disclaimer in part 1
By Rebecca Carefoot
Part Three: Dress
Dress lady dress
put on your skullcap and boots
for the priest has confessed
and the chase is afoot
and the hounds are behind
gunmen around every tree
and if it's all in our minds
- well where else would it be?
you dress lady dress
The Wind in the Wires
- The Waterboys
"I'm here," he said, squeezing her hand in his, touching her face with gentle fingers.
She closed her eyes again. Her mouth was serious, sad. "I'm so tired," she said. "I just want to sleep a little longer."
He touched her face again. "No," he said. "No, you need to get up."
She shook her head slightly. Her voice already weakening as she began to slip back. "I like it," she said. "It's very..." she trailed off, and he leaned even closer to hear her breathe, "peaceful."
"No!" he said, squeezing at her hand, shaking her arm. His unbeating heart was in his throat, tightening it with the beginnings of panic. "You can't go back to sleep." He grabbed her body and pulled it up, pulled her into a sitting position against him. Her head flopped back, loose, unhinged. "You can't leave," he said. "Please don't leave me."
Her eyes opened slowly, painfully, and a deep sigh rushed from her lips. "I don't want to wake up," she said, half pleading.
"I love you," he said desperately. "Please. I love you. Please stay."
Her eyes were open. She turned her head a little, met his gaze, his panicked, desperate gaze. She reached up slowly and cupped his cheek in her tiny hand. "I love you," she said with a little smile. He ducked his head, and she pressed her forehead to his. "I can't leave this place. You know that."
"But I need you," he said. "We need you. All of us," he added as an afterthought, an acknowledgement that he was not the only one who loved her.
She shook her head, and he tightened his grip on her hips, her ribs. "No," she said.
"Yes," he said. "Always." She tucked her head under his chin, snuggling into his grasp.
"I'm so tired," she whispered, and her voice was not the voice he remembered, the bright, undaunted voice that would crack a joke in the face of the darkest evils the world could offer. She sounded defeated, worn down, the way she'd sounded when her mother died. He hated himself for not realizing it then, for thinking she would bounce back like she always had before.
He looked up helplessly, his arms tight around her slumping body. For the first time he noticed something was moving around them. Something was rustling in the grass. He studied the edge of the forest. Something was in the trees, lurking in the shadows. He looked down at Buffy and heard the sound of movement again. He stood up, pulling her with him. She sagged against his chest, limp. Her eyes drifted open again. Underneath her, where she'd been lying, were clothes, a typical slaying outfit, black boots, a black skirt, a small black shirt.
"Something's coming," he said. "Can you fight in this?" His fingers plucked at the white cloth that bound her, a strange toga, a sheet that wrapped around her, tight.
"I don't want to fight anymore," she said, her voice slow and drowsy.
"You have to," Angel insisted. He clenched his teeth in frustration, and spun with her in his arms, looking for whatever was surrounding them. He caught a glimpse of a horn, a helmet? A skull? His stomach clenched.
"I won't," Buffy said. Her voice was stubborn, but quicker, more awake, or was he imagining it? "I don't have to. That's the whole point of being dead."
"You once told me strong was fighting," Angel said. "And it's everyday." His voice broke. "And we can do it together."
She shook her head, and a tear slipped down her cheek. "But we can't. I was wrong. I'm always alone."
"No," Angel said. "You're not alone."
Her mouth crumpled, and she clutched a handful of the fabric that pooled around her legs. "It doesn't hurt here," she said. "I'm tired of hurting."
"Buffy," Angel said, his throat tightening. He darted a glance toward a sudden slither of movement, and for a moment he saw the empty eyes of a skull stare back at him. He knelt and picked up Buffy's clothes. "You have to put these on." He wasn't sure why, but he knew. He knew it was more than clothes.
"Why?" she asked distantly.
"Because you have to choose."
"I don't want it," she said, her lip trembled and she sucked in a gasp of shaky breath. His heart hurt, ached at what he asked of her. "I never did. I never asked for it."
"It chose you the first time," Angel said. "Now you have to choose it."
"It's not really dying," Buffy said, her voice small. "There are beautiful dreams."
"They're just dreams," Angel said, relentless, holding out her shirt. "What you have in the real world is what matters. Family, friends, people who love you."
"People to lose," Buffy corrected, a flash of anger in her eyes. "People who leave."
Angel stood a moment, motionless, unable to think past the shock of guilt and despair at the things he'd lost, given up; and for the first time a true understanding of how deeply he'd hurt her with what he'd thought was for the best. Then he grabbed her by the shoulders. "You're the one whose leaving. How do you think your sister feels about that?" Her eyes filled with pain, and she looked away. "Or your friends? Or Giles? How do you think I feel about that?"
"Maybe the way I felt when you left," she snapped, anger chasing at her guilt.
"Then I won't leave again," he said. "Come back with me. Fight. I won't ever leave you again. No matter what it means. No matter what the consequences are."
"Why can't you let me rest?" she begged. "Let me go."
"Do you love me?" he asked, lost.
"Yes," she said simply.
"Could you let me go?"
She sighed, and dug her fingernails into the material covering her stomach. She tore at it, and whispered, "no."
"I know it's hard," Angel said. "And I know you want to rest." He reached toward her face tentatively. "I know the weight you carry. I know it's too much." He touched her cheek, then ran his hand down her neck to the material gathered on her shoulder. "But I'm asking you to take up the burden again. I'm asking you to stay with us because we need you, and we love you, and we can't fight these battles without you."
She hesitated, her hand on the material that covered her stomach, her fingernail poised to tear. She hesitated, taut, and Angel heard the slithering move closer. She dropped her head. "I'm sorry," she said, her face pained, twisted with tears. "I'm sorry. I can't." She whispered the words, and Angel's shoulders stooped with defeat. He sank with her to the ground, her body propped in his lap, his arms still around her, his chin on her shoulder.
"Then I'll stay with you," he said. She snuggled against him, rubbing her cheek against his chest, her hand reaching up briefly to touch his face, a smile on her lips. He heard them, the things in the trees, in the grass. They were almost surrounded. "They're almost here," he whispered. For a moment, she didn't respond. Then her eyes opened.
"What will they do to you?" she asked, fear for the first time in her voice, a hint of urgency.
"I don't know," he said, resigned. "I'm not dead." He paused. "I don't think. I... I shouldn't be here." He tightened his arm around her waist, his hand flat against her stomach. "It doesn't matter." He closed his eyes, his nose buried in her hair.
"No," she said, her voice sharper, the slow drowse burning away like haze under the sun. "Wait a second." She turned her head, her brow furrowed, listening to the rustling. She caught a glimpse of bone, and shuddered. "I need to-" she hesitated, her brow furrowing again as she tried to think through the mud slow thoughts, the exhaustion. "Help me up," she said, and Angel obeyed, pulling her to her feet.
Her hand dug at her stomach, tearing away strips of white. She tore deeper into the material, exposing lengths of golden skin. He ripped at the material on her shoulder, and she shredded the neckline. There seemed to be layers and layers of the stuff, slick and almost sticky. They tore at it in a frenzy of fear and haste. It fell from her body until she stood naked in a pile of white. She stood beside him, unashamed of her nakedness. She held out her hand, her jaw set in determination, though her eyes were resigned. He handed her the clothes, and she pulled them on with swift, practiced motions.
She reached for the stake stuck in the top of her boot. She hadn't put it there, but she'd known where it would be. It was cool against her palm. She tightened her grip, and the first of the things reached them, it's body tall, but oddly angular under the black that clothed it and the red cloak that billowed behind. Its head was a skull, bleached white, not human, horns piercing the air on either side. Its eyes were empty holes. Its gloved hand tightened around the hilt of a huge broadsword as it pulled the weapon from its scabbard with a dull scraping sound.