Chapter Two: Waiting for Dark
She got out of bed, stretching carefully as her limbs popped and creaked in protest. Padding into the kitchen, she pulled a box of granola cereal out of the cabinet and poured water over it.
Walking into the living room, she picked up the remote and hit the power switch. In reply, the television winked on, connecting her to the world via CNN.
She sat down with her tasteless breakfast, scanning the blurbs at the bottom of the screen.
Half an hour later, she was satisfied that the entire world's reported ills were either natural in origin or attributable to the stupidity of men. Carrying the bowl into the kitchen, she rinsed it out and returned to the living room, pulling an incline bench away from the wall.
The old weapon's chest had long since given up its original contents. She pulled out two free weights and strapped weights on her hands and ankles. Lying down on the bench, she began her morning warm up, starting with flies and ending with five hundred stomach crunches.
She moved the weight bench back into place. Her side caught a little. Frowning, she went to the bathroom, shook out a couple of Advil and started the shower.
Dawn was still awake when Xander shuffled out of his room, wearing sleep pants, a tee shirt and the incongruous eye patch. He looked cute.
"Coffee..." he croaked.
She pointed toward the kitchen in amusement. "Made."
With an 'ahhh' sound, he reached for a mug and poured. No sugar or milk. Just strong, black coffee.
"Thank God," he said, after a large swallow. "Usually in bed by ten," he explained. "I'm up early, early every day." He looked at Dawn accusingly. "Except today. *You * messed up my schedule." He walked into the living room to see the girl sitting brightly on the sofa, legs crossed in Indian fashion. "Tonight is an early night. Count on it."
He'd been right the day before. Dawn didn't look like a colt anymore, with thin, awkward arms and too-long legs. She'd filled in. Still tall, but shaped more like a slightly overweight super model than the clumsy baby sister. "What are you doing up?" he asked, realizing that the room had gone silent during his appraisal.
"Couldn't sleep," she informed him. "I'll crash while you're at work. Pick up my car from Kitt's later."
"You staying here again tonight?" he asked. "If you are, it's fine, but you'll need a key. Not the green and glowy kind," he said wickedly. "Just basic hardware store stuff."
"Does Sp... 'Will' have one?" she blurted out.
Xander looked at her in surprise. "Well, he really doesn't need one. He's gone by the time I leave in the morning and I grab him on the way home, so..."
Dawn nodded excitedly. "I was up when he left!" She jumped off the couch and hurried to the back door. "Look!"
Xander walked over and eyed the door. "What?"
"Well, I didn't lock it. He did!" She turned shining eyes on the man. "He locked the door behind him when he left."
Xander nodded absently as he walked out of the kitchen. "Yeah. He's been known to do that."
"But... why?" Dawn said shrilly as she followed. "Doesn't that mean..."
Interrupting her, Xander sat down on the sofa, pushing the blanket out of the way with one hand as he balanced the coffee cup in the other. "Honey, he dresses himself and pees by himself. Actually showers and washes his hair. Shaves. He does lots of things. And sometimes he locks the door if he leaves before I do."
He held up a hand as Dawn sat down beside him, disappointed. "The following are things he *doesn't* do. Will doesn't cook," he said as he ticked off a finger. "Doesn't open the refrigerator. He *will* turn on the faucet, but he doesn't do dishes. And he doesn't do floors," he said with a quirk of his mouth. "Other than that, he's fairly self-sufficient. And a much better roommate that Sp... than he used to be."
"But how does he know how to do it?" she asked, loathe to let it go.
"I don't know. And I stopped worrying about that a while back. None of it makes much sense, Dawnie, but hell! Him being here at *all* doesn't make sense." Xander got up. "I'm going to get ready for work. When I'm gone you can sack out on my bed if the couch isn't getting it for you. I'll get an extra key made and leave it on the kitchen counter after lunch." He smiled. "Do whatever. Spend time with Kitt. I'll see you tonight."
Dawn bought a camera at the mall.
The price was right and it was a Canon. Which was supposed to be good. At least, she thought it had been a good brand once. After watching the sales clerk load it, Dawn had puttered around with it, taking pictures of Kitt in the Food Court. Trying it out.
She even pulled out the small manual and read it, checking to see what each of the buttons across the top were used for.
The flash might be a bad idea, she mused. The time to do this was now. And she could get Kitt to help.
Swearing her friend to secrecy, they left the Mall, heading for downtown Sunnydale in the metallic blue Beetle.
Buffy was grading Professor Simmons' papers when the latest survey materials came through.
"I should have the new questionnaire done over the weekend, if you can handle getting these new names in and starting the process next week," Simmons announced.
Buffy nodded. "I can do that."
He started to walk away, but turned back. "If you want to piggy-back some supplemental questions, like last time, be my guest."
She looked down at the papers she'd been working on. Finished. Putting down the pen, she gathered the stack up tidily and pushed the papers into a file folder.
"Those random dream questions of yours are interesting," he prodded. "Ever figure out where you're going with that?"
She shook her head, not bothering to look up. "Not really." Finally, she met his eyes as she handed him the file folder. "All done."
There were circles like bruises under her eyes. "You need a vacation, Miss Summers."
"Planning an overnighter," she informed him. "Starting as of now."
"Good. All work and no play..."
Buffy's mouth twisted in distaste, as if she remembered something she'd rather not.
Confused, Simmons watched as she walked out of the office and into the corridor. He shook his head. She was such a strange young woman.
In the strange setting that was the corner store, Dawn began taking pictures. She started from the street and inched forward, even getting pictures of his hands as he held the dominoes. Hoping she wasn't too close, she snapped pictures of his pensive face, suspecting that, more often than not, she was only getting shots of his unruly mop of sun-bleached hair.
Finally, there were pictures *with* him. Dawn and Spike. Kitt was almost certain he looked into the camera for one of them. Almost.
Dawn knew it was stupid and dangerous. But the trim predator with the neat, white hair and the wicked-cool coat was gone. This was no one Buffy had ever seen before.
Spike had been a big part of Dawn's life once, and even though she'd been angry with him in that last year, he *had* done 'the thing', made the sacrifice. Stepped up to the plate. Saved the world.
Somehow made it right.
Praying the final result wouldn't be a complete travesty of what she and Spike had had, Dawn had pulled away from the curb, stifling the urge to wave. Once at Kitt's again, she carefully hid the film in her suitcase until she could return to Tucson.
Buffy sat on the serape, waiting patiently for the sun to go down behind the mountains and full dark to ensue.
It had taken three hours to get there. But already the wood was prepared. She used fire to focus, almost like hypnotizing herself. It always left her refreshed afterwards and invigorated. Grounded and balanced. No hokey pokey necessary.
She'd brought peyote buttons once - one of those times when she'd been so desperate. It had been the second year after the apocalypse. She'd seen something during that 'trip', but of course, she couldn't trust what she saw. Hello? Hallucinogens?
She'd thrown up the contents of her stomach and then started on stomach lining, she remembered. Ached for days after and remembered next to nothing about it. Not one of her finest several hours. No more buttons and no more watching 'Altered States'.
In the last five years, she'd been to the desert twelve times, every time alone. Eight of those times, she'd wound up exactly in the same spot, where an impossible overhang that was miles away framed the gnarled tree with its fist-shaped trunk. The fist almost looked like it was holding a large stake.
She thought it was homey.
In her years of visiting this place, she'd learned to wait. Wait for the sun to go down. Wait for the fire to mount. Wait for the cold to settle over her. Wait for the peace. She had finally learned to stop fighting and grasping for half-answers and cryptic messages.
Of course, the visions no longer came to her. The slayer dreams were gone, never to return. Sometimes, she felt empty when she thought of it. Missed them - even missed the horrors they'd often revealed.
Buffy gazed at the wood and waited patiently for the blackest part of the night.
Dawn had fallen asleep with the television on. Xander had almost gone to sleep in his turkey sandwich. Will had eaten, gone into the bathroom, and retired to his room.
The girl shook her head. "You might as well not have a roommate."
"Oh, it works for me. Don't think it doesn't," Xander said with a glint of mischief in his eyes. "Once he's in his room, he doesn't come out until he's ready to leave. As roommates go, he's the best."
"Must cramp your style with the women, though," she said saucily.
He leaned back in the chair so that the back rested against the counter, and waved a hand airily. "Relationships are overrated. And if I get too lonely I go talk up some girl at the Bronze. Biggest problem I've got these days is finding the unattached who are over the age of consent, but still have a thing for the romantic, pirate look."
"Consent?" She made her eyes innocent. "What do they have to consent to?"
The feet of the chair slammed as he threw himself forward. "Nothing. Nothing. Except for... intelligent conversation," he said quickly.
She rolled her eyes. "Uh huh."
"You know what?" he remarked quickly. "I'm done." He yawned for extra emphasis. "Why don't you call Kitt? Get out for a while?"
"Well, I would, but I never went back to sleep today."
It was the truth. She'd hit the couch again after Xander left, but she couldn't get her eyes to stay shut. Deciding it was the sofa, she'd padded down the hall to his room, blanket in hand, and piled up on the freshly made bed.
That hadn't worked at all. The smell of Xander's cologne was in the room and it made it seem all 'Xandery.' Which for some reason wasn't very conducive to resting.
So yes, she was tired. Climbing up on the couch, she pulled a blanket over her and fell asleep to the low drone of the television.
Buffy used his lighter to make the fire.
It wasn't really his lighter. She wasn't even sure where his old lighter was - whether it had been with him that day or not. But the one she had was the same style. An old Zippo she'd found at a flea market the first time she ever came to the desert.
Her eyes had landed on it, lying on a bed of black fabric, surrounded by an eclectic grouping of turquoise jewelry and heavy metal doodads.
She'd picked it up, turned it over in her hand, hefted it lightly, and flicked it open.
Disappointingly, there was no flame. Needed a flint, the old woman had said. The woman had called her son over and he'd disappeared for a few minutes, appearing with the necessary part to fix it. Had even put lighter fluid in it for her.
Once it was full, it felt right. Smelled right. She'd paid for it and deliberately slid it into her front jeans pocket.
Two days later, she and the rescued lighter had been parked on a blanket just like the one she had wrapped around her shoulders now. The lighter had made every trip since. The blankets were subject to change without notice.
Picking up a piece of scrub, she flipped open the Zippo with a practiced motion and set the twigs on fire. As the mess of sticks burned, crackling loudly in the silence, they released a pleasantly green odor. Buffy nestled it into the pile of wood and watched the tiny flame set the larger pieces of kindling alight.
She concentrated on the growing flame. The lighter stayed in her hand, her fingers gripping it tightly as she allowed herself, in this silent place, to think of him.
He hadn't believed her at the end. She had told Spike she loved him and he didn't believe her.
She'd never lied to him about how she felt. Never said she loved him when she didn't. Why would he think she'd start then, when it was so important? When she'd known that he wasn't going to make it that time. That it was *his* turn.
The fire began to burn in earnest, smoke rising as hungry flames licked at the dry, light-weight wood. Squaring her shoulders, she surrendered herself to whatever memories came to her, letting them play across her mind as she sank further and further into herself, guided only by the glow at the heart of the fire.
Dawn's head came off the pillow as the sharp cry punctured her troubled dreams. Disoriented, she sat up, floundering for a moment as she realized she was on a sofa and not on her bed. She almost fell.
When the next sound came, she jumped up and leapt down the hall, almost flattening Xander in the process. She burst into Will's room.
He was curled in a ball on the bed, tears wet on his face as he shuddered. "Burns..." he whispered softly.
As she stepped toward him, Xander caught her and pulled her close. "It's just a dream," he said softly. "Don't."
The girl looked up at her friend wildly. "But it hurts him," she breathed. "Make it stop."
Xander sighed. "Waking him up..." He shook his head. "Not of the good. Takes two days for him to get right if you do."
Dawn was staring in horror at the pitiful sight on the bed. He was mewling softly, twisting in the sheets. She burrowed up against Xander for comfort.
"It plays itself out," he said softly. "Really." She looked up and saw that he was watching Will closely, eyes narrowed. "Come on now."
She dragged her feet, returning her eyes to the man on the bed. "How do you stand it?"
"It doesn't happen often. Couple of times a year at most." He sounded nervous.
Digging her heels in, she stared at Will as a slow smile began to play around his mouth. It looked so much like Spike that she caught her breath in wonder.
"See?" Xander said as he pulled her toward the door. "Better already. He's fine."
"But..." Dawn was confused. Xander seemed determined to get her out of there.
"Come on," he said harshly. At her puzzled look, he let out a frustrated breath and pulled her out, closing the door. "The dream... changes," he said cryptically. "This part's nothing we need to be around for."
At the warning note in his voice, Dawn let him ease her back toward the living room and into the small kitchen. Xander was almost jovial when he spoke again. "You want something to drink?" he asked. His voice was very loud after the hushed tones of the bedroom.
He loudly clattered around in the cabinet, bringing out drinking glasses and plates. "Sandwich?" he continued, not waiting for an answer. He began manically digging in the refrigerator for cold cuts and condiments, making more noise than he needed to.
"Sandwich and a movie," he said quickly. "Action flick, maybe. Cause house, not apartment, so we can really let 'er loose..."
She wanted to ask him if he'd gone insane, but she didn't get the chance. There was a howl from the back of the house, like something long trapped had been released. Dawn's mouth fell open.
Her eyes flew to Xander. He was frozen in the act of leaning into the refrigerator for more.
He slowly straightened and turned, eyes down. Her cheeks flushed as she realized he was bright red. Tentatively, he glanced up, trying to gauge her reaction to the sound she'd just heard.
"Did he just..." She couldn't say anymore. Her voice was shaking in shock and surprise. Her chin set, silently demanding confirmation.
He let out a ragged breath. The man looked at the floor, the cabinet, and the jar of mayonnaise - anywhere but at Buffy's sister.
"Cause it sounded like he..." She still couldn't finish.
"Yeah." Not trusting his voice, Xander spoke more loudly than he needed to. He dropped back a peg. "Yeah, he did."
She stared, willing him to spell it out. "I mean..."
"I know what you mean. And yes. He got a happy. A big one." Xander's voice was sarcastic in his chagrin, face becoming so red, it was moving into the purple range. "And don't worry. It's over, okay?" He ran a quivering hand through his hair. "For another year, if I'm lucky."
Dawn opened her lips to speak, reconsidered, and closed her mouth with a snap.
He glanced up at the wall and kept his eyes there as his color subsided to pink. "Look, I guess you staying here wasn't such a great idea."
Her temper flared. "I'm not a baby," she said resentfully. "And I've had sex."
Xander's eyes flew to her face. It was true, of course. There was a young woman standing in front of him, fire in her eyes, not a sixteen-year-old kid.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
She blew out a frustrated breath. "No, *I'm* sorry," she said sarcastically. "Somehow I managed to grow up. Guess I forgot to send out the memo!"
He tried to relax, but waves of tension were ricocheting around the room. "Again with the sorry," he said carefully. "But still..."
"And now you're pissing me off," Dawn said curtly.
"Well, excuse me, *Miss* Summers," he began hotly, "but a man you and I both used to know, and who used to sleep with your sister, the same sister who also happens to be my best friend, just shot his load in a very big, very loud way," he said nastily. "In his pants. In his sleep, no less! I find it sad, pathetic, and more than a little creepy. And I'd feel that way even if you *weren't* said best friend's baby sister!"
He began sweeping the perishables off the table and back into the refrigerator. Breathing heavily, he slammed both hands on the counter and pushed off, stalking past Dawn and down the hall without a backward look. His bedroom door closed with a slam.
Dawn stared after him. Flipping off the kitchen light, and him with a second gesture, she stomped to the sofa.
Well, she thought as she folded her arms angrily. Maybe Spike wasn't the only one with pent-up urges.
Sometime during the cool night, Buffy had ended up under the blanket she'd worn around her shoulders. She stretched languidly as the first rays of sunlight played against her eyelids.
She opened her eyes slowly. As usual, she couldn't recapture the night, but the result was the same as always. There was a deep feeling of peace and relaxation that permeated her body and mind. Like her balance had been restored.
Achy from sleeping on the ground, of course, she thought with a smile, but she always was. Smiling, she stood and shook out the serape. The lighter fell to the sand softly, loose hinge clinking.
She folded the serape, then the blanket. Finally, bending down to retrieve the lighter, she felt the muscles in her abdomen and legs protest.
Must be really out of shape, she thought, amused.
Humming softly under her breath, she went to load the Cherokee.
Continued in Chapter Three: Autonomic Responses