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Things Change

By Amanda Arlequin

 

DISCLAIMER: I don't own Buffy & Co. Joss Whedon and the WB do. No

copyright infringement intended.

 

Text enclosed in < > represents thoughts.

 

 

Part 1

 

Willow's Bedroom 3:00 PM

 

Living on a hellmouth didn't usually give a person a lot of downtime. If there wasn't a demon trying to reopen the hellmouth or use it's energy to cause trouble then there was the at least the *regular* vampire out on the prowl for it's dinner. There were still instances of the later but all in all the past year had been uncharacteristically quiet. With Spike and Druscilla gone, hopefully for good, there was no vampire leader around to stir up trouble, and for that Willow was gratefully. It had given Willow some much-needed relaxation time.

Not that the past year had been uneventful; not in the least. Since the night Buffy had banished Angelus to hell and stopped him from activating Acathla before disappearing herself, Willow had been busy changing. With Buffy gone the slayerettes had been left on their own to fend for themselves against the creatures of darkness. Now, even more than when Buffy had first invaded their lives, Willow was forced to grow up and learn to take care of herself. Along with Xander and Cordelia, they had become quite accomplished in the art of combat. If Giles had feared for the fate of Sunnydale after Buffy had left he was soon to learn that the slayerttes were not entirely incompetent. In fact, they quickly picked up where Buffy had left off and soon became quite a trio, warding off any vampire who attempted to show their game faces around the innocent unsuspecting citizens of Sunnydale. In addition to her slayerette training, Willow had taken it upon herself to continue her personal study of the Wiccan arts. Quite the dedicated student Willow had found that she had some raw, untapped talent for witchcraft. With the help of Giles extensive supernatural library, her now close friend Amy and the multitude of net resources Willow now knew just about all there was to being a witch. Even Amy was impressed by the speed in which Willow had earned all she had needed. One night while the two young witches were casting a circle of protection in order to practice some spells, Amy had remarked "Willow, are you sure you're not a natural witch, your power isn't like any I've seen before in a mortal". Willow had merely shrugged the observation off at the time but it was an idea that was always lurking at the back of her mind. It wasn't an idea Willow was gonna dismiss- perhaps sometime in the future she'd do some serious checking into her family tree. For now though, Willow had too many other things on her mind.

Today was Willow's last day as a senior at Sunnydale High School. The day before graduation and the day before she had to say good bye to people she had known all her life. Willow lay in bed afraid to open her eyes, wishing she could stay in bed all day. As if that could somehow slow things down and keep tomorrow from coming. <fat chance Willow, sleeping till three isn't gonna stop time>.

With a sigh of resignation Willow dragged her weary body out of bed, shrinking away from the sunlight pouring through the open window <yikes, too many late nights. Maybe I'm not meant to be a night crawler>. Dragging her feet against the plush carpeting Willow stood in front of her full length mirror and gave her appearance a quick once over. <Mm Hmm, definite case of bed head, just what I figured. > Willow stared at the young woman reflecting back at her. Willow still couldn't get over how much she had changed in the past year. Her hair was still long and red albeit a bit more wavy. Her body was a bit more curvy and developed. But that wasn't the main difference. The real changes could be seen in Willow's eyes, They were the eyes of somebody who had been tried by the fire and come out stronger than ever. They reflected her newfound wisdom and strength but also the pain off loss.

It had been a year since anybody had heard or seen from Buffy. Except for the note she left her mother Buffy had simply disappeared the night she sent Angel to hell. Not even Giles knew where she was. It was, as the cliche goes, as if she had fallen off the face of the earth. They had tried for awhile to locate her but with no real leads the trail had quickly grown cold. All they knew is that Buffy had taken a bus from Sunnydale to LA and had disappeared in a sea of millions. A year later Willow had put all hope of hearing from Buffy again away. She regretted just about every day that Buffy wouldn't be beside her at the graduation ceremony tomorrow but the time of mourning was past. Willow had to move on with her life and tomorrow's graduation would be one more step to accomplishing just that.

Willow turned to look at the clock. Damn, she still couldn't believe she had slept the day away. Willow had 3 hours to get ready. Three hours before sunset and possibly her last night in Sunnydale for who knew how long. And if that wasn't enough to make this day special there was always the fact that her love coming home today.

 

Part 2

Sunnydale High Parking Lot 7:00 PM

With her hand firmly clutching the stake hidden in her coat pocket, Willow made her way towards the school library. She was supposed to meet the gang there at 6:30 in order to celebrate their last night as seniors. Glancing at her watch Willow quickened her pace. She hated being late but tonight it couldn't have been helped. After showering Willow had taken one look at her closet and realized how completely inadequate everything in it was. Willow wanted to look her best tonight; especially since he was coming home tonight.

Willow sighed as his picture came to her mind. It had been 2 months since he'd left town on business and Willow missed him terribly. He'd promised he'd be back in time for her graduation. Willow had counted the days until his return and now that they were finally here she found herself bubbling up with anticipation. Romantic scenes of their reuniting danced through her mind. She particularly enjoyed the one where he came into the bronze and found her dancing with Xander. Unbeknownst to her he comes up from behind and, with a hand on her shoulder asks "May I have this dance". Willow then would then wrap her arms around him for dear life, tears running down her cheeks as the swayed to the music, their lips joining in a bittersweet kiss. <maybe if I'm lucky he'll even be wearing those leather pants of his>.

Willow couldn't help but smile at her own fanciful thoughts. She was so wrapped up in them that she failed to notice the sound of someone sneaking up behind her. Humming to herself Willow blissful walked on oblivious of anything wrong until 2 large arms came up from behind her and swept her off her feet. A strong hand clamped over her mouth covering her scream.

<Damn it, not now, not tonight. Will these vampires ever learn to have some sense of timing>. Willow began to struggle against her captor's embrace, her hand fumbling to get a firm hold on her stake. "Oh no you don't", the vampire chuckled. Strong deft fingers flung her own away from her pocket. Willow stopped struggling as she let the familiar laugh wash over her. "Angel!!!!" she mumbled through his fingers. He continued to chuckle, his grip on her loosening. She quickly wiggled out of his grasp and spun around to face the laughing vampire. His eyes crinkled up in that cute way they always did when he smiled at her, his lips turned up in, what Willow found to be, the sexiest smile in the world. Not waiting another second Willow flung herself into his arms. She wrapped herself around him, her grip reminding him of an iron vise. <Thank god I don't need any breath or that would have been knocked out of me>. Angel scooped up the petite redhead and spun her around in a circle. "It's good to see you too baby".

Angel set her down once again only this time Willow made no moves to evade his grasp. She continued to cling to him and it was only then that Angel noticed the tears streaming down her pale cheeks. Panicked, Angel took her chin in his fingers and brought her face up to meet his. "Willow, why are you crying? Has something happened?"

Willow shook her head slowly, her face breaking into a slow smile that was so like the beauty of a sunrise that Angel was always taken aback by it. "I've just missed you so much. It didn't quite hit me until I saw you standing there." Angel stared back at her lovingly, two fingers moving up to trace a line down her cheek". 'And I've missed you Willow aroon." He gazed into her glistening eyes for a second longer before lowering his lips to hers. The kiss started out slow and cautious, his lips mere petals brushing hers. It had been so long since they had seen each other he was hesitant to take this any faster than she wanted. With a whimper, Willow moved a hand to lace through the silkiness of Angel's hair, cradling his head with the gentle pressure of her fingers.

The kiss opened like a slow blooming flower with Willow pulling Angel even closer with the slightest of pressure on his head. She opened her mouth to him, beckoning and inviting. Angel didn't hesitate, his tongue slowly slipping in to explore her warm silky depths. He was captured by her warmth and fire as he always had been. She was his very own fire temptress and he her dark god. They melded together in an embrace as ancient as the world itself. Angel began to move his hands in slow circles down her back eliciting another whimper from Willow. Her fingers in his hair were igniting the most pleasurable sparks down his whole body. He moved his hips even closer to hers.

"Angel!" Willow gasped in pleasure as his manhood brushed against her. Reluctantly Willow broke her mouth away from his. "Angel, we can't, not here". There was a feral light in his eyes that he was having a hard time controlling. He would have liked nothing more than to take her right there in the Sunnydale Parking Lot. In truth, Willow would have liked nothing more than that herself but the idea of Giles or Xander or Amy, or even Cordelia, coming out and seeing them was embarrassing enough in thought. "Later, I promise". Willow lowered her hand from his hair and placed it against his chest. <Hmm, hard like a rock>. Willow giggled to herself then looked back up at Angel.

Her promise had restored some of his control. He straightened up and out a bit of space between them, though not much. "You know I'm gonna hold you to that promise." He smiled seductively at her, a wicked glint flashing in his eyes. "In fact, why don't we just make later now and go back to my apartment". Before she could answer Angel swept down to steal another electric kiss. Willow found herself swooning under his embrace. Before she was too far-gone she forcefully broke away from him. "Now Angel, don't be bad. You know this is our last night in Sunnydale. Xander would track you down and stake you if you didn't allow him to spend at least part of tonight with him." Willow put more room between her and Angel, her hand seeking his. Their fingers intertwined as she began to drag him towards the school doors.

"As much as I wouldn't enjoy a good fight with LaVelle," Angel taunted good-naturedly, "I see your point". Angel let out a sigh of exasperation although it was more of a put on for Willow's benefit. In truth, he was so happy to see her again she could have been dragging him to watch a golf match and he would have gone willing- as long as she was with him. He fell into step beside her and brought his arm up to lie comfortably across her shoulders. Smiling down at her he gave her shoulder a squeeze. Willow brought her arm around his waist and rested her head against his shoulder. God he had missed this. Just the simple feeling of holding her in his arms and the feeling of pleasure he got while looking at her beautiful face. She had been a gift from heaven to him and he never wanted to give her up. It still amazed him how this seemingly slight and fragile young woman had not only rescued his body and soul from hell, but had rescued his heart from a the lonely oblivion he had condemned himself to. Angel knew he could never repay Willow for all she had done for him, and he only hoped he could be worthy of her.

"I was worried you wouldn't be back in time". Angel gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze. "You know I wouldn't miss this for the world. Nothing could have kept me away from seeing you graduate." Willow smiled up at Angel. "So how was your business?" Willow wasn't quite sure what Angel's business had been. He had left suddenly two months back claiming he had urgent business to take care of in Europe. He had promised to fill her in as soon as he returned but Willow wasn't going to push him no matter how curious she was. She knew Angel would tell her when he was ready. All that really mattered was that he was home now, safe and sound and back in her arms.

"The trip wasn't what I had hoped it would be," Angel admitted. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to contact you more while I was gone but things were really hectic." Angel glanced up as they neared the library's doors. "Don't worry, I promise to tell you all about it once we're alone together. You deserve to know all about it."

Angel pushed open the door to the library with his free hand and surveyed the room. Xander sat with his arm around Cordelia, the sight of which never failed to shock Angel. It was amazing. He had never known a couple who fought as much as those two yet they had managed to stay together for the past year and a half. Well, more power to them. Angel could only hope they were half as happy together as he and Willow were.

Standing next to Xander and Cordelia were both Amy, looking more than a little uncomfortable, and Giles who was nervously polishing his glasses. In fact, now that Angel concentrated he could sense the tension in the room. The slayerettes and the watcher were on edge over something. Immediately Angel tensed up and tightened his grip on Willow, who seemed oblivious that anything was wrong.

"Hi guys, sorry we're late but...." Willow's voice trailed off as her friends turned to her, all of their eyes reflecting their pain and unease. "What's going on?" Willow's brow shot up in confusion. "You guys look like you've seen a ghost".

The sound of someone rising caused Angel and Willow to look at the fifth person in the library. Shock held them both frozen to the spot as they took in the alien presence in the library.

She stood slowly and walked closer to the couple. "Hello Willow, Angel"

"Buffy!"

 

Part 3

"Buffy, my god."

Willow stared at Buffy in open shock. She watched the warm smile die from Buffy's lips as she took in first Willow, then Angel, and, finally, Willow and Angel together.

Self conscious, Willow slipped out from Angel's grasp and moved forward a step. "What are you doing here." Willow tried to smile but felt it falter. Willow's emotions were...well, she didn't quite know what she was feeling and she certainly didn't have the time to straighten it out. The shock of seeing Buffy here in the library was profound. The only feeling Willow was sure of was the tightening in her chest as Buffy stared at Her and Angel wrapped in each other's arms. Willow glanced back at Angel who was standing stock still, his eyes glued to Buffy's face. Willow searched his face for some sign of what he was feeling but his face was unreadable. The only glint of emotion was in his eyes, which were radiating pain.

Willow turned back to face Buffy, feeling as though she was turning to face the firing squad. Some part of Willow's mind had always known that this moment would come. Buffy's return had always been a very real possibility but as the months had gone by, and there had been no word from her, Willow had allowed herself the luxury of not considering the implications of her return. Not that worrying about it would have helped Willow now. Nothing could have prepared Willow for the look of absolute anguish and betrayal in Buffy's expression. Willow tore her eyes away from Buffy's face and blinked back the tears threatening to fall.

The silence seemed to stretch on indefinitely with the tension in the room growing even more taut. Finally, Giles stepped forward. "Perhaps we should all sit down." He moved closer to Buffy in a revealing sign of support. <Of course, she's the slayer, he's her watcher. He's probably thrilled to see her>.

Giles' suggestion fell on deaf ears. Willow, Angel and Buffy stood like statues staring at each other. <Somebody please say something before I go crazy. > With a shaky breath Willow looked straight at Buffy. "Buffy, I... I can't believe it's really you." Willow cringed at the fake cheerfulness in her voice. Still, now that Willow had begun she found she couldn't stop. 'Buffy, where have you been this past year".

Buffy turned to look at Willow, her expression hardening as she masked her emotions with a skill that amazed and hurt Willow. <Buffy never hide herself from me like this before. We were always best friends and now it's as if we're strangers>.

Willow didn't think Buffy was gonna answer her at first. She just continued to stare. When she finally did speak her voice was clipped and emotionless. "I went to LA for awhile. Retired the old stake and tried my hand at waitressing. That didn't work out too well and I moved around a lot after that. I haven't slayed a vampire in a year. I guess I was hiding from everything- my friends, my family, my old life, my duty." Buffy shrugged. "You can't hide forever. I guess I realized that and I decided to come back, and well, here I am." Buffy glanced over to Angel. "it looks as if I'm not the only person who's had a homecoming." Buffy voice was wet with unshed tears during that last statement. "Angel, how, I mean... " Buffy stopped suddenly, tears streaming uncontrollably down her cheeks.

The sight of Buffy's tears propelled Angel into motion. In two long steps he was at Buffy's side and had taken her into his arms. Buffy broke down, weeping on his shoulder, her arms wrapped tightly around him. "Angel, how... I, I don't understand."

Angel gently ran his hand back and forth over her hair, shushing her as if she was an upset child. "Willow brought me back Buffy. She saved my body and my soul from hell not too long after... " He broke off abruptly," after I was sent there. She performed a ritual to bring me back, almost risking her own life in the process."

Willow stared at the reunited couple, hypnotized by the emotional scene being played out before her. At this point Angel was crying as well, continuing to stroke Buffy's hair as he whispered comforting words to her. Buffy had buried her face in Angel's shoulder, her small body racked with sobs. Feeling her own tears about to come once again, Willow turned and ran from the library as fast as she could.

 

Part 4

Willow ran without thinking, her lungs burning from the lack of oxygen. Willow wasn't sure where she was running to and she really didn't care, as long as it was as far away from the library, as far away from Buffy and Angel, as she could get.

Willow finally stopped her blind flight in the middle of the playground, her lungs screaming for mercy. Willow rested one hand against the swing set trying hard to catch her breath. Her throat ached, her short gaps of breath aggravating her sensitive throat. The sound of the blood rushing through her ears was close to that of a jumbo jet flying overhead, leaving Willow temporarily deaf to the world. Willow pried the strands of her hair stuck to her tear stained cheeks away with the palm of her hand. <Well, Willow, happy graduation. May the rest of your life follow in the footsteps of this wonderful night of homecomings>

Willow couldn't stop her own sarcastic thoughts. To say the least, this night was not turning out the way she had envisioned it earlier that day. Glancing down at her dress, Willow remembered the first night she had worn this dress. It had been 5 months earlier. Willow had come home from school to find a large white box on her bed. Inside had a single white rose, the most gorgeous green velvet dress she had ever seen, and a note from Angel requesting she wear that dress for their date to the homecoming dance that night. Although Willow had already had her dress picked out for weeks she soon fell in love with the lush color and the way the dress fell in soft folds down the length of her body.

Angel came to pick her up at 8:00, a sexy smile curling up the corners of his mouth when he came downstairs. Willow had left her hair loose because she had known Angel loved it that way. He reached out and brushed it with his fingers. "You look beautiful Willow aroon." He then slipped the corsage he had brought on her wrist, gave her a soft kiss, and then led her to his car.

The Bronze had been transformed into a lush forest, green leaves covering every available space. Angel had smiled at Willow and told her she looked like a Nymph out for a walk among the trees. She smiled back at him, her eyes twinkling at the compliment. The evening had been magical. They spent half the time hanging out with Xander and Cordy, Amy and her date, laughing and joking, enjoying the time with their friends. Xander and Angel had been uncharacteristically friendly to each other. For the first night ever they had set aside the bad blood that lay between them. The other half they spent dancing. Willow had never been much of a dancer before but Angel brought out the adventurous side in her. She loved the feel of his arms around her, her chin resting on his shoulder, his on the top of her head. During one slow dance she had looked up into his eyes, taking in the love and desire burning in them. It took her breath away. No one had every looked at her quite like that. Not with that smoldering desire and unconditional love. And she gave it all right back to him freely. Her heart was his and always would be.

Willow reached up to wipe the wetness from her eyes for the third time that night. She had never known how much it could hurt to lose someone she loved. But that was exactly what had happened. She had lost Angel to the one person she could never compete against; the one obstacle that she had known would always stand in the way of hers and Angel's life together. <you knew this would happen one day Willow. Perhaps it's best it happened now- before things got too out of control, before you really lost yourself in him>

In her heart, Willow didn't really believe the words, but they helped her muster up the strength to do what she needed to. Relying on the strength she had cultivated in the past year without the slayer around to protect her, Willow slowly made her way to her house.

 

Part 5

Willow's House 8:15

Willow let herself into the dark, empty house. Holding the skirt of her dress in her hands she ran up the stairs and slammed the door to her room shut. She ached to just collapse onto her bed and cry for hours but she didn't have time for that. From her closet Willow pulled out her backpack. She quickly stuffed all she could think she might need. Stopping by her dresser Willow picked up a slim silver chain. Hanging from it was a small piece of royal purple amethyst. A stone of the heart which was probably why he had given it to her in the first place. He was always telling her that her heart was too big for this world. Willow almost never took it off and debated now whether or not to bring it with her. <I don't need anything of his> She told herself coldly. She hesitated before slipping it around her neck <It'll help me fend myself from any psychic attacks, that's the only thing I need it for>. It hurt to wear something he had given her but at the same time it gave her some reassurance. If she was gonna let Buffy have Angel then she would at least have a small part of him for herself. With a final look around her room, Willow picked up her backpack and ran from her house; ran away from the pain that Angel was causing her.

Angel's Apartment 9:30

Angel stared down at the girl in his arms. His heart ached to think of the pain she was going through. Angel had long ago forgiven her for sending him to hell. It was true there had been times when the torture was so bad that he had cursed her and their love for each other, which had condemned him to this never-ending torment. He wasn't perfect and so he didn't expect Buffy to be. He knew she had done what she had to do. She wasn't to blame anymore than, well, he supposed anymore than he was.

It amazed Angel sometimes that he could even consider the idea that he wasn't to blame for all the pain and torment he had caused to those he loved, and to the nameless strangers whose lives he had destroyed. Sometimes Angel found himself slipping back into the pattern of blame and self inflicted punishment he had spent so many years perfecting. Angel had to admit, he was a natural when it came to guilt. It was only recently, and with Willow's help, that he had begun to escape from the viscous cycle of self-condemnation.

<Willow>. His body tensed at the thought of his love. When Angel had realized that Willow had fled from the library he had immediately tried to go after her. It had been Buffy who had stopped him. He had managed to calm her down and stop her crying but the idea that he was gonna leave her had tears forming in her eyes once again. The heartbroken look on her face had stopped him in his tracks. He was torn between his desire to go after Willow and his desire to comfort Buffy. Nearly hysterical, Buffy had begged him to go with her to his apartment so they could be alone. Angel couldn't refuse her and when Xander and Amy promised to look for Willow Angel's fate was sealed. And so he had taken Buffy to his apartment where they had talked for awhile before Buffy collapsed in his arms from exhaustion. Not wanting to disturb her he let her lay against his chest and rest. Left alone with his thoughts, Angel finally allowed himself to worry about Willow.

His mind filled with images and memories of her. In his mind's eye he saw Willow, draped in the white robes of a priestess, chanting the words of the ancient Romanian spell that had enabled her to rescue him from hell. The details of the ceremony were sketchy in his mind. He hadn't realized what was happening until hours later, after Willow had managed to stop his screaming and cries of pain. He had been a broken shell of the man he used to be, crying in front of her with absolutely no sense of shame. It had taken her some time to convince him that this was real and not just another nightmare devised by the demons of hell to torment him further. As the truth of her words sank into him he had cried again, this time in relief. She reached out and cradled him in her arms, staying with him for days.

In time Angel began to get a hold back on his sanity. He slowly recovered, both emotionally and physically. And throughout it all she had been there with him, helping him come to terms with all that had happened. She helped him fill in the gaps in his memory and he told her a water-downed version of what his time in hell had been like. Her patience and love had been the only shafts of light shinning on the darkness inside him. He tried everyday of his life to repay her, even a small part, for all she had done for him. No one in his life had ever been there for him the way Willow had.

He supposed it was sometime during his recovery that he began to fall in love with her She was his angel of mercy and he loved her for all she did for him. But as time went on his love for her took on a desperate quality. The only times he had any measure of happiness was when she was around, smiling that angelic smile and taking care of him. She was his whole world though he never told her. At least not until that night she was almost taken from him.

Angel was waiting for Willow to come over to his house as she did every night. When she was ten minutes late, Angel had assumed that she had just gotten tied up with her research for Giles. After twenty minutes Angel began to worry. Willow was never late in meeting him. After half an hour, Angel was frantic, panic seizing his heart, refusing to let go. All he could think was, "She's in trouble, and I'm gonna lose her. Please God don't let anything happen to her, she's all I have left.." Angel extended his senses as far as he could, trying to locate any shimmer of her presence. At times Angel was able to sense Willow's presence at the edge of his consciousness, a warm, gold light he always associated with her. He wasn't sure but he supposed it was a combination of her growing witch abilities and a leftover affect of the ritual she had performed on him. The effect was strongest at times Angel was sleeping, where are his other senses were resting and he could concentrate on the sixth sense. Desperate, Angel blocked out every other sense and concentrated on tracking her. When he finally found her his heart leapt into his throat. She was fighting a losing battle against a very old <and very stupid> he couldn't help thinking, vampire who's strength excelled hers and was sure to win out in the end. A blind rage filled Angel as he attacked the vampire, his game face sliding into place. He growled out for Willow to run. Angel could see that the vampire was stronger than him, especially since he wasn't exactly 100% healed, but his outrage and fear at how close this fool had come to killing Willow filled him with enough strength to finish him off, leaving the once powerful vampire nothing but dust in the wind.

When he turned he saw that Willow was standing there watching him, ignoring his command for her to leave. Without thinking he had rushed over and swept her into his arms. He was half crying, half yelling at her for being so careless as to walk around Sunnydale at night by herself. Yelling at himself for having let her go anywhere without his protection. He cradled her face in his hands and told her he loved her. Before he knew it they were kissing each other desperately and she was whispering the same words back at him.

The rest was, well, as they say, history. They had been together ever since and it was a time of happiness that Angel could find no equivalent for. He knew that night that he had found the woman he wanted to spend all eternity with. From then on, there was no Angel without Willow, and vice versa.

Movement from the woman in his arms, a woman who was not Willow and whom he thought he would never see again, distracted him from his memories. Perhaps she had been right and they needed to talk. Angel had needed this time to realize what he already knew. That he loved Willow. That didn't stop him from loving Buffy, and he supposed nothing ever would, but it was Willow who was his life now. Perhaps, if things had gone differently, him and Buffy would be together now, heart and soul, and he might never have fallen in love with Willow, but it was an idea he didn't want to entertain.

In truth, he couldn't be sure what would have happened between him and Buffy. He had known from the second he had seen her that theirs was a star crossed love. A slayer and a vampire, the very idea screamed out trouble. Even if Angelus hadn't returned, sooner or later he and Buffy would have had something come between him. For as much as Buffy loved him she was still a child. She had her life turned around by her destiny and had hardly any time to live her life. He'd gone into the relationship knowing this, and knowing that one day she would end up leaving him. And then destiny had played a hand in both of their futures, and now things had changed. He just wasn't sure how he could explain this all to Buffy.

Angel jumped at the sound of knocking. Being careful not to wake Buffy, he slipped out from under her and went to answer it.

 

Part 6

Outside Angel's Apartment 9:45 PM

Willow wasn't quite sure how she had ended up at Angel's apartment. When she had initially left her house she had planned to get as far away from Angel and Buffy as she could. She hadn't been quite sure where that was but it was definitely not Angel's apartment. So Willow had wandered around the streets of Sunnydale, being careful to avoid streets where she might run into anyone who would be looking for her.

Walking aimlessly had given Willow a lot of time to think. Most importantly it had given Willow the time to come to her senses. Where exactly did she think she was going? Running away? How, and to where? Sure, she had relatives she could go and stay with but what would that accomplish? She couldn't run forever, and sooner or later she'd have to face her problems. She'd have to face Buffy and Angel.

And so after examining the situation from every possible angle, a skill Willow was quite good at, Willow had headed towards Angel's. <Now all you have to do is tell him your decision and you can begin to move on from this>.

When Angel threw open the door Willow felt her breath catch in her throat. He looked absolutely gorgeous and for a second she felt her resolve breaking. "Willow," he cried out, scooping her into his arms. "Where have you been? I've been worried sick about you."

Willow leaned her head against his shoulder, enjoying the pure physical pleasure she got from being held by him. She closed her eyes, savoring the love he gave to her freely, innocently. When he began to plant tiny butterfly kisses on the top of her head Willow sighed. <I've got to stop this if I'm gonna do what I came to do.>

Over come with the physical desire to run her hands through his hair and kiss him, Willow opened her eyes and began to lift her head to meet Angel's. It was then that Willow's eyes took in the figure lying on the couch and she realized they weren't alone. Sleeping peacefully for what Willow was sure was the first time in a year, was the slayer. The sight of Buffy revived Willow's former conviction and made her pull out of Angel's embrace.

Stricken, Angel looked into Willow's eyes. "What is it?"

"Angel, we need to talk." If the situation hadn't been so serious Willow might have laughed at how cliched she sounded. <Well, it's true and to the point, we do have to talk. I just hope he lets me finish.>

Angel turned to look at Buffy's sleeping form before answering. "Buffy and I are over Willow. You must know I love you."

"Yes, I do know. But I also know you love Buffy, and I know she loves you and ... "

Angel shook his head fiercely, cutting her off, "No, don't do this. Buffy's my past, you are my present and my future." Angel reached out to touch Willow but she evaded his touch. "Please don't destroy what we have Willow."

"Then please understand why I have to do this. Buffy needs you right now, more than I do. You need her too. You two didn't end your love naturally. It was taken from you, and I know you still love her..."

"No," Angel hissed, pulling Willow to his chest. He pressed his lips to hers desperately. "Stop this." Willow remained motionless, allowing him to cling to her.

"Angel, believe me when I tell you that this is for the best. Buffy has been through so much. I won't allow her to be hurt anymore, and I know that's the last thing you want as well."

"Buffy will survive"

"Will she? I'm not so sure. And if she were to die tomorrow, could you live with yourself? Because even if it's not tomorrow, Buffy will die someday, and I doubt you'd want her to do so unhappily."

"I could say the same for you."

Willow smiled slightly, 'I'll survive."

Angel growled, "The last thing I want is to lose you."

Willow felt the warmth of tears spilling from her eyes. "It's too late," she whispered, not sure until Angel's grip on her tightened whether he had heard. Willow returned Angel's embrace before letting him go. "I'm sorry it had to be like this."

Movement from the couch, the unmistakable sign of Buffy beginning to awaken, pulled the couple apart. Angel stared unabashedly at Willow, unashamed of the tears falling freely from his eyes.

"Angel," Buffy murmured sleepily. Angel turned to look at Buffy who was beginning to pull herself up. "What are you doing over there?" Angel turned back around, ready to beg Willow to just stay so they could talk alone, but she was already gone.

<I'm not gonna let her do this>. It was a promise Angel made to himself before going over to Buffy. He wasn't going to let Willow walk out of his life that easily.

 

Part 7

Almost Two Years Later

Exhausted, Willow entered her dorm room and flopped down on her bed. Willow felt too tired to even turn on the light but the dark had never bothered her. <I could very well fall asleep right now. I don't even care that it's only 8. I bet I'll sleep through the night. Of course, then my homework wouldn't get done. Alright Willow, get up now before you can't.>

Fridays, ironically, were always Willow's hardest days. She was in class from 10 to 3 with a five-hour Computer Programming Lab taking up most of the day. Her martial arts class and her work-study job at the computer lab took up the rest of her afternoon. After 2 years at MIT Willow was used to such jam-packed schedules, but it didn't make dealing with them any easier.

<Well if I'm gonna stay up I might as well check my email.> Willow went over to her desk and hit the sleep button. She quickly logged into the MIT server and opened up her email service. "Ooh, the mail's here." Willow chuckled at the sound of Homer Simpson flipping through the mail. Oz had set up the wav to be her email alert a few weeks back. It had been his life mission ever since Willow arrived at MIT to get her to appreciate the genius of Matt Groening. Willow actually looked forward to the inevitable visit from Oz on Sunday nights when he proceeded to drag her down to the common room to join the other Simpson fans for their weekly dose of humor. Willow would never admit it to Oz. She loved watching his frustration over her stubbornness. Of course, her hysterical laughter probably clued him in to her love for the show but she continued to play her stubborn role and he his. It was a fun game.

Willow found 4 email messages in her inbox. The first was an assignment from her C++ professor. She skipped over that to read a message from Oz. Even though they lived in the same dorm, he knew the best way to reach her was through email.

Hey Will, just wanted to let you know there's supposed to be a raging party tonight over at Goddard hall. I already talked Ashlyn, Caleb, Gabriella and Adrian into coming and I'm pretty sure the five of us can grab you and make a quick getaway without being seen so we'll be by at around 10. And remember, it's a party so dress to impress. There'll be lots of single coeds there and we're both in need of a hook up.

Love and kisses,

Oz

Willow smiled as she closed the email and moved on to the next one. <It's just like Oz to be thinking about setting me up no matter how many times I tell him I'm happier alone. We may have ended our relationship a long time ago but he's still protective of me. Not that I'm complaining.>

The third email was from her parents. Willow read through it quickly before saving it in a folder for her to respond to later on. They were anxious for her to come home to Boston sometime that month. <Home. It's funny how I still have difficulty calling Boston my home even though my parents moved there almost 2 years ago. <I guess Sunnydale will always be my real home.>

The last email was from Xander. <Took him long enough.> Willow wasn't really upset. She knew how much Xander hated his computer. It had taken Willow 4 hours on the phone to talk Xander through the process of retrieving and sending his email.

Dear Will,

Sorry it's taken me so long to respond to your last letter. Things have been kind of hectic up here. Cordelia's been going crazy over some event her sorority's throwing. Don't ask me which one this is about cause they're all the same to me. A bunch of snooty girls standing around in cocktail dresses moaning about whatever the sorority's charity of the moment is. I think this one may be about orphan kittens. Sometimes I think I should have stayed at Sunnydale community college instead of transferring to NYU to be with Cordy. Don't tell her that though, or I'll end up sleeping in my own dorm room for a month. Perish the thought.

I've also been tied up with some unexpected visitors. I know you've told me repeatedly you're over him but I still hesitate to tell you this. Buffy and Angel are in town visiting Cordy and me. They've been in NY for the past week, staying with some friends of Angel's. Buffy says they just felt like stopping over in NY on their way back from England. The truth is, I've seen more of Buffy than dead boy during their visit. Buffy's always over at the dorms while dead boy is, well, I'm not quite sure where it is he goes. Buffy says he likes to go off for walks by himself. I get the feeling from her that things aren't going too great with them, if they ever were. They're still together but it's pretty unclear whether it's just as friends or as more than that. Buffy won't say, although I can tell she's not as happy as she pretends to be. Of course, if I'm truthful, she was never the same Buffy after that night, so I guess I can't really tell what she's thinking. She hasn't confided in Cordy either so all I can do is speculate.

I know you hate when I say this but I think the problem is you. I know you still love Angel. You can try to deny it, but I can tell. When I call you and his name is mentioned there's something in your voice. We've been friends forever Will, there's nothing you can hide from me. You still love him and you probably always will.

And I know he loves you. The first night they arrived at my dorm room Angel stared at your senior portrait, the one I keep on my dresser, for a good ten minutes before turning around and leaving. I just don't understand why you two are being so stubborn. This situation is only hurting everyone involved.

Anyway, I've got to run. Buffy said she'd be stopping over soon and I need to get dressed. By the way, Buffy asked about you the other day. She misses your friendship Will. I know she'd love it if you could come up and visit next weekend. It's time you two talked.

Call me soon. I miss hearing your voice.

Love always,

Xander

P.S. Are those dreams you were telling me about still bothering you. If so I was thinking maybe you should call Giles and ask him what he thinks. I'm sure he'd have some kind of advice to give, what with his being the senior research boy and stuff.

 

Willow filed the letter from Xander away and quickly logged off. Sitting back in her chair Willow tried to figure out what exactly she was feeling. Was she glad that Angel still thought about her? Yes, she supposed she was. But then she thought of Buffy and how unhappy she was. Angel was shutting her out, but why? Willow hoped it wasn't for her benefit. She had left Sunnydale and Angel so that she wouldn't hurt Buffy yet 2 years later she was still doing just that. It wasn't Willow herself, but the memory of Willow that Angel kept locked up inside him that was doing it.

Willow began to finger the ring that lay nestled on a chain between her breasts. Her fingers traced the small black opal and thought back to when she had found it. It was the day after graduation and Willow had been in her room packing. She had to do her college packing then since she'd be away all summer, visiting relatives in Europe, so her room was pretty much empty. She had found the ring on her windowsill, left there by Angel sometime the previous night. A short note had accompanied it. He explained how the ring had been his mother's. He had spent the two months he was away on "business" tracking it down. Willow wasn't quite sure how he had found it, but she knew that Spike had stolen all of Angel's family possessions almost a century ago so she supposed Angel had found it through him.

Angel wrote how he had wanted to find the ring to give to her as an engagement ring. He had been planning to give it to her the other night, before Buffy had come back. He said that he didn't care what Willow was trying to do with him and Buffy, he still wanted her to have it. He still wanted her to be his wife. The last part of the note had begged her to accept him as her husband. He was still willing to leave town with her, to continue with their plans to go to Ireland. "Just don't leave me." The note said. Willow had cried after reading it. There was nothing she wanted more than to pretend that Buffy hadn't come back and go to Ireland with Angel. Nothing, that is, except for Buffy's happiness.

And so Willow had placed the note and the ring in a box and asked Xander to give it back to Angel. She didn't write him a letter or a note in response. She had said all there was to say.

Two months into her first year at MIT a package had arrived from Sunnydale. Angel had sent her back the ring. There had been no letter and Willow assumed he had accepted her answer. But she kept the ring since it was obviously what Angel wanted, and, she had to admit, it was what she wanted as well. Since then Willow had worn the ring on a chain around her neck everyday, not even taking it off when she showered. This way she always had a piece of Angel, and the love they had shared, with her at all times.

<Perhaps Xander's right, maybe this whole thing is stupid. If Buffy and Angel are that unhappy then maybe I should go see them, go see Angel.>

Willow allowed herself to entertain such fanciful hopes because she knew she'd never act on them. What she and Angel had had was in the past. <And maybe Oz is right. Maybe I do need to hook up with someone. Put my energy into someone else other than Angel.>

So with that idea in mind Willow grabbed her bathrobe and went to get ready for the party.

 

Part 8

Goddard Hall 10:30 PM

The moment Willow arrived at the party she knew it had been a mistake. Although Willow wasn't against having a drink every now and then, she wasn't into the whole frat party keg chugging scene and while this wasn't a frat party there were enough kegs lying around the room to rival most of the frats on campus.

Oz led Willow through the crowd of dancers until they reached a sort of makeshift buffet table. "Hungry?" Oz asked, gesturing towards the usual party goodies.

Willow eyed the snacks warily, "Um, no, not really." Willow's stomach seemed to growl in hungry annoyance. <Well, maybe we'll all go to the Beanery afterwards for some coffee and a late night snack.>

"If you're sure," Oz pressed, giving her a chance to change her mind. "Well, I'm gonna go get myself a beer from the keg- you want?"

"Nah, I'm good."

"Alright, I'll be right back." Oz gave her a quick peck on the cheek before disappearing into the crowd.

Willow looked around and spotted her roommate Ashlyn and her boyfriend Adrian wrapped in each other's arms in the middle of the dance floor. She smiled as she thought about the two of them and the hardships they had to overcome in order to finally be together. In some ways they reminded her of Angel and herself. <Except they're together and we're not.>

Willow watched Adrian pull Ashlyn closer, his hands tracing circles up and down her back. He leaned his head down so he could whisper into her ear. Ashlyn threw her head back in laughter, smiling up at Adrian. The look that passed between them was one of total, unconditional love.

<I wish I had someone to love me like that.> Suddenly images of her dreams came back to her. Images of her dressed in old-fashioned gowns, Forrest green, pigeon's blood red, and cream. The pictures of herself were always sharp and clear, in contrast to her memories of him. In her dreams he was always there but she could never remember what he looked like when she woke up. She remembered some small details- like the heavy silver ring on his finger as he pressed her hand to his heart. The feel of the soft velvet of his clothing against her cheek as he pulled her into his arms. And, most of all, the feeling of intense love that came from being with him.

Willow had been having these dreams on and off for a year now, though recently they had grown more and more frequent, as well as more detailed. Willow dreamed up elaborate scenes of him and her, together. The settings changed but the events of the dreams were always the same. They would kiss and hold each other, whispering pledges to always be together, no matter what.

At first Willow had written the dreams off as just that- dreams born from the loss of the man she loved. Eventually she realized that, although she wasn't sure of the man's identity, she was positive he wasn't Angel. In fact, the dreams were beginning to become so detailed, and feel so real that Willow was beginning to question whether or not they were memories of some kind. <Yeah, but whose memories, that's the question. Maybe Xander's right and I should talk to Giles.>

Oz, beer in hand, appeared at her side breaking her out of her thoughts. "Pretty good party don't you think? I mean, they're playing some good music."

Willow smiled in spite of herself, "Well, I guess if they can't have your band then Puff Daddy's the next best thing." Chuckling, Willow sidestepped the playful tap Oz gave her.

"For your information, Puff Daddy is one of the greatest entertainers of our generation. He's revitalized the rock and hip hop industries." Willow just looked at Oz, trying hard not to let the laughter show.

. Willow was so consumed by her laughter that, at first, she failed to realize that Ozís own laughter had died and that he was staring intently at something over Willowís shoulder. It wasnít until Willow felt a hand on her shoulder that she turned around.

Standing in front of Willow was a guy about her age but so beautiful Willow quite literally felt her breath knocked out of her body. He looked more like an angel than a human being. His features were much more delicate than Angel's were, though he was just as tall. Slim and lithe, he didn't appear all that strong but there was an air of danger to him that was unmistakable to anyone who was sensitive enough to pay attention.

His eyes were as black as a moonless night and his hair would have been as well if it weren't for the red glints shimmering throughout it. It fell down to just below his chin in loose waves. He ran a hand through his hair as he smiled down at her and Willow marveled at the feline grace with which he moved. From an angel he had gone to a sensuous jungle cat, and he seemed comfortable in both roles.

Willow's eyes wandered down his body, taking in the black leather jacket and the fashionable white shirt with its top few buttons open revealing a black cord necklace. Her eyes glided past the silver ring on his left hand to the fitted black pants and black boots. The whole look was quite fashionable and made him appear older than he looked. Still, the look worked for him, though Willow suspected he would look good in just about anything he put on.

He was saying something but Willow was so consumed by her visual exploration of him that she had to ask him to repeat it.

"I asked if you cared to dance." To illustrate the request he held his arm out for her. In a daze, Willow slipped her arm through his. <Like any girl could ever say no to him. >

Without a second thought of Oz or anyone else, Willow allowed him to lead her to the middle of the dance floor. Because of the crowd already dancing Willow was forced to stand very close to him. It didnít seem to bother him and it sure as hell didnít bother her. When she felt strong arms wrap around her waist Willow responded by slipping her arms up behind his neck. With nowhere else to look, Willow gazed up into his eyes. <I never knew someone could have eyes like that. Theyíre as dark as a black hole and just as beautiful. >

Willow looked away and began to blush when she realized she was staring again. But when she looked back up at him she realized that he was staring quite openly at her. There was an intensity in his gaze that excited her. He was staring at her the way she had often seen guys stare at Ashlyn, the way guys used to stare at Buffy. The look reminded her of a hungry lion, or in this guy's case, a hungry panther. He was eating her up with his eyes, taking in every aspect of her body as though it excited him. It was frightening to have a guy look at you like that but it was also thrilling. It made her feel beautiful and sexy and free. However, at the same time it was beginning to give Willow an uneasy feeling. Something was nagging at the edge of her memory, trying to make her remember. Remember him perhaps?

"Do I know you?" Willow blurted out, trying hard to shake the confused recognition she was feeling. "I mean, did I tutor you sometime or did we have a class together or something? You just look awfully familiar and Iím not sure from where." Willow bit her tongue to stop her babbling. Seconds stretched on like minutes and still he made no move to answer her. He merely continued to look at her with those smoldering black eyes. "At least tell me your name."

He smiled a slow tantalizing smile at her, all the while leaning closer and closer until his cheek was pressed against Willowís cheek.

"Yes, we know each other, my darling. My name is Joachim and I have traveled across oceans of time to find you."

Willow stiffened in his arms, uncertain of the meaning behind his words. Willow pulled back to stare at him once again

"I don't understand."

Joachim kept on smiling down at Willow. He kept one arm around Willow's waist, his hand on her back applying pressure so that she was forced to step closer to him, putting their hips into contact. He lifted his other hand up to her face. His fingers gently pulled her eyelids down. Holding them shut with the slightest of pressure he whispered "Remember."

Behind her closed eyelids Willow saw a flash of light not unlike those accompanied by a nuclear explosion. The darkness exploded into a montage of memories. Willow saw scene after scene of memories, all of them including her and Joachim. Willow's mind absorbed the memories, mixing them with memories of the dreams that had been haunting her for the past year, and realized that they were the same. The dreams were memories and the memories were real. There was no more of that dream haziness clouding her mind's remembrance of them. She could see the man from her dreams clearly and she knew that he was Joachim.

A part of her mind was trying to fight against the influx of memories he was feeding her, trying to hold on to reason. <It's not possible that these memories are real. I've never seen Joachim before in my life, at least not anywhere besides my dreams. He must be doing this. Maybe he's a demon.>

As Willow's mind tried to rationalize the situation her heart laughed. Deep down she knew that he wasn't doing anything to make this up. She knew *him* and no matter what the explanation, and no matter how unreasonable, she loved him.

He was opening up a part of Willow's mind that had always been locked. Along with the flood of memories came emotions. Her heart ached with an ancient longing and a love that Willow had never felt before.

Willow felt Joachim remove his fingers from her eyelids and Willow opened them slowly, starring at him through her tears. The expression on his face, one of pure childlike joy and wonderment, made him appear younger. He was looking at her as though he couldn't get enough, or as though he was afraid she would disappear if he looked away. Willow reached up with tentative fingers to wipe away the tears that were staining his cheeks. "My love," she whispered, her voice heavy with emotion. "Is it really you?"

He grasped her hand in his and brought it up to rest on his chest, directly over his heart. Willow sighed and raised her lips to meet his in a kiss that released ages of pent-up longing and unfulfilled love.

 

Part 9

Oz stood against the wall watching Willow dance with the dark haired guy. He wasn't sure why he was worried, but he got a weird feeling whenever he looked at them together. It wasn't that Oz was jealous- sure he cared about Willow and was extremely protective of her, but it was purely friendship.

When he had left for MIT 3 years ago and they had decided just to be friends Oz had been glad that he wouldn't be losing Willow even though they had broken up. Willow was his best friend and he was glad they had managed to stay close. After the whole mess with Angel and Buffy a few years back Willow had been incredibly depressed and vulnerable. It had broken Oz's heart to see Willow so, well, so un-Willow-like. She had turned into a shell of her former shelf. The fun light-hearted Willow had died when she had given up Angel.

It had taken Willow a long time to begin to heal. Oz knew that his being there for her had helped, and he had promised himself that he always would be there for her. He made it his duty to protect her, to be there for her whenever she needed him, no matter what.

And that was exactly what Oz was doing, watching out for Willow because this guy was giving him a really bad feeling. Oz felt his alarm grow as the guy pulled Willow even closer to him and lifted his hand up to close Willow's eyes. Oz had to stop himself from running over there since he wasn't sure how Willow would feel. Maybe she'd think he was being irrational.

But when the guy leaned down to kiss Willow, Oz propelled himself into action <Okay, something is very wrong here. First, Willow doesn't so much as date anyone for the past 2 years and now she's making out with some guy she just met at a party. It doesn't make sense. Something's happening. >

Oz pushed his way through the crowd, his eyes glued on the very passionate embrace Willow was locked in. Oz controlled the urge to punch the guy and, instead, placed his arm on Willow's shoulder, pulling her back and away from the guy.

When Willow turned towards Oz, her eyes shining with love, he hesitated. The passion in her expression was shocking but what was even more surprising was that Willow appeared to be quite lucid. <I could have sworn he was hypnotizing her or something. >

"Willow, are you... um, okay?" Oz glanced at her companion and tried to reevaluate the situation. Perhaps he had read the whole thing wrong. Maybe Willow did know him.

Smiling, Willow wrapped her arms around Oz and pulled him into a hug, "Oh Oz, I'm more than okay, I'm happier than I've ever been in my life. I'm whole again." Seeing he confused look on Oz's face Willow laughed, her voice giddy and carefree. It sounded strange to Oz's ears and he realized it was because he hadn't heard Willow sound so carefree in a long time. Willow's laughter had held an undertone of pain the last few years, a telltale sign of the heartbreak she was recovering from. Now, in less than 10 minutes, it was gone as though it had never even been there.

"I know it must be confusing to you Oz. I haven't figured it all out myself yet, which is why I want to be alone with Joachim for awhile." Willow glanced back at Joachim and intertwined her fingers with his. Joachim was staring at Oz, his face unreadable but his eyes were blazing. They were warning to Oz for him not to interfere. "I promise I'll explain everything to you later." And with that, Willow turned and began to leave with Joachim.

Confusion held Oz in place, making him unable to react. The sight of Willow, the old Willow, was like a shock to his senses. If Oz hadn't been left with that nagging feeling of unease he might have been grateful to Joachim for accomplishing something no one else had been able to do. He had revived Willow. The question was how, and it was a question Oz wanted answered. Not knowing what else to do, Oz left the party and went back to his dorm to make a few phone calls.

 

New York City 11:40 PM

Angel walked along Fifth Avenue completely oblivious to his surroundings. His body was operating on auto pilot, same as it had been since that night when he had lost Willow. Within days of that night Angel had closed off his heart and locked away all his emotions inside it. It may not have been the healthiest reaction but it helped Angel deal with the pain. <So what if, technically, Iím not dealing with it. At least this way Iím able to go on. >

As it was, there wasnít a day that went by that Angel didnít think about Willow. A million memories of their time together replayed themselves in his mind, and he found himself harping on the smallest details: the sound of her laughter; the way her eyes would light up and sparkle like emeralds reflecting the light of the sun; the way her delicate body would fit perfectly against his while they slept; the soft curve of her hip against the palm of his hand; her smile and the completely unguarded look in her eyes that made him feel like he was the most heroic and perfect person to ever live, a look that never failed to take his breath away.

It was memories like those that could drive a guy crazy if he let himself indulge in the emotions, let himself feel the full pain of the loss. <No, Iím definitely better off not dealing with it. Otherwise, I donít know how I could live with the memories. >

Angel knew that his actions were hurting Buffy but he didnít know how to stop. He thought she might be better off if he were to leave- perhaps return to Ireland where he could be alone. He was sure that this was the best solution for both of them but whenever he brought up the suggestion Buffy refused to even consider it. She wouldnít let him go no matter how much her clinging on to him ended up hurting her. And since Angel was unable to leave her without her agreement, Angel was bound to keep on hurting her.

<Two years after leaving, the Hellmouth is still playing its cruel game with our lives. Or perhaps, more accurately, eighty years after the gypsies cursed me theyíre still getting their revenge. >

Angel stopped in front of the NYU dorm that both Xander and Cordelia resided in, and looked up towards the 8th floor where Angel could make out the light of Xanderís window. Buffy was up there, as she was almost every night. With each passing day that they were in New York, Buffy had been spending more and more time in Xanderís dorm room rather than with Angel. After four months of spending just about every waking moment with him in England he couldnít blame her for needing time away. Yet, she still refused to let him go. Angel found himself smiling. <Sheís as stubborn today as when I first met her. >

It was at times like this that Angel asked himself why he didnít try harder to make his relationship with Buffy work. There was no question that he loved her. Hell, it was hard not to love her. And he knew that he could have a happy life with her, if he would only let himself. But that was the problem. He couldnít let himself. Not when the memory of sparkling emerald eyes and pixie laughter haunted his heart. He couldnít give his heart to Buffy cause it was no longer his to give.

Angel walked over to the security desk where he went through the formality of handing in his ID and signing in. He then joined the group of coeds waiting impatiently for the elevators.

<Maybe I should just go to MIT and see Willow. Itís been long enough. I mean, Willow obviously had the best intentions at heart when she left, hoping that Buffy and I would get back together, but it obviously hasnít worked. Why should we carry on this charade any longer when all itís doing is bringing all of us pain? >

Angel wished he could hop on a plane and be at Willowís side that very night but no matter how much he wanted it he knew it was never going to happen. Fear, quite possibly the most ancient of all emotions, held him back. It had been so long since Angel had spoken to, let alone seen, Willow that he was afraid of it now. For all he knew she had moved on. Maybe she never even thought about him anymore. Worst of all, she might have fallen in love with someone else by now.

Angel didnít think that the latter was the case, as far as he could tell from hearing Xander tell Buffy about Willow, but the fear still existed. For Angel, it was easier to wait for Willow to reach out and contact him, and in the meantime he was able to hold on to his hope.

It was at this thought that Angel reached Xanderís door. A strange sense of foreboding went through Angel. Through the door he could make out the voices of Xander and Buffy. He couldnít hear what they were saying but he could feel the distress in Buffyís voice. Not bothering to knock, Angel pushed the door open.

The slayer sat next to Xander on the bed, her hands gripping his arm. Xander was too busy on the phone to notice or care about Buffy's grip on his arm. Neither of them seemed to notice Angelís entrance. When Xander spoke his words sliced through Angel like a steel blade. "But Oz, where is Willow now?"

 

Part 10

After Xander hung up with Oz an oppressive silence descended over the room. Angel had settled himself on the floor only after Buffy's persistent pleading. She moved to join him, her hand resting on top of his for comfort. As Xander recounted his conversation with Oz, Angel felt the hope he had been holding on to for so long begin to slip away. Hearing that Willow had found someone else opened up wounds that were as painful as the day they had been inflicted.

Xander kept talking but Angel stopped listening after that first sentence. <Willow is in love with someone else and now I've really lost her. >

As realization began to sink in, Angel withdrew further and further away from the conversation and the world. All along, the only two things keeping Angel going were the hope of being reunited with Willow one day and, what he believed to be his obligation to Buffy for all the pain he had caused her when he had lost his soul. Now that one of those things was gone the other no longer felt as important to him. For the first time in years, Angel was faced with the darkest feeling known to man and vampire alike: he had nothing left to live for.

"Angel!" Buffy began to shake Angel's arm hard. "Angel, listen to me." Buffy's own eyes widened as she looked into Angel's blank ones. Buffy had grown accustomed to an Angel who kept her locked out of his heart, but this was a different Angel. For the first time ever Angel actually looked like his kind- Undead. Looking into those eyes, Buffy became frightened.

"Angel, don't do this to yourself. Willow loves you." Buffy bit her lip as she blurted out what she had denied in her own mind for so long. Deep down she had always known it but never allowed herself to say it, as though that would have been the key to giving them life. "And you love her Angel. I've been denying it, but I've always known that it's true." Buffy, who had been silent about her thoughts and emotions for so long, found that she couldn't stop talking now that she had started. It was as though the floodgates had been opened. Crying, she pressed on. "And you know that I love you Angel. I always have and I probably always will. But I don't deserve your love. I used your love and your sense of duty to me against you. I kept you captive and it was selfish of me. I knew that I should let you go a long time ago but I couldn't. I needed you with me and if that had cost you Willow then I couldn't live with myself. But it didn't, I'm sure of it. Willow still loves you as surely as I do. And so, there's nothing left for me to do but allow the two people I love the most in this world be together, the way I should have before."

Angel stared at Buffy; afraid he was imagining what he was hearing.

"Angel, I can't thank you enough for staying with me for as long as you have. But you've paid any debt, real or imagined, that you may have owed me. I release you Angel. Go and be with Willow, where you belong."

For the longest time Angel couldn't say anything. He and Buffy just stared, matching each other tear for tear. Angel clasped Buffy's hand in his, squeezing it in gratitude. "Thank you Buffy, you have no idea how much your words mean to me... but it's too late. I've already lost her."

Buffy opened her mouth about to argue with him but Xander beat him to it. "Canít you drop the tortured vamp routine for even a second Dead Boy?" Angel turned towards Xander, astonished.

Xander leaned forward as he spoke and Angel, without realizing it, moved back. "Look, I donít know what Willow sees in you. Personally I think sheíd be better off with that Moloch guy, but for whatever reason she loves you. God knows Iíve tried to talk some sense into her but, well, kids these days, they never listen."

Despite the typical digs at him, Xander was actually trying to help Angel. It was true that they got along better than they used to but there was still, and probably always would be, a friction between the two of them. In Xanderís eyes, Angel had stolen two women from Xanderís life and Angel doubted Xander would ever be able to forgive him for that.

"My loyalty is to Willow, always has been, always will be, but, well, I canít sit back and take on your cryptic guy role when something is obviously wrong." Xander looked from Buffy to Angel. "Am I the only one who sees that this situation stinks of demon? Willow hasnít even gone out for a soda with a guy since you, and now sheís all head over heels in love with some guy she just met? Color me disbelieving, but what alternate universe did I just step into?"

"Xanderís right." Buffy spoke up. "Like I said, Willowís been pining away for you, so why would she all of a sudden wake up one morning and have moved on? Stuff like this only happens on Twin Peaks."

Angel felt a glimmer of doubt began to crystallize in his mind. But the fear was still there and it had something to say. "What if all that's happened is that Willowís met a nice guy and fallen in love with him?"

"Impossible!" Xander declared.

Angel turned to look at Buffy. Her eyes were wet as she smiled at Angel. "How could anyone ever compare to you? Let's go to her so we can put all this behind us. Once you see her you'll realize that all this worrying was for nothing. After all, love is forever."

Something inside Angel tensed slightly at Buffy's choice of words but he pushed it aside. Xander and Buffy had restored some of Angel's hope, but more importantly, it had restored some of Angel's desire. Even if Willow had met someone new, that didn't mean he had to give her up without a fight. And if this guy was a demon, well, Angel was gonna enjoy sending him back to Hell.

 

Part 11

Dublin, Ireland April 5, 1903

Willow woke up from a particularly gruesome nightmare drenched in sweat. Willow gasped for air, trying hard to calm her racing heart. The long, steady deep breaths did nothing to dispel the cold, hard fear that had gripped her heart. Willow was smart enough not to disregard her dreams as meaningless fantasies. She knew that most of her dreams foretold future events but none of them had ever been like this. This had been the first dream that foreshadowed her own death.

Willow dried her eyes trying to forget the feeling of the blond vampire's fangs piercing her throat. Willow shuddered, feeling once again her life force slowly, painfully, being drained from her.

Whimpering, Willow turned over so that she was face to face with her lover. She moved her hand up his bare chest, resting it over his heart. The peaceful rhythm of his beating heart and the slow rise and fall of his chest as he slept brought a small measure of comfort to her. Watching his sleeping form, Willow felt a surge of deep and intense love for him.

Willow had met Joachim a little over a year ago. He had appeared in her quiet Irish village one afternoon, a wandering Gypsy with a life's mission. From the moment Willow had laid eyes upon the gorgeous stranger, she had known that he was the one she had been waiting for. He walked over to the well she was drawing water from, each step closer strengthening the bond that was forming between them. And then, when Willow looked into his eyes, it had hit her. Inside his eyes Willow had seen, well, herself.

It was like seeing her mirror image reflected in the soul of another. In a split second Willow saw her life unfold before her, and in every step of life he was there, right beside her, sharing in her happiness and her pain, shouldering the burden and introducing her to a world she had never known. Her heart and her soul were bound together with his, and it frightened her even as it thrilled her. It was happening just as her grandmother had told her it would when she was a child.

Since Willow was old enough the understand the delicate relationship between boys and girls her grandmother had been telling her about the soulmate principle. The idea that there was one person in the world who you were meant to spend the rest of your life, and every other life, with. Their souls were two halves of a whole, and when two soulmates met they knew it right away. Their hearts and souls found each other and became whole. After that, they couldn't live without each other. When Willow had been younger, she had fantasized about meeting her soulmate but as they years passed and he didn't come she had put the fantasy out of her mind, figuring that the whole concept was a fairytale her grandmother had made up. Only now, standing in the meadow with Joachim, Willow knew that it was true and that she had found her other half.

They stood there, staring into each other's souls. The intimacy of it began to scare Willow and she felt herself begin to withdraw from him emotionally. Everything about her, any secret she had ever had and kept locked up in her heart was there for him to see. Willow couldn't handle that idea.

Feeling her withdraw, Joachim took a step closer to her, the look in his eyes so loving and gentle. He reached for her hand questioningly, giving her every chance to withdraw. When he saw that she wasn't going to, he grasped her hand in his and brought it up to cover his heart. "You're in here." He said, his voice full of wonder and amazement.

The gesture was so full of childlike innocence and love that it tore at Willow's heart. She stumbled forward, into his arms. He held her against his chest, his hand coming up to brush her long hair away from her face. Every part of Willowís body was laced with fire, especially her heart which was directly connected to Joachimís, now and forever.

From that day on, Willowís life had changed drastically. She had gone straight to her grandmother, the wise woman and resident witch of the village, and told her that she had found her soulmate and was going to leave with him. Her grandmother hadnít been surprised for she had dreamed of his arrival, but she had been worried. Joachim had revealed why he was in Ireland.

When Joachim was 15 his parents had been killed by vampires. Joachim had been out with his friends and when he had come home he had found a cruel blond vampire draining his mother while his fatherís body lay at his feet. The vampire had dropped his mother and attacked Joachim, leaving him for dead. If his sister hadnít come home shortly after the vampire had left and gotten him to the hospital, Joachim would have surely died. Weeks later, when Joachim was fully recovered, he left his home in Madrid and started on what was to become his lifeís quest: to track down the vampire who had killed his parents and extact his revenge. Joachim would not be able to rest until his parentís murderer was sent to hell where he belonged.

So, for the past 6 years Joachim had been following the vampireís trail, training as he went until he was a master in all forms of combat as well as in destroying vampires. He hadnít seen his sister since the day he had left her at their aunt and uncle's house, and he knew he couldnít go back and face her until he was able to tell her that their parentís death had been avenged.

Willow had cried while listening to Joachimís story. Afterwards she pledged to help him on his mission. Her grandmother tried to talk some sense into her, worried for her granddaughterís safety, but it had done no good. Willow knew she could take care of herself. She was quite an accomplished witch, and though her training in the Wiccan arts was not yet complete, Willow felt she had no choice. She couldnít let her soulmate do what he had to do without her. Refusing to listen to her grandmotherís warnings, Willow had left with Joachim that very night.

And now here they were, back in Ireland for the first time since they had left, drawn to Dublin by a report that the vampire, Spike, was there. Willow hoped that this time they wouldnít be too late. That this time they had actually arrived while Spike was still in town and hadnít already moved on to some new hunting ground.

Willow held her breath, afraid she had woken him, when his long eyelashes began to flutter. Smiling, Willow watched him turn in his sleep, his arm moving out to wrap around her. The late afternoon sun streaming in from the open window left his face half in shadow. Willow caressed the soft skin of his cheek. Closing her eyes, she leaned forward and placed a chaste kiss on his half open lips.

Willow felt him awaken with all her senses. His arm tightened its hold on her waist and drew her closer to him until his entire body was pressed against hers. He tried to deepen the kiss and Willow opened her mouth, allowing his tongue to slip inside her. His tongue pushed gently against the inside of her mouth causing Willow to shiver with delight.

When they finally broke apart, Joachimís eyes were shining. "Good morning, or should I say, good afternoon," she whispered against his lips.

"Yes, it is." Willow snuggled against him, leaning her head on his chest. "Now if I could only get you to wake me up so creatively every day." Willow poked at his stomach playfully, which prompted Joachim to tickle her stomach. Willow erupted in a fit of giggles, gasping for breath.

"All right, all right, you win. I give up." Willow dragged in the air her lungs craved.

"If Iíve won then whatís my prize?" Joachim whispered seductively into her ear. He ran a possessive hand down the length of her body causing Willow to shiver with delight. He rested his hand just above her behind before capturing her lips with his. Willow melted into him. She knew where this was headed, and that it would delay their dayís search, but his lips and hands all over her body stopped any thoughts she was having. She gave herself up to the melding of their bodies and souls, to an intimacy that was theirs and theirs alone.

 

Part 12

When Joachim and Willow finally left the hotel they were both feeling optimistic. Willowís dream from earlier was momentarily forgotten as they made their way through the bustling streets of Dublin. <Tonight is the night, I can feel it. Something momentous is going to happen. >

They had arrived in Dublin the previous night and Joachim had already discovered the hiding place of the cityís vampires. Willow never ceased to be amazed by the skill with which Joachim could track someone. He was so gifted and should have been able to track Spike down long before now. <I can only imagine how cunning Spike is to have evaded Joachim for so long. >

Willow held Joachimís hand closer. <Goddess, please let everything turn out okay. I know Iím not the most experienced witch but Iím getting a bad feeling about this. By the power given to me by Diana, Hecate and Athena, please give me the power to protect my love. Grant me the strength and the power of my ancestors to fight this evil. >

Joachim stopped suddenly, a small hiss escaping from his lips. "There he is." Willow followed Joachimís gaze. Fifty feet in front of them, and less than 20 feet from the vampires' haven, was Spike. Willow stood stock still, staring at the vampire whom Joachim had tracked for 7 long years. The vampire who had haunted Willowís dreams for the past year. After all this time, Willow finally laid her eyes upon her enemy.

He was engaged in a fierce battle with a tall, statuesque girl. He clawed at the girlís face, which, unlike Spikeís, was purely human. Willow had no idea who she was but she didnít appear to be another one of Spikeís prey. In her right hand was a stake and she fighting with a skill that was characteristic of vampire hunters.

"The slayer," Joachim whispered, " I should have known she would find Spike. I should have followed her when I was back in England." Willowís mouth opened slightly as she realized this was the Chosen One Joachim had told her about. Two years ago, while Joachim was tracking Spike in England, he had run into a highly organized society of vampire hunters. Watchers, Joachim had called them, and their sole mission in life was in the training of the Chosen One- the slayer. Her power was one that was blessed by the Gods. She traveled the world, much like Joachim, destroying any and all vampires she came into contact with. Willow had only heard of her from Joachim and from the various witnesses who had seen her in action as they searched for Spike. Now, seeing her fight with her own eyes, Willow could see that her reputation had been justified. She was an accomplished fighter and was returning every blow Spike threw at her.

Joachim began to surge forward, "Finally, the night Iíve been dreaming of is happening." Panicked, Willow grabbed Joachim by the arm. "Wait, maybe we should see what happens. The slayer could end up killing him."

"Willow, I canít let someone else kill him- not when heís right there in front of me. Iíve been searching for him for so long that if I didnít kill him then my life for the past 7 years will have been for nothing. Do you understand?"

Willow nodded. She did understand, and she wanted to be able to put this whole situation behind her, but all of her senses were screaming out in warning. "Joachim, my whole body and soul are telling me that something is going to happen, something we're not expecting. I'm afraid."

Willow wrapped her arms around Joachim, holding him to her, afraid to let go. Joachim pressed his lips to Willow before pulling back. "I promise it will be okay. After tonight this whole thing will be behind us. We'll go to Spain and you'll meet my sister. Then we'll go wherever you want and be married, the way we should have been months ago." Joachim's fingers brushed the simple silver band on the Willow's left hand before turning around to check on the battle.

"Oh my Goddess." Willow felt her heart stop as she looked up. In the few seconds that they had been talking Spike had somehow overpowered the Slayer and was draining her blood. Willow felt her throat close up as she watched the beautiful slayer fight against her captor and then, as the loss of blood made her grow weaker, give up and slump back against his body. Carelessly, Spike discarded her body onto the side of the road.

<Goddess, oh my Goddess,, he's killed a slayer. I've never heard of a vampire killing a slayer, my god, how can he be so powerful. > Willow felt a fear like she had never known before. If he were able to kill a slayer with such ease then he would certainly have no trouble killing Joachim. Willow was just about to mention that to Joachim when she noticed that he was no longer at her side. While she had been shocked into immobility by the sight of Spike draining the slayer, Joachim had bounded forward and was now face to face with Spike.

Willow's head was pounding. Some distant part of her mind heard Joachim's challenge, heard the rage as he accused Spike of murdering his parents. The laughter that filled the street chilled Willow's blood. Spike radiated a cold malice that Willow had never felt before. His smile was a bit maniacal and it didn't leave his face even after Joachim threw himself at him.

Willow watched with a growing sense of alarm as the two battled. Joachim's face was twisted in anger. It was a side of him Willow had never seen, a side that was unnatural to him. Joachim was always gentle and calm. Even when he talked about his parents' murder, he never allowed himself to give in to the fury that Willow had known he must have felt inside. Now, as he faced his long hated enemy, he let all his emotions loose.

In all the months they had searched for Spike, waiting for this night to arrive, Willow had never let herself consciously explore the idea of losing Joachim. But only now, as she watched the fight in which Spike was more than a match for Joachim, did the fear began to seize Willow's heart. For the first time she realized what a very real possibility it was that she would lose Joachim. With hardly an effort and not one afterthought, Spike could kill Joachim and leave Willow alone in the world. Alone and broken because she would be without her soulmate. Willow knew she wouldn't be able to live without Joachim. The world would lose some of the light that he brought into it, and Willow's soul would be torn apart.

Without thinking, Willow stepped out from her hiding place behind a tree and ran towards her love and the vampire. She had no idea what she planned to do, but she knew she couldn't just stand there. Stopping ten feet away from them, Willow closed her eyes. Raising her hands in the air she began to call on the elements to protect her. "I am a witch and the daughter of a witch. I call on you Hecate, the most ancient of my mothers, to grant me the power which is mine and mine alone. I summon thee, the four watchtowers: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Hear my call as a daughter of Hecate."

Willow's voice rang clear in the deserted streets, stopping Spike and Joachim in mid-battle. They could sense something building around the petite girl, like a storm brewing, centralized in the spot where she was standing. For a second, Spike felt something close to fear. The girl's power was like none Spike had ever seen. He wondered what she could do with it.

"Willow, no!" Joachim called, forgetting Spike's existence. Willow was so caught up in her summoning spell that she failed to sense the presence of someone behind her. Before Joachim could do anything, Willow was grabbed from behind, a strong hand clamping down on her mouth, shutting off her words.

Spike grabbed Joachim from behind, pinning his arms behind him, holding him immobile. " Drusilla," Spike called, relieved. "It's about bloody time you got here. I was getting a bit tired of playing these childish games. Everybody wants to take me on tonight."

Drusilla smiled, petting Willow's hair as though she were a kitten. "This one is powerful, she would be an asset to our clan Spike. Can I turn her, puhlease?" Drusilla put on a pretty pout for Spike's benefit.

Spike clicked his tongue, "Now, now, my pet. Turning this one isn't exactly what I have in mind for tonight's festivities. Let me get rid of this one first, he's troubled me enough for one night." With a quick blow to the head, Spike knocked Joachim to the ground. Stepping over his body he joined Drusilla and Willow. "No, I think this one would be best served as a meal. The slayer's blood was good but she died so quickly I didn't quite get my fill."

Drusilla's eyes widened as she took in the dead body of the slayer by the side of the road. "Oh Spike, that's your second slayer and I didn't even get to kill my first yet." Drusilla let out a maniacal laugh and Willow knew that this one was crazy. It was evident in her voice. "My head is singing Spike. First a slayer and now we get to kill a witch. The Planets must be aligned in our favor tonight."

Spike planted a quick kiss on Drusilla's lips. "Almost as if it's my birthday."

Spike grabbed Willow from Dru and wrapped her into his arms. "Now the real fun begins, luv." Dragging Willow with him, he went over to where Joachim lay sprawled on the cobblestone street and kicked him in the stomach. "Wake up mate. You missed the death of your parents, so I bloody hell wouldn't want to deprive you of watching me kill another one of your loved ones. I have to say I'm impressed by your determination. No one else has ever dedicated their life trying to kill me. It's sort of flattering. What a shame, at least for you I suppose, that I don't even remember your parents. All they were to me was another meal." Laughing Spike kicked Joachim again, savoring the groan that escaped from his lips.

Fear paralyzed Willow as she felt Spike brush her hair away from her neck. All of a sudden her dream from earlier came rushing back to her. As she recalled the details of the dream, Willow knew that this had been the moment they had been foreshadowing. A million signs had been leading up to this moment, trying to warn Willow of her fate, but she hadn't listened. Her inexperience with witchcraft and her naiveté had led her down this path to her death. As Spike's fangs sank into her neck, Willow realized that there was nothing to be done about it. Her fate had been cast. Right here, and right now, she was going to die.

Tears streamed down Willow's cheeks as her thoughts turned to Joachim. Her one regret was that she'd be leaving him alone. Their time together had been so short. Only a year out of what was supposed to be forever. She hoped he would move on after she was gone, no matter how hard it was. Her one desire in life had always been Joachim's happiness. She only wished that she had time to tell him that, to make him understand that her death shouldn't be in vain. God, she had so many things she wished that she could tell him.

In the back of Willow's mind she realized that Spike was no longer drinking from her, but the pain was as acute as if he still was. Her whole body ached and she was having trouble supporting her own weight. When Spike let go of her she fell to the floor in a heap, blacking out halfway to the ground.

Willow's eyes fluttered open for a second before she had to shut them. The only thing she could see when they were open was an intense white light that burned her irises. <Why is the sun out at this time of night? That doesn't make any sense. >

"Willow, oh god Willow, answer me." Willow could feel her body being cradled in someone's arms. Their touch on her skin felt like needles pricking into her. She tried to open her eyes again, tried to say something, but the effort brought her pain so she tried to lay still instead and found herself slipping back into sleep.

"Willow, please don't leave me, oh god, no, please, somebody help me." Her brain slowly registered that the person crying out was Joachim. She could feel his tears dripping down on her face, mingling with her own tears. She opened her mouth to try to say something but no sound would come out. It was then that Willow realized that her throat was torn out and the stickiness in her mouth was her own blood.

Willow felt Joachim's lips on hers. She heard him whisper in a steel edged voice full of stubbornness, "You're not gonna die Willow, cause I'm not gonna let you, I can't lose you."

<I can't leave him like this, I've got to try and tell him just one more thing. I don't care how much it hurts; I've got to do it before it's too late. >

"Joachim." Her voice sounded hoarse and distant even to her own ears. She felt rather than heard his quick intake of breath.

"Willow, oh yes Willow, I knew you weren't dead. I've just got to get you to a hospital."

Willow cut him off, "You'll never lose me Joachim. You'll never lose me because love is forever." Willow's strength was gone as she finished what she had needed to say before leaving the world. As her soul was freed from her body, Willow stopped breathing, leaving Joachim alone in the street clutching the body of his dead love in his arms.