Author's note: Many thanks to Kassandra for betaing.
"Rosemary for remembrance," Anya said under her breath.
She counted out three sprigs of the herb from a clear glass jar into a bowl. The rosemary rustled and crumbled a little as she touched it, dry as her tearless eyes. She used the back of a wooden spoon to crush the sprigs to fine green-gray powder, and poured the powder onto a piece of parchment. Folding it expertly into a packet, she wrote the name of the herb on it in her careful angular script. Wouldn't do to get them mixed up.
"Rue for regret," Anya said, standing on her toes and stretching up to take a large basket down from the top shelf.
She selected three glossy green leaves of rue, recently picked, still strong and sharp smelling. She folded them straight into another packet and labelled that too. They needed to be finely shredded, but that was better done closer to the time.
"Roses for love," she said, lifting out and uncorking a clay canister of dried rosebuds. She stirred the faded pink petals with a meditative fingertip. The velvety peeled skins of buds picked before they could fully bloom clung to her. The scent of roses was sweet and musty in the still air of the shut shop.
No. Fresh roses would be stronger.
She put the canister back carefully. Outside a customer, ignoring the 'Closed' sign, rattled the door handle. Distantly, as Anya picked up her handbag, she heard him grumble, give a final futile tug on the handle, and walk away. She tucked the packets inside her handbag. Almost ready.
Anya went over to the incenses and sorted through the boxes, bags and heaps of aromatics. She selected a brass box from Madagascar, full of powdery grains of resin. She looked at her hands while she scooped some into a strong paper bag; she was surprised to see that they were absolutely steady. She didn't spill a single grain. "Myrrh for mourning," she murmured as she folded the top of the bag down. No need to label this one. The weight of the little amber grains would tell.
She put it in her handbag and added a large bag of Dead Sea salt, several foil wrapped packages of charcoal disks and, then after a second's hesitation, a box of matches. She couldn't call fire with a flick of her fingers anymore. She went into Buffy's practice area and dug around in one of the weapons lockers until she found a dagger. She tested the blade with her thumb, and, satisfied that it would do, slid it back into its sheath. After a moment's thought, she took a stake as well.
Anya dropped the weapons into her handbag and swung it onto her shoulder. The knife's handle clinked off the glass bottle of whisky, scrounged from Giles' leftovers. She took a look at the sky through the front window. Almost time. She didn't forget to lock the door behind her.
The flower shop was closing up when Anya got there. But there were still some roses left. After all, Sunnydale's booming floristry industry could be relied upon to have roses to hand. They were permanently popular, sometimes for bouquets, and always for funerals. Anya had been keeping her fingers crossed for white roses and was rewarded with some pale, velvety blooms.
"Only three left," the florist apologized, wrapping their stems in paper.
"That's fine," Anya said, passing the florist one of her credit cards. The florist handed the roses over carefully so Anya could avoid their thorns, but one snagged the pad of her thumb anyway. She gripped the stems of the roses firmly and inhaled their sweet scent deep into her lungs.
Sunnydale was so rich in cemeteries that it had become poor in open land. Not that it mattered. Graveyard dirt would add a certain resonance. Wrapping her arms around her against the strong breeze, Anya had to walk quite some way along the stream that formed the back boundary of the newly founded, but rapidly filling, Oakridge Lawns cemetery, before she found a clear stretch of untouched lawn. Because it was close to the edge of the stream, the grass wasn't as closely cropped here, and there were even some tiny wildflowers growing. Perfect.
She spent a few minutes gathering fallen wood under the trees along the stream. When she emerged from the shadows of the trees, arms full of dead branches, she looked around carefully, before putting her handbag and the kindling down and laying the roses gently on the grass. But it was getting on for twilight and there was no one foolish enough to be out when dark was falling. No one but her.
Anya opened her handbag and took out the bag of salt and the knife. Using the pile of wood on the ground as a center point, she turned her back and took three long steps, then stopped. She unsheathed the knife and used it to nick the base of the salt bag, so that the contents began to leak out in a thin, steady stream. She turned to her right and walked around in a circle, careful to keep the same distance from the center point, making sure that the salt covered the ground in an unbroken, clearly visible line.
With every step, she heard the sounds of birdsong and the lap of the water get quieter, as though a celestial volume control was gradually turning down. When she completed the circle, they diminished to silence, kept outside by the barrier. Past the circle, she could see the strengthening breeze tossing leaves, rippling through the grass, and making the flowers on the graves flutter as though they were still live plants. Inside, the only things she could hear were her breath, coming a little ragged now, and her heartbeat.
Anya dropped to her knees, held the knife vertically and used it to cut a much smaller circle inside the first one. She cut again, this time in a cross shape, dividing the small circle into quarters. Her hands slipped with sweat on the knife's handle and her arms quickly started to ache. She managed to force the knife through the cuts and turn it awkwardly parallel to the surface, severing the root systems of the grass an inch or two down. The sun had dropped below the horizon before she had finished cutting the turf from beneath, sawing through the roots, and laying the earth bare. When she eventually put down the knife, curled her hands in the grass and pulled hard, the loosened sods came away easily.
Anya wiped the sweat off her forehead and laid each piece of turf back in the grass. The segments of earth looked rather like the petals of a flower. Funny, considering that they were raw, disturbed earth. She wiped the knife on the grass, laid the kindling in the center of the exposed patch of ground, took out the packages of charcoal and placed the disks on their edges around the wood. A long time ago, she could have used glowing coals from a hearth for this, but times had changed. She lit the wood, then the disks, all with one match, nostrils flaring at the scent of sulfur.
Once the charcoal disks started to burn, she pushed them flat with the tip of the knife, and sprinkled a little myrrh resin on them. She opened the bag of rue leaves and sliced them thinly. They were fresh and moist, cool green under her knife, and probably would smoke rather than burn, but that was okay.
Anya took three matches from the box and struck them together. She held the knife blade in the flame until the edge shone red, then put the blade ready on the grass. She took the lid off the whisky. She was tempted to take a swig of the world's oldest painkiller, but put the bottle aside. Night was closing in; she could put it off no longer. She took a deep breath of bittersweet myrrh-scented air.
"I come to mourn Halfrek. I call to be my witnesses the white maiden, the red lady, and the black hag." To her own ears, her voice sounded thin and reedy in the open air. She cleared her throat. "Spirits of the first spark, the living flame, and the consuming fire, hear me."
Anya reverently laid the shredded rue leaves on the charcoals. "Rue for regret." The moisture in the leaves hissed and spat.
"I regret Halfrek's death. I bind my grief with blood." Anya's hand quivered as she gripped the knife's handle. Halfrek's passing had not been an easy death by any measure, even though Anya had been the catalyst for many and seen more. Anya remembered the blood spurting from Halfrek's mouth, her shriek of torment, the light gouting from her eyes as she burned from the inside out. The drifting dust, all that remained.
Anya shuddered. Her whole body ached. She tightened her grip on the knife's handle, and carefully sliced her palm over the smoking myrrh. All the fuzzy pain in her body seemed to gather into one precise line on her skin, and well up with her blood, overflowing onto the fire. The charcoal was hot enough now to show a faint white crust of ash on its edges. Her heart was pounding. She watched her blood drip and sizzle on the molten resin.
When the noise died down, Anya took the packet of rosemary. "Rosemary for remembrance." She ripped the bag open and carefully sprinkled its powdered contents evenly over the fire. Her eyes and nose stung from the thin black smoke the herb produced.
"I remember Halfrek's life." Anya took up the knife again with Halfrek's face vivid in her mind's eye. The two of them had shared their delight in especially vicious vengeances, and danced arm in arm through centuries of destruction. Anya had been betrayed by every man she'd loved in her long life, but Halfrek's friendship had never faltered. A sob caught in her throat as she remembered Halfrek's laugh, the ruby glass that was always in her hand, her girlish love of fine things. The pearls in her hair.
"I bind my memory with blood." Again, Anya cut her palm, pressing hard to make the incision deeper. She could no longer feel two of the fingers. She blinked back tears, held out her trembling hand, and watched the blood flow. The glow of the charcoal blurred and surged with its feeding. She could empty buckets of water on the fire now and nothing would put it out until this was done. When she closed her eyes briefly, the fire's red glimmering was still visible on the insides of her eyelids. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. She drew several deep breaths to calm herself before she could go on.
"Roses for love." She picked up the blooms and inhaled their scent again. It was dizzyingly strong even over the acrid stench of the burning herbs. Her head spun. "I loved -" Her voice broke. She clenched the rose stems tight in her cut hand. The sharp bright pain cleared her mind. She tried again, and this time the words came out strong and sure. "I loved Halfrek."
Anya methodically destroyed the roses, pulling the petals off them, one by one, and then tearing each individual petal in half, dropping the pale pieces in a thick layer on the red-hot charcoals. "I bind my love with blood." Again she took the knife to her hand, slashing deep, gasping with the pain. She held her shaking hand out and blood spattered wetly onto the shredded petals. They jumped and sputtered as they burned, then blackened and shrank away to nothing. Just as Halfrek had.
Anya's throat tightened with sorrow. She sprinkled the rest of the myrrh on the crackling fire, and drew a deep breath. "I call to be my witnesses the white maiden, the red lady, and the black hag. I mourn Halfrek."
Even the last time, called to her destruction, Halfrek's face had lit up to see Anya. The burning grief rose up in Anya's throat, acid and unstoppable as vomit. She doubled over and sobbed. "Hallie. I'm so sorry. I miss you. I miss you so much," she whispered. "I miss your smile. I miss your sharp tongue. I miss your loyalty. I even miss your stupid frizzy hair." The wet grass was cool on her hot eyes and scorched cheeks. She pressed her forehead to the ground for a moment and felt tears trickle out from her tightly closed eyes.
Then she forced herself to sit up straight. She had to finish this. The fire jumped and wavered in her sight; she wiped her eyes with her good hand. "Spirits of the first spark, I beg you to witness my mourning for the loss of Halfrek's life. Living flame, her soul is scattered on the wind, but I beg you to keep her memory alive in me. Consuming fire, I beg you to burn away my guilt. Forgive me my part in her death. Forgive me."
Anya picked up the bottle of whisky and poured it on the fire. The flames roared up. Sweat prickled all over her skin. She blinked in the sudden flare of light, swallowed hard and fixed her eyes on the smoke drifting up to the star-filled sky. She couldn't look if she was going to do this. "I bind my plea with trust in you." She gritted her teeth. In one motion, she pushed her cut hand into the fire and grabbed the coals.
For a split second, the pain was so shockingly intense that a shriek lodged in her throat. Then the smell of her flesh charring was thick and nauseating in her nose and she screamed screamed screamed her throat raw.
The stars dimmed and flickered above her. And then went out.
Anya woke up with a gasp.
She blinked in the early morning light.
The sky was pale with the dawn and the birds were just starting to twitter irritatingly in the trees. She sat up, shivering in the chilly air, rubbed her eyes and looked around.
Outside the salt circle, there were footprints in the dewy grass where someone or something had come sniffing around, and gone away again. In her makeshift hearth, the fire was cold ash. She stretched to ease the stiffness of spending the night on hard ground, and then realized that while her muscles ached, her hand did not. She looked at her palm in disbelief. It was smooth and undamaged. Not a blister. Not a scar.
She was forgiven.
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