Quietus


I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my humanity...
Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.


- Louis MacNeice, "Prayer Before Birth"


**

The motel was nondescript - a dusty nothing of a place, too far from L.A to even qualify as being on the outskirts. It was one of several buildings that sat clustered together near the highway for the convenience of weary travelers. It was ugly, it was shabby, and it was at least two hours from civilization in any direction.

Angel thought it was perfect.

It had been a mutual decision, made way back in the days when he and Buffy had no intention of going back to the other's town. He'd broken that promise of separation once or twice, usually with horrible results. It had taken a few years, but he'd come to the realization that nothing good ever happened for him in Sunnydale. He didn't know why Buffy had chosen this place for any possible future meetings, and he'd never asked. He half suspected that she'd invoked the highly scientific method of closing her eyes and pointing her finger at a map.

Angel settled himself back into the creaky chair with a sigh and surveyed the empty room. He sensed the distinct possibility that that piece of furniture was on its last legs, so to speak, but it was the only place in the room to sit besides the bed.

And that wouldn't do at all, for any number of reasons he didn't want to examine too closely.

He could hear the quiet drone of a TV coming from one of the downstairs bedrooms. The motel was nearly empty, which suited his mood just fine. The smell of the oil from the nearby gas station mixed unpleasantly from the faint odor of mildew coming from the bathroom, and he didn't even have to concentrate to pick up the hum of traffic on the nearby highway.

There was only one sound he was listening for anyway, and he was listening so hard that he almost missed it. At the soft, light sound of a pair of feet approaching the door, he straightened up in his chair, tightening his hands on the arms until he felt the wood creak.

The lock clicked and the door swung open, revealing Buffy standing on the landing outside.

It wasn't as if he'd made plans to sit in the chair all night, but Angel found himself rooted to the spot, unable to move. Buffy hesitated in the doorway and then stepped inside, tucking the key into her back pocket and allowing the door to swing shut behind her.

"Hey," she said quietly, folding her arms around herself in a protective gesture.

At the words, it was if a spell had been broken. Angel rose from the chair and crossed the room to her. He reached out one hand, one finger, almost afraid to make contact with her in case she disappeared. But the skin of her arm was soft and warm under his touch, and he felt his mouth crease in a smile.

"Buffy," he said quietly. "You...you look great."

She looked about a thousand years older than the last time he'd seen her. Not physically, no, but the haunted look in her eyes made him want to weep. In every other way, she still looked every bit the girl he'd known - her hair a bit longer and darker, but still as slim and strong as ever. Her resurrected skin looked flawless, shining with an untouched, pinky newness that he'd only seen once before.

Wow. He hadn't thought of Darla in months.

"You do too," Buffy said in return, giving him a faint smile. "It's good to see you again.

She folded herself into his embrace, and for an endless moment they clung to each other. She smelled of sadness, but without a hint of death or decay, and Angel tightened his arms around her in a sudden spasm of relief.

She was here, and she was alive.

"So," Buffy said after a few minutes, pulling away and discreetly wiping her eyes on the back of her hand. She surveyed the room and wrinkled her nose. "Nice place you've got here."

Angel let out a bark of relieved laughter, and Buffy joined in.

"Yeah," he said dryly. "I should have known you'd pick the most depressing rest stop in the state of California."

She shrugged. "What can I say? It's my gift." Her eyes clouded over a moment at the word, and before he could ask what was wrong, she hurried on. "Pretty gross. Sorry about that. But...it fits, somehow."

And it did, in the sense that it was a place in which no one in their right minds would want to linger. Its squalor made it temporary, and that was the thing that was important. No use tempting fate by having them meet somewhere where they'd actually want to stick around.

"Well," Buffy said quietly, not quite meeting his eyes. "It's been a while, I guess."

Angel nodded. "A few months. Your mom's funeral." He wondered immediately if he'd said the wrong thing, bringing up the loss of her mother, but for the life of him he didn't have the least clue what the right thing was to say. Hey, Buff. Speaking of funerals, sorry I missed yours. Glad you're over the whole death thing. But if Buffy was bothered, she didn't show it.

"A few months," she muttered. "It seems..."

"Longer?" Angel asked quietly.

"Yeah."

They ended up on the bed after all, sitting with their backs to the headboard and a chaste distance between them. Angel's fingers itched to touch her, but he held back until she made the first move. The silence between them felt like a cocoon, sheltering them from the outside world. Even the sound of the highway was lost under the thunder of Buffy's heart.

"This is nice," she said finally, shifting closer to him so their shoulders rubbed against each other. "This is what I needed. It's so quiet."

Angel felt a shudder run down his spine. Oh, Buffy. Aren't you tired of the silence of the grave? He made a noncommittal grunt of agreement, and he caught Buffy's wry smile out of the corner of his eye.

"See?" she said. "You always had a way with words."

He turned to her then, reaching out to catch a strand of her hair between his fingers. Had it always been this fine? It felt like an infant's hair.

"I don't know what to say," he whispered almost desperately.

She looked up at him then, her eyes luminous in the yellow lamplight.

"Nothing," she said. "Nothing is good. Sometimes nothing is the best thing."

He could sympathize with her, which scared him. She had always been so social, so full of life, and it went against the natural order of the universe that she should in any way be like him. But her eyes cried out for silence and solitude, and he could understand that need like nothing else.

"I guess it hasn't been easy for you. You know...being back."

She snorted, a humorless laugh. "Understatement of the century," she said dryly. "It's just...they're trying so hard, you know? My friends. They're so happy I'm back, and they keep telling me that, like if they tell me one more time it'll really sink in. And they want so badly for everything to be back to normal, and it's not. I don't know if it ever will be."

It was the the longest statement she'd made since she'd been there. I know, he wanted to say, except that he knew that he didn't know, not really. He could make a pretty good guess, just based on how long it had taken him to get over his disorientation at being back in the world after so long in hell, but that wasn't even remotely the same thing. He hadn't awoken to a suddenly beating heart, to deflated lungs burning for air, to the sudden rush of blood pumping through desiccated muscle.

He didn't know too much about what exactly had happened at her resurrection, other than the fact that Willow had been the one to bring her back. He had trouble picturing it - those brave, silly little children, unearthing a coffin and performing the darkest of magics to reawaken their friend. Had they at least brought her home first, so she would awaken in a familiar place? Had the first sound in her ears been the babble of their voices? No wonder she longed for quiet.

"I know it's hard," he said. Buffy shrugged, just a limp lift of one shoulder. "Do you...do you want to talk about it?"

He was almost relieved when she shook her head. "No," she said firmly.

"I understand. But do you think you can, eventually? Not to me," he said quickly when she opened her mouth to speak, "but to someone there. Maybe Giles? Just...promise me you'll talk to someone?"

She gave a sad little smile. "Since when did you become therapy guy?"

"Oh." He let out a self-deprecating laugh, trying not to notice that she hadn't made any promises. "I guess L.A. is rubbing off on me after all. Or maybe it's hanging around Wes and Cordy for too long."

"Oh yeah. So you guys are still all working together? How's that going?"

He could read the desperate plea in her eyes to change the subject, so he obliged her. Skipping over some of his darker moments - including anything even vaguely related to Darla - he filled her in on the group's activity over the past few months. He told her about green karaoke demons, about Fred and her food obsessions, about portals and Pylea. He got a rare laugh out of Buffy when he climbed from the bed and tried to imitate the Pylean Dance of Joy.

"Hey, I promise you that didn't look any sillier than the real thing," he grumped while she held a hand over her mouth and snickered.

She didn't say too much about her own life in return, and he didn't press her. "Oh, you know," she'd shrugged when he'd first asked. "Apocalypse, hell-god, world saveage. The usual. A near-death experience that turned out to be a little nearer than usual this time. Now I'm back, and everything's quiet. Well, as quiet as it gets on a Hellmouth."

He tried to keep talking as long as he could, tried to keep the conversation as light as possible, but as the sun rose behind the tightly-closed curtains he ran out of stories and fell silent again. She had always been the one who started their conversations, the one who drew him out of himself little by little, and he had no idea how to act now that their roles were reversed.

"It's okay," Buffy said finally, taking his hand in hers. "It's okay to be quiet, you know."

And so they lay side by side in silence as the sun rose and the morning passed. He wanted to hold her, but she'd dropped his hand almost as soon as she'd taken it, instead curling in on herself and wrapping her arms around one of the pillows. He watched as her brow furrowed and her gaze lengthened, and he didn't know if she was still aware of being in the room with him. Desperate to ground her, he resorted to touch - running the backs of his fingers over her cheek, smoothing the crumpled fabric of her shirt, playing with the strands of her hair. As uncomfortable as he usually was when she cried, he almost wished she would this time. But her gaze stayed dry-eyed and far away, and the air never smelled of the salt of her tears.

She roused herself once to use the bathroom, shaking her head when he asked her if she needed something to eat. He tried a few times to revive their earlier conversation, but it was as if the rising of the sun had sapped her of her energy.

"I'm sorry," she said once. "I'm sorry I can't be who you want me to be." He made a consoling, shushing noise, but she shook her head without looking at him. "When I go back, I have to be better. I have to, because they need me. You don't need me."

It sounded harsh, but he understood completely. "It's okay," he said, his voice hoarser than intended. "I know what you mean."

It was the late afternoon when she finally stood up and smoothed her hair, fishing in her pocket for her key.

"I have to go," she said unnecessarily. "I want to pick up dinner for Dawn. I know I haven't been taking care of things like I should have."

"Buffy," he said softly, and the words stuck in his throat. Stay with me, he wanted to plead. Let me take care of you. But those were words he couldn't say, and they both knew it. "Did it help?" he finally asked. "Being here?"

She smiled, but it didn't touch the sadness in her eyes. Her armor was back in place, he could see. At this point, he wasn't sure whether she'd really lost it during their time together.

"I'm fine," she said, a little too brightly.

"If you need anything..."

"I won't call you."

He looked up, shocked, and she tightened her jaw decisively. "I can't," she said, and he finally saw tears glisten in the corners of her eyes. "You know I can't. And I won't be back here."

She was slipping away even as he watched her, and he could do no more than nod. "I know," he whispered. He held himself still as she walked over to him, leaning down to accept her kiss. There was no hunger in the kiss, just an aching sadness. She tasted like the first kiss she'd ever given him. She tasted like goodbye.

He stood carefully out of the way while she opened the door and slipped into the afternoon sunlight. He stood there while she left, feeling more helpless than he ever had.

"You saved me," he whispered to the closed door. "I'm sorry I couldn't do the same for you."


The End




[A/N: Credit where due: the final line comes from the AtS episode Epiphany.]


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