Fic: Strange Awakenings, part 1/?
Author: Neena (email@example.com)
Pairing: Giles/John Strange (friendship, mostly, but a slashy one:)
Disclaimer: BtVS characters belong to Joss Whedon (almighty creator!!!), Kuzui, Sandollar, WB, Fox, ME, Etc. ad nauseum. “Strange” characters belong to the BBC, and Big Bear Productions, etc.
Summary: Sunnydale receives visitors—a weary, defrocked priest and the demon he was hunting.
A/N: Set in season 5 of Buffy (before Joyce’s death), and before the episode ‘Asmoth’ in “Strange”. I’ve taken one or two liberties with Asmoth, tweaking him to fit the bill, so I apologise to the purists :)
It was inky black in his basement bedroom when John Strange awoke with a yelp in the middle of the night. His heart was hammering thunderously in his chest, the horrifying images of his most recent nightmare slowly receding from his mind’s eye.
Something wet and thick trickled into the hollow of his eye, and he didn’t have to see it to know it was blood. The tangled sheets around him were warm and damp, but he wasn’t sure how much of it was just sweat from his panicked tossing and turning and how much was blood—it wouldn’t be the first time he’d ruined a set of sheets after one of his nightmares.
John swung his legs over the side of the bed and groped blindly for the lighter he kept on his bedside table. Two flinty scrapes later and there was light. He lit the three candles on the little table and stood up to assess the damage.
It was blood, all right. More than ever before. There were spots and splashes of it all over the sheets, pooling in places where his back had been. His back was still bleeding from the scars that refused to heal; the night air cold against his damp skin. He’d never bled this much before—not since the night he first received his wounds. He didn’t want to think what that might mean, especially combined with his recent barrage of nightmares.
Four nights in a row, now, John had awoken trembling and terrified, knowing that something was coming but not being able to make sense of the jumbled images in his dreams. He was almost worried enough to tell Jude about them. But that wouldn’t be fair to her. It was bad enough she had to be involved at all—she had enough to deal with in her own life without adding his own problems.
Besides, he didn’t like the others to see him suffering. The wounds were a constant reminder of what he’d lost—he couldn’t bear the thought of Jude or Toby always casting him sympathetic looks.
By the light of the candles, John began stripping his bed. If he soaked the linens straight away he might be able to salvage them. He couldn’t afford to lose any more bedclothes. As it was, he was just thankful he’d scraped together enough cash to get the water turned back on.
Lighting candles as he went, John worked his way to the bathroom where he began filling the tub with water. Cold water. He had yet to pay his gas bill, so hot water was a thing of the past. Hateful thoughts permeated his mind as he remembered the sneering expression on Canon Black’s face as he taunted him with his overdue allowance cheque. John struggled to quell those thoughts—he may no longer be a man of the cloth, but he still had his own soul to account for.
The tub full, John gathered the sheets and dunked them in the water, which instantly turned pink with blood. He would need to soak them overnight to get the stains out, he decided.
In the flickering candlelight, John grabbed a sponge, soaked it in the chilly water, and began the awkward task of cleaning the blood off his back. The old claw marks burned deep inside him, but it was more like frost-burn…an icy heat. He dabbed carefully at the scars, trying not to open them any more than they already were.
That done, he turned to examine his face in the bathroom mirror. The dark, dried blood that was smeared around his left eye made him look ghoulish, and his wild, curly brown hair only added to his frightful visage. John filled the sink with water and ran wet hands through his hair, taming the unruly curls. A few splashes of water and a bit of soap later and he almost looked human again.
He wasn’t sure what time it was, but it had to be around three or four o’clock in the morning. There was no going back to sleep, though. Even if he had a clean set of sheets and a field of sheep to count, the cold water on his face had done a proper job of waking him up. And he didn’t fancy closing his eyes again just to be revisited by his nightmares. He supposed he could try reading, but he knew it was pointless—he was too restless to sit still. He needed to get out of his dreary flat and get some fresh air. A nice walk was exactly what he needed to revive his spirits. A nice walk outside in the middle of winter, in the dead of night... And if he happened to run across the demon that was haunting his dreams, all the better.
John went back to his room and pulled on a grey, heavy wool cardigan and some trousers and socks then headed for the door. He stopped long enough to slip on a pair of shoes and grab the baseball bat he kept by the door for security—just in case. Then he was gone; slipping out into the cold, damp night.
Not surprisingly, his aimless wanderings brought him purposefully back to the place where it all began. The place where his beloved Helen had met an end that had been meant for him. Where Asmoth had been reborn…the Cathedral.
Or, more specifically, the quaint and ancient graveyard in back of the old church.
A cottony mist clung low to the ground, and in the stillness of the night not a breath of wind stirred the air. John stopped, almost instinctively, on the exact spot he and his fiancée had been attacked. The icy pangs of his wounds went up a notch in intensity, making him grimace and shift uncomfortably under his heavy cardigan.
He clenched his hands tightly around the baseball bat and scanned the area for signs of movement. There was nothing nearby, but far off, near the cemetery’s high, stone wall, the thick mist licked upwards in wispy spurs, as if something had jumped into it and made a splash that hung motionless in the air. He couldn’t see what had caused the disturbance, however. Whatever it was had gone.
John’s nose twitched, catching a whiff of a sickly-sweet odour in the air. He recognized it only too well—he’d smelled it once before on this very spot.
Hot breath tickled the back of his neck and he gave an involuntary yelp, spinning around with his bat swinging wildly. But there was nothing there.
Somewhere behind him a disembodied laugh, deep and rattling, broke the silence. John spun around again, this time catching a glimpse of the creature before it dissolved into the mist as if it was made from it.
John’s breath came hard and fast, making his lungs ache and his heart pound. It had a human face…sort of. Its face was sickly pale; its mouth, framed in a gleaming wall of sharply pointed teeth, was stretched and slack, opening onto a black chasm of nothingness. It was from that pit of nothingness that the laughter arose. And its eyes were likewise empty and endless—cavernous sockets that had never housed mortal eyes. In that brief moment before it disappeared, John could feel the demon’s emptiness pulling at him, as if by just looking into that face, he could have been drawn, body and soul, into an eternal blackness.
John shuddered; the iciness in his bleeding wounds seemed to have spread, making his entire body quake with a deep-bone chill. Never before had he got a good look at the thing that had destroyed his life. And just like on that fateful night four years ago, John had been incapable of stopping it.
“Come back here!” he cried out, his voice startling a bird out of a nearby tree. The sound of its fluttering wings as it flew off to safety was the only answer he received.
“This isn’t over,” he called out again, desperation and rage playing equal parts in his boldness. “Show yourself!” he demanded.
Again, John smelled its rotting breath behind him. He spun around to confront it, swinging the bat with as much force as he could, but the demon snatched the bat out of his hands easily, snapping it in two like a matchstick in its enormous claws.
John’s nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed. Unarmed now, but filled with a vengeance too deep-seated for him to give a damn, he threw himself at the demon with everything he had. To a witness it might have appeared pitiable—an ant trying to budge a boulder—but John valiantly pummelled the creature with his fists and feet.
With another disembodied laugh, the demon backhanded John, sending him flying to land face down on a newly dug grave. John had a feeling the thing was going to pull another vanishing act and cheat him out of his chance to set things right. He couldn’t allow that.
Scrambling to his feet, John was charging at the demon before it even had time to turn and gloat. John flung himself onto the creature’s back, his arms cinched tightly around its thick, ropy neck.
Then there was a popping in his ears and everything went black. It was as if he’d been pulled into the darkest corner of the universe where there was nothing at all, just him and the demon and a stomach-lurching sense of great speed. He kept his death grip on the demon’s neck, and even though he knew he was screaming, he couldn’t hear a thing.
The pain came next. At first he wasn’t even sure it could be called pain. It was as if millions of bugs were crawling all over his skin, and one by one they started biting. It kept escalating until he felt as though every square inch of skin on his body had been stripped away, leaving his raw nerves fully exposed and screaming in pain.
And then, abruptly, it stopped.
From his vantage point high on the demon’s back, John witnessed miles and miles of flat, red wasteland, smouldering where the ground had baked and cracked open. His lungs began to burn from the acidity of the air, and he was starting to feel dizzy, but he refused to let go of his grip.
There was a popping in his ears again, and they were once more hurtling through non-space. Then the invisible bugs covered his skin and began tearing at his flesh. John was growing tired, and the pain and the screaming were quickly wearing away his resolve. He was mentally preparing himself for the inevitable—he wouldn’t be able to hold on much longer, and he would be lost in the void. But just as he was giving up hope, they came to a stop.
This time the surroundings looked somewhat familiar, and the air was breathable. John quickly released his grip, afraid the demon might pull him back into the void. He fell with a soft thump to the ground.
The demon towered over him, a single word issuing from its slack, howling mouth: “Alive.” With a sound like skittering cockroaches, it clicked its ragged claws together and disappeared.
John Strange sat up, his breathing slowly returning to normal as he took in his new surroundings. He was in a graveyard, just not the graveyard he’d been in earlier that night. This one was modern, with shiny marble markers and neatly trimmed lawns. It was much larger than any cemetery he’d ever seen, too.
Other things, like the warmer temperature and the drier air, instinctively told him he was much farther away from home than should have been possible. But, having seen the barren red desert that had been the other alternative, he was just thankful to be on Earth at all.
He stood, staggered a bit as fireworks exploded behind his eyes, and started walking. His back was wet and sticky, and blood stung his eye, but he knew he had to keep moving. Just keep moving, and somehow everything would be all right.
In the east, the sun was rising on this strange, new world.
The store was really coming along, Giles thought proudly. He’d had plenty to feel proud about lately, it seemed. Not the least of which was his Slayer’s newfound interest in her calling and her desire to have him play a role in it.
He felt useful. He felt needed. He felt his ears bleed at the sound of Xander’s infernal hammering. Giles rummaged through his pockets for his ever-present bottle of aspirin and popped two into his mouth, washing them down with his lukewarm tea. He wasn’t about to complain, though—it was good to see Xander finding his feet. He truly had a gift for carpentry, and Giles made sure to tell him so. The boy was riddled with insecurities—offering well-deserved praise and encouragement from time to time was the least he could do.
He turned his attention back to his accounts. The group had really pulled together to get this place going. There were only two orders pending, the rest of the shipments had arrived earlier in the week, and with the help of his young friends the store would be ready to open on schedule. For the first time in a long time, Giles felt at home in Sunnydale. And to think, only a few weeks before he’d been ready to pack up and head back to England. Sometimes fate had a way of dropping exactly what you need right into your lap.
“Jesus!” said Xander, stopping his hammering to gawk out the shop window at the street beyond.
“What is it?” asked Giles, instantly alert. He couldn’t see anything from where he was standing.
Xander didn’t answer. Instead, he ran out the door. There was a loud squealing of tires and the blaring of a car horn, followed by a yelled string of obscenities and more squealing of tires.
Giles dropped his paperwork and ran to the door. He arrived just in time to see Xander half-carrying a man across the street towards him. The man looked like he’d been in an accident—his face was bloody and his clothes were torn and muddy and stained crimson with blood. Giles held the door open for them, and then helped Xander guide the stranger into a chair at the round table.
“Xander, would you get our guest a glass of water?” Giles said quietly. Xander took a look at the zoned-out expression on the stranger’s face and nodded. The guy obviously needed more than just a glass of water, but it was a start.
When Xander had gone, Giles pulled up a chair next to the wild-haired young man and spoke to him reassuringly: “You’re safe now. Whatever happened, it’s over—there’s no need to be frightened.”
Xander returned with a glass of cold water and placed it on the table in front of the man. It sat untouched, unnoticed, and Xander raised a questioning eyebrow at Giles. Giles shrugged minutely in response. The man seemed oblivious to his surroundings. He was most likely in shock, he thought.
“Can you tell us your name?” asked Giles. When the man didn’t reply, Giles gently shook his shoulder. The man looked up at him with a start, and his glazed expression fell away. A large smile cracked the caked dirt and blood on his face, and his blue eyes gleamed with recognition.
“Rupert!” he said, and he threw his arms around Giles, pulling him into a tight hug. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you!”
Giles cautiously extricated himself from the stranger’s grip and held him at arm’s length, trying desperately to place his face. The accent was British, so that should have given him a clue, but Giles was drawing a complete blank.
“Let me guess,” whispered Xander, “a friend of yours from that rugby team you secretly joined?” Giles gave him a look before turning his attention back to the stranger.
“I’m terribly sorry,” said Giles, “but I’m afraid I can’t quite remember your name.”
Xander was impressed. If it had been him, he’d have said something more along the lines of ‘who the hell are you, and how much liquor did I have to consume for me to forget you?’ But, of course, that was him. Tact and diplomacy were Giles’ realm, in which Xander was but a lowly peon.
“It’s me—John Strange,” the man said, still grinning. Xander very wisely held his tongue.
Giles frowned. He knew the name, but he still couldn’t place the face. And he was usually so good at remembering people.
John noticed the confusion in Giles’ expression and it occurred to him that he must look a lot different now than he used to. “It was a long time ago, at Oxford,” he explained. “I was in first year history, you were working on your P.H.D. We met at that Myth and Mythology lecture…remember? We hung out a lot…or, if we’re going to be honest, it was more like me following you everywhere—you were like my guru.”
Giles’ eyes widened: “John Strange? How could I forget? But-but weren’t you…?”
“Bald?” John finished for him, a little twist of a smile on his face. “I was going through a bit of a sketchy period, identity-wise…couldn’t decide if I was a Goth or a skin-head.”
“Yes, that’s right! You were all black clothes and make-up back then…no wonder I didn’t recognise you.”
“Yeh, well…we all have to grow up eventually,” said John, feeling the weight of his grief settling once more on his shoulders. He seized the glass of water in front of him like a lifeline. “Thank-you,” he said to Xander, peeking almost shyly at the young man who’d just saved his life.
“No problem,” Xander replied. “Any friend of Giles is a friend of mine.”
“You’re American,” said John, a little surprised.
“Yep. Me and pretty much everyone else in the country,” Xander said, thinking this guy must have been knocked around a bit harder than they’d thought.
“Where am I?” John asked, his forehead creased with worry.
“You’re in Sunnydale, California,” answered Giles. “John—what happened?”
“Sunnydale? You’re joking, right?” John had followed the news of the little town’s destruction with great interest. He was convinced that its tragic end had been otherworldly, and not the result of a meteor strike as the media claimed. And it hadn’t been that long ago—only a few months. The details were still fresh in his mind.
“What year is it?” he asked, his mouth two steps ahead of his brain.
“John, I think I should take you to the hospital,” said Giles, soothingly.
“No, I don’t need a hospital. Just…what year is it?” John persisted, an edge of panic in his voice.
“It’s the year two thousand,” Xander supplied. “And they said the world would end with all the computers crashing and stuff. Please! They wouldn’t know an apocalypse if it came up an pinched them on their…”
“Yes—thank-you, Xander,” said Giles, cutting him off.
“Two thousand!?” John said and laughed like he’d completely come unhinged. “One year! One year too late!” He had to laugh at the irony of it—thrown back in time, but not far enough to make a difference.
“Is he always like this?” asked Xander.
“John, if you won’t let me take you to a hospital, will you at least allow me to drive you home? You’re hurt—you shouldn’t be wandering around.”
“You can’t take me home—I don’t live there yet,” said John offhandedly. The look of concern on Giles’ face sobered him a bit. “I’m sorry, Rupert. You must think I’m stark raving. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure you’d be wrong. It’s been quite a couple of days.”
“What happened to you?” asked Giles. Xander took a seat, eager to hear this guy’s story.
“If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Try me,” replied Giles. “You’d be surprised at how open-minded I can be.”
John looked at him sceptically, but sensed that Giles was not about to back down on the matter. He gave an almost imperceptible nod and said: “Alright. But it’s a long story, and if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to freshen up a bit first.”
“Of course. You can come back to my place,” said Giles, standing. John got to his feet, too, but a wave of dizziness washed over him and his knees gave out. Luckily, Xander and Giles were close enough to catch him before he could smash headlong into the table.
“John…” Giles started.
“No. No hospitals,” John said, anticipating what he was about to say. “I’ll be fine.”
“Then at least let me feed you. You look like you haven’t had a decent meal in days.”
At the mention of food, John’s stomach gave an involuntary growl. Normally he would have protested, but right now his hunger outweighed his pride. “I’d like that,” he admitted.
“Good, it’s settled then,” said Giles, and led his old friend out the door with Xander close on their heels.