Author: Jedi Buttercup
Summary: Nick Stokes isn't the only one who's ever awakened six feet underground. 1000 words.
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not. I claim nothing but the plot.
Spoilers: Buffy post-"Bargaining" (6.1); CSI post-"Grave Danger" (5.24).
Feedback: It's the coin of the realm.
Notes: This story is for the twistedshorts LJ challenge #4, "Out of Time", but I would have written it anyway, I think. The challenge was just convenient. In the aftermath of such a severe trauma, time would have much less meaning for Nick; he's apart from it, "out of time", still stuck dealing with those hours in the box while the world streams on around him.
"We all have our time machines. Those that take us back are memories. Those that take us forward are dreams..."
-Jeremy Irons, "The Time Machine" (2002)
The day after Nick Stokes got home from the hospital he found thirty-seven messages on his voicemail. He disconnected the call without listening to them, took his phone off the hook, ate a little soup, and then went back to sleep. He'd tried the bed the night before, but after waking three times hyperventilating, caught in the grip of a flashback, he'd moved into the living room, grateful for its comfortably lumpy couch and large, light-filled windows.
A day later, he gathered up his courage and dialed in again. There were a couple of the usual sales calls early on, bracketing a short message from his brother left before all hell had broken loose, but there the illusion of normality ended. The rest were a deluge of family, friends, co-workers and reporters, each of them worrying, pitying, celebrating, sympathizing or questioning regarding his experiences in the glass coffin. He wasn't sure how to deal with most of them; he ended up deleting more than half of the messages after only a sentence or two, once he'd listened long enough to know who they were and why they'd called. He'd been reliving the events of that night enough as it was in his nightmares without listening to a dozen other people rehash it for him again and again.
Only two of the messages broke that pattern. The first contained a few terse words from Sam Braun; Nick puzzled over that one for a moment, and made a mental note to ask Catherine about it sometime later. The guy didn't seem like the type to call up his estranged illegitimate daughter's subordinates just because he'd seen their picture on the news; something else had to be going on there. The second was from a complete stranger. Nick almost thought she was another reporter or random well-wisher at first, his finger hovering over the delete key, but something in the tone of her voice caught his attention.
"Uh, hi," the message began. "You, uh, don't know me; but my name is Buffy Summers, and I saw what happened to you on TV. I just--I wanted you to know--you're not alone."
She laughed a little then, nervously. "I mean--I know you're not alone. You probably have lots of friends who were terrified for you while you were gone, who keep bringing you things and trying to make you feel better now that it's over, who... who keep telling you they know how awful it must have been. I saw your boss on the news, and some of your co-workers, talking about how everything ground to a halt while they looked for you; there's a lot of love there."
She paused and took a deep breath, then began again, her voice quieter, more serious. "But if you're anything like I was, you're ready to strangle them by now. Because they don't know. They can't, because they were on the outside. They weren't the ones who woke up in the dark, in a box so small you couldn't sit up, or turn over, or even move your arms and legs without knocking into the walls--"
Nick closed eyes his as her voice started to rise, breathing deeply, trying to stay calm. The ragged tone in her voice was uncomfortably familiar, filled with echoes of his own experiences; he didn't know how she knew, didn't want to know how if it was anything like his story, but every word she said was true.
"I've been there," she continued. "The circumstances weren't the same, and I wasn't in the ground as long as you were, but I do know exactly how freaksome it is to be trapped like that, to be so scared that you scream and thrash and try to break the lid with your bare hands because you can't bear it one minute longer. And after you finally do get out, in some ways it feels like you never left."
The line went quiet again; the soft sounds of her stressed breathing merged with Nick's own as he held the phone, gripping it tightly enough to crack the case.
"Look," Ms. Summers' voice came on again, several seconds later. "I don't have any good advice to give you on how to deal with it, because I didn't. Deal with it, I mean. I pretty much spent a whole year doing crazy, stupid things, trying to erase what happened from my memories. I hope you don't have to go through that, but if you do, don't let anyone try to tell you you're wrong, or disturbed, or--anyway. I just thought--I thought it might help you to know you're not the only one."
She went silent again, and Nick started as the automated voice from the phone company came on, informing him of the date and time of her call. "Press seven to delete this message," it directed; "press eight-eight to return this call. Press two to save this message and continue to the next..."
Nick let his finger hover over the eight key for a moment, then shook his head and pressed two. He raised his free hand and swiped at his cheeks, grimacing at the tears on his face and the tremor in his muscles. He couldn't talk to her now; he doubted he could talk to anyone at the moment, as choked up as he was. It was still too raw to talk about, and maybe it always would be.
But on some level, he did feel a little better; the shit that he was going through wasn't unique, had been conquered by someone else who'd been just as terrified as he had. He was going to be OK. Everyone else had been telling him that for days--but now he almost felt as though he could believe them.
Time had stopped for him in that box, but someday it would start again, and he'd have his life back. He'd survived a crazy stalker; he could survive this, too.