Stages

 

Author: mayfever

Rating: PG-13

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A/N: Written for the 2010 IWRY Ficathon. Thanks to my amazing beta taaroko, for bringing light and order to my messed-up phrasing and grammar and bawling me out when I stole from Harry Potter without realising it.

 

Warning: character death

 

Disclaimer: I don't own any of this and I am not Joss. Although, judging from how mean I am to Buffy and Angel, I might as well be.

 

Summary: Buffy is a wreck. Angel is missing. What happened? BtVS S4, AU after AtS I will remember you

 

**

 

It is late, so he walks her home. It is a quiet night, patrol has been uneventful (a single fledgling vampire in the graveyard - he hadn't even begun to understand the power that was now his, and she had driven the stake through his heart before he could make any progress) and they don't talk much on the way, but they hold hands and silences with him usually beat the best talks with anyone else, anyway. When they reach her house, he makes a move to help her up the roof so she can climb back into her bedroom, the way he usually does, but something makes her shake her head. She turns around to face him, her hand never leaving his.

 

“Not yet,” she pleads softly, and he sighs.

 

“You need to get some rest. It's after two already.”

 

She doesn't know where it comes from, but she can't bear to leave him tonight. The thought of climbing through her window and going to bed alone, even with the prospect of a tender but chaste kiss goodnight under the tree, is too much.

 

“Please?”

 

She knows he can never deny her anything, and normally she tries to play fair and not to manipulate him like that, but tonight, she doesn't care. She feels a profound need to keep him close as long as possible, as if to savour everything one last time, and, predictably, he gives in. She smiles cautiously, holding her arms up to him. He smiles back, if somewhat resignedly, and snakes strong arms around her waist, his cheek soft against hers. She lets out a deep sigh, feeling like she hasn't exhaled properly in days. She nudges her face into the crook of his neck and breathes him in, eyes closed. How easy it is, to pretend that she could just stay, that it is going to be like this forever.

 

“Don't go”, she whispers against his chest.

 

“You know I have to”, he replies, his breath stirring the downy little hairs at the nape of her neck. She shivers, and awakes with a start.

 

***

 

A few nights later, the same scenario, only this time she walks him home. He doesn't want her to, but she is stubbornly insistent, and he isn't up for a fight (he never is), so he lets her take his hand and lead the way to the mansion. She opens the door (no lock; he figures it wouldn't keep out anyone who really wants to enter anyway) and strides inside without invitation like she owns the place, and he follows her like he doesn't question that she really does. He shrugs off his jacket and she is momentarily mesmerised by the way his soft grey cashmere sweater clings to his body. Is it possible to be jealous of a piece of fabric? Apparently so, because the temptation is too much, she can't bear to be separated from him for another second. She crosses the room with two long strides and roughly pulls him into her arms, pressing her face into his chest so hard that it is probably hurting him.

 

“I love you”, she says fiercely, gripping the material of his sweater. Where does this sudden need come from? “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

 

He hugs her to him tightly. “What's wrong?”

 

She chokes. “Where are you? I miss you so much.”

 

Sunlight hits her face, with a brightness that is sharp as knives. She is clutching her sheets and when she realises where she is, and where he is, she howls like an animal in pain.

 

 

***

 

Next time she sees him, she is unprepared. He hasn't shown for a while, and she knows him well enough to be aware that he probably won't as long as she is waiting for him. She is walking down Revello Drive after evening patrol, stopping by her mom's car to check her hair for twigs and slimy demon residue in the wing mirror. Even though her mom knows the lore now, she still gets twitchy every time she sees her daughter sporting evidence from a fight, so Buffy makes sure she looks presentable in case Joyce is still up when she slips in quietly through the front door. When she turns around, she is startled to find Angel leaning against the rear of the car, watching her calmly. “Hey.”

 

“Angel.” Her heartbeat picks up, he is looking so good in his dark shirt and coat.

 

“Sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you.” Would he blush if he could? Somehow she thinks not.

 

“It's okay. I mean you didn't.” She combs through her hair with her fingers and puts it up in a ponytail. “What's up? I haven't seen you in a while.” She tries to sound casual but doesn't quite manage to keep her voice steady.

 

“You didn't need me”, he replies evenly.

 

“How would you know?” she shoots back. “You weren't there, I didn't -- I didn't see you.” Blushing furiously now. Crap. Like he needs reminding that she can feel him when he is close, regardless if she sees him or not.

 

He has stopped smiling now. “I would have known”, he says. Stepping closer. “I would have had your back.”

 

“But...” She feels something momentous coming on, doesn't quite know how to say it but blurts it out anyway: “You couldn't have.”

 

He is standing in front of her now, his face within inches from hers. His expression is pained. “Don't say that.”

 

“But it's true.” She still doesn't want to say it, because saying it makes it true and it can't be. “How did you get here, anyway?”

 

He looks confused. “What do you mean? I walked.”

 

She sighs because he doesn't get it, and she has only just remembered herself.

 

“Angel, you can't just walk here. You're dead.”

 

***

 

Later, everyone said that she had been really lucky. Lucky, because Angel's body had taken all the impact from the masses of tumbling wood and metal, leaving her with only a bruise on her wrist from when she'd banged her hand on the wall, a split second too late to pull him out of the way of the unleashed forces of dead material. Even with Slayer healing, Giles had said, there could have been no guarantee that she would have survived a freak accident like that.

 

The irony behind the whole thing was that she almost hadn't taken him on patrol with her that night at all. Ever since he was turned, she had become extra painfully aware of his mortality and would have liked nothing better than to keep him locked up somewhere safe, with iron bars and possibly security coding, twenty-four hours a day. She knew that by now all of Sunnydale's Hellmouthy population had realised that the Slayer's once powerful ally had been reduced to little more than a Scooby sidekick, and she didn't want them to try to find out just how much she would be willing to risk for him. But she also knew that Angel wasn't finding it easy to accept the fact that he couldn't fight alongside her anymore, and she couldn't bear the thought of him sitting at home and waiting for her like a 'fifties housewife either, so every once in a while, when she knew there would only be routine graveyard slaying, she let him tag along. She knew that he knew that she was indulging him, and that he wasn't happy about it and that they would have to talk about it at some point, but everything still felt so new, and even though it was new in a good way, she sometimes liked to remember what it felt like to have an equal by her side.

 

But he still almost didn't come with her that night. There had been a few reported demon sightings near Sunnydale Municipal Pool (of course, nobody had mentioned the word demon, the only concordant element in the witnesses' terrified ramblings had been a really really weird-looking dog) and although there had been no reports filed for missing persons or dead bodies found, Buffy wanted to clear the matter up before that changed. Giles had provided her with a name and a method and a weapon, and although the demon in question didn't sound like the underworld's brightest servant, she didn't want to take any risks and told him as much. They were at the mansion where she had moved in with him the day after the Mohra incident; she was changing into patrol gear and he was leaning onto the bedroom door frame, wearing a sulky expression and waiting for her head to emerge from an orange zipped hoody.

 

“You're not coming, Angel, and that's that”, she said when her face was poking out. “We don't know what we're dealing with, and I don't want you to risk your life for nothing. It's too dangerous.”

 

“I'm not risking my life”, he replied. “This guy is harmless; Xander could take him out.” Angel's lip curled a little.  He still had difficulty hiding his contempt for the younger man, but this time Buffy chose to ignore it.

 

“We don't know that. We're not even one hundred per cent sure what kind of demon it is yet, the reports weren't conclusive.” She sighed. “But you know that already.”

 

“I do”, he admits. “Look, Buffy, I know you can't worry about me in a real fight and I'm not gonna butt in the next time you fight an Acathla kind of thing, I promise, but look at this guy.” He points towards Buffy's battered copy of Faces of Death: An Illustrated Approach to Demonology that is lying open on the desk. “He looks like an ugly Shar Pei.”

 

“That's a tautology”, Buffy said. She didn't miss the glance Angel shot her for that, but it would have been too simple to start a fight on the grounds that he doubted her command of the English language, so she let it go. He suddenly laughed, as if he knew exactly what she'd been thinking, pressed a kiss to her temple and turned to go. She relaxed, and pushed her forehead against his broad chest.

 

“Okay, you can come. But not because you kissed me.”

 

“As if I didn't know that never works.”

 

***

 

 

The building that held the pool lay in darkness. It was surrounded by scaffolding and a big sign on the door announced that it was closed for maintenance. Buffy and Angel circled the construction and the only sign that things weren't as they used to be was that they stayed together, while until four weeks ago they would have split up to save time. Buffy examined the ground, and sure enough, soon spotted traces of blood leading inside the building. She snapped her fingers twice to alert Angel to it and he followed her through the door. Inside, it was even darker than in the moonlight outside,and his human eyes couldn't discern anything, but Buffy held out her hand for him to take before he could even remember to feel uneasy. He squeezed it gratefully and their thumbs entwined for a second, caressing each other like the bodies of two lovers. She swallowed drily, amazed at how much this slightest of contacts was still affecting her. Four weeks, two years and a lifetime obviously hadn't done anything to change the effect he still had on her. She shook her head to even her mind, and that was when her Slayer sense picked up a presence nearby.

 

She squeezed Angel's hand again before she let it go to grab the small, specially primed sword and Angel switched on a torch. Buffy was suddenly super-alert and ready to strike at anything that was about to melt from the shadows and lunge at them, so the sense of anti-climax was acute when all they heard and saw was an anguished squeak and a furry creature with an ugly, wrinkly face and long but rather blunt-looking front teeth, about half Angel's size, bolting from the shadows and running towards the door. A dead cat, on which the creature had obviously been feasting, was lying on the ground, and Buffy's chest tightened when she thought of the poor old lady who was probably waiting right now for Mr Tibbles to come home. She turned on her heel and ran after the demon, Angel on her heels. Outside, she heard the light pitter-patter of its feet above her head and it took her a moment to realise that it was climbing up the scaffolding. She made a move to follow it, but Angel mimicked throwing something and she remembered, duh, she has a sword.

 

After that, the details are kind of blurry. She remembers missing the demon, but no, that's wrong, she doesn't remember missing it, she only remembers its frightened squeak (it sounds like a piglet) and later sees it limping away from the pile of rubble under which – but no, she must have thrown the sword with too much force because it cuts through something important in the construction, she hears a low rumble and then suddenly there is too much noise in the air. Somebody will hear it, we must get going before they ask questions, she thinks and moves to grab Angel by the hand and run for it, but she only grabs empty air because there is no Angel beside her, where is he and her fist bangs against the concrete and she knows it's supposed to hurt but she doesn't feel a thing and where the fucking hell is Angel.

 

And then she hears him say Buffy. She turns round like lightning, and there he is and there is a look of surprise on his face as the first metal bolt hits him in the back. She sees it all in slow motion: The short gush of blood from his mouth as a heavy wooden board knocks him to the ground, the tearing of metal and a shatter of glass in the air like silver rain. She stands rooted to the spot, unable to move an inch while the entire construction collapses on top of the one person she loves more than life itself, and later they tell her it all happened in a matter of seconds, but to her it feels like an eternity.

 

Only when there is a dust cloud does she wake from her petrification, and that's when she starts pulling and pushing and tearing and wrenching and yanking until she has freed her Angel, and when she drops to her knees beside him, they aren't alone anymore.

 

“Ambulance is on its way, buddy”, a man's voice says, and she doesn't know if she has really heard it or if it is just in her head. He is looking up at her, trying to take inventory of her injuries (which injuries) like he would, and she takes her good hand and lays it to his cheek. His breath is coming in short little gasps, but he still manages to stroke the back of her hand with his thumb and ask, “Buffy, are you okay?”

 

She nods. She doesn't think she can talk already, but she has to make sure he's alright, so she tries anyway. “Yes, are you?”

 

“Yeah.” But his voice doesn't sound right, it's weird and kind of gurgly.

 

“Does anything hurt?”

 

“A little”. That's when she knows it's a lot. She knows her hand is destroyed, but she still feels nothing and otherwise she is completely unharmed, and she knows that tomorrow she is going to be fine anyway. How unfair, she thinks. From somewhere in the distance she can now hear sirens approaching, but they don't have anything to do with them. In this world, there is only Buffy and her Angel, and nothing else matters.

 

When the ambulance arrives, he is already gone. He is still looking at her with that peculiar Can-you-believe-it look, but something has vanished from his eyes. They put him on the stretcher anyway and rush him off to the hospital, sirens blaring, and somehow Giles is there and Cordelia of all people. Somebody says Someone call her mother, and someone else (someone she doesn't know) says It'll be alright but Buffy is already firmly and safely locked away inside herself.

 

***

 

Giles usually patrols with her now. She doesn't like it, but he is her Watcher and she can't tell him to shove it the way she does with Willow and Xander, who keep offering to accompany her (and when she flatly refuses every single time, they stop offering and start begging with increasing desperation). She knows they think she shouldn't be alone (mostly because one of them usually says “I don't think you should be alone right now, Buffy” at least twice on an average day)  and on some level she knows they are probably right, but when she tells them she won't endanger any more lives of people  she loves, that is only half true. The truth is, the only person Buffy can stand being around these days is Buffy.

 

Giles usually picks her up at eleven, a little later than she would go if she went by herself, because by unspoken agreement he does a tour of the Crawford Street cemetery by himself first, for which she is immensely grateful. She hasn't been back to the mansion since that night. When she was discharged from the hospital (where they had kept her for several days even though she was was physically almost unscathed, because she was in such a state of shock that she was almost catatonic) Joyce had taken her back to Revello Drive and someone else, probably Willow, had had the mercy to pick up some of her clothes and other things. She is vaguely aware that she should probably go and check if anybody has tried to enter without a key because she knows that a deserted house of that size is welcome prey for burglars, especially due to its isolated location, and the thought of someone or something touching Angel's things is enough to let bile rise in her throat. But when she tries to imagine going there, opening the door, letting the familiar smell hit her, and maybe entering the bedroom and seeing the bed where the sheets are probably still tousled from when Angel demonstrated her just how glad he was that she was back from class, she feels like someone is pushing a pillow over her mouth and nose and she thinks someday I'll face it but she has no idea when.

 

She checks the clock. It's a quarter past eleven already but she hasn't heard the doorbell yet which is weird, because Giles is normally very punctual. She has already changed into patrol gear half an hour ago and feels a bit at a loss now because she hasn't got anything to fill the time with. She has been back at college for ten days now, even though her mother suggested she wait until the new semester because she's already missed a lot of stuff and it's unlikely that she will pass any of her exams, but she's been feeling restless lately. She has hoped that her professors might be able to give her something to think about other than that night, him, what is going to happen now, but so far it hasn't been a success. She goes to class and reads the texts and tries to prepare for the lessons, but she might as well not bother because nothing, absolutely nothing sticks. She reads a paragraph and a minute later she reads it again and doesn't even notice and when one of her teachers directs a question at her, she gives him a blank stare, utterly lost, but she doesn't want to admit defeat because what else can she do?

 

She decides to go and wait downstairs. Maybe her mom is watching one of those old black and white movies she is so fond of, which would be nice because then she could just sit with her and not talk. She walks down the stairs but stops dead in her tracks when she hears voiced from the living room. The door is ajar and she can hear bits and pieces of conversation.

 

“-- won't talk to anyone --”

“-- extremely worried--”

“-- doesn't act like she's realised --”

 

There's no mistaking that posh British accent. Giles and her mother are talking about her. For the second time that day, she feels her throat contract with anger, and she pushes the door open. It fills her with a bit of grim satisfaction when the two adults jump to their feet as if she had caught them doing something wrong.

 

“Buffy”, her mom says and then stops, while Giles takes off his glasses and polishes them. She knows that this is his way of dealing with unpleasantness, but right now she couldn't care less if her Watcher is comfortable or not.

 

“So, you've been talking about me, huh?” she says, rather loudly.

 

“We.. as a matter of fact... well... yes.” Is it her or is he stammering more than usual? Either way, she suddenly finds that it annoys the hell out of her.

 

“But only because you're worried about me?” Her words are dripping with sarcasm. Giles looks up in surprise.

 

“Well, yes, actually.” He clears his throat. “Buffy, you.. you haven't exactly been acting norm--” but she cuts him off, now positively yelling, “Normal?”  She has no idea where all this anger comes from all of a sudden, all she knows is that while it doesn't exactly feel good to let it out (she doesn't know if she still does good), she'll definitely burst if she doesn't.

 

“Normal?” she screeches again. “I don't know if you got the memo, but my lover just died, I don't think I'm supposed to act normal!”

 

Somewhere between now and that day two months ago she has decided that boyfriend is too weak and pathetic a word to describe what Angel is to her. She sees her mother wince, and again it gives her a little rush. “What's with the face, mom?” she demands. “I know you didn't like Angel, but you don't have to be quite so obvious about it.”

 

“Buffy, you know that's not true”. Joyce's voice sounds feeble. Buffy catches a glimpse of Giles patting her hand and mouthing “She knows that” to her, and that enrages her even more, if that is possible at all.

 

“Not true?” Her last words have been barely more than a hiss, but now she's almost shouting again. “You never liked him, I know you always thought that he wasn't good enough for me!” She has to catch her breath, before she delivers the final blow. “I know it was you who convinced him to break up with me last  year.”

 

At this, her mother puts her face in her hands and starts sobbing. Buffy stares at her angrily; she hasn't run out of steam yet and she wants her mom to argue so she can fight back. But then she remembers, never mind, Giles is still there and he'll do.

 

“And you – what are you so worried about?” she fires at him. “I patrol, I function, I'm still the Slayer. What more can you possibly want from me?”

 

Deep down, she knows she is being unfair, knows that she is breaking Giles' heart with her cruel words but she can't stop herself. She is so tired of hurting alone all the time.

 

Giles, however, doesn't answer, just looks at her. After a moment, she becomes uncomfortable under his glance, and falters. “What?”

 

“You're in pain, Buffy”, he says, and she wants to say well, duh, but something stops her, makes her want to wait for what comes next, so she crosses her arms and  raises her chin defiantly.

 

“You're in pain”, Giles repeats. “More than anyone of us can even begin to grasp. And there is nothing we can do. No matter how much we... we may love  you” (he hesitates, still not quite comfortable with the use of that particular word) “you'll still feel like you have to go through this alone. We accept the possibility of this pain when we decide to love somebody.”

 

“Maybe you did, but I certainly didn't”, she replies quickly, but her heart isn't in it. Her mind has latched onto something else entirely, something her Watcher has said. There's nothing anyone can do? Oh, but she doesn't know about that. She can't believe she hasn't thought of this before and she is mentally scolding herself for her stupidity; it must be showing on her face because Giles looks confused.

 

“Buffy?”

 

“You can patrol alone tonight. Or don't, I don't care. I'm going to see Will.”

 

***

 

She runs all the way across town to the dorms where Willow still lives. The horrified look  on Giles' face as the comprehension of what she was going to do dawned on him is still fresh on her mind, but she pushes it aside. What does he know, she thinks. He knows nothing.

 

Willow is already in her pyjamas, sitting on her bed and brushing her hair when Buffy enters the room without knocking. She looks up in surprise and makes a move as if to reach for something under her pillow, but when she realises it's only Buffy, she relaxes.

 

“Buffy, what--” She stops herself, gets up and hugs her friend. Buffy lets it happen, but doesn't return it, impatient to skip the niceties so they can talk business. After a few seconds, Willow lets her go, looking confused. “Why are you here? Are you moving back in? You should have called.” She points towards the second bed, Buffy's old one, which is cluttered with heaps and heaps of stuff. Apparently she has been using it as an extension of her wardrobe while Buffy has been gone (almost an entire semester now), so apparently she hasn't been assigned a new room mate yet.

 

“Will, I need you to do something for me”, she spills out quickly, almost stumbling over the words. “A... a spell. A big one.” She looks her friend straight in the eyes, hoping to convey the enormity of her decision (because it is a decision, this is going to happen even if Willow doesn't know it yet) and Willow doesn't fail her, just as she'd known she wouldn't. But the look on her face is much like the one Giles wore when she turned her back on him and started running, first shock and then something else, and then the redhead is shaking her head frantically.

 

“No. No, no, no, no, Buffy, you can't ask me to do that.”

 

“Why not?” Buffy's face is hard and her eyes are blazing. “I know there are spells for that kind of thing. I know you have the power to work them. Do it, then.”

 

Willow shakes her head again, more slowly. “I can't, Buffy. The forces that govern life and death are powerful. Even as a witch, you shouldn't mess with them.”

 

Buffy has expected some sort of resistance, so she came prepared. “I know it's been done before. It's all in this book you had, one of those where they spell 'magick' with ck and put an 'e' after all the words. I know it can be done, so cut the crap and do it already.” She knows she isn't putting herself in the best bargaining position talking to her friend like that, but she is beyond caring. For all she knows, Angel could be right here with her already and Willow is blocking his way to her. “What do you need?”

 

Willow's eyes are soft and full of pain when she replies. “I didn't say it wasn't possible, I said I wasn't going to do it.”

 

This time, Buffy howls in frustration. “WHY NOT?”  she screeches. She is pacing the room like a caged tiger and her breath is coming out in short gasps. “Doesn't ANYONE of you care even a LITTLE how I feel?”

 

Willow looks close to tears. “Buffy, I love you, of course I care--”

 

“Then DO SOMETHING about it!” she screams, so loudly that she fears her throat might tear. Unable to contain her fury any longer, she grabs a plate that has been sitting on the little table by the door and hurls it against the wall where it shatters into a thousand pieces. Her face is blotched and contorted with fury, and tears are pouring freely over her cheeks. “It hurts so much I feel like I'm DYING, but I can't, they won't let me!” She glances around wildly, looking for something new to smash, and she reaches for Willow's yellow breakfast cup that Xander gave to her once, something about a kindergarten inside joke they had, she couldn't care less but she knows Willow loves it and that is enough, but Willow grabs her by the hand before she reaches it.

 

“Don't”, she says. Her voice is low, and she is exuding a strange calmness. Buffy momentarily recoils, then remembers this is only Willow.

 

“Why not?” she challenges. “Do you love this cup so much you don't think you can live without it?” The two young women stare at each other for a second, then Buffy twists and kicks in the leg of the table on which the cup is standing. It slides to the floor and breaks neatly in two halves. Willow looks stricken, and Buffy curls her lip. “So put it together again. I know you can do it.”

 

Willow doesn't say anything, just looks at Buffy with eyes full of sadness. “I love you so much, Buffy. If there was a way that I could feel your pain for you, I would, but there just isn't.”

 

Her composure is enough to make Buffy's anger flare up again like white-hot flames licking at her insides. “YOU DON'T LOVE ME!” she screams. “IF YOU DID, YOU'D DO SOMETHING TO HELP ME, NOT FEED ME CRAP LIKE THIS!”

 

There is nothing else to break within her reach, Willow is still holding on to her hand, somehow Buffy's other hand is raised in the air and she is suddenly utterly scared of what she might do if Willow doesn't let go. Without another word, she turns and dashes for the door and Willow collapses in a little heap on the floor.

 

***

 

She runs and runs, never looking back, letting her feet decide the way for her. She is blinded by so many tears that she can't even see the road in front of her, and only the occasional screeching of car tyres or honking of a horn reminds her that the world still exists. She wants to keep running, wants to be somewhere where she can't see Willow or Giles or her mother or anyone and where no one will ever want to talk to her again. She isn't surprised when she suddenly finds herself on Crawford Street, the mansion looming darkly in the distance. She slows down, but she still has no control over her feet, and within seconds she is at the door, fingers on the handle.

 

The fight has gone out of her, and suddenly she doesn't feel anything anymore except tiredness. It is like someone has wrapped a leaden blanket around her that is weighing her to the ground, and she has to gather all her strength to even put the key in the lock. The door swings open, and the smell that hits her is part dust, part mould and part home. It is enough. She makes her way to the bedroom and curls up on the narrow bed, hugging her knees to her chest. It is still the bed that Angel slept in when he lived here alone. They had meant to get a new, bigger one, but they had always slept so completely entangled in each other that there just didn't seem to be a point. His scent is everywhere, and she buries her face in the pillow and sinks into merciful oblivion.

 

She doesn't wake up until noon, and doesn't get up when she does. She isn't hungry or thirsty, that sweet-smelling blanket is all the nutrition she needs. She hugs the pillow to her chest and inhales again and again. Her mother arrives in the early evening and tries to get her to talk, but Buffy turns her back to her and waits, and eventually she leaves, crying silently. When Giles and Willow show up a little later, it's the same scenario. Buffy stares at the wall while they wait for her to talk, but she doesn't, so they leave some food on her bedside locker and depart again, promising to be back the next day.

 

That night, Buffy doesn't sleep. She is exhausted beyond belief, but oblivion just won't come. She can no longer smell Angel, and a dull ache is spreading through her bones. It feels like it's been there for a while, but she hasn't really been paying attention to it, and she tosses and turns to find a position in which it is bearable, but there doesn't seem to be one. Her eyes are still wide open when dawn is creeping in through the windows, and she remembers how the blinds and heavy curtains where the first thing to go when Angel moved back in here after he was turned. He had said he wanted to be woken by the sun on his face every morning for the rest of his life, and Buffy had replied, in that case he'd better not try to off himself again because that would pretty much guarantee cloudy skies for the next few days, and they had laughed about that for a good five minutes before they remembered that it hadn't been funny at all at the time and maybe still wasn't. How ironic, she thinks, that he hadn't even managed to stay alive long enough to see another rainy day in Sunnydale.

 

That day, she doesn't get up either. When her mom and Giles come, she takes a few sips of the chicken broth they've brought her, but it tastes like mud in her mouth and her throat is still too tight to swallow anyway. Joyce tries to hug her daughter, but Buffy sits stiff like a rod and after a few moments, her mother lets go. Giles suggests they move her back to Revello Drive and she doesn't have the strength to argue, so he picks her up, blanket and all like an invalid, carries her to his car and drives her and her mom home. She still doesn't talk.

 

At the Summers' house, she is reinstalled in her old bedroom in no time. She lets everything happen and doesn't argue, but refuses to give up Angel's blanket and after a while, her mom stops trying to talk her out of it. A sort of routine is established during the next couple of days; Joyce fusses over her and brings her soup and fruit and takes most of it away again, untouched, after a few hours. Buffy hasn't showered in days, her hair is lank and greasy and she is still wearing the same clothes she put on for patrol that night, but she can't muster the energy to do something about it. She doesn't even have the strength to feel sad anymore; it is as if during all that screaming, something broke inside her and now her capacity for grief is all used up. She is so numb that sometimes she wonders whether she'll ever feel anything again, but most of the time she thinks absolutely nothing at all, staring at the wall opposite the fragile shelter of her bed.

 

***

 

A couple of days later, she wakes up and feels different. She doesn't know what it is; she lies under her duvet and wonders. The light outside has altered; golden and amber-coloured autumn rays are seeping through the curtains — a merciful relief after the painful brightness of the previous months. Summer is over, she realises, but that is not it. Then she notices she isn't in pain; for the first time in months she hasn't been woken by the dull ache in her bones. She has become so used to it over time that she’s barely even aware of it anymore. It’s almost as if the pain has become part of her. Now that it seems to be gone, she feels almost weak. She sits up and stretches cautiously, still prepared for it to come back with renewed vigour, but it doesn't, and she decides to try her legs and go down for some breakfast.

 

Her mother is in the kitchen when she enters, swigging down a glass of orange juice in front of the open fridge door. Buffy halts by the kitchen door, not sure what to say; everything seems trivial. In the end, she settles for “Good morning”.

 

Joyce's head jerks around, her eyes wide. “Oh God, Buffy. You scared me.” Then she seems to realise what she has just said. “I'm sorry. Good morning. It's just...I didn't expect you.”

 

“No. I mean yes. You wouldn't.” Buffy is still holding on to the door frame. “What with me and the no-showy downstairs for three weeks and all.” She stops, unsure how to go on. “Is there any OJ left?”

 

Joyce hands her the packet. “Aren't you hungry? I can make pancakes if you like.”

 

Buffy shakes her head. “No thank you. You go to work. I'm gonna take a shower, and then I think I'd like to see Willow.”

 

***

 

She meets Willow on campus where she is having coffee with another young woman who looks like she might be a member of Willow's wicca group, all earthy colours and floaty fabrics and exuding sweetness. She gets up when she sees Buffy approaching, waving away Buffy's half-hearted attempts to invite her to stay. When she is gone, Willow takes Buffy's hand. “Walk?” she suggests, and Buffy nods.

 

With their arms linked, they walk in silence for a while. Then Willow says: “You look different.”

 

Buffy shrugs. “I feel different.”

 

She falls silent again, looking around and taking in the sight of the campus. It’s still rather early in the day; not many students have found their way out of their beds yet and the ones that have are either in class by now or eating breakfast at one of the numerous coffee joints. The park is all but deserted. Willow doesn't say anything and Buffy is grateful that she doesn't ask if she means different in a good way. She remembers what she came to say, and she feels the words building up inside her, but when she opens her mouth, she hesitates, suddenly embarrassed. She looks at her shoes, concentrating on the steady rhythm of her feet on the ground instead.

 

After a few more minutes and a couple more unsuccessful tries that leave Buffy feeling like a goldfish because she is constantly opening and closing her mouth, Willow unexpectedly says: “Buffy, it's okay. You don't have to apologise.”

 

She looks up in surprise. “I don't?”

 

Willow shakes her head. “Part of the process, Buffy. On the risk of going all Psych 101 on you again, you weren't supposed to be sane. In fact, you would have worried me a lot more if you had been acting differently.”

 

It takes a few seconds for Buffy to process that. “But, Will, I had you by the throat. I was going to hurt you! How can you just forgive that?”

 

To her astonishment, Willow laughs. “You weren't going to hurt me.”

 

“I wasn't?” She is taken aback, so Willow explains.

 

“I could have held my own. I'm a witch, remember?” And when Buffy still doesn't understand: “You were aware of my powers. If I didn't have them, no way you would have manhandled me like you did. If we were both normal humans, without any extra powers, you wouldn't have tried to hit me at all. You would have tried to hurt me with words, like normal people do. Am I making sense now?”

 

Funnily enough, she is. Willow knows so much, Buffy finds herself thinking. How can she be my age and know so much? She squeezes her friend's hand, Willow lays her head on Buffy's shoulder as they continue walking, and Buffy feels a little bit of the ice within her melt.

 

“I was so lost,” she says, and surprises herself with that. She hadn't meant to say anything at all, and her voice sounds hollow, like it doesn't really belong to her.

 

“I know,” Willow says, then: “Will you tell me something?”

 

“Tell you what?”

 

“Tell me something nice. Like...what it was like when you first fell in love with Angel?”

 

Instantly, she is pierced by feelings so mixed-up she can't put names to them. Sadness is there and much of it, some bitterness too, but it isn’t as bad as it used to be. And she detects something else, something much nicer.

 

“Please,” Willow says.

 

“Okay,” she says reluctantly. “But...I can't really remember.”

 

Willow raises an eyebrow. “Yes you can.”

 

“No, that's not what I meant.” She swallows. “I can't really remember what it was like when I first fell in love with Angel because I can't really remember a time when I wasn't in love with him.” She pauses. “And at first, I hated it. Ever since I learned what he was, what being what he was meant for us, I tried to stop loving him and I couldn't, and I hated myself so much because I couldn't hate him.”

 

She is talking slowly, quietly now, as if to herself. Willow has to lean her head towards her to catch everything.

 

“I used to ask myself what was missing in me that I saw in him, why I could never feel whole unless I was with him and why he could hurt me so much. And he never meant to... he never wanted to cause me pain, and yet he almost killed me twice with it.”

 

Here her voice hitches. “And then this thing happens, that demon...turning him human. It felt unreal. At first I didn't want to believe it, I didn't even want to go to sleep because I was too scared that I'd suddenly wake up and find that I'd dreamed it all. But when I didn't, and realised that I hadn't.... Did you ever think you could just die of happiness?”

 

Her voice trails off and she is staring into space for a while, remembering that first morning together, when Angel had made scrambled eggs for her and brought them back to the bedroom. She almost hadn't been able to swallow a bite because her throat was so tight and she hadn't wanted to pick up a fork anyway because it would have meant reducing the amount of skin she was touching him with, so he had fed her instead. Of course, he had dropped half of it because he wasn't used to mortal coordination yet, and they were completely oblivious to the fact that they were ruining his silk sheets with grease and egg yolk....

 

Willow doesn't seem to mind that Buffy is miles away, because she is wearing her own peculiar brand of a half-smile and appears to be lost in memories as well.

 

Somehow, she and Willow find themselves sitting on the grass under a tree, and all of a sudden, Buffy is in convulsions, crying. She is sobbing so hard that she doubles over and has to grip Willow's hand for support, and Willow can't do anything except lay a hand on her friend's back and gently stroke her hair, the way she has already done countless times. After a while, Buffy calms down, but stays lying on the ground, with her head in Willow's lap.

 

“He loved me so much,” she says, when her voice isn't shaking as badly anymore. “I don't think people are supposed to love that much. It's not natural.”

 

Willow is surprised at how sober she sounds. She plays with a strand of Buffy's hair for a while before eventually, she says: “Maybe.” Then: “You were so lucky.”

 

“Yes,” Buffy says simply. “I was.” It doesn't kill her to say it, and she doesn't feel any rush of bitterness; she just thinks, yes, I was so lucky.

 

***

When she comes home that afternoon, her mother has gone out, and while she is waiting for her to come home (there are things left unsaid here, too), she curls up in a corner of the couch, which is in a pool of sunshine. She starts to feel sleepy, to drift, and the membrane between being awake and asleep is so barely there that when she passes into a dream, she dreams that she is awake, sitting on the couch. It is no surprise to suddenly find Angel there beside her. It is such a great comfort to see him and to feel his presence tingling in her entire body. He takes her hand and she looks into his face, so familiar, so beloved.

 

“Buffy,” he says by way of greeting, the way he always does.

 

“Angel.” The way she always does.

 

“How are you?” he asks, his face earnest and full of concern.

 

“I'm okay,” she answers truthfully. “Better than I was.”

 

He looks relieved. “It's weird how stuff turns out sometimes, isn't it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

They sit in silence for a while and she can't think of anything more important to say than “I love you.”

 

“I know. I love you too, Buffy. So, so much.”

 

“I'll always love you, Angel. I'm sorry I couldn't protect you.”

 

“I know. But it's okay now. I wouldn't change a thing.”

 

“You mean you'd rather be dead than alive?” She can suppress the pout, but she can't help the petulant tone. He half-smiles, shaking his head.

 

“No.” He pulls her onto his lap and she easily, naturally lets herself be cradled, resting her head against his chest. She can feel the warm puffs of his breath in her hair and closes her eyes, waiting for him to continue. “But being a vampire...it's a feeble imitation of life, Buffy, even without the curse. I'd rather live with you as a human for a day than walk this earth for all eternity without you.”

 

She ponders on that a little. “But what about me? No one asked me. I hate to go all Cordy on you, but I still have to live my life without you.”

 

His kisses the top of her head. “You'll never be without me,” he says simply. “Just look for the signs. Besides, when the time comes, we'll be together again.”

 

“How can you know that?”

 

He smiles. “I just do.”

 

He takes her face into his hands and brushes his lips over her cheeks, her forehead, her nose, her eyelids, oh-so-softly kissing every square inch of skin on her face. When he reaches her lips, he lingers a little, but then he gets up and leaves, placing his hand on her head like a benediction. She wakes up, and passing from sleeping to waking seems like nothing at all. She can still feel the warm weight of his hand on her head, and a deep, joy-filled calm settles inside her. He has really been there, she is certain of it. Look for the signs, he had said. I will, she vows silently. I will remember you.

 

Finis