Disclaimer:  Joss Wheldon, Mutant Enemy and FOX own the rights to BtVS.  No copyright infrindgement intended.


Part 13

For the third time that day, Angel brought the kit into Willow's bedroom.  A thermometer to check her temperature--still holding strong at 97.5--a damp cloth to clean the sleep from her eyes, a tongue depressor, a penlight to check her eyes, and another of the countless magic books he'd ordered shipped to the apartment to see if he could diagnose the illness.  If it could be called an illness. She actually seemed to be improving.  Willow lay there, but less like death than she had been since the whole ordeal began.  Her breathing was stronger now, and Angel could swear he saw eyelids flutter occasionally.

His thumb pushed open her lips, pressing the thermometer into her mouth.  Despite the completely necessary nature of the activity (to him, anyway), he couldn't but help feel invasive.  It's a strangely intimate thing, to put your fingers into another person's mouth.  Even with a kiss, the parties are on equal footing.  But now, with her unconscious...

"Yep.  97.5."  He wiped the thermometer on the towel, replacing it in the case.  "Looks like you--Christ."

Two bright, shining eyes stared into his own.

"Willow?"

********

"Flight 672, now boarding at Gate Three..."

Buffy checked her watch.  Perhaps it was wrong to have used the tracer on Angel.  She'd been playing it cool, as if she fully understood what the vampire was doing.  If he didn't move until she got out there, then everything would work out.  She and Giles were too busy fighting the latest world-threatening demon for her to leave.  Now, however, she was on her way to see for herself what things were happening in New York.

"The White Zone is for the immediate loading and unloading of..."

And besides, she thought.  If there's nothing to worry about, I'm going to get some shopping done.

********

"Willow?"  He breathed.  She was awake; looking much improved.  Angel pulled back, giving her ample room.  She coughed slightly.

"Angel."  The hacker sat amidst pillows and heavy comforters, awkwardly pushing herself up onto her elbows.

"Willow--careful!--careful."  She floundered.  He instinctively darted forward, supporting her back so she could sit upright.  He was next to her on the bed, holding her almost in an embrace.  Guilt and shame were all he felt.  "I'm sorry.  Here."  Angel adjusted the pillows behind her to help her sit up, his eyes not meeting hers.  "Do you want anything..?  Coffee, water, food, a-aspirin, anything--"  The vampire began to rise, but stopped as he felt a soft hand clasp his own.

"Wait."  Her voice was barely a whisper, but it stopped him.  "Look at me."

He choked.  To his dismay, the stab wound had not scarred at all.  "I don't think I can, Willow.  I hurt you so--"

"Shhh."  He saw her place her index finger to her lips, out of the corner of one eye.  "Look at me."

Tears streaked his cheeks without his bidding.  It was a quality unique to his relationship with Willow.  She had always wanted him to cry, needed him to open up and hurt in front of her.  The worst he could do was close down.  He owed her this much, and forced his eyes to look directly into hers.  She smiled softly, pulling his hand to her heart, placing the palm flat over it.

"Angel... I know everything you are.  Won't you let me in?"  She leaned away from the pillows, closer to him.

"I'm so sorry, Willow."  Those were all the words he could get out.  His hands shook in a wholly unmanly way.  He felt a chill in the room.

"Then let me really know you, Angel.  Let me inside."  Her left hand kept his palm over her beating heart.  The hacker's right hand carressed his cheek.

"I d-I don't know what you're asking."  He recoiled from her touch, loathing his still heart.

"I need your strength, Angel.  I need you."  There was pleading in her eyes.  "Help me.  Please help me?"  He nodded, slowly at first, then vigorously, drawing her small body against his horridly still chest, wishing to God and Satan below that a heart would beat inside it.  He would give his life for Willow.  She was so warm, almost scorchingly so.  The room was cold, so cold...

Something was wrong.  He felt sick; a spinning feeling.  Like he was falling.  Like he'd lost a lot of blood--

"Poor Angel."  Willow sing-songed.  He looked at her in bewilderment.  She snuggled closer to him, pulling him onto the bed next to her.  Her eyes glowed like those of a cat, and her tongue flicked out, licking her suddenly scarlet lips hungrily.

"You should be careful who you invite in."

He passed out.

********

Steam licked the corners of the bedroom.

A forceful blow struck the side of his face, knocking Angel conscious.

"Wake up!"  It took some effort to roll his head towards the voice.  Willow sneered down at him, a fury in appearance and in manner.  She straddled his midsection, fingernails scratching patterns in the skin of his chest.  They faded slowly.  He groaned softly as she raked her nails across his midsection.  He tried vainly to protest, but was having trouble making the simplest of movements.  Angel looked at the smiling Willow accusingly.

"Back to reality, eh?"  She rolled off his stomach, moving towards the packed boxes on the floor.  "It's a shame to let someone like you go to waste."  Willow cackled, digging through the boxes.  She came up with several pairs of nylons.  "Oh, don't look at me like that!"

Angel took a measured breath.  "Who..?"

"Am I?"  The siren tossed her head back, moving towards him.  "The one that got there first.  You should have seen it."  She kicked at a clinging swirl of mist around her feet.  "There was a line around the block.  Well, metaphorically around the block.  That girl abused us for years, that is
until we figured out a way to get through."  She hopped up onto the bed, straddling his chest again.  He vaguely raised his arm against her.  Willow knocked it away, wrapping a section of nylon around his wrists, binding them.  "Such a powerful little thing.  But ultimately confused.  Come along, Angel."

She grabbed him by the wrists, using all her strength to get him absolutely nowhere.  He lay there, an infuriatingly stupid look on his face.  "Well, get up.  I haven't got all day."  She paused.  "Actually, I have, but I'm feeling a bit cruel and impatient.  Get up!"  The demon rolled Willow's eyes.  "Vampires.  Ye gods."

His head was beginning to clear, but he still felt like hell warmed over.  "Wh... Where are we going?"

"I'm not going anywhere, honey.  Unfortunately, you are.  I promised the others I'd find vessels for the lot of them."  Her eyes flashed a muted
scarlet.  "You should thank your girlfriend, not that you'll ever see her again.  She's set up a neat little posession booth.  We'll have a fountain of demons flowing out of here in no time.  Not that New York will notice.  Are you deaf?  I said, Get Up."

Many things occured to Angel at this moment.  He went with his first impulse.  "No."

This seemed to take her aback.  "...No?"  She asked, softly and deliberately.  "No?"

He had no idea how she managed it, but suddenly he was on the floor on his stomach, head throbbing from the kick that had just been delivered to it.  Angel groaned in pain.

"Oh, now will you look at that?"  Laurel stalked around him, choosing once again to use the vampire as a chair.  He groaned as she kneed him in the side.  "Look at how much of your hard-earned energy I used up with that little stunt.  I might just have to siphon more.  And of course, we all know how highly unpleasant that little eventuality is.  Get up."

"...You're sitting on top of me."

"Ha, that should make it easier for you."  The demon laughed, swinging herself off his back.  Angel was not amused, and was considering his options at this point.  The telephone would do absolutely no good, there weren't any handy blunt objects... "Oh, I do apologize."  She wiped her eyes.  "Succubi humor."  She reached down, fingers more like talons, ripping into the flesh of his arms.  "Come on.  Make this easy on everyone.  Get up and get into the closet, and we won't have anymore problems."

"Not a chance."  He caught her wrists, exerting himself almost to the point of blacking out.  All it did was remove her hands briefly, and earn him a blow to the right ear.

"Fool.  I suppose I'll have to do this with force."  The vampire clawed his way towards the nightstand, only to feel his strength being sapped before he reached his destination.  His veins burned with a desire to feed--it was a natural reaction to becoming extremely weak or wounded--but he could move even less than before.  He was just so tired.

"And aren't we the smart one?"  He was pulled to his feet by a very angry demon, yanked upright by Willow's formerly delicate hand.  It was covered in his own blood.  "Don't you fall asleep, now.  I need you conscious for the transfer to take properly.  Be a good vampire."  She dropped him once again to the floor, taking ahold of one hand and dragging him to the bedroom door.

The mist swirled around his heavy eyelids.

Part 14

Undead man walking.  Or rather, dragging along the ground behind a succubus with a brooklyn accent who seemed to be about to give him over to some demon or other.  Wow.  Angel congratualted himself on his brevity.

In Willow's first step, he thought about the good times they'd had together.  Watching movies, having too much coffee, walking around in the park at night.  It had been a beautiful, if short stay in New York.  He felt his cheek scrape against the scuffed hardwood floor.

He remembered the first time he'd met her--how it was always centered on Buffy.  How is Buffy feeling, who is Buffy hanging out with, so on.  Little things came back, like the night he went and visited her bedroom, the time she confronted him in the library.  The time she held him in her arms and made him feel like everything was going to be okay... somehow.

His own boorish behavior.  Storming into the club, acting like an overprotective lunatic, forcing his way into her life, kidnapping her!  And
why did he do it?  Out of some sick sort of responsibility and debt?  Maybe a redemption?  If he could save Willow, then maybe he could finally forgive himself a few of those sins that never seemed to be wiped clean, imbedded permanently into the slate of time.

Or do I love her?

The closet door loomed in the distance.  It seemed a mile away, yet the vampire was aware it had to be closer than that.  His fingers grabbed at the floorboards.  The demon kept pulling him along.

I don't love Willow.  I don't.  It's too easy an excuse.  Love isn't something to be confused with a simple emotional bond.  It can't be love.
It's because of Dru, his family, the countless others... himself.  It came down to pure selfishness, working for Willow to benefit his own soul, not out of caring for her, but to ease his own pain.  My own pain.  My pain.  ...That's how it had started, anyway.  Now it was a giant jumbled mess of strings.  The closet door was much closer.

All his unlife, he'd honed his vampiric skills.  And for what?  To fail when the best of his friends needs him the most?  ...Or did she ever need me?  I was never something she wanted... always inviting myself over, always initiating the conversation...  Forgive me, Willow, for everything I did.  I wanted... I needed... I...

With some sort of inner pilot light lit, Angel reached out, grabbing hold of the door jamb.  He looked like something out of a bad slapstick comedy, Curly nyucking his way out of an awkward situation.  The succubus hissed, shifting her grip to his left leg, trying her best to force him away, pulling him towards the closet.

"Let--oof!"  He kicked outward with his right leg, every muscle in his lower body burning with the effort.  It landed just below her knees, knocking her over.  The succubus sprawled onto the floor, bumping her head on the doorframe.

Okay--plan time.  Plan.  Plan?  Plan!  Oh, come on, PLAN!  Anything!

Right!  Get up, open the closet, push the demon in, burn down the building--

Um, Angel?

Yes?

Keep in mind, you have certain physical limitations right now.  Not that you're not strong or anything...

Oh.

Hey, I've got an idea!  Why don't you roll into the spare room and lock the door?  Lacks panache but buys you time.

Angel lunged into the spare room, managing to rip the binding off his wrists.  The demon was upright as he threw his weight into the door, sending the much lighter demon reeling back into the hall.  He fumbled with the door, locking it tightly.  He then moved a chair under the knob, and looked around the room.  Telephone!

...Who ya gonna call?

Good question.

There wasn't anyone in the area who was really willing to lay their life on the line for Angel, and anyone he called, he was endangering.  The vampire soberly replaced the receiver, sitting down on one of the moving boxes that had been thrown into the guest room.  It had always been about two people--Willow and Angel.  He'd be damned if he would rope anyone else into a private matter.  This would be resolved today.  And if he ended up losing his soul over it... maybe that's what he had deserved all along.

His head snapped up.  "Wha...?"  Had he just heard...?

The doorbell.

*******

The front door flew open, a disheveled-looking Willow falling into Buffy's arms.

"Oh, thank the goddess you're here, Buffy!"

"Wills?"  Her best friend looked like a shadow of her former self.  She was impossibly skinny and her makeup had run all over her face.  "What's going on?  What's happened to you?  Where's Angel?  Is he here?"  Officer Summers asked rapid-fire questions, trying to piece together a story out of her sobbing friend.  "Willow, you're bleeding."  She reached out, the smaller girl flinching at her touch.

"It's nothing--"

"Did Angel do this to you?"  Willow looked confused for a moment, then nodded shamefully, staring at her feet.

"I am so sorry.  Buffy, he--he--"

"Shh, Wills, it's okay."

"He's like a crazy person.  He started stalking me, wouldn't leave me alone."  She sobbed.  "And he started getting violent... I was trying to leave, I managed to lock him away... Oh, Buffy."  She cried, hanging onto the Slayer.  "I tried to call, I really did.  But every time he'd get s-so, s-s-so angry at me."

Buffy gripped her friend in the kind of bear hug only a slayer can give.  "Shh, shh, it's okay.  Where is he?  Is he still here?"

Willow nodded.  "H--he's down the hall..."  The redhead's breath caught.  "In the closet."

Buffy nodded.  "You wait here, Willow.  I'll go."

"No!"  She covered.  "I mean... things got rough.  Some of my magic went haywire, there's mist all over the apartment... anyway, I know things are going to be okay now that you're here, Buffy.  And what kind of friend would I be to desert you?"

"Okay.  Follow me.  Stay right behind."

"You know you can trust me, Buffy."

The Slayer arched a brow slightly.  Willow was definitely different.  "When we are out of here, we are going to have a long, long talk.  And when did you get an accent?"

Willow shut the door behind them.

Part 15

"Nice decor, Wills.  What do you call it, nineteenth century moving box?"

"Shh... Here, this way."  Buffy looked on skeptically as Willow led her by the hand deeper into the apartment.  The whole place was giving her the creeps.  As a Slayer, Buffy had always been one to trust her instincts.  Cramps were not just cramps in her personal world of biological security.  The hairs standing straight on the back of her neck were not often the result of cold alone.  "Buffy?"

The blonde snapped back to attention, wishing she could just pull Willow over and get an explanation.  Somewhere along their journey through the dark, narrow hallways, the gaunt redhead had manuevered herself behind Buffy, as if to use the Slayer as a shield.  Normally, this wouldn't have bothered Buffy at all.  Today, however, she was analyzing.  Was Willow scared?  She didn't look scared.  She looked excited, almost jubilant.  A strange grin kept breaking out onto her face and then would fade away.  Something about all of this smelled.

"Buffy?"  Willow prodded her forward, her delicate hands on the other girl's shoulders.  "He's in there."

The Slayer found herself staring at an ordinary-looking closet.  The mist that seemed to carpet the apartment dissapated around it's entrance.  She stared at it for a long, hard moment.

"Buffy?"  Willow's eyes shone plaintively.  "Are you..?"

"Yeah.  Don't worry, Wills.  I'll get him.  Gimme a sec, okay?"

"Sure, Buffy."  The demon offered up a genuinely pleased smile.  Now there was a winning catch, although any demon would have a tough time subdueing the spirit of a Slayer.  She watched, having to bite back the impulse to lick her lips as the Slayer turned the knob, the door creaking open with a groan that would have made Vincent Price's sound crew scramble for their tape recorders.

Buffy Summers swung the door wide, peering into the room with her hands raised in a fighting stance.  She scratched her head idly, turning.  "Willow, he's not--"

"Buffy, Look Out!"  Angel shouted, tumbling from a guest room door across the hall. Startled, the Slayer had a clear second to react to the violent shove given by her possessed best friend.  She fell against the doorframe instead of into the closet.  Angel's momentum carried him forward enough to knock the succubus off her feet, sending the redhead sprawling in the other direction.

But friends--that's the nasty thing about demons.  They never stay down.  Willow countered, swinging her left leg around and catching Angel's jaw.  He rolled over limply, struggling with consciousness.

The mist spewed forth from the doorway, more tangible than before.  It clawed angrily at the Slayer, half-in and half-out of the room, trying to pull her in by the neck, hands, whatever it could reach.  Buffy's natural reaction was to shout at the stuff and recoil.  She pulled away without much difficultly, trying to shake the chill from her body.  She saw Willow connect with Angel's face and automatically leapt into protective-mode.  "Hey!"

"Uh-uh, Buffy."  Willow crawled over him like a spider, hooking one arm under his neck.  "One word and--"

"You break his neck?  Try another one.  I've heard that.  Do creatures of the night pull lines out of a big book of cliches?  Is there like, a standardized text you guys use?"

The Witch pulled him nearly upright, holding his head in a lock.  The vampire hung limply from her arms.  "Well, goodness.  I was going to suck the life out of him and then you, but I suppose we'll get straight to the violence, eh?"  The little redhead threw Angel towards the doorway, catching the first of the Slayer's blows in her hand.

The pair would've put American Gladiators to shame.  They dodged, bobbed, and weaved, the Slayer taking the upper hand early on in the match.  "You want violence, I can do violence."  She wailed on Willow the way she always did whenever she imagined one of her enemies was Faith.

Meanwhile, the mist snaked itself around Angel, tying itself in an intricate web of strings.  It ignored the battle a few feet away, concentrating its efforts on pulling the prone vampire through the doorway.  Heave-ho, heave-ho...

Buffy almost keeled over, a sudden dizzyness overtaking her.  For each strike, Willow countered, the redhead never throwing a punch back, just
taking each one, letting them connect.  She looked up blankly, tripping over her own feet.

"Oh, didn't I mention?"  Willow stepped over Angel, who at the moment was fast dissappearing into the abyss of the closet.

"Angel!  No!"  The Slayer was dealt a boot to the face, knocking her back onto the floor.

"Forget about him for the moment, dear.  I think I deserve an apology.  Don't you?  By the way, I wouldn't try to hit me.  I may be a succubus, dear, but I'm hardly an amateur.  All your energy is going straight to the power supply."  Willow-demon licked her lips.  "Now... what shall we do until they're done with him in there?"

The Slayer lunged for Angel's outstretched arm, watching his fingers slip through hers.  The door slammed in her face through a wholly supernatural draft.  "Angel!"

"That's right, honey."  The redhead chuckled darkly.  "Go right ahead and scream."

Part 17

Laugh and the world laughs with you,
Weep, and you weep alone,
For sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air,
The echoes abound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure.
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many,
Be sad, and you lose them all;
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink lifeâs gall.

Feast and your halls are crowded,
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give- and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die;
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

Angel stared at the blank wall two feet above Buffy's head, trying hard to process this latest piece of information.  "So... you're saying she's not
ready to see me yet."

"No, Angel."  She sighed, leaning forward.  There was a distinct detachment in his voice that unnerved her.  "I'm saying she isn't ever going to be ready to see you."  They'd been at this for a few minutes now, the vampire refusing to accept the inevitable.

"Well... maybe she thinks so now."

"I think she's going to think so for a while."  Buffy's nerves were as frayed as the two friends she valued most in the world appointed her interpreter.  Willow had been recouperating in the Slayer's hotel room, waking two full days before she'd even let Buffy tell Angel she was conscious.  Since then, he'd been haunting the place, entreating Willow with notes of apology and messages through Buffy to see him.  Willow's flat and adamant refusal wasn't getting through to the vampire.

"This is ridiculous."  Angel growled, immediately calming back down from anger.  "She's right behind those doors.  I could walk in and make her talk to me."

"Do you really think it's a good idea to try and make Willow do *anything* else?"  To Angel's credit, he did look like he hadn't slept in a week.  "Sit down."  She patted the seat next to her, taking his hands in her own and patting them in what she hoped was a soothing manner.  "Angel--"

"Was I wrong?"  He interrupted pleadingly.  "I need to know.  Tell me.  Honestly.  Was I wrong to do what I did?"  The vampire yanked his hands away, burying them in his hair.

"I... don't know."

"But she stopped.  She's okay.  ...I said I was sorry.  I don't even know why I'm sorry.  She stopped, now she'll be okay..."

"Angel."  Buffy gently steered his gaze back toward hers.  "Willow may have made some bad choices, and no matter what I think... she's a grown woman... God, I don't know what I'm saying.  This is totally--okay.  Angel?"  Her voice lowered.  "You were right.  You were completely right.  Maybe you were a little rough, but so is magic.  I'm glad you pulled her out of where she was, and I'm sorry you got the treatment for it.  The thing is... I don't know if she's going to be willing to accept that she needed a swift kick to the head, much less be grateful for it."  Angel looked away, blinking a little.  "Angel?"

The rims of his eyes threatened to spill over.  "It's not fair.  I wanted it to be so easy..."  Angel stood, sucking up the obvious emotion he felt,
moving for the door.  "Ironic, isn't it?  You can only save them if you're willing to lose them..."

The Slayer watched him leave warily, glancing back to the double doors that seperated off part of the suite.  "Willow?"  The knob turned slowly, the thin redhead slipping into the room.  Buffy looked away.  "I told him."

"I heard."

"What about the apartment?"

"I have a few friends who'd be willing to perform the necessary spells to shut it all down."  Willow had surprised Buffy by being fully dressed; she'd laid around in her pajamas for the previous days.

"You're not doing it yourself?"

"No."  She was quiet.  "I'm done with magic."  Her fingers fidgeted.  "For awhile, anyway."

"Then where are you going, if not there?"

Willow set her gaze.  "To work.  To see if there's any way they'll forgive me for my absence.  If not, I'll clean out my locker and find something else to do."

"Yeah... forgiveness is a major theme this year."  Willow nodded silently, moving to the kitchen.  Buffy sighed again.  "I'm going home in a couple of days.  Can't let the world pass me by, you know the drill.  ...Are you even listening to me, Willow..?"  Buffy flopped further into the chair.  "So much for vacation."

********

And so, in the interest of eliminating some of the already oppressing angst, the short version:  Willow vanished three days later, although she kept in touch with Buffy's Slaying activities back in Sunnydale.  Angel, for the most part, wandered around the city, feeling sorry for himself and trying not to think about Willow.  Not a night went by when he wouldn't wonder about whether or not she hated him.

And the story could've ended there...

But it didn't.  <weg>  ...They never do, do they?

Part 18

Time passes, as it often tends to do, without us noticing.  One morning it's fall, the next you can't breathe from the summer smog.  The months passed.  Officer Buffy Summers was given a commendation by the new mayor in Sunnydale, one that didn't yet appear to be or be controlled by a demon.  She just met a man with beautiful green eyes, and the oldest slayer in history couldn't give less of a damn about when her winning streak will run out.

Although life may go on, sometimes people don't.  Somewhere across the great american span, a year went by without Angel's notice.  He walked most evenings, looking for a flash of red hair amongst the passers-by.  He frequented clubs sullenly, on the off-chance she might appear.  That coffeehouse where they'd had their reunion was his favorite nightspot, though.  Of course, some weeks he didn't move from the couch, watching television with a glazed disinterest.

It was one of those nights the night he saw her again, captured for a moment in the lens of a camera.  Angel nearly bolted upright.  It couldn't have been her, it just couldn't--

He turned up the volume, a breaking news story being broadcast on a local station. "...report that by day, this manufacturing warehouse is used for storage, but police beg to differ with tonight's bust of what appears to be a market for elicit drugs and prostitution..."  The camera once again flashed over a small red-headed woman in a leather outfit.  Her head was bent over, hair covering her face, but he knew her instantly.  Willow.  "...over thirty in police custody--"  Angel ran out the door, came back for his pants, shoes, and wallet, then ran out the door again.

*********

"Laurel."

"Laurel."  Willow looked up, still having trouble answering to her alter ego's name since...

"Laurel.  Sheez, girlie, space cadet."  Sheila dropped next to her on the bench, crossing his--er, her--legs demurely.  She elbowed Willow playfully.  "Don't get so nervous.  Everyone gets arrested.  We won't be in here long."  The transvestite flipped a few locks of teased hair over her shoulder, smirking.  "I can't believe they put me in with the women.  You'd think they'd be able to tell tha--"  Sheila started, peering at the smaller woman.  Her arms were folded, back sunk against the wall.  "Beg pardon?"

"Shut up."  Willow sunk even lower, feeling a kind of humiliation she'd thought was gone.  In the dark of the night leather was a comfort, an
expression of all that was wild and untamed, the material a conveyance of raw sexuality.  Now, under the flourescent lights, it was hot and confining, causing her to sweat unpleasantly.  Much too real to be any fun.  Her makeup was ruined as well.  Tears had swabbed away the better part of her mascara.  To top it off, that nasty little voice in her head was telling her that using a simple glamour, she could be home in bed right now.

"Well.  Someone's got just a little bit of attitude, doesn't she?"  Sheila turned away huffily.  "It's not like it's a big thing.  The Company will bail
us out in a little while.  Then we all go back to work."

Most of the room looked up as the guard unlocked the cell door.  He stared at the motley group of women.  "Rosenberg.  Rosenberg!"  Willow was hesitant at answering, since that technically wasn't her name any longer.  She rose up off the bench, trying to ignore the severe wedgie that propriety wouldn't allow her to take care of in this public view, raising a hand.  "Uh... me?"

"Willow Rosenberg?"  She nodded, catching wondering stares from her co-workers.  "You made bail.  You're free to go."

"...Wait.  Just me?"  She had expected the whole group to be released at once, since logically that's what the Company would've paid to have happen.

"Just you.  The rest of you ladies--"  The cop put a slight sneer on those words.  "Will have to wait for your knights in shining armor to show up.  That goes for you too, Castrati."  He flipped a smug look to a shocked Sheila, then led Willow out into the hall.

"Um... I think you might have the wrong person."  Willow jerked her arm away, walking straight and tall as possible while looking like the uncomfortable member of the Avengers.  "I'm with them."

"Your boy doesn't seem to think so."

"My...?"

"The guy who bailed you out."

"But... I didn't call anyone."

"Tell him that."  The Officer led her into the lobby, pointing out a nervous man fidgeting in a metal folding chair.  His hair was unkempt in a
maddeningly cute way and he kept glancing around, his eyes flickering yellow when he saw her, raising a seasoned blush from the redhead.  She averted her eyes, embarassed at the whole situation.  How had Angel known to come and get her?  Was he being a stalker guy and following her?  A million questions raced through her mind.  Making the top of the list was 'What in the world am I supposed to say to him?'  "Rosenberg.  Papers for you to sign."  Willow ducked her head, trying to keep herself under control.  There were too many things left unsaid, too many things neither of them would ever have the guts to say, and especially not here.

Angel was mentally kicking himself.  The least he could've done was say hello to Willow.  Not that he had any idea to approach the kind of confrontation he kept thinking about.  In his fantasies, she'd run towards him, jump into his arms and beg his forgiveness between kisses.  In his more vivid fantasies, she would put all the blame on him and spit in his face.  He was hoping for a happy medium.  The vampire watched her sign away.  There sure was bureaucracy in getting arrested.

Willow nodded to the officer, who took away her paperwork without returning the friendly smile she'd given him.  Her stomach was a little fluttery because now came the hard part.  Turning around.  Okay, deep breath, here we go.

It felt as if someone had changed the temperature in the room.  She met his gaze very briefly, ducking her head in a sort of nod.  "Angel."

He didn't even have a chance to get out a greeting before she swept past him and out the door, tottering unsteadily on those high heels they made her wear at work.  The vampire blinked, then rushed to catch up.  He fell into step beside the redhead, who still wouldn't look at him.  They walked all the way to the curb in silence.  Willow raised her arm for a cab.

"Thank you."  Angel's heart nearly leapt out of his chest.  Play it cool.

"S'okay."  Jesus, can't you say more than one word without sounding like spaz?

Willow put her hand down, taking a deep breath and meeting his eyes, knowing that if she let this become a big thing, she'd be girly and start crying.  How do you communicate 'this was all my fault but you're the one who butted in without being asked to and I want to be friends again but if you're going to turn into Mr. Psychofreak and try to change me, I don't frankly know if I want to take the risk' without getting emotional?  "I mean thank you for-more-than-just-the-bail."  She nodded curtly, turning around again to wave for a cab.

"...Let me give you a ride?"  He managed, knowing he desperately didn't want her to get away and leave him again.  "Please, Wi...Laurel?"

He's not going to bite.  Just talk to him.  "You have a car?"  She asked.

"Yeah.  I got tired of stalking--I mean, walking everywhere."  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is me, I'm creepy.

"Brave of you.  To drive in New York, I mean."  Willow nodded.  Tension crackled around them and spilled over into the street.  Suddenly there were whistles from the other side of the street, shouts of 'Hey, baby' and the like from a group of impressionable looking youths in gang colors.  Angel growled without noticing, his first impulse to run over and tear them apart.  He felt a small hand on his shoulder.  "Don't.  It's okay.  I'm used to it."

"It's not okay."  Angel countered softly, concentrating on feeling her fingers against his collarbone.

"See, this--this is why--aaugh!"  Willow threw her hands into the air.  "It comes with the territory.  People aren't insulting me, they're reacting to
what I'm wearing.  It's not about chivalry or honor or anything."  For the first time Angel noticed what she was wearing.  Really noticed.  The catsuit clung to her like a second skin, molding beautifully to her hips, pressing her breasts up invitingly towards the low-cut neckline.  The vampire blinked twice, then finally forced his eyes to focus above her shoulders.

Willow not-so-casually folded her arms over herself, first trying to cover everything below her waist, then trying to deflect fire from her cleavage, finally dropping them at her sides in mild frustration, because she knew she shouldn't be bashful about this sort of thing.  Thinking of herself in terms of desirability was always something akin to acting in her book.

Angel glanced across the street.  "We should go.  In case they decide to come over here and ...chat.  My car's this way."  He took a few steps, infinitely pleased when she began to follow.

Willow folded her arms, trying to ignore her head.  Smart people are cursed.  First, they aren't shallow enough to spend hours on their appearance, second, they can see all the horrible angles to a situation.  Right now she was denying a paranoid feeling that he was going to load her into an unmarked van and keep her locked up in an apartment somewhere.  The nasty thing was that she'd probably let him.  She could pride herself on only a few things, but one of them was the recent iron-clad conviction against magic use.  She wouldn't be able to get away.  Did she want to?

The ex-witch was startled out of her thoughts by Angel placing his jacket over her shoulders.  She looked at him questioningly.  "You looked cold."  He said cryptically, ducking his head and leading the way to a modest SUV.  Black, of course.  Willow reflected briefly on the underlying meaning behind his giving of the jacket and her immediate acceptance, then decided it was silly.

"I always wondered what kind of car you'd drive."  He opened her door for her, closing it after, his eyes not meaning to stray so much.  Willow quickly tucked herself further into his jacket.

"It's not much."  He got in.  They started.  They drove.  Angel tilted his head slightly.  "Where do you live, again?"

"I never told you."  Willow fixed her gaze on the side mirror.  Another moment passed.  Angel made a judgement call, pulling the car over.

"Are you going to?"  She didn't move a muscle.

"What if I do?"  Her back was still turned.  She didn't know if she could say this looking into his eyes.  "Am I going to have to worry about waking up powerless in a strange place?"

Angel thought for a moment.  "I'm sorry... that I had to do that to you."  He looked icily at the car parked in front of them.  "Maybe it wasn't the best choice, and I'm sorry that I hurt you.  I'm sorry we don't talk anymore.  I'm sorry we left things unsaid."

"Oh, we left things unsaid?"  Her eyes flashed.  "Then why don't you say them?"  Silence.  "All right, fine."  She snapped, turning.  She could do this if she was angry.  "I'll start.  The reason I haven't kept in touch, no matter how much we get along, is because I can't trust you not to judge what I'm doing.  I can't decide how you're going to take something--I could never tell what you were going through--"  Willow gripped the seat cushion, throwing words at his blank stare forward.  "You're doing it again.  Don't treat me like that.  For God's sake... at least start the car.  I'll tell you where to go."  He looked over at her, questioning.  "Far be it from me not to pay a debt.  I owe you for the bail."

"Don't worry about it--"

"I don't want to owe you anything."  She was sorry for the last one.  "I mean, when I can afford to pay you back."

"Right.  You're a professional, after all."  It came out like an insult.

"It's my job.  I told you not to expect to change me."

"You don't use magic anymore."

"That was my own choice, got it?  My own.  Don't go thinking you had anything to do with me not using magic--!"

"That's a lie."

"I know!"  Willow shouted.  She felt tears well up.  Great.  Totally invested in this now.  "Turn here.  Look, just... It's easier to blame you, not that you don't deserve some of it--I screwed up.  I know that.  Why couldn't you just have left well enough alone and not tried to swoop in on your white charger and save me like you're Sir Lancelot or someone?  I can make my own mistakes!  They're my mistakes to make."

"You needed help--"

"I will not go back to being that person again."  She went quiet.  Angel sensed that she wasn't finished.  "I don't need help."  She said the word
with such contempt.  "I will not go back to Sunnydale and being little Miss Dependent again.  I am going to be in control of my life.  Make a left."

"Is that why I bother you?  Because you can't control me?"

"No."

"Then--"

"It's because you scare me."

"Oh."  That floored him.  He could hold his own in a fight, sure.  "Oh."  For a few moments, he'd thought they had a chance to work through the mess.  "I'm sorry."

"Stop."  He looked over at her.  She swallowed.  "I mean, this is my house.  That one."

"Oh.  Right."  Angel backed up, parallel parking smoothly.  The building was very nice, but looked a bit like a warehouse.

"It's a studio apartment.  A nice one.  I have the whole top floor."

"Looks... cozy."

"It's better on the inside.  Come on.  I have money upstairs."  Willow got out of the car, moving towards the door.  Angel followed at a distance.

"Are you sure you want to--you know, invite me in?"  She only paused for a second before she nodded, but it was enough.  Maybe he wasn't such an evil person as he'd made himself out to be, but he'd completely broken any trust they had.  Briefly, he considered telling her that it was all a horrible mistake, that Angelus had somehow surfaced and done all those things to her, that he was the one who'd kissed her that confused night.  Then Angel could just go back to being the stoic one in the corner.  There for Buffy's sake, nothing more.

He almost laughed.  He and Willow were both schizophrenic.  Or at least, they were trying to be.  How convienient to detach yourself from your evil.

They rode up smoothly in the elevator, neither one having much to say to the other.  The button by her floor had a keyhole in it, and only Willow's key would allow the elevator to go to the penthouse.  The grates slid apart easily, Willow tossing her keys into an ashtray by an ornate coatrack.

"Hello!"  Announced a bright voice.  Angel nearly jumped out of his skin.  Willow just smiled and pranced forward on the impossibly tiny stilts holding her heels off the ground.  A tall woman who looked as if she'd just come over from Africa that morning beamed at them.  Well, at Willow, anyway.  She ignored him, tossing the redhead a black appointment book.  "Your ten o'clock cancelled.  He said he had a rather painful experience at the dentist yesterday and has himself scheduled for invasive surgery."

"Aw, come on.  I could do dental torture.  Marnie, this is Angel, Angel, Marnie."  Marnie gave him a tight-lipped smile.  "And before you ask, he's not a client.  Marnie's my sometimes personal assistant.  She organizes my client appointments, keeps records..."

Angel furrowed a brow.  "I thought the company--"

"I sometimes work freelance."  He blinked dumbly at her.  "In the apartment.  That's why it's so big."  Willow sighed.  "Why do you need to know any of this?  I'll get your money."  She tottered out of the room, leaving him to stare blankly at Marnie, who looked none too happy to see him.  Her first sentence to the vampire gave him quite a bit of insight into her character.

"So."  Marnie began.  "You're one of them dainty little white boys that like to get their ass whooped because they got stress?"

"...I'm just a friend."  Angel grimaced.

"Right.  And so is Pierce.  Listen, here's a business card.  It'll save you some embarassment, not that you probably care.  Got one of 'em that walked around here stark naked.  Anyway, nobody likes to ask the Lady for a number, and she don't like to give it out."  Marnie looked at him suspiciously.  "You from the club?"

"Uh... I've been there before."  He nodded.  She seemed to accept this.

"Right.  Tell the Lady I'm headin' out.  I think she's changing."  Marnie swept past him into the elevator, leaving Angel to do battle with charged
images his head was sending him.  Willow, standing in front of her bedroom mirror, brushing her hair out of the way so she could undo the zipper of the catsuit.  It gets caught. She tries again.  Oh, no.  Still stuck.  So she calls him into the bedroom and asks him to unzip her--

"Angel?"  Willow appeared at the end of the hallway in flannel pajamas and fuzzy slippers with an envelope in hand.  "Are you okay?"

"Fine."  He swallowed, his voice cracking slightly.

"Here."  She handed him the envelope.  "I know about what it takes to get me out."

"You've been in jail before?"

Her eyes were frosty.  "I think we're done here, Angel."

"I can't leave like this.  I wish I could erase everything that happened..."

"Angel.  We're done."  Her jaw was set.  "I'll always care for you, if it helps."  The follow-up was flat.  She'd turned into Laurel again on him.

"And what if I decide we've still got something to discuss?"  He stepped forward, almost menacingly.  She flinched backward.  Angel retreated.  "I'm sorry, Willow.  I'll go."  He stumbled over his own feet, hitting the elevator button.  It came up and dinged cheerfully open, accepting the
vampire.  He hit the button for the lobby.  "I'm sorry."  She heard him mutter, before he vanished from sight.

"Bye, Angel."  She called very quietly, locking the grate behind him.

*********

Back to the daily grind.  Willow left her last appointment in mid-whipping, so sick of whiny little submissives that she could kill one of them.  Company policy was very clear on this point.  If you felt that you would actually be moved to cause serious physical harm, you were supposed to go home and phone in for a few days.  Actually, a rest sounded wonderful.

It was the Angel thing.  Every time she saw him, she'd go into a tailspin.  She was attracted to him, cared about him, and was terrified of him.  As much as she wanted to, a large part of her had not been able to forgive his commandeering of her life.  You'd think a few months would've helped to heal some of the wounds.  She had finally resolved her issues with walk-in closets, though, so the therapy was making a bit of progress.  Even if her psychiatrist thought she was mildly insane from her repeated 'hypothetical' talk about magic.  She wondered if the man would bolt from the room when she decided to let out her emotional baggage regarding certain vampires.

Willow arrived home in due time, checking her appointment book disinterestedly.  Marnie would be out tonight.  There was someone scheduled, though.  All Marnie had written in was 'Newbie at two.'  That was her term for someone that hadn't been to the house before, though usually there was a name written underneath.  Let's see... here at two... she had an hour until he got here.  She shrugged, opening up the 'dungeon'.  Really it was a converted rec room with special modifications.  It was much more advanced than her setup at work, and the in-home service let her take care of clients in ways that weren't allowed in the club.

Oh, not any sex or anything.  Not like she really got off on all of this.  Just a job, that's all.  But some of them liked her to be a little rougher on
them than policy dictated... some of them also didn't want to be seen in public, even if it was underground and invitation-only public.  Many of her personal clients came to the house because (by request) she would ignore the familiar practice of safewords and just go on with her work until she got tired of it.  They said it added a thrill to know that they had no control whatsoever.  Plus, they could pretend they belonged to her.  At least, that's what she'd been told by a couple of regulars she was curious about.  Willow wasn't sure she was wholly comfortable with the idea, but shrugged it off.  Came with the territory.

Despite her better judgement, she had a glass of red wine... well, more like two, and went into the bedroom to don a robe and lay out a couple of outfits.  She usually liked to see what the client liked before she changed.

*********

The elevator dinged open while Willow was touching up her makeup.  She called from the bedroom.  "Have a seat.  I'll be right there."  In a deceptively friendly voice.  She hoped this one didn't like it gentle, because she was not in the mood to behave.  Willow left her shoes off, the short robe falling teasingly just above mid-thigh.

She padded down the hallway, posing seductively in the doorway.  "Did I keep you..."  Her jaw dropped.

Angel smiled hopefully.  "...Waiting?"

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