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Later in the Ashes

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Later in the Ashes (Chapter One)

 

"Miss Rosenberg. I'm impressed. At last your work is reflective of someone who was accepted to Oxford." Maggie Walsh's voice carried through the large classroom and heads all turned towards the recipient of her rare praise.

A week ago, Willow would have felt alternating waves of pride and embarrassment. Today she was numb; not even a trace of her once-ubiquitous blush pinked her cheeks. She got up out of her chair and went to the front of the room to take her paper from the professor.

"Thank you." The words were perfunctory; she wasn't up to the pretense of forced enthusiasm and the complicated mechanics of approximating her trademark grin. She didn't really care about Walsh anyway. Truth be told, Willow didn't much care about anything.

Walsh, oddly, actually seemed to notice that Willow wasn't her usual self, which certainly set her apart from everyone else in Willow's life. "Are you alright, Miss Rosenberg?" She spoke in a low voice, obviously not intending for her question to be heard by the rest of the class.

"Yeah...I mean yes, Professor Walsh. I'm fine." With some effort, she managed a sort of smile. It seemed to be enough to pacify Walsh, who let her go back to her seat with no further enquiry. Still, there was a look on the woman's face that told Willow she needed to take pains in the future to stay under the radar. She wasn't, after all, in any shape to withstand much scrutiny.

The last few minutes of class went by in a blur, Willow becoming too preoccupied with the irony of her scholastic triumph to pay attention to what was being said. If only Walsh knew that the paper she so admired had been written in less than half an hour and with hardly a moment's thought, her need to get it finished for a class she'd only barely gotten home in time to attend making her heedless of quality. Willow couldn't even remember the specific topic - something to do with romantic love and its effects on the psyche - just that she had cobbled together a pastiche of other people's views and passed it off as her own perspective. As for her own opinions? She didn't have any, not anymore. Any illusory belief that she understood love or what it meant had melted in the white heat of fucking her best friend's soulmate; all the while she hadn't for one moment stopped loving Oz.

So what did that make her and what did it say about the kind of love of which she was capable? After all, it wasn't the first time she'd cheated on Oz. Was she just, deep down, a whore and a tramp? Or had her relationship with Oz always been an empty sham and she'd somehow known that subconsciously? Was that what had driven her first into Xander's arms and then Angel's bed: the search for something she'd never been consciously aware was missing? And anyway, why did she see what she'd done this time as cheating when Oz had left her without a backward glance after he'd done some true and undeniable cheating of his own?

The movement of her fellow students roused Willow from her depressing and pointless reverie and she gathered her things, following them out the door. For a moment it looked as if Walsh was going to buttonhole her, but thankfully, the professor seemed to change her mind and Willow proceeded unhindered. She'd never been more grateful to leave a classroom in her entire life, and she was even more grateful that this was her last class of the day. Maybe she'd head back to her parents house, spend some time alone, though her dorm was a reasonably good place to do that as well. A week ago, that thought had made Willow sad. Now? Now it still made her sad, but conversely, she was also relieved. Guilt made it difficult to be around Buffy for long, so it wasn't such a bad thing that her friend wasn't inclined to spend much time with her. Riley was the be-all and end-all of Buffy's existence these days.

Of course, that last fact gave Willow some food for thought as well. Just how significant a betrayal of her friend was the sex she'd had with Angel when Buffy had slept with Parker and would probably be having sex with Riley sometime soon?

Without thinking, her hand went to her neck. Thank heavens she knew a glamour that worked. Angel's bite was still there and didn't seem to be healing nearly as quickly as Willow thought it should.

She could feel Angel's fangs pierce her skin, the sensation quickly becoming part of the ecstasy of her release. She'd never found pain sensual before - her long-ago jokes not withstanding - but now...now it was something exquisite, something that took her places Oz's touch had never taken her to before, for all that she loved and adored him. She cried out and held Angel's head to her throat, encouraging him to drink from her, lost in the delirious pleasure of him being inside her.

The memory brought a heated blush to her cheeks and shame to her heart. Remembering how wanton she'd been with Angel made her feel dirty. She could hear every word, feel every touch...it was so very wrong. Rationalizations aside, Angel was Buffy's and her heart belonged to Oz. Why had sex with Angel been so incredible...so much more than it had ever been with Oz?

Maybe it had been the intensity of his desire. Oz had never wanted her like that. She knew he had loved her once, still did if his last words to her were to be believed, but he'd never expressed the kind of lust Angel had, had never taken her so forcefully. Willow, in fact, had usually taken the lead when it came to sex. Oz had always responded, of course (except for that last terrible day), but sex between them had always been gentle and tender, never hot and desperate and needy, the way it had been with Angel. She'd never thought she was that kind of girl. Guess she'd been wrong about that.

Her nails dug into Angel's flesh as he thrust into her. She screamed his name. When things had turned from her trying to be the kind of lover Angel wanted into her actually *feeling* this heat and fire, she didn't know. All she knew was that it was too much, not enough, and she never wanted it to end.

Willow was startled from her troubling reflection by seeing a door in front of her, but not the door she'd intended to enter. Somehow, without realizing it, her steps had taken her, not to her parents' house, but to Giles's apartment. Seemed that the dutiful girl within hadn't perished in Angel's bed after all. Great. There went her desired afternoon of solitary brooding. With a start it occurred to her that she'd wanted to pass the rest of her day in much the manner as her erstwhile three-day stand. Maybe it was better that she'd come here instead, though it didn't actually feel that way.

Oddly, she almost knocked before she entered, an impulse she'd felt often in the few days she'd been back. It was if she were a stranger in her own life now. Three days in Los Angeles and somehow Sunnydale wasn't home anymore and her friends were awkward acquaintances. Funny thing that only Willow seemed to notice how the whole world had been transmogrified in such a short time. When had it happened - when she and Angel were fucking? Or was it afterwards? During those two days - those two disquieting days - where she'd lain in his bed, pained and sore, and she'd sensed that Angel wanted her to stay so much longer?

With a deliberate show of youthful energy, Willow opened the door and walked into Giles's apartment, trying hard to pretend that she was the same girl she'd once been.

Maybe she should have just turned around and gone home. The only person there was Spike, who was sitting on the sofa eating Wheetabix and watching TV. It was more than a bit disconcerting to see him free as a breeze with no Giles in sight. He might have been chipped, but her past experience made her more than a bit nervous of being alone with him.

He seemed to sense her apprehension. "Watcher's on the phone upstairs, Red."

"Oh. Guess I'll just be going then. Tell him I stopped by, okay?" She turned to leave, happy for the excuse to follow through on her original plan to spend some alone time. His next words stopped her in her tracks.

"Don't go. Not now that we're finally alone. What do you say? I'll show you mine if you show me yours."

What?!? "What did you say?" He was just being sleazy, wasn't he? She stopped her hand from moving to her neck. He couldn't be talking about...that...could he?

Spike got up and slunk towards her, his movements feline and almost predatory. "I said, 'I'll show you mine if you show me yours.' So what about it? Where is it? Your thigh? Your breast?"

He was talking about that. "W-what do you mean?" She was stuttering now. Great. That didn't sound guilty at all.

"Red, you may be a clever girl, but you're a terrible liar. You know exactly what I mean. But if you insist on having it spelled out, then so be it. Where's the claiming mark you got from my sire?"

Why on Earth hadn't she just gone home instead of coming here? Why hadn't she at least turned around and left instead of coming in? Her life was over now. Like it or not, she'd end up back at Angel's soon. Because she'd have nowhere else to go.

Wait a minute...had Spike said claiming? Oh no.

"No use trying to keep up the pretense, you know. I can sense it. After all, we're practically family now. Though how this all came about without Angelus coming back, I can't imagine. Not like you haven't got the goods to make a man happy." He looked her over in a way that Willow found more disturbing than his ridges and fangs had ever been. She remembered the factory, and the night in her dorm room.

Willow looked upstairs to the closed door behind which was Giles - Giles, who could come down at any moment.

Maybe if she just gave in and showed him that the mark was in an innocuous location, she could convince him there was a perfectly innocent explanation for its presence. And maybe the Hellmouth would transform into a haven for fairies and elves and all the demons would reform and stop killing.

Still, foolish as her idea was, she had no other good options. She had to at least try to keep this conversation from reaching Giles's (or anyone else's) ears, and the best way to do that was to bring it to an end as quickly as possible. So she'd show him the bite. The attempt to con him, however, was something she might as well not even bother with.

She muttered a few words under her breath and the glamour dissolved, revealing the mark on her neck. Spike seemed a bit taken aback. Good. "There, are you happy now?"

"You're not a bad hand with the magic tricks, are you?"

A few more whispered words and the mark was invisible again. "You don't have to show me yours."

"Yeah, might be a bit tough to explain why I have my pants off if the Watcher happens to come down at the wrong time." He waggled his eyebrows at her.

Willow blushed at his admission, not that she hadn't pretty much figured that his mark was in an intimate location, but still... What she really wanted was to ask about her own bite, and about Spike's use of the word 'claiming' to describe it, but she was too afraid. Spike was not to be trusted, after all.

His expression suddenly turned serious and a bit inscrutable. "Look, I'm not gonna share your little secret, okay? It's not like they'd believe me, anyway."

"So what do you want?" He'd been the one to insist on plain speaking? Fine, he was going to get it.

"You wound me. What makes you think I want anything?"

Willow snorted. He may have said she was clever, but he obviously thought she was an idiot. "Spike, don't insult my intelligence, okay? You never do anything for no reason. And you always want something. So what is it you want from me in return for your generous offer not to go running to Buffy with the news that...that I..." She couldn't finish the sentence. Saying it out loud would make her feel worse than she already did.

Spike, however, had no such qualms. "That you shagged her one true poof? That he obviously feels more permanently attached to you than to her? My lips are sealed, pet."

If only that were true. But before she got the chance to quiz him further, the front door flew open to reveal Xander and Anya, carrying pizza boxes and seeming to have just finished bickering right on the heels of their arrival, at least if the frustrated expression on Anya's face was an accurate guide.

"Hey, Will." Xander's voice was pretend-cheerful, the way it always was these days when he spoke to her. She was this close to calling him on it. It's not like she didn't realize that Xander couldn't care less about her pain, that he had stopped giving a damn about five minutes after Oz left town.

"Don't worry, Xander, your luck still holds. I'm not going to talk about Oz, so you won't have to act like you care." She clapped her hand over her mouth the moment the last word had left it. Oh god. And here she'd thought that after holding off all this time, her resentment was under control. It seemed like that had been a pipe dream.

"Good. Because we're all pretty sick of your moping and complaining."

"An!" Xander whined.

"What? It's not like you've never said anything about it, just before we got here you..."

Within seconds, Willow's mouth wasn't the only one with a hand over it. Hers however, was more quickly freed for speech. "Don't worry about it, Xander. It's not like I didn't already know how you felt."

She couldn't think of anything else to say after that, so she grabbed a slice of pizza and sat down on the couch. Spike joined her in a trice, a slice of pizza of his own in his hand, his body between her and her so-called best friend, a friend who didn't seem to have anything more to say either, at least not to her. He and Anya soon adjourned to the kitchen, where Xander attempted to pacify his girlfriend. No orgasms for him tonight, Willow figured.

When had she started thinking like this?

So many sudden changes: brooding like Angel and snarking like Spike. Was what Spike said true? Could it mean that she was acting like this because she was family? Or was that just a convenient excuse for bad behaviour? She badly wanted to ask Spike about it, but it wasn't as if they could talk now, not with Xander and Anya a few feet away.

"Good on you, Red." Spike's voice startled her. "'Bout time you told the moron what for."

"I was way too harsh. I mean, I get why..."

"Nonsense. None of your friends have done right by you since Dogboy ran out of town like the mangy mutt he is. I was proud of you just now. Way you stood up for yourself? You should have done it ages ago."

This was becoming unsettling. Spike being chummy? Of course, it wasn't as if Willow actually bought this sudden burst of bonhomie. It was just...she wanted to - wanted to very badly. It would be wonderful right now to have a confidant, someone she could talk to, could unburden herself to about everything. But that wasn't Spike, couldn't be Spike, and Willow was smart enough to know it. Wasn't she?

"Look, Spike. I appreciate the trouble you're going to in putting on this act and all. But I'm not falling for it. Tell Xander I wasn't feeling well, or don't tell him anything, but I'm leaving." Without giving him a chance to respond, she picked up her bag and headed outside into the sun where he couldn't follow her.

She decided against going to her parents' house. What with her outburst just now, she couldn't afford to indulge in any other suspicious behaviour. It wasn't as if she was actually counting on Spike to keep his word about keeping his mouth shut, so if he did say anything, she needed to be believable in the role of the outraged innocent - good old reliable Willow.

But what if Spike did stay silent? What if he did feel some sort of friendship towards her? Was that just because of that horrible bite mark now hidden by the glamour? Or did he actually like her? And what sort of a friend would Spike be, anyway? What would he expect from her?

Thoughts like these were getting her nowhere, but that awareness didn't stop her from having them. The depressing roundelay continued all the way back to the dorm, in fact, and got Willow to a place no further than where she'd started. She had no answers and she was less sure of getting them than she had been when she first asked herself the questions.

She trudged up the stairs to her dorm room, wanting to make the journey last as long as possible, hoping against hope that Buffy wouldn't be there.

Of course, Buffy wasn't. There really hadn't been any danger of that. She was probably at Giles's apartment right now, hearing all about Willow's tantrum from Xander, with embellishments by Anya. Oh well. Willow would deal with that later, now wouldn't she? The same way she'd dealt with their irritation at her absence because of all the things she hadn't been doing for them while she was gone, an irritation mixed only with the most perfunctory worry and a curiosity easily satisfied by a paltry and feeble lie about a family emergency. Again - oh well. At least she'd be here when Buffy came back and she could stumble through some phony excuse for an apology. She snorted. Kudos to her for being a good enough actress to fool Buffy Summers. It didn't actually take much.

Strangely, however, she really would be lying through her teeth when she blushed her way through that litany of mea culpas and promises to cheer up and start being a good little Willow again. She wasn't the least bit sorry for what she'd said to Xander, or for lying to them all.

Despite her automatic response to Spike's approbation of her outburst, she did feel wronged by her so-called friends. Everything she was going through right now was their fault. Hell, what happened in Los Angeles was their fault. If they'd been supportive, if they'd cared at all, she wouldn't have been so lost and so desperate. She would never have driven off on a last ditch mission to find Oz and make him come back.

She would never have fucked Angel.

Willow knew she was being juvenile and self-pitying and unfair even as she thought all these things, but she couldn't help it. She was awash in a sense of neglect and abuse and, immature though she might be, she felt justified in indulging in her petty and spiteful reflections. Maybe tomorrow, after a good night's rest, she would be adult and clear-eyed and just in her feelings again.

It was far too early for sleep, however, no matter how tired and sad she was and how much she longed for midnight. No, it was barely twilight and, emotional fatigue aside, her mind and body were wakeful. And her mind was more than active.

"Do you wish it was Buffy who was here? You know, instead of me?" Willow regretted the question as soon as she asked it. The awkward silence that prevailed as she laid here in Angel's bed had made her tongue clumsy.

"No."

Was he telling the truth? Even if he was, Willow was pretty sure she didn't believe him. More importantly, she didn't *want* to believe him.

She snorted lightly, trying to play it off like he was kidding and that she didn't care. "It's okay, Angel. I mean, you do love her and all and..."

His finger against her lips stopped her short. "I'm glad it's you."

Willow really didn't know what to say to that. She wanted to lie, to tell him she was happy it was him whose arms were around her, him with whom she'd had the best sex of her young life, but she knew he wouldn't believe her. And she couldn't be so cruel as to tell him the truth. So she stayed quiet and hoped he'd fill in the silence with something that didn't cause him pain.

She moved, then winced as she felt a twinge between her legs that reminded her why she hadn't left yet. Of course Angel noticed.

"Are you okay?" He sounded concerned, but there was a something in his eyes that didn't bear thinking about. "Do you need me to get you anything?"

"Some water would be good." She had almost asked for tea, but tea made her think of Giles and that led immediately back to Buffy, whose name she already wished she'd never spoken. Between feeling guilty about sleeping with her best friend's true love and feeling guilty about cheating on her *own* true love, Willow was having a hard time keeping a fresh onslaught of tears at bay. She figured Angel had dealt with too much of her weeping as it was.

"I'll be right back."

Willow watched as he got out of bed and left to fetch her a drink. He was still naked, just as she was, and her breath caught at the sight of him. He was...perfect. Not exactly the kind of guy she'd ever thought would want to have sex with Willow Rosenberg: Geek Extraordinaire.

And that brought up a whole lot of other thoughts. Like just how different the sex she'd had with Angel was from the way Buffy described the sex *she'd* had with Angel. Buffy had depicted her one night of lovemaking with Angel as sweet and tender and soft and romantic. Willow's experience with him was anything but. Was it because Buffy had been a virgin that he'd been so gentle, or was it that he loved Buffy and Willow was just...a safe fuck, a girl he felt sorry for because she was just this side of pathetic?

Of course, there was a problem with that last theory - Angel had implied that his feelings for Willow were something rather more than seeing her as a friendly one-night stand/pity fuck, and that *really* was a problem, though Willow wasn't completely sure why. After all, she'd be going back to Sunnydale as soon as her body allowed and Angel was sure to get over whatever this 'thing' was nearly as soon as she was out the door. And it wasn't as if either of them was going to go telling anyone about this...whatever it was.

So why did she feel a sense of foreboding?

Her hand went to the mark on her neck as she realized that her sixth sense had been right on target. Whatever feelings Angel had, he'd done something about them. Something that her brief conversation with Spike told her wasn't just going to fade away in a few days time as she'd wanted to believe. Something that was going to change her life forever, even if she never saw Angel again.

The threads of an old song about a fallen woman trailed through her mind, something about scorn and censure and a man as the cause of it all. Yeah, they had Willow pegged right, those Victorian balladeers. A century and more of so called progress, yet just like in olden times, it was the woman who would pay the cost.

Why? What had she done that was so different from what millions of other women had done and were doing with impunity? She'd had sex with Angel. Okay, maybe not the most ethical act, but still... How was it different from what Buffy had done with Parker? Why was Willow the only one who was going to suffer long-term consequences for a foolish but basically harmless indiscretion?

More questions without answers, at least without answers that wouldn't cause her even more anguish.

Willow collapsed on her bed and sobbed. What was she going to do?

Tbc...

In case you were wondering, Willow is referring to an actual song. It's called "She's More to be Pitied Than Censured" and it was written in 1894 by William B. Gray.