Disclaimer: The following work of fan fiction is not intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit. Both Buffy:TVS and Angel:TS belong to Joss Whedon and other Powers That Be, and I'm not stating, implying, or even hinting that I might conceivably own them; if I did own them, I might have enough money to make it worthwhile to sue me for writing about them, but then the point would be moot. In regard to this story, please don't copy, post, distribute, or sue without the express permission of the author.

Ratings/Warnings/etc.: PG for a bit of swearing; spoilers for both Buffy and Angel's season finales (2000-01 seasons) as well as various eps throughout the run of each show.

Category: Episode-related, probably pre-slash if I ever write that sequel, angst

Author's notes: Thanks to Carolyn and Angel (not that one) for help and error-catching. This story was conceived, start to finish, one night as I was trying to go to sleep; I almost made it until the cat started making that horrible noise that proceeds hairball hacking. Realizing that I wasn't going to get to sleep any time soon, I gave in and wrote this (after cleaning up the hairball). As it's my first Angel fic, and as my knowledge of Buffy is very scanty, I'd definitely appreciate any comments or suggestions anyone has to make. There's a feedback link at the bottom of the page if you'd care to indulge me :-).

by Katie

We knew before she could say anything. Standing on the stairs leading down into the foyer, our relief at returning home alive still wrapped around us like a blanket, we were ripped back to reality by the look on Willow's face, the devastation in her eyes. I was the one who spoke, though, the one who put it into words.

"It's Buffy."

Some distant part of my mind marveled that I felt no loss. I should have grieved for her. I was no longer in love with her, but I had been once, and still loved her now in a way that had nothing - little - to do with hot, passionate nights, and everything to do with bravery and compassion and faith. I should have had a gaping whole in my heart, should have at least had tears for her, but all I could summon was knowledge that I needed to be strong. Cordelia, Wesley, even Willow needed my strength, and I'd failed them too often recently.

It was with guilty relief that I pulled Cordelia to me, letting her sob out the initial rush of grief that I should have been feeling. A few weeks ago, she would have turned from me. Now she let me hold her, let me be strong for her.

Wesley was being horribly British, impeccable manners marred by the faint trembling he couldn't control. He ushered Fred to a place on the couch next to the one Willow had been sitting on, easily brushing aside her rambling efforts to leave. He sat by Willow and held her hand, gently extracted the story and offered handkerchiefs and tea, and his body shuddered minutely as if it sought to deny the news.

With Cordy in my arms, I couldn't offer him anything, but I gave Gunn a look that said stay by him. His answering expression stated clearly, no shit. I turned away from that look, not wanting to face the fact that even Gunn grieved where I did not, although his pain was more for us than for her, whom he'd barely known. I pulled Cordelia closer, running a soothing hand up and down her back, murmuring comforting lies until she slowly began to calm.

After a time, I felt safe in steering Cordy to the couch, where she and Willow clung together as Willow finished her story. Questions were asked and answered, and again I marveled that I, more than Wesley and more even than Gunn, was able to grasp the sometimes sketchy details that Willow was able to offer and put them together to form a coherent whole. That distant part of my mind was ashamed at my clarity of thought, but the rest of me simply took the pieces of the puzzle and assembled them like they were components of any case that I had to solve. The others were still in shock, their thoughts muddled by pain and disbelief, but I had nothing to bar me from understanding the events that had changed our world.

Finally Cordelia announced that she was taking Willow and Fred back to her apartment for what was left of the night. I tried to convince them to stay, not liking the idea of them being alone, but Cordelia was adamant. She was not going another hour without a shower and a change into decent clothes, and I think she and Willow needed privacy to come to terms with what had happened. Fred . . . simply had nowhere else to go, and fussing over her gave the other two girls something to do. After several more hugs and more than a few tears, they left. I swallowed my misgivings and turned my attention to Wesley and Gunn.

Bereft of the need to care for the girls, Wes slumped back on the couch, lines of exhaustion cutting deeply into his face. Gunn stood close by as he had since Willow had broken the news, his hand hovering at Wesley's shoulder as if he could provide support simply with the brush of his fingers against the fabric of Wesley's sweater.

They both looked up at me. I knew they were expecting, needing me to give them a direction to turn in. They were too tired, physically and emotionally, to come up with an answer to "what next?". They were depending on me to give them that. My mind raced. I was tired too, but I could cope better than either Wes or Gunn at this point. I couldn't let them down.

But before I could outline a plan, even something so simple as "find some empty beds and get some sleep," Gunn gave Wesley and me both a hard look, then said casually, "I need to get going. Gotta check on my people, make sure everything's okay since I been gone."

His hand finally settled on the back of Wesley's neck, squeezing gently. "You get some rest now, you hear?" He gave Wes a slight shake.

Wesley looked up at him, smiling tiredly, and reached up to clasp Gunn's wrist. "I hear you, Charles. We'll see you tomorrow, then?"

"Bet on it."

Gunn walked over to me, stopping to give me a critical once-over. Again, I tried to think of something constructive to say, something that showed my appreciation for his loyalty. Again, he moved first, one hand coming out to grasp my neck the same way he'd touched Wes.

"You, too, tough man. Get some rest, okay?"

I opened my mouth to tell him I was fine. Before I could, he'd wrapped me in a hard embrace. I felt something crack, but then he'd let go and was gone.

I turned back to Wes. He'd taken off his glasses and was rubbing the bridge of his nose in the way that he does when he's too tired to focus his eyes.

If he was that exhausted, he had no business trying to drive home. I had an entire hotel around me, with more rooms than I could ever possibly need. I just had to slide the idea past his pride and sense of decorum without him noticing, or else he'd be out the door in a flurry of protestations about how he couldn't possibly impose.

I swallowed, tried to make my voice as casual as Gunn's had been. "So, you want to stay here tonight? It'll save you the drive back tomorrow, and we'll be able to get started faster."

Wes nodded absently, setting his glasses on the end table. "That would be nice, thank you. Angel . . ."

"Good. I think the bed's still made in the room you usually use, but I can find you some clean sheets, and you can borrow something to sleep in." I turned away, trying to remember if there was any food in the refrigerator that might possibly not have spoiled while we were gone.

Wesley's voice stopped me. "Angel."

I turned back to him, realizing with a start that he'd come up behind me without me noticing. "You hungry? I think there's some bread and peanut butter, maybe something better if you're lucky . . ."

"Angel." He almost whispered it this time. His hand reached up, clasped my shoulder, his thumb in the same spot Gunn's wrist had rested. Then without any more words, he pulled me close.

Whatever had cracked in Gunn's embrace shattered in Wesley's. Darkness, raw and jagged and bitter, clawed at me from every side. Wesley's arms locked around me couldn't protect me from it; my face buried in the crook of his shoulder couldn't hide me from it. I think I screamed. I know I cried, as much as a man who is vampire can cry. I sobbed my denial, my grief, my anguish into the bones of Wesley's body and felt him absorb them like a blow.

My legs wouldn't hold me, and he was only human, and tired. He guided me down gently to the floor, though, and his arms never eased their hold. I clung just as fiercly, my fists knotted in the back of his shirt. I was a million broken shards, nothing holding me together but his grip on me and mine on him. And each one of those pieces was one that had touched her, been a part of the man who had loved her and been loved by her, had fought by her side and danced in her arms. The man who had tried at one time to protect her and had ultimately left her, and now was completely, unbearably alone.

"It's all right," Wesley said, but I couldn't believe him. Not when she was gone.

She had been a child and a woman at the same time, and I had loved both her innocence and her wisdom. I had loved her courage, both when she fought beside me and when she fought for me, and perhaps most of all when she found the strength to fight against me. I had loved her laughter, and the awakening sensuality of the woman inside her. More than anything, I had loved the light that shone through her so brightly it seemed capable even of burning my darkness away.

And yet the darkness had finally claimed her as it threatened constantly to claim me, and I wondered briefly, madly, if I might court the darkness and find her again. But arms as strong as steel bands held me in place. Almost imperceptible fingers stroked through my hair in a steady rhythm, reminding me of responsibilities I'd failed once and never could again. Reminding me also of a different light, of Cordelia's smile when I brought her sandwiches, Gunn's weight rocking the car as he appeared out of nowhere to travel who-knew-where with us, Wes's steady gaze as he promised me I'd be able to come back to them.

We sat for a long time after I grew quiet. Wes said nothing, and I concentrated only on the feel of his arms around me at that moment, the gentle scratch of whiskers and cotton on my cheeks. After a while, it finally occurred to me that I was being held by a human who was far more susceptible than most vampires to cramping after sitting in one position for hours on end. I straightened, taking my weight back on myself, but I couldn't make myself pull away completely and Wesley didn't seem inclined to let go of the gentle grip he had on my shoulder.

"I'm sorry," I started, not so much for my outburst as for the pain I knew he had to be feeling in his back and the not-quite-healed wound in his side.

He waved the apology away absently, although I wasn't sure if it was because he knew what I meant or because he was too tired to care. Then he gave me a wry grin, and in a voice more normal than I could manage at that point, said, "Would you mind helping me up? I'm afraid my leg went to sleep, and my body's likely to follow right here if I don't get it a shower and a bed immediately."

I laughed as I stood and pulled him up. I steered him toward his room with a reluctance I tried my best not to show. He was nearly asleep on his feet; he'd be lucky not to doze off in the shower and drown himself. I couldn't ask him to stay up any longer, even if I was feeling an unsettling need not to be alone with my thoughts.

I waited till I heard him get safely out of the shower and into his bed before going to take a shower myself. It felt good to stand under the hot water, to scrub the grime of another world off my body and to remember for a moment the warmth of the sun shining directly on my skin.

Slowly, other memories crept in, but this time the pain was gentler, a sweet ache instead of stabbing agony. Chances to see her hair glowing in the sunlight had been rare, but I'd managed to catch a few glimpses and store them away. It had always smelled like sunshine, though, and the sweet cleanness of her shampoo. She'd awoken once at my house, one of the rare times we'd had a chance to spent the night together not slaying vampires, and she'd been embarrassed by the knots sleep had put in her hair. Her attempts to smooth them had given me a strange, warm feeling in my stomach, and it wasn't just the lack of mirrors that made me try to convince her not to comb them out.

That was right about the same time she'd started talking about the future, about going to the prom and clearing out a drawer for her belongings, things "normal" couples did. And I'd started thinking about how 'happily ever after' hadn't been invented for people like us, and I'd started to pull away. I'd told myself it was for the best. Still believed that, too, although a nagging voice in the back of my mind wondered if I might have been able to save her, if I'd still been a part of her life. Or would I have destroyed her all the sooner, like I almost destroyed Cordelia, Wesley, and Gunn?

Some questions were unanswerable. The best I could do tonight was dry off and climb into bed and hope that sleep came soon.

Only it didn't. Exhausted as I was, my mind refused to rest. It raced instead with with memories, and when I finally pushed those away, with worries about Gunn finding trouble out there alone on the streets, Cordy, Willow, and Fred being too tired to drive home safely--and why hadn't I insisted that they call when they got to Cordelia's apartment? At least Wes was safe here in the hotel, but hadn't I told him I'd get him some clean sheets and a blanket in case the air conditioning got too cold?

Finally I gave in, rising with a silent sigh to find a clean pair of sweatpants and to make my way around to Wesley's room. The faint glow of waning moonlight gave me enough light to see even if I hadn't known every step of my home intimately. I didn't need a light, so I could check to make sure Wes was sleeping comfortably without him ever being the wiser.

I eased the door open, hoping fervently that it wasn't one of the ones that squeaked, and nearly turned and ran as I realized the quick, shallow breaths I was hearing did not come from a sleeping man.

"Angel?" Wesley's cautious voice broke the stillness, and I gave up any hope of disappearing unnoticed.

"Yeah, it's me."

I heard a faint, relieved sigh, and the clatter of something metal being dropped to the floor. Wesley was nothing if not always prepared.

"You very nearly had a Girdekki ceremonial dagger sticking out of your chest. Is everything all right?"

I nodded, then remembered Wes didn't have my ability to see in the dark.

"Everything's fine. I just, um, forgot to see if you needed any blankets."

There was a brief pause, then Wesley said awkwardly, "The bedding is fine." He paused again. "Would you like to . . . talk, or . . ."

He left the sentence hanging, giving me ample time to consider my lack of qualifications as his mother. "Um, no, if you're all right, I'll just . . ." sit out here in the hall and make sure no Drakkens attack ". . . go on back to bed."

It takes an Englishman to convey that much disbelief in one snort. "Angel, I'd quite prefer to have you in here where I'm expecting you than to wake up several times during the night thinking the boards creaking outside my door herald a supernatural attack."

For dignity's sake, I gave it one last protest. "What makes you think I . . ."

"I'm tired, Angel. I'd like to get a little sleep before the sun rises and I can't ignore the fact that it's tomorrow. Lie down and shut up."

Feeling as if I'd been granted a reprieve, I entered his room and came over to the bed. I slid under the more than adequate comforter and closed my eyes. I could feel Wes shift around to lie on his side, politely facing outward. I took a deep breath and let it out, liking the way that felt, tension leaving my body along with the air. I'd call Cordy as soon as I could reasonably expect not to get yelled at, and Gunn would show up tomorrow and laugh at me for looking relieved. For now, I could be satisfied with having Wesley close enough to keep tabs on, and perhaps finally get some sleep.

Except Wes had started shaking again, so slightly that I almost wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't been sharing a mattress and wasn't within arms' reach. I reached out, not quite sure he'd allow a touch, but he pressed back against it, like he needed the contact as much as I did.

I told myself it was his need, not mine, as I moved. Rolling over, I curled around him and pulled him back so that we were touching again, Wesley's back to my chest, my arm wrapped around his waist and my fist pressed against his breastbone. He was wearing a pair of my sweats and one of my t-shirts, which had twisted around so that his shoulder was bare. He smelled of soap and human skin and human blood, of life so intoxicating I could only press my lips to the exposed skin and wish my touch could wipe away all the pain. But such a thought was as likely as 'happily ever after'.

Wesley's hand closed over mine and held tight, an acceptance I wasn't expecting.

"Slayers die young," he murmured finally. "But she was an exceptional girl, and I had hoped . . ." Wes paused, shuddered more strongly, and I tightened my hold. "Hoped, I suppose, that she'd somehow have a normal life. Happiness. Silly of me, wasn't it?"

I didn't answer, couldn't, except to pull him even closer, as if that would ease the emptiness.

"When we were planning on storming the castle, I said 'If you try not to get anybody killed, you wind up getting everybody killed.' She died so the world wouldn't. That's what matters, isn't it?"

It hurt to feel his pain and his attempts at control, the steady breaths that tore in the middle, the iron grip of his fingers digging into my hand. But he let me hold him, as Cordelia had let me hold her when we'd first heard the news. His grief seemed to ease, as Cordy's had, in my arms, and for that I had her--I had Buffy--to thank. Without her, I wouldn't have remembered how to hold someone, how to let someone hold me until we could stand on our own again.

"It matters, Wes." I wished I had the eloquence to tell him why. Words had never been my strength.

Perhaps it was enough, or he was simply too tired to argue. We lay silently. After a time the trembling eased, and he slowly melted back into my embrace. His body grew heavier as sleep drew near, and finally even his hand relaxed, coming to rest on mine with an apologetic caress.

As I listened to him sleep, soft breaths a counterpoint to the beat of his heart, I thought once more of another night, of watching another sleep. I thought--not about how fragile human life could be, not about how easy it would be to lose this man in my arms, or those others I cared as deeply about--but about how bright a candle looks in a pitch-black room, and how the flame from one candle can light so many others without diminishing. And, eventually, I slept.