Summary: Spike/Dawn friendship, post-Gift, goes AU pretty early on.
Archive: Sure, just ask first.
Disclaimer: Not mine. The characters belong to Mutant Enemy, et al.
Author's Note: I wrote this as a gift to diva_stardust on her birthday. Thanks to _green_ for the brief yet effective beta.
The cotton knit of his t-shirt had once seemed soft, but now her cheek was pressed so hard into the fabric that Dawn thought her skin might meld inextricably with the fibers.
Afterward, she supposed that she must have been carried home, although she had no direct memory of it. Only white knuckles, the raw feel of fabric on her cheek and in her fists, and an endless wash of blood. It came from everywhere; it soaked her clothing and adorned her face and hands. It probably wasn’t all hers.
And she had wanted to die. The others had frowned and embraced her and kissed her head when she said so, because they didn’t know how to handle a child who had been through so much. In a way, they were all still children themselves.
Perhaps it was because of his intimacy with death, or because his feelings of guilt matched hers in intensity, that Spike was able to talk to Dawn.
On those sticky summer days when the memories were the worst, Dawn would sneak in the back door of the Sunnydale Cineplex. She never really watched the movies; she just sat in the back on the cool cement amidst stale popcorn and squashed Milk Duds. The people on the screen had dogs and cute kids who wore those polka-dot bows her mother had always put in her hair (just a figment, of course). The romances were charming, and the people were never slashed to ribbons on the tops of towers. Their sisters never died.
The times that Spike came with her, they sat in the seats. They mocked the fake monsters and the bad special effects, and Dawn would pretend to be sleepy so that she could lean her head on his shoulder and inhale his scent. The sporadic flicker that the screen reflected onto his skin made him seem like a wild animal trapped inside a marble sculpture. And sometimes they could forget.
She knew this was her punishment. She and Spike had spent the entire summer commiserating; she knew he had related to her because out of all of them, the sister and the would-be lover were the ones who felt their loss the most. It was Dawn's fault that Buffy had died. On the nights when she lay cradled in Spike's arms, they had talked about what they would have done differently, what they would say to her now, the way her firm flesh had always smelled of one part Joyce, one part graveyard earth with its ironically live scent. And now that they had Buffy back, Dawn felt her relationship with Spike slipping away – and this, too, was her fault.
Dawn carefully fished the discarded map out of the trash. The colorful wisps of the locator spell were long-gone, but Willow had carelessly pressed a fingertip to the point the spell had indicated. Dawn knew enough from television to sprinkle her baby powder onto the surface and tap it off into the sink, and her trick revealed a telling fingerprint.
At first, the splatters on the wall reminded her of the pattern the baby powder had made in the slightly damp sink. Soon, though, she saw the differences: a graceful spray here where her sister's powerful heart had continued to pump blood into empty space; a smudge there where she had leaned and tried to regroup after a particularly harsh blow. In truth, it was more beautiful than the powder.
When they found her, Dawn was crouched near a wall of the warehouse, tracing rust-colored patterns on the cinderblock. It was her art; a fitting tribute to the crimson life that once had made Buffy's skin glow.
Willow balked, Tara gasped, and Xander scowled. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. They had all decided that they would take Buffy back to Xander's apartment, clean her up, and then all tell Dawn together. She wasn't to know about the warehouse, the circumstances, the abstract vermilion painting that was the walls and the floor of this place.
It was Spike who made the first move. He simply swept Dawn up in his arms and began walking toward the door. And once again, Dawn relished in the rough press of cheap cotton on her skin.
Dawn sat on the bare mattress and surveyed the array of black garbage bags that surrounded her. It was hard to believe that she owned this much *stuff*; there were kids in third-world countries who would kill for a pair of shoes, and it had taken her six hours just to put the most essential of her possessions into bags. And she still wasn't finished! She looked at Mr. Gordo, sitting alone on a shelf, and pulled him into a childish embrace.
She heard a rock hit her windowsill. Before she could look outside, she heard the trellis creak under a now unfamiliar weight. Within moments, Spike was standing at the foot of the bed.
"You're leaving tomorrow," Spike said.
"Yes. I suppose Tara told you." Dawn willed herself not to express any emotion. "I have orientation at six p.m., so I need to start moving in in the morning."
"I thought I should say goodbye."
"You said goodbye right after the funeral. The second one, I mean." Dawn looked down at one of her garbage bags and fidgeted with the twist-tie.
"I came back." Spike frowned. "It wasn't forever."
"You never came back to me." Dawn blinked in a futile attempt to hide the moisture that was now reddening the rims of her eyes.
Spike scratched the back of his neck and looked at her. There she was, crouched all too formally on the edge of her bare childhood bed, amidst a sea of black plastic. Only the stuffed toy she clutched to her chest marred the sterility of the image.
He took a step toward her, and she lowered Mr. Gordo to the bed beside her. She was blinking furiously, biting her lower lip and doing her best to seem confident in her cold indifference toward him. Cautiously, Spike reached out and placed his hand on her head, stroking her hair and letting his palm come to rest on her still-round cheek.
Her resolve was broken. Dawn leaned into the caress, and before she knew it, she was cradled in Spike's arms on the mattress. Over and over, his hand made a path from the crown of her head to the ends of her hair that rested at her waist. The rhythm was hypnotic; she suppressed a yawn as she felt her sore limbs melting into the sea of Spike's endless physical strength.
Dawn fell asleep with the feel of leather under her cheek, but she awoke to the texture of Mr. Gordo's pink synthetic fur. It was a poor substitute.
As bright, painful consciousness fingered its way through her brain, Dawn became aware of the somehow comforting sensation of coarse fibers against her face. But when she sat up, she realized once again that she was not feeling a ghost of her past, but the paper-thin sheets on the bed. Through the sheets came the awareness that she was in a strange bed, in a cheap motel, and that the flickering sign outside proclaimed that there was vacancy in Sunnydale's most highway-accessible accommodation.
Thus, Dawn recalled the reason for a strange bed in a now-strange town. The wilted corsage on the bedside table was pink, for that had been Tara's favorite. Dawn had stood with the priest on the bright green lawn, wearing Tara's favorite flowers and praying that there was somewhere good for the woman who had been the last remnant of Dawn's childhood to go.
Next to the corsage were the keys to her rental car. She had not stayed the entire night, but she felt rested enough, so she packed, slipped into the previous day's clothing, ran a comb through her chin-length hair, and wrestled open the slightly bent door.
Outside stood a man who was anything but strange.