By Sylvia Volk
Summary: Buffy, lost in dreamland.
Insert, here, the usual disclaimers. These characters are the creatures of Mutant Enemy; may those who transform them into their own private monsters, run screaming from the consequences ... grr! Argh!
Warning: gruesome imagery, adult scenes.
It was afternoon in the California desert, washed with white light that looked harsh as Judgement Day. She wore a buckskin jacket, cords, and a thin sweater of beige wool. The girl at her left hand wore Indian cotton with a print of hibiscus and palm-leaves; the boy on her right sported a hideous mango-and-turquoise Hawaiian shirt. She barely looked at them. They watched her, skittish and a little nervous, and she looked away, around, elsewhere. It was a strange habit for a woman so young. It seemed as if she was constantly scanning her surroundings, watching for unknown dangers.
It was an old habit, for her. But there were lines under her eyes these days; she had lost weight, become careworn. (Cordelia would have taken one look and made scathing cracks about the fashionable anorexic look.) All this was new. Her friends guessed at some of the reasons, but most were secret. A shadow lay over her. Forget the sun.
She had dealt with danger and responsibility for years, after all. Now her worries were different . . . drearier, seamier . . . less apocalyptic. Less epic, more sordid. More mucky-grimy.
"'Course, having to raise the Dawnster would put white in any girl's hair. Not that you're just any girl, I mean. I mean, I bet even Primal Slayer Girl would have her hands full with kid sis. Um . . . she's not watching us, is she? Primal Slayer Girl?"
"No," said Tara, "she's in the spirit realm."
"And that's another thing. Spirit realm is not our realm. Spirit realm is a Giles-y kind with the watchiness sort of realm. And what's with this 'shake your gourd' stuff, anyway?"
"I went over it with Giles on the phone five times straight. We'll be just fine."
"Yeah, yeah, you'll be fine. I'll probably get eaten by a Gila monster or something."
"Maybe run over by an off-road vehicle," said Buffy helpfully. She squatted down by Tara, watching her draw the magic circle. "The dunes around here do look kind of ploughed."
"Struck down in my prime . . . You know, I'd die happier if I knew why we were even here."
"There are some things," Tara said, "that men are not meant to know."
"Cop-out," said Xander.
Buffy stretched and popped her back, watching idly as Tara prepared the magic circle. She checked her supplies: a bottle of water, trail mix in a baggie. That was all. "Last time," she told Xander, "a cougar led me across the desert. I met the first Slayer and she told me--" she made a face, "--oh, the usual prophetic weird."
"Wyrd?" said Tara.
"Deeply, madly, truly weird," Buffy agreed. "I'll take dreams over that trip any day. Listen, are you about ready for the gourd-shaking ceremony? 'Cause X and I both have the weekend off, but I was really hoping to get home before the malls open tomorrow morning."
"Almost ready . . . Who's patrolling tonight, then? Spike?"
"Yep." She swallowed. "Spike." Tara merely sighed. As for Xander, the gagging noises he made went on for quite some time.
Tara ignored him. Straight-faced, as solemn as ever, she made the magik preparations, went through the little ritual and then sat down cross-legged on the sand and sipped from a thermos of iced tea. Mesquite wood was burning within a ring of desert stones. Twilight veiled the earth. Night fell. Their little fire went purr and pop-pop-pop. Xander rummaged in the trunk of his car, and emerged with skewers and a bag of marshmallows.
Buffy stood apart, waiting for a sign. When she eventually got tired of waiting, she wandered away across the dunes.
Some time passed. The moon inched across the sky. Coyotes howled in the distance. "Sounds like an Ano-movic demon in mating frenzy," Xander remarked. Stars rose. Stars set . . .
"What's up with Buff?" asked Xander, after the final marshmallow had been devoured, and he and Tara sat on either side of the little fire, licking their fingers clean.
"She's troubled," said Tara.
"What troubles her?"
"I don't know exactly what. I mean, I, um, don't know any of the details and so on. But it's bad, Xander. Really bad. It has her frightened."
"Well, I'm not surprised," said Xander, helping himself to iced tea from Tara's thermos. "Because she's always had a yen for the gloom and doom. I dunno. I've known her for a long, long time, y'know, and if ever a girl had a lasting blue period, it's Buffy. Ever since the days of Angelus--no, even earlier, ever since we met, and even before, getting back into her Early Slayer era and that whole business with being bounced from the cheerleading squad that has obviously had deep-seated psychological repercussions. Nobody alive now witnessed that unhappy day," he went on, warming up to his theme, "but man-o-man, the carnage must have been ghastly. I mean, she's like the Leaning Tower of Depression sometimes--"
He looked at Tara and wiped the expression off his face. "She's right behind me, isn't she?" he said.
"Sure am," said Buffy. "Any marshmallows left?"
She didn't look any different. Perhaps her gaze was a little sleepier, but that was all. "Nope, but here, take this," said Tara, handing over the last of the iced tea. "To fight, um, dehydration. Power bar?"
"God no, it goes straight to my hips."
"And marshmallows don't?"
"They're soul food. As differing from the fatty-acid, fried, and chocolate food groups," Buffy said. "Just as popular, but no evil caloric content." She swigged iced tea, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. ". . . Nothing happened."
"No Hey-Coug?" said Xander.
"Not even a hey-kitty-cat. The powers-that-be were not holding audience and the Wizard wasn't in tonight. I waited and waited and no one showed." She yawned suddenly, deeply. "I'm asleep on my feet. Tara, let's go home."
At home, she sat dozing at the dining-room table, amidst Willow's textbooks on philosophy and cultural anthropology. Buffy turned the pages of one book, idly: Tales of the Werewolves and Vampires was the title. '. . . seeing nothing strange in this,' she read, 'she accepted his ring and went to live with him in the Forest of Varagia. He cut wood for a living, and was also a huntsman. "Do not follow me when I go out at night," was his one command to her, "for I go to hunt the beasts that slay the stock, and you could not endure their eyes and claws." But one morning he came home bleeding, with his hand tied up in a bloody rag . . .'
She had to wash and iron her uniform for the Doublemeat. She had to clean the kitchen floor, make a grocery list, mow the lawn and weed it, and put Kill-up on the ant's nest next to the cellar window. She had to change the sheets on the beds and go through the Internet History folder on Dawn's computer. She had to check the due date on Dawn's library books. She had to patrol, paying extra attention to the old abandoned warehouse on the waterfront, which she suspected of harboring a breeding pair of gargoyles. She had to figure out what to do about Spike.
Buffy's hand slipped off the table. She laid her cheek down on the pages, and dreamed.
. . . She had been living for years in the Forest, and every night Angel kissed her goodbye at the door, shouldered his axe, and went out into the woods. To cut down the trees. To chop up the Bad Guys. And this was of the good, of the very good--in fact, of the goodness extraordinary. At dawn he came home, and they went shopping. To the bank to arrange the mortgage, to the store for the groceries. Plus, regular visits to the post office. PTA meetings too sometimes. It was the life she had always wanted, and she should have been in heaven. If only it hadn't somehow seemed all wrong . . .
And the nights were very long and cold, alone in her little bed.
"Everything's gone whacky," she said, sitting in front of the dressing-table mirror. "Gotta be someone somewhere who can fix it." So she hurried across the bedroom, the heavy tool-belt jingling round her hips; Xander's carpenter's apron felt strange but useable. She brandished the wrench that had Vanquished the Pipes. But Faith merely twirled her booty on the vanity stool, pursed her lips at the mirror and applied lipstick with a knowing hand. Lipstick so red that it was all but black. Lipstick red as blood roses. "That's not the job we had in mind, B. Sonic screwdriver's no good here. Better work is ahead for you."
"I'm not cut out for a beautician's career," said Buffy doubtfully, the wrench in her hand.
"Yeah, I saw the job you did cutting Dawn's hair." Faith turned the mascara brush thumbs-down. "Feeble, sister. But just look at this . . ."
She brandished a crumpled newspaper.
"Gotta keep yourself current," she whispered, pointing out the headline. CHEVALIER MAL FET TRADES HEMINGWAY FOR BARBARA CARTLAND . . . But the print only made sense if Buffy read its mirror image. There was a picture, but it was an undecipherable blur. Faith had drawn a beard and mustache on it, and was now busy with the lipstick, adding fangs and a drool-mark of blood. Then she stabbed the paper through the heart with her hairbrush, and held it up for Buffy to admire. "More Slayers are turning up every day," Faith went on, "itching for your job, B. You know if you stop running, you're standing still."
Her reflection in the mirror was a mask of clay paint, topped by bristling dreadlocks.
The First Slayer.
Her lips moved and a faint voice reached Buffy's ears: "Death is your gift."
"What was that?" Buffy demanded.
"What, what?" Faith was oblivious. "Focus, B. Monster to fight, prince to rescue."
Buffy brightened. "Slayage! Goody." She shucked off the belt and apron, and bent over her weapon bag. What to fight with, what to fight with . . . "What do I have to kill?"
Faith on the vanity stool plucked at her sushi pyjamas, making a disgruntled face. "Why did I ever buy these?" The First Slayer in the mirror was reading the newspaper. "Not killing," said Faith. "Rescue job. See, your true love's tied to the railroad tracks. You have to find him and free him, before . . ."
Buffy was still rummaging. Why had she packed garden stakes and a trowel? Was she a horticulturist now? Still, a good Slayer made do with what she had. "Where is he?"
"Geez. If anyone knew, why would you have to find him?"
Her bedroom window was open, the lace curtains flapping; she hurried toward it. One leg over the sill, one bare foot planted on the old grey shingles of the roof. Oooh, scratchy! A vague sense of wrongness alerted her. She paused, glanced back over her shoulder. Only then did she realize that she was naked.
"Wait!" cried Faith in alarm. "That's not the right way! Come back, come back!"
Buffy stepped out into the Forest.
Spike's face appeared in her mirror. "Baby, I'll always be bad," he said.
1. Angel's Story
It was a Forest of vast green trees, so huge that sun and sky and light could not be seen. Down at ground level there was dimness and leaf-dapples, and the marble gleam of grave-stones. Marble angels jutted, leaning, out of clumps of primeval ferns. It was all the graveyards of her teenage years, but overgrown with venery. When had her Forest turned into a cemetery?
Trowel in hand, Buffy prowled between crypts, and kicked through piles of yesteryear's dead, dry rotting leaves. She tested every step, because she knew there were bear-traps and pits in wait. Which way had Angel gone? She needed to find him. Perhaps he could tell her something, aid her in her quest--
She smiled to herself, fluffed her hair with her fingers. She liked to look pretty for her Angel. Because she loved him so much! She had always adored him, her first real boyfriend, her one and only. That was why she had married him, and let him take over the family business. Why, she had given up her whole inheritance for that man. Too bad Faith had stolen all her makeup--
What was that? Buffy stooped to pick up the picnic basket that lay abandoned in a bank of leaves. Curious, she peered under the lid. And--ta-dah!--there was her lipstick!
A woman's weapon. And here was a compact, and here was a comb. She snapped the compact open instantly--now, at last, she could look at herself--and set about combing her hair. Her long, golden locks. And she was content. Only one thing was missing. Where was the Wolf?
"Oh, Angel!" Buffy ran to him, with the picnic basket over her arm. She flung herself exuberantly into his embrace. "Darling! I missed you! I'm looking for my true love, what's up with that?"
"Well, I'm the Woodsman, so maybe I can help." Angel ran a hand through his hair, setting it all on end. "Let me think, here."
"They said he's tied to the railroad tracks, and-- What's this?" She lifted his hand into the light.
A bloody rag was tied round the palm, wound inexpertly round and round till the raveling ball of cloth concealed his entire hand--fingers and all--and still, drops of dark red slipped out and splattered the greensward at their feet.
"It's gruesome," she said. "What happened?"
"Never mind that." Gently, he disengaged her hold and hid the wounded hand behind his back. "Sit down, honey. This could take a while. It's the Prince you're supposed to rescue, isn't it?"
"They said he was in grave danger."
"Think I know something about this Prince. He's under an enchantment, you see." Angel laid a finger upon her lips. "A curse. He has many forms and faces, he changes as the seasons change. A burning coal, a salmon, a swan--just when you think you've got hold of him, the Wicked Queen will snatch him away."
"The Wicked Queen?"
"Your enemy, wasn't she? I remember the whole story now," said Angel, and Buffy wiggled all over with delight and made herself comfortable, snapping her compact open again. While she made up her eyes, he went on. "The Wicked Queen wanted a champion, to guard the way to the Prince. So she made a Knight out of an empty suit of armor. She sang spells over the virgin steel all one endless night--"
"She brought it to life," said Buffy's own reflection in the compact mirror. Buffy started and snapped the compact shut, then looked furtively at Angel. But Angel had not heard.
"--she created the Pale Knight! The Slayer of Slayers, that's his other name. Made of hollow steel, unstoppable, and hungry for life. He kills everything he comes across, because he knows he's not really a living man. Pinocchio, warped. He's searching for what he himself lacks. Beware. He's your natural enemy, Buffy. But that's not all . . . There's a secret you have to know, before you go up against him. The Queen needed more than an empty suit of armor--she needed something to substitute for the Knight's flesh, something to put in place of the bones. So she took her porcelain doll, and--"
"Oh, I already know all about Miss Edith," said Buffy, though she didn't. Then she blinked. Or did she?
"Beware the Porcelain Knight," said Angel's voice hollowly. "You must win past the Porcelain Knight, before you can find your Prince."
Buffy started to her feet, gripping the picnic basket hard, and took a step or two down the mossy path. "Angel?" she called anxiously. "Where did you go?"
But Angel had completely vanished.
Never mind, she'd find him eventually. Buffy tripped down the pathway, swinging her basket. Picnic basket in one hand, garden trowel in the other . . . She felt ready for anything, just anything. This was a part of the Forest she knew very well. She had planted flowers, shrubbery, ornamental trees, and put up little fences here and there; the fences encouraged butterflies to visit, and the flowers encouraged the sun to shine. Not that she needed sunshine to make herself happy.
Ever since she had turned fifteen, she had felt as if a door was swinging open before her. Delightful possibilities abounded, the world was hers--with all its secret raptures, pleasures that made her melt like ice-cream. These were things that had nothing to do with boyfriends or angels, monsters or men. Honey-sweetness that slid down her throat like liqueur, and left her licking her lips in satisfaction. A warmth and delight that moved her with tremors, like vast shuddery earthquakes deep within. Wonders of earth, storms and tides, cyclones and tempests of the flesh. Sometimes it seemed . . . as if her whole body was dissolving into flowers . . .
What was that? A shadow flickered across the green tapestry of her Forest. Was it a deer, bounding away? But a white stag with a strange head, and a shimmer of starlight upon its brow. A unicorn, Buffy thought, and swerved away from the path. She parted a great clump of ferns, peeped beyond. She thought she saw the unicorn stepping delicately behind a tree. As Buffy hurried after, the magic creature paused to touch its horn to something half-buried in a bank of emerald moss--then its head went up as a twig snapped beneath Buffy's feet, and it flashed away like summer lightning.
She went forward cautiously, standing on tiptoes and peering around. Was that a faint sound she heard? A squeak, emanating from the thick pile of moss tangled with leaves. Ancient gravestones leaned at drunken angles; all of them were topped with gleaming marble angels. Angels with disfigured faces. Buffy glanced down. "Mr Gordo?"
Beaming with happiness at the sight of her childhood toy, she bent over and thrust her hand into the moss. But the instant she did, she saw that she had been wrong. It was no stuffed pig she touched, but a great soft half-wrecked teddy bear lying limp in a welter of fluff and cotton-batten; its head hung to one side, and where its eyes had been, were crude X's of coarse black worsting. Penitent, Buffy stroked its pale velveteen face. "Oooh bear, who beat the stuffing out of you like that?"
". . . lost my spectacles . . ."
She thought she saw the toy's lips twitch as the faint voice reached her ear. Buffy knelt down and began to clear the moss away. Really, it was very thick and overgrown, and all tangled with thorny briars. A thorn stabbed her ring finger, and she licked away the drop of blood that welled from the scratch. "Poor bear. I bet you belong to somebody. I bet some little girl's crying for you right now."
". . . lost my books . . ."
"You're nasty and dirty, but we can clean you up."
". . . lost my eyes, have you seen my eyes, have you . . . ?"
"What happened to you, bear?"
". . . fell into a hole . . ."
Its voice got smaller and smaller, dwindling away; it was like Angel. Buffy bent over and put her ear to the ground. What was it saying? Some kind of story, plainly. ". . . she heard the women in the market talking about the Beast, which had killed three hunters from the castle the previous night. They had been unable to wound it with axe or arrow. Only, one of the king's knights had slashed its paw with his sword, cutting one claw entirely away, and when they went looking for this trophy afterward, they found a man's severed finger lying in a puddle of scarlet gore . . ."
The moss came out in thick clumps, damp and cool but not unpleasant. As she pulled away more and more of it, she realized that the teddy bear was getting bigger every instant. It was now as large as the biggest carnival prize imaginable, and still growing. That meant there was constantly getting to be more of it to uncover. Already, a sizeable pile of moss surrounded Buffy; she was kneeling waist-deep in moss, it was heaped up everywhere. Also the bear seemed to be sinking deeper into the forest loam. Fell into a hole, indeed! Buffy felt peevish; she was never going to get anywhere this way. She looked about for her garden trowel, but it had vanished. The teddy bear, too, had all but vanished by now. Only its doleful voice, fainter than ever, reached her with a few final words: ". . . beware the werewolf . . ."
Furious, Buffy thrust her fingers deep into the springy moss. She had to come to the rescue! She was the Gardener. Again she plunged her stiffened hand into the moss, punched and dug at it. Right over the teddy bear's chest. Her fingers broke through a barrier like the crust on a loaf of bread, into something squishy. Warm. Yielding. Wet. Yellowish and stinking matter welled up around her wrist. Oooh--it was--repulsive!! As she yanked her arm hastily out, green fluid and rotten brown slime gushed after. She had punched a hole right in the ground-- And the hole was spreading. In the blink of an eye, it was eight feet long, four feet wide, a veritable black pit; Buffy fell forward, only catching herself at the last moment with both hands braced on either side--
"Get in there with me," said a deep hoarse voice in her ear.
A man's hands gripped her around the waist, and tumbled her headfirst into the hole.
Then she sat up and fussed with her disheveled clothing, smiling, while the sun shone bright on the flowered meadow and the chequered picnic tablecloth. In her hand she held a large wooden spoon. Bread and marmalade and strawberry jam were there to choose from, and there was a jar marked 'Honey'. Honey. "Honey," she said, "do you want the African Killer, or the domestic blend?"
Angel, lounging beside her, straightened the collar of her blouse. "He's epileptic," he said. "He's like an epileptic circus leopard."
She licked away the honey dripping from her fingertips, and smiled.
"There's a bad moon rising tonight."
Buffy sighed and draped her arms around Angel's neck. She thought of violin music and champagne, and dozens of fat candles flickering brightly, hypnotically. Her mouth opened so softly to his kiss. "I love you," she whispered, all defenses gone, as he tilted her head back and traced the line of her throat with tickling brushes of his lower lip. Infinitely soft against her skin. So terribly affectionate. "I love you for all the good in you. Such goodness. Everything that's noble. You're my hero." Both lips pressed in a kiss at the hollow of her throat, and she let herself hang limp, hands trailing, her body bowed half-across his knee. She felt so helpless in his grasp. Only his silver ring burned cold fire upon her finger, tightening its pincers as his hands opened her clothes. "My hero."
Raven-wings flicked across her vision. The embrace of the ring was sadistic. A circle of tiny teeth, chewing inward. Her lover laid her down across the picnic dishes, head in the basket, the red and white gingham cloth rucked uncomfortably at the small of her back. He picked up her hand tenderly, and drew a V on it, with yellow mustard dipped from the mustard-pot. "You know how the story ends," he said. An L of strawberry jam on the inside of her wrist, an E of grape jelly at the base of her life-line. After each letter, he licked the spoon. A ketchup O traced around the base of her ring finger. Angel cradled her painted hand in both of his and raised it toward his mouth.
She thought vaguely of plastic knives and forks, cutting, cutting, cutting. He had to gnaw the ring off and set himself free of the trap--yes, that was it. Yes. Like a wounded animal snapping at its own leg. "Does it hurt?" he asked her solicitously, and her own voice replied, faint and faraway, "They always say it hurts at first, but then it gets much better." As Angel bit and chewed, her gaze was drawn toward his bandaged hand. She reached for it, vaguely curious. It all seemed very far away--in slow motion, underwater even--but she got hold of a trailing thread, and began to unravel it.
"It's my first time," Buffy told the potato salad. She unwound the bandage, laying Angel's secret bare, and saw that his little finger had been chopped right off by the sword of the king's knight.
She lay in a spreading lake of blood, her husband eating her alive. His whole head was buried in her stomach. Chewing, jerking, yanking savagely at her insides.
Buffy screamed. Angel lifted his head from the puddle of gore that had been her womb, and his face was not a man's, but a beast's.
The heel of her hand snapped his chin back. Her elbow shattered his collarbone and dislocated his shoulder. He roared. Buffy bucked under him. And thwock went her knees into his midsection, catapulting him over and off. As he landed on his back, his shirt split right open. His snout extended, stiff with bristling fangs. Look how his ears grew! And oh how big his eyes. Rank hair sprouted out of his buttonholes, and great curving claws from his crooked fingers. Five claws upon the left hand, and four upon the right. And--and--and--was that a bushy tail, poking out of the seat of his pants?
She screamed again as the werewolf stood upright and fixed her with a mad yellow glare. It padded toward her on naked feet. Then she was up and running, running for her life.
Through the Forest, with her red cloak floating behind her, and her wicker basket over her arm.
Everything whirled around her.
She saw her house, the school, the library go flying up in fragments and explode into the dream-reality of the Forest. Mother had been eaten by the wolf, she knew that somewhere deep down. The big bad wolf. She had lost her stake, and was defenseless. Giles was gone. The worst thing was that there was no enemy to fight--no vamps here, no demons--only the Thing she had mistaken for a good boyfriend. Who was the Big Bad in this bedtime story? There was no way to find out, no way to tell. Who was the Big Bad? Who?!?
She plowed to a stop on the brink of the abyss, windmilled her arms frantically. Balancing on her heels, she teetered wildly to and fro. At last she toppled.
She landed plump upon the vanity stool.
Back in her own bedroom, with her own image in the mirror gazing wildly at her. The mirror. "The key is the mirror," said her own mouth, reflected, and Buffy understood that the mirror was a liar. A swift glance over her shoulder showed her the Beast climbing through the bedroom window. Slaver drooled from its grinning jaws, yellow saliva and froth splashing on the pink flowered carpet. With a bound, it gained the bed, crouched astraddle her fluffy pillows and the immaculate lace-edged coverlet, threw back its head and howled till the roof rang.
It had no reflection.
Buffy leaped at it, enraged.
For an instant, the Beast sprawled threshing across her lap, and Buffy looked into its red-rimmed eyes and saw evil. Then they were wrestling, grappling madly--she was pinned across the bed all helter-skelter, kicking out her feet, shoving its pointed muzzle away from her throat. It was on top of her, heavy and hot. Snap snap went its teeth, inches from her face--hot saliva flecked her skin--its claws scrabbled amidst the chintz sheets and hooked snarls in her crochet pillow-covers. Ripping them to shreds! Making a wild animal's den out of her bed! Buffy heaved. Then she was flying head over heels, tumbling toward the vanity mirror.
One last nightmare glimpse of the werewolf springing after her. Then into the mirror she went. As she hit the glass, a shimmering ripple passed over the entire surface. She went straight through, leaving not a single crack behind--into a world of radiant light.
Now who would show her the way to her true love?
Continued in 2. Spike's Story