Acceptance. It was something Angel had never sought, never felt he deserved. He was a vampire, a demon; he didn't deserve to be accepted by human beings as if he was one of their own. Having a soul did nothing to change his degraded state, of that Angel had always been convinced.
That conviction, he realized, was what had fueled his doomed union with the Slayer. He had loved her because he hated himself. He had loved being in the arms of the one girl in all the world pledged to destroy him. He had loved the illusory hope she had given him that somehow her love would turn him from demon to mortal once more. And that it would give him back the sunlit world he had been ripped from so very long ago that he no longer remembered what sunlight felt like.
But then there was Willow. There had always been Willow, he realized. From the beginning, she had accepted him readily, both demon and man, with a casual ease that stunned him as he recalled each offhand remark, each unthinking gesture that showed how totally she understood and welcomed him as a friend…all of him.
It was after returning from Hell that Angel truly began to see the young woman who had been right there all along, the woman who gave him the acceptance he had never asked for, the friendship he had felt so undeserving of. And who gave her love so freely to a demon that it made Angel sob in envious pain that outshone almost every torment visited on him in Hell.
Now, however, it was Willow who was in pain, Willow who was suffering and needed a friend. And now it was time for Angel to put aside his self-hate and give her his friendship. He lied to himself, saying that he was doing this for Willow's sake alone. That if Buffy weren't so caught up in what even he had to acknowledge was the sputtering and dying of their "forever" love that she couldn't be there for her best friend, he wouldn't have even tried to enter Willow's life. That his motives were altruistic and his feelings were solely platonic. But deep inside, Angel knew his self-justifications were utterly false.Every night he went to Willow, every night he held her while she cried; it was all more about himself than it was about Willow, more about having even a taste of what he dreamed of than about helping her deal with her heartbreak. Every word he spoke when he told her he hoped Oz would forgive her, indeed that he was sure he would, was a lie. Angel had no more desire to see Willow back in the werewolf's arms than he did to return to Hell. But as much as he longed to tell her he loved her, as much as his demon roared for him to take her and make her his own, he knew he couldn't. For surely even a kiss from Willow would cost him the soul that she herself had nearly died to give him. And as much as Angel might dream of a future with Willow by his side, he couldn't ask her to give up, not only the sunlight, but love, at least the kind of love that could give her everything she would want.
So, as Angel knocked once more on the balcony doors that led to Willow's bedroom, he gritted his teeth and prepared to be her understanding friend once more; to hear her hopes for a future with Oz and her pain that he hadn't forgiven her yet. At least, Angel consoled himself, he would be holding Willow in his arms and basking in her trust and her acceptance. It wasn't love. But it was something.