The house was cute. Blue shutters, wide front porch, flower boxes overflowing with trailing petunias, snapdragons and violets. If you checked the dictionary for the definition of charming, this house would be the illustration; a realtor's wet dream. Angel hated it.
He had been staring at it for close to an hour, hidden in the shadows that the neighborhood provided. Straightening his shoulders, he came to a decision. He marched across the street and pressed the door buzzer firmly.
"Buffy," he said softly as the door opened.
Eyes widened in shock and then narrowed into slits. She didn't bother hiding the spill of emotions that overtook her face and Angel wondered if she was about to slap him or even stake him. Instead, her expression became guarded. "Come in, Angel," she said flatly.
She led him through a small entryway to her living room. It was inviting, decorated with colorful throw pillows, tables, and shelves dotted with knickknacks and photos. She led him to a sage green club chair while she sat on the patterned couch opposite.
"You haven't changed. Which I guess is to be expected. Don't bother telling me the same is true for me," she said, holding her hand up to silence him.
Angel blanched at her tone. Obviously she had changed. Her hair was shot through with silver now, plaited into a loose French braid. He hoped that the lines around her mouth and eyes were due more to smiling and laughter than tears and pain. Her eyes hadn't changed at all, though. He could still read her emotions in their ever-changing palette. Right now they were a rare light brown, signaling her uneasiness.
"Are you here to warm me about some big evil rising out of the East?" she continued.
"Just happened to be in the neighborhood?"
"Spike," he finally answered. He knew that wasn't an answer or maybe not even the right answer. Probably not any answer at all, but he didn't know what else to say.
The flinch was subtle, but Angel still caught it. "Spike's gone. Eight months now." At least part of her coldness toward him was actually grief that she was barely keeping at bay, he realized. That revelation didn't make him feel any better.
There had been whispered rumors but Angel hadn't believed any of them. Spike was the one who could always charm or brawl his way out of any situation. He had sort of assumed that when the Angel of Death came calling, Spike would just challenge him to a poker game, ace palmed to ensure a win, in a less high-brow version of a Bergman film. "I'm sorry," Angel said.
"Don't." Her hands were held up as a protective shield. "I know how you felt about him, so I'd rather not hear any platitudes."
A flash bang of anger raced through him. "He was my family. Yes, it was a fucked-up, murderous, incestuous family and half the time I wanted to stake him, but he was still mine." He'd barely finished his rant when the salt tang of Buffy's tears was apparent. Amazing. Even dead, Spike managed to screw his life up. He sighed, ashamed. "I'm sorry," he repeated, this time barely audible. "I'll let myself out."
Buffy picked her head up, her lashes glittering with tears. "What do you want?"
He stopped and sat back heavily on the chair, feeling the slight creak of the wooden frame. What did he want? Everything, if he was being truthful. He wanted not to have had to sacrifice Cordelia and Connor and Buffy. He wanted that day back and a million more like it. He wanted his son's childhood back. He wanted not to someday bury Connor. He wanted so many people not to be dead, but especially Cordelia. He wanted to get older and die. He just wanted...everything, but in the end he said,
"I want to draw you."
She didn't bother hiding her surprise at his request. Angel was pretty sure she would turn him down. Had she ever seen any of his artwork other than the gifts he had left her when he was soulless? He didn't think so. If he had remembered that, he wouldn't have bothered asking.
"How long would it take?"
"Two hours or so, total."
Her expression was closed off. Even her moon-gray eyes didn't give a hint as to her thoughts. Finally, she gave a little head-shake, causing her braid to bounce. "Yeah, okay."
It was obvious that she was doing him a favor, but Angel didn't much care. "I'll come back tomorrow with my stuff." Once he was done, he would leave her to her mourning.
"Are you sure you're comfortable?"
"Fine, Angel. Can we just get on with this?" She was sitting on the couch again, stiff-backed, hands primly in her lap. This wasn't what he had hoped for, but he didn't exactly have a claim here. He opened up his sketchpad and started to draw.
Thirty minutes later after countless false starts, he slammed his pad closed in disgust. Part of the fault was Buffy's. The ramrod posture, the little annoyed sighs, the way her eyes kept shifting in an effort to see the clock on the shelf. He wished she hadn't said yes when she so obviously didn't want to model for him.
Not that the artist was blameless. He should have been able to sit down, finish his sketch and leave. But instead of concentrating on the living, breathing Buffy in front of him, he kept relying on memory. And so the curve of her cheek was too round, her figure too youthful, there was no hardness in her eyes. He kept drawing a sixteen-year-old Buffy. The girl before he ruined her.
He swiped his hand over his face, trying and failing to excise the emptiness he felt.
"You have charcoal on your cheek." It was the first time he had seen her smile at all since he had knocked on her door. "You look tired. Do you want to finish tomorrow?"
Surprise widened his eyes and momentarily tripped his tongue. "Are you sure?" he finally managed.
She shrugged. "I can spare another two hours."
Leaving his hotel, Angel decided against going directly to Buffy's house. He felt unsettled, which meant sketching wouldn't come easily. Walking randomly, his long stride enabled him to cover a fair amount of distance in a short time. He wasn't looking for trouble, but when he stumbled upon a hulking demon with grayish, sagging skin and a lingering small of fresh blood clinging to it, he was only too happy to dispatch the monster with his sword. He lunged toward it, but the demon was much quicker than he anticipated. Snarling, he changed as he felt his right side being shredded. Darting away, he shifted to a two-handed grip on his broadsword, swinging the blade hard into the neck. A second later, he dropped to his knees, pain radiating through him as the now headless body dropped beside him.
Pushing back up, he wobbled dangerously for a moment and then started back. Instead of heading to his hotel, he turned to go to Buffy's. He didn't know her phone number and he was convinced that if he didn't show up, she would change her mind about letting him draw her. He had thought that he had finally moved past it all, but seeing her awakened emotions that he normally kept reined in. Obviously, she had made her choices and he didn't fault her, but he found himself needing this small tangible proof of her.
Thirty minutes later, he lurched through her front door.
"Angel?" Buffy's brows knitted together. "Is something wrong? You look ghost-pale instead of regular vampire-pale."
"Fine," he muttered. "Where do you want---", he stopped, suddenly hissing in pain. The room started to swirl around him in an interesting manner as if he was once more hanging onto his pet dragon and soaring through the air.
When he next opened his eyes, he was sitting on top of a close-lidded toilet. He flinched as the warm washcloth dabbed his ribs.
"Welcome back to the land of the unliving." Buffy was kneeling in front of him, his shirt and coat removed. "You," she said pointedly, "are not exactly easy to drag up a flight of stairs. I have new respect for the term 'dead weight'."
Her hands were so warm against his skin. He tried to recall the last time he had been touched. More than a decade ago.
"I left your coat and sword downstairs, but your shirt was a lost cause. Sorry. Knowing you, you probably have twenty more just like it."
He grunted noncommittally. Secretly, he breathed a sigh of relief. She obviously hadn't noticed the holes in his coat's lining, or the fact that the elbows were starting to wear through. The last thing he needed was her pity.
"I used to do this for Spike every once in a while. You would think that after a while, bar fights would lose that soaked in booze appeal."
He tried to shift away from her, but she was still stronger. "You don't need to bother with any of this. I'm going to heal the same, either way."
She pressed her lips into a disapproving line. "No way I'm going to let you bleed all over my furniture, so hold still."
He didn't bother pointing out that he didn't exactly bleed like a human and that his blood was thick and sluggish. Once she wiped off all the spatters and clots dotting his skin, the huge hole in his side would no longer pose a threat to her decor. What he really longed to do was beg her to stop because it brought to mind a long time ago when she had bandaged his wounds. Then she had done it because she loved him and wanted to ease his discomfort. Now it was because she didn't want him to leave a trail of blood. Knowing that hurt much more than the physical wounds.
"Were you happy?" he asked suddenly.
She pulled up short, her hands flying off his skin. He thought maybe she wouldn't answer, but instead, she shifted back on her heels, arms hanging limp at her sides and her eyes looking far away.
"Three years after the L A. disaster (He inwardly winced. Disaster was not nearly harsh enough.), there was a pounding on my door. I was in Scotland then, den mother to, in Xander's words, the girl power version of the Justice League." She sighed, gathering her thoughts. "It was Spike. It was the middle of the day and it was Spike."
"Did he ever tell you how he became human? After all, it's not every day something like that happens."
"He claimed it had to do with Mountain Dew. Typical Spike," she said, her expression soft. Her heart was beating too fast, and her eyes were squeezed tight. She was trying hard not to cry and Angel already had all the answers he wanted. Life, however, was rarely kind to him.
"It took him a year and a half to convince me to marry him. He was good at taking care of me." A small smile touched her lips. "He was even better at driving me crazy. He was a stubborn ass, never knew when to shut up. Pottery Barn should have sent us a thank you card because we were constantly replacing dishes." Her smile had broadened, the creases around her eyes crinkling.
She shifted forward again, silently bandaging Angel's side. Her hands were no longer warm.
Once she was done, Angel thanked her and left, explaining that he was too worn out to consider drawing.
"What have you been up to all these years?" Buffy asked.
Angel had been concentrating on getting the curve of Buffy's collarbone just right. She was still sitting at the end of the couch, but in a much more relaxed pose than the first time. He had decided to concentrate on the lines of her body first before tackling her face, but her sudden question had caused his pencil to slip. He frowned at the slash that now seemed to pierce her chest before he picked his head up to answer.
She rolled her eyes, a gesture so familiar that the years fell away. He quickly dropped his gaze. "I figured that part. I meant other stuff. Like for starters, where are you living?"
"Here and there."
"And everywhere," she teased.
"Pretty much." He carefully rubbed at his mistake using a kneaded eraser. "I think the longest I've stayed anyplace in the last fourteen years was two months."
"Oh" The humor fled from her voice. "I guess that's why Spike and I couldn't find you."
"Find me?" Angel again stopped what he was doing.
"We searched for you for a while."
Angel was grateful that he had practice in keeping his emotions at bay; and even more appreciative of the fact that his constant moving meant that they had never discovered him. He had a depressing vision of Spike gleefully smirking at him every time Buffy's back was turned.
He tried to find something to say to this revelation when he noticed Buffy barely suppressing a yawn. Saved by fatigue, he thought. "You're tired. Why don't I come back tomorrow?"
She happily accepted.
It had turned out that stopping the sketching session when he had, had accidentally worked out to his advantage. Buffy had asked him it was all right if they just started over so she could begin in a more comfortable position.
Which was why she now had her head leaning on the sofa arm, a small pillow propped underneath, her hair loose about her shoulders. Her body was stretched out across the cushions, her legs curled up a bit. She was beautiful like this, her neck arched, her breasts full, and her curves tempting. He was doing some preliminary sketches, warm-ups really, long sweeping strokes that more invoked her current relaxed pose rather than being an actual portrait. He had just flipped to a new page when the phone rang.
Buffy bounced up off the couch and raced upstairs. Moments after saying hello, he heard the bedroom door click closed. Obviously, she was going to be a while, so Angel stood up and wandered around the living room.
There were photos scattered on every available surface. He recognized Willow, Xander, Dawn and Giles, but seeing them made him aware of just how far away the past was. Most of them he hadn't seen in close to twenty-five years. There were pictures of multiple girls that he didn't recognize – various slayers, he assumed.
The vast majority of frames, however, contained pictures of Buffy and Spike. Their wedding photo, Buffy luminous and Spike with a look of awe; posed pictures, pictures with friends, candid shots.
Spike had gone back to the dirty blonde curls he had been born with. That, in and of itself, wasn't what affected Angel so strongly. It wasn't even the obvious fact that Spike had aged in the photos Angel carefully examined. It was the way Spike's face had changed, reflecting a life fully lived, sorrows and joys both leaving a mark. Nothing ever made a lasting scar on Angel's skin, no matter that he wished otherwise.
Twenty-five years was nothing to someone like him. It was more than a quarter of a lifespan of humans. In that moment, Angel was reminded just how removed from the world he was. Buffy suddenly laughed, her voice a balm that he wasn't allowed to indulge in. He spun on his heel and headed out the door.
Over the past years, Angel had discovered that no matter where you were, things lurked in the shadows. It had turned out to be no less true in this area. As a result, he had spent the last two nights hunting and had dispatched more than his fair share of monsters
Now, it was 4 p. m. and Angel was trapped in his crummy hotel room. He was fairly sure it was clean, but that was all that could be said for it. He was suddenly too restless to sleep and had run out of reading material. At least he had come to a decision. As soon as the sun set, he was leaving.
It wouldn't take him long to pack, he was down to three shirts and one spare pair of pants. Most of his weapons were already packed, his broadsword and battle axe just needed to be loaded into the car. He regretted that his charcoals were still at Buffy's. It would be quite a while before he could afford to purchase more.
The phone rang and fear coiled and sprang, a cobra striking. He had only one thing left to lose now.
"Connor? Is everything OK?"
"Buffy?" His relief was immediate but short-lived. "How did you get this number?" Never mind that Connor hadn't had the number either. Panic was always lying just under his skin.
"Willow. Locator spell. When you didn't show up yesterday or the day before, I got a little nervous. I know it's not like you're not 'now you see him, now you don't' guy but you used to only disappear for a day or two." Buffy's tone was light but Angel could hear the thin edge of accusation underneath. "But you're coming tonight, right, to finish?"
He told himself it wasn't guilt that made him acquiesce.
"So, the couch again?"
"I looked through your pad yesterday."
Angel knew that tone. Not apologetic. Predatory, more than anything else. He mentally flipped through his sketches. Aside from the failed drawings of her, they consisted of landscapes and still lifes. Connor refused to sit still for a portrait during the two or three times yearly they got together. He had long ago stopped drawing his L.A. family; it just hurt too much. Obviously Buffy had seen something that bothered her, but he honestly couldn't guess what.
"We need to talk." She was on the couch, elbows on her knees, head cradled by her small, strong hands. Her eyes were fixed on his. "Do you remember before we started dating?" She was staring at him, her face impassive. "Of course you do," she murmured.
"I didn't even think you liked me. It didn't occur to me that 'demon on the rampage in Sunnyrest' was the Angel version of flirting." She shifted suddenly, swinging her legs up onto to the couch so that they stretched out sideways, her head leaning against the arm. Her eyes, though, belied her casual pose.
"I loved Spike. I still love him."
"Buffy, please." His eyes slammed shut, as if not seeing meant not hearing as well.
"For almost twenty-two years, you disappeared. That's half my life, Angel." Her voice had become a harsh rasp. "Spike knew me. There are pieces of me that belong to him that no one else will ever have. But..." Her voice unexpectedly softened.
"There are parts of me he never knew because I gave those away to someone else a long time ago."
Angel opened his eyes. He wasn't sure what she was getting at.
"Most of me though doesn't belong to anyone." She picked up the drawing pad and opened it to one of the pages containing the pencil sketches he had done of her. "These are pretty crappy. This could be Megan Fox, instead of me. OK, bustier and you probably don't even know who she is, but you get my point."
Angel bristled briefly at having his work criticized, but immediately deflated at the truth of her words. "I'm out of practice."
"It's not practice, Angel. You know why you can't draw me? Because you don't know all of those new pieces of me."
She leaned forward then, her eyes a blue green sea of possibility. Angel could drown in those eyes.
"So the question is, what do you want, Angel?"
He still wanted all those things that he couldn't have. That he would never have. But maybe there were things he could have, if he was brave enough.
"I want to draw you," he stated with conviction.
Buffy smiled, and it was like the sun.