Anna Begins
by Jennifer-Oksana

She decides to come home with me. I can't say no. I need some quiet time, but she can't be alone right now. Wolfram and Hart has been pounded flat by the Beast; she's the only one to walk out of the slaughter. Again. How many times has she escaped by the skin of her teeth?

She decides to come home with me, but she misses the message from my mother because she goes to the bathroom, ostensibly to fix her makeup, but I can tell the car ride left her nauseous and I'm not going to humiliate her by asking if she wants me to hold her head. Lilah would not forgive that sort of kindness, and vice versa.

Once I hear the message, I don't have anything left to give, if I ever did. I go outside, I light up a cigarette that I think is from a pack of Angel's (he's not aware we all know he smokes on occasion), and I stare. I stare for hours, for minutes. I don't know. Time stops.

It must have been a while in any case, because she comes looking for me.

"Well, it's been a good year for bastards, hasn't it?" Lilah asks, looking pale and vulnerable and downtrodden as I look back at her briefly. That isn't right. Lilah Morgan is never supposed to look downtrodden. She's made of Teflon; she'll survive hell with little more than a smirk. "Wes? Come on, Wes, please don't do this--"

I am standing on the balcony, smoking my fourth cigarette in a row (and I don't smoke; I've never smoked, it's not in my nature), staring at the traffic lights as they stream by, and the streaky sunset, so beautiful since the pollution from the fires. I cannot do this. I am going to break up with her. I am going to get her out of my life, uncomplicated things completely.

"Let me alone," I say quietly. "If there's something I don't need to hear, it's your smug chirp cheerfully informing of anything."

One of Lilah's eyes is swollen half-shut. She'll be lucky if there's not a scar from that claw mark on her cheek. There are butterfly bruises on her thighs, and she was lucky that none of her ribs are broken, because the emergency rooms won't see an injury that minor these days. If it weren't for Mistress Morgan's private house stash of Vicodin and Absolut, she'd probably be lying on her back in agony. Smug indeed. I am an asshole, and she should slap me and walk away.

Walk away, Lilah. Get out of my life, because I don't know what to do with you anymore. It's not simple, it's not going to be simple again, and I cannot deal with that. Not when it's you.

"Yeah, because the way I look screams triumphant," she says, joining me on the balcony and putting one relatively unmarked hand on my shoulder tentatively. "Tell me. I want to help you, Wes."

She can't do this to me. It's not in the script. She needs to be truly horrible now, so I can put her out of my mind. I am not worried. Lilah is the enemy. I am not overly concerned, because this is going to be the end, the end of all these lies and games and all of this mind-bending sex. It doesn't bother me to say this isn't love. Because it's not, because we are enemies and she does not love.

"You?" I sneer. "Help?"

I'm glad I cannot see her face. I think it would hurt to see her looking at me, because I can feel her looking at me and she's shaking. I'm not ready to acknowledge this. It's just that I can hurt her; it's just that this is the first time in years that the bitch has cared about anyone other than her goddamned self. It's the novelty, not love. Not love.

"You helped me," she murmurs softly, sounding as though her beating has stripped off decades of hateful varnish. "I want to help you. Okay? Not anyone else. I'm still mostly selfish and horrible."

I am not worried. She's right. She's mostly selfish and horrible--and then I look at her. I look at her, tired and bruised and clearly wanting nothing more than to curl up under a warm blanket and cry herself to sleep. She wants to help me. I look at her and I begin to change my mind.

Funny. She's the last person on earth I'd ever dreamed of telling a secret to. I'm not ready for this. I'm not ready for it to be love, if I love her. I don't know. I'm not ready to imagine it. I need to tell her. It's not like it'll remain a secret for long.

"There was a message on the machine," I say slowly, stubbing out the cigarette between my fingers and grimacing at the momentary pain. "It was my mother. My father--the Watchers--there was an explosion. He's gone. They're all gone. The books, the technology--it's all gone."

Her eyes widen, but she doesn't speak, or even move to comfort me. I appreciate that.

"She wants me to come home--come back--for the funeral," I say, thinking about what I haven't said. He's dead, and all I can say is that he's gone. Not that he's dead and not that I'm glad. "I don't know if I can. Not with everything like this."

Lilah shakes her head.

"You should," she says, slipping her hand around mine. "I went to my stepfather's funeral, when it happened. Harold wasn't my favorite person. Not when I was twelve and I couldn't tell my mom, and not when I was twenty-two and he dropped dead. It helps. When you go."

I don't want to hear this. I can't hear this, because I know what she's telling me without giving me the details. God, I can't know this. Because I know that she killed him, or she had him killed, same damn difference. If her stepfather had done what I think she's telling me he did, I would have wanted to do it. And I would have been too weak to do what she did.

"Spit on the old bastard's grave?" I ask, putting my arm around her. I am not worried. It's not love. It's sympathy. It's mutual understanding. "Is that your considered advice?"

"I waited until afterwards," she says, walking us into the house, toward the couch and then sitting us down on it. "It was raining, buckets of fucking rain--and I swear, this was during the goddamn drought. I told my mom I was going to catch up with some old friends in town. Like I had old friends. I went, with a bottle of Southern Comfort--he drank SoCo like it was fucking water--and I--I did a lot of things. Screamed until I was dizzy and soaking wet and I couldn't see anymore. Then I got back into my mom's car, drove home, laid down on the couch and drank myself to sleep. Damn near died of bronchitis, but--it was worth it."

Good Lord. "Sounds cathartic."

"It was worth ten years of therapy," she says, stroking my hair gently. "Just a thought."

It occurs to me that there's a lot we haven't explained explicitly, and a lot that she's assuming, the file-hoarding little bitch. She could know this already, and the thought drives me nearly to distraction.

"How much do you know about my father?" I ask. "About what went on?"

"Not all that much," she answers, still stroking. "I mean--I know, Wes. Didn't have to dig. Come on. Remember Bethany? And I bet you know which of the Sunnydale brats--"

"The Harris boy."

"Exactly," she says, sounding lost and far-away, even though her hands are warm against my body. "It's like--I dunno, it's like gaydar, but it's not a kinship you want to acknowledge."

"You know, he gave me the idea for Justine?" I ask, sounding as distant as she does as we lay there, trying to get warm. "The bucket, the closet, the dark. It was--"

"You don't have to tell me," she murmurs, twining her hand into mine. I don't know what to do. I'm sure this isn't love. It's a shade of gray or something close. I'm not overly concerned. She's not something I can love. Because if I can love her, the consequences must be considered. The consequences that'll kill us both.

"I know," I say. "Have you ever been locked in a closet? It's a singular experience. Time stops."

"Harold wasn't like that," she answers, giving me her past as easily as she'd give me a present. "He wasn't a doer. It was all in his eyes. Like he was trying to eat me alive. He'd look at me, hungry, and at first, I'd hide. Slouch--I was five-seven in stocking feet when I was thirteen and a C cup by the time I was fourteen. I tried to be ugly. But then I realized that I had him. If I bent over just a little more, moved with just a little more oomph--all the power was mine. He'd let me do anything just as long as he could look. I kind of--I got off on it at first, until I realized what I was doing. And then--I kept doing it. And not just to Harold."

She's crying. She's goddamn crying and she's as ashamed of herself as I'd been after Billy affected me. I remember now, in the vague way you do when you're a formerly minor player, that the last two times she got beat up, the sexual threats had been more text than subtext. God knows that Angel's always playing that line with her--and she never flinches.

How could she, knowing what she does? All those empty threats, and she knows that most of them stay empty, giving her the power in the end. As long as she shows a little more leg, gives them the thrill, she'll live, no matter how many of us eat her soul alive.

"This is going to end very badly," I say, touching her face with a sense of wonder. Lilah has changed my mind. By all that's holy and wrong in this world, I think I love her. At the very least, I know I care.

"Probably in bloodshed," she agrees, looking troubled. She's managed to stop crying. "Whatever this is. I don't care anymore. You know? Fuck it. If I'm going to be in love right now, I'm going to be in love and not dance around it."

The way she says it makes me shiver. In love. If I break her heart, it'll be worse now. After a good twenty years of keeping herself safe from the world, she's just given me the freedom to destroy her completely. She won't stop shaking, and I can't stop touching her.

Then again, she knows that I know all of this and--

"You didn't do that to be hideously manipulative, did you?" I ask, cupping her face.

"For once, no," she said. "Most of the time, yeah, but you know? Fuck it. Fuck your lingering Fred thing, fuck the part where this is going to kill me, fuck it. I'm in love with you, Wes. And I don't know or care if you love me back."

She laughs, but it's not a flippant laugh, or a happy laugh. She's scared, and we're both hysterical. We look at each other, and we could use each other for mirrors, we're both shivering and broken. And I get it.

We can't worry about it. There's too much else, and we're not ready. We're not ready for anything, but it's here anyway. I hold her, or perhaps she holds me. We cling to each other, desolate and needing something at the end of everything, and she keeps laughing, a choking half-sob, as she tries to catch her breath, to stop being scared and weak. I did not want this, and neither did she. But we're stuck with each other, and we'll do the best we can.

"Oh, God, Wes," she says with each sob. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

And I'm not sure I know what she's sorry for.

And I'm not sure it would matter if I did.


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