Rating: PG for some themes
Archiving: Essential-Imperfect. All others please ask.
A/N: This is the prequel to a href="."Thine Is, Life Is/a so if you want to see how fucked up this all gets in the end go read that. Spoiled for BtVS Chosen and AtS Not Fade Away. Warning is hereby issued for the incesty edges on this fic. Written and revised for the a href="."2007 IWRY fic marathon/a.
A/N 2: Many thanks to darlas_mom for the beta on the first revision draft. You helped me create new life in this. And to tkp who went above and beyond in helping me to figure out how to make this work. You got me writing again, thanks, cupcake.
Feedback: Concrit and feedback are like air. So, yes, please!
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel the Series and all related characters belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, UPN, the Warner Company, et al. I'm just taking them out for a little exercise.

"The mind exists only in a moment, always,
a single flickering moment, remembered or actual,
dreaming or awake or something between the two,
the precious, treacherous illusion of Present
floundering in the crack between Past and Future."
-- Caitlin R. Kiernan, La Peau Verte

"Your life is told through nineteen thousand
pages in a world too unreal to behold. Your
innocence has faded, faded all your blues to gray.
Your skin has bruised through moving days. Glue
is peeling back away. Curling, cracking, painted."
-- Tilly and the Wall, Lost Girls

One Thousand Kisses Deep

Now: March 2006

The window is Buffy's favorite place. An unobstructed view of Downtown spread at her feet, broken skyscrapers puncturing the skyline like jagged teeth. A scattering of streetlights pinprick the darkness, faint stars in the pockets where the fires burn brightest. They've been here for months and the slayers find her easily, trail after her like ants to sticky sweet, devouring everything in their path. It's in their blood now, to fight. The blood lust a gift as sure as their own shared madness, echoes of Faith and then Dana rising hot and sharp as they rage and slaughter.

Buffy waits at her window, watching them, a fever dream of ravenous, feral girls with gnashing teeth swarming across the ruins of L.A. She is waiting when Angel finally comes. She is always waiting for him, one way or another; his absence is an ache in her bones. Familiar as the heartbeat knocking steadily behind her breastbone, Angel is a thread in the chaos thinning with time and Willow's unraveling spell. When he enters the hotel it is a hum across her skin, growing in intensity with his every step.

Without turning she says to him, "I jumped, didn't I? I died?" Her voice sounds hollow even to her own ears, as if she's missing something: her heart, her soul, the cacophony of a thousand voices ringing in her head.

"Yes," he answers simply and Buffy thinks that Angel is waiting, too. Waiting for her to break, a traumatized teenager wielding a sledgehammer over a pile of bones. But she isn't that girl anymore, hasn't been that girl for a very long time.

"Willow's worried about you and Dawn ... Faith. She sent a letter."

Beyond the window a mushroom of light rises suddenly above the city, a small red and orange ball rolling upwards. They are too far away to hear the explosion but the windows rattle gently. Buffy flattens her palm against the pane, pressing against the vibrations.

"Buffy," Angel says and stops. Buffy jerks, startled by the ebb and surge of her awareness, static reception when once he had been crystal clear.

Abruptly she turns to face him. "Whatever Will says ... I wouldn't necessarily believe it." Willow is not the same girl, either.

Buffy stares past Angel into the dark maw of the hallway at a smudge of shadow darker than all the others. A shade, a memory, Willow improbably haunting the Hyperion. Came to clean up the mess ... your mess. Our mess. Buffy shrugs, real or imagined she is becoming accustomed to seeing things that are not there.

Buffy doesn't want to admit that the slayers swarming like angry bees are as much her fault as they are Willow's. She hadn't known what she was doing, either. Never had. Flew by the seat of her pants and did whatever she could to hold back the night. Angel had been part of the armor she wore, a gift that she gave herself for sacrificing everything to save the world. But if Buffy counted out the lives she had saved and the apocalypses averted, Angel still would not equal a thing that she could have. Blood and ash were the legacies of being Chosen, death like a gift to be given and, ultimately, received.

My people -- before I was changed -- they exchanged this as a sign of devotion. It's a claddagh ring. The hands represent friendship, the crown represents loyalty ... and the heart ... Well, you know ... Wear it with the heart pointing towards you. It means you belong to somebody.

Buffy shifts her gaze to Angel's hand, searching for the silver of promise he had made to her. "A ring," she says. Hands and a heart."

"I gave you a claddagh ring," Angel says softly. It's his let's-be-calm, wounded animal voice. "You gave it back."

The gentleness in his voice makes her want to scream. I am not broken. I am a thousand slayers strong. Buffy feels the hot rise of tears and laughter in her chest instead, and what comes out is a twisted bubble of sound.

When she falls, Angel is there to catch her.

"We were married?" Buffy asks, gasping, gagging on the coppery flavor of old pennies rising with the tears in the back of her throat. Tries to breathe around sudden pain and choking laughter.

"No," Angel says and tugs her closer. Her body sighs into the shelter of his and it's like home. The warm, pungent scent of his leather coat momentarily drowning out the overwhelming stench of blood. "Buffy. Tell me what's wrong."

Buffy shakes her head, her hair sliding over the sleeve of his coat.

Somewhere in the city a slayer is dying.

Caught in the echo of memory and reality, Buffy cries out: "I remember. I remember. There were twenty-one bangles and I wore red."

*

"Visvajit says there's a law now."

Ramya broke the bangles that had once adorned her daughter's wrists. A glittering arc of closed circles, promises spread across the bed and beside them crescents sheered smooth on the ends.

"We keep our own ways," Ramya said.

Sevita flinched at the sharp, irrevocable snap of the bracelets beneath her mother's hands. "But this is no one's way," she cried. "Sati is an archaic custom. No one does this."

Her mother whispered into the quiet, the wailing of mourners muffled by the walls. "The pyre is waiting. Do you go willingly? Would you rather be stoned?"

"Mother, I'm begging you. I don't want to die."

"You honor your husband and your family this way." Ramya cupped her daughter's soft cheek.

"Yes, but ..."

"Then do your duty."

Sevita shifted away from her mother's claustrophobic hand. The demon that slaughtered Sevita's husband cut through her side down to bone. The tracks, gouged deep into her flesh, healed long before the funeral, and now, here she stood, whole and waiting to walk willingly to her death. "What about the American?" she finally asked.

Ramya's eyes widened. "You will shame your family."

"I will be a warrior, Mother. Mr. Harris says that I have been chosen. I loved my husband, but I am young. I don't want to die."

"Oh, God! You died," Buffy cries. "I was supposed to die, too. Angel, I didn't want to die."

"Buffy, I don't understand." Angel smooths her hair back from her forehead with one unsteady hand. Gathers her closer against his chest and rocks her gently.

"They broke my bangles," she whispers, reaching up to touch his face. "They broke them the day that you died."

Sevita prays to the Mahadevi. She prays to Durga and Kali. Prayers peppered with curses because this is not fair. She exchanged one pyre for another and has been unraveling ever since, sacrificed on the altar of someone else's mistake.

"Buffy!"

Her screams are shrill and raw as she falls. The alleyway a confused tumble of garbage and concrete. The first snap, when it comes, reminds her of Xander Harris and the day her husband died. She doesn't feel the sink of canine in her back, the rip of sinew from bone. But she can hear the crack of her spine and the wet, meaty sounds of the dragon beginning to feed.

Buffy screams, cowering from a face full of teeth, ridges and yellow mad dog eyes. She stares at Angel and through him, jerks against his arms curved around her back.

"That wasn't me. It wasn't us." Angel's hands on Buffy's face recall her, force her to remember who she is, who she was. Angel's desperate, panicked gaze reminds her that she is not dying alone in an alley.

She clings to the sudden surge of remembrance. The scent of him on her skin after hours cuddled in the dark, graveyard dirt dusted across her pants and the back of her jacket. Buffy cannot recall the before without the after. She can't remember the feel of his calloused palms against her face without remembering the solidness of his back beneath her boot heels or the shimmer of heat that snaked its way between her thighs as she stood over him. Desperately, Buffy holds on to Angel, the way that she loves him the only constant since the bottom fell out of her world.

Angel cradles her, kisses her forehead and whispers well meaning lies into her hair. "Everything will be fine," he says. "I'll take care of you."


Then: October 2005

Buffy tries to hold the world together with her mind. She pictures it as she remembers it used to be - easy, brightly colored sunlit days and night washed in the lonesome blue of moonglow. Staring into the mirror at the reflection gazing back, she can see how she's been thinking about this in all the wrong ways. Her memories of then and now fall like layers, one on top of the other and intertwined with memories of other people and other lives. A nightmare of slayers dreaming in the city.

"One of these things is not like the other," Faith sings, her voice echoing against the icy bathroom tiles. There's no water in the tub, but she's naked anyway.

Buffy doesn't respond, doesn't blink, and doesn't turn. Stares at the girl in the mirror, the girl with her eyes and her mouth, and she sees where the picture diverges. She sees where the world cracked and has been mended. She presses her hand against the glass, feels the shiny smoothness and presses harder, waiting for the glass to part. Waiting for the mirror to swallow her hand in a liquid ripple like stones dropped in a pond. Concentric circles spreading outward and drawing her in. She can almost see the faintest glimmer of movement in the mirror, light reflecting where it shouldn't. Stares unblinking and watches the light grow around her hand, shadows beginning to squirm in the spaces between her fingers. Eyes welling with tears, Buffy blinks and her hand is just a hand against a mirror.

"Through the looking glass," she mutters and lets her hand fall away. Buffy stares at the bruises beneath her eyes and the hollows in her cheeks. Miles away from the girl she used to be, the years and loses have smudged shadows beneath her haunted eyes. She's never been this broken before.

Faith, stretched out in the porcelain tub, goosebumps pimpling skin already marred with bruises and scars, pushes her big toe into the spigot that no longer runs water. "Welcome to Wonderland," she murmurs dreamily. Tilting her head to rest against the sloped back of the tub, Faith dreams of red queens and too many teeth amid clouds of roiling black smoke. Snapping Cheshire smile and cherry blossoms.

"Yeah," Buffy says and gently sweeps her fingertips against the mirror again. Presses one hand flat and then the other, leans in close this time, nose skimming the glass, searching for the light and shadows. But there is no gentle illumination, no squirreling shadows, this time the bathroom kaleidoscopes behind her and Buffy catches herself with a hand against the sink. Her knees tremble with the effort not to fall. She stares into the mirror and some other girl stares back, a girl with caramel skin and coffee bean eyes, her mouth a wide o of surprise, curls like corkscrews catching in the blood at the corner of her lips.

The room shudders or the glass, Buffy's fractured mind hiccuping and it's her own face again. She can see it, touch it, raise her hand and watch the girl in the mirror do the same. Buffy stares, afraid to blink and loose herself in a parade of other girl's faces. The alternative, however, is to stare until she disappears. Eyes, mouth, chin, nose, it all blurs and detaches until she is no one at all. Buffy reaches out, blinks, and another familiar unknown stares back at her with jealous, cut-glass eyes. Emeralds reflecting fire.

Buffy inhales and the stink of sulphur burns her throat and nose.

"Off with her head," Faith shouts from the tub, eyes leaking tears squeezed closed, voice on the verge of breaking.

Buffy stumbles. The crack of her ribs against the bath tub snatch her back, shatter the nightmare of another dying slayer.

Faith places a hand against the back of Buffy's neck, leans up to place a kiss just below her ear. "God, B," she says. "Gotta watch your step."

"My dead mother hits harder than that," Faith said and fought like she never fought her mother. Fist to face, knee to groin, stake in hand.

Faith wants to be golden-delicious, ripe like fruit. Never admits it, but she wants to be taken, bitten into, made vulnerable.

Riley saw that, saw her achy girl parts. Maybe he could smell how needy she is. How she longs to be the one that everyone wants -- petite, blonde, good. She wants to be that sweet, cuddle me scent that people love to breathe in. She wants to be innocent. But no matter how much she tries she doesn't lie like that, doesn't fit like that, doesn't wear that face well.

Faith remembers touching the body, that body ... her body. Shaving the golden legs, soaping small, perky breasts. It's tangled up with how she remembers Riley's sweet, fresh peppermint kisses. She slept for hours in his golden arms, remembers waking up and seeing her hands – tiny and perfect -- and wanting to be someone she wasn't. Someone different, better, more beautiful.

What she only ever got for herself was Angel's demon face, his faux lover's face and still Buffy was there first. Angel isn't as sweet or as fresh or as perfect as Riley. Faith will think that in the future as she contemplates the terrain of her life and the valley that Angel claims. Riley is a far away mountain peak.

Angel is like her, like she was, dark. The flavor of their kisses was tangy with the blood on his shirt. It made her mad, bad and dangerous. It made her all of those things that Buffy wasn't because if she couldn't be Buffy then she would be the baddest Faith there ever was.

Until Joe Normal tangled everything up with his soft eyes and gentle hands and suddenly she knew what Buffy had with Angel because she could see it in Riley's eyes. Knew that B didn't deserve this GI-Joe-Captain-America with his ooey-gooey center. Knew that Buffy didn't love him back because in his eyes she saw what Buffy had only ever given to Angel.

The thought of that, the truth of it, makes Faith want to weep.

*

Crumpled against the tub, Buffy cries for them both.


ad interim: December 2005

The Slayers came when they were called and as they rose, Buffy fell.

She fought while she could, when she had to, while she cared -- sliding between light and shadow, the scythe's silvered blade flashing in the blue wash of moonglow. She danced with demons because that was what she was made to do. Battled her way through Hell on Earth, ignoring the ash that covered everything because if he were dead she would know.

Buffy tries to hold the world together with her shaking hands, but it falls apart. There is nothing new about that. It has always been her brittle bones propped between the world and the end. A fragile barrier when she had time to think of it, a terrifying weight when she had time to worry about it. In the time between the world's imagined end and the reality of it, some eighteen months and one hundred miles later, Buffy has lost herself. Forgotten the contours of her face and the details of her reflection. The truth of who she is bleeds out and flows back corrupted with other people's truths. Now time is marked by thoughts of Angel, a dwindling memory to anchor her.

*

The City of Angels is in ruins. The Hyperion, a shambles of mortar and ash. Claw marks scour one side of the building and part of the roof has collapsed. The alley just behind the Hyperion is a mess of detritus – the rubble of collapsed buildings and cars soldered together. They are not quite in the heart of the storm. Six miles northeast of what once was Downtown, they are on its rim. Once upon a time the end of the world happened here, too.

They brought magic when they came and now the area reeks of too much power, a rolling, itchy, under-the-skin feeling that keeps most things out. Buffy moves easily but gingerly, presses her palm against the window and sighs at the sharp coolness of the glass. The world outside is bright with the fires that the slayers lit, but none of the heat reaches the hotel that now marks the most forbidding edge of the city.

"Okay?" Buffy asks as Faith slinks back into the room they share.

"Five by five," Faith laughs, slightly husky voice almost a ghost of her old self. "Baby sister in the lion's den. Just like a lamb to the slaughter." She strips down to her panties, tosses the torn and bloodied dress into an empty corner before collapsing onto the bed.

Before there were hundreds, there were the two of them and that is an equation that Buffy and Faith understand. They kill the encroaching young because the formula is false. Those girls do not equal the Chosen One who became two. They do not make sense. The older slayers, months past The Calling, are the ones who creep close. The tattoo of demon blood easing in their veins opens them up to another song. Inevitably they follow the siren wail in the back of their minds to Buffy. In search of some missing, unrecognizable part of themselves they push past the gates into the Jasmine heavy air only to die in the courtyard.

"Maybe that's not so five by five." Staring out the window, Buffy whispers to the Night-Blooming Jasmine crowding the courtyard below. Blowing gently on the glass, she draws a heart in the fog of breath she leaves behind.

"Cestrum Nocternum." Dawn calls the flowers by their Latin name as if that explains everything. The existence of gods and monsters, and angels with the faces of men. As if that explains the reason they hide on the outskirts of hell-on-earth, slaughtering the lost girls who come searching.

*

Angel --

Buffy is missing.

The spell to activate the Potentials is unraveling. The slayers are unstable. Buffy is deteriorating; they all are. Dawn and Faith may be with her.

Locator spells aren't working, but I think Buffy is coming to you. The others will follow.

Angel, be careful of them.

Willow

*

When she looks in the mirror, Buffy loses her face. She sees places that she's never been, her heart swelling and breaking for people she's never met. She dreams her death and the color of her hair is never the same. Looks down at her hands, sometimes armed, but most times completely unprepared, and they're never the same hands. She floats through faces and memories that are not her own. What she remembers of her life tangled with what she remembers of other lives she's never lived.

This is what no one realized: the world was never meant to end, not really. It galloped to a point just this side of breaking and, inevitably, stopped. She stopped it. Huddled in Angel's arms, Buffy understands that she she is the thing that ended instead.

She is broken, degraded. All things have a source and the slayer well is nearly tapped dry.


Later: October 2005

"Don't bother," Buffy brushes away Dawn's fussing, fluttering hands and cooing voice. She'd much rather get up off the cold, hard bathroom floor but Dawn won't let her move.

"We really should bind them or I can do a healing spell," Dawn says and presses against the blossom of purple spreading across Buffy's rib cage.

Buffy pushes air between her teeth, hisses around the pain, and shivers in the cold, nipples taut against the worn fabric of her tank top. "I'll heal," she says.

Dawn flicks one stiff nipple gently as she presses once more against Buffy's bruised side.

"Dawn." Buffy slaps the girl's icy hands away.

"Sometimes, I can't remember if you're real," Dawn sighs and slides in close to steal a little of Buffy's warmth. Traces the crisscrossing lines decorating her sister's chest. Once, Dawn wanted to see if Buffy could bleed.

Buffy stares into Dawn's dark eyes, a pearl of light like a star shining in their depths. "Your eyes have gotten so dark," she says.

Faith whimpers from her place in the bath tub. She keeps her head down and resting on her arms, crossed and covered with gooseflesh on the edge of the tub.

Dawn presses in against Buffy's ribcage, licks across Buffy's lower lip. Deepens the contact into a kiss as Buffy's head falls back.

*

Soldiers. Potentials. Slayers. And Dawn who isn't sure if they're real or not. Looks at her sister like looking into a mirror with the wrong reflection. Mystical, magical, crackerjack surprise all wrapped up in girlhood.

Only now the girly, cutie-honey, sweetie pie of her is fractured and broken, slipped and slipping more every day. Blue eyes have faded into black and when she looks in the mirror Willow is reflected in the pupil of her eye. Willow as she once was, demon goddess, jacked up on dark magicks and the slightest wish of a thought would have sent Dawn back into the ether. Only Willow hadn't really meant to, hadn't really wanted to, until they needed all the girls who could be, to be.

She'll heal fast enough -- always has, always will -- or at least until the spell that Willow cast leaches her of everything that makes her who she is -- key, girl, slayer-by-proxy.

Dawn remembers when she was thirteen and her silly little girl brain was filled with thoughts of Xander. In her mind he was tall, dark, handsome and not as intimidating as Angel. Attainable, that's what Janice had said. Angel was just the opposite and how cliched would it be to moon over her sister's slightly creepy older boyfriend. But at night, in the dark, under the covers with her hands on the rosebuds of her breasts, she's allowed to dream of broader shoulders and the slash of Angel's mouth.

Later, now, with the barrier between them thin and opaque, Dawn can admit that it makes sense. She loves Angel because Buffy loves Angel and he is the one thing that Buffy's heart cannot forget. The memory of him is deep in the marrow, loving him is in the rhythm of her heartbeat and missing him is like breathing.


For Future Reference: September 2006

The bathroom door slams hard against the wall and Buffy jumps at the sound. Vampire, her brain screams, muscles tensed and waiting. Always waiting. Memory, her heart beating rhythmically against her breastbone, tempers years of killing instinct. Instinct born before she ever learned to love him. Then the slow easing of clenched fists, the fever burn behind her eyes sliding into dullness.

Angel stands in the doorway uneasily.

"I called," he says as he snatches up the towel draped across the edge of the tub and wraps it around her. He turns half away, blocking the view of her from Connor waiting on the threshold. Buffy's grasp on reality is tenuous at best and Angel knows better than to turn his back on her completely. "I called your name three times, but you didn't answer."

She turns for a moment, gazes into the flat, clear surface of the mirror. Her voice is distant and soft as she replies, "I couldn't see my face."

Angel leads Buffy from the bathroom, one armed curved around her shoulders.

"I've got people working on that," he says. "There's a coven just outside of the city limits. They're working on it."

Buffy shivers. "Is Willow coming?" she asks as he settles her on the bed.

Angel tugs a blanket up over her knees, props her against pillows stacked high against the headboard. "I haven't told her you're here," he says. "She couldn't help you before. She's the one who caused this." He takes her right hand, stares down at the ring circling her fourth finger, hands and a heart pointing inwards. "I'll figure it out."

Behind him, Connor clears his throat. "We've gotta go Angel. The negotiations in Hancock Park start in half an hour."

Angel doesn't look back. Rolls his shoulders under the weight of the fallen city and stares at Buffy. "I can't leave, not right now. She's confused and I can't leave her alone."

"Angel."

"I can't leave," he says. "Besides, you don't really need me there. You can handle it."

"But you're, like, the leader. They're expecting ..."

"Connor!" Angel interrupts. "Just go," he says, voice softening. "I have to stay."

There is no choice here. The city continues to burn and the world never ends, not really. History is littered with the faceless bodies of girls who ended instead.

After Connor is gone, Angel sits beside Buffy on the bed. She turns into him, sighing as her body relaxes into the faintly familiar memory of his. "This is a dream," she whispers. "You're human for like a minute and already there's Cookie-dough-fudge-mint-chip in the fridge."

Dawn stands at the window humming softly as a girl walks into the Jasmine filled courtyard below. Faith, Dawn knows, is waiting in the shadows beneath the archway.

Angel rocks Buffy gently and pulls the blanket higher over her shoulder.