After All, Chapter 9

Disclaimer: Joss owns it all. Except for the story, which is mine

Author's note: Just when it seems it can't get any darker, it does. B/W Fans now might want to stop here. This is turning out a lot darker than I had planned. I apologize to anyone who I might have misled. I didn't mean to. Sorry again.

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After All

Chapter 9

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San Francisco, California. Afternoon

Buffy Summers sat on the beach. She was bundled up, as it was a cold San Francisco winter day. Even the sun, when it came out, barely warmed her face. Nothing could touch her heart.

She knew she had to go soon. She always went before dark. She still had to get the flowers before she did her daily duty. The one thing that kept her going. She felt tired, washed out. Like the sky, all shades of gray.

~~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~~

Buffy waited a day, then another, and yet another. Finally after nearly a week , she made her decision. She had to go after Will, to talk to her. Somehow, to reach out to her. She'd struggled with herself for a week, trying to decide whether it was best to let Will alone, or to try to a way they could at least talk to each other again. The wall that had been built between them was thick and strong. Buffy was not sure if they could breach it. But she also knew that going on like this wasn't acceptable. She didn't expect anything. Nothing more than maybe trying to work their way back to what they had been: Friends. She wasn't looking for anything else. All she wanted to do was to try to help Willow get through this. She had felt how it was affecting her. She'd seen how Willow was wasting away, when she hugged her, it was like holding skin, and bones, and sharp edges. Buffy knew that Willow couldn't go on this way, she needed help. Buffy wanted; no, Buffy needed to help her.

Buffy called Giles, and explained that she needed time off. She didn't know how much. Willow needed her help, and that had to be her priority right now. She would understand if Giles replaced her, but there was no discussion on this. Giles simply said he understood. He would get someone from the English Academy to cover for her 'til she was ready to return. To not worry, and just take care of Willow. After she hung up, she again realized what she owed this man she thought of as her father. Something she could never repay. She was beyond grateful.

She called Airlines next, and found the next flight out from Cleveland to San Francisco. Cost wasn't a factor, she needed to be there as soon as possible. She was already late…days late. She booked the flight, which was in 3 hours, and hung up. She started to pack.

As she packed, she began to think. Think about things she'd pushed away in the last year. About Will. And Faith. And how stupid she'd been about it all. How she'd wished she'd been more mature, accepted what had happened, and reached out to them. Before it was too late to reach out. She told herself that it would be so much easier to just let this go. But she didn't want to do that. She'd done that, and now it was too late to make it up to Faith, or in that regard, with Willow. But she would be damned if she would stand by again, and let Willow stand alone. Be alone. When she needed someone to support her.

She realized that Willow might not want her there. At least, at first. But she was going to persist. She meant to make whatever she could right between them again. She decided it was time to stop acting like a child, and to start acting like an adult. To stop running, but to face up to what she had to do. This wasn't about her, this was about Willow. Helping Willow. That was her purpose now, her reason.  To be the friend she hadn't been for way too long.

She finished packing, and called a cab. She decided she wouldn't drive to the airport. She had no idea how long she would be gone, or if she'd ever be back. Either way, taking her car would be pointless. She hefted her suitcases, walked to the front door of the apartment, and took one look around. She wondered why all of a sudden it looked strange to her, like she'd only been waiting here. She sighed, and snapped off the lights.

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Willow sat in her kitchen, looking at a picture of Faith.

Her eyes were red from crying, but her eyes were dry now. The time for tears was past. It was time to do what she must do, what she wanted to do. But, even wanting it, didn't make it easier.

She didn't even know why she had been putting it off… delaying. Maybe she had secretly hoped that a slayer would come along, and vanquish the demons haunting her, eating her alive.

It had been a mistake, seeing Buffy. She could have sent the letter, mailed it. But she wanted to see Buffy. More like, she had to see Buffy. But instead of helping, it had just made it worse. She didn't know what she had expected; whatever it was, she didn't get it. All it had done was heap more pain onto the pain she already carried. She had to run from that.

She'd been thinking about this ever since Faith had died. She'd thought, and thought. But still, she hesitated. Waiting. For what? She didn't know. Whatever she was waiting for wasn't going to happen.

It was time. Now was the time. She got up from her chair, and made her way to the bathroom. She started the water in the tub, and turned on the radio. Something soft, mellow. She'd need that. She closed the door to the bathroom.

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During the plane trip to San Francisco, Buffy thought about what she would say to Willow.

She frankly didn't know what to say. Or if she would even say anything. Or if Willow would speak to her. Or see her, even.

No matter, she had to try. Something was wrong. Something was terribly broken in Willow. Something she hoped she could help fix.

She'd seen Willow grieve before. Over Oz, when he left her. She'd withdrawn, but she got through it. She finally came out of her shell when Tara came into her life. Tara had been her small miracle, her healing. She had not only made Willow good again, she made her better. Buffy had watched Willow blossom with Tara, and had been happy. Even when there had been the break up over the magic use, they had somehow still connected. Willow had turned away, finally, from magic, and had tried harder to just be herself. And that was because of  Tara, the connection they had.

When Tara died, Willow had gone…god, I hate the word evil. It wasn't evil. It was… lashing out, vengeance. The big problem was the fact that she was a powerful witch, and had absorbed an enormous amount of dark magic. That is what drove her over the edge, nearly destroying the world. But again, someone had reached out to her. Xander. Reminded her of her humanity, and allowed her to become what she was… a terribly grieving woman. Not evil.

Buffy knew it was her chance now. Her chance to reach out, to bring Willow back from the edge. And it was important to her. She'd failed Willow in so many ways before. With Oz, with Tara, even with Kennedy. Now, Faith. But she'd been so self involved, so concerned about her own feelings, she hadn't reached out, helped the one person that meant everything to her. She'd walked away, she'd cowered, when she was needed most. No more, no more.

And she was ultimately, hoping that somehow they could put it back together… Will and her. Cause the one thing this week had taught her was that she needed Will. Needed her badly. And that life without her in it, no matter how little a part she would have to play, would be no life at all.

She realized now that walking away hadn't been noble. It'd been selfish. She should have bowed out, but stayed close. So, she could have helped Will through this time. It must have been awful for her, and of course, once again, I let her down. I promise, Will, If you'll just hang on for me, just a little longer, I won't do it again. Ever. I need you , Will. We need each other. Please don't turn me away. Please, let me help you. I love you, Will. Please, let me prove it to you.

Throughout the rest of her trip, she repeated that to herself. It became her mantra. She quietly chanted it to herself, as something inside her started yelling at her to hurry, hurry.

She knew somehow time was running out.

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Willow sat in the bath, letting the warm waters drift her away.

The smell was bothering her a little bit, but that soon wouldn't matter. None of it would matter. All that mattered would be done.

As her mind drifted, she remembered her life. How she met Buffy that first day she came to Sunnydale. How Buffy had profoundly changed her life. How much Buffy had meant to her, and all the good things, and bad things, they'd shared. She seemed to see Buffy reaching out to her, saying "Wait, wait, I'm almost there. Wait for me Will". But it was too late to wait. She'd waited too long. Time to move on, to go on.

And she saw Faith. How'd she'd hated Faith when she met her. She'd felt jealousy of what Faith had shared with Buffy; something Willow could never share with Buffy. Being a slayer.

And then, there was that trip back from L.A. with Faith, when Faith came to help Buffy with the first. And how they'd gotten to talking , and how they got to know each other. And her feelings for Faith had begun to change.

And then that night, that night that had been so miserable and wonderful. How fighting with Buffy had been miserable, and how Faith had managed to make it wonderful. How she fell for Faith that night. But suppressed it. Until Faith showed up at her door, and let her know in no uncertain terms how she felt. So unlike Buffy.

And they'd been happy. So happy. And then it was cut cruelly short. By something even her Faith, her strong, resilient Faith couldn't fight. And as she watched Faith, saw her change, Willow changed with her. As Faith died, slowly, so did Willow. And when at last Faith really died, so did Willow. Her body just didn't know it yet.

And now it was time. Time. And she lay back, and let the warm water lull her into sleep.

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Buffy was like a madwoman.

Every little delay, every hold up was driving her closer to the edge. She was ready to hurt people, something she'd only done reluctantly before. But it almost seems to be a law that when you're in a hurry, everything slows to a crawl. Finally she got through the airport, collected her luggage, and hailed a cab. She was on edge, the voice in her yelling louder to hurry, hurry. Time is almost gone. She doubled the cabman's fare to get her to Willow's address as fast as possible. And he tried.

But they hit a traffic snarl. They crawled along for what seemed an hour, and finally broke free. Buffy was a wreck. Her nerves were on edge, and she was shaking. The voice inside no longer urged her to hurry. It just kept saying " Too late, you're too late". That scared her.

They pulled up in front of the apartment building. She jumped out of the cab, paid the driver and flew up the stairs. She didn't bother with the elevator, but went up the fire stairs to Willow's floor. She ran to the door, and knocked. No response. She knocked louder, still nothing. She yelled, and knocked louder yet, bringing out some neighbors. She just glared at them, and they just shut their doors. Finally, she was desperate…then remembered she still had her key. She fumbled with her key ring, and finally found it. She opened the door, and rushed inside. No one. The lights were on, but no one was here. What?

Then she heard the music playing softly in the bathroom. Buffy felt a moment of relief. Maybe she was just taking a bath, hadn't heard me. Then a cold feeling came over her, and she tried the bathroom door. It was locked. She applied slayer strength, and broke the lock. She opened the door…walked in…then backed out. She turned, her face was blanched…she staggered, then fell to her knees. She vomited. A faint coppery smell permeated the room. By sheer will, she got back on her feet, and went back into the bathroom. She felt the pulse point on her neck, but there was no pulse. She knew there wouldn't be. The water was red with her blood. She was too late.

In a daze, her mind not even reacting, she called 911.  They responded in 10 minutes, and confirmed what she already knew. She was gone. They asked if she were related to the deceased(god, that is so cold…deceased, like an animal). She said no, she was her friend, her best friend. But that she would contact the relatives. They told her that they would contact the coroner's office, and that it would take time for them to respond. She just nodded, not really hearing them. Not really hearing, or seeing, or feeling anything.

After they left, she walked around in a daze. She cleaned up the place she had vomited, and then…just let the cloth fall. She wandered around, and finally, wound up on the floor. Sitting. Her body, her mind in shock. She waited for hours for the coroner's department to show up. When they did, they asked if she had found the deceased(again, that word). Yes. They asked again if she were related. No, friend. Did she know the next of kin? Yes, she would contact them. They told her there would be an investigation. They would have to seal the place as a crime scene. But from all indications it looked like a suicide. Buffy just stared at them, her mind not comprehending. She nodded. They brought in a stretcher, and body bag. They put Willow in it, and zipped it. That's when it broke. Buffy broke down, and threw herself on the body. She cried. And cried. They gently tried to pry her away, but she was too strong. Finally, gathering her senses, she let go, and they took the body away. They told her, as gently as possible, that she would have to leave now. She just nodded. She turned, and left.

She sat on the stoop, her luggage surrounding her. The sobs came, wracking her body. She didn't understand. She couldn't understand. Why? This wasn't supposed to happen. She was supposed to be alive. Buffy was supposed to help her. But Buffy was too late. again. Too late. like so often before, she felt she'd failed her. This time, for the last time.

Her sorrow turned to rage. She looked up into the heavens and screamed. " HOW? HOW COULD YOU DO THIS? HOW COULD YOU LET ME FAIL? I'VE SAVED THE GODDAMNED WORLD 7 TIMES. I'VE DIED TO SAVE THE WOLRD. AND YOU COULDN'T , WOULDN'T LET ME SAVE HER? GODDAMN YOU ALL!!!! YOU WOULDN'T LET ME SAVE HER!!!!!!" The grief, and the pain overcome her. She just sort of collapses into her luggage, lying there, crying. Not knowing or caring what anyone thinks.

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After the police released the apartment, she recovered Willow's address book, and started making the calls.

She called her parents first, but they were ' not available'. Each time she called them, the response was the same. Well, what did she really expect from the Rosenbergs, anyway? They'd never 'been available' to her in her life. Why now?

She called Giles. She could hear the low gasp, then him recovering. But the pain was evident in his voice. He asked what he could do? She said, just be here when the services are scheduled.

She called Xander. He nearly broke down on the phone. She knew exactly how he felt. He said he'd be there, no matter what.

She called Angel. When she talked to him, she found out he didn't know about Faith's death. That was odd. But, maybe …it didn't matter, could he come? He promised he would be there.  He said he would tell Wes, and Fred and the rest.

Slowly she made her way through the address book. Some would come, some wouldn't. It was weird. She felt so disconnected from it all. In a way, it just seemed pointless. But she did it, nonetheless.

The funeral was surreal to her. So Angel could attend, they arranged to bury Willow at dusk. It was all like being in a dream, a horrible dream. The Rabbi at the temple, and the Wicca Priestess at the gravesite, all said the right words, the right things. But it didn't seem real. It couldn't be real. It was some kind of horrible mistake, some kind of twisted joke. Willow isn't, couldn't be dead. That isn't Willow…that's some body. That's not her. She's not here. Where is she? I need her, now, where IS SHE?

Buffy couldn't stand by the rest. Somehow, she just felt no connection…they were like shadows on this already overcast day. With some bitterness, she wondered, Where were they? (then, regretting it, realizing she hadn't been here) Where were WE? When she needed us. When Faith passed away? Why was she alone? Why hadn't anyone come? But those were questions without answers, she would never know the why. All she knew was that the people she'd loved for so long were no longer real to her. Giles, Xander, Dawn, Angel…all shadows, ghosts, not real. The only one real was Willow, and she wasn't here. That was only her shell…the covering for what she'd been. Willow was gone, and not coming back.

After the service, they came up to her, making the appropriate noises. She returned the appropriate noises, but it was all hollow, meaningless. Reality was bent. There was nothing here that was real to her. They were holding a wake for Willow, and hoped they would see her there. She made noises like she'd see them there, but she didn't. She didn't go. She stayed by the graveside, all through the evening and on into the night.

She tried to comprehend, to understand. To get a meaning from it all. But it didn't work. She couldn't make sense of it. It was all shadows and dust, illusion and smoke. None of it could be, would be real to her.

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Buffy got up from her place at the beach. She came here often to think. The sense of the ocean, its vastness, it's sense of eternity, is comforting to her.

She makes her way back to town, and stops at the florist's shop for the roses. 4 roses, 3 red, 1 white. She stops at the same florist every day, and they know her now. They smile at her, and she returns the smile, but it's a sad smile on both ends. They know what the flowers are for. Even after all this time, nearly a year now, they can see the grief is still fresh on her face. They hope secretly someday she will come in less and less, as the grief fades.

But the grief doesn't seem like it will fade. Buffy's heart is like a raw wound, the pain ever present. She hovers in that gray world between life and death, not knowing which way she will choose. She doesn't live, she just exists.

She has separated herself from her past. Dropped out of sight of her friends and family. She lives in San Francisco, working enough to get by. She has become one of the faceless in a city of faceless people. She doesn't care. It's what she wants.

What keeps her going is her daily ritual. She goes and buys flowers. And places them on the side by side graves of Faith and Willow.

She places two red roses on Willow's grave. One from herself, and one from Faith. As she knew she would do if she were here. And on Faith's grave, she places one red, and one white rose, the red from Will, the white from herself.

Occasionally she'll put other things on the graves. Maybe a pretty shell she finds. Or something she thinks they might like. Of course, after time it all disappears; the caretakers tend to clear things from the graves after a month or so. But she likes to imagine that Faith and Will come to recover the items. That they are pleased with her offerings. It brings her a little solace.

She traces the engraving on the headstone she bought them. It's a double stone, and reads as follows:

Willow Rosenberg ======== Faith DeMarco

b.1981 d.2005 ===========b.1982 d.2005

Their love is eternal, even death couldn't break

the bonds. May happiness find them on their

journey together.

Buffy sits at the graves, thinking about her life. About her life with Willow. And with Faith. She remembers the advice she gave Willow on the first day she met her. They were in the Bronze, and Willow at that time was so shy, she had a hard time dating. Buffy had told her " Seize the moment. For tomorrow you might be dead".

The thought brought a bitter smile to her face. She'd had plenty of those moments. Moments she could have seized, and maybe now things would be different. But she'd failed, through her lack of courage, to take her own advice. And now it was too late.

For now she was alone, totally alone.

After all.

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Fin.