Angelus stepped in front of the glass doors. I’m not Angelus. I can’t be Angelus. The doors opened, sliding into slots in the walls as if they were a pair of servants obeying his mental cues. I’m not ready for this.
Nobody was looking at him funny, though. He supposed the shower and the haircut and the new clothes had done their job: he not only looked like a human, but like a human with a home and a job and a life. None of which is true. Well, maybe the job, but I seem to recall that jobs pay money.
He heard an irritated clucking, and a stout middle-aged woman brushed past him. He was still standing just inside the glass doors, he realized, and he hastily stepped aside and began to walk as if he had a purpose. Another moment to steady himself would have been a help. After facing any number of sewers, subway tunnels, demon lairs, and the shadiest parts of neighborhoods so shady that decent folks didn’t only avoid them but couldn’t get there if they tried, he found he was woefully unprepared to face an average suburban grocery store.
There was no turning back now, though. Whistler had arranged to make him “less disgusting”, but stated clearly that after that, the cleaned-up vampire could run his own errands. He had to learn to get by in human society, anyway. When he finally met the girl, he wasn’t going to let her see him as a bumbling misfit, but he needed some practice first.
He fingered the two twenty-dollar bills in his pocket, which Whistler had provided along with a few exasperated remarks about being forced to bankroll this whole operation. It seemed like a lot of money to Angelus - I can’t call myself Angelus - but he wasn’t really sure what money was worth these days. In any case, he resolved, he’d pay it back once he was able. There had to be a way to tap into his hereditary funds again.
Everything around him was food for humans; the doors had opened into the produce section. He picked up a tomato and pretended to be inspecting it, like other shoppers were doing with various kinds of fruit and vegetables. He could smell it, sort of, and he knew that if he bit into it, his teeth would break through the skin and fresh juices would spill into his mouth. It wouldn’t feed him, though, and he doubted the textures would yield much satisfaction without the taste. With vague regrets he put the tomato back on the pile, then wondered if that was allowed. Maybe it was frowned upon to hold a tomato without buying it. Maybe he should keep it just so he wouldn’t look suspicious.
Of course, that would require putting it in his basket, and he didn’t have one. He cursed himself for a fool and set the tomato down to head back to the door. If the girl saw him now, she’d probably just laugh at the weird pale guy who didn’t know how to buy groceries.
When he made it out of the produce section, he found that the aisles were labeled with signs that told which items they stocked. He meant to skip the first one, which said “International Foods”, but found himself curious and ended up spending the next ten minutes reading labels in Spanish and Chinese. Most of the ingredients seemed distantly familiar, but the closest he’d ever gotten to consuming foreign food was consuming the people who lived on it. He sighed and put a jar of chili sauce back on its shelf. Just who did he think he was going to impress by knowing about ethnic cooking, anyway?
He made himself skip the canned goods aisle, and the cereal one, and the baking needs. The alcoholic beverage aisle made him pause for a moment, though. This, at least, he could enjoy like a human would: nobody drank booze for nutrition, or for the taste. Of course, that was also what made it dangerous for a human, or pointless for him. He kept walking. The plan was to become someone, not to toast the girl and get drunk together.
Finally he made it to the household items, his basket still empty. There were too many choices, though, so he had to stand there reading labels again until he found a few substances that could keep his little apartment clean. He also took some light bulbs, reasoning that he should get used to living without complete darkness. Now he just needed to keep his own body clean and well-groomed.
There were even more choices in the shampoo aisle. Overwhelmed, the vampire ran a hand through his recently shortened hair and tried to remember what he had done with it last time he was leading a moderately civilized life. No, that wouldn’t do. Fashions had changed since then; having an out-of-date hairstyle would draw attention, and worse, make him look stupid. He frowned and considered a bottle of gel. If only he could just ask the girl what kind of hair she liked.
“Oh, don’t use that one,” said a female voice right beside him, but it was the wrong girl. This one was just a fellow shopper, one who had been a little too close for comfort even before she spoke to him. “My ex used to gel his hair all the time, he tried them all. That one’s best.” She pointed.
“Thanks,” he said curtly, and dropped her suggestion into his basket, hoping that would terminate her interest in him.
It didn’t. Before he was able to turn away from her, she called him back with, “Oh, sorry? Would you be an angel and get that dye from the top shelf for me? The copper sunrise, not the wildfire.”
He sized her up. She wasn’t petite, and in her excessively high heels, she shouldn’t have any trouble reaching the item in question. What she wanted from him was more than a few seconds of assistance, and knowing that ignited a seed of rage within him. Such foolishness deserved only his contempt, but he wasn’t here to teach anyone a lesson, and he had to learn to check his impulses, sooner rather than later. He reached up and handed her the box of copper sunrise hair dye.
“Thanks, angel! You’re so tall. I wish they had one of you in every aisle. Ha ha ha!” She sidled up to him as he searched for the bar soap as quickly as possible. “Just doing some hygiene shopping, huh? Yeah, I don’t have much of a plan for the weekend either. Well, that’s the best time to try out a new hair color, right?”
She kept it up without seeming to need any response or reaction from him until he escaped into a checkout line, hoping that he wasn’t forgetting anything. The cashier gave him change and a receipt to puzzle over later and put all of his purchases into a brown paper bag, and he congratulated himself on successfully completing his first act of reintegration into human life.
As the sliding doors released him into the night, he found to his dismay that his admirer in high heels had somehow made it out of the store before him. She even appeared to be waiting for him, unless she was just leaning against the column of shopping carts because she liked it there. “Hey,” she said when she saw him, dashing his hopes. “I was just gonna say, you looked kind of peeved in there, so I just wanted to say, sorry if I said something, you know. I was just trying to be friendly. You look really sad.”
What am I supposed to do here? He nodded in her direction. “That’s alright.”
He tried to step into the parking lot, but suddenly her hand was on his arm. “Hey, you don’t have to be so -”
The line was crossed. He whirled on her so quickly that she gasped and stumbled backward into the carts. “I am not an angel,” he growled into her face. “I’m not interested in you, and you better thank your God for that. I used to pick up women like you all the time. Not as lovers. As victims. Go home and dye your hair and think twice next time you meet a strange man at night.”
He didn’t turn around as he stalked away from the store, but he thought he heard her stifling a sob. So much for my successful trip. But really, what could he have done? The woman was playing with fire. He didn’t like flirtation at the best of times, and this time he needed more than a polite rebuttal to shake her off. Besides, he had at least concealed the worst of his real self. She had been far too close to him, and beneath her perfume, she smelled of ambrosia. Shutting her up for good was doubly difficult to resist.
If she had been the girl, though...
The demands of his soul were so hard to navigate. Wouldn’t the girl smell even better? Was he not prepared for that? He’d better be, if he ever wanted to speak to her or fight beside her. It would be okay if she wanted to flirt with me, though. It would be different. And that wasn’t a solution at all; it was a problem of its own.
He confessed everything to Whistler the next time he saw him. After the requisite lamenting about his lot in life, the demon listened closely and then shook his head with something resembling sympathy. “Y’know what they say, never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry.”
“But then I realized,” the vampire plowed on, “if it had been the girl, I wouldn’t have even cared.”
“Buffy.” Whistler put down the open bottle he had been sniffing and waited. When he got no response, he continued, “You’re still callin’ her ‘the girl’, and honestly it’s startin’ to creep me out. Jesus, buddy, I told you what her name was weeks ago. A’right, so it’s not quite the regal title you’d expect of her nubile Slayerness -”
“There’s nothing wrong with her name,” he cut in, feeling absurdly indignant. “It just doesn’t feel right to use it. I don’t know her yet.”
“You know her enough to decide she’d be worth a little bit a’ decency if you caught her ogling your pretty face, I’d say that’s something. Get over your immortal unholier-than-thou disdain for the living and you might just realize there’s no ‘the girl’. There’s billions of ‘em. That’s why they got names. You’re in the game now, that’s good for everyone, but you gotta wake up and notice it’s not all about you anymore.”
“It was never about me. It was about -”
“Her?” Whistler snorted. “Don’t make me laugh. You know what a Slayer does? She risks her life and usually kisses it goodbye, all for the sake of some average-at-best humans who don’t even know she’s there. Are you gonna help her save them or are you gonna work the angle of they’re not worth it? ‘Cause there’s some things you can’t fake, pal, and for her it’s gonna matter.”
The vampire cast him a baleful look. He still hadn’t quite figured Whistler out. He was clearly right about some things, like bringing the vampire and the Slayer together, but just as clearly wrong about others, like what kind of hat to wear. Was his advice now part of his divine guidance, or was it a personal preference, like the hat? “Even if they are worth it,” he said, “the girl - Buffy - she won’t thank me for accidentally killing them if they get too close and I can’t control myself.”
“Not one bit,” agreed Whistler. “So don’t do it.” He pointed his half-empty bottle at the vampire. “You got the power to snuff out the life of any human that crosses your path of damnation - except for Buffy - without a second thought. You snagged a soul, you finally figured out that power doesn’t make you better than them, so now you don’t do it anymore. Well, feed on this: that doesn’t make you better than them either. It just makes you one of ‘em. One of billions, just like your cute little ancestral enemy.”
The vampire, who was not Angelus, considered this. “But I don’t have a name.”
“You want one?”
“You said I could become someone.”
Whistler smacked himself in the forehead. “Gods monsters and strip dancers, the vamp actually listened to something I said. Never thought that would happen. A’right, you wanna be someone? How about bein’ that guy in the hair gel aisle?”
Not at all an appealing prospect. “What’s so great about that guy?”
“He helped a woman get something off a shelf.”
The vampire took a moment to make sure Whistler was being serious, and concluded that he was. If this was a matter of his personal preferences, it wasn’t such a bad one. Not as bad as the hat, anyway. “So you’re saying I should call myself Angel? That’s not exactly new.”
“Make it new.” The demon finally poured a pair of shots out of the bottle, pushed one across the table, and lifted the other one high. “To the girl,” he said. “Buffy the Slayer.”
“To her people,” said Angel, wondering all over again what he had gotten himself into. “The whole world.”