|Story Title:||Miles To Go Before I Sleep|
Buffy’s made it home with Annie. Will modern medicine be able to combat the demonic infection surging within their daughter’s body and heal her wounds?
The use of marshmallow to make a candy dates back to ancient Egypt, where the recipe called for extracting sap from the marshmallow plant and mixing it with nuts and honey. Another pre-modern recipe uses the pith of the marshmallow plant, rather than the sap. The stem was peeled back to reveal the soft and spongy pith, which was boiled in sugar syrup and dried to produce a soft, chewy confection. Candymakers in early 19th century France made the innovation of whipping up the marshmallow sap and sweetening it, to make a confection similar to modern marshmallow. The candy was very popular, but its manufacture was labor-intensive. It wasn’t until 1948 that an extrusion process was developed by the American Alex Doumak. This invention allowed marshmallows to be manufactured in a fully automated way.
By 1831 John Cadbury’s cocoa and drinking chocolate was getting more and more popular. He rented a small factory in Crooked Lane not far from his shop and became a 'manufacturer of drinking chocolate and cocoa'. It was the start of Cadbury as we know it today. A price list from 1842 shows that John Cadbury sold eleven sorts of cocoa, and sixteen different lines of drinking chocolate – some as a pressed block, some as a powder. Customers would scrape a little off the block and mix it with hot milk or water.
Music Referenced: Hurt, Johnny Cash http://youtu.be/J36CRZzm9vg
|Thanks:||Giant thanks to Anona for betaing this chapter, including her grammatical and punctuation corrections, wonderful commentary, and final review. Also thanks to Capella42 for her insightful suggestions that made the whole story better and epd4 for her help with the initial beta. All mistakes are mine because I simply cannot stop fiddling right up to the last moment.|
|Rating / Warnings:||
NC17. Content is only suitable for mature adults. Contains explicit language, sex, adult themes, and other adult situations that some people may find objectionable. If you are under the age of 17 or find any of these themes objectionable – GO AWAY.
Current day, Wednesday, April, 20th, 2011, 6am, Unexpected Universe:
Just as the sun was beginning to burn the spring chill from the air and force the dark shadows that covered the parking lot at the Green Grocer back into hiding, the portal near the buggy corral began to glow and flicker with a light that rivaled the rising sun’s rays. Within seconds, a dark figure was ejected from the portal and landed with a dull thud on the pavement several feet away. The man writhed on the blacktop trying to get air back into his lungs for several minutes before he finally struggled to his feet and looked around warily.
There was no one about … no one to see his escape. Perfect.
He started to move away as the light from the portal faded and it snapped closed with an audible 'pop'. He had just begun to blend into the shadows, which had returned to their battle with the rising sun, when he saw the prone figures of the Slayer and her daughter near the road. He hesitated. He stood there weighing his options … did he help them? Ignore them? What would the Slayer do if she discovered him? Send him back?
He slowly walked over to the pair as he tried to decide the best course of action – best course for him, that is, not for the Slayer. It had been a long, long while since he’d been this close to such a beautiful woman. He couldn’t help but kneel down and trace the outline of Buffy’s lips with a trembling finger as he studied her face. He looked around again – no one was there to see … he could … he could take her with him. He sighed heavily as he trailed that finger down her throat, past her collarbone and over the curve of her breast, if only he had somewhere to take her. Money he had; in fact he was loaded. He’d brought millions of dollars of the worthless commodity with him, but he had no place to go, no stronghold, no lair – yet.
“Perhaps later,” he whispered as he stood up and moved away, keeping a wary eye out for any witness to his escape from hell.
Buffy felt like she was in a giant, commercial washing machine. Her body was being turned this way and that, lifted up and dropped, sloshed around mercilessly in its dark bowels. She felt as if she was a lone dirty sock in desperate need of scrubbing. She had no idea how right she was, at least about the dark bowels part. The liquid that she was being bathed in sizzled against her skin like acid and left painful, raw, burning wounds all over her body. It smelled like … Buffy scrunched her nose up. It was an unappetizing combo of rotten fish, salt water, seaweed, and bile. She tried to find something to grab onto in order to stop the incessant tumbling, first head over heels then side to side then completely upside down. Well, at least she thought it was upside down; it was hard to tell really which way was up as the acidic liquid splashed around her and threw her around the cavernous washing machine.
The enclosure was as black as the deepest, darkest cave she’d ever been in. The walls she kept hitting were slick, slimy even, and pliable. They seemed to have a life of their own as they churned and undulated endlessly. Buffy realized immediately that this was some kind of dream, because the wounds on her skin that should’ve been growing, getting worse from the acid bath she was immersed in, were little more than a nuisance for her.
It seemed like only a moment before she was in the parking lot carrying Annie towards the road … then … what had happened? She paused a moment to think and it finally dawned on her: she’d opened the bond with Spike. She realized almost immediately the reason her wounds weren't getting worse was because the pain she felt wasn't hers, it was Spike’s. Oh God, he was in such excruciating agony! Did that mean Spike was here somewhere in the darkness? And just where was 'here', anyway? She tried to see around her, to make out something that would give her a clue, but it was impossible to see anything in the blackness.
Suddenly, a gush of cold, salty water poured in and she was completely submerged … another sign that it was a dream of some sort: she could still breathe. The tossing about slowed with the influx of what seemed to be frigid seawater and Buffy swam through it, trying to find where she was and if Spike was here too.
“Spike!” she called out, despite being under the deluge of water, turning around in a circle and trying desperately to see something, anything.
She realized that wasn’t going to work … she needed to sense him, not see him. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the bond, on feeling his presence tingle her spine, but the acid on her skin made everything feel like it was tingling. She tried harder, focusing on his pain.
“Spike!” she yelled again and began to swim up … or down … she wasn’t sure, towards where her senses said he was. She broke the surface of the brackish, acidic water, but still everything was dark. The liquid around her lurched and dipped, waves crested and broke over her head like someone had put her in a jug that was half full of water and begun to shake it up.
“Spike!” she called again. Finally out from under the water she heard it: she heard him moaning.
She raced through the dark waves of salty, acid water towards the sound, reaching out with her hands to try and find him in the blackness until she hit the side of the jug … the undulating, wave-machine, apparently alive, jug.
“Spike!” she called again and then realized he was somewhere above her, not in the water.
She searched for purchase on the slick sides. It was like trying to free climb on a snot-covered mountain of stone that moved. She fell back several times as a foothold or handhold simply disappeared from under her. This wasn’t working. Buffy clenched her jaw and focused on the bond. If she'd been drawn to him through the bond, then she had control, she just needed to assert her will. Using the pain as her guide, she reached out to her husband. Suddenly, she was out of the cold water and sitting next to him on what seemed to be a ledge of some sort.
“God, Spike!” she began as she felt his body, his face, his arms and legs for injuries. His clothes, or what she realized was the remnants of a wetsuit, were in tatters, his skin was burned horribly by the acid which dripped down the walls of the … what was this? Some kind of demonic, underwater, acid cavern?
He moaned painfully when she touched his burnt flesh. Even as the Gem of Amarra healed his wounds, it was re-burned off almost as quickly, in a never-ending dance of torture. He scratched at his skin with his nails, the new flesh itching mercilessly as it grew to replace that which had been stripped away.
“Spike, baby … talk to me,” she begged, leaning in close to his face as she tried to still his hands with hers. She put her body over his, trying to shield him from the acid, but she knew it wasn’t really helping him. She wasn’t actually there; her mind was simply transported to him through the bond. Wherever he was, he was in horrible pain, trapped, and apparently alone.
“Buffy,” he croaked out, his voice weak and low.
“I’m here now. Tell me how to find you,” she pleaded with him.
“Sea … mon...ster,” he stammered out as he tried to reach a hand out to touch her, despite the pain it caused when he moved; he just had to touch her one time. How long had he been here trying to reach her? Days? Weeks? Years? He wasn’t certain … just as he wasn’t really certain that she was here now.
Since landing on his ledge, he’d tried reasoning with the PTB many times. After that, he tried screaming, threatening, cajoling, even begging. They never answered. Apparently he’d gotten all the help from them he was getting. For a long while, he kept hope alive that the Navy, along with Bess and Angel, would find the creature and kill it as had been the mission … but that hope faded quite a while ago. He’d considered trying to escape through the throat again, however, he feared that if he failed, the PTB wouldn’t be generous enough to plop him back up here on his ledge. They had probably gotten tired of Spike pestering them and would quite likely let him go through the grinder next time just to shut him the hell up. So, all he had left was disconnecting his mind from the pain in his body and trying to contact Buffy.
She’d come to him many times in the dark, but later he always realized it was just his own mind playing tricks on him. He was starting to see things and hear things that weren’t really there. The disconnect in his mind was getting harder and harder to reconnect back to reality. He hadn’t had any sustenance in a good while, he wasn’t sure how long. He’d gone long stretches before without blood, but the constant healing triggered by the Gem was draining him quickly. Add lack of blood to the searing pain and itching on his skin and the never-bloody-ending gurgling of the beast’s stomach and what do you get? A combination that had him toddling right ‘round the bend. He was still lucid enough to realize that he was going quite mad, and that was the most frightening thing of all.
“Spike, baby,” Buffy cooed as she touched a palm to his face gently. “Where are you? Where’s Bess? Angel? Are they here?”
She could feel him shake his head. “Dunno…” he muttered at last. “Inside … pussy,” he gurgled. It was a joke – his own personal joke. It got funnier every time he told it to himself.
Buffy furrowed her brow as she tried to see him in the blackness, finally giving up and simply pressing her cheek against his to feel him. She closed her eyes and worked to figure out what he was talking about…then she heard Tara’s words from the other dimension, ‘The guys just like to say ‘Octopussy’ … they’re perpetually twelve…’
“The demon octopus … you’re inside it? This is its … stomach?” Buffy asked in alarm, her mouth near his ear.
“Eaten … by … a … pussy,” Spike burbled, a rough, wet laugh escaping his throat. It just got funnier and funnier.
“Oh God,” Buffy moaned. She wished to heaven she could see – was Bess here too? “Where are the others, Spike? Where’s Bess?”
Spike shook his head. “Gone to tea, I reckon. Probably down to Piccadilly Circus,” her murmured against her. “No tea here … just soda pop … fizz, fizz, fizz on your skin. Pour it on the battery cables t’ keep ‘em clean. No worries then … just need a jump and we’ll be off.”
“Spike, listen to me,” Buffy pleaded with him, lifting up and holding his face between her palms. “I’ll find you. Don’t give up, ok? I promise I’ll find you and get you home.”
“Right, no worries. Be home for tea, then. Do ya’ want strawberries and cream or just toast and jam? Mother makes the best lemon curd. All the ladies at the Empress Club rave over it,” Spike continued to ramble, his voice morphing from the vampire's rough-and-tumble, adopted accent to the cultured, natural one of William. “But strawberries are in season and Miss Nellie just procured some fresh, sweet cream at the market this morning.”
Buffy sighed heavily and dropped a soft kiss on his lips. His mouth felt rough and hard, as if his lips weren’t even there. “Spike, I’ll be back. I’ll get help and find you, I promise. Can you understand me?”
“Lemon curd for the lady, then – I know Mother will be chuffed t’ bits.”
“I love you, Spike.”
“I love you too, Buffy,” Spike murmured, coming back to himself momentarily. He reached a hand for her again – if he could just touch her hair, he’d know she was real. But then, before he could tangle his fingers in her tresses, she was suddenly gone. A mirage, just as all the others had been.
Spike sighed heavily and tears of frustration mixed with the sea water and acid bath and burnt painful streaks down his cheeks. His hand hung in the putrid, empty air, still reaching for her. He dropped his arm tiredly and began to help Mother and Miss Nellie prepare tea for their guests. Perhaps Buffy would attend, after all. He so wanted Mother to meet her.
Buffy shot upright, her eyes wide with panic as she looked around and tried to get her bearings.
“Buff!” Xander exclaimed, jumping up from his seat at her bedside.
“Xander! What’s? Where? How …” Buffy stammered.
“Hospital … and I don’t know the answer to the other questions,” Xander told her as he moved up to her side. “What the hell happened? Annie’s …” Xander’s voice trailed off and fear seemed to seep out of his glistening eyes as he looked to Buffy for answers.
“Annie! Oh, God – her legs,” Buffy remembered. “Is she … where is she? I need to see her.”
Xander put his hands on her shoulders in an attempt to keep her still. “She’s in surgery – you can’t see her. Buffy, what happened? We’ve been looking for you for days! Where have you been?”
“Oh, God! MacKenzie! Is she alright?” Buffy demanded, looking at her friend pleadingly. She saw such a contrast between this man and the Xander she met in the other world. This one wore no scar across his face, had no constant scowl on his lips, there was no hardness to his eyes, only worry … boatloads of worry.
Xander nodded. “She’s ok. She was a little dehydrated, but they got her fixed up and she’s ok. We found her still in her car seat in the minivan out at the docks.”
“It was stripped bare; the keys were still in it. We looked everywhere for you and the doodlebug, Willow even did locator spells for you guys … a big zero. What the hell happened? What happened to Annie?”
“We fell through a portal to another dimension – she was attacked by giant bats … among other things,” Buffy explained quickly.
“Bats? A portal? But Willow and Tara took vacation time and came down – they did that … ‘walk around and act like they’re looking for something magical’ thing. They searched all around near the van.” Xander swirled his fingers around in the air as he spoke, imitating the ‘looking for something magical thing’ the witches had done. “They didn’t find anything,” he told her, dropping his hands dramatically.
“No – the portal was at the new Green Grocer … in the parking lot. That’s where I left the Blue Bomber, not anywhere near the docks! I’d just gotten 'Kenzie strapped in when Annie cut her arm and … I had no choice, I had to go after her,” Buffy continued to explain frantically.
“Oh man! Someone must’ve stolen the minivan – with MacKenzie in it, and took it down there to strip out,” Xander realized. “We were looking in the wrong place,” he moaned, rolling not only his eyes but his whole head in frustration.
Xander turned his soulful eyes back to her, and settled his hands back on her shoulders. “Buffy, there’s something else,” he began solemnly.
“No – you don’t, it’s Spike,” Xander continued.
“I know – he was eaten by a big, demonic pussy,” Buffy sighed, rubbing tiredly at her eyes.
Xander frowned. “Not sure I would’ve put it that way. Were you channeling Anya just then? How…?”
“The bond … when I was out, I … I went to him through the bond … like in a dream. He’s in the thing’s stomach, we have to find him, get him out of there,” Buffy instructed, as she started to get out of the bed.
Xander backed up a step to let her up. “Yeah, well, that’s the thing. They’ve been looking for him for five days … today makes six. The demon octopus won’t stay in one place long enough for them to catch it and it won’t come to the surface for them to shoot it. They’re actually having a hard time just following it, it keeps moving out of the range of their radar or sonar or whatever. Willow’s out there with Bess and Angel on the Navy ship tracking it magically.
“Buffy – they can’t keep looking for him forever. They … they said one more day – a week is pretty much their limit for looking for anyone,” Xander explained ominously.
“What!? He was out their saving their asses, saving the whole Pacific seaboard, keeping a nuclear sub from melting down, and they can only look for a week? What kind of stupid rule is that? He’s alive – he’s inside that damn thing, they need to … shoot it with a tranquilizing torpedo or something, string it up, and cut it open!” Buffy argued. “Didn’t they ever watch ‘Jaws’? Where’s Captain Quint when you need him?”
“I know, Buff … I get it. I already talked to Giles and he and Wes are looking into renting our own boat. Maybe we can get a faster one that would be able to keep up with it. We’ll keep looking, I promise,” Xander assured her.
“Xan, he’s losing his marbles down there, we have to find a way to get him out like now. Can’t Willow mojo him out or … drop a magical net over the thing or just transport it up onto dry land? I'll be happy to hack it up ... got a whole set of Ginsu knives - we'll have sushi.”
Xander let out a deflated sigh. “She’s tried – but it seems to be … like on a different wave length or something. It’s like the thing’s from a dimension that’s got a different magical tuning fork than ours, or it’s had its … I don’t know … molecules changed somehow. She thinks it might’ve happened when it came through to our dimension from wherever it came from. She said that could happen if there wasn’t actually a portal opened up – if it was just like ‘forced through the ectoplasmic fabric that keeps the dimensions from colliding.’” Xander held his fingers up and did air quotes on the last part while rolling his eyes.
“I don’t know, Buff,” he sighed heavily, dropping his arms to his sides. “Willow had lots of ideas and big words, but the bottom line is it just slips right through her spells. She can’t even track it, she’s tracking Spike…and that’s just barely working,” Xander explained. “She can’t get him out or stop the demon.”
Buffy sighed heavily and rubbed tiredly at her eyes again with both hands.
“The good news is, Dani and Billy are fine. Only worried to death about everyone being suddenly missing when they got home from school last Friday. MacKenzie is fine now too,” Xander added, trying to cheer her up.
Buffy nodded and took a deep breath. “That’s good … thanks, Xan.”
Buffy immediately checked herself out of the hospital and now sat in the surgical waiting room chewing on her fingernails as she waited for the doctor performing the surgery on Annie to come out. Xander had gone to get her something to eat. He’d called Tara, who was at the mansion with Dani, Billy, and MacKenzie, and told her that Buffy was awake. While Willow went out on the ship to try and rescue Spike, Tara had stayed in Sunnydale, trying to assuage the Weckerlys’ children’s fears. The white witch was bringing them to the hospital now.
After Xander called Tara, Buffy used his phone to call the Navy ship that was looking for Spike and the octopus. The man that answered the call put her on hold as he went to get Bess to the phone.
After a few minutes, Bess’ voice came on the line. “Hello?”
“Bess! It’s Buffy. What happened? Are you alright? What’s going on? Have you found Spike?” Buffy fired the questions off like a Gatling gun.
“Mom!! Are you alright? Where have you been? I tried calling you when it happened – then no one could find you guys,” Bess rattled off. She sounded far, far away and even younger than her fourteen human years.
“I know, honey. I’m sorry. Annie and I got pulled into a portal and sucked into another dimension,” Buffy began to explain.
“Another dimension? What … what does that mean? Are you alright?” Bess asked, confused. She hadn't had any experience with other dimensions ... unless you counted the Council's dungeon.
“It’s a really long story, I’ll tell you later, ok?” Buffy put her off. “What’s going on there? Are you alright? What about Spike?”
“I’m fine. It’s just … I’m sooo sorry! The thing just dragged Spike right by me and I reached out and … God, I couldn’t hold him! I tried so hard to pull him back but it was too strong,” Bess blurted out in a gush of anguish. “Buffy, it ate him!”
Buffy blinked her tears back, covering her eyes with one hand. “It’s not your fault, ok? We’ll find him, everything will be alright,” Buffy assured her. She hoped it sounded more convincing than she felt.
“They want to stop looking! I’ve … God, Buffy, I keep fighting them on it, but I don’t know how long …” Bess began.
“I know, Xander told me. We’re gonna try to get our own boat,” Buffy told her. “Bess – what’s not being done that should be done?”
Bess took a deep breath and the line went silent a moment. For a second, Buffy thought the call had dropped. She pulled the phone away to look at it, then heard her daughter’s voice again and lifted it back to her ear quickly.
“Welll…” Bess drawled. Buffy could hear her moving, then her voice got lower and she sounded like she was in a tunnel. “I was talking to Billy, and he said that he looked it up, and octopuses … I mean octopi … are attracted to the color white. It’s like a magnet to them. The stupid sailors here think I’m crazy, but I was thinking: if we took one of these AUVs and painted it white…” Bess suddenly stopped talking.
“Yeah?” Buffy prodded.
“Ummm …” Bess cleared her throat and Buffy could hear voices in the background. When Bess spoke again, her voice was even lower. “We’d basically have to steal one of these things, ‘cos they won’t do it. They say they’ve already lost three AUVs on this mission and that equipment is ‘too expensive to use as bait’,” Bess mocked in a tinny voice. “Anyway, if we were to … somehow get one and paint it white and send it down there and get the demon to follow it … like into a cave or something. I was thinking that Angel and I could be there waiting for it. We could trap it and kill it. Spike was right, you kill them by puncturing them right between the eyes – so if we can get it confined…”
“You could shoot it between the eyes with a harpoon and get Spike out,” Buffy finished her thought.
“Yeah… but – we have to have something to use as bait. Something that can go deep, move fast, and that’s white. And we’d have to find a cave around here or somewhere to trap it. That damn thing moves like the wind – there’s no way we can swim fast enough to catch it if it bolts. Even the boat can barely keep up with it.”
“What does Willow think?” Buffy asked.
“She thinks it’s worth a try, but the sailors won’t …” Bess stopped talking again. Buffy could hear more voices in the background.
“Ok, ummm … let me talk to everyone here and see what we can come up with, ok?” Buffy told her.
“Ok, but talk fast, ‘cos they’re getting ready to kick us off this floating frat club and I don’t know where we’d get another one of those machines on our own. They are kinda expensive,” Bess acknowledged. “Willow checked.”
Buffy nodded, thinking to herself. “Do you have to commandeer the whole boat or can you just steal one of the vehicles and … like the computer that runs it?”
“I don’t know – I’ll ask Willow,” Bess admitted. “Don’t you want to know what Angel thinks? He says...”
“Nope. Couldn’t care less," Buffy interrupted her, knowing just by the tone of her daughter's voice that Angel didn't think it was a good idea. "Just talk to Willow and see how much … borrowing we’d have to do, ok?” Buffy instructed her.
Buffy saw Tara and the kids turn the corner at the end of the corridor. “Ok, Bess – I have to go now. Tell Willow I’ll call her later about the magic problem she’s having with it. I think I know where the thing came from.”
“Ok, I’ll tell her.”
“It wasn’t your fault, ok? We’ll get him back, don’t worry,” Buffy assured her.
“Ok. I’m still … so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. You did everything you could. I love you, Bess. Be careful, ok?”
“Middle name. I love you too,” Bess replied before Buffy disconnected the call.
A chorus of, “Mama! Mama!” rang down the long, sterile hallway of the hospital. The excited voices seemed to fill the whole area with fresh, clean air and take away the stench of ‘hospital’.
Buffy stood up and moved quickly down the bright white linoleum to meet them. She dropped down to her knees as the twins rushed up to her and she pulled them both into tight hugs, dropping kisses in their blond hair and over their faces. “Oh, my babies! I missed you so much!” Buffy exclaimed as she nuzzled her face between theirs and held them to her.
“Are you okay? Where have you been? Why didn’t you call? We were so worried! Did you bring Papa with you? Where’s Annie?” their questions were fired off in rapid succession, neither child giving her a chance to answer.
Tara made it up to them, pushing Eddie in a stroller and carrying MacKenzie. Buffy stood up and hugged the white witch’s neck before taking the baby from her arms. Buffy nuzzled her face against the small redhead’s soft skin, sighing in relief as tears welled in her eyes. Xander said she was ok, but Buffy could actually believe it now. The baby cooed and gurgled then reached her small hand out and grabbed a fistful of Buffy’s hair and tugged – hard. “I missed you too, sweet girl,” Buffy whispered against the redhead’s ear.
Dani and Billy hugged her legs, afraid to let her go lest she disappear again, as they kept repeating their questions. Buffy moved over to the line of chairs and sat down. The twins clambered onto the seats next to her, each pressing against her, trying to stay as close as possible.
“Annie’s here – she’s in surgery,” Buffy explained, dabbing at her eyes. “Your Papa’s … not here yet, but Aunt Willow and Bess and Angel are looking for him and … I just know they’ll find him soon, okay?”
“Where did you go?!” Billy asked. His big, blue eyes were full of worry as he searched hers for assurance that she wouldn’t go away again.
“Annie and I fell into …” Buffy stopped and blew out a breath, trying to think how to explain portals and dimensions to seven year olds. She cleared her throat. “You know how in Chutes and Ladders, if you land at the top of a chute, you slide down and can get plopped back at the bottom again?” Two blond heads bobbed their understanding. “Well, Annie and I sort of landed on a chute and we got dropped way down far away and it took us a while to find a ladder to get back here.”
“When we got home from school and you weren’t there, we tried your cell phone, but you didn’t answer,” Dani explained with a slight edge of accusation in her voice.
“I know, baby – it’s because I left my phone in the minivan – I didn’t have it with me. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there when you got home. I really didn’t mean for that to happen; I didn’t mean to scare you,” Buffy apologized.
"Billy was scared, but I wasn't," Dani asserted, giving her mother a defiant, brave look.
"You were so!" Billy argued, glaring at his sister.
Buffy held her hands up in a "T", calling for time-out. "It's ok to be scared ... I was scared too," she assured them both.
Billy huffed a little because Dani had gotten the last word before their mother stopped them, but let it go. After a moment he asked, “What’s wrong with Annie?” His lips formed a worried pout as he clung to Buffy's side.
“She got hurt – her legs got hurt,” Buffy explained.
“When you fell down the chute?” Dani wondered.
Buffy sighed. “No, later – she got hurt later. The place we landed was … kinda scary and there were some … uhhh …” Buffy let out a breath. She didn’t want to scare them any more than they already were, but didn’t want to lie to them either. “Well, there were some bad vampires there and … they hurt her.”
“Did you kill them?” Dani asked, punching her hand in the air like it had a stake in it.
Buffy smiled slightly and a tear slid down her cheek. “I killed some of them … actually Annie killed one too. She was very brave! There were a whole lot of them, though…I couldn’t kill them all.”
Xander came up with food and Tara took the baby back so Buffy could eat. She was ravenous, even bland hospital cafeteria food tasted like heaven right now. She’d only eaten a little bit, talking to the twins in between bites, when Xander pointed down the hallway. Buffy turned and saw a doctor in surgical scrubs coming out of the double doors that led to the surgical and recovery rooms. Buffy sat the tray down and stood up nervously. She held her hand up, silently asking her friends to keep the kids there while she spoke with the surgeon.
Xander and Tara exchanged a worried look. They’d seen Annie’s wounds and the infection when they’d been called to the hospital. The Green Grocer’s store manager found the two unconscious girls in his parking lot that morning and called an ambulance. Luckily, one of the emergency room nurses on duty recognized Buffy and Annie – she’d been on duty the night a pregnant Buffy had been brought in with severe pain in her abdomen. She was the nurse that had taken the children to the lounge for a donut while the doctor spoke with the frightened parents. Otherwise, they would’ve been admitted as ‘Jane Does’, because there was no ID on them at all.
Xander and Tara, along with the twins, watched from a distance as Buffy spoke with the doctor. The doctor was shaking his head and they could see the words, “I’m sorry,” form on his lips several times. Xander had just started to stand up and go join Buffy when she suddenly collapsed as if she’d been shot. Down on hands and knees, she retched and all the food she’d just eaten lurched violently from her stomach and covered the shiny linoleum.
“What!? What is it?!” Xander demanded as he reached her and the doctor, who was trying to comfort her.
The doctor shook his head regretfully. “I’m sorry,” he repeated for possibly the tenth time since he began talking. “We couldn’t save her legs. The infection was too widespread… the damage too severe.”
“Oh, God,” Xander murmured as he dropped down next to Buffy and pulled her to him. Buffy accepted his embrace blindly as uncontrollable sobs wracked her body. She knew Annie was in trouble – knew she would die in the other dimension without proper medical treatment, but she thought if she got home everything would be okay … it would be fine.
This was 2011!! There were millions of drugs; there were hundreds of antibiotics … there were countless miracles of modern medicine. They didn’t just chop people’s legs off anymore … did they? That’s what they did in the Civil War. This was 2011!! This could not be happening!
Buffy knew if she just got Annie back here, back to civilization, then she’d be okay. All her friends in the other dimension gave their lives to send them back. Annie had to be okay. She was supposed to be the understudy for Clara in the Nutcracker. That’s all she’d wanted to do since she was six years old, dance as Clara … and now … This couldn’t be real. She must still be dreaming.
“Oh, God, Xander … please wake me up … please … please tell me this isn’t real… please…” Buffy begged him through her sobs.
Xander had no answer – he couldn’t wake her up, even as Tara and the twins came up to them to find out what was wrong, he had no answer for her, no miracle. This nightmare was real.
Buffy automatically opened the bond with Spike without thinking, desperately seeking his comfort, his solace. She needed to feel him near her, near her heart and soul, both painfully raw, guilt-ridden, shattered, crushed … utterly defeated.
She suddenly began to writhe in agony in Xander’s arms as the bond connected with Spike. Her skin felt like it was covered with the painful and constant burns that he was enduring. She screamed as all of Spike’s pain washed over her body; she felt like she’d been dropped into a vat of molten lava. In the dungeon he’d been able to keep the bond opened just a crack so she wouldn’t feel his pain, but he wasn’t lucid enough for that now. He’d been reaching out for her in vain since the whole nightmare began a week ago, and when the connection was finally made, it surged through to her, bringing all his agony with it.
Xander tried to hold her, keep her from convulsing and thrashing dangerously against the hard floor under them. Not understanding what was happening, nurses and orderlies converged on the pair, finally getting Buffy sedated, and her wild convulsions and heart-wrenching screams stopped.
Buffy felt like she was flying through the sky and the air was made of fire … No, that was wrong. The air wasn’t made of fire; fire fell down like rain and filled the air. Torrents of burning embers fell from an ochre sky. It licked at her body, burning her flesh until she was nothing but a skeleton with blackened, peeling skin barely holding her bones in place. She looked at her hands, turning them over and over, her eyes wide with worry and confusion. Bony knuckles pressed against the thin, burnt flesh and her blackened skin cracked open when she closed her fist. She could see the white bones and cartilage beneath, but it had stopped hurting. She looked at her nails and thought she could use a manicure.
Buffy shook her head. No … that … where had that come from? She should be worried about her bones and her skin, not her nails. She was floating in the burning downpour, so high she really couldn’t see anything but the flames. The air all around her danced and flickered with bright blue and yellow fire.
Too bad she didn’t have some marshmallows to roast.
She shook her head again, lucid enough to know that this wasn’t real and that those thoughts were strange even for her. Drugs … they must’ve have drugged her, sedated her, she realized at length. She sat down on a smoldering cloud of smoke and rubbed her burnt and peeling fingers over her face. The skin of her palms came off and fell from the cloud, incinerating in the rain as it dropped away, leaving only the skeleton of her hands where her palms had been. She closed her eyes to the sight and tired to assure herself that this wasn’t real … it couldn’t be real. After sitting in silence for some time with her eyes pressed closed against the bright fires that surrounded her and the horror of her own decimated body, she finally remembered what had precipitated this – Annie. Annie … Oh, God, Annie.
Behind her closed lids, images of their eldest daughter flashed like fireworks, burning the images into her closed lids like photographic negatives, each new one layering atop the one before. Their beautiful little girl with the grace of a dancer and the heart of a lion, with the whole world in front of her, would now have to face that world from a wheelchair. Buffy scoffed as the doctor’s words of regret and assurance that rang in her mind, something about ‘incredible breakthroughs in prosthetics’ and the prospects of living a ‘full life’.
Would she be able to dance as Clara in the Nutcracker with prosthetics? Become a prima ballerina if she’d found that to be her heart’s true desire and calling? Could she run through the surf on the beach? Skimboard? Climb a mountain just because it was there? Skip happily down the sidewalk to the park? Play a rowdy game of soccer with her family? Dance with a cute boy at the prom? And what about later … making love to a boy, to a man? How would Annie ever feel comfortable in her own body now? Comfortable enough, confident enough to … to ever let herself fully experience the joys that come with being a woman in love. What if she retreats into a cocoon of despair or bitterness and never even allows a boy close enough to get to know her, never gives anyone the chance to love her?
Buffy honestly couldn’t imagine life if she couldn’t walk – it was something beyond her comprehension. She knew people did it, lots of people and lots of people led happy, productive lives that way, as the doctor assured her between his apologies, but it was out of Buffy’s ability to fathom.
Pictures of Annie … from her first steps all the way through every dance recital she’d ever been in, to dancing as she sang along to the Band Hero game with her siblings, to just the other day, running from and fighting the demons, and staking her first vampire, raced through Buffy’s mind.
Then the dreams Buffy held for her daughter’s future flashed against her closed lids. Dreams of dances and dates, of going to the prom, of being a cheerleader, maybe a homecoming queen, dreams of Spike walking her down the aisle at her wedding and Annie playing in the park with her own children, riding bikes with them and playing in the ocean with them. The visions no sooner materialized in front of her eyes than they burst into flames. Cinders of a life that her daughter might’ve had floated slowly down inside her and settled in the dark pit of despair that was her heart, burning painfully as they died an agonizing death.
Every dream was now just an excruciating reminder of what would never be for their little girl, and the caustic bile of guilt rose in Buffy’s throat. She should’ve protected her, should’ve left the hold of the ship when Spike told her to … should’ve done more, should’ve never taken her daughter on a patrol in the first place … she knew better. Buffy’s own pride goaded her into going with Spike and the others on their mission and now Annie was paying the price for it – Annie’s whole future, her entire life, was paying a staggering, unfathomable price for it. She’d let her daughter down and now Annie was footing the bill for Buffy’s failure and stubborn pride. Paying the piper with crushed dreams and squandered potential.
Buffy covered her head with her burnt and bony arms as sobs wracked her body. How was she going to explain this to Spike? How could she tell him that she’d failed their daughter? How could she explain that his little girl lost both legs just below the hip? Gone. Forever. How could she face Annie? How would she be able to help her through this when she couldn’t even look her in the eye? How could she buoy her daughter’s spirits and encourage her when Buffy felt so completely deflated and hopeless? How would her daughter ever forgive her? Why should she?
“God, I’m so sorry … so sorry…” Buffy cried to the fiery sky.
Suddenly, the bright lights that shone red through her closed lids died and turned black, she blinked her eyes open and looked around – it was dark, black; a salty, acidic tang filled her nostrils and she knew where she was.
“Spike?” Buffy called, sniffing back her tears and feeling out with her skeletal hands. She was on his ledge; he was right behind her.
“Ahhh, there you are, luv,” Spike replied, his voice hoarse and gravely, as if his vocal cords had been burnt along with his skin and muscle. He sounded so very tired and far away and the sound of it made Buffy’s heart fall even further.
His accent shifted to that of William as he spoke to her in the darkness. “Mother’s waiting … she’s so excited to have you join us this fine day. She’s been looking forward to meeting you for a good while now.”
“Spike,” Buffy moaned as she turned and laid her burnt body down next to his, cuddling against his side. “I’m so sorry, baby… I … I let her down. I failed Annie … couldn't keep her safe,” she gasped out between anguished sobs.
“Mother got hold of some Cadbury’s Drinking Chocolate for you, pet. I told her how you loved chocolate,” Spike continued in the accent of his youth. “She had Miss Nellie check all about town for it, finally found it at Hogan’s Apothecary on Great Russell Street.”
Buffy sighed heavily and rested her head on his shoulder and Spike’s arm snaked around her. Despite the pain of moving his burnt flesh, her body next to his made the pain fade a bit.
“Does it have little marshmallows in it?” Buffy wondered.
“Of course, luv. Is there any other way?”
Buffy smiled sadly and touched her hand to his cheek and Spike leaned into her touch. “No … no other way,” she agreed quietly as she closed her eyes and took comfort in the pain of the acid burning her skin through the bond.
Pain was her friend. She welcomed it to her breast like a lover. It was what she deserved for her failure to keep Annie safe and for all the other misdeeds she’d perpetrated over the last few days. She embraced it now; it covered her like a mourning shroud – engulfed her. She wanted nothing more than to drown in the hurt. Burning in this pain forever wouldn’t be long enough to pay for what she’d cost their daughter. Suddenly her betrayal of Spike with the two vampires in her dreams seemed a trivial offense … but the guilt of that never left her mind or her heart, either.
She felt like her world, her family, was coming apart at the seams and she was to blame for all of it.
Hurt, Johnny Cash
I hurt myself
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