I meant to write this for last year's IWRY, but the words wouldn't come. I tried again this year, and succeeded.
Angel of Death
Buffy hadn't felt so peaceful since heaven. Strange that she would only feel that way now, after making her decision. She moved quietly, though the storm raging on outside made it fairly unnecessary. From the printer in the room that had previously been her mother's, she retrieved several blank sheets of paper, five envelopes, and a pen, then went back to her room and sat down to write.
Two hours later, she was finished. She carefully folded all of the pages and put them into the envelopes, labeled them, and stood to retrieve her purse. On the way to the stairs, she paused outside Dawn's room. Unable to resist, she sneaked inside. Dawn was sleeping soundly. Buffy leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. Dawn mumbled something indistinct and rolled over. Buffy's lip quivered. "Goodbye, Dawnie," she whispered. Before her courage could fail her, she crept back out. After the struggle of leaving Dawn's room, descending the stairs and leaving the house was much easier. She got in the Jeep, set her purse and the five envelopes on the passenger seat, and put the key in the ignition. She would reach L.A. by sunrise.
One Month Earlier
It had taken about a week, but Buffy had finally gotten through all the water-damaged stuff in the basement. Most of it was going to the dump, but she hadn't needed to part with anything she or Dawn would really miss. After one last sweep of the basement to make sure nothing had escaped her notice, she headed back upstairs.
"Hi," said Willow with a tentative smile when Buffy arrived in the kitchen. Buffy forced a half-hearted smile in return, but as she did so, a shadow passed over Willow, and the smile was quickly replaced with a frown and a furrowed brow.
"Uh, what?" said Willow, looking bemused.
"Huh?" said Buffy distractedly. "Oh, nothing."
"Well, uh, want a brownie?" Willow gestured at the steaming tray sitting in the middle of the island. "I just got them out of the oven."
"Thanks," said Buffy, "but maybe later. I have to go pick up Dawn from school." With that, she grabbed the keys and left rather quickly. As soon as she was gone, Willow's expression changed to one somewhere between frustration and concern, and remained that way as she loaded four brownies onto a plate, poured two glasses of milk, and took it all out to the back porch.
Tara was busy weeding the flowerbeds in the backyard. When Willow appeared, Tara set down her miniature spade, pulled off her work gloves, and went to join her around the little wicker table on the deck. "Ooh, these look amazing," she said appreciatively, picking up a brownie. She was about to take a bite when she spotted Willow's sulky expression. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"Oh, nothing," said Willow, flopping into a chair.
Tara raised her eyebrows.
"Okay," said Willow reluctantly. "It's Buffy."
"What about her?" said Tara, sitting down across from her.
"She's just so gloomy all the time, and nothing I do to make it better works!"
"Is that what the brownies were for?" said Tara shrewdly.
"She barely even looked at them," said Willow, pouting. "I just don't get it. You'd think she'd be happy to be back with the people who care about her. I mean, I know we're not perfect, but we've got to rank higher than a hell dimension and endless suffering."
"I think she just needs some time," said Tara. She looked sideways at Willow. "And maybe a little less cheering up?"
"What do you mean?" said Willow, a slight whine of indignation in her voice.
Tara reached over and took her hand. "I know you want her to be happy and get her life back to normal and everything," she said reassuringly, "but sometimes people have to heal in their own time, and trying to fix them only makes them want to pull away."
"Is that what I've been doing?" asked Willow, looking glumly at the brownie in her other hand. "Trying to fix Buffy?"
"If she needs cheering up," said Tara, pulling back and sitting up straight in her chair again, "let her come to you."
Willow ate her brownies, still pouting. She was just drinking the last of her milk when pain pricked her left forearm. She brushed absently at the spot with the back of her right hand without putting down her glass, and a dying honeybee fell into her lap. "A bee stung me!" she cried, standing up quickly and shaking the convulsing insect off of her skirt.
"Are you okay?" said Tara, jumping up and walking around the table to have a closer look.
"Yeah, I'm not allergic or anything," said Willow, holding out her arm.
Tara carefully flicked the stinger out. "Okay, but you should run cold water on that. Maybe hold some ice on it?"
"I will," said Willow, smiling and leaning in for a quick kiss. "Want me to get you some more brownies while I'm in there?"
"No thanks, I'm good," said Tara. "They were delicious."
Willow's smile widened. "Well, I'll have some more if you won't. I'll be back in a minute." She gathered their empty milk glasses and the crumb-covered plate and headed back inside.
When she reached the kitchen sink, she cleared her throat a little; it was starting to feel tight and itchy. She put the dishes in the sink, then braced herself with both hands on the edge of it as a wave of dizziness came out of nowhere.
Each breath she drew was more of a struggle than the last. She looked down at her arm and saw that the bee sting was now the epicenter of a brilliant red rash that covered her entire arm. She staggered towards the back door to get Tara's help, but another wave of dizziness dropped her to the floor, and within seconds, blackness obscured all of her senses.
The sun was just peeking up over the horizon when Buffy entered the Hyperion. The spacious lobby was empty. She walked slowly across it, looking around, marveling that a place so different from Angel's other three residences she'd seen could still seem so right, as if the building's designers had had Angel and his business in mind when they'd constructed it. Everything about it felt like him, quelling what little doubt remained in her about her decision.
She didn't linger in the lobby for long. As much as she might have enjoyed exploring it, she wouldn't risk running into Cordelia, Wesley, or one of Angel's other associates. She climbed the curved staircase quickly and walked the halls, passing room after room until she stopped in front of one she somehow knew was his.
Two Weeks Earlier
Buffy, Dawn, and Tara were all sitting around the table in the Magic Box. As one, they winced when Anya's voice suddenly jumped forty decibels. "Don't tell me we'll talk about this later, Alexander Harris! This is later, and we'll talk about it now!"
Buffy and Tara exchanged pained looks, and Dawn risked a glance over to the counter where Anya was shouting into the phone. It had been two weeks since Willow's death, and Anya and Xander's frequent explosive arguments were just one of the ways her unexpected demise had affected everyone else. Most nights when Buffy got home from patrolling, she found Tara sleepwalking around the house, Giles had begun to give off a slight odor of alcohol and wasn't quite as put together as usual, and Spike hadn't made an appearance at all. Buffy suspected he was merely lying low to make sure nobody would take their grief out on him.
"No, don't you dare hang up on me! I don't care how busy things are at the site right n—" Anya broke off with a noise of outrage and threw the phone back onto its cradle on the wall. Without a word to the other three women, she stormed out of the shop.
Buffy watched her go with a frown. "Hey, did you guys see that?" she said.
"See what?" said Dawn, her head now bowed over the homework spread out on the table in front of her. Tara was staring glassy-eyed at the wall opposite her, and didn't appear to have heard either of them speak.
"Never mind," said Buffy, but she could have sworn she saw a dark shadow pass over Anya just as she was walking out the door, though there was nothing that could have cast it.
Anya didn't give the man at the entrance to the construction site a chance to tell her the area was restricted before she blew past him. She moved so quickly and with such a fierce expression that she left several other stunned workers in her wake too, one of whom eventually drifted towards the foreman's office. By the time he'd gone inside, Anya was three storeys up and still going. When she reached the fourth level, which was little more than framework and temporary plywood flooring, she made a beeline for the southeast corner, where Xander was surrounded with machinery and absorbed in an instruction manual. She was only about two yards away from him when he finally noticed her approach.
"Anya!" he cried, pulling off his noise-cancelling headphones. "What are you doing up here? It's restricted!"
"If this is where I have to be for you to listen to me then there's nothing you can do to keep me out! Ever since Willow died, you've been so distant!"
"Of course I have!" he shouted, throwing his hands up. "I'm grieving! Have you ever actually heard of the concept, An? It's only been two weeks since my best friend died from a bee sting, and you expect me to be back to normal already?"
"You weren't like this after Buffy died," Anya shot back.
"Because I knew we were going to bring her back! I didn't have to grieve! Just because you never cared about Willow and are already over it, you can't expect me to pretend everything's sunny and perfect this soon after the girl I've known since before I can remember died just so you can feel better!"
"How can you say that? I know that I'm still new to all this human stuff, but I thought grief was supposed to bring people closer together!" she said, her eyes filling with tears.
Xander looked away from her, clearly undergoing a painful internal struggle. "Okay," he said after taking a few deep breaths. "We'll talk some more when I get home, but you're still not authorized to be on-site."
Anya nodded and offered a hopeful smile before turning to go. Xander watched her for a few seconds, then resumed examining his blueprints. At that moment, a shrill scream rent the air, followed by a series of thuds. Xander whipped around and ran to the stairs. By the time he reached them, there was no sign of Anya, but the plastic tacked up around the unfinished staircase where walls would eventually go now had a gaping hole in it.
Angel knew she was coming before he heard her footsteps down in the lobby. He put his sketchbook back on his nightstand and waited. About a minute later, there was a knock on his door. "Come in," he said. The door opened, and there stood Buffy. Her long, honey-blonde hair hung loose and she was dressed simply in tan pants, brown boots, and a forest green long-sleeved shirt with a wide V-neck. The clothes would have fit her perfectly the previous year, but now hung slightly loose, emphasizing how thin she had become. There were also dark circles under her eyes and she looked very pale, but the hollow look she'd had the day they met halfway between Sunnydale and L.A. had been replaced with a grim sort of determination.
"Buffy," he said.
"Angel," she replied with a hint of a smile.
"What brings you to L.A.?"
The smile vanished. "Willow and Anya are dead."
"What?" He had only met Anya twice and knew very little about her apart from her vengeance demon past, but Willow had been his only friend in Sunnydale, not counting Buffy.
Buffy closed the door and moved farther into the room. "A bee sting and falling from the fourth floor of a half-finished building, two weeks apart."
Two Days Earlier
"I called Giles and Xander," said Buffy as she sat down to lunch with Dawn and Tara. "They're both coming for dinner tomorrow."
"Oh," said Dawn.
"H-how did Xander sound?" said Tara.
"About as far from okay as possible," said Buffy.
Dawn abruptly dropped her fork onto her plate and stood up. "I have homework," she said, and left.
Tara started to get up too. "I, uh, I think I'll go too," she said. "I want to take a walk."
As she stood up, Buffy noticed the same odd shadow pass over her that she'd seen on Willow and Anya. "Tara, wait!' she said, jumping up. "I'll come with you."
"O-oh," said Tara. "Okay." She ducked her head. Buffy knew Tara had been looking for some time alone, but there was no way she was going to indulge her right now.
Tara said nothing about where she planned on going for her walk—in fact, she said nothing at all, but she didn't have to; Buffy knew she was going to Shady Hill Cemetery. It was a beautiful day, full of signs of approaching autumn. Buffy remembered how she had once loved the fall colors, but the beautiful leaves and the crisp breezes had no pull on her now, even when she tried to enjoy them. She became so absorbed in her efforts that she didn't realize she had left Tara behind.
They were about halfway to the cemetery when the sound of screeching wheels broke Buffy out of her trance. She turned and saw a blue pickup truck careening wildly up the street towards them, on a course headed directly for Tara, who seemed paralyzed with fright.
"Look out!" Buffy yelled, charging forward and diving at Tara. It was such a near miss that the edge of the truck's bumper caught Buffy's left shoe as it went past, sending it spinning through the air to land in the gutter.
"Oh, God," said Angel. "I'm so sorry."
"That's not all," said Buffy. Her voice sounded very flat and her expression was somber. "On Saturday, Tara was almost hit by a car. I got her out of the way. And last night, she barely missed getting struck by lightning."
Angel's eyes widened. "These aren't accidents."
Buffy shook her head.
The Previous Evening
With what promised to be an impressive thunderstorm brewing outside and two empty chairs inside, it would have been difficult to hold Sunday dinner under gloomier circumstances. The only good thing about it was the food, but even that went largely unappreciated; nobody had much of an appetite.
Wind howled against the walls of the house, filling the long gaps in the conversation. Xander was the first one to crack. After a particularly long silent spell, he stood up. "Why don't you guys head to the living room. I'll go get the dessert I brought out of the fridge."
"I'll help you," said Tara, ignoring his bewildered look and hurrying out of the dining room ahead of him.
Buffy, Dawn, and Giles went on through. They had hardly taken their seats when a particularly violent gust of wind sent the front door crashing open. Buffy leapt up to close it. By the time she had done so and secured the deadbolt for good measure, the wind had blown a few pictures off the walls in the hall and dining room, and an ornamental plate lay in pieces on the floor next to the china cabinet. With a sigh, she began to pick everything up. The wind died down a little then, and she could hear Xander's and Tara's voices coming from the kitchen. She ignored them until she noticed the urgent, worried tone.
"What are you saying, Tara?" said Xander.
"I thought they were just accidents at first, even though it's a pretty big coincidence," said Tara. "But I don't think so now. Ever since Anya died, I've had this bad feeling all the time, and I could have been killed by that car yesterday if Buffy hadn't gotten me out of the way."
"Do you think something's been doing this, and that you're the next target?"
Buffy moved closer to the doorway leading to the kitchen, listening hard.
"I think…I think it's because of the spell. The spell we did to bring Buffy back."
"What are you talking about?" said Xander. "Willow said that spell was safe!"
"She was wrong—or maybe she knew the risks but thought she was strong enough to pull it off without paying the price."
"So you think we're all getting picked off one by one as payment for bringing Buffy back?"
"We defied all the laws of nature, Xander. We don't get to just get away with that. Buffy shouldn't be alive, and as long as she is, our lives are forfeit."
"If you're telling me that Buffy has to die—" Xander began, sounding furious.
"No!" said Tara quickly. "No, of course not!"
"Good. Because even if you're right about this, we're still not letting her go back to some hell dimension just to save our own necks. We'll find some other way of stopping this thing."
"Maybe we should tell Giles. I'm sure he'd have some ideas."
"No! If we tell anyone else, we risk Buffy finding out, and I don't want that to happen until at least after we find a solution."
"Willow, Anya, Tara, and Xander are the ones who did the spell to bring me back," said Buffy.
Angel stared at her. He felt a powerful desire to flee the room, but he couldn't move a muscle. "So it's a rebound of the spell," he said. "They underestimated the price of cheating Death."
"And now Death is collecting the debt with interest," said Buffy, nodding. "They think they can find a way to get around it, but they won't. Even if there is a way, Tara won't last long enough for them to find it. She's got hours left at most before something else happens. I'd hate to see what comes after lightning." She paused, her jaw working and her eyes dropping to the floor. After a moment, she took a deep breath and looked him square in the face. "As long as I'm alive, they're going to die."
Angel chuckled harshly and turned away. "So that's why you came to me, huh? You want me to save their lives by taking yours."
"Yes," she said simply.
Five Hours Earlier
Buffy was walking alone in Shady Hill Cemetery, holding a bouquet of flowers. She stopped at her mother's grave and placed one of the flowers in front of it, then moved on to Willow's. After she had put a flower on Anya's too, she thought it would be time to leave, but her feet carried her to another headstone. Tara Maclay. Another flower. She walked on. Alexander Lavelle Harris. Another flower. Rupert Edward Giles. Another flower. Dawn Summers.
Before she could set a flower on her sister's grave, she was awoken by an enormous thunderclap. For a long time, she sat there in bed, her heart hammering. Trying and failing to shake the memory of the dream from her mind, she climbed out of bed and headed down to the kitchen for a glass of water, resisting the temptation to check and make sure Dawn was still safe and sound in her bed along the way.
Without warning, Angel punched the wall beside him with such force that he left a fist-sized hole in it. He faced her again, furious. "I told you to come to me if you needed anything, and this is how you're taking me up on that? This is what they get for defying nature, Buffy. Why should you have to die to save them?"
"Angel, you know they don't deserve to die for this," said Buffy. "They thought they were pulling me out of a hell dimension. Could you have left me there if you'd thought that's where I was?"
"That's a more generous attitude than the one you had last month," he snorted.
"Last month, two of my friends weren't dead, with two more about to follow them. And there's more."
Angel looked around at her. "What do you mean?"
"Last night, I dreamed that everyone I cared about was dead. What if this doesn't stop with Tara and Xander? What if it happens to Giles, Dawn, …you?" Tears streaked her cheeks. "Even if you think Tara and Xander deserve it, you can't say Giles and Dawn do, and there's no way to be sure it won't happen without waiting until after Tara and Xander die. Angel, I can't live with the thought that my life is costing everyone I love theirs."
He was struck then by how old her eyes looked. Her soul was just as old as his now. With that realization, all of the fight went out of him. "So," he said, his voice cracking and his vision blurring, "I'm supposed to be able to live with myself after killing you? How can you ask that of me?"
Concern filled her expression and she moved closer until she could reach up and touch his cheek. "Oh, Angel, I'm so sorry. You can't look at it like that. I don't belong in this life anymore. You'll only be sending me back home. You know where I was. The others don't. All I've done since they brought me back is miss it, except for the day I spent with you." She was crying in earnest now.
"What about after?" he said, covering the hand on his cheek with one of his own. "Is there anything…?"
"Um, yeah," she said, pulling her hand away to wipe her eyes before taking a sheaf of envelopes out of her purse and handing them to him. He looked through them and saw that there was one each for Dawn, Giles, Xander, Tara, and Faith.
"Faith?" he said, surprised.
"The world will still need the Slayer once I'm gone," said Buffy, taking the letters back and putting them, along with her purse, on the end of Angel's bed. "I'm pretty sure my death won't call a new one. Not again. It'll be up to Faith. You and Giles have to get her to Sunnydale as soon as possible; it only took the demons one night to trash the whole town when they found out I was dead last time."
"I think she'll be up to it," said Angel. "She's come a long way."
"And let's face it," said Buffy, "the competition against me never did either of us any favors."
This tore an unwilling chuckle out of him, but he sobered quickly. "What about Dawn?"
"That'll be up to her," said Buffy, even more somber now than she had been so far. "She could stay at the house with Tara, go live with Dad or Aunt Arlene, stay with Giles, or come to L.A. and stay in the hotel with you. Whatever she chooses—"
"I'll make sure it happens," he finished, taking both of her hands in his.
She smiled. "Thank you."
Four Hours Earlier
Buffy filled a glass from the sink, then sat down at the island and stared at it as if there were answers mixed in with the tepid water. Thunder continued rumbling outside, interspersed with the bangs of tree branches hitting the house. Lightning flashed, illuminating the backyard through the windows in the door. "Tara?" said Buffy. Another flash of lightning showed her that Tara was indeed standing out on the lawn, the wind whipping her hair wildly in every direction.
In a second, Buffy was out the door and running towards her. "Tara! What are you doing out here at three o'clock in the middle of a storm?"
She reached out to touch Tara's arm, and Tara jumped and shrieked and almost fell over. "Oh! Buffy! It's just you," she said, pressing a hand over her heart. She gave her surroundings a bleary, confused look. "I g-guess I sleepwalked again. Sorry."
"It's fine," said Buffy. "Were you having a nightmare or something? You've never made it this far before."
"Maybe," said Tara, wrapping her arms tightly around her middle. "But if I was, I don't remember it." She frowned and looked around. "Do you hear that?"
Buffy listened. The wind had temporarily died down, but there was an odd crackling noise. A second later, their hair started standing up as if they'd just spent five minutes rubbing balloons against it. "Run!" Buffy shouted, grabbing Tara by the arm and half-dragging her back into the house.
Almost the instant they closed the door behind them, lightning struck the backyard exactly where Tara had been standing. The flash nearly blinded them and the accompanying thunderclap was so loud that Buffy was sure her eardrums were bleeding.
Tara burst into terrified sobs and sank to the floor. Buffy went with her and held her while she cried and shook, but by the time the glare of the lightning had faded from her eyes, Tara had torn herself away, muttering "nowhere is safe" over and over to herself. Buffy tried to talk to her, but she couldn't seem to hear her as she went to the basement door, crawled backwards down the stairs, and curled up in a fetal position in the barest corner, still muttering.
Angel looked down at their hands. "Is that everything?"
"I think so." She squeezed his fingers. "Are you ready?"
"I don't think I'll ever be ready. But if you're sure it's what you want, I'll do it."
"I'm sure," she said. "And I'll be waiting for you, you know."
His smile was brittle, and he felt tears threatening again. "I know."
Her chin trembled. "I want you to promise me you'll keep me waiting a long time, okay?"
"I promise," he said, though it made his heart ache. He drew a great, shuddering breath. "You ready?"
"Yes," she said.
"I love you."
She closed her eyes tightly, her grip on his hands painful now. "I love you too."
Sliding one hand to her waist and the other to the back of her neck, he pulled her forward for a kiss. Their lips met, and it was desperate and passionate. They were pressed as tightly together as possible while still allowing her room to draw breath, his arms around her waist, hers around his neck, hands stroking through his hair.
The rush of heat stolen from her body was making him lightheaded just as it always had. He never wanted to stop. It was as if part of him believed that he could make this last until the next time they would be together, or maybe that he could kiss her so thoroughly that they would both forget what was supposed to come next.
But of course it could never be as easy as that. Buffy shifted so that he was now kissing only the right corner of her mouth. Taking her cue, he kissed his way along her jawline until he reached her throat. His whole body was shaking now. Her arms tightened around him as if to hold him steady.
His lips reached the two-year-old scar, and the demon stirred. It was greedy and eager. The sweetest blood he'd ever tasted was right there. His features shifted, and his fangs scraped over the scar. Buffy sighed in his ear, and for a second, he was supporting all of her weight as her knees wobbled. Part of him wanted to slam her against the wall and tear savagely into her throat, to bring out the fear to season the meal, but he fought back the urge. The demon might revel in it, but the last thing the man wanted was for his final memory of the woman he loved to be filled with her fear of him.
While he was still in control, he slowly fisted a hand in her hair and eased his fangs through her skin. Her blood hit his tongue and his whole being was flooded with her—her fierce determination to protect the people in her life, her bone-deep world-weariness, her gratitude that he was granting her this particular end, and most of all, he felt her love for him. If not for her strength now building in his veins, it would have brought him to his knees. One feeling completely absent in her was the fear of death. She welcomed it, more than just for the sake of her friends' lives. She missed the place she'd been more than she could bear.
The emotional link from the bite worked both ways. Normally, this enabled vampires to bask in the fear and pain of their victims as they died, while the victims were forced to know the vampires' hunger and sadistic pleasure, which would make their fear build and build until they fell unconscious from blood loss. Before the curse, Angel had reveled in feeling the terror of his victims, and he had perfected many ways of drawing it out to make it seem endless for them.
With Buffy, the connection was different. He didn't want to hurt her and she wasn't afraid of him. It was as if their souls were conversing directly. Hers could feel his love for her, along with his grief and self-loathing, and she wept for his anguish and railed against his feelings of self-blame for doing what she asked, what needed to be done. His bore it all and struggled to banish those feelings. Hers responded to his efforts with a surge of warmth and affection.
Angel was trying to go as slowly as possible, but Buffy's arms were already loosening their grip around him. A moment later, they fell limply to her sides and her legs gave out. He supported her weight easily. The emotional link dulled as consciousness left her. He heard her heartbeat slow and was seized by a sudden desire to drag his fangs across his own wrist and offer her his blood, but horror at the thought of Buffy as a vampire quickly chased the temptation away.
He kept drinking, his body growing warmer as hers cooled. One more mouthful, and her heart stopped.