The Lonely Ones

"I can tell you're a lot cooler than people think you are. I could see it the minute I met you."

Ford said that to her hours ago, but Willow's still angry. Is there a sign hanging around her neck flashing the word 'gullible' in brightly-coloured neon letters? She fell for the 'you're better than Buffy' routine one time – when Xander was possessed – and she learned that lesson the way she learns all her lessons: once and perfectly. Besides, Billy Fordham isn't Xander. She hasn't loved him since childhood; having him see her – really see her – isn't her fondest dream. No, he's just some 'thinks-he's-so-cool' creep from L.A. who Buffy fawns all over and Angel doesn't trust and…

That's another thing. Angel visited her room last night, a real honest-to-goodness visit, and she hadn't even known he knew where she lived. More than that, he actually spoke more than one sentence to her. But… the only real conversation she and Angel have ever had and what's it about? It's about Buffy, who he made her lie to and look like a total spazz, which is obviously why Ford thinks she's a convenient patsy for whatever plan he has which almost certainly involves – big surprise – Buffy.

For a moment, she's consumed by a bright flash of white-hot resentment. She loves Buffy, she does, but she's so tired of living in her shadow. Every day, someone – sometimes, lots of times, more than one someone – lets her know just how inferior she is and it hurts. It really, really hurts. Okay, she gets that she's not a sexy blonde with a fabulous secret identity, but she's not…

All right, yes she is. She's a nerdy, homely geek. But isn't actually having to be that enough punishment for whatever Jewish version of original sin saddled her with all these defects? Does she have to endure insults and reminders on a daily basis, does she have to accept people trying to use her weaknesses and deficiencies to get her to do things for them because they don't even think of her as a person but just as some pathetic tool to be used as they see fit?

Well you know what? There's something to be said for being a geek, because she's smart; and okay, maybe she's more book smart than street smart – a lot more – but ultimately, smart is smart, right? Of course it is. So she's doing the sneaky undercover thing, which no one would believe she could pull off since they always underestimate her. That's why she hasn't told anyone. Instead, she's standing Angel up and heading straight for the Sunset Club to meet Ford. After all, how hard can it be to fool someone who barely knows you? Guess she's gonna find out, huh?

Suddenly, she's not so sure of herself, but she forges onward. She has to do this. It's the best way to find out what Ford is up to…. And maybe, just maybe, her friends will respect her after this, not see her as just the klutzy-hacker-sidekick.

Maybe Xander will look at her and really see her.

Jealousy. Angel meant what he said to Willow last night – it's never been part of his nature, but now… Billy Fordham. The boy is in his head – has been in his head since he first saw him with Buffy, has stayed in his head, and his smarmy, arrogant face is swimming before his eyes, jaw begging for Angel's fist.

What's he up to? The fact that he's lied about being a student at Sunnydale High certainly means he's a wrong guy, but what exactly that adds up to is still a mystery. Which is why he's so eager to talk to Willow and find out what her research has yielded. In the fruitiness of her idiom, she's 'so the net girl' and out there in the intangible climes of a world he can't begin to understand are thousands – millions, billions – of pieces of information… and some of them are about this Billy Fordham.

What does Buffy see in him? Is it that 'normal life' she's always talking about? The one Angel can't give her? He should understand that and accept it, shouldn't he? But he can't.

Maybe it's because he doesn't believe her anymore when she says those things. They're all part of this damn push-me-pull-you game she plays: 'I want you,' 'I hate you,' 'Come to me,' 'Go away,' 'No wait, come back.'

He's sick of it and in a way he's sick of her, or at least he is when she acts like some manipulative teenage brat, but then… Then he's in the graveyard with her, watching her fight, watching the moonlight on her hair as it whips around in the heat of battle, watching her save the world. Then he loves her. Because that's the real Buffy, isn't it? The Slayer?

It is. It has to be.

That's the woman he needs. The one who makes him feel… human. Redeemed. Or at least almost there.

And she needs him - to save her from who she isn't… to save her from Ford.

So where the hell is Willow? She promised to meet him at sunset. Well, admittedly, she hadn't exactly used the word 'promise', but with Willow, weren't such things implicit? By all accounts, she's as reliable as eternity, so why hasn't she met him?

Determined to find out, he's set out to track her down and…

There she is, wearing the most absurd article of clothing in which he's ever seen her, and that is certainly saying something. Is there any colour not represented in the stripes on that sweater? And why on earth is she wearing it with that silly, shapeless white skirt?

Also, why is she here? In a dark alley in a less than savory part of town?

He's about to call out to her when he notices that she's heading somewhere in particular, so he stays quiet and follows her – silently and stealthily, keeping to the shadows, watching her every move.

A moment later, she knocks on a door and Angel hears the slide of a slot opening. What is this place? "Hi," she offers cheerily to someone on the other side, "I'm a friend of Ford's."

What? But then Angel sees some dim light as the door opens just long enough for Willow to step inside.

She's up to something; it doesn't take long at all for him to realize that. But what? He stays in the shadows, thinking, planning, sizing up his circumstances. Faint strains of music can be heard – vampiric hearing comes in handy – and he recognizes the genre. It's that dirge-strained, noisy garbage they call 'gothic' these days. Putting that together with the name-dropping at the door and Angel realizes that Willow has somehow tumbled to Ford's 'headquarters' … and that the boy is definitely not as wholesome as he tries to appear.

But what he doesn't understand is why she blew off her appointment with him and elected to go in alone. Ford's going to be suspicious if he sees her there, all alone, and dressed so inappropriately, isn't…?

Memories suddenly assail him – small but telling things. A snatch of overheard conversation about her feelings for Xander here, a fragment of Buffy telling him about Willow's involvement with Moloch there. his own tendency to dismiss her… until he needed something from her. So now he thinks maybe he knows.

Willow's here because Ford invited her.

That throws everything into uncertainty. Is Willow vulnerable… or does she have the strength to look in the mirror and see what he knows that boy saw – a sad little wallflower, desperate for anyone to notice her?

Another flash of memory:

"And you! You're going to live forever and you don't have time for a cup of coffee?"

She's spunkier, tougher than she's given credit for, and he wonders why no one sees it – including him. Because looking at her now, in his mind's eye, he sees a girl courageous enough to be a volunteer in the fight to which Buffy was called against her will; a girl whose wardrobe proves that, no matter what, she won't change to make herself into someone she isn't; a girl who therefore has probably walked through that door knowing exactly why she was invited. That last might take more courage than anything else.

Funny thing, realizing that he's not the only one who lives in the shadows… and that the ones he inhabits might not be the loneliest.

Now is not the time for any further musings, however, because she's still in there and whether she knows it or not, she's probably being very foolhardy. So he walks up to that same door and knocks.

You know, this place is really dark and the few faces Willow actually can make out in the gloom aren't familiar to her at all. So she stands at this really rickety-looking railing, looking out over the black-clad crowd below, realizing that if her wardrobe is out of place at Sunnydale High it's way more out of place at the Sunset Club. There's a very real possibility that she has not thought this through as well as she should and maybe her PSAT scores don't count for as much as she would like to believe.

Just then, she hears a voice behind her. "You came. I knew you would." She turns around and – yep – it's Ford, with the most fake and annoying smile on his face. It's a smirk, really, and within a split second she hates him more than she ever thought she could hate anyone – because he's not even trying very hard to fool her, is he? He thinks so little of her that he's sure the most pathetic excuse for an act will be enough. Cordelia Chase at her worst isn't this insulting and Willow would give anything to have Buffy's Slayer-strength for just long enough to beat Ford to a pulp… or to death, and doesn't she just hate herself for wanting that.

"Hi," she chirps and she almost wishes he knew her well enough to know that she's nearly as fake as he is. But not as nearly as she could be. She hasn't taken her eye off the ball. Whether she's glad or sorry, she'll know later, when she's alone in her room… crying. Yeah, she already knows she will be and she's already calling herself a wimp and a baby. "Nice place," she says, cringing inwardly. 'Nice'? The best adjective she could come up with is 'nice'? What about 'cool' or 'dark' or 'demonic' or…

"Glad you like it." He's so smarmy and Willow's brain nearly comes up with very bad words, only she's not like that, so she doesn't let herself think them. "Shall I show you around?"

"We'd enjoy that." Willow nearly falls over the railing at the sound of the male voice behind her, but there's an arm around her waist now. Angel. What is he doing here? "Willow," his voice carrying a strange – and sort of threatening – undercurrent she's never heard before, "why didn't you wait for me?"

Instinct. It's all Angel has to go on right now and it's telling him to play the role of rival… and owner.

"I remember you." Ford's posture stiffens and it's clear he's discomfited by Angel's sudden appearance even as he attempts to mask it by trying to claim a tactical advantage. Nice try, boy. Angel's not one of the children playing dress-up he sees milling about. No, he's the stuff of nightmares – or he would be if any of these puling infants knew what was really waiting for them in the dark. For a moment he almost wishes he'd brought Drusilla with him tonight, and then his soul jabs him with the conscience it carries for him and he hates himself. Nothing new there. "You're Buffy's friend," the boy continues.

Angel laughs mirthlessly and smirks at his 'host', channeling that thing he used to be. "You could say that. But I'm also Willow's… friend." He pulls her close to him, tightly, a gesture that says more than any innuendo could, and he feels her stiffen with discomfort, but if she's the girl he thinks she is, she'll get over it and follow his lead. He leans in, his next words spoken into Willow's ear. "Aren't I, sweetheart?" His eyes are locked on Ford the whole time.

What's going on? The feel of Angel's body against hers should probably be… well, something it isn't. It should shock her with its unfamiliarity at the very least. But it doesn't. It doesn't because the first sensation it sends through her is the very familiar one of being a pawn in a game involving another girl – a beautiful girl, a girl who isn't her. Why she's upset again when she already knew that was exactly what was going on anyway is anybody's guess; she can cry about it later – and she will – but right now she needs to play her part. At least this time she knows there is a game, right? "Y-yes."

Were that tremor in her voice and the accompanying shudder intentional or natural? Either way, they're an unexpected call to Angel's demon and almost change the game. Almost, but he's not that afraid of himself… though perhaps he should be. His encounter with Dru… the knowledge that she and Spike are so near at hand… Long-buried appetites are rising from their graves and they aren't his comfortable taste for tart-tongued blondes with impressive racks. "Good girl," he whispers, telling himself that he's commending Willow for playing her part so well.

"I didn't know you had a boyfriend." Ford is clearly unsettled and that just confirms that he had seen Willow as an easy mark – and a way to get to Buffy.

Angel doesn't let her say a word. "I'm not a boy." He smirks again and brings his hand up…up… until it's almost cupping one of her breasts. There's a tension in her body that screams of a desire to flee. Damn her for that – it calls to the very part of him he wishes most to tamp down. It sings to him of the dusty triumph over a terrified girl in a convent… and of fresh meat and an even more sublime kill. Pulling air into dead lungs, he clings to his soul.

Okay, the hands? So not okay. She can't believe Angel is feeling her up right now… and what's worse is that he's doing it for this stupid spy mission. It's like… like some guy sleeping with you to make his girlfriend jealous. She knows someone – a girl online – that that happened to and she hates to admit it, but she felt comfortably superior, sure that something like that would never happen to her. Well, ha ha. Look at Willow Rosenberg now. Her best friend's boyfriend's hand on her boob and he isn't even thinking of her at all. This time when she thinks about the tears she's going to shed later on, she doesn't hate herself for them at all.

She takes a deep breath and gets her head back in the game. Is she supposed to say something now or is this one of those chauvinistic 'just between us guys' moments? She has a feeling she's setting feminism back about eighty years, but she keeps quiet. There's a feeling creeping up her spine – fear. Why hadn't she recognized it immediately? Not like she isn't afraid a whole lot these days, what with being Buffy's sidekick and all, so really, the whole fear thing should be a no-brainer.

This, though – this isn't like the fear that she's used to. It isn't anything like it at all. And that's just one more thing to be afraid of. She wishes she knew what the original object of her fear was because that might be helpful, but in the absence of knowledge, she'll just go with being generally scared of everything. That usually works… well, sometimes… sort of. But it will for sure work this time, right?

Ford is staring at them and… wow. He seems to be buying this whole 'Angel is interested in her' act. That would be flattering under other circumstances, but now the most exuberant emotion she can manage is relief. Of course, then it occurs to her that it's more the groping that's convincing than her feminine charms. That brings the relief down to a very low boil and takes away any chance of having her humiliation ameliorated later when she's alone replaying this night over and over in her head while crying herself to sleep.

There's a heat to Willow's skin that Angel can feel through her sweater. It's not arousal, so it makes him curious, but there's no chance to slake his thirst at the trough of inquiry. "What about that tour you offered?"

Ford smiles. It's a tight smile and Angel crows inwardly – he's got the upper hand, not that he expected differently, except… Except since he's come to Sunnydale (since he fell in love with Buffy), he hasn't been nearly as sure of himself. The memory of being jealous of Xander Harris emerges and it makes him shudder with revulsion even more profound than he feels at being jealous of Ford.

What he told Willow is the absolute truth – before Buffy, he was never jealous of anyone, never believed anyone could outshine him. Not even that ridiculous Immortal creature. That was the girls' way of trying to bring their men to heel. He knew it then as he knows it now. So why is it all so different here, with her- Buffy?

"Follow me." They're getting that tour now and that's all to the good since this introspection is darkening Angel's mood. He adjusts his arm so that Willow can move, but he doesn't let her go. His hand stays on her waist as he guides her down the stairs.

Angel won't stop touching her and Willow wants to push him away, but she can't. This is her life, isn't it? Doing other people's homework, tutoring people she can't stand, letting Xander use her to practice asking out Buffy… letting Angel basically use her body to help Buffy. God, she's exactly like that girl from the chatroom. Why has he come here? This wouldn't be nearly as degrading if it was just Ford flirting with her to try to get to Buffy.

"It's dark," she says as she looks around. That's an idiotic statement, but she's made it so now she has to deal with the annoying chuckle from the creepy vampire she no longer considers her friend.

"But you like the dark." His voice is low and full of sleazy innuendo and she knows she's blushing because her skin is hot and she really, really, really hates Angel. To distract herself, she looks around. Her memory is this close to photographic, so what she can see, she's committing to memory. Coffins everywhere, girls dressed like – oh what are they called? – tavern maids, that's what they look like, tavern maids. The guys are all dressed like… Angel. She fights back a smirk of her own. Ha ha ha. Angel's a goth-boy wannabe. She's picturing one of the tavern maids critiquing his outfit and it makes her feel a lot better than it should, but she's not going to berate herself for lacking charity – not now. She's paid dearly for the right to mock him.

"Yeah," she agrees, letting him pull her closer, noticing that Ford never takes his eyes off them.

Angel realizes he's become far too conscious of Willow when something hits him and it's something he should have noticed long before – Ford's scent. The boy is horribly ill, his body failing fast and completely, the scent of worms and earth surrounding him like a cloud as death beckons for the feast. It's not noticeable on the surface, but it won't be long – days, weeks at most – before he's a shambling wreck and the decay takes hard hold and never lets go. A moment of pity and admiration because it must take so much will for the boy to act as nonchalant and healthy as he does. There must already be pain but there's not so much as a crease in the corner of an eye to give it away.

Of course, the moment passes and he remembers that this boy, strong or no, is the enemy. "Nice place." He echoes Willow's earlier words… but with an air of superiority and sarcasm befitting his stature.

"It serves its purpose," Ford says – and maybe that was a slip, because his expression suddenly becomes guarded.

"Makes a good place to have a little fun without the Slayer nosing around," Angel agrees affably. Now that he knows what tack to take, he goes a bit further. "She's strictly a Bronze girl… predictable, but that's handy."

"I thought you two were…"

"That's what she thinks too." Willow feels Angel's arm move around her waist, pulling her close, his hand once again moving just south of inappropriate. "She's not bad, nice body and all, but…," he leans down and nuzzles her, "my tastes run to something a little less obvious. Plus – that Slayer thing? It's a real buzzkill."

It's easy to tell by the male code that's being bandied about that they're already closing in on what Ford's up to so Willow really shouldn't be as angry as she is, but she's still furious and she still feels used and dirty… and Angel's hand is grazing her breast again. She can feel it through her whole body.

She hates Angel so much.

But the game is still being played and she's not going to have endured all this for nothing, so she keeps her mouth shut and leans into Angel, pretending she's enjoying his touch… trying not to think about the fact that he's probably pretending she's Buffy. Or worse, that's she's so inferior that he can't pretend and he's disgusted.

Well, she can't pretend he's Xander either, so there.

"Her being the Slayer bothers you?" This Ford kid isn't nearly as quick on the uptake as he should be and Angel reminds himself not to let that make him arrogant and careless. Still, now might well be the time for a little show and tell. Judiciously, though, so he maneuvers himself and Willow into an even more shadowy corner. Ford follows.

Then he lets his human mask fall away. Only for a moment, but that's all it takes.

"You're a vampire." Give the boy a cigar. He'd sort of thought the connection to the cold hands would have been made before now.

"Oh yeah."

"And Buffy knows?" Where do they find these guys? They're not making nemeses like they used to.

"Oh yeah. It turns her on… makes her think she's Juliet, you know?"

"And you're Romeo with fangs?"

There's no letting that one slide. "Wrong, Billy." Ford winces at the use of his first name. Good. Pulling Willow close again, Angel growls, "She can think what she likes, but I'm nobody's tragic lover." There's something about the fact that Willow clearly isn't enjoying this that raises the demon even more than Ford's gibe. This girl… she moons over Xander Harris and she clearly hasn't once fantasized about him. His pride – and oh he wishes that could be all it is – is stinging from the insult. Without thinking, he grinds against her. "Nothing tragic about me, is there, darlin'." A bit of his long-forgotten brogue seeps into his speech, a clear sign he's not as much in control as he should be.

She's going to be sick. The groping was bad enough, but the whole 'rubbing intimate body parts against her' thing? That was just… It's all she can do not to burst into tears and run away. She gets that Angel's not human, but doesn't he care that she is? That she has feelings? Which he's hurting very badly? "No, not tragic," she barely gets out without letting her pain show in her voice. At least she hopes it doesn't.

If she had a stake right now… well, Angel would probably bat it out of her hand and laugh at her, but she'd try to stake him. "Good girl," he says, as if she's an obedient pet, and his lips graze her earlobe. This night just keeps getting worse. She wants to go home; to make herself some cocoa because her mom won't be there to make it for her; to lie down on her bed and sob like she's never sobbed before; to have never come here in the first place.

"Why are you hanging around with her in the first place? Vampires generally avoid Slayers, don't they?" Those are good questions and oh how Willow hopes they will lead to a hasty retreat soon. Naturally, she's not that lucky.

"I'm surprised you even asked me that." Angel smirks at the boy's words, gaining confidence in a way that delights his demon. "Don't you know that you're supposed to keep your friends close," he pulls Willow against him again, "but your enemies closer?"

Now it's Ford who smirks. "Yeah. I get that."

"It's easier to rule this town when you know what the opposition's up to."

What did he say? Because Ford's eyes have suddenly gone shrewd – as if he knows something Angel doesn't. That's not good. That's not good at all. "So you're in charge of all the vamp action, huh? Good to know."

It might not be such a bad thing that Willow's body against his reminds him achingly of the hunt and chase of Drusilla. It's an even better thing that Ford is as easy to read as a McGuffey primer. And the two things together? Angel gets it. Spike's presence is well-known in the demon community, Angel's well aware of that, but somehow, for whatever reason, Ford knows it too.

"I will be. As soon as I take care of an upstart who thinks his fangs are bigger than mine." Now he's got Ford back where he wants him. Or does he? Because now the kid looks positively gleeful .

"A war? Like vampire factions doing battle for control of Sunnydale? Cool!"

Is he serious? Does he really think this is some sort of comic book? Angel thinks less of Billy Fordham than ever – though admittedly the illness consuming the boy might be to blame.

Once again, though, he's underestimated the boy… or at least underestimated the boy's belief in what he knows. He's staring at Angel, carefully scrutinizing the way he holds his… well, Willow's supposed to be his pet, isn't she? Silently praying that she forgives him – and pretending that his demon isn't enjoying this at all – he moves his hand over one of Willow's breasts, making the move seem careless and natural.

There's a bit more fullness there than her baggy sweater would lead an observer to believe – oh, not as much as possessed by Buffy, but certainly a decent mouth… Why is he even thinking of her like that?

And why is he even trying to pretend he doesn't know?

Can't blame the demon for all of it, now can you Liam, m'boy? Oh no. Despite your tendre for tavern maids and other women of a more… forthcoming sort of sexuality, there's still that taste for innocence, isn't there? A taste that blossomed when you lost your soul but one whose roots seem to remain firmly planted in the man you are today.

What else is blooming is hatred for the girl he's all but mauling right now. It's irrational and unjust but… If she had just come to meet him tonight instead of coming here, none of this would be happening. None of these feelings would have been reawakened. After all, his feelings for Dru have coalesced into a comfortably agonizing sense of pure guilt – the desire long since burned away by her madness and her heady embrace of the nature he thrust upon her. If it weren't for Willow, he'd still feel happily divorced from the appetites that spawned his pursuit of Drusilla to begin with.

But no, here is Willow, entirely as chaste as his long-since-debauched creation and infinitely more innocent – could she not but shine more brightly in a world where purity like hers is not cultivated by rearing and social mores, as it was when Drusilla fell into his clutches?

Damn her for the siren song she sings.

Every time Willow thinks she's as humiliated and hurt as she can possibly be, something happens and it's all so much worse. She can barely pay attention to what's happening in front of her because Angel's hand is on her breast… and he's acting like it's no big deal. He's the first man to ever touch her there and he's treating her like she's nothing and no one. It finally makes sense – the way that girl from online wanted to kill herself. Willow had thought she was overreacting, and maybe she sort of still does, but not by nearly as much.

She takes a deep breath. Think, Willow. Think about anything but Angel and where his hand is. Think about what Ford just said… and say something. You used to be good at that – at saying things. "A war? I don't think so."

Angel chuckles and nuzzles her again. If she can hold the vomit down long enough, she'll spew it all over him the second they leave. "You're right, baby. There won't be a war. Because Spike knows better than to try and take me down."

Spike? Oh great. Spike's still around? Hasn't Buffy humiliated him enough? She totally kicked his ass on Halloween. Don't react, don't react, don't react. You're supposed to know all the stuff that Angel knows. "He sure does," she agrees. Angel's hand is still – right – there. Oh god. He just squeezed… and Ford is looking right at what Angel's doing. Why can't she run? Why can't she just run?

But she can't, because then all of this will have been for nothing and that's even worse, she knows, than enduring everything she's endured tonight. Because there's this thing called 'the greater good' and she's sacrificing herself on its altar right now.

"I think I can help you." Ford's smirking now and she knows he's not talking to her.

So they're here at last. And no, Angel's not sorry at all that he's got Ford to the point where he'll get some real information, not sorry that he won't have to carry on this deception… not sorry that in a few minutes he'll be taking Willow home.

The stiffness in Willow's bearing… he can feel her resistance and anger boiling beneath her skin like holy water against his flesh. His demon roars to break her, to bend her to his will, to punish her for being completely unbowed by his touch.

In his mind, he can see her on her knees, in the middle of this sad excuse for a nightclub, taking him into the same mouth which had so recently told him she wasn't allowed to have boys in her room.

How could he even imagine such a thing?

He's already cooking up a rich stew of self-hate on which to dine later. Still, as bitter a meal as it will be, the sooner this is over, the better for them all. He turns his attention back to Ford. "What makes you think I need your help?" The words 'miserable human' aren't spoken, but they're certainly implied.

"I can help you kill two birds with one set of fangs… so to speak."

That is so lame and Willow is genuinely grateful for the distraction her scorn for Ford's tragic attempt at wit provides. She wants to ask, but she plays her part and waits for Angel to say, "How might that be?"

"I help you set a trap for the Slayer… and help you blame it all on Spike. An unimpeachable witness who can run crying to Buffy's Watcher. He'll believe me. And both your problems will be solved. I figure he and that other guy Buffy hangs out with will help you get 'retribution' and it'll all be over but the celebrating."

Whoa. That's… a really ingenious plan. And scary. Very scary. Ford wants Buffy dead? Why? Angel's gonna ask about that, right?

"Not that I'm not interested, but I'm asking myself: What's in it for you?" Thanks, Angel. Now if he can just get his hand off her breast, she'll be able to stop feeling sick and enjoy the fact that this is all paying off.

There's a long, annoying pause – kind of obviously for dramatic effect – and then he says, pompously, "Eternity."

What? Okay, either she's reading her tea leaves wrong or Ford wants… "You want Angel to make you a vampire?" she blurts out without thinking. Oh no. Not only did she ask that, but she didn't ask it right at all. If she's screwed this up, she'll hate herself even more than she hates Angel.

She'll have endured all this for less than nothing.

"My little pet here thinks you're being a bit presumptuous," Angel hastens to clarify, hoping he can pull the fat of the fire. For all the moments for her to forget her role and what they're trying to do… But she doesn't know, as he does, what's happening to Ford's body and she couldn't understand it if she did. She glows with life and sunshine and purity in a way that no one he's ever known has. It's almost too brilliant to be real. How natural for her to question anyone's desire to change something she takes for granted.

His attempt at a save hasn't worked – well, not completely. That half-shrewd look is back in Ford's eyes. "She's your pet?"

"Oh yes," Angel purrs, grinding against Willow, no longer worrying if she'll hate him. This is a game that's being played for high stakes now and she's in it all the way whether she likes it or not. It's her own damn fault for sitting down at the table in the first place.

Ford's eyes are still narrow and Angel feels an itch that goes right down to his demon. Something's coming. "Do you ever bite her?"

Shit. "Of course," he replies, nonchalance oozing from every lying pore. Ford makes no attempt to hide the fact that he's scanning Willow's neck. "I don't leave marks where her nosy little friends can see." He leers, daring Ford to use his imagination… just the way he's doing now. One more transgression for which he'll castigate himself later… and which will fuel his dreams.

Can a person's heart really beat out of their chest? Because Willow's is about to. Biting. They're talking about biting. More specifically, they're talking about biting her and it's making Willow really, really nervous. It's hypothetical, right?

Or maybe not. "I've always wanted to see it – you know, a vampire training his pet? From what I've heard, it's pretty hot." No. No. Please no. She's past hoping that there are any limits to just how bad this night can get and she's terrified of just what Angel will do to prove himself to Ford so he can get that last bit of information.

Her worries are well founded as Angel's hand gropes her breast again… teasing her nipple. It's as if he's trying to make her feel something. He's succeeding though she's pretty sure the something she's feeling isn't what he intended because what she's feeling is nauseous and angry and full of self-loathing and disgust. "Training isn't a spectacle for the amusement of humans," Angel says, and it's almost enough to make Willow forgive him. Is she safe? Will she be at home in a hot shower soon? "But I can show you something."

Oh god no.

The pounding of Willow's heart… all that blood rushing through her veins. He's grateful for the loose cut of his trousers because that sound, combined with the generous feel he's gotten of her untried body, has him hard as a rock. If he's completely honest with himself, he'll admit that what he's about to do isn't just about convincing Ford of his demonic bona fides. "Relax," he whispers in her ear softly enough not to be overheard by their observer, "it won't hurt much. I promise." His face changes and he undoes the top button of her sweater, allowing him to move it off her shoulder enough so that he…

…can sink his fangs into the smoothest, softest flesh he's ever bitten. She cries out, but it could be easily mistaken for a cry of pleasure and Ford is transfixed. That and the gathering of other club-goers to watch the spectacle of a real vampire is the last outside observation Angel makes for many moments.

Willow's blood – it's ambrosia… and it's dark temptation. Underneath all that sweetness are things of which he's sure she's entirely unaware, and that only makes his demon's desire burn hotter. There's magic in her blood, magic so powerful that it makes Drusilla's visions and potions seem like nothing more than childish dabbling in comparison. But there's more… there's need and desperation and longing. Something in her crying out for someone who could take all that power and show her how to use it.

Or for someone who could bring her to heel, take that power for his own.

She's got longings of other varieties as well, and he tastes them in the mix. This girl wants: wants to be wanted, wants to be needed, wants to be seen. Well, she's got her wish – Angel sees her now. He'll always see her. He starts to caress her again, getting lost in the pleasure, wanting to force her to join him.

This hurts. This really, really hurts. But the part that hurts more? That he's making her like it. Oh not her her – inside she's completely disgusted, the way she should be – but her body? That's a whole different story. Why now she doesn't know, but the groping that wasn't doing a thing for her earlier is now making her moan and lean back into Angel and the bite is… yeah, painful, but it's also…

Oh god. She wants… this… something… she doesn't know exactly except that it's something that's supposed to be between Buffy and Angel and not involve her in any way. Is he thinking of Buffy right now, even while he's… oh god. One of his hands is running up her thigh and she's realizing that Angel has to be thinking of someone who isn't her, because she knows exactly what's pressing against her.

All she can do is try and keep from crying… and stop herself from crying out for what she really doesn't want, even if the sensations Angel's creating in her with his teeth and his hands say something very different.

But at least someone is stopping. Angel's teeth leave her shoulder and even if her body feels unsatisfied and there's moisture between her legs that shouldn't be there, she's so glad that this is over. But then Angel breathes a name and she has no idea what emotion she's experiencing.

"Willow." His voice is smooth and sibilant and he'd be frightened of himself if this were an hour ago and he hadn't given himself over to who he really is instead of who he's been pretending to be… if he wasn't drunk on the power he's tasted… drained from the unaware girl he's still holding.

Now he notices the audience, glaze-eyed and reeking of hormones. They all think this is what they want – to be him… to be her. One girl, buxom and looking not unlike the obliging tavern wenches he'd so often fucked when he was feckless Liam, murmurs, "Master." She'll fuck herself raw with her fingers tonight, pretending she's Willow… pretending she's better. He wants to laugh in her face, to find a way to show her the truth – to destroy her with it.

No, he's not going to think of how Willow is from this moment transformed, whole and entire, into his. When they leave… when he sees Buffy again… it will be…

… a fraud, a sham. The lies he has told himself so well will now and forever ring hollow as sounding brass.

He's still hard – hard and aching.

"Did you like the show?" His question is purred but there's a current underneath which a wise man would heed and before which he would bow and scrape. Ford? He's as unwise as ever was any man.

"Oh yeah." Ford's leering at her and Willow feels naked. Naked and exposed and humiliated. "You're a way cooler vampire than Spike." Willow would have agreed, once upon a time. Now? Now she's pretty much on Spike's team. All he ever wanted to do was kill her. Ford moves farther back into the shadows, signaling his stupid friends to stay where they are. Angel leads her and they follow him into the pitch dark corner. "I like you," he says.

Angel doesn't say anything. Willow wishes she could see his face. No, she doesn't. Ford keeps babbling away, low-voiced and conspiratorial, like this is all some corny movie. "So. Tomorrow then? You tell Buffy some story to get her here. I've got this place rigged as a trap. She won't be able to escape. I'll make sure there's some people here to help distract her. You can kill her… snack on them afterwards if you like. Then I'll go running to Giles, back you up with the story of how Spike ambushed us… you tried to save her but there were just too many of them. And then..."

"Then I change you." Angel's voice is cold and low and completely inhuman. The first thing she thinks when she hears it is that this is what he really sounds like. This is Angel. This is the thing that used her and degraded her tonight. This is the thing her best friend loves.

There's nothing she can do about that and she knows it. Forever after, she'll have to smile and pretend she likes him and listen to Buffy talk about their great love and how much she wants a future with him. All she can hope for is that Angel won't ever, ever show Buffy what she saw tonight, won't ever treat her the way he's treated Willow.

All she really hopes is that Buffy figures the truth out on her own.

"That's the plan." Ford all but crows and he still sounds like some corny movie or bad TV show. "Get her here before sunset. I've got it all taken care of."

"Consider it done." Angel grips Willow's arm, hard, and pulls her along with him as he heads toward the stairs. Ford calls out a thank you after them, but Angel keeps going. Maybe it's more demonic this way or something. Not like Willow has any say in any of this. She's glad they're leaving, though; she'll be home soon.

A moment later, they're in the alley and Angel tries not to think about how it feels to be alone with her – here at a safe distance from the club entrance – here where no one can see. He's the first to speak. "Now we know." Willow's staring at him and she looks hurt and angry and betrayed. There's not a trace of the desire he still feels and it stops him short. He'd smelled… but she doesn't understand, does she? "I'm sorry." The words are meaningless to him, but he knows that they're necessary to put things back the way they need to be – not back the way they were, but back in a way where he can exert some control.

He's underestimated the depths of her feelings. "You're sorry?" There are tears in her eyes and now he feels regret. "You think that fixes this? Because newsflash, Angel. It doesn't fix anything. Yeah, I'm glad we know what Ford is up to, but right now? This is the part where you let me go home and promise to never, ever speak to me ever again."

That's not going to happen and he wonders if she has any idea what she saw – who she saw – tonight. He does. It's all crashing into him and he's not letting go. A second later he grabs her and pulls her to him. "You think you're just gonna walk away?"

If her next words are 'I'll tell Buffy'… but she doesn't say anything. She's clearly terrified. There's no point in even trying to convince himself that he regrets that.

It's all over – the pretense. If Drusilla was Angelus's obsession… Well, he's outdone his demon, hasn't he? The soulless bastard would combust with jealousy if he were here. If Drusilla were to see this girl…

He won't allow that to happen. He's going to protect her, whether she likes it or not. Well, not from everything. "I want you," he confesses, borrowed blood still very much below his waist.

What? Huh? Oh god. This is horrible. She doesn't want him, doesn't want him to want her. Why didn't she just meet him earlier, tell him Ford was up to something, and go home like a good girl? Because that's what she is. She's not some vampire's pet with a bite on her shoulder being grabbed in an alley like she's cheap and easy and… "I'm not a slut," she whimpers, hating herself for sounding weak. She's scared, though. Angel scares her.

"I know," he says and then he chuckles. Is he laughing at her? Great. No matter how low she falls, there's always a lower place. A second later, her back is against the wall and he's kissing her. She's never had a boy's tongue in her mouth and she doesn't want Angel's, but it's not like there's anything she can do about it. Before what happened in the club tonight, she'd have thought she could say no. Not now.

The kiss is slow and deliberate, but completely dominant. She's not kissing him back, but she's pretty sure he doesn't care. Then he starts groping her again and… "Don't cry," he whispers. That's an order, she realizes, but she can't obey. The tears keep falling, though she at least stays silent. Is that good enough? She guesses it is because he's not biting her again or anything.

"If I say something you really don't wanna hear, do you promise not to bite me?"

She suddenly remembers that… and the fact that he never actually promised. At least that means he isn't a liar…. Well, not about some things. He lied to all of them about being this almost-human-good-guy-vampire.

It's a challenge, the way she doesn't want him. Part of him wants to take her right here in this alley, but… he still has a soul and he's not the man he was without it. He wants her to want… to want what he promised her with his bite and his touch. He'll get her to that place.

"I'll take you home." He backs away from her, but takes her hand. She wants to pull away, but she doesn't. Already she's learned obedience. The walk back to her house is too short for his liking, and it's silent, but her hand is in his and he can feel its warmth through his own cool skin. This won't be the last time he touches her.

And now they're here. Willow thought they would never get here. Never in her life has she loved her house more. He stands with her at her door. "I'm not gonna say anything to Buffy," she says softly, pleadingly, wanting nothing more than for this to be over so she can go inside and break down and then go to sleep and wake up tomorrow and pretend this never happened. "Just tell her you found out about Ford on your own, okay?"

"I'll do that." Then her hand is free and she reaches for her doorknob – thankful and feeling as if she's free at last.

"This isn't over." His words are more than a promise and he watches as Willow all but crumples to the ground in her doorway. He waits for her to go inside and close the door behind her and then he turns and leaves.

Tonight, he'll go home and deal with his desire alone… but that won't be the case for much longer. Tomorrow… tomorrow he'll put his mask back on and tell Buffy about the danger. But someone knows him at last – knows him– and that's a mirror he won't give up.

Willow's his now. Maybe she doesn't like it yet, but she will. She doesn't have a choice, any more than he does.

The ridges and fangs can't be seen, but he feels them. He feels them completely, just as he feels his soul. He's a vampire.

The End.