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The Faintest Heartbeat

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The Faintest Heartbeat

He’s back in the mansion. Not sure why, really, but for some reason he’s lingering here in Sunnydale, staying on the outside looking in, not going back to Los Angeles…he stops the thought and corrects himself - not going home.

Does he have a home? And whether he does or he doesn't, why does he want one? It’s ridiculous, the idea of a sentimental vampire. This isn’t the first time he’s regretted having a soul, won’t be the last time either, because thanks to that soul, he will always be on the outside looking in. Not a demon, not a man…what the hell is he?

He broods too much. He looks around for a distraction and finds it as he absently flips the light switch and is stunned to find that it works. Just how long can you go without paying a power bill in Sunnydale anyway? Several months, at least, it seems, because Angel hasn’t bothered with such things since moving away. Not like he’s worried about his credit rating. When you always pay in full, and in cash, no one ever bothers about checking your finances - very handy when you were born before the words social, security, and number had ever been strung together.

Of course, the way the world is changing, he’ll more than likely have to figure out some new way of doing things. In the next half century or so, cash might well become obsolete. But it’s not something he has to deal with today, and he’s grateful. He wishes he didn’t have to deal with it ever. For all that he’s lived for two centuries and more, he is not very fond of change, though he’s learned to cope with it. Computers are pretty nice, or at least quite handy.

Why on Earth did he suddenly latch onto that particular example? The answer comes to him as he reaches out consciously with his senses. He’s not alone anymore.

“Is anybody here?” a small, quavering voice asks. It’s a voice he knows well.

“Hey, Willow,” he answers, trying to keep the irritation he feels out of his voice. Shouldn’t she be with Oz tonight? Come to think of it, where is Oz? He hasn’t seen the wolf since he’s been back. Is he playing a gig with that band of his or something?

“Hey,” she says. “Boy am I glad it’s you. I was kind of worried that someone else had moved in or something and I was trespassing and all. I’d really hate to get arrested on Thanksgiving…or any day for that matter.” She is fidgeting nervously, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, and biting her lip. Combined with that ridiculous orange and pink sweater she’s wearing, her manner makes her seem like an innocent child rather than a young woman who’s seen enough evil to jade the hardiest soul.

“Is there a reason you’re here?” Angel knows he sounds rude, but frankly, Willow isn’t welcome and he’d like to know why she has come. It might make it easier to get her to go.

“I…um…I just was needing a place to think. I come here sometimes, ‘cause it’s quiet and all and… Buffy and Xander are kind of sick of me crying and stuff. So I come here. Of course, I won’t cry here now, because, hey, you’re here and you don’t care about my personal life and all.” She’s looking at him as if he is the one who has invaded her privacy and it’s disconcerting. Or maybe it’s that god-awful sweater. Either way, she is making him uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, she is also making him curious. What did she mean about her friends being sick of her crying? Despite the fact that there is no way it will not prolong her presence here, he has to ask. “What are you upset about?”

“Oz,” she answers, staring at him as though he’s the village idiot. First she made him feel unwelcome and now she is making him feel stupid; even though she’s the girl who gave him back his soul, Willow certainly isn’t inclined to friendliness towards him. Of course, he can’t come up with even one memory of a time when he’s been friendly to her, at least not one that doesn’t involve him only being nice because he needed her to do some favour or other for him.

“Oz?” he asks, nearly wincing as he does. There’s good reason for that as she’s now fixing him with a wide-eyed stare that nearly has him fidgeting like a schoolboy.

Fortunately, or maybe not, she figures things out. “Oh yeah. I kind of forgot you didn’t know. I was going to tell you, but you made it pretty clear before that you didn’t want to hear about my personal life, so…” As much as her words should be a rebuke, they aren’t. She seems completely comfortable with his disinterest in being more than barely courteous to her.

Great. Now he feels guilty on top of everything else. The worst part of it is that, frankly, he should. This is the girl who risked her life to restore his soul, who has helped him every single time he’s asked her, and he has never bothered to even thank her, let alone treat her in a way her conduct towards him merits. No wonder she’s being less warm towards him than he recalls from the past. Why should she be kind or considerate to someone who treats her like a useful nuisance at best and just an ordinary nuisance at worst?

“You know, I’m angry at you,” she says suddenly and as if it just occurred to her. He’s sure she has a reason – he can think of any number of good ones right now – but he wonders what it is. Oddly, it’s not any of the reasons which have sprung so readily to Angel’s mind. “I can’t believe you made me lie to Buffy. And it was all so stupid. I mean, no offense, but you could have done a lot more if Buffy had known you were here. It’s not like you were really any help, what with the lurking and the hiding. And hey…newsflash…she knows you were here anyway because Xander opened his big mouth. I guess syphilis kind of impacts the thinking and all, though I don’t think Xander’s case was advanced enough to be tertiary. Still, it was mystical, so who knows.” He’s staring at her now, his eyes wider than hers have ever been, and she seems to realize she has him hopelessly confused. “Sorry. I kind of went off on a tangent there. The point is that you should have just told Buffy you were here.”

What is there to say to that, to any of it? Because really, she’s right. He was a bystander at best. Why did Doyle’s vision send him here at all?

“Are you okay?” Willow asks. She’s conciliatory now and it seems ludicrous to Angel. He was downright rude to her earlier. Funny, though, he suddenly realizes that he still doesn’t know exactly what happened with Oz.

“I’m fine. But what about you?” How odd is it that this may be the very first time he’s ever asked her how she is?

“Umm…okay.” She’s guarded now, assuming – with cause – that he’s not really interested in hearing the answer, that he’s just making small talk.

“Willow, it’s alright. You can tell me the truth. You said something about Oz…”

Her eyes are suddenly shinier than normal and he realizes it’s because there are tears in them. She swipes at her eyes with the sleeve of that hideous sweater and answers with unexpected succinctness, “He’s gone.” Gone? Did something happen? Is he dead? Angel must actually look worried because Willow answers without him even asking a question. “He left. He cheated on me, tried to kill me, and left me. That’s it in a nutshell, I guess.”

If Angel has ever been more surprised by anything in all his life and unlife, he can’t think of it. Willow and Oz had always seemed to be the perfect couple. How could this have happened? And why is he feeling strangely satisfied?

That last question need never have been asked because the truth is, he knows why. It’s because there’s no more reason to be jealous of Oz, because he no longer has what Angel never will – a happy life with the woman he loves.

“I’m sorry,” he says, which is a flat-out lie. Still, what else can he say? ‘I’m glad he left because now I’m not the only demon who couldn’t make things work with a human’ would be cruel and insensitive.

“Yeah.” She doesn’t believe him and it’s a slap in the face. “No offense, Angel, but if Buffy doesn’t care and Xander doesn’t care and Giles doesn’t care, it’s kind of hard to believe that you do.”

“You’re right,” he says, and she deflates slightly. He isn’t surprised at that. “It is hard to believe that I care. I do, though.”

“You don’t have to do this. I can just leave now and we can forget I was ever here, okay?” She suddenly seems very eager to go; the tears which are threatening to fall seem to be her reason. He’s cruel, however, and he’s not going to let her.

It’s the strangest thing; in all the years he’s known her, he’s never wanted to spend much time with her. That perpetual cheer and boundless optimism were almost oppressive. But now…now that he can see the cracks along the jagged edges of her spirit, now that the smile is as false as a promise of mercy from Angelus? Now he finds her fascinating. He’s going to keep her here, explore this new and dark terrain. There has to be some sort of recompense for a night of futility.

“Sit down,” he says. It’s an order and he doesn’t try to disguise that fact. She’s confused, but she obeys. “What happened?” He’s actually interested in the details, though not because he cares about the breakup as such. He wants to watch Willow’s eyes as she speaks, wants to smell and taste the heartbreak. He’s not feeling very human after being jerked around by the Powers That Be and it is better if he doesn’t think about how much his demon is wound through the threads of his being tonight. Perhaps he should just have left town when the Chumash were defeated, but it’s too late now.

“He…you don’t want to hear about this.” She’s a strange creature, at once obedient and willful. It’s an intriguing combination.

“Yes, I do.” His tone is as definite as can be, though there’s no compassion in it. It’s another order and she knows it.

“There’s really not much to tell.” She’s still hedging and he sits on the couch beside her. It’s not to be companionable, though. He’s hemming her in, forcing her into a physical intimacy just uncomfortable enough to make her do as she’s told.

For a moment he wonders why he’s doing this, why he’s so willing to put her through anguish for his own…amusement? But his mind drifts back to that rant of hers and the way she’d said he was no help at all and he realizes that he knows exactly what he’s doing and why.

“You can talk to me.” He’s all softness and understanding and pain-filled brown eyes. The chuckle of his demon rebounds through his head as he slips on that coat of soulful compassion. Has it ever been more than a costume? Does Angel truly care about anyone?

“You don’t care.” She says, fixing him with a glare so piercing that it surprises him. Lying isn’t going to satisfy the hunger building inside. He decides to try the truth.

“Maybe I don’t, but I’m willing to listen, so why don’t you just tell me?”

She’s at least as surprised as he is and he can tell that he’s won. Knowledge creeps into him – maybe this is why he’s here.

“He cheated on me. What else is there to tell?” He overestimated himself. She’s still recalcitrant.

“With who?”

“Does it matter?”

His demon is roaring in both anger at the challenge and not a little pride. He’d spotted her, after all, seen potential in her that Angel never saw with his soul, and Angel has to admit now that the girl would make one hell of a pet. Breaking her would be delicious and he could only imagine the masterpiece of servile pleasure that would be the end result of proper training. 'Just remember not to turn her,' he reminds himself, though why he does so is something he does not want to think about.

Silence – he decides to see if that will pry a detail or two from those obstinate lips.

He’s finally found a trick that works, because it does. “Veruca,” she says softly. “Her name was Veruca. She was a werewolf, like Oz.”

Funny how that’s nowhere near as satisfying as he thought it would be. Suddenly, he feels for her. So does his demon, and neither of them are pleased by that. It leads Angel to react…badly. “Maybe he needed something more, you know?”

It’s cruel and it hits her full force. She leaps off the couch. For a moment, he’s terrified she’ll leave. She doesn’t. “I would have done…stuff, you know! All he had to do was ask. Because hey – I even offered to do…things…with him and he always said no. And instead, he goes and screws some skanky bitch who wasn’t even that great a singer!”

The cute, shy way she talks about sex suddenly has him aroused. Because he’s pretty sure he knows what she means by ‘stuff’ and he’s absolutely certain she’d have done all that she offered Oz and so much more. There’s a sudden vision of her - pants and underwear off, still wearing that sweater –on all fours in front of the fireplace, Angel pounding into her ass. She’d love it because he did; she’s that kind of girl - the kind of girl who loves girlish sweaters because they are what her mother bought for her and it would never occur to her to dislike what her mother thought suited her, the kind of girl who’d enjoy anything he wanted her to enjoy.

Angel smiles darkly at the vision, the grin creeping up one side of his face.

Her voice breaks through. “Great. Glad my pain amused you so much.” She doesn’t understand at all and he jumps up and grabs her arm.

“I wasn’t laughing at you.”

“Oh really? What were you laughing at? Elves?”

“Oz.”

That stops her cold. “Why?” He leads her back to the couch and she sits…so obedient.

“Because he’s an idiot.”

She obviously wants to know more, but that’s tough, because that’s all she’s getting. There’s silence again and it’s all he can do not to harden as she doesn’t ask the questions he’s been expecting.

That doesn’t mean, however, that she doesn’t ask any questions. “Why did you stay? I mean, you haven’t gone to see Buffy, so she can’t be the reason you’re staying…unless you were planning to and I’m holding you up. Am I?” She looks almost panicked at the thought that she’s keeping him from a rendezvous with his one true love.

“No,” he says, “I wasn’t planning to see Buffy.” What he doesn’t say, because he doesn’t want to admit it to himself, is that he doesn’t want to see her. She’d looked so arch, talking to that man at the coffee shop. She’d been common and human in a way that wasn’t the Buffy he remembers. It bothers him.

But what bothers Angel more is how human he realizes he isn’t. He wonders if even a heartbeat and limited lifespan could make him one of them now.

He was right; he knows it now. This meeting with Willow is why he’s here at all, though he doesn’t know what it means and he’s still ready to curse the PTB for the whole damn, frustrating mess. There’s still time, he thinks, to make it back to L.A. before sunrise. Or he could stop at a motel along the way and wait out the daylight. Anywhere would be better than here.

He stays where he is – on the couch next to Willow. He tells himself it’s because leaving now would hurt her, but since he’s never cared about that in the past, it’s a thin alibi.

She’s looking at him expectantly, eyes unblinking. She unnerves him, and not just for this reason, though it’s enough. The tables have turned and he’s the one who’s cornered. He’s reminded of the rats on which he used to feed. Are his eyes small and sharp and beady-red, shrinking against the onslaught of her own, large and green?

“I don’t know why I stayed,” he says at last. She blinks and he almost sighs with relief.

“Oh,” she says, not seeming at all dangerous anymore, though he knows that’s not the case. “Do you want me to leave?”

The word ‘yes’ is right there at the tip of his tongue and what emerges instead is, “No, I could use the company, actually. Besides, you never finished telling me what happened with Oz.”

“Yes, I did,” she says, and Angel is almost gleeful that she’s vulnerable again; it’s where she belongs.

“Not really. You said he cheated. You never told me why he left.” It occurs to him as he speaks that he never realized just how well he knew her before. But he knows that there’s no chance in a thousand hells that she would throw Oz over for an indiscretion. She doesn’t have nearly enough pride. Or maybe she just loves not wisely, but too well. Either way, if it were up to her, Oz would still be here.

“He said he needs to learn to control the wolf.” She says it as if the words are sounds and he knows she doesn’t believe it for a minute. In her mind, Oz left to look for greener pastures, simple as that. Before tonight, Angel might have thought that, too, but not now. Now, oddly, he looks at Willow and he thinks she could easily unsettle a demon…and enthrall one as well.

After all, Angel is still here.

“He’s probably right.” The tone is noncommittal and the words far less definite than what he feels. But the point is not to offer her anything and he succeeds to a marvel – she thinks he’s every bit as patronizing as he’s sure her friends have been. He is, but for vastly different reasons.

“I know what you’re thinking.” She’s mercurial to a degree that surprises him and now she’s back on her feet. “You think stupid, geeky Willow should just suck it up and accept that she just wasn’t good enough. Be realistic, set her sights lower.”

He’s too unsettled for guile and he blurts out “I don’t think that at all” with as much sincerity as he’s ever felt. And now he’s stuck. Damn her for the mongoose she is.

“Yeah, sure thing, Angel. Because you’re such a good friend. Do you know this is the longest conversation we’ve ever had? We’ve never even been in the same room together for this long.”

She’s right of course, though not of his demon’s volition. He wonders if she realizes what those fish meant…or that it wasn’t a stake in Angelus’s pocket that night at the school. No, he’s pretty sure she thinks it was all about Buffy. Angel had sloughed the truth off and told himself it was as well.

It occurs to him out of the blue that he’s utterly absurd and illogical. He sees his demon as a separate entity whenever it suits him, but he also prefers to credit that demon with having the exact tastes and proclivities he is comfortable with. Unfortunately, the truth is something darker and more difficult – while there are things he’d never do now that he has the soul, the demon is him and its tastes and feelings and needs are his as well. He’s not just the man with a taste for independent, forthright, sexual blondes who display a generous amount of tit. He’s the man who craves obsession, desire, and utter devotion. He can’t just claim Darla and Buffy…Drusilla and William are his as well…and so is Willow.

She might not be his obsession the way Dru and Spike once were, but that’s only because Angelus was distracted by Acathla. Had things been different…

“You’re right,” he says, though he’s been silent for so long that it takes her a beat or two to connect his words to her own. “But…”

“But that doesn’t mean you don’t care?” She’s snide, and not without justification.

He shrugs. It’s not as if there’s a right thing to say. She may have once been gullible, but heartbreak has sharpened her into a cynic. “It doesn’t really mean anything, I guess.”

She’s nonplussed now, unsettled again. Anxiety and uncertainty suit her; he likes what they do to her face and her scent. He gets a flash of memory. Her fear smelled even better.

“I’m gonna go,” she says, and she means it. It’s ironic that now that she’s standing up, wearing something close to that expression he remembers as being called her ‘Resolve Face’, ready as anything to leave him be, that’s the last thing he wants her to do.

“It’s not your fault,” he says out of nowhere. “I just don’t know how to talk to you. And I’m sorry.”

He doesn’t know which of those words is responsible, or if it’s all of them together, but she’s in his arms now, sobbing. The feel of that sweater under his fingers is far more inviting than its gaudy colours and he can smell loneliness and hopelessness in each of her tears. She’s beautiful to him in a way that no one ever has been before. He may not want her to leave, but she needs to…and so does he.

“Let me drive you home,” he says when her tears have slowed somewhat.

She nods as she wipes her nose with the sleeve of her sweater, looking embarrassed afterwards. Somehow it doesn’t seem gauche or crude, just childlike, and that’s something about her that Angel sees differently than he did before…or is it merely differently than he wanted to see her?

There’s silence as he drives her back to the dorms, but for the directions she gives as they go, and he barely looks at the road. He’s too busy committing her tear-stained face to memory. Later, he’ll sketch her several times and tear each version to shreds, hating himself both for creating and destroying.

Tonight, though, as he heads back to Los Angeles just in time to outrun daylight and depravity, his nostrils still keenly attuned to the traces of Willow’s scent left in his car, he thinks to himself that – more than anything – he wants to be Liam again; to be a simple man with simple needs and simple, uncomplicated desires; to be someone for whom the night’s revelations were only a fever dream. It would be something, at least…something…

The End

Chapter Text

Heart Still/Beating

It’s been a long time since he’s thought about the time he spent in the mansion; the night when the girl sitting pale and shaking in his lobby made him a present of truths that smelled of bitter almonds and tasted of ash and brimstone. He can tell that’s what she’s here to do now.

“It’s Buffy,” he says before she can say a word, though oddly, the first thing that comes to mind is that he hates her hair. It’s short and limp and unbecoming and it makes him actually miss those hideous sweaters she used to affect – not perhaps the thoughts of a man who’s just lost the ‘love of his life’ in some manner he has yet to learn.

“Glory,” she says.

It takes a moment before the word means anything to him. It means nothing to most of the tired group standing behind him. Cordelia’s making sounds that seem to pass for grief and Wesley suddenly breathes the word “Glorificus”. Gunn and Fred don’t exist, not now, not really. It’s Sunnydale here in the lobby somehow and they have no place in it. The cruelty of Fred becoming meaningless right now gets lost in the old world of him and Willow…Willow and what she drags with her at the edge of her soul, like tin cans tied to the bumper of a car.

“Death was her gift.” The words are as metallic as if spoken by a robot and Angel isn’t sure that Willow said them. Maybe they came out of the air, or maybe Wesley said them, or maybe he just imagined them.

He heads for the stairs. No one follows. He turns around and looks at Willow, saying nothing because he’s not capable of saying anything that isn’t wrong. She gets the point though, and she heads up the stairs a few paces behind him.

Her scent hits him before anything else once they’re in his room. It’s not that he’s surprised she found someone, but he admits to feeling surprised, or something, that the scent is female…cloying and heavy, like a perfume that won’t wash away. Is this new, or is it one of the things Buffy didn’t tell him when last he saw her?

He’s grateful, though, because this gives him something to talk about that isn’t Buffy. “What’s her name?” he asks.

Willow stays silent for a moment, looking around as if unsure whether to sit or stand. “Tara,” she replies after a too-long while. He’s not sure whether he’s surprised or not that she knew immediately what he meant. He supposes surprise would be silly; the girl had a demon for a lover once, after all. “I’m sorry.” Those are the next words she says – tiresome cliché that they are. Is it wrong of him to have thought better of her and to have hoped for something a bit less…human?

“Why?” he says, a bit vengeful and hoping to disconcert her. He’s the one who winds up unsettled. It turns out the words weren’t a commonplace after all.

“Because it’s my fault. I was supposed to be her big gun, but I was distracted…trying to fix Tara…and…” She breaks down and, much to his own shock, his arms are around her almost the moment the first sob shakes her slim form.

He stops himself before he says something silly like, ‘it’s not your fault.’ While it’s probably true, it’s also a cliché and he hardly wants to play the lone role of pot without her playing kettle. He guides her to the bed and sits her down, leaving to fetch a handkerchief from his dresser drawer.

Too late, he turns around to see that she’s already taken matters into her own hands, fetching some flimsy piece of paper fashioned into a mockery of the real thing from her purse and using it to blow her nose. He feels like a fool standing there with a handkerchief and it makes him curse her again for her refusal to be needy or feminine in the time-honoured ways. And no, he’s not going to ponder the ridiculous irony of hating her for both being clichéd and not being clichéd.

“Thank you,” she says when she notices the hanky, with a sincerity that makes his fangs itch.

He puts the handkerchief back in the drawer and sits down next to her. Hopefully, she’ll be as uncomfortable now as she’s made him. Moments pass, though, and he doesn’t feel the hoped-for tension. Instead, she reaches over and takes his hand. “I wish I could have done something, you know? Made it so you guys could have been together. I tried. I just could never find a spell. Maybe if I’d had more time…”

“What’s she like?” Angel asks, still not wanting to talk about Buffy. The fact that Willow was looking for an anchoring spell…it doesn’t shock him in the least, but he isn’t sure how he feels about it. Best to get onto topics that are more likely to make her emotional.

“Tara?” she asks, letting go of his hand, clearly taken by surprise. “She’s…she’s my girl.” There’s a fondness – no, more than a fondness – in those wide, green eyes that makes Angel wish he had never asked the question. Suddenly, it’s Willow who changes the subject. He’d almost forgotten that certainty of hers that he could never be interested in her life. “What was Cordelia dressed up for?”

It takes Angel a moment to even remember what had just happened. It really is as if the world began and ended in Sunnydale right now. “We had to rescue her from Pylea, though ‘rescue’ is kind of a subjective term. They made her a queen there.”

“Figures,” Willow snorts, before stifling it and putting on a less disdainful expression. “Sorry. I know she’s your friend. And hey, she has to have changed lots since high school, what with the visions and all.”

Angel shrugs. He supposes she has changed, and he does, after all, have some sort of feelings he’s prone to elevating beyond their probable ken when it comes to her, but right now, all he can see is the girl she’d been way back when; he suddenly feels honour-bound to dislike her a bit. He decides not to think too hard about that.

“Tara thinks I probably had a crush on her. That I was sublimating it and that’s why I hated her so much.” Willow smiles slightly, thinking she’s telling him something amusing. She isn’t.

Angel hates Tara, he’s decided now. Of all the silly psychobabble. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

“What do you mean?” Her brow furrows and she looks confused. It becomes her.

“I mean that maybe you hated Cordelia because you hated Cordelia. If memory serves, she treated you terribly back then – always putting you down.”

“Oh,” Willow says, almost nervously. Angel gets it though, and he almost smiles. Her girl is nervous, scared spitless that Willow will find some man attractive and leave her flat. She doesn’t know Willow well at all. That girl would never do the leaving, not of her own volition.

“Didn’t you have a crush on Xander back then?”

“Yeah.”

“Does Tara think that was some sort of sublimation too?” He sounds angrier than he intended and Willow notices.

“Did I say something wrong?”

Time for damage control. “No, no. I guess I’m just…” He lets her fill in the blanks.

“Oh God, of course. I’m sorry.” Her hand is over his again. “Here I am babbling about stupid stuff and Buffy is…” She bursts into tears and again Angel takes her in his arms. He stays silent, not wanting to share what hurts…that what really hurts is what doesn’t. He knows that if someone else had brought him the news, he’d be teary-eyed and half-drowned in a bottle of whiskey right now, awash in memories of his precious and adored Buffy.

Whiskey, though…now that might be a fine idea. He waits ‘til she’s calmed enough to let go of and then heads to the closet, where he fishes out a bottle. He has to admit to wondering what Willow would be like drunk. And maybe if he drinks, he’ll feel the way he’s supposed to feel, instead of…well, instead of the way he does.

“Care to split this with me?”

“What is it with men and stashes of booze?” she mutters under her breath. Great. Guess he’s a cliché again. Somewhere in his mind there’s a pad where he’s keeping score. She doesn’t realize how very high the debt she owes him is; she owes his demon even more. “Sure,” she says, louder this time. He decides not to let her know he heard what she said first.

“Ladies first,” he says as he twists off the cap and hands her the bottle. She takes a swig and does her best not to cough. Angel sees the ghost of the high school girl he’d first met in the twist of her mouth as she tries to look like a grown-up by not choking. He takes the bottle and tastes her on the neck; it burns more harshly than the whiskey. It’s harder for him to suppress his desire than ever it was for her not to cough.

“Did you have a crush on anyone but Xander back in high school?” he asks before thinking.

She takes a second swig and giggles slightly after she swallows. “Yeah. But I don’t want to say who.”

Now he’s not sure he’s sorry he asked the question. His mind goes back to her awkwardness when he’d visited her bedroom. “C’mon, you can’t not tell me now, not after you’ve confessed.” He takes another draught now, too. The taste of her is more of a buzz than the liquor

“Okay, but you have to promise not to freak out.”

“I promise.” He’s almost tense with expectation.

“I had a crush on Giles,” she says softly. “I mean, I know he was lots older than me and all but…that accent, the glasses, the cute way he stuttered when he was flustered.” She sighs softly, entirely oblivious to Angel’s fury. “Tara stutters sometimes.”

Angel could care less what Tara does, frankly. He can’t believe his ears. Willow had a crush on Rupert Giles? She wasted her youthful ardour on that moldy eunuch? He takes the bottle back and downs a swallow that would impress a Viking. “Giles, huh?” He tries manfully to sound disinterested while the visions he’d had back in the mansion – of Willow on all fours, howling as he fucks her ass hard and deep – fill his mind. He and his demon both feel wronged and more than desirous of making her pay.

And somewhere in his mind he remembers that he’s supposed to be crying over the death of Buffy.

“I hope he’s okay,” she says softly, staring into nothingness.

“Who, Giles?” Angel asks, not caring a bit.

“Yeah.” Those eyes of hers are fixed on him now, as if she sees what’s really there. “He loved her. I mean, not like you, but like a father and that’s a big thing too.”

Angel is this close to being brutal and frank and saying that, for pity’s sake, the man’s a Watcher and should be well-prepared for a dead Slayer. He doesn’t, but Willow sees it in his eyes…or sees a glimmer of it, because when she speaks, it’s obvious she’s seen it all through broken glass. “I know you want to feel like the only one with a claim to grief right now, to feel like the one and only in Buffy’s life, but we all loved her too, you know. The world wasn’t just you and Buffy and no one else. Giles loved her, Xander loved her, Dawn loved her…I loved her.” There’s a pause before she mentions herself that could mean a number of things, but maybe means nothing.

She stands unsteadily, trying to leave, but Angel grabs her and pulls her back down. “I know you loved her. I’m sorry.” She doesn’t notice that he said nothing about the others.

“She appreciated you being there when Joyce died,” she says after a time. “It meant a lot to have you there.”

What’s he supposed to say to that? Is he supposed to sigh and pretend he wishes he’d stayed behind? Maybe the whiskey was a mistake, because he’s had just too much alcohol for the pretense and the niceties now. The truth is, going to see Buffy then had left him as empty as the bottle he’s now holding. One more futile attempt to pretend that he’d lost his soul over something meaningful and eternal.

It’s not fair to Buffy, he realizes, that this is what she carried in her heart. Maybe his ego is monstrous, but he’s sure she believed, truly believed, that what they shared was magical, and he hates that she died with a pocket full of stones, convinced that they were posies. Of all the injustices of her life, this seems even worse than the truncated lifespan guaranteed by her destiny. If death was her gift, it seems somehow less of a cruel joke than every other ‘gift’ she’d ever been given was…including her ‘great love.’

“It’s not fair,” Willow says, staring through the empty bottle in Angel’s hand and thinking of the same thing he was, though in a very different way. “Death was her gift? What does that mean? Death isn’t a gift…it’s…it’s death. And it’s not fair. She had so much to live for…it’s not fair…and it’s all my fault. If I hadn’t been so worried about Tara…if I hadn’t…” She’s in tears again and he holds her even tighter than before. Her grief is real and he thinks that it might be enough for the both of them. Somehow, it lightens his burden of guilt, knowing that, platonic though Willow’s affection might be, it is still something majestic and grand. If Buffy knew…

“What happened to Tara?”

“Glory…Tara and I had a fight and she went out and Glory got her, drained her mind. It was terrible.” Willow chokes the words out as if they are made of acid.

“And you were trying to fix her while there was still a chance,” Angel deduces.

“Yeah.”

He decides not to ask any more questions. He’s jealous again. Jealous that, as much as Willow loved Buffy, as much as she cared about saving the world, she loved Tara more. His demon sets to roaring within him.

He heads back to the closet, hoping there’s another bottle, and there is. There’s something to be said for planning ahead and knowing that it always rains someday. He sits back down, opens the bottle, and hands it to her. Not too drunk for manners, are you Angel? That’s one thing he doesn’t have in common with Liam, that’s for sure. Liam would never have offered the first drink to any woman, no matter how comely she might have been. But then again, he’d never known a woman like Willow…a woman whose control (whose soul) he’d so badly wanted to break.

She takes the bottle and drinks – thoughtfully, deliberately. It’s strange, the look on her face as she swallows, as if she’s imbibing so much more than the whiskey itself. The world is so very different to her.

For a moment, he wonders if she’s like this when she fucks. Or does she ever fuck? Is it instead always that sticky-soft act of ‘making love’, something cerebral and altruistic where she gives and gives and no one notices that she hasn’t the slightest clue how to be taken?

He should feel guilty right now that rather than remembering what it was like to be with Buffy, he’s thinking instead about taking her best friend, shattering those barriers and making her feel, truly feel, in a way he’s sure she’s never been forced to feel before. And he’s wondering how he can be so attracted to a girl in dowdy clothes with unbecoming hair and not the slightest trace of the coquette about her.

He lost his soul inside Buffy’s tight heat - in the warmth of her arms, in the fire of her passion, and in the welcome-slick of her body - and he’s caught up in the idea of fucking Willow senseless. Some soul those gypsies gave him. How in a thousand hells has this soul kept him from doing what comes naturally to a demon? How has it saved humans from being drained and minions from being made and the world from carnage?

“Are you okay?” she asks, the shine of whiskey pooled at the corner of her mouth a flame luring him as though he were a moth.

He does nothing, however, and he doesn’t answer. He just sits beside her, staring, and somehow she doesn’t notice.

“I already can feel how I’m going to feel in a month, you know?” she says after taking another drink. “Like right now – I can already see what I’m going to miss about her in a week, in a month, next year. I can feel it like it’s waiting for me and getting impatient.” Her eyes shine with tears. When one wobbles and falls, he reaches out with his finger and catches it on its slide down her cheek. He sucks the salt-sweet drop from his skin, not caring that she’s frozen in something that’s either fear or disgust or both. He needs that grief, and if he can’t feel it – well, he’s a vampire, and accustomed to stealing his sustenance from humans. Once upon a time, anyway.

“I’m sorry,” he says, though he’s anything but. He’s almost high on the magic and despair in that one small drop of water.

She’s staring again. This time she really does get it, though she has no idea what she knows and there’s not a chance she’ll let herself be conscious of her knowledge. Surprisingly, she makes no move to leave. She reaches out and touches the dry plane of his cheek. “You’re not crying,” she says, her voice full of wonder.

“No,” he says.

The silence echoes, bouncing off the walls as if it were some toy, substance – rubbery and buoyant. Her hand is still on his cheek. He wonders if she’s willing tears to fall. Perhaps next she’ll try a spell. The tears don’t come, and after a time she takes her hand back, visibly fighting the urge to gaze at the bone-dry fingers of her hand.

“I was human once, for a day. I spent it with her.” Why he’s telling her this is a murky danger at the back of his mind.

She’s stunned. “She never told me.” There’s pain in her eyes as she thinks Buffy kept such a secret. He lets her feel it for a moment before continuing.

“She doesn’t…didn’t remember. I went to the Oracles…time was turned back…the only one who knows it ever happened is me. And now you.”

She’s still stunned. “How…when…?”

“Mohra demon. Its blood made me human. It happened…the day after Thanksgiving.”

“When Buffy went to see you,” Willow breathes softly. Her eyes are wide as the sea. “Why did you…?”

“I couldn’t protect her.” He’s told himself that reason for so long, it trips off his tongue. Sometimes, when Willow is nowhere near him, he even believes it. Now, of course, it rings hollow and metallic inside his soul.

“Oh. Oh gosh, I’m so sorry. It must feel like…” Suddenly, her arms are around him. She thinks he feels regret, because after all, Buffy ended up dying young anyway. He doesn’t, and he’s furious with Willow. He understands now why he hasn’t told her a thing about his life here or what has happened. It’s bad enough that she’s rent every illusion that he had gloriously wrapped around his life with Buffy and in Sunnydale; he’s not going to give her entrée into his life here. When she’s gone, he will be a hero and a champion in Los Angeles still – she can’t rob him of that.

He keeps holding her, though, and he realizes that maybe he doesn’t hate her at all. Or maybe, even as he does, a part of him is becoming addicted to the agony of what she makes him see and know and accept. He wishes she knew what she did to him; it might be easier to deal with her.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” he says because he’s supposed to say it.

“You couldn’t have known. It’s not like we really kept you in the loop or anything.”

She lets go of him and reaches for the whiskey again. She’s not choking at all anymore as she drinks. Then she hands it to him and he downs a healthy swallow of his own, lips wrapped around the neck where his tongue can pick up the taste of her. It’s still more of a high than the alcohol.

“Don’t blame yourself, Willow. Buffy and I… maybe I should have seen…I don’t know.” All the right things to say. Pauses in all the right places. But Willow is staring again and he thinks he somehow got it wrong.

“Are you okay?” she asks again.

This time he answers. “No.” He tries to make her feel stupid for asking by the tone in his voice. It only works to a point.

“I didn’t mean it like that. You just seem…I don’t know. I mean, it’s not like we’re friends or we know each other well, but you just don’t seem…”

What is he supposed to say to that? Congratulations, you’re right and it’s your fault?

“I better go,” she says. She gets up, slightly unsteady on her feet. She mutters something softly and he can feel the fog leave her mind.

She turns as he gets up and follows. She’s about to hug him when he takes the upper hand, pinning her to the door, almost daring her to use her hocus pocus against him.

He kisses her. It’s harsh and dominating and possessive, there’s no tenderness in him. He lets her go after a moment and she says nothing, just stands and stares at him. He lets it all show in his eyes, and if she’s willing to read the tea leaves, she’ll know that wanting to take her and break her and shatter her is more real for him than any grief.

“Goodbye,” she says softly. “I’ll let you know about…”

“Do that,” he says, and turns away. Back to the bed and the lure of the whiskey. Soon enough, the taste of her will be gone from the bottle and he’ll have to deal with his ‘friends’ wanting to ‘be there for him’. All he can think about is imbibing enough alcohol to make himself insensible to their well-intended stupidity.

Willow is gone a few seconds later. He wonders if she’ll exchange sorrow pleasantries with Cordelia before she heads back to Sunnydale or if she’ll just leave. It doesn’t matter, either way. She came, she saw, she conquered.

Willow did it, he can see – without knowing anything about his life here, she’s still poisoned the well from which flows all the water he has to drink. Bitch.

Buffy is dead…and so is Angel.


The End