Chapter 42: Auld Lang Syne
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 42: Auld Lang Syne
Okay, so, this is happening.
Buffy limped down a flawlessly cultivated row blue flowers. She touched a finger to one without looking at it, but looking, instead, at the whole, crazy rest of the place.
The long conference table where they watched Dawn bury the Council had sprouted perennials. The thorny shoots there gave way to violet petal whorls that seemed almost electric in the glow of the Now’s inverted sun. Each one encircled a bouquet of eyelash thin filaments and finely sculpted cups of nectar. Everything about them seemed programmed to attract and repel, aching to be touched and tasted but never eaten.
Beyond them lay a painstakingly drawn diagram of a dream. As savage and wounded a thing as Nancy was, everything in her garden was tenderly wrought. There were elegant vistas of dark soil fringed by glorious neon green, and exotic fruits that seemed bursting with sugary delight. Everything here was vividly alive, and yet all of it belonged to one tragic little girl who was so dead inside that she barely existed anymore.
This was a puzzle that Buffy somehow understood. It wasn’t just the dream, either; that grainy vision of a hardscrabble Georgia seed thief hiding from the sun. It was something in Buffy’s own heart, a whisper of longing for a more perfect union that could only be forged with one's own hands.
Nancy didn’t want to destroy the world like Angelus, or to break it and saddle it like Kennedy. She wanted to mold it anew, and by that molding to find some lost shard of innocence in her soul. And this made her more terrifying than any enemy ever before, because it meant she was more alone than any person who ever lived.
The clues the Dauphin had given her began to race down some final length of track in Buffy’s brain. The Shadow Demon – that restless wraith who until so recently was woven into all of their souls – was almost as old as Time itself. It was the Many that became the One. When Nancy had reached though the Now and touched it, she instantly knew the potential of its strength. Even the smallest taste had filled her with powers that dwarfed those of the Chosen Ones. But there were unforeseen side effects. The dark matter of the Now tangled itself into her bloodstream like a virus. It was the great absence from which all reality was born, and as it bound itself to her body it allowed her to dream things into existence, even as it devoured her soul.
As strong as she’d become, Nancy Stark had still waited, patiently watching all the pieces slide into place. She could see the Now and manipulate small parts of it, but she wasn't its master. She knew it was a not a force to be harnessed, but a cleansing flood to be endured. She realized that if she could steal enough Slayer fuel from the other realities, she could survive the end of the current Multiverse and start a new one all her own. And it would start right here, with this garden.
Thanks to her friends, Buffy had proven to be a somewhat elusive gas station. But there was another piece of the Slayer in this world. It had blue eyes and pouty lips and long brown hair. Thanks to a certain spell by certain monks, it ran around freely on its own two legs, constantly getting into trouble, or causing trouble, or being the trouble.
And despite the faded photo memories and the pricey, long-distance phone calls between their hearts, the same blood still flowed through her veins that flowed in Buffy's.
The same blood that flowed in mom’s veins, too.
Blood starts it, and until the blood stops flowing, it'll never stop.
Dawn was the key to the Multiverse's back door. Doctor Stark had lured her here, probably with the usual bait of love and longing. And that’s when Buff realized what Nancy truly was. She was the Final Vampire, filled with a hunger so bottomless that she put all the real ones to shame.
She would finish what she started in her laboratory, back in dorky old Drac’s summer home. But this time, she wouldn’t stop until it was all gone, until that precious pump was dry and the blood stopped flowing.
Check your weapons.
Buffy peered down at her feeble, newly human body. Her duel with Kennedy had taken more out of it than her adrenal glands were willing to confess. The knives and hammers in her right hand had begun to work their way up the forearm, as if building a bridge to the battered, swollen lump that used to be her elbow. Everything else was all rusted hinges and little islands of agony.
She dragged the whole sorry contraption towards a winding rock formation that used to be a balustrade. It looked like it would have been a dismal climb even if she was in any kind of shape to try. Giles hadn’t installed any elevators here, and God only knew what they would have turned into if he had.
She continued on down a row of leafy, fernlike herbs that were almost as tall as she was. At the end, a cantilevered dirt path chomped its way up to the second floor and then disappeared sharply into a thicket of orange bamboo. Buffy climbed it very slowly, no longer sure why she was doing it, or if any good could come of it.
As she climbed, thoughts of Glory returned full flush. Drained as it was, Buffy’s body still retained the physical memory of that mad and hopeless race to the tip of the spire. She hadn’t known what she would do then, either. There was no plan. There was only the song.
“You'll fail. You'll die. We all will.”
“Then the last thing she'll see is me protecting her.”
She used to think, stupidly, that she’d climbed the tower alone that night. It wasn’t true. She had friends beside her. They were her family, too, cobbled together from life’s cold and frayed wilderness. Together, their love had made her invincible. Xander her Strength and Willow her Steel and Tara her Balm and Giles her Shield and Spike her resurrected and still beating Heart. They were all Artists of Amity, Bruce Lees of Love. It was just that none of them knew it. They were too darn close to it to see.
None of them we’re with her now. They were far away, fighting their own hopeless battles. Someone walked with her, though. It wasn’t a God or an Angel, and it wasn’t a ghost of any species Buffy Summers ever met. But at the top of the Nurse’s earthy staircase, as she wended her way through the wood-hard skin of the shoots, she could feel her mother’s warm hand on her shoulder. Whispering to her. Reminding her that she is brave. Telling her to trust herself, and to trust her friends.
And, as she stepped out onto the second story arboretum, she saw why.
The monster was big and strong. Its alabaster skin shone like the surface of the moon, telling Buffy all she ever needed to know about it. This was one of Nancy’s children, the first of a breed that would inhabit her Brave New World. It knelt beside a corpse of one of its own. The dead one lay like a pile of broken masts where the beast had dragged it. The thing’s eyes were very round and very pink and very new and very filled with revenge.
And suddenly, they were very-looking-at-Buffy.
She froze. For some demented reason she thought of bears, and contemplated the strategic advantages of playing dead. She had some experience in that area, after all.
The thing moved slowly towards her, long white haunches sawing up and down in a way that reminded her disturbingly of bunny rabbits. It was huge, at least ten feet tall. The pale skin was almost translucent, revealing brambles of gray veins just beneath the surface. The eyes guarded a cruelly carved face that was all the more terrifying for its proximity to the humans the monster was meant to replace. As it drew within striking distance, the jaws dropped wide, revealing a set of fangs that looked like silverware on a spotless tablecloth.
She took a deep breath. “Well? What’re you waiting for?”
But the monster just swiveled its head sideways like a baffled dog, and bent down to sniff at her hair. Creepy, sure; but not exactly Bear-Scary. It was just a vibe, a little whisper in Buffy's soul, but she suddenly got the feeling the critter wasn’t trying to figure out what part of the Buffy Summers Combo Meal to start with. It was more like…
“Uh, hi,” she said.
The beast made a low rumbling sound. It kept studying her, like a person trying to remember where they had seen something before. That’s when the truth of it hit home.
It thinks you’re Nancy.
Or, maybe, it thinks Nancy is you.
Didn’t matter. Same diff. The Nurse had tasted Buffy across a hundred dimensions, and the currents of their souls had intermingled on the river of blood. These beasts were not loyal to Nancy Stark or too Buffy Summers, but to the nexus of them. To Nancy Summers and to Buffy Stark. That rascally old Dauphin had just won himself one last Kewpie Doll.
“Okay, listen up,” she said. “I need to get up to the roof. You understand? Roof?” The creature lifted its pink gaze to the spot where Tree-zilla had smashed through the ceiling, and made a mournful little sound. “Yeah, I hear ya, buddy," she muttered. "Not exactly looking forward to it myself.”
It crouched low enough for Buffy to curl an arm around its neck, and then it swept her up onto its back with a massive paw. She held on for dear life as it leapt onto the trunk and began to climb, sharp claws raking deep into the bark. Above them, the black shard of the Now came closer and closer. There was still no plan to speak of.
But at least I have a few more weapons, she thought.
Dawn darted behind a gadget that looked like a giant fire hydrant made of shiny, galvanized steel. The library roof was massive – two football fields laid side by side, chopped up into a maze of heavy dampers and fume hoods – but somehow she was already running out of places to hide.
The nudist colony reject – who Dawn now realized was Dr. Nancy Stark – had stopped talking. Dawn wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or not. As unnerving as the freak's voice was, at least when she was talking it was easier to mark her position. Now there was only the sound of Dawn’s ragged breath and the silky hum of the library's ventilation system. She’d had far more pleasant nightmares than this. And the Summers’ women were pretty much world-renowned for their nightmares.
As she peered around the hydrant's round steel belly, the voice returned, closer and less human than ever. “You all remember, I suppose, that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford's…”
Dawn began to run, legs pumping like pistons, the gun clattering in her hands. She made a beeline for the tree, deciding that she’d rather face a garden full of ten-foot space monsters than whatever it was Stark had become. She was less than ten yards away from it when Stark floated down sharply into her path, like some soundless, deep sea fish.
“History is bunk,” she said.
Dawn ordered her body to move, but it felt like every muscle had just gone on strike. Nancy’s eyes were hypnotically beautiful - galaxies of delicate glassine molecules swirling in pools of rose champagne. They held Dawn in thrall as the woman advanced, the white edge of her nudity shivering with electric action, as though to ridicule old Rome’s more sedentary marble gods.
At arms length, Nancy pressed a small, sharp fingernail against Dawn’s throat. A thread of blood began to spool into the Doctor’s body, as if drawn by some invisible plunger. The doctor began to whisper something; a lilting little folk song about the moon. The gravity began to drizzle out of the world, and Dawn Summers was gripped with the sudden understanding that she would never leave this roof in England. That this really was the end of the world.
Then, she heard a different voice. It was very familiar.
“Yo! Morticia! How about picking on someone your own size?”
Nancy spun around just in time to get smacked down by a gigantic fist.
“Or hey,” Buffy chirped, her head peeking in over the monster’s sinewy shoulder. “Bigger works, too.”
It’s not so bad, old man. You’re with her. In spirit, you are. You’re-
But this was all rubbish, of course. His Slayer was alone up there, carrying on the fight long after the war was lost. Out to get herself killed, most likely; to pay the Witch’s old blood debt and reverse the tide of the Now.
She's a hero, you see?
Not like us...
His only hope was that Ethan was every bit the cunning monster he seemed to be. Perhaps in that other realm, Xander and Spike would indeed complete their dreadful chore.
But, most likely, it would be too late to save her. Most likely, the bottomless irony of the universe would find a way to murder both women, ripping them from their respective worlds and from all the hearts that so desperately clung to them. The tale was as Greek as the columns that had just squished Ethan Rayne. Human nature caused memory to be short, and thus tragedy was inevitable. They were doomed to repeat History forever, making the same blunders of hubris and greed that Icarus did, when he drifted from his mentor towards the sun’s savage disk.
So, Greek, yes. But also Manichean, also filled with all that binary cruelty of the Christian mystics. For, lo, the bravest and the most beautiful among us shall pay for the sum of our wicked and cowardly sins. This was morality’s bitterest math, the old wheel of Sacrifice and Redemption.
It was also, he thought, the punch line to an old and terrible joke. If only he could meet the jester and spit in his eye, Rupert Giles decided it would be worth whatever punishment such a bastard god could possibly mete out.
It wouldn’t end with her sacrifice this time, either. No matter which Buffy died first, the cracks in the Multiverse would heal shut, trapping Xander, Willow and Spike over-the-bloody-rainbow forever. The strand of reality that Willow described to him was a horrifying one, too, filled with mindless war and treachery. And staring at Faith’s limp form again, Rupert realized that this world would soon be no better. On an Earth without champions, the First would undoubtedly rise up again.
Or the Second. Or the Buggering Fourteenth. Their names hardly seem to matter. The monsters would come. Sensing a defenseless world, they would all come trundling in from the shadows, sharp teeth flashing, sniffing for the vein. Some would even look like us. Just like his old chum Ethan…
“Ah,” the warlock exclaimed, looking more vigorous than ever as he patted the chalky dust from his clothes. “That was bloody refreshing, actually. Bit like a Chinese massage.”
Rupert just stared and stared at him, thinking about that jester laughing his bloody bollocks off and realizing that he would get the chance to meet him much sooner than he’d planned.
Ethan seemed oblivious to all these dark musings. He merely stood there smiling his strange little smile, as though remembering some other awful joke that only he knew how to tell.
“Alright, Ripper. Are we ready for round two?”
Kennedy limped down the center of the main campus thoroughfare, barely aware she was doing it, or where she was headed, or why.
All along the way, fresh horrors kept mocking her. A pair of girls fought – if one would dare to call it that – near the shattered glass front of the commissary. They rolled along a patch of sidewalk, shrieking like housecats and pulling hair. A Chakau’Ri demon watched them in silence. The demons’ faces weren’t really built to register emotions other than rage, but the look of bewilderment in its eyes was as obvious as blood on white sheets. Meanwhile, at the top of a small hillock, under a weeping willow tree, a group of twenty or so teens sat in a circle holding hands, immersed in some sickening form of prayer.
Kennedy kept moving, trying her best to ignore the stench of The Cause’s decomposing corpse. Above her, Nancy’s sky had grown itself some sort of demented sun. It was the blackest emptiness she’d ever seen, and its dark halo tore at her like fingernails as she ambled down past the administrative offices and out along a pristine, hedge-lined path.
She wasn't thinking about the Plan anymore. But her wobbly legs had become homing pidgeons, and by the time Kennedy realized where they were taking her she was already halfway there. As she rounded the final corner of hedges, the quiet row of the Watcher's fake research academies slid into view. One of them was the ECU, the place where only a few hours before she had left Rhonda and Bridget and the beautiful, beautiful briefcase and the future of the world.
As she staggered into the lobby, one trembling hand punched up the tracking software on her cell. A small football-shaped dot began to blink back at her. The case was very close.
Kennedy felt for the knife. She'd found it shortly after Buffy left her bleeding and broken on the steps of the library. She crawled though the grass for it, hands blindly groping, swallowing what felt like gallons of blood and bitter tears. Now, she drew it again, and decided she wouldn’t put it away this time until it had a proper meal.
As she approached the silvery doors of the elevator, she stopped to admire her new face in its mirrored surface. Summers had done a fine job, she decided with a nod. But Kennedy would finish the masterpiece on her own, applying the last loving stroke.
She gasped as she felt the blade bite into the side of her cheek, dark blood gushing from the plump banana bruise there. It hurt, but she kept going, dragging it in a gentle southern arc until it reached the point of her chin, laughing and laughing because the punchline was very funny now, here at the end. The knife gleamed and glittered back at her, still hungry.
Just a light snack, my darling.
Then the doors opened, and she went inside.
Just before he opened his eyes, a little corner of Xander's brain prayed that it would all turn out be to one of those dumb TV things, the kind where he wakes up and it was all a dream. Suzanne Pleshette rolling over in a purple nightgown. Patrick Duffy coming out of the shower…
Great Peter Luger Worchester No!
And, of course, it wasn’t a dream. He was still in the sewer of Rayne’s creepy ghost town, lying in a puddle of not-so-niceness.
Xander sat up and saw that he was alone. He didn’t feel the slightest bit scared about this fact. He honestly didn’t know what he felt, other then the pair of tiny Djembe drummers currently wailing away on his jawbone.
Of course, Spike hit him. Of course he did. That much was a given. The vampire’s helmet and fancy duds lay in a hasty mound a few yards away. They somehow looked ridiculous without anything in them, verging on Halloween-y.
Spike’s double was gone. For a moment, Xander let himself toy with the idea that the old vamp had just let him go. Then he saw the lighter. It was lying on its side, in the center of a little pile of grey soot. The long, curved dagger was still here too, shining back at him like a murderer’s smile.
Xander ignored both of them, ignored all of it, and spun to get his bearings instead. He knew this crap-hole pretty well. Extensive knowledge of the local septic system was just one of the many, many perks of growing up on a Mouth of Hell.
About a half-mile north of here, the access tunnel would open up into a small sump pit. If you went up the ladder there, you’d wind up in an obsolete overflow basin that had stopped being part of the active sewer network more than twenty years before Xander Harris was born. Take that one as far east for as east would go and you’d be standing in the cellar of the Magic Box – the place where, after all these years, his oldest, fondest memories still went to die.
And, of course, Xander couldn’t kill her. Of course he couldn’t. Even Spike knew it. Especially Spike knew it. In their mad race to the bottom, Xander was just a smidgen more terrified of what he might discover down there, and what he’d become when he did.
But for the first time in his life, he realized the vampire had already been there and done that, and now Spike mostly just wanted it all to be over and done with. The bleachy freak had decided his story would have a dusty ending after all. And, for the first time in his life, Xander wanted to suggest a rewrite.
He left the knife and the suit and the lighter and the little pile of dust and everything else exactly where they were.
He started walking north. He started running north.
Skaya squinted into the nest of shadows tucked between Eye of Newt and Wing of Whatever. The movement there was a familiar old bob and swagger. She ran towards it, knowing everything was all going to be okay somehow.
Not great. Not super supreme with extra cheese.
"Just okay" was the bargain they'd settled on that night, on the run from an army of professional killers. They'd found refuge in the loft of a hillbilly barn in Savanna’s dark old heart and settled down for the night, a grouchy old owl their only witness. The darn thing wouldn’t shut up all night, either. Kept who-ing at all the most wrongly funny parts.
This part of them was hard to explain. And so she never did, never told a single soul. And that was because some belongings get stashed away on a very high shelf inside of your heart, the one that only you and one other person can reach. And no matter how eff’d up life gets or how strange and distant the world sometimes seems, there is always that one special shelf that belongs to you and to that someone else. So, you begin to stack all of the articles of record on it, the dusty trophies and the old, worn-out shoes and all the stacks of faded photos you'll never look at again until you are very old and time is very short.
When she’d first spotted him bobbing down Revello, it seemed like a weirdly appropriate retort to that long ago night, where the pair of them rustled for some weird sort of comfort on those bales of itchy hay. Everything had been funny a few seconds later than it should have been, but bitter-funny, because it always hurt just a little bit right after the laugh left you. Because you knew how short-lived happiness really was. And even the night itself seemed to be in on this dark joke; just standing there with hands-on-hips, waiting for two dummies to give in to its old and enigmatic charms right before the next storm smacked them down.
And the dummies did give in, eventually – itchy bristles and hooting owls and all. They loved each other like thieves in the temple, as if the game of inches was theirs and theirs alone. It was love like a breaking fever, as the shaky ally of Death, the kind that prayed for warm rainstorms to hide in. It had been a long, long time since Skaya thought about all of this, just as it had been a long time since she’d thought about having any other name.
He appeared a moment after his shadow did, clomping up the last few stairs like someone coming home from some lame job in some lame world. His hair was a mess, a tossed ocean of cowlicks and wayward blonde locks, and a bright line of blood fell at the corner of one eye like a tear. He was beautiful.
They met halfway. She wrapped her arms around him, laid her head against his chest. And this felt very natural, because he could reach the shelf. He was the one, despite how foolish that made her and him and them.
He’d kicked the thing’s butt, somehow. There was that same strange air of calm about him he’d always have after the big fights. Most of the time, Spike had so much war inside him he seemed like he might burst into flames. But the win, the kill, the release – these things soothed him more than blood.
“Is it over?” she asked.
“More or less, pet.”
“Is taking a very long nap.”
The vampire rocked her slowly as she wept. The Magic Box twinkled back at them through the gloom, her sales floor filled with all the gang’s ghosts. Not the Sheets-and-Boos kind, but those traces of their old, lost selves she was sure they'd left behind. And in that moment they all seemed to be staring at these two strangers dancing to no music, wondering whatever happened to the Good Old Days.
“I love you, Buffy,” he said, the words creaking out of him like old boats.
“Don’t call me that,” she sobbed. “It’s not my name. Not anymore.”
“And William's not mine,” he whispered. “But that’s how the song goes.”
They kissed. She closed her eyes and saw a scene unfold; the two of them casting off from a murky shore, sailing under a sky black with promises and portents. When she felt for his hand it was as cold as the sea that carried them.
And it was in that moment that the woman who used to call herself Buffy Summers realized that their lips weren’t touching anymore. Something else was happening now and whatever it was dragging her down beneath the waves, her body becoming as light as a feather down in the frozen depths. Only her eyelids felt heavy, and these quickly became vast weights, scoops of lead.
She felt them swing to the floor together, the knot on her neck like a strong hand squeezing as they nestled up against the checkout counter. He was behind her now, cradling her in his lap like one might a child. Cold fingers grasped her own across the front of her chest, feeling for a heartbeat that was becoming slower and quieter by the second.
He was crying now, a tortured sound that was muffled by her flesh. She wanted to ask him what was wrong, and to tell him it would be okay no matter what it was. This would be a lie, of course – a good lie, the best of all lies. But it was too late even for that, because the power of speech was leaving her, seeping out like blood.
Because the sky had begun to vanish above the waves.
Because everything was coming to an end.
The plane taxied to a stop on Hell’s private airstrip at 3:17 pm. The sun was still blaring down yellow death all over the tarmac, so when the doors opened Angel begrudgingly slipped the blanket over his head. He cursed Spike again – probably still running around in that nifty little suit that had been causing Angel so many headaches lately.
Still tryin’ to one-up you, after all these years, he thought.
Gunn went first, his long, smooth strides and sharkskin suit making him look more predatory than ever. He opened the door to the waiting limo and grinned as Angel loped ten sizzling yards like a monster being chased by angry villagers. When they were both inside, Gunn rattled off instructions to the driver while Angel dove directly into the mini-bar, barely managing to get the cap off the whiskey before it was gurgling down his throat.
“Go easy on that stuff, man,” Charles cooed. “I may actually need you for backup this time.”
Angel shot him an old dagger stare. Strength had come as part of good ol' Charlie’s unholy benefits package, and the traitor always seemed so eager to remind him of it. Angel was sure he could still take him, if it came to that. Of course, he’d been sure he could still take Spike, too, if it came to that. He touched his finger to the old stake wound, then took another swig.
The limo eased to a stop at the foot of the helipad. The metal whirlybird was all ready to go, blades spinning out gales that turned the ground crew's black jumpsuits into fluttering pirate sails. There was another mad blanket-dash, and after a quick system's check they were floating up into the air.
Their pilot’s face was sealed behind a dark gasmask and goggles. “We might hit a little chop on the ride in,” he croaked. “Doppler has a big storm brewing just south of the city. Saying there might even a tornado. Can you believe that? A tornado in London?”
Instead of answering, Angel just stared out the tinted window at the horizon. There were dark clouds out there, for sure. But he had a funny feeling the tornado was a different sort of storm altogether.
“So, uh, what’s our heading, sir?” the pilot added sheepishly.
“Central didn’t give me a location. Double hush-hush. Said you’d give me coordinates on the way.”
Angel frowned as Gunn’s head sank into his hands, chuckling ever so gently. “Coordinates?” Angel hollered back. “What do I look like, Neil Armstrong?” Then, after a moment of sullen silence, “Look, forget the coordinates, captain. You know that storm you were talkin’ about?”
“Well,” said Angel, “that’s usually where we’re headed.”