by Duncan Johnson
This story takes place during the first half of the sixth season
Every night I go through the same ritual. I get back from yet another night's slaying, go straight to my room, close the door and lie on my bed. And I lie in the darkness and the silence staring at the ceiling. Sometimes I get some sleep, but more often than not I'm still staring when dawn starts to peek in through the curtains.
Late at night I can almost convince myself that things are okay. There's no light piercing in on my eyes, no raucous noise assaulting my eardrums and, yeah, maybe the bed isn't as soft as I might like, but it could be worse, I guess. These few hours are precious to me because this is as good as my life is ever going to get again.
But not tonight.
'Buffy, come see this!'
Dawn's high-pitched wail cut through my mind with all the delicacy of a blunt axe, but I was on my feet in moments and racing to my sister's room. Tara had reached the door before me, one hand holding her robe closed.
'Dawnie?' she asked in a voice muffled by sleep, but which still scraped across my senses like broken glass. 'What's wrong?'
Dawn was kneeling on the bed and pointing out of the window.
'Look,' was all she said.
'What's going on in here?' Willow asked with a yawn.
I turned to regard her standing in the doorway behind me, squinting as I looked at the bright colours on the T-shirt that hung almost to her knees.
'Out there,' Dawn screeched. 'Hurry or you'll miss it.'
We all gathered around the window to see what all the fuss was about.
A star was falling from heaven.
It was travelling slowly across the sky, a glint of white light against the darkness, leaving a faint trail of pink and green in its wake.
'It's almost close enough to touch,' Willow breathed, her voice hushed in awe.
'You don't think it's going to come down here, do you?' Tara asked nervously.
'You think it might?' Dawn asked, bouncing on the bed. 'That'd be so cool.'
The star disappeared from sight.
'Do you think we ought to take a look?' Tara suggested. 'Just in case. I mean, you know what happened last time something fell from the sky.'
'Don't remind me,' Willow responded with a shudder.
'I'll go,' I said. 'You guys get back to sleep.'
I started to leave the room, but paused when I reached the door.
'Don't forget you've got school tomorrow,' I told Dawn, hoping it sounded less like the afterthought it was.
I hurried outside, glad to get away from the others who would no doubt be up for hours discussing what they had just seen. I didn't feel much like hanging any more.
Bet you think I do nothing, but whine, huh? Well, you try being yanked out of Paradise. See how you like it.
* * *
There was a disused quarry about twenty minutes out of town. A lake had formed at the bottom of the pit. It was a popular student hangout, but at this time of night there was no one about except for me and an owl sitting in the branches of a tree and scanning for mice.
I guessed that the 'star' had crashed around here. The hole in the side of the tower overlooking the quarry pretty much confirmed it. The wall had collapsed inwards and protruding from beneath the grey bricks was a pale hand.
'Help me,' said a voice.
I was on my knees, digging amongst the rubble. The harsh stone tore at my skin, the dirt built up beneath my fingernails and the dust clogged by nose and throat, but soon I had managed to uncover the tall figure. He had pale, grey-white skin, with swept-back hair and hawk-like features. He was wearing golden armour over a white robe. And he had two great white wings sprouting from his shoulder-blades.
'Are you all right?' I asked.
'Water,' the man croaked.
I glanced around, wondering where I could find water around here. Then I remembered the lake.
I tried to climb down the sides of the quarry, but lost my footing. I slid and rolled down the sandy slope, the grit grazing my knees and elbows and drawing blood. I came to a halt up to my waist in cold, slimy, foul-smelling water. I didn't swear, didn't say anything. I had come to expect this from the world. I made sure my handkerchief was well and truly sodden before climbing slowly back up to the top.
I paused at the lip of the quarry. There was movement near the tower. A dozen small black creatures were skittering across the damp grass in the direction of the fallen man. Drawing a stake, I padded slowly towards them.
The creatures looked like spiders, only with far more legs and massive pincers clacking together in front of them. I put a hand to my face to shield myself from the odour of sour milk that was making me gag.
The lead creatures scuttled towards the fallen man, nipping at him with their claws. The first drew blood - blue blood - from his calf. The winged man tried to crawl back away from them, but he was still too weak.
I made a decision and dived to his aid.
The spiders scurried away and I landed face down in the dirt.
The creatures now decided that I was the more tempting target and began to slash at me. Just my luck. One set of claws clamped down on my hand and I could feel them digging beneath the flesh of my palm. I screamed and smashed my stake down upon the spider attached to my hand, smashing its shell and drenching my hand in sour-smelling mucus.
Another spider clamped down on my ankle. I kicked my leg out, trying to shake it off. Two more were in my hair. I could feel their spindly legs dancing on my scalp. I raised a hand to brush them off only to find a fourth spider hanging from my little finger, my blood dripping on to its glistening black casing.
'Be gone, evil ones.'
A harsh bright light illuminated the area. I raised my head to see the winged man propped up against the wall, a flaming sword in his hands. He waved the sword in my direction. The flame obviously upset the spiders because they scurried off of me and disappeared into the woods.
Once they were gone, my rescuer slumped back.
'And I thought I was here to save you,' I remarked.
'You did,' the man assured me. 'If you had not been here then I would surely have been lost.'
'Who are you?' I asked.
'Zauriel,' he replied.
'What are you?'
'An angel,' Zauriel informed me.
* * *
In my time I've encountered vampires and werewolves, demons and fairies and even a god. You might think that I would be more open to the idea of angels. You would be wrong.
You see, when I think of angels I think of Gabriel and I think of school Nativity plays. I got to be a shepherd. When it came round to her turn, Dawn was cast as Mary. I've always resented her for that. Maybe that's where all our problems spring from. Anyway, the point is that angels to me are fictitious.
I don't believe in God. Back when my parents were still together, we used to attend church every week. I remember drawing pictures in Sunday School. I found one of those pictures among Mom's things the other day. It was of an angel, would you believe. Church, though, was just something we did of a Sunday. It never really meant anything to me. And once Dad left us, well we stopped going and I can't say as I ever missed it.
'You don't believe in angels, do you?' Zauriel said.
My mouth fell open. I was sure that I had not spoken out loud.
'You didn't,' Zauriel assured me. 'I can read your aura. It comes as part of the whole angelic package. You know, like the wings.'
I continued to look at him sceptically.
'I would have thought that you might have been a bit more open about this,' Zauriel continued. 'After all, you have been to Heaven, haven't you, Buffy.'
* * *
I should have turned around and walked away. The wounds were still too fresh, too raw. The last thing I needed was for someone to stand there rubbing salt in them. But I needed to know. Needed to know the answer to that question that had been keeping me awake at night, every night since I had crawled my way up out of my grave.
* * *
I sat down on top of the pile of rubble. I didn't trust my legs to support me.
'How did you know?' I asked.
'How do you think?' Zauriel replied. 'I'm a member of the Heavenly Host. All souls are an open book to me. Well, most of them. Just between you and me, I'm still learning the ropes. That's how I got stuck here.'
'Learning the ropes?'
'What, you think we're born with instant angelic knowledge?' Zauriel continued. 'All new angels need to be trained in their office, same as anyone else. Of course, most angels know better than to pick fights with a succubus while flying back upstairs.'
'Upstairs?' I asked, perplexed.
'Sorry, that's what we call it,' Zauriel said. 'Heaven, I mean.'
'Yeah, I know, it's not really up,' Zauriel agreed. 'It's more like sideways, but it's just a name.'
'I was beginning to wonder if it was real,' I admitted.
'Oh, it's real, all right,' Zauriel said. 'The most beautiful place in all existence, compared to which all other dimensions are revolting and pain-filled. But you'd know all about that, right?'
'Why can't I remember it?' I asked. 'I try to picture it when I close my eyes, but nothing comes. All I know is that I was happy there.'
'That's all you need to know,' Zauriel replied. 'Human beings don't have the frame of reference to describe Paradise. It's so far beyond anything you might experience in this world. Thats why you can't see it, because your mind isn't built that way. But looks aren't important. What matters is that it's a place where everyone can finally be happy.
'You know, I used to think that sounded a bit twee. Seriously. I actually laughed in my instructor's face when he explained it to me. But then you see all these souls passing through Heaven's gates and you see their reactions in the presence of the Presence and you realise what it's all about.'
'I'm sorry,' I said, 'but who or what is 'the Presence'.'
I made little air quotes with my fingers. My way of saying I wasn't buying any of this. Zauriel was unperturbed.
'Why, it's God, of course, Buffy,' Zauriel answered simply.
I shook my head.
'I'm sorry, Zauriel, but this is all way too weird for me.'
I got to my feet.
'Look, I don't even believe in God, okay,' I told him. 'I just I just can't deal with this right now.'
I felt Zauriel's hand on my arm. It was cold. His grip was not restraining, though, just comforting.
'I understand,' he said. 'Listen, it's going to take me a few days to regain enough strength to fly back. If you want to talk, I'll be here.'
He released my arm and I walked away without looking back.
* * *
I was back the next night.
Zauriel was sitting outside the tower polishing his armour in the moonlight. His head was bowed and his eyes were closed.
The grass crunched beneath my boots and Zauriel looked up suddenly.
'I'm sorry,' I said. 'I didn't mean to interrupt. Go back to whatever you were doing.'
'I was praying,' Zauriel said.
'In that case, I can definitely wait.'
I sat down, cross-legged on the grass. The dew had brought out the smell and the freshness filled my nostrils. Since coming back, all smells had been harsh and offensive, but this smelt different, sweet and pure.
Zauriel smiled and shook his head.
'I am always praying, Buffy,' Zauriel explained. 'Wherever I am, whatever I am doing, I dedicate my work to the Presence. But I digress. You wanted to ask me something. What is it?'
'Go on,' Zauriel prompted. 'There's just us here.'
'Is Mom in Heaven?' I asked.
'Do you think she deserves to be?' Zauriel replied.
I felt as if I had just been kicked in the stomach.
'Look, just tell me, okay,' I snapped. 'I don't want to play stupid games. I know she didn't believe so if she's been kept out of Heaven because of that then I want to know.'
'Do you?' Zauriel demanded.
I looked away, unable to answer.
I felt Zauriel's cold hands on my shoulders.
'There's nothing to worry about, Buffy,' he said. 'Your mother was a good person. A great person. Of course she's in Heaven. What she believed isn't nearly as important as what she did and the same applies to you or to anyone else. Claiming to believe in the Presence doesn't automatically make you a good person and nor does not believing suddenly condemn you. The Presence sees all and knows all and if you're deserving then you get to spend the rest of eternity at his side. It's that simple.'
'Thank you,' I said. There was a moment's silence before I added, 'But '
'But why was she taken when she was?' Zauriel asked. 'Have you any idea how many times I get asked that question? The honest answer is, I don't know. The Presence has a grand plan, but I've no idea what it is.'
'And you're okay with that?'
'It's called faith, Buffy,' Zauriel replied. 'I trust in the Presence and in his grand design and that's enough for me.'
'Well I don't know if it's enough for me,' I responded.
'Then I pity you, Buffy,' he said.
'I'm still not happy with the whole 'angel' thing, let alone trying to accept 'God',' I said.
Zauriel shook his head.
'You accept vampires and demons as a basic part of your life,' he said. 'You can accept a single evil entity that gave rise to all of these.'
'Well, yeah, I suppose,' I admitted.
'So how hard is it to accept an entity that exists in opposition to that?' Zauriel said. 'An entity of pure goodness? And wouldn't that entity surround Himself with servants? And wouldn't He nominate human champions of right? Slayers, for example?'
'I don't know,' I said.
'I know,' Zauriel replied, 'but at least you're prepared to think about it.'
I got to my feet, but I had one more question before I left.
'Zauriel,' I said, 'why was I brought back?'
Zauriel looked pained.
'Please believe me, that was not our choice, Buffy,' he explained, 'but we cannot interfere with the actions of another human.'
* * *
He meant Willow. Willow had been terrified. She had convinced herself that I was trapped in a hell dimension, undergoing indescribably icky torments. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but she couldn't have known that. And I understand that. Really, I do. But somehow it's still very difficult to forgive the person who pulled me out of Heaven.
She's my best friend, but every time I look at her I think of her casting that spell that put an end to my happiness. And the worst of it is that I can't even talk to her about it. Where am I supposed to even start? And how would she react if she did know? In spite of everything, she's still my best friend and she deserves better than that.
We had broken into the morgue to examine a body. Isobel Morrison had died under suspicious circumstances and I needed to know that suspicious didn't mean supernatural. You never could tell in Sunnydale.
Willow stood lookout by the door, shivering with arms wrapped round herself, while I read the hand-written labels on the cabinets. A ball of yellow light danced about Willow's hair, illuminating the room. It was handy having a witch about.
I opened up the cabinet I was interested in and examined the body. It was covered in bloody scratches from head to toe. Bizarre, but not obviously demonic. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Then I saw her cheek move.
There was something crawling around inside her mouth.
I reached over and opened her jaw.
A spider-creature jumped out and landed on my face, its pincers reaching for my eyes.
Willow screamed. Actually, we both did.
I grabbed the creature with both hands and hurled it as far away from me as possible. It struck the far wall with a wet crunch and slid to the floor. Then it got back up and started scurrying in my direction.
'Fire!' I shouted to Willow. 'It doesn't like fire!'
'Ignatus,' Willow said, pointing her finger at the spider. A stream of flame leaped from her fingertip and boiled the monster inside its shell. It rolled on to its back and its legs waved feebly in the air for a few seconds and then it was still.
* * *
'Those spider-things are back,' I told Zauriel.
We were sitting on the lip of the old quarry, watching the stars.
'I wish I could help,' Zauriel replied, 'but I've no idea what they are. I'd never seen them before they attacked me.'
'That's okay,' I reassured him - me reassuring an angel - 'the gang has got it covered. They're researching these beasties as we speak.'
'But you're not helping,' Zauriel said.
'I'm not big on research,' I admitted. 'I'm the Slayer. They do the brainy bit, then point me in the right direction and I'll do the actual slaying.'
'Sounds like you've got a good team going,' Zauriel mused.
'But you're not happy,' Zauriel deduced. 'You don't feel you belong anymore.'
'Is it that obvious?' I asked.
'Hey, I'm going through much the same thing as you,' Zauriel responded. 'I know what Heaven's like, too, and compared to that, this is hell. How can the cries of birds compare to the music of the seraphim or the light of the stars match the welcoming glow of the Presence himself?'
'Yes, that's it exactly,' I agreed. 'Everything here, and I do mean everything, just grates. It's too loud or too bright or too sour or too sharp or '
'You've experienced perfection,' Zauriel said. 'How can anything else compare?'
'I wish I'd never come back,' I said. 'Or never seen Heaven. Spending an eternity in a genuine hell would be preferable to this.'
'I know,' Zauriel commiserated, 'and I'm sorry.'
'You're an angel, can't you wipe my memory or something?' I asked.
'I'm afraid not.'
'There must be something you can do.'
'Well,' Zauriel said, 'I could always take you back.'
'You can do that?' I asked. 'Oh my God. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to '
'Don't worry about it,' Zauriel replied laughing. 'I think we can let that slide. Just this once.'
'But you can do it?' I persisted.
'Well, I probably shouldn't,' Zauriel said with a wink, 'but I suspect I'll be forgiven. The Presence is good at that.'
* * *
'Tara,' I asked over breakfast, 'what was it like when I was dead?'
Tara paused, her spoon halfway to her mouth. She put it down and folded her hands.
'It was difficult,' she said at last.
'But you coped,' I said. 'Dawn was okay.'
'Nobody was okay,' Tara insisted. 'How could we be?'
'But you took care of Dawn, you and Willow,' I persisted, 'even though I wasn't here.'
'If you're worried we let Dawn slip on her schoolwork, we tried our best,' Tara said defensively. 'Willow tried tutoring her, but neither of us knows how to raise a child, Buffy. If you've got another letter from the principal '
'No,' I said hurriedly. 'No, it's nothing like that. I think you guys did a great job.'
We ate in silence for a few minutes.
'And what about the slaying?' I asked suddenly.
'I'm serious,' I said. 'How did the slaying go without the Slayer?'
'Well, we're obviously not as good as you,' Tara said, 'but I think we did okay. Willow made a great field commander...is that the word?'
'Willow was take charge girl, eh?' I said. 'And you had Spike helping out. Between his strength and your and Willow's magic you can't have done too badly.'
'I guess,' Tara admitted reluctantly.
'And it's not as if I came back to a town overrun with demons,' I said. 'Well, excluding the demons that were overrunning the town. You know what I mean.'
'Buffy, what's brought this on,' Tara asked, her face a picture of concern.
I looked away.
'Nothing,' I lied.
Fortunately, Tara didn't press the subject.
* * *
'I don't know,' I said to Zauriel. 'I'm the Slayer. My friends need me.'
'Do they?' the angel asked.
I paused. I had been agonising about this all day. They had coped without me when I had been dead before. Okay, it hadn't been perfect, but it could only get better, right?
'You've done your bit, Buffy,' Zauriel insisted. 'You served your time. Now you can collect your reward.'
'I don't know,' I repeated. 'I'm not happy leaving Dawn on her own.'
'She won't be on her own,' Zauriel said. 'She has her surrogate family all around her and they love her. What more could she ask for?'
'Her sister?' I suggested.
'And should her sister sacrifice her own happiness?' Zauriel asked. 'No one expects you to keep going indefinitely, least of all your friends.'
'I know,' I said, 'but it's just such a big decision.'
'I understand,' Zauriel said, 'and I wish we had time to discuss this properly, but I have to go back tonight.'
'I'm strong enough to fly now,' Zauriel replied. 'I cannot keep the Presence waiting any longer.'
'And what about me?' I asked.
'If you want, I will take you with me when I return,' Zauriel said, 'but I will not be able to return. It's now or never, Buffy.'
I made my decision.
'Can I say goodbye to my friends?' I asked.
* * *
I ran straight home. There was a note pinned to the fridge by a green elephant magnet.
Gone to the Magic Box.
I cursed and ran across town.
The bell above the door rang as I forced my way into the shop. I barely noticed.
Willow was drawing a chalk circle on the floor while Tara was gathering up some items from the back of the shop. Dawn was behind the counter, keeping out of the way.
'Hey, Buffy,' she said.
'Buffy,' Willow said. 'You're just in time. Tara and I came up with a ritual to summon those spider things.'
'Willow did most of the work,' Tara admitted.
'She's so modest,' Willow remarked. 'Isn't it cute? Anyway, the idea is we get all of the spiders in the circle and then woomph.'
'We barbecue them.'
'Ah,' I said. 'Well, it seems you guys have got everything under control without me.'
'Hey, you can still help out,' Willow insisted.
'No, not tonight,' I told her, 'I've got somewhere else to be. Just promise me you'll take care of Dawn, won't you. Whatever happens.'
'Buffy, what is it? What's wrong?' Willow asked.
'Is this to do with what we talked this morning,' Tara said, ''cause we can help out, you know, if there's trouble.'
'There's no trouble,' I assured them. 'Just promise me you'll take care of Dawn.'
'Of course we will,' Willow insisted. 'You know that.'
I embraced first her and then Tara. Then I crossed to Dawn.
'Hey,' I said.
'Hey yourself,' she replied.
'You know I love you, don't you?'
'You've got a funny way of showing it sometimes.'
'Well I do, doofus. Now come here and give your big sister a hug.'
We held each other close for several minutes before I felt able to let her go. The three of them watched me as I crossed to the door and opened it. I paused and turned back.
'Goodbye,' I said.
I closed the door behind me on my way out.
* * *
Tara finished lighting the candles and stepped inside the circle to join Willow. The girls joined hands and began to chant. Blue smoke began to rise from the candle flames, joining to form a single stream that trailed towards the door and out through the keyhole.
Suddenly, Tara let go of Willow's hands.
'Willow,' she said desperately, 'we forgot the Dionysus root. We're doing the spell wrong.'
'Dawn,' Willow shouted. 'Quick, get the '
But she did not have time to finish before the windows caved in under the weight of the attacking spiders.
* * *
I heard the breaking glass as I hurried back up the hill. I tried to tell myself that it was part of the spell, that Willow had everything under control, that everyone was going to be safe.
I turned and ran back the way I had come.
* * *
Dawn was screaming. Three spiders were in her hair and they were climbing down her forehead and across her face in the direction of her open mouth. I vaulted across the counter, grabbed the spider and threw it to the floor, stamping on it.
Tara had clambered up the steps by the bookcases and was using a large volume to whack any spiders that tried to climb after her. Willow was still inside the circle trying to repair the spell. As if realising that she was the greatest threat, the spiders converged on her and sprang. She was knocked to the ground and the spiders began to tear at her skin and hair and clothing. I froze as I watched the woman who had condemned me to hell getting eaten alive, as my best friend got eaten alive.
I looked up just in time to catch the broom Dawn threw at me. She was holding one of her own and together we beat the spiders from Willow's body.
'Get her out of the circle,' Tara ordered.
Dawn and I grabbed one arm each and dragged her away from the chalk symbols.
Tara ran forward, snatching an item from the counter and snapping it in the centre of the circle. She dropped both halves and then stepped away. The blue smoke began to turn green and the spiders stopped. They rose up on their back legs as if sniffing the air. Then they turned and ran to the circle, converging in one writhing black mass within the chalk confines.
'Ignatus!' Tara cried and all of the spiders burst into flame.
'Did we get them?' Willow asked weakly.
I squeezed her tightly in my arms.
'I thought I'd lost you,' I said.
'Funny,' Willow replied. 'I was going to say the same.'
* * *
I ran like I had never run before. My lungs heaved and my gut was on fire. My head was spinning and I was keeping myself upright by sheer willpower alone, but there was the tower ahead of me, almost close enough to touch. I sprinted up the hill and through the hole the fallen angel had made in the tower wall.
Then I fell to my knees.
Zauriel was gone.