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Cutting the Strings

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~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Angel was tired. The kind of bone deep weariness he’d not felt for a century. The last month had been a bitch of the first water and he just wanted it all over with. He was lonely, too, but tried not to think about that too closely. His reasons for sending Cordelia, Wes, and Gunn away were sound, even if they disagreed.

The elevator pinged and he wearily pushed himself away from the wall and stepped out of the cab into the hallway. The sounds of a struggle reached his ears and he mused that he was more tired than he thought if he hadn’t heard the commotion until now. He bolted for his rooms and burst in just in time to see Darla turn to dust. The look on her face was one of fury and disbelief. Angel blinked at the slowly settling dust then focused on the one who’d taken Darla from this world, hopefully for the last time.

Short red hair and a slender back that was taut with tension greeted him and his eyebrows rose in recognition. “Willow?”

Willow slowly turned at the sound of his voice, stake still clutched tightly in her hand. Her green eyes were shining with an eerie light and her skin was pale, almost translucent in the moonlight streaming in from the balcony doors. “Angel,” she said calmly.

“What are you doing here?”

Willow shook herself and took a good look at the vampire. He hadn’t been feeding properly and it was starting to show. His features were drawn and his clothes hung loosely on his frame. Willow slipped her stake back up her sleeve and moved to stand in front of him. “Aside from fighting for my life with Darla, and why you didn’t tell us she was back is something we’ll talk about soon, I came to see you.” He didn’t say anything, just stared into her eyes and Willow’s fragile control broke. “God damnit, Angel! What the fuck have you gotten yourself into?!”

~*~*~

Angel blinked again at Willow’s cursing. It wasn’t something he thought he’d ever heard from her before. It didn’t sound right, those vulgar words falling from her innocent lips. He didn’t want her involved in this fight, didn’t want anyone that he cared about involved in it anymore. He’d lost too much to risk endangering any of his few friends any more than he already had. Darla being gone solved one problem and he did need to thank her for that, but what he really wanted was to be alone.

“You shouldn’t have come, Willow,” he said flatly.

She stood her ground. “And you should have called me when you found out Darla was back. How did that happen anyway? I distinctly remember you and Buffy telling us that you had staked her. I thought you couldn’t come back from that.”

He grimaced. “You can’t, unless the world’s largest evil law firm performs a spell to resurrect you. Wolfram & Hart brought her back. She was human. They used her to try to get to me. Almost worked, too.” Angel realized that he was saying too much, but he couldn’t really bring himself to stop. The words started pouring out.

“She was dying, of the same illness that was killing her when the Master turned her. She wanted me to turn her again. I refused, told her we’d find another way. I tried to save her, but it didn’t work. This was her second chance. She had accepted her fate, was going to try to live her last few months the best she could. No sooner had she made that decision than fucking Lindsey McDonald came busting into her hotel room with Dru in tow. I was too weak to fight them off.”

He rubbed his hands over his face and absently waved Willow into a chair. He collapsed in another and tersely continued. “Dru turned her, right there in front of me. There was nothing I could do. I tried to find them before Darla rose again, but was too late. Always too damn late.” He stopped and stared at the wall over Willow’s head.

Willow was silent. Cordelia had told her Angel was turning to the dark side again, but she hadn’t mentioned any of this. Angelus wasn’t in danger of making another appearance like she’d been led to believe. No, what she was seeing was a man at the end of his endurance. Angel didn’t care anymore, and that frightened her more than seeing his evil alter ego. Just when she thought he wouldn’t say any more, he started talking again.

“Darla and Dru started painting downtown red. They crashed a party at Holland Manners’ house. He’s the one that orchestrated bringing Darla back. I found them in the wine cellar with about a dozen Wolfram & Hart lawyers.” Angel met her eyes and said levelly, “I locked them all in the cellar with Darla and Dru. I left them all to die. I walked away when I really wanted nothing more than to join them. I wanted to drain Lindsey so damn badly I could taste his blood on my lips. I sent Cordy and the others away after that. I didn’t want to hurt them. I don’t know what Wolfram & Hart will try to do to me. I didn’t- don’t- want anyone I care about caught in the crossfire.”

Willow thought for a moment, then stood and crossed to where Angel was sitting. She held out her hand and he stared at it numbly for a few seconds before looking up at her in silent confusion. She said, “It’s almost dawn. We’ll get some sleep and figure out what to do in the evening.”

Angel started to shake his head, to tell her to go home, but the thought of sleeping next to a warm body, of sleeping next to Willow, was enough to override his reservations. Memories of her holding him through his nightmares after his return from hell came to the forefront of his mind, of her calming touch and her soothing voice. He took her hand and together they closed the blinds and curtains before crawling into his bed.

Willow drew his head to her breast and cradled him close. She knew what she wanted him to do. She wanted him to leave with her. Not necessarily return to Sunnydale, but definitely get out of L.A. As much as she loved witchcraft and helping Buffy, she was tired of the prophecies and watching her friends dance to the PTB’s tune. Free will was difficult to achieve when you lived your life by another’s rules. Let The Powers find another puppet.

Now all she needed to do was convince Angel. She had a feeling it would be easier than she thought. She looked down at the sleeping vampire and saw that the lines of tension that had shone in sharp relief around his eyes had eased. He looked peaceful and that pleased her. She placed a tender kiss on his forehead and let sleep take her.

~*~*~

“I can’t leave, Willow. I have a purpose here,” Angel exclaimed incredulously the next evening. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“Do you? You go out and save those that show up in Cordy’s visions, but what about all the others that don’t get saved? What makes one person more worth saving than another? What right do the Powers have to make those decisions? So some moldy old piece of parchment says if you play by The Powers’ rules you’ll be a real boy someday. It doesn’t tell you when or how, it just says you have to continuously risk your life and face nearly insurmountable odds and if- if!- at the end of all that you survive they just might deem you worthy and turn you human. Does that really sound worth it to you?”

He shook his head. “I have to atone. I wreaked so much havoc-“

Willow cut him off. “No. You didn’t. The demon inhabiting your body did. You were not in control and should not have to bear the responsibility of its actions. The Rom wanted to make Angelus pay and they did. They locked him away and let you free. I’m eternally grateful that they did, but Angel, you need to let go of the guilt. It’s not yours to bear. It’s time for you to live your own life on your own terms. And the first step to doing that is to get away from the Powers’ influence. Stop being their puppet.”

An image flashed through Angel’s head: He was looking at a puppet version of himself. Two feet high and made of felt with spike-y black hair and Bert-like eyebrows, wearing a scaled down version of his black leather coat with a gray shirt and black pants. He was standing outside of a cage and talking to a pretty blonde woman who was inside of it. He took his nose off and showed it to her. The image faded and he shook his head abruptly. “Whoa.”

Willow raised an eyebrow at him. “You alright?”

Angel frowned. “I think so.” He fell silent and pondered what Willow was asking of him. She wanted him to take control of his life. Had he ever had control of it?

As a human he’d been a layabout and a scoundrel, determined to do everything in his power to piss his father off. He’d let their enmity dictate his behavior and as a result he’d become a person he wasn’t very proud of.

Darla had easily seduced him with her talk of power and adventure. After his turning he’d eagerly cast aside his few morals, letting the demon have free reign, and dove headlong into the life of a vampire. He’d relished not having to take responsibility for anything. He was bigger, badder, and meaner than anyone else. But he still hadn’t been in control. He’d controlled his childer, but he hadn’t been in control of himself.

Once the Rom had given him control of his body back, everything he’d done over the last century and a half had come crashing down on his head. It was easier to wallow in his misery than do something to change it.

Then Whistler had come to him and tempted him with a glimpse of purity and righteousness. If Angel had known just what a crock of shit it all was, he’d probably still be scuttling around in back alleys for rats. But he’d gotten involved with the Slayer and her gang and had started to feel alive again for the first time in longer than he cared to remember. He let himself be led into a relationship he knew deep down was wrong, but it was easier to go along than risk pissing off the Slayer and getting staked for refusing her. Well, the joke had been on him. When he’d lost control to the demon again, part of him was relieved, but the bigger part of him wanted it back. He’d gotten used to making decisions, even if that decision was to be homeless and feed only on rats. He’d gotten his wish and then spent centuries being tortured in that hell dimension. He still didn’t know for sure if the First Evil or the Powers That Be had set him free, but at this point he really didn’t care.

Once he’d become compos mentis again, with Willow’s help, he’d started taking steps to reclaim some control. He ended the travesty that was his relationship with Buffy and decided to leave Sunnydale. He’d wanted to be close in case he was needed which is why he’d chosen L.A. Then the Powers had stepped in and taken charge of his life once more. He didn’t mind helping people. It was a good feeling when he saved someone from dying or suffering. An occasional ‘thank you’ would be nice, but he didn’t do it for praise. He did it because it was his supposed purpose.

He was tired of dangling on other people’s strings.

Angel made his decision. “You’re right. It’s time I lived for myself.”

Willow squealed and jumped up to wrap her arms around his neck. He chuckled softly and returned her hug. When she leaned back, her eyes were wide and her mouth was shaped into an ‘O’ of surprise. He raised his eyebrows and asked, “What’s that look for?”

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you laugh,” she said in wonder. Angel chuckled again and she smiled. “You really need to do that more often.” She leaned in and brushed her lips against his then whispered, “So where are we going?”

Angel blinked in surprise, first at the feel of her lips against his, then at her question. “You want to go with me?”

Willow settled herself in Angel’s lap and looked at him solemnly. “You’re not the only one tired of not being in control. I got into this life by accident and couldn’t idly sit by and let things happen once I knew what was out there. But it’s taking me over and I’m losing myself. When Oz left me I did some pretty stupid, pretty dangerous things and that scared me. Then I found an old book of prophecies and saw myself mentioned in one. My part in it is not of the good and if I continue on this path I’ll end up there. I’m not going to let that happen.” She dropped her eyes, suddenly unsure. “If you don’t mind the company, I’d really like to go with you. I can pay my own way. It’s a scary thought to leave all I know behind, but it’s something I have to do.”

Angel lifted Willow’s chin so he could see her eyes. A soft smile played at his lips and he leaned forward and kissed her lightly, just like she’d done to him earlier. It wasn’t a lover’s kiss, but it let them both know that the option was there.

“Keep your money, Little One. I’ve got more than enough to take us around the world a dozen times over. Where do you want to go first?”

Peace and a conversely giddy happiness settled in Willow’s heart. They were really going to do it. They were going to leave all of this behind. They likely wouldn’t stop helping people, but it wasn’t going to rule their lives like it had for the past five years.

She smiled happily. “Anywhere but here, Angel. Anywhere but here.”

Angel nodded once, a small smile still on his lips. The world was open to them and he would make sure Willow saw it all. But first a trip home was in order. It was time to put his demons to rest once and for all.

“I think we’ll start with Ireland.”

-30-