To One in Paradise (Chapter One)
There was a stark room with a spartan bed waiting for him in a monastery. Angel supposed it made sense. A spiritual retreat where he could deal with the death of the one girl in all the world – the one girl who'd ever shown him what true happiness was; the one girl who'd filled his heart, who'd made him glad that he'd been given his soul, and for reasons that had nothing to do with atonement.
The late Buffy Summers.
Whose idea had this pilgrimage been, anyway? Angel had been too undone these past twenty hours or so to remember much. It had been Wesley's suggestion, he supposed. Wesley was always the one for sound ideas. Everyone else had probably been too preoccupied with worrying that he'd go off the deep end again, though he supposed Wesley had been, too. They had a right to that fear and he knew it.
Sooner or later, everyone he cared about wound up fearing him. Buffy certainly had…and with good reason. He'd lost his soul…
Lost the love he'd felt for her.
Right now that memory was sharper and more painful than even the memory of murdering Jenny Calendar. How could something so powerful that it had cost him his soul have disappeared with that very soul?
He felt it now, though, felt the pang of days they never shared – and one they did whose memory she had died without. His heart, dead as it had been for centuries, felt colder and emptier now.
All of a sudden a flash of red hair, the driver of the car next to his, cut his thoughts short. Her hair – it reminded him of…
The other one girl in all the world – the one who'd given him back his soul without a thought of vengeance; the one who'd put her own pain and anguish off to the side to carry the news of Buffy's death to him herself. How long had she sat, cold and alone with her heartache, waiting for him?
What was she doing right at this moment? Was she surrounded by caring friends to console her? More likely she was the one doing the consoling, just as she'd tried to do for him back at the hotel before she was crowded out by Cordelia and the others and... Had he even said a word to her? Had he told her that he was sorry for her loss? When had she left? He hadn't seen her slip out, only noticing after the cacophony of sympathy from the others had died down that she was even gone.
It was time for a change of plans…and a change of direction. He made an abrupt swerve across three lanes of traffic and headed for the interchange that would take him far away from LAX. The monastery could wait. There was something he needed to do first.
Numb. It was a short word and not particularly impressive but it was perfectly descriptive of Willow's condition. Numb. Even the sound of it fit.
Buffy was gone. Xander hadn't been able to save her with mouth to mouth resuscitation this time; Slayer healing wasn't going to kick in. Buffy Summers, the greatest Slayer and the very best best friend ever, was dead.
It seemed so impossible. Buffy had faced death and defeated it so many times that Willow had just taken it for granted that she always would.
They all had.
Willow's arm was around Tara as they sat on the sofa in Buf—in the Summers' living room. Guess there was only one Summers now, at least one who mattered. Hank had been so absent that he was much less real than Dawn. Maybe the monks should have made a new father for Buffy while they were at it, huh? One who cared would have been great. Buffy would have liked that.
The feel of Tara's hair against her hand as she absently stroked the head pillowed on her shoulder was the only thing anchoring her. She almost wished it wasn't. There was a whole world of memories and history inside her mind and Willow wanted to get lost in it.
Of course, that would be selfish, wouldn't it? Because she was needed now, all of her. And she had Tara, Tara who was the best and brightest thing in her life. She loved Tara so much – saving her… Had saving her cost Buffy this last battle? Had too much of the ammo of Buffy's big gun been expended in rescuing Tara from the darkness where she'd been exiled when Glory drained her mind?
The numbness dissipated. Now there were tears.
Tara lifted her head from Willow's shoulder as she felt Willow begin to tremble. Her lover – her love – was crying. She felt helpless and she hated that feeling; it reminded her too much of what she'd just endured – the blackness…the void…the away-ness. But there wasn't anything she could do. Buffy was dead.
"I love you, sweetie," she said softly.
The others were just sitting around, staring into space, acting as if they were waiting for someone to tell them what to do – and that someone would be Willow. It made Tara angry. Willow was grieving, too – Tara could feel how desperate that grief was in the almost acid burn of the tears that had touched her skin – and she needed space to feel and cry. It didn't look like anyone else saw it that way, though.
"So, you guys are gonna stay here with Dawn, right?" Uh oh. Xander knew he'd asked that question before. Along with his memory, the dirty look he just got from Tara told him. And on that subject – Tara gave him a dirty look? What was up with that? She never gave anyone a dirty look. Not that he'd ever seen anyway.
Why was he thinking like this? Why did he care? Because it didn't really matter, did it? Nothing mattered. Nothing in the whole world mattered now that Buffy was…
Pulling Anya close, he kissed the top of her head. He'd never needed her more than he did today. How could the world even keep turning with Buffy gone? Boy, he should have paid more attention in science, because right now nothing made any sense. He looked up and his eyes found Willow – she was always the one who explained things, who helped him understand. But instead of those wise, calm eyes he wanted so badly to look into and find answers, he saw nothing but tears.
What was he going to do? "Will?" he asked, pleading for her to be brilliant and together and in charge of everything.
Willow roused herself at the sound of Xander's voice… Again, right? Because he'd said something a minute ago, only she hadn't quite caught it. "Yeah?" She looked at Giles for a clue, but he wasn't any help. She guessed she shouldn't have expected him to be. Buffy was…his daughter, really. His grief was profoundly disabling. A compassionate person would never make demands on him at a time like this. The brain processed things subconsciously even when you weren't paying attention, right? Willow rooted desperately through each cell, hoping a memory was stored. "Staying here? Me and Tara, right? That's the plan."
She watched as Xander sighed in relief. That was good. She'd gotten it right. Taking a deep breath, she willed away the tears she'd been shedding. She was no good to anyone if she drowned. Looking around the room, she saw so much need. Dawn, Xander, Giles, even Anya…and Tara, too. How could she be selfish and wallow in her own pain when there were so many things to do, so much help that was required? There'd be time for her to cry later.
Never had Giles wanted to lose himself inside a bottle of scotch as much as he did right now, but there was no liquor in the house. Much to his own shame, he had looked when he'd taken himself off to the kitchen under the pretext of brewing a pot of tea. It made sense, he supposed. Buffy was no drinker, not after that episode with the bespelled beer, and… Tears came to his eyes anew as he recalled what she'd been like. It had been worrisome then, but somehow humourous and even endearing in retrospect.
He blinked, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes, suddenly uncomfortable with his weakness. He should be taking charge of things; he should. But he wasn't, was he?
"Are you quite sure?" Giles asked, hating himself for hoping with all his might that Willow reaffirmed her intention to reside here and care for Dawn, at least for the foreseeable future. God help him, but he didn't think he could face the responsibility. This home…Buffy's spirit permeated every inch of it. The idea of living here with her dead was almost too terrifying to bear.
"Yeah. I mean it makes sense. It's not like anybody would really look askance at two girls living here with Dawn and…" Willow's voice trailed off. She was babbling and it felt…wrong. Disrespectful. Plus, there was the whole 'taking it for granted that Tara wanted to stay here with her' thing. "Is it okay with you, baby?" she asked, turning to her love.
"Of course," Tara said, giving Willow a soft, sad smile. And it was. No one would be better for Dawn than Willow, Tara knew, and maybe helping Dawn deal with her grief and pain would help Willow deal with her own. Because honestly, as sad as Tara was that Buffy was dead, she didn't have the same kind of friendship with her that Willow had. How could she honestly know what Willow was going through when her relationship with Buffy had been based completely and totally on her role as Willow's girlfriend and Buffy's role as Willow's best friend. They'd never really known each other as people, had they?
That realization hurt and Tara found herself crying, really crying, for the first time. Willow pulled her head down to her shoulder again and murmured something kind in her ear. She loved Willow so much.
Anya stayed silent, wondering what to do. Everyone just kept dying, didn't they? First Joyce and now Buffy. It made her remember why she'd become a Vengeance Demon without so much as a second thought. This…this…grief… It was horrible and it was wrong and no one should have to go through it, but especially not her. Why did humans have to die? And why was it always the ones you liked and cared about? It was never people like that annoying bartender at The Bronze who refused to serve her beer. No, it was nice people like Joyce or really strong and important people like Buffy and… She snuggled tightly against Xander. When they got married, she was going to make him vow not to die before she did. She couldn't bear it if she had to grieve for him.
Dawn trudged down the stairs, having woken from a fitful, dreamless sleep in Buffy's bed. Her sister was dead. She had died to save the world…and she had died to save Dawn. Up until that moment, Dawn had never realized how much her sister really loved her. How was she going to live without her?
Almost everyone was still here: Willow, Tara, Giles, Xander, Anya. She wondered for a moment if she'd rather be alone. But she was, wasn't she? She always had been because she wasn't real, at least not real the way everyone else was real; she was just a stupid ball of energy. She suddenly felt guilty – like she'd murdered Buffy. "Where's Spike?" she asked.
Xander looked like he was going to say something crass and dismissive so Willow cut him off. "He went back to the crypt a little while ago. I think he figured you'd be asleep for while longer." She turned and peered through the gap in the thick curtains. Wow. She sure had lost track of time. Skills honed by years of practiced observation told her it was about half an hour before daylight. Until now, she hadn't registered whether it was day or night. She was about to turn back to the gang when something caught her eye.
A car was pulling into the driveway. Had Hank Summers found out about Buffy? How? "Guys?" she said, her voice trembling with anxiety. "Someone's here."
"We didn't order a pizza, did we, Xander?"
Willow wished she could have found Anya's question amusing, but she was too nervous. It was obvious that Dawn was, too, and Willow got up hastily and hugged her. "It'll be okay, Dawnie," she said, even as the sound of a car door slamming forced her to fight to keep from shaking. Seconds later, the doorbell rang. Letting go of Dawn, Willow wiped her hands on her slacks and went to the door.
"Hey," he said softly. He was glad he'd been right and Willow was here; the drive had taken him longer than he thought and time was running out before sunrise. He hoped they wouldn't mind letting him stay here until sundown.
Her face…it was oddly blank and yet careworn. He had this feeling that she hadn't really cried yet; not the way she needed to, anyway.
"Come in," she offered, stepping back, and he accepted the invitation.
"Angel's here," Willow said, just as he entered, and he quickly realized it was a full house.
Why the hell had Deadboy come? Hadn't Willow told him everything, dealt with all this in Los Angeles? Xander fought back the desire to confront him. Willow was hitting him full force with that Resolve Face of hers and he knew damn well he'd better just keep quiet. That didn't mean he had to like it, though, and he dared a sharp glare at Angel.
Dawn stared, all her fake memories reminding her that she couldn't stand Angel, had thought he was a big, brooding creep who wasn't nearly good enough for her sister even before that whole soul-losing thing. But Buffy… Buffy loved him and she'd be glad he was here, so… "Hi, Angel," she said and she tried hard not to sound annoyed by his presence.
"Angel," Giles intoned, a flood of anger and resentment and pain imbuing each syllable with far more meaning than simply the name of the vampire to whom he spoke. His Slayer might well have loved this wretch to distraction, but Giles could only associate him with pain and violence and… seeing him at this moment, with Buffy dead…that only made it so much worse.
"Rupert." Angel's own tone was as grave as Buffy's mentor's was. Why had he assumed Willow would be…well, not alone, but just here with Dawn and… Tara? Was that her girlfriend's name? Buffy had told him a little about her and he struggled to call up the details. His eyes fell on a girl he didn't recognize wearing pajama bottoms and a t-shirt. "You must be Tara," he said, hoping he was right.
"And y-you're Angel," Tara answered guardedly, not getting up from the sofa. She didn't like him. She wasn't sure why. Maybe it was because Dawn and Xander and Giles seemed to dislike him so much, or maybe it was because he was intruding on their privacy, or maybe it was something else – like instinct – but whatever the reason, Tara knew right then that she didn't like Angel.
"Guess Buffy must have told you about her," Willow interjected, kind of surprised that he knew Tara's name.
"Yeah, she did." Angel was looking at her intently, as if there was something he wanted to say to her. It was…strange. Back at the hotel it had seemed as if she didn't matter at all. He'd barely spoken to her after she'd broken the terrible news and she'd been sure he hadn't noticed, or cared, when she left.
"So, you'll need a place to stay until sunset," she said conversationally. Okay, it was kind of a non sequitur, but she wanted to get the matter out of the way so she could deal with any objections before having a real talk with Angel.
"Nice timing," Xander grumbled under his breath. Oh goody. Deadboy heard him. Well, he hadn't meant for him to – it wasn't like he'd actually said it out loud or anything – so Willow would probably cut him some slack. Besides, how could she expect him to make nice with that undead bastard right now? Excuse him for not being able to forget just what that thing had put them all through. Just because Buffy had the bad taste to fall in love with him… Xander hated himself, but yeah, he had to admit there was still some jealousy there. Was it unfaithful if the girl was dead?
Oh God. Buffy was dead. And not like Angel, either. Why couldn't Buffy be the one who could go on forever without needing to actually be alive?
Anya could feel the tension in the room rising. She knew no one thought she was all that sensitive or considerate, but she did notice things sometimes, especially when they involved Xander, and she didn't think it was good for him to be here right now. He was sad and the last thing he needed was to have to deal with Buffy's jerk of an ex-boyfriend. Let Willow handle him. Willow was good at things like that. "I think we should go home," she said in a way that conveyed that it really wasn't a suggestion, kinda like the way she talked to Xander in bed sometimes, only she didn't think this was the right time for her to be thinking about sex.
Willow had never appreciated Anya more than she did at this moment. "Yeah, why don't you guys all go home and get some rest? It's been… I think we could all use some sleep." She could see that Xander and Giles wanted to object, but they didn't. Guess she was good at this 'taking charge' stuff. Or maybe everyone really was too tired and overwhelmed to argue. She knew she could if she had to, though, and she wondered why. Was she colder than them? Was her grief less real?
No time to think about that. Now was the time to hug everyone and listen to them murmur cautions about Angel to her as they filed out the door and into their own cars. They'd all parked on the street. Only Angel had been willing to disturb the sanctity of Buffy's driveway. Later, she knew, she would think about that and about what it meant. She had the oddest feeling it was somehow significant.
What was holding her together? Angel wondered as his eyes stayed fixed on Willow, avoiding the unexpected hostility from Tara and the expected hostility from Dawn. She was remarkable – and in some ways it bothered him, though he wasn't remotely sure why he felt way.
"Can we talk?" he asked, inclining his head towards the kitchen.
"Sure," she replied, though she didn't think they actually had to go off to the kitchen. "You guys can go upstairs. I'll be right there, okay?" That last was more for Tara, though she meant it for Dawn as well.
"Okay," Dawn shrugged, glad to be getting away from Angel. All she wanted was to go back to Buffy's room and curl up in her bed and cry. So that was what she would do.
Tara wrapped her arms around Willow and kissed her. It was a more intimate kiss than she normally bestowed in front of other people, especially strangers, and she wondered why she did it, but then again, it seemed to comfort Willow, so she was glad. "Don't be long," she said. "You need some rest, too." Fighting a sudden impulse to be stubborn and insist on staying, she acceded to Willow's suggestion and followed Dawn upstairs. Willow would be there soon and Tara could hold her and console her.
When they'd finally disappeared up the stairs, Willow turned to Angel. "So. What did you need to talk to me about?"