Breathing lessons

"...very lucky man. If it hadn't been for..."

Angel blinked, trying to banish the black spots that were dancing in front of his eyes, threatening to pull him under again. There was a small voice at the back of his head that insisted that he should try to concentrate on what the doctor was saying, but the rest of him kept getting distracted by the persistent thumping sound in his ears that seemed to make his entire body shake. He managed to catch few more words before his eyes were drawn back to the monitors on his bedside and the peak after peak after peak of the bright green line that echoed the pulsing ache in his body.

His heartbeat.

He had been awake for less than twenty minutes, and his brain was still in the middle of trying to process the implications of what that thin green line on the monitor truly meant.

"...wounds were mainly superficial..."

Even with the steady beeping of the monitors and the monotonous voice of the doctor, the room felt unnaturally quiet to Angel. There were no heartbeats, no distant conversations carrying through the walls. No sounds of battle or screams of pain. Everything felt unreal - almost artificial - and if it weren't for the fact that every part of his body hurt, he would have suspected he was in some Wolfram & Hart holding dimension.

He tried to remember how he had ended up in the hospital bed, but the battle was just flashes and fragments of memories in his mind. Gunn, barely standing, taking on a demon twice his size. Illyria disappearing under a wall of fyarls. Spike bursting into hysterical laughter as the dragon swooped down towards them in a ball of blue flame. And then a light - blinding and warm and laced with pain.

Angel tried to shift to a more comfortable position on the bed, but stopped when he suddenly noticed that Spike was also in the room. Spike was sitting in an uncomfortable-looking plastic chair by the window, listening to the doctor with uncharacteristically rapt attention. He had a deep cut on his forehead, and his right hand was heavily bandaged, but other than that, he seemed to be fine. As if sensing Angel's stare, Spike glanced warily towards the bed, but turned his attention back to the doctor as soon as their eyes met.

"...does not seem to have sustained any permanent damage..."

The beeping of the heart monitors was joined by the muffled tones of the doctor's pager, and he left the room with an apology and a slight smile that Angel assumed was meant to be reassuring.

With the doctor finally gone, Angel let his eyes drift close. He was confused and in pain, and he wondered if that was what being human was supposed to be like. If he'd still been the CEO of Wolfram & Hart, he would have sued the Powers for false advertising.

When he opened his eyes again, he realised that Spike was still in the room.

Spike was holding a pack of cigarettes, turning it over and over in his hands before finally tapping one cigarette out. He looked as tired as Angel felt, and for a moment Angel wondered if there had been a glitch in the prophecy and they had both received the shanshu.

It took Angel several tries to get any kind of sound out of his parched throat. "You're not allowed to smoke in here."

As far as first words as a newly-reborn human being went, Angel had to admit that he could have chosen better ones.

Spike looked up, and Angel waited for the inevitable insult or a curse, but none came. Instead, Spike just gave him a small nod and put the smokes away.

Angel blinked. The theory about holding dimensions was starting to seem more plausible again.

He gritted his teeth and pushed himself up until he was sitting against the headboard of the bed. From the corner of his eye, he saw Spike make a gesture to stand up, and if he hadn't known better, he would have thought Spike had almost wanted to come over and help him.

"Did we win?" Angel asked when the pain had mellowed out enough to allow him to speak again.

The question seemed to surprise Spike. He stood up and hesitantly walked to the bed. "Yeah, we won. Guess your cunning plan worked after all."

Angel nodded, and then struggled for a few seconds to stop nodding his head like a bobble-head doll. His brain felt fuzzy, like someone had stuffed his head full of cotton wool, and he had to fight the urge to raise his hand to his eyes to make sure that it wasn't made of felt. And what was Spike doing in the room anyway?

"I thought they only allowed family in hospitals?" he asked blearily, but didn't give Spike the chance to answer when a sobering thought suddenly hit him. Family. Connor. He grabbed the sleeve of Spike's duster and pulled the vampire closer.

"Where's Connor? Did you see him? Have you heard from him?"

Spike narrowed his eyes, an undecipherable look flashing on his face. "The boy's fine, saw him after you took down the dragon. Said he was heading back to his family, in case the battle spread outside LA." He shrugged his arm out of Angel's grip and then patted his pockets, dug out the packet of Morleys, stared at it for a few seconds, and put it back again untouched. "And I told them we were married. One of those civil union things. They're legal in Amsterdam, you know."

The cotton wool was back. Angel sneaked a surreptitious glance at his hand, just in case. "You told Connor's parents we're married?"

Spike rolled his eyes and walked to the other side of Angel's bed, careful not to look him in the eye as he paused to study the label on the IV bag. "Only I obviously should have told them you were my less handsome brother who sustained damage to his brain when he was dropped on his enormous forehead as a child. Would have been more believable." He gave the bag a final tap and turned to look at Angel again. "Told the docs we were married so they'd let me stay in here with you."

Angel nodded. It might have just been the drugs, but at that moment he was grateful for Spike's decision to stay with him, as unnatural as the idea of altruistic and caring Spike seemed. He was about to thank Spike (definitely the drugs), when he suddenly remembered something that the doctor had said.

"...you have your friend to thank for..."

"Where's Gunn?" he asked, trying to remember if he had seen the human since the first onslaught of demons.

Spike went completely still at Angel's words. For a few seconds he just stood there, not moving, not breathing, before turning his face to look away, across the room and out the window where raindrops made paths across the soot-stained glass.

When Spike finally spoke, his voice was quiet and careful. "He's dead, Angel, don't you remember?" He crossed his arms, pulling the duster closer around himself. "The dragon got him."

And there it was, the memory Angel would rather have continued to repress, of Gunn, bloodied and beaten, taking a stand against the dragon only to have it gut him with a single flick of a claw.

Angel shuddered, trying to ignore the sounds of screaming in his head. His heart felt like it was trying to escape through his throat while a paralysing numbness took over the rest of his body. "But how did... Did Wesley..."

"He didn't make it either. Illyria wouldn't say what happened at Vail's place, but I reckon Wes was already dead when she got there."

When Angel didn't say anything, Spike continued. "It's just us left," he said, still avoiding Angel's eyes. "Well, us and the Queen Smurf, but I'm not sure if she's actually with us in any sense of the word 'with'." He took out his lighter again, looking at it like it could give him all the answers. "Or 'us'."

He fidgeted with his lighter nervously before finally turning to look at Angel. "Look, I'm sorry about your friends. If you don't want me around, I'll just go and ask one of the nurses to come over and sit with you instead."

Angel wanted to say something, but the words stuck to his throat as darkness crept in again at the edges of his vision, the world narrowing down until it seemed to contain nothing but the small flame of Spike's lighter, which roared like the dragon in Angel's ears. He blinked until he was able to focus on Spike again, finding the vampire looking down at him, his face unreadable.

When Angel remained quiet, Spike sighed and made a gesture to leave. Just as he turned away, Angel reached out and grabbed Spike's wrist to stop him. Spike's hand was cold and clammy and still, and Angel looked up, confused, only to meet Spike's equally confused eyes. If Spike was still a vampire, then how did-

When Angel's fingers brushed the pulse point, the confused frown disappeared from Spike's face, making way to the cruel sneer Angel knew had been the last thing many of Spike's victims had seen.

"Oh, so that's what you were after," Spike said, and Angel repressed a shudder, the predatory look on Spike's face touching some re-awakened primal human instinct. "Wanted to know which one of your human buddies saved you, that it?"

Spike tried to half-heartedly shake his hand free, but Angel wouldn't let go.

"'Cause it couldn't possibly have been old, evil Spike who did it, could it?" Spike stopped trying to wrench his hand from Angel's grip and instead pulled it towards himself, pressing Angel's palm to his chest. Angel could feel the stillness of Spike's heart pronounced against the fluttering pulse in his own hand.

Spike laughed, a desperate sound that brought chills down Angel's spine. "Newsflash, sweetheart, I'm not you. Just because you have your head so far up your arse that it keeps your lungs from working, doesn't mean that it's the same for everyone else."

He leaned down, pulling Angel closer until their faces were just inches away. "Oh yeah, I've heard about that. Learned a lot about you when I was living in Harris' basement. For some reason, the boy doesn't seem to be at all impressed by your soulful gaze and mighty deeds." He gave another short laugh, his breath cold against Angel's ear. "I wonder why."

"Excuse me!"

Both Angel and Spike flinched back, startled by the nurse's voice. She marched across the room, giving them a disapproving look as she shoved past Spike to reach the IV. Angel noticed that he was still holding Spike's hand and sheepishly let go.

"Is he bothering you?" The nurse nodded towards Spike, who replied with a rude gesture behind her back.

Angel shook his head and allowed her to help him lay back again.

The movement set the darkness loose again inside his head, and it swallowed him like a heavy wave, pulling him deeper. He closed his eyes. It was easier that way, the world reduced to the muffled sounds and smells, and the ever-present ache of his body and soul. He felt oddly reassured by the familiarity of it all, the guilt and the regret. It was the one thing that still felt the same.

When he opened his eyes, the nurse was gone, and Spike was back holding vigil by the window. Angel watched him for a moment before clearing his throat to speak again.

"Where did you learn first aid anyway?" It wasn't a thank you or an apology, but it was the best that he could give.

Spike glanced at him warily over his shoulder, and then muttered something that sounded suspiciously like 'uffy'.

Angel blinked. As motivations go, that was unsurprisingly predictable. "You did it for Buffy?"

Spike shrugged. "Used to patrol with her, didn't I? Thought it might come in handy in case she ever got hurt, in case she ever needed m-" Spike's voice faltered, and he rubbed his hand across his face.

"But why would y-"

Too fast for Angel to even sense, Spike whirled around in an explosion of black leather and kicked the chair across the room. Angel flinched as it splintered against the wall with a crash.

"Because you couldn't!"

Spike's voice was hoarse, and his face twisted in rage as he stalked back to the bed, punctuating each word with a stab of his finger. "Because. You. Couldn't."

Angel could see Spike's jaw clench as they stared at each other, the vampire's whole body wound up like a spring about to snap. Spike was the first one to look away. He crouched down, covering his face with his hands and then running them through his hair.

"You were dead."

When Spike looked up, Angel could see the halogen lights glimmer in the moisture in the corners of his eyes.

"You were dead," he repeated, more quietly this time. "I saw you dust, and then you were there, on the ground, and I couldn't... And I couldn't..." Spike let out a frustrated growl and stalked back to the window. "Not again," he said, resting his forehead on the glass.

Angel wondered if time was supposed to work differently for vampires and mortals, as the seconds marched by while he tried to find the right answer, all of the English language suddenly vanishing from his mind.

"You saved my life," he finally said. He was quite certain that his soul had never wanted for him to be nice to Spike back when he'd still been a vampire. "Thank you."

Stupid human soul.

Angel let his eyes close again, finding even those few words as tiring as a century without sleep.

"What's it like?"

"Huh, what?"

Angel realised that more than just a few seconds must have passed, because Spike was back sitting in the plastic chair he had started in, holding an unlit cigarette between his fingers. "Being human, what's it like?"

Angel thought for a few seconds before answering. "It's different." He paused and then smiled. "Hurts like a son of a bitch."

Spike returned his smile, and Angel tried to come up with the words to explain how he felt, some way to explain how everything seemed at the same time more than he could stand and less than he remembered. He had long treasured the memories of that lost day with Buffy before it had all gone to hell - in many ways literally - but now even those memories were faded, a pencil sketch trying to imitate life.

"I signed it away, you know, when I joined the Black Thorn." He felt a twinge of pain in his chest at those words, and briefly wondered if the mark was still there. "I guess to earn it, all you had to do was to give it up."

"Figures," Spike snorted.

The words "I thought you only wanted it because it was mine" died before they reached Angel's lips when he saw the look in Spike's eyes. He coughed to cover his confusion, and then found he couldn't stop coughing, until he felt a cool hand on his back, helping him to sit up.

"I'd forgotten about breathing."

Spike only poured some water in a paper cup from the carafe on the bedside table, handing it to Angel. "Good thing then, that I signed you up for one of those breathing lessons. They had a list on the notice board when I went to buy smokes. Didn't know your real name so I had to make one up." He smirked as Angel handed him the empty cup. "Liam Ardarse. Has a nice ring to it, don't it? French."

Angel let out a half-annoyed, half-amused grunt and closed his eyes. The world was going fuzzy again, and this time Angel let the tide take him down. There was something bugging him, though, a small voice in the back of his head that sounded suspiciously like Cordelia. He opened his eyes to find Spike standing over him, all blue eyes and feigned innocence.

"You signed me up for lamaze?"

Spike shrugged, a wicked grin spreading on his face as he moved to sit down on the bedside, a bit too close to Angel's hip than was comfortable. "Not like they have special breathing classes for the terminally stupid, you git. Besides, with you being such a bloody woman all the time about your poncy hair and fat arse, you'll fit right in."

"My ass is not-"

He faltered, as it suddenly occurred to him that it had been a very long time since he had last seen Spike really smile. A hundred years, at least. Spike looked at him curiously, an eyebrow raised to a question mark, but didn't say anything.

Angel shook his head and smiled. "You didn't really tell them we were married, did you?"

Spike shifted slightly, and then flopped down on his back, wiggling until he and Angel were lying hip to hip on the narrow bed. "Nah, everyone here's got their hands full, what with the whole almost apocalypse and all, so the doc asked me to stay with you in case you keel over in your sleep."

"I can't do this alone."

Angel couldn't see Spike's face, not with both of them lying down, but he could feel the vampire shift beside him.

"Yeah, alright," Spike said finally. "Not like I've got anything better to do. Could stick around for a while, see that you don't eat yourself to death. Used to look after Dru and Dawn, didn't I?" There was a soft, gentle tone to Spike's voice, which was familiar to Angel even though he would have never admitted it before. Cold fingers brushed against his own, and without thinking, Angel took Spike's hand.

Spike let out an amused huff that sounded a lot like 'poofter'. "I'm not doing nappies, though, so the moment you go senile and start pissing yourself, I'm shipping you off to Florida."

Angel said nothing, just held on to Spike's hand as sleep finally took him.

END