You Feel Lost But You Know Where You're From
Angel wasn’t looking for company – was actively trying to avoid it, in fact. Which was why he’d come to the library. Buffy wasn’t eager to have him around right now, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to keep doing all he could to bring down the Mayor, and that included research, which, in the interest of respecting Buffy’s wish for ‘space’ – whatever that meant – he could do just as well, or perhaps better, alone. Here in the library. Where there was no chance of finding Buffy – or any other teen, he’d wager – on a sunny weekend afternoon.
How wrong he was.
He thought of turning back, of slipping out of here and down to the tunnels before the library’s lone occupant was any the wiser, but unfortunately, she looked up from the pile of books in front of her a split second before he could move. “Oh. Hi, Angel.”
Was it his imagination, or did Willow sound as if she was almost less pleased to see him than he was to see her?
She looked sad, but he wasn’t sure why. She and Oz had gotten back together… hadn’t they?
How unfair to her was it that he’d immediately jumped to the conclusion that boy trouble was the only possible reason she could be upset? His apercus was pretty well worthless; he realized with a shock that he didn’t know much at all about the girl who’d given him back his soul, not even enough to make an educated guess as to why she was sitting here, alone and possibly depressed, buried in volumes of dry fustian on a Sunday afternoon.
“Researching?” he asked pointlessly, feeling like a shuffle-footed idiot for asking such a ridiculous question, and one to which he already knew the answer, no less.
“Uh huh.” Then her brow furrowed and he knew a question was coming. “Are you looking for Buffy?”
He wasn’t the only one making assumptions, but before that thought could cheer him, he was reminded of the fact that her assumption had a sound basis in months of observation and his… his had been based upon nothing more than stereotypical notions about that generic entity known as the teenage girl… an entity which bore about as much resemblance to Willow as did a Chaos demon. Which was to say none at all.
All he could do was struggle to find the right way to explain himself. “No. Buffy and I are… we’re kind of…”
“On a break? Yeah, Buffy told me.” The cool equanimity with which she spoke… It made him feel ever more the idiot for not assuming Buffy had immediately called her closest friend to tell her everything. Was it because he himself had no friends? Had never had friends? “That’s why I was sort of surprised you were here. She said she was pretty adamant and all.”
Well that solved the mystery of Willow’s aloof and unwelcoming demeanour. “I respect her decision,” he said, his tone all mollification and genial acceptance. “But the Mayor is still out there and I figure you still need my help, so I thought I’d come here and do some research when she wouldn’t be around.”
“Oh.” Willow’s eyes widened slightly and Angel was… insulted, honestly. Did she really think it was all about Buffy? That he had no other motive for aiding them? This time he thought he had the right to take offense.
“Whatever happens between Buffy and me,” he said sternly, “what matters now is stopping this Ascension.”
She nodded emphatically and it felt like respect. Angel accepted it as such at any rate. “Are you having any luck?” Her face fell and he had his answer before she spoke.
“There doesn’t seem to be anything useful so far. Still,” she offered with a sudden smile, “there are lots of books we haven’t gone through yet.” He scanned the daunting pile before her. There had to be at least forty volumes stacked haphazardly all over the table.
It suddenly struck him in a different way – the fact that Willow was the only one here. For all the urgency of the task at hand, not even Giles had given up his weekend to aid her in combing through archaic tome after archaic tome in search of some way to defeat their most cunning and indomitable foe to date. Did they not grasp the gravity of their dilemma? Or was it that they took it for granted that Willow would be here to do the heavy lifting?
Where was Oz? That last question had hit him out of the blue but he didn’t realize that he’d asked it aloud until he heard her say, “The Dingoes have a gig in Fresno.”
“You didn’t go?”
Why did he say that? He felt like a bumptious oaf. Especially when he saw the stricken look flash across her face briefly before she shrugged and said, “I’m not big on missing class Monday morning. Plus, you know, research.” She held up a book to punctuate her statement.
“Can I help?” he offered, affecting an air that matched her own without realizing he was doing it until he heard himself. “That’s what I’m here for, after all.”
“How’s your medieval German?”
“Good.” He wondered why she’d asked him that, though, because he knew her German was excellent.
The answer came quickly when she said, “Great. Then you can take these,” and pushed a stack of books at him. He looked at them with a sense akin to horror, recognizing them in an instant. Thanks, Willow. These were some of the driest and most boring occult volumes extant. Without thinking, he groaned. Was she giggling? She was. “Sorry,” she offered with a guilty shrug. “I can give you the Arabic stuff instead.”
“No, it’s okay.” It was worth the impending drudgery to see a flash of humour and a genuine smile. Those were things he didn’t get often. Not even from Buffy, he realized with a sharp pang. Their relationship was all heat and intensity, no softness and smiles, but he’d never missed those things before. Why did he suddenly feel their lack?
Deciding this wasn’t a line of thought he wanted to pursue, he sat across from Willow and opened up a book. It was as dry as he remembered, even by medieval standards, and he drowned himself and his errant mental meanderings in the task of staying awake as he sought worthwhile information in the brittle pages before him.
Time passed, whether slowly or quickly, he wasn’t sure. Enervatingly, though, that he could state with certainty. It seemed he wasn’t alone in his feelings, because he looked up from his book, the sixth one – or was it the seventh? – just in time to see Willow attempt to smother a yawn. “Tired?” He smirked as he spoke, and that surprised him, as did his question. He wasn’t one for jokes… except with her, he thought as he recalled poking fun at his own tendency to brood last year when he’d visited her house.
She blushed and he thought it was becoming. “Guess none of the writers of these books were looking to make the bestseller list.”
“Or keep their readers awake. I was feeling the same as you,” he consoled her. “But vampires don’t yawn.”
“Really?” She seemed far more intrigued than he thought the offhand observation warranted, but that was her, wasn’t it? This, after all, was the same girl whose brow had once furrowed deeply in contemplation of how he managed to shave.
“Since we don’t breathe…”
He wished he hadn’t said that, because this time the scarlet in her cheeks was dark with shame as she responded, “Of course. I should have realized that.”
Hastening to undo the damage he’d done, he countered with, “I never even thought about it before today. And anyway, there are a lot of contradictions with vampires. I used to smoke… Spike still does.”
That seemed to do the trick. Her expression brightened and she sighed softly. “Oh. Well, I’m glad you don’t smoke anymore.”
Angel found himself chuckling. That was such a Willow thing to say… and in that exact moment he realized that he’d observed her more than he had realized, listened and paid attention on some level of which he’d never been aware before. How else, after all, could he so easily characterize an innocuous remark as something characteristic? “It’s not the popular thing these days, is it?”
“Uh uh.” Then she sighed, this time heavily. “I guess we better get back to the books, huh.”
She was right, of course. The Mayor wasn’t going to have a crisis of conscience and repent. No, he was going to need to be defeated by the forces of good and right, of which Angel and Willow seemed to be the most dedicated members at the moment. But one glance at the books and he could feel his eyes cross. They needed a more substantial break… but it was still daylight and there was nowhere to go. Well… “Why don’t you give me a tour? We could both stand to stretch our legs.”
The gratitude shining from her eyes was so extravagant as to be almost uncomfortable, but her answer was a restrained, “Okay.” So with that, they rose and he let her lead him out of the library and into the high school. He’d been here before, and wandered its halls, but he was interested in seeing what the various rooms meant to her. Would she share any stories… and since when was he even interested in anyone’s stories but Buffy’s?
“This is the computer lab. I spend a lot of time here.” She blushed again as she spoke and her tone was self-effacing, as if she felt the need to apologize for her interest in computers.
He moved to disabuse her of that notion. “It’s a good thing you do. We’d be lost without you.” Then he smiled, hoping she’d see his sincerity.
Another blush. “Thanks. Giles doesn’t…” She stopped short and her colour deepened. “He’s a books kind of person,” she finally said. “Which is totally okay. I like books too. A lot.”
‘Infernal machine’ and other expressions like it flashed through Angel’s memory and he admired Willow all the more. Not many people would keep toiling unselfishly in the face of constant dismissal, even with the fate of the world on the line. “Books are important,” he agreed mildly, “but computers are the future… and the present.” As he said that, he thought about his own total ignorance of them and wondered if someday he should do something about it. “They sure seem to make things easier.”
“They do.” Her voice was high and bright and eager. “There are so many sites out there about demons. You wouldn’t believe it.” Then her face fell. “Of course I totally failed at hacking into the Mayor’s files.”
What? She was blaming herself…? Now he understood why she was here and that look of sadness on her face that predated realizing he was here. “It’s not your fault at all. You had no idea Faith was a traitor. None of us did.”
That should have been enough, shouldn’t it? But it wasn’t. “I never trusted her,” Willow said in a voice so low he wondered if she realized she was speaking aloud.
“We should have listened to you,” he said, and that was true. Buffy had seen a fellow Slayer and he’d seen a lost soul desperate to be saved. Xander… well, he’d seen a woman willing to screw him. Only Willow had seen the traitor, but her perceptions hadn’t counted at all. Even now, he wasn’t sure anyone had given her credit for her acuity. “You’re more than just book smart. You know people.”
Her eyes shot wide and he wondered… no, he knew - this was the first time anyone had ever said anything like that to her. “Thanks. But it was probably more a personal thing. I kinda got lucky.”
It was irritating – the way she constantly disparaged and diminished her accomplishments – and he was angry, not the least at himself because he hadn’t even thought about everything she’d done, including what she’d done for him, until today. “I don’t think it was luck. Buffy told me you and Xander were both welcoming to her at first. You just saw something later that the rest of us missed.”
There was that furrowing of her brow that meant she was puzzled. It was… cute, he decided and he wondered if it was something Oz found endearing. Then of course he wondered why he even cared. Maybe it was because he hoped Oz loved her for some other reason than just her acceptance of his wolf and her endless willingness to do for others.
But of course Oz did. After all, he’d taken her back after that ridiculous mistake she’d made by kissing Xander. Angel really needed to stop assuming that all men were shallow, like… well, like him, if he were honest. He wondered… “How did you and Oz meet?”
She seemed utterly confused by that question, but she answered. “It was kind of… well, he said he first noticed me when I wore an Eskimo costume to the Bronze.” Okay, now Angel was the one who was confused. He knew she had always marched to the beat of her own drummer when it came to clothing – it was kind of endearing – but an Eskimo…? “We were supposed to dress in authentic costumes from other cultures,” she explained, and then it made sense, at least if one were Willow. He was certain Buffy’s choice of international fashion had involved a lot less fabric. “But Oz and I didn’t actually talk for the first time until we were both recruited by this big software company on Career Day.”
Yes, he heard the last part of what she said, but what was really registering in Angel’s mind now that he was past his initial curiosity about why she’d worn what she had was the fact that Oz had seen Willow, really seen her, when she was dressed in a costume no other girl would have worn – an outfit which did nothing to tease or entice. No artifice, no feminine allure. Just Willow, the awkward outsider who couldn’t seem to be anything but herself. Something told him that’s when Oz had known…
… and he almost hated the wolf for that. Oz was better than he was and it twisted like a knife in his gut. If Buffy hadn’t been wearing a strappy little top and sucking on a lollipop when he’d first seen her… no, Angel wouldn’t have fallen the way he had. Oh, maybe he’d have helped her, but his heart wouldn’t have been in it, not the way it had been – no not the same way at all.
All the centuries and all the suffering and he was the same callow bastard he’d been when Darla had found him, soused and stinking, in the alley outside a pub. Oh, the soul this girl had returned to him for the second time was his all right.
It seemed his distraction and dolor registered on his face because Willow placed a hand on his arm and said, “I’m sorry. I really shouldn’t have brought you here. You must be thinking about Ms. Calendar, huh?”
His shame only deepened at her words, because he hadn’t even thought about the fact that this was where he’d found Giles’s gypsy paramour that night… and so near where he’d snapped her neck. Futilely as it turned out, but it wasn’t as if he’d known enough about computers to realize that smashing one didn’t necessarily make the knowledge inside it go away, now was it?
“It’s okay.” No, he wasn’t going to admit the truth to Willow. It seemed like they were… becoming friends, or closer to it than they ever had, and he was selfish enough to want to hold onto this and not at all inclined to let her in on just how underserving he was. It was bad enough he had to know what a superficial jerk he was.
She didn’t let it go. “It wasn’t you,” she said with a confidence which was anything but sensible coming from a girl who’d found her fish strung up in an envelope and left on her bed. “You didn’t have your soul.” If only he had her na´ve faith in the strength and purity of that threadbare barrier which was all that separated him from merciless evil. Unlike her, however, he knew Liam all too well, knew that his were no shoulders upon which to place such a heavy burden.
Out of nowhere, he heard himself ask a question. “What was it like? Giving me back my soul.”
Her eyes were wide and round and he could almost see the wheels turning behind them, thoughts forming and memories replaying. “I felt it,” she said, measuring her words. “I… it was strange.” Now he was curious and wanted to hear more. So he kept his gaze on her fixed and steady, figuring that was far likelier to elicit more from her than would a clear request.
He was right.
“I felt something… you pass through me. I think… there was something – not anything I really remember, except… I don’t know how to explain it.” Her hands moved restlessly, nervous gestures as she struggled to put into words an experience most of the world didn’t even know was possible.
If only… but he’d been sent to Hell so soon after his soul had been restored that memory had never had the chance to take hold. What would it be like to share that sensation of connection? Because she had held onto something, he could tell. Would it have been different if he’d been stopped in time, if he’d never been banished to another dimension and experienced centuries of mind-numbing torment?
At that moment, something occurred to him – for the first time, and it marked the return of the shame to which he was becoming well-accustomed. “Thank you, by the way.” Again she looked puzzled and he boggled at that as he explained, “For my soul. I… I appreciate it.” Clumsy, awkward finish there, but it wasn’t easy thanking someone as unaware of her right to gratitude as Willow was. Those wide, questioning eyes thickened his tongue.
“Oh. You’re welcome. I mean… what are friends for?”
Friends. She said the word so casually – about him so casually – as if it were something so familiar as to be commonplace. Was it? Had they been friends for a long time, at least by her account? When was the last time anyone had…? Never. Oh sure, when he was human, plenty of young layabouts had called themselves his friends, but those were sentiments bought with whiskey and ale and they lasted only so long as his purse was full. But Willow? Hers was a friendship that was real and tangible and worth more than all the money he’d ever stolen from his father.
And he hadn’t even thought about it, hadn’t even realized it existed, until today.
He truly was a shallow, useless creature, wasn’t he?
“I don’t think I can ever pay you back,” he said, and oh was it an understatement, “but I’ll try.”
She seemed entirely taken aback, but… pleased. At least if her shy smile and pink cheeks were anything to go by. He smiled back, basking in the feeling of finding a piece he’d never known had been missing from his existence. From now on, he was going to nurture this, he decided, and he wondered what would happen and what this would feel like when he was more a part of it.
Just then, the sound of footsteps intruded and he fought to keep his true face from emerging, even though he knew immediately the approaching figure was no foe… well, not to them both, anyway.
“Giles.” Willow sounded nervous and apologetic all at once saying that single word and in that second the lovely spell of their afternoon was broken. It was back to business now. No more conversation.
Keeping half an ear on her stammered explanation of their presence in the hallway, he followed them back to the library, even as he railed against the end of their solitary conversation. There were so many things, he realized, that he wanted to talk to her about. So many subjects about which he’d never had a friend with whom he could talk. So many… But he couldn’t now, not with Giles there. Damn, the man. Why did he have to show up at all? Arriving late in the day yet having the gall to act as if they were the ones who were negligent in their duties, playing the part of taskmaster and wrecking the singular camaraderie Angel had established with Willow.
Then it occurred to him…
There was always tomorrow, or the day after. Willow was his friend, right? So as long as there was a tomorrow… Yes, there’d be time.
He was looking forward to it.