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Past Tense of Loving
Fingers brushed warm over his face, but Angel ignored the dangerous illusion.
He could not tell which way was up, and despite trying desperately to free himself from this frozen grave, he had exhausted his energy in vain. His blood stained the snow around him where it had leaked out from breaks and tears. A branch had pierced his chest—on the right, inches from his heart—and dislodging it made sticky, warm fluid pour over his fist. His energy and strength spread out into the greedy snow, which sucked it up like a vast, cloying, virgin succubus.
The finger poked his eye.
He frowned and took it more seriously.
A whole palm mushed over his face, and he grasped the wrist.
At his reaction, the digging hand increased its activity, and then there were two warm hands reaching for him.
He began to scrabble, and he emerged into darkness, wet, shaking and bleeding.
An indistinct figure peered at him for a moment then wrapped a blanket over his shoulders.
‘My… companion?’ Angel coughed and tried again. ‘My friend? Have you found…?’ The figure shuffled away into the trees and returned leading a mule. Slung behind on a makeshift stretcher was a bundled figure, blond hair only just visible above the swathes of blankets. The figure began to lead the way along the line of trees, and Angel limped to keep up with him.
Around a large rock, under an overhang, and they walked into a large cave.
The relief from the wind was immediate; Angel knelt to the stretcher. Spike was unconscious and did not respond to either touch or words.
He stood and looked around, then stared at the figure peeling off numerous layers of skins. An old man turned and smiled at him crookedly, ancient eyes twinkling. ‘Welcome. You have been a long time coming. I am honoured.’
‘You know me?’
The elderly man indicated a stack of furs, but Angel shook his head. Within a few minutes the man reanimated a small fire until it blazed its heat and warmth into the cave. Angel took Spike from the stretcher and laid him on the furs, covering him and turning his cold face to the fire. He approached the man. ‘Who are you?’
‘I am the one you seek.’
‘You’re the Shaman of the Shoshoni?’
The old man stared out into the night, a look of great sorrow on his face. ‘I am the rain in a world where there is no life left to require it. I am the wind that has no place to blow. I am the sunshine in a world that is perpetually dark. They are all gone.’
‘I came to….’
‘I know why you are here.’
A surge of hope rose in Angel’s heart. ‘Can you help us?’
He sighed. ‘I can help no one now. My time on this earth is done.’ He saw Angel’s expression and shuffled toward a corner of the cave. ‘You do not need my help, He-Who-Is-Named-Of-Spirits, He-Who-Walks-With-The-Dead. You have many names, Angelus, some not as noble.’
Angel stepped forward, and the man held out a cup fashioned from bone. ‘You have never required my help; the answers you seek are here.’ He laid his palm gently over Angel’s heart then passed him the cup. ‘Blood of the eagle and the bear—great warriors. Sight and strength, they will lead you to your answers. Take them as our last gift.’
‘What about…?’ He glanced at the still figure softly illuminated by the fire.
The old man’s face was suddenly wreathed in smiles. ‘I have not had someone to tend for a long time. He will be well when you return from your journey.’
Angel sat on the furs once more, pushed the fingers of one hand into Spike’s still wet hair, and drank.
Spike made a small hole in the snow around his mouth, then cursed and remembered he didn’t need to breathe. He tried to dredge up something more useful from the Readers Digest story “The Day My World Turned White”, but nothing came. Fucking useless…. Cursing, he dug his way out.
They had crashed back as far as the tree line, the detritus of the snow’s advance lay all around them.
‘Angel?’ His voice sounded tiny in the huge mountains, and he swore more colourfully.
‘Angel?’ He stood still and used his senses. Blood—Angel’s. He ran over the fallen trees and found him, half-buried, unconscious, and bleeding from a scalp wound.
And thus it ever was: Angel got them into dumb scrapes, and it was his job to get them out. He sometimes wondered when someone wrote the story of their lives whether they’d present Angel as the clever, normal one and him as the humorous sidekick. It pissed him off just thinking about this inaccuracy, and he gave Angel’s unconscious form a baleful glance as he dragged him out of the snowdrift.
The horses were chomping on their bits a few feet into the trees, so he hoisted Angel up onto the strongest and climbed up behind him, holding him on with some considerable difficultly. There were times recently when he’d enjoyed Angel’s weight, but this wasn’t one of them.
He reckoned it was only an hour or so to dawn. They needed to find shelter. They needed to get off this bloody mountain—but first they needed to find shelter.
He led the second horse by the rein as they skirted the worst of the debris. It was skittish, which was fortunate, because if it hadn’t have shied at a shadow, Spike would never have seen the cave.
Twisting around to calm the horse, holding Angel as best he could, he saw it as no more than a shadow amongst shadows. He slid off, lowered Angel to the ground and walked over. A crack in the face of the mountain beckoned him. He slipped through and clicked his lighter. The feeble light didn’t even reach the walls. It was perfect. He carried Angel through and then led the reluctant animals into the narrow aperture.
Over the next hour, he gathered wood, lit a fire, fed the horses, heated some water and bathed Angel’s wounds.
It should all have increased his sense of contentment: relief at escaping the snowfall, the feeling of being in control once more. It didn’t. He felt tension racking up notch by notch.
The horses seemed to feel it, too: nervously stamping and making soft noises of distress.
The only thing Spike could liken it to was a game he used to play, a variant of chicken, where he stood in the tunnels under New York knowing a train was thundering toward him through the dark. Exhilaration then had made the extreme fear fun, but he didn’t feel that now. Now, he wasn’t alone. Now, he was the only one standing between Angel’s unconscious form and these bloody mountains, which now seemed alive and heading toward them with all the destructive force of a train, bearing down on him.
At last, unable to bear it longer, one of the horses bolted, shying away to the entrance and stumbling through. The other panicked and followed.
Spike stood up, legs straddled across Angel, facing the rear of the cave. As he did with the trains, he closed his eyes until he felt the preceding wind.
Angel felt something wobble, he grabbed at air, fell and hit, hard.
‘Angel? Angel! Oh, my God! Are you okay?’
He picked himself up, squinted up at the sun and stepped back into the shadows. No… the sun was fine. Now. He rubbed his hand tiredly over his face and squinted up. ‘Sure, Babe, I think I fell off the ladder.’
‘Come out of the sun for a while. It’s too hot out there.’
He wandered into the house and threw himself on the couch. He felt kinda woozy.
‘Maybe you should take a shower?’
He twisted around, smiling at the blonde figure. ‘Do I need one?’
Buffy wrinkled her nose. It was a definite yes.
He slouched up the stairs feeling heavy and listless. He’d been thinking something important before he fell off, but it escaped him now, nagging at him. He ran his tongue over his teeth, probing as if he had a hole. Woozy. Too much sun. He still wasn’t used to it. He sometimes wondered whether he ever would be.
He leant on the sink then looked up into the mirror. He reeled. When did he get so old? He rubbed his face and decided that if he had another sleepless night, he’d go to the Doc and get something. Twenty years. He’d aged only twenty years since that final, apocalyptic battle. It felt more like a hundred. He looked older than a forty seven year old man; he knew that. Some of his great age had come with him into his humanity, along with other demonic attributes. He glanced ruefully at the domestic items lining the sink: two toothbrushes, two washcloths—two of everything and always would be. He’d brought Buffy impotence and age.
He ran fingers through greying hair. She said distinguished. He said grey. He chucked his chin, stretching and tightening his jaw. It didn’t help. It didn’t conceal the flabbiness. His teeth were still good. His eyes were okay. He didn’t examine the rest of his body. There was only so much you could take.
He stood under the shower, letting the hot water wash away the dizziness. Another handful of hair swirled around his feet.
As he was drying, he heard light steps in the hallway. Buffy stuck her heard around the door. ‘Okay?’
She had aged, too. For some reason, it hit him like a sledgehammer, as if he’d not looked at her for this destructive twenty years then suddenly had. She’d thickened, not run to fat, she was too careful for that, but she’d lost the vitality, the spark that had so attracted him once. He held out his hand and smiled. This was better: this aging gracefully together.
He swatted her and went to the bedroom.
She followed him in and began to fold laundry. ‘I wonder what he’ll look like.’
‘Very funny, Sweetie. Just the same, I guess.’
‘Angel! Spike’s coming…. Angel?’
‘No. I’m okay. I still feel… dizzy.’
‘Did you hit your head when you fell?’
‘I don’t think so.’
He sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. He remembered now. Spike had called. Out of the blue. They hadn’t heard from him in twenty years. Not since….
Buffy watched him closely and said in the voice she always used to say this, ‘You didn’t steal Shanshu from him. It was yours by right.’
…. since he’d stolen Spike’s Shanshu from him. Had it been his? Had it been Spike’s? They’d both fought in that final battle. They’d both been broken and hurt. Then he’d been human, and Spike had been a swish of black leather, disappearing into the night without a backward glance.
Twenty years and he called. In the middle of the night. Didn’t speak to either of them. Left a message. ‘It’s me. Thought I’d drop by, seein’ as I’m passing. Maybe Saturday.’
Twenty years and he’d found Spike’s voice on his machine.
‘Do you think he’ll want to stay? Should I make up a bed?’
‘No. I don’t think he’ll want to stay.’
Spike saw the eyes first. They glowed green.
The rest, cloaked in black, blended with the night. ‘Spike.’
‘Who are you?’
The figure stepped into the light of the fire, and Spike’s fists balled. ‘You can’t be here. You’re in a bleedin’ cave in bloody Africa! In my soddin’ time!’
The demon tutted. ‘Shame on you, vampire. Did you not know that the earth is hollow and filled with the remains of ancient ones? I rode on their power to find you.’
‘Why? I won my soul fair and square. Fought action man and his twirly flamey things, did the bloody ugly demon….’ He shuddered. ‘And I had those sodding crawly things in my bloody nose! So fair and square!’
‘I’m not here for your soul—well, not specifically. I am here to help you return. Things are out of balance. One souled vampire, two souled vampires, and then there were none. Badly out.’
‘We have to return to restore balance? An’ you’re gonna help us cus—what? You’re just such a big-hearted fellow?’
‘I am here to take the opportunity to return the true balance. One souled vampire, two souled vampires, and then there were none, but then… one souled vampire…. I will take back one of you—or one of you souled, hell, we’re not picky.’
‘You’re not having either of us, Mate. Me and Angel like our souls just where they are.’
‘Well, then, I guess you know the drill….’
‘You’ve got to be fucking….’ He turned when he heard a sound behind him. Vast muscles, sleek, oiled body.
‘Don’t you go banging those bloody arms of yours…. Oh, fuck!’ He rolled away from the flaming arms, but the figure immediately went for Angel. Spike swore and side-kicked him then grabbed Angel’s body and high-tailed it toward the back of the cave.
He’d only just survived when he’d been fighting alone.
Now he had Angel to protect.
That changed everything.
‘What’s up, Hon?’ Buffy came up and hugged him as he stood in the window, watching the street. ‘He’ll be here soon.’
‘I’m not…!’ Derision! As if he’d be waiting or watching for Spike!
He pulled out of her grasp. ‘Drink?’
‘Haven’t you had…?’
‘I think I know when I’ve had enough!’ Had enough of you sometimes.
Angry looks. She was always good at those.
Sudden disgust at how he looked. ‘I’m going to change.’
‘That’s the third time, Angel! Calm down!’
‘I am calm.’ I’m so calm I feel dead. Not missing the irony of this, he went back to their room to sort, once more, through his clothes. Nothing was right. Nothing made him look any….
Twenty years. How could he compete?
Was this competition or something else?
The sound of a motorbike. You didn’t hear that in the Burbs very often. Ruin his Stepford life. Home baked biscuits.
The bike wasn’t in sight. Why didn’t he stop outside?
Achingly familiar tread—cocky, slouching and nonchalant.
‘Get that, Hon! I’m stirring.’
He walked slowly down the stairs and opened the door. No one there, but the smell of cigarette smoke, and an indistinct figure in the dark toeing the white picket fence. Can’t explain that it had only been a joke—a joke between them at first, honeymoon ecstasy, which had now come to define their lives.
At the sound of the door, the figure turned.
Angel sucked in his breath. Younger. No. Hair shaved.
A smile that stabbed his heart more effectively than any stake. ‘Angel.’ Spike came closer, up onto the porch. ‘Long time no see.’
Angel nodded, staring at the hair.
Spike ran his hand over it ruefully. ‘Invite me in then, Pet?’
Angel stood to one side and summoned voice he’d lost twenty years ago. ‘Come in.’
Then it was the Spike and Buffy show: talking, laughing, embracing. So blond, so beautiful.
Buffy wanted to show him the house. Spike let himself be led off with only a glance back at Angel, too enigmatic to read. Did it say: do you trust me with her? Or something else? Something that didn’t involve Buffy at all.
Angel took another drink and knew there were already sweat-stains under his arms.
They came back, more sombre. Buffy talking about the children that weren’t and never would be, prompted by the four empty bedrooms in this perfect life of theirs, that wasn’t perfect because of that, for her. For him, the imperfection lay elsewhere, but this was easier to focus on. Physical emptiness.
Adopt? The question slid from his childe’s lips. NO! Never his again. They had no connection now. It’s why they’d never adopted: the importance of blood. It was all in all to him still, and now he shared none with this man. Blood of his blood. He had lost the demon inside him now. Quite gone.
Buffy needing to finish things in the kitchen. Spike going with her. Still that laughter that he couldn’t summon, but then he never laughed much anyway. Couldn’t see the need. Never found life all that funny really.
He went to change again. Fresh shirt. Fresh body? Not now. Now he was an hour older than when he’d arrived. Twenty years and one hour.
Food. Spike asked him if he still didn’t eat, and Angel realised he’d eaten nothing. He had a pretty sculpture on his plate though; it looked like mountains.
Buffy and Spike, still talking: do you remember? how could we have? where? when?
Why didn’t they ask why? That seemed the most important to him: why? Why any of this?
And then they were alone. He looked up from a cleared table to find Spike staring at him, smoking, thoughtful.
Spike nodded. ‘Yeah. Sorry ‘bout that.’
‘Twenty fucking years, Spike, and you decide to—what? See how the other half live?’
‘It’s not so long for me, Pet; remember that.’
Angel did. Time moving like bubbles in a lava lamp; defined by the eternal.
‘You look….’ Angel waited to see how much Spike would lie. ‘Older.’ Spike and his blunt truths; he’d not missed them. ‘Distinguished.’
Angel flicked up his eyes. ‘That’s what Buffy says.’
‘She looks incredible.’
Angel frowned. When was the last time he’d told her that?
‘How’s life treating you then?’ The stress put on life more than it would be for anyone else in that simple question.
‘Uh huh.’ More thoughtful staring.
‘What have you been up to?’
‘This and that. Been travelling. Been staying still. Ain’t much more to tell really.’
‘So, why the visit, Spike?’
Spike stubbed out his cigarette. ‘I’ve got something I want you to see.’
Angel felt a prick of something. Alarm? Curiosity? Arousal? He’d felt none of those for so long he couldn’t tell what the small frisson of emotion was.
Spike stood up.
Angel glanced toward the kitchen then followed him to the door.
He was bleeding so badly he felt heaviness in all his limbs. The burns had begun to heal, but once this flood of blood began from the deep wound in his belly, the healing had stopped. Everything hurt so much, but still he had to keep going, Angel in his arms, further into the cave, further into the womb of the earth.
Not one hand laid on Angel.
He’d taken every blow, every burning flame, every pincer, whip, razor—all of it, on his own flesh and absorbed the pain so it would not seep to Angel. Angel, who lay unconscious still. Angel, with his beautiful face in deep repose. Angel.
They came again; it seemed like hundreds, but he fought them off as he always did. He was screaming, but not in fear or pain, a vast challenging cry to the demon: you can’t have them!
He didn’t think anyone was listening. They were too far into the earth now.
He lost an arm.
A swift slice taking it off just above the elbow.
It wasn’t the pain or the disfigurement. It was the not being able to carry his precious burden. He stood braced, legs apart in front of the body. They’d still have to come through him.
No one there. Another trick.
He bound the stump, no time to stop and weep. He had to get Angel further away from danger. Had to drag him now. So slow.
A huge rumble and the ground began to shake.
Still he dragged. They’d find somewhere safe.
Not one hand on Angel.
‘Give it up, Spike.’
‘Yours or his. I’m really not bothered which. Give one up and you’ll both be home.’
‘We need our souls.’
‘It’s time to decide, Spike. You or Angel.’
The rumbling got louder, the shaking worse. A huge crack formed someway ahead and began to edge toward them.
This was it: the last stand. Even he couldn’t fight the fiery pits of hell. He could see them now, through the widening crack. All the demons. All the people. All the agonies. A lifetime of pain.
He had to decide. He couldn’t save them both.
‘If I decide, we both return alive?’
‘Of course. Angelus and Spike, or William the Bloody and Angel.’
‘I’ll have the soul replaced, you know that.’
‘I’m afraid not. What I’m given freely, I get to keep. Forever.’
‘When I decide, this will all stop?’
‘Of course. As I said.’
Spike finished his edging of Angel’s body toward the pit, unnoticed under the conversation.
‘Go to hell, demon.’ He pushed Angel over and dove, too, one good arm spread, as if he could, even in that fall into hell, take Angel in his arms and protect him.
The night embraced them, and he felt an immediate sense of relief. Spike tipped his head up. ‘Pretty.’
Angel followed his gaze to the heavens. The earth was tilted so they looked down the arm of the Milky Way, the stars so bright and numerous that the light made their skin glow white. He looked down at his hand, expecting it to be wet.
Spike patted the white picket fence as he went past.
They went a few hundred yards down the street and turned into the park.
A motorcycle and a figure, and Spike was making introductions.
Angel shook his head, trying to clear it. ‘Sorry? I didn’t….’ Hear. Want to hear. Don’t tell me this.
‘Angel, this is Jab.’
Young man grinning at him. ‘It’s Jacob. Spike likes irony.’
Spike, struggling to stay on his rearing horse, looked at Angel and the man he cradled in his lap. His voice was a whisper over the crackle of the firelight. ‘Wesley!’
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