Willow's still chanting. Three tries and still no presto-whammo-soul.
You sigh, leaning back against the wall as Willow slumps between her pillows.
"Whew, that was—" she begins, only to be cut off by an awful thundering roar.
Your eyes widen as you look from Willow to Oz; you all know what it means, but no one wants to say it aloud.
"He did it," you blurt. "He awakened Acathla."
Well, you've never been shy about the truth, why start now?
Willow sucks in a breath and begins fighting the sheets as she slides from the bed, Oz immediately there to steady her.
You grab your bag, following as they head down the hallway to the front entry of the hospital.
You pause when they turn left.
Left. In the direction of the mansion.
"Where are you going? The car's that way," you cry, gesturing to the right where your car is parked about 500 yards away.
"We've gotta help Buffy," Willow replies simply, as if no other course of action even occurred to her.
"Willow—" you begin, pausing at the uncharacteristically fierce glare in Oz's eyes. You purse your lips—lying never helps—and continue: "There's probably not a Buffy left to help."
Willow sobs as she crumples in Oz's embrace.
"Take it back!"
"I'm sorry, Willow." Truth is: you really are. "But if you want to join the suicide pact, I'm out."
"Cordy…" Oz interrupts, but doesn't continue.
You meet his gaze with sorrow; you know he won't leave Willow alone in this, and part of you thinks all the more of him for it.
"There's a time to fight…and a time to run. And this fight's too big for me." You apologize with your eyes as you give a little wave.
"Good luck." Oz's voice follows you as you turn and walk away.
You don't bother to return the sentiment; they'll need more than luck.
Squaring your shoulders, you stride across the hospital parking lot.
You knew hanging out with freaks and losers would come back to bite you.
Then again, the outcome probably would've been the same, freaks or no.
Still, in hindsight, you should've stuck with your standards, which is why you're tearing yourself away from Willow's resolve face and Oz's knowing nod…
…and getting the hell out of Dodge.
Or Sunnyhell, whichever comes first.
But as you're skittering down the sidewalk—and damn the fashion industry for three-inch heels—towards the parking lot, you almost collide with her, huge blue eyes set in a pale face, blood splatter against her cheeks and Hello Kitty t-shirt. She's wearing a too-big jacket that's way too familiar—you'd recognize the knock-off from Buffy's wardrobe anywhere—and she's sobbing, sniffling and wiping at her nose, repeating one word that swells in your stomach and threatens to bring you to the ground: "M—Muh—Mom."
You pause—yeah, it's the end of the world but you're not completely heartless—and push sweaty strands of mousy-brown hair from her face as you crouch until you're at eye-level.
You set your jaw, raise your chin in determination, and she mimics the gesture, biting her lip to stop the tears.
"Heroes get killed," you force through your lips. "Survivors get away."
Blue eyes study you intently, and for a moment, you fear you'll fall short, not enough, never enough, but after a moment, she nods, and small cool fingers slip into your hand.
You squeeze, and pull her to the car.
You never get the whole story, but you can't help but feel a tightening in your chest when you think of Joyce.
She was always nice to you.
You find a group of survivors outside of Baker, end-of-the-worlders with more bottled water and tinned sardines than sense, you'd have said once-upon-a-time. Now, you're grateful they take you in.
They're holed up underground, in mines abandoned years ago.
It's funny, you think, how the world has flipped head-over, the food chain grown longer, and now humanity creeps around beneath the soil like vermin while the monsters roam the streets.
You don't fight, but you do your part, scavenging for supplies among the rubble, a breath and a prayer all that keeps you from becoming some scaly behemoth's breakfast.
And in the midst of it all, you try to keep an "almost eleven" year old girl safe.
Something inside broken and dimmed, she looks to you for everything, expectation in her gaze, like she wants you to fix it, wants you to snap your fingers, wave a once-well-manicured hand, and put the world back on its axis.
But you can't.
No one can.
So you hold her close, tiny limbs shivering in the still of the night against your own. And when she cries out for her "Mommy", you dry your tears in her hair.
Maybe humans are closer to cockroaches on the evolutionary scale than previously thought, because you continue to live.
Not all of you, of course; monsters pick off many of those daring enough to venture into the cities for supplies, disease and hunger take care of a few, and others, well…
…you don't like to think about what people are capable of doing to each other.
Still, you continue.
You get to know the other survivors: Eli, the self-appointed leader of the "resistance", a greasy-spoon fry cook turned warrior in a blood-stained apron; Marcus, a medical intern who splits his time between patching and sewing up the wounded, treating the common cold and giving booster shots; "Aunt Nattie", as she liked to be called, a forty-something-year-old woman with more wrinkles than teeth and a knack for making anything edible…
People you never would have looked at twice before, saving your life every day.
She signs up for weapons-training the day she turns thirteen.
You rant and rave, scream and bitch, fear coursing through your limbs like mini-tornadoes, limbs flailing, pacing the floor, remembering that awful sound when the fabric of the world was torn like a pair of jeans from Smallmart, Homecoming and Prom and dresses and makeup and boyfriends all ripped away in the blink of an eye, and all you can think about is her, the one thing left, the one thing you've built your life around, the only person left who knows…
And she stands there while you explode, her jaw jutted out in an unbearably familiar pose, sharp eyes flashing, pushing stray hairs from her forehead to fall back seamlessly in the silky bob you keep trimmed for her—long hair is a liability and, apocalypse or not, there's no excuse for split ends—and she waits…
You run out of steam half an hour later.
And you know that it's out of your control; you're not her mother, her sister, her…anything, really.
And fighting's in her blood.
You sigh, slumping against the wall and crossing your arms over your chest. "Backup only," you grit your teeth, eyes narrowing as you speak, "and absolutely no patrolling."
Her smile is blinding.
And something inside of you dies.
Night is full of softness.
The rustle of sheets, the murmur of voices, the scuff of boots against packed earth.
She slips close in the darkness, limbs warm and smooth, smell of machine oil and gunpowder in her hair, lips soft and wet and smooth.
You pause a moment—she's too young, really, but then, you're not sure anyone qualifies as young anymore, and truly, you were doing much more at this age…
So you open yourself, and she tastes like home.
You get word through the airwaves about the spread, how the monsters take California, then Nevada, then Arizona, then the rest of the States, creeping, slowly but steadily, to cover the country in teeming masses of hellspawn.
You know it won't be long before they take it all.
And as each day passes, fewer voices call out for aid.
And life as you know it slips farther and farther away.
You cry when your last pair of Victoria's Secret panties rips, black lace crumbled with age and use.
Cotton is more sensible—and more readily available to the scouts—you know, but giving up that last little luxury cuts more deeply than you can say.
She finds you in the floor, scrap of fabric in hand, wet streaks on your cheeks, and she gathers you close, the frail little-girl body you remember grown into a young woman, nearly your height now, and you let yourself fall…
Three weeks later you come home to a stack of frilly underthings on the bed—bras and panties and nighties—tags still intact, and it's the most wonderful and the most horrible thing you've ever seen.
Eli dies in an attempt to close the doorway between earth and hell, to seal off the stream of hellions bleeding across the landscape.
Most of his team dies as well.
She comes in, blood-splattered and shaken, and suddenly you know she wasn't on guard duty, wasn't watching the children or securing the entry points to the mines…
…because she was there, close enough to see Eli shatter in a million tiny pieces, close enough to smell like sewage and demon-slime, close enough to get herself killed…
You snap, surging forward, burying your fingers in her hair, lips against lips, propelling her back onto the mattress you've shared for years. She grunts, a sexy little noise that sets your spine on fire and the only thing you can think is ohmygodwe'realive over and over until it joins the rhythm of your hips, grinding together as you struggle out of tops and bottoms, clothes strewn across the floor carelessly as she takes your breasts with her mouth.
You arch into the caress, hands sliding down the smooth skin of her back, feeling the softness of her body against you, hard nipples against your belly, deft fingers between your thighs. You fall back, pulling her along for the ride, shifting and twisting until she's the yin to your yang, devouring and being devoured, the pulse of life pouring back and forth between you until you're almost the same being, breaths and heartbeats and tongues synched until the universe expands, cosmos stretching further and further…then snapping back to clench between your legs.
You pant, moist breath against her thigh, as she sits forward.
Her fingers caress your jaw, one digit outlining your lips as her eyes, soft and unfocused, find your gaze in the dark.
You fall asleep to the cadence of her heartbeat under your ear.
You wake quickly.
Strapping a semi-automatic rifle across her body and stashing blades in the harnesses along her waist and legs.
You scramble to your feet, grabbing clothes as you draw closer.
"What the hell are you doing?"
She doesn't answer, just meets your questioning eyes for a moment before turning back to her task.
You shrug into pants and a top—one button lost in the frenzy the night before—and move again, crowding into her space, fury in your glare.
Her eyes are full of apology and terror churns in your stomach.
"No. You're not going—I'm not going to let you go." But you know, as soon as the words leave your mouth, that you have no choice.
"I've got to, Cor."
"No. You don't." You make a grab for her wrist; she presses her fingers against your pulse before pulling away.
"They're going to kill us all—the whole world—unless we close that gate." Her voice reaches fever-pitch, conviction dripping from each syllable, and your life narrows to a tunnel—one way in, one way out, and the fear catches in your chest as the inevitable looms on the horizon.
Still, you have to try.
"Heroes get killed, I've told you that."
"Yeah." She glances down, fiddling with the clip in her rifle. "And survivors get away." She meets your eyes, the depth of emotion from years of revolving around one another filling her gaze. "I remember."
"Then why can't you…?" You trail off because you know the answer; the answer written in her eyes, in the firm jut of her chin, in the blood that flows through her veins…
"Sometimes, surviving's not enough."
…she was born a Hero.
Slinging the gun over her shoulder, she brushes past, steel-toed boots clomping towards the exit, and you feel the future slipping away…
"Dawn…" You speak before you think, ignoring the hot slide of tears down your cheeks to study her figure silhouetted against light of day.
And you're moving, arm outstretched, fingers spreading wide…
She catches your hand, linking together and giving a squeeze.
You grin, truly, for the first time in years.
And she pulls you forward, into the sunlight.