A Brief History of Time (A
Author: Lamia Archer
Summary: Now she realizes that, had they never met, she wouldn't be. She'd
be some other girl, some other Buffy.
Written for the IWRY Fic Marathon.
Thank you so much for having me, and for the oodles of work you put into
this fab event every year.
Notes: Endless thanks to my invaluable beta reader, myhappyface.
Time is not linear. Time works
more like a jigsaw puzzle. A three-dimensional, Mobius-shaped jigsaw puzzle
with some pieces stuck in the box, and a few lost forever under the sofa. A
slavering ouroboros winding around itself, all ends pointing towards forever.
The man with one arm is in a
hurry, which is not unusual. He has always been eager, and this breeds
haste, and since the incident that cost him his arm the eagerness has
turned to impatience and restlessness, which are worse. And to further
complicate matters, his business tends to operate on emergency and
impossible timelines, which only serves to justify his vice.
And tonight is no different.
Time is, as they say—not him, but other people, he's heard them as he flees
their presence—awastin', and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce is in a hurry.
Wesley screeches to a stop in
front of his destination, exits the truck while pocketing the keys but
without properly locking, or even shutting the door, and tramps across the
dew-slick lawn to the porch. With the arm he has left, he beats out a
staccato beat upon the door.
After a long moment, the door
opens a half-foot, and Buffy Summers' face fills the space.
It's only been two
years—three?—but Wesley almost doesn't recognize her. (He doesn't think of
how unrecognizable he is from his own two years—or is it three?—past self;
at the very least, Buffy still possesses the same number of limbs she did
the last time they saw each other.) She was a girl, soft and smiling and
bright-eyed; she had her hair dyed yellow and she wore candy-colored
cosmetics and shiny, short clothing and tall shoes. The Buffy staring out
at him from the door is thinner, the baby fat melted away, and all the
bright hair and the bright eyes and the bright clothes have faded away to
long dark curls and clean skin and natural fibers in muted tones. Her nails
are short, clean, and unpolished, and she is not smiling. Wesley can tell,
just by looking at her, the gauntness in her cheeks and the position of her
arms around herself that even if she were, the smile would not reach her
"Wesley," she says,
but does not move, not even to open the door more.
"I need to talk to
you." Buffy's face remains emotionless, so he adds, "This isn't a
personal call. It's business."
The Slayer's mouth folds briefly
in indecision, or distaste, but then she pushes the door open enough for
him to shoulder past her.
"I know you haven't been
keeping in touch—thanks for that, by the way," she says, "but we
kind of have our hands full with our own business at the moment, so this is
going to be a short visit."
"I don't think so,"
Wesley says, and removes his jacket to emphasize how quickly he will not be
Buffy rolls her eyes.
"Look, Wesley, not that I'm not glad to see that you've manned up and
all, but I'd like to emphasize that I already have a day job—well, you
know, a night job, but whatever—but I'm not just some Weapon for Hire that
"I'm here about your
current . . . problem," Wesley says. "My problem, your problem:
It started with a girl.
There was a girl—by the throat.
By the heart. It's all the heart, they take the heart. I don't know what
they need it for, a ritual, succor, but they need it, they take it.
Candles—five candles, five points, where's the pulse—white wax and red
blood and there was a queen, a queen of ice, who's the fairest of them all,
and they don't need knives, they're built for it, the claws sink in and
just pluck them out.
And then there's a girl, gold
and brave, who's the fairest of them all, immeasurably sweet and the taste
still in my mouth, and here. Here.
repeats, the words heavy, tripping off her tongue. "Has visions."
"Yes, after his—"
"And these visions are
about me and my impossible-to-find, impossible-to-kill, mass-murdering,
heart-snatcher demon of the week?"
"Not all of them, no. But
Buffy runs her hands through her
hair. She is running thin.
"And the reason I'm just
now hearing about Angel's faboo new parlor trick?"
"It hasn't been relevant to
you until now. And we didn't think—"
"That's right. You didn't
think. Angel and I—"
"You haven't been a
part of Angel's life in years. You have no idea the state he's in—"
"I'm not just Angel's ex;
I'm the Slayer! If you have a weapon against the forces of darkness, I
should know about—" Her righteous anger flags. "What state is he
Still, it's coming, it's coming.
Not yet. But I can feel it coming, slicing through the ether. Eyes, claws,
bright eyes. Burning. Can't wait, need it now, the heart. Thump thump, five
points, my head doesn't hurt. It's okay. It's okay. My head doesn't hurt.
That man, the name's a weapon, I
know it, somewhere I know it, I don't remember where he came from. Here
again. The other one's gone, can't hear smell feel him anywhere. He says
he's Wesley but I remember Wesley from before, trembling and milk white and
that weak mouth, hairless, that could have been yesterday, he woke up today
somebody else. How do you wake up somebody else.
"Hey, man, you gotta eat
something. Come on, this is from days ago—it's all curdled. The disgusting
shit I put up with—are you listening to me? Hey. Angel."
"I don't see anything. It's
okay. It's okay. My head doesn't hurt. You can leave me alone. I didn't see
Wesley has gone. He and his
cryptic warnings are on their way back to Los Angeles to pick up Angel and
his other associate. Buffy funnels her anger into cleaning: tables are
dusted, tiles are scrubbed, beds are made up with fresh linens. Nothing
incenses her so much as having secrets kept from her; she is the Slayer,
and she is always in the Need To part of a need to know basis. That Angel
has been in possession of a powerful weapon for so long, and not telling
her, infuriates her nearly as much as him being in trouble, and not telling
her. She has had other men, a serious relationship even, since he ran off
to play hero without her, but she still thought—true, they haven't seen
each other in years, but that's his fault. After what happened with Faith .
. . well, Buffy just figured maybe it would be best to wash her hands of
Angel and his world.
But then, she thinks, maybe he
was already losing his mind, then, and she was just so angry and so
frightened that she missed it. And for the first time since Wesley
explained Angel's condition to her, she feels the familiar wanting pain of
being with Angel and without him at once. This could be her fault.
There's got to be some kind of
regulation. There are rules—things have rules, and there are—there are
units of measurement, liters and pints and kilos and a bushel and a peck
and a hug around the neck and there's gotta be boards somewhere that come
up with these units of measurements, King Henry's foot is twelve inches
long, someone make rulers. There's got to be regulation, everything is
regulated, but then time just slithered past all these boards with their
rules and their units and tomorrow can be yesterday and it all can happen
right now and in the space of a second—space. That's another thing. All
this time, this time that takes so long to unfold out in the world,
shouldn't be able to fit so snugly into the small space of my mind. And
I need someone to look into
Because one day she had these
babyfat cheeks and these soft curves and hair down to . . . more soft
curves and she couldn't see me and now she's all grown up and hard and it's
been months since he left but I can still smell him on her and it grates
under my skin like infection and one day she'll be soft again, with babies,
and grey, and then she'll grow frail and fade away and one day there'll be
nothing left of her but the memories she's left in me. And none of it's
exclusive, it's all at once, and I haven't seen any evidence to know these
visions are true but I have to believe they are because the only thing
that's worse than what it means if they're true is what it means if they're
They arrive with dawn muddy on
the horizon. It is still dark enough for Angel to walk to the house
uncovered and he does, though not unaided. He is walked to the door with a
man on either side, like a prisoner to execution.
Buffy watches through the
window, half hidden behind the curtains. In the pre-dawn gloom, all she can
make out is his silhouette, and the shape appears familiar. Unchanged. It
was not what she was expecting, and it fills her with an odd hope. If she
can still recognize him solely by his outline, he must not be so changed.
Wesley, despite his new facial hair and missing arm, is still as histrionic
as ever. He's just overreacted.
Buffy answers the door before
they knock, and she feels less sure of Wesley's histrionics. It's his face,
Angel's face—it is slack and passionless, his eyes unable to focus. His
eyes, his pierce-into-your-soul eyes, drifting glassily over random points
in the room.
Buffy swallows, dryly.
She notices now that Wesley and
his associate aren't just escorting Angel; their hands are manacled around
Angel's biceps and they are physically guiding him into the house. Once the
men maneuver Angel through the doorway, Wesley introduces his associate.
Buffy Summers, Charles Gunn. Charles Gunn, Buffy Summers. A smile surprisingly
radiant and genuine, and then some get in my pants line, but Buffy can't
look away from Angel's wrong face.
"We sedated him for the
drive," Wesley says finally. "We thought it would be
"Oh," Buffy says. She
tries to catch Angel's eyes but fails. "Um, maybe—do you want to lay
him down or something? I made up the guest room. Rooms, I guess." Her
mother's dead, so all the rooms that do not belong to Buffy are now free
game; if the guests don't fill them, the ghosts will.
Wesley and Charles, push-me-pull-youing
Angel between them, follow her up the stairs. She instructs them to put
Angel in what really is the guest room. They guide him to the bed; once
their hands are free of him, Angel crumples to the mattress as if he lacks
the strength to stand on his own. He is facedown on the bed, unmoving, and,
Charles runs to the car, leaving
Buffy and Wesley with a long frosty silence. He returns with a duffel bag
over his shoulder and a pair of handcuffs in his hands. Buffy frowns.
"He might be violent when
he wakes up," Charles says. His voice is matter-of-fact but there's
apology in his face as he takes in Buffy's expression, but he has mistaken
her recognition for distaste. She remembers the days after hell, Angel's
thin body twisting a snake charmer's dance in fighting the manacles, animal
snarls tearing from his throat. And in his sleep, he howled. No, she is not
some little girl afraid of the untamed nature of man. She has spent too
much time with the beast for that.
Charles turns Angel onto his
back, groaning and complaining of his weight, and then handcuffs him to the
headboard. Angel might as well be a doll: he is compliant, unmoving, merely
"That should hold him until
morning," Wesley says. "Emphasis on should."
"But don't worry,"
Charles says. "We'll be here—"
"She doesn't need
protecting," Wesley interjects, surprising Buffy, not the least
because she was about to say the same thing herself. "She's the
Slayer. She's more than a match for all three of us."
If anything, Charles only looks
more enamored. Buffy frowns.
On the bed, Angel's eyes flutter
closed. From his throat: no howls, only soft, self-comforting noises as he
succumbs to sleep. Buffy wraps her arms around herself.
They sleep briefly; Buffy, not
at all, kept up by unanswered questions and the nagging presence of Angel
in the next room. Mere hours after retiring, she is up and making breakfast
for a houseful of men.
"These are amazing
pancakes," Charles says, his grinning mouth full of them.
"We should get to
work," Wesley says.
"Not on an empty
stomach," Charles says. "But if you're not going to have
yours—" He reaches across the table to steal bacon from Wesley's
plate, but his hand is smacked away.
"I'll call the cavalry when
it's actually morning," Buffy says. She is having coffee, no cream, no
sugar. She tries to remember when she started taking it like that, and
can't. "What about Angel? Does he need to eat? Because I'm not really
set up for . . ."
"We'll take care of
it," Wesley says brusquely.
Charles loads up his plate with
the last of the eggs. "Did you check on him?"
Wesley says. "He'll probably be out a while."
"Do you drug him
often?" Buffy says, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a biting tone.
"Only when it's
Buffy notices Wesley has failed
to answer the question, but decides not to press it. At the moment.
"It sounds like he
"Xander, I know you have
some really cutting, clever remark about Angel," Buffy says, "but
believe me—for your sake—don't say it."
"For my sake?"
Buffy ignores the bait, and
opens the door. The room is very dark: they had to cover the windows, of
course. Angel is awake, though unmoving, on his back staring at the
ceiling. He is still shackled to the headboard, but his shoulders, his
hands, are relaxed. The handcuffs might just be jewelry. He stirs slightly
as Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles file into the room, a few agitated
shakes of the head.
"Hi, Angel," Buffy
says. She's suddenly ashamed to have brought her friends in here. She
wanted, through her general's vision, for them to see him, to understand
his visions and what they'd done to him, to understand what they were
dealing with. But now she feels dirty, a tour guide in an ICU.
Angel doesn't look at her. He
shakes his head a few more times, and his hands clench into fists. He pulls
slightly against the cuffs, shying away from the group.
"My head doesn't hurt. It's
okay. It's okay. The taste is still in my mouth. You can leave me alone."
"Jesus," Xander says.
Buffy can feel them, all of them, freezing behind her like startled deer.
Irritation crackles over her skin like electricity. Sometimes they are so
"Angel," Buffy says,
"we need to talk to you about your visions."
"I can't—doesn't need it
now. Soon. It's coming. They don't need knives." He strains against
the handcuffs, the metal biting into his flesh. Closes his eyes as though
flinching from a blow. "I don't see anything, you can—I won't run
away. You can leave me alone."
Pain is perception. I can't
count it, it's too far. Too dark. Beyond the veil. I need to push it away,
but I don't get hands here. I wonder if they'll grow back.
She didn't deserve it. It wasn't
her fault. The claws just sink in, and her eyes go glassy, roll back, like
a doll's. Dru's hands, small hands, bones like a bird. The branding iron.
I wonder if they'll grow back.
She was a sweet girl, sweet
face—I can tell. Pure as milk and I can tell, I can smell it. She was
scared first, and that makes it worse. Better. Worse. That makes it.
Thunder seeps through the floors
and filters into the kitchen. Buffy looks up, for a moment uncomprehending,
merely a predator pricking her ears to a novel stimulus. In an instant, she
recognizes the implications of the noise and is taking the stairs two at a
time, ripping open the door to the guest room.
Angel's entire body rocks with
the force of trying to escape the manacles. The headboard rocks like the
bow of a storm-tossed ship. It crashes into the wall, and Angel's thrashing
is so violent that the feet of the bed lift off the floor, enjoy a brief
second of flight, and then collide back to the floor. His back, neck, arch
violently. His skin is alabaster pale even in the dim of the room, and
Buffy thinks of underwater things. His eyes are shut, his jaw clenched. The
moment they enter the room, he begins to speak, a strangely rhythmic
"It wasn't her fault. It
wasn't her fault. Pearl. Pearl Street. 1609 Pearl. My head doesn't hurt. I
can smell it; that makes it worse. 1609 Pearl."
Buffy is almost out of the room
when she hears, "Too late. Doesn't matter; it's too late."
She's waiting for them. Open.
Waiting. Red, red, red. It's too late. It doesn't matter. Too late. My head
doesn't hurt. I can smell her from here, coins and the sea and the color,
ruby—poppies. It's pulling me down, making my head swim, down down. Opium,
smoked or eaten raw. So bitter, even through the honey. Red, red, red. The
Buddhists believe that Burmese rubies are created from blood spilt
unjustly. Your soul gets sucked in and then there you are, under the sand,
waiting for the tide, beachcombers. Waiting to be uncovered.
Angel was right. Too late. They
find the door to 1609 Pearl Street open, the girl slung across the
entryway, her flesh pale though still warm and her open chest glistening.
Buffy arrives home attended by
her raw fury. She finds, irrationally and unexpectedly, a strong desire
burning inside her to take her anger out on Angel. She knows he's only the
messenger, but the message was wrong, so very wrong, another dead girl that
she couldn't save.
She stalls in the hallway, her
hand on the doorknob. Through the door, she can hear Angel—still, now, no
longer raining thunder upon her house—crying softly to himself:
self-indulgent keening; the long and piteous cries of a wounded beast.
"Sorry. So sorry. Too late.
I don't see anything. 1609 Pearl, I'm sorry. 1609 Pearl, Pearl, I'm sorry.
Too late; I'm sorry."
Buffy spends the night
unsleeping. Images of the dead girl, her demon's latest victim, blare
fluorescent bright the moment she closes her eyes. Next door, the ghostly
whine of Angel's lament echoes against her walls.
Buffy makes breakfast for Wesley
and Gunn. She tries not to have an argument with Wesley over the
uselessness of his psychic, tries not to bristle under Gunn's eager
Throughout the day, people
filter in and out of her house, toting books on demonology and ritualistic
murder, and Buffy wishes for an issue of Vogue until one arrives in
the afternoon post, the glossy cover emblazoned with Cordelia Chase's
smiling face. Buffy throws the magazine in the trash and goes back to reading
Shockingly, the subject matter
fails to hold her attention, and Buffy finds herself wandering through her
home, peeking in on her friends and colleagues all bent over their useful
tasks. She feels detached, singular, like she's not in her own home, but an
art gallery. She walks by these rooms, miniature snapshots of life, and
then she just moves on, unburdened, untouched. It's some other reality that
she isn't a part of, and she can always just move onto the next piece.
She walks past Willow grinding
herbs with a meat tenderizer and a rolling pin, past Giles and Wesley
arguing over which translation of some dead language word is the most
sound, past Anya sexually harassing a researching Xander. She walks up the
stairs into the stark stillness of the bedrooms. Her room is empty; her
mother's room is empty. She goes to check on the next piece, Angel.
Buffy freezes in the doorway.
"What are you doing?"
Tara looks up at her too quick,
spooked. "Oh, Buffy, h-hi!" She pastes on an awkward grin.
"Um, I just—well, I thought that maybe it would help him, you know,
c-come out of his—his shell. You know, art is really good therapy . .
Angel is uncuffed, and sitting
with Tara on the floor. Buffy steps toward them, carefully maneuvering her
stiletto-heeled boots between the crayons and paper strewn all over the
carpet. Tara watches her nervously; her hands still over her drawing—it
looks like a rabbit, or maybe a floppy-eared dog—but Angel has yet to
acknowledge her presence, his head bent over his work, his hand moving
furiously over his paper. There are dozens of others, filled with color and
what Buffy recognizes as Angel's photorealistic style, littered about him.
Buffy kneels and selects a page from Angel's growing opus. And flinches. The
image is technically proficient to a point that surprises her—she would not
have expected Angel so lucid in any arena—and, unfortunately, very
detailed. A girl: dark, pretty, and open like a purse, her entire chest a
glistening red maw.
"I, um, I think he's been
drawing things from—from his v-visions."
Buffy swallows her personal
disgust enough to switch to Slayer mode. "Well, that's good. Clues and
Buffy picks up a large stack of
Angel's finished drawings and starts thumbing through them. More
open-chested girls; she's familiar with the MO of her demon of the week.
Not keen to revisit it. And then, something different. She stops.
Tara cranes her neck to see what
has caused Buffy pause. "Oh," she says. "And he draws you a
Buffy feels her cheeks begin to
heat. The way Angel has drawn her—who is that girl? She is golden and
bright-eyed, ethereal. Full of hope, love; she could have the sun in her
belly, shining out her pores.
Buffy feels sick, and flips
quickly to more vision-inspired drawings.
More girls. He always was one
for the ladies. Buffy wonders if maybe they've missed a victim; Angel's
sketches are so fine, so detailed, that they can probably ID from them. A
few pictures of the hearts, standing alone in the white field of the paper
like anatomical studies. And then: a shadowy figure, nearly silhouette
except for the detailed precision of the reptilian eyes and the hands: long
fingered, dripping with long, shining blades.
Buffy shows the drawing to Tara.
"What's with Edward Scissorhands here?"
"They don't need
knives," Angel says, not looking up from his drawing.
Buffy and Tara turn to him.
"What?" Buffy asks.
"They don't need
knives," Angel says. "They don't need knives. They're built for
Buffy studies the picture.
"This is the demon? The heartsnatcher?"
"They just reach in,"
Angel says. "And pluck them out."
It becomes ritual. Every
morning, upon her return to what has become, again, Demon Hunting Central,
Tara floats unaffected through the chaos and unshackles Angel. She enters
the room, speaking in a slow, cheerful voice, and completely ignores his
writhing and muttering while unlocking the cuffs. Then she goes downstairs
and, wordlessly wresting the chore from Wesley and Gunn, warms up his
blood. And then she leaves it on the kitchen table in a mug—a practice that
causes Xander to swear off coffee forever, though, as Willow wisely points
out, it would be more cogent for him to swear off drinking out of abandoned
mugs. Eventually, Angel—scenting his meal—makes his way downstairs. The
effect is that of a poltergeist: every now and then, there is the glimpse
of a pale figure, just out of the corner of your eye; when you turn to look
at him straight on, he's gone. Occasionally, things move seemingly without
cause; occasionally, stray crayons and sketches of murder victims turn up
in the couch cushions, between the pages of books.
On the whole, Angel avoids
people—especially, Buffy has noticed, Xander and Giles—though he will sit
for a length of time with Tara, sometimes even if other people are around.
She has a soothing way of speaking to him, of acting towards him, that sows
within Buffy creeping seeds of jealousy.
Buffy finds, several times,
small tokens left on her bed. A never used crayon—soft pink—perfect in its
symmetry and unblemishedness. A ring she doesn't recognize. Sketches: a
bird, a rose. And then, one of her mother, and Buffy feels something
fragile inside her splinter, press cruel points into her soft insides.
It has been days since Angel's
had a vision.
Willow and Giles follow Angel's
sketches to find a name for the demon, but the information thereafter is
thin. Buffy's impatience flares at the wasted time, at the lack of answers,
at the Powers that frickin' Be who wrecked this man to make a vessel
through which they project nothing but Crypticpiece Theater.
"And we haven't found any
of the hearts, so maybe they're . . . I don't know." Giles stops
talking long enough to remove and thoroughly polish his glasses on a
pocket-handkerchief. "I don't want to think about it, frankly."
"Maybe they're eating
them," Willow says. "I was reading the Kandler treatise on
Buffy's nose wrinkles. "Ew.
Remind me to get you a subscription to something more fashiony and less
"Maybe they're just keeping
the hearts," Tara says, looking up from filing Angel's discarded
crayons back into the box.
Wesley perks. "You think
they're stockpiling them for some kind of ritual?"
Buffy sighs. "Great. We
have a demon that's gross and a packrat. Who wants to keep a
Angel's crayon grinds harshly
into his paper, curling off wax ringlets. Red, red, red. "That's what
everyone wants," he says.
"Huh?" Buffy says.
"A heart. To keep."
His head is starting to hurt. He puts the crayon down; it's made pink
indentions in his fingers, fleeting scars. "That's what everyone
wants." He looks up, meets Buffy's spooked eyes. "You don't want
It is late, and Buffy lies in
bed unsleeping again. The moon and the streetlights filter in a ghostly
pale light through the windows, and Buffy studies the odd shadows it makes
on her ceiling. The bowed backs, the odd and sensual curves. Buffy thinks
of underwater things.
Angel has been silent for a long
time, though Buffy can feel his presence curled inside her, sleeping.
Waiting. And then there's no more waiting: a guttural howl cuts through the
quiet night, and in seconds Buffy is on her feet and out the door and at Angel's
bedside, watching him contort fighting against his restraints. The bed
whines, long and low, like the sound before something great breaking. The
sound before the building comes down, before the earth opens.
"Not again, no, no. Blonde,
pretty, small hands, and—by the throat. By the throat. By the throat, by
the heart, they just sink in. Third and Poppy. Third and Poppy, by the
The streetlights and the early
morning dew make the street shine like diamonds. Buffy's lungs burn, the
muscles in her legs burn. Her fingers, clenched around the cool steel hilt
of her sword, are stiff and frozen. Maybe driving would be faster, but
she's never gotten the hang of it, especially not in situations like this.
Her body is a more reliable machine than any car.
First and Poppy, Second and
Poppy, Third and Poppy. She sees the street signs, crossing each other
perpendicularly: x marks the spot. For a moment she stills: listening,
feeling, anticipating. Her hope, her predatory edge, deflate a bit: the
street corner is as silent and still as a rectory. Maybe Angel's vision was
a wrong number; Wesley told her that sometimes he sends them out to rescue
people he killed two hundred years ago.
Or maybe she's too late again.
And then a scream cuts through
the darkness and Buffy's predatory edge roars back to life. She is running
again, in the direction of the scream echoing off the street and the
sleeping houses and the dark ceiling of sky. After so many years doing
this, she can follow a scream with the acuity of a scenting bloodhound.
A door down the street is
open—forced open, the door hanging listlessly from the hinges—and Buffy
sees a pair of shapely, bare legs and a pair of unsuitably tall red heels
disappearing into the house. Buffy's lungs burn, the muscles in her legs
burn. When she enters the house, she finds it dark as the night outside,
and near silent. Buffy clenches her sword, adjusting her hands around it
like a baseball bat, and listens, feels. Then: a soft, sudden cry: the
rending of fabric. Buffy tiptoes in the direction of the noise, pressing
herself against walls, ducking to a crouch anytime she lacks cover.
There is a streetlight spotlight
shining in the kitchen. In the center, surrounded by five dripping white
candles, is a young blonde woman in a short dress and red heels. Her body
is slack, her face passive: she is unconscious. Only unconscious, Buffy
hopes, and not already dead. Hovering over her is the demon from Angel's
drawings. In real life it is short, perhaps shorter than Buffy herself, though
the claws are at least a foot long, and—she can tell from here—impossibly
sharp. The demon's skin, or scales—Buffy is too far to tell for sure—is a
muddy green that reminds her of camouflage, and its eyes are a dull yellow,
with the distinct angularity of a reptile. It moves slowly, its claws
waving indistinctly, like reeds in the wind.
Buffy takes a running start and
catapults herself over the unconscious girl and into the beast's chest,
feet first. He is driven into the wall with such force that plaster rains
upon them both, and the candles shudder, their flames flickering, casting
distorted shadows of the fight against the walls. The demon swings its
lethal claws at Buffy, but she is quicker; her sword is in his ribs before
he can make contact. She takes a step back, withdraws her blade; the demon
crumples to the floor. The candles shudder again.
Buffy kneels beside the girl,
checks her pulse. It's faint, and it takes Buffy a few agonizing seconds to
find it, but it's there. Buffy sets down her sword to help the girl up and
out of this crime scene until she hears a low clatter, like the warning
cadence of a rattlesnake. She picks up her sword. They don't need knives,
Angel said. They.
She picks the creature out of
the shadow before it advances on her. There is a murderous shine of the
demon's claws, and then the shine of Buffy's sword. And then a high scream,
more akin to that of an injured rabbit than a human. One of the long-clawed
hands falls to the floor, disembodied. The beast turns to run but Buffy is
faster, and in a moment there are two dead demons on the kitchen floor.
The candles shudder again, but
this time the only shadows they have to distort are those of Buffy cleaning
her sword on a dishrag from the sink.
Buffy is exhausted when she
arrives home, but a good exhausted. She takes the stairs slowly, paying
attention to the sound her feet make in the near empty house, to the
movement of her muscles as she moves.
She stills before Angel's room.
It's quiet. She lets herself in, comes up to the bed where he lays
He is not asleep. He is quiet
and still, his muscles relaxed and his eyes on the ceiling. Buffy sits
beside Angel on the bed, the sword lying across her lap. With the change in
the balance of weight upon the mattress, Angel's eyes fall to her.
"It's done," she says.
"It's never over,"
Angel says. His voice is calm, his face is calm, but they eyes are still so
wrong, so detached and wild.
"Well, maybe not. I mean,
not, like, big picture over. But you saved a girl's life. And you did a
good thing for the other girls, the ones we couldn't save."
"She didn't deserve
it," he says. "Pure, pure—I can tell by the taste. It's never
over. It's over?"
"Yeah," Buffy says.
"It's over. I killed your demons."
"Can we sleep now?" he
Buffy's fingers tighten around
Her mother died, and then there
was no one. Her friends who didn't understand her, her boyfriend
unreachable and uncaring on another continent, her ghost-ridden house. The
size of the house makes the emptiness seem obvious, its most defining
characteristic. Buffy realizes that this is stupid, that gone is gone no
matter the size of the thing you're gone from, that the real question of
size has to do with the enormity of the hole in her heart, but caring for a
home too large for just herself makes her mother's absence, Riley's
absence, seem all the more pressing. It is the forefront of every
conversation because so much of her energy is burnt up in walking long
hallways and dusting rooms that just sit empty.
And the worst part is that there
is no constant to the longing: sometimes when she rounds the corner into
the kitchen, she expects to find her mother there, bright and chipper and
alive. And sometimes when she's brushing her teeth and washing her face
before bed, she swears she can hear Riley in the bedroom, waiting for her.
And sometimes, when she enters the front door, she announces her presence
to an empty house before she realizes that it's only her, that for a long
time it's only been just her. And the cruelty is that it isn't every time;
sometimes, the reality of this present is clear, irrefutable, and sometimes
it slips away and fades into yesterday so seamlessly that she could be
walking in another time. When she was younger, she lived with such
immediacy, but the older she gets, the more time plays tricks with her. The
more inconstant it becomes.
She lies awake again. Her bones
ache with exhaustion, but sleep slips further and further away. Next door,
she can hear Angel fretting; the mattress springs squeaking and groaning,
the handcuffs clanging and scraping against the headboard. Next door, she can
hear him fretting, and inside her brittle body she can feel his presence
pulling at her, the moon influencing the tides. Her body is a hollow shell,
and if you hold her to your ear you can hear the sound of the ocean of her
longing. Sea change. It isn't fair; why do some things change as quickly as
sand slipping through your fingers, and some things never change, no matter
how fervently you wish they would? This could be years ago, lying sleepless
in her bed tortured by Angel. Her world is so different—she is so different
that she could be another girl—but still this constant remains.
She wishes she could fall
backwards through time. She wishes she could wake up tomorrow with her
mother's voice calling her downstairs for breakfast, Buffy hurry you'll be late
for school. She wishes she could spend her days laughing with her friends
and not paying attention in class and hunting powderpuff demons. She wishes
she could go back to Angel's and find him waiting, and get deliciously
nervous as he becomes bold. If she could just go back, she wouldn't waste
it. Knowing what she knows now, she could appreciate things. Do them right.
She wouldn't waste a second.
Next door, Angel has begun
mumbling to himself. Buffy tries to listen to his words, in case they have
relevance to her case, and then she tries to feel sorry for him. But she
fails twice, because his proximity and the familiar velvet tenor of his
voice release to bloom the flower between her legs, and her entire body
awakens to this sensation and forsakes all else.
The days roll out to the
horizon, and time reaches out its hands for forever. And from her stasis,
here on the edge of moving forward, or falling back, Buffy can see the
expanse of the days to come as only a series of possibilities. Like finding
where an electron is inside an atom: when you go to measure, it shies away
from your instrument, and so you have to use some math problem to find the
general space it might be in. Just numbers, and theory, no feeling. That's
not really how she usually operates, but these images flood her head,
anyway. She can see the house busy with people for reasons beyond the usual
Slayer business: a family. The house is warm and sweet smelling with the
frenzy of baking, and in the living room tinsel is snakeskin-shed all over
the carpet as the Christmas tree goes up. She can see pale, wriggling scars
on her belly, her hips, and feels the life stirring inside her. She can see
Angel—quiet, lucid-eyed—tanned and graying, his hands winding around her.
His words—sure, steady—tickling her ear. I love you. I love you.
The problem with possibilities
is that there's the impossible on the other side. And no matter how perfect
your calculations, the electron thing's just theory. There's always the
possibility that the electron exists somewhere else, somewhere beyond you.
Too far to touch.
After the shower the ache is
still deep in her muscles, but she's already stayed in too long. She feels
waterlogged, as though the shower soaked into her skin—though she knows
that doesn't happen; it just bounces off, falls away. Her hair is heavy
with warm water and hot rivulets course down her back, speeding gleefully
down the valley between her shoulder blades. Buffy shuts off the water and,
wrapping a towel around her torrent-warmed, dew-licked body, steps out of
the bathroom and into her bedroom.
Angel is sitting on her bed,
watching her. He exemplifies the animalistic, too still and too quiet of a
deer, and Buffy imagines, for a fevered moment, that it would have been
possible to miss him if she wasn't so used to being alone.
"Is everything okay?"
How long have you been watching
me, is what she wants to ask, but the concept of talking to Angel is such
that one speaks to him for one's own sake, rather than for his, and she
wants to be the kind of girl who would take care of him.
Angel's eyes narrow, a myopic
focusing. He stands and walks toward her. Buffy feels her heart quicken in
her chest; the beads of water dripping down her back feel suddenly ice
And now he is mere inches from her
and he just looks, and a pain rises in Buffy's chest as she forgets to
breathe, and Angel's hands, with a competence and care that belie the
jumbled mess going on inside his head, Angel's hands loosen the towel from
around her damp body and push it to the floor.
Angel is quiet and still, and he
looks. Buffy's breath returns, shallow gasps through the teeth that bring
just enough oxygen to make her dizzy. Angel's fingers rest speculatively on
her collarbone, her breast.
"I'll never forget,"
Buffy's pulse kicks up, sending
a riot of blush splashing over her. She wishes for the towel. And then she
doesn't. She wishes for an Angel, a Buffy, who could be in this situation
and be okay.
"Angel," she says.
His eyes leave her bare form,
meet her eyes. But his hand still rests over her heart, something absently
"It's not enough
time," he says.
And Buffy wants for things to be
different, to be able to fix him. Maybe if they'd never met, this never
would have happened, and thinking that, she frowns; Angel said something
like that to her once, too. You would be better off never having known me.
Then she just argued, no, that isn't true, I love you; but now she realizes
that, had they never met, she wouldn't be. She'd be some other girl, some
Angel is broken, and he might
never be better. But without knowing her, without knowing them, he
might not be at all. So there's that. Not enough time. She has to say
something; she can't just leave him hanging out there by himself.
"It never is," Buffy
says, and she lays her own hand over Angel's on her heart.
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