Willow looked like Hell. And Hell was something that Angel knew about - he'd been there, after all. It permeated every aspect of her appearance: the feverish shine of her eyes, the weighted-down hunch of her shoulders, the clammy pallor of her skin. She wasn't eating - he could tell that, too - and she wasn't a girl who'd ever carried an extra pound. The weight she'd lost was something she could ill spare.
"He's here, he's here, I know he's here."
That was all she'd said as she burst into Angel's room, shoving him aside with a force and a nerve which nearly paralyzed him with shock.
She was nearly incoherent and she did her work with a crazed, manic energy: opening his closet, his dresser drawers; looking under his bed. Angel didn't know what or who she was looking for, but he let her look. There was nothing and no one for her to find. Once she'd realized that, he could question her.
"Where is he?" She screamed at the top of her lungs. Angel didn't answer. He had no answer to give. It didn't matter anyway; she just kept on searching, heedless of his silence.
She nearly tore his place apart. He'd be angry if it wasn't obvious that she was carrying some horrible, painful burden, something far more important than the inconvenience of having to tidy his room. So he let her throw his physical world into chaos; her emotional world was already there.
Finally, after she had opened every drawer, looked in every corner and under every piece of furniture, after she had emptied his closet, pulled down the linens on his bed, and strewn his clothes about the room, she gave up, realizing that her search was in vain. He watched, feeling her pain in his bones, as she collapsed to the floor, sobbing brokenly and obviously with everything in her.
"Where is he?"
He could barely make out her words through her tears, but he did hear them and he knew that this time she needed an answer.
"Who, Willow?" His voice was soft and he tried to soothe her with his tone. All he did was set off a fresh wave of hysteria.
"Oz!" she screamed. "Where is he?"
Oz? He was in Sunnydale at the university, wasn't he? Why was she looking for him here? Had something happened to him?
Angel knelt down next to the sobbing girl. "Why do you think he's here, Willow?" Once again he tried to soothe her with his voice, keeping it gentle and quiet.
It didn't work any better than it had before.
"Because he has to be here! Where else would he go?" With that, she collapsed completely, her face in her hands, her cries filling the apartment.
This was getting Angel nowhere. For a moment, he thought about shaking Willow to snap her out of it, but no...he couldn't do that. Not to Willow.
Oddly, it now occurred to him for the first time that he'd never thanked her for returning his soul. Now, though, would probably not be the best time to rectify that lapse. Instead, he put aside his own discomfort with physical expressions of friendship and took her in his arms.
She kept crying, just as before, and he wasn't sure she even noticed he was touching her. Somehow, that made him more comfortable with holding her.
Angel didn't know how long they stayed like that; it took what seemed like a very long time for her sobs to abate and for her body to stop shuddering. But eventually she began to calm - or perhaps she was simply exhausted by the tempest of her own emotions. Either way, she stilled in his arms and grew quiet, so he decided it might be safe to attempt to question her anew.
"Why would Oz come here?"
"The wolf, to control the wolf," she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, as if he should already have known. Her reply worried him. Had something happened? Had Oz's demon become too much for him, had it been unleashed somehow, had he hurt - or killed - someone? Questions, more questions, though he was pretty sure Willow didn't want to answer them.
"What happened? Did he...did something...?" He had no idea how to elicit the answers he needed, had no idea how to phrase his questions in a way that wouldn't send Willow back over the edge into hysteria.
Okay, that was a name, not an explanation. But, while he was often surprisingly impatient for a creature with more time than most on his hands, he made the effort to be tolerant of Willow. Her pain, the debt he owed her...some other intangible thing - whatever his reasons were, he found himself willing to let this take as long as it had to without unduly distressing her.
"Who's Veruca, Willow?"
"No, I'm afraid I don't."
"Of course you know."
"No, Willow, I don't."
"But when you came back to Sunnydale...when I was going to say something...you acted like you already knew. That's why I thought...that Oz was..." Her voice trailed off and she just stared into space.
This was getting more confusing rather than less. Angel hurriedly went over his recollections of his short visit to Sunnydale. Willow had been ranting about men leaving. Angel really hadn't wanted to be upbraided for doing what had to be done, what was best for everyone and...oh no. Willow hadn't just been talking about him and Buffy. She'd been talking about Oz - how Oz had left her. And he'd been rude and snappish and completely inconsiderate, entirely oblivious to Willow's anguish. Once again, he was struck by how badly he was in the habit of treating a girl he was beholden to for so very much.
"I didn't know, Willow. I'm sorry."
She looked broken and lost as she pushed herself up, straightening her clothes as she stood, staring at the mess she'd made. "Oh, I guess...I'm the one who's sorry. I guess you just didn't want to hear...I thought...never mind. I'm gonna go. I've already missed some classes and...or maybe I should clean this up, huh?"
Was he capable of anything but unthinking cruelty? He wished for a moment that he had thought to lie in some way, to shield her from the obvious assumption, the one that hurt more even than if he'd been hiding her lover - the assumption that he just didn't care the slightest bit about her. Making him one more source of pain when she couldn't seem to bear the pain she'd carried here with her.
He stood up himself, wondering what - if anything - he could do to fix the damage he'd done.
She was picking up some of his shirts, straightening them on their hangers, moving to replace them in the closet, when he stopped her. "Willow, you don't need to do that. I can clean this up later."
"No, really. I was...I can't believe I burst in here like this. I mean, you must be really mad and Oz wasn't even here and...I'm a jerk and..."
"You're not a jerk, Willow, don't say that."
"I am. I mean, I came storming in here and destroyed your apartment for no reason and..."
"You didn't destroy anything. It's just a little messy. Nothing I can't tidy up, okay? And you did have a reason. A good one."
"You don't have to patronize me, Angel. I mean it's nice of you and all, but..."
"I'm not patronizing you. You thought I was hiding someone you love. I would have done the exact same thing."
"No, you wouldn't."
"You're right." She looked crestfallen before he finished. "I would have broken the furniture and shredded the clothes." She smiled. It was only slight and it didn't reach her eyes, but it was something, and Angel almost sang with joy at having managed to ameliorate the misery he'd caused to any degree, even this slightly. "Why don't we sit down and you can tell me the whole story."
The smile was gone. "Look, Angel, I appreciate the whole 'understanding guy' thing, but you don't have to pretend, okay? Buffy doesn't want to hear about it, Xander doesn't want to hear about it, Giles doesn't want to hear about it, and Anya absolutely doesn't want to hear about it, so why would you? I'm just gonna go. Thanks for not being mad about the mess and we'll just act as if this never happened."
She made to leave as soon as the last word left her mouth. Angel was having none of it. He reached out and grabbed her arm. He was surprised when she struggled against him and he tightened his grip, dragging her towards the sofa.
"Cut it out!" She kept struggling, unwilling to give in to the uselessness of attempting to escape from a determined demon.
"Stop acting like a baby and just sit down and talk to me."
"Why? Why are you trying to pretend that you're my friend? My friends don't want to pretend to be my friends. So I can't see why you, who aren't my friend, would want to pretend to..."
"You gave me back my soul." Once again, Angel managed to say exactly the wrong thing.
Willow pounced on his words. "Oh, so you feel all guilty? Well, don't. I didn't do it for you. I did it for Buffy. So now that we've established that you don't owe me anything, can I please leave? I have a pathetic excuse for a life to get back to and I don't want to keep it waiting."
A part of Angel wanted to let her go. He had a whole range of complicated emotions where Willow was concerned and, frankly, he'd rather not feel them. If he let her go now, she'd hate him, he could feel unjustly persecuted, and that would be that. He might even be able to dislike her and feel that, just as she claimed, he didn't owe her anything. Actually, deep down, he almost did dislike her, even hate her. She always made him aware of things: uncomfortable things, disquieting things, things he didn't want to know about himself. Like right now when he realized how very selfish he was...and that it wasn't just today, and it wasn't just with her.
And there were other feelings as well, the ghosts of which had made him so patient, made him want to hold her. He knew how his demon felt about her, soul restoration aside, that was for sure. But what about him? What about Angel?
For all his brooding and how accustomed he was to amorphous, free-ranging guilt, this sort of introspection disturbed and upset him. But he wasn't going to push Willow away for his own quietude, not this time. He was not going to give in to the luxury of camouflaged selfishness.
"I don't feel guilty. Grateful, yes, but not guilty." Liar. But it was a lie she deserved, a lie so much more comforting than the truth. "Whether you believe it or not, and I know I have done a lousy job of showing it, I do consider you my friend, Willow. And I do care, I do want to hear about what happened."
She gave in, letting him pull her down onto the sofa, letting him keep hold of her hand as he sat beside her. He didn't fool himself; she didn't believe him. But she wanted to believe him, wanted to badly enough to pretend.
For once in her life, though, she seemed at a loss for words. She took a breath or two and her face showed a range of emotions as she struggled with how to begin, or where. Angel decided to lend a hand.
"You said something about someone named Veruca?"
A look of heart-wrenching despair followed and he wondered if he'd stumbled again. But there was no help for it now.
She spoke. "Veruca was a wolf, like Oz. She...they...he told me there was nothing, but I knew. And then, when he didn't want to...with me...and then I saw...they were..."
She broke down, unable to speak, crying as if her heart was broken beyond repair. So once more, Angel took her in his arms and let her pour out her despair.
Angel was able to piece the story together from her fractured narrative, the words she didn't say being so obvious she might as well have said them, and he hated Oz. Hated Oz more than he'd hated anyone in a long, long time. He'd had what Angel could only dream of: the opportunity for love - pure, true, unselfish, boundless love. And with a woman whose beauty, purity, and goodness... He struggled to control himself as he felt his eyes flicker and his face begin to shift. Oz was worse than a fool. Angel hoped with all his heart that Oz did appear on his doorstep soon. He'd make him pay.
"Is she why he left?"
"No," Willow sniffled, her voice congested and choked. "I mean, kind of. After...afterwards, she tried to kill me and he killed her and then he was going to kill me and...he just left. He said he had to learn to control the wolf. But he just left. He left me like I didn't matter at all. And I forgave him, Angel. I was gonna take him back. I still love him so much. It's like when he left, he took me with him and I don't even exist anymore. There's just this big, empty space where I used to be and without him, I'll never be me again. I'd do anything, Angel, anything to make him happy. Why did he leave me?"
Her eyes were full of tears and utter devotion. Devotion to a craven coward of a cur who never deserved her to begin with. Angel would give anything, even his soul, to have someone look at him with the love that Willow felt for Oz. He'd never had that - not from Darla, Drusilla, or William...not even from Buffy. How could anyone just throw that away? And how could Willow still love a man who did? How could she lay herself so bare, be so willing to abase herself by seeking out Oz the way she had today, when he couldn't begin to appreciate the gift she gave him by handing over her heart, complete and entire, for him to cherish or tear asunder as he saw fit?
What could Angel possibly say?
"He's a fool, Willow. I...the kind of love you gave him? No one but a fool would throw that away. No one."
She thought he was placating her. He could tell by the way she tried to push herself away from him, by the hint of embarrassment he sensed as her skin reddened with a heat that came only from shame. Somehow, that broke him enough for the last of his barriers to come down.
"Look at me, Willow. I mean it. Oz - is - a - fool. What you are, what you've given him...my God. I would give anything to know that just once. Just once."
He didn't wait for her to answer. He was too undone by a confusing panoply of anger and desire and jealousy and other emotions he was too terrified to name, so he kissed her. Not gently or sweetly, not with the tenderness of a thoughtful suitor, but with the ardent, violent passion of a demon, a truer demon than the pale shadow she so foolishly adored. This was not a kiss to woo, but one of possession, of conquest - almost an act of war.
She didn't fight him. On the contrary, she gave in, allowing him to pull her tightly to him, to mold her body against his, to move his hands over her with unmistakable intent.
After a moment, though, he stopped, giving her a chance to breathe, the illusory opportunity to change her mind (his).
"Why?" She was almost panting and her eyes were full of questions, all summed up in one word with a brevity that was more than unusual for her. But soon she found her breath and asked one of the many that had lurked within the one. "What about Buffy?"
"What about Buffy? She isn't here, Willow. She's never been here. Not like you." There was a world of bitterness and truth in those words that even Angel hadn't allowed himself to see until just this moment. Once again, Willow was the agent through which he saw the ugliness within and he hated her for it. He wanted her for it.
"Do you have any idea what it's like for me to see you here, looking for that worthless mutt, seeing you willing to sacrifice all your dignity, your pride, your whole self for a creature who threw you away because some bitch wagged her tail at him? I would give anything to have that, to have someone (you) look at me with that love you have shining in your eyes for Oz, even now."
Something stirred to life (or maybe only wakefulness) within him as he spoke. He was sure he didn't love her, but the desire he felt burned hotter than what he'd known as love and it shook him to the core of his being. As it was, he felt fury at her leaving him just short of being consumed - tasting the fire, but not the flames.
He had to have her.
Was his soul safe? Did he care? A part of him did, and that same part was sure his hate was enough to forestall any purity of joy. What would she think, however, when it was over and he was still in possession of the gift she'd given him? No, not him, Buffy, though if intent followed the bullet...
Willow, though, would think she wasn't enough. Would he reassure her? Or would he leave her to her own self-disparaging conclusions? There was a vision (prophecy?) of holding her when her body was sore and he was spent, of telling her how beautiful she was, of trying to find the words to explain that it wasn't because she was somehow lacking as a woman that he still had his soul.
He pulled her to him again. She didn't resist. It wasn't that she wanted him, though; she just wanted to be wanted, and that only made the balance inside him tilt toward hatred even more. But it did nothing to make him desire her less. He began to understand why his demon still craved her so violently, despite the cage she'd forced it back inside.
His mouth moved against hers, forcing, not coaxing, her to open up to him. Indeed, he was declaring war. She would not be able to close her eyes and pretend it was that pathetic Oz who was taking her. Angel - she would call out that name more than once before he would let her rest. Again, she gave in, allowing him to do whatever he wanted. His hands were all over her, mapping her body, then beginning to remove her clothes.
Was she worried about his soul? Angel was unsure. Maybe she didn't care, or maybe she was already positive that she could never make any man happy. It didn't matter. She wasn't saying no - that was what mattered. He tried not to think about what he would have done if she had rebuffed him. Would he have acquiesced?
Soon she was naked, her face and body scarlet as he gazed at every inch of her. She was beautiful, more beautiful than he'd imagined. Slender and graceful and delicate. Not his usual type, it was true, but one the artist in him coveted. She was like a wood nymph.
"Shhh." He put his finger to her lips. "You're so lovely, Willow." His next words were harsh, blunt, and an odd sort of lie, but he said them anyway. "I want to fuck you, make you scream."
He kissed her again, not waiting for her to respond. He didn't wonder why he'd spoken so crudely to her; he knew.
Letting her breathe for a moment, he asked, "Do you want me?" There was no answer and the scales tilted madly. "Do you want this?" One word (a world) of difference and it got an answer. The fire burned and the flames danced far away.
"Yes," she whispered.
He could feel her fear in the bones of each finger as he pulled her soft, gentle hands up to the buttons of his shirt, showing her what he wanted her to do. "Undress me." It was a command, not a request, and she obeyed. Good girl, always such a good girl.
Her hands shook as she went about her task, undoing each button one by one, then pulling his shirt from his trousers. She looked at him before pushing the shirt from his shoulders and down his arms. Standing, he faced her as she sat before him and waited for her to finish her work. It took a moment before she understood what he expected. Scarlet again, she undid his belt with hands trembling more than ever. He hissed with pleasure as she pushed his pants down, enjoying her surprise at discovering he wore nothing underneath.
Now he was nude. Her blush remained, covering every inch of her in a way Angel found incredibly erotic. Still so innocent for all that she'd once been the lover of a werewolf; Oz was a poor stick of a demon indeed, leaving a woman as enticingly pure as this one.
Angel said nothing, simply picked Willow up and carried her to the disheveled bed, the bed she herself had left in disarray during her frenzied search for her runaway boyfriend. He kissed her again before laying her down. He was gentle this time, deceptively so - if she thought what she shared with him was going to be anything like the tepid lovemaking she'd surely known with Oz, she was sorely mistaken.
He didn't answer. Joining her on the bed, he quickly positioned himself between her legs and began exploring her with his tongue. Her moans soon told him that conversation was no longer necessary; she was lost in the euphoric haze he had created for her. He was lost in his own.
She tasted like nothing he'd ever known. Innocence was there, and so was the spice he'd expected, but there was something more, something he couldn't define. Willow was so much more than she seemed - even she had no idea just what sort of power and complexity she was made of - was this what had driven Oz away? Had he been afraid of those depths, the twists and turns and contradictions that swirled within this deceptively sweet and artless girl?
Deep down, Angel knew that if he weren't allowing his demon so much control, even he would be nervous about this girl. She was more frightening in her way than any Slayer. Slayers, after all, were at core, uncomplicated. Even rule-breakers like Buffy and rogues like Faith were simple. Their drives and needs and motives: all of it was straightforward. Not like Willow.
What was she?
Temptation. Something told him he should have resisted it, but it was too late now. He could tell himself that he wouldn't stop because it would hurt her, damage her already fragile ego beyond repair, but that wasn't really true. What was true was that Angel had at last tasted the flames and longed to be consumed.
His tongue was practiced and aggressive and Willow was unable to hold back for long. She came, screaming out her pleasure, just as he wanted.
If he'd thought she was delicious before, the flavour of her release was incalculably superiour. He found himself almost drunk on it. The power in it had his demon clamoring for her blood.
That, he was able to resist for now, though he knew he'd not be able to deny himself a taste before the day was done.
He gave her no chance to come down from the high of her orgasm. Within a moment, he was inside her, reveling in the feel of her tight heat and the sound of her gasp as he thrust into her. He didn't want to hurt her, but at the same time, he wasn't going to rein himself in completely. He was himself with Willow; this was not going to be what she'd shared with Oz (or what Angel had shared with Buffy).
Surprisingly, Willow wasn't being gentle with him, either. Her legs soon wrapped around him, nails digging into his back, and she rapidly found his rhythm, meeting each thrust. There was an awkwardness - slight, but it was there - that told him her behaviour was new. This wasn't how she had ever been with Oz. A desperation was there, too - a desperation to please, to be the perfect lover for a vampire. She was insightful, he'd give her that. She was doing all the right things, being all the right things. So much so that he almost hated her for it. She knew him and his needs in a way that his true love didn't.
There was also the fact that she was so caught up in her desire to make him happy that it gave her an odd measure of control. It made him angry, an oddly familiar feeling and uncomfortable as well. He had no right to this anger, never had, but it was there, as it had been for a long time, he acknowledged, and she was all the more its object for not deserving it.
He let go, pounding into her heedlessly, as if she had Buffy's strength, and her cries were filled with as much pain as pleasure. He despised himself for using her so brutally. But he didn't stop; no, he didn't stop. He did, however, pay more attention to her, take better care to give her enjoyment, even as he took her in a way he knew would injure her.
Maybe that was what he wanted. His vision was there at the back of his mind: holding her, tending to her (keeping her). If she were weakened and sore, she wouldn't be able to leave when this was done, and he couldn't send her away. Frightening thought.
He lost himself in her again. She was calling out his name, almost there. And then...she bit him. Blunt teeth pierced his shoulder, not quite drawing blood, but there was enough pain to send him over the edge along with her. He sank his teeth into her neck, heedless of what leaving that mark could mean. The taste of her blood was shattering. He came harder than he could remember ever having done before. She was power and passion and goodness and beauty. She was darkness and danger and despair and sorrow. Willow was everything.
She arched up into him as she screamed his name in ecstasy, the sound almost drowned out by his own roar. It had taken everything he had to stop drinking from her and his demon only allowed it for the promise of tasting her again someday.
Forgetful and spent, he lay atop her for a moment when it was over. But he quickly recollected himself and rolled off to lie beside her. He pulled her close, feeling as well as seeing the pain she felt as he moved her.
"You're extraordinary," he said softly.
"Yeah." There was a trace of sarcasm and he knew what was unspoken: if she was so wonderful, how could he still have his soul?
He turned her face towards his and forced her to look in his eyes. There was truth there now in a way that he might never allow again. She had to see it. "You don't love me." It wasn't the words that answered her unasked question, he knew, it was what she could see inside him, what he couldn't even acknowledge in his own mind.
"No." Funny that, though he would have thought that word from her would be entire, her eyes told him more, as well. Enough that the scales tilted towards the feelings he was less inclined to than the hate and the resentment. Damn Willow for what she could do to him.
"Oz never deserved you."
She laughed bitterly and he realized just how rote and insincere his words sounded - they were the words she'd undoubtedly heard from everyone she knew, meant to make her stop crying and stop bothering them with her sadness and loneliness.
"That doesn't help, does it?"
"No, it really doesn't. I mean, everyone says that and...no, it doesn't help."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be callous."
"I know. It's just..." Her words trailed off.
He waited for her to speak again. She didn't, so he did. "What?"
"It's just that it doesn't matter, you know? I still love him and I don't care what he's done and I don't care about how I'm supposed to pick myself up and be empowered and learn to love myself and 'find my center' and 'enjoy my own company.' I want him back, Angel."
She cried for a moment and then the wheels seemed to turn. She looked into his eyes again. "I'm sorry. That's kind of bad, isn't it? Talking about another guy when you're in bed with someone. I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to...because you were great, really. Amazing even. I mean, I've never felt like...and you were so...it's just..." She burst into tears once more.
"Shhh." He soothed her, rubbing circles on her back as she cried in his arms. This wasn't afterglow, but had he really expected that?
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I wish...I wish..."
He knew what she meant. He wanted that knowledge to scare him. And he wanted not to wish she felt what she wished she felt. Because he did. Suddenly, crushingly, devastatingly, it had happened. She'd given him her heartbreak. He gave her his heart.
Her tears fell and he kept each one as a gift, the only ones she had for him. When at last she slept, he watched her as she dreamed, knowing she had left him and was far away. After awhile, she would awaken and she would see him again. He only hoped he'd hurt her enough to make her stay.