"Spike has a soul now."

Angel doesn't have a clue why those words have put him behind the wheel of his car and on the road back to Sunnydale. No phone call to Buffy to alert her to his imminent arrival, not even answering more than a few of the questions his crew asked. Just some necessities tossed into a bag and a tense wait for sunset before bolting out the door. And for what?

Spike.

The bane of his existence, the cross he will always bear, the fly in his ointment…the perpetually clichéd metaphor in his internal dialogue.

The vampire who now shares something once singular with him – the possession of a soul.

Had the news come from anyone but Willow, he might not have believed it, but she's not one to joke about such things or to call because of anything but a genuine emergency. In truth, despite the fact that this is something rather important, he's surprised he's heard from her. For all that she's helped him time and time again, and despite the fact that he owes her his own soul, it's not as if they're close. They should be. It bothers him that they're not friends, not the least of which because it's his own damn fault.

It suddenly occurs to him to wonder about something: Is she the one who gave Spike back his soul?

He'll have his answer soon enough, he realizes, as he pulls up to Willow's old house. Suggesting they meet there had been her idea and he's grateful for it. He's glad Buffy isn't dead – and, as always, the Welcome to Sunnydale sign has signaled him to garb himself in the cloak of their forbidden, forever love – but he's seen her once and he doesn't actually want to see her again. Not now, maybe not ever.

Of course, he'll be guilt-ridden and tormented about that later, but right now, his focus is Spike. Spike, whose pain he can feel as he gets out of the car.

The door opens even before he has a chance to knock and he's nearly dragged inside by Willow. "I'm so glad you're here. He's suffering, Angel. It's driving him crazy and…and I don't know what to do."

He can hardly hear a word she says because he's almost knocked down by what he feels as she touches him. Darkness and anguish that have his demon rattling his chains so loudly he's amazed that Willow can't hear it. What in the hell happened to her?

He must have been staring because she notices his reaction. "I had a problem with magic. Then I sort of tried to end the world." She shrugs and looks ashamed. There's more to this story, but just as he's about to ask, he's distracted by laughter – his own.

He can't help it - though there's nothing very funny about Armageddon – there's just something deliriously absurd about them having this in common. "I'm sorry," he gasps out. "I just would have thought you'd have learned from me that ending the world never works."

She sees the joke immediately and laughs along with him. It bubbles up from both of them in huge waves and then turns hysterical and agonizing. Before he realizes it, she's in his arms, sobbing, and he realizes this is the first time he's ever really touched her, at least when his demon wasn't in control. She's small and fragile now and the darkness is just damage. There must have been something terrible to make her turn on the whole world.

"Tara," she says, and he's confused. He realizes he's expected to know who that is, but he doesn't, nor does he know what she has to do with Willow's decision to try to end the world.

A voice comes from a corner of the room. "Willow's girl is gone."

Spike sounds hollow and disconnected, frighteningly like Dru. Is it something latent she passed along to him – Angel's fault for allowing the lunatic creature to be a sire at all?

"Spike?" he asks for no good reason except that it's something uncomplicated to say.

"You should have told me," the hollow voice says. "You should have told me that it hurts."

It's now that he knows with absolute certainty that Willow was right – Spike has his soul. He can almost see it, wound like a crown of thorns around Spike's head. He, too, remembers that pain of spirit so vivid that he could feel it in his flesh.

"How?" he asks Willow, but it's Spike who answers.

"Did it for her. Thought she'd love me if I had the spark. But it wasn't enough. Never enough. Spike's a bad boy and he'll never be good enough."

Angel turns to Willow, prepared to blame her for all of this. "You?"

"No." She's vehement. "I'm gay. It was…" She doesn't finish that sentence and her reluctance tells him the name – the name of the woman for whom Spike somehow got his soul back.

"Buffy." There's a space for a feeling inside him and he struggles to figure out how to fill it as he speaks. Anger would fit there perfectly, or jealousy, but he feels neither. He should, but he doesn't. Laughter would be appropriate too, because what could be funnier than Spike, who hates him, continually following in his footsteps? But he can't find that either, so the space stays empty and echoing.

He seizes on Willow's words to try to find something to anchor himself as he flounders helplessly in a sea of what isn't there. "You're gay?"

She colours slightly and sounds defensive as she answers. "Yeah."

"Oh," he answers. What else is there to say? He remembers Xander and Oz and wonders how she can pigeonhole herself so squarely in the opposite camp, but at least he now understands who Tara was. "She was your girlfriend. Tara, I mean."

"She was my girl," she agrees. Softly spoken words, the weight of them is incalculable. It's truth, pure and hard as a diamond. He realizes now he never understood how much there was inside of Willow. Shallow Liam, dismissing any girl he didn't fancy bedding as beneath his notice. He can almost hear his demon's laughter. Angelus, after all, had noticed her

Spike is staring at them both, eyes sharp and soft all at once. "She left you." Spike sounds almost like himself again.

"She was murdered," Willow's eyes close briefly and he sees a shadowy something under her skin. This is the girl who tried to end the world.

"Not what I meant. She left you before." Spike is pulling memories out of a hat, like a magician with a rabbit. Perhaps he's finding himself there.

"It was my fault."

"I remember when Glory got at her." That seems like a non sequitur to Angel, but it distresses Willow.

"It wasn't the same thing."

"Nothing's the same," Spike says and somehow it makes sense to Angel, though he's not sure why.

"No, nothing's the same." Angel gets it now as he hears Willow's low voice. The words are a Rorschach test and you can find anything you want there. He wonders what pictures each of them are seeing.

"How do you live with it?" Spike asks.

What does he say to that? "You just do." It's the truth. Because there is no 'how', or at least none Angel's ever figured out. It's just a matter of staying indoors at daybreak instead of going out to greet the sunrise…and doing it over and over and over again.

Willow giggles, even as her eyes shine with tears. "I'm sorry," she says to the two of them. "I guess I just thought…"

"That I'd discovered some secret trick to fix the pain, to make it all go away?"

"Yeah."

"There is none…and it never goes away. It just becomes part of you and you almost forget that it wasn't always there." He watches as the light goes out of two pairs of eyes. "Not the answer you were looking for, I'm sorry."

"You're not much good at inspirational speeches, are you?" Spike snarks as he sits against the wall and lights a cigarette. He's completely lucid now and it's almost disconcerting.

It doesn't last. To the horror of both Angel and Willow, Spike puts the cigarette out…on the back of his hand. Angel reaches down and snatches the cigarette away as Willow grabs his lighter. "What are you doing?" she shrieks.

"Needed to feel." It's an answer that seems paltry to Angel, but there's obviously some history behind it because Willow reacts immediately.

"That's right. It's all my fault. I brought her back wrong and everything that happened is my fault. Is that what you want me to say?" She collapses to her knees in front of Spike. "I'm sorry," she says as she bursts into tears. "I'm sorry."

He watches, the jealousy he'd been looking for before blooming like a wildflower inside, as Spike and Willow hold each other. Awkward at first, then desperate. Maybe he won't feel so alone if he sits beside them.

So he sits, and somehow it does help. He reaches over and puts his hand on Spike's shoulder.

It's Willow, though, whose eyes find his. "I'm sorry," she says, to him this time, for no reason he can discern.

He doesn't ask and she doesn't volunteer the meaning of her apology.

Soon enough, Spike and Willow are calm and disentangled and they're all just sitting in a row against the wall. Angel wonders if the others feel as if they're lined up, relaxing, waiting for the firing squad to arrive. There's a disconcerting air of inescapable doom and he doesn't think it has anything to do with Spike or Willow. At least, he amends, it's not their fault.

It's quiet for what seems like a long time. It's comfortable and he wonders how that can be. Willow, he recalls, was never one for silence. He'd say she's changed, but he never knew her well enough before. He knows her now; he can feel it. But not yesterday, no, not yesterday.

"Does Buffy know?" Angel asks after a time.

"Yeah, she knows." Spike's voice is flat. "Can I have my lighter back, Red? Promise to smoke this time."

Willow hands him the lighter and Spike reaches into his pocket for his cigarettes. True to his word, he smokes the one he lights.

"She doesn't care."

"That's not true." Willow is still the Willow he fractionally remembers. She's the cool hand caressing fevered brows.

"She's not here, is she?"

There's nothing anyone can say to that. There are so many questions Angel wants to ask, but he can't. How could he possibly make Spike believe that he's not angry with him for being with Buffy when he wouldn't have believed it himself an hour ago? So he doesn't speak, just stares at the glowing ember of Spike's cigarette and wonders what good he's doing by being here at all.

"Thank you for coming," Willow says. It's as if she knows what he's thinking. It's unsettling, but it also makes him feel…something. Maybe the same thing Spike was looking for at the end of that first cigarette.

"She could be a demon, y'know," Spike says, apropos of nothing. "She's like us." He pats Willow's knee like a proud father…a proud father with a face clouded by smoke and shifting sanity.

Angel leans forward, looking past Spike and really assessing Willow for the first time…maybe the first time ever. She's not mousy or plain or any of the words he'd filed her away under. She's pretty, beautiful even, in a strange, fey way that should remind him of Drusilla and doesn't. Perhaps it's because Willow's not crazy.

There's another woman he's supposed to love, he thinks, remembering Cordelia, and for all that he misses her, there's as much inside as there is for Buffy when he reaches for it now. So if the soul is that callow Liam and the demon is Angelus, who is Angel?

He looks at Spike, eyes fever bright with the torment he's endured all for the love of a woman who will never love him back. He looks at Willow, who gave herself over to darkness in the aftermath of the loss of her girl. He's never loved anyone the way they love. How could he lose his soul over something as tepid as what he's capable of feeling? There's some sort of theory of relativity he supposes, but it still seems a mockery that so much damage was done by what was, by comparison, a mere abdominal twitch.

Envy. It burns like the Hell he escaped not nearly long enough ago. He's loved and lost and killed and tortured and been left at the bottom of the sea by the son he was never supposed to have and this envy is the strongest emotion he's ever known. He suddenly understands why he has always hated Spike and always shunned Willow. He may not have known why, but he still knew. There was something in him that recognized and feared…

Spike's head is leaning on Willow's shoulder now and she's stroking his hair. She's not singing him a lullaby, but there's that air about the scene and Angel can almost hear the strains of one anyway.

Family, he thinks. This is what a family should be. This is what he played at with Connor and Cordelia.

"I flayed Warren." Willow says softly. The words are a gut punch, completely unexpected. Angel's eyes go wide as he stares. He can't imagine what would drive her to do that. "He killed Tara." She answers the question he didn't ask.

"Oh." Silly thing to say, but really, what wouldn't be? He's somehow certain that sharing his own tales of torture would be inappropriate, though on a level he'd rather not examine, he'd love to know Willow's technique and compare some notes.

"Are you sorry?" Spike asks as he puts out his cigarette.

Willow waits a long time before answering so quietly even Angel can hardly hear it. "No." A moment later she says, louder this time, "Don't tell Buffy I said that, okay?"

"I won't," Angel says. He hopes she believes him, because it's true.

Spike echoes him. "None of her business, is it?"

"She's my best friend." Funny how it doesn't sound at all believable for her to say that now.

How much has changed since he left. Willow should have gone to Oxford or Harvard or Yale or M.I.T…she should have fled this town as fast as she could. Sunnydale has become a tomb for the joy and laughter that were once so alive within her.

Spike should have stayed in Brazil.

"You still love her," Angel says, looking at Spike, though he figures the statement applies to Willow, too.

"Suppose so," Spike agrees, sounding more certain than his choice of words would suggest.

"She's like that. People love her." Willow sounds sad, not jealous, but still, the sorrow speaks volumes. She's all alone in a room with two other people. He remembers the compassion she felt for that invisible girl long ago and he understands it so much better now. It wasn't sympathy; it was empathy.

"People love you, too," he says. She won't believe him, he knows, and he wonders why he bothered saying it.

He expects a snort of derision, not the faint glint of tears he gets instead. "They used to. Not anymore."

He wants to contradict her, but Spike knows more than he does about the way things are and he's not saying a word. Angel's heart, such as it is, might break. It occurs to him that, thanks to Willow, he feels more than he ever has, and even though the feelings are not good ones, he's still glad of them. He owes her a debt of gratitude…again.

"Now might be a bad time, but I really ought to thank you."

"For what?" She's deadly serious and it stuns him. He knows for a fact that Buffy and Cordelia would never have let him go this long without thanking them for gifts far more beggarly than the ones Willow has given him.

"My soul," he says, though there's more to the story.

"There's no need to thank me," she says, simply and with utter sincerity. "What are friends for?"

Spike stays silent, but then again, it always hurts the first time and you're not always grateful. His head is still on Willow's shoulder. She is still stroking his hair. Angel is still jealous.

"You've done more for me than anyone ever has," Angel says, and it's true. Buffy may have saved his life, but she did that as much for herself as for him and he knew it then as he knows it now. Willow, though…he can't imagine why anyone would do as much for someone else as she has with barely a greeting as recompense.

She blushes and hides behind her hair and he's back in the library all of a sudden. She's achingly young and innocent and the world yawns open before her, wide and bright and full of possibilities. Then her eyes meet his and it's all gone. She's trapped in the shadows with demons like him and Spike and no light can reach her. It's like seeing her buried alive in her own grave and he thinks no one, not even Spike or Buffy or himself, can imagine what she's enduring. This isn't the life she was supposed to have.

"I'm sorry," he says, though the words do an appallingly shoddy job of conveying what he's feeling right now. He is not used to wanting so badly to make himself understood. The man-of-mystery-and-few-words is a tough skin to shed.

She's confused but she doesn't say anything. She lets go of Spike, however, and sits back against the wall with a sigh. Maybe that's what he wanted to achieve. He has no idea what he's like anymore.

"I *am* Angel – at last."

The words echo in his head. They were meaningless then, but now…?

Spike takes Willow's hand. He seems to crave contact and it occurs to Angel to wonder how all of this can have changed his boy so little. Still William in spite of it all.

Without thinking, Angel puts his hand on Spike's knee. It surprises them both, but Spike doesn't move and Angel's hand stays right where it is.

They're all connected now and it feels…like what Angel's been looking for always. He'd thought Spike and Willow seemed like family before and now he feels it even more surely. It wouldn't take much, a brief strike of fang, and Willow truly would be his childe, bound to him for eternity. It's only the reminder that she wouldn't have her soul, wouldn't be like him or Spike, that stops him from making it happen. That should terrify him. It doesn't, and that's more terrifying still.

"Thanks for coming," Spike says, staring at the hand on his knee. He isn't being sarcastic and Angel's not sure how to respond. Sentiment was always reserved for Dru, never for him.

"You need me." His use of the present tense is noticed but unacknowledged.

"I'm glad you came," Willow adds. She isn't lying, but that doesn't mean it's true, though it might be. He wonders why she's suddenly so hard to read.

"I'm sorry about Tara," he says for no good reason. He didn't know the girl and honestly, the only thing he's sorry about is that Willow was damaged by her death. She smiles wistfully and he hates himself for lying. She deserves more from him. "I'm sorry you were hurt." It's closer to the truth and he feels better for it.

The fact that after all this time even she sees herself as undeserving of concern means she gets it all wrong. "You mean you're sorry I tried to end the world."

"No, I don't mean that at all," he says with as much conviction as anything he's ever said. "I mean exactly what I said. I'm sorry that someone hurt you so much that you were drowning in that much pain. I'm sorry that I wasn't here. I'm sorry that no one else was here for you either." That last is just a guess, but Angel's no fool and he doesn't have amnesia. He isn't the only one who never gave any thought to Willow except when it suited him.

"Xander stopped me. On the cliff, when I was about to destroy... He came and he stopped me." As contradictions go, it's meager and weak. They both know it. Angel may not have thought he was paying attention in the past, but it's amazing how much knowledge he has anyway. Xander showed up to save himself and the world and maybe to impress Buffy, but he wasn't there for Willow.

"Where was he when Tara died?" It's Spike who speaks this time, as cruel as Angel meant to be.

"In the hospital with Buffy," she whispers. It's then that she bursts into tears again. She's a lost little girl with the ache of centuries weighing her down.

He moves at last, edging awkwardly in front of Spike to take Willow in his arms. He doesn't ask why Buffy was in the hospital. She's still alive, so really, how important is it now? Later, in the car, out of this house, he will tell himself that he still carries her in his heart, but now…he can't be bothered to believe the same threadbare lies he usually does.

Spike, too, is soothing Willow, his hands caressing her back, telling her that it's okay. It isn't, but it's not a lie if you know no one's going to believe it anyway and he can tell the words are just sounds, instinct in action, to Spike. He isn't really trying to convince her.

Angel kisses her forehead as her sobs quiet and the tears fall more slowly. "I'm sorry," she says.

"Nothing to be sorry for." He and Spike say the exact same thing at the same time and there's stilted, awkward laughter at that, because this would be what most would call comic, right?

"Thanks."

Angel moves back to his place in line and they all sit silently again.

"From beneath you it devours." Spike's words are disconcerting. Angel will chide himself for this later, but he refuses to ask what they mean. Willow seems of the same mind, at least for now. She'll call him someday soon, he hopes, when this fragile, beautiful thing they're sharing is destroyed and she's the Slayer's sidekick once more…ever ready to ferret out the knowledge Buffy will ignore later as she fights evil.

More time passes. "I guess you'll probably want to go see…" Willow's voice trails off as she realizes she might have done better not to say anything. They all know who she means.

"No." And then, for some reason, he tells the truth, or part of it, yet again today. "It's easier to love her from a distance."

Spike and Willow both stare. The words were ice water to them both. Is it wrong that Angel almost enjoys being surprising?

"You're just saying that," Spike offers.

"No, I'm not. My Buffy…she's not the same one as yours."

"You still love her." Is that an accusation or just an argument? Willow's face gives him no clue.

"I suppose so." His words are nearly the same as the ones Spike used a little while ago, but they don't mean the same thing at all. Not the least reason being the fact that he's never felt the same way Spike feels for a single being in his entire existence.

"You'll find someone," Spike says to Willow.

She looks at him, her eyes wide. "I don't want to."

"Not now, no, but…" Angel chimes in.

"Not ever." Her voice is emphatic and brooks no argument.

Spike laughs. It's a short, harsh sound. "Someone will find you, then. That's the way of things. You and me - love's soddin' bitches, we are. Bound to happen."

It's a few seconds later before he says, "I wish…" and Willow stops him with a hand over his mouth.

"Never say those words, Spike." She takes her hand away cautiously.

"Yeah, you're right. But still, it would have been better if I'd been sober when I kidnapped you."

That's a curveball and neither Angel nor Willow seem to know what to say. Spike doesn't expound on that topic and the silence returns.

"You seem better," Willow finally says to Spike.

"Do I?"

"Well, you're making sense now, at least most of the time."

"What was he like before?"

"In the basement? Kinda scary, in a 'not so much with the sanity' sort of way."

"Hey, I'm still here you know." Spike seems annoyed at being talked about.

"Sorry." This time it's Angel and Willow speaking in unison. They don't bother laughing this time. He thinks they've all grown tired of pretending to be human.

"'S'okay." Spike looks lost once more and Willow and Angel both reach for him. Their hands touch slightly. Now they're all connected again and it's more than Angel can stand. Still, he does nothing to break the contact.

"How's L.A.?" Willow asks. Nothing more than that question could bring home how far apart they've been until today.

"It's…it is." What else can he say? Everything about his existence there seems so grey and small and void now. It's as if this room is the first colour, the first life he's ever known. "You…both of you…you can move there…with me. You're always welcome." He says it without thinking and he's afraid of himself.

There's a light that shines from both Willow's and Spike's eyes for a brief second before it dims and goes out. He supposes it was a fantasy more than anything. Why did he even ask?

He hates himself, but he hates them more. They could get up and say yes and come with him, be his family, keep today 'today' for a long time, maybe forever. But they won't. He knows 'can't' is more accurate, but he's too angry to be understanding. It's time for him to leave. There's a dull, grey world waiting for him. It will be greyer and more horrible now.

He lets go of them and stands up. "I better go. I want to beat the daylight."

"You could stay." Willow's sincere and he almost agrees. But that would just make it harder.

He doesn't answer her and soon they both get up to bid him farewell. "Bye, sire." It's Spike who speaks first.

Angel decides not to think and he pulls his almost-childe into an embrace. "If you need me. If you change your mind," he says in a voice unexpectedly husky with emotion.

"Thanks," Spike says around what sounds suspiciously like a lump in his throat.

They part and then, more clumsily at first, he pulls Willow into his arms. "I mean it, you know. If you ever want to, my door is always open. I'll always be there for you."

He thinks she mumbles a "thank you" of her own, but he's already missing them; she and Spike seem far away. Letting go, he opens the door and walks out into the dark night. He was right; the colours are gone.

The End.