This Is The End For Which We Twain Are Met

There were two bodies lying at the foot of Glory's tower when it was all over…when Dawn stumbled down…when the world was saved…

Everyone is probably still gathered at the Summers' house right now, crying for one of them.

"Willow? I got so lost." The light was back in Tara's eyes, though dimmed by confusion from the sparkle of old, and Willow's emotions were a whirlwind of joy and ecstasy.

Her arms around her girl, Willow sobbed into her hair. "I found you. I'll always find you."

She'll never find Tara again, though she thinks she knows where she is – heaven, right? Tara has to be in heaven, whole and beautiful and nothing like the skull-split, gory corpse Willow had cradled in her arms as Buffy lay looking so peaceful and perfect just a few feet away.

For a minute she pretends that she doesn't wish that Anya hadn't been the one to survive the falling debris, that she wouldn't gladly trade Anya's life for Tara's. Pretending – it's nothing like the real thing, now is it? But it's the best way to stay safe as she drives to Los Angeles, having been almost unanimously elected to take the news of Buffy's death to Angel.

Her own vote didn't count.

Now, though, she thinks maybe they were right. Maybe it will be easier to deal with her own special grief away from the others – and with people who never knew Tara and have some excuse for not putting her on the same pedestal where Buffy's body metaphorically lies. Besides, it's not like she wanted to stay and watch while Spike wailed and Dawn and Giles held onto each other and Xander and Anya gazed at the diamond ring on Anya's hand as Anya spoke of making the best of things while two bodies hadn't even gone into full rigor yet.

"Smart chicks are so hot." Xander's eyes were worshipful as he gazed at Anya and Willow frowned.

"You couldn't have figured that out in tenth grade?"

Willow hates herself for saying that; for feeling some small amount of nostalgic regret and wistfulness at that moment; for allowing a fractional part of herself to be taken away from Tara for even a minute. Because that was one of the last few precious minutes of Tara's life. Even though Tara was a shell for all but a couple of them at the end.

It isn't fair! It isn't fair!

For a split second, Willow's eyes are clouded with acid tears and she thinks maybe she should pull over, but she shakes them off and keeps on driving, wishing she'd chosen the scenic drive down PCH instead. It would be easier to get killed there, to find her way to Tara. She'd already have stopped and slit her wrists except… Can you go to heaven if you kill yourself?

Which makes her wonder about Buffy, who she also mourns. Where is Buffy? Oh god, is Buffy in that horrible world opened up by the portal? Is Buffy in Hell?

She can't think like this. The pain in her heart, her head, her whole body is becoming unbearable. Make it stop, oh please, something – anything – make it stop.

Maybe her fondest prayers will never be answered, but the hotel where Angel lives suddenly looms before her and it at least distracts slightly from the agony writhing within each bone and muscle and tendon inside her and she guesses that's something – a paltry something, but something.

Oh how she hates parallel parking, but she manages to sandwich her parents' Honda between a Chevy and a Toyota without hitting either and that's somehow a bigger victory to her than saving the world. Probably because this time no one died.

Deep breaths. Take deep breaths. You have work to do. You're still Buffy's big gun, right?

Now she can't breathe because she's laughing – hysterical. Some weapon Willow has turned out to be.

Pull it together.

And she does.

It ends up not mattering what kind of shape she's in as she enters the hotel because it's empty. She can feel the absence of life in its walls like this building is one of the corpses back in Sunnydale… Buffy's corpse, not Tara's, because the hotel looks so pretty and perfect.

Why did Tara have to be bloody and broken? Willow couldn't even give her one last kiss.

She'll need to call the funeral home, make sure everything is taken care of as per the written instructions she told Giles to give them. She's a detail-oriented girl, that's one thing you can't take away from her.

Should she call Tara's family? If it were up to her, of course, she wouldn't, but Tara is –was (oh god make it stop hurting) – better than Willow and she is – was (no, not was, can't be was, stop saying was) – so much more forgiving. She thinks maybe Tara would want them to know. So okay, when she gets back to Sunnydale, she'll call Tara's family, give them some version of the story that works and then…

Then what will she do? Tara's her girl – still, always – and she just can't imagine her life without Tara in it. Even when Tara's mind was gone, Willow had held her, watched over her, cared for her. How is she supposed to sleep without Tara beside her? What will it be like when the sheets are laundered and Tara's pillowcase no longer smells like her shampoo? How is she supposed to go on knowing that every day it will be harder to remember the sound of Tara's voice, to conjure up the feeling of Tara's hands on her body, to recall the taste of Tara on her tongue?

It's not fair! It's not fair!

She fights to keep from standing in the center of the lobby and screaming the words so loud that the glass in every window shatters like Tara's skull.

Right now, the only thing holding her together is knowing that at least Dawn will cry for Tara; she'll make sure that Giles tends to Tara's funeral, too. If it were up to the others… Willow wishes she could believe otherwise, but she knows Tara might go down in an unmarked grave for all they'd really care now that the only tie to Tara they have is in Los Angeles doing what they just don't want to do – waiting for Angel to come back so he can learn the terrible news.

Which she guesses will be right about now. He's walking through the door, smiling and happy, surrounded by Cordelia (who's wearing a costume like a child on Halloween – is she still acting?) and Wesley and two people Willow doesn't know.

His voice is full of cheer as he announces, "There's no place like…" And then he sees her. "Willow?"

Even Cordelia's smile fades now. "What's…?"

Willow stands and she doesn't have to say a word. "It's Buffy." Angel's voice is now soft and his mouth barely moves as he speaks, but it's enough. Everyone gets it… Or most everyone. The thin girl who Willow doesn't know seems confused. That's okay – because this is all pretty confusing, right? Buffy and Tara were the good guys and when the good guys win…

Aren't they supposed to live?

A part of Willow wonders if maybe she can leave now. Angel knows and he's got his friends here to console him and…

Oh god she hates him right now. She hates him so much for being surrounded by people who will be there for him, who will listen to him and comfort him and care and not send him away because they don't want to deal with his grief and…

"Yeah, it's Buffy," she says and even though she doesn't say it loudly, her voice seems to rebound off the walls all the same. "She saved the world. Again. For the last time."

Everyone's eyes are on Angel, even hers. Poor Angel. Poor, poor Angel. Not like anyone else in this room is reeling from losing the love of their life. And okay, it's not fair to be bitter because after all no one here knows but…

She hates them all. Every single one of them. Even the guy with the shaved head and the girl in the frumpy dress. She hates them. "I should go," she says, hollow-voiced and low.

"That's it?" Cordelia shrills, her eyes now focusing venom on Willow. "You just drop a bombshell like that and…"

"Cordelia." Angel's voice surprises Willow and his eyes are locked on her in a way that frightens her so much more than Cordelia's wrath.

Cordelia isn't giving up quite that easily. "What? All I was saying is…" But her voice trails off. Maybe she can read the tea leaves of Angel's expression. Or maybe for the first time ever she's run out of things to say. Willow doesn't care. She's just glad Cordelia has shut the hell up.

"I need to get back," Willow says as if they were never interrupted.

No one says anything, but a second later, Angel's hand is on her arm and he's dragging her across the floor and then up the stairs. This is not going the way she expected. So shocked is she that she can't even make sense of what is being said by the chorus of voices from the lobby. The only thing she knows is how tightly Angel's fingers are gripping her arm.

A minute later, a door opens and then closes behind the two of them and she thinks this is probably Angel's room. "Talk to me," he says, but she doesn't. She just stares. "That wasn't a request." This time he's hard-eyed and cold.

"Buffy's dead," she says, shrugging and looking away. But now his hand is under her chin and he's forcing her to look at him.

"And…?" He sounds afraid.

"Death was her gift. That's what she told Dawn, anyway. The ritual to open the portal to Glory's world had already started and blood was needed to close it. Buffy gave hers." Maybe this will be the end of it.

It isn't. She wonders how much he knows about what was going on in Sunnydale. But he doesn't ask the questions she expects him to ask. "What else happened?"

"What else?" Her voice is high and angry. How dare he! How dare he! "Buffy's dead. I came here, I told you, and that's just not enough, huh? Okay, well, here's what else – Tara's dead, too. Which probably doesn't mean anything to you, since it's not like you know who she is seeing as how we never really kept in touch even though I gave you back your fucking soul, but she means everything to me. Tara is my girl. My girl…" She can't keep the wracking sobs at bay and now she's falling – or she feels like she's falling – and her whole body is shaking with her pain and her grief and the anger that's eating through her skin.

It takes a moment to realize that Angel is holding her. It's the second time ever that she's felt those arms around her and she's not sure this is any more welcome than when his soulless counterpart held her fast in the high school hallway. Not like there's anything she can do about it, though. "I'm sorry," he says and she thinks the fact that it sounds like he means it is making her hate him even more.

"Not as sorry as I am," she spits out.

"No, you're right," he agrees and she wants to stake him. "But I am sorry." There's a long pause and then he speaks again. "You loved her. Tara."

If anything in the world is capable of stoking the fires of her fury even hotter, it's Angel's use of the past tense. "I love her," she corrects him, her body stiffening in the arms that refuse to release her.

"She must have… She must be someone special," Angel says, correcting himself and subtly stressing his use of the present tense. Does she hate him more when he's thoughtless or thoughtful?

Skip it. At least someone is talking about Tara. "She is," Willow replies. "She's beautiful and she's perfect and she's…everything." Willow shuts her eyes hard as a vision of what Tara looks like now shocks her mind. No. Don't think about that. Never think about that.

"I can't imagine what you're going through. Losing her. Losing Buffy."

His hold loosens and she gazes into his eyes. She suddenly feels very selfish. Because after all, he loves Buffy so much and it must cut him to the core to realize that she's gone. "I know this must hurt you, too," she says, wincing inside at how very meager those words are.

"It does," he says. What follows stuns her. "But I walked away from her a long time ago. You didn't. You were there by her side. I think you have more of a right to tears than I do."

He means it and dammit, she just can't hate him anymore, though she thinks that by the logic of her emotions this past hour or two she should hate him more than ever. "She never stopped loving you," Willow tells him. "I know she never will."

There's no answer, and she just lets it go, even though she guesses she expected him to say something. If today has taught her anything, it's that grief is a strange and terrible thing – a demon of a sort Giles's books can never reveal how to vanquish.

"Why are you here?" he asks after a few more moments and she's this close to being angry at him again until she sees in his eyes that he doesn't mean it the way it sounded.

"They figured I should be the one to tell you." Angel's hold loosens enough for her to back away, and she does as his eyes flash gold. Speaking of unexpected.

"Bastards!" he says and it's funny that, for all she's reflexively put physical distance between them, this is more consoling than his embrace. It's nice to have someone else hate her friends right along with her, even if she knows it's wrong and unfair and that she'll hate herself for it later.

"I guess they thought I was the only one you'd really want to talk to." Which is probably true, even if a stubborn and rebellious part of her aching heart still proclaims that what they wanted was to get rid of her because they didn't want to deal with the extra grief she's feeling – a grief none of them, except maybe Dawn, even remotely shares. After all, they couldn't handle her heartbreak over Oz's abandonment when they were whole and happy.

Sue her. She doesn't have to be fair right now.

His expression changes and his hand is under her chin again. When did he move closer? "I'm glad you're here."

"Me, too," she says and she's amazed to realize she means it. She'd had a hunch it would be easier here and she'd been right…but for completely different reasons than she'd thought. "Thanks," she blurts out without thinking.

"What for?" Guess she can understand why he's confused.

"For caring – you know – about Tara." She can see a whole range of thoughts click behind his eyes and it amazes her just how much he seems to have figured out. Maybe she's just easy to read. Tara said that once – that she wore all her feelings on her face. Tara… Who knew that Angel would ever remind her of Tara?

He says nothing and pulls her close. This time it doesn't feel oppressive or uncomfortable at all. They're friends now, aren't they? After all this time, they really are. Tara has worked her magic even from beyond… hasn't she?

Moments pass, again, and Willow can almost hear the tick of some invisible clock. It sounds like the beat of Tara's heart. Of course now she's crying once more. It hurts. It will always hurt. She thinks the dead heart in Angel's chest has more substance and life than the one in her own – or maybe not. No matter what he says, she knows it must be agonizing to him – the loss of Buffy. After all, it's not like she doesn't feel that grief as well.

"You're the strongest person here. You know that, right?"

Buffy said that. She really said that.

When the chips were down she had counted on Willow.

Willow had failed.

Failed so badly.

There is nothing she can do to make it right. Because Buffy is gone, gone forever. No Xander with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation can fix her this time.

Willow will never, ever tell Angel what she's afraid of – where she's terrified Buffy is right now. She can't bear it and Angel shouldn't have to. The universe couldn't be so cruel, so sadistic…could it?

The gory mockery that was Tara's sweet face flashes before her eyes. That's her answer.

"It isn't fair," she says in a voice broken by hiccupping sobs.

"No," Angel offers. "It isn't."

"It's supposed to be," she continues, stubborn as a child. "When you save the world, when you do what's right…"

She expects Angel to contradict her, but he doesn't. "I know." His arms tighten around her and she wraps her own around him in return at last.

After a minute or two, they both let go and Angel guides her – not towards a chair – to the bed, and he sits beside her. There are questions she thinks of asking – mostly about why Cordelia was dressed in that costume and who the other two people in the lobby are. Angel starts talking before she can. "I'm sorry I wasn't there."

What she's about to say is that there isn't anything he could have done, but she realizes that's not the least bit consoling. It would hurt him to hear those words, even though they're true – especially because they're true. So instead she says, "You didn't know," and she realizes it was the right thing by the infinitesimal relaxation of his posture.

"I wish I had," he replies, and Willow's just glad there's no vengeance demon within earshot, because she can imagine all too well the twisted horror Anyanka could have made of those four words.

Anya – who was barely scratched by the tumbling rubble that crushed and mangled Tara.

"Xander's engaged," Willow offers pointlessly. "To Anya. The ex-demon who brought the vampire version of me to Sunnydale."

Angel stares, pretty much what she expected…and then he starts laughing, which maybe she expected, too. It's welcome and she joins in. Because if you can't laugh at your best friend's inappropriate engagement, what can you laugh at, right? Especially when everything that matters is being embalmed in the local funeral parlour right now.

"When's the wedding?" Angel asks and Willow is curious. If she invited him, would he…?

"I don't know yet. Wanna come?" She wonders if he realizes that she's not actually kidding.

He does. "Yeah. I'll be there." And somehow she knows it's a promise. It's also the only thing holding her together.

"Thanks." She pauses and then finally works up the nerve to ask her silly questions. "So. Cordelia's outfit..."

For a moment Angel appears confused and she's…flattered, actually. What's going on in this room had taken all of his thoughts until just now. "Long story," he finally says. "But the short version is that we were in another dimension and they made Cordelia a princess. The girl in the lobby? Her name is Winifred Burkle. We rescued her from there. They keep humans as slaves."

"Oh." What else can Willow say? It's important and very good, what Angel did, but she also gets caught on the fact of his having been in another dimension…and what was going on there. Right now, at this very moment, could Buffy be a slave? Please no – not Buffy, never Buffy. She can't bear the thought of Buffy being forced to bend to someone else's will.

Angel's staring at her again. "Are you okay?" He makes a self-deprecating sound before she can answer. "Of course you're not okay."

"No, I'm not," she agrees and she can feel the tears pricking at her eyes as the seesaw of grief tilts yet again. "I guess after something like this, I'll…we'll never be okay, will we? Not really." Emboldened by his concern, she asks another, much more important question. "How do you do it, Angel?"

He seems about to ask what she means but then his eyes turn woeful with knowledge and he nods for her to continue. "How do you go on when the one person in the whole world who means everything to you isn't there…is never going to be there?" Funny how nothing she endured with Oz is giving her those answers. Maybe because all of that pain got lost in the brightness of Tara and she knows that will never happen again. There's only one Tara in all the world, only one girl who will ever be Willow's everything.

She figures she'll get a platitude or something empathetic from Angel. What she gets instead… "I don't know, Willow. I can't begin to imagine what you're going through." The words are a shock and Willow knows he can see it on her face. What he says next seems to burn his tongue with its awkward bitterness, but he gives her his truth anyway. "I loved Buffy more than I've ever loved anyone… But it was nothing like what you feel for Tara. I wish… I wish it had been. I wish I knew what that was like – even now, even now when I can see how much anguish you're feeling." His hand is against her cheek and she closes her eyes against the torturous honesty still shining in his. "Don't ever regret it. Don't. Because what you had…what you gave… Some of us will never, ever know what you know."

The seesaw tilts again as it dawns on Willow what this means…what Buffy, the girl Willow sometimes envied so much, never had. All these years, all this time. Oh how she hopes that wherever she is, Buffy doesn't know. Let her at least have the certainty that what she shared with Angel was every bit as transcendent as what Willow has shared with Tara.

Shouldn't she hate Angel again for this? She can't, maybe because it suddenly occurs to her that Angel never realized that what he gave Buffy was lacking until now. The crackle and stammer of his voice echoing in her ears finally tells her that last part of the story. Oh no. She realizes how much pain that must be causing him. "I'm sorry," she says, eyes open and locked onto his.

"I know." She's glad of those words, grateful for some unknown reason that he didn't say she shouldn't be sorry at all. There's a humanity in his refusal to pardon her and she cuddles it close, appreciating the fact that she's not the only one made small by grief and loss.

Now, though, now the silence is turning uncomfortable and she's not sure what she should do. She thinks taking her leave might be the right thing, but then Angel reaches over and grabs her hand – he's anticipated her next move (again) and it's unsettling. Where did it come from – this…whatever it is that they seem to suddenly share?

Some strange feeling bubbles forth – guilt because she's sharing something of substance with Angel, she thinks – and she decides to force things, to make him let her go. "It's my fault," she says, sharp and sudden. "Buffy dying. She told me I was her big gun, but I was so worried about Tara and…" Her words get tangled up and she's babbling and everything goes sideways. "Look at how well that worked out. I mean, here I go and save…but then… Maybe that's what I get. Maybe if I'd done what I was supposed to do… Would they both still be here? Or Buffy? At least Buffy?"

And now she's back in Angel's arms, sobbing and clutching onto him like a little girl and she knows she's wrong for this but here she stays, forcing him to console the woman who might as well have murdered his love. Even if he didn't love Buffy as much as she loved Tara… Oh no! No, not the past tense, not yet – please not yet.

Tara – don't go! Don't go, don't go, don't go.

She's bawling and clinging ever tighter to Angel as her tears soak his shirt. He's saying something, something comforting, but she can't make out the words. She just knows they're not the ones he has every right to be spewing at her right now. "She's dead," Willow chokes out, and again Angel knows exactly what she means.

"Yes." He adds no platitudes about her love keeping Tara's spirit alive. Does she hate him for that? No, she would have hated him for lying but she can't hate him for sparing her from the shallow mockery she's pretty sure she'll be hearing from Xander and Giles as they make it abundantly clear how much they don't really want to be there for her while playing at compassion and concern.

For one brief, mad moment, she wants to ask him to come back with her, beg him to find some way to turn Tara. She doesn't do it, but she thinks Angel can tell she wanted to. "I wish I'd been there," he says again, and she's sure she knows exactly what he means.

"You'd have done that?" she asks, not bothering to pretend he doesn't know, gambling that she's right.

She is. "If you'd asked me. Maybe. I don't know." That last is the first lie he's told and they both know it, though she understands why he told it and she lets it slide. Today is not the day to strip away any more of his illusions. That day will never come.

It occurs to her that he hasn't asked about Dawn or Giles and it doesn't surprise her…or bother her. Looks like once again she's back to being petty. She's okay with it here and she wonders if maybe that's why she wanted to leave, because being okay at all seems…wrong, she thinks. Yeah, wrong. Because everything is horrible and the world may have been saved but it ended all the same and there should be rain and torment and no comfort at all and…

"You don't hate me, do you." It's not a question, though Angel answers it as if it were.

"No. No, I don't." He doesn't ask why she said such a thing.

"I thought about her in the past tense. A minute ago."

His eyes close and she is overwhelmed by the way he seems to feel the agony that caused her. He gets it. She knows he's the only one who ever will.

"It's just going to get worse. A year from now, I won't remember exactly what colour her eyes were and then her voice will go and then… Someday she'll be a name and some photographs and a hole in my heart that won't ever get filled. She'll just be this pain and she won't even be Tara anymore, not really." Something new and cruel springs to vicious life and she continues. "It'll be different with Buffy. We'll all talk about her all the time and everyone will remember and she'll be Buffy for years and years and no one will ever forget that her eyes were green and they looked like marbles when she was angry."

There are no words for how much she hates herself for saying those things. "I love Buffy. I really… I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean…"

Back in Angel's arms and for some crazy reason she can tell he still doesn't hate her. He should. But instead, he gives her shelter and compassion. "I know… It's okay," he says and it's not a commonplace. It's another promise.

"You don't have to choose," he says after a time. "And you don't have to apologize – not for anything. I know how hard it is for you, how hard it's going to be." Her face is in his hand and there's that look from him again. "When you're ready to talk about Tara, I want you to call me. I want you to tell me everything. Make me see her as clearly as you do, okay? Then we can talk about her whenever you want to. That way her memory will be here even after…" He doesn't need to say it. They both know Willow will die long before he does…if he ever does at all.

How could anyone make sense of a universe where death is the Slayer's gift and this is Willow's? But she's not spurning it for all that she thinks there's possibly some injustice involved. "I don't know what to say," she says, and that's an understatement. 'Thank you' seems ludicrously inadequate.

But now she's looking into his eyes and she realizes there's something besides altruism behind this and she's… nervous, unsettled? She doesn't know, but she does know she's still going to tell him everything, even though it occurs to her all at once that he means everything and that she'll be telling him those things Xander might actually make the effort to put on a good show of sympathy in order to hear.

She'll give it all to Angel – every bit of it – and gladly. Anything to keep something of Tara here forever.

Shouldn't that frighten her?

Angel says nothing, but this time when she shifts and moves to get up, he does nothing to stop her. "I better get back. They'll be worried," she says and it's his turn to let her get away with a lie.

He gets up along with her and walks her to the door. "I'll be there for the funeral," he says.

She's about to thank him for that when he leans in. At first she thinks he's about to kiss her cheek, but then it changes and there's the touch of Angel's lips against hers. For the first time since she entered this room, she doesn't understand. But then again, she sees as she looks into his eyes, neither does he.

This changes nothing. Someday soon, she'll still pick up the phone.

Not another word is spoken and Willow leaves him, closing the door behind her. She makes her way back downstairs to the lobby…the empty lobby. Full circle.

Buffy is gone. Tara is gone.

Outside the sun is rising and the world is softly glowing… And it doesn't matter. Not at all.

The End.