"In lone and silent hours,
When night makes a weird sound of its own stillness...
Have I mixed awful talk and asking looks
With my most innocent love, until strange tears
Uniting with those breathless kiss, made
Such magic as compels the charmed night
To render up thy charge ..."
-- Percy Byshe Shelley
Willow Rosenberg had been fifteen years old the first night she stepped inside the Bronze. It had been the first night of freshman year of high school, and she and Xander and Jesse had had to spend most of the day collectively working up their courage before they could hand over their money and walk past the bouncer at the door of the teen club.
It had been one of the great 'coming of age' moments of her life, for all that she'd spent most of her nights there holding down a seat at the bar, watching Jesse try to hit on Cordelia, and Xander try to hit on anything female and reasonably cute. Except Willow, of course.
That had all changed when Buffy Summers moved to town. From that first night, when Buffy had ignored Willow's 'loser' status and stayed to talk -- and later saved Willow's life when she took Buffy's advice a bit too close to heart -- the Bronze had actually become a fun place to be. Willow didn't have to sit alone anymore; Buffy was there, ready to join her in commenting on the cute guys, teasing Xander, and discussing life, slaying, and everything. And if vampires occasionally wandered through now, looking for a midnight snack -- well, that was what being a Slayerette was all about. It wasn't such a bad deal.
Of course, not every night was fun and games. Like tonight. Xander was off trying to pick up someone else's girlfriend, and Buffy might as well have been a million miles away, even if she was sitting just across the table, playing with her drink. She'd stirred herself earlier to use her Slaying talents against the cockroaches, and racked up enough free drinks to last the trio all night, setting a new Bronze record in the process.
But at the moment, even the air of revelry around them wasn't enough to drag her back to the here and now.
Willow gave it one more shot. "Ah, the Fumigation Party," she said as cheerfully as possible, pitching her voice to carry over the music. Buffy didn't seem to hear her; Willow continued determinedly. "It's an annual tradition - the closing of the Bronze for a few days to nuke the cockroaches."
The only response was a distracted, "Oh."
Willow shook her head, caught between amusement and a bit of worry. "It's a lot of fun," she told Buffy pointedly. "What's it like where you are?"
The teasing apparently penetrated at last; Buffy blinked and focused on Willow's face for the first time. Willow smiled tolerantly at her bud, who had the grace to laugh at herself. "I'm... sorry. I was just... thinking about things."
Among teenage girls, that particular inflection had only one meaning. "So, we're talking about a guy?" Willow asked knowingly.
Buffy made a face. "Not exactly a guy. For us to have a conversation about a guy, there'd have to be a guy for us to have a conversation about." She paused, looking confused. "Was that a sentence?"
Willow got the idea; it wasn't like they hadn't had this conversation a million times before. "You lack a guy."
Buffy sighed and looked down at her half-melted Coke. "I do. Which is fine with me, most of the time. But..."
Her voice trailed off and Willow nodded sympathetically. "What about Angel?" she asked carefully. This was tricky territory with Buffy, who generally either claimed to really hate her mystery man, or lapsed into detailed and poetic descriptions of his eyes. Which were pretty worthy of poetic description, Willow admitted, at least from the one time she'd seen Angel up close.
"Angel?" No, not one of the poetic nights; if anything, Buffy looked more depressed. "I can just see him in a relationship. 'Hi honey, you're in grave danger. I'll see you next month.'"
"He's not around much. That's true."
"But when he is around..." Buffy's eyes got dreamy, and Willow tried to hide her grin. It was going to be a poetic night after all. "...it's like the lights dim everywhere else. You know how it's like that with some guys?"
"Oh yeah," Willow sighed, letting her eyes trail back to the dance floor. She knew where Xander was, as if he was wearing a homing beacon only she could sense. It had been like that for a couple of years now, ever since the day when she'd looked up and discovered that her life-long friend was also cute, funny, and all-together perfect for her. She lived in hope that someday he'd realize the same thing -- but she wasn't counting on it.
At the moment, the only thing Xander seemed to be aware of was Annie Vega, and shortly thereafter, Annie's boyfriend, Dino. Willow shook her head in disgust as Xander backed off so fast he almost ran over Cordelia, but couldn't stop smiling at him, even as a little, wistful jab of pain poked at her heart. He was even cute when he was being an idiot over another girl.
Xander escaped from Cordelia with what must have been a pretty good parting shot for once, judging by the evil glare she sent at his back. "Boy, that Cordelia's a regular breath of vile air," he commented as he retreated to the safety of Willow and Buffy's table. "What are you vixens up to?"
Willow shrugged. "Just sitting here watching our barren lives pass us by. Oh, look. A cockroach." She closed one eye to aim better, and stomped. Cockroach floor pizza. Who said Slayerettes never got to do any of the dirty work?
Xander was less than impressed by her feat. "Whoa, let's stop this crazy whirligig of fun. I'm dizzy."
Buffy almost laughed, changed it into a sigh, and got up. "All right, now I'm infecting those nearest and dear to me. I'm going to call it a night."
"Oh, don't go," Willow protested.
"Yeah!" Xander echoed her with way too much enthusiasm for Willow's taste. "It's early. We could, um..." he groped for something, anything, to say other than what he really wanted to say, which would involve close bodily contact if Willow was any judge. "...dance," he finally finished lamely.
To Willow's somewhat guilty relief, Buffy wasn't pursuaded. "Raincheck? Good night."
She left and Xander slumped at the table, staring after her with puppy dog eyes. Willow was torn between hitting him for being so dense and hugging him because he looked so adorable when he was being pathetic. She settled for offering him the squished contents of the bottom of her shoe. "Want a free drink?"
He looked pained and shoved it away, slumping even lower with his chin on his fist. Willow rolled her eyes and gave up. It was going to be one of those nights.
Sure enough, Xander spent the rest of the evening sulking, and since no cute guys ever hung around looking for Willow, she escaped after another hour, retreating to the safety of her computer and her on-line friends. Even that wasn't much solace, though; she kept winding up staring at the picture of her and Xander on her desk next to the computer, and slipping into improbable, but highly entertaining, fantasies, involving kissing, and hugging, and declarations of unending love, and kissing....
After the third or fourth one of those, she flipped off her monitor in disgust, and flopped onto her back on the bed for a good, long bout of self-pity. She didn't indulge very often, but this seemed like as good a night as any.
"It's not fair," she informed her battered old teddy bear. "I mean, I know it's not Buffy's fault; she can't help being gorgeous, and strong, and exciting, and generally Xander's dream come true. I'm just boring old Willow, no excitement or mystery about me."
She tucked her teddy bear up under her chin, and rolled onto her side to gaze at the picture of her and Xander again. Jesse had taken it in ninth grade, on the annual zoo trip. She didn't remember why she and Xander had gotten into the wrestling match, she just remembered that it had been more or less a draw.
"I'm glad I'm not the Slayer and all; I really don't want Buffy's job. I just wish my job was a little more exciting than Research Girl." She sighed. "Maybe then Xander would remember I'm alive."
She sighed again, then kissed her bear on the head and forced herself to get up and get ready for bed. Thankfully, she didn't dream of Xander or vampires that night, just a good, old-fashioned 'trapped on stage and didn't learn the words to the song' nightmare. No problem.
Willow had been intending to track Buffy down the instant she got to school, to see if her friend's mood had improved any. Before she got the chance, she found the normally emphatically anti-morning Slayer bouncing next to her locker, her face glowing and her eyes bright.
"I got attacked by some really heavy-duty vampires last night," she announced gleefully.
Willow's eyebrows went up; this was generally considered a Bad Thing. "And you won?" she guessed, opening her locker and starting to trade out books from her backpack. Biology, English, demonology, history.... "I'm assuming you won or we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. Well, unless Giles knows how to run a seance or something. Which he probably does, 'cause he's Giles."
Willow realized she was babbling and stopped, but it didn't matter, since Buffy wasn't listening anyway. "There were three of them," she was saying enthusiastically, "really big and tough, too. They backed me up against a fence and I was sure I was totally toast!"
This still didn't sound like cause for celebration. In fact, Willow was getting sick to her stomach at just the description. She stared at her friend, backpack dangling, forgotten, from one hand. "Buffy! You could have been killed! Why is this good?"
"Because," Buffy looked deeply smug, "I was rescued."
Someone rescuing the Slayer instead of vice versa. Concept. "By?" Willow asked cautiously. Then realization dawned. Cat with a canary smile, glowing eyes, color in the cheeks, bounce in the step.... "Angel?"
If possible, Buffy's face got even brighter. "Yes!"
"Oh, wow!" Willow closed her locker and leaned against it, wide-eyed and ready to hear all of the gory details.
Which Buffy was more than happy to supply. "He came from out of nowhere. I thought it was all over and then, boom, there he was! He grabbed one of them by the hair and just pulled him away from me! I shook loose of the other two, and he kept the third one off me. Until he got slashed in the ribs," she remembered, her face darkening a bit. "That wasn't quite as cool."
"Angel got hurt? Is he okay?"
"Oh, he's fine." Better than fine, if Buffy's sappy, lovesick smile was anything to go by. "We made it to my house and I bandaged him up, then I was afraid to let him leave so he spent the night in my room."
Buffy said the last part incredibly casually; Willow's jaw dropped another inch. "In your room? For real?"
"For totally real!" Buffy dropped the nonchalant facade again in her enthusiasm. "Oh, Willow, he was so sweet! We talked a little bit, and he told me I was pretty, and then he went to sleep -- he's so cute when he's asleep!"
Willow laughed at her friend, ignoring a faint stab of envy. Buffy looked so in love, and Angel seemed like such a cool guy. He'd helped with the vampires, and saved Buffy's life, and everything, and the fact that he looked like something out of a romance novel didn't hurt. "It sounds like you had a pretty terrific night."
"Yeah." Buffy sighed, wrapping her arms around her books and leaning back against the lockers, staring happily at nothing in particular. She was totally gone.
"Have you told Giles about the vampires who attacked you?" Willow asked, trying to keep some perspective, although what she really wanted to do was drag Buffy off to a corner for a blow-by-blow description of every second spent alone with Tall, Dark and Mysterious Guy. "I think he'll probably want to know."
Buffy dragged herself back from the land of daydreams. "I woke up in the middle of the night and remembered to call him. Got him up around midnight; he was kind of, um, incoherent. But he said he'd work on it."
"Did you tell him about, um...?"
Buffy made a face. "Not yet, but I guess I'll have to. Angel makes him kinda nervous; Giles hates it when anyone has more information than he does about anything, especially vampires. "
"And...?" Willow prompted; Buffy had the look that meant she was leaving something out.
"And I'd kind of rather not tell him how close a call it was," Buffy admitted. "He tends to wig, and I don't want to stay after school for another practice session. Angel's staying at my house today so he can recover, and I don't want to, you know, leave him alone for too long. When he's wounded and all."
"Better safe than sorry," Willow agreed, with a conspiratorial smile. Buffy smiled back, the two of them understanding each other perfectly.
"Sorry about what?" The male voice popping into a such a girl moment surprised both of them, and almost got Xander flattened. "Hey, don't beat up on me," he defended himself, as Buffy lowered the fist she'd raised instinctively. "I didn't do it, whatever it is."
Fortunately, both girls were now in too good of a mood to really let him have it. "Good morning, Xander," Buffy greeted him cheerfully, as if she hadn't just almost decked him. "And of course you didn't do anything, silly, except for sneaking up on us."
"Oh. Well, good." Xander looked a little baffled, but recovered quickly, opening his locker and searching its terrifying depths -- for a textbook, Willow hoped, or he was going to flunk another math test fifth period. "So, what are we talking about?"
"Coming to the library as soon as possible; at least, you should be." Another male almost bit the dust, and Willow fought back a giggle at the look Buffy's face as she realized it was Giles this time, and once again lowered her arm. The near miss last night must have Buffy's nerves more on edge than she thought, Angel or not.
"You've got to stop doing that!" the Slayer told her Watcher with exasperation.
"Sorry." He didn't look it, but then, Giles never did. He did look like he had been mainlining tea; there was a cup in his hand and it wasn't clean."I may have found some information; can you escape homeroom?"
"If you write us passes, no problem," Buffy shrugged. "Lead the way."
They trailed along behind Giles to the library, which was empty, as usual. The students at Sunnydale High avoided the place religiously -- or maybe they were just avoiding Giles, who had a tendency to eye anyone invading his domain with more than a little hostility. Except the Slayerettes, of course... well, most of the time.
"So, what've you found out?" Buffy asked, boucing by the shelves, too wired to sit still. Willow elected to sit on the table, the better to hear the good parts. Xander roamed.
"I believe I've discovered who your assailants were," Giles said over his shoulder, as he retreated into the stacks. "By the way, you neglected to tell me how you escaped their clutches."
Willow and Buffy exchanged looks. Busted. "Well, I kind of had help," Buffy said reluctantly. "Angel showed up and sort of... gave me a hand."
"Angel?" Xander straightened up so suddenly Willow was afraid he'd hurt himself. "Weird Guy was around?"
"Yes, Angel was around." Buffy sounded a little miffed at the insult, never mind that she habitually referred to Angel as worse. "He was really great, Giles; he took on those vampire thugs without even flinching, even when he got hurt. I took him home to take care of him last night and he was all bloody and... um...."
Willow had been frantically signalling her during the last part of the gushing, but Buffy didn't realize she'd said too much until it was too late. She shut up anyway, looking guilty. Fortunately, Giles had no more response than a raised eyebrow.
Xander, on the other hand, looked close to having a conniption. "He spent the night in your room? In your bed?"
"Not in my bed, by my bed," Buffy clarified impatiently.
"That is so romantic," Willow sighed. Unable to resist, she asked what she really wanted to know. "Did you, uh.... I mean, did he...?"
Buffy looked incredibly smug. "Perfect gentleman."
Wow. Maybe Angel really was the perfect guy. Willow hoped so, for Buffy's sake.
Willow's less-than-perfect-but-still-adorable guy looked even more unhappy than before. "Buffy! Come on, wake up and smell the seduction! It's the oldest trick in the book!"
"What? Saving my life? Getting slashed in the ribs?"
Buffy was starting to sound less than amused. Out of love or stupidity, Xander persisted. "Duh! I mean, guys'll do anything to impress a girl. I once drank an entire gallon of Gatorade without taking a breath."
He looked proud of himself, and Willow admitted, "It was pretty impressive." And it had been, for about five minutes. "Although later, there was an ick factor." Which was putting it mildly. That party had ended on a really disgusting note, and Elizabeth Shay hadn't been all that impressed to begin with.
"Can we steer this riveting conversation back to the events of last night?" Giles interrupted dryly, returning from the stacks with one of his ancient books in hand. Buffy sat down and Willow slid around on the table to face him as everyone shut up and paid attention, more or less. "You left the Bronze last night and were set upon by three unusually virile vampires. Did they look like this?"
"Yeah." Buffy frowned down at the page Giles handed her and Willow craned her neck to see. Even Xander stopped sulking long enough to peer over Buffy's shoulder. "What's with the uniforms?"
Willow studied the book upside down. The vampires pictured there seemed to be wearing Klingon uniforms. They would have looked silly if it wasn't for the menace glowing from their eyes, even in the pen and ink drawing. Definitely the bad guys.
"It seems you encountered The Three," Giles told Buffy. "Warrior vampires, very proud and very strong."
"How is it you always know this stuff?" Willow demanded. It got really frustrating sometimes, always having to have everything explained when she was used to being the one handing out the information. "You always know what's going on. I never know what's going on."
Giles looked at her with a slight edge of irritation. "Well, you weren't here from midnight until six researching it," he pointed out, taking another long sip from his tea.
Willow shrank back a little. "No. I was sleeping."
He nodded as if that settled it -- which it did -- and returned to business. "Obviously, you're hurting the Master very much," he told Buffy, taking off his glasses and polishing them with his handkerchief in one of his habitual gestures. He looked younger without them, and much more tired. "He wouldn't send The Three for just anyone. We must step up our training with weapons."
Buffy nodded, looking resigned, and Willow made a sympathetic face. Giles was getting predictable.
So was Xander, actually. "Buffy, you should stay at my house until these samurai guys are history." Buffy turned on him with a 'what the heck are you bibbling about?' expression and Xander hurriedly added, "Don't worry about Angel, we'll look around your house and tell him to get out of town fast."
I just bet you will, Willow thought, rolling her eyes at Buffy, who rolled hers in return. Boys. Xander was so jealous of Angel he couldn't stand it; he'd love an excuse to get rid of Buffy's mystery man for a while.
Giles had apparently missed the whole thing. "Angel and Buffy are not in any immediate jeopardy," he said thoughtfully, replacing his glasses. "Eventually, the Master will send someone else. But in the meantime The Three, having failed, will offer their own lives in penance."
"And on that cheerful note," Buffy said hastily, standing up and retrieving her bag, "it's about time for first period. Giles, can you give the cut slips for homeroom to Willow? I have to, um, be... somewhere."
She headed for door at top speed, but wasn't quite fast enough. "As long as one of the places you have to be is here after school for training," Giles called after her. She slowed to a walk, her shoulders slumping, and turned around to argue.
Giles wasn't having any of it. "I mean it, Buffy," he said sternly, before she could say a word. "Right after class."
"Buffy, this is your life we're talking about." Giles had the look on his face that none of them bothered trying to argue with anymore, the serious 'It's for your own good and that's the end of it' look. They ignored that look sometimes, but they didn't argue with it. "If you won't train to protect yourself, then think of protecting those around you. Such as Angel, perhaps?"
Ouch. Willow winced on Buffy's behalf; talk about hitting someone where they lived. Buffy looked simultaneously wounded and rebellious, then gave it up. "All right, Giles, I'll come right after sixth period. Promise. But I need to be home in time for dinner."
"You will be," Giles assured her, before he was distracted by his book again. Buffy left, looking unhappy; Xander trailed behind her and Willow waited for Giles to look back up.
"Um, Giles?" she said after a very long moment; he started as if just being reminded of her presence. All too used to being forgotten, she patiently asked, "Excuse slips? For homeroom? So Buffy doesn't wind up in detention instead of practice?" Giles wasn't the only one who knew how to make a point.
"Ah. Yes." He blinked rapidly and put the book back down, careful not to lose his place. He had to search through his desk to find the excuse slips -- why, Willow didn't know, since he had to use them practically every day to get either Buffy or Willow out of class -- and finally retrieved a stack of the forms from beneath two grimoires, a box of tea and a silver-hilted knife. He scribbled his illegible signature at the bottom of three of them; Willow accepted them, then retreated to let him get back to his research as first-period bell rang. As she left the library, he was already heading back to his office, reading as he walked and muttering something to himself under his breath.
She hoped he didn't run into a wall or anything.
Giles didn't allow the Slayerettes to attend Buffy's training sessions. He claimed that the fewer of them that were around school after hours, the less conspicuous they would be. Willow actually suspected that Giles didn't want them to see how easily Buffy could beat him up.
So Willow actually made it home in time for her own dinner, and realized how long it had been since that happened when her parents both greeted her appearance at the dinner table with looks of shock.
"Excuse me, miss, you look a lot like my daughter," Mr. Rosenberg teased. "Except that it's been so long since I saw her, I'm not sure what she looks like any more."
"Very funny, dad," Willow grinned sheepishly as she shoveled spaghetti onto her plate. "I was here just last week."
"That recently?" her mom said with mock surprise. "And here you are again, without Xander. I was beginning to think you two were joined at the hip."
Oh, I wish, Willow thought gloomily, keeping her smile on with an effort. "I think his mom was ordering pizza tonight; he didn't want to miss it."
Her mom took salad and passed it on. "You know, honey," she said thoughtfully, "Xander really has turned into a very good-looking young man, and such a nice boy, too. Have the two of you ever thought of, I don't know, going out? Or whatever they call it these days?"
Willow choked on a bite of garlic bread. "Um, no, Mom," she answered truthfully. "We've never thought of that." She had, but that wasn't a we. "We're just friends."
"Too bad," Mrs. Rosenberg sighed. "I think the two of you would be a cute couple."
Willow blushed furiously and concentrated on wrapping spaghetti around her fork in perfectly straight and even layers. Her mom took the hint and let the subject drop.
She'd been half-expecting a call from Buffy to emote over Angel, but after the dishes had been done, her homework finished and all of her e-mail answered, there was still no word from the Slayer. Oh well, she sighed mentally. I'm sure she'll tell me all about it tomorrow.
One of these days, I really need to have something to tell her.
Willow waited eagerly next to the curb until Buffy's mom dropped her off the next morning. "So, what happened?" she started to ask, before taking in the drained, exhausted look on Buffy's face. It was such a contrast to the energetic, happy Slayer of the day before that Willow stopped dead in her tracks, suddenly scared. "Buffy? What's wrong? What happened? Did The Three show up again?"
"The Three?" Buffy smiled strangely, then started to chuckle, an odd, scary laugh with absolutely no humor. "No, they didn't show up. There was... another vampire problem, you could say."
"I could?" Willow was totally lost now. "Buffy, you look like you saw a ghost. Did Angel do something? Did another vampire come after you? Tell me what happened!"
Buffy's face twisted and for a second, Willow thought she was going to lose it right then and there. Fortunately, Giles showed up before the Slayer could start screaming and/or crying -- Willow wasn't quite sure which one it would have been.
"Buffy, are you all right?" he asked, hurrying down the sidewalk towards them. He looked even more nervous than usual, at least until he gave Buffy a quick once-over and determined that, yes, she was all right, physically at least. Willow still didn't know about the mental part.
"Why wouldn't Buffy be all right?" Xander asked from behind Willow, who was too focused on Buffy to even jump. There was something very wrong here, she was sure of it.
"I'm fine," Buffy told them unconvincingly. "I'm fine, I just... had a really bad night."
"I imagine so," Giles said, not without sympathy. "Discovering Angel's true nature must have been rather a bad shock, especially under... well, under the circumstances. You're sure he didn't hurt you? A vampire in your house, in your room...."
"He didn't hurt me!" Buffy sounded like she was saying it for about the tenth time. "Honest, Giles, he just... fanged out, then bailed when I started screaming, like I told you."
Willow was still stalled back at Giles' half of the conversation, seeing her own dawning shock reflected on Xander's face. They must have heard that wrong. Giles and Buffy couldn't possibly be talking about what she thought they were talking about. "Angel... is a vampire?"
"Apparently so," Giles answered her absently. "Buffy, did he say anything, do anything...?"
"No!" Buffy started walking towards the front doors; wandering, actually, as if in a daze. The Slayerettes trailed along beside and behind her. "I told you, Giles, he just.... Oh, God, this isn't happening. "
"Angel's a vampire?" Willow couldn't quite get past that part. Vampires were Bad Things -- mean and vicious and scary. Angel was cool; he helped fight vampires, and gave Buffy his jacket, and made Buffy's face light up with happiness. He couldn't be a vampire, there was no way.
But Buffy's heart-broken face left no doubt. "I can't believe this is happening," she repeated, going up the front steps towards the school. "One minute, we were kissing, and the next minute.... Can a vampire ever be a good person?" she suddenly demanded, whirling on Giles. "Couldn't it happen?"
Giles looked taken aback. "A vampire isn't a person at all," he stuttered slightly. "It may have the movements, the memories, even the personality of the person it possessed, but it's still a demon at the core. There is no halfway."
Willow mentally deciphered his sentance. "So, that'd be a no, huh?" she concluded unhappily.
"Well, then, what was he doing? Why was he good to me?" Buffy asked no one in particular, sinking to one of the stone benches outside the school as if she didn't trust her knees to hold her up any more. "Was it all some part of the Master's plan? It doesn't make sense."
She was looking to Giles for answers, like always, but it was Xander who carefully lowered himself to the bench next to her. "All right," he said, very deliberately, "you have a problem and it's not a small one. Let's take a breath, and look at this calmly and objectively. Angel's a vampire. You're the Slayer. I think it's obvious what you have to do."
At that moment, Willow wanted, more than she'd ever wanted anything in her life, to hit Xander. He'd recovered from the shock, all right, and jumped right in with both feet in his mouth to try to get rid of his 'rival'.
But he didn't know Buffy's feelings, Willow instantly corrected herself, with a surge of guilt. He couldn't know. And Xander really hated vampires, ever since Jesse.... So he couldn't know what he was saying, he was just being... practical. Logical.
Xander looked up at Giles for confirmation; both of the girls looked up to him begging for a denial. Giles couldn't quite look Buffy in the eyes. "It is a Slayer's duty," he confirmed reluctantly.
"I mean, I know you have feelings for this guy," Xander rushed on, "but it's not like you're in love with him, right?"
Willow didn't have to hit him this time; Buffy's face said it all. Even Xander, who'd been trying really, really hard to pretend Buffy's fascination with Angel was a passing, unsignificant thing, couldn't miss the deep, tragic emotions written in her eyes. "You're in love with a vampire?" he demanded loudly. "What, are you out of your mind?"
Just a little bit too loudly, as it turned out. "What?"
They swung, more or less in unison, to see Cordelia staring down at them with wide, traumatically shocked eyes. Xander gaped, then tried desperately to cover. "Not vampire," he fumbled, looking back at Buffy. "How could you love an umpire? Everyone hates them!"
Willow winced, sure the game was up; even Cordelia wasn't going to believe anything that lame. Fortunately, Cordelia was now staring past them, with other things on her mind. "Where did you get that dress?" she demanded of a girl walking across the lawn, wearing the exact same tank dress Cordelia had on. "This is a one-of-a-kind Todd Oldham. Do you know how much this dress cost?" She left the Slayerettes without a backwards glance to catch up to and attack the girl who dared to have the same taste in clothing as the diva of Sunnydale High.
As Cordelia's harangue trailed off into the distance, Buffy tried to smile. "Think we have problems," she said wryly.
"Well, in point of fact, we do," Giles reminded her carefully. "We'll need to find out whatever we can about Angel. Just in case."
"He wouldn't hurt her, would he?" Willow protested instinctively. "I mean, he hasn't before, like Buffy said, right?"
"We can't take the chance," Giles said. "Whatever he is and whatever his motives, Angel knows far too much about Buffy; we must attempt to even that score." Homeroom bell rang even as he spoke; he looked at his watch and sighed. "I'll need all of you in the library at lunch; I'll do what I can until then. You had better get to class."
They got up reluctantly, no one particularly enthusiastic about sitting through classes when they were having a (much more interesting) crisis. Giles headed for the library, and Xander and Willow flanked Buffy as they walked to homeroom, lending her as much moral support as they could.
The morning was more or less a total waste, but Willow hadn't expected anything else. She paid enough attention during history and biology to cover for Buffy, who was still in a daze; Willow had to drag her off to the girls room between classes to talk. Buffy was bouncing between total, shocked disbelief, and equally shocked attempts at rationalization, babbling everything about the previous evening more or less incoherently . Willow listened silently, letting her friend vent enough to get her through the next class.
She had to leave her in Xander's hands for third period, though; Buffy had her free period then, but Willow suspected she'd spend it anywhere but the library. Xander, of course, had no problems with cutting class to keep an eye on Buffy.
Computer science, usually Willow's favorite part of the day, seemed to drag on forever. Ms. Calendar caught her staring off into space at least twice during the period, and stopped to ask if anything was wrong. Her teacher looked so concerned, Willow almost found herself spilling it all, but caught herself at the last second. "No," she lied, "nothing's wrong."
Ms. Calendar looked completely unconvinced, but didn't push. "All right," she said calmly, "but if you need to talk to anyone about whatever's not wrong, you know where I am."
Willow attempted a smile. "I know. Thanks."
Ms Calendar studied her with knowing, sympathetic eyes for another long moment, then went off to look over Dave's shoulder at his current project. Willow tried to bury herself in programming, but found herself staring off into space again within a few minutes.
It just seemed so unbelievable. She remembered the first time she'd seen Angel, that night at the Bronze when he'd come to warn Buffy about Fork Guy, as they still called the nameless clawed vampire Buffy had killed. He'd been hovering in the doorway, dressed in stark black and white and looking nothing like the super-annoying smart aleck Buffy had described in vivid (and irritated) detail. He'd looked serious, and intense... and alone, even in the crowd of people.
Maybe that was why Willow had instinctively liked Angel -- even from across the crowded dance floor, she'd seen her own loneliness reflected in his dark, shadowed eyes. Then he'd given Buffy his jacket, settling it carefully around her shoulders to make sure she hadn't gotten cold, and won Willow's romantic heart over forever.
And then there'd been the look he'd worn when Buffy had kissed Owen in front of him at the Bronze a few weeks later.....
Why would a vampire give the Slayer his jacket, much less the cross he'd given her at their first meeting, the one Buffy almost never took off? Why would he care when she kissed another guy? Why would he warn her, why would he protect her from his own kind? It made no sense, none at all. She'd liked Angel, and Buffy was in love with him. They couldn't both be that wrong about him; it just wasn't possible.
"Willow?" Willow jolted, then looked up guiltily at Ms. Calendar, who was looking down at her with worried eyes. "The bell just rang. You might want to try to get to fourth period sometime before lunch."
"Oh. The bell. Right." Willow saved her program, retrieved her disk, then bolted for the door before her favorite teacher could ask any more questions Willow couldn't answer.
She made it to the library before Xander and Buffy did at lunch, and found Giles pouring over a stack of books, as usual. He didn't even look up when she came in, just gestured towards a smaller stack at the edge of the table -- the books written in modern English that the Slayerettes could be trusted to read without missing anything or hurting the book. Giles' faith in them had its limits.
Willow obeyed his silent order, pulling up a chair and taking the first book off the top of the stack. Someone's handwritten manuscript, yellowing paper bound into faded, patterned leather. She skimmed a few pages, without much interest. "Have you found anything yet?"
"Oh." Another few pages. "Nothing about Angel, in any of these books?"
"Not that I've discovered."
"Oh." A few more pages. "Giles?"
He sighed, and put his book down to look at her. "Yes, Willow?"
Now that she had his attention, she wasn't quite sure what to do with it. Finally, she asked the question she'd been asking herself all day. "Giles, does Angel have to be a bad guy? I mean, are you sure he is?"
Giles sighed again, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. They were bloodshot from too much research and too little sleep. "I... wish he weren't, Willow -- for Buffy's sake, at least. I know she is fond of Angel and she.... Well, he has, perhaps, given her reason to be. As he has given you, I gather?" Willow blushed under his entirely-too-perceptive gaze, looking back down at her book. "But he is a vampire, and Buffy's emotions, like yours, may be clouding her judgment. A Slayerer cannot afford that luxury, nor can a Watcher. We must assume Angel is like the rest of his kind."
"So all vampires are alike?" Willow persisted. "They're all the same?"
"No, of course not," Giles said with more than a little exasperation. "They are individuals, but individual demons. And they are all evil."
"How can you be sure?" Willow asked in a tiny voice, without looking up from her book. "How can you know?"
It took Giles a long time to answer. "Because I must know," he said finally, turning his glasses over in his hands as if seeing them for the first time. "Because to assume otherwise, against all evidence to the contrary, would be risking the Slayer on nothing more than wishful thinking. And because I would far rather it was Buffy's heart that was broken than Buffy herself."
Willow couldn't really think of anything to say to that. He was right, after all.
Fortunately, Buffy and Xander chose that moment to come into the library, Xander talking a blue streak about nothing in particular in a transparent attempt to distract Buffy, who, judging by the far-off look on her face, wasn't distracting.
"Any luck?" she came out of it enough to ask Giles.
"None to speak of," he answered quickly, putting his glasses back on as if to hide any emotions he might be feeling. "Although I may have thought of a new approach. If you will begin looking through the pile by Willow...."
He handed Xander a heavy volume before Xander could figure a way to wriggle out of having to actually read, and Buffy began leafing through another book by herself as Giles headed for the stacks. Not that it was going to do much good; she was looking at the pages, but not really focusing. Willow tried to think of words to comfort her friend, but what could she say? 'Gee, I'm sorry your boyfriend turned out to be a vampire?'
She pulled a Giles and buried herself in her research, instead.
"Here's something at last," Giles announced barely half an hour later. Willow restrained a giggle as Xander jumped in surprise; at least the guys were scaring each other now, instead of her and Buffy.
"Can you please warn us before you do that?" Xander asked the Watcher edgily.
Giles ignored him. "There's nothing about Angel in the texts, but it suddenly occured to me that it's been ages since I read the diaries of any of the Watchers before me."
"That must have been so embarrassing," Willow thought out loud, still dwelling on the romance of it all. "When you thought he had read your diary, but then it turned out he hadn't, but then he felt the same way..." Her voice trailed off as she realized what she was saying and looked up guiltily. Giles looked impatient, Xander looked... unhappy. "I'm listening," she finished in a very small voice.
Giles went back to his book. "There's a mention some 200 years ago in Ireland of Angelus, 'one with the angelic face'."
"They got that right," Buffy muttered.
Xander coughed, and everyone looked at him. "I'm not saying anything," he said defensively. "I have nothing to say."
Giles shook his head and got back to business. "Does, ah, Angel have a tattoo behind his right shoulder?"
Buffy frowned thoughtfully. "Yeah, it's a bird or something."
"Now I'm saying something," Xander blurted. "You saw him naked?"
Everyone ignored him this time. Willow could have told him how Buffy had bandaged Angel's ribs after he'd been injured (since she'd been told the story in repeated, moment-by-moment playback), but it was more fun to let him stew.
"So Angel's been around for a while," she said instead.
Giles considered. "Not long for a vampire; 240 years or so."
"240." Buffy shook her head ruefully. "Well, he said he was older."
"Angelus leaves Ireland," Giles continued as he sat down, having apparently decided to ignore all side comments, "and wreaks havok in Europe for, well, several decades. Then, about eighty years ago, a most curious thing happens."
Giles paged ahead in the diary, searching for something. When he found it, he continued, "He comes to America, shuns other vampires, and lives alone. There's... no record of him hunting here." And Giles sounded really puzzled by that.
"So, he is a good vampire," Willow blurted, unable to stop herself. Buffy looked so unhappy, any hope was a Good Thing. "I mean, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being someone one's maiming and killing, and one being someone who's, um--" Words failed her. "--not."
"As I said, there's no record," Giles confirmed dubiously. "But vampires hunt and kill; it's what they do."
"Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly," Xander said.
"He could have fed on me," Buffy pointed out. "He didn't."
"Question," Xander said grimly. Willow would have been proud of his concentration and clear thinking if she hadn't been so very suspicious of his motives. "A hundred years or so before he came to our shores -- what was he like then?"
Giles took his glasses back off, as if to make it easier to look Buffy in the eyes. "Well, like all of them. A vicious, violent animal."
Buffy swallowed, her eyes wide and haunted. Willow bit her lip, fighting back her own sinking heart. Those words didn't seem to apply to Angel, didn't fit with what she'd seen in his dark, lonely eyes. Vicious? Animal? It just felt so wrong.
Still, vampires and moral dilemmas aside, life went on, and Buffy had a history test in the next day to worry about -- especially since she'd cut every history class for the last week. So she and Willow came back to the library after dinner, and settled down to the business of forcing basic information about the Civil War into Buffy's head.
Which was even more of a chore than usual. Buffy was still blanking out, her problems with Angel looming much higher in her mind than any schoolwork could. Willow sympathized, but kept trying. Buffy needed the distraction, if nothing else.
Willow occasionally wondered how she'd become the de facto tutor for the Slayerettes, but not often -- it was basically because she was the only one who actually cared about the schoolwork. Xander cared about his grades, but not enough to work up any enthusiasm about studying, and Buffy wasn't too big on the whole school thing even when she wasn't distracted by Slaying. Which left it to Willow to force feed them both enough knowledge to keep them all from flunking out.
Now, sensing she'd once again lost Buffy's attention, she resorted to a pop quiz. "Okay, so let's review. Reconstruction began when?"
No response. "Buffy?"
Buffy blinked and abruptly came back to the present. Unfortunately, the present wasn't going to do her any good with history. "Um, reconstruction began... after the.. construction, which was shoddy, so they had to reconstruct."
No wonder she was failing history; she couldn't even bluff an answer. "After the destruction of the Civil War," Willow corrected her gently.
"Right." Buffy nodded. "The Civil War. When Angel was already like, a hundred and change."
Willow looked at her with an attempt at Giles' stern expression, the one that never worked. "Are we going to talk about boys or are we going to keep you from flunking history?"
Buffy's look spoke volumes, and Willow gave up. There were much more interesting things to discuss than the Civil War, anyway. "Sometimes," she confided, happily shoving the textbook aside and leaning forward, "I have this fantasy that Xander's just going to grab me and kiss me, right on the lips!"
Buffy smiled, finally distracted. "If you want Xander, you've got to speak up, girl," she said for about the hundredth time.
The very thought was enough to make Willow's mouth go dry, and her head go light. "Oh, no, no, no. No speaking up. That way leads to madness, and sweaty palms."
Besides, she knew who Xander wanted, and it wasn't her. All speaking up would do was cost her her oldest friend.
She changed the subject back to the one she'd been trying to avoid, feeling just the slightest bit guilty about it. "Okay, so here's something I've got to know. When Angel kissed you -- I mean, before he...." Her voice trailed off significantly, and Buffy nodded. "How was it?"
Buffy tried to stay serious, but a silly smile spread across her face anyway. "Unbelievable," she admitted.
"Wow," Willow breathed. If she couldn't have a life, she was more than happy to live vicariously through Buffy's. And the very thought of being really kissed, let alone by someone like Angel, was enough to make her teeth tingle.
"And it is kind of novel how he'll stay young and good-looking forever," she thought out loud, barely hearing herself. "Although you'll still get wrinkly and die, and oh, what about the children...?" She was frowning over that idea when she looked up, saw Buffy's wry, amused smile, and realized she was once again babbling, and not particularly sensitively. "I'll be quiet now."
"No, it's okay," Buffy assured her with a heavy sigh. "I need to hear this. I need to get over him so I can...."
Buffy couldn't even say it, Willow thought sympathetically, how could she do it? "So that you can..." Actually, Willow couldn't say it either; she settled for miming the staking motion, with her fuzzy-topped gnome pencil as a prop.
Buffy winced, but nodded. "Like Xander said, I'm the Slayer, and he's a... vampire.... God, I can't!" she suddenly exploded. "He's never done anything to hurt me...."
She broke off and visibly got control of herself, sitting up straight and pulling her textbook closer. "Okay, I've got to stop thinking about this. Let's give it another half hour and maybe something will sink in." Her shoulders slumped again. "And then I'm going home for some major moping."
Willow wished again she could think of something wise and comforting to say. She settled for smiling sympathetically yet again, and opening her textbook back up to the study questions. She had no faith in Buffy's ability to study tonight, but it was always worth a shot.
"The era of the Congressional Reconstruction, usually called...."
Sure enough, nothing sunk in, although Buffy did give it an honest effort. At the end of half-an-hour, both of them were more than ready to call it quits.
"I'm sorry I wasted so much of your night, Will." Buffy looked more depressed than when they'd started.
"It's okay," Willow assured her. "It's not like there are all these other things I could be doing."
"Still...." Buffy slowly loaded her backpack up. "I guess I'd better get home or Mom will start worrying. I'll walk you home first, though."
"Good. 'Cause I was going to ask you to." Willow made a face. "I'd just as soon not have any solo encounters with vampires any time soon."
That had been badly phrased, she realized, as shadows flickered back across Buffy's face. Before she could say anything to fix the damage, though, Xander's voice called out, "Haven't you two had enough of the study thing yet?"
"Xander?" They both turned around, and saw him leaning through the side door, one of the key rings Giles had given all of them weeks before dangling from his hand.
"What are you doing here?" Buffy scolded him, putting her backpack over her shoulder. "It's after dark, you shouldn't be wandering around alone."
Xander looked wounded, an expression he did particularly well. It had something to do with his soft, puppy dog brown eyes, Willow figured. "Here I am, going out of my way to offer my services as an escort home, and all I get is abuse. Whatever happened to gratitude?"
Willow and Buffy exchanged looks; they all knew if anyone was going to be offering protection on the way home, it was going to be Buffy, not Xander. But there was no real point in further destroying his ego.
"Thank you, Xander," they chorused sweetly instead, each girl taking one of his arms. "We'll feel much safer with you around," Willow added ingenuously.
Xander heard the sarcasm, judging from his quick look down at her, but apparently decided to ignore it. "That's much better," he approved instead. "Aren't you glad you've got me around?"
That one was much too easy, not even worth an insult, so they didn't bother.
Giles had left school at something close to a normal time, for once; the trio locked the side door behind them and headed for home. Seeing Buffy's state of exhaustion, Willow signaled to Xander that they should drop her off first. He looked unhappy about it -- probably hoping to get rid of Willow and have some time alone with Buffy -- but gave in after a sharp glare and sharper poke in the ribs. Both of which were probably a bit sharper than they needed to be, but Willow was feeling hostile tonight.
It was a sign of how tired she was that Buffy not only didn't notice Willow and Xander's by-play, but also didn't protest when they walked her to her front door. She simple gave them an off-hand, "Night, guys," and headed inside.
"Nice to feel appreciated," Xander said, staring at the closed door.
"You know she appreciates you," Willow soothed his wounded pride, taking his arm to tug him away from the door and back down towards the sidewalk. "She's just distracted, and tired. You'll see, she'll be much happier to see us in the morning, after she's gotten some sleep."
"Yeah, if she doesn't have nightmares about that Angel guy." Xander frowned back at Buffy's house over his shoulder. "I don't get him. Why mess around with Buffy's head like that? I mean, what kind of sicko is he?"
"Maybe he's not a sicko," Willow defended Angel. "We don't enough about him to know what he was doing."
"We know enough," Xander told her flatly. "He's a vampire, a killer. How can you still defend him after what Giles told us?"
"Maybe because I'm not half-insane from jealousy."
Willow hadn't really meant for Xander to hear her mutter - not really -- but he did anyway. "Oh, so now I'm the crazy one? You're trying to make a vampire into a good guy and I'm nuts? Or are you just as gone on him as Buffy is?"
"No!" Willow protested automatically as they turned the corner at the end of Buffy's street. It was true, she wasn't 'gone' on Angel -- even if she hadn't been so in love with Xander, Angel was way out of Willow's league, and she knew it. But the accusation hurt. "I just think everyone's jumping to conclusions and it's not fair."
She didn't know what he was about to say, and never would. Before he could finish his sentence, a crash of shattering glass came from the block they'd just turned off of. There'd been a time when they would have assumed it was something innocent, and gone on their way. Now, they turned as one and raced back towards Buffy's house.
The glass turned out to have been Buffy's front window, which now lay in shards all over the sidewalk, as if something had exploded through it. But Buffy's pleading voice was coming from the back, so they didn't stop to investigate.
The back door was standing open, the lock splintered. They skidded over the threshold, Xander calling Buffy's name -- and stopped cold, taking in the scene before them. Buffy knelt next to her mother, who was stretched unconscious on the floor. Willow's heart skipped several beats when she saw the puncture wounds on Mrs. Summers' neck... and the blood.
"What happened?" she asked in something perilously close to blind panic.
Buffy's face was as hard as her voice when she answered, and the single word said it all. Willow started to shake her head in denial, but it had to be true. Mrs. Summers had been attacked by a vampire, and only one vampire had been invited into the Summers' home.
Angel was a bad guy.
The next few hours passed in a blur. The ambulance arrived after what seemed like forever, the paramedics gently but firmly shoving everyone out of the way as they hooked Mrs. Summers up to an IV and loaded her into the ambulance. Buffy rode with her mom; Xander and Willow followed on foot as fast as they could.
For all the good it did them; they wound up sitting around in the waiting room, watching Buffy fill out paperwork with single-minded intensity. To Xander's credit, the words 'I told you so' never once crossed his lips; he spent most of his time pacing around the room, since Buffy did not want to be comforted.
Willow finally thought to call their parents to explain where they were, then, instinctively, dropped another quarter into the phone and called Giles. He was asleep, of course -- it was almost midnight and he'd been spending way too many nights in the library -- but he got the phone on the third ring, with a bleary, "Hello?"
"Giles? It's me. Um, me, Willow."
"Willow?" It sounded like it took him a second to recognize her name; if she hadn't been so upset, it might have been funny. "Have you and Buffy started a club, trading off disturbing my sleep, is that it? Will I get a call from Xander tomorrow night?"
"Giles, this is serious," she cut him off before his sarcastic British humor could get any sharper. "We're at the hospital."
That woke him up. "Buffy?"
"Her mom. Angel..." It was surprisingly hard to say the words. "Angel... attacked her. Buffy came home and saw him holding her mom's body. She.... Giles, can you get here? Please?"
"It's all right, Willow, I'll be there as soon as I can," he said soothingly, but with an edge of urgency to his voice that spoiled the effect. "Buffy's mother, is she all right?"
"No one's saying anything." Willow heard the edge of tears in her own voice. "Buffy looks like she's going to start breaking things, or maybe people, and --" She saw Xander signaling her at the end of the hall, and broke off before she could start crying for real. "Giles, I have to go, I think they've got some news."
"Go, then," he said quickly. "I'm on my way."
She sniffed and hung up, then raced back to the waiting room, where the doctor was telling Buffy, "We've given your mother two pints of blood and her red count is stabilizing. We'll going to keep her overnight, just to be on the safe side, but I think she's going to be fine."
Willow breathed a sigh of relief, but Buffy just nodded. Her face didn't change from the hard, controlled mask she'd been wearing since she found her mother.
"Do you have any idea what could have happened to her?" the cdoctor asked, looking puzzled. "I don't often see that sort of puncture wound on the neck. It's an awkward place to hurt yourself."
"I don't know how it happened," Buffy lied, instantly and totally straight-faced. "Can I see her?"
"Of course; she's awake and asking for you."
Buffy followed the doctor down the hall; Willow and Xander exchanged looks and trailed behind, neither particularly wanting to let Buffy out of their sight while she was wearing that expression.
Buffy's mom looked pale and weak, but infinitely better than she had two hours before, if only because she was sitting up and her eyes were open. A bag of blood ran through an IV into the back of her hand. "Hi, honey," she said weakly, as Buffy came up to the bed.
"Hi, Mom," Buffy said gently, carefully taking her hand.
Willow waved weakly, but stayed towards the back of the room with Xander, hovering uncertainly.
"I'm sorry I scared all of you," Mrs. Summers said, with a vague smile in the Slayerettes' direction. "Such a silly accident."
"It's okay," Willow assured her quickly. "As long as you're all right."
"Oh, I'll be fine." She tried to wave breezily, but was hampered by the IV flowing into one arm and the transfusion tube in the other.
Buffy leaned over her mother. "Do you remember anything, mom?" she asked carefully.
"Just, um...." Mrs. Summers tried to think; it obviously hurt her sore head. "Your friend came over," she said finally, slowly, "I was going to make a snack... "
"My friend?" Buffy repeated hollowly. Willow winced. Another mark against Angel.
Mrs. Summers didn't appear to notice. "I guess I slipped and cut my neck on... the doctor said it looked like a barbeque fork. We don't have a barbeque fork." She looked up at Buffy with a puzzled expression as the door opened again and Giles came in. He was wearing a scarf over his open coat, and looked as if he'd run all the way from the parking lot to the recovery ward. He must have been running, Willow realized as she looked at her watch. He'd probably set a new world record from his house to the hospital.
Giles spared a moment to look at Buffy, then Willow and Xander, as if assuring himself they were all safe, as Mrs. Summers asked in confusion, "Are you another doctor?
"Oh." Buffy noticed Giles's arrival for the first time; she'd been too wrapped up in her mom to notice if an entire squad of vampires had come walking through. "No, Mom, this is Mr. Giles."
Mrs. Summers nodded in recognition. "The librarian from your school." Then she went back to looking confused. "What's he doing here?"
Giles covered quickly, if not particularly well, giving Buffy's mother the same quick once-over he'd just given the other three. "I just came to pay my respects, wish you a speedy recovery."
Fortunately, Mrs. Summers was too tired to question how the news had spread so fast. Instead, she seemed pleased by his presence. "The teachers really do care in this town."
"Get some rest, now," Buffy told her, obviously eager to get Giles out of the same room as her mother. She kissed her mom carefully, then led the way out of the room, the others trailing behind her.
"She's gonna be okay," Buffy told Giles as soon as they were out of Mrs. Summers' earshot. The Slayer looked dazed, as if the reality of what had happened had finally sunk in. Willow didn't blame her; she was close to leaning on Xander to hold herself up. "They gave her some iron, her blood count was, um, a little...."
Giles picked up the sentance when Buffy faltered. "A little low? It presents itself like mild anemia. You were lucky you got to her as soon as you did."
"Lucky?" Buffy's face was fading from shock back to hard, cold rage. "Stupid."
Xander looked as creeped out as Willow felt. "Buff, it's not your fault--" he started.
Buffy cut him off ruthlessly. "It isn't? I invited him into my home. Even after I knew who he was, what he was, and I didn't do anything because I had feelings for him. Because I cared about him."
The self-disgust in her voice had gotten thicker with every word; Willow couldn't stand it. "If you care about somebody," she said haltingly, unable to resist the quick, sideways glance at Xander, "you care about them. You can't change that by...."
"Killing him?" Buffy said it easily, casually. "Maybe not, but I think it's a start."
Willow wanted to argue further, but something in her friend's eyes stopped her. Buffy wasn't going to listen to anyone just now; the Slayer had taken over and there was no room for anything else. All Willow could do was nod as Xander said, carefully, "We'll keep an eye on your mom," and follow him back into the room.
Xander looked back once at Giles and Buffy, as the Watcher continued to argue with the Slayer. Willow didn't bother. Buffy had gone to work, as if it were some nameless, faceless vampire instead of Angel, who Buffy had mooned over and insulted and kissed. Then again, maybe it would have been easier if it had been a nameless vampire. It would have been business as usual, not such a harsh betrayal.
Willow felt that betrayal as deeply as her friend, because she had defended Angel. If she hadn't, if she had backed Giles and Xander up when they tried to convince Buffy Angel was a threat, would Buffy's mom still be in that hospital bed? If Willow hadn't wanted so desperately to believe, if she hadn't been so helplessly, romantically sure Angel was a good guy, could she have stopped all of this?
She sighed and huddled in on herself in the stiff, uncomfortable hospital chair next to the bed, looking at Buffy's mom. She had fallen asleep, her face pale and the circles underneath her eyes pronounced. The blood dripped steadily from the bag above her head, replacing what had been taken from her. She would get better; the doctors said so.
Willow wished it would be as easy to heal everyone else who'd been wounded tonight.
Giles returned to the hospital room looking grim, and dragged another chair up beside Willow's, sinking into it with an exhausted, nearly soundless sigh. Xander paced slowly up and down the far end of the room. No one said a word, but Willow knew it wasn't Mrs. Summers they were standing vigil for.
It got to be too much fairly quickly; Willow excused herself quietly and went into the hall, where at least there were people and distractions -- things to occupy her other than her own thoughts. The magazines in the waiting area were months out of date, of course, but it wasn't like she could concentrate enough to read them. She just flipped through them, staring blindly at the pages.
"I didn't know fishing was your thing, Will." She looked up at Xander, standing over her with a determined, painful-looking grin on his face, then back down at the magazine in her hand. Fishing Weekly, sure enough.
She forced a smile to match his, and laid the magazine down carefully. "Oh, you know, just brushing up for my next bass fishing trip."
"Never know when you might get the chance to catch the big one," Xander agreed solemnly. She expected him to sit beside her, wished he would, so she could lean against him for comfort. But he stayed on his feet, his hands shoved deep into his pockets.
"Go ahead, say it." She was surprised to find herself still smiling, a tired, resigned smile in Xander's general direction. "You've been dying to all night, you might as well get it out of your system."
Xander didn't look at her. "Say what?"
"Oh, that. You mean the 'I told you so' thing."
Willow looked at him sideways. "Yeah, that would be the thing."
Xander shrugged, his hands never leaving his pockets. "I wasn't going to say it." He must have seen the disbelief in her eyes, because he added defensively, "Okay, I might have been thinking it, but I wasn't going to say it."
"Why not?" Willow sighed. "You were right, we were wrong, and now Buffy's going to kill Angel, just like you said she should."
"Hey!" Xander's voice was sharp enough and surprising enough to pull her out of her funk. "You think I wanted to be right?"
Well, that was a no-brainer. "Yeah, I do."
Xander flinched, then nodded. "Okay, yeah, I wanted to be right. True enough. But I didn't want to be this right." He started pacing again, up and down the waiting room. "I'm not a total idiot, you know; I saw what she looked like. She's gonna kill this guy, but it's not gonna stop her from blaming herself, it's not gonna stop her from feeling like someone stabbed a stake in her back."
He stopped in front of the window, staring out of it in the general direction of the Bronze, his shoulders tight. "I'd like to kill him myself for doing that to Buffy." His laugh was bitter and humorless. "If I had half a chance of beating her to it."
Willow stared at him. She would never have believed Xander was capable of this kind of emotion, this kind of cold anger. She'd seen him mean before, when the hyena had taken him over, and she'd seen him mad, countless times over their childhood. But never like this. Right then, she didn't even know him.
Sh couldn't think of anything to say, so she didn't say anything. After a silent minutes, Xander turned away from the window to look at her. Everything she was feeling must have been written on her face, because he made a visible effort to smile.
"Hey, cheer up," he grinned crookedly, back to the same Xander she'd always known, trying to reassure her when he was scared to death himself. "It could be worse, she could be having to stalk down and destroy Cordelia. Now that would be scary. She'd probably have designer fangs and everything."
It shouldn't have been funny, but the morbid humor struck exactly the right nerve; Willow started giggling helplessly at the image of Cordelia decked out with monogrammed fangs and colored conacts, so her eyes would glow purple instead of yellow. She shared the image with Xander, he retaliated with facials at an exclusive midnight salon, and pretty soon they were howling.
It wore off, of course; the mild hysteria passed after a few minutes, leaving them sprawled over the uncomfortable couch trying to catch their breath. Willow felt a moment of guilt, thinking of Buffy stalking through the darkness as Willow and Xander laughed their heads off, but was running out of energy for more than a twinge.
Eventually, Xander dragged himself to his feet and held a hand out to help Willow up. "Come on, we'd better make sure Giles hasn't bored Mrs. Summers into a coma. Buffy'd really be mad, then."
Willow gave him a half-hearted glare, too tired for much of anything else, but took the offered hand and somehow made it back to vertical. She expected him to drop her hand and he did, but only to put his arm around her shoulders. Surprised and grateful, she leaned on him.
They made it as far as the hospital room before Willow stopped, hearing Giles's voice from inside. He sounded upset, and looked even more so when he came striding out of the room, already pulling his coat on.
"We have a problem," he announced, as the pair fell in step beside him.
"Tell us something we didn't know," Xander said.
Willow just looked seriously up at Giles, past the point of shock. "What happened now?"
"I discovered who attacked Buffy's mother," Giles told them as they hurried past the nurses' station and onto the elevator. "And it wasn't Angel."
"It wasn't?" Willow and Xander chorused in ragged, surprised unison.
"Then... who was it?" Willow asked.
"Someone called Darla, a vampire who presented herself as one of Buffy's friends." Giles punched impatiently at the elevator button, as if that would make it go faster. "She tricked Buffy's mother into inviting her inside, and then... Damn! I should have seen this coming, I should have taken precautions--"
"What precautions?" Willow asked sensibly, as the elevator doors opened at last. Giles didn't bother to make sure they were following, or to head for his car, just took off down the street at something close to a run. Xander and Willow followed, Willow still arguing, "You didn't know someone would... Oh, no." Her eyes went wide as the implications hit. "Then Angel isn't the bad guy, he didn't hurt her mom, but Buffy's going to try to kill him anyway! We have to stop her!"
"We do?" Xander blinked at her as well as he could while stumbling at a near run down a pitch-black street. "I mean, we don't know Angel didn't--"
"All right, all right!" Xander backed down. "Where are we going?"
"The Bronze," Giles told them over his shoulder without slowing. They didn't have any time to spare. Buffy had been gone for almost an hour, more than enough time to....
Willow forced the thought away and raced after Giles as he pushed his way through the underbrush, using a shortcut Willow hadn't even known existed. "We're near the Bronze," she panted, recognizing the buldings through the trees. "What now?"
"We keep looking for her."
"I've got a question," Xander spoke up from the rear. "What if we find her, and she's fighting Angel and some of his friends. What the heck are we gonna do about it?"
Good question. A really good question. But not one Willow really wanted to hear. They'd do something, that was all that mattered.
The Bronze was dark and deserted when they broke out of the trees and onto the parking lot. The fumigation hadn't been finished yet, so there were no lights, no music. It looked creepy as sin, even to someone who wasn't busy trying not to picture what was probably happening inside.
Giles tried the side doors, which were locked, of course. No matter how much time they spent inside, never once had they been able to get into the Bronze when it was really important. There was a certain amount of irony in that, but Willow wasn't in any condition to appreciate it.
"Xander, try the front," Giles ordered sharply, throwing his weight against the side door again. "Willow, the upper level, where Buffy got in during the Harvest."
"Right." They both started to split off towards their assignments, before a sudden, sharp crack, instantly recognizable to anyone who'd ever seen NYPD Blue, stopped them in their tracks. "Did you just hear...?" Xander asked nervously.
Yes, they had. Giles had gone from upset to downright grim and Xander looked like he'd be panicking if it wouldn't ruin his 'cool' image. Willow swarmed up the fire escape faster than she'd known she could move, and found the fire door standing open, the lock broken. Buffy had been through here, all right. She gestured frantically to the other two, then ducked through the door, crouching low to stay out of sight.
Because they weren't alone.
Voices echoed through the club eerily, bouncing off the concrete walls. A woman's voice, smug, irritating, familiar. The twang of a crossbow and Willow held her breath as she looked over the railing, hoping to see a pile of dust.
Instead, she saw a blonde vampire, her face fright masked and a gun in each hand, looking down at a crossbow bolt that stuck out of her stomach. Buffy was hastily reloading and, in the shadows behind them both, Angel dragged himself up from the floor, clutching another bolt lodged in the wall beside him, his face a mask of pain.
"Close," the blonde vampire said smugly. "But no heart." She dragged the bolt out of her stomach with a grunt, then threw it away casually and lifted her guns again. She fired, the shots echoing like cannon.
"We need to distract her," Xander said urgently. "Fast."
Willow didn't stop to think how dumb it was, or how unprotected they were. She filled her lungs and shouted with all her might, "Buffy, it wasn't Angel who attacked your mom, it was Darla!"
It distracted the vampire, all right. Darla turned and fired up at their balcony. Xander and Willow bellyflopped as Giles wormed his way across the floor to one of the Bronze's battered lightboards.
Beneath them, Darla jumped up on top of a pool table, and began strolling along it, confidently, unstoppably stalking the Slayer who hid at the other end.
A little too confidently, as it turned out. Buffy jumped up from her hiding place and jerked the heavy table forward as if it weighed nothing. Darla lost her balance and fell backwards as Buffy shoved the table away from her as hard as she could, nearly dumping herself on the floor in the process. Flat on her back on the moving table, Darla fired wildly from both guns, keeping the Slayer down. Buffy wound up behind the bar and the dubious protection of the counters and cabinets.
The table stopped and Darla regained her composure, swinging her feet to the ground and walking forward towards Buffy, firing carelessly, as if she didn't care who or what she hit.
Probably, she didn't. Willow recognized her now, the blond vampire who had kidnapped Jesse, who had tried to kill Giles in the Bronze what seemed like a lifetime ago. Willow had stopped her that second time, but there was no holy water, no weapons now. Nothing to do but watch as the bullets pounding into the bar, shattering glass all around Buffy's hiding place. She tried not to think of how that first encounter with Darla had ended, of Jesse turned into one of the monsters they'd been fighting. Of Jesse lying in a pile of ash....
A sudden slam beside her startled Willow out of her grim thoughts. Giles had lost patience with the lightboard and begun pounding it into the table and, where care hadn't worked, brute force did. The lights flickered, then began to strobe. As Darla blinked in confusion, Buffy raced for better cover.
Darla adjusted quickly, filtering out the distractions to focus in on her target. With sinking dread, Willow realized the vampire was done with playing games. "Come on, Buffy," Darla sneered. "Take it like a man."
Xander's eyes were focused on Buffy, as if he could will the bullets to bounce off of her. Giles was still fussing with the lightboard, trying to make it produce something useful. Buffy was hidden, and Darla had her back turned.
So Willow was the only one to see the tall form separate himself from the shadows, the crossbow bolt he'd used to pull himself to his feet now clutched in his hand. And she was the only one to see him lift his arm to bury the bolt in Darla's unprotected back, straight into her heart.
The vampire staggered under the force of the blow. Bending under whatever it was vampires felt before they died, she turned, staring up at Angel with betrayed, disbelieving eyes. For a moment, she looked almost human.
"Angel?" she whispered. It was all she could say before she fell, her body collapsing to dust before she reached the boards. One gun clattered to rest on the floor; nothing else remained.
Everything seemed to have stopped moving, only the lights strobing in their relentless rhythm. Willow had stopped breathing; she could only see Angel's face, caught half in shadow, half in light. Buffy stepped out from her cover, staring at Angel with wide, amazed eyes. He looked back at her, his face blank and his eyes eloquent, although Willow had no idea what he was saying. Somehow, she thought Buffy would know.
Slowly, Angel turned and walked back into the darkness, staggering a little as he went, leaving the four mortals to stare after him.
Time passed. The police came in due course, after someone living near the Bronze phoned in the reports of gunshots, but the group managed to avoid them, slipping out through the fire exit and stumbling back to the hospital.
Buffy stayed there for what was left of the night, falling almost instantly into a heavy sleep in the chair at her mother's side. Giles drove Willow and Xander the few short blocks to their houses, all of them too tired to contemplate the walk, then presumably went back to the hospital to look after Buffy. Willow fielded her parents' questions as she came in, managed to mumble out explanations and assurances that contented them, then fell face first onto her bed and slept dreamlessly.
Rumors flew the next day at school, of gang shootouts and drug deals gone bad, despite the fact that no bodies had been found at the Bronze. Only a pile of dust and a single gun. Willow plowed her way through her classes, fell asleep sitting up only once, and studiously avoided Ms. Calendar, who saw way too much. A history test -- the one Buffy had found a way out of after all -- passed in a blur, then it was back to the hospital, where Buffy's mom was sitting up, talking and smiling and fussing about the gallery and Buffy missing school.
She and the doctors finally shooed them all out, with assurances that Buffy's mom could go home the next day, and Willow and Xander escorted Buffy home. That night, as Willow listened soberly and more than a little tearfully, Buffy told her about the gypsy curse that Angel carried, about what Darla had been to him, and what he'd really done when he'd killed her.
"So, she was like, his girlfriend?"
Buffy sighed and shrugged, leaning back against her pillows wearily. There were still circles under her eyes that no amount of sleep could erase. "Girlfriend, mother, sister... I'm not sure. I think she was pretty much everything, all the time he was, um.... like the rest of them."
Willow smiled understandingly from where she was curled up at the foot of Buffy's bed. Her parents had been all in favor of a sleepover, as had Giles -- no one thought Buffy should be staying home alone. Xander's offer to join them for added security, however, had been roundly rejected.
"So he really isn't one of them anymore, is he?" Willow said, thinking of Angel. "He's a good guy."
Buffy nodded slowly. "Yeah, I guess he is. It's still... weird, though. He's a vampire. I don't think I'm ever going to get used to that."
"Join the club," Willow muttered ruefully.
Buffy grinned unexpectedly, the first time she'd smiled in days. "I don't think Giles is ever going to get used to it; he just can't deal with the concept of a vampire actually helping the Slayer, much less saving her life."
"He'll come around," Willow predicted with more confidence than she felt. "So will Xander."
Buffy's smile faded. "If they get the chance."
Willow bit her lip and studied the bedspread intently. Two days, and it was as if Angel had vanished when he'd left the Bronze. No lurking in corners, no warnings, no nothing. They didn't even know if he was all right, if he'd recovered from what Darla had done to him.
And Willow wanted to know almost as badly as Buffy did.
"Maybe he'll be at the Bronze tomorrow night," she offered hesitantly. "He probably doesn't want to come here since you threw him out the window and all."
Buffy winced. "God, I can't believe I did that. I can't believe I tried to kill him. He probably saved my mom's life and I almost...."
"But you didn't." Willow cut her off firmly, having heard this particular guilty gush three times in the last hour. "And he didn't exactly make it easy for you to figure out what happened."
"But still...." Buffy stared out the window. "Willow, he killed her for me. She said he loves me, and then he killed her for me. What do I... What can I say to him after that?"
"I don't know," Willow admitted, way out of her league. She'd take her nice, simple unrequited crush over this any day. "I wish I could help."
"You are helping," Buffy said quietly.
They sat in an awkward silence, then Willow cleared her throat. "Anyway, you missed the subtle hint, which meant, you are coming to the Bronze with us tomorrow night, aren't you?"
"I don't know.... It'll be Mom's first night home. I should stay with her."
Willow gave her a Look. "Buffy, she kicked you out of the hospital today because you were driving her crazy. I don't think she'll mind if you go. She'll probably push you out the door."
Buffy grinned reluctantly. "You're right, she will."
"So you'll go?" Willow persisted, leaning forward.
"All right, all right!" Buffy started laughing. "You are really stubborn, you know that?"
Willow shrugged and grinned. "I've been taking lessons from the best."
Buffy made a face at her, then swatted her with a pillow. Willow instantly retaliated, and all seriousness was utterly forgotten.
The Bronze was rocking, relieved teenagers flocking the dance floor and trying to make up for the four days of musical deprivation. The trio stood in the entrance for a long minute, comparing the lively, cheerful place to the grim emptiness of only a couple days before. This way was much better, Willow decided.
"Ah, the Post-Fumigation Party," Xander breathed happily, apparently in perfect agreement with Willow's thoughts.
"Okay, so what's the difference between this and the Pre-Fumigation Party?" Buffy asked with amusement.
"Much hardier cockroaches," Xander shot back. Buffy rolled her eyes, apparently realizing she'd walked into a very old Sunnydale joke. She still seemed amused, though; a rousing pillow fight followed by a full night's sleep in an actual bed had done wonders for her appearance and her attitude. She looked almost normal, if still a bit distant.
"So, no word from Angel?" Willow asked for no reason. Then she caught a glimpse of the reason, leaning against the far wall, watching the three of them with eyes so intense Willow could almost feel them. Correction, watching Buffy. She looked away quickly, not wanting to blow his cover if he didn't want to be seen. They owed him that much, at least.
"Nah," Buffy said, making a small face and trying to pretend it didn't matter. She completely blew the effect by wistfully adding, "It's weird though. In a way, I feel like he's still watching me."
The hell with Angel's cover. "Well, in a way he sort of is," Willow gave him away without another thought. "In the way that, he's right over there."
Buffy followed Willow's gesture and froze as her eyes locked with Angel's. In a second, everyone else in the room disappeared for both the Slayer and the vampire. Willow watched with interest and the slightest touch of envy as Buffy walked to meet Angel on the dance floor, both moving as if they were pulled together by an invisible string.
If Xander had been even a little less intent on being cool and mature, he'd have been pouting. "I don't need to watch, because I'm not threatened," he declared to no one in particular, seating himself with his back very deliberately to the dance floor. "I'm just gonna look this way."
Willow smiled and seated herself opposite him, adjusting herself until she had the best possible view. There was no way she was going to miss this -- now, if only she could lip read.
Not that it mattered much; Buffy and Angel's faces were speaking volumes. Angel actually smiled once and Willow grinned in response -- he had a nice smile. Then, slowly and inevitably, Angel leaned forward to kiss Buffy, and Buffy wrapped herself in his embrace, oblivious to the crowds around them. Willow sighed with vicarious happiness.
"What's going on?" Xander asked suspiciously, eyeing her.
"Nothing," Willow lied, straight-faced.
Xander smiled unconvincingly. "Well, as long as they're not kissing."
It was probably best not to answer that, so Willow didn't. The couple on the dance floor moved apart slowly and reluctantly (to Willow's admittedly biased eyes); with only a few more words, Buffy backed away from Angel, her face sober. He stared after her as she left the dance floor, and, like two nights before, only Willow saw what was in his eyes. But she could only watch for a second before it felt like an invasion of privacy, and when she looked back, he was gone.
Xander popped to his feet as soon as Buffy was within speaking range, opening his mouth to say something possibly witty, and almost certainly insulting towards Angel. But the look on her face stopped him before he could get the words out.
Buffy was smiling a little, sadly, as if she'd just lost something really valuable, and had already resigned herself to never getting it back. Her eyes were very calm and steady, like they belonged to an entirely different person -- someone much older than sixteen.
Xander hesitated, then, instead of saying anything, awkwardly put his arm around Buffy in a silent gesture of support; she leaned her head against his shoulder. Willow watched in helpless silence.
"Are... are you okay?" she asked finally.
"Sure," Buffy answered quietly and unconvincingly, straightening. Xander took the hint and let his arm fall away, but stayed close to her. Willow couldn't bring herself to mind. "We both... I know it would never work. It's just... one of those things."
She sighed, fingering the cross at her throat, then grinned a little crookedly, and was suddenly sixteen again. Suddenly Buffy again. "Sometimes fate just sucks dead bunnies through a straw, you know?"
Willow returned the grin with sympathy and relief. "I hear you," she agreed, rolling her eyes towards Xander.
He, of course, was oblivious, all of his attention on Buffy, but Buffy got it and her smile widened a little. "Look, guys, I'm not really up for partying tonight. Would you mind if we bailed?"
"Oh, hey, anywhere you want to go," Xander assured her instantly. "I'll... um, we'll walk you home."
"Actually, I was kind of thinking more along the lines of Ben & Jerry's," Buffy admitted sheepishly. "I feel the need for a major chocolate binge."
"Ice cream it is, then." Xander slung his arm around her shoulders again, but put the other around Willow this time, slipping into his adorable 'protective' mode. Willow was willing to settle for that; she put her arm around his waist, on top of Buffy's, and snuggled in. "And will it be Chunky Monkey for the ladies, or Triple Brownie Overload?"
"Chunky Monkey," Willow answered promptly, at the same time that Buffy said, "Triple Brownie."
They were still debating the point as they left the Bronze and headed down the street towards the ice cream bar, talking at the top of their lungs as if they could drive the night away by sheer volume.
Willow lagged a few steps behind the other two, watching the shadows out of the corner of her eye. She thought she saw one of them move, but didn't worry about it; she was pretty sure she knew who was lurking there. On impulse, she called out softly, "Good night, Angel."
There was no answer, but then, she hadn't expected one. So she just grinned and kept walking.
She wasn't afraid of the shadows anymore; not as long as Angel was one of them.
For Chris, who finally has her revenge for my endless nagging about 'Prophecy Girl'; for Tina, who had absolutely no objections to endlessly re-watching 'Angel' to catch the dialogue we didn't already have memorized; and for Leslie, just because she appreciated it.