move forward again, and hope that was enough. For a while, Angel hadn't thought of Buffy at all, his nights were so full. It felt good to be with his friends again, and to work beside them, and... to heal.

The next time she came was a few days after what had been the most difficult battle of his life... that literal manifestation of the centuries old internal struggle between himself and his demon. And though he was ultimately victorious, the cost was high... his already grievous wounds were made worse by the Baynor demons, plus the whipping by Lindsey, and the less tenable damage done by his soul flip-flopping back and forth between the Earth and the ether... to say he was weak and tired was a gross understatement, and Wesley had threatened to chain him down ((You know I'll do it!)) if the vampire even so much as thought about getting out of bed.

Not that Angel had much choice... he drifted in and out of consciousness for days as his friends took turns tending him. When he was finally able to sit up and stay awake for more than a few minutes, the ex-watcher announced that he had something important to discuss with him.

He wasn't sure what he was expecting... maybe more confrontation about his behavior the past few months... more pleading that he try to trust them, let them in more... but he certainly wasn't expecting what he got.

"Your triumph over the Feast of Souls had some... unforeseen side effects..."

Angel had almost wanted to shut his eyes and pretend he hadn't heard that at all. What else could the Powers possibly do to him? What else did he have left for them to take away?

"It's... about your soul."

Some part of him knew. He felt... different. Lighter, somehow, as if his journey to the Other Side... his father's forgiveness and approval ((I've been watching yeh, lately, since the gypsies. Yeh do good work.))... the Powers calling to him ((choose to fight)) had lifted some of his burden away. Like someone had taken a vacuum cleaner to the darkest reaches of his being.

But to hear his closest friend say it aloud... to hear this learned man confirm it... define it... put it into words...

It finally became real.

"Your soul is fully yours once more, Angel. It resides in your body because you *chose* to have it there, not because it was forced there by magick."

((ye still have more to do. ye don't belong here...))

"What are you saying?"

It was doltish to ask, of course. Wesley had made himself as clear as possible, considering the subject matter. But he didn't seem to mind explaining... in fact, a bright smile lit his face as he did.

"I'm saying that your soul is anchored. Not only is there no clause to the Gypsy curse... there *is* no more curse at all."

The words seemed to echo, ricocheting around inside his still-groggy skull. No curse. No curse. No curse.

He blinked stupidly, and struggled to find his voice. "How..."

He listened to Wesley's exegesis... his theory about the loosing of Angel's soul by the Feast, and all the evidence he had produced to support his assumption. But the specifics, finally, didn't matter. Only one fact did.

His soul was his. He didn't belong to the Romany any longer. He wasn't barred from seeking the one, simple thing that every living being with a soul longed for:

Happiness.

And naturally, when he thought that, the first vision that popped into his head was Buffy's face. The most insurmountable obstacle between them had just vanished, and for a split second, he had an overwhelming urge -- to go to her. To tell her. To beg her to take him back... let him make love to her the way he'd wanted to for so long... Let him bathe in her warmth once again, and drive away the last of the cold that still clung to his skin.

((Just once more... please...))

But it was only a moment, and he let it pass, like an urge to sneeze or cough.

Thoughts like that wouldn't help. Longing for things that could never be got him nothing but lost, abandoning cherished friends, killing lawyers, and setting vampires ablaze. So he gently pushed her away once more.

As time passed and he recovered, though, she still returned. The next time, when he cleaned out his closet and found the box of smoke-stained refuse that he'd rescued from the old apartment. He didn't mean to open it... but, somehow, he found himself carrying it over to his bed and prying open the top, rifling through the precious remains of his old life. Letters... a movie ticket stub. Some flame-licked sketches and photographs... and his old silk robe.

He hadn't washed it since That Day... the day she wore it. Not that it mattered, since it had never really touched her skin at all. But when he lifted the singed silk to his face and inhaled deeply enough, he didn't smell dust and smoke and dreams come true swallowed whole by the cosmos... he smelled sunshine and honeysuckle... melting chocolate and the blended musk of their union...

He put it away quickly, sealing the box with half a roll of electric tape, and pushed it even further back in the closet, and her, deeper into his heart. No use going there again. No going back. The past was gone, she was happy and loved, and the only direction now for him was forward.

Things at Angel Investigations settled quickly into a routine. Bustling afternoons of research in the office, long nights of talk with sorely-missed allies. For two weeks, Angel had been in possession his permanent soul, and every day he became more convinced that not only *could* he have happiness, but that he *would*, someday. Maybe it wouldn't be perfect. Maybe it wouldn't be the flawless bliss that he had shared for a single moment, with her. But then... who ever found that kind of joy twice in a lifetime? However long that life might be.

Angel wasn't thinking about anything as heavy as love or perfection the afternoon he decided to give his kitchen a badly needed cleaning. He was simply enjoying the scent of Pine Sol, and the fresh early spring air floating through the French doors he'd thrown open to the night... chasing out the ghosts of the past year. He was enveloped in the Zen rhythm of scrubbing, sweeping, and dusting... finding a million tiny joys in the simplest of motions, happy that the physical activity now only caused a minimum of discomfort in his slowly mending body.

((chop wood, carry water. here is enlightenment.))

Then he threw open the freezer to defrost it, and there she was again.

The carton was old... he couldn't be sure how old, really, because for the unlife of him, he didn't remember buying it. It was barely identifiable as ice cream at all anymore, it was so thickly freezer burned. The colorful container obscured by crystals like time frozen over the letters on the label: Cookie Dough Fudge Mint Chip. Angel had never opened it. What would be the use? It wouldn't taste like anything but cold to his vampire taste buds, and if there was anything he *didn't* need, it was more ice in his veins.

But there she was... laughing. Really laughing, as he had never seen her do before. Crying out his name as they made love for the fifth time in as many hours (or maybe fiftieth...he'd lost track), her fine features contorted in an ecstasy that softly coaxed his entire being to rejoice and explode into pure light. There she was, dribbling the sweet, chilly goop down the meridian of his warm body and licking it carefully away, leaving them so sticky after, they'd been forced (oh, so reluctantly) to take a shower, laughing all the while.

There she was. Like a ghost. Like the seasons. Like a river. Like a circle, moving away, fading, changing, but always returning again.

He stood there for a long time, just staring at that frozen moment, the lone occupant of the dark, icy space, and let it wash through him for the first time in... ages. He took the time to carefully recall every word they'd said... every touch they'd shared, every tear, and he wondered... now that he was free, couldn't he just... one more time... Couldn't he call her? Write her a letter? Couldn't he open his weary soul and tell her all he had seen and done and felt since last they met?

He could look into her shining eyes... hold her small, warm hands, kiss her sweet lips. For a moment, maybe, he could be Home again.

Angel missed her still, with a tender ache that forced stinging tears to his eyes and squeezed his dead heart tight.

((The smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.))

She had shown him so much kindness... But the only truly benevolent thing Angel had ever done for her -- and, truth be told, for himself -- had been to leave. Nothing would really be different. All those barriers of pain and mistrust would still stand between them, ghosts of their past always lurking just over their shoulders, casting shadows over anything they tried to build. Assuming they could manage to build anything at all, after all this time. There was no way to go back to the innocence they'd had so long ago. How could anything less ever be enough?

No. His gift to Buffy had been letting her go. He would never forget, but... perhaps someday, she would stop coming back quite so often, and he too could move on.

The kind of joy they'd had was too rare to happen again. She had found a man who would love her... stand by her... die for her, if it came to that. Someone who she loved and trusted, and never had to fear or doubt. And that was what he had wanted for her. That was the way it should be.

He heard the others come into the lobby, their cheerful voices ringing off the cathedral ceiling.

"Yo, Angel! You gotta check out this dagger, man!"

"It's the size of my arm!"

"It's more of a sword, really..."

"Whatever."

He smiled to himself and called back, "I'll be down in a minute!"

The ice cream was already melting from his long meditation on it. He pulled the carton out, and swept the crystals of ice off the front, exposing the colorful label. Taking one more measure of remembered heartbeats to feel it, remember it, he turned and dumped it in the trash.

Things were just as they should be -- in her world, and in his -- and nothing could be gained by disturbing that equilibrium. What the Fates had in store for them remained to be seen, but... for now... he would leave well enough alone, and keep on the way he always had, with just her ever-present, slowly fading ghost as a reminder...

He had built something solid... something all his own, from the ashes and the longing. A new world, a new life... and though it had initially been only a happy side effect of the most difficult decision he'd ever made, it was real. And he didn't intend on wasting it again by dwelling on the never-can-be's.