And then, I find myself writing something bittersweet and melancholy and dammit, I *like* it.
So. Imagine the future and a night like any other. Imagine a man sitting in the bar, and you don't know his story, you only know that he's there, just another person in the crowd.
And imagine what he knows.
Title: Pieces of Now
Author: Regala Electra
Pairing: Buffy/Angel, Buffy/Other
Summary: It is not kismet, fate, or destiny. It is not expected and not surprising. His heart doesn't skip a beat.
Pieces. That is what life truly is. Pieces and moments and little things. A loud laugh that breaks over the rising noise of a packed crowd. The thick foam of a good beer nearly spilling out of the heavy mug.
The crowd is composed of colors, of shadows, and in the mess of people, no one stands out. No one is important or significant, they are exactly what they seem: ordinary.
Even a man sitting at the bar, taking slow and patient sips at something aged and expensive. Scotch. A good year. He'd been around that year, but he doesn't need to tell anyone that. It's just a little thing, like a stolen glance from a beautiful woman at the other end of the bar. Nothing to examine for too long.
She's with another though, and he's content to just watch them. Her companion fixes something on the shoulder of her blouse. She says something to him. He can't hear her voice and he likes that. He'd been afraid - immediately after the change - that his lessened senses would make him feel blind and deaf, not human at all. That isn't the case, not at all.
He has time now - a time that is not infinite and a punishment. His time is fleeting - it disappears in every breath he takes and every moment he exists - and he savors the moments in their fragility.
He's just heard the news. A call he never expected from a son that still disbelieves his claim of paternity, coming out of that blue that's never quite been explained (just where does that blue come from?), and he listened to Connor (he's always, no matter the new name, thought of him as Connor). He's a grandfather now.
The little child, a daughter, his granddaughter, will never know about him. He found a gray hair this morning, right at the temple, sitting quietly to announce his most physical entry as an aging human. The two events are not related. Somehow, they're the two reasons he's sitting in this pub tonight.
He's thirty-five now. Not physically, not mentally, just, that's where it would be if he counts from when he died the first time and when he Shanshued. Thirty-five. It's just a number, but he doesn't mind it, instead he embraces it. It's fitting.
He thinks the gray hair is a reminder of what he's been given, no, given is the wrong word. Happened, perhaps. Just because he's on the other side of that line he had divided in his mind all those years ago, doesn't mean he's figured it all out. Yet.
He likes to pretend that he'll have the answers someday. But now, he knows that it's just a foolish hope. His world won't shatter if he learns otherwise. Things aren't painted in black and white anymore and he doesn't fear drowning in gray.
He lives. Just like that.
He nods to the bartender. Watches his glass get refilled. Pays and says mild pleasantries, nothing important. He vacates his seat and sits at a secluded table, the crowd's emptied out a bit and the noise is a low murmur. He's grown to like people watching. If you stay still enough, he believes, you might learn something new, or remember something forgotten.
England's grown on him. He'd stayed too long in Los Angeles afterwards, as if getting a tan would make him happy. But the sunny days reminded him too much of false cheeriness and he couldn't quite give up the fight even though he knew how fragile his life had become. So he said goodbye to Wesley, who'd been better at reforming and running the law firm than he could ever pretend himself capable of, and left. He hadn't looked back or regretted his choice because he hadn't escaped or run off into the sunset. He just moved elsewhere.
He's not unhappy in England. He thinks he would have been, eventually, in Los Angeles. What it means to him is different now. It was a place where he tried to be a hero, or something like it. He's not like that anymore. And he's not what he'd always feared either - he's not a monster. He's just Angel.
He gets it now.
Los Angeles was where he failed and where he did some good, for what it mattered. He's learned that even the smallest amount of good matters and he doesn't believe that he'd understand that if he had stayed in L.A.
An order of Slayers is established here in London, one of the stronger bases, and he's found himself employed and liking his job. His experience is valuable and he doesn't ever feel a pang of regret, a desire to keep on fighting. And it isn't weariness, which he expected, it's just being human. He's content.
This is being balanced. He was once terrified that balance meant sacrifice, that it meant suffering and pain. It doesn't. Balance is feeling productive after helping a class of Slayers improve their fighting form. Balance is calling the States and telling Wesley that he's a grandfather now. Though the guilt, the pain, and that dark anger still lies between them, he's still able to say the words, "I have a granddaughter," and the words are just that, nothing more or less.
Connor had told him they (Connor and his wife) had named her Kathleen. Kathy for short. Angel had held his breath and felt dizzy until he remembered he needed to breathe. Connor didn't know, he didn't know about Angel's sister, but that was life now. He had told Connor he understood and he would never visit Connor's family. He had congratulated his son and asked, just before Connor hung up if the dreams had lessened.
"Yes," Connor had said. "Doesn't mean that I'm going to forget, father."
Angel had wished his son the best and does not expect to ever be forgiven.
He's people watching. Just because he's human doesn't mean that he isn't captivated by the smallest of things that others do: the way a woman, in her earliest twenties at best, winces when trying a friend's dark beer and shakes her head with a surprisingly pretty frown on her dark lips.
"Sorry," someone knocks, just barely, into the back of his chair. Angel says it's okay, but the person is lost in the crowd, not hearing the remark.
He thinks of letting an English accent color his words. His American accent sticks out more than he likes. It is surprising that the lingering remnants of Irish pride and arrogance within him are not protesting that idea. He decides against it, after a sip of his scotch.
It is not thunder and lightning when she enters the pub. It is not kismet, fate, or destiny. It is not expected and not surprising. His heart doesn't skip a beat. He doesn't freeze or rush to her and there is not a hushed silence that suddenly washes over the crowd. Nothing particularly interesting happens except she manages her way up to the bar without any difficulty, sliding between people with a deceptive quickness.
She does manage to see him in the crowd and that perhaps, is a lingering remnant of magic, a magic he no longer believes in. Her face doesn't immediately light up, nor it is captured in the sadness. Perhaps she's finally grown out of that sadness that always colors his memories of her. She looks settled, he decides, and she takes a clear drink - vodka perhaps? - and walks over to his table.
She is older. That much is to be expected. It's been nearly nine years since the last time he saw her, in Sunnydale. There had been such sadness to her face then, and he thinks either it's finally vanished, or she's learned to hide it better.
Maybe he can't read her anymore. That idea doesn't scare him at all.
She's still beautiful. Time has thankfully touched her, she's aged and blossomed - he does think of the word blossom in regards to her beauty. Because she is to him always beautiful, he will never think of her as any other way. Time has warmed her skin and her eyes are lively and mature. She flicks her nervous smile at him and asks if she can sit there.
"It's been a long time," he says, but he gets up, pulling the other chair away from the table, offering her the seat. He sits back down, waiting.
She sits and stares at him for a long while, as though deciding something. She finds whatever she was looking for, because she answers, "I fell out of touch with a lot of people. I've only really been in contact with Dawn."
He nods. He doesn't ask how Dawn is, he knows, he's working with her now in London. England suits her nicely and she enjoys working as the main researcher for the Slayers. She'd been surprised that he never asked about Buffy and had finally spoken to him about it several months after he arrived in London.
He had told her that Buffy was a part of his past. And he hadn't explained it any further, but he knows she didn't quite understand his reason.
And Buffy's here now, right in front of him. Her outfit's dark and simple, something that's surprisingly demure and attractive. She's not the most beautiful woman in the bar, but she is here, and he never expected that.
"Visiting your sister, then?" he asks, taking another sip of his scotch.
"Yeah," she answers. She doesn't look into his eyes as she says, "I didn't expect to see you here."
"But Dawn did tell you that I was here in London, right?" He doesn't need an answer. She looks down at her drink and he's surprised that he doesn't care that she purposely avoided him. He remembered the last phone call he had with her, a little over eight years ago. She'd been in France then, and he had asked her if she still loved him. She hadn't answered and he had told her goodbye.
"How's life treating you?"
He likes the sound of that question. It makes it seem like life isn't just a passive entity, that life is more than the little things. He doesn't necessarily believe that life is more than that, but he still likes the question. Open and vague, and something polite. A little thing.
"It's been surprisingly good, actually," she admits, sounding almost embarrassed by admitting that. "I've spent the last two years in Eastern Europe and Russia."
He watches her take a long drink of her vodka. "That explains the drink of choice."
"Vodka on the rocks. What can I say? I developed a taste for it. Actually, it's the only alcohol I've been able to handle."
He's impressed and tells her so.
She shakes her head, "Don't be. I just got used to it."
That sounds depressing to him. He hopes he never gets used to anything. He once tried to exist just by getting used to things and it ate at him until he was hollowed out. It didn't kill him, that's the terrible truth to it, it just made him a shadow until he was convinced that he deserved that: to be always alone and empty.
He no longer finds comfort in wallowing in misery.
"So how was Russia?"
She doesn't take a moment to think about it. "Cold. Different. Big. The winters were killer, I wasn't as prepared as I thought I was. But I liked it."
He tries to think of Buffy in Russia. She doesn't quite seem like she would fit there. He can't think a place that would suit her.
"Where are you planning on going next?"
She smiles at that. "You asking me to leave already?"
He doesn't laugh but he lets his smile reach his eyes. "No, not at all. I know all the work you've been doing. It's amazing. With so many new orders of Slayers set up, it's made the battle so much safer, so much better for them. I'm proud of you, Buffy."
She twists the glass around and around in her hands. "Yeah," she says, "It's a new world. What's it like being human again, Angel?"
It's meant to be exactly as glib and offhand as she says it. He takes a long time to answer. "Different and the same. Life's slower now. I like that."
"Wow, a direct answer. You are different. Although you're looking a bit pasty," she teases, but her voice sounds cold to his ears. "Maybe you need to spend some more time in the sun."
He shrugs. "I found out that tanning wasn't all it's cracked up to be."
She lightly laughs at that. Looking at him with an expression he tries not to comprehend, but it's all so painfully clear, she admits, "You've changed."
"Not really," he says, finishing his scotch.
There's a patient silence after that. He waits until she also finishes her drink. A question hangs between him, that figurative elephant in the room.
Why didn't you tell me?
What she doesn't know, which he knows would surprise her, is that he has an answer. She can ask her question and it won't be met by the silence she expects. It won't lead to an ugly scene or a confession that he made the wrong choice; that he was afraid of what being human meant to their relationship.
Because if she asks him now, he would immediately respond.
It wouldn't have changed anything. It - this right here - would have been exactly what it is now.
She wouldn't have rushed back to him and he wouldn't have run off to be with her. He would have told her and she would have told him she needed time and he wouldn't hear back from her. He might have waited or disappeared into the sunset. She would have wanted him to wait, he thinks. But he knows that he would die waiting for her and she would never return.
But that's the past. And he's finally learned not to meddle with the past.
When she finishes, he asks her if she'd like to walk around the city for a bit. She says yes without hesitating.
As they walk down a street, just an ordinary street, he breaks the silence, "Would you have really come back if I told you, Buffy? Would you have wanted me to come to you?"
"I want to say yes, Angel, I really do," her voice is low and old, "but the answer's no. It's that terrible? I would have said no."
"I knew that already." But oddly enough, the truth's still bitter to him. He'd hate her if he hadn't come to terms with what his humanity meant. It's difficult and the days bleed into each other sometimes, and he's going to die one day. He will die alone. And now, in all his dreams and hopes for the future, he doesn't have her there as a ghost of a memory, an unattainable ideal that he'll never deserve. That dream was over. "You made your choice a long time ago."
She stops him, turning to face him, "That isn't true."
He looks into her face, he can't let himself believe that lie, even though a part of him still does want to believe, even a little. "It is, Buffy."
It could have been different: he could have asked her back to his apartment another time and she would have said yes. They would have looked at each other and it would have been spectacular, sparks flying, and it would have been right.
They are looking at each other now and no reunion is expected. He doesn't want to take her into his arms, to tell her that he'll never leave her, to tell her that he loves her. That burning desire - that hope - did not die or fade, it merely changed. He feels for her, but he'll no longer burden himself with the impossible.
"I was in Australia for a while," she suddenly says, changing the topic and backing away from him. "Chased a nasty demon for a couple of months before I finally killed it."
That's not the story she's trying to tell him, but he understands. "Did you like it there?"
Her eyes are sadder than he's seen since she entered that bar. It reminds him of when he saw her in Sunnydale. Her voice is soft, a bare, painful whisper, "Yes."
He takes her left hand, squeezes it as softly as he can manage, trying to have the small, meaningless gesture mean something more than its insignificant expression of kindness. Before he releases her hand, he memorizes the feel of the cut, sharp diamond of her ring with his fingertips, smiling as her face looks up at him, blank, a mask he no longer wants to read. He traces an outline around her cheek, resting the tips of his fingers on her jaw for a long moment before finally breaking contact.
"You think Australia would suit me?" Her voice cracks halfway through her question.
"No," he answers honestly. "You don't love him. You don't need him."
She blinks back something, he'd be foolish to think it tears. She knows now too, that in his statements he's no longer staying, "Love *me,* need *me.*" Because that is something that's changed.
Looking at the ring for the last time, trying to burn the image in his memory, such a small thing, he says, with as little bitterness coloring his words, "But he is waiting for you."
Her eyes grow cold at that comment. "You gave up on me," she states simply.
"Yes," he admits, feeling no desire to lie. He has given up, on a lot of things. He no longer wishes for things that he'd never have. And Buffy, for everything that she'll always mean to him, is the first person he gave up on. He failed her, and he knows this without any pang of regret. "But you know that I'll always love you."
Her smile is the one he used to dream about. But it doesn't reach her eyes, not one bit. "I love you too."
They kiss and it's nothing like it once was. There is nothing forbidden or hopeful or dangerous. It is a simple kiss, lips touching lips, mouths opening, the taste isn't extraordinary, and he doesn't fall in love with her all over again. It is just a kiss and he tastes vodka when they finally part.
He pushes a few strands of hair away from her face. He keeps his voice low when he reveals, sadly, but as best as he's come to terms with it, "I'm never going to make you happy, Buffy. We're never going to be happy together."
It took time, as things always do, but on the other side of things, as a human, the truth became so clear. And at first he hated it, hated knowing that his dream had been a lie, but then he tried to live, to really live, and found it better than the dream. Coffee in the morning, a brisk walk to work, a lunch break spent in the company of friends he'd become close to in London, and all those little, meaningless things suddenly meant more than all the big things - redemption, love, forgiveness - could ever mean. In living his life, without expecting anything more or less, he had become whole.
Though he loves Buffy, loves her as much as he always has, the edges have worn and faded into the past, and he cannot close his eyes and see her in his life. He doesn't see them standing in sunlight together, that oldest dream, he doesn't see her at all. It will never be and he's come to terms with that.
She doesn't cry and he's grateful; there should be nothing sad about it, only perhaps a regret that they ignored the truth for so long. Buffy does not look at him when she answers, "I know that."
She hugs him then and it does remind him of the past. He can feel that spirit within her, powerful and remarkable. A little piece of possibility still exists there. He prefers the life he's living now.
Buffy doesn't look at him when she whispers, "Goodbye, Angel."
He watches her walk away and he doesn't say goodbye. He doesn't call out to ask her to stay. He watches her grow more and more distant until he finally turns around, walking back to his apartment.
On the way, he notices little things. The way a car's motor is too loud, and the lights shining through the curtains, lighting up the windows, signal that their occupants are still awake. He does, this final time, turn around to look and sees nothing.
There is a man standing on a street, a man that is not that particular, dark haired and light-skinned, tall and perhaps he was commanding once, when he was younger. He's looking nowhere and if someone saw him, they wouldn't know his whole story, only a piece, that he looks a bit melancholy, but besides that, there's nothing.
And he, as he stands there, thinking of that encounter, smiles a bit, not in happiness, but in some other indescribable emotion. He doesn't wonder what could have been. He doesn't need that anymore.