Author's Note: This is the third part in the series I've named Ouroboros. Cave and Fall are the first two parts, though these are all separate oneshots and not exactly chapters. It'll probably help if you read the first two, but it's not absolutely necessary.
Much thanks to ANTHROPOLOGi for beta, and a2zmom for discussion.
Nobody is quite sure whose fault it is, but somehow no one's checked on Buffy in at least three days when Dawn walks in to find the window open and the bed empty. The floor is strewn with tissues, browned by dried blood. It smells of stale air and slow decay, and her stomach twists with what she hopes isn't disgust for her sister's life.
Stepping far enough inside to see that the closet is empty, the dresser drawers pulled out of their tracks and left upended on the floor, Dawn sighs. She ought to feel guilty. She ought to go running and get Willow in here as quickly as possible, in hopes that she can still do some kind of a locator spell.
Instead, she slides down with her back to the wall, and revels in the momentary sense of relief.
Once, she believed in dreams.
That love was enough to cure any illness, and overcome any obstacle.
She isn't a stupid little girl anymore.
"Willow, what are we going to do?" Dawn sinks back into a chair and rests her chin on her forearms. They are all exhausted, almost beyond caring.
"I'm not sure there's anything to do," says Willow. She's waited until morning to tell Xander, and the others in the compound have yet to be notified.
"We have to go after her, don't we?" says Dawn, her eyes very big. She looks suddenly like a little girl again.
Xander sighs. He's tried harder than all the others, but not nearly hard enough. Guilt twists his face, making him look far older than he ought to. "I'm not sure she wants to be found."
"I don't think that should be her choice," argues Dawn. "She's sick. Maybe delusional. Who knows what she'll do?"
"She's right, Xander," says Willow reluctantly. "The military would love to get their hands on this place. She lands in a hospital, she'll lead them straight to us." She squares her shoulders. "Just give me a minute, I'll do a trace spell."
The sun coming in the uncurtained window burns her eyes and sends sticky tears down her cheeks, but she doesn't have the energy to roll over. The thin blanket feels like a sheet of lead in her stiff fingers as she pulls it inch by painful inch up over her shoulders. Angel sits motionless, his back against the side of the bed furthest from the window. She wonders for a moment whether he's fallen asleep, but the set of his shoulders is too tight.
She tries to lift her head and ends up coughing, the weight in her chest threatening to crush her. He jumps, uncharacteristically surprised. His hands shake as he smoothes the blanket around her, and he is careful not to touch her.
"You've been asleep a long time." He pauses, swallows visibly. "I—I thought maybe…"
"I wasn't going to wake up?" She barely has the strength to whisper.
By the light of day, he looks thin and drawn, the little room crumbling and dirty.
"Son of a bitch!" Xander has no problem swearing anymore.
"Yeah," says Dawn flatly.
The room is shimmering with transparent echoes of the past few days. By the door, Dawn's image sits slumped against the wall, head in hands. The bed is rife with ghosts of Buffy's tortured form, curled in spasms of pain and fever.
And Angel, in the shadows by the window, haunting the room like a specter from their combined nightmare.
He sits by the side of the bed, his back to her, and they do not talk.
Storms come in the afternoons, but they aren't clean storms like before. Green lightning flashes across the sky, staining the room with its sickly cast. When the thunder rumbles up over the hills, the dirty little window shakes and rattles in its frame. It threatens to break, reminding them how thin and fragile the barriers between them and the outside world are.
The rain sizzles on the window pane, and leaves strange, powdery streaks on the glass when it dries.
No renewal here. No cleansing.
Only more destruction.
Angel paces the little room, and she can feel pain radiating off him like body heat.
"So that begs the question," says Xander, staring at the scratched vinyl surface of the conference table. They've left the ghosts in Buffy's bedroom, unable to face them any longer.
"What question?" prompts Willow, and he realizes he's been silent for too long.
"Did she run off with him, or did he kidnap her?" It's too hard to tell for all the ghost images what actually happened.
"Buffy wouldn't run off ," says Dawn. But she doesn't sound convinced. "Not with him."
"He's evil," says Xander. "He has to be."
"Well, we knew that," says Willow somberly.
"Then why didn't we just send one of the girls over there to dust him when we had the chance?" asks Dawn bitterly. Her fingers play with the ends of her hair, and she looks like she might cry.
"You know we thought he was dead, Dawn," says Willow. "We all did. I mean, to survive L.A…"
Xander sighs again, and curses himself for not insisting on a better investigation of the annihilation of Wolfram and Hart. He thinks of all the glass, spread out for miles from the storm winds, glistening against the darkness of wet asphalt. Of all the search and rescue teams, finding no survivors. Of black-eyed Willow pulling Kennedy's ruined body from the wreckage. Of Giles, lying broken and still on a gurney.
It isn't until he loses control and changes for a moment that she realizes he's been starving himself. Stupid of her not to notice, but then she's always been stupid when it comes to trusting Angel.
"You have to get out of here," she says tiredly, looking at the specks of her blood which cover the blanket and floor. "You can leave me alone for a little while."
"I can't," he insists, and slides to the floor, his back to the wall. She isn't sure whether he means leave her, or something else entirely.
In the dark, she thinks she can hear him shivering.
"Angel, what happened to the world?" He's standing dangerously close to the window, watching the sun rise on the dusty brown horizon. She's noticed that the sunrise always looks the same now—black giving way into brown. Never pink, or orange, or yellow, even.
His shoulders tense, but he doesn't answer. She rolls over onto her side, the bed springs protesting loudly beneath the thin little mattress. She's noticed the way he's started hunching again, keeping to the darkest shadows as if he wants to hide even from her. He reminds her of the man she knew when they first met, though she'd thought that man was dead.
"I used to be able to see, from my window at the compound." She props her chin up on one hand, her arm trembling with exhaustion. Her skin hurts all over, like it's been assaulted by a thousand invisible needles, and the air inside the little room is a damp kind of cold. "The sky isn't blue anymore."
"You dozed off again," he answers, as though he hasn't heard anything she's said. But there's a tinge of something in his voice, something dark and hurt. It's been haunting them for days now, but she doesn't have the energy to wrestle it out of him. "Are you feeling any better?"
"Angel." She tries to sound insistent, but her voice is swallowed by another fit of coughing. Her hand comes away flecked with blood, and he moves back so fast that his shoulders hit the wall, surprising them both. He hardly ever touches her anymore, and she can't help but think that he was more comforting as her mystery guardian, before she knew for sure. They've fallen into a strange kind of limbo, and she wonders why. "The sky. What happened that made it not blue?"
"Mistakes," he says, his voice a low growl. "Mistakes happened."
"We'll be ready to move out in a few hours," says Xander. Willow nods. Dawn gets the tight look that means she's hating every second, but won't say anything. He still half expects her to storm out, though she's grown past slamming doors and burning things.
"Good," says Willow, though her voice says it's anything but. "Be careful."
"Hey, I'm going with a guard of four Slayers," says Xander. His attempt at good humor falls flat. "We'll be fine. You'll see."
"They'll come for you," says Angel from his seat at the foot of her bed. His fingers play along the torn edge of a blanket, teasing the threads loose a few at a time and rolling them over his palm. She watches, mesmerized, wondering if he's aware he's even moving at all.
"What makes you think that?" She's stretched out on her stomach, her shoulder not quite touching the outside of his thigh. It's the closest they've been in days, and they both know it's a dangerous game they're playing.
"They love you, Buffy." The corner of the blanket he's been shredding finally falls to bits of thread in his hand, and he glances at it, surprised. For a moment an unreadable hurt crosses his face, like he regrets having destroyed a useless bit of fabric. He turns the corner of it under, out of sight, and stares at his fingers.
"I don't know anymore." She resists the urge to drape herself across his lap, knowing what will happen if she does. Knowing that neither of them is strong enough now.
"You need to eat something," he says for the third time in as many days. She's had nothing but a few spoonfuls of a runny soup he's brought up from the dining room.
"So do you," she counters. It's become something of a routine of theirs.
"Let me get you something from downstairs." He gets to his feet, leaning heavily on the bedpost. She wonders how long it will be before he snaps. Why he insists on denying himself, though he must know it will ruin them both.
And suddenly, she knows what she has to do.
"Okay." She pulls the blankets up tighter around her shoulders, shivering, and prays that years apart have dampened his ability to see through her lies.
Angel nods, and bends to brush cool lips over her forehead.
It's raining again, the lightning red tonight, as her feet hit the pavement and her legs nearly give out again. She steadies herself against the outside wall, and thinks that the most important moments of her life have begun on a windowsill.
The warm rain has her soaked in an instant, and it burns her skin a little, giving off a chemical smell. She smiles grimly, and looks up at the sky as a fresh burst of thunder rumbles the ground beneath her unsteady feet. A sense of purpose sizzles through her, a power she's thought she'd grown out of.
The street is empty, and she makes her way down the center of it, forcing her chin high. She owns this road tonight, because she isn't afraid of the world. Impossibly, she knows exactly where she's going, guided by dream images once more. Rubble looms up on either side, shards of humanity's simultaneous triumph and downfall. She thinks of the crater that was once Sunnydale, and a surge of anger rushes through her, rage at what the world has made her do.
What it's made of them all.
A lightning bolt cracks overhead as she reaches the door of the little butcher shop, staining the world the color of blood for a split second.
When there is no reply after her third knock, she spins and kicks down the rickety door.