What ravages of spirit
The first thing she knew when she woke was hunger.
It had become familiar to her over the last month -- as familiar as the desperation that clutched at her stomach, as familiar as the aching loss that tore at her heart.
As familiar as the strong arm that came around her shoulders, lifting her and touching a cup to her lips. As familiar as the taste of the blood, salty and sweet, satisfying the hunger even as it made the fear and the grief rip more deeply. As soon as she could, she pushed the cup away and turned her face into the pillows, struggling to hold back her tears.
They wouldn't come anyway, so crying didn't do her any good, other than to remind her of what she had been, and what she was becoming. That was familiar, too.
She heard the quiet clink of the cup on the bedside table as Angel set it down, his hand never leaving her back. He rubbed her shoulders soothingly, with only a little of his inital awkwardness, reminding her that at least she wasn't alone. She'd left everything she loved, everything she was, but she wasn't alone.
Which was more than Angel had had for a hundred years, before he'd approached the Slayer, before he'd fallen in love with her. Before he'd left her to keep Willow safe.
Willow reminded herself of that, as she did every morning, and resolutely stifled her sobs. She forced her body to relax so she could sit up alone, and face Angel with, if not a smile, then at least some serenity.
He didn't buy it for even a second, but then, he never did. His eyes were dark and still, watching her with concern and, amazingly enough, affection. As if he wasn't thinking about what she'd cost him by letting the Anointed One ambush her.
"Good morning," he said quietly.
"Is it morning?" she asked, unable to tell. The curtains were drawn against the sun -- protection for Angel, since Willow could still walk in the light.
"By my definition. The sun's been down for about an hour." Seeing that her usual morning crisis was past, Angel got up, taking the nearly-empty cup of blood with him to the small kitchenette of their rented room. He'd refused to let her have a separate room in the first week after the... the change. He'd been afraid she'd give up, that the suicidal urges would come back and he wouldn't be able to stop her this time.
He was probably right. And now they'd fallen into the habit of one room, Willow sleeping in the afternoons with Angel roaming only a few feet away. Her guardian angel, watching over her.
She smiled a little at the thought and tossed back the covers as she slid out of bed. Angel kept his back turned as she began to tug on her clothes; that was habit now, too.
"So, what are we doing today... Um, tonight?" she asked with false enthusiasm, reaching for a pair of jeans. She'd bought them in... New York, she thought, before the midnight flight to London. The sweatshirt had once belonged to Xander; she had no idea when she'd borrowed it from him and forgotten to give it back, but she was grateful she had. The worn gray fabric with the logo of their junior high was soft and comforting against her skin. More than once, she'd woken in the middle of the night and found herself cuddling it like a security blanket.
She and Angel hadn't been able to bring much with them -- two small bags of clothes, a few of Angel's books, the volumes Giles had been able to find on the Rom. Giles had the rest of Angel's possessions in storage; maybe they'd be able to go back for them someday.
For now, they had to travel light; besides, dead people didn't tend to pack for the trip and everyone in Sunnydale had to believe Willow was dead. It wouldn't fool the Anointed One, and Willow knew in her heart of hearts that it wouldn't fool Buffy and Xander forever, but maybe it would make it easier on her parents. They wouldn't sit and wait and hope for something that would never be.
They wouldn't spend their lives waiting for their daughter to come home.
She sighed, bowing her head, and opened one of the shades to look out the window into the darkness. When had her life changed so much that death was better than hope?
"Willow?" She blinked as Angel came up from behind her, and realized he'd been talking, probably answering her question.
"I'm sorry," she blurted, turning back from the window. "I was.. um..."
"Thinking." He nodded. "Yeah, I know. Don't do to much of that, Will; believe me, it's easier if you don't."
It was the first time he'd called her by her nickname and she almost smiled at the sound of it -- a bittersweet taste of home. It was probably Xander who had first shortened her name, way back in kindergarten, but she couldn't remember for sure.
"I can't help thinking," she answered Angel with a small shrug. "Do you think Xander and Buffy...."
"Have figured it out?" Angel sighed, raking one hand through his hair. "I don't know. Maybe. Buffy's not big on letting mysteries stay that way."
Willow's lips twitched again at the ruefulness in his voice. Buffy had persisted in chipping away at her 'mystery guy', in those months when they'd first met, until she'd finally found out the truth, and almost gotten both her and Angel killed. Pretty typical for life in Buffy's World.
"I can't decide if I want for them to know or not," she said, looking back out into the darkness. They were in a tiny city somewhere south of Budapest; the name had too many consonents and not enough vowels for her to be able to pronounce it, although Angel did pretty well. "It would be easier if they thought I was dead."
Angel leaned against the window next to her. "I still don't know what Giles told Buffy about me, why I left. Maybe he didn't say anything. Maybe that's best."
He shrugged, the lights from the buildings around them casting his face into an odd blend of shadows. He really was handsome, Willow admitted, and protective and sweet, and she could see why Buffy had fallen in love with him.
But Willow would have traded him for Xander in a second.
She shook the thought away fiercely, laying her hand against his in silent apology for her ungrateful emotions. He looked down at her with a crooked, forced smile, then turned away.
Angel watched Willow surreptitiously as she began to make the bed. The maid would have done it, but Willow seemed to find some comfort in the familiar chore, and anything that comforted her was a blessing.
She was thinner than before. She'd never been as physically strong as Buffy, but she looked frail now, brittle, as if she'd break at a touch. Her long red hair fell around her shoulders and back, hiding her face from him. Hiding the eyes that grew darker and more shadowed every day, more like his own every night.
But he didn't know how to stop it, didn't know how to make her smile again. He'd always liked seeing her across the Bronze, grinning happily away at him and Buffy with none of Giles's reserve or Xander's resentment. It had been one hell of a smile -- not like Buffy's, which made his heart stop and his mouth go dry, but the kind of warm, sunny smile that made everyone who saw her want to smile too.
He'd almost forgotten how to smile before he'd met Buffy, and he'd long since forgotten how to make anyone else do it. He was going on long-buried instinct here, and failing.
"I'm going to go looking for that Gypsy camp we heard about last night," he said finally, repeating what she'd missed earlier, lost in her thoughts. "You should wait here; if I find them, I don't think they're going to be too happy to see me, even if they're not the same clan."
"And if I wait here," Willow finished the unspoken part of his sentence for him, "there's no chance of me attacking someone because they startle me or, God help me, I get hungry." Her voice tightened on the last words, probably remembering the man she'd almost attacked in Sunnydale, before they'd left. Angel had gotten there in time to stop her, but some nights, she still woke up screaming at the memory.
"It's safer if you wait here," he acknowledged now, carefully. "Safer for everyone. Vampire 'superstitions' still run pretty high; Vlad the Impaler got his start a little west of here, remember? It's a lot riskier for us than in the States."
She nodded without looking at him, tucking the covers into place with much more concentration than necessary. "I know," she agreed. "I'll wait here. Just... be careful, okay?"
"I will." He started for the door, and turned back before he could open it. "You'll be all right here?"
It wasn't as if he'd never left her alone before, but he hadn't done it often, or for very long. Enough psychology texts had found their way into his hands over the years that he knew he was being overprotective, overcompensating due to feelings of guilt, etc., etc., but he still hated leaving Willow for any length of time.
She made a face at him, obviously not sharing his concern. "Angel, if you don't get out of this room right now, I'm going to..."
He grinned in spite of himself. "Going to what?"
As usual, she couldn't come up with a threat. "I'll think of something," she finally promised in a dire voice. "Go."
"I'm going." He closed the door behind him, and heard Willow throw the deadbolt. She was safe, she'd be fine.
He, on the other hand.... He sighed and made his way down the steps and out into the night. If the Gypsies didn't kill him the instant they laid eyes on him, there might be a chance. For Willow's sake, he'd make damn sure he got that chance. Whatever it took.
But he couldn't help wishing Buffy was there to watch his back. Hell, he just wished she was there.
The streets of Tiszakesche were mostly dark, lit only by the widely placed streetlights. No one else was out; but it was past ten, so that was to be expected. The small city shut down after dark, even the restaurants closed by nine-thirty, not that there were many who could afford to eat in them. The lack of people made it easier for him to stay unnoticed -- yet another so-called advantage to nightlife, Angel thought with a twisted smile.
As he walked down the street alone, heading northwest out of the city, he half-wished Willow had come along with him. Though always scared and almost always tired, she still had a talent for producing a smile or a jab of gentle, sweetly sarcastic humor at the necessary times. His reasons for leaving her at the hotel were sound, but he still wanted the company.
Which was ridiculous. He'd lived for almost a century with no company but his own thoughts, his own guilt; he knew all about getting through a night alone. But that had been before. Before Whistler, before Sunnydale, before the Slayer. Before Buffy.
It had been so damn easy before. Never needing to look after anyone but himself, never needed to worry about anything but finding the next meal, avoiding the next dawn. Then, in the blink of an eye, everything had changed. He wasn't even sure how it had happened. One day, he'd been alone and dealing with it; the next, Whistler had shown up and the next... The next, he'd let his guilt push him into something even stupider than usual and confronted the Slayer -- and been knocked on his butt, literally *and* figuratively.
And before he'd knew quite what was going on, he'd been fighting vampires, saving Buffy's friends, giving her Watcher his phone number, and trying his best *not* to pull the Slayer into his arms and never let her go.
Yeah. Like he'd ever had a prayer of that.
Without really thinking about it, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out the snapshot he'd been keeping there since the night they'd left Sunnydale, when he'd found it tucked into one of the books Giles had sent with them. Somehow, he didn't think it was an accident.
It was a simple school picture, the kind sent home to hundreds of thousand of parents every year. A blue-gray backdrop, a carefully posed head, and a smile that took his breath away -- or would, if he'd had any to take. There was just enough light from the streetlamps to make out the curve of her cheek, the warmth of her eyes. He could pretend she'd been thinking of him when the picture had been taken, that she was smiling for him.
Five weeks away from her, and it felt longer than the centuries that had come before. It wasn't as if they'd even been together long before that; a few encounters in the Bronze, the two evenings and one night in her bedroom, the spring dance. Less than 24 hours total, if he went back and counted. It apparently didn't take much time to fall in love with your worst enemy.
And even less time to leave her, tearing out a part of his hard-won soul as he did. If only Willow hadn't gone out alone, if only she hadn't set herself up to be taken....
Angel bit back the sudden surge of resentment. It wasn't Willow's fault; she couldn't have known she was a target, had had no way of fighting the Anointed One. It was Angel's fault, if anyone's. He hadn't gone after her, hadn't protected her, and he would pay for that mistake.
But the price was so damn high. He'd lived 200 years without her, and the next 200 stretched in front of him, an empty, deserted road.
But there was Willow to walk it with him, he reminded himself guiltily, innocent Willow who'd had no choice in any of this. She deserved better, but he was damned if he'd let her down again. He'd walk it for her, and maybe, someday, Buffy's face would fade a little in his memory.
He didn't know whether to look forward to that day, or dread it.
The sound of leaves crunching beneath his feet yanked him abruptly out of his thoughts. He'd left the city proper and was near the river, his feet having taken him to the Gypsy camp on their own. He didn't like what that implied.
He sensed them before he heard them, before a voice snapped a challenge at him in Magyar. Automatically, he turned to meet the threat -- and someone yelled a high, panicked warning.
There was no time to duck, no time to run, before the Romani were on him.
every moment marked
The first week of school had come and gone, and life was beginning to settle into its old routine. Cordelia hadn't gotten any of the Teachers from Hell on her schedule, cheerleader tryouts had been scheduled (with some trepidation) for the end of the week and she had no doubts she would make the squad again, and the door she'd smashed her car through had been repaired with the earthquake damage, leaving the school back to normal.
Cordelia was looking forward to senior year -- the year when she would take her rightful place as captain of the cheerleading squad and Queen of the Campus -- but junior year was almost as good. She was an upperclassman now and life was shiny and bright.
Well, it should have been, anyway. It probably would have been, if news of Willow Rosenberg's disappearance and presumed death hadn't hit the newspapers and television four weeks before. Cordelia had stared at the television screen blankly that first night, trying to connect the concept of dead with Willow, and flatly unable to do it.
She still couldn't. When she walked into first period history with her usual entourage every morning, she still expected to look at the back of the room and see the redhead comfortably seated with her fellow losers, laughing at a joke no one else had heard, or soberly discussing something no one else would understand -- except maybe Cordelia herself, and she'd never admit to it.
This morning, they went into the classroom as usual, Harmony saying something that was probably supposed to be funny. Cordelia laughed on cue, trying very hard *not* to look towards the back of the room. If she didn't look, it wasn't real; if she didn't look, she could keep pretending....
She looked. And saw Buffy and Xander sitting together as they did every morning, their desks pulled close to each other's. They hadn't been seen out of each other's company since school started, and the gossip mills were running wild. Or would have, if anyone had particularly cared.
They didn't look much like a couple. There was a kind of isolation around both of them, like they were alone even though they were close enough to touch. Xander was staring down at the top of his desk, his hair uncombed and his clothes wrinkled, as if he'd been wearing the same shirt and jeans for several days, which he actually had. Buffy's eyes were red and she wore a man's black leather jacket around her shoulders, even though it was ninety degrees outside. One hand rubbed the silver cross around her neck.
And Willow wasn't there. Like she hadn't been there every other morning, and wouldn't be ever again.
"Cordelia?" Harmony's insistant voice broke through a sudden surge of unexpected grief, and Cordelia blinked rapidly, schooling her face to a mask of slightly-amused indifference.
"What *is* it?" she asked casually, turning away from the pair in the back of the room.
Harmony and Aura returned her look with rised eyebrows. "Are you here with us on Planet Earth again?" Harmony asked with an edge to her sweet voice. "Or are you going to keep staring at those total wastes?"
They were words Cordelia herself might have said, once upon a time. But that was before Kevin died, before the night Hell came to visit. Before she'd discovered how very insignificant she really was in the grand scheme of things.
"They were friends with Willow," she answered now, with a light shrug. "I feel sorry for them, is all. I mean, look at them; they're like, the poster children for grief counseling."
The other two girls blinked, then went with their cue. "Yeah, they are kind of pathetic," Harmony agreed. "Not that that's anything new."
Aura leaned in close, her eyes alight with the pleasure of good gossip. "I heard Willow got kidnapped by a cult; you know, those weirdos that keep showing up in town?"
"*I* heard it was suicide," Harmony countered. "She was always a total Strange One; she probably just cracked at last."
They looked at Cordelia expectantly, waiting for her to deliver the final verdict on what had really happened to Willow, and she tried to come up something witty and sarcastic to say. But all she could think of was the desolation on Xander's face.
She made an abrupt decision, and carried it out before she lost her nerve.
Xander stared down at the top of his desk, tracing the carved initials that years of students had left in their wake. Someone called AP had been in love with someone named Ali -- he didn't recognize the pairing, so they had probably graduated already. And someone with the initals HRD had fallen for someone whose initals had been smudged out. Xander worked fiercely on deciphering the letters, putting all of his concentration on it. Anything to keep from seeing her face.
No one else in the classroom spoke to him and Buffy, or even really looked at them, and Xander was grateful for that. It was easier to be ignored than deal with the pitying looks from the acquaintances who'd known how close he was to Willow, who knew how much she meant to him.
He'd never told her, not really. Oh, he'd carelessly tossed off assurances that she was his bestest bud, usually when she'd just done him a favor; he'd pulled her onto the floor at the spring dance, showering outrageous and silly compliments over her while they danced; he'd hugged her and teased her and tried to protect her when he could.
Not that he'd ever been much use as protection. If he had, she'd be here now.
But he'd never told her that she was the most important thing in his life, the center everything else revolved around. When his parents were drunk and fighting, when Buffy was off Slaying or mooning over Angel, when Jesse had died -- when he'd almost been able to convince himself that no one in the world cared, Willow had always had been there.
Guilt and grief jabbed at him again, and he hunched further down at his desk. If he only knew where she was, if he could just talk to her, just tell her....
That was the worst part, knowing she was out there somewhere. If she'd waited for him to get back, he would have gone with her, anywhere they needed to go, to hell and back if necessary. But she hadn't given him that choice, hadn't wanted him to see what she'd become. As if he'd give a damn if she was a vampire or a demon or a giant praying mantis. She was Willow, *his* Willow.
And he wanted her back.
Someone cleared her throat a few feet away and he looked up slowly, unwillingly. Cordelia stood next to him, dressed perfectly, every hair in place. He expected that; what surprised him was the real, true emotion in her usually mocking eyes.
"What do you want?" he demanded, more abruptly than he'd really intended. Beside him, Buffy jolted and looked up, apparently just becoming aware of Cordelia's presence.
Cordelia flinched, but didn't back up. "I, um, I just wanted to.... I mean..." She stumbled over her words, obviously trying to find the right ones and badly out of practice doing so. Xander couldn't work up the energy to care.
Finally, Cordelia sighed, and laid her hand on Xander's shoulder; it was the only time she'd ever willingly touched him in his memory. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I liked Willow, I really did."
"Yeah, she could tell that," Xander said harshly, anger suddenly flaring as he shook her hand away. Why did shallow, useless Cordelia get to keep her life and Willow lost everything? *He* lost everything?The pain bit deep and he wanted to share it, to make someone else hurt. "All the times you insulted her, and made her life miserable -- yeah, we could feel the love there. Thanks a lot, Cordy."
"Xander." Buffy's quiet voice stopped him before he could say anything else. But Cordelia had already gone pale, and he took a certain dark, guilty satisfaction in that.
She took a step back from him, swallowing hard. The classroom had gone quiet; up in front, he could see Cordelia's twin appendages watching them with shocked, speculative eyes, and he could almost hear the rumors starting up again. He didn't have the energy to care about that, either.
With more nerve than he generally gave her credit for, Cordelia stepped back to his desk, and laid her hand on his shoulder again, in open defiance of the unwritten rules that said she could never admit to his existance. "I know I was a bitch," she said softly, "and I'm sorry. I really am. I hope you believe that."
He didn't want to believe her. But he could see the sincerity in her eyes, the actual regret on her face, and he couldn't throw it back at her. So he just nodded, unable to speak past the lump in his throat, and it was Buffy who answered, quietly, "Thanks, Cordelia. We... It's okay."
Cordelia almost smiled, a faint twist of her lips. "No, it's not. But it's the best I can do." Her hand tightened once, hesitantly, on Xander's shoulder, then she went back to the front of the room, sweeping past her cronies as if daring them to say a word.
Classes passed, slowly. It was all Buffy could do to even pretend to pay attention to the various teachers, and it took monumental effort to get from classroom to classroom. She didn't particularly care about Europe in the Renaissance, or the practical applications of Algebra II.
What she cared about was getting through each day without breaking down in tears again. What she cared about was keeping Xander from falling apart in front of her eyes. What she cared about was coming up with various bloody, violent vengeances against the bastard who'd stolen her friends from her.
What she cared about was wondering where those friends were, and wishing hopelessly, helplessly, that she could find a way to bring them back. She'd come up with a hundred plans in the last two weeks -- of racing to Europe and tracking them down, of magically finding the one book of knowledge that would cure Willow, of the happy reunion that would follow....
At least they weren't alone, she thought, staring blankly at the computer screen in front of her. Willow and Angel had always gotten along well -- Willow had liked and defended him from the beginning, and Angel treated her with a kind of amused, distant affection. Maybe Willow could make him smile sometimes, and Angel would protect her with his life....
But protecting Willow was supposed to be *Buffy's* job, damn it, and she'd *failed*! And it was her friends who had paid the price.
"Buffy?" The quiet voice that broke into her spiral of rage and guilt almost surprised her into throwing a punch. Her attention span was non-existant lately, her nerves continually on edge. If she didn't calm down, she was going to hurt someone, and she knew it.
Ms Calendar, at least, would have understood. She looked down at Buffy with calm, gentle eyes, and Buffy could see a reflection of her own loss in them. Giles hadn't told her the whole story, of course; Buffy figured Ms Calendar thought Willow had been killed by a vampire, and that was probably the best thing for her to believe. Maybe it would have been easier if that had been the truth.
Ms Calendar was still waiting for some kind of acknowledgement and Buffy somehow dredged up a halfway normal expression. Ms Calendar didn't buy it; she knelt next to Buffy's chair and smoothed a strand of hair back from her cheek.
"I know this is a horrible time for you and Xander," she said softly, "and I know absolutely nothing I can say is going to make it any better. But you have to keep going. You've got things you have to do, that Willow wanted you to do. You've just got to hold on."
Buffy nodded, tears backing up in her chest in a solid lump. She seemed to be crying almost constantly now. Except when she was hunting; then, she let the rage burn its way through the grief. The vampires of Sunnydale had started to run from her on sight, and she took grim satisfaction in that. Soon, it would be the Anointed One who would run from her. But damned if she'd let him get away. He'd die as slowly as she could manage it.....
Ms Calendar was waiting for a response again, and sighed when nothing came. She stood and smoothed Buffy's hair back again, as if she couldn't think of anything else to do with her hands. "It's only fifteen minutes to lunch; why don't you and Xander go to the library for a little while?" she suggested softly.
"No, I'm.. I'm fine," Buffy protested weakly.
Ms Calendar nailed her with a firm and sympathetic look. "No, you're not, and that's okay. Take Xander and go; we'll try this class thing again tomorrow, all right?"
Buffy thought about protesting again, but it seemed silly, since the last place she wanted to be was in class. She pulled herself to her feet instead, taking her backpack and touching Xander's shoulder.
He jumped, lifting his eyes from he'd been staring at his screen. "Come on, Ms Calendar's kicking us out. Let's go the library."
He blinked several times, as if trying to translate her words into something comprehensible. "What, and leave all of this excitement?" he finally said, with an attempt at a smile.
She made a face at him, secretly relieved. It was the first time he'd cracked a joke in two long weeks. "I know it's a sacrifice for you. Maybe Giles has some nice books to read."
"Anything but that," Xander groaned, getting up from his chair and snagging his backpack from the floor. Buffy could just make out what he'd been doing -- typing Willow's name, letter by slow letter, over and over again.
She swallowed hard and tried to muster a smile to match his. They left the room together, walking hand in hand. Buffy let her head fall to the side, just enough to rest on his shoulder, and his hand tightened in hers as they headed for the sanctuary of the library and Giles.
a glowing ember
Angel knocked quietly on the hotel room. After a long moment, Willow's steady "Who's there?" came through the wood.
"Angel?" Locks slid aside and Willow opened the door -- and took a step backwards when she got her first look at him. Angel figured he looked like hell, but when ten Gypsies of various height, weight and muscle all piled on top of you, only stopped from staking you by the fact that they kept getting in each other's way, it tended to be kind of rough on the wardrobe.
Willow recovered quickly and held the door open. "What happened to you?"
Angel went into the room, limping more from exhaustion than pain. "I found the Romani," he said simply, lowering himself painfully to the bed. "They weren't exactly happy to see me again."
A book lay near the headboard, carefully closed and bookmarked. It was one of the texts Giles had sent with them, about Gypsy sorcery; he made a mental note to himself to try to find some lighter reading material, or Willow's nightmares were never going to go away.
Willow's eyes has gone wide. "Then it *is* the same group that cursed you! We found them!"
"Yeah, we did." He closed his eyes for just a second, just to rest them; when he opened them again, Willow was standing over him with a wet washcloth which she started to use on his face, wiping away the blood and dirt. Amused, Angel let her clean him up, although the relatively minor wounds had already begun to heal. It had been a long time since anyone had taken care of him, not since Buffy had bandaged that slash across his ribs....
"They want to see you for themselves," he said abruptly, pushing the memory away ruthlessly. "They want to be sure I'm telling the truth. Then...."
Willow's hand went gone still. Then she went back to work, focusing on a spot on his right cheekbone as if the future of the world depended on him having a clean face. "Then... what?"
He wished he could give her good news, but he honestly didn't know. "They didn't tell me anything else, Will. Just to bring you to the camp tonight."
She bit her lip, and let the washcloth drop. "When do we leave?"
"As soon as you're ready."
She nodded and turned away, putting the washcloth back in the little sink in what passed for a bathroom and picking up her jacket. "I'm ready, if you're okay."
"I'm fine." Angel studied her. She was pale as death, but her chin was set firmly and her hands were steady. "I won't let them hurt you, Willow. I'll die before I let anyone hurt you again."
She smiled up at him. "I know, Angel. I'm not scared."
A blatant lie, but he didn't call her on it. They left the room together.
The night air was chilly and Willow shivered when it hit her, the wind blowing through her thin jacket. Angel looked down at her, then put his arm around her shoulders, offering her what little warmth his body had to share. She stiffened in surprise, then slowly put her arm around his waist, more for reassurance than for shelter from the weather.
They walked to the edge of town in silence, ignoring the occasional battered taxi that slowed down looking for business. They were in no hurry; in fact, the closer they came to their goal, the slower they both walked.
The music reached them first, the steady pulse of drums and the high cry of a violin. Voices joined the music, raised in a language Willow didn't recognize. Not the Magyar she'd gotten used to over the last few weeks, and not English or anything like the Latin Giles and Angel both occasionally slipped into when they were reading something old and got interrupted. This was something different; musical, but with an edge that spoke of things she'd rather never know about.
She didn't realize she'd stopped moving until Angel shook her lightly, looking down at her. "Willow?"
"I, um... I changed my mind," she stammered, huddling closer to Angel. "I don't want to do this."
Angel's eyes were soft with sympathy, but he shook his head. "There aren't a lot of other choices. They can help you."
"Or they could kill me. Or you."
He shrugged a little with the shoulder she wasn't hiding under. "They had their chance before and they didn't take it."
"Still...." She looked towards the treeline, able to make out the flickering light of a huge campfire, several smaller ones burning around the edges. "I don't like this. It's too dangerous, we shouldn't go."
"Willow." He caught her shoulders as she turned around, ready to head back the way they'd come, and forced her to look up at him. She obeyed reluctantly. "Will, right now, things are about as bad as they can get. We're alone out here, God only knows what you're becoming, and we already know what I am." He almost smiled, but there was no humor to it, just resignation. "How much else they can do to us?"
He looked away, then back. "Maybe. But that's a chance we're going to have to take."
"Not we," Willow pointed out. "Me. You don't have to come, Angel. You've already done so much for me...."
"Not enough," he cut her off harshly. "Not nearly enough."
Willow sighed heavily. "Are we going to have this fight again? Angel, it wasn't your fault!"
"Yes, it was, and no, we're not," he answered firmly. "Now come on; they're supposed to be waiting for us."
Willow pouted. She'd been half-hoping they *would* have the fight again; between Angel's self-recriminations and her own attempts at logic, it could usually be counted on to last about half an hour, which would have been half an hour they didn't have to face Gypsies. Unfortunately, Angel wasn't rising to the bait.
She squared her shoulders and took his offered hand. His skin was cool and comforting against her fingers. "Okay," she said resolutely. "Let's go."
They were about twenty feet from the camp when Angel sensed that they had company. He pulled Willow behind him, putting himself between her and the four Rom that stepped out from the trees. Two carried stakes; the other two had swords. Their clothes shone with bright colors even in the dim light, but their faces were deadly serious.
"You're expecting us," Angel said warily, trying to watch all four of them at once.
"You're late." The speaker was young and short, but heavily built, with brown hair and strong cheekbones. Angel remembered him as the leader of the mob who'd attacked him earlier in the evening, and kept a wary eye on him. "You were supposed to return sooner."
"It's a long walk," Angel returned evenly. The Gypsy was unimpressed, turning his hostile stare towards Willow. She shrank back even further against Angel, and he put his arm around her once more, sending out a very clear message -- 'you only get to her through me.' She seemed to take courage from that, and stood a little straighter, meeting the Gypsy's eyes with a defiant glare of her own.
The Romani didn't acknowledge her, but turned and stalked abruptly towards the fires. Angel and Willow followed, the vampire conscious every moment of the other three Rom, who had fallen into step behind them. His back twitched in nervous anticipation of a stake.
The Gypsy camp was alive with music and voices, but Angel wasn't fooled. There were no children present, when normally they would have covered the camp, and the gaiety had a distinct edge to it, a show put on for his benefit. He also didn't miss the weapons, scattered subtly and not-so-subtly around the camp.
The music stopped as they entered the ring of fires, the few dancers freezing in their tracks before making way, leaving a path between them to the elders, seated to one side of the fire. Mostly men, of course, but there were two old women, their eyes sharp for all that they were almost lost in the wrinkles of their faces. Jewelry covered their hands and necks, falling into the folds of their skirts. In contrast, the old men were dressed soberly, almost formally. They sat like an audience for a particularly long and impressive ballet -- or like a jury.
He heard Willow gulp, but she kept her shoulders straight, with that odd courage he'd seen a few times before. He felt an abrupt surge of pride in her and it was enough to steady his own nerves. They'd get through this.
They made their way past the bonfire, through hostile eyes and hands that fingering blades and stakes. Angel felt the demon burning inside of him, desperate to lunge at its instinctive blood enemies, and fought it down with all of his willpower. If he lost control, Willow's only chance would be lost. He couldn't let that happen, not again.
The elders met their eyes as they stopped a few feet away. Four or five Rom, one of them their surly escort, made sure they were between Angel and the old Gypsies, their expressions echoing Angel's earlier warning. He'd have to go through them to do any damage -- not that he had any intention of trying.
They were too close to lose it now.
Willow hadn't known what to expect. Some of it was right -- the music, the fires, the clothing. But where she'd pictured wooden caravans, there were cars and trucks and mobile homes instead. Where she'd thought there would be black hair and eyes, there were instead dark blonde and brown, with only a scattering of darker shades here and there. Where she'd hoped for sympathy, she found only cold judgment.
"You have brought her to us?" the oldest man said abruptly, coldly. "This is the one who seeks our aid?"
Willow gathered her courage, then stepped from the shelter of Angel's arm. "Yes, I am."
They looked at her without comment, studying her with penetrating, uncaring eyes. She fought back the urge to hide, to run, and met them straight on. Angel's presence at her back was a comfort, but she knew, deep down, that he couldn't help her here. She had to convince the Rom on her own, or it would cost both of them their lives.
"This story the *mullo* told us," the elder said after a long pause. "It is true? You were taken against your will?" His tone, and the contemptuous look her shot at Angel, suggested he didn't believe it for a minute
"Yes, it's true," Willow answered evenly; with a dim sense of shock, she realized she was getting mad. "I was kidnapped, by the Anointed One. He injected the blood into my stomach when I wouldn't drink. He wanted to use me against the Slayer." She shrugged jerkily. "I guess he did."
"The Slayer?" One of the old women looked up. "He--" the jerk of her head clearly indicated Angel, although she refused to look at him. "-- said nothing of the Slayer."
Willow blinked. "You know about the Slayer? About Buffy?"
"We know *of* the Slayer," the old man said, with a glare towards the woman. She nodded and sat back; apparently she wasn't supposed to talk. Willow could almost hear Buffy and Ms Calendar's disdainful cracks about male chauvinism, and had to stifle a completely inappropriate giggle. "If you are her friend...." He gestured with one hand. "It may shed a different light. Tell me of the Slayer, and this Anointed One."
"Um..." Willow snuck a look at Angel; he nodded once, before going back to the staring contest he was having the man who'd brought them to the camp. "Okay. Well, Sunnydale, where I'm from, it's over something called a Hellmouth, where lots of bad things like to hang out. Buffy moved there and she fights them, and me and Xander and Giles -- he's her Watcher -- we help. The first time, the Master tried to break the spell that had gotten him trapped...."
She talked for what seemed like hours, trying to remember everything she could about vampire and Slayer lore, about the Hellmouth and Buffy and Giles and Xander. Whenever possible, she inserted the fact that Angel had helped them; judging from the trace of a wry smile on Angel's face, he knew what she was up to. The Rom just listened, dispassionately. She stumbled through her kidnapping and Jesse's death, to the praying mantis incident and the first encounter with the Anointed One, when they'd thought Buffy had killed him. The discovery of what Angel was, Moloch, Sid and the demon, even Billy and Marcie. Then Buffy's sacrifice and the Master's death, and then, slowly and haltingly, the end of the summer, and what had been done to her.
"I couldn't stay, and Angel wouldn't let me leave alone, so we left together and we came looking for you," she finished. "And then Angel found you and, well...." She spread her hands out, helplessly. "And that's it, I guess."
She stopped talking, and nothing seemed to happen. The fire crackled softly behind her, and she was supremely aware of the eyes on her, boring into her as if they could read her soul. She was too tired to really care, as if telling the story had somehow drained her. Angel's arm came around her yet again, and she leaned against him gratefully, not certain her legs could support her any longer.
Finally, the younger Gypsy who'd escorted them spat something vicious; Willow didn't need to speak Romani to know it was a curse. "We are expected to believe this story?" he continued in English, as if he wanted the visitors to understand him. "This fairy tale of Slayers, and vampires who help them instead of killing them? Of *Angelus* helping?" His glare towards Angel was as sharp as a stake, and as deadly. "This demon is evil, and so is anyone who lies to defend him. We should kill them now, and rid the world of their stain."
He started towards Willow as if to fit action to words; Angel growled, low in his throat, and his body tensed to defend her. His features flickered, his game face trying to rise to the surface. That was just what the Gypsy wanted, Willow realized, an excuse to kill them and call it self-defense.
She was suddenly tired of being threatened, and tired of being defended.
"I'm not lying," she nearly shouted, anger lending her the strength to stand on her own, and even take the few steps forward necessary to get into the Rom's face. "Angel is my friend; he's saved Buffy's life and mine and Xander's and Giles's lots of times! He didn't have to come with me, but he did and he's trying to take care of me! He may have done bad things, but he's trying to make up for them, and he's been punished enough, thanks to *your* curse! I don't care what you do to me, but you leave Angel alone!"
The Rom had stepped back in shock under the force of her tirade; now his face darkened and he stepped forward again, half-raising his hand. Angel was there in an instant, but Willow refused to hide behind him. Instead, she stuck her chin out, daring the Gypsy, trying to pretend her knees weren't shaking. Her temper scared her when it decided to appear, which was why she never, ever lost it.
She knew Angel would kill to protect her; it came as an unpleasant shock to discover she was willing to do the same for him.
"Niko!" The command came from the old woman; the young Rom looked sharply at her then, slowly, backed down. Willow glared at him for another second, then turned her back on him with as much contempt as she could muster, the same gesture Cordelia habitually used in the halls of Sunnydale High. Apparently it worked as well on Rom as it did on hapless sophomores. She even thought she saw a sparkle of approval in the old woman's eyes.
The other elders continued to study her impassively. "We know well enough that the Slayer is far from a fairy tale," the old man finally said. "Not a few Slayers have been of the Rom, and we have been their allies for as long as they, and we, have roamed the earth. What you tell us of the slayer -- this Buffy Summers -- has the ring of truth to it.
"As for the other..." He looked at Angel, but there was a new consideration in his eyes. "My grandfather was a boy when you first came among us, Angelus. His stories of your crimes are vivid in my mind; they have lived long in the memory of the Kalderesh." A muscle in Angel's jaw worked, but he said nothing. "Yet this child, this innocent, defends you as a friend, and you stand as her protector. If, in fact, you have helped a Slayer against your own kind... This, also, is something we must take into account." He didn't sound happy about it, though.
"Then... you'll help us?" Willow asked hesitantly. "You'll make me... whole again?"
For the first time, the elder's eyes couldn't quite meet hers. "We... cannot do that, child."
The words hit like a physical blow; Willow staggered beneath them. "You.. can't? But.. Angel, his soul.... Why not?"
The old man didn't answer; after a long moment, the old woman spoke instead. Her voice was heavily accented, but understandable, and even comforting. "Our magic, what little is left, has its limits. If it did not, we..." She seemed to search for words, then gestured impatiently towards a younger woman, who came forward quickly, and began translating as the old woman switched to her own language.
"If we were strong enough to make you whole," she said, the translator trying to keep up and apparently failing, "there would be no vampires left in this world. It is a... stalemate of sorts; we are not strong enough to defeat the demons, any more than they can destroy us. The restoration of Angelus's soul took the magic of an entire clan, and even then the demon remains. And that magic... has left us."
Willow let out a deep, shuddering breath. "Then there's nothing you can do to help me." She could never go home again, never see Xander's face, or laugh with Buffy, or tease Giles. Never hug her parents, and fall asleep in her own bedroom. Never be herself again. She bowed her head against tears, and turned her head onto Angel's shoulder. He hugged her, his face bleak with his own loss. He wouldn't leave her, so he could never go home, either.
The elders were exchanging looks, speaking on some level that Willow couldn't interpret, especially through the haze of grief that seemed to surround her. She didn't care; she didn't care about anything.
But then.... "Not 'nothing'," the old man finally said, and Willow lifted her head, a small flicker of hope rekindling. Angel's muscles went tense under her cheek, and she looked at the Gypsies without leaving the comfort of his embrace.
They looked back at her, and, for the first time, she saw the faintest hint of compassion there. The faintest hint of salvation.
I know I can't be with you
Someone was digging up graves.
*Welcome to Sunnydale,* Xander sighed to himself. *Home of everything you never wanted to run into outside of a movie theatre.*
"So," he asked out loud, "why does someone want to dig up graves?"
Buffy and Giles both looked clueless. "I'll collect some theories," Giles offered, reaching slowly for one of the books in the center of the table.
"Her name was Meredith Todd," Buffy volunteered. "Ring any bells?"
Xander actually thought about it, with more effort than he'd put into anything for a while, but finally shrugged. "No."
"She died recently. She was our age."
"Drawing a blank."
Giles took off his glasses, rubbing his eyes tiredly. He was doing that more and more often lately. "Much as I hate to admit it, our best hope for information on the girl is probably through the, ah.... The...."
He couldn't even make himself say it, just gestured towards the computer. Willow's computer. The 'new toy' Giles had persuaded Principal Snyder to buy just before the start of the school year, and that Willow had spent every waking moment playing with before....
They stared at the machine in silence. No one had gone near it since Willow had turned it off the last time; none of them had even considered it. It had just sat there for weeks, as if waiting for its rightful owner to come back.
Giles cleared his throat. "I suppose," he said carefully, "we could ask Ms. Calendar if she would....."
"No," Xander cut him off. "It's okay. I, um... I think I can figure out how to run a couple of searches on it."
"You're sure?" Buffy asked him, her eyes searching his face.
Xander shrugged, forcing a careless grin. "Hey, I teased her while she was doing it often enough. I had to pick up *something*."
Buffy nodded. She hadn't been questioning his computer skills and he knew it, but he'd already decided to do this.
Wordlessly, they rearranged themselves around the computer; Xander's hand hovered over the 'on' button for several seconds before he finally forced himself to push it. The computer hummed and chimed, the happy icon appeared on screen, and Xander clenched his jaw against memories.
It took a few moments of fumblng around, but Xander finally figured out how to connect to the Internet. Fortunately, Willow had shortcuts set up to her usual haunts -- city planner's office, school records, newspaper; she even had macros with the proper passwords. He found the coronor's report on Meredith Todd with a minimum of wrong turns.
"I found it. Meredith Todd died in a car accident last week."
Buffy leaned over his shoulder. "How was her neck?
"Fine, expect for being broken." Giles headed back into his office as Xander left the coroner's and managed to work his way to the newspaper archives (he refused to use the word morgue). "It says that Meredith and two other girls in the car were killed instantly. They were all on the Fondrin High Pep Squad, on the way to a game."
Buffy straightened, looking intense. "You know what this means."
"That Fondrin might actually beat Sunnydale in the cross-town body count competition this year?" His wisecrack was worth the effort, since it surprised a smile out of Buffy; he mentally patted herself on the back.
"No," Buffy glared half-heartedly at him. "She wasn't killed by vampires. Somebody did dig up her corpse."
"Okay, so we got a body snatcher." Xander turned away from the computer to face her as Giles came back out of his office, carrying books. "What does that mean?"
"Here's what I've come up with," Giles said, pulling over a chair from the center table. "Demons who eat the flesh of the dead to absorb their souls. Or, it could obviously be a voodoo practitioner."
"A zombie?" Xander asked. Giles and Buffy both looked at him curiously and he shrugged "Voodoo and zombies kinda go together in the Late Show. Like Slayers and stakes, you know?"
"Zombies, more likely," Giles told him, emphasizing the plural. "For most traditional purposes a voodoo priest would require more than one."
"So, we should see if the other girls from the accident are AWOL, too," Buffy thought out loud. " Maybe we can figure out what this creep has in mind if we know whether or not he's dealing in volume."
Xander sighed. "Another lovely night spent in the graveyard. Didn't we get enough of that last night?"
Buffy shrugged. "No one said you had to come along last night. I could have handled Stephen without the help."
"Hey, where you go, I go," Xander informed her. "Which looks like the graveyard again tonight. BYO shovel?"
Neither of the other two objected so the plans were settled. Buffy looked up at the clock and groaned. "Great. English class waits for no one, Xander; we'd better get moving."
"I'm, uh..." Xander concentrated on the computer monitor. "I'd rather hang here for a while. Buffy, can you cover for me?"
"Well... sure," Buffy agreed after a surprised moment. "But.... You *want* to stay in the library?"
"Yeah," Xander shrugged without looking at her. "I'll see you fifth period."
"....Okay." He waited for her footsteps to leave the library, then looked up at Giles. "I *can* stay, right?"
"As you like," Giles assured him, standing back up and gathering his books again. "In fact, I'd be grateful for the assistance... well, when I get back. I'll be in the computer lab; I need to, ah, speak with Ms. Calendar about, ah, another matter."
"Sure," Xnder agreed without looking up from the computer. He managed to keep his face expressionless, even when Giles let his hand fall understandingly on Xander's shoulder as he left.
Giles and Ms. Calendar. Giles with a girlfriend. A majorly weird thought. But kind of cool; at least one of them was developing a life again.
Six weeks since Willow and Angel had left, three weeks since Buffy and Xander had found out, and it seemed like things were slowly going back to normal, or as normal as they could be without Willow. Buffy had racked up a really impressive vampiric body count over the last couple of weeks, taking enough chances to do it that Xander had begun tagging along -- less to attempt to protect her than to remind her of why it was important she actually survive each encounter. She still wore Angel's cross all the time, but she'd left the jacket at home once or twice.
Giles had also started to pull himself out of his guilty depression, to Xander and Buffy's collective relief -- keeping Giles from losing it had been their main distraction from their own depression. It was funny, though -- Xander hadn't really understood how much Giles cared about all three of 'his' Slayerettes until he saw how hard losing one had hit the Watcher. Which was fair enough, since Xander himself hadn't realize how much he cared.....
This new graverobbing problem was actually a Good Thing, he figured. A new challenge, a puzzle to solve, a fight that didn't involve fangs or the Anointed One, or anything that reminded them of what they were all trying desperately not to think about. They were planning and researching and figuring things out, just like old times.
Nothing like an invasion of bodysnatchers to take your minds off the real world, even if you were fighting it short one Slayerette. Two if you counted Angel. Which he didn't.
He sighed and ran his fingers randomly over her keyboard, Willow's last words to him rerunning themselves in front of his eyes, as they had almost every second since he'd read them. He'd been so damn blind to his best friend, and he was paying for it now, with every breath and every thought.
He just hoped that, wherever she was, she forgave him. Because he'd never forgive himself.
The phone rang, jolting him out of his dark thoughts. Automatically, he got up and reached over the counter to snag the receiver. "Sunnydale High School Library."
There was silence on the other end of the line. Then: "Xander?"
"Angel." He couldn't seem to force more than the single word out; all motor functions had stopped the second he recognized the vampire's voice, except for the ones in his hand, which now had a death grip on the receiver. "Where...?" he finally managed to stutter. "How....?"
"I need to talk to Giles," Angel cut him off before Xander could finish a complete sentence. "Where is he?"
"He's not... He's... Uh, he's in the computer lab." With the successful completion of the sentence, Xander's vocal ability returned with a vengeance. "Where's Willow, is she with you still? Is she all right? Did you find the Gypsy dudes? Let me talk to her!"
"She's sleeping," Angel interrupted the babble brusquely. "I don't want to wake her up, and I really don't want her to know I'm talking to you."
"Who died and make you God?" Xander demanded, abruptly furious. "I know she'll want to talk to me, so wake her up and put her on the phone!"
"She *doesn't* want to talk to you."
That effectively knocking the wind out of Xander's righteous rage, leaving him speechless again. Willow didn't want to talk to him? Her best bud? Her.... She didn't want to talk to him. That couldn't be right. It just couldn't be.
"Tell me," he finally managed to say, his voice harsh even to his own ears. "Whatever it is you have to say, tell me. I want to know."
"Look, Xander..." Angel sounded a little more sympathetic now, and tired. Really tired. "It'd be better if I talked to Giles."
"The hell it would." Xander wasn't yelling anymore; his voice was low and intense. "Tell me about Willow."
There was another long pause. Then Angel gave in. "She won't lose her soul," he said, slowly and heavily. "And she'll probably keep the sunlight; something about not having chosen to live in darkness."
Good news. Really good news. But something cold had settled in his stomach; he couldn't quite convince himself Angel was calling to give them flight information for their trip home. There was more coming, and he *knew* he didn't want to hear what it was.
"But?" he prompted finally, unwillingly.
Angel sighed audibly; so much for no breath. "But the demon has a solid grip on her, and it's not going anywhere. Nothing can change that."
Xander had gone silent again on the other end of the call, only his ragged breathing showing how hard he was working to control his emotions. Angel couldn't think of anything to say that would help, so he didn't say anything.
The news hadn't been particularly easy for him and Willow to deal with, either. Willow had somehow made it back to the hotel room that first night they'd met with the Gypsies, silent and still and so withdrawn Angel had been afraid for her. Then the screaming, raging, throwing things temper tantrum had started, and he'd been too busy keeping the girl from destroying the room or hurting herself that he hadn't had time to worry.
She'd finally calmed down to sobbing instead of screaming, and Angel had preferred the screaming to her quiet, miserable weeping. He'd cradled her in his arms for the hours it had taken her to cry herself to sleep, and then hours after that.
"How is she?" Xander managed to ask again, his voice choked.
"She's... coping." Angel crossed the room to sit beside Willow's sleeping form, pulling the covers more closely around her shoulders. There was peace in her face now, a hard-won serenity she would need in the coming months and years. The coming eternity. "It's been bad, but she's getting better. That's why she can't talk to you or to Giles," he explained with as much sympathy as he could muster. "She just doesn't have anything left right now."
The words were choppy, cut-off; Angel sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Xander...."
"You're not coming home, are you?"
At that moment, Angel would have sold whatever was left of his soul to be able to answer yes, to say they were coming home on the next flight. To say it believing Sunnydale was still home. But there was no point in lying, to Xander or himself. "No. We're not."
Another long, painful silence. Then, "I figured. Will... She gets kinda stubborn about things."
Angel half-laughed. "Yeah, I noticed that."
More silence, stretching across a distance much greater than the one between Hungary and California. "Just.... take care of her, Angel," Xander finally said, as if the words were being torn from him. "Don't let anything else happen to her. She's... She needs someone to take care of her. Someone to... to care."
Angel could guess how much it had cost Xander to ask that, considering how much he'd always resented and mistrusted Angel, but he'd done it for Willow. The niggling of respect Angel had felt for the kid since they'd faced the Master together grew.
"I'll take care of her, Xander. I swear on my soul, I'll keep her safe." Maybe it was that respect that made him add, before he even knew he was going to say anything, "As long as you take care of Buffy."
"You don't need to tell me that." Xander had his voice back under angry control. "You haven't even asked about her."
"I know." As though moving of its own volition, Angel's hand found the picture of Buffy. She smiled sunnily up at him, young and beautiful and forever out of reach. "I can't.... I don't...." He sighed and bowed his head, giving in. "How is she?"
"Lousy. Like the rest of us. But she's 'dealing', too. Mostly by trying to kill any vampire that comes within ten miles of her."
"I'm not surprised." Guilt and fear surged, and Angel fought them back. There was nothing he could do for her anymore, and he was just going to have to live with that. Another demon for his own personal hell. "Is she... She's not doing anything too stupid, is she?"
"Define stupid. She's not going to be happy until the Anointed One is dusted. Neither will I." The last came out between clenched teeth, with a hatred too strong to be coming from a sixteen-year-old boy.
Angel understood completely, since killing Colin had become his own favorite fantasy. But he had other responsibilities. "Remind her she can't kill him if she gets herself killed first. That should help."
A humorless half-laugh. "I'll give it a try." Xander paused, then added, reluctantly, "Is there... um, anything else you want me to tell her?"
Angel blinked at the offer; it was far more than he'd expected. "I... Tell her...." He fumbled for words, trying to figure a way to say the goodbye he hadn't allowed himself to think about.
"Tell her.... I'm not sorry," he said at last. "That the only thing I'll ever be sorry for is that there wasn't enough time." He looked down at the picture again, tracing his thumb over her cheek. "And that I never saw her in the sunlight."
"Yeah. I'll tell her." Xander cleared his throat. "If Willow... When she's better, tell her I.... That she's my best friend, and she always will be. That I'll be here."
"I'll tell her."
They fell back into silence, each clutching a phone, neither wanting to break the strange connection between them. Knowing that, once they hung up, that last connection would be broken forever.
"Willow will wake up soon," Angel finally said. "I'd better go."
"Yeah." Xander breathed out hard. "I'll see you around, Angel."
It was, in a weird way, a promise -- they weren't going to say goodbye. Angel found himself smiling a little. "See you around, Xander."
Then carefully, gently, he hung up the phone.
A soft noise beside him had him turning back around; Willow's eyes as they looked up at him were deeply sad, but there were no tears. He wondered how much of the conversation she'd heard, then realized it didn't matter. All she'd needed to hear were the farewells.
She sat up, coming into his arms as if it was the most natural thing in the world, and he hugged her wordlessly. They sat together, her head resting against his shoulder, his cheek on her hair, until long after the sun had risen outside the closed curtains of their window.
In a high school library nearly halfway around the world, Xander Harris hung up the phone and stared at it for a long, long time, his eyes dry, thinking of a redheaded girl who would never know how much her best friend loved her.
Then he stood, and went to find Giles and Buffy. They had work to do.
This was my response to Anya's long-ago sequel challenge (may the darkness take her sadistic little black heart :P), since her unresolved first-season story Gone... spawned at least three versions of this before I even finished reading it..
The song lyrics are from 'Do What You Have To Do', performed by Sarah McLachlan on her brilliant album Surfacing. I know, we've all heard it before, but was far too perfect when I wrote this eons ago, and still is.
Thanks to Lizbet and Chris, who cried in all the right places.