by Minim Calibre

The whole problem with the end of the world is that it didn't. End, that is. Turns out there was something worse than that waiting for them when the Hellmouth opened. Devouring them all seems to have been more of a figurative description for some people. She envies the dead. They got off lucky.

For half a second, the thought pushes away the gnawing guilt.

"There was nothing else you could have done."

She hates it when he can tell what she's thinking. "Thanks, but that doesn't help."

"Neither does sitting around and dwelling on the things you can't change." He sounds far too sure of himself.

"Please." She looks up at him in disbelief. "Like you're not guilty of the exact same thing." She's right, and he knows it. She can tell by the way his face flushes and hardens at the reminder. "Do as I say, not as I do, Wes? Is that it?"

"In this case, and given my history of bungling things, yes. You're better off not following my dubious example."

There's no sense arguing with him when he gets like this, so she changes the subject. "How's Cordelia?"


"Fred?" She can't keep the faint sneer out of her voice, but it's her house, and she'll be petty if she feels like it.

Even if it does cause his brow to raise and a smug smile to appear on his face. He treats every time she displays an emotion as if it was some sort of huge victory. "My, we do seem to be touchy and territorial today, don't we? I gave her a box of crayons I found in the basement. They should keep her occupied for a few hours, at least."

This is what her life has come down to: sitting on her porch trading weak verbal punches with her lover (she uses the term loosely, but she can't think of a better one), while a knocked-up ex-cheerleader sleeps in her old bed, and an insane physicist scribbles formulas and pictographs on what used to be her sister's walls.

"They should have included an undo function."

"I beg your pardon?"

She hears her thoughts so loudly that she often forgets she's the only one listening to them. "The monks, when they made Dawn. They should have made it so that when she was unmade, the memories would go away."

Unmade. That's one way of putting it. It's easier to say out loud than eviscerated while her sister tried and failed to keep the mouth of hell from opening. Eviscerated, gutted, disemboweled, sacrificed. Slaughtered.

Now that Buffy finally has the time to think, she can't seem to stop. The hell outside seems almost comfortable compared to the one inside her head. Today's hell wears a schoolgirl's face, numb with shock and pain and betrayal. Yesterday it was Xander, the day before, Giles. And always, Willow's face is there, looming in the darkness that swallowed her whole before the other darkness folded the whole of the world in its embrace.

Everyone she loves is gone--dead or changed beyond recognition. There's no one left, and her hell is an empty place, all shadows and illusions.

Months ago, after Los Angeles fell and Wesley dragged his crippled band of comrades to Sunnydale to fight alongside hers, they started keeping score, tracking their losses in a sick game of one-upmanship. She thinks she's ahead; she'll have to check the books. There's still some debate about who gets to count Angel. Wesley was closer to him towards the end, but she thinks she gets bonus points for having her last girlish illusions shattered by the whole Cordelia thing. Maybe they should just flip a coin.

Not that it matters. He still has two people left to lose, so he'll win in the end. Three if she counts herself, which she doesn't.

She stares out at the empty street. Night and day have lost all meaning, and it's hard to keep track of time. Even Wes has given up on wearing a watch--as sure a sign as any that they're living at the end of days. Cordelia's belly serves as their calendar: almost three quarters of a year now since the beginning of the end.

Cordelia's close to term, and Buffy realizes she's jealous again. Not of the imminent motherhood (the very idea is one of the few things that can still scare her--since her pill prescription ran out, she's been playing Russian roulette with five chambers loaded and somehow getting the empty one each month, but she knows even that small amount of luck will most likely dry up sooner rather than later), but of the reasonable chance of death associated with it. It just seems easier than slowly starving from the lack of food and hope.

The lack of the latter hurts more than the former. Even Pandora's box released hope with hell.

The touch of his hand on her shoulder breaks her out of her reverie. "It's safer inside," he says.

By which he means he's not ready to let her give in to the inevitable, not yet. Maybe because if she does, he'll be dragged down right along with her. He's still clinging to the possibility of continuing the fight from sheer stubbornness. She knows he finds the idea of failure intolerable, even when it's already gone from idea to reality.

It's another thing she's tried arguing with him about, when she was trying to make him see that maybe death wasn't such a bad option. She even brought up her own experience to try and prove her point. He just quietly informed her that it all depended on where one was going.

She lets him lead her back into the house, where they feel their way up to the bedroom in the darkness. Their supply of candles is limited, so they make do the best they can without light whenever possible. He helps her undress, lights one of the candles, and then leaves the room.

When he comes back, he's balancing two bowls of water and her toothbrush in his hands. He tries to keep all of them focused as much as possible on the mundane realities of life as it's become. Which, apparently, means being careful about oral hygiene. She doesn't think he really believes that they'll live long enough for tooth loss to become an issue, but she brushes and flosses twice a day to keep him happy.

While she's using one of the bowls to rinse her mouth, he's dipping a washcloth into the other. He waits until she's done, then washes her face with something approaching tenderness. Watches her in the flickering light as he moves the cloth to her neck and shoulders. She closes her eyes so she doesn't have to see it, because she's close to breaking down completely. The terrycloth is cold and soft, like dead kisses against her skin.

She waits until she's started shaking to open her eyes. His expression is unreadable, but she still knows what he's doing--he does it every night. It works, of course. She already feels heavy and damp, almost languid. He keeps stroking her with the cloth, brushing the tips of her breasts and the slight curve of her hips until her jaw grows slack and the noise in her head finally subsides.

He backs her towards the bed. Pushes her down and kisses her like it could somehow keep her tied to the world. Works her with his hands until the lassitude vanishes and she's twisting frantically beneath him again. She can taste the desperation on his lips, can feel it inside her as he tries to keep her with him.

It works, for now. But it won't be long before he can't pull her out of it, before she finds enough strength to give up the fight.

It's just a matter of time, and she's counting the days.


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