By Annie Sewell-Jennings
The wind whispered through the trees with calmness, softly rustling the summer leaves and gently loosening the blossoms from their boughs, bringing down a gentle rain of pastels onto the green grass of the cemetery. Gravestones carved from marble and angels sculpted of stone were dusted with minute pastels in violet and in pink, beautiful and gentle. It was a scene that seemed almost holy in its ethereal light, and there was a perfumed sweetness in the air that seemed projected by the calm inside of her body. She stood before a gravestone, looking at the antiquated scripture that marked the body of a Sunnydale resident, and felt a sudden eerie shiver up her spine, as though she was walking on her own grave.
A voice startled her from behind. "What are you doing, Buffy?"
Startled, Buffy turned around to see Willow standing there, dressed in a long pink satin skirt and a white tee shirt, her slender throat decorated by a candy necklace. Sheepishly, Buffy shrugged, a little embarrassed. "Enjoying my own morbid fascination with how pretty tombstones are," she confessed, and Willow gave her a quirk of her mouth, threading her arm through her best friend's.
"And your mother says you have no appreciation for fine art."
Grinning, Buffy joined her friend, eyes still lingering on the tombstone that had unsettled her with its very presence.
The two girls threaded through familiar tombstones, Willow's satin skirt swishing back and forth with the percussive sound that only water and satin could ever produce. "So how's living with your mom working out?" Willow asked, and Buffy grinned, stuffing her hands in the pockets of her light suede jacket, shrugging her shoulders a little.
"Working out well," she admitted. "Mom's been on the June Cleaver bend, with the exception of the fact that she's not baking brownies 24/7, which I'm *very* grateful for. Otherwise, I'd never leave the house and vampires would run amuck."
Willow frowned and shook her head. "The absence of chocolate is actually a good? I think that Satan just put on mittens."
Grinning, Buffy lightly elbowed her friend and Willow giggled. "Seriously though, I think that Mom's grateful to the fact that I'm home during this time, what with all the stuff going on in Taiwan. I don't know who told her that someone was going to press the button, but they deserve some major slaying, ASAP." Joyce's concerns over her daughter's safety and the general safety of the world had been bothering the Slayer, as though her mother's paranoia was an inherited trait that could be transferred over through osmosis.
A shiver passed through the redheaded witch's body, and Willow wrapped her arms around her, visibly disturbed by the whisper of a mention of the politics going on around them. Buffy understood her fears, understood the eerie sensation of lying in wait, and it was what propelled her to Slay with such frequency. Helplessness and hopelessness were two states of mind that Buffy didn't want to cope with, and she had been feeling increasingly useless as the standoff between America and China intensified. Televisions were turned on everywhere, and even the Bronze had started to show CNN all day and all night on a TV set to keep the Sunnydale citizens updated on the situation. Someone had whispered of sirens being strategically placed in the town in the event of an emergency. Just in case...
//Ring around the rosy...//
The child's nursery rhyme flitted through her head with a suddenness that was disturbing and upsetting, and Buffy snapped her eyes open, shuddering and wrapping her arms around herself as she walked with Willow in the cemetery. The slabs of stone and molded marble gazed at her forlornly, and Willow turned her head to her best friend, tilting her face to the side with worry and concern. "You okay, Buffy?" the girl asked, her red hair flaming around her face in a conflagration of red, and Buffy suddenly saw a flash of the girl dead, skeletonized and reduced to nothing but a bone structure where a girl had once been. It was brief, fleeting, but it was still there.
"No," Buffy whispered. "Just..." She shook her head and turned away, refusing to linger on her rampant and paranoid imagination. The slideshow of morbidity wasn't going to get her down. Not today. Not now. She had a life to live and a job...
A scream broke the air, and Buffy snapped her head up, eyes darting across the cemetery. She removed the stake tucked into the waistband of her fashionably frayed blue jeans and raced across the graveyard, her hair flying behind her in a banner of pure gold, speeding toward the sound of the cry.
The source of the cry was a young girl in a colorful dress being attacked by a vampire, black hair fanning across his face and still in his burial garb. He snarled and dropped the girl, blood splashing out from the sloppily-opened jugular, running for her with the stupidity of the newly risen. Instantly, Buffy rolled underneath him as he lunged for her, gracefully rising as Willow ducked behind a gravestone. The Slayer pulled the stake out and stabbed him swiftly, cleanly in the back, watching as the vampire spun around with a stunned expression, startled at his sudden disappointment with immortality, and fell to pieces.
Buffy took no time to gloat over her victory, turning instantly to the girl who had been attacked. Dashing across the grass, Buffy leaned down and looked down at the girl, realizing with a numbing horror that the girl had been drained to the point of no return. "Willow, go get help!" the Slayer called, and the redhead sucked in a sharp breath upon seeing the awful wound on the young woman's neck. When the witch didn't move, Buffy whipped her head around and looked at her friend with a desperate glance. "Now!" Startled back into motion, Willow stumbled away, running through the graveyard for help.
The girl gasped as she lay there, her eyes wide as a doe's, smudged with shadows of embracing death, and Buffy smoothed the girl's hair with her hand, pressing her other palm to the slowly dying fountain of blood gushing from the girl's destroyed throat. "You're going to be fine," Buffy soothingly said, not believing the lies that she had concocted to protect the dying girl, and the girl shook her head slowly, wearily, gazing past the Slayer towards the stars.
"Not gonna be fine," the girl murmured, razors of brown falling down her brow to cover her eyes. "None of us gonna be fine."
//Pocketful of posies,// the childlike voice sang insistently inside of her mind.
Disturbed, Buffy frowned, feeling her skin crawl across her bones at the girl's dreamy despair. "Just hold on, stay with me," she urged desperately, watching blood spill forth from the girl's mouth to stain her lips the color of disemboweled strawberries. The color was passionately beautiful, as though death was always colored so brilliantly and boldly, and Buffy felt her stomach twist in knots while she held the dying girl in her arms. "Please, just hold on..."
Slowly, the girl's mouth trembled, not out of fear, but out of utter desolation. "Doesn't matter," she murmured. "Doesn't matter... I'll just die later on... Anyway..." Her voice lowered to nothing more than a murmur, and Buffy had to strain to hear it, lowering her ear to the girl's mouth, feeling the liquid silk brush her ringed earlobes. The words that she spoke combined with the sensation of the girl's spilled blood made Buffy feel as though she had been turned inside out.
"We're all gonna die now."
And with that, the girl's breath hitched in her chest, and she gasped loudly, startling Buffy so that she jerked her head back, looking down at the brunette as the life slowly ebbed out of her, eyes glazing and breath stilling. "No," Buffy whispered, removing her hand from the girl's throat, looking at the red staining the palm, and she felt like crying for the loss of this innocent victim. "Oh, no..."
It was too late.
The water was clear carmine, transparent and translucent, as the blood slowly poured from her hands and thinned in the plain tap water. Furiously, Buffy rubbed her hands underneath the faucet, her fingertips wrinkled and pruned from soaking, and her skin smelled heavily of peaches and bananas as she tried to clean her skin of the girl's blood. Streaks of it were found in her hair, and her palms were stained with borrowed stigmata. Numbly, she looked in the mirror, seeing the brunette's despairing, hopeless eyes reflected back at her in her own seafoam-colored orbs.
Startled and hurt, Buffy turned away from the mirror, fingers dripping blood-tinted droplets of water onto the tiled floor as she walked out of the bathroom.
Her mother stood in the hallway, hair tumbling to her shoulders in piles of fallen curls, lines marking her face with gentle etchings of time and worry. Concern pinched her soft mouth, and Joyce reached out her hands to touch her daughter, smoothing Buffy's hair away from her shoulders in a gesture of concern. "Are you going to be okay, honey?" her mother asked, and Buffy slowly wrapped herself in her mother's embrace, touching her cheek and noticing the ashen color of blonde that Buffy had inherited. United by their hands and their hair, by their stubbornness and smiles, and by their joint love of papaya. "I know how it must have felt for you..."
Softly, Buffy shook her head, resting her cheek on her mother's slender shoulder, inhaling the familiar scent of jasmine perfume and coconut oil conditioner, and Joyce soothingly stroked her daughter's hair as Buffy clung to her. "She said that there wasn't any point," Buffy murmured, remembering the words that the dying girl had whispered to her on a breath of final air. "That it was sooner or later for us..."
"Oh, Buffy," Joyce said softly, hugging her daughter tightly to her. "It's not going to come to that, I promise you. There's no need to worry about it." Gently, she pulled away from her daughter and Buffy saw the gentle waves of the Pacific in her mother's eyes. The eyes that she had inherited, only her eyes would never be so clear and tranquil. There was always a storm brewing inside of Buffy. "There's no point in thinking about it. Everything's going to be fine, sweetie. Go to bed and get some sleep - you need that right now."
//Ashes, ashes...// the frail soprano murmured, and Buffy saw her mother, hands clasped in prayer to a God that knew no mercy, eyes closed with utmost benevolence, falling to her knees in the wrath of a God that fell in radioactive clouds. She bit down her lip to keep from flinching, to keep from screaming, and Buffy closed her eyes, exhaling deeply, loosening the thought from her mind and releasing it from her imagination.
When she opened her eyes, she saw her mother again, soft face and gentle ashen hair, beautiful and tender, and Buffy smiled a wavering smile at her. "Right, Mom," she said softly. "You're right." After giving her mother a soft kiss on the cheek, Buffy turned around to walk in her bedroom, the blood of the girl still imbedded in the whorls and spirals of her fingerprints.
June breezes blew in from outside as Buffy slid her window open, the curtains billowing and dancing across a canvas of stars and winding branches. The perfumed scent of the outdoors in humid summertime wafted through the open window, and Buffy let it drift inside of her room, mulling and turning like the bouquet of a good wine. She leaned out the window, looking down at the world in its sweet lull of night, in its quietude that was deceptive and traitorous. Quietly, she looked down at her hands and read the misfortune of the girl still sunken into her fingers. She still heard the whisper of the girl's voice as she got in bed and pulled the covers over her body, turning on her side, away from the open window.
//We all fall down...//
Red, carmine pure and malevolent, pulsated thickly and angrily. Lightning descended from the sky with a fury so thick that it encompassed rather than struck, surrounding all who witnessed it. Dead grass crackled, broken slabs of marble and stone tumbled and crumbled to the ground, and blackened branches clawed to the ground before disintegrating into nothing but rotted wood.
Barefoot, she walked through the ruins of the cemetery, naked and crowned with a halo of thorns that dug into her skull and poured blood down her body in rivulets of red. The sky was stained the color of blood from the masses that had been slaughtered, and she walked on a carpet of skulls and soot, blackening her feet and cutting into her heels, leaving a red trail wherever she walked. She was bleeding everywhere, draining herself, and she continued to walk through the scarred angels and the charred cherubs.
Nude as well, her skin a soft wash of light vermilion, the vampire sat in a circle of tumbled tombstones, scattering runes on the grass with absent grace, the runes falling with a sound that was likened to a porcelain waterfall. The runes cascaded down from her outstretched palm, her raven hair shimmering with the light of the bloodied skies, and her mouth moved without making a sound. Complicated twists and curls flickered and flashed like a live being, a Medusa made of silk. Red rose blossoms threaded through her hair, the petals descending from her dark locks in a soft rain whenever she moved, like she was unfurling and shedding.
Slowly, the girl crouched down by the vampire, entering the circle and dragging her bloodied train behind her. Slowly, the vampire looked up at the girl, luminously empty eyes smiling serenely at the blonde crowned with thorns. "Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down," she sang softly, slightly off-key, like wind chimes. Slowly, the girl looked down at the runes that the vampire had scattered on the ground, and found them all blank. No inscriptions were written on the ivory.
"These runes are blank," the girl murmured, and the vampire smiled at her, rose petals falling from her thick mane of twists and curls.
"What good are runes when we have no future to foresee?" the vampire said absentmindedly, and she slowly began to bury the runes underneath a pile of dried earth, creating a makeshift grave for her fortune-telling materials. "Bury it all, no need for it now..."
Clouds moved overhead with the speed of comets and meteors, passing the scorched earth by for better pastures, and the girl tilted her head backwards to drink in the sight. "Who stole our future?" she asked, and the vampire shrugged her slender shoulders, shedding rose petals like a beautiful thing left to wither and die.
"Miss Edith and I aren't staying for the ball," she said absently, her voice light and airy. "We're going to go be sharks in the reefs. We're going to swim and survive. We're going down under and wait until it's all over, and then we're going to paint new toys and cast the runes again."
Images of blue skies unmarred by the violence of red, of bridges and reefs that were visible from underneath clear layers of water, of cliffs that glittered like emeralds and a city alight with possibility. A city safe from the world's insanity, a city with painted runes rather than the horrid ghosts of fortune, and a city where she could be protected. Not this horrible, ruined place where all life ceased to exist.
Quietly, the girl and the vampire stood and faced each other, one shedding rose petals from mahogany lit with flame, the other spilling blood from her pure golden hair. They examined each other, the vampire and the human, and the vampire smiled slowly, placing her hand on the other girl's shoulder. "The world is a silly place," she said. "I don't fancy it."
The bleeding girl, the martyr crowned with thorns, shook her head as a blackened angel looked on. "I don't understand..."
Bombs falling from the skies like a rain of fire. People screaming and falling to their knees, blasted apart as the bombs hit. Cities crumbling like houses of cards, death and disease sweeping the lands, the winter approaching with its blanket of nuclear fallout, and the world dying a slow and miserable death. Her lover wandering the world dressed in black before stepping into sunlight. Her friends standing in the middle of red bombs. Her mother bowed in silent prayer before being shattered apart.
And with that, the vampire darted out her hands and crushed the thorns to the girl's head, the thorns digging into her scalp and wrenching a strangled cry from the girl as blood spurted down her face and stained her hair.
Drusilla smiled. "Wear them *well*."
"The world is going to end," she said to them, and silence fell as she stared out the window.
Daylight felt like an intruder on her skin, something unnatural and unreal, the world so whole and complete as she walked outside. Sunshine and butterflies, summertime kids laughing and playing in sprinklers, wearing neon-colored bathing suits as they frolicked in wet grass. Innocently, beatifically, beautiful little children with their hair of gold and hands like tiny cherubs. Chasing each other and pretending at war, when they had no idea of the threat that faced them with utmost certainty.
But she did.
Softly, she pushed the curtain back with her fingertips, letting the linen descend as they stared at her. She felt their eyes on her, felt the shock and the horror as it pressed down on her with an intense suffocation. Numbed, Buffy spoke with flat intonations, a monotone devoid of the emotion that she had swallowed in order to carry this to them. "I dreamed of it last night. I dreamed of Drusilla in the graveyard, burying blank runes, talking about how she and Miss Edith were going down under and that we were all fools."
"And if Drusilla calling us fools isn't a perfect display of hypocrisy, I don't know what is," Xander quipped, and no one replied. She couldn't do anything but look out the window at the children playing in the sprinkler, watching the water flood on their smooth skin.
"The war will escalate," Buffy continued, and all attention was lavished on her once again. "Peace talks will fail. The President will assure that everything's fine, but no one will back down. Taiwan will press the button first, and we'll retaliate. Everything goes. The whole world goes up in flames." Darkly, despairingly, she turned her head out to look at the others in the room. "And there's nothing we can do to stop it."
The scene was an assembled mass of shock. Giles stood in his cranberry sweater, a handkerchief pressed to his glasses that remained smudged in lieu of what she had said. Willow's fingers threaded through Tara's with an intensity, the two girls looking fearfully at Buffy. A head of strawberry blond rested on Xander's shoulder as Anya closed her eyes, and Xander looked at her with a sudden seriousness, realizing that there was nothing funny about anything Buffy was saying.
"Good God," Giles finally said. "Buffy..."
Her eyes lifted up to her ex-Watcher's, seeing the familiarity and the warmth, the trust and the respect looking back down at her. "There's more than that, Giles," she said. "We have to get away from here. We're not safe here; nobody is. We need to go to Australia before it all goes down. It's where Drusilla said she was going."
She was met with silence, silence as they stood there, looking at her with worry and concern tinted with palpable fear. Startled, Buffy looked around the room, realizing with horror that they didn't believe her. Desperately, Buffy walked to Giles, looking into the eyes of the man she had grown to love and trust more than anyone else in the world. "Giles, you have to believe me," she whispered. "I know that it sounds crazy, but it's true."
Softly, Giles shook his head, placing his hand on her shoulder gently, looking into her eyes without ever seeing the truth. "Buffy, I understand that you're afraid," he said. "We've all been having these nightmares. They aren't necessarily prophetic, what with the influences of the media. And witnessing that poor young girl's death last night must have been quite traumatic..."
Frustrated, she shrugged his hand off, her heart racing when she realized what was happening around her. They thought that she was overreacting, that she was insane with fear, and they thought that her visions were merely flights of fancy and not of any portent. Pleadingly, she walked to Tara, looking into the demure blonde witch's gentle blue eyes and hoping for some sort of refuge or confirmation. "Tara," Buffy said, picking up the young woman's hand and threading it through her own, "you're in touch with the spiritual realm more than any of us. Don't you see things? Don't you dream?"
Uncertainly, Tara looked out the window, her eyes clouding over with what Buffy thought was hidden knowledge, but Tara closed her eyes, bowing her head so that a braid of fine gold fell in her eyes, tied with a small peacock feather. "N-no," she said. "I don't... I don't see anything like that, B-Buffy."
A hand with painted fingernails swept sweetly through Tara's hair, and Buffy looked up to see Willow soothing her lover, her eyes darkened and clouded with worry and fear. "Buffy, I understand," Willow said, looking in her friend's eyes and trying to make her understand that her dreams were lies. "It's terrible what's going on in the world around us, but you can't just tell us that we have to pack up our lives and move to Australia - it's insane."
A flash of remembered lightning crackled through Buffy's mind, bringing visions of Willow descending to the floor in a pile of ash, her head tossed back in a disarrayed flurry of vermilion, clutching her lover's body to hers as the women were destroyed by a blast of nuclear proportions. Hissing in her breath, Buffy turned her head away from her collected friends and looked at Xander. "Xander," she whispered, and Xander shook his head, eyes stormy and thick.
"Buffy, I think that you're starting to scare everyone," he said, and Buffy groaned, walking away to the center of the room, pleading with everyone to listen to her.
"I know you think I'm crazy," she said, "but I know what I saw. I *know* that there's not going to be some happy-ever-after ending to this. I see things in daylight, in waking. I dream of them at night. The whole world's falling apart right now and I'm giving us a solution that no one wants to accept! Please, just listen to me..." All that she saw was Giles's sadness, Willow's fear, and Xander's anger. She heard Anya whisper to Xander about the Slayer finally having lost it, and she saw Tara's fearful eyes, and Buffy knew then and there that it was hopeless.
It was over for all of them. They were living on dying time, waiting for the sands to filter through the hourglass and the glass to then shatter. She could see it all, knew the truth, and knew in her heart that there was nothing that she could do to convince them. Fear twisted her stomach and destroyed her insides, making her sick from the hellish notion that they would all be dead in weeks, and she closed her eyes briefly, hearing the sound of sirens that only she could hear. Like Cassandra, she was cursed to know the future, and no one else wanted to believe her.
"Fine," she whispered, opening her eyes to look at the room. Buffy gave a wavering smile, and walked to the door, her fingers shaking from the force of the terror freezing her veins. "You're all probably right. I'm just... Upset. I need to go home and get some sleep, and not watch the news for a while. I just need to get myself under control and... I'll be okay."
Giles approached her, and she looked into the familiar, worn lines of his face, the softness of his eyes behind glass, the stray strands of hair that were slightly grayed with silver falling across his brow, and she wanted to cry. "I think that's a very good idea, Buffy," he said softly, and she had to look away. Had to shut out the visions of him dead. Had to.
Softly, she smiled, and walked away, not looking back. Never looking back.
The night fell slowly, achingly slowly, and until then, she sat in the graveyard, in a circle not of blank runes, but of fallen greenery, of boughs of wildflowers that had grown up around a grave. Her legs were crossed Indian-style, and she felt the twilight move in, deepening the sky to an almost violet hue, wind murmuring through the trees and ruffling her hair. A dead calm had befallen her as she waited for midnight, the wooden stake in her hand as she waited for the time to pass.
And when the night finally came, when the hour was late enough and the world was asleep, she began to walk toward her Watcher's house.
Her choice was difficult. Her world was dying. The duffel bag filled with her belongings weighted heavily on her shoulders as she walked, dragging her back in time to the last day she had left Sunnydale in such a fashion. Remembering the feeling of not being good enough to stay, of sinning so heavily that she could never return, and knew that her crimes this time would outweigh even murder. Betrayal was her greatest burden.
The garden outside of his house had flourished in the summertime, and Buffy stood in the middle of it, inhaling the various perfumes of oleander and lilac, and looked at his house with the heartbreaking knowledge that she would never return. There would be time to regret later on, but never an opportunity to redeem herself for what she was going to do. She knew what sort of life she was condemning herself to for this, and she accepted it with a shrug of her shoulders and a tilt of her chin as she walked into his house in the middle of the night for the last time.
Darkness surrounded her as per usual, as she had never been meant for daylight. Silently, she tiptoed through his house, almost praying for him to walk out of the bedroom and find her, and Buffy walked to the small aluminum box in his laundry room, lifting the lid and looking at the cash that she would need for her escape. Green paper stamped with the faces of dead presidents looked at her forlornly, at the product of this country that was damning itself to death, and Buffy resignedly reached inside and took it all. Over three thousand dollars disappeared from Giles's emergency cash, and she robbed him with unwavering hands.
She didn't leave a note. She didn't leave a calling card. All that she left was a stake, a sign of her resignation and retirement from her fated trade, because where she was going Slaying wouldn't matter. She closed the lid slowly and locked it up again, and when she turned around, she saw Drusilla again, the black-haired vampire nude and showering dying rose petals on the ground, as the thorns bit into the Slayer's skull. Instead of the rest of Giles's laundry room, Buffy saw that the vampire was gesturing to a world of dingy streets and sullen fog, beckoning Buffy to walk with her into the desolation of her future, the blank runes carving a path of white porcelain.
Quietly, Buffy stood, the duffel bag heavy on her shoulders, and followed.
(end part nine)
Continued in Part Ten