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5 Ways NFA Probably Didn't End

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i.

One morning, Buffy wakes up beside Angel or Spike, or possibly both, and remembers the morning many years ago when she woke up beside an immortal. In the dawn he was limned in dusky light. Folding back the linen sheets, he asked her bitterly, "Who are you waking up beside? Angel, Spike? Or possibly both?"

"Shh," Buffy said.

The Immortal turned his head to the Venetian blinds in her Roman window, then put the back of his hand over his blue-veined eye-lids. "Rosy fingered dawn," he murmured, and there was silence.

Buffy stirred. "You never told me they were here," she accused. "And you knew."

"And you also."

"Oz could scent out Willow. I thought it was you know, a Lon Chaney walking with the Queen thing." She arched and unfolded, a refraction of the light bending into the blue shadows of the floor. She yawned. "But I smelled him. That's how I knew. It was weird."

"Not very. He reminds me of an exhaust pipe."

"But I had to hear about Angel being here from Andrew."

Something in her voice made him take his hand away from his eyes, spread all its fingers on his chest, folding that foreign and capricious organ inside. Only then did he look at her. "You smelled one and heard of the other. But you still feel them both."

She nodded once, decisively. "Always."

He was frustrated by this answer, and three days later, in the early evening, also by the place-settings. There were four: for the Summers girls, Andrew, and a guest; and the table was inarguably square. These were the true motives for there being four, he informed himself, and tonight there would be no ghosts.

Tonight was her ankles, hooked beneath her chair in the cross he so admired; tonight was the noose of his fingers around the stem as he brought the wine to her lips. And yet, those two empty places, even with the settings and chairs whisked away, those two empty spaces. Tonight he would have her two empty eyes and her two memories, fuller inside of her than he could ever be, the memory of their bodies filling her more replete than he.

Preparing the screw to enforce its leverage, he instead let it hang, impotent, impaled inside the cork. "Your vampire lover is in trouble," he said.

"They always are. I think this needs more salt."

"Here."

"Thank you." She sprinkled the salt and marveled at how it disappeared, right into the sauce on her linguini. "They can take care of themselves."

"You're right. It does need salt. Perhaps also more garlic?"

Over dessert, she closed her eyes and opened them again. "Which one?" she asked. When he did not answer, she insisted, "What's wrong? Will he—they—are they . . . God. Just tell me." He pressed his fork into the mousse and watched it ooze. "Okay?"

He sighed and let the cutlery clatter to his plate. On the other side of the apartment was a canvas bag, the kind used for produce shopping. He had brought the oregano, folded up in paper towels, because her idea of herbs was "hardly flora." Now he drew a leather binder out of it. On the cover was a brand, barbed, round, and burning.

"The Circle of the Black Thorn," he told her, when she asked. "This folder contains information about them. Your lover is a member."

"How would you know?"

"I am too. Though only," quirking a brow, "for old time's sake. They just think I don't read the memos. Or think I don't," scratching his chin, "know what a memo is."

"Spike?"

"Angel. Naturally."

"Angel," she repeated. "Naturally."

Brand outward, the binder was against his chest, another barrier to keep his heart from his voice. His fingers clutched the leather, and he did not let go. "He can take care of himself, you said," he reminded her. "You don't have to take it. You don't have to look."

"You're the one who brought this up," she said. "Give it to me."

"You won't come back."

"Now," she said, and pressed her lips together.

He swallowed. "I'm giving you this because I love you," he said, and finally extended the binder to her.

Buffy reached out two days later to pull Angel out of the way of the dragon's fiery breath and took it, the dragon Angel had called for himself, with a mortal blow. She opened it up with the force of her follow-through: red its insides, black its bones. She looked at the Angel; their eyes met in expectant awareness, and she turned away. There were things to be done; she had a phone call to make.

"Faith, pick up, I found them, can't talk, bring the girls, now." Fighting, one handed, trying to reach the corner to see the street—who'd've thought she'd need an address? Apocalypse came to her, not her to it. Had she ever gone after anything for herself before? Had reaching for the Immortal actually been a pushing away? She was reaching now, reaching her fist into a face, that old red ax into a tentacle, reaching to save them and this city. But perhaps they did not need her to reach. Perhaps she was not reaching but waiting, welcoming their fall with open arms. Perhaps she was catching something that didn't need catching, baby birds falling, perhaps she just could not let go.

Something was infesting this city of Angel's, writhing up the road branches, those crumbled monuments to asphalt, now churning with demons and dead and a lost walkie-talkie. Something was shaking the streets until the children, round and flushed like apples, fell from their beds and cradles. The innocents were crying, Eden-full and falling: knowledge at last of the serpents and worms inside and out of their slithering city. Connor, who had never been in Eden ever, was telling his mother in his coffee stained voice that he knew, he had always known, and that he could save her; angels always saved the fallen ones.

Meanwhile, more were falling . . . and one was toppling in front of Spike's face, limbs twisted like twigs, and in that nest he recognized home. As she went down he surged up, and caught Buffy as she tumbled.

A breath—"Buffy, love, why did you bring a mobile?"

"Faith lost her talkie already."—and back to fight.

Walkie talkies had been implemented by Xander, who was undoubtedly recalling his halcyon days as "Nighthawk," an erstwhile youth in possession of an Indiana Jones whip, a really good Ghostbusters quip, and two good eyes. It was in Africa that he again took up the title, perhaps to soothe the irony when he took up the title of "Watcher". Lacking in depth perception and patience, but not in Slayers or resolve, he gave them girls the choice of being tagged like addax or else developing a system on patrols not unlike that of certain squadrons in Starship Troopers.

He didn't know what addax were, but they read Starship Troopers in the army. Well, he'd never read it, but he'd seen the movie, and The Art of War had nothing on him. When Buffy reached out, took the binder, opened it up, read the insides, black-ant text, and turned from the Immortal, things to do and a phone call to make, she called Xander first. "How are your Slayers?" she asked him. Xander was silent, as he had learned to be, something singular for a man of only twenty-three. "Buffy," he said carefully, "we have an army." Not from his voice, and not from the girls themselves, but from the idea of it, Buffy's mouth watered, and she felt a surge of something, something like sexual desire. Then she said, "bring them," and hung up.

She left her boyfriend, the mousse half-eaten, to find Dawn, who had been having her own night of fingers noose-like on the stem as some He brought wine to her lips. "Sorry," Buffy told the He. "Dawn, we need Willow."

"Can do," Dawn said, and did it, with a white circle on the floor and eighteen words Buffy didn't understand and couldn't say.

When Willow arrived with a small pop! in the center, the white circle collapsed and squirmed inward toward her, twining about her legs and shimmying up her thighs. She giggled and thrust her hands down when it tickled between her legs, Marilyn Monroe on a blowsy vent, and when the wiggly line seeped into her scalp and cascaded her red hair into white, she laughed again, looked at her crotch and said, "At least you know it's au naturel. What's up? Disturbance in the Force?" Buffy frowned, and Willow went on, "Hey, just 'cause I'm goddess girl doesn't mean I can't still try to make with the funny."

"Do or do not, there is no try," Dawn said solemnly.

"Xander taught you well he has." Turning to Buffy, she said, "If it's bad, Kennedy's training a dozen or so Slayers in Argentina. I could, you know, call her."

"Like, with your mind?" Buffy asked.

"Sure. But we modern earth people like to call it a cell phone."

"I always try to get Buffy to use hers," Dawn said. "But she never does."

Fifteen minutes later, after she'd terrified Andrew, just by looking at how his skin fit his body but also by convincing him she could make him queer with her mind, which he still hadn't realized wouldn't necessitate any kind of change in his true preferences, Willow was calling Kennedy. Two days later Kennedy was answering, leading close to three dozen Slayers to the alley Buffy had finally reached the address of. By that time the dark shapes in the sky were visible from miles away, so the address was a moot point, and Willow was saying, "Hello there cutie pah-toody," right there into Kennedy's mind.

"About time," Xander crackled, "we need you on the left flank."

"What is this, social hour? You pussies keep on diddlin, I'm fucking fighting," Faith said, and threw away her walkie-talkie. It bounced on the solid cement, rolled antennae-over-speaker onto the undulating asphalt, floated along there with an antenna mast for a block at least, turned a right, took the feeder to the highway and came to rest at Connor's feet.

"The hell?" he said, and picked it up. "Um, roger?"

"Xander, hold the east; we're coming up the north," Giles crackled into the speakers, and felt rather ridiculous for doing it. Connor shrugged, threw away the talkie, made a clean jump of the highway, hooked a sharp left, went straight for the doomsday in the sky for a block at least, and caught his breath at the—well shit, all the girls.

Something was depurating this city, marching up its road veins like a steady tide of life blood, tamping together the waves of streets into solid ground again. Everything was coming back to solid ground again, solid and true; there were not dragons but shadow plays, not demons but drug-induced hysteria, not apocalypse but a lightning storm folks, please calm down and return to your homes. Everything was building up again, fantasies and fantastic lies against truth, boughs bandaged and children safely back up in cradles; tomorrow they would restack their tumbled blocks of buildings. That falling city had been caught in a web of willing hands, of girl-parts and god-parts, Buffy's red axe and Illyria's blue hair, Xander's good old pseudo-military skiffy quirks and Giles' age old know-how. Angels always saved the fallen ones.

Meanwhile, one more was falling . . . and Spike's hand slammed on top of Buffy's and her leg thrust between his as they surged up into each other to hold Angel up as he fell. They stood there, shoulder to shoulder, his. Angel lifted his head and saw, lingering on the horizon, his son. He smiled and was at home.

Buffy lifted her head too, and saw, threatening on the horizon, the sun. She smiled, looking back at both of them, knowing that one morning, she would wake beside Angel, or Spike, or both. She had reached and caught them, and just could not let go.

 

ii.

One morning, Buffy wakes up from a dream of waking beside Angel, or Spike, or possibly both. Her throat feels like an exhaust pipe, coughing foul air into her mouth and burning away saliva, but her cunt is soggy with the fuel of left-over dreams. She thrusts her hands between her legs, curling her fingers to scrape away the slime there, but soon they are pistoning into herself. She listens to her own grunts and thinks she sounds like an engine, revving toward something, revving to find something.

She remembers the grunting sounds Connor was making, when he was trying to find Angel. Digging through stones, bricks, bones, his fingers scraped and tattered, as if he could just dig far enough—if she can just thrust hard enough—he would find him, Angel, fallen in the rubble—lost in the desolation of her sex.

"Whoever you're looking for," Buffy said, "is dead."

"The fuck you know," he snarled, and went on digging

"I know. And you also."

"I can feel him. Always could somehow, even at the bottom of—the bottom of . . ." He heaved up a corrugated sheet of aluminum, as if he was right under this next piece of drywall—at the bottom of the desolation of his heart . . .

Seeing the boyness, the dollfull childness, the startling leanness of his disproportionately strong arms, Buffy recognized parts of herself now buried. She looked down her own arms, and for a moment blood oozed in laggardly thuds down them, until there were threads sinuously dripping down her fingers, and then she was whole again. Both hands were there, fingers still made for holding on, fingers that would scramble futilely over herself in search of Spike or Angel, the way Connor's bloody hands were scrambling in earth and asphalt in similar pursuit. "Who was it?"

"My dad."

"Spike?"

Flicking her a scornful look he said, "Angel. Duh."

"Angel," she repeated. "Duh. I can feel him, too. Both of them. Always."

The Immortal had been frustrated by this, when she had said the same thing five days ago, and three days after that, in the early evening, also by the place-settings. He expressed it, in the end, by reaching out to her, and Buffy took the binder, opened it up, read the insides; then turned from him. She had things to do, among them find her sister and have her draw a white circle and speak eighteen words Buffy didn't understand and couldn't say. "Hurry up," Buffy snapped, when the salt from Dawn's hands seemed to spill at an agonizingly slow pace.

"I'm trying," Dawn said, and later winced when she told Willow, "Do, or do not." In this sudden, wince-inspiring spirit of doing, not trying, Dawn realized for the third or maybe thirtieth time in her life that she did not fit in with doing. She did not fit behind Buffy's axe. She did not fit in the white circle on the floor, which Willow had sucked up anyway and which now was a hard star of petrified hardwood where the witch had stood.

She fit in Giles' study in his Sumerset home, in the leather chair which puffed up like baking bread when she left it and squashed, buttery and soft, when she huddled up in it. His books felt familiar, the letters like life-lines in a gypsy's handshake when she ran her fingers over them. "I know this," she muttered two days later. Giles ducked his head in. "Can we order Chinese?" she asked, looking up from the text. "I'm going to get a big dish of beef chow mein."

"Lee Ho Fooks is in Soho."

"Doesn't have to be Lee Whatever. Hey, here it is a again."

Giles's smirk dropped; his eyes, following, lowered to the tome cradled in her knowing hands. He stepped into the room, arms behind him closing the door, occipital skull resting for a moment on the wood before his head went down, his glasses, following, lowered from his face to be cleaned—perhaps for the last time, he thought, before Buffy killed him. "Why are you doing this?" he croaked.

"Hello? Apocalypse? Didn't you get the memo? Or maybe you don't know what a memo is," she muttered irritably. "This. This has to mean something."

"No. You personally. Dawn, why are you doing this?"

"I don't have a complex." Dawn snapped the book shut. "We all have issues. Example, the early nineties. I mean, I'm just thankful me dressed like that is a fake memory. But I don't have a problem with being normal either. I mean, I don't want to be a Slayer or a witch or a rabid dog or anything like that. I don't even want to save the world with crayons because that's so totally Xander's thing. I just want to be me. And me? Is someone who helps people. And generally uses better grammar. I do what I can, the things I can do. So, yeah, I flew here on my own, without Buffy's permission, but I'm doing my own thing. I'm research girl, that's who I am, where I fit in, but I do it because it's who I am—"

Giles nodded, unfolded his glasses, and put them back on. "It's not all you are."

"If you're going to order Chinese, just do it."

"You're research . . . ahem . . . girl, but that part of you was grafted onto what you were before. A key."

"Okay Pod Person, I just told you I'm over those make me a real girl issues, and what have you done with Gi—. . . Hey. You mean like . . ." Dawn opened the book, leafed through the pages, and jabbed her finger down like a stake. "Right here. I keep finding references."

"There's more," Giles said, walking to his desk. "I only found it recently. I wanted to keep it from you. I wanted . . ." He took a key out of his pocket and put his thumb on the brass lock of a drawer. Giles swallowed. "I'm giving you this because I love you," he said. He stepped back and gave her the key. Dawn turned the lock.

She opened herself two days later with a paring knife, because the book in the drawer hadn't said she needed a ceremonial dagger, although it might've been nicer than plain cutlery; she took out herself, the key, and opened her veins, red her insides, black the night. Blood oozed in laggardly thuds down her arms, until there were threads sinuous and sullen dripping down her phalanges, rosy fingered Dawn.

Something was unleashing this city, all the pockmark graves erupting, its alley orifices belching their filth to the surface, zits and warts and all. The freeway furrows of its face were cracking; just underneath the angelic mask has always lain . . . the Home Office . . . The children, so long locked up safe in paradise, were opening their closets to things that go bump in the night, opening to their secrets, their horrors, their nightmares because at last they know they're true. Connor, who had lived here before, was telling his mother in his coffee-stained voice that beautiful faces could be ugly, and ugly faces beautiful; that was something he'd learned once. When the nightmares awoke outside his family's home, he was not at first worried. There were guardian angels protecting paradise.

Blocks away, Angel was. "Personally, I kind of want to slay the dragon," he said.
"Let's go to work." Buffy reached to pull Angel out of the way of the dragon's fiery breath, to take it with a mortal blow, to open it up with the force of her follow-through. "No," Angel said. Their eyes met in expectant awareness. "Mine," he told her, and took the dragon for himself. She turned away and let him go. There were things to be done; she had a phone call to make.

Meanwhile, Dawn was pouring her life into the city's veins, because it's a proven fact mingling of blood types always unlocks the true face of evil . . . and a big black maw was opening up under her feet as the city screamed. Everything went sucking toward that one, suctioning vortex . . . and one was slipping in front of Spike's face, limbs twisted like twigs, and in that nest he recognized home. As she slithered forward he dragged her back, and saved Buffy from being swallowed.

A breath—"Buffy, love, why the bloody hell did you bring Dawn?"

"I didn't; I—"—a glance into the mouth of Hell, which Buffy thought, almost irritably, Spike had closed—Then saw her sister.

"No. Buffy, you can't—"

She wrestled free. "Spike, let me go." He did, and she went.

Dawn was flying. Buffy and Willow had left her there, standing in Willow's petrified circle, and she had flown to England because that was who she was. There she had opened a drawer, taken out a book, opened it, read the insides, black-ant text, and then flown to LA—because that was who she was. She floated over the portal she had made . . . who she was.

She knew at last where she fit, and it was into this gaping sore beneath her, after the demons and darkness and the last of her blood had been ingested into it. She would fit neatly and tightly, like a cork, sealing it up and off, and though it was not what she had wanted for her life, nor what Buffy would want for her life, Xander might just approve because there was that whole "Gatekeeper/Keymaster" thing in Ghostbusters. She was a woman who might've grown old and had children and made bawdy jokes about her gate, wink wink, but she was also a key. She had been made to fit.

"Dawn, no!" Buffy was screaming.

"Yes," Dawn said, and bled harder. "I want to give you a good speech, like you gave me. But I can't think of a good one, so I'll just say it's payback."

"No!" Buffy was reaching for her, as Buffy was always reaching for her, waiting to catch her with open arms. Buffy was reaching to catch something that didn't need catching, baby birds falling; she just could not let go.

"Let go." For a moment there was silent except for the dripping of blood. "Let me give you my gift," Dawn said, and flew.

Fell.

Plummeted, and plugged her portal up with a sonic swallow that made the streets pitch and roll, sending a walkie talkie antennae-over-speaker for a block at least, where it turned a right, took the feeder to the highway and came to rest at Connor's feet.

"The hell?" he said, and picked it up. "Um, roger?" Met with silence, Connor held on tight to the talkie, made a clean jump of the highway, hooked a sharp left, went straight for a block at least, and caught his breath at the gaping hole in the middle of the city, full to the brim with rubble and remains.

Hours later, Buffy found him. She looked down her arms at her hands, her fingers still made for holding on. She could have reached out, caught them, not let Angel take on that dragon, not let Spike let her go, not let Dawn be herself, be brave, do that hardest thing in the world—live. She could have held on.

She held on to Connor. Months afterward she was still holding on, fingers scrambling futilely over that startling leanness in search of something, as if in the hours he was gone he could have opened himself and lost himself in the city as Dawn had. He had left their make-shift shelter without telling her. She'd thought she'd never see him again.

"Don't you go off like that. Don't you ever—ever—" In the force of that maternity, hen-like hands scratching threads down his arms to his fingers, her breasts were feathery against his chest, revealing to him the softness of her nest. Buffy and Connor were close like a barn, animals huddled together for warmth. Then he kissed her, his red door mouth opening against hers, hot and easy, a creature comfort.

"No." She pushed him away. "No." Not because he had tried it, and also not because he felt like a son to her and she felt like his mother. No, because he felt like a son to her, she had wanted him to try it. To close the circle of their kinship, to deepen her hold on him. "No," she said again, and reached to brush his hair from his eyes. "Let me give you this," she said quietly. "Let me give you what you had in one life, and never got to know in your other."

And so she gave him family.

And if she touched herself at night, when she was between the starchy sheets and he was in his own room, he knew it wasn't because family wasn't enough, but because family was everything. He imagined her small hand scratching her puffy, blood-logged envelope of flesh; he heard her crying as she did it, stalled and jump-start sobs. And though she called out his father's name; he knew that who she cried for was her sister.

And when he took a hold of his red and angry cock, and did not let go of his memories of mother, it wasn't Buffy he was thinking of. He was dreaming of Cordelia, and weeping for the mother false memories had made for him, and didn't even have the room to cry out for the unfalse mother he had never known at all.

 

iii.

One morning, four a.m., Dawn awakens to a rattling at the kitchen door. Through reflection on established routine she apprehends that the interloper is not Angel but Spike. As she flips over to her back in bed, she touches on the reversal, the fact that Angel should be the one to return before the sunrise and Spike should be making her pancakes four hours hence. And yet, such a reversal was in effect only once, and Spike had been very much awake at that time, not sleeping still as death like Angel now.

There had been a shuffling at the kitchen door. "You better not let him in," Spike suggested, sitting on the counter. "Little old lady got mutilated last night."

"You're not serious. It sounds like Angel."

"Art of War, nibblet. It can take a ma—someone down a bit."

"Don't be an asshole, Spike." Dawn, holding a stake behind her, opened the door.

"Buffy . . . ?" Angel gasped.

Spike looked away, not wanting to hear the hope in that voice. "Take a man down," he repeated. Meanwhile, Angel was falling . . . and Spike was slipping off the counter, hand slamming on top of Dawn's and her leg tangling in his to hold Angel up as he went down, because he'd forgotten Dawn wasn't Buffy and didn't have her reflexes, because he'd forgotten he was only human and should've used more muscle than this. Angel slammed down up close and personal with the kitchen tile, rethinking the idea that there had been anything in Rome to catch him.

He'd been falling a month ago when Connor had caught him, pulled him out of the way of the dragon's fiery breath and took it, the dragon Angel had called for himself, with a mortal blow. His killer grace, not words, told Angel I'm taking this from you because I love you, and the force of his follow-through left him open to the attack on the right. His abdomen splattered, red his insides, black his glare, not words, that said: where the fuck did that . . .? That was the first time Angel thought of Rome. Where the fuck could he . . . ? Escape that; how was he supposed to stand that? How was he supposed to stand?

Rome. Since the end of the nineteenth century he had felt a bitter resentment of that city, its ruined monuments like bones attesting to a desecration of beauty his soulless self could only crudely imitate; its immortal gods and its Immortal trifling and petty next to his dead self, yet somehow exalted, more remembered, its civilization more ancient than he; its failed humanity, failed justice, stark white pillars that would yield to dust, as would he.

With distaste he regarded its stinking streets, its filthy grottos, the shadows blue like bruises in the alleys, when Illyria slammed into a brick wall and went through, catapulting back a block at least, leaving blue pieces of Fred along the way. With a seething animosity he considered its cats, those scavengers of ruins and parasites of tourists, when Gunn stood up for the last time, looking very much as he had when he came down from the White Room for the last time: dauntless and hopeless. Angel hated the mopeds, the Vespas and the scooters, when he realized it had been hours since he had seen Spike, and that Spike'd been sitting in the driver's seat in Rome racing down those cobbled streets, and that fucking pissed him off. Not that he'd've let Spike get behind him, either.

Something was stealing this city of Angel's, leeching the strength from these hands that held its streets safe, his blood that was the brother of every citizen—their forefathers his repast, their descendents his dependents, his dick that had tried to drive him down and down, down into Hell, where the elevator doors had opened to reveal nothing but . . . his city. Something was thieving childhood, snatching up innocence, grostesque-misshaping into prayerful half-memories Connor in his crib, friendship bleeding in the bushes, fatherhood and innocence snatched up, swallowed whole, and stolen from him who was this city. Where the fuck could he . . . ? Escape that; how was he supposed to stand that? How was he supposed to stand?

Rome. He felt a bitter longing for that city. Its pillars would yield to dust, but it would still be standing, life rebirthing and rebuilding in its death and ruins. Rome was a city built atop a ruined city atop a city, and she was at its center, Buffy atop a dead Buffy atop a dead Buffy. Through it all she went on living—even loving, enjoying, still fighting, and he had always wanted to live that way, and so he lived his death with the hidden hope that he might live as she. As a youth he used to dream of Rome—its art, history, freedom, and life. Life, a pillar that would not yield to dust.

As it settled in LA, choppers sliced the air and kicked it up in clouds, swirling that dust with smoke and ash. The military was come to clean up his mess, to steal his consequences from him. Angel didn't care; he was coming home.

He was coming for the one thing that hadn't been stolen from him but from which he had walked away; he was coming to take what she would offer; he was coming—Spike was coming, Dawn realized, as he buried himself inside her many months later. Afterwards, he rolled off of her, and sat up. She started to reach for him, but drew her hand back.

"No, bit, it's not like that," he said, seeing the look in her eyes. "There'll petting and . . . under covers stuff. Just can't make it right without a fag." The cigs were in his jacket, which was still in the kitchen. Neither of them had planned this.

She nodded and he left her. The smell of the hotwings that had smeared out of their mouths and hands and laps when they furtively began clutching each other made her feel sticky and soggy in the wrong places. Static played on the television. The Ghostbusters marathon must be over, she guessed. "Spike," she said, and turned her head.

"Angel. Sorry."

"Angel?" Dawn grabbed the covers, which she belatedly realized were smeared with hotwings too. She winced, and pulled them closer over her nakedness. "Sorry."

Angel looked from her to the smear of red across the hard star of petrified hardwood where the witch had stood. In the jazz blue night, it looked like blood. Around the sticky-soggy smell of hot sauce, he smelled blood in the sheets, too. "What can I do?" he asked quietly.

Her sob was a jump-start to a break down. "I just miss her. I miss her so much." After shaking out the winter blanket, clean and unused, Angel wrapped the whole of her in it as he would swaddle a child. He stood by for a moment to watch her cry, and she clutched at him until he held her.

"I'm—bloody hell." Spike walked in. "Two seconds! Two seconds, and what're you doing; you're—"

"You shouldn't have left her alone," Angel said.

"Right, 'cause you know all about making a girl feel good the morning after."

Spike reached for her. Angel's hands tightened on her. Dawn scowled, looking from one to the other. "I'm not . . ." She hiccoughed and looked down. "I'm not Buffy."

Spike looked away from her. Angel immediately released her. After a moment, Spike said softly, "Didn't think for a second you were."

"Spike," Angel said. "Outside." Above his protest: "Now." Spike said he wasn't budging from that spot, and he didn't until Angel wrapped his hand around his neck and pushed until he was slammed against the wall of Angel's bedroom, door locked so Dawn couldn't get in. She was pounding.

"Can't do this," Spike gasped. He clawed at the hand at his neck. "Haven't got the right. Has bugger-all to do with—"

"You have everything to do with me."

"Great, now that you've finally admitted it, we can move from denial on into the stage of get your sodding mitts off me!"

Angel did not let go. His eyes looked black. Spike's eye-sight had gone all to hell with a beating heart, but he could still see things. There was hunger in that blackness.

"Fuck, Angel," he breathed. "I'm . . . not Buffy, either."

Angel sneered. Brought his face up close, squeezed his fingers.

"Need—"

"What? What do you think you need, Spike?" His voice was a thrust in Spike's ear, the kind of voice he'd used to egg him on fucking a girl when she was already dead.

"—to breathe," Spike guttered in response.

Angel's hand loosened a fraction.

"Human now; didn't get the memo, did we?" Spike said, already snarking on the little air he had. "You even know what a—"

"It's not like I forgot. Spike." Angel's other hand gripped his hair and jerked his head back. "And no. I didn't get anything. Not one thing."

Still struggling to breathe, air too thin for his too big lungs, Spike tried to snort. "Well boo-bloody-hoo! You got us, and if you let me go within the next maybe now, we might just let by with a quick stake in the heart if we see your sorry arse again." Angel let go. Spike straightened his shoulders and realized he was still naked. "Fucked this straight to Hell, didn't you? Bit's in there having a seizure, I'll bet."

Angel looked at the door. The pounding had stopped. "Dawn." His voice was dull. "You shouldn't have fucked her, Spike. You won't make her happy."

"Happy? Not for a good long while. That back there was grief. Let us have ours." Spike let up and stalked over to the door, his nude backside sculpted, gorgeous, defiant. He turned his head, not quite looking back. "You could too, if you'd only keep your great hulking hands to yourself." He waited half a moment, head still turned, and Angel took a step forward.

Outside, Dawn slung Spike aside to pummel her fists into Angel until he gathered her up and she again dissolved into tears. With an angry glare, Spike disengaged her and brought her back to her room. Almost obediently, Angel followed.

At the doorway, Dawn hesitated, looking from one to the other. "He thinks he's taking care of us, the lousy bastard," Spike told her. "Believe that?" He took her hand and they curled up on the bed, while Angel sat in the chair across the room. They slept, and looked like children.

Some time in the night Spike's hand reached out to palm her breast, and she mewled assent. Though they were beneath the blankets, Angel knew the way those muscles worked when they covered her. The moonlight caught the newly acquired sun-freckles, rippling as he moved, and Angel knew what each thrust must feel like. William had died a virgin and Angel had taught him how to fuck them as they died.

Angel closed his eyes against the echoes, and in that synesthetic state heard scenes he didn't want to touch. Connor inside Cordelia, and—Buffy? "You're dead," he told her. She'd died fighting his battle in LA, and he'd come to Rome without even knowing it.

"Yeah, being dead, that just keeps happening. Look at them," she said, and pointed at the bed. "They're living."

And then Angel had his grief, though he kept his hands to himself. Spike kissed, over and over, worked until she was blood-logged and rosy, fingered Dawn and let the night wrap them up for Angel's eyes. To Angel, it felt like a gift.

"You know, I'm grateful," Connor had told him in the coffee shop all those months ago. "That's as far as I want to take it." Wasn't going to happen, was it, mouth still stained with coffee hours later, and something of Angel's sad in his own eyes when he looked in the mirror and guessed he was the closest thing to a reflection his real father had ever had. Angel had acted furtive a couple hours ago in the coffee shop, acted like he was stealing time. Connor had had enough time stolen from him to know what that felt like.

Connor'd always savored a good taste, thought it was just a thing with him, but since that fight with Vail he'd guessed it was more because there hadn't been too many things good on Quor-Toth. So when Angel sent him away again he obeyed, still remembering the taste of that mocha, unconsciously still warmed up by that last look of love, accepting that last meeting and this last gift. Another saving the world from Angel, making it a better place for his son.

But at his house there were demons piling out the doors, and Connor moved so fast he wasn't again in focus until he was surrounded by body parts and ooze, and his family and the dog were staring at him with frightened eyes. He knew what that felt like, your innocence snatched up, your childhood thieved, grostesque-misshaping into prayerful half-memories the mother and father he'd thought was his—the son they'd thought was theirs. A gift, his mother had called him. They looked at him as if they'd never seen him before.

"This wasn't always me," he tried to explain. He wondered if he'd ever given Angel a chance to explain, whether that was what he would've said. Slipped into his fangs and amber eyes—his true face, Holtz called it—and said, "This wasn't always me." Probably not. Connor thought of Jasmine, how beautiful faces could be ugly, and ugly faces beautiful. "Or maybe it was. I don't even fucking know." Everything had been taken from him.

Twenty minutes later, Angel was saying, "Well, personally, I kind of want to slay the dragon. Let's go to work."

"Like hell you get all the fun."

"Connor! Fuck, don't—"

"Get your own dragon, old man." His killer grace, not words, told Angel, I'm taking this from you because I love you.

iv.

One morning, Buffy wakes up to her throat feeling like an exhaust pipe, coughing foul air into her mouth and burning away saliva, her cunt soggy with the fuel of left-over dreams. Her hand's heel digs deep against her hipbone in deference to a feeling of aversion and perhaps nausea; then she ruthlessly thrusts the heel down the crease between torso and thigh and finds herself, curling her fingers to scrape away the slime there. After several moments of her nails scrambling over damp flesh, thinking dispassionately and for reasons unknown of and man's hard heels clacking over black and white tile then slipping and tumbling headlong into only black, her fingers are pistoning into herself.

She can't get there. Her knuckles are raw-rubbing against the sheet's crosshairs as she trenches against the target of her fingers, over and over again; the flesh she's scraping is gummy. It's all very much like killing, sinking her knuckles into the occipital of a skull and after the bone smashes, the quivering mess of blood and what used to be a visual perception system. The matter feels like meat, solid, tight-packed, or pulpy maybe like fruit: rooting in herself for pomegranate seeds, as if she could dredge just that much deeper she'd make it to Hell.

The cool touch brings the little death that gets her there. Oh yeah, she recalls. Hell isn't hot. It's the cool, dry place that she's mossed up and made damp with her womb. It's a breezy breath in her mouth, a thing-like presence against hers. It's comfort and death. "Spike."

The cool touch from the broad hand disappears instantly. "No. Angel."

"No," she repeats, as he pushes up and puts his legs over. "Angel." He stops but doesn't look at her. His shoulders are hunched over. "I wanted you."

"Did you love him?"

"Very much. I very much wanted to."

He lifts his head and stares at the opposite wall. "I wanted to love Cordelia very much."

Not quite the same thing. She hesitates, begins to play with the hairs on his neck. "Just so we're clear, I think I did."

His head tilts back until she's cupping his skull. His eyes are closed. "I know I did. In a way."

It will later occur to her that he's not talking about Cordelia on that one, but not now. Now she uses both her hands to lift one of his, and leans in over one of his shoulders, her hair brushing the bone-blade, to delicately sniff his life-line--it was the hand that had thrust two fingers inside of her. It smells salty and alive. She kneels behind him on the bed, rising up above him, and brings his hand to her breast. "You can't lose your soul if it's not for us," she says.

He tugs down his hand and turns, pressing open mouthed and firm-lipped in that spot between her breasts. So much blood behind that spot, so much life, so much lost and still to be lived. "Yes," he tells her, and his mouth follows the pointing arrow of her sternum to the dip of her belly, then to part the heavy curtains of her red flesh.

Buffy lies back and lets him. He licks her, laves her labia, carefully searching her. She wonders what he thinks they're looking for. She does not sink her hands into his hair. She stares up at the ceiling of the hotel they had found, where Angel said he'd lived before with his friends. She had looked at him warily at the time. Angel had never said he'd lived before. Is that what they are searching for, she wonders now, life?

She is a tomb; only a dead thing risen from the grave would look for life in her. But no, it was wrong to think of Angel that way; he believed . . . She was a cave, dripping wet in the depths of her, but also mother earth and somehow dark. His gentle, very warm-now tongue finds her clit. She was the womanly night, thrust through by hard male stars. Dawnie used to stare at them through her telescope, looking for life.

Was that how it was?—her baby sister, because she was curious, seeking life? Even seeking the life within herself? It was the thievery of her innocence, but the beginning of her adulthood. Dawn spread her portal and thrust herself into it. It was self-exploration, discovery, experimentation, womanhood. Amazing that Angel's tongue can find that out.

Buffy looks at her hands, spread on the sheets beside her hips, clenching and unclenching. Blood oozes in laggardly thuds down her arms, until there are threads sinuous and sullen dripping down her fingers. Her eyes squench shut, with their tears tangled in lashes leaking out of the corners. She is blossoming under Angel's touch, like a rose; his fingers are firm on her hips to steady her bucking, and Dawn, Dawn fuck; she just misses her sister.

He whispers into her, breath hot and wet with her. "Let go."

"I can't."

"You can. Just let go. For me."

Buffy remembers how tightly wound he was, that first, that only night they made love. That look on his face as he gave himself up to her had been the shock of her absolution; she had given him his forgiveness. "Let me give you my gift," Dawn had said. Buffy cries out and lets go.

"Knew you could do it," he says minutes later, and smirks, hands linked over her abdomen, chin resting on the folded wrists.

"Come here," she says, and lugs him up. She licks his lips, then gets impatient, and thrusts her tongue inside. She loves the taste of herself on him. She wants to swallow it, get down into it—in his throat or inside him. Is this how a man feels, she wonders, wanting to be surrounded, possessing all of it?

"Buffy—?" he asks, when she bites his tongue and he's pulled away. He hasn't found that Buffy yet; he hasn't found the parts of her that like the pain.

Her answer to his question isn't sex. Instead she flips her hair in that bouncy to-tease-Spike way she'd acquired, and guides his mouth to her bared neck. He lurches away. In his eyes is a betrayed look, an accusation of how could you? With a scowl and a furrowed brow she tugs once on his shirt, thrusting her throat against his mouth. This is how it feels, she confirms; it's wanting to get this pulsing, vulnerable part of yourself encased and swallowed by that dark wet welcoming cavern. This is how a cock gets inside a cunt and a man fucks out his soul.

A struggle ensues. It ends when she feels the mash of his teeth against his lips beneath her knuckles. He licks the trickle of blood trailing down his chin unconsciously. He is hurt and angry and almost indignant, as if he had that right. "If you want to be that way about it, tie me down."

She blinks. "Angel . . ." Some part of her wants to explain. Some other part of her wants to hit him again.

He is seeing her for the first time. His eyes are growing darker in a strange simulacrum of her own pulse, each moment blacker and closer to death. She knows his cock is throbbing. "Buffy," he breaths, wondering now and excited about it, just thought of it, like a boy. "Do it." Her mouth opens. "Do it right now."

She does not tie him down. Instead she brings her manacles, and his eyes are where did you get those? She ignores him and lifts his arms so his hands lock behind the bed post, biting her tongue in concentration as she studies the cuff then snaps it closed. Her whip-tongue fingers lick down the awkward arabesque of his white arms, then coil into fists to rip his shirt open. She tugs off his pants and mounts his narrow hips, her knees on either side a vise. "What do you want?"

Despite her husky voice, she is with that question Buffy his virgin girl, with her loopy, scrawling "Buffy n' Angel 4ever" handwriting and chubby cheeks. In an awful moment of allusion he thinks of Connor and slowly and deliberately turns his face away from hers.

She understands. Her finger-pads dig deep, like age-wrinkles in his skin, when Buffy turns his head to her. Through little, white clenched teeth, she tells him, "Look at me when I am talking to you."

He swallows. Her other hand, restive on his throat, suddenly tightens, her thumb working as counterbalance to his jutting Adam's apple. She presses downward, thumb-printing his throat, until he gags and wonders if this is what cock feels like, if this is what Spike felt like. "Does it hurt?" she ask.

"Yes," he gasps, around the vomit-feeling. Her hand jerks away in a catching-a-moth motion, hovering over the hollow above his collar bones, claw-like, encasing something-about-to-die. "Yes. God—more."

She takes her hands away and slips off of him, annulling the cross her body erect on his had made, the way they fit together. She leaves the room and it feels so flat, the weak, watery light through the horizontal blinds, his sloping, planar body on her straight and narrow bed, the only perpendicular his red and jutting cock.

It had all been so straightforward, combing and parting and plaiting the streets for survivors, before he had entered the hotel this morning. And then he'd heard her in her room above him, grunting as if digging through stones, bricks, bones, her fingers scraped and tattered, as if she could just dig far enough—if she could just thrust hard enough—she would find them—Dawn, Giles, Willow, Xander . . . Spike, fallen in the rubble—lost in the desolation of her sex. He had come to her with pity, lay down beside her with a thought to creature comfort. Her hot cunt and sweaty small hand had burned him, branded him, reminded him that they were so much more than pity and comfort, and destroyed it all with a name on her lips that hadn't been his.

She comes back hours later, still naked and holding a knife, just cutlery, like a weapon. She does not stop to admire the eager, teenager way his cock jumps to parallel her, but with simple economy of movement struts forward. Folding herself neatly into an athletic "L" shape standing beside him, she plants the knife straight up and down and draws it down his chest, one two three. One at a time the narrow cuts begin to ream out pretty ribbons of blood. Her nipples, sharp as bird's beaks on her gently swaying breasts, cut up the ribbons and drag upward, to his mouth. They hold there for him until his lips at last obediently drop open and his own blood thips eagerly inside.

The pain of it, her beloved body as the instrument of his torture, is almost enough to let him bear it. The sight of her small, abused breasts are pinpricks to his consciousness; he's awake, awake, with Buffy, not dreaming, this is not a dream . . . She's so solemn, so sterile with him and austere that it feels real. She straddles him and tells him, so soft like sweet nothings in his ears, the knife point on his chest, "Maybe you want the other end." She turns the knife over, fingering the handle. "Maybe you want me to fuck you from behind."

His eyes contract with lust.

"You should have a scar here," she goes on, exactly as if she doesn't care. Now she is fingering his unmarred chest. He knows now what she's finding—not his life but his death, all those things that have been stolen from him—Connor, twice now, first by a friend who should've known better, second by a dragon that should've been his. And herself—all those chances they never had: Buffy, who is no longer the girl he knew.

"Close your eyes," she demands, and he does. Then she plunges the knife down.

"Angel," she whispers, pressing her fingers down against the wound. There are tears in her eyes. "Angel, it was too far; I'm so—"

"Need," he pants, cutting through her, baring his teeth and looking away. His hips buck up. "Need you."

"Oh. Well," she brightens, "could have said so." And she very carefully, with finality, puts the knife beside them on the table.

In a haze of pain and blood and her thrusting, forceful hips he sees her, pink all over and pretty, head thrown back and taking him, in over and over. "Give it to me," she's saying. She's cut away his Buffy, the girl he remembered. Why, he wants to know, why?

She's taking him so deep; her muscles are clenching so tightly; it's all so unbelievably good. I'm taking this from you because I love you, Connor had said. "Give—give it to me—"

"I love you," Angel replies, and gives.

Something is aging this City of Angels, exhausting its streets in a tired, run-down way with dust and dandruff, the clean-up crews sweeping through like adolescents finally maturing into mustaches, too old now to be fresh-faced. The children are all growing up, and it isn't theft after all but merely life, learning the true face of beauty is always like waking from Jasmine's spell, it's life; falling out of Eden is knowledge at last, it's life. Angel and Buffy is not the spell it was; it's fallen and weak, ugly with truths to raw to bear, a theft of what came before. It's life, and they will live with it.

Later, cleaned up and unburdened, in his sheets which are cleaner than hers, he tells her about Connor. Inconsequential things, how he smelled, how he fit in Angel's arms, how he looked when he fought. "His hair was perfect," Angel concludes. Then they make love.

 

v.

One morning, LA bursts in tendrils of rosy fingered dawn, and a flash of smoke, and is never quite the same again. As the dawn deepens and the differences settle in LA that first day, choppers slice the air and kick dust up in clouds, swirling it with crumbled asphalt and a lost walkie-talkie somewhere, the same walkie-talkie that hours ago, rolled antennae-over-speaker for a block at least, turned a right, took the feeder to the highway and came to rest at Connor's feet.

"The hell?" he said, and picked it up. "Um, roger?"

"Xander, we're trapped. Bloody—pull out. We're down. Pull out now; get—" Giles crackled into screams and dying sounds on the speakers. Connor shrugged, threw away the talkie, went straight for the doomsday in the sky for a block at least, and caught his breath at the—well shit, all the dead girls, Kennedy and her three dozen. Then he saw the dragon. "Like hell you get all the fun," he said, and started fighting. Because hey, it was a dragon.

Faith was fighting, too. Connor caught her, pulled her out of the way of the dragon's fiery breath and took it, the dragon Angel had called for himself, with a mortal blow.

"Fucker killed Angel," Faith grunted. "Who're you?"

"Killed Angel?" Connor asked, and the force of his shock left him open to the attack on the right. His abdomen splattered, red his insides, black his glare, not words, that said: where the fuck did that . . .?

"Well if you'd've been looking," Faith said, and went on fighting.

The military is come to clean up Angel's mess and the ashes the dragon left of him, the clean-up crews to sweep through like adolescents finally maturing into mustaches. Angel was too old now to be so fresh-faced; he should have known better, Riley thinks later. His hand is just touching Sam's knee, and there is a trace of a smile. They are not the honeymoon they were before; their love is fallen and weak, ugly with truths to raw to bear, a theft of what came before. It's life, and they will live with it.

In one of the make-shift shelters, Anne is making beds, careful to crease the corners, even though some of them will never be clean again. She heaps the worst bedding in a pile. On a pillow case, she finds a blood stain. Gunn had somehow survived the battle. He had used a cloth to staunch the blood on the stump of his elbow, unaware that his abdomen had finally given in and entrails were beginning to wind their way out of his stomach. Anne scrubs for a long time. She won't ever get the stain out, but she will wash it, nevertheless. She will dry it. She will fold it. Then she will go make another bed with it, careful to crease the corners, even though some of them will never be clean.

Clem clears his throat, sees Sergeant Finn's kitten, and raises three. He wonders whatever happened to Spike, just as Angel had when he realized it had been hours since he'd seen him, and that Spike'd been sitting in the driver's seat racing down those cobbled streets, and that fucking pissed him off. Not that he'd've let Spike get behind him, either.

As for that vampire, he had heard his name, spoken once, "Spike," and felt his heart beat.

"Fuck," Spike replied, sinking to his knees. "Angel. It was supposed to be Angel."

"Angel," the voice said. "Together you were powerful. Alone you are dead."

Mortal now, Spike whipped around to find the voice, took a blow to the head, and never got up again. This is Angel's fault. This is Angel's fault. Angel's fault. Angel's fault fault fault. For Justine, every day, the thought is the same: This is Angel's fault. "Why wasn't I there?" she wants to know. Strangely, these are Buffy's thoughts; "why wasn't I there," she wants to know, "when Dawn decided to spread her portal?"

After a day and a half of little sleep and less rest, Justine's sight's gone blurry and she hits Harmony's hip with the crossbow, not her heart. Harmony, who has returned to feed on the dead and dying—easy prey, and Angel never let her have human—plucks out the dart and advances. Justine, with a force borne of exhaustion, slams Harmony against the wall, jerks open the vampire's pink floral print skirt, and fucks her hard with her fingers, until there is blood—perhaps because Harmony is nothing like her dead twin sister, nothing like at all.

Blood from Harmony's hip and cunt oozes in laggardly thuds down Justine's arms, until there are threads sinuous and sullen dripping down her fingers. At the last moment, Buffy had tried to save Dawn, and got sucked into the portal too. She just could not let go.

She is blossoming with Harmony under her, like a rose; her fingers are firm on her hips to steady her bucking, and Julia, Julia, (Dawn, Dawn) , fuck; they just miss their sisters.

"Mulholland Drive, much?" Harmony asks, when Justine bites her tongue and pulls away. Justine's answer to the question isn't sex. Instead she flips her hair in a bouncy way she'd never acquired, and guides Harmony to her bared neck with red fingers. Harmony shrugs, thinks, "Take that, Angel. This is for saying I didn't know what a memo was," and bites down.

Oz is fucking a monster. Nina came to him a week ago in England, saying Angel sent her. "Werewolves of London." he'd said. "See, it was werewolf, but now it's werewolves. Can't have that. Next we'll be drinking piña coladas." So they'd both gone back to LA.

His monster has black hair, blue veins that stand out from her face, and pupils the size of quarters; her eyes are holes like her tugging, tenacious sex and he is falling in—loved a girl once. Loved her innocent greenness, her, the way she always smelled like herbs. There was a seed of darkness in her he never penetrated far enough to touch, but a woman did, a woman did. He never saw the seed, and he never saw the blossom either, never saw the skin of the seed fold out, inside out, fall away so that the thing inside could rise up old and ancient, weeping willow, mother goddess. He tries to fuck that monster and that spirit—the woman she became, the woman he never knew and shouldn't mourn so much—but there is no white hair black, only blonde. And when he closes his eyes, he sees only red.

Eve is still looking for Lindsey and that Sahrvin lair. He had told her they were like a fairytale, and fairytales ended happily ever after. Even when they didn't, they didn't end like this. He couldn't have been killed by some random demon or a—a falling building or something like that; he was supposed to have last words. It should've been epic. Angel was epic. Lindsey should've been, too.

"Whoa, epic," Andrew had said, after Xander had exploded the giant. "Like Ghostbusters, only you can't eat the guts. Or I don't think so. Xander, do you think you could eat the—"

Xander was on the ground in a pool of blood. "You should—" he gasped, feeling blood in his throat—how had it gotten in his throat?—"You should tell Willow—"

"Nuh-uh. Have you seen how she looks at the way my skin fits?"

"Shut the fuck up, Andrew. I'm trying to say my last words here and you're . . ." Xander coughed. "Just tell Buffy and Dawn I love them. And tell Willow . . . I love her crayon-breaky self."

"Okay, yeah. But on a scale of one to ten, I'm giving that a four. Hal Jordan's last words were better. Xander!" Andrew shook his shoulders. "Don't die! You can't just . . ."

Dazedly, Xander put his hand to his mouth. There was blood coming out of his mouth—how had blood gotten up to his mouth? "Andrew. I am not saying the Green Lantern Oath."

"But you had to admit it was epic. Come on, Xander. Do you feel cold? They always say they feel the cold. You can't die like this!"

Andrew was panicking, Xander realized sluggishly. "How'd I end up dying with you?" Xander wanted to know.

"Hey! Snap out of it! Don't die; please, please, don't die."

Andrew was crying now, that idiot, Xander thought. They were in the middle of a battlefield, and Andrew would die crying and alone, somehow wanting to be a hero. Xander rolled his eyes and started the Green Lantern Oath. "In the brightest day, in the darkest night, no evil . . ."

In an LA suburb, Kate Lockley is mourning her newly dead husband and helping refugees from deeper in the city take the buses out. She is using a fire-arm for some measure of solace and control, but she hasn't fired since she last shot at Angel, years ago. People are turning to her with frightened eyes because they know this eight-grade teacher used to be a cop, and she is letting them. She is crying, but she has a daughter now. Humans are children, too, and Kate has finally gotten over her father's death.

At the barrier erected on the LA perimeter, the Burkles are trying to get in to find their daughter's body. They won't ever have to know their daughter's body wasn't their daughter's. Nor will they know it'd slammed into a brick wall and went through, catapulting back a block at least, leaving blue pieces of Fred all along the way.

Something is changing this world. People are watching the news with horror filled eyes. Others are reading the paper. Others are making donations. Others are calling loved ones and spilling over into tears with relief and that one futile cry: how could this happen? The president is making apologies. Politicians are tumbling off soap box pedestals; a mayor is seeking a reelection out of this. An animal rights activist is saying, What about the kittens? And Sean Penn is flying to San Francisco, where Jesse Jackson will be talking to a church full of refugees. Matt Lauer is hugging a pregnant sixteen-year-old who survived this year's holocaust (Is apocalypse a better word?) Oprah is preparing a special. Elton John is going to write a song.

Someone has already beat him to it. On radios across the world, an eerie melody is filling the speakers, the home, the city, the satellite, the earth, and the world is mourning. "And I'm giving you this because I love you," the singer says. "I loved this world." The voice sings in inhumanly multiphonic, the second and third harmonics not buzzes and hums in the throat but crystal clear, and yet indisputably of one origin. It is a song fitting for this tragedy, for the inhumanity of it. Today the eyes of man were opened, and they see that they are naked—against the dark that haunts their thoughts, against the lies they've told themselves. Naked and banished into this cursed world of painful toil against the darkness, all of the days of their lives, their land thorned with demons, thistled with rancor. They might fight it . . . endlessly, but nothing they do matters.

"All that matters is what we do," a green skinned demon thinks as he walks out of the recording studio in Nashville. He has been in the south to visit the family of the man he murdered. "What have I done?" he thinks, and because a bullet to the butt hardly seems dignified, he swallows enough pills to bury him six feet deep in this earth, this paradise, this land of music, not death.

On the Isle of White, Parker Abrams is taking a well earned vacation after his graduation from college, and he is still using that tried and true "my dad just died" docket. He thinks of an LA girl he made love to at U.C. Sunnydale—a tall redhead name Layla, dead now. He wonders if more women will fuck him because of Layla, dead now, or whether he should just say his dad was the one in the City of Angels. He grunts his release into the neck of the woman he is on top of, and wishes she were a little prettier.

In Shanghai, Drusilla smiles, and walks into the sunlight.

In Quor-Toth, the Groosalug is bringing light and peace and justice. It is more beautiful than anything anyone has ever seen—even though no one there has forgotten the face of The Destroyer. Who was much prettier, the story goes. His hair was perfect.

In Hell, Drusilla's long-forgotten soul awakens and forgives her Makers. Both of them.

In Heaven, many souls do not.