Willow
By Jacqui

Title: Willow
Author: Jacqui
wily_one24@yahoo.com.au
Disclaimer: I don’t own them, I just like to play with other people’s toys.
Timeline: Umm… somewhere mid season three. Faith’s still good, but Cordelia’s out of the picture and Wesley isn’t here yet.
Rating: PG-13. Some naughty words, I’m afraid.
Notes: What’s a girl to do when she’s feeling awfully angsty? Why, kill off one her favorite characters, of course.
Feedback: Pretty, pretty please? I’ll be your best friend.


Buffy Summers grabbed an extra large packet of nacho flavored Doritos before heading out the door with a slight spring in her step. It had been a quiet week in Sunnydale, demon wise, and things had been going well. She was headed over to Willow’s house for a serious girlie afternoon.

She was glad. It had been a while since she and Willow had spent any time together, just the two of them. And now that Faith had gone on a little unannounced holiday, and the guys all had things to do, Buffy felt in need of some good munchies, gossip and generally frivolous times.

Willow opened the door with an eagerness to match Buffy’s. Before long they had set themselves up in the lounge room, their things spread about them like debris. A nameless piece of contemporary video fluff played on the set, soda fizzed in glasses on the table and glossy fashion magazines were worshipped with reverence.

"I made you something."

"Huh?" Buffy looked up from her vantage point on the floor.

"Here. It’s not much, but…"

Willow reached from the sofa to shyly hand her a small object. Buffy looked at the band, it was purple with little flecks of yellow, she ran her fingers over it gently, she could see the effort that had gone into it.

"It’s beautiful, Will."

"It’s a friendship band. I know, it’s silly, but…"

"I love it."

Buffy handed it back to Willow, turned her head and lifted the hair off her neck. Willow paused for a moment before fastening it.

"I’m glad you came to Sunnydale."

"Hmmm." Buffy fell back into her copy of Vogue. "So am I."

"No really. And I don’t mean ‘cause of the demons and everything, although it’s great that you kill them and all. What I mean is, I’m glad you’re my friend."

"Me too."

"You don’t know what it means to me. I never really had a close girl friend before, I mean, I had Xander and Jesse, and they were great, but it’s different, you know? We share stuff, we tell each other everything. I’ve never had that before, I just wanted you to know how glad I am that you’re here."

Buffy looked right at Willow, waiting for her to finish.

"I know, Will, and I love you too, you know?"

Willow blushed, grinning.

"Yeah, I know. Now let me play with your hair."

* * * *

They stepped out of the Bronze, laughing. What had been a great afternoon had turned into an even better night. Oz had played wonderfully, Xander had tried to impress them with inane antics and a guy had even tried to chat Buffy up. Xander had stayed to help Oz and the band pack up. It was part of his new promise to Willow to try and get along. Buffy was going to walk Willow home and then go patrolling.

"Well, well, well. What have we here? An after party snack?"

A figure jumped out before them, soon followed by several more. Buffy counted at least ten. She reached for her stake and silently prayed that Willow had come prepared. Damn! She should have known it had been too quiet to last.

The vampire who seemed to be at the head of this little gang crossed his arms smugly as the girls were surrounded. At an unseen signal one of the vampires stepped forward and reached out to Buffy.

"Care to dance?"

"Not tonight."

She grabbed his arm and pulled him down as she raised her knee to connect sharply with his face. He stumbled and she thrust the stake into his heart. He exploded into ashes. The leader spoke again.

"What’s this? A slayer? Well let the fun begin."

The circle began to close in and Willow sidled up to Buffy, this time she was really scared. Buffy shoved the stake into her hand and fumbled for her spare whilst she whispered.

"Just aim for the heart."

"Yeah, easy for you to say."

Before she knew it Buffy was fighting more vamps than she had time to count. They weren’t playing fair, they weren’t coming one by one. Even though she felt a few gusts of wind as vamps were dusted, more kept coming in their wake. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Willow struggling to hold her own. A hand pulled her around and she twisted her body into a swinging kick, she felt foot connect with tissue and heard a groan. The vamp doubled over in pain and she raised her stake.

"Buffy!"

The one-second distraction of Willow’s voice was all they needed to overpower her. Buffy found herself being held roughly by her arms, unable to escape, no matter how hard she struggled. She stared in despair and disbelief at the scene in front of her.

The leader stood, holding Willow against him, facing out towards Buffy. His arm was wrapped tightly around her neck, pushing her head to the side. His mouth hovered over the painfully exposed jugular. A tear slid down Willow’s cheek as she whimpered. Her eyes seemed to be pleading with Buffy, begging her to do something. She struggled futilely against the hands that held her.

"No!"

"You’re making this too easy, Slayer."

"No! Godamn you, no!"

"Oh ho!" He laughed cruelly and ran a sharp nail down Willow’s throat. "He already damned me long ago. Say Goodbye!"

"Willow!"

Fangs pierced the throbbing skin and Willow’s body snapped into a rigid board of pain. Her eyes, filled with agony, never left Buffy. Moments passed. Her body went limp, the leader dropped it to the ground and stepped over it, without a second glance.

Buffy stopped struggling. Her eyes were transfixed on the lifeless form, lying in an awkward position on the ground, as if she could will it to move, by sheer thought, as if she could force the lungs to take in air. Tears streamed down her face. She felt her chin lifted to face the leader, but her eyes struggled to watch the body. It didn’t move.

"Look at me, Slayer, do you taste as good as your friend? Or better?"

His words were cold, his voice sounded distant, as if coming from afar. She closed her eyes, and then lifted them to look at him. Before she could focus properly, a shiny, wet, glistening spot of red at the corner of his mouth caught her attention.

It was like a jolt of electricity. Something inside of her snapped. The feeling disappeared from her eyes, which became colder than those which stared at her. A blissfully numb feeling washed over her and she no longer felt the need to cry. It was replaced with a need to fight.

And fight she did. Without warning. She was unaware of everything but the all-encompassing need to kill, to hurt: to cause pain. They tried, but she dusted them all, taking most care with the last one, the leader. When she thought she had gotten them all, she stared at the ground, not knowing what to do. A cold hand landed on her shoulder and she grabbed it, threw the attached figure to the ground and crouched, stake raised.

"Buffy! It’s me!"

She let her hand pause in mid air. Her eyes showed no recognition, let alone feeling, but she didn’t stake the vamp that she had pinned to the ground. She just spat in his face, punched him hard in the stomach, got up and walked away without a word.

"What the…?"

Angel groaned as he grabbed his abdomen, he let his head roll to the side, and it was then that he saw the limp body, flung like a broken rag doll on the ground. The shining red hair burnt itself into his eyes.

"Oh Christ."

He went over and gently placed one arm under her shoulders, and one under her knees. Silently he carried her body to Giles’ house. He could not cry outwardly, but he was weeping on the inside. Weeping for Willow, but also for something that Buffy had lost forever, something she would never get back.

* * * *

Joyce stood in the doorway to Buffy’s room. She hugged her arms tightly. The room was littered with objects, drawers left open, cupboards ransacked. Someone had come in, late last night, and packed, without waking Joyce. Nobody had seen Buffy since the night before.

"I can’t believe it."

She stepped forward, reaching out to close a drawer, pick up a forgotten shirt, then drew her hand back sharply. It was odd, she wanted to clean it up, to place everything where it should be, but she had a superstitious feeling that if she disturbed anything, she’d never see Buffy again.

"It hit us all hard."

Giles stood in the hall. He was reluctant to enter Buffy’s room when she was not there.

"And… and she saw it?"

"Apparently."

"Where is she, Giles? What is my baby going through?"

* * * *

Trevor Park liked the quiet. He liked to be alone in his head when he was kicking the living shit out of a weighted punching bag. It gave him time to think. Which is why he had retired early to this little Californian town and opened up this little backwards gym that rarely attracted more than a few die-hards a week.

The morning had been quiet, deathly quiet, which is why he was surprised to see a lone figure standing at the end of the gym, watching him work. He could have laughed: it was a blonde. Probably another old fan, tracked him down, wanted an autograph, to listen to the old tales of victory. Well, his ego could use it lately. He gave the bag a few last, purposeful kicks for added emphasis and then grabbed a towel to mop up the sweat that pooled on his brow. He walked over to her.

"Can I help you?"

"Word is, you can hold your own in a fight."

"Word’s correct."

This was no fan. There was something different about this one as she stepped out of the shadows. There was no shyness, a fan’s awe, in fact there was nothing. She stood expressionless. For the first time he noticed the well-toned muscles, the sleek, healthy line of her body.

"Care for a round? Friendly fire, no blood."

He almost laughed out loud. She may be fit, but did she know who she was talking to? He had won state and nation wide championships for crying out loud. He could wipe the floor with her.

"Don’t waste my time, Sweetheart. The mall is two blocks away."

He turned to go back to his work out. She swept his feet out from under him and landed him on his back on the floor, she stood over him, her hands on her hips. She had his attention.

"I’ll make it worth your while. Don’t go easy on me, and I won’t go easy on you."

For over an hour they pitted their skills on each other. Bodies were tossed, kicks were aimed, punches were taken. Neither ceded. She was good, better than he had seen in a long while. This was talent, natural talent. He hadn’t had a worthy opponent in months, it was just what he needed.

She didn’t seem professionally trained, but she didn’t fall for any traps either. Alert and awake, four steps ahead of him, she kept her own blows coming, and they weren’t easy to deflect. He felt the old rush, the old energy flowing. He hadn’t felt that in too long. It was why he had quit.

Before long his muscles began to ache, and he had to bow out. She took it gracefully, but she rippled her muscles like a horse waiting to go into battle. She still had energy to burn. He offered her use of the equipment. She attacked the weighted bag with a new ferocity.

He stood off to the side and watched her as he gulped down half a bottle of water. She was good. There was something in the way she used her arms that made him watch more closely. It was as if she kept going to grasp for something. So she wasn’t a bare handed battler? Interesting.

He bent down and placed a broom handle on the wooden floor, he sent it skidding towards her to see what would happen. Without missing a blink, she bent her body to kick the bag and picked up the stick as it sped towards her. She righted herself and began to use it against the bag. She hadn’t even paused.

"Where do you train?"

"I don’t."

"You’re good."

"I know."

She grunted as she spun the handle around, and kicked out at the bag. A sheen of sweat covered her sleek limbs. Her breath came deep and she seemed to hate the bag with a passion. It was the only emotion he had seen all morning. He was glad she hadn’t looked at him like that when they were fighting.

"Why’d you come here?"

"Had some energy to burn."

* * * *

"She’s okay. Physically at least."

Joyce looked at Angel with tears in her eyes. She was more grateful than he would ever know. She knew how much it took for him to follow Buffy, to watch from the sidelines without going in to help. Giles coughed from the sofa.

"Angel? I’m sorry. I have to apologize. Last night, when you came to my door, I…"

"I know what you thought, Giles, how could you not? That’s not important now."

"But you still bought her? I could have staked you, I was going to stake you."

"I couldn’t leave her there, Giles, she deserved better than that."

"I don’t want to sound selfish," Joyce broke in, "But can we talk about Buffy? She needs someone to help her. Angel, can’t you…?"

"Trust me," He looked at her with a sad eye. "A vampire is not the one she’ll be opening up to anytime soon. Not even me. It has to be one of you, if any. I can only follow, watch, and make sure she doesn’t hurt herself."

* * * *

The moon cast elongated shadows over the graves, giving everything an eerie blue tinge that drained all other colors. There were no clouds, and a light wind blew little flurries of leaves here and there. Buffy didn’t see any of this, or rather, she saw but she didn’t care as she stepped purposely and carelessly over the resting places of those who had long since stopped noticing.

Her hair was pulled severely back into a neat, tight and very practical braid that clung to the back of her neck. She wore cargo pants and sneakers, a shirt, the only personal touch in her wardrobe was a handmade band tied around her neck. She fingered this as her eyes scanned the cemetery.

A muffled scream came from across the street. She jumped into action and ran to a couple struggling in an abandoned alleyway. Shoving the trembling girl to the ground, Buffy snapped her fist into the face of the man; she got little comfort from the sound of bone cracking.

His head flew back with the impact, but he recovered with a growl and a game face. Buffy was ready for him. In a volley of well-aimed kicks and punches, she soon had the vampire weak and hurting. He crouched, groaning, as blood poured out of his nose and mouth, his healing qualities long gone. Buffy didn’t care, she aimed blow after blow, hitting at an adversary that wasn’t there.

Eventually, she flicked out her stake and dusted him. She stood up, brushed herself off and walked away without a second glance at the wide-eyed, shaking girl who stared unbelievably at the space that had once been occupied by the vamp.

Buffy walked along the darkened road, occasionally passing people who she ignored, offended by the laughter, the happy, blissful, ignorant noises they made without thinking. She didn’t realize where she was until a door opened, light bathed the street and a flash of red hair caught her eye.

Without thinking she looked up, her heart skipping a beat. Then a sickening realization dawned on her and Buffy let her head droop as she turned away, a single tear fell like acid down her cheek, unbidden and ignored.

"Buffy?"

The voice sounded deeper, older than usual. It didn’t surprise her. She didn’t turn around.

"Leave me alone, Xander."

"At least talk to us, damn it, you’re not…"

She spun around and looked him straight in the eye. He stepped back, not expecting the coldness he saw there. Her words were sharp, clipped, hard.

"Go away. Turn around and walk away."

"Buffy! Please!"

She didn’t speak, instead she answered by turning and walking away. She hadn’t taken more than a step before he called after her.

"What about tomorrow? Will you be there, at least?"

He watched as she stopped in her tracks, stood still for a few seconds and then spun around. Her fist hit his nose with agonizing accuracy and he tasted salty blood as it gushed down his throat and the front of his face. He stared at her unbelievably.

"Buffy! My God!"

This time she didn’t stop as she spun on her heels and walked away.

"I said leave me alone."

* * * *

The sun beat down mercilessly. It didn’t care for the feelings of the group that gathered together in the cemetery, huddled around a freshly dug grave. It was there to shine. And shine it did.

The two elder Rosenburgs stood together, slightly apart from the crowd. They seemed unsure of the people around them; they seemed unsure of themselves. Countless students from Sunnydale High stood in groups, whispering quietly to each other. Oz and Xander stood together, silently giving the other strength in their grief. Giles stood with his arm around a sobbing Joyce.

"I… I feel as if I’ve lost them both."

"Buffy will come back. She just has to grieve in her own way. It’s hard for her, she and Willow were so close."

"I know, but she hasn’t been home since it happened. Three days! I just want to hold her."

Giles looked at the mound of earth in front of him and cursed it for taking such a talented woman-child. For Willow had been more than a child, and yet, not quite adult, a strange mixture of the two. Wise and na´ve, grown up and girlish. It hurt to think that she was gone. It hurt to think that Buffy was falling out of their grasp.

He wanted to echo Joyce’s statement, to declare to the world that all he wanted to do was take Buffy in his arms and make the pain ebb away. Yet he couldn’t, such a declaration would be so out of place, so unwelcome. All he could do was comfort Joyce and keep his true feelings inside.

"She’ll come home when she’s ready."

* * * *

The Sunnydale Park was deserted that day, except for one, lone person. Buffy stood next to the picnic table and sighed, she absently played with the band at her throat. Reaching out, she pressed the button on the stereo that sat on the table. She closed her eyes and mouthed the words as they came.

-Man, I’ll be your bed, you know good ones don’t come by the score. You’ve got somethin’ missin’ I’ll help you look, you can be sure. And if you want to be alone, some one to share a laugh, whatever you want me to do, all you gotta do is ask-

Tears escaped her closed lids as she whispered along with Joan Armatrading’s deep voice. Buffy could still hear Willow’s voice, see her bright eyes shine and her grin spread across her face. Her breathing became harder as she tried not to fall apart.

-Thunder don’t go under the sheets, lightning under a tree. In the rain and the storm, I’ll be your fireside. Come runnin’ to me when things get out of hand. Runnin’ to me when it’s more than you can stand. I said I’m strong, strong. Willing to be a shelter in a storm-

Buffy thought about that afternoon. The last Willow would ever see. They had spent it at Willow’s house, just she and Buffy. It had been a rare day of sharing. They had been so close. Buffy could still feel Willow’s small hands playing with her hair.

-Your Willow. Oh… Willow. When the sun is out…-

The words cut like ice through her heart and she shook painfully with her sobs.

"You don’t know what it’s meant to me, Buffy." Willow had insisted, trying to cut through Buffy’s brush-offs. "I never had a close girl friend before. Sure I had Xander and Jesse, but… us, we’ve been so close. We share everything. I’m not so lonely anymore." The memory was killing Buffy.

-Whatever you want me to do, all you gotta do is ask. I said I’m strong, strong. Willing to be a shelter in a storm, your Willow. Oh… Willow. When the sun is out… Shelter in a storm… Your Willow… Oh Willow…-

I want you to come back, Willow, I want you to be here. I’m the lonely one now, Willow, you never knew how much you meant to me either. I couldn’t have done it without you, I don’t want to do it without you. I’m sorry.

-Oh Willow-

* * * *

Faith opened the door and threw her bag to the bed, she took off her coat and hung it up before reaching out and switching on the light. She jumped when she saw the figure sitting in the chair, watching her.

"Christ! What are you doing here?"

"Waiting for you."

"I figured that, genius. Why?"

"Something’s happened. I had to talk to you before you saw Buffy."

Faith sat on the bed and listened as Giles talked. She could not believe what she was hearing.

* * * *

Buffy sat, inspecting the tiny patterns of the skin on the back of her hands. Giles paced the floor behind her. The smell of books and dust and stale coffee crept into her nostrils and stung. She itched to get out of the library, out of the school, out of people’s reach. Her stake burned a hole in her bag. She wanted her skin to get greasy and slick with the dust of dead vampires.

"If we’re finished here, I’ve got some patrolling to do."

"I’ll come."

Buffy and Giles both stared at Xander. Giles raised his eyebrows, questioningly. Over the years Xander had followed and watched Buffy with almost as much vigor as he had. He’d taken it for granted that the boy would be able to read her as well as he. Giles knew that pushing Buffy too far now, would push her away forever.

"No. I work alone."

She didn’t need to add the word ‘now’ it hung in the air, thick and visible. Buffy stood up and began to leave. Xander got up to follow.

"You shouldn’t be alone. Let me keep you company."

Buffy looked at him, hard and stern, like someone reprimanding a puppy.

"Alone."

* * * *

Trevor lay on the bench on his back, his arm muscles rippled with the effort of heaving the weights up and down. He thought about the week before. For the millionth time he wondered who that woman had been, hardly even a woman, closer to a girl. She had looked young, wizened, but young.

All week he had been scanning the local championship histories, and had come up with nothing even remotely resembling her. So she didn’t train professionally, and had never competed. That didn’t mean she hadn’t trained ever. There had to be some clue as to who she was. He cursed himself again for not even getting her name.

He could feel the excitement in him build at the thought of another match. Her skill matched his, and they fought well together. If only he could find her. He thought again of her use of the improvised weaponry and wondered whether it was worth checking out police histories. She seemed a little too disciplined for that, but you never know.

When he looked up again, he almost choked to see her face looking down at him. He sat up.

"So, mystery chick comes back."

"Another round?"

It was the only thing they said for a long time as they began to battle. This time they introduced staffs to their ensemble, and she seemed satisfied that he could hold his own. She was no easy fight. He had to be alert, he had to expect anything, and he usually got it. Their fight took them all over the gym, past various equipment and obstacles. He held the upper hand in that he was familiar with the layout of the building, but it didn’t seem to bother her, she took a lot of things in her stride.

Like last time, he was the first to call quits, and he observed her as she continued. She was ceaseless, and when he left the arena, the objects became real foes. Enemies that she would have killed had they been alive. He wondered what could bring on such ferocious spite.

When she had finally tired, he offered her a bottle of water from the fridge. She took it with a nod and sculled a third of it, wiping the frosty condensation down the side of her face.

"You from around here?"

She just looked at him.

"Want to grab some lunch?"

She handed him back the bottle.

"Look, I come, we fight, I leave. Got it?"

* * * *

"Increased vampire activity. Got it. See the stakes? Increased usage."

She sat at the library desk again. Her feet rested on the gleaming wood. Her eyes were glazed with faked boredom. Buffy did not want to be there. This place made it hard to feel nothing, there were too many reminders, too many associations. Too many people to protect. Giles sighed. She wished he wouldn’t do that. She didn’t want to know how much she was hurting him, she didn’t want to think about him being in pain, again, because of her.

"It’s a little more complicated than that. I know this is hard for you, but you have to concentrate. And it wouldn’t hurt if you made an appearance at home or school either."

"Why? What good would it do? Besides, as far as I know I have one purpose and one purpose only. I am the chosen one, the Slayer. I do that. I kill the vampires. That’s my job. I fight, I eventually die. What more do you want? I gave up my life for you people."

She stood up and faced him, her face red. Her every word hit him like a sledgehammer, sliced through his heart. Not because the words were angry, not because they were filled with spite and hatred, but because every single word she uttered was true. She was right, she had given up so much, and all they did was demand more from her. He let his shoulders slump.

"Tell me what good it’s going to do me coming to school? Biology isn’t going to help me close another hellmouth. I’m sorry, the last time I looked Slaying 101 was full. There’s not much else for my future is there? And home? Why? To lead more vamps there to kill my mother?"

More truth. More ugly words that he wished he could deny, wished he could wipe away as if they’d never been spoken. He wanted to make everything better for her, wanted to soothe away her pain, but he knew he couldn’t. At the same time he wanted to shake her, tell her that she was being selfish and that they were all in pain. It didn’t come out that way, though, it was more of a strangled plea.

"Buffy, I…"

"No! I come here, I do what you say. There’s no more than that. I’ll kill for you, don’t ask for more, because there is no more. You want happy little games, go train the Olsen twins."

It was too easy, too tempting to allow all her feelings to ball up into anger. Shouting at him, not allowing him to speak was much more preferable than hearing what he had to say. She ran into Xander as she walked out the library doors. She didn’t stop as she shoved him out of the way. He hit the wall hard.

"Stay, puppy."

* * * *

The vampire lay sprawled on the ground, doubled over in pain. She hadn’t been immortal long and this was the first time she had felt pain. Like everything else the sensation was heightened, magnified, stripped to its purest, cruelest form. She was not ready for a fight like this one, but it was too late, there was nothing she could do about it now. The foot came back and cracked a bone in the side of her face.

"Still feeling on top of the world?"

She rolled over, away from her attacker. A string of blood and mucus stretched from her face to the ground she had been lying on. The foot caught her in the back of the neck and crunched something vital.

"B? What the hell? She’s gone, okay?"

A hand moved her onto her back and brought down the merciful stake.

Faith stood up and turned on Buffy.

"What the hell was that all about, B?"

Buffy looked at her like she was a bug in her dom perignon.

"I was killing vampires. And that’s a bad thing since when?"

"Uh huh. That wasn’t killing. That was all out fucking psychotic outrage. Hey, I know you’ve got issues. But deal okay? You can’t afford to get distracted beating the living, or not so, shit outta one vamp. It gives the others an advantage. If you’re gonna slay, at least pretend to be sane, ferchrissakes."

"Oh yeah, that’s right." Buffy glared, she faced Faith head on. "Because you’re little miss pure virtue aren’t you? What’s gotten into you Faith? You used to have the right idea, now you’ve gotten soft."

"Not soft, B, mature."

"If the pinafore and mary-janes fit…"

"Ok, fine then. Tell me again, what’s the right idea? Refresh me."

"We don’t need them. They hold us back, make us vulnerable. Screw them all. We’re stronger alone. We’re better alone."

"Yeah, but so alone. Let me tell you something for nothing, B. You don’t know how goddamned lucky you are. You have all these great friends and family, and they love you. They’re there for you no matter what. And that’s not something you spit on. It doesn’t happen everyday. So get a grip and be human."

"Oh wow. I’ve seen the light! Praise glory be, fucking oath, I’m cured."

Faith stared her in the eyes. For several seconds neither of them moved. It was Buffy who looked away first.

* * * *

It was still dark when Buffy climbed through the window. The house was quiet, still and silent. She made no noise and turned on no lights. Grabbing what little clothes and supplies she needed from her room, Buffy made to climb out of the window again when a sigh distracted her. She looked over to the bed. Joyce lay there, sleeping, a stuffed toy clasped in her hands. Mr. Gordo had been one of Buffy’s favorites.

"Mom."

Knowing that she was unobserved, that there was nobody expecting anything of her, Buffy let herself feel. It was a painful wave of regret. She wanted to wake the woman, climb into her arms as if she were five years old again, smell the clean soapy scent of her shampoo, feel her heart beating under her chest.

She steeled herself, reminded herself of the dangers. Never again would she put others at risk, never again would she allow herself to get attached to anyone. It was better that she didn’t feel anything, it hurt too much to shut them out otherwise.

* * * *

The sign on the door said "all welcome." He could have gone in if he wanted to. But Angel stood across the street, contenting himself with watching, although everything in him wanted to go inside and take her in his arms. It was a coin launderette, no different to any other coin launderette across the nation. The other sign on the door read "open 24 hours." He wasn’t all that interested in Joe the wino, who paced the floor and ranted about the second coming. Nor was he interested in the young couple who seemed to find coin launderettes very romantic places, and he hadn’t even noticed the greasy haired middle aged woman behind the counter who idly flicked through a magazine.

Angel kept his eyes on one figure. The chair was pulled as close to the washing machine as possible, in it sat a frail looking creature, to him anyway. Her knees were pulled up closely to her chest, her arms wrapped around them, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Her head rested against the machine as she slept. Angel understood, he had watched her standing over the sleeping Joyce, aching for her mother, reaching out to brush a lock of hair out of her face. Now she was lulled to sleep by the rhythmic thump-thump, combined with the swish of the water, as the machine washed her clothes.

* * * *

The woman sitting at the table was pale and washed out. She had lost weight, large dark circles scored her eyes and her hair hung in crazed, careless wisps. Joyce let her head drop onto her hands. She believed she was going to lose her mind. Giles placed his arm around her shoulders.

"I just want to see her."

"I tried, Joyce, I really did. But we’re lucky she even checks in here."

"And why is that?" Joyce tried to contain the hostility she felt, Giles didn’t deserve it, she knew, but it came out anyway. "Why does she come to you? I’m her mother! Me!"

"I…"

"Did you know she came home last night? Climbed in her window, took some clothes and then left. She didn’t wake me. I was asleep on her damned bed and she didn’t even wake me! She just crept in and crept out like a shadow!"

He didn’t know what to say to the woman who was sobbing on the library desk. Giles felt increasingly helpless, there was nothing he could do to alleviate Joyce’s pain, and absolutely nothing he could do to help Buffy when she needed him the most. The only thing he could think to do, the only thing he knew how to, at these times, was explain, try to find some reason and logic where there was none.

"This hit Buffy extremely hard. It was her first, real, adult experience with death. No, I’m serious. She was only a child when her cousin died and everything she’s dealt with since then can be placed in the super, or unnatural categories. Willow was human, she was Buffy’s friend, and Buffy feels she should have stopped it. The guilt for her must be unimaginable."

"It’s not her fault."

"I know that, you know that, but she doesn’t know that. Grief is hardly the sanest of our emotions. And then she has us. It hurts her, and frightens her, to think something might happen to us that she can’t control or stop. She’s building defenses now, the less she cares…"

"The less she hurts."

"And the less she puts us in danger, according to her. Vampires will always be attracted to her, they’ll always seek her out. So she’s not about to bring them to us."

Joyce rested her head against his shoulder and let her tears run dry. They stayed like that for several moments, in contemplative silence. Neither of them looked up, had either of them done so they would have seen the topic of their discussion staring at them from the library door. And neither of them saw her turn around and walk away.

* * * *

Buffy stood outside, looking at the closed sign on the door. It took all of about ten seconds to decide to break the lock. He’d understand. Or not, she rebuked herself, she couldn’t have cared less. When she tried the handle, however, the door opened easily. She stepped inside.

"Sign says closed." The voice came from underneath an elevated treadmill, two legs were visible and the sound of tools scraping against metal could be heard.

"I can read." At the sound of her voice Trevor scooted out and wiped his greasy hands on his pants.

"I wondered when you’d show."

"Mind if I work out anyway?" She studiously ignored his attempts at conversation. "I’d pay."

"Before you start, and you’re welcome to use this place whenever, I have an offer." As she sighed and turned to walk out, he called after her. "Just hear me out."

She turned around again and stared at him with raised eyebrows.

"What?"

"You told me you don’t train, but you’ve got more talent than I’ve seen in anyone so young, and skill. But you’re undisciplined, don’t kid yourself there. I want to train you."

"Uh sorry. I’m not a performing seal. I don’t compete, I don’t train, I work out and that’s it."

"I don’t want you to compete. I just want to work with you, tighten the strings a little bit. What have you got to lose? You get free training, free use of the gym. It’s all good."

"What’s in it for you?"

"I’ll say it again, you’ve got talent. I want to be part of that, I want to be part of the whole scene again."

"Then go find yourself someone who wants to learn, someone who will compete, and take you higher."

"I want you."

She stood there, undecided, and her mind raced back to the library. She made up her mind.

"No strings attached?"

"That’s all she wrote. Now what do I call you besides mystery chick?"

"Call me Anne."

"So, Anne, ever tried fencing?"

Buffy found the weight of the sword oddly satisfying, she leaned into it, giving all her weight to the thrusts and parries. The metallic twang and sudden jolts when sword met sword kept her mind off things she didn’t want to think about. Another day, another sword, another person she cared about lost because of her.

The blow caught her off guard and she felt cold steel against her left hip, her shirt providing little protection. Buffy cursed her stupidity and demanded her mind to focus. It was too late, Trevor was lowering his sword and giving her a pointed look.

"See? Your mind wandered. You can’t do that."

"I know, I just…"

"Just nothing. We do this my way from now on."

"Your way?"

"My way."

* * * *

Giles stood behind the library counter, he had three tomes open in front of him and he didn’t like what any of them had to say. His right hand twitched as he tried to concentrate, but all the while the only thing he could focus on was the library door that didn’t open, that didn’t admit Buffy. Where was she? When the door actually did open he nearly jumped out of his skin.

"How is she, Giles?"

He let his shoulders sag as he saw Xander and Oz walk through the door.

"If she bothers to turn up today, I’ll tell you."

"She was here."

"What? No, she wasn’t. I’ve been here all day Xander, and she did not come by."

"I saw her Giles." Oz stepped forward. "I saw her running out of the building about third period. She looked upset."

"She wasn’t here, I’m telling you. The only person here besides me at that time was… was… oh dear."

"Oh dear what?"

It was then that the phone rang.

* * * *

Buffy listened to the pleas over the telephone line, it was a cowardly thing to do over the phone, but she didn’t have to see the hurt or the puzzlement on his face. And this way she was allowed to let her face droop slightly, the sorrow rising and the bottom lip trembling.

"You can’t do this Buffy!"

"I’m training elsewhere."

"Buffy!"

"Deal Giles."

"No Buffy, you deal. Listen to me, we need you."

"I’ll kill the big bad monsters when they come to town. Until then, call Faith."

She heard her name being called from the handset as she lowered it to the hotel table. She hoped he hadn’t heard the trembling in her voice, or the rattle of the receiver as her shaking hand had replaced it.

She looked around the bare room and tried not to grimace at the stained carpet, or the bedding with seven separate cigarette burn holes. A bright green neon light blinked off and on through the window and the lock on the door looked as if it wouldn’t stop a stray cat let alone the overweight, balding manager who had leered at her all the time he was showing her the room. It made Faith’s place look like the ritz.

Buffy let her head drop into her hands and sobbed without shame.

* * * *

"Here."

She side kicked the bag.

"I said here."

She kicked it again.

"No here."

Buffy exploded.

"I’ve been kicking there for the last twenty minutes!"

Trevor just stood there. He breathed in calmly and then pointed once more.

"No. You’ve been kicking near there for twenty minutes. It’s not good enough to get near enough. You have to be able to hit your target exactly, every time. Try again."

She set her jaw and kicked again.

"That’s better, but I want here."

Buffy briefly considered kicking him instead but focused all her energy on the one elusive spot on the bag.

* * * *

"Tell me where she is."

"I… I can’t."

Giles was bristling with barely contained frustration. Angel stayed several feet away.

"You’ve followed her! You know where she is!"

"And I keep telling you, she’s fine! If she wanted you to know where she was, she’d tell you. I have to believe she knows what she’s doing. I can’t betray her like that."

Before he could blink Angel found himself pinned to the wall with Giles’ hand at his throat. Not that he needed to breathe, but the pressure was enough to discomfort him. Giles was shaking with anger and grief that caused his eyes to change color even as Angel looked at them. He was just learning that a very protective and angry Giles was not someone to take lightly.

"You will take me to her," Giles spat between clenched teeth. "or I will make sure you regret it. You’re not the only one who knows how to wield the odd bamboo shoot."

A useless threat, but Angel could read between the lines and was beginning to wish he couldn’t. He watched Giles storm out into the night air and get into his beaten up citroen. It was a forty-minute drive to the small town where Buffy had barricaded herself. For Buffy it was a one-hour bus trip.

* * * *

She stepped out of the gym and welcomed the fresh night air on her glowing skin. For two hours she’d done nothing but aim at one exact spot. Aim; kick; aim and, for a change, kick. At first her body had rebelled, her mind screaming for something real to aim for. But then the repetitiveness had begun to creep into her, energy infused itself into her movements and she had begun to relish the structured movements. Her brain had snapped into focus, she had been thinking of one thing and one thing only, that little spot on the bag.

Everything had gone blissfully quiet, crystal clear in its intensity. When Trevor had finally told her to quit she hadn’t wanted to, but he’d insisted and eventually she’d given in. And as she’d showered in the abandoned change rooms, infinitely cleaner that that in her motel room, she had tried not to let the voices back in her head. Had tried to block out the accusations and recriminations, the cries for help she could never give.

It was too late to get back to Sunnydale tonight, let Faith kill a few vampires for once. The new form of training, however, had left her hungry for a real fight. A movement across the street caught her eye, a flash of tweed before disappearing. Buffy was immediately on alert, maybe she wouldn’t lash out physically, but she might just get that fight tonight, after all.

* * * *

Trevor locked the doors for real this time. He had gotten the distinct feeling that ‘Anne’ was not about to go home, as she’d told him. He wanted to know. An indescribable need made him want to know what drove her to such intensities, why she got so absorbed, why she was so eager to leave behind the outside world to push herself to limits beyond the hope of most people. He followed her as she walked down the street, paused when she paused, and he had to think fast when she began to give chase to a shadowy figure.

* * * *

"Giles! Goddamn it, face me!"

The cry echoed down the darkened, empty alley. He stepped out of the shadows and looked at the figure, shaking with a nameless, passionate, anger. It unnerved him, made him forget the speech he’d prepared in his head. This was not her, a colorless, dimensionless, shadow of his Buffy maybe, but not her.

"You’ve been following me?"

"I had to know if you were okay. We had to…"

"We? I don’t believe this. Can’t you people leave me alone?"

Buffy tried to keep her voice calm and smooth, she tried not to let the anger bubble up to the surface. She had expected something of the sort, had been watching for it. What she hadn’t expected was Giles, or his anger.

"My God. Would you listen to yourself? You’re killing them, do you know that? Has it even occurred to you to care?"

"How can you say this? How can you…?"

"How can I? How can I not?" It took a lot of control not to let his emotions get the better of him, he knew that if he did, he’d lose her. "I’m the one who has to tell them you’re okay. I’m the one who has to look in their eyes and tell them you don’t want them, that you barely talk to me, but you won’t talk to them."

She shook her head, wishing he’d take back his words. All that work she’d done trying not to feel anything was being washed away as every vowel he uttered pierced her skin like red-hot needles.

"Don’t. Don’t do this. I can’t…"

"You can’t? That’s a lie and you know it. Do you think you’re the only one who lost here? Joyce, Xander, they’re all suffering and they need you. We need you."

"Yeah well, I guess you picked the wrong person, didn’t you?" The giggles that came out of her mouth sounded less like laughter and more like bitterness. "What can I do? I’m useless."

"Don’t talk like that. You can’t believe…"

"Believe?" More hysterical giggles that came uncalled for, escaping from her throat like acid. "What’s to believe? I watched her die Giles. I watched him take her life and all the while she was begging me, pleading with me, and I did nothing. Nothing!"

"I don’t believe that."

"Yeah, well." Her face suddenly regained some control, gone were the bitter laughs. "Whatever happened, it did no good, did it? I got slack and they killed my best friend. One moment of weakness and they killed her. I can’t let that happen again."

"You can’t blame yourself."

"No? Who else is there to blame? I’m the one they wanted. I’m the one they came after. And they… they…" Buffy finally broke down. All the rage and sorrow she’d been holding in broke through and her knees buckled under the weight of it. She fell to the ground as the sobs came out in painful waves through her words, Giles caught her before she hit the ground. She clung to him as if she were falling off the world. "Oh God, Giles, they killed her! They killed her and I couldn’t stop it. They killed her!"

* * * *

Trevor stepped back, looking at the ground, suddenly ashamed of his eavesdropping. The tall, elder man called Giles brushed past him as he carried the sobbing form of his budding protegee. Trevor wished he’d respected her wishes, he should have waited for her to tell him. As it was, he was closer to understanding the detachment she tried so hard to exude, yet questions were crowding his head. A small, quiet whisper floated back to him.

"I love you Buffy. Always and ever."

* * * *

Giles sat on the bed, not taking his eyes off the sleeping form, so innocent and peaceful. His hand occasionally swept a stray lock of blonde hair from her forehead. If he wasn’t mistaken, this was the most sleep she’d had since it happened. She’d sobbed into his arms the night before, with so much vehemence he had wondered if she actually knew who he was or where they were. She’d scared him, each cry had seemed unbearably painful, as if it were tearing her apart to grieve. Every time he left the bed, Buffy would stir and reach out, and he would go back, unable to leave her.

* * * *

Buffy stirred. She stretched her toes lazily and clenched her eyes tightly before opening them. A dim realization began to creep into her subconscious. Something had happened the night before… something… She reached out and felt the form lying next to her.

What was he trying to prove? That she needed them? That she needed him? She already knew that, it was a knowledge that burned her deeply. She needed them all, and mostly him, with a fervor almost impossible to bear, but she couldn’t let herself fall into that trap. She would die for them, if it came to that, but she wouldn’t put them in danger, she couldn’t.

Getting up quietly, she allowed herself to look on him, lying above the covers, ever a gentleman. What would she have done last night, had he asked something of her when she was in such a state? As much as she tried to fool herself, she knew that she’d been flayed raw emotionally and would have done anything to keep him with her, to keep his arms around her.

The man was too good for his own health. She threw a towel at him, he grumbled and woke up, looking around in confusion and then, seeing her, his face relaxed.

"Buffy, I…"

"Save it, okay. What are you doing here?"

"You needed me."

"Wrong. I’m doing just fine without you. I don’t need you, Giles, or my mother, or Xander, or any of you. Can’t you accept that?"

"Say what you want, Buffy, I won’t give up on you. Neither will they."

"More fool you. I’m without hope and so are those who surround me. Giles, go home."

"Will you come back? With me?" Spoken quietly, it sounded too much like a plea.

"No." Her voice didn’t falter, there was no sign of the pain that had crashed the night before, Buffy was calm and a slow burning anger seethed from her eyes.

"We need you."

"You have Faith to slay the demons."

"I’m not talking about slaying, damn it, listen to me. You’re a person, not just a slayer, and it’s the person we want. We need Buffy, I need…"

"Pack your bags then, I guess we’re going on a guilt trip."

"Listen to yourself. Do you even hear what you’re saying?"

"Yes." Buffy stood still, her face pale and devoid of all emotion as she looked at him. "I’m saying goodbye."

* * * *

She stepped off the bus and blinked. The town looked so different in daylight, she’d almost forgotten how normal everything appeared when seen by the light of day. But she was not fooled, never again would she let her guard down, these seemingly innocent streets veiled monsters. Buffy began to walk without even thinking, her body knew the way instinctively. She didn’t know what she was going to say, or how, but she kept telling herself that it must be done.

The door opened easily; it hadn’t been locked.

"Buffy! Thank heavens you’re…"

She held up her hand, palm outwards, immediately halting Joyce’s rush. Joyce stood there, confused, mystified, every nerve inside her telling her to run forward and wrap Buffy in her arms, smother her and never let her go.

"Let’s get this straight." Her voice was cold, almost as cold as her eyes. "This is a new game, with new rules. I am no longer your daughter. For all intents and purposes Buffy Summers is dead." She didn’t look Joyce in the eyes as she said this, it was hard enough not to hear the sharp intakes of breath and the little whimper. "She died that night."

"No, Buffy…"

"Anne. Call me Anne. One, don’t follow me, don’t have me followed. I can take care of myself. Two, forget about me, grieve, whatever it takes, but I don’t exist to you anymore. And most important, leave Sunnydale. I don’t care where you go, just leave. Get out of here."

Joyce couldn’t move, it was like a nightmare. She stared unbelievingly, uncomprehendingly, at her daughter. Buffy brought a hand down, hard and fast, on the bench, causing Joyce to wince.

"Promise me! Promise me you’ll go."

"I love you."

"You’re not listening! She’s dead, do you hear me? Dead!"

"No." Joyce shook her head, eyes pleading with Buffy. "I don’t accept that, I won’t…"

"You don’t have a choice."

"I won’t lose you again."

Buffy stepped forward and took Joyce’s face between her hands, it took all of her energy not to shake when she did this. She ignored the tears and brought her mother’s face close to her own. Only the voice was soft and gentle, only the voice gave evidence she was feeling anything at all.

"This is the only way I know how. Let me go. I need to do this. Please understand."

It seemed Joyce had suffered beyond belief in the past three years, but now it all culminated into one great ball of pain. This was the hardest moment she had ever faced. She closed her eyes, made herself stop crying, and placed her hands on Buffy’s shoulders. Joyce leant forward and kissed her cheek.

"I love you. I always will. Do this. But promise me you’ll be careful. Promise me if you ever feel differently, you’ll come back."

Buffy could not speak, she could barely move. Slowly, her hands lifted Joyce’s off her shoulders, and she nodded slightly before leaving. She felt as if she were marble; just learning how to move.

* * * *

Xander shut the door behind him and closed his eyes. There were too many things battling for supremacy inside of him that to give in to any one of them would be lunacy. He fell back on the age-old method of ignoring them all. There was nobody here in his room, nobody to see, so thankfully he did not have to rely on jokes to get him through. Instead he lay back on his bed and stared at the walls, wondering how so much of his life had come to rely so heavily on two women.

For all of his life, at least, for all that he cared to remember, Willow had always been there. She’d been the one constant, the one thing he could rely on. She had never let him down, even when he had failed her, done nothing but cause her pain. Never had he needed somebody like he had needed Willow.

Not until Buffy had come to town. It wasn’t so much that he needed Buffy, it was the fact that she needed him. He was not fool enough to believe, or even hope anymore, that she needed him in any romantic sense. It was something more, something deeper. He was like her touchstone to the normal world. She seemed to need him there, not to talk to or comfort her, but just his presence.

All he wanted to do now, what every instinct inside told him to do, was go to Willow, to talk to her, have her soothe the raging storm he couldn’t control alone. Bright sparks of pain crept from his brain and trampled over his body. He couldn’t run to her, not now, not ever again. And he couldn’t run to Buffy, not yet.

And there was no one else to run to.

* * * *

Once again she lost herself, lost the day, in the rhythmic pulse of training. This was training like she’d never had with Giles, as much as it had kept her fit, he had never had the energy or the knowledge to push her beyond her limits. With every new kick at the same little dot on the bag, Buffy felt herself focus, it was becoming easier to let her thoughts melt away and accurately hit the exact same place, not just near it. Trevor had introduced something ‘new’. She could kick the bag with either foot, with any style kick she liked. The only rules: she had to remain standing, she had to get the little spot.

She turned, she twisted, and she jumped, her reflexes springing like a cat, the freedom of her movements coursing through her. The corner of her eyes showed her every time he knocked the bag aside and she adjusted her aim accordingly. Her ears followed his steps from the left to the right, but never left the two men who alternately worked on the different machines in the distance and watched her.

Her mind was blissfully clear. Immediately this bought her back to the conversation in the library. Giles had had a right to be angry, she knew, she was being selfish, but it was this selfishness that would probably save all their lives. Buffy’s eyes followed Trevor to her right, her ears traced his steps, but her mind did not.

The smaller bag crashed into the side of her face with a thud, throwing her off balance. It took only a fraction of a second to focus, turn around and belt it. Her arms extended and retracted with lightning speed, absorbing each impact with a grateful suddenness. She didn’t lose pace with the larger bag in front of her and kicked out at it while protecting her side, even when the third bag came down to her left she was prepared. There were no more sudden jolts, no more sides left unguarded. She punched, kicked, and sometimes even breathed, until he told her to stop.

He had to tell her three times.

* * * *

She sat on the bench, drying her hair with a towel. He watched her purposefully ignoring him until she looked up.

"That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You lose concentration too easily."

"I know, I…"

"You can control it." He sat down next to her. "I don’t know what drove you here. I don’t know why you’re so hell bent on learning all of this. But I do know you’re hurting, and you can turn that around."

Spoken by anyone else, those words had the great potential to sound trite and forced, but somehow he had sounded genuine. Buffy cringed inside. No, there was no room to let anyone else in, no space to let someone get involved.

"You? You don’t know the half of what I’m going through! And I pray to whatever power you believe in that you never do! Don’t flatter yourself. There’s no big reason."

"I know…" He paused, weighing up how much to reveal. "I know you blame yourself. That you feel responsible for something that no one else blames you for."

Buffy let herself breathe before she stood up. The carefully constructed world she had made was beginning to fall apart. Without it she’d be floating on her pain, groundless and giddy.

"What do you know of it? Huh? You sit here and tinker with your little machines all day because you couldn’t handle the big leagues, and now you think you can tell me all about my life?"

"Wait, listen to me, I saw you last night. With that man, Giles, I heard what you said. I know your friend died."

"You what? No. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m… I… I’ll see you tomorrow."

Flustered and angry, and betrayed, Buffy felt the strongest need to run, to get out of there and run as far and as fast as she could. But her feet weren’t running anywhere, they weren’t even walking.

"You trust me with your life, Buffy, trust me with this."

It was her name, that one solitary word, spoken without strings, without a single need or demand that convinced her to sit down again. She opened her mouth to speak and found she couldn’t stop.

It was the first time she had told the story out loud. It was the first time she had let it run from start to finish with rational thought. Although some details changed, there were no vampires, only rival gangs, there were no fangs, only broken necks, but the details were the same.

"So, you’re hiding from your friends because you love them so much?"

She looked at him. When he said it, it sounded slightly pathetic. Was it really that simple? Everything clear cut in her life had suddenly blurred, the black and whites had bled into misty grays. Could it really be her own doing? Buffy let her fingers play with the friendship band around her neck.

"What choice do I have? I can’t put them in danger like that."

"Don’t you think it’s their choice to make? You can’t control everything in life, it’s not up to you, it’s not up to any of us. Things happen…" When he paused, Buffy made to speak, but he stopped her. "they always have and they always will and there’s nothing you can do to change it. But you can’t run from everything hoping that the bad things will stop chasing you, or them, because that’s not the way it works."

She was crying.

"You have people who love you. Let them love you before it’s too late."

* * * *

He watched her walk for almost two hours. She had no discernable direction, it seemed as if she just needed to move, to not stand still. Angel hadn’t overheard whatever had been said in the gym that night, but he knew it had to have been big, he could tell by the agitated way she moved.

What he wanted to do was go to her and take her in his arms and smooth away everything that hurt her, make her feel like she deserved to be loved, but he knew he couldn’t. Something had changed that night, something vital between them. The way she had looked at him made him realize a hard truth.

Something he had been denying, even to himself, for too long. Something everybody had tried to tell him, even Spike in his own way. He and Buffy could never carry on as if things were normal, because they weren’t. There was nothing he could do to change the fact that he was a vampire. No matter how many people he saved, how many vamps he killed, no matter how many times he hid in the dark and guiltily sucked on a bag of blood hoping that no one could see him.

It didn’t matter what he did, because he would always be a vampire, and Buffy would always see a vampire when she looked at him. She would always see the same kind of monster that killed her best friend, soul or not. She would never be able to touch him, never laugh with him, never do anything with him again without it being tainted.

Angel knew this as he watched her, he also knew that there was someone who could offer her what she needed. It killed him to think of it, but it was true. There was someone who loved her as much, if not more, than he did. Someone who would lay down his life for her without a second thought, someone who needed her as much as she needed him.

"Buffy."

She whirled around to face him. Her whole stance screamed that she wanted to get away, wanted to flee from him, her eyes were closed to him in a way they’d never been before, though she tried to hide it from him. It was the exact thing he’d feared.

"Angel, why are you here? I thought I made it clear, you are the last person…" Buffy paused, wrapped her arms around herself and shuddered. "… thing, I want to see right now."

He cringed at her choice of words.

"I know," He stepped forward and reached out, she stepped back and her eyes flashed him a warning. "I just came to tell you… what I mean to say is… I’m leaving. I came to say goodbye."

She didn’t know she’d been holding her breath until it came out in one big rush. Buffy couldn’t tell if she was relieved or angry or upset. Or all three. Part of her welcomed the news, the part that kept telling her she could never be with him again. Part of her wanted to melt away and cry. The rest of her wanted to shout, to yell at him for leaving as soon as things got hard. He was leaving, just like everyone else, just like she’d wanted.

"Oh."

Buffy didn’t know whether she trusted herself to say anything else, what she really wanted to say could never be said. It wouldn’t make sense, it barely made sense in her head. She wanted to say more, knew that Angel deserved more, but something stopped her. Maybe words weren’t enough.

"What will you do?"

Her bottom lip trembled as she thought about her answer. Emotions flashed across her face like waves, Angel had to stop himself from reaching out and caressing the skin underneath her chin. He didn’t have that luxury anymore, hadn’t had it for a long time.

"I…" She paused, breathing in heavily and letting the oxygen soak into her lungs like a smoker does tobacco, her shoulders began to shake. "What am I supposed to do? You tell me, oh wise one, I can’t go back. Things will never be the same."

"No, they’ll never be the same, but you’re wrong, you can go back." He did reach out now, grabbing her shoulders and making her look up at him. "They need you and you need them."

"You’re all starting to sound like a broken record. Don’t you think I know that? Don’t you think it hurts me to push them away?" Her arms came up and out, pushing his hands from her shoulders and breaking contact with him. "I can’t keep going on like this, wondering day after day if something’s gonna happen, wondering who’s going to be next."

"Life is short, Buffy," Angel ignored her incredulous stare. "You can’t sit back and let it pass because you’re afraid of it. I’ve watched too many people age and wither, ending their lives with nothing but regret. Don’t waste what time you have."

Buffy only looked at him. It didn’t matter what they wanted to say to each other, because they both knew it. He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead, savoring for the last time the very feel of her in his arms. She closed her eyes and didn’t open them until she could feel cool air around her again, until she knew he was gone.

* * * *

Giles stood in the dark, the air still smelled of fresh earth, deep and green. He looked at the stone that stood, a bleak affront to the personality it was supposed to represent. Cold, gray and hard, it seemed obscene to him that her life could be summed up with her name, the dates of her life, and a few meaningless words.

The memories came back thick and fast, bright and searing in their intensity, so much so that he didn’t hear the steps behind him. It seemed almost as if she materialized next to him, appearing out of thin air, she didn’t say a word.

It was the first time she had been to the gravesite and it made Buffy physically weak to see it. Just being there made it seem all too true, as if staying away had made it possible for the whole thing to be a bad dream. It wasn’t, though, she knew and no matter how hard it hurt her, she couldn’t hide forever.

"Giles?"

Her voice shook with the word. For the first time he could remember, she sounded like a little child, lost and afraid, unsure of the world around her. Unsure even of the people who wanted to be there for her. He didn’t say anything, just reached down and took her hand.

Buffy wanted to shrink down, make herself so tiny that she could crawl inside of the hand that clasped hers, stay warm and safe forever and not come out. In that one grip Giles managed to say a lot more to her than she thought possible and she wondered how she could ever have run from him.

"Do you think she’s happy now, wherever she is?"

"I sincerely hope so, Buffy," Giles pulled her closer and wrapped his free arm around her shoulders, he kept hold of her hand. "I honestly do."

The words, though not really offering any answers, made her feel better than any of false comfort could. Somehow he sensed that she didn’t need trite, meaningless platitudes, but the knowledge that nobody had the answers. She leaned into him, finding a strange well of peace in the warmth of his body.

"I don’t want to go back, Giles, I can’t, not yet."

"You can do a lot more than you give yourself credit for."

Buffy turned to face him, in his eyes she found something she’d never seen before. She didn’t know what it was, didn’t have a name for it. Had anyone asked her to define it, she wouldn’t know where to begin, but it filled her with a strange warmth. She found herself believing that she could do it, that she could go back and continue living her life.

"Promise me."

"What?"

"Promise me you’ll always be here, that you’ll always hold me up."

Giles didn’t answer, he couldn’t, anything he said then would have been a lie. They both knew it. Instead, he turned her around to face him, raised one hand to her face and smoothed back a few stray locks behind her ear. With the back of his knuckles he wiped away the traces of her tears, barely touching the skin on her cheeks, and then leant down to whisper in her ear.

"Trust me."

END