Everyone who mattered was in the library. It was pretty much the only logical place to gather after the dramatic message they'd just gotten from Angelus. A vampire suicide-by-sunlight was one heck of a way to get their attention and it had everyone shaken.
"She said more would die. I have to go." Buffy's eyes shone with a 'sacred duty' glare and no one with any sense would even try to argue with her.
Of course, no one had ever accused Cordelia of having any sense – at least none that wasn't preceded by the word 'fashion'. "Hello? Does no one but me remember what happened the last time you followed some demon's instructions to leave us and go off gallivanting who knows where? I wound up hanging upside down in a filthy warehouse! Do you realize how many deep conditioning treatments it took to get my hair back to normal after that?"
Xander shook his head at his girlfriend's latest pronouncement. "Nice to see you still have all your priorities straight there, Cordelia."
"Ummm…she does kind of have a point though," Willow interjected with some trepidation – both at disagreeing with Buffy and agreeing with Cordelia. "I mean, last time it was a trap, and okay, different vampire, but still… vampire. It might be kind of a typical trick for them. He might be trying to lure you away from here for some reason."
Giles, who had rolled his eyes when Cordelia was speaking, changed his expression when Willow spoke. He was clearly thinking – and remembering. "That's a distinct possibility."
Kendra stood silent – not like she'd been here during that previous incident - but she looked thoughtful as she waited for her sister Slayer to make a decision.
Willow knew exactly what was going on in Buffy's mind as her eyes swept over Kendra, focusing on the rest of them. She was remembering the warehouse. Willow teared up at the same memory, recalling how proud she'd been of her best friend, of how Buffy had reclaimed her own life while saving theirs. Today, though – today was another battle and Buffy's eyes turned sharp with concern. "But what if someone dies because I didn't meet him?"
"I'm performing the curse, right? He'll have his soul back before he can do a whole lot of damage." Willow's confidence faltered. "At least if I get it right anyway."
If only Oz were here, then maybe she'd feel more sure. Only maybe not. He hadn't seemed too enthusiastic about the idea of her using magic at all when she'd told him about the research she'd been doing. As much as it felt sort of unsupportive of him, though, she got it – and right now she almost sort of agreed with him. She heard the echo in her head of Buffy calling her their only hope and it terrified her. Not like she'd been lying when she said she crumbled under pressure. In fact, she was pretty lucky academic stuff came too easily for even a surprise midterm to constitute pressure. This though? Stopping Angelus from going on a killing spree and/or sucking the whole world into Hell? Yeah, it was pretty pressure-y. About as pressure-y as pressure could get, actually.
"You can do it, Willow." Buffy's voice was gentle but steely. Willow wished she knew how to sound like that. "I know you can."
"I'm convinced," Cordelia said. That was sarcasm, wasn't it? And you know what? Now was a really bad time to care about anything Cordelia said.
"You can do it," Buffy repeated, catching Giles's eye. He nodded, obviously on board the 'Willow is our only hope' train. Even the tops of Willow's hands were sweating as Buffy reached out and took them in hers. "Let's get that Orb of Thespian and get this show on the road."
Giles rolled his eyes yet again as he went to the office but any humour in Buffy's malaprop was lost on Willow. She was going to do this. She was really going to do this.
She was going to save… the world?
It's been two days since Willow performed the restoration ritual and gave Angel back his soul. She's still tired – exhausted, in fact. Is she supposed to be this tired? Would Jenny, or a real witch, have been this drained? As blasé as she had been about all the ramifications when she argued her case with Giles, she has to admit to herself that she had no idea what she was doing and she has even less idea what being a witch really means.
She saw things, didn't she? Things that happened to Angel long ago, things he did, things he was, and those things are still in her, echoing noisily and yet somehow without sound – can visions be loud? There are things she knows on some level she can't quite form into coherent thought, but she knows they're important.
She knows they're things Buffy doesn't know.
Her head hurts. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it hurts more. Because she's pretty much had a headache since the ritual, too, or at least since she got hit in the head just a second or so too late to stop her from finishing the restoration…and just in time to be the distraction needed to allow Buffy to stake Drusilla.
"Not dead nor not of the living. Spirits of the interregnum I call." Willow breathed in, determined to maintain her focus, even as Buffy and Kendra fought off the cadre of vampires, led by Drusilla, whose invasion proved that today's message from Angelus was very much a trick. "Let him know the pain of humanity, gods. Reach your wizened hands to me. Give me the sword." At that moment, a rush of some terrifying and powerful force shot through her body and the next words emerged from within her in a voice not her own, drowning out Xander's exhortation to run. In that moment, she could *feel* Angel's soul. A shower of books rained down upon her from the stacks above, but she didn't move – couldn't move. It was too late to do anything but be the conduit. Memory retreated and she became lost in this thing that was so much more than she was.
It was done. No matter what happened to Willow, it was done.
The shrill, inhuman sound of Drusilla's scream – a sound which hadn't penetrated her awareness then, but that she recalls so vividly now – is echoing in her ears and it's doing nothing to relieve the pounding in her head which has become almost audible. It takes her a moment to realize that some of that pounding is audible, though barely so, and that it's not related to her very uncomfortable headache. Someone is knocking softly at her French doors.
The shadow she can see through the curtains tells her the identity of her visitor. (She knew who it was before she saw anything.)
"Angel. Hi," she says as she opens the door to her balcony – not without hesitation even though she knows this isn't the vampire who killed her fish. Not anymore. Should she invite him in? She meant to invite him in when she first opened her door, but the words wouldn't come. They still won't come no matter how hard she tries to force them. Maybe it's because he doesn't seem to expect an invitation. If he did, would she be able to offer it?
It's not like she can think of anything else to say either. What do you say, after all, to someone who'd once been sort of your friend, then turned evil and killed your mentor, and is only not so dangerous now because you did a spell to give him back his soul? "Hi," she says again, wincing as she realizes she's saying the same thing twice.
It occurs to her that the terrible things he did aren't the only reason she's uncomfortable right now. There's a 'something' – nothing she can figure out a name for – in the air between them.
Now the words are there. "Come in," she says softly, tentatively, and she steps back. His steps are as soft as her words as he walks through the door.
"I'm sorry." It's the first thing he says and she doesn't know what to say in reply. Jenny's still dead – okay, other people are dead too and Willow should be thinking of them though she isn't, not really – and nothing can change that. Yet that 'something' thing is there and it's creating this weird understanding that she wishes she didn't feel. Giles would hate her if he knew. Xander would hate her even more. (Buffy – she might hate Willow most of all.)
"I know," she says clumsily, because a part of her wants to say 'I forgive you' and she isn't sure that's okay. (She knows it's not okay.)
His eyes are on her empty fish tank and this time she can't stop herself from reassuring him. "I hadn't really bonded with them."
His expression lightens, if only slightly, but his eyes are still shadowed. No, he's not just thinking about the fish; she knows that. (That's only because it would be obvious to anyone, right?)
"Spike's gone," he says and she realizes with a start that this is the first time she's thought about the last of the three Big Bads since the whole restoration thing, and maybe even before. It's a good thing she's not the Slayer, isn't it?
But there's a something more, and she confirms what the sixth sense she doesn't want to admit she has tells her by looking into Angel's eyes. "You…"
Head bowed, Angel softly finishes her sentence. "Staked him."
She should thank him. Buffy would thank him. Instead, Willow reaches out and takes his hand. "Are you okay?" It's a mistake – both the touching and the words – but it's too late now. Angel's eyes are locked on hers. "He was…sort of like family, right?" Babble is struggling to emerge, but she refuses. There's a whole world of wrong going on and even though she's not sure entirely what it is, she knows wrong when she… okay, she doesn't exactly see it, but whatever sense she's using knows wrong when it…whatevers it.
His fingers are still entwined with hers.
"It had to be done," he says, but there are other words under the surface. Willow can hear them. Oh god she wishes she couldn't hear them.
"Have you talked to Buffy yet? I mean, I know you guys have talked but I mean have you, you know…?"
"I… No, not really." His eyes are still on hers; though when she tries to withdraw her hand, he allows it... which only barely diminishes her discomfort. "I understand. It's… it's difficult for her." He says nothing about Giles or Xander, though Buffy told her there'd been a confrontation while she was here at home recuperating.
Willow's mouth opens to say something comforting, but the words won't come. Instead, all she can say is "Yeah."
The silence is thick and heavy and it feels like Angelus's hand on her throat, barely allowing her to breathe. She thinks (knows) that Angel can tell exactly what she's thinking about. What he feels about it, though – that's a mystery (or it isn't but she won't let herself see).
"Are you okay?" Her obvious discomfort every time she moves her head makes that an obvious question and she pretends it's the only thing he's asking about.
"Sure. The doctor said I should be back to normal in another day or so." The truth is that she can't remember a word the doctor said; her memories of the emergency room are clouded by lingering visions of wagons and blood and screaming. But it sounds good and it's what she hopes is the truth so…
Angel knows she's lying; she can see it in the disquieting glint in his eyes. (She shouldn't be able to see. *He* shouldn't be able to see.) He says nothing, though, and that's … It should be good, but it's not. There's a game being played and she doesn't know the rules.
"You look… good," he says. It should be a commonplace and Willow sees every surface indicator that it is one, but…
No, she's not going to acknowledge… After all, maybe all this stuff is just a side effect of her head injury and she doesn't have any super-creepy connection to Angel. "Thanks." And then, out of nowhere, she hears herself add, "Oz says you could never tell I was just attacked by a horde of vampires."
"My boyfriend." And no, there's no reason to think about why she's so enthusiastically emphatic as she states a simple fact.
"I was gonna say 'werewolf', but… he's your boyfriend, huh?" There's something in his eyes… It's just confusion at how much has changed since he lost his soul, right? After all, back then she'd been Buffy's loser friend who couldn't even get Xander to see that she was a girl.
"Yup." She's smiling now, the way she always does when she talks about Oz. (But it's not the same, is it?) "He's my boyfriend."
There's a too-long moment of silence and it's more awkward than ever; it shouldn't be, should it? (Shouldn't it?)
"Xander's with Cordelia?" It sounds like a question, but Willow has the eeriest sense that it isn't – that it's just a clumsy way to change the subject. It occurs to her – he has all those enhanced senses – did he know before she did? Before any of them did?
This has to be her concussion. It does. Because, really, it's not like Angel ever paid attention to anyone but Buffy. He doesn't know – never knew – anything about anyone else and he doesn't care, either. He's making small talk because he thinks he's supposed to or something.
Unfortunately, her nerves are jumping like mad despite her very logical and rational rationalizations and somehow she can't stop herself from being very rude. "So, umm… this visit? It's nice and all, but I'm not sure why you're here."
The first thing she sees in his eyes… she wants it to be the slight hurt she sees a second later, and she tells herself it was. (It wasn't though, was it? Oh no. It was golden and smug and she knows that he knows something she wishes he didn't.)
Aren't eyes supposed to be the windows to the soul? Souls can't lie, can they? (Can't they?)
"I wanted to thank you." Before she can step back or do something else to prevent it, he's taken her hand again. "For giving me back my soul. You risked your life for me."
His eyes are boring into hers and they're hypnotic. She's getting lost in them. Maybe that's why… "I saw things," she blurts out, regretting it the moment the words echo in her ears.
She strays further off the path and into those eyes. "I know." His voice sounds far away. His voice sounds as close as Angelus's sibilant threats in her ear that first night.
He knows. He knows that her life isn't all she risked then, doesn't he? Oh but how she wishes she'd known, even though it would have made no difference. Silly girl that she was, nothing would have stopped her from leaping gladly off that precipice and into the unknown and powerful world in which she now lives.
She's still staring into Angel's eyes; something has shifted and she knows that everything is fragile and perilous today and forevermore and this knowledge means that no longer can she shove her fears and the lingering frisson of dread into a box marked 'concussion' and secrete it safely away.
She closes her eyes (makes her desperate bid for escape) and thinks of Oz – of the kindness of his eyes and the soft curve of his smile. The vision is shaky and faded, but she clings to it. She hears herself whisper his name and her eyes shoot open. There's nothing in Angel's eyes or expression that says he heard her.
Doubting her own senses, she tells herself she didn't speak after all. (But she did, didn't she?)
Her hand is still trapped by Angel's… She wants to say 'held' but the lie won't work. Not now. Her eyes meet his as bravely as she can manage. She doesn't think he'd say 'held' either, at least not in his own mind. But he's smiling blandly at her and she doubts herself again, because his eyes are as flat and impenetrable as a castle door. These aren't the eyes she just looked into a moment ago. (Aren't they?)
"What are friends for?" she says and she wonders why. It's apropos of nothing. Angel, though, he's looking at her with the strangest expression. She wants to say it's joy, but there's something else there.
She suddenly wants him to leave.
Or maybe it's not so sudden. Maybe she's wanted him to leave since he got here. Maybe she wishes he'd never come.
Her hand is still in his and now that's what she stares at – the way her wrist seems to end at his fingers, like they're a part of each other.
Her breathing is more of a struggle than it should be and she knows he can smell her terror. She doesn't look at his eyes, though. (Too afraid that they'll be flat.) "Ummm… It's kind of late and I need to get some sleep." That first part is true, but as for sleeping?
She'd love to say that the tension and restlessness that she knows are going to keep her awake despite her unusual fatigue and her still-throbbing head are just the insomnia she's had since long before she ever met Buffy, but she knows differently, knows that what bedevils her now has everything to do with the vampire she's trying to induce to leave.
Does Angel know what she's feeling?
If he does, he says nothing, merely smiling blandly again – though that same bland expression gets nowhere near the dangerous undertow of those eyes. They're transformed into the ones from moments ago – the violent vortex which nearly swallowed her whole. "I should go." He releases her hand, but his own travels up her arm, to her shoulder…then it moves to cup her cheek. "Thank you," he says again. It's different this time, though, and it means something else entirely. She wants to step back but she's caught in those eyes, transfixed as they grow closer. He's leaning forward.
The kiss is placed on her forehead. She should be relieved, right? It's proof that everything she's thought and felt – all the danger that she was convinced was real – actually is some sort of uber-gothic side effect of magic-adrenaline-crash and a nasty head injury and not real at all.
"I'll be watching… out for you," Angel says and her happy conviction gets lost in the cavernous silence of the too-long pause between the words 'watching' and 'out'.
She says nothing, just looks at the door as he leaves, as his shadow fades and she can almost feel the distance increase as he heads back to his mansion.
Now would be a good time to call Oz. To get a reality check. To remind herself of what is true and to lose herself in the most totally good of all the good feelings she's ever had.
But she doesn't. Instead she lies down on her bed and stares at the ceiling. It's dark brown – it's the colour of Angel's eyes – and she's drowning.