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They filed in for the meeting over a space of ten minutes. Angel stayed by the window until he sensed that he was there, and then he turned and took his place at the head of the table. He tried not to glance at Spike's holdall, left carelessly by the door.
He looked at each of the others in turn: his faithful friends. Lorne was looking deceptively nonchalant, as ever. Gunn seemed tense and thoughtful, but then he always did these days. Fred was eager, still full of enthusiasms. Lastly, he turned to regard Wesley. Wesley was watching Spike, and his expression was completely unreadable. Angel repressed a small, bitter smile. He had a feeling Wesley would not be so unreadable soon.
Placing his palms on the table, spreading his fingers as if to balance some great weight, he began. He tried to tell the tale in a linear way, but the more he got into it, the more he saw connections, and it drifted and wavered, as it had as he'd lived it with them. He told it totally faithfully, not from the benefit of hindsight, but honest about his own mistakes and failures at the time. The entire story - from a rushed, unpleasant night of sex with Darla, to the moment he had made the deal - was told. He related it all in total silence from the table. He'd expected nothing less, so kept his eyes lowered to his hands, his voice steady, and his emotions under check. He wondered if any of them could know what it took from him to tell of such things, suspected that they couldn't, hoped that they never would.
Eventually, it was done. He told of Connor's new family and showed how the balance had been achieved: each one of them in their allotted place of evil because of a deal he had made. He looked up to a new set of people than the ones who had sat down with him. He'd known it would be like this. No one ever accused him of not being able to make the hard decisions.
He did not look at Spike; he still had that confession to make, but that was to be to him alone, after this, after he'd shown Spike that he had looked in the mirror and seen what he'd wanted him to see.
No one spoke for what seemed to Angel like the longest time.
Lorne was the first one to stir. He shook himself slightly and looked around the table with a bemused expression. 'I'm sorry, Angel-cakes, but I'm not getting the punch-line here.'
This was not the reaction Angel had expected from anyone, and he jerked his head back slightly. 'What?'
'Well…. I may only be speaking for myself here, but this isn't a Hollywood movie, Sugar-pie. There's no theatrical gasp of shock from this corner of the big-announcement table. Not remembering any of it here, Poppet. Tell me another, and try for more shock value this time.'
Fred picked up on his theme wistfully. 'Does it matter why we're here? We all stay of our own choice…. Don't we?'
Gunn nodded. 'I'm damn glad we are here, man! I've always dreamed of something like this, and I got it all for free. Don't even remember paying the price.'
Angel looked from one to the other, trying to hear insincerity, fear, anger. He heard nothing but confusion and honesty.
Reluctantly he turned to Wesley. Wesley was pale and studying his hands. When he sensed he was under scrutiny, he said softly, 'I think you've left something out, Angel.'
Angel studied the lowered head and said evenly, 'What I feel about it all now?'
'Yes. That seems rather critical to the overall point of this story, doesn't it?'
Angel pursed his lips and waited for the man to look up. 'I think we all did what we did for the best motives at the time. We were wrong. We were played. We were misguided. But we were never malicious. None of us.'
Something physically loosened around Wesley's face, as if the man had only held himself in check by the narrowest of margins. Now, it looked as if he could smile without cracking skin. 'Why have you decided to tell us now? It seems almost too late. Bargains made and sealed?'
'I made another bargain to keep someone I love safe, but I finally got it: you can't balance evil. It will always win if you let it. I needed to confess that huge freaking mistake, and all this was necessary first. Clean slate.'
Wesley seemed to understand this readily enough. He resisted looking at Spike, but he gave Angel a small, pleased nod.
Angel frowned and looked around the table once more. They all looked back at him as if, as Lorne said, waiting for the punch line. He was desperate for them all to go now so he could speak alone with Spike, the silent one- the one who had not caught his eye once throughout the long telling. He pouted. 'Well that's it, I guess.'
Suddenly, Gunn looked up. 'I guess this might be a good time to tell you…. Spike…?'
Spike jerked his head up as if he'd switched off entirely and had been deep in his own thoughts. 'Yeah?'
'I guess I'm your lawyer now, so you'd better read this….' Gunn pulled a slim sheet of paper out of his pocket and pushed it over the table to him.
Spike didn't take it; he stared at it for a moment then back up at Gunn. 'What is it?'
Spike heard a soft sound from Angel, and for the first time turned to look at him.
Angel was staring down at the slim piece of paper as if it could physically burn him. He looked up at Spike, and the word don't seemed to hang in the air between them.
Spike shrugged and picked it up anyway. He scanned it for a moment then looked up at Gunn.
Gunn nodded and said to the table at large, 'She left it all to Spike. House… everything.'
Wesley rose and came around the table to sit next to Spike and read over his shoulder. He looked up at Gunn, too. 'Is this legal? Surely someone will contest this?'
Gunn shrugged. 'She must have had a damn fine lawyer. I can't find any holes in it at all. It's rock-solid.'
'What do these investments amount to?'
Gunn smiled. 'I'm thinking Spike's slightly wealthier than Wolfram and Hart now… and every single one is an ethical investment. It's an incredible portfolio.'
Lorne raised an eyebrow. 'Ethical?' He looked at Spike. 'No offence, Babe - you know I love you - but isn't Spike an odd choice to leave anything ethical to…?'
The conversation continued to flow around the two who did not contribute. They had their own reasons to stay silent, but each were curious about the other's. Spike flicked his eyes over to Angel but found himself under scrutiny, so he darted them back to the paper that was like a hole in the world: its enormity beyond him. He'd be able to keep his apartment though, and that was kinda cool.
Gunn and Wesley wanted to study the will further so left together. Lorne and Fred drifted out, chatting about it.
Angel looked at his hands for a moment, still spread on the desk and said in a slightly high-pitched voice, 'Well, that went well.'
Spike nodded. 'Not such a big deal then- telling the truth.'
Angel shook his head. 'No.'
Spike waited patiently for a moment then said petulantly, 'So, why am I here? Why the big deal to get me here? I knew all that.'
Angel suddenly said, dropping his eyes, 'The will. Gunn told me he wanted you here.'
This was such an odd, blatantly untrue claim that Spike wondered for a moment if Angel was making a joke- that he'd look up, laughing and tell him the truth, as if annoyed at the way his first confession had been received and was trying to boost up the drama of this one.
He didn't look up, and his mutinous stance told Spike that Angel was prepared to continue in this bizarre lie.
He rose and made to collect his bag. 'Well, I guess I'm not leaving L.A. after all. One day, I'll have to put me money where me mouth is an' just go.' This got no response either. He stood and looked at Angel's lowered head and serious, closed-off expression. 'What was the real reason you wanted me here today, Angel?'
Angel laughed bitterly. 'I was going to make you an offer you couldn't refuse, but you got better one.'
'Maybe I'd prefer yours….'
Angel snorted faintly. 'Yeah, evil versus the bright-white light of goodness. I know how your mind works, Spike.'
'Is that so…? Bet you can't guess what I'm thinking now.' With that, he spun on his heel and left.
He went into Wesley's office and flung his bag on a chair. Wesley was standing at the window, his back to the room, and Spike went over and stood alongside him. After a moment, he nudged him affectionately. 'So, was I right to not tell you?'
Wesley blew out a long breath, thinking. 'On the whole? All things considered? I have absolutely no idea.' He softened this assessment by nudging Spike back. 'It's odd. I'm trying to see myself doing those things, thinking those things, and I'm finding it surprisingly… easy. Which is almost frightening. But most of all, I'm almost grateful that I don't remember it, that I just know it now- as some kind of intellectual exercise.'
'So… will you shave and become less sexy?'
Wesley chuckled. 'Talking of being sexy… did he tell you?'
Spike looked in a deceptively casual way at one nail. 'Tell me what?'
Wesley hesitated. 'He had something important to tell you….'
'Yeah. He did. He just didn't.'
'Oh. But you know anyway, don't you? What it was he was going to say…?'
'I have a fairly good idea, yeah.'
'And you're… what? I'm utterly confused here, Spike. I thought, eight bottles of whisky ago, that Angel telling you he loves you was exactly what you wanted.'
'If this was a show, Wes, what do you think it would be called?'
'This… all of this… if we were in a show on the telly. What would it be called, do you think?'
Wesley frowned, thought for a moment, and then said, with slowly dawning comprehension, 'I suppose it would be the Angel Show.'
Spike nodded. 'He's the centre of everything, isn't he? He decides what happens- it's all to his agenda. He decides what we know, what we don't know. He decides what we think. We all circle around him: the universe-shaped object around which we gravitate.'
'I'm not sure I entirely agree with you. I think everyone sees themselves as the centre of their own universe. That's human nature, after all.'
Spike looked at him surprised and interested. 'Huh. It must be the blood thing then. You don't walk and talk everyday with your creator, do you? He's always seemed like that to me.'
'But not… now?'
Spike smiled. 'He thought he could decide for me, see? He always does that. He didn't trust me enough to tell me the truth. He's never trusted me. He's never respected me. Then, when he's ready to tell me, he thinks I'll bloody turn back on like a tap of need.'
Wesley huffed. 'Like you ever turned off, Spike. Impressive speech, but don't ever try to tell me that you've stopped loving Angel.'
Spike nudged him again. 'Yeah, well. But things have changed now.'
'Because you're rich? Angel isn't motivated by money in any shape or form, you know that.'
'Not the money, Wes, the power. I guess it's one and the same thing in the end. Angel is very motivated by power: his and other peoples.'
'Is this some kind of twisted revenge trip, Spike? Because if it is, I want no part….'
'Don't.' Spike took his shoulders and stared into the still troubled eyes. 'Don't tell me that somewhere behind those incredibly blue eyes, you don't feel angry that Angel didn't give you the choice either- that he took your power entirely from you.'
'I love Angel.'
'This has nothing to do with love!' Spike let him go and turned back to the view. 'I could go in there now, and I'd have him on his knees in a minute if this was about love. It's not. It's about my place in the world, Wes. It's about balance. I'm tired of being his supporting character. I want his world to stop for once when his heart gets stomped on.'
'Eight bottles of whisky later, hey?'
Spike nodded thoughtfully. 'Love has nothing to do with it.'
Angel was still sitting at the end of the empty conference room long after everyone else went home.
I am not going to freaking think about this!
He turned a small piece of glass around and around in his hand, wondering if eventually its sharp edges would smooth like a piece of glass he'd once seen washed up on the beach.
Okay, I'm thinking, I'm thinking. I'm in that damn bed with him. Happy? Thinking about the bed. I didn't ask for that fucking dream- and seed pearls? Jeez, lose the fucking irony, why don't you? Wham, bam, in my head: I'm gonna lose him. He needed to be protected: from me- from himself. He's… dependent, needy… Hey! I did NOT think those words.
(you did, you've always thought that about him)
He couldn't possibly understand what was at stake. I had to make the hard decisions again! I don't see anyone else around here willing to make them!
(you didn't give them the chance; you took their memories from them)
No! I protected them. I did what needed to be done. It's what I do! And I did it for Spike. Pushed him away.
(she said you had to tell him that you love him- unbreak his heart)
Oh, cut the corny crap. I was gonna tell him! Okay! Right here in that frigging seat, sitting there not looking at me….
(but he's not so needy now, is he? He's not so… dependent….)
I did NOT think those words. But, no, he's not. He's… powerful, magnificent, hard….
(okay, concentrate here, maybe?)
How could I tell him?
(how could you not?)
Some frigging help you're being. I couldn't tell him because….
Because… he hadn't changed at all. He's never been needy and dependent.
Fuck off. So, I was wrong. I can make a mistake, can't I?
(maybe he was too strong for you to push those seed pearls into? Did you think of that?)
(well, did you?)
I pushed him away because I was scared of…?
(well, not being able to name it is kinda a BIG clue here)
I can name it! I can name it. I just don't want to… do it….'
(because you're scared of him)
What? Okay, you can just shut the fuck up now. All done with the introspective brooding here!
(what, and waste three lifetimes of honing the skill?)
He always seems so… self-contained. Always at the centre of things, but they don't touch him. He walks, God-like, through everything life throws at him. Why can't I do that? Why is everything so hard? Why couldn't I have woken him and told him that I was scared to love him, scared to get close? Shit, he knows me. It's not like he wouldn't understand: Darla, Buffy, Cordelia, Connor. All lost…. Too weak to hold onto them. But I wanted to hold him. I wanted never to let go.
(maybe it's not too late)
Yeah. He's moving away from me now. Spinning out into that bright light where I can't follow.
(have you been drinking beaver blood again?)
He's rich; he's powerful; he's… not mine.
Why did he give you back the mirror?
Angel frowned and looked down at it. Rubbing his fingers over the now warm edges.
To punish me?
(You total loser. So you can see what he sees when he looks at you: his)
Angel rose and smashed his fist into the wall, breaking three bones and splitting the skin across the knuckles, his blood flecking the pristine whiteness. He sucked in the pain and banished all inner voices. What the frick did they know?
What the fuck did it matter why he'd ran from Spike's bed? What did it matter why he'd lied to him and pushed him away? What did any of it matter? He'd have a few photographs of Spike taken with his new life, smiling into the camera, and he could lock them away in the bowels of Wolfram and Hart with all his other lost chances.
He smashed the wall once more, grinding the smashed edges of bones together until tears ran down his cheeks.
Maybe he'd go visit Pavayne, open all the doors, let them all flood out.
Then they'd need him.
Then Spike would need him.
There was some excitement around the offices that he couldn't define. He sensed it in Harmony and Fred; it rose like a scent from Lorne. He refused to ask what it was. A week from his big announcement, and it was as if he'd told them they were going to change the brand of coffee.
It was only when Harmony asked for the following Friday off, this request followed by a similar one from Fred and Gunn, that he mumbled casually to Wesley in their daily update meeting, 'What's happening on Friday?'
Wesley frowned and pursed his lips, thinking. 'Nothing that I know of, why? Of course, we're all keeping our diaries deliberately empty because of the party.'
He could hear himself say in a plaintive voice, 'Party,' so snapped his jaw shut and refused to utter one syllable.
Wesley seemed to take pity on him and added, 'We're christening the big house, so to speak.'
We? We? 'Oh.'
'Spike's new house? He's throwing a party. Open house. Everyone's going to be there….'
I'm fucking not. 'Really?'
'Are you coming?'
Apparently not. 'No.'
'Pity. There are going to be some real movers and shakers there. It's a good opportunity for you to meet them. You may never get another opportunity….'
Do you want your fucking throat ripped out again? 'Okay. I'll think about it. If I'm invited, of course.'
'To be honest, Angel, I really don't think Spike will notice whether you're there or not- there will be a lot of important people there.'
You die. 'I'm probably busy anyway.'
'Good. That's what I told Spike.'
'What?' Lower you freaking voice or you die, too. 'What?'
'Hmm. When he asked if you were coming, I said you'd probably be too busy. So, can we draw a line under these budget amendments, or do you want to go over them again? I'm not in a hurry, if you need me to explain them a little more slowly.'
Angel stared at him, but the man didn't flinch or blush. He seemed entirely sincere. Angel glanced down at the paperwork and then up again, very rapidly. Wesley was still looking at him with a disarming innocence.
Angel shook his head. 'No.'
Wesley smiled pleasantly and gathered everything up, making toward the door.
Wesley rearranged his features and turned back. 'Yes?'
'Tell Spike I am coming. I wouldn't miss it for the world.'
Spike was lying in the middle of one of the large four-poster beds when Wesley discovered him. He was staring sightlessly up at the plush velvet hangings and did not seem to hear the man's arrival. Wesley perched on the edge of the bed and followed Spike's gaze, trying to see what he was finding so fascinating.
Suddenly, Spike swung his legs and flipped off the bed, pacing in an agitated manner, a restless energy sparking from him. 'So?'
'He's coming.' Wesley looked down, amused. 'I never knew I had such a streak of cruelty in me. I suppose having your memory taken from you rather does that. So, he's coming, just as you wanted. Now what?'
Spike grinned evilly. 'Now I take his advice.'
Angel would have hesitated on the sweeping steps of the old house, but he got borne along on the crush that seemed to be pouring into its welcoming, lit interior.
He had no time to gather himself before he was in a room packed with beautiful people. He made immediately for the wall and planted his back to it, accepting a drink and tossing it back in one.
With a cringe of embarrassment, he thought about going home to change. Everyone seemed to be in white, or light, summer, elegant clothes, and he stood out like a beacon of darkness in the corner. He took another drink from a passing tray and drank that equally quickly.
He didn't recognise anyone. They were all young, sleek, groomed. Not evil.
With relief he spotted Wesley, pushed off the wall and made his way over to him.
'Angel! How nice.'
'Who are all these people?'
'Well, most of them are in the business, I believe. Lorne's triumph.'
'Hollywood, Angel? The business?'
'Actors, producers, writers, one or two studio bosses, I believe.'
'Why are they here?'
'Courting power, I should think.'
Why don't you just tell me where he is without me having to ask?
Angel was saved having to ask when another dark figure walked into the room. Except for the hair, which was always startling, Spike had dressed all in black as well: black leather pants and a black silk shirt. It made his skin seem almost translucent.
He began to circle around the beautiful people as if he knew every one of them.
Angel waited his turn, like a supplicant, and by the time Spike reached him, he was so furious - mostly with himself - that he debated ignoring Spike entirely. He needn't have worried; Spike gave him a small nod and moved on, laughing easily with a young man who was admiring one of the paintings on the wall.
Wesley said softly, 'Why don't you go and look around the house, Angel? It's rather impressive.'
Angel nodded, not really hearing or understanding, but he pushed his way out into the vast hallway as if he needed air.
He jogged up the stairs and went to find the room where she'd died. It was serene, no trace of its recent history, and he flung himself down on the chaise lounge, brooding.
Angel snapped his head up and saw Spike leaning in the doorway, lighting a cigarette. He came further in and pushed the door shut behind him.
Spike shrugged. 'Leave then.'
'I….' Angel got up and walked away, leaning on one of the long windows, staring out over the front lawns.
'So…. I've been thinking… 'bout what you said….'
'I say lots of things. What?'
'About us. You and me.'
Angel turned around, alert, tense, not allowing himself to be hopeful. 'Us?'
'Yeah. Remember? You said we were still vampires and we could… do stuff… if we wanted….'
'Well, yeah….' He slid closer, his eyes fixed unwaveringly on Angel. 'Fun… you said…. My mouth… remember?'
Angel backed away, but he was against the window so the movement only came over as a nervous start. 'No.'
'No, you don't remember, or no, you don't want to?'
'What is this crap, Spike?'
'Oh, come on, Angel. Don't go all coy on me. We've sucked each other off… no biggie. I'm bored; I'm horny, and I want you. Quick suck. What'd'ya say?'
'I…. I wanted to tell you. At the meeting. I was wrong….'
'Don't go all heavy and talky-talky at me. I don't want it. I want a quick blow and then I'm back to the party. You in or not?'
'No. I'm not.'
Spike shrugged. ''K then. I'll go for my second choice….'
'I don't want…. I mean…. I'm trying to tell you that I wasn't entirely honest with you about….'
'No faggoty crap, yeah? Doesn't suit you.'
He waved his cigarette imperiously at Angel and walked swiftly back to the door. As he opened it, he turned and said seductively, 'Wanna come watch? Nothing like a hot human mouth on your dick…. No? Pity….'
The vast house was so oppressively close he could find no room in it. It closed in on all sides, trapping him. He could sense a storm brewing outside, its heavy weight of heat pricking even his skin with sweat. After an hour of staring mindlessly out of the window, he felt something drop on his hand, thought it had begun to rain inside, then realised he had started to cry.
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