She takes her mother's hand, and lets her parents draw her back into the world. It's your ties to the world that keep you in it, after all, and she's finally ready to start rebuilding them. It's amazing how the resolution makes the difference. The world her mind built for itself was all loose threads anyway, and it seems that all it needed was a little tug to make it unravel.
A few months later, they let her go home.
Her parents are happy to have her back. Really, they are. They tell her so at every opportunity, tell her they love her and they missed her and how much better things are now that she's come home.
After a certain number repetitions, though, she starts to wonder just who they're trying to convince.
Her mother takes some time off work, but it's clear that she has no idea what, if anything, she can do for Buffy. She wants to do something, and Buffy does appreciate the thought, but the endless circle of Quality Time, old movies and soap operas and lunch and trips to the beach and shopping and visits to family members just make it glaringly clear that in the few moments when they're alone, one on one, Joyce can't figure out what to say.
Buffy finds herself sitting at the kitchen table with a turkey melt on foccacia, trying diligently to focus on the thread of her mother's chatter about barely-remembered cousins, when the conversation comes to an abrupt break.
"Buffy, I-- well, things are getting busy at work, and they could really use my help there."
Her mother is looking at her anxiously, face filled with the same fragile tension she's had since Buffy came home, as if she can't quite believe that this is how things are, and is already steeling herself for their collapse.
Buffy stops pushing the lettuce around the plate and looks up, measuring the extent of her relief into a small, genuine smile. "Mom, I think that's great. I'll be fine, I promise."
An answering relief floods her mother's eyes for a moment. "We're going to hire someone to come in, a few days a week," she says. The tension in her voice has tilted the other way now, edging into guilt.
Buffy knows she wants to help, but it's tiring, being helped all the time.
"I'll be fine," she says again.
Things have changed, in the time she was away. She finds that many of the changes are familiar, though how that could be, she's not sure. They say that people in comas hear the things that go on around them, and she wonders if that's how it was for her. If all the threads of the dreamworld she built were gathered from the shards of the world around her.
If the source was the empty, harsh world of the hospital, it certainly goes a long way to explaining the result.
She can't go back to school, of course. Four years of high school, all in her head, but it turns out that the years, at least, were real. It makes a certain kind of sense when she thinks about it. The reason she never really learned anything is simply that she was never really there. But she doesn't think about that, not if she can help it.
The doctors say not to dwell on the past. They say she needs to focus on the present, on the things that are real around her. On her parents, on the tutor they hire for her, on the prep exams for the GED she's studying for. For once in her life, she makes a great student. The work fills the time when she's alone, and the alternative is daytime soaps or rap videos on MTV2. She can't help remembering that her world had a lot less rap videos in it.
Stretched out on a deck chair in the backyard, basking in the warm afternoon sun as she reads the chapters from Catcher In the Rye for tomorrow's quiz, the other place seems pale and translucent, less real even than the characters in her book.
In the dark, though, when she's alone, things don't seem so cut and dried.
She starts going to bed earlier.
Her therapist says the dreams will fade, and for the most part, they do. Her therapist asks her if she still sees things that aren't there, or hears voices. She says she doesn't, and for the most part that's true.
They're only memories, she thinks. You spend six years someplace, and some of it is bound to stick. Even if it wasn't exactly real. She thinks of it like a TV show, and that helps a lot. Just a vivid, involving storyline built out of enough real-life elements to be believable.
He laughs at her in her dreams when she tells him that, as though she is the one who is transparent.
"Keep telling yourself that, love," he says, half a smirk and a freshly-lit cigarette clinging to his lips.
She wakes twisted in the sheets, covered in a fresh sheen of sweat and the imaginary scent of cigarette smoke, and she's never sure if the tension in her gut is anger or something else entirely.
She has a prescription for when she has trouble sleeping. She takes it regularly, at first. After a while, she finds she doesn't need it so much any more. She sleeps through the night more often than not, and if she does dream, she doesn't remember it in the morning.
One day in the fall, her mother cooks an elaborate dinner, lasagne and spinach salad and an expensive bottle of wine. Her Dad comes home early enough to share it, for once, and they mostly eat in silence. Over expensive cheesecake bought from the local boutique grocery store, they finally summon the courage to tell her that they're separating.
That same, endless tension is locked in her mother's eyes when she looks at Buffy, like she drew in a breath years ago and has never yet figured out how to let it out. Like all of this is held together for Buffy's sake alone.
Buffy toys with her cheesecake, methodically dividing a piece into smaller and smaller chunks, carefully impaling each one through the center with the outside tine of the fork before eating it.
"I'll be fine," she says, and means it, because in the back of her mind, she's done this before. The second time is easier. She smiles at both of her parents, and they smile back. Tense, she thinks, from the strain of keeping up the mask. From being okay, all of the time, for her.
It's tiring. She wishes she could tell them that she knows how it feels to have to set the example, to be the strong one, but she doesn't, does she? She wishes she could tell them to relax and do whatever makes them happy, but she thinks that maybe she doesn't know enough about what that's like to be able to tell the difference.
"Not the paradise you imagined, love?" he asks that night, a mocking edge in his gravelled voice. He stubs out a cigarette on the porch railing and looks sideways at her, tilting his head to one side. His eyes are dark and steady on hers, and just for a moment, she feels the hollow place in her chest start to cave in.
"I miss you," she says. The words slip out before she has a chance to stop them.
He absorbs this calmly, looking back out into the darkness. "Reckon you should've thought of that sooner, then," he says finally.
She takes the sleeping pills every night for the next month.
Time passes. One bright, high-contrast day follows another, and she finds that when she thinks back, it all tends to blend together. Her father moves out, not to Spain this time but to an apartment in West Hollywood. She finds that it doesn't make a lot of difference in practical terms, because either way, he's mostly out of the picture. Buffy doesn't mind too much. There's something about the new arrangement, just her mother and herself, that's comfortingly familiar.
She takes the GED test and gets her high school diploma, only three years late. Her SAT scores are not as good, this time, which she chooses to take as a reminder that she's not the center of her own universe any more. Her parents make noises about college, but she feels strange applying to four-year schools as though nothing has happened, like there's not a yawning gap in her life.
She signs up for classes at the local community college instead, and finds herself enjoying them. True, it's not the life she once pictured for herself, sorority sisters and fraternity parties, but she still needs something to focus on, and school does a good job of filling in the spaces.
She's older than most of her classmates, and doesn't really make any friends. The semesters pass too quickly to form bonds. But it's okay, really. She's fine.
Her grades are excellent. Her parents, separately, are variations of proud. "You've gotten back into the swing of things," her mother says, her voice suspiciously rough as she folds her daughter into her arms.
Feeling somehow too large, too old for the occasion, Buffy hugs her mother back. Joyce draws back to look at her. Her eyes are bright with almost-tears. "I knew you could do it," she says.
Buffy wonders if she has, in fact, done It. Whatever It is.
She graduates from her community college with honors, and is accepted into UCLA. Standing there at her graduation ceremony in a quiet, dark-panelled community hall, she looks down at the piece of paper in her hand and thinks about all the high school yearbooks she never signed.
"We're so proud of you, honey," her Dad says, catching her in a quick hug.
"It's just community college," Buffy says, a little embarassed. "It's not like I saved the world or anything." Her father's new girlfriend is watching the two of them with a fixed, somewhat uncomfortable smile. Buffy almost wishes he hadn't brought her, but mostly she's just relieved that he came.
Everybody she knows is here, and just at this moment, she's filled with a rare sense of peace. Her best friend comes up as her parents retreat towards the door, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
"Should I be watching my occipital lobe?" Willow jokes, an achingly familiar smile crinkling her eyes. It's still a lame joke, but this time, Buffy laughs. Around them, people are filing out with parents and loved ones, talking in quiet little knots.
"You'll always be the brains of the bunch," she tells her friend, slipping her arm around Willow's waist as they, too, head toward the door.
Her first year at UCLA, she dates a tall, dark-haired man with haunted eyes. He's sweet, and quiet, and something about being with him is so much like coming home that somehow, it's not until she already has her shirt off in the darkened living room of his Culver City apartment that she makes the connection.
He's saying something, the guy whose name she can't quite remember just this minute, but she doesn't hear it as she stumbles backwards off the couch, tripping over her shoes.
"Hey," he says then, and he's frowning though his voice is gentle. "What's wrong? I didn't hurt you, did I? Hey, Buffy, calm down. It's okay. We don't have to if you don't--"
But she's already backing away, choking out her apology as she clutches her shirt to her chest, yanking the door open and running out onto the balconey.
"Buffy!" he calls from behind her. When she turns around, it's not Michael she sees through the blur of tears but Angel, and there might be a light in his eyes.
She runs downstairs, onto the street, and the night air is like ice on her skin.
"Have you noticed that you just keep creating the same patterns wherever you go?" Spike asks conversationally. Incongruously, they're in the house, the one they tore down together, and it's morning. Bright sun streams through the holes in what used to be the ceiling, casting geometric patterns across his skin.
"Fuck you," she says, but the words lack force. His hand trails between her legs, tracing moist patterns against the top of her inner thigh.
"Exactly what I had in mind," he leers. "But seriously, love, have you ever stopped to consider that all of this might actually be your fault?"
"Every day," she tells him soberly.
After that, she's more careful. She's been so good up until now, careful not to let her mind wander into the empty places where the other world used to be. But it's not enough, is it? She has to be sure. Better to glance into the dark and risk getting lost than to spend her life surrounded by people she can't be sure aren't ghosts.
So now there's a new policy. Everyone she meets is cautiously checked against her memories of Sunnydale. If she's going to break the pattern, she needs to know what it looks like.
As a precaution, she tells her therapist that the dreams have come back. She makes up the details where necessary and as a result, he gives her a new, stronger prescription for anti-psychotics. She takes them home, placing them carefully in the medicine cabinet, lining them up with the others, all the labels facing neatly outward. That night she stares at the slender orange pill bottle for a full five minutes before pulling her toothbrush out of its jar and closing the mirror door.
The girl in the reflection looks paler than she remembers, and older.
No more nights alone, she tells herself. She's been back for years now, but what does that mean, really, if the only real connections she can make are with the people in her head?
So she starts going out more. It's hard at first, but she was pretty and popular once, and she remembers what to do, even if it does feel a bit like trying to breathe water. But this is LA and she's still young, and there's always something going on if you put just a little bit of effort into it. She introduces herself to a few girls in her BioPsych class and soon enough she's spending a sizeable number of nights out on the town with one or another of them.
"I know this guy up in Tehachapi who has his own lab," Sondra says. "It's pure, I promise. Or nearly, anyway."
They remind her of blander, more fucked-up Cordelias. It's sort of reassuring, in a way. Like a return to the candy-colored superficiality of a far less complicated world. Or was it a more complicated one? When she's tired, it's hard to remember exactly where the dividing line falls.
"You mean like last time?" Ally teases, flicking her long hair back over one shoulder. "I swear that shit was cut with Draino."
"Dumbass, that's only for cocaine," Cassie laughs, and rolls her eyes at Buffy. "Don't listen to them. They're all talk. This is perfectly safe, I promise."
"Second only to 'Hey, check this out!' as famous last words," Willow observes solemnly. If the others hear her, though, they don't laugh.
Buffy smiles at her new friends non-commitally, pushing the umbrella aside to take a sip of her key lime martini. Shortly afterward, she make excuses about having a quiz the next morning - true, as it happens - and calls it an early night.
She doesn't mean to fall asleep when she gets home. She hasn't been sleeping much at all lately, and when she does, it's usually a strange twilight sleep that drops her back into the waking world with the unsettling feeling that the time in between has vanished rather than passed.
He's there, of course, waiting for her under the tree. If she stops to think about it, these might be the only dreams she ever has.
"Is it working yet?" he asks. It should be mocking, but there's that quiet look on his face, the one that used to make her crazy. It just makes her tired, now, which is about par for the course for how things have been going. Even in her dreams she needs to get more sleep.
Buffy tilts her face up to his as she walks towards him. "I don't even think about you in the daytime," she answers. It's true, but it doesn't seem like much of a victory any more.
She finds herself trying to meet his eyes, but they're lost in the shadows, just the edge of his face glowing in the warm light spilling out from the curtains drawn across the window of the living room. Dawn's watching something on Cartoon Network, and every so often the barest hints of brightly-colored television explosions catch the corner of his eye.
"Sometimes I can't remember what you look like," she tells him then, in an unrecognizeably small voice. "Not just you, so don't get any ideas. I mean Xander, and Giles, and Dawn. I can't even remember what color Anya's hair was."
"None of us can," he says, mock-serious. He raises a hand to her face, brushing a strand of hair away from her eyes, and leans in to kiss her.
His lips on hers are warm and achingly gentle, and that's how she knows she's dreaming.
She diligently renews the prescriptions every month, but the contents go down the toilet. She feels a little guilty, making her Mom pay for all these medications she never takes, but it's easier than explaining that they're just there in case things get out of hand. Her mother takes an understandably extreme view of her mental state, and Buffy's fairly sure she'd go out of her mind with worry if she knew her daughter was facing the world without chemical assistance.
Buffy has to admit, it's a little strange to have the Sunnydale memories crowding in as though it was just another part of her life, but they're not nearly as vivid they used to be. Except for the dreams, most of it reminds her of the false facades built on movie sets. When she does try to walk through the doors, there just isn't anything there.
One Saturday night just before summer, she meets a sandy-haired man named Justin who makes her laugh. He's neither tall nor short, not powerfully muscular and not lean and hard. He doesn't talk about his dead father or ask her to join him in the darkness, and although he is a teaching assistant - chemistry, this time - he doesn't appear to be working for the government. As far as she can tell, she's never met him before in her life. Either of her lives.
It's strange, dating someone who's exactly what they seem to be. Sometimes it seems like a lot to live up to.
"And he makes you happy, then?" Spike asks, his voice lost in the hollow of her neck. He's moving inside her like warm honey, viscous and slow, making promises with his body that no mortal man can keep.
"He doesn't make me sad," she answers, lost in the rhythm they're making together, slower than breathing and every bit as necessary.
"That's enough, is it?" He shifts onto his elbows, leaning back far enough to meet her eyes.
"Well," she says, "It's better than the alternative."
One dry, copper-colored evening in October, Justin takes her to a quiet outdoor cafe, hidden among manicured stands of native madrone trees and smelling faintly of the distant ocean, and he asks her to marry him. Sometimes it seems like all the big things are delivered over plates of Italian food.
It takes her by surprise. She's not the girl men stay with. In this life and every other, she's the one they leave behind. She knows what it means to be loved, but it's the rest of the equation that's a mystery, locked somewhere down behind those doors she's forgotten how to open.
Does she love him? She honestly has no idea.
The look on his face is so anxious and raw that it almost breaks the heart she's not sure she has.
"I'll think about it," she tells him, smiling to take the sting away.
"I'm getting married," she tells Spike, who pulls away abruptly, rolling off her. Her skin is cold where his body used to be.
"What?" he says, harsh. His back is to her, where he sits on the edge of the bed, and he doesn't turn around when he speaks.
"I won't be having these dreams any more," she says quietly.
"So that's it, then? You're just going to wall us out of your life for good?"
"I'm going to start taking the drugs again," she says, reaching down to pull the sheet up over herself. "I'm moving on."
"Yeah, well. Heard that song before, love."
This time, though, she means it. She's glad he doesn't turn around. She's tired of him being able to see straight through her.
They get married on an overcast day in December. It's a quiet affair in the county courthouse, just her and Justin, their parents and a couple of friends. His friends. The only person she would have invited is Willow, and she hasn't seen Willow in months. She's not even registered at school.
It's over quickly, less a ceremony than a procedure. And she wonders, what now? Her mother is surreptitiously wiping away tears, and Buffy thinks maybe she should be crying too.
"I know it's not the white wedding you had in mind," she tells her mother as they walk back down the halls. "But hey, at least I'm not pregnant." Joyce doesn't laugh, though. She looks over at her daughter with terrifyingly earnest eyes.
"So long as you're happy," Joyce tells her, reaching out to wrap an arm around her daughter. "He's a nice boy, Buffy. I like him. But all I ever wanted, truly, was for you to be happy."
"I am, Mom," Buffy tells her gently, leaning her head against her mother's shoulder for a moment. She wonders if it's true. Maybe, she thinks, this is what happiness feels like.
She's proud of herself today. She's finally gotten it together. She's moving on.
A sharp wind has picked up by the time they emerge from the courthouse, raising hard goosebumps on Buffy's skin. Her spaghetti-strap dress offers nothing against the cold, so she lets Justin tuck her against his side for warmth while their parents line them up for pictures.
In the photos, she thinks, they'll look exactly like a young couple in love.
Life goes on, and it's only the details that change. They get an apartment near the campus. They get student loans. Justin gets a job as a lab assistant for a biotech company in Ventura. They get a couch. And things are good. They're not the stuff that sagas are made of, but that's okay, because she doesn't need sagas. She'd settle for just living a life, and it seems like it's finally going to happen.
Justin's job keeps him away from home a lot, so Buffy has a lot of time to fill. It used to be that she had to keep busy to keep her mind from wandering into dangerous memories, but Sunnydale has long since faded to the point where even if she tries to raise it, there's not really anything there. Names, faces, all gone. Just ghosts, walking through a static world.
No, the problem now is that when she has nothing else to do, her mind wanders nowhere at all.
She spends her time studying. Eventually, though, she graduates.
So she gets a job as an administrative assistant at the university. She's not very good at it, but it didn't require much experience, and that works out nicely, since she's twenty-seven now and she doesn't have any.
The rest of her time, she fills as best she can with anything that comes to hand.
And she does dream. All sorts of dreams, tangled crowd scenes and a vague sense of urgency, anxiety and ennui and occasional public nudity. But she keeps her final promise, and she takes the drugs, and she doesn't ever dream of him.
Buffy manages to knock the alarm clock off the bedside table before she figures out that it's the phone that's making the noise. Still barely conscious, she gropes around the side table for the receiver, wincing as more things clatter to the floor. The softly-glowing numbers on the dangling clock have a 3, a 5 and a 7 in them, although not in that order.
"What is it?" she asks, pressing the phone to her ear without lifting her head from the corner of the mattress. "Justin?"
But it's not Justin.
It's nearly sunrise by the time she gets to the hospital, threading through the already-thickening traffic in what amounts to blind panic. Threading her way through row after row of cars bleached yellow-gray by the cold sodium streetlights, she concentrates on the mechanics of driving, and tries to stay calm. She can't let her mother see her so upset. She needs to be strong.
Inside the hospital, they tell her things about blood and brains and hearts that she doesn't comprehend in the slightest. "Can I see her?" she asks, and the doctor tells her yes, but just for a minute.
Joyce is pale, cocooned in plastic tubing amid a forest of machines that beep in varying patterns. Something about a heart blockage, Buffy understands. Except that she doesn't, not really. She finds herself approaching the bedside like a child, hesitant fingers brushing against her mother's arm. It's warm and solid, but Buffy has been fooled by that before.
They won't let Joyce go home, and there isn't anyone else, so Buffy stays with her. The doctors try to explain what's happening, what her mother's chances are and what she should expect, but the words seem to come from far away, as though the world is wrapped in a layer of saran wrap, clear and thin and sticking to everything. She hasn't been able to sleep since it happened.
Justin comes to visit for a while, but he can't stay. He has to go to work. Buffy feels guilty, but mostly his absence comes as a relief. It's tiring, having him around all the time. She can only keep so many faces in place at once, and any minute now, the cracks around the edges are going to start to show.
They try to make her sleep but she ignores them, not moving from her chair except when they chase her out. Eventually they make her go into the lounge and lie down on a couch. She tells them not to worry, that she won't be able to sleep anyway, but somehow she's asleep almost as soon as she lays down.
It's the first night in nearly two years that she doesn't take the drugs before she falls asleep.
She's standing in the living room, and there's a body on the couch. And oh god, she's been here before. She's been here before.
How could she have forgotten this?
"Life's a bitch, innit?" Spike says from somewhere behind her. She hears the click-scratch of his lighter, and a moment later, her mother's living room is filled with the sharp smell of cigarette smoke.
He's not supposed to be here. This isn't how it happens at all.
On the couch, her mother's eyes flicker open, and Buffy stifles the urge to scream.
"Oh, honey," Joyce says sadly. "Don't you know by now that running away never solved anything?"
She wakes cold and cramped, twisted in the roped mass of the hospital blanket she lay down with. Her neck is stiff from being bent against the hard arm of the couch, and it takes a moment to realize that the dead weight pulling on her shoulder is her arm. When the feeling does start to return, it needles through the flesh like a million white-hot splinters.
Her throat is dry with the taste of cigarettes, and her jaw aches with the effort of holding back tears.
And she can't do this now. She can't. It's been years and she's finally beaten the nagging urge to spend her nights wandering empty streets, finally stopped expecting her baby sister to flounce in after school, finally stopped expecting old friends to call. She's learned to deal with things on her own, now. Learned to stop looking for comfort in cigarette smoke. She doesn't need him. She doesn't need them. She doesn't need anyone at all.
She spends the next night drinking cup after cup of cheap hospital coffee, watching CNN on the waiting room TV, but somehow she still falls asleep in the slow hours before dawn.
Her dreams are confused and fragmentary. She's running through crowds, desperately searching for something or someone. Every now and then she catches a glimpse of whatever it is, off in the distance, but by the time she gets there it's always gone.
Joyce sits up in bed, pale but cheerful, wearing a slightly lopsided smile. Buffy is curled up in the chair in the corner, paging blankly through an ancient issue of People.
"You don't have to stay," her mother is telling her, again. Her voice is only a little slurred, but it's rougher than Buffy remembers, and it makes her heart clench a little tighter to hear it.
"We talked about this before," she says softly, looking up. "I'm not going anywhere. What if something happened while I was gone? I'd never be able to forgive myself."
In her mind's eye, she can see a body stretched out on the couch. Flowers. She blinks it away, focusing on the shiny image of Jennifer Lopez, spread out across the page in front of her.
"Anyway, I don't mind. Justin's probably happy to have the house to himself. And I don't spend enough time with you lately."
"Honey, that's sweet, but it's still not good for you, being stuck here like this. You should call someone. Maybe your Aunt Sally would came down for a few days? I promise not to die while you're out using the phone."
Buffy smiles, but she has no intention of calling Aunt Sally. She can barely remember who Aunt Sally is, but she thinks she might live in one of the states that starts with an M.
Her mother's right, though. She can't keep doing this.
Later that night, she finds herself dialing Willow's number.
It's been so long since she heard from her friend that she's not really surprised when the number rings through to a pizza parlour in Reseda.
"Can I help you?" a heavily-accented male voice asks. And she tells him no, she's sorry. And she is, but not for dialing the wrong number. She tries to stop the cold spread of disappointment through her chest as she hangs up the phone.
When Willow appears in the doorway of Joyce's hospital room two days later, Buffy's so stupid with exhaustion that she can't even form words to any of the simplest, most obvious questions. Where have you been? and How did you know? but Willow's smiling, and reaching out to hug her and she just leans into it. It's so good, to see a familiar face.
"I heard about your Mom," Willow says, and it's a greeting of sorts, and an explanation. "I'm sorry I couldn't come sooner."
Buffy still has so many questions, but she can't find the energy to voice them, and suddenly none of them seem quite as important anyway. Instead, she finds herself trailing after her friend as Willow drags her down to the hospital cafeteria, dispensing unidentifiable food and mysterious herbal teas.
"How have you been?" Willow asks as they sit down over some of the tea, her eyes wide and earnest as though the answer holds the meaning of life. To Buffy, the question sounds exactly like a small stone tossed into a giant hole, clattering down into the abyss.
"I have no idea," she answers honestly. There's a weight of something coiled in the back of her throat, but whether it's tears or the perverse desire to laugh, she really can't say. So Buffy shakes her head, and changes the subject. "I can't believe you found us here," she says. "I tried to call you the other day, you know that? But your number doesn't work any more. And then, poof, here you are. Like magic or something."
Willow nods. "Something like that, yeah," she says.
He's taking her home, and everything's going to be okay.
"Shh," he says, wrapping his coat around her shoulders. "I'll take care of everything. Don't cry."
But she is crying, can't seem to stop, crying so hard that the sobs shake her body like measured earthquakes, counting down the minutes until she cracks into a million pieces.
It feels strange, as though she's inhabiting someone else's body. She's not the one who does this. And if she does, this isn't how it goes.
He takes her home and she lets him peel off her clothes, intimate and innocent, and tuck her into her own bed. Her whole body is so cold that when he crawls in behind her, his skin is almost warm against her back.
He wraps an arm around her, strokes her hair. "Shh," he says again. "It'll be okay. You just have to let us help you."
She wants to ask him how, wants to ask what it is, exactly, that dreams can do, but she wakes up before she gets the chance.
Sleep comes in rare snatches, in corners and on couches. Sometimes they try to send her home, but she can't leave. So the world comes to her in sterilized mouthfuls, five-minute segments on CNN and the strange generic herbal teas that Willow brings back from the hospital cafeteria. Joyce slips in and out of consciousness, and when the doctors come by, their tight faces tell Buffy that no news can possibly be good news. Under the flat fluorescent lights, days and nights blur into each other, an endless cycle of the same faces all wearing the same blank expressions.
"Any news?" Justin asks her, and she looks up slowly, shaking her head to bring him into focus.
"What time is it?" she asks. "When did you get here?"
"It's nearly ten," he says in a gentle, thick voice, the kind you might use around the crazy or the dying. She has no idea whether he means ten in the morning or ten at night. There aren't any windows here. "You should come home for a bit," he says.
And she wants to. Part of her really does want to. She imagines herself saying the other words, imagines the tears leaking out of her dry, scratchy eyes, imagines him dropping into the chair beside her, slipping a comforting arm around her shoulders. Imagines him telling her that everything will be okay.
"I'm fine," she hears herself say instead. She never has figured out how to be that other girl, not when it matters.
"No, you're not," he says, and for a moment she thinks maybe he can see through her, thinks maybe he's going to barge right on through her thick skin for once and crash headlong into the comfort fantasy after all.
He doesn't, though. Just stands there, awkward and alone under harsh hallway lighting, one hand on the rail of an empty gurney, a familiar helplessness in his eyes. She knows he's thinking the same things she is, but neither of them says a word.
"Mom's getting worse," Buffy says, finally, breaking the weighted silence. "You should go home. I need to stay."
Joyce dies that afternoon, and nothing makes much sense after that.
"We buried my mother this morning," Buffy says quietly. Beside her on the step, Spike nods soberly.
"I know, love. I'm sorry."
Buffy looks at him, serious and tired. She can feel the weight of time on her face, more lines now, maybe a few premature grey hairs. She's aged since this was real, and for the first time, she feels it.
"This isn't going to work, is it?" she asks quietly.
Spike drops a sideways glance in her direction. "Been telling you that for years, haven't I?"
"I tried so hard," she says, taking a shallow, shaky breath. Tears are gathering somewhere back there, like a distant storm. "And I kept telling myself, live in the moment, forget about the other place. But she died here and she died there, and no matter what I do, everything works out the same. And I know it doesn't make any sense, but what if I knew about it somehow, knew what was going to happen, and that's why I made the other world, and you and everyone else? But it happened anyway. And maybe it was because of the stress I caused her. Maybe it was me."
Spike takes a drag on his cigarette, thoughtful. "Don't think so," he says. Quiet, sympathetic, a sharp object neatly puncturing her inflating hysteria. This, at least, is just like she remembers.
When she laughs, there's an edge in it. "How would you know? You're not real either."
"Depends on your definition," he says. And she wants to hit him for being so damn obscure, but instead she finds herself crying.
She wakes in a place that's not the same as the place where she fell asleep. A dark room, with drawn blinds leaking tiny dribbles of sun. The first thing she looks for is him, but he's not here, is he? And that's when it hits her, what day this is, where she is, what's happening. The memory falls across her chest like the lead weight of years, making it hard to breathe.
She buried her mother for the second time today. It seems like it should hurt less, having done it before, but that's not true at all. If anything, it hurts more.
There are muted voices outside the door, and she thinks she hears her own name. It takes a moment for the concept to register, and quite a bit longer before she remembers the other thing that managed to slip from her mind.
There are people outside. The aunt she didn't remember is helping to take care of things, but she really needs to be there. How long was she asleep?
Just a few minutes, Willow had told her for the tenth time. You'll feel so much better.
But there isn't anybody else. And that's part of the problem, because she still remembers another time, when there was.
She pulls herself together, running a hand through her hair, trying without success to brush the wrinkles out of her clothes. She probably looks like she's the one who died.
She pauses with a hand on the doorknob, looking back into the room she's about to leave. A spare bedroom, never occupied by anything but exercise equipment and accumulated debris.
"You were right," she says aloud, to no-one in particular.
Time begins to pass in bright, sharp-edged fragments, strung without gaps so that events start to blur together. More than once, she finds herself beginning a conversation with one person and ending it with another, in a different room, without any time having passed in between. Sometimes she looks around and finds that whole days have passed. On some level she knows that this is not a good sign. Her therapist mentioned something about stress responses, and scheduling assessments, but she hasn't had time to see him lately.
The phone is ringing again. It's probably the aunt, what's her name, Susan? No, that's not it. Sally. She's still in town, supposedly to help sort things out, but she looks at Buffy like a specimen, and Buffy has stopped answering her calls. She stares at the phone, willing it to be quiet, but it doesn't seem to help.
She hasn't been feeling well lately, but there's so much to take care of. Medical bills and papers to file and cleaning up the house to get it ready to sell.
Who's she kidding? Buffy has no idea how to sell a house. She just has a vague sense that it should be clean, when the time comes, and probably empty.
She stares blankly at the sea of papers, and thinks, Giles would know what to do.
"You want me to get that?" Willow calls from the kitchen, and Buffy breathes a small sigh of relief as the ringing finally stops. At least Willow's here.
"Postcards!" Willow says as if on cue, fairly bouncing into the room, dropping them on the coffee table. "I was starting to wonder about those guys. Buffy, they say they're coming back."
Buffy reaches over to the table for the cards. There's a photo of Big Ben on the front of one, some bright green hills and a distant ring of stones on the other. The cardboard is a little battered, with noticeable creases. She rotates them around in her hands, staring at the upside-down pictures before flipping them over, drawing it out in the vague hope that it might jog her memory about some close friend on a trip to England.
The handwriting on the backs is naggingly familiar. And then she sees the names, and the whole world comes screeching to a halt.
Uncomprehending, Buffy looks up at Willow, who stands there with an expectant grin.
"Where did these come from?" Buffy asks, barely able to form the words.
Willow's expression shifts subtly into worry. "Um, England? Buffy, is everything okay?"
Buffy looks back down at the postcards, and the sensation of her world breaking into little pieces is almost physical.
"No," she says. Things are very far from okay.
"Ready to go?" Spike asks. She shakes her head, confused.
"I don't understand."
"It's not bloody rocket science," he says, gesturing at the motorcycle. "We're done here. Are you ready to go, or not?"
"Where are we going?"
"Hasn't Willow told you anything yet?" he asks, impatient.
"Willow?" she asks blankly. "What does Willow have to do with it?"
The postcards sit there on the counter like a coral reef, diverting the rest of her life in a steady flow around them. She knows she should do something. Ask someone. Maybe it's just that it's been so long that her memories of the people who are real have started to blend with the people who aren't?
She shows them to Justin, who barely glances at them on his way out the door. "Do I know them?" he asks. And that's the question, of course, but she just shakes her head.
"I guess not," she says. At least the postcards themselves are real.
But she wonders. In her mind's eye she can see Anya, bitter and sad after the wedding that never happened. Can see Giles, offering her a trip to Europe to take her mind off things. She's pretty sure none of this ever happened, but that's not as cut and dried as it used to be. Is it just that it never happened, or that it never happened?
She should return her therapist's phone messages, but she keeps imagining how the conversation would go. I'm getting postcards from my imaginary friends. No, not good at all. I'm hallucinating postcards. Except... hallucinating postcards? And anyway, she isn't.
She should ask Willow. Really, she should ask Willow. It's probably nothing. Just something she's forgotten in all the stress of the past few months. Old friends blurred into delusional memories, it's sort of understandable under the circumstances, right?
But Spike's dream-voice echoes in her head. Hasn't Willow told you anything yet?
She knows she should ask Willow, just to put it all to rest, just to prove that there’s nothing to worry about. But she doesn't.
"You didn't talk to her," Spike says. Stretched out behind her, half-covered by a thin blanket. The hard concrete of the sarcophagus lid presses against her hip, but she doesn't move. Spike's fingers trail lazily through her hair, down across the nape of her neck.
"Not yet," she says. Curls tighter into a ball, feeling pressure bruises bloom against her skin where it touches the icy concrete.
"Don't dare disturb the universe?" he asks softly, in a kind of singsong voice, as though reciting a playground chant. He rolls to his side behind her, propping himself up on one elbow, and his voice drops to a lower, rougher tone, serious in the way that scrapes her nerves raw. "What is it you're afraid of?" he asks.
"I want my life back." The words stick in her throat. It's an answer. It's not an answer.
"Which life would that be?" His hand drops onto her shoulder, thumb stroking small arcs across the bare skin. And she can't answer his question, so he answers it for her. "Oh, I know. That's the problem, isn't it?"
The phone has been ringing for so long that it's only the sudden quiet that's startling. Buffy looks up, bleary-eyed, and it's Willow standing in the doorway of her mother's kitchen, drawn and worried, the reciever of the phone cradled blankly in one hand, and a steaming mug in the other.
"When was the last time you ate?" she's asking.
"This morning," Buffy hedges. It's probably true, except that she's not quite sure what day it is. Willow hangs up the phone and crosses the room, mug extended. Buffy groans. "Please, Will. I don't need any more tea."
"This isn't working," Willow says seriously, pulling out a chair and sinking into it. "The stress is too much, Buffy. You can't keep doing this to yourself."
She's wrong. It has to be okay. Buffy has to be strong. After all, she can't keep running away from things. Eventually, she has to stand and fight.
Willow pushes the mug across the table. "You should go to bed, get some rest. And drink this. It'll help, I promise."
Buffy deflects the mug, pushing it away. "I can't, Will," she says, grimly. "This is my life. I can't just curl up and hide from it forever."
Willow looks at her with an unreadable expression. "That's what I keep saying," she says.
Somewhere in the background, the phone is ringing again.
"None of this is what I wanted," she tells him desperately, but he just laughs, twirling the cue between his fingers like the weapon it is. She wonders if this is how it would have happened, if she'd been less afraid, or more tired of running. "The more I fight, the worse it gets."
"Some fights aren't meant to be won," he says, stalking towards her, light on the balls of his feet. He moves like a cat, sinuous and predatory, and when she looks at him she sees the remnants of her own forgotten grace mirrored in his. "Ever stop to think that maybe you're just chasing what you can't have?"
"Like you're one to talk," she answers, trying for dismissive and hitting defensive instead.
He shakes his head, his whole body rocking side to side, and lowers the cue. "'m not the one with the problem, love. You're the one who's driving herself crazy, tilting at windmills."
"Tilting at what?" she asks. And he laughs again, leaning in.
He's close, now. Kissing distance, occupying her personal space, inviting challenge or surrender. Dancing, he used to call it. Looking at him, she realizes that she's forgotten how.
He strikes faster than she remembers how to follow, hands on her shoulders and his mouth hovering against her jawline.
"Always thought you'd be happier being ordinary, didn't you?" he murmurs against her ear, low and harsh. "Well, you got your wish."
And then he turns away, dropping the cue to the pavement. It falls with a clatter, and rolls. He glances back at her, and shakes his head, and walks away.
Buffy blinks awake into a dark room. The world is hot and cold and shivery, all at once, and all of her limbs are filled with lead. There's something warm and damp over her forehead, edging down across her eyes. She reaches up to push it away. She's sure there's somewhere she's supposed to be.
"You're awake," a low male voice says, thin with worry. She struggles to place it. Spike?
"Is that you?" she asks, uncertain. She looks for him, but it's too dark to make out any details. The red glow of the clock outlines his shoulder, but she can't see the time. The silhouette drifts double, and it's hard to keep her eyes open.
"It's me," he says gently, and a lump of something like relief lodges in her throat, because she was almost sure he'd left for good. "You've been sick, but you're getting better."
He turns his head just enough to catch the reflection of the clock light on his hair, stained crimson in the dark, and the ache in her throat doubles. There's a storm in the distance, and it's coming in fast.
"What happened?" she asks. The voice that comes out is shaky, on the edge of breaking.
"I don't know," he says. "I tried to call. For days, but there was no answer. I got worried. By the time I got there you were passed out on the floor. I don't know for how long." He brushes her cheek with the back of his fingers, trailing through beaded sweat. The touch is cool against her skin, and it's been far too long.
The storm is coming. The storm is nearly here. She can feel the first tears forming, threatening to fall. "I was dreaming," she says, her voice cracking on the words. "I think I couldn't wake up. And you were there, but then you went away."
"You said you were okay," he's saying, as though it were an apology. He sounds sad, she thinks. Resigned. When did that happen? Did she do that? Her eyes are burning, and she feels a tear slide down her cheek.
"Since when did you ever listen to me?" she asks. It's supposed to be light, a joke, but he shifts uncomfortably, sitting back. The glow of the clock seems to light half the room, but it doesn't fall on him. The silence stretches out into the dark.
"Spike?" she asks, suddenly worried, but it's not until he stands up, backing away from the bed and into the light that she realizes her mistake.
And oh, now she's really fucked up. Because it's not Spike at all, but Justin.
"You should have listened," Willow is saying from somewhere nearby. "If you'd listened to me sooner, this would have been a lot easier."
Buffy hears herself laugh, a harsh sound that turns into a cough. "You weren't exactly making with the explanations, Will. Obscure, much?" Somewhere, in the background, she can hear Justin talking into a phone.
She turns her head, opening her eyes. The only light in the room is a dim lamp in the corner, but it seems unbearably bright, burning bright, bluish silhouettes into her retinas. She lets her eyes snap shut again, listening to the conversation that already seems to be in progress.
"You weren't ready to hear it," Willow says gently. "Things had to get bad, first. Before you'd listen."
"And how many years were you going to wait?" Buffy says. The words push their way out all by themselves, all claws and teeth against the inside of her skull.
Willow sounds hurt. "It wasn't years. It just seems bigger from the inside. I did everything I could, Buffy."
"Obscure clues and serial dreams? You couldn't have just come out and said it?"
"Oh sure," Willow snaps. "Hi, I'm Willow, remember me? I'm from your other life, the one you hated so much that you had a psychotic break to escape it, and I'm here to bring you back, just like the last time you went crazy, because didn't that work out well? No, I think my way was the better plan."
Buffy cracks her eyes open again, just in time to see Justin staring at her over Willow's shoulder as though she's speaking in tongues, the phone receiver dangling mute and useless in his hand. For once, all of her sympathy is with him. She has no idea what's going on here, either.
"Justin?" she asks carefully, raising a hand to shield her eyes against the light. "Who's in the room, right now?"
There's a long pause before he answers, when he does, his voice is hollow. "Just you and me."
"What about Willow?" But she already knows the answer to that. Even though she can see Willow standing there, with her ever-present mug of tea and that faintly impatient expression as though she's waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with her.
"There isn't anyone else here, Buffy," Justin says. He sounds tired. "No Willow, no Spike. Whoever they are. Just you and me."
Buffy lets her eyes drift shut again. "Okay," she says. And then, after a minute, "Thanks."
She's standing in a dark room, concrete on all sides, with a weapon of some kind in her hand. It's too dark to see anything properly.
"Why is is always too dark or too bright?" she asks. Her voice reverberates, and the cool air carries the familiar damp scent of laundry detergent and dust. This is the basement, then. Something is rustling in the dark.
"You never do anything by halves," Spike says. She can't see him, but she knows he's there. She never dreams anything else. "Maybe you should turn on the light."
She shivers. Has an idea, suddenly, of what the darkness is hiding. "Not yet," she says. "There's something here--"
"Bollocks," Spike counters. She feels the rush of cold air as he moves away. "You know that's not true. You're just afraid of what you're going to see."
She hears a solid thump behind her as he knocks something to the ground, and then the click of the light switch, and then--
--on the floor, duct tape on their mouths and rope on their wrists, and there's a thing leaning over--
--the bedside table, he's shaking the small, orange bottle, and when he holds out his hand--
--the tea is blackish, and oily, and Willow's impatience has collapsed into a mute plea--
--so she holds out her hand, and white pills fall into it, or her hand closes around the handle of a mug, or maybe--
and she hears her own voice asking, "How can I go back? After all this time?"
and the light is so damn bright, filtering golden through the blinds. He's standing there, blue-eyed and mocking, slung against the doorway just clear of the bright shafts of sunlight. He lifts his hand to his mouth, miming the act of drinking, and Buffy turns her head away.
and Justin's saying, "It's only for observation. You'll be home in no time."
and Willow's laughing, distant and gentle. "Oh, Buffy," she says. "It's the easiest thing in the world. Don't you know you never left?"
and none of them are answering the question she was really asking, which is How can I go back, when I fought so hard to get away?
and she remembers Spike telling her that some battles aren't meant to be won
and she hears her mother's voice. Oh, honey. Don't you know that running away never solved anything?
and she remembers heartbreak and cigarette smoke and time that beats in regular rhythms of fire and death, and a baby sister she's missed and the comfort of friends, and another, brighter life
and she wants to go home.
Squeezing her eyes shut against all of the overlapping visions, she raises the mug to her lips, and drinks.
And she wakes up.
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