Valley of Ashes


This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby


No one thought about him on that first, horrible day. Nor on the second, or the third. In fact, it was a full week—seven numb, unrelenting days—before anyone thought of Angel at all.

It was Willow who remembered in the end. Because it was always Willow who remembered the little things, the things that are so easily forgotten yet matter so very much.

She was in Buffy's room, looking at her friend's things. Just looking, or sometimes touching or even smelling them. There on the bookcase, stuck between the high school yearbook and an unread copy of The Great Gatsby, was a spiral notebook. Willow recognized it as one she'd seen Buffy stuff into her backpack countless times during their senior year. And because Willow loved and missed everything about school almost as much as she loved and missed Buffy, she took it off the shelf.

And there it was, right on the cover, doodled in Buffy's round, girlish script:

Buffy & Angel 4 Ever!

Something reached into Willow's chest and squeezed its cold fingers around her heart. It was the innocence in that exclamation point that nearly undid her.

She closed her eyes. Counted to ten. Then counted another ten. When she was sure she wasn't going to cry she put the notebook away, carefully, exactly where she'd found it, and walked downstairs. Everyone was in the kitchen. They were here most of the time now, since... well, where else was there to be? Dawn needed them. That's what they all said, anyway. Though of course the real reason was that they all needed each other.

Tara was making lunch—grilled cheese sandwiches—with Anya's enthusiastic but unhelpful assistance, while Xander sat perched on the counter. Giles sat at the breakfast bar beside Dawn, quietly sipping a mug of tea.

They must have seen something on Willow's face when she walked in, because they all went quiet. Xander slipped quietly off the counter and moved a little closer to Anya.

"Angel," said Willow. "We forgot about Angel."

"Dear God," said Giles.

Xander looked at his shoes. Dawn looked like she was in danger of crying again, and Tara instinctively reached for her hand.

"Someone should call him," said Anya. As if it was as simple as that. Probably to her, it was.

Giles shook his head. "News like this should be given in person. He deserves that much from us, at the very least."

"I guess he does," conceded Xander, not unkindly.

"I'll go this afternoon," said Giles. "I can be in Los Angeles—"

"No," said Willow. "I'll go."

Tara was looking at her, her eyes so full of love and compassion that Willow had to look away.

"Are you certain?" said Giles.

Xander shifted nervously. "Yeah, Will, have you thought about how Angel's likely to take news like this?"

"He loves her," said Willow. "It should be me." Not Giles. Not Xander. There were too many things that lay between Angel and the other men in Buffy's life. Hard things. Painful things. It wouldn't be right. Willow had to go, because Willow was the only one who had always been able to see Angel through Buffy's eyes. She'd believed in his love for Buffy, as purely and—yes—as naively as Buffy herself. Willow knew, with grim certainty, that Buffy would want her to break the news to Angel.

And so she boarded a bus to L.A. that same day. The journey passed in a blur. Willow stared out the window at the highway and the passing landscape, without really seeing any of it. She might have slept a little, but she didn't think so. When the bus finally pulled into the station and the driver opened the door, Willow was startled. She didn't expect to be there so soon.

The smoggy Los Angeles air felt thick and powdery in her throat as she stepped out of the bus station. She found a cab and gave the driver the address. She'd looked it up on the internet before she left. There it was, right there in Yahoo! Yellow Pages, under "Professional Services > Private Investigation." Go figure. Cordelia had told her the last time they'd talked on the phone (two months ago? six? who could remember?) about Angel Investigations' new office, in some old abandoned hotel.

Abandoned was the word for it, as Willow found out when she got out of the cab and walked into the lobby. Nobody home. Nobody at all. It took a little while to determine that fact, of course.

She'd called out a few times, knowing all the while that if Angel were there he'd have heard her the first time. She poked her head into the office behind the front desk and even wandered around upstairs, past door after door, until she reached one that was open. Angel's suite, from the look of it, as neat and tasteful as Angel himself. She walked into the room, not wanting to snoop, but hoping for some sign that he'd be back soon. She paused in front of a bookcase and read through the titles on the bindings. When she saw a lovingly worn copy of The Great Gatsby, she pulled it down from the shelf. She'd need something to pass the time until Angel got back.

She went downstairs, sat down on a couch in the lobby and opened the book. She read the whole thing straight through cover to cover and set it down with a sigh. In retrospect, she probably could have chosen something a little cheerier to pass the time.

It was getting close to dawn and still no sign of Angel. She wondered what she'd do if he didn't come back. Try to call Cordelia, she supposed, or maybe even Wesley. Strange, to think of them all out here together, living their lives. It was easy to forget that there was a world outside of Sunnydale. That the people who left the Hellmouth behind them didn't actually cease to exist.

And then she heard the voices outside. They sounded so happy and carefree. Willow's first instinct was to run away, to hide, so that they'd never know she'd been here, never know what she had to tell them. She wished she was invisible.

She heard Angel's voice, just outside the door. "Okay," he said. "Can I say it? I wanna say it."

"Say what?" That was Wesley.

The lobby doors opened and Angel stepped in. With him were Wesley, Cordelia, and a black man and a skinny girl that Willow didn't know.

That's funny, she thought, it looks like Angel, but it's smiling. She'd hardly ever seen him smile in Sunnydale. He looked like another person altogether: a stranger, a normal man surrounded by normal friends. Except for Cordelia, who was, for some reason, dressed up in a ridiculous belly-dancer outfit. You could almost laugh. Almost.

Angel spread his arms wide and said, "There's no place like—" And then his gaze found Willow and he froze, the last word stuck in his throat. She watched all the laughter fade from his eyes and just like that he looked like the old Angel, the one she remembered. "Willow?" he said uncertainly.

"What's…" stammered Cordelia, her gold bikini jingling faintly.

Willow stood up slowly, never taking her eyes off Angel. Now that he was here, she didn't have any idea how to say what she had come here to say. But she didn't need to, apparently, because she could tell from Angel's face that he had already figured it out. He knew why she was here alone, unannounced, in the middle of the night. There was only one possible reason, really.

"It's Buffy," he said quietly.

Willow wanted to say something but her mouth suddenly felt as if it was full of ashes. She couldn't seem to speak; couldn't move, couldn't even nod. Couldn't look away from Angel as he struggled so fiercely to contain what he was feeling. It was as if his soul was straining to escape through the windows of his eyes, and he, being what he was, felt the need to hide it.

"Cordy, take Fred upstairs," he said.

Cordelia crossed her arms defiantly. "No."

Angel turned a black stare on her but Cordelia didn't back down. Willow saw something unspoken—and vaguely familiar—pass between them. It was absurd—seriously absurb—but something about it reminded her of the way Xander and Cordelia used to look at each other, back when their fighting had disguised a different kind of fire.

"I'll do it," said the bald black man. Willow remembered Cordelia mentioning him once. He had a weird name… Gunn, that was it. He took the other girl gently by the arm and led her up the staircase, quietly promising her something to do with tacos, of all things.

Just the Sunnydale folks now. Just like old times. Except that it would never be like old times again.

Angel walked over to Willow. He took her gently by the shoulders and sat her back down on to the couch, then pulled up a chair across from her for himself. Cordelia came and sat beside Willow; Wesley hovered nervously just behind Angel.

"Tell me," said Angel. His expression was dull, cold, void of any emotion.

Willow closed her eyes—because she'd never be able to get through this if she had to look at Angel's face—and told them everything, every sad, awful detail. Well, not every detail. She left out some of the stuff about Spike—because she wanted to be truthful, not hurtful—and something else as well. But she told them everything that was important, everything they needed to know to understand what had happened, and why. At some point she felt Cordelia take her hand and squeeze it, which was something of a surprise, but not an unwelcome one.

When she was done, Willow opened her eyes. Angel's face was perfectly empty. A blank slate, a stone wall, a frozen rocky place where love had died.

"Yeah, right," said Cordelia.

Willow gaped at her. "What?"

"That's it? I don't think so."

Willow didn't even know what to say. Neither, apparently, did Angel.

"This is Buffy we're talking about," said Cordelia authoritatively. "She doesn't just die. Not in the permanent sense of the word, anyway."

"Cordelia—" said Wesley quietly.

"No," she insisted. "Buffy's not dead. Tell him, Willow. Tell him the part where Buffy comes back and kicks the bad guy's ass, like she always does."

Willow shook her head sadly.

Cordelia turned on Angel. "Buffy can't be dead, because I'd know. I'd have had a vision and then you would have gone and saved her and—okay—you'd be all extra-broody for a while, which would be beyond annoying, but eventually you 'd get over it and everything would be fine. Fine."

Somewhere in the middle of her speech Cordelia's voice lost the strident, "Queen C" tone and became small and shaky. Tears were rolling down her cheeks.

Angel and Willow stared at her helplessly. It was Wesley who stepped forward, his own eyes rimmed with tears. He took Cordelia by the hand and led her away. "Why don't I drive you home?" he said gently.

It was just Angel and Willow now. They looked at one another: dry-eyed, both of them. Willow didn't know what she'd expected. That he'd cry like Spike had? That he'd fall into her arms sobbing? Rend his clothes and wail his grief into the night like a banshee? Hardly.

"You must be tired," he said finally.

"A little," Willow admitted.

Angel stared off into space, his eyes strangely unfocused. "His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him."


He pointed to the book lying on the table beside her. "Gatsby."

"Oh," said Willow. "Right."

He stood up. "Come on, I'll find you a place to sleep."

Willow followed him up the stairs and down the long hallway, trying not to think about how much this place reminded her of The Shining. He opened a door across from his suite and turned on the light. The wallpaper was peeling, which was actually an improvement, considering the pattern, and the room smelled vaguely musty, but it was clean and it had a bed, for which Willow was profoundly grateful.

She walked into the room and sat tentatively on the edge of the bed. The springs creaked dispiritedly under her weight.

Angel lingered by the door, reluctant to stay, yet unwilling to leave, apparently. He cleared his throat. "What about Dawn?"

"We're taking care of her," said Willow. As best they could, anyway. How do you take care of someone who's lost everything?

"And… her dad?"

"Doesn't even know," said Willow.

Angel was staring intently at the lamp, as if any moment it might sprout legs and try to run away.


"Hmm?" he said distantly.

"Are you okay?" It was a stupid question, but she felt compelled to ask it anyway. It was what people did.

He looked at her and smiled. Not the pure, joyful smile she'd seen earlier, but that wry, bitter smile that was so achingly familiar. "No," he said. "I am definitely not okay."

"Me neither," said Willow.

And then she swallowed hard and told him the thing she'd left out before, about Buffy's last words to Dawn. They were precious, those words, not meant for just anyone. Not for Cordelia or Wesley, who'd been allies but never family. But Angel—Angel should hear them. It was why Willow had come. Of all of them, she suspected that he needed to hear Buffy's words the most.

"Be brave," Buffy had said. "Live." Willow still didn't know how she was going to manage it.

And then she did begin to cry, even though she'd promised herself she wouldn't. Not anymore. "I'm sorry," she gasped in between sobs. "I didn't mean to come here and go all Meryl Streep-y on you."

Angel sat down beside her and she felt his arms wrap her up and pull her into his chest. She sobbed even harder then, because he of all people shouldn't have to comfort her. She couldn't help it. She'd been trying so hard to be strong over the last week, for Dawn and Xander and Giles and even for Tara, because Willow hated to see Tara worry. But Willow didn't feel strong, especially not now, not in front of Angel, who really was strong, and whose presence had always reminded her of exactly how young and insecure—and vulnerable—she really was.

Eventually her sobs quieted to hiccups and the hiccups gave way to a case of the sniffles and a grinding headache.

"I'm sorry," she said again, extracting herself from Angel's arms.

"Don't be," he said.

"I got snot on your shirt."

"I have other shirts." He went into the bathroom and came out with a roll of toilet paper which he handed over to her. She tore off a long strip and blew her nose noisily.

"Feel better now?" he asked.

"Not even remotely," said Willow. "I'm so tired of crying. I just want to be done with the crying part."

"It'll get better," he said. "You'll be okay. You should get some sleep, though." He was backing towards the door, getting ready to make his escape from the crazy crying girl with the overactive snot glands.

"Angel," she said, stopping him, because she wasn't quite ready to let him go yet.

He paused in the doorway and waited, somewhat warily.

"Will you be okay?" she asked. Again with the stupid question, but she had to ask.

He didn't answer. Just said "Goodnight, Willow," and closed the door quietly.

Willow lay down on the bed and pulled her knees to her chest. She didn't even bother to turn out the light, because she was too tired and because she wasn't exactly wild about being in the dark in this creepy old hotel. She stared at a vaguely bunny-shaped stain on the wallpaper until she drifted off to sleep.

She was awakened a few hours later by the sound of yelling. Screeching, really. Cordelia's screeching, and from the sound of it right across the hall.

Willow got up and went to the door, only mildly surprised to discover that she'd fallen asleep in her shoes.

"What the hell is it with you?" Cordelia was yelling. "As soon as things start to get a little emo you run for the hills like some kind of big dumb… running-away thing!"

Willow opened the door quietly and peeked out. Cordelia was in Angel's room, berating him while he silently gathered his belongings and packed them neatly in a bag. She wasn't wearing the gold bikini number any more.

While Willow watched, Cordelia stormed over to the closet and ripped a shirt off the rack. "Don't forget this one! Nothing says 'I'm an evil, soulless monster' like black suede!" She threw the shirt at him. Angel caught it without even looking up, and laid it gingerly on the bed.

Willow glanced down the hall and saw Wesley and Gunn standing at the top of the stairs, listening. They smiled nervously at Willow. She slipped out of her room and down the hall to join them.

"Did our local production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf awaken you?" Wesley asked quietly.

"What's going on?" Willow asked.

"Angel's taking off," said Gunn. He stuck out his hand. "I'm Charles Gunn, by the way."

"Willow Rosenberg."

"You're the witch, right?"

She nodded. "Taking off—like, for good?"

Gunn shrugged. Wesley continued to stare down the hall, his face surprisingly hard. It occurred to Willow that Wesley had changed since his Sunnydale days, and she wasn't sure if it was necessarily for the better.

Another door opened and the girl came out, the one Angel had called Fred. She looked scared, and maybe just a little low in the marble department.

Wesley went over to her. "It's all right, Fred. Angel and Cordelia are just having a little disagreement."

She nodded knowingly. "Mommy and Daddy are fighting."

Yep, definitely short one bag o' marbles. Also, the mommy and daddy thing? Not an image that sat comfortably in Willow's brain. Not as applied to Cordelia and Angel.

Cordelia had resorted to pleading now. "We're your friends, you need to let us help you. You can't go through this alone. Remember what happens when you try to go through stuff like this alone? Bad things, Angel. Bad things happen."

"He's going away, isn't he?" said Fred sadly.

"Yes," said Wesley. "I'm afraid he is."

Angel stepped out into the hall, Cordelia hot on his heels. "Don't you dare just walk away from me!" she shouted. "Don't you dare leave without even a word! Say something!"

Angel stopped and slowly turned around to face her. "I'll come back, Cordy. I promise. I just have to be—somewhere else for a while."

"Yeah, well what makes you think we'll still be here when you get back, huh? Maybe we won't wait for you. Maybe this time we'll take off, or pick up and move to Paris while you're gone. Or Montreal, or maybe Abilene! You ever consider that?"

Angel didn't say anything, just turned away. Willow could see the anguish written in his face, how much Cordelia's words had cut him. It didn't stop him from walking away from her, though.

He stopped in front of Gunn, held out his hand. Gunn grasped it. "You know where you're going, man?"

Angel shook his head.

"Always been partial to Vegas, myself."

Angel gave him a sort of half-smile and turned to Wesley. "Make sure Willow gets back to Sunnydale safely."

Wesley nodded. "Of course."

"And look after… things for me."

"You can rely on me."

"I do." The men shared a long look between them, and a firm handshake goodbye.

"Angel?" said Fred uncertainly.

"You're gonna be fine now, Fred," he said. "It's safe here, you're with friends."

"Safe here," she echoed. She didn't exactly look convinced. "It's safe here with me. Don't go."

"I have to. I'm sorry."

Angel turned his dark, sorrowful gaze on Willow last. "Good luck," he said.

Her eyes were trying to fill with tears again; she blinked them back, refusing to give in this time. "Angel—" she began, but realized there was nothing to say really. So she hugged him, afraid suddenly that this might be the last time she would ever see him—and surprised by how sad she was at the thought. He tolerated her embrace, but stepped away quickly as soon as she let go.

They all watched him walk away, shoulders slumped, carrying his sad little bag. Willow wondered if he really planned to come back, or if he'd just said that to pacify Cordelia.

She turned and looked back at Cordelia. A single tear glimmered on her cheek and her mouth was set in a hard frown. She was so beautiful, thought Willow, even when she was sad and angry—especially when she was sad and angry. Cordelia reached up and wiped the tear away, then turned and walked back into Angel's room, slamming the door loudly behind her.

"You really think he'll come back?" Gunn asked.

"One can only hope so," said Wesley.

"I remember what hope is," said Fred. "It's something soft and cuddly that you hug against your chest, and the next thing you know, its teeth are in your throat, its claws are raking your belly, and your guts are in a steaming heap on the floor." She giggled.

Willow took a wary step away from the Crazy.

"Well," said Wesley, looking at Willow, "I imagine you're quite eager to be getting back home now."

"You have no idea," she said.

She thought of Tara then, waiting for her at home. Tara, whose touch was like oxygen to her, whose voice was rain in the desert, and whose smile was like a ray of sunlight bursting forth out of the storm clouds. What would she do if she ever lost Tara the way Angel had lost Buffy?


So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby




| Fiction Index | Home Page | Back |