Forgiveness came hard, but it wasn't necessarily impossible. Being able to move past the consequences of the transgression, however, was a different matter. The restored Angel was truly not guilty of the sins committed by the pitiless demon who had gleefully preyed during the absence of the restraining soul … but the effect of those sins, the memory of sadistic gibes delivered by that voice, coming from that face, was too much to overcome.
Too much. No matter how deeply both of them might wish otherwise.
Even with forgiveness, there could be no return to what had been. Reliance, trust, shared battles — and a dance at the prom, holding one another close, surrendering to moment and memory and yearning while poignant music swirled around them — these were possible, but not any semblance of belief in a shared future. Not that, not ever again.
Still, it was something. And it was needed, in the battle ahead.
They met it, all of them together. Not without cost: Faith, gutted and left comatose in Buffy's attempt at supplying the stricken Angel with the only known cure (because, regardless of old injuries, the Slayer would do whatever she could for the sake of those she loved); Larry, Harmony, so many other comrades — and Snyder — dead in the brutal melee of the Ascension; the breaking of all ties with the Council of Watchers; even Anya's angry, acrimonious desertion. But meet it they did, and in the end they prevailed.
That still left the aftermath.
~ – ~ – ~
Cinders and flakes of ash still fell from the darkened sky. (The eclipse had faded after the thwarted Ascension, but premature nightfall had taken its place. Apparently, these things took time to sort themselves out.) Some of them still had ringing in their ears, from the climactic explosion, and it could only be hoped that this, too, would eventually dissipate. For an unmeasured time after the Mayor-demon's obliteration, they had all been occupied in seeking and succoring survivors, helping to coordinate the rescue effort, and finally avoiding the attention of those police who had at last arrived. Once having done all that could be done, they had eventually found one another for what — they were well aware — would probably be their last shared memory here in the place that had been the site of so many.
"We got off pretty cheap," Xander observed, it would seem to all of them in general and no one in particular. "You know, considering."
Considering how bad it might have been. Right. Still, it had been bad enough. "Seems like we did," Buffy agreed, with a kind of distant numbness.
Fired by the Council or not, Giles was and always would be Buffy's Watcher. "Are you all right?" he asked, with restrained but instant concern.
"I'm tired," Buffy admitted. More to it than that, so much more, but the words would have to do for now.
"I should imagine so." Giles smiled at her, rueful, relieved. "It's been quite a couple of days."
With all the unreality trying to crowd its way into her head, Buffy still found herself noticing details in those around her. There was a mottling bruise on Cordelia's bare arm, obvious finger marks where someone (something, more likely) had grabbed her. A spatter of blood showed on Oz's cheek and shoulder: no visible wound, so not his own blood. Willow, grinning giddily in post-survival exhilaration, had a torn sleeve and three broken fingernails on her left hand. Xander …
"Angel made it through the fight," Buffy said quietly to Xander. His head whipped around, his eyes meeting hers, and she went on, "I saw … while we were helping the others … standing there, watching us …" She shook her head, struggling to form a coherent sentence. "I mean, I know what you told me, how Angel would be leaving once it was all over …" She ground to a halt. "I guess … I guess a big goodbye was just too painful. But I wanted you to know: Angel made it through."
Xander nodded, quick and choppy. "Thanks," he said to her.
The exchange had taken place in murmurs, a moment private if not precisely secret, and perhaps Giles's hearing hadn't fully recovered from the library demolition, because he was still going on as if unaware of their words to one another. "— certain dramatic irony that's attached to all this. A synchronicity that, that almost borders on predestination …"
"My brain isn't really functioning on the higher levels," Buffy said to him. She sighed deeply. "Right now, it's pretty much 'fire bad, tree pretty'."
Giles shook his head. "Yes. Of course. Sorry." He had been cleaning his glasses (naturally), and now he put them back on. "I suppose I should go check on Wesley. I don't believe he was too badly injured, but —" He wandered toward where rotating lights indicated fire trucks and paramedics.
Buffy's eyes followed him dully … then came into sharp, abrupt focus. Angel was standing by one of the emergency vehicles, shrouded in wisps of smoke and backlit by strobing lights, those piercing eyes locked on … Buffy glanced to her side, saw that Xander had seen, was returning that fixed stare. Then a shift of breeze pulled a deeper curtain of smoke over the spot where Angel stood, and when it cleared the space was empty.
She looked again to Xander. His shoulders had slumped slightly, in relief or resignation or perhaps some emotion she couldn't guess, but his face showed nothing. Her heart twisted suddenly in the awareness of all they had suffered, all they had lost, all the possibilities that had never come to pass, and for a moment she started to reach out to him … but then she let her hand fall, and kept her own face clear of betraying emotion. Some things were simply better left unsaid. Maybe forever.
"You know," she noted matter-of-factly, "if someone could just wake me when it's time to go to college …?"
"Right there with ya," Oz agreed.
A chapter in their lives had ended, and somehow they had survived the process. It only remained to see what would come next.
She didn't know what that might be. She did know it would be different.
With Angel gone — finally — it would have to be.
~ – ~ – ~
Originally it had been a whim, no more than that. Liam was always full of whims, even in his breathing days, and his rising as undead had found him with just as much appetite and (he thought) a grander imagination. This one could just as easily have gone another way, and almost did: simply kill his once-beloved sister, instead of turning her; leave her discarded by the door while he put all his focus into vengeance on the despised father.
It almost went that way … but it didn't. Darla hadn't actually taught him how to sire another, but he remembered how it had been done to him, and he took the extra few minutes to still her heart slowly, feeding her his blood in those last moments of life. After that, it was just a matter of carrying her back to his 'lodgings' and waiting to see what she would be like in her new awakening.
When her eyes opened after the requisite three nights, he was waiting, watching … and after a moment of surprise, she smiled at him in recognition and understanding. "And I called you an angel," she said in amusement. "Oh, Liam, you naughty boy!"
"No angels here," he answered cheerfully. "Darla's been in a pique since I brought you back, but she'll come around in time. Let's go out walking, sweet Kathy: I've an entirely new world to show you."
She rose obediently, but with a frown. "Kathy is a wee girl's name," she told him. "I'm thinking it doesn't really suit me now."
"You can choose another, then," Liam said expansively. "You'll find we've no limits on us here."
"A new name." The smile returned. "Ah, and I know just the one."
Another whim. And, like so many others, it carried unexpected consequences.
Liam was wrong about Darla coming around; she'd created her new toy to play with, not share, not just yet. Despite her age and power and craftiness, she underestimated what she had made (and what he had made in his turn), and in her exasperation she unwisely attempted imperious command before she had secured adequate control and allegiance. Another of Liam's impulses, and his sire was startled dust dissolving around the stakes her two rebellious get had thrust into her.
Such a waste, Liam had mused. So exciting, so glorious … but something of a shrew, and it just wouldn't do to be letting a woman order him about. Besides, there was more than enough pleasure to be had with his newer companion.
They made a sensation wherever they went. His sister had been nearly fifteen at her death, though looking younger, but this was an era when it was still not uncommon for a female to be married already at that age, and she learned with dress and cosmetics and the proper air of assurance to come across as older. Still, she would always seem, at best, a child bride (if anything so respectable), and they played to the responses of the society around them with the same vast amusement they drew from everything else in their new existence.
And, oh, the century-and-some they shared …
Drusilla was a mutual project. William, originally an indulgence they allowed Drusilla … and, even as he remade himself into something tougher, more fierce, more rough-and-tumble, they kept him at heel, taking turns forcing him to acknowledge their vicious mastery. With and without those two, Liam and his dreadful sister cut a swath through nations and principalities, decaying empires and robust thriving colonies. Scandalous, murderous, terrible and pitiless and hedonistic.
Then the Kalderash curse, and everything changed.
Instant, disgusted rejection by her brother, and self-exile. Decades of a squalid, desperate existence, not ready to die but incapable of facing life. Degradation willingly accepted but bringing no expiation for sins keenly remembered and (horribly) still dimly relished. Finally, recruitment by the ever-annoying Whistler, and arrival in Sunnydale to aid the newest Slayer in her still-developing destiny. A tentative beginning made, stretched out over cautious weeks, suddenly devolving into disaster (Buffy finding her supposed 'ally' standing over her bleeding mother, a hasty escape, the confrontation at the Bronze wherein a jealous, death-bent Liam was finally dispatched by his sister-lover-childe), and at last gradually firming into an active and worthwhile partnership.
And then Xander. Oh, Xander.
Belief. Trust. Love. Happiness.
Blithe, triumphant return to Spike and Drusilla, to the freedom of conscienceless evil. Lengthy, inventive torment of the one who had so unwisely and disastrously loved her. The re-imposition of mastery upon two who had spent most of a century ruling themselves … and the unexpected result, when Drusilla (driven by nobody knew what set of mad visions) treacherously made an alliance with the Slayer, attacked Spike and her own sire at the moment Acathla's revivification began, then roared away in the DeSoto with her comatose lover while the Slayer and their sire fought to the death.
Hell. Unmeasured eons of suffering in Hell.
Then expulsion from Hell, and weeks of recovery while instinctively avoiding the man she had so unforgivably betrayed. (Who, she learned only much later, had spent his own time in limbo, throwing himself into the fight against vampires alongside a street-gang in Los Angeles.) Unanticipated and incomprehensible aid from the Slayer, accepted if never understood. Being able to contribute, finally, in the showdown against the Sisterhood of Jhe, and the slow return to something like acceptance, in something like a meaningful existence.
Learning of Xander's coupling with Faith, and carefully remaining distant from it in spite of distinct reservations. (He deserved something better than herself … but, come to that, better than Faith as well.) Intervening only when the dark Slayer visibly began going off the rails, and that intervention — except they didn't know it then — leading to the troubled girl's final self-commitment to darkness.
Preparation to face the Ascension. Working side-by-side with someone whose eyes she couldn't meet, but doing what needed to be done. Being struck down, and then fed Faith's blood (barely enough, even in extremity the reformed vampire had been able to force herself not to drain the outlaw Slayer entirely) to effect an undeserved cure. The final battle … and, long known to be coming and at last arrived, the final departure.
A different life. A different mission. A different chance, perhaps, for unmerited redemption.
In the City of Angels.
~ – ~ – ~
In the lobby of the Hyperion Hotel, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce paced unhurriedly, one finger tracing a line of text in an ancient volume. There were hints of something that might pertain to the shanshu prophesied for the leader of Angel Investigations, and as their primary researcher it was Wesley's responsibility to stay informed of such things. Of course, at the moment that leader was off seeking enlightenment (or some similar nonsense) from someone called the T'ish Magev … but once that was done, Wesley would be ready with such answer as was available —
A muscular hand seized his neck from behind, and he was cranked into an immobilizing hold before he could think to respond. Sour breath filled his nostrils, and in a rough voice his unseen captor demanded, "Where's Angel?"
Wesley ceased his struggle; he could feel the strength of the other man, knew it was too much for him to overcome in this helpless position. "Sh–… hkk— not here," Wesley gasped through a constricted windpipe.
"You're lying," the other man said, and increased the pressure against Wesley's throat. "Give me Angel."
"I … I can't …" Blackness began to edge Wesley's vision, that iron grip was cutting off the blood flow to his brain. "Please … please, let go —!"
The pressure vanished, and Wesley staggered at the sudden influx of oxygenated blood. When he looked up, however, the other man — a gangster of some type — was leveling a pistol at him. "My boss needs your boss," the man said, "which means I can't go back by myself. So you are gonna get Angel for me, right now, or I'm gonna blow your head off."
"No!" Wesley stammered. "I-I-I can't, Angel isn't here —"
The other man shook his head, drew back the pistol's hammer. "Too bad," he said, without resentment but with clear lethal intent.
"Wait," Wesley protested. "Wait, listen, I … I …" He could see motion behind the gangster, this might be rescue, he had to keep the fellow's attention on him. "Please, wait."
"Nothin' personal," the man said. "But I gotta be able to say I gave this a serious effort, so …"
A new, hard voice broke the tableau: "I'm Angel." The other man instantly stepped back, making enough distance to keep Wesley in his side-vision while he turned to face the newcomer. "I understand you're looking for me?"
Oh, dear Lord. Cordelia, wearing the long black coat Angel had left hanging in the office. Her hair was bound back from the high-cheekboned face, her expression haughty and imperious … but anyone who had ever seen the actual Angel would know instantly that this was a different woman.
The intruder tilted his head appraisingly. "You're taller than I heard," he observed.
"Heels, dummy." Cordelia strode forward, the acting ability that always deserted her on stage flowing out of her now in almost visible waves of power. "You say your boss has business with me? Let's get to it."
Wesley thought to protest, but in truth there was nothing he could do here. He would have gladly traded places with Cordelia; however, too many people knew the basic facts about the leader of Angel Investigations … and even if they hadn't, nobody would actually believe 'Angel' was a man's name.
Not in this universe.
Special acknowledgment: Almost all of the dialogue in this story was taken direct from canon episodes, and then adjusted (sometimes slightly, sometimes substantially) to show the effects of a diverging timeline. The episodes from which dialogue was extracted were "Angel", "School Hard", "Killed by Death", "Revelations", "Consequences", "Graduation, Part 2" (all Buffy), and "Guise Will Be Guise" (Angel). All credit is due to the talented writers of the two series.