By Annie Sewell-Jennings
Sequel to The Waiting Season
Chapter Ten: The Coming Days
Too dreamy, too Renaissance Fair for her, with its yards of purple velvet material and the smell of burnt herbs. The gown reeks of unholy blessings and spent incantations, like there are runes and tarot cards sewn into the fabric. It smells like time and death mingling together, and as Dawn holds it in her hands, she does not want to touch it. Does not want it anywhere near her.
But those things are watching her again, and they have daggers to ensure that she cannot argue with them.
Her fingers are shaking and Dawn wants to be strong as she unbuttons her jacket, but there are too many eyes on her. All of them smiling, so pleased with the imminence of her death, and she asks them for a curtain, for something that might give her a shred of privacy. When they stare at her without answering, she begs for one last moment of dignity before they take her life, but all she receives as an answer is the glint of metal blades.
Scared. She's scared, and she can't help but cry a little as she strips down to nothing in the dingy, barren cell. Her skin is splotchy and covered with bruises from all of her fights and struggles, and Dawn wonders how badly they will mutilate her in the ritual. Will her sister be able to recognize her body? Will they know who she is? Will it have to be a closed-casket service? Do they know that she wants a wake even though her mother did not?
Will they even remember her?
She takes her time folding up her old clothes. Neat and tidy, the way her mom always said. Dust and grime coat the surface of her jeans, and the clothes reek of trash and hasty getaway, but they're still her clothes. Still her possessions. They are evidence that she existed outside of this purpose. They assure her that she was once alive, that she had a family who loved her and memories that comforted her, and she wants them kept intact.
Because when she puts on the dress and lets down her hair, Dawn knows that she is nothing but the Key now.
Dawn woke with a start, eyes wider than saucers and breath hitched in her throat. In that strange moment between consciousness and slumber, time was jumbled and memory blurred with reality in a soupy, disoriented fashion, and she ran her hands down her torso, expecting the feel of velvet and silk, the smell of dead incense and apocalyptic blessings. Instead, all that she found was denim and cotton, and the antiseptic non-scent of the hospital filled her nostrils. Just a dream, she thought to herself with relief, and she sank back into the uncomfortable plastic chair. Then what am I still doing here?
Oh. The girl.
Awkwardly, she mustered up a smile for the nurse hovering above her with concerned green eyes. "Sorry," she said. "Just feel asleep, I guess."
The nurse smiled at her, patting her arm a little bit. "You were the girl asking about the woman who was admitted earlier today, right?" she asked, and Dawn nodded. "Well, she's been sedated and stabilized, as best as we could. If you like, you can go see her. Her family approves."
Her family. "What's her name?" Dawn asked, slowly standing up, and the nurse frowned before checking the metal clipboard in her hands before she snorted a little.
"Which one?" the nurse said wryly, nodding her head and beckoning Dawn to follow her through the plain, white corridors. "Her legal name is Jessica Morgan, but her Christian name is Maria Pauline. She's a nun." Startled, Dawn blinked her eyes and the nurse gave her a dry smile. "Believe me, I know. You were lucky you slept through the Mother Superior's entrance. You'd be surprised at how well a nun can raise hell."
"Literally?" Dawn asked worriedly, and at the nurse's wary expression, she waved a hand and sighed. "Oh, never mind. What do you mean, she was sedated as best as you could?"
Another short bark of bittersweet laughter from the nurse, and she gestured at the black-clad woman standing silent and stoic by the nurse's station. "Better ask her, kid. She knows more than she's telling us, that's for sure."
As Dawn looked at the nun, so regal and distant in her severe black habit, she felt nervous and was tempted to run away. Religion had never been a big part of her existence, which was odd considering the fact that a bunch of doomed monks had given her all of her memories. Still, no church, no Sunday School, nothing but a sister who was always armed to the teeth with religious paraphernalia. Crucifixes, holy water, communion wafers... Still, Buffy had always expressed a distinct cynicism in the existence of a God, even though she'd been to heaven and it was all too confusing for Dawn's mythos-addled head to comprehend.
Relax, she commanded sternly. It's just a nun. Besides, you have to know. Have to find out if it's really true, if it's still...
The nun arched an eyebrow as Dawn resolutely marched over to her and tossed her long mane of hair in a mockery of the sister's humble, uniform attire. "The nurse said that you were going to let me see Jessica," she said, and a muscle in the nun's jaw twitched.
"Her name is Maria Pauline," she corrected, and she wrinkled her nose a bit, maybe in amusement, definitely in assessment. "And I suppose that you are the little girl she upset with her... Dramatics."
The hesitation did not escape Dawn, and she narrowed her eyes. "Yeah," she said. "They were pretty dramatic. But I'm guessing that she didn't start her acting career until sometime last year, huh."
Everything about the nun tensed and tightened, and Dawn held the older woman's gaze, channeling her sister's glare. Finally, the woman relented, and her gnarled fingers toyed with the rosary draped around her waist. "Last December," she admitted, shaking her head. "We never did uncover the cause. Pauline was such a quiet, sweet girl beforehand. I'd known her since she was six years old and living in the orphanage. She decided to become a nun only three years ago, and then just a couple of days before Christmas..."
The sister's eyes hardened, her fingers rubbing the rosary so hard that Dawn wondered if she might break it.. "Well, you saw what's become of her. Half the time, she doesn't even know where she is, who she is... But we're all that she has. We cannot hand her over to the state, even though they've certainly pressured us to do so since the last spring." She lowered her voice. "She went missing for three days. They finally found her out in the streets after sunrise, covered in dirt and babbling about dragons and gifts."
Dawn listen to me. Listen.
Abruptly, Dawn turned her face to the side and was met with the sight of the open door shedding fluorescent light into Maria Pauline's room. The fragile nun lay on the bed in a sea of white, her wrists twitching and her voice inaudible, and all that Dawn wanted to do was run. Get the fuck away. Go find Buffy, tell Buffy, Buffy will fix it...
Buffy's sitting on the roof again, her eyes lifted up towards the heavens, camera heavy in her hands. It is difficult to see what she is so fascinated with, but it does not matter. What is important is that she is radiant when she's not miserable, when life isn't grabbing her by the ankles and pulling her down into despair. Happiness is a rare emotion for her older, sadder sister, but when she gets a taste of it, it intoxicates not only her, but everyone who sees her.
But of course, it was not so long ago that she used to sit on the roof with different reasons. When her head would hang low and her eyes would stare off with distance and numbness, her world crumbled and destroyed like Atlantis, drowned and submerged.
She could not do this to her again.
Dawn straightened her spine. "I'd like to see her."
The nun was strapped to the bed with padded restraints, cuts and abrasions littered across her pale, eerily young face. Her eyes were wet and glazed over, drool spilling from her slack lips and hanging on her cheek. Cropped black hair was plastered to her pale skin with sweat, and the young woman looked barely older than Dawn herself. For a moment, Dawn wondered if the nun even recognized her, if she was so heavily drugged that she would be able to even talk to her.
"Oh," Maria Pauline sighed in a feathery, breathless whisper. "So beautiful... All of that light... God's light, God's energy..." The girl cooed and gurgled to herself like a baby for a moment, writhing with blurry excitement, and she started to cry. "So pretty, so nice..."
"Oh, look at that!" Tara breathes, not seeing the god in front of them, not remembering or registering the reality unfurling around them, and she points and rocks with pleasure on the debris. "Look at that, the light!" And her mad eyes, the ones that Dawn loves so dearly, are glassy like mirrors without reflection. "Oh, it's so pure! Such pure, green energy!"
Fear shot through her like an arrow aimed straight at her gut, and Dawn felt her knees go weak and tremble beneath her unsteady weight. Blindly, she gripped the handrail of the bed, momentarily forgetting that she was supposed to be the hero here. She was supposed to be the big, strong warrior girl and intimidate the fuck out of nuns and nurses alike with the jut of her jaw and the flip of her hair.
"And along came a spider, and sat down beside her," Maria Paulette slurred dreamily, "but little Miss Muffet was just a lie, all fake, and she doesn't belong in our world, so green and pure..."
Dawn thought that she might throw up.
Instead, she straightened her shoulders and sat down in the plastic chair beside the woman's bed while the addled nun sighed and whimpered, reaching for Dawn. "Time," she whispered. "Time's coming short, and they're going to come for the book."
"Who am I?" Dawn whispered in a fragile, breakable voice that sounded nothing like the steely tones she'd tried to conjure up before speaking. Couldn't help it; she was no hero. No warrior woman like Buffy was. That was a role meant for Slayers and heroes, and all that little Dawn Summers could ever be was a death knell.
Sister Pauline breathed out another feathery sigh and shifted restlessly in her bed. "The Key," she whispered. "The Key to God, the Key to life, the Key to the book. The Key to the world, and the Key to the moon and the spider is coming, little lamb. The spider and the wolf, and they're going to read the book..." Her face crumpled and she writhed and began to moan in her restraints. "All dark, it's going to go all dark and we won't be allowed to sink. Just keep on floating, floating, floating..."
The man straining against his cuffs, the tattoo on his forehead beaded with sweat and face contorted with pain. The cut on her arm still hurts, blood still oozing from the wound, and she's quivering, shaking with the magnitude of this discovery. Not real, not real, not real, not real...
"Destroyer! Cracked ... bones ... the sun bleeding into the sky! The key is the link." Oh, God, and he's lunging for her, trying to kill her and she hasn't sinned, she hasn't done anything wrong. All she does is exist, breathe, think, live, and they want to take it all away from her, and God, she never had anything to begin with...
"The link must be severed. Such is the will of God. Such is the will of God..."
"...Such is the will of God," Sister Maria Pauline whispered, and Dawn ran from the room like lightning, her head dizzy and filled with images that she could not handle.
Buffy knows, Mom knows, everyone sees it and I can't and oh God, I'm nothing, I don't even exist, and neither does my mother, and neither will the rest of the world and all because of what's inside of me, what I am, and the tower, the tower, the tower...
The hot summer sun beat down on her back like acidic talons, and Dawn did not stop running until she made it around the corner, away from the hospital and the haunting babblings of the nun. Everything was hot around her, so hot and she felt like she was going to suffocate in the stifling humidity and moisture of the too-warm August day. She tripped over a rock in the sidewalk and ended up sprawled out on the gravel, her knee screaming out pain and hot blood rising to the surface, but Dawn couldn't feel it.
All she could feel was that morning.
The air is desperate all around her, and there is something crackling and hollow inside of her heart. Her sides ache dully, the slits of bleeding skin that would one day scar if she would only live past this moment. But the energy within her blood is too strong for her own will, and it crackles and explodes in an enormous blast of blue light. The portal has been opened, and the sky is ripped apart and bleeding like she is.
There is Buffy though, beautiful, heartbroken Buffy with her hair flying around her face in a banner, her eyes so shattered and aching, on the edge of sanity. Dawn knows what she must do, knows that her life will never bring anything but pain, and this is her destiny. This is what she has to do, no matter how badly she wants to see Europe or go skinny-dipping with boys. Because her sister is brittle and desolate, and there are dragons flying through the air and fissures opening up in the streets. Chaos reigns supreme, and Dawn will never see another morning like this.
All because of her fucking blood.
And suddenly, that anguish and pain on her sister's face fades away as the first hint of sunlight approaches on the cracked, diminished horizon. For the first time in this side of forever, Buffy looks radiant, looks whole, looks...
Protesting, pleading, and it all falls away into tears because Buffy is so tranquil, so serene. She knows what she has to do, and her hands wrap around Dawn's shoulders, voice steady and even while Dawn is sobbing for the inevitability of it all. The tragedy, the goddamn tragedy, and then the words...
"Dawn listen to me. Listen. I love you. I will always love you. This is the work I have to do. Tell Giles... Tell Giles I figured it out. And... I'm okay. Give my love to my friends. You have to take care of them now -- you have to take care of each other. You have to be strong. Dawn, the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live. For me."
A smile. A kiss. And then Dawn cannot breathe because Buffy is running, running...
And then it was supposed to be over.
Gasping, she whipped her head back to see Trey standing over her, his dark mocha eyes clouded and rich with worry, and he knelt down in front of her, his large hands reaching for her skinned knee. "Aw, man," he muttered under his breath, and he moved to press his palm against the bloodied...
Quickly, Dawn jerked back, wrapping her own palm against it. "Don't touch me," she whispered, and Trey swallowed hard, hurt. He'd seen her race out of the hospital as he'd moved towards the car, his I.D. bracelet still wrapped around his wrist, release papers signed and hefty hospital bill tucked in the back pocket of his ripped jeans. There had been something so panicked about her movements that he'd felt compelled to follow her, and when she'd tumbled on the pavement, his heart had leapt to his throat...
Her words made him choke on it.
Disappointment registered on his face and Dawn felt terrible, reaching up a hand to touch his forearm. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean..." Her voice sounded shaky and uncertain to her own ears. "I'm just a little... Confused. It's been weird."
A ghost of a smile washed over his face. "Well, you picked the right place to get hurt," he said. "The E.R.'s right back that way. Let's go see if we can lift a couple of band-aids--"
"No," she said abruptly, grinding her teeth together as she pulled herself to her feet. It stung and throbbed, but there was no way in hell Dawn was going back to the hospital. Not after that. Not when that place had a million bad memories haunting the halls. "I'm... I'm fine. Really. Just a little skinned knee, right?"
Trey looked at the wound in question with skeptical eyes; it looked worse than she was making it out to be, but then again, there was something inside of him that hurt and twisted at the sight of her bloodied knee. "If you say so," he said reluctantly, and then he sighed. "Look, you can't go walking around on it, though. My car's right around the corner. I'll give you a ride to wherever you're going."
Ah, chivalry. So it wasn't dead after all. Of course, give her the right time and place and she'd bleed until there was no such thing as chivalry anymore. But God, she couldn't handle all of this now, when her knee was stinging and her world was collapsing. No more stability, not even the warped consistency she'd grown accustomed to over the summer. All dark, as usual.
Sadly, Dawn wrapped her arms around her midsection and mildly nodded her head. In the waning sunlight, bright and drowsy, she looked to Trey like some sort of sainted martyr-in-waiting, dark chestnut hair running down her back, eyes so soft and strained...
Dawn was surprised when she felt Trey snake an arm around her waist, supportive and gentle, all hot skin and kindness. "Come on," he murmured, and she allowed him to escort her towards his car, wondering all the while when the skies would open up again and demand that she pay.
This was rock bottom, and it tasted like pineapples.
Slumped against the kitchen counter, Spike raised the bottle of schnapps to his lips and grimaced at the sugar-sweet taste. Not his choice, but Buffy had never been much of a drinker and Joyce was a fan of trendy mixed drinks and flavored liquor. After pulling out half the contents of the Slayer's cupboards, Spike had finally found the schnapps among the unopened ketchup (once Willow's, now eschewed in favor of soy and ginger) and near-empty bottle of blueberry maple syrup (the bit's, of course, too saccharine for the rest of them). The flavor alternated between disgustingly sappy and bitterly refreshing.
He'd just needed a drink so fucking bad.
His hands hurt, and Spike winced as he tentatively flexed his knuckles, the feeling of fine fragments of glass imbedded into the wound. Tiny cuts and nicks peppered the backs of his hands, and they were all deserved. Self-inflicted anger injuries, and he embraced the pain like a lover. Hello, old girl. Come to make me miserable again?
Oh, he was such a fucking mess.
Tiredly, Spike closed his eyes and rested his head against the cabinets, passing his hand over his eyes as he took a moment. Exhausted, that's what he was. Fucking exhausted. Suffering was a tiresome sport, but one he excelled at nonetheless. All of those years of torturing the innocent had finally paid off in spades, and he had a thousand inventive ways to make himself ache. Not that it took much these days. Existence was all that he needed to make him feel like shit.
Shouldn't be here, didn't belong here. Didn't belong anywhere, but least of all in Buffy's kitchen, drinking her mother's leftover schnapps straight from the bottle, especially when the scene of one of his more spectacular crimes was just up the stairs and on the right.
Nothing, can't see a damned thing in the mirror because he does not really exist. Can't really make a difference. Never would be seen or acknowledged by her sunshine and glass world, and the blasted mirror told him so. Told him that he was worthless, that he was scum, that nothing he did would ever be good enough, and he roared and slammed his fist into the mocking mirror...
The front door opened and closed suddenly, and Spike wondered if she was back already. Couldn't handle her right now; he wasn't even halfway to drunk yet. Sobriety only made her words clearer, her offers more tempting, her love more tangible and less doubtful. Beer goggle effect filtered all of those lovely lures and made them easier to handle.
"Buffy?" Willow's voice called, and Spike sighed with relief, taking another slug of his pilfered pineapple alcohol. Just the little witchlet, the recovering power-happy sorceress coming to make her rounds. Check on the roost and all the like. "I just left my wallet and thought I'd... Oh, boy."
The smell of the mess hit Willow before the sight of it.
Not that the mess was stinky, because it wasn't anything but glass and paper scattered around, but it reeked of anger and pain. Everything felt as sharp and jagged as the fragments of destroyed mirror crunching underneath her canvas tennis shoe, reeking of acidic history and embittered exhaustion. The carpeting glittered with the crushed remnants of the mirrors, and the photographs stank of death, thick and redolent with evil and tobacco.
She supposed that it was safe to assume that Spike was up.
Warily, Willow peeked around the corner and saw him sitting in a mess of scattered canned goods and bottles, his hand wrapped protectively around a bottle of pale yellow liquid that smelled of the tropics and sharp citrus-y goodness. Pineapple schnapps, the kind that Willow had liked to put in her Hawaiian Punch every now and then for a little extra kick to help her sleep through Tara-less nights.
The concern and worry etched into her pretty, pale skin made Spike feel like throwing something at her. Maybe the jar of peanut butter, lobbed right at her big freckled forehead, might make her turn around and leave him the hell alone. Least it might keep her from talking to him. Unfortunately, the damned chip in his brain started to dully ache at the twitchy, violent impulse, and then the soul chimed in with its "don't-do-that-you-evil-fuck" song.
"Everything spoils all my fun nowadays," Spike grumbled to himself, and he winced as the devastatingly sweet alcohol spilled down his throat and coated his insides. He thought about spitting out the nasty, cloying taste but thought better of it. Victorian sensibility won out again, and that meant that the little git was gaining headway in his struggle for dominance.
Sometimes, when he was feeling particularly unhinged, Spike imagined that he could hear the soul talking to him. Mousy little William's awful, cringe-inducing poetry spewed forth like literary puke at the most inopportune moments, reviving memories of bad rhymes and mocking laughter, and that belittling feeling of utter inadequacy flooded through him like a tsunami.
I do see you. That's the problem. You're nothing to me, William. You're beneath me.
Story of his life.
Nervously, Willow shifted her weight back and forth between her feet, looking at anything but the messy, half-drunk vampire sitting all slopped out on the floor, surrounded by Ramen noodle packets and bottles of cleaning detergents. "So, I like what you've done with the place," she said, and Spike rolled his eyes.
"She's not here," he said flatly. "Went to the Magic Box. She'll be back later." Bluntly, Spike arched his scarred eyebrow at her, and the intensity of full-on Spike focus was astonishing and intimidating. Even though she knew better, knew that he couldn't hurt her, it still made her remember days when he'd held broken bottles to her face and threatened her life.
Yet as he raised his bottle of schnapps to his lips and took down another desperate gulp of pineapple liquor, Willow noticed a tremor in his fingers and a look of utter despair on his face. He looked terrible, just awful, not at all like the big bad vampire she'd grown to know over the last several years. This Spike possessed vulnerability that was almost palpable, and it reminded her of the broken glass in the living room.
Resignedly, Willow sighed and bent down on the floor, gathering up spilled food in her arms. "I left my wallet here earlier," she said. "But since I'm here and always willing to do the big cleaning up, I'll help you make this place look like something not disastrous."
"Don't do me any favors," Spike said darkly, and as he reached for the bottle again, she arched her eyebrows.
"Is it really a good idea for you to be drinking right now?" she asked warily. "Cause hey, I've seen the Spike upset and drunk thing before, and it was kind of terrifying."
Oh, yeah. Spike was real scary nowadays, what with the fruity alcohol and the constant self-loathing. And the guilt, mustn't forget the all-consuming guilt and regret for the multitude of heinous acts he'd committed in the span of a century. "Right," he muttered. "Don't think you've got a whole lot to worry about, Endora. It's just schnapps."
A look of absolute horror passed over his face, and Willow frowned with concern as the revulsion quickly faded into a sad, desperate sort of bewilderment. "Oh, God," Spike moaned, burying his face in his hands. "I'm drinking pineapple fucking schnapps. Things can't get much worse than this. They just can't." He barked out a sharp, jittery laugh. "Course, every time I say that, something else blows up in my face and I'm screwed again."
His hands... God, they were just destroyed. Shredded skin seeped dark, sluggish blood onto the formerly spotless tile floor, cuts sprinkled over his knuckles. Berry-colored liquid stained the cuffs of his leather duster, and Willow bent down before him. "Oh, your hands," she sighed, reaching for his fingers, and Spike pulled his hands away with a scowl.
"Doesn't hurt," he said, and it was the truth. He wished that they did hurt, that there was some sort of tangible, physical pain that might drown out the ache in his heart. At least it could be pain that he could control, something that he could inflict of his own will, but there was no substitute for the soul's screaming sorrow.
Insistently, Willow pulled on his wrist and frowned. "Don't be a baby," she scolded, and as soon as she touched his skin...
Can't see anything, can't see myself. Don't really exist and I'm nothing, nothing in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of her. Says she loves me but she can't, can't ever love a thing like me, can't ever trust me when I tell her I won't hurt her but slam her down against the floor and tear at her clothes, tear at her skin. Tear at her. Tried to fix it, really I did, tried so hard, and the soul...
For just a brief second, Willow felt her heart stop and her breath hitch in her lungs. Knowledge filled her head, memories transferring from his bleeding hands to her mind's eye in a slideshow of graphic imagery. Over a century of kills, thousands of bodies thrown aside like garbage, blood soaking and staining the cobblestone streets of Europe and the subway tunnels of industrial America. The corpses had no faces, no names, no identities because he could not remember; his murders were so numerous.
Of course, Buffy was as vivid as day. Her laughter was recorded in almost digital sound, bright and giddy, and every freckle on her bare shoulders, every scar on her naked body as she lay in his bed and tried to dissolve into nothing while he fucked her, every motion or word or deed or gesture. Every single moment spent in her presence, Spike remembered in full.
She was everywhere in his mind, drowning out the rest of him with vivid, vibrant images of Buffy. Buffy gleefully dancing on the Bronze floor, Buffy broken and crying on her back porch, Buffy hollow and numb after being roused from the grave, Buffy kissing and hitting and bruising and fucking and Buffy on the floor of her bathroom, sobbing and screaming, gray fabric torn and twisted around her body while he pushed and prodded and yelled at her...
She deserves better.
"Oh, God," Willow gasped as she pulled away, eyes wide as saucers as she stared at Spike in a mixture of wonder and horror. The vampire stared at her with wide, luminous blue eyes, hand pressed to his chest, and she opened her mouth, trying to get the words to come out. "You... You got a..."
Fear rippled through Spike's eyes, and he shook his head frantically. "Don't say it," he said, and God, it sounded like he was pleading except that Spike didn't beg. "Please. Don't say it."
Dazedly, Willow shook her head and leaned closer to look at him. So stupid, so self-absorbed with worries of acceptance and lack of confidence that she had not picked it up earlier. Everything about him was different, from the color of his eyes to the style of his hair. No more slick, sharp gel; he'd eschewed it for the simplicity of rough, bed-tousled curls. It made him look softer, made him look younger and yet more weathered. The very essence of Spike looked beaten and torn to shreds, and another flash ripped through her mind.
Can't even see myself, can't even be bloody seen by the rest of the world, and such a stupid, stupid fucking vampire to think that I could be real with a goddamn soul.
"You chose it," Willow whispered, bringing her hands to her cheeks as she felt her skin burn and tingle, absorbing the magic and fire of Spike's strange transformation. "It wasn't a curse. You wanted it."
Wincing, Spike turned his head to the side and reached longingly for the bottle before she snatched out of his grasp. Spike scowled; least she could do was give him a drink if he was going to have to tell this story. "Yeah," he muttered. "Thought it might make a difference. Thought it might fix what I bollixed up, but it didn't, and nothing ever will."
Willow was speechless. This sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen. Ever since she'd first learned about dark underworld that crawled through her hometown at night, it had always been stressed that vampires were evil, absolute. No sense of morality, no sense of right and wrong, no sense of remorse, guilt, shame... But Spike was a contradiction to that very edict, because he had known that something had to change. Something had to break.
And he was the one who was broken.
"Why didn't you tell anybody?" Willow asked, and he shook his head.
"Couldn't," he muttered to himself. Couldn't look at her, not when she knew. His fingers itched for a cigarette, but his body lacked the energy. He was just so fucking tired of this, of feeling awful and miserable, of feeling worthless and damned. It wore on a bloke to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders every single minute of the day. "Did something awful before I left... Did something terrible."
"I know," Willow said, and Spike flinched.
"Yeah," he said. "Everyone knows, except that they don't. Don't know how close I was to..." He could not even say the words, and Willow felt a strange ache in her bones, begging to reach out and touch him. Give him solace, give him peace, give him something other than misery.
Tentative fingers wrapped around his wrist and pressed sympathy into his skin. Surprised, Spike turned to see Willow sitting beside him with a tired, lost look on her pinched face, the bottle of pineapple schnapps in her hand. Hadn't seen the witch in shades of forever, and she didn’t look good. Looked old and tired, little lines marching across her face and showing signs of early age and exhaustion.
Willow unscrewed the bottle of the schnapps and took a long drink, wincing at the sugary taste of the liquor. "We really made a mess of things, didn't we," she said sadly as she shook her head at the wrecked kitchen. "With the killing and the bad behavior... Sometimes, it just seems impossible to ever make it up. Like nothing's ever going to be enough."
Spike nodded in agreement. "Yeah," he said. "Stop seeing the point in it after a while. Get tired of thinking about it, thinking about all those people." He lowered his voice. "Thinking about her."
"I dream, sometimes," Willow murmured, looking down at her hands. "I mean, everybody dreams and all, but... I dream sometimes about Warren. About killing him." She lowered her voice. "And how much I liked it."
He screams and begs for mercy, tries to tell her that she's a good person underneath it all, that she does not want to do this. His pleas fall on her grief-deafened ears, and Willow does not care what he thinks. Does not care what this might do to her in the end. She might not come back from this, but that does not matter anymore. She has nothing to come back to.
When she rips his skin from his body, it's the first time she's felt anything all day.
Furrowing her brow, Willow looked at him with worry etched in her hazel eyes. "Is it like that for you?" she asked. "With the soul and everything?"
All of his dreams, his nightmares. The ones that woke him up in the middle of the night with tantalizing promises of bloodshed and chaos if he would only just give in. Seductive, spellbinding enticements of cutting a bloody swath through Sunnydale, of basking in bloodlust and howling at the moon. The good old days of destroying and taking, always taking...
"Yeah," Spike muttered. "It's like that."
"It's the power of it," she said, her voice dark and knotted. Strange to hear that tone from Willow, the perky little waif with the elfin face and big, bright eyes, and Spike turned to look at her, really look at what she'd become. A ravaged, thin bit of a girl, shrunken and destroyed. No more goofy pastel outfits, no more childish sweaters and Indian-influenced attire. No more bouncy, girlish curls. She was just...
Sadly, she shook her head and picked at the unraveling hem of her jeans. Everything about her seemed worn and frayed. Willow, falling to pieces in front of his very eyes. It was a disconcerting sight. "I don't know who I am anymore," she confessed. "I did these awful things. I killed two men, and I almost... God, I almost killed Giles. Giles."
"Bet he had it coming," Spike offered, and Willow laughed madly, bitterly.
"No," she said ruefully. "He was trying to save me, because that's what kind of person he is. The good guy, the big hero type. He never said he was going to kill me, never said he wanted to fight me. But every time he tried to tell me that it was okay, that I wasn't wicked or bad, it just made it..."
"Worse," Spike said, nodding his head. "Yeah. I get that." In the forefront of his mind was the image of Buffy, sweeping her hands his hair, nibbling on his ear, telling him over and over again that she was in love with him. After everything, and she was in sodding love with him. Spike winced, pressed his fingertips to his brow. "She says that she loves me, but she can't. Not really. Not after what I did to her."
"She does love you," Willow said in a clear voice, quirking her mouth to the side. "I mean, yeah, it's majorly weird, but..."
She frowned suddenly and looked at Spike, really looked at him. Nobody ever took the time to closely examine the blond vampire, preferring to treat him as some sort of taboo subject that was better left buried in the dark. Nasty thing, change the subject to a better topic. No, not even that. An easier topic. Spike was a complicated mess of contradictions that nobody wanted to think about.
He did that without a soul. For her. For Buffy.
"Actually, I don't think it's that weird at all," Willow said suddenly, and Spike frowned at her, confused. She had the strangest look on her face, like she had just considered something that had never occurred to her before. "You're not a bad man, Spike. You never were."
Gently, she leaned over and kissed his forehead, her mocha-scented mouth sweet and kind like caramel. One of her hands caressed his cheek briefly, and Spike was surprised by this sudden show of sympathy. He blinked his eyes at Willow as she pulled away, and her fingers affectionately ruffled his tousled blond curls. "Come on," she sighed, offering him a hand. "Let's see if we can't get this place cleaned up before Buffy comes home and has a fit. Or, even worse, Anya."
Spike chuckled for a moment, arching his eyebrow at the witch. "Have to say, I wonder how that works out," he said dryly, and Willow shrugged.
"I choose not to dwell on the unmixiness of their living arrangements."
As Spike replaced noodle packages and jam bottles, he shook his head in disgust. "Can't do this anymore," he sighed. "Too much stress, you know? The self-flagellation and the recriminations are all fine and dandy when you're in the privacy of your own crypt, but it's the cleaning up that's the real pain in the ass."
Willow hiked up one gingery eyebrow. "Self-flagellation and recriminations?" she asked pointedly, and Spike smiled sheepishly, ran a hand through his hair.
"Yeah," he said in a small voice. "Sorry 'bout that. Soul had an Oxford education, you know. Likes to throw out the big and fancies every now and again."
Willow frowned at a package of fruit roll-ups, a staple in the Summers household thanks to Dawn's taste for all things non-substantial. "Really?" she asked. "Oxford? I thought about going to school there once upon a less-evil time. You know, doing the whole nerd thing." She widened her eyes at him. "Not that I'm implying that your soul is geeky. Or that, by association, you are, cause--"
"Relax, Red," he said, waving at her dismissively while replacing a cereal box in the cabinet. "The soul is geeky, and therefore, I am, too. Without telling you the whole embarrassing story, let me just say that you and I had a lot in common, sweetheart." His voice sounded sharp and bitter, like the vinegar in her hands, and Willow understood where he was coming from. She'd done a great deal of work to bury her computer-obsessed past underneath layers of witchcraft and power, had even scoffed to Tara at the notion that she might have once been a nerdy outcast, but now...
She tucked her mouth to the side and nodded her head, but changed the subject nonetheless. "Is it... Hard? The soul thing?" Willow winced. "I mean, of course it's got to be hard, because, soul and everything. That's like, a major angst alert, huh?"
Yeah, that was one way of putting it. Disastrous was another. The memories, so vivid and cloying that they sank into his bloodstream and resurfaced at their own will, the nightmares of past kills and fucked-up fantasies, the knowledge of his own crimes suddenly illuminated in harsh fluorescent morality... Angst. Spike had it in spades nowadays.
"Guess so," he said shortly, replacing another can in the cupboard. He abruptly closed the door and avoided her eyes. Damn soul, damn William's stupid embarrassment and shyness... At least when he was an evil bastard, he'd had a shred of dignity about him. "Kitchen's done. You can leave, if you want. Perfectly capable of cleaning up all my own messes."
He said it with such wryness, such self-deprecation, and Willow frowned at him for a moment. That was why he'd done it, wasn't it? Cleaning up the mess he'd left in the bathroom with Buffy? A slow-moving sorrow started to creep through her bones, weighing her down with a sudden, deafening knowledge. She had done her murders, committed her crimes with a functioning, if fractured soul. And yet Spike, the soulless vampire, had done something about it. Something far better than her ill-fated attempt to destroy the world. All he'd asked for was pain, and that was what she had tried so foolishly to erase.
There's something wrong with me.
Quietly, Willow walked into the living room and bent down in front of the papers and photographs. Spike followed behind her and sighed in frustration when he saw her starting to clean again. "Really, Red, I've got it," he said, and Willow rolled her eyes.
"It's not like it's a big deal," she said, reaching for the first photograph. "I mean, I've got the free time thing going and--"
Have to know her name. Have to know all of their names, and God, I never cared enough to find out and now they're all dead and buried and fucked...
Widening her eyes, Willow jumped away from the stray photograph on the ground like it might bite her, and Spike flinched, reaching down to take it away from her. "Sorry," he muttered. "Got a bit upset earlier. Didn't mean to leave these hanging about. Might frighten the kid."
She swallowed hard, shook her head and started collecting photographs and documents. "It doesn't help," she said. "Knowing their names, I mean. I knew Warren's name." She lowered her voice, remembering the way that he'd screamed, the way that he'd pleaded for his life as she threatened to snuff it out. "It doesn't help at all."
Spike narrowed his eyes at her as Willow picked up the rest of the photographs and documents, stacking them up neatly before she handed them to him. She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest as she took one last look around the living room. "Well, there are the mirrors," she said. "Can't do much about those, I guess." She turned her head towards him, her eyes luminous and pretty in the dim lighting. Sometimes, the prettiness of Willow surprised him, reminded him why, once upon a time, he'd thought of stealing her away from the mortal world. "She doesn't know about the soul, does she?"
He said nothing, and Willow nodded her head. She met his eyes, open and plain, and waved her hand once in the air. Glass leapt up from the carpeting and returned to the wooden frames, reassembling themselves. They showed nothing but Willow, standing in the middle of the room, holding up her empty palm.
Startled, Spike stared at her as she picked up her purse and walked towards the door, her head bowed. She placed her hand on the doorknob and turned her eyes to face his. "The magic's permanent," she said. "I can't take it out of me. All that I can do is live with it. Everyday, I have to live with the fact that the same stuff that helped me kill two men is going to be inside of me, forever and ever, until I'm gone." Her lip trembled a bit, but she did not cry. He supposed that Willow was beyond weeping by now. "But I'll live with it, and you should do the same."
With that, she walked out, and Spike laughed brokenly one more time to himself, staring at the mirrors that still showed him nothing of himself.
"Yeah, pet," he murmured, looking at the blank slate of glass. "Only problem is, I don't live."
Buffy felt like she could cut the tension with a knife.
The sleek red Honda crawled down through the familiar neighborhood streets, the silence permeated only by the cheerful, tinny sound of teen-fad pop chiming on the car radio. Xander sat in the driver's seat, jaw clenched and hands firmly gripping the steering wheel for dear life, while Buffy sat beside him and tapped her fingers impatiently on the armrest. The night was heavy and thick with unleashed rain, clouds on the distance and thunder rumbling and snarling low underneath the stiff air.
She didn't know why he'd volunteered to take them home from the mall. His scene earlier that morning still made her uncomfortable, and the knowledge that he had seen an intimate part of her in the bedroom made her feel awkward and a little dirty. His entire demeanor at the round-table discussion of Buffy's love life radiated disapproval, and she didn't really want to discuss it any further with him. He'd either deal with it or spend the rest of his lifetime bitching at her about it. Whatever. Life moved on past the various vampires and men of Buffy Summers.
Dawn heaved a sigh in the backseat, and Buffy took a look at her sister from the rearview mirror. She looked lost somehow, arms crossed over her chest, finger winding and unwinding a strand of hair around her finger in slow motion as she stared out the window at the groves of trees passing by. Ever since the cute boy who Dawn would not talk about had dropped her off at the shop earlier, she'd been broody and sullen, her voice soft and distant whenever she spoke, and it made shopping for school supplies on the Council's dime a lot less fun than it should have been.
When Xander pulled into the driveway, Buffy felt a great sense of relief. She turned her eyes to his and found him staring at her frankly, his big brown eyes as blunt as Anya at her worst. Maybe he'd picked some of that up from her during their engagement. It wouldn't shock her. Nervously, she averted her eyes and smiled down at her hands. Was she blushing? Almost definitely. "So, um, thanks for the ride," she said, and Xander nodded, still not saying a word. "So... I guess I'll see you tomorrow, huh?"
"We need to talk," he said, and she nodded her head, reaching for her seatbelt.
"Definitely," she agreed. "I'm all for talking. But I've got to patrol and get Dawn all school-ready..."
"It won't take long." His eyes were firm and hard as he looked at her. "But we've got to talk. Now."
As Dawn climbed out of the car, all gangly limbs weighed down with Office Depot and Old Navy shopping bags, Buffy rolled down her window. "Dawn," she called out, and the teenager turned around, face blank and expressionless. "Are you sure you're okay? You really look..." She squinted her eyes at her sister, tilting her head to the side. Drawn lips, pinched tightness, mechanical slowness to her movements. "I don't know."
Older, Dawnie. You look older.
"I'm fine," Dawn said softly, giving her sister the barest wisp of a smile. "See you inside."
With that, the girl turned around and walked back in the house, her shoulders slumped and defeated.
Sighing, Buffy slumped back into the car and looked at Xander, wincing slightly. "Okay, so let me guess," she said. "You're going to tell me that Spike is all evil and soulless, and he tried to hurt me really badly, and he'll only do it again, right? And of course, I don't really love him and I'm just under his thrall, which Spike so can't do, and if he could, he does a really bad job because he still manages to annoy the--"
"I was an asshole."
It wasn't the way that Xander had planned to start out, but his good intentions were overruled by his big fat mouth. At least he managed to shut Buffy up long enough for her to look at him, lips slightly parted in surprise, her eyes large and luminous in the nighttime. He swallowed hard, and then continued. "Well, I was," he said. "I was a jerk, and I'm sorry for making a scene. It's just... This whole Spike thing. It's just kind of a big shock to the system, you know?"
Buffy barked out a laugh and bowed her head, wincing a little as she covered her face with her hand. "Yeah," she said. "Believe me, it shocked me, too. I mean, it's Spike, you know? But..."
"But you really love him," Xander finished, and she didn't have to say anything. It was all written on her face, the way that her mouth curved a little, hinting at a smile, or the pink suddenly furiously appearing on her cheeks. "It's okay, Buff. I mean, yeah, extremely frightening and more than a little weird, but still. If he really makes you happy, then... Then good." He smiled at her, a genuine Xander-smile, a little skewed and sloppy. "You deserve that."
Her fingers entwined with his, and she squeezed his hand. "Thank you."
Xander sighed, leaning back in his seat to watch the stars through the dusty windshield. Funny, how he hadn't taken the time to really look at the stars in ages. Life had been so hectic, so swift and blinding. Wedding plans, wedding disaster, Willow. The last year had blown by in the blurry disaster of a hurricane, and now the skies were clear and untouched by all of the last twelve months' blinding pain. He could see everything again, see his world and all of its many revolutions, all of his carefully made plans, all of his long-lost wishes...
"Do you ever wonder what would have happened if we'd gotten together back in high school?" he asked suddenly, and Buffy chuckled, shaking her head.
"No," she said, and she caught the brief glimpse of disappointment on his face. "I'm sorry, Xander. You've always been..."
"What, just a friend?" he asked wryly, and he nodded his head to himself. "Yeah, that about makes sense. Good old, sturdy Xander. Friend-guy for life."
"You're not just a friend," Buffy said sharply, cutting through his self-pity. "You're much, much more than that."
She sighed, leaned back in her seat, propping her feet up on the dashboard and hugging her knees close to her chest like a child would. Xander was momentarily startled by her vulnerability. Sometimes, it was easy to forget that she was a warrior, a mythic hero, and oftentimes her delicacy bewildered and confused him. There was always something so fragile about Buffy, underneath her battle-scarred skin and behind her arsenal of weaponry. Something always on the verge of breaking.
"My world's not a normal world," she said, and then she laughed bitterly. "I guess that's the understatement of the century, huh. I mean, I'm sharing a house with a magic Key and a vengeance demon, dating my second vampire, and still trying to battle the forces of evil. There's not a whole lot of normal in the land of Buffy." She turned her head to his, and a small smile tugged at her pretty, soft mouth. How many times had he fantasized about kissing those peach-and-cream lips of hers? Too many to count. "But you're normal."
And there was the reason why.
Average, hands-on Xander, making with the funny and the jelly doughnuts. That was all that he would ever be in her eyes. The reliable, boring guy with no witchy superpowers or flammable reactions to sunlight. Never good enough to share a spot of intimacy with the golden girl of the Hellmouth. Only dark creatures ever wormed their way into her heart. Angel and his anguishing martyrdom, Spike and his crawling, creepy evil. Secretly, Xander had always wanted Riley to win her heart, if only because he was the closest thing to ordinary that Buffy might ever love. Even still, not good enough.
A part of his heart would always belong to Buffy Summers. Oh, he was desperately, painfully in love with Anya, and living without her was destroying him, but Buffy. But Buffy. She was the girl on the pedestal, unattainable but still worthy of his everlasting worship. The goddess on the cover of fashion magazines, the celebrity walking down the red carpet with escorts that should have been him. He supposed that he wasn't the only one with a burning, hidden yen for Buffy.
Everybody always loved a hero.
"I see," he murmured, heartbroken by her statement, and Buffy ran a hand through his dark hair, smelling of night-blooming jasmine and fresh-cut pine.
"Don't you see, Xander?" she said. "I live my life with witches and demons and other things that are beyond strange. It's just the way my life has to go. But you... You're the only one who's real."
Xander scoffed at her. "Yeah, right," he said. "Last time I checked, Buff, you were pretty damn real."
"Not really," she protested softly. "Sometimes, this life gets so crazy and fucked-up, and it's so weird and strange... Do you know why I dreamed that I was in a mental institution when that demon poisoned me?"
"No," he said. "I just figured that you had a kink for straight jackets."
A smile broke out on her face, and Buffy good-naturedly poked him in the ribs with her elbow. "Stupid," she said. "I dreamed about being in an asylum because it would make this life stop being real. It would make it a fantasy, and I'd finally get to have the big normal life I'd always wanted. Husband, kids, SUV and lots of anti-psychotic prescriptions."
"Ah, the American Dream."
She sighed, turned her head and stared at him frankly. "I'm twenty-one-years-old and I've already died twice. I'm never going to have the normal life, Xand. Hell, I might not ever have a life, period. It's just the way that my sad, sad world works. It's always throwing awful surprises at me from every direction possible. Kill your first love. Kill your sister. Kill yourself. It's crazy and cruel." Buffy swallowed, and touched his cheek with the back of her hand. "And you're the only part of my world that isn't that way."
Astonished, Xander watched as Buffy leaned her cheek against his shoulder. Her scented hair drifted to his nostrils, and it smelled of pubescent fantasies, of April-freshness and August-heat, sun drenched locks instilled with dreamy girlhood and hard, tired age. "I need you so much, Xander," she said. "I can't handle all of the crazy evil madness on my own, not all the time. I love my life, don't get me wrong, but it's a hell of a lot to deal with on my own. You're the only kind of normal I can ever have."
She sighed, nuzzling her cheek against his shirt, and he tentatively placed a hand on her shoulder. "It's selfish of me," she said. "I want you here in Sunnydale, but I think sometimes that you should go. You'll never have a really happy life here in Hellmouth-land. I'm stuck here, Xand, but you could have a thousand other things that are better than this life."
He shook his head, laid his lips against her hair for just a second, breathing the enduring love of boyhood dreams onto the ephemera and gauze of Buffy's tentative existence. "There's nothing better than this life," he promised her. "Nothing."
She couldn't help it; she wrapped Xander up in a big bear hug, ignoring his startled squeak when she squeezed his ribcage. "Breathing good," he wheezed, and she released him with a giggle, patting his cheek.
"I love you very muchly, Xander Harris," Buffy declared, and he grinned at her broadly.
"I love me, too."
A light flickered from the front porch, and Buffy smiled when she saw Spike walk out onto the front porch, cigarette dangling from his lips, cloaked in leather and promises. She had a thousand things that she suddenly wanted to say to him, a million different vows to make and wounds to heal. She needed him, too, her knight in tarnished armor, needed him to touch her and make her feel alive. Make her feel passion and pleasure, purpose and pain.
"You've gotta go, huh," Xander said, a little sadness tinting his voice, and Buffy nodded her head at him, a strange guilt tugging at her heartstrings. It would never be that way with her and Xander, not the way that he might have one day wanted it. She would always need that darkness, that haunted man to slip between her bedsheets and make her feel whole, and X
Continued in Chapter Eleven: All Fall Down