Energy was high, and voices light-hearted as the Angel Investigations team made their way through the garden of the well-missed Hyperion Hotel. For days, they'd been in a dimension that had been close to hell - and not the Britney Spears kind of hell, either. So no one could blame them for their gratefulness upon arriving at the hotel with a new member in tow. Winifred Burkle. The young woman had thought Angel a hero, and he really couldn't blame her; after years of being regarded as a slave and then forced to live in a cave, it was no wonder he was her knight in shining armor.
"Are-are you sure about that?" Angel couldn't help the amused smirk that played on his pale lips when Fred voiced her concern about tacos still being around in Los Angeles. He was just about to reassure the poor girl when Cordelia did it for him. I can always count on you, Cordy.
"Trust me. Tacos everywhere - and soap!" (i took out the extra hyphen) .. except for anything resembling tact. Still, Fred seemed relieved by the Seer's words, so that was enough for the time being. Each new step that brought them closer to the double doors to the lobby brought on more anticipation, more joy over the sheer idea of being home.
"Yo, that portal jumping is a fun ride. We sell it to a theme park, we could get paid!"
"Okay. Can I say it? I wanna say it." The excitement in his own voice even surprised himself. As a rule, Angel typically wasn't the easily excitable type. Now, he didn't even try to hide the beaming smile, nor the skip in his step.
"There's no place like --" Suddenly, everything slowed. His surroundings slowed to an underwater stillness, the air around him too thick. It was a good thing he didn't need breath, because all of his would have been lost in that very moment. It was like watching the world fall from its axis and shatter. He didn't even realize his expression had gone from beaming to shadowed and severe, his lips now forming a thin line where there had been a smile only moments before.
"Willow?" It was an inner struggle just to get the single word out. There were fresh tears in the redhead's puffy, red-rimmed eyes when she looked up at him. God, the despair there was nearly enough to bring him to his knees. He wanted to look away, tear his eyes away from the tragedy that was unfolding. This isn't happening. It didn't happen. Not her. Anyone but her. Could so much have happened while they were away? Could the very world as he knew it change that much in such little time? He could hear Cordelia's question, but he paid no attention to his best friend. Not right then. Then, every ounce of his attention was trained on the woman that slowly, painstakingly rose from the couch, her eyes not once leaving his. When he spoke, he thought he might scream instead. By some saving grace, he managed to speak the two words that would shape the coming months.
And there it was. The admittance of something so terrible, so destructive that the weight the words held very nearly crushed him. Might have; he was sure that he felt something collapse inside of him. He stared ahead, listening to the words that Willow spoke. Tried to pay attention, tried to make out the sounds that she made, but all he could think about was how he should have been there. Angel managed to catch a few key phrases like "Glory, Dawn, portals opening, Buffy jumped, funeral" but they all ran together. He got the gist of it. Some hell goddess was going to open up a portal using Dawn's blood. Buffy jumped into this said portal. He expected nothing less. After all, that was the Buffy Summers he fell in love with. The woman that fought to do the right thing no matter the consequences. Not even if it was death.
He left then. Angel stumbled up to his room, not wanting to hear anything else, not wanting to deal with the words of condolence, not wanting to feel the hands that would pat his shoulders. It was a wonder he made it up the stairs and in the door, because each step felt like his feet were made of lead, too clumsy with false weight. When the door was finally slammed behind him, the sound echoing violently off the walls of the room, he stood for a long moment, just trying to grasp what he had just heard. And then it sank in. It sank in with all of its painful, heartbreaking clarity.
And that's when the storm began.
Fists slammed viciously into the walls until the flesh was torn back from his knuckles and blood ran freely. He screamed, the sound breaking off into a growled sob as he lifted chairs, splintered desks and overturned his bed. Damn you, Buffy! Why do you always have to be a hero!? Just once -- just once could you not have backed down? Of course she couldn't have. Not ever. And that's why he loved her so. I'm so sorry, Buffy. I'm sorry. He felt his legs give way, the floor suddenly rising up to meet him. Knees thudded against the carpet and he rested his head against the wall, not caring about the cold tears that ran freely down his even colder cheeks. It had been a long time since Angel had wept, but oh, how we wept then. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry .." He mumbled the words like a mantra, like it was the last thing he could do.
The funeral was two days later, and in broad day light, just like it should have been. Buffy had always deserved the sunlight, not the shadows that she'd been forced into. He could still remember the two times he'd seen her in the daylight like it had happened yesterday. The first time had been when he'd watched her get called outside of her high school in Los Angeles. She'd been so young, so innocent, and painfully beautiful because of it. It had been nearly impossible to stay in the old, beat up car he'd been in, and not run to her. He almost didn't care that he'd burst into flame on the way. And the second time -- well, it had never really happened. Not to anyone but him. Buffy couldn't remember the one, perfect day they'd spent together when Angel had been human. He'd made sure she didn't, but Angel thought of it every single day. Buffy had been looking out over the ocean, her blonde hair more brilliant than the sun itself, and when he'd kissed her, he hadn't been sure that he had been caught aflame by the sun. Strange, how those events seemed so recent, and yet the girl he remembered was lifeless inside the light mahogany coffin that was being lowered into the unforgiving dirt.
Angel watched from the sidelines, safely out of the sun's glare thanks to the large willow trees just fifty feet away from where her friends and loved ones gathered. There should be more people here. The crowd around her coffin seemed so much smaller than what there should have been. Buffy touched people wherever she went. She entered a room and it lit up. Sadly enough, her occupation didn't leave room for lots of friends. Besides, Angel mused, the ones that were standing there weeping made up for any she might have lacked. Willow, Xander, Giles, Tara, Dawn, and even Cordelia were all weeping. Wesley and Anya stood dry-eyed, but obviously morose. Angel wasn't alone in the shadows. Spike stood just a few feet away, but Angel paid no mind to him. He watched as Buffy was lowered, and thought just how unfair, how degrading that someone like her should spend an eternity in the ground, and even more unfair that her beauty would be blemished by decay. Once everyone filed out, he stayed behind. It took a few hours for the sun to set, but when it did, he made his way over to her headstone. He couldn't help but agree whole-heartedly with the words there. She saved the world. A lot. Dark eyes also took into account the numbers. 1985-2005 Funny how the numbers didn't mean a damn thing. All that mattered was the dash in between. She was only twenty years old, but that was twenty years that she had touched people's lives, five of which she spent literally saving lives. God knows she'd saved his on more than one occasion. When Buffy had come into his life, she had become his entire world, his reason for living.
She was gone.
The phone rang, the sound actually disconcerting to the blonde. Gotta be those damn bill collectors. A glance was given to both Dawn and Giles, who had been talking with her about their financial situation. Which, in essence -- was a lack of finances. Buffy sighed, thankful for the brief interruption.
"Who's calling me? Everybody I know lives here. I'll be back."
As she made her way to the kitchen, she could still hear Dawn's voice, something about starving and having to work in sweat shops. She couldn't help but give a tiny, barely-there smirk at the sound of Giles' disapproving voice when he asked her younger sister what she had been reading. Slender digits wrapped around the phone, before placing it against her ear.
And then everything changed.
"Buffy, what is it?" "Angel." "Is he in trouble?" "He knows that I'm … He, he needs to see me. I have to see him." "Yes, of course. You'll leave for L.A. tomorrow." "Not L.A. And not here. Somewhere in the middle. There's a, a place." "I see. Well, we should get all these ... bills and things out of the way before-" "I gotta go now. Um, thanks for taking care of this for me."
Giles' disapproval was written clearly all over his features. Luckily, Buffy was already turning and making her way out the door before she could get a good look at them. Even if she had, it wouldn't have changed anything. All it had taken was Angel to say her name, and she was grasping onto the phone as if it was everything she had left, clinging to his words like he was some kind of messiah. She'd wanted to plea into the phone, beg Angel to come here and take away some of the pain she felt constantly. Thankfully, she didn't have to do any such thing. He wanted to see her. Had to see her, according to Angel. And that was just fine with her, because the feeling was more than mutual.
Silence. Silence that was so heavy, it threatened to crush Buffy to a million, jagged pieces that would never be able to be put back together. She inhaled, but that alone made her hurt. Not an actual, physical pain. No, all of her wounds had since healed since her less than stellar return from the grave. But each breath reminded her that she was alive. She was here. And that caused a bone-deep ache that she wasn't even sure would ever go away. As a matter of fact, she was nearly positive it wouldn't.
Green eyes scanned the interior of the warehouse, where Angel had told her to meet him. From the looks of it, it had been derelict for years, home to only rats and the occasional homeless person lucky enough to come across shelter for the night. Dust had settled over everything, giving it a deep, musty smell. In her years of hunting demons in various sewers, she'd definitely smelled worse. Moonlight managed to pool through the various windows, giving certain patches of floor a pale, white glow. More than anything, it was a lonely place. "Perfect," Buffy said bitterly to no one in particular, still counting on the fact that she was alone in the warehouse.
"I wouldn't go that far, but I've seen worse." How had she not felt him before now? Spinning on her heels, Buffy turned to face the familiar voice. There, standing in one of the patches of moonlight, his arms folded across the broad expanse of his chest, stood the very vampire she'd spoken to just three hours before. Like expected, he looked exactly like he had the last time they met. Buffy couldn't help but wonder how different she looked - how much older the last few days had made her look, or how dark the circles beneath her eyes had become considering how she hadn't slept since she'd been brought back. It was this thought that suddenly made her wish they hadn't decided to meet in the first place. Sure, he wanted to see her. And yeah, the feeling was mutual. But these meetings only stirred up feelings. And when they parted, that feeling of emptiness that had latched onto her like a leech would only become that more prominent, that much more painful.
"Angel," She breathed his name, agony ripping through her at once at the mere mention of his name. "You're late."
Angel couldn't help the tiny, saddened quirk of lips that was an attempt at a smile. "Traffic." It was a simple answer, because he had no other. Truth was, he couldn't have driven any faster had he tried. It was a wonder that no policeman tried to pull him over .. not that it would have stopped him. "How are--" He stopped there, the answer painfully written all over Buffy's face. She tried to keep her features plain and untelling, but Angel was still able to read her like an open book. Buffy was hurting. A lot. And he didn't know how to make it any better. Shouldn't she have been happy? Relieved, even? She'd been brought back from Hell, and there she was, sad and --
And then it hit Angel.
Buffy hadn't been in Hell.
The realization was like being hit with a ton of bricks, or by a tsunami that threatened to drag him under. There was no way that someone who had been released from Hell could carry that much pain in their eyes. And her eyes were ripe with it, the green, brilliant color swallowed by the agony she was carrying around. Angel stepped forward, silent and graceful, before resting a hand on her shoulder. Buffy didn't move at first, didn't even look at him. "Buffy, I - I," It wasn't like Angel to struggle for words, but he struggled then. Floundered like a fish out of water, clamoring for the thing to say to give her just a moment's peace. Finally, she showed signs of life. All at once, she pressed herself against him, her face burying against his chest while her hands burrowed into his jacket. Angel felt something violent and agonizing tear inside of him and he wanted to scream. This happened every time he saw Buffy hurt. Her pain was the one thing that would always be able to tear Angel down to kindling. A large, strong hand came to cradle the back of her head, the other at the dip of her back. He said nothing for the moment and neither did she. The world could have been coming to an end outside the door and he wouldn't have cared because the woman he loved was in pain.
"Does it get any easier?" Buffy's voice was cracked and muffled against the material of his chest, but he was able to hear every note of grief and disaster there as if it were his own pained voice. Gently, he rested his cheek on top of her head, contemplating his answer carefully. It never got easier. Angel had been around for nearly two and a half centuries and it had never gotten at all easier. But could he tell her that? Lying seemed like the more merciful thing to do but he knew Buffy would see through it. After all, she knew him nearly as well as he knew her. "No, it doesn't." Something akin to sorrow tightened his throat and for once, he was glad he didn't need to breathe because it would have been nearly impossible. He felt her tiny body tremble once and Angel knew she was fighting back the urge to sob. Or scream. Maybe both.
When she looked up at him, her eyes were damp with unshed tears that were just waiting to spill over the red brims there. "So-so what do we do, Angel?" One brave tear made the journey down the curve of her perfect cheek before the pad of his thumb could sweep it away. Unable to resist the warmth there, Angel cradled her face in his hands then, both of his large hands cupping her flushed cheeks. "All that we can." A beat, as he canted her chin upwards, his dark eyes conveying more than he ever would have wanted. When he spoke, the crack of emotion even surprised himself.
Summary: The aftermath of Buffy's death and resurrection.
Note: This is dedicated to my dear friend Crystal, whose birthday is soon!