She rehearsed it all the way to L.A., squinting against the last rays of the sun as it sank below the horizon. Sitting behind the wheel of Xander's car, she said the words over and over, trying different versions to see which one would fit. Which one would hurt the least. Which one would make it not real. The third time she had to pull off the road to sob into the steering wheel, she stopped rehearsing, and just drove.

Xander had wanted to come, but Anya was still in the hospital. It was her turn for the ritual everyone knew so well -- the doctors recognized them and didn't even bother to explain about head injuries anymore. She'd left them at Sunnydale General, Anya sleeping the sleep of the concussed, Xander curled up next to her as if he didn't know how to let go. There were tracks on his cheeks that Willow thought might never fade, the tears had fallen for so long, cut so deep.

Giles had said that he *should* come, but he'd been staring helplessly into space when he'd said it, polishing his glasses, and she didn't know if he was even aware that he'd spoken. He'd dealt with the paperwork at the morgue with the same calm efficiency he'd shown when they'd lost Joyce; once that was done, his last duty to his Slayer carried out, he'd simply shut down. She'd left him on the couch in the Summers living room, sprawled in one corner. They'd tried to get his coat off, to make him drink some tea, but he just... hadn't responded. To anything. Tara had finally curled up next to him, her arm through his and her head resting silently on his shoulder. Maybe he knew she was there, maybe he didn't. But at least he wasn't alone.

Tara couldn't come. Her hand had been reset at the same time Anya was being treated, and her mind was still muzzy from drugs and shock. But she knew Willow and knew her own name, had held Willow's face between good hand and bandaged one, and kissed her through their tears. Tara was taking care of Giles; that was her job.

Spike had a job of his own -- that it was self-appointed made no apparent difference to him. He'd been huddled by himself when Dawn had come tottering down the derrick, her feet slipping in her own blood. They'd all been able to hear his racking sobs -- William the Bloody, sobbing for the Slayer -- but he had stopped the moment he heard Dawn whisper her sister's name. Willow's eyes had been passing over Spike, looking anywhere but at Dawn, so she'd seen his head snap up, seen him look at the girl, then scrape one hand savagely across his face.

And then he'd been beside Dawn, locking his arms around her and forcing her bury her head in his battered leather coat. Anything to keep her from looking at Buffy. He'd said something into her hair and Dawn had clutched her fists in his coat and looked anyway. But she hadn't cried, and she hadn't let go of Spike.

It had been Spike and Willow who had bandaged the cuts on her stomach and gotten the blood to stop at last, when Dawn gotten hysterical at the mention of the hospital, and it had been Spike who'd carried Dawn up the stairs to her room. He'd barely been able to walk, had still been bleeding from the stab wound in his side, but he'd carried her. Willow had left her there, tucked into her bed, with Spike a silent sentinel at her side. "You'll take care of her?" Willow had whispered, not wanting to leave her alone.

Spike had just looked at her, the growing twilight from the windows and the glow of his cigarette casting his battered face into brutal angles. "Promised I would," he'd said roughly. "Get on your way, witch." And Willow had simply nodded and closed the door behind her.

Xander's car had been outside his apartment, right where he'd said it would be. She'd had a copy of the keys since the day he'd brought it to the shop, jubilantly declaring it the 'Mystery Machine'. "Only without the bad paint job," Buffy had chirped, and immediately asked to drive it. All of the Scooby Gang had keys, even the ones without driver's licenses, although Buffy was never allowed to drive without supervision....

Another stop by the side of the road. Another crying fit that seemed to pull more out of her with every choking sob. Like Spike, she dried her eyes roughly with her hand, focusing on the discomfort it brought. Angel. She had to get to Angel. Angel... needed to know.

It took her ten minutes to park the car, and she was grateful for them. It was ten minutes that she didn't have to face him, ten more minutes he could live without this knowledge, live without knowing all that he would ever have of Buffy again would be memories. And she fought back the stark, tearing envy that she couldn't live with that same blissful ignorance. Just ten minutes....

Once she'd parked, it took another ten minutes to force herself to walk up to the front door of the old hotel -- to find the doors locked. No one answered when she rang and she stared at the doors in a kind of numb shock. Of all the things she'd rehearsed for, finding no one home was.... She wasn't prepared for that.

A simple spell unlatched the entry; she'd have to talk to Angel about wards. The hotel was dark and empty, echoing in its stillness. She called out a few times -- for Angel, for Cordelia -- but no one answered. Finally, she sank into one of the soft, ancient couches, and waited. She didn't think, she didn't cry, she didn't scream. That would all come later.

Right now, she waited.

She heard them coming, saw Angel bounce his way up the stairs towards her, and she almost screamed at him to go back, to stay away before his world was destroyed with hers. But it was too late, and he came through the door talking over his shoulder to the others, and she saw the exact moment he saw her and she couldn't make herself move.

"Willow?" He caused a pile-up, stopping in the doorway. Wesley was to one side of him, Cordelia to the other, a young man who must be Gunn and a young woman she didn't recognize behind them all. She couldn't look away from Angel.

She stood slowly, and Cordelia was saying something and it didn't matter, because Angel knew. She saw the knowledge start in the depth of his eyes, saw it spread out to his face, through his entire body. There had been joy there, but it drained away, replaced with emptiness. He said the words, and she nodded. Yes. It's Buffy.

The story took hours to tell. Not so much because there was a lot to tell, although there was, but because Willow kept having to stop. After the first time, Wesley had gotten up quietly and poured her a glass of water, then sat beside her on the couch, one hand gently rubbing her back. She didn't lean against him, didn't even look at him beyond a faint smile of thanks, but she was fervently grateful for his steady presence.

Angel's face never changed from that first moment of realization. He'd just stood there through the short explanation, the when and the where and the why. When Wesley had seen Willow shaking and urged her to sit again, Angel had moved from the doorway to the big reception desk. He'd leaned against it, his arms spread wide to support him and his head bowed, and his voice was quiet when he asked, "How?"

And Willow had started from the beginning -- Dawn and Glory and the monks and the Key -- and worked her way through to the end. Cordelia had left for a few minutes, reappearing wearing a huge t-shirt and faded sweatpants, both her harem costume -- and Willow wondered vaguely about that, but couldn't bring herself to care -- and the strange girl apparently left in one of the hotel's many room. Cordelia hovered in the doorway closest to Angel at first, but when Willow described Glory's attack on Tara, when her voice broke into pieces so sharp she felt them slice at her throat, Cordelia sank onto the couch on Willow's other side and took her hand, holding it tightly.

"It's all right," she said softly, and Willow saw compassion in the eyes that had once looked at her with contempt. She saw grief, controlled but no less real for it, and it was suddenly a little easier to talk. "There's no hurry, Willow. Just tell us."

So she told them. And when Buffy leapt from the tower, when Willow's voice broke for good and she couldn't be strong anymore, Cordelia's arms folded around her, and Willow wept against Wesley's chest as he held them both. Gunn stood on the other side of the room, a dark shadow outside of their pain, but respecting it.

She was vaguely aware of Wesley's voice at some point, of a telephone dialing and Gunn talking to someone in the background. Tara or Xander, she realized dimly, being told Willow had made it to L.A. Wesley asked her if she wanted to talk to whoever it was, but she couldn't make herself stop crying long enough to answer. Cordelia smoothed her hair and Wesley hugged them more tightly and Gunn moved back to the desk. Through tear-swollen eyes, she saw him drop an awkward hand on Angel's shoulder in passing. Angel didn't seem to notice.

There was more quiet discussion and then she was being moved. Wesley's arm around her shoulder urged her to stand, to walk; when her knees gave way, he caught her, lifting her as easily as Spike had lifted Dawn, as Giles had lifted Buffy, long ago. There was a bed and a cool washcloth, accompanied by Cordelia's quiet voice, before steady hands tucked the sheets around her. She dozed fitfully, her dreams of Buffy interspersed with the sounds that drifted through the door they'd left open. A woman sobbing, and two men's voices soothing her....

She slept. And when she woke a little later, her pillow soaked with the tears she'd cried even in her sleep, she saw Angel standing at her window, staring out at the night, his face carved from stone in the shadows cast by the city lights and the breaking dawn.

They were all there when she woke a few hours after that; she didn't think they'd slept. Gunn and Wesley joined forces to get Willow to eat a bagel and orange juice. Cordelia, her eyes swollen and red, bent her entire concentration on making Angel drink something from a heavy mug. Blood, of course, but Willow didn't want to think about that, about the dark puddle under Buffy's broken body.... The phone rang, Xander for sure this time, checking on her. She reassured him as well as she could, considering neither of them could form a complete sentence, and he asked to speak to Angel. Angel's end of the conversation consisted entirely of monosyllables, when he made any sound at all.

Wesley offered to drive her to Sunnydale, to catch the bus back, and Gunn seconded the offer. Willow shook her head, but hugged them both. "Take care of Cordelia," she whispered into Gunn's ear, and he hugged her back, whispering, "You know it."

She didn't tell Cordelia to take care of Angel; she didn't need to. They held each other tightly, and Cordelia told her, "Tell us if you need *anything*. And tell us when... when we should come."

'For the funeral,' went unspoken.

"I will," Willow promised her and clung for another moment, remembering when Cordelia wouldn't have thought to offer comfort and Willow wouldn't have thought to expect it. Buffy had changed that, changed all of them....

She paused, then went to Angel where he stood against the wall, still staring at nothing, looking so much like Giles that it broke her heart again. He didn't respond for a long moment when she wrapped her arms around his waist, then his hands finally came up -- slowly, like he'd forgotten how to move -- and rested gently on her shoulders. He kissed her forehead when she moved away, told her to be careful driving home.

"And thank you," he said as she started to leave.

"For what?" she asked bitterly. "I didn't do anything." Didn't save Dawn, didn't save Buffy, the strongest one wasn't strong enough to do anything....

"For coming," he said quietly. "For caring."

Her throat closed up again on unshed tears. "She loved you so much," she whispered, barely able to force the words out.

"I know," he said, the same way, and she managed to nod once before she left.

The sun was shining brightly, the warmth beating down on her shoulders like a heavy blanket laid around them, and she turned her face up to it, letting it dry the tears. They left behind a salty layer that made her skin feel tight, like it would crack if she tried to speak. She surprised herself by finding Xander's car right where she thought she'd left it, and turned the key, moving carefully out into the street.

Another funeral waited for her at home -- more tears to dry, more days to face alone. But she slowed as she drove by the front of the Hyperion, and saw Angel there in the shadows, Cordelia's hand tucked into his arm and her head on his shoulder, Wesley and Gunn standing silent guard behind them.

The dark days were just beginning, for all of them. But at least they weren't alone. She closed her eyes and whispered the name: "Buffy."

Then she pressed down on the accelerator, and started looking for the freeway home.



"Tomorrow I must leave
The dawn knows no reprieve
God give me strength when I am leaving
So raise your hands to heaven and pray
That we'll be back together someday..."

Breathe, "Hands to Heaven"



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The Darkest Dawn  


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