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In the Dark (the What's a Nice Jewish Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This remix): Part Two

It seems like no time at all before they’re worlds away from the parking lot and the pedophile and the little boy and the people whose questions they’ll never have to answer. There are no more throngs of tourists and the sidewalks are devoid of pedestrian traffic. This isn’t Sunnydale; everyone drives.

“Think anything’ll happen to the guy?”

“I remember his license plate number,” Angel replies and for the first time today Willow actually respects him.

“I can get his info off the computer,” she offers. Hacking – it’s magic of a different and more temporal kind than what she’s been doing today, but it has its uses and she has to admit that for the most part, it’s still a weapon with which she’s more skilled.

That’s changing, though, isn’t it?

“Thanks,” he says, and she thinks he’s about to say something more, but he doesn’t. He’s looking at her, though, really looking. It’s strange and unfamiliar. Maybe Oz looked at her with as much focus once upon a midnight dreary, but that was a long time ago. “You’ve come a long way.”

Really? Nice cliché there, Angel. Way to show that you don’t see anything after all. She’s this close to clapping him on the shoulder and thanking him for bursting the almost-sort-of-happy bubble that had been about to shimmer around her. “No,” she corrects him, shrugging as if it means nothing, “restoring your soul was a way bigger spell than opening that door.”

He’s staring again and it occurs to her that he hasn’t even thought about the fact that she’s the one who returned his soul, not recently, and maybe not ever. For a vampire who fancies himself a do-gooder, he’s not much for gratitude. Or maybe, she ponders, thinking of Buffy and Cordelia, he’s only grateful to hot girls.

“I never thanked you for that, did I?”

There’s a saying: Better late than never. It’s bunkum. Or maybe it’s the very specific timing. Having to practically shove the words into his mouth in order to hear them renders them absolutely meaningless, or worse, insulting.

She decides to pretend to be as stupid as he thinks she is. “You thanked me a second ago. I told you, it was easy.” Maybe it was easy.

“I didn’t mean the car.” Had this been a test, Angel would have gotten a big ol’ F. He really does think she’s stupid, huh. Not that he treats her that differently from everyone else. This is pretty much par for the course her whole life has taken.

So why does it suddenly bother her so much?

Did this all start in that moment of blankness where a life didn’t flash before her eyes? Or is that just when the Jack in the Box popped up, propelled by the pressure of years and years of pain and resentment buried so deep and well that even Willow hadn’t seen the upturned earth or the mark of shovels?

It occurs to her that this feels old, this painful beat of wings against glass, old and familiar like pale pink scars and bruises just barely purple and yellow under new skin.

She’s a riot of colours, screaming.

Angel is staring, offended, and she realizes he said something else, but she has no idea what it was. “I wasn’t listening,” she says, and she tries to stop herself, but the habits of years won’t allow her to not add, “I’m sorry.” At least she has managed to keep that last from sounding sincere. Small favours aren’t always so small. Not when your world is even smaller.

Still staring. It’s not as unfamiliar now and she almost likes the way it means he is at last realizing that he has no clue who the heck – hell, learn to curse, Willow - hell she is.

“I thought we were friends,” he says, and she thinks maybe this is meant as some sort of ham-handed segue to the conversation he attempted earlier – the one she’s still oh-so-very-not-interested in having.

You know what? She doesn’t even care if right after this he calls Buffy and tells her he thinks that goody-two-shoes Willow is possessed because she’s so very ready to be a raging bitch. “You’re kidding, right? Have we ever had a conversation, Angel?” There’s a movement of lips that looks like it’s about to be an interruption and she speeds into the pause just ahead of him. “I mean a conversation that isn’t about Buffy or some sort of evil-fighting emergency.” Nothing. Not a word from the big, shirtless, pale guy. “I rest my case. We’re not friends, Angel. Friends know stuff about each other. They have actual conversations about stuff like… their hobbies, the movies they like, what foods they hate, what they always wanted to be when they…” She stops at that last part because even she doesn’t know that about herself anymore. She had dreams all her own once, what seems like an eternity ago, but she barely recalls them now. Jesse would remember.

He’s dead though.

He never got to be a fireman.

For a moment she thinks maybe she should do that herself, live that dream for him, but then she thinks that no – if he were here, he’d want her to have a dream of her own. Or maybe that’s just one of those wacky conceits where the dead are always so much saintlier.

Screw… Fuck it. She’ll see Jesse in as bright a light as she wants to.

Angel’s just standing there and if there’s one thing Willow’s grateful for, it’s that he’s not suddenly turning into Sharing Guy. Still, they need to keep walking, so she sets the example and he follows. Where they’re going is anybody’s guess. Good thing she’s in shape, but boy is she starting to feel the strain of the day. “I need to find an ATM,” she says. “Spike stole my money.”

Well, at least Angel seems to know what an ATM is, or he’s pretending to, because there’s no confused look going on. It’s a relief. She got more than enough of tutoring back in high school. She does notice something when she looks at him, though. “You don’t sunburn,” she observes “That ring seems to really do the job.”

Okay, there’s a look on his face – he’s brooding and even though she doesn’t… okay, maybe ‘care’ really isn’t the right word, but she’s curious. “Is something wrong?”

He shrugs but doesn’t explain and it makes her wonder if this is some sort of juvenile reaction to her making him aware that he’s not her friend. Isn’t he a little old for this? Is he going to throw himself to the pavement and pound his big, meaty fists on the ground? Too bad he doesn’t have any breath to hold so he can turn blue. That might be fun to watch. “I don’t suppose you actually know where there’s a machine or anything so I can get some money for a cab, huh?”

“A cab?”

Is he always this slow? Because she knows Buffy doesn’t have brains in her top five of attractive ‘guy traits’ but this is just ridiculous. “I kinda need to get back to my car,” she explains, not bothering to worry about the fact that she sounds like a preschool teacher.

“I thought we were walking.”

Okay, here’s the part where she explains something he really needs to know. “I’m not a vampire or a slayer, Angel. Between the kidnapping, the walking I’ve already done, and the magic? My feet are getting kinda tired – along with the rest of me. I need to take a cab, get my car, and then possibly check into a motel, ‘kay?” Yes, she’s still using her overly-enunciated, irritated preschool teacher voice and no, she doesn’t give a damn.

“I’m sure Cordelia would let you bunk with her,” he says and she just boggles at that. He really is a moron. At least Parker managed to get admitted to UCS. She’s pretty sure Angel would flunk out of the New Zoo Revue.

“Yeah. Sure. Because I haven’t been through enough, what with Spike’s hand between my legs and all. I really need to deal with your assistant-slash-hateful-bitch and all the insults she likes to throw my way. Thanks. I feel so appreciated. And hey, thanks for proving I was right and that you are not now and have never been my friend.”

She’s so done. A sudden turn and she sprints across the street. She’s just spotted what looks like a gas station mini mart a couple of blocks up from here and she’s seeing the light at the end of a very dark and dingy tunnel.

Or maybe not because Angel doesn’t get the hint. He’s right beside her a scant two seconds later. “I didn’t know you two still didn’t get along. I thought that thing with Xander … I thought it was over.”

She snorts – again. Once more and she should be able to hunt truffles. “Because we were such close buds before Xander and I made with the smoochies? I didn’t actually need any more proof that no one but Buffy has ever mattered to you.”

Rolling her eyes, she keeps on walking towards the Promised Land, also known as the AM/PM Mini Mart, tantalizing her with its neon and plastic goodness just a short distance away. Angel hangs like an anchor beside her. Is it her imagination or is it really taking longer to get to that market and its ATM because he’s with her? “I’m sorry,” he says and she’s about to snort again when he surprises her by adding, “You’re right, you know. I never really got to know you.”

She wishes she could just blow it off except… he didn’t add anything facile and hypocritical like ‘I wish I had.’ All he did was acknowledge the truth. Maybe she doesn’t want to, but she has to respect that. “Okay,” she replies, feeling the anger subside at long last, which might be a good thing considering how much glass there is around here. There’s still the ache of battered wings, though. When will that go away?

The mini-mart. Finally. She walks in, enjoying the blast of cold air and oddly soothed by the acrid smell of hot dogs and other fake food cooking on metal rollers. There it is in the corner – the ATM. She almost runs toward it.

The mechanics of withdrawal are smooth and automatic and a few clicks and whirrs later she has two hundred dollars in her hand. Checking her balance, it looks like her parents remembered to make their monthly deposit. Nice, considering she doesn’t even know where they are. Still, thanks to her own frugal ways, she could hire a private detective to track them down with the amount she has in her checking account alone.

“Will that be enough?” Angel asks, startling her a bit.

“I can get more later.”

For a moment, he looks like he’s going to say something that she thinks might be an offer of money, but he doesn’t, which fits right in with how cheap she remembers him being in Sunnydale. He never took Buffy out to dinner, that’s for sure. How could Buffy sleep with…

But then again, does Oz ever take her out to dinner?

Great. She’s just started to get over being irritated and annoyed with Angel and she has to think about Oz. The universe hates her.

Luckily, she has expediency as a distraction - she needs to call for that cab. “Excuse me,” she says to the not-bad-looking guy about her age who might be from India who’s working behind the counter, “is there a payphone around here?”

“Around the side.” Hmm. The accent seems a little off of Indian, if her memories of Indian TV haven’t failed her. Maybe he’s from Pakistan. Either way, still kinda cute. Much to her own shock, she smiles at him in what might be a flirtatious manner and he smiles back… like she’s a girl and a hot one. So okay, it’s possible the universe doesn’t hate her after all. Of course, then she feels Angel being all ‘grim presence’ beside her and the cute guy looks away nervously.

Yes, the universe hates her.

Huffing, she stomps out of the store and around to the side where, yes, there’s a graffiti-covered payphone and a phone book that looks much the worse for wear hangs from it. Angel is still beside her, shirtless and sickly-white and really annoying. Doing her best to ignore him, she calls the first cab company listed and tells the bored sounding guy on the other end of the line what her cross streets are. A lazily drawled “Be-there-in-bout-half-an-hour-be-waiting” is her answer and it’s followed by a dial tone before she can even say, “Can’t you get someone here sooner?” Great. Just great.

“It’s going to be awhile,” she tells Angel, “so if you want to walk, be my guest.” Please take the hint. Please, please, please take the hint. Because right now being alone seems like a really swell idea.

But no, he seems to be here to stay. “Why don’t you just ask that guy in there for a ride? I’m sure he’d give it to you.” Angel emphasizes the word ‘ride’ in a way that’s insulting and she’s this close to slapping him. He has some nerve.

“Oh, I get it. This is 1760 and I’m not allowed to wear my skirt above my ankles or to flirt with a good-looking guy?”

“You think he’s good-looking?”

This cannot be happening. He is so not playing this game with her.

But he is and he’s about to learn the hard way that Willow Rosenberg isn’t to be trifled with. Not anymore. “Yes, I do. It’s too bad he lives so far away from me, ‘cause I might have asked for his number.” Of course, she wouldn’t have, not really – at least she doesn’t think so – seeing as how she supposedly has a boyfriend, not that Angel even…

“What about Oz?”

“He’s fucking groupies in San Francisco, so I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t care.” Did she just say that? She did, didn’t she? Just casually blurted out what she’s been scared to admit is probably what’s going on right this minute.

Angel looks shocked too, but she has a feeling it’s because she used the word ‘fuck’ and not because he’s surprised at the thought of Oz cheating on her.

“It’s not really 1760,” she points out. “I can curse if I want to. Oh, and if the next thing you want to say is that you’ve never heard me do it before, ask yourself how often you’ve talked to me and then just don’t say it.”

“You’re right. I can’t say it suits you, though.”

“Whatever. I don’t know why you even care. I’m not Buffy or Cordelia, so what does it matter?” She’s angry again. Goody gumdrops, because she really missed the physical pain of all this where-the-hell-did-it-come-from rage roiling around inside her.

“You’re right. You’re not them.” Does he want a cookie for that? Then he continues, “But it still doesn’t suit you.”

“You’re not sharing my cab,” she shoots back. “I am so fed up with being in this… this box that everybody has me in. Nobody bothers to learn who I am inside, what I think, how I feel – they all decide that they know who I am and the truth doesn’t mean… one - fucking - thing.” And yes, she just enunciated the word ‘fucking’ as if she was teaching it to a class full of eager students. Sue her. Cursing is new to her. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have the right to do it.

You know, he’s easier to read than those stupid Dick and Jane books because she already knows what he’s about to say. “Spare me the ‘Buffy’s not like that,’ okay? Because other than what she’s like in bed, I’m pretty sure I know her better than you do.” Oh boy is she going to feel guilty about insulting the girl even she has on a pedestal – and that guilt will hit her soon, she knows – but for now she’s just bitter and acting on emotion, even if she knows full well that the person who’s most to blame isn’t Buffy or any of her friends or Oz or even Angel… it’s Willow. The girl whose shadow she sees in the mirror every morning. The girl she’s been pretending is a real person.

The girl who is anything but.

Some random blonde in a bikini top and cut-off shorts is staring at Angel and licking her lips, so of course Angel’s eyes drift right over to her. As much as Willow is sure she’d enjoy scoffing and snickering inwardly while Angel and the airhead make with the flirting, she’s smart enough to think of using this little interlude as a distraction instead. Maybe she can make a break for it, call a different cab from somewhere else.

Before she can even pick a direction, though, Angel does something that stuns her senseless. He moves closer and puts his arm around her, giving her a fond look like…

Eww. He’s not flirting with the beach bunny at all, no, instead he’s acting like Willow’s his girlfriend. Do they make vamp-sickness bags?

Well, the hate-filled, jealous look she’s getting from Malibu Barbie isn’t entirely unwelcome, but she still wants to barf. There’s nothing to be done, however, so she tries hard to think of… well, Oz, sort of, or maybe that cute girl – yes girl – in the ridiculous Wicca group she’s been frequenting and looks up at Angel with what might pass for a look of answering fondness. Why are they even doing this?

Then she flashes back to that bit with the shirt and her confession about Oz and she gets it. She wishes she didn’t, but she gets it. This is Angel’s idea of doing her a favour. God. As Buffy might say: Ego much? He really thinks this is going to make it all better, like his make-believe affection is the band-aid for all her hurts. Is he really so shallow? Worse, does he think she is?

The glossy Barbie doll flips her hair over one tan shoulder and goes into the store as Angel takes Willow’s hand and leads her to a bus bench in front of the station. “We might as well sit,” he says and she agrees, but not happily, because agreeing with Angel makes her itch. She’s feeling the fatigue she spoke of earlier more than ever though, and she sits more heavily than she wants to, unable to stifle a soft sigh of relief.

“Hope the cab gets here early. I should have offered to pay extra.”

“You really don’t want to be around me, do you?” As he says it, Willow almost tumbles off the bench. Look who just got a clue.

She’s honest because she can be. “No, I don’t. But then, it’s pretty much mutual and it’s not like I’m important to you, so at least I’m not hurting your feelings.”

“Did it ever occur to you that you don’t know everything about me?” Angel shoots back and it’s enough to stun her almost speechless.

Almost, though, isn’t enough, and she stammers out a “sorry” that’s more sincere than she’d have expected from herself.

The silence that follows is very uncomfortable, but she’s not the one who ends it – no, that would be Angel. “I asked you before why you’re so angry. You never really told me.”

He’s right. Mostly because she had no interest in doing the sharing thing with him but also because she… not that she doesn’t know, at least on some level, she just doesn’t know how to put it into words. But she sort of owes him because she’s been pretty bitchy and okay, maybe she had some justification, but still… she’s still Willow and decency still matters. “You know how when you think you’re gonna die, your life’s supposed to flash before your eyes?” Angel seems to think that’s a non sequitur, but he nods and she continues. “I thought Spike was going to kill me for sure, but… there was nothing, okay? Nothing at all. Just this total blankness where my life was supposed to be.” Does he get it? She doesn’t think so. “I have no life. None. I’m just this sidekick, this supporting character who fills up space in other people’s lives, but when they’re not around, I’m nothing.”

That’s the signal and she waits for the platitudes. Sadly, she doesn’t have to wait long. “That’s not true, Willow. Buffy…”

Oh god! “Do you hear what you just said? You don’t think of me as a person in my own right. You can’t even look at me without seeing Buffy. Because that’s who I am to you – Buffy’s friend. Net Girl. Research Gal. Sidekick.” She’s about to get up and bolt, but he obviously senses that because he grabs onto her arm, forcing her to either stay seated or create a public spectacle.

“You’re right.” No duh. “I guess maybe I see why you’re upset.”

“Gee thanks.” Yes, she’s sarcastic. So what?

“Your friends, though, they have to see you as…”

“The same thing you do,” she finishes for him.

She thinks she’s shut him down and ended this depressing conversation at last, but then he turns the tables on her. “What do you see when you look at me?”

That’s so not fair – except that it is. It’s very fair and that’s far more irritating. She does the actual looking thing for a moment and she’s glad that she can be honest when she says, “I used to see Buffy’s boyfriend. But a minute ago when I thought you were gonna flirt with that girl, I didn’t think about Buffy at all. So I don’t know. I think I just see you as somebody really pale who I barely know and don’t really like.”

Okay, he’s sort of half-smiling and that’s just… weird. It’s totally inapropos, in fact, so she just has to ask. “What?”

“It’s just that you talk about me like I’m a person. It’s… different.”

You know, Angel is really, really strange. Also – hooray! There’s a cab pulling up and she’s instantly on her feet with a big smile, waving so the driver knows who his fare is.

Just as she hoped, the cab stops right there at the bus stop and they both stand. Angel opens the door for her. Time to say goodbye. She did tell Angel he wasn’t going with her, right? But just as she’s about to say something, Angel practically shoves her in and then gets in with her. Big mooch! Here she is paying for this ride and he’s taking advantage. Now more than ever, she knows she meant what she said about not really liking him.

Luckily, there’s a distraction – the driver’s not a guy, it’s a girl. And you know – okay, maybe it’s sort of weird to be thinking this way about yet another woman – this driver’s kind of cute. A little too old for her, but she looks kind of like the cabbie in that Bogdanovich movie, They All Laughed, freckles and all.

Naturally, Angel being such a throwback, he totally takes over, giving the driver the address and not even letting Willow speak. But she smiles and hopes the woman sees it in the rearview mirror. Is she flirting?


Now is probably not the time for this, but… yeah, she still likes guys; it’s just that she’s starting to think there’s an ‘and’ in there, or, more accurately, a ‘bi.’

Out of all the things she’s learning about herself today, this is easily the least troubling, though she’s pretty sure that, if her friends find out, Buffy will freak, Giles will stutter and polish his glasses a lot, and Xander… will want to watch her and some cheerleader type.

Whoa. Wait a minute. It suddenly occurs to her that she didn’t factor Oz in at all. So many times today, she’s had to remind herself that she has a boyfriend. Is this what he’s been feeling too? This sense of disconnection? This sense that they’re together for no good reason other than that there’s been no dramatic excuse to break up?

She doesn’t know – can’t know, really, not without asking questions she thinks she won’t have the courage to ask once she gets back to Sunnydale. But, weirdly, she thinks she knows – or might know – something about Angel that even he doesn’t know.

That’s probably something she’ll lock away, but she wishes she had the gumption to say something. Oh, not in the car with a witness who doesn’t know anything about vampires and hellmouths and Slayers, but… sometime, somewhere. She doesn’t though, so what’s the point in even wondering?

Willow’s drawn back into the mundane of the here and now as the car slows down and pulls over to the curb and… well, what do you know? They’re here. Willow’s rental car is parked where she left it. Angel gets out and Willow fishes for her wallet and gets out a couple of twenties. “Keep the change,” she offers with a smile.

The cabbie turns and frowns cutely. “You’re paying? Your boyfriend’s no gentleman.” Her voice is low and husky and really kind of sexy.

Turning on the charm without thinking, Willow half-smiles and says, “He’s not my boyfriend.” Yep, she’s officially flirting.

There’s a chuckle and a soft head-shake before the cabbie says, “If I were a few years younger…”

“If I lived in L.A…”

They stare into each other’s eyes for a moment, and then the cabbie shakes her head again with a rueful smile. “Have a good one, cutie.”

“You, too.” Willow gets out of the cab, closes her door before Angel can do it for her, and watches as the car drives slowly away.

Angel’s jaw is slack and he looks almost like a cartoon character. “What was going on in there with you and the driver?” Really? Like it’s any of his damn business. She shrugs and does her best to look innocent. He’s not buying it. “Do you flirt with everybody?” She can almost hear the ‘except me’ at the end of his question.

Let’s see if we can really make his jaw drop. Shrugging again, she answers with a nonchalant “She was cute.” Angel is staring and Willow goes for broke. “Oh, c’mon, Angel. You’re what – 300 years old or something? I’m pretty sure you know about bisexuality by now.” Oh gosh. For a split second she sees a flicker of… bullseye! Yes, Angel is very aware of bisexuality. Intimately. She’s sure of it.

But then he surprises her? “When did you know? Was it after your double…?”

Huh? Okay. Honestly, she hadn’t even thought of her vamp self, so no, that wasn’t it at all. She decides to put the games on hold and just be truthful. “No. I… It’s been pretty recent.” Looking down at her hands, she sees that they’re shaking – and this time it’s not from rage. Sure that Angel can see her nerves, she figures more honesty is pretty much mandatory right now. “I guess I didn’t really know until… uh… today?”

She waits for him to say something else, and he does, but it’s not what she expects. “I’m sorry about Oz.” Angel’s given her more than a few surprises today – but not as many as the universe has. She wonders what’s going to happen to her when she goes home and the ache of wings still haunts the marrow of her bones.

“Yeah, well. Maybe it’s payback.” And hey, maybe it is. She wonders… if he’s really doing what she thinks he is, what do the groupies look like? Are they prettier? Better in bed? Or is it enough that they’re not Willow?

“For you kissing Xander?” He scoffs. “There’s a big difference between that and having sex with random girls.” It suddenly occurs to her that Angel is accepting what she said; no dismissals, no attempts to talk her out of believing what she’s sure is true, just acceptance. She wonders if he realizes that this is so much more meaningful than that pretense of being her boyfriend back at the mini-mart. He looks around and she realizes that they’re standing on a public street and there are people walking by. This is Los Angeles, not Sunnydale. There are no empty spaces. “C’mon,” he says, taking her arm and leading her inside.

They don’t go into the office or even down to Angel’s apartment, instead, they take the elevator to the roof. Guess he still wants to enjoy the sunlight. Can’t really blame him for that, though the blossoming sunburn on her skin is going to hurt like heck – hell, remember you’re supposed to be old enough to curse – tomorrow. Could she do a spell for that? She supposes she could. How much harder could it be than that glamour she’d done on a pimple?

How much harder could it be than staking a vampire or shattering glass with only her anger?

Angel sits down near the edge of the roof and so does Willow. She’s never been afraid of heights. “It’s been quite a day,” he says quietly, staring into the sunlight as if he’s taking it all in for the first time.

Or the last.

That’s the thought that makes her wonder, but she doesn’t say anything. She’s a leaking balloon, all the air and energy of today’s magic draining away, leaving nothing but battered wings and a feeling of hopeless dread and… longing. Yes, longing. Longing to hang on to what she’s learned even as she knows that it will all vanish into the sulfur mists when she heads home. After all, there’s no room for it there – there’s no room for her there – and she’ll be expected to wedge right back into the tight, confining space afforded someone who only exists to decorate other people’s lives.

Of course, the truth is that she won’t need to be forced. What is that saying? That if you had a choice of any kind of misery, you’d still pick your own because it’s familiar? In her case, she thinks it’s even worse – that even if she could choose something better, she’d still cling tight to the threadbare, airless existence she knows even as small avian bones break and anger whistles, high and shrill, beneath her skin.

“You did incredible things today.” Angel’s voice breaks through her thoughts. “I can’t… I think if they knew, what you can do, I mean…”

She shakes her head more ruefully than ever that cabdriver did. “Yeah. Because giving you back your soul earned me so much respect.”

Whatever the look in his eyes is right now, she can’t figure it out and she’s not sure she even wants to.

The sky is turning pink and red and gold. It’s sunset, isn’t it? “Must be kind of amazing for you, the first time you’re seeing this after so long. Think you’ll ever get used to it?”

He’s got that expression again, the one she thought was that of someone seeing this for the very last time, and she doesn’t think he heard a word she said. “Earth to Angel.” She even waves her hand in front of his face for good measure.

“I’m just trying to remember…” He stops short and she has a sinking feeling… along with a new, anguished flare of anger.

“You can’t be… You really are, aren’t you? You’re going to do something totally stupid like destroy the ring.” She gets up, pacing, not even sure at all why this even matters to her, but that doesn’t change the fact that she wants to punch Angel in the face. “God! After everything… Spike put his hand between my legs today…” Her tongue is tight and words are spat hard. “How can you be such a martyr?”

Is he afraid of her? Worried she’s about to jump? “That’s not it. My redemption…”

“Oh yeah. Your redemption. Oh well, now I totally get it. Because sure, brooding in dark corners does so much more good than – say – saving lives.” Her arms are flailing and she’s caught an unwelcome second wind of rage. “Do you really think that little boy was the only person you could help during the day?”

“It’s not that simple.”

Great. He’s patronizing her now. Secret vamp stuff a mere mortal like her would never understand. Like Oz’s werewolf stuff and Buffy’s Slayer stuff and Giles whenever she’s asked him to help her with magic and… “It is that simple,” she snaps back, barely recognizing the angry voice emerging from her throat. “You just like this whole suffering and abnegation thing. You get off on being the king of self-sacrifice. I bet you don’t even miss Buffy because it’s so much more fulfilling for you to be the poor, tortured vampire who had to give up his one true love.”

Maybe she crossed the line because Angel’s eyes have just flashed gold and she’s reminded of the fact that he hasn’t given up that ring yet. “You know, I’m starting to get why Oz…”

When Angel shoots, he doesn’t miss. For all the distance between her and her boyfriend, Willow feels that unfinished sentence like a knife in her gut. He’s not wrong either, is he? She flashes back to this morning’s perfunctory sex. “Why Oz would rather be with anyone but me?”

There might be tears in her eyes or something because Angel immediately seems remorseful. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s the truth.” Her tone is clipped and guarded. She doesn’t want his retraction… or his pity.

“It was a cruel thing to say.” God, he’s an even bigger wimp than she is.

“Technically, I was the one who said it.”

He looks pensive. “You’re wrong, you know.”

“About what?” Because honestly? He could mean just about anything.

“About me leaving Buffy because I like suffering.”

That isn’t quite what she said, but she lets it go. Earlier, she’d had the energy for extended battle, but now? Now she isn’t sure she can make the drive home tonight. The anger had surged a moment ago, but right at the moment she’s that balloon again and she feels rubber against fractured bones. Suddenly it’s as if there’s no one here on the roof with her. There’s no magic inside at all, or if it’s there, it’s hiding too deep to be found. All that’s left is a scared girl who’s all alone and terrified of everything going back to the way it was… but even more terrified of not returning to the status quo.

“It’s never been like this,” she whispers. She remembers Angel now, and she realizes that, yeah she had yelled at him, but he wasn’t the only one at whom she was shrieking.

Angel heard her of course. “The magic?” he asks and she has to admit that, for someone she’s been prone to characterizing as an insensitive lummox, he’s kind of astute.

She nods. “Yeah.”

So okay, she’s girding her loins and preparing for the questions, but they don’t come. Either he’s really considerate or he just doesn’t care. She’s not sure it matters which; she’s just glad not to be expected to vomit up all this inner turmoil.

The sky is growing darker and she’s still feeling small and helpless, but she has to ask, “What are you going to do with the ring?” even though she just knows he’s still going to…

“Keep it.”

And she just about faints. “Really?”

“I’m not going to wear it, I just…” he stops and looks at her with more respect than she thinks she’s ever gotten from him – or maybe from anyone, but she doesn’t want to think about that, “I think someday it might be right for me to use it. You made some good points.”

What on Earth is she supposed to say? Is it weird that she’s more furious with him now than ever? It is, isn’t it? But damn him, he’s just made everything infinitely harder and he’s lucky he hasn’t taken that ring off because she wants to stake him so badly. “Good,” she says through gritted teeth, hoping – no doubt in vain – that she comes off as sincere. She’s not interested in opening her wounds so that Angel can drink her metaphoric blood.

“What’s wrong?”

Oh gosh, Angel… got a century? Oh wait. He actually does. She doesn’t, though. She also doesn’t have much energy. If she doesn’t get into her car and get away soon, she won’t even be able to make it to a motel. And no, she is so not sleeping on Cordelia Chase’s couch. She’s been through enough… she’ll be going through enough for the rest of her not-really-a-life.

“I better go. I need to get on the road if I’m gonna make it…”

Angel grabs her arm as she turns to leave and she doesn’t get to finish her sentence. “So that’s it?” He seems incredulous – and angry. So the tables have turned. “You can dish it out but when the chips are down, you’re just a mouse.”

You know, she would take offense to that if it wasn’t… totally true. She takes offense anyway, but she doesn’t really have the right. Still, more intense feelings right now? This is all too much.

She begins to sway on her feet and she sort of has to admit that it’s kind of a good thing Angel’s right there when her knees start to buckle, because…

“I’ve got you.”

The part where he caught her? Not the annoying part. No, it’s the sound of his voice – all manly and protective and ‘I’ll save you, helpless damsel.’ Okay, yes, technically at the moment she’s sort of on the helpless side, but… Not today. Not all of today. Today she staked a vampire with the force of her will and shattered windows and caught a child molester and…

There’s the ache of those wings again, she’s feeling it in every inch of her bones and she can’t help it – she starts to cry.

Before she can protest, she’s been picked up like that same damn – damn, damn, damn – helpless damsel and carried into the elevator and down into Angel’s dark and gloomy apartment. Oh goody. Especially the part where he sets her down, not in a chair, but on his bed.

“Don’t get up,” he says – well, orders – and her Pavlovian training kicks in and she obeys. Because that’s what good little sidekicks do, right?

She says nothing, just looks around, noticing things she hadn’t before. Like that the stuff in the kitchen is much cheaper than the bedroom furniture. Angel’s not so monastic. He spends on the things he uses. Also… this is some expensive bedding she’s laying on. She knows silk when she feels it and this is definitely a silk duvet cover under her hands.

Something about sitting on her best friend’s true love’s fancy bed is making her very uncomfortable and she really, really wants to leave. But instead, she blurts out, “Was this the same stuff you had in Sunnydale?” and what she means is ‘Did you and Buffy have sex on these sheets?’

Much to her dismay, it’s clear Angel heard the music and not just the words because he too knows exactly what she meant. His eyes narrow – predatory and sly. “No. I left almost everything there. I wanted a fresh start.”

There’s music there, too, but she has no desire to learn the tune. It harkens back to that flash of knowledge she thought she had earlier, when she’d wondered if there was anything real left between her and Oz.

Deciding to just focus on the fact that she’s glad not to be touching bedding Buffy had sex on, she smiles guilelessly and says, “I understand that.” With that, of course, she’s stepped on a live land mine.

“You can start over too, you know. If you want.”

This is a point which needs to be argued and she hopes she has the wherewithal to manage it. “I’m enrolled in school. I have commitments, a boyfriend…”

“There are better schools in L.A. and your boyfriend is probably cheating on you right this minute.”

Why she’s suddenly backpedaling, she has no clue – or more accurately, doesn’t want a clue – but she hears herself nearly whine, “I don’t know for a fact that he’s cheating. I might have read too much into…” Okay, she was about to way overshare and she’s so glad she hit the brakes just in time.

Unfortunately, her magical-emotional crash has sapped her psychic strength and Angel’s eyes are locked on hers, seeming to pull against her weak defenses. All she can manage is defiance as she finds herself revealing the embarrassing truth. “The sex, okay? We had sex right before I left to bring you the ring, but he wasn’t really into it. It was like he did it just to placate me. There. Are you happy now?” The tears are threatening to come back because she can only imagine what he’s thinking. God. If he tells Cordelia…

But if she was expecting amusement or scorn to colour his expression, then she was dead wrong. He looks… angry. You know, come to think of it, that sort of makes sense for a guy who can’t actually indulge in those naked activities Oz seems to find so enervating when she’s involved, even if she’s the last person on Earth he would want to indulge in them with. “He’s a jackass,” Angel spits out, and again, yeah, Willow can see his point of view, but no, he’s not making her feel better.

He’s not convincing her to make the break and move to Los Angeles either, though she is thinking again about just taking off, maybe for Massachusetts, and starting over somewhere completely new. Not Los Angeles, though.

She’s supposed to say something, isn’t she? She guesses it should be something about Oz, though she’d rather not. It’s not easy to talk about the fact that your boyfriend finds sex with you to be a chore. If she wasn’t a shadow, she wouldn’t have this problem, would she?

“It’s not you,” Angel says, as if he’s read her mind. Not as freaksome as you might imagine since – hey – what else would she be thinking? So of course he’s saying what you’re supposed to say in circumstances like this. Gosh, Angel. You’re a mensch.

“Thanks. I appreciate you saying that.”

“But you don’t believe me.” Look who’s still Mister Insight.

“No, I don’t.” There’s so much more she wants to say, but her will doesn’t have the kick it did before and she’s not equal to the task of… well, much, as she’s discovered in these past few minutes.

He sits down next to her on the bed and she’s incredibly uncomfortable, but it’s not like she can tell him not to, can she? This is his apartment. “It’s not you,” he repeats, his voice low and tinged with… something, something creepy and unsettling that she’s not at all okay with having there – clogging the air as if it were ash and making it hard to breathe.

“You don’t know that,” she says, fecklessly squandering what might just be the last flutter of those wings for who knows how long to bring a flash of fire into her eyes – the fire that burns shining and dangerous and was once able to dust a vampire with its force of intention.

What she’s just done… it might have been a mistake. There’s an answering gold suddenly glowing behind Angel’s gaze and she realizes that, for all that she airily proclaimed he didn’t know her, the truth is that she doesn’t know him any better. How on Earth had she ever gotten the impression that the soul made Angel into some sort of goofy, fanged puppy?

Maybe, she thinks, because he does a good job of creating that illusion. She’s learning, though, isn’t she? Vampires are not werewolves. Angel doesn’t leave his fangs in a cage at the end of a full-moon-night.

But what does any of this have to do with her?

“I know,” he says firmly, and it takes her a moment to remember what that’s even about. When she does, her feelings of awkwardness and discomfiture increase. She’s too drained not to feel dorky and unsure and really not equal to dealing with talking about sex anymore with Angel. Gone is the confidence that enabled her to flippantly share her bisexuality with him on a public sidewalk. She’s a tenth grade geek again who can barely speak around any boy who isn’t Xander.

Is this who Oz sees when she takes off her clothes? Is this who anyone would see? Would it even matter if she moved on to someone new?

Angel’s still staring at her. “You’re an amazing woman.” Those words could be sweet or kind or simply an insincere platitude – she’d prefer any of those options to the scuttling of an unseen spider she can hear beneath his voice.

What has she done? What has she gotten herself into?

The rollercoaster her psyche is on is making her nauseous. A few seconds ago her biggest fear was that underneath her college girl clothes was the dorky, tenth grade loser who couldn’t have gotten a date if her life depended on it and now, as Angel’s eyes bore into her, she’s terrified of something else entirely, because she doesn’t want to know any more about what he sees than she already does – that what he sees is anything but the geek he knew in Sunnydale… and that he… No, she doesn’t know anything.

But she’s still afraid.

There’s one thing you can say for fear, though: It’s a surefire source of adrenaline. The Mr. Wizard side of her brain calculates she has enough of it coursing through her to make it to the car and the nearest motel. Good enough.

Getting up suddenly and without indicating her move beforehand, she gets halfway to the elevator before announcing, “I really have to leave.” And then she’s inside, door closed, on her way up. Please don’t let Cordelia or that Doyle guy be in the office to slow her escape.

For once, her luck holds. There’s no one else there and she dashes – literally – out the door and makes it to her car even as she hears Angel behind her. Guess there were stairs too. Oh well, a miss is as good as a mile because she’s got the car in drive and she’s pulling away from the curb and – hey! Bonus! An additional adrenaline rush from the euphoria of success.

That last is excellent because in her initial calculations, she’d failed to account for the quicksand that is Los Angeles traffic. Will Angel follow her on foot, she wonders? But no, she whips around periodically, knowing her mirrors are of no use, and she doesn’t see him.

Ridiculous, isn’t she? Because why on Earth would Angel bother? She doesn’t think about the gold glowing deep in his eyes or hear the echo of his offer to stay; with luck she’ll forget them by the time she gets home.

Home. Because she is going there. No matter what she thinks she learned today or all the feelings coiled up inside, she’s ignoring the frantic beating of those wings and she’s getting on the freeway just as soon as she’s had a few hours rest and she’s going right back where she belongs – into the small, narrow space into which she’s always fit.

Even if this time she has to chop off pieces of herself to manage.

Back in Sunnydale, she won’t break windows – won’t do any magic except in one hundred percent approved-by-Giles situations and only with his supervision. She won’t flirt with girls. She won’t say a word to Oz about what she thinks he’s done. She won’t get angry anymore.

She won’t remember the look in Angel’s eyes when her own flashed magic and danger. And she certainly will never call it hunger.

She’ll never again feel the beat of wings inside as if her body was a cage from which something within longed to break free.

When she sees the sign that says Welcome to Sunnydale, she’ll be herself again – her sweet, wholesome, sidekick self.

That’s good.

That’s great.


The End.
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