“What are we supposed to do now that he’s back?” Xander asked angrily.
“Oh, I don’t know, Xan, maybe be grateful?” Willow said softly.
The only one who heard her was the object of the heated conversation. Angel turned to look at the tired redhead. Willow was seated as far from her friends as she could be and still be sitting at the library table. The argument between Buffy, Giles, and Xander had been going on for more than an hour and it was wearing thin. Willow had not said anything concerning Buffy keeping Angel’s return a secret and the vampire was curious about what she thought. Seeing her stifle a yawn, Angel made a decision.
Standing abruptly, he said, “I’m taking Willow home. When you decide what you’re going to ‘do’ with me, let me know. I’ll respect any decision you make.” Angel turned to Willow and held out an uncertain hand, “Can I walk you home?”
“You’re not going to do anything with Willow, Deadboy,” Xander interjected heatedly.
“Shut up, Xander,” Willow said tiredly as she accepted Angel’s hand and stood. She looked at her best friend, “Angel saved my life tonight, Xan. I think it’s safe for him to walk me home. I’ll see you all tomorrow.” Without giving them an opportunity to protest, Willow led Angel out the door and into the cool night air, neither one acknowledging that they were still holding hands.
They walked in silence for a few moments before Angel’s curiosity got the better of him. “What did you mean back there?”
Willow looked at him, “What are you talking about?”
Angel tightened his grip on her hand slightly, “You said that maybe they should be grateful that I’m back. Why would you think that, Willow? I caused so much damage-”
Willow cut him off, “No, Angel, Angelus caused the damage. You were nowhere to be found.” When she saw him open his mouth to protest, Willow rushed to explain, “I know that you’re Angelus, but he’s not you. If you had been anywhere inside when Angelus was loose, half of what he did wouldn’t have happened. You wouldn’t have let it. I’m the one that returned your soul, Angel. I felt you go through me. There was nothing you could have done, because you weren’t there.” She watched him process what she said.
When she saw the light of understanding dawn in his dark eyes, Willow answered his question. “The others should be grateful that you’re back because if it hadn’t been for you tonight, it’s a pretty good bet that Giles would at the very least be blind and I’d most likely be dead. You saved us, Angel, just like you always have.”
Angel looked at Willow, really looked at her. In the time he’d been…gone, she’d come into her own. He could see that she was still shy and reserved, but there was a quiet confidence about her now that hadn’t been present before. He’d always known she was brilliant, but hadn’t realized she had such insight into the human condition. His mouth quirked slightly at the irony of that thought, applying the term ‘human condition’ to a creature such as himself. But at this very moment he felt more human walking along with this pretty, disheveled, obviously exhausted young woman than he ever had with Buffy.
“Are you mad?” Angel asked suddenly.
“Mad at who and for what?”
“That Buffy didn’t tell you guys immediately that I was back.” He saw her jaw clench slightly and when she looked at him, Angel caught his figurative breath at the fire dancing in Willow’s eyes.
Willow said quietly, “I can understand why she didn’t tell Giles and Xander. They have issues with you that go beyond Angelus. But she should have told me. I could have helped you, helped her. She ran away without a word after sending you to Hell. Then she comes back and wants everything to be as it was, tries to pretend that nothing happened. Wouldn’t talk about that final fight with Angelus. I spent months agonizing over whether the spell had worked or not. In my heart I knew it had, but she wouldn’t give me the peace of mind of letting me know for sure. Then to find out that it had and you were suffering in a Hell dimension with your soul.” She stopped and drew a shaky breath. Emotions long bottled up were struggling to break free and Willow didn’t really want to unleash them on Angel.
The vampire could see her trying to rein in her temper and stopped walking, drawing Willow to a halt as well. When she looked at him questioningly, Angel said, “Tell me, Willow. Don’t keep it all inside. This is a night for truth and I want to know what you felt, feel.” Seeing her still hesitate he asked softly, “Please?”
Willow looked around, trying to get her thoughts in order. They were in the park and the playground was just to her right. She nodded and made her way over to the swings. Angel took the one next to her and waited patiently for her to start talking again.
Taking another calming breath, Willow said, “Yes, I’m mad at Buffy, Angel, but not just because she didn’t tell us you were back. I don’t trust her anymore. She didn’t trust me to help her when she sent you to Hell, she didn’t trust me to help her when she found out you were back. That doesn’t bode well for our future friendship. She can talk all she wants about how you were wild and feral when she found you and that she wanted to protect us, but I think she was just being selfish and didn’t want to share you.” Tears gathered in Willow’s eyes, but she held Angel’s gaze with some effort, “You were my friend, Angel, and she took you away. Then you came back and needed help and she kept you chained up like some kind of animal.”
Unable to stand seeing her cry, Angel gently pulled Willow off of her swing and settled her on his lap. She wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. Angel stroked her back soothingly and spoke softly, “I was dangerous when I first got back, Willow. I didn’t know what was real and what was a nightmare. You have no idea what I went through in that place. Buffy was right to chain me, to keep me from hurting anyone.”
Willow’s laugh was bitter. Turning her head slightly, she said, “I can’t believe you’re defending her, Angel. She ran you through with a sword and condemned you to horrors beyond measure for god knows how long and you’re defending her. All she needed was some of your blood to close the portal. She didn’t have to do it like she did.”
“What?” Angel asked softly.
Willow raised her head and looked into his confused brown eyes. “Your blood opened the portal and your blood closed the portal. All she needed was some of your blood and Acathla would have been sealed again. She knew you had your soul back and she still went ahead and skewered you to the statue. Buffy never has been one to think things through on the fly.”
Angel’s world was reordering itself in rapid fashion. He closed his eyes and thought back to that night, only a few months ago here, but centuries ago from where he’d been sent. He remembered waking as if from a long sleep to find Buffy standing before him with a sword drawn. He’d asked her what was going on and she had kissed him and told him to close his eyes. Still confused, he’d done as she’d asked and then…pain. Sharp, stinging pain and a blinding flash of light, then the real pain began, hundreds of years of pain and torment both physical and emotional.
He’d found himself in a world where torture was the favored pastime and having a soul made it all the more fun for his tormentors. Add to that the memories of what Angelus had got up to that had returned without warning and Angel was mightily surprised he hadn’t dusted himself at the first opportunity. It was the faint image of Willow coming to him in his darkest moments that had given him hope and kept him from ending it, he realized now.
Angel opened his eyes and looked at Willow. He could see the knowledge in her dark green eyes and whispered in awe, “You know. You were there. How?” Then he realized what he’d said and his voice turned hoarse with pain, “Oh my god, Willow, you know. How can you be sitting here so calmly, knowing everything I’ve done and everything that happened to me?”
Willow took Angel’s face in her hands and placed a kiss on his forehead, then one on each cheek, and finally a chaste kiss on his lips. She could feel him shaking with barely-suppressed sobs and wrapped her arms around him again; this time she was the one to offer comfort. Angel held her tightly as she said softly, “I told you I felt your soul move through me, Angel. You left a mark on me. I don’t know why I didn’t realize you were back, maybe because you didn’t realize it yourself. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You did what you had to do to survive in that place. I’m just sorry I couldn’t do anything to get you out of there. Can you forgive me?”
Angel’s head came up and he said fiercely, “There’s nothing to forgive, little one. The fact that you were there kept me going, without your light I wouldn’t be here at all. Thank you for that.”
They stared at each other for a long moment, each aware of their proximity to one another. Willow could see the question in Angel’s eyes and leaned forward slightly in answer. Her eyes fluttered shut when Angel’s lips met hers in a tender kiss. The kiss wasn’t meant to seduce, but both could feel the beginnings of passion stirring. They were bound somehow, they knew, but that had nothing to do with the budding attraction. Of that, they were certain.
When Willow eventually pulled away her eyes were wide. “This could get to be complicated,” she said.
Angel nodded in agreement, “Take it slow and see where it leads?” Willow nodded and he tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. “Your friendship means more to me than anything Willow. I don’t want to lose that, ever.”
Willow smiled, “You won’t.” She hugged him tightly then slid from his lap to stand before him. Holding out her hand, she said, “Come on, Oh Great Brooding One, the sun will be up soon and you promised to walk me home. Can’t do that if you’re a big pile o’ dust.”
Angel returned her smile as he took her hand and they continued to Willow’s house. She gave him another hug on her porch and said softly, “I’m really glad you’re back, Angel.”
“Me too, little one. Me too.”
Thanks be to Gabrielle for the beta.