By Annie Sewell-Jennings
Sequel to The Waiting Season
SUMMARY: As old friends return to Sunnydale and life begins to move on, a new adversary comes to town and shows Buffy more about herself than she ever wanted to know. B/S
SPOILERS: Through "Grave"
DISCLAIMER: The characters within this story are the property of Mutant Enemy Productions, except for the ones that you don't recognize, because I made them up all by my lonesome. Aren't I cool? No? Shut up. You don't know me. Bitch. Music will be disclaimed as it is used, and it will be used occasionally. Like in this chapter. Really, it will.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Written during a particularly bad bout of flooding in Charleston, in my own private Southern Venice. And on the day I departed to go visit the delightful Al. Written to the boring drone of 102.5, the Oldies station. Please, please, please no more Elvis. Make it stop.
Thanks again to the kick-ass beta efforts of Devil Piglet and wisteria, who made this story much, much better than it should be. Really. They are the bomb-diggity.
Chapter Nine: Charcoal, Smudged
Unsettled, Giles laid the photograph on the table, the magnifying glass lying uselessly beside it. "Well, this is rather disturbing," Giles said, and Buffy threw up her hands.
"Well, duh. Why else do you think I brought it to you?" she asked, pacing anxiously around the training room, a small blonde bundle of nervous energy. Frankly, Giles was considering moving this conversation into the shop itself and away from all of the bright, deadly weapons that her fidgety hands might employ. A skittish Slayer was a deadly Slayer. "There's some creepy guy hanging out in my bedroom, and someone's messing with my camera. That's just... Not cool to the nth degree."
"I can't disagree with you on that," Giles muttered, looking down warily at the photograph. "There's something about... I don't know, but it seems like it's an oddly familiar picture."
Eagerly, Buffy arched her eyebrow and stopped her pacing. "Oo, familiar?" she said. "As in you've read something in some stuffy book before that looks like this?"
Crossly, Giles glared at her. "They're not stuffy," he said. "They're informative. Besides, how would you know? You've never picked up a chronicle in your entire career as--"
He cleared his throat, nodding. "Right. The photograph. I'll go through some of the texts and see if anything leaps out at me, but that's really the best that I can do at this point."
Dismayed, Buffy froze in the middle of the floor, staring at him with a hurt pout on her pretty face. "What?" she asked, hands on her hips, irritation etched onto her face. "There's nothing that you can do about it? Giles, someone is stalking me!"
Well, I don't see what you're all worked up about. The last time you had a stalker, you ended up finding a boyfriend. Giles swallowed his bitter thoughts, returning his attention to the photograph. The last thing that he wanted was documentation of this bizarre relationship between Buffy and Spike, and the tender position in the bed made Giles feel vaguely ill.
"Buffy, I understand that you're upset," he said, keeping his voice even and still, "but beyond a couple of chants or protective circles, I doubt that there is much that can be done at this point. I can research the texts, but this picture really does not give us much to go on."
Buffy knew that he was right, that she was being irrational, but there was this creepy-crawly sensation at the back of her neck, hackles raised on her skin as she looked down at the photograph. Someone had been in her bedroom, in her house, with Anya and Dawn and Spike and oh, God, she hated this. This feeling of impotence, of helplessness.
Troubled, she slumped down into the chair beside Giles and put her head in her hands. "I hate when the bad guys are all ambiguous," she muttered. "It makes them harder to beat up."
Chuckling, Giles put a hand on her back before he stood up. "I'll call Willow and see if she can cast anything that might keep prowlers out," he said, and Buffy frowned.
"I thought Willow was off the wagon," she said, and she furrowed her brow. "Or is it on the wagon?"
Carefully, Giles paused and pursed his lips, trying to think of a gentle way to break this news to her. "Buffy, Willow hasn't quit magic," he said. "I don't think she ever can. It's within her now. Permanent. She's learned control and balance, and quite masterfully, as well as how to avoid getting drawn into darker forces, but there's nothing that can stop her from being a witch." He lowered his voice gently. "It's who she is."
Shocked, Buffy stared at her Watcher. Willow couldn't be, not after what they'd gone through just a couple of months ago. Those awful things that she'd said to Dawn, the taunting black eyes and dark, monotonous drawl, flatly promising them murder and madness, so disaffected and blasé. Calling Buffy cold, and Xander stupid, and Dawn worthless.
Inky hair falls into her pale, cracked face, veins standing out, laden with poisonous black power. Onyx eyes stare out at Buffy from her best friend's face, and there is nothing but madness, nothing but grief, nothing but anger and rage inside of her. Willow is gone.
Yet even as she remembered the mad, dark-haired version of Willow, she could not equate it with the quiet, aching girl who'd returned to Sunnydale merely weeks ago. The new Willow was gentle and soft-spoken, stammering through her sentences like that long-lost geek of high school days. Guilt suddenly sank into Buffy's bones as she realized that she had not even paid that close attention to Willow since she'd come home.
"Buffy," Giles said softly by her ear, bracing his hands on the back of her chair. "She's fine. This is simply the way that she is. Magic is not something that one becomes addicted to, no matter what Willow might have thought. It's an essence, a force, and she's learning to let it go rather than try to hold onto it. She's managing."
The soothing words of Giles. Somehow, they always seemed to make sense of her confused and brittle world, taking concepts that overwhelmed her and converting them into sensibility. "Funny," Buffy murmured, "how everything seems to change and yet everything stays the same."
Giles could not agree with her more.
"There's something wrong with Spike," Buffy murmured, and Giles nodded.
"I've been saying that for years," he said, and Buffy turned around, alarmed and defensive until she saw the smile creeping up on his face. Teasing Giles. She supposed that it was an improvement.
"I'm being serious," she insisted. "There's something... Off about him." Swallowing, Buffy looked down at the photograph of the two of them intertwined, stuck on the look on his face. Even when he was sleeping, he looked haggard and overwrought, pained in his dreams by something he refused to explain. "I didn't tell you how it went last night, in the cemetery. When I went to see him."
His warm fingers crept over her shoulder in a show of support. "How did it go?"
Groaning, Buffy stood up abruptly, folding her arms over her chest and shaking her head. "I don't know what to do, Giles," she admitted. "I was so upset when I left the house, and I brought all of these papers and pictures with me and shoved them in his face, asked him to explain himself. I wanted something other than that, something that could give me an explanation..."
"And he couldn't give you one," Giles finished, and Buffy sighed in frustration.
"That's not even it. He gave me one, but he didn't say it. It just was... There. Because we started up with the fighting and the arguing and the Big Important Emotional Outbursts, and I told him that I loved him and there was kissing, and you'd probably really like me to stop right about now, huh?"
Chuckling, Giles shook his head and fingered the photograph slightly, eyes lingering on the way her hand splayed across his shoulder blade, protective and needy, fingers aching with the want that she possessed for him. For a monster, for a devil, but he could not be so terrible if she could find it in her heart to love him. "It's all right," he said mildly. "Go on."
Buffy bowed her head, tucking her hair behind her ears with nervous fingers. "But he couldn't... Touch me. I wanted him to, but he couldn't. And there are other things, strange things, and who's Richard III?"
Confused, Giles blinked at her. "Pardon?"
"Richard III," she repeated. "He was in a play. By Shakespeare."
"Oh," he said. "Yes. He was the main character of the eponymous play. He was a king of England, oddly compelling but evil nonetheless. He tried to blame his crimes on his physical deformity, but in the end, it was plain to see that he was a monster regardless. Why do you ask?"
Troubled, Buffy shook her head. "No reason."
No reason at all.
Willow deeply mourned the loss of the coffeehouse.
Oh, it was still there, the Espresso Pump still brewing away at the corner of Vine and Main, but its summer intimacy and quietude had been sacrificed to the gods of University. Summer break was over and all of the students were pouring back into Sunnydale, little stick figure girls in trendy but comfortable faux-hippie wear and boys wearing baseball caps and plaids. The returning students were mostly congregated in the coffee shop, sipping on iced mochas and doing shots of Italian espresso, waxing philosophical and debating politics like they knew absolutely everything.
Of course, they knew nothing.
Willow and Xander sat nestled back in a corner of the café, oversized coffee cups decorated with drizzles of funny paint sitting before them, trying to block out the bustle of conversation that screamed all around them. It made Willow's head hurt, all of the talking and all of the feeling, this humanity screeching and roaring in her veins. Usually, she tried to avoid crowded places; the crush of people devastated her heightened senses. But Xander had wanted coffee, and he'd already had a bad enough morning.
Miserably, he sat across from her, despondently dipping his finger into the rich, frothy foam topping his caramel macchiato. "I acted like an asshole earlier, didn't I," Xander muttered, and Willow sympathetically reached out a hand, touching his fingers.
"Well, sort of," she said, but he knew well enough to read between the lines and find the yes written underneath her words. "You were pretty upset about everything. And you had good reason. I mean, Buffy and Spike. Wow. That's a double-headliner concert of not-good."
Bitterly, Xander barked out a laugh. "No kidding. I just can't stop seeing them in the bed, all cuddly and snuggling. Even the words taste gross." Quickly, he took a sharp swig of his sugary caffeinated confection, trying to wash the flavor and the image from his mind. It was hard to juxtapose the vivid, dreadful memory of Buffy sitting slumped and defeated on the bathroom floor to the contented, sugar-spun bliss of her and Spike in the bed. "It's not right. Not right to the extreme."
"But she loves him," Willow said softly, and Xander winced, holding up a hand.
"Please, Will. I'm trying to enjoy my coffee."
Exasperated, Willow sighed and took another sip of her vanilla frappe. It had startled her, too, seeing the vampire and the Slayer all cozy and snug, but more than that, it had caused that nagging, paining ache in her heart to rise up and start throbbing again in earnest. Loneliness was thick inside of her, so heavy that it dragged her down below the surface of the world, drowning her in its suffocating tangibility.
Yet it also confirmed what Buffy had said. They were in love, hopelessly and helplessly, the kind of all-consuming inferno of passion that could scorch and incinerate. The room had smelled of ashes and the shadows had covered them like soot; they radiated sizzling embers and the heat of a wildfire. It reminded her of the way that the incense burned down into dust in those giddy early nights with Tara, when they set cones of cinnamon and myrrh aflame and made love under scented stars.
"You have to let it go, Xander," Willow murmured, her eyes quiet and contemplative as she looked into her coffee. "Buffy loves him, and that's what's important. That's what matters."
Xander flinched and shook his head, his jaw tight. "You don't know, Willow," he muttered. "You don't even know the half of it. The things that bastard's done to her..."
Blinking, Xander looked at her with an expression of surprise, watching as she quietly stirred the foam around in her coffee mug. "I went to the bathroom a couple of weeks ago," she said. "There was this... Tension inside of it. Something that was all bottled up and funky, like when you drop a soda and it's all fizzy and bubbly and ready to explode. And then you open it up and it undoubtedly ruins this super-cool white peasant dress that you spent a whole lot of money on..."
She smiled a little sheepishly. "Sorry. Anyway, I kind of picked up on this vibe, and the vibe turned out to be some kind of imprint. I know what happened in there. But you don't."
Xander snorted, taking another hard gulp of his mocha. "Believe me, I know," he muttered bitterly. "I saw what he did to her, and it's unforgivable."
"Why not, if you can forgive me?" Willow asked, and Xander stared at her. She had to be kidding. She was Willow, for Christ's sake, sitting in front of him with a little dollop of foam clinging to her upper lip, bright colors and open face, understanding eyes. The girl he'd known for so long that he could not recall life without her. In the beginning, there was Willow, and it would be that way until the end.
"Come on, Willow," Xander said softly, taking her hand in his. "You know why I forgave you. And... What you did, it was different."
"Yes," she said. "Very different. After all, Spike tried to rape Buffy, and I just tried to kill us all."
"You wouldn't have done it."
"I was going to. You came and stopped me." He made a face, and Willow shook her head, drawing her mouth into a thin line. "You don't know, Xander. I was this close to the edge. Hell, I was over the edge. Nothing mattered anymore, and everything just hurt without... Yeah, I would have done it."
All of this suffering, overwhelming her and stifling her. The sins of the world piercing through her heart like a poisoned arrow, painfully sharp and pungent, filling her up with all of the evil and rot, all of the haunting, harrowing aching and she cannot take it. Cannot allow it to continue. The world is a nightmare, and it is time to wake up.
Her hands were shaking, trembling from the very memory of all of humanity's anguish, and Willow pulled them away from Xander, not wanting him to know. No one should ever have to know. "If you hadn't been there, I would have destroyed us all," she said, and then she looked down at her hands, the hands that had placed the bullet against Warren's chest, the hands that had taken away Rack's worthless life and almost snuffed out the existence of Giles. "I've done enough already."
Xander knew these things. Every night before he went to bed, he watched Willow call the corners in his living room, watched her pray for forgiveness, connect to some inner sanctum of peace where she might find refuge for the night. Sometimes it wasn't enough and he could hear her cry out in her sleep, moaning Tara's name, the names of her victims, the names of her friends.
"I know," Xander said, his voice hoarse and ragged, his coffee bitter and harsh in his mouth. "But it's different for you, Willow. It's different because you care, because you want to do something to make up for what you've done. Spike... He doesn't give a rat's ass either way. He can't."
"Yes, he can," Willow said. "Because I felt what happened after he tried to... He was so upset. I mean, Buffy's everything to him, and he hurt her. He was so shocked and hurt by what he did, and he feels--"
"He feels nothing," Xander snapped, and Willow caught a glimpse of something underneath his voice, a snag of pain in his rage-hardened voice. "He's a demon, a monster, an evil thing that Buffy fucks."
"And Anya," she said softly, and Xander flinched, turning his face away, swallowing bad words with a gulp of mocha. "Is that what you're afraid of, Xander? That she's a thing now that she's a demon again?" She lowered her voice to a hush. "And you still love her?"
Wrong. It's wrong to feel these things, wrong to look at her demony little eyes and see the sly, bright girl he'd promised to marry. But his stupid, blind heart still skips a beat whenever she swiftly flicks her wrists and sings the "I Love Money" song while counting the register drawer. He still aches for her every night, and the taste of beer and the forlorn country music cannot replace her.
"It's wrong," Xander said feebly, and Willow shrugged, a wry smile on her face.
"That's love for you. Big on the crossing of the stars."
Frustrated, he groaned, putting his head on the table for a moment. Nice, cool, reassuring wood. Always sturdy. Wood didn't change on a guy like women did. Carpentry was truly the profession for him. "She deserves better," he said to the smooth surface of the table. "He's scum, and she's Buffy. She deserves much, much better."
"That's not your decision to make."
"Isn't it?" he asked, his voice insistent and desperate. "Doesn’t she need me for something? For anything? I can fix her air conditioner, I can take her kid sister to school, even save the world every now and then, but I can't--"
He couldn't ever be what she needed. Not really, not deep underneath the surface of frothy fashion and lip gloss. On the outside, she was so bright and funny, so real and sunny, but there was a darkness within the Slayer that Xander knew he could never satisfy. The core of Buffy was a black enigma, richly wrought with history and bloodshed, balanced by the snowy whiteness of her heart.
"I'm not in love with her," Xander protested weakly. "It's not like that."
"I know," Willow said reassuringly, nodding her head. "But it's kind of like that, huh."
Maybe it was kind of like that, where there was this part of Xander's heart that had been reserved for Buffy Summers ever since he ran into her oh-too-many years ago in that high school hallway, all bright and golden, innocence personified. Even though she'd been a happier Buffy this summer, there was no way to recapture that sense of purity, that untouched, dizzy energy that she'd possessed back then. Life had tampered with the formula.
He felt Willow across from him, gently stroking his wrist with her whispery, unobtrusive fingertips, and felt helpless in the knowledge that everyone had changed around him. There was a raw, untapped well of sorrow inside of his childhood best friend, and his heroine had fallen in love with Satan himself. The girl he'd promised to marry had moved onto vengeance wishes and financial wizardry, and even Giles was different and new.
Swallowing hard, Xander pulled out his wallet from the back pocket of his khaki pants, flipping it open to the picture of cotton candy Anya standing behind the counter, flashing him that nose-crinkled smile. "She's gone, isn't she," he whispered, and Willow shook her head.
"No," she said. "Nobody's gone away, Xander. We're just... Different. People change. It doesn't mean that they love you any more or any less, it just means that you kind of have to change, too. You have to let her find her own way. It's that thing where if you love her, you have to let her go."
Tara in her arms, blood seeping out from the open wound and Willow doesn't want to let her leave, doesn't want to feel her breath slowing in her lungs or her heartbeat fading away. She wants to hold onto her forever and ever, wants to keep her here, on earth, where she's touchable and tangible and alive, and she calls...
Wincing, Willow looked away from him. Behind them, there was a couple on the comfy couch, the one that was always occupied by lovebirds in the Pump. The woman was touching the man with such tenderness... "Love's complicated," she said simply, and Xander nodded his head.
"I miss Anya," he said, and Willow nodded her head.
Chocolate, caramel, milk.
Skins colliding with skins, hands slipping over private parts and secret places, looking for the places where he is most vulnerable. Soft spots, like the ticklish area behind his knee or the delicate, breakable Achilles' heel. Mouths saying words that have no meaning, and kisses that are tender and bruising all at once. They seek to break him, and he is more than willing to be broken.
Fucking, fucking... He doesn't know who he's fucking. There's warmth surrounding his cock, heat that is raw and primal like magma. Prehistory, that's what he's got. Centuries and aeons, epochs caught in his cold, dead hands, and this is the most ancient of all earthly pleasures.
Sensation is everywhere and he's so hot and so cold, burning up. Their fingernails, their little blunt teeth sliding down his neck, mocking and teasing, laughter. Laughter everywhere. Wrapping his hands around breasts and thighs, twining his finger in their hair. Gorgeous hair, black silk, honeyed gold, wiry ebony. Smells, so many smells. Soy and ginger. Leather and dirt. Tangerine and lemon-clean.
Suddenly there is screaming and Spike is screaming so loud, it's all bad and Nikki is below him, covered in blood, her neck twisted around and her eyes mad with fury. He's killed her, oh fuck, he's killed her. Killed them all, all of these warriors, these brilliant women. The gorgeous little Chinese doll, blood spilling from her neck, dead and battered, and Buffy.
Torn gray robe, body lacerated with fingernail slashes and bite marks, bruises and blood. Blood between her thighs, so much fucking blood, and he knows...
"Ask me again why I could never love you."
What was her bloody name?
Frantically, Spike dug through the papers, scattering them all around her flawless bedroom, scampering for answers. The girl's face was rushing through his memory, flashing behind his eyes... Had to find her picture, had to find some clue. Had to know what her sodding name was, and the Council's intricate documentation had to have it somewhere. Couldn't take it, this burning, suffocating fist wrapped around his heart and squeezing him dry, draining him like he'd drained her.
"Sorry, love. I don't speak Chinese."
There were papers scattered across the carpet, photographs lain to waste at his feet. His fingers itched for a cigarette and his brain was burning for absolution, and he threw useless pieces of information away at his feet, sweat beading his skin. Had to find her name. Known the other two, he had. Nikki, the dark powerhouse of a woman, all Pam Grier-ed out in lace-up leather. Knew Buffy's name like a talisman, like a prayer, like the rosary. Like he knew poetry and punk rock, weapons and Wordsworth.
But this girl... She'd scarred him, left that forking little branch in his eyebrow. Had to do something for her, cause it was really shameful of him to have gone through the extreme trouble of killing this poor bird and not even learn her fucking name. Really, truly shameful, and he was not going to cry over spilled blood because it was pointless and stupid and so awful...
He looked up, just for a moment, and found himself face-to-face with the mirror. The empty, lying mirror. The one that told him that even with a soul, he was still unworthy of being acknowledged.
It'll never be enough.
With a roar, Spike picked up the stack of heavy books and threw them at the mirror, listening to the satisfying sound as the glass shattered into pieces, long jagged edges of glass cutting into his skin, slicing wounds and imperfections across his body. Felt raw, felt aching, felt like when she'd fucked him. When she'd fucked him without looking at him, without seeing him, without casting any reflection whatsoever.
The Slayer's name mattered. It was important, because she'd been a girl like Buffy once, fierce and too old for her age, destined to fight and suffer and hollow out until she found her way into the clutches of a vicious, evil thing and died. Just so happened that in this case, the evil thing was Spike, himself.
He'd been so proud. Slayer's blood tossed all around the Chinese crypt like impressionistic artwork, adding a nice spot of brilliant, ruined passion to the temple amidst the burning people. Singing in his veins, liquefied and sated, like a cat that swallowed the canary. And oh, how proud Dru had been, hitching up her lacy little gown and shucking her knickers, fucking him while the Slayer's body turned cold and hard in the background.
But what was her bloody name?
Numbly, Spike looked around him at the photographs and broken glass, at all of these victims that were his, and more littering the graveyard grass like celluloid corpses. Didn't know their names either, or the names of their husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, daughters, mothers, and it all connected together to form only one conclusion: he was a rotten, rotten bastard. For a fleeting moment of insanity, Spike wondered what Angel might have done in this situation, and then decided that it probably would've involved prostrating and copious amounts of hair gel.
Oh, hell. Who was he kidding? He wasn't the hero type anyway. The Scooby rabble had that lot covered, and there was already one vampire out there trying to atone for his sins. In any case, Spike was far too cynical to ever believe that he could make up for over a hundred years of bloody murder just by saving a couple of necks from getting bit. Bloody futile, that's what that was. Futile and foolish.
Not for the first time, Spike wondered why he'd even come back.
The sun was still high; he couldn't bail out now. Before she'd left with her creepy photograph, Buffy had told him to stay here and wait, not to leave, and there was a look of pleading in her eyes. Don't leave me. Like it was good for him to be here, of all places, in her fucking bedroom, just across the hall from...
When Spike stepped inside of the bathroom, he felt it all just rushing back. All of it, so hard and fast, the good intentions he'd come here with and the awful, awful Thing that he'd tried to do to her. Got so mad, lost his temper, did something stupid. Story of his life.
New shower curtain, but he supposed that was to be expected. Done the other one in, he had, with all of his tugging and pushing and bruising. This one wasn't bland like the other, not a leftover from the days of Joyce, but rather a bright and funny one, printed with tropical fish wearing sunglasses. Happy fish, unaware of the evil nearly committed in this cramped little room.
He could still hear her voice, hoarse and moaning, pleading with him not to do this, telling him that he was hurting her, breaking his promise. He didn't hurt her, that's what he'd said, and now here he was, pinning her down and unbuckling his belt, gonna give it to her good and proper, make her remember. Make her love him, make her feel that searing, hot connection, make her just feel something...
Make her suffer like me.
More shattering glass spraying all over his skin as he threw his fist into the mirror, another mess that he made.
Sterile walls painted white, the smell of disinfectant and disappointment, sickness and fading health heavy in the air. Stretchers and hard plastic chairs, clocks ticking away valuable seconds, the color of blood and iodine.
Hospitals were not meant for delicate dances like this one, sweet and uncertain, filled with teenaged hopes and anxieties. Here, hope was something to be crushed beneath rubber-soled shoes here, buried underneath the aroma of illness and discomfort. Innocence rarely survived a trip to Sunnydale Memorial, and naivete almost always passed away in synchrony with the fatally ill.
He remembered her, the girl who'd saved his life; her face was all that he could distinctly pick out from the blur of bloodshed and what-the-fuck-happened-last-night. Tall, willowy thing, throwing something sharp (battleaxe?), hand pressed to the gash (bite?) in his neck. Tons of dark hair, pretty and sweet-smelling, like shampoo and bubble gum.
"Hi," she said with a mild wave of her hand. "Just thought that I might, you know, stop by, see how you're doing." Silence, and an uncertain look on her pale, freckled face. Pretty; she's so pretty. "Um... I don't know if you remember..."
"Oh, I remember!" he said too quickly, rushing to talk, rushing to make her stay. Nervous laughter, and he couldn't stop moving his hands. "Um... Yeah. I remember you. You saved my ass last night." Cursing, why was he always cursing? Foulmouthed boys never got the pretty girls, that was what his mama always told him. They only got bad girls, girls who used nasty language, and she was going to leave...
But she was laughing, giggling a little in relief, like the swear word broke some of the bottled-up tension. "Good," she said, ducking her head, hiding her rosy cheek underneath some of her amazing hair. Glossy, shiny. Nice. "Um..." She stuck out her hand. "Dawn. Dawn Summers. I mean, that's me. I'm the Dawn."
God, he had the nicest smile, all of these straight white teeth in the middle of his darker-than-dark face. "I'm the Trey," he said, taking her hand into his, swallowing it up in all of his black skin. Electric shock, sparks flying, and Dawn felt her heart beating hard and fast in her chest, like hummingbird wings.
He was cute, cuter than she remembered, but then again it was dark last night and she usually didn't evaluate the hotness of almost-dead boys. But here was, propped up in hospital chic, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a broad, beautiful smile that made her feel like melting, and oh, she'd been holding his hand too long but it felt so nice and...
Hands released, and then the awkward silence to fill. What should he say? Should he crack wise? Maybe swear again? Should he offer her his crappy paper cup full of Jell-O? Should he tell her that she was one of the prettiest girls he'd ever seen before, and he wanted to take her out dancing for hours?
"Do you want to sit down?" Trey asked, gesturing at the hard plastic chair beside his bed.
Dawn knew that she was blushing; she felt her cheeks grow all hot and bothered. "Um, that's all right," she said, ducking her head again, hiding her pink face behind her hair. "I... I can't stay long. I just wanted to, you know, say hi. Make sure you weren't dead or anything."
"Well, I'm not dead," he said, and then he paused, frowning. "Which, I guess, is obvious."
Oh, here was an opportunity to dazzle him with her wits, to say something ingeniously smart, to say something smarmy and oh-so-very-cool. Show him that she was clever and funny, delightful and spunky, a great girl to hang out with and take out to dinner and movies and things that did not involve staking vampires.
"Yeah," Dawn said, and then she felt like kicking herself.
Awkward silence, shuffling feet, eyes moving everywhere but across each other. Beeping monitors, hanging bag of blood, yucky-looking medical tools. What to say, what to do? Eyes flitting across each others' faces and quickly looking away when they accidentally met, and Trey finally blurted out the first thing that came to mind:
"I hate hospitals."
Dawn practically sagged with relief, flopping her lanky body onto the chair beside his bed. "God, I know," she moaned. "They smell too clean, the nurses are always smiling even though there are, like, tons of people who are really, really sick, and then there's the whole ick-factor that comes from the very idea of bedpans."
Trey gave her a devilish smirk. "You want to see mine?" he said slyly, slipping one hand under his bed while Dawn shrieked and giggled, kicking her leg at his bed.
This was the dating dance, the courtly waltz of teenagers on the prowl. Awkward grins, momentary glee, bedpan humor. But the bedpan was an important propellant, moving them past the uncertain dialogue and into the realm of "who are you?".
Relaxing into the molded chair, Dawn crossed her legs primly and folded her hands on her knee. "So, you're new in town, huh?" she asked, and he smiled a little self-deprecatingly, striking a pose.
"That's me," he said. "The new guy. My mom and I just moved here from LA. Compton, actually."
Her eyebrows arched, and she broke out into a grin. "Coincidence or fate?" she asked. "I also hail from the City of Smog. So, why'd you move to Sunnydale?"
"Compton's too dangerous." Dawn burst into raucous laughter, and Trey started to grin a little, hand rubbing the back of his skull in a way that made her belly tingle. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. You laugh it up while I'm stuck here in this hospital bed, all bleeding and shit."
"All bleeding and shit," Dawn teased, and then she shook her head, refreshed from that nice injection of irony. "Let me give you some advice, Trey. Sunnydale's not the safest place in the world, and you might not want to try it at dark again unless you're sporting wood." She frowned. "Well, not that kind of wood."
"Oh, shove it up your bedpan."
Time passed too fast, and she did not want to leave. His presence was warm and sweet, invigoratingly innocent to the heartbreaking ways of the Hellmouth, darkly jaded in other manners. There was something about the way that he spoke, so easy and confident, and the size of his hands...
Reluctantly, Dawn stood up and tucked her hair behind her ears, giving him a semi-shy smile. "So... I have to do the going gig now," she said, hiking a thumb in the direction of the door. "But... I guess I'll see you, right?"
Trey could not take his eyes off of her, this slender droplet of a girl who'd been his hero. "For sure," he said, nodding his head, and Dawn flashed him one more radiant, roseate smile before slipping out the door.
Giddy, girlish excitement bubbled up inside of her as soon as she stepped outside of his room, and Dawn leaned against the door, feeling laughter and glee rising, erupting in her throat, and she clapped one hand over her mouth as she tried to stop from laughing. It was this incredible emotion, an elation that made her feel tipsy and drunk, just because this one boy had smiled at her and made her feel like a woman.
Dawn made her way downstairs, dreamily pressing elevator buttons, staring at walls, lost in herself and the possibility of Trey. Doctors and nurses found themselves smiling at her, whipped back in time to that first hint of love, when hope seemed to spring eternal and the world was new and fresh.
And suddenly, there was screaming.
The reverie of budding romance was punctured and destroyed by the sight of a young woman in a torn nightgown walking into the main lobby of the building, her hair shorn and cropped close to her face, wails constant and high-pitched. Her eyes were wide and mad, stirred into chaos, and she was grabbing at her skull, wavering on her feet.
"There are men in the woods!" she moaned. "Men in the woods, and they're hunters with the dead, all of us dead, and floating... We're all floating and the book, the book..."
Doctors were rushing towards her, and Dawn stared at her with wide, horrified eyes as the orderlies and interns moved to restrain her. "No, no!" the woman wailed. "It's all coming apart, everything and the sky is falling, it's falling down and it will flood us all, all dark! All dark! It's going..."
As they began to drag her away, doctors barking out orders for medications, orderlies trying to strap her down to a stretcher, Dawn flattened herself against the wall and watched as they wheeled the woman past. Someone had managed to get a hold of some sort of sedative and plunged a hypodermic needle into the woman's arm.
She screamed and raged, hissing and arcing her back like a cat as the needle penetrated her skin. "No, no, no!" she cried out. "It's an affront to God! An abomination! The pages are written in blood and skin, the book, have to find the book..." But the sedative was taking hold of her, and she started to fade away, her voice quieting and slurring. "The dead... They're rising all around..."
As they wheeled the woman past her, Dawn watched with dropped jaw and frightened eyes, and suddenly the woman lashed out towards her and latched her fingers around the girl's wrist. Dawn cried out from the sharp, intense pain, and the woman then dreamily laughed as she looked at her through muddled eyes.
"Oh," she sighed. "So pretty. Such a pretty little girl, so shiny, new, and all of that green light..."
No, no, no, no... It can't be, it can't...
But they were rolling her away, taking her out, as the woman sighed and whimpered to herself like a mewling kitten.
For a moment, Dawn said nothing. She could not move, could not breathe. The world was closing in around her, walls pushing in onto her and history gurgling and churning inside of her stomach like bile. Time was frozen all around her, stagnant and still, and she could only hear the thick, quickened beat of her heart roaring in her ears.
It's starting all over again.
(end part nine)
Continued in Chapter Ten: The Coming Days