Not mine! Dialogue recognized is from Nightmares, and written by someone else who did a good job and got paid for it. Anything you don't recognize is mine.
Random babbling explanation: Written in response to the SunS Chaos POV. Previously published in the "An Alternate Viewpoint" fanzine (see http://members.tripod.com/~natmerc/avzine.html) which is currently out of print, but will probably do a second run in September. Ok? < g >
And yes -- I am a Giles fan.
It started small enough: small, multi-legged and numerous.
Buffy had informed me of the "spider" incident during the break between morning classes. I must confess that I did not think much of the matter. A fluctuation in Hellmouth energies, a curse cast by someone with more talent than sense, or at most a minor mischief demon. The boy, fortunately enough, had not been harmed or bitten by the poisonous spiders, and I merely put it on my long list of items to research.
The air-conditioned back room holds many of my own private volumes, and at first it was... enjoyable. No students asking me inane questions about how to replace lost school texts, no loud noises, no one to annoy me, or interrupt my "hunt" for mystical truths. Time slipped by, and... I distinctly remember turning left towards the exit. Time for a spot of tea, and a brief look through the LA morning paper before I continued.
Except the door wasn't there.
Ahead of me was another set of shelves. Puzzled, I looked through their contents in order to orient myself. I knew the volumes -- they were familiar, but... I couldn't remember where they were located in relation to the door. Annoyed now, I started walking briskly through the bookshelves. Instead of reaching the far wall, I found a walkway, and another unit of shelves laid out neatly in front of me.
The lights had somehow dimmed, and I could not see more than a short distance ahead. I started walking faster. Everytime I thought I was finally reaching a wall, or caught sight of a door, another set of bookshelves would appear in front of me.
I... I do not know how long I was there. How long I was "lost", although it seemed to go on forever. It was such a ridiculous situation. The room was not that large, and I should have been able to find my way easily. Except I... I couldn't.
Buffy saved me. She never knew it, and I would be the last one to inform her that she had rescued her Watcher yet again. After all -- it was supposed to be the other way around. In all my time growing up, in all my research, no one had ever bothered to point out that training did not always correspond to reality.
The deep silence that had surrounded me was broken by the familiar sound of her voice. I could identify it with surety; her voice a beacon within the maze of books and musty air... leading me outside. She had entered the library and was talking to Willow and Xander. With their voices as a guide, I turned the right way and found the door immediately in front of me.
I rushed out, glad to see the sun shining through the ridiculous skylight positioned above the library. Americans, and their love for sunlight. Just then I did not care how much it was damaging the books -- all I cared about was that it was there, I was out of that blasted back room, and Buffy was looking up at me from the lower level.
"Hey, Giles. Wakey, wakey." Buffy stepped forward, still looking up at me.
"I was... in the stacks... lost." I turned back to the storage area, still puzzled and a bit bewildered. Already the memory of it was fading. Surely I couldn't have been lost? That would have been ridiculous. Deep in thought, it took a moment for Xander's next words to penetrate.
"Did you find any theories about spiders coming out of books? Big... hairy... crawley..."
A pause and more noises below. Some sort of slapping sound, perhaps. I turned to look down at the main level.
"It's funny if you're me!" Xander's face was a mixture of glee and false apologies. He must have been teasing Willow again.
"I couldn't find anything, uh... particularly illuminating. Um... I think you'd best have a chat with Wendell himself." The boy should be able to add details that would help narrow down the search. Give reasons as to why he had been singled out.
"Okay," Buffy replied. "If he can still talk."
They left me, and I turned towards the back room. I still needed to find that volume on minor curses. Later -- I would find it later. The incident, although surely a figment of my imagination, had been disquieting. It was past time for tea, and I also needed to finish up some paperwork. I went downstairs, and looked into my office. Books were everywhere, and the sunlight never seemed to penetrate this far into the library.
Whatever had happened, if it had happened, could wait until after I had tea. Right now I felt a sudden need for the company of other human beings instead of books.
I heard about the girl being beaten while I was talking to the Mathematics instructor in the teacher's lounge. Normally an interesting man, he was being particularly ghoulish at describing the details of the girl's injuries; expounding upon them at great length. As one who has seen more than his fair share of death and mutilations, I was not amused, and cut short the conversation as soon as I gathered the pertinent details.
It did not seem to be connected to the spider attack earlier, and was likely an unfortunate example of random violence; perhaps revenge from a discarded boyfriend, or a jealous schoolmate. Unfortunate, but not tied to the mystical influence of the Hellmouth.
Buffy insisted on "checking it out", however, and I drove her over to the hospital during the school lunch hour. We stopped at the flower shop, and I picked up a small flower pot of yellow carnations. Live flowers instead of cut ones that would wither and die in a few days. I have always hated cut flowers.
"Xander said that Chuck said she was pretty beaten up." Buffy paused, checking the plaque of room numbers on the wall to orient herself. "She was unconscious when the ambulance took her to the hospital during second period."
"Do you know the girl?" I hoped not.
"Just to say 'hi' to," Buffy said. "Laura's nice enough. Nobody saw who attacked her?"
"I was rather hoping that Laura did." The last few days had been so quiet, so "normal". A pleasant change from our "usual", and it was still possible it would be an uneventful day.
We came up to Laura's room, and Buffy stepped forward ahead of me through the doorway. Laura was lying in the hospital bed, pink bed sheets tucked about her and an IV tube attached to her left arm. A white hospital nightgown with small blue dots made her face look pale, and drawn.
Laura must have heard us enter, because she turned towards us. I realized that the Mathematics instructor had been accurate in his accounting. Her face, particularly the left side, was covered in bruises, and she had a large bandage covering what was likely a bad cut positioned right beside her right eye. Seeing her there... it reminded me of all the times I worried about finding Buffy in such a state after a night of hunting vampires, although Buffy's natural resilience and quick healing made most minor injuries... well -- minor. Laura, on the other hand, had no supernatural protection against injury. Her eyes, when I looked into them, were dark, and... scared.
"Hey, Laura." Buffy's voice was gentle, and non threatening. Just a fellow school-mate accompanying a teacher to represent the best wishes of the school.
"Hope we're not intruding..." I belatedly remembered the flowers I was holding, and handed them over to Buffy for her to place on the end table.
"That's okay... I don't want to be left alone."
Although now facing us, Laura did not move much in the hospital bed. Clearly her injuries were painful. Where was her family? Surely they had been notified? Why had she been left alone? "You understand that we're anxious this... this doesn't happen again."
Awkwardly, I pushed my hands into my pants pockets so I wouldn't have to figure out what to do with them. It was a bad situation. I hated awkward conversations like these. Buffy, on the other hand, seemed more at ease, and more willing to force Laura to remember what had to be horrible memories. In this case, as in so many others, I let Buffy take the lead.
"Can you tell us what happened?"
Laura's eyes flickered, looking away from us. "I was in the basement." She was now peering directly into Buffy's eyes. A touch of embarassment at the revelation of broken school rules touched her face. "I went down for a smoke... There was someone there."
"Someone you knew?"
Laura shook her head. "I've never seen anything like it."
Buffy turned to me briefly, eyes full of questions. Had it been a vampire? It had been full daylight, and there was no place for it to hide when the ambulance crew and the police had gone down into the basement. But if not a vampire, and not a human, where had the creature gone?
"It?" A single word, but Buffy was asking Laura so much....
I leaned down towards the hospital bed. Intent now; this was clearly something we must investigate. "Can you describe it?"
She tried. I saw her start and stop a few times. It must have been both frightening and frustrating. No doubt the police had already questioned her thoroughly, and now members of her own school were demanding answers. Answers we had to have -- but ones we were not likely to get while she was in such a state. I might have gone forward, and insisted, but....
"Hey! That's okay. Don't worry about it." Buffy ending the questioning before Laura even got a chance to speak.
Perhaps she was right. We wouldn't be able to get information out of her right now. She was too scared; it was too recent. "Yes. You... you just rest now." It was time to retreat: time for research.
Buffy picked up her jacket. "You know that...."
A nurse came into the room from the door behind me. Her presence an indication that our allotted "visitor's time" was apparently up. "Hi, Laura."
Buffy, ignoring the interruption, continued on. "If you remember anything, you can tell us. Even if it may seem weird."
The nurse spoke again, her voice intruding on the connection Buffy had established with Laura. "She needs her rest now."
With the nurse now keeping Laura company, we turned to leave, and my thoughts were already on the search ahead of me. Whatever "It" was, we had no description, no details except that it had been able to beat a young healthy girl into unconsciousness with ease. There were far too many possibilities....
Laura's voice caused both of us to stop and turn back. "I'm sorry?" I took a step back until I was right behind Buffy. This could be important.
"It's what he said... right before... He said 'Lucky 19'." Laura's voice was soft, embarrassed almost. "That's weird, right?"
"Yes. Yes, it is." Not only was it strange, but it bore no relation to my tentative assignment of a malignant demon's presence in the school. Perhaps I would look into the Numerology sections first?
"Feel better." Buffy turned again to leave.
Looking at Laura lying there in the hospital bed, I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do for her. Tracking down this monster, whatever it may be, would not help her heal any faster, but it might prevent another student from being hurt or killed. "Take care."
An inane statement, but what could you say to someone in that condition? We hurried out into the hallway, and Buffy quickly tracked down Laura's attending physician. He seemed in a hurry. A tall, bald man in his forties, he strode through the hospital corridors, open clipboard in hand, and we were forced to lag behind him.
"Doctor? Is she going to be all right?" I hoped she would be. Hoped this was one attack that would not leave a fatal or disabling legacy.
"Friends," Buffy answered. She was striding just behind him, almost clipping his heels, although the doctor's bulk dwarfed hers.
"She'll recover. She's got a couple of shattered bones, a little internal bleeding -- she got off pretty easy."
"Easy?" Buffy's voice showcased her incredulity.
I remembered Laura's face back there in the hospital room, and the careful way she stayed still so that she would not hurt any more than necessary... I agreed with Buffy. The scared look in Laura's eyes... "Have you looked up the word lately?"
"Well -- the first one's still in a coma." The doctor stopped in front of an observation window, and Buffy moved to look through it. A boy lay in a private room inside, his face turned away from us. He appeared to be asleep.
"First what?" Buffy demanded.
"First victim." The doctor pointed towards the young man lying completely still beyond the glass window. "They found him a week ago. Exact same M.O. as the girl except only he's in worst shape. If he doesn't wake up soon..." His voice deepened and grew rougher. "Somebody's got to stop this guy."
Buffy echoed my own thoughts. Whoever, or whatever, this monster was, we would track it down and stop it.
Parting ways with Laura's doctor, I hurried Buffy back towards the parking area. The lunch hour was quickly passing. She needed to be back in school, and I needed to get back to my library.
Time moved inevitably on, and we still had no idea what was truly happening.
The remainder of lunch was uneventful. I managed to get Buffy back well before the bell rang for her afternoon classes, and finished eating my own packed lunch in a hurry.
The school had the local newspaper, The Sunnydale Press, delivered to the library each day for the rare cases in which students needed it for research purposes. If some monster or demon was terrorising the town, there was a chance it had started earlier on non-human victims, gradually building up in both scale and viciousness. The attacks would have been reported.
As far as newspapers go, it was a fairly mediocre one, but all that could be expected in a relatively small town like Sunnydale. It usually ran to two thin sections, and managed to pack most world events onto the second page. The remainder was filled with local "news", and a large sports section. Normally, my research material was far older, and far more interesting.
I spread out the newspapers onto one of the student tables, ready to skim through them for anything that would relate to Laura's attack.
The headline blurred before me, the letters wavering and turning into squiggles before my eyes. Blinking, I found my eyes filled with tears, as if dust had gotten into them. Perhaps my glasses were dirty.
A quick trip to my desk, and I carefully wiped my glasses off. Slipping them back on, I picked up my notepad. While here, I wanted to write down ideas for later perusal in the stacks. There was still a chance we were dealing with some sort of mischief demon, or perhaps an ogre had attacked Laura. Although there was no indication that, whatever it was, had tried to eat Laura, there was the chance it had been scared away before it had the time.
My own handwriting... writhed. There really is no other way to describe it. Twisting in front of me, the words appeared to be in a foreign language. I grabbed a pen, and tried to write.
I couldn't remember how to form the letters....
Sweat gathered underneath my arms, and my palms grew damp. Something was wrong, something was dreadfully, impossibly wrong. Books were my life, my main tool as a Watcher. How could I function without them?
In desperation, I started thumbing through the books on my desk. English, Latin, German... none of them made sense! I threw one of the books onto the floor. I... I cannot say which one, because I could not read the cover to identify it.
A ridiculous state of affairs, but... I sighed and rubbed my eyes again, before slipping my glasses firmly back on. The Sunnydale Press, rag though it was, was written in plain English. I would try again with that.
I spent the next five, perhaps ten minutes peering at the newspapers, and stayed glued to them despite the urge to get as far away as possible. Trying to focus on the captions, and even determining the print date had turned into an impossible task. The only thing I succeeded in doing was scattering them across the table into a jumbled mess, and to give myself a dreadful headache.
"This can't be!" Desperate thoughts turned to who might have cursed me, and spells that might reverse whatever the problem was -- but how would I read the spellbook? Who could I get to help me? Ms. Calendar?
Behind me, I heard the library doors open, and the click of heels against the tile floors.
"What's the word?"
It was Buffy. Coming to check on my research. Expecting answers I couldn't give her. "Oh... I've got back issues of the paper." I lifted up the one in front of me and peered at the front page. As if it would magically make sense now that she had arrived. "Trying to do some research."
She moved up next to me. "Did you find anything?"
I coughed, clearing my throat. "I don't know."
"You don't know if you didn't find anything?"
"Having a problem." This was impossible. I wouldn't believe it except it was happening to me -- right now.
"What is it?" Buffy's voice was questioning, but not worried. Why should she be? I had never had this problem before.
"I... I can't read." He turned to look at her. Having admitted it seemed to solidify the problem; make it real in a sense that it wasn't before.
"What do you mean?" Incredulous now. "You can read like, three languages."
"Five actually." I smiled briefly. Five working on twenty-seven if you counted the grammatical variations through the centuries. "On a normal day." I looked closely at the newspaper in front of me. Even the pictures... "The words here don't many any sense."
I threw down the paper in disgust, and walked away from the table. Closing my eyes, I focussed on trying to relax, and think the matter through. Behind me, I heard the rustle of papers as Buffy looked at them.
"Who?" Did I care?
"The kid I've been seeing around school." Buffy's voice changed, acquiring a different cadence as she started reading from the paper. " '12 year-old Billy Palmer was found beaten and unconscious after his kiddy league game Saturday. Doctors describe his condition as critical.' When was this published?"
I watched her eyes turn towards the corner where the paper held the date. Why could she read it and not me? At the moment, the world seemed perverse and unfair.
"... last week. Says he's in a coma in... intensive care."
Stepping up behind her, I looked at the paper she was reading. It was still a mess of letters that made no sense... at least to me, but what Buffy was reading sounded familiar... a connection to the boy they'd seen in the hospital? "The first victim? You've seen him around the school?"
"Yeah. First when the spiders got Wendell, and then when I didn't know anything on the history test. I thought it was weird seeing this kid around, but I... forgot about it."
My mind raced, and I raised a hand to stop her talking for a moment. "The... the boy's been in a coma for a week. How could this be possible?"
"What am I? Knowledge girl now? Explanations are your terrain."
Yes, they were. Kind of her to point that out. I took off my glasses, and turned my mind away from the disquieting newspapers. I looked at the few clues we had as a whole, and was relieved to discover that my knowledge, unlike my ability to read, appeared to be in working order. "Well, um... there's astral projection. The theory that while one sleeps, one has another body -- an astral body -- that can travel through time and space."
"Billy's in a coma, and that's like sleep, right?"
"In a manner of speaking." I cleared my throat again. "Only one doesn't always awake from a coma."
"Could I be seeing Billy's asteroid body?"
Asteroid body? Surely growing up in LA, she had heard the term before? Apparently not. "Astral body, and I..." She gave me one of those exasperated "what does it matter" looks. Ignoring it, I continued on. "... I don't know. As usual one doesn't have... an inordinate amount of information to work with."
Standing back up, I looked at the books surrounding me. There were plenty of "New Age" books I could study, but not many that were reliable.
Turning around, I saw Buffy was looking at the newspaper again.
Suddenly, I heard the library doors being pushed open, and a rather tall, stocky man walked through. "There you are! I've been looking everywhere..." He appeared to be addressing Buffy... I slipped on my glasses in order to get a better look.
"Why aren't you in class?" The man was smiling, but his tone....
Buffy rushed over to meet him. "Dad. What are you doing here?"
This was Buffy's father? Unexpectedly, I felt a wave of... an emotion I didn't want to identify, pass through me. I had never expected to meet the man, Buffy's father. The one who had raised her in her formative years, when she should have been under the safe care and strict tutelage of a Watcher.
"You're not supposed to pick me up till after school." Barely pausing for a breath, Buffy quickly added, "is something wrong?"
Buffy appeared worried, hesitant almost. I wasn't used to seeing her this... fragile. I realized that despite the long hours we spent together, she had never really spoken of her father. I didn't know how well their relationship was. She had told me he would be picking her up for the weekend, but....
"Well... I had to talk to you." The man was smiling. It was a familiar smile, and its confidence looked out of place next to Buffy's worried visage.
"Something is wrong... Is it Mom?"
"No, no -- it's not your mother. She's fine." He leaned forward until his face was next to Buffy's and lowered his voice until I could barely hear him. "Can I speak with you for a moment? Privately?
"Uh, sure. Yeah."
She turned towards me, and her face lit up. There really is no other way to describe it. A bit bewildered at the abrupt transition, I was unprepared for her to grab her father's arm, and drag him forward.
"Oh! I'm sorry. Dad, this is Mr. Giles -- the librarian." Her voice sounded proud to make the introduction, and he reached forward to shake my hand.
The librarian? Oh... yes. I suppose I would be "the librarian" to her father. Just another one of her teachers... I smiled a bit idiotically, and found myself in a minor tussle of grips as we tested each other's strength.
"My pleasure." I managed to utter it while the smile was still on my face, and my fingers were being squeezed together into a pulp.
Buffy reached forward and grabbed her jacket. "I'll be back."
I watched as they headed briskly towards the doorway. Side by side, they appeared very dissimilar, the only resemblance in the colour of their hair, and their confident smiles. Except... Buffy's smile during most of the conversation had been noticeably absent.
Still -- he was her father, and with Buffy living with her mother instead of in my care, I had no real "right" to question her relationship with her parents unless it affected her duties as the Slayer. No right at all.
Turning back to the newspapers, I picked one up and peered at the spot where the headline should have been. Squinting, I saw the letters swim, and then... reassemble into normal New York Times lettering.
Closing my eyes in relief, I felt a deep shudder pass through my body. That experience, whatever had caused it, had been more disquieting than I cared to think about. With the newspaper clenched in my fist, I walked back into my office, and sat down in my chair. I let the newspaper drop onto the table, and spent a minute running my fingers through my hair, and concentrating on taking deep, calming breaths.
Feeling more myself again, I lifted up the front of the newspaper, and identified the article that Buffy had been looking at -- reading the sparse details over and over again with a thoroughness that had nothing to do with a desire for knowing all the reported facts.
Perhaps it was the boy's astral body that Buffy was seeing. The boy may have been nominally psychic before the accident, and the energy of the Hellmouth was allowing his astral body to roam free. It still didn't explain the incident with the spiders, or Laura's attack.
Letting the paper fall again, I reached over to thumb through the books I had tossed aside earlier. After reassuring myself that my eyes were functioning normally, and that I hadn't suddenly gone mad, I decided to take a break before continuing on.
A nice pot of soothing tea, my second of the day and my home country's general "cure all", would be a pleasant reward to myself for not falling apart -- before I tried to delve into "New Age" pulp written by idiots with no real credentials or actual experience.
I was finished my first cup of tea, and just about to pour a second when Willow and Xander barged their way into the library -- noisily.
"Red alert! Where's Buffy?" Xander said.
Glancing over, I saw Xander finish pulling on one of the maroon Sunnydale High t-shirts. "She... she just stepped out. Her... her father came by." Whatever had happened to that awful printed monstrosity Xander was wearing earlier? "He... he needed to talk with her. Where are your other clothes?"
"Oh! Don't I wish I had the answer to that question!" Xander appeared to be in quite an exited state. Even more exited than usual.
I stirred my tea, and let them continue with their explanation. This sounded interesting. Willow, appearing more amused than anything else, started giving me the actual details of what had happened. "Xander kinda found himself in front of our class... not wearing much of anything."
"Except my underwear!" Xander pointed out, now looking quite disgusted.
"Yeah! It was really... " She glanced at Xander who was frowning at her amused tone, "... bad. It was a bad thing."
"Bad thing? I was naked! Bad thing doesn't cover it!"
Taking the spoon out of the glass, I set the tea cup on a coaster. With any luck, this explanation would only take a few minutes, and I would still be able to enjoy it.
"Everyone staring... I would hate to have everyone pay attention to me like that." Willow's voice had grown softer.
"With nudity! It was a total nightmare!"
I watched as Willow's face started to show... realization. She had thought of something. "Well yeah, Xander. It... It's your nightmare."
Nightmare? Xander's nightmare, Wendell's nightmare... Perhaps...?
" 'Cept the part with me waking up going 'it's all a dream' " He looked at me pointedly. "It happened!"
"Like it happened to Wendell! That thing with the spiders? Wendell had a recurring dream about that."
"I... I dreamt that I... I got lost in the stacks." In a daze, I walked through the short corridor from my office and into the main library area. This was important... and as the truth became stunningly obvious, I felt so incredibly stupid. "... and I... I couldn't."
In aggravation, I slammed a fist down onto the table beside me. "Of course!" Turning, I looked down at the newspapers. Both incidents, the one in the stacks and the problem with reading, were now explained. Even the fear, the worry, and the inability to think coherently that had consumed me -- were just part and parcel of a nightmare becoming reality.
"Uh... our dreams are coming true?"
I could always count on Xander being two steps behind. "Dreams? That would be a musical comedy version of this... Nightmares -- our nightmares are coming true!"
My eyes unfocussed as I thought of the possibilities... people's darkest dreams taking shape, and intruding onto the streets of Sunnydale.
"So why is this happening?"
Still lost in thought, I answered Xander's question absently. "Billy."
"Well. That explanation was shorter than usual." Xander turned to look down at Willow and said sarcastically, "it's Billy." Turning back to me, his tone became demanding. "Who's Billy?"
"He's a boy in the local hospital. He was beaten. He's in a coma." Without thinking, I stepped towards them, eyes looking past them and into my office. There was a volume somewhere in there dealing with the psychic effect of trauma on reality... "Uh... Somehow, I think he's crossed over from the nightmare world he's trapped in."
"And he brought the nightmare world with him. Thanks a bunch, Billy."
Willow's eyes were puzzled. "How could he do that?"
How indeed? Rather, how to explain in less than three hours? "Things like that are easy when you live on a Hellmouth."
"Well, uh..." Xander picked pointedly at the front of his new t-shirt, "we have to stop it."
"And soon... or else everyone in Sunnydale is going to be facing their own... worst nightmares." I suddenly remembered a few that I didn't want to repeat. Or rather... more than a few. Up till now, I had only experienced relatively minor nightmares. What would happen when people's darker, more intangible fears, started surfacing?
"Any of our nightmares?" Willow said softly. I glanced at her. She appeared a bit dazed, and... worried.
"The Hellmouth must be amplifying whatever psychic powers Billy has." My mind sorted through the possibilities, connecting bits and pieces of knowledge gleaned through years of study. "It... it's quite possible, from the fact that these episodes are occurring more frequently, that they are now in resonance. As time passes...."
"Uh! Resonance?" At my words, Willow's face had changed from worry, to fear.
"Resonance. Fine." Xander placed his hands on his hips. "And I should care, because...?"
"You know, Xander -- that film with the bridge?" Willow jabbed him in the ribs. "They showed it in science class last week."
"What does an old film with a bridge falling down have to do with Billy turning everyone's insides to the outsides?"
I interrupted. This was no time for a long explanation. "They could be in sync, with the effects growing faster and stronger every second that passes. Eventually, powered by a direct link to Hell, all of reality and the Astral plane could merge, and... Billy. Of course!" Another link in the puzzle finally became clear.
"Billy? All of reality could Billy?"
Ignoring Xander, I continued musing out loud. "As the Slayer, Buffy must have a considerably forceful presence on the Astral plane. That's why she's been seeing Billy. He would have been drawn to her."
Buffy should have been back by now. Surely her meeting with her father wouldn't have gone on this long? "We need to act now." I headed for the doorway, knowing Xander and Willow would follow. When Xander passed me my scarf, I grabbed it automatically. "Buffy doesn't know this is happening, and given the sort of thing she tends to dream about -- it's imperative that we find her"
We were through the doors, and standing just outside the hallway. Students were milling about, and for whatever reason, the bells had not yet rung again to signal the start of classes.
"It'll be faster if we split up to look for her."
Wondering where Buffy would have gone to talk with her father, I slipped on my scarf, lost in thought. "Good idea."
Perhaps the cafeteria? Time was of the essence. Walking away, I almost didn't hear Willow's final words.
"Faster, but... not really safer."
The hallways were... strange. While no one was screaming, there seemed to be too many people milling about. Whispering to each other, and giggling secretively at hidden jokes. Pushing my way through one small-packed group that was blocking my way, I concentrated on reaching the cafeteria. Many of the students used it as a general gathering place to talk and get food from the vending machines between classes when they didn't want to go outside.
There really seemed to be an inordinate amount of students in the hallway. Why hadn't the bell rung? The sun must have been blazing outside, because the temperature had gone from uncomfortably warm in my tweed suit, to almost unbearable. Why couldn't Buffy have lived in a more temperate climate? It was always too hot here.
Suddenly, a fight between two students broke out, and I was pushed roughly against the metal lockers. They were oblivious to my adult presence, and the implied authority I possessed. Jostled hard, It took a minute for me to catch my breath. "Excuse me?" Perhaps Principal Snyder would enjoy interrogating them. "Stop this fight immediately!"
The students around me... turned and looked right through me; whispering and laughing. I still couldn't make out what they were saying. It was... frustrating. The two combatants meanwhile, had been joined by others and now the numbers involved were increasing. Arms flailed about, and it was all that I could do to escape the rapidly widening area of conflict without receiving more than a few punches.
Annoyed, hot, and very aware of time passing, I continued on. I couldn't deal with this now, I had to concentrate on finding Buffy.
I looked past my shoulder, and noticed that the fight continued. Students stood all around me, talking and whispering, oblivious to the conflict that was heading towards them until they had been consumed by the fray. The fight seemed to be increasing faster now, heading towards me rapidly. I found myself forced to physically move students aside as they ignored me, and my requests for clear passage, barely keeping ahead of the fight.
Along the way, someone had started playing loud, annoying music, and I felt the beat of the bass rattle my bones.
I tried to walk faster, but the hallways were getting more crowded even if that would have seemed impossible moments earlier. It was almost jammed packed now. Bodies pressed against me, hands touching me, and that blasted music making it impossible to think.
With relief, I saw the door for the teacher's lounge ahead, and pushed my way to it. The door represented escape from the people intruding all around me. Escape, quiet and the comfort of adult conversation.
Except when I got there... it was locked.
I took hold of the door handle, and tried to turn it forcibly. Locked shut. I banged on the door repeatedly, shouting desperated, but there was no response from anyone inside. Turning around, there were students as far as I could see, and the fight was almost at me again. A mass of young flesh all set on their own paths, and oblivious to me.
Oblivious. Billy. Fighting, and music, and bodies trespassing on my personal space. Billy. Nightmares....
I had to get out of this nightmare. Had to find the way, the key to the dream that would let me control it. Key... Of course! I forced myself to calmly turn around, and straighten my jacket. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled my ring of keys out, and inserted the correct one into the lock. The sound of the tumblers falling was audible even over the rock music that was blasting my through my body.
When I went through the door... I found myself in an empty cafeteria. Buffy was nowhere to be seen.
Finally giving up on finding Buffy, I started searching for Willow and Xander instead. Remarkably, as soon as I made the decision, I spotted Xander's distinctive maroon outfit heading towards me. Passing through some sort of plastic that was hanging from the ceiling, I saw both of them running straight at me. "No sign of Buffy?"
They grabbed my arms, and started yelling as they pulled me backwards. Then I noticed... a deranged clown with a large knife, coming at us intent on murder. "Uh..."
Deciding that retreat was the better part of valour in this case, I swiftly turned around, and quickly caught up with Xander and Willow. We were running through yet another plastic barrier when I sensed Xander stopping abruptly. I was just about to yell at him to come, when... he threw a punch that had the clown falling backwards and knocked him spread-eagled onto the floor.
"You were a lousy clown!" Xander was shaking his fist to emphasize his points. "Your balloon animals were pathetic! Everyone can make a giraffe!"
Leaving the clown behind, Xander joined Willow and I, and we all headed towards the exit of the school. It was only after we had reached the outside, and past the final plastic sheets coming down outside the building that I realized we must have been in one of Xander's nightmares. His next words confirmed it. Swept up in his dream, I had had little control over my own actions. Reality had bent and I had been a helpless, frightened pawn.
"I feel good. I feel liberated!"
A couple of screaming students jostled me as they passed behind me, but I determinedly did not look to see what they were running from. My own nightmares were bad enough, I did not intend to find myself in someone else's again. The seeming inability to control my own actions had been... quite awful.
"You seem to be the only one..." I looked at Willow. Instead of her black dotted dress and red sweater, she was garbed in a turquoise oriental outfit with a red band around her waist. Her hair was in a tight topknot, and her face was covered in a thick layer of makeup. It seemed Xander and I weren't the only ones who had encountered Billy's influence. "Things are getting worse. In a few hours reality will fall completely into the realm of nightmares."
"What do we do?" Willow said.
"The only thing I can think of is to try, and wake Billy." With Billy awake, he would not be linked to the realm of nightmares, and reality should once again take hold. It would have to take hold. If the effects of the nightmares were permanent... I didn't want to think about it.
"No!" Xander protested. "We can't leave without Buffy!"
"Agreed!" As if I would? We needed to find her immediately. "But who knows where she might have gone?"
"Excuse me? When did they put a cemetery in across the street?"
I looked to where Willow was pointing, and saw a rolling mass of darkness enclosing a dark cemetery. Night was being held firmly in place despite the hot sun overhead. This was not good, not good at all.
"And when did they make it night over there?" Xander said.
There was really no question where we had to look for Buffy. Remembering more than one nightmare I had had that took place in a cemetery at night... I had to force myself to walk faster rather than to turn around, and pretend to myself that Buffy could still be somewhere inside the school.
Willow and Xander walked beside me. I was glad they were there, and glad despite myself, that they had persisted in helping Buffy in her trials since discovering she was the Slayer. It meant more worry late at night when I thought of the danger they were placing themselves in, but... if it meant Buffy's life was even marginally safer, I was willing to live with it.
We stepped through the cemetery gate, and night enfolded us. The grass was springy beneath my feet, and we walked without talking. "Whose nightmare is this?" Xander commented. As if there was any doubt.
I think I saw it first.
I know I saw it first.
"It's mine." Disbelieving, I knelt down by the fresh grave, heedless of the soil grinding itself into my pants. My eyes read the inscription on the headstone, read it so easily now that I wished I could go blind. 'Buffy Summers, 1981 - 1997, Rest in Peace'. The words were a mockery. Sixteen years old, and....
"I failed... in my duty to protect you." I let myself sigh deeply in misery. "I should have been more... cautious... taken more time to train you." My heart felt still and heavy in my chest. How could Buffy be dead? Her life was so bright and warm -- giving my own much more carefully led life joy and meaning. "But you were so gifted... and the evil was so great."
I touched the fresh earth, and prayed desperately to all the gods that this was my nightmare, that Buffy was somewhere else -- anywhere else -- and hadn't been affected. "I'm sorry."
A hand reached out of the dirt, and latched onto my own.
Scrambling backwards, I half-pulled, and half-pushed myself away. Stepping back until I was almost next to Xander and Willow, I... I recognized her, and relief blossomed within me. My nightmare must have ended, and Buffy was here!
Buffy stood there, head down, and brushed the loose dirt off her clothing. Apparently she was concerned with her appearance even at a time like this. When she should have been... Just what had happened to her?
"Buffy?" Responding to my call, she looked up, smiled, and my soul turned to ice. Her face was that of a vampire, with sharpened teeth, and glowing eyes.
"I thought I was dead!" The happiness expressed in her voice made the demonic folds on her face twist oddly.
"Buffy -- your face!" Willow sounded scared.
I was scared.
Her hands spread over her face, feeling the folds and twists of unfamiliar tissue. She knew what had happened. "Oh, God."
I watched her shoulders start to shake. This wasn't my nightmare at all -- it was hers, and I couldn't think of anything I could do to help her.
"Buffy?" Xander reached out a hand, but Buffy turned away from them. Hiding her face.
I had to help her -- there was no choice. Without her help, we might not be able to reach Billy. Without her will actively fighting against the vampirish state she found herself in -- we could be all in trouble. Without... my help, she might not be able to survive.
"You never told me you dreamt of becoming a vampire." I stepped up close beside her; hopefully, reassuringly close.
She shook her head, denying my words. "This isn't a dream."
If the whole situation hadn't been so bloody fragile, I would have laughed. "No... no it's not." Moving around her, I positioned myself in front of her. Her head was down, and she wasn't looking at me. "But there's a chance we can make it go away."
I leaned down, my head next to hers. "This all comes from Billy. Now if we can only wake him up... I believe..." I had to believe, "... the nightmares will stop and reality will shift back into place -- but we must do it now!"
Give her a moment to focus, I told myself. Give her a goal to hold on to.
"I need you to hold together long enough to help us..." Helping others was ingrained in her very being. Part and parcel of her personality. She could do it. "Can you do that?"
She looked up at me, and I saw her -- saw the real Buffy through the guise of the monster that wore her face. Buffy was scared, but she was fighting it. She nodded, and when she spoke, her voice was rough with effort. "Yeah, I think I can."
"Thank you." I glanced up at Willow and Xander to see how they were taking all this. Shock was perhaps the best description.
Buffy followed my glance, looking over at them. "But we better hurry -- 'cause I'm getting hungry."
She strode off, Xander following close behind her. "That's a... a joke, right?"
I didn't hear Buffy's reply, if she made one. Forcing myself to place one foot in front of the other, I followed them. We had to get to the hospital.
Willow started walking beside me. "Are you sure everything will go back once he's awake?"
"Oh?" It took a moment for her words to register. Of course I wasn't sure! A lie was the only answer. "Ah... positive."
"Well how do we wake Billy up?" She was clearly excited, and thinking up possibilities that I didn't even want to consider. "What if we can't?"
"Willow? Do shut up."
I could see Buffy's figure ahead of us, walking rapidly back towards the school grounds. I hoped she was heading towards my car.
After a very unpleasant ride all cramped together in my car, with Buffy's eyes returning repeatedly to my neck, we arrived to find seemingly the whole hospital screaming. Orderlies, nurses, doctors, and all the ambulatory patients were running through the halls. Here, close to Billy's influence, the nightmares must be continuous by now.
Running down the hallway towards where I remembered Billy's room to be, I saw the doctor who was treating Billy. "Doctor! Is the boy Billy still here..." My voice trailed off as I got a better look at him. He was in his own world, staring at the misshapen lumps of what used to be his hands.
"My hands..." Ignoring us, the doctor moved on down the hallway.
Spotting the door to Billy's room, I hurried through it and moved to the right side of his bed, with Xander right behind me. Willow went to the other side by the window, and Buffy stayed next to the door. All ready, positioned for action, and... helpless.
What indeed, Xander. What indeed. "Um... ah..." I leaned forward, getting closer to the unconscious boy in the bed. He seemed too frail to have caused this whole disaster. "Billy! Billy?"
"That won't work."
Startled, I looked up. There, right beside Willow, was a duplicate of the boy on the bed. He looked sad, scared, and... slightly off -- as if he wasn't really there. It was Billy's astral body. Either he had grown strong enough to be seen by anyone, or Buffy's presence in the room made him visible. Something to think about later. "Billy... uh, Billy, you have to wake up." I compared the two of them, and despite the awareness in the eyes of the boy standing beside Willow, the boy in the bed was the more real of the two.
"No! I told her... I have to hide."
"Why? From what?" Tell me, Billy. Let me know how to break this spell that's turning all our fears against us.
"From him...." Buffy's voice echoed from the doorway. She was looking out down into the hall.
I turned around, and peered through the window. There, shambling towards us, was a huge monstrosity of a man with a deformed face, and a large club extending past where his right hand should have been.
"Oh man... What do we do?" Xander must have seen the monster as well.
"I think I know." Buffy tore off her jacket, and moved into the hallway, confronting the monster out of Billy's nightmares. Confronting it for him, and for all of us.
The room, and the sounds in the rest of the hospital receded, and I focussed on what Buffy was saying. Intent now on the inevitable fight that would occur in the hallway.
"Scary... I'll tell you something though. There are a lot scarier things than you." She stepped forward until I could see her better through the window. Her eyes were glowing now, and anger suffused her demonic looking face. "And I'm one of them."
She growled deeply and attacked him, knocking him to the floor. I watched them fight back and forth. Whatever this monster was, he was taking on both a vampire and a Slayer's strength. It was pushing her back....
Buffy was thrown through the air, and landed at the end of Billy's bed, jarring it slightly. Shaking herself up, she was ready when the monster attacked her again. She grabbed its misshapen arm, broke it over her knee, and then slammed him against the wall. It slumped down -- beaten.
I was so proud of her.
"Is... is he dead?" Billy's voice interrupted the silence, but I kept still watching Buffy. Trying to assess if she needed me or not. A trial she might be to her school teachers, but Buffy was inordinately quick thinking in battle. She had a connection with this Billy. I only hoped that she could use it.
"Come here, Billy." Her voice was calm.
"But I... I don't..." Billy protested.
"You have to do the rest."
Billy's Astral body slowly walked over to Buffy and took her hand. He looked up trustingly into her face.
"What are they doing?" Willow's voice broke the stillness that had descended into the room. I raised my hand to stop her talking, never taking my eyes off the tableau in front of me. Buffy knew what she was doing, and I had a good idea as well.
"I get it." Xander said.
I remembered him punching the insane clown in the High School and acknowledged that yes, perhaps he did. Right now, Billy had to do the rest.
Buffy looked down into Billy's eyes. "No more hiding."
He let go of her hand, and knelt down by the monster. Grabbing the bottom of its face, and pulled....
There was a strange ripping noise as if all of reality was being altered, and a bright flash of light. When my eyes cleared, I realized Xander and Willow were wearing the clothes they had started the day with.
That meant... Buffy was still standing near the doorway, but... her face was smooth, young, and human again. She touched her skin, and... smiled. My whole body, held stiff and tight for the past hour, released, and I grinned. Things were back to normal, Buffy was back to normal, and we had succeeded.
"Hey! He's waking up." Xander was standing by Billy's bedside.
I turned and, along with everyone else, gathered around the bed. Billy's eyes flickered a couple of times and then slowly opened. He looked at us, and his gaze finally settled on Buffy. "I had the strangest dream." Lifting up a weak arm, he pointed towards her. "... and you were in it," he gestured towards me, "and you... Who are you people?
"Let's get a doctor." More happy than I could remember being in a very long time, I headed towards the door with Xander following behind me.
Just before we left the room, a man appeared. He was wearing a sweatsuit with a baseball cap, and a whistle on a string around his neck. "Oh... huh! Billy's got company."
I smiled. Normality intrudes.
The man removed his baseball cap, revealing balding black hair. "I... I'm his kiddy league coach. I come by here every day, just hoping against hope that he's... going to wake up soon." He smiled. "He's my 'Lucky 19'."
Lucky 19... Looking into the room, Buffy caught my gaze and held it. Acknowledgement of the man's words passed between us. This was the man... the monster, who had caused Billy such misery, and started the whole miserable chain of events.
"So... how is he?"
In answer to the coach's words, Buffy moved aside to reveal Billy lying on the bed behind her. "He's awake." Condemnation filled her voice.
"What?" The coach, startled, moved inside the room.
Rapidly, I closed the distance behind him, my hand so very casually reaching out to hold to edge of the doorway -- and block him from leaving. Xander followed my move, and stayed right next to the door.
Buffy continued to fulfill the man's destiny. Setting up his doom with words instead of fists. "You blamed him for losing the game. So you caught up with him afterwards, didn't you?"
"What are you talking about?"
Billy propped himself up on his left arm, and used the other to tear out the unneeded air tube inserted into his nose. "You said that it was my fault that we lost."
Losing nerve, the coach made a break for it... and found Xander and I waiting for him. With the two of us, he didn't have a chance. I enjoyed playing a physical role at last against an opponent I could handle. After the confusing nightmares of this past day... I would not let him escape from the consequences he had brought upon himself.
"It wasn't my fault! There's eight other players on the team. You know that." Billy, finished with destroying his own personal monster, leaned back into the bed.
"Nice going." Buffy said.
I shifted my grip on the man. "Willow? Why don't you go and get hospital security? I believe the police will want to talk with him."
Buffy and I met in the library shortly after the last bell had rung. She seemed... fine. But then, she always bounced back remarkably quickly. I wondered if it was a trait that all Slayers shared, or if those who didn't have it merely had very short careers.
"Hi Giles! I'm off for court-regulated quality time for the weekend -- Sunnydale will have to survive without me." She dropped her school books on the counter, and hopped up to sit on the table where I was clearing away the newspapers. "What's the scoop on the teacher's lounge gossip?"
"Well..." I put all the Sunnydale Press newspapers into a pile for later recycling. "No one is really talking, but they all agreed that the students were 'restless' and nothing was accomplished today. They were complaining about having to repeat everything tomorrow when I left them."
"Meaning they can't remember anything either. The few people I've talked to remember some weird daydreams, but not much else. How come we do?" Buffy was staring off into space, absently kicking her legs.
"I imagine it's... partially repressed events, and partially because we actually knew what was going on, and were close to Billy."
"Yeah." She was preoccupied. Not really here even though she was talking to me.
I wanted to ask her what had happened in the graveyard before we arrived, but I didn't. She would just give me part of the story, and pretend it wasn't important, just as she tried to pretend most of the time that she had a normal life. It was a character trait that would get her into trouble some day. The time would come, and as a Slayer living on a Hellmouth, the day would come when she wouldn't be able to handle everything by herself.
If only... I could only hope that she would come and talk to me before she started to break.
"I'd like to know if I've really met your father." I remembered the man who'd come into the library. Large, cheerful, and... coming when Buffy had not expected him. The next time I had seen her, she was a vampire, and we had more immediate concerns ahead of us.
Buffy turned towards me. Her eyes were sad, but determined. This was one Slayer that mere nightmares couldn't break. Bend perhaps, but not break. "Nope -- but he'll be outside any minute, wanna meet him?"
"Some other time perhaps." Perhaps -- and someday I might even understand what Buffy was really thinking. In the meantime, I would try to protect her as much as I could. That was my job... and right now what she really needed was to be away from Sunnydale, and her so very dangerous life.
"Vampire activity has been moderately low since you killed Darla." I sighed, hoping nothing too important would happen while she was gone. "Have a good weekend off."
"Yes! I am released from my prison. The almighty God of Plastic Credit awaits me!" Buffy jumped off the table, and headed towards the door. There, she stopped and turned, smiling cheerfully. "You have a good weekend too. Sleep tight... and don't let the bed bugs bite."
I didn't even want to think about bed bugs.
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