Her right hand moved without conscious effort, laying the black ink on thick and angry and bleeding. It repeated the same motions, the same shape, each time with more pressure so that she could feel the resistance of the paper as it ripped. She was aware of the mumbled noise in the periphery, but her mind seemed to have forgone any cognitive abilities, opting instead to focus all its power on her busy hand.
"Miss Summers? Miss Summers!"
Her hand froze. The world seemed to crash its way back into her conscious mind, and for a split second she was overcome with panic. It passed quickly enough for her to realize that her Modern American Poetry professor was regarding her with a pointed look while half the class craned their necks towards her direction.
"Um…" Buffy began uncertainly, flushing with embarrassment. Not good. What was happening? Poetry? She briefly glanced down at her notebook, frowning when she saw the doodle she more or less carved into the paper. She looked up at the professor, offering him a sheepish smile while quickly turning the page—or rather a few pages—to hide her source of distraction. Of course, it just had to be the day she was forced to sit in the front seats. This never would have happened if she were in her usual row further in the back.
"Welcome back Miss Summers—Buffy." He gave her quick, wry grin. "I was just telling the class about the rather insightful essay you wrote turned on the two Emily Dickinson poems."
And here she thought she was going to get a sharp remark about not paying attention. Praise was good, though the last time a professor praised her work, she turned out to be Frankenstein wannabe who tried to kill her. And it was praise, right?
Right, Emily Dickinson—really the only poet that stuck with her from high school, thanks to Owen. Although she had chosen Miss Dickinson as an unconscious homage to her one-week relationship, the two poems that had struck her with a fierce understanding came from a completely different place. And Buffy connecting with angsty Emily Dickenson poems? Owen would be proud of her.
"Oh, thanks," Buffy mumbled. She hoped to all the Powers above she wasn't expect to read it in front of the class or something. They didn't do that anymore in college did they?
Fortunately for her, the Dr. Holtom looked at the time and announced it was the end of class, which his students were more than aware of. Some were already packed, eager and ready to dash towards the door.
Buffy threw her notebook and pen in her bag and made to meld herself into the crowd flowing out of the room, but Dr. Holtom called out to her to stay—I want to speak to you a bit—
Okay, so she might be in some sort of trouble. Wringing her hands, Buffy cut through the line of leaving students and approached the thin, bearded professor. "Look, Dr. Holtom," she began, trying to sound as apologetic as she could, "Sorry for zoning out in class. I've just been so busy with my mom being sick and all, and I've been tired—"
Dr. Holtom silenced her with a wave of his hand. "Buffy, if I scolded someone for every time they get distracted in class, I would never get to the teaching. No, it's not about you 'zoning out'. Well, actually it is."
Buffy looked at him confusedly. "Not following, exactly."
Dr. Holtom seemed to hesitate a moment before he spoke: "Buffy, I'm just a little concerned."
Her eyes widened a bit. "You are? About what? Is my essay really not good and you were just being sarcastic earlier?"
"No, your essay is fine," he reassured her with a small smile, "In fact, it is surprisingly insightful. You seem to resonate well with Emily Dickinson."
"We have a history," said Buffy with a lopsided grin, "We go way back, she and I. She introduced me to a guy. Sort of."
Dr. Holtom gave her an odd look, but merely chuckled. "Well, I'm glad to see your humor is intact."
Buffy smiled, relaxing slightly. Okay, not trouble. "So, what's so concerning about me?"
The good professor gave her one of his small smile, this time traced with sadness. "I've noticed you've been very distracted lately. More than usual, and in a more concerning way." He paused a bit, trying to gauge Buffy's reaction, but she merely regarded him with a blank look. "But…um…you seem better recently...so…"
"Oh…" Buffy began, not sure what to say or think. Dr. Holtom was worried? She didn't even know professors paid attention to their students beyond their letter grades. It struck her as a little odd but she couldn't help but appreciate the concern. But concern was where she wanted it stop. "I'm…fine. And dandy. Peachy in fact, with a side of keen. Top of the world and rosy mornings…and…"
Dr. Holtom just grinned and shook his head. "Alright alright, Buffy, I get it." But he looked less than convinced with her. Buffy was afraid he was going to push the matter, but Dr. Holtom merely ejected a soft sigh. "You can go. But, um…if you do need anyone to speak to or need help, don't hesitate to ask. There's no rule that said you have to be alone."
Buffy looked at him strangely, taken aback by the unexpected advice. She felt a surge of panic, wondering if she was so noticeably off that even her poetry professor didn't believe her rather enthusiastic display of okay-ness. But it couldn't be: she had been extra careful about being cheerful. Willow and Xander had said nothing and seemed to notice nothing, and her mother's constant looks of concern were dwindling to only a few times a day. She was sure the Happy-Buffy mask was a success. Perhaps Dr. Holtom was just extra sensitive—he did study poetry after all. Weren't people who were into poetry supposed to be all sensitive and intuitive and stuff?
In return, she managed to be too stilted or awkward, replying with a quick "Ok. Thanks Dr. Holtom." And a hasty exit to the left.
Perhaps it was her essay. Sure she had chosen two very depressing essays, depressing even by Emily Dickinson's standard, but it didn't mean that her poetry professor had to start wondering if she was depressed. Wasn't he used to overwrought and hackneyed essays about the woes of life from melodramatic college students? She was sure her essays qualified as such. There was no real meaning to it, there really wasn't.
In front of her, her notebook lay open to the page of her carved doodle. Except that it really wasn't just a doodle. Dark, harsh strokes crosshatched a shadowing frame, and in the center of the page was a box—the box she dreamed of every night.
Buffy shivered slightly. She had not known that she had been drawing it until Dr. Holtom snapped her out of her daze. What was even more eerie was how well she drew the box. Buffy had trouble drawing parallelograms in her math classes so drawing a perspective correct box with hinges and a woody texture without knowing she was doing it, in the words of her high school self, gave her the wiggins. But then the whole thing was superbly wiggy: dreams, disembodied voices telling her to open, box, rinse and repeat.
She strummed her fingers absently on the table and looked around. She was in the Magic Box in its quiet slower time of the day, and the only sound was Anya humming some unknown tune as she did her daily inventory checks. It was nice not having anyone paying attention to her so she could drop her act. Almost two months had passed since Glory's defeat and no one, save for her mother, had picked up anything about her. She was glad Happy Buffy was so convincing—if fact, if she could keep this up, she might think herself some hidden talent in acting.
Happy Buffy was knee-jerk reaction personified; all stimulus bypassed her mind and heart and she reacted like she was expected to act, drawing from a vast Buffy-bank of past experiences. Xander joke: laugh. Willow paranoia: comfort. Exam: procrastinate. Vampire: slay. Slay: quip. And so on. Not unlike a robot. Like a Buffy-bot. (Buffy-bot? That was strangely familiar.)
Happy Buffy's smile glimmered with false light. Happy Buffy spoke about clothes, hanging out and classes. She laughed at Xander's jokes just as she laughed at Willow-humor. She smiled uncomfortably at Anya's strange and literal ways, acted the distracted college student in class, and trained hard as Giles's proud god-slaying Slayer. Apparently, the Council sent her congratulations on her monumental efforts that were to be "recorded to inspire generations of Slayers and Watchers to come".
Sighing, Buffy looked down at the drawing again. This time, her eyes went to the lid of the box where she had drawn a symbol. Buffy couldn't remember there being any symbol on the box in any of her dreams—yet there it was. Squinting, she peered at her more closely: it looked like two comas, one slightly above another and their concaved sides facing each other. Between them was a solitary dot. Weird.
"Buffy, what's that?"
Buffy jumped in surprise at the sudden company, and silently scolded herself for being such a spaz. She looked up to see Anya, who was standing next to the table, a box of magic-somethings in her hands and frowning down at Buffy's notebook.
"What? Oh this?" Buffy glanced nervously down at her drawing, "Nothing. Just doodles."
Anya pursed her lips and shot Buffy a suspicious look. After a moment, she shook her head and said, "Your mom called a while ago. She told me that she was going to stay late at the gallery and she wanted you to check on Dawn."
"Oh, then I should get going," said Buffy hurriedly, jumping out of her seat. "Thanks Anya." She hastily stuffed her notebook back into her bag and just about sprinted out the door. Anya stared after the Slayer, befuddled and with a concern now seeded in her mind. The ex-demon let out slow sigh, put down her box and headed towards a particular section of the bookshelves.
Back home, Buffy was greeted with a silence when she expected Dawn to be blasting music instead of doing homework. This was either a good thing or a bad thing. Calling out for her sister didn't get her any kind of response, so Buffy walked upstairs and hovered by Dawn's door, trying to listen for any sounds of activity. It was quiet. Ugh, Dawn had better not skipped off with Janice again. I'm so not going to cover for her this time.
Buffy pulled the door open and froze, her eyes going wide at the sight before her. Dawn was standing in the middle of a circle of sand, a lit candle set in front of her feet. The teenager's expression was distant, her eyes glazed over as if she were looking past Buffy if not into an entirely different reality.
"Dawn?" Buffy exclaimed, rushing into the room and pulling out her sister out of the circle, "Dawn! What are you doing?"
Dawn's glassy expression was unperturbed by the sudden jerk, but her eyes finally trained on Buffy. An inscrutable expression passed over her face before several blinks seemed to snap her out of whatever reverie she was in.
"Buffy?" Her voice was small and curious. "You're home."
"Dawn, what the hell do you think you're doing!" Buffy demanded, feeling a spot of anger welling inside her.
"It's alright," Dawn insisted, trying and failing to extricate her arm from Buffy's Slayer grip. "I was just…"
"Just what?" Buffy nearly growled, shooting a seething glare at her sister, "You know magic isn't something you play with. You know this!"
"I know I know!" Dawn exclaimed, her voice starting to adopt a higher pitch, "Let me explain! God, no one freaked when Willow started doing magic…and she was my age!"
"No she wasn't," Buffy said sternly, letting go of Dawn's arms. "She was older and—
"Only like one year…" Dawn mumbled irritably.
"And she was helping me take out the demons. What were you doing?"
Dawn sighed impatiently, rubbing her arm she was sure was bruised. "Just…the trance, you know."
Buffy frowned. "No, I don't know. What trance?"
Dawn pursed her lips and turned away from Buffy, her eyes glancing meaningfully at the set up in her room. Buffy followed her gaze, noting how familiar it seemed. Then it struck her: the circle of sand—magical sand from the Magic Box—the candle…the trance. The trance, the once Buffy had used to figure out that Dawn wasn't r—was the key. Anger was replaced by alarm and sympathy, and she looked at her sister with wide, questioning eyes.
Dawn fidgeted a bit and crossed her arms, retreating a little from Buffy. "Well, you told me you figured this thing out about me with the trance…like I wasn't there or something."
"Well, Anya told me."
Buffy let out a short, angry breath. Anya really talked too much sometimes.
"Don't get angry at her," Dawn added quickly. "I wondered, well, if I did it, then would I…not see myself? Or see myself as the key, like big giant green ball, and maybe—"
"Oh Dawn, why would you do that?"
"Because I want to know," Dawn replied quietly, "I mean, what better way to really find out about myself than to…see myself. But hey, good news, I exist. Well, Dawn exists. I mean, I didn't see myself not exist. My room was still here too."
"Of course you exist," Buffy said emphatically, gently taking hold of her sister's hand, "We went over this remember? You have my blood, Summer's blood, remember? Me, you and mom. You're ours."
Dawn smiled gratefully, if not a little uncertainly, and nodded. "It's just…if I only exist because of the Monks' spell…what if the spell breaks? Will I become a big ball of green stuff again? Would that…I dunno, undo all the memories as well? Would you guys even remember that I existed at all? It's just a little…freaky, you know. To think that I wouldn't even exist."
Buffy was stunned into silence. None of what Dawn was asking her had ever occurred to her, and she felt a stab of guilt. Here was her baby sister doubting her very existence while she was playing mopey Jane for no discernible reason the past two months.
"Dawn, if anyone tries to break the spell, they'll wish they were never born. I'll turn them into mush—Slayer feed."
Dawn giggled softly. "Promise?"
"Of course. Remember what I did to Glory? And she was a crazy hellgod. Besides, you're realer than any of us. You're supposed to be ancient or something."
Dawn smirked. "Huh, does that make me the elder sister then?"
"Ha-ha, nice try. Now, put all the sand stuff away before mom comes back."
The teenager nodded, but lingered in her spot, regarding her sister with an analytical eye. "It's a good thing that I did the trance though."
"Hm? Why's that?"
"Cause, um…Buffy, I think there's a spell on you or something."
"Dawn said this?" Giles frowned, stroking his chin lightly, "Why was she doing the trance in the first place?"
"That…she was just…" Buffy licked her lips. "She was curious. About the spell that made her human. Something of an existing-crisis going on with her."
"Dawnie is having an existential crisis?" Willow asked as entered the training room.
"Um, existing crisis," Buffy corrected, "I'll…tell you later. But she said she saw a shroud of something around me while she was under the trance. A spell of some sorts."
"Really?" asked Willow in surprise, "What's going on?"
"We're trying to figure that out," muttered Giles, "Buffy, do you feel or notice anything different?"
Buffy blinked. Yeah, I definitely feel and notice something different. Everything is different. I feel tired and bruised. Sometimes I feel like I'm rotting from the inside out and I can't feel anything but...—and the dreams. I have the same crazy dream every night about a stupid box and it's starting to drive me insane. I should tell you because dreams are so important these days but I can't 'cause the words can't form when I think about it.
"I—um…no, nothing that weird, really." She shifted uncomfortably and looked at anything but Giles.
"Oh I see," he said, sounding disappointed.
"So, can we do this later?" Buffy asked abruptly, "I kinda wanna get to the slaying so I can get to finals studying. We'll do it tomorrow afternoon. Promise. Just hit the books or something"
"Well, Buffy I think—"
"See ya Giles, Willow." And the Slayer all but ran away from Giles and Willow.
Buffy patrolled Restfied, again. She was sure no vampire ever came to Restfield now with so much time that she spent there lately. It was always that crypt, that one particular crypt, calling out to her. She would enter it again and again, countless of times, each time hoping something would be different, and each time leaving disappointed. Wasn't that a definition or insanity or something?
Her visits to that particular crypt came to define contradictory for Buffy, if not masochistic. Here, she felt…not peace, it wasn't peace—peace was cool and blissful—this was as painful as ever. She seem to feel ache deeper in the crypt, the pain more palpable, rotting, like a canker in the soul. No, not peace, but reassurance. Being right. It made no sense, and the truth changed from one moment to the next.
It was a while before Buffy started to wonder if the supposed spell on her was connected to her dreams, and it both were connected to this place. She felt the same sting here as she did in the aftermath of her mysterious box dream.
When she slept, the dreams came. Or she thought they did. The never remained, and slipped away from her the moment she opened her eyes, warmth flowing away with those dreams. She was only left with the impressions of dreams, of sounds, colors, taste and noise. But there was one thing that was always the same: the black box, and a strange…familiar…voice urging her to open it. She was she sure she never did in her dream. Dream-Buffy, she realized, was frightened by it.
It was the same nearly every night: box, open it, fear, loss and emptiness, like creepy broken record. At first she wondered if they were Slayer dreams, but she concluded that it couldn't be: Slayer dreams were alarmingly lucid, and she always remembered them. She could always draw meaning from them; this was not a Slayer dream.
Like always, she woke up to the sun streaming through her blinders and onto her face, the dreams just slipping away. And like always, she was left cold and hollow. For several minutes, she stared at the ceiling, her mind a buzzing blank. A door slammed and knocked her out of her daze. Dawn's voice rose above the usual sounds of the day starting, dishes clanging, orange juice being poured and pancakes being made. Her mom's voice urged the teenager to hurry up or she'll be late—there were keys clanging and door slamming and engines revving and the car driving away. Then silence. Buffy still had not gotten out of bed.
It was a while before she finally dragged her out of bed. Buffy began to open her drawers, not exactly looking for something but hoping to find something anyways. Like a shirt to remind her she had class that day, or a pencil that told her she had an exam in the next week she should start studying for. This time, when she opened one of her lower drawers, she was met with the sight of a bag of sand and a handful of tall, white candles. The memory of herself doing the trace last year flashed in her mind's eyes, and a twinge of sandess followed when Riley accompanied the memory.
Still, she picked up the sand and the candle as Dawn's words floated into her mind. Not existing huh? To not exist—how devastating. Worse than death, because at least people remember the dead. Because at least death was still being.
She clutched the items to herself as an idea took hold of her. Right now, her problem was this painful depression she could not even fathom, the strange dreams, the crypt and the spell. She grew more confident with each passing thoughts that they were all connected, somehow in some ways. Perhaps this was something she needs to bring up with Giles and the Scoobies, but it felt wrong to share with them. Felt wrong to involve them. This was between her and—
She wondered...if she could perhaps see for herself…the source of it all.
The set up was fast this time around. Sand in a circle, light a candle, sit down, meditate.
Buffy situated herself in front of the stone sarcophagus. It was late morning so she didn't have to worry about vampires rising or strolling in to interrupt her.
She didn't know what to expect, but a part of her knew something would come about. Maybe there was spell, she told herself, always drawing to her place. Maybe it was the spell Dawn saw.
Well, only one way to find out.
She took in a long breath and slowly released it, letting herself settle into the reverie. She didn't know how much time passed as the trance took her deep…deep into a hazy darkness, which eventually passed and a cool, refreshing wind swept away the haziness, leaving her mind still and with that familiar, jarring clarity. Slowly, Buffy opened her eyes, her senses rapidly switching back and forth between muted and heightened. She looked down at herself, hoping to see some sort of spell weaving in and out around her, but there was nothing.
Was Dawn mistaken when she said she saw something? Disappointed, Buffy slowly looked up—or it felt like she did—time was wonky when she was in the trance.
A surprise gasp escaped her as her eyes fell on the sarcophagus in front of her, as her mind registered what she was seeing.
Sitting on the sarcophagus, with his legs dangling over the edge, with his blue eyes teasing, a smartass smirk and that shock of platinum curls.
Her eyes become hot with tears and that pain, that nagging ache inside her seem to implode, taking away her breath and her ability to breath with it.
Then she knew.