She glares at him when he wanders into Angel’s office, and it’s not as though he can blame her. Bloody awkward, biting her because he thought she was evil, only to find out that his source was some ex-lawyer cowboy type who was playing him for the fool. Good thing he doesn’t care about embarrassment as long as the Slayer isn’t around (and she most definitely isn’t around).
And it probably doesn’t help that the last time the cheerleader saw him he’d been torturing the Magnificent Poof to find the Gem of Amara, even if he hadn’t really done the torturing himself (mostly). Probably wasn’t the best way to get on the chit’s good side, sticking pokers through her honey’s chest (not that being on her good side was exactly a priority when sunshine was at stake). Because anyone who wasn’t blind—and probably half the people who were—could have seen that Peaches was the center of Princess Cordelia’s world, even if she wasn’t aware of it yet. Still is, he knows; he can tell by the way she holds herself in relation to Angel, the way she looks and doesn’t look at him.
And there’s a sadness lurking in her eyes, a wistfulness almost, that he should be annoyed with himself for recognizing (before the soul, he could have written it off as using his powers of perception to find weakness in his potential prey, but he can’t even think that way anymore) but somehow he isn’t.
Because he gets it: he knows that look, and he doesn’t have to be able to look at himself in a mirror to know that it haunts his own eyes.
He’s gotten pretty good at ignoring all the emotions that prompt that look. As soon as he realized that he was stuck here, that the Powers That Screw Up Lives weren’t going to let him hurry back to where he belongs (at Buffy’s side, whether she wants him there or not), he’d started building up the front. He was not going to be Angel Junior, brooding over his guilty soul (even if, most days when he wakes up, all he wants to do is stay in bed and wallow in his own nightmares); he was going to prove that he was stronger than his grandsire by being the same Spike he’d always been, only more so: now with bonus conscience, as his Slayer would have said. Focus on annoying Angel, on showing him up, being more righteous but less broody, less selfish but having more fun.
And he’s done a damn good job so far. He can see Angel growing more and more antsy, more and more unsure of himself, questioning decisions he would have once pretended were black and white. Spike’s always seen himself as a bit of a gadfly: always perched just outside the inner circle (though that was never really his choice) and able to see things more clearly from that angle…and call people on it. He enjoys doing that more with Angel than with Buffy (when he burst her bubble, her face would crumple and his heart would shatter), and he’s built the foundation of his presence here that role.
Only now he can feel all that shaking: one look into the cheerleader’s eyes and he’s back in Sunnydale last year, a year of self-flagellation, of not being able to meet anyone’s eyes, of feeling most self-loathing and most comforted when he was with Buffy. Of hating himself because he realized his grand gesture was too little, too late: yeah, Buffy had needed him by her side to fight and keep her strong, but she would never want him the way he wanted her to, not after all they’d been through. The soul had taught him that.
Soul’s not all moonbeams and pennywhistles, he heard his own voice echoing in his head.
No. He won’t return to that place, that place of uncertainty and slippery ground. He’s come too far to let a little sadness in a near-stranger’s eyes send him back.
He shifts his shoulders, feeling the duster move around him in the most familiar of ways (and doesn’t think about Nikki Wood’s eyes the moment before he snapped her neck). He remembers what it felt like when he’d gone to the school basement for it, how he’d slung it around onto his shoulders, the familiar scent of leather and cigarette smoke he’d abandoned after Africa, the way it settled onto his shoulders, and he’d felt the familiar shock of power he’d experienced when he put it on for the first time. The duster had always been the final component necessary to create the Big Bad personae, and he needs it now more than ever.
The duster is in place. Now the leer, the swagger, the innuendo.
“Cordelia. You look smashing.”
Her eyes narrow even more. He isn’t at all surprised that she remembers; he tends to make an impression.
“Normally flattery would get you pretty far, but you kind of ruined that chance with the biting, buddy.”
Yeah, this is what he needs. A sharp tongue belonging to a beautiful woman to let him act out this role. And this Cordelia, tragic taste in men aside, has spunk enough to impress even him. Yeah, he can have some fun with this one.
“And my fightin’ by your side? Doesn’t get me any bonus points at all?”
“Enough that I’m not staking your ass right now.”
“Normally I’d let a woman beautiful as you do anything she bloody well wanted to my ass. But unfortunately for you, love, it happens to be reserved at the moment.” And forever. Ponce.
Her eyebrows fly up. “Don’t tell me there’s a woman out there who’d want your skinny white ass. I thought Drusilla was the only one insane enough, and didn’t she dump you on said ass years ago?”
There’s a note of bitterness underneath her good-natured mockery that he almost doesn’t pick up on. Any mention of his dark princess still makes him morose. He still loves her—he’s always going to love her—even if he’s moved so far beyond where she is that it’s almost painful to think of. Even if Buffy has become more to him even than Dru ever was (face of his salvation), and he won’t give her up (even the memory of her), not even to have Dru back the way they used to be (that life—death—unthinkable to him now).
But after a few months with the less-fun version of Angelus, the hulking sad excuse for a vampire a constant reminder of the old life, he’s gotten pretty good at shoving any painful memories aside. So he forces himself back into the moment and catches just the edge of her bitterness.
For a moment, he’s confused; then, suddenly, he remembers and starts to laugh. Laughing feels good; he doesn’t do it often anymore (doesn’t remember the last time he did, a real, genuine laugh rather than a scoff).
“Oh, yeah. That was quite a night, wasn’t it, love? Bad for romance all around. Bu—Slayer said that’s what broke you and the whelp up. Which you should probably thank me for, pet—sassy chit like you can do a hell of a lot better than Xander Harris.”
Her eyes don’t soften. “I guess I should also thank you for the rebar that ended up in my stomach that night.”
His mirth dies abruptly. “That, I didn’t know about. Sorry for that, love.”
She crosses her arms and studies him intently, her eyes sharp and perceptive. Oh, yeah. She’s a firecracker of a woman, all right.
“You really do have a soul now.”
It isn’t a question, but he nods, keeping his gaze level with hers. “I do.”
“How’d you manage that one? Piss off Willow one too many times?”
He snorts. “That’s hardly Red’s version of vengeance. Her mode of torture’s more straightforward: she wants to punish you, she just rips your skin off.”
Her mouth twitches for a moment before she seems to realize that he wasn’t joking. Of course she wouldn’t know about Red’s fling with the dark side; the Sunnydale crew is notorious for keeping their dirty laundry to themselves, even, apparently, keeping it from those who had once been one of their own. But he hopes Cordelia won’t pursue it; the last thing he wants right now is to relive the Year from Hell.
“So how did you get it, then?”
All right. So there is one thing he wants to relive even less.
He shifts his shoulders uncomfortably. “Made a deal with a demon.”
Now that sets her back. Her jaw doesn’t drop but it might as well have. “You asked for it?”
He can’t continue to meet her eyes. “Yeah. Shoved one in where it doesn’t belong. Knockin’ up against the demon and the blood all the time. Bit like you, right?”
“Got a bit of demon in you, right? Could still taste it, but you didn’t taste evil. Thought you and Peaches said the demon was dead.”
“Oh. Oh. That’s different.”
She shakes her curls out of her face, and he thinks it might be the only concession she’ll ever make to discomfort in front of him. Her mouth curls wryly, self-deprecating. “I asked for. Bit like you, right?”
Now he doesn’t understand. “What?”
“You remember Doyle?”
This seems to be an abrupt change of topic, but Spike has been in love with Buffy Summers for the past four years (eternity). He can tell when a woman intends to circle back around to the issue at hand. “Little mick bloke you were runnin’ ‘round with when I tortured Angel? Half-breed chap?”
She rolls her eyes. “I guess I couldn’t expect any better from you. Yes, him. He had visions. Of people who needed to be helped. Right before he died, he gave them to me.”
“Gave them to you? How the bloody hell’d he do that?”
“With a kiss.”
“Well, that’s very fairy tale of you, love.”
She ignores that. “So then I had them. It was okay for a while. But the side effects were…intense. They were killing me. Literally.” She shruggs. “So the Demon of Birthdays Past gave me a ‘This Is Your Life’ segment and then gave me a choice. It was all very It’s a Wonderful Life. Only without everyone giving me money at the end.”
He can see the direction this is headed, but it can’t possibly be what he thinks it is. “Choice?” he echoes dully.
“Give up the visions or become part demon so I could handle them.”
He shakes his head slightly. “So you chose to become a demon?” He winces at the incredulity sharpening his own voice.
Again she shrugs, though he can see the wry twist of her mouth. “Angel needed them.”
He suddenly feels as though he understands how Buffy felt that night in the church (all he really remembers of that night is moonlight, the scent of his own dead flesh burning, and the wealth of emotion in Buffy’s bottomless eyes) when he told her about his soul: like his worldview just shifted and everything he’d thought he knew about humans has been shattered by this one choice by this one woman.
He doesn’t know much about Cordelia Chase. Just that she’s a former Scooby, is in love with Angel, has bleedin’ awful taste in men and a body to die for, and can put Buffy at her bitchiest to shame. But that first is enough: she was once a Scooby. She grew up in Sunnydale, no doubt nurturing that typical Sunnydale capacity for denial from birth. And if there’s something Spike knows about Sunnydale in general and the Scooby Gang in particular, it’s that they have to believe in black and white. To survive the Hellmouth, to continue to live as they do, to be able to carry on the fight, they’d had to adopt an oversimplified view of life: demon evil, human good. The one addendum of “soul trumps demonhood” was the only exception they were willing to make, and the more legalistic among them (meaning Xander Harris) only bought into that one when it suited him (his ex-demon girlfriend, for instance). Even Angel himself seems to have adopted that perspective—or at least tells himself that he has so that he can continue to live with himself.
And here is Cordelia Chase, who, by all accounts, should feel exactly the same as all the rest, but who invited a demon inside her. She has no reason not to feel as all the Scoobies do, to not be appalled by her own choice; she probably has more reason than most, having come face-to-face with Angelus more often than anyone currently on earth except for Dru and Spike himself.
He hadn’t thought anyone could understand. Sure, Angel gets the constant cacophonous clash of soul and demon, but that was a curse. He didn’t choose it, can’t know what that moment of decision was like. He had always sneered at the Soulful One, blustery and secure in the knowledge that no one would ever castrate him that way. Pure, unadulterated demon, that’s what William the Bloody was, and he prided himself on that knowledge even when Buffy crept inside his heart so deep that he couldn’t claim to be pure anything anymore. A soul? That was unthinkable.
Until he did the unthinkable, the one thing he’d sworn to himself he would never do, and then he did the unthinkable again as an attempt at penance. That moment had set him adrift, certain he was absolutely alone, that no one would ever be able to understand that decision.
But this, what the pretty princess with the weary eyes standing across from him did, it’s on the same level.
(It shouldn’t help, but somehow, knowing that she made the same choice, that she did the same thing…it does.)
He’s smaller than she remembers. She hadn’t seen him more than a few times in her Sunnydale days (that seem another lifetime now, the degree of innocence and selfishness she was once capable of unthinkable to her now), but after his last visit to L.A. (she’d been the one to patch up Angel, fussing and plastering on useless bandages over his wounds) he’d taken on the aura of a boogey man in her mind. It’s the coat, maybe, or the steely resentment in his eyes as he tortured Angel or that smoldering impatience always stewing below the surface and threatening to blow up: all of that added up to a monster to inhabit nightmares.
But here he is, and he really is a small man. In her favorite Manolo Blahniks (she wonders idly if they’re anywhere around or if Angel got rid of them and the rest of her stuff when he tossed out everyone’s memories of Connor), she’d probably match him in height. She is a tall woman herself, surrounded by tall men—Gunn and Wes and Lorne…and Angel himself, her standard in all things (she can admit that now with only the slightest bit of self-deprecation).
But Spike, while not pocket-sized like Oz, as Xander used to describe the werewolf (and she hasn’t thought of Xander in years, only now she can’t help it, not with a physical reminder of Sunnydale standing right in front of her), is perhaps shorter than average. And though she’s more than aware of his strength after he attacked her this afternoon, pinning her to the wall before ducking his head for a bite, he still lacks Angel’s bulk and intimidation factor. She doesn’t delude herself into thinking that he can be any less dangerous than he always was, but still, in this moment, he hardly looks like a threat at all.
But maybe that has less to do with his size and more to do with the weary slope of his shoulders she can see despite the way he tries to swagger, the tiny lines around his eyes, the wistfulness in that blueness (and when, exactly, did she become the kind of woman who can notice these things about an almost stranger?). She can barely stand to meet his gaze because she sees too much of herself there, though she can’t really understand why (and it doesn’t exactly make her feel comfortable).
It had been fun there at the beginning, swapping quips with him (Angel has never been much good for that, and it makes her miss Doyle even more than usual), but now that it has taken a turn for the serious, she feels the need to bolt. Not for the reasons she would have when she was Queen C and wanted to keep everything on the surface and never dig deeper. But because his emotions are stirring up feelings of her own that are going to make it nearly impossible for her to walk away from Angel when the time comes.
She hasn’t talked about her decision to choose demonhood in years. Everyone she wants or needs to know knew right after she made the decision, and there wasn’t anyone else she felt comfortable speaking to about it. She’s never been one for soul-searching with anyone except, on occasion, Angel or, even more rarely, Wes. And here she is talking about it with the last person she should feel like confiding in. And it totally freaks her out that she feels that he understands.
That’s enough. She’s opened up more than she meant to. Now it’s his turn to spill, to set them back on level ground.
“So that’s my story. What’s yours?”
He blinks as her words jar him from his introspection. “What’s that, love?”
“I want details, buddy. About how you got a sparkly soul of your very own and why.”
His eyes flash with mingled irritation and amusement; it’s a good look for him. “Why should I tell you a thing, princess? I don’t know you at all.”
“Ummm, maybe because I spilled my soul to you? Now it’s your turn.”
He flashes her a grin that makes her understand for the first time why Drusilla stayed with him for a century. She’d never thought of him as good-looking—he was anything but her type—but maybe he is, a little.
But then he shoves his fists into the pockets of that ratty old jacket she’s never seen him without, pulling the leather closer around his frame and making himself appear even smaller. “Saw a demon ‘bout a girl,” he says with a grin so self-deprecating that it almost makes her wince.
He settles himself, leaning against the edge of Angel’s big desk, and his gaze turns inward, making her feel as though she’s looking at something private. “Hurt the one person I never thought I’d hurt, the one person I most wanted to keep safe. Couldn’t live with myself, knowin’ I could do that to someone I loved, but I didn’t think I’d be able to learn how to stop myself….”
He trails off and Cordy has a moment of perfect clarity. This clairvoyance is nothing like her visions, but the certainty is the same. She gapes at him, even more shocked at this sudden knowledge than at the revelation about his soul. “Buffy!”
His head jerks up, glancing around the room, taking a deep breath (ewww! He’s totally trying to smell her, and no matter how long she’s lived with Angel, Cordy’s never going to get used to that), like he expects the Slayer to be here. “What?”
“It’s Buffy! Who your ass is reserved for. You’re in love with her.”
She sees a flash of agony so strong she’s shocked he doesn’t buckle under it before he tries to force his mouth into a sardonic grin: it doesn’t work. “There’s irony for you, eh, love? Love of my unlife’s in love with the love of yours.”
She ignores the old familiar shaft of pain that shoots through her at the reminder of Angel’s feelings for Buffy. She focuses instead on his earlier words. “So what did you do? To hurt her, I mean.”
And suddenly any thoughts she’s had about him not being as dangerous as she’d imagined are wiped completely from her mind. Because although the dangerous look on his face isn’t directed at her, that doesn’t make it any less terrifying. “Not talking ‘bout it.”
“Oookay.” Gonna let that one go. But there’s something else bothering her. “God, what is it with this girl? Does she have some sign on her forehead that only vamps can see that says ‘Hey! You with the fangs! Fall in love with me!’?”
He rolls his eyes and picks up one of Angel’s fancy pens (and since when does Angel have a pen collection more expensive than most people’s cars?), then begins fiddling with it like a little boy might. “Hardly.”
“Really, I don’t get it. You and Angel both still moping about her? Why can’t anyone ever get over her?” Oh, yeah, Cordy. That doesn’t sound bitter at all.
She doesn’t expect an immediate answer, and certainly not one so serious; the clarity of his voice (absent the ridiculous accent) shocks her.
“She’s like a force of nature.” His eyes have gone sort of distant, but not in a silly, dreamy way, more hard-edged than that (a kind of love that’s piercing, penetrating, a kind that makes her shiver, and she isn’t even on the receiving end). “Righteous fury, burnin’ like the sun. A man has to fall to his knees in front of glory like that or else be melted to dust. But she’s also just a woman. Likes shoes, can’t hold her liquor, loves her little sis, has bleedin’ bad taste in music, cares too much about what her friends think about her, wakes up every morning and just keeps going. She blends ‘em both: the Slayer and the woman, the warrior and the girl. And does ‘em both better than anyone else.”
Cordy chews on her bottom lip thoughtfully as she watches him, wondering what Angel would have said if she asked him that very same question. Somehow, she thinks his answer would be very different than Spike’s.
The vampire jolts back to the present, looks up at her and smiles. “And himself? What’s it about Captain Forehead that earns the ladies’ devotion?”
Cordy snorts. Hasn’t she asked herself that very question a thousand times? “Hell if I know. I mean, can you get more annoying than Mr. Broods-All-the-Time? And you talk about bad taste in music? Pfft! He likes Barry Manilow.”
Spike’s head falls back as though his neck is too tired to hold it up anymore, then he rolls it around to grimace at her. “How well I know it. Back in Sunnydale, when he was evil again? Played it nonstop, him and Dru, dancin’ around. Nearly drove me out of my mind.”
“Evil-him likes it, too? Sooo not surprised. Music of the devil, I swear. Definitely one of his more annoying qualities. Plus, there’s the fact that he always has to save everybody all the time and he won’t ever just come right out and tells you what he’s feeling, not even when you ask him a thousand times.” She drops her eyes to her hands, twisting the ring on her finger. “But once you figure out how to read him, he’s so clear. All that pain, all that guilt, all that past just weighing him down every single day. And it’s like you said, you know? He just keeps going. He’s never going to see the sun, but he wants everyone else to have it. And he may say differently, but he doesn’t really believe that Shanshu stuff. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be worthy of redemption. But he wants it so badly, and he’ll keep fighting for good for always. I don’t think he’ll ever stop.”
She finally looks up to find Spike studying her closely. “Yeah? And this place?” He twirls a finger, and she glances around the office.
“Temporary detour,” she says firmly. “Yeah, it was a stupid decision, but he did it for—“ She stops abruptly, thinking of Connor. Don’t think about that now. There’s nothing you can do; you don’t have the time. “—for reasons you can’t even begin to imagine. He’ll find his way again. He always does.”
“Seem pretty sure of that for having only been back a day or two.”
She shrugs. “I have faith in him. Like you have faith in her, I imagine. Even when she doesn’t believe in herself.”
His eyes go soft, like he’s remembering something beautiful, and he smiles, a real, genuine smile with not a hint of a smirk about it. Watching him, Cordy actually wonders for the first time whether Buffy ever let this guy in (it hadn’t even been a question up until this moment). If she did, Cordy can possibly—possibly—understand why.
“I do at that,” he says finally.
“And we’ll just keep doing it. Here we are, the Lonely Hearts Club. Knowing we’ll never be anything more than second choice for them. Never gonna be the big heroes; always overshadowed by someone else.” That stuff doesn’t matter now, she reminds herself. You aren’t the scheming schoolgirl, the queen bee anymore. You’ve got more to accomplish.
“Maybe we should get hats,” he drawls lazily.
“Hats are tacky. Tiaras on the other hand….”
He grins again, then snorts. “You couldn’t possibly be second place to anyone,” he says, pointing a finger at her. “You wouldn’t accept anything less than first.”
“You can’t always get what you want,” she says, thinking of this last choice. Less than an hour to go. And I’m spending it talking to Helmet Hair?
“Aha!” he crows. “Knew you’d have better musical taste than the Poof!”
“I have fabulous taste in everything, thank you very much.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“Where is he? What do you mean, the Senior Partners found him?” A shrill voice floats into the office from the hallway where Angel and the rest gathered a few minutes before. “What’s happened to him?”
Cordy rolls her eyes as Eve’s voice grows more and more desperate. “I guess Angel just told Lilah Jr. about her boyfriend.”
Spike grimaces. “Piece of work, that one. Guess we might see if Captain Forehead needs help dealing with her. I have experience with high-strung women.”
She laughs, and as he pushes off the desk and saunters to the door, she joins him. “You know, torture and rebars aside, you’re not so bad, really. Although the hair? Still way lame. You should look into updating your style.”
Spike rolls his eyes. “Suppose you’ll be wanting to take me shopping next, do the whole makeover dress for success thing? Pick out shirts that match my eyes? Have some poofter of a stylist exclaim over my curls? Got a date in mind?”
She laughs outright. “Oh, buddy, if I could, I totally would. You are a makeover-lover’s dream.” She can feel the sorrow, the tinges of terror well up inside her, but she shoves them away. “But I won’t be around to do it.”
He stops and turns to face her slowly. “Yeah?” he says, face serious.
He searches her eyes for a long time, and, strangely, she doesn’t feel the desire to turn away. She sort of feels like he’s reading her soul, and, even more strangely, she’s okay with that. She can see realization dawn in his eyes and has to blink back tears from her own at the understanding she sees there. “Do you have to, love?”
She’d asked the same question of the Powers, and their answer was inescapable. She shouldn’t have even been allowed this respite, but with the way they bungled the whole Jasmine-taking-over-her-body-and-screwing-over-everyone-she-loves thing, they really did owe her one. “Yeah. I have to.”
He shakes his head slowly, an emotion she can only describe as wonder in his eyes. “You’re quite a woman, you know that?” She’s ready to laugh off his comment, but he ducks his head so that she has to meet his eyes. “I mean it. You could never be second place. Not ever.”
More tears, stinging this time, but she blinks them away and smiles. “Yeah. You neither.”
He takes her hand suddenly but gently, and though she’s startled, she lets him. He brings it up to his lips in a gesture that seems wholly natural (though it shouldn’t, not from a wannabe badass who can’t seem to escape the 80’s, though for a moment, despite his appearance, he looks like he belongs to a different, more courteous era). Then he releases it abruptly, and his hand flies up to massage the back of his neck as he sheepishly avoids her eyes.
“Well, if the Powers That Whatsit really do exist, and you happen to see them,” he says briskly, as though he’s hoping she’ll forget his moment of chivalry, “tell them William the Bloody’s got a quarrel with them on behalf of a certain Slayer who they always seem to be screwing over. When my time comes, they better be prepared to make a reckoning, got it?”
She smiles. “Yeah, sure.” He starts walking toward the door again, but she stops him with a word. “Spike?”
He pauses, tilts his head curiously. “Yeah, love?”
“Don’t ever let Angel get too comfortable, all right?”
His grin is back. “Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it, your highness.”
“I’m serious. Make sure he keeps on the straight and narrow, okay?”
“When I make a promise to a lady, I keep it.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
With a laugh, he opens the door and ushers her through it before him.