Willow strode across the cracked parking lot to a run down diner, bandages rubbing painfully against her clothes, and wondered if this was a mistake.
In the west, the setting sun reflected red, gold and pink on the ocean, warming the rocky coast along the highway for the last time that day. The mellow light gave even the dingy red and white truck stop a dash of charm. Sixteen-wheelers puffed and hauled their way on and off the highway that snaked away into the dimming distance.
A Sunnydale girl through and through, she took her oak cross on a plain silver chain out from under her green blouse once the sun abandoned California for the vast Pacific. Once Angel arrived, she'd put it away, she might have been a murderer, but she still had manners.
While Willow waited at the diner, coffee in hand, she thought about the last time she had seen Angel at his hotel when she had been the bearer of major badness. She had taken him out to the Hyperion's enclosed garden away from his gang. Words had tumbled through her brain, senseless and trite, as she tried to tell him about Buffy. The girl who saved the world for the last time only two days before. Her small body falling to the ground as she sacrificed herself for her sister made words seem more like random sounds. Once she closed the garden door, she wrapped her arms around herself and spit it out. "Buffy is dead."
Then a summer later, She was glad to have gotten Cordelia on the line instead of Angel when she called to say that Buffy was alive. Turned out that people are far less impressed and much more worried when you learn how to revitalized a dead hero in their grave and rip their soul from heaven. It didn't bring hugs and chuckles that was for sure. She tried to explain how they thought Buffy was in hell, how the whole group agreed to it, but there was still a balance to maintain that didn't accept excuses. Not even a doctor's note. Bringing back Buffy had been her first step down a road, lovingly paved with good intentions and curiosity, that would have led her and all her friends down to hell. She had the power but not the wisdom.
Willow had never been good at balance. Maybe that was why she called Angel and asked him to meet her at a truck stop south of Oxnard, just off the Pacific Coast Highway.
It had been sunset when she arrived and she watched the sun fade from the sky into the wide ocean before returning to the futile research on the Hellmouth and why it would make ghosts rise up in the high school. She had emailed everything she had found and gotten from her internet buddies to Dawn, but soon enough she just began scrolling through forums, eyes unseeing, until she just stopped pretending and looked out the window. Her leg had already started to twitch from the three cups of coffee she had drank already while waiting for Angel but she ordered another.
The waitress, a tired pregnant teenager, named Destiny according to her pink name tag, shuffled off.
Willow picked up a spoon and looked at her pale reflection. She had tried to cover up the circles and the bruises, from the demon who had snatched her up when she arrived invisible and unnoticed in Sunnydale, but there were some things that even Covergirl couldn't fix. Too many sleepless nights and the usual Sunnydale shenanigans made her paler than usual. Willow found herself waking at night through the fog of painkillers, goosebumps on her arms, as if she could hear Tara whispering in her ear. To be honest, it had been easier to have a demon pick off her skin than standing before the coven's tribunal and falling into the trance of revelations. Facing herself, seeing herself for what she was and the crimes she had committed made losing some skin like a walk in a sunny cemetery. She was hardly even using it.
Destiny filled the coffee cup and left her a crumpled fist full of sugar packets. "Anything else, ma'am?"
"Maybe later, thanks." Willow shook her head. She had never been called a ma'am before but then again she had never felt so old before.
Days before last midsummer, Willow had turned twenty-two in England, Giles had taken her out to get curry. Shivering despite her striped gray and white cardigan and black jeans, the loud and crowd crimson restaurant made her feel small and sad as she tried not to look at the dining strangers that she would have killed if Xander hadn't stopped her. She realized as she was waiting, alone at the wooden table while Giles washed up, that somewhere long the line, she was an adult now. Officially. And, she sucked at it.
Headlights streamed in through the large diner windows as a car pulled into the parking lot.
She looked and saw Angel step out of a old black convertible. Averting her gaze, she closed her laptop and put it away in its case. Setting her hands on her lap, she looked ahead with a deep breath. Her heart was beating faster from the coffee and her brain was running a mile a minute. Willow tried to slow her thoughts down so they wouldn't fall out like an avalanche before Angel could even get a 'hello' into the conversation. Willow forced herself not to look when he walked in. She had given Angel his soul back once, now she needed help to find hers.
Angel sat down across from her. Haunted eyes met hers. Vampires didn't get sick, but she could have sworn that he looked like he had just gotten over flu. Obviously the past year had taken its toll on him. "Hello."
"Hi, Angel." She twisted her hands in her lap. Willow wouldn't skirt the issue, she was wearing jeans in any case. "I need your help."
He nodded. "You killed a man."
"I did more than that." She looked down. From white lies to dark magics, her past lay littered with mistakes and misdeeds.
He seemed lost himself when he answered,"What do you want me to tell you, that when I was in Sunnydale you were one of the kindest-"
"No, don't tell me that." Willow shook her head, blushing from shame, as she foresaw this whole meeting fall to shambles. "All that does is make me think of that nice, shy, girl that everyone misses and wonder if there was always something rotten inside her." She shrugged. "Well, only at first I'll wonder, but then I'll start to believe it again. Relaxing my guard isn't the best idea, it led to mayhem and nerd murder the last time."
"You can't rationalize anymore." Angel paused. "That's good."
She stirred her coffee. "I started out wanting to help people, save the world, make it a better place. And three months ago, I almost destroyed it. Eight months ago, I messed with my girlfriend's memory. A year ago, I brought my friend back to life and destroyed the natural balance. Then there are those little tricks in between..." Her voice broke and faded as her eyes burned from unspent tears.
"I know whats going on with you. The aftermath, when you've crash landed and all your sins lay before you." Angel hunched over his interlocked hands on the scratched yet clean table.
"I want to be a good person again." Willow shivered, telling herself that it was from the AC kicking on overhead with a whirl and not from memories. It what she had yelled when she had awoken on the damp cave floor from the trance of revelations with the coven elders, draped in burgundy robes, surrounding her. "I want to be good."
"I can't lie and say its easy, sometimes the world doesn't care or isn't ready when you decide you want to change. You may never balance out your past, no matter how much you do. You'll be haunted by that darkness in yourself until you breath your last but, I can promise that you'll get stronger."
"You promise?" She asked but knew the answer when he faltered before nodding.
"You'll want redemption then you'll realize that there are some sins that never wash away so you'll try for atonement then you'll learn that some debts can never be paid before, in the end, you'll understand that all that matters is what you do, day in, day out, to keep the darkness at bay."
She nodded before they lapsed into silence. Willow analyzed his words, biting her lip, seeing the road ahead of her.
"I can't be out of LA for long but that doesn't mean we can't talk." Angel wrote down his email address on a napkin. "Don't forget that you're not alone. You've already started to change, Willow." He walked out without a goodbye.
Willow waited at the diner, finishing her cold cup of coffee in sips, long after Angel had driven away. She pushed her cup away.
Destiny came with the check and pity in her sloe eyes. "Thanks for stopping by, ma'am."
Willow nodded as she slapped down a twenty and slung her laptop case over her shoulder. As she walked away, she heard Destiny call out.
"Sorry you just got dumped."
She stopped before shaking her head and walking to the door. Destiny could be a bitch. Pushing it open, she could feel her muscles loosen as she left the cold diner. Balmy and mild, there wasn't a star or cloud in the sky, when she walked across the asphalt. Willow forced her mind clear and put her hand in her pocket over Angel's email address. Willow got into her car and drove north, sticking by the Pacific, until she found a stretch of rocky beach, parking at a scenic overlook. The wind blew a candy wrapper across her foot when she stepped out of the car. Staring at the ocean lapping against the shore, leaning on the stone rail, she ignored the cars whizzing by. Like a sickle in the sky, the moon hung over the dark water.
Willow told herself that she wasn't alone.