Title: Out Of Place
Disclaimer: I borrowed it from a friend but I'm thinking of getting my own.
Spoilers: Through BtVS S5, AtS S2.
"I just want to be here for her," Angel implored. "I know she's not ready to open up to me yet, but I thought if I was here—if she could see I cared—she would want to talk a little, or…" He raised his eyes up to Willow's, unable to curb the misery in his face and voice. "She won't even look at me. She leaves the room if I even mention Buffy's name. I think—I think she blames me for her death."
Willow dug her knife into the apple and removed another thin slice. "She blames someone else every day. So far you're the only one who believes her, though."
He looked away and dropped his voice to a whisper. "I should have…"
"Don't." Willow didn't stop what she was doing, but the blade was a weapon in her hand and the fruit a victim. Her voice was accusatory, far from the shy and nervous girl he had met five years ago. "We've all got our issues with what happened, Angel, but don't start that 'I should have been here' crap with me. I know you would have died for her. Everyone knows that. But she's the one who had to die for someone, and Dawn's the one who has to deal with Buffy dying for her, and it's not just you who isn't one hundred percent satisfied with those results. So yeah, Dawn's gonna be lashing out at us. What do you want me to tell her? Suck it up and be nice to your dead sister's ex?"
For a moment he was too stricken by her words to respond. Willow had been surprisingly blunt with him since bringing him back to Sunnydale with her for the funeral, but he still wasn't used to it. Grief had changed all of them in different ways, and it was hard to tell which ones were permanent. Willow's new edge was especially difficult for him to navigate. She was really the only friend he had here.
She sighed, setting down her knife for the moment and looking down at the table. "I'm sorry. It's just been so hard. Buffy kept everyone together, and now we all keep trying to find a new center and it's just not working. I can try to talk to Dawn, but you know she's just going to think I'm trying to make her move on."
Angel nodded. "She hates that."
He heard movement upstairs and identified the footfall before it left the bedroom, though Willow glanced up only when Tara descended the stairs and stepped up behind her. The two girls shared a smile that eased the tension at the table, and Tara plucked a slice of apple from Willow's plate and slipped it into her mouth as she twirled a finger through her partner's red hair.
"Hi sweetie," said Willow. "Getting ready for bed?"
"In a minute. Just wanted to make sure the kitchen was cleaned up. I got kind of distracted after dinner."
"Don't worry, we got it." Willow sounded far more like her old self when she talked to Tara. "Angel helped."
The blonde girl smiled warmly at him, though there was something about her eyes that made her look melancholy even so. "Thanks, Angel." She tilted Willow's face up to hers for a kiss, and they bid each other goodnight, Willow promising that she would be joining her shortly.
Angel didn't interrupt, but before Tara could leave after wishing him a goodnight, he called her back, not realizing he meant to do so until her name had escaped his lips: "Tara."
She paused to listen.
"Does Dawn blame me?"
She shook her head, but sadness was rolling off of her, and all she said was, "I don't know." Nobody said anything else as she left the room.
Willow started to yawn and concealed it by popping another piece of apple into her mouth. Angel wasn't fooled. He knew that Willow hadn't slept enough lately, and he knew that the fault was at least partially with him. She had done her best to be there for him, just to keep communication open, because they both knew that nobody else would participate in any kind of dialogue with him. Giles would have politely but firmly counseled him to leave town, Xander would have picked the worst possible kinds of fights, and Dawn tolerated him at best. Tara was always fair, but they barely knew each other, and she had no real history with Buffy either.
If he listened carefully, beneath the sound of Willow chewing and a few clocks in various rooms ticking, he could hear the even breathing of a sleeping teenage girl. An hour ago it had been her muffled sobbing that he heard, and he had said nothing, just sat in wretched hopelessness and kept the secret. The same thing had been happening every night that he was there to witness it. If he told Willow and Tara, they might try to go into her room and comfort her, but there was a point where Dawn just needed her privacy. Even if Angel's vampiric hearing was inadvertently breaking it every night.
"She used to think I was cool," he said softly.
Willow propped up her head in her hand. "Buffy's Super Monster Boyfriend. I remember."
"Every time I saw her she would ask me for help with her history homework. She insisted I knew it best because I was there." He almost managed a smile. "She was always studying something way before my time, or in some country I've never seen."
"But you probably knew the answers anyway, right?"
"Usually. I would have been in some serious trouble if she got something wrong because of me. Buffy always told her to just read her assignment and leave us alone, and then Dawn would get this mischievous look on her face and start making kissing noises…"
Willow chuckled dryly. "The way the two of them could fight, huh?"
He nodded. "When Cordelia first started working for me, I almost called her 'Dawn' a couple times. Uh, don't tell anyone I said that."
"I won't." She picked up another slice of apple, but put it down without taking a bite. Her weariness was still clearly written on her face and Angel almost reminded her to go to bed. The opportunity to speak his memories out loud was too much to resist, though, and he wasn't ready to be alone again. An odd thought. It was his friends in Los Angeles that had made him accustomed to company, he realized, and before them, Buffy who had made him receptive to it. Grief might have changed him, but love changed him first.
"You have no idea how upset she was when you left," said Willow in a low voice.
Buffy's face flashed into Angel's mind without warning, wreathed in fog and the colored lights of emergency vehicles, and then again, wet with tears as she promised not to forget. He could have immersed himself in such images for hours—he had no shortage of memories of leaving her—but he forced them down and attended to what Willow was actually saying. "Dawn?" he asked.
She sighed. "Yes, Dawn. She spent the next few weeks asking every single one of us why you wouldn't just come back to Sunnydale." She saw the alarm in his face and added, "We never told her about how Buffy cured you from the poison. She thought you just didn't want to be here. Really took it personally. Then we went through the same thing all over again when Riley took off."
Angel shook his head slowly. "I don't understand. By the time I left she already didn't like me. She never really talked to me during the whole year after I came back from Hell."
"No. She always liked you. But it wasn't for the history lessons, you know? She liked knowing that you wouldn't let anything hurt her. Just like Buffy. She could have been the world's biggest brat and you and Buffy still would have been there punching holes in the bad guys to keep her safe, and she knew it, and it made her feel like she was special." Willow frowned, but kept her voice gentle enough to remain an explanation and not an accusation. "And then you left."
All kinds of pain were renewed with her words. Every part of it was true: he had no end of patience for Dawn's complaints and tantrums, and it was clear that she knew it on some level and even took advantage of it. Buffy knew it too, and had told him with a smile on her face, out of Dawn's hearing, that she loved him for it. They had never actually had to rescue her from anything while he was around, but Willow's analysis of that scenario had been accurate, too. The thought of Buffy coming to harm was constantly in his fears, but the thought of anyone trying to hurt her little sister filled him with blind rage. His own little sister's innocence had ultimately cost her life. Dawn's innocence still had a chance.
But, as Willow said, he had left. "I'm here now," he said desperately. "Can't I make it better?"
The plate in front of her still held a few apple slices, just beginning to turn brown from exposure, but she picked it up anyway and stood, pushing her chair back from the table and gazing at him with bleary eyes. "I don't know." She started towards the kitchen, then stopped and asked him, "Angel, why are you here? You can't just be hoping for Dawn to get buddy-buddy with you."
"The Hellmouth has no Slayer," he replied automatically. "This place needs protection. And so does Dawn, whether or not she'll talk to me."
"Spike…" began Willow uncertainly, and then evidently saw something in Angel's eyes that she didn't want to engage. "Never mind," she sighed. "Goodnight, Angel."
He staked one vampire that night, but stayed out making loops around town long after there was any likelihood that he would find another. There was little else for him to do in Sunnydale. The mansion had tenants, a harmless family of demons who paid him rent sporadically, so he had been staying in his old basement apartment, and he had discovered that he really didn't like it there. It was cramped in comparison to the hotel, impersonal with his collected art no longer decorating it, and lying in that bed every day was a special kind of mental torture. He stayed outside whenever the sun would permit him.
Setting foot in the Summers's home was a privilege, granted to him by Willow and her undesired role as the current mistress of the house, but it wasn't just Buffy's aching absence that made him feel so out of place there. It was Dawn's avoidance of eye contact, Xander's dirty looks, the ice in Giles's voice during even the most mundane conversations. It was their inexplicable tolerance of Spike, whom Angel had not yet seen here face-to-face but whose smell pervaded the house, announcing his presence and making Angel want to scrub the place down from floor to ceiling. It was the love between Willow and Tara, sustaining them through this tragedy and widening to include Dawn in their family, needing no support from anyone outside of it.
More than anything, it was the shadow of the past. Each one of them, aside from Tara and Xander's caustically indifferent girlfriend, had suffered at his hands or faced his threats on their lives. Each one had internalized their fears and allowed him back into the circle, but he was always peripheral, and without Buffy here to justify his presence, he was hardly even that. The most he could get from them was a grudging acknowledgement that he was not the same person he had been when he had no soul, and even that, he thought secretly, was too much.
He wasn't so different now. He had the memories: laughing hard at his own prank with Willow's fish, watching the contortions of Giles's face as the man struggled to keep his sanity during the torture session. And the things he had said to Dawn…
It was dawn that forced him back into his apartment, and Dawn that he saw when he closed his eyes and lay down on that traitorous bed. He felt her throat under his hand again, and recalled the controlled fury in Buffy's voice failing to mask her terror: "Let her go, Angel. This is between you and me." He had complied, partially to keep her on her toes and partially because he didn't want to have to kill Dawn and fight off Buffy at the same time, but not before feinting at his captive's neck and drawing screams from both her and her sister. That had been a victory he gloated over later on. It wasn't easy to make Buffy scream.
The memory ended differently tonight than it had in reality. This time his bite was not a feint, and it was Kathy's neck that his fangs punctured, and then she was Dawn again, screaming, and then she was Kathy, dead on the floor.
Angel woke that evening with the disconnected but curiously clear thought that if he had been anyone else, Willow would have offered to share her apple.
He showed up at the house on Revello Drive earlier than usual. Willow and Tara were downstairs talking to Giles in the living room, and all three looked up at him, surprised, as he entered without knocking. "You don't need me here," he said, looking first at Willow and then at Giles. "And none of you wanted me to come back from Hell in the first place. Buffy was the only reason you put up with me being around, but even she agreed that you shouldn't have to see me. It was better for all of us if you could pretend I didn't exist."
All three spectators were silent, taken aback by his sudden broadcasting of the one topic that had always been taboo by unspoken agreement. Giles appeared too shaken to even clean his glasses. Willow chewed her lip a little, but was still the first to respond, albeit uncertainly. "It wasn't because we blamed you for losing your soul," she said. "It was just, having all those memories…"
"It hurt too much. I know. I wouldn't ask you to act like you had never seen that side of me. But I can't take back what I did to you and there was nothing I could say that would let us just move on."
Willow's response came quicker this time. "Angel, we understand that. Why…?"
"You understand. But Dawn was a child. From her perspective, all that happened was that I used to be her friend and then one day I was a danger to her and her family. I never even talked to her about it. I just assumed she wanted me to avoid her, too." He saw everyone's eyes widen slightly, aimed behind and above him, but he already knew that Dawn had come to the top of the stairs and was listening to him speak. He turned around and looked up at her, solemn and wary in her baby tee and blue jeans. "I'm so sorry, Dawn. Everything I did after I lost my soul, it's with me every day, and I should have told you that. I should have explained why I had to leave Sunnydale. I should have been here to help you and Buffy when everything happened with Glory. Can you forgive me?"
There was a weighted pause in which it seemed Angel wasn't the only one without breath, and then Dawn hurried lightly down the stairs and into his open arms. She hadn't hugged him since she was eleven years old, and like a visiting grandfather, he was amazed at how much she had grown. Her grip was proportionally stronger, too, and he returned it as much as he could without hurting her. She was still so fragile. So innocent.
He was prepared to let her sob into his chest all night, but gradually her embrace loosened and she stepped back to look up at him. "It's not your fault she died," she said hoarsely.
He kept his hands on her shoulders. "It's not yours either."
"Do you still love her?"
"Yes. Oh God, yes."
She looked past him into the living room. Angel didn't turn to follow her gaze. He knew the others were still in there watching this play out, and they could say something if they wanted to. Dawn's eyes flicked back to him. "Are you gonna leave again?"
"Maybe. I'm not much good to anyone right now. I should probably figure out who I am without her. But I thought I'd talk to you about it first." He raised an eyebrow. "What do you think? Is it a good idea?"
She considered silently, probably wondering if he was serious, though he was confident that she knew deep down that he was. "I think…" She drew a deep breath. "We're okay. We have Spike, and the bot, and Willow and Tara have a lot of good spells. So if you want to go…you know. I get it. It's hard for you too, huh?"
He nodded, wishing there were sufficient words for both of them to express exactly how hard it was. "She knew it would be. That's why she said what she said to you."
It took a moment, and a few silent steps toward the others, to open up the conversation enough to include them. Everyone stood up and gathered near Dawn in a protective semi-circle, though most of them were looking at Angel. "So you're going back to LA?" Willow began tentatively.
Angel shook his head. "No. Not yet. I'd rather be alone for a while. I'll find someplace where I can have the space to think about things." He looked up, addressing Giles. "You have my team's phone numbers. If there's ever a problem—please. They won't hesitate to come."
"Yes, of, of course." It was the first time Angel had heard Giles stutter in a long time, and he had to wonder what that meant. The Watcher's next words were delivered with the same unsteady voice, but much more reluctantly: "Angel, there is a, a place I know of, in Tibet. It may suit your, ah, purposes, for the time being. I can provide you with some information, if you like."
"I would," said Angel, slightly dazed with gratitude for the unexpected offer. "Thank you." He searched his mind for what else he had to say before departing. "Watch Spike. Only trust him as far as you trust that chip." From the corner of his eye he saw Dawn's arms cross against her chest in a seemingly unconscious reaction, and he decided to say no more on the subject. "I know you'll take care of things here."
He said the last part while looking at Willow and Tara, and it was Tara who replied calmly, "Yeah. We will."
"If anything ever—" Angel stopped himself and ran a hand through his hair. He wasn't sure what he was about to say, but there was a perilous temptation to ask them if their magic could make a difference. Willow was powerful; it wasn't unreasonable to wonder if she could find a way to speak with the dead or provide some kind of comfort for those left behind. If the Powers That Be couldn't offer that, though, he knew better than to try to seek it himself.
"If anything ever changes here," said Willow, "I'll call you. I promise."
He swallowed, nodded, and managed, "Alright."
It was time. He said goodbye to each of them and asked that they pass it on to 'the others,' hoping that they would understand and tell Xander and Anya that his intentions were good. For Dawn, he bent down to get closer to her level, touched her cheek, and said, "We'll meet again."
As he left the house for what he assumed would be the last time, he tried to conceive of a future and saw nothing. He was certain, though, that he was walking out of a past.