by Abaddon

1. She's So Heavy

Oz is curled up in a blanket somewhere in the back lane of a city. It could be London, Berlin, Moscow...somewhere where the sight of the homeless and the forgotten is common enough not to raise an eyebrow, and that the crowds who teem around his muddled heap of blankets are too many and too busy to actually care about the person they step over. They have their own problems, after all. There's a rumble in the earth, a whisper in the air, a feeling in the waters. The end of the world is coming, or so the gnarled old man with clapboards says.

Oz doesn't care. Oz doesn't even care that he's cold or hungry, or that he can barely focus. Oz stopped caring a while back, although it took him a long time for finally give up the ghost, as it were. He travelled the world once, bared his soul, broke his body -- and once -- for a girl. And in the end, she didn't want him. Couldn't want him. Because he was broken already and it didn't matter if he had a soul, he wasn't safe to play with. He made sure of that.

So the little boy left the girl behind and went out into the big wide world again, and did not give one fuck. He drank, he partied, he played a lot of guitar, had even more sex, and pumped his veins full of things to make him forget, and Christ, maybe cocaine would prove to be the magical cure for lycanthropy. It wasn't however, and all he ended up with was an expensive habit. Fortunately, he had lots of friends. He was a sort of urban legend; they all were now, anyone who'd lived over the Hellmouth and survived. Sure, he wasn't an original, but the pretty Goth boys and girls and the wide-eyed conspiracy geeks all knew of his exploits. He was Oz, after all. He was the werewolf, ex of Willow, the dark wiccan goddess who's nearly destroyed the world. They dug him. They were like groupies, complete with requests for his 'best of' stories.

When he heard that, he slapped himself to make sure he wasn't hallucinating. He was on something (weed, he was pretty sure) at the time, but no, it was real. Sunnydale had sure gone to hell since he left. In more ways than one. And eventually his stories dried out, and there were new stories to be told, stories they wanted to here but he didn't know. Everyone wanted to hear about Sunnydale's last year, or the move to Cleveland, or Angel in Los Angeles, and Oz just. Didn't. Know. So like his stories, the friends and their money dried up, and in the end Oz was forced to end up sleeping on the streets, selling samples of his hair and blood to a friendly warlock with a penchant for experimentation. After all, werewolves were highly prized. And the warlock kept him in coke.

It was at that time that the warlock found out he had A.I.D.S., and thusly his samples were contaminated. The coke was gone too, after fucking up his body, and the forced cold turkey nearly killed him. Now he eats when he can, sleeps when he will, and barely remembers his name.

Two years before the end of the world Oz dies of complications arising from A.I.D.S in a poor hospital in Krakow. His name is never recorded, as he was in an unfit state to give it. The only identification he has is a phone number on a slip of paper in his pocket. When traced back, it is revealed to be on the (now extinct) Sunnydale exchange. No further enquiries are made and the body is laid to rest in a pauper's grave.


2. Paint It Black

Dawn poked at her cheek in the mirror, examining the reflection critically, wrinkle lines appearing on her forehead. It was a ritual she went through every day now, since it happened. There was no reason to talk about 'it' either, or define it: everyone she wanted to know would know what she was talking about when she mentioned 'it' and none of them could bring themselves to say what 'it' was, either.

'It' had left one more empty room in the house, and even with Tara having moved in, its still empty. Giles can barely step over the threshold with furiously cleaning his glasses, and Xander does nothing except put his hands in his back pockets and stare down at the floor, nodding anyone asks him a question. Tara and Willow have tried to make it a home -- their home -- but it carried too many ghosts to be just that. And the one person who insists on staying just makes it worse, because everywhere Spike goes, the memory of Buffy goes along with him.

He wrapped himself in the idea of her like a shroud, and if Dawn's honest, it's more than a bit creepy. He always starts off sentences like, "Your sister wouldn't want you going out to strange parties" or "Your sister would want you to take care of herself." But Buffy's dead, and she's not, and she doesn't especially want to be, either. Which is why every morning she pokes herself in the mirror. It's sort of clinical, a kind of medical examination that isn't. After all, she had hardly go to professional medical experts: former glowing green balls of energy aren't exactly something they learn at med school. She asked Giles about it, and he ummed and ahhed, and said he had to stocktake, terribly sorry.

She was real, she knew that. And her memories were real, even if they weren't true. And her blood was all too real. But she was only meant to be a safeguard, a stopgap against a Ritual that would Doomed the Universe (even she could feel the capitals in her thoughts.) Despite everything, the ritual went ahead. Without her. She didn't have a purpose anymore. She was excess baggage: excess Dawn. Perhaps one day, her humanity might just dry up. Fall apart. She'd wake up to find herself falling to bits: literally. Because if the ritual was meant to tear her apart, and it had happened, then what was she still doing here? So every morning, Dawn woke up, went to the bathroom, brushed her teeth and washed her face. And poked at her face, half expecting the flesh to decay and rot under her touch. That was all she was, after all; a heap of flesh and bones and someone else's memories.

Dawn was terrified of her own death. She was mortal now, after all, and so the prospect that her body, her existence might just unravel like a ball of string was terrifying, because apparently she was part of the glue that held the universe together. When she died, would she turn into that green ball again? Would all the dimensions smoosh together like some sort of galactic smoothie? The answers to these, and other questions, she sought again and again, pathetically begging for some kind of feedback, some opinion, from all those around her. At best, they simply shrugged and said they didn't know what to do or how to help. Willow considered a ritual to directly contact the Powers That Be, but both Giles and Tara shot that down pretty quickly, and so in the end Dawn just kept on waking up, and waiting.

When she did die, some years later, Dawn's final thoughts were gratified by the fact that the Universe did not seem to be breaking up around her. It did a short while later, but it was not her fault.


3. You Never Give...

Penance was not really her thing. It took Faith all of ten seconds to work that out. But she needed to do this, cause it was the right thing to do, and fuck it, she was going to be the good girl now. She might not be the Slayer, and she sure as hell couldn't be Buffy, but she could be Faith, and make Faith someone you could count on.

So when the officers snapped on the cuffs, she flashed them a smile, and when one made a smart remark about bondage, she didn't slam her palm into his nose and drive the cartilage right up into his brain. Oh, she thought about it. But she didn't do it, because really, his face was punishment enough.

All through the trial she Yes, Sir'd, No, Sir'd, Thank You Very Much Sir'd, and plead guilty to all charges. A Wolfram and Hart lawyer came to help her out (presumably hoping for some form of business arrangement, but Faith just grinned, said everything was five-by-five and if he came back again, he'd get that mobile phone stuck where the sun didn't shine. Amazingly enough, he didn't come back.) Angel helped her with some legal contacts and made sure she wasn't doing anything too stupid, but Faith was rock and rolling, ready to serve her time.

So they accepted the plea, found her guilty, noted her remorse, and sentenced her to twenty years hard labour in a penitentiary. Faith took it on the chin, got cuffed again, and when she was lead from the court room she was still smiling.

Along with prison, she got a nice clean uniform (grey was clearly the colour of the moment for recidivist fashion), a bunk, a cell and all the junk that went with it, including a decent enough bunkmate who talked in her sleep. Fi -- that was what she liked to be called, Fiona was her real name -- had been done for coke trafficking, and Faith was cool with that, and her. It was up to people as to what they stuffed up their noses or down their throats, and in the end beating someone over the head would not make a difference if they wanted to get high.

Faith worked out the days in the yard, or in the library studying. She was determined to get her high school graduation at least, maybe then see about a college degree. You could do that in prison, and that was sort of freaky, quite frankly. It was like a reward for offing people: "Hey, you too can get higher education at the taxpayer's expense, as long as you've committed murder." Between study and work out, there was chores. There were always chores. At times, Angel came and stopped by, asked her how she was going. He gave her lists of stuff to read: the Bible and the Koran, Nietzsche and Sartre and Freud, and as she had nothing better to do, she read. Some of it was masculinist bullshit but some of it was interesting, and she got into some damn interesting discussions with Angel about the reality of the soul. He always did get touchy when she brought it up.

She felt Buffy die one day. It was nothing major, no trumpets in the sky. She just had a freaky dream of them in her apartment, and B was all quiet, telling her that she missed her, and regretted a lot of things, but it was her turn now. Faith had woken in a cold sweat, and a few days later Cordelia turned up and very stiffly informed her of the death before getting the hell out of there.

Faith could have left at any time, of course. She certainly felt like doing so after B kicked it. It would be so easy to disarm the guards, or heck, just jump the fence. But that wasn't the point, and she knew, and so would B she was there. Faith could imagine her standing in the corner of her cell and lecturing her on the morality of ruining her own salvation just to save the world. Which was really damn hypocritical of her, considering what she'd done, but that was B. A case of 'do as I don't, rather than as I do or say.'

She felt B come back as well, felt it like a shiver under her skin. It felt wrong in the way that nothing else had, and it was a long while before she got to the bottom of that story. Years really, after Sunnydale and freedom. Faith told Buffy about prison over a suitably large bottle of vodka, and Buffy told her about Heaven.

Heaven. Damn. Buffy sure won that round hands down.

But after Sunnydale, the Council was reformed, and they spoke to the U.S. government, had a little word in their ear about Faith, and certain secrets they knew. The U.S. government dropped all charges. Besides, being a Slayer was a known thing now, with so many of them. The U.N had a committee on magical and demonic activity, and every parent wanted their blond-haired blue-eyed sweet-as-apple-pie American girl to grow up to be the new Slayer. Faith was a celebrity.

And everything seemed fine; the Hellmouth in Cleveland gave them no trouble (after the First Evil, everything else was a downer.) Then one day the final battle happened. Unlike every other final battle, there was no prophecy, no warning. But then, it wasn't supposed to happen, or maybe they weren't supposed to see it coming. It was a glitch, an opportunity, and someone went for it. Faith went down several hours before the actual end, with her neck snapped. Her last thought was: "Damn, I should have killed him when I had the chance."


4. Tomorrow Never Knows

Lord, what fools these mortals be. Now that was a classic. Sweet had always been fond of the classics. They gave him a certain style, a cachet of class and education. He'd even liked Shakespeare, even since the man had been sent here for a time after his death. The man had been one of the more intelligent manipulators of word and language and idea in the history of the human race, and yet he'd completely failed to understand the complete and utter innocuousness of his situation. No-one ever got forced to stay, of course; there were rules and strictures and bindings that bound him closer than his very soul (if Sweet was said to have one, which was both spiritually and ideologically suspect.)

Hell wasn't quite other people (Sartre had spent time here as well; they'd had some swell conversations, really), but Hell was yourself. It was a state of mind. Sweet looked around at his domain, full of fire and brimstone and really really bad take-out Chinese, and knew that it was just a sham. He didn't feel the flames or the heat or the eternal torment, but the dead did. Because they believed in it. And they believed in hell, too, or they wouldn't be there. Here. Whatever.

After several thousand years of religious belief, and the occasional bout of scepticism, humanism, narcissism and existentialism, humanity had come to the inescapable conclusion that it was either sinning or very fucked up, and either way needed to be punished for losing the path or being incompetent. Most of the hell dimensions were just that, really. Spaces in between for humanity to get rid of its collective angst and be happy little self-flagellators, not knowing they could leave at any time. If they asked.

But no, humanity preferred to build its fake little torment to satisfy its fake little inferiority complex. People like the Slayer didn't go to Heaven either, just the mental equivalent of it. And she'd only done so because she thought she deserved it, as if the Universe was some kind of gigantic score card, and all her Good Endeavours had put her in the plus column. It was ironic, really. Heaven was stocked full of the self-righteous and the arrogant, with just a smattering of the narcissistic, the sociopathic and the Truly Crazed. All the good people realised that they could never be good enough, and so they thought they deserved Hell. Every now and then someone escaped, of course. They recognised the illusory nature of the domain, gave Sweet the finger, and disappeared into the real afterlife.

Not that it made much difference, after all. Sweet liked to watch the world (Hell had great cable) and he didn't have any sort of security lock-outs on his equipment. He wasn't a major player, only a minor Duke of Inferno, not up to doing any big deals with the First Evil or the Powers That Be, but both sides liked to make sure he was well-informed. It was a simple statement of power, nothing else, a threat. And like Fate's Champion had been told in L.A., nothing anyone did ever mattered in the long run. There wasn't any sort of balance, any kind of absolution to be found. You just did what you could when you wanted, not because of the rewards, but because of the act itself. Because some things were right, and some things were wrong. Or so people liked to be told. Course, the problem was figuring out which was which, and the Powers That Be were always a little vague in that department. Not that Sweet would ever criticise them. No, not at all. He didn't want to get singled out for special mention by those types: the last time the Powers had taken an active interest in someone's fate, he'd turned into a snake. And then be blown up. He wouldn't have even gone to Sunnydale if he hadn't been invited.

Events were moving, but then, they always were. But for the first time since the dawn of Creation, things were really moving. The whole stage was active again, and both sides wanted bring about an end game favourable to them. There was going to be a War on Earth and in Heaven, and if Sweet had his way, he could at least keep his own corner of Hell pretty safe, if only for a while.

It didn't matter in the end. Events were moving because they were meant to move. History had a force greater than any Slayer, and with each moment gone, a whole universe of possibilities faded away. They were beginning to realise that up there, the Slayer and her brood. The game had been locked in before any of them had been motes in the collective eyes of the Powers, and the pieces (because that was all they were: pieces, thinking they were free) only had so many moves left to make, and every move they took left them with fewer to make. Choice was the best illusion ever created.

Sweet glanced at the watch he wore on one red and slightly glossy arm, pulling the immaculate purple shirt cuff up off his wrist to view the time. It wasn't a normal watch: he didn't need one here, where normal time didn't exist. And it was a countdown anyway, one that had been started when time itself began. By the mores and rules of normal time, as agreed on at the beginning by the First Evil and the Powers That Be, the entirety of the Universe was due to end in seven years, six days, twelve hours, thirty-two minutes and four seconds.

It would not be big. It would not be brutal. And they would never see it coming.

Damn, it was good to be alive. Even if Sweet wasn't entirely sure if he technically was.


5. Carry That Weight

So this was hell. Three nicely appointed rooms, all too familiar, beyond which lay a corridor hewn from rock and full of turrets of fire, uneven passageways, cramped and heavy with sulphur in the air. She wandered about a bit, felt the heat of the flames, scalding her skin and charring her clothes. She could breathe -- with difficulty, due to the sulphur every breath was a racking pain -- but she could breathe, and figured it was part of the whole deal. The passageways seemed to go on for ever, and when push came to shove Lilah was a coward. So she went back to the rooms and sat on the bed, and figured she could last a near eternity of boredom before she tried that path out again. Exploring the rooms got boring real quick, that was the killer. She knew them pretty well after all; there were Wesley's at least in the real, living world. She had been in them several times, and when he was busy dealing with, well, business, she'd take a quick snoop around. Lilah never found much, though, and Wesley always knew she was looking. Which is why he'd leave things deliberately. Torn bits of papers. Clues. He'd let her plant listening devices too, and then wait till she got back to Wolfram and Hart, setting up what sounded like a Very Important Conversation before he destroyed them.

The following day, she'd stop by, she'd knowingly grin, he'd raise an eyebrow, she'd make no accusations and he would admit nothing. And then they'd fuck like rabbits. All that was was another part of their game. She'd try and break his control down; he'd try and keep it up. Every sexual trick in the book Lilah knew (and then some) she would use to distract Wesley, to tear his walls apart. Not because she cared (because she didn't) or because she thought he needed to discover his inner person (the last time she went to a shrink she ended up fucking her on the therapy couch) but because, quite frankly, it would have been fun to see him loose it. That was something Angel understood: that the only difference between the good guys and the bad guys was one of motive, not method, and even that was shaky. Wesley knew it too; that was why he was so frightened of losing control -- he was stupid enough though to still equate control with himself, as if the Big Bad lurked inside him, ready to come out the moment he lost it. What Angel realised, and Wesley hadn't, was there was only ever you, no monster deep down. All the civilisation and education didn't make that any different; all it did was help you hide it better.

After a cursory sweep, Lilah found (much to her displeasure) that all the rooms contained was the refuse and deliberate hint that would have been there in the real world. She had hoped that due to the lack of Wesley (this was Hell after all, and even when he died she doubted very much he'd end up here) this place therefore would have just replicated the rooms entirely, complete with all the documents and hidden plans he normally would have bothered to remove. Sadly, this did not seem to be the case. They wouldn't have been use for much except pointing and laughing, but it would have passed the time. She had no idea how long she'd been waiting, but she didn't seem to be tired, and there was an annoying dull ache that wasn't quite hunger in her stomach.

Lilah crossed smartly over to the bathroom, and examined herself in the sterile light of the flickering fluorescent bulb that hung over the mirror. She pulled the skin tight back from a temple, and grimaced. She looked older. There were bags under her eyes, and all the wrinkles she'd hope to never have were beginning to show. Her skin was clammy and pale as well. Maybe it was something to do with being dead; it was written in a book somewhere by the Powers That Be: the dead, and especially Lilah Morgan, must not, under any circumstances, look pretty in the afterlife. Maybe it was part of being in Hell; you looked the way you should look, if not for beauty aids and electrolysis and botox and surgery.

There weren't any skin products in the closet either, despite the fact she knew that Wesley moisturised. He'd always been a bit sensitive about his looks, and well, having a scar across his throat didn't help. Looking in the mirror, she really got that now.

The rooms did indeed get boring, and painful, with so many memories. That was the point of Hell, though, and even trying to lock herself up in the shackles in the closet didn't raise her spirits. So, Lilah went back out into the flames and the stench and the heat and the pain, and hobbled her way along. After a while, she just didn't care anymore: she was dead. The one man who'd ever given a toss about her had proven it by cutting her head off, and she was in Hell. The flames did not matter. Without a sound, they vanished, and Lilah found herself in quite different circumstances.

"You're one of the luckier ones. Although I suppose with both are."

Lilah knew that voice, and stiffened, turning to see a woman standing a few paces away behind her. Honey blond hair, a slightly rosy face and wicked eyes. The corridor was all gleaming and modern now, white with just a hint of white, and the woman who stood before her now was Darla.

"Darla. Well, I should have guessed you'd end up here."

"This isn't quite hell. It's the afterlife. We shape it into hell all by ourselves. You must have thought you've been a naughty, naughty girl, Lilah," Darla smirked, and stepped a bit closer.

"So now what? I just wander round here for all eternity?"

"Well, the moment your belief wanes, your hell will come back. It does, trust me. It always does."

There was a pregnant pause. "And it's not quite for eternity. That's what I meant by being lucky."

"What the hell are you talking about?" If she was going to be cooped up with Darla for a while, Lilah was going to find Jean Paul Sartre and beat him to death with a stick.

"I've done a favour for the Powers That Be, so they've let me in on a few secrets." She leaned forward, whispering in Lilah's ear. "This torment will end when the world does. Which is sooner than you think."

Lilah closed her eyes, and when Darla kissed her, she did not complain.


6. Because

Gunn had never been a particularly religious man. From a very early age, he'd learned the lesson that God seemed to be absent, or worse, present but white and learned to take care of himself. Heaven didn't seem a very likely destination when you did the things he had to do, and he'd chalked that up to necessity and experience. Privately, he thought the whole being an angel and wearing wings experience was overrated. He figured that flak jackets would be far more useful in a whole range of circumstances.

Of course, later when Cordy was chosen to be a Higher Being and Ascend To A More Perfect Plane of Existence, he knew that Heaven wasn't cracked up to what it was meant to be. I mean, come on. What was she supposed to be? The poster child for Attaining Enlightment Through Better Bitching?

He had never known God or salvation or ecstasy, religious or otherwise. On the street, you never took happiness at face value because the moment you did something would screw it up. Something always did. And this time, it had been them, just as Lilah said. Now he had spare time -- time was the one thing they were always running out of, and now Angel Investigations had it in spades.

Oh, they did for the best of reasons. Jasmine was eating people, and lying, and removing free will. It was, you know, a pretty clear and cut case. Once he was free of the whole 'in love with her' thing. And that still hurt. Even the concept of feeling estranged from God was alien to him. Until, of course, it happened.

The one thing he didn't count on was the pain. It was supposed to be some kind of revelation, the truth. Gunn always figured truth was supposed to have a glow or something. Like drugs, or alcohol, or really good sex. Except brighter, and kind of shiny. Unmistakable, and unmissable. Whatever it was, it wasn't supposed to make you feel as though you'd made the biggest mistake of your life, and it wasn't possible to ask for a refund. Gunn felt as though something had ripped out his heart and then done him the favour of shitting in his mouth. He could remember it all. They never told you that either. Truth was supposed to wash away everything you didn't want, like a night of drinking, or at least make it far easier to cope with. The only time he didn't have any doubts was when Jasmine was his truth, and he ached for that. It was like losing a limb, and Gunn had always thought he looked better intact.

It would have been far easier to say it was some kind of scary mind control, it was all her. But he couldn't, because he could remember thinking and listening and being in control as far as the details went. Sure, Jasmine suggested something, but it was his mind that thought it was perfectly sensible, and even went over the reasons for it. She didn't get him to do anything he wouldn't have before anyway.

If Fred had really gone evil, he would have helped track her. If she'd really posed a threat, he would have killed her -- after all, wasn't her who showed him just how capable he was? And then he'd had sex with Wesley at Jasmine's suggestion.

Gunn had the sneaking feeling he would have done that anyway, too. After all, they'd had some good times together, and Gunn knew simply from his time on the streets, that if a brother offered you a little action, a little love, you weren't stupid enough to reject it. They might have done something more anyway, if not for Fred. Fred. And of course, Angel, because Wesley got that sick puppy look in his eyes the moment anyone mentioned his name.

He didn't make a move on Wesley even after Fred and he were over and done with because of Angel. Angel, Angel and always Angel, even as Gunn himself moved on and up in the world, trying to supplement the ache that the absence of Jasmine left behind. They all were, and they never quite filled it, which was why when he died in the lead up to the final battle, Gunn was almost happy.


7. Oh! Darling

Anya chewed on the handful of bar-nuts she had and looked around. They tasted like cardboard, but it was something to occupy herself with as the seconds stubbornly refused to go by. There was a clock over the bar, but, it was broken. Didn't matter, considering time didn't exist here after all. Eternity implied that there was no end, and for that to happen there could be no time. Just the constant march of now. No-one else seemed to notice; they were probably used to it, Anya reflected. They were old hands at eternal damnation with no chance of parole. Maybe they weren't even real; after all, this was her hell, she knew that. Maybe all they were figments of her imagination, doomed to punish her forever more. They were sort of old and grizzled and skanky, the sort of middle-aged married type who'd you'd expect to find in a bar as classless as this one (she especially liked the vinyl finish on the booths, the chintz decanters on the shelves behind the bar.) The whole place reeked of tacky and gaudy; a clash of different styles and motifs that although they would undoubtedly be beautiful on their own, completely fail to work together.

How she'd always seen herself, in a way. Minus the not working together, of course. But Anya had seen herself as a constant work in progress, a blank slate. She like most other vengeance demons had been recruited relatively young, fired by the indignation at the life that was spread out in front of them like a shroud. They had their work. They were vengeance. They were righteous, and beautiful in their fury. Aud as she had known herself was gone, and that was the best thing that could have ever happened to her. D'Hoffryn had moulded her into something new, something shocking and different, and she'd done her best to pick up the more interesting mores along the way. The thing about vengeance demons of course was that although they weren't human they always had to pass as them in order to grant wishes, so the caster wouldn't know that they were actually wishing.

Humanity was like a dress; she could pick it out and put it on for the duration, changing the style and fashion so as to fit in with whatever time and place she was sent to. It had been a fun pastime of hers and Halfreks to meet and pick apart the latest customs and hypocrisies; the vengeance demons would all get together periodically, and compare clothing or new tastes, drinks, phrases, ideas. Playing with the refuse and debris of other cultures because, Anya realised, they had none. But then she had been living it. She'd become part of it. She saw the valley girls and the skater boys and the nerds and the jocks and the beatniks and she didn't fit in, anywhere. It was perfectly understandable, logical and acceptable that she would now gravitate to the most out of the loop freak she could find in the prevailing power structure, because there was power in numbers, and that poor reject was one Alexander Lavelle Harris. Sadly, he had proven himself neither understanding, logical, nor accepting. He'd left her at the altar, and for all her attempts to get someone to wish against him they'd proven fruitless, probably because in the end she hadn't meant it and the Powers That Be knew that too.

She'd become one of the Useless, as she and Hallie used to call them: the women who still loved, still doted, still cared despite all that had been done to them. She'd loved him still, despite the fact she knew they had little or no chance of getting back together, that all she was doing was sublimating herself for him if she even attempted it, and then she'd died, and ended up here.

The doors to the bar were closed, of course. She couldn't get out, and it was hot and stuffy, the fine linen of her lime green dress sticking to her skin. She hated lime green. Looked horrible in it. Especially when sweaty. The mirrored wall behind all the decanters at the bar was also demonstrating just how bad she looked with flat, damp hair as well. The bartender refused to serve her alcohol, as she was too young.

Not to mention the fact that the other men in the bar (as slightly disturbing as they were) showed no sign of interest in her. Not one! Hadn't they ever heard of Freud?

Stuck as an unwanted seventeen year old unable to get a lay. At least her victims typically died quickly and therefore were saved much pain. But no, this was her suffering, her torment, hewn from the depths of her own mind. It was ironic in a sense; she had spent a thousand years as a demon sure that the human had been purged from her, and the moment she got it back she'd never known what to do with it. Except for now, as the human part was clearly punishing her for all those men she'd killed or tormented; all those times she'd failed to recognise what should be done or said, and made a social gaffe. Even for the way she treated Xander. She felt guilty, and she only knew that it was guilt because it was still unfamiliar.

At that point, a rabbit hopped up onto the bar, twitching its ears, and Anya screamed.


8: The End.

Buffy thought it was all over. After all, she'd survived High School, defeated vampires of all sorts, banished demons, got in the face of the Army and whatever monstrosity it was cooking up this week. She'd gotten up the nose of various Hell Gods (well one, really, but it sounded better if she used the plural) and even died from the cause. She'd come back from Heaven, fought off the worst case of existential angst in the history of mankind (she had no proof admittedly, but really) and she'd capped it all off by ruining the plans of the First Evil and its evil henchpeople with the fetish for bodily mutilation.

She had finally won. She was free of the whole "chosen one with the power to fight the vampires yadda yadda yadda." She'd proved that in the end, you could be a Slayer and have one foot in the real world too. The Slayer was allowed to have friends, and drink mocha and not always go through a proper exercise routine, cause that's what the Thighmaster was for. Or so the Home Shopping Network told her anyway.

Cleveland was pretty sedate, all things considered. Sure, there was a Hellmouth, but she had the most powerful Witch in the world, a former Watcher, and an army of Slayers. The bad things couldn't get out of town fast enough, and damn Buffy was pleased to be the one who gave the monsters nightmares, rather than the other way around. It got to be so good that Buffy actually decided to take a break; after all, she could afford to now. The First Evil had been whipped; nothing could frighten her now. So she got herself a job and saved for an apartment of her own, just her own, and went back to college, studying psychology and history and literature, because she could, and because they weren't arcane texts about how to kill things in just the right way.

The others handled things; Faith took charge of course, even though she didn't exactly want to, and Buffy was happy to let her. There were organised patrols, and more slayers coming in to be trained every day. They were able to go public after a year or two, and the world proclaimed them as saviours. Buffy didn't exactly like the brief moment in the spotlight that that brought about, but fortunately again Faith was far more comfortable in the 'celebrity Slayer' role. She decorated her apartment the way she remembered Faith's from the dream, because it seemed right, and Faith never mentioned it whenever she stopped by, which was frequently. It was to keep Buffy updated, and occasionally get her advice; and although she knew Faith could handle things quite fine by herself, she seemed to need the reassurance still. Willow was busying training a new generation of Wiccans in whatever it was Wiccans learnt, and like the newly reformed Watcher's Council she was there to help form all the witches and wizards of the world into a cohesive whole. She even formulated their moral code, wryly observing that really, you didn't know what a witch shouldn't too until you did it, and she had. The Maclay Precepts, as Willow called them, were as widely known as the new Watcher's Code, and she, like Giles was often sought after for advice, study, and apparently wonderful tea. They had no official titles, or ranks within the various organisations. They simply were.

Buffy didn't exactly know these details; Buffy tried to stay out of the centre of things, away from the pulse now that she could. She was getting into the flow of trying to be normal, trying to remember what normal should be. She went to class and did her homework, and chatted with Willow about study or television with Xander or relationship with Faith. They all knew, just as she did, that Slaying was strictly off the agenda. Giles and she always kept up contact, as they both helped look after Dawn -- she lived in Giles' house, and occasionally Buffy would come to stay for a night or two.

The younger generation of Slayers, the new Council; they treated her with a reverence but they didn't disturb her solitude. Buffy was grateful for that, and she was polite if they enquired after her, and even more polite in refusing requests for help. In truth, she wanted to get away from it all because it unnerved her. She'd spent most of her life adjusting to the fact she was the Chosen One -- that she had a sacred responsibility. That she was in a sense, called to a higher duty that was beyond the understanding and abilities of her friends. Now she was one of the Chosen many, and it rankled, slightly. The idea that people could be pouring over Giles' Watcher Diaries and using her as some template for the new perfect Slayer was extremely disturbing, all things considered. What was worse was the idea of taking the field with them. A whole group of people who had the same power, the same responsibilities she had. Who'd know if she fucked up, or how she could have done things some other way.

So Buffy tried to be normal, and tried to pretend it was working. When the hints of trouble began appearing, and the call to arms finally arrived, she was relived. She didn't have to pretend any more, and they still needed her. This battle would be like all the other battles, cake, and no-one would gainsay her method or technique.

In the end, Buffy was quite shocked when she lost. She was so shocked that the very fact of her death didn't quite hit her, until she was gone.


9: One Sweet Dream

Lindsey was slumped on his desk drunk and virtually passed out when she turned up. His hand curled around an empty whiskey bottle, head cheek down amongst the mess of papers. He was dreaming of California, or New England, or anywhere away from the nice Mid-West town he'd settled down in and hung up his shingle.

He'd had nice little plans when he'd arrived here. Get back to basics, practice law for the benefit of the people, be friendly, offer to mow his neighbour's lawns. Not because he cared, as he didn't, or because he was good and reformed, a kindly soul, as well, he wasn't that either. Mainly because it would have pissed Wolfram and Hart off something shocking, and oh, his blood boiled to do that. Show them exactly where they could put their plans and schemes and $100,000 a year salary plus benefits.

Of course, he was still under contract. Perpetual condemnity clause. Which was how Wolfram and Hart managed to find him in this flyspeck town at somewhere in the back end of Kansas, and make sure that no law firm within five states would hire him. They gave him an offer to become a subsidiary; set up his own little office here in the middle of nowhere and help the friendly farm folk when they summoned the Devil too many times to make the corn grow as high as an elephant's eye.

So he did, and he got paid a pretty penny to do it. All those good intentions gone to waste, and although he never really felt them, Lindsey figured they did sort of matter. After all, as long as he'd wanted to do good, what did the motivations count? Look at Angel. He was a Champion, and he let people get bit. Just because they were lawyers. Okay, evil lawyers, but still honourable and righteous guardians of the law.

The farm people had gotten real boring real quick, and so had scaring off the occasional demon or spawn with a nice restraining order from one of the Lower Hells. He'd taken to drinking (technically he'd never really stopped) and tried to ignore it all, and the nagging feeling that Angel wouldn't even be laughing at him if he knew. Not laughing, not pointing fingers, not judging, just telling him to try again. And again and again and again until he got it right.

But Lindsey had never been big on salvation or redemption or time, for that matter. So when Lilah appeared in his office, he assumed it was the drink, an illusion. Then she screeched at him and hurled insults until he got up, staggered across the office to the coffee machine and drank about three cups in quick succession. Lilah informed him that she was, actually, dead, and about to depart this realm for good after exercising one last task for the Senior Partners, and then she might get promoted to Head Office. Lindsey didn't give a fuck. Lindsey asked what right she had to come in here, all dead, and disturb his alcoholic slumber.

Lilah retorted that he was pathetic, and if it was up to her he wouldn't be offered this commission. Lindsey privately agreed, but he had to know what it was, and so he asked. It turned out that the Senior Partners were leaving L.A., and they'd handed over the office to Angel Investigations. Not the smartest plan in the short term, but then for the Senior Partners, long term tended to be several millennia, so Lindsey assumed there had to be some pay off. At any rate, Lilah had handled the deal, but the sheer cost of keeping a corpse animate on the corporeal plane was eating into staff bonuses, and they wanted someone to take over, someone who knew Angel, and apparently he wasn't getting the right to refuse.

So Lindsey took down his shingle, and packed his meagre possessions, and waved goodbye to the touring cast of Oklahoma, and went back to the big smoke. But then, L.A. was forever.

He parked in the underground car park, pulled out his satchel, and felt a surge of authority and power well up from inside him as he strode to the elevators. He was home, he was in control, and he'd have the good guys tangled in knots before they could sneeze.

Making his way out of the elevator, he headed directly to the main offices, and breezed in without a second thought. He stopped in his tracks, stunned, at the lack of Angel. Instead, Wesley was standing front of the large desk, going through some papers in his hands. He looked up.

"Ah, Lindsey. Our new liaison with the staff. Lilah was telling us of your return, before she went back to hell." There was a disapproving tsk in his voice; you'd think that after three years Wesley had learned to loosen up somewhat, but he was still the same old naive bookworm that got himself shot.

"Where's Angel?"

"Ah, yes, your fixation. Angel was always amused by it." Lindsey snarled, and tossed the satchel to a nearby chair, moving to grip Wesley's collar and haul him up by it, getting right in his face. "Like you're one to talk. We used to have nicknames for all of you, you know that? Angel was the Confessor, Cordy was Miss Manners, and you, you were Angel's Bitch."

Wesley merely raised his eyebrows as if in surprise, and when he spoke his tone was as even and as snide as Lindsey ever remembered. "At least I was something to him. Angel spoke of you often, Lindsey. He found your interest in so easy to manipulate."

Lindsey let him go with a grunt. "You're lying. Now where the fuck is he?"

"Out on a case." Wesley's voice was calm, measured, smooth and supercilious. "Did you know he kissed me once?"


"He kissed me. A short while after our original offices were firebombed."

"So?" Lindsey tried to brush it off. "He kissed me once too. Fuck, I even blew him. So what do you think of that, huh?"

"It means," Wesley murmured icily, "that he knew you would not bring him perfect happiness, as I would. Hence why we did not go any further."

"You're lying." He had to be.

"I assure you, I'm not." Wesley gestured to a seat. "If you want, you can wait here until Angel gets back, and he can answer any of your questions."

Dismissed, Lindsey slunk over to the seat and sat down, clasping his hands in his lap, and tried not to feel too much like a naughty schoolboy sent to the Principal. Wesley strode from the room, papers in hand, and in the end Lindsey retreated to his own office before Angel got back.

He survived another week before putting in for a transfer: the Senior Partners sent him to their Cleveland offices, where he could work on tormenting the Slayers and their crew, and never have to worry about Angel again. He took the news a few years later of Angel's death quite well, all things considered, and when the world ended a short while after, he was one of the many still alive who hadn't a clue what hit them.


10: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven

Everything had been a lie. He'd come to that realisation, slow and long. Oh, his father had done it for the best of reasons, Connor was sure, just as he had always kept Connor back and confined and limited for the very best of reasons. But Connor wasn't a child, and he hated being treated like one.

It hadn't been that difficult to piece things together. Whatever the spell was that made everyone forget, it couldn't actually change reality. Only the Powers could do that, and they didn't exactly make house calls. So, Connor always remembered not quite fitting in. On the sports field, he could run harder and faster, hit or pitch the ball further than anyone could see. Once he'd realised he was a freak, he'd chalked the few successful attempts up to luck and a good headwind, and deliberately not done as well as he could. It was the same thing with his senses; he'd been able to do better, see almost around corners and hear things a mile away. He didn't want to go into what he could smell.

But above all things, you wanted to be a pretty good kid, son, brother: to fit in, to be normal. So he pretended it wasn't happening, and that out of his eye he catching this tall guy wrapped all in black watching him. At any rate, whenever Connor turned to get a proper look, the guy had disappeared.

He went to UC (Berkeley) because he could. He had the marks, and hell, from the sounds of the campus, if he could fit in anywhere, it would be there. So Connor would while the days away discussing French philosophy, picking up chicks and pretending to get stoned: no matter how much dope he took, it didn't affect him. The same went for acid, crack, speed: it was like his body was invulnerable. Inhuman.

So in his second year of grad school he went to a nice little dealer in magical antiquities, cause by now everyone knew that vampires, demons and Slayers were real, and every one and their second cousin twice removed was setting up shops in the trade. Connor figured the guy could be a crock, or he couldn't. Either way, he had nothing to lose.

The guy said some chants in a language that had more vowels than consonants, tossed some dust up in the air (he coughed, Connor didn't) and looked at him through what resembled a really strange pair of spectacles, and then the guy freaked. Clearly, something was up. The guy stammered for a bit, before explaining that Connor had been put under what was called a glamour, and apparently a very powerful one at that. It didn't alter what was real, but it made everyone all around the world see him differently, think of him differently. The guy couldn't remove it, not completely, but he could dispel it from around Connor -- for a price. So Connor nodded, and went ahead, and the guy mumbled some more and shook some bones.

And the world fell from Connor's eyes, and he saw things as they truly were. His father had abandoned him yet again; left him as a freak amongst normal people, to always know he was different and never understand why. He'd not bothered to try to atone, or make Connor happy, no, he'd just dumped him there and stopped by for the occasional visit. Connor figured it was guilt, and well, Angel deserved to feel guilty. The guy asked for his payment, and Connor paid him by not killing him, striding out into the Californian sun.

The hotel was easy enough to find, if deserted. Connor waited till night, and went to one of the more permanent vamp nests downtown to get information. It was surprisingly easy to get; the Angel had become Head Honcho of Wolfram and Hart, that he'd done a lot of good in the six years since. Connor didn't give a fuck what Angel thought he'd done; he couldn't make good on the debt he owed. He found out, too, that the 'Prima Bitch' who used to hang around with Angel was dead.

Dead. Cordy was dead. Angel had let her die.

Connor killed a lot of vamps that night, and then he set off for Wolfram and Hart. He chucked the cellphone his parents (not his real ones, his fake ones, the ones who only cared about him because of a spell) gave to him, because people from his (fake) life were ringing him, and he couldn't be bothered. Didn't want to lie, but didn't want to admit to the truth, so he just turfed it in a dustbin.

Security at Wolfram and Hart was tight, of course, but then he was the fucking Miracle Child, and he'd killed Gods in his time. Besides, Connor liked to go for the direct approach time. Give Daddy dearest the benefit that he'd never given to him. He killed the bodyguards at the entrance in full view of the security cameras, and took their guns. Another five guards fell in the next five minutes, and then the heavies came out. Connor took them all, with a speed and agility that surprised him; he worried that he was going to be rusty, but it seemed the Killing Machine was as good as ever.

That was all he was, all he'd been born to be. A killer and a freak so some deranged God could say hello to the world, and he'd killed her too in the end. Jasmine had been his purpose, and death was his gift, and this was all his fucking Christmases come at once. He was surprised when, after a good number of security personnel ended up on the floor or the walls or over the nice pretty couches of the lobby, they sent Gunn out next.

Angel would probably refused to let him go if he could, but that was another thing Connor had learnt. Angel wasn't a vampire any more. He'd been a good boy. He'd hurt people, lied, ruined Connor's life -- but all for the greater good, and so he'd been rewarded with a slap on the back and humanity to match that pesky soul. Now, he was weak. He was vulnerable. And he couldn't have stopped Gunn if he tried.

"Gunn!" Connor called. "This is a real reunion, isn't it?"

"Who the fuck are you, brat?" Gunn asked, and punched him in the face. "And why are you killing our people."

Connor tried not to laugh, he really did. They didn't know. Angel had wrapped them up in his lies just as much as he had Connor, and even when it was their lives at stake, he didn't fess up. Because he was too scared they'd leave him, they'd disagree with what he'd done, they'd ruin his absolution. Poor Angel. Connor almost felt sorry for him. He couldn't be the Champion without his friends, and he couldn't bear them to see the sham he was. He wouldn't have anyone to be strong for then.

He knifed Gunn quickly in the gut with a blade he'd swiped from a security guard, and twisted it, before pulling it out in the kind of slick motion Connor had never gotten used to. Gunn slumped to his knees, eyes rolling in the back of his head before he collapsed outright. Connor chucked down the blade and glared at the close circuit cameras he knew were watching. "This is a warning. I'm coming for you, Dad."

With that, he swept back out into the sunshine, and let the crowds swallow him up.

They didn't come after him again for several days, and when they did he was ready for them, having had time to do some more research. He holed himself up in an abandoned room in the hotel, the one place he knew they'd never look for him.

That first night after Gunn's murder she came to him, too. Sometimes she wore Jasmine's face and sometimes Cordelia's. He knew they were both attempts to manipulate him, and when he told her he didn't care, she just laughed, and said she'd missed having an acolyte. He didn't know who or what she was, and he didn't care, but they plotted deep into the night, and the one after, and the one after. When he asked for a name, she merely said he could call her his patron and guiding spirit, and left it at that.

She understood him. She understood hate, and vengeance, and rejection. She offered to pour her power into him, but he refused. Connor wanted to do this all himself, and so she merely watched as five nights later he stalked, hunted and slaughtered Fred.

Fred tried to talk him out of it before he actually killed her. It was kind of sweet, the faith she had in him, but that was because she trusted Angel, she saw him as 'Angel's son' unable to do anything his father wouldn't. Well, it was high time she got a lesson in just how close under the surface Angelus lurked, and anything his father could do, Connor could do better. The fact she recognised him was interesting; Angel had clearly revoked the glamour on some people, and he spoke to her about what it might mean. By this stage of course, Fred'd passed out due to the pain, but his patron was there, and she was more amenable to conversation than Fred had ever been. Besides, Fred died in the early hours of the morning, from internal bleeding.

They went after Wesley next. Oh, they kept him alive, and relatively well for a time. They knew not to spoil the merchandise, especially after Wesley and his father were lovers now and all. Every night Connor would make another cut across Wesley's skin, and then he'd take a photo with the Polaroid camera he'd stolen, and send it back to Wolfram and Hart. His patron and he used to giggle for hours over the expression on Angel's face every time he saw another photo. Especially the photo in which Wesley was quite obviously dead, split from groin to neck.

It wasn't too long after that that Angel called in the Slayers: a whole class of them, with Faith and the famous Buffy Summers. All the way from Cleveland; he was more important than he realised, and giggled at that, too. His patron had a lot to say about both of them, but Buffy especially. How to get Little Miss Perfect just off her game, and when he went to battle with them all, his patron appeared along side him like the very embodiment of Historical Inevitability itself, directing his actions, congratulating him on a job well done. Alongside her, Connor was just as he'd always been meant to be: a part of History, and nothing more. This had been fated, Connor was sure, and even if it wasn't he was making it fated. He was with the forces of History, and who could ever think of beating them?

He picked the Slayers off, one by one, toying with them in the streets of Los Angeles. He left Buffy till second last, and killed her right in front of Faith. Just as he'd been told, Faith went to pieces, and she got her neck snapped oh so easily. His patron loomed over the corpses, and told Connor he'd been a good boy.

Angel tried to flee. Tried to reason with him. Babbled about the First Evil and the Powers and the balance. But he was human now, human and frail and normal, and Connor was not and could never be. So Connor killed him, just as simply as he had all the others. Then the Seers came and the Oracles and the Foretellers and Witches, all too many to count. Telling him how horrible he'd been. How he'd been used. How because of this, the Powers That Be had lost all their Champions, that the hope for the future was lost. Connor killed them, too, because he could, and because they annoyed him.

And one day, the world just stopped, and Connor realised that perhaps all those mystics hadn't been wrong after all.


11. All Good Children Go To Heaven

Once upon a time, Cordelia slept. It was a strange, dreamy sleep, in which things happened hazy, at a distance from her senses and thought; rather like the one time she'd allowed Harmony to bring pot to one of their parties. She sniffed the joint first, out of curiosity, and lit up when the other girls prodded her because she didn't want to be seen as some sort of prude. She let Harmony go first though; Cordy didn't want to be seen as too eager either. Pretty soon they were giggling, admitting to Ben Affleck crushes and all sorts of stupid things.

That was how it felt like now: all flighty and high and surreal. Things were happening around her, people spoke and moved and went away, and sometimes in the haze she recognised a name, a face, a word. Angel. Connor. Wesley. Fred. But she couldn't fight the disconnection, the sensation that it was happening to another Cordelia, another person entirely, and so Cordy watched, hostage to a dream that she could not awake from.

Then the dream grew black, and silent, and Cordelia rested. After an impossible time in the darkness, voices started to speak to her. They were kind, and soft, and told her that she was in a coma, damaged, irretrievably so. They claimed to be the Powers That Be. They claimed a lot of things, actually, and one was that she should just let go now, and die and be at peace, because otherwise her friends would just turn off life support one day and she'd die anyway.

Cordy told the voices in no uncertain terms to fuck off, and they slipped sadly from her mind, leaving her alone in the shadows. She fell into darkness, and was quiet for an unknowable time.

When she woke up, there was light. White light, almost emanating off the blank white wall that she faced. Blinking, she rolled onto her back, and started up at a white featureless ceiling. There was no light fitting, no obvious source of the illumination; the walls and ceiling (and as she discovered, floor) simply glowed softly. Cordelia supposed it could be Heaven: it certainly seemed dull enough. There was a shift hanging in a typically white wardrobe, and she put it on. It too was white, and sort of laced-up from the bodice to the collar. She couldn't quite pin the fabric, but it was comfortable enough, if a tad prudish in design. Again, pointing towards the whole Heaven idea.

Her room (if she could call it that) was sparsely decorated, with bed and wardrobe against opposite ends of the room, with a small table between them and the door at the other end. All the walls were as blank and featureless as the other, and just as annoyingly glowy. Cordy wished she had a pair of shades, and cautiously opened up the door to peer outside.

If this was Heaven, she really had to speak to someone about the décor. And the lack of service. Maybe Gabriel was lolling about somewhere, or perhaps they had a complaints department. The corridor was the same featureless white as the room, extending in each direction as far as the eye could see. Doors, white and blank, even down to the door handles, dotted the corridor at regular, even paces. There was a slightly acrid smell in the air. Antiseptic, like a hospital. It didn't explain anything, but it was worth noting.

Cordelia crept along the corridor, looking anxiously from side to side as she did so. She felt like a kid gone to steal cookies from the jar, or some equally stupid yet incredibly embarrassing crime. She knocked on the next door on the left to hers, and opened it when the person inside called for her to enter.

It was a girl, well, young woman; roughly Cordelia's age, dressed in the same fine white shift as her. She had long, rather glossy honey blonde hair and a kind, soft cast to her features. She wasn't pretty, or elegant, but she was beautiful, if with the kind of beautiful that came from the air of tragedy she carried around her like a shroud.

"Hi. You're Cordelia," the girl -- young woman -- said, with just the trace of hesitancy in her voice.

Cordelia blinked. "That's right. How did you know?"

The girl stepped aside, to reveal what looked like a small television set standing on the table that stood against the far wall. It was white too, and featureless, as blank as everything else in this place. Images were running across the screen, and sound was emerging somehow from something that didn't seem to have any speakers. She looked at it for a moment, before recognising the person who figured in most of the shots. "That's Willow." Realisation dawned. Cordelia knew who this young woman was. She'd seen her. She'd seen all of it, from up on high. "My God. You're Tara."

Tara smiled sadly (everything she did was sad) and sat down on the bed, absently brushing down the fabric of the shift over her legs. "This is the afterlife. We call it the Waiting Room. It's for the people who've been through too much to accept the idea of hell, but who don't believe in Heaven. It's the real thing, as far as we can tell. There's no way out; it seems to be infinite."

Cordy pointed to the televion. "I didn't get one of those."

"Yes." Tara nodded. "This place waits until you've introduced yourself to someone else, and they explain things to you. Then when you go back to your room, its there, and it's always on. You don't sleep or eat or drink so you watch, instead."

"You don't seem so happy with the matinee feature," Cordy wryly observed, nodding at the box.

"Well, that's sort of the point," Tara said shakily. "It concentrates on what you cared about most of all when you were alive, what you still care about now you're dead. You while away the hours that you don't even know watching everyone you love live without and be happy." She started crying, sobbing gently, quietly, terribly quietly, and Cordy was moved to sit by her on the bed, and ineffectually rubbed her back through the shift. "Willow's with someone else, now. She has been for a while. Kennedy makes her happy, and she loves Kennedy, and sometimes I hate Willow so much for that." Her voice descended into sobs.

"Can't you just stop the show?"

Sniffling, Tara wiped at her nose and eyes. She looked beautiful even when crying, or because of it. "No. That's the point. We are dead. We're fixed, just as we were. The living get to grow and change; we don't the luxury of moving on. Nothing passes for us, nothing fades. You simply can't stop loving them and so it keeps on showing how they don't need you any more."

Cordy took matters into her own hands, and strode over to the television. She attempted to lift it so she could hurl it across the room, but it failed to budge, and seemed to weigh a ton.

"You can't move them," Tara said softly behind her. "You can't turn them off, or break them or tear them to pieces. Believe me, we've all tried. After a while, people stay in their rooms and simply watch for the rest of eternity as each generation of their descendants is born, lives and dies." Cordy turned to look at her, with a mixture of horror and shock. "Some of the oldest people don't leave their rooms anymore, and they won't let anyone in, either. I think they're still there, though. Where else could they go?"

"If this is the waiting room, what are we waiting for?"

Tara shrugged; she didn't know. "You should go back to your room," she murmured, already turning her attention back to the screen. The life that Cordelia had glimpsed in her, the consideration, the joy...all of that was gone now, muted by the realisation at the end that she was going to die, a waste, before her time, and that realisation was all she was now.

Cordelia exited without a word, and opened up her door. Sure enough, a television sat there on the far table, flicking into activity as she entered, squat and faintly menacing in this austere environment. She sat down on the bed and began to watch, but couldn't help but wonder if that was all Tara was now, how had she been changed? The thought might have sent a shiver up her spine, once.

Time passed. Cordelia got used to the television; got engrossed in it, watching as all her friends went onward and upward with their lives. Connor was trapped in a lie, and Cordy could feel it would have bad consequences, but then Angel had given her up for dead as well, and that judgement had turned out to be right. Gunn was trying to be something he desperately wasn't, Fred was permanently on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and Wesley had returned to the naïve slightly pompous twat she'd known him as once. Angel's solution had damaged them all, made them less than they were, but she couldn't help but stare and watch.

The day came when Angel and Wesley finally did something about their feelings for one another, and Angel became human soon after. She watched as they made love in a way she'd never been allowed to, not realising as the tears flowed down her cheeks, and for a brief, bitter moment she wished they were dead. Love was all she had, love was all she'd been and it was dust in her mouth now, dust and ashes, she couldn't escape it.

Some time after that, she went to visit Tara again, and they ended up kissing each other, hungry and ever more brutal, Tara's hand sliding down her legs to firmly rub her fingers against Cordy's clit until she came. Even that gave her nothing, drew nothing from her. She was a dry well, empty of substance and just the form remained. But they kept trying because it was better trying, at least for a while. In doing so, they could pretend to be alive, pretend that the actions had meaning, or that they had the hearts left to feel the meaning with.

Cordy kept watching, even when Connor broke free of the chains that bound him; that last realisation enough to push him over the edge into madness. She watched with dry eyes, fingers curled under the side of the bedspread as he tortured and killed anyone she'd ever cared about, and once they were all dead, and Connor was safe at least for a time, only then did she weep, and beg for the mercy of sleep until her voice was hoarse.

There was a knock at the door.

Straightening herself out, Cordelia opened it up, and stood, staring at the two forms before her. Male and female they were, of an age not much older than her, clad in the brightest of colours. If the walls glowed, they shone, and they were the most beautiful thing that Cordelia had ever seen.

"Cordelia," they chorused in unison, and Cordelia recognised the voices from the ones in her head, so long ago.

"You're Them. You're the Powers That Be." She stepped back, almost fearful, a hand to her mouth, and suddenly she was sitting on the bed again, the door closed, and the Powers standing in front of her.

Cordelia couldn't pin down exactly what they looked like: each time they glanced at them, they seemed different; different shape or size, hair colour or skin colour or eyes colour. One moment they were Caucasian, then Hispanic, or Amerindian, and the next they were something different. Once or twice she thought the female resembled someone she knew: Miss Calendar, or some other teacher from high school. The male typically looked good and noble and pure no matter what, and Cordy could have imagined him stepping right out of a Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue.

She didn't especially want to know why the Powers appeared to her as either some kind of feminine authority figure or a male from the world's most homoerotic form of advertising, and suspected it had something to do with childhood trauma.

"Child," the female one spoke, and Cordy couldn't help but feel blessed by her presence. "We have come to speak with you, as we are speaking to all of you."

Cordy didn't let them just get the spiel out. "Why are you letting this happen?" she said, pointing to the television, the scenes of death, decay, ruin. The television froze and then snapped back to roll footage of Connor killing Buffy and Faith in slow motion, every detail highlighted by the changing frames.

The Powers glanced at one another before speaking, the female one again. "We cannot interfere, Cordelia. You know that."

"You interfered in Angel's life in Sunnydale so he wouldn't get toasted," Cordelia accused. She remembered that. She'd been there.

The male one cleared his throat, and answered for them both. "We do not interfere unless it suits our interests," he admitted, and Cordelia would have paid good money to see a Supreme Force for Good look that guilty.

"This suits your interest? What happened with me suited your interest? Letting Buffy come back from the dead just so she could suffer suited your interest?" Her voice rose to the shriek that many had learned to fear back in the good old days. Besides, she'd seen a lot in her brief stint at Supposed Higher Being, and all that anger and frustration was being put to good use.

They didn't answer, and then the penny dropped. "My God. It did. You let Connor be born, all the natural laws get flouted...you let Jasmine use all of us, and me, and him, just so she could be born. So she could be killed."

"We had faith in you, child, that you would win out against the renegade." The female's voice was calm but chiding, like a mother talking to her wayward charge.

"Big whoop. I died. Hundreds of people died, and now Connor's gone mad, just so you could get us to take care of your own dirty work?"

They shared another glance, this time it was tinged with anger, but Cordy was too impatient to let them speak. "And Buffy. You allowed her to be brought back because in doing so it allowed the First to go ahead, and then it could be defeated as well. Who cares about the mortals in your care if you've won at the end of the day? But you wouldn't let Tara come back because you needed Willow to go evil. For some reason." Cordy's face fell. "I don't know why you did that, but I've got all eternity to find out, I know."

"You have not." It was the female, her voice low and musical. "Our actions brought us to what we considered to be a Golden Age. Our rebel destroyed, the First defeated, our champions spread across the globe. But we could not, and did not, forsee the actions of the Destroyer, the one you know as Connor. He has killed the best of us, and now the remainder cower in the ruins, too frightened to carry the battle to him."

"So?" Cordy was after all, dead. What did she care.

"The First knows however that Connor is unpredictable, and may very well turn against her own forces, should it raise them. We had hoped to claim this world as a victory in our name, but now we have settled for a truce."

Cordelia gaped. "That's all this is? A game to you?"

"Not just a game," the male one reprimanded. "A fight. A test. To see who is right, and who is wrong. And so we play throughout eternity, ever setting up the board again and again. But this game has been called to a close."

This did not sound good, in her opinion, and she had heard some really bad things in her time. "What does that mean?"

"Why, the end of the world of course," the female murmured softly, as if it was an obvious conclusion.

"You can't just do that!" Cordelia raged. "You can't just shut it off! What kind of difference is there between you and the forces of evil if you do that sort of thing?"

"Who says there is, sweetcakes?" The new voice was masculine, and instantly recognisable.

She turned, and there was Xander Lavelle Harris, standing between her and the television. Except she knew at the same time it wasn't him, and as if to prove it, he changed, first into Wesley, then into Angel. "Maybe you'd like to hear it from this face? Gee, but for someone so obsessed with popularity, you sure as hell had a thing for the freaks and geeks, huh?"

Cordelia knew of the First from her time as Supposed Higher Being; she'd seen it work its way along under the earth, had smelt it on the breeze, and she dismissed it now out of hand, turning back to the powers. "You can't be serious!" she pleaded, but to no avail.

"Oh but they are, Cordy dear," oozed the First from right behind her, speaking soft into her ear. If it could have, her skin would have crawled. "The thing that you mortals don't get is we're two sides of the same coin. You say it, but you don't understand what it means."

"The only difference then is one of result, of motive, than technique. You'll kill people to get your way just as much as it will." Cordy's voice was flat, accusing. She'd expected better of her gods, after all the trouble she'd gone to for them.

The Powers nodded, sadly. "So has it ever been thus." The female one wrinkled her nose, and added apologetically, "we must have an equal playing field after all."

Darting from the First's near embrace, Cordy craned her head, and her eyes widened in shock when she saw that the television was blank, its screen a wall of nothing. "So that's it. Game over. Wipe the board clean and start again."

"Oh, but it isn't quite a clean start, Cordy. Not yet." That was the First.

Cordy wanted to smack it, and so she did. It looked quite offended at the belt, rubbing its jaw before it laughed, amused by her spunk. Clearly here in the non-corporeal realm, it had a body, or as good as.

"Will someone please explain what Dark and Nasty means?" she demanded, and the male Power took up the cue.

"The board, as you say, is clean. But not all the...pieces taken in battle. They must be reset, so the game may begin anew."

"Oh God. You're talking about us. All the dead ones, here, and elsewhere. This is what we were waiting for?"

The female Power stepped forward; she looked like Cordy now, joining the First who was still locked into Angel's form, and the male Power that resembled Wesley, but only when she looked at him from a certain angle.

Cordelia was sure there was some sort of symbolism at work here, some form of unholy trinity, but she couldn't grasp what it was.

"So this is how the story ends."

Another nod. "Yes. You should be proud, Cordelia Chase. You served us well. Maybe in this world, or the next, we will finally win." She couldn't be sure who was speaking any more, they all seemed to be blending into one another.

Cordelia groped for something to say, something to change their minds, but eternity had come to a close.

There was the sound of someone clicking off a light switch, but not quite, and the world went away.


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