The dread that had been building steadily in the pit of Willow’s stomach compounded into a tight ball as the plane back from England taxied into the airport at Sunnydale. Most people gripped the armrest of their seats and clenched their eyes shut during take-off, not after the plane had been safely set down on the runway. But, it wasn’t the worry of a crash that was the source of Willow’s anxiety. In fact, more than once during the turbulent flight, Willow had found herself almost hoping there would be some kind of crash. Not a big one. She didn’t want anyone to get hurt. Just maybe so that the plane would have to set down somewhere else.
Just anything to delay her arrival in Sunnydale.
Around her, Willow’s fellow passengers were hurriedly pulling down their carry-ons from the overhead compartments and practically trampling over each other to get off the plane.
They probably can’t wait to see their family and loved ones,Willow thought with a pang in her chest. The idea of seeing her one loved ones was the precise reason Willow was so dreading getting off the plane.
She didn’t care what Giles said, she wasn’t ready for this yet. She couldn’t handle seeing them after what she had done.
Willow’s stomach churned as the memory of the destruction she had caused overwhelmed her mind. How could she have done such horrible things? She had caused so much pain for so many people. She had hurt, and almost killed, all of her friends. What made it all worse was that she had wreaked so much havoc and caused so much pain in Tara’s name. Tara, who had been the sweetest, most forgiving and peaceful person Willow had ever known. She never would have wanted revenge like that taken on her behalf. She would be ashamed of the things Willow had done.
I’m so sorry, Tara. The familiar burn of tears filled Willow’s eyes, accompanied, as always, by a tightening around her heart.
“Excuse me, miss, is everything all right?”
The voice snapped Willow out of her reverie and she jumped in her seat. She looked up with wide eyes at the flight attendant.
“Are you all right, miss?” The woman repeated, a wary expression on her face.
“ ‘m fine,” Willow murmured, shaking herself. “Sorry. Jet lag, I guess.” She offered the woman what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
The flight attendant smiled courteously back to her. “I understand. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask that you exit the plane now. We need to get it cleared.”
Willow looked around her and was stunned to realise that everyone else had already gotten off and she had yet to even unbuckle her seat.
“Oh!” She quickly undid the buckle and stood up. “I’m sorry.” She grabbed her luggage and swiftly ambled to the exit. She paused to take one more deep, steadying breath and got off the plane.
Whether she was ready or not, it was time to face the music.
Willow’s brow furrowed in confusion as she looked about the terminal for familiar faces. There weren’t any.
She frowned at the thought of being forgotten. If she was indeed forgotten.
Maybe they just didn’t show up on purpose.
“Welcome home, me,” she said pityingly to herself.
What did you expect? A voice in her mind wondered. Did you honestly think that they would show up waving “Welcome Home!” signs after what you did? Can you really blame them for not wanting to see you?
No. I can’t, She thought glumly. Clearly Willow’s friends were no more ready to see her than she was to see them. Otherwise they would be here. I never should have listened to Giles. Wow, okay, now there’s a thought I never thought I’d have.
Willow felt sick again at the prospect of taking a taxi to the Summers home, knowing good and well she would be unwelcome when she got there. The last thing she wanted to do was cause Dawn and Buffy anymore discomfort with her presence. And, frankly, she wasn’t too eager to endure any awkwardness either.
Her first instinct was to march over to the ticket counter and book the first flight back to England, but she figured as soon as she landed Giles would be waiting right there to make her turn around again and come back. And the idea of spending another twelve hours in the air after finally being back on terra firma was not exactly appealing.
But where else could she go?
Willow bit her lip as she considered her limited option. Well, okay, maybe not exactly limited. ‘Cause, hey, standing in the middle of an airport. I could go anywhere in the world.
Her eyes scanned over all the ads for all kinds of exotic places; Hawaii, Mexico, Paris... One poster caught her attention and her eyes widened.
Come visit the City of Angels.
The sign might as well have had ‘Duh’ written on it as well, because now that she thought about it, it was the obvious choice.
Hiking her bag up on her shoulder, Willow made her way to the ticket counter.
“May I help you?” The woman behind the counter asked Willow.
“Yeah, I was wondering when the next flight to L.A. is.”
“Okay,” the woman drawled, her fingers flying quickly over her keyboard. “It looks like the next flight to Los Angeles boards in thirty minutes.”
Willow smiled. It looked like this was meant to be.
“But, I’m afraid it’s completely booked,” the woman added.
Okay, maybe not.Willow frowned.
“The soonest available flight to Los Angeles that we have is for six a.m.,” the woman informed her.
“Six a.m.?” Willow repeated, dismayed. She really didn’t want to spend the night in the airport. Besides I could drive to L.A. quicker than that.
“Would you like to book a seat?”
“Uh...no, thank you,” Willow said. She step out of the line and looked around until her eyes landed on the car rental. She bit her lip.
Wait, don’t you have to be like twenty-five to rent a car? Her shoulders slumped. She didn’t have a fake ID, but she couldn’t help but think how easy it would be to cast a simple glamour on her license.
Okay, so perhaps it was not the most productive way to use magick. But, it’s not like it’ll hurt anyone. It’s just a little glamour.
Yes, and isn’t that flippant way of thinking about magick what got you into this whole mess in the first place?
Oh, hush, logic. I’m supposed to be learning control, and if I can’t perform a simple glamour without going off the deep end, then I definitely have no business being away from the safety of the coven.
Thinking she had made a good enough argument with herself, Willow headed for the car rental service counter.
The hotel was quiet. Nothing but the sound of deep breathing and rhythm of steady heartbeats permeated the space of the Hyperion as all of its occupants slept soundly. All but for the resident vampire, that was. Night was always a restless time for Angel. He had spent a few hours prowling the streets of Los Angeles in search of any demon denizens that needed killing. He was disappointed when he didn’t encounter so much as another vampire.
The need to inflict violence had grown stronger with the absence of Cordelia.
He couldn’t help but think about how much different things would be now had they had the chance to meet like they intended. If not for the things that had gotten in their way.
Angel gritted his teeth and gave his head a hard shake. No. He wasn’t going to think about that. He didn’t need to add more to his already long brooding list. Besides, it good what happened to Cordelia; she was a higher being now. Angel should be happy for her.
He should be a lot of things.
Angel’s skin felt tight, humming with unspent energy. So, when he heard a noise from outside of the hotel, his mood perked up instantly. He almost smiled. Almost.
Angel grabbed a weapon and snuck outside to surprise whatever big bad was lurking. Angel tread lightly as he moved toward where his vampiric senses told him the intruder was. He gripped the hilt of the sword in his hands and lifted it up as he came up behind the figure in the shadows. Angel paused mid-step, his eyes squinting as the figure came into clearer focus. He saw the flash of red and recognized the scent; he was surprised he hadn’t known it sooner. But, it had changed a lot since the last time he encountered the little witch. There was a note of bitterness tainting the usual pureness. A black film coating her soul.
Angel could relate to that.
Angel stepped forward, a rock crunching under his shoe gave away his presence. Willow whirled around with a gasp, eyes wide. She let out a little yelp when she saw the sword in Angel’s hands.
“Ahh! Don’t kill me!” she begged instinctively. “I mean, sure it’s a little rude of me to show up like this without calling first...but, yeesh.” She let out a nervous chuckle, trying to defuse her own tension.
The sound of Willow’s galloping heartbeat caused a pang of guilt in Angel for having frightened her so. He immediately lowered the sword. “I’m not going to kill you,” he assured. “But, I could have. What are you thinking lurking out here like this? I thought you were a demon. What are you doing here, anyway?” he asked before she could answer his first question. Then a flash of memory of the last time Willow had showed up at the Hyperion invaded his mind and Angel balked, his stomach dropping. “Oh god. Is it Buffy? She’s not...”
Willow’s eyes widened. “Oh god, no!” she quickly assured. “Buffy’s not... I mean, she’s fine. Well, as far as I know she is anyway.”
A sense of relief filled Angel. But, only a glint in his eyes gave that away. The rest of his body remained fighting ready.
Willow felt bad for making Angel assume the worst like that. She should have known that he would. Why else would she be here if not to bring bad news? It’s not like she made a habit of visiting him.
“I’m sorry,” Willow said. “I didn’t mean to make you worry like that. I know I probably shouldn’t have shown up out of the blue like this. I just...” Willow looked down as tears sprang into her eyes. She lowered her voice the next she spoke in hopes of hiding the quiver in it. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
Angel felt himself soften. He had experience of his own with not knowing where or who to turn to. “Why don’t you come inside, Willow,” he suggested.
Willow’s head bobbed, but she didn’t look up. “‘Kay,” she murmured and followed Angel as he lead her into the hotel.
“Thank you,” Willow said as Angel handed her the steaming mug.
“Thank Wes. It’s his tea,” Angel replied as he took a seat across from Willow. He had brought her to his apartment so that they wouldn’t disturb, or be disturbed, by the other Hyperion denizens. Angel waited patiently as Willow blew on her tea and took a tentative sip.
“Mmm,” she commented with a small smile over the rim of the mug. “It’s good.”
Angel’s lips twitched in the hint of a smile. “Good,” he said. “Now, do you want to tell me why you’re here, Willow?”
Any trace of good humour evaporated from Willow’s expression and she looked down into the contents of her mug. She sighed causing little ripples to skitter across the surface of the hot, amber liquid. Her small mouth turned down in a frown.
“I told you,” she whispered. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
“And why couldn’t you go to Sunnydale? That’s your home. Or why didn’t you stay in England with Giles?”
Willow’s head snapped up, her eyes wide. “You know?” she all but squeaked.
“I heard some things,” Angel confirmed. “I’m sorry for your loss, Willow. I know I never got the chance to meet Tara, and I’m sure that was my loss. I’m sure she was a very special person. She would have to be for someone like you to have loved her so much.”
Willow’s lips pulled back in the ghost of a smile. “She was special. My special girl.” A hard lump formed in Willow’s throat, choking her. Tears pooled in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.
Angel felt rather useless watching Willow cry. Offering comfort wasn’t exactly his strong suit. It made him wonder again why Willow had come to him instead of someone like Buffy, or Xander. People that could have helped her better through her grief.
“She was so good,” Willow whispered. “Tara was the best person I ever knew. It’s not fair. Why her? I wish it had been me. It should have been me. She deserves to be here more than I do.”
“Don’t say that,” Angel told her. “You can’t think like that.”
“Why not? Tara was better than me. She never would have done the things that I did. Angel, I killed people. I almost destroyed the world!”
Now it started to make sense to him. “Is that why you came here?” he asked. “Because I know what you’re going through? Because I’ve been where you are?”
Willow pressed her lips together and looked down. She was quiet for a moment as her thumb rubbed along the rim of her mug. “How do you do it?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper. She took a shaky breath and lifted her head to look at Angel. “How do you get through the day knowing all the pain that you’ve caused? How are you able to face the people that saw you do such horrible things everyday? How can you stand to go on after everything?”
These are the questions Willow had been struggling with for months now. If anyone was in the unique position to help her find the answers it was Angel. After all, the pain and suffering Willow caused was no more than a drop in the bucket compared to Angelus body count. Willow had never really given much thought before about how Angel managed with his guilt. She almost forgot sometimes about what a ruthless killer he used to be, even after witnessing Angelus in action. Now Willow felt like her life depended on whatever secret key Angel possessed on how to deal with remorse. Her last strand of hope hung on his answer.
“I don’t know,” Angel said after a pause, and Willow’s heart sank. “There is no magic bullet for getting over your guilt Willow. It’s something that I struggle with everyday. I doubt there will ever be a day when don’t feel regret for the things I’ve done. And I don’t think you will either.” Angel sighed seeing how stricken hearing his words made Willow look. “I don’t say this to make you feel worse, Willow. But... can you honestly say that you can picture not feeling bad for what you’ve done?” Willow shook her head. “But, you can’t let it get in the way of trying to make it right. Of doing good. And you can’t let the bad things you did in the name of grief cloud over all of the good you have already done in the past. You are a good person, Willow. One of the best I’ve ever met. You threw yourself into the fray before you ever had any magic. You’ve risked your life for the sake of the world. No one can take that away from you.”
“I’m not sure the family of the people I killed would see it that way,” Willow argued.
“I’m not trying to make light of what you’ve done,” Angel said. “There will never be anything that you can do to take away the grief of the ones you’ve harmed. But, you still have to fight. It’s the only thing you can do. You fight or you let the guilt consume you. But, then you won’ t be doing anyone any good so what’s the point of even going on?”
Willow was quiet. A look of contemplation on her face as she took in Angel’s words.
Angel sighed. “I’m sorry if that isn’t what you wanted to hear,” he said with sincerity. “I’m not the best at making people feel better.”
“No,” Willow said. “It’s good. I needed to hear that. You’re right. There isn’t a way to make this better, but at least I can try to keep it from becoming worse.” She looked at Angel and gave him a small smile, and before she even had a chance to second guess her actions, she reached over and hugged him.
Angel was taken by surprise, and he awkwardly put his arms around Willow and patted her back.
“Thanks, Angel,” Willow said and Angel felt some of the uncomfortableness leave him. He tightened his hold on Willow and felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth.
“You’re welcome, Willow.”
Willow pulled back from him, letting out a stream of air through pursed lips. “Well, I’m pooped,” she announced. “I’m sure you probably must be tired too. I should go. I need to find a hotel or something. There’s no way I can drive back to Sunnydale tonight.”
Angel’s eyebrows rose. “Uh, Willow, you do realise that you are already in a hotel, right?”
Willow frowned. “Well, yes, I am aware of that fact, thank you. But, I just meant... Well, this isn’t like a real hotel and I didn’t know if you kept up the rooms or anything. Plus I didn’t want to presume anything.”
Angel smiled. “You are more than welcome to stay here, Willow,” he offered. “As long as you need.”
Willow’s lips lifted in a smile. Her eyes misting again, but this time with tears of gratitude, not sorrow. “That’d be nice, thanks.”
“Good. We keep a couple of rooms made up, just in case. They’re nothing fancy. Just essentials. Bed, bathroom.”
“As long as there’s running hot water, I’m good,” Willow said. “After a twelve hour flight and another three hour drive, a hot shower is just about the closest thing to heaven as I can think of. I just need to run down and get my bags from the rental—” The rest of Willow’s sentence was cut off by an uncontrollable yawn.
Angel found himself smiling again—that was what? The third time tonight? “Why don’t collect your things for you and you go ahead and start on the shower. I have some soap and stuff you can use.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that Angel,” Willow said, her statement punctuated by another yawn.
“It’s no problem really,” he assured. “Come on. Your room is just across from mine.”
Angel’s steps slowed as he lumbered back up to the room he had showed Willow to. He could hear the steady sound of her heartbeat and her slow rhythmic breathing. Carefully, he opened the door and found the young woman curled up on the bed, still in her clothes. Apparently she had underestimated her own exhaustion. She hadn’t even made it to the shower.
One corner of Angel’s mouth twitched upward as he looked on at Willow. She seemed so peaceful like this. Angel set her things down on the small desk then crossed the room to Willow. He lightly brushed her hair off her face and bent forward, pressing a small kiss to her head. He didn’t know why he had done it; it just felt right.
Angel quietly crept back across the room. When he got to the door he cast one more look at the slumbering witch and whispered, “Sleep well, little one.”
She didn’t. It was less than an hour later and Angel was sitting at the desk in his suite trying to capture the serene look Willow had been wearing when he found her asleep. The sounds of whimpering—which would have gone unnoticed by human ears—had Angel on his feet and out of his room in a flash.
Willow’s heart rate had sped up. Her breath was coming out in ragged pants and her face no longer held that peaceful look it had earlier. It was twisted in a pained expression now.
“No,” she cried. “Tara!”
“Willow.” Angel voice was firm but gentle as he took hold of Willow’s shoulders to stop her thrashing around.
Willow made a sort of choking noise and opened her eyes. Angel felt a twinge seeing that they were full of tears.
“Willow?” he murmured, stroking her hair.
Willow gasped and sat up. Blinking, she looked around the darkened room. Angel could hear her heart rate began to steady as she realised where she was. She looked back at Angel. He lifted his hand to her cheek and brushed away a stray tear with the back of his index finger.
Willow’s face crumpled and let herself fall against Angel chest. He instantly wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer.
He had only meant to stay until she had fallen back to sleep. But, he had felt so comfortable holding the girl in his arms, having her warmth against him, that he drifted off himself.
It was the first good nights rest he had in a long time.
Angel had been awake for about an hour now. He knew he probably should have gotten out of the bed already. He told himself he didn’t move for fear of disturbing the still slumbering redhead resting peacefully against his chest. But the truth of it was that he wasn’t ready to leave her warmth. He was almost disappointed when Willow made a light snuffling sound, signalling that she was coming out of sleep. She rubbed her face against Angel’s chest and let out a soft moan.
A smile tugged at the corners of her lips as her eyes slowly opened.
“Good morning,” Angel murmured.
Willow froze for a second, her smile dropping.
“Angel?” She sounded confused. “Oh,” she said, remembering why Angel was snuggled up in bed with her. Her face flushed and she scooted away. Angel frowned at the coldness her absence left. “Gosh, I’m so sorry about last night,” Willow gushed. “Did I wake you up? I’m sorry. I just...”
“You had a nightmare,” Angel supplied, his tone gentle and understanding.
Willow winced at the memory and nodded. “Sometimes I actually start to think that things are getting better, well, not better exactly but...easier maybe. But then I fall asleep and I...”
Angel sat up and put his hand over Willow, giving it a light squeeze. “I know.”
Willow spared him a glance and a small smile. “I know you do.” She put her other hand his and squeezed back. Their eyes locked for a moment, their hands remaining clasped together. It was odd how connected Willow felt with Angel in that moment. Before last night the pair had never really shared much of a meaningful conversation. It was strange to realise just how alike they really were.
Suddenly feeling awkward, Willow pulled her hand away and cleared her throat. She stood up and rubbed her hands on her thighs. “Oh man, I can’t believe I fell asleep last night without showering,” Willow remarked, trying to diffuse this imagined tension she felt. “I was already feeling funky enough after the flight. I’m sure now I must be getting pretty smelly. Especially for you with that super sniffer you got there.” She giggled.
“You don’t smell bad, Willow,” Angel assured. In fact, Angel’s first thought when he woke up that morning was that the woman in his arms had smelled....delicious. He hadn’t been eating well enough since Cordelia’s....’ascension’. And it had been a long time since he had a warm body so close to him. The call of Willow’s blood had been tempting. Still was. His mouth was watering even now as his eyes slipped down to Willow’s throat.
God, he really should eat something.
“Are you hungry?” Angel said all of a sudden, jumping out of the bed.
Willow blinked at the segue. “Uh....” She tried to remember the last time she ate. It had been before she left England. Giles’ had made her breakfast before the cab came to take her to the airport. But, she hadn’t done more than pick at it. Her stomach had been to tied up in knots to really eat. Now that the idea of food was mentioned, hunger seemed to spring from nowhere. “Yeah. I am a bit, actually.”
“Well, why don’t you go ahead and have a shower, and I’ll go downstairs and see what I can scrounge up, okay?” Angel suggested, already heading toward the door without waiting for an answer.
“Okay,” Willow said as Angel closed the door behind him. Was it her imagination or had he been acting a little funny? Willow shrugged. There was really no point trying to figure out the vampire’s behaviour. It was Angel after all; Mr. Enigma himself. Deciding not to worry about it, Willow grabbed her bag and started rummaging around for a change of clothes.
“Oh good, you up and about!” Fred exclaimed brightly as she came down to the kitchen and found Angel gathering food on a tray. “And your eating! Charles, look, Angel’s out of his room and he’s getting food!”
“Well, it’s about damn time,” Gunn commented coming up behind Fred.
“Hey, wait,” Fred said, just realising that something was off. “That’s human food. Since when do you eat human food? Not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s good! Just as long as you’re eating.”
“It’s not for me,” Angel told her.
“Oh,” Fred said, now even more confused.
Gunn smirked. “I thought I heard the shower running upstairs, and since your down here I know it ain’t you that’s in it. So...who is she?”
“She?” Fred nervously remarked. “But...”
“It’s not like that,” Angel interjected. “She’s an old friend. You guys met her once. Willow. She’s the one that came to tell me about Buffy.”
“Oh. Right. The redhead. She was cute,” Gunn remarked.
“And gay, if I remember correctly,” Fred said, frowning at Gunn. “So, what is she doing here?” Fred asked, turning back to Angel. “Oh no! That girl hasn’t died again, has she?” The last thing Angel needed was to lose another woman he cared about.
Angel smirked at the look on Fred’s face. “No. Buffy’s fine. Willow just came because she’s going through a hard time and she needed someone to talk to. Someone who could understand.” Angel caught the sound of the shower cutting off and picked up the tray. “Excuse me.” He stepped passed Fred and Gunn and headed upstairs.
Angel situated the tray into one hand so that he could knock on the door. He didn’t want just barge in since Willow had just come out of the shower. She might not be dressed yer. Angel nearly dropped the tray as the image of a wet, naked Willow sprang unbidden into his mind.
Where had that come from? He had never thought of Willow in that way before. Well, okay, he hadn’t often thought of Willow in that way. There were a couple of occasions when he had imagined what the mousy little computer geek was hiding under her clothes. Like when he saw her in that outfit that one Halloween. Or the time he came to her bedroom and she was wearing that nightshirt. And of course there was the curve hugging leather getup she donned when her vampire double came to town.
So, yeah, okay, he had thought about Willow like that before.
It had been wrong then and it was even more wrong now.
Shaking himself and steadying the tray in his hand, Angel knocked lightly on the door.
“Come in,” Willow’s voice chirped and Angel opened the door. Willow’s beaming smile greeted him. She had dressed, but her hair was still wet, gathered into a ponytail. Angel got a whiff of her and his knees almost buckled. She had used his soap, like he said she could, and there was just something about smelling his own scent all over her that drove him crazy.
“Angel? Are you okay?”
Angel cleared his throat. “Fine.” He stepped into the room and kicked the door shut behind him. “I, uh, didn’t know what you liked,” he said, setting down the tray on the desk. “So, I got a little bit of everything.”
“Oh thanks. This is great.” Willow picked up a container of yogurt and a spoon. “Is one of those coffee?” Willow asked pointing at the steaming mugs on the tray.
“Uh, yeah...this one.” Angel handed her the mug.
“Thank you.” Willow sat down and sipped the coffee. “Are you going to join me?” she asked after a moment as Angel just stood there.
“Oh. Sure.” Angel sat down in the other chair.
“Thanks again for letting me stay here last night,” Willow said. “And for...you know.”
Angel smiled. “It was no problem. So, have you thought about what you want to do now?” Angel asked. “Are you going to go back to Sunnydale?”
Willow paused mid-sip. “Uh...well, I guess. I mean, I guess I should.”
“Well, you don’t have to,” Angel rushed to say. “What I mean is, you don’t have to right away. You can stay here for a while if you need to. If you want to.”
Willow smiled warmly. “That’s really nice of you. And the idea is really tempting....”
“But?” Angel prodded when she didn’t elaborate.
Willow frowned. “I don’t know. It just kind of feels like it would be running away from my problems. Only...well, I’ve kinda already done the running part, so hiding from them. I left a pretty big mess behind me in Sunnydale for everyone else to clean up. I think maybe Giles was right after all. I have to this. Especially since...” Willow bit her lip.
“Well... I think there’s trouble coming. Not that there isn’t always trouble coming. ‘Cause, hey, Hellmouth. But I think it’s something big. Really big. And if there is any chance that I might be able to help, then I have to try. You know?”
Angel nodded. “I do.” There was a note of sadness in Angel’s voice. He really did understand that Willow had to leave, but, he didn’t want her to. “Hey, maybe once all this trouble, whatever it is, is over you could come back for a visit. If you want.”
Willow smiled. “I’d really like that.”
Angel smiled back at her. “Me too.”