By Annie Sewell-Jennings
Chapter Six: Sunnydale, California
“Oh, but California
Won’t you take me as I am?
Strung out on another man
California, I’m coming home”
--Joni Mitchell, “California”
Once upon a time, the land of California was all sunshine and champagne, yogurt and youth, Hollywood and happiness. Palm trees lined wealthy boulevards showcasing elaborate houses and enormous swimming pools, while Malibu mansions glimmered cleanly on the waterfronts. The biggest concern that Californians had was whether or not wasabi martinis were still in style.
Now, there aren’t very many Californians left.
With a wicked howl, wind spins through the forgotten city and throws snow at the hollow husks of houses, the abandoned streets, the skeletons of abandoned automobiles. Everything has been paved over with white, the rivers coated with thick, vicious layers of ice. Dead, barren trees lay broken in the streets, the weight of ice and cold bringing them to their knees. Some of the houses are broken. Some of them are merely gone.
She tries to tell herself that none of this is real; this is all just another hallucination or a bad dream. If she pinches herself, maybe she will wake up and all of this will be over. She’ll be warm, tucked into her lover’s arms again, sweetly sleeping underneath the thick heat of June sunlight pouring in through the open window, slicked in sweat and happy. Happier than she has ever been before.
But Willow will never wake up.
Gracelessly, she stumbles as she walks down the middle of Main Street, her eyes seeing everything around her but not really registering it, not hitting home like it should. She thinks that she should feel some sort of regret when she looks around. She knows that she is home, that she is where she once grew up, but it doesn’t… She doesn’t know. Nothing really feels right.
It might be the fact that she’s gone.
Threads of silver and gold suddenly stream past her vision and there’s the warmth again, the heat of the sun compacted and poured inside of her body, keeping her away from the blustery winds pebbling snow in her face. She rises above the ground, hovering over the streets, floating aimlessly down the abandoned road which used to cut through her childhood. There’s the ice cream store where she used to order banana splits with hot fudge on hot July days. It only serves cobwebs now.
Swirls of black cloud her vision momentarily, and she sees herself dancing above the snow, distanced from it, carefully guarded against the frost and chill. The white coat draped loosely around her shoulders slips down a little bit, revealing the nape of her pretty neck. Pretty enough for a vampire to bite? She never knew. Someone once told her that she was appetizing, someone with glaring hair and eyes, but she doesn’t really remember who that was.
Swiss cheese. Her brain is like Swiss cheese. Memories drift in and out of the holes, giving her blessed reprieve as she floats dreamily through her hometown, and she vaguely remembers a girl with long blonde hair who loved cheese. “She likes cheese,” she told a man once. Good advice for her many hunters. She could be baited like a rat.
It wasn’t her decision to return to this place. Willow much rather would have preferred to stay in Mexico where the beaches burned so beautifully, but she heard whispers in her dreams. They told her to go home, that there were visitors coming, important times approaching. She saw a white warrior in her dreams, skin blistered and peeling like a snake, her eyes yellow and reptilian, her face smudged with soot. California was waiting for her. It was waiting for all of them.
But oh, this is where the bad thing happened. This is where the horrible thing occurred, the event that took her away from California in the first place. She should not come back here; she should stay away and fly across the burning beaches at night, throwing glitter on the survivors. Too many ghosts and phantoms haunt the deserted streets of Sunnydale. All of their faces will kill her.
_”I’m under your spell, how else could it be, anyone would notice me…”_
Spells and magic, enchantments and wizards, burning sticks of incense and murmured verses in Latin. This is the beginning of her life, and these smells and sights are her only means of survival. Without her magic, she would be forced to accept all of this. Now, she can write it off as a drugged dream, a bad trip. She fucked up a key ingredient or mispronounced a foreign word. None of this is real. It’s all just temporary, and when the spell wears off, Willow will be okay and the world will be just as it was. Her girlfriend will approach her with loving arms and her best friend will play skater punk music. It will all be okay.
Of course, she knows that she’s not supposed to do this. She remembers shaking in the day covered in sweat, trembling from sheer need, scratching at her skin with her jagged fingernails because the pain was easier to manage. But who will care now? Everyone is dead and gone, and she is the only one left to give a shit. She can live her entire day through in the throes of ecstasy because she’s been excised from responsibility or guilt. No need to feel bad now. Everything will be okay.
But then, from the other part of town, she sees them arrive and knows that nothing is okay.
Willow sees his face first because it looks the same as it always has. Strong, magnetic bone structure, dazzling cheekbones and tumultuous, shifting eyes. He is still swathed in his leather coat, a permanent accessory. In his hand, he holds a large rifle, and is clothed entirely in black. Danger, he says. Someone has been destroyed and is now looking to destroy in return. Revenge, his posture projects. He wants blood for what has been done.
Behind him, Willow sees her.
It is hard to distinguish her first, wrapped up in a thick white fur coat, a hood masking her face, but it is impossible to mistake her. She has always carried a certain feel to her, the aroma of heroism. It is a strong, powerful thing that not even hell could destroy. When she pulls back her hood and shakes out her magnificent, scarring white hair and sunburned face, Willow wants to falls to her knees and beg forgiveness.
“I didn’t mean it,” she whispers, her words slurred and senseless. “It wasn’t my fault. I was… I was only doing… I wanted to help. I just wanted to help.”
Furiously, Spike grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her, slamming her feet to the ground. “Yeah, you’re a great bloody help, Willow,” he spits, and her weak knees buckle; she spills to the snowy sidewalk in a pool of red hair. “Whatever would any of us do without you and all of your assistance?”
Willow’s hazel eyes widen when Buffy Summers stands over her, the white warrior. Her eyes are too much to take, the pieces of jagged green glass swimming around her pupils. “Buffy?” she whispers breathlessly. She laughs a little wildly, a little drunkenly. “You’re all red and white. Oh wow, is that my Buffy?”
The woman’s voice is cold as she stands gloriously above her, the freezing winds snapping and biting at her albino hair. “No,” she says. “I’m Joan now.” In a flawless, sweeping motion, this stranger with the Slayer’s face sheds the fur coat and reveals her barely clothed body.
Willow’s scream reverberates throughout the ghost town of Sunnydale as she takes in the sight of her former best friend’s body, covered in tattoos, slandered with the hideous graffiti of the terrible past. All of these words, these accusing words, forcing reality onto her and shattering the warmth that she has surrounded herself in.
The worst one is the first one, of course.
Roughly, Buffy pulls the coat over her red skin and yanks Willow to her feet. She stands in close to the other woman and grabs her shoulders, digging her fingernails into the witch’s skin. “Tell me what they mean,” she demands. “Tell me why. Tell me how.” Her voice wavers, and for a moment, Willow sees the old Buffy underneath this new woman’s ashes. “Please.”
Spike’s gloved hand curves protectively over the Slayer’s shoulder, gently pulling her off of the redhead. “Come on, luv,” he murmurs into Buffy’s ear. “Let’s go inside where it’s not so cold. Somewhere we can talk.”
Never taking her eyes off of Willow, Buffy reluctantly loosens her grip and nods her head. “Okay,” she agrees, and then she walks to the large glass window of the ice cream store and shatters it with her boot. Dusty glass is thrown carelessly to the wind, and Willow sucks in her breath when a fragment of it slices across Spike’s forehead. “This looks good.”
Inside, blood oozes slowly down the vampire’s forehead, curving down the unusual scar in his eyebrow, and he ignores it, choosing to look at Willow instead. In the past, he has imagined her as he first saw her, the clumsy, shy violet that she was in high school, stammering through her speech and fidgeting with her hands. She is broken now. Her hair has grown long again, flawlessly red and shocking with its bloody mass, and her face is still as young as it was when she was twenty. Funny, how none of them seem to age. She is more uncertain than she ever was, tugging at her fingers and covering her pretty face with her hands whenever she looks at the woman he has brought with her for answers.
When she looks at Willow, she does not remember her. Maybe this is the redheaded girl that she occasionally dreams about, the girl who was once tied to a stake while flames licked at her feet. The sorceress, the wizard, the witch. Can this girl take musky-smelling herbs and create spells and charms from them? Can she look at her and tell her the stories that she desperately needs to know?
Clearing her throat, Willow sits down in a plastic chair that offers her no comfort, shifting her weight awkwardly from side to side. She gives a doubtful smile; it is all that she has to offer. “It’s so weird to come here,” she says a little breathlessly, her eyes glazing over a little. He frowns when he sees a black film cover her hazel eyes. “All the snow, all of the ice. I don’t remember it this way, but there’s a girl wandering down the street without a coat on, talking about the dirty feeling. She can’t escape from the box, but she thinks that she might if only the creepy crawly things would leave her alone for a minute and let her think, let her remember…”
“Shut up,” he says sharply, and she blinks, the black film lifting and showing him the cowering little girl that she is.
“How did you know to come back here?” the white-haired woman asks, and Willow frowns, shaking her head, scared.
“I had the dreams,” she explains. “Dreams about a warrior. You were a warrior once, but… I don’t know what you are now. Not quite.” She shivers, drowning in her oversized coat. “But Spike and I had an agreement. If you ever needed me, I would know it instinctually, and we would come back here.”
The warrior in question is unforgiving. Willow feels it radiating off of her in waves of hatred and anger, of fury and confusion. The tattoos covering her body intrigue her, and she wants to know what she has written. What has she remembered? What has she obsessed over? “Did you do this?” she asks, and Willow turns her eyes away, swallowing hard and anxiously toying with the cuff of her coat.
“Yes,” she whispers. “I did it.”
She closes her eyes and bows her head, face covered and shaded in white, and Willow tries hastily to explain. “But it’s not what you think, Buffy. I didn’t want to do it, but you left me no other choice. Everything was horrible then, everything was bad, and…”
“What was horrible?” she asks, her voice simple and frail. Her face crumples briefly for a second as she turns her eyes to Spike, and Willow realizes that he has carried a terrible burden for the past ten years. She has fallen in love with him, and he is the only one who can remember everything with perfect clarity. “Was I horrible? No one will tell me anything.”
Startled, Willow whips her head around to look at the vampire who brought her here. “You didn’t tell her?” she asks, and he looks away, a little ashamed.
“Couldn’t,” he mutters. “She had questions. I told her I knew her, told her what she was, a Slayer, and that she hated me.” He brings his eyes to Willow and for the first time, she watches Spike beg. “I couldn’t tell her everything else. All I could do was bring her here.”
It is love that has broken him, love that has eaten away at everything he used to be. A killer, a murderer, a creature of obscenely beautiful carnage. Once, he wreaked havoc on the public and drank freely from the blood of the world. Now, he’s just a man who loves someone who doesn’t even really exist. It pains him to be near her, to hear her say a name that is not his own and tell him that she loves him back. Unrequited love was painful enough. This is torture.
But she is tormented in her own right, fractured into a million pieces like a mirror reflecting nothing but jagged fragments. The world that she has known is a bitter, dangerous place, and she loves a man who has presented her with nothing but lies. She hates him and loves him now, and the combination is starting to tear away at her very being.
_”Everything just gets stripped away…”_
Swallowing hard, Willow stands up and walks to the ghost of her best friend, her white hair hanging wraith-like down her back. “When we first met, I was a nobody,” she confesses, and Spike listens heartbroken in the background. “You were new, from Los Angeles, and I thought that you would just call me names like everyone else did. But you didn’t. I loved you because you accepted me, brought me out of my shell.”
Confused, she stares blankly at the girl who says that she once saved. She doesn’t know who this woman is. She’ll never know. “I just want to know what happened to me,” she whispers, and Willow looks darkly over at Spike.
“We’ll tell you,” Willow promises. “But you don’t know what you’re asking of two people who love you.”
Her face tenses briefly. “If you love me, you’ll tell me the truth,” she says plainly, and Willow smiles bitterly.
“Not this truth.”
As Willow begins speaking, Buffy begins to remember.
And she begins to understand.
(end part six)
Continued in Chapter Seven: The Past