This is me waking up -- my calves are numb with vibration and the way I've been sitting on them in the sidecar, my hair is glued to my head inside the helmet, there's an itch along the side of my ribs under the creaky leather riding jacket. The horizon up ahead is chunked with mountains and the sky is purple and orange. I reach to the side, squirming around pins and needles, and squeeze Ripper's calf through the leather. Anonymous in the helmet, he turns to look at me and then back to the road, gloves shifting on the handlebars, making the motorcycle growl for me.
Sunset -- time to kill things. By the time the sky's turned indigo, Ripper lands us at the edge of one of those dried-up towns where even the local vampire king lives in a silver trailer with a satellite dish out front. I trade riding gear for hunting gear and lock down the top on the sidecar while Ripper polishes bolts and practically gives head to the engine. That's my Watcher.
Finally he stands up, wipes black grease off his fingers and checks me over, eyes blue-green under the gas station florescents. "Stretch your legs, Annie," by which he means, splits, and high kicks. Not that I'd tell him, but I agree. Gotta find a better position when I'm sleeping in the sidecar.
I stretch, he Watches. Scribbles something stuffy down in his diary for the old men in England. Wonder if I can get him to catch a little sleep tonight; he drove most of the day, and I'm not sure he's slept at all this week. Hasn't slept well since the Angelus killed Dru. Neither of us has. I miss her, the way you'd miss a dumb tabby that used to shred the drapes and walk face first into glass doors.
"Good," he purrs, admiringly. He knows how ready I am, and I think he sees he won't keep up with me tonight. Maybe he'll actually get some sleep, unless he's got some tasty new books hidden under the seat.
Wonder if I can clean up the whole town in one night -- we're looking at a Salem's Lot sitch here, maybe ten-fifteen live people in the whole town.
Ripper touches my face, eyes now totally green and going dark; emotion and light do strange alchemy on my Watcher's eyes. Alchemy is my English vocabulary word for the week. The rest are all in Latin, and he makes me conjugate them while we sweat in the desert and train.
"Do be careful, Annie," Ripper says, meaning it.
This is me, Buffy Anne Summers, going hunting.
Ripper's drowsing on the bike, a book on the handlebars and the big silver cross on his chest. Like that would help if anything toothy snuck up on him. Since Indiana, sometimes I think he wants to get caught with his pants down.
I climb on the bike and deliberately sink two fingernails into the side of his neck, and we shout at each other for fifteen minutes. Finally we agree on breakfast and Ripper smashes in the door to a diner. He could pick the lock, but I think he likes the sound of breaking glass. He turns on the grill and starts frying up a flock of eggs and half a pig's worth of bacon and a foreign legion of french toast.
The owners arrive around dawn and cower back into a corner booth while Ripper eyes the flat searing surface of the grill menacingly. Ripper piles everything onto one plate and carries it over to my place at the counter. I twist a little on the stool, feeling the twinges as the little hurts from the night heal up.
Instead of coming around the counter, Ripper leans in so we're practically nose to nose over the plate and we eat that way, staring at each other. For the benefit of our audience he feeds me a little french toast with his fingers, and smiles like the Grinch on that old Christmas special, the corners of his mouth going curlicue. I lick syrup off my lips, "Yum."
One more town on this road before we head home. I straddle the bike behind my Watcher and clamp myself to his back.
I told him, and I told him, and they took him, leaving the cross on the ground next to the front wheel. And fuck if I know what to do now. Six months ago I'd've gone to Ethan, called in Oz and Harmony, tried to get Dru lucid and helpful. Now . . .
It's not like we were stupid. We knew what the Angelus was doing, cutting away our support system, our safety net. But I didn't realize til now that everyone was gone. Everybody. Even the gypsy bitch is dead.
So I'm just standing here next to the bike, cross in my hands. From the way it's twisted up, some vampire must've been pissed enough to risk the hotfoot and stamp on it. And there's part of me -- the part that had to stand on my doorstep in LA for two hours before I could leave Mom and Dad's bodies and climb on the back of the bike for the first time -- that keeps waiting for Ripper to come back around the corner, that keeps looking around for the glint of the earring and the glitter of the eyes.
I like that part better than the part that keeps whispering to me about what the Angelus does to people. What he must be doing to Ripper right now.
It's dawn, but the guy walking up to me is a vampire, no mistake. He's steaming, shaking in pain and fear. "The Angelus . . . sends his regards," he manages. Obviously part of a prepared speech, something the Angelus made him memorize. He'll never get through it, not that it matters -- the Angelus is no speech writer. I watch the messenger combust.
"I want my Watcher back, you little turd," I say to the dust, and pull out Ripper's spellbooks from under the seat. A little Latin can go a long way.
It was always Ethan and Ripper and John with the Magick. It gave Dru the wig pretty bad, so I'd sit with her, have those little tea parties she loved where the tea got cold because neither of us drank it, and she'd sing little scraps of things, silly popular songs she'd picked up across a hundred years. And then Ripper would walk out to us and she'd coo and make him drink cold tea, and he'd be so tired and smug and so high on the Magick he'd let me handle the bike. Dru loved the sidecar.
So I'm not totally sure what I'm doing, and from things Ripper said, Slayers don't make the best witches anyway.
But I've got these Kodachrome pictures in my head, the people I've seen after the Angelus was done with them, and in quadrophonic sound with echo effects, the things Dru told me over cold tea, giggling and quivering at the same time, the way she always did when she talked about her sire.
And as the smoke rises -- Magick smoke, I've got the feeling Ripper's incense recipe is ninety per cent peyote -- I only see, hear more clearly. Angelus breaking those clever hands. Angelus hooking his finger around the earring and tearing it out straight through the lobe. Angelus with a mallet, with a steak knife, with long strips of bamboo. Angelus sharpening up a pencil and stabbing out Ripper's eyes. Ripper sobbing for me. Angelus laughing and laughing and laughing.
Clearest of all I see Ripper at home in his blue silk robe, covering the breakfast table with books, chasing something through the OED, his hair flopping over his forehead, smiling that secret little smile.
I'd do anything. Here I go.
The spell just about kills me, maybe because I did something wrong. Tired, but not high and definitely not smug. I feel like a house fell on me.
When my vision clears up, I'm looking at a ceiling, a skylight, blue sky. Daytime?
And then all I can see are his eyes, the tiny lines around them and the shifting green of them. Worried. He's worried about me and his eyes are turning grey and I think I hear my ribs crack as my heart swells up to twice its size
Why would he call me that? That's the name of a kid who died with her parents. I left her body in Los Angeles and crawled up onto the back of Ripper's bike. He's never called me that. Is this something Angelus did to him?
I try to talk, but that just isn't happening. I look into his eyes and try to communicate: It's me, me, your nymphomaniac teenage mistress, me, your Slayer. It's Annie, Ripper.
And then there's a face beside him, one I can't see properly, and I wonder if there are demons whose faces are so alien that we can't understand them, whose faces are in some other language altogether. Blonde.
Ripper turns to her, and I see that his earring is missing. And the blonde demon stares at me until I suddenly understand and I can read her face after all and I scream. I understand.
I liked to lie to myself and say that Mom and Dad would have lasted forever, loved each other and me forever, if not for Lothos. Incontrovertible proof otherwise here -- Mom's alive, and here, and Dad's alive and in LA, and of course I can't see them, because the Blonde Avenger and the Watcher say so.
I keep catching his face at the corner of my eye and feeling my insides twisting. But this is not my Ripper. This is an old man in a suit who sniffs book dust all day long. Every damned thing I've said so far has shocked him. And Buffy, the living ghost of my bleached childhood, looks at me like I'm something she scraped off the bottom of her eighty-dollar platform sandals. The Watcher at least believes me. She thinks I'm some kind of doppleganger, only, the Watcher had to tell her the word, because obviously she hasn't been practicing her vocabulary every week.
"The Angelus has him," I tell them for the hundredth time, and wonder why the spell would send me to these two, who I wouldn't send up against one of Ethan's pet golems, much less the Angelus.
We're at the Watcher's apartment, where I recognize the photographs from his graverobber days, and the deco lamps, and the spice cabinet full of bat grass and pennyroyal and corpse ashes -- all things that, in my world, burned with the apartment in Seattle.
The Watcher fidgets on the couch. He's made tea twice already, once at the high school and once just after they smuggled me here. His internal organs are probably tanned. "This spell -- "
"It's from, uh -- " now I'm blanking on the name, I'm so tired -- "flat brown book, warding glyph on the cover?" Like that narrows it down. "It was Ethan's." God, do they even have an Ethan here? Maybe that's why this Watcher's such a yawn.
Nope. The name obviously rings a bell, because Buffy makes big eyes. The Watcher frowns hard and his eyes do a Ripper shift that breaks my heart. "Trust Ethan Rayne for a cock-up that spans across worlds," he says bitterly.
I'm so shocked I almost whack him one. "He died for you." Broken on the ground two steps from the edge of Lake Erie, looking up at Ripper with that Ethan look of total self-satisfaction, right before he went limp. Dru keening out pain and confusion while Ripper, soaking wet, sobbed in my arms. And here's this scrap of Ripper, this shred too small and too dried up to even fathom how Ripper had grieved for his friend, dismissing Ethan Rayne as a cock-up.
The Watcher almost drops his tea, and, probably just wishful thinking, but I think I almost see a spark of Ripper in there. This old man has a different history with Ethan, maybe a bad one, but there's still that something there. I go after it.
"The Angelus killed everybody Ripper and I cared about. My Mom and Dad, Ethan, Oz, Harmony, Dunc, Tim, John, Dru . . . "
Buffy leans in. "Wait a minute. Dru as in two scalpels short of an autopsy, bloodsucking crazy ho Drusilla, Dru?"
Well, did I really expect them to understand a vampire with a soul? "Ripper and Ethan put a spell on her. She was crazy, but . . . she wasn't a demon anymore. And the crazy was Angelus' fault." Poor Dru, who you could make happy just by offering her a sidecar ride.
Buffy and the Watcher exchange a glance. "Did this, ah, spell by any chance involve an orb of Thesselah?" the Watcher asks.
I shrug, regretting again that I didn't pay much attention to the Magick part. "Look, will you help me or not?"
The Watcher shakes his head. "I-I think we'll need to know more. There's so much to, to, to -- "
"Look, the Angelus has Ripper. He's -- " I can see it as clearly as I can see the Watcher's crappy tweed jacket and the stack of National Geographics on the coffee table -- Ripper in the Angelus' hands, being torn and tortured and broken. For the first time in three years, I cry without Ripper to hold onto.
The Watcher moves closer to me. From the way his eyes flick and his voice drops, he doesn't want Miss Buffy to hear what he's going to say. "Whatever Angel is, is, is doing to him, your Watcher can bear it. Believe me."
"You don't fucking know anything. The Angelus isn't just a demon. He's a bugshit sadist. You don't know what he does to people." Splintered fingers, ruined eyes. I'm actually literally tearing at my hair and I can't stop crying.
The Watcher drops his voice farther. He doesn't want to say what he's saying, not with Miss Buffy here. But he really wants to comfort me. I don't know why. "We, there, there is . . ." He licks his lips and starts over. "There is an Angel, an, an Angelus in our world. He . . . tortured me once. I-I know what he's capable of."
Buffy wanders into the kitchen, not wanting to hear. What he says is still sinking in. This puff of dust, this old man, survived the Angelus?
"Maybe here." I tell him, "but where I come from, nobody walks away from the Angelus sane." He kept Harmony alive for three days after he scalped her. "We have to get to Ripper, now. Please."
He looks at me, alchemy in his eyes, and then his gaze flicks toward the kitchen and then back to me. Maybe she's just stupid, or maybe she doesn't know what she's looking at, but I suddenly know something that Miss Buffy's never going to figure out. He'd do anything for her. Like taking a bath in broken glass, slicing off his fingers, drinking the purple kool-ade anything. He'd survived the Angelus because of her.
And because of that, if I play things the right way, he'll do anything for me too. Somewhere in him is a sliver of Ripper, and all I have to do is let him believe that somewhere in me is a sliver of his Buffy. He'll never have to know that she died, that I'm Annie to the core, the phoenix (my first vocabulary word!) who rose from Buffy's corpse.
I reach out and take his hand, and in my heart I promise Ripper that I'll be there for him soon.
I threw up. That's what got him, finally. Right now you couldn't stop that creaky old Watcher from helping me.
I threw up because I found out what exactly the worm in this little paradise of dye jobs and homeroom is -- the Angelus' is Miss Buffy' boyfriend. Some soul shuffling, some true love, some crap -- her boyfriend. The boyfriend who tortured the Watcher, and killed somebody called Jenny whose name the Watcher says like it's his favorite prayer.
So I tossed cookies. And when I come back out of the bathroom, the Watcher offers me a cup of water and half an hour later, the Watcher opens the book -- not the same one I used, but he thinks it's the complimentary spell -- and Buffy and I hold onto our stakes.
It's been almost forty-eight hours since Angelus took him. A man could be tortured to death in that time. Thoughts not to think when you're working your way through Angelus' guards. Buffy's good, better than me maybe, in some ways. The Watcher moves along behind us, offering stakes, reloading the crossbow.
I wasn't sure I could work with her, but it's the easiest thing in the world, like having four hands. We march on through.
"Giles," I hear Buffy pant, "Giles, I just staked Snyder."
Ripper whimpers and opens his eyes and they're still there and they're so goddamned beautiful. Giles is untying him. I catch Ripper as the ropes go loose and he falls out of the chair. His skin is grey and he looks old and I can feel the shift of things broken and torn in him. His ear is mangled and the earring gone. One more memento for the Angelus, probably kept with Harmony's hair and John's heart.
He groans and I touch his face. He's looking at me, but I'm not sure what he sees. Giles unpacks a tube of first aid cream and some bandages from his pockets and goes after the cuts that are bleeding the worst. His face is closed and intent.
Finally Ripper focuses a little. "Annie?" He gives everything he has to say it.
"Here. I'm right here, Ripper."
His eyes move to Giles, back to me. Is he having that moment too, when you can't understand that foreign version of your own face?
"We can trust him. He just saved my life." Brave stupid old bastard almost got himself cut in half. "We're getting you out of here."
I move something wrong and Ripper's face twists and he moans and my heart rips right in half.
"Buffy," calls Giles. "We'll need some help."
She walks over and gets her first good look at the wreckage of my Watcher. For just a second her eyes lock on Giles' face and then he looks away, real fast.
We lift Ripper smoothly between the three of us, and he only moans a little and I really think we're just going to walk out.
I've been bitten before, maybe even worse than this. I know I can get up. I know I can get up.
I manage to roll myself half over Ripper and take the next impact of the poker between my shoulder blades. The one after that never comes, because Giles tackles Angelus and manages to get a stake into the shoulder. He pulls it out, tries again; his eyes are practically glowing with hate, Ripper at last, Ripper to the core. He probably didn't even know how much he wanted to kill the son of a bitch. Angelus knocks him away and goes after him with the poker.
All we've got left is Buffy, who couldn't kill her Angel in months of trying, who let Angelus get back up when she had her chance ten minutes ago. Instead she pummeled him, kicked him, smashed him against the floor. She might as well have tickled him. He threw her through the wall.
I try to get up again. My vision narrows by the time I'm on my knees. I get one foot flat on the floor.
Buffy. She pulls the machete out of Giles' duffle bag. She's not even really filthy. Maybe she's never filthy. She gets Angelus' attention with her heel across his face. They're going to wrestle again, I think, and I can't stay upright.
"I hate you," says Buffy, and she takes off Angelus' head with the machete. It's the cleanest, most beautiful strike you've ever seen, and his head actually hits the ground and rolls before it turns to dust.
"Giles?" She pulls him up.
"I'm . . . I'm all right." They stare at one another -- silent negotiation; they're deciding all the parts of this they're never going to talk about.
I crawl back to Ripper. He blinks up at me, colorless grey eyes in a colorless grey face, and he tells me: "Annie, I want to live. I want to live forever."
They think I'm sleeping, and Buffy's gone out to see what else is different between my world and hers. Well, I'd've done that, if I'd had the chance.
"I'm never really going to be well again, am I?" Ripper says. He's propped against pillows, close enough that I can touch his side while still pretending to be asleep. Luxury of a great big hotel bed.
"No," Giles admits. "You . . . grow to accept it. Like the loss of youth."
"You do all right."
"Angel didn't have me as long . . . "
"Fuck, but I'm tired. I think Annie and I'll sleep for a week."
"She's the Slayer and I'm the bloody Watcher, aren't I? What do you think?"
They stop talking for a while, and I imagine their eyes doing alchemy at each other. Finally Buffy lets herself in.
"Here's a fun thought," Buffy says, "that cash we paid for the room with? Technically isn't that counterfeit here?"
"Time we were getting home," says Giles.
I drag myself out of bed and stumble over to him. Ripper winks at me. Dirty old kink. "Goodbye Giles," I say, and throw my arms around his neck. While he's off balance, trying to hold me up, I catch him with his mouth open. Anemic as hell and tired, I'm still the Slayer, what's he going to do, fight me off? I kiss him with all the enthusiasm that comes from knowing Ripper won't be up to this for a week or more. Just to show what a good sport he is, he puts an arm around my waist so I can get maximum leverage. Finally I let him breathe. "You were wonderful."
Giles coughs, looks down. He looks so good red that I'm going to have to figure out how to make Ripper blush.
Buffy looks at the three of us, then walks stiffly out of the hotel room. Cheeks flaming, Giles follows. I'll never see them again, so I'll never know.
I climb back into bed beside my Watcher, who gives me a blue-green look that's exhausted but so steamy I'm not sure I can wait a week. "That's my girl."
I snuggle up close, finding unmarked spots to kiss. Beds, what a brilliant invention. This is better than sleeping in the sidecar. This is better even than sleeping with my face in the middle of his back and my arms locked around his waist and the cycle humming so hard under us that sometimes I wake in the middle of the highway in the middle of an orgasm. Ripper shifts and nuzzles me tenderly, too tired to do more. This is me, going to sleep.