Author: M Phoenix
Archive/Distribution: Just ask, it’s very unlikely I’ll say no.
Summary: The things which connect, and the things which divide.
Spoilers: Seasons two and three of BtVS.
Author’s notes: Thank you to MsGiles for her thoughtful beta. Apologies in advance for any errors. No swords were harmed during the making of this story.
Disclaimer: Joss Whedon created the sandpit; I’m just playing in it.
by M Phoenix
Light and shadow.
Alone, you’ve often tried to catch her on paper. In fine grey pencil; in thick smudges of charcoal; once in pen and ink, but it blotched at the last stroke, and you ripped it up, in frustration, and haven’t tried again.
Each time you come so close, but never quite… never quite.
She leaves her school books lying splayed, vulnerable on your desk sometimes, as if she thinks this is her home, as if she has forgotten what sleeps coiled under your skin, and believes you really are just a good…man. And you love her for it. For her rediscovered trust; for the grace of her trivial, teenage chatter; for being so entirely, terribly, alive; and for the razor twist of pleasure-pain the day you found your own name doodled on her Math, and English, and History books. You wonder if it is her attempt to capture you.
“It’s not that simple,” she says now, in reply to a question you don’t remember asking. She finishes smoothing the fresh bandage around your injured hand, and securing it with Band Aid; then tells you, sweetly, and with utter conviction, “Ted is evil.” The look on her face is pure Slayer. Briefly, you almost pity Ted.
“Buffy…” you are going to say more than that, of course, but she burrows her head neatly into the hollow of your shoulder, and you forget. She helps you forget a lot of things, at least for a while. Her hair is spun sunlight tickling your chin; only its shining doesn’t burn you, though it probably should. The scent you breathe in is warm, cut grass, clean girl, and the musky under note of the, drastically over priced, perfume she would have dabbed on this morning -- still the essence of innocence, you could never resist. But there is something else, harsher, older, animal, buried there, since that night she came back from the dead; and the occasional sting of peroxide in your nasal cavity reminds you she is not a natural blonde.
“I know you think I’m over-reacting,” Buffy continues seriously; her grip on your hand tightening until it sends little distress flares of pain exploding through the slowly healing wound in your palm -- the place where your boy, Spike, pinned you to Drusilla. She, drooping, fragile as dead, white lilies in a laudanum haze. He, smirking fixedly while he waited for you to die.
It will start bleeding again soon if she doesn’t stop squeezing.
Flesh to flesh, blood to blood, joined, pierced through by cold steel and magic; you hadn’t been that achingly close to another creature in nearly a century.
Part of you doesn’t want her to stop. A low down throb has started -- the demon and the man in you waking up, tangled together, growling and twitching. You shift uncomfortably on the settee, hoping she won’t notice how hard you’ve suddenly become.
“Er, Buffy. My hand,” you say, surprised at how steady your voice sounds.
“Ooops. Sorry.” She lets go hurriedly, you feel her apologetic grimace, against your neck, instantly followed by the flutter of a kiss; her lips so soft and hot where your pulse no longer beats.
Remember she believes in you, trusts you, this is your redemption; so hold her to your heart and keep her safe -- always. But what if you’re the one she needs to be protected from?
She sighs, oblivious to your struggle. “It’s unbelievable. He’s taken over my house, with his ‘I’m such a swell guy,’ sitcom smile, and his stupid little mini pizzas, and he’s probably there, doing unspeakable things -- things which should never be spoken of, let alone witnessed by her only child -- with my mother, right now. It’s icky to the power of gross, and he must be stopped.”
“Hmm, yeah,” you murmur; attempting to sound both non-committal, and supportive enough to avoid her ire.
She sits up, regarding you suspiciously, clearly you need to work on those monosyllables. “Evil,” she mutters, pouting darkly; and the effect is so comic it’s all you can do to keep from laughing out loud. “At this rate,” she concludes, “before the week is over, I’ll be re-enacting ‘Death of a Salesman’ with Ted as the star.”
Time to change the subject.
You nod towards the corner by your bed, where a long, slim shape is propped, resting -- a shadow, cast against the wall. “I have something for you.”
“What’s the occasion?” she asks, her face breaking into a slightly wary smile.
“The occasion is you saving my life,” you say. And killing my children, you think, but leave unvoiced. You could not -- would not want to -- explain the strange mixture of relief-guilt-desire-loss, clumped solid in your chest, when you think of your…family. She would know you for a monster, once and for all.
“It’s a katana,” you tell her; as she eagerly unwraps the cloth covering her gift.
Her face has taken on a fierce, assessing look, schoolgirl melting seamlessly into warrior. “A samurai sword,” she breathes; unsheathing it in one swift, flowing, motion.
“The real deal. Seventeenth century.”
She shakes her head, and quickly turns to face you. “This is too much. I-I mean I don’t have anything to give you, my allowance won’t stretch that far…maybe a Swiss army knife, or this really nifty letter opener I saw at --”
“I don’t…” you interrupt, before she can hit full speed babble. “…you don’t need to give me anything.” At this second you mean it, truly, you do. “Anyway, it was a freebee --” you lie “-- Willie the Snitch owed me big a favour.”
Buffy smiles then, in a way far older than she should be able, in a way you cannot read, and returns her full attention to the sword. You know she is not really listening as you parade your knowledge of smithcraft, and Japanese culture; in all honesty, neither are you, you’ve heard all your stories before. So after a while you let your voice drop, and fall away, and just watch her. She skims her fingertips slowly, carefully along the flat of the blade, where the process of folding and welding the metal hundreds of times has left a delicate pattern, like clouds drifting and swirling. Touches it like something sacredlethalbeautiful, the same way you find yourself touching her sometimes, after a kill.
“Why don’t you try it out, test the balance.”
Her technique is good as she runs through a few basic warm up moves; the simple, perfect curve of the blade flashing through the air. One handed right cut. Flash. Left slash with two hands relaxed on the long grip. Flash. A centre cut designed to cleave down the middle of any unlucky opponent. Flash. She raises the blade up in front of her face, pointing at the sky; then sweeps it down and to the side, with her right hand, finishing with the tip poised just over the earth. Good, yes, but…
“What’s that for?” she asks, and you realize you must be frowning harder than you’d thought.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
She pushes her hair off her forehead with the back of her hand, and takes a step towards you; flexing in a manner that makes you fear for your soft furnishings. “Trying out my excessively shiny new sword,” she says, bright tone not entirely masking disgruntlement.
“You’re using it like an extension of your arm.”
“Ah-huh.” And you can practically hear the deleted, ‘well, duh, of course I am, brain-trust.’
Didn’t Giles teach her anything? You sway awkwardly to your feet, still embarrassingly weak, and shuffle to stand behind her, your arms around her, your unhurt hand easily covering her small one, wrapped around the grip. She instinctively nestles her shoulders into your chest, annoyance already forgotten; and, God, you are a prize idiot, because you want this to be forever. Forever, please, forever. “This --” you murmur, bringing the katana into her line of vision. “This is you. It’s not just an extension of your arm; it’s an extension of your soul. In order to use it right, you have to become it.”
“But…” She twists around to look at you, smiling slightly, quip forming on her lips, then she seems to change her mind, and her brows furrow to silence.
Your voice feels caught in your throat, though you couldn’t say why. “The people who created the katana -- fought and died with it -- believed it was the protector of the warrior’s soul. Many of the oldest ones had names, were thought to have souls of their own.”
A long pause. Her hand; your hand; and the katana thrumming quietly between you, whispering ‘yes, yes, yes.’
“Okay,” she says too loudly, in a huff of breath, “but to me a sword is just a weapon; sharp metal, good for the slicing and dicing of demons. They don’t…” Her eyes are luminous and suddenly uncertain, searching yours. “They don’t really share souls…have souls.”
It’s not that simple, you think. Never that simple. You glance from her face to the mirror-bright blade of the katana, and the reflection you cannot see, and you wonder for a moment what expression the stranger there is wearing, as you say, “Some of them do.”
Shadow and light.
You are walking barefoot, enjoying the sensation of sand squishing between your toes; the fresh scent of clean, salt air, the sound of waves surging onto the beach. But there are things skittering through your peripheral vision that you don’t want to see, things which…Wait, you are walking barefoot, and the light is so bright you have to squint to see the blue, blue ocean. Must be the Pacific you guess, it seems important to know, and you’re pleased to have figured it out. But there are things you have to remember, and you don’t want…Please, not yet. You stop walking, and tilt your head back, eyes shut tight, soaking in the sun, letting it burn the fear away; and when you feel him appear behind you and slide his arms around your waist, you’re sure everything will be okay except…He feels warm, warmer than he ever did when he was…
“Angel?” You say it like a prayer, like a plea. “Angel, stay.”
“That’s the whole point,” he whispers, his lips almost brushing your ear. “I’ll never leave you; not even if you kill me.”
Suddenly there is a sword in your hand.
“I have something for you,” you say, kissing him. “Close your eyes.”
This morning you saved the world. You remember this as you wake with your cheek crushed into the canvas of your duffle bag, and your eyes sore and gritty from crying in your sleep.
You walked through the silent streets, through the suburbs of manicured lawns and accountants with wives on Prozac, and Doberman pinchers, and 2.4 children. In the watery pre-dawn light you passed the long, straight driveways of the houses scattered at the edge of town. You lingered for a moment at the Donovans’ broken mail box, where the kids playing ‘car baseball’ along the road had gotten in a lucky strike, and wondered what they would say if they knew all this might be gone before nightfall. And, with the sun just kissing the horizon, you killed your lover, so that it could go on.
You sit up stiffly, still clutching your bag, and grind the heels of your hands into your eyelids until all you can see is whirling blackness. You will not cry again -- probably ever.
Three am in L.A. bus station, and you are beginning to wonder why you bothered; maybe the whole, ‘sucked into Hell’ thing wouldn’t have that much of a contrast. All human life is here, and you sincerely wish it had chosen to be some place else. You may as well have ‘teenage runaway, ripe for exploitation,’ tattooed on your forehead. So far you’ve encountered one very persistent pimp, set on taking you under his wing; a guy with a gold front tooth and no hair who called you ‘honey-doll,’ and offered you ten bucks to blow him; and a jittery girl in an old army jacket, who tried to sell you a white substance you’re pretty sure was baby powder wrapped in tinfoil.
Each time, your hand slipped into your pocket, searching for the reassurance of the stake which should have been there; wanting something familiar to hold on to. But you brought no weapons with you, none except your own body. You have made your last kill. That life is over.
And you know, when you fell off the bus from Sunnydale, you should have walked through the swish of those automatic doors and kept walking, found a hostel, or simply let the city swallow you up; but you stayed. Stayed because you exhausted all the strength you had left making it this far, and now you are too hollow with grief to care anymore.
“Aye-y-ya,” an old, bird-like woman says, sinking onto the bench next to you, with a grateful sigh. “My feet give trouble,” she tells you, smiling, by way of an explanation. She cocks her head on one side and stares at you with undisguised curiosity, her eyes like wet asphalt. After a moment she asks, in her thick, rolling accent, “So, kid, you okay?”
“Fine,” you say hoarsely, digging your fingers into the fabric of your duffle bag, and edging away. Maybe you could find a cave to crawl into, far, far away from people; go one million B.C. and start wearing animal pelts and bone pins; perhaps paint a few bison on the wall, for company, you’ve heard art can be very therapeutic. The woman is still staring. “I am okay. Okay?”
“Okay,” she shrugs, and begins to hum to herself; breaking off periodically to talk in gentle Spanish to someone who isn’t there. This woman is the epitome of crazy-homeless-chic. Scarlet taffeta dress, crumpled under what looks like a genuine mink coat -- which she’s wearing in flagrant disregard of protest movements and ninety degree temperatures -- black, steel toe-capped boots, and a feather tucked into her sparse, grey hair, at a rakish angle.
You watch the tide of passengers pour off the delayed bus from Phoenix, franticly trying to find enough free hands to grab their luggage, and travel pillows, and kids, and coming up short. They are hours late, and in such a hurry to be somewhere…to be home. If you walk out of this house don’t even think about coming back. Mom’s words go ricocheting around your skull for the hundredth time today, and the pain practically doubles you over.
There is a rustling noise beside you; the old woman is rummaging in her wheeled shopping bag. After a brief, unsuccessful inventory of the top layers, she clicks her tongue behind her teeth, and thrusts her hand, and most of her scrawny arm, right down to the bottom, in a way which reminds you, disturbingly, of vets and farm animals. “Ha!” She emerges, triumphant, clutching a crinkled packet of M&M’s; settles back on the bench, but doesn’t open them.
“Remember?” she says wistfully, staring straight ahead, at a poster advertising ‘bargain breaks in Acapulco.’ You don’t respond; there is no reason to think the question is directed at you, she’s probably still talking to her invisible friend. “Remember?” she says again, nudging your elbow.
“Remember what?” you mutter, reluctantly. Some remnant in the back of your mind telling you it would be rude and unkind to ignore her. That your mom would be disappointed, and…
“I…I,” she gesticulates vaguely, her hand flapping at the wrist so much you expect it to snap off. “I.” She stops; looking confused; then bursts into high pitched laughter which convulses her whole body. “I don’t remember,” she wheezes, wiping tears from her eyes.
“Oh.” You begin chewing your thumbnail; it tastes like salt and nail polish.
The old woman opens her packet of M&M’s, pops one into her mouth, and sucks it thoughtfully. She leans towards you. “They used to paint me, I was a…muse, yes, you know? A muse; they knew my name, yes. Now I’m nobody.” She extends her hand as if you are being formally introduced. “I’m nobody…and you are?”
You have no idea how to answer. She doesn’t seem phased by your silence, just leans closer and whispers, as if confiding her deepest, darkest secret, “The blue ones are my favourites.” Stale, chocolaty breath on your face; delighted, little-girl smile. “The blue ones are the best. Shhh.” She presses the packet of M&M’s into your hand, and heaves herself onto her feet. You try to give them back, but she waves them away. “You keep them. Yes, good.”
As she shuffles off, dragging her bag behind her, she is rambling to thin air again.
The next night you sleep in a hostel, with spongy, bursting sofas, and food to match. After a few days you find a job waitressing, and, with your first pay check, you rent an apartment. Okay, a room, but it’s clean and it’s yours.
Angel is a constant desperate emptiness inside you, the negative space where you used to keep love. In your dreams he always comes to you in sunlight; which seems like the punch-line to some really bad, subconscious joke. But you don’t laugh, and you don’t cry. These days you wake, with hot, dry eyes, and lie in your narrow bed, listening to cats caterwauling, like souls in torment, on the fire escape; and the noise of distant sirens.
Some nights you can almost feel the low hum of the katana sleeping underneath your bed, the way you used to before the world didn’t end. Then you get up and walk. No one walks in L.A., but when you aren’t working, or snuggling up to your insomnia, you are trudging through the city, mapping the streets with your feet.
One time you stray far from your usual beat, and spot a man who could be your father, across the street, near a mall which you remember as ‘shoe heaven.’ You duck your head and look the other way until you are safely round the corner, panting and shaking. It takes three blocks for your heart rate to drop back to normal. Later you wonder if you did the right thing; but what would you have said to him? You aren’t really his child anymore.
No. You’ve set that Buffy in a block of concrete and sent her to sleep with the fishes; and you’ve become the girl who wears her face every day, but isn’t her.
“Anne.” Arlene’s nasal voice twangs taut behind you. For a moment you don’t recognize the name, don’t turn. The voice becomes irritated. “Anne, quit dreaming on the job. Order for table three.”
This time you remember; nod; straighten your apron. “Sorry. I’m on it.”
As you manhandle two plates piled high with pancakes across the crowded diner, you wonder how long it will take for your mom to decide there are probably dust bunnies the size of chinchillas growing under your bed. And what she will think when she finally unwraps the blanket you left bundled there, shrouding a sword, sacredlethalbeautiful, broken carefully in half.
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