Dawn wandered back outside after finishing her research, this time going around the other side of the house, onto the gravel driveway and up into the corrugated iron shed. She came out the other side into a grassy area with large wooden yards, some connected to each other, some not. She ran a hand along the smooth, worn wood and looked out, over the barbed wire fence with its large metal gate, to the windmill and beyond, to the sweeping hills that stretched as far as the eye could see, the landscape so foreign to her but so captivating. It felt alien and at the same time welcoming, as though the land itself was welcoming her home, to this part of her heritage.
She was startled by a soft touch on her elbow, and turned her head to find herself face to face with a horse. She stumbled backwards slightly, shocked, and the horse jerked back from her, eyes wide. It was beautiful; a creamy gold with white mane and tail, everything that a palomino should be.
“Hey, there,” she said softly, holding a hand out. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. Won’t you come say hello?” She clucked her tongue gently, and the horse crossed back over to her and ended up burying its nose in her palm. “Hello. What’s your name? You are a beauty, aren’t you,” Dawn crooned, one hand going to scratch behind the horse’s ears. It blew against her palm and she laughed. “I’m sure I do smell strange, don’t I? All American and airports and planes…”
The horse nickered, then pushed her nose harder into Dawn’s hand.
“She likes it if you scratch her lightly on the nose with your fingertips,” suggested a voice from behind her, and Dawn forced herself not to jump and startle the horse. She turned her head to find Becky, holding a large spool of wire, an odd looking piece of equipment and a pair of pliers.
“Fence is down,” the girl explained when she saw Dawn’s curious expression. “Gotta get it fixed before the stock get through.” She smiled slightly then turned back to the truck and dumped the wire in the tray, placing the equipment in with slightly more finesse. She gave a little wave over her shoulder before jumping in the cab and driving away.
Dawn turned to look out at the field once more, and the windmill caught her eye, a simple steel construction rather like scaffolding. And as though her mind had been waiting for something, anything, to trigger it, her eyes latched on and wouldn’t let go. Through her mind flashed image after image, each of them seared indelibly into her brain. She fell to her knees with bruising force, still staring at the windmill. In her mind she saw Glory’s face, crazy smile fully in place, then Doc’s, his cruel grin lighting his eyes. Then it was Buffy, standing in front of her, stopping her from what she had to do…Buffy running, swan diving off the edge…Buffy, broken and dead on the ground below. A sob caught in her throat, then she was crying, her body shaking with the force of the sobs.
She didn’t know how long she knelt there, body shaking. The ground in front of her had long since gone from dust to mud, however, her eyes were red and sore and her nose was running. She was about to wipe it on her sleeve when a handkerchief was thrust in front of her face.
She attempted to scramble backwards, emitting a startled yelp and fell over instead. She found herself staring up at a tall, broad-shouldered blonde man who winced and crouched beside her.
“Sorry,” he offered softly, reaching out a hand and gently helped her to sit up. “I’m Nick, Nick Ryan, and you must be Dawn. Here,” he pressed the handkerchief into her hand. “Looks like you could use that.” He sat down beside her, back against a fence post, and looked out at the view. Dawn blew her nose then wiped her eyes.
“Thanks,” she muttered, looking at him out of the corner of her eye.
Nick sat quietly, enjoying the sun, keeping a subtle eye on the girl next to him. Her tears had stopped, leaving her face swollen, even more so with the black eye, and her eyes…the pain there was indescribable. Once her breathing had evened out and she relaxed, sitting back against the fence in a mirror image of his own posture, he spoke softly.
“I can’t quite imagine the pain you’re in right now, but I’ve known loss and grief, and one thing I know is that this place, it can heal. There’s a peace and a rhythm to life here that can be soothing and comforting, and the people here are good people who care fiercely about those who they take into their lives. I know it doesn’t help and that at the moment your entire heart feels like it’s being torn to pieces, but…I just want you to know that it does, it will get better. You don’t forget, but the pain eases. It becomes possible to think of the good times without the pain overwhelming you. But if you need someone to talk to…I’m just at Wilgul, the next farm over, and you can ride over anytime.”
“Thanks,” Dawn replied with a weak smile. She suddenly realizing exactly what she must look like – mussed, tear stained and still with the dirt and grime of airports and planes ground into her hair and skin. In her embarrassment, she glanced around almost guiltily to find an excuse to get away from this extremely handsome (and seriously, what was in the water here?) guy and clean up. “Ummm…I should get back inside, I’m supposed to help get morning tea ready,” she mumbled, pushing herself slowly upright, using the fence for support, then limping towards the house.
“I’ll see you around, Dawn. Could you tell Claire I’ve taken her spare chain saw chain and I’ll pick her up another one tomorrow in Gungallen?”
“Ummm…Sure,” Dawn replied, filing the message away and continuing into the house.
Nick smiled softly as he watched her go, then climbed back onto his trail bike, tucking the chain saw chain into his saddle bag before taking off back across the hills.
Dawn reentered the house, taking her boots off in the laundry, and entered the kitchen. Meg glanced up from the table, where she was slicing ham, and frowned.
“Dawn? Are you alright?” the motherly woman asked, concerned.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” she replied, smiling weakly at the concerned woman. “I’m just going to take a shower, I’m filthy.”
“There’s a bathroom just next to your bedroom. I’ll get you a couple of towels,” Meg told her. She could see the pain the girl was in, but could only imagine how bad it was, losing her entire family in such a short period of time. She quickly took a couple of clean towels out of the washing that was waiting to be folded, and took them to Dawn’s room. Dawn had already collected her bathing things, and took the towels with a grateful smile that clearly showed her red and swollen face and eyes.
She turned and went back into the bathroom, back straight even as she shuffled slightly. Sitting on the toilet, she carefully unbandaged her feet and examined them before deciding that they would withstand a wetting. She knew, because the doctor had told her, that the dressing on her stomach was waterproof, and supposedly sped up healing. It was supposed to stay on for three days, then be changed for another that was also in the pharmacy bag.
She turned on the shower, the water hissing against the glass and tile walls of the stall, hanging the towels up while she waited for the water to heat, stripping off her clothes and adding cold water to the mix before stepping underneath the spray.
She stood under the pounding water, allowing it to wash the dirt away and wished she could wash the memories away as easily. Glory, her mad eyes bright and happy, Ben and his betrayal, Doc with his knife…and Buffy, Buffy who had hurt her the worst of all, because this was the one time that Dawn was going to save her big sister so she could keep saving the world. “Tell mom hi for me, Buffy,” she whispered as she tipped her head back to wet her hair properly, then grabbed the shampoo and started to scrub it, wanting the smell of the construction site that suddenly seemed to be clinging to her gone.
Dawn emerged from the bathroom half an hour later, scrubbed clean, dressed, with her hair French braided, and made her way into the kitchen to help finish morning tea. It turned out there wasn’t much to do – there were fresh muffins just out of the oven, and the kettle had just boiled. Mugs were standing on the table, each holding a teabag save the last one. Meg looked up when Dawn entered the kitchen and smiled. “You look better,” she told her softly. “Now, everyone else here drinks tea, but that doesn’t mean you have to. What do you prefer, tea, coffee, milo, or something cold?”
“Ummm…is milo a type of hot chocolate?” asked Dawn, and Meg nodded with a grin. “I think I’ll try that then, please.”
“Great. Just grab the milk out of the fridge, would you?” Meg gestured to the old fashioned refrigerator, and Dawn found the glass bottle with the milk in it sitting in the door. “There’s a couple of ways of making milo, but the easiest is just like any other cuppa – boiling water, milk and one sugar, generally. Just add two spoonfuls of milo and a spoonful of sugar, fill the cup with about two thirds of boiling water, then stir,” Meg matched her words to her actions, briskly agitating the water in the cup, spoon rattling and scraping as she did so, “then, you add the milk and you’re done,” she finished, topping up the cup with the cold milk and stirring it just a little more before handing it to Dawn. She then poured hot water into each of the mugs and left them standing, teabags floating in the water. The smell reminded Dawn of afternoons spent with Giles and Tara, both of whom were fully devoted tea drinkers, despite Tara’s occasional forays into the wonders of frozen caffeine with Willow.
“Dawn, could you ring the bell? Everyone should be on the way back, but that’ll let them know that smoko’s ready,” Meg directed her, pointing to the back door and the bell suspended just outside it. Dawn crossed to it, limping slightly as her feet and stomach both decided to announce that they hurt again, and rang it loudly. “Great, that will bring them down in a couple of minutes,” Meg told her with a grin. “Hard work makes you hungry, and they descend like a pack of starving wolves at times. Let’s get this onto the verandah,” she added, shifting the now full cups of tea onto a tray and handing Dawn the plate of muffins to bring along with her own cup. She led the way through the bottom level of the house to the dining room, then through the glass doors at one end of it onto a covered porch, where she set the tray down on a table, gesturing for Dawn to set the plate beside it, then took a cup of tea and a muffin and sank into a seat. Dawn sat herself, but left the muffins where they were, not feeling particularly hungry after her prolonged crying jag out by the horse yards.
Before she could get sucked into morose thoughts once more, several sets of booted feet clomped up to the table and soon, the other four were seated, hats taken off, and cups of tea and muffins all snatched up. Dawn’s untouched muffin now looked oddly lonely, but she really wasn’t feeling particularly hungry, so she ignored it and concentrated on her drink, which was definitely satisfying, even if it wasn’t the hot chocolate she was used to – which was actually a good thing.
She listened as the girls reported on their morning chores, Becky telling about the fence that had brought her back to get the fencing gear, and jogging Dawn’s memory.
“Oh, Claire, a guy was around, Nick? He asked me to tell you that he was taking the spare chainsaw chain and he’d pick you up another one tomorrow when he has to go into Gungallen.”
“Yeah, that’s cool,” Claire nodded. “Might give him a call since he’s going in anyway, see if he can pick up a couple of things.”
“Yeah, Dawn, we’re so far out of town here that if you have jobs lined up for the day and something goes wrong, we tend to borrow from each other and replace it when we’ve scheduled a trip into town, because that takes over an hour to complete and you don’t always have that time, you see?” Tess explained, knowing from personal experience as a city girl that Dawn wouldn’t understand the casual system.
“Oh, okay, that makes sense,” Dawn nodded.
“Now, eat your muffin, you need to take your pills and you can’t do that on an empty stomach,” ordered Meg, her tone so motherly that Dawn didn’t even think about refusing, even though she still wasn’t really hungry, she just picked up the muffin and began to eat it. Once she was eating it, her appetite woke up and she devoured it in a very few bites.
“Those are really good, Meg,” she told the matronly woman, who grinned broadly and handed her her pain medication to take with the last of her milo.
“So, Dawn, want to come out for a drive? I’ve got to take some gear down and fix a trough in one of the paddocks, so I’ll be taking the ute, want to come with?” Claire offered after Dawn had set her mug down.
“Umm…okay,” Dawn replied uncertainly. “If you want me to.”
“Only if you’re up to it. If you want to rest or just hang out around here, that’s okay too,” Claire hastened to assure her.
“No, I’d like to,” Dawn said quickly, standing up. “Just let me get my hat and boots.”
She soon found herself sitting in the truck next to Claire, watching the paddocks they drove through. When Claire stopped the truck and gestured for Dawn to get out, she did, and Claire led her over to a small, fenced in area.
“This is the family cemetery,” Claire told her softly. “I know it won’t be exactly the same, because they won’t be buried here, but I’m getting head stones for you mum and Buffy, and you can come and talk to them whenever you want, alright? That’s my mum there,” she pointed to one of the stones. “She died when I was a lot younger than you, but Dad used to bring me out here to talk to her all the time.”
Dawn bit her lip, determined not to cry any more today. She already had a bit of a sinus headache from her time up by the horse yards. “Thanks.” The word was barely a whisper, but Claire’s arm tightening around her shoulders told her the woman had heard, so she didn’t bother to repeat herself. After a few more silent moments, they turned and made their way back to the truck, which Claire kept telling her to call a ‘ute’, whatever that meant, and they drove on to take care of the broken trough.