It came with a thump.
They were sitting in Giles’ living room, listening to Faith regale them with how she’d fought off two blue-haired biddies down at Ralph’s, and even Giles was chuckling at the animated tale. It felt good to laugh. This was a kind of ache Buffy could get used to again.
And then the plate glass window almost shattered from the unknown impact. No more joking. Nerves on instant alert, everyone to their feet, all eyes staring at the covered window that overlooked the shopping center.
Faith was the first to move. Darting to the side of the window, she cast a glance back to confirm the others were ready, and then pulled the cord for the blinds, tense and poised to attack whatever it was that had tried to break in.
They saw nothing. Just the shimmery reflection of three pale faces staring back at them against the sooty LA night. Buffy thought it made her face look fat.
Silently, Giles grabbed a sword from the display by the door, approaching the spidery mesh that was now his living room window, and peered out into the darkness. After a moment, he pulled away, tilting his head back so that he could better squint through his glasses, and lifted a single finger to the epicenter of the fault.
“What is it?” Buffy asked.
“Feathers.” Setting down the weapon, Giles slipped the latch on the window. He was careful when he slid it open, and the sudden rush of noise from the street almost hurt her ears, but nobody was paying any attention to the mundane of the city. They stared instead as he leaned over the sill and scanned the faux balcony that adorned the exterior of the window, ultimately bending to reach for something unseen in its depths.
It was a bird. A big one. Black, with a wingspan of several feet. It flapped halfheartedly against Giles’ chest when he pulled it into the apartment, but the bright lights seemed to stun it into submission, leaving it blinking rapidly as he set it carefully on the floor.
“It must not have seen the glass,” Giles speculated as he examined it.
“Is it hurt?”
She crouched down beside him and watched as he extended the wing. The bird struggled at the movement, squawking its displeasure in unmistakable pain, and she winced along with it when a loose feather clung to the carpet.
“Don’t touch it,” Giles instructed when her hand reached unbidden toward it. “It’s not a pet.”
“But what are you going to do with it?” Buffy didn’t want to see it destroyed. It was just a bird who’d made a serious error in its flight path.
It stared at her with black, beady eyes, as if it understood what she was asking. It didn’t even struggle again when Giles grabbed his jacket from a nearby chair and wrapped the animal into it.
“I’m sure there’s an animal hospital or some sort open at this hour,” he said. “We’ll let a veterinarian take care of it.”
That seemed the right thing to do. The bird was hurt, ergo it needed a doctor. The doctor would make everything right again.
She insisted on holding it in her lap while Giles drove. Buffy could’ve sworn it stared at her the entire way.
It came back.
They’d left it at the animal hospital with an explanation of what had happened, and then returned to the apartment in silence, sobered by such a ridiculously ordinary thing occurring in their very unordinary lives. The hospital called the next day to say the wing had been mended, but that some time during the shift change that morning, the bird had escaped its cage. Odds weren’t good that it would survive long with its damaged wing.
But a week later, Buffy went to draw the blinds and was startled by the black outline barely discernible on the railing outside the window. It cocked its head when it saw her, but didn’t fly away.
“Not that hard, B,” Faith teased from the couch when Buffy continued to stand there motionless. “All you have to do is pull the string.”
She did. Slowly. And decided that it must be a different bird than the one they’d saved. Because being the same would just be too weird.
It was gone the next morning, but as soon as it was dark outside, Buffy heard a soft whisper against the glass, and looked up in time to see the black bird roosting in the very same spot. She approached it, cautiously, curiously. It never moved.
“What is it?” Giles asked, coming in from the kitchen.
She only pointed. She saw her Watcher’s frown in the faint reflection from the glass, the slight tilt of his body as he tried to more closely examine the bird without actually getting nearer to it. There was no doubt that it was the same one any more. Around its leg was a tiny ID bracelet that she’d seen the nurse at the animal hospital put on when it was injured, and in the middle of its breast was the tiny fluff of red feathers she’d stared at the entire trip in.
“Remarkable,” he muttered.
“Because it came back?” she asked.
“Because it’s still alive. It shouldn’t have survived.”
“So why did it come back?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps because we rescued it.”
Suddenly, she was drowning in an unexpected burden. She’d saved its life and now it looked like it was giving its life to her.
Eye for an eye.
Wing for a wing.
But she didn’t want that kind of responsibility. She’d run from that kind of responsibility. She did enough with her slaying not to feel like she had to take care of a homeless wild bird on top of it.
She was still staring out at the animal when Faith showed up to patrol.
“C’mon, B,” she said, coming up to stand beside her. “The night’s a-waiting.”
“It’s not the only thing,” she replied.
Faith’s gaze slid to match hers. “Well, will you look at that.”
Buffy caught her grinning widely. “You don’t think it’s weird?”
“Nah. As much fucked up shit we see every night? This is almost Cleaverville.”
They left it behind to wander the dead streets of the city in search of adding more death. More than once, Buffy could’ve sworn she heard the faint rustle of large wings cutting through the night, but every time she looked behind her, nothing was there.
As Christmas neared, demon activity seemed to pick up, driving her harder and further than she’d gone since running to LA. Patrols grew longer. Bloodier. Less of the fun. Even Faith seemed to be enjoying them less.
She caught Giles researching more than once. She’d walk into a room unexpectedly, and he’d hide the book he was reading with a newspaper or another book and once even tried using his tie before giving up and just leaning forward to cover it with his arms. It saddened her to think he still felt the need to pretend, but then, she was still pretending so could she really blame him?
“I don’t think the answers are in there anyway,” she finally said after the umpteenth interruption. “I think it’s just that time of year.”
“The…holiday spirit infecting the demon population?” he said with a small smile.
“It wouldn’t surprise me. Have you seen the way people act at Christmas? It has to be possession. Maybe an angry elf sprinkling evil Santa dust around for revenge.”
For a moment, something gleamed in Giles’ eyes. Like a shutter had been lifted from a window to allow a single ray of sunlight to shine through. It took Buffy several seconds of non-comprehension to realize she’d made a joke. An old school joke. An old Buffy-style joke. She’d actually forgotten that new Buffy-style didn’t include joking.
“Or, maybe it’s just coincidence,” she added.
The shutter closed again. Giles merely nodded.
It was inevitable that one of them would eventually get seriously hurt. Buffy just always figured that it would be Faith and not her.
One minute, she was delivering a roundhouse kick to a scaled demon they’d witnessed torch a pet shop, and the next, a sword was slicing into her side, piercing leather, skin, flesh, and finding soft insides to chop and dice.
She fell, feeling it get yanked from her body when Faith turned on the surprise attacker, and watched through a reddened haze as the brunette went berserker on both of them.
Not on her hands this time.
She felt more than saw the other Slayer drop to her side, the strong hands tearing at Buffy’s coat to reveal the wound in all its scarlet and tan glory. “At least it’s a clean in and out,” Faith said. “But you’re bleeding pretty bad. C’mon.”
Pain sluiced through Buffy’s body when Faith tried to help her to her feet, drawing out a ragged cry into the now-still night. “Go,” she rasped, pushing the other woman away. “Get Giles.”
“I’m not leaving you here!”
She shook her head. Fingers scrabbled for the hem of her coat to press against the flow of blood. “You don’t have a choice.”
“Fuck that. Get your ass up and walk yourself if you won’t let me carry you.”
“Giles is just a few blocks away. This isn’t our usual boy scout bandage badge. I’m going to need a hospital.”
“Even more reason for me not to leave you alone.”
And then black beady eyes gazing solemnly at both of them as the bird floated to a stop right next to Buffy.
“What if one of those things has a buddy?” Faith continued, ignoring the new arrival. “I leave you, and you’re dead.”
Before she could reply, the bird hopped onto Buffy’s calf, pincer feet needling through her trousers and into her skin as it perched firmly between the two Slayers. It forced Faith to redirect her attention, and she drew back to regard them more fully.
“If you die, I’m killing that fucking bird,” she snapped, shooting the animal in question a dirty look. “You hear that, Edgar? Anything happens to B, and you’re the next pie on the menu.”
Only when she was gone did Buffy release the groan she’d been holding, squeezing her eyes shut against the pain. It hurt. More than anything had hurt in a long time.
She felt tiny needles in her flesh as the bird turned around, and she opened her eyes to meet the animal’s. “Edgar, huh?” she mused out loud. Better to talk. She’d stay conscious that way. She had to stay awake for Giles and Faith’s return. “I never figured you for an Edgar.”
And she talked. Babbled. Said anything just to keep her brain going long enough for the cavalry to arrive.
She was still talking when she heard the car door slam shut. Footsteps echoing.
Edgar only moved when Giles appeared at her side.
Answers arrived while she was laid up recuperating. Literally. In a big fat envelope postmarked from England.
“Acathla’s gone missing.”
Giles said it with a matter-of-factness that brooked no apology for mentioning the unmentionable. Acathla. The big stone part of the reason she’d run away from Sunnydale in the first place.
“What do you mean, missing? What happened to it after…after I left?” Nope. She wasn’t going to say it. Everybody might know about Angel, but that didn’t mean she had to go around announcing it whenever the opportunity arose. Of course, everybody constituted three people, all of whom were in the room when Giles made the announcement, but Buffy didn’t care about the semantics of it.
“The Council took it into their custody.”
“And now they’ve lost it? Why didn’t they destroy it when they had the chance?”
He began to pace around the edges of the room, keeping as much distance from her on the couch as possible, but it was still too frighteningly like Sunnydale, like before, like everything that wasn’t the now. She should’ve known that all paths led back to the start. The world was just one big circle so it should only be expected that ends were beginnings and vice versa. She should’ve known.
“They wanted to study it,” he was saying. “They wanted to discover why the apocalypse failed.”
Her wounds itched. “The apocalypse failed because of me. It failed because I killed Angel. If they wanted to know, all they had to do was ask!”
“Well, you weren’t there, now were you?”
It was the harshest thing he’d said to her since showing up on Los Angeles. He wasn’t sorry for it, either. The grimness of his mouth told Buffy it had been a long time coming, and she shrank into the cushions of the couch.
“So this dude is the reason we’ve been so busy lately?” Leave it to Faith to cut through the crap.
“That’s not possible,” said Buffy. “It’s just a big rock. Unless the Council did something to it. In which case, I really don’t want to hear any more.”
Giles wasn’t done. Giles was far from done, by the looks of it. “Mr. Travers believes demon activity is on the rise in the area because Acathla is here and anything remotely evil is trying to locate it.”
“Including the Council. Color me so not surprised.”
She only half-heard the rest of the conversation. It was a replay of the previous spring. If she didn’t want to watch the world disintegrate into chaos should someone figure out how to work Acathla again, she had to find it first.
The story of Buffy’s life.
And here she’d thought she was finally starting a new chapter.
“What’s the bug up your ass, B? It’s a fucking rock. It doesn’t have anything do with Angel.”
It had everything to do with Angel.
“We find it, we smash it, we get back to the good old days where we only had to take down ten vamps a night instead of twenty. Sounds five by five to me.”
She couldn’t know. She always left love behind with wet sheets and a killer hangover.
“At least get off your bony ass and help me find it. Giles said that Travers dude is coming out to see what’s taking us so long. I’d rather be long gone before he gets here.”
“Well, look. Queen B decides to speak. Lucky me.”
“Yeah, lucky you. Now go away.”
It was silent for so long, Buffy almost thought Faith had actually left.
“And here I thought you’d figured out it’s not just you any more,” Faith finally said.
That was when she decided to stomp out.
Buffy thought it was a much better exiting line.
She patrolled alone until after the New Year. Mostly alone. Edgar followed her everywhere she went when she was out at night. If she was in, he stayed perched on the balcony railing, eating the balls of bird food Giles bought and tried to hide in the back of the cupboard.
Missing Faith got to be too much. It was harder doing it on her own after so many months as a tag team, and harder still to walk in and see Faith and Giles huddled over a map of the city at the dining room table. Her Watcher. Her friend.
The night before Travers was supposed to show up, Buffy found Faith in a parking lot with two vamps pinned to the tinny doors of a red Ford Festiva. They hung on the swords she’d skewered them with, one already unconscious from the beating she had given him, and the other only barely awake as her fists turned his jaw into jelly.
“Kind of hard to get him to talk if his mouth doesn’t work,” Buffy commented from the sidelines.
“Already found out what I need to know,” came the reply. Another hard-hitting blow. Out for the count and Faith turned away from the car, her eyes shiny. “That was just to relieve a little tension.”
She dusted them almost casually, then stooped to retrieve the two swords that fell to the concrete. Buffy knew those weapons. They were Giles’.
“Did it work?”
“Like a Lucky Charm.”
They fell into step as if they’d never stopped their nightly patrols together. Silently, Faith handed over one of the swords.
Buffy sighed. Her heart felt better with a weapon in her hand.
“What did you find out?” she asked. “Do you know where…it is?” Damn it. She still couldn’t say the name.
“On a boat, if you can fucking believe it. Our rock god’s supposed to go for a little ride tomorrow.”
“Then I guess we better go give it a visit tonight, don’t you think?”
“Night’s early. Feel like some pie first?”
The bird circled overhead as they neared the docks.
Faith’s hand wrapped around Buffy’s bicep, stopped her from going ahead. She was frowning. It almost didn’t look natural to see the brunette so serious.
“I dreamed this. This was my dream.”
So, Buffy looked. Really looked. She didn’t need to ask what dream Faith was talking about; in all their talks, only one dream could be referenced so directly.
The water shimmered. Its surface looked like an oil slick under the pale moon, ready to suck the unsuspecting down into chilly depths, and a lone boat was moored near the shore. The smell of sulfur made Buffy’s nose itch.
“Wasn’t the boat on fire in your dream?” she asked.
“What is it you think you’re sniffing? Those aren’t marshmallows on an open fire, B.”
“Is this the boat…” She swallowed. “…Acathla is on?”
Which was loud and clear as an answer.
Before she could think otherwise, Buffy’s feet were pounding against the dock, leading her at breakneck speed to the boat.
“B!” Faith shouted. “What the hell are you doing?”
She thought it was pretty clear what she was doing.
There was no time for stopping. Stopping would mean second-guessing and she couldn’t do that, wouldn’t do that, not now not again. She’d come so far and it had to be here for a reason. It had to be here to give her the chance to let it go for real.
To let Angel go for real.
And she didn’t need to ask any more. She could ignore the cries that echoed inside her head. Hers. His. She could do this one thing and bury the past under its rubble. She could climb over the debris, and take her life back. The one with Giles. The one with Faith.
The one where she wasn’t alone.
It was possible there might even be room for others once the ghosts of the past were gone.
One huge ghost loomed in front of her too quickly after she started searching the ship, and Buffy skidded to a halt when she saw it wasn’t alone. She frowned when the middle-aged man standing in front of Acathla turned back to look at her. She hadn’t been expecting an audience.
“Miss Summers. This is quite the surprise.”
“For both of us. Who are you?”
“That would be the stuffed shirt.”
The man’s small eyes darted over Buffy’s shoulder, but his face remained impassive. “And Miss Robinson. Is Rupert with you as well?”
She felt Faith come up to stand just behind her shoulder. “Why? You feel like having a tea party?” the brunette said.
Buffy knew then. It hadn’t been her dream, and this was the first time she’d ever seen this man, but her instincts were screaming at her to listen to them for a change. “Quentin Travers.”
That provoked a response. A small smile. She imagined he didn’t do it very often. “Yes,” he murmured. “Quite the surprise.”
“It’s a little early for you, isn’t it? I thought you weren’t due in until tomorrow.”
“And I thought you would’ve found Acathla before tonight. It would seem we were both mistaken.”
A loud crash overhead jerked all three sets of eyes upward.
“Give you three to one those are the vamps I dreamed about,” Faith said.
A scream pierced the heavy wood to resound throughout the hold. That was all it took to drive both Slayers back to the stairs, up into the chilly night. Into the throng that awaited them.
The scream had been demonic. As Buffy and Faith slipped into the fight, Buffy saw the black shape of a bird swoop away from a vampire clutching at his bleeding eyesocket. Edgar. Like negative space against the night. There, but not.
There were easily a dozen, each trying to get a piece of a Slayer, each armed with only the most rudimentary of weapons. The girls leapt and pirouetted amongst the demons, deadly blades slicing through skin and sinew, the blood spattering every which way and more. Hers. Hers. Theirs. The air stank of it.
A club made contact with Buffy’s bad side. She ignored the pain to swing her sword in a full circle, severing a head from its body, and rushed through the falling ash to tackle the vampire trying to make its way to the hold below.
Help came from an unexpected quarter. Dodging fangs that seemed determine to meet her throat, Buffy felt a soft brush against her cheek and turned her head in time to see Edgar return to the fray. His beak was suddenly lethal, his claws just as deadly, and he attacked with full force at the vampire who’d dared to bare his teeth. It was enough to give Buffy the advantage she needed, and she grabbed her stake from her waistband to plunge it into the vamp’s back.
And then there was none.
Just a lot---a lot---of dust. The smell of smoke. Heat rising from somewhere.
“Is that it?” Faith wasn’t even that breathless. In fact, she looked kind of pissed off. “That seemed way harder in my dream.”
“We didn’t miss any, did we?” Buffy looked around at the empty deck. “I think I got five.”
“You had time to count? And here I thought we were just trying to clear the field.”
“If that’s so, then why do I get the feeling we’re missing someone?”
She didn’t wait for a reply. There was someone. Down below. Someone who wasn’t even supposed to be here.
He didn’t even turn around when they came back down. Focused on Acathla, Quentin’s hands were skimming across the cold stone, his voice unintelligible as he muttered something not in English under his breath. Creepy. Very non-Watcher-like.
“What’re you doing?” Buffy demanded.
He didn’t stop. He didn’t move. He just kept touching. And chanting.
A sudden squawk from behind her was followed by a flurry of wings, and Edgar was beating around Quentin’s head, scratching and diverting and drawing him away just enough for Buffy to rush forward. She leapt at the stone statue, and the magic surged at her hands as she made contact. It had to be magic. It always burned.
“No!” Quentin shouted.
But it was too late.
Brittle shards peppered the air, but it was nothing compared to the magic as it exploded.
And a bird’s scream.
As it deepened into the throaty cry of a man.
She woke up on the dock. Her throat burned from the thick smoke that now rolled in waves off the water, and Buffy struggled to prop herself up on her elbows to get a better look. She needed to see. She needed to see that it was gone.
What she saw instead were people. Lots of them. Mostly firemen, maybe a few dockworkers. Faith was flirting with a cute cop. The soot from the fire made her look somehow sultry, not dirty. Figured. Lucky bitch.
There was Giles. And a bowed Quentin. Both obviously weary by the slump in their shoulders. At their feet was another man, one with dark hair, wrapped up in a blanket, wrapped up in a ball. Pale skin.
Shaking, Buffy rose to her feet, pushing past the hands that wanted to help as she wound a path to her Watcher. Before she could say anything, he was looking up. He was seeing her. And then he was looking down, at the man huddled around his legs, drawing Buffy’s eyes with him to stare and wish and not believe.
She couldn’t believe.
“Is it gone?” she asked instead. She tore her eyes away, stopping several feet away from the three. Out of touching distance, she added, “Tell me it’s gone.”
“It’s gone.” Giles’ voice was scratchy from the smoke, and he pulled his glasses off to rub at his eyes, as if that would clear the haze from his vision. “Buffy,” he added, but stopped. Deep breath. He was going to try again.
She wouldn’t let him. “Then it’s over.” For some reason, the declaration made her want to cry. No. It was the fire’s fault. Outside influences, not inside.
“It has to be.”
“But it’s not.”
“Listen to me, Buffy.”
But he didn’t speak further. Not with words. Instead, Giles shook his head, knelt, and hesitated before putting an arm around the shoulders of the man on the ground. He guided him to stand, taking care to keep the blanket wrapped around him as bare legs became exposed beneath the hem of the wool.
Dark hair. Pale skin.
He lifted his head.
Eyes so dark they seemed black in the night. Staring at her. Watching her as they’d watched for so many weeks now.
She couldn’t move. She couldn’t even look at him. She looked at Quentin.
“What did you do?” Her voice was a whisper, but it stretched to forever, making each word hang like a jewel in the velvet night. Diamond-sharp and just as clear.
The Council Head lifted a proud head. There was no shame in his features. “We freed him,” he said coldly. “When we were studying Acathla. Our coven bound him to an earthly form so that he wouldn’t be a threat. When the statue went missing, so did he. That is why it was imperative Acathla be found. But when you destroyed it, Miss Summers, you destroyed the spell. I do hope you’re happy.”
Her eyes shut.
Happiness was not a word she could use to describe herself. It was a word that had been foreign to her for months, too many whispers, too much running, too much wrong. There had been flashes, and there had been small pieces slowly being fitted back into the puzzle of her world, but they had been oddly shaped, taking work to make them fit, slicing her fingers as she fought to notch it all together.
It was still foreign. But there were no more ghosts. Her ghosts now stood before her, each brought back into her life when the time was deemed to be right. And she could stop trying to hide from them.
She was wrong.
There was one more ghost. One more piece to make right in the new order of things.
She felt Faith come up behind her, hesitate. Wait.
Buffy lifted her head, her chin high, her eyes clear as they darted from Angel to Giles. A small smile---not one of joy, but peace---curved her mouth as she said, “Let’s go home.”
The assignment was:
Title of fairy tale/folk tale/myth/legend: Snow White and Rose Red
Pairing and/or characters you want: Buffy/Faith/Angel
Rating desired: anything up to R
Three things you want to see: Travers as the villian, Giles as the mother, fight scene
Two things you don't want to see: Dawn and Joyce