A Tourist in a Waking World
Disclaimer: Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer aren’t my creations. Boy, do I wish they were!! Wouldn’t that be cool?! Anyway, Eric Kripke made Supernatural and Joss Whedon made Buffy and I’m just a crazy little fan with, clearly, too much time on her hands. The chapter titles of this fic all come from songs by Florence and the Machine, written and performed by Florence Welch.
The stage lights came up magically at ten past one, shining iridescent sparkles through the smoky bar. A few of the patrons shielded their eyes against the spectacle, breathing a collective sigh of relief when the drummer hustled up onto his platform. He sat directly in front of the spotlight, and the glow around his hulking body made him look oddly angelic. The grungy guitarist and shuffling bassist followed their band mate against the goofy screams of a few groupies. They rushed the stage, throwing up their skinny arms and waving them around as the scruffy boys with too-tight jeans and flannel shirts broke into a chaotic crash of sound some people might consider music.
Buffy Summers grabbed her ear plugs from an empty glass under the bar top and stuffed them in her ears. It was nothing against the band so much as the constant hum of the amplifier. Working in a bar with live acts made ear plugs a necessity, and sometimes the music was pretty terrible too. Okay, most of the time. This wasn’t exactly a classy joint. Buffy stuffed a few bills in the cash drawer and sank out from behind the crowded bar top, away from the noisy patrons throwing their orders in her face. She preferred walking the room, remembering the drink orders as she passed by. The tips were better. The regulars knew her face, and the guys passing through never really forgot her.
“Hey! Buffy!” A man in the back raised his hand, a few crumpled bills sticking out of his clenched fingers. As she got closer, she recognized his face. He had soft blue eyes and a gentle, innocent smile. He didn’t belong in Reno, and he definitely didn’t belong in this bar. He kept coming back because he had feelings for a certain waitress. He beamed when she approached him, his whole body coming alive with passion, emotion. He’d been waiting to rescue her for almost a year, trying to yank her out of this rotten place. She’d never warmed up to him, never shown him an ounce of interest. It was a shock to him that she continued to remember his name.
“Billy,” Buffy said stiffly, acknowledging the boy’s presence. She took the money from him and stuck it in the pocket of her short black apron. There was no need to take his order. He always bought a light beer, slightly watered down at the tap, easy on the head. He didn’t like to drink, but the bar had a two-drink minimum and cokes didn’t count.
“Listen, Buffy,” Billy shouted over the band, his voice coming across like a whimper. “You wanna… I mean, uh,”
“No,” Buffy replied bluntly before he had a chance to finish. His face fell in on itself, like a building razed to the ground. The conviction in his eyes dimmed, but didn’t go out. This was the fifth time he’d had the courage to even try to ask her on a date. He wasn’t ready to give up yet, but he was getting closer.
“Yeah, okay,” Billy sighed. “Maybe some other time.”
Her shift ended at two-thirty, after the bar had been emptied, cleaned out, scrubbed down. She didn’t say goodbye to the other employees: a few retired strippers, the owner, and a busboy named Jimmy. She stood at the bus stop on the corner and waited for it to roll around and pick her up. The driver nodded sleepily at her as she flashed her bus pass. She sat down heavily on a green plastic seat with a spongy pad. The plastic had been cut with various implements, scrawled on with black marker, covered with gang signs and hearts and stars and names. It was important not to think about what had happened on the seat cushion. She had enough problems weighing on her mind without thinking about grimy bus seats.
At Fifth Street, she got off the bus, leaving one solitary woman in the last row of seats, her head buried in her thick coat. The lamp was still lit in the motel sign, flashing its $175 weekly rate, though the vacancies sign had been out for the last week. Business was picking up as the summer months approached. Cars lined the motel parking lot, butted up against stubby cement blocks painted fluorescent yellow. Buffy pulled her keys out of her pocket and unlocked the sticky door to room 102. Automatically, she reached over to yank the curtains shut over the front window. The room was tidy once again, for what tidiness was worth at the Rocket Motel. The sheets were probably crawling with lice and there was a permanent rust ring around the bathtub basin that discouraged anything but a quick shower. The whole room stank of cat litter and cigarette smoke, and the television set only picked up pay-per-view porn, a local news channel, and the televangelist network. It was a place to sleep, and that was its only redeeming quality. She’d called Room 102 “home” for nine solid months. She paid the rent on time and no one bothered her. It was that simple.
The black uniform tee shirt pulled away from her torso like a second skin, soiled with sweat and smoke and a spilled drink or two. She dropped it effortlessly across the back of a chair, pushed underneath a scratched desktop. Atop the desk sat a sheet of hotel stationary and a capped pen. Buffy leaned over to push the shirt onto the floor, away from the unfinished letter, dated May 31st, three days after the Sunnydale Massacre. Dear Dawn, it began simply, I’m sorry. There was more to be said, more to be explained, but she’d never had the heart to sit down and finish it. Still, there was no point getting the letter dirty and having to start it all over again. Those four words were difficult enough.
Buffy dug a handful of bills from her jeans’ pocket and dropped it on the yellowed bedspread. She unbuttoned and unzipped her pants, squirming out of them as she kicked her shoes off and pushed them underneath the desk. In only some black skivvies, she walked into the bathroom and turned on the bathtub faucet. The shower came slowly to life, like an awakened teenager, grouchy and uncomfortable. Thick rust-red water splashed out of the shower head for a minute before the spigot spit out fresh clean water. It would take nearly five minutes to heat up to lukewarm.
She took the time to stare in the mirror, to gaze at the woman she’d become. The once bright green eyes, the eyes of a fighter, had dulled to a sickening pea soup color; the mouth, formerly bright and pink and quick to pun, was chapped and grayish and lined with wrinkles. She reached up to pull a rubber band from her hair and let the blond chunks fall around her face. It wasn’t so much a fall of luscious curls as a thud of greasy knots, as lifeless and sad as the rest of her. The lengthening bangs managed to do a good job of hiding the thin but noticeable scar that raced across the right side of her forehead, glimmering with white scar tissue. Her arms tensed involuntarily, revealing the fine musculature of her arms and shoulders, the strength she still possessed but never put to use. She’d stopped hunting, stopped slaying. The only thing she did with her agility now was wrestle away the hands of flirtatious drunks.
Still under the discerning gaze of the mirror, Buffy turned to check the temperature of the water. In the glare of the overhead light, brighter than any other incandescent in the entire building, she caught a flashing glance at the scar across her back. From shoulder to hip, they’d cut her open, baring her carefully protected soul more than the gooey organs lying beneath the toned flesh. She carried scars the way she’d never carried them before, as if a slayer’s natural healing ability went out the window when she failed to do her job correctly. It made sense. This was her punishment.
The edges of the mirror began to fog, slowly blotting out the image staring back at her. Releasing a breath caught in her lungs, Buffy crawled over the ledge of the bathtub and stood beneath the trickling shower head. The water stung her face like tears, tears that had stopped up in her cheeks for nine long months. Her shoulders ached, strung out with stress and tension. How she longed to hit someone, to take out her anger on something other than a wall or a pillow. The maids never asked about the cracks in the bathroom wall tiles or why the mattresses looked so lumpy. This was the kind of place where physical abuse went unnoticed, no matter to whom it was addressed. Still, it would be nice to hear someone else scream “Ow!” for a change.
It took only a few minutes for the water to become cold again, just long enough to shampoo and rinse her hair, rub a little soap on her skin, and clean away the smell of stale cigarette butts. Just as the temperature cooled, Buffy turned off the water and reached for a towel on the back of the toilet tank. She walked silently into the bedroom again and sat down on the edge of one squeaking mattress. Her dripping hair left wet spots on the bedspread while she counted the day’s take. The money gave her a sense of calm, the sort of accomplished feeling usually reserved for the slaying of a dozen vampires. Now, a hundred dollars brought that same kind of pleasure. The money she folded over and over again and placed in a lockbox beside the Gideon Bible in the nightstand drawer.
Rubbing the towel over her clammy damp skin, Buffy allowed her eyes to close, her mind to drift. Memories trickled across the insides of her eyelids like frames on a roll of film. She stood in the middle of a school bus, the seats emptier than she’d envisioned, the assembled faces gloomier than she’d hoped. They’d had to run out quickly to let the bombs go off, and they’d left every fallen body behind. She hadn’t wanted to leave them. She’d wanted to go down with the ship, to die among her soldiers, to say goodbye to the world and have it stick. Faith had grabbed her roughly by the arm and dragged her from the chaos, the fighting, the horror, the broken shell of laughter that was Aeshma’s vessel. She didn’t need a demon to tell her she’d messed up.
While they slept, exhausted by the carnage, deafened by the chaos, she’d stared at them. The faces of the fallen were burned on her mind, their deaths playing out like miniature movies every time she closed her eyes to blink. How could they sleep so soundly? Didn’t they see those soldiers, marching into failure? Didn’t they hear their voices, screaming for help? Buffy’s heart pounded in her chest as she clawed her way off the bus and into the cold desert night.
“You should get some rest,” Giles murmured, pushing his glasses onto his nose. Like them, he’d been asleep, only awakened by his Slayer’s unrest.
“I can’t,” she replied in frustration.
“Please, Buffy,” Giles urged her, his hand falling carefully on her shoulder. She turned on him angrily, pushing him away. Her hands shook and she couldn’t stop them. Each time she blinked, someone died.
“I have to leave. I can’t…I can’t do this anymore.”
“Buffy, don’t…you don’t realize what you’re saying.”
“Don’t I? I made the wrong choice, Giles. I walked in and watched every single one of those girls die. They didn’t have a chance. I was so stupid to think… Their blood is on my hands, Giles. I can’t… I can’t deal with this here.”
“Don’t run away from us, Buffy. We’re here to help you.”
“Not this time,” she frowned, shaking her head. “Take care of Dawn, okay? Make sure she finishes high school. College… please. Mom would…would want her to go to college.”
“Buffy, stop this! We will all confront this together!” He was angry, hurt, frustrated. Maybe in the darkness, he couldn’t see her agony. Maybe he didn’t want to see her fail.
“Take care of her, Giles. Please.”
The desert stretched out ahead of her, and she walked into it without direction or desire. He didn’t follow her, for whatever reason. If he got back on the bus then and woke them, she never knew it. Maybe he waited until morning to tell Dawn that her sister had abandoned her. It didn’t matter at this point. They had no way of contacting her, and no one ever had. If they were angry or worried, it made no difference. Even now, every time she closed her eyes to attempt sleep, the faces of the fallen stared back at her, daring her to give up her conscious guilt, even for a moment. Buffy’s eyes opened again, as quickly as a pair of roller shades. She rubbed them unconsciously with the edge of her damp towel and flicked on the television.
It would stay on for the rest of the night and into the early morning. She didn’t pay it much attention, but she’d still memorized most of the infomercial scripts, the dialogue for old episodes of Little House on the Prairie and Saved by the Bell, the early morning weather reporter’s voice. She watched until her eyes glazed over and the little bell on her alarm clock alerted her to the morning hour. It was time to get ready for another shift of her day job, waitressing at a small truck stop diner on the edge of the highway. She’d work until three, come back to the motel and stare at the television, then get ready for another shift at the bar. Not sleeping meant that there was more time to work, to keep her mind off her waking nightmares. Buffy pulled one of three identical outfits from the closet. The uniform was simple-a white lace-trimmed half-apron over a pale purple smock-dress. White socks and white shoes completed the ensemble which was attractive but not sexy, feminine but comfortable. Mostly, Buffy just felt tired wearing it. Getting ready for work at the diner only meant she’d gone another night without sleeping.
Georgia and Marilyn met her at the front door, ready to hand over their shifts to fresh blood. The diner was open all night long, and while Buffy had applied to take every available shift, she’d somehow landed squarely in the early morning breakfast rush, from which there was no escape. Already the truckers were scrambling inside for pieces of smothered French toast, scrambled eggs and bacon, biscuits drowning in gravy, and the cook’s ominous Trucker’s Omelet. With a simple nod, Buffy acknowledged the start of another shift, releasing the late-night women to their beds. She tied her apron around her hips and picked up an order pad from the counter. Sucking in a deep breath that tasted faintly of burnt toast, Buffy started her tripping gait from table to table, collecting orders and conversing with the general public.
It was the part of her job she hated the most: talking to the patrons. If she’d had any experience with cooking, she would have taken a spot among the other chefs on the line. None of them could cook too well, but they could flip an egg. It was a talent necessary for the line and one that Buffy Summers did not possess. She could do a back flip and stake a vampire but for the life of her, she’d never figured out how to scramble eggs. Instead, she had to engage the dirty and dingy truckers that shuffled into the diner on the hour. They all ordered multiple refills of crappy coffee and plates of French fries with gravy and hamburgers with mayo and extra pickles and raw onions. Some of them complained when she didn’t smile. Some of them bitched about her slow service. Sometimes she had to give back her tips. If the bar had been open during daylight hours, Buffy would have quit the diner immediately.
The breakfast rush lasted from six in the morning to eleven-thirty, and it never really slowed before eleven-thirty hit. Waitresses rushed back and forth from kitchen to table at full tilt, bussing most of their own tables and shoving small change into their pockets. When the door stopped swinging on its hinges, most of the girls gathered at the counter to count their wad and fill ketchup bottles. Buffy stood near the back door, half-way looking for a route of escape. A few customers took the slow period as their moment away from work. They were the early lunch crowd and they accepted that service would be slower, slightly nicer, and generally more pleasant. Buffy took those customers, not because she offered better service, but because she was singled out by the rest of the sociable crew.
“He’s yours,” Sally grunted, looking up at the door as a patron walked through it. He sat down in a booth at the very back of the restaurant and opened one of the menus sitting at the end of the table.
“Whatever,” Buffy sighed. She pulled her pad and pen from the pockets of her apron and took a slow walk to the table. Without looking at the customer, she began to scribble on the ticket.
“Something to drink?”
“Buffy,” replied the customer.
“Huh?” Buffy blinked. The notebook nearly fell out of her hands. The pencil she shoved through a loop in her ponytail. Her eyes shot down at the man, an indistinct sort of guy. He had dark hair, stunning blue eyes, and a slight shadow on his pale face. He’d changed clothes since the last time she saw him, a change fairly distinguishing considering who she was looking at. He looked less a Mormon now and more like an accountant, maybe a very low-key lawyer. Over a dark blue suit and a straight tie, he wore a khaki trench coat that would have seemed far too warm for any normal person in Reno in March.
“Get out.” Buffy grunted as soon as she recognized him. Her face stiffened. She pocketed the notepad and shoved her hands down at her sides.
“We need to talk.” Castiel replied, his mouth thin and firm.
“I said get out.” She didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t make a scene. She simply glared at him.
“Do not make me tell you again.”
Castiel stood and scooted out of the booth. He did it without flaw or spectacle. Most people squirmed out of a booth seat, but not him. He stood upright, his face inches from hers. He didn’t breathe. When he spoke again, his eyes blazed. The room was deadly still, and when she glanced over his shoulder, she knew why. The waitresses had ceased their counting. The cooks had stopped clanging in the kitchen. The whole room had frozen solid.
“I am an angel of the Lord, Buffy. Do not take that lightly. I have left you in peace since last we met, but now, we must speak.”
“I’m retired, Cas. Whatever it is you’re selling, I’m not buying in. I’ve had it. No more. I’m done.”
“What happened at Sunnydale was a mistake. I did not realize how grave that mistake was until very recently.”
“I don’t want to talk about it, Cas,” Buffy shuddered. She turned away from him, lowering her head like a pouting child.
“Aeshma’s plan was not to release his minions on Earth. That was only a clever distraction. We fell for his trap, and now we must pay the price.”
“What are you talking about? His trap? We sent him back to Hell, Cas! That’s the one thing we did right!” She was facing him again, her cheeks reddening, her eyes filled with an emotion that blurred between fear and anger.
“We allowed fifty women of pure heart to be murdered on the Hellmouth. Their shed blood allowed a much more powerful demon to set foot on Earth, to claim her own vessel. Aeshma is an old demon, Buffy, an ancient demon. Lilith was the first. She is literally The First Evil, the first demon created in Hell.”
“No…” Buffy whispered, her voice strained.
“She has already set her plan into action.”
“Let me guess… the apocalypse.”
“This is not just any apocalypse, Buffy. This is not the end of the world ushered in by vampires or lower echelon demons. This is the End, demons against angels.”
“I’m not a demon or an angel, Cas. So I’m still out.”
“You started this.”
“We started it, Castiel, together.”
“And we will finish it, Slayer. We will stop Lilith before the End comes.”
Her hands shook, and when she gazed down into her empty palms, Buffy could swear they were dripping blood. She’d failed, in more ways than one. She’d killed every single Potential Slayer, every girl who could ever possess the strength and skill to be like her. They’d died because she’d led them into battle. And now she knew it was all just a joke, a trick, a good laugh at their expense. Oh good job, Slayer. You’ve helped us bring about the apocalypse without us having to break a sweat! You fool. You stupid, stupid fool.
“I can’t do it again, Cas. I can’t fight them.”
“You don’t have a choice. If you don’t fight them, who will?”