The Sky Has Claws
by Kyra Cullinan

one. in media res.

-- and then she's her again, Fred, herself, her. Suddenness of it, like she's opened her eyes and found herself back in her own body. The creeping blue dark pushed back to the corners of her mind, like cobwebs, like dust. She takes a deep, shuddering breath, feels it fill every piece of her, down to her toes. Toes tangled in layers of sheets, so maybe she was just -- asleep? Harder to tell, these days.

There's weight on the bed beside her, the telltale curve and dip of the mattress. She turns over, blinking at the bedside light. Willow, sitting Indian style, Wesley's enormous everybook open on her lap.

"Hey," says Fred, and Willow jumps and looks up, frowning. Forehead wrinkled in concentration or something else but it smoothes out in a second, replaced by a too-perky smile.

"Hey," she says. "You're all awakey."

"I am," says Fred, and watches Willow close the book and put it down on the beddable with the spine turned away so Fred can't see what it is.

"What are you reading?" she asks, even though she knows it's no use.

"Nothing," says Willow, still with that smile, sliding down to lie beside her. "Don't worry about it." Her fingertips brush the skin just above Fred's knee, then skim up to toy with the hem of her t-shirt. One of several left by whoever stayed in this motel room before -- before. She wears them to sleep in but wakes up cold. She's always cold now. Shivers against Willow, who's watching her, smile fading away until she looks more tired and sad than anything.

"I missed you," says Willow, and Fred kisses her. Willow is soft and warm everywhere she feels cold and hard and she's so tired of caring, of arguing, of screaming at Willow or Wesley or the world and never getting told anything.

Willow's tongue in her mouth is something almost like sweet. Her fingers, skirting the cotton and elastic edge of Fred's panties are very very familiar.


Willow keeps the blinds closed all the time and nobody says anything. Better to feel slightly claustrophobic between these beige walls, the stale smelling curtains, than to see what's outside. She can see it on the inside of her lids anyway, every time she closes her eyes.

It would be easier if the world had been plunged into darkness; isn't that what respectable apocalypses were supposed to do? Now the sky is black, true, but ripped through with giant, ragged streaks of light, so obviously wrong it makes her stomach twist to look at them. Jagged holes through to some unspeakably hellish dimension, burning forever orange and red, fiery and sulphuric. Demonic auroras canopying the earth. Everything too close. The stink of dead things.

Here they are safe, or something like it. Old, run-down motel in the wasteland of middle America. Things creep by in the twilight of the far hallways, but this room is sealed off, bubbled over with her magic. Now she curls up in the chair by the window, feels the shield stretched taught and invisible around her, tries to make the words in the book in her hands mean some kind of answer. A way to go forward, since they can't go back, to England, because maybe maybe that would change things.

It seems like years, not weeks, since she was in Tibet -- or, well, an astral plane linked to Tibet, anyway. That past is an entirely different world now, gone the same way of South America -- the hubbub of incomprehensible voices on the street, food she'd never heard of before, Kennedy drowsing close beside her in the early afternoon.

She doesn't know where Kennedy is, now. Doesn't know where anybody is, who's alive and who's not, how far this has spread. She can't let herself even begin to think about it. What she has to do is fix this.

On the other side of the room the door opens and she tenses, but it's only Wesley. He looks up at her with distracted eyes when she asks him what he found, then tosses the horns of a M'Fashnik demon on the dresser. Which is good: it's been three days since he brought back anything she could use in the spells she keeps trying on Fred.

He doesn't look at her as he rids himself of the small arsenal he always goes out with: guns, stakes, axe all carefully placed in the closet where Fred -- the thing in Fred -- won't be able to see them if it gets through again. He sheds his clothes -- leather, soot-covered -- with the same idle weariness and pads into the bathroom. After a minute she hears the shower start. On the bed, Fred moans in her sleep. The room is full of the outside smells which blew in with Wes. The stench of rot hanging in the air, heavy and invisible.


two. the beginning.

Last time it was Lilah. Last time it was Lilah, dead on the floor, because he hadn't been able to fix things soon enough, hadn't figured anything out. It was Fred who'd known what to do, how to make things right. Fred called Willow and she came and she got the job done, and if only they hadn't waited ...

It's always evil things lurking behind the faces of girls he's loved, forces rising, taking things that are his, ruining every tiny fragment of happiness he manages to find.

He's dialing Giles' number before Angel and Spike's flight has finished taking off, desperation thumping in his chest, but he should have known it would be useless. Should have expected Giles to be evasive, unhelpful, and finally accusatory, and Wesley slams the phone down so hard for a moment he thinks he's broken it.

He's going to be damned if he lets Rupert Giles ruin anything else in his life.

There's something wrong with the way the head of the communications division blinks; another set of lids flickering down for a moment. Wes ignores it.

"Willow Rosenberg," he says. "Find her."

The smile the man gives him is oily but he has the number in under a minute. Punches something on his phone, which seems to have too many buttons on the dialing pad. The handset is ringing as Wesley takes it from him.

"Um, hello?" says the voice on the other end.

"Willow," he says. "It's Fred. You have to come. Now."

There's a pause on the other end and he swallows. His mouth is dry as sand.

"Please," he adds.


"Wow," Fred says weakly when Willow walks in. "I must be hot potatoes."

She's smiling, but it hurts to look at.

"You said it, not me," Willow says, and her cheerfulness sounds forced even to herself, but Fred laughs anyway.

"Oh, so now you flirt with me?" she asks, and she's so pale and there's something bitter and angry and desperate lurking in her eyes. "You can't fix me, can you?" she asks, softly, before Willow can say anything.

"No," says Willow, louder than she meant to. "I mean -- yes, I can. I will. I'm a fixer. Fix-it-upper. Do it yourselfer? Or, um, something like that."

Fred is smiling again, wry and sad, but she looks up at Willow.

"Okay," she says.

Outside the room, Wesley explains everything to her in hushed, intense tones. Illyria and the Deeper Well, Angel and Spike's mission --

"Wait, SPIKE?" she asks and Wesley sighs.

"I'll explain later," he says. "We have to focus now."

He's talking to her like she's a child, like she's the child she used to be. She remembers him a year ago, standing in the Hyperion's basement and telling her she seemed exactly the same as she had been. As if she hadn't changed, so much he couldn't begin to understand it.

"-- going to try to draw it back," he's saying. "But if they fail ... I don't know if it can be done. But do you think there's any way you could send it back? Where it came from? Without killing Fred?"

She knows about the havoc the old and the very long dead can wreak: girls pressed into centuries of service and death, the oldest evil taunting her through familiar faces, and she can change those things, she can, she has. Rids the old with the new, her new.

"Yes," she says, and her mind is already skipping ahead, ways she could modify an exorcism, enforce it with a binding spell ... "There are things I'd need," she begins and Wesley doesn't wait to hear the end.

"Anything," he says. "Write a list, it's yours."

Everything happens very quickly after that.


three. the end.

What Fred remembers is: all the fury of the universe screaming in her ears, grabbing at her insides, digging its claws into her until she thought she was being pulled apart.

Willow's voice, chanting in Latin, came from somewhere outside the shell of Fred's skin and something inside Fred screamed and cursed her in a dozen dead languages, obscenities pushing unbidden through her clenched teeth.

('what's happening?' was all she'd been thinking and something in her mind, sibilant and clicking, answered, 'i am happening,' and that was how she'd met Illyria.)

Her memory is spotty after that. She realized the rumbling inside her chest was happening outside, now, too, and then the sky tore, and Willow swore and Wesley was shouting that they had to get outside because the building was coming down. Fred remembers the mad dash down the stairs in Wesley's arms, Willow rushing down behind, shouting fragments of a binding spell.

What she's never told them is that she felt Illyria going, pulling and grabbing at every single thing in her way. That she felt them dying, all those thousands of people, and knew it was for her. The horror of it, death vibrating back to her, through her, 'til she threw up in the car as the city fell behind them, ground shaking, hands shaking, heart shaking.

Now they are here, in this room, in this bed, but it's hard to remember where here is when all the time the cut glass pieces of Illyria, fragmentary at the back of her mind, are struggling to break through. It tires her out, makes her want to sleep twenty hours a day, like the summer after ninth grade when she had mono.

When she wakes up, the world seems temporarily unreal, like these frowning faces and faded bedspread are the dream, against the reality of her nightmares of ancient empires, endless armies. Today Wesley is curled around her, drowsing, and she chokes down a scream at how much this suddenly feels like her first days back from Pylea, how terrified she was she'd realize it was all a dream.

"Wesley," she sobs and twists in his arms to press her face against his chest. "Wesley." No sentence, no question to come after.

"Shhh," he says. "It's okay. It's all right. Fred." His fingers tangle in her hair, thumbs brushing the tears off her cheeks. She slips a leg over his and kisses him, dry lipped and hard. He pulls away, gentle, shaking his head. "Fred, we can't. You've been," the pause was only infinitesimal. "Sick."

Her brain helpfully supplies all the things he might have intended to say. Possessed? Bearer of ancient evil? The cause of the apocalypse? She kisses him again, harder, insistent.

"I don't care, I don't care," she says. "Wesley. Make me ... I have to feel. You."

He's already hard against her belly when he rolls to lie on top of her.

"Yes," she says. "Yes," and spreads her legs and holds him against her.


They drove until they couldn't drive anymore, and the whole way everything was the same. Death and darkness and unholy light. Demons, loosed, feasting on suburbia. He kept his eyes on the road ahead, hands tightly on the steering wheel while Willow stared out the window unblinkingly and Fred slept curled on the back seat. Days blurred meaninglessly into night, punctuated only by stops at gas stations to refuel and steal food from aisles full of the dead, while Willow waited with the car. They woke Fred to feed her, give her water, but she fell asleep whimpering every time.

"She's recuperating," said Willow and he couldn't tell if she was lying. Hours and days heading forever east. And then the land ended.

The chasm stretches as far and deep as he can see. Stones dropped down it never echo back. From this crumbling hotel room they stare it down, the black divide of it. The vampires he's caught say it stretches for hundreds of miles in either direction -- maybe forever, the continent cracked right down the middle. Nameless things crawl out of it from the deep parts of the earth and he kills them if he's lucky. Sometimes he thinks he can see light on the other side, but what if it's a trick, fairy lights in a swamp to lure them into trying to cross?

"Could you get us across?" he asks Willow and she looks up, face dirt-streaked, from the book she'd been holding when they ran, one still linked to Wolfram & Hart's library.

"It's not the distance," she says. "I could do that. It's the magic."

"What magic?" he asks and she blinks.

"Can't you feel it?" She walks to the window, opens the blinds. Outside the sky is forever cracked and cracking. "Here," she says, takes his hand and says something in Sumerian, and he suddenly sees. A roiling mass of magic and energy, dark and light, tangled together above the divide, as high and far as he can see. It's like looking into the massed ranks of heaven's armies and not understanding what he sees. She drops his hand and it winks out. He blinks, shaking his head.

"Maybe," she says. "Maybe I could. But if I can't ... every dark mage on the west coast is somewhere along here right now trying to figure out how to tap into that. If I try and I can't and we're stuck here, they'll know. They'll feel me. They'll come."

"Who'll come?" asks Fred, sitting up in bed, hair sleep-tousled.

"Nobody," he says, more harshly than he intends, then softens his voice. "Nobody. Don't worry." Willow's still standing so close to him he can feel the heat from her body. She carefully steps away to close the blinds and pointedly doesn't look their way as he moves to soothe Fred. Feigning disinterest or modesty and it's moments like this that make her seem so like the highschooler from Giles' ragtag library band. Hard not to make the comparison when she still seems so much like that bubbly, perky child, for all her profession of loss and past evildoing. It's only after these weeks that he can see the cracks around the facade, her forced optimism. The wordless horror that matches his: what they've done.

Fred kisses him like she's drowning and Willow shifts in her chair so her back is to them. Like he hasn't come in from the cold to find her doing the same thing, sitting right where he is. The sudden, completely unsurprising punch to the gut pain of it in a sudden rush of memories: Sunnydale, Cordelia complaining to him that Willow was an unrepentant boyfriend stealer; Fred forever looking at everyone who's not him, Angel and Gunn and Knox. But that night Fred still whispered love and need and want to him and he doesn't say anything, doesn't look at Willow because he can't afford to. Too big a risk; she's read the same things he has. If she changes her mind, decides Fred isn't worth the price being paid, that Illyria needs to be killed once and for all --

"What is it?" Fred asks and he rests his forehead against hers.

"Nothing," he says. Her hands in his are a faint, translucent blue. "I just want you safe."


four. after the end.

She's on her stomach, t-shirt pushed up around her shoulder blades and Willow's kneeling on the bed beside her. The cool, tickling sweep of paintbrush across her skin sends shivers up her spine.

"Careful," says Willow. "You'll smudge." She blows on the place in the small of Fred's back where she's just painted, which causes a different kind of shiver.

"Am I done?" asks Fred, peering over her shoulder, and sits up when Willow nods. Strips off her shirt so she can look at herself better in the mirror.

Taglarin binding sigils Willow had called them, before launching into an excited explanation about how they'd help to keep Illyria at bay, keep Fred herself. And there they are, black and intricate against her ribcage, curling around her belly button, down her arms, up her spine.

"What do you think?" asks Willow, coming to stand beside her.

"I could go naked, I look so fancy," and Willow grins, traces a finger down the side of Fred's breast.

"I certainly wouldn't complain," she says. They are half-whispering; Wesley is asleep on the far side of the mattress, or pretending to be. One of them is always awake, keeping watch, and she's not sure whether it's on the nightmare outside world or on her. Everything blurs together and the days drag on and on and every time Fred wakes up she's sure this is going to be her last one.

She hasn't felt so helpless since she was in Pylea. And even then there were calculations to do, places to hide, ways to try to change things, to survive. But here she is always being dragged down, taken over, and she can't control any of it. She wants her life back and nobody will tell her anything.

She looks back at the mirror, watches Willow's hand move to her nipple.

"Willow," she says, and her voice is still low. "What's going to happen? Tell me."

Willow's fingers pause for a moment, then continue, trailing down Fred's stomach to her hip.

"I don't know," she says, and kisses the sweet spot on Fred's neck.

"Because I have to know," says Fred, and her hands are slipping under Willow's shirt to skate across her stomach.

"We have to wait and see," says Willow, pushing against her. She glances over her shoulder at Wesley, as Fred's fingers slip inside her underwear, but Fred can't care about things like that anymore, can't care about anything but the now, the moment, the aliveness of her, and Willow, and Wesley too, back rising and falling. Wants to take their aliveness inside herself, find a way to stay.

"You can't keep telling me that," she says and she's crying as she kisses Willow and backs her to the bed, straddles her hips. "What's happening?" she asks as they roll over. "Willow," and kisses her again, wet and hot. "Are we going to die?" she says and arches at the exact moment Willow's fingers slip inside her.

"No," says Willow, teeth on her collarbone. "No, no, nobody's dying," but her hair is in her face so Fred can't see her expression.

"God," she moans and the something inside her stirs and whispers and Wesley rolls over to look at her with wide, hurt eyes. Willow freezes but Fred moves against her even as she reaches for his wrist.

"Wesley," she says and kisses his hand, his wrist, his chest. "Tell me. You have to tell me. What's going on?"

She's crying and she's asking and they're not answering her with all their words and touches and the darkness behind her eyelids blooms blue, so she keeps her eyes open. Kisses Wesley and kisses Willow, and more, and all she wants is to make them tell her, make them fix it, since she can't. Make them never leave her, because if they stay then she will too.


"I don't want to die," says Fred, and Willow can see it, that exact moment when Wesley stops holding back and melts into reassurances and pent-up grief.

"You won't," he's saying, "I won't let you," and he's not looking at Willow because his face is buried in Fred's hair and then he is looking at her, eyes dark, and she can't look away because not looking at each other is all they've done, this whole time.

His hand on the back of her neck is hot, his mouth on hers hotter. Between them Fred makes a very soft noise.

It's been a long time since she kissed a guy. It breaks the rules of things she thought she knew about herself, but the world outside, ending, means maybe none of them are true. Wesley is rough with stubble, and angry -- at her? At everything, and she gets that, furious at him, the universe, herself. He kisses her hard, teeth clacking against hers, and she matches everything he gives. She can't back down from anything because if she does she might back down from everything, dissolve back into the girl who would cry when she thought about thousands dead and never be able to make it right again.

When she kisses Fred it's a lie, a lie that she deserves to kiss anyone so good, or anyone at all. But Wesley is the same, the only person the same as her; it's his fault too, and he knows it, carries it with him and it makes him taste as bitter as she feels. He kisses her and then he kisses Fred and nothing is right anymore so what's this one more thing?

Fred is cool and Wesley is hot and she is above and under and dry-eyed. Nothing was supposed to end this way, she got out, she escaped, but here she is. Wesley's hands on her hips, Fred's soft thighs parting for her and Willow gasps 'til she's dizzy. Everything's fallen apart; outside the world is tearing, she is tearing and something has to give.


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