Part 2

“To good friends too soon taken from us,” said Angel as their glasses of Scotch clinked together over the dusty bar top. The small Coleman camping lantern cast an island of light around the two intruders in the yawning darkness of the deserted Bronze.

“To Mickey,” said Willow, and they followed the toast with a long swallow.

“To Hud,” added Angel. Another slug. Willow knew that at this rate they were going to get very drunk, but to hell with it.

“To … Jenny,” she said tentatively. She was relieved when Angel nodded his approval.

“To Joyce.”

“And Giles.”

“And Elisa Hunter.”

“To Faith.”

“To Kendra.”

“And all the Dark Angels over the years who never made it back,” finished Willow.

There was a long pause while Angel refilled their glasses. He held his drink high and looked into its amber depths. “To Buffy.”

“To Buffy,” echoed Willow, and they downed their drinks in one smooth motion.

She took his hand and squeezed it, looking deeply into those dark, profoundly compelling eyes. Missing and presumed dead. Buffy and the whole of squad Dark Angel Alpha. But she could see that despite everything, Angel had never accepted anything beyond “missing”. He would never presume his wife dead, and perhaps deep down Willow never would, either. They’d both seen her rise from the proverbial grave too many times to believe that Buffy Summers could ever succumb to mortality.

It was a foolish faith to cling to after more than a decade, and she knew that both of them should have long ago accepted Buffy as dead and moved on. But anyone who had known Buffy would also have known that accepting that without proof was impossible.

Angel had been right. Not knowing was the worst thing.

“Is this a private party, or can anyone join?”

The voice was cold and hard and older, but familiar. She turned to the sound.

It took her a moment to convince herself of what she was seeing. “Xander?”

“Willow,” he said in flat acknowledgment from the shadows.

Despite the gloom beyond the lantern’s illumination, Willow could still distinguish her old friend … no, that wasn’t quite right. For all that Oz was to her over the years, husband, friend, father to her children, Xander to this moment held a place in her heart that no other man ever would. It was a strange compulsion, to be so attracted to a man who had time and again betrayed her very best friend out of what could have only been jealousy and anger. But she knew that despite all that had transpired, Buffy would have understood. After all, her epic, heartbreaking love for Angel had been no less insane, no less misguided and foolish.

Oh, Willow knew she would never again betray Oz. She loved him so much it hurt sometimes — life changed your perceptions and emotions in ways you could have never anticipated as a teenager. But there would always be that spark in her heart for Alexander Harris. It made no sense, not even to her. But it was the truth. It would always be the truth.

From outside the strange mix of emotions that assailed her, Willow felt Angel tense, and she realized with cold dread the sudden danger of the situation. Two men in the same room, one of whom had twice schemed to kill the other. And Angel now mortal and vulnerable, a good man who might never see the knife coming until it was too late.

If only Buffy were here, she thought desperately. She’d know what to do. She’d help. She’d kick ass and take names and set them both straight before any damage could be done.

But Buffy wasn’t there. She was gone, long gone, most probably dead. And it was just Angel and Xander and herself, and Willow knew with sick certainty that somebody was going to die. She would lose a friend today, and she didn’t know how to stop it.

She felt tears of frustration sting her eyes as Xander said, “I think you might want to be somewhere else right now, Will.”

He stepped more fully into the lantern’s light, and she saw the harshness of his voice mirrored in his face. It wasn’t the ragged white line of the scar that ran from above the right eyebrow down to the jaw. It wasn’t the purposeful, too-calm movement of someone who’d clearly seen combat enough times that it was nothing special, nothing new. No, what froze her inside was his eyes. She’d seen it before, so many years ago, the frozen and murderous look he’d always reserved for the man behind her. There was hate there, hate so deep and pure and intense that there could be no reasoning with it, no calming it.

There was the glint of lantern light on steel, a handgun coming from underneath his khaki field jacket.

“This is for my wife, you son of a bitch,” he said, and his finger tightened on the trigger.

It all seemed to happen so very slowly, but as she tried without thinking to close the distance and grab hold of the weapon before he could fire it, she knew that she was even slower. But still fast enough that Xander’s brain had no time to countermand the impulse it had given his hand, no time to stop before the cold clockwork of the Browning’s action ignited a small charge of powdered explosive that propelled a small piece of metal toward its unintended target.

She didn’t feel the bullet, just a spreading wetness as she sank to the floor, shock already setting in and making her numb and cold and strangely detached from herself.

She heard herself at a distance repeating the same two words, “It’s okay, it’s okay …”, and then her voice faded in her mind and she was lost in a very dark place.

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