Alone I Break

by Isis FG

Feedback: vagabond_angel@comcast.net

Disclaimer: Not, Joss, don’t work for WB, UPN, FOX, etc...which translates to them not being mine.

Rating: R (some language, implied sex)
Pairing: B/A
Summary:  total AU – Tragedy strikes Buffy Summers’ life, for a second time, sending her spiraling out of control.
Main Characters:  Buffy, Oz, Angel, Xander
Supporting Cast:  Giles, Lorne, Gunn, Willow, Wesley, Lindsey
Spoilers: none, other than little tid bits here and there inserted into a human AU.

Distribution: my site (Vagabond Soul), and if you already have any of my fics, you may take this one, if not, please ask first.

Author’s Notes: Written for Kristi (bashipforever) for the Whedonverse AU Ficathon (run by myself and Stars). 
The request will be posted at the end of the fic.

AN2:  There are some medical and psychological aspects in this fic.  They are likely not entirely accurate because I’m not a doctor, or psychiatrist, so please excuse any errors.

Thank you:  to Wendy, who beta’d this fic, and to Roz, my favorite test reader.

Warnings: rather angsty, character death (not Buffy or Angel), a bad word or two, implied sex.


~`~`~ Part 1 ~`~`~

Thud.Thud.Thud.

Startled, nineteen year old Buffy Summers turned away from the sink where she was washing the dishes from dinner and walked toward the foyer.  Reaching the doorway leading out of the kitchen, her steps halted as she spied a small duffle bag resting at the foot of the stairs.  One eyebrow rose as she glanced upwards and saw Oz rushing down the stairs as he put on his coat.

“Normally people carry things down stairs, not just toss them down,” she said, chuckling slightly.

“I dropped it,” he replied, not bothering to look up from where he was now kneeling, digging around in the aforementioned bag.

Buffy shook her head as she watched her older, half-brother’s frazzled movements.  It was a little unusual for him to be so animated, but sometimes before his band had a gig a crack showed in his carefully constructed carefree façade.  Considering it was five minutes to seven, and he was supposed to be at the club at seven, she could understand his rushing.

“What’s up with the bag anyway?” she asked curiously.  Oz never usually took anything with him to gigs except for his bass and amp, which normally never left his van except for sporadic practice sessions.

“Huh?  Oh!  It’s just some stuff of Devon’s that he left here last weekend,” Oz answered distractedly, referring to his friend and the lead singer of their band Dingoes Ate My Baby.

Thinking of Devon, Buffy laughed out loud.  She had first hand knowledge of the strangeness that was Oz’s close friend.  Hearing that he’d left stuff at their house was nothing new.  He was one of those people who’d forget his own head if it wasn’t attached.

“You’re gonna be late if you don’t hurry it up,” she pointed out, stating what was glaringly obvious.

Oz looked up at her with a scowl on his face but said nothing, even as Buffy walked over and bumped her hip into his.

“I’m just teasin’ ya,” she told him, ignoring his annoyed countenance.

“I know,” he said simply, then looked Buffy up and down, taking in her clothes which consisted of a pair of track pants and an old tank top.  “Aren’t you going out tonight?”

“Huh?” Buffy grunted.

“I thought you had a date,” he explained quickly, picking up his bag and walking to the door.

“A date?  Where the hell did you get that idea?” she questioned in confusion.  “I can’t even remember the last time I had a date.”

“I thought you...never mind.  I gotta run,” he said in a rush.

“Okay.  Good luck tonight,” her cheery voice chirped as she trotted over to hold the door open.

“Thanks.  Have fun with the TV,” he teased, knowing his sister would spend the evening watching sappy chick flicks.  Reaching over, Oz gave her a quick hug before scurrying out the door.

Buffy watched him leave, smiling as he peeled away from the curb in his rush to get to the club at least remotely close to the time he was supposed to have been there.  Once his battered van was out of sight, she closed the front door and headed toward the living room.

~`~`~

The old clock in the corner of the living room chimed once, signaling that it was one in the morning.  Buffy groggily opened her eyes, letting out a small yawn as she sat up on the couch.  Rubbing a hand over her face, she realized that she must have fallen asleep while watching her second movie of the night.  The TV was still on, some lame infomercial now playing on its screen.

Stretching slightly, Buffy rose from the couch and walked over to the bank of windows at the front of the room.  She pulled back the curtain, glancing outside to see if Oz’s van was there.  The driveway was empty so she figured Oz hadn’t gotten back from his gig yet.  With another yawn, she let the curtain fall shut before deciding to head to the kitchen.

Moments later, she returned with a glass of milk in one hand and a plate of fat-free cookies in the other.  Buffy was normally in bed by this time, but whenever Oz was out she always waited for him to get home so he could tell her about his gig or the sporadic dates he went on.  It was tradition and she had no intention of breaking it.

Settled on the couch with an old afghan tucked around her legs, Buffy picked up the remote control and flipped through the channels looking for something vaguely interesting to watch.  There wasn’t much on, but she eventually found reruns of a sitcom on one channel.

Halfway through the show, Buffy was idly munching on the cookies, laughing at the comedic antics of the program, when suddenly the room went pitch black.  The TV and all the lights had gone off.  Buffy froze, a shiver running down her spine at the odd occurrence.

When the lights did not come back on after several seconds, she stood, opting to go to the kitchen to find some candles and matches.  As she tried to take a step away from the couch, she howled, having stubbed her toe on the coffee table.  Cursing, and hopping on one foot, she carefully maneuvered around the room and toward the kitchen.

She groped around the cabinets for a few minutes until she finally found some old candles, and thankfully, a pack of matches with them.  Lighting one, she glanced around the darkened room, then at the back door.  The utter blackness was giving her the creeps.  Why had the lights gone out?  It wasn’t storming or anything.  She wondered if maybe they had forgotten to pay the electric bill, but no, if that was the case the company wouldn’t have turned off the power in the middle of the night.

Frowning, she wondered back through the kitchen and into the foyer, deciding to look out the front windows to see if her neighbors lights were off as well.  She reached the front door and peeked out one of the side windows.  It was just as dark outside as it was inside.  There wasn’t a scrap of light to be seen because there was no moon out at all.

Buffy was just about to return to the living room to wait for Oz when she thought she saw something moving on the front porch.  Leaning in closer, she pressed her face almost against the glass trying to see anything, but it was no use.  The darkness hid everything.  She shrugged, figuring it was Oz on his way into the house, or possibly her over active imagination.

The sudden knock on the door startled her and she let out a quiet scream.  Clutching a hand over her chest, she wondered who the hell would be knocking at the door this late at night.  Buffy took a step toward the door and was about to open it when common sense took over.

“Who is it?” she yelled loudly.

“Buff?” she heard a familiar voice answer.  “It’s Xander.”

A cold chill encased her body, making her tremble slightly.  She quickly unlocked the door and threw it open.  It was so dark she could barely see him, but from the soft glow of the candle she could recognize the figure of Xander Harris, one of her brother’s good friends, and also a member of the Sunnydale Police Force.  It took her only a moment to see the candle’s light reflect off his badge, telling her that he was in uniform and on duty.

“Xand?” she asked, her voice hesitant.

“Buffy...come on, ya gotta come with me!” he answered in a rush, grabbing her hand and starting to pull her out the door.

Buffy pulled loose, her heart now pounding in her chest.  “What’s going on?”

“I-I...I can’t explain now, but we have to go.  Now!” Xander demanded, yanking her out the door and neglecting to notice that she wasn’t even wearing shoes.

Shocked by his strange actions, Buffy could do nothing but stumble along behind him, wincing as the rough pavement of the walkway dug into her bare feet.  Within seconds, they were at his squad car, though she really couldn’t tell because of the overwhelming darkness.  Xander said nothing as he opened the passenger door and shoved her inside.

Dread filled Buffy as Xander jumped into the car and took off down the road.  She wanted to speak; to ask him why he’d come and dragged her out of her house, but she couldn’t seem to make her self talk.  Before she could force the words from her mouth, they turned a nearby corner and any thoughts she had died.

A block ahead, she could see it; see their destination without being told that was where they were headed.  Flashing lights swirled all over the place; fire engines, ambulances, and police cars littering the road.  Large spotlights lit up the area, illuminating the scene. 

That was when she saw it; saw the telephone poll that was snapped half way up and now hanging precariously by the wires it served to hold up.  Below that, Buffy could see a flash of battered blue metal.

“NO!” she howled, never realizing the anguished cry had come from her own lips as she jumped out of the car before it had even come to a stop.

“Buffy!” Xander yelled after her, but it was no use.  She was already running full bore into a scene he knew she wasn’t prepared to see.

Buffy sprinted as fast as she could, despite her bare feet, toward the group of vehicles and rushing people.  Nausea rolled through her stomach as she pushed her way through the gathered onlookers and emergency workers.  Once past the final line of people, she could see it.  There in front of her was an old blue van; twisted and broken against the wood of the telephone poll.  She stumbled to a halt, unable to move any further.  Her eyes furiously searched for something, anything.  A few feet to the left of the crushed van she noticed a group of paramedics huddled on the ground around something.  She took a few steps toward them, then stopped as her heart shattered into a million pieces.  There, at one end of the mass of people, she saw Adidas sneakers, the same sneakers she had given him for his birthday only four months earlier.

“No!  Oz!” she screamed, her knees buckling.

Xander caught her before she could hit the ground.  He held her trembling, sobbing body as they watched the paramedics scurry around the body of her brother.  When he saw that they had loaded him onto a stretcher, Xander grabbed Buffy and quickly walked her toward the waiting ambulance.

“Sir, you’ll have to back away from the vehicle,” a paramedic said once they’d reached the back doors of the truck.

“She’s his sister,” Xander replied in an authoritative voice.  He looked the man in the eye, hoping he would understand the importance of letting Buffy through.

The man glanced at Buffy, then at the stretcher approaching the ambulance.  He quickly understood what Officer Harris was trying to tell him.  “Okay, she can ride in the back, but she needs to stay out of their way.”

Xander nodded, pulling Buffy out of the way as the stretcher with Oz was loaded into the back of the rig.  The entire time, Buffy said nothing; her eyes completely focused on the bloody face of her brother.  Her daze was broken when Xander gave her a push up into the ambulance.

She never heard the door slam shut, or the paramedic telling her where to sit.  Her mind was only registering the fact that her much-loved brother was lying motionless on a stretcher right in front of her.  A large gash on his forehead had covered his face with blood, and his left arm was jutting out at an unnatural angle.  She winced when one of the paramedics jabbed a needle into his right arm in order to start an IV.

So lost in what had happened, Buffy almost didn’t see his eyes flutter open.  But she did see it, and when she gazed into his pain filled eyes the tears that she been holding back finally burst forth.

“Oz?” she whispered brokenly.

“Buffy?”  The word was barely audible, but she heard it.

Crouching down next to the stretcher, she lightly grabbed his right hand.  “I’m here, Oz.  Hang on, you’re gonna be fine.”

“Buff...love....you,” he managed to utter hoarsely before his eyes drifted closed again.

“Oz!” Buffy pleaded, wanting him to look at her again.

“Miss, you need to move out of the way!” one of the paramedics ordered.

Blindly, she stumbled backwards onto one of the benches and watched through tear-filled eyes as the paramedics worked to stabilize her brother while speaking rushed words into the portable radios clasped to their shirts.  Her mind drifted back to earlier that night; watching Oz rush around getting ready for his gig, teasing him about being late, and the quick hug he gave her before he left.  It was impossible for her to reconcile the image of her happy-go-lucky brother with the bleeding body before her.

The ride to the hospital passed in a flash.  She hadn’t even realized they were there until someone was shaking her to get her attention.  All she could do was watch as they wheeled him out of the ambulance, down the hallway, and then into one of the trauma bays inside the emergency room.

~`~`~ Part 2 ~`~`~

Over two hours had passed since Buffy was left standing just inside the emergency room as they had taken her brother away behind the curtains.  She’d stood there for who knows how long, unable to move, before a nurse had come and led her to a waiting room for family members.  She hadn’t wanted to go.  She’d wanted to stay close to her brother, but they’d made her.

Now, Buffy sat on one of the uncomfortable chairs, knees pressed to her chest as she rocked back and forth, praying to whatever higher powers there were that Oz would be okay.  She knew there were others in the room with her; people who also knew her brother, and strangers waiting for news just as she was.  More than once someone had tried to talk to her.  What they’d said, she had no clue.  Her mind was lost in memories.

She remembered the day Oz had come to live with her and her parents.  He was only her half-brother; the product of a relationship her father had had his freshmen year of college.  Until he was nine, he’d lived with his Mother, but when she got married, her new husband didn’t want kids.  So she’d shipped him off to live with his father, despite the fact that Hank Summers had shown little interest in his son.  But then that was typical of her father.  Work always came first for him.  If her mother hadn’t insisted Oz come to stay with them, who knew what would have happened to him.

They’d bonded instantly, her and Oz.  He was the big brother she’d always wanted.  He played with her even though he was four years older, and looked out for her.  Then, later, when the relationship between her parents disintegrated, he comforted her.  Buffy couldn’t count the number of times he’d sat in her room with her while their father and her mother screamed at each other downstairs.

When Joyce and Hank divorced, it came as little surprise that her Mother took custody of Oz.  The three of them moved from Los Angeles to Sunnydale when Buffy was just twelve.  It was rough the initial few months, but then, for the first time in years, they’d been happy.

She should have known it wouldn’t last.  Two short years later, Joyce collapsed while at work from a previously undetected brain aneurysm.  She passed away before either of her children could make it to the hospital.

The emotional drama had been trying enough, leaving a gaping whole in their lives, but what came after proved to be almost as tough.  If Oz and Buffy hadn’t already known their father was an uncaring bastard, the fact that he couldn’t even be bothered to come for the funeral or help his two children figure out what to do next would have been more than enough proof.  He was too busy trotting around Europe with his secretary to bother with them.

With no other relatives stepping forward, eighteen year old Oz had been begrudgingly granted full guardianship of his fourteen year old half-sister.  He dropped out of college and took a full time job so he would be able to support them and avoid further uprooting Buffy’s life by making them move out of their family home.  It hadn’t been easy.  Money was short, and emotions were spent, but they pulled through, relying on each other to keep them going.

Oz was her rock; the one person she could always turn to.  He held her when she cried after her first boyfriend had broken up with her.  He listened patiently whenever she ranted about an unfair teacher.  He was everything she could want in a brother and a friend.  And now...

No, she told herself.  Oz was going to be fine.  In a few days they’d be laughing about all this and getting back to their normal routine.  At least that’s what she tried to convince herself as she silently sobbed in the hospital waiting room.

~`~`~

“She doesn’t look so good,” Xander mumbled half to himself and half to the man sitting next to him.

“Can you blame her?” twenty-two year old Angel O’Neil responded, not taking his eyes off the shaking blonde on the other side of the room.

“No,” Xander sighed dejectedly.

The two friends fell silent, words unable to placate their turbulent emotions.  Angel was immensely worried about Oz, one of his oldest friends, but his worry for Buffy was just as great.  She looked as if she’d shatter if anyone as much as breathed on her.  He wanted to go over and offer some sort of comfort, but she’d shunned any form of contact.  Not that she’d want him anywhere near her anyway.

Before Angel could contemplate what to do about Buffy, his Uncle, Dr. Giles, slowly pushed open the waiting room door.  All of the occupants in the room leapt to their feet, including Buffy, though her movements were a bit more unsteady and jerky.

One look in Giles’ troubled eyes and she knew.  “No!”

“I’m sorry, Buffy,” Giles said softly, hating himself. 

For the second time in her young life, he was having to tell the poor girl that she’d lost a member of her family.  When it had been her Mother, she’d at least had her brother to lean on.  Now, Oz was for all intents and purposes gone too.  How she would deal with this he didn’t know.

“No...he c-can’t be...,” she cried out, a dam of tears bursting forth.

“The impact of the crash caused an Acute Subdural Hematoma; a form of bleeding in the space between the brain and the skull,” Giles started to explain, the words tasting like chalk in his mouth.  “His was particularly severe, and the build up of fluid put an immense amount of pressure on the brain which, in turn, has caused irreparable brain damage.  Oz is, for lack of a better term, brain dead.”

 “He’s still alive?” she whispered, a tiny spark of hope trying to makes its way to the surface.

“Technically, yes.  His body is being kept alive by machines, but there’s no hope that he’ll ever wake up,” Giles stated definitively.  As much as he hated being so blunt, he knew it was best that she understood the situation completely.

“I...I want t-to see him” she demanded, already taking a few steps to the door.

“Buff,” Xander interrupted, placing a hand on her shoulder.  “Maybe you shouldn’t.”

“I have to see him, Xander!  Please!  I have to see him!” she begged, her breath hitched with sobs.

~`~`~

Buffy wasn’t prepared for the sight of her brother lying on a stark white hospital bed with tubes and wires trailing all over his body.  She’d wanted to see him, but she hadn’t really thought about what he would look like.  It hardly seemed like Oz on the bed.  The shell in front of her looked more like something out of a movie than her brother.

“Oz,” she choked out, reaching out to pick up one of his still hands.

All sorts of things were running through her head.  She wanted to beg him to stay; to not leave her, but Buffy knew they would be useless if voiced.  And she didn’t want them to be her last words to her brother.  So instead, she said the only other things she could think of.

“Thank you for being the best brother in the world.  I don’t know how I would have survived without you.”  She bent over and kissed him on the cheek, remaining in that position as heavy sobs shook her entire body.  “I love you.”

From the doorway, Giles, Xander, and Angel watched the heart-rending scene with their own tears unashamedly falling.  All three knew the young man who wouldn’t be in this world much longer, but they understood that their loss paled in comparison to his much-loved sister.  And each had their own worries about how she would go on after.

Slowly, Buffy pulled away from the bed.  She took a moment to gaze at her brother’s face, etching the image in her mind and saying a silent goodbye.  With much reluctance, she finally turned to face Giles.  “He wouldn’t want to stay like this,” she spoke meekly, her face drenched in moisture.

“I understand,” Giles answered with a small nod of his head.  He stepped into the room and over to the bed.  “I...I must tell you, Buffy, that after...after...well, Oz had registered himself for the organ donation program in case anything should ever happen.  So we’ll have to move quickly.”

Buffy nodded numbly, eyes transfixed on her brother.  She wanted to tell them that they couldn’t cut him open and steal parts of him, but she knew it was Oz’s wish.  They had talked about it once, a year after her Mother died.  If anything, she would be able to take comfort in the fact that some part of him would live on, and that someone else would be able to live because of one of his organs.

“Buff?  Maybe we should wait outside while...,” Xander requested softly.  He didn’t know how good it would be to watch Giles terminate life support.

“No.”  She shook her head emphatically, grasping one of Oz’s hands tighter.  “I don’t want him to be alone.”

“Buffy?  We’re ready,” Giles told her solemnly, waiting for her to give the final go ahead.

The words startled her, causing her to flinch.  She lifted her eyes to meet Giles’.  Her mouth opened to tell him no, that he couldn’t do it.  The pounding thud in her heart screamed to order them away from her brother.  It was her head, though, that knew it was the right thing to do.

“Okay,” she whispered, eyes falling back to Oz’s still form.

Giles gave a quick nod to the nurse in the room and watched with a heavy heart as she began to shut off the respirator that was supplying oxygen to the young man.  After disconnecting a few tubes and wires, the nurse quickly left the room, feeling as if it were a private moment.

A minute later, the steady bleep of the heart monitor began to slow, but Buffy never took her eyes off her brother.  She reached up with her free hand to touch his cheek.  “I love you,” she repeated. 

All too soon, the beeps of the monitor slowed further.

Beep...

Beep......

Beep.............

Beep...............................

Until they flat-lined.

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

The harsh noise hit Buffy like a rock, crashing in on her reality.  Her knees buckled.  With a strangled cry, she fell to the ground.

Seeing her start to fall, Angel rushed to her side, catching her before her head could slam into the hard linoleum.  Not knowing what else to do, Angel simply held her as she sobbed uncontrollably in his arms.  He realized she probably didn’t even know who was holding her, or that anyone was holding her at all.

Through his own tears, he looked up to Xander and saw a similar expression on his friend’s face.  Xander stared back at Angel, unable to believe he’d just lost one of his closest friends.  He mouthed the word ‘home’ and nodded to Buffy.  Angel shook his head in agreement and carefully picked the oblivious young woman up.  He glanced at Oz one more time before carrying Buffy out of the room and away from the one person who had always been there fore her.

~`~`~

Groggily, Buffy’s eyes flickered open.  She blinked them several times as she tried to figure out where she was.  Had she fallen asleep on the couch waiting for Oz to get home?

Oz.

That was when it all came back to her.

Oz wouldn’t be coming home anymore.  He was dead.  Just like her Mother, and for all intents and purposes, just like her Father.

She stifled a sob as the image of Oz’s body lying on the hospital bed flashed in her mind.  Rolling over, she curled herself into a ball in hopes of warding off the chilling cold flushing her tired limbs.

“Buffy?” she heard a gentle voice call to her.

Forcing her eyes open again, she squinted through the darkness of what she assumed was her room to see whoever was with her.  It took several seconds before she recognized the large form of Angel.  Her body stiffened at his presence.

“Angel,” she said coldly.

The icy tone was clear to Angel.  It didn’t surprise him.  “Can...can I do anything for you?”

“Yes.  You can leave,” Buffy stated evenly then turned over to face away from him.

“Buffy, please,” he spoke sadly, knowing that her grief over her brother wasn’t entirely responsible for her request.

“Leave me alone, Angel,” she repeated.

Dejected, Angel stood and walked to the door of her bedroom.  He paused at the threshold, swiveling his head to look at her once more.

“If you need anything you can call me,” he offered.  When she didn’t reply, he sighed, staring for a second longer before exiting her room.

The instant Buffy heard the front door of the house close, all of the emotions she’d been holding back spilled over.  Her broken sobs echoed long into the night.

~`~`~ Part 3 ~`~`~

“Buffy?” called Xander, placing a hand on the motionless blonde’s shoulder.

She didn’t flinch at the unexpected touch, nor did she answer him.  Her eyes were trained solely on the patch of dirt that now rested above her much-loved brother.  As far as Xander could tell, Buffy had been standing that way for nearly an hour.  The graveside services were long over, and now the young man had to figure out a way to get his friend to leave.  He knew it wasn’t healthy for her to stay there much longer.

“Buffy?  We should go.  Everyone is already back at the house,” he told her, referring to the post-funeral gathering.

Silence again greeted Xander.  He wasn’t even sure she heard him.  It unnerved him the way she just stood there, staring blankly before her.

“I don’t want to leave him,” she finally whispered several minutes later.  “He’ll be all alone.”

Xander fought back tears at the words she had spoken.  His heart, already broken by the loss of Oz, shattered further at the brutal statement.  As heavy as his own grief was, he knew that Buffy’s was a hundred times worse.  Her entire world was crumbling.  Again.  He was seriously concerned for her welfare after this latest blow.  How much could one person take before they broke?  He would do anything possible, though, to keep that from happening.  Buffy had always been like a sister to him, and Oz was his best friend.  It was his job now to keep her safe. 

“He’s not alone, Buffy,” he said comfortingly, pulling her into a hug.  “His soul is up in Heaven with your Mom.”

Buffy choked back a sob, squeezing Xander tighter.  “Do you really think so?”

“I know so,” Xander reaffirmed.

“I miss him,” she spoke in a whimper.

“I do, too,” he whispered.  “But he’ll always be watching over you.  That’s what big brothers do.”

She didn’t respond, too lost in her grief to say anything more.  Xander simply held her in his arms, doing the only thing he could do at the moment.  It wasn’t much, but he hoped she would realize that she wasn’t alone.

A few raindrops hit Xander’s skin.  He looked up at the sky, seeing the dark clouds looming.  “We should go before it starts pouring.”

~`~`~

Like a robot, Buffy moved throughout the house, accepting condolences from close friends, casual acquaintances, and perfect strangers.  She didn’t want to hear their kind words.  What she wanted was to have her brother back, for Oz to come rushing down the stairs because he was late for practice again.  But he would never go to practice again.  He’d never do anything anymore.  He was dead.

The word ‘dead’ echoed inside her mind.  Her steps faltered.  She would have fallen if the kitchen counter hadn’t been nearby for her to grab on to.  For several minutes she remained in that position, gripping the counter so hard her knuckles turned white.  She could hear the voices of people speaking in the next room, but they sounded so far away.  But not far enough.  She wanted them all to go away, to leave her alone.

“Buff?” Xander’s voice broke through her thoughts.

Taking a deep breath, Buffy willed a small smile onto her face and turned to look at her friend.  The moment she saw his eyes, her steely façade almost crumbled, but she held on.  He couldn’t see her cry.  They couldn’t see her cry.  Just a little bit longer and they would all be gone.

“Yeah?” she asked dully.

“I’ve, uh, gotta go to work.  Are you going to be okay?  I can call in sick if you need me to,” he offered, taking a step toward her.  He would have been lying if he said the dead look in her eyes didn’t bother him.

“I’m fine,” she assured him, though the excessive cheer in her voice was more than enough to belie her words.

Xander knew she wasn’t telling the truth.  There was no way that she could be fine.  There was no way any of them could be fine.  He couldn’t force her to grieve, though.  Only time would dull the pain and help mend her shattered world.  Still, he wished that he didn’t have to work.  He worried about her being in the house all alone once all the others had left.

“Okay, but if you need me, don’t hesitate to call,” he ordered, hugging her once more before leaving through the back door.

Buffy released a relieved breath as soon as the screen door snapped close.  One less person to deal with.  Now if only the others would leave.  Though what she was supposed to do after she didn’t know.

~`~`~

“Hey, Xander,” Angel greeted solemnly from his seat at one of the tables in the break room at the police station.

“Angel,” Xander said, startled to see his friend there.  “I didn’t think you were working tonight.”

“I wasn’t.  Matthews called in sick,” explained Angel, rising from the chair and going over to his locker.

“I didn’t see you at Buffy’s.”  As he spoke, Xander glanced at Angel out of the corner of his eye.  He immediately noticed the stiffening of Angel’s body at the mention of Buffy.

“I went to the funeral, but I didn’t think I’d be wanted at the house,” Angel relayed sadly.

Xander sighed loudly, running a hand over his face.  As much as he hated to admit it, Angel was probably right.  His presence would likely not have been taken well.  Buffy and Angel couldn’t even be within viewing distance without gut wrenching angst ensuing.  It had been that way for almost three years, and even though he knew the whole story, it still hurt him to see his friends act like that.

“How is she?” Angel asked when Xander remained quiet.

“Not good,” answered Xander, shaking his head.

“I wish...,” Angel started, but then quickly halted his thoughts.  It didn’t matter what he wished.  Buffy would probably never speak to him again let alone allow him be there for her.

“I thought sometime next week I’d take her to get some flowers to plant at the...the...grave,” Xander choked out the last word, still having a hard time himself accepting that his best friend of seven years was dead.

“That sounds good,” mumbled Angel.  “I better get going.”

“Yeah,” Xander agreed, grabbing his stuff from his locker.  “We don’t want the Chief on our asses again.”

~`~`~

Just outside the front door to the house, Buffy hugged her Aunt Phyllis, forcing her body to respond to the unwanted gesture.  She’d met her aunt maybe two or three times in the duration of her life so it was more than a little awkward to have the woman hugging her like they were extremely close.  At least this time she wasn’t pinching her cheeks and commenting on how cute she was like the woman had done when Buffy had last seen her when she was twelve.

“We’re flying back home tomorrow, dear, but I want you to call us if you need anything,” the middle-aged woman commanded gently.

“I will,” Buffy answered automatically, knowing she had no intention of doing any such thing.

The two women said their goodbyes and Buffy watched as her aunt climbed into the waiting taxi.  As soon as it was out of sight, the forced smile fell from her face.  A few tears gathered in her eyes, but Buffy refused to let them fall.  Wrapping her arms around her chest, she turned and walked back into the house.  She only had one more person to get rid of and then she would finally be alone.

Inside the kitchen, she could hear the clattering of dishes as Willow cleaned up.  Willow Rosenberg had been her best friend since the move from LA despite the fact that she was a year older than Buffy.  They hadn’t spoken much during the past two years since Willow left Sunnydale to go to college at Berkeley.  Buffy didn’t know whether it was the distance that had put a rift in their friendship, or the fact that Willow and Oz had ended their two year relationship just before she left.

Pausing in the doorway, Buffy studied the mechanical movements of her friend.  She knew Willow had to be just as hurt as she was over losing Oz.  Her brother and Willow had had such a strong relationship.  To this day, she still didn’t know what had caused their falling out.  Even though they hadn’t been together anymore, Buffy knew they still cared a great deal about each other.

“You don’t have to do that,” Buffy told the redhead.  A frown formed on her face as she noticed Willow’s entire body stiffen at the sound of her voice.

“Fine,” muttered Willow, turning slowly to face Buffy.

The look in Willow’s eyes made Buffy flinch.  There was a coldness in them that she didn’t understand.  “Um, thank you for coming down.  I appreciate yo-.”

“I shouldn’t have had to come!” she snapped, cutting Buffy off.

“What?” Buffy gasped, shocked by the barely restrained anger radiating from her friend.

Willow took several steps toward Buffy, stopping two feet away from her.  “Oz shouldn’t be dead!” she shouted.

“N-no, he s-shouldn’t be de-...dead,” Buffy stuttered, a tear falling down her cheek as the word ‘dead’ passed her lips.

“It’s all your fault!” accused Willow, glaring menacingly at Buffy.

“M-my fault?” Buffy repeated, her lower lip trembling.  “It...it was an a-accident.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Willow spat, her eyes narrowing.  “He should have been with me.”

“I-I don’t know what you’re t-talking about,” denied Buffy, taking a step back.

“Oh, let me guess.  He never told you.  Have to protect poor, little Buffy,” she mocked coldly.  “I asked him to move with me up to Berkeley, and he wanted to!  But he said he couldn’t leave you here alone.  So I told him he could come up after you graduated high school, but he still said no.  He had to stay here with you when he could have been with me!”

“I didn’t know,” Buffy whispered brokenly, tears now freely falling.

Ignoring the statement, Willow continued.  “And he would have never gotten into an accident and been killed if he had gone with me!  It’s all your fault that he’s dead because he had to stay and play guardian angel!”

Buffy reared back from the force of the accusation, almost as if she’d been physically slapped.  Her thoughts swirled together in her head, the phrase ‘your fault’ overtaking all else.  “It...it was an accident,” she repeated meekly, unable to think of anything else to say.

“You just keep telling yourself that,” Willow snorted.  She spared one last glance at Buffy before storming out of the house.

Buffy never heard the slamming of the door that followed.  Her feet felt like lead, mired in a wasteland of pain, grief, and now guilt.  Willow’s brutal words echoed repeatedly in her head.

Her fault.

Oz was dead.

It was her fault.

Numbly, she stumbled out of the kitchen.  The rooms of the house spun uncontrollably before her eyes.  She slammed into the hallway wall, hardly feeling the blow.  Her hand grasped at the railing running along the stairs, using it for balance.

Somehow she ended up in the living room, standing frozen in the center.  The pictures, smiling laughing portraits of times past, all seemed to stare at her, mocking her with their happiness.  On the wall opposite her, two clay plaques rested, handprints made when each of them were five.  A stack of sheet music sat on the coffee table, never again to be touched.

Buffy turned wildly, trying to escape the harsh reminders of all she’d lost, but instead of escaping, she was faced with more.  Argyle, the golden retriever Oz had had since he was fourteen, sat mutely in Oz’s favorite chair; a chair he had hardly left in the week since his master’s death, a chair that Oz would never sit in again while they watched cheesy eighties movies together on a Saturday night.

Falling to her knees, Buffy screamed.  The sound came out primal and barren, reverberating loudly throughout the almost empty house.  A house that had once been home to her family: herself, her mother, and her brother.  Now they were gone.  First her mother, then Oz.  It was too much for Buffy to bear.

~`~`~

“Angel?” came Xander’s frantic, staticky voice over the radio in Angel’s patrol car.

Grabbing the small receiver, Angel replied, “Yeah, Angel here.”

“I just got a call from one of Buffy’s neighbors.  She said something’s wrong at the house.  She heard a scream and then a lot of crashing and banging,” Xander relayed in a panic.

“Fuck!” Angel cursed, slamming on the brakes of his car.

“I’m all the way on the other side of town.  Where are you?” asked Xander in a rush.

“Only a few blocks from her house,” Angel answered distractedly, his thoughts on Buffy.

“Okay.  I’m on my way.  I’ll meet you there,” Xander said quickly.

Angel never answered.  He threw the receiver onto the passenger seat of the car, all the while hating himself for not being there.  She shouldn’t have been alone at a time like this.  His chastising would have to wait, though.  He needed to get to Buffy.  Flipping on the siren and lights of his patrol car, Angel pulled a u-turn, his tires squealing loudly in the quiet night.

~`~`~

A mere two minutes later, Angel had arrived at Buffy’s house.  He didn’t even bother to knock, just threw open the front door and rushed inside.  What he had expected once he got there, Angel didn’t know, but it certainly wasn’t what he found.

The entire living room was trashed.  There didn’t appear to be an inch of it left untouched.  The coffee table was upside down, its contents strewn across the floor.  A large crack etched the glass of the TV screen, likely caused by the metal sculpture lying in front of it.  The flowery curtains Joyce Summers’ had put up years ago hung lopsided and torn along the windows.  And that was only what Angel saw at first glance.

He didn’t have time to examine the room further because within seconds, his eyes found Buffy where she lay motionless in the middle of the floor with Argyle at her side, his head resting on her chest.  When the dog stood, Angel saw the blood, red splatters dotting her shirt and the floor surrounding her.

“Buffy!” he shouted, yanking out his cellphone as he rushed to her side and praying to anyone listening that she was all right.

~`~`~ Part 4 ~`~`~

Xander nearly ran Angel over as he rushed down the halls of Sunnydale Hospital.  In the back of his mind, it occurred to him that he’d been to this damn place more times than he’d prefer, but it was only a passing thought.  His main concern at the moment was Buffy.

“Angel!” he shouted louder than he should have, grabbing his friend’s arm.  “What’s going on?  I heard the call on the radio for an ambulance so I came here instead.”

Angel stared blankly at Xander, the words penetrating his brain in a slow trickle.  It wasn’t until Xander shook him that he responded.  “Buffy...she...she tore up the house.  S-she was on the floor, unconscious...and there...there was blood.”

“Did she...,” Xander trailed off, unable to voice the mere thought that Buffy may have harmed herself.

“I don’t know,” Angel mumbled.  And he didn’t know.  The moment he’d seen the blood and her unmoving body, he’d called for an ambulance.  Though he had wanted to, he hadn’t touched her while he waited for help, too afraid of causing more harm to her.

“Damnit!” Xander cursed, his fist slamming into the nearest wall.  He grimaced, shaking his hand as pain lanced up his arm.  “I knew I should have stayed with her!”

“She shouldn’t have been alone,” echoed Angel, though his own thoughts were on his own carelessness.  Every day since Oz’s death he had wanted to go see her, talk to her, but he had stayed away.  He had let their tumultuous past get in the way of being there for her, and now she was worse.  If he had gone to her, Angel knew he could have stopped this from happening.

“Have you heard anything yet?” Xander asked, peering down the hall in hopes of seeing a doctor coming toward them.

“No.”  Angel shook his head.  “Giles is with her.  They’ve only been back there about fifteen minutes.

A nurse came over and told them they would be more comfortable in the waiting room, but both declined the offer.  Neither wanted to be too far away, feeling as if they’d already let Buffy down enough by not being there for her.  So instead, they stood stoically in the hallway, waiting impatiently for news.

The image of Buffy lying unconscious on the living room floor would not leave Angel’s mind.  It was etched there like a permanent stain.  He wanted to deny that Buffy could have done something to hurt herself, but he knew it was a real possibility.  Grief made people do things they normally wouldn’t, and Buffy had had plenty of grief in her short life.  And some of it was caused by him.  For an instant, Angel wondered if things would have been different if the relationship between him and Buffy were better.  She would have been able to cry on his shoulder, and turn to him for comfort, then, instead of retreating into herself.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t change the past, or change what he did.  Though it didn’t stop him wishing.

Xander glanced at Angel out of the corner of his eye.  He could tell that the other man was deep in thought.  About what, he could only guess.  If he had to put money on it, he’d wager that Angel was beating himself up over things he couldn’t change.  He had a tendency to do things like that.  Not that Xander could blame him.  It was hard not to second guess your actions when one of your friends was lying in a hospital bed.

Before either man could mire themselves down more with recriminations, Giles wearily walked down the hallway toward them.  The older doctor wiped at the sweat beaded on his forehead, forcing himself to hold back a yawn.  He was utterly exhausted.  His shift had ended nearly two hours earlier, but first he’d been held up by a problem with a patient, and then, just as he was about to head home to his wife Jenny, Buffy had been rushed through the doors of the emergency room.  There was no way he would leave her care to anybody else.

“Angel, Xander,” he said, coming to halt in front of his nephew Angel.

“How is she?” Angel asked hurriedly.

“She’s going to be fine, physically speaking,” Giles answered, a small smile on his face.  “Emotionally, though, she has a lot to work through.”

Angel sighed in relief, slouching back against the wall.  He knew Giles was right, that there was still a lot of recovery ahead for Buffy, but he was just glad that she would be all right.  “Did she...what happened?” he hesitantly questioned.

“She didn’t harm herself on purpose, if that’s what you’re asking,” Giles replied, his own relief at the knowledge hidden behind a mask of professionalism.

“But, the blood?” Angel pointed out, confused.

“Mostly surface wounds,” clarified Giles.  “She didn’t cut her wrists; at least it doesn’t appear that way.  Angel?  You said the house seems to have been ransacked?”  At Angel’s nod, Giles sighed.  “I believe, then, that the injuries were caused from that.  Most of the cuts were on her knuckles, and a few others down her arms.  None of them were serious.”

“I don’t understand,” Xander cut in.  “Why was she unconscious then?”

“Buffy, in a manner of speaking, has had a complete breakdown.  I still have some tests to run, but I don’t think she has been eating or sleeping lately, and add to that the stress of Oz’s death and it was too much for her body and mind to handle,” he explained, removing his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose.

As much as he’d like to deny it, Giles was not surprised at the night’s turn of events.  He had been afraid something like this would happen.  The mind and body were only able to handle so much, and Buffy’s apparently had been overburdened.  When he had seen her come into the emergency room, he had already known what he was facing.  Unfortunately, he didn’t think anything could have been done to prevent it.

“So what now?” Angel asked, torn between relief and his continuing worry.

“Well, first off, I have some tests to finish conducting, then, once she is awake and alert, perhaps sometime tomorrow, I will have her see one of the staff psychiatrists,” Giles relayed, already going through in his mind who would be best served to help Buffy.  “She will have to be here at least a few days while we rehydrate her and get some nourishment into her body.  Once the psychiatrist evaluates her we will have a better idea of what comes next, though I assume he will suggest she stay here longer for treatment.”

“Okay,” Angel agreed sadly.  He hated the idea of Buffy being stuck in the hospital, and he knew how much she hated them, but he also knew that it was probably the best place for her.  If she was released too soon she would likely only be back again.

“She’s sedated at the moment,” Giles went on.  “It should help her get some rest, but she should be awake in the morning.  You can both come back then.”

“No,” both Angel and Xander said at once.

Giles shook his head, having expected the denial.  “Very well, but there really is nothing more you can do tonight.”

“We’re staying,” Angel stated firmly.  “At least I am.”

“Me too,” announced Xander.

“Can I see her?” Angel asked, taking a step in the direction Giles had previously come from. 

“She’s sleeping now,” Giles reiterated sternly.

“I promise I won’t disturb her,” assured Angel.  “I just need to see her.”

“Fine,” Giles relented.  “She’s been moved up to room 405.  I’ll allow you to see her as long as you do not disrupt her rest.”

~`~`~

A short few minutes later, Angel was perched at Buffy’s bedside, lightly holding her chilled right hand in his.  His eyes traced over her body, searching for any sign that Giles’ diagnosis was wrong.  He found nothing.  Other than the bandaged scratches on her arms and knuckles, and the dark circles under her eyes, she appeared to be fine.  Carefully, he brushed a few hairs off her face as he remembered the first time he’d met her as a bubbly, blonde-haired teenager.

Angel had first met Oz during the latter’s first day of school at Sunnydale High.  They were both juniors and shared the same homeroom.  They had sat next to each other through the alphabetized seating arrangement.  When Oz looked lost as he tried to find his next class, Angel took it upon himself to show him around.  They quickly struck up a friendship, finding common ground in their laid back demeanors.  Several weeks later, Oz had invited him to his house before they went out one night.  That was when he first saw her.

The two had been up in Oz’s room, looking through his CD collection when suddenly the door had burst open and a giggling, twelve year old Buffy had come skipping in.  The moment she had realized someone else was in the room, she’d smiled shyly before introducing herself.  Angel had smiled back at her, shaking the hand she’d held out to him.  From then on, he became a regular at the Summers’ house, and Buffy became like a little sister to him.  It wasn’t until a few years later that things began to change.

“Angel, you really should try to get some sleep,” Giles’ tired voice interrupted.

“I’m fine,” he mumbled, eyes still on Buffy.

“If you say so.  I am headed home, but I’ll be back in the morning,” said Giles.  When Angel didn’t answer, he sighed and walked out the room.

Raising Buffy’s arm, Angel gently kissed the back of her hand.  “I’m so sorry, Buffy.  For everything.  I know you might not believe it, but I never meant to hurt you, and if I could, I would bring back your Mom and Oz,” he whispered quietly, tears beginning to fall down his cheeks.

From the doorway, Xander silently watched the exchange.  He smiled sadly at Angel’s words.  He knew it was futile, but he hoped that the two of them would be able to work things out.  Buffy needed Angel, and Xander knew that Angel was miserable without her.

~`~`~

Sometime around nine the next morning, Xander slowly made his way up the stairs to his apartment building.  He was utterly exhausted, having not slept at all the previous night.  Sure, there hadn’t been much to do at the hospital except watch Buffy sleep and Angel stay glued to her side, but every time Xander closed his eyes, images of the way things used to be came into his mind. 

He remembered the last Christmas party before Mrs. Summers had died.  Everyone had been there:  Buffy, Oz, Willow, Angel, himself, and Mrs. Summers.  They’d laughed and had fun, exchanging gifts and just enjoying themselves.  Oz had surprised Buffy by giving her two tickets to the next ice show in Los Angeles.  The smile she’d given him was blinding.  It was probably one of the happiest moments he’d ever seen Buffy in.  Ever since then, the world seemed to be spiraling out of control as his friends’ lives slowly fell to pieces.  First Mrs. Summers died, followed by the problems between Buffy and Angel, then Willow and Oz’s breakup, and recently Oz’s death.  Now Buffy was in the hospital after having suffered a complete break down.  It just seemed to be a never-ending cycle of pain and heartache.

Shaking his head, Xander realized he’d been standing outside his building for almost fifteen minutes.  He needed to go take a quick shower and change clothes so he could get back to the hospital in time to meet with Angel, Giles, and Buffy’s psychiatrist.  If he had time, he also wanted to stop and pick up some coffee and bagels to take with him.  Angel likely wouldn’t eat unless someone shoved food under his nose, which Xander supposed was going to be his job. 

Busy digging around in his pocket for his keys, Xander almost tripped over Willow, who was sitting to the left of his door.  He quickly shuffled his feet, managing to avoid falling flat on his face.

“Jeez, Willow.  Warn a guy next time you decide to hide on the floor!” he exclaimed, smiling wryly at her. 

“Sorry, I thought you saw me,” she apologized as she stood up from the ground.

“That’s okay.  I’m in kind of a hurry, though.  I just stopped by to change before I go back to the hospital,” Xander explained, jabbing his key into the uncooperative lock on his door.

“Huh?  The hospital?” Willow repeated in confusion.

Xander’s hand stilled in mid-turn of the key.  He glanced at Willow, sighing tiredly.  “Oh, I guess you don’t know.”

“Know what?”

“Buffy...she’s in the hospital.  She...she had breakdown of some sort last night,” he told her.

Even though Xander was only looking at her out of the corner of his eye, he immediately saw Willow’s eyes widen.  But then she did the most curious thing.  She turned her head away, shielding her face from him.  His suspicion rose instantly.  He’d known Willow for a long time, and he knew her body language.  Releasing the key from his grip, he turned to face Willow completely, arms crossed over his chest.

“Willow?” he spoke evenly.

“What?” she mumbled, refusing to look at him.

Xander shifted to his left until he was staring directly at her.  The guilty look on her face told him all he needed to know.  “What did you do?”

The redhead cast her eyes down, shoulders slouching.  “I...I...we got in a fight.”

“A fight?” he repeated, not quite believing her.  He just couldn’t imagine Buffy quarreling in the state she was in.

“No...well...sorta...I kind of said some things to her,” she replied, her voice innocent.

Grabbing her by the shoulders, Xander glared intensely at her.  “What did you say?”

“I didn’t mean it!” Willow squeaked, her voice defensive.

“What.Did.You.Say?!” he asked again, shaking her slightly.

“I...I told her that...that it was her fault Oz died.  I-I said he should have been with me, not here getting into an accident,” she finally told him.

“Jesus Christ, Willow!” Xander spat angrily, hastily releasing his grip on her shoulders and stepping away.  “How could you say that to your best friend?”

“I was upset.  I didn’t mean it,” she whispered, tears gathering in her eyes.

“Oh, I’m sure that will make her feel better.  I’ll be sure to tell her that when she’s no longer sedated and suicidal!” he shouted, staring at his friend in disgust.

“Xander, please-.”

“God, I thought I knew you.”  He shook his head sadly.  “But the Willow I knew would have never accused her best friend of causing her brother’s death.”

Having said that, Xander turned back to his door, opening it with a jerk and then promptly slammed it behind him, leaving a now crying Willow in his wake.  He leaned heavily against the now closed door, wondering how the hell things got so screwed up.  Angel was going to flip when he found out this latest information, and he would find out.  The psychiatrist should probably know what had helped push Buffy over the edge.  Xander had no doubt that Willow’s words had been the final nail in Buffy’s proverbial coffin.  She’d already been so unstable.  One small push and she fell.  He only hoped that, together, they could pull her back.

~`~`~ Part 5 ~`~`~

Giles, Angel, and another man that Xander didn’t recognize were standing in one of the waiting rooms when Xander finally returned to the hospital.  His trip home had taken longer than planned, but after the conversation with Willow, he’d needed some time to himself.  He knew that Willow was acting out of her own grief, but her actions were still completely uncalled for.  How she could blame Buffy for Oz’s death was beyond Xander’s comprehension.  Now he had the unfortunate task of informing Angel of what he’d learned.

“Hey, I brought food,” Xander said as he walked toward the group holding a bag a bagels and three coffees.  He didn’t know who the third man was, but he assumed that he must be a doctor considering he was wearing a white coat.

“Thank you, Xander.  Anything has got to be better than the swill they serve here,” Giles replied, taking a cup from the holder.  He wasn’t normally a coffee drinker, but he supposed the caffeine would do him good today.

Giles frowned when Angel completely ignored the offered food and drink.  “Angel, you really should have something to eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” Angel mumbled.  Though he’d never admit it, he was thoroughly exhausted, but there was no way he could go to sleep anytime soon.

Grabbing a coffee and a bagel, Giles shoved them into Angel’s hands.  “You WILL eat, or I will not allow you to stay here!”

“Fine!” snapped Angel, hastily taking a bite of the bagel while glaring at his uncle.

Xander almost laughed at the ever independent Angel caving in to Giles’ order.  He held back his mirth, knowing it was inappropriate considering the situation.  Secretly, he was glad Giles had forced the issue.  Angel looked haggard, the lack of sleep and food starting to catch up to him.  He knew it was unlikely that Angel would leave the hospital anytime soon, but at least they could get him to eat.

The room lapsed into relative silence while Angel and Xander ate, and Giles and the unknown man chatted in whispered tones.  Xander waited until Angel had finished before deciding to bring up his conversation with Willow.  He didn’t want to do it while Angel had throwable objects in his hands.

“I saw Willow this morning,” he finally uttered.

Angel eyed Xander, sensing something ominous in the tone of his friend’s voice.  He was about to speak when Giles looked up from the paperwork he’d been reading through.  Removing his glasses, Giles closed the file and started to turn toward the door.

“Well, we will leave you two.  As soon as we have an update on Buffy we’ll let you know,” he relayed, glancing at his watch to check the time.

“No, Giles, you should hear this.  It’s about...Buffy,” Xander explained, his eyes drifting to the third man, wondering if he should ask the man to leave.

Giles saw the look and stepped forward.  “Oh, pardon my rudeness.  This is Lorne DuPont.  He will be serving as Buffy’s psychiatrist.”

Nodding, Xander shook hands with Lorne.  “Good, you should hear this, too.”

“What’s going on, Xander?” Angel butted in.

“Willow...she...she told me...”  Xander sighed, hating what he was about to say.  “I think I know what pushed Buffy over the edge last night.”

“Really?” Lorne said pensively, stepping forward.  “It would definitely be helpful to know what made that little cupcake crumble.”

Angel scowled at Lorne, but didn’t say anything.  He’d met the psychiatrist half an hour earlier and he’d already realized the man was rather unconventional.  Besides, all that mattered now was finding out what Xander knew.

“Xander?” Angel prodded for a second time.

Taking a deep breath, Xander glanced warily at Angel for a moment before delving into the conversation he’d had earlier that morning.  “Willow...she got into an argument with Buffy.  Well, I don’t actually think it was an argument.  She sort of said some stuff to Buffy.   Not nice stuff.”

“What did she say?” pressed Lorne anxiously.  Although he didn’t know who this ‘Willow’ person was, he knew that he would be able to treat his patient much better if he had all the important information.

“She accused Buffy of being the reason Oz is dead,” he finally blurted out.

“What?!” Angel shouted, hands balling into fists at his sides.

“Something about how Oz should have been with her, not here with Buffy, and that if he’d moved away with her, he would still be alive.  She basically told Buffy it was her fault,” Xander continued, uneasily waiting for Angel to blow.

He didn’t have to wait long as a string of curses flew from his friend’s mouth.  They all flinched when one of the chairs was kicked across the room.  Eventually, Angel’s tirade settled into angry pacing from one end of the room to the other.

“How the hell could she say something like that to Buffy?” Angel snarled to no one in particular.

“I know,” agreed Xander sadly.  “I never thought Willow was capable of being so uncaring.”

“I take it this Willow is close to Buffy?” Lorne interjected, trying to piece everything together.

“You could say that,” Xander answered.  “She and Buffy have been best friends for at least six years.”

“Geez,” Lorne grumbled, wincing.  He was perfectly aware that a grieving person could act irrationally, but he could imagine what an accusation such as that would do to someone as emotionally fragile as Buffy.

“Willow and I are going to have to have a little talk,” Angel snapped, still talking to himself.

Xander put a hand on Angel’s arm, forcing him to stand still for a second.  “I agree, we’ll have to work things out with her, but right now we have to focus on Buffy.”

Begrudgingly, Angel nodded, though he would have felt better after yelling at Willow.  First priority was Buffy.  Willow would be dealt with later.  He finally stopped his pacing and looked to Lorne.

“Can you help her?” he asked hopefully.

“Yes, I think so.  She’s going to need some good old fashioned TLC, along with a little bit of therapy,” Lorne explained, glancing at the information Giles had given him.  “She’s emotionally spent right now.  I suspect it was only a matter of time before she broke, but this confrontation with Willow just made it happen sooner.”

“It wasn’t her fault that Oz died,” Angel felt the need to say.

“Yeah, it was a car accident, and Buffy wasn’t even with him!” Xander added.

“I have filled Lorne in on the details of Oz’s death, as well as Joyce’s,” came Giles’ steady voice.

Lorne thought for several seconds, a crease forming on his brow.  “Somewhere in her mind she knows that she’s not to blame, but her current emotional state has made her susceptible to what you would think are completely unbelievable suggestions.”

“I can’t believe Willow would blame her,” Angel mumbled, half in disgust and half in shock.

“Angel,” Giles started.  “Willow is suffering, too.  You have to remember that.  I am not condoning what she said, but everyone handles grief differently.”

“Giles is right,” Lorne agreed.  “Right now, Willow feels the need to blame someone.  I don’t know Willow, but my guess is she doesn’t really blame Buffy.  Once some time has passed, and Buffy is doing better, they should sit down and talk things out.”

“I don’t think-“

“Angel!” a new voice sounded, interrupting Angel.

“Gunn?  What are you doing here?” Angel questioned, looking at one of his and Xander’s fellow officers.

“I brought this over,” Gunn replied, holding up a stack of papers.  “I thought you might want to see it.”

“Is that?” Angel asked, only inferring the rest of the question.

“Yeah.”  Gunn nodded and handed the file to Angel.

As Angel started to skim through the pages, Xander stepped closer and peered over his shoulder.  “What is it?”

“It’s the final report on Oz’s accident,” Gunn explained when Angel didn’t.

“That was quick,” Xander said in surprise, knowing how long these things normally took to get completed.

Gunn shrugged.  “Chief put a rush on it, and it was pretty straight forward.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, what does it say?” Lorne questioned, nodding to the papers in Angel’s hands.

“Who are you?” Gunn asked suspiciously.

“Oh, I’m sorry.  Lorne DuPont.  I’m Buffy’s psychiatrist,” Lorne introduced himself.

When Gunn hesitated in explaining the results of the investigation, Angel shook his head, closed the file and handed it to Xander.  “It’s okay.  He should know,” Angel allowed.

Nodding curtly, Gunn faced Lorne and summarized the findings.  “Seventy-one year old female on her way home from babysitting her grandkids.  She stated that a dog ran in front of her car and she swerved to avoid it.  Her car, a ninety-nine Honda Accord, crossed the midline into opposing traffic.  The first car in the other lane managed to get out of the way.  Oz was behind that car, and from what we can tell, when he swerved to avoid hitting her, he lost control of the van and hit the telephone poll.”

Lorne listened to everything intently, jotting down notes in Buffy’s patient file.  “Tox screens?” he asked without looking up.

“Negative on the woman.  No alcohol, no drugs, and no medical conditions that could have played a role.  Oz was clean also.  The driver of the other car had a little bit of alcohol in his system, but well under the legal limit,” Gunn relayed in typical police fashion.

“So no fault,” Xander concluded.  He paused for a second, then sighed.  “I don’t know what’s worse, having it be just an accident, or if it would have been a drunk driver or something.”

“Unfortunately, the end result is the same,” Lorne stated as he finished adding to his notes.  “Buffy’s brother, and your friend, didn’t survive, and now she, as well as all of you, have to deal with that.”

“Yes well,” Giles began to say, but he abruptly stopped when a loud crash from down the hall reached their ears.  An aggravated shout soon followed.

“LET ME OUT OF HERE!”

Before any of the others could react, Angel was sprinting out of the room and toward the continuing agitated yells.  Xander knew it was inappropriate, but he let loose a small chuckle anyway.  “Sounds like the Buffster’s awake.”

~`~`~

Angel reached Buffy’s room quickly.  Walking through the door, he could see a nurse crouched down on the floor cleaning up a spilt pitcher of water.  He didn’t know whether she’d dropped it or Buffy had thrown it.  Either one was possible.  As for Buffy, she was pacing around the room, pulling open the drawers of the bedside tables.  Her movements were jerky, and her hands were trembling.  In that moment, as Angel watched her tense form, he made a promise to himself.  He wasn’t going to run anymore, he wasn’t going to leave her alone.  Too long he had stayed away, and it was time for it to stop.

“Buffy, what are you doing?” he asked softly.

“Looking for clothes,” she answered distractedly, pausing in her search for only a second to glance at Angel.

“Why?”

“Cuz I wanna go home!” she snapped in a semi-shout as her search once again picked up its pace.

Angel sighed.  He knew how much Buffy hated hospitals, and he couldn’t blame her, but right now she needed to be here.  Walking over to her, he crouched down and gently pulled her hands away from the drawers.  She flinched at his touch, but he tried not to let it affect him.

“You need to stay here,” Angel answered, unconsciously stroking her hand with his thumb.

“I wanna go home,” Buffy repeated just above a whisper.

“Giles says you can go home in a few days.  He wants to get you better first,” he explained.

“I’m fine,” she refuted, making a halfhearted attempt to pull her hand away, realizing only then who exactly she was talking to and who was touching her.

Looking down at Buffy’s arm, Angel’s fingers traced one of the bandages that rested on her forearm before trailing down to her hand, touching the reddened and bruised knuckles.  “This doesn’t look fine,” he stated, staring down at the injuries.

Buffy snatched her hand away, raising it to eye level.  She gaped at the various marks, bruises, and bandages that spotted her entire right arm, then raised her left arm and saw nearly matching injuries.  Her eyes closed as she shook her head and winced.  Opening them again, she looked at her arms then at Angel.

“I...I don’t remember...,” she trailed off, frightened.

“Shh,” Angel comforted.  “You’ll be fine.  They’re just some surface cuts.  Giles just wants to keep an eye on you for a few days.  He says you haven’t been eating or sleeping much and he wants to make sure you do.”

“But I wanna go home,” she said for a third time.

“I know you do, but...”  Angel paused, knowing that if he asked her to stay for him she’d rebel.  He opted for a different route.  “But the sooner you do what Giles says, the sooner you can go home.”

Buffy glanced down at her arms, then back to Angel before her eyes flitted away quickly.  She tried to stand, but her knees buckled.  Angel caught her before she could fall.  He carefully held onto her arms and helped her to stand.

“You should get some more sleep,” he told her, leading Buffy to the bed.  “I promise when you wake up, you can talk to Giles and find out when he’ll let you go home.”

Reluctantly, Buffy obeyed and climbed onto the bed, only because of the simple fact that she was exhausted.  “I hate hospitals,” she groaned, trying to get comfortable on the hard bed with its coarse sheets.

“I know,” Angel said, a small smile on his face.  He took one of her hands into his, warming it with his touch.  “I will stay with you the whole time.”

“You don’t have to.  I’ll be fine by myself,” Buffy replied distantly, yanking her hand away from his.

“Don’t push me away, Buffy,” Angel pleaded, despite knowing she had every right to do so.

“No, that’s your job,” she shot back tiredly, her eyes already closing as she drifted back to sleep.

~`~`~ Part 6 ~`~`~

“Angel, man, what are you doing here?” Gunn asked as he took a seat on the locker room bench.

Angel finished pulling several items out of his locker before turning to face his friend.  He blinked his bleary eyes, trying to focus on Gunn.  “Just picking up some stuff,” he answered, his voice clearly showing his exhaustion.

After Buffy had fallen asleep, he’d stayed by her bedside for over an hour, just watching the steady rise and fall of her chest.  He could still remember the veiled hostility in her final words to him that night.  She had such animosity towards him, and he couldn’t blame her for it.  He’d given her every reason to hate him.  It still hurt, though, but it hurt more to know that he’d brought her such pain.

“You look like you need some sleep,” Gunn pointed out after he finished tying his shoes.  Standing, he pulled on his uniform shirt, waiting for Angel to speak.  “You all right?”

Rubbing a hand over his face, Angel sighed.  “Yeah, it’s just been a long two weeks.”

“Yeah,” agreed Gunn.  He hadn’t known Oz that well, but they’d been casual friends.  Gunn had always thought he seemed like a cool enough guy.  “How’s Buffy?”

“She’s...she’s okay, I guess,” Angel said with a shrug.  “Giles thinks she’ll be okay, and the shrink said it would just take some time for her to come to grips with everything.”

“Right.”  Gunn nodded and gathered up the rest of his stuff.  “Oh, before I forget, Chief’s been looking for you.”

“Great, thanks,” groaned Angel as he stood and followed Gunn out of the locker room.

Angel walked down the hall, coming to a stop in front of a glass paned door with the words ‘Wesley Wyndham-Pryce – Chief of Police’ painted in the center.  He knocked lightly, silently hoping the Chief had gone home for the night.  To his dismay, a curt ‘come in’ soon followed.  Turning the knob, Angel walked into the room.

“Hey, Wes.  You wanted to see me?” he asked, facing his boss.

Wesley set down the file he had been reading and studied Angel for a moment.  “Yes.  Please, have a seat.”  He waited until Angel was sitting in the chair before continuing.  “I understand you have requested some time off.”

“Yes,” Angel replied bluntly.  “I have some personal matters to take care of.”

“And this ‘personal matter’ would be Buffy Summers, would it not?” pressed Wesley, seeing Angel’s hands tighten on the arms of the chair as he said Buffy’s name.

“That’s none of your business,” Angel stated firmly, his mind flashing back to a conversation in this same office almost three years earlier.

“Angel,” Wesley said with a sigh.  “I understand your apprehension in discussing this with me, but I am granting your request for time off.  You haven’t used any of your vacation time in the past three years so I’m giving you a month, no more, to take care of your personal matters.”

“You are?” Angel asked, bewildered that Wes had given in so easily.

“Don’t act so surprised.  I’m not the ogre many perceive me to be,” Wesley defended himself.

“I know, but I also know how you feel about this...issue,” Angel clarified his shock.

“That was a long time ago, Angel.  Things are clearly quite different now.  And I know you know what I mean,” Wes said pointedly.

Angel nodded, but said nothing.  He’d had three years to reflect on what had happened between himself and Buffy; the right, the wrong, the good, the bad.  All of it.  Would he change anything if he could?  Probably.  Would the outcome be any different?  Not likely.  No matter how he did it, he would have broken her heart.  So regretting his actions did no good.

Wesley stood and walked around his desk.  He leaned against the edge and gazed sympathetically at Angel.  “I’m sure she’ll be fine, Angel.  She’s been through a lot, but she’s strong.”

“I know,” agreed Angel, giving Wes a weak smile.

“Xander hasn’t asked for it, but I’ve given him two weeks also.  She’s going to need the support of both of you, and I’m sure neither of you have your minds on work right now,” Wesley explained, wondering when he’d become such a softie.

“Thanks, I’ll let Xander know when I go back to the hospital,” Angel replied gratefully.  He knew that Xander would appreciate the time off.

“Good.  I suppose I should let you get back to the hospital in case Buffy needs you,” Wes said with a friendly nod of his head.

Angel stood, mumbling to himself, “I doubt she has any need for me.”

“Give her time,” Wesley said, offering his advice even though it wasn’t asked for.  “And Angel, if there is anything I can do, please do not hesitate to ask.”

“Thanks.  See ya later.”

~`~`~

Angel quietly approached Buffy’s hospital room.  He didn’t want to disturb her if she was sleeping.  When he peeked into the room, though, he saw Xander sitting by her bedside, talking softly to Buffy.  For an instant, he was jealous.  Jealous that Xander was so close to her, and that she wasn’t pushing him away like she had done to him.  Angel knew it was irrational.  There had never been anything more between Buffy and Xander than brotherly friendship.  Love made you do the whacky, though.

“Hey, Angel.  You’re back,” Xander said just as Angel was about to walk away to give the two some time together.

“Yeah, sorry to interrupt.  I can come back later,” Angel offered, already taking a step out of the room.

“Nah!  I’m kinda hungry anyway.  I think I’ll go down to the cafeteria and see if they have anything edible,” replied Xander, standing from the chair he’d been sitting on.  All the while, Buffy said nothing.  She waited until Xander had left, promising to return later, to speak to Angel.

“What are you doing here?” she asked wearily, not wanting to deal with him.

“I just wanted to see how you were,” Angel answered, hesitantly stepping toward the bed.

“Well, I’m fine.  So now you can leave,” Buffy ordered, pointing to the door.

Angel sighed and paced around the bed.  He stopped at the foot, glancing at her face.  “Buffy, please don’t do this.”

“Do what?” she snapped, sitting up higher in the bed.  “You made it quite clear to me three years ago that you didn’t want me.  So, what?  Now you think you can just walk back in here like I mean something to you and you mean something to me?  It doesn’t work that way!”

Not wanting Buffy to see the hurt reflected on his face, Angel turned away, staring out the window at the setting sun.  His mouth opened, but closed quickly as he tried to gather his thoughts.  “I...I never...I’m sorry,” he settled on saying finally.

Buffy slumped down against her pillows, feeling guilty.  She hadn’t meant to be so cruel, but her feelings were just so raw right now.  And having Angel so nearby was tugging on strings in her heart that just couldn’t take it.  Even so, she didn’t particularly feel like apologizing.  Her words had been the truth, if a little harshly spoken.

Instead, Buffy simply sat there and stared at Angel’s back.  As much as she hated to admit it, he still made her heart pound.  It had been three years since they were together, and still he was embedded so deep in her skin that she didn’t know if she’d ever get him out.  It hadn’t always been like that.  For a while he’d just been her brother’s best friend.  The feelings had come so fast and so hard that they had nearly knocked her off her feet.

“I remember the first time I stopped seeing you as just my brother’s friend,” she mused, unfortunately out loud.

Angel turned around and eyed her curiously, somewhat surprised by the maudlin statement.  “What?”

Blushing, Buffy averted her eyes, embarrassed to have been so caught up in her thoughts that she’d spoken.  She sighed, and mumbled, “Nothing.”

“Tell me,” he pleaded, hoping futilely to ease some of the tension between them.

Buffy contemplated asking him to leave yet again, but some part of her wanted to have something as normal as have a conversation, something that didn’t have anything to do with her brother’s death, or her mother’s death, or her little trip to the hospital.  They seemed to be the only things people wanted to talk about these days.  All she wanted was normalcy, to not be reminded of the swirling vortex of suck that was her life.  Of course, talking to Angel about their past didn’t exactly qualify as pleasant.  But she opted to do it anyway.

“It was about a year and a half after Mom...,” she started, trailing off because she still had a hard time saying the word ‘died’ or anything similar.  “I was almost sixteen, and I’d been invited to my first dance by a boy.”  She smiled wryly, remembering what a disaster her first date with Owen had been.

“I remember that,” Angel replied wistfully, allowing his own small smile to form.

“Oz was going to take me dress shopping, but then he got called in to work,” she continued reminiscing.  “I was so disappointed because I’d wanted to get a really pretty dress and there wasn’t any other time Oz could take me.  I thought I was going to have to wear one of my old dresses.  Then you offered to take me instead.”

Angel chuckled, remembering that trip to the mall.  “That was definitely an experience.”

“Yeah, it was,” Buffy agreed, forgetting for just a moment how much things had changed between her and Angel since then.  “You spent the whole day with me at the mall, your best friend’s little sister, and you never complained once, not even when you had to carry all the dresses I picked out or wait while I tried them on.  That was when I really saw you for the first time.  After that, you weren’t just Oz’s best friend.  You were Angel.”

His feet were moving before he could tell them not to, and soon, Angel found himself sitting on the edge of Buffy’s bed, gazing into her sad eyes.  “I was happy to do it,” he said softly, reaching a hand up to touch her cheek.  She didn’t move away from the contact, but Angel quickly retracted his hand anyway.

An uncomfortable silence filled the room for a moment, neither knowing what to say or how to act.  Angel wanted to climb into the bed and hold her close.  He wanted to tell her he was sorry, that he’d never meant to hurt her.  He wanted to soothe away her pains, tell her that he’d always be there.  He wanted so many things, but they were all useless wishes, solitary pennies dropped into an overused fountain.

Though he hadn’t meant to, Angel smiled as his mind drifted back to that fateful trip to the mall.  Buffy didn’t know it, but that was a transitional trip for him as well.

“What?” she asked when she saw the smile.

“You weren’t the only one to start to see things differently that day,” he revealed.

“Huh?” Buffy grunted in confusion.

“I don’t remember what store we were in, but you came out wearing a royal blue dress.  You looked stunning.  I couldn’t help but stare at you and imagine what you’d look like with your hair all done up and makeup on,” he told her, embarrassed by his past actions.  Angel shook his head, casting his eyes away from Buffy.  “I felt like such a lecher.  You weren’t even sixteen yet, and you were Oz’s little sister.  But something changed for me that day, too.  Every time I saw you after that, I would think about how beautiful you were, and how much I’d enjoyed spending time with you.  I knew it was wrong, and I told myself to keep thinking of you as Oz’s sister...”

“But it didn’t work,” Buffy filled in.

“No,” Angel answered with a shake of his head.

Soon, both were lost in their thoughts, thinking of how they’d each tried to stay away from the other, and of the six month relationship they had accidentally fallen into.  While Angel remembered the nervous dates and hesitant kisses, Buffy’s thoughts drifted in another direction.  There was something she still didn’t know, something that continued to plague her thoughts.

“What changed, Angel?” she asked, her voice pleading and sad.  “We were so happy, and then it was all gone.”  Though she’d meant to stop there, her mind had other ideas.  “Why did you break up with me on my seventeenth birthday?  How could you start dating someone so soon after?” she continued, referring to how, only three days after the breakup, she’d gone to The Bronze to see Oz’s band perform and found Angel there with some skanky blonde.

Angel winced at the memory, hating himself all over again for his actions.  “Buffy, I-.”

“Well, hello there, Sunshine!” a new voice interrupted from the doorway.  “Hope I didn’t come at a bad time!”

Buffy nearly snarled as she looked up to find Lorne, her shrink, standing just inside her room.  She’d been so close to getting answers, but one look at Angel told her he was done being Mr. Chatty for the day.  Grumbling to herself, she slumped back against the pillows.

“I could come back in a little bit,” Lorne offered, sensing the tension in the room.

“No, stay,” Angel replied, quickly standing from the bed and moving away from Buffy.  “I’ll go get something to eat with Xander.”

Before Buffy could say a word, tell him that this conversation wasn’t over, Angel was gone.

~`~`~

Xander watched Angel walk wearily into the food court and then flop down onto one of the uncomfortable, metal cafeteria chairs.  By the look on his friend’s face, he could tell that whatever had happened after he had left Angel and Buffy alone, it wasn’t exactly good.  Not that he was surprised by that fact.  He had just hoped otherwise.

“Rough day, huh?” Xander quipped, picking at the rather gross sandwich he’d gotten.

“Yeah,” agreed Angel, thinking Xander didn’t know the half of it.  “Got any plans tonight?”

“Not that I know of,” Xander answered, pushing his tray away.  “Why?”

“I want to go over to the house and clean up everything.  Buffy shouldn’t have to go home to that,” Angel said, explaining his idea.  He didn’t think it would be good for Buffy to have to see reminders of why she’d been taken to the hospital.

“Sure, I’m free.  Speaking of the house, what about Argyle?” Xander asked, wondering what they were going to do with Oz’s dog.

“I picked him up this morning and took him to Giles and Jenny’s house.  Jenny said she’d be happy to take care of him for a while,” Angel responded, knowing instinctively that Buffy wouldn’t want anything to happen to the dog.

The two made plans to meet later that day at Buffy’s house.  Angel listened distractedly as Xander rambled on about something or other.  After a while, he excused himself, needing to get some fresh air and some time to himself.  Xander nodded understandingly, and watched as Angel walked away, lost deep in thought.

Once outside, Angel bypassed his car and wandered in the direction of the park next to the hospital.  He sat heavily on one of the benches.  A giggle of laughter drew his attention and his eyes landed on a young couple happily chasing each other through the grass.  The man soon caught up with the woman, his arms locking around her waist.  For a moment, they only stared into each others’ eyes, but soon, their lips met.  Angel averted his gaze as the intimate action reminded him of one of the most defining moments in his life:  his first kiss with Buffy.

Angel carried a bag of trash into the kitchen.  He smiled when he saw Buffy standing by the counter, gathering plates for them to eat Oz’s birthday cake on.  She was smiling and humming to herself.  He was glad she was having a good time.  Things had been rough after her mother’s death.  Seeing her smile was enough to make him happy.  Ever since he’d taken her dress shopping three months earlier, everything she did made him smile.  It was ridiculous, but he couldn’t seem to stop.

Setting down the bag of trash, Angel walked over to Buffy.  “Need some help?”

“Sure.  Can you carry the plates?” she asked, reaching down to hand them to him.

At the same time, Angel moved to take the plates.  Their hands met midway and both froze, the simple touch affecting them both in ways they did not understand.  Angel told himself to move, to snatch his hand away quickly, but he remained still.  Buffy trembled, a myriad of new, but not unpleasant, feelings coursing through her being.

“Angel...”

“Buffy...”

That was it:  the breathy caress of her voice saying his name and Angel came undone.  He leaned into her, their lips meeting in a sweet, innocent kiss.  It was wrong.  He knew it was wrong.  She was just sixteen, and he was three and a half years older than her.  But he couldn’t stop.  It felt so right.

A single kiss and it had changed everything.  From that moment on, their time near each other had been filled with furtive glances and shy smiles until they could no longer fight it any longer.  Looking back, Angel wanted to say he regretted that first kiss.  But he couldn’t.  How could he regret something so absolutely wonderful?  He only regretted what had happened later, when it had all fallen apart.

~`~`~ Part 7 ~`~`~

“You and Angel seem pretty close,” Lorne mused after the latter had left the room.

Buffy tore her eyes away from the door to look at Lorne, a frown firmly in place as she did so.  “Not really,” she said, shrugging imperceptibly.

Lorne raised an eyebrow and gazed pointedly at Buffy.  “He’s been here almost the entire time since you were admitted.”

“So?” Buffy asked, hiding the whirling emotions she felt at the disclosure.

Tapping his pen against his chin, Lorne pondered his next choice of words.  The tension between Buffy and Angel when he walked into the room had almost been tangible.  His instincts were telling him that there were some unresolved issues between the two, and if there were, he wondered what role they may have played in the troubled young girl’s breakdown.  Experience told him that there was much more to Buffy’s problems than her brother’s death.

“It seems to me he cares a great deal about you,” he replied at last.

Lips pursed, Buffy pulled her knees up to her chin.  She didn’t want to talk about Angel.  She didn’t even want to think about Angel, or that he had stayed at the hospital, or that they had just had their longest conversation in three years.  The less she thought about Angel, the better off she was.

“Can we not talk about Angel?” she requested forcefully, emphasizing the word ‘not’.

“All right then, what would you like to talk about?” Lorne questioned, crossing his legs.

“How ‘bout nothing?” Buffy muttered faintly.  “I don’t see why we have to do this.  I’m fine!”

Lorne took a moment to jot down some notes; Buffy’s veiled hostility, her reluctance to let anyone help her, and her apparent denial that anything was wrong.  She seemed to be one very closed off young woman, in his mind.

“Well, why don’t we start with you telling me why you’re here in this hospital,” he started off his line of questioning.

“Because Giles won’t le me go home!” she grumbled loudly, toying with the hem of her gown.

Flipping back several pages in the patient file sitting on his lap, Lorne recited the words written in Giles’ handwriting, “Patient admitted to emergency room unconscious with multiple abrasions and lacerations to the arms and hands.  Officer O’Neil, who responded to the call of a woman in distress, reported that at least one room in the patient’s home had been ransacked.”

Hearing the description, Buffy paled, her hands stilling in her lap.

“Sound familiar?” he asked, setting aside the file.

“I-I...I don’t know,” she stuttered, shaking her head as if to force the memories out of her mind.

“Tell me, Buffy, what do you remember about yesterday?” Lorne pressed, sensing her veneer was cracking, and though he hated the idea of causing her additional stress, there didn’t seem to be any other choice.

Buffy barely heard the question directed at her.  Images, little snippets of the past two weeks, flashed before her eyes.

***

“Xand?”

“Buffy...come on, ya gotta come with me!”

*

“No!  Oz!”

*

“I’m here, Oz.  Hang on, you’re gonna be fine.”

“Buff...love....you.”

*

“The impact of the crash caused an Acute Subdural Hematoma; a form of bleeding in the space between the brain and the skull.  His was particularly severe, and the build up of fluid put an immense amount of pressure on the brain which, in turn, has caused irreparable brain damage.  Oz is, for lack of a better term, brain dead.”

*

Beep...

Beep......

Beep.............

Beep...............................

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

*

“I don’t want to leave him.  He’ll be all alone.”

“He’s not alone, Buffy.  His soul is up in Heaven with your Mom.”

*

“I miss him.”

“I do, too.  But he’ll always be watching over you.  That’s what big brothers do.”

*

“I shouldn’t have had to come!”

“Oz shouldn’t be dead!” she shouted.

“It’s all your fault!”

“He should have been with me.”

“Oh, let me guess.  He never told you.  Have to protect poor, little Buffy.”

“And he would have never gotten into an accident and been killed if he had gone with me!  It’s all your fault that he’s dead because he had to stay and play guardian angel!”

Her fault.

***

“Buffy?” Lorne said cautiously, growing worried over the blank look on her face and her trembling body.  Leaning, over, he checked his bag to make sure he had a sedative available if necessary.

Tears fell from her eyes.  The trembling increased, shaking her entire body.  Lorne reached into his bag and grabbed the syringe.  He tucked it into his pocket, deciding to use it if only absolutely necessary.  Standing, he walked over to the bed and sat on the edge. He picked up one of her hands, holding it comfortingly.  Physical contact wasn’t a typical course of action, but he wasn’t a typical doctor.

“My fault,” she whispered, not to Lorne, but to herself.

Lorne heard the barely uttered words and knew what she was referring to.  Even though he’d already been told about the confrontation between Buffy and Willow, he needed her to talk about it.  “What was your fault?” he prodded.

Buffy pressed a hand to her right temple, suddenly remembering she wasn’t alone in the room.  “Nothing,” she mumbled, scrunching back against the pillows to distance herself.

“You can talk to me, Buffy.  I’m not here to judge you, or tell you that you’re right or wrong.  You can think of me as a big, fluffy, stuffed teddy bear who will listen to whatever you want to talk about,” he offered, holding out his arms.

Despite her current mood, Buffy cracked the smallest of smiles at the thought of her shrink dressed up like a giant teddy bear.  It was too amusing not to smile at.

“I saw that,” Lorne said knowingly, but soon he turned serious again.  “I meant what I said.  I’m just here to listen, and talk about anything.”

Sighing, Buffy contemplated telling him to get the hell out of her room, but she didn’t.  A small part of her wanted to talk, wanted someone to tell her it would be okay.  And Lorne was a bit endearing.  He wasn’t like other doctors with their cold, professional, distant demeanors.  He just seemed so welcoming.

“It was my fault,” she repeated her earlier sentiment, averting her eyes in guilt.

“What was your fault?” Lorne asked again.

Buffy looked up at Lorne, trying to sort through the jumble of thoughts in her head.  Everything was so confusing.  “The a-accident.  It was my fault.”

Lorne nodded, having suspected she had believed her friend’s accusation.  “I’m told it was a car accident, and that you were at home at the time.  How can it be your fault then?” he asked, needing to help direct her to the real cause.

“No.”  Buffy shook her head, Willow’s hurtful words replaying in her head.  “There shouldn’t have been an accident.  He shouldn’t have been here with me.  He should have gone with Willow to Berkley.”

“I see,” he said in that typical doctor tone.  In a normal situation, Lorne would have had to ask for details and more of an explanation to her statement, but in this case, he already knew much of the background.  Between what Angel and Xander had told him, and what Giles, the doctor who had not only treated Buffy’s mom and brother but who was also Angel’s uncle, had further explained, he knew much of Buffy’s case history.

“Let me ask you a question,” Lorne began.  “Did you ever ask your brother to stay here with you?”

“No,” Buffy answered, wiping away some of her tears.

“Did he ever tell you he wanted to leave, or to go with Willow?” he continued.

Buffy frowned, wondering what Lorne was getting at.  “No.”

Looking directly at her, he asked, “Then how can it be your fault?”

“He stayed because of me!  Because I was here!” she shrieked, a few tears falling.

“Maybe he wanted to stay,” Lorne posed.  “Oz was your brother, Buffy.  He loved you.  Maybe he wanted to stay here in Sunnydale.”

A timer beeped, interrupting anything Buffy might have had to say in response.  Lorne looked down at his watch, seeing that their time was up and that he had to go see another patient.  It was good timing, he supposed.  Not being able to continue the conversation would leave Buffy with quite a bit to think about until their next appointment.

“Well, that little ding means our time is up,” he said as he stood and gathered his stuff.  It didn’t escape his attention that Buffy appeared to be deep in thought.  “I’ll see ya tomorrow, same time, same place.”

Buffy mumbled a goodbye as her therapist shuffled out of the room.  Her mind was elsewhere, though.  That was the bad thing about conflicting thoughts.  They tended to suck up all of one’s attention.  And her mind was certainly filled with conflicting thoughts.  It was a furious tug-of-war between Willow’s accusations, and Lorne’s logical alternate viewpoint.  But who was right?

~`~`~

Angel and Xander stood silent and still in the center of the Summers’ living room surveying the damage of Buffy’s breakdown.  It was a chilling sight.  Angel had seen it before, but hadn’t had the chance to look around thoroughly.  For Xander, it was his first look at the wreckage.  It sent shivers down his spine to know Buffy had been so distraught to cause it all.

“I knew I should have stayed here yesterday,” Xander said, voicing the internal reprimand that had been repeating in his head since late the night before.

“It’s not your fault, Xander,” Angel assured him. 

“No, it’s Willow’s,” spat Xander in disgust.

Sighing, Angel gazed around the room, shaking his head.  “As much as I hate to say it, I don’t think this is her fault either.”

“What?  How can you say that?” Xander said in a shocked semi-shout.

“Because Giles and Lorne are right, something like this would have happened sooner or later,” Angel explained, bending over to right the upside-down coffee table.  “What Willow said contributed, but it wasn’t the sole cause.”

“I guess you’re right,” Xander conceded, kneeling down to gather up the sheet music of Oz’s that was scattered all over the floor.  “Well, let’s get some of this cleaned up.”

“Yeah, and we’ll need to make a list of what needs to be replaced,” added Angel.  He had every intention of getting the room back in order so that Buffy wouldn’t have to deal with it.  She had enough on her mind; she didn’t need to worry about cleaning.

“Aye, Aye Captain,” Xander mock saluted.

~`~`~

Two hours later, Xander was walking through the quiet, dimmed hallways of the hospital toward the nurses’ station near Buffy’s room with a concerned look on his face.  As he approached, the nurse behind the desk looked up at him, glanced at her watch then scowled.

“Xander, visiting hours are over for the day,” Amy Madison, the nurse, told him in a hushed voice.

“Oh come on, Amy.  No one will even know I’m here,” he responded, grinning at his former high school classmate.

“Fine,” she sighed in annoyance.  “But if anyone catches you, I’ll tell them you snuck in.”

“’kay, your ass is covered,” Xander assured her, then focused back on why he’d searched her out.  “Have you seen Buffy?  She’s not in her room.”

“Oh, yeah.  She said she wanted some fresh air so she went to sit out on the deck,” she replied, referring to the small outdoors area that patients could sit in.

“Thanks.  I won’t stay long.  I just want to see how she’s doing,” he explained as he started walking away.

A minute later, Xander was walking out the door leading onto the deck.  Since the area was so small, it didn’t take him long to find Buffy.  She was seated on a lounge chair, staring up at the dark night sky. 

“Hey, Buff,” he greeted, taking a seat on the end of her chair.

“Hey,” she returned, giving him a small smile.

“Enjoying some quiet time with the stars, huh?” he asked, glancing up to the clear sky.

“Yeah, they’re so simple, yet so complex,” Buffy explained, frowning at her nonsensical words.

Xander chuckled at the statement, and leaned back to stare up at the bright twinkling dots.  “They are kinda cool.”

Buffy was silent for several minutes, lost in thoughts of death and blame.  Finally, she found the nerve to ask the question lingering on the tip of her tongue.  “Xand?  Do you think Oz wanted to stay here in Sunnydale?”

Rotating to face her, Xander didn’t hesitate with his answer.  “Yes.  I think that this was his home and that he was perfectly happy here.”

“Oh,” Buffy mumbled, still finding it hard to believe.

“Buffy,” Xander began, waiting until she lifted her eyes to meet his.  “You didn’t make Oz stay, and he didn’t feel obligated to.  He did what he wanted to do.”

A few tears trickled from Buffy’s eyes, the reality of Oz’s death hitting her once again.  Xander pulled her into a hug, trying his best to comfort her.  His own tears welled in his eyes as he, too, remembered one of his closest friends.  The two stayed that way for several minutes, seeking even the smallest comfort in still having each other.

Pulling back, Xander kept an arm around Buffy.  “Come on, I’ll walk you back to your room.  You should get some sleep.”

“Okay,” she agreed, yawning at the thought of sleep.  She stood, pausing to look seriously at her friend.  “Thank you for being here, for everything.”

“There’s no where else I’d rather be,” he answered, giving her shoulder a squeeze as they strolled back into the hospital and toward Buffy’s room.

~`~`~ Part 8 ~`~`~

~several days later~

“Are you going to let me go home soon?” Buffy asked, frustrated at her confinement.

Lorne looked at her pensively.  He’d been meeting with her an hour each day for the last five days.  She looked much better than she had.  The dark circles under her eyes had faded to a dim hue, and she appeared slightly less frail - all benefits of her hospitalization.  The look in her eyes seemed a bit less devastated, but was still noticeably sad.  He knew she hated being in the hospital, but he was hesitant to authorize her release for fear of her relapsing if too much was put on her too soon.

At the same time, her demeanor had improved.  They’d spent many hours talking the last few days.  After his initial visit, she was much more open to talking to him, and he suspected it was the first time in a long while that she had voiced many of the thoughts, fears, and emotions locked up inside.  Not that he could particularly blame her for holding everything in.  She hadn’t been given much reason to keep people close.  But it wasn’t good for her.  And he hoped she understood that.

“Do YOU think I should let you go home?” he returned, tapping his pen on his chin.

“Yes,” she answered quickly.  When his only response was to raise an eyebrow, she scowled.  “What?”

“It’s not as simple as just letting you go home,” Lorne explained, still drumming his pen.  “You may be physically better, Buffy, but inside.”  He tapped his chest over his heart.  “There is still a lot of healing you have to do.”

Her eyes shuttered, her mind once again prompted to recall the reasons why she’d been stuck in this place to begin with.  She pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them protectively.  “I know,” she managed to mumble, staring down at the stark white bed sheets.

“Do you?” he pressed.

Buffy gazed up at him, her face blank and confused.

“You can’t keep all the pain and hurt locked up inside,” Lorne continued.  “It’ll eat you alive.  It already has once, and it has been for quite some time.  I don’t want to see you end up back in here, or worse.”

“I won’t hurt myself,” Buffy promised.  “I wouldn’t...”

“Cut your wrists?  Take a bottle of pills?” Lorne filled in.  “No, probably not.  But you are hurting yourself by not eating, sleeping or taking care of yourself.”

Buffy released a trembling sigh and blinked back several tears.  “It’s just hard.”

“I know that, dumplin’.  There’s nothing easy about death.  But you have to learn to accept it.  You may never forget it, and there may always be an ache in your heart, but you can either let the pain control you, or you take control of it,” he said softly, yet sternly.

“How am I just supposed to go on like... like Oz isn’t... dead?”  The last word came out in a rush.  It was still so hard to say the word ‘dead’ and ‘Oz’ in the same sentence.

“You can’t.  Your brother is, unfortunately, no longer with us.  No one is asking you to ignore that, or asking you to go around being Ms. Mary Sunshine,” he countered, correcting her assumption.  “You just have to go on one day at a time.  I know that’s cheesy, but it’s the truth.”

“One day at a time,” Buffy muttered, a sardonic chuckle escaping past her lips.

“I said it was cheesy.”  Lorne laughed along with her.  “Listen, I know how much you want to get out of here, so I’ll make a deal with you.  I will give the okay for your release if you agree to two conditions.”

“What are they?” she asked warily.

“The first one is that you will come back here to meet with me twice a week for as long as I say is necessary,” he explained.  “And the second is that you must take better care of yourself, which includes eating and sleeping.  If I see that you’re looking worse, I WILL find a way to get you back in here.”

“Okaaay,” Buffy drawled, waiting for whatever else seemed to be on the tip of Lorne’s tongue.

“And,” he began.  “I would also like to encourage you to talk to your friends.  They’re grieving too.  You can help each other through this.”

Buffy wrinkled her nose.  “They can just be so suffocating sometimes, always in my face, or asking if I’m all right.”

“Then tell them to back off.  There’s nothing wrong with saying you need a few hours to yourself, or a night alone.  And if they keep asking you if you’re all right, tell them to stop asking.  They’ll never know what’s bothering you unless you tell them,” Lorne pointed out logically.

Grumbling under her breath, Buffy wondered if the damn man ever said anything that didn’t make perfect sense.  She had pushed everyone away in a dire need get away from all the poking and prodding.  It was just so hard looking into all their sympathetic faces and hearing all the conciliatory words.  But she did miss having someone to talk to, a shoulder to cry on.  She missed Oz.

“Do we have a deal?” Lorne prodded.

“Twice a week?” she asked for clarification.

“Yup.  No less.  And here.”  He pulled out a business card and handed it to Buffy.  “That has my pager number on it.  You can call it anytime.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or just sad, give me a call.”

Studying the card, Buffy considered her options: stay in the hospital until she likely died of old age or boredom or food poisoning; or go home today and have to come back to see Lorne twice a week.  It wasn’t a hard choice.  And really, the idea of talking more with Lorne wasn’t so bad.  He was pretty cool, and she felt comfortable with him. 

“Okay,” she agreed.

“Good.”  Lorne clapped his hands together once and stood.  “I’ll go find Giles and we’ll get your paperwork done and send you on your way.”

 ~`~`~

The house was deafeningly quiet.  Unnervingly quiet.  It made her twitchy.  She hadn’t noticed the utter silence until after Xander had left an hour and a half earlier.  He’d driven her home from the hospital, even carried her bags for her.  They’d had dinner together, an extra cheese pizza from their favorite delivery place, while sharing sparse conversation.  Afterwards, he’d offered to stay, to spend the night on the couch, and for a moment, a million different excuses rattled around her head to get him to leave.  Then Lorne’s words came back to her. 

“I’d kind of like to be alone tonight,” she’d told him.  And it was the honest truth.  For days, nurses, doctors, Xander, Angel, and others had swarmed around her, never giving her a minute’s peace.  She’d wanted some time.  Time to think, to try and figure out what had happened, what was happening, and what was going to happen.  As expected, Xander was hesitant, but she’d reassured him profusely that she didn’t plan to go crazy again  After making her promise to call if she needed anything, he had finally left.

Now she was by herself in the house.  And it was quiet, and unnerving.  And lonely.  Once, when her mind had drifted, when she had forgotten for just a second the events of the past few weeks, she had started to walk to Oz’s room to see if he wanted to watch a movie.  But when her hand had touched the banister, she’d remembered.  Oz wasn’t there anymore.  He never would be again.  And she’d cried, large drenching tears that trailed down her cheeks, and onto her shirt, leaving dark blotches in their wake.

The tears were gone now, the wet spots dried, but the silence remained.  She currently stood in the opening between the kitchen and the foyer, looking anywhere but forward, anywhere but to the living room.  Since coming home, she’d avoided the room.  She knew she needed to go in there, but her feet wouldn’t obey the unspoken command.  Each time she picked up her right foot to begin walking, she only ended up stomping it back down again.

After repeating the gesture several more times, Buffy groaned and cursed inside her head over her cowardice.  It was just her living room, a room she’d been in hundreds of times, a room she’d apparently trashed almost a week ago and had no memory of doing so.  The knowledge that she’d done something like that and couldn’t remember disturbed Buffy.  But, she told herself, the only way to face it was to walk into that room with her head held high.  So that’s what she did.

It wasn’t as bad as she’d thought it would be, thanks probably in large part to Xander and Angel’s cleaning session.  Even so, she could see the remaining damage.  The TV was gone, some of the curtains had been removed, and several picture frames were missing the glass fronts.  Otherwise, much of the room had been returned to normal, or at least she supposed it was.  In all honesty, she couldn’t remember what happened.  The conversation with Willow was still emblazoned in her mind, but after that, and before waking up in the hospital, everything was mostly blank.  Maybe it would all come back to her, but she wondered if she’d be better off not remembering. 

A rumble of thunder distracted her line of thought, and she jumped at the sudden noise.  Grasping a hand over her rapidly beating heart, Buffy hurried over to one of the windows and peered up at the sky.  Though it was night, and therefore dark by nature, it seemed even blacker out.  The moon and stars were hidden behind thick, threatening clouds, and the only light came from the soft glow radiating out of neighboring houses.  And also from the lightning that just streaked across the sky. 

On instinct, she made her way to the front door and walked out onto the porch.  Her steps came to an abrupt halt when she remembered why it was instinct.  Whenever there had been storms in the past, she and Oz would go out and sit on the porch, listening to the thunder, and watching the lightning.  He’d been fascinated by them, and she, being the adoring little sister, had followed along.  It was a tradition.  And one that now made her heart ache.  He wasn’t there to watch the storms with her anymore.

Despite the unhappy associations, Buffy remained on the porch.  In some strange way, it made her feel closer to Oz.  So instead of seeking solace back inside the house, she seated herself on the worn porch swing that the two of them had spent many hours relaxing on.  The intensity of the storm was increasing, the rain likely start soon, so she inclined her head and gazed up at the sky.

The sound of a car pulling up drew her attention, and when she looked out onto the street, she saw Angel’s large boat of a car stop along the sidewalk.  She groaned out loud, not only because it was Angel, but also because she really had wanted to be alone.  When she saw him get out of the car, though, and call Argyle out after him, she couldn’t help but smile.

“Argyle!” she shouted to the golden retriever.  The dog’s ears perked up and soon he was bounding up the walkway toward her.  “Hey boy!  I missed you!”

Angel followed the dog, smiling to himself, glad that he had decided to bring Argyle back tonight rather than tomorrow.  He knew how much the dog meant to Buffy, especially considering he had been Oz’s.

“He’s happy to see you,” Angel said for lack of anything better.

“Thanks for bringing him back.”  She bent down and scratched behind the dog’s ears, grinning as he jumped up on the swing beside her.  “Please tell Giles and Jenny that I appreciate them taking care of him.”

“They were glad to do it,” he answered, stepping up on to the porch.  

His hands twisted nervously in his pockets as he tried to think of something to say.  Since they’d talked in her hospital room several days earlier, when Lorne had interrupted them, they hadn’t had a chance to talk again.  Every time he’d been at the hospital, Lorne had been there, or Giles, or Xander, or Jenny.  Though he wasn’t quite sure that was bad.  He knew they needed to discuss their problems, and their past, but he just didn’t know how to go about it.  He also knew that if they were ever going to move forward, they, or more precisely he, had to get everything out in the open.  She deserved to know why he’d acted the way he had three years earlier.

“I’m going to miss this,” Buffy voiced when the silence became too much to bear.

“Miss what?” he asked, more than a little confused by the random announcement.

“The house, the porch, everything,” she explained, still not making sense.

“The house?  Why would you miss it?”  Leaning against the railing, he stared at her expectantly.

“There’s no way I can keep this house, Angel.  Oz and I were barely able to pay the bills together.  My job won’t cover them on its own.  I don’t even know if I have a job anymore.”  She frowned, suddenly realizing she’d missed work for a week and hadn’t even talked to her boss.  Even though her boss liked her, that wasn’t a good way to keep her job.

“Don’t worry; I talked to Mrs. Cassell at the gallery.  She said to take as much time as you need and your job will still be there,” he told her, but then went back to her original statement.  “You’re going to sell the house?”

“I don’t have much of a choice.”  Selling the house was the last thing she wanted to do.  It was her home, the one she’d lived in with her mom and Oz.  Leaving would be hard, but there just wasn’t anything she could do about it.

Angel nodded solemnly in understanding.  He knew how hard it had been for Buffy and Oz to keep the house after Joyce died.  Oz had quit college and gotten a job, and Buffy had gotten a part time job.  Then when she graduated from high school, she’d gone to work full time at the art gallery her mother used to own instead of going to college.  The money they’d made had just barely allowed them to keep the house.  Now, with it just being her, he could understand why she would have to sell.  And he hated it.  But there really wasn’t anything he could do to help.

Again, silence took over, the only noises coming from the brewing storm.  Buffy didn’t want to talk about the house, or her decision.  There really wasn’t anything to debate.  She had only one choice, and she’d been thinking about it since even before she went into the hospital.  It was a dead issue, no matter how much it hurt.  With nothing else to think about, her mind focused on the fact that Angel was standing only a few feet away, shifting uncomfortably on his feet.  Like Angel, she, too, hadn’t forgotten their never-finished hospital room conversation.  There were still answers she wanted, needed, and now was as good a time as any to get them.

So without beating around the bush, she looked over to him, head raised and chin firm, and asked, “Why’d you do it, Angel?”

The question was vague, but he knew what she wanted to know.  What he had to figure out was how to explain.  There was no excuse for his actions.  Well, there was an excuse, but he didn’t think she’d be accepting of it.  Nothing would make how he treated her right.  But he would tell her; he would try to explain why they’d gone from perfectly happy to not even speaking in the blink of an eye.  As he tried to form the words, he thought back to three years earlier when he’d been responsible for breaking the heart of the girl he loved.  He was unaware that Buffy was thinking of the exact same thing.

***

“Are you sure I look okay?” Buffy asked Willow as she stood in front of her mirror studying the emerald green dress she was wearing.

“You look perfect,” Willow assured her.  “Are you sure it’s not too fancy though?”

Buffy shrugged, again studying her appearance.  “Angel said to dress up.”

“Okay.  Well, I better go.  Angel should be here soon.”  Willow climbed off the bed and gathered her coat and backpack.  “Call me when you get home!  I want all the details!” she ordered as she shuffled out of the room, a smile playing on her face.

Buffy laughed and said goodbye, but her mind was elsewhere.  She was nervous and excited at the same time.  It was insane, really.  They’d been dating for almost six months, and had been on dates before.  But today was her birthday, and Angel was taking her somewhere special.  It made everything seem all the more real.  And it made her happy.  After her mother had died, she’d wondered if she’d ever smile again.  Now, two and a half years later, she’d found happiness, and she’d found Angel.  The loss of her mother still hurt, but it wasn’t as unbearable as she’d worried it always would be.

Angel.  Her feelings for him had come so unexpectedly.  One day he was Angel, her brother’s best friend, and the next, he was Angel, funny, nice, and incredibly hot guy who was over at her house a lot.  The even bigger surprise was that he’d felt the same way.  She’d never thought it possible.  He was three and a half years older than her, and her brother’s friend.  In the beginning, she’d told herself a million times that Angel would never look at her as she looked at him.  But that had all changed the day of Oz’s birthday party when they’d shared the most amazing kiss.  Now, everything was perfect.

***

Outside the front door, Angel paused, his feelings a twisted mass of contradiction.  Throughout the day, he’d been nervous and excited about his date with Buffy.  He worried that she wouldn’t like the restaurant he had made reservations at, or that she would hate the present he’d gotten her.  He worried about everything.  But now, he had a different set of worries, ones that changed everything.  And all because of a simple conversation with Wesley, a conversation that included unsolicited words of wisdom from a man who was not only his boss, but also a family friend.  Angel had initially blown off the warnings, but now they were resonating loudly in his head.  Was Wes right?  And what about what Oz, and also Xander, had said to him.  Were they all right?

Before he could contemplate it any longer, the front door was opening, and there was Buffy.  She looked absolutely incredible, stunning him speechless.

“Hey,” she greeted, smiling widely as she reached up on her tip-toes to place a light kiss on his lips.  When he barely reacted to the kiss, she pulled back, concerned.  “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he mumbled with a shake of his head.  This was not the time for maudlin thoughts.  They had an evening out planned, and Buffy looked amazing.  Now was not the time.  But that didn’t stop the thoughts.

“No, you have something face,” she disagreed, taking his hand and pulling him into the house.

“It’s nothing.  Don’t worry about it,” he snapped harsher than he meant to, yanking his hand away.

Buffy stared down at her hand, the one that had previously been holding his, hurt and shocked over his behavior.  She took a step back, crossing her arms over her chest.  “Tell me what’s wrong.”

The words flew out of his mouth before he could even consider them.  He hadn’t meant to say it, at least not then, but his feelings were so jumbled, his mind so cluttered, that they just slipped out.

“I think we should stop seeing each other.”

***

The crushed, horrified, betrayed look on her face the moment he’d said those words to her still held strong in Angel’s mind.  He’d never forget the tears that had instantly welled in her eyes, or the angry pleadings that had followed.  He’d never forget that night, and he’d never stopped wondering if it had been the right thing to do.

~`~`~ Part 9 ~`~`~

“Angel, please.  I need to know why you did it,” Buffy repeated when Angel had yet to answer her question as to why he’d dumped her out of the blue three years ago.

Running a tense hand through his hair, Angel sighed and sat down on one of the plastic chairs near the porch swing.  There were a number of ways he could start this conversation, but none of them seemed right.  So he decided to begin by saying something he’d wanted to say ever since that night when he’d broken her heart.

“I’m sorry for what I did.”  And he really was sorry.  The last thing he’d wanted to do was to hurt Buffy, but that was exactly what he had done.

“That’s good to know,” she said sarcastically.  “But it doesn’t tell me why.”

“I’m going to explain.  I promise, Buffy,” he tried to appease her, shifting in his chair to face her fully.  “Just let me get all this out.”

Buffy pursed her lips, but relented.  “Okay.”

Taking a deep breath, Angel prepared himself for the long overdue answer to Buffy’s question.  He only hoped she didn’t hate him even more afterwards.

“That night when... I didn’t intend to break up with you,” he began, trying his best to keep his eyes on hers.  “I was just so confused about everything, and the words came out.”

“That’s comforting,” Buffy mumbled, shrinking back further on the swing.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he corrected.  “I lo- cared a great deal about you.  Whether you believe that or not, it’s true.  I was never happier than when I was with you.  But it wasn’t as simple as that.”

“It should have been,” she disagreed vehemently.   “We were happy together.  That’s all that should have mattered.”

Yes, Angel supposed, that was all that should have mattered.  Unfortunately, there had been other things that had invaded his consciousness.

“Buffy,” he said, hoping that that he didn’t sound like he was mocking her.  “You were just turning seventeen.  I was twenty.  And Oz-”

He couldn’t even finish the sentence before Buffy was cutting him off.

“Oz?  What did he say to you?!” she demanded, hurt that her brother may have had something to do with her and Angel’s breakup.

“It’s not what you think,” Angel quickly amended.  “He just...a month or two before your birthday, when he realized our dating wasn’t some random thing, he just asked me to make sure I knew what I was doing.”  At her confused look, he added, “He wasn’t against us being together.  I don’t want you to be upset thinking he was.  He just wanted to make sure you didn’t get hurt.”

“Well, obviously that didn’t work,” she shot back.

The comment stung, more so because it was the truth.  He tried to push it out of his mind.  “Xander said almost the same thing to me as Oz.  They cared about you and didn’t want you to get hurt.  I understood why they were both concerned, and I had no intention of ever hurting you.  But then...”

“Then, what?”

Angel shifted in the uncomfortable chair, his hands twining in his lap.  This was the part he was dreading.  The part that no matter how he said it, it probably wouldn’t come out as he wanted.  But he needed to try.  He owed that to her.

“You remember I had started my training for joining the Sunnydale PD a few weeks before your birthday?”  Buffy nodded, so he continued.  “And you also know that Wes was friends with Giles.”  Again, she nodded.  “The day of your birthday, Wes came to see me after one of my classes.”

Twisting his hands together, Angel averted his gaze from Buffy’s narrowing eyes.  He knew she was already putting together the pieces.

“He told me that he was aware of our relationship, that others were too, and that it was reflecting badly on me because you were under eighteen.”

Indeed, the pieces were coming together for Buffy.  And she hated what they were saying.  She didn’t need him to fill in the blanks.  “You were over eighteen, training to be a cop, and dating me, who just turned seventeen,” she voiced the dots she’d connected.

“Yeah,” he confirmed.

Buffy’s shoulders drooped, her eyes dropping down to her hands.  He’d chosen his future career over her.  But if she was honest with herself, she couldn’t really blame him.  For as long as she’d known Angel, he’d wanted to be a cop.  Both his father and grandfather had been one, and he’d dreamed of continuing the legacy.  Even after his father was killed in the line of duty, it was still what he wanted to do, maybe even more so.  And because of her, he’d almost lost that chance.

“I get it,” she murmured, saddened yet understanding the position he’d been in.

A growlish groan sounded from Angel.  “No, you don’t get it.”  He stood, and paced a few steps away.  “I’m not even sure I get it.”  He strode back, sat down again.  “I was confused.  Wanting to be a cop was the only thing I’d ever known.  But then there was you.  I loved spending time with you, hearing you laugh, seeing you smile.  I didn’t want to lose that either.  But there didn’t seem to be a way to have both.”

“So you made a choice,” Buffy concluded.

“I didn’t intend to make it that night.”  Angel leaned forward, resting his elbows in his knees as weariness set in.  “But when I saw you, and you started asking what was wrong, all I could hear in my head was Wes’ words, about my job, and the other things.”

“What other things?”

“He just...he said some other stuff too,” he vaguely answered.  The glare she sent his way had him withering, then surrendering to her silent demand for further explanation.  “He pointed out that you were barely seventeen, still learning about life, about who you were, what you wanted, and about love.  And he also said that in less than a year you’d be applying to colleges and did I want to hold you back from leaving town and going to a good school.  He just brought up all the things I hadn’t thought about.”

“So you broke up with me,” she again concluded.

This time it was Buffy who stood up and paced away.  But instead of her actions being driven by a need to think, they were driven by the need for space.  All these years, she’d painted Angel as a creep in her mind, a guy who had just used her for a while, and then tossed her away.  It hadn’t really ever occurred to her that there were real reasons behind him breaking up with her.  Whether the reasons were valid or not was debatable.  Either way, they existed nonetheless, and it made the anger and hate shrink considerably, though not completely.

Angel watched her walk away from him, the crack in his heart widening.  He took her avoidance to mean rejection, of himself and his reasoning.

“Why didn’t you tell me any of this?” she finally asked.  And the more she thought about that, the more it bothered her.  Why hadn’t he talked to her about his feelings, his concerns?  Did she matter that little to him that he could ignore anything she might have felt or said?  A blaze of anger spiked in her eyes at that thought.  “What?  Did you think I was just some silly schoolgirl who was too immature to handle the pitfalls of a relationship?  I know I was young, but I wasn’t stupid!”

“I never thought you were,” Angel refuted as calmly as possible.

“Then why didn’t you tell me any of this?!” she said through gritted teeth.  Arms crossed, she eyed him sternly.

“I don’t know why!”  It came out as a shout, an exasperated shout.  But it was the truth.  He didn’t know why any of it happened.  Yes, that was unacceptable, but it was the truth.

Buffy groaned at the circles they seemed to be talking in.  She rubbed at her temples, willing away the headache that was forming.  She didn’t know what else to say to him about the situation.

“I don’t know why,” he repeated.  “I went to your house that night to take you out to dinner and to celebrate your birthday.  The things Wes said were on my mind, but I wasn’t going to do anything that night... but then... then the words were out of my mouth before I realized what I was doing.  When I finally did think about all of it, think about what I should have done, it was too late.  You already hated me.”

“I didn’t...”  She wanted to deny that she’d hated him, but she wasn’t sure if that was true.  For days, weeks, months after the night of her seventeenth birthday, her thoughts on Angel had been anything but fluffy.  But had she really hated him?  She’d been hurt, yes, but hate?  It was hard to say.  “What about later?  Why didn’t you ever tell me any of this?”

“I should have,” he said by way of apology.

“You damn well should have!”  Needing to be doing something, she more or less stomped back over to the swing and sat down, making sure to keep herself as far away from Angel as possible.  “Do you know how much it hurt?  The way you acted, I thought you just didn’t care anymore, that I was just some random girlfriend who you could throw away without a second thought!”

“You were never just a random girlfriend,” Angel denied.

“You made me feel like one.”  Buffy shifted slightly when Argyle, disrupted by the less than quiet discussion going on around him, moved to lay his head in her lap.  She absently stroked his fur, taking comfort in the mundane task.  But she quickly refocused her attention back to the current topic.  “I don’t know if I would have understood what was going on with you, Angel, or if I’d have agreed or disagreed with what Wes said.  But the point is you didn’t give me that chance.”

“I know,” he conceded, the dejection clear in his voice.  “And I know you probably won’t believe me, but it was never about me thinking you wouldn’t understand or were too immature.  It was about me, and trying to figure out what I wanted, what was right, and what I should do.  But all I managed to do was screw everything up.  And then I began to think that maybe it was better if you hated me.  When it all sank in, when I’d realized I couldn’t change what I did, I thought that it would be better if you hated me.”

Under his breath, he mumbled, “Managed to do that.”

“Why in the world would you think that?” she gasped, staring at him like he was a lunatic.

“If you hated me, it would be easier to move on, to forget.”  Though it hurt to believe she could ever forget about it their relationship, he’d logically tried to tell himself it was for the best.

Buffy gaped at him.  How could he think she could ever forget him, what they had?  It was impossible.  She knew that for a fact.  She’d tried to.  But everything always came back to Angel.  He was in her blood, under her skin, and everywhere in between.  Something like that you couldn’t just forget.

“I could never just forget you, Angel.”

“But you hated me,” he added, believing it to be the truth.

“I didn’t-” she started to say, but stopped herself.  “You hurt me.  More than I ever thought possible.  I didn’t understand why something so perfect had suddenly turned into a nightmare.  And then I saw you, a few days later, with that blonde hooker-wannabe, and the hurt I thought couldn’t get any worse became unbearable.”

She stopped her train of thought, and focused on another detail.  “How could you go out with someone else so soon, knowing I would see you there?”

If he hadn’t known what guilt felt like, he certainly did at that moment.  He’d done a lot of stupid things in his life, breaking up with Buffy being one of them, but that night at the Bronze was likely classified as his most heinous crime.

“I wasn’t really with her,” he answered slowly.  “I was there to see Oz’s band.  She started talking to me.  I couldn’t have cared less about her, but then I saw you sitting with Xander and Willow, and I knew you’d seen me.  By then I’d convinced myself you were better off hating me.  So I made it all the more easier.”

“Good plan,” she mumbled, a half-hearted attempt at a joke that fell flat.

“I tried to hate you,” she whispered, forcing the words out.  “I wanted to hate you, but I couldn’t.  You were in here.”  A hand fluttered over her heart.  “But I couldn’t have you either, so I just pretended you didn’t exist.  It was easier that way.”

“You had every right to hate me.  Oz should have too.  I never understood why he didn’t.”  For a long time, Angel had wondered how he had remained friends with Oz despite his breakup with Buffy.  After what he’d done, Oz should have hated him, even tried to beat him up, but it hadn’t come between them.

“I never told him,” Buffy said quietly.  “It was the one thing I’d never told him.  He asked what happened and I just told him we broke up.  I don’t know why I didn’t tell him.  I guess I didn’t want what happened between us to ruin your friendship.  I knew how much of a brother you were to him.  I didn’t want to be the one to ruin that.”

His heart grieved at that.  Even at a time when she was hurting, she thought of others first.  Any normal person would have turned her friends and family against him, but she’d been unselfish.  It was one of the reasons he’d fallen for her.

“I’m sorry.”  It seemed necessary to say it again, even though he’d already apologized.  Truth was, no matter how many times he said it, it would never take back what he did.  “I never wanted to hurt you.  I-I loved you.”

He winced when he said the three little words that had never been spoken between them.  They’d slipped out, a product of his raging emotions.  How she’d react, he had no idea.

Buffy’s eyes widened.  He loved her?  It was an almost baffling concept.  All these years, she’d been sure he didn’t care an ounce about her.  And all that time he’d loved her.

“You loved me?”

“Yes.”  Honest.  That was the way to go.  That was the only way to try to make things right again.  “I loved you.  And I knew it was insane.  You were just seventeen.   I was twenty.  But I loved you.”

He paused.

“I still love you.”

She flinched at the present-tense correction.  Not only had he loved her, he still loved her.  It made her mind whirl, and her heart thud wildly in her chest.  She wanted to cry, wanted to scream, shout, throw herself into his arms, but instead she did nothing.  How much had she longed to hear those words three years ago?  How much had she wanted to tell him she loved him?  She’d known three and a half years ago, when he’d gently kissed her goodnight after their first official date, that she was hopelessly in love with him.  It had been a hazy dream to have him feel the same way.  And now, here he was, three heartbreaking and tense years later, telling her that he felt – feels – the same way.  It was mind-boggling.

“I-I...” she stuttered, unable to say anything else.

“Shh.”  He took a risk, raising a solitary finger to place it over her lips.  She didn’t shy away from the touch, for which he was thankful.  “I know it’s a lot to take in.”

“Yeah,” she agreed in a breathless murmur.

“I want to make it up to you.  I want another chance.”  There.  He’d said it, said what he wanted most of all.  The shock of his request showed clearly in her wide eyes.  “You don’t have to say anything.  And I know I have no right to expect you to forgive me, but I want to be with you, Buffy.  I love you.”

“I love you, too.”  It came out in a rush, and she snapped her mouth shut after speaking.  But the teary look in his eyes warmed her heart, made her want to reach out and caress his cheek.  She didn’t though.  It wasn’t that easy.  “I love you,” she repeated, stronger this time.  “I don’t know if I can trust you.”

The gleam left his eyes in a blink, his shoulders slumped.  “Please,” he begged.  “I know I’ve not given you a reason to trust me, but I’ll do anything to prove you can.  I’ll do anything to make it up to you.”

“You can’t just say some pretty words and spout promises to make it all go away,” she told him, her voice growing tired, worn from the emotionally draining conversation.

“I know they can’t.”  He’d laid all his cards on the table.  There wasn’t much else he could do.  “I just want a chance.”

Buffy was silent.  Her heart begged her to give him that chance, to reach out and wrap her arms around him, and feel the comfort of his strong embrace.  But it was too soon.  She was too raw.  And the trust was too thin.

Her eyes blinked closed, opening again slowly.  “I can’t give you an answer right now.”

“I understand,” Angel choked out, reeling from the round-about rejection.

“Just... I need some time.”  The last word was clipped, so she repeated it.  “I just need some time.”

Silently, she stood and hurried to the door, seeking the empty solace on the other side.  Stopping under the arch, she clapped a hand against her thigh, signaling Argyle to follow.  The dog jumped off the bench and pranced through the door, Buffy following behind.  Angel could only watch as the heavy wood barrier swung closed, leaving him sitting there wondering if his hopes were futile.

~`~`~ Part 10 ~`~`~

The house was sparkling, a product of a week-long cleaning marathon.  It was strange.  She hated cleaning, all the scrubbing, washing, dust, and dirt.  But there seemed to be little else to do, and it kept her mind busy.  Which was extremely necessary.  Lorne told her it was an escape mechanism, merely a method to avoid facing reality.  He was right, of course.  Just because she knew that, though, didn’t mean she could stop doing it.  The truth was that she just wasn’t ready to face reality yet.  Who would be in her situation?  Recently dead brother.  Best friend turning against her.  Mental breakdown.  A house she couldn’t keep.  And an ex-boyfriend wanting another chance.  Yes, avoidance was definitely the term of the moment, or rather the week.

One week had passed since the night on her porch spent talking to Angel.  She hadn’t seen him since then, but he called once a day to make sure everything was okay and to see if she needed anything.  Nothing else came up in the short, yet friendly, conversations.  And for that she was glad.  There was just too much going on, too many changes, problems, and worries for her to be thinking about Angel.

Unfortunately, her brain couldn’t seem to obey that order.  When she wasn’t having one of her sporadic crying fits – which Lorne assured her were perfectly healthy - or scrubbing the bathroom tiles, or scolding Argyle for rolling on the living room carpet that she’d just vacuumed, she was thinking of Angel.  She’d had a week to ponder all that he’d told her.  Despite the time she’d spent on the subject, Buffy was no closer to knowing what to do about it.

With a cross between a growl and a sigh, Buffy flopped back against one of the floor cabinets in the kitchen.  The knob on the cabinet door she was trying to fix just wasn’t cooperating.  She winced when her head hit the hard wood and her eyes closed as she released a deep, frustrated breath.  She didn’t know what to do about anything.  For the first time in forever, she was alone and solely responsible for everything.  It petrified her beyond words.  There were so many things she needed to figure out and she didn’t know what to do about any of them; the house, the bills, her future, Angel.

Angel.

And here she was back to him again.  If there was one thing Buffy was glad for, it was that he was doing as she’d requested:  giving her time and space.  The downside was that during that time she’d yet to come to a solution.  The only thing she did know was that she understood now what had happened three years earlier.  Finally, it all made sense.  For so long it had been a mystery to her, but now she knew.  All the pieces had been filled in, and the puzzled completed, but the complication remained.  What did she want to do?  What did knowing mean?  Where were they to go from here?  She didn’t know.

All she knew was the ‘why’; why he’d dumped her, why their relationship had vanished in the blink of an eye.  She understood why it had happened.  She could almost accept it.  His dream job had been threatened, and doubts had been placed in his head by others.  She could comprehend the confusion, the swirling indecision, the feeling of being out of control.  Yes, she could grasp that concept.  But that didn’t mean she condoned his actions.  It just meant she understood them.

“Ugh,” she groaned, banging her head several times against the wooden cabinet door.

It felt like her brain was overloading.  There was just too much going on inside her head.  At that moment, something Lorne had said in their last session echoed in her mind.

“You have to take care of yourself first, Sunshine.  You have to let your heart heal, and deal with what’s important.  Whatever’s left, it can wait.”

The fact of the matter was that she wasn’t ready to deal with Angel yet, not when there were so many other things to deal with, and her heart still ached every second of the day over Oz’s death.  Lorne was right; she needed time to let her heart heal, and to take care of more important issues like getting back to work and contacting a real estate agent about selling the house.  And then, once she did that, there would be finding an apartment and moving and whatever else came up.  There just wasn’t time, or the capacity, to deal with Angel yet.  Still, despite realizing this, Buffy knew she had to at least do something about him on a smaller level.

~`~`~

Angel’s apartment, unlike Buffy’s house, was in a state of disarray which, when you considered he had a month off from work, was rather despicable.  He wasn’t a messy person by nature; he just had other things on his mind.  So there were dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, a pile of laundry on his bedroom floor, and several pizza boxes and quite a few beers cans on his coffee table.  He tried not to think about the disorder too much - which wasn’t hard.  His mind was constantly on Buffy.  She needed time.  He could give her that.  But, damn, the wait was killing him. 

Pushing Buffy was the last thing he wanted to do.  And when he thought back on it, laying it all on the line for her like he had done had probably been the wrong thing to do, at least at that moment.  He should have waited, but she’d asked so he’d answered.  There wasn’t anything he could do about it now. 

A knock sounding on his door drew Angel out of his brooding.  He contemplated not answering.  It was probably just Xander with another pizza box to add to his growing collection.  Angel got up anyway.  If he didn’t answer, Xander would just keep knocking.

Swinging open the door, surprise lit Angel’s eyes.

“Buffy,” he said in what sounded like a squeak.

“Hey,” she greeted, nervously twining her fingers together.  “Mind if I come in?”

“Oh.”  He looked back at his messy apartment.  Nothing he could do about that now.  “Yeah, sure.”

“Thanks.”  Buffy walked into the room, curiously studying her surroundings.  She’d never been inside it before.  Her eyes landed on the coffee table.  Yup, definitely a guy’s apartment.  “Pizza and beer?”

Angel shrugged sheepishly and quickly gathered up the cans.  After dumping them in the kitchen, he returned to the living room where Buffy was checking out his entertainment center.  “Xander came over the other night,” he explained the mess.

Buffy laughed, shaking her head, knowing all too well her friend’s habits.  “You’ve got a nice place.”

“Thanks.”  Leaning against the wall, Angel studied Buffy.  She looked much better than she had two weeks before.  Her coloring was better, and she’d put some weight back on.  He was happy to see that she was getting back on her feet.  “You look good.”

“I’m trying.”  And she was.  Per Lorne’s orders, she was eating more and trying to sleep.  It didn’t always work, but she was trying.  And it was getting less hard.  Each day seemed to be a little easier to face.

“If you ever need anything, all you have to do is ask.”  He’d already offered plenty of times, but once more couldn’t hurt.

“Thanks, I will,” she accepted.  Wandering around the room a bit more, Buffy attempted to think of what to say to him, but nothing came to mind.  Finally, she just decided to say what she’d come to say.  “About what you asked me...I just can’t do it.”  Damn, she hadn’t meant to be that blunt.

The words struck like a five hundred pound drum landing on Angel’s heart.  She couldn’t forgive him, couldn’t give him another chance.  Any hope he had shattered into tiny little razor sharp shards that slashed at his very core.

“Okay,” he mumbled, trying to find the easiest way to slink out of the room and away from her.  He just couldn’t look at her and not hurt.

“Wait, Angel.”  Buffy rushed after him and grabbed his arm.  “Let me explain.”

“No, that’s okay.”  He tried to pull away from her, but she held strong.

“Damnit, Angel!” she yelled, pushing her body between him and the doorway to the kitchen.  “Listen to me.”  Giving up at getting away, Angel remained still, but kept his eyes focused on the wall behind her.  “I said I can’t do it,” she began.  “What I meant is I can’t do it *now*.”

Seeing that Angel was indeed listening to her, Buffy walked away a few steps and leaned a hip on the edge of the couch.  This would have been much easier if she’d just written a letter or used the phone.  “I know that’s not what you wanted to hear,” she went on.  “But it’s the only answer I can give you.”

“I understand,” he nodded solemnly, willing himself to remain calm.

“I’m not saying I won’t ever be able to...to...to try again, but right now, there are too many other things I need to focus on.  I need to get my life in order before I can consider anything else.”  And that was the It of it, she thought to herself.  Now it was just up to Angel to understand.

A little spark of hope renewed in Angel.  There was still a chance.  He wished it was now, but he recognized her need to put her life back together.  She’d been through so much; it made sense that relationships were the last thing on her mind.  And if she needed weeks, months, or even a year to settle in, then he would give it to her.

Angel gave her a tentative smile, and took a step closer.  “Okay, I can understand that.”

Some of the tension that had been coiling in Buffy’s stomach released.  She could tell he really meant what he said.  “Thank you.”  She returned the smile.  “There is something I would like, though.”

“Anything,” he promised.

“I would like us to be friends,” she requested.  “I miss having you in my life.”

Angel didn’t hesitate in answering.  “I would really like that.”  He stepped up to Buffy, wanting to hug her, but he swiftly realized that it might not be welcome.  “Can I...?”

“Of course.”  She opened her arms and allowed him to step into them.  She couldn’t deny that it felt so right to be held by him.  And she was so relieved that he was willing to start off simple.  It took so much pressure off her.  Before she could stop them, a few tears were falling down her cheeks.  Angel simply held her, and allowed her to release some of the simmering emotions.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized, brushing away the moisture.  “I seem to cry a lot lately.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” he assured her.

“That’s what Lorne said.”  Buffy rolled her eyes, all the while hating feeling like such a girl.  “There’s just so much to try and figure out.”

“Are you still planning to sell the house?” he asked with an arm around her shoulder, leading her to the couch.

“It’s the only thing I can do.”  It still pained her to think about selling, but there really was no other choice.

The two settled into the couch, talking in a way they hadn’t been able to do in so long.  It was a comfort to them both, being able to put the past behind them finally, and to try to regain the closeness, as friends, they’d once had.

~`~`~

Buffy grumbled to herself as she flopped onto the couch next to Argyle.  The golden retriever lifted his head and eyed Buffy in annoyance for disturbing his nap.  She stared back, daring him to yap or bark.  Submitting, the dog lay his head back down, more interested in sleeping than anything else.

Meanwhile, Buffy found herself incredibly bored.  Normally, she would watch some TV, either channel surfing or watching a movie.  Unfortunately, she no longer had a TV thanks to her little meltdown over two weeks ago.  She’d broken the old one, and really didn’t have the money for a new one.  So she would just have to find something else to do.


Thankfully, Angel and Xander were on their way over.  Angel had called and said there was something he and Xander wanted to talk to her about.  He wouldn’t say what, just that they wanted to talk.  So she’d just have to wait.

Not knowing what else to do, Buffy settled for lounging on the couch, stroking Argyle’s fur.  The simple act tugged at her heart.  Argyle was Oz’s dog.  But now he was hers.  It stung in a big way.  And it was also a comfort.  She still had a little piece of her brother through his dog.

The doorbell rang, dragging Buffy from her thoughts.  She patted Argyle on the head before getting up and walking to the door.  As expected, Angel and Xander were waiting on the other side.

“Hey guys, come on in,” she greeted, gesturing for them to enter.

The two walked in and went into the living room.  Xander immediately noticed the difference between Buffy and Angel.  The tension between them was virtually gone.  They seemed much more comfortable in each other’s presence.  It was a relief to him to know that they were working toward rebuilding what had been lost.

“So...what’s up?” she asked once they were settled on the couch, Argyle between them.

Angel looked to Xander, who nodded for him to speak.  “Okay...well, Xander and I were talking, and we don’t want you to have to sell the house.”

“Angel,” Buffy sighed, sitting on the coffee table in front of them.  “We talked about this last night.  It’s what I have to do.  I can’t afford to keep it.”

“I know, but I have an idea,” Angel quickly interjected.  Before Buffy could question him, he continued.  “Xander is looking to move out of his apartment.”

“Yeah,” Xander added.  “The guy upstairs has three dogs, and two cats.  It’s a zoo with all the barking and cat stink.  I don’t think he cleans.”

“Umm, okay.  And this has to do with me how?” Buffy asked pensively.

“He could move in here and pay rent,” Angel revealed his idea.

“Move in – here.”  Her brow wrinkled, eyes staring at Angel in mild shock.

“It’s the perfect solution,” Angel reinforced.  “Xander gets to get away from the cats and dogs, and you would be able to keep house.”

“I don’t know,” Buffy said slowly.  On the whole, the idea wasn’t bad.  Xander was a good friend, and she’d have no problem living with him.  There was plenty of room for him; her mother’s room had been empty for years.  But it still didn’t solve all her problems moneywise.

“Come on, Buffy,” Xander pleaded.  “I’d be a good roommate.”

“It’s not that,” Buffy argued.  “I’d love to have you as a roommate, but even if you did move in, money would still be really tight, and I kinda was considering applying to Sunnydale University with the money I’d save getting a small apartment versus having a house and all the bills.”

“You want to go to college?” Angel asked, a little surprised.

Buffy shrugged, squirming under their attention.  “I’ve been thinking about it.  Oz always wanted me to go.”

“I think it’s a great idea,” Angel told her sincerely.  “I guess selling the house makes sense then.”

“Wait,” Xander interrupted.  “What if you got two roommates?  Angel you could-.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Angel cut in before Xander could finish his train of thought.  Move in with Buffy?  Friend Buffy?  That was a very, very bad idea.

“What?  I don’t see why that wouldn’t work,” Xander disagreed, eyeing Angel.  He didn’t understand why Angel wouldn’t want to move in with Buffy.

“Xander,” Angel ground out in a hushed whisper.

“Umm, hi.  Remember me?” Buffy interrupted their bickering.

“Sorry,” both apologized.

“Look,” Xander stated.  “All I’m saying is that you want to keep the house AND go to college.  If both Angel and I move in here, we should be able to work it.”

Buffy opened her mouth to say ‘hell, no’, but quickly closed it.  Xander had a point.  It seemed like it would work.  But live with Angel?  Xander was one thing.  She could handle Xander perfectly fine.  And it would be nice not to live alone in the house.  But Angel?  It seemed to be asking for trouble if she did that.  There was still so much unresolved between them.  If she wanted to keep the house, though, and go to college, it was the only way to do it, at least that she knew of because she really didn’t have all that many friends, and living with a complete stranger was out of the question.

The doorbell rang, preventing her from thinking further about the issue.  “I’ll get it.”  Standing, she turned first to look at her two friends.  “We’re not done with this.”

Answering the door, Buffy found herself surprised.  “Mr. McDonald,” she greeted.

“Buffy, you know I hate being called that,” the man chastised.  “It makes me sound like a stuffy lawyer.”

“Sorry, Lindsey.”  She chuckled, remembering how he always had to tell her to call him Lindsey.  “But you are a stuffy lawyer, ya know.”

“Yeah, yeah.  Can I come in?” he asked.

“Sure.”  Buffy stepped back and allowed the man who had been her mother’s attorney to enter the house. 

“Thanks.”  Lindsey entered and paused in the foyer.  “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“Not really.  Angel, Xander, and I were just debating something,” she answered, waving an arm toward the living room where her friends were still sitting.

“Ah.”  Remembering why he was there, Lindsey fidgeted.  He sighed and looked up at Buffy.  “I’m sorry about Oz,” he began.  “I was out of town dealing with some family stuff, and I heard when I got back yesterday.”

Buffy’s lower lip quivered, her eyes tearing.  “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.  Listen, I, uh...”  She looked so vulnerable; he couldn’t help but think he was doing this at the wrong time.  He’d known Buffy for years, meeting her after her family had moved to Sunnydale and Joyce had become his client.  He’d been there through her mother’s death, helping to ensure Oz got custody of Buffy, and now she had lost her brother.  No one should have to go through that.  “There’s some legal stuff we have to go over sometime.  I don’t know if you know, but Oz had a will.  He had it made up after your mom died.”

“Yeah,” she nodded sadly.  “He told me about doing that.”

“Okay.  It’s pretty standard...the house going to you and such.  You can come by my office sometime in the next few days to go over it,” he explained, then paused.  “There is something I’m not sure if you are aware of.”

“What?” she questioned, wondering what else there could be, and hoping it wasn’t bad.

“Oz had a life insurance policy,” he told her, hearing her gasp in response.  “I didn’t think he told you.  He got it after he officially became your guardian several years ago.”

By this time, having heard the conversation, Angel and Xander had joined the two in the foyer, but remained silent.

“H-he did?” she stuttered, shocked at the revelation.

“Yeah.  He wanted to make sure you would be taken care of in case something happened,” Lindsey continued.

Buffy’s knees weakened, sadness over the loss of her brother, and gratitude over what he’d done for her becoming overwhelming.  Seeing her falter, Angel stepped behind her, and put an arm around her waist.  She accepted the support gratefully, leaning against him.

“I’m sorry for putting you through this now,” Lindsey apologized, having seen the color drain from her face.  “I thought it should be dealt with and that you should know.  I contacted the agency this morning and as soon as I send them the information they need, they will be sending you a check.”

“A c-check?” she mumbled, feeling a bit dizzy.

“Yes.  The policy was for $100,000.  You’ll receive the full amount.”

“Oh my God.”  The words were barely out her mouth before her eyes rolled back in her head and she fainted, thankfully landing in Angel’s waiting arms.

 ~`~`~

The early evening air was chillier than normal, but Buffy hardly felt it.  Her body was tense, her mind distracted as she weaved her way between the headstones that dotted the ground.  The imagined stench of death made her shudder.  She didn’t like cemeteries.  They suffocated her despite the wide open space.  She’d spent too much time in cemeteries.  But she needed to do this.  She hadn’t been back since the funeral.

Glancing behind her, she saw Angel and Xander waiting by the car.  They’d offered to come with her, but she needed to do this by herself.  She needed to face the reality, to accept what she couldn’t change.  Her brother was gone.  It was time to say goodbye, to thank him for all he’d done for her, to tell him she loved him one more time.

The headstone was dark gray speckled granite, standing tall and unweathered.  She knew what the engraving said; she’d picked it out herself.

Daniel ‘Oz’ Osbourne

1977 – 2000

Beloved brother and son

She fell to her knees on the packed dirt in front of the grave.  Her fingers reached out to trace the lettering, lovingly caressing the indentations.

“Hey Oz,” she whispered though no one was close enough to hear her.

“I miss you.”  Sitting back on her heels, she wrapped her arms around herself.  “I wish I knew what to say.”

“Thank you seems so wrong.  But I am thankful that you were a part of my life.  I don’t know what I would have done without you.  You were always there when I needed you.  And you-you’re...”  A sob echoed from her throat.  She tried to hold it back, but it was of little use as tears began flowing down her cheeks.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.  And Argyle misses you.  He’s always sitting in your chair.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about the insurance policy?  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  You were always taking care of me.  But I’d give the money back in a second if I could have you back.”

She shivered, the cold finally seeping into her body.  “I love you, Oz.  You were the best brother I could have ever asked for.  I’ll never forget you.”

Standing up while it was still emotionally and physically possible, Buffy backed away from the grave.  She stared at the headstone for a moment.  Oz would always be her brother.  She would always love him.  But it was time to pull her life together, time to accept the loss of her brother and to move on.  It pained her to think that, but it was true.  Oz would want her to go on and to be happy.  So with a last, silent, goodbye, she turned and walked away.

~`~`~ Part 11 ~`~`~

~four years later~

Buffy surveyed the mess in the living room with her hands on her hips.  Xander and Angel had had a ‘guys night’ - which essentially meant they’d watched action films, ate pizza, and drank beer.  Proof of the beer and pizza part existed on the coffee table, and both end tables.  They could have at least cleaned up before going to bed, she thought to herself.  So she had two choices:  clean it up herself, or leave it until they finally roused themselves out of bed.

With a shake of her head, she left the living room and climbed the stairs leading to the second level.  At the doorway to her room, she paused and lasciviously stared at her bed.  Angel lay sprawled across the mattress, shirtless, with his head tucked safely under the pillow to ward off the irritating rays of sunlight.  She was tempted to go and pull the pillow away and allow the sun to wake him up.  But instead, she simply stared and basked in the fact that he was in her bed.

Just as she’d wanted, they had started off rebuilding their friendship first.  Despite the fact that she’d gotten money from Oz’s life insurance policy, Xander still moved into the house.  The idea had originally been a solution to wanting to keep her home, but the insurance money negated that issue.  She’d asked Xander to move in anyway, not wanting to live in the house by herself.  He agreed happily and took over what had once been her mother’s room.  Angel visited almost every day, and the three of them often hung out watching movies, or simply having meals together.  To Buffy, it was the most comfortable way to bring Angel back into her life.

The friendship thing worked for a while, but ever so slowly and without either of them really noticing it, they passed the friendship stage.  It started out simple:  a trip to the movies without Xander, walks in the park, holding hands.  The chemistry that had overwhelmed them years earlier returned full force.  Then, almost a year after Oz’s death, the emotions boiled over, leading to a memorable night for both.

“Angel!” Buffy whined, her hand reaching out to try and grab the remote control from Angel.  “We are sooo not going to watch football!”

“What’s wrong with football?” he wanted to know, keeping the remote out of her reach.

“If you have to ask that, then you really are a total guy,” she huffed.  “Come on, can I please have the remote?”

“Nope.”

Buffy dove for the craved object, but Angel stuck his hand up in the air, taking it out of her reach.  He laughed at the innocent pout that formed on her face.  She was trying, but he wasn’t giving in.

Climbing up on her knees, and leaning a hand on his shoulder, Buffy again tried to take the remote from him, but Angel quickly pulled it away.  Her hand slipped off his shoulder and she crashed down onto his lap.  The fall put the remote right in front of her face and she took the opportunity to yank it out of his hands.  Laughing, she scurried across the couch.

Angel hurried after her, pouncing on top of Buffy.  She wriggled to get away, but his weight was too much to get out from under.  Giving one last effort, she twisted her body so that she was on her back instead of her stomach.  When she looked up, she found herself face to face with Angel, his dark, intense eyes staring down at her.

The remote control was soon forgotten as their eyes met and held.  Angel’s head eased down until his lips were just above hers.  He hesitated a moment, wary of her readiness.  But his concern was soon forgotten as her hand latched onto his neck and pulled him the rest of the way.  Their lips met in a searing kiss, not the first since their reconciliation, but containing much more heat than their earlier forays. 

Passions soared as their hands roamed, the remote falling carelessly out of Buffy’s left hand to the ground.  Angel allowed Buffy to set the pace, not wanting to rush her.  It was soon apparent to him that his hesitancy was not warranted as her hands drifted under his shirt, slowly pulling the irritating boundary over his head.  He released a loud moan when her nails raked down his bare back.  His hands followed her lead, snaking underneath the blue tank top she was wearing.  When his fingers came into contact with her skin, the reality of what they were doing intruded.

Panting slightly as he broke the kiss, he gazed down into her lust-ridden eyes.  “Buffy, maybe we should-.”

“Don’t,” she hushed him.  “I’ve been waiting for this since I was seventeen.”

She aided him in removing her top, and together, they lost themselves in each other.

That night had certainly been one Buffy would never forget.  Afterwards, Angel had apologized profusely, saying their first time, Buffy’s first time, shouldn’t have been on a couch, but rather in a bed.  The location hadn’t bothered her.  It would have been perfect even if it had happened on a bed of nails.  Nothing could ever tarnish the experience in her mind.

Two weeks after that night, Angel moved in, sharing her bed and her room.  Their love blossomed, and they had now been married for two and a half years.  It was all a dream to Buffy, an amazing, fantastical dream.  After her seventeenth birthday, she’d thought her future with Angel was over.  But in the blink of an eye, everything had changed. 

Just over four years earlier, tragedy had forever changed her life.  Oz, her brother, her best friend, had lost his life in a car accident.  One moment he’d been there, teasing her as he loved to do, and the next, his van was wrapped around a telephone pole.  The ache for the loss still existed in her heart.  It probably always would.  Nothing could ever bring her brother back, and only time could lessen the pain.

One good thing came out of Oz’s death; Angel had once again become a part of her life.  It was a contradictory feeling for Buffy, losing her brother, but gaining Angel.  Equating the two was hard, but the fact of the matter was that her brother had died.  Nothing could change that; nothing could make it any different.  She could only take a small amount of comfort from the fact that out of one of the most painful times in her life, she and Angel had reconciled their differences and found peace and love with each other.

Buffy saw Angel shift on the bed, signaling he was beginning to wake up.  She smiled and eased into the room and onto the bed.  There was one sure way to help him rise from sleep.  And she intended to do just that.

~`~`~

“Ugh,” Xander groaned as he stumbled into the kitchen, his hair rumpled from sleep.  His head was pounding from the late night he’d had.  He took one look at Buffy and Angel, who were locked in a loving embrace against the counter, and groaned again.  “You have a bed for that kind of stuff, ya know,” he told them.  “Sheesh, married over two years and still acting like newlyweds.”

Buffy and Angel broke apart, unrepentant grins on their faces.  “Someone’s grumpy this morning,” Buffy whispered to Angel, holding back a laugh at the scowl Xander sent their way.

Yanking open the refrigerator, Xander pulled out the container of orange juice and poured himself a glass.  He gulped down two aspirin before plopping down at the kitchen table.  “I’m getting too old for these beer and pizza nights.”

“Xander, you’re only twenty-seven,” Angel pointed out, gaping at his friend.

“Must we point out that I’m getting close to thirty?” Xander grumbled indignantly.

“Speaking of pizza and beer,” Buffy interrupted.  “I believe the two of you have a living room to clean up.”

The two in question had the courtesy to look sheepish at the reminder.  They’d been too tired the night before to clean up before going to sleep.  “We will,” Angel promised.

“I almost forgot,” Xander chirped suddenly.  “Willow called yesterday.”

“Oh?  How is she?” Buffy asked, her voice friendly but lacking the warmth it had once had for her long-time friend.  She and Willow had talked a few months after Oz’s death.  Willow had apologized for her venomous words, laying blame on her grief and anger.  The request for forgiveness had been sincere, and Buffy took it at face value.  However, the damage to their friendship had already been done.  Trust had been lost, and so far, had not been completely regained.  They still talked, and visited whenever Willow returned home, but the ease and comfort with each other just wasn’t there.

“She’s good,” Xander answered, grabbing a bagel out of the bag on the table.  “She said she might be coming down in two weeks.”

“Cool,” Buffy said a bit unenthusiastically.

Angel placed a supporting hand on her back.  He knew Buffy still had trouble facing Willow.  The memory of her friend’s accusatory words was still there.  She was trying, he knew she was, but some things were just hard to completely put behind you.

Deciding to change the subject, Angel faced Xander.  “Come on, we better go clean up the living room.”

~`~`~

Later that day, Buffy stood in the hallway on the second floor of the house, staring warily at the one door she rarely had the heart to open:  the door to her brother’s room.  Shortly after Oz’s death, she’d closed the door, and opened it only a few times since.  Too many memories resided inside the room, along with all of Oz’s possessions.  It was the one thing she hadn’t been able to tackle:  packing up his room.  Something about it seemed wrong, like she would be shutting him away in cardboard boxes.  She knew that wasn’t true.  No matter whether his belongings were in boxes or still in his room, Oz would always be in her heart.  Which was why she was standing in the hallway, trying to make herself approach the door.

Taking a deep breath, she took several steps forward until she was right in front of the closed door.  Her hand trembled when she reached out to grasp the knob.  She almost yanked her hand back as she started to twist the metal.  Closing her eyes, Buffy steeled her nerve and opened the door, stepping inside before she opened them again.

Memories assaulted from every corner when she lifted her eyelids.  Argyle, Oz’s beloved golden retriever, trotted into the room after her, jumping up to sit on the bed that was still unmade, as it had usually been, with its dark blue comforter crumpled at the bottom of the mattress.  On the walls, posters of musicians and bands, Zeppelin, Clapton, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, and several others, were scattered around, images of what he’d called ‘real music’.  In one corner of the room sat a beanbag chair, a pile of guitar magazines next to it.  She remembered all the times she would come into his room and flop onto the squishy chair and listen while he practiced his guitar.  He had never minded when she did that, and even once had tried to show her how to play.

A single tear gathered in her lashes, holding for a moment before falling onto her cheek.  She brushed it away, feeling the moisture spread on her fingers.  An arm wrapped around her waist from behind.  Tilting her head, Buffy gazed up at Angel, soothed by his understanding eyes.

“We don’t have to do this,” he said softly as he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

“I know,” she replied with a heavy sigh.  “But it’s time.  It’s been four years.  And we’re going to need the extra space soon.”

Angel smiled, a sad but anticipatory expression, as his right hand snaked further around her waist, coming to rest on the small bump at her abdomen.  His fingers stroked the skin under which their unborn child rested.  Even three months after finding out they were going to have a child, he was still amazed and awed.

“Xander said he would find an apartment somewhere, then we could take his room and turn your room into a nursery,” Angel reminded her.

“I don’t want Xander to move out,” Buffy stated definitively.  She enjoyed having Xander living at the house.  He was part of her family now, along with Angel and the baby they would soon have.  “We can’t keep Oz’s room locked up forever.  And turning it into a nursery seems right.”

“Okay, if that’s what you want to do.”  He was still unsure of it.  The room was one of the last physical remnants of her brother, but he trusted Buffy’s decision.

“It is,” she reassured, her heart heavy.

Angel pulled her closer, wrapping her in the embrace of his arms.  They stood silently just inside Oz’s room, remembering a man who had been a loving brother, and a true friend.  Buffy wished he was still with them, that he would be able to meet his first niece or nephew, but she knew that he was somewhere watching over her.  Wherever he was, she hoped he was happy, and that he was proud of what she’d done with her life.  After his death, she’d been sure she would die herself.  But she’d survived; she hadn’t broken completely.  She was strong, and she wasn’t alone.  She had Angel, the perfect husband, Xander, more family than friend, and soon she would have a child.  Her life was good now, and she was happy, but Oz would always remain in her heart.

~`~`~


THE END!!

Request:
main char: Buffy, Angel
Genre: Angst but ending up happy or at least hopeful.
Human or Supernatural: Either is fine
Rating: anything but PWP or slash.
Romantic paring: B/A and maybe Dawn/Spike
restricted romantic pairing: Buffy/? or Angel/?
requests: a golden retriever, a storm (doesn't matter what kind) and a power outage
restictions: no mentions of B/S or A/C no Connor