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Buffy pulled the plug and all of the grimy water ran in a clockwise whirlpool out the centre of the sink. After it was all gone, all that remained was the tug! tug! tug! of the water passing through the clotted pipes, just like the motor of an old fishing boat. Buffy took the towel and started drying the now clean plates, before returning them to their places up on the shelves, having to often lift herself up on her toes or put a knee atop the kitchen bench. The sound of Dawn's CD player sounded oddly through the ceiling above her. It was two o'clock in the morning, but of course … her sister was still up. It only took about half a minute and two dry plates before the sound vanished again … and then all that remained was Buffy and her silence, because the tug! had gone from the drain and there were no more plates to clean or dry.

She turned on the radio. A couple of weirdos … probably broadcasting from a garage somewhere … were reporting on a strange light being seen above LA. It made Buffy smile. If anyone saw a strange light over Sunnydale, they would just quickly turn away and get back to lawn mowing. It's odd. You think you're saving the world, but the world just moves on in the background, as if nothing is happening. Sometimes Buffy wondered who was the most deluded–she or the civilians. Could Willow really have ended existence by pulling a piece of gaudy Halloween kitsch from the sand? It felt real while it was happening. Now it just sounded silly. 

Buffy filled a pot with water and placed it on the stove. She could not find the lid, so she just let the water boil without it. Tiny bubbles formed at its bottom and grew as they reached the surface and exploded. Where does the air come from, and if you could survive being boiled alive, would it be breathable? she wondered. Could I stay in a black pot and just breathe the bubbles? While she lazily ruminated like this, the pot was starting to look like a geyser ready to erupt. She picked up the pot and carefully emptied the water into a cup. Then she dropped a teabag into the cup, giving the bag time to soak in enough water to allow itself to be lowered down to the bottom.

The neighbourhood looked peaceful. The street lamps shone for no one. It looked safe. She would have gone for a walk, but as things were, it would not be right to leave the house without telling Dawn, so instead she moved into the living room and sat down in the sofa, holding her cup up before herself.

“The last time we spoke,” she said to the ripples on the surface of the tea water, “it was awkward … because we were both there. I feel your presence so fully now ... when you are God-knows-where … that when I actually see you … it's like overload.” She tugged at the string of the tea bag, causing more ripples to appear, reflecting the light from the lamp, which shimmered through her now watery eyes. “I've been neglecting you lately. Your ring … it hasn't been out of its drawer since whenever. I wish I could make it invisible somehow, so I could wear it on my finger without judgement. It is nice to have something tangible. You only exist to me now as pictures in my mind and as that little tug and itch I feel in my gut.” She sighed. “These are the sort of stupid things a sad little girl will say when no one is listening in. You're the only person I've made myself this pathetic in front of. That's one of the things I miss the most. That complete abandon. You did not feel like company. That last year, we were like pieces of a split heart necklace, and I felt awkward on my own.” She blew a few cooling puffs across the surface of her tea. Puff! Puff! Puff! She imagined herself like the cloud with puffed up cheeks from that children's book she owned.

There was no moon that night. Not in Sunnydale, nor in LA. For Angel, it was a slow descent. He had no idea how deep he was, and when he finally hit the ocean floor, he could hardly feel it. When a human is locked in a sound-proofed room, he will hear his own pulse. For a vampire, however, it is different. There is only silence … unless ... he talks. “Hi,” he said. “I'm Angel.” The silence returned as soon as he stopped. “Being me ... it isn't always easy and the last thing I want to do now is to ruminate on that fact, but I know that if I don't, I will go insane … sooner rather than later.” No light. Absolutely no light. A vampire can see in almost complete darkness, but not through this perfectly black tar of nothingness. “I've been in a situation like this before, and if this ends up lasting as long … I knew I should have taught myself the lyrics to more Barry Manilow songs.”

Buffy took a sip from her tea. The tea bag had now darkened the previously clear tea water completely. She usually threw in a couple of tea spoons of sugar, but tonight she thought she would rather take it straight. “I sometimes imagine that you can actually hear me,” she said. “The next time we meet, I expect you to remember all of this, so you better take notes.”

Angel was not taking notes. He had just realised that he was able to drum his fingers against the floor of his casket. It kept him occupied for almost an hour, he thought, though really it was more like ten minutes. “Buffy,” he said at last. “Looks like it is going to be you and me again.” He drummed some more. “Remember last time? How long did we last? 10 years? 20 years? 50 years? Two weeks? I have no idea, but for a long time, I thought I would be able to endure Hell itself. When … if I get out of this … I want to still be me when I reach the surface … but I am going to need your help to do that. I have a son waiting for me … and Fred and Gunn and … Cordelia.”

Buffy lay against a pillow propped up on the arm rest. Her cup stood on the table, still full but now cold. She sighed into the empty room. The room did not answer. It just took her sigh and let the sound of it echo imperceptibly back through to the kitchen. “It has been a bad year,” she said. “I know you knew I lied when I told you I would be all right and I know that you knew there would be no use calling me out on it.”

“I never told you in person how lost I got in Hell,” Angel said. “I don't think I had to. It felt like you understood. Maybe now you do. Maybe Heaven is not so different in that regard. Perfect torment or perfect peace. It is difficult to come back the same after something like that.”

“That first night was like a nightmare,” Buffy said. “I had no idea what was going on. Sunnydale looked like a warzone. The light from the burning cars hurt my eyes. My body … my arms and legs … after so long without them, they felt like a straitjacket.”

“You were with me all those years,” Angel said, “and at first, you comforted me and kept me whole ... but when my mind started to slip, your words turned to taunts, and I felt so angry and betrayed. All I could think about was how you pierced me with that sword. In the end, I was just a howling beast, itching for something to strike out against, and you were the only thing I could remember clearly about the living world.” He paused for a while. “Maybe this talking thing was a bad idea.”

“I would never dare to hope to feel you with me in Heaven,” Buffy said, “but I remember wondering if I should look for you in Hell.” She smiled to herself. “I remember looking around for you, but instead I saw myself thorn to pieces. Head and torso divorced from arms and legs. It's like that necklace metaphor. The longer you live, the more pieces of yourself you give away to others, so that when they leave you, they take that piece with them and leave you broken.”

“O Mandy, well, you came and you gave without taking.”

“So, if I gave the last pieces of me away when I traded my life for Dawn's and saved my friends, then what was really left when I came back?” Buffy continued. “I was just skeleton Buffy walking around. I had no place being there at all. All I wanted was to break my body again, so that I could escape it. And so, I climbed the same tower and tried to make up the courage to once more nose dive into the asphalt below. But she found me … Dawn ... holding her piece of me … a thorn off arm or something. And so I stopped myself. I did not jump … or … maybe I did jump, but I was holding a rope … and Dawn. I honestly don't remember it all that clearly.”

“I see a memory! I never realized how happy you made me, O Mandy”

“It is the weirdest thing … not killing yourself … because can you be truly alive if all you want is to die? It is almost like the real suicide is simply the desire … the act itself is just a formality.”

“Was I wrong, I ask myself, to decide that I could go on after you were dead? It felt like a betrayal, but giving up on life felt like an even worse betrayal. In a way, it is all for you. I do all of this, because a part of me thinks that doing it will make me understand how you could love me back when we were together, before I had done anything at all to deserve it. But the world does not end with you, and I could not honour your memory by abandoning it …. especially not after you had given your life for it.”

“The next person I met was Spike...”

“... it was Cordelia who helped me through it.”

“You can stop taking notes now, if you want. This next part is not going to be easy.”

“We had grown into each other. She has such a natural passion for life.”

“He was a broken, misplaced thing ... and so was I.”

“I needed someone...”

“... who understood what it was like to feel all hollow inside. And you...”

“... weren't there, so I made do … with her and Wesley and Fred and Gunn. And it was good...”

“... until he learned his chip had stopped working. Before that, he had stayed at a distance, and it had felt all right, but when he learned that he could touch me, he changed. There was insanity in his eyes …. and …. and I wanted that. That certainty. I wanted to lose myself to passion. He was so cocky … so sure of himself. He can be awfully mopey, but he always just knows what it is he wants, which was more than I could say. I didn't want anything.”

“You must realise that when I went to Darla, I had lost myself. I wanted to cut the cords between my brain and my heart completely. My mission had failed … I was sure of it. I had lost my friends, I was on my own, and I could see no way forward. And so I went to her … but it didn't help. It was not the same. I ...”

“... I did not become Spike. There were moments when I could forget myself, but all my anxiety came flooding back as soon as it was over, only now with an added peppering of the spices of shame and self-loathing.”

“I've been with many women, but I've made love only once.” Tap, tap, tap, tap! “And I sound like an idiot putting it like that, but it is true, and I have proof. My soul is still here, isn't it?” Tap, tap, tap ... tap! “That's almost like what a heart sounds like.”

“Then it all went to hell at once. Other besties synchronise their periods. Will and I just synchronise our breakdowns. Dawn was left by herself … luckily, she brought Tara home with her ... while Will was out partying and I was doing backstrokes beneath a house Spike and I had laid waste to.” She picked up the cup from the table and drank it down, even though it was cold. “The next night, Willow crashed a car with Dawn inside it, trying to escape a monster she had conjured in her mind. For a moment, I considered leaving her there … Will, I mean … but I couldn't, because I was hardly in a position to judge. Dawn had a hard time forgiving either of us, and I cannot blame her. The things I have put her through...”

“It was only when I saw the betrayed look on Cordelia's face that I truly realised just how stupid I had been. At first, that was all I could think about. I didn't wanna deal with Darla or her magic pregnancy. It did not seem real. It did not feel real. But...” He caught himself laughing. “When I heard those little beats coming from inside of her.” Tap … tap … tap, went his finger. “Can you still remember back to when your mum was pregnant with Dawn? Did you ever get to feel her kick? Do you remember the wonder?”

“I can't remember if I told you about Dawn or not … about how you have never really met her. Since mum, I am all she has. I was always really all she had. She was not supposed to be, but she is. Some crazy monks made her with their magic in order to pull me into their scheme … almost getting the world sucked into Hell as a result and forcing me to kill myself … but none of that really matters any more. She simply is, and we are everything each of us has.”

“I don't know what power it was that decided that Darla and I should have a child … or who steered fate, so that Holtz would take him away from me … twice … but I still intend to give that kid the life I lost when I first met Darla. I don't mind being played. I just want to see him again and be able to explain what actually happened. I don't feel angry … hardly even regret … I'm just pleading for it all to work out somehow.”

“It was Xander who made the card house collapse … who removed the wrong piece from the jenga tower. It would be ridiculous to blame it all on him, but everything was just so good that day. We were all sorta happy. I had broken it off with Spike, Willow and Tara were falling for each other all over again … Anya was like a revelation. I got so excited by it all that I almost wanted to take Xander to the altar myself. But Xander, who had been the only stable person among us so far, faltered... and then the pooh hit the ceiling fan and painted the walls brown.”

“I sometimes think I am my own worst judge, but Holtz would certainly disagree. Cordelia, too, sometimes. Wesley, I wonder what he thinks of me...”

“That look of disgust Xander gave me when he found out. It chilled me to my core. I could not helping feeling like he was justified. I wanted to believe that he was right to hate me. I got some weird enjoyment or … solace from it. What will you think? It's not like I'm gonna call you up and tell you all about it, but I won't hide it if you ever ask.”

“Losing Darla hurt more than I thought possible. Not because I lost something good. She had caused me nothing but pain … but some of that pain was good pain and the rest was … necessary pain. She was the only one like me. Now ... I am the only one left. The universe's big joke. But it did not matter. I had my son. And I clung to that little thing with all I had left. I remember telling myself that I would kill for him … that there was nothing I wouldn't do.” Tap! Tap! Tap! “Was somebody listening in? Did the universe decide I needed another lesson in humility? Is that how it works? Where are they now? Do they care that I am here or is it just a minor inconvenience for them? Will they find some other fool to help the helpless for them?” He tried to squirm, but the bindings pinned him down. “I am not getting out by myself … that's for sure.”

“Should I have seen it coming? In hindsight, it is very hard to imagine that I didn't. When he came into my bathroom … a part of me knew that this was it … that he wasn't going to leave by himself … I guess I didn't want to believe it … but when he closed the door behind himself, I felt the room grow so much smaller. I guess I've come to trust my own strength too much … to the point that I see myself as untouchable ... but I was panicking to get him off of me.” She rested her hand on her knee. “Just thinking about it gives me the shakes. I have no idea what to do if he comes back. It's not like I can give him a restraining order … nor can I just kill him like an animal … not after he spent the entire time I was dead protecting my friends.” She coughed to clear her throat. “I had a talk with Dawn. She freaked … completely ... after Xander told her. I don't even know exactly what he said or how he framed it. There is really nothing stable in her life, is there? She finally told me that she had gone to Spike and asked him to make things right with me … before it happened. She made it sound like this big confession. I hope she realises that it was not her fault. I know now that he would have shown up eventually.” She laughed, but it felt like hearing someone else laughing. "How do we put these things into words? Words just flow from us when we are scared ... or when we are angry ... just panicking ... but when we sit down like this and try to speak openly ... honestly ... calmly ... it's like there is no power in language anymore."

“It is odd... I left, because I wanted you to have a family of your own, and then suddenly there I was … Cordelia and I with my little baby boy between us. I don't know if that is something you have started to think about, yet … you probably have your hands full with Dawn. What almost happened between me and Cordelia … before Connor locked me in this box … it crept up on me. I could not explain it to you if I tried. If the universe had left us alone like that … we would have been happy … I think. Maybe even soul-losing happy. A part of me dreaded the day my little toddler would take his first walk into my arms. I told myself that all my fear and uncertainty would keep the worst from happening, but there is never a guarantee, is there?”

“It was never about the vampire-thing, whatever Spike may have thought. I hope you knew that. In my dreams, it is often sunny. If I close my eyes, I can see you lying on a beach, and I am tracing patterns on your golden skin, while the waves wash over us, dousing us in their spray. I didn't kiss a vampire that first time in my room. I … I don't know what I thought of you back then. It was so early in our relationship and the rest of it all tends to colour my memory of those first times.”

“I never told you about that, did I?”

“What was that?”

“That one day, when all our dreams came true? When I fed you ice cream from a spoon?”

“Hmm!”

“I was thinking about that one day … do you remember when Willow summoned a sired version of herself from a hypothetical timeline? We sent her back after you caught her … but if her world exists … if there is still a Willow in another place that is a vampire … then shouldn't there still be a me somewhere that is human? Am I still testing out new flavours of food atop crumpled bedsheets, while you lay there, naked in a loose robe, teasing me about my gastronomic illiteracy.”

“That's a long word.”

“It is. I don't know where that came from... Hey, are you speaking back to me now?”

“...”

“Do you know how long it has been?”

“Not long. Too early to go insane.”

Tap! Tap! Tap! “Then I guess we better keep it up. Do you remember when I was in Hell and we played I Spy for ages and you guessed the answer immediately every time?” Tap! Tap! Tap! “At least, it was more fun than playing Simon Says, because you would never do any of the things I told you to do, such as unlocking my chains or opening a portal to Earth.” Tap! Tap! Tap! “I realise you've gone silent now. That's just perfect.” Tap! Tap! Tap! Tap! “I smothered Wesley with a pillow. You remember Wesley, right? Of course, you do. I keep forgetting that it's only been three years. He's different now … we're friends … but he is just as prone to reckless action as he used to be.” Tap! Tap! Tap! “I don't know if Connor would have been fine if Wesley hadn't run off with him, just as I can't know that Faith would have calmed down if I had had a chance to properly speak with her back in Sunnydale. I only know what did happen. Now I'm looking for that place in me that wants to forgive Wesley ... but I haven't found it yet.”

“I got in a fight with Willow recently,” Buffy said. She was back in the kitchen, scanning the items left in the refrigerator. Anything sugary had already been claimed. She closed the door. “Actually, that is an understatement. It's more like, Willow got in a fight with the world, and I decided to get in between.”

“It is difficult. We've all been there for each other … and we have failed each other … but Doyle is the only one we've lost so far … which is truly a miracle. Then again, Connor spent his entire childhood in a Hell-dimension, just because Wesley did not trust me or anyone else on our team.”

Buffy returned empty handed to the living room. “Willow peeled the skin off a person … with one swift motion of her arm.” Buffy swung her arm to demonstrate. “Swoosh! Off it went. As if it was nothing much at all. The look and the stink of it. And she was absolutely cold. There was neither pride nor horror on her face. I think it would have upset me less to see her enjoy it … but she did it with the indifference of a jaded surgeon.”

“When he lay there in the hospital bed, I hated him so much. It was as though he had slit his own throat, just to look pitiable for me … and made himself dumb, so that he did not have to defend himself.”

“She had all of my speed and strength. We're lucky neither of us got seriously hurt. At first I was holding back, thinking I could subdue her, but that wasn't gonna work. I had to give it all I had.”

“We went on a job, Connor and I. He was amazing. He has never fought human sized opponents before, but he took down those vampires like he'd been doing it his whole life. Afterwards, we were messing around in an alley, laughing and play-fighting. I was so happy … so proud.” Tap! Tap! Tap! “When we got back to the hotel, he wanted to learn, so we had a training session with Fred and Gunn. It took him moments to master moves I've spent years practising.”

“I was so unsure of myself. What if she was right? What if killing Warren had been the right thing to do? Dawn thought so. Xander was on the verge. Mine was the decisive vote. I decided that Willow was wrong. I put myself between my best friend and two idiots who had aided a murderer. I've felt outmatched before, but I have never felt like a fraud. All the while we fought, I kept analysing all the choices I'd made leading up to this, trying to find the place where I messed up, because I could not shake the feeling that I had caused it all somehow. The worst thing was … as Willow got crazier, the pain in my stomach subsided, because I realised bit by bit that I was not wrong. But it didn't help. This time, being right didn't make it any better.”

“There is this guy. He is a lawyer type. Real sleazeball. I was ready to kill him, Buffy. I was gonna snap his neck just like I have done so many others. But then Connor stepped in and he threw the man away from me. When he called me his father and the man talked to him ... calling him Steven ... and my son declared himself as Connor ... I felt all that rage just disappear. I had no need to hurt the man any more. I felt weightless. Vengeance meant nothing. All that mattered was that I had a son and that my son had his father. Even if it was all a ruse, I am still grateful for that moment, because knowing that it is possible to feel like that made me realise that I don't ever want to end up like Holtz … no matter what happens.”

“It was Dawn that made me figure out where I had gone wrong. See, she has been through so much, but after everything, she still has this expectations that things will be good. Somewhere … gradually … I started seeing all the bad stuff as normal ... but she still sees the world as a place where mothers take care of their daughter and lovers love their lovers and friends stand by their friends and if you really work hard at it … things will work out. I know now, that if Dawn and I are going to have any chance of getting out of this rut, I have to start believing that we will be all right. I can't keep thinking that I am just postponing the next inevitable disaster ... that I'm just getting by. I have to be in it for the long haul.”

“But whatever epiphanies I may have about the meaning of life and where I may have messed up before, I am still locked inside this box and my son is up there somewhere … hating me … doing God-knows-what...”

“... and Tara will still be gone … and mum … and I have no idea what will happen to Willow.” She held the back of her hand against her mouth as she chocked back a lump. “It's just me and Dawn and Xand in a town full of monsters.”

“It's nice that you are here … sort of.”

“Without getting the chance to empty myself like this … I think my head would blow.”

“Would you still love me if I told you all of this in person?”

“Would you still have left if you knew how much I needed you here?”

“I wonder if human-Angel has a son. He … I … would probably still name him Connor. I guess he does.” Tap! Tap! Tap! “No, that doesn't matter. I have my son. He is still up there, and I will get to him, before he hurts anyone else ... before he hurts himself.”

“Hold up,” Buffy said. “There is someone at the door.” She slowly rose from her seat. She had heard both the car parking and the heavy steps walking up the path, but she had not moved until she heard the door bell. She knew who it was. True enough. When she opened the door, it was Giles standing on the porch. He looked ten years older than himself.

“Hey,” Buffy said.

He gave her sort of a nod and then looked away. She did not want to hug him. There had been so much hugging, but they were all still sad, and it was too early for talking, so there really wasn't much left to do. “I am on my way to the airport with Willow,” Giles finally said.

“You're taking her to England, then?” Buffy asked.

Giles affirmed her question with silence.

Buffy looked past him. In the window of his car, she could see the silhouette of Willow sitting with a bowed head. “Doesn't she want to come say goodbye?” Buffy asked.

“No,” Giles said. “She has barely said a word,” he removed his glasses, “since Xander brought her back ... but she was adamant that she is not ready to face any of you … yet.” He placed a heavy hand on Buffy's shoulder.

Buffy put her little hand atop his big one. “I don't feel good about her going with only you,” she said. “I wish we could all go.”

He gave her what looked like an attempt at a brave smile, then said “I know,” before he walked back to the car. His boots fell heavy on the path.

Thud! Thud! Thud!

Buffy watched him enter his car. Willow's silhouette did not move in acknowledgement of his return, nor did she turn to look towards Buffy's house one last time as the car pulled away. She just sat there in the passenger seat … completely still.

Tap! Tap! Tap!

A few raindrops had appeared in the air, marking the stones on the path with darkened patches. It had been long since the last good storm. Buffy closed the door and went upstairs. It was so silent she could hardly believe anyone else was in the house with her.

Tap! Tap! Tap!

She turned and looked, but there was nothing there. She wondered if she should try to get some sleep before morning-break, but the word association made her decide to check on her sister. Buffy turned the handle on Dawn's door and let it glide into the room, groaning on its hinges. The curtains were dancing in front of the open window. Dawn lay fully dressed atop her bed, which was still made, looking at the ceiling.

“It's almost morning,” Buffy said.

Dawn just sighed. Buffy went and sat by the edge of the bed, facing the window. “I saw them,” Dawn said eventually. “Giles and Willow.”

“Giles is taking Willow to England,” Buffy said.

Dawn did not answer. Buffy closed her eyes. She heard the rattling of the curtains … as well as a faint rhythmic tapping. Several minutes passed, before Buffy finally made up her mind to say what she had gone there to say. “How about we go back to LA for a while?”

“Why?” she heard Dawn ask from behind her.

“It was home once,” Buffy said. “It might be good to get some time away. To think. We could bring Xander with us. He sure needs some company.” She put her head in her hands. “I don't know if I even want to keep the house any more.”

“I've never been to LA,” was all Dawn said.

Buffy turned and looked at her. “Neither have I really,” she said. “It doesn't feel like I have. It feels like another girl grew up there … hundreds of years ago … and then one day she started to vanish … until all that was left was me.”

Dawn finally sat up. She had an annoyed frown on her face. “Are you high?” she drily quipped.

Buffy rubbed her sister's shoulder. “Nah,” she said. “Just in a weird mood.” She smiled. “Shell shocked … maybe ... but at the same time … I feel like we've hit rock bottom, so now all that is left is to decide which way to climb out.”

“And you wanna go to LA,” Dawn said.

“Just for a little while,” Buffy said. “And before you ask … we will probably be staying at Angel's place. We cannot afford a hotel and I am not talking to our father.”

“And you wanna sell the house?” Dawn asked.

“Either sell it … or we could start taking in strays,” Buffy said. “It is far too big for the two of us.” She brushed her fingers through Dawn's incredibly long and straight hair. “It is our house. We can talk about selling it later.”

She left Dawn in her room and went into the bathroom. She left the lights off. She did not like the way it looked with the lights on any more … like a surgically lit operating room. Through the heavy clouds outside, the creeping sun brought a faint light from the window that better fitted her mood. She filled up a bath and peeled off her clothes. Once she was inside, she lay back and lowered her head until her ears were submerged beneath the water. She liked the way the movement of the water sounded. It was all amplified and strange.

Tap! Tap! Tap! … Tap! Tap! … Tap! Tap! Tap! “There was something I wanted to say … but I'll save it for later ... until then, I am just gonna tap my fingers and think of Plrtz Glrb.”

FIN