Title: "Amoral Boundaries"
Fandom: Angel: the Series and Buffy: the Vampire Slayer
Rating: Hard R
Spoilers: through "Not Fade Away"
Notes: for settiai in cadence_k's Femslash Ficathon. Huge thanks to three of my very favorite people, sangerin, hermionesviolin, and sage_theory for betaing and helping me figure out just what I was doing wrong. Any mistakes that remain are mine alone.
Disclaimer: Joss made them, ME owns them, I'm just having fun.
Summary: Sacrifices have to be made at the end of all things.
The moral of the story is: things are never as they seem. From the outside, this looks like a coordinated seven-man attack that's gone rather badly wrong. Two men are down, a third is dying, and Angel's grip on his sword is loosening. He manages to behead another vampire -- not one of the Senior Partners' minions, just an ordinary vampire looking for one last good fight before dawn -- before he loses the sword entirely. It's gone beneath the feet of the hordes; there's no getting it back.
He tries to fall back for a moment to take stock of the situation, but that's a plan that goes somewhat more badly than the nonexistent seven-man attack seems to be going, as he's immediately beset by a winged leopard from above and a Krinshlar demon from the left. Before he can look to see what's attacking from the right, his attention is occupied by a suspicious lack of feeling in his lower legs -- he's been bitten by a demon whose name he doesn't know. Wesley would kn -- Wesley. That part, in any event, is not an illusion.
The leathery rush of dragonwings distracts him yet again, and he needs a defensible position if he's going to defend at all. He wishes for the first time in his life that he wore a watch on a regular basis, and, as if, also for the first time in his life, the Powers were listening to him, a clock chimes the hour, which he realizes is meaningless. The denizens of the underworld have blotted out the true sky; there will be no sunrise today.
Before he rips the claws off the beast that's nibbling at his shoulder, he thinks that on the whole, Cordelia was a better villain. She, at least, always kept them guessing. Then he yanks the claws out, one with each hand, and uses them to fight his way to better ground.
Spike's too busy enjoying himself to notice when Gunn falls for good. Angel will mourn for him later; that's what Angel does. He's probably mourning right now. Angel does that: mourns when there's good fighting to be done. Good fighting and bad demons -- and what's a bloody demon got to do to get fed around here? He's fought himself into a hunger, and none of the nasties the Hell Lords have sent after them are good for eating. It makes him mad, and he slices his way through another dozen or so before the anger dissipates somewhat. Bending down to pick up the sword that Angel dropped, he finds himself face to face with the blue-tinged creature who used to be Fred.
"Illyria," he mutters, and manages to jab the sword somewhere useful as he helps her to her feet.
"Now would be an appropriate time for your leader to implement the second half of his plan."
"Angel's not my le -- second half? There's a part of his plan that doesn't involve us all getting skewered?"
Illyria shrugs, and she makes the gesture look noble, a natural prelude to the slaughter that follows, after which she just as easily slips back into her usual graceful gait.
"If Angel had a plan and didn't tell me about it..."
"He told no one," Illyria says, in a tone that suggests she shouldn't be telling him either. "But I have never known a sovereign to fight a battle with but one contingency, and -- Fred -- had never known Angel to tell her the whole truth when he led her into battle."
Spike remembers a half dozen battles -- no, more like skirmishes -- or perhaps just diversions -- that he would have gotten considerably less battered in if Angel had told him exactly what he had in mind.
"Damn," he says, and chops the head off a nearby green-and-gold horny monster. It feels good to use Angel's sword to do it. Two-timing bastard.
Dawn peeks out from her hiding place, terrified. She's been here for fifteen minutes and nothing's changed, except she's stopped seeing faces in the windowpanes, which means, probably, that Buffy's got all the bad guys on her tail. Not good, but could be worse. She could have heard screams.
"Don't move," Buffy'd whispered, before she vanished into the warehouse. "If I'm more than three hours, find Willow or Xander and go." She doesn't even know why she's here, if she's not allowed to fight, except that she does know.
She's surveying the landscape, and if she studies her maps hard enough, she'll be able to figure out which of the half dozen lumps of soil is the one they're looking for. There are endless grids to fill in, endless measurements, tiny angles that could mean the difference between, well, seventeen degrees and eighteen degrees.
One of these days, she thinks, they're going to come up with a plan that can be explained easily in one hundred words or less.
Her watch tells her it's half past ten, now, which means that Buffy is -- probably still in the thick of things, up to her neck in vampires and hopefully at least ankle-deep in vamp dust. No telling when she'll be back or what Dawn's supposed to do in the meantime, other than the surveying, which is so far outside her area of expertise she doesn't even want to think about it, only she does, if only so she can explain in great detail to Buffy later why this was such a rotten plan.
She's waiting five more minutes, then finding Xander. Not because it's time yet, but because she'd rather do anything than stay here and worry about Buffy.
"Buffy? I'm here." Willow adjusts her magically amplified headset. "Go ahead."
"Look, I'm through the last corridor, and there's a door on my left... oomph, sorry, I thought I'd got the last of the vamps. Anyhow, door on left, combination?"
"Three, seven, uh, fifteen," Willow reads off. "That's what Angel said, and he was right about the rest of it."
She can hear the clicking of Buffy attempting to unlock the door, and over it, Buffy complaining, "What is it about men and having us do the dirty work? Why couldn't Angel pick his own locks?"
"Apocalypse," Willow reminds her. "You know, the one we're supposed to be rescuing him from any minute now?"
"Argh! This room is really dusty. Did he say there'd be a box somewhere?"
"Should be on the wall, might be hidden until you reach for it..."
"So anyhow," Buffy says, "We'll rescue them when we rescue them. If we rescue them. Angel said finding this thing was more important than whatever was happening in LA."
"I called Giles. He says it's bad," Willow cuts in. "The news stations are starting to report it."
"That's bad," Buffy says. "It takes a true apocalypse to make them take notice. Look, are you sure it's in here?"
"Angel said it would be there," Willow repeats.
God-Kings do not need rest, nor crave sleep. It sniffs the air; something is coming. Amidst the cacophony of dimensions that shift and break and crackle in this place, converging upon Angel and his army, it is hard to recognize a single scent, but there is something coming that once had more power than all the legions the Wolf, Ram, and Hart have mustered in Its absence. It is grateful for these tidings; the tedium of battle will be ended, and perhaps new amusement will arise from the coming of that which can open the gateway.
Xander's driving as fast as he can and he's not even sure he remembers how to drive. Which is probably why he's breaking all the speed limits and clutching the steering wheel too tightly and not looking at Dawn.
Come home, Xander, we've got things to do. Angel needs our help.
So he came. Because never mind that there might have been a reason he chose Africa, never mind that there might have been a reason he hadn't been answering their letters, when Buffy said jump he still asked how high and here he was, speeding towards Los Angeles from the tiny, meaningless lump of town that apparently housed the Key to Everything or whatever they were calling it today. The holy of holies, the holy grail, whatever the Slayers wanted...
Somewhere in Zimbabwe, a girl is sobbing because she's strong enough to kill her baby brother, and he's not looking for her anymore, because Angel decided he wanted to get himself killed and Buffy decided she needed to stop him.
As usual, he's gotten the job of chauffeuring Dawn, but for once that doesn't bother him half as much as the fact that he's helping at all. He knows that he's bringing Dawn to LA because Angel thinks she can help, but somehow, that's not important today. There's lots of folks who've been sacrificed to ward off the darkness. Some of them even survive.
"Are we there yet?" asks Dawn. Something about long car trips brings out the five-year-old in her.
"No," Xander tells her, then notices the road sign. "But apparently we will be soon."
Buffy wriggles on her stomach, her head aching and her nose itching. Slayer strength means she gets to kill vampires, but Slayer size means she's the one who gets to crawl around in damp spaces looking for secret buttons while Willow calls helpful instructions like "it should be very small!" and "I think Angel said Wesley's research said it was blue!"
"Are you sure Xander's gone with Dawn?"
"Positive. All Dawnie's surveying equipment is still there, though."
"Right," Buffy says, and she thinks she's finally found the off-switch, though once she pushes the button, there's no way of knowing until Angel manages to find a payphone or figure out how to work his cell phone. "And she's buying that?"
No response from Willow; she probably just shrugged, forgetting that Buffy can't see her from underneath five floors of ancient and evil concrete. Buffy drags herself out from the tight tunnel and sits tight; if more digging needs to be done, she wants to get some rest first. Even if no more digging needs to be done, she wants to get some rest. She'd like to rest for approximately forever, but that, of course, is not allowed. She's not allowed to take a break, and she's not allowed to develop attachments, because if she cares about people, she eventually has to sacrifice them. She hates knowing that. She hates knowing that she's even capable of that.
"I feel bad about sending Dawn to LA without warning her," she says.
"Warning her about what?" asks Willow, and then Buffy remembers why she didn't want to tell the rest of them the second half of Angel's plan.
Dawn kicks hard and wishes she were in the back seat so she could be kicking the drivers' seat and acting like the little girl they obviously still think she is, even though she held her own at the mouth of hell a year ago and can speak more fluent Italian than Buffy can or ever will. But Xander's taking her to see Angel. And then in a fit of insight akin to the moment when a language finally clicks and she finds herself dreaming in it, Dawn suddenly knows why Xander is taking her to Los Angeles. Her first impulse is to scream, to scream and scream and scream, to let her voice rip through the car and tear off Xander's head until it reaches Buffy, pierces her ears, pierces her heart. But Dawn is older now and smarter and knows screaming won't win you any prizes at the fair.
So she's silent and sullen, which matches Xander's mood, and when they cross city limits neither of them really notices because Xander's too busy pressing his fingers to the steering wheel tightly, and Dawn's too busy plotting her way out of this car, out of this city, and she notices out of the corner of her eye that the sky is blacker than it has ever been before unless serious damage was about to unleash itself.
She feels a warring impulse; her younger, selfish self knows that she can explode the darkness, explode the tension, that she is The Key, The One, that she's special and unique and the one girl in all the world. And an older, more thoughtful part of her knows that her individualism, her own life, aren't really important in the greater scheme of things, and what that means for the future of the world, she doesn't know, except that she'll need to figure it out soon...
because the world is ending.
Xander, the one he'd missed not at all; in fact, the one he'd hardly even thought of except to note that the little twink said he was in Africa. Near as he can tell, they haven't turned the streets of LA into Africa yet, but the last he saw of Africa he was bugfuck crazy and couldn't see past his own lovescars. So there's Xander, looking dismal and drear and without a word from Buffy except that she's sent the little chit and where's Angel?
Spike doesn't know how Xander and Dawn fought their way into the city, except that maybe W+H's attack dogs are trained to go after Angel's scent in particular, which infuriates him. Not right that he should be fighting off blows left and right while Xander stands there unharmed. "Where's Angel?" he asks again.
"Dunno," Spike tells him. "Maybe dust by now. He never could hold his own in a fight."
"Right. Dawn, come on. Let's go find the man in charge."
It rankles, but since he was reasonably assured neither he nor Angel would make it out of the alleyway alive, he's already beaten his own odds. It's one of the better days.
"It was a choice we had to make," Buffy repeats.
"But your sister."
Only because she's been Buffy's best friend for eight years can she hear the sadness when Buffy says. "She's the Key. We had to try. Found it, by the way. Half an hour ago."
She doesn't get it, though. Three years ago, Buffy died so Dawn wouldn't have to, and now she's said, with resignation, Dawn's the Key. Her blood? Closes the door. And Willow, trust me, this is a door that needs to be closed. She understands the plan. Doesn't like it, but understands. It's Buffy that she doesn't understand. "So... now what?"
"Now we wait for Angel to get news to us, or for the world to end."
Willow's been waiting for the world to end since Buffy sat down next to her and wanted to be her friend. Everything she's had since then has just been borrowed time.
"Wanna play a game?" she asks, listening to the sounds of Buffy trekking back through layers of dust and concrete.
"Not really," says Buffy, and Willow sighs. "I just want to try to keep calm till we hear how they are in LA."
This will do. This will more than do. This is tugging apart the corpse It hides in, making Its true breath shake and rattle and Its shell's breath come short. The corpse needs to breathe, needs to fight, needs to stop the terrible awesome beasts from pressing too close against it, but It needs more, needs like It needs servants and subjects.
It knows the Key can sense It too.
"I am Illyria."
"Dawn..." The Key's voice is scratchy and human and grates on Its true skin. The Key's shell is beautiful and breakable, a tiny doll made to dress up and take for walks. The Key would not make even a good lieutenant for the weakest of Gods. But its true nature is impossible to hide, and it is green and translucent, and when Illyria stares, It can see through to Its home, to the hesternal dimension that belonged to It.
It thought It learned tears from the shell, but the sight of one's homeland can cause even great warriors to weep.
"Why are you crying?" The Key's voice gentles over Its blue-white skin and mocks It, thinks It human and fallible.
"You remind me of somewhen I once knew." It has heard this said before. This is why Wesley hated It, loved It. Why Spike serves Angel though he longs for freedom. The bitterness of remembrance is horseradish-unholy and forbidden to speak of.
"I'm sorry," says the Key. Then she whispers, softer still, so It must listen with more than just ears. "You aren't a person, are you?"
"I am an immortal God-King."
"Good." The Key drips these words from her mouth like honey and makes It long even more for a kingdom. "Then you can help me. We've got to run away."
It knows this is so. Did It not sense the breaker-of-barriers when she was still traveling? Does It not know all the words of prophecy that ever were? Is It not holy and omniscient?
Isn't it lucky that she found Illyria first, before Angel found them and slit her arms open, bled her for her origin? Lucky and happy, because running with Illyria holding her hand is like flawless flight. She can't remember to be scared, or to stumble when they finally rest, in the middle of nowhere in the California desert. Illyria has been running for hours but isn't sweating, isn't tired, but Dawn closes her eyes and rests her head on Illyria's legs like she's just one of the older Scoobies and not a total stranger and a god.
Maybe it's a trick of the light, but she thinks that maybe Illyria's hair fades to brown in the rising of the springtime sun.
Their flight is epic and ancient, though Illyria knows they cannot flee forever. They will find a town, will live as humans for a time. It knows and dreads this fate, preferring the desert nights.
When the Key sleeps, It takes her hands in Its mouth and can taste the energy that flows endlessly in and out of her shell, holding dimensions in check and preventing endless endings and beginnings. Once there was an explosion so vast it began every universe, all at once, but this was an ancient myth even in Illyria's time. The new beginning contained in Dawn's body is different and more terrible still, and it contains, like all beginnings, the seeds of horrible destruction.
The Key's blood is hot with life and the possibility of destruction. When she wakes, she tastes like the newness of the primordial seas, bubbling with life just trying to wrest itself from the gelled mass. Illyria could drink of her forever, from her mouth and from her hair and her neck and everywhere, because every centimeter of skin is a gateway to home, and to more than home, more dimensions and timelines than even Illyria had known of.
Dawn feels Illyria's hair. It crunches, like Buffy's when she's sprayed it. But layers of softness seem to ripple underneath the shell.
"Hair can be smooth," she says, and can sense Illyria starting to slip back into the Fred-shell. (The name of the shell, like so many of their secrets, Dawn wishes she didn't know, but Illyria is tactless in a way that even Anya could never be, not just inconsiderate but disbelieving. Death is not a fact in Illyria's vocabulary.) "No. Not like that." The hair crinkles back to crispness. "Your hair."
"I chose," Illyria never explains, only declares.
"You can choose again." Dawn is earnest. "Touch mine."
Illyria snaps her head away from Dawn, and she knows she's had enough.
She can understand Illyria, her fear, because she doesn't belong in her body either. She remembers the first few months -- they must have been, though the seam is impossible to recall -- how she felt like she was being torn apart, like her skin could barely contain her. Illyria is new, new, and she needs to learn how her body works. Dawn is teaching her, day by day. Yesterday's lesson was kissing, and today's is hair. She's lost track of time, but they must have set sail from LA at least three weeks ago.
They are both learning how to miss the mainland.
The alley has calmed down somewhat with Buffy there. There are still monsters to be fought, but there always are, always will be, circle be unbroken. Willow snaps her fingers in anger; the alley is not home and she's sick of living in broken apartment buildings, conjuring food, and most of all she's tired of the gray murky not-quite-dawn that keeps them confined, fearing vampires, fighting demons, never enough air to breathe.
She's sick of Buffy's grimness, tired of Spike's no-longer-amusing complaints, and even beginning to feel tired of listening to Xander tell them, time and time again, that it wasn't his fault that Dawn left. In the strictest sense it's just a lie, because Dawn was Xander's responsibility and he let her get away, and in another sense, Willow knows that he let Dawn go because he loved her. She knows because she would have let Dawn go, too, because she can't understand why it could ever be necessary for Dawn to be scarified, and never mind that Buffy gave her life before she was Dawn's age. Never mind, even, that they didn't know for sure that the ritual would kill Dawn. She was their innocent. Dawn, wherever she is today, is still innocent. And that is Xander's fault, regardless of what lies keep Buffy content.
Dawn is safe and comfortable and writes letters daily that are mostly left unsent. When she was in Italy, flirting with Italian boys and trying to figure out which of the American exchange students were gay (answer? all of them), she told Buffy about every romantic conquest in thrilled rhapsodies, even past the time she was sure Buffy was sick of hearing about it. But the things she does with Illyria, the things she feels -- she knows Buffy wouldn't understand, doubts anyone in the world would understand except her. Her and Illyria, because they are two of a kind.
Illyria is tiny and powerful. When she stretches to her full length, she's still only an inch taller than Dawn, but she feels so much smaller because she is so thin, a tiny girl who fits into Dawn's curves and says strange words that are not love poems but poetry, unconstrained by language. But she is powerful, and when she curves around Dawn, the shell hardly contains her, seems to fissure and crack so that Illyria as she really is can reach into Dawn, pull her insides out.
She understands more about love now than she ever did from carved initials on desks. She understands why Willow killed Warren, understands why Anya resorted to vengeance, understands even, in her own way, why Buffy had to kill Angel. Love is not what she imagined it would be. It burns her up inside.
Xander doesn't tell anyone when he gets the letter, Dawn's familiar looping handwriting sending love and kisses to all of them. He's just so used to keeping secrets and telling downright lies that it seems most natural to crumple the letter in his hand and pretend it never happened.
Right and wrong are as hazy as the pre-morning light outside the window of the apartment he's called home for a month and a half.
Dawn is and is not the Key. The Key in pure form is nothing like a girl, but Dawn is everything like a human, wanting like a human and weeping like a human. She does not understand the meaning of battle or sacrifice. Illyria will not make sacrifices; the word is as vile to It as compromise. But Dawn does not understand sacrifice, the pure white heat of fire and the pleasing aroma of entrails and possession flitting through the nostrils of the Gods. Dawn does not, could not understand this.
Yet the Key was conceived as an act of perpetual sacrifice, locking forever the ways between the worlds. The Key can open, but it was designed to close, and when Dawn spreads her legs and throws her head back at the touch of Illyria's fingers and tongue, she is opening herself, dangerously. Illyria can feel the heat of new pathways, knows that each time Dawn climaxes, another boundary explodes in a fit of green sparks.
Dawn is a little girl, but the Key is powerful and essential, and Illyria reaches through Dawn's fragile pale skin to grasp at the contained energy, but finds It touches nothing but air. Dawn is not the Key, but the Key does not exist outside of Dawn's laughing, fragile, foolish humanity.
It is a cursed world.
Angel's magic switch took care of the worst of the demons; they're still there, but, no longer controlled by the Senior Partners, they're easier to kill and less tenacious in their attack strategy. Buffy's even abandoned the idea of calling in Faith and Kennedy to give her a hand. She and Angel can take care of it, in a literal sense. They go out together, wielding swords and stakes, and come back to the apartment with the heads of their conquests. Spike, who hunts alone, laughs at them, but all in all, it appears to be a good life. There's slaying, there are friends, sometimes Xander even ventures to crack a joke.
It's not, of course, a good life. It's a shitty life, endless in its drudgery, without even the threat of a final apocalypse to keep them going. Nothing but her own stubbornness and inertia prevents her from falling to her knees in surrender and confessing that the bad guys have finally gotten the better of her.
On good days, she doesn't think about Dawn and the role she was supposed to play in all this. On good days, she doesn't even remember that there was even supposed to be an alternative.
Dawn loses control, finally, in the middle of an ordinary walk through town to buy groceries, because, "Some of us need to eat something other than our own bodily fluids." She's in an angry mood because Illyria has been silent for days, and Dawn knows she hasn't been meditating, so she suspects it's just stubbornness.
She loses control in the middle of the street, thinking about Illyria and how she's been such a bitch and someone needs to give her a good talking to. She's thinking about the way Illyria cocks her head and snarls her name -- Key. Key isn't her real name, but it's the only one Illyria will call her, and sometimes, she thinks that makes it more real than the name her mother gave her. The name the monks gave her. Whatever.
She loses control when she senses that Illyria has followed her and, instead of doing the sensible thing, she tries to run, and feels more strongly than before the magnetism of Illyria's glare. She loses control when she screams Illyria's name, when the name changes mid-scream into something older, something wilder, more vowels than she even knew her through could enunciate streaming through the air, splitting the world in two.
She runs back to Illyria, but knows it's already too late, that she's tearing everything apart. When her arms flop around Illyria's shoulders, they are there only in a desperate need for companionship and comfort as her body rips apart, not out of any hope that Illyria could stop it. But once she starts clinging, she can't stop, and they cling together in the middle of a street in a tiny town an hour outside and up the mountain from Fresno, cling together in the nothing-between-liminal, and cling together in Los Angeles, closing the holes the Senior Partners punctured in the borderlines, and the last thing that Dawn thinks is, "I can see Xander from here!"
Xander spots them first, coming home from the grocery store with some bread and tomatoes. He doesn't mean to look up; he rarely does, these days. The sky above LA is hazy with the remnants of dragons who died trying to defend it, and there are cracks, invisible if you don't know what to look for, terrifying if you know. Xander hates knowing. But he looks up, and there's Dawn. He's never seen her so wild. Something tells him this is going to be the big one. "Buffy!" She runs out of the building with a stake in each hand, typically. "I think your sister's come home." She drops the stakes and stares at the sky.
"They're going to do it," she says disbelievingly. "They're going to bleed Dawn the way we were supposed to when we came to save Angel. And without us there to protect her, she's going to die."
Xander takes Buffy's hand. Unintentionally, again. He doesn't have any intentions anymore. Every plan he's made for his life has gone wrong; every time he's run away, he's always come back to Buffy. And now Dawn's come back, too. You can't run away from the things you have to do. It's a fact of life.
The shell opens and the pearl tumbles to the ground, but Key, its soft ridges catching the sands of time and the yarn of fate, prevents It from falling too far or sinking too deep. Key embraces God and tears It Apart, till It is a blue smear on the green glass walls that keep everything from being in the same place at once.
No one can see the lock; it is not in the nature of locks to be visible unless you know where to look for them. To the naked eye, they seem like a paint collision in a child's playroom, neon green and navy blue, nothing more. But they have closed the door for good, and they cling to each other, green and blue, dark love holding them together when even their human forms have failed. They keep worlds from colliding, keep universes from penetrating each other. And though Xander and Buffy and Willow look up at them and weep because Dawn is dead, though Angel and Spike look at each other and share the strange loss that was Fred, that is Illyria, their grief is false, because things are never as they seem.