Damaged Goods

She keeps his goodness for him when it's too much of a burden. When he needs to leave it behind. She never acknowledges that it's so, but he knows that she's somehow aware of it. He's grateful for her acceptance. And her silence. As much as he loves the sound of her voice, the way its cheer can brighten even the darkest night with its music, he loves her most at the times when she knows there is no need for words. There are things, after all, that are best left unsaid.

Giles is the first.

Oh how he enjoys the look on the Watcher's face when he makes himself known. It's Angel who is the watcher now, enjoying the play of emotions as each crosses the man's face in turn: surprise, fear, pleading, hope, despair. There are words, too. Then excuses:

"Did what we thought was best."

"Thought you were evil."

"I'm sorry"

They aren't enough. They don't stop the screams or stanch the flow of blood. But they amuse him. So Angel laughs. And he keeps on laughing long after the blood stops and the screams are forever silent.

Willow has been his salvation; though it is he who bears the name, she is the angel. She saved him, and the world, and Spike... Spike... who got the reward that Angel had striven for so many weary years.

The three remaining warriors survey the carnage. Bodies. Demons, comrades, even a god-king lie around them. After all that fighting, victory leaves them feeling surprisingly hollow and not the least bit like conquering heroes. There is a light that engulfs everything, a light that blinds yet illuminates. And then the corpses are gone. Spike stands in the center of one last beam...then he breathes.

Something inside Angel turned to dust that day, leaving him with his soul but taking so much of the creature he had been. Somehow, he thinks, the Powers That Be know that they went too far, broke faith once too often, and now they ask nothing of him, and expect even less. He does as he pleases. He's come out ahead anyway, he thinks. After all, Spike may be human, but Angel has Willow.

She can't quite believe that she was so horribly betrayed. She'd thought that only her lover had kept her from knowing, from being in time to save Fred...and Wesley...and Gunn. Angel opens her eyes, watches the light fade even as the tears shine. Takes her in his arms just as she had taken him in hers. Lets her sob her loss into his shirt. Feels the beginnings of something stir within him.

Spike is gone, knows enough not to stay. Whether it's respect for his former grandsire or fear of the witch that made him pack a bag and leave at first light they will never know. All they know is that they will never see him again. Someday soon, Angel will wonder if Spike realizes how fortunate he is or if he foolishly longs for a reunion.

It's funny that neither one of them even thought about his soul before they made love that first time. But they didn't. Perhaps the only surprising thing to him is that he wasn't surprised he still had it when he awoke later that day, more satisfied and content than he had ever been in life or unlife. It's then, he realizes, that he knew that the Powers sought to appease him. Or Willow. He thinks maybe they're more afraid of what she would do if he turned her than of what he himself would do without his soul. It doesn't matter, though. Either way, Willow can continue to make him the happiest he has ever been and he will still keep his soul. Though truly, his soul isn't at all what it used to be.

Xander is the second.

The boy is mouthy as always. He says this is just more proof that they were right all along. That Angel is evil and should have been left to his fate. Tells him he should have been dusted long ago. Calls him 'Deadboy,' ... well, while he still has a tongue. Angel worries briefly what Willow might think about the time he has spent with her childhood friend. Wonders if he'll soon hear her light tread upon the stairs. But she never comes.

She never says a word about what went on in the basement when he comes upstairs to their bed. She makes love to him, tells him she loves him, falls asleep in his arms. He wonders if she recognized the voice behind the howls. But he doesn't ask. She is not the only one who knows when it's best to keep silent.

Angel can't stand being away from Willow, can't stand the way he doesn't feel anything when she's not there. He's only whole when he knows she's near. When he can walk into the next room and see her smile, can hear her sweet voice caroling in greeting when she comes home from an errand in town, can feel the warmth of her body underneath and around him as they make love. He's never felt this way about anyone before. Not Darla, not Drusilla.. Not Buffy, Cordelia, or even Spike. She tells him that the same is true for her. That there's no one but him in her heart and it's as if he's her first. He isn't her first though, and it burns.

Oz is unexpected.

Angel is in Brazil, looking for the slut with the pierced tongue who'd almost kept Willow from coming to his aid. She is dead. Not a demon or vampire to blame, but a human. Her faithless ways have finally been her undoing. He's angry that he's been taken away from his love for nothing, that he won't have the chance to make the young Slayer pay - and then he sees him. The wolf.

He knows that there's no excuse, no righteous motive, for what he's going to do. He does it anyway. Without being given the slightest warning, and with his demon so 'under control' that its senses are too dull to keep him safe, the wolf is easy prey. Angel finds a safe place to spend time with him, decides not to take him home. It means a few more precious days away from Willow. But he doesn't want the silence broken. So he takes his time and makes the wolf pay for every moment their encounter is costing him with his love.

There are never any questions, no matter what. Angel sometimes marvels at the calm acceptance of the girl who used to question everything. It's strange how much she is and isn't the brilliant naif he first met so many years ago. How powerful she's become, how much she has seen and lived to talk about. How pure she still is and how deeply she still feels.

She's not shy about expressing her feelings for him, that's certain. It delights Angel, how uninhibited she is, what she'll do for him and let him do to her. She's so beautiful, and he never gets tired of exploring her lithe body. She makes him feel, makes him care, wakes up the dead places inside. He always makes love to her after he's spent time with one of their old friends and she never seems the least bit reticent or reproving, no matter how loud the conversation in the basement has gotten. Gratitude may be the least of what he feels, but it's no insignificant thing in spite of that. More and more each day he realizes that Willow might love him as completely as he does her. It's time.

Buffy is the last.

Angel will never have to leave Willow's side again. His once deadly former "soulmate" has gone soft and complacent, the presence of so many other slayers in the world giving her a fool's sense of safety. She doesn't seem to have spent much time worrying about the fact that it's been awhile since she heard from Xander or Giles, either. Perhaps she doesn't even know that they're among the missing. She always was self-centered, Angel recalls, even when he'd fancied her the love of his unlife he'd noticed that. Back then it was knowledge he repressed, not wanting it to sully the perfection in which he clothed the form of his dream girl. Now, though, now it seems hilarious to him.

There she is, the gates of whatever portal leads to the final resting place of a Chosen One who almost let the world end yawning open in front of her, and she still thinks that it's love that has led Angel to bring her here. That love is at the root of his anger, that she can coo and plead and offer herself to him and that will make everything right.

Angel would laugh if it were any less funny, but it's too uproarious to be mirthful. So he stays silent, turns and goes upstairs. He will never be alone with Buffy again. It's so much better if he strips her of her last illusions before she joins her merry band of traitors and he knows that only one vision can rip the blinders from her eyes.

What happens next will change things, but he isn't worried. After this last reunion, Willow will still love him and somehow he knows, in spite of it all, she will still be Willow. The past will be behind them, the ghosts will be banished, and they'll be happy.

She always looks beautiful by moonlight. He takes her to see all the places he's loved and all the places he's never been but longed to go. He takes her to Istanbul, remembering a story she once told him about the last thing she ever said to Oz, but her eyes don't wander as they stroll through the streets. Each time they turn a corner, she never seems to expect anything but his hand in hers. Perhaps she knows that Oz is gone. Or maybe, Angel hopes, all the traces of her love for the wolf have crumbled to dust and even the memory has turned to ash and blown away, as his love for anyone but her has long since. One day, he hopes, he'll truly believe that she loves him without reservation, that Oz and even Tara have been burned from her heart by the heat of his passion. 'Til then, he trusts her and takes careful notice of where any would-be suitors live, though he never visits them. The look in his eyes is enough to send them home and damn their sleep with nightmares; he is content with that now.

He doesn't miss the basement, but he doesn't miss the warrior he used to be either. Willow does a spot of do-gooding here and there and that seems to pay the toll for the both of them. If her last encounter with Buffy changed her, it's not a change he can see. And since he knows her better than anyone, it must not be much, if anything, of a change. She's happy. He knows that by the sparkle in her eye that's just for him, by the way she shares herself with him so completely. He's happy, too. For him, home is wherever she is and her smile is the sun of a world that belongs only to them. They're together now and he knows that's how it will always be. That's all that matters.

The End.