And the Quiet Wanders Laughing

Their shells are missing.

Shivering and expressionless against the cold, the humans have no barriers, no shields. They carry thin weapons that could not fight air, and wounds that drive them to the ground. In the silence between the raindrops, you can hear their breathing - labored songs they strive to sing even as their lungs fill with water and despair. Pitiful, and yet somehow brave.

The thought assaults you, undesired and nauseating. These humans - half-breeds - so lacking in all the powers and pleasures that once made you great. Made your world - this world, now - impenetrable; or so you thought. Now it is like sand, seeking to overwhelm the desert. You are blind on this world, but no more so than they. You are the same - no less and no greater than the body you inhabit. Stronger, perhaps, and older - you feel the bones wither minute by minute, the veins contract and the skin flake and peel.

You inhabit death.

Wesley would tell you it is the price you pay for absolutes. The echo of his voice stirs inside you, coiling like a snake until it lashes out, poison dripping from its fangs. You do not understand the breathlessness, only the pain. The white hot surge within your chest that overtakes you - it is reminiscent (a flickering match next to the sun) of your powers, and you embrace it.

Beside you, the others do the same. Straining to make muscle and tissue perform their graceful dance. Instead, you can hear the tears - sinew snapping and bones crying out as they grind together. The human is tired and weak, but his death will be quick. You derive a small amount of (a whisper in your ear, lilting and feminine, calls it comfort) satisfaction from the knowledge.

The half-breeds are stronger; they will endure. Whether they survive or not depends on their arrogance. (And, you acknowledge, their luck.)

The demons advance. There are many, but you can still remember a time their numbers would have been insignificant - as ants beneath your feet; the dragon a gnat, easily crushed between the creases in your palm. A part of you still feels that strength, buried within, and you will summon it - dredge it to the surface and release it through the pores of your skin - her skin; a last apology to a dead man to whom you owe nothing. Their lives are of no consequence, and yet.

You concentrate, and the pounding rain against the pavement fades to a tuneless echo.

Above you, the dragon breathes fire.

Beneath you, the earth trembles.

Beside you, bleeding and small, they stand only three. Somehow you know, they are counting their fallen.

When the rain stops, half are dead.

One human, one half-breed. A nominal loss in the wake of quiet.

You look around you at the remains and inhale - blood and burnt flesh and steam. It reminds you of home. Wincing, you turn to the survivor. He bends at the waist, breathing heavily, eyes wide and dazed as if he isn't quite aware.

'You live.' Your voice flat against the rising sun. Rays of light burst through cracked windows and illuminate your destruction.

Spike glares at you half-heartedly. 'I noticed that,' he drawls. You turn away.

'We are done here.'

You do not bother stepping over their corpses. They are nothing more than remains; nothing less than shells.

For some reason, the half-breed follows.

You are made to blend in. Your body moves awkwardly against the materials, too soft and breathable.

The red-head nods in approval and smiles like her reassurances will mean something. In tight jeans and tank tops, they expect you to cease existing; to reform yourself to be like them - their mannerisms, their insolence. You tip your head and do not blink.

You never blink; it unnerves them.

Humans: too many, too weak.

You cannot get over the smell.

You go with them because no where else will have you. The world is still cramped, still enclosing in on you day by day, but you go. Traveling by night to avoid the sun, to avoid light and bright and people. It suits you fine; you see better in the dark.

Spike plays a cacophony - the radio, he calls it - at a volume too rich for your ears. The beats sound like stampeding herds of terror personified, frightened by the high-pitched tones and wailing, fleeing from the pain the shrill, extended cry causes as it pierces their ears. Spike catches the expression on your face - her face - and frowns.

'What?' he demands. 'You don't like KISS?'

You ponder removing his ears with your fingernails. Instead, you settle for punching out the sound.

As Spike rails about indecency and personal property, you wonder when exactly you became so weak.

Sometimes at night, you dream. It's not a real dream, of course, because you don't sleep. But with the windows open and the motel lights blinking, sometimes shapes take form and walk across the room. Wesley. Gunn. Apparitions of creatures long dead, creatures you care not for. Four less in this world is a tally in your favor. And yet, there are lofting waves of song, unbidden and sweet, teasing your ears while you lay on your back, staring up at the ceiling. You count the shadows, the songs on the radio from cars on the highway, the cracks in the walls - anything to keep your mind from wandering, to keep your feet away from stairs and your skin away from soft hands. To keep your lips from murmuring the words like a prayer inside your skull.

You stay months in a place called Paris. It is full of dirt and grime and smells of fish and dying flowers. The men are boastful and crude, the women smug and thin. The air tastes like stale bread and coffee beans and ash. It calms you, and you develop a habit.

'It's called smoking, love,' he says, almost joyfully. 'Very bad for your health. Causes cancer.'

He takes a drag on the cigarette before passing it back. The stick is white and pure between your fingers like nothing else is, and this, at least, is honest.

'Your whole world is a cancer,' you reply dully.

Spike shrugs and lights his own cigarette. The way he holds it - deftly balanced between two thin bones - is almost delicate. Almost graceful. You mimic the position, the motion, the inhalation. Your insides fill and stretch and protest, but it tastes like something dying between your teeth, and you relish in it. It will not kill you, you know.

But it's a start.

Prague is next. Then Spain. In Italy, you meet a small group - a blonde, a man with one eye and a patch, a brunette, and the red-head from the shopping mall.

'You're not invited, Spike,' the blonde says harshly. He makes a show of protesting. She glowers. The rest stand back and watch as if they are uninterested.

You will never understand.

'It's called dinner, love,' he says, as he always does, when he is explaining for the sake of speaking. 'We sit, eat, talk, drink. Emphasis on the last part.'

You stare unblinking. 'I do none of those things.'

The man with the eye patch stares at your legs. They are long, and slender you suppose. You tilt your head and feign curiosity. 'Do you desire me?' you ask, but only for the slight amusement it brings you to see him stutter and flounder. Like a gasping fish on the deck of a ship.

He begins to speak, and the amusement dwindles.

'Look at me again and I will kill you where you stand.'

In the dark, you hear her voice. Your voice. A quiet, pleading cry. A lover's name cracked from dry lips. Breathlessness. Pain. Fear. It is foreign, scandalous and disconcerting. You do not appreciate the emotions ebbing through your veins, rising and falling with the pace of your breathing.

You sit on the curb outside a motel, somewhere in the middle of the States, and light a cigarette. The smoke is foul like always, but it drowns out the taste of blood in your mouth, and the shadow of a precious kiss.

You fight side by side.

In your self-deprecating moments, you admit that you make a good team. Then you remember who you are, and where you came from, and consider leaving him to fight his own battles.

'I want to destroy this planet, not keep it,' you inform him. But Spike only eyes you skeptically, hands you a large weapon and shrugs.

'You can get to that in a bit. But in the meantime, let's kill stuff.'

You cannot - do not - argue with his logic.

You are humming.

You don't realize what the sound is, or where it's coming from, until he turns to you and stares.

'I cannot escape it,' you confide. It feels like a betrayal.

Spike calls it an 'ear-worm'. You can think of more disgusting things, but it will do.

Shells, you think, standing over a pile of dust and bodies. Nothing but caves to hide within. Nothing that can't be bruised and beaten and broken.

You were never broken. Not before. Not in your world.

Spike is too joyful for your mood. This place - the grass and the trees and the remains you need to bury - is too bright. Too loud. You long for the cold solitude of your home, of the silence that played like a concerto in your ears. The winds that wrote lullabies and the seas that tore them apart like fraying thread. Your words. Your home.

A longing you cannot explain, but somehow understand.

'I feel as he did,' you say to yourself.

The sweater itches against your skin.

After Berlin, you leave.

You wander the streets, the countryside, the highways. You travel through forests and over mountains and ignore the terrain as if it were nothing more than a crack on a long, paved road, straight and smooth. During the day, the sun bores down and you close your eyes and tilt your face towards it, but there is no warmth. Nothing like before, when you could feel everything - absorb all the suns in all the universes into your skin and glow.

This body isn't yours, and it never will be.

Retribution, Wesley's voice whispers.

You stare at the rough skin of your palms. You were reborn only to die, slowly and agonizingly over thousands of years.

No longer enraged, you find it fitting.

He catches up to you in Brazil.

'It's called guilt, love,' he says, just a little softer than he says everything else.

Your skirt whips around your legs while the radio across the street plays a song: you are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray...

In Taiwan, you are pinned down by a mob.

Spike escapes, and later returns for you, with little skill and little finesse and a large grin on his face.

'Now that was fun,' he smirks, wiping the blood off his cheek with his sleeve.

'You returned for me.'

'Why not? The odds weren't so bad.'

'And when they are?'

He smiles at you too long. 'You plan on gettin' caught again, Blue?'

Arrogance, you think disgustedly. At the same time, the corners of your mouth twitch in an effort to stay aligned.