Penance. It wasn’t like Willow was not entirely okay with having to perform various acts of it, because she was. She so was. It was just that… she’d already detailed Giles’s car and made enough cookies to put her in serious competition with Mrs. Fields. Was it really necessary for her to drive all the way to L.A. just to take some books to Angel?
Apparently so, and no one seemed to have really thought this through. Not even Buffy, who you’d have thought might be totally terrified that Willow could slip and say something about the recent magically-induced engagement between her and Spike. Okay, she wasn’t as bad as Xander at keeping secrets, but let’s face it, that was damning herself with faint praise.
Well, actually, it had better be more than that, because here she was – Angel’s office-slash-home-base. Kind of humble-looking from the outside and she had a hard time picturing Cordelia working here, but then again, after tumbling down into poverty, Cordelia might have changed a lot. Willow had no idea. It seemed like years, not months, since she’d seen her one-time nemesis.
So she parked, got out of her parents’ car – thank heavens they wouldn’t be home for at least six months – and headed for the door. It was unlocked, so she walked in… and the office was deserted. Hadn’t Giles called and told them she was coming?
“Hello?” It was her imagination, she knew, because the office wasn’t cavernous, but she still thought she heard an echo. Should she just put the books on the desk, write a note, and go home? She decided to try one more time. “Guys? It’s me, Willow. I brought the Woldenheim Index. All three volumes.” Okay, still no answer, so she set the books down on a desk, opened a drawer in search of a pen and paper… then heard the sound of an elevator.
Oh. Guess someone was coming.
Hastily closing the desk drawer so as not to be accused of snooping, she waited. Gosh, that elevator was slow, huh? But then the door opened and a moment later Angel was there.
Looking more disheveled than she’d ever seen him.
Gosh. Was something wrong?
“Are you okay?” He just stared and she got the impression that he was kind of miffed at her for being there. “Didn’t Giles call? He was supposed to tell you I was bringing these. He said you needed them right away.”
“Thanks.” Never had the word sounded so completely devoid of actual gratitude.
She’d take offense, but she was getting a very strong feeling that something really was wrong – something big – and she should probably cut Angel some slack. Instead of reacting, she decided to ignore the rudeness. “So, where’s Cordelia?”
What had she said? Because he was staring at her as if she’d punched him and he was debating whether to hit her back. “At home.” He all but spat the words out and… no she didn’t get it.
“Day off, huh?”
He stared at her again and this time it was like he thought she was the most unholy bitch on the planet. “You could say that.”
Okay, maybe it was time to change the subject. She looked around – it wasn’t only Cordelia who was missing. Fishing through her brain, she came up with the name of Angel’s seer-guy and asked, “So, where’s Doyle?”
If she’d gotten it wrong by asking about Cordelia, she seemed to have done infinitely worse now. Angel’s eyes flashed gold and he growled, “Leave.”
This time she was not going to just let it go. “What did I say?”
More staring, but this time he seemed to be analyzing, looking for something. Maybe he found it because his expression became soft and sorrowful. “You don’t know.”
“Know what?” She was genuinely curious and she had a feeling this was something important.
“Giles didn’t tell you.” You know, the cryptic thing was getting kinda old. Could he just cut to the part where he explained… “Doyle’s dead.”
Oh… oh! Oh god. No wonder he… “Angel, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t know.”
He offered a small, sad smile, devoid of any actual happiness. “I know. I should have… You’re not the type to pour salt in the wound.”
While he was right about that, even though she hadn’t known, she still felt terrible. “I really am sorry.” Once more her eyes took in the wrinkled shirt and haunted look and she went on, struggling to say something right for once. “You guys were pretty close, huh?” She didn’t ask how Doyle died. It was too soon. Heck, maybe it would always be too soon. Not like she and Xander had ever really talked about what happened to Jesse.
They never even mentioned Jesse anymore.
“He was… yeah, I guess we were close.”
Beneath the equivocating words was a well of emotion and Willow realized that there was no ‘I guess’ about it. In all the time she’d known him, she’d never heard of him having a friend – not one like this – and her heart ached for him. He had to be so lonely. Should she hug him? Probably not, huh, because unlike Doyle, she wasn’t Angel’s friend. She settled for trying to offer what comfort she could, so she went to him and put her hand on his arm. “I know what it’s like… losing a really good friend. It hurts.” No response. Okay, obviously he either didn’t believe her or didn’t know what she was talking about. Guess that made sense; he probably didn’t remember… “Jesse. He was my best friend since we were kids. Well, him and Xander. We were the Three Musketeers.”
For a few seconds, Angel still looked puzzled, but then she saw a light dawn and he said, “Darla. He’s the one she turned.”
The fact that his knowledge of Jesse was so spare and paltry… But Willow merely nodded. This wasn’t about her, she reminded herself. Then, though, just as she was about to turn the subject back to Doyle’s death, Angel said, “I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t make up for anything, but…”
“It’s not your fault.” It wasn’t, and she was sort of confused about why he apologized, but then she remembered that Darla was Angel’s sire. Yeah, she knew a little bit about what it was like to have difficult parents. “Not like the sins of the mother are visited upon the son.”
At first he gave her the strangest look, but then she just barely heard him mumble, “I’ve committed enough of my own.”
What did that mean? Did he think Doyle’s death was somehow a punishment for his transgressions? “It’s not your fault,” she said yet again, “Doyle, I mean.” He was clearly about to contradict her, so she kept talking so he couldn’t. “I know I don’t actually know what happened, but I know you. You save people. If you could have, you would have saved him.”
This time, her words seemed to have done something other than wound, because within seconds, she found herself wrapped in Angel’s embrace. She was pretty sure he was as shocked as she was by the uncharacteristic physical contact, because less than a minute later, he let go and stepped back, clearly unsure of what he’d just done. “It’s okay,” she said, trying to make him comfortable by ignoring the hug, “Grieving is natural.” And yes, she was well aware that that last statement was pretty hypocritical coming from someone who had barely shed one tear for the death of her best friend.
She’d spent months crying for Miss Calendar… why hadn’t she cried for Jesse?
“What was he like?” Angel’s question was even more discombobulating than the hug and it took her a moment to realize he was really asking.
“Jesse?” She paused. What was she supposed to say? “He was tall.” That was it? That was the best she could do for a boy who’d once been as close to her as Xander? For someone who talked a lot, she sure had a problem finding the right words. Angel looked confused, and rightly so. Try harder, Willow. “He…” Why was this so difficult? He was her best friend. Was this her punishment for not treating his memory with enough respect?
There were tears in her eyes now as she struggled to describe him the way he deserved. Then, with an almost audible creaking, the machinery began to move and sentences formed. “He… he was funny, you know? Not like Xander-funny, but funny like… subtle funny.” Memories emerged from the catacombs, little flashes of recall, and it became easier, so she kept going. “He liked Tom Sawyer. When we were in third grade, he tried to trick some kids into whitewashing his fence. Kind of ended badly, though.” Yeah – ended badly. You could say that. She remembered putting band-aids on the cuts and bruises he got when they beat him up. Think of something happy… or just something... “Umm… he was in love with Cordelia.”
That last memory felt like a mistake, serving mainly as a reminder of the irony of Xander winding up with… But Angel wore yet another strange expression on his face and he… chuckled? “So was Doyle.” At which point she was hit over the head by an enormous crowbar of irony.
“He was?” Angel nodded, and it was too much – she started to laugh, and Angel’s chuckle grew to join her but then she became hysterical and laughter somehow turned to sobs.
Back in Angel’s arms - that’s where she was now – crying all those tears she’d never shed before. Well, bawling would probably be a more accurate description, and even though she knew it was wrong and unfair and incredibly rude considering he had grief and sadness of his own to bear, she couldn’t stop. No, she couldn’t. In fact, clinging to him was the only thing keeping her from collapsing to the floor and wailing. “I miss him.”
They stayed entwined for what seemed like a long time, but it was only when Angel spoke again that she realized that somewhere along the line she’d stopped crying. “He drank. A lot. I used to when I was human but he… He was as charming as I thought I was.” This revelation of something about his humanity was a precious gift and she was humbled that Angel gave it to her.
She was about to say that she wished she’d known Doyle, but even though she’d be saying it sincerely, it was the most overused and facile cliché at times like this. So what should she say instead? “Why did he drink?” she asked, wondering again how someone who talked so much…
Angel, though? He didn’t seem to think she’d asked a stupid question at all. “Headaches,” he said after a short, thoughtful pause, “The visions were painful.”
“Oh.” Huh. “Guess he’d tried all the over the counter pain meds.”
A sad, rueful chuckle. “I’m not sure. I never asked.”
“That’s probably not the kind of thing you ask somebody.”
Now Angel was gazing at her as if he’d never seen her before. Maybe he was right. If so, that made two of them, because she had to admit she’d never seen him before either, not like this, anyway – vulnerable. She had the oddest feeling that losing Doyle was harder for him than leaving Buffy had been and, as much as she loved her best friend, she kind of respected Angel for that. Because friends…
You know, he was a better friend to Doyle than she was to Jesse. Look how long it had taken her to cry.
Again she wondered why that was.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
Should she tell him? Just then a flash of something… Buffy… and she realized exactly why she’d never cried for Jesse. Tamping down that unwelcome insight, she shrugged and said, “Nothing,” because the worst demon from Hell couldn’t drag anything that sounded like even the slightest condemnation of Buffy out of her. For all that he had walked away from her, she knew Angel still loved the girl he left behind. So, just to make sure she looked completely devoid of thought, she added a cock of the head and an extra shrug.
It failed to do the trick. “You were thinking about something.” It was a very declarative declarative statement, though she wondered how he could be so sure.
No, she wasn’t giving up without a fight. “Sometimes…”
“You’re always thinking,” he interjected before she could even finish firing the first shot. Okay, he was right, but… Lucky guess or did he really know her?
All right, she’d amend her fib. “I wasn’t thinking about anything important.” His response was a shrewd, appraising look, but no further discussion of what was going on in her brain and for that she was grateful. Maybe she should ask another question about Doyle. “Were he and Cordelia dating?”
Shaking his head, Angel said, “No,” then added, “He kissed her right before he died.”
Oh. Gosh. Right at this moment, Willow hated herself because a part of her resented the fact that Doyle got something that Jesse never did, even if she never really liked… Her head hurt, the way it always did when she was confused and her feelings bothered her. In fact, she was in enough pain that she was about to be really rude and leave when Angel took her hand and said – he didn’t ask – “Come downstairs.”
She was confused and wracked with enough guilt that she didn’t resist and instead let him lead her to the elevator. It seemed to get downstairs a lot faster than it had made its way up, or maybe she was just disoriented, but here they were and it was… dark. Guess that made sense for a vampire, though, so she said nothing about it. Besides, the gloom seemed sort of fitting somehow. “Kind of convenient living right below your office, huh. Beats having to deal with the morning traffic.”
He chuckled again. “Yeah, driving during rush hour would be… a problem.” With that, he burst out laughing and it took her a moment – slow much? – but when she finally got it, she laughed too.
No tears this time; instead the moment ended in an awkward and very sudden silence as they both stopped themselves short. Somehow it was disconcerting to share this kind of emotional chaos a second time with Angel, and she was pretty sure he felt the same way.
“Do you want something to eat?” The question came out of nowhere and it took her a second to make sense of the words.
Even when she did, they didn’t really make sense at all. “You have food?”
“Ice cream,” he said in a voice gone odd and distracted, “I have some left over from when Buffy…” He stopped abruptly, as if he’d said something he shouldn’t have, and she felt like she’d fallen down the Rabbit Hole. This was not making any sense to her whatsoever.
Especially not when she remembered Buffy’s one and only trip here - an impromptu visit last week to yell at Angel about sneaking around Sunnydale on Thanksgiving. She hadn’t phoned him in advance and she’d gotten back to Sunnydale too quickly for her to have spent any time here digging into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. So why would there be leftover ice cream?
No explanation seemed forthcoming. Turning his back on her, Angel headed for the kitchen, opened the freezer… and just stood there for a moment. Was there nothing in there after all? But then she watched as he reached in and took out a pint of ice cream, grabbed a bowl and spoon from the rack in the sink, and dished up some chocolaty goodness.
“Thank you,” she said as he handed it to her, but he didn’t seem to hear her. So here she stood, holding a bowl of ice cream, wondering what to do. Since it might melt by the time she thought of something to say, she decided to eat it. After all, it would be rude to just pour chocolate soup down the drain.
As she debated heading into the living area and settling on the sofa, Angel sat on his bed and stared off into space. What happened? Guess he was thinking about Doyle, huh? Or maybe Buffy. Yeah, probably Buffy. With the bowl in one hand and the spoon poised at her lip, Willow was completely unprepared when Angel said, “We made love right here. In this bed.”
That sudden clatter was the sound of a bowl and spoon hitting the floor. No way had he just said what she just heard. “I’m sorry,” she apologized frantically as she hurried to pick up the dropped dishes. Darn! There was ice cream on the floor. Now she hastened to the kitchen, looking for a dishcloth or something.
Silently and without her realizing it, Angel followed her and before she could grab the cloth from the sink, he took her arm. “I shouldn’t have said… you aren’t supposed to know. No one is supposed to know.”
Oh god. He really had said… Her head was swimming. First of all, there was the curse. Had they forgotten about that? But second of all, she wasn’t just anyone. She was Willow: Buffy’s best friend and the one who gave Angel back the soul they had so carelessly decided to risk by giving in to their hormones. This was not okay. None of this was okay. “Buffy should have told me.”
If her head been swimming before, it nearly drowned in the tidal wave of what Angel said next. “She doesn’t remember.”
What? How…? Had he slipped her one of those ‘roofies’ or something? Because that too was not okay. That was anything but okay.
This was Angel, though, not Angelus, so she took a deep breath and asked the 64,000 dollar question: “How could she not remember?” And again, it occurred to her that there hadn’t been time – not even for a really quick quickie – when Buffy had been here.
“The Oracles.” As explanations went, that one was anything but explain-y and she really hoped Angel was going to do more than give her the Cliff Notes.
Then he did and she almost wished he hadn’t. “I was human. I killed a demon and its blood made me human. Buffy and I… we spent the whole day together… it was… magical. The ice cream… I never knew…” There were tears in his eyes, which went well with the feeling of drowning she was still experiencing. He continued. She couldn’t have interrupted him if she wanted to. “But I was useless. I couldn’t… as a human I couldn’t protect her. So I went to the Oracles and they turned back time, took away the day, even the memory of the day… from everyone but me. That’s the price I have to pay. Carrying the memory.”
Willow stumbled; somehow she found her way to a chair and sat. Oh god. This was… and she was going to have to keep this from Buffy. She burst into tears. “Why did you tell me?” she cried, hating him for making her share his burden. He looked at her with sorrowful eyes and… shrugged. She wanted to punch him right in his stupid, brooding, ‘I-know-what’s-best-for-everyone’ face. “You could have lied to me, you know. Because lying? It gets a bad rap. Lying isn’t… You should have lied to me!” Without realizing she had even stood up she found herself in front of Angel… and her hand stung.
Oh… oh… Oh! She hadn’t just wanted to hit… “I’m sorry. Oh god! I’m so sorry!” She didn’t hit people. She never hit people. How could she have…? “I really am sorry.”
He smiled softly and reached out, taking her hand – the same hand that had just punched or slapped him, she didn’t know which. “It’s okay. You have every right to be angry.”
“But hitting you? That’s just…”
“I’ve been hurt worse.”
When she thought about it, that was sort of an insult, but hey – it wasn’t like she didn’t already know that her strength lay in her brains, not her brawn. She was still angry at him, though, and as much as she regretted that she’d reacted so violently, a part of her did almost wish that she’d done some damage. “It’s not fair. How am I supposed to keep this from her? She’s my best friend, you know.”
Angel pulled her into his arms and held her close. Weirdly, it was nowhere near as awkward as it had been before. “I should have lied to you,” he said. Too little, too late, but for some reason she didn’t pull away from him. One more thing which made no sense. Especially since there was no permission to share this secret after all forthcoming.
Willow of the Secrets, that was her. She was keeping the story of Buffy’s brief, magically-induced engagement to Spike – and her assignation with Parker – from Angel, and now… But this was so much bigger and she didn’t owe Angel anywhere near the duty of friendship that she owed to Buffy. What was she going to do? How was she going to… “I don’t know if I can do this,” she said, her voice thick with emotion and the effort of trying not to cry.
A second later, his hand was under her chin and he tilted her face up so their eyes met. “Don’t you think it would hurt her more – knowing? Knowing that I gave up any chance we had to be happy together?”
Okay, when he put it that way… “Why did you?” she asked… or more like accused. Because it made no sense. “It’s not like Buffy isn’t capable of defending herself.” She paused and replayed everything he’d said to her in her head. Oh gosh! She’d just spotted the biggest flaw of all in his reasoning. “You’re not even in Sunnydale anymore. You don’t protect her anyway.”
His head jerked back and he let go, taking a step away from her. This time she’d hit him harder than she had with her fist. She waited, the silence heavy and fraught as he seemed to be doing some internal replaying of his own. “I know you think… but you’re wrong. What I do here… it helps keep her safe. Maybe someday you’ll know. Or you won’t. Or maybe you can just trust me and accept that all of this is because I love her.”
She didn’t and she knew she never would. “Oz left me. He said it was because he loved me. And you know what? It was a lie, the same as it is from you. You gave her up because it was easier for you, just like Oz.”
The tears refused to be held back now, and she didn’t even try. When Angel approached her again, she held her hands up before her and backed away. “Don’t. Because this isn’t about me. It’s about Buffy. She didn’t deserve… But you’re right, you know. As much as I hate you, I’m not going to tell her about this. She doesn’t need to go through…”
“What you are,” he finished for her. “It’s okay to hate me if it makes it easier…”
Oh god! If there was anything in the world she hated, it was being patronized. “Don’t do that, okay? My Mom’s a psychologist and she does the same smarmy, condescending routine, so just don’t.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was…”
“Yes, you did. I’m not stupid.”
“No, you’re not, are you?” There was a sudden flash of something in his eyes and his tone was just a little lower and smoother… but then it was gone and he had that familiar pained look again and she wondered if she’d only imagined there’d been anything else. “I didn’t know about Oz.”
Ah, and that brought up another point of contention. “Yeah, well, you made it pretty clear on Thanksgiving that you didn’t give a damn about my personal life.” But he’d cared about Jesse, hadn’t he? Even Buffy had never asked…
No! She couldn’t handle this now. Her head felt like it was going to explode with all the conflicting emotions going to war inside her. So loud was the tumult that she barely heard Angel say, “I’m sorry.” But she did and somehow everything quieted down so she heard the rest. “I was there for… but that’s no excuse. I shouldn’t have been so thoughtless. I do care, you know.”
She shrugged, trying to act like she was okay and nothing was tearing her apart, but it was. Doyle was dead, wasn’t he? And no matter how she felt about Angel, it wasn’t fair to be mean to someone who was grieving. But then there was Buffy…
And there was also Oz.
And there was the fact that even now – especially now – she was supposed to be over it and not talk about it or bother anyone with her pain and… There was no way she could pretend any longer that she didn’t know exactly why she hadn’t cried about Jesse until today.
The worst part? The worst of all part? She couldn’t hate anyone for any of this… not even Angel anymore. People were who they were and you had to accept them or abandon them but those were the only two choices… and unlike some people, Willow wasn’t the abandoning type. “I’m really sorry about Doyle. Is there going to be a funeral or anything?”
Angel seemed startled by her sudden turn of topic, which made sense once she thought about it for a second. It was kind of a non sequitur at this point, huh? Still, his expression softened and he looked… grateful, maybe? “No. No funeral. But thank you.”
This was a turning point – she knew that – or it could be… but she didn’t want it. Couldn’t want it. Couldn’t face Buffy if she… So she adjusted the strap on her tiny purse and said, “I better go. Everyone’s expecting me back.”
For a split second, she thought he might ask her to stay, and she was terrified because she’d never be able to say no, but he didn’t and, hate herself though she did for feeling this way, she was grateful. She headed for the elevator, and when she got there, she turned and smiled and gave him a little wave. “Call anytime, okay?”
Her answer was another look of almost-longing, but she turned and got into the elevator too quickly for him to make a last appeal.
All the way home, she wondered if she should have stayed…
It seemed that Willow Rosenberg was the abandoning type after all.
Somehow, the thought of keeping secrets wasn’t so hard anymore. She’d always had them; she just never knew.
When she got back to Sunnydale, she stopped at Jesse’s grave.
Jesse’s empty grave.