So this is what comes after death, Angel thought.
Then he remembered that he already knew all about that.
He sat up, memories rushing in along with consciousness. The final battle - Wolfram & Hart - the dragon -
"The dragon got the better of ya, pal. No shame in it. They're a bitch to deal with, and that's even if you DO have a flamethrower."
Scrambling to his feet, Angel peered into the strange, inky darkness that surrounded him. He made out a familiar form and scowled. "Skip. I might have known."
"Excuse me? I'm not Skip. Clearly not Skip. You know, people say we all look alike, but that is the biggest load of stereotypical crap that I ever -"
"If you're not Skip, who are you?"
The gray-skinned demon glared at him before saying, as though it were obvious, "I'm Chip."
"Fantastic." Angel tried to peer into the blackness around them both, but there was nothing to see: no walls, no ceiling, no furniture or trees or stone. Come to think of it, there wasn't exactly a floor beneath his feet - just an end to falling. He was familiar enough with unpleasant situations to be quite certain that he was in another one - but he wasn't at all familiar with this. "Let me guess. You're the one designated to tell me where I am."
"Yeah, I drew the short straw." Chip folded his arms. "Though, I gotta say, I figured you'd know where we are. Where YOU are, specifically. I'm just visiting."
Angel held one hand to his abdomen; it seemed to him that he remembered a blow, and blood. And the sharp jabbing in his chest -
"I wasn't wrong," Angel said. "When I woke up, my first thought was - was that I'd died. Except, well -"
"You're already dead," Chip supplied. "How can you be deader than dead? Turns out it's more than a semantic problem. Doesn't really jibe on the metaphysical level, either."
"Is this Limbo?"
"Do you see anybody dancing under a stick? I didn't think so." Chip shook his head, the heavy plates upon his back lifting and falling as if in a sigh. "Turns out nobody knows what to do with you, exactly. We haven't had to decide what comes after the afterlife before."
The paradox wasn't unfamiliar to Angel - he'd considered it before - but he'd thought the likely options were hell or oblivion. This didn't appear to be either. Then it occurred to him that he wasn't the only one that paradox would apply to. "Where's Spike? And Illyria?"
"That's our problem," Chip replied. "Trust me, you've got enough of your own problems to deal with."
Angel shrugged. "How is this my problem? I've been to hell, remember? Compared to that, eternity in a black room isn't so bad, even if you're here."
"I think after a few millennia, a black room might lose its charm."
"It's not worse than hell," Angel said flatly.
Chip shrugged. "You got me there. Not that it matters, though. You can't stay here. This is strictly a holding area."
"So where am I going?"
"Great question." Chip held out one clawed hand and dropped something round and heavy into Angel's palm; upon closer inspection, it turned out to look something like a 19th-century astrolabe, with dials and gears and floating hands that pointed in a thousand directions. "Turns out that your destination is up to you - with a few caveats."
Angel was startled enough to look up from the glittering mechanism in his hands. "Up to me?"
The smile on Chip's face was not reassuring. "Funny thing about immortality: It's both a reward and a curse. You know all about that, of course; it was mortality you were playing for, wasn't it?"
Angel went very still. "I wasn't playing."
"Might as well have been, for all the good you did." Chip's laughter grated against Angel's nerves; it sounded like gravel on broken glass. "So - immortality. We don't have the power to take it away, as it turns out. But we can't just throw you back in there with the dragon, because then you're back in the holding room in about 5 minutes. And I don't expect to spend eternity as the guy watching your revolving door."
Maybe - to some far more practiced eyes - Chip and Skip weren't identical, Angel thought. But they were both remarkably alike in their inability to give a straight answer. "I'm going to live forever," he said. It didn't make him happy, but then, he'd had some time to get used to the idea. "But where am I going to live?"
"It's less a question of 'where' and more a question of 'when.'" Pointing to the instrument in Angel's hand, Chip said, "We can't give you another life. We can only give you back yours. So you get to go backward in time - how far is up to you - and, if I know you, try to start over."
The ramifications took a moment to sink in. Angel's fingers tightened around the instrument in his hands, its whirring and vibration now almost like a heartbeat against his skin. He heard his voice break over the words: "Start over?"
"Sounds like a big treat, doesn't it? Must be, for a guy with as many regrets as you've piled up." Chip's coal-dark eyes glinted, as though swirling with oil. "But starting over is harder than it sounds."
Start over. Start over. He could go back - fix it all, fix everything, because he knew how it had ended, how it had begun, oh, God, maybe it was all for something after all - "Just tell me how this thing works. That's all I need to know."
As Chip shook his head, he said, "If you say so, pal. The device takes you backward in time within your own life. You'll be you - not suddenly standing in front of your 1945 self to freak yourself out, you get it?"
"No duplication. I'll be within my own skin."
"About time you guessed something right." Chip tapped a claw against the mechanism's brassy surface. "Also, you'll be glad to know, your soul goes where you do. You hope back into the year 1848, for example, you're not gonna be the Scourge of Europe again - unless you decide to take mass homicide up as a hobby."
Angel frowned. "I doubt it."
"Important point: It ONLY goes backwards. Only. Once you go back to, say, 2001, you ain't seeing 2002 again, unless you wait 365 days. Clear?"
"Crystal," Angel said, peering down at the dials. They were painted in a bizarre collection of symbols - Arabic and Roman numerals, mystical signs, and squiggles he didn't recognize. "How do you -"
Chip interrupted with, "You can use it as many times as you want to. No limit on how many jumps backward you'll make -"
"I only need one."
"Or how far you jump when you go," Chip continued, ignoring Angel's words. "Of course, if and when you reach your own infancy, you're going to lose the ability to operate the thing, not to mention your adult comprehension of the world. You end up in the womb, you better hope for your mother's sake you don't have the device in there with you. And that, my friend, is as far back as you're able to go."
Angel, already impatient to begin, replied, "I don't need to go back nearly that far. All I need to know is -"
"You're on your own, pal," Chip said. "See ya."
And Chip was gone. No puff of smoke, no flash of light - he was there, and then he wasn't.
Angel shouted, "How do I know how far back I'm jumping?"
"Perfect." Gazing down at the spinning instrument in his palm, Angel realized that he had literally no idea how to interpret the settings - or to manipulate them. How did the Powers expect him to make the right choice if he couldn't actually choose? This was guesswork, purely guesswork -
--then he realized that might be for the best. Because when Angel tried to think of the first wrong he would set right, too many sins and omissions and losses crowded into his mind, fighting for dominance. He wanted to save Wesley. He wanted to save Doyle. He wanted to keep baby Connor forever. He wanted never to see the human girl Drusilla had been. He wanted to make sure that Cordelia -
That Cordelia was safe, that she never met him, that she never left him, that she and he -
No. There were too many regrets. Better to go back by chance, take what fate gave him, and make everything better from there.
Angel studied the dials for another moment, not so much hoping for inspiration that wouldn't come as considering the possibilities. Should he go as far back as he possibly could?
The temptation to go back and prevent his own turning rose up - to go home to his parents and his sister, make something of himself, live out his life in Galway and remain in the grave he'd someday have -- but Angel slowly put it aside. It had been years since he'd come to the realization that the crimes he'd committed as Angelus were a painful price to pay, but a necessary one, to bring him to a point where he was able to fight for the Powers. So going back and stopping his vampirism wasn't an option.
Also, the point was to fix some of the countless mistakes he'd made; the further back he went, the more variables he'd have to contend with. Every day just gave him more room to get it all wrong.
So - he didn't want to go too far. Maybe he should just move the dials a little.
Experimentally, Angel gave the device a turn - not even a quarter of an inch. In an instant it began humming, glowing slightly warmer in his grip.
He felt no fear. After death - the death after death - what could be left to fear? It was another chance, more than he deserved, and perhaps it would be enough.
The golden warmth shot through him, enveloping him, making him one with the whirring of the device. As the world turned to light, Angel whispered, "Let's begin again."