Secret Slasha – The Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel Slash Fanfiction Secret Santa Project
Secret Slasha – The Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel Slash Fanfiction Secret Santa Project

Reckoning
By EntreNous
For Briar

Fred spent the first Christmas in Pylea with the animals in the barn. It smelled rank but she smelled bad too, so she didn't much care.

She'd figured out that it was Christmas because she'd been counting the days since she'd arrived. Maybe she'd lost sense of the passing sunrises; maybe time ran on a different schedule here. But to the best of her knowledge, she had it right because she'd kept track so carefully.

Counting along with the lifts and tosses when she shoveled out the barn. Ticking off time on her fingers every night she huddled under the burlap sack in the far corner of the shed, more a stall than anything else, that had barely enough floor space to lie down in. Marking the days and nights with taps when she was told not to move at the market, or at town meetings, gentle taps against her own elbow that wouldn't be heard by anyone else. Tap. Tap. Tap.

So when Christmas came around by her reckoning, she'd gathered a pile of rags that she found and perched on them, waiting. She wanted to see if the animals would speak. Her grandfather had always said that at the stroke of midnight on Christmas all the animals in the world could talk just for that minute. Fred had tried to keep awake when she was a little girl to witness this miracle but she always fell asleep before midnight.

Later, when she was older, she forgot all about it. But here the animals were the only beings she was allowed to speak to, so she took a moment to see if they were going to forgive her for what she'd planned.

It didn't much surprise her when they didn't answer her apology. Even if they could speak, she had a feeling they might think her a fool, less useful than them, and incapable of following through on the plan she'd outlined to them. So she showed them. She lit the barn on fire.

The fire provided the distraction that let her escape to the cave. Sure, cows like her had some value, but far less than the actual animals that produced milk and eggs and meat. She wasn't sure if her owners realized she was the one who'd begun the flames that licked at the roof of the house before they managed to wake up. Probably they thought she'd run in fear, a skittish colt that turned tail at the first sign of danger.

She thought about returning when the family would have gone elsewhere for the rest of the night. They'd need somewhere to sleep, and the charred remains would be unguarded. Smoked meat . . . the thought made her laugh aloud, a kind of raspy harsh laugh that she covered with her hand. But it came through her fingers anyway.

She'd been to the cave two times before, the first time in a wander while her owner haggled for tinder wood. He'd called her back quickly, but not quickly enough. She'd seen the entrance was covered slightly, and the how the opening led into a vast dark area with more than enough head room in which to stand. Standing was high on the requirements list.

The chill made her shiver, but the smell . . . well, it wasn't unlike the rare books room where she'd once made the rounds, admonishing the patrons who tried to sneak in pens for notes-taking instead of using the prescribed pencils.

And even the special collections smell reminded her of another scent. Cold, medicinal -- like the cream doctors made her spread on when they said her skin had something; she couldn't remember the name, a parasite, living inside her even though people weren't supposed to have such things in them.

Texts and toxins, both laced with a reassuring sweetness -- here there are answers, here all things will be put to rights. Not a homey smell exactly, but the markings of a place to get serious work done.

And the idea of working, of marking space and time with figures and formulas instead of taps and ticks . . . It stilled something inside her. She held her head higher all the way home, even when her owner beat her with a switch he'd made her fetch herself.

It was the second time visiting the cave that convinced her. She'd struggled out of the locked shed, jimmying the door with a goose bone. That would be the time she'd escape, she'd thought, but she didn't intend to go to the cave. She'd thought that there must be something else besides this village, these market vendors, the trading and bartering that went on in the square. Wouldn't there be a city somewhere? Or at least a place where c-- humans could be free?

She was on the way to the outer limits, marked by gates and pikes that had heads on them sometimes. But just beyond the boundary she'd stopped. Nothing. What if there was nothing? Not even other towns, just . . . what would she eat? How would she live? What if the only way to get back was to stay close to where she'd fallen into this place? And she ran all the way to the cave, drawing in long breaths of the familiar scent as soon as she hit the entrance.

She stayed almost til sunrise, making her way back to the shed and pulling the door shut as tightly as possible. Her owner found the door was broken, of course, but he'd smiled when he'd opened the entrance to the shed to find her twisted into the corner with wide eyes, blinking at him. Looked like she'd been tamed after all -- afraid to go out even when she could. And if she was dirtier than usual, had redder eyes, wet tracks snaking down her face making sharp lines between dirt, tears, dirt . . . well, he didn't seem to care much as long as she hadn't run. She got extra berries and oats in her feed that day.

It made it easier. They let her stay in the barn some, allowed her to go to market by herself, gave her the important job of hauling back a load of roots that would go in the ground and come up food. If she stole a few potatoes and carrots for herself, or helped herself to grain in the barn, squirreling it away to put into a dry container she'd fashioned back at the cave, they didn't seem to notice.

She worked faster when she reckoned December was upon her. It was the prospect of the new year coming that did it. The real surprise was figuring out how to disable the collar. She wouldn't have minded taking it off for good, but she needed it. A free pass to market, to town, looking for all the world as if she was a cow on an errand -- that would help considerably. When she'd worked out the answer, she'd done her chores and heavy lifting with a smile perking around the corners of her mouth. Her owner's wife had patted her on the flank fondly as she gathered stones to rebuild the well. Good cow, Fred said to herself hysterically.

Finishing, being ready with food and supplies by Christmas, was pure gravy. She only wished she had been able to stay to see the barn burn down. Pretty fire.

Entering the cave again was different when she knew it was hers. If the family believed she had run off in fear, then that bought her more freedom. A frightened cow was more likely to be recaptured than anything else, and they wouldn't want to buy back what they'd already paid for. Better to just get a new one.

It was better yet when she learned the family had perished in the fire. One cow looked so much like another that only the owners would recognize a stray for their runaway. No one else would bother her unless they caught her stealing.

So she was settled in the cave, but could pass herself off as a caught cow by the collar on her neck. She felt free inside but couldn't share it with anyone, and that didn't seem much like freedom to her. That was when she took a breath and realized that she'd never get out of this place. This, the fire she'd built, the supplies she lived off of, the meat that she stole . . . this was as good as it could get for her. She'd reached a sorry pinnacle in her life, and there was nowhere else to climb.

What was there left to do, then? The chill and the scent of the cave still appealed to the urge to work, even if it made no difference to anyone but her. But the charcoal she'd gathered from the site of the fire made familiar scratching sounds on the stone walls, and the sight of numbers that had danced in front of her eyes now splayed out in an orderly narrative on the walls calmed her some. Remembering, counting, weighing the shifts and changes in the last world against this one made for formulas, stories that marked out the nothingness and structured the spaces in between.

She nearly wept when she saw the first jumble of data plucked from the whirl in her head and etched into the once-upon-a-time linear expression that always ended in happily-ever-after. Perfectly balanced, beautifully symmetrical -- the signs, the figures, the symbols promised the moment of clarity in the confusion, forever recorded. Solved.

Except. . . In all of her time here, she'd never met another who could speak to her in this language.

The loss was without remedy.

She knew from her other life that her work seemed solitary to some, not material to build relationships upon, but those perceptions were wrong. Finding another who knew the rhythms and logics always meant a link established between them, a center in her re-marked through their connection.

She'd had that. She'd had so much of that; she could almost pretend that those who read the signs the way she could surrounded her tightly, a protective shield of people thinking thoughts much like hers, a wealth of like-mindedness grounding her in the wilds of unpunctuated expressions.

That had all changed here. There was no one . . . There was nothing. Only memories.

The memories skipped, gaps in the narrative mending by means of substitutions: youth, indicated by symbol x, family death number two demarcated by the touch of sharp thistle. The smell of pungent rotting carcass stood in for the lonely first years of learning to express emptiness with the appropriate diagramming.

Shortcut to the time closest, the person nearest, for whom there was no sign equal to her significance. She had a name, but these days it was all Fred could do to remember her own. If she could only hold so much that was dear, the name itself mattered little.

Funny, though convinced there had been softness and feather-light touches, Fred remembered mostly the dullness present when she'd been gone, the stretches of time pulled taut and wide between them in her absence. Had she been away from Fred so very often? Was the separation great than their moments of intersection? Hard to tell, no matter how many taps she could now make as loud as she wished. No longer digit driven to bone, but pebble to stone, sometimes her head to spongy damp earth . . . tap, tap, tap.

Fred connected moments to measure herself. She was pretty "pretty little thing, aren't you?" her uncle said darkly when he caught her alone in the playroom. She was bright "too bright to ever get herself a man" her mother murmured loud enough for her to hear. She was lonely "you looked so lonely sitting there in class, apart from the others in lab" she'd explained when asked why she had first joined Fred in that tear-stained second year. She was lucky, "lucky to attach yourself to someone so destined to shine in the profession" her male advisor assured her. She was wrong, "wrong if you think I'll let you distract me, if you think that I'll let you hold me back from success" she'd told Fred.

"But I didn't," Fred said softly. "I didn't think that." But there was no one to hear her say that now.

They'd spoken all the same languages once. Exchanged looks that signaled, "If you're ready, I am" that meant leaving together from the department, from a dinner party. Sighs, gasps, the whole register of sounds announcing breath being drawn in a desperate moment of passion. A taste Fred remembered, like sweat but thicker, higher on the scale in flavor.

And the signs and markings, they'd shared those too -- from the first and final step in the proofs to all the links in between. They'd painted the walls of their place with a special substance that made the surface it covered like a chalkboard.

Fred didn't need that substance at the cave. The walls and the charred stubs worked well enough. Burnt bones worked the best.

She was settled in the cave.

There was a year in between, another Christmas -- year one or year two from when she'd set the barn on fire? It depended on when she started the count. At zero or at one -- and which calendar was she meant to use? What was the proper measure of time in a world with two suns, where humans were cows, when no one was coming for her, not now, not ever?

"I'll begin at zero," Fred said quietly so as not to startle herself. "I'll start at zero and I'll make my reckoning from there."