Transformations - Chapter 2

Not wanting to spend the night alone in her empty house, Buffy returned to Angel's instead, knowing absolutely for certain that was probably one of the worst mistakes she could make. Of all the haunted places in Sunnydale, without her lover there, the mansion on Crawford Street had to be the worst.

There, on one wall, hung the chains. Knocked up against the base of the fireplace was the steel water-jug she'd crushed with her bare hand while the man--creature--demon--she loved writhed and snarled and sucked out her heart's blood until everything came undone and the whole universe whirled around her. There, right at her feet, spread the dark-brown, cloud-shaped stain of her own blood. It could have been anything, spilled coffee, chocolate syrup--but Buffy knew what the stain was--once, it had been inside of her.

She'd wanted Angel to do it, to drink from her and be healed, to take all her strength for his own. She'd begged him with tears in her eyes, and in the end stuck him with all her considerable strength, until the face she loved went away, and that other, terrifying face came out in its place.

Buffy had always been able to divide the two, or told herself that she could: Angelus did this, Angel did that--but she hadn't been able to kill Angelus, had always seen Angel inside him, no matter what he did, no matter how he hurt all the people around her that she told herself she loved, even though she knew that really Angel filled up her whole heart until only little scraps were left around the edges to love anyone else--even her mom, even Willow. Sure, she'd fought him. The two of them had kicked and punched and talked around and around the matter, tossing off sharp, hurtful jokes, until Jenny Calendar was dead, and Giles--well, she didn't exactly like to admit, but he wasn't the same Giles anymore, was he?

She'd never come to the point of asking him exactly what happened, or Xander, either, though Xander knew, and maybe Willow too.

It all came down to this: she hadn't been able to stand seeing Angel die. It didn't matter that he was already dead, or that she knew he'd influenced her in all sorts of bad little ways: conceal this, lie about that--he hadn't made her do any of it. It had all been her choice. When she found out about the cure, it had all seemed so easy: give Faith to him and save him, or give her own life for his. Save him, at any cost. Save Angel, her love. Isn't that what you did for the one you loved, laid down your life for him? You weren't supposed to ask if it worked both ways.

Her brain kept trying to go to bad places, and she kept hauling it back again--she didn't need to have those pictures playing on continuous loop in her head, or to think about what, soul or not, Angel really was--or that what finally nearly killed her hadn't been the Master, or some slimy demon--not even Mayor Dick Wilkins III--but the brightest star in her sky.

Now that it was all over with, except for the wreckage and the dead, she didn't know anymore. She didn't know anything. Not about herself, not about him. The tiredness pushed in on her, and she really did just want to sleep the summer away.

Buffy found herself wandering into the bedroom, sliding in between sheets that smelled of Angel's fever, which still wasn't even a normal, human smell. He wouldn't be back, she knew that. Bits and pieces of his belongings were gone, the crucial things. He'd left the rest behind, discarded them the way a snake sheds an unneeded layer of skin. Traveling light, except for that big, brooding conscience he seemed to carry everywhere, that never appeared to do him any real good.

It struck Buffy, suddenly, that even though he'd been around for a long time, and had a vampire's physical strength, he was still weak in a lot of ways--she'd been drawn to that flaw, that vulnerability. She was going to be the one to make him happy--and she had. Yeah, for that one moment, she had. She'd been exactly like all the stupid women on TV or in movies, the ones that made her and her mom boo and throw popcorn at the screen. She'd been exactly like that girl, Debbie, Scott Hope's friend, who got killed by her boyfriend Pete--Buffy remembered how abrupt she'd been with Debbie, how smug. At the time, she hadn't believed anyone could be that dumb--to cover up for her boyfriend when he hit her, to protect him even after she watched him change into a monster--all in the name of love.

Shivering, Buffy curled into a little ball, exactly at the center of Angel's bed, and pulled the quilt all the way over her, letting everything wash in: all the grief, all the pain, the loss and tension and triumph, every bit of it rushing through her in a flood of tears so violent they were nearly like sickness, a dangerous tide to ride out on, even if it only carried her into sleep.

Buffy dreamed she was tearing through the library, looking for something important, but she didn't know what it was. She peered behind the counter, under the study table, up into the stacks. She had to hurry, because she didn't have much time--she needed to find whatever it was right then, before Angel came to take her away.

When she slammed back down the steps, panting and scared, Willow was sitting cross-legged on the table, wearing her long red-velvet dress with the witch-symbols on it, a big red book open on her lap. "What? No joy?" Willow asked. She looked mysterious, and beautiful.

Buffy shook her head. "What's that you have? A Book of Ascension?"

Willow gave her little Mona Lisa smile. "No, silly, that's over. We don't need it now. This is something I just found, and I think you should find one too."

"Don't you think I'm trying?" Buffy answered angrily. "I don't know where to look!"

"Look here." Willow's hands drifted over the pages, as if she was reading the words by touch.

"Where? In the library?"

Again, Willow smiled. "Take off your blindfold."

Buffy raised her hands and found that there was a scarf tied over her eyes, just like the one Giles had tied on her right before Band Candy night, to test her awareness of things she couldn't see. "I don't know, is this gonna help?"

"I think it might."

"So I need to look here? In the library."

"It's always been here; you've seen it every day," Willow told her.

"But where?"

Willow closed the book gently, hugging its cover to her chest. Buffy could see the title--it was called The Road to Oz. She could remember her mom reading that one to her when she was little, but her copy had a house on the cover shaped like a great big pumpkin, with a pumpkin-headed man peeking out the door. Willow's didn't. Maybe it was another book entirely. "I'd ask Giles if I were you," her friend told her. "He'll know."

Buffy felt herself bubbling with joy. "Why didn't I think of that? Ask the answer guy!" She ran to the door of Giles's office, but not only wasn't he there, all the pictures and statue-things were gone as well, leaving the room sad, bare and a little dusty. She cried out, pressing her hands to her mouth. "Oh, Will!"

"Is he gone, then?" Willow stood just behind her, in the doorway. "I guess he couldn't wait forever. Well, at least you still have Angel. That's what's important. True love."

"How can you say that, Will? Angel left me."

"No, Buff," the dream-Willow told her gently. "You're still carrying him."

Then it was dark as the inside of a grave, and she could feel the terrible weight, as if she didn't have Slayer-strength at all, too much for her to hold up on her own. It pressed down on her, pushing her farther and farther down, and though she could see the soft, pale glow of Willow's hand reaching down to her, she couldn't reach back, or catch hold of anything at all.

She woke with one of those full-body jerks that jolted her so far out of sleep Buffy knew she couldn't go down again. She couldn't catch hold of her dream, and she'd no idea how much time had passed, minutes, hours, or days. The heavy curtains that covered Angel's windows allowed in no light: she couldn't tell if it was morning or evening.

Her back ached, and her throat felt so dry the thirst was like fire. She stumbled into the bathroom, bent her head down into the sink and drank straight from the tap, not even noticing the flat, metallic taste of the water until her stomach felt swollen and heavy.

Buffy straightened. If there'd been a mirror over the vanity, she knew she would have looked like a ghost. Any other man's bathroom would have had not only the mirror, but shaving-stuff: razors, foam, maybe even a little bit of stubble still collected around the entrance to the drain. Not in Angel's. Except for the perfect 'do on his head, the vampire was hairless, his skin even smoother than her own. Smooth and cold and--her thoughts betrayed her again--dead.

She flashed back to the end of her dream, then to the real heaviness of Angel's body on her own, not caring, as he drank, how he crushed her, the pain in her spine as he pressed her into the cold stone floor, the horrible burning pain in her neck, the brutal animal sounds he'd made echoing in her ears.

Without her even knowing it was about to happen, Buffy leaned down over the sink and threw up all the water she'd drunk, the same way she had the night she went out to hunt Faith.

"Oh, God." Buffy scrubbed at her mouth with the back of her hand. "Oh, God!" A tidal wave of misery made her huddle down between the vanity and the shower stall, her hot cheek pressed to the cool, bubbled glass, losing herself in a whole new rush of tears, that went on and on until she was sure there couldn't be any more moisture left in her body.

As the tears wound down into jolts and shudders, a soft rap sounded at the door. Then silence, followed by another knock. Shakily, Buffy climbed to her feet, already knowing who stood outside. Not him. Not her Angel.

"Hey," Willow said quietly when the door opened. Little lines of concern showed up around her eyes; her nose wrinkled at the smell of sickness in the room.

"Hey, Will."

"I kinda thought I'd find you here. And--" Willow glanced into her friend's eyes. "I guess I did."

"I guess." Buffy pushed her hands back through her tangled hair. She felt smoky, sweaty and icky in every way it was possible to feel, she just hadn't been aware of it until that moment.

Willow gazed at her in sympathy. "And to think we always wondered what came after High School."

Tears threatened again; Buffy felt her lower lip tremble. Willow put her arms around her, hugging her close despite her state of extreme grubbiness. "You'll think this is funny, but I was just dreaming about you. Well, not exactly about you, I guess. But with you, and you were giving me advice."

"What are friends for?" Willow gave that same Mona Lisa smile she'd had in Buffy's dream. "Big ol' cliche, but you're not alone here, you know?"

"I know. I guess..." Buffy let out a gust of breath. "I just wanted to be..."

"I hear you," her friend said, letting Buffy out to arm's-length. "And I also hear that if you get into a shower and let water fall on you, instead of sitting all alone beside the stall, you get shiny clean and people like you better." Willow picked up the paper grocery bag that sat beside her right foot. "Ask me what best friends are for?"

Buffy rubbed at her stinging eyes. "What?"

"Bringing clean clothes, and taking you out to breakfast, even if it is 3:00 PM."

"I don't know..." Buffy made a face.

"Coffee anyway. Or juice. My relatives sent me beaucoup bucks for Graduation, and I'm feelin' generous." Willow's kind smile faded a little. "This isn't a good place for you to be. Not alone. Not ever."

Buffy opened the bag, looking down on the sundress and sweater Willow had brought her. "Is it sunny outside?"

"Sunny and warm."

"Where's Oz?"

"In the van. He says take our time. Or--" Willow blushed a little. "It can just be you and me, if you want."

"I thought you two had been surgically joined at the hip."

Willow blushed deeper. "I don't...wanna make you feel bad."

"You don't." Buffy searched through the linen closet for a towel, and it struck her as funny, suddenly, that a vampire would even have a linen closet--but she didn't laugh. "Never. You have every right to be happy--you have a great honey, and you're not..." She clutched the towel to her chest. It was dark red--like wine, not like blood. Blood wasn't ever that color. "I'm just like that girl Debbie, aren't I? That's what I was thinking."

"No!" Willow shook her head vehemently. "No! I mean... Just no. Love's important. You do things for people you love."

"Even stupid things."

"Sometimes," Willow said, and hugged her close again. "Sometimes even stupid things--but sometimes smart things too."

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