Chapter 40: The Real Me
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 40: The Real Me
“Tis been so very long, Drusilla,” Zophiel intoned. He sat rubbing and tweaking his ratty whiskers for a long moment, studying her tip to toe. “You look fabulous!”
Drusilla batted her lashes. “Nonsense,” she whispered, blushing like a strawberry. “I must look a fright, sir. The things I’ve done...”
The angel just gave his shaggy head a knowing shake, the rays of his halo lancing the sky like a second sun. Zophiel was a soiled old sot, still shoeless under the same stained frock and tattered knickers he'd worn when they first met, all those long years ago. But somehow the grime and the moldering, threadbare clothes only served to make his crown shine more brilliantly than ever. He poured another glass of sweet wine, and then pierced her with his old, tragic eyes. “O Rose thou are sick,” he said.
"The invisible worm. That flies in the night
In the howling storm: Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy: And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy."
When he was done, he rocked back on the heels of his hands wearing a whimsical grin, as though he’d just told a very droll secret. The meaning of it was too strange a puzzle for Drusilla at the moment, so she wriggled her toes in the grass instead, captivated by the soft interplay of shades all around them. Even the shadows seemed golden here, serving as mere punctuation for the radiance of the cloudless sky.
She closed her eyes to gaze back through the window again. The liars there were still busying themselves with their chores. Rupert stamped a wooden stick on the clay, his face as severe as a winter farm. He was singing an old song, hoarse and savage, and the verse made the man called Rayne smile a very wicked smile. The Monster didn’t like any of this one bit. She shook her chain like an alms bell trying to drown it out. “They’re all so cruel,” Drusilla murmured, and opened her eyes again. “I hadn’t realized.”
Zophiel just shrugged and nursed his wine. He began to swing his knees from side to side, as playful and restless as a child, and it made the holes in his garments chatter like hundreds of tiny mouths. “That’s just the way of things,” he explained. “Paperwork. Ritual. Blah, blah, blah.”
“Still,” she said, truly pondering it, “they do seem to need me.”
“Well, of course they do!” He cupped his hand to one gnarled and pockmarked ear, looking quite sly as he did so. “After all, I can’t hear them anymore. Lucky me!”
“Oh, but sir, you don’t even try,” Drusilla chided softly.
“And neither should you, if you know what’s best.”
Drusilla’s gaze sank at this, her eyes spilling over with tears for something lost and nameless.
“There, there child,” Zophiel murmured, gathering her in his arms. “Was it all so dreadful?”
Drusilla nodded her head thoughtfully. The memories swept down on nightmare winds. She recalled the moment she’d awoken down in the bowels of the sepulcher, that wave of stark horror when she realized she was trapped inside the Monster’s cage. It was her jailer’s face she’d seen first. The Watcher’s eyes were as sharp as candlesticks as he chanted the last of his unholy sacrament.
The Monster was trapped in there with her, of course, hunting her down blood-soaked passageways and the hollow paths of worms. She was a grim thing, indeed: filled with wanton cruelty and ice and sly serpents starved halfway to madness. It was this being that Rupert had spoken to back then. He was trying to seal some sort of black bargain with her, but the Monster was filled with a horrifying strength. It had fled the tomb, ferrying her unwilling hostage out into the endless night.
Now, the Watcher seemed to be addressing the Monster again. The words were all very alien; not the King’s English, to say the least. Zophiel had become perfectly still, and was gazing at her expectantly. “They want me to ask you a favor,” she deduced.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Ask away.”
She could still hear the Watcher, even with her eyes wide open. Cautiously, she began to repeat his words.
“Nasantos… Rantatum… Legaturos…”
Spike chased himself down the rotten rabbit hole, their footfalls filling the air with a clanging, desperate music that seemed to underline the madness of it all. Their minds were still gnashing at each other as they ran, dogs off leashes.
What’s wrong, mate? Can’t catch me?
What’s wrong, ponce. ‘Fraid I will?
As they peeled around a hard turn, Xander‘s scent suddenly loomed up through the muck. He was alone, and alive. She was gone.
Never send a boy to do a man’s job, plonker.
We’re not men, you stupid cunt.
The drain emptied into a large, familiar cavity lined with sluice gates. Xander had hidden himself in one of them, and the mirror man could fucking taste it.
A mass of mismatched impulses seemed to freeze the wanker stiff and Spike capitalized on it, springing like a jungle beast. The pair grappled along the fusty walls, four identical limbs scraping for leverage. As they did this, their minds grew closer still, gradually entwined via some imperceptible length of thread.
Remember them crocs, luv? Down by the riverbanks?
Yeah. The mum digs the eggs up from the grave. The baby’s tooth pecks at a dark world, like a miner at coal.
She scoops them into her mouth the moment they’re free. Their first memory is the jail of her fangs. They don’t ever forget it.
She’s not eatin’ them, but they don’t know that. Don’t know anything yet.
She brings them down to the river. Baptizes them in her maw.
The mouths are everywhere after that. Birds and rutting swine, and all sorts of fuzzy wuzzy murderers jogging down for a nibble.
The infants terrify them.
They're tryin’ to kill ‘em off before they grow, because they know what they’ll become when they do...
Spike kept angling in to grab the fucker’s throat and missing, then in the next moment withdrawing to defend his own. There was a certain frustrating slipperiness about his prey. The blonde’s muscles were like a pair of constricting snakes, always slithering for a more murderous grip and locking like jaws when they found it. Sick of it, Spike slammed him hard up against a sluice, the steel bars creaking from the force of the blow.
Most won’t survive, he reminded him. But the few that do will comb the banks and nest in the shallows. Their jaws are big and strong, iron maidens filled with daggers.
They’re clever now, but it’s a funny sort of clever. They have been honed.
They’ll dress as sticks and rocks and harmless tides of water. They’ll wait.
Wait for all them soddin’ birdies and piggies, and all those warm and fuzzy baby poachers who swallowed their brothers and sisters. Wait for them to get thirsty.
An’ they always do. Everything comes joggin’ down for a drink sooner or later. They wait for ‘em to get close.
Real close. They'll dye the river black with blood.
Still, they will never escape the Rule of Mouths. The everlasting suspicion that the Devouring is Love for the Devoured.
But it’s a trick. It's not Love.
The math of this drives them slowly mad.
The madness burns in their eyes. Gold birthday candles at the bottom of lakes.
These are the children of the River Void.
Love dies screaming in their teeth…
A storm of fresh strength surged through the twin. As they spun down the length of the chamber, Spike suddenly felt the bastard’s forearm mash up against his chin, the other hand scrambling around the back of the helmet to complete the fulcrum. Just as Spike began to slip it, the twin twisted savagely. He heard the latch crack apart as the helm jerked loose.
Spike’s doppelganger leered down at it for one deranged second, thinking it had ripped the head completely off.
Then, it looked back up.
The visor was gone, and with it all merciful distance. Nothing stood between them now but a few feet of useless air. They both kept staring and staring, rapt by devilry.
For some reason, mysterious even to them, they plucked a shared memory from the waters.
The year was 1977. They were hunched on a block of steps in New York City, somewhere on the Lower East Side. The storm had struck out of nowhere, the way things always seemed to do in that town, and the rain beat witchy drumbeats on the sidewalk and the fire escape slats and the lid of a dumpster and their rotten old heads. They had been studying a worm who’d pried its way up through the cracked concrete, only to drown when it got there. A car suddenly dipped halfway across the intersection, and they sat watching its single amber eye blink back at them, warning of a turn to come.
As the car peeled away, they pulled Nikki’s coat tighter around their shoulders, cold for no reason. There was nothing magical about this. They were just a pair of dead men on a street in the rain, cold for no reason at all. The storm kept roaring straight down, sliding off the cheeks of buildings and the lips of windowsills, God’s tears masking their own.
This is how we are.
It was in the same moment that Spike saw it. It simmered there, under the old coat and behind the mask of flesh.
This world's Angel had bollixed it somehow. There was no Shanshu here. No prophecy, nor black bargain to be sealed.
The cunt still had it.
Spike could feel its fire. It was a warm hearth shining out over the snow drifts through a pane of unbreakable glass. It was...
Envy sunk red claws into his chest, and closed its jagged maw around his throat. He was drowning in it, suffocating under it.
Spike flew at the apparition to do him in kind. He knew he would win now – that the Monster would always prevail over the Man – and the fact of this only made the icescape seem that much colder and the fangs of the wind that much sharper as they tore through his shell.
The pair reeled and roared like drunken apes, each bringing all of his bottomless hatred to throttle the other, their eyes sewn together with iron thread. Spike could feel the world slipping all around. His jaws worked on their own orders, a blind animal snapping at a torch.
They were only an inch from his mark when he heard the little bark of surprise. Spike felt the man’s body suddenly stiffen and then tear itself free from his grip. He watched the ensouled vampire stagger sideways a few steps, its head bent in gogging disbelief at a blade that poked through the front of his chest like small, silvery fin. Xander was standing in his place, shouting “Do it! Do it now!”
Spike lurched forth, a factory automaton. A pair of old gears spun in his shoulders, and before he could stop himself he was gripping and twisting with every gram of his old devil brawn. There was a sound like a row of firecrackers going off and then the neck turned to jelly, its owner crumpling into a lifeless heap at his feet.
They stood looking at the body for a long moment, Xander’s ragged breaths the only sound left in their sewer of a world. The blonde’s head was bent at an appalling angle, a stringless puppet in the corner of the toychest. Those blue eyes were mercifully shut, the blow having parted him with whatever was left of his senses. Spike could feel the fire still burning down there, so tauntingly close that it stung his lips and eyelashes. But the fury inside him was all sapped now. Everything all sapped and staunched and quiet as churches.
He looked at Xander. The boy had a raw, wrung-dry look about him. The vampire recognized his own stupid mistake. Harris could never have done it, of course. Not now nor in ten thousand years. The River Lesson belonged to the Monster alone.
He began to shed the sunsuit. Xander watched in horror and fascination as Spike peeled off the top part and tossed it on the ground. “What are you doing?”
“Adapting,” Spike snapped back. “Now, make yourself useful and get his bloody kit off.”
Xander slowly came around to what was happening. As he sank to his knees to undress the clone, Spike sent a forearm clapping into the side of his jaw. The boy flopped over sideways, his brain buggering off to Dreamland before he even hit the floor.
Spike worked as fast as he could, yanking the blonde’s clothes off like a hated doll’s. They were his clothes, too: his black jeans and boots, the grey cotton tee, the old crimson shirt with the pleats down the front. As he wrestled Nikki’s coat on, he dug instinctively in the pocket and found her - the wee silver Zippo. There was a wrinkled pack of Marleys in there too, so he drew one like a duelist’s blade and lit it.
The man’s body looked so pale and wretched down in the muck. All of its horrible strength had fled and its mind had slipped the surly bonds, and what was left hardly seemed worth burying in a backyard. Hovering like a ghost above the battered cage of limbs and ribs was a stranger’s face, corpse white and slack. A thousand old victims whispered up at the Monster, now, but for some reason he recognized this one as his first.
He felt the Zippo’s flint wheel fly under his thumb one last time, winding there like a clock gear. That old phantom spark of hers bit through the gloom and then she was burning. It was the oldest magic trick of all.
The spark that makes the fire.
The fire that burns forever.
Spike tossed the lighter down onto the man’s chest. After a few moments the flames licked up, excited by the driftwood of undead flesh. Then the body was ablaze, a red roaring pyre. It howled hot and high and just for a sliver of an instant Spike saw the bastard’s eyes crack open, those blue rainstorms confessing one final sin.
Something like a wave rippled through the thing's pale form. It was a familiar sight for his kind, the moment before the end of all moments. The flesh begins to flake, turning human again for one precious instant before it is gone, before it becomes a cloud of grey leaves whirling across an autumn evening. The ashes blow out and up and sideways, a vulture’s plaintive cry singing them to their final resting places.
As soon as it was finished, the fire turned to dizzy embers and died out.
Again and forever.
Spike pulled the coat tighter around his shoulders, cold for no reason.
It still fit, so he stalked off down the tunnel, ready to finish the hunt.
The first move was lame. Strictly amateur stuff.
Kennedy dove in with a flying backfist, riding a current of blind hatred. In one fluid motion, Buffy slid under it and rammed a stiff jab south of the brunette’s nose. It sent her opponent stumbling backwards and clutching her mouth, more embarrassed than hurt.
“Boy, you blow town for a few years and everyone just forgets the basics,” Buffy sneered. She wanted Kennedy just the way she was, jarred and pissed off and making mistakes. “Ready for lesson number two?”
Kennedy snarled back at her. Her arms snapped out a short kata before she charged again, calmer this time and more precise. A flurry of kicks snapped at Buffy like crocodiles, faster and faster until one of them finally bit. She went sailing backwards a dozen feet, Kennedy racing after as if to catch her. The moment she hit the ground, the mousetraps in Buffy’s thighs sprang shut, sending her legs slicing across the bitch’s chin just as it arrived.
Then, it was on.
They crisscrossed the battlefield together, snake and mongoose. A fireworks display of two master artists erupted, each exchange more exotic and daring than the last. The girls in the circle seemed to fade away into an abstract fog as Buffy felt her mind surrendering to the old war dance, nothing left in it but The Win and The Kill. Kennedy’s arms were shrieking back at her with all their fury. They cuffed her neck and cheeks, and curled into her ribcage like bowling balls. It was the same ballet of terror and glory as always. The pain evaporated almost as quickly as it arrived, like strokes from a velvet whip. At one point she realized she was smiling, for real this time, and that Kennedy was smiling too. Both of them seemed to grasp that this fight had been a long time coming, a collision course set from opposite ends of the world.
A demented boxing match ensued, the crowd sending up cheers with every blow Kennedy landed, and falling into sullen silence each time Buffy struck back harder and cleaner and better. As the seconds ticked by, a certain dry fact was becoming as clear to the audience as it was to the combatants themselves. As good as their brat queen was, as fast and sharp as she was, the elder slayer was just a little bit faster, a little bit sharper. An edge was slowly but surely being honed, and Buffy began to work behind it, driving the big shots home.
The fight had only gone a few minutes, but Kennedy was already breathing hard, her own blood now plunging from both nostrils. In between exchanges, she started stealing glances at the axe.
“You want it?” Buffy sang. “Go ahead. We all know you can’t win without it.”
Kennedy kept gasping at her, her eyes like twin oil derricks on fire. “I’m gonna break your neck with my bare hands, bitch.”
They both flung themselves into overdrive, a blur of fists and elbows and knees and feet. Buffy felt a baseball bat of a forearm whiff past her nose, and answered with a gale force uppercut, putting all her strength behind it.
Kennedy yelped as a tooth rattled out of her jaw. She stumbled ten feet backwards, shaking out the cobwebs. Buffy saw the opening, and closed in for the kill.
Then it happened.
It was as though all of the air inside her body suddenly hardened and crashed down through the soles of her shoes.
Then, the demon was gone. From exercised to exorcized, just like that.
The rest of the gathered Slayers seemed to feel the same thing, all at once. Dozens of faces were suddenly peering at one another in amazement and raw, animal panic. There were a few sobs too, and Buffy watched one freckled teen fall to her knees, laughing uncontrollably. A damp odor wafted across the campus, like the rain smell after a storm. It seemed weirdly fitting.
Kennedy fell to her knees too, gut shot and horrified. “What did you do?!” she wept.
Buffy didn’t say anything. She just stood there, waiting for her powers to return.
Waiting and waiting and waiting.
Drusilla kept following the Watcher’s cues, letting his words gust up from the old pipe organ of the Monster's throat. It all felt less strange now. The Monster had even ceased her thrashing, finally brought to heel by the bright poetry of the moment. As the incantation wore on, the Shadow began to curl in from the edges of the arena, like a gasp of black air drawn from a thousand throats. Moving with all the cadence and majesty of a nightmare, it pooled into a raincloud above their heads.
This was essence of the Chosen, Drusilla realized. The Many that was given to the One, and the One that was given to the Many. She saw the Watcher open his small box, as if to invite the phantom inside. But the witch named Rayne held it in thrall with his staff. She saw the Shadow swing down low, as though to devour him in one bite. Rayne was guiding it with invisible bellows and his own terrible winds. He opened the box of his own mouth, his eyes twinkling like pinned stars.
She felt the Angel Zophiel alight next to her, bidding her to speak the final words quickly, quickly. The Watcher was screaming them into the Monster’s wretched ear, the sound half-drowned by the Shadow’s ancient roar.
“Spiritus… Animus…Sophus…” She stopped. Looked down. “Oh my,” she said.
Zophiel gave her a wary look. “What’s wrong?”
“I believe I’ve dropped something…”
The old vampire was staring down at her chest, horrified by what she saw there. The stake had gone completely through, driven by a strong hand. It stood out from her body like the flagpole of some terrifying new nation. In the next instant, Drusilla seemed to realize what had happened. She gave Rupert a look that was almost sorrowful.
And then she was gone. Shattered into wisps of screaming ash.
Faith was on her knees now, staring at her hands like the fingers had all been chopped off. Rupert watched helplessly as Ethan dropped the stake and brought his staff crashing down across the back of her skull with both hands. The Slayer hit the floor like a sack of lifeless fruit.
The warlock giggled as last tendrils of the Shadow Demon vanished into his nostrils. “Well, well Ripper. That was a bit of fun.”
Rupert’s mind was racing, already grinding out the angles when he asked the question. “My God, what have you done?”
“Simply doing what was asked of me, mate.” Ethan held his arms out in a mock apology. “Holding the darkness. Remember?” He took a step forward, every ounce of him filled with menace and power.
“You maniac!” Rupert thundered. “You’ve doomed us all!”
“No, I don’t think so.” Ethan tapped his chin thoughtfully, the black marbles of his pupils twinkling in the candlelight. “As matter of fact, Ripper, I think we’re going to win. Our friends on the other Eschaton are closing on their prey as we speak. They’ll kill her, soon enough, and mend the Witch’s broken crockery. So, three cheers for the home team!”
Rupert kept shaking the Polaroid inside his head, the picture slowly becoming clear. “You were never planning on bringing them back from the other timeline. The Talisman of Abraxus…”
“Hood ornament,” the warlock said. “Bought it at a swap meet for two pounds. Thought it looked pretty.” Ethan threw him an innocent shrug, but he was beginning to close in now, the circle slowly collapsing. “Come now, Ripper! Did you really think I’d pass up a chance to rid the world of the Slayers and all their tragic allies? I’m almost offended.”
And the picture was complete, then. It had been a clean sweep. The bastard had played his hand so delicately, his sleeves filled with royal flushes the whole bloody time. Rupert cursed his stupidity – his blind arrogance! The Slayers were powerless now, all of their strength boiling inside the body of one exceptionally brilliant thief, and Ethan had trapped the few beings who might stop him on a distant strand of reality.
There was only one card left to deal, and as the warlock drew nearer, eyes filled with glittering vengeance, Rupert Giles realized what it was. He eyed a workman’s delight of swords hung along a stone battlement, just a few yards from where they stood. They seemed at once very close and as distant as stars. “There’s only one thing you’ve forgotten,” Rupert said.
“What’s that, mate?”
“We’ve known each other a bloody long time now, Ethan,” the Watcher said, “and you have never beaten me yet.”
Willow strolled along the empty street. The world was silent except for the click of her heels and the sound of her gown gently sweeping the fake sidewalks clean. It occurred to her that Ethan Rayne had been every bit as powerful an illusionist in this world as he was in their own. Everything about the place was eerily perfect. Almost too perfect, in fact; embalmed by its own vacancy. This was like the Hellmouth on its final evening, after all the townspeople had fled to higher ground.
She closed her eyes again and saw the shape of the Big Everything. It was almost infinitesimally small now, swallowed by the Now’s black jaws. The strong legs of Time were buckling, folding under the heavy weight of the Moment. Willow was all out of tricks, but Tara’s white lamp still burned inside her, guiding her down some final stretch of road.
The Now, she thought, understanding it at last.
The Now before the Then. The tide of new moments passes faster than we can understand it. Our lives are lived in the past, not the present. It’s only by looking back that we can shape it into something real…
As soon as she thought this, Jack Turtle’s voice returned, creaking up through the basement floorboards of her soul. If that’s true, it asked, then how can we ever change anything?
Because our souls are entwined. Because we belong to one another, and together we are stronger than the tide.
It’s not so easy, girl. You’ll still have to pay a price for what you’ve done.
I know. She paused to admire a big oak tree, dragging her fingers along its armored bark. This hardness in the world was necessary, she realized. The old defended the new with all its ragged strength. Above her head the smaller shoots swayed on a breeze, still supple enough to enjoy it. Their skin would eventually harden, too. They’d become harder and heavier and more brittle, until they’d eventually crack off in some compulsory storm. But the trunk itself looked invincible. It was the place where all the branches met, drawing power from the Earth itself.
Willow thought of the flower again. The beautiful flora kua alaya she pulled through the soil.
“Who brought it through the Earth?” Giles had asked.
“It's all connected. The root systems, the molecules...the energy. Everything's connected.”
“You sound like Miss Hartness.”
“She taught me a lot…”
Then why aren’t you at your lesson, Willow?
But now she was, at last. This was Summer School. Remedial math.
She wended her way onto the throat of Main Street. All the old haunts leered back at her, an audience delighting at the villain’s well-earned comeuppance. But it didn’t matter now. Whatever shards of light were left inside her heart started singing, because she finally understood why she was really here.
But first, there was someone she needed to save.