Angel shrank away, leaning against the wall as if he was afraid of an ambush from behind. "Buffy---"
She was beyond speech, staring at him, and he knew enough to realize that it was going to be unpleasant when she remembered how to talk again. "It's just that...." He gritted his teeth. "There was so much stuff going on, all last year. It didn't happen over night. It all just crept up on me, and---and---I couldn't talk about it."
Buffy stared up at him, her eyes huge. Not going to say anything, she thought. Mom died; you came for the funeral and that was it. Was that when you disappeared? After Mom died? Oh, God, she had lived on the memory his visit for months, using it to console herself, using it to keep her spirits up, what with Riley gone.... But somehow, she hadn't called him. It had been so hectic all that year, with Dawn, and Mom, ---oh, and Spike, always around, always complicating things....She turned and looked at Spike, her expression unreadable.
"Angel," Wes said reproachfully. "Why did you think that?" Angel shook his head impatiently, and Wes did the same. "We were...always there."
"It's so easy for you to talk, Wes." He said quietly. "It's never been easy for me. Never. Who should I talk to? Who could possibly understand? I mean, is there a—a---group for vampires with souls? I mean, maybe if there were, I could..." Wes sighed, very softly, flinching away from meeting Angel's eyes. "What would I tell you? I know!" He looked around fiercely. "Yeah, I can put this all into words. Really. Because it wouldn't any of you uncomfortable at all."
Angel cleared his throat nervously, and looked around. Wes cleared his throat as well, and visibly looked for tact, still not meeting the vampire's eyes. "Angel....We were all your friends. No matter what."
"Yeah, in that uneasy we're-friends-with-a-vampire-who-might-go-evil soon way. It's so relaxing."
Wes shook his head again, disbelief coloring his face with wonder. "Is that what you think? Why would you think that?"
"Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me everything is fine. Tell me you totally trust me now, and there's no reason to be suspicious. I mean, aside from the fact that I fired all of you guys and...."
Everyone in the room looked up at Angel at the same moment. "Maybe they disapproved of you and Darla." Spike said tightly. He caught Buffy's twitch out of the corner of his eye, but decided not to distract himself with it. "A good influence there, mate. Maybe that was it."
Angel ripped around with a snarl, but Spike surprised him by meeting him halfway. "Chip doesn't work on vampires." He said. "What does it say on your warranty?"
"I should have staked you when I had the chance."
"Your idea of a chance is when you've got the good odds, you wanker." Spike slouched away and leaned against the wall next to Buffy. "Don't have them now, do you?"
Angel looked around and wound up looking at Wes. Wes stared back, trying to look encouraging. "You know," Angel said desperately. "I came here to try and help."
"Christ." Spike said. "You came here because you're pissed that Buffy---"
Angel snarled at him again, and Spike grinned, straightening up lazily and showing every tooth he had. "Why does it matter so much to you, anyway? You haven't been keepin' anybody here on the Christmas card list, even though it might have done some real good for some people. Would have been nice, you know." Once again, he eased forward, as if the floor was mined, and he was afraid of hitting something that could explode. "Suppose you were too busy fighting the good fight, weren't you? Helping the helpless and all?"
"Well, yeah, I guess the person I want to discuss morals with would be you, wouldn't it, William." Angel spat out. "Because a couple of years makes you think you're a man, is that it?"
"No," Spike said quietly, so that only Angel could hear. "She does."
"So, uh, Angel," Xander said. "You adopted a kid?" He looked around, seeking support. "I mean, uh, why? What's the big deal?" He shrugged, embarrassed to be the focus of so many eyes. "The kid's human, right? So Spike can't hurt him, if that' s what you're worried about. Besides, I don't think Spike would want to, anyway. That was not a nice thing," he assured Spike, as Spike's expression gradually moved from puzzlement to full-out exasperation. "It's just an observation. Kids aren't fun to hurt, are they? So Spike wouldn't...uh...." It occurred to him that Buffy, who had been in some kind of private reverie, had abruptly snapped out of it and was staring at him."....wouldn't, uh, hurt them."
"No, they're easy." Anya observed matter-of-factly. "But no one's tried it with Britney Spears yet." She deflated with disappointment.
"Uh, hey!" Hallie waved one hand delicately. "Justice Demon, here. Child abuse is not funny."
"Unless it's Mary Kate and--" Xander said. He suddenly found himself the focus of the sort of stares he thought he'd left behind in high school. "Oh, hell, never mind. But I wasn't wrong, was I?"
"No, you're not." Spike said reluctantly. "If I wanted to hurt Angel, I could, and why go through the brat? I know the bloke's got pretensions, but not even a vampire with his taste in clothes is going to get so deluded he thinks he can fool people into believing the kid's really his. 'f the kid was his, I could understand him feelin' that nervous about it, I really can. But it's not something you'd have to worry about, would you then? I'm kind of flattered you'd think so, but really, mate, there's lots of people should be higher up on the list than me." It gradually dawned on him that his little speech had not sounded quite as anti-something or other as it should have, and he glanced around to assess the reaction. Everyone looked rather blank. He shrugged. "Like I said, you'd only have to worry if it was your kid. Then I expect you'd have to give out numbers..." Buffy was eyeing him with an unreadable expression that he was afraid would turn out to mean: You're sleeping on the couch. There were far too many people looking at him. "Besides, how stupid do you have to be to figure out that two vampires can't..."? Behind him, Buffy gave a little gasp, and straightened up abruptly from leaning against the wall.
"Imperfect happiness." She stared at Angel, dazed, before turning to look at Spike. "What did you say?"
"About what? Oh." He tried to remember what Dru had said. "Him and Darla."
For the second time, Buffy was beyond speech. Her mouth dropped open as she stared at Angel, and it was like she was looking at him for the first time. She remembered, uneasily, having the same feeling about Spike, some time after he'd defied Glory, and it was the same sensation, but not in a good way. It was like her skin was electrified by his presence, but with Spike it was a good feeling. Now? She had goose bumps as her nerve endings realized things before her brain processed them. "Darla? Darla? Not that Darla, right? She's dead. She's...tacky. She's....She's....I saw you stake her."
"There were some people that brought her back." Angel said quietly. "As a human."
Buffy gulped for air, then steadied herself. "Oh, and do you think you could have told me? I mean, how many times did she try to kill me? And how many times did she try to kill me before you finally killed her? Might have been nice to know somebody else who wanted to kill me was back. I mean, I like to keep a list. Even if she's human, she could still, like, get a gun and make me follow her fashion advice. What else is there? I mean, you didn't mention her, what else did you ...miss?"
" Well...." Angel took a deep breath. "She's not...she wasn't...human long. She, um....Well...when she was turned, originally, she was ill with syphilis. When they brought her back, she still had it. It was killing her." His voice was a monotone, colorless and practically without inflection.
"Did it?" Buffy snapped.
"Did it what?"
"Did it kill her?"
"No." Angel took a deep breath again. "So they found Dru and Dru turned her back."
Everyone stared at him. "So, yes, that was my stressful year." He said bitterly. He shot a look at Buffy.
Spike grinned at him. "Why stop there, mate? Isn't there more?"
Angel looked from Buffy's face to Spike's, and had to look away. "I didn't come back after you died, because I've already lost you so many times already. I've lost count. Everybody's gone. Everybody. I outlived them all, and with you...it was three times, over and over again. It never gets easier to watch, Buffy. Knowing I can't do anything, can't stop you from doing the things that will get you killed?" He rounded bitterly on Spike. "Darla was somebody I thought wouldn't die, but she did. I was just so happy to have her back." The two vampires stared at one another. "See how you like it, when you have to live without somebody, when you have to watch them die."
Spike glared back. "I already have," he icily. "Oh, that's right, you weren't here to see it. Guess you were suffering, though---when there were witnesses." Angel looked away, from both Buffy and Spike, but Buffy never looked away. Everyone else was staring uncomfortably elsewhere, but Buffy could not take her eyes off his face. Well, there's another uncomfortable silence, she thought.
"Come on," she said suddenly. She reached out and grabbed his hand, and although a muscle in Spike's jaw tightened, he stepped back. She yanked Angel with her out the front door, leaving Spike staring at the front door as it slammed behind them.
Buffy leaned against the railing and looked up at Angel, who leaned against the front door and gave no indication of going any further onto the porch. He doesn't even want to get close to me, she thought. "All right. You had a bad year, and I had an...awful year. We could have helped each other, but we didn't." She was startled, then, by the tears that flooded her eyes. Thought they were all gone, she thought. Hoped I'd used them all up.
Angel swallowed. "I thought you had Riley."
"Yeah, so did I."
"What happened there?"
"Well, the Slayer thing was...too much for him. He didn't feel like I needed him. And you were a factor."
"I—was? I was?"
"You sure don't sound upset."
"I didn't like him."
"I'm trying to be mature here."
"Then why Spike? Why? Why him?"
Why Spike what? She thought, but that was just an automatic response. "How do I answer that, when I don't even know what it is myself?" He's different from you, she thought. Is that it? I always know what he's thinking, whether I want to or not. He sure doesn't agree with me, but he never goes and does shit for my own good---unless I'm dead at the time. She looked at him closely as another thought occurred to her. Yeah, when he does stuff for my own good...it is for my own good. He sure didn't tell me about watching Dawn and fighting with the gang. The first thing he did tell me was how he'd screwed up trying to save Dawn. How come you weren't helping? How come I can't even say this stuff? Something in her balked at justifying Spike to Angel, trying to describe the formless intimacy they had, the way he seemed to understand her in ways she didn't even understand herself, irritating thought it was. And I'm not explaining Spike to Angel when he's not exactly gushing out his Darla explanation and all, came a resentful thought. Especially then. Especially then. "I can't lie to him," she said quietly. "He won't let me. So maybe it just gets harder and harder to lie to...myself... and to other people. Like...No matter how painful it gets. Angel, Angel, you...you...get so uncomfortable with stuff that you take off. You don't finish stuff. " Of course, Spike never lets stuff go, she thought, so talk about reacting to that tendency by going off and picking the opposite extreme. "You just leave. Maybe it's not...like, you leave the vicinity, you know, but you just sort of take yourself out. Away. You just escape. You should have called me."
"And told you what? 'Oh, hi, sorry to interrupt you with something else you need to worry about, along with Joyce dying, and a God being in town....but guess what? I've finally reached the end of my two-hundred-year-old tether, and I'm about to explode.' " There was a great deal of desperation in his eyes when he looked back at her. "Maybe I'll go evil again. That's just what everyone is waiting for, anyway. Why don't I just shorten the wait?"
"No, you wouldn't." Buffy said quietly, certain. She was startled when he laughed bitterly.
"You're so sure, aren't you? Which is nice, because I'm not. I'm not at all." He cocked his head at her, a gesture eerily reminiscent of Spike's, except on him it was not quizzical, it was almost threatening. The hairs on the back of her neck were standing up. Am I afraid of him? "Why are you so certain I won't go bad?" He asked quietly.
"Well, uh, you're good..." He stared into her eyes, and she flushed. "Well, then there's the other thing..."
"The other thing?" He stepped forward and grabbed her by the upper arms. "The other thing? Oh, the other thing?! This thing?" And with that, he kissed her, hard. Almost before it started, it was gone. He was back, rigid against the door, hands jammed in coat pockets. "That thing? That thing that makes me go all evil? That thing that you don't have to worry about with Spike? Tell me, Buffy, have you told your friends about Spike? All of them? Sat them down and told them all the details? Called Giles?"
She lifted one hand and slowly brushed it across her lips. He really did that, he really just did it like that. All the times he kissed me, and he did it like that....
"Why should I? You haven't told me about Darla." She squared her shoulders. "I will if you will." He'll never go for it.
"Great. Just great."
"You said it, yourself."
"Okay, then. Here goes. Truth or dare." He licked his lips. "I didn't adopt Connor."
"O...kay." Buffy deflated slightly, having been waiting for something...significant.
"Mine. Mine and Darla's."
Buffy didn't even try to conceal her amazement. "Yours. And Darla's. Yours. Yours? Yours and Darla's?" Okay, this is significant.
He shrugged, almost modestly. "Some sort of prophecy." She tried to decide how much of it was masculine pride at fatherhood, and how much of it was the experienced humility of someone long accustomed to being special.
"Two vampires...have a baby Two vampires and a baby. It sounds like a sitcom." She kept shaking her head. Guess I better start using birth control after all. Between headshakes, she stared up at him. "You have a baby...You have a baby!...with a vampire!....and you're still angry about me and Spike?"
He had been jittery with tension, but now it abruptly drained away, leaving him slumped against the door. "Darla was....someone familiar to me. Someone safe. I thought. Someone who could live forever, and not.... You're not safe for me, or anyone else. And Darla...she couldn't...give birth. Not normal. She killed herself for him. So he could live. And you know what?" He blinked at the floor of the porch. "I never thought I could be a father...but...I wished....I wished..." He swallowed tightly. " I was so isolated. I was so lonely. I should be grateful just for this, but you...I wished it was you."
Is this what it feels like when people betray you? All the little ones and now this? She thought. She couldn't even form complete thoughts. Darla? Darla and him? Darla? She tried to kill me. So did Spike, but that's different. She tried to kill me. He didn't even think of that, did he? Someone familiar? In the sense that you romped across Europe, killing people for hundreds of years, and that she kept trying to lure you back? But what....You got lonely? Lonely? Why on earth wouldn't I want to know? Lonely? You were lonely?! I got lonely! Read a book! She shook her head at him, almost more disappointed than angry. You let it get bad, she thought, so you have an excuse to explode. There's always an excuse. Leaving? You had an excuse, but I didn't want you to. But there was an excuse.
She saw Spike's face as he first realized it was her, back from the grave. What would Angel have done? And why wasn't he there? Realization hit her. He was busy with other things. Well, if those things were so important, more important than her, then she wasn't significant enough to be this angry over, either. Darla. She shook her head again, almost amused, in a ghastly I-won't-be-bitter way.
She stared up at him, eyes wide and stunned. "It was Darla. Wonderful...but.... Darla? And, oh, what, the fact that she tried to kill me over and over just didn't seem to be a big thing when you were lonely?"
"Spike tried to kill me, too, you know."
"Yeah, but you're a vampire, Angel. I'm human. Darla could do stuff to me that Spike couldn't do to you." Like choose my outfits, she thought. God, do not laugh. I must not laugh. .
"I shouldn't have told you."
"No, you should have told me a LONG TIME AGO! Do you think I'd be this pissed off if I'd heard this a bit at a time, instead of all at once? Darla!" She paced away from him now, waving her hands in the air, not even aware of having moved. "But if you had, you wouldn't have felt lonely enough or whatever enough to give you an excuse to go---do that! If you had called me, I could have come down and we could have talked, instead of you just getting worse and worse...and doing what you wanted. You wanted to, I know it. I would have," she added forlornly. "If you needed me, I would have come right away."
"Yeah, look what happened last time."
"I'm sorry Spike followed Oz that time, but don't even try to tell me you're pissed about me giving you the Gem of---What?" He glanced away, avoiding her eyes, and she stepped back into his line of vision. "What? What can you possibly find wrong with that?"
"There was the other thing."
"What other---oh, that." Thanksgiving. "You know, you were the one sneaking around then, why couldn't you have just told me, okay? It was too painful for you, but I would have liked to see you. I had to go all the way to LA to see you. You think I came just to chew you out? I just.." She spread her hands out in appeal. "I just wanted to see you again. That's all. You didn't seem too happy about seeing me, though."
He swallowed and looked down.
"Angel, maybe the reason it's so painful is because you just never deal with it. You know, you came up here, and you snuck around, but we could have just talked. It just gets bigger and bigger, and then, boom! I mean, I'm not Chatty Cathy, but...." She rolled her eyes at the heavens, as if appealing for divine intervention, but the effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact they were on the porch, and she was looking at the porch light.
Angel looked down at the floorboards. "Buffy, I don't want to deal with it, okay? You do, but I don't. There's too much. People use it against me. I have a lot more to deal with, you know? And I dealt with it badly, I know that..."
Maybe they should use it against you, she thought. No. I didn't just think that, didn't happen. Did not do that. Did not think that.
"You have to deal with it!" She exclaimed. "You have to! You can't just sulk, you have to get up and deal with it. If you don't deal with it, then I have to, and everybody else has to. It's hard enough for me now, Angel. I mean, I'll help you, but I have to know it's coming. It's not easy for me, either. All I need is some..preparation. You see what I mean. Spread it out or something. You can't just spring it on me." She stared furiously at her toes for a minute. "How old is Connor?"
Her lips tightened, and she whirled around and faced the street.
Behind her, he stared at her back, more confused than he'd ever been in two and a half centuries. That's why nobody wants to be good, he thought. You have to think all the time. All you have to do when you're evil is not think.
She turned back and looked at him. "You're really pissed off at me, aren't you?"
"What? About Spike..." He flinched from her glare, studying his shoes. "About that, yes."
"Well, do I have to start the whole thing about Darla, then? But anyway, why are you so pissed? I was asking you that before, and you never told me."
"Yeah, you are."
"No, I'm not, except for Spike."
"Well, I'm pissed about Darla." She said quietly. "So we're even." He finally lifted his eyes. "I'm probably never going to have a baby, you know that, right?"
"I'm a Slayer, Angel, not a superhero. Not a vampire with a soul. Us Slayers, we're expendable. I'm not special. I'm...just temporary. There's no significance to me, except maybe in the footnotes. When I die permanently, somebody will take my place. You can live forever, but I can't. I could get pregnant, but a pregnant Slayer? It could get me killed. How would I even know I'd live long enough to even have the baby? So, no, no babies for me. No future, either, really. All I have is now. You have forever." She glared at him again. "So I don't have time to waste with people who won't try. So try, Angel. Because this is the last chance you'll get."
Crickets chirped in the yard. From a distance, they could hear the sound of a fire engine. The leaves rustled in the trees.
He spread his hands helplessly.
"That's not trying."
He sighed and looked up the same way she had. A car drove by on the street. "It's just..."
"It's just that...I would like it if I didn't still love you." He said quietly. "It would be so nice if I didn't feel this way. I'm not...a good person. Not good enough to be good, even when I try as hard as I can. But I'm really good at being bad. Everything I do... I was a rotten human being, too." She was frowning at him, he saw, and he rushed on ahead.
"When you and I were together..." He swallowed and looked away. She saw that, and that hurt her. Look at me, she thought. Show me what it is that you feel. Why are you hiding this from me?
"When you and I were together....I felt good. I felt like I understood why people want to be good, not because they get credit for it, but because it makes it easier for somebody they love. I felt human. I felt like...I didn't have to be perfect. I remember everything." He said softly. "Everything about you...Everything I can't be around anymore, because it hurts to be near you and know what the consequences are. All I want to do now is forget. I don't want to remember you, Buffy, but I do. Every day I do. I used Darla. I know that. And maybe I used you, too. But I used you to make me happy. You made me happy for a while. I've never felt that way before. I don't think I will again. That's why I don't want to remember. That's why I wasn't here. Being with you made me better, but....being away from you makes me.....I..." He shrugged uncomfortably. "Maybe I'm mad you're happy without me. It's just that...Darla was all there is for me. I can't be around you, Buffy. We shouldn't have gotten involved. I should have...You made me want all the things I can't have. I didn't even imagine them before you. Now I do. Every day. And they're not possible, because I know what could happen. That's all there is to it."
She tried to forget what it felt like to be dead, but she did remember effortlessly the first shocking moment back, the first breath drawn, the first glimpse of light. She remembered her first kiss, and her first love. Despite everything, she couldn't find it in her heart to regret loving him, because how could she have known what would happen? And now...Oh, God, this is over, she thought. It's all changed for me, he changed it. I can't go back.
"Are you...sorry?" She whispered. "Are you sorry we...?"
Angel looked into her eyes, finally. She tried to see what he was thinking, something she always thought she could do. "Buffy...." He said. "I can't be around you. You make me...think all kinds of things. I remember you every day, Buffy. Every day. But...."
She stared up at him, and it seemed that everything that happened over the past year telescoped and hit her all at once. There had been pressure everywhere, and one of the few bright spots had been his presence at the funeral. With Mom gone, Glory on the rampage, she had clung to Giles and the Scoobies, and the pure memory of him. Now he was lost to her, taking his memory with him. "Oh, God, Angel...Just don't..." It wasn't so much distance she crossed as time, wiping away a year, and winding up as she had so many times before, crying on his coat front, quietly and hard, the way strong people always did. She was seventeen again, and Angel was potential in her arms, not regret. They had kissed at her mother's grave side, and now she wondered if she had pushed him. What did he do afterward? She thought, but it flashed away and vanished.
The funny thing about crying storms was that they were like those weird summer showers than erupted suddenly and vanished just as fast. Crying was supposed to make you feel better, because it got rid of all the tension. Bullshit, she thought. Nothing erases all the tension of this. She lifted her head and looked up and he looked down. She sniffled, and stepped back, adulthood restored, to find herself eyeing a hankie that Angel had produced from some pocket. She took it ruefully, blew her nose, and then realized that she had no idea what was the polite thing to do. Nothing like realizing that you needed to maintain distance from your ex to protect you both, she thought. Yay for maturity.
When in doubt, retreat. She stepped further back, then smacked him. "You could have avoided all this, just by sending out an announcement!" Distance restored, she retreated further. "Cards and letters are your friends, you know?"
"Yeah, well, this is one of those situations where Spike is actually right." He shoved his hands even further into his pockets and tried to grin at her. It looked like someone had pasted the expression on his face. "If I should take out an announcement about anything, it's that." I get my wish, he thought. Now we get to pretend to be friendly exes. I get to go away.
"Yeah, well," Buffy muttered, "It looks like both of us are going to have to make announcements, aren't we?"
"Yes, we are." She took a deep breath, that, dammit, did not tremble at all. "Because, you know, I just kind of thought of something." She glared up at him briefly. "Now you told me, and---and----I have to tell them, don't I? Of course," she added, "you have to tell them, too. Fair's fair."
Continued in Chapter 44