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