Timeframe: Early season six
Disclaimer: Following this exercise Spike and Buffy will be offered complimentary bathrobes and returned to Mutant Enemy. Letia, Lola and Beatrix, however, belong to us.
Notes: Quinara would like to thank Stultiloquentia for her sublime beta work - and alpha work. Stultiloquentia would like to thank Quinara for blind faith in her ability to locate the business end of a pencil, and suggesting the project in the first place.
Summary: Never trust a bint in a pond.
Illustrations By Stultiloquentia
From the centre of Sunnydale branches a forest. It is thin at its edge, but quickly thickens into something dense and rich. Within it paths diverge, and wind, and peter out into nothing, leaving those who would enter the forest lost and bewildered.
Buffy liked to think she knew this forest. Her years as the Slayer had forced her to know its paths intimately, forced her to be able to find a way out after chasing down a vampire. On this night, however, instinct failed her. With no prey to catch, her senses were left cold, and every fork in the path looked the same as another. She had walked, and as the pleasure had been leached from the pastime the paths had bled together. Now, deep in the heart of the wood, she was lost.
Panic rose and left again, and she became nothing but a dour note trapped in the beauty around her. She wandered in silence, scarcely noticing the louring trees, just doggedly trying to follow North.
Moonlight fell dappled through swollen leaves, casting its white light onto the flowers at her feet. Translucent and still, they distracted her, and made her think of ghosts, trapped like she from the ordinary world. With them as her guide she was barely surprised when the woodland broke into a clearing, round and perfect as a bowl.
It was spacious and sweet-smelling, sloping in front of her to a bank, behind which she could hear the gush of water. She left the woods to approach the stream and grass slicked along her boots as she walked, rustling like the wind that bothered the trees behind her.
On the bank now she looked down into the water, but could see nothing. It gleamed opaquely, rushing around a splash of moonlight like liquid jet.
“Beautiful, is it not?” asked a voice; soft, but clear.
Buffy pulled up sharply, and watched as a woman approached from the trees opposite her. Her hair was fair, and fell around her shoulders with a lightness Buffy had always wished for. She was wearing a white dress that fell to her knees, and her feet were bare. In the middle of the night. Buffy wasn’t sure what to say.
She settled for agreement. “Yeah. I mean, yeah, it is.”
The woman crossed to the edge of the stream, and made a gesture with her hand that felt like a greeting.
“Letia,” she introduced herself, smiling at Buffy.
Buffy smiled back, making the same vague motion. With it she felt all her fears fade. “Buffy.”
“What brings you here, Buffy?” Letia asked, settling down on the grass. “I wasn’t aware anyone knew of this place, besides myself.”
Buffy mirrored her actions, and laughed slightly. “Well, I wouldn’t say I knew about it. I just kind of found it.”
“What luck!” Warmth came with the woman’s surprise, and Buffy settled more comfortably into the grass. “Are you sure you weren’t looking for it?” she asked, enigmatically.
“I might’ve if I’d known.” Buffy looked briefly at the running water. “But no.”
Letia smiled, letting her feet dangle in the stream. They settled themselves in the currents of the surface, never breaking it though they moved. Buffy found herself mesmerised.
After a few minutes of dabbling, Letia sighed, and the sound rode on layers of softness. “It’s so peaceful here,” she said, the words seamless to the air.
Buffy murmured in assent, unwilling to break the quiet.
“It seems so obvious,” the woman continued. “But sometimes one really does need a sanctuary from this world of responsibility.”
This statement required Buffy to speak. “Oh yes,” she replied, raising her eyes to Letia’s.
The other woman broke into an impish smile, just for a moment, before kicking up heels and splashing chilly stream water onto Buffy’s hand. Buffy looked at it, surprised, and watched the drops slip between her knuckles. Then she felt herself grin, and removed her own shoes and socks, letting her feet slip into the water. It was cold, but not unpleasant after the first shock.
Buffy swished the cold water around her toes and rested her hands behind her on the grass. Her fingers nestled amongst the blades, which barely seemed to register her presence.
Buffy returned to her house just as the sun crested the horizon. She hadn’t slept that night, but while she was tired she felt fresh, and clean.
She made her way slowly up the stairs. The carpet seemed softer than usual, almost melting beneath her touch. It made her smile as she reached the landing, and as a door clicked softly open in front of her.
Dawn tramped out blearily, mumbling something unintelligible to Buffy as she headed to the bathroom. Buffy watched her go, before turning to her own room and opening the door.
Even in the feeble light, she could see herself lying on the bed, eyes open and vacant like a corpse. There were wires going into her stomach, and she still had shoes on. She had no breath, but her own breathing came rapidly. Air blew out of her mouth and flared up her nose over and over again in a cycle she couldn’t feel, her lungs bellowing mechanically.
Dull beats pounded through the floor and Buffy retreated, clutching one side of the doorframe with her hands. The door opened widely and she had to let it go, scraping her fingernails along the paintwork. Her breathing was making her light-headed, and only when the door shielded her did it slow.
Dawn called out her name, “Buffy! Buffy!” But her throat was too tight to answer. There were shufflings around the room, and a series of beeps. Her sister returned to the door, and as it closed Buffy could hear her murmur.
“Just a dream…”
Buffy couldn’t stop shaking.
The morning passed and the house emptied. Slowly, Buffy ventured back inside.
It was the same, but it was cold; for her, at least. All the subtleties that had betrayed her presence and accommodated it had faded away. Her coat wasn’t on the stairs, but in the closet, hanging neatly, and her scrunchies weren’t on the windowsill, but in the bathroom, where they sat co-ordinated by size and colour.
And all her favourite foods, her guilty pleasures, that had once lurked in the cupboard behind the Cheetos, had morphed into beaming photos of her that held court from the mantelpiece. The throne of death.
Buffy could bear it no longer, and fled back to the woods.
The afternoon passed, and the light bled out of the forest. The moon rose again, swinging high and removed from the thin clouds below.
Buffy’s skin looked fluid, and the trees soughed softly in her wake. She paid no attention to them as she drove blindly onward. She had not entered on a path and she was not on one now, but that didn’t matter; it left her with the same end. She found the clearing, and the stream, which sang through it in nonchalance. Letia, however, was missing. Another waited in her place.
A study in angles, the woman sat with one knee raised and her eyes closed. Inky dreadlocks dissected her red shirt. Warily, Buffy crossed the grass and the eyes opened, cataloguing her footsteps.
“Where’s Letia?” Buffy asked. A day of silence had broken her voice, and it stayed hoarse as she spoke.
The woman observed her from the ground, the cast of her sharp features otherworldly. She replied with disdain, “And you are?”
Buffy could do nothing but answer, and gave her name.
“I’m Lola,” came the response as the woman stood. Buffy was grateful for the fact that, if nothing else, this Lola was straightforward. “Now. What do you want with my sister?”
Buffy’s throat closed. She had no idea what she wanted, she was just retracing her steps.
“I just – what has she done to me?” she asked, the question bubbling up from her exhaustion.
“Done to you?” Lola replied. Contradiction coloured her tone and Buffy began to warm with anger.
“Yeah,” she said. “She did something, and I want to know what it was.”
“Letia has done nothing,” Lola told her, damningly.
“But she has!” Buffy cried, her voice rising without her meaning it to. “I’m… I’m nothing anymore! There’s no me – I’m a,” her words reached their peak, cracked, and fell, spiralling like ash, “I’m a machine.”
Lola looked back at her, unrelenting. With her emotions unleashed Buffy found her self-control lost, and on a swell she sobbed. Her tears buffeted her, pulling out more, and sweeping her wrist across her face she was unable to beat them. She did nothing but scrape her cheeks with her sleeves.
Buffy’s legs shook, but she didn’t want to collapse. She didn’t want to admit defeat that way. But she had human limitations, and was eventually forced to look away from the woman opposite and drop over her feet to an ungainly heap.
After a time she raised her eyes, and met Lola’s, which dried her tears with their piercing dark. The other woman crouched opposite her as if poised to spring, her mouth still set in neutrality. She spoke, and now her voice susurrated like falling sand.
“You should wash your face,” Lola said.
Numbly, Buffy obeyed, kneeling down by the water’s edge. She tucked her legs tidily beneath her and closed her eyes as she plunged her hands into the stream.
Unable to walk away from Lola so easily, Buffy remained in the wood, pouring her troubles onto the other woman long into the next day. Tiredness and hunger both became abstract concepts, sensations that had been washed from her. And, lost in whatever dream this was, Buffy didn’t mind.
She glided back to the town centre eventually, silent as a ghost, slipping between crowds of bright people. She came to the Magic Box, and breathed, ready to reveal herself. The last customer left the shop, and she nipped in behind him, waiting on the shop floor for someone to notice her.
They didn’t. Anya was the only one there, and she didn’t look up from the cash register; nor from the display cabinet she then began to dust, singing a lilting song in a language Buffy didn’t know.
Buffy stood for the rest of the afternoon, watching the ebb and flow of customers and their Magic Box bags. Anya was good at her job.
When the shop closed she also left. Night was coming, heralded by the flicker and glow of streetlights, and she had other places to visit.
Buffy stood alone in the crypt, the cold stone walls dark and dank around her. No golden silence this, but black, and her skin felt as hard as chitin. Her eyes were sightless, and as a figure emerged from the ground nearby they flickered rapidly to try and break the film that lay across them.
She turned and looked at Spike, her eyes now soft and raw. She knew he couldn’t see her. The very quality of his presence was different from her own, and the conclusion seemed obvious.
“Who’s there?” he asked suddenly, snapping to alertness. It startled her and lit sparks up her spine. She moved to him, fervour paring her voice into something sharp as she said his name.
She shook her hand in front of his face, but his gaze didn’t waver. She sighed, slumping back on her heels, but felt a little more alive than she had a moment ago.
Then Spike walked forward, and his shoulder passed through hers. Her breathing halted; all her vigour shrank to a tiny core she couldn’t hope to access. Coldly now she turned, ignoring Spike, who himself had swivelled in some bizarre choreography, and left through the open door.
Something was wrong. Spike knew it with certainty. The air in the crypt was jarring in a way he couldn’t explain, and that was coupled with the not unusual sense of someone watching him. And there was a dread, curling on the edges of his subconscious, which made him think it was time to go to the Magic Box.
It was cloudy that night, and all the stars were secreted away. In their absence the light of Sunnydale swelled into the sky, and hung there with an uneasy glow, weighing on him as he walked.
Eventually he came to the long alley behind the Magic Box. He stalked to its end, before resting a hand on the brick wall and pushing open the door.
Spike stepped into the yellow light of the training room. The mats were out, and his boots sank into them as he listened to Buffy’s voice: “Focus my chi,” she said. She was sitting in the corner with Willow, and sounded happier than she had since her return, for which Spike was glad.
“That’s great,” Willow replied, her back to him. “But I was thinking of something a little less Karate Kid and a little more Matrix.” Buffy seemed confused by what Willow was saying, and that in turn made Spike cock his own head.
She caught sight of him then, and her eyes brightened with an excitement he couldn’t understand. “Spike!” she said, and waved.
He remained nonplussed until Willow turned around. The look of worry on her face, mixed with the undeniable sliver of irritation and contempt, was unique to one situation and one situation only.
He had never thought that he would have to face this again, this pale facsimile of the Slayer, who smiled and simpered while the other decayed beneath the ground. He had pushed the memory from his mind, hoping to forget. And he almost had: he had lost enough that he had no way to brace himself against what was to come.
He felt sick and light-headed; needles were being threaded through his optic nerves.
This time he was sober, though. That was different.
With sobriety came a surreal slice of instinct: Buffy, the real Buffy wasn’t really gone. Not yet. He nursed his conviction as he left the shop, coaxing memories more cohesive than mere dreams to assert themselves.
One rose in his mind. The girl stood, proposed a walk in the woods, declined company, and allowed the dust of vampires to settle on her hands.
He had left her alone two nights ago, but wouldn’t now. He would not let her be dead again.
As Buffy rushed through the trees a thorn brushed along her hand, rending the surface of her skin. The heat of it made her feel lopsided, weighted towards the ground as she ran. It pulled her mind back as it tried to escape into the air and away, though it refused to bleed.
Her breath was ragged, like the undergrowth she trampled on, but she felt no sympathy for either. She wasn’t of this world any longer, and sympathy felt foreign.
She didn’t know who she expected to find at the stream to torment her next. Whom she found was yet another woman, calm and subtle, with a smile as radiant as the moon, breaking as it now did from behind the clouds.
All the worry was drained from her, and her steps were more measured as she approached. “You can see me, can’t you?” Buffy breathed, the back of her neck wet with sweat.
“I can,” the woman replied.
“Why?” Buffy didn’t know why she was asking. What was true was true, and knowing the reason wouldn’t alter anything.
The wind picked up for a moment, rushing through the glade and the woman’s sheet of dark hair, wisping the ends. “Because you’re the reason I’m here,” she said. The words rose above the wind, silencing it in Buffy’s ears.
“Who are you?” Buffy asked, unable to stop her questions.
“My name is Beatrix,” she replied, still smiling. “I’ve come to take you home.”
Spike strode through the woods. He didn’t care for any of the paths. They were all false, and he wouldn’t be taken in. Instead he relied on his senses, on traces so faint he couldn’t be sure if he was imagining them or not.
It was almost pitch black, but that was no problem for the likes of him. He could still pick out every detail: every woodlouse on every rotten trunk of every fallen tree, and the petals of the flowers that grew beneath all their scurrying feet.
He was worried by how deep into the woods he travelled, not for himself, but for what he might find. Resurrection spells were rarely permanent, and magic could unravel from a single loose thread. A stumble, a spark of thirst was all that was needed for his week to end the way it had begun, with Buffy… He moved faster, and scanned the ground more diligently. The cries of birds sounded like gunshots to his hypersensitive ears.
Then he heard the sound of water.
Clouds shielded the moon once more. Buffy could still see Beatrix, faint in lines of white and blue.
“But…” she began. She stalled. She couldn’t say it. Couldn’t say that she didn’t want to go back, that she was happy where she was. “But…”
“It’s all all right, Buffy,” Beatrix said.
“But they think they rescued me,” Buffy finished weakly, knowing there was a reason for her to stay, but uncertain what it was.
The other woman was soft, but looked straight at her as she spoke. “But they don’t, do they?” Buffy blushed at the reproval.
Because they didn’t think. Didn’t think anything of her anymore, not as she was, at least.
She couldn’t continue to look at Beatrix, and looked down instead, tracing with her eyes the line where the water met the bank. It was barely visible with dull black against dull black, but the movement of the stream gave it away.
The moment she found the line it was illuminated. The moon had appeared again, and it edged the rolling swells of the water in sharp grey.
Buffy looked up to Beatrix, tears in her eyes.
Spike left the woods, adjusting his collar. That bristling feeling of wrong was back, and it drew his eyes to a stream, the water he had heard, and a severe looking woman who stood far on its other side. She smiled at the other bank, and something wouldn’t let him look away.
He cut across the glade to the water’s edge, leaving thick footsteps of crushed grass behind him. The woman’s face rose to his and frowning now she asked, “Why are you here?”
He kept his eyes on hers, and held them for a few seconds before they were lost to his left. He turned his head, instantly suspicious, but there was nothing there. He turned back to the woman and she seemed to smile as she looked at him down her nose.
Suddenly, something visceral struck him, and he looked involuntarily back to the left, trying to see past the dark. There was still nothing there.
The woman laughed, and over his shoulder Spike watched her raise a hand to her mouth.
Spike lashed out across the stream and caught hold of her slender wrist. He closed his fingers tightly, and though his brain tingled with anticipation, he felt no pain. He wrenched the hand away from the woman’s body, dragging her toes into the water, and searched deep into her eyes. They were as dark and cold as the ocean.
She scowled at him, resisting ineffectively.
“You shall not save her,” she said at last. The acid in the words burnt like prophecy. “You cannot. She is alone, and will not hear you.”
The wrist slipped from his grasp like an eel, and stung across his cheek. Stumbling back, he raised a hand to his face and felt wet, torn flesh, a moment before the pain hit him.
His head whipped around and there she was: a soft, wraith-like figure further down the bank. Her name tumbled from his lips before he had time to think, and he sprang toward her. A sense of impending failure welled within him, barely banked by the fire of determination.
At the sound of her name Buffy flushed with warmth. It filled her, running down to the ends of her fingers. She hadn’t even realised that she was cold.
The sound of Spike’s boots on the grass, like his voice, seemed to her more potent than his presence. He still looked like a dream, hazy compared to Beatrix, and not there every time she looked. He was more real, though, than the water sluicing at her side. For once.
He approached. There was something red on his cheek, and as he flowed in and out of existence it grew. Her eyes were drawn to it as he stood in front of her, and as he spoke.
“Buffy,” he said. His voice was so distant. “I’m…”
The trees rustled. An owl hooted, escaping into the night, and the clearing was empty again. No one was calling her, and the only sound was the rush of the water, ever-flowing.
Beatrix, however, still stood upon the other bank, palm held out in regal entreaty.
“Come, Buffy,” she said. “Come now.”
The wind blew, and Buffy shivered. She looked back once more to the lonely wood before stretching her hand tentatively forward. Beatrix grasped it, and Buffy looked down, taken aback by the hard grip.
There was blood on the back of the woman’s hand. Buffy knew it instantly. She knew the exact texture of blood just dried and the colour of it in stark moonlight. She averted her eyes, at once unwilling to see, but they could come to rest nowhere but on grass that was dewed a shade too dark.
There was blood everywhere, she realised, her heart pumping. And none of it was hers.
Buffy’s eyes found Beatrix’s once again and stared. “Who are you?” she asked, with a fleeting quaver of fear.
Beatrix smiled back, soft but dark. She replied gently, “Your salvation.”
To Buffy, the words sounded like static, and seemed just as meaningless. She loosed a skittish strand of strength to counter the hold on her hand, but Beatrix resisted, clenching tighter.
“I’m here to help you, Buffy,” she said forcefully.
Buffy’s eyes narrowed, and her fear distilled into fury.
“Haven’t you heard?” she replied. “I stand alone.”
Beatrix reared up with a guttural shriek as the Slayer reversed their grips. She pulled the demon into the water, and toppled after her. The stream was deeper than appearances, and bitterly cold in the night. As they struck the surface, Buffy’s clothes wrapped around her closely, like sodden bandages. She held Beatrix’s neck beneath the surface, and gazed into her gleaming black eyes. The woman only smiled, and in the swollen stream her porcelain skin shone silver.
“You only make us stronger.” Beatrix’s mouth moved, but Buffy wasn’t sure whether the calm, silken voice came from the creature’s mouth or from her own imagination.
There was a wet slap, and Buffy was submersed herself, frigid water clogging her mouth and nose. Cold seized her mind and her lungs burned. She felt broken in two.
Some spark of life tried to flee from her, but she had drowned before, and wasn’t about to die that way again.
Buffy thrust her hands up blindly, clawing for Beatrix’s eyes. There was a screech, and she knew that she had found them. She rolled to a crouch, newfound air coiling down her throat as the night wind cursed her skin. Her hands were still wild and snatching, and they sent the other into the water, allowing Buffy to press her knees down hard upon the demon’s chest.
Beatrix thrashed beneath the surface and her pristine hair flailed now in furious tendrils. Buffy grasped the head they guarded with slipping, skeletal hands and twisted, once. A distorted, serpentine body lay still beneath her.
Silence followed, and water flew from her hands. No sound broke the air apart from a single, muted patter that fell on her left. She turned her head slowly and watched drops plink and wend down the curve of a black, leather boot.
She raised her eyes and blinked her wet eyelashes. The world slid into focus.
As she climbed out of the stream Spike took her hand, and she rested the other on his shoulder. She was wracked with shivers, and for that reason let him hold her. He was only as warm as the night, but he was warmer than she.
He closed his arms around her, and she closed her eyes.
Much later, when the sun had crept past its nadir, they turned and left the murmuring water and the woods behind.