CHAPTER ONE: INTO THE NIGHT
Is this what babies feel like? Buffy thought stupidly as she heaved herself up above ground, nails broken and knuckles bleeding as she gasped for air and choked on dirt. Was this why no one remembered being born? Because it was so traumatizing?
The soft perfection she had experienced mere minutes ago was fading like a dream, only the feeling lingering. So what was this now, this dark world she’d been forced into? (It occurred to her that babies weren’t typically born out of light into darkness. It tended to work the other way.)
Her body heavy, she glanced around and caught sight of a stone marker next to the hole from which she’d emerged. She took a shaky step toward it and, squinting, made out words she recognized as her own name. Dates. A silly epitaph.
She frowned at her surroundings and hurried off into the night.
He could have died in that moment, seeing her on the stairs. Realizing that it was her, really her, and not the foul mechanical stand-in he ought never to have acquired. Joy and horror fought within him, and he remembered the wretched spell the little bit had wanted to use on her poor mum.
“What did you do?” he demanded, but awe washed all other feeling from his voice.
“Me? Nothing!” Dawn’s voice wasn’t that of a teenager trying to avoid rightful blame. It was quiet, constricted, as awed as his own.
God, what had brought her here? Had some powers above intervened?
Didn’t matter right now. What mattered was her. Her. Her hands.
As gently as he’d ever known himself to be, he guided Buffy into the living room. Took her wounded hands in his. 147 days.
God, she looked tired. Small. No fight left in her now. Not after whatever sort of eternity she’d spent in whatever hellish place she’d thrown herself into. All because of him.
The aching silence was interrupted by the others tumbling in the front door, headed by Willow.
And then he understood what had happened.
Knowing they wouldn’t let him be of any use to her, he quietly removed himself from the house, relief, awe, and rage colliding into a sob that shook through him as he stepped out the door. But too soon, the wanker and his demon girl were outside with him. A taunt about obsession. He grabbed the stupid boy’s coat and shoved him against the tree, eliciting a twinge of pain from his chip. Tonight, the pain was easy to ignore.
“Look me in the eyes, and tell me when you saw Buffy alive, that wasn’t the happiest moment of your entire existence.”
He couldn’t, of course, but that didn’t discount the moments immediately following. His realization that these stupid, sorry fools had played with something so fragile, so dangerous, with nary a thought to the consequences.
Or maybe he was just the sorriest fool of all.
The morning was excruciating. The sun was so bright. She didn’t remember how harsh it could be. Like a hundred bright, relentless lamps. But, even worse than the sun, was how everyone was talking about what they’d done. It was wonderful, they said, that she was back. It was...important.
It didn’t feel very important. It felt hollow. She didn’t know how to respond to them. She told them about the photographs she’d seen change the night before. They told her there was a demon. It had hitchhiked. Did that make it her fault or theirs?
She was so tired of this. Fighting demons. Dealing in pain. Death was her gift, after all. She should have kept the receipt and left the tags on.
She’d thought she was finished.
He punched the jagged rock of the cavern beneath his crypt. Choked a laugh at the pain. A noise from upstairs shocked him out of his moment of mania, and he unsheathed a blade, carrying it with him as he ascended the ladder.
She was here. Awe revisited him. He made himself speak, but softly, as if he might frighten her away.
“Hard to get a good night’s death around here.” Insensitive git. Why did he say that? And now he was running his mouth about his furniture, which she didn’t need to hear about. What she needed to hear was that he was sorry. That he knew he had failed. That he had rarely stopped thinking about it all these months.
But of course his emotion was unnecessary. Undesired. Her expression didn’t change. And even he, a master of filth and foolishness, knew better than to mention anything else about that final night.
So they sat together in silence.
“Take Dawn out of here!” Why had they brought her here? The entire point of everything was to protect Dawn. That was all that mattered. Why did they bring her into the room while she was trying to kill the stupid thing that’d come back with her?
The head disconnected easily with a slice.
The others tried to explain what had happened, that it was their fault, that they’d created it. But she found it hard to focus on the particulars.
Was this the life she was doomed to? Slaying, forever? They really couldn’t do it themselves for once? They’d dragged her from her eternal rest for this?
They went down to the living room together, and she went with them. Dawn sat beside her on the couch and looked at her expectantly. Xander yammered something. Anya interjected. She heard none of it distinctly. She was too busy staring at the framed photo of Joyce on the end table.
“Buffy?” Dawn was trying to talk to her. That was important. Dawn was important. She should be paying more attention. She had to be Mom now. Again.
“What?” Her own voice sounded distant even to her, as though she were speaking from the end of a tunnel or the bottom of a hole. Maybe the others wouldn’t hear and they’d let her stay in the hole forever.
“Do you want to eat something?” Dawn asked. “Xander is gonna call Willow and Tara, ask them to pick something up. Nobody’s eaten yet today.” It was only then that she realized Xander and Anya had gone from the room. She saw them through the doorway, huddled in the kitchen. She didn’t care to listen in on what they were saying to each other. She wanted to tell Dawn she wasn’t hungry. But no... That wouldn’t do. An older sister needed to eat.
“Food sounds good,” she said, forcing a smile.
What right had he to be happy that she again walked among the living? He repulsed himself, really. Because something clearly was not right. She seemed hollow, hollower than he’d ever seen her. Or perhaps she had always been this way, and what he’d seen before had been a lovedrunk delusion.
She patrolled alone, from what he could tell. No help from the sidekicks, even the almighty Willow. And sometimes she would stop by his crypt. Her reasons were not forthcoming, and he continued the habit of making an ass out of himself before letting the need to speak retreat into quiet.
He realized he had no idea what course of action to take. And, if he let it, the realization terrified him. Retroactively trying to keep his broken promise was clearly worthless. What else was there to do? He had failed her. And to think he’d believed he loved her… Surely if you loved a lady properly, you would know how to make yourself useful. Perhaps he’d used up his one chance at that.
He’d been so eager to cling to any chance, any thread of hope that he’d get some part of her. And then she had jumped. And every day without her had felt like a suckerpunch. He could fight alongside her friends, sit the baby sister, keep her loved ones safe in her memory. It had seemed the only way to honor her. But of course, by then it was too late. It didn’t matter to her what he did. She hadn’t been there to see it. Honoring the dead was useless like that. And now that she’d been resurrected, he was even more unsure.
So how did you honor someone when they were alive?
Several hazy days passed. Willow and Tara sometimes disappeared to classes, but Buffy wasn’t able to keep their schedules straight. She spent hours on end lying in the gloom of her own bedroom, blinds shut, isolating herself in the least-changed room of the house. A few cords in a bin under the bed (from the robot, she was told), and a layer of dust in the closet were all that hinted at her recent absence. Dawn had apparently dusted and vacuumed all through the summer. Which was a first, Buffy thought dimly as she lay and stared at the ceiling.
And Dawn... Dawn must have school too. What grade was she in? Freshman year of high school. Right? She needed to go to school. Someone should make sure she did that.
Buffy rolled over in bed. If she didn’t get up soon someone would come barging in, offering her food. That had happened twice already. She’d had to act grateful for the breakfasts in bed, but they reminded her of when Mom was sick. She didn’t want to eat in bed and be treated like she was fragile. She wanted to be left alone, so she reluctantly pushed back the covers and slipped her feet out and onto the floor.
She took off her pajamas and put on clothes, which went a long way in the illusion of wellness. Then she made her slow way downstairs, ears involuntarily pricked for sounds in the house. Some music was playing softly on the radio. That probably meant Dawn was around; Dawn didn’t like the silence.
Her senses seemed too sharp here. She longed for the softer place.
Sure enough, it was Dawn. She was in the kitchen, setting an empty cereal bowl into the sink. She jumped slightly when she turned and saw Buffy standing in the doorway. “You’re up early.”
“Am I?” Buffy looked at the clock. It was 7:30. “Oh. Huh.”
“Everything still kinda weird?” Dawn asked solicitously.
She shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”
“I’m going to school today,” Dawn said, sounding apologetic. “I know we all talked about it over the weekend...and I figured I’d go.” Buffy had no recollection of any conversation about school, but she was relieved that it had happened. That was one less taking-care-of-Dawn thing to worry about.
“Good,” she said. “School is good. Willow and Tara aren’t around?”
“They went to get coffee before their lecture or something,” Dawn said, glancing at the clock as she rubbed a bit of orange juice off her face with the back of her hand. “I have to go get my stuff or I’m gonna be late.” And she stepped forward and gave Buffy a swift kiss on the cheek before ducking around her and tromping up the stairs.
Buffy stood in the kitchen. What would be a normal thing to do?
She remembered, fuzzily, someone mentioning the robot making sandwiches.
She started to move around the kitchen. Dawn was already rushing back down the stairs.
“Bye, Buffy!” she called before slamming the front door.
Well, Buffy thought as she looked down at the bread slices, berry preserves, and peanut butter laid out before her on the counter. So much for that. But no, there was time. She could be fast. And then Dawn would have something to eat for lunch.
She slapped the sandwich together and stuffed it in a bag before hurrying to the door.
“Dawn!” she called. Dawn paused, barely at the sidewalk, and turned to look at Buffy in alarm.
“You made me lunch?” She was happy! A sisterly exchange followed, some words feeling tedious and some words feeling almost normal. Normal until…
“It’ll be better now. Now that they can see you being happy. That’s all they want.”
Oh. Was that all they wanted?
“I’m counting on you to protect her.”
“Til the end of the world.” He swallowed and added earnestly, “Even if that happens to be tonight.”
She stepped closer to him then, eyes wide and glistening, her jaw firm. “Tell me that you love me,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper.
It disarmed him completely.
“I do,” he said reverently, bewildered. “You know I… I’ve said I do.”
“Kiss me.” It sounded so weak, so desperate. Not the command of a self-sure woman seeking an exchange of affection. It was the last wish of a girl who carried the world's weight and feared that weight would finally crush her. It was the panic in the lull before the last hurrah.
And who was he to say no?
The weapons he’d gathered slipped from his hands and clattered to the floor.