The Sin Eater
AUTHOR: Lamia Archer
Faith’s voice filtered across the line, separated slightly by the static of a transatlantic connection. She was angry, angrier than Buffy had ever heard her, which was saying something of a person who had, on more than one occasion, tried to kill you.
“You’re so full of shit,” she growled, and Buffy wondered briefly, at the intensity of emotion in her voice, if she’d been drinking. “All this crap about how the fate of the world is the most important thing, and take care of your family, and it’s all just good guy rhetoric. It’s lies.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
There was a long pause. Buffy swore she could hear the warning cadence of a rattlesnake’s tail purring across the line, so angry and taut was the silence.
“I’m talking about Los Angeles, aka Helltown, USA. And I’m talking about you being a chicken shit liar, slutting it up in Italy when the supposed love of your life is dead in LA. I’m talking about Angel.”
Buffy’s insides froze. “You’re lying.”
“The fuck I am,” Faith said, and hung up.
Buffy had heard about some trouble in California, but in her roman holidaze, she’d let it pass under the radar. Now she turned on the television and flipped through news channels until she found it. Riots in LA. Citywide power outages. Twelve city blocks destroyed; at the center, a law firm. Wolfram and Hart.
Faith met her at the airport. Buffy had called, before boarding the plane, and had not been surprised when Faith hadn’t answered. Buffy had left a message telling her when the plane came in, not entirely optimistic about what the results would be.
Shortly after Faith’s call, while packing, Buffy had called Willow to see what she knew about the whole LA ordeal. Willow had been less than positive on the subject of Angel’s recent peccadilloes, and Buffy got the sense that this was hardly a unique opinion among her friends, so she didn’t call any more of them. She magneted a note to the fridge with the barebones information on her flight, and figured they’d have to deal with it.
She did tell Dawn, because she didn’t want Dawn to worry about her sudden disappearance, but Dawn packed faster than she did, and she was on Buffy’s heels as she ran downstairs for the taxi, reciting a constant stream of reasons Buffy needed her to go to Los Angeles, too.
Faith met them at the airport. She looked grim, drawn and unkempt; her clothes were dirty, excavation dirty, and there were untended wounds on her hands, her temple.
“You look great,” Buffy said, stepping of the tarmac.
“It’s all about accessorizing,” Faith said dryly. “Speaking of: I see you brought Mini-Me.”
Dawn frowned. “I am not mini.”
“So,” Buffy breached uncomfortably on route to baggage claim. “Angel.”
“He’s dead? You’re sure? You’ve seen—”
“I don’t know,” Faith said. “I’ve been looking. And not finding anything.”
The nauseous ball of dread that had curled up to sleep in Buffy’s stomach during the too long plane ride awoke, stretched. Moved about a bit. “Oh.”
“But that doesn’t mean he’s for sure dead,” Dawn said. “That means he could still be alive.”
“Those are the options,” Faith said.
Dawn frowned, and started to retort. Before she could speak, Buffy said, “How is it out there?”
“Bad. Utilities are still out, lotta damaged buildings and streets; ground zero is teeming with demons. Not just your run of the mill vamps; we’ve got some exotics in, too.”
Buffy pulled her suitcase from the carousel. “And no sign of Angel?”
“That doesn’t mean—” Dawn started, but Buffy cut her off.
“No. If he was okay, he’d be out there fighting.”
“Damn right,” Faith said.
They drove to Faith’s motel room, which reminded Buffy forcefully of Faith’s living quarters in Sunnydale, before she’d gone all evil and moved into government-funded accommodations. The girl didn’t need much; Buffy didn’t know how she did it, living on nothing. She herself always seemed to need something.
They dumped their bags in Faith’s room, and she and Buffy did a weapons check.
“You should stay here,” Buffy said, strapping various sharp, pointy things onto her body.
“The hell you say,” Dawn said, and started jamming stakes between her belt and her body.
And so the three of them, heavily armed, headed out into the war zone.
Faith had been right; the demon population was definitely up around these parts. And ballsy, which was okay, because that equaled stupid. Between the three of them, they’d dusted four vamps in the first block.
“I can see why the tourist industry has failed to thrive,” Buffy said.
“Don’t be silly, B,” Faith said. “It’s a hotspot for the discerning, undead sightseer.”
They moved on foot, starting at the outskirts of the damage and walking through the crumbled streets, the smoky ruins of great buildings, into the heart of the destruction. The further in they walked, the more the landscape resembled the site of a natural disaster; the further in they walked, the darker it was, the more demons they encountered.
“We should have come during the day,” Buffy said.
“And miss all the fun?” Faith asked. “Anyway, you got here at night; I figured you’d want to start looking.”
“You figured right,” Buffy said.
Half an hour and several dozen undead casualties in, and Buffy started getting antsy. She’d seen no sign of Angel, and most of the demons weren’t even local; they had no information on Angel at all.
“This is pointless,” Buffy said. “We should go; I want to get Dawn out of here.”
“Dawn is fine,” Dawn said.
Faith scoffed, her cherry red mouth curling unpleasantly. “You’ve been out here less than an hour, and you want to give up? Fine. When I find Angel, I’ll make sure to give him your regards.”
She stomped off. Buffy sighed and stomped after her. They entered what was once an alleyway; now, due to one of the buildings having been completely reduced to its original components, it was rather less dark and ominous.
Or it would have been, had it not been for its sole occupant. Poking around the rubble with a wicked blade was a stone white, butane flame blue creature. Buffy raised her own sword; the creature came forward, its head cocked at a severe angle, a vulture examining its prey.
“Back down, Smurfette,” Buffy said.
The creature did not answer, or flinch, or do any of the running away and making her life easier things Buffy was hoping for. Instead, it cocked its head the other way, and said, “You are Faith.”
Faith shouldered past Buffy. “Yeah,” she said. “What’s it to you?”
“You know this thing?” Dawn whispered.
Faith frowned. “No. And I think I’d remember befriending a living statue.”
The creature walked forward. Buffy and Faith both readied their weapons; it ignored them.
“The best of the violence is done,” it said. “Pity.”
It was now that Buffy noticed a smear of red traveling from the creature’s ribcage to its hip.
“Hey,” she started, but then the creature shook, and she stopped.
The creature shook, the sword falling from its hand. It shook, and it dropped to the ground, convulsing so violently that even the fabric of space and time around it seemed to tremble; around it, the very air seemed to take on turbulent shape, moving like the breakers, quick choppy waves.
“Whoa,” Faith said. “Do you think she’s like—that thing where you can’t be around flashing lights and shit?”
“Epileptic?” Dawn said.
“I don’t think demons get epilepsy,” Buffy said.
And then the air calmed, and it wasn’t a demon anymore. It was a girl, naked, slender and brunette and looking a bit startled, but not, Buffy thought, as startled as she probably would have looked if the same thing had just happened to her.
“Oh,” said the girl.
Faith blinked. “Fred?”
The girl looked up, smiling nervously. “Yes? Oh, hey, Faith.”
“You know her?” Buffy asked.
“She’s Fred. A friend of Angel’s,” Faith said, sotto voce, and then turned her attention back to Fred. “So, what’s with the—” Faith motioned with her sword. “You know.”
“Oh,” said Fred, coming to her feet. Her long brown hair covered most of her nude front, and she attempted to cover the rest with her thin arms. “That’s been happening lately.”
“You turn into a creepy blue demon?” Dawn asked.
“And back,” Fred said. “That’s the important part; that I turn back.” She looked around at the wrecked city. “Ever since things kind of went to hell.”
“When was that?” Faith asked. “What happened?”
“Ever heard of the Black Thorn?”
Buffy and Faith checked each other’s faces for recognition. Finding none, they both shook their heads.
“I’ll fill you in,” Fred said. “But, um, maybe first we could get me some clothes?”
They scavenged some clothes from the ruins of a storefront and then sat, amongst the broken mannequins and fire-damaged wares, while Fred filled them in about the Black Thorn, and about Wolfram and Hart, and about Illyria.
“Whoa,” Dawn said.
“Angel’s had a busy year,” Buffy said.
“He—we—were trying to do what was right, you know, change things from the inside.” Fred frowned. “It’s possible we bit off more than we could chew.”
“Your hearts were in the right place!” Dawn said cheerfully. “I mean . . . well, okay, maybe things didn’t really turn out super, but it sounds like you had good intentions . . .”
“There’s a road paved with those,” Faith said. “Anyone remember where it leads?”
Buffy was not in the mood for Faith’s funny. “When was the last time you saw Angel?”
“I—well, Illyria—saw him in the alley, during the big battle. That was almost a week ago.”
“But he was alive when you last saw him,” Buffy pressed.
“Well, that’s something,” Buffy said, allowing herself to feel just the tiniest bit of relief.
“Not necessarily a good thing,” Fred said.
“Huh?” Buffy asked. “It’s not good that he’s alive?”
Fred, so much smaller, more fragile, than Illyria, fretted, her hands moving nervously against one another, over her small body.
“They’re going to find him,” she said. Her face was as solemn, her eyes as fixed, as Illyria’s, and Buffy felt an uncomfortable, crawling sensation prick her skin.
“The Black Thorn. This isn’t over; they’re going to come looking for him.”
“And when they find him?” Dawn asked.
“I don’t imagine they’ll be very pleased to see him,” Fred said.
Buffy steeled her jaw. “We’ve got to find him first.”
They headed back out into the ruined streets. Buffy was about to ask Fred whether she could handle herself, when Faith wordlessly handed the girl one of her smaller, auxiliary weapons; Illyria’s sword had been left in the alley, and there was no talk of going back for it.
“How’s your side?” Buffy asked.
“What?” Fred said.
“You had—Illyria had—blood on your—her—side.”
Buffy motioned to the reciprocal spot on her own body. Fred felt the spot beneath her ribs, then lifted her shirt to see it.
The area was unmarred.
“Huh,” Dawn said.
Fred shrugged. “I’m not really sure how connected we are.”
“You looked pretty close to me,” Faith said.
“I don’t really understand it,” Fred said. “I need to do some tests . . .”
“I can’t imagine you’ve had a lot of free time for the scientific method,” Dawn said.
Fred shook her head. “No.”
They walked past the smoking wreckage of a photo studio. Glass was scattered in the streets and warped exemplar photographs – generic faces smiling from falsely extravagant backdrops – drooped, scorch-marked, from their frames.
“What about Angel’s other friends?” Buffy asked. “Cordelia, and—”
“Dead,” Fred said.
A cold spike of dread tore through Buffy’s body.
“They’re all dead.”
“Everyone?” Faith said. “Wes, Gunn—”
“Dead, dead,” Fred said. “Spike—dead. Lindsey—dead.”
Buffy blinked. “Spike?”
“Wasn’t he already dead?” Dawn asked.
“Death’s not really a constant around here, I guess,” Fred said. “I mean, I was dead, but . . . it didn’t stick.”
“Me too,” Buffy said.
“Anyway, I—Illyria—saw him die,” Fred continued. “Spike, I mean. And Lorne . . . he left. I think he’s probably alive.”
“What about Connor?” Faith asked.
“Angel didn’t want him involved,” Fred said. “So he’s probably okay. I hope he’s okay.”
Buffy mentally tallied Angel’s body count. She hated they were dead, but also that she’d never even met most of them. Never even known their names. They were good guys—Angel’s guys—and they’d died anonymously. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair.
And if Spike had come back from the dead and not told her, well, it was a good thing he’d died in battle, because she would have killed him. Jerk.
There was some activity, a movement of shadows, inside a wrecked and pillaged Radio Shack.
“B,” Faith said.
Buffy raised her sword. “I think it’s worth a look. Shall we?”
They entered the storefront. It was dark inside, no utilities and all, but Buffy’s eyes had already adjusted to the dark outside, and it didn’t take too long for her eyes to adjust to this dark, too.
“Uh oh,” Buffy said.
It was a nest, at least eight strong. Buffy realized that she was more bothered that there were nests here already—after less than a week—than the fact that the odds were now two-to-one at best. And then she was struck, with the depressing inevitability of realizing one’s adulthood, by how jaded and battle-hardened a thought that was.
Faith and Buffy took the front line, trying to keep Dawn and Fred out of the fray directly. That worked for about a minute and a half, and then Buffy was thrown into a bank of stereos, and Faith was beset by three at once.
And then, as Buffy was pulling herself from the stereos, there was a sound like cloth ripping, and she saw four vampires go flying through the back wall of the Radio Shack, throwing up a shower of white plaster dust. Buffy came to her feet. When the dust settled, she found herself face-to-face with Illyria.
“Uh, wow,” she said. “Good timing.”
Illyria didn’t answer, just returned seamlessly to violence, grabbing a fleeing vampire by the upper arm and, through simple restraint, dislocating his shoulder with a sickly crunch.
“Okay, then,” Buffy said, and stepped back into the fray herself.
Soon it was just Buffy, Dawn, Faith, Illyria, and several inches of plaster-vampire dust.
Faith sighed, slapping her dark clothes free of the powder.
“Just great,” she said.
“You used to like getting down and dirty,” Buffy commented mildly.
Faith grinned. “Oh, I still—”
“Ooohkay,” Dawn interjected. “You two can flirt later. Right now, let’s focus on getting out of here. Remember, that whole thing about finding Angel before the Black Thorn does?”
They made their way out of the dust and broken electronics and back to the street. Paused at the entrance, axe raised, was a thin boy with dark eyes and a mop of dark hair, regarding them embarrassedly.
“Guess I’m a little late,” he said.
Faith grinned and clapped a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “That’s all right, Junior. There’ll be more where they came from.”
“I am not displeased to find you a live,” Illyria said.
The boy smiled awkwardly. “Uh . . . thanks. You too.”
“Another friend of yours?” Buffy asked.
“This is Connor,” Faith said. “Angel’s son.”
“Hi,” said Connor.
“Angel’s what?” Buffy echoed. Her entire body went numb, and she understood the poetical use of ‘disembodied’ for the first time.
“Seen your old man around?” Faith asked the boy, completely ignoring Buffy’s panic.
Connor frowned. “Actually, yeah.”
“Well, great!” Dawn said. And then she noticed Connor’s expression. “Isn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” Connor said. “I mean, I think he’s alive—”
Faith did not appear pleased by this assessment. “You think?”
“Take us to him,” Buffy said.
“Uh, okay,” Connor said.
And off they went.
Connor led them to an apartment building not far from ground zero. It, too, was suffering from lack of utilities, and an entire half of the building was nothing but a gaping hole in the skyline, but the other half was remarkably well-preserved, given the circumstances.
Connor led them along the inner corridor of the ground floor, stepping carefully to avoid things crawling in the dark.
“I found him here. Just like this,” he said.
Connor led them inside an apartment with a broken door handle. It smelled stale inside, the ghosts of spoiling food and stagnant water. As they walked by the kitchen, they lost Illyria; she went in to examine the food left scattered on the counters, the empty cereal bowls.
“Have you been staying here with him?” Buffy asked.
“Yeah,” Connor said. “I told my parents I was doing some relief work down here.”
“Not too far from the truth,” Dawn said.
“Not really. I’ve been patrolling pretty regularly.”
“And taking care of Angel?” Faith asked.
Connor frowned. “I don’t really know what to do for him.”
They stopped at the back bedroom. Connor opened the door, and they filed in, uniformly and inexplicably silent.
A figure curled on the bed like a crustacean, as from design rather than desire. The limbs were balled close to the body, the face tucked inward. Buffy thought of schoolyard bullies.
She could not see his face, and recognized him solely on the width of his shoulders, his hips. And then thought how weird that was. Such muscle memory.
Angel wasn’t moving. Not moving, but not dust. It was a start.
“How long has he been here?” Buffy asked, walking towards the figure on the bed.
Connor shrugged. “I don’t know. It took me a few days to track him down; I don’t know if he’s been here the whole time, or . . .”
Faith clapped a hand on the boy’s shoulder. His knees bent a bit, adjusting for the pressure. “You did good, kid.” She grinned. “And I like the collegiate look. Much better than the recently escaped from juvie look.”
Connor smiled awkwardly. “Thanks. I think.”
Buffy placed her hand on Angel’s shoulder. He didn’t move. She leaned over his body a bit to get a look at his face; it was bruised and slack.
She shook him. “Angel.” Nothing. “Angel.” More nothing.
“Yeah, he’s kind of been like that,” Connor said.
Buffy whipped around to face him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean this is kind of standard for him, these days.”
“Have you tried—”
“All kinds of stuff to wake him up. Nothing’s worked.”
“So what does that mean?” Dawn asked. “I mean, how can you tell . . . ?”
If he’s still alive was the end of the thought, the same words that had been on constant replay in Buffy’s head since Faith’s phone call. If he’s still alive I’ll find him. If he’s still alive I’ll kick his ass. If he’s still alive I’ll kiss him so hard it’ll be a damn good thing he doesn’t have to breathe. If he’s still alive everything will be okay.
“He’d be dust,” Faith said, after a very long moment of Buffy saying nothing. “Vampires die, they turn to dust.”
Buffy turned back to Angel’s still countenance. “What if . . . ?”
Faith snorted. “What if he didn’t? What if, just this one time in history, a vampire died and didn’t dust? Come on.”
Buffy relaxed. A little. “You’re right. He’d be dust. I’m just being neurotic and insane.”
Faith smiled. “Well, you have some practice.”
“You guys are so weird,” Connor said, grinning. “It’s kind of awesome.”
Dawn rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you can enjoy it now; it’s all new and interesting. At this end of it, it’s just annoying.”
Buffy frowned. “Do you think we could focus?”
No one had time to focus; Illyria rejoined them before anything productive could happen.
“There is great magic here,” she said, craning her neck violently as she searched the room, as though she expected to find some tangible evidence of the great magic.
“What do you mean?” Dawn asked. “It looks pretty standard to me.”
“There’s magic at work. Sanction.”
Dawn frowned. “There’s a sanctioning spell here? On Angel?”
“What’s sanctioning?” Buffy asked. “Is that like ‘sanctuary?’ Cuz that could be a good thing.”
Dawn shook her head. “Kind of. It keeps him safe, but it also keeps him . . . bound.”
Faith grimaced. “I get it. The Black Thorn’s keeping him safe so they can make sure that whatever horrible things happen to him, they’re responsible.”
“Could it be keeping him . . . not awake?” Buffy asked. She was uncomfortable using the word ‘coma’ in front of Faith.
“Definitely,” Dawn said.
“So what do we do?” Buffy asked. “There has to be—” She was about to say, ‘a cure,’ when she realized how ridiculous that was. There was no cure for Angel. Ever. “—something we can do.”
“I’ll research,” Dawn said.
“With what books?” Faith asked.
“I’ve seen some books,” Connor said. “I’ve been around the neighborhood; there’s an old occult bookstore that’s only caved in at one end. There’s a Grappler beast living there—”
“I’ll take care of it,” Faith said. “It’s a non-issue.”
“Hey,” Connor said. “I could take care of it—”
Buffy sighed. “Guys, share. I’m sure there’s enough killing for everyone.” Illyria perked at the mention of killing, enough that she stopped searching the room for physical evidence of sorcery. “Just . . . just go, and hurry back.”
“You’re not going?” Dawn asked, lagging behind as the others filed out.
“No,” Buffy said, sinking to the mattress beside Angel’s sleeping form. “No, I think I’d better—”
But Dawn didn’t require any explanation. She just nodded, forced a reassuring smile, and went off in search of books.
Buffy watched her go, and then turned back to Angel. If he’s alive, she thought, but then she didn’t know what came next.
They returned with several books, and Fred again.
“She popped back halfway here,” Connor said, looking slightly embarrassed.
“I wish I could do it without getting all naked,” Fred said. Connor only looked more embarrassed, but Faith and Dawn giggled.
“How’s he doing?” Dawn asked, coming to sit beside Buffy, thick book in hand.
Buffy shrugged. “I don’t know. About the same, I guess.”
“Well, good. We found some spells I think will help; just give us a little while to figure out a game plan.”
Buffy nodded. Took a deep breath. “Good. Yeah. I’m just going to . . . I’m going to go. Out. Maybe patrol some.”
“Sun’s coming up, B,” Faith said.
Buffy’s face fell. “Oh. Right. Well—”
“Why don’t you get some sleep,” Dawn said. “You should get some rest.”
“There’s another bedroom,” Connor said, pointing.
Buffy would have much rather have been out taking her frustrations out on the local demon populace, but you couldn’t have everything you wished for. She nodded numbly and left them to their research.
The other bedroom was smaller, and littered with toys: Lego’s, trucks; maybe a little boy’s room. The bed, decked with Spiderman sheets, was small but soft. As Buffy laid down, her first thought of how she’d never be able to sleep, not here, not now. She didn’t get to her second thought; she was already dreaming.
Buffy woke to harsh noises from the next room, Angel’s room. Faith grunting, bedsprings groaning. A little afraid of what she’d find, but still curious, Buffy got up and wandered over to the next room. Faith was maneuvering Angel onto his back; he didn’t stir, but he was a big man, and the worn mattress protested at bearing his weight. Buffy’s hands tightened around the doorframe, thinking of how she never had.
She forced herself to enter the room. Faith, panting slightly, and Dawn, on the bed with a book, looked up.
“Hey,” Dawn said. “Good nap?”
Buffy looked down at Angel’s still form. “Is he okay?”
Dawn’s mouth twisted in indecision. “He’s not worse.”
“So what are you—”
“Wiz kid here found a spell,” Faith said.
“It’s a purgation spell,” Dawn said. “I think it should get the Black Thorn off his back.”
“Well, basically it takes their attentions—all their mystical markers and stuff—off him, and gives them to someone else.”
Buffy frowned. “Won’t that mark someone else for death?”
Dawn grinned. “No! That’s the best part; the other person just swallows them all. I mean, literally swallows. Magic’s about moving energy around; you can’t just get rid of something, you have to put it somewhere.”
Buffy still wasn’t seeing the happy. “So you want to put it in someone’s belly?”
“Yes,” Dawn said. “The symbolic act of swallowing the bad energy should negate it completely.”
Buffy nodded. “Okay. Cool. Let’s do it.”
“What if there’s side effects?” Faith asked.
“There shouldn’t be,” Dawn said. “And—”
“And even if there are,” Buffy said, “it’s worth it. To keep Angel safe.”
Faith nodded. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
Dawn looked down at her book. “It says we’re supposed to undress him.”
Faith grinned. “I volunteer.”
“I’ll do it,” Buffy said, before Dawn and Faith could start a fight. She approached the bed, then hesitated. “Guys—”
“We’re going,” Dawn said, and grabbed Faith’s elbow on her way out, dragging the reluctant Slayer in her wake.
Buffy hesitated even after they’d gone, studying Angel’s bruised countenance for a long moment. What had happened to him that he’d rain down so much hell without asking her for help? Without even telling her? She knew that they’d grown apart, that it was probably good for them, but she never thought he’d be a stranger to her. That he’d frighten her.
Well, not anymore than he usually did.
It was a strange task, somewhere between foreplay and preparing a corpse for funeral. She tried to work at a steady, efficient pace, without lingering over the pale, bruised skin, the memories, she was uncovering. Halfway through removing his shirt, however, she lost her cool; she saw the black, barbed circle scarring his chest and froze.
“Oh my God,” she said.
“That’s their symbol,” came a small voice from the doorway. Buffy turned; Fred was standing in the entryway. She shuffled nervously when she found Buffy’s eyes on her. “I was just going to see if you needed anything; I didn’t realize you were . . .”
“It’s for the spell,” Buffy said. “It’s not like we’re getting cuddly.”
Fred didn’t answer.
“Their symbol,” Buffy said. “The Black Thorn?”
“Yeah,” Fred said. “They put it on him.”
Buffy found she couldn’t stop staring at it. “Well, I didn’t really feature him sitting in the tattooist’s chair for hours getting it inked on.”
Fred shook her head. “No.”
“What happened to him, Fred? What made him so . . .”
“Reckless? Impulsive? Insane?”
“Yes,” Buffy said. “And . . . yes, and yes.”
“I don’t know,” Fred said. “I mean . . . he made a deal with the devil to save Connor, and then . . . well, the devil came to collect. And we started dying—”
“His family,” Buffy said.
“I just think he was frustrated. That he thought maybe he could take something back.”
“You followed him,” Buffy said. “You didn’t think he was crazy?”
“I trusted him. We all did.” She frowned. “And anyway, I was dead at the time.”
“Right. That’ll really cloud your judgement.”
Fred sighed, looked down at Angel’s unmoving body. “Yeah. Well. I’ll, um, I’ll just leave you guys to your . . . yeah.”
She left. Buffy steeled herself. She had a job to finish.
Dawn, Faith, and Buffy circled around the bed. Connor kept watch at the door, and Fred lit some candles around the room and then hovered in the periphery.
“Crust,” Dawn said.
Fred frowned. “All I could find is Wonderbread—”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Buffy said.
“Yeah,” Dawn said. “I mean, we need a wonder.”
They placed the crust on Angel’s chest, the hollow of his breastbone. Fred had torn the soft crust from the bleached bread in one continuous strip; it had not lost its shape, and lay now in a perfect square on Angel’s chest, a frame for his heart.
Most of the china was broken, the cabinets filled with an ice dust of broken glass, but Faith had found a mug that was more or less intact, and filled it with the beer the spell required. Dawn shifted nervously closer to her sister.
“Are you sure you want to do this? You don’t have to—you could still decide not to, now—”
“Faith could do it—”
“I’ll do it,” Buffy said, and she was sure.
They stood around the bed, Faith with the beer, Dawn with the book. Buffy numb but strangely calm in her resoluteness. She looked at the soft crust frame, and the violently dark, barbed symbol, both of them lying on Angel’s chest like they belonged there.
Dawn was reading quietly from the book, a low even chant.
“Hurry up,” Buffy said.
“I am hurrying.”
“Chill, B,” Faith said, but then she took her hand, and Buffy forgot her anger at being told to ‘chill.’
An eternity of Dawn’s chanting, the foreign sounds unrecognizable as words to Buffy’s ears. Angel’s still, still still, face slack but not serene.
Finally: “Okay, Buffy. It’s your turn.”
Dawn handed her the book. She had translated Buffy’s part into English in blue pen, but Buffy had already memorized it. She stared at Angel’s face, not the transcribed words, as she spoke.
“I take your indiscretions. I take your stain and sin.” The book slid from her hands, clunking to the floor, as she reached for the crust. It was so soft, and as she brought it into her hand, she balled it into a knot. “And with this, I swallow them.”
She placed the bread, thick and salted with perspiration, into her mouth.
Faith passed the beer over the length of Angel’s still body. Buffy took the mug with both hands, anxiety stealing some of the soundness from her flesh.
“I swallow them,” she said, and drank, the beer warm and sticky in her mouth, down her throat, in spilt drops running over her tilted face.
Buffy swallowed, and wiped the slick tracks from her face. She handed Faith back the mug. Before her, laid out long over the bed—Angel. The tattoo was gone from his chest.
They danced until the prom committee started pulling down the streamers, putting up the tables, and then they walked out into the warm, sweet-smelling night. The sky above was at the height of darkness, glittered with innumerable diamond-bright stars.
It’s just tonight. It doesn’t mean that I . . . It was hard to remember, now. In the moments deep in, with him, touching him, it was always hard to remember the consequences. Those always came later. But they always came.
He walked her home, and they didn’t talk, and it was comfortable and not hard, and she didn’t understand – she knew the reasons, but she didn’t really understand, not like what that word really meant – why it couldn’t always be like this. Why she couldn’t have it to keep.
She shivered, and Angel gave her his jacket. The cuffs fell over her small hands, and it smelled like him, and she thought about the first coat he gave her, and everything else. Everything else he’d given her. And about how she had never given him anything—well, that one thing. But that had gone wrong, so wrong.
They arrived at her house but didn’t go in. The house was dark, sleeping; the whole world was sleeping, and she was here in the dark, awake. As usual. It was nice to have someone with her – someone like her – even if it couldn’t be forever.
They sat on the porch, side by side, in the quiet night. Buffy looked up at the sparkling night sky, connected the dots to make constellations logical to her. She’d never bothered to learn the real ones; they didn’t look like anything, anyway.
“What’s that mean, ‘star-crossed?’”
Angel, in his shirt sleeves, eyes on the dark jungle of Buffy’s lawn. He’d picked a stray blade of grass, green and ripe, and was rolling it back and forth between his fingers. He didn’t look up.
“Do you really want to know, or are you just talking?”
Buffy looked down from the stars to Angel’s sad face. She cuddled the jacket around her.
“I’m just talking.”
Angel nodded, twirled his grass. His eyes on the ground. Buffy threaded her fingers through his hair, her palm cupping the base of his skull. Angel stiffened, but didn’t protest. She wanted to tell him it was okay, it was going to be okay. She was the Slayer; when she said things like that, they had weight. People believed her.
Only he never had.