In the old days, she could never have surprised him. Her scent would have preceded her, or the drumbeat of the blood in her veins, to be caught by his sharp senses long before she could announce herself. Now, unnoticed, she watches him through the arched arbour that breaks the hedge, her face screened by the leaves, though her heart pounds so loudly she can hear it in her own ears.
He looks so much the same. Still favours black, she thinks: black trousers, black shirt tight over broad shoulders. No shoes, though; and the hair is longer, past his shoulders, tied back with a bit of twine. No sign of the scars William spoke of. His profile is heartbreakingly unchanged, bent intently towards the canvas and the delicate movements of the brush. His lips are a little parted with concentration. Now and then he looks up from the canvas and gazes down the long green slope to a strip of rocky beach and the gunmetal-grey expanse of the sea. She watches, hardly able to breathe with the wonder of watching him.
At last he adds a final touch of paint to the canvas, and lays the palette and brush down beside him on the garden bench. Standing, he stretches; and then he steps past the easel, out of the oak's shade, peeling his black shirt off as he goes. He tosses it down on the grass and steps into the full glare of the sun, lifting his face into the warmth.
She knows he has nothing to fear from the sun now, but memory and habit make her catch her breath in terror for him. But nothing happens—except he hears her gasp, and turns his head.
"Will? Is that you?"
Then he sees her.
Fourth cottage along, on the seaward-side of the road; the man at the pub seemed certain enough it would be the right one. Tall, dark chap? Artist? Standoffish? Strewth, and the Galway fields was thick with artists, he'd said, thick as the fleas on a tinker's dog, but that particular artist were as tall and dark and standoffish as they come. Been ill a while, so he had. And he were living with another feller, a scrawny Brit, said he were a poet, came to the pub most nights; the barkeep reckoned they was poofters, but artists and poets would have their own little ways, now, wouldn't they? Buffy had agreed rather dazedly and finished her drink.
Fourth cottage along on the right. The lane was classic country-Irish, tree-hung on one side, lined on the other with a rough drystone wall over which she could see fields running down a gentle slope towards the sea. Ruins, too: clusters of tumbled foundations on the landward side of the road, as if the well-spaced standing cottages were the lonely vestiges of a larger village, here on the outskirts of Galway Town. She pulled over a short way past the third cottage, and parked the car on the verge. Somehow, it seemed fitter to go the rest of the way on foot.
The fourth cottage was a small place, low and stone-built, set a little back from the road in a virtual thicket of oaks. Old, maybe centuries old; almost a cliché, it was so picturesque. Cautiously, she paused to take note of any dangerous details. The windows were tiny, she saw, and even though the oaks cut off most of the late morning sunlight, all the shades were drawn right down to the sills. Interesting. Taking a deep breath, she walked up the cobbled path through the overgrown garden, and knocked on the door. And again, and again, many times, until after a long wait she heard a foot scrape inside the front hall, and saw the door open a couple of inches. Then it swung wide.
"Buffy? What are you—?"
"I could ask you the same question. Hello, Spike."
He made a pot of tea. His breakfast tea, he pointed out, and she would have to forgive him not being dressed, since she had rousted him out of bed rather earlier than he was accustomed to. His embrace was welcoming, but not passionate, one old friend greeting another after a long separation. There was no small talk—almost no talk at all, at first, just a silence with four large unasked questions dangling uncomfortably between them. He poured her tea and sat opposite her in the tiny, spare kitchen, elegant in silk dressing gown and morocco slippers.
"You've stopped bleaching your hair," she said.
He sipped his tea. "I'm a new man, me. Stopped all sorts of things. Started others. How did you find us, Buffy?"
"Of course, bleeding plural. You know he's around, don't you?"
Carefully, she set her teacup back on its saucer before her hand could start shaking in earnest. "I—I wasn't sure until now. Where is he, Spike?" He regarded her steadily without answering, and she asked again, more urgently, "Where is he? Where's Angel?"
"He's Liam now, and I'll tell you where he is when I'm good and ready. If ever. And by the way, I'm William again. How did you find us?" His voice had sharpened.
She controlled her hands enough to reach into her bag. The clipping was on top, creased and blurred from the many times she had pored over it. Spike—William—unfolded it, and shook his head.
"Yes, I wondered if trouble would come out of that. Just a small Dublin gallery, who would notice? But some toff from the Sunday supps was trawling for up-and-comers on the Irish art scene, and suddenly—well, there we are."
A full-page reproduction of a painting, on glossy Sunday-magazine paper. A landscape, a wild windswept seacoast of cliffs and thunderous clouds, with one small patch of bright in a lower corner: a woman, small and white, seeming to carry her own light within her body along a path at the edge of the sea. But it was the lines of the cliffs that had first caught Dawn's eye, and caused her to pass the magazine to Buffy as a curious coincidence, thereby setting the search in motion. Subtle shadings of crags, patches of textured stone, vegetation, shadows; it was hard to see at first, but once you caught it, the sad dark profile was impossible to mistake.
"It's the bloody self-portrait that gives him away, yeah? Turning into his flipping trademark, that is. He's always in there somewhere, all dour and broody, and disguised as a cliff or a tree or a face in the clouds. Bloody good, though."
She took the clipping back and carefully folded it away. "Yes," she said, "and the critics seem to agree. The gallery said his prices were going to go through the roof—buy a Flaherty now, they told me, and see the value triple within a year."
"Did you buy one?"
"Good. Baby needs new shoes. What else did the gallery say?"
"Well, they didn't tell me where to find you, if that's what you're worried about. They gave me a lot of guff about the artist being a very private person, preferring his solitude, strict instructions, yada yada yada. They wouldn't even take a message. Anyway, I still didn't know for sure if the artist was Angel."
Buffy shrugged. "Took a chance. Instinct, maybe. Lot of artists live in Galway. And Galway is where he was born—both times. I nosed around, asked a few questions..."
"And here you are."
"And here I am. Where's Angel, Spike?"
"Not so fast. Why are you here?"
"To find Angel—and you."
"But why? And why now?"
Buffy's jaw set. "Until a week ago, we thought you were finished, both of you—dusted in LA two years back. Though it took us a while to figure even that out. All we knew at the time was that something big had gone down, bigger than anything we'd seen since closing the Hellmouth in Sunnydale, but we didn't know who was behind it. And we all thought Angel…" She trailed off, embarrassed, but Spike finished for her.
"…had sold out to evil, right? Gone to the dark side of the force. Well, he needed you to think that, sunshine. He needed you to believe it with all your little Slayer soul." He spoke forcefully, and Buffy felt his words like a lash across her heart. Yes, she had believed it, and yes—it had hurt, hideously. She had been furious, bitter; had hated Angel, with the kind of hate that was the flipside of love; had hated him more than she hated Angelus, who at least had the excuse of having no soul; had avenged herself by leaping into the arms of the Immortal, a grade-A-double-plus jerk under all his smarmy centuries-practiced charm. And then she'd blamed Angel for that, too, for reducing her to the kind of flaky female who would let the Immortal come within sniffing distance.
The first indications of Angel's by-invitation-only apocalypse had been sketchy, and totally out of the blue. One day a slayer in Cairo reported several notorious dens of evil had been abandoned in panic overnight, purged so thoroughly that not even a whiff of demonic activity lingered. Later that day, a well-organized network of corpse-traffickers in Chicago, protected by Wolfram and Hart, dissolved in an orgy of rivalry and murder. The vamp underground in London dribbled away in terror over the next week; scores of demonic familiars vanished in New York and Lima, Melbourne and Macau and a dozen other places, leaving whole covens of evil exposed to attack. The slayers' informants spoke of despair and confusion on the dark side, a devastating blow to the powers of hell. But where had it been struck?
With all the reports reaching Buffy in Rome, the one from California was not noticed for a couple of days. A little filler item about a strange occurrence in LA, recounted with the sort of tongue-in-cheek tone usually reserved for UFO sightings and showers of frogs. Freak storm? Bikers on a rampage? Convention of wild-eyed gamers getting rather out of hand? Even a dragon was reported, rising out of a dark alley to the roof of an abandoned hotel, along with a chorus of shrieks, squawks and bellows, like an intercom into Hell. And then—nothing. When the cops arrived less than fifteen minutes after the first call, the alley was empty. Netta, the slayer in San Francisco, forwarded the report only because of where the alley was located: the hotel was the Hyperion.
Buffy began to wonder then if Angel were involved in the chaos among the enemy, and confirmation of a sort arrived the next day in the mail. An ordinary white envelope, addressed to her. Inside, a slip of paper typewritten with an address, a twelve-digit number, and a meaningless string of letters, like a code, or maybe a password. The address was a bank in Zurich. On the reverse, a brief handwritten message: Tainted, but you can use it for good. Yours always. It was unsigned, but the handwriting was unmistakable. In the account accessed by the password were fifty million perfectly legal and untraceable dollars, which they all agreed could only have come the coffers of Wolfram and Hart—which meant, from Angel. But of Angel himself, there was no trace, only some very credible underworld rumours that he had been dusted, probably in that alley behind the Hyperion. Netta travelled down to LA to check, and reported back that Wolfram and Hart was a twisted ruin. Angel and the rest were nowhere.
Now, Buffy looked steadily at Spike across the kitchen table. "We figured it out in the end. Part of it, anyway. The Black Thorn—even Giles had never heard of them, but the evil grapevine was humming big-time after Angel kicked them in the—er—head."
"He did have help, you know," Spike said, sounding miffed. "Me, for one."
Buffy hardly heard him. She was feeling again that moment when she first realized what Angel had done, the cold hopelessness that settled over her soul like a layer of fresh earth on a coffin. Angel was gone forever. Dusted out of existence fighting the good fight, sacrificing himself for a smashing victory. And he had left her behind without a word of goodbye, while a dark cloud still roiled between them: her suspicion and mistrust, her monstrous injustice to him. He was gone, and she could never, never make it right with him. Her grief was agony, but her guilt was more terrible still. Even now, she could hardly bear the memory of it.
"For God's sake, Spike, just tell me where Angel is," she burst out.
Spike sighed. "You Buffy. Him Liam. Me William. At least try, Buffy."
She thumped the table. "Remember who you're talking to. Slayer? Vampire slayer? Ring any bells? Don't make me beat it out of you."
"Patience, Slayer." He gave her an odd, calculating look. "I'll tell you one thing for the moment: he's not in this house, but I know where he is. Now," he grinned at her, "tell me all about you. Still running the most nubile army in history? Still saving the world ten times a day?"
"Spike, look here—"
"Better. And how are all our old friends? Giles? Willow? Long John Xander?"
She sighed, surrendering for the moment. At least she knew the worst had not happened. Angel was not a handful of dust in a dark alley, long ago sifted by the wind. She could bear with Spike's waiting game a little longer. "You do know, don't you," she said calmly, "that Angel left us fifty million ill-gotten bucks in a numbered Swiss bank account?"
He goggled at her with his mouth and eyes wide open. Then he began to laugh. "No, pet, that's one thing he didn't tell me. Bloody typical. Though why Mr. Not-In-It-For-Personal-Gain couldn't have set up a little pension fund for me at the same time, I don't know. So what are you doing with it all?"
"We're doing what Angel—Liam wanted us to do, using it to fight the Big Bad. For starters, we set up Slayer Central."
"Stapleton Manor. Big estate outside London—huge manorhouse, acres of ground, stables, tennis courts—we even have a lake, and our very own forest. Makes a great training school and base of operations. About a third of the slayers are there at any one time. And Dawn, Giles, Willow. Faith and Xander, when they're not out on assignment."
Spike whistled appreciatively. "Cool, Buffy. Your own private Hogwarts, with a touch of MI5."
"That's more or less what Dawn calls it." Buffy smiled thinly. "And Connor—"
Spike sat up suddenly, slopping tea out of his cup. "Connor? Connor's there"
"Yeah. Connor Smith." Buffy peered at him, surprised. "He's good, too, a big help. That dash of demon makes all the difference. So you know who he is? He said he'd worked with Angel before the whole Wolfram and Hart gig."
"He did indeed. But how in the name of Hecate did he end up with you?"
"He just showed up—he strolled past our defences one fine morning, and coolly announced he'd come to work for us. And the first thing he did was help us beef up our defences. What's with you, Spike? Is there something I should know about Connor?"
Spike laughed. "Buffy, sweet, it's a very long story. Liam told it to me, and maybe someday, if you're very, very good, he'll tell it to you too. Assuming I tell you where to find him."
She ignored the last bit. "So we can trust Connor?"
"Abso-bloody-lutely." He laughed again.
Buffy felt her eyes narrowing. Spike, or William if he preferred, should not be appearing so entertained, not while she was still in an anguish of impatience. Burning Question Number One had been answered: Angel existed. But Burning Question Numbers Two through Four were still tormenting her. "Are you sure?" she asked coldly. "Connor told us he witnessed the battle—he said he saw Angel dusted. He said he saw him falling in flames. Was he lying?"
Spike sobered instantly. "What? No, pet, he wasn't lying, he just didn't see all there was to see. Which makes sense. Liam sent him away while the shit was still on course for the fan. He thought we were all going to get ourselves killed, you see, and he badly wanted Connor to survive. The boy must have been watching from a distance."
"So what did happen?" Buffy asked the question softly. It was Burning Question Number Four, but Numbers Two and Three would have to wait.
Spike was silent for a few moments. All the laughter drained out of him. When he answered, his voice was as soft as hers.
"It was clever the way he'd set it up. You think you were fooled? We were fooled, and we were right there with him in the same building, seeing him every day. So don't blame yourself for believing he'd gone to the bad, because it was our top-ranking theory as well. He couldn't fool the Black Thorn unless he fooled us first. He didn't tell us until the trap was already set, at which point he needed us to help him spring it. And so…" He paused, staring into the past.
"And so we helped him spring the trap, simple as that. That part you probably know about already. Bang went the Circle of the Black Thorn, which pissed off the Senior Partners no end. Which was the whole point of the exercise. You know Wesley was killed?"
"We heard, yes."
"You wouldn't have known Wesley towards the end, Buffy. Thinking what a silly twat he used to be, and then of what he became—no, I won't go there. He was a bloody good bloke at the last, that's all I'll say. Anyway, when the trap had been sprung, and all the little Black Thorn rabbits had their necks twisted, we knew there'd be Hell to pay. We met in the alley behind the Hyperion: Liam, Gunn, Illyria and me. Wesley was already dead. Gunn was hurt, badly, maybe dying. Blue was having a grief crisis, which was good, because it made her horribly eager to kill things. I was just along for the ride. Liam—Angel…"
"Angel was happier than I'd seen him in a long time, maybe ever. A man with no more questions, you know? He'd signed away the shanshu—you know about the shanshu?—good—so he was a man without hope, as well; which, big dummy that he was, seemed to be just fine by him. A man with nothing but one big shiny pointy answer, the sword in his hand; and the questions were advancing on us by the thousand from the far end of the alley—an army of the ugliest boggly-woggles you ever did see, all of them armed to the fangs. Think Dollar Day at the Hell branch of Macy's, Buffy, and you'll get the picture. And over all of them, soaring like a big bloody bat, and belching down sulphur fumes and flame at us…the dragon."
"So there was a dragon," Buffy said, but Spike did not seem to hear her.
"Angel said the dragon was his. I said to myself, fine, mate, help yourself, because I personally will be diving for cover if that overgrown earthworm with wings comes anywhere near me. But by then we were wading into the mob, and his sword was ticking back and forth like a metronome, and mine too, and it was like we were showering in demonic bodily fluids. Even Gunn was managing to pile up the nastiness, though without Illyria watching his back he'd have been mincemeat in moments. And then…"
This time, he stopped for so long that Buffy thought he would never start again—as though somehow the story were still going on somewhere, with the end still hanging in the balance, and he was waiting to see how it came out. "William?" she said. "Will?"
He turned to her, and his eyes were bright. "The dragon came, swooping down on us, scattering the demons before it, because it wanted Angel as much as he wanted it. None of the rest of us existed for it. Angel leapt to meet it in midair, and it fried a score of demons with the fire meant for him, but he twisted at the top of his leap and gave it a great slice across its filthy scaly neck; it shrieked and flew away from him, up to the roof of the Hyperion, and he followed it there, scaling the wall like it was the grand staircase at the opera—and that's where they fought, Buffy. That's what Connor saw.'
Another silence, but she did not prompt him again. She found she was holding her breath, and let it out silently.
"I never saw anything like it," he continued. "No one ever has. We all stopped to watch—demons, trolls, vamps, us. It was...graceful. Beautiful. Despairing. He was…they were…hell, I'm supposed to be a poet, and I can't find the words. It was like a dance on the edge of the roof, Buffy, a ruddy ballet, and it seemed to go on for as long as Swan Lake, including intermissions and curtain calls and the cast party afterwards, but it couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes, really. We couldn't bear to watch, but we couldn't bear to close our eyes for even a second of it, either. And then…he stopped."
"You mean Angel?"
"Who else would I mean? The dragon was hovering over the alley by then, still trying to catch him with its fire, but he was always a step or three ahead of it. And then he just bloody stopped in front of the damned thing, right on the edge of the roof, and raised his sword to it; and then he leapt at it, straight as an arrow into the flames from its jaws, and he brought his sword down and split its head in two, just as the fire caught him. And they dropped together out of the sky, but the dragon was dead, and Angel was in flames. That's also what Connor saw. But what happened next was out of Connor's sight."
He stopped and looked into her eyes for the first time since beginning his story. "The dragon was the key, see. The bogglies were just window-dressing: very active window-dressing, I grant you, and perfectly capable of slicing us into kebab meat; but the dragon was their talisman, their portal. And once it thudded down into the alleyway—narrowly missing yours truly—the attack was finished. Kaput. Swirly-whirly colours, like a 1960s music video, big rushing wind, loud kind of popping noise and lots of howls, and suddenly we were all alone in the alley, we four. But Angel was still on fire. Dragonfire, so the rain couldn't snuff it. A bit like napalm, dragonfire."
A snapping sound: Buffy jumped. The cup Spike was clutching between his hands had shattered. He looked down at its shards without seeing them. "We got to him in seconds, but he was quite nicely ablaze by then. It was the damned coat, actually, that posh black leather duster he was so fond of. It protected him in the first instance, but by that point it was killing him. I remember saying to myself, he'll dust any second now, and I think I was actually weeping, because—because I'd seen him slay the dragon—but he didn't dust, and Blue and I managed to rip the bloody coat off before the fire reached his face, and eventually beat out the rest of the flames; and he still hadn't dusted, but just lay there, broken, bleeding, and pretty well cooked along one side of his body. Which is when I started to get an idea of just what haha-funny sods those Powers That Be are."
"What do you mean?"
"The shanshu, pet. The shanshu. He honestly thought he'd signed it away, but the Black Thorn had no real power over the prophecy. They'd lied to him—big surprise."
Buffy sat up poplar-straight. "Are you saying—?"
"I am indeed saying, dear girl, you bet I am. It was all in the lap of the Powers That Be; and the buggers let the prophecy take effect at the moment the dragon died, with the happy recipient still two storeys up and wrapped in flames. So he hit the ground…"
"…human," Buffy broke in flatly.
"Human," he agreed, just as flatly, "and still breathing, but only just. A badly damaged human, our Liam."
They sat in silence for a few moments. Buffy felt herself torn: wild joy on one side—he was alive, truly alive, human—but on the other, horror and pity at the thought of the flames and shattered bones. She reached across and took Spike's cold, cold hand in a tight grip. "Finish your story," she said.
"Not much more to tell. We got him and Gunn out of there, quick-like. We ran like rabbits, love, because we had nothing left to fight back with if the bad guys came at us again, and we still had something to lose. Liam was dying, so was Gunn. No hospital—we couldn't hope to protect them in a hospital. But there are shamans, and white-witch healers…and when we had them patched up a bit, we got ourselves on a freighter to a little island off the coast of South America, a colony of counter-demons that owed Angel big-time for saving them once in the past. We figured we had half a chance of being safe there, and that's where we hid out, until I brought Liam to Ireland about fifteen months ago. Gunn and Illyria are still there, so far as I know, and happy as Larry. They, er, bonded. And that's it, Buffy, that's the whole story."
Buffy tightened her grip. "The hell it is. Why Ireland? And why didn't he come to me?" Burning Question Number Three.
"If you'll stop breaking my fingers, I'll tell you. Many thanks. Why Ireland? He asked me to bring him home because he thought he might die, and this is where he wanted to do it. So I did, but he didn't—die, I mean. For months, he was too weak to do more than stare out the window, with me playing devoted nursie the whole time. Imagine, me, William the Bloody, a flipping Florence Nightingale! Then one day he asked me to bring him some paint and brushes, and he never looked back after that."
"How is he now? Is he…?" …still in love with me, was what she longed to say. That was Burning Question Number Two. She could not bring herself to voice it, though, and she realized it was because she was afraid of the answer. "Is he still in much pain?" she amended, weakly.
"He's….better," Spike said, "in that he no longer wakes up screaming with it, but it was bad, pet, it was very, very bad. For one thing, he'll never kick-box again. Also, lots of interesting scars; and no, before you even think to suggest it, neither magic nor plastic surgery can do anything about those. Dragonfire scars are there for good."
He withdrew his hand from hers and held it up, palm out. Buffy drew a shocked breath at the scar-ridged palm, the shiny printless fingers. Speechless, she caught his hand out of the air, and held it again between both of hers.
"And as for why he didn't seek you out," Spike went on, as if nothing had happened, "well, a couple of reasons. Your safety, for one. We're marked men now, Liam and me. The one smart thing the Powers did for us after the battle was to place a spell of masking on us, to bugger up our aetheric tracks; but if the Senior Partners ever find us, we might as well have 'ground zero' tattooed on our foreheads."
Buffy nodded. That explained yet another puzzle. Willow had searched the aethers for Angel's soul-track, and found nothing. The same with Spike's, and Wesley's. Willow had presented it as yet more evidence, as if Buffy wanted it, that all three of them had vanished from the earthly plane of existence. Were dead and gone, in other words. But now she, Buffy, had tracked them down anyway, which meant the Big Bad could, too. Maybe someone on the dark side read the same Sunday papers as Dawn. When the right moment came, she would suggest they make a tactical withdrawal to the safety of Stapleton Manor, whatever happened between Angel and her. She owed them that much, at least.
But Spike was still talking. "Of course, I shouldn't have to explain the other reason why he didn't look you up. You're a bright girl, and they say women understand men better than the other way around. Eh, love?"
He opened his eyes wide in mock surprise. "You mean, you don't understand? Fancy that. You don't understand why a scarred and shattered alpha male, with his strength gone and nothing in the world to offer, might balk at limping back to an old girlfriend who clearly moved on years ago? Come on, Buffy, he's just a man now, but he is a man."
"Nothing to offer!" Stung, and suddenly furious, Buffy jumped to her feet and paced—stomped—across the kitchen. "How dumb is that? Isn't he a big enough hero already? Nothing to offer! Give me a break!"
Slumped comfortably in his chair, Spike grinned again. "He's brave, Buffy, but I didn't say he was bright."
"And I never moved on," she blurted, "it's always been Angel—" She cut herself off, and her face reddened.
Spike did not lose the grin. "I knew that, too," he said. "We were all just the understudies, weren't we? You couldn't have him, so you let us have you. Don't worry about it, Buffy, it's all right."
After a moment, Buffy dropped back into her chair, her anger gone. "I'm sorry," she said. She lifted her head and looked squarely into Spike's eyes. "Does he ever mention me?"
"Not since he stopped being delirious. But don't look so downcast, love. Let me show you something."
Spike led her to the cottage's cramped front hall, and waved her through into what was probably a parlour—but now it was furnished only with paintings, dozens of them, piled in the corners and stacked against the walls. "Liam's storeroom. Help yourself, Slayer. Go wild. Look for the common theme."
She edged around the room, examining canvas after canvas. Some luminous, some dark and louring, all stunning. Angel's cryptic self-portrait was not too difficult to spot in most of them, now she knew it was there; nor did it take her long to notice the other repeating element.
"The woman in the first painting—she's in all the others, too."
"Well done, girl. Like 'Where's Waldo', minus the stripy shirt."
"Well done again. So Liam may not be mentioning you, but we can safely say you're on his mind."
Softly, Buffy placed the canvas back on the pile. "Where is he, William? Please."
Spike smiled, a genuine smile now, like an outpouring of the sun he could never walk in himself. "He's out back, love, the field behind the garden, working on some painting or other. There's a gate."
Buffy regarded him curiously. "Suddenly, you spill. Why did you make it so hard?"
"I had to be sure of you. He's still fragile. The burns are scarred over, and the bones have knit, but at the moment his soul is held together by nothing but canvas and paint. So," Spike continued cheerily, "if you'd been planning to piss him around again, you'd have bloody well had to dust me first."
"When did you begin to care?"
He put his arms around her, and kissed her gently on the cheek. "I saw him slay the dragon," he said.
Liam gazes down the sweep of O'Malley's potato field to the sea, then back to the canvas. He raises his brush again, adds to the sky. Except it's not O'Malley's potato field now, it's owned by some bloated Euro-agribusiness conglomerate, and they're leaving it to lie fallow this year. It hasn't been O'Malley's field since 1753, when Angelus drank the O'Malley family dry, so to speak, and arranged the bodies in an amusing tableau in the cottage kitchen. Strange how the O'Malley cottage has survived, while the Flaherty house, grander and better-built, lies in ruins just down the road.
Strange, too, how he can see this landscape with the eyes of both past and present. That road there, slanting down the west side of the next field, towards the edge of Galway Town: he can see himself staggering up it on many a night, roaring bawdy songs at the top of his lungs and not caring whom he disgraces. Now it is neatly paved, and he knows a petrol station stands prosaically just around the bend. At the bottom of the field, he can see the rough lean-to shed where he seduced poor Biddy O'Malley and left her weeping—but it will take an archaeological excavation to find its traces now, reduced as it is to a few stains in the soil where the wooden cornerposts once stood.
It's good that we came to Galway, he thinks. Coming home to die was only a small part of the truth. Back on the island, even as he was sweating in agony through the long torturous nights, he had felt the lifting of the load of Angelus's sins. Returning to Galway was the acid test. He had walked these roads as Liam, a drunken, rutting fool; then as Angelus, grinning death on two feet; and once again as Angel, in nineteen-aught-something, burdened with a guilty soul. That time was the worst, and he had fled to America, swearing never to return. But now here he is again, Liam; only this time, a Liam who has suffered through sorrow and pain to the beginnings of wisdom. The guilt has gone, and he is free to grieve for Angelus's victims, with the kind of grief that cleanses him even as it hurts.
Enough work for today. He has promised Will faithfully he will walk down to the post office in the town, and pick up some blood and pork chops on the way home. He looks over the painting, finds where he's put the woman in this one, searches for his own face, finds it in the shadowed hollows of the ex-potato-field. The woman is a distant but shimmering presence at the bend in the road. Buffy, of course. He realized that long ago. He cannot get her out of his mind, nor does he want to, no matter how painful it is to have her there. He adds a final stroke to the brightness surrounding her, before laying his brush and palette beside him on the bench.
It has been a long session. Standing, he stretches his cramped muscles; and then, because the day is fine and the sun is still miraculous to him, he peels off his shirt and moves out of the shade, to catch the warm light on his face and bare, scarred chest.
Somebody gasps behind him. He turns his head.
"Will? Is that you?"
It is not William. So now he's hallucinating—it's Buffy's face that he sees, framed in the ivy of the arbour. Hallucination or not, he realizes his own face has broken wide open in what feels like the most foolish, fatuous grin in the history of facial expressions. Then he remembers himself. His face falls, his smile fades, and he turns the rest of the way towards her, so she can see the worst. One must be honest, even with hallucinations. At the horror in her face, he turns away again with unsurprised resignation, and bends to pick up his shirt.
"Don't!" Buffy fumbles with the catch on the gate. "Damn it, Angel—Liam—don't!" She has seen his face lose the pure, unguarded joy of the first moment, and knows he has misunderstood. Her horror is not revulsion; rather, it's the gut realization of how much torment is represented by such a square footage of such horrific scars. She yanks at the gate. The catch is a fiendish puzzle, an IQ test, and she's failing it. Just as she's ready to batter the gate open with slayer force, Liam arrives on the other side, reaches over the crossbar, and releases the catch.
She's through the hedge in a nanosecond, but stops short of hurling herself at him. She can hardly breathe. He looks at her questioningly, and recoils ever so slightly as she raises her hand towards his chest. "Will it hurt," she asks, "if I touch you?"
"No, Buffy. I mean, no, it won't hurt." But his voice is still wary.
She moves closer and explores the scars with the flat of her hand, mapping their extent: left half of chest and belly and back, spilling up over the left shoulder and all the way down the arm, lapping up onto the underside of the jaw. She explores the textures, too, puckered and corrugated, tight-stretched and shiny-smooth. He stands very still through this, but she can feel him trembling. At some point she realizes his arms are already around her, drawing her closer. When she leans back to look up at his unmarked face, her fingers tracing the scarring under his chin, she sees that his eyes are as wet as hers.
"You're beautiful," she says. Then she lays her head against his chest and listens for a while to the beating of his heart, the most powerful music in the world.