Title: Many Roads
Author: Lily Ann
Summary: Out of the mental institution and struggling, Buffy Summers of Los Angeles takes a long, strange detour that just might lead to love. AU.
Part 1: Silent Into Camelot
"You have to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become?"
The third time, there was no warning. Her death arrived in a moment of perfect clarity, witnessed only by alley rats and an unusually full moon. A hunter's moon, Angel called it. Perfect for tracking fleet-footed demons through the matrix of a strange city. Where was she that week? Milwaukee? Tucson? As her blood pooled on the dirty asphalt, she decided that it didn't really matter. Not when the night was fading from black, funneling into gray, and only a rattle of breath held her to life. The pain, so bright and astonishing at first, was merely humming along her nerve endings like an old song she was hearing for the last time.
Wish I could stay. Leaving was hard, she thought, with fading, fond attachment for all the trappings she'd miss. Ice cream, leather boots, dancing. A good slay. American Idol. Pumpkins. She liked pumpkins. But, those were just things to say goodbye to, in the end. At her mother's funeral, the minister said that people are born into the world with nothing and leave the same way. He was right. All you could hope for was not to go trailing regret. Buffy had regret, but, also, a special knowledge of heaven. She'd been to that cauldron of souls where tomorrow didn't matter and forgiveness waited, too. She was not afraid of judgement. Let me rest in peace.
The alley was as dark as a cave, its bright, yawning mouth miles and miles away from where she lay in a thin patch of moonlight, the third claw of the Balzer demon that...ended...her still embedded deep in her belly. Twisted in the flesh that would never bear a child or grow spotted with age. Draining her life away and fanning it across the cement. This was who she was, then. How she'd die. Alone. No epic battle this time, no sacrifice. No weeping friends to grieve her on her way. Just this silent passage, alone and uncomforted. Gored by a creature that wasn't particularly violent, except when cornered, it seemed. Balzers looked like big hedgehogs. Smelled rather like cabbage and snacked on pilfered house pets. After halting a doggie abduction, Buffy decided the perp needed a smack down and some good grooming tips. Chasing it seemed like a good idea. Alas, not so much. The last line in her chronicle would note how she, the oldest living slayer, expired protecting the poodle population of America. Giles, feel free to tweak that.
When the demon stabbed her, it seemed just as surprised as she. Before it took off, their eyes met for just a second, clashed in ancient understanding. Slayer, slay-ee. This is who we are, then. This is who we are. For all her battles, it was shockingly simple, this concept of two. No grand plan this time, no march to war. No time to say goodbye. Sometimes, it was the only way. You were gone too soon, had to skip the big bon voyage. Couldn't even have the basics: touch, love, and end. Her mom and Tara and Anya, all gone in a heartbeat. Others chose their time, like Spike, just raced death to the final reckoning. Lived until they died.
William, how I wish I'd held onto you.
How many years had he been gone? Two? Three? She'd counted the days at first, until their sameness blended together. Didn't eat, didn't sleep. Not until Willow put away the kid gloves, admonished her mercilessly. You're killing yourself, Buffy. Would he want that? No, Spike wanted her to be stronger than she could be, braver than she was. That was the way he lived. He expected no less of her. Thus, began her self-imposed exile to all the far-flung cities of the world, places she might have seen with him, had things gone differently. She killed exotic demons in Africa, slayed vampires galore in the Balkans. Found slayers in China. He was with her every step of the way, a breath of cigarette smoke on the wind when she was lonely or afraid, whispering in that rough-sweet voice. Courage, Slayer. That's a good girl. Or, bloody get on with it! Both had the desired effect. Buffy survived. Funny, she'd finally landed in America again, was working her way back toward Los Angeles when she hit this little, uh, snag. Pun intended.
Oh. The stars were winking out. A roar like the sea surf pounded in her ears. Buffy steeled herself, remembered a time when she was just as drowsy, just as warm. It was during that last year of Spike's life. She'd go down to the basement, her step light and assured. Going where others feared to tread. He was recently dechipped. She was falling in love.
He'd be shirtless, of course, usually reading a book or smoking. She'd make him put one on, ignoring his smirk that said he thought her excuse about rampant underage girls and their innocent eyes was pretty flimsy. What was she supposed to say? Spike, your skin is just a big ball of tempting? Once he was covered, she'd flop across his bed on her belly, dig through the pile of reading material he'd acquired from somewhere. Spike always found his way to words, one way or another. They were his gift.
"You've got a lot of books."
Shrug. "Fills the hours."
She'd flip through a volume, kicking her feet in the air. Free, for a little while, of the hormone brigade and their constant bickering over cereal, sleeping arrangements and cramps. At first she'd been shocked. Spike was reading poetry. But it kind of fit. He was a lot like what he read. Tragic and over-the-top. Romantic, by turns. She made many trips to the basement over the course of weeks, discovered what she liked or didn't. Rediscovered beauty, even amid the ugliness of the First Evil's onslaught. Sometimes fell asleep reading Swinburne or Byron or Tennyson.
And when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
"I am half-sick of shadows," said
The Lady of Shalott.
She'd wake to find him watching her, all fathomless blue eyes and exquisite, angular lines, and think nothing of curling a little closer. She was falling in love. He was different with a soul. They were strange attractors, had a history they shouldn't have been able to overcome. Yet, there he was. Flourishing in her basement like some dark flower. How did we get here, my old enemy? She refused to entertain the thought that he was leaving her, even then.
"Tirra-lirra," by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.
His voice haunted her. How it swooped and darted, caught words like a net and cast them back beautiful. Spike. He gave her beauty before he died. Of course, she would think of him, at the end, on the brink of another discovery, like the richness of his reading voice or the dark rush of power that was her Call; Angel's first sweet kiss that bordered on a secret and Willow's extraordinary talent; finding Giles, pulling back that baby blanket and seeing Dawn's newborn face, tiny and pinched and perfect. These were her voyages.
Over, now. Thy will be done, she vowed. Not coming back this time.
You're welcome, world.
With the last effort of her life, Buffy thought of her sister. Beautiful, adventurous Dawn, the one thing she did right. Buffy blessed her in her heart, prayed she'd find the right road. The one that led to love and laughter and self. For God's sake, Dawnie, follow your heart. Even if you're afraid. I learned too late that love will take care of that, in the end. It will make you less afraid.
Love you, brat. I'll see you in starlight.
Buffy's eyes closed for the last time, then, and her break from the world was painless, a final gathering of storm clouds that obscured the full, full moon.
And when she crossed, the weather cleared for another girl, in another place. Across a sea of bitter experience, through the doorway of death, and beyond, a moment spun crazily and gave birth to that rare gift. Another chance.
Her mother's voice came first, like the sun cutting through fog, followed by shapes and light. Finally, awareness. She was Buffy Summers, a girl with eyes and ears and a beating heart. Fingers and toes that tingled–no, stung–like a thousand needles were picking her. Oh fuck oh.
She was in hell. No doubt about it.
It consisted of a white, white room shot through with drab olive, scratchy institutional sheets and a bevy of doctors peering at her like she was some exotic butterfly pinned on a board. Dissecting her with their beady, probing eyes. It was all very X-files. The truth was out there, but no one seemed interested in anything except staring at her. Her mother and father just hovered around the edges of the room, looking panicked and ecstatic.
"What?" she finally yelled, and jerked in surprise when her voice cracked with disuse.
That's when they told her.
In a coma for months, they said. Delusional for years before that. Popping in and out of reality. Flying over the cuckoo's nest for...seven years?
She didn't believe it. "Get out of town and take a bus!"
There was a general murmur among the white coats. "Remarkable...extraordinary...run some more tests."
Um, no. Buffy and tests unmixy. "I'd like to go home, now." She threw back the covers, caused a flurry.
Selective amnesia, they whispered to her parents. An unusual case.
Whatever. She really, really wanted something to eat. And a nightie without air conditioning. The thing she had on was a fashion violation, first class. "Uh, I hate to interrupt the Freud moment you fellas have going, but could I get a pizza?"
Apparently not. Two hours later she was still hungry and annoyed. At least they were keeping their straitjackets to themselves and the crowd had dwindled down to just one young doctor with a clipboard and compassionate manner. Throwing ice chips and red Jell-O really did clear the room fast. Even her parents had fled to the Cafeteria. They were probably having cheesecake. Celebrating non-catatonic Buffy in style. Nope, not bitter at all.
"Buffy, do you remember anything?" Clipboard had her pen poised to record whatever startling revelation Buffy came up with. Or just mark her off as still nuts, she supposed. She didn't feel like she'd just returned from an extended climb up the crazy tree. More like she'd been traveling...somewhere...and just returned. There were things she recalled, but not in their full color. Impressions, yes. Sensations. But rarely an image she could hold to. They flitted across her mind too fast.
Clipboard wasn't going away, though. Better her than the rest of the Ben Casey squad. Here goes nothing. "I remember sunrise from a high place. Wind in my hair. A cellar, no, a cavern filled with light. Leather and tweed. Motherwort." She picked at the sheet. "And I remember a word."
"Go on." Clipboard looked intrigued, was probably mentally ticking over all the fire and brimstone in Buffy's file, wondering what phrase it could be. Hellmouth? Apocalypse? Possession? Apparently, during periods of lucidity she'd told people she was Xena or something.
Buffy took a deep breath. After this, they'd probably keep her forever, get all happy with the shock therapy.
"Shirty. The word is shirty." She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. "And I have no idea what the fuck it means."