Penance, Forgiveness, and Tears

by Sheila Marie Lane
Copyright 1997

For Beth, Lizbet, and Jen, with mucho thanks to Perri for beta-ing.
Insert standard disclaimers here.

Willow frowned down into her drink. Same old, same old.

They were at the Bronze, as always; Buffy was sending longing glances into the corner, as always; Angel was hovering in said corner and trying to look at her and not to look at her at the same time, as always; and Xander was following Buffy around like a puppy, as always. As definitely always.

Willow clinked her glass onto the table and stalked off. Of course, "stalking off" for Willow was not that different from "walking off," so no one would probably notice. Except that someone did.

"What are you doing here?"

Willow turned--carefully--away from the edge of the Bronze roof and looked up at Angel. "Nothing."

He lifted an eyebrow. "Aren't you afraid of heights?"

"Only about as much as you're afraid of sunlight." She turned her back on him and stared down at the pavement. "So I come up here every once in a while. I must like being scared."

"Or maybe you like being brave."

"Heh. I don't *think* so."

They stood in silence for a moment, looking at the meager lights of Sunnydale. Then Angel lowered himself to the concrete and let his legs dangle over the edge. Willow followed, tucking her knees under her chin.

"It is kind of pretty, isn't it?" she ventured after another long while.

"I suppose."

Willow hesitated before nudging his arm gently. "You're not even looking at the view, are you?"

He turned and gave her one of his rare smiles. "No. I guess not."

She looked at him curiously. "What are you thinking about?"


Willow took the cue and shut up.

She had nearly fallen asleep when Angel spoke again.

"Why are you afraid of heights?"

"Huh? Oh." She gave the matter some thought. "It's not really...heights," she said slowly. "It's more falling. I'm afraid of falling."

"I see."

"I feel stupid," Willow confessed suddenly. "That's why I come up here. I hate that I'm afraid." To her utter embarrassment, she felt tears begin to well up.

Angel looked at her hard and long. " couldn't be stupid with a complete lobotomy. It's just not in you."

"Yes I *am*," she wailed, surging to her feet. She was too close to the edge; the dizzying height forced her backwards, which just made her feel worse. "I'm stupid and I'm a coward, and--"

"No, no." His hands were up, as though he didn't quite know what to with them. Finally, they settled on her shoulders, forcing her to look up at him. Willow experienced a sudden miserable wish to be Buffy. "You're not stupid, or a coward. Not at all."

Willow didn't know what to do with *her* arms. She wrapped them around herself awkwardly. "Uh. It's nice of you to say so," she said a bit belatedly.

"I mean it. Everyone's afraid. At least you don't pretend to be bulletproof."

That startled a chuckle out of her.

"That's better." He dropped his hands from his shoulders and started to back away, but Willow caught his hand.

"Angel, what are you afraid of?"

He blinked a few times, staring at a point somewhere over her shoulder. Then his eyes met hers, and Willow's hand tightened compulsively on his. No one should hurt that much. No one.

"I'm afraid of everything," he said softly. "I'm afraid to live, because I don't deserve to. I'm afraid to die, because--I was Irish Catholic, Willow, a long long time ago. I know what waits for my soul the second time around. I know."

Willow shook her head fiercely. "That's not possible! It wasn't your fault, Angel. You didn' wasn't you. It's not your fault!"

"I can tell myself that. Every once in a while, I almost believe it. And then I remember what I did. I hear them in my sleep, do you understand? I hear my mother crying, and my sister screaming. And I see the faces of every single person I ever hurt. I can't live with that."

Willow dropped her hand as he turned away. "And you can't die with it," she said softly. "So your choice is just to...what?"

"To exist, I guess." His laugh held no humor. "To help stop others like me. And to wait, in fear, for my punishment. I would have called it penance, once."

"Angel, stop it." She waited until he was looking at her again, then framed his face with her hands and went up on tiptoe. When they were eye-to-eye--well, eye-to-nose unless she looked up--she said, "Stop it. Please. I can't stand to see you hurt like this."

He started to reply, but she cut him off. "How many times have you gone through this? Relived your--sins, or whatever. Regretted them. Wished them away. It has to be enough, eventually. You have to forgive yourself. If you don't, then getting your soul back is useless. Wasted. You might as well be like the others again. Is that what you want?"

"No, of course not. I don't...I..." He broke off and Willow put her arms around him--she had to, she couldn't help it. He let her. "No," he said brokenly.

Willow ran her hands through his hair gently. "It's all right," she said quietly. She could feel his whole body shaking; if he was capable of it, he would be sobbing. She blinked as tears of her own appeared. "Angel, I'm so sorry."

Minutes or eternities later, Angel raised his head and looked down at Willow's tearstained face. She tried to smile and raised a hand to brush away the wetness on his cheeks. "I cried all over you," she said, tempted to giggle out of sheer nervousness.

Angel caught her hand in his and held it against his cheek. "I don't mind."

He let go of her hand, reluctantly, then took another step back. He looked at Willow, standing with tears on her cheeks and the lights of the city behind her.

"You're brave, and smart," he said. "And beautiful."

Then he was gone.

Xander appeared next to Willow as she walked back in the Bronze door. "Hey, Will! What happened to *you*? And did you drag Buffy with you? The two of you, both, just whammo! Gone! I may have develop a complex."

"I think she...I think she and Angel are talking." She hoped so. Angel needed someone right now.

Xander opened his mouth to jump into a rant, and then got a good look at her face. "Oh...Willow, are you all right?"

She nodded, feeling new tears work their way out of her eyes. "It's just..." She thought of Angel again, buried in a pain she couldn't even comprehend. "Ohh...."

The next moment, Xander's arms were around her. "It's okay. It's okay. Shh, Willow. Everything's okay."

"It...hurts..." she managed through sobs.

"It'll stop hurting," he said with all the confidence of a forever best friend. "I promise you. Nothing bad lasts forever."

the end

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