Chapter 44: Of Rabbits and Hats
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Warnings: Graphic violence, adult language, sexual situations, character death, rabbits.
Disclaimer: The characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are owned by Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Fox studios and maybe various other entities that I am unaware of but totally respect and admire. This story is not meant to infringe upon anyone's rights, only to entertain.
Chapter 44: Of Rabbits and Hats
The library roof was a L.A. freeway pileup, a deck of cards dealt fast.
Stark stood rapt by the work of crazy abstract art that used to be her beloved Now. The crumpled scar of dark matter hanging over them could have been a spiteful grin, and from the volume of the freak’s shrill screams Buffy Summers realized this was not remotely in the zip code of what was supposed to happen.
They did it, she thought, hardly daring to believe it.
And before Buffy could finish thinking this and daring to believe it, the comet crashed onto the rooftop, showering everything in a pulse of dazzling light.
The impact made time and space go all wonky for a couple of seconds, but she could still make out the shapes of figures at the explosion’s core. They were enmeshed in some kind of weird football huddle, as if braced for the long ride down. She recognized them the moment the light began to die.
It was too much to hope for, or to even understand, but hope and understanding hardly seemed to matter at this point. There was a brave carpenter and a beloved corpse. There was a redheaded thief as well; an old friend long lost. Buffy watched her fall to the ground, as cold as a stone.
It was the corpse that came running, obviously. He would always come running, still trying to win a certain foot race that ended years ago. When Spike reached the ledge, he put all his kittens on the table, and whatever strange flame still burned inside him suddenly roared out at Nancy Stark through his fists.
And this benediction – or grace or whatever-it-was – was also fleeting, also lost in the relentless cascade of moments. She felt Dawn yanking her by the sleeve. There was still no plan. They were just running, just trying to put as much distance as possible between their deaths and Nancy’s dashed dreams of Armageddon.
As they got close, Buffy saw that Willow’s skin was snow white. Xander Harris was carrying her towards the shelter of a chimney in his long, shaking arms. The sky was lashing him with icy winds, rocking him sideways, and the sight of this made Buffy curse her broken body again. She was supposed to be the strong one. She was supposed to carry them. But wasn’t that Dawn’s arm locked around her battered ribcage, dragging her big sister away from the Big Fight? Couldn’t she taste her own blood?
When they reached the chimney, Buffy turned to watch the final hand play out. Spike steered Nancy in a violent orbit. He was wearing the old wardrobe now, the Sunnydale Chic. Coupled with his eternal youth, the clothes made it seem like no time had passed between now and then. He wove his body under the monster’s desperate blows, slipping in jabs like poisoned teeth. He was beautiful. But the fleeting strands of the Now were still attached to Nancy Stark like kite strings. She was holding the crack open with her horrible will, using its absence to warp her body into increasingly horrifying shapes.
It was so strange to watch the pair dance, knowing she was out of the game now, just another spectator in the grandstands. They were both moving fast, but Nancy was faster, angrier. Despite all High-Horsey tributes to the contrary, Buffy knew that Hatred was every bit as strong as Love when it came to the mud and bone of combat. Stronger, maybe – Hate was not so easily distracted.
As if to demonstrate this, Spike wasted a card to gaze back at her. From the look set on his face, Buffy realized that even if he lost he would win, finish that old foot race once and for all. This time – like all the other times – the Man would beat the Monster. He seemed to realize this too. It was at last and too late, but for this brief fragment of a second, he seemed to know himself the way she knew him.
Nancy made him pay for this revelation with a savage blow that sent him reeling. The world became a Horror Movie again. The thing that used to be the Nurse shambled after her lover like some B-Movie mutant, long needles and knives hanging from her fingers like the arsenal of an exotic insect, her breath pumping out like steam from a machine.
Buffy tried to scream but couldn’t, tried to run but couldn’t. When she wrested free from Dawn she discovered the legs just didn’t work anymore. As she fell, she could hear Xander yelling something that sounded like “not breathing, she’s not breathing” and for a strange moment she wondered whom he meant.
Down there on the blacktop was a smell like cotton candy and cold rain in the woods. It wasn’t Death that offered itself now, but the seductive escape-hatch of dreams. Somewhere out in the electric blur her friends were still in the game, still playing for their lives. But by the time the final card was dealt, Buffy the Something Something had her cheek pressed flat on cracked asphalt, merely fighting to stay awake.
The final card, however, turned out to be a doozy.
Because, through the roof’s layer cake of stone and steel, she could hear her. And – this time – she was listening.
(the fire is close, i can see your light)
(he tried to trick us, my queen, tried to break us)
(they cannot break us)
(we are One)
Buffy pushed up on her hands just in time to see it, seeping through the poured black stone. It was like the smoke from oil fields on fire, almost a solid thing.
She gasped as it shot into her eyes and nostrils and between her lips, but she didn’t fight it this time. The demon seemed bursting with joy as it raced down the sprawling road map of arteries and brambles of nerves, as it burrowed into her heart and curled like a cat around her soul. The sweetness in her mouth turned to dry wheat, and then the clouds arrived hotter than ever before, her flesh bending to their ministrations. She twisted sideways, screaming.
The agony was necessary, like forcing air into a drowned lung. Buffy welcomed it, and quietly willed it to burn even hotter, to weld her wounds tight, to harden the shattered bones to rock. They did that and more, pulled her heart open with taut bands. The demon poured its primeval strength into her until it was tumbling over the edges of a fountain lip. There was so much of it.
There was too much.
Buffy needed to find a place to put all that strength.
Dawn was staring at her like she just flew in from Pluto. It almost felt like she had, and boy were her arms NOT tired.
Xander turned his good eye up at her. He looked so tired and sad; kneeling like a penitent, Willow’s limp form weeping from both ends of his arms. He opened his mouth to say something that Buffy would never hear, because she was already running, limbs already knifing through the wind.
Because she was already on her way.
Colors. Colors but no light.
It was the tree, first: rotting in fast forward; fruit tumbling down like sickly manure; leaves curling like a dead crone’s toes. Nancy could feel it dying. The rest of her garden was dying too, choked with unexpected cancers. Something had happened.
Something was still happening.
Red corpses all around. The light in the sky.
The burning fire in the sky.
The Beast kept fighting, squirming free, resisting forever, his teeth gnashing back at her like a saw blade. He licked a punch into her side, and she felt the pain bloom there.
Nancy watched her hand reach for Papa Stark’s old air gun, but it wasn’t there, and the gun would never kill it anyway, and the Slayer’s poison was leaking out of her hands like a sieve and the poison would kill it this time. A breath gusted into her, and when her mind’s jaws pried the black heavens open she drank from the empty cup there, parched lips lapping up whatever scraps were left like a wormy mutt at the creek.
The hated body twisted, the white cage molding itself fresh bars. Nancy let it happen, let the bitching skin do its best and worst. She was stripped down to the raw – nude as a Folly rabbit, every goddamn stitch. But the Now’s fertile absence wove a layer thicker and prettier than the prettiest cotton dress (with grass stains all over you gonna git it, you gonna GIT IT GIRL.)
She watched her hand became a mass of bloodthirsty edges, felt the snake of her spine worm free and felt her egg teeth billow out and harden like shaving cream straight from the can. And that’s when she knew it, when all the soft suspicions hardened into fact, just the same as the teeth.
The Hunger was in her, just the same as it was in Hostile Billy, and Miss Special. The same but bigger. Blanker and older and bigger and emptier.
Colors but no light.
And she loomed tall, then, every cell in her body giggling at gravity’s butterfly-frail bonds. Because she had become both slayer and vampire – all slayers, all vampires – become the inside and the outside.
The food chain inna hula hoop.
We who dream ourselves.
The beginning and the end and the beginning.
None of them knew. How could they? Nancy Stark passed amongst them like a ghost. Or maybe they were the ghosts. They floated to and fro, whispering their little schemes. They only had to look to see. She learned all her lessons young. She knew what she was, and this was not frightening. It was simply education.
When she next touched him, the lesser Mr. Nothing flew through the air, coat flapping like a crow’s wings. She stalked after him on long, saurian legs that were still adapting to a final purpose, conforming to that old Rule of Mouths.
And so, she would kill him with her Mouth; clip his head like a coupon and choke on his screaming ashes. Gobble him and everyone else on this roof and on the planet and in all the galaxies, champing her way back to the birthplace of all stars.
There, Nancy would resume her studies; discover a fourth and a fifth dimension, and devour every single thing she found there, too. Eat and eat until it was all stone-still and quiet, until there was nothing left to fill the void.
Till the soil.
Plant the seed.
Slay the Beast.
She felt her jaws drop open, wider and wider, unhinged from their memory of flesh.
The world grew dark and savage.
And this was going to be easy.
Then, a truck.
A truck hit Nancy Stark.
And then she was the one flying: arms and legs clawing the air on the way, her odd flight path bending the sky’s grin into an ugly scowl.
She heard Miss Special’s voice slashing through the air. It made her think again of all those pretty blondes floating down into their air-conditioned paradises. But the voice sounded different now, every word a matrix of wrought steel and the murderous, shining edge of that old enemy star.
That yellow fucking sun.
“Now,” it said. “We can do this the hard way, or... well, actually there's just the hard way."
The bomb’s LED display lit up, the numbers like red ligaments stenciled on a band of amber. The device itself was frank and ordinary, hundreds of tiny diodes connected by copper wire. There wasn’t anything special about it at all, this little Box of Death.
Kennedy thought this as she fingered through the little operator’s manual, decoding all of its secrets. It was like a booklet of table manners; do this before that, such before such. It wasn’t special, either. Little dots of black ink on laminated paper. Paper was a relic, really – in this age of the democratized Internets – but it was also a necessary one. Only one set of eyes was ever meant to look at these words, and they were looking at them now. So, she paged through dutifully as a second set of fingers fluttered over a plastic grid of buttons, locking in the final detonation code.
Kennedy, on the other hand, was special. She was.
She’d known this from a very young age. The daughter of importers and exporters, she had learned the dry math of empire before she was knee-high. But at a certain tier of society, everyone of substance was expected to carve her own path through life. So, she had to define herself using whatever was handy, escape from the weight of Posterity into the air of the Ideal.
If she'd bothered to pursue a science of the human mind, Kennedy might have recognized herself in certain unflattering case studies. She might have noticed a certain flailing of a listless ego, or measured her lesbianism as transference of some form of acute narcissism, or wondered why it was she thought many of history’s notable lunatics had a damn good point, after all.
But she didn’t study these subjects, and if she had she would’ve understood them to be mere traps of language. Society was riddled with such traps and tricks and distractions. She was what she was. She did what needed to be done.
And as Kennedy’s finger stabbed out the second of three confirmation codes, she considered the fact that worlds were made by people like her. The rats in the streets did not make worlds. They followed the song, but they were not (could never be) the flutists. No matter how they mixed and mingled and diluted it, they would only have their rat blood, and it sang to them only of comfort and patience and self-preservation.
Kennedy’s blood was of a bolder vintage. It was the blood that built kingdoms and burned them to the ground. It was the same blood that fired the hands and hearts of people who flew planes into buildings, who ordered villages razed at dawn, who led rebellions and revolts and revolutions and cleansings. The blood on her face was a holy fuel, an imperial broth. It didn’t matter that the strength had left her. It didn’t matter that shestole it from her.
It was Rosenberg who did the deed, she knew. It had to be.
The Witch giveth, and the Witch taketh away, she thought. So fucking clever.
But now it’s time for MY magic trick, lover.
Let’s see you outsmart a mushroom cloud...
As she thought this, a large shadow slunk into the corner of her vision. Kennedy did not waste a glance at its owner.
“Well, well,” she murmured. “Snuffaluffagus, I presume. If you’re looking for your pal Big Bird, I‘m afraid he’s recently extinct.”
The shadow lurched around the bend of a wall, keeping its sullen distance. This was expected, of course. Kennedy knew the score. It dawned on her shortly after their adventures in Romania had come to a sudden, unexpected close. For all its terrible size and strength, poor Andrew’s pet couldn’t hurt her. She still remembered the prissy way it had moved, sidestepping them like crabs in a translucent pool.
It must’ve been the little moron’s doing. In some misguided fit of “conscience,” he'd bound the demon from harming human beings. As if to confirm this, the thing slithered ten feet up a wall, a smattering of heads and tentacles clinging there like grotesque ivy. Its body looked almost as black and shapeless as its shadow in the gloom, so formless that they were hard to tell apart. The coils on the top half strained upwards, reaching for a steel lip that jutted like a hotel awning from a parapet.
“What’s the matter, bud? Don’t wanna stick around for the fireworks?” Kennedy stared at it for a few expectant moments and then just gave up. The freak seemed totally brain-locked, like a big snail slinking blindly up a tree. Probably a side-effect of the company it’d been keeping lately, she thought.
And just like that, he appeared.
Kennedy had to stifle a laugh when she saw him, crawling on his side like a half-drowned worm. The knife was still sticking out of his belly, and when she saw how red and wet his hands were she pictured a dozen pansy-assed attempts to yank it out, all accompanied by a sound track of squeaks. The line of blood behind him looked it could’ve come from a child’s paintbrush, shaky and wavy and splotchy.
But, she had to give it to him. Andrew Wells kept coming and coming, his eyes as round as full moons. She’d seen this look before, of course. Dead people seldom knew when they were dead. It took them awhile to truly accept it.
Sometimes, they even needed to be reminded, she thought.
What else are Slayers for?
“Andrew! Damn, you looked fuuuuucked up!” Kennedy cackled. “Hey, but you know what they say, right? What goes around comes around. And stabs you – “ she made a hard, shunting gesture – “right in the gut!”
His lips started to move, but she couldn’t hear the little freak’s snappy comeback. His face was as pale as a china plate. As he spoke, blood gurgled out of his miniature mouth, striping his chin like a soul patch.
“What’s that? Whatcha say, Andy?” She started to walk towards him, suddenly wanting to remind him. “I can’t hear you, old buddy. You’re gonna have to speak up.”
He was propped on one elbow, fist pressed to his face, looking like a little kid about to be told a bedtime story. He kept saying quiet things, every breath sweeping him closer to the Great Nerd Yonder. His wide blue eyes seemed to be looking straight through her, blinded by the largeness of his own death. When she got within a couple of feet, she noticed the silver ring on his finger, biting into his cheek. She heard the words dribbling out of him, then:
“… by the roaring tumult of Thule’s Blood Ocean, I unbind thee. By the burning sands in the Valley of Ben-hinnom, I unbind thee. By the bottomless trench of the Lake of Galgamek, I unbind thee…”
His eyes floated upwards, and for a moment Kennedy thought they would roll back into his skull, that Andrew Wells would die right then and right there. But they stopped to stare at a point twenty feet above her instead, the corners of his chalky lips curling to form a sad little smile.
“Do what thou wilt,” he said.
What she saw was hard to process at first. But the seconds were passing like years, and it gave her time to catch up.
Her memory of the Thing that fled Castle Dracula was intact but faulty, lying to her somehow. It was all cherry-picked details, bits and pieces of a whole that was almost impossible to grasp. This was by design, she now realized. The monster had seemed a formless construct– a twisting abstraction of frenzied, chaotic parts and clattering jaws and the edges of nightmares. When it had rumbled off into the sunset that day, it reminded Kennedy of broken rotted trees glued together at the stumps, misfit puzzle pieces jammed together. She’d figured it was just another one of the Devil’s practical jokes, a jumble of savage afterthoughts that defied all symmetry and sanity.
But now she understood that this was all a lie. The being that loomed before her was not a formless blob or a shambling chimera, but long and slick and sleek. The unruly riot of tendrils and deformed arms was drawn into taut lines up the length of its trunk, as though combed by an unseen stylist. At the tip of the stalk, that horde of fearsome heads was likewise groomed, all those ghastly faces conforming to some secret blueprint buried deep in the beast’s hellish DNA. They whorled like petals around a gaping central maw – a jet-black orifice lined with silver teeth, like the teeth of a new saw. Soft whispers wafted out of the mouth; the gentle, droning chatter of Old World cafes and evening vespers.
It was beautiful, now. A creature of God, as surely as all devils were once angels.
She was frozen with awe as the Beast arched high above them, its mammoth spine twisting smoothly into a question mark, into a snake poised to strike. The movement made her think of a roller coaster at a long ago State Fair, the way the cars lurched to the summit one by one.
The way her stomach rolled into her shoes, right before the Big Drop.
“Oh,” Kennedy said.
The wave came roaring down on her. She watched in brittle horror as the pit of that mouth grew larger and larger, as it gradually blotted out the world.
A seam closed forever.
A deck of cards. Dealing and dealing, the hands quicker than any eye.
Nancy turns in slow motion. Experience meets Power and kicks it right in the throat. She flies as the crow flies. Squawks as the crow squawks.
I move – under and sideways and in. I spin and axel like Witt, trap and fence like Lee, rip and crunch like Marciano, float and sting like Ali. None of them is me. This is my magic: the spells I learned to cast with twenty-six years worth of bone and meat and blood. But I still haven’t shown her myself. This is important for a reason I can’t figure out yet.
Nancy isn’t so stingy. She shows me herself, intends to horrify me with that vast, howling emptiness inside. It works on some level; she is a terror. The Now has fed her and I have fed her, and she is still hungry, still starving.
It’s the Hunger that made her what she is: a bottomless cup that is never filled. She proves this with her teeth, those long canines that plunge past her chin at either end of a shark’s smile. It had been there since the Folly days, back in that old trailer park of my dream. Stark had found things to feed it along the way: books and theories, the darkness in others, all the suffering hearts and fevered dreams. It wasn’t enough and wouldn’t ever be.
She will kill us all if she can.
So we dance. I can see Spike on his hands and knees. He is shaking his head, trying to pull himself back into the beat. I want to tell him this dance is built for two, tell them all that they shouldn’t interfere, but part of me knows it’s hopeless. They can’t help themselves
This makes me mad, because Stark knows me so well. She knows my weaknesses, knows where it hurts. She tells me this with those glowing pink orbs she calls eyes. They roam the battlefield between each stanza, calmly marking all the people I love, measuring the paths to my heart. Looking for a chance to stab it again.
And this is when I show her the one part of me she doesn’t know. Because I always held it back, even in the darkest hours and the big showdowns.
It is rage.
It is the fire that burns in me. It has been burning in me for my entire life.
They were smart guys, those Shadow Dorks. The Chosen Ones were not chosen because they were nice, or pure, or good. All of them had it: Nikki and Kennedy, Violet and Faith. Buffy Summers had it too:
Ours is not a fairy tale.
The Watchers traced the Slayer lineage back to the Primitive, to the one they called the “Daughter of Sineya.” If I asked one about her, they would probably regale me with anthropological flights, tell me all about the early rites and rituals and the ancient Blah Blah of the Whoozitz.
What they wouldn’t tell me is what a total asshole Mister Sineya happened to be.
And they wouldn’t have to. I knew all about it. This was part of the recipe, fuel for the fire.
It burned on the way out, too, scalded me as I dove in, my fists typing out new pages of unwritten textbooks, the anger roaring hotter and louder than the nightmare winds. Nancy caught it in my eyes, and then it was her turn to be horrified. If I could breathe fire it would have burned her down to a cinder.
Her scream is cut short when I hammer her face, and I see a shudder go through those long, bonelike limbs. She is the one who retreats towards the ledge now, hissing like a snake that just shed its skin.
Her voice comes out wrong; a raw, choking lisp. “It ain’t fair!” she cries, and I’m not sure if she’s talking to me or the sky or herself. The Now seems to answer her though, the scar writhing in the sky like a great worm.
I answer her a different way.
She withers under my fire. There is a hopelessness about her now. The black ropes have thinned to almost nothing, the lines scattered across old filmstrips. She tears at them with her claws, but it’s no use. She can’t hold the door open and fight me at the same time. She’s not strong enough.
Nancy Stark has to make a choice, and she does.
“Don’t leave me,” she weeps. “Don’t leave me here alone!”
And with that, Doctor Nancy Stark, The Nurse and Gardener, was swept up into the sky. I watch her getting smaller and smaller, a fluttering band of white against a backdrop of screaming colors and exploding stars.
Somewhere, miles and miles above, she passes through the Now’s cracked lips.
And then she disappears forever.
Buffy stood watching, arms and legs still quivering from the release, naked of all that burning rage.
The moment Stark disappeared from sight, the wound began to heal shut and the furious, crashing light show around it died out. The world’s heartbeat began to steady itself, plain old-fashioned time and space gradually reasserting their will upon the campus.
This should’ve been a good thing. This should’ve been a Yay Us Thing, a Hip, Hip Hooray Thing. But something was suddenly gnawing at her, digging in its claws. Because something was terribly, terribly wrong.
Spike drew near, also hypnotized by the dazzling return of the Mundane and the Ordinary. She looked at him.
And that’s when it hit her.
Time, she thought.
What time is it?
She didn’t wear a watch, but a voice in the back of her brain was shrieking that the hour was still too early; that – even this late in Autumn – it would still be up. Spike seemed to realize this, too. They exchanged a stricken look. Everything seemed so far away, suddenly. There didn’t seem to be anywhere to run.
She pulled him close, bracing for the Powers’ parting shot, their final cruel joke.
Don’t leave me, she prayed.
Don’t leave me here alone…
The dome began to melt away, revealing the sky behind it.
And – strangely, miraculously – it was filled with rain.