Ten Obstacles to Being in Love as a Human
Summary: Post-Shanshu Angel deals with the hard parts of his human life with Buffy.
Notes: Major thanks to Jo, best beta ever, and to Dark Star, as ever, for keeping this marathon alive for us.
Someone is standing just outside my line of vision as I wait for Buffy in the sunshine. I do what I’ve always done, remaining still and showing no reaction to the human presence until I can tell who it is or what they’re doing. It’s harder, now that my senses are so limited, but caution isn’t just a habit, it’s a good idea in any environment - even the manicured lawns and cobblestone paths of this one.
Usually I don’t need to wait so long for the other person to move. That in itself doesn’t constitute enough reason to worry, but I’m starting to get antsy. Who’s there?
Before I can decide whether or not to turn and look, I’m ambushed from behind, a pair of arms thrown around my waist. My heart goes into overdrive, but it’s Buffy, cheery and full of affection. “What’s up? Did I scare you? Are you gonna put a quarter in my caught-Angel-off-his-guard jar?”
“No, I just...” I look over her head to seek out the mysterious presence I had so carefully monitored, and my mouth drops open. There’s nobody there. The blue glass walls of the nearest collegiate building give us full-body reflections, and I’ve been maintaining a stand-off with mine for the last ten minutes.
I should tell Buffy. We can laugh about this. We should laugh about this.
Maybe later. Here, my reflection would laugh along, and I don’t think I can take that.
She finds me in the study, just a few minutes after I crept out of our room and sat down at my desk with one small lamp on, staring at nothing. In her silk pajamas and her bed hair she’s as beautiful as always, but she looks so tired. “Sorry I woke you,” I murmur.
“Bad dream?” she inquires, sitting down next to me and leaning on the desk.
“Want to tell me about it?”
“Tough luck.” She shifts restively. “We’re not going to let this stuff fester. We’ve lost too much to be done in by that. Tell me what you dreamed.”
I exhale slowly, thinking about how I could have avoided this if I were still stealthy enough to leave a room without waking her. I really, truly don’t want to talk about my dreams, but there isn’t much of an alternative now. “When I’m awake,” I explain reluctantly, “I only want good things. Human things. Food, and kisses, and air. Then I fall asleep, and I don’t know anymore that I’m human.”
“And you want blood?”
“Blood, and worse than that. Sometimes I wake up and I don’t know what’s real. I think I almost attacked you tonight.”
She isn’t fazed by my bluntness; she encourages it, actually, which usually helps a lot. But right now she’s a little too confident. “Listen, sweetie,” she says. “You could be wide awake and hellbent on devouring me and you’d still hardly register on my danger radar. If you ever have a time warp nightmare and try to bite my neck, it’s really not going to matter in the long run.”
I remember feeding on her, years ago, far more vividly than I remember what I had for lunch today. “No,” I reply. “It really is.”
My second punch is a solid hit, but it lacks the raw strength I used to have, and the vampire merely staggers instead of falling. That seems to give me enough opening for the killing blow anyway, and I thrust out with my stake - only to have him dodge, grin, and lunge for my neck. I dust him in the end, but it’s with an awkwardly spontaneous maneuver while we’re grappling on the ground. When I close my eyes I can still see that toothy smile.
It takes two more close encounters before I realize that I have a vampire phobia. Fighting them used to make me feel powerful, not because I was stronger than they were, but because I knew they could do no worse than to kill me. That’s no longer true.
I’m not fool enough to think that any force in Heaven or Hell could grant me a Shanshu twice. Some of the vampires know who I am, and I know they’re thinking the same thing - all it takes is one bite, and I’ll be back on their team forever. Willow will seek out my soul, and it will be cowering in the ether, too weak to return. Buffy will take it upon herself, as ever, to kill me. She’ll do it, but not before I laugh at her through new fangs and poison the remains of her happiness and peace.
It’s too much. I have to retire from the fight.
Attempting a resume is pointless. What would it say? “Initiate of the Order of Aurelius, 1752-1902: Performed regular murders, revolutionized torture theory and technique, sired and trained new vampires. 1902-1996: Unemployed. Champion of the Powers That Be, 1996-present: Occasionally managed to do more good than harm.”
Buffy sympathizes, but she’s already pulled every available string to get me a legal identity; she can’t fabricate a work and education history for me too. “You have skills,” she says optimistically. “Lots of skills. We just have to market them.” But this world is still so new to me, with its resumes and professional references and college degrees, that I don’t even know how to begin.
“Okay,” she says after my latest batch of applications fails to hook a response. “You’re still employed by me as a Slayer trainer. It’s not like you’re not pulling your weight here, anyway. Just forget the occupational search for a while.”
I wish it were that simple. Buffy and my mortality are all I ever dreamed about, but I never thought I would have either one, so I never thought beyond the dream. For me, this should be paradise, days with my girl and nights asleep and breathing. I’m even back in contact with Connor.
...It can’t be paradise if it’s for me alone. Buffy is content in our love, but I want more than that for her. I want her to follow her heart in all things while I provide the means that make it possible. My reward was forgiveness, not idleness. I need to work.
Some of our enemies are filed away in the memory bank as victories, a done deal. We laugh about the Master, make smugly casual mentions of Richard Wilkins. We have defeated them and come out stronger.
Some don’t fade with defeat. There is no pride in the victories that we achieved after the damage had already been done. We can’t even commiserate; so many of our battles took place after our parting.
I stand in the observation cell over the training room and watch her fight. She’s alone with the equipment, landing blows that could break it if she keeps this pace much longer, and her breath is coming in short heaves punctuated with wordless cries. The glass between us is transparent, but she doesn’t know I’m here. She hasn’t looked up. She isn’t thinking about me.
When the warrior has been battered beyond her own recognition and her heart can take no more, the world narrows down to self and enemy. I’m well acquainted with the channel of despair into destruction, the fight that won’t end no matter how many punching bags die for it, no matter how much the guilty have already been punished.
For me it’s Holtz. He’s dead. It’s over. I even understand him, to an extent that troubles me. I hate him. He took my son, and I hate him.
For Buffy, my guess is that it’s Glory. She’s told me about her death, her resurrection, her terror of losing Dawn and rage at the forces that manipulated her family, but she seldom speaks of the hell goddess who started it all. I want to tell her that I feel what she’s feeling, that the lasting effects of this banished evil hurt me too.
Instead I watch from behind the glass wall as she collapses to her knees, the ripped punching bag still swinging on its chain before her, and buries her face in her hands.
We’re of the same material, and somehow we’re still alone.
The room goes quiet as Buffy wheels me in. Misty, the cute and hyper Slayer who knocked me off the wall, emits a tiny squeak and turns as if to run. Buffy catches her by the elbow and speaks soothingly. “Hey. Misty. He’s alright, it’s gonna be fine. No one’s mad at you. You know why no one’s mad at you?” She turns back to look at me. “Because it was totally Angel’s fault!” she finishes in a near shout.
“And because none of my vital organs were punctured?” I venture, but I don’t think anyone even hears.
“What were you thinking? Putting blades in the hands of two untrained Slayers and then fighting them on the wall? What, did you think you would bounce? You have done some truly epically stupid things before, Angel, but this...this is just...you complete idiot.”
“Buffy,” I plead. “Everyone’s listening.”
“Shut up! I want everyone to hear this. I want all the girls to know why you’re not training with them anymore. And hey, you’re also a handy example of what happens when you decide to play Zorro instead of following the rules, which is great, because you’re obviously no good for anything else.” She makes a flourishing gesture at me for the whole room to see. “Take a good look. This is how a standard human body looks after it takes an unnecessary risk. If you’re lucky.”
We pass Misty on the way to the elevator and I say, “But it was fun while it lasted, right?” It fails to coax a smile from her or any audible reaction from Buffy.
I try again once I’m alone with my wife in our bedroom. “Calling my body ‘standard’, that was kind of harsh, don’t you think?”
“I’m not laughing, Angel. You’re supposed to be a role model. I never expected you to take care of yourself for my sake, but I thought you would for them.”
The slow healing process of my mortal body gives me plenty of time to dwell on those words. Admitting that she was right, though, is just the beginning.
“He’s not welcome in my house.”
I regret the words as soon as they’re out of my mouth. They’re the truth, but I meant to approach this with diplomacy, and I can already tell that I’ve chosen just the right phrasing to make her dig in her heels and argue this until she wins.
Sure enough, she instantly retorts, “Your house? Well, then I guess I can’t invite him in anyway, so you’ve got nothing to worry about, do you?”
“I didn’t mean it that way. Buffy, please. This is a bad idea.”
“Wherefore the bad? He’s been wearing our champion yoke for years now. Everything he’s accomplished and sacrificed, and you’re still letting your jealousy call the shots. Wow, did I sure not miss high school.”
“You don’t know him like I do. He wants--”
“He wants an hour to visit and see the baby and probably raid the fridge so he can keep up his quirky food-eating vampire reputation. God, Angel, can you honestly stand there and suggest that I would let someone dangerous near Joy?”
It’s not about danger. It’s not about jealousy. Or maybe it’s about both, and that’s why I can’t explain it to her. All I know is that I’m angrier at her than I’d thought I could ever be again, and I’m terrified that this is going to end with Spike within these walls that shelter my baby daughter. “He’ll want to hold her,” I blurt out helplessly.
Silence stretches as her eyes bore into me. When she speaks, it’s with cold precision, biting off each word. “He is my friend,” she says, “and I trust him.”
The trouble is, I trust him too. But I will never, ever forgive him.
“Daddy, look! Uncle X is on TV!” Without waiting for a response, Katie grabs my hand and leads me into the den. Sure enough, there’s Xander Harris on the screen - not so surprising, but this is the History Channel, which strikes me as odd and slightly foreboding.
“What’s this show about, Katie-cat?” I ask.
That’s all I need to hear. “Time for bed,” I announce, but I’m already too late, because now Xander’s speaking and I can’t stop Katie from hearing him. Nor can I stop myself.
“Angelus was a real bandersnatch. Murder, rape, torture, it was all part of his unlife.” His narration turns into a voiceover as a sequence of images appears: letters on aging parchment, newspaper clippings, drawings of my face, and even a couple of photographs.
Katie doesn’t even ask what the unfamiliar words mean; she just starts crying. Buffy and Joy rush into the room and the turmoil only increases.
Hours later, Buffy and I try to figure out how to deal with this without getting into a fight over it. We agree that we have to find out who sold the footage of Xander’s interview to the station, and that we might have to sue. Compared to explaining the situation to our children, that seems like the easy part.
“The worst thing,” says Buffy, “is that they cut out the context. When Xander said that, he was talking about how much different you were after you got your soul.”
“The worst thing,” I counter, “is that they had ‘The Most Notorious Vampires of the Millennium’ playing at seven p.m.”
“The worst thing is that they decided to use you for it instead of a zillion other eligible vamps.”
“The worst thing is that some of those portraits were mine.”
“The worst thing,” Buffy proclaims, slamming a hand down on the mattress, “is that those photos weren’t Angelus! They were you!”
I’m startled into silence. The worst thing, I suddenly suspect, is that I didn’t even notice that.
Last night Joy lifted her four-post bed off the floor with one hand, looking for a book, and hardly batted an eye when we told her what it meant. All of us had been assuming for years that she would be a Slayer, but when it actually happened, Buffy and I were speechless and Joy was the one who shrugged and said, “Cool. Now can I have my own sword?”
Today Buffy is taking her to be introduced to the Council and to some other mysterious mother-daughter rituals, and I’m spending the day at the zoo with Katie so she won’t feel neglected—or possibly so that I won’t.
From this day forth, my daughter is stronger than me. I have to learn in earnest what I refused to believe when I met Buffy: that nobody protects a Slayer, because nobody can. We who have such scant power of our own can only teach her to be strong enough to protect herself. I would give my life for Joy, but who would accept it?
I should be excited—Buffy certainly is—but as I look at Katie and listen to her happily rattling off a hundred obscure facts about Komodo dragons, all I can do is wonder if in a few years I’ll be losing her too. In my head, I know I’m not truly losing Joy. I just wish someone would say so.
They keep offering me painkillers. I was afraid I might be dosed against my wishes, but Buffy must have taken care of that. She knows the side effects are not acceptable. My condition won’t be improving from now on; my mind is still clear enough to know that, and I intend to keep it that way for as long as possible.
Even without the drugs, though, my sentience seems to be slipping. It takes longer and longer to remember what century this is, and I can’t learn the names of any of my doctors. It frightens me. Without my memory, who am I?
Visitors come and go, my children and grandchildren among them, and my friends, and my friends’ children. Buffy seldom leaves, but I can tell they’re taking care of her too. Once, I open my eyes to find her caressing my face. “Here we are again,” I whisper.
She chuckles quietly. “I’m just glad I don’t have to fight Faith this time. How are you feeling?”
“Afraid,” I admit.
Both of her hands close around mine. “Angel...”
“Not...not afraid of dying. Dying is okay. It’s time. I’m afraid...my mind will go first. I’ll look at you and I won’t know who you are.”
I can see the pain in her eyes, but she’s brave, still so brave. “If that happens, Angel, it’s okay. I’ll still be here. I’ll still know you love me.”
It hurts worse for me today too. “I don’t want to forget you,” I implore her.
“How could you?” Her voice is as soft as her touch, but I can hear every word. “You are me. You’ve always been a part of me. I lost you and I thought I would die, but I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, because once I had met you I could never really lose you again even if I tried. All of these things we’ve endured together, they’re real, they happened. To the world, and to us, even if you don’t remember. We’re not memories, Angel. We’re souls.”
There was once a day that never happened, but I remembered it anyway, remember it still, here on my deathbed. All these years I’ve carried that burden, knowing that the events I cherished were not the truth. Now I see what I received instead: not one day made real, but a lifetime. Each moment was worth it, not for looking back on but for its own sake, its own truth, souls in action, life intertwined. Each trial was a gift, never laid on me as punishment, but bestowed on us as a reason to prevail together.
The pain recedes, and her wrinkled, beloved face fades from my view. I don’t forget her.