The leaves had been green not long before. When they'd been green, she'd still been lost to them all.
The crowds wandered even at this late hour, as if they had no where else to go-as if they actually didn't want to go home to their warm radiators and televisions. Shopping bags in gloved hands, the rushing sound of cars in the streets. The smell of ice and car exhaust. It was a lonely city in the winter.
He turned down a smaller street, away from the glaring of the neon lights of a Chinese restaurant and into the greyness of a row of townhouses. With every one, the carefully carved woodwork fell into further decay. It was as if they were really the same building, caught in time, in each stage of decomposition, until, blocks down the street with the identical doors and beau windows and murky, stained glass in them with plywood nailed behind, they became hardly a shell of what they once were.
He thought of such things, more and more. These side streets were eerie and empty, now, away from the Christmas-shopping crowds. The light crept under a poorly seated door, spilling over the sidewalk, and onto the jet black of a pool of water there. He stepped through it, unseeing, and the light shattered into whirling ripples with the impact.
Sleet started stronger now, as he turned through a narrow alley, beside the weathered bones of a stunted maple tree, the roots strangled and starved beneath the pavement. A single brown leaf shook and trembled on the end of a weak branch, as he brushed it with his shoulder.
That leaf. It had been green, not long before. It had been green when she had been gone.
He entered the narrow, dark alleyway, the walls looming close in their blackened brick. The surface was sloughing off steadily through neglect and the sheets of acid rain, and made a mist of muddy red clay on the cracked asphalt, that was really mostly earth and the straining, brown grasses.
There was a narrow space, in the end of the alley, between the buildings, and that's where the slanted, metal doors rusted out alone. A red frisbee, bleached pinkish from sun and weather, forgotten by whoever had left it there, lay flat beside it, the indented ridge of the rim gathering the water that fell in suffocating sheets from the indistinct mass of sky, hanging low above.
He took his key from his pocket with cold fingers. He turned it in his hands a moment, as he knelt to work the lock. And the familiar sound of it springing open filled the air. He pulled the chain away, and opened the doors that were like the gate to the grave.
He stepped gently down the rotting, bent stairwell, painted a greyish blue that was rubbing away. The light of the single bulb was still on. He liked to keep it on for her. She shouldn't only be in darkness, though she always hid from it, shied away from even the palest glow and hid herself in the corner shadows.
For a moment, the silence was total, and a fear shot through him that she had escaped. But the dull rattle of chains, at his approach, stilled him again.
"Hey," he said, his tone full of strangled tenderness.
Nothing from that corner, past the television he'd rigged up, on a crate. Past the chair with the stuffing falling out. Past the paperbacks he meant to read but couldn't seem to focus on. But he could sense her there now, tensed, against the wall.
He picked up a bottle from the floor, slipped it into his pocket idly as he stepped towards her. And there was the rattled again, and a wheezing, snarling cry.
"It's ok," he said again, calmly, "It's ok. you know I don't hurt you."
And they would have. The ones that called themselves friends. If he hadn't found her exactly when he did. They never used guns to slay their monsters. But Willow had been seconds from shooting what came back in its misshapen skull, when he found them.
He sometimes worried he hadn't run far enough. But they didn't follow. Certainly they would have found them, by now, if they had been looking.
"The Christmas lights are all out on the green," he said, kneeling down on the floor a few feet from that black shadow.
"You humans and your holidays," he said, "Trying so hard to be other things all the time. We don't need to pretend."
Another rattling, and a wave of soft, long hair caught the light a moment, scattered over the thin, white skin that stretched in some places over the bone. She was breathing hard. He almost thought she didn't recognize him. He was thinking it more and more as the weeks and months crawled on.
"Always wanting to be something else," he continued, his voice straining. He tried to control the pain in his chest, the sinking twist in his gut that made him want to weep again. He had to keep going for her.
"Remember, luv," he said, laughing quietly under his breath at the memory, "Remember Halloween? You wanted to be an old fashioned lady. Frothy pink satin creature, you were. Bloody ridiculous dress. But somehow, you pulled it off, I think. And of course you kicked my ass. You always did, didn't you?"
He said it with something like pride in her.
"You did it right and proper, you did," he continued, "You couldn't lose. Not you. You never lose."
She moved, and he saw that her shoulders were shaking. He could see them now, in the pale shaft of streetlight that flew through a thin basement window. The straight jacket's thick duckcloth was chewed half through. But he couldn't bear to restrain her any further. It was enough to bind her to the wall, and even so he was half afraid she'd tear herself to pieces if she ever got loose.
"Funny pet, but they feel like good times, looking back. Don't you remember?"
Her face was covered in her hair, and she shrank back again. She was trembling. Crying, again. And he suddenly saw the dull grey future for them, year after year, if he couldn't get her to remember.
But the crying had to mean something-if she wept then she felt, too, and felt that she should weep. There was something in there that knew to cry, and that was a radiant hope to him in the greyness of the basement.
And her eyes-- her eyes were her own, hazel and changeable and shining, with tears or madness. But not with nothing. She could remember. She was in there. Part of her was her and he could wait-wait forever, if he had to. And he had to. He absolutely, absolutely had to.
"Don't you remember the dress? Buffy?"
He reached out his hand, white in the darkness, towards her, and she froze, and he knew he was watching him through her hair. Those tiny shoulders froze in their quivering, and she was scarcely breathing. He inched closer.
When he touched her papery cheek, pulled back her hair and revealed the terrible devastation beneath. The decay that the spell hadn't recovered, she just looked at him a moment, the beauty of her eyes gleaming with tears.
He didn't mean it to, but hope-pure hope burst up in his heart again. This could be the moment. If not this one, the next moment. Or the moment after. Until Forever. There was always tomorrow, and he smothered the voice inside him that screamed out, in black cynical tones that mocked him always, that tomorrow never comes.
And he stroked what was her cheek, then, gently, with one finger, tracing the lines of her tears. And it was warmth, and beauty enough for Forever, and it filled him with light all over again.
Her paralysis snapped and shattered, like a row of icicles on a store awning collapsing to the pavement. She started violently, and bit his hand hard, a thin whine shrilling out of an otherwise mute throat.
She sank her teeth deep and he couldn't pull free, and his blood ran down his wrist as he struggled back from her, reaching into his pocket for the bottle he'd slipped there, as he approached, faltering popping the lid and pouring the liquid over a handkerchief he'd kept close.
Pulling with all his force, he wrenched his hand free, the impact throwing her head back against the wall. But she was up again, straining on the chains, snarling now at him with her strangely sharp, skeletal teeth. But he was on her then with the chloroform, and she bit and struggled and was almost too much for him even then. And he tried not to look at her, tried not to think about it as she collapsed into his chest, unconscious and asleep with innocence like a child.
And he kissed her then, like a child. And wasn't she like a child, now? And needed him more than anyone had ever needed him, when it was just the two of them against the world.
And there was tomorrow to look towards.
But even so, looking over the darkness of their spare room, and the veil of her hair in a pool on his chest, he had the strangest sensation he'd had quite enough for today.