by glossolalia

Illyria stopped screaming a week ago. No one could hear it and the darkness of the rubble made it blind. Gored by a dragon, its leg broken and hands shattered, it cannot dig out.

This hole is a living grave, cruel and persistent. Illyria has never felt so lost.

In its time, its glory, Illyria could wave a hand and curtains opened to new dimensions, vistas of possibility. Tapestries wove themselves before its tracking eye, throwing up scenes that pleased and terrified according to its mood. Basilisks gamboled for its delight, krakens ticked out perfect minuets.Illyria gazed at all the sights but remained imperturbable and implacable. If it was pleased, the beasts and spirits survived; if it was bored, they contorted and shrieked out a slow-traveling agony.

It was everything then.

Now, it is nothing. Nothing but lost and broken. Trapped in this charnel-house of frangible human flesh, the pain has become so familiar that it is reduced to a dull throbbing roar.

The ruins of Los Angeles are nothing like Illyria's former realm. The fallen columns there, the ancient dust and shattered power, all had a certain majesty. Los Angeles, broken, is as pathetic as it was when whole. The city, collapsed on itself, is simply Illyria's fate writ large.

It -- she, now, trapped here, it has devolved down to gender -- she wishes she could die. Death is more welcome than this hole, soaked with sewer and sea-water, crawling with vermin, broken asphalt and granite piled around and over her shattered body. There must be some sort of diabolical alchemy at work -- and despite Illyria's reputation, she was never a demon, she was larger than that -- that keeps this stupid, rotten flesh alive. Some tenacious essence that was Fred's, animating what should be a carcass, a force of will preserving life.

If that is the case, it is a will detached from Illyria. Out of her hands and beyond her control, because she wishes nothing more than to die.

There is a copper pipe against the base of her throat, a chunk of concrete is her pillow, and her left leg is folded back under her like a ragdoll's. The wound in her stomach, one swipe of the dragon's magnificent claw, oozes blood in thick, irregular pulses.

Angel and Spike died first. No one told them, Illyria supposes, that a dragon's breath is not mere fire, but concentrated sunlight. That would have been Wesley's job, to know that, and she left him in a bed in Angel's hotel, wrapped in a sheet, white as snow.

Gunn died just before she stopped screaming. He was hurt, but it was the collapse that did him in.

There might be hordes above them. Illyria believes it is more likely that there is nothing left beyond a black sun, charred beyond use, and winds that howl down from the mountains.

She is trapped here and she has nothing but Fred for company.

Fred's memories, rewritten and patched, sit in her brainpan. They turn softly, constantly, around each other, like tadpoles, like fetuses, stirring and tempting. She pluck one at random, separating it, squirming, from its fellows. She teases out the threads of it and follows the spidery tendrils into the past.

There are millions of memories here. Things she never told Wesley -- about the warmth of Gunn's hands in the morning before she fully woke, the slick heat of his mouth between her legs, the sight of Cordelia's body when she emerged from a shower, the tang of marijuana on the back of her tongue as comforting as Wesley's own whiskey, the agony of the cow-collar around her neck -- things she could never have told Wesley. These soft silvery things, half-transparent and mercurially shifting, would have lodged in Wesley's gullet, disturbed the story he needed to tell.

That was a story of Fred as some virgin huntress, Artemis never disturbed at the pool, as innocent of the world as Siddhartha in his fortress.

Illyria never fully believed that story. She believes it even less now, feels it throbbing away and fading in time with her pain and despair. Faith ebbs in the face of this darkness.

All she has are these memories. She has no power left, but with a grit of the teeth and concentration of desire, she can slip hand over hand down the tassel-like tails of the memories and distract herself, temporarily, in the past.


Illyria is a guest in this flesh and this world. She hates that, hates seeing with Fred's astigmatic eyes, hates thinking with this mind that, though sharper than most, is still limited by its flesh.

She has never been a guest; if Illyria visited a realm, a kingdom or dimension, it conquered immediately. The natives became the guests then, anxious to please if they wished to survive.

But now she is nothing more than a visitor. This is Galveston, this memory. Fred is home for Cousin Dale's wedding. The sand beneath her is gritty with trash and humidity; the sky is darkening with clouds.To escape the cramped motel room where her mother was darning something and Daddy was yelling at sports on the television, Fred took her notebooks out to the beach earlier. She has equations and models to complete for her supervisor before her return, tricky ones that spin uselessly in her mind and make her sigh in frustration.

The bad weather has driven most of the beachgoers inside and Fred is nearly alone. Illyria feels her twist, eyes widening, as she checks her privacy, then tugs a tin of throat lozenges out of the back pocket of her cut-off denim shorts.

Before she can open it, before Illyria can see what it is -- it must be familiar to Fred, because there's nothing specific in her mind to tell Illyria what's in the box -- the sky opens up and fat raindrops begin to pelt the sand.

The box in her teeth, Fred scoops up her notebooks and calculator and sprints for the pier nearby. Illyria savors for a moment the sensation of running, the rain hitting her, Fred's, face, before she's underneath the old wooden pier, skidding in the damp sand. Her sandals are full of the stuff and a strap has broken.

The rain sets up a baroque symphony on the pier overhead and pits the sea with foam. Fred kneels in the sand, dropping her notebooks, her wet hair curtaining her vision. She fumbles open the tin, extracting a thin hand-rolled cigarette and matchbook. Her hands are wet and she's out of breath, and the first match flares, then winks out before she can bring it to the cigarette. She tries again and Illyria's growing impatient, too, swearing with Fred when the match bends and will not light.

Beneath the pier, it is even darker than the storm outside, and Illyria's vision, trapped in Fred's eyes, smeared with the rain over Fred's glasses, is frustratingly slight. Fred is goosebumped from the rain and sharp wind, and they shiver as she tries the last match. The cigarette between her lips tastes like evergreen and rope, soaking with her spit as she scowls in concentration.

Halfway to her mouth, the lit match sizzles out when rain falls through the boards overhead.

Fred throws the matchbook away, still breathing hard, and doesn't look up at first when someone says behind her, "Let me?"

She snatches the cigarette out of her mouth and hides it in her hand. Glancing over her shoulder, barely taking in the form of a girl standing against one of the struts, she says, "What? No, thanks. I'm good."

"I-it's okay," the girl says, kneeling next to Fred. She is, Illyria sees with Fred, just about Fred's own height but built more fully, round everywhere. Buxom and inviting, and Illyria -- though not Fred, she hasn't seen this yet -- thinks of Cordelia's curves. This girl, dressed like a gypsy, has none of what Illyria has learned was Cordelia's easy confidence; in fact, once she registers Fred's unconscious ogling, she crosses one arm over her chest and looks down. Addressing the condom wrapper and popsicle stick in the sand between them, she adds, "Just let me."

Fred uncurls her grip on the cigarette and puts it back in her mouth. Leaning in, the girl -- she smells like rain and herbs, and has a kind face, though she still won't meet Fred's eyes -- whispers something and snaps her fingers at the cigarette's tip. A small blue flame leaps up and licks at the damp paper. Fred inhales, grateful and nervous all at once, and lets the familiar smoke fill her lungs. Green relaxation slips through her system and Illyria lets herself enjoy the slow-burning tingle.

"Fred," Fred says, sticking out her hand and exhaling to the side. "Thanks."

"T-tara," the girl says. The tendons in her neck stand out white as she seems to force herself to look up. "Looked like you were having trouble."

"Yeah," Fred says. "It's something about matches, you know? I'd probably think it was a kind of conspiracy along the lines of how you always run out of hot chocolate before your doughnut's finished? But that's probably just bad luck, too. Not sure. How did you do that, anyway? I don't see a lighter --"

Smiling patiently, Tara moves to close Fred's open notebook, then draws her finger down the page, dark with scribbled equations. "Math?"

"Physics," Fred says and inhales on the cigarette again. "Which is math, because everything, when you get right down to it, is a kind of math. But not math-math, that's a whole other thing and I like physics better. You?"

Fred talks a lot. Illyria should know this by now, but it always comes a surprise. She visited the memory of Fred's eighth birthday party recently, and even then, in a room full of squealing, shouting children dressed up like astronauts, Fred was talking twice as fast as anyone else.

Her loquaciousness, however, is not what has grabbed Illyria's attention. Despite herself, grudgingly, she is becoming absorbed in this inconsequential memory, in the sidelong glances Tara shares and Fred's growing torrent of words and explanations. She tells Tara about Dale's fiancee, how the woman already has three kids but is starting over with Dale, and about her supervisor in Los Angeles, what a brilliant man he is and very kind, always interested in what Fred's working on. She even attempts to explain string theory, using an analogy of knitting yarn and the difference between perling and knitting that seems to confuse her just as much as it does Tara.

And she talks, and talks, and it is all to cover up something that Illyria is certain even Fred does not quite realize: that she cannot stop looking at Tara. At her wet shirt, clinging to the swell of her breasts, at her curving smile, at the flare of her hips in that shapeless skirt, at her strong hands and chewed-down fingernails. Details are flying off Tara, consumed by Fred's hungry eyes, assembling into a figure full of desire and longing that lodges in the center of Fred's chest and brightens with every puff on her joint.

Tara replies to the questions with simple statements -- she's visiting family, doesn't know when she'll be home, misses her cousin and her mother -- and Fred's lips are slightly parted, as if she's breathing in every bit of Tara she can snatch.

Fred is -- Illyria twists on the end of this memory-string, searching for the answer -- nearly twenty-one. For a human being, that's well into the age of sexual maturity, yet Fred appears entirely unaware of looking at Tara so closely, let alone desiring her.

Illyria would laugh, but she has only Fred's mouth and throat, and those are filled with more words. "How did you do that? Where'd the fire come from?"

Tara's eyes widen and she takes a deep breath. "My m-mom taught me. Our oven's always going out."

"Yeah, but how?"

When Tara looks down, Fred's gaze follows her. Illyria has to strain to hear what Tara says over the rain and wind. "M-magic."

Fred laughs, the green smoke that is threading through her brightening and tensing. "No, really? C'mon, I want to know."

"Magic," Tara says more firmly, but then she looks around, just as Fred did, as if to check that they are alone under the pier. "I'm n-not supposed to --." She sighs and squares her shoulders. "Not supposed to do it."

Fred touches the back of Tara's hand, running her fingertips over the chilly skin, working her thumb in circles around the inside of Tara's wrist. After several long moments, Tara finally meets her eyes and begins to smile at whatever it is she sees in Fred's expression.

They both look away quickly, though Fred does not release Tara's hand, and Illyria feels ready to shriek in frustration. This is no way to live, even if this isn't her memory. All this hesitation and politeness, tiny secrets pathetically shared -- it is too much, not nearly enough. She can see the flush in Tara's cheeks, even if Fred refuses to acknowledge it, feel Tara's pulse hammer against her thumb.

"That's pretty --" Tara breathes, touching the little apple pendant that Fred wears constantly on a necklace that hugs her throat. Her finger is warm and Fred, or perhaps Illyria, or perhaps both of them, lean into the touch. "H-heart?"

"Apple," Fred says and giggles, though she doesn't feel happy, not quite. "My granny's way of warning me against too much education. Knowledge."

Tara smiles, full and broad at last, as she plucks at the pendant and lifts it up as far as she can. This brings Fred closer and Illyria -- Illyria is no longer watching. Her own skin is cold, prickling needfully in the heat of Tara's breath, so close, and the notebook crumples under Fred's knee as she pulls even closer, and Illyria is about to taste Tara, about to kiss her, when Tara tips her head back. Her hand tightens on Fred's shoulder.

"We're not alone," she breathes. "We're -- you're --"

Fred laughs, and Illyria wraps her -- their -- arm around Tara's waist. "Of course we are. Who'd be out in this weather?"

Tara narrows her eyes and stares at Fred. If Illyria had a body, if she was not simply a stranger, an unwelcome and unacknowledged guest here, she would quaver under the strength of that witchy gaze. All she has, however, is Fred, Fred's body and mind and the heat that is blooming upward through her, the heat that has nothing to do with smoke and everything to do with Tara.

Fred kisses Tara. Thin soft lips on plumper, softer ones, and her hand tangles in Tara's wet hair that is the color of old brass and dying fires, and Tara breathes out into Fred, into Illyria, a long sweet sigh that sets Fred tingling and does something else to Illyria.

Something, something there isn't a name for, though it's roughly similar to what a priest could do, drawing the fire-runes over the flesh of a sacrifice to Illyria. It calls Illyria, just as the priest once called, tugs her free of the tendril on which she hangs, catches her in freefall and makes her real.

Worship is what she lacks in this world. Grief at its loss had no name, just as the joy at its return is outside of language. Illyria has a moment to blink, to nip down on Tara's full lower lip and murmur her thanks, before she is gone. Installed in Fred, fully indistinguishable, kissing this witch until they are both breathless.


Fred is stronger than she ever thought, like a column of light and heat, twisting around Tara, ivy shooting around, tying them together, and she's never kissed a girl but holy sweet baby Jesus, she's wanted to, and Tara is soft and firm and tastes good and her hair gets in their mouths and they are laughing now as the storm lifts.

By the time the sun falls through the cracks in the pier and glows over Tara's hand and face, Fred knows she is different. She feels as if she has lost several layers of skin, as if she fits inside her body now, and she kisses Tara again, far more gently, and doesn't know what else to say.

Everything's different because everything is right. She thought, when she left for Los Angeles, that she would change there, but it is here, three hours from home, sand sticking everywhere, that she found herself.


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