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Fistfuls of Sand

Naming the cockroaches at the Bronze usually cheers her up – or she can pretend it does – but tonight it’s just not working. She knows her friends mean well, Buffy and Xander, but being here? Surrounded by popular people dancing with each other, secure in their physical perfection and ability to attract similar mates? It doesn’t help her self-esteem at all.

They don’t understand – and that makes sense, because how could they? Xander’s a guy and that means that, no matter what, he’ll always be able to get a girlfriend – a girlfriend who will never be Willow. As for Buffy, in a club packed with beautiful girls, she’s easily the most beautiful and desirable of them all. She could have any guy in here, Xander included, without even having to be polite to them. So no, there’s no way they could ever understand what it’s like for Willow and how much what happened with Malcolm hurt her.

She’d thought he liked her, that he saw beyond the pale skin and the not-very-trendy clothes and the flat chest, and that he thought her intellect was cool and interesting. She’d thought she finally found a guy of her own, one who could take away the pain of all the time she’s spent pining away for Xander. But no, he was a demon she’d accidentally unleashed on the internet – an inhuman monster – not a boy who could love her, a boy she could love back.

It never will be, will it? There will never be someone for her.

Too easily and without anyone, namely Buffy or Xander, noticing, she slips out of the Bronze and into the night. She’d worry about vampires, but hey, if her friends don’t see her, how the heck will the undead?

It’s a pretty night, isn’t it? The sky is full of stars and, before she knew what was lurking in the dark, she used to sit in her backyard on nights like this and stare at the constellations. She doesn’t do that anymore and she misses it the way she misses lots of things she’s lost since Buffy and knowledge came into her life.

She misses Jesse most of all. What would he say if he knew about what happened with Malcolm? Would she be able to talk to him, really talk? She’s not sure, not of anything or anyone, not anymore.

I won’t have to look at your pasty face again.

Sure, Xander says he doesn’t remember, and he was possessed by a hyena spirit at the time, but… Deep down, that’s how he really feels, isn’t it? Bet if he had a choice, he’d go back to hanging out with the ‘cool’ kids and leave her so far behind she’d be struggling to catch a glimpse of him off in the distance.

For some reason she’s taking the long way home and here she is at the park. It seems sad and haunted after dark. No children playing, no laughter, just creaking metal and swings eerily moving ever so slightly in the gentle breeze that passes for weather here in California. Then something – nothing like Buffy’s Slayer senses, she’s sure, but still… something – tells her she’s not alone. Trembling, knowing she’s unarmed and that even if she did have a stake odds are she’d never be able to do anything with it, she turns around. Gosh, it’s… “Angel.”

“Willow.” Wow. He remembered her name. She’s kind of surprised, truthfully, and weirdly flattered. Guys usually have a hard time remembering her name when Buffy’s around and she’s never seen him when her gorgeous, super-powered best friend wasn’t standing right there. “What are you doing out here alone?”

At first she’s offended, but then… well, he does sort of have a point, huh? It’s not exactly safe for non-Slayer-type people to be wandering around here at night. She’s lucky she didn’t meet up with a vamp… well, with another vampire, anyway. “I was at the Bronze and I was feeling sort of…” Okay. She needs to stop for a moment. This guy so does not care about her personal life or all the emotional stuff she’s going through, so she does her best to edit her response midstream-of-consciousness. “I decided to go home early and I guess I didn’t think. Sorry.”

He’s looking at her strangely. Obviously he thinks she’s a dork or an idiot or some combination thereof and gee – that doesn’t make him any different from any other male of the species, now does it? Except, of course, for the fact that he’s sort of a different species.

Okay, that’s a weird and unsettling train of thought, seeing as how Buffy has kind of a thing for him and she’s pretty sure he has a thing right back.

But then again, is it all that different from – say – interracial dating? After all, it’s not as if Angel is completely non-human or anything, he’s just sort of… you know, maybe she needs to not be so thinky here in a public park in front of someone she doesn’t really know who is obviously wondering if she’s strictly sane considering she’s just standing here all quiet and brow-furrowed.

“I’ll walk you home,” he says, and at first she thinks it’s nice, but he seems irritated and frankly, she’s in a bad enough psychological place right now without having to deal with feeling guilty for ruining someone’s night by her mere presence in it.

“I can make it on my own. Why don’t you go to the Bronze?” He’s just looking at her now with an expression she can’t interpret, so she opts for calling it confusion and explains, “Buffy’s there,” which should settle this whole discussion, so she turns and starts to continue on her way home when she feels a hand on her arm.

“I’ll walk you,” he repeats, seeming more put-upon than before and…

Maybe she’s so worn down by being upset that, for the first time in what might be ever, she doesn’t care what someone thinks, or maybe it’s because she really doesn’t know him at all and it’s not like he goes to Sunnydale High or has access to its gossip mill, but whatever the reason, she lets him have it – or as close to it as she’s ever gotten. “Look, I get that I’m this helpless damsel and all and you think you’re being nice because Sunnydale is pretty much demon central this time of night, but I’m really not in the mood for someone who clearly doesn’t want to spend a single moment with me making me feel guilty and horrible because they feel obligated to protect me. Go to the Bronze and be with Buffy. I can make it the next few blocks on my own. So thank you, but will you please just leave? Please?” Okay, the last part was kind of polite for a rant, but she’s new at this and at least she told him to go away – well, asked him, but it’s kind of the same thing, right?

He’s staring again and she still has no idea what the look in his eyes means. “You’ve had a bad night,” he says. He’s wrong about the timing, but the sentiment’s a bulls-eye, so he gets points for that, though she doesn’t at all get why he said it.

“I’m okay.”

No reply, but he takes her arm again and guides her to a picnic table. Great, her outburst seems to have made everything worse and he must feel more obligated than ever. Is there a book she could read so that next time she gets it right? A Beginner’s Guide to Tirades would have pride of place on her nightstand.

She waits for the inevitable questions but he doesn’t ask her anything and finally she blurts out, “Is there something you wanted to talk to me about?”

Angel chuckles ruefully and shakes his head. “I’m not good at this.” Huh? Clearly he can see her confusion because he adds, “Conversation. I’m not… I’m not used to it.”

Oh. Okay. Because it hits her that he’s trying to have a conversation with her and that means something. “It’s all right.” This is her way of letting him off the hook and she starts to get up, but he stares and she stays put. “I really am okay.”

He’s not buying it. “What happened?”

“Nothing. I was at The Bronze and I got bored, that’s all.” Then, of course, she loses control of her tongue and says too much. “It’s not all that interesting sitting around watching everyone else dance.”

“You don’t like dancing?” Oh gosh does she wish that was it, but it’s sweet of him to say that, especially because he sure sounds like he really believes that’s why she’s the one who sits at the table naming roaches.

Choice time. Because she can agree with him and have a brief, shining moment of dignity, or… she can do what friends so and be honest. Not that they’re friends, but she wants to be, because it occurs to her that anyone so unused to casual conversation needs a friend pretty badly. “No one wants to dance with me,” she admits, trying to sound completely blasť about it as she adds, “Which is totally okay. It’s not like I’m all that great at dancing.”

He looks totally surprised in a very sincere way, but maybe he’s just a really good actor. Still, either way, it’s nice of him and she appreciates the attempt to make her feel that she’s worthy of attention.

A moment or two passes and she wonders if she should just keep talking since he isn’t, but then he says something. “Youth is shallow.”

Coming from anyone else, it would be one of those silly platitudes you get when you’re a geek and people feel sorry for you, but something about Angel’s voice and the look on his face makes it into something more and for some reason she’ll never know – not even when she obsesses about it later – she asks, “Were you? Shallow, I mean. When you were young?”

He looks away for a moment and she thinks he really is worried about saying the wrong thing and it’s oddly comforting, because Buffy and Xander? They never worry.

“Yes,” he says and it’s pretty much the answer she was expecting, but again, weirdly comforting because it means that for centuries there have been girls just like her who went through exactly what she is going through now and it’s kind of like having sisters she’ll never meet but that exist nevertheless. She’s not totally and completely alien and alone. She’s part of the fabric of history – yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Will some future outcast take solace in knowing that she existed?

She knows she’ll never understand what happens next as, out of nowhere, she blurts out, “I thought there was someone. A boy. I met him online and I thought he really liked me, you know?” There’s the threat of tears and she pauses to try and bring her emotions under control.

Angel immediately reaches across and takes her hand, staring intently into her face. “Is that what happened tonight?” Oh god. He growled. That was a growl. “Did he do something to you?”

Protective – no one’s ever been protective of her, not like this, anyway, and it’s really, really nice. You know, for a vampire, Angel is really a great guy. Okay, she gets that Buffy’s the Slayer and that does complicate things, but still… she really should do her best to find a way around that little roadblock because Angel is way better than any boy at their school – or probably any other school.

Right at the moment, however, Angel’s eyes have just flashed gold and Willow really needs to calm him down. “Oh no. It was last night and Buffy killed him so it’s okay.” That explanation seems to have been much more explain-y in her head than it has turned out to be in practical use, because, while he no longer seems so angry, Angel looks really confused. Guess she ought to fill in some blanks, huh? “Turns out he wasn’t a boy. Or human. He was this demon named Moloch the Corrupter that I accidentally scanned into the internet and he was just using me as part of this big plot to take over the world.” She sighs. “I should have known.”

His hand is still over hers. “Why?”

She snorts. “Because he seemed all interested in me. That should have been my first clue.”

“It’s not right. You feeling that way.” But he doesn’t say she’s wrong and… it’s strange but it’s better that at least he’s tacitly acknowledging the truth.

Somehow in these few short minutes she’s come to trust Angel and, having started the whole confiding process, she keeps right on going. “It’s hard. I mean, I should be used to it, or at least starting to get that way. It’s just… Buffy has every guy in the whole world in love with her and I just wanted…” Oh god. She said the ‘B’ word. “I’m sorry. She’s my best friend and I wasn’t putting her down or anything, I swear.”

He smiles; it’s not a happy smile, just one that says that everything’s okay. “I know.” He squeezes her hand. “For what it’s worth… just because Moloch was a demon, it doesn’t mean he didn’t care.” There’s a shadow in his eyes and he’s thinking deep thoughts about stuff she knows nothing about. “Demons… sometimes they can love.”

His words reverberate and for a moment, guilt begins to take root, but then Angel continues. “It doesn’t mean they aren’t evil, though.” The shadow deepens and somehow Willow sees… nothing she can understand with her mind, but somewhere inside, she knows she’s learning something secret and important. His eyes meet hers as he adds, “Maybe that makes them more dangerous… when they care, when they love.”

With a sudden movement that startles her, Angel’s hand leaves hers and he’s on his feet. “I should get you home.” His eyes are dark and there’s a wall that she realizes with a sharp pang will be there from now on.

“Thanks,” she says, looking away, acting as if they haven’t had the conversation they just had, and falling into step by his side. The short walk to her house is silent and sad.

At the front door of her dark, empty home, he turns to leave, but then… “If things were different…”

Then he’s gone. But she gets it; she does. It doesn’t make anything better, but… yeah, maybe it does after all. Or maybe it’s just that she can be comfortable with anything if it makes sense and now… now she can see the why of things. Still, it’s hard not to feel the kind of nostalgia you shouldn’t feel so soon or so acutely.

For a short time, she had a friend, but more importantly, so did Angel and she thinks the loss is harder for him than for her.

Once she’s in her nightshirt, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, she turns over the things he told her in her head. He’s given her something precious; she knows that even if all of its value isn’t immediately apparent.

Someday she’ll know.


The End.
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