By Elsa Frohman
Rating: PG-13 no sex, a bit of strong language near the end.
Spoilers: None really. Sort of AU.
Archiving: Please ask, I'm easy
Summary: This is the first of 25 ficlets counting down to September 24, when Buffy comes back to our television screens in the United States. Bit of angst in this first one. Most of the others will be lighter.
Countdown: Twenty-Five Regrets
Damn! Graffiti already. School hasn't even started and they're already marking up the walls.
Alexander Harris frowned at the marks on his freshly painted wall. OK, it wasn't really *his* wall. The walls, the floors, the ceilings and all the windows and doors belonged to the taxpayers of the Sunnydale Consolidated Public School District. And there weren't any windows down here anyway. Hello... basement.
But dammit, couldn't they have left it nice, at least until the new school opened? Damn teenagers.
He continued down the subterranean corridor, inspecting the work he had supervised. He was looking for anything left incomplete, anything that needed to be fixed before the students arrived for school in three days.
How'd they get in here anyway?
He stopped next to another set of marks on the wall. The first had been nothing more than scribbles. And he'd thought this one was the same until he looked away and his peripheral vision had allowed the irregular marks to organize themselves into letters and words. Weird -- the handwriting was so bad that when you looked straight at it, it just looked like random marks. It was only when you weren't looking straight at it that you could see it was writing.
1. The heavens above cannot contain
my grief at causing loved ones pain.
Xander's stomach did a little flop. This wasn't graffiti. At least it wasn't the kind that teenagers wrote. That was usually the names of bands or gangs or "Kevin loves Melissa."
He read the couplet again and felt a little sick. Anya standing beautiful and forlorn in her wedding dress.
He shook it off. Work to do. Keep your mind on the job.
2. I cannot undo the wrong I've done;
the injury outlives the thoughtless one.
Another one. Damn. Xander paused and touched the writing. A little bit of white powder came off on his hand. It was chalk. He glanced away and the words came into focus -- along with the memory of trying to apologize.
"Clearly, I'm not handling this very well."
His lips pressed together in a firm line as he pushed the image away.
Focus! You've got to get this inspection done.
3. Lies like acid burn the tongue;
when it leaves the mouth, the damage is done.
Xander gritted his teeth. Was this a spell? A mystical graffiti artist? Someone like that musical demon that made him sing his secrets? He rubbed the writing with his hand and it smeared. It was just chalk. Nothing magic. He tried to remember everywhere he'd been since the last time he'd been in this corridor. Had he been down here writing this in his sleep? Somehow, whoever was marking the walls of the new high school basement knew the things he never admitted out loud.
4. Love's arrow pierces the heart;
destroys all it touches, death is it's art.
He thought of Anya again. What he'd done to her. She wasn't even human now. He'd killed her.
He didn't want to read any more. Maybe he could send Pete down here to finish the inspection. No. No way. Then Pete would be reading this. These were his own most personal thoughts. He couldn't let anybody else see them. He'd have to erase them before anybody else saw them.
He went back to the janitor's closet and got a bucket and filled it with soapy water. He went back to the beginning of the graffiti and started scrubbing it off the wall. The paint was fresh and in some places the scrub brush left marks. He was going to have to come back with paint and touch this up after he was finished.
5. Lust consumes the flesh it defiles,
love is defeated, Satan smiles.
Cordy in the janitor's closet. Willow in the old factory basement. No, don't think about it. Just scrub the filthy words off the cinderblocks.
6. Of all the filthy things I hate,
I feature first myself of late.
7. The darkest places can't compare,
to the black of my heart, I'm now aware.
The couplets were coming closer together now.
8. There isn't any way to fashion
a way to excuse my lack of compassion.
9. I hate, I hate, I hate,
to remember those I ate.
What? What was that supposed to mean? I'm supposed to become a vegetarian? Xander shook his head.
10. I cannot overcome my past;
it follows me until the last.
Xander saw his father berating his mother. The cold sarcasm. The contempt. He saw himself berating Anya for some minor breech of etiquette. He paused for a moment feeling hot tears welling up behind his eyes. Then he lifted the scrub brush and obliterated the words.
11. Love nurtures, but only the free;
obsession imprisons, the prisoner is me.
12. Failure, failure. To fail is my lot.
I've failed those I love, forgiven I'm not.
OK, sort of belaboring the point, aren't we? Xander scrubbed the wall with renewed vengeance. If the regret demon was going to write out his soul's torment like this, he could at least make better poetry of it. He had started to think of the graffiti artist (Was artist the right word for someone who scribbled words he could barely read?) as the regret demon. It had to be magic of some sort. How else could anyone know the secrets he only let himself remember in his darkest moments?
13. My mother alone, no son to protect her;
I should have gone home, but chose to neglect her.
Xander frowned. I can go home anytime I like. I can. Sure it's unpleasant. I should do it. But I won't. Too much pain. Maybe I should call Mom and see if she'd like to go out to dinner.
But he knew he wouldn't.
14. Each life on earth is a priceless treasure.
The ones I've ended I cannot measure.
What the hell was that supposed to mean? Somewhere along the line, he'd stopped thinking of the couplets as invasions of his privacy. They were trying to tell him something. These were here to show him who he was and what he needed to change. That had to be it. He felt a little like Ebeneezer Scrooge -- the Mr. Magoo version, naturally. He was being shown his mistakes. If he could understand them, perhaps he could fix them.
But this one was puzzling. The lives he'd ended? What lives? He stopped and though for a moment. Who had he killed? Nobody he knew... wait... The musical demon. People spontaneously combusting. Oh, yeah, them. Jesus. How do you make up for something like that? It was something he always stopped himself from thinking about. Nothing I can do about it now, he thought, but it still cut though him like a knife -- just like it did every time he remembered.
15. To destroy without thinking;
I must have been drinking.
Xander frowned. Try harder, Mr. Regret Demon. That was just lame.
16. The soul teaches what the heart didn't know;
the man reaches; the monster's struck low.
More cryptic stuff. Xander tried to puzzle it out. It had to mean something.
17. Again and again he botches the choice;
to suffer in silence, to give passion voice.
18. Passion is blind;
19. Poisonous anger
puts loved ones in danger.
Xander sighed. That one struck home. Yup, finally getting the drift. Just call me enlightenment man, he thought bitterly. It did sound a bit like a fortune cookie, but hey, truth is truth.
20. Taking. Having. Still wanting.
So many times, but who's counting?
21. No matter how hard I strive;
I'll never be good, much less alive.
No, that can't be right. There has to be a way to be good enough, Xander thought. There has to be. Otherwise, what's the point? He scrubbed extra hard. Make it go away. It's not true. It can't be true. Sudsy water and chalk dust ran down the rough, cement-block wall and pooled on the cement at his feet. He kept scrubbing until he realized he'd removed the new, not completely hardened paint from three or four cement blocks.
22. A soul can't repair;
after rage fuels despair.
23. An ocean of blood;
I drown in the flood.
24. Arrogance will tell;
ignorance is hell.
Xander paused. There was only one more couplet. The rest of the corridor was clean. This one was on the door of a utility closet. Xander stopped in front of it. His stomach flopped again. It wasn't a couplet. It didn't rhyme. And it changed everything. Oh God. It wasn't about him. It never had been. Oh God. How could he have been so blind?
Scrawled on the door of the closet, in writing bigger and bolder than the rest:
25. SPIKE LOVES BUFFY
There was a jagged place in the "Y" in "Buffy" where the chalk had broken under the pressure of the writer's hand. And the second line trailed down diagonally, until "fucked" was nearly on top of the doorknob.
He stood there a while, staring at the ragged chalk lines. Then he opened the door. A wedge of light spilled into the dark closet -- and something moved. Something dark skittered away from the light. He opened the door farther and stepped inside. There was enough light now to see the creature huddled in the corner -- black jeans and T-shirt smeared with chalk dust. His head was down and his knees drawn up.
Xander knew he should be feeling the rage. He remembered it so clearly. All that anger that had filled him until it ran over and spilled out after he found the duster hanging on the banister. All that fury. All that poison. All that grief.
But he'd read the twenty-five regrets now. He'd read them and scrubbed them away -- all but the last one, that is. The corridor was clean.
And, at last, Xander Harris understood.
"Spike! Long time no see."
He held out his hand to help the vampire stand -- and waited.
Continued in Countdown: The Twenty-Fourth