Change Of Fortune

 

DISCLAIMER: Guess what? *Whispers* They're not mine.
TIMELINE: About five years in the future.
SPOILERS: Only vague.
IMPROV: #15 air - chime - dark - orange
FEEDBACK: Is nice, but you knew that, right?
RATING: PG-13

 

"In order to have a change of fortune at the last minute you have to take your fortune to the last minute."
Terry Pratchett, 'Thief Of Time'

 

Beginning - The Fortune

 

You spend the best years of your unlife preparing for the Apocalypse and when it comes, you're not ready.

Oh, the weapons are there, carved and sharpened and shining, and your friends are mature fighters with a battle-weary, battle-ready glint in their collective eye, and you've trained and honed and sung badly and saved souls like crazy but avoided *going* crazy again (pretty much), and come *this* close to forgiving yourself even if no-one else does (even if the Powers don't) and yet. You don't know what the hell you're doing.

You're aware of the basic idea; this is hardly your first end of the world scenario. (You're currently counting seven, during four of which you were the principle Warrior and one of which you were the principle would-be destroyer of humanity and have made almost successful efforts to deal and move on.) However, the Powers That Be have kindly given you to understand, through mammoth bills for Cordelia's pain medication, a number of conveniently recently unearthed prophecies, and a lot of helpfully spelt-out omens, that this Armageddon is in fact The Armageddon, and you are expected to do something about it.

They have implied it's going to be of Biblical proportions. You devoutly hope (and isn't that a joke all by itself? If the rosary wouldn't burn you, you'd leap straight back into Catholicism and the *reassuring* kind of blind faith) that the Biblical army of angels with flaming swords is planning on joining the fray, because though your confidence in yourself has grown, you doubt your ability to successfully battle thousands of demons, sorcerers, evil people and assorted beings, misguided people and assorted beings and their kindred. Especially thousands of demons, sorcerers, evil people and assorted beings, misguided people and assorted beings and their kindred scattered all over the fair planet in the unfair dimension you and the massed ranks of humanity call home.

You're not scared of the prospect - what would be the point? If you die you die, and almost glad of it by the time it comes around.

You're scared it won't be like that. You're scared that the assault, when it comes, will be... small. Localised.

Personal.

Memories, when a spontaneous, hedonistic demon bothers registering them, are distinct and intense. You've spent most of your life with those demonically sharp senses. A human is blind and bland and deaf compared to you. Your world is a near-incomprehensible blaze of noise and colour. That's why you've always resisted Cordelia's determination to dress you in clownish yellows, bright oranges, nice cheerful greens. In a world of colour, you want to both stand out and hide away. Black is easy.

And it dismisses the mirror problem. Another thing humans can't understand; how looking in a mirror and seeing nothing there, day after day, makes you wonder if there's anything there to see. Back when you first regained your soul, you used to stand in front of a mirror for hours, alternately loathing the lack of reflection there and staring hard, willing it to come, just a fraction; for your soul to show through for a second. To offer you some proof that you were there at all. That you were human.

But of course you weren't, and for all you could be (after this? Maybe - but for a long time that hasn't been your goal, apart from way down deep where no-one including you saw), you're not now. If you were human, the First couldn't have so much interest in you and your most vivid memories from a few lifetimes of vivid memories wouldn't be of telling a woman you killed you were sorry and a woman you loved to let you die.

Because that's what you're terrified of, in the glaring light of day when your body instinctively curls into its bed and your mind shrinks away from the hungry tendrils you can feel the First reaching out while you sleep.

You usually wake sweating and cold in drenching body-mind-soul-heart fear those days, occasional nights, and yet you've never been able to share it with anyone. It began soon after It almost got you with no visible effort, when you turned willingly and bathed your face in the soothing dark; you recovered, but your friendships never fully did, and when the First, energised by your renewed potential not only as an evil demon but as an evil man, started whispering to you, you didn't - couldn't - say anything that might damage the fragile trust you'd built with them.

You've never really regretted it. You found your connections to humanity in other places. The Host, who isn't human but who knows that state as intimately as if he were; the normal guy at the tiny, barely-afloat gallery a couple of blocks away from the hotel; the smart-ass teenage witch daughter of the woman who runs the best-stocked magic shop in LA; and a round of women you met, loved for a second or a year, and then said goodbye to.

The teenager often affects you most, because you dream of children. You think there are five; two girls and three boys of varying ages, always seen laughing or sleeping or sitting quietly (but not for long) through someone's eyes. You think it's you and sometimes you rush to the mirror, knowing it's a dream, to see the face looking back at you; and there's nothing there. The PTB trying to show you your future children? Maybe. It's not clear enough for you to tell whether it's supposed to be prophetic or wishful thinking. You're certainly not sure about the latter, because you believe you'd make a terrible father (look at Dru, at Penn), but you're not sure about the former... isn't life supposed to be about choice? Even yours.

Yet you know it's not. The path is ordained. You will fight in the apocalypse. The side you walk on is not. The side of good, of light, of Angel. The side of bad, of dark, of Angelus or Angel-beast. And in between, the abyss.

 

Middle - The Last Minute

 

You hear a chime, startlingly immediate, and instantly your mind jumps to fanciful conclusions of bells tolling you to heaven or to hell and the hour being at hand, and behind that the inevitable unwelcome recollections of solemn church bells, the rings of which you screwed Darla senseless to in the blood of your village as those same savage deaths were mourned.

(Before you invaded the sanctity of that church, getting a taste for defiling and reviling God, and revelled in the death screams of the mourners.)

But you're dragged from those thoughts because there's a lot of people converging on you tucked away in your favourite corner and you feel stupid when you realise the sound was the stridency of the rarely-used doorbell (demons tend not to be so polite).

You accept random hugs, returning them clumsily, uncomfortable with too much physical contact. Your gaze rakes over the faces without seeing any of them, but somehow your subconscious recognises them and throws out one word: Champions.

You have been doing this a while now, and it didn't take you very long to get a reputation. Mostly peaceful but enterprising demons around LA started selling your address to whomever asked for it; that led to a lot of fights, a few tentative alliances, and a couple of friendships. Warriors, in general, are slow to trust - and even slower to trust those they think they should be warring against - but the bonds of battle are wrought rapidly to last for long, and though you didn't talk at length to any of those people, you were willing to fight alongside them, saved some of their lives.

And now they've come en masse to maybe save yours.

Well, and the rest of the world's, but you get a warm glow you faintly recall as contentment that they've come at all.

When the crowd disperses a little, whatever companions the fighters have brought fading away to the kitchen or the bedrooms they appear to be cheerfully colonising, you're able to make out the individuals as they greet you and each other. There are wary eyes across rooms and delighted reunions in the centre.

And at the edge, where you still stand in a slight state of shock, she comes to you, nervous, watching you carefully to gauge your reaction to her closeness. It's been a long time since you've experienced it, but your reaction is pretty much the same; your senses open, recoil slightly at the number of scents and sights and textures in your formerly peaceful hall, and then concentrate solely on her.

Vanillasweatmusk. Blondemutedbluegreen. Racingheartbeatmeasuredbreath. Smoothsilktan. Sweetcopperblood.

Buffy.

You've noted absently that among the retinue that accompanies her (shrunken; you assume she's left her settled friends with their happy families behind, or more likely harried them as far out of danger as she could, though she must know nowhere will be far enough) there is a man who bears the smell of your mate, and so you act civilised, squashing with effort the demon's indignation, your own jealousy and ire, and the desire to grab her, kiss her soundly, and bear her down to the floor oblivious to your surroundings.

Instead, you smile at her, step forward to offer your first true embrace of the night, and she leans into your arms gratefully, holds you as strongly as you hold her, and for a moment you believe things might actually turn out okay, because you always try for optimism when you're with her. She pulls back slightly, only to stand on her toes and press her forehead against yours. You bend down to accommodate her and then in one precious moment she kisses you, with passion and tenderness and it's been a while but you're pretty sure even still love.

After a second or an hour you separate and you thank her for coming. She laughs, says she had to, and you experience a fleeting despair that this is duty for her (but then, how can you expect the end of the world to be anything else?) until she turns to search the crowd, singles someone out, calls them over, and you see who it is and wonder how you could have missed the presence of your Blood, the only one of your line left. You glower at Spike and get an answering scowl as he lights another cigarette, drops the current one insouciantly on your pristine floor, grinds it out, and studiously ignores your strengthened glare.

It turns to an amused, then half-gratified half-viciously pleasured smile as Buffy explains that Spike is her seer, much as Cordy is yours, and while Spike growls and glares harder she goes on to give a half-baked and rambling explanation of how the Powers removed some chip from him and gave him the visions instead so he wouldn't kill, and how they're apparently the ultra-painful variety, and then she wanders off to find the other Slayer - Giles' latest teenaged charge - so the two of you can be introduced, and you're alone with the only other vampire you know to be fighting for the side of Good in this battle, so much as you can be alone in a room filled with chattering, high-energy people.

You stand in silence with him for a moment, and then, as one, you reach out and clasp arms, touching the veins that run with each other's blood. It's a simple moment that should have been complicated; you don't trust each other, you don't particularly *like* each other, but you're fighting the same fight, the good fight and it's been bloody difficult for both of you to come into it, and you're going to try damn hard to make sure both of you get out of it.

He then takes your place away in the corner, chain smoking and watching the people, forming (if you know Spike, and you do) insanely rash and incredibly accurate impressions of them all. You circulate, almost comfortable in a social activity you hate because they're all *your* people, fighters. You don't know most of them too well, but you understand them. It's a refreshing change to be with people that kill what goes bump in the night instead of ignoring it.

You eventually find yourself back in a corner with Buffy and a cynical sword master named Graeme who you met under unfavourable circumstances a few years back (he'd stalked you for a week and then tried to kill you) but became nearly-friends after a long, exhausting, fight. You share battle stories and shaggy demon tales and compare scars and discuss in hushed tones the coming fight (which no one is referring to explicitly). Over their shoulders, you watch the rest of the room, which has divided and is doing much the same; even Spike is talking to Zoe, a spellcaster whose vulnerable frame and bubbly personality masks a fearsome power and ruthless willingness to use it.

When you've all trudged up to bed and you're lying awake listening to the unfamiliar multitude of heartbeats around you, you try not to think that within the next week, at least some will be dead, or they could all be dead. Or worse.

You're wrong.

It's within the next day, because you've barely been asleep for a couple of hours and it's still dark out when you're rudely pulled from slumber by a masculine, vampiric roar from one end of the hotel and a female scream from the other and you're already scrambling into clothes before your sleep-fuzzed mind identifies them: Cordelia and Spike.

You run to Cordelia first, finding her in the corridor outside the room she's taken over. People are coming at her from all sides, and you shoulder them out of the way to give her some space.

She gets it quickly when, clutching her head and wincing with pain, she delivers the Powers' message in a clear, strong voice. You can hear it being echoed, with more panic, by Spike.

Spike's had a dislike for fire since the day he burned Dru.

You immediately urge everyone out, but they're rushing back to their rooms and you rue the fighter's instinct that sends them for weapons before protecting their lives (though isn't it really the same thing), until it occurs to you that your feet are carrying you straight to your room and then your weapons chest and then to as many daggers and stakes and axes as you can manage before, finally, you uncover your sword.

It's of Irish extraction, like you, found selling for an appallingly low price in an antiques shop you'd felt inexplicably drawn to. You draw it, dropping the sheath heedlessly and watching for a moment that you really don't have the way light reflects off it. Badly, that is; it's in no way a pretty thing, not decorative and shining silver and jewel-encrusted hilt or any of that crap. This is an unrefined, functional broadsword, and it thirsts for blood. You've never used it before in pitched battle, fearing, superstitiously, that if this sword tasted blood while you held it, you would be drawn to do the same.

In this situation, that's good.

Armed, you race out of the hotel, listening out for heartbeats and human fear as you go, but there are few and by the time the hotel goes up in flames you're watching it and feeling the dark energy of the demons surround you and the Powers That Be are silent as the demons start to come and you start to fight.

You're not sure how long it goes on, as the demons keep coming and the spells, which first were light as your own magick-users deflected them, keep crashing down as they become exhausted or dead. Later, you can find out and congratulate or mourn (you hope), but now you only curse and dodge the bolts of pure black energy as well as the blows.

You fight long enough for your movements to owe less to vampiric strength and skill than to human determination and obstinacy, and then for them to be more mechanical than flesh; swing, cut, rend, stab, dodge, and then again. You've lost or used all of your weapons except the sword, and as you expected, it exults in the spilling of blood, including yours, and you might have responded to it except you're too tired to respond to anything.

And then, finally, you think there's some kind of respite because you're still hitting and cutting your sword around, but it's not connecting with anything and when you chance a pause and wipe the blood out of your eyes, you see that's because there's nothing to connect with. No demons still stand.

No humans either.

You're standing in a wasteland of slippery blood and fallen weapons and bearers.

You've won... but, like everything, at a price.

And then, faintly, you make out a sound, right at the edge of your hearing. Behind you. And you turn, and it's still dark, but your tired eyes strain, and then they see, and you slide to your knees, defeated in the blood and bodies you know your ash will soon join, because advancing in the distance is another demon army.

It's there that you realise this ultimate despair is missing the one thing that would make it completely unbearable; and then, there it is.

You never realised you were fighting so close to two Slayers, but there they are; Nicole, the brassy French beauty you only just met, her head lying in unmistakably wrong alignment with her body. And in front of her, just slightly, as if she'd tried to protect the younger Slayer, Buffy, blood smearing in her hair and on her chest and across her stomach and over her face and you crawl over and pull her body into your lap with shaking arms, unable to do anything but stare at her ravaged face in horror.

And that is when the First attacks you.

You feel it as a shockwave through your entire system which seems to carry you out of your body and onto some plane as dark as anywhere you've ever been, blacker than hell, and it's deathly silent, deathly because somewhere under your range of hearing you *know* that there are flesh-tingling screams because you made those once and, more, you made other people make them and you thought you remembered everything from Angelus' reign over Europe with perfect clarity but you're only now realising it was only ever *your* clarity and then every victim you created screams at once.

You try and cover your ears but you can't because you've no ears, try and yell yourself, sure your misery could block out theirs, but you can't because you've no mouth. You're drowning in the screams as if they were the murky, viscous blood you drank down and relished, which you remember now and yearn to throw up even as you yearn to taste it again, and then over the screams or under them or through them, you're not really sure but it's clear as that bell which you now know *was* signalling you to doom, the First speaks to you.

It offers you silence and you assume that means death and you're about to accept because the world is fucked anyway and what you do doesn't matter, what you do never matters, and some spark of light inside you demands to know what It means and the First knows about the spark and brings the darkness to bear on it as It answers you deafeningly, It's voice causing you physical pain though you've got no physical presence, that It means surrender.

You don't know what It means because you have surrendered, your body and your mind because you'll never be able to stop hearing the screams now, and It says nothing, just waits and watches because whether it takes it a thousand seconds or a thousand years it has you now. The darkness in your soul has come out and mixed with the darkness around you, the darkness of the screams and your murders and your deathsdeathsdeaths and your father is there looking at you because he always knew you would come to this and you can see the battlefield and everyone is dead and they knew you wouldn't save them, you didn't save them and you failed and what are you for if not for death?

Rebellion.

The darkness sucks you in and then lets you surface, lets you think for a moment, lets the spark ignite before the screams and now the faces as well taunt you and everything you see is painted gaudy crimson, slashed across with dripping dark red the way you carved a scarlet wound on the world and then your father is there again and then your sister and as your soul wails at the sight of the sister you loved so well and killed so well your father is there and your sister is there and the scarlet slash is there across her back and then across your back as your father shouts and you remember saving her and then you remember saving Cordy and Bethany and Faith and you can't save yourself but it doesn't matter as long as you can do-

THIS and you come out of the darkness for a second but that's long enough and just for a moment you collect all the faces and all the tears and all the gratitude from when you, *you* finally got it right, you grab all that and throw it at the First and then you don't know how but you *shove* because you want it out of your mind and as you sink back down into the darkness and let yourself relax and drown you wonder at how surrender is blindingly white.

 

End - The Change

 

When you feel the First again, lurking at the edges of your mind, you feel more distress than any you've ever known, more than even that benchmark you created... how long ago? The screams seemed eternal. You've failed again, and this wasn't for one you loved or a duty you were given it was for *you* and you weren't strong enough, and so it takes you an endless moment to realise the First is loud because the demon is suddenly silent.

Then your baffled, worn out mind processes - not silent.

Absent.

The First slips away, satisfied (humans are Its strength and favoured playground, after all) and though you register its disappearance with the implicit promise of return, the residue it leaves it nothing compared to the demon's sibilant whispers and so you can ignore it, for now.

Ignore it in favour of the rays of sunlight crawling sluggishly onto the battlefield that suddenly doesn't look so much like a battlefield, illuminated because the air above it is glowing and smelling faintly like ozone. You watch the pale dawn encroach on the empty horizon (you don't question the disappearance of that second army, when you briefly remember it) in a state of beyond calm; a languid appreciation of the sunrise you haven't seen for so long and acceptance of your fate in it.

It's not until you don't burst into flames that you realise that that fate is no longer your fate, and you look placidly into the sunlight and realise you're breathing.

And when you look down at the blood-soaked woman in your arms, so is she.

 


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