All that we see or seem Edgar Allen
Is but a dream within a dream
Edgar Allen Poe
Sometimes, when he slept, he dreamed of a dusky skinned girl, her body wreathed in flames, two black holes in her neck staring at him like a pair or serpents eyes, hissing and malevolent as they accused. He could smell her flesh burning in the pyre, see her skin blacken, crack and peel through the veil of tears that clouded his vision. He would reach for her hand, feeling hot, tattered skin and tasting smoke--and then her eyes would snap open. Not the deep black-brown of her people, but the dull green of sea-foam as her lips split apart in a maniacal grin, braying bone-chilling laughter to the night sky.
He always woke to Buffy's face, hard as steel, those same eyes open and empty as she held her hand above a tiny flickering flame.
A whispered plea of her name, and those empty eyes flicked over him like flint, threadbare save for their implicit challenge.
He was never sure if she made the dream... or if the dream made her.
The air was thick, heavy with the smell of ozone and the scent of something briny. Undertones of sulfur carried on wispy columns of dissipating green smoke, winding around a broken body, its face pushed down into a copper bowl as if seeking supplication, splayed limbs twisting out at odd angle, angled and curled; spider legs on a creature never meant to be a spider.
She had stared at him, her very face a soft, wondering question. A stranger to her life, his story barely known to her... but he'd had belief like a thin wire stretched taut across his spine, the only thing that held him together.
I have to believe in a better world
Puppet strings cut, he had lain there, a mystery far beyond her fathom. All that remained to define him was a tiny golden gleam twined between his fingers, clutched against him like desperate, ragged faith, and she had reached to pluck it from his hand.
The charm had spun lazily through the air; contours catching and trapping flares of sickening green light inside it.
And then a voice had breathed her name. The vampire. Angel.
Fingers that trembled just a little had risen to touch her neck, dark shadow of memory fluttering against her mind for an instant, then gone.
The air was thick, heavy with the smell of blood and the weight of ash. Vampire faces locked in screaming rictus grins froze in place and then vanished, carried by wispy columns of smoke that wound down around a broken body, its face pushed down into the earth as if swimming through the grass, splayed limbs twisting out in a limp sprawl.
He had stared at her, his countenance cracking and dissipating like the vampires he'd just killed. Such a linchpin to his life, yet he scarcely knew her at all... but she'd given him belief like a fragile lifeline thrown to a drowning man, the only reason he'd survived.
I waited, but you never came.
She had lain there, cold and still, her body as dead as the hope she'd represented to him. All that remained to remember her was a golden chain fastened around her neck, caught in the tumble of her hair, and he had reached to pull it from her.
A hand had surged viciously through the air, fingers catching and trapping his bones with flares of wrenching pain.
And then a voice had breathed his name. Buffy. Alive.
Fingers that trembled with relief had risen to touch her face, dark shadow of foreboding fluttering against his mind for an instant, then gone.
If she thought just a little, she could still remember taloned fingers digging deep into her face, cutting and cruel, disturbingly intimate in their cold caress. Could still see the unnatural speed at which the world spun by in a blur, and hear the sound of fragile bones as they snapped, far too loud, at the end of that sudden twist. The way her vision had drained away by inches. How everything around her turned gray and cold, and everything inside her was too still, the name of failure written coppery thick upon her tongue as the ground slowly rose to meet her. She was never there when it finally swallowed her; a soul vanished in a blinding white flash.
She flexed her hand, stared at it wonder. Fingers callused and rough, scars both thick and thin, purple and white crisscrossing tanned skin. Death had gathered her in its scythe's embrace and pulled her from the stage--and yet, she was whole. Her fingers wiggled and her hand moved. Her chest still drew breath and her heart still pulsed, pushing blood through a body that most days scarcely noticed it was alive.
Not a miracle. Not a gift. Not a girl.
She lowered her hand.
Just the Slayer.
If he thought just a little, he could still remember her fingers clutching her face, sharp and deep, cutting into pale skin in a panic of terror. Could still see shadows playing over strange shapes and angles, as if the furniture had been rearranged hastily by a careless, giant child. The way the color in her face had drained away by inches. How everything around them was painted with shredded flesh and sticky blood, and everything inside the house was too still, her mother's name an anguished scream torn from her throat as the smell of death wafted up to greet them. She wasn't there anymore when her scream finally swallowed her; a mind snapped in a red, ruined instant.
She had fixed her eyes on nothing and stared with blank disinterest, her fingers callused and rough, scarred and cold within his as he led her outside. He had gathered her in his arms and pulled her tight against him, pliant and warm, body whole and spirit broken. Her fingers trembled and her face streamed tears, but no one lived behind those eyes. Her chest still drew breath and her heart still pulsed, pushing blood through a body that didn't notice it was alive.
Not a warrior. Not a Slayer.
He squeezed her hand.
Just a girl.
Once, her heart had leaped to think of being loved. She imagined a shy, smiling mouth, gentle hands and gentle eyes, smooth and cool as they drifted over her skin, sending electricity through her in tiny sparks.
Instead, the world had been draped in night, slices of moon and shadows, the darkness filled with stone marked graves that expelled undead corpses and fouled her with their stench. Her life had become a battlefield where the undead attacked without mercy, and she dined on dusty remains--ashes that swirled, dry and choking in her throat. Endless enemies deadly and horrific, ridges on their faces in sharp relief, their teeth too sharp, yellow eyes against bloodless skin that looked like marble and felt just as hard.
She'd lost everything once, then again while teardrops wet her burning cheeks, horror catching in the empty places inside her, filling her with weight and grief. So she had withdrawn, soul weary with years and death, withdrawn until the world became an irrelevant place made up of shapes and colors and sounds. Withdrawn, leaving behind the burdens of her heart and mind until all the tethers that held her had broken and come undone, and she had drifted away in the ether.
Once, his metaphorical heart had pounded to think of kissing her. He'd imagined a soft, warm mouth, lips pink as bubble-gum and nearly as sweet, bright and bubbling spirit welling up and spilling over, filling him like warm champagne.
Instead, the world had been painted in drab, dull shades of black and gray, the darkening sky filled with bare tree limbs that dripped freezing rain and drenched her to the skin. Her eyes had been vacant houses where the dead walked free, and she tasted like sin and felt like regret--ashes that wilted, sour and dissolving upon his lips. She had been beautiful and terrible, the hollows of her face too deep, its curves too sharp, flaxen hair against pallid skin that looked like porcelain and felt just as cold.
He had kissed her once, then again while raindrops slicked her stony face, catching in her eyelashes and glittering like stars in the moonlight. He had whispered her name, syllables harsh with desperation and fear, whispered until his voice became an incoherent rhythm that flowed with the cadence of need. Whispered, weaving the secret shape of his heart into words until the invisible fractures across the length of her soul had finally splintered, and she had shattered in his arms.
She had adorned herself with the charm, had tried to robe herself in faith. It hung suspended from her neck, green glass oval split by tiny, snaking fractures; broken talisman spinning on the remains of a dead man's last thin hope. Sometimes, at night, she had held it above her eyes and let it spin to catch the moon its ruptured depths. Shattered inside, yet it still clung together, held by the strength of its crystalline structure.
Its vision was a measure of hope, an unspoken promise of a better world and a happier life.
Some nights when she stared and watched it spin, her own voice haunted her, echoing down long darkened corridors.
Wishing doesn't change that
But sometimes, she almost did. Almost.
He had armored himself with his belief in her, waited and endured for her. When she'd left Sunnydale, he'd followed her; broken man split in two, divided by his soul, clutching the last remnants of tattered hope. Sometimes, at night, she would hold him in her tiny arms, press her face against his neck and he would shiver, catch his breath. Lost inside, yet still they survived, held together by the experiences that bound them.
It held the promise of a partnership, an unspoken commitment that forged the barest of beginnings.
Some nights while she slept he would watch her face, his own words coming back to him, wondering at the path they traveled.
I was supposed to help you.
And sometimes, he almost believed he did. Almost.
Sometimes, when she slept, she dreamed of a smiling, sun-kissed girl, whose sea-foam eyes were brilliant with laughter and love. She could smell the ocean, feel the breeze of it on her skin from somewhere not far off beyond her vision. She would reach out her hand, touching with warm fingers and hearing gentle laughter, and she would see herself. Green eyes in a smiling face, gentle and kind, her skin glowing and framed by long golden hair, surrounded by friends. Her mouth would open, laughing with joy, and there was no fear, no pain here, in this place. She was beloved, treasured, and whole.
She always woke to Angel's face, features still tense even in rest, eyes closed and dreaming as he held his arms around her slim frame.
A whispered prayer of his name, and those eyes opened upon her like the sun, empty save love and concern.
She was never sure if he made the dream... or if the dream made her.