"And there ain't nothing like regret
To remind you you're alive..."
Sheryl Crow, "The Difficult Kind"
It would see I am the designated driver tonight.
Cordelia offered to drive once or twice, but, having had some experience of her abilities, and lack thereof, behind the wheel of the car, I graciously declined. She is therefore spending a great deal of the trip pouting in back. Angel, of course, is simply sitting in the front seat, staring out at the night as I drive.
We had to wait until twilight to leave Los Angeles -- there was no question of Angel riding alone in the trunk, or of the mortals departing first. I am still less than sanguine about leaving Fred alone in the Hyperion, but Gunn assured us that he and the "wild girl" would be fine. The two of them seem to have come to some sort of understanding, so we left them behind, and began our journey to a place none of us wants to be.
I'm grateful, actually, for the distraction of driving, particularly in Los Angeles traffic. There is far less time to think of anything other avoiding the bloody idiot who decides to cross three lanes of traffic to get to his exit. But as we leave the city, and the traffic thins out, avoiding thought becomes less easy.
It seems almost presumptuous of me to grieve for Buffy, given how little I knew her. But it is not for her that I grieve, really; it is, selfishly, for myself. There were so many things I should have said to her, wanted to prove to her , and never did. The chance will never again present itself, and I grieve for those missed opportunities.
And even as Angel berates himself silently and ceaselessly for not being there, even as he blames himself for her death, and Cordelia and I take turns trying to convince him otherwise, the niggling little doubts insert themselves into my own head. What if...?
And that is the rankest presumption, of course, for I have never had an impact on Buffy's existance, never been important in it save in a peripheral role. I effectively shot myself in the foot the day we met, when I presumed I could take Giles' place in her world. When I presumed that, simply by virtue of my shiny new title of Watcher, I would be granted control of her life, and of Faith's.
Faith. There's the doubt, there; that's the place my guilt circles round. If I had not erred so badly with the girl -- if I had tried to earn my place as her Watcher, as her friend, rather than demanding it, and perforce driving her away -- would there have been two Slayers in Sunnydale still, to stand against Glory? Would it have made a difference?
See how the mind works. So desperate to explain the inexplicable that even guilt -- ridiculous, petty regrets that only the Powers That Be can ever confirm or deny -- is more comforting than wondering. Than grieving.
They are all at the house when we arrive, as I suspected they would be. Willow opens the door, and she and Cordelia embrace immediately. Her eyes are still red, but she seems to have found some measure of the peace that eluded her that day in Los Angeles.
When they separate, Willow holds out her hand to me and I take it, trying to fit an entire speech worth of sympathy into one squeeze. She smiles a little, so perhaps I succeed. She turns to Angel and hesitates, then abides by his unspoken 'keep away' signals. She gives him a slightly wider smile, dimmed with sadness, instead; Angel nods in quiet acknowledgement as she gestures us inside.
"Was the drive okay?" she asks as we go past her.
"It was fine, thank you," I answer -- one of the little pieces of courtesy that we cling to in lieu of normalcy.
The rest of the 'family' is gathered in the living room. Giles stands to greet us, and it takes all my effort not react to his appearance. Although I know him to be something more than a decade older than myself, he has never before looked it. But now, every year shows on his face, in his slumped shoulders and his empty eyes. Every year and then some.
Cordelia takes one look at Giles, and crosses the room to wrap her arms around his shoulders. "God, Giles, this sucks. I'm so sorry." Even in times such as this, I can still be amused at the expressions on the faces of her one-time classmates when she does so, and I briefly regret my decision not to ride my motorcycle here, leathers and all. 'Yes,' I want to tell them, 'she has changed. So have we all. Deal with it, please.'
Giles himself looks faintly surprised -- I doubt he can muster much more emotion than that -- but finally returns the embrace. Cordelia holds on for a long moment before releasing him and backing up a step. "You look like hell," she states flatly. "When was the last time you ate?"
He stutters for a moment and Cordelia draws her own conclusions, firmly tugging him towards the kitchen before he can greet either me or Angel. "Food. Now. Before you fall on your face."
I catch Angel's eye as she drags Giles off, and the faintest smile touches his lips, if not his eyes. Cordelia's Law, developed in Los Angeles, enforcement techniques honed on her co-workers: whatever the situation, whatever the problem, feeding someone is the first step towards fixing it.
On the couch across the room, Xander half-raises one arm. Anya is snuggled under the other. "Who was that, and what have you done with Cordelia?"
Willow glares at him before I can do so myself. "Be nice," she tells him under her breath. "If she can get Giles to eat, she's doing better than us."
He winces and makes an apologetic gesture. "Sorry. Hey, Wesley. Angel."
"Hello, Xander. Hello, Anya." She curves her lips dutifully up at me, but shows no inclination to leave her place, half-reclining against Xander's side. The bruises on her forehead are still livid, bearing mute testament to the battle all of them fought a few days ago. The battle they won, at such a cost....
"Xander," Angel says calmly. The relationship between these two has been rocky, to say the least, but as they look at each other, they seem to come to a tacit agreement to set old differences aside. Since the main reason for those differences is no longer with us, it seems to be a wise course of action. And, quite frankly, more than I expected.
Another fragile form rose from the carpet at Xander's feet as we came in, and has been standing quietly, waiting to be noticed. Which is terribly out of character, for all I've heard, but these are scarcely normal times.
Angel looks at her and she smiles, hesitantly, lifting one hand in a slight wave. "Hi."
Angel's face softens a bit. "Dawn." He looks as if he wants to say something else, but has no idea what. He remains silent, instead, and Dawn's smile falters.
"Hello, Dawn," I fill the breach. "It's good to see you again."
"Hi, uh, Wesley. Um, thanks for coming."
"Of course." I've only seen her in passing, once or twice before, yet I still have to remind myself that Dawn Summers and I have never met. That this lovely teenaged girl is, in fact, nothing of the sort. But there is grief in her eyes that no Power could create, her face is drawn and tired beyond the 14 years assigned to her, and her reality is undeniable.
A young blonde woman, pretty beneath her exhaustion, emerges from the kitchen, glancing nervously over her shoulder. "Someone just... I mean... Who was that?" she stammers.
"It's all right, Tara," Willow hastens to reassure her, crossing the room to take her hand. "That's Cordelia. She's a little... It's okay." She turns towards us. "That's Wesley, and this... this is Angel."
Tara's eyes go wide for a moment, then soft with compassion and sympathy, and I begin to see why she has, from all accounts, so thoroughly captured Willow's heart. "H-Hello," she says shyly. She offers her hand, and I take it carefully; Angel does the same. She is fragile, this one, but there is strength in her as well.
As it seems we are all gathered, we settle awkwardly onto chairs and sofa and floor. Dawn returns to her place at Xander's feet, after a quick glace at the stairs, and I see a form hidden in the shadows halfway up, the red ember of a cigarette glowing. It retreats back up the stairs, and, chip or no chip, I cannot help but be relieved Spike doesn't come out to greet us. Or, more likely, to instigate a fight with Angel. Given what Willow has confided to Cordelia in the last months about Spike's... attachment to Buffy, any meeting between him and Angel can result in nothing but a battle. And there's been death enough here already.
"The funeral is scheduled for tomorrow," Willow finally says. Her voice is quiet, careful, but her words are still a rude break in the silence. Xander looks down, his chin nearly touching his chest, and Anya moves a bit closer to him. I steal a glance at Angel; he's leaning forward, elbows on his knees, hands dangling between them, gazing at nothing in particular.
"It'll be at Westview Cemetery," Willow continues, holding Tara's hand as if to draw strength from it. "We got permission to bury her after the sun goes down, so you and.... Um, so you can come, Angel."
"She should be buried in the sunlight." Angel's voice is as quiet as Willow's, as steady. That very calmness has kept Cordelia hovering anxiously over him for the last several days, afraid of what he might be hiding beneath it. I can't say I don't share her concern.
Losing Buffy is a terrible blow. To lose Angel, as well, when he's only just come back to us...
"We thought of that," Willow starts to answer him, then flounders. "We thought... She'd want..."
"She should be buried with the people who love her," Tara says firmly, with no trace of stammer. "Giles found a spot under a beautiful tree. She'll see the sun during the day."
Angel doesn't answer, doesn't look up. But after a long moment, his head nods once.
"Okay." Willow takes a deep breath; apparently Angel's approval held some power over their plans. "There's not going to be a church service, because Buffy didn't go to church. But Tara and I will do a, kind of a burial ritual, and Giles is going to say something, we think. Angel, will you--"
"I can't." His response is flat, emotionless.
The others look at him. "But you should..."
"Angel, man, she's--"
"Willow," I intervene again, and her confused eyes move to me. They don't know Angel now, don't know that he means his refusal quite literally. If he could speak for his love, he would. But words have failed him these last days, so others will have to bear this task for him. "Perhaps I might be permitted to say a few words?"
They look at each other, then down at Dawn, curled in a small ball with her arms wrapped around her knees and her chin resting on them. She shrugs. "It's okay. Just don't go saying anything about angels, or saints, or any of that flowery stuff that isn't true."
"Perish the thought," I assure her, and we exchange a brief look of understanding. What I *will* say, of course, I have no idea.
The plans move on. From the corner of my eye, I see Spike come down the stairs with his long coat on and a sword in hand, not sneaking, but not drawing any particular attention to himself. If Angel sees him, he doesn't respond, nor does anyone else. Spike waits just outside the room until Dawn looks up, then gestures towards the kitchen with his head. She presses her lips together and swallows, then gives a small nod. The vampire goes into the kitchen and I brace myself, but there's no outcry from Cordelia or Giles. He doesn't come back out.
The wake will be small, and at the Magic Box rather than the Summers home, to avoid problems with uninvited -- or wrongly invited -- guests. They expect only a few will attend who are not here -- acquaintances from college, friends of her mother's who attended another funeral only a few months ago. They still hold out hope of locating Buffy and Dawn's father, and Xander has written to Riley. I look at Angel at that revelation, but he has no reaction.
Giles and Cordelia return from the kitchen; Willow stands instantly, offering Giles her place, and he takes it with a small, fond smile at her. She and Tara both settle on the floor, Willow looking at Cordelia as she does so. Cordelia shrugs in return, sitting on Angel's other side and sliding her arm through his, but the gesture is encouraging, as is the slightly improved color in Giles' face. Cordelia's Law strikes again.
I stand after a few more minutes of funeral talk, catching Willow's eye and indicating the stairs. She nods and I leave the room, making my way carefully up the steps. Finding the bathroom is simple enough; as I leave it, I start towards the stairs again, but something draws me towards the other end of the hall, instead.
It's the first time I've been in Buffy's room, but I could not possibly mistake it for any other. The trappings of a young girl -- a few tattered children's books, a pink jewelry box, a small stuffed pig -- mingle uneasily with the makeup and jewelry of a teenager, the textbooks of a university student, the checkbook and small pile of bills of a woman. Dusty ice skates lay on their side against the wall; a picture of a small girl on skates is balanced next to another of three friends grinning into a camera, and another of a mother and her daughters. A battered, too-large black leather jacket lies carelessly on the bed, as though tried on, then thrown aside; the bed itself has not been made, and a small pile of clothes takes up one corner. A scarred black trunk is open, the weapons of a Slayer scattered in and around it.
Buffy has no use for those weapons now. She will never wear those skates again, or that jacket, will never pay those bills or use that lipstick, or crawl between the sheets cuddling the small pig.
She is gone.
"What do I say to you, Buffy Summers?" I am surprised to hear my own quiet voice in this room, where everything around me shouts that I am an intruder. Yet in this room, I feel almost compelled to speak.
"We had so little to say to each other when you were... when you were here, that it seems odd to stand in your room, to which you will never return, and talk to you now. But I suppose that's why I feel the urge. Knowing you will never return, all I can do is regret the many things I never said, the many things you believed of me that I never had the time, the opportunity, to change.
"These conversations are usually reserved for gravesides, and copious amounts of alcohol. However, we have not yet buried you, and I cannot afford the luxury of drunkenness just now. Your work is done; we've only a few days here before we must return to ours. "
I start to run my hand along the top of her dresser, then stop. It's glaringly obvious that no one has touched anything in this room since its occupant left; I don't have the right be the first. My hands go in my pockets instead.
"Cordelia has cried for you -- does that surprise you? The night Willow came to us, Cordelia wept until Gunn and I were afraid she would make herself ill. It was only when we told her -- in desperation -- that Angel needed her, that she stopped. She had no strength for herself, but for Angel... infinite capacity. You would, I think, have been impressed by her."
I drop my head, fighting past a lump in my throat. These are things that must be said, and I will say them.
"Do you have any idea how much you changed her life, Buffy? How much you changed Angel's and, in doing so, changed mine? I know how terribly unimpressed you were with me when we first met and, looking back, I believe myself to be even less impressed. God, I was a foolish prig, sailing in convinced of my right and duty to take the place of your Watcher, when no power in Heaven or Earth could have broken the ties between you. Even now, as I watch him grieve, I envy Giles his Slayer -- his daughter -- for all the time he had you."
So many chances slipped through my fingers. Something I had wanted so desperately had been within my reach and I had grabbed, never wondering if it was mine to take. Which, of course, she had never been.
"Have I ever apologized for that, for my conduct those first months? Tacitly, I suppose, by offering to help you fight the Mayor, but that was little enough, and god knows I accomplished little enough in that fight. Well then, I hereby apologize -- for my attitude, for my blindness, for my attempt to take over something I never could have understood then."
There's a recent picture on the dresser, of the three Summers women. Joyce Summers and Dawn grinning, Buffy's face sober even with its smile. I remember her judging eyes, the first day we met, shining out beneath that blonde mane... So small a form to have such presence, such strength. Is it any wonder we lesser mortals reacted by trying to tame it, to control it?
"I paid for those mistakes, of course. You paid for them, and so did Faith, paid so much more than I did. I lost my Slayers, I lost the Watchers Council, I lost my life -- and yet, despite all my failings, I was somehow gifted with another life, far better than the one I arrived with. Gifted with friends better than I deserve, gifted with a purpose much more suited to me than that of Watcher.
"And it all came to me, directly or indirectly, because of you."
It's a truth I've never spoken before, never quite worked around to in my own mind. It's no less true for that. "How many times did you save Angel's life? Cordelia's? Because of you, both of them found their purposes, found their reasons to fight and to live. That purpose took them to Los Angeles, that purpose created Angel Investigations. That purpose gave me a place to go when I had no place, something to believe in when I had nothing."
I try to imagine my life without them -- without Cordelia's smile and her barbed wit, the compassion she tries so desperately to hide. Without Angel's quiet laugh and his dry humor, his determination to save a world that repays him by tearing away what he loves. Without Gunn's respect, Virginia's smile, even Kate's fierce, foolish pride.
And whenever I try to imagine that life -- Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, rogue demon hunter, former Watcher, isolated in my own shortcomings and my own failure to see them... Well, let us simply say that my gratitude to Cordelia and Angel -- and because of them, to Buffy -- passes all boundaries.
If I had words, I would speak them, but in this room, to this girl, I've lost them as surely as Angel has. "Thank you, Buffy Summers," is all I can manage. "I can never change what you believed me to be, but I can thank you for what I have become. For living, for fighting, for moving so far beyond what a Slayer was presumed to be that you changed an entire world -- or, at least, my little part of it."
The silence that falls as I finish is palpable but, somehow, the feeling of intrusion has lessened. There is peace here now, shimmering through the grief. I stand for a long moment, letting it flow in and around me, hoping that somehow, somewhere, Buffy has heard me.
There's a small noise in the doorway, and I turn to see Cordelia there, leaning against the doorframe. I wipe at my eyes automatically, reluctant to let even Cordelia see me cry -- ridiculous, the things we carry with us long after childhood is gone. "How long have you been standing there?"
She smiles, and comes far enough into the room to take my hand. "Long enough to know you're going to give a great eulogy tomorrow."
I almost laugh, and wipe futily at my cheeks one more time as we turn to leave. "Cordelia," I say hesitantly, as we leave Buffy's room. "You do know that... That is, I... I am...."
"I know, Wes," she says quietly. "I love you guys, too." She leans her head against my arm for a brief moment, then straightens. "Come on. I got Giles to eat a little, but I'm betting good nutrition hasn't been on anyone's list lately. You're going to help me figure out how to feed this crowd."
I nod, foolishly relieved at my reprieve, but still determined to say the words to all of them. Not here, and not now, but someday soon.
Tomorrow I must stand over a grave, drowning in my own regrets. I will never allow myself to do so again.
"I crossed the canyon a thousand times
But never noticed what was mine
What you'll remember of me tonight
Well, it almost makes me cry
Yeah, it almost makes me cry....
If you could only see
What love has made of me
But I'll forever be in your mind
The difficult kind...."
Sheryl Crow, "The Difficult Kind"
The Darkest Dawn
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