After the funeral came the wake; she had read all about wakes and other funeral rituals in her mother's anthropology books and she could see that it was a perfectly normal reaction, that people had to reconnect to life. Perhaps if they had ignored Joyce's requests, and held a wake for her, everyone would have felt more tied together, and things would have been different.
This time, with its being so much worse, they had just decided to put on records and drink No-one could remember what Buffy had said about her own preference or perhaps they didn't want to. They gathered in the Magic Shop and they drank Giles' good brandy and they tried for a moment to erect a barrier against the darkness in their hearts.
She could see that and it made perfect sense.
It was just not what she wanted to do; it was not how she felt.
She didn't say anything or criticise; she went along for a while and watched them try to have desperate forgetful fun. She watched Spike and Wesley play darts together, and discover that they were distant cousins, and swear eternal drunken brotherhood. She watched Xander and Anya be the life and soul and only occasionally slip out of sight so that he could kiss her bruises and feed her strong painkillers. She watched Dawn and Tara sit in a corner playing checkers and talking boybands - Tara was so good at not talking down that sometimes Willow worried whether her girlfriend had ever grown up..
She watched Giles and Angel match each other drink for drink and Angel hold back in the arm-wrestling to make up for the weakness in Giles' arm that he had caused three years earlier. She watched Cordelia and Gunn dance like crazed flamingos and periodically drag other people onto the floor of the training area, where they had set up a sound system.
She didn't even have to cast a glamour to slip away.
Outside in the cold dark of a Sunnydale evening, she drifted along quiet streets with the fixed glare she had been hiding behind a smile all day. Two vampires and something with horns tried to pull her into an alley and she only had to look at them to make them run; but she teleported splinters of wood into their hearts just because it seemed like the right thing to do.
As her mood deepened and darkened, she moved faster; she was floating four foot above the ground before she even noticed she was doing it. Which probably meant that her eyes had gone dark again, because she was told that they sometimes did that, but no-one was watching, so no-one could worry about her and so she didn't have to.
When she got to the cemetery, Willow rushed towards the secluded spot where they had put the grave; she couldn't stand the idea of her being alone there on her first night or that some dark wannabe might try to score points by disturbing it. She had been looking in the books again and there were a variety of dark rituals which some fiend or other might try.
And if they did, she had ritual acts of her own which she might decide to use them in.
She had rituals of her own to perform in any case, but she was not yet clear in her mind what they were going to be. Tearing out her own hair, and brushing the clumps into a little pyre to burn like incense; that could be one. Cutting off a finger and dripping blood over the headstone; that would be an apology like Japanese gangsters do.
She was the big gun and she had not gone off in time. She had saved Tara and that was a good thing, and it weakened the Hellbitch so it was a part of the strategy, but she had let herself be too dazed too long to do all she might have done. She had cleared a path for Spike, but she had been too confident of success, too busy protecting Tara, to go up after him; the creature that had hurled him down could not have stood against her and she might have got there in time to stop his hurting Dawn.
Which would have saved Buffy from having to make the choice.
She knew what she would have to do next day and the day after that because it was a matter of pure necessity. She was going to have to pick up the dark heart of Sunnydale in her magic hands and crush it until it bled; she was going to have to replace everything that had been lost through her fault. Slay what needed slaying; save what needed saving; lead what needed leading. And if that meant going a little further into darkness every day, that too was a task she had inherited.
There was the guilt of not having climbed those stairs, and the other guilt that she could only half bring herself to think about.
She knew that she had loved her friend, and she had never had that serious talk that they had needed to have for at least two years.
The talk she had not dared have, the talk she had been too much of a coward to have, the talk in which she would have been politely and kindly turned down and what little she had as best friend would have been lost to her. After all, even that dark-haired bitch had not stood a chance, even hyped on dance and slayage, so what chance for the reliable ditz in the silly purple hat?
Any chance would have been better than the no chance of waiting for the right moment, as if right moments were ever going to come just because she waited.
And then she saw a blonde standing by the grave.
She didn't know why she was there.
They all hated her as much as she hated them, as much as she had hated the dead girl. They would kill her if they saw her, without even asking why she was there.
It just seemed right that she be there. You pay respect when respect is owed.
Darla had never even known the girl, but the girl had saved the world. Again. And everything in it, including her.
People kept saving her, whether she asked them to or not; existence was too short and people kept helping her prolong it, even when it was ashes in her mouth.
It was the right thing to come to the cheerleader's grave and put down an expensive scarlet flower and say the words of a prayer even though they burned her tongue and lips. It vaguely worried her that she was even bothered about the right thing; things were more complicated than they had ever been before.
Darla had always followed her whim and it concerned her that her whim was bringing her so close to harm and to rightness. Either her sweet mad girl had infected her with her insanity, or her dear fatal boy had contaminated her with his righteousness. She pulled a sad tired face.
And she thought about the girl, the small deadly girl whom she had so badly underestimated and never known, the girl with whom she shared his history, who had relegated her to being the one before, and briefly the one after, but never the one, never again. She ought to feel hatred and envy and malice and be uprooting the corpse from the grave and dancing on its face, but all she could feel was sorrow.
It was partly that she should have had her chance to win, to prove she was the best; partly that, dead, the cheerleader owned his damnable soul forever, had won inalienably. Mostly, though, she was sad because this was sad like tragic stories; it was her part in that story to stand by the grave of her rival and be sad.
And then she felt a tap on her shoulder.
'What are you doing here?' said the small red-haired woman with stormclouds in her eyes.
Darla felt the crackle of magic all around her and knew that she was in the deepest of jeopardy; she pointed to the flower and cast her eyes down. Above her the willow tree creaked and rustled in the night breeze; she smelled its green scent and sucked it in as if it were the last pleasure she was going ever to take.
'The last time I saw you,' the redhead remarked conversationally, 'I burned your face off. Would you like to guess how much more powerful I am now than I was last time I was a match for you?'
Willow thought to herself - I do understand now how villains so enjoy threatening people. Gosh, how nice to be able to do it without actually being bad. I can see why Buffy used to get off on it so.
Darla looked up at her; her demon was snapping inside her mind to fight and suffer and die because it was the hopeless thing to do. She curbed her demon, because it was only with her human face that she stood a chance.
'I'm not here to fight,' she said.
'What then?' said the redhead. 'To try and have sex with Angel. Again. With Buffy only just in her grave. Pretty tasteless even for a creature of darkness, if you ask me, and you'd better, because you are seconds away from your second trip to Hell.'
'It's not about Angel, well, not for the most part,' Darla said. 'It is about her. I needed to come here and think about her. It's not about being evil. It is about losing in love and knowing that a dead rival is the deadliest one. If you don't kill me, I will live forever, and I will always have lost him. To her. I suppose I needed to say so. To her. As a sort of ritual.'
'You think you know about loss,' Willow said. 'You have no idea. You had centuries of him. I had five years of not having her, of not daring to ask or hope, of watching her eat her heart out over him and listen to her whine about it and say consoling things. You've had a century to let go because whatever happened recently, you lost him a century ago. I lost her last week.'
'Oh,' Darla said, because she knew that there was nothing she was going to be able to say that would save her. It had been so long since she was young that she had forgotten the hothouse of young hearts and the mortality that breeds there.
Willow looked down at her. She was power-dressed like a corporate whore, but there were creases of desperation that showed through the cosmetic mask; does she have to do all that, the lips and the delicate eyes, all over again every time she vamps out, or does it shift sideways with her human face wherever that goes, and then come back?
'I should kill you,' she said more calmly. 'Because it doesn't matter one way or the other to me. Whereas Angel, say, or Wesley, are actually bothered enough about you that they would kill you and then be all gloomy about personal stuff creeping in. Which would you rather? Be killed by me, or by someone who actually thought you were important?'
Darla smiled inwardly. The witch liked games.
'I suppose,' she said, 'that it would do no good to say that I am sorry, and I will never do it again.'
She had four centuries of looking fake-innocent to serve her here. Even the Master might spare you if you made him laugh.
To her intense embarrassment, Willow found herself giggling. For a second she wanted to blast Darla where she stood, just for making her come so close to losing what composure she had left, but that would be spiteful and wrong. You have to kill this one for being the Scourgette of Europe, she remembered, not for being cute.
Cute? Oh goddess, just how sick was she? Fancying one of the most evil beings she could ever hope to meet, standing by her best friend and true love's grave.
Darla moistened her lower lip with her tongue. Less, she thought, because she was going to survive this by being a whore, more because it was as a whore that she chose to perish. You are who you are, and be damned to all of them, including this nervous perilous witch with her nervous mouth and her delicate body of bones and tender flesh.
You could crush her in your mouth like those birds they eat on toast and flush your palate with such sweet meaty juices. More likely though, she will take you to pieces more quickly than you could pull the beak and bones from between your lips.
'Loss,' she said. 'There is only one sure way to forget that. And it never lasts; it is only for moments.'
Darla reached up and touched the redhead's jaw with the smallest of touches, and felt herself quiver with fear and, to her surprise, a genuine touch of lust. I remember this one now, she said to herself, and she is right, she did burn my face; I didn't recognise her because humans mature as much in five years as a fine light champagne.
Wine and human beauty have to be taken when you can get them; they last so short a time.
Willow settled to the ground and reached an equally hesitant finger to the woman's seducer mouth; Darla responded with the faintest of nips, a flicker of the demon. Willow let her eyes darken just a shade and her mind pushed the woman against Buffy's gravestone with a precise cushioning force.
'Play nice,' she said, 'Or we won't play at all.'
Not quite believing she could be doing this, but remembering so many dreams in which she had done worse, she held the vampire tight with her mind and licked the side of her neck and chewed her ear like a cat with the most doomed of mice.
'You don't do that to me,' Darla said. 'I do that to you.'
'Not in this game,' Willow said kissing the vampire on the lips hard enough to bruise them and to mess definitively that far too immaculate line.
Darla shrugged off her suit jacket so that it fell draped over the stone.
'You can't.' Willow said in a sudden anxiety. 'You can't hide her name.'
'She can't see us,' Darla said. 'She never saw you.'
Being pinned so totally was like being cradled; every part of her could move, but there was just nowhere for it to move to in the wind of this total force. The child was so angry and yet her anger was so focussed; this one is as mad as my girl, in her way, but at least she doesn't distract you with chatter about dolls from the kiss on the breast or the finger stroking the navel or the small hard foot caressing the back of your knee, and the sudden sharp bite in the crease of the elbow that makes you sing with hurt and pleasure..
Darla luxuriated in the girl, basked in her firmness; if she kills me in a second's time, I would not have wanted to miss this. Without missing a beat, or relaxing her grasp for a second, Willow dropped to her knees, exploring Darla with tiny teeth and a tongue like a humming bird in its quick flutter and sudden darts after new sources of nectar.
Darla found herself gasping, even though she did not breathe; you never entirely escape from the human side, from the things that accompanied those first human moments of pleasure. Gasping and losing whole moments of time which could have been centuries for all she knew or cared.
Willow stood again, relaxing her grip.
'Let me,' Darla said, showing her teeth. 'Let me drink, just a little. You know I dare not do more than thrill you.'
Willow looked doubtful.
'That was amazing,' Darla said. 'And I should know. But I have this one thing to show you that you won't otherwise ever know. It really is the best thing, which is why we love it so.'
And then Darla said 'He drank her, didn't he? You need to know what she knew, what you could never give her.'
She reached out and pulled the girl to her; all that force had just blinked away and she was free and the girl was in her arms with her throat bare and no resistance and angry hot tears burning from eyes that still promised imminent whispering death.
Hardly changing at all, just enough to bite, Darla finely nipped the girl's throat; she smelt of honey and tarragon and Armagnac, but her blood tasted better than that.
It was like electric shock and a lover's kiss and passion and death and falling asleep on pillows. There is something in the eyes you almost cannot resist, Willow thought dreamily and then jolted awake.
Darla smiled and pulled away.
'Just a taste,' she said, as Willow's defences went up again and pinned her back against the stone.
'Just a taste,' she said again, showing Willow the curved line of blood on her arm. 'It can't hurt you, and it would be a shame to waste it.'
Willow's tongue darted out and licked the marks of her teeth dry. It was just enough to lie heavy for a moment on her gums and tongue like a persuasive intruder and then the rush hit her.
If being bitten was the sleep, the blood was the awakener; for a moment, every nerve in her body sang with pleasure. The muted colours of the darkness were brighter, the sounds of the breeze and night birds were clearer; she knew where she was and who she was with a certainty she had never felt.
'Buffy!' she gasped and the hot tears flowed again.
'No,' Darla said, licking the tears from her cheeks and kissing her on the lips with her moist human mouth. 'Buffy is dead, child. But you are alive. And I - exist.'
They held each other for a moment more of tenderness.
'What happened here?' Willow said.
Darla smiled whimsically. 'A ritual, perhaps.' she said.
'Who are we,' said Willow, 'that we can do such things.'
'I am a mythical beast.' Darla said, 'and you are a human child.'
Free of Willow's power, she seized her jacket from the stone and ran off into the darkness. Willow stood by the grave weeping for a few minutes and then walked away.
Afterwards, Darla's flower still lay there,on the grave, scarlet and uncrushed and waiting for dew to freshen it.