The night Cordelia died, Gunn took Fred home, and they did an old familiar dance of sweat and skin, with a new beat of grief and no words needed in the morning. He got dressed in the same suit and she brushed her teeth in her underwear, watching him in the bathroom mirror. He straightened his tie and she raised one finger, asking him to wait while she spit and rinsed and wiped her mouth dry.
“If we’ve learned anything,” she said, pulling the band from her hair and letting it fall down soft and wild and still tangled from the pillow, “it’s that death is essentially optional.” Her fingertips traced theorems on the porcelain. “There are infinite possibilities on the other side, you know?”
“Once you cross over, you’re not supposed to come back,” he said. “That’s the one thing I’ve always known.”
She shrugged, always impatient, her mind three steps ahead and halfway around the corner. “How much of what we’ve always known has ever been true?”
Illyria bleeds out blue on the pavement a foot away from his face. Gunn watches it gush out, like blue ink from a pen, not driven by the beat of a heart. The God-King of the Primordium is heartless, like she said, liquid eternity held inside a shell. And now the shell is cracked and rain washes heavy blue past Gunn’s slowly blinking eyes, half an inch off the ground, the pavement digging into his cheek.
He watches it and thinks about the veins under Fred’s skin, blue under the thin pale wrapping that held her together. He traced those lines that carried life inside her with his fingertips and his tongue, over a year a summer a moment a lifetime they spent together. She was filled up with blue as well, blue that turned red when it spilled and was driven by a heartbeat, like the thick liquid pumping out of his own body now under his hands.
He draws in a ragged breath and watches Illyria bleed, and he knows he’s going to live because his job isn’t done. He still has amends to make.
It was a flimsy little piece of blue, short slinky silky sleek, and when she moved it hissed against her skin like all of those words. She only wore it once, because when they got back to his place he peeled it off of her while she laughed. The zipper got between his hand and her skin, so he tore it right out of the bodice.
She scolded him, still laughing, or she would have—she only got as far as Charles! when he covered her mouth with his and ran his hands down her now-bare back, spanning her waist and carrying her back to the bed, tumbling her down in a tangle of perfume and lace and rough cotton sheets.
The next morning, she borrowed one of his sweatshirts. The dress lay in a brilliant puddle on the floor until he folded it up and tucked it away in a drawer. It compressed into almost nothing, such a small square of fabric he couldn’t believe it had covered her.
There was never any chance to give it back, and he couldn’t quite throw it away, so it moved from the bottom of one drawer to the next. Whenever he put on a t-shirt that had rested on top of it, he’d catch the sweet-sour echo of blended sweat and perfume. It was the ghost of the scent of her, and it never lingered, just touched him long enough to remember that night and her laugh before it was gone.
This is magic that has never been written down in words and symbols, and he knows she’d hate that. She believed in science, and that magic was a science, that you could make it follow rules and equations. She and Wesley both believed that, the two of them alike with their faith in their systems, chaining the magic down and binding it in place with words.
His back aches from kneeling with his forehead pressed to the ground, abasing himself to some Power or another until it agrees to open the veil and do what can’t be done. Once he would have called it a miracle. He knows better now, has seen enough magic to figure out the truth. There are no miracles, only choices, and you either have the power to shove your choices through or you don’t.
Option three: you find a way to beg borrow or hire that power from somebody else.
The air is thick and heavy with smoke and the shaman’s chant. Gunn’s heart aligned to the beat of the drum ages ago. He’s knelt here for an hour and he’ll stay as long as it takes. There are no schedules here, no scripts, no systems; this is street-magic, rough and dirty and improvised, never bound up or caged.
When Wes helped Fred’s landlord empty out her apartment, he had Harmony deliver a garbage bag to Gunn at the hospital. Inside he found the sweatshirt she had borrowed, still smelling so strongly of her shampoo and her skin that she must still have worn it at home. He lay there under the papery sheets and pressed his face to the fabric, breathing her in and unable to stop the tears from coming.
He burned the shirt in a solemn ceremony behind the Hyperion after a bottle of cheap whiskey and an extra pain pill, the night before he went to hell.
Later he would regret that, because the sweatshirt might have been better for the calling, might have had her woven more deeply into its fibers. But he still had the dress, tucked away in a drawer in his slick and gleaming new apartment. An echo, a souvenir, something left behind.
The dress lies in the dirt. The drums pound and he watches it, a streak of silk and color against the ground, an empty shell that’s going to fill up with her the way the shell of her body filled up with blue. He waits for the moment of transformation, what he won’t call a miracle because there are no gods, only choice. He waits, counting down heartbeats to an undetermined end.
He’s known the dead and the undead and the living and if he can’t tell the differences between them by now, he never will. Each is a thin and shifting distinction, but after a while they become familiar: the subtle pressures they leave his skin, the tastes on his tongue when he breathes in the air that’s been near each kind.
He’s walked with monsters. He knows that they can live and breathe, and that, more than likely, he’s one of them. What he’s doing here and now is monstrous in most eyes, including his own, once upon a time. Not even all that long ago.
But he made a choice and he’ll see it through. He owes her that, doesn’t he? Owes her at least the attempt to make it right. He’ll wipe out an old crime with this new one, and whether the balance of right and wrong comes out in his favor or not, he’s still not going to see heaven.
Living through the battle might have been a miracle after all. At any rate, the choice and the act of will weren’t his. He wasn’t doing any choosing, just bleeding.
But he lived. And after drifting for a while, he figured out why. He had amends to make. He couldn’t undo all of the sins of the past, all of the ones he assumed from the others when they fell and carried on his shoulders as the last one standing. He probably couldn’t even undo the ones that were uniquely his own, a handful of dust on the mountain he’s carrying. Sisyphus and Atlas at once, carrying the stone of atonement up a mountain without a summit.
That image wasn’t his own, not from any part of the mind he was born with. It came out of the magical-technical hybrid in his mind that stuttered and faded but didn’t die. It lingered and echoed and reminded him of what he was, what he did, what he had to make up for if he ever wanted his soul to rest, or any of the other souls he was carrying in memory.
Her eyes are the same. Brown and wide and innocent in a way that lies.
Her movements are the same, hands darting like birds around her face, long limbs carrying her like a dance. Her stillnesses are the same, when she disappears into the symbols and patterns in her head.
Her body is the same, the flesh and bone and soft skin that he remembers, that he knows.
But her mind, her heart, her memory, aren’t the same. They can’t be. He should’ve realized when he made his choice that things would change for her in crossing back and forth between life and death, existence and absence. Infinite possibilities on the other side, she said. Infinity leaves a lot of room for things to change.
When he first met her, she was a little bit crazy. She babbled and she skittered and she hid herself behind her hair.
When he first loved her, she was a blending of strong and scared, funny and brilliant, delicate and fierce. He thought that he could watch her forever and never figure out all the colors and pieces of her, and he thought that there was nothing he’d rather do.
When she died, he wasn’t sure what she was, because when he looked at her he could only see his guilt and his crime.
“Do you remember?” he asks.
“Do I remember what?” She raises an eyebrow, not looking at him, eyes intent on the symbols flowing from her pen to the hotel paper.
“Everything.” Her eyes widen and her hand moves faster. “I remember everything.”
He wonders if she hates him, for what he did, for bringing her back. He thinks that maybe someday, he’ll ask.
Sometimes she wakes up screaming, fighting demons in her sleep. That’s familiar to him. He held her before, through nightmares of Pylea, and vampires, and fallen gods with rotting faces. He holds her now through nightmares of unbeing, melting from the inside into the chaos of the universe, being replaced and being brought back again.
She should be having nightmares of him, he thinks as he strokes her hair and whispers softly in her ear. It was his fault she died and it’s his fault she’s back, and he wouldn’t be surprised if she opened her eyes and saw his face and screamed.
But she doesn’t. She opens her eyes and sees him and reaches out without hesitation.
“So we’re what’s left.” She tilts her head and frowns, twirling her pencil between her fingers. “We’ve got the mission.”
“I don’t know about that.” He lies on his back and studies the cracks in the ceiling, imagines them spreading and growing until the whole building crumbles to dust. Falling apart like the rest of the world, like good intentions. “Me and the mission aren’t really on speaking terms anymore.”
“Of course you are.” She bends her head over her paper again. “It’s in your heart.”
“Not so sure about that now.”
“I am.” The pencil swirls and skitters and dances.
“Why?” Something in his voice makes her finally look up.
“Because you’re Charles,” she says. “I know you.”
“Do you? Still?”
“Yes.” She underlines what she just wrote and sets the paper aside. “You’ve got a lot of guilt going on.”
“I think I’ve earned it.”
“That’ll be with you for a while, I guess,” she says, drawing her knees up to her chest. “Like Angel.”
“So I’m Angel now?”
“No.” She shakes her head, smiling patiently, a teacher coaxing the slow kid to catch on. “You’ll handle it better. It won’t eat you up like it did to him.”
“You sound pretty sure.” He wants to believe her, wants to think that she’s brought something special back from where she was, something that lets her know more than she could if she’d stayed. Maybe what he did is less awful if she got something from it, if she came back wise.
But he’s seen enough things that died and came back, and enough works of the Powers who are supposed to have that kind of wisdom, to know it doesn’t work that way.
“Of course I’m sure,” she says with simple certainty, twisting up her hair and letting it fall again. “I know you.”
“You keep saying that.”
“Do you still know me?” She watches him, curious, the way she watches any puzzle that needs unraveling.
When he looks at her he doesn’t see a puzzle at all, just Fred. He loves her, with the ease of a friend and the distance of a symbol and the remembered heat of a lover.
“Yeah,” he says at last, nodding. “Yeah, I think I do.”
“All right then.” She picks up her paper again and starts another line, writing so fast he expects her fingers to get tangled, getting everything out of her head and marked down where she can see it. “We’ll figure the rest of it out as we go.”
“We’ve got time for that.”
“Time,” she says, a smile quirking her lips. “Time and a hell of a lot of work to do.” She tilts the paper to better catch the light and he realizes that she hasn’t only been writing symbols and equations, though those form a spidery border around the page. In the center, she’s been drawing. From his perspective it’s upside down, and it takes a minute for it to snap into focus.
Swords and monsters, a dragon, heroes on horseback and on foot. And off to one side, a boy and a girl, walking down a road that led off the page.
She glances up and catches him looking, and her smile grows wider and more knowing. “That’s how all the stories end,” she says, tapping her finger against the two figures. “Well, where the books end, anyway. Just because the book’s over doesn’t mean the story is.”
“Infinite possibilities,” he says, starting to smile as well, “on the other side of the page?”
“You got it,” she says, laughing with delight, and for the first time since he doesn’t know when, he laughs along.
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