DISCLAIMER: Another day, another…they don’t pay me anything at all. I just do this to amuse myself and you. That’s what allows me and mine to slip under the radar while playing with characters created by those more fortunate than us.
ARCHIVING: A master list of my fiction can be found here. Please do not archive or distribute without my permission.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to Howard Russell for all of the lovely commas.
FEEDBACK: valyssia[at]gmail.com

Of Sand or Stone
By Valyssia



The title score fades in. It’s almost over. I’m not sure how I feel about that. The camera pans past Evelyn and Ninny as they stroll down a dirt road headed back to their car. Travelling across the front of the boarded up café, it comes to rest on the hand painted lettering on the dirty front window, ‘Fried Green Tomatoes.’

When B. said that, I thought for sure I’d be stuck sitting through the crappiest, sappiest chick flick ever. I cut her some slack because she also said that this was something she and her mom used to do. Whenever life got truly shitty, they’d prop up in front of the tube, eat enough junk food to put the average mortal into a sugar coma and just veg.

Who am I to argue with such a solid tradition?

I have to give her credit. The show wasn’t half bad. I just don’t get it.

When the music cuts over and the credits roll, I look down to where her hand rests in mine. We’ve been like this for…

Hell, I don’t know. No clue. I don’t think either of us has moved much since we polished off the popcorn. It’s a little strange that just being together like this can be so comforting.

But yeah, good movie…absolute bullshit, but good movie. Two people who so obviously love each other, spending their lives together like that and not

I mean, if they just weren’t into each other at all, I might buy it. But any thicker and the subtext would’ve just been text. Nothing ‘sub’ about it.

And it wasn’t just that. They didn’t even hold hands. Not like this. Simple affectionate gestures weren’t even on the menu.

I couldn’t do that. I can’t even imagine that. Living a life of celibacy and denial…

B.’s waiting for me to say something. It’s funny, after all that…I just want a few more minutes of this. The rest will keep. And she practically had to beg me for this. She said that once we started, there’d be no turning back. That all she wanted was one ‘normal evening’ before that happened. She needed it. I gave in because—

Well, just because. It was a bit of a stretch, but if she’s willing to put whatever’s up on hold, why shouldn’t I trust her?

I still need to know what’s in that damn box. I left the room to help Maeve and when I got back, it was gone and B. was wicked stressed. Asking ‘What’s wrong?’ was a total waste of time.

But, yeah…whatever, I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.

As far as that other thing goes…I’m really one to talk. I can imagine a lot. That part works just fine. It’s everything else that’s whacked. I’m still having a hard time believing she’d want anyone who’s as fucked in the head as me.

She thinks we’ll be able to work it out.

I close my eyes. There was a moment this afternoon. This little window after the worry faded, before I wussed out. I’m so lame. It’s sad. If I’d blinked, I might’ve missed it. I’m really glad I didn’t because…

B. always did wear her heart on her sleeve, but this was different. I could watch her like this for hours. Just her face. I could take in all of the subtle changes and never get bored.

She might be right.

Relating to someone with as little depth as G.I. G.Q. isn’t exactly promising, but I think I get him now. Or at least I understand one of his compulsions.

It’s so obvious how she feels. She still hasn’t said it.

I’m not sure she needs to. The look in her eyes says enough. ‘Beautiful’ doesn’t begin to cover it. I guess I could say ‘gorgeous,’ but that just sounds pretentious.

That’s the trouble with words. Most of the time they don’t even begin…

If something truly is awesome or magnificent or breathtaking or gorgeous, saying so just feels like a letdown. It’s like the stuff that really moves us defies description.

That isn’t the first place your mind goes anyway. Picking your jaw up is usually more important.

It’s strange to think, in a world like ours where we speak impossible things into being all the time that ordinary people can do just the opposite. The more incredible something is, the more they want to talk about it. They try too hard. They say too much. And the really important things get lost in the chatter. It’s a shame.

And me, in love…with her no less…and her in love with me…after everything I’ve done…that’s pretty damn incredible.

The memory doesn’t fade when I open my eyes. I stare at the floor, my lap, our hands…

When I get around to sharing that, I’m gonna make damn sure that it means something. I won’t say it to death. I won’t make her think that I’m trying to convince myself or her. I’ll just say it. Straight up. Point of fact. And I’ll have a reason. Something besides this. Sex is nice and all…

Sex with her is—even this, as frustrating and nerve-racking and broken as it was—this was beyond nice. I wish we could go back. Try again. Maybe with more time I could get it right. And even if I didn’t, at least I’d have…

I’m amazed she was right. That stupid thing actually helped. I got so hung up on how awkward it was.

I guess it’s a natural enough thing to arrive at—what with the sameness—but a strap-on just doesn’t sound like anything I’d ever want associated with my sex life. I’d like to think I’m adequate without prosthetics. But it’s obvious I’m not. I can’t even—

Anyway, it just sounds bad.

It is bad. It’s every bit as retarded and clumsy and—

I couldn’t feel shit. I was afraid I’d pull all the way out and not realize. And push and crush and…I know that’d suck, so I was more focused on that than I was on…

It didn’t even occur to me that it’d be that way. When she used it, I barely noticed the stupid thing. It was just so intense.

But I s’pose that’s the trouble, this wasn’t. I couldn’t—

The music ends and TV cuts over to the weather guy telling us how miserable it’s going to be tomorrow. More rain, more cold…huge shock, the Midwest still sucks. She presses a few buttons on the remote, shutting him up.

She was so slick I didn’t even notice her taking the stupid thing off. She must’ve done that when—

Like things aren’t bad enough. Thinking about this is an instant turn on. The way she slid out and down, licking and sucking the sweat from my skin. It was just too hot.

Lucky me. I went from mad skills to totally second rate. All I accomplished today was getting myself so worked up I’m tender. I just hope I’m the only one. I probably am. I’m gifted that way. Last time—

She caresses the back of my hand. The tension translates. Our little break between disasters is over. When I let go, she gets up.

Yeah, she’s probably fine. Last time it was business as usual. I was a total wreck and she seemed barely affected. Figures this’d go like everything else.

Whatever, this little trip down memory lane isn’t exactly helping. I need to pull my head out of my ass and get over it.

I should just be grateful she’s willing to put up with my shit.  I guess it wasn’t that awful.

It wasn’t that great either.

Or I don’t know. Maybe it was okay. For all of its clumsiness, the puppet show took my mind off the rest. I kept my head together and got to watch…

That can’t be a bad thing. It doesn’t get to be.

The DVD player whirs, plastic pops, the cupboard under the TV clicks and I look up. She really is beautiful.

What I should do is quit stalling. Like or not, I need to get this over with. Summoning more enthusiasm than I have, I ask, “So, what’s up?”

She glances over her shoulder from where she’s squatted down putting the movie away. “We’re leaving,” she says.

Her bluntness throws me. So, we’re running? What was in that box, a finger? I snicker.

That’s not even remotely funny. She gives me a look. I don’t bother to explain and thankfully, she just lets it go. After shutting the cabinet door, she stands up and walks over to the couch. Offering me a hand, she says, “C’mon.” Her fingers twiddle. “We need to pack.”

I open my mouth to ask the obvious and she cuts me off, “I’ll explain when we get upstairs, okay?” I take her hand. It’s her show now. Helping me up, she says, “Trust me. I don’t want to go either, but…” We pass through the doorway into the hall next to the kitchen. I want to stop for a smoke, but she makes a beeline for the stairs, finishing her thought along the way, “…we’ve outstayed our welcome.”

I follow, mumbling, “Okay,” under my breath. It really isn’t.

As we make our way up the first couple flights, she says, “There’s nothing stopping us. We don’t have to be here. We’ve found someone who may be able to help Kim. They’re moving her tomorrow. We can just go.”


I almost ask until it hits me and ties my guts in knots. She’s the one who lived. I remember their names from the text message Giles sent before everything—before the last time—the time before this when our lives went straight to hell.

I don’t even know what this is. I just know it’s shit. More shit. Shit happens so much it’s hard to keep it all straight. I have to hope that this shit isn’t as bad as that last shit. But I don’t know that. All I do is know is that this shit is something that B. thinks we should run from. That’s not exactly—

We almost make it to the third floor landing before she just has to try and spin this whole thing positive. “Have you ever spent time in the mountains?”

Fucking predictable. I’m not in the mood…for this or anything else. I stop dead in my tracks, but she keeps going, like she doesn’t even notice.

No. That’s not true. I’m in the mood for some aspect of my life not to suck beyond measure. That’s what I’m in the mood for.

As she rounds the corner and climbs a few more steps, I turn around and grumble, “I’m gonna catch a smoke. I’ll be up in a few.”

She stops long enough to reply, “Alright.” A moment later she adds, hesitantly, “I’ll just come back down if that’s okay.”

“Yeah, that’s cool,” I say, working to keep my voice down without sounding too pissy. Maeve’s asleep, so… But I don’t want B. to think I’m completely bent out of shape when I’m not.

Well, I am, but I’m not—I’m not mad at her. She didn’t do shit…other than bring up a touchy subject. I head down the hallway to the coat closet for my smokes.

I don’t think she meant anything by it. It’s hard to find a subject that isn’t touchy around me.

I must be improving. I remember where my cigarettes are this time. At least that’s something. Opening the closet door, I snag my leather coat off the hanger. As I loop back through the living room and into the kitchen, I put it on. Checking the inside pocket just to be sure, I step outside onto the back porch.

The doormat’s squishy. I take another step to get away from that and let the door close. My bare feet splash the chilly water that’s pooled on the floorboards. I’m a little warm, so if anything, it feels kind of good. Better than that stupid mat.

We got one hell of a rain this afternoon. You’d expect this patio to stay dry, but it didn’t. There’s water beaded up on the tables and the plasticy fabric cushions of the glider. Kicking back really isn’t an option. Not that I planned to. I just need some space. I’d be happy with a few minutes.

It figures that I end up alone barely long enough to light up. B. shows up empty handed as I pocket my smokes and lighter. I sort of wish she’d brought that box out, but I guess I’ve waited this long, so…

The screen door clacks shut and she says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t think—” Her voice weighted like she wants to say more, but she keeps it to herself.

“It’s okay,” I reply as she takes my hand. I just let her have it. It isn’t her fault I’m a total nutcase. Taking that out on her wouldn’t be fair.

I take a hit off my smoke as she adds, “We’ve got time. I just thought you’d—” She sighs. “Oh, I don’t know what I thought.”

She sounds put out or disgusted…or maybe more like frustrated? I don’t know. I have to look.

No. She’s worried, so I try again. “What’s wrong?” Maybe she’ll get around to talking if I keep asking.

But she doesn’t say shit. Instead, she snags my smoke and has a quick puff, passing it back when she’s done.

Jesus. “We must really be screwed if you’re smoking,” I grumble.

Exhaling, she hangs her head. With a subtle headshake she asks, “Do you remember what Giles promised before you came here?” The ‘whatever’ couldn’t be clearer.

I reach around her to pitch my smoke. It sizzles when it hits the ashtray. I don’t want the damn thing now. The idea that it grosses her out so much she has to take the edge off by…

I may quit.

Not now. Later. Quitting now probably would make me actually, officially, certifiably nuts. I’ll just call this one a bad idea and head back inside. It’s too cold anyway. She shouldn’t be out here in her pajamas. I could give her my coat, but really…

I grab the door handle. As I step into the kitchen with her on my heels, looking slightly puzzled, I get around to actually answering her question, “He offered me the felon’s lotto: a pardon, a passport, plane ticket and money. Just what every con wants.”

“Yeah, and just because something sounds too good to be true…” she replies with such enthusiasm that she doesn’t even bother to finish.

Huh. So he wasn’t shittin’ me? I don’t see why he’d bother. But that doesn’t matter. I blow her off, heading straight for the bathroom to wash the smoky smell away.

She follows me in and hangs back. I guess she’s waiting for me to say something. But what could I possibly say to that? I should get through this before I even try. I turn on the faucets.

Honestly, if it was on me, I’d probably go back. It’d make me crazy because I know they need me, but I was all set to serve my time. I wanted to do what was right. That got put on hold because Angel needed me. I couldn’t say no to him. After that, he told me to go help Buffy. I’ve been hanging out waiting for my number to come up ever since.

I adjust the temp and cup my hands under the stream. The water feels nice. I let it run for a moment before I wash up.

Now there’s this…

Before her, there wouldn’t have been any doubt in my mind. Now all I have are doubts. I doubt pretty much everything except for one thing: how I feel about her.

I can’t leave. Not unless she tells me to go.

Looking up from the towel as I pat my face dry, I say, “I’m not sure I deserve that.” Answers don’t get more conflicted. I use the towel to cover as much of that as I can.

“I can see how you’d feel that way,” she replies, “but you do.”

Even with the pause, she sounds so sure of that last part that I have to look. Turning back to the sink, I glance in the mirror. She’s right behind me.

She kind of nudges me aside and takes her toothbrush from the holder. Wetting it, she says, “It’s nice when things work the way they should.” She grabs the toothpaste, squeezes a little out onto her toothbrush and passes it off. “No one in their right mind thinks the D.O.C. is one of them.” Her toothbrush then becomes something to gesture with. “Everyone’s in favor of taking bad people off the streets. But once you’ve got them, what do you do with them? Locking them up in a big concrete box isn’t exactly an ideal solution.” And of course, why not?

Leaning against the wall, she says, “And we’ve all seen enough Oz reruns to get that something that should be about reparation and reform comes out somewhere between a dog fight and social networking for scumbags.”

I don’t get why she stepped aside until I look down. My toothbrush is in my hand. She’s giving me space. I don’t even remember picking the damn thing up, but I put it and the toothpaste to use.

“I know there really isn’t a better answer. I wish there was, but—”

As pep talks go, this one’s pretty bland. But there’s no sense in me to going out of my way to interrupt her either. I just get to enjoy the growing discomfort as she speaks her mind, “I guess my point is the best we can hope for out of the whole fiasco is remorse.” I can’t help it. “And you obviously feel that.”

I finish up, dry off, and clear out of her way. Silly me, I feel like putting a little distance between us might make this better.

She meets my eyes in the mirror. I have to look away. “But my guess is prison had very little to do with that,” she says, taking a leisurely, thoughtful break before slathering on the next sentiment. I just want to curl into a ball. “Anyway, I don’t see how you can believe that you don’t deserve a second chance.”

The last thing I need is to pick a fight, but I mumble, “That’s nice, B.” And really it is. It’s nice that she believes in me like that. Doesn’t keep me from wanting to bail. Doesn’t keep my skin from crawling either. I’m right by the door. All I have to do is reach out and turn the knob.

Funny, when I don’t run, my knees give out and I just let them. They’re pretty much over holding me up. “And you’re right—” I slide down the wall. “—if you completely ignore the obvious.” My thighs press against my chest. I cross my ankles and hug my legs.

She’s brushing her teeth. Her back’s turned. I should wait. Give her some time. It’d be easier to tell if I’m pissing her off if I let her finish. But I can’t. Watching her react to this is the last thing I need, so…

I pick a nice white patch of floor to focus on while I make an ass of myself. “They were right about me.” I like this antique tile. It’s small, six-sided like a honeycomb, and flat with almost no grout. Four rows of white tile in, there’s a black border row that runs around the room. It’s kind of neat. Very Victorian.

And it makes sense that I’d be scoping out the tile when our whole world’s turning to shit again.

Whatever. I may as well drag my heels.

The anxiety piles up when I force myself to admit, “I wanted Wood to think I was something special. Our last night in Sunnydale he told me I wasn’t. I didn’t listen. You know how I am. I was gonna show him. I made it my personal mission to prove him wrong.”

Yeah, that’s me, pushing the depths of shallow. I snicker. Moving on…

“That doesn’t mean I didn’t want things to work out. Doesn’t mean I didn’t care. But he never did and I couldn’t make him. First time in my life I wanted something more and he—”

I can just make out what she’s doing. While I blabber, she spits and rinses and splashes her face.

“Man, he pissed me off,” I mutter as she turns to reach for a towel. “I don’t even get to think that he used me. That wouldn’t be right. He never misled me. I always knew what was up. I could’ve walked away at any time, but I stayed.”

She faces me. I just hope she doesn’t…

She leans against sink. I guess that’s close enough. At least she isn’t gonna sink to my level. I won’t have to look her in the eye.

Resting my chin on my knees, I tuck into a tighter ball. “That was all on me,” I mumble. “My choice.” Cold and bitter, I snicker again. “Figures, I’d stick around and play the fool. I made things so much worse.”

My stomach’s tied in knots. Right now I’m pretty convinced that the only thing confession’s good for is scoring tickets to Springer. But it’s not like I can take it all back. I have to finish. She’ll think what she thinks.

“He finally told me to get lost, but we still had to work together,” I say, pausing to bite my lip. I want that to hurt, but I barely feel it. “I looked at everything he did like he was taking it out on me.”

But knowing B., she’s probably got a bad case of the bleeding heart for poor, poor me. That’d figure. She’s always been super stupidly sappy when it comes to this shit.

“When that thing came up, I snapped,” I admit, hoping to fix that. She needs to look past the bullshit excuses and see this for what it is. “I knew he was right. I was the only one. The girls would’ve gone off and gotten themselves killed. I was the only one who could walk into that house and not see a bunch of kids. I was cold enough to see the monsters. I could keep the two things separate and get the job done. I tried to tell myself that that wasn’t a bad thing, but something inside said different. I resented him for seeing me for exactly what I am.”

Summoning every ounce of nerve I have left, I look up. She’s checking out the tile too. At least I’m not alone.

Here’s the kicker…

“You don’t do what I did if you feel some lofty sense of remorse.” I start off deadpan, but I can’t keep that up. “I got drunk and I stayed drunk. I ran. I hid. And when it came time, I behaved like a monster. I should’ve been better than that, but I came off exactly like the thing I was supposed to be against.” Shit builds until I’m not really even thinking about what I’m saying. All I care is that it feels good to go off. “Giles was right to doubt me. And I don’t see what’s changed. He should still doubt me. I took all that out on—”

She butts in, demanding, “Would you do it again?”

I snap, “No!” I’m not even sure if I think that’s true. I just know that’s what she wants to hear.

She’s pissed. Finally. And for some ungodly reason that makes me happy. It’s fucking perverse. I think one thing and do another.

I feel better when she yells, “So, you’ve had trouble. We’ve all had trouble. We’ve all screwed up. That’s got nothing to do with this.” Her anger fades. She pleads with me, “You have changed. The Faith I knew years ago wouldn’t have regretted any of this. She wouldn’t have given this a second thought.”

She should still be angry. I egg her on, “Why do you fight, Buffy?” She doesn’t answer. Instead, she just stares at me like she’s waiting for me to ask something worthwhile. “You fight because it’s right, don’t you? You keep going because you believe you can make a difference.”

When she replies, “I try,” I let her have it.

“I fight because I like it. I always have. It’s not some big noble thing for me. I do this because I get off on it.” Textbook. Predictable. Bullshit.

She looks away, reaching for the doorknob. She’s leaving. As she turns it, I arrive at my point. “And because of that…I—” My voice cracks, but I keep going. “It’s my fault. I dragged you in. I pulled you down. I—”

Facing me again, she drowns me out. “And you think I don’t enjoy it?” She throws her hands up. “Really? You think I don’t get off on it?” They fall. One of them claps against her thigh. “That’s good.” The other one rattles the doorknob. “You’ve gotta stop blaming yourself. I don’t.”

She pauses to take a breath and then repeats, “I don’t blame you,” carefully stressing every word, like maybe somehow saying them more clearly will cause them to sink in. They’ve already sunk. My cheeks are hot. I feel like a complete ass. “We’ve been over this how many times? I’ve told you that. None of this is your fault. I knew what kind of a chance I was taking. Why can’t you just accept that?”

I could live without her rubbing it in. But she’s frustrated as hell and I can’t blame her. I’ve said this before…all of it, every last word, almost exactly the same.

She mumbles, “Yeah.” This time there’s no mistaking the fact that she’s leaving. She lingers just long enough to look at the hand she holds the doorknob with and say, “Never mind. I was wrong. You haven’t changed one bit. You’re still a great big pain in my ass.” The funny thing…she’s smiling. Not much. It’s more of a smirk. She’s definitely amused.

You’d think I’d eventually listen. But I keep going over the same shit. And she keeps telling me it’s cool. That’s gotta get old.

I move my feet when she opens the door enough to slip past, boxing me in, shutting me out…

In my defense, it’d be great if I remembered.

Before she hits the stairs, she comes off with a parting shot, “Come find me when you get over yourself.”

I shove the door out of my face, closing it again. I didn’t. Not until she said something. But that doesn’t matter. Even good excuses are still just excuses.

I should go for a walk to cool down or maybe have that smoke. I don’t bother with either. Why would I? Both things make way too much sense. Giving her some time to chill might make even more sense. Instead, I get up, open the door, flip the light off and head upstairs.

The first tread creaks when I put weight on it. I know it does. I always skip it, but this time…

What does it matter? We’ve made enough noise to wake the dead. The idea that Maeve slept through any of that is laughable.

That’s the funny thing about guilt. I think it’s addictive. If I’m not feeling enough, I always manage to make more. Tear the scabs off the same old wounds…and for what? Because I enjoy misery?

That’s about it. I thrive on the shit. It’s great.

Sad, that sounds almost like progress if you look at it the right way.

Except that it isn’t. It’s pathetic. It’s just more of me taking my sick fuckin’ problems out on people who don’t deserve it.

I trudge up the stairs careful to remember the others that squeak. When I get to her room and open the door, the first words out of her mouth are, “I’m sorry.”

I come back with a quick, “No. Don’t be. It’s cool,” giving her an out.  

She doesn’t take it. “I shouldn’t have lost my patience.” She sits cross-legged on the bed. The box is right next to her. It’s empty now. Its contents are lying across her lap. Somehow I didn’t expect another box, but that’s what it is. Or guess that’d be more of a ‘case.’ It’s an ugly, old, brown leather case, just a little shorter than my forearm and about as wide. It’s hinged along the spine like a jewelry box. She has it angled so I can’t quite see over the lid.

She looks up. I half expect her to snap it shut before I get there, but she doesn’t. Grinning, she says, “I can’t stay mad. You’re just so hopelessly cute.”

“Hopeless and cute all in the same breath?” I reply, totally hearing the word ‘frustrating’ in there too. “Alright, well, I guess that’s better than what I had.” She’ll eventually get there.

I’m not sure where any of this is coming from. That case freaks her out. And I can completely relate when I lay eyes on the glass syringe and a vial of something that looks like flat, putrid beer.

“Yeah,” she says, “cute and sweet and…”

I’m such a retard. I just can’t resist offering up the word of the day. “Frustrating?” Like she needs any help. I should be slapped.

Oh, yeah…completely frustrating,” she agrees a little too enthusiastically.

I suppose it’s that when I look down at her, I see what’s in her lap. I react to it. I think that it looks like something some rich junkie might buy from an estate sale. I stand at the edge of the mattress, looking past her smiling face, feeling ashamed that the sum of my experience led me there. I’d like to believe that I could come up with something better, but that’s the best I’ve got.

When she looks up, all she sees is me. She doesn’t even think about the shit in her lap. She can completely blow that off and concentrate on exchanging witty repartee.

I keep up my end, ignoring the goddamned case as best I can. “It’s the dimples, isn’t it? People with dimples always get ‘cute’.”

Yeah, now I’m smiling too. But I won’t be held responsible for what happens if she pinches my cheeks.

“You think I don’t know about the ‘cute’ thing?” she says. “I say I’m five-two, but that’s not right. It takes tennies to get me there.”

She must think I’m looking at her. And I am. I look at her as she speaks, thinking how pretty she is, wondering how she got mixed up in something like this. “That’s three and a smidge inches from being the only girl you’re ever gonna date who can dust a vamp or two before dinner, still manage cute in an affordable yet stylish outfit and qualify for disability.”

It’s gross. The tawny liquid in the vial’s almost the right color. The cloudiness isn’t right, but it could be smack.

Through a grin she adds, “Take it from someone who knows. I have years of practice averting tragedies and barely pulling off cute when what I was going for was something closer to total knockout.”

I’m not sure how to take that. So I’m a tragedy?

She answers, “You’re cute. Live with it.” Funny, I didn’t even ask. And if I had, I would’ve expected her to just agree.

But I have to figure that skipping being a complete shithead might go over better this time. I can’t help grinning too when the reply comes to me. “Okay, I really only caught two or three things. The rest of that, I’m not sure about. I’ll just have to take your word for it. But how about: ‘You’re the only girl I’m ever going to date’? You could stop there. You’re the only one I want. And I think you’re a total knockout just the way you are now. I’ve never not. I sort of hoped we were past ‘dating,’ but—”

“You know what I mean,” she says, hanging her head.

I do, but—

I wish she’d had a few to enjoy that for what it was. I meant it. But that’s not how the world works for us. Bashful gets her exactly what I’ve been dealing with. She remembers the stupid case or box or what-the-fuck-ever. I watched too many people flush their lives down the toilet over this garbage. I have to wonder what it’d do to someone like her.

Judging from her reaction, nothing good. No surprise. That shit never does anything good. What she’s doing with it is anyone’s guess. I’m not sure I want to know. I wish she’d put it away…or better yet, throw it out.

“You don’t recognize this do you?” she asks, looking up to gauge my reaction.

Of course I recognize it, but she’s got something specific in mind and I’m obviously missing the context.

She studies me for a moment before she concludes, “Yeah, why would you? They couldn’t do both of us. Not without—”

‘They’? ‘They’ who? I don’t get a chance to ask.

Her attention returns to box. “We would’ve talked and that would’ve ruined the surprise,” she says. “So lucky me, I got to have all the fun.”

I should’ve just blurted that out, but I’ve been trying to cut back. Blurting only ever gets me trouble.

When I finally manage to get a word in edgewise, I go for the straight approach. “So, what is that?” Expecting a straight answer would just be dumb.

It doesn’t surprise me when she replies, “An answer,” like she’s feeding me some kind of riddle. I wonder how she’d look in tweed.

“If that’s an answer, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know the question,” I mumble and turn to flop down beside her.

As I get settled, she says, “It’s a long story. We’ll get there, but for now I just need you to hear me.” She shuts the case, dropping it into the cardboard box and pushing the whole sickening mess off of the bed. “I don’t expect you to get better today or tomorrow.” Out of sight, out of mind. “Or next week for that matter. But I do need you to understand that I don’t blame you for anything that’s happened.”

“Yeah, I got that,” I reply. I’m not sure I understand it, but I definitely get that she feels that way. And this time I may even try to remember it.

Taking my hand, she says, “I want to say I understand, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t be fair. I’ve never…”

I guess she’s satisfied. That makes one of us. I’m nothing if not consistent. As stupid, reckless, impulsive responses go, wanting to touch her ranks pretty high. But that’s it. That’s where my mind goes.

She says, “But believe me when I tell you, I know all about guilt.”

I wish she’d just cut to the chase. Her talking about that thing might actually be good. She might even be able to make me do something rational. That’d be new.

But no, she’s got other plans. She wants to talk about her feelings. She should know that’s the last thing I want. “I may not know exactly how you feel, but I’d like to think I can kind of relate.” She sighs. “That might be presumptuous. I’m sorry if you think so, but—”

I reply, “No, you’re fine.” Again, that makes one of us. It’s never a good sign when I’m not sure why I want something. That usually means that my motives are hinged on some deeply buried, traumatic bullshit. Now I just have to figure out what. That’s always fun.

Taking my hand back, I scoot around behind her as she says, “I get that you lost it and that’s not good.”

No. This is insane, but that doesn’t stop me. I may as well screw up while I mull things over.

She doesn’t stop me either. She just keeps talking, uninterrupted when I reach around her, fumbling to untie her housecoat. “I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have done the same thing.” The silky fabric slides through my fingers. “But I don’t know that.” I find the ends and pull. “I’ve done some pretty awful things.” The bow slips free.

“We gave you plenty of reason to be upset,” she says as I part the front of her housecoat and go for the buttons of her pajama top. She’s so warm. Too warm. She should be sweaty, but the satin doesn’t stick to her skin. As I work through the buttons one at a time, she rests her hand over mine, stopping me. She says, “What happened, happened. We can’t change that.” I slip my hands free, using the opportunity to cop a feel.

Okay, so…in all fairness, I’m not that bad. I stroke the undersides of her breasts, working down to her sides and stomach. The thin, smooth material and her warm, firm body feel good in my hands. I wonder if she enjoys this half as much as I do. For me this is almost as much of a turn on as…

But it sounds like what she’s working toward is another apology. I wish she’d just stop. That makes what I’m trying to do even worse.

“It sucked,” she whispers. “I’m sorry. I wish I could’ve stopped it. I just didn’t see that freakish flying tribute to comic book culture coming.” Hanging her head, she shakes it. “But who would?”

That was definitely an apology. And like an idiot, I push some more. Now I’m just trying to piss her off. I seriously need help. But I think I get why now. And big surprise, it’s childish and stupid. I want to feel like she slighted me. Like this, whatever this is, is more important than me.

“What was it you called him?” she asks as I sweep her hair aside.

My fingertips trail from just below her ear down onto her shoulder before I reply, “Sparky.”

“Yeah, that’s good,” she says and I hear the smile in her voice. “I’ll have to remember that. It’s funny.”

She doesn’t even try to stop me when I kiss her neck. “Like he wasn’t a massive, flashing neon sign screaming, ‘Time to regroup’,” she says, placing her hand over mind, the one that’s on her shoulder. “Not that I could. I couldn’t move you and I wouldn’t leave you, so…” My other hand rests innocently in the crease between hip and thigh. I’m a little surprised it hasn’t inched its way toward delinquency yet.

“It was either that or the obvious, ‘You need a vacation’,” she says through a snicker. “It’s a little hard to tell with these things sometimes.”

She’s taking this really well. Of course, it’s not like I’m nibbling. It was just a couple of light pecks…the tender sort of thing couples do in public all the time. They were even completely drool-free. I should quit while I’m ahead. But where would the fun be in that?

I kiss her neck again.

“Anyway, I’m not sure what it’ll take to make things right, but whatever, I’m in.”

Her breath catches as she speaks. She struggles to finish. That’s because I’m not being good anymore.

She twists around, facing me and I let go. Busted. But her response isn’t anything like I thought it’d be. She doesn’t yell at me. She doesn’t give me a chance to focus on her scars. I know they’re still there. I didn’t dream them. I wish I had. I wish I could dream them away. I can’t. Talk about guilt…

She doesn’t feed any of that. What she does is meet my gaze. Looking every bit as needy as I am, she whispers, “You don’t know how much I want…”

And no wonder. I’ve been slowly driving both of us nuts. Something has to give…and soon.

My stupidity holds when I look down. Her shirt’s twisted too. She let me unbutton one too many. It’s a pity. She sees where I’m going before I get there and fixes the problem as she laments, “I could blow off the rest of the night and just…”

She rests her fingertips under my chin, urging me to look up. It takes her a couple of tries, but I finally give in. My consolation prize is a couple of tender kisses and big sad eyes. “After, I swear,” she says, “after we finish talking and packing. After you know what’s up, if you’re still into this…”

She’s not helping. I look away again.

“There should be time,” she mumbles. I need to cut the crap. There’s no reason for her to guilt over my bullshit too. Trying to let me down easy, she whispers, “I wish things were different, but we have to be on the road no later than—”

I meet her eyes and say, “Please don’t.” Of course, I come off too harsh and she takes that exactly the wrong way. It’s messed up. We’ve both apologized too many times tonight for this to…I doubt she’ll even hear me. But I can’t think of anything better. I need her to look at me, so I say, “I’m sorry,” struggling to make those two pathetic words sound like I mean them. Really, I do, but—

Now that I have her attention, I don’t know what to do with it. I open my mouth only to let out a gasp and close it. I’m such an ass. I started this, but hell if I know how to finish it.

I tell her the truth, “I’m not sure I could even…”

“Doesn’t matter,” she says. “I just want you to touch me. I don’t care if—”

“Well, I do,” I snap. My attitude fades when I let more of the truth slip. “You shouldn’t have to—”

“It’s not the first time,” she replies.

“And that so doesn’t matter,” I say, shutting my eyes. I need to think. What might help? That’s the real question. Us batting this back and forth sure isn’t.

Stupid me. I can’t help thinking that if she’d push me, if she made me, this’d get better. But that’s just the same shit from this afternoon. And the idea hasn’t improved with age. I still can’t see her doing that, but I haven’t got anything better.

I can’t help it. That’s just where my mind goes every time I think about how out-of-control this feels. I remember the same thing: jumping off of a bluff. Falling’s one of two things. It’s either scary as hell or it feels amazing. It all depends on how you take it.

Well, maybe she’ll surprise me. I pick an example she’ll remember and try to explain, “Do you remember when I jumped into that manhole?” She does. I see it even before she nods. About the same time I see that this isn’t going to end well. “The look on your face was…” I’m screwed. I wipe the smirk off my face. It isn’t helping. “I remember how flipped out you were. I think you cared about me even then.”

Looking down, she says through a sigh, “Yeah.”

I place my hand over hers. Hoping to reassure her, I say, “I know. I should’ve been more careful, but the thing is, I didn’t.” She accepts the gesture. “I do now. I care what happens, if for no other reason than you.” And better yet, she accepts what I’m saying. “You were right. That was a truly boneheaded move. I won’t do it again.”

I shouldn’t enjoy this, but the tension gave way to confusion. She’s just too funny when she’s confused. Now I’m stuck with the worst job in the world. I have to clear that up. “I know that this isn’t going to hurt. I know that nothing bad’s gonna happen. This is a lot like that, only the monsters are all in my head.”

This was nice while it lasted, but she catches on before I finish and tries to pull away. I hate being right. She wants to say ‘no,’ but I don’t give her a chance. “Can’t you see that’s what I need now? I need you to push me. I know that’s probably not something you’re gonna be able to do, but that’s what I need.”

“We should get started,” she announces, completely brushing me off. “It’s getting late.” I let her go and she heads to her closet. Sliding the door open, she says, “I’ve had a lot of time to think about this.” Hangers scrape as she slides her clothes aside and takes a suitcase from the end. “I’m not sure it’ll help, but I want you to know that you didn’t do anything wrong.”

Sounds like same old song, but it’s not like I have anything worthwhile to add. Or at least, I sure can’t seem to say anything right, so I follow her lead, going to, opening and surveying my closet.

“I think that part of the problem is that you believe I saw something that grossed me out,” she says over the ruckus as she moves stuff around. “You may not even recognize that, but I think it’s there. You know I watched.”

She’s a great distraction, but what I know right now is something completely different. All of this isn’t going to fit into—

I grab my duffle down off the shelf as she says, “And you’re right. I saw a lot of things that were just too disgusting for words, but none of them had anything to do with you.”

I unzip it, mentally separating what I brought with me from what she bought for me on the rack. Nope. Not even if I stuff this thing tight as a drum. But packing the stuff I brought with me seems like a good a place to start.

“I hadn’t really thought about that,” I mumble. “I just know how I am. This isn’t something I deal with well.” Now there’s an understatement. I get pissed just thinking about it. And of course…I go off, “Trying and failing. And trying and failing. It sucks! I think it’d be best if you’d just—”

“Well, I don’t!” she snaps. “I can’t believe you. Don’t you see what you’re asking?” She throws or drops something. “You want me to—”

I glance, but nearly fast enough. No clue what that was, but there’s no crash, so…

She tries again. “You’re asking me—” This time she’s way too upset to ignore. She sweeps her hair from her eyes. I feel sorry for her poor scalp. “I can’t do that,” she says, biting each word off. “I don’t care how long this takes. I’ll wait.”

“I didn’t—” I can’t finish either. She’s on the verge of tears and I put her there.

We’ve tiptoed around just about everything serious we’ve talked about, but this takes the cake. The thing she couldn’t bring herself to say is probably ‘rape.’ Or maybe she was going for ‘violate,’ but that’s not much different. They’re both too harsh. This is something I’ve fantasized about. Being tied up and…

I think I might even trust her enough and that’s pretty astounding.

But I guess her take’s just a more radical interpretation than mine. She’s talking about hurting me and I’m talking about fixing a problem that’s driving me out of my ever-loving mind. It’s embarrassing and frustrating and…

I search for another thing to call this and come up short. ‘Frustrating’ is still the best I’ve got. I’m totally in touch and out of inspiration which makes none of this any easier.

I may not want to admit it, but she’s probably got a point. At the very least, I can’t hope to spin this. There’s nothing left for me to say. The reason I want what I want is because I’m fucked up. She wants me to be less fucked up. I can’t claim that’s bad, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Yes, you did,” she replies and goes back to packing. As I do the same, turning to fill my duffle, racking my brain, looking for a way to put this right and drawing the usual blank, she says, “You may not think that much of yourself, but I do.”

We pack our things in silence for what seems like forever. I seriously screwed up. She doesn’t even act like she notices me until I finish with my first bag. When I start to ask, she whips me another. That’s as friendly as she gets. I’d prefer it if she’d just knock some sense into me. It’d be easier.

Or I could do us both a favor and pull a Greg Louganis off of the nearest bridge. Not that I think that’d work. I’d probably just wake up a week or two later chained to a bed with a chart as thick as the local phonebooks, more x-rays that look like a jigsaw puzzle and yet another pack of very confused doctors. It goes that way with me.

Speaking of extreme sports…I’d like to eventually pack my underwear. But for some reason the idea of getting that close to her makes me edgy. Could be worse than the bridge.

Finally, I scrape together the courage to mumble, “I just don’t want to play with you. That’s not fair to you.”

I didn’t think that was funny at all, but somehow she laughs. She looks up from her mound of suitcases and boxes and says, “I like it when you play with me.” She’s seriously flirting after all that?

Between packing stacks of brightly colored, lacy things, she says, “I know how hard this must be for you.” Her tone’s lost its playful edge. She transfers another handful from her drawer to her luggage before she goes on, “It’s gotta be awful. The fact that you keep trying after everything that’s happened says more to me than…” Words fail her, but that’s cool. I get it. And that smile’s fair compensation for anything that’s missing.

Enough time passes before she adds, “I’m sorry, but I’m failing to see the bad,” that I kind of get that idea that we’re done and get back to work. When I glance over my shoulder, she’s got her hand on her hip staring at a pile of boxes she’s just unearthed. “Except for these shoes,” she grumbles.

Now she’s just being silly. I let her have it. I guess if that last thing didn’t make me feel better…

“Why did I buy so many?” she asks. “Seriously, you need to stop me.”

My closet’s almost empty. Another bag and I’ll be set. I feel bad for her. She may dig out by dawn if she’s lucky.

But seriously, it does. I feel about a thousand times better. The way she’s looking at this is…

Well, she couldn’t be much cooler about it if she tried. Grateful to be off the hook, I reply, “I’m not really seeing the shoes as a problem.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s a thing,” she says, sounding frustrated. “Really, it’s the clothes. They’re the problem. I find an outfit I like and I just have to have shoes to go with it. Doesn’t matter if I already have some that’ll work.” Taking a breath, she adds as an afterthought, “And a purse to go with them.” From there everything goes to hell. Annoyance turns to excitement. Apparently, breathing becomes arbitrary whenever fashion’s involved.

I could probably follow this, but really, she just makes my head hurt. I get the full spiel on this matching that. Oh, and that can’t show. And while I understand the desire for matching bras and panties, my world doesn’t end when I fail to pull that off.

I hear the word ‘frilly’ and my brain comes dangerously close to dribbling out of my ear. I totally get ‘sexy.’ She’s got that going on in spades, but I’ll never understand ‘frilly.’ I have to stop her. “B., please, I get it. You said something about being on a tight schedule?”

“Yeah, you’re right,” she mumbles. “How about some coffee?” One thing really doesn’t go with the other. The fact that she looks self-conscious now only completes the picture.

Eyeing her disaster, I reply, “Sure, if you think we have time.”

“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” she says, “but I’d like to take that with us…” her attention turns to the chest below the window “…if you think we can get it down the stairs without making too much noise.”

I walk over to it. That’ll depend on how heavy it is. I lift one side before I answer, “Yeah, I think we can manage.” It’s not half as bad as it looks, but the thing’s big enough that it’s going to fill the backseat. “Not to burst your bubble, but how are we gonna get all of this in the car?”

She joins me, taking the other side. As we start out the door, she says, “We’re not. We’re just gonna take what we can and they’ll ship the rest.”

Okay, that doesn’t make sense. We’re leaving a forwarding address? Unsure how to put that, I stammer, “But won’t that—?” I glance over my shoulder to avoid the pile of boxes and bags. “We’re running, right?” We’re gonna run right into the bed in a sec.

Turning to hold the trunk in one hand, I pick my way past all the crap and get the door opened as she explains, “We’re going to hold over for a few days in Chicago. They’ve got a car we can use. Some sort of four-wheel-drive something or other. I don’t remember what Giles said it was, but it’s bigger.” She slows so I can get through the door and around the corner. “First things first, right now we’re just getting out of here as fast as we can. It’s not safe anymore.”

I ask, “What makes you say that?” Gotta love the leading questions.

“Like I said, it’s complicated,” she replies. “We’ll get there. I just need you to be patient, okay?” Figures, this one gets me jack.

I say, “Sure.” Again, that’s the last thing I feel. This doesn’t make sense. I guess it’s just not that bad. If it were, this stuff’d be the last thing that mattered. “Would you mind uncomplicating things soon? I’d like to know what’s got your panties in a wad.”

I could’ve chosen my words more carefully. Too late now. She doesn’t look impressed. Considering the fact that I’m backing down a twisty staircase with a huge-ass, heavy, cumbersome trunk between me and her, it might pay for me to be polite. It’s a stretch, but I know I’ve got it in me.

“Yeah, no problem,” she says. “That’s part of the point of taking a break.”

It feels almost like payback when she asks, “There are a couple of boxes in the trunk of the car. Would you mind getting them while I make coffee?”

No doubt they weigh a ton. Still, I reply, “No, I don’t mind.” I’ve got a smart mouth. I’ll pay my dues.

“Just get them and bring them inside,” she says. The look she gives me pretty much cinches it. She needs to spill…and soon. “I know you probably want to smoke, but don’t stop, okay? Please?” It really doesn’t help that she’s way too intuitive for my own good. That and the worry doesn’t fade. It’s a great mix. Goes well with the bickering and manual labor. Finally, she adds a guilty, “I should just get dressed and do it myself.”

“No, it’s cool,” I say. “I’ll go out and come right back in.” I want to add, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ but I figure that really would make her blow a gasket, so I switch topics, going back to the last thing I said to upset her. “You know I didn’t really mean it that way, right?” Like that’s even remotely smart.

Maybe I just want a fight. Could be I really am that damaged. Or maybe I just hope she’ll actually talk now that she’s had some time to cool down. A little progress might be too much to ask for, but a girl can dream. It’s not ridiculous to think that we might accidentally make some. I mean, after all, what she said was really sweet. It’s possible…

She looks puzzled until I explain, “That other thing…y’know, the pachyderm we keep chained in the corner?”

“Oh, that,” she says, making me wish I’d kept my mouth shut. “I know what you meant, but how am I supposed to take that?”

A little of the iciness thaws during the lag between comment one and comment two. Not nearly enough. It really doesn’t help that she clams up as we wrestle the trunk around the next corner. But I guess doing that without smacking the wall does take a little effort. I mumble, “I’m sorry for bringing this up again. It’s just…”

“It’s okay,” she says. It’s hard to tell what’s up with her. She sounds put out, but that could just be the strain.

Things finally level out enough for her to ask, “You remember how upset you got earlier when you talked about feeling like you’d become like them?” Not that anything’s level now, but we’re between corners.

“Yeah,” I reply.

“Well, that’s what you’re asking me to do,” she says.

Her answer’s so firm that it’s off-putting. I start to speak up, “How—?”

But she interrupts, “And yeah, I know it wouldn’t be exactly the same, but it’d still be me forcing you. It’d be me upsetting you and ignoring it, making you feel helpless and frightened. I can’t see how that’d be good.”

My back hits the wall just in time to turn. The stupid diagonal cut of the corner steps almost throws me. I need to pay more attention, but she’s pretty much got that. I should’ve waited to bring this up.

She lets me get a handle on what I’m doing before she continues, “You probably think you’d be able to deal. That you’d just put that aside and forget about it. But I’m not sure you could. I think it’d come back to haunt us.”

I don’t think so, but I keep that to myself. I still don’t want to upset her.

“It’d be a whole lot better if we take things slow. You need to work this out in a way that’s good for you.” I don’t really feel like things are cool until she grins. “And by ‘good for you’ I mean ‘healthy’.” Another short flight of stairs passes by and she stalls.

Alright, so…maybe she has a point. I can’t know how I’ll feel. It might be smart to err on the side of caution.

That’s just not my style.

Once we negotiate the corner, she picks up her train of thought, “You have heard of ‘healthy’ before, right? Because what you want wouldn’t be that at all. It’d be the antithesis of ‘healthy,’ whatever that is.”

After dropping a bomb like ‘antithesis,’ she goes wanting. It’s like the obvious is just too obvious. Or maybe she worked too hard to come up with that and her brain needs to reset. No clue. I just think it’s kind of cute, even if she is teasing me. Eventually she gets there, concluding, “What you want would be really bad for you.”

I’m still not sure I agree, but I let her have it. Her mind seems made up. I say, “I’m just worried about you.” I can’t help it. I know how she is. She’s inclined to sacrifice for people she cares about. I don’t want her doing that for me. I don’t even get how I rated that.

“Well, don’t be. I’m a big girl,” she says. “This is just another hardship—” Funny, the look she gives me doesn’t exactly say ‘hardship.’ “—one I’m willing to bear. I think it’ll be worth it in the end.”

We’re playing pack mule, talking about something that’s, to my mind, in no way fun and she somehow manages to flirt again. This might be a new low. Or maybe it’s a high? I don’t know. Depends on how you look at it.

As I consider the lows and highs, she leaves me behind. “There’s always a learning curve with new relationships. It takes time to get the other person figured. This is just that, but it’s a little different because…” Catching up just makes me happy she dropped the ‘because.’ She glosses right over it with a brief silence. “We’ll get this all worked out and things’ll be better because we spent time making them that way.”

We’re nearly there. I concentrate on getting down the last few stairs before I reply, “That’s really sweet of you.” Yeah, there’s nothing I can say to change her mind. This is what it is. I have to deal with it as it is. Get over it and make do.

Of course part of my problem could be that it’s a new day. Today’s senseless drama will be brought to you by the letter ‘L,’ the number ‘two’ and the word ‘impatience.’

I just want this fixed now. But maybe she’s right, letting things work themselves out might be better for both of us. All things considered, I guess it can’t hurt to try. Or more accurately, not try…

“After today, that might seem like some sort of twisted double-standard to you,” she whispers as I steer us toward the kitchen. I don’t want to pass by Maeve’s bedroom door with this thing. This hallway’s pretty narrow. It’s a little tighter squeeze turning through the living room door, but we manage. We set the trunk down next to the coat closet before she goes on, “If I thought you were asking because you thought it’d be fun, I’d probably be fine with it.”

She goes to the closet for her keys. I know that’s what she’s doing, but they aren’t in there. Her purse is sitting on the end table in the corner of the living room. I grab it, leaving her to hunt and explain, “I’m not saying it’ll never happen. What I am saying is that ‘I deserve it’ will never be a valid reason for something like that.”

After fruitlessly searching, she turns around and I hold out her purse. She only looks annoyed for as long as my grin lasts.

“What I did was different,” she says as she digs through her purse. “Like I said, that was for you. I thought it might help you get over some of the…” She’s concentrating too much on what she’s saying and not enough on what she’s looking for. “I’m not even sure what to call it. ‘Trauma’ works, but it’s not just that.”

This could take a while. I grab my coat and put it on anyway.

“You were having so much trouble being touched. I just figured if I couldn’t, it might help. I’m sorry if that confused you.”

I reply, “I wasn’t confused.”

She says, “That’s not exactly what I meant.” The stress comes through in her tone. “I’m just not sure how to explain it.” She gives up on the search long enough to straighten out her thoughts and conclude, “I didn’t mean to mislead you. That’s not me. I’m not—”

I want to help, but I think the best way to do that is to shut up and let her figure it out. She’ll eventually get there.

It doesn’t take her long to recover. “There aren’t many other reasons I’d go there. But it’s not like I had trouble dealing either. Actually, I kind of enjoyed it once we got past all of the—” She cuts off when her keys jingle and hands them to me.

Enough said. I don’t see any reason to wait around. I reply, “So did I,” as I open the door and glance over my shoulder. She looks worried. I assume it’s not over that last thing and offer a reassuring, “I swear I’ll be right back.” Yeah, that’d be it. She doesn’t look happy when I shut the door.

She’s gonna tell me what’s up soon or…

I go straight to the car, just like I promised. Pressing the button on the key fob, I pop the trunk, grab one of the boxes and head back inside. They’re more like trays. And I can totally see what she’s thinking. They’re made to fit inside that chest we just hauled downstairs. Each one’s stacked full of all of the tools of the trade. I could put down just about anything with what’s here.

There’s only one thing missing. I’ll have to ask her what happened to that shiny red axe she picked up in Sunnydale. I bet she’s got it stashed away somewhere. I wouldn’t leave it in the trunk of a car if it was mine either.

Otherwise, this is pretty much the perfect setup. The trays fit side-by-side in the trunk. All she has to do is pop and grab. But the medieval weapon’s locker might not go over well with the natives. Better to do this at night when no one’s watching. I’m not looking forward to wrestling that thing down those stairs tomorrow, but that’s really the only way to be discreet with this much stuff.

I drop off the first tray, opening the trunk to put it inside on top of the one that’s still in there. Huh. The bottom tray looks like a game of Pick-Up Sticks for perverts. I consider switching the trays around. I may when I get back.

She pokes her head around the corner, stammering, “I, umm…” when she sees what I’m doing.

I’m a whole lot less surprised than she is. I got the message earlier. When she unpacked her bag from the spa, most of it went in there.

Opening the door, I turn to wink at her and say, “It’s cool, B.” I could get some serious mileage out of this, but there’s no sense in starting in on her now. Hell, I should just leave it, say, ‘Well, alright, B.,’ and pray that whatever part of her mind she’s lost never comes back. Giving her a reason to get all uppity and straight-laced really isn’t in my best interest.

Nothing catastrophic or even remotely interesting happens as I fetch the other tray. Of course, it is after midnight on a weekday, so…

Yeah, and in my ever-so-limited experience that means absolutely nothing. If there’s a reason to stress, she’s totally right to go there.

Once I’m back inside, I swap the trays out, putting the fun stuff on top. It’s hard for me to admit that might be a tough sell. I wasn’t convinced by the whole ‘sex toys’ thing in the first place. And that looks really awkward. More awkward than that other thing. But who knows? Maybe two heads really are better than one.

Doesn’t look like she’s convinced either, considering the fact that she picked up more than one of the same type of thing.

From where I stand…if things ever get back to anything resembling semi-normal, I’m pretty sure I’m not gonna want that. I like touching her too much. The idea that she might be more adventurous than me is hard to get my head around. But if the big fat hint in that chest is any kind of clue, I may end up having to pass her the crown.

The smell of coffee draws me into the kitchen, but the gurgling preps me for disappointment. It’s still brewing. I snicker when I see that she’s leaned against the counter eating a low fat yogurt. I don’t know what it is…

Maybe she’ll take the hint if I humor her. “I’ll brush my teeth.” Not that I’d mind her coming out, but her smoking is just too weird. She needs to stick with her yogurt. I open the patio door.

It takes her a few to join me. I get just enough peace, cold, dank air and quiet. My head actually shuts up. It’s nice while it lasts.

When the door rattles, I help her out. She could use a hand. At least she wore a coat this time, but trying to balance two cups of coffee and open the doors is a little much. Once the catastrophe’s averted, she asks, “Do you remember how it was after we left Sunnydale?”

I take my cup from her, but that question pretty much does me in. We had about two or three minutes. That’s all the peace we got. It’s like she was the glue that was holding us together. It went away when she fainted.

It wasn’t her fault. She’d lost so much blood that, once the adrenaline wore off, she was done. And so were we. Willow caught her and Xander carried her onto the bus. Between the two of them and Dawn, I thought…

But it wasn’t just them. There was a crater between us and nearest hospital. There was no going around it, so we had to head northwest through the mountains to Bakersfield.

Buffy was in and out. She got more confused as time went on. But I couldn’t help with that. All I could do was listen. I had to take care of Wood. But I couldn’t do much for him either. Just keep pressure on his wounds and make sure he stayed conscious. That’s all any of us could do.

It was hell. We’d just done the impossible. We saved the world. We should’ve been on top of it, but we got a dose of desperation instead.

“You’re thinking about right after, aren’t you?” Her tone is cautious, timid even… She understands.

I shake it off, mumbling, “Yeah, that wasn’t good,” and realizing that my cigarette’s almost gone. But that’s nothing new. Smoking’s just one of those habits. I flick the ash away.

My throat’s dry. She agrees, “No, it wasn’t,” as I have a sip of coffee. “But I meant the first week or so after that.”

I whisper, “That was bad too.” I had nothing to lose, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get it. I watched. I understood that they’d lost pretty much everything.

Again, we should’ve been partying, but it’s impossible to just get over something like that. We tried. We started to pick up the pieces. We even let loose a couple of times because it was the right thing to do. But it’s not like you can really let loose if that’s your reason.

Xander got wasted and kind of stayed that way. I joined him. But drunk and brooding…?

Oh, yeah. Good times.

She says, “We did our best.”

I’m sure she has something else. She wouldn’t just bring this up for no reason, but I interrupt to ask, “What happened to the scythe?”

“It’s upstairs,” she says. I take another hit off my smoke as she thinks better of that. “Well, not really.” I didn’t mean to upset her. “Willow has it. They made me a prop so I’d look the part. That’s all I’m good for now.”

I crush my cigarette out. I’m done. We could go back inside, but she’s not. Not even close. “It’s in a garment bag between my discount Ralph Lauren and my fake Versace.” She gets progressively more uptight as she goes on. “God, I loved that dress. I couldn’t afford it, so I looked everywhere until I found something close.”

“I’m sorry brought this up,” I mumble, but I don’t think she hears me or at least, she acts that way.

She says, “All I have now are fakes.” I accept the hand she offers. “You’re the only real thing in my life.”

That’s nice, albeit a little weird, but I’ll let that part slide. The sentiment’s still sweet even if it does make want to check for labels.

The rest of that’s just sad. She made this sound like a vacation when we talked before. But now, it’s pretty easy to see the other side of that. If I’m reading her correctly, she feels like she’s being punished.

I ask, “Why does she have it?” I may as well. Our conversation’s been spiraling since I first opened my mouth. I really can’t make it worse.  

Well, I could, but—

“She’s trying to do something to help,” she replies as I get the door. When I stop to top off my cup, she says, “Look, Faith, we’ve got a lot to cover and not much time. I’ll do what I can to explain, but I really need to just get this over with.”

On that note, we both walk through the house, stopping to hang our coats and flipping off lights as we go. I even swing through the bathroom and brush my teeth as promised. The irony doesn’t go missing. All of that happens in silence. Whatever’s wrong, it must suck.

When we reach the room, she goes to the closet. Taking down a garment bag, she lays it over her open suitcase. There’s no mistaking what it is. The bag conforms to the shape of the scythe. She unzips it, revealing the blue dress she had on the first night we met. Her hiding place is just about perfect, even if it doesn’t matter. It’s the kind of thing I’d expect her to do with something like that.

The blue dress must be the fake. The tag doesn’t say, ‘Ralph Lauren,’ so that’s a fair guess.

I say, “I got the message, but I have one thing I’d like to add if that’s alright.”

“Okay,” she replies.

She takes the bag, hangs it and adds more to it while I share my thought, “I don’t care what you say about that dress. It’s great.” Her ego really doesn’t need more stroking. She knows she’s pretty. But ‘pretty’ and ‘wanted’ are two different things. “When you walked into the club that night, no one cared about your dress. They weren’t trying to figure out who designed it. It was you they were looking at.” Maybe this’ll help. “That thing’s smoking hot, but it’d never get there without you in it.”

Casting a glance over her shoulder, she says, “Thank you.” The fact that she’s smiling makes it worth it.

I come back with a quick, “Oh, don’t thank me,” as I set my coffee down next to hers on the chest of drawers. “I should be thanking you. It’s true.”

It didn’t occur to me before tonight that the closet beside hers is just full of bags and boxes. That’s all that’s in it. I thought there was other stuff, but there’s not. She’s been planning this for a while, probably since she got here. And I thought she was settling in.

As I walk over to grab another bag, she says, “Willow thinks she can make more. Or that’s what she said.”

There’s something about the way she says that. Like there’s a catch. Not that I have any clue what she means. Maybe if just let her talk, she’ll start making sense. It’d be nice to know who’d send such a thoughtful gift. And what made them think our heroine might enjoy heroin.

She asks, “Do you remember Willow saying that she couldn’t feel the scythe?” I open my mouth only to get cut off. “No, you weren’t there.” I love it when she does that. But at least I know what she’s talking about now. The way she acted I thought we were done with this.

I don’t bother correcting her. Truth is, I heard that. I’m not sure when or from who, but it really doesn’t matter. We were living in a house full of teenage girls at the time. Keeping something secret wasn’t gonna happen.

“Well, she can now,” she says. “She got pretty close to it bailing us out. I guess it rubbed off.” She’s gone back to work so I may as well look busy.

I was going to pack my underwear. I was even going to do it right. But I’ve been standing around, watching her, waiting for some miraculous flash of insight. I unzip my bag, pull out the drawer and dump it. That seems like kind of a shame after she folded everything, but its underwear. I don’t care if it’s wrinkled. In fact, I don’t even think it gets wrinkled.

As I take a quick sip of my coffee, grab my bag and cross the room, she asks, “I wonder what that says…if there’s something different about us.” She struggles enough with how to put it that I expect something more interesting. “Well, not us, but what she feels when she’s around us.” It’s just a silly rhetorical question. They’re cool and all, but I wish she’d move on.

She must think the same because she shrugs it off and does just that. “I think she’s afraid of it.” I set my bag down and start pulling clothes off of hangers. “She raised an army with that thing. She says it’s dangerous and I’m in no position to argue. In the wrong hands, it might be.”

And that would be the catch. I can’t say that I’m impressed.

Well, I am, but I’m not. I’m impressed that my plan to let her talk had a shelf life of maybe a whole three minutes. But Willow should’ve minded her own damn business. She had no right butting in. I have to ask, “So basically, Willow just took it from you?” That’s all I’m going to ask.

B. replies, “Yeah, I guess if you want to put it that way.”

I nod. That’s nice. We’ll argue less if I just pack my shit, so… 

She waits for me to say something else. Or I guess that’s it because there’s near silence from the other side of the room for a good minute or so. A few hangers scrape and some stuff like that. Finally, she states the obvious, “I don’t think she plans to make any more. That wouldn’t make sense.”

No, it wouldn’t. I probably shouldn’t, this really is none of my business, but I can’t help resenting Willow.

It doesn’t help when B. says, “Obviously, I was told to keep this quiet, but I wasn’t going to lie to you. I don’t want to. Besides, it’d be pointless. All you’d have to do is touch the stupid thing to know the truth.” She zips her suitcase closed and works on piling it and the others by the door as she admits, “There are a few more like this. It’s kind of a trademark now, so they’re passing them out like party favors. All you have to do to get one is look enough like me.”

I mumble, “That’s just depressing.”

It surprises me with all of the noise she’s making that she hears me. But she must because she defends Willow. “I really can’t argue. Her instincts have been right so far. She’s the one who first noticed.”

I finish folding and stowing my last few things while I wait for the report on what meddlesome little Willow noticed. But B. holds off. It’s not until I go to stack my bags with hers that she says, “That first week she said what we needed to do was to try and get control of the business.”

I almost ask, ‘What business?’ But there’s no point. She’ll get around to it. Instead, I try to look conspicuously out of work and wait for her to tell me what she needs.

But she’s too busy slipping her shoes into one of those things that looks like a garment bag to notice me. “I thought she was just looking for something to do to take her mind off of things, so I said sure. I didn’t think…” She gets quiet. I’d love to know what going on in her head.

And the best way to accomplish that is still to keep my trap shut.

When I don’t derail her, she asks, “Did you hear anything about how that went?”

“Rumors mostly,” I reply, determined to keep my answer simple. “I know it didn’t go well. I steered clear of Willow. She was pretty ticked off.” I’m not even sure why. I didn’t bother to ask. But given the mood of the moment, her behavior wasn’t that unusual.

B. finishes with her shoes and gets up, glancing at me as she heads for her other closet.

Well, I’m not gonna stand around looking like a Mexican out in front of a Home Depot any longer. She’s almost done anyway. The duffle she just grabbed should be enough to finish. I’m honestly surprised. Other than that trunk, she doesn’t have that much more stuff than I do. Mostly it’s just shoes and doing away with the boxes really cut the bulk.

As I snag my coffee and sit down on the bed, she says, “It was a mess. I wish I could’ve ‘steered clear,’ but I was stuck.” She takes a handful of shirts and sweaters from her closet and lays them on the bed. Turning to get another, she says, “At least it didn’t last long.”

I put my coffee on the floor and pitch in, taking shirts off of hangers and folding them. She piles more next to what I’m working on and sits down.

Moving the bag between us, she says, “You can imagine that an organization as old as the Watchers Council probably had some pretty deep pockets.” She mentions the council and it clicks. I think I see where she’s going. “They certainly never seemed to want for anything.”

Yeah, the others have been flipping out over cash for a while now. That and ‘deep pockets’ really don’t mix.

She says, “Just the places that were destroyed when the First tried to take them out were a pretty solid clue.” And that cinches it. I’m a little disappointed in myself. I should’ve seen this earlier. I probably would’ve if my head hadn’t been so firmly lodged up my ass.

“Tried?” I ask. That’s the real gem in that sentence. I don’t need to see her nod to know. My brain spins. The implications are… This is bad. No wonder she’s tweaking.

It takes a few, but I get my head straight enough to ask, “So the council still exists?” There’s a problem with my question. I stammer through clarifying, “Their council, not our council.”

“That’s what we think,” she replies.


She goes on, “Of course we can’t confirm that,” but I lose track of what she’s saying. The idea that those fuckers are still around doesn’t exactly thrill me. Getting free of them was the only good thing to come out of that crap in Sunnydale. Now she’s telling me that’s wrong?

I pull myself together in time to catch the last part of what she says, “Whoever it was, they were scary in a super geeky sort of way. We’re talking nerd concentrate. They pulled an end-run around Willow with a computer. And I’ve never seen a computer that could do that, much less a person.”

I’m not sure that made sense, but I take her point. Willow’s a brainy girl, annoyingly so sometimes.

Neither one of us is doing anything now. As I reach for my cup, B. adds, “Oh, and Andrew. Can’t forget about Andrew.”

I take a drink. My coffee’s lukewarm. It sucks. But getting more is completely out of the question now, so I pick up another shirt. Maybe if I keep my hands busy…

“Believe me,” she says, “I’d love to find a better theory, but I don’t think the remaining members of an organization whose collective head has been placed on a chopping block by a bunch of handi-capable monks controlled by a smugly sarcastic, ancient evil would be—”

I lend my two cents just to help her out, “I don’t think they’d be worried about the money either. I think they’d be all about finding a deeper hole.” We’re finally in agreement. It figures that it’d be over something as severely twisted as this.

She sees what I’m doing and takes a sweater from the pile before stating the obvious, “Yeah, so…there was only one reasonable thing left to assume. The people at the top never came out of the shadows.” The smile she gives me never quite makes it to her eyes. I wish she looked happier, but I get why she doesn’t when she says, “Shadow men. Funny, how they dropped that little hint and we never picked up on it.”

Here’s an ugly thought: I wonder if she’s considered where the crap that happened to us might fit into all of this. I have to ask, “So, do you think Sparky’s connected?”

“I’d considered that,” she replies, “but honestly, I don’t know.”

I manage to get the shirt I’ve been holding forever folded. I drop it into the bag and grab another.

“It wouldn’t be the first time the council’s used a vamp to do their dirty work.” She sees the flaw and corrects herself, “Not that Sparky’s a vamp.”

I try to slip in, “Yeah, I got that.”

But my reply gets buried as she finishes her thought, “Or even necessarily connected to the council.”

I guess what she’s saying is that he’s evil. It’s definitely not above them to use evil things to do their bidding. The rest of that…

I can see why she says it, but if he is one of them, that’d explain the mask. Their identities would be secret. A secret they managed to keep from the oldest evil. It wouldn’t matter if he was someone we knew or not, he’d still want to hide who he was just in case we made the connection.

And motive…he’d have shitloads of reason to screw with us then. The council wanted one girl they could use as a puppet. We gave them a few thousand. Nothing screams ‘obedience’ quite like hordes of whiny teenage girls.

Yeah, I don’t like it…which means it’s probably true. It sure makes them more threatening than a bunch of tweed-wearing English librarians, even with the MI-6 vibe.

The question is how many of them are like him? If there’s more than one, we may as well get out the white flags right now because we’re done.

But my guess is he’s something different. Something new. I mean, if they’re all like that, why would they need us?

Why would they need anything? They could just go all Terminator on anything that got in their way.

She’s waiting for me to say something. Or maybe she’s just waiting for me to not look like I’m doing long division in my head. Either way, I wouldn’t want to disappoint her, so I come up with a snarky comment, “Why settle for one freak show when you can have the whole carnival?” It occurs to me that maybe I just want this all to fit. A huge conspiracy would give what happened to us some meaning. In spite of that, I force a snicker and finish my thought, “That’s how things usually work for us, right? We’re just special that way.” 

“Yeah, yeah, we are,” she replies. The sweater she took five minutes ago is still in her lap. She picks it up by the shoulders and does the mall store fold so fast it makes the wait seem comical.

I smile and join back in. I’m one to talk. I’ve got a sweater in my lap too. It’s kind of cute. I’m tempted to put it aside. I’d like to see her in it.

Placing the sweater in the bag, she says, “So, here’s what I know: Willow and Andrew managed to follow just enough. They got a few aliases, some account numbers and a little money to start, but only a small fraction of what they speculated was there.” She takes another shirt and folds it between thoughts. “We sort of dropped it after that. There wasn’t much we could do.”

Once she gets started, she just goes, mindlessly folding as she explains, “When this thing came up with you, Giles and I discussed what we could do to help. We both felt we’d dropped the ball. But there weren’t any easy answers. It’s pretty obvious that none of us are on Arnie’s social calendar.” She pauses long enough to sip her coffee and make a face. Hers must be cold too. “If the council excelled at one thing, it’s making stuff happen that shouldn’t. And we still had those names. We decided to take a chance. I mean, what harm could it possibly do to ask?”

Apparently, enough. I look down. That’s handy. The case is right next to me where she left it. She called this thing ‘an answer’ earlier. Picking it up, I ask, “So I can assume this isn’t a flu shot?”

“No,” she replies. Well, at least I made her smile. And this one even made it to her eyes.

She probably doesn’t need the nudge, but impatient is something I was hours ago. “So why don’t you enlighten me?”

There’s one shirt left. Picking it up, she sighs. As she folds it and stuffs it in the bag, she says, “It’s for this bizarre rite of passage the council used to put us through. They called it the Cruciamentum, and trust me, it’s every bit as pleasant as it sounds.”

Well, that’s enough for me. I get the picture. They drugged her, and naturally, because they’re such nice guys, they tried to get her killed. I missed my turn and now they want to make it up to me. I think I’ll pass. We’re almost done here and I’m convinced we should just keep going. Load the car, hit the road and not look back.

She doesn’t need to say any more, but I just let her go. “A week before my eighteenth birthday, Giles wanted me to start doing these meditation exercises. He was always ragging on me about my concentration, so I didn’t think anything of it.”

When I deal with the shirt that’s in my lap, she gets up. It kind of surprises me. I look around. There’s nothing left on the bed. Our closets are both empty except for the hangers. She clears the rest of them away and zips the bag closed, putting it with the others, all while I’m catching up and she’s explaining, “I should’ve. Focus exercises are supposed to make you sharper, but these left me feeling wiped out. I was forgetting stuff and losing blocks of time. But it was Giles, so…”

I move over to my side of the bed and get comfortable.

She still has a few things to do. There are a couple of jewelry boxes on the chest of drawers and some odds and ends. She makes her way around the room, collecting them as she says, “The test was meant to destroy my relationship with him. He should’ve been the one person I trusted. That’s how it’s supposed to go, but I’m just special…not to mention kind of stubborn.”

I shut my eyes and listen. There’s another thing that surprises me about all of this. Her voice is so neutral. There’s no emotion. I’d be pissed if this happened to me. But maybe it’s just been so long ago.

“He was ordered to strip me of my power by slowly poisoning me and feed me to the wolves. They always pick really special wolves to do their dirty work. The kind of animals that leave nothing behind. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is he did and he made me think I was the one with the problem.” Her act is good while it lasts, but the fact is, it doesn’t. “That mattered for a long time after. In some ways, it still matters.”

Well, at least I know she’s okay. Her saying that with the same chilly indifference would’ve really bothered me.

She’s quiet for a moment. When her story continues, she has a handle on her emotions, “If everything had gone according to plan, the council would’ve swept in to save the day. They would’ve claimed that Giles had acted alone.”

She drops the last bag and her laptop case off by the door. Curling up beside me, she goes on, “The idea behind the Cruciamentum is something like brainwashing. They villainize the last person you trust and step up to take their place. But by then you’re already trained, so there’s no worry about any troubling emotional connections after that. What they want is to make a tool. Something they can point in right direction and sit back to watch the carnage.”

I grumble, “God, get a TV,” and she laughs.

“Anyway, I got really interested in history after that happened. And you should know me well enough to put together just how bad it was from that,” she says, rolling onto her back.

I turn onto my side to look, propping my head in my hand.

Her face is drawn with stress, but her voice still sounds detached. “I dug around until I found a couple of cases they deemed successful. It wasn’t easy. The success rate was about one in twenty…or so…give-take. It’s hard to say. But I needed to see a couple to understand what they had in mind.”

I thought she was cool when she laughed, but she’s really not. My first instinct is to hold her, but she’s got that prickly, standoffish vibe going on. I turn away to give her space. Maybe she’ll work it out if I just let her talk. “You’d think they’d give up with that kind of failure rate. Any sane person would.” I wish there was more I could do. “But that’s the thing about us. We have no value. Failure was just a way to start over. It was easy for them, especially if they’d managed to separate their victim from everyone who cared.”

The reason she’s so upset comes clear when she shares, “The worst case I found was of a girl in the eighteen-twenties who was so severely beaten and raped that they determined her to be unstable without even giving her a chance. They murdered her right after she dusted the vamp.” She swallows. It’s a thick, awkward sound that makes me wish I could get her a cup of coffee. “She passed and failed both at once. Just surviving wasn’t enough.”

That’s mostly because I want to leave. I want to help, but I want to leave. A coffee run would be like having my cake and eating it too. But she needs me to listen, so I stay.

And so does she. She even makes herself continue, “Her watcher couldn’t live with what he’d done.” I’m not sure how she does it. “I kind of picked up on that because the pages were bloodstained. It was awful. The account was a suicide note.”

I’d have to be fool not to see the similarities. But I don’t know what to make of them. I don’t know how I should feel.

She says, “Now I know I don’t need to tell you what any of this means. That’d be a complete waste of time.” And I get that the right response would probably be fear. But I don’t feel that. Maybe I will tomorrow. I don’t know. I don’t feel much at all.

She’s quiet for such a long time that I get up and go to get us coffee. I tell her, “I’ll be right back,” but she doesn’t react at all. I make my way downstairs, skipping all of the bad steps, dump the cold stuff out, rinse our cups, pour more and get her creamer. I even remember to add the packet of Splenda to her cup.

I should be all torn up. But really, I’m more worried that I’m not worried. And that’s about dumb.

When I get back to the room, she propped up on her side, facing the door, waiting for me. The difference in her appearance is like night and day. It throws me. Sometime during my absence, she got a serious attitude adjustment. And I wasn’t gone that long. I hand her cup off and she says, “Thank you.” She takes a sip, smiles and puts it down.

I don’t know what to say, so I hope she has something. It takes her a moment, but she doesn’t let me down. “When stuff like this happens, people say that the best revenge is just to survive.”

I mumble, “Well, that’s probably a good start.” Sounds like we’ll have our hands full just doing that.

“Yeah, okay,” she says, “but I think that’s complete crap. It’s like high drama cliché at its worst. I like to have some standards.”

It shouldn’t surprise me that she disagrees. We agree on so little.

I’d like to go to my side of the bed and lay down, but she looks so relaxed that I don’t want to disturb her. As I sit in front of her on the floor, she continues, “They also like to say that living well is the best revenge. And I think that’s probably, as you said, ‘a good start.’ But I’ll always come down in favor of anything that sounds like it might involve copious amounts of shopping.”

I smirk. She’s just funny.

Taking my hand, she says, “Finding happiness is the thing that rings closest to true in my book. But there’s a problem with that. If you really have a reason to want revenge, happiness isn’t gonna happen. So basically, all of those statements are just stupid.” She takes a deep breath. “The only one that’s actually possible is the first one. But wouldn’t you prefer to have something that doesn’t sound so totally desperate?”

That’s just a given. Who wouldn’t want something more?

She doesn’t give me a chance to offer that opinion. Tugging my hand, she pulls me on top of her while rolling onto her back. It’s kind of a minor miracle that I manage to miss both coffee cups. I keep going and end up on my side next to her facing the door.

As I prop my head up and meet her eyes, she says, “The only way we’ll ever find happiness is to make peace with this and move on. That’s what I want. Whatever it takes…”

It’s funny, when I hear that, most of the things she’s done lately that just seemed strange at the time make sense. That was the missing piece. I get her now.

Page 8

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