A/N: Sorry that this wasn't put up last week as planned, but I got sick, and not much got done in the way of fic. When this chapter was written, I had yet to watch any episode besides IWRY past Season Three of Buffy, so, though I had knowledge of the spell Willow used to bring Buffy back, I had not actually seen her perform it. Also, I find Whistler to be fun. :-D Not sure why, but it's a fact. Just as a head's up: next week is going to be a week long celebration of Valentine's Day for me. I have three stories planned - two written so far. One is for B/A, obviously, one is for Liason, and one is for Booth and Brennan. After those three one shots are posted, I have a back log of several one shots to post for B/A before I start posting my next multi-chapter story. It's all planned out, it's half way done (thirty chapters total, fifteen penned so far), and I'm excited to get some feedback and reaction for it. In the meantime, enjoy the conclusion of this ficlet. Thanks for being patient and loyal when it comes to this story!

~Charlynn~

Epilogue

It was uncanny how one person could change another's life so much - take it, twist it around, and spit it back out so that it no longer resembled the life they had led just a little over a year before. Willow had known that Buffy was important to her, important to their friends, but the redhead didn't fully comprehend just how integral the slayer was to her very existence until after Buffy was already gone.

It went beyond missing her best friend. Sure, the two of them no longer stayed up all night, gigging and gossiping about boys, but, without Buffy, everything just sort of… fell apart. She was the glue that held them together - the binding of their book, the cream cheese that made their plain, white bagel actually palatable, their… Okay, she was important, very important, but, now, she was gone, and Willow knew that, if she didn't do something and do it soon, so would everybody else that she cared about.

Giles had already fled, packing his bags and returning home to England as soon as Buffy's funeral ended. He didn't even stay long enough to say goodbye, but Willow didn't blame him. She knew that, despite how much she and the others loved Buffy, Giles was suffering the most from the slayer's death. Not only did he love her, feel responsible for her, but he also blamed himself for her demise. If it wasn't for his past, then Ethan Rayne wouldn't have come after them. Without Ethan Rayne, Buffy would never have been cursed to die alongside the monster that inhabited her boyfriend's body. At least, that's how Giles viewed the situation. There was no talking sense into him, no explaining that Buffy would have died weeks prior to her actual death if Ethan Rayne had not stepped in at Angelus' behest.

But the running away didn't stop there. Joyce had packed up and moved away from Sunnydale. Without her daughter to keep her there, she wanted to be far away from the strange, little town. She had moved somewhere new, somewhere that didn't contain memories of her only child around ever street sign and corner.

And then there was Cordelia. She stuck it out longer than either adult, but she, too, had skipped town… at least for the summer. Buffy's death had somehow managed to pierce through the Cordelia's self-obsession, rendering her a completely different person. Willow wasn't sure if it was simply the reminder of how fragile life was that affected the brunette or if she really mourned their friend, but, whatever the reason, Cordelia had dismissively apologized to them all before taking the first flight out of Sunnydale for parts unknown.

Xander moped without his girlfriend. While the couple wasn't officially broken up, they also didn't see or talk to each other on a regular basis, and, because she had Oz, Xander felt left out and alone. He had withdrawn into himself, mourning the loss of their friend quietly, personally, and without the aid of his usual silly jokes. If Willow was honest with herself, she had to admit that she barely recognized the goofy teen. He was no longer the Xander of jelly donuts, Snoopy dances, and quick quips; rather, he was morose, sad, and quiet. Though it was selfish, she sometimes wondered if it was Xander's changes that distressed her the most. While she could tolerate her own sorrow, seeing someone she loved suffer was much harder to bear.

Luckily, though, she had Oz. Her boyfriend had been wonderful in the months since Buffy's death. He held her when she cried, played his guitar when she just wanted to forget, and he even occasionally managed to make her laugh despite the rather steep odds stacked against such a feat. Though it made her feel guilty, she knew that they were a stronger, better couple now that they had survived such a horrible event.

Despite his stalwart nature, though, she could see that Oz missed Buffy in his own way, too. The two of them had never been close, but her boyfriend had respected the slayer, especially after his own initiation into the supernatural world. Although between the two of them they had managed to control his werewolf status during the summer, Willow was worried about Oz's future. She knew that her boyfriend had been hoping for Buffy's help in containing his condition, but, without the slayer, who were they to turn to now?

And then there was the much broader issue of Buffy's death. Sunnydale, though never an ideal place to live, was now downright miserable. While the sun still shined, after all, they did live in Southern California, everything seemed to be haunted by the dark shadow of death and destruction. After realizing her error, Kendra had fled back to her homeland, ignoring her duties to the Hellmouth, and, as a result, Sunnydale was left unprotected by a slayer. Where once Buffy managed to, at least, keep the balance between good and evil, badness now reigned supreme. No one went out after dark, The Bronze had officially closed its doors, and the town was currently in the process of building yet three more cemeteries.

In fact, even Willow herself now avoided the night. Alone or with Oz and Xander, she would close her curtains after sunset, hoping to hide away from the reality of her world. However, on that particular night, she had ventured past the relative safety of her front door, down the reassuring confines of her private cul-de-sac, and found herself sitting directly before her best friend's gravestone. With a protection spell weaved around them, she and the two people left who meant the most to her in the world chanted together, the flames of the numerous candles before them flickering dangerously both from the unnaturally deceitful wind and the magic they were conjuring.

As the spell came to a close, Willow felt the last of her power drain from her already exhausted form, and she collapsed limply against the always ready, always there shoulder of her boyfriend. In silence, the three friends sat, all lost in their own thoughts, but it was Willow's mind that moved the most frantically. The spell they had just attempted was risky, far more complicated than any she had attempted in the past, but she had been convinced to try nonetheless out of sheer desperation. If it didn't work, if they had failed, Willow didn't even want to contemplate the future. It would be nothing but an empty, dark abyss filled with death, misery, and regrets, and she just couldn't live like that, not after everything she had already lived through, not after the past year and a half, not after Buffy.

Breaking the stillness around them, Xander waved his hands impatiently through the air directly before his face. "Uh, Wills? I don't need glasses, do I, because I'm not seeing Buffy?"

It was Oz who answered. "She's not… back… yet."

"Well, I hope she gets here soon, because this is creepy." Glancing around the deceptively peaceful graveyard, Xander mumbled under her breath, "I knew this wouldn't work."

"It should," Willow argued, her voice gaining both volume and speed as she continued to talk. "I checked the spell a hundred times, and Buffy didn't die of natural causes; she died because of the…"

"Spell," Xander finished for her, "because of the spell Ethan Rayne cast upon her, proof enough that magic is dangerous."

"If entered into with untrue intentions," she protested. "We're doing this for Buffy, because she's trapped somewhere she doesn't belong."

"Are you sure, though, that she went to hell?"

Considering her best friend's question, Willow replied, "Buffy died because she was connected to Angelus. When he died, so did she, so it would only make sense that she would go wherever he went as well."

Still determined to play devil's advocate, Xander reminded them all, "but what about your soul restoration spell, Willow? What if it worked? What if it was Angel whom Kendra killed? While I was never the guy's biggest fan, in retrospect… and comparison to his soulless doppelganger, he wasn't so bad. Maybe they're living it up together in heaven, making with the smoochies, giving with the happies…" Pausing for a moment, Xander swallowed roughly. "Okay, so I might have just taken that visual a little too far, but you catch my drift, right?"

It was Oz who answered him. "Willow knows what she's doing, Xander. Stop doubting her."

And, just like that, the group fell silent once more.

Sitting in their small circle, their hands still clasped desperately together, they waited. And waited. And waited, but nothing happened. The air didn't swell with magic and choke them with its power. The ground beneath them didn't tremble or come to life with the rising of the dead. And Buffy never appeared. For hours, they waited, both men silent as they watched the girl they both loved but in a different way struggle with the gradual realization that her last hope had failed. Finally, Willow was forced to confront the bitter truth.

Rising from her place before her best friend's grave, she allowed herself the luxury of a single tear before she stiffened her shoulders and rolled her back straight. Meeting the gazes of both her boyfriend and her oldest friend, she whispered, "let's go home."

They followed her without argument, without comment, without a single backwards glance.

( ~ )

Sometimes, he really hated his gig for the powers. Like now. But, then again, who would want to be the one responsible for reanimating a former master vampire turned souled champion turned master vampire – again – from the demon's own ashes, give him instructions on how to live his life, and then explain to him that he would be doing so without his precious slayer? Certainly not Whistler, that's for sure, but the powers were… persuasively persistent, so here he was, about to get dumped on. Again.

At least this time, as he dealt with Angel, he wasn't standing in some dirty alley. If nothing else, he had to hand it to the guy's sense of design. The mansion Angelus had been residing in prior to his demise was pretty tricked out. Cold, a little formal for Whistler's taste, but, all in all, it was a nice set of digs. Plus, the fact that there were no rodents in sight, that was a definite plus, too. The place could certainly use a good dusting, though. However, his cleaning days were in the past, and he was never going to revisit them.

Shuddering at the very memory of being forced to dress up as hired help in order to get into the Summer's residence, Whistler dumped out the pile of ashes he had swept up from the slayer's bed. In order to get all the remaining particles of Angel in his possession, he had used a vacuum to suck up the vampire's flaky debris, and, for three months, he had been traveling around with the Hoover, feeling ridiculous and like the laughing stock of the entire demon population.

However, orders were orders, and the powers had been explicit that he should not attempt to bring back Angel until exactly three months had passed since the night he went poof. Curious, he had asked why, but questions like that were not looked upon too highly with his bosses, so Whistler's queries had gone ignored, unanswered, and he knew the chances were he'd never find out the reasoning behind the wait.

Once all the vampire dust was settled into a neat little pile on the stone floor before the great room's hearth, he set to work, preparing everything else he would need for the little spell he was about to perform. First, he lit a fire in the fireplace, then, with a snap of his fingers, he ignited the various magical candles placed purposefully around the room, and then, finally, he took a good, long swig of whiskey in an attempt to brace himself for what was to come. It wasn't the spell itself, though, that made the demon nervous. Rather, he feared what was to come after he was successful.

As he chanted, Whistler began to hum with the energy the powers had infused him with for the sacred ritual. He could feel their strength course through his form, and it was a greater rush than any bottle of liquor had ever been able to give him. All too soon, though, the rush was replaced with a decided chill, and, as he opened his eyes, he noticed that the candles had been extinguished and that the fire in the hearth had been reduced to nothing more than a few burning embers. However, the changes in his environment didn't hold the demon's attention for long. Instead, it skipped, hopped, and immediately jumped to the naked, shivering vampire before him.

"Well, that certainly didn't take long, but would it have been too much to ask of the powers for them to provide you with, at least, a pair of pants?"

Angel just stared back at him, confused, disoriented, haunted. While Whistler was prepared to explain the present and the immediate future to the champion, he certainly didn't want to have to explain to him the last few months of his undead life before the second slayer sank a stake into his chest. However, as Whistler stood there, observing the reanimated vampire, he realized that he wouldn't have to. Within minutes, Angel's memories came surging back to him, and he whimpered in response, burying his head against his arms.

"She's dead, isn't she, because of me?"

Talk about jumping in with both feet… Angel didn't beat around the bush, that was for sure.

Sighing, Whistler collapsed upon the dusty couch. "Yeah, the slayer…"

Interrupting him, Angel corrected forcefully, "her name is Buffy."

"Was Buffy, because you're right - she's dead, but it's not your fault, Angel. There were circumstances working against her that were out of your control, out of anybody's control. The powers…"

Again, the vampire interjected, only, this time, his voice was softer. "I don't care. I don't want to hear about the powers."

"Well, I'm afraid that's not up to you. The powers have plans for you, Buddy, and you can't pout and ignore them. Trust me, I've tried. It just doesn't work that way."

As Angel stood up, apparently determined to find some clothes for he moved out of the great room and towards a bedroom, Whistler followed, talking at his heels. "We're going to L.A., you and me, Pal, at least for a little while. There, you'll learn of your next… assignment, if you will. I'll help you get set up in whatever it is the powers have planned for you, and then I'll hightail it out of there, and, hopefully, you and me won't be seeing each other again for a while."

"I'm not going."

"Of course you're going," the demon protested, laughing slightly. "The powers tell you what to do, and you do it. That's how this gig works. Haven't you realized that yet? And here I thought you were a smart guy."

"I'm staying here."

"But you have a destiny," Whistler argued, paling at the very idea that the vampire was going to make his job difficult. If Angel didn't cooperate, he didn't know how he was going to live up to his end of the bargain, and, if he didn't do what the powers said… "You're one of us now, one of the good guys."

"Until I lose my soul again."

"But without the slayer around to give you a happy…" At the bigger man's fierce glare, Whistler backtracked, "and did I forget to mention that your soul's now bound? Consider it a little peace offering from the powers to you. You know, you scratch their back; they'll scratch yours." Angel didn't respond. Instead, he finished getting dressed and, once done, went to push his way past the demon. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Patrolling."

Now, that he wasn't expecting. "Care to run that by me again, Buddy?"

Sighing, the champion took a step back and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, I'm not going to L.A. I'm staying here. While Buffy might be… gone, her friends are still alive, and their happiness always meant more to her than her own. So, I'm going to watch over them, keep them safe." Shrugging his shoulders, Angel explained, "the way I see, I have about 70 years of work to do, and, once that's done, then I will be, too."

Confused, Whistler simply said, "huh?"

"Once Buffy's friends die of natural causes after a long, happy life, then I'll die, too. I'll walk into the sun. If I happen to prevent an apocalypse or two in the process of keeping them safe, then so be it, but I do not work for the powers. As far as I'm concerned, they allowed her to die, so I owe them nothing."

He was so shocked by all the vampire had said that Whistler almost fell when Angel roughly brushed by him. Before he could react and right himself, he heard the door slam shut, signaling that the champion was already gone. "This is not good," the demon bemoaned, sitting down on the edge of the room's bed. "Not good at all."

( ~ )

As soon as he was outside the mansion, Angel ran. He ran as fast as he could, putting all his supernatural speed and strength into his powerful legs. Within minutes, he approached Sunnydale's first cemetery, and he immediately set to work at locating Buffy's grave. While he would kill any vampire or demon he stumbled across that night, he had lied to Whistler when he told him he was going patrolling. Rather, he was going to see the woman he loved… or, at least, the gravestone that marked what was left of her.

It didn't take him long to find it. She was buried in Sunny Rest, in a quiet, unassuming corner of the graveyard, her marker positioned under a large weeping willow tree. Angel found the plant appropriate. Beside the grave, there were a few scattered candles, some incense, and several bouquets of quickly wilting flowers. Someone else had obviously just been there, and he found himself wondering who – Giles, Willow, Joyce? It didn't matter, though, because, in that moment, he was all alone, just the way he wanted it.

He didn't talk to her, and he didn't cry. Instead, he simply stood before her grave, tracing the lines of her carved name with his unblinking, teary eyes over and over and over again. The repetitive action made him feel closer to her, somewhat comforted him, although Angel feared that he didn't deserve the relief. However, his gaze avoided the dates on the stone, for he certainly did not need yet another reminder of how young Buffy had been when she needlessly had died.

He stayed there for hours, but time moved quickly when an eternity of nothing stretched before him without any hope for relief. Not even a second death had been final for him, and Angel feared he'd never be allowed to simply cease existing. When he felt the dawn approaching, he sighed and went to turn around to leave, but a shift in the atmosphere stopped him, made his feet take root to the ground beneath his heavily soled boots.

Seconds later, a hand shot up out of the grass before him – a petite hand, a hand he had held countless times in his own, a hand he had kissed, and caressed, and had felt smooth itself all over his cold, undead body, a hand that wore his ring. Without thought as to what was happening, Angel reached for the fingers he knew so well and clenched them tightly, pulling at the flailing, desperate arm with all his strength.

Apparently, he wasn't the only one who wasn't allowed to rest peacefully in death. Buffy was alive.