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?"


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