Angelus stood in the graveyard, alone and impatient, waiting for Buffy. After the show he'd had that minion stage – frying herself to a crisp after promising carnage if Buffy wasn't here by sundown – you'd think the bitch would have shortened her shoe selection process and been here the moment the sky started to grow dark. But no.
Slayers today were pathetic. No vocation. If Buffy hadn't been so besotted with her precious Angel, would she have even come back from that trip to L.A. she'd taken right after the Master had proven he was anything but a master at the art of slaying Slayers? No, he was pretty sure she'd have used her unfortunately impermanent demise as an excuse to hang up her stake. He had vivid memories of long, whiny conversations she'd had with his pathetic, souled alter-ego – going on and on about how much she wanted to be a normal girl with a normal life.
How the hell had Angel ever gotten a hard-on after all that nonsense? All those celibate years in the alleys of New York eating rats and smelling of garbage, no doubt.
Angel should be grateful for Angelus's return because nothing that shameful was ever going to befall him again.
His eyes swept the graveyard, but there was still no sign of Buffy. He sat on a tombstone and checked the elegant watch he'd 'acquired' from an especially accommodating – and tasty – jeweler. Minutes ticked by. They kept on ticking.
No sound of Buffy's platforms in the soft earth; no itchy sense of 'Slayer'.
The bitch wasn't showing up. Was it possible she'd figured out…?
Well, he'd just head for the library, then. With his help, Dru and the others would deal with Buffy and enlist the 'help' of good old Rupert Giles. Buffy was clever, cleverer than he'd given her credit for, but she wasn't going to stop what was coming. Acathla would swallow the world…and Angelus would watch as Buffy went to Hell.
The memories are still jarring and they return at random, in no particular order. It's the sensation of being outside his own life looking in that's most unsettling – that and the fact that this time Angelus's crimes don't feel the same to him. He can't explain it, not even to himself; the only word that will come is 'different' and it has to serve.
Of course, that's not the only disquieting transformation, now is it?
He strokes the frame at the side of Willow's French doors and he can feel the ghost of the sensation of stroking her cheek – that parody of tenderness in which he'd indulged that first horrible night. What is he doing at Willow's house? he wonders… (He knows. He doesn't want to know.) It would make sense (make him comfortable, isn't that what he means) if the force that seems to exert its will from both within and without had drawn him to Buffy's familiar residence. But it hasn't. It's carried him here – here to the home of the girl who gave him back his soul.
Angel lay on the grass as the pain subsided, looking around, disoriented. The last thing he remembered… He'd made love to Buffy. Beautiful, perfect love. It had been the sweetest, most human thing he'd known since even before he'd lost his true humanity to Darla's fangs.
So why was he here? Had something…?
As he managed to stand, a rush of memories hit him and knocked him back to his knees. Oh God – that God who stopped listening to his prayers long, long ago – oh God.
His soul. It had been taken from him. What happened? How had he… how long…?
Long enough to have done terrible things. Visions of bodies swam before his eyes. New bodies – newer victims than those that had haunted him for decades.
Schoolmates of Buffy's, drained dry to remind her of how limited her ability to protect her territory really was.
Jenny Calendar – Buffy's teacher. A gypsy; she'd been a gypsy.
There was more.
Had he really been trying to suck the world into Hell?
There wasn't time to think, however, because he saw a group rushing toward him.
She was at the head of the pack and she should be the one on whom he was focused, but she wasn't. Instead, he found himself scanning the group: Giles, Cordelia, that other Slayer who'd tried to kill him…Kendra…
Some instinct – he didn't recognize it – stopped him from asking the question that came unbidden to his mind: Where was Willow?
Questions. He has so many. But ask them? No, he doesn't dare. Instead he's been waiting and letting the answers be revealed piecemeal by the others: by Buffy when she turns liquid eyes on him and shares personal heartache he tells himself he finds poignant and not selfish; or by Xander shouting recriminations and whose anger at Angel's continued existence would be dangerous if his emotional nakedness didn't make him so clumsy; or by Giles, layered between veiled threats shrouded in tight and measured phrases. (That man would kill him if he wasn't chained by his code of honour and his love for Buffy.) The answers come with frustrating slowness and lack of precision, but he can be patient. It will all come to him in time.
Speaking of time: How long has he been standing out here, looking through the diaphanous curtains, invading Willow's privacy? Too long, he knows, though at least she hasn't done anything he thinks she'd mind him seeing. Still, it's invasive and creepy (and demonic) and he'd be ashamed if he didn't have so much else to feel so much worse about. (Would he really feel any shame?)
He should leave, but he doesn't. Instead, he knocks. It's a soft, tentative sound and even his sharper-than-human ears barely register the sound of his own knuckles against the glass of the door. He almost turns to leave after all, but much to his surprise, Willow hears him. (Is it a surprise?)
"Hi." Her voice is startlingly loud against the silence of the long moments he spent watching her and that single word isn't followed by an invitation. Does she realize? (Does he?) An invitation, though…it's not something to which he has a right. Why does he even want one? Why, he asks himself again, is he here? (He knows why he's here.)
He stares as he waits for words that don't come. His mind fills with the things he felt and saw as his soul returned – as it passed through her. He knows what she saw, the secrets his soul whispered to her as it lay cradled within her for those few seconds as full as any eternity . Does she know what her soul revealed to him?
She greets him again, biting her lip and shifting awkwardly. Then it comes – the invitation. There's his answer. She has no idea what he knows, or that he knows anything.
He does, but she has nothing to fear. He'll never use that knowledge. (Does he really believe that?) "I'm sorry." The words are both meaningful and meaningless and oddly, that's something he thinks she realizes, though she might not be aware.
"I know." Those words clang as discordantly as his own. He averts his gaze, fearful of shared knowledge, but his eyes find nowhere safe – they land on the fish tank. The evidence that his last visit here wasn't the innocent visit he made to find out about Ford. (Not that innocent. Or it was then, but not now – not the way it lives transformed in a tainted mind.) He finds himself wondering why that tank is still filled with empty, lifeless water.
She speaks and draws his eyes back to her. "I hadn't really bonded with them." It's forgiveness and it's powerful. Does she know what she said? (She does, but she doesn't want to. Or is that just his fantasy?) The pull he's been feeling grows and transforms.
"Spike's gone," he replies obliquely, wanting to take her by surprise. (Don't think about that.)
"You…" Her eyes are wide and he looks away.
"Staked him," he finishes, hiding a whole array of complicated emotions (and motives). But then he's the one who's taken by surprise as her hand touches his. He answers the call of those slim fingers with his own. "Are you okay?" Those eyes of hers – she's too pure and he realizes again that she has no idea what she's doing or who he is. He should leave. He doesn't leave. "He was …sort of like family, right?" The words are true but he knows she has not a clue what it really means.
"It had to be done." It did. That's as true as the colour of the sky and the existence of evil. He wonders if she was acknowledging Dru's passing as well. He's pretty sure she was, but he decides not to acknowledge it.
Suddenly, she changes the subject. "Have you talked to Buffy yet? I mean, I know you guys have talked but I mean have you, you know…?"
She's obviously uncomfortable and she pulls her hand away from his. He doesn't try to hold on, though he wants to for reasons he'd rather not understand. Without intending to, he mirrors her awkwardness. "I… No, not really." Pause. "I understand. It's… it's difficult for her." It's true, though what he doesn't tell Willow is that so much of the strain between himself and Buffy is his own doing, because he's changed and he doesn't understand it. Shouldn't he be back where he started? A few short months ago, Buffy was his whole world and making love to her was the truest happiness he'd ever known. Now? Now, he hears the words but not the music and the truth is that he is almost angry. He lost much more than his soul and he's only gotten back some of it. That's not even counting the crimes he'd committed when he wasn't himself but that he's still paying for all the same. He feels guilty, yes, but a part of him wonders why.
After a few seconds he hears her say, "Yeah." It's really nothing but a sound, yet there's something in her eyes… he flashes back to that night in the school and he can almost feel the press of her body against his. Why that memory? Why now? (He knows why.)
Still, he can see that her obvious discomfort is more than just psychological. "Are you okay?"
Willow's smile is a beautiful thing, even when it's patently false. "Sure. The doctor said I should be back to normal in another day or so."
He's not sure why he thinks that because she seems well enough for it to be true, but he doesn't just think it, he knows it, and she's lying. No reason to call her on it; best to let it stand. (That's a demon's way, isn't it?) Instead, he compliments her, but mirroring her ungainly pauses still. "You look… good." (He's not human, no matter how he felt that night when he was inside Buffy.)
"Thanks." Her voice is brighter now, plastered-on smile showing more teeth. "Oz says you could never tell I was just attacked by a horde of vampires."
Without warning, Angel's demon rises within him. "Oz. He's…"
"My boyfriend." Her voice is brighter than ever. She's waving her swain like a flag (or like a red cape in front of a bull).
He recovers himself (does he?) and with the blandest expression and tone he can muster, he offers, "I was gonna say 'werewolf', but… he's your boyfriend, huh?" (Oz hasn't been inside her, though. Angel has. More intimately than any other man – or demon – ever will.)
The smile remains and he's beginning to hate it. It's his turn to change the subject. "Xander's with Cordelia?"
Much to his surprise, she doesn't answer him. Instead, he watches as a whole slew of emotions plays across that face of hers, the one that's too fascinating to him now, the one that he sees the way he used to see Buffy's.
He tells himself that all of this turmoil he's going through, the soundless roar of his demon and the thoughts he shouldn't be having – it's because she gave him back his soul. Things will go back to normal soon, right? (Does he know what 'normal' is? Does he want to – really?)
"So, umm… this visit? It's nice and all, but I'm not sure why you're here." Now that's startling – and it is a disquieting confirmation that 'normal' has changed. This isn't the Willow he remembers. (But it's the Willow he knows. The Willow who fears him.) As much as he doesn't want to, he can feel the predator in him warm to the game… getting ready to chase the one that runs away.
And she is running, isn't she? The bravado of her challenge belied by the tremor in her voice and the way she just chewed her bottom lip. She thinks the best defense is offense. She's wrong.
She's lucky that she'll never find that out. (Won't she?)
His eyes are locked on hers – shadowed and shielded and full of secrets. He's not Drusilla, she of the visions and swirling dust, but he knows how to draw Willow in (back where she belongs). He reaches out, taking her hand in his, swallowing her fingers in his the way he's pulling her into his eyes. "I wanted to thank you." He pauses. What is he doing? (As if he doesn't know.) "For giving me back my soul. You risked your life for me."
She did, didn't she? Opening that bright, pure soul to the ultimate darkness of his, holding it within her as if it were… (his cock…his seed…his passion). Why?
Of course, rationally, he knows that the reason is most likely Buffy – her terror of having to kill the vampire wearing the face of her first lover and the fact that Acathla had made it all but a necessity. Willow was always the friend most supportive of his relationship with Buffy. It would be just like her to take a heedless risk to keep her friend from having to do the unthinkable.
It was all about Buffy.
That's as it should be and the thought should warm him – the love that cost him his soul survived the loss of that soul. There might be some sort of future for him and Buffy. Not that they could ever have a complete relationship, but still… something.
So why does the dream feel so cold and hollow and grey?
Not a road down which his thoughts should go.
And while his mind has been wandering, his eyes haven't left Willow's (nor have his demon's chains).
"I saw things," she says suddenly and obviously without intent.
"I know." Honesty, the spider's web of woven velvet and arsenic. Especially when it comes from a demon.
She saw things – terrible, dark things of which he's sure she she's too terrified to even try to understand. But what he's all too aware she doesn't know is that the terrible darkness saw her, saw things – sacred things, small things full of bigger meaning. Saw a small, tearful child sobbing over a broken crayon; that same child, slightly older, crying herself to sleep in an empty house; that same girl again, this time growing into uncomfortable womanhood tearing herself to pieces for the love of someone who doesn't notice (doesn't care).
She's brine and ocean inside, almost drowning in her own soul. Does she have any idea how vulnerable she is, swimming for her life, easy prey for anyone offering a life raft and dry land?
Oz, he thinks. He's a demon. What does he see when he looks at Willow? Wolves are so elemental, primal, creatures of base needs. Does she realize that? Does she know that in real life, there's no woodsman to rescue Little Red Riding Hood from the ravenous wolf?
He sighs almost audibly with relief at the turn of his thoughts. Protectiveness, that's what he's been feeling, all he feels. This is, after all, the girl who gave him back his soul. He owes her more than he can ever repay, but the least he can do is guard her from the sharp teeth of a forest creature who's no tame deer or fluffy rabbit.
Then her eyes close and the urge to chase is awakened anew. He can see Spike's smirk and the shuffling of Drusilla's cards against her lids.
Then her eyes open and she speaks. "What are friends for?" she says, as if it's a talisman against the darkness.
She knows. Maybe not consciously, but something has awakened her instinct for flight and he can smell the tang of frightened prey on her pale skin.
He's not a predator, he tells himself (again.) He is Willow's friend. (She's not the only one running from the darkness, is she?)
Her eyes are on their hands and he notices the way his have swallowed hers whole. She's inside him, in a way, the way he was inside her. (The way he'll always be inside her…the way she'll always be inside him.) That fear is still there, rolling off of her in waves.
"Ummm… It's kind of late and I need to get some sleep."
There's a barely-disguised desperation in her voice and as much as he tells himself he's not really doing it, even as he says, "I should go," he draws her in once more, paralyzing her so that, as he lets go of her hands, it's only so that one of his can travel up her arm, to her shoulder, and then to the softness of her cheek. "Thank you," he says for the second time tonight and he can't stop himself from leaning in, his mouth moving ever closer to her face.
But the kiss lands on her forehead. He's not that demon, after all, he exults. He's her friend and tonight's scary confusion has just been the residue of months spent without a soul. He'll get over it – he's getting over it – and everything's going to be okay.
"I'll be watching…out for you." He means that in a protective way and there's nothing ominous in the awkward pause between two words. (Nothing ominous at all, oh no…)
He allows himself one last look at her before he leaves and he tells himself it doesn't bother him that she doesn't say another word or even smile at him (the way she smiles when she talks about Oz).
The walk home seems long, somehow, and he wishes he had just stayed there. (He pretends that it even matters, as if the truth were Schrodinger's cat.) When he gets there, he gazes into the fireplace and tells himself he wishes Buffy were there with him. But when he closes his eyes, all he sees is red and green and it's nothing like Christmas.
Tomorrow, he thinks; tomorrow he'll be better. (Tomorrow he'll still be himself.)