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TITLE: Last Rites
AUTHOR: Rheanna
WRITTEN: November 2001
SPOILERS: This fic contains a (very) small spoiler for Lullaby (which isn't a spoiler at all if you've seen the trailer for the ep.) Spoiler-phobics, however, may wish to wait until tomorrow before reading it.
IMPROV: #29 - century, unleash, ground, melt (Nov 18 - 23)
DISCLAIMER: All characters are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy and are used without expectation of profit or intent of infringement.
SUMMARY: Luke 11: 2 - 4
NOTES: A holiday in Connemara, world events and a few vague thoughts about Angel's origins combined to produce a fic idea that blindsided me late one Sunday night and wouldn't go away until it was written. The Gaelic herein is, to the best of my knowledge, accurate but, hey, feel free to correct me if it isn't. The prayer quoted is the Lord's prayer. Thanks, as always, to Yahtzee for beta'ing and keeping me sane while I waited for my accountancy shanshu.

Last Rites

The plane grinds to a halt on the runway; he looks out of the oval window and sees rabbits grazing in the long grass beyond the tarmac's crumbling edges. The roar of the dying engines doesn't seem to bother them, and he wonders if that's a learnt indifference or if they've lived so close to noisy humans for so long that evolution has subtly dulled their hearing. Then he wonders how long the breed will take to die out when there are no more airplanes or airports.

The aircraft's intercom crackles into life, relaying the Captain's tinny voice into the cabin. Around him, other passengers start to get up, shuffle around, reclaim bags from overhead lockers. Consequently, he has to strain to make out what's being said -- his hearing is not so acute, now, as it once was -- and he feels vague irritation at his fellow travelers, combined with a first-time flier's anxiety at missing some crucial piece of information (Please raise your hand if you do NOT wish your luggage to be destroyed). But there's no need to worry: when he finally makes out what's being said, the contents are reassuringly mundane.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Captain. We'd like to remind you that you will be required to undergo standard decontamination procedures, and we hope you'll cooperate fully with the terminal staff. Thank you for flying with GlobalAir, and welcome to Ireland."

He looks out the oval window at the windswept, bleak airport, at the gray sky, heavy with dark clouds, at the streaks of rain already blurring the view.

Welcome to Ireland. Welcome back. Welcome home.

"To Ireland?" the female voice on the other end of telephone had said, failing to keep the note of outright incredulity from her voice.

"Yes. That's right. Ireland."

"But the travel restrictions --"

"Have been lifted," he'd interrupted firmly.

Incredulity changed to peevishness. "It's really tough to get seats on transatlantic flights. They're booked solid months in advance."

"I can wait. I don't have to go tomorrow."

A pause. Then: "We're offering some excellent deals to Florida at the minute."

"Look -- what's your name?"

Reluctantly: "Helen."

"Helen, did they give you ANY sales training? I have a credit card and a desire to travel to Ireland. Find me a seat on a flight to where I want to go and I'll read out all the numbers on the card I'm holding. You'll get a commission, I'll get to Ireland, and we'll both be happy."

(He'd stopped then, hearing echoes of another voice in his own. He remembered Cordelia, insisting he accompanied her to complain about the laptop they'd spent most of a month's fees on. He'd stood at her side in silence as she'd effectively reduced the salesman to a shuddering wreck then extracted from him the promise of a replacement computer. With more memory. And a free printer and modem. As they'd left the store, he'd wondered aloud why she'd needed him to come, since she was plainly better equipped to deal with the intricacies of consumer relations than he was. "So you could watch and learn," she'd said.)

"I'll do my best," the girl on the other end of the line said. "But I'm not promising anything."

Two weeks later, a return ticket from LAX to Dublin, via London, Heathrow, came in the mail. The handwritten note that accompanied it read simply, Enjoy Your Trip.

He stands patiently in line while the passengers go through decontamination, one by one. The fine mist of disinfectant has an unfortunate tendency to ruin clothing, but although this is his first experience of it, the procedure has attracted sufficient publicity (all of it adverse) that he knew to wear an old jacket and pants for the journey.

He waits on the red X marked on the floor, raises his hands and allows the cool mist to settle around him, clinging to his face and fingertips, working its way through the tiny gaps between his shirt buttons and on to his chest, making him shiver. As instructed, he inhales, and coughs at the sweet taste of chemicals on the back of his throat. The other passengers, he can see, dislike this process intensely, but to him the discomfort is still a novelty to be relished.

Afterwards there are the searches and security checks, the obligatory questions ("Business or pleasure?" "Pleasure. A vacation."), the requirement to show the same documents, over and over, to a string of bored officials. The reward at the end is another long wait at the baggage carousel, where he waits while suitcases plop out of the chute and on to the conveyor belt and is initiated into the traveler's own special brand of paranoia, as everyone nearby seems to receive their luggage before him.

"Don't look so worried."

The white-haired woman standing beside him speaks with a soft accent and wears an amused expression.

"I'm not --" he begins, then acknowledges her smile with a nod and a chuckle. "Yes, I am. Do they lose people's bags a lot?"

"Och, no, son. Not these days, anyhow. Not that many people traveling anymore. Now, back when I was working -- this was twenty years ago, before I retired -- it was different. Airports were like cities where the population changed every four hours. And sometimes you were lucky if your bags arrived in the same place you did before you had to turn around and come home again." She leans forward and adds, conspiratorially, "I always used to keep a toothbrush and clean pair of knickers in my handbag."

Her frankness is disarming, and he laughs again. The accent is Scottish, he's sure of that, but he's been in America for so long that he can't tell if she's from Glasgow or Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Inverness, although he knows he would once have been able to.

"Have you flown before?" she asks.

"Yes," he says confidently, but the directness of her gaze disarms him, again, and, again, he thinks of Cordelia. "Well, I flew to London before I came here. So, technically, yes, I've flown before."

"Och, that makes you a veteran, compared to most folks, these days. Where'd you come from? You're American, right?"

"Los Angeles. And I --" He pauses, not sure how to answer the second question. "I've lived in America for a long time. I'm from a lot of places. But I was born in Ireland."

The woman nods and smiles again, crows' feet wrinkling up at the corners of her eyes. He notes how her hair is white but elegantly pinned up in a scarf; her face is lined but her skin is clear and has an oddly luminescent quality, as if something lights her from within. He remembers she said she'd retired two decades ago -- this small fact allows him to do a rough mental calculation and realize she is the age Fred would be, if Fred were still alive.

"Aye," the woman says softly. "There's something about the place you were born, isn't there?"

She is right, but before he can agree out loud, he spies his bags making their second pass, unclaimed, on the carousel. By the time he has retrieved them, found a trolley and made his way back through the dispersing crowd, the woman is gone. He sees her once more, as he leaves the terminal, being met by a young couple. She is holding a baby, and children tug at her legs, shrieking with glee and demanding her attention.

He goes to locate the car hire stand, feeling irrationally pleased and, equally irrationally, envious.

On the main route from Dublin airport into the city, he is struck by sudden indecision at the junction which offers the mutually exclusive choice between 'City Center' and 'The West'. He has come so far that he is impatient to cover the last leg of the journey -- now measured in hundreds of miles, not thousands -- as quickly as possible. But the sun is low in the sky and he has spent too much time training himself to sleep by night and live by day to allow a minor complication such as jet lag to confuse him. He turns toward the lights of the city.

There is no difficulty finding a room in a hotel: the challenge is finding a hotel in the first place. The tourists have been gone for a long time, and the hostelries that remain cater to the needs to business travelers and, increasingly, not even them. He happens across the elegantly dilapidated Shelbourne early in his search and rejects it as too expensive, only to find himself returning later, lacking any viable alternative. The girl who accepts his credit card with an air of quiet triumph is the same one who quoted the exorbitant price of a single room to him hours earlier, and he tries to retain his dignity as he signs the chit.

His misgivings are alleviated somewhat by the room, which is pleasantly opulent. The hot tap in the bathroom would be more appropriately labeled 'tepid', but it feels good to shower and change out of his disinfectant-sticky traveling clothes. Still dripping, he slips on the complimentary bathrobe (monogrammed with the hotel's initials -- not enough hot water, but they can do THAT) and flops on to the bed with the television remote. It takes only a few minutes to flip through the limited choice available -- the days when the world was deafened by a surfeit of voices are long gone, now. The first station is showing an old movie, with fashions and slang that place it sometime in the 20's. He watches for a few minutes then flips again. And again.

The last station is running a news bulletin; the headlines are the same ones he has been hearing for the past fifteen, twenty years, although with a slightly more international slant. He finds he can complete each item's introduction a beat ahead of the announcer:

-- spread of variant BSDS 'slowing' according to government figures released today -- drug shortages now serious -- Dublin Castle to be converted to hospital facility as number of terminal-phase sufferers grows --

He has heard enough. He kills the television's blare, but finds himself restless and unwilling to sleep. He stands at the window, looking down at the city streets below, and decides, on a whim, to go for a walk.

Outside, the evening is bitter, and the rain spears his skin in a jagged, icy assault. He walks aimlessly, feeling out of place in a city which bears no resemblance to the one he remembers. Oh, the names are familiar -- St Stephen's Green, Trinity College -- but the buildings and streets are not. He is about to give in and ask directions when the turns a corner and finds himself standing at one end of a footbridge across the Liffey, the rounded bulk of the Custom House looming in front of him, solid and still familiar after so long.

He follows the river to Temple Bar, where every other door is the entrance to a pub and music rings out from them all, traditional mingling with rock clashing with jazz to create something raucous and not as awful as it should be. He chooses a door almost at random, and goes in.

Inside is a welcome blast of warmth and life after the cold and empty night outside. At the exact moment he is placing his order at the bar, a small, wiry man wearing an ugly shirt and a battered brown leather jacket elbows in beside him and waves a handful of notes at the barmaid. "The usual, love. A double."

The girl rolls her eyes in apology. "Hold there, Sean. Tourists first."

"It's okay. Go ahead." Given the man's pervasive air of scruffiness, the bundle of notes in his hand can mean only one thing. "Celebrating a win?"

Sean nods. "Aye. Her name's Globetrotter, and she's a fine horse. A damn fine, beautiful horse."

The barmaid grins. "Keep your sex life to yourself."

"Ah, fuck you," laughs Sean.

The barmaid pauses in pulling a pint long enough to raise one elegant, manicured finger. "In your dreams."

Sean grins. "She's a cold fish that one. But a princess under it. I'll make her appreciate me charms yet. What are ye drinking?"

"That's very generous of you, but --"

Sean spreads his winnings into a wide fan of banknotes. "Tonight, I can afford to be generous. This is the start of a streak, I'm tellin' ye. Name it."

"Whatever you're having."

"A man after me own heart. Nuala, sweetheart, a double each for me and my friend here."

Sean is served as quickly as only a valued regular with a wad of cash to spend can be. He raises his glass to offer a toast to damn fine, beautiful horses.

Angel drinks with him, but offers his own, silent toast at the same time. He drinks to the memory of long-gone Irish half-demons with poor dress sense, hopelessly misdirected optimism, and vices as innumerable as their virtues.

In spite of his fatigue, he stays in the pub much longer than he intends to, and walks back to the hotel through empty streets. He feels the warm glow of one too many drinks inside him, and with every step he watches his breath condense into ethereal clouds which hang for a moment in front of him, then melt into the cold night air.

He sleeps late the next day and wakes with a jolt, convinced he's missed breakfast. But he's not the first of the Shelbourne's guests to have been unintentionally seduced by Dublin's lively night life, and he's relieved to discover the most important meal of the day is served until 11 am.

He indulges himself with bacon and sausage, scrambled eggs, tomato, lightly fried, golden-brown potato-bread, coffee and orange juice. Only the orange juice disappoints -- he has sufficient taste-experience now to be able to tell the difference between freshly squeezed pulp and flavored water, and this is definitely the latter. The Irish Times on the table in front of him, however, contains a long article on the apparently untreatable fungus currently killing off the world's citrus crops, and he can hardly hold the hotel responsible for a global shortage. He finishes the coffee, leaves half of the orange juice.

At one o'clock, he is back at the previous evening's road junction, this time choosing 'The West' as his destination. It is a dull, dry day, and perfect for driving; moreover, the traffic, once he is out of Dublin, is lighter than he expected, and he makes good time as he travels almost exactly due west.

The first leg of the journey is spent negotiating the string of commuter towns that serve Dublin. Each one is barely distinguishable from the last; they are all bland and gray, pre-planned and functional, with names he finds he can't recall ten minutes after leaving them behind. He had not expected this, and it depresses him. He wonders if this land has changed so much that not only is it unrecognizable to him, it is no longer somewhere he wants to learn to recognize again. He wonders, for the first time, if he has made a mistake in coming back.

Slowly, the gaps between the dormitory towns grow until he is driving through open countryside. The fields are wide expanses of brown, stripped of this year's harvest, not yet ready to receive next year's, which will be smaller, as they always are now. Roadside trees reach upwards with spindly finger-like branches, clutching vainly at the low, dark clouds, while crows circle aimlessly overhead, buffeted by the wind. The only signs of life are occasional tractors, chugging lopsidedly across bare fields, or tiny figures in distant farmyards.

In Tipperary -- his route takes him briefly across the county's northern tip -- the condition of the roads becomes noticeably worse. The car's wheels throw up loose shale, and he winces every time he hears the chinks and scrapes on the paint work. Soon the roads are little more than lanes, twisting and winding in unexpected directions over the land. In a moment of unexpected clarity, he understands he is in one of the rare places where man never dominated his environment, merely fitted in around it. He wonders if the process of reclamation will be faster here because of that, once men are gone for good.

His progress is slower, now, and several times he is held up behind tractors, earth-moving vehicles or, on one occasion, a farmer driving a flock of sheep along the middle of the road. Now he is so close to his objective, he feels a measure of the old frustration, the need to DO something, build up within him, but he confines himself to tapping his fingers against the rim of the steering wheel and swearing under his breath.

Villages are not rare, but inhabited ones are, as time and again he passes through tiny ghost-towns, windows of buildings boarded up, cars rusting quietly at the side of the road. This is not a localized phenomenon: he has seen the same sight many times over during his travels in America these last twenty years. There, as here, civilization is retreating, hunkering down against the threat of encroaching emptiness; only the cities of the coasts maintain any illusion of vitality. In Ireland, it appears, the centers of population closest to mainland Europe -- Dublin, Wexford, Waterford --have held out best, so far.

He imagines Galway, silent and deserted, and is suddenly afraid he has put off his return for too long. The last stretch of the journey is the most difficult, and more than once he fights off the urge to turn the car around and return to Dublin, the airport, America. There will be no one to question him on his return, no one holding him to his promise to do this. He is free, he reminds himself, almost harshly; unleashed from the demon's hold, no longer the tool of distant, implacable Powers. He is able, at last, to choose his own path; he answers to no one.

No, that's not entirely true. He answers to himself, and so he drives on, to Galway.

To his immense relief, the city is still there, not thriving, exactly, but not a decaying waste of empty buildings and crumbling streets, either. He enters it with some trepidation, certain that the city will be so changed from the place he remembers as to be wholly different, yet unable entirely to quash the hope that there will be something familiar, something to recognize. He didn't feel this way about Dublin -- he'd never been more than a tourist there, staying only a matter of weeks during that first winter before Darla grew bored and they traveled on, seeking out the greater thrills and challenges of England and the continent. But he had known Galway well, had spent as much time there as he had in his village, and he finds he can still recall the pattern of streets, where the taverns were, the salt tang of the wind off the sea.

Ah. The sea is still the same. The sea endures.

The sun is setting over the Atlantic as he parks the hire car on the sea front and walks slowly along the promenade. He pulls his jacket tighter against the stiff, cold wind; it's a bleak night, and few people are out walking for pleasure. The only other people he sees are a couple of teenagers, whose fiery passion is apparently hot enough to dispel the night's chill. The girl has the fragile, delicate beauty of a china doll; the boy holds her gently, as if afraid of shattering her. They are both so young, he thinks, and is surprised at himself for being surprised.

The port he remembers, where Spanish and Portuguese sailing ships docked to re-supply on their way to the New World, is long gone. International travel by air or sea is a rarity now, as nations blame their neighbors for spreading infection and build walls around themselves. Governments hail the theory of 'sustainable self-sufficiency', conveniently forgetting that cessation of trade between nations is not a step forward but rather a regression to primitive times. We are not intended to exist in isolation, he thinks, and is amazed it took him so long to understand so simple and vital a truth.

His watch tells him it's almost nine o'clock, and so he turns and begins to walk back to the hire car, aware that if he leaves it much longer, he might not be able to find a room for the night. But he is delayed at the bench where he passed the teenagers -- the boy is gone, and the girl sits by herself, crying quietly.

He stops walking, although she is too absorbed in her misery to notice his presence straight away. For a moment, he debates what to do next -- an older man approaching a young girl on a deserted promenade at night could be misconstrued, to say the least -- but the issue is resolved for him when she looks up. He offers her his handkerchief. "Here."

She accepts it, unable to speak through sobs, and blows her nose, noisily. Then she wipes the tears from her cheeks and sits up a little straighter. "Th-- thanks."

He nods. There is so much, he thinks, he wants to tell her: Pain changes you, but not necessarily for the worse. A heart which can be broken can also be healed.

Most of all: This moment will pass.

But he knows that words are trite and meaningless when delivered by friends, much less strangers, and the only lessons worth learning must be felt, not told.

The girl holds out the handkerchief, silently offering to return it. He looks at the mass of mucus-and-tear-sodden cotton for a second, then waves his hand. "It's okay. Keep it."

"Thanks," she says again, and her voice is steadier now. "I'm all right. Really."

It's a lie, but one he's told himself, many times, and he lets it pass. "Don't sit here by yourself for long, okay? The night isn't safe."

She nods. There's little else he can do for her, so he returns to the hire car, finds a room in a tiny bed and breakfast and falls asleep almost immediately. He dreams, as he often does -- vivid, simple dreams of familiar faces -- and wakes some time in the early hours, reaching automatically for the handkerchief to dry his tears. It isn't there, of course, and so he makes do with a long strip of toilet roll torn from the dispenser in the bathroom.

Some time later, he goes back to bed, and sleeps soundly until morning.

A burst tire and a succession of roads which are little more than dirt tracks conspire to make the final twenty miles of the journey the most difficult. He struggles on his knees in the mud, curses his diminished strength, but succeeds -- after several attempts -- in replacing the punctured tire.

His journey is defined by the coast to his left and the wild expanse of wilderness to his right. The land is almost as flat as the sea; as flat, and as empty. This, more than anything else, unsettles him --he remembers a thriving country, a people fed by fishing and the potato harvest, clothed by wool from grazing sheep, made wealthy by sea-trade. But he knew the history he missed even before he came back, how the land was overgrazed, trade moved elsewhere and, the death blow, the blight that made the potatoes rot in the ground. A combination of bad luck and bad management ruined the land and -- he did not appreciate the irony until now -- the pattern has simply been repeated on a global scale. He has driven west not into the past, but the future.

Rather than anticipation, a sense of approaching, inevitable disappointment overcomes him as he nears his objective. He has seen no one -- no other cars, no farmers, no inhabited buildings -- since soon after leaving Galway, and the obvious conclusion can no longer be avoided. He is saddened but not surprised when he arrives in the tiny village of Ballygrian to find it abandoned. Deserted. Dead.

He leaves the hire car at the side of the village square and gets out to explore the place on foot. Here, as elsewhere, windows have been boarded up and weeds climb high around unused doorways. He wonders how long ago the last residents died or moved away, and finds a small clue in the window of the post office and general store -- one of the boards has fallen away, revealing a hand-written notice:


Five years, he thinks. The irony of staying away for three centuries, then missing the demise of his home by a margin of five years is not lost on him. But too late is too late, and Ballygrian has gone the way of Babylon and Carthage, of Chicago and Dallas.

He is downcast but resolute as he walks purposefully through the village. He can still do what he came here to do.

The church, when he sees it, makes him stop -- physically draw up short in shock -- not because it is different, but because it is the same. Like the Custom House in Dublin, he is face to face with a rarity, a thing as old as he is. The church's mossy stones are the same ones he scratched his name into as a boy, waiting outside for mass to start. Perhaps, he thinks, somewhere in the high rafters within, the faint echoes of his last confession still reverberate faintly.

He does not go in to test the theory, but walks instead to the village graveyard he knows lies on the east side of the church, sheltered from the biting wind from the sea. He pauses just before going through the rusted iron gates -- the reluctance to step on to consecrated ground persists, even now -- but when he finally makes himself take the crucial step forward, there are no consequences other than the shallow dent in the soft earth his foot leaves.

The graveyard is not large -- Ballygrian was never a metropolis --but it is wild and overgrown, and many of the tombstones are cracked and fallen, or obscured entirely by weeds and moss. It is hard to find his bearings, to recall exactly where the graves he seeks are, and so he stands still for a moment, struggling to recall a succession of funerals attended during the cholera outbreak that carried off all but one of his siblings. He remembers standing here, the sun behind him, when they buried his older brother Michael; remembers listening at baby Aoibheann's funeral to the priest's empty homilies while he stood right there, his mother and Kathleen weeping beside him --

Unconsciously, his feet and his memories have brought him to the right place. He opens his eyes and finds himself facing an angel, its stone face weathered and blank. As befitted the family of a wealthy merchant, the monument is larger and more imposing than any other in the graveyard; his father's last wishes, he thinks, no doubt expressed in pious language in the will.

To the greater glory of God, yes, father? Or to your glory? And are you certain of that?

He steps back, surprised at the bitterness of his thoughts. He had believed he had left all this behind; in fact, his return to this place was intended at least in part as a test of that belief. Perhaps, he thinks, there are some things he will never leave behind.

The stone angel on the plinth stares down at him with blank, eroded eyes.

He kneels, and starts to pull away the layers of moss and dirt that encrust the plinth's base. The inscription beneath is worn and hardly legible, but it helps that he knows what names should be there. Six names, a family wiped out in halves, three deaths in 1745, the plague year, three more in 1753.

One name missing, one body not resting here. The black sheep, the prodigal, was buried elsewhere, he remembers. One separated from the family in death as in life. One returning at last, to ask for forgiveness. This time in person.

"Hello there! Are you all right?"

He stumbles to his feet, more startled than anything else -- his duller senses do not warn him of intrusions into his privacy, as they used to. The man wading toward him through the long grasses is in late middle-age, not plump but sturdy. He wears a priest's collar and enunciates his vowels with the plummy precision of an Englishman.

"Yes. Yes, I'm fine. I'm sorry, I didn't know I was trespassing."

"Oh, no, not at all." The priest chuckles. "Saw you kneeling there, thought maybe you were doing a spot of weeding. The place needs it. Looked a bit harder, wondered if you were ill."

"I'm fine. Just cold."

"Oh, me too. Colder than an Eskimo's privy out here, sometimes." The priest holds out his hand and smiles broadly. "Father Thomas. Come and have a cup of tea, eh? Kettle's just on."

Father Thomas is forty-two years old, a former academic who spent his career until the age of thirty-eight as a research fellow of St Catherine's College, Cambridge, writing papers on comparative religion, "until God said to me, Thomas, old chap, I am unknowable, therefore you should stop wasting your time supposing you can know Me, get off your backside and go out and do some good in the world."

The day after this revelation, Father Thomas resigned from his academic post and set about finding out where priests were in shortest supply. He was somewhat surprised to discover the current shortfall was most severe on his back doorstep, in Ireland, where the plague had caused both a renewed interest in religion and a shortage of young men to train in the priesthood. He has been in Ballygrian for almost four years; although the village is empty, the church now serves the combined populations of five tiny surviving outposts of civilization, the furthest one some fifteen miles away. Sometimes, he says proudly, the car park is almost half-full.

All of this information is shared cheerfully and in less than the space of time it takes the kettle to boil.

"So you're American, then?"

The reply is becoming almost automatic. "I've lived there for a long time. But I was born here." Then he realizes he can now add an extra level of clarity. "I mean, I was born HERE. In Ballygrian."

Father Thomas is impressed. "Really? My word. You must have been one of the last, then." The priest's eyes twinkle as he says, "And you're here to look up your ancestors."

"Something like that." The kettle whistles, and he watches the priest go about the very English ritual of making tea. A splash of boiling water to warm the teapot, two tea-bags added, fill the pot and swill it gently, one, two, three times. Angel tries to picture Wesley as a priest, and finds it surprisingly easy: he would have taken satisfaction from the precision of the rituals, the ancient mysteries of bread and wine, the importance of words. His life could have been radically different, and perhaps not different at all.

Angel declines the offer of sugar and watches Father Thomas add two spoonfuls to his own cup. "Might have something to interest you."

"What's that?"

"I'll fetch it."

The priest leaves the snug vestry through the door that leads to the rest of the church. A few minutes later he is back, huffing and puffing as he carries a heavy, leather-bound book in both hands. He clears a space on the table and uses the corner of his sleeve to wipe away several layers of dust. "Parish records. Now, what's the family name?"


"O'Conor," repeats the priest, turning the pages gently. "O'Reilly, O'Hare... Aha. O'Conor." He taps his finger against the musty page, then frowns. "Hmm. This can't be your lot. The family line ended in Ballygrian in, let me see... 1753. Four deaths in that year, no births or marriages afterwards."

"No, that's right," Angel says before he can stop himself. "May I --may I look?"

Father Thomas looks at him oddly but nods and steps aside, allowing him to study the faded, curling script as closely as he likes. The words blur in front of him, and will not resolve themselves to clarity until he puts on his recently-acquired glasses. They still feel awkward and alien on his nose; he thinks daily of a hundred tiny things he'd ask Wesley -- What's the best way to stop the lenses smudging? How do I stop losing them all the time? -- if he could.

The names are sharp now, clear and familiar. He runs his eye down them until he finds the one he's looking for -- the name missing from the base of the plinth in the graveyard outside.

'Liam O'Conor, born this Thirtieth day of June in the Year of Our Lord Seventeen Hundred and Twenty Seven.'

This part is in English -- even then, the native language was fighting for its survival. But the sentence below is in Gaelic, and he reads it aloud almost without thinking. "The Lord Make His Face to Shine Upon Thee and Grant Thee Long Life."

Long life, he thinks. Yes, and then some.

Again, the words blur in front of him, and this time correcting lenses do not help.

"You read old Irish," Father Thomas says, delighted. "Another scholar, how absolutely marvelous. You should have said, old chap."

"No. No, I'm no scholar. It's just -- an interest." He is aware even as he speaks how inadequate the explanation is, and he braces himself against the barrage of questions he is certain will follow. But the priest has something else on his mind.

"I don't speak it at all, you see. Been trying to find someone who does for weeks. I have, in fact, been praying for you to come along."

He finds the idea of someone actively petitioning God for his presence discomfiting, to say the least. "You have?"

"Please don't think me too forward, but would you mind awfully doing me a small favor? It'll only take a couple of hours, I promise."

Her name is Brighid, Father Thomas explains. He doesn't know exactly how old she is -- although 'very' is a safe guess -- but he does know she lives alone in a tiny hut on the cliffs above the bay, without electricity, running water, or telephone. She was there the first Sunday he held mass in the church in Ballygrian, and every Sunday after that. After a couple of weeks, he approached her with the intention of making conversation, and was rebuffed with stern and total silence. He thought he had somehow given offense until another member of the congregation drew him aside and explained she was one of the last of the true Gaelic speakers: Irish was her first language, and she knew no English, nor had the slightest desire to learn.

The first indication anything was wrong was her absence at mass four weeks earlier. Since this was unprecedented, Father Thomas made the hazardous journey along the boggy tracks leading to her tiny one-room stone dwelling, and found her lying on the floor, half-paralyzed. The doctor who was summoned from Galway diagnosed a stroke of such severity that hospital treatment was needed, but with all the county's hospitals full to overflowing, there was little chance of one old woman being given priority care. For the past month, Brighid has been confined to her bed in the stone hut where she was born and where, it is now accepted by all, she will very shortly die.

"Want to give her the chance to take mass one last time, in Irish," concludes Father Thomas. "Can give it in English. Latin. Maybe even French, at a push. Can't give it in Gaelic, though. Need a translator. You game?"

Angel has never worshipped Father Thomas' God, not in life or death or life again, although he believes absolutely in that God - more than two and a half centuries of fearing crosses and being scalded by Holy Water leave little room for doubt. But he has never, even for a moment, considered that the God he deliberately turned from might still believe in HIM. And yet, he wonders if it is entirely coincidence that he has traveled five thousand miles to a place he has not been for almost three hundred years, and has somehow arrived at exactly the right moment and with exactly the right skills to be of help to someone who needs it.

And that, he has learnt through long and bitter experience, is what matters. The need to be of use, to help. He still remembers with perfect clarity the night long ago when he realized that this was his destiny -- no, destiny is too grand a term -- that this was his reason for being. To help, not to stack up cosmic points on the other side of the scales to that weighed down by his past misdeeds, but simply because he could. Because it gave his life, before it was a life, meaning. And that has not changed, even though his heart now beats.

"I'd like to help," he says.

They take Father Thomas' battered Land Rover, and leave the hire car parked safely in the empty village ("Hertz wouldn't thank you for making them come all the way out here to tow her out of the mud.") The day is turning stormy, and strong winds buffet the Land Rover on both sides. Once or twice, the back wheels skid in the mud, but good fortune (or divine power) is on their side, and they complete the journey without major incident.

The hut is exactly as the priest described it -- a relic from another century, perhaps even a century that predates Angel. "Brighid!" Father Thomas calls as he bangs at the wooden door: "Only me, Brighid!"

It seems odd to knock on the door if the old woman is bedridden, but it quickly becomes clear that the priest is not expecting to be let in -- the door is unlocked, and Father Thomas was simply giving warning of his imminent entrance.

He follows the priest inside, ducking under the low door frame. The atmosphere is thick with smoke particles, and almost immediately his eyes begin to water, and he coughs involuntarily. But the interior of the hut is warm, and that alone makes it more comfortable than the raw day outside.

The hut's single room contains a table, a chair and a bed, and an old woman in the bed. She strains to lift her head as they enter; her eyes are rheumy but lively with intelligence, and her gnarled right hand is wrapped around a string which trails across the hut's floor to a metal coal scuttle on a hinged stand. The string is tied so that a single sharp tug will send a block of turf into the fire, and Angel is impressed by her ingenuity.

Brighid watches with interest as Father Thomas busily unpacks the contents of his rucksack on to the table -- communion wafers, a small plastic bottle full of a dark liquid that must be wine, a goblet. The priest arranges the items to his satisfaction, then stands back from the table, nodding to himself. "Oh -- should have asked before now --will you be joining us? Only if you want to, mind."

Angel blinks, surprised. He hadn't even considered the possibility. "I -- no. Thank you, but no."

Father Thomas nods, smiles; no offense taken. But Angel still feels awkward as the priest opens a small, dog-eared Bible and begins the mass.

He pauses after the first sentence, looks meaningfully at his translator, and Angel feels a momentary stab of panic. He hasn't spoken Gaelic for several lifetimes, hadn't thought of it in decades before seeing the book of parish records. Does he still remember his native tongue? Or has that, like so much else of what he used to be, left him, too?

Brighid struggles to push herself up in the bed, interested in what's going on around her. Noticing Angel for the first time, she narrows her eyes and gives him a beady, suspicious stare. Father Thomas offers her a wide grin and hearty reassurance. "It's all right, Brighid. No more doctors."

Evidently the old woman knows some English, because she scowls disdainfully at the last word. Still looking at Angel, she asks, "Cad e an t-ainm ata ort?"

"Aingeal ata orm," he replies automatically and, a second later, feels surprised at how natural it feels to speak his native tongue again, after so long. Not deeply buried at all, it has always been much closer to the surface than he knew. This is the language he first thought in, and he had not realized until now how much its structure, its sounds and rhythms, still shape the way he reasons and dreams.

Her eyes light up with a mixture of curiosity and delight. "An bhfuil Gaeilge agat?"

"Is maith," he confirms, then explains for the benefit of Father Thomas: "She asked me my name, and if I speak Gaelic."

"See, now, you're hitting it off famously," the priest says, plainly thrilled. He holds up the Bible again: "Best crack on, before she gets tired, eh?"

They proceed, line by line, prayer by prayer, through the sacrament, the priest speaking, Angel translating, Brighid nodding her silent agreement with every praise offered. He is surprised at how much of the ritual's words and actions are familiar to him -- in three centuries, not one detail has changed, and he finds this simple fact oddly and profoundly comforting. When the priest hands him the crucifix, merely to free his hands to pour the wine, Angel takes it, and only after the sacrament is over looks down at what he holds, and marvels at his easy acceptance of it.

The priest holds the goblet to the old woman's lips, steadying it as she sips the wine, then places a fragment of communion wafer on her cracked, dry tongue. The morsel has barely any substance, but she chews toothlessly before swallowing it with effort.

"Amen," concludes Father Thomas, and Angel dutifully begins to translate, but before he can, Brighid raises a frail, veined hand.

"Amen," she says. The word is indistinct, and her voice is hoarse from disuse, but the sound evidently pleases her. "Amen," she repeats, and sinks back on to the bed. Her eyes flutter, then close. "Go raibh maith agat."

"She says thank you," Angel tells the priest. Then, to the old woman: "Na habair e."

But Brighid is sleeping soundly, and does not stir.

Half the journey back to the deserted village has passed in silence when Father Thomas suddenly draws the Land Rover to a halt on the dirt track that leads back down from Brighid's cliff-top home. He pulls on the hand brake, and draws his hands uselessly across his wet cheeks. Tears flow freely down his face and neck before meeting a barrier in the shape of his priest's collar.

"So sorry," he says. "Can't drive for a bit."

"I'm not in a hurry to get back."

Father Thomas nods gratefully, reaches into a pocket and produces a wad of tissues. Holding them to his face, he says, "Blasted nuisance, this. Happens at the most inconvenient times. Was giving a talk on the joy of the Holy Spirit last week and this started up half-way through. Not particularly joyful."

He waves a hand to indicate his watering eyes, and Angel nods, forgetting for a moment that it's unlikely the priest can see him. The initial symptoms of BSDS are inconvenient and embarrassing, rather than unpleasant; when the disease first appeared the media dubbed it, somewhat prosaically, the weeping plague. "How long ago were you diagnosed?"

"Noticed the first symptoms in May. Tested positive about a month later." Father Thomas dabs at his eyes circumspectly; a true Englishman, he is clearly reluctant to draw attention to his discomfort. "Very much obliged for what you did for Brighid."

"Thank you for letting me help."

The priest turns his head slightly, as if trying to look back up the track to the cold stone hut which is now a remote pebble at the top of the cliff. "Sometimes wonder what she makes of it. Or if she makes anything of it. No television, no radio, the locals tell me she's been up here her whole life, so it's possible she doesn't know at all." He looks at Angel. "Should have asked you to translate more than mass."

"It hardly affects her, now. If she doesn't know, she's probably better off that way."

"True. Funny to think anyone might be indifferent to the end of the world." The priest's face is flushed and swollen, and he is blinking rapidly in an effort to dispel the excess moisture from his flooded eyes. "How are you folk coping over there on the other side of the pond lately? Don't get so much news from abroad, these days."

Angel would understand if Father Thomas preferred to wait quietly until the attack passed, but the priest seems determined to create a conversational distraction from his condition. "About the same as here, from what I've seen. A couple of months ago, the government finally admitted the disease is endemic, and lifted the last of the travel restrictions. The official figures say only forty-five percent of the population is infected, but no one believes it's that low."

Father Thomas nods. "No country wants to be the first to admit that over half the population's got it. Of course, if any of them had acknowledged the problem twenty years ago, when there still might have been enough time to stop it --" For a second, his soft features twist into the hard lines of anger. Then resignation smoothes them again. "Well. What's done is done, eh? Can't change the past."

"No," Angel agrees softly.

Outside, it has started to rain. Water drums against the Land Rover's roof, slides down the windscreen in haphazard rivulets. Seagulls hang stable above the choppy sea, wings angled into the wind, beaks dipped.

"Do you know," Father Thomas says suddenly, apropos of nothing, "what I find comforting?"

Angel waits, and after a second's silence, the priest continues.

"The thought of all of the books we'll leave. There's a copyright library in Cambridge, did you know that? Has a copy of every book published for the last four hundred years. All kinds of storage media. Microfiche. CD-ROM. Data crystals. But mostly books. Room after room of paper bound in leather. And sometimes I think about them, walking through those rooms, wondering who we were. Selecting a book at random, perhaps. Opening it and reading the words out loud, listening to the sound they make, wondering what it was we thought was important enough to go to such trouble to record. I hope they will take the time to learn our language."

Angel frowns. "They?"

"Whoever comes after us," Father Thomas says, and shrugs. "There will be someone, I'm sure. Or perhaps, something. I mean --" he waves a hand to indicate the cliff beyond the road, the long wind-whipped grass, the seabirds, the ocean. "It's not Eden anymore, but it's not half bad either. When we are gone, I doubt He'll let it lie fallow for long. It's hubris to suppose human beings are God's sole concern and the only means by which His design can be carried out."

Angel thinks of the old woman, Brighid, of the unlikely coincidence of his presence here and her need, and says, "Or to believe ourselves beneath His notice."

"Well, yes. But that goes without saying. " The priest squeezes his eyes shut tightly, forcing the last drops of moisture on to the sodden tissue. He opens them, blinks rapidly, and nods. "There, now. Worst of it's over. Can drive again." He reaches for the Land Rover's gear-stick and eases the car into motion along the now-muddy track. As they bump and, very occasionally, skid toward the village, he remarks conversationally, "The doctor tells me the first phase usually lasts about a year."

"Or longer," Angel says. "I've been phase one for eighteen months."

A moment later he wishes he hadn't said anything, when Father Thomas looks away from the muddy, slippery road ahead and directly at Angel. "Really? Never would have guessed. You look so well. But the drugs slow it down a lot, so they say..."

"I'm not taking the drugs."

"Oh, good show," the priest says approvingly, returning his attention to the track ahead. "Same here. Thought the little ones born with it deserved the chance, not some old codger like me, on the way out anyway, eh?" He smiles warmly. "Where are you staying? Galway?"


"Well, that's perfect, old chap. I live in Oranmore."

So Angel finds himself standing outside the gates of the chapel in Ballygrian, just as he did earlier, except now in possession of a scrap of paper bearing Father Thomas' address and an invitation to dinner before he leaves. The Land Rover's horn blasts cheerfully as the priest accelerates away through the deserted village, an echo of his final words ("Love to chat longer -- got a funeral in Carrhoe at three -- don't leave without calling, eh?") lingering in the silent street.

Angel looks at the scrap of paper for a moment before folding it once, with care, and pocketing it. He makes a few slow paces in the direction of the hire car, then turns and walks back into the chapel.

The church is unheated, and it is not noticeably more pleasant inside than outside, except perhaps because of the protection offered by the ancient stone walls from the biting wind. He hovers on the threshold for a moment, battling the lingering, irrational unease that affects him in these places, before resolutely beginning the long walk down the central aisle, toward the alter.

As he crosses the transept, he looks down and notices that he has unconsciously shifted his pace to the slow and measured stride of a former alter-boy. His past, like his native language, is not so long dead or deeply buried as he'd thought, and with this realization the floodgates open, and he is assailed by a thousand tiny recollections of a distant childhood, as clear and sharp as if they had happened yesterday.

(-- a small boy, shuffling on the hard pew beside his father, backside aching from the most recent beating, knowing failure to pay attention to the priest will earn him another thrashing; at other times, tickling his sister to make her laugh during the most solemn moments; later, mouthing the words to sung psalms when his voice began to break and he could no longer reach the highest notes --)

Memories crowd in on him, overcoming him, and he reaches out a hand to support himself on the edge of a pew before sinking down to sit on it. Hesitantly, he moves forward, slipping off the bench so that he kneels on the cushioned rail provided for this purpose. Leaning his elbows on the pew in front, he clasps his hands together, closes his eyes, and recalls unwillingly the rare occasions he has prayed during this last century and a half.

(-- held Buffy as she slept, was warm because she was next to him, her heartbeat echoing in his own chest, understood at last what redemption meant and thanked God for it -- and that was the second you ripped my soul from me, you bastard --

-- held Cordelia's hand as she writhed against the restraints, eyes open but blind to everything but the visions, made the long walk to Wesley's bedside, cleared a place to sit among the machines and tubes and in silent desperation offered a deal: Bring them back and I will give anything, do anything, perform any task, accept any hardship, but please, please --

-- held the boy close to him as the rain lashed down, felt the warm, fragile body pound with the strength of the heartbeat within, could not conceive how a thing as soiled as himself could help bring forth something this perfect, this innocent, heard himself whisper, my son, my son, and knew he held a miracle made flesh -- )

On this occasion, he is no more successful, stumbling inarticulately over the words, unable to make his thoughts resolve themselves into coherent sentences. He stops quickly, embarrassed despite the fact there is no one within five miles to hear him, and angry at himself for his lack of eloquence. A facility with language has never been among his strengths and, regretfully, he realizes that at this late stage this is unlikely to change.

His knees hurt now, but he continues to kneel, head bowed, hands clasped. A dull pressure behind his eyes heralds the first tears, which feel all the hotter in the church's cool, still air. He separates his hands and begins to pat his coat pockets, in search of a handkerchief, before remembering the girl on the sea front in Galway and the weeping attack which woke him the previous night. The fits are growing more frequent, indicating that the first phase of the disease is drawing to a close and he can soon expect the rapid decline of phase two to commence. He made this journey just in time.

His eyes sting and his face grows wet, and he keeps kneeling. Lost in memory. Lost for words.

(I want to help her. I want to become someone.

Am I a thing worth saving? Am I a righteous man?

Sure it's in you. But it's not the only thing that's in you. You're not him, Angel. Not anymore.

You're a good man.)

And now the weeping is more than physical, as he chokes on the intensity of his gratitude to each one who has walked beside him for any part of the journey. His path has been long and convoluted, and he never once guessed when he left his Father's house that it would take three centuries, a death and a resurrection to bring him home.

He begins to list them all, beginning with Whistler and Buffy and progressing to include Doyle and Cordelia, Wesley and Fred and Gunn, a host of others whose names he has forgotten or never knew, but whose faces remain clear to him. He ends with the Scottish woman he met at Dublin airport; Sean, who shared a drink and his good fortune with a stranger; the girl crying by the sea in Galway; Father Thomas; Brighid.

Thank you, he tells each one of them. Go raibh maith agat; thank you.

And with that thought, he understands how he can pray.

Voice a whisper, he begins, "Ar nAthair, ata ar Neamh..."

At first, he speaks slowly and carefully, afraid he will reach the prayer's midpoint and realize he has forgotten the conclusion, or that, somehow, the words still have the power to inflict pain on him, as they once would have. But instead of faltering, he gains confidence with each line he speaks, and his voice grows louder and louder, building to a final 'Amen!' which is a shout of thanks and praise.

"Amen," he repeats, more gently, aware that he is bringing something more than a prayer to an end; he is concluding a journey, wrapping up a life, adding his voice to humanity's requiem. But he feels no sorrow, only joy.

It is not the first time Angel has prayed, but it is the first he has dared to believe his prayer is heard.

Ar nAthair
Ata ar Neamh,
Go naofar d'ainm
Go dtagtha do riocht,
Go ndeanfar do thoil ar an talamh,
Mar a dheanfar ar Neamh.
Ar n-aran laethuil,
Tabhair duinn inniu
Agus maith duinn ar bhfiacha,
Mar mhaithimid dar bhfeichiuna fein.
Agus na lig sinn i gcathu,
Ach saor sinn o olc.
Oir is leatsa an
Riocht agus an
Chumhacht agus an
Ghloir, tre shaol na saol.


Palimpsest: Rheanna's Angel Fanfiction

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