"What have you done?"
Buffy was shocked. She knelt by Dawn, whose breath was shallow and quick, pulse fluttering at her throat. Already her eyes were struggling to open, eyes rolled back but striving to focus. Spike made small soothing noises, and Dawn's face turned towards him. Buffy placed her hand on her sister's cheek and then jerked back, surprised. Dawn skin was hot to the touch, despite the coolness of the evening.
"What have you DONE?" She repeated, turning to Mina, who was still crushing the heel of her hand into one socket, then the other.
"My job." The change in Mina's voice was startling, a strained and grating sound. Aled gently placed his hands behind Mina's head and his long fingers began to smooth the muscles of her neck in long, deep sweeps. She winced, but leaned into his touch as the knots began to melt away.
"That's not an answer."
Aled shot Buffy an exasperated look. "Is your sister all right?"
"How would I know? Your girlfriend's the professional."
The expression on Aled's face indicated he was about to say something quite rude in return, but was saved by Dawn's weak, peevish interruption.
"Shut UP… Loud people…"
Spike grimaced lightly as he helped Dawn sit up. He too could feel the heat that radiated off of Dawn's skin; he kept his hands carefully flat and rigid, allowing her to use him as a frame to pull herself upright. She sucked air through her teeth sharply when she accidentally brushed her arm against his chest – her skin felt crisp, as though it might crackle and flake off is she made the wrong move.
"Oh my god," she groaned. "I feel like I've been roasted. Or boiled. Or fried."
"Probably a little bit of all that," Aled said sympathetically. His expression closed a little as he looked to Buffy. "Her skin's going to be tender for a while, you might want to get some of the aloe vera stuff, anything good for sunburn."
"I…" Buffy faltered; she clearly did not want to leave Dawn's side.
"I will." Spike brushed his thumb against Dawn's forehead and stood.
But before leaving, he paused by Aled. "We're not doing that again," he muttered shortly.
Aled returned his gaze calmly. "No."
Willow was baking.
It felt good, this kitchen. Yellows and greens and reds, it had been somewhat redesigned in her absence, but the shapes were the same. She fit in this kitchen, perched on this stool, the ceramic mixing bowl in front of her. She turned the contents over and over, folding them into each other, clean and fresh and wholesome.
She'd sat quietly through the meeting earlier, watching her friends and the strangers broker a sort of peace. Mina's earnestness was winning, but Willow spent much of her time watching Aled. There was something about him she couldn't place. Not a bad thing, she thought. Just – a difference. And the way he reflected Mina's mood, her anxieties, her effusiveness… All things to be expected in a lover or close friend, but he somehow anticipated her too soon or something.
But when they had all splintered into their respective corners – Mina and Dawn upstairs for what Mina elusively referred to as "the consultation", Spike lurking on the staircase, Buffy into the basement workshop, Aled and Xander to the yard – she had found herself pulled towards this kitchen. And in the ensuing hours, she realised, she'd baked up a bit of a storm.
Muffins, spiced breads, cookies, all sweet or savoury carbs piled high on counters and cooling racks, enough to feed a small army. Buffy, from the looks of the cabinets, mostly lived on tinned soups and takeout menus. But tucked away in a corner Willow had found flour, a rummage through the fridge had yielded eggs and butter, and the spice rack was slightly dusty but still packed with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg.
For a house full of people, many of them quite volatile, Willow was grateful for the haven she had found. It was funny – after so much time spent isolating herself, trying to limit the amount of time she spent exposed to others and telling herself it was for their own good, she'd forgotten how this could feel. The sense of belonging, being able to care for others, to be part of an overall balanced dynamic. She had missed it, but was also beginning to realise that she'd been terribly, terribly scared of it as well.
Her mind fluttered a bit as her thoughts began the dread slide towards memory of what had happened last time she was so close to these people, these same exact people… She clutched the rim of the counter, waiting for the blackout to strike, hoping the floor wouldn't hurt too much when she fell…
But then, the most unexpected thing happened.
Rather than the nauseating tilt into unconsciousness she was so used to, she remained upright. The hated memories did not, for once, sink into her consciousness like a poison, inching through every part of her, controlling her completely. Instead, she sensed the greasy sensation wash away, drain into a more manageable shape, contained. It was so unreal that she almost slipped from her stool with the shock of it.
Had she reached a saturation point, she wondered? A state when she'd been in so much anguish for so long that she'd built up an immunity? In the past year, she had felt as though her brain were some sort of giant, squishy grey sponge, sucking up psychic pain and allowing it to diffuse everywhere, until there was no working part of her mind left untainted. Was there no more room to hurt?
No, she decided. It couldn't be that – for her to be saturated with that much self-loathing, that disgust, she would have to be continually miserable. Or, she noted dryly, dead. Instead, she decided, it had been like water slicking off a stone. Dirty water, to be sure, but her mind remained intact.
In wonderment she stared around the kitchen, where she'd first begun her turn down a darker path so many years in the past. If the universe believed in symmetry, could this be it? In this house of all places, where she should have been most vulnerable, perhaps she had finally begun to heal.
Spike leaned into the doorway. "How is she?"
"'She' is awake, Spike. God. " Dawn's sourness made Buffy move closer beside her. "I was asleep! Nothing even happened!"
"Not while you were asleep, no." The softness left Buffy's stance abruptly, and she cast a dark look at Spike. He handed Dawn a jar of ointment to wordlessly, without a hint of apology.
It was as if his motion flipped a switch in Buffy's mind. His lack of repentance enraged her, reigniting a fury she'd kept in check out of concern for her sister. Now that Dawn was seemingly only a little worse for wear, she allowed it to bubble out of her, a rapid, hissed anger she practically spit at him.
"What the hell did you think you were doing, you arrogant bastard?" She stood, tiny and electric, advancing on him. "You had no idea what that could have done to her! She's weak enough as it is, without you running around and trying… what, experiments on her?"
Spike looked at her coolly. "It needed to be done, Buffy. I wouldn't have harmed her, but it needed to be done."
Buffy exploded. "Oh, so YOU make all of the decisions now? My god, Spike! Who ARE you, to keep invading my family, my friends? If you'd broken her, it's not like you'd've stayed to fix it, would you?" The import of those words registered with him, she could tell by the way his shoulders jerked briefly.
And then, because it was on the tip of her tongue and because she wanted him to hurt, in a tone laden with all the scorn she could muster: "No, you run, Spike. I know you. You run."
Dawn's heart plunged straight through her stomach. She was forgotten, had frozen in the act of rubbing aloe into her face, wary of moving and drawing any attention. Buffy's words, she knew, were very close to the kind you can't recover from.
Briefly, in that silent aftermath, something inside Buffy twinged – she knew that this was not right, this questioning of his loyalty. He'd been honorable, he'd been fair, and she was drawing Dawn into something ugly and hurtful and fierce. But fear, delayed by the speed of events and the shock of Dawn's burning, was beginning to catch up to her. And, as a small nasty voice deep down kept reminding her, Spike's loyalty occasionally expressed itself in irrational, dangerous ways.
Spike dropped his head. Quietly, he spoke directly to the floor.
"I'm sorry you hurt." Breath in, blank face. "I'm so sorry I ever hurt you." And his eyes darted up for a moment, taking in Dawn first – who radiated back love and calm and acceptance like a balm – then Buffy, rigid and defensive, salt in a wound.
He turned and left the room, because there was nothing else that he could do.
Aled and Mina sat on the front porch on Revello Drive, on the long porch swing, rocking gently in the evening breeze. Aled's dimensions were perfectly suited to this activity; his torso formed a perfect curve where Mina nestled contentedly, and his leg idly pushed the swing back and forth, back and forth as he gently pulled his fingertips through her hair. She sighed, enjoying the caress, the sweet smell of California suburb, the way the air only hinted at a chill.
A brief kiss on her forehead made her smile, her eyes closed and drifting, and she roused herself to answer.
"Yeah, I'm okay." The throbbing had left her eye sockets by now, thank god – she'd never known any pain to feel worse than this, as though someone were yanking on her optic nerves, dragging her eyeballs through the back of her head. Monkeys. Tiny, evil monkeys, bouncing on the bundled nerves like jungle vines.
Her body reacted in sympathy with thought, and another surge of soreness made her wince and groan,
Aled's voice was immediately in her ear, low and soothing. "All right, you be still, let it fade…" She could feel him reach somewhere, and then something puffy and warm covered her.
"Aled, what…?" Her fingers plucked at the fabric curiously, and she sat upright to bring the handful to her face.
Unexpectedly, Aled's hand was suddenly shielding her eyes, and she opened them to see nothing at all. Surprised, she laughed, bringing up both her hands to curl around his hovering fingers. "Care to explain?"
"Promise me first, you won't open your eyes one bit." His voice dropped again, once more drifting close to her ear, sending delicious prickles up her arms. And more primly, as an aside, "You're not meant to open them so soon either way, you naughty girl."
She shrugged; he was right, her eyes were probably still tender, and she was in no rush. The breeze was sweet and she was comfortable, so she obediently closed her eyes again, her eyelashes grazing his palm, and settled herself against him again. She could feel him tucking the fabric around her again, fussily tugging it up to cover her chest where her tank top left her collarbones exposed to the air. He solved the problem of her bare arms by laying his own sweater-clad limbs along her skin, wrapping her in her own arms, then in him.
"I feel it's only fair to warn you," he rumbled, speech that shook his chest and she could feel against her cheek, "that you are currently ensconsed in the most god-awfully wretched quilt man has ever seen." She laughed delightedly, and then immediately began to whine a little, because now she was curious.
"No no," he admonished sternly. "Your eyes need a rest, and to look at this abomination… Well, in your state, you'd never see again." He tilted her face up and looked suspiciously at her eyelids to see if she'd rebel, and when she didn't he dropped two quick kisses on her eyebrows, then tucked her under his chin again.
Mina chuckled; he reminded her of nothing so much as a mother hen at these times, when she allowed him to care for her entirely. Before him, she'd have been fine alone in a dark room, just given a little time to adjust and think. But ever since he had appeared, he had taken this element of their work over entirely.
And she had to admit that she looked forward to this – the moment on a job when they began collaboration again, after she'd done what he helpfully called "the heavy lifting". And for some reason, the pain left more swiftly when he was there to chase it away.
"So," she murmured.
Aled nodded above her, recognizing her cue to begin. "So."
"It's not a closed circuit." She felt as though the energy patterns were burned onto the inside of her eyelids; even with her eyes shut tight, the sequence replayed itself so many times that she knew it by heart.
She paused, and felt Aled hesitate. Occasionally, she needed him to ask series of questions, to draw the patterns out of her own mind. But this one she could tell straight, and plunged into it immediately.
"Dawn is drawing off of Buffy; it's a constant bleed, I don't think Buffy even notices that it's happening, what with the amount of energy she expends on a regular basis. But in the long run, it's certainly more than Buffy can bear to lose. I think that connection is intentional, though it looks… crafted. And that influx is pooling in Dawn, but it's only a temporary dam, so…"
"It bursts," Aled put in grimly.
"I think so; I think it has to, somehow." Mina brought her hand up to her temple, massaging briefly. "But when the dam bursts, it's not just spillover; it's feedback, too. That side of her circuit IS closed, but in a very bad way for Dawn. She's sending out good…"
"…and getting back bad. Right." Aled looked broodingly into the distance, his brow furrowed in concentration. They sat in silence for a few moments, both turning the problem over in their minds.
Very quietly, Aled ventured a question.
"Do you think we can mend it? Any of it?"
He trusted her so much, to make this decision. She knew his pride in her, his faith in her abilities, the love he gave so selflessly; but this trust, she thought, meant the most to her. Because it was here when he placed himself in her hands, and believed that she would make the right decision for the both of them.
"I think we can." Mina opened her eyes hesitantly, then wider, relieved that the dusk was now dim enough for her eyes to cope. She turned to Aled, searching his face for doubt – it wasn't there. "Yes, we can. We'll have to ask them both how much they want to attempt, and part of it might be a bit of a gamble, but… We can stop her dying. At least for a little longer."
She was so tired, Aled could see. She'd once described her work as staring directly into the sun for hours on end, and the intense pain that followed; he'd tried holding his gaze on the sun the next day and had to duck away within seconds, his head throbbing and eyes watering, black splotches weaving in his vision for the rest of the day. He didn't know how she did it.
So he pulled her towards him once more, allowing her to close her eyes and sink into him. "Then we'll both start working the equations, but later. Now, love, rest."
She did. His cotton sweater smelled of spice and his scent, and the low whisper of his voice lilted his favorite nonsense litany as she dropped into a light doze: "Mina, Mina, Mina mine. My Mina, mia Mi, my own."