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 eyes.
"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 leaving.
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 you can—"
"I'm here about your current . . . problem," Wesley says. "My problem, your problem: same 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.
"Angel," Buffy 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 lately—"
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 in?"
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 anything."
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 yet.
I need someone to look into that.
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 not.
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 better."
"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, seemingly, uncaring.
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 weight.
"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?"
"Still sleeping," 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 necessary."
Buffy notices Wesley has failed to answer the question, but decides not to press it. At the moment.
"It sounds like he got—"
"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 weak.
"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 constant litany.
"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. And empty.
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 flirting.
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 about disemboweling.
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 stuff."
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 lot, too."
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 it."
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 organ-specific cannibalism—"
Buffy's nose wrinkles. "Ew. Remind me to get you a subscription to something more fashiony and less cannibally."
"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 heart?"
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 that?"
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 throat."
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 shackled.
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 over."
"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 says.
Buffy's fingers tighten around her sword.
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 cold.
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," he says.
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 left behind.
"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 other Buffy.
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.
Feed Lamia Archer Visit 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.