You Who Never Arrived
by M Phoenix

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don't even know what songs
would please you.

The aurora borealis is incredible tonight. The display more riveting than any movie you've ever sat through. Fingers of pure green light stretching over head like searchlights, flickering and pulsing to some unknown rhythm. You watch their trail back to the northern horizon where the light turns to reds and pinks; a midnight sunset framed by the deep blue-black sky. You think of electrons, particle showers, magnetic fields, but in the end you just think, 'beautiful.'

Dawn sighs, her breath frosting in the air, and leans back into your arms. You feel her shivering slightly in the cold, but she's showing no signs of wanting to move inside; she becomes just as mesmerized by these displays as you do. The porch step creaks as you shift your weight in order to hold her closer. She is stronger now, but that brittle edge is still there skimming just beneath the surface, threatening to break the skin; and you wish, as you so often have in the last years, that you knew how to wrap it in softness, as easily as you wrap your coat around both of you.

"I saw the fox today," she says, keeping her voice low as if she's afraid anything louder might interrupt the light show. "He was nosing around right at the edge of the forest. Any closer and he would have been over the fence. We should probably check the hen house is secure; he had his beady little eyes fixed on it; and after the last time with all the feathers and blood and broken eggs..."

"It's okay," you say, bending to kiss her cheek. "I'll fix it up like Fort Knox, little gun turrets and everything."

"Hmm. Will you?" She curves herself into you, twisting in your arms and turning her mouth up to yours. Her kiss is part smile part desperation. Hot breath and spiced pumpkin, from the post Halloween pumpkin surplus you are trying to eat your way through. She slides her hand inside your coat, fingers running along the buttons of your shirt. You are preparing to pick her up and carry her inside, when she stops, goes still, lays her head on your chest. "Will you?"

"Yes," you say, your words muffled in her hair. "It's as good as done."

Thousands of miles and ten years stand between you and Iowa, but you will always be the farm boy. Up before the sun, out to tend to the animals before you even think of having your own breakfast, following the routine, the familiar order of things -- /don't ask why, this is simply how it's done./ In many ways army life wasn't that much different; and you realize you are still trying to fit into that reassuring structure, even though it is gone beyond recall. You are an ex soldier with a few chooks and ducks, but you still treat them like a company of men, or a prize dairy herd.

And Dawn, what is she? She is a bundle of mystery and contradiction. A story written in a language you don't know, and she refuses to translate. She is everything you ever wanted.


Three days a week you make the hour long trip to Mission to teach a psych class at the community college. Black ops spat you out of the jungle, and back into the everyday world, with a permanent limp, an honourable discharge and a small pension to remember them by. Not nearly enough money for you and Dawn to live on. You don't like leaving her, but you need the job; so you shout your goodbyes through a mouthful of buttered toast you grabbed in passing -- mentally hear your mom tut tutting about the evils of speaking with your mouth full -- and speed hobble through the door.

But, even though you're late, you take a moment to stoop and trace the initials you carved discreetly on the door frame, when you first came to this place.


It was a ritual, quiet magic, the only kind you know, chiselling the letters into the old, splitting wood with your pocket knife. You and Dawn, hot and sweating with summer sun, and the effort of unpacking your few possessions; crouching on the doorstep giggling like naughty school kids defacing public property. This was your way of trying to make it permanent, of saying this time, this time we will stay. Now, every time you pass the place you stroke it like a lucky rabbit's foot. Once you told Dawn about the rabbit's foot analogy. 'Not so lucky for the rabbit,' she said; eyes far away, voice tinder dry.

As you drive your pickup down the narrow mountain road you let your mind wander. You should probably be rehashing your lecture on Jung and the process of individuation, but hell, you could show up and spend an hour deconstructing the symbolic resonance of the new Brittany Spears video, and no one would notice. It's not like they actually listen.

Instead you think about Dawn.

When you first found her you didn't recognize her. You had stopped at an all night diner in New Mexico, the kind by the freeway, that's always full of truckers. You had just come back from Paraguay, and were driving fast up the country in the direction of nowhere in particular -- simply away. The painkillers you still had to take were making you hazy and nauseous, and you needed rest and coffee. You were manoeuvring your way to a booth by the window, when you noticed a girl watching you, with a stare intense enough to strip paint. Dyed black shoulder length hair, black thrift store clothes, too much makeup, she looked like a cheap hooker, crossed with a goth band reject. For a second your life hung in the balance, and you were about to go and sit somewhere else, when she said 'Riley? Riley Finn.' The voice was deeper, harsher somehow, than it had been, but there was something suddenly, achingly familiar about it, it sounded like Buffy, no, like ŠDawn.

But you knew that was ridiculous because they were both dead.

Night turned to morning as you talked, and drank endless cups of coffee. For a long time she only gave monosyllabic answers to your questions. She looked at you accusingly from under stiff, lowered lashes, and you knew that she blamed you for leaving, for abandoning her sister, and abandoning her, without even saying goodbye. Maybe blamed you for what happened after. The pale foundation smeared on her cheek did nothing to mask the dark smudge of a bruise; it looked recent, but you figured there was no point in asking her who, or why. You remembered the child that she had been, and wished with all your heart you could buy her an ice cream, and tell her the perfect lie to make everything better. She was fidgeting in her seat, looking ready to leave, and you couldn't let her go without at least trying.

"Dawn, IŠwhat I mean is, do you wanna come with me?"

"Where are you going?"

"Nowhere," you admitted, feeling suddenly foolish.

"Sure," she said, almost smiling. "I'm going that way too."

She sat in the passenger seat with her jacket draped over her knees, and she never once looked at you as she told you about events in Sunnydale. About Glory, and being the Key, about the different ways she had seen her friends die; and at the very last, about how her sister had sacrificed her own life to save the world. 'Buffy,' she murmured into the low grumble of the car engine.

"Buffy," you answered, because what else could you have said?

In the years since, she has never spoken about her past; and neither of you have ever said that name again.

You were checked into a motel in Wiggins, Colorado, the night Dawn crawled into your bed. You woke up too late, from a dream you no longer remember, with her rocking slowly on top of you, making soft, choked little cries; and you -- oh God -- inside her. You pushed her off too roughly, out of your bed, on to the floor, because you were ashamed and angry at this betrayal; though you weren't at all sure who had betrayed who. All you knew was this was wrong, wrong, wrong. You tried to explain, but she started to sob as if the sound was going to tear her in two. So you let her come and slip back under the covers, smelling of damp hay, and sweet cloves and sex; and held her -- pretending you weren't nearly shuddering with the heat of her touch -- until you fell asleep.

The next morning, she and her bag were gone. That first time, it took you three days to track her down. You were verging on very unmanly hysteria when you eventually found her, sitting on the roof of a tower block in Denver, swinging her legs, and gazing out over the city. The sleeve of her shirt, and the concrete beside her were caked with dried blood; but when she turned to look at you, her face was utterly, eerily, calm. For a moment your vision blurred with exhaustion and relief, and you thought you could see a deep green glow, like an aura flickering around her; but in a blink it was gone and Dawn was in your arms, pale and tired and dirty. Just a girl.

During the following year the two of you crisscrossed the country from coast to coast, though you avoided California by mutual consent. And with practise and care she taught you how to make love to her, how to be in love with her, until both seemed as natural and necessary as breathing. Her need to be touched was so consuming it half frightened you, until you realized it was her way of making herself real; that if you were touching her, kissing her, taking her, then she must be real. So you gave her everything you had, panted 'I love you' in rooms, and alleys, and woods, in a dozen states. Knowing it would never be enough.

Occasionally, when it was late and you were tired, your eyes would un-focus automatically, and you would glimpse that same green energy haloing her, though the second you became aware of it, it disappeared. She was like a magic eye picture which you were unable to see, until you stopped trying and simply looked right through her.

A few times you tried to settle down, rented an apartment or a house, in a small town, found a job. But after a while something would always happen, go wrong, and her nightmares would return, the ones you could never chase away. You would wake one unsuspecting morning, your heart lurching, to find Dawn had vanished. Then there would be a frantic search, employing every tracking skill you knew, calling every contact you'd ever made, until you discovered her, sitting quiet and bloody; waiting. Always somewhere high up; always a little further north. It was as if she was trying to outrun something.

It took a month, and you'd almost given up hope, when you found her perched on a bench part way up Grouse Mountain. She was shaking, arms wrapped around herself, as if she was trying to hold her body together against the tremors wracking it. When you spoke to her she simply continued staring out at the summer sunset, and the lights of Vancouver winking on far below.

"Will you always find me?" she finally whispered, fingers clenched on the leather of her jacket.

"Yes," you told her, your voice nearly breaking. "Yes, always."

That was over a year ago. You found a house and some land in the mountains up country from the city; and Dawn let the rich brown, grow back into her hair, wiped her face as clean as a baby's, and stopped running.

Now you pull into the parking lot of the community college, and sit staring at your broad, work roughened hands resting on the steering wheel. Thinking, yes, this time, this time it will work. But you don't really believe it.


"Sorry it was kinda burnt," Dawn says, scraping pumpkin pie remains into the compost bin.

"It wasn't burnt," you object, as you clear the table. "It was just crispy. It had a crispy crustŠwith these little crunchy cinder-black bits around the ed--"

"Hey." Dawn throws a dishcloth at you, grinning as you duck. "You should have learned to stop when you're ahead mister."

You flash her your most winning smile. "But I like it when you get all mad, and assertive."

She ignores that, but you can see her shoulders twitching in silent laughter. She slides a dish into the sink, and hunkers down to pet Sam, the golden retriever, who has been winding herself around Dawn's legs in a puppyish bid for attention. "Do you think we should see about getting her a friend? I figure she might enjoy having another dog to play--"

And then Dawn vanishes. You experience a second of total vertigo as you stare at the empty kitchen. Her books are not piled at one end of the table, her coat is not hanging behind the door; the wall she painted sunflower yellow is white and peeling, you don't have a dog called Sam, never haveŠthe plate you are holding, slips through your suddenly nerveless hands and smashes on the floor.

"Riley?" Dawn says, frowning anxiously. "What is it? What's wrong?"

Sam starts barking, her tail thumping the floor furiously. Dawn hushes her, and comes to stand in front of you. "Sweetheart. What?"

"Nothing," you tell her, hugging her, hard. "I'mŠI'm a big clumsy lug, that's all."

You lie to protect her, just as you did the first, and second, and third time this happened. You are a scholar and you've done all the research you can, trying to figure out what this might mean; why, lately, reality has begun bending around her; but how do you investigate something there is absolutely no precedent for?

And after wading through all of those interminably dull books, a nagging little voice in your head keeps saying, /maybe the monks' spell was never meant to last. Maybe now the danger of the Beast is gone, the threads of their magics are beginning to un-weave themselves./

"I could use a drink," you mutter, squeezing Dawn's shoulders lightly.

She pokes you in the ribs. "Yeah, 'cause that'll really help to improve your coordination."

"It might."

"I can think of other ways," she tells you seriously, standing on tiptoe and catching your lower lip between her teeth, pulling gently. "Come on."


Dawn's side of the bed is stone cold when you wake. You groan inwardly, and roll out from under the thick duvet. As your feet hit the floorboards, your muscles contract with the shock of chilly, night air. You shrug a blanket around yourself and, with a feeling of resignation and dread, head for the bathroom -- that's always the first place you check -- though since you came here, you haven't had to.

She is huddled on the floor, in the corner by the sink, a stained razor blade held loosely in her hand, the soft underside of her arm, cut and bleeding. You stop in the doorway, your heart is welling into your throat; your left arm smarts with sympathy pain. At moments like this, you love her more than you can bear.

"Is this blood?" she asks, holding her arm out to you pleadingly. "Am I real?"

It is a familiar ritual, one you have both enacted many times, but tonight there is something different; somethingŠ

"Yes," you grate, sinking awkwardly to your knees in front of her. "Sweetheart. Baby. You bleed, just like me, just like everyone else. You bleed, and you're real, and IŠI love you."

Her eyes are brimming with tears; she is rocking slightly.

"Real," you repeat, putting all the conviction you can muster into that one word.

This is the part where you reach out, gather her into your arms, and hold her until she's cried herself hoarse. But as you move to touch her, you notice she has begun to glow as if lit from within; her skin -- something inside her skin -- is shining the brilliant, chlorophyll green of spring leaves in sunlight. She is becoming so rapidly transparent you can see the wallpaper through her. Beautiful. Dawn is the most beautiful thing you've ever seen, and you can't make yourself touch her. The light is getting brighter, brighter, surrounding you, pulsing and flickering; and Dawn is a perfect, intricate pattern of atoms spinning at the centre of it.

"Riley," her voice sounds far away, broken by static and infinite years. You want to tell her, you need to tell her, how beautiful she is right now.

"Riley, I'm scared, something isŠRiley, please hold--"


The bathroom floor is cold and hard, and your bad leg is cramped and throbbing from kneeling on it for too long. You can't actually remember why you are kneeling alone on your bathroom floor in the middle of the night; so you decide to simply file it under weird occurrences, and not give it any more thought. "You are seriously losing it Finn," you grit as you limp wearily back to bed.


As you leave for work in the morning, you stoop, as you always do, reaching for the letters you carved into the doorframe when you first settled here.

R F 2005

This is your good luck, the thing that makes this place different; that makes it home. And as you let your fingers run across the, already weathered, grooves in the wood, you wonder why you feel a sudden sense of loss. Then you shrug, pull the door closed, and lock it behind you.


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