well- like into accursedness, with doubly hipped daydreams above,
ashlar rings around each breath:
the bedroom where I left you, crouching so as to hold you,
the heart commands the frost that gently captivates us on the divided
you will be no flower on urn fields and me, the script-bearer, no ore releases from the round wood and mud cabin, no angel. Paul Celan, "Brunnen" (trans. Michael Hamburger)
When they leave the club, it's like any other Friday night. Better, even, thanks to the two or three (four?) extra grenadinis that Renata and Rosario poured into her. When they talk fast and toss their hair like that, Buffy ends up accepting whatever it is they're insisting on.
It's nice to have friends again. Even if she doesn't always (most of the time) understand what they're saying. Renata is tucked in against her left side, arm through hers, head on Buffy's shoulder. Rosario leads the way, her heels clicking on the damp marble. It must have rained earlier, but the skies are clear now.
Rome, at night, is bright with laughing faces and strange-sounding sirens. The three of them compete with the volume.
The two Rs adopted her a couple months ago. In another nightclub, they oohed and ahhed over her blonde hair, checked out her dress and winced at its unfashionableness simultaneously, grabbed her hands and danced with her. Now they take her out several nights a week, introduce her to their enormous population of male friends, dress her up like their own personal American doll.
The sweat she worked up on the dance floor is cooling quickly down the center of her back. Like a snake, stretched full out.
Shivering, Buffy reaches up with her free hand, yanking out the chopstick, loosening her hair. Long baby snakes hang wet down her neck, chillier than the air.
"Just a little further!" Rosario calls.
"Caro, don't look now," Renata breathes into her ear. "But I think that bello is watching at you."
Bello, beautiful man. Buffy slows and starts to turn her head, but Renata's nails dig into her neck. The grip jars, insults. She can't help jerking away and nearly elbows Renata before she checks herself. That's her other life; in this life, she has friends, goes dancing, flirts all night long.
These friends don't know anything about vampires. She intends to keep it that way.
"You two go inside," she says, straightening her shoulders. "I'll be right -"
They're already headed into the nearest cafe; don't have to tell *them* twice.
Funny-strange how she can slide so quickly into her other life. Without looking over her shoulder, though she wants to, Buffy walks quickly to the nearest alley. Her dress is too clingy to hide a stake, her purse too small to hold one, but she grips the lacquered chopstick that held back her hair. And she has the element of surprise.
Roman vampires tend to resemble Roman people. They take their time. They also like to grope and leer, but that's not important.
Buffy flattens herself against the wall, holding her breath, and seeks out the sound of footsteps through the clanging horns and growling traffic. It's difficult, but she knows he's almost there just as the shadow falls slanting across the opposite wall.
Dirty plaster wall that grabs and holds the shadows, and this is a big shadow.
Tightening her grip on the chopstick, she steps forward.
Into the light from the street, and she blinks, briefly dazzled. Monochromatic details - wide shoulders, long coat, heavy brow - hang in her sight for a moment before they resolve into the familiar.
"Angel?" The adrenaline of the expected fight sluices out, leaves a warmer, more private array of sparking nerves.
"Buffy," Angel says and starts to walk toward her into the alley. Then he seems to think better of it.
How could she not have recognized him? Dropping the chopstick, she throws her arms around his neck and hugs him tightly. Her heel catching a cobblestone, she stumbles before he catches her under the arms and steadies her.
Buffy looks up at him and he says her name again.
Deja vu slams into her: it's the tilt of his head, the sense she's getting of being studied and sized up; it's being alone in an alley with him, slanting light and deep shadows around them.
"We've got to stop meeting like this." Buffy grins, shakes out her hair. Little wet whips that shine in the light. "You're here. In *Rome*."
Nodding, Angel seems rooted to the ground. "You're looking - good. Healthy. Healthier?"
She smoothes her skirt over her hips; she hasn't worn a size four like this since graduation. The Rs call her their little gnocchina. "Wine and pasta. What're you going to do?"
His lips twitch like he wants to smile; then he ducks his head.
"Angel," she says. "What're you doing here?" She has to ask, even if she's not sure she wants to know. Apocalypse, end of days, even some cockeyed prophecy. She'd rather be dancing.
Except, even as she's thinking that, she's looking up at him and all of this feels so familiar, so *right*, that it's downright spooky. This feeling is snugger than deja vu, more intimate than an announcement of ill-tidings.
"Business," he says vaguely.
"Business, huh?" she asks. Angel shakes his head and even though his feet don't move, he seems to draw away, into himself. So she still has to do all the conversational work; nothing's changed *there*. "Business of what, exactly?"
She has to ask; Angel's business is hers.
Angel squeezes his neck briefly and peers at her. "God, you look *beautiful*."
She can't help it; she grins and shrugs, enjoying the steady weight of his gaze. "Flattery will get you - where are you going, anyway?"
Angel glances from side to side like an undercover operative in an old thriller. She can't imagine him watching spy movies, but that's what he's doing. Taking her elbow, he asks, "Is there somewhere we can go?"
"That depends." Buffy links her arm through his. It really is spooky, in the sense of how un-spooky it feels, how right he feels against her. Solid bulk and the sigh of leather, his eyes dark and wide, looking down at her.
Confusion tightens the skin around his eyes, drags down the corners of his mouth. "On what?"
"What you have in mind." She tugs him closer. The longer he looks at her, the warmer she feels, across her skin and deep inside. It's always been like this, for her, with him. Even the first time when he was Mr. Mysterioso and highly annoying, she felt this building buzz, prickles arcing between them, bridging them.
When he narrows his eyes, considering her, Buffy has to swallow against the warmth rushing up through her. Into her mouth, the pits of her palms, everywhere.
But Angel just keeps looking at her. For a moment, she thinks he's trying to memorize her, but that can't be it. For another moment, she believes he's trying to think of some way to tell her to get away from him.
No. He's looking at her like he wants something from her. Not *that*, not a kiss, more like he wants to ask her a question, demand a favor.
She's drunker than she thought.
"Sorry -" She tries to step back, look away, but Angel holds her in place. She shakes her head, but that just makes her dizzy. "Sorry. Too many cocktails, I -"
"It's okay," he says, brushing the hair from her eyes. His palm slides down to the side of her neck, his thumb touching her lower lip. Now she has less than *no* idea what he means when he looks at her like that.
Touches her like that, like this, his arm going around her waist. Angel sighs, once, quietly, and his eyes stay steady as he pulls her up against him.
Buffy kisses him first, pushing forward and up, closing her eyes against the shadows and wrapping one arm around his neck. He meets her, shuddering when she opens her mouth and pulls him in, deeper, nipping down on the tip of his tongue.
They used to kiss for hours, until they were bruised, breathless, swollen from it. When it was all they could do - before her birthday and then again after - kiss so hard that she had helium running in her veins and liquid glass, glowing hot, for hands. Hands that slid up and down his back, squeezed his waist - like that, like this - palmed his chest and dug in their nails. He tastes like he always did, his mouth is warming up against hers like it always did, there's nothing to worry about. He backs them up, Buffy lets him, tugging, yanking, until she hits the wall and he covers her.
"Can't," he says, voice rough as asphalt, breaking the kiss and rolling his forehead against hers. "You know we can't."
She blinks slowly, dazedly, and smiles with half-numbed lips. She should be flattered that he still seems to think she could break the curse. Here lies Buffy: so good in bed, she stole souls.
As a matter of fact, she isn't flattered. She doesn't think he believes that, nice as that might be. She thinks, instead, that he believes *she* believes that. That he believes he can use her guilt for his own. And that's pretty insulting.
Buffy arches her back from the wall, pressing against him. "Do I? Know that?"
His eyebrows are lowered, his voice harsh and sad. Sometimes, now, Angel manages to look all of three years old. "Last time, you know what happened last time -"
"Last time," she murmurs and wriggles two fingers into one of his belt loops. "See, that's where it gets fuzzy. *Which* last time? Last time, my birthday? Last time, graduation? Last time, ice cream and your heart beating?" Or, she adds silently, yet another last time for you, with Darla?
Angel opens his mouth. One more shadow, Buffy thinks, a line of dark between his lips, and it matches the narrow shadows of his eyes.
"I remember now," she says. "Funny thing about resurrection - *everything* gets restored." Angel blinks, eyes darting, and when he tries to back away, Buffy holds him still. She doesn't even have to try; just the pressure of her hand and he stops. "Even the stuff you didn't know you'd lost."
"I don't understand," he says. Unnecessarily, since his whole posture is leaning away, his face tight with incomprehension.
"What were you thinking, anyway?" she asks, then shuts her eyes for a long moment. "Never mind. You probably don't even remember." But he's looking anywhere but at her, and that tells her everything. "Okay, so *you* get to remember? Not fair."
"It's worse, remembering," he says. His arm is braced on the wall next to her head; his elbow buckles when he speaks. He swallows, Adam's apple dipping and bobbing, before meeting her eyes. "Much worse."
"Yeah," Buffy says lightly. "Only how would you know, seeing as how you didn't rape and pillage *your* mind?"
Black eyes wheel, black mouth drops open. "I didn't -"
"Okay, think of it as suicide. Killing off part of my, our, life."
The thing is, she isn't mad about this any more.
She doesn't even remember being *angry* about it in the first place. That day is long past and she's here *now*, arms around Angel again, and that's all that should matter to her. But the curse matters. He can't hold the curse over her head. Can't pretend the curse is everything to do with her, that he's just the innocent caught in the crossfire. She spent way too long believing that for herself.
"Still don't understand," Angel says. Dog and bone, she thinks, chewing over it until it turns to mush. "You - you, what?"
"Every spell leaves traces," she says, though he probably knows that. "When I came back, it was like - I thought I came back wrong. Things didn't fit. I remembered Dawn and remembered her never being there. I remembered staying with you in LA that day. Promised I'd never forget, then I did. And I remembered just turning around and going home."
Angel shuffles his feet, adjusting his stance. His knuckles brush over the plaster next to her head. Does he have enough blood in him to bleed at that?
Buffy sucks in a deep breath. "I thought I was crazy, like lock me up, strap me in, throw away the key *crazy*." *Dru-crazy*, she wants to say, but doesn't. Instead, she runs her hand down the center of Angel's chest and smiles. "Turns out, I'm just me, doubled. Tripled, maybe. Think of me as the cosmic Swiffer."
Skin, plaster, sluggish blood as he spreads his fingers and leans infinitesimally closer. "Huh?"
"Right, you probably don't do much of your own housework up there in that penthouse," she says. "I pick up all the big magic? But it doesn't affect me. It can't."
That gets him; she feels him stiffen and - not pull away, exactly, because he remains perfectly still, but it's like his skin sets, like plaster, and his eyes shut down.
"Oh," Angel says. "Oh, well." He turns his head, his jaw working, then adds, "I clean up after myself, though. I do."
Buffy laughs and cranes up to kiss his cheek. "I'm sure you do. Not that that's the *point*, but good on you."
"What is the point?" Dog, bone. Furrows in his forehead that she doesn't remember being there. But Angel can't change, so it must be her memory that's wrong.
"Something about the curse," she says. "And me, plus you."
There's a lot more, of course, much, *much* more, about what she knows and remembers. Like that day, ice cream and sunlight. Like Darla, who died twice as many times as Buffy has. Like Faith eavesdropping and poking through his dreams, like his son who's someone else's son now. But Angel's looking at her again, the crease between his eyebrows almost painfully, Giles-y, deep, and she kisses him again. That can all wait.
She's learned that much in the past year. Most things can wait, a lot longer than you'd think they can. Roman pace of life, really. She'd never imagined the luxury of waiting, how she can roll in it like warm sheets and know that someone else - many someones - is out slaying.
Nor could she know, before, the pain of that luxury. Being superfluous is a kind of living death.
Now she intends to *enjoy* the luxury. She drapes both arms around his neck and pours herself into the kiss. Cold and hot simultaneously, his hand kneading her hair, her scalp, his chest pressing into her, his mouth open, wide, warming. Always warming, and she curls one leg around his knee and kisses harder.
"I -" Angel says. He glances around the alley, kicks a piece of trash, rolls another under one foot. "Not like this, not here."
"Why not?" Her nipples are hard, painfully so, against the thin clinging material of her dress, and the friction's filling her up with hot, buzzing static.
"You, *you*, Buffy, you can't -"
She's the good one, she understands that. Angel can't imagine her doing this, wanting this so much. Screwing in alleys. She bites his lip to shut him up.
Whatever brought him here, mysterious business or nostalgia, whatever's left between them to hash out and apologize for, it can all wait. Buffy runs her tongue over Angel's bottom teeth and shivers hard when he moves his mouth down her neck, his hands going lower on her waist, around to her ass, and this is more than a kiss. This is full-body, pressed-together, too many clothes in the way, more than halfway to sex.
She's not wearing underwear - it would ruin the line of the dress - and she can see the moment he realizes it, lifting her up, her legs around his waist and his hands on her ass. His eyes go round, wide, and she kisses him harder.
She's not the girl he used to know. That's, yes, obvious, but for several seconds, Buffy feels just like her.
She hasn't been that girl for so long that it's jarring. Once she was afraid of sex, of this, afraid of how much she wanted from him. *I kiss you and I want to die.* Fear on her lips, in the tips of her fingers, opening wider to him.
She's trembling and so full of warm, pulsing need that she can't speak, just kiss and hang on. Feels like her, and then more, older, as well. Everything she's done since, all that her body has learned, her hips rolling against him as her head knocks the wall. Playing alive, Angel gasps into her mouth, worries her lip with his teeth, and braces her there against the wall as he reaches to his fly.
Buffy licks his cheek, his eyebrow, sucks hard on his ear while he fumbles and shifts. The wall is rough and damp against her back, scratching and urging her on; when he slides his hand between her legs, she almost throws herself off him, into the wall. His fingers, she'd forgotten how long and thick his fingers were, stroking her until she must be soaking him. All the heat and confused sensation inside her streaks into clarity, into a single lightning-bright channel, deep inside her, getting brighter every time his thumb circles her clit.
She can hear her name, over and over, like wind outside old, rattling windows. She can see his face, naked and white, imploring, and she can feel him moving against her. She knots her fingers in the back of his hair and moves against him, up and down. Finally he's pushing inside, so slowly there are tears at the far edges of her eyes. She'd forgotten so much, hands and the texture of his mouth and *this*, stretching her open, moving inside, reforming her. She bears down and rocks her hips so that the lightning flashes red, then green, Van-Gogh sunflower-bright. His shoulders are hunched, his head bent over hers. He isn't breathing any more, isn't pretending anything.
He kisses her scar. It has faded nearly to nothing, but he knows where it is, sucks on it until she remembers the bite with her whole body.
"Do it," she tells him, pressing forward, "do it."
She's open, opening, everywhere - her mouth on his temple, and her scar, and her legs. Her skin could pull open at every pore, take in everything, cover him and hold him, and it wouldn't be enough, not nearly.
He's not going to be happy, because nothing is perfect, not after all these years. All the same, she's reaching for it, opening toward the far horizon of perfect and eternal and she wonders if he can feel it.
Her hips jerk and stutter against him as she tries to take everything he's giving and then some, work up the vague thrum of friction of his skin on her clit, his hand on her breast, and the wall is fucking her from behind, scraping her open.
When he bites, she feels it *all*. Buffy clutches at his head, lunges forward, gives and opens and comes.
Mumble, grumble, roar that's beyond words; Angel rips his mouth away. The brass-bright eyes dim in a flash, the cat-face ripples away even faster, but there's her blood on his mouth, black and wet. Her pulse rockets at the sight. He braces her against the wall, hand low on her throat, fingers in her blood, pressure heavy and black, lead and steel, on her lungs. He fucks, they fuck, until her head bounces as he comes and she comes again, deeper, rougher, tightening her legs around his hips and arching up, away.
Her fingers have dragged down to his shoulders, she's hanging on by her nails. Angel shuffles, arm on her back, helps her slide down, steadies her as she stumbles.
She leans against him, wrung-out, her muscles fluttering and twitching. Angel wraps his coat around her shoulders, then eases them down until she's perched on his lap. He hides his face in her hair, she rests her cheek against his shoulder. They fit.
They always end up like this.
It doesn't matter where they start from, sex or fighting or desperately chaste making out, it's always this.
Always comes down, back, to this. His big hand in her hair, her breath gradually slowing down. Even the last time she saw him, in Sunnydale right before the end, they ended up like this.
They *started* like this, come to think of it. Chaste non-dates on patrol, wrapped around each other like kittens, silent.
All they need is a cemetery and this moment would be identical to all the thousands of others.
Of course, Rome's so old that the whole city's basically a graveyard. For all she knows, they *are* in a cemetery. Buffy feels her shoulders lift, chest constrict, as she laughs a little at that.
Angel pauses in his daubing of handkerchief against her neck.
"Nothing," she says. "Random jokey thought."
He nods and runs his hand gently up one thigh. She tenses, but he doesn't look up, just says, "Messy," and she understands.
He's terribly gentle as he wipes her clean. Soft little strokes of the handkerchief over her thighs and mound that send vague, nostalgic buzzes up through her.
"Talk about biohazard," she says when he shakes out the handkerchief. Blood and come and God knows what. "It's like CSI's favorite dream."
Angel frowns, then wraps his arm around her waist. After several long moments, he says, "That was - different."
"Mmmm," she breathes, patting his bicep lightly, slow warm languor seeping through her.
"You've changed," he says. "Different."
Buffy tilts her head back and looks him over, trying to figure out if he's stating a fact or asking a question. She can't tell, so she tucks her head against his shoulder, pulls the coat more snugly around her, and closes her eyes.
Angel's hand is on the back of her head, palming her skull.
"You know the story of the little starfish, right?" she says, then doesn't wait for the answer. "Brave little guy, Stan or Steve, something like that, he lives happily under the sea doing starfishy things. One day, a wicked boat slices off one of his arms. Steve gets really down because he isn't like the other starfish anymore, he's different and crippled and stuff, but then his friend Hermy the crab helps him feel better. I think there's a dance, like a conga line, and other stuff. Stan pulls himself together. His arm grows back, because he's a *starfish* and that's what they do, but he'll never, ever forget what it felt like to be Different."
Angel clears his throat. "I've never heard that story."
"Well, it doesn't matter," Buffy says and stretches out her arms, wiggling her fingers. "Because you know what? I'm not a starfish."
"A whole year. It's been a *year*, and for almost a year before that, I was just a fist. Year before that, I was the walking dead. So call it three years of being nothing. And I'm *trying* to grow back, but it's hard. Probably impossible."
"Stan lost an arm and he had to grow it back. I have to find the rest of my body. Opposite, and *way* harder."
He's waiting like he expects more.
"That's it," she says. "Moral, end of story."
"Oh," Angel says. The sound is heavy as his eyes, dark and still. "Least you've still got the heart."
He sounds sad when he says that, but she knows if she asks, he won't explain.
Her legs are heavy, her skin still hot and tight, as Buffy shifts carefully to get a better look at him. She kisses him gently and tugs down her skirt. "It's okay," she says. "Told you because I figured you were -." Wondering, confused, grossed out. "Wanted you to know, that's all."
Somehow, it's like the longer she sits here, the more years come back. At the peak, just before she came, she was her old self again, his Buffy, hungry and innocent; now, she's closer to her Roman self. She's not sure she likes it.
Not that she can do anything about it, whether she likes it or not.
"So," she says, "what *are* you doing here?"
"I'm seeing somebody," Angel starts to say, then clamps his mouth shut and looks away. "Sorry. What?"
"You go," she says. "Yours is *way* better."
"Her name's Nina. Nina Ash. Blonde, about your height. She's a potter. And a werewolf."
"She's a *what*?"
His lashes are just as long as ever when he looks down, darker shadows over the shadows already on his face. "A werewolf."
"Not that. The other thing."
He starts to smile. "A potter. She makes - with clay - " He raises his hands like he's signaling an airplane or maybe calling for the check. "You know. Pottery."
"Oh," Buffy says. "Oh, well. That's quaint."
She's trying to get her head around the 'werewolf' part, actually. No, she's trying to imagine Angel seeing someone. Anyone. It's all impossible, and there's a sour, mean little voice inside her that's getting ready to whine.
Tilting her head, she meets his gaze again. "So I was right. You can have sex. You *do*."
He cups her knee in his palm and squeezes. "Think we covered that."
His cheek is against hers; they're looking down, together, at his hand, at her hand, covering his. She laces her fingers through his and says, "Good point."
"You know it wasn't the sex," he says, so quietly it might be her pulse, a stray breeze, anything but the big guy holding her. "It was -"
"Us. Me," she says, just as quietly. Past tense, because here they are, present tense, and all that's between them is afterglow and awkwardness. No demon, no taunting, no apocalypse, and she really should be *grateful* for that. Not mournful, not like she is.
It isn't her any longer, not for Angel.
"You," he says, and she thinks he's finishing her thought, but it could be a new question. "And you? Seeing anybody?"
She lifts one shoulder and works out the ache in her neck. "Not so much, no. Just - more like hanging out. Have a couple girlfriends, go dancing, that kind of thing."
"I saw them," he says, nodding, entirely unembarrassed about stalking her through Rome. "Pretty girls."
"Rosario's the taller one," Buffy says. "Renata was next to me."
"Rosario -" He frowns. "She's human?"
"No, I'm going out dancing with Fyarl demons and the random zombie," she says. "Yes, she's human. Why?"
"I knew a vamp named Rosario," he says, then presses his lips together as his eyebrows lift. "Back in the day - but, yeah. I staked her a couple years ago. Never mind."
She used to think he knew everything, that two centuries and change on her meant he understood a lot more, could teach her what she needed to know. But it's been clear for a while now, and it's all the clearer now, as he racks through his memories, that they were on fairly equal footing back in Sunnydale. The blind leading the blind, really. Both of them figuring out where, if, they fit into the world, and how, and what they could possibly mean to the other. Then getting distracted by heavy petting and pointless arguments.
Buffy trails her fingertips down Angel's far cheek and bites her lip when he finally meets her eyes. "Rosario's not a vamp," she says. "And you don't have to worry about me."
"I know," he says, nearly under his breath. "But I do."
She taps his cheek. "I'm right here."
"I just wanted - to see you." Which is funny, since he's looking away again, down into his lap. Shoulders pulling in, voice roughening. "I wasn't going to talk to you, I just wanted to know you were okay. Safe. Happy."
As she shakes out her hair and pulls it off her neck, she raises an eyebrow. "You *are* stalking me again."
He frowns, his whole expression falling. More than that: *collapsing*. "Not like that. Just one more time. Reassure myself."
*One more time*, like something's about to change, something he needs comforting from.
There's a breeze coming in and Buffy wiggles, working her arms into the coat, pulling it over her. He's talking like the world's going to end tomorrow.
She's pretty sure it's not. Giles tends to let her know about things like that.
When she looks back at him, Angel stares at her. His lips are slightly parted, his brow wrinkled up, and she *knows* she's seen that look before.
Like he's looking *up* at her, even though that's physically impossible.
Asking, imploring, wordless. Not for a long time, but she's seen it. The night he dusted Darla, but before Darla appeared - he stared at her like this, helpless, basically daring her to kill him. Daring or begging. Making her choose even though he was innocent.
Once more, before Acathla, the dark light in his eyes growing darker.
And again, on the hill on Christmas morning, the grass cold and scratchy as steel wool when he shoved her down. He looked at her again. Like this.
He doesn't say much, but his expressions have a vocabulary as big as Dawn's. This one, she knows.
"What're you up to?" Buffy asks, trying to keep her voice even, neutral, friendly. When he doesn't reply, she says more loudly, "Angel. Do *not* go cryptic and threatening on me. That's just about the thing I miss *least* about you."
His lids hood his eyes and his mouth tightens, the tendon on his jaw leaping out. "Nothing."
She touches his shoulder, and he shies away, but Buffy just uses him to push herself to her feet. The new-old bite on her neck pulses and throbs and her sense of balance is off, thanks to these stupid stiletto heels.
He always *does* this, won't answer, decides for the both of them, and annoyance flows through her worry, washes it away.
"Fine, don't tell me." Shoving her hands into the coat's pockets, she starts to turn away. Her left thumb grazes cold metal in the depths of the pocket and she knows what it is before she pulls it out. A Zippo, plain steel, cold in the center of her palm.
"You're smoking again?" she asks. She can't tear her eyes from the lighter. "So you *are* evil."
She ought to be running, she ought to be scared, but she's rooted to the ground. Staring.
Angel's on his feet, swaying at the corner of her vision. "Buffy -"
"No," she says, closing her fingers over the Zippo. "No, I know what this is." She lifts her head. "Where's Spike?"
Angel scowls, his usual I-hate-Spike-expression, and starts to reply.
"Tell me the truth," she says, crossing her arms. The metal is warming up in her fist. Just like a vampire, stealing heat from the living.
Angel rubs his neck, then his forehead. Without his coat, he's still imposing, his shoulders still football-wide, but he's getting smaller.
He starts talking without looking at her. Maybe that's the worst part of all, that he won't even look at her. The cobblestones more interesting than she is. "Wanted him to see you, too. So he'd know you weren't - weren't waiting for him, weren't his any more."
"Yet he's not here," she says. Suddenly, bodily, she wants to see Spike. One more vampire, smaller and slighter, more fearful than Angel ever could be. Or her. Fearful and ridiculously brave, all at the same time. *He's in my heart* and she still doesn't know what that means, only that it's true. "Where is he?"
"In the car," Angel says. He glances at her lightning-fast, then back down. "I glamoured him, just a little, just to get him to see the truth."
"Which is?" She wants to scream - about magic, and mind-control, and stupid, moronic, *idiot* plans - but her voice is hoarse and she's very cold. Concealment magic to show the truth, that's worthy of Willow at her worst. "What's this truth?"
"You," Angel says. He finally meets her eyes. All thoughts of Spike, of anger, flood from her. For a moment, she believes he's going to kiss her. But Angel smiles, just slightly, a curving twitch of the lip, and continues. "You don't get it. Spike's on *my* side now. He needed to understand that."
"What is this, *dodgeball*?" Buffy asks. Her balance wavers. "Your *side*?"
"That's what your errand boy said. There're sides, and I'm on the other one from you."
Oh, fuck. *Andrew*. She drops her hands, feels strength and confusion fizzle away in equal measure. She has to swallow twice against the sour anger. Rapidly, not sure what she's doing, she tries to sort out what's important. Spike, glamours, sides; Andrew can wait. "Okay. You glamoured him. What's he seeing?"
Angel's hand lifts in a slow circle, dismissively. "Not sure. He's laughing a lot, yelling at me even more. Hard to tell from his usual, actually. He thinks you're dating the Immortal."
"The who?" Okay, now things are going from the awful to the plain *weird*. The weirdest thing is how cold and still she feels. As the grave. "Your magicians watch a lot of _Highlander_ or what?"
He doesn't know what she's talking about; his brow nudges up, his chin tightens. "Champion we knew back when. Spike's reliving the bad old days."
Everything he says - this *is* Angel, she's sure of it. She knows Angelus just as well, and this isn't him - this is all happening. Buffy knows it is, but she can't accept that. She *won't* accept it.
Angelus is mean, elegantly, thoroughly cruel. This is Angel, alternately mean and clueless and thoughtful. He was *inside* her half an hour ago, kissing her, touching her, saying her name like a prayer, and -. Her stomach clenches and Buffy wants to vomit.
She swallows again. "It's not about taking sides, it never was. It's about -"
"Let me guess. Power?" Angel nods and rubs his chin. "It is. You're right."
He cocks his head and she *shivers* as he slides his gaze down her, X-ray strong. Like he knows every part of her from the inside out. Because he does.
She was going to say 'right', not 'power', but he's talking again. "You know, if you miss being the fist, we could use you these days in LA."
He hasn't heard a word she's said. (He's pretending he hasn't. Which is worse?)
Buffy pulls her arm back and throws the lighter at him. Gets him square in the chest, the Zippo bouncing and clattering to the ground, but Angel doesn't move. Still and solid, the ghost of that question-face shimmering over his features.
So much history between them, habits and familiarity, and he feels *right* when he's next to her, when he's inside. And he wants something from her, but damned if he's going to say what, if she's going to ask. He wants her to kill him, wants her to save him, he probably doesn't even know what he wants from her. Wants to play the asshole so she'll be safe.
Buffy could do anything to (for) him, even now, but she wouldn't know where to start. Cold water beats through her veins and Buffy drops her head, lets her chin hit the leather on her chest, as she turns.
"What, sending me away again?" Angel calls. Great, he's still bitter about the last time.
"No," she says, making her way to the end of the alley, back to the brightness of the street.
At the threshold, when she can see the streetlamp and its cone of misty light, she adds, "You're really good at walking away all by yourself."
She's still wearing his coat. He's got a good job now, a penthouse, lots of money. He probably has ten or a dozen more just like it back in his closet.
Leather coats are like blondes: interchangeable if you treat them like they are.
Nine hours' difference between Los Angeles and Rome. Everything happened at night there, but here, it's already morning. Buffy is just waking up when she hears the news. Fresh from the shower, bopping around the kitchen, admiring the day to come.
It's a beautiful day, the sky nearly white and the heat already coming through. If anything, it's a Southern California morning, when the smog has yet to descend, and the warmth is comfortable and pleasant.
But it's still night there; the morning to come will be very different.
Here, the coffee isn't even finished dripping when Buffy manages to make sense of what the CNN bimbo is saying.
The footage shows black night, hard rain, terror and shrieking crowds. Nothing that fits in this sunny room. Slanting rain and mushrooming fires slice through the kitchen, fill her eyes, send her in a swooping moment to the floor. The tiles tilt sharply upward, slap her in the face, bring night.
Buffy is on her hands and knees, head throbbing, when the darkness clears. She feels down to her fingerbones the memory of her grave, the taste of its dirt and weight of her coffin.
Forgotten, the coffee burns down to sludge. When she finally notices it, five days later, it's far too late to save. She throws the coffeemaker out.
Los Angeles and most of the surrounding counties are - gone. Finished. Written off the books. A bill has to be passed, modeled on Civil War legislation, to define just what the reduced state *is*. The definition of "disaster area" gets superseded by a new category, "homeland catastrophe zone", the HCZ. Martial law is declared from Bakersfield on south.
Early reports featured footage of dragons and demons, but these were quickly suppressed. The official line now is terrorist attack, not that anyone, even the news anchors, believes that. The scale of it - an entire city rather than a landmark - and the persistent absence of any group claiming responsibility show how weak that story is. Andrew's online buddies have been collating the evidence, which he sends on to Giles and Dawn. Geek consensus says alien invasion. Giles claims he's getting migraines from the 1334-speak.
In the midst of sleepless nights and conference calls, Buffy hasn't told anyone about Angel's visit. She almost told Dawn, then stopped herself. Dawn's so happy here (or she *was*, before LA) and Buffy can't be friend, sister, *and* mother to her; it's too much.
She would tell Willow, but no one can find her in the astral ether. LA's not the only thing that disappeared that night.
Buffy knows it was Angel, that this, all of this, is his fault. When he came here, he was already angry, already determined to find a fight. Determined to shove her away (take her fist).
She also knows, just as surely, that he never meant for his fight to end like this.
He probably just wanted a battle. A good fight full of roaring blood and impossible odds. He probably looked up at the sky, wearing *that* face, the imploring-helpless one, and found glorious suicide there.
Angel always loses his soul in the rain.
Instead, he got demon hordes rampaging the city, spent fuel rods breaching the San Onofre nuclear plant, and, now that the carpetbombing's over, every reservist not already in Iraq patrolling the burned-out suburbs.
She'd like to kill him. Or kiss him, then slap his face. If he was anywhere to be found.
She can't tell anyone it was Angel. What good would it do?
All the same, there's no good to be found in keeping this secret. Buffy hasn't passed out since that first morning, but she feels like she's always on the verge. This horrible, cold certainty that suffuses her is a little like grief and a lot more like rage. And sorrow.
She can't seem to cry. That, in itself, isn't exactly new. She hasn't been able to cry since she dug herself out of her grave; tears come to her eyes but never flow. Just hang there and blur out the world.
What's new is that she wants to cry. She wants to take to her bed and beat her pillow with her fists and *howl*. She wants drama, grief pitched so high only dogs can hear it. She wants to mourn, but all she does is move slowly through each day, her thoughts running in tandem with the news ticker.
She patrols the tourist sites at night, staking vamps with a fervor even Faith would envy, but it doesn't help.
Death is supposed to be personal. You're supposed to mourn the loss of a person. Mom, Tara, Jenny: like that.
LA's destruction makes death absurd. There are too many dead. They're all dead: Angel, and Spike, and Wesley, and Cordelia. That clay-pot werewolf girl. All their friends, all the friends Buffy once had at Hemery, everyone she knew at the diner that summer, Lily who took her name and the fry cook and Big Maude the head waitress, all her mom's old sorority sisters and their husbands and children. Angel's non-son and his family.
It's too much death, so much death that numbers blur like tears and the mind, her mind, shies away from it. It's nonsensical, three million people declared dead by act of Congress. Far more than that in the relief camps and on the road, homeless, desperate, going nowhere but always on the move.
Buffy soaks up the news like sunshine. She wants to cry, wants to feel something, but there's too much and she's so *cold*. She can't blink in case she misses something.
She resumes her training.
Giles visits, then stays on. He keeps looking at her, both sidewise and full-face. He's creased and handsome, his eyes narrowed as he appraises her. He hasn't looked at her like this since they went to the desert, just before her mother died.
That was the last time he was her Watcher, the last time he knew more than she did.
She can tell he wants so badly to say something, but she can't let him. If he starts, she'll tell him her secret. Instead, she holds up the quarterstaff, assuming the stance, and he nods. Leads her through things she learned almost a decade ago, critiques and adjusts. His voice is like a ghost's, cold in her ear.
She could tell him, probably *should* tell him, but her tongue will not move.
There are more pigeons in Rome than tourists, which is really saying something. There are probably more pigeons than pieces of marble, than cobblestones. Buffy doesn't even notice them any more. They're just a shifting flock around the edges of her vision, obstacles on the sidewalks, the source of shit that splashes down.
Dusk, the shadows creeping around the edges of the old buildings, softening everything, strange blue light that hovers just before the streetlamps switch on. Dusk, and Buffy is dozing after a double-long training session, ice-pack on the back of her neck and her fingers curled loosely around a bottle of Advil. Dusk, and the sound of pigeons.
Whisk-flap of wings, cooing that might sound pretty if it wasn't going *all* the time, and then the tick-tap of a beak against the window.
Roman pigeons are smart. They know what windows are, know to avoid them.
This one wasn't flying into the window, though. Buffy pushes herself up and opens the curtain all the way.
That's not a pigeon out there.
The bird is half the size of a pigeon, with a caramel-pink breast and black and white wings like a zebra. When it sees her, it taps the window again. The ruff of feathers on its head erects and trembles. More zebra-stripes, black and white blurring together.
Buffy opens the window and the bird hops in. Its bright eyes fix on her and it lifts its right leg like it wants to shake hands.
Something's caught on its leg, garbage wrapped tightly around it; the bird squeaks when Buffy reaches for it, then tucks its beak into its chest. She unwinds a strip of paper from the delicate leg. Dirty, faded newsprint - the masthead of the Los Angeles Times, May 18, the day before the city disappeared - that nearly crumbles under her fingers. The bird cocks its head, tucking the ruff of feathers back down, and keeps watching her.
The message is written in a sharp, Gothic hand that Giles would know the name of. Uncial-something, he tells her later, and the ink is brown and spotting. Rat blood, Dawn's chemistry set says. There are no spaces between the words, like all the ancient monuments in Rome, but it's easy to read all the same.
A voice from a movie, an announcer, a circus ringmaster, the message repeats and resounds in her mind from then on. Slayer-the vampire, a hinge or bridge between her and Angel.
The bird, it turns out, is a - huppa, hippo, something - *hoopoe*. Giles says it's pretty rare, that in the Middle Ages it stood for grief and sin. Buffy wants to grin at that - grief and sin are probably the two things Angel knows best.
The note has to be about Angel, though she can't figure out why he didn't write it himself. It could be about Spike, as Dawn points out several times, but Buffy doesn't believe that. Spike doesn't (didn't?) ask for help like that. He'd be more likely to just show up, bitching and moaning, than send a telegram.
Spike is in the past, dead all over again, his fierce grace gone; she doesn't know where Angel is.
The hoopoe shows no inclination to leave the apartment; Dawn keeps it in her room, calls it Harry, feeds it gelato.
It's impossible to get there. From here, from anywhere, it's too much trouble for anyone to even think about giving it a try.
Buffy, though, doesn't bother with the *thinking* part. She skips ahead to the getting-there.
She argued about leaving with Giles and Dawn, both separately and together. Andrew probably had something to say, too. She was so used to tuning him out that she didn't notice one way or the other. And she can't help but blame him for what's happened. If he hadn't needed to strike a pose in Los Angeles, play the watcher he'll never be, draw a line in the sand, maybe Angel wouldn't have done this.
She knows it's unfair, blaming Andrew, but she can't seem to help it. There's no such thing as sides to take. And if there were, it's her job to call them, not his.
They all argued with her and she left anyway. They, and she, knew all along that she would.
If something happens to her, it's not the end of the world. Plenty of other slayers around, after all.
It takes six days to get to the west coast. After that, the options narrow even further.
You can fly to San Francisco if the winds are cooperating, otherwise it has to be Sea-Tac. You could try Mexico City, but the Mexicans are pretty swamped with the reverse influx of refugees and migrants. They don't look too kindly on receiving yet another Anglo face. Either way, after the airport, it's all driving to reach the HCZ and what used to be LA.
When Buffy lands at Sea-Tac, a big lumberjack guy with Giles' accent meets her at the gate. He doesn't give her his name, and she's still putting the accent together with his Paul Bunyan outfit when he hands her a key and a nearly-empty backpack. He wishes her well, then disappears into the crowd.
The bag holds just two things, a satellite phone and a hunting knife, eerily similar to the one she stole for Faith.
She follows the number on the backpack's tag to the matching space in the airport garage. A big red Toyota Landcruiser, pretty old but sturdy, is waiting for her. On the passenger seat there's a crossbow and a note.
*We can't understand why you're going,* it reads, *but we can help you get there. Be safe. We love you.* It's signed 'Giles and Dawn', in someone else's handwriting, like when you get flowers long-distance. Buffy stares at the note, her hand tremoring slightly, before glancing into the back of the truck. It's loaded neatly with sleeping bags, crates, and pouches of freeze-dried food.
She's never been one for camping - too many sticks and bugs, and the ground's always bumpy, the air damp and cold, so she never saw the point. The last time she slept outside on purpose was with her Brownie troop.
Looks like she's going to have to remember what to do now.
She keeps the note with the other one, in her passport, tucked into the waistband of her underwear.
And she drives. She hates driving, but she can do it if she has to. Zones out behind the wheel, hypnotizes herself into soothing blankness by staring at the lane stripes. White paint, black concrete, thump-thump.
Nine hundred miles south and for a long while you can fool yourself into thinking this is just a nice solitary roadtrip. Maybe the roads are more clogged, and there are tent cities at most of the rest-stops, but the country looks the same, green and terraced and open to wide blue sky between industrial parks and strip malls.
The winds, when they blow from the south, sting your eyes and taste like bleach and charcoal, so you roll up the windows and keep pretending.
Even if you're Buffy and driving's still something that *other* people do, it's fairly easy to pretend.
It's only as you get to Bakersfield that things start to change, to seem increasingly, irrevocably different. Different in a way you can't ignore any longer. Caravans of pick-ups and SUVs that are stopped by the side of Highway 99, tarps stretched past the bumpers for a little open-air shelter. Grills go all day long, their ribbons of oily smoke twisting up into the sky. It's windless, so the smoke hangs there like it's being poured down from sky into camp. Kids without hands or half a face run among the vehicles, shouting, playing army-vs.-monster. There aren't enough adults around to yell at them to stop. Let alone enough who care all that much.
Old social-cultural divisions still pertain in the tent cities, of course. It's like bigotry is a habit. A cockroach, able to survive anything. White people in one camp, blacks in another, all different kinds of Hispanics in a third. Stupid, relentless.
Buffy spends one uncomfortable night on the outskirts of Santa Susana among a group of Salvadorans and Peruvians. They eye each other warily, so the appearance of a blonde girl in a rickety truck with a crossbow on the passenger seat is just one more thing to distrust.
They're friendly enough, on the surface. The spam pupusas they offer her, wrapped in crabgrass and steaming from the grill, fill her up, but she is untrustworthy.
She can't blame them.
"Nothing there," a girl about her age says, hugging her knees to her chest, hiding the chemical burn splashed across her torso like red paint. The scar snakes up her neck and around her shoulder.
Fidelia, her name's Fidelia, and Buffy knows that means something about 'faith'. The girl's got dark eyes and wavy black hair, but she's nothing like Faith. Cowed and soft-voiced, she came to sit with Buffy from the side, not looking at anything but the ground.
Yet somehow she knows that Buffy's headed to the city. Word gets out.
"Sure there is," Buffy says, zipping up her hoodie against the chill.
Fidelia's eyes are bloodshot. More than bloodshot; where the whites should be, there's just *blood*. She blinks once at Buffy, then shakes her head.
"Nothing you'd want to see," Fidelia says.
Buffy moves from camp to camp slowly, too slowly, working her way south.
Everyone has a story, or several, to tell. All the details could drown her. She has to hold herself apart to stay afloat.
All the same, people come to her. They give her letters to deliver to family they're sure must still be alive, they make her repeat addresses they want her to check. "I just want to know if the fountain's still there," one middle-aged lady tells her. "That house was always a piece of shit, but I poured my heart into the fountain in the front yard."
She thinks of all the baby slayers who filled her house that last year in Sunnydale. They all had families and histories, too. Night after night, they'd tell each other their stories until she had to cover her head with a pillow to drown them out. She hadn't wanted to know their names, let alone anything more.
She thinks, too, of that long winter after Angelus emerged. That was when she first learned how to do this, how to take herself out of the equation, hold herself aloof. Think of herself as 'you', as anyone, an empty space of air. She'd practiced before that, when her parents started fighting and, later, when her mother would try to talk to her. But it was that winter that she got good at separating herself. She couldn't look at Giles - she was like Fidelia that way - couldn't look and see the pain and worry naked on his face. And, later, the grief. She couldn't listen to Willow and Xander's strained conversations over the swelling obituaries.
She couldn't do anything but think about Angel and feel the death creeping up all around her.
Lapping at her feet, soaking her knees, closing over her mouth. Death is black water, wide as the sky and dark as the smoke. Death's a kiss that never ends.
People are losing their teeth from radiation, hobbling on homemade crutches, selling their keepsakes for food money. Angel did this, this is *his* fault, and Buffy carries the secret on her tongue like a stopper, a cork.
She keeps moving south, five or fifteen miles a day. Kiss or kill, save him one more time.
She doesn't sleep much. The first night, two men came knocking on the windshield, cooing catcalls, smiling widely. They scurried when she broke one of their wrists and brandished the Faith-knife.
Word always gets out; wherever she goes after that, no one tries to bother her like that again.
She detours across the 101, then back down the 1, and pauses outside of what used to be Sunnydale. A cavity in the earth, crabgrass already growing over the rubble; it's like an omen about what was to come in Los Angeles.
The town is gone, and there are no refugees here. Like they respect the town and its dead.
She thinks about her mom, about all the other dead. All those graveyards falling together, a cascade of coffins and skeletons. Rest in peace, fall in pieces, and Buffy knows better than anyone that the dead can rise. Bones stir, fingers tap-tap-tap their way home.
"Jeez, Angel," she says aloud and kicks a dirt clod into the hole. "I sank a town 'cause I *had* to. What is this, oneupsmanship?"
That night, having retraced her way back to the 101, she stops in a camp messily divided between Anglos from Agoura and Mexican-Americans from Hoppers. She can't sleep, she knows that much, and doesn't even bother unrolling the sleeping bag in the back.
With the knife in her belt, she patrols around the camp's edge. Vampires fled the city with the rest of the population, and they're just as dislocated and confused as the humans. Easy prey, unsatisfying. Over the last week on the road, she has hunted eighteen, killed them all.
The knife is her talisman; she doesn't need to use it, just needs to have it with her. If she still had Mr. Pointy, she'd use that to stake the vamps, but it was lost with the rest in Sunnydale.
Tonight, things are relatively quiet. Stars prickle out and gleam in the red night sky, more stars than she's ever seen. Car radios blare, fires crackle, and voices chatter, but there's nothing out of the ordinary. Not until she hears the hoots of men cheering each other on and anguished yelps from what sounds like a dog.
Something about the men's voices, that near-hysterical macho crowing common to frat boys and soldiers, turns her stomach. Buffy moves quickly, silently, toward the noise. She sees seven or eight guys in a ragged circle around a fire, waving tire irons and pieces of lumber at something on the ground. In flashes as the flames leap, the scene resembles a dance, like football players around a homecoming bonfire, but then she hears the dog howl again.
A long, broken cry that just keeps going, bright naked pain that shoots down her own spine. Closing in on the group from the side, Buffy knocks the nearest man down, away from the fire. She shakes her hair from her eyes to get a better look.
The men are anonymous, hulking figures, their faces and hands orange in the firelight. A huge dog crouches and howls before the fire. Blood mats the fur on its flank. Buffy shakes another man off her arm, her elbow cracking his nose, as she squints at the dog. Maybe it's the firelight, maybe the adrenaline pumping through her, but that fur looks silver and orange. Familiar, somehow.
"Fuck do you think you're doing?" This guy's ugly, face twisted up, raising his fists as he gets closer.
"Pick on somebody your own size," she says as he steps between her and the fire. He smirks and kicks the dog harder.
Slapping his tire-iron against his palm, he says, "Go mind your own business, okay, honey? We're taking care of this."
Buffy bounces on the balls of her feet, her jaw tightening. She's been itching, goddamned *aching* for a good fight, and she didn't realize it until now. Until his eyes widen in shock when she kicks him. Easy enough to twist the iron from his hand and turn it against him, shoving him down and pressing her boot on his throat.
"Call me a freelancer," she says as she tosses his iron into the woods. Whirling on the rest of them, she's pleased to see that they're edging away.
Well, most of her is pleased. Her hands still feel like fighting, the adrenaline sizzling almost painfully through her veins, as she looks around the circle.
"Anyone else? Come on, you can beat up a dog but not a girl?" She steps closer to the dog and drops down on one knee.
"Ain't no dog," someone yells behind her as he retreats. "Thing's a fucking *monster*."
The dog's crawling backward, away from her and the other humans. Its ears are flat against its skull, its eyes painted with firelight. Buffy holds out her hand as it retreats.
At her gesture, it meets her eyes, lifting its snout, and this time she really does *know* it. She's chased this wolf, locked it up, watched it howl all night long. She wants to say its name, but she can't speak. It yowls, low, warningly, then turns and runs for the woods, hobbling and favoring its left leg.
Buffy doesn't chase it so much as she ambles after it. Only a hundred yards into the woods, leaves crackling under her feet, she comes to a stop. Drops back down to her knee and finds her voice.
"Oz?" she whispers. She's going to look like a prizewinning moron if this is a wolf or a coyote. She's been on the road so long, alone even longer, that she's probably hallucinating the resemblance.
Besides, wolfy Oz would be snarling and mauling, not whining and playing submissive. And it's not a full moon.
Then again, it's been a long time since anyone's heard from Oz. Last time they saw him, he'd mastered the change, freed himself from the moon.
Her voice is hoarse as she whispers his name a couple more times and turns in a slow circle, her fingers brushing through the dirt and leaves.
She has turned three circles when a pale figure steps out from the underbrush. Still favoring its - his - left leg, covering his crotch with both hands. His head is down, his ribs streaked with blood.
"Hey, Buffy," Oz says. "Long time -"
She hurries over, her balance swaying for a moment from the surprise. "Skip it," she says, taking his arm. "Can you walk?"
"Um. Think so."
"Where're your clothes?"
Oz winces, lips curling over his teeth. "Had a backpack," he says, then pauses to suck in a labored breath. "I think they scattered it when they -"
"It's okay. Put your weight on me." She threads her arm around his waist, trying to avoid the bruises and the blood. Sighing, Oz complies, still trying to keep himself covered. As she helps him out of the woods, then around the long way toward her truck, she realizes that they're the same height. His head rests right against her cheek. She'd never noticed the height thing before, just knew that Oz was oddly small, perfectly matched to Will.
This close, he smells like wet dog, sweat and blood. His hair's longer than she remembers, matted like it hasn't been washed in weeks. In that, he's no different from anyone around here, yet it bothers her in a way that the others haven't.
"What're you doing here?" she asks when she's got him in the back of the truck. The first aid kit is *really* well-stocked, which she attributes to Giles. There's everything in here from gauze and Bactine to condoms and rubber gloves and scalpels. Watchers always overprepare. "Lift your arms."
Oz bites his lip and glances, quick-glimmer fast, down to his lap.
"Yeah," Buffy says. "Seen it all before, haven't I?" Cages from the library to the crypt to the Initiative; she's seen Oz naked more than any guy she hasn't slept with.
"True," Oz says and smiles. Just a little, like it takes a lot of effort, but it's something. Buffy's about to reply when he lifts his arms, his head falling back. Submissive again, and the sight's just as sad as when he was a wolf.
Even with his eyes closed, he still looks like the Oz she remembers. Only faintly, hidden under grime and panic-sweat. He is wincing permanently now as she checks his injuries, but he doesn't make a sound. She swabs him clean, uses half a tube of antibiotic, then bandages the bloody bruises.
When she leans in closer, though, trying to get the last piece of tape to stick around the back of his ribs, he hisses in a breath. Buffy goes still, but Oz shakes his head.
"Not you," he says roughly. "Your necklace."
She looks down at the silver chain and crucifix around her neck. "Silver, huh?"
His mouth goes crooked again with that attempted smile. "Silver. I'm cool with the cross."
She nods and checks the urge to brush his hair from his eyes. "Good, 'cause a were-vamp would be freaky."
Oz lifts his chin, like a shorthand laugh, and Buffy sticks the chain into the neck of her shirt before finishing the taping.
"There," she says, sitting back and closing the first aid kit. "Ought to hold you until we find a Red Cross."
Oz crosses his arms and nods. He's shivering, she realizes, and there's a whole new coat of sweat gleaming over his face and chest. This is the last memory she has of Oz, bony and wide-eyed when they got him out of the Initiative lab, just as naked and bruised as he is now. Glowing with pain and fear.
*We've got to stop meeting like this,* she's about to say.
She said exactly the same thing to Angel that last night. Faith's knife, missing Kendra's stake, visiting Mom's grave, rescuing Oz: This entire trip is becoming a forced march down memory lane.
Coughing, shaking her head to get thoughts out, she reaches past Oz to the duffel bag, grabbing the first clothes she touches: a pair of twill jeans and the blue hoodie.
Oz's hands are white and strangely clean on the blue. Square, and whatever his size, unmistakably a boy's. His thumbs curve back, make her think of guitars and dancing, of nights at the Bronze, nights she doesn't recall even noticing him.
"You need a shirt," she says and looks around. She did laundry the day before at one of the water camps, and there are a couple bras and several t-shirts spread out to dry over the crates. She shakes out a white shirt and hands it to him.
"Thanks," Oz nearly whispers.
Right, he's naked, ashamed. She turns her back while Oz dresses and doesn't look back until he clears his throat.
"Got quite the set-up here," he says. "What are you, UN peacekeeper?"
"Something like that." She gives him her comb and the rest of the protein bar she couldn't finish at dinner. The clothes fit him just fine; Oz has the hood on the sweatshirt up and it droops over his forehead, makes him look like an extra in _The Name of the Rose_. "More like a search and - not destroy. Rescue mission? Sort of."
"Oh, okay." Oz chews the protein carefully, then cocks his head, one eyebrow tilting up. "Wondered where your blue beret was."
Buffy finds herself smiling. She doesn't want to think about how long it's been since *that* happened.
"Want to tell me what that was all about back there?" she asks. Just then Oz gives out a huge yawn, the kind that shakes you down to your bones. "Or we could save it."
Dropping his chin to his chest, he roughly massages the back of his neck. "Sleep'd be good," he says. "And maybe we could skip it entirely."
He helps her unroll the sleeping bag, then lies down on his side, facing her. Curling on her side, Buffy pushes the single pillow over so Oz can have some. When he says 'goodnight', she can't answer, just smile tiredly.
Through the back window, the sky glows brick-red, three shades darker than the campfires dotted around, still burning. Huddled this close, whispering in the dark, it's like a slumber party just outside hell.
She wakes up the next morning on her stomach with Oz twisted around her. It's kind of basically, totally, awkward, especially when she elbows his bruises in surprise, but then he brushes the hair out of her mouth and asks where the toilets are. By the time he gets back, Buffy has calmed herself down enough to ask whether it would be totally rude to ask him to wash up.
"Love to," he says and runs a hand through his sticky hair. "Got any soap?"
His arm's stiff, so she sets up next to the truck - one of the plastic crates, her bottle of shampoo, and the last jug of water - and helps him. With his shirt off, the dirty suds running in streaks down his chest, it's hard to see anything scary about Oz. Nearly impossible to believe this is a wolf, *the* wolf who tore out that girl Veruca's throat and howled with animal joy, blood matting its jaws.
This wet-haired guy shivering in the weak morning sun is just Oz, just somebody she once knew, somebody she trusted without ever talking much to, just an old friend. He smiles crookedly when she takes the towel off his shoulders and helps him up. Old scars shine on his exposed skin, claws and the Initiative's scalpels.
"Don't know if you've got plans," Buffy says when he's pulled his shirt back on, "but I could use a driving buddy."
There are a couple nicks on his cheeks, one low on his throat, from her disposable razor. The blood catches the light, as do the rings in his ears that she was careful to untangle the hair from, as Oz looks her over. Buffy leans against the truck, wondering where this swell of anxiety - thick static and twinges surging through her - came from.
He's only been here for about twelve hours, but right then, Buffy's sure that she *needs* him to come with her. In the sleeping bag, he was warm and heavy, fitted perfectly around her; under the suds, he spat water up like a dolphin. Now, he's pushing up the sweatshirt's sleeves and swallowing.
"Not so much for plans," Oz says finally. "Driving, I could do."
Having him with her makes a lot of things easier. She doesn't have to do all the driving, which gives her time to study the maps and plan her route into the city.
And being on the road together means fewer double-takes and distrusting glares for her. With a guy around, stupid as that is, she's safer. That amuses Oz, she can tell, from the way his eyes brighten and narrow, how his mouth loosens. He calls her 'little lady' and hurries to open doors for her and she punches him hard enough to bruise. "Deserved that," he admits, and bows with a flourish.
Quiet as he is, Oz possesses a curious sort of confidence that lets him stroll through the camps and get information without seeming to be doing anything at all. It's from traveling, he suggests to her, just experience from hitching away through Eastern Europe all the way to Nepal. He barters like a champion, wins her a bag of new razors in a blackjack game, trades protein bars for cigarettes for a box of Reese's Pieces.
That first morning, as his hair dried, he figured out how to use the water purifier that came with the truck and how to work the camp stove. He cooks their meals, reheated stew and soggy rice, like it's expected of him. No, better. Like he wants to.
He smiles when she dubs him the perfect boyfriend. You drive, you cook, you're perfect.
With Oz around, she sleeps better, though 'better' is pretty relative. She sleeps, period. There are dreams, hoopoes and rising tides, shattered skeletons falling through the sky and Fidelia getting beaten by a group of men, sometimes vamped, too. Buffy just has to hope that these aren't prophetic dreams, because they don't mean *anything*. They just scare her, tug on her guilt and snag in her memory, refusing to be dislodged.
The thing about Oz that makes this easy is that he doesn't ask many questions. She feels like she's interrogating him, actually, and she's only asking the bare minimum of questions.
What were you doing in camp as a wolf? "Traveling," he says, not taking his eyes from the road. Buffy's curled up in the passenger seat, so relieved not to be driving that she can hardly believe it, munching the Reese's. "Easier, faster on four feet." He drums his fingers on the steering wheel. "Not as easy as *this*. Faster, though. No roads."
Where've you been? "Here and there. Santa Monica, until -" Like everyone she's met, Oz doesn't *say* the name of the city, not even the date. LA's not like New York and DC; 5-19 just doesn't have the ring of 9-11. He purses his lips and lifts one shoulder. "Strapped the pack to my belly, headed for the woods."
Oz answers questions, he doesn't ask them. When he wants to know something, though, he squints slightly and makes an observation. Say casually, "Heading south" or "Traveling alone".
He leaves it up to her to answer. If she doesn't want to - and she can't answer, not with the secrets clogging her mouth and scraping her palate - she doesn't have to.
She remembers, back in high school, bonding with Willow over how their boyfriends never let on what they were thinking. Maybe Oz has changed, or maybe she has, but Buffy *does* know what he's thinking. His thoughts and observations come out in fragments, never complete sentences, always quiet and unhurried, but they do come out. She's getting good at listening. Better, anyway.
She's getting better at it because she has to. She didn't hear what Angel was saying in Rome, and look what happened. If she'd *listened*, if she hadn't gotten mad, things might have turned out differently.
She's getting better, too, because Oz listens so well. With his whole body, head and torso inclined toward her as he drives, soft fragmentary comments bobbing up whenever she pauses.
And he drives well, way better than she did. He takes them off the highways and clogged interstates and along rural routes and back streets. After four days, they're almost there, only fifteen miles from the wall that separates the HCZ from the city.
Almost there, so close that the air is permanently thick with bleachy grit and charred smoke. The sunsets are spectacular, vivid crimson and mauve, royal purples and streamers of brass and gold.
So close that Buffy can feel herself start to seize up.
A failure of nerves, just like the winter she was seventeen, her first in Sunnydale. She couldn't not think about Angel then, nor could she do anything, either. That was her fault and this, burned landscape and sunsets too beautiful to be real, this is her fault, too.
"Getting closer," he says tonight as the sun goes down and the sky flames out, handing her a bowl.
They're sitting in the back of the truck, the door up, their legs swinging as they eat.
"Close enough to taste," Buffy replies, then wrinkles her nose. They can taste the dead every time they inhale. "Eww. Never mind."
Oz has healed up almost all the way, so when he smiles now - rarely, but it does happen - there is no trace of the wince. "Yeah, let's not go there."
She doesn't want to go. Not there, not south.
What's the point of going into LA? On the strength of a single note that could have been a forgery, a joke? Angel's probably not even there. If he is alive, he must be long gone. Anyone with half a brain and a leg would be gone.
And the note could be about Spike after all.
Who knows? 'The vampire' could be Angel, or Spike, or someone else entirely.
She has way too many vampires in her life.
"What?" Oz asks quietly and it takes several moments for the shock of that - *Oz*, asking her something directly - to recede and let Buffy speak.
"What what?" she says back, trying to sound normal but croaking.
"What's so funny?" Oz is turned at the waist, bowl cradled in his lap, arm up on the rolled sleeping bag. He looks back at her, his face pink in the fading sunset, his eyes wide and dark. He's so *still*. Patient.
"I've got too many vampires in my life," she says. Her voice sounds a little better this time. And it's not as funny spoken out loud as it was in her head. Buffy shakes her head. "That's all."
Oz nods slowly. "Kind of comes with the job, though. Moth, flame. Vamp, slayer."
"Mmm," Buffy says, humming slightly around the weight of secrets in her mouth. "Not that kind of vamp."
"Not the kind you stake?" His eyebrow slides up a notch or two. "No. The kind you love."
Oz has this way with words. Plain as anything, unadorned and simple, never more than a couple syllables, yet somehow they're true. Like rocks on a beach, smoothed down to egg-like ovals, that you never notice.
"Something like that," Buffy replies and looks down into her bowl. She isn't hungry any more, but Oz gets his tense face when she doesn't eat, so she tries to finish off the stew. Three spoonfuls in, he grasps the edge of her bowl and lifts it out of her hands. Blinking fast, Buffy looks up. His face is a white blur, topped with dark red hair the color of the night sky. "Oz?"
"What's in LA?"
Simple question, impossible answer. Leave it to Oz to do that. Her pulse rings like a gong in her skull, two-three-four times before Buffy can answer. "Probably nothing," she says, closing her eyes.
No, she has to look at him. She can't keep looking away.
Opening them again, she tilts toward Oz. When he listens, he leans, and she's mimicking him now. "But possibly Angel."
"Ah," Oz says, one soft syllable like a breath that keeps coming, as his arm steals around her waist and the sound eases out, stirring her hair, warming her cheek.
Buffy tilts closer, her road-tense body throbbing and loosening in counterpoint. Oz's other hand slides up her arm, coaxing and nudging her gently closer until their faces are so close she can't make out his features.
His lips brush hers, and Buffy starts to open her mouth to the kiss that's hovering right between them, but Oz says, "You know I can't go with you."
His lips are soft, his chin rough with the day's stubble. "Into LA?" she asks, her mouth trailing along his jaw, the stubble scraping as she moves. Oz sighs, or murmurs, agreeing, and when her lips reach his earlobe, Buffy adds, "I know. Wish you could, but I know."
No one in their right mind would go into LA. Right now, she *knows* that, but that's like knowing that there's a food chain or that snow is frozen rain. LA is very far away, past the realm of fact, much farther than fifteen miles and a wall patrolled by heavily-armed Marines.
She knows all that, but sensation has always been stronger than mere knowledge, and she's spreading her hand on the center of Oz's chest, feeling his heartbeat against her palm, easing him back as she slides against, then above, him.
LA is a thousand miles away, across seas and out past the atmosphere, and no one's there, least of all Angel. Buffy's nowhere near, and she wants *this*, now, wants the quiet closeness that she's woken to every morning for nearly a week, wants Oz's thin arms around her and his skin under her tongue. Oz is here and never in a million years would she have thought she'd want him like this.
And, soon enough, he'll be gone, too, and she'll be alone again.
They've been kissing as the sky darkens as far as it goes, this close to the city, vermilion and maroon, and they're still kissing. Oz's mouth tastes like stew, the flat chemical tang of purified water, and wild things. Not dead things, not the black shadows that filled Angel's kisses, that spilled from Spike's mouth, but wild things like wheeling stars and coyotes running. His square musical hands move over her back, up under her shirt, and skin to skin makes her gasp, then push her own hands up his sweatshirt. Their fingertips draw endless loops, spirals that go nowhere, trails of warmth and murmuring sighs.
They've slept together every night but not *slept together*. This is not the time to laugh, but Buffy can't help it, has to hide her face in Oz's neck until the giggles slow and fade. He's still kissing her, mouth leading like a baby bird's til it reaches her cheek, then her neck, and when his tongue grazes her old-new scar, she shudders hard.
Oz doesn't bite; he soothes the scar with looping tongue, sucks at it lightly, grasping her waist and kissing back to her mouth. The shakes that were rocketing through her fade like the giggles and Buffy butts into the kiss, deepens it, spreading herself over him.
She's never been with someone her own size. This is like kissing Willow, or Faith, only Oz is a stranger to her. A stranger she's already missing, and definitely a guy. Stubble that prickles, a narrow bony chest, thickening hard-on in his jeans, prickle of sour sweat over his skin. He feels like a boy, tastes like one, but he matches her, too.
She can't think clearly, the thoughts are seesawing and spinning, comparisons and absences; Spike and Angel didn't, don't, can't, sweat. They only smelled and tasted like soap and air. They picked up scents like fabric does.
But Oz smells, tastes, feels, like a person, and he's not totally human, but he's the closest she's gotten since Riley. She's getting half-drunk on the smells, tastes, textures, warmth that billows out and breaths that whisper.
They fit together, mouth to clavicle, waist to knee to toe, hands moving and sweat sticking.
No wonder she's been sleeping so well. Against her, Oz is like her own shadow. He kisses her slowly, then takes in her kisses, suckling on her, moving with her. Dimly, she's waiting for something, and at first she thinks it's for him to leave, but it's not that. Not yet.
She's waiting for him to - be a guy. He tastes, smells, feels like a guy, but the longer she waits for the usual guy move to hurry things up - squeeze of her ass, maybe a jerky thrust against her leg, sometimes just a hard kiss - the surer she feels that it won't be coming.
Which is courtly, sure, or just polite, but more than that, it makes her wonder. Maybe this is like the driving and cooking, maybe he's just going along with her.
Her head weighs three times as much as usual when she lifts it, pulling up and bracing herself on numbed hands. Her lips are swollen and slick when she speaks.
"Do you want to?"
As soon as she says it, Buffy feels overwhelmingly stupid. What is it about sex that makes her act like an idiot?
Oz's hands tighten - on her ribs, on the knob of her shoulder - as she looks down. Black eyes, sky-red hair, pink cheeks. Open mouth and flickering tongue that's saying 'yes', telling her 'yes' and he's pulling her back down, holding her there, repeating *yes* with hands and mouth and his knee working up between her thighs.
The friction there, the ridge of his dick against her hip, all the sensation burns a line straight up her spine.
It's all clear now.
She's seen submission where there's only been patience, and now she's mistaken it for reluctance. When she works her hand through his soft hair and grips hard, Oz ripples beneath her, his curled fingers working up to her breast. Thumb scrapes over nipple, and she's moving with him, pinching his nipple, matching, mimicing, flowing like water into their kiss. Rainforest-hot and damp in her clothes, and her hand skates through the sweat on Oz's chest. When she kneels up, yanking off her shirt and tugging down her pants, he does the same.
In the low, burnished light coming through the windows, their bodies look like ivory, then glow dark-green against her lids when she blinks. Oz reaches up, cupping both her breasts, rasping heat down to the heart of her; her thighs are already slick as she straddles him, grinding into his crotch, into his hands.
Every pore's become a fingertip, brushing up the texture of him, sending it inside her, twisting and fanning the heat. When Oz guides her up onto her knees and slides down between her legs, Buffy's head falls forward, her thighs gripping his rib cage, remembering the scars there, as her hands trail down his back. Flexing shoulderblades as he licks and teases her breasts, underside and swell and nipples, and she sucks at air as she digs her fingers into his shoulders and thrusts her hips against his torso.
She's going to fall, her arms flailing against gravity, as Oz slides lower, and she grabs the nearest handhold as he rubs his face over her mound, stubbly chin nudging her clit. Rising and falling, pressing against him, seeking his tongue then riding it and the vibrations it shoots, twisting, into her.
Falling, she's falling again, and Oz is murmuring, humming something - 'mmm' and 'mmmmm' - that comes in snatches between the wet sounds of his mouth on...her, and she's face down, head butting into the sleeping bag, her hips raised up, legs spread. She's aware of her heartbeat, and her whole body yearning as it grinds, but nothing else, not thoughts and certainly not time, so when his face dips lower and his hands spread her ass, Buffy goes with it, lowering her crotch, then realizes what he's doing. His face is in her crack and that humming's coming louder, traveling through her, and she freezes.
"Christ, don't - don't do *that*," she gasps. Oz goes still.
His hands massage her ass, slow meditative circles, and then he says, so close to her skin that she feels it more than hears it, "Want to."
He wants to. Buffy lets that fact filter down to her overloaded brain, tries to ignore the scratch of carpet on her chest and arms, tries to let it be okay. She wants it, too, and doesn't know why, except that he wants to and she wants to. Want's a funny, anarchic thing; because of want, she's given blood and black eyes to vampires. Giving this, this is nothing like that. This is nothing but pleasure, and before she reaches the decision, she's rolling her face on her arm and pushing down again into his mouth.
Easy, Oz makes thing easy, and she's not going to think about him leaving, about her going alone into the city, because she has this right now. Easy to feel the red-heat pressure of his mouth, his circling tongue opening her up, easy to clench around the two fingers he pushes into her pussy, easy to rise and jerkingly fall down and back, and then, nothing.
Cold and trembling, kneeling there with her head on her arms, and she can hear the quick, careful sounds of the first-aid kit, squeak of condom, and she moans loudly when his arm comes around her waist. Oz's chest against her back, pulling her up, his breath in her ear.
"Want you like this," he's breathing, touching her so softly she moans again, the jagged-sharp sensation piercing her like icicles. "This good?"
Another question from Oz and it's like a miracle. "Yeah," she gets out and she's grinning, grinding against him, because *of course* the wolfman wants it doggy-style, just like he wants to taste her everywhere; vampires want blood and violence, wolves want to taste-smell-mount, and slayers just *want*. This is easy.
Easy and deep, Oz's cock pushing into her, filling her up from an unfamiliar angle. Her head on his shoulder, then falling as she rocks back, hard and fast, taking him all the way. His face smells like her pussy, the whole truck is full of sweat and damp heat and Buffy sees twin, pulsing stars with every thrust.
They're moving forward, each mutual thrust pushing them forward until she's got an arm wrapped over the top of the front seat, bracing herself, fucking him back, taking him deeper, picturing taking all of him, sucking him into herself, cock and the finger he's pushed up to the knuckle in her ass, and she'd have it all, redwet pleasure and Oz-specific patience, she'd have it all and never be so alone any more. Crack him open, suck him dry, shelter him forever.
Buffy starts to come when the picture completes, opens and howls into her arm and naugahyde upholstery at the thought of Oz filling her, never escaping, and she's still coming, more roller-coaster waves, higher, when Oz grabs her hips and folds himself over, mouth on her neck, body stuttering into her.
Sex is death is her gift, and Buffy's mind is unhinged, shards of images spiraling down. Nonsense, but truth there, somewhere, about sex always taking her to the edge, never finishing the fall. She can take him - whoever he is - inside, but never all the way, and when the pleasure ebbs away, receding in the face of chilling sweat and aching knees, she's still alone.
Even now, with Oz crawling around, shaking out the sleeping bag and handing her a shirt, kissing her forehead, plumping up the pillow.
Sex is just a little death, a hint of what's to come, never what it promises. A glimpse at fullness and quiet, and then the shade snaps down and she's back here, lying next to Oz, trailing her fingers over his arm, trying to remember what he first felt like.
"Wanted to do that for awhile now," he whispers into her hair and Buffy doesn't understand.
She draws back, blinking, her mouth working before sound comes out. "That? With me?"
Square hand on her shoulder, Oz draws her back. "That, yeah. With you, of course."
Oz's jaw is mottled with hickeys that won't survive the night. Grazing them with the tip of her index finger, Buffy squints into the dark, memorizing what his profile looks like. Long nose, heavy-lidded eye, strangely curling mouth.
"I don't want to go," she whispers and half-hopes he doesn't hear.
Oz remains still, but his jaw works and he's swallowing. "But," he says, finally. "Angel."
Angel's name is like more than a name, especially when Oz says it like that. It's a label, a whole category of meanings. He's just echoing, she realizes, how *she'd* said it, right before they started making out.
Only problem is, she doesn't know what meanings Oz is attaching to Angel's name; she's not even sure which meanings *she'd* attach.
Finally, Oz turns on his side to face her, his hand coming up to brush back her hair. He kisses her gently, then a little harder, and Buffy wraps her arms and one leg around him, pulling him right up against her, sucking his tongue up against her palate.
"Thank you." She nudges her knee between his legs; they usually wake up tangled like this, but this is the first time she's done it consciously.
"Welcome." Oz tightens his thighs around her knee, little fluttering twitches. "Any time. Mean that."
Oz makes things easy. Even, especially, leaving.
By noon the next day, they're a mile from the wall. She can see it from the slight rise he parks on. It's not nearly as high as she's been picturing, just a ribbon of sandbags in front of poured concrete topped with razor wire.
"Guess I thought it'd be like the Berlin Wall," she says. She's pulled her hair back into two braids but wishes now it was loose so she'd have something to do with her hands.
Oz is in the back of the truck, packing protein and foil packets of food into the knapsack. They haven't talked about it, but she figures he's planning to go back to the wolf-state, head north all over again.
"They just built it over the 27," he says, hopping out of the truck to stand next to her. He points to the wall. "When it meets the 101 at Woodland Hills, it runs south."
"Should've known the freeways would be useful someday," Buffy says. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Oz smiling his effortful smile, crooked and vague. "Listen, Oz -"
He squints at her when she faces him, driving his hands into his pockets, his shoulders tilting slightly. Tense-face, she calls it to herself, but it's more than that. It's nearly a mask, just waiting to be cracked. He *is* a stranger to her; never mind that she's tasted him, *felt* him, watched him sleep most of last night.
"Take the truck," she says. When Oz's eyebrows knit together and he starts to shake his head, she grabs the knapsack from his arm. "Take the truck. I'll go on foot. It's better that way."
Oz rocks back on his heels. "Buffy, I can't -"
"Can so," she says, knocking him lightly on the shoulder. "Just do something for me?"
He nods, his chin sharp in the high, red sun.
"Use the phone. Call Giles and Dawn when you're somewhere kind of safe, let them know I made it this far."
She sounds like - God, she sounds like *Angel*, making arrangements, heading off to find her death. The thought turns her stomach and fills her throat, but not because it's untrue.
No wonder she doesn't want to go. She doesn't know how to do this; this isn't like saving the world. She has to trust that this *is* saving Angel, but all the doubts throng together, a mass big enough to choke, to blind.
Oz is here, though, just for a little while longer, and he guides her back against the truck's side. Red sky behind him, the black crimped ribbon of the wall, and he kisses her, hand on her neck, thumb on her chin.
"I'll call," he says and rolls his forehead against hers. "You, though. You be careful."
His fingertips rest on the back of her neck, warm and light, even after he draws his face away.
That's it for goodbye.
Buffy spends the afternoon surveying the wall through binoculars, hiking parallel to it through the empty streets of Topanga, bedding down for several hours in a backyard slightly less ruined than the others.
When Sunnydale emptied out, people took everything they could. Topanga's different. So much is left behind, like the people just *ran*. She sees furniture through broken windows, charred playsets and toys in the yards, even second cars torched down to skeletons.
She's spent enough time in cemeteries to know not to compare the town to them. Cemeteries are quiet, even restful, despite the vampires dragging themselves out of the dirt. This place is silent and frozen. Scraps of fabric cartwheel down the streets, crabgrass overruns the driveways, the trees are black hulks, just trunks and a few stubby branches.
Helicopters circle overhead, and there are occasional explosions that run through the ground under her, vibrations shaking through her limbs. Explosions, or fault-lines, or both.
Noise all around, but nothing quite penetrates down to her.
She has to get moving. Whether or not Angel's there, whether she gets back out of the city, nothing's going to happen with her sitting here under a charred rhododendron hedge.
In the brick-dust dark of midnight, Buffy sets out for the wall. If she tries to cross during the day, she's sure to be caught. In the relative dark, though, she might have a chance.
Besides, all her best fights happen at night. She's not about to test her luck.
The pack is light on her back, much less heavy than the crossbow strapped to her front, and she crosses her arms, adjusting her gait, feeling the knife in her belt with each step.
She could walk for miles, for hundreds of miles, like this. She always ends up like this, moving quickly through the dark with her arms wrapped around her, toward the fires and danger, away and alone.
This is what everyone had always tried to tell her - first Merrick, then her mom and dad, then Giles and, later, Angel - that she has to take care of herself, that someday there won't be someone to do it for her.
She never listened, because she already knew that. She paces through the underbrush along the shoulder of a local access road, keeping her head down and feet soft. She never listened because she knew long before anyone thought to tell her.
She knew when she saw Celia die, then all over again when her parents promised her a trip to the mall but signed her into that clinic instead.
She thinks of Oz setting out for Tibet alone, then leaving all over again, the wolf his only companion. That's what she's doing. She imagines the first slayer walking beside her, dreads bobbing and shroud blowing in the breeze, but that's not the same. It's not Faith beside her, either. She wishes it was that simple, but it isn't. She shared the trip with Oz because they're both able to travel alone; they both know the truth of it.
Everything she needs is *inside* her, both that oily, smoking black power that the wizards poured into that girl and the white steam that Willow released through the world.
Climbing one last rise, she finds herself at the foot of the wall.
Sandbags and chopped-up asphalt, razor wire and searchlights, and orange signs pockmarked by bullets and splashes of graffiti warning her away.
She drops further into the shadows, leaves crunching underfoot. The lights sweep over and away, rattling over asphalt and leaves, drawing a checkerboard that she follows, black square to black square, until she comes to a dip in the wall. The barbed wire sags a little here, like others have taken hold and pulled themselves up.
Or, she thinks, taking another, closer look, like they've grabbed hold from *inside* and tried to escape. Out of the city, into the HCZ.
Nothing's left in the city, though. That's what everyone says, but this close, just six feet away, flattening herself against sandbags as the searchlight passes again, Buffy starts to doubt whether that's true.
This looks like a prison, built to keep her out and something else in.
She slots a bolt into the crossbow, just to steady her hands and regain her breath, then backs up, pulling on a pair of gloves. The light is swooping away as she runs for the wall, bow bouncing on her chest, squats and jumps up.
One hand closes around the wire, the other misses, and Buffy swings for a moment, pulse dropping out the soles of her feet, before she gets a firm hold. The gloves are sturdy, but they're going to shred the longer she has to support herself. Kicking forward, she catches the toe of one boot in the wire and swings the other upward. Two more deep breaths, a roundhouse kick outward, and she's flipping up over the wire, tucking into a somersault as she falls.
The ground rushes up, she hits on her side and keeps rolling, hands over her head, until she crashes into something hard and metallic. The remnants of a pick-up truck, the pissing-Calvin bumper sticker unburned but bubbling and peeling.
"Just like falling off a high-security log," she mutters as she clambers to her feet, brushing off dirt, inspecting the wire's damage to her clothes.
It's not as bad as it could be - a rip in one knee, the gloves, as she expected, shredded up, and the crossbow's wobbly. Must have knocked a screw loose in the fall and roll, but it's a small price to pay. She's inside.
She's in, and, okay, LA was never the best-defined city. It did put the awe in 'sprawl', but this is crazy. Inside looks just like the outside - one more burned-out suburb, same helicopters in the distance, everything.
She has more walking ahead of her, and the horizon's starting to pink up, so she best cover as much ground as she can before she needs to hide.
"You better be here," she tells Angel. Well, actually, it's just the space of air in front of her that she talks to when she's alone; tonight, it's Angel, but sometimes it's Willow, or Xander, or Giles, depending on her mood. "If you're not, mister, there's going to be -"
Hell to pay.
Something heavy and metal, like a tire iron, like a billy club, cracks her across the back of the skull. Buffy feels herself go down, smash her knee on the pavement, sees a flurry of supernovas before everything's black and still.
"You've got to go back," Angel is saying, cupping her cheek and brushing the hair from her eyes. "Buffy, you don't belong here. Go home. Go back, be safe."
She can barely make him out through the pain in her head, pulsing in yellow and green stripes across her eyes.
"Came to find you," she whispers. Her lips are cracked, stinging as she speaks. When she tries to get up on her elbow, Angel shushes her and pushes her back down against the pillow. "No, Angel, listen, I have to -"
"You have to go. Go to sleep," he says gently and kisses her forehead. "Sweet dreams, Buffy."
She doesn't want to sleep. She wants to get up; Angel's *right* here, right next to her, and she needs to get him out.
He doesn't move as she tugs at his hand, though. He looks - different, too, as if she hasn't seen him since Acathla. He looks just the same, his chin pointy and his hair a bristly mess, and his eyes are warm, liquid, gazing at her as he smiles.
"You're not listening," Buffy says, and realizes she's whining. Her entire body hurts, and her throat is scratchy, her nose stuffed up. "I came to get you out, you can't stay here. *Listen* to me -"
"What's my name?" he asks and when she squints at him, Angel is standing on the stage of the Bronze, microphone in one hand, pointing at her with the other.
Buffy glances across the table and sees Willow grinning happily at her. "I can't believe you know the *singer*!" she chirps. "I thought guitarists were cool, but hoo-*boy*, you sure showed me." Her face falls. "You got a guitarist *and* the singer."
"I'm sorry -" Buffy starts.
"Slayer!" Angel calls into the mic, and the feedback screeches, makes her jump. "What's my name?"
He looks like Angel, she's pretty sure he's Angel, but when she opens her mouth, only a soft wheeze comes out. Buffy swallows and tries again, then a third time. She sounds like an accordion, an old organ, dust and sighs and no music. No name.
She can speak, but she can't say his name. Willow tries to help, pounding on Buffy's back, even reaching two fingers into her mouth to tug out the sound, but Buffy's throat is closing up as she coughs.
His name is a label, something for a category, like the pieces in chess or the rocks in Go. Tears well in her eyes, stinging like vinegar, as she shakes her head. Willow holds her close, rubbing her back and singing a lullaby.
"Sssh, sssh," Willow croons, tipping her head against Buffy's temple and kissing her cheek with a soft, open mouth, "it's okay, you just need to wake up. C'mon, Buffy. Time to wake up."
The light is white when she opens her eyes, perfectly white, burning coldly. Halogen. The walls are white, the floor is white, the lights are white.
Buffy swallows and tests her voice, calling, "Hey. Hey. *Hey!*"
It's working fine, but it echoes coldly in the big white room. She's lying on a low black cot and when she swings her feet to the floor, she realizes she's wearing nondescript sweatpants and a man's tee-shirt.
"Keep it down," someone calls. In the brightness, she can't make him out, but it's a man's voice. Footsteps echo as they come closer, and now she can see him. White fatigues, military-cropped hair, and he comes to a stop ten feet from her cot. "You're awake."
Head swimming, Buffy clutches at the wall and approaches him. Perfectly transparent glass - no glass is *this* transparent, this is plastic or something - stops her.
She must be dreaming again. Why's she dreaming about the Initiative?
"Let me out," she says. Echo, echo.
The guard's eyes flick over her and he nods shortly. "You'll be released as soon as your blood tests come back. If they're positive, of course."
This is no dream. She's about to lose her balance; she can feel gravity starting to effervesce around her. "Where am I?"
His cheeks hollow out as he takes a long look up and down her body. Buffy crosses her free arm over her chest.
"Tell me where I am," she says, loudly, wincing at the echo. "Call Agent Finn, Riley Finn, he knows who I am -"
The guard adjusts his belt and clicks his tongue against his teeth. "You'll be released when your blood tests come back positive."
"Riley Finn!" she yells. He scowls at her and Buffy takes a deep breath. "I know Riley Finn, he's pretty high up with you guys, he can vouch for me -"
Riley's going to *kill* her if he finds out what she's doing in LA. He helped with Spike's chip, but helping her help *Angel*? He's going to have a conniption. That's not even the least of what Angel will do if he hears that Riley gave her a hand.
"I don't know who you think we are, honey," the guard says, drawing himself up and turning on his heel. "I don't know anyone by that name."
"You're the Initiative," she says, pressing her forehead against the glass. "Aren't you? Big government thing, army and doctors, you -"
He glances over his shoulder. "Lovely Heights Homeowners' Security Association, a division of Halliburton International. We have your passport. As soon as your blood tests positive for human DNA, you're free to go. We'll even escort you to the nearest checkpoint, free of charge."
Her DNA is human, right? Buffy hates hospitals so much that she can't remember the last time she had blood drawn. And it sounds like these people, who look military but claim to be rent-a-cops - rent-a-grunts? - know what to look for.
A female Gnishuq in the cell across from her flunks the test and gets tasered the next day. Once she's flopped out, unconscious, her human face melts off and the guards use a flamethrower to clean up the corpse.
At least Buffy thinks it's the next day; the lights never dim here, and she's been sitting on the foot of her cot for so long that her legs have cramped up.
Faith told her once that jail was the most boring thing she'd ever imagined. Buffy had laughed at her, but she's starting to understand that now.
"How long does a blood test *take*?" she asks the female guard who brings the tray of food. Buffy guesses it must be lunch; the earlier meal had been an English muffin, while this is bologna and government cheese, neon-orange and slimy.
She doesn't get an answer. Six more meals come, two other inmates get fried. She turns her eyes away from the sight, but she can't help hearing the screams that die down to a sizzle.
Despite herself, she does doze occasionally, head buried in her arms, blocking out the worst of the light.
Dozes, and dreams in shreds, fragments. Just pictures, pages ripped from comic books, frames of old movies. Angel in the snow, black hair and white flakes. Oz asleep in the library the morning after, the black shadows of the bars striping his white hip and pink mouth. Faith falling, black blood and she would not scream; Spike in the bathroom, eyes so blue they burned. Giles, Dawnie. Willow with black eyes, Warren with no skin, pure red flesh. Xander's eye socket, empty and oozing. Wine, spilling.
Mom and Tara, too still in their coffins, ugly-stiff, painted like hookers.
She paces the rest of the time, leaves trails of crumbs around her cell. Lets herself drift in memories of trick or treating with Daddy.
Six meals, two dead monsters, and then the glass wall slides open and yet another guard gestures at her to get up.
"Buffy Summers, you are charged with trespassing on a federal catastrophe zone, disturbing the peace, and willful destruction of Lovely Heights fencing."
She's so bored, and hungry, and desperate, that Buffy starts laughing. From treason to delinquency and back. This is rich. The guard looks over the tops of his silver sunglasses - what is he, Erik Estrada? - and frowns.
"You are, however, a human being and nominal citizen of the United States Homeland. Follow me."
The bus she's loaded onto with three other humans has blacked-out windows and jerry-rigged armor all over it. Buffy is shown her passport, but won't receive it until the checkpoint. The rest of her possessions are gone, including both notes and her knife.
She made herself run from Sunnydale without anything more than the picture of herself as a kid with her parents, Dawn's bronzed baby shoes, and her passport. Losing two lousy notes shouldn't be bothering her nearly as much as it is.
She runs her fingers up and down her thigh, trying to remember what the paper felt like; closes her eyes, tries to see the words. In ink, in blood, black and copper: words calling her out here, words expecting her home.
The note she wrote to Dawn, when she sent her away with Xander, took six drafts and it still didn't say what Buffy wanted it to. She wrote and wrote until her fingertip went numb and there was a purple mark on her next finger, and it didn't come out right.
She's never been able to make herself understood, not when it counts.
The checkpoint depot is, Buffy thinks, a bus station. Or it was; like the bus itself, it's been burned, then modified almost beyond recognition. Dull black paint on the windows, so many coats that the bubbles in it look thick as toads; an interior soaked with the smell of kerosene and smoke, all the furniture torn from the floor. More guards, of course, this time in beige and green.
She's told to wait with other detainees for their ride east. Besides the three she'd been riding with, there are others. An old Nisei man slumped in the single folding chair, two teenaged boys with filthy bandanas tugged down over their eyes and just three arms between them, a young black woman with a baby in her arms. When the swaddling slips, Buffy can see a zig-zag of blistered white skin across the baby's skull.
A guard hands her a receipt for her clothes and possessions ('decontaminated', the carbon reads, which, she guesses, is another word for 'destroyed', since they're nowhere to be seen) and a bill - $4,684.37 - for her housing and destruction of the wire fence.
"They want to charge us?" the mother asks her. Buffy can only shrug, turning her eyes away from the baby. "Mother*fuckers*."
The mother stares at her bill; the two young guys elbow each other, comparing their bills and swearing in Spanish.
Buffy sits on the floor, knees up against her chest, and waits. She wonders idly why these people stayed, but the reasons seem obvious. The lady has a baby; the old man looks too frail to take care of himself. The two kids could've stayed out of boredom, or lack of options, or maybe, like her, they tried to get back in and got caught.
Histories are like swaddling cloths, like blisters laid out over baby-fine skin. There are always more, always tight and tangled.
She's noticing all these details without quite knowing why. She doesn't know what to *do* with them. After her white cell, each sight, no matter how small, is overwhelming. Most of her is still back there, waiting, detained. Only her eyes are here.
You could probably fight your way out of here, she thinks. If the guards didn't have guns, if you'd been eating well, if there was anywhere to go.
Instead, she boards another bus, a much smaller one, like an airport limo, and stares out the painted windows for hours. The light filtering into the bus is gray-yellow, opaque, and she thinks they're moving northeast. The baby is quiet, gurgling a little back at its mom's singsong. The old man's asleep, little bubbles forming on his lips as he snores.
Angel, she thinks, and the farther away the bus crawls, the louder the voice gets. I'm sorry.
When she steps off the bus, Buffy has to shade her eyes. The sky here is rosy-lavender, the red of the city overlaying the usual blue. It isn't bright, but it's different, shinier.
Shading her eyes, keeping her gaze down, she bumps into a set of khaki-twill legs that at first she mistakes for a guard.
"Sorry," Buffy mutters, moving aside, but the figure touches her arm, stops her, slides a hand into hers.
"No touching!" the guard behind her calls just as Buffy's vision clears and she squeezes the hand in hers.
Relief rushes up her throat. "Oz?"
Nodding, he squeezes back. Frostbite's like this, or so she's heard, heat far away, just pressure.
"No touching -" the guard says again as Buffy drops Oz's hand.
"It's okay," she says. "I -"
Oz digs a pink receipt that matches her own out of his front pocket. He's still wearing her pants, she notices. "Here," he says, handing the receipt to the guard. "Taken care of. Summers, Buffy A., paid in full."
The guard takes her time checking the receipt. Oz sticks his hands in his pockets and rocks slowly back on his heels. Buffy - Buffy's so used to waiting that she's absorbing all the details, the guard's chipped front tooth, Oz's clean hair lifting in the breeze, crinkle of paper and, all around them, lavender light.
"All right," the guard says slowly, handing the receipt back to Oz, then flicking her eyes over Buffy. "Let that be a lesson to you, young lady."
Officious bitch. Buffy starts to say something in return, but Oz grabs her hand, leading her away before she can get locked up again. Frostbite pressure, but she's starting to feel the warmth of his palm, watching the twirl of muscles up his arm as he leads her outside into the parking lot.
Her truck's here. Dusty as hell, even more banged-up than she remembers, but *here*. Suddenly, Buffy *gets* how people can love their cars. Because she loves this truck and its sticky gear shift and the weird damp smell in the passenger seat and all its squeaks and thumps.
Oz leans against the hood, his eyebrow raised. "You have any idea how hard you are to find?"
"Me?" She runs her hand over the hood, down the wheel well, and glances back up. "Hey, I'm not the one who went to Tibet."
"True," Oz says. "Might as well have, though."
"How long?" Buffy asks. (*How long where you were?* Spike asked her, kept asking.) "How long was I out, I mean?"
Oz holds up eight fingers, the ninth crooked halfway down. "Today's nine."
"Jesus," she says and runs both her hands through sticky hair. Oz is standing too close; she's smelly and dirty and the stench of her must be killing him with his wolfy-nose. He's not moving, though. "Didn't I tell you to get somewhere safe?"
"Mm." He opens the passenger door and helps her up. When he's come around to the other side and clambered into the driver's seat, he leaves his hands on the wheel and adds, "I'm not so good at taking orders."
"Good at coughing up five thousand bucks, though," she says as they pull out.
"That was all Giles," Oz says, signaling left and pulling onto the main road. Buffy has no *clue* where she is, but main roads are identical, all straight lines and too many fast-food restaurants. Black inside, shuttered and abandoned. "He says hey, by the way."
"Bet he does," she says, craning to try and catch sight of a street sign, any clue to location. "Where're you going?"
Oz's mouth curves up and the engine rattles as he shifts into a higher gear and accelerates. "West."
She figures Giles told Oz to bring her back. No, she *imagines* Giles trying to do something like that. He'd try, but he couldn't succeed. Not any more, not for a long time.
Even when she was seventeen, she could leave and Giles couldn't find her, couldn't bring her back.
For the first time, it occurs to her to wonder what Oz did that summer. She has a rough idea; they all patrolled, Cordy went away, Giles looked for her. But that's not specific enough; that doesn't say anything about *Oz*. About any of them.
Oz stops for the night somewhere in the mountains. They build a fire - Buffy's surprised that she remembers what to do, as if she's been away for years not days - warm some water, wash her hair.
His hands are the same, on her head, in her hair.
Oz could tell her about Giles and Dawn, but she can't ask. Can't let herself start thinking of them, waiting at home, offering rest-warmth-safety. Once she does, she'll start doubting what she's doing here, and then she won't be able to move again.
She's switched places with Oz. Not just the hairwashing, which he's better at anyway, but his position, too. His relation to home - he's closer to home than she is now. She's the one who went missing this time; he's the one who came with help.
When he came back, did he feel like she does? Small, cold water dripping down her back, not sure where to look.
Probably, because he's sliding closer to her, flapping out the sleeping bag over her lap.
Talking to her, reassuring her.
"Nobody knew about the detention centers," Oz says. "That's pretty big, getting proof of them."
"Is it?" She's never been very good with comparing scales like that. It used to drive Riley up the wall, how she could see individuals but hardly ever the big picture. So they know about the jail; that's good, she knows that's good.
She still failed.
"So they say, yeah," Oz says and tugs the bag over his legs, too. His knee knocks hers, then stays there.
It's like knowing LA's gone; that's a fact, same as the jails, but all she can see is Angel.
Angel, and now Oz. Angel is missing, somewhere out there, and Oz is right next to her, drying off his hands.
She was in LA, in jail, but she doesn't believe either fact. When she touches Oz's shoulder, though, then his neck, she has to believe what she's feeling.
Skin, Oz. Chilled where the water splashed him, warm underneath. She doesn't know anything about him - doesn't know what he was doing in the woods the night they met up, can't figure out why he came back for her, can't even decide how to ask - but what she does know is, right now, enough.
She knows a lot. Knows Oz, relearns him fast. How his hip fits in the curve of her palm, how his lips are a little dry against hers, where the green-wild scent of spruce is strongest (behind his ear, along the hairline) and where it fades into that sour man-dog smell (down his neck and up under his arm).
The nylon of the sleeping bag slithers and whispers as they shift around, easing back, Buffy crouching over Oz. His hands come up, settling on the small of her back, as her shadow falls like a peak over his features.
"You came back," she says wonderingly.
"Kind of didn't leave," he says, craning up until she's kneeling over his lap and he's kissing her chest. "Figure we'll drive as far as we can," he's saying as she leans back to pull off her shirt, "then hoof it."
Buffy isn't listening, can't hear through the thrum of her heartbeat and the scent of Oz's hair.
Taking Highway 2, they make good time through the mountains, just four days in all. Time's recalibrated out here - ten miles a day is an achievement. Oz drives, Buffy rests; nights, they roll around, watch the stars, talk. Oz is braiding some kind of lariat while Buffy organizes the supplies.
Not that there's much to organize, and she ends up like this, sitting behind him, her legs stretched out alongside his, her arms around his waist. Chin on his shoulder, just holding, watching his fingers work.
Sitting like this, she tells him stories - about the Doublemeat, about Dawn, and Faith, Xander, Anya. Heaven and Spike, dancing demons and wrecking houses.
Oz listens as he braids, eventually turns and kisses her. Twists in her arms and lies down, always drawing a little closer. If he doesn't stop braiding, she can encourage him - slide her hand up his shirt, over the inside of his thigh, breathe on the nape of his neck, kiss his ear until he starts trembling.
She's making herself real again, touching him like this. Talking to him, touching, she's remembering who she is, how she can be.
Sometimes she feels like a teenager, only it's no teenager she ever got to be. Blowjobs, and tickling, wrestling matches she always wins. Fun, like they're learning through playing, some kind of Discovery-channel thing about the young of a species.
When they stop tonight, she can see the city beyond the trees. According to Oz, the wall on this side runs along the 210.
The food's running low, and they split two protein bars and the last of the instant rice. Oz has been strangely quiet all day - strange because it's like being silent is making him uncomfortable. He wasn't like this when she left the first time, a little twitchy, the frown never leaving his face. Then, he was sweet, reassuring; now, he's not looking at her, pulling in his shoulders, hunching over his lap.
After dinner, he pulls out his lariat and bends over it. Buffy doesn't feel like telling him stories, not tonight, so she sits across from him, staying quiet.
The crescent moon's halfway up the red disk of the night sky when Oz starts talking.
"Knew I should tell someone. I tried to call," he says. His frown's getting deeper, the lines darkening, but Buffy doesn't know why. "But I couldn't. Tried, but - couldn't."
That can't be right; of course he called, he said Giles paid her bill.
No, he's talking about something else.
"Everything came back," Oz continues. "All that old panic?" His eyes slide over to hers. "Guess it isn't old for *you*. But you know what I mean. Sunnydale-panic."
Sunnydale-panic. She lets the phrase turn in her mind, admiring it, accepting it. Every day there was a new fight and they all lived on their toes, alert like rabbits. "I know," Buffy says, then wonders if she does.
"When a hurricane's coming, all the birds leave," Oz says. "Dogs know when an earthquake's going to hit."
He's talking about the night LA disappeared. Buffy doesn't know what to say. There are pauses, like Oz is giving her the space to speak, but she can't. She's too busy listening.
"That afternoon, I - got sick. Felt like I was dropping off a roller coaster, never hitting ground. So I ran."
He sits back from the fire and rolls the lariat between his palms.
"Early warning system," Buffy says. "That's got to come in handy."
Oz turns his face toward her; the outer half is lit by the fire, but the side closer to her is all dark, save for the gleam of his eye. "Sometimes it's worse, knowing." He blinks. Another pause, this one free of weight and expectation. Just the space of time for him to draw a breath. "Isn't it?"
All those people, lost, wandering the roads. No one knew why, no one knew what had happened, but Buffy did.
"Sometimes it is," she says.
"Know how I knew it was bad?" Oz asks. "That night, I'm running, it's raining, and I saw Will."
"Willow? You saw -?"
Oz nods, then digs his chin into his chest. "Knew then I should call - you, or Giles. Somebody, maybe Angel? And I didn't. Couldn't. Just did what I'm good at. Kept running away."
"Oz?" She waits, but he doesn't move. Not even when she runs her hand down his arm, laces together their fingers.
"She was alive," he says. "Screaming, though. White hair?" He squeezes closed his eyes. "Wolf sees black and white, so - hard to translate. Maybe blonde? Anyway. Screaming."
Willow tried to stop it. White goddess, black rain.
She's lost Angel, and now Willow. Buffy can't think of anything to say besides, "It's not your fault."
He shakes his head shortly, his stubble scratching over his shirt. "Should've told someone."
Those last days in Sunnydale, after Angel gave her the world's ugliest and most powerful necklace, she'd stop and think about him. Wonder if she'd done the right thing to send him away - hell, she couldn't even send Dawn and *Xander* away successfully - and the night before it was all over, Willow took her out onto the porch and gave her lemonade and told her it would all be all right.
She wants to do that for Oz now, be that person who can look at you and see only the good.
She wants to be Willow.
"He'll be fine, more than fine," Willow had said that night. "He's super-strong, Buffy, and he's got Wesley and the others."
Buffy sipped her lemonade and nodded. She was so wrung out by that point that she didn't need the usual convincing. "Angel, Jr., too," she said. She couldn't picture Angel's son, no matter how many times she'd made Willow describe him, no matter how many skeevy leering comments Faith had made about him. But now Willow was looking at her like Buffy was speaking Sumerian. "You know, his kid. Probably be fighting right by his side, all Batman and Robin but without the questionable sexual chemistry."
"Who?" Willow said. She'd never been less than quicksilver on the uptake. "What're you talking about?"
That's when Buffy knew - didn't know how, didn't know when, but Angel's son had been erased. He was gone, just like when she saw Dawn shimmering in and out of the snapshots. Gone like Dawn, gone like her day in LA.
*Glamoured him so he'd see the truth*, Angel said in Rome.
*I'll never forget*, she said in LA.
Secrets can turn into lies before you even notice. Lies hide under the cover of secrets.
She's got to be done with secrets.
"Oz," Buffy says loudly, so loudly they both jump. "Oz, it's not your fault."
"Hmm." Oz is holding his cheek in his hand, his eyes tracking slowly back and forth. "Still want to help."
That's what she's never going to understand, how people around her decide to help. She *has* to; that's who she is. So does Giles, and, sometimes, Angel, too. But the others don't have to. Helping usually gets them hurt - Oz wolfed, Xander without an eye - or dead. Tara, Mommy, Anya.
"Give me your necklace?" he asks.
He just stares at her until, sighing, she unhooks the silver necklace and hands it to him.
He's done fiddling with his lariat. Now he bends over it, hooking each end to the necklace. Cursing when the silver rests too long on his skin.
Buffy squints to see. "What're you doing?"
"Coming with you," he says, dropping the necklace into her hand. "See? Bridle."
"What?" Silver makes him sick, bridles are for horses, Buffy's lost. She looks up. "What are you talking about?"
"Hi-ho, Wolfy, away," he says and rears back, pawing at the air. When she doesn't say anything, he sits back on his haunches. "Figure we'll be safer on foot."
He wants to go into LA with her. The demons in that detention center, the flamethrowers and sizzle that just kept going. "Oz, no, you -. I can't let you."
"Not a matter of letting." He lifts his chin, just a fraction, his eyes widening.
"If they caught you, you'd -"
Tonight, Oz is leaning over her, easing her onto her back, kicking dirt onto the fire as he lowers himself on Buffy. "Guess we'll have to run fast then, huh?"
"So you're doing the guilt-thing?" she asks, pushing one hand under his waistband, the other through his hair. His skull is delicate, Wedgwood and moist heat, soft hair. "Regret not calling, so you're running into the city?"
"No." Oz rests himself on his elbows and she watches the frown smooth itself out, gradually vanish from his face. "Just trying to do better."
She should argue with him; Buffy knows that. But Oz isn't Angel, and he's not shoving her away or, worse, getting shoved by her. He's here because he wants to be, on top of her, with her, kissing her neck, murmuring into her mouth as she wraps one leg around his and they start rocking.
Afterward, as she reaches for their clothes, Buffy realizes that Oz has a much better reason to go in than she does. She just wants to find her ex. Yell at him, kiss him silly, she doesn't even *know*.
Oz, on the other hand, wants to help. Sounds simple.
They'll leave the truck in this copse, leaves and branches covering it as best they can. Leave, and take little with them besides their bodies.
In the dawn, Oz is naked. Down on his hands and knees, waiting. Still human, thin as she is, his ribs expanding like two geisha fans, his ass small and round before her.
She looked like this, the first night they fucked. Or, no. She knelt like this, but she remembers the flush of excited need, nothing of Oz's anxious shame.
"Just do it," he grunts when Buffy freezes at the sight. He keeps his head down and addresses the dirt.
The lariat slips over his head and the silver in his mouth makes him spit and growl even in human form. The braided leather loops over Buffy's hands. She wears the backpack backwards, against her chest, and leans forward.
She hasn't ridden a horse since a pony at someone's birthday party when she was seven.
When Oz speaks again, his voice is halfway between a growl and the sound of mud slurping on a shoe. Painful, but determined; when he turns his head, his grimace is set like old lava. "You ready?"
His eyes are already black. Buffy squeezes her thighs around his narrow ribs and says, "Yes."
"Hold on." It's a warning, because when he starts to change, she's pulled forward, jerked up and halfway off, as he howls. She tightens her grip on the lariat, holding the silver tight against the roof of his mouth, as he rears, twists, shrieks. Buffy hunches, face against his neck, his fur springing out against her cheek, and tries not to vomit. It's too much - the dank smell of fur, the howls rending the pale red morning, the scrabble of claws in dirt.
Oz leaps forward, still snarling, and Buffy freezes, hanging for a moment, then crashes back against his neck. Running, they're running, and the lariat cuts into her palms as she digs her knees into his flanks.
This is flying, so close to the ground that twigs and leaves spatter her face, but flying nonetheless - a rapid canter, huffing wolf, claws and spittle and Buffy molds herself to his form. Streets streak past, tangles of charred concrete and red sky.
At the wall, the wolf growls to itself, slowing down and pacing back and forth. The morning is quiet, the highway empty. A metal sign halfway up the wall rattles.
Buffy risks speaking. "Looks good here."
The wolf can't understand, she knows that, but it cocks its head as it spits past the bridle. Grumbling softly, it moves back several paces and pulls itself into a crouch. Buffy leans just in time; the wolf explodes forward, air shatters against her face. They leap, fly higher, skim over the razor-wire, land hard. Hard enough that the breath's knocked from her lungs like a dinner plate, hard enough that the wolf yelps against the bridle and flattens itself to the ground.
Buffy clutches it around the neck, catching her breath. She can't help but pet the long, rough fur as the wolf struggles to its feet and starts to lope down the access road.
She's terrible with directions - back on the road, she went north on the 99 for half a day until she realized that the sky was clearing to blue and thought to check - but the wolf can't read a map. She has to steer them.
Oz has given up everything, gone bestial, trusted her with all the thinking.
She can't depend on the highways any longer, except as rough guides to general location. She knows that when they reach the 134, they need to swing west to catch the 5, then head for Griffith Park. But the city is nothing like she remembers, the signs are as burned as the buildings, and the last time she went to Griffith Park, she was eleven.
No, she was fourteen, she wouldn't be called for another year, and Suzy McGowan set up a double date with two older guys from Sherman Oaks. They met up at the railway ticket booth. Buffy remembers her date was well over six feet, with acne sprayed over his forehead, and she couldn't stand him. She has no idea what his name was.
He's probably dead, too.
The wolf keeps to side streets, its head high and gait rapid. There's no sign of the paramilitary, not even the hum of helicopters, just trash and broken buildings silhouetted black as rotten teeth against the sky.
Her back and legs cramp into numbness and Buffy ignores the vague ache, settling into the easy rhythm of the trot until, growling, the wolf veers from the sidewalk and leaps into a yard. It's a rabbit, something small like that - God, don't let it be a rat - and she yanks hard on the bridle, stopping the wolf in its tracks. It swings on her, mouth open, showing her the silver nestled in red, swollen flesh. It must be killing him, sucking on that poison.
"Sssh," Buffy croons.
Without releasing the reins, she slides off his back and crouches an arm's length away. The wolf tenses, hunching like it wants to bolt. He told her what to do, how to call him back, and she does it now. *Say my name, three times. Should work.*
"Oz. Oz. Oz."
No screaming as he changes back, just a long broken sigh and endless shudder that leaves him naked, human, sweating. Buffy palms Oz's spine, hunched like a hill, and keeps saying his name. The charm already worked, but he turns his head, spits black blood, and smiles.
Not quite a smile, but his mouth curves and his cheeks lift and she knows he's trying. Like petting him, like seeing the silver, the sight staggers Buffy, sends her thoughts reeling.
"Time is it?"
She's wearing Oz's watch; she'd totally forgotten. "Little past two."
He looks around. "Getting near the park," he says. "Why'd we stop?"
"You - it - food." Buffy shakes her head. She doesn't know if Oz *is* the wolf, or if he goes away, how to refer to any of them. This must be how he feels, trying to explain. Translation, her English Lit prof said once, is a mug's game. "Anyway. Tried to chase something little. Rabbit, I think. Maybe a rat, but I'm really hoping not."
Oz pushes himself up, then sits back on his knees. "Demon."
He's scenting the air, head raised, mouth a little open, and she watches, fascinated and repulsed simultaneously. "It was a demon," he says. "The little thing? Thought it was an armadillo, but - fast. Smells like demon."
The street is empty. They're in front of a little bungalow, the yard fenced off, its Holy Virgin of the Bathtub tipped on its side. Buffy can't see, or sense, anything but the two of them.
"What's a demon smell like?" she asks.
Oz scratches his nose and shrugs. His eyes are sunken, red-rimmed and hollow, and his breath comes with a wheeze. This is hurting him more than he's letting on; she can't ask him to keep changing back and forth.
Finally, he replies, "Like it doesn't belong."
Maybe they're the ones who don't belong. Maybe that's why there are detention centers, why the city's walled off and written off.
Maybe this is the demons' world now, and the cops, military, security forces are just here to keep that world within its bounds.
The reason Buffy's always been impatient with explanations and prophecies is that Giles and the others, they trust that things are logical. She doesn't care *why* the L'Fu demon nests in paper, why vampires like virgins, why silver poisons werewolves; she just wants to know how to kill them. Or save them. Whichever.
Because there isn't any logic, not when you get down to it. She should have been dead seven (four) years ago, she should be a college graduate by now, but instead she's alive and she only has a (charred) high-school diploma and she's riding a werewolf through Glendale under a sky full of spilled red light.
Oz shouldn't be a werewolf, Oz shouldn't be able to change at will regardless of the moon, Oz should be playing house with Willow and cutting a record deal.
Angel shouldn't have a soul, Angel shouldn't be a vampire. Angel should be in some anonymous grave in Galway, the stone blanked out by almost three centuries of rain and wind, half a world away and unknown to her. Never named 'Angel' in the first place.
See? Logic's pointless. Oz is here, loping along beneath her, Willow is dead, Angel is lost and waiting for her.
That's what she has to deal with. Not logic but facts.
Not why but how.
Griffith Park emerges in the red dusk as a collection of softer, deeper shadows. Not jagged like the buildings, but pillowy with trees and grass. Dead vegetation, but still better than the city. Her thighs ache, chafed from gripping the wolf nearly all day, and there's a crick in her back that's going to make sleeping difficult, but all the same, Buffy feels light. Happy.
When she can't make out her hands on the reins any longer, Buffy stops them for the night. She calls Oz back, slips the bridle from his bruised and bloody mouth, and washes his face. Her hands feel thick, distant from her, clogged with apology.
He stretches out on their one blanket, arm over his eyes, and breathes deeply. The wheezing starts to ease and Buffy, finally, relaxes enough to lie down beside him.
"Hey," he says when she does. They can't have a fire, so she sees his face only where the blood-pricks of stars light him up, but his voice is normal. Familiar.
"Thanks," Buffy whispers back. "For -" There's too much gratitude for her to name it all. "Thanks."
Oz's arm goes around her shoulders and he brings their faces together. "No problem."
Of course it's a *problem*. He's wracked with the change, hollow-eyed and still trembling, and they're going deeper into a city no one can live in, but Buffy just nods. "Okay."
"Ever been here before?" he asks. Maybe it's letting her see the change, letting her *ride* him, but Oz is different now; the questions flow like water.
"Last time I came here, I was on a date," she says. He starts to smile at that, and she draws back a little, curious. "What? I date. I mean, I used to. Like ancient history now, but -"
"Not that." He's still smiling. "Just - last time I was here, it was on a date, too."
The image of Oz dating is almost as bizarre as Buffy dating. It's too normal, too silly and obvious. Smiling, she pushes his hair off his forehead and rolls him onto his side, arm over his waist, knees pushed up behind his. "This is going to be good. Spill."
"Not much to tell," Oz says. "About a year ago, after the sun came back? Came out here, picnic and go on the rides, all that. To celebrate with Martín."
Martín is a boy's name. Isn't it? Maybe in Spanish, it's not. She really should've paid better attention in Spanish class. Buffy's mind is going stupid again. She props her head up on her elbow. "Martín?"
Oz's eyes are closed, his lips still curving in his small, private smile. "Guy I was seeing. Went to USC, grad school."
Oz is gay. Oz slept with a guy. Not gay, bi. Like Willow, and it'd be pretty funny, any other time, to think about just how similar those two are. Were. Same hair, same height, same broad sexuality.
Somehow, though, it's not funny. Not right now.
"Smart guy," Oz continues. "Tall, like Xander-height?" She sees him frown, just for a moment. "Lot like Xander, actually, now that I think about it, but -"
She should be past this. When Willow came out, she went stupid just like this, all stammery and kind of mean without meaning to be. Buffy shifts, tightening her arm over Oz's chest, pulling closer.
He rolls his head over, catches her eye. Buffy doesn't look away. "You're not surprised, right?"
"No," she lies. Oz's eye narrows. "Yes?"
It's not about Oz, this stammery freaking working its way up inside her chest. Okay, it's a little about Oz, because - naked. Gay. Bi. She's kissed him and didn't think - and -. Buffy squeezes her eyes shut, then looks back at Oz. He's just waiting, smiling a little, his face calm and patient as he covers her hand with his own.
It's not about Oz.
*Surprised, love?* Spike had said. In his crypt, sometime during that dark, awful year. She was half-drunk on his whiskey and he was leaning against the wall, shirt off, arms crossed over his chest, cigarette dangling from his lip.
She remembers squinting at that cigarette until the end burned itself onto her retinas. Squinting and shaking her head, trying not to listen to the shit he was spewing at her.
*Shouldn't be,* he'd said.
They'd been arguing. They were always arguing. That night, though, she was drunk enough that she didn't feel like hitting him, not then. So they were bruising and slicing each other open with words. She'd told him, one more time, that he wasn't anything she could love. Anything she could even tolerate. And Spike was, whatever else he was, *smart*. Like a whip, singing down and cutting your skin, he was smart and knew that she was talking about Angel.
"Oh, *Angel*," Spike said. "The great and virtuous Angelus. Funny thing, Slayer. I -" He slapped his chest, right where, a year later, he'd try to scratch the soul out, and the noise reverberated down inside her. "I know him better than you ever will."
She didn't believe him. She still can't, but Spike kept talking over her.
"Think you loved him? That's your bedtime story, isn't it? Woe is me, I loved Angel, Angel loved me, tra-bloody-la." He bit off the singsong and glared at her. "Didn't know him, couldn't love him."
"Right," she said, bile in her veins, hating him yet not, ever, moving. "Because you know so much about *love*, Spike."
He shrugged. "Know what it makes you do. Know who Angel is. Yeah, I know a fair lot."
He was daring her. He was always daring her, pushing her closer to the edge, every time he touched her, every time he *looked* at her. And he was daring her now.
"Your *soulmate*, the great souled love of your bloody pathetic life, you don't know half of what he's capable of."
"So tell me," she said.
"Buggered me six ways to Sunday, then three more times *on* Sunday, for one," Spike said. All the venom was gone from his voice as he tilted his head and smiled to himself. He sounded almost *nostalgic*.
She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she said, "But that was - that was -" They were *vampires*, as he was so fond of reminding her. That was rape between monsters. She couldn't say the word. Maybe, considering what he did later to her, she should have. "That was different."
"Not by half," Spike said. "That happened, too, of course. He's a brute, love, and he'll always be. But that's not what I'm talking about."
He wanted her to see how love could feed on pain. If Spike had any *goal* - which would be stretching things, putting way too kind a spin on them - that was it. That had always been it. Shrieking at them in the magic store, drunk on rage, he'd always tried to teach her that. Love, pain, blood.
But Buffy had already seen that. She knew it every time she'd kissed Angel - *I kiss you and I want to die* - and knew it all over again in a black stream of desire, riptide-fast, when she killed him. She'd seen it flashing ugly-gorgeous in Faith's eyes; even, far more dimly, in Riley's.
Spike has (had) blue eyes. Icicles and kid's construction paper, and the need-fear-love didn't flash or glimmer or flare in his eyes. Not like with the others. It burned, on and on and fucking *on*.
"I loved evil sod, hear me?" Spike said eventually, tossing away his cigarette and kneeling in front of her. He laughed, briefly, without any amusement. "Like I love you. Turned over for him because I *wanted* it."
The offer - *do the same for you* - burned there in his eyes, between them, endless, as he pulled out his box of toys and handed her a harness and an obscene, thick, plastic dildo. Burned like hate, like need, until she nodded. Cotton-mouthed and sick and curious.
She whispers all this, the whole sorry story, into Oz's ear. He stays still, fingers knotted in hers, listening. All her stories come better when she's behind him. When she can't see him, when he's just present but blind to her.
That should bother her; she's just grateful the stories come at all.
"I did it," she says (confesses). The trees around them sway in a breeze she can't feel. Her legs ache from the ride; every time she blinks, she sees Oz as he was this morning, tiny and white, on hands and knees. He changed, for her, and she's just sick enough to be aroused by that image. "Strapped it on and did it and I -"
Loved it. She loved a lot of things they did together that winter, every gross-kinky-*needful* thing, but this was one of the best. She was huge, she was real, she felt every twitch Spike gave, every whimper and moan and urge. She made him scream.
"Jesus, Buffy," Oz whispers. He's shocked, he's probably disgusted, and Buffy needs to pull away. *This* is why she keeps herself apart, this is why she should be alone. *We're better than other people,* Faith had said but, no, they're not, they're *different* and a little wrong and filled with demon-black power. She's trying to pull back when she realizes Oz is shivering, that he's speaking again, that his eyes are hooded and his cheeks are darkening. "Tell me more?"
He brings their hands down the length of his chest, all the way to the soft-crisp patch of his pubic hair, and when she brushes his half-hard dick with the side of her hand - hard, hot, getting bigger - Buffy hears herself grunt.
Alien sound that her brain takes forever to catch up to.
Oh. *Oh*. Their linked hands brush up and down Oz's cock, then wrap around, and he's biting his lip. "Tell me -" He breathes out, hard, his stomach hollowing against her arm. "Talk to me. Do it to me."
She could do that to Oz. No, not *to*. With him. He's asking for that, pushing back against her, jerking himself slowly, twisting his head around and kissing her chin, her jaw, his slippery-eager mouth sliding everywhere he can reach.
"Oh, *God*," Buffy says into his mouth, against him, loosening her fingers from his and trailing them down his thigh, over the back of his knee, up and up. "We could. We - You want that?"
Oz is pulling up one knee, exposing himself to her hand, and the skin between his thighs is damp with sweat, so *soft*, over the corded, jumping muscle. She can't look down, just at him, his eyes going wide and wild in the dark, irises blown, and - Spike was wrong.
Not entirely, but this isn't pain. Blood and pain aren't everything. This is just want, she wants and he wants, and Oz releases himself to grab her wrist. Pulls her hand to his mouth and sucks her fingers deep, twirling his tongue, currents of heat spiraling up her arm, into the heart of her, pushing her hips against his ass.
"Do it with you," she grunts out and Oz swallows around her fingertips. Tight, slick heat in there, moving tongue that might as well be on her clit; she can feel with each thrust the wound from the silver. She shoves him onto his back, pushes his legs up until his feet are flat on the ground and kneels between them. Her hand's still in his mouth, his lips stretched around her, sucking hard and moaning around her. Buffy pulls it free, braces herself over him with the other, as she brings her wet fingers back to his ass. Oz arches up, all white, long as a braid beneath her, wrapping his hand around his cock again.
"Fuck me," he's saying, staring up at her, "God, *Buffy*, please."
And he asks so nice and she's shuddering against all the heat, watching his fist move up and down his dick as she strokes down his crack. She fucked Spike on his hands and knees, heedless, riding the double-headed dildo faster every time he screamed, and she wants to do that to Oz. She has to swallow against the urge to fuck him open, and steadies her hand, pushing one finger inside him as slowly as she can.
Spike dared her; Oz is asking her. That makes all the difference, she has to remember that, and, *oh*, but he's tight and flame-hot inside, canting up his hips and pulling on his dick, saying her name and staring at her with eyes as black as the wolf's. That night with Spike, her hips knew what to do and she thrust like she'd been born to it, determined to fuck him into silence.
Now, now, her hand's doing it, too, knowing how to move, thrusting and teasing. Not into silence - Oz is shouting as he writhes. Free hand scrabbling over her chest, her breasts, her hip, Oz is rippling *around* her, under her, hooking one leg behind hers and *riding* her fingers. Two fingers inside, twisted together, overlapping, the bones starkly palpable it's so tight in here.
Her fingers to her arm through her chest to her crotch, a single thick red line, pulsing and coiling, her body inside his. Rarefied, boiled down, just red pushing and teasing; squeezing her thighs together, clenching her pussy, all in tune with her fingers, and she could come just from this.
When she grazes the roughened spot deep inside, Oz screams.
Without pain, full of joy. Religious, almost, his chin tipping up into the dark, sharp as something broken, saying God's name and her own, his hand a blur on his red cock, a cloud in the poisoned sky, the colors are the same. Buffy leans down, biting the sharp knob of his collarbone, tasting sweat and joy as he wrenches around her. Heaves as he comes, spatters her with hot droplets.
Heaves, rising up, arm around her neck, pushing her back. Buffy falls, skull smacking the dirt, ringing. Shoving her hips up and Oz kisses her sloppy-full before sliding down, farther and farther, fingernails-teeth-tongue on her throbbing skin and then between her legs. She clenches again, squeezes down around his face, his tongue sharp and bright as fangs on her clit.
The ringing accelerates, overlaps, and she only knows when she's done coming because Oz is lying over her again, kissing her neck with sticky, fragrant face, and she can hear what he's saying. The woolly tracery of treetops around them resolves from black smears into finer detail and she's starting to get cold.
Blanket, clothes for both of them, and they roll together beneath the wool, Buffy's cheek resting on Oz's outflung arm. Rolling her lips together, trying to figure out what to say (is she supposed to say something?), it occurs to her that she's better at the physical than the verbal. She can touch him (fuck him), lie close like this, but what to *say*?
Oz moves his lips over her eyebrow. "Pretty mindblowing, you know."
Oh. If he's going to talk, then it's easier. "Wouldn't mind doing that again," she says, surprising herself, closing her eyes against the embarrassment. Good one, Buffy, scare the guy who just wants to help, play the stupid alpha-male and don't be surprised if he turns tail and runs.
"Later," Oz says. "Again, any time."
She cracks open one eye, certain he's teasing. "What?"
His eyes are closed, his mouth relaxing. "What I said."
She should be ashamed, tell him she didn't mean it, but that's all a lie. There was no dare offered here, and now there's something like a promise. Not a big one, but - *later, again* - that says something about the time beyond. Which she can't think about, can't let herself think about. Promises, the future, those are like thoughts of home; they have to wait.
But she's kissing Oz's mouth, tasting herself, and tightening her arm around him. Thoughts like that have to wait, but they're coursing through her all the same.
Pink and mauve morning, colder than it has been, the darker red clouds barreling like schooners past the trees, when she mounts the wolf again for the last leg.
He's a ride, a bloodhound, a naked man howling against the silver, and Buffy holds the reins.
Out the park, the wolf trots easily across the concrete basin for the river. Buffy rides better today, rising and falling above the wolf's back, one hand curled in its pelt.
The river hasn't been a river for longer than her father's been alive - just a concrete channel with a dark trickle down the center - but now it seems even deader. The trickle is gone; in its place, snakes writhe, their scales black and ivory and hideous green. Feathers poke out in ruffs around their necks when their blunt head are raised, tiny black eyes fixed on her.
She's seen too many bizarre and-or disgusting things in her life to be totally revolted, but their glittering gaze unsettles Buffy nonetheless. She clicks her tongue, urges the wolf on.
Soon enough, they are past, and now they're leaving Glendale Boulevard, turning down Rowena. To the south, the black water of the Silver Lake Reservoir mimics the snakes' eyes, following, glimmering. Buffy keeps her gaze fixed ahead.
Demons increase in number, little ones like capybaras, armadillos and rabbits, fur where scales should be, matted feathers where fur belongs, skittering and scattering when the wolf growls, pacing ahead. The street is black, the sky red, bungalows and taller buildings burned out, streaked with white.
The wolf pulls to a stop at the next intersection, pushing its snout to the sky, black lips drawn back over white teeth, red tongue lolling. Scenting. Buffy tugs on the reins, nudges her knees, even says "Git" - then feels like an idiot. This isn't a horse, this isn't a Western, she's not Natalie Wood, let alone John Wayne.
The wolf will not move.
She slides off its back, keeping the reins tight in her hands. Just in front of them, the sun catches the corner of a street sign and she laughs aloud.
They're at La Paz Drive. There's no peace here.
"Oz," she says, starting to drop the reins. "Oz -"
Before she gets to the third name, the wolf leaps to its feet and starts to run, dragging Buffy forward. She stumbles, arms pulling from the sockets, before she's able to yank it backward long enough to swing up onto its back again.
If he's hungry again, if he's just hunting, she's going to scream.
The wolf dives into the doorway of the next building, smashing her against sooty marble, sending her crashing onto her ass. It's only when the jolting pain fades, when she's flattened by a whimpering wolf, its ears pulled back and mouth panting over her face, that Buffy hears the unmistakable rumble of a car.
Not a car, a truck, or a tank - something massive and mechanical, grinding as it approaches. She has no weapons, a shit-scared wolf, and only the shadows of this doorway to hide in. Buffy draws back, fingers sunk into the wolf's neck, pulling it with her.
Holds her breath as the vehicle passes. Through the ends of the wolf's fur, she sees that it's a Humvee, shiny white and *clean*, by far the cleanest thing she's seen since Rome. No, since the jail. It shudders as it moves over the broken concrete; the skin on her neck tightens and she knows she's being watched. Scanned, maybe. Nothing's visible through the frosted-over windows.
For a moment, the Hummer could be a leftover of the old LA. A rap star and his entourage, drinking Cristal in the back, lighting spliffs with twenty-dollar bills. Only there's no insistent thud of music, not a trace of luxurious joy, just this crawling truck looking for - what?
Humans, demons, intruders, escapees. She doesn't know. She can't know, only huddle here, the wolf drooling its panic on her forehead, down into her eye like fake tears, and hope it doesn't stop.
She only lets out her breath when it rumbles through the next intersection, swinging a wide right and moving away north.
Then she pats down the wolf, hums to it, waits for its eyes to stop rolling back and its ears to lift. Where there's one patrol, she's sure there will be more, and she hurries the wolf to stand. Crouched on its back, she peers out from the shadows, one hand still stroking its head.
The wolf's skull is sharp, like a retriever's, coming to a point between its ears; the longer she touches its fur, the silkier it feels until her palm remembers, first jarringly, then soothingly, the softness of Oz's human hair.
He's not a pet, she reminds herself, but that's not why she's touching him. He's the only living thing here, the only one she trusts besides herself. Drawing on the reins, she leans over and urges him-it forward.
Quickly, they need to move quickly. The wolf seems to understand. It might just be her anxiety, the same anxiety that's keeping her gaze swinging around and her ears alert to any sound, but the wolf does seem to get it. It canters south when she yanks the reins that way, then picks up speed, the hulking buildings on either side streaking into a single mass of blackened plaster and sprays of white soot.
Ahead, a white building takes shape. That it's white, not charred, is notable enough. No antiseptic white (jail, tank, hospital), either, but natural, stone like something in Rome. Flushed by the red sun, the building sharpens, then looms. The wolf turns, yipping at her, at the sky, its racing paws throwing up gravel and ashes as it rushes toward a metal gate.
A helicopter's whine starts up, overhead, to the south, and a truck rumbles from the opposite direction. Buffy hears it all, but she's clinging to the reins, flying forward, praying they make it, as the wolf leaps the gate.
A garden, they're landing in a garden. Black and green plants climbing around them, bright green grass, the first green she's seen since Rome. Ivy, and a round fountain, rough-hewn gravestones, and Angel.
Angel, shirtless and bare-footed, head fallen back, fists hanging at his sides, the sunlight falling directly on him. White body, so much muscle and broad strokes of bone, all gone pink in the light.
In the *sun*.
Buffy rushes forward, vaulting over the wolf as it had hurdled the gate, screaming at Angel.
Tackling him, pushing him down, rolling away into the shadow of the building.
"Buffy," he grunts, eyes wide but unseeing.
There is a brand on his chest, scarred-scabbed, a rough circle that's dry and swollen to her touch.
"Angel," she says. "God, *Angel* -"
He looks over, into the garden. "The sun doesn't work."
Christmas morning, he waited for the sun, too. Told her he was a terrible vampire and a worse man, and after everything she's seen, Buffy believes him now. Believes, and kisses him, touches his hair, assures herself he's real. Angel inclines toward her but his hands do not settle on her.
Pulling back, he says again, "What's wrong with the sun?"
Hands on his shoulders, Buffy glances up. "Pollution, probably."
"Yeah," he says. "Guess so." He struggles to sit up and frowns at her. "What brings you to the home office?"
"The -?" she asks, as two things happen simultaneously: the wolf howls and a door slams, its glass tinkling. Oz, oh, God. She forgot. She looks at the wolf first, sees Oz curled naked on his side, hiding his face, then over at the door. Squinting, she can't see for the bright sun, and she walks backward, carefully, toward Oz.
Empties the backpack, hands him his pants and shirt, leaving the boots on the ground, all the while keeping her eyes on the door.
A demon stands there. Blue as the Judge that Dru and Angelus raised, but slim, somehow feminine, serpentine. It cocks its head, alien eyes meeting Buffy's.
"Slayer. It was I who called you," it says, stepping past Angel, out into the garden. When Buffy doesn't answer, when she can't answer, the demon points at Buffy's chest and says, slowly, as if Buffy's hard of hearing and slightly dimwitted to boot, "I called you. You are the slayer Faith?"
"*Faith*?" Buffy says.
Angel starts to laugh. Hysterically, head in his hands, rolling around. Oz, still shirtless, one hand holding up his pants, steps to Buffy's side and whispers, "What's going on?"
"The vampire slayer," the demon repeats. Stubbornly, really, almost petulantly - Dawn when she wants to stay over at her friend Cesario's - its mouth setting into disapproval. Its finger jabs at Buffy's chest, right above her left breast, and pain pools there, deep in the muscle. "Faith."
"You've got to be kidding me," Buffy says.
There are helicopters overhead, armored trucks outside, Angel's *lost it*, and the blue demon is glaring at Buffy. Like it's her fault, like she'd ever want to be Faith.
"Let's get inside," Buffy says, taking Oz's hand. At least he's still Oz, nodding and following her across the garden, behind the strange gravestones, up the wide steps into the building.
She'd heard from Willow and Angel himself that he'd taken over a hotel, but this is a *ho*tel, big lobby and red velvet upholstery, and even if everything's filmed with cobwebs and soot blown in from the outside, it's really nice. Glamorous once, now dim and strangely comfortable.
Oz turns around, taking it all in. "Retro," he says. "I like it."
"There has been an error," the demon says from the threshold. It - she? - supports Angel; even though she's just a little taller than Buffy and Oz, she holds him up with ease. For a second, Buffy looks Angel over, naked and laughing, pale as recycled paper against the blue. The brand is ink-dark on his chest; his cock curves down his thigh, soft, thick as her arm, hooded, and she has to look away. "You must go."
"Okay, see, that's the thing," Buffy says, stepping back toward the demon. "I really hate being told what to do. I'm here, you called me, *deal*."
"I called the slayer."
"*Yeah*, I got that," Buffy says. "Angel? Tell it - her - tell the nice demon who I am."
Angel wipes his eyes. "She's Buffy. Oh, I didn't do the introductions? Rude of me. Illyria, this is Buffy. She's the Slayer. Buffy, Illyria, god-king of the something or other."
"Buffy," Illyria says like she's tasting how it sounds. "Yes. Wesley mentioned you on occasion. Spike as well."
"That's your problem, right there," Buffy says. "You get all your Slayer-lore from Wesley and *Spike*, it's bound to be warped beyond recognition."
Illyria narrows her eyes and Buffy takes a step back. Don't mouth off to the scary demon lady. Check.
Illyria looks like she's thinking. A thinky demon is never a good prospect, just as a rule of thumb, but this one doesn't seem to be plotting. She looks more like she's reading something in the air past Buffy's head. Half wondering, half translating.
"Buffy," she says again, her voice lighter this time. Sweeter, almost. "Yes. Goofy name for Angel's soulmate."
God, that *word*. It doesn't mean anything, or it means everything, but even if it does, it's - not true. She used to wish it was, try to believe it, but the word always fluttered past belief. His soul washed away in the rain; how could she believe in something so fragile?
Buffy looks helplessly at Angel again, but he just shrugs. He seems thinner than she remembers from Rome, the planes of his face sharper, his eyes deeper.
He's shuffling his feet like it's hard to keep his balance. Suddenly, it strikes her - Angel is sick. Hungry, maybe just hungry, but there's definitely something wrong with him.
Like she couldn't tell that from his laughing jag. Even Angelus doesn't laugh like that, like Xander during a Futurama marathon. Like she couldn't know that from the road, the city.
"Okay," Buffy says, taking Angel's arm, helping him away from Illyria and down the steps. "First things first. You, sit down -" Angel collapses onto a couch, dust puffing up around him. "Oz, you decent?"
He steps out from around the counter, book open in his hands. The sight would make Giles cry - the pages are rippled with water damage, the cover's half gone. "Here, dressed. Don't know about decent."
"Good." She turns back to the door. "You, Ill Communication. Tell me what's going on."
Sniffing haughtily, Illyria crosses her arms. "Such things are beyond human ken."
Buffy's getting a headache. She usually does, once adrenaline has sloughed its way through her but there's still fighting to be done. This headache's like that, plus the eye-throbbing pain of an all-nighter and a weekend-long hangover. She pinches the bridge of her nose, then yanks back her hand when she realizes she's full-on channeling Giles.
"Can you at least tell me when he last ate? 'cause he's looking ready for Dramamine or a protein drip. Maybe both."
Illyria extends her arm, turning it so her palm is facing up. Scabs like scarabs, darker blue than the rest of her, march up and down the flesh there. "Yesterday. My ichor is not, however, to his taste."
"Yet you're feeding him," Buffy says. Eww, and also ick.
"He requires nutrition." Illyria's expression shifts fractionally; on a human face, that might be a smirk. "Force can be persuasive."
"She's really strong," Angel says from the couch. "Tastes like shit, though." He spits and Illyria turns her face from him.
"You know there're patrols out there, right?" Buffy asks Illyria. "Something hunting down demons?"
Illyria waves a dismissive hand. "They cannot penetrate here. And we will not leave."
Angel giggles at that and Buffy keeps her gaze leveled on Illyria. Angel's - she can't deal with Angel right now. Things are bad when she's turning to Screaming Blue Meanie for information, but - any port in an apocalypse.
Not apocalypse, though. What's the word for the time after an apocalypse? And is it really an apocalypse if it's just Southern California? Buffy sways slightly, trying to keep focused. Oz is there, hand on her elbow, easing her down to sit next to Angel.
"Any human food around?" he asks Illyria.
"There are meat and vegetables in large tins in the kitchen," she says. "Also small noodles shaped like the Roman alphabet, suspended in a sweet tomato gravy."
Oooh, Chef Boyardee. Dimly, through the spike of hunger, Buffy wonders why Illyria's being so nice to Oz.
Because he's Oz, she figures. Just that.
Angel's looking around, touching the brand on his chest, like he's not quite sure where he is. "Hey, Oz," he says thickly. "Haven't seen you in an age."
Oz smiles tightly down at him. "Angel."
"You are all acquainted with one another," Illyria says sadly. "I am, it seems, the stranger once again."
Rolling her eyes, Buffy pushes herself up to her feet. "Okay, self-pity girl, show me the kitchen. Once I've got some Spaghetti-Os in me, maybe something around here will start making sense."
Even cold - the stove doesn't work and she's too hungry to waste time building a fire - the food is, pretty much, the best thing Buffy's ever tasted. Aside from her mom's tuna casserole and Tara's pancakes, that is; this food is sublime.
Illyria's a freak, but Buffy's growing surer that she's not a threat. Anyone who stayed with Angel after everything went down has to have some good inside.
Mostly, however, Illyria is just - strange. And kind of annoying, how she keeps appraising Buffy with her needle-sharp gaze. Probably comparing her to what she thought Faith would be, comparing and finding Buffy wanting.
Then there's the way she phrases things, flatly, like Anya, judgmentally.
Like this: "I have heard tell of human wolves," Illyria says as Buffy cleans out the second bowl. "Although Wesley was fond of Angel's wolf-lover, they are troubling to me. Mongrels, like vampires. Impure."
It's always Wesley this, Wesley that, with Illyria. She's kind of hung up on impurity, too.
"Yeah, well, Oz is cool," Buffy tells her, pouring the rest of the can into the bowl and wiping the spoon on a rag for Oz. She ignores the reference to Angel's girlfriend; apparently she didn't make it. Or she ran away. Either way, a small, sharp part of Buffy is strangely glad.
She's got her own wolf now. And, God, could she *be* any more petty?
"No, he warms whenever he touches your skin," Illyria says, following Buffy back to the lobby.
"Gross." Buffy bumps open the door with her hip. "Hey, Oz? Vittles."
She drops the bowl, hears it break and spill.
For a flash, she sees a Pietá, from one of the museums she took Dawn to when they first moved to Rome: Oz, draped over Angel's lap, arm outflung. Angel's dark head, lowered to the crook of his elbow. Oz's head tipped back, his whole body loose. Stink of blood, tension in Angel's arms holding Oz down.
At the bowl's crash, the vision breaks apart. Shatters like china, Oz scrambles to his feet, tugging down his shirt sleeve. A snarl as Angel turns to the wall, hiding the vamp-face in his arms.
"Buffy -" Oz is coming toward her. A rivulet of blood snakes out his sleeve, over his wrist.
Buffy's backing up, away, into Illyria, then past her, running for the kitchen.
She bends over the big sink, arms locked, her stomach heaving. Nothing comes up, just sour air belching out her mouth, the shakes holding her by the scruff of the neck, dizzy and sick.
Oz is standing on the other side of a long table when she turns, wiping her mouth.
"Sorry," he says. "I'm sorry, I thought -"
He's sorry. He's sorry, and she's revolted, and scared, and so angry she can barely see straight. "What the *fuck* were you doing?"
Pulling in his shoulders, hunching a little into them, Oz won't meet her eye. He stares down instead at his hand; there's a little blood streaked there, pink, like he tried to wipe it off. Hide it.
"Jesus, Oz," Buffy says, driving her hands into her pockets; there are too many knives here, and she doesn't care how dull they must be from disuse, if she touches a weapon, she might go nuts. "I -"
He raises his gaze. "I think that blue chick's been making him sick. Not on purpose, but -. He's not going anywhere that weak."
Complete sentences from Oz; this really is the end of the world.
Buffy leans against the sink, relishing the sharp edge digging into her waist, concentrating on that. "That what we're doing here? Nursing the vampire, getting him out?"
Oz's eyes are bright in the shadowy kitchen. Bright eyes, soft voice. "Dunno. What are we doing here?"
She could throttle him. Grab a knife and toss it so close to his face that he'd hear the air breaking over the edge. She could slide down until she's sitting on the floor and pull her knees up to her chest.
That's what she does. What *are* they doing here? Knocking her head softly against the steel cabinet, searching for a reason, seeking out why she's angry, what's going on, what she can possibly *do*.
Angel, all she'd been thinking of was Angel. Fearing that it wouldn't be Angel here, but Spike; fearing that there'd be nothing here; doubting and traveling and riding, just moving and coming forward. Now she's here and she's not Faith, Angel's feeding from humans, and she doesn't think she can move.
"Sorry," she says finally. "Not angry at you."
For all she knows, Oz gave up and wandered off awhile ago, but - no, of course he didn't. Here he is, dropping quietly down next to her.
"Do a pretty good impression, though," he says.
"What, of being angry?"
"Yeah." He smiles as he says it, though.
When he holds out his hand, it looks like an offer. Or a gift, a flower or a lifeline, and Buffy presses her cheek against his palm. Wonders if the blood there will glue them together.
It won't, she knows that, but it's a pretty thought. After all, feeding Angel herself cured him, but it didn't make him stay.
She's not angry at Oz - she was telling the truth. She might be *jealous* - but that's ridiculous. For one thing, it's unclear *who* she's jealous of, if she even is jealous: Angel, for tasting Oz when to do the same would make Buffy sick, or Oz, for getting to feel Angel's teeth.
Oz did what he thought was necessary, opened a vein to Angel to help him, just like she did before graduation. It's not like Oz *wanted* to. Wanting the bite, that's *Buffy's* problem, that's what she did in Rome. That's what she's thinking of as she paces the hotel's hallways, two fingers on her scar, feeling her pulse jump and strike.
She's been here for five days. Maybe six. In that time, the four of them have reached - not a détente, there's no war to cease - but a certain still calm. Oz feeds Angel once a day, at sunset, up on one of the top floors, out of sight. Illyria moves around like a wisp of blue smoke, not saying much. Angel is getting better, but slowly.
And Buffy, Buffy is pacing. Illyria wasn't kidding about the military not being able to penetrate the hotel's grounds. This is some kind of oasis, the building untouched, the garden thick and green. In the midst of all the deserted devastation, beneath the sky running with blood, the hotel is safe. Serene, even, as strange as that sounds.
Angel must be reaching the end of his ration of miracles: Soul, snow, son. Now this place.
Buffy patrols the hotel's perimeter each evening, Illyria at her side. Even demons avoid this place. Together, she and Illyria cut a wider swath each night, nearing the reservoir.
Illyria says the reservoir is frozen with snakes, like the river, like all the water on the ground. She suspects a dragon is dying in its depths, poisoning everything.
Buffy doesn't really listen.
Each night when they return from patrol, Oz is shaky and pale from the bloodloss. But he opens up what books he's been able to find and identifies their kills. He's keeping a list, though Buffy doesn't know what for. Giles, maybe, not that the phone works here, not that they seem to be *going* anywhere.
When Angel touches the hotel's gate, his brand flames up, fresh as blood.
Buffy walks the length of one hallway, then takes the stairs down to the ballroom, across the dry swimming pool, back to the lobby.
She avoids the garden.
Oasis, or miracle, the place scares her. Right in the center, there are twin graves, the markers just plain slabs of wood, paneling torn from one of the hallway walls. The names are tattooed into the wood, bloody and burned. All capitals, stark as a shout in the middle of the night.
No wonder Angel hasn't left here, can't tear himself away.
She sees him at night, walking in the garden, back and forth. Sometimes just sitting on the lip of the fountain, rolling a length of ivy in his hands, staring at the graves.
She spoke to him one night. Their second here, when she couldn't avoid him any longer. Kept her back to the garden and kissed Angel so hard she lost her breath. He didn't move and she thought, crazily, of the Blarney Stone as she wiped her mouth.
"You're one of only two good things I've ever known," he said. She thought of Christmas, of Acathla, and closed her fingers in his shirt. "In your eyes, I'm - better. Much better than I actually am."
Buffy breathed out. She wanted to say what she felt: *love you so much. I can't take it.*
Before she could speak, Angel turned away. "I'm a monster," he said flatly. "I'm nothing you should see. You shouldn't have come."
It always came back to sight: *Loved you the first time I saw you,* he told her once. *I saw your heart*.
And her heart hammered then, now. "I can't look anywhere else," she said and felt the garden move like water behind her. "I'm so mad at you but I can't look away."
He wants her to leave. He wants her to never have come. That night, he walked away, past her, into the garden, and Buffy thought she'd cry finally.
She didn't. She slept with dry eyes.
Angel sleeps out there in the garden, or in the lobby, sometimes up in the feeding room. Buffy and Oz sleep on the second floor, across the hall from the room Illyria sometimes calls her cave. They lie chastely together, entangled like they learned to do while on the road, but nothing grows from their proximity. Desire lies still between, above, them, never moving. In the early morning, when the light's still clotted with shadows, sometimes Buffy thinks she glimpses Angel watching them. From the door, from the foot of the bed, from the corner, but she can't be sure.
Doesn't want to be sure. Dark eyes that fasten like fangs, she can't acknowledge them.
From the lobby, she heads for the kitchen. Illyria has been watching the fire and decanting the boiled water into jugs; now it's Buffy's turn.
Much of her time is taken up with such things - boiling water, gathering firewood - necessary things to stay alive. Like staying alive is a job all on its own, more than enough to fill up a lifetime, no time left over for anything else.
"These are purified," Illyria says, gesturing at the jugs on the floor. "You will need to collect more water, thirsty as you two become. I am finished here."
"And thanks ever so much for your help," Buffy mutters as Illyria leaves.
She lines up the jugs, making sure each is capped, then heads out to the garden to wrestle with the big catch-container. It rains almost every night, just one more sign that LA is altogether different; last night, it hailed, pebbles rattling what sounded like every slate on the roof, every pane of glass.
"Buffy?" Angel asks, stepping out from beneath a rhododendron a good foot taller than he is. Buffy almost drops the bucket she's hauling; she can't get used to seeing him in the daylight.
Polluted light, sure, the only thing saving him, but it's - wrong. She used to dream about this sight, and she experienced that day he made her forget, but here, barefoot in the garden, twining a twig through his fingers, Angel looks more out of place than anywhere she's ever seen him.
Handsome, though. Doesn't matter how crazy or griefstricken Angel gets, he's always going to be this handsome. Always, and there was a time, even late as last year, when that word didn't bother her. So vampires never change, always stay the same, so what?
Maybe she's older now. Maybe just really tired and trying like hell to hide it, but the word sickens her now. *Always*.
"Buffy?" he asks again.
She gives him a smile. "You're looking better."
He rubs his hand over his mouth and looks away. What, are they going to pretend neither of them knows *why*?
"Thanks," he says, the same flat tone he's used since she got here. Polite, but flat, like he's not sure how to talk to her. "Need a hand?"
She kicks the bucket. "Nah. Could use a rest, actually."
Which is a lie, but a convenient one. Angel's been avoiding her as carefully as she avoids the garden. She can tolerate the garden if it means he's going to talk to her.
She sits on the bottom step, back against the ivy-covered wall, face turned away from the fountain and graves. Angel sits opposite, red light falling over his cheek and jaw. Handsome, she thinks again, so beautiful.
One corner of his mouth curves up when he catches her looking at him. Buffy goes to scrub her hand through her hair, then remembers she's wearing braids.
"So, you and Oz, huh?" he asks.
She could say the same to him, but Buffy doesn't. "Looks that way."
"He's a good kid," Angel says. And she has never thought, not once, of him in connection to her dad, no matter how old Angel technically is, but that's the kind of voice her dad would use, exactly what he'd say about her junior-high boyfriends.
Shuddering, Buffy asks, "Yeah? He taste good, too?"
Angel winces, his whole expression falling in on itself, like marble cracking apart. Point to me, she thinks, even as she feels like the bitch of all bitches for saying it. He's never drunk in front of her. God, even when he drank *from* her, he pressed his palm over her eyes to be sure she wouldn't see.
"Sorry," she says. Angel doesn't reply, and she slides closer. "Angel. I am. Sorry."
He nods, then looks up at her. Big brown eyes, puppy or little boy, his lips parting. "I'm sorry."
So many apologies, from all quarters; that's all there is here, sorry and regret. He could be repeating what she said, but Buffy hears what he's saying - dismissing her own apology, replacing it with his own - and she can't help but pull even closer. Put her arms around him.
"I can't tell you it's all right," she says into his hair. "You know that, right?"
Angel nods into the curve of her neck. "Don't tell me that."
"What do you want me to say?" she asks. His voice is muffled, his face hidden, and she's speaking to him like someone she's babysitting. "Angel, look at me."
Eventually, he lifts his face, and his eyes are even bigger. "Why did you come?"
"You know why." When he shakes his head, Buffy drops her hands into her lap. "Illyria sent me that message."
"But that isn't why," Angel says. She hears traces of his old self in his voice now, less flat, something a little closer to the voice in her memories. Liquid like hope. "Tell me *why*."
Frustrated, Buffy clenches her jaw, brings her hands to her eyes and presses hard, until she sees green starbursts. This is like those dreams where you come to school and suddenly it's the final exam. She has no idea what he wants her to say.
"You knew I'd come," she says suddenly, opening her eyes. Grabbing Angel's chin when he starts and pulls away. "Didn't you? In Rome, that's what you were doing."
He blinks once, his neck and shoulders tensing up, but stays where he is. "No." For a second, she thinks he's going to smile, but his expression doesn't shift. "Making sure you'd stay away, actually."
She doesn't believe him. After Rome, and her resurrection, after *Los Angeles* and everything she's seen, she only knows a couple things for sure. One is that Angel's never going to stay away forever. Nor is he ever going to *stay*.
"Either way, you did know what was coming," she says slowly. Angel nods, wincing when she digs her nails into his chin. "This is all your fault."
His wince smoothes into calm concentration. "As a matter of fact, this is all *your* fault."
He doesn't move, even as Buffy lunges forward, yanking her nails down his cheek. Sluggish blood wells and Angel's tongue darts out the corner of his mouth to taste it. Taking her by the shoulders, he holds Buffy still, that ghastly smile creeping over his face. "All yours."
That smile, worse than any smirk from Angelus. His hands are big enough to snap her in two. Into countless pieces.
Buffy feels fear setting like concrete through her body. Her tongue is thick and uncooperative, her breath shallow and sharp. "How do you figure?"
He tilts his head, just like Illyria, like Buffy is an inconsequential alien to his sight. "Remember that amulet? *I* should have worn it."
When he speaks, his hold relaxes slightly and Buffy brings both arms up, then outward, knocking his hands off her shoulders and springing to the side, free. "You got Spike killed in the end. Isn't that enough?" She's crawling up the steps, dragging her body like the useless weight it is.
Angel remains at the bottom, blinking innocently up at her. "But it was mine."
Buffy stops, a terrible rush of pity and confusion flowing up through rage and love, before she's able to get to her feet and run.
She runs through the lobby, bare feet slapping marble, grabs the first weapon she sees, then bursts out the front door, keeps running down the block, sword in one hand, looking for something to kill.
Hunts for a kill, any kill.
Not even a single armadillo, and she pulls to a stop several blocks from the hotel, suddenly conscious of what she's done. Gone outside, in full daylight, without backup.
Idiot. You'd think she was as suicidal as Angel.
Buffy turns back, keeping to the alleys if she can, carrying the sword over her shoulder like the Highlander-guy. "Geez, Mr. Army Man, sorry," she mutters, "It's just that I had this fight with my stupid boyfriend, please don't lock me up again."
Dusk when she returns, dragging her feet, the sword grown so heavy she's sure it's leaving a bruise.
She finds Illyria on hands and knees, pulling weeds from Spike's grave. Nothing can live for a hundred miles around LA, but there are weeds *here*, thorns and thistles springing up faster than wind.
"Do you know where you came from?" Illyria asks as she piles the weeds to the side, then strokes her hand over the dirt.
"Something about shadow guys and a demon," Buffy says, sitting heavily on the fountain. The sword clatters onto the tiles. She hasn't even really *thought* about Spike, not yet, except as one more thing to blame Angel for.
When she's dealt with Willow being gone, then, maybe, she can mourn Spike. It's a big maybe; this time last year, she thought he was dead, too. "There was a ritual, some bondage. Looked like rape to me."
That's something, actually, that Oz pointed out, back when they were on the road and she was telling him all the stories she could think of. About the cave in Africa, the black oil pouring into that girl, and, the next night, Willow's spell on the scythe. *So you raped a thousand girls across the world?* he asked, gently as ever, a smile on his cheek. *Kidding.* Then he frowned. *Wow. Really not funny. Sorry.*
"Your race is dirt," Illyria says, taking up a handful and letting it sift through her fingers. Giles did the same thing when they visited Jenny's grave; Buffy did it when she and Angel sat by her mother's grave, again when they sat by her own. "One-eighth is dirt that makes the flesh. The sea sings in the blood, the stones carve into bones. Wind for breath, clouds for the mind's thoughts. The sun lights the eyes."
Frowning, her lips moving silently, Buffy looks down at her fingers. "Wait. That's only six."
Dusting off her hands, Illyria stands up. "How your kind ever lasted this long is incomprehensible," she says, passing the fountain. Sullenly, Buffy wants to stick out her leg and trip her so she rolls, self-righteous blue ass over teakettle. "Mud and sunlight are far from glorious."
When staked, vampires return to dust because, if they'd just stayed in their graves, that's all they'd be now. When the wood pierces the heart or the head rolls away, time catches up. Races over the corpse and blows it away.
They poured wet mud into Spike's grave.
Decomposition, Buffy thinks, drawing her toes along the edge of Connor's grave. A baby conceived by vampires; the poor kid never had a chance. According to Illyria, he'd appeared in the alley just as Gunn fell, took up his axe, shouting away his father's warnings to fight between Angel and Spike.
Buffy wonders if he dusted when he died, or if there's a body under all this dirt. It doesn't matter, she realizes. Either way, he'll be dirt again. Like his mother, like his big brother lying beside him.
Angel's love is territorial in all senses of the word. *My town,* he sneered when she came after Faith; *My girl,* he gasped on her birthday night. *My amulet*, *my death*. Even (especially) literally territorial: Spike and Connor get pride of place in their graves. Right in the center of the garden, while Gunn and Wesley are buried across the way, against the fence, under a jasmine hedge. Darla and Cordelia, that girl Fred, their graves are nowhere to be seen.
"Where would you put me?" Buffy asks the air.
Angel. She's always talking to Angel.
She's a ghost in this world. Moving through this hotel she's never seen before, pacing its hallways, fighting its intruders, ignoring its graves.
Buffy moves upstairs, trailing her hand along the banister, until she's at the top floor. Imagines she can smell Oz's blood, and turns down the hall, seeking out the feeding room.
Each door is open and she floats past the shadowy rooms. Her body knows where to go, like this is a dream. Her mind simply watches, just follows along.
Almost at the end of the hall, one door is closed. Pulled closed over the bodies within, but not latched, and Buffy presses her face to the crack, watching.
Pietá, porn: Oz, draped, slim unspooled white body over Angel, arm in Angel's mouth. Angel, massive, swallowing in time with his fist on Oz's cock. White and red, blood and dick, both of them moaning with the effort. Hiding in the dark, naked and hungry, and she watches as Angel's mouth rises, painted black, as Oz arches and come jolts out of him. As Angel soothes him with the same hand and lips that just doubly drained him.
She could move inside. Buffy knows that, knows that she could strip off her dirty clothes, join them, naked, and Angel would accept her, Oz would kiss her. She could taste, and see, and know.
They're ashamed, hiding, and she understands that now. Shame, she thinks: Oz covering his genitals, Angel turning away to drink down his blood. Alleys and forests, cages and crypts. What's monstrous is existing in the sight of others.
If they see her, then the guilt comes. Angel is shamed, and grieving, but only guilty now that she's here.
Shame, and guilt. This is my fault, blame me, punish me: that's guilt.
But guilt is only the first step. Buffy's not even Catholic and she knows that. You feel guilty so you count off rosary-beads, you confess, you try and make it better.
Angel can't even enter a church; expiation is very far away. She closes the door as she turns, hears it latch, moves back to her white bed, feels the weight of the earth pressing her down onto her back.
When Oz joins her, she asks the dark, "Do you love him?"
"No," he replies and spreads the blanket over their bodies. "But you do."
She loves a lot of people. Loves the world and loves the kill - monsters, her own, all of it. Buffy buries her face in the crook of Oz's arm, his pulse throttling against her lips.
"I want to go home," she tells his pulse.
Oz sighs into her hair. "Me too."
It rains that night, into the morning, silvering the red into something paler. Tapping against the windows, seeking invitation.
Dawn's coming, is already here. Buffy rolls against Oz, hand on his hip, over the small of his back, kissing him until his eyes flutter open. He tastes like morning, like rain, trampled grass, and she pulls him on top of her.
"Buf-" he breathes.
"Shut up," she says and brings his arm up between them. Little scabs, pin-pricks, scalpel marks, from Angel's bites. When she licks them, looping the tip of her tongue, he shivers against her. Buffy kisses him again, scrolling her name, Angel's, Oz's, against his mouth, and Oz is moving against her, holding her head, squeezing her breast. The bruise is still there from Illyria's jabbing finger; Buffy's healed from demon scratches more quickly than that bruise has taken to fade. His thumb digs into the bruise and Buffy arches under him, opening her legs, rocking against his erection.
"Need a -" he tries to say and she kisses him with a bite. Draws both hands down to his ass, fingering his crack, making him grunt. He's still reaching for the first-aid kit. "Buffy. Need a rubber -"
"Don't want one." She's lifting and spreading his buttocks, mouthing his throat. "Want to feel you."
He stills, light through the rain moving over his paperwhite face like tears, like blood. Slitted green eyes, then he shakes his head. Groaning, he reaches the foil strip, sits back and his hands are quivering, blurring, as he rolls it on.
He doesn't want her, she won't feel him, but Buffy tugs him back anyway, covering his mouth with her own and lifting open. Grunting, Oz moves faster, nudging inside her, so slowly she wants to scream.
"I can feel you," he breathes into her ear and she clutches at his hips, hauls him forward, deeper and faster,
"Can you?" she asks and she can feel *him*, pressure and tenderness twisted together, deep enough to graze her spine, sweetness spiraling up and down her body. He's beautiful and calm above her. Too calm; Angel can bleed him, but Buffy gets only the serenity.
Mouth opening to reply, Oz's voice breaks like glass into a cry. Fingertips blunt and dry drawn over his ass, her teeth in his neck, the cry wrenches higher.
"Angel," she says when Oz quiets. At that, he stiffens, starts to pull away, but she swivels around him, holding him still as she lifts her head from the pillow. "Angel, I know you're there."
The brand is nearly invisible in the rainy morning as he steps out of the corner. Eyes averted, hands in fists, but he comes toward her anyway, and Buffy strokes the tension hardening down Oz's back. Whispers in his ear, "All of you, both. With me."
The breath he draws is as long as a star's trail, held in his chest, resting against hers, but then, finally, he nods. Kisses her light as leaves and starts to thrust again as Angel kneels on the bed, head down, fingers loosely knotted.
She lifts one of his hands, brings it to her mouth, lips on his palm and eyes on his. Oz reaches for him, too, scabbed arm stretching, hand on Angel's shoulder, and Angel tilts and falls. Over them, against them, and they kiss him, he kisses them, Oz and Angel kiss Buffy, and all the logic of geometry flies away. Too many hands, three mouths, bodies twisting together, and then Angel's face is between her legs, killing mouth bringing pleasure while Oz holds her and whispers in her ear and she touches his cock, fists it like Angel did, does, small hand where large one had been, and there's no competition, only history and the history of the present, gathering around them in the rain.
Angel is always, eternal, and Oz is temporary, passing through the present, promising *later, again, any time*, and Buffy loves them both, rides the sensation like the sea, fights her way into pleasure.
She spent so long wrapped in guilt tight as arms, as a straitjacket, and now Buffy is freeing herself, flinging herself wide, gathering them in, rubbing herself against Angel and sucking Oz down and there's never going to be a moment of perfect joy again.
Only this, limbs like maps, routes that twine past death and crawl out of the city, churn like rivers, break free in the voices like wind. New geography above the fallen city, inside the clouds like thoughts that sail on and on.
Afterwards, Angel crouches over her, on hands and knees. She could be the dirt sifting through a mourner's hand.
"It didn't have to be like this," she tells him. Oz is pressed against her side, eyes open but sleeping all the same. She kisses Angel's forehead and traces the brand with one finger.
Angel will not leave and they cannot stay. He will waste away, or find a reason to escape, but she can no more kill him than she can wait by his side.
She's not angry any longer. She is a ghost here. A demon is what does not belong, shame breeds monsters; she will not stay long.
The garden is full of the dead, the lost wander the roads, but Buffy has a home. The morning brightens amid the tears.
When Oz wakes up, they'll head east, all the way back.
Feed Glossolalia Visit Glossolalia
Rating: NC 17
Summary: "Angel's never going to stay away from her forever. Nor will he ever stay."
Spoilers: Spoilers/Setting: "Chosen"–"The Girl in Question""Not Fade Away"
Warnings: Vampire, slayer, and werewolf–there's going to be blood and
fur. This fic includes B/Oz and A/Oz in addition to B/A.
Notes: I am the Numero Cinco, sadsack and nigh on hopeless, next to
the superstar beta team of Di, Romany, G., and Kit (Las Hermanas
Numeras y Bellas?). Impossible to imagine this without their
contributions, loving care, and challenging observations. Thanks also
to Batdina for midrashic help on the fourth section.
This story is for Yoon, who has repeatedly noted that gardens are
evil, who is splendid and inspirational, who deserves many gifts.