: chapter fiveby Mhalachai~~~~~
"Oh! And don't forget to get to bed at a reasonable time," Willow said in a rush, her jacket hanging half off as she tried to put in her earring.
Willow wasn't looking, so Dawn rolled her eyes. "It's summer vacation," Dawn pointed out.
"Uh huh." Willow struggled to slip her jacket on, distracted. "Have fun!"
The red-head hurried to the door, where Tara was waiting, Dawn trailing along. Tara smiled encouragingly at Dawn. "If you need anything, you just call Xander's, okay?"
"Oi!" came a voice from the living room. "What am I, day-old pig's blood?"
Dawn made a face. "That was gross, Spike."
Tara cast a despairing look at the vampire babysitter. "Like I said, you call us."
"Okay," Dawn said with a shrug.
Once the two were gone, Dawn wandered into the living room and leaned against the door. Spike glared up at her. "What are you doing?"
"I don't know."
"Well, I'm going to watch the telly until Glinda and Tinkerbell come home." Spike settled back on the couch and aimed the remote at the TV, ignoring Dawn.
Sure. Dawn turned around and walked to the dining room where her math books were spread on the table. Tara had offered to help her with math, but she and Willow had to go over to Xander's to talk about stuff. They didn't tell Dawn what, and quite frankly, she didn't care.
Dawn had other stuff to think about. Listening very hard to make sure the TV was still on, Dawn carefully eased Willow's laptop around so it was in front of her, and pressed the power button.
After her phone call to Nathaniel the previous day, she had been very curious to learn more about him. She'd spent all night rereading his letters, and had gotten the idea that morning over pancakes that maybe he had like a webpage, or something.
Opening the search page, Dawn typed in her cousin's name, then spent about ten minutes skipping past entries that could not possibly be Nathaniel.
Finally, Dawn slouched back in her chair. Maybe she was going about this all wrong. Maybe Nathaniel didn't use the internet. But maybe someone else he knew did?
Dawn typed the name of his girlfriend, Anita, into the search box, then frowned as she saw the number of entries. They couldn't be for Nathaniel's Anita, could they?
But they were. Dawn leaned forward, fascinated, at all the stuff on Anita Blake, vampire executioner. She picked a page at random and clicked on the link.
Could this even be right? Dawn wondered. There was so much stuff on Anita, about her work raising zombies at a place called Animators Inc., and about lobbying the government of protections on zombies. There were also news articles, gossip rags, really, about Anita being the girlfriend of the head vamp in St. Louis.
When Dawn read that, she was immediately angry on Nathaniel's behalf. But the article was older, from before those letters Dawn had read, so maybe Anita broke up with the vampire and started dating Nathaniel.
There was a picture in the article of the vampire, Jean-Claude. He was sort of handsome, Dawn admitted grudgingly. Better than Angel.
Thinking of Angel made Dawn think of Buffy, and she had to close her eyes for a moment to concentrate on just breathing. The Bot was out patrolling, and there was nothing for Dawn to look at to remind her of Buffy.
After a moment, Dawn opened her eyes. She wasn't any better, but she could handle this.
What did girls see in vampires, anyway? Buffy had dated Angel, sort of. Anita had dated this Jean-Claude guy. Angel was in L.A., but maybe there was more on Jean-Claude that Dawn could find.~*~
Dawn stared at the computer, shocked. What kind of vampire ran a strip club? With guy strippers? She knew she shouldn't be looking at this stuff, but there was no one else in the house to see what she was doing. Well, there was Spike, but he was busy watching television.
As if the mouse would bite her, Dawn carefully clicked on the club's photo gallery. Would the men... would they be wearing any clothing?
It seems like they were. Every stripper seemed to have his own page, with a little image next to it. They were all wearing bathing suits, like at the beach. Nothing wrong with looking at boys at the beach, right?
Delicately, Dawn scrolled down the page. Her eye was caught by a particular blond guy, with a welcoming grin. Dawn blushed, although she didn't quite know why.
She was getting distracted from her goal at hand, she reminded herself. She needed to find out more about the Master Vampire, and Nathaniel's girlfriend-- Then she saw something, and forgot all about information.
Dawn clapped her hand over her mouth to block a squeal. There, wearing the tiniest bathing suit imaginable, was Nathaniel.
Leaning over closer to the screen, Dawn read the tiny print under Nathaniel's picture. They were calling him Brandon, but it was him, it had to be him. Even if all the other pictures she'd seen of him had clothes.
This wasn't right, she told herself, looking at this. She wouldn't have looked at Buffy if Buffy had been that naked. Although maybe Xander,
Dawn thought as she hovered the mouse over the link to take her to Brandon's... no, Nathaniel's page.
"This don't look like math, much."
Dawn jumped out of her chair, knocking it back to the ground. "Spike!"
The blond vampire slouched against the wall, digging in a bag of chips with one hand. "I thought you were supposed to do your homework like a good little bite."
"I was-- I mean..." Dawn blushed as red as she could, wishing she could sink through the floor. Could this get any more humiliating?
"Plus, you're to young to look at that," Spike added, nodding at the computer. "Best give it another thirty years."
"Spike!" Dawn hadn't thought she could blush any harder. "It's not that! He's my cousin!"
Spike's eyebrows shot up. "Didn't know that was your kink, luv."
Dawn let out a bit of a screech and picked up the chair. "Knock it off! I'm just trying to find out about my cousin!"
"The werekitty?" Spike shook his head. "Your family's got some strange job choices in it."
Dawn ignored the pang in her head at the unintentional dig at Buffy. "Look, all I was doing was trying to find stuff out! Nathaniel's girlfriend used to date the vampire who owns that club, some guy named Jean-Claude."
Spike's face went blank, as if he didn't know what to do with his features. "Jean-Claude?" He looked at the computer. "Wait, your cousin's dating Anita Blake? The Executioner Anita Blake?"
"How did you..." Dawn said with a frown.
"Everyone knows that the Master of St. Louis is dating the bloody Executioner. And your cousin's her pet?" Spike shook his head. "There is something severely screwed up about your family."
"Hey!" Dawn shouted, suddenly defensive about Nathaniel. "You shut up about Nathaniel! My mom thought he was a really good guy!"
Spike just looked at her for a moment, then he gave her a tiny nod. "If Joyce said he was good, then that's it, then, isn't it?" He put his hand back in the chip bag. "Come on, I found a rerun of Passions. Let's go watch."
Dawn swallowed. Spike didn't seem too weirded out about Nathaniel... but she wondered why he had been so confused about Anita. After all, he liked Buffy, and she'd killed vampires too, way more than Anita.
"Oh, and you might want to clear the history in that computer," Spike said. He saw the expression on Dawn's face. "What? Didn't anyone ever teach you to cover your tracks?"~*~
Nathaniel folded the last t-shirt and placed it on top of the basket. All the laundry was done, the house clean and the fridge was full of food. After he put clothes away, he didn't have anything else to do all night. Something quiet for a change. Maybe he'd watch a movie. Or read a book. There was a book he'd borrowed from Jason that didn't seem too hard. He could try that.
Humming one of the songs from his new set under his breath, Nathaniel balanced the laundry basket against his hip and carried it into the bedroom. The basket went on the bed, and Nathaniel began to carry stuff over to the dresser.
When he was halfway done, the door opened slightly, and Nathaniel smelled Anita before she came into the room. He looked up to smile at her, but that faltered when he saw what she was holding.
Stay calm, he told himself as he smoothed out a wrinkle in a folded shirt.
Anita held out a crumpled piece of paper. "What is this?" she asked.
Nathaniel made himself go back for another t-shirt. He couldn't think of what to say, so he didn't speak.
Anita took three quick stepped forward and slapped the paper down on the t-shirt Nathaniel was holding, knocking it out of his hands. "I asked you a question," Anita said. She sounded so angry.
Nathaniel licked his lower lip, careful not to move. "It's my application for college," he said.
"I know that!" Anita tossed the paper onto the bed. "I thought you told me you'd sent it in!"
"I told you I'd taken care of it," Nathaniel said.
Anita's eyes got wider. "Is that what you meant? You'd just thrown away any thought you'd had for the future?"
"It wasn't going to work anyway." Nathaniel bent over and picked up the shirt. "I shouldn't take up their time when it wasn't going to work."
"So what the hell are you going to do with your life?" Anita demanded.
"What, when I'm too old to strip?" Nathaniel said. He hated it when she was mad at him, and she was so mad now. He'd learned over the many years they had been together, that nothing calmed Anita down but time. He didn't have time. Well, actually, he did. "I'm not getting any older, Anita, didn't you notice? I'm not aging, and neither are you. I'm going to look like this forever."
"So, what, you're going to strip forever?" Anita asked, sarcasm heavy in her voice, but Nathaniel wasn't laughing.
"Maybe." He took a few steps back, putting a bit of distance between them. "If that don't work out, I can always fall back on my old job for money."
He'd said it to show her that he didn't need her to take care of him, but it was the worst thing he could ever had said.
"Are you talking about prostituting yourself out again?" Anita uncrossed her arms and took a step toward Nathaniel. "Is that what you're talking about?"
Nathaniel bowed his head under the force of her anger and was silent. There was nothing he could say.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Anita yelled. "Don't you remember what used to happen when you did that?"
Something rose up in Nathaniel, an echo of Anita's anger, and he lifted his head. "Why not?" he said hotly. "I was good at it. Really good."
Anita was startled into silence, and Nathaniel carried on. It was like he'd been carrying this all inside him for a while.
"Do you know what I got paid? Ten times more than I do at the club. Why wouldn't I want to go back to it?" Nathaniel ripped the tie out of his ponytail, letting his hair spill across his shoulders and face. "This college thing wouldn't work out, anyway. I used to make porn movies for a sociopathic sadist, I can't just forget that."
Anita frowned up at him. "What did you say?"
"I said I got paid real well--"
"No, the last bit." Anita got up in his face, too close for comfort. Nathaniel looked around, desperate for an escape, but he'd backed himself into the corner. He'd have to go through Anita to get away. "Who told you that?"
Nathaniel ducked his head. He couldn't tell Anita about Richard, not with them getting along so well these days. He knew how important her relationship with Richard was.
"You have never, ever called Raina that," Anita said, her voice suddenly soft. "You say her name, or just say 'her', but you have never called her a sociopathic sadist. You don't talk about people like that."
Nathaniel started to tremble as Anita put her hands on his waist. Why wasn't she angry anymore? She was supposed to be angry because he'd disobeyed her, because he hadn't done what she'd asked.
"Who told you that?" Anita waited for a moment, in the silence. "I won't tell you that you need to tell me, but I'm asking you to. Please."
It was the please that did it. It was so different from anything Nathaniel had ever known, before Anita. No one had ever asked him to do anything; only ever told him. Anita occasionally told him to do stuff, but she most always asked. And so when she asked, because she asked, he answered.
"It was... It was Richard." Nathaniel dared looking up at Anita, and knew right away he'd done the wrong thing. He should have lied, said it was no one.
She backed away from him, looking very confused. ""What do you mean, it was Richard?"
Nathaniel shook his head. "I need to put the rest of these clothes--"
"Nathaniel, stop it," Anita insisted. "What did you mean, Richard told you that?" He could tell she was fighting it. She didn't want to believe him. Nathaniel wasn't supposed to make her upset, he was supposed to make her happy, not bring up anything that would upset her. Then something in her face changed, and Nathaniel knew she believed. "Why did he do that?"
Nathaniel lowered his head so his hair covered his face. "He's not wrong," he whispered.
The next thing he knew, Anita was pushing his hair out of the way and cradling his face in her small hands. "He is wrong," she said with feeling. "You're just as capable of going to college as the rest of us are."
"No, I'm not." It hurt to say the words, a bad hurt, but Anita had to know it was time to give it up. "I'm not like other people. I'm not smart, I don't know anything..."
Anita laid a finger over his lips. "You are smart," she contradicted. "You are one of the smartest people I know. You're a survivor, and you are not a quitter."
"But what if I fuck up?" Nathaniel asked. "What if I try this and I can't cut it? I don't want to disappoint you."
That was the heart of it. Anita wanted him to go to college so bad that if he tried and failed, he wouldn't just be failing himself, he'd be disappointing Anita, and that was something he couldn't live with.
For some reason, Anita smiled. "If this is something you want to do, and you try it, you're not going to disappoint me." She went up on tip-toe and gently kissed his forehead as Nathaniel let out his breath in a shaky sigh. "The only way you're going to disappoint me is if you give up on something you want because of something someone else said to you."
She slipped her arms under Nathaniel's hair and around his body, holding him tightly. At first, Nathaniel was too upset to move, but as she kept holding him, not hurting him, not punishing him for anything, he let himself relax until she was all that was holding him upright.
Anita's embrace was warm, soft, but strong at the same time. After so long, Nathaniel still couldn't believe that she was there, and that she let him belong to her. He knew that she loved him, even though she so seldom said it, but after so many years before Anita, Nathaniel had learned that pain and love were usually the same thing. He'd spent years trying to unlearn that, in Anita's house and in Anita's bed and in Anita's life.
There had been a bad few months when Micah came into their lives. The Nimir-Raj had moved into Anita's house, and Nathaniel had been ready for Micah to tell him to get out of her bed, to act like Gabriel had. But he hadn't. He'd let Nathaniel stay in Anita's bed, had actually seemed interested in Nathaniel. Not sexually, which it was Nathaniel had also expected, but as a friend.
After so long without any friends, with pain as his only way of life, it had almost been too much. Sometimes, he still didn't believe.
Here, though, in Anita's arms, he believed.
Someone cleared their throat. Anita pulled back a bit, while Nathaniel rested his head on her shoulder. He'd smelled Zane approaching from down the hall.
"Mail's here," Zane said.
"That's nice," Anita said slowly.
"And Nathaniel's got a letter from Sunnydale."
Nathaniel pulled his head back, his heart pounding in his chest. For one wild moment, he'd imagined that it was another letter from Joyce. But no, his aunt was long dead. "What?"
Zane held out the envelope. "I'll just put the rest in the kitchen," he said as Anita took the envelope from his hand. "Mind if I grab something out of the fridge?"
"Not the potatoes, those are for dinner," Nathaniel said, not really paying attention. He stared at the pink envelope in Anita's hand as if it was a snake.
Zane backed out of the room as Anita flipped the envelope over in her hand. A few stickers caught the light as she did so. "It's from a D. Summers," Anita said.
"Dawn." Nathaniel frowned. Why on earth was his youngest cousin writing to him?
"Do you want me to leave?" Anita asked when he made no attempt to take the envelope from her.
"No!" Nathaniel said quickly. "No," he repeated, more calmly. "I-- can you stay?"
"Sure thing," Anita said reassembly. She walked over to him with the envelope, and led him to sit on the edge of the bed.
Nathaniel turned the envelope over in his hands. It was small, bright pink, something a girl would probably use. There was a shiny cat sticker on the back and the writing on the front was curvy and happy.
Why was his cousin writing? Nathaniel wondered as he carefully ripped the flap open. Was something wrong?
The pages inside the letter were also pink. "Is the ink silver?" Nathaniel murmured.
Anita sighed. "I remember writing like this when I was a little girl," she said. "All hearts over the 'I's."
Nathaniel unfolded the pages and something fell to the ground. He leaned over and picked up a picture. It was Joyce, Buffy and Dawn, in front of a college dorm. They all looked so happy.
Nathaniel ran his finger over the picture, then turned it over. The caption on the back, in Joyce's neat handwriting, read, "Moving Buffy into her dorm, first house away from home."
Turning the picture back over, Nathaniel looked closely at Dawn. She had grown since he'd last seen a picture of her, and now she was the same height as Buffy. If she kept this up, she'd be taller than he was, one day.
Nathaniel carefully laid the picture back on the bed, and began to read the letter.~*~
Hi! I hope you don't mind me writing like this. I just thought that since you and Mom were pen pals, you and me could do the same thing.
I put in a picture of me and Mom and Buffy. It's the last one we have of the three of us. Buffy was too busy with school and her boyfriend last year, and there's no more Mom for pictures.
I miss her. Do you miss her? She wrote to you a lot, and she doesn't do that with people she didn't like. I don't think she's even talked to my Dad in like, forever.
He still hasn't called. Buffy didn't want me to know, but I listened and she said he's in Spain, with his secretary. I know he didn't seem to want us anymore.
Now I'm just complaining. I'm sorry, but it's just that some days its so hard I can't breathe and no one is here I can talk to. Tara lost her mom when she was 18 (Tara, not her mom), but she's so busy that I don't want to bother her. Spike is okay, he misses Mom too. She used to make him hot chocolate, even when he was being a total dork.
But I thought that maybe I'd write. You seemed to like writing letters, and maybe you could write to me, even if I'm only a kid. I don't have any other cousins, so I'm not sure if they write and stuff, but it might be okay, right?
P.S.: One other thing. I sort of accidentally found your work website. Just the front page, but why were they calling you Brandon?
P.P.S.: When did your girlfriend break up with that vampire guy?
P.P.P.S.: Do you know that blonde guy on the website? ~*~
Nathaniel let out a breath, then handed the letter to Anita. She took it and read while Nathaniel stared at the picture of his cousins and aunt.
After Anita was done, she folded the letter and placed it back in the envelope. "Did you tell her I broke up with Jean-Claude?" Anita asked, confused.
Nathaniel shook his head. "No. I didn't even mention anything about Jean-Claude. Or where I worked."
"Hmm." Anita put her arm around his shoulders and leaned into him. "I suppose the blond guy is Jason?"
"Probably." Nathaniel flipped the photo onto the bed. "I don't understand why Dawn just doesn't talk to Buffy about Joyce. She's talking to these people, Tara and Spike, but not her sister?"
"Dawn's also the one who called you about Joyce," Anita reminded him.
"I know." He looked at Anita. "Maybe Buffy's having a hard time dealing with Joyce's death?"
"I don't care," Anita said. "She's the older one, she needs to be there for her sister."
Nathaniel slipped off the bed and knelt by Anita's feet. "Not everyone's as strong as you are," he said. "Not everyone can push back the pain until there is time to fall apart."
Anita looked down, at where Nathaniel's hands lay in her lap. "Yeah."
Nathaniel knew she was probably thinking of when her own mother died. He knew that, at six years old, she'd had to be the strong one when her father fell apart at her mother's death. She'd always been the strong one.
He gathered up her hands and pressed a kiss on each of her palms. She smiled down at him. "So, are you going to be pen pals?" she asked.
"Probably," Nathaniel said. "It's nice to have someone who wants to talk to me." Anita gave him a look. "And maybe it sounds like she needs someone to talk to," he added after a moment.
"You're a good guy," Anita said. Nathaniel smiled when she said it, because if Anita said it, it had to be true.
Nathaniel stood up, pulling Anita to her feet. "I'm just glad she didn't click through and find the other pictures," he said.
"Other pictures?" Anita said, pulling up short. "What kind of pictures? Naked pictures?" Her eyes got very wide. "There are naked pictures of you on the internet?"
"No, no," he hastened to say. "I'm not naked. Just not wearing a lot."
She glared at him suspiciously. "Define not a lot."
"A thong. Everything's covered," he added. "I swear."
She looked at him as if she didn't believe him, but by the way her shoulders relaxed, he knew she was letting it go.
He smiled at her. "I think I have a letter to write." He was going to add more, but faltered when he saw Anita pick the college application up off the bed. He took it from her hands and played with a crumpled edge. He took a deep breath, and took the plunge. "I should probably send this in, too."
The brilliant smile on Anita's face was all the motivation that Nathaniel needed....tbc