Chapter 16

 

An eerie kind of stillness hovered over the hotel. Their lives had been razed and it was with a sense of numbness that they gazed upon the ground zero of their existence. They kept to themselves, although gradually, between the cracks in the silence, seeped the clank and clatter of everyday life, where words were traded like precious jewels in miserly exchanges.

 

One morning, Gunn happened to wander into the kitchen as Wesley boiled a kettle. Respecting the other man’s privacy, he quickly retreated, but Wes heard his footsteps and called after him, offering him coffee. Gunn hung precariously in the moment before casually accepting. It wasn’t quite expressions of forgiveness or understanding, but it was close enough for these wounded souls.

 

They drank together in silence.

 

Angel finally picked up the weapons they had dropped, which lay like abandoned relics, crusted with blood and guts. Wearily he gathered them up and brought out the oil and the cloths.

 

“You want a hand?” Gunn asked.

 

Angel nodded, and once again, silence settled as they worked together and scoured away remnants of that day.

 

On moments such as these they laid the foundation of their new lives.

 

Lorne continued secluding himself from company, or rather their company. 

 

It struck him for the first time that his friends were killers. Sure, he knew they were warriors, the word trailed clouds of nobility in its wake. Having experienced battle, he could see nothing noble or honourable in such things. It was gut clenching fear, the steady beat of skins, and ferocious war cries that rang out like dread melodies, and each one spoke of death and agony. He had stood uncertainly, wondering what in the Power’s name he was doing there and had vowed he wouldn’t take a life. The vow was shattered as he’d stuck cold steel into the ancient sorcerer.

 

His sensitive psyche contained a dark blemish that seeped into him like poison. His talent for reading people disappeared, hearts no longer bared their secrets to him, the future was a wall of granite through which he could not pass. And he mourned this loss more than he ever thought possible.

 

Lorne, the anagogic demon who helped people, couldn’t be reconciled to Lorne, killer of the weak and infirm. Lacking the finesse of a killer, he’d stabbed the point of his sword into the sorcerer’s throat, and could still feel the spray of blood on his face, the taste of it in his mouth…. No matter how many sea breezes he poured down his gullet the taste of murder remained with him.

 

He finally admitted to Wesley that his psychic abilities had vanished.

 

“It’s punishment for the blood on my hands.” He pulled a face. “And on my tongue.”

 

“I don’t understand why… I mean, if you hadn’t have wielded that blade and everyone had died, would that have made your guilt less? You probably saved thousands.”

 

Lorne looked at his hands, convinced he could see rust coloured substance ingrained beneath his nails.

 

“If that’s true, if I did the right thing, why has my talent left me?” he asked miserably.

 

“Personally, I believe your predicament is psychological. Your talent requires your internal balance to be finely tuned. You acted against your nature, and despite having the best intentions this experience shook your world, in effect, destroyed your equilibrium. Really it would be marvellous if one such as yourself were unaffected by that battle.”

 

“So it’s all in my noggin? Well that’s not good news, Sugarplum. You do remember last time I spilled my marbles across the floor?”

 

They both shuddered… Lorne recalled the giant green demon he’d unleashed, and Wes, his embarrassing turn as the party drunk. They both shook the disturbing memories away.

 

“It seems to me that the problem stems from your perception of Cyvus as someone fragile and weak. You need to disabuse yourself of such notions.” Wesley thought for a second. “I have books containing extracts of his life and habits. Perhaps if you re-evaluated your deeds in the light of that information, if you understand exactly what you destroyed that day, then you can reconcile yourself to your actions.”

 

Lorne looked unconvinced.

 

“I know he was a powerful sorcerer, but I could also see he was just some old guy, too weak to defend himself. I know what I murdered, but thanks for trying.”

 

Nonetheless, later that day Wesley delivered the books to him, and Lorne spent the rest of the afternoon locked in his room.

 

Meanwhile, as they patiently cleaned axes, swords and knives Gunn finally asked a question that was bothering him.

 

“How do you do it, man?”

 

“Uh, well, plenty of oil. There’s no such thing as too much oil. Grind out the nicks and dents, sharpen the blade and finish off with a clean oilcloth to polish.”

 

Angel was relieved that the question was innocuous. He’d been half afraid that….

 

“No. I mean, live with the things you’ve done.”

 

“Oh that.”

 

He continued the final polish of a knife. It had been well used in the battle, one of his favourites, with its plain hilt and sharp blade, beautiful and functional, decoration on such a weapon would have been superfluous.

 

“What else can I do?” he asked.  “If I thought killing myself would balance the books then I’d have done it years ago. But what’s the point of that? How would it help anyone? It’s a coward’s way out. The difficult thing is living with it. Everyday, every hour, each decision you make, each person you help. You buy back self worth in dribs and drabs, then one day you stand tall again, realising it’s no longer redemption that you seek, but the satisfaction of making a difference to someone’s life.”

 

“So you’re saying wanting to be redeemed for an action is selfish?”

 

“Not exactly. I’m saying it’s a starting point. A springboard to something better.”

 

They fell back into silence, and Gunn contemplated his words.

 

Lorne joined them later that night. For the first time in a while, Gunn looked beyond himself and his own misery.

 

“Hey, How you doing?”

 

Lorne raised a smile. “Funny enough, I’m beginning to feel better.”

 

“Really?” Gunn smiled back. “That’s great.”

 

“I still have a problem with killing, but if that bastard returns I’ll gut him slowly.”

 

“Uh.…” Gunn wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not. “I guess you can do that and keep him alive. Painful though.” 

 

“Kind of thought it might be,” Lorne replied flatly.

 

Gunn looked across to Wesley for help, who caught the look and smoothly stepped in.

 

“So the books helped. Good. Do you know if you can still read people? Would you like one of us to sing?”

 

Lorne looked around at them and could feel their pain screaming at him. Events were still too fresh and raw for each of them, he shuddered at the thought of hearing it in song.

 

“Not yet, Sugarcakes. Maybe later, ‘kay? Until then, who fancies a gorgeous, frothy, chocha mocha, with my own secret ingredient?”

 

For his sake, Wesley perked up and smiled.

 

“Is that the one with the dash of Kahlua?”

 

“You’ve given away the secret, Wes. Now he’ll have to kill us,” Gunn joked, and then turning the words over in his head; his grin became sickly, took to its bed and pulled the covers up high.

 

Lorne gamely kept his fixed to his face. “Don’t fret it, Peachkins, I appreciate the effort.”

 

 He made them a drink anyway, and contained a smile at the sight of three hard-bitten warriors with frothy moustaches on their upper lips. This was all they were, just people with the ability to rise up to challenges without regard to personal cost.

 

They in turn, found the warmth of the drink seeping into their bones, the sweetness was comforting, the alcoholic kick relaxed them, and for a moment frown lines disappeared from their battle weary features. If Lorne could, he would have kept them like this forever.

 

So the days passed, with little breakthroughs for each of them, but there were two gaping wounds, which no one yet dared to probe.  Until one night, Angel discovered Wesley sitting next to a fire, whiskey glass in hand and a half empty bottle at his feet. He approached the man cautiously, but Wes was merely staring blankly into the leaping flames.

 

“Why did he do it?”

 

Angel froze, wanting to flee. He wasn’t ready for this, may never be ready, but one look at Wesley’s empty eyes and he found a streak of courage, and moved into the circle of firelight.

 

“It was supposed to be me. It was foretold, I would be the one who unleashed her on hell. She was the timebomb and I should have led her to the target, it should have been me.”

 

“Yes, it should have.”

 

Wesley blinked at the harshness. Still, it was better than lies and platitudes.

 

“It would have left two whole people, instead there’s just you and me.”

 

“Yes.”

 

Angel waited, knowing there would be more.

 

“So why did he do it?”

 

“He, uh… You know he gave up his soul to close the portal? Angelus brokered the deal.”

 

 “No!” Wesley’s eyes watered in sympathy for the doomed vampire he’d come to call friend. He could hardly grasp such a sacrifice.

 

Angel said nothing.

 

“Oh bloody hell, the poor, bloody sod. So he lost his soul, and sick at what he’d done he… but no.” Wesley’s fuzzy brain doggedly followed the thread of his thought. “He lost his soul, but that wasn’t it. He looked towards you… and then decided he wanted to die?”

 

“Yes.” Angel said again.

 

“Why? What did you say? What did you do?”

 

“Nothing,” Angel said. “He gave up his soul for us, and I was horrified. I said and did nothing.”

 

Wesley returned to silently staring into the fire, perhaps seeing once more the flames of hell licking at two slim figures.

 

“So it was your fault.”

 

The words were just a statement, no judgement coloured his tone. There was no need, Angel judged himself. He could hardly think, as contrary thoughts rolled and tumbled, cracking painfully against each other, bursting like shrapnel through his head.

 

Wesley leant forward and picked up the bottle, pouring liquid carefully into his glass. It seemed his life had been saved and Spike’s lost by something as indiscriminate as a mistimed look. How tenuous was the attachment to life that it could hang by such absurd threads.

 

For Angel, it had all happened so quickly. He’d been in shock, of course he hadn’t meant to drive his childe away, but such thoughts were meaningless because Spike had turned and left. He was quiet for a minute and when he spoke his voice was soft.

 

“He suffered to gain that spark, and was so damned proud of it. He used to irritate me; always telling me he was different because of the way he earned his soul. It was true though. It meant there was something about his demon he could respect and take pride in. A demon asking for a soul, fuck, it could only be him. Because of that, he accepted his demon, embraced it, trusted it even, he was whole in all the places I was broken.

 

“Then I made him give it up. It was his source of self respect and he had to willingly surrender it. What words could I say, Wes? He looked to me for help and I had none to offer. I judged him by my own experience, but what if I was wrong and he really is different to me? Angelus moulded him the first time; maybe I could have done it differently this time and created someone good?”

 

Wesley blinked rapidly.

 

“Perhaps. He tried so bloody hard, but we’ll never know. Why did he always get the shitty end of the stick?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“At least he had you for a while, he was happy then.”

 

“Yeah, I think he was.”

 

Spike found it so easy to be happy. He loved life, picked it up by the scruff of its neck and whirled it around in his own manic dance. Angel had joined him briefly and had felt the beat and the rhythm echo within his own heart. Spike had brought him back to life. Now Angel was dying again.

 

“He took care of Fred from the moment they met, until he took her hand at the end. He could be abrasive and cutting, yet so gentle with her, sometimes a difficult man to like, but impossible not to love.”

 

Again silence fell. Angel thought the human had fallen asleep and was startled when he spoke again.

 

“I know I lost her weeks before the battle. I should have let go.”

 

“It was hard seeing her face everyday.”

 

“No, I was behaving like a child, allowing myself the luxury of wallowing in grief. All noise and ostentation and, poor me, look how I suffer. I despise it in others, but didn’t recognise it in myself.”

 

“You’re too hard on yourself. Why shouldn’t it be about you for a while? You suffered, Wes.”

 

“No, it should have been all Fred. Recalling all I could and tucking away her memories, happy times that I could pull out someday to find that I’m laughing with her once more. Instead I trailed after an image that barely even looked like her. I confused Illyria with my own confusion… but then she became Fred right at the end. Did you see her Angel? Did you see her? Or did I dream it?”

 

“I saw her too.”

 

“I think Illyria attempted to use her memories to influence me, to gain my sympathy….”

 

“Maybe she was just trying to comfort you, Wes. She thought you were about to die and knew who you most longed to see.”

 

“Was there really that much humanity in her?” Wesley wondered.

 

“She thought that Fred had infected her.”

 

Wesley smiled fondly.

 

“She probably did. There was enough humanity in her to infect the world.”

 

Angel turned to leave, but Wesley grabbed at his wrist.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“For what?”

 

“Staying. Listening. I don’t know. Helping me to say goodbye to her tonight. I’m sorry. I should have done it weeks ago.”

 

“No. It takes time to reach this point.”

 

“Yes, I suppose it does. You know when the time comes, I’ll be here for you too.”

 

“Thanks, Wes, but there’s no need.”

 

“Oh. You’ve already come to terms with his death? I suppose you’ve lived longer than me, learnt through experience how to cope with such loss.”

 

“What? Oh, no. Just that he’s not dead.”

 

“Angel! That’s splendid news! Have you had a message from him?” Angel shook his head. “Oh. But you can sense him, yes? The sire/childe bond! I should have thought of it myself…”

 

But Angel was shaking his head again.

 

“Then….” Wesley was at a loss.

 

“Because I told him that this would never be over between us. That he could burn up and die and it still wouldn’t end.”

 

“Oh. Well…. Good.”

 

Angel heard his doubts, but couldn’t afford to share them for a second. He’d abandoned Spike in his hour of most desperate need, and the difficult thing was living with himself. Everyday, every hour, each decision he made, each person he helped, did nothing to buy back his self worth. He would never stand tall again until he’d found Spike, explained why he had said nothing, redemption meant jack shit until that time.

 

The following week someone came in and asked if this was Angel Investigations. He held in his hand an old flyer that he’d found in a bar. Had it only been a year?

 

Lorne told him no, Wes looked to Gunn, who nodded.

 

“Yes,” Wesley’s cultured tones overrode Lorne, “this is Angel Investigations. How may we help you?”

 

Thus it began again.

 

oooo

 

A thin wailing bled through his consciousness. His hearing was raw and over-sensitised, the noise seemed to bypass his ears, and pierce through his brain like a hot steel wire.

 

He tried to ignore it and sink back into the downy feathers of comfortable oblivion, but the shrieking was persistent. Fingers of awareness scraped against protecting walls, crumbling them to rubble and leaving him exposed.

 

He could see nothing but darkness. Feel nothing but a deep searing, burning through his innards. His mouth was without moisture, his tongue was a chunk of desiccated leather, and all he could taste was cinders and ash.

 

That godawful screaming still assaulted him.

 

After escaping for so long he’d finally gotten what he deserved.

 

So, this was hell.

 

Yet the surrounding scent told a different story. Fire, brimstone, torture and pain, all strangely absent. The banshee wailing faded to soft noises of contentment and a gentle crooning. He heard the sounds of peaceful breathing and the rustling of linen, and then he felt a warm hand resting on his forehead. Something was pressed to his lips, a heady scent filled his nostrils and he felt the rush of blood gushing down his throat, soothing the dryness, easing the burning.

 

The source of this ambrosia was eased away from his lips. He recognised the taste, the smell, the tender touches.

 

He attempted to speak, but what emerged was little more than a breath and went unheard.

 

The effort defeated him and he floated back into darkness.

 

He drifted drowsily in and out of consciousness, unaware of the passage of time. Sometimes he awoke and all was empty and silent. He’d never liked being alone, yet here, despite his blindness and immobility he felt cocooned and safe, it was the world beyond that had become scary. Other times he heard noises, or a voice talking to him, “See Baby, You’re getting better all the time.”

 

It would murmur its comfort as life-giving blood pulsed against his tongue, soothing and healing his physical hurts enough, so that one day he managed to prise open his eyes a crack for the first time since he’d stood holding Fred’s hand on the edge of hell. He closed them again, not quite ready to face the harshness of memories that awaited him.

 

Today there was presence in the room, a voice talking.

 

“Do you remember when I came to you a few months ago? Gods you were beautiful. I only came because portents and auguries were circling around Wolfram & Hart, and the vampires with souls were at the epicentre. I was curious, Will. I never meant to get involved, and then I met you again…. I found I couldn’t just leave you to your fate.”

 

Spike felt a gentle touch to his hand and heard a soft sigh.

 

“I knew what was building and I helped you. Kept a watch over you. Did you never wonder why I wore your skin around my wrist?”

 

Ghan?

 

The voice stopped but now Spike was curious, he willed it to continue, and it obliged.

 

“It was my barometer, and my link to you. When it turned to dust it would mean you’d died.”

 

Spike wanted to ask why he was still alive and must have made some small movement because his hand was now being squeezed.

 

“Hey, can you hear me? Are you listening to me, Will? Do you want to hear more?”

 

Spike used all his strength to squeeze his hand, and Ghan must have felt some slight fluttering, because he took up the story again.

 

“You know that time moves differently here. If you had been staked I could do nothing but wipe the ash from my wrist, but if you were being destroyed by fire I calculated that I had a small window of opportunity in which to rescue you. When I first felt heat radiating from the strip around my wrist, I was relieved. It meant I had a chance to save you. I was prepared for it, but then you weren’t in the world, you’d stepped through to hell… it took me precious minutes to trace you, using the strip of skin as a physical link to trace you.

 

“Time moves slowly here, but even so I was almost too late. Your skin around my wrist was blackening. I was desperate; it was becoming grey around the edges and at any second would flash into nothing. I finally located you, and slashed though dimensions to reach you, your enemies were already burning. I think Illyria had been trying to protect you, shield you from the worst, but it was growing too strong for her and her strength and cohesion were almost spent. I grabbed you and closed the gate, just as the world turned white in the brilliance of her death. We barely escaped.”

 

There was silence, and Spike was grateful for the chance to absorb all he’d heard. That explained the burning pain he had felt.

 

“Here, I have to go. Can you hear Trouble? He’s got some lungs on him.”

 

This last was so bizarre that Spike decided that he had fallen into hallucinations.

 

oooo

 

He panicked.

 

He was with Wesley, Gunn and Lorne and he panicked.

 

Putting his hand to his pocket he’d found that the familiar shape was missing. He surreptitiously tried the other pocket. Not there either. The meeting continued without him, words faded to meaningless murmurs of sound.

 

Everyone was looking at him so he nodded, which seemed to satisfy them.

 

Where the hell was it? He patted at his inner pocket.

 

“Angel? Is everything alright?”

 

“Yes…”

 

Casting his mind back he remembered talking on the telephone, it had been in his hand then….

 

“Angel?”

 

“Sorry?”

 

“We were discussing advertising the Agency.”

 

“Great idea.”

 

“The hotel?”

 

“What?”

 

“Angel…. Let’s take a break. Tea? Coffee? O positive?”

 

The others moved into the kitchen, whilst Angel retraced his steps of this morning.

 

Thank God! There it was, perched next to the telephone.

 

Wesley returned with heated, decanted blood bag. Living with Angel and Spike had caused them all to lose their squeamishness. In the end they’d hardly blinked at Spike’s concoctions, quickly learning that any foods tinged red or pink were probably best left unsampled.

 

Something was clasped in Angel’s hand. Wesley made out a gleam of dull silver.

 

“Is that his lighter?” he asked quietly.

 

Angel reluctantly opened his hand

 

“Yeah.”

 

Some days he almost forgot it was there. It had become a part of him, either in his pocket or in his hand. There was something reassuring about it.

 

“Why his lighter?”

 

Angel slumped down into a seat. He knew why….

 

“I used to think of it as him,” he confided, hoping Wesley would be able to help him sort out the knots and tangles in his head.

 

“Uh… right. I mean, no actually, I don’t understand…?”

 

Wesley was mesmerised as Angel twirled it slowly in his fingers, critically examining it, as he probably had done a thousand times since Spike had… left.

 

“It’s old and tarnished like him.”

 

“It is. But nothing hides the fact that it’s quality, sterling silver,” Wesley pointed out.

 

Angel continued fiddling restlessly, clicking it, but the flint didn’t spark.  Wesley suddenly had an insight into where this was leading.

 

“And all of it pointless without the flame inside,” he said.

 

Angel looked up. This was the thought that confused and battered him.

 

“Kind of.”

 

“You’re wrong. You’re so wrong.”

 

Angel shook his head sadly.

 

 

“Without a flame it has no function, no purpose, no relevance. It’s not a lighter, but just another piece of useless trash.”

 

His tightly controlled voice made the words harsher still. 

 

Blue eyes considered him thoughtfully.

 

“Yet you keep it anyway,” Wesley commented.

 

Angel had no answer. Yes, he kept it, it was precious.

 

Wesley gave a small laugh devoid of anything resembling humour.

 

“Sometimes your logic escapes me. You’ve overstretched an analogy. Kept his lighter but thrown him away. I never knew you could be such a fool. He’s not an inanimate object. He’s a complex man! Who knows what he might have been capable of?”

 

“That’s what I’m afraid of. I know what Angelus was capable of....” Angel muttered.

 

The look in his eye caused a chill to run down Wesley‘s spine.

 

“I never knew Spike before his ensoulment, but one thing I do know, even taking into account his reputation, he wasn’t Angelus.”

 

“Maybe not at the start, but Spike became what Angelus moulded him to be.”

 

Gunn walked in and caught the tail end of the conversation

 

“Angelus and his mini-me?” he asked, biting a mansize chunk out of a hamburger, and spurting red chutney down his chin, giving rise to unfortunate connotations. He wiped it away on the back of his hand, and then licked his hand clean. “Except this time he wasn’t, was he? Angelus came back and Spike didn’t fall in with him….”

 

“Which is why Angelus sold his soul.”

 

“He didn’t, in the end it was Spike’s choice, and that action has to be worth something in the scheme of things.” Wesley disagreed.

 

The frown lines deepened on Angel’s brow and he was more confused than ever. He couldn’t reconcile Spike’s final actions with his soulless state.

 

“Great as it is to be chewing the cud with my fellow bulls, what’s the point?” Lorne looked around at them all. “He’s gone.”

 

Angel said nothing. Wesley watched as his brow lowered and a small tic played along his jaw. Lorne frowned.

 

 “Angelpie, you need to let this out before you explode, and you know, vampire guts? Kind of difficult to get out of the carpet.”

 

“There’s nothing to say,” his tone discouraged further discussion. Lorne shrugged and gave up.

 

Once he was out of earshot, Wesley let them know of Angel’s irrational belief that Spike was still alive. It was only fair, since they would be amongst those closest to the fallout. 

 

oooo

 

Time passed, and he spent many hours listening to Ghan, learning more about him during these times than in the six months they’d lived together. Sometimes he became confused as Ghan’s voice scolded, until he remembered the baby he’d foisted on to the man, and realised that the soft haranguing was directed at the kid not at him. As days and nights passed Spike recognised an increasing affection in his voice, Ghan was growing to love the child.

 

His strength returned until one day, to Ghan’s joy, he finally opened his eyes, and spoke of something that had been gnawing at him for a while.

 

“You called the baby Trouble?”

 

“Oh, Will!”

 

He felt the sudden weight as a body flung itself atop of him.

 

“Are you smiling, Will?”

 

“Can’t you tell,” he breathed.

 

“Well….”

 

“Oh shit. Tell me the worst.  How do I look?”

 

“Well….” He repeated, which told Spike all he needed to know.

 

“That bad?”

 

“You’re looking better. I mean, on the bright side. You have lips and ears and eyelids now….”

 

“That’s the bright side? No hair then?”

 

“Not exactly.”

 

Spike felt a hand trail across his skull.

 

“There’s something. A bit bristly, but nevertheless.”

 

“Hair’s the worst. Everything else heals and grows but hair is a real bugger. Takes longer than human hair to grow.”

 

Ghan soothingly stroked his stubbly head.

 

“It suits you.”

 

If he had some hair growth then it had been more than mere days since the battle.

 

 “How long? How long have I been here?”

 

Ghan did a quick calculation.

 

“It’s been three weeks.”

 

“He’ll think I’m dead.”

 

Ghan didn’t need to ask which he.

 

“Probably. Don’t forget it’s been much longer for him. Months.”

 

Spike became restless.

 

“I have to see him.”

 

“You talk in your sleep, Will. I know you went through the portal because of him.”

 

“I’ve had time to think. I didn’t give him a chance, did I? Hell, if Angel had lost his soul in a matter of seconds, he might have surprised the same look on my face,”

 

“Perhaps, but you’re too weak….”

 

“Ghan....”  Spike pleaded.

 

“Ok. I’ll take you there,” Ghan reluctantly agreed.

 

“Cheers, Mate. Will you do me another favour? The way I look…. Just prepare him first will you? Tell him what’s happened.”

 

“But Will! Why should I? I don’t want you to go to him, and I don’t like him and….”

 

“Please?”

 

“It’s not fair. I forbid you to use puppy eyes on me…. Oh, gods alive! Alright. I’ll do it.”

 

Ghan pouted and had the distinct feeling he’d been suckered.

 

oooo

 

There was a noise outside his office, a knock at the door.

 

“Come in.”

 

“Angel,” a voice said softly.

 

He looked up at the last person he would have expected to see.

 

Willow?”

 

She tentatively smiled at the people gathered there, as though uncertain of her welcome.

 

“That’s me. It’s good to see you all again. I heard about the battle and all, and had to come.”

 

“You heard?”

 

“Angel, everyone knows about your victory, it was incredible! Honestly, I don’t think the world has seen anything like it before.”

 

“Victory?”

 

Somehow they had all lost sight of the fact that they’d actually won, and more spectacularly than they’d ever planned or dreamt.

 

“I’m sorry. I know you lost a lot that day. Fred was a wonderful person and Spike….”

 

Her mouth became a thin, drawn line as she controlled her emotions, but nothing could hide the luminous sadness in her eyes.

 

Wesley walked forward. Fred had loved talking to this intelligent girl. They had sparked off each other, delighting in having someone who could follow the speed of their thoughts.  He wasn’t a tactile man by nature, but he crossed the space between them, drew her into his arms and rubbed her back, allowing threatening tears to be blinked harmlessly into his shirt.

 

“I’m glad you came, Willow.”

 

She drew back with a sniff.

 

“I came because I know you’ve lost people, so if you want extra help for a few months, you’ve got yourself a volunteer.”

 

Angel turned to her, eyebrows raised. “Now you want to help?”

 

Willow wore a determined face that Angel had come to recognise.

 

“Yes, I do. And I’m sorry about earlier. Buffy didn’t ask my opinion… although, to be fair, I was kind of away at the time.”

 

“Cherrypie, I for one am glad to see you. You’re a breath of fresh air.” Lorne smiled.

 

Willow ruefully plucked at her blouse. “You must be upwind then, because really? Not so fresh.”

 

“You get my vote, too. We could always do with extra help,” Gunn said.

 

“Well that’s agreed then. Welcome to Angel Investigations,” Wesley beamed.

 

“So where are your bags, Girl? I’ll go fetch them.”

 

Willow turned to Angel questioningly.

 

“Well?” she asked, aware that he had not yet approved.

 

She tentatively she reached out and touched his hand. It was the first physical contact he’d had with anyone since Spike….

 

“I guess we could give it a go on a trial basis. Sure why not?” His lack of enthusiasm was embarrassingly noticeable, but she squeezed his hand, and they bustled away to choose a room for her.

 

Somehow normality was returning to their lives, and Lorne was right she was a breath of fresh air. It frightened Angel, how quickly the atmosphere changed. He could feel events conspiring to loosen his stranglehold on the past. He settled down to do some work, trying to avoid dwelling on the reason he didn’t want someone new here. Why he didn’t want Willow with them.

 

“Angel? We’re going to show Willow the local sites.”

 

They were talking of coffee shops and pastries.

 

Inexorably life was moving on. He could see a new existence spreading before him, filled with the sound of humans. Chatter and laughter and tears. There would be new dramas and crises. He would be dragged back by their needs, forced to live and pretend… and pretend…..

 

His head was in his hands and tears rolled down his cheeks as his body shuddered with painful, wracking sobs.

 

He’d let Spike go into hell. Driven him there. And he missed him. Missed his voice and his laugh and his touch.  He missed having someone who understood him, only now did he truly realise how Spike had watched over him, read his moods, provoked and protected, cared for him, in a hundred different ways.

 

He didn’t give a damn about souls, in his heart Spike was only ever Spike, nothing more or less.

 

After all these months he couldn’t pretend anymore. The slender, overstretched thread of hope snapped with a stinging twang. Spike was gone and the world was nothing. He had to accept that this was all there was.

 

When the others returned they were pleased to find that Angel was more like his old self, talking about work and making plans. They happily joined in, and like Angel, they finally felt events at W&H were drifting into the past. They were putting down roots and beginning to grow into their new lives.

 

It was with relief that Angel saw the last of them yawn and disappear. Wearily he sank back into his chair. He’d somehow made it through the first day of the rest of his life.

 

There was a knock at his office door, and he carefully composed his features once more.

 

And the past came in and punched him in the guts.

 

“Mede,” he said coldly.

 

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