DISCLAIMER: Another day, another…they don’t pay me anything at all. I just do this to amuse myself and you. That’s what allows me and mine to slip under the radar while playing with characters created by those more fortunate than us.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Mad-Hamlet wrote portions of the mayor’s scenes. Specifically, the ‘Gummy Bears’ bit was him. Howard Russell also wrote the majority of the Joyce point of view scenes, which was very cool. We got to work together. Special thanks to him as well for all of the lovely commas.
ARCHIVING: A master list of my fiction can be found here. Please do not archive or distribute without my permission.
Chapter 7 - The Redeeming Things
Willow peered into the distance, her gaze fixed on the limits of the car’s headlamps as her passenger began to drift languidly out of sleep. Uh-boy…here it comes. Several minutes passed, allowing her to breathe and continue the ongoing process of psyching herself up before the blonde cracked an eye. There’s nothing I can say, so how about the obvious? I mean it is after one a.m., so… “Morning,” she offered cheerfully. I’m right! Sighing despondently, she began to search through her purse without taking her attention from the road. Darn tootin’ I’m right! Let her throw a hissy fit. Her madness and meanness doesn’t change the rightness of me.
Buffy grabbed the seatback and lifted herself to a sitting position while the car slowed. Her eyes narrowed, then she hissed dangerously, “Morning?”
Willow pulled the car over onto the shoulder and put it in park, flipping on the hazard lights. Before speaking, she turned sideways in her seat, taking in the dark, angry look on the blonde’s face. “Buffy, I totally get the mad, but if you think I’m gonna let you do this—” she held up the ring box Joyce had given her “—you’ve completely lost the little bit of ‘it’ you had.”
Buffy’s face sagged for an instant, quickly turning venomous again. “So, your answer was to, what, run away?”
Sighing impatiently, Willow shook her head. “You must not get me at all, Buffy. When have I ever done anything without planning? With the careful research and the reading…and sometimes I’ve even been known to use a computer,” she explained curtly. She ran her fingers through her hair before appending, “Besides, ‘run away’ sorta implies people not knowing where you are. Everyone knows, so…‘run away’…not so much.”
The angry expression was overshadowed by concerned disbelief. Taking a deep breath, Buffy asked, “What exactly do you mean by ‘everyone’?”
“Pretty much everyone: Giles, Xander, Angel, your mom, all the people that matter most. And I know you’re gonna think it was like this huge conspiracy—well, maybe not, but you might—it wasn’t. It’s just…” Willow replied, sighing miserably before she added, “We love you.”
Anger won the struggle for dominance and Buffy snapped, “So lemme get this straight: all these people love me so much that they let you drug me and throw me in a car?” Growling impatiently, she continued to rage in frustration, “Y’know, there’s a word for that: ‘kidnapping’…I’m not so much kid-like though—‘abduction,’ maybe? Where the hell are we, anyway? And whose car is this?”
Willow shut her eyes tight, listening to the tirade. When her friend fell silent, she offered careful, patient answers. “Yes, and actually” — her eyes fluttered open — “Angel gently placed you in the car. Your mom stayed to give you a kiss on the cheek. You make this sound like it was something easy and mean—something we did to you. It’s something we’re doing for you, Buffy.” Pausing to cover a yawn, she listed the last two responses, “We’re about ten miles from the border—umm…of Arizona that is. The car belongs to Angel,” adding for good measure, “He donated it. Lots of people donated stuff to keep you safe. It’s my job to not let them down.”
Watching her friend stare pensively out the side window of the car into the dark desert, Willow finally broke the silence by asking, “Would you like to be in front here with me? I mean, if you promise not to hit me, I’ll help you move. It’s not like we’ve got a long way to go, but—” She stifled another yawn. “I wanna stop at Quartzsite for the night. If you’ll calm down I promise I’ll tell you everything.”
“I’d never hit you, Will. It’s just—” Buffy replied, “And yes, I’d like you to be upfront with me,” giving the redhead a wicked smirk.
Ignoring the bitter pun, Willow got out of the car and came around to the passenger side, opening the door. After sliding the seat forward, she joined hands with the blonde and helped her stand using both magick and muscle.
Once stable, Buffy grabbed the open door and the seatback and used her upper body to lift herself into the front seat.
Watching cautiously for a moment to spot the blonde if she needed help, Willow started back around the car and climbed inside.
After lifting her lame leg into position, Buffy shut her door and reflected, “Y’know this whole ‘saving me’ trip…it’s sorta sweet and all, but there’s a tiny problem—just a little one. The council’s not gonna let a crippled slayer live. That’s the biggest reason—the reason I was willing— Trust me, it’s not that I wanted to die.”
Searching through her purse, Willow pulled out two bottles of pills. “It’s a little past time for your medicine. Let’s take care of that first. There’s a thermos at your feet with mocha in it—should still be hot. If it isn’t, I tried.”
Buffy smiled as she leaned down to get the thermos. Finding a travel mug as well, she poured herself a cup and took a sip.
After turning on the dome light, Willow shook a pill out of each bottle and passed them to her friend, then put the bottles away.
When Buffy was finished taking the pills, she looked expectantly at the redhead.
Gesturing to Buffy’s mouth, Willow asked in a flat emotionless tone, “Lemme see.”
Buffy rolled her eyes before opening her mouth.
“Under your tongue,” Willow prompted.
Letting out a sigh that more resembled a hiss, Buffy opened her mouth and lifted her tongue.
Satisfied, Willow flipped off the light and put the car in gear, commenting as she stared to drive, “’Kay, it’s not that I don’t trust you. It’s that I don’t trust you with this.”
Appearing slightly hurt, Buffy remarked, “I get it, Will,” and took a sip of her coffee. “Thanks for the mocha,” she mumbled, returning her attention to the black void outside the car.
“Y’know I have to wonder if part of this isn’t ’cause you’re in love with me,” Buffy reflected in a voice just above a whisper. When no reply was offered, she continued, “This isn’t the sanest thing I’ve ever seen. Not that I’ve seen it all. I’m not even sure that means a lot coming from me, but—” cutting off to snicker, “See, thing is, the first time’s just different, or so I hear. Not like I’ve got a bunch of experience with only the two, but I fell hard with Angel. And we both know that love, it makes you do the wacky.” She paused dramatically, “And this, this is definitely ‘the wacky’.”
Willow replied distantly as she focused on driving, “That’s a great theory. One problem—” falling silent to force a prompt.
Casually lowering her grip on the steering wheel, Willow reflected, “Nothing changed. I was always ‘in love.’ I didn’t want to admit it at first, but I couldn’t say ‘no,’ the word just wasn’t there. I wanted that night. I didn’t even have to consider it. It took me a while to realize why. The ‘why’ was love—more than ‘best friends’ love.”
Willow diverted her gaze just long enough to glance at her friend, taking in the look of mild shock before she continued, “Of course, it’s because I’m in love with you—” she snickered wryly “—but there’s lots more—reasons, I mean. The first thing: Giles and Wesley have been working all week on a possible solution. I don’t wanna get your hopes up, but they’re like seriously researchy and coming up with some interesting stuff.”
Buffy started to speak, “But the doctors say—” only to be cut off by the witch.
“That’s natural, Buffy. I mean, they did all they could with the surgery. The rest is natural healing, what your body can do on its own. That is except the drugs you’ve been refusing to take. There’s some stuff here to reduce the swelling you really should’ve— It might set you back a little,” Willow offered, sounding mildly exasperated, “Have you considered there might actually be something else? Like something supernatural?”
Buffy nodded vaguely, back peddling to catch up. “Wait! Did you say Wesley?”
Willow glanced over to take in the confused expression on her friend’s face and giggled. “Wesley’s with us now. I didn’t believe it at first myself, but tonight sorta convinced me. He donated five-thousand dollars to the trip and didn’t want to know where we were going or who we’d be. Only your mom knows the ‘who’ and the ‘where’.”
“He did what?” Buffy gasped.
Willow cracked her window, welcoming the chilly breeze the whistled in the thin slot. After metering her breathing for a few moments to stave off the sleepiness, she calmly replied, “You heard me. He had the most available cash that wouldn’t be missed so he put in the largest share. Wesley’s from a pretty rich family. We had to do this so no one would notice—or, I guess I should say, the council wouldn’t notice.” She could feel a marked difference in her friend’s demeanor. The rage was almost entirely gone. It had been replaced by a sense of jaded curiosity. After taking another deep breath to clear the fog, she remarked, “I found a spell.”
“I found a spell to share thoughts. Thing is—well, I sorta found a couple. If you can be patient—” Willow yawned deeply “—I’ll share everything with you when we get settled for the night. Thing is, right now, with the driving and trying to stay awake—”
Willow offered, “Yeah, we’ll be—it’ll only be about thirty-forty minutes tops. The only thing” — glancing over to see her friend nod — “the spell I wanna use… There are a few warnings. It’s not bad stuff. It just says that it’s complete. Anything you think or feel is shared, so it’s really intimate.” She fell silent to allow the blonde to comment. When nothing was offered, Willow continued, “I just don’t want to hide from you anymore. Lying to you—hiding the truth—it made me feel icky.”
Buffy leaned her head against the cool glass and closed her eyes before agreeing, “Alright, Will, if that’s what you want.”
Grateful to be out of her prom dress, Buffy lay on one of the two double beds in the room, staring up at the ceiling. I feel so useless. I can’t even help Will with the luggage. It’s so weird for me. I should be the one doing that stuff. I’d never feel it. Instead I get to watch her struggle and make three or four trips. And that’s just the small stuff. But then isn’t it always the small stuff? It’s like it piles up.
Buffy scooted into the middle of the bed, pulling her lame appendage over manually, as the redhead entered with the final load. At least I can sorta dress and bathe myself. Gesturing vaguely to her injured leg, “Will, did you?” she asked when her friend passed by to get ready for bed.
After pausing to listen, Willow shifted the duffle she was carrying, appearing puzzled.
Trying to wipe the embarrassment off her face, Buffy stammered, “It’s just…it was almost empty and—well…”
“Oh,” Willow gasped, then continued to explain in an unaffected tone, “Oh, yeah…I did. I stopped at a rest area and it just—it seemed like the thing to do. I mean, we’re sort of gonna have to get used to relying on each other for this to work. That’s why I wanted to go to P.T. and O.T. with you. It might not have looked like I was paying attention, but—”
Buffy wasn’t sure how to feel. She watched the redhead grin sheepishly and disappear into the bathroom. I’m not sure how much of this I can take. Not being able to pee like a normal person is one thing, but having your best friend play nurse, totally different. And it’s only gonna get worse.
When Willow reentered the room, she was wearing navy and red tartan pajamas and carrying their prom dresses. Once the dresses were hung in the closet, she went back for the bag and returned seconds later to set it with the pile of luggage. After moving to the end of the bed, she reflected in a soft voice, “’Kay, so… we’re gonna have to be in contact for this. Is it okay if I—?” She gestured to the bed and mumbled, “The only regret I have is this. It’s just so—” appearing bashful again.
Buffy replied, trying not to be insensitive, “Will, it’s not that big a thing. Just come here if that’s what you want to do.”
Willow laid on the very edge of the bed. A tear slid down her cheek and she started to babble, “It may not be a big thing to you, but to me it’s huge. I’m afraid, Buffy. I’ve been afraid, that I’ll touch you the wrong way, or look at you the wrong way. I need you to know—to understand—what you’re gonna see, you may not like it, but it’ll be the truth.”
Turning to watch her friend peer vacantly up at the ceiling, Buffy offered comfortingly, “Settle down, Will, seriously. Believe it or not, I get it. Or at least I get that part of it.” While her friend wept, Buffy reached out to touch her shoulder reassuringly as she explained, “That’s why I said it’s no big, ’cause it isn’t to me. I’m not gonna go off on you—not for the affection stuff. I actually sorta like it. Now come here and tell me about the spell. Is it only one way?”
Before Willow responded, she rolled onto her side and propped herself up on one arm. “What do you mean? Like, will I know what you’re thinking?”
Buffy turned to meet the redhead’s gaze and confirmed, “Yeah.”
Willow reached into the pocket of her pajamas and pulled out the ring box she had in the car, offering pensively, “No, it’d be really, really confusing if it went both ways.” She brought the box up to a level where Buffy could easily see it.
Struggling with sudden overwhelming nervousness, Buffy replied, “Makes sense,” as her gaze fixed on the box. She stuttered, “Umm…wha, why?” and accepted the box when Willow handed it off.
Buffy fingered the box anxiously for a moment, and then finally, obeyed the request.
“We’re gonna try something a little different. Lift it just like you were going to. You had this planned, remember?”
Biting her lip, Buffy resentfully followed the instructions. God damn it, Will! Her face warmed with shame. There was a piece of tissue she’d used to pad the pills so they wouldn’t rattle in the box. She glanced at the redhead and received a nod before removing the Kleenex. Underneath was one of the most beautiful pieces of jewelry she’d ever seen in her life.
“I really wanted to do something special for you. I found this and fell in love with it,” Willow reflected as she removed the bracelet and uncoiled it. Starting to play with it, she went on, “I know it was a little mean to do that, but I wanted you to stop and think. That and, well, I dunno—I’ve always felt that doing something to mark the important moments is sorta…umm, er…important and this is one—an important moment. This is the day Buffy Summers decided to live.” She put the bracelet on her friend’s wrist. “That’s pretty…umm…important to me.”
Buffy raised her wrist to eye level, turning the bracelet to look at the even rows of irregular stones set in silver. “What’s the bluish stuff?”
Willow offered a warm smile before she replied, “Its moonstone. It’s supposed to protect the traveler—seemed appropriate. And the pink and green are tourmaline. They just polished the stones and left them the same shape they were when they came out of ground.”
“It’s beautiful, Will,” Buffy murmured with a smile. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Willow took the box and rolled out of bed to search through her duffle for the spell ingredients. After putting the box away, she lifted out a plastic shopping bag and opened it up on the foot of the bed before commenting, “This will probably feel really weird.” She removed a stack of candles, lighting them and placing them around the room, “It might even make you a little sick, but it’s the best way. I can show you in fifteen minutes what it’d take me hours to explain. Thing is, when we’re done, it might take you several hours to go through the memories and figure them out. Ask if something confuses you.”
Buffy replied, “’Kay,” sounding distracted. As she reclined on the bed watching the witch prepare, she believed she could feel a palpable charge building in the room. Trying to calm herself, she asked, “But otherwise it’s not gonna be painful, right? I’ve had enough of that for awhile.”
Willow lit a small burner full of fragrant herbs, winking before she responded, “Depends on how you define pain. But, no, it won’t hurt you physically.” When she finished, Willow came over to the bedside and said, “Close your eyes and relax. Trust me.”
After taking a deep breath, Buffy shut her eyes and exhaled. Something dusted the surface of her forehead and she suppressed a cringe.
Willow’s voice rang out, crisp and commanding, “Harken, Mnemosyne, mother of muse. Keeper of memory, whose waters I choose.”
When the witch’s damp fingertip touched Buffy’s forehead, tracing an unfamiliar shape, the fine granules of powder lightly scratching the surface of her skin. A chill ran down her spine causing her to shiver as the finger withdrew.
Wind gusted, causing the candles to flicker when Willow began to intone again, “Grant her your vision, perfect and clear, a flawless reflection of one who lies near.”
The strange symbol on Buffy’s forehead grew warmer as the light in the room flashed bright, causing spots to dance behind her closed eyelids. As the fluid became hot and uncomfortable, it occurred to her that what she thought to be water definitely wasn’t. There was a spicy fragrance associated with the heat she couldn’t quite place as it mixed with the floral aromas of the burning herbs. Wish I knew what that symbol was. My luck it’s an ‘L’ and I’m gonna end up wearing it all day tomorrow. She suppressed both a snicker and the urge to touch. I’d recognize it if it was. Still funny, though.
“Candles lit to mark time we spend. When flame goes out, the moments will end. Shrouds restored to former state, while memory remains to color our fate.”
Buffy let out a sigh of relief when the wind and radiance died away. I hate it when she does that. It’s seriously wigsome.
After several moments of thick silence, Willow noted, “’Kay, all set,” as she flipped off the light. Walking around the bed to lie on the blonde’s left side, she remarked, “When I lay down you should see what I looked like when I was five. Once you’re ready I’ll start. There’s a lot to cover, so…” Suddenly remembering, she gasped, “Oh,” and quickly amended, “And you can open your eyes. Whatever’s better.”
Buffy smiled when her friend crawled onto the bed and an image of a cherub faced child with carrot-red hair filled her mind’s eye. The younger Willow was sitting on a stool in front of her dresser carefully brushing out the waist length locks. Wow! I can’t believe how vivid this is. Looks like she’s remembering something from yesterday. “You were so cute,” she reflected. Thinking better of the statement as she gazed into the redhead’s eyes, she added, “Still are, but it’s a different sorta cute.” Her friend’s expression transformed from grrr to grin and Buffy laughed.
A hint of surprise peeked through the mental discipline when the slayer held her arm out, pulling Willow up to lay in the curve of her shoulder.
“Umm…Will, is it all like this?” Buffy asked, trying to explain what she meant by adding, “I mean, it’s just weird. When I remember something—even something a week ago—it’s…I dunno, sorta fuzzy.” As she glanced down to make eye contact, she felt the redhead nod.
“Yeah,” Willow replied, “It took me a long time to realize that other people weren’t like me. I’d expect them to remember something…and, y’know, they wouldn’t. Xander was the one that actually made me understand I was different.” She sighed. “But yeah, all those stories—the old ones we tell—the reason he remembers so well…I sorta kept the good ones alive.”
Smiling warmly, Buffy absently rubbed her friend’s back. Sorta explains the ‘school’ thing.
“Ready?” Willow asked, quickly adding, “Oh, and if you see something upsetting, please remember not to squish.”
Suddenly, the child faded, replaced by a flood of image and sensation. Buffy tensed immediately under the strain. Struggling to concentrate through the distressing onslaught, she snarked, “Jeez! You think like this? No wonder you can never finish a sentence,” mocking a wince when her friend gave her a light poke in the side. The cascade of memory slowed and she began to recognize details. Wow! This is so cool. I gotta hand it to Will. She’s seriously been boning up on the magick.
Buffy was a bit stunned to find herself standing in the shower, seeing the world through her friend’s eyes. Showering was a sensation she hadn’t been prepared to handle. She was almost ashamed that she found it erotic, but the confusion and sorrow that Willow was feeling in the memory made this easy to ignore. “Umm…Will?” she prompted.
“All of it, Buffy,” Willow replied plainly, “I’m going to speed up a little. We’ve only got so much time. I might skip around some ’cause I’m pretty sure you won’t care what I thought of lunch last Thursday. There’s some stuff I’m a little ashamed of, so…just let me concentrate, please?”
Forcing herself to relax and just let the sensations happen, Buffy replied vaguely, “’Kay, Will.”
“If it gets uncomfortable again, just say.”
Faith stared across the table at Wesley with a vacant look on her face. It’s not so bad. Who am I trying to kid? Yeah, it’s bad. I’ve been sitting here all morning with dweeb boy listening to Earl G. and Soul Boy try to make each other feel better over something I did for— How long’s it been? She looked around for a clock, finding nothing to indicate the time. Whatever. ‘Too damned long’s the answer I’m looking for. They’ve totally forgotten us. But y’know…you gotta respect the kinda crazy it takes to think that sending those two off together is a good plan. It’s desperate. It’s the ‘we’ve run out of options’ plan.
Rolling her eyes as the sob-fest continued, Faith placed her arms on the table and rested her forehead against them, turning the others out. Worst part…I’m starting to feel bad. I don’t feel bad about this sorta shit, it’s just not— B. picked sides. She shoved me away. I just did what I had to. Her all gimpy—not my problem. It has to suck, but still not my thing. They should’ve let her do herself in. I would’ve, and I’d be pissed off as hell at anyone who tried to stop me. Bet Red’s havin’ a blast.
If I’d had a clue, I would’ve helped. I get that she’d wanna go out on her own terms. Plus, the others with their ever present help…comes a point when that’s just gotta get old. Faith almost jumped out of her chair when a loud thump sounded across the table from her. What the—?
Wesley shot out of his chair and began to pace as the attention of the entire room came to rest on him. After several moments of silently ignoring the others, he mumbled, “Anya was quite correct,” coming to a halt at the end of the table. After turning his attention to Giles, Wesley asked, “What do you know of Widukind?”
Giles peered pensively at the younger man for several moments before he answered, “During the Saxon Wars he was the Duke of Saxony and chief antagonist of Charlemagne. Ironically, after standing in bloody opposition of assimilation by Christianity for many years, he was eventually baptized in 785 and finally even sainted.”
Dipping his chin ever so slightly in agreement, Wesley reflected, “And as you know, in order to be canonized, one must perform three miracles. If you look at Widukind’s line, he became the progenitor of a great many saints. It’s almost absurd how many ‘miracles’ occurred in his direct line of descendents,” starting to pace again as he spoke, “I began to scrutinize this. It occurred to me that an unrecognized ‘miracle,’ if you will, was this man’s age at the time of his death. In an era when early deaths were quite common, he lived to be seventy-eight years old. I know this seems a minor point, but—”
Faith could feel her eyes glazing over as she tuned out the rest of the speech. Y’know, I’m not sure I’ll ever figure how these two get all worked up over some old guy who’s been dead for centuries. It makes no kinda sense to me.
“One of my contacts within the council sent me this manuscript. Do you recall Toby, Mr. Giles?” Wesley offered conversationally, pointing at the faxed document that he had been pouring over the entire morning.
“Yes, indeed. How is Tobias?” Giles replied cheerfully.
Wesley smiled and remarked genially, “He’s getting on quite well. Did you know he just became a grandfather?”
Oh please! There has to be a point! Faith stifled a grimace and glanced at Angel who was sitting patiently with his fingers laced together at his chin, waiting for the two men to arrive at something relevant.
“Back on point, there are several references in this document to The Valley of Shadows,” Wesley noted, pointing to a specific line in the text.
Giles came around to look at the papers. As he read, a smile formed on his face. “Wesley, not to interfere, but this would be ‘The Shadow-less Valley’ or ‘The Valley of Light.’ You see, it’s a double negative, which is typically counted as a positive.”
Wesley looked carefully at the bad photo copy of the ancient Gaelic document. “Ah, yes, you are quite right. At any rate, there is reference here again to an injury, in keeping with my research, and a subsequent journey undertaken, this time by Widukind and a small party of his men. His first son Ayken was severely wounded in a skirmish with one of Charlemagne’s cavalry regiments. Widukind was said to only be gone a few days, though the men that returned with him relayed a great saga of their travels detailing many months journey. On their return, Widukind’s son was restored to full health, although his prognosis had been grim.”
After taking a seat, Giles began to study the document, remarking absently, “There was reference to a place where no shadow fell in our previous research.”
Trying to suppress the impatience in his voice, Angel asked, “How long?”
Giles glanced up from the pile of notes and confirmed, “Very soon. It looks as though Wesley may be onto something here.”
Faith returned her forehead to the ‘sleeping in class’ position she’d adopted to avoid the drama. Thank God! Killing something—it’s becoming a thing. If they don’t get their shit together, I may end up settling.
The midday sun beamed down harsh and unforgiving. Parched, hot wind whipped around Buffy as she stared vacantly off into the distance, watching the barren desert landscape pass by. Her cheeks burned as she cried. I think she thought it’d make me feel better to have the top down. Right now I have no clue what ‘better’ even means. What it’d take to get there? Hell if I know.
As Buffy focused her gaze on an outcropping of huge rocks in the distance, Willow’s hand closed over hers and she yielded to the contact. I wonder what she thinks, if she knows. She was asleep before the candles burned down. I shouldn’t have—it was so wrong, but after all that, I lay there considering going through with it till dawn.
Buffy stared muzzily at the standing rocks as they slowly drew closer. What she saw stunned her. The rocks looked like a sculpture of a woman with her head back screaming in agony. Living like this—it’s impossible. I can’t be this. I have no clue what’ll happen if I don’t get better. But I can’t do it knowing how much it’d hurt her. It’d kill her; I got that last night. That was the big sharing.
Buffy blinked and the illusion faded. They were just rocks. She put her hand to her cheek, carelessly smearing the tears across her slick, wind-burned skin. It stung to the touch, but she couldn’t seem to care. All those other details…pretty much meaningless. The one thing—the thing I got—Will was willing to kill for me. What it takes to put someone like her there… What it’d take for her to go back… I have to live. I’ve got no choice. I have to live to keep her alive.
Glancing over to look at her passenger, Willow asked again in a soft, thoughtful tone, “You gonna be okay?”
Buffy turned her gaze to the space on the seat between them, staring at their jointed hands, and replied “Yeah, Will. I just need some time, ’kay?” How much? No clue. But this has to get better. Her eyes blurred with more fresh tears.
“’Kay. It’s just that you’ve been— Did I hurt you?”
Buffy gasped, “No, Will” — turning her head quickly to look at her friend’s profile — “don’t think that. It’s just—I need to—a lot’s happened and I need to—” she stammered, not even sure herself what she needed. Taking in the deep worry etched on her friend’s face, she noted that Willow was weeping too. Shit! After giving the hand she held a reassuring squeeze, she sniffled and offered thickly, “It’s not you. It’s just—lot’s happened and I’ve just—”
“You’re not mad?”
“No,” Buffy responded firmly. It’s weird. Like there’s more than one Willow in there. I think I kinda get it now. Sounding much less certain, she mumbled, “Just lemme… I’ll be okay,” while she pulled tissue from the box between them on the seat. After passing some off to her friend, she took a couple for herself and futilely started to dry her face. More tears formed, reminding her just how useless the act was. I’m leaking. I’ve been leaking since last night and I can’t seem to stop. I wonder if you can slowly drip away. I guess parts of you can. She’s right to be worried. I’ve got no clue what it’ll take to make it right. Wish I knew.
Buffy angrily cast the Kleenex aside, turning her attention back to the desert scenery whipping past them. One of the memories from last night flashed crisp and clean into view. I gotta wonder why my stupid brain hasn’t mauled these yet. Give it time. They’ll be as fuzzy as the rest. I have faith. The gift of forget will kill them. She watched that first afternoon—the first time they’d spoken—from Willow’s point of view and compared it to her own memory. More weird. She must’ve given this to me in that first—the part that went so fast.
When Buffy placed her left hand back in the seat between them, it was quickly scooped up. She needs the contact to be okay—to know I’m okay. The contact went away for a moment and music filled the car. She almost slid out of her seat when she recognized the first song. ‘Ballad for Dead Friends’ by the Dashboard Prophets filled the air and a sardonic chuckle slipped out.
Willow fumbled with the tape deck, fast forwarding to the next song as she cursed, “Dammit, Xander,” under her breath.
“No, it’s cool—actually funny—in the really dark, twisted, ironic kinda way.”
Shrugging, Willow rewound the tape and just let it play. “Xander made us tapes for the trip,” she grumbled, appearing completely un-amused.
Buffy glanced over and snickered again at the grumpy look on her friend’s face. “Leave it to Xander,” she reflected distantly, returning to her musing. Willow? First time we met: jumpy, frightened, wary, curious, and yet somehow—enamored maybe? Though she was still silently weeping, her mood had improved. Me? I was—what I saw was a pretty girl who’d been forced into a shell. That shell needed some serious breakage. Mom got that much right. She chuckled softly as the memory revealed something she’d missed at the time. She kept glancing at my cleavage. Aww…that’s almost cute in a weird, repressed, stalkerish sorta way.
Her friend had calmed down, Buffy could tell it just from the tiny bit of contact they had. Will was wrong. Buffy Summers did die after prom. Mom will report me missing soon. And right after that, Angel will report his car stolen. The police will find the car abandoned in Flagstaff. Then Anne Marie Rouche and Danielle Leigh Williams will return to the scene of their deaths. Well, not really—Will got creative. She sorta shuffled stuff around a little. Different socials and she switched their first names for our middle names so we could keep a fragment of who we are. I wonder if her parents will ever get it figured. They may eventually call the cops. Sad people.
Buffy faced forward to see distant traces of humanity just coming into view on the horizon. Phoenix. Though she was still weeping, there was something almost cathartic about being nearly clear of the long stretch of high desert. Whole lot smarter than I could be. I can’t believe she started on that while I was in the hospital. Wait...yes I can. It’s Willow we’re talking here. One thing I’ve learned about her—she plans. She knew this was coming the night it happened. Pretty much every detail was set by the time they released me, even the car. I almost wish she’d told me, but then again I don’t. I was—still am—pretty confused.
A subtle half-grin tugged at Buffy’s lips. I’m gonna kill Angel. Next time I see him he’s so dead. Strange, I sorta get it, but leaving Sunnydale to—leaving my friends and family in the hands of that psychotic bitch—not my first choice. Hopefully, Angel can keep her in check. He sorta seemed to be getting through to her. Least that’s what I got before Wesley went off and acted like a moron. Maybe there is hope. Maybe there’s hope for all of us. Maybe I’ll walk again. They say—well, they didn’t say much, but I gotta hope. I gotta find it, I have to. No choice. I can’t not. I can’t hurt Will.
Angel passed through the glowing portal with Faith directly behind him. Trust: I have to show a little if I hope to get any. Doesn’t make it any easier. He scanned the large, dimly-lit cavern for signs of life, fixing briefly on the daylight seeping in through its partially obscured mouth dead ahead. Other than the mishap with Willow, she’s been doing okay. And even her reaction to that was perfectly reasonable, given the circumstances.
As the portal faded, leaving them in relative darkness, movement to his right caused Angel to refocus his attention. Not diverting his eyes from the area, he directed, “We’ve got fifteen minutes to get it done before the Professor and Gilligan send us the ticket home, Faith.” His smile faltered when she failed to react to the names he used. Gruffly, he ordered, “Fan out and flank them, while I keep them busy, okay?”
When no answer came, Angel began to get annoyed. Damn it, Faith! I should know better than to even think— His rumination was cut short when something huge came out of the shadow. It batted him aside like a toy. He didn’t even hear it until it was way too late. Noting an acrid odor, he skipped along the ground. Slamming into the cavern wall a good twenty feet away from where he’d been, Angel shook himself off and rose. Great! Can’t see them, but I can sure smell them. His eyes welled up as the stench burned his nose.
A loud roar echoed through the air and Angel saw a flourish of movement off to his left. Another flicker of something that sparkled like glass caught his eye in the blackness seconds later. Then suddenly he was seized from behind. Strong jaws caused ribs to snap as sharp teeth pierced his flesh. All the air in his lungs escaped in the form of a gagged scream while his face shifted revealing the demon. He brought his free arm up, punching the beast in the face with all his might. Another punch and the jaws snapped open as bone cracked underneath his fist. He fell to the ground, clutching his chest. Two great, yellow eyes peered at him for only an instant before he was batted across the cavern again.
Well, that’s just about enough of that. Angel sprang painfully to his feet and started to run. Without Faith there isn’t much I can do except run. Where is that annoying, conniving, unreliable—? As the two creatures pursued him, he could feel the rock floor tremble in his wake. No idea what these things are other than big and hungry. It’s bad when Giles can’t show you a picture before you go in. I understand why now. So far all I’ve seen is a big black blur and yellow eyes. The sharp teeth and claws was more a feel thing. Running really isn’t my style, but I get the distinct impression that not running would make me dinner.
As Angel sprinted in a half circle around the room, leading the demons, he spied a small crag and ducked inside. Hoping it would be enough, he pressed as far into the confined space as physically possible. One large, slit-pupil eye winked open at the mouth of the crag, followed quickly by a huge, blunt snout covered in black, felt-like fur. The beast sniffed the air causing Angel to retch. These things aren’t big on personal hygiene. As the demon opened it’s maw to snarl, revealing rows of spiny, transparent teeth, Angel flinched. A string of cloudy yellow drool slid from the beast’s black forked tongue, dripping onto the floor near the vampire’s feet. The demon huffed, breathing out a cloud of foul smelling mist when it shut its mouth. Angel blinked once to recover and drew back, punching the beast in the nose. Scraping noises sounded from outside his temporary sanctuary, followed by a rumbling roar. Great! All I can manage is to make it mad. Good work.
Something whipped into the crag. It moved so quickly the he barely saw it. The huge, hard-shelled stinger smashed into the rock wall near his head. A dusting of broken rock showered Angel. He grabbed onto the carapace. When it withdrew, he was whipped out of his hiding place. He looked up at the massive, curved tail as it lashed out again, trying to shake him. This is not where I want to be. He smashed into the ground, refusing to let go. This is the last place anyone sane wants to be. The creature started to gallop wildly around the room. Giles said poison though. Looks like the right spot.
As the demon twitched its tail, scrubbing it over a rock outcropping, Angel gasped in pain. This is arguably one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done, he reflected and moved his grip to the stinger. After wrapping his legs tightly around the tail, he began to twist and wrench. He fought to pull the stinger away while the beast continued to thrash around in protest. Finally, the last piece of sinewy flesh ripped free and Angel slipped, smashing to the ground.
Clear fluid had begun to leak from the stinger. Smoke poured off Angel’s skin where the foul liquid touched. In pain, he desperately ran from the enraged demons, dodging and ducking their attacks. The acidic poison ate his skin as he fled, but he refused to release the prize.
Things were starting to get more desperate when the portal glimmered to life. Running for safety, he evaded a blow, vaulting the tail of the second beast. As he closed in on freedom, he spied Faith standing next to the portal with her arms folded across her chest, looking smug. I’m gonna kill her!
Faith casually stepped through the portal with Angel close on her six.
She’d dead. I’m going to rip her head off, Angel seethed as he burst through the portal to safety. Sliding to a halt, he tossed the stinger on the table and barked, “Close it! Now!” The portal vanished with a crackle and a flash as smoke began to waft from the wooden table where the stinger lay.
“Wesley, the poison sac is ruptured. Could I burden you—?” Giles asked, falling silent when the younger Englishman quickly left the room.
Angel’s skin continued to smolder as he rounded on Faith, yelling, “Don’t you ever do that to me again!”
Trying not to smirk, Faith backed away with her hands in the air. Producing a vial of the poison from her pocket, she held it up and winked.
She could’ve been holding his humanity in her hand, Angel wouldn’t have cared at that moment. He pressed her into a wall and continued to scream, “You do what I tell you. You don’t, and we part company. We part company, and you become a lab rat. You get it?”
Eyeing the raw skin on Angel’s hand as he stabbed his finger into her chest, Faith nodded.
Angel took in the proud look on Faith’s face. Her jaw was defiantly clenched. She crossed her arms, tucking the vial into the crook of her elbow. “If there’s something about this arrangement that’s not clear—?” he snarled, falling silent when the slayer shook her head. His face shifted back as he closed his eyes tight, trying to regain his composure.
Recovering quickly, Faith offered, “Lemme get something for your hands.”
Angel allowed her to slip away. After removing his ripped jacket, he flopped wearily into one of the chairs surrounding the large conference table. Holding his hands out as they continued to billow smoke, he closed his eyes, focusing on suppressing the pain. When Wesley burst back into the room, placing a glass bowl on the table, Angel rose and moved the stinger.
Angel looked up to see Giles eyeing him pensively. “Something on your mind?”
“You know she’s not to be trusted.” Giles stated simply.
Nodding curtly, Angel replied, “She deserves another chance.” He was a bit surprised, despite himself, when Faith burst back into the room carrying a large ceramic pot.
Faith set the container on the table in front of the vampire and stated, “It’s the best I could find, Boss. Put your hands in.”
Cocking an eyebrow curiously, Angel looked into the vat of what appeared to be water as Faith placed the vial she had on the table.
“Baking soda water. Swiped it outta the fridge. Y’know you still look like a vamp, but—” Faith smirked. “Anyway, that shit’s acidic so I’m guessing it’ll help.”
Angel dipped both of his hands into the water. They stung painfully, but he ignored it and asked, “What’s in the vial?”
“Same thing that’s in that.” She pointed to the stinger. “Least I guess it is,” Faith added with a shrug.
Angel started to ask, “How’d you—?” falling silent when Faith grinned and barked a laugh.
“The cubs—cute little bastards—playful too. I thought you saw ’em. They were right behind the portal,” Faith remarked, pausing to sigh. “While you were keeping mama and papa bear busy, I was rolling around on the floor wrestling the kids. Couldn’t really say nothin’. The big ones—” she giggled when Angel slumped into his chair “—they get pretty pissy ’bout the little ones and—y’know I didn’t wanna give myself up. I figured you’d just drag the ’em around long enough for me to—”
Angel glared at Faith as she rounded the table, taking a seat. He wasn’t sure whether to be livid or proud. He glanced over at Giles and Wesley who were both holding their peace, appearing quite amused. Finally, Angel’s resolve snapped and he began to chuckle. The others quickly joined him. Falling silent, he asked, “Is that it? We have what we need?”
“Why, yes,” Giles replied genially. After a short pause, hastily adding, “There are a few more common items that will have to be retrieved tomorrow. They are easily purchased. We will be fully prepared by the time you rise tomorrow evening.”
A grave air darkened his features and Angel nodded, glancing over at Faith. I’m not sure she’s ready, but we have no choice. This has to be dealt with…and the sooner the better.
Buffy sat on the bed blinking as her friend exited the bathroom. Quirking an eyebrow, she tilted her head, still trying to decide whether she liked the new look or not. Wow…umm…weird. Cute, but weird. Where’d she put my Willow? The black hair’s gonna take some serious getting used to. It’s actually not bad. She must’ve gotten all researchy to find the good stuff. Black’s one of those colors—most dye jobs look really fake. This isn’t bad. Looks good on her.
Shifting anxiously on the bed when Willow tossed a swimsuit to her, Buffy ignored the hint and continued to silently observe. It’s the suit she’s got on that really scares me, though. First off: she doesn’t seriously think I’m gonna swim does she? She glanced at the swimsuit next to her on the bed, quickly turning her attention back to her friend. And second: umm…wow…there was more material in the dress Marilyn Manson’s date wore to the Grammy’s. Will’s the traditional, one-piece sorta girl, not this. Finally, she said in a firm voice, “I’m not going swimming.” What’d she do with my Willow?
“Yes you are,” Willow replied as she wrapped a towel around her waist. “C’mon, Buffy, it’ll be fun.”
Imagining for only a second how she’d look in a suit, Buffy said resolutely, “Sorry. I’ll watch you swim, but—” And that should be umm…interesting. What happened to the girl I had to coax into a miniskirt a couple of Halloweens ago?
Appearing resolved, Willow furrowed her brow. “Nope. I think you’re gonna come swimming with me. And you’re gonna have a good time. Remember the prom? You were all grrr—” a mischievous grin brightened her face “—then you saw it my way. We went and you smiled. I even saw a laugh or two. Don’t try to deny it either ’cause I have witnesses.”
Buffy tossed the swimsuit aside. “Not gonna happen,” she remarked dryly, “There was a dress to cover all the—at the prom. What exactly do imagine this” — she gestured vaguely at the bikini — “will cover?”
“Umm…Buffy, it’s two o’clock in the morning. Just who do you think we’re gonna see?”
Buffy could feel her self-control slipping. Closing her eyes tight to avoid snapping at her well-intentioned friend, she took a deep breath and said a little too calmly, “Whoever runs us off from the pool.”
Willow smiled sheepishly before she countered, “Not gonna happen. Just trust me.” Her tone turned pleading as she added, “Wear your sweats if you want. Please just come. It’ll be good for you. I promise.”
Buffy scowled. I’m caving. Why do I always cave? What is it about her? Her friend started to pout and Buffy answered by growling as she climbed out of bed and grabbed the swimsuit top. She seized her crutches and made her way to the bathroom, grumbling under her breath. Willow was grinning by the time she returned. Shooting a disgusted look at the former redhead, Buffy followed her out the door and down the hall.
When they arrived at the hotel recreation center, Willow put her hand to the lock and the door popped open.
Buffy snickered softly and shook her head before she moved. Cautious of water on the floor she followed her friend to the edge of the pool.
“Lemme have your crutches.”
Buffy sighed before relinquishing them.
When Willow returned from setting their towels and the crutches aside, she stooped at Buffy’s feet, remarking, “Not getting fresh, ’kay?” After glancing up to see the nod, she moved the blonde’s legs together, lining them up. Her palm briefly brushed the slayer’s feet and thighs as she mumbled something under her breath.
Buffy’s brow crinkled with curiosity and uncertainty as Willow moved behind her. “What was that?”
“Something to help. Just trust me.”
Buffy felt herself rise off the concrete and gasped, “Umm…Will?” trying to turn and look at her friend.
“Just relax, Buffy,” Willow offered reassuringly.
Buffy floated over the surface of the pool. There was a moment’s hesitation where she was certain her friend planned to drop her.
When Buffy nervously nodded again, the witch slowly lowered her into the water that was just up to the tops of her shoulders.
“Try moving, but be careful, ’kay?”
The moment Buffy moved her legs, she figured out what the mumbling had been about. Willow had magickally attached the edges of her feet and the sides of her thighs together. When she moved one leg, the other echoed the action. It took a bit of effort, but soon she was gracefully cutting through the water swimming laps. The sweat pants were annoying. They felt like they weighed about ten-thousand pounds, but slayer strength made up for any inconvenience.
Buffy rolled onto her back and looked up at her friend who was sitting on a towel with her feet in the water at the edge of the pool reading a book. Go figure, she drags me out here and ends up reading some musty old book. I don’t even remember seeing her bring one. Must’ve been in the stack of towels. Sneaky. “So, Will, you planning on just sitting there? This was your idea.”
Willow kept her nose buried in the book. “Give me a few more minutes. I’m trying to figure something out.”
Rolling onto her front as she neared the end of the pool, Buffy turned around by diving underwater and kicked off the wall. After resurfacing, she turned back onto her back. “I’m giving you two more laps. Then—” she giggled “—I’ll owe you a book.”
Willow responded nervously, “Umm…well, I’d sorta prefer you didn’t.”
“’Kay, well…you’d better hop to it then, ’cause—” Buffy replied, deliberately slowing her pace to allow her friend more time. I’m still having huge issues with everything she’s done. I dunno if I’ll ever get over it. I suppose it depends on how it works out. She gave up going to, not just the school of her dreams, but the schools of her dreams for me. She could’ve picked.
Reaching the end of the pool, Buffy fluidly made her turn and set back off in the other direction. I really wish she hadn’t shown me that. I got what it meant to her. She worked her whole life for it. Then there was me, I meant more. And she can say what she said to Giles all day long, I refuse to buy it. She traded Oxford for me. The fact that she’d run off like this proves it.
When Buffy reached the end of the first full lap, she dove and didn’t resurface. Kicking hard off the wall, she swam the length of the Olympic sized pool underwater and turned to head back. I bet she’s researching something else to help me. Seems to be about all she does. Surfacing halfway through her return trip, she switched to a leisurely breast stroke as Willow got up to put her book away. Though, I think Will’s generally pretty happy as long as she has a problem to solve.
Problem solved: I am having fun…damn it. Reaching the end of the second lap, Buffy stood up in the shallow end as her friend climbed in.
A warm, quirky smile played at Willow’s lips as she regarded the blonde.
Buffy pulled her friend into a gentle embrace and whispered, “Will, I’m worried.”
Drawing back just enough to make eye-contact, Willow asked, “Why’s that?”
Sighing, Buffy struggled to suppress the feelings of guilt welling up inside her. “I’m afraid you’re giving up so much for me—too much. What happens if in a year or two you look back and regret?” She sighed before adding in a small choked voice, “And resent?”
“I don’t see it that way. It’s not so much ‘giving up’—it’s ‘giving back’,” Willow responded firmly, going on to explain in a more casual tone, “See, thing is…you’ve given me a lot yourself. You may not see it, but you have. And it’s really important stuff, stuff I’m not gonna find anywhere else…or, if I did, it’d be a minor miracle or a major fluke.”
Concern reflected on her face as Buffy remarked, “Will, it’s not like you wouldn’t have eventually grown out of—” cutting off when her friend began to snicker.
Correcting amusedly, Willow quipped, “Not this,” and pulled back, gesturing to her chest. She giggled when the ploy worked and the blonde glanced at her cleavage, then she continued to explain, “No, silly, I mean purpose. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be learning this stuff—the magick. I love it. I’m good at it too. Using it for good—making a difference—it’s amazing. I wouldn’t have that if it wasn’t for you. I can go to school anytime. Right now what’s important is you. Getting you better so we can—”
Buffy nodded with understanding as her friend paused and interjected, “What if I don’t get better?”
“I believe you will. I know it—” Willow gestured to her chest mid-thought and smiled when the blond glanced again “—in here. If you don’t—if I’m wrong and the others fail, then that’s what all the research is about. Lemme ask you this: did you ever see yourself dancing or swimming again?”
Tears welled up in Buffy’s eyes and she shook her head very slightly in answer.
“Oh, don’t cry, please,” Willow whispered and cupped her friend’s cheek. Running her fingers gently over the blonde’s temple, she asked, “How can you think it’s impossible then? We’re just starting.”
Silently considering Willow’s words for several moments, Buffy finally wiped her eyes and murmured, “Thanks, Will.”
“No need. You and me, we’re a team. We go together like cookies and cream,” Willow babbled excitedly, “Or movies and popcorn.” She stalled pensively for a few seconds to come up with another ‘or.’ “Oh! Or bad vampire clichés and New Orleans.” She giggled, then snapped suddenly serious, amending, “Now hush, you. I’m still here ’cause I wanna be.” Without warning, she deftly squirmed out of the hug and quipped, “Now catch me, slayer,” springing into a surprisingly efficient breast stoke.
Taking another moment to calm herself, Buffy watched the witch cover half the pool before she smiled and tore off in pursuit.
The Chief of Police, Bob Russell, waved at the receptionist as he made his way to grab a cup of coffee en route to his desk. Pausing to rub the sleep from his eyes before he crossed the threshold to the break room, he froze and blinked in disbelief. His gaze came to rest on a large, black and white rat who was leisurely snacking on the sugar packets.
Bob mumbled to himself, “I thought for sure they were making you up,” and took off across the room. “Silly women passing out all because of a little rat,” he growled and swung at the fleeing rat. Gotcha! When his hand came down, it clipped the end of the rat’s tail and everything went dark.
Faith sat watching Wesley prepare the ingredients to open the portal. Anything that starts with the hollowed out head of a big-ass, hard-to-kill demon and gets topped off with poison from another big-ass—’kay, so the cubs were cute, but— It might be time to bail. I’m so not convinced this is a good plan. Hell, I’m not even convinced it’s a not-so-good plan. Sounds just plain painful. Course there is one bonus: the council isn’t gonna follow me to Hell. At least, don’t think they’ll do that. Maybe I can take over, like the old joke, and— Nah…it still sucks. Doesn’t matter how much psyching I do, it’s just gonna suck. Period.
Giles’ brow furrowed with concern as he observed the slayer. After rising from his seat, he went to a cupboard and opened it. Pulling out a small bag, he made his way back to Faith and queried, “May I have a moment alone with you?”
“Sure. Whatcha got, G.?” Faith asked as she rose to follow the former watcher. When Giles simply gestured for her to follow, she obeyed out of curiosity.
Stopping in the foyer, Giles remarked, “Willow requested that I see you receive this.”
Faith eyed the bag suspiciously before finally accepting it. “Y’know what’s in it? ’Cause I’m wondering why it’s not tickin’.”
Smiling with amusement, Giles chuckled and replied, “I’m certain it’s quite safe. She also requested that you not open it until you are through the portal.” He placed his hand between her shoulders, graciously ushering Faith back to the others.
When Faith arrived in the room, it was happening. There was smoke billowing out of the top of the demon’s skull and a faint glow had already appeared in the dense haze. As she collected her gear, the radiance increased. Soon the room was filled with thick fog. A bright light in the far corner of the room showed where the portal lay. I could bail now and they might not even notice, she reflected before Angel’s hand clamped over her shoulder. Well, so much for that idea.
“Ready, Boss.” Faith didn’t resist when Angel began to steer her toward the light. This is gonna suck! Mightily!
“Good fortune to you both,” Giles kindly voice sounded out of the mist.
“Indeed. Safe journey,” Wesley put in.
“We’ll be back before you miss us,” Angel replied as he pushed the slayer through and stepped into the portal himself.
Faith heard their words and registered them all as she was shoved into the column of bright white light. Her mind reeled when the light didn’t dim. It should’ve dimmed. It’s just supposed to work that way. She collapsed to her knees, suddenly colder than she’d ever been in her life. The air was thick and difficult to breathe. She gasped and choked for air. As she slumped onto her side, her eyes reflexively clamped shut against the light. Behind her closed lids, there was still a harsh glow broken up by spots of gray. She lay shivering and wheezing, praying that Angel would be able to pull her back through to the safety of their world.
Chapter 8 - From Fatal Errors
Reflexively pulling the sleeping bag snugly around him, Angel clamped his eyes shut against the brutal glare that seeped in. His skin began to itch and sting. It took him a couple of seconds to analyze that internally. There’s something not right here. Sunlight: it burns—I’d actually feel my skin catching fire—this is more chemical. He inhaled and his eyes immediately started to water from the noxious smell of the air. He stuck his hand out into the light to test, drawing it back in after a few seconds. It’s not the light, it’s the atmosphere. That idea took hold. Where’s Faith? She has to breathe and if this place is—
Panic struck and Angel tossed the sleeping bag aside. Freezing! Very, very, cold. So cold it’s hard to move. He started to feel around on the ground and quickly located the slayer near his feet. After bundling her tightly in his sleeping bag, he searched through the pockets of his coat for sunglasses. I brought two pairs, hope they help. I got that this wasn’t going to be good from the description, but I was half expecting to be reduced to a pile of ash. Didn’t matter, I had to try. Buffy’s too important not to try. Locating his gloves, he slid them on and instantly felt a little better.
Unconcerned by how foolish he might appear, Angel bounced and fidgeted. Moving—I gotta keep moving. I’m hoping it helps. I have no idea how this works. Finally coming across his sunglasses, he put them on and tentatively cracked his eyes. He was able to make out vague shapes in the harsh light. The others survived so there has to be something—something close that you’d just stumble across. He stooped to his knees next to the slayer and began to feel around.
Everything about this place was strange, starting with the ground they rested on. It was white and had a texture slightly coarser than ash, almost like fine beach sand, but with a reflective quality. Sort of explains the light. If everything around a light source reflects it, it naturally intensifies. Angel scooped up a handful of the odd material and let it flow through his fingers. I bet this place is a laugh a minute when the wind picks up. I need something to cover her mouth and nose. Breathing this crap won’t be good.
His vision was acclimating to the bright illumination. As Angel blinked and glanced around, he began to make out shapes. What he had thought to be an empty wasteland began to take form. Instead of desolation, the landscape was lush and teaming with life. There were massive trees all around them, but the startling difference was the colors. We’re in some bizarre perversion of a forest. Instead of being hued in shades of green and brown, what passed for plants here were pigmented in icy colors. Pale blues, greens and yellows began to appear as his eyes cleared. He watched a large, translucent millipede crawl across a ridge above them some twenty feet away.
As Angel turned, a white patch on the bottom of his coat caught his eye. He lifted the hem of the garment and ran his gloved hand over it. It was slick and sticky. His coat had come in contact with something and picked up the dust off the ground. Intuitively, he began to feel around and found the source. There were clumps of plants all around them that looked very much like a fern with yellow fronds, but what looked like leaves weren’t exactly that. They were irregularly shaped, similar to a sea sponge, and hung from a hard, icy-blue stem. When he touched the lightly blue-veined growths, they dissolved, even in his gloved hand, leaving behind only the stalk.
Without thinking, Angel put his hands to his burning face. The strange, thick liquid was instantly soothing, despite making him colder. This must be it. There had to be something. He began to apply the liquid to his exposed skin. When nothing bad happened as a result, he moved to Faith and repeated the process. Her skin gradually started to lose its unhealthy blue cast and she even seemed to be breathing more regularly.
Okay, well, that solves that. Time to get moving. Angel began to pile their gear on, quickly finding that he couldn’t cope with all of it. The two backpacks and various bags weren’t heavy, but they were very awkward. Struggling determinedly, he couldn’t find a way to load himself down in a manner that allowed him to pick up the most important package: Faith. This meant sacrificing something.
After dropping all of their gear in a pile next to the slayer, Angel began to dig at the base of a large outcropping of clear, green, crystalline stones that protruded from the earth close to where they had arrived. Once he was done moving enough of the sandy soil aside, he positioned the large duffle bag that contained the items needed to form the portal home into the hole. As he worked to cover the precious cargo, anxiety reflected sharp on his features. Leaving this behind makes me nervous, but it’s not like I have a choice. I need to pay serious attention to the landmarks so I can find this place again.
After loading himself down again, Angel swept up the slayer and reluctantly turned his back to the milky, emerald shards of rock. When he finally started to move, progress was very slow. I hope she snaps out of it soon. But then, I don’t even know which way to go, so I suppose it makes little difference how quickly we travel. I just need to keep moving. If I freeze—I won’t even think about how bad it would be to be frozen. Finding some cover before night fall—if that even exists here—is a plan. ‘Shadow-less’ would suggest that there isn’t. Best I can do is guess.
I need a scarf. Willow ran her fingers through her hair as it blew in the wind, brushing it out of her face. She keeps giving me these weird glances when she thinks I’m not looking. What’s worse—I totally get the ‘why.’ Diverting her attention from the road for only a moment, she ejected the cassette and put in another. When the music started, she began to tap her fingers against the steering wheel, keeping time with the music. I mean, just look at the details: We’re in a convertible, in the desert, both wearing bikini tops. I’ve dyed my hair. We’ve changed our names. If this gets any more cliché, it might just be sad.
Willow casually took the hand her friend placed on the console, giving it a light, reassuring squeeze. Though, I’m not robbing any banks. I mean—not like we stole the car—why would we rob a bank? And if I see Brad Pitt I’m so totally running him over.
Food maybe? I’m starved. Squinting to see the sign in the distance, Willow read off, ‘Deming, New Mexico – 18 miles,’ to herself. I sorta got the ‘convertibles make her happy’ thing from Cordy. That and I kinda wanted one. I knew we’d need room for the luggage. She doesn’t get how rare a convertible with a real trunk is. So, last detail…the one that probably has her really wigged: I bought a muscle car. Little Willow Rosenberg, the shy girl—or I suppose I should say Danielle Williams—owns a Mustang GT. It’s scary. It’s even black ’cause, well, I found a great deal on a used one, but—
Willow glanced over to see her friend fidgeting and asked, “Are you hungry?” See, thing she doesn’t get—all these details—they make sense. The identity I stole—the girl was like totally Native American. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I sorta gotta try to match. At least I’m getting some sun. Lots of suntan lotion so I don’t end up looking like Sebastian.
“Starved…and if I don’t get outta this car soon it might be totally bad.”
Willow nodded. “’Kay…we’ll stop for food and gas in Deming.” I got to see that movie once before my parents took it. I made the mistake of asking why the little lobster had been cooked and well…no more Little Mermaid for me. But he was red and they only turn that color when they’re cooked ’cause of the carotenoid-protein in the plankton they eat, so… I remember crying and Xander trying to comfort me. That happened a lot. My parents didn’t get that it was more traumatic to not let me.
Giving the hand she held a gentle squeeze, Buffy cleared her throat and tried to make small talk, “You’ve been awfully quiet. Whatcha thinking about, Will?”
Shrugging before she spoke, Willow replied casually, “Just all those times we said, ‘Thelma and Louise-ing it,’ to describe our movie nights. Did you ever expect this?” She put on the best grin she could muster and faked a snicker. Buffy doesn’t get it either. What’s worse, we’ve been playing this game. It’s like she has two modes: angry and weepy or sorta patronizing. Angry and weepy is harder to deal with so I let her play patronizing and just don’t question. If I question, then badness. I placate, she patronizes, and we’re stuck in this sorta quasi-hell-like existence together. It’s a vicious cycle. But I can’t really expect better until she actually starts to get better.
“Just do me a favor and pass up any cliffs you see.” Buffy chuckled and turned to absently watch the desert terrain pass by.
“Total plan—right there with you,” Willow responded, trying to mute the aridness from her voice. I don’t think she gets how bad this is for me too. That’s not fair, maybe she does. It’s not really the school thing—I was telling the truth about that, or at least sort of. This is terrible ’cause I told her I didn’t want to hide, now I am. Thing is, she’s been right about everything. I’m doing this out of hope—hope that somehow we’ll work out. I tossed Oz aside with little thought. I tossed Oxford and Harvard aside the same way. hope
Counting on the blonde to be still engaged in her favorite pastime of scenery watching, Willow blinked and quickly wiped away the tears that had formed. If I’m completely honest with myself—like brutally honest—it’s all the same thing. I want to be with her. I’d do anything. If I end up alone, will I be able to not resent? I honestly don’t know. I hope so.
Willow opened the console and took out a napkin to wipe the traces of mascara from her fingertips. Pandora’s Box: I should’ve never looked inside. I’d probably still be here, but only half as conflicted and miserable. Worse, I wouldn’t trade the memory of that glimpse for the world.
“Are you gonna be okay?”
Willow glanced over to see Buffy scrutinizing her. Fudge! So busted. The blonde’s brow was furrowed with concern. Something quick—what can I say? “Just worried,” she offered lamely. Yeah, that should slow her down for about a nanosecond.
Willow cringed. I hate that. That tone. It makes my skin crawl. Resolve. Where’s ‘resolve face’ when I so desperately need it. “Yeah, Buffy?” she replied sheepishly.
“Talk to me,” Buffy said with a demanding edge to her voice.
After flipping on the turn signal, Willow steered the car onto the exit ramp. “Let’s get parked first. Pick a place.”
“Eh, there’s a Denny’s. At least the bad’s consistent. No startling surprises or blown expectations.”
As she turned onto the frontage road, Willow replied, “Works for me.” The moment she pulled into a parking slot, she looked over to see her friend staring expectantly at her again. Outta time. What am I gonna tell her? The truth? That’d be a laugh a minute. I have to tell her something true ’cause, lying? I suck at it. She put the car in park and averted her gaze before she spoke, staring at her lap. “What’s not to be worried about, Buffy?” she offered honestly, “I mean, we’re a couple of teenagers taking off cross-country, running from an organization that’s—” sighing with disgust. “Y’know it’s not even that though. What I’m most worried about is you.” After a brief pause, she whispered, “Is us,” in amendment.
There was a painfully long silence where Willow didn’t dare look up. Finally she forced herself to chance a peek in the blonde’s direction. Great! Just great! I made her cry again. Weepy and angry mode: check! Congratulations, Willow, you’re good at pretty much everything you do except dealing with the person you care most for. There should be an award or something. I’m pathetic.
“I love you too, Will.”
Reeling with confusion, Willow stammered, “What? Huh? What?” That’s the last—that’s— Back-peddling to recover from the unexpected reply, she quickly gasped, “Wait! Why?” and turned to her friend, appearing completely puzzled. Am I the one being placated now? That was exactly what I wanted to hear.
Buffy laughed with cheerful genuine amusement before responding, “I dunno, Will, it just seemed like you needed to hear it—doesn’t make it any less true.”
Well at least she’s admitting it now. That was still sweet. Willow was amid recovery when the blonde’s behavior turned even stranger. Two fingertips hooked under her chin, directing her to look into bright blue eyes. There was a twinkle of mischief in those eyes. The skin around them wrinkled and Willow didn’t have to break eye contact to know her friend was smiling. When she smiles her whole face lights up. Funny, it looks real too. The smile transformed into something else. Is that—? Her brain froze mid-thought when the two fingers coaxed her closer and impossibly soft lips met hers.
Shivering, Faith tried to lean casually against a rock, pulling out one of the nasty protein bars she’d packed because they were light and they’d keep her going. Shooting her captor a scathing glance, only to receive a smile in return, she gnawed a piece off of the hard, frozen bar. It almost stuck to her tongue. Fuckin’ vamps. Soul or not, this one’s evil. I’d stake him if I didn’t need his dumb ass.
May not have to, this place is just all too weird for words. Faith watched the vampire tear open a pouch of frozen blood and begin eating it like a popsicle. Now that’s just gross. After ripping another bite from the brick in her gloved hand, she opened her pack, looking for something to entertain her while she ate. Oh, I’d totally forgotten this. She fished out the small bag Willow had packed for her. Go figure. What with the unconsciousness and the waking up to find that Hell’s actually a meat locker.
“What’s that?” Angel asked with marked curiosity.
Shrugging, Faith replied indifferently, “Something Giles gave me before we left.” After opening the bag, she pulled out two pieces of carefully folded paper, setting them aside. The rest of the contents were hunting arrow heads with vials of colored liquid carefully adhered in the hollow spot where the two blades met. They were all neatly wrapped to avoid breakage. I should read the note before I lose a hand ’cause, knowing Red, none of this stuff— She wrapped the arrowheads up the way she found them and returned them to the pouch, breaking off another piece of her ‘meal’ when she was done.
One of the pieces of paper was labeled; ‘Angel,’ so Faith quickly passed it off, offering a chilly, “Here,” then she opened the one marked for her. Something fell to the ground when she unfolded the crisp page. Swooping down, she scooped the item up and wrinkled her nose. She’s giving me jewelry now? I thought she was all hot for blondie. She stuffed the locket in her coat pocket. Whatever. After ripping off another chunk of the energy bar, she began to read.
‘Faith – I’m gonna keep this short because I know that last thing you want is some peppy little talk from me about how you’re doing the right thing.’
Faith struggled to chew the cold, sticky food, not really caring how it tasted. You just don’t even know how true that is, Red. If you were here, I’d be pushing you into that big hole over there. Not that it’d do any good—what, with the flying, but…it’s the thought that counts, right? She glanced at the edge of the canyon that opened up not fifty feet from where she was perched. It’s kinda weird how pretty this place is. Her gaze fixed on the pale green and blue hued crystalline ridges that jutted up from the deep gorge. It’s the nastiest place I’ve ever been, but—
‘Besides, I just tried to kill you, so I’ll spare us both. You’d be dead if I wasn’t for her.’
Faith read the words over again not even needing to ask who the ‘her’ was. Red’s one tweaked bitch. Why write this right after—?
‘I know what you’re thinking. The ‘why’ is pretty simple; it’s even something you’ll appreciate. It’s called ‘hedging my bets’.’
Faith grinned and ripped another piece from the softening brick in her hand, chewing vigorously. Well alright, Red, I getcha. Gotta respect that some. I wouldn’t have guessed that a mousey little thing like her could’ve turned so ballsy, but—guess there’s not much that won’t bite if you threaten somethin’ it loves.
‘The arrowheads are pretty simple too: the green ones are poison and the red ones go boom. They need hydrogen to work, so use them on the bad guys. They should work pretty much anywhere. Natural laws sort of exist everywhere according to the Law of Uniformity and hydrogen is one of the most common elements. Don’t get any on you! It’ll be bad if you do. Simple chemistry made nastier with magic, but I won’t bore you. I’d run after the red. I can only speculate how bad it’ll be. Educated guess: If you hit something really hydrogen rich (like a glass of water) it’ll leave a crater.’
Wrinkling her nose, Faith read the paragraph over again. I’ll get Angel to translate the geek code. He’ll be able to figure it—I hope.
‘Funny feeling, being a hero, huh, Faith?’
Faith chuckled wryly. I’m no hero, Red. I’m only here ’cause the Boss is a bastard.
‘Doesn’t matter why you’re there.’
Rolling her eyes, Faith read the sentence again. Get outta my head, Red!
‘Seriously, it doesn’t. Point is: you’re doing the right thing. I know I said I wouldn’t say it, but the reasons are meaningless. You know me, I’m a bookworm. I’ve read an awful lot of history, the good and the bad. I don’t think that anyone we call ‘hero’ now did what they did for the reasons they give us. There was always something else. People aren’t naturally brave. They don’t throw themselves into bad places on purpose unless they’re suicidal and you’ll never hear about a suicidal hero. We tend to look at that sort of thing differently.’
Faith shoved the last bite of the energy bar into her mouth and continued to read as she chewed.
‘Here’s the thing: When you get back I’m going to have to thank you…and it’s going to totally irk me. There’s your reason to go on: the look on my face when I have to say ‘thanks.’ It’s going to seriously hurt.’
An amused grin warmed her features as Faith crinkled up the wrapper to her ‘dinner’ and shoved it in her pack, continuing to read.
‘The last thing is the locket. There’s this old tradition that I sorta like. It usually only happened because of love, but I’m making an exception because I think you’ll need it. The locket belonged to my grandmother. It’s one of the few things I have to remind me of her. She was an amazing woman. The locket means a lot to me. I’m giving it to you as a reminder of why we fight. We fight for the things we believe in and love. It’s what makes us different. Right now, you’re fighting for something I love. The reasons: they don’t matter. The only thing that really matters is that you are.’
Faith fished the tiny silver locket out of her coat and stared at it for a few moments completely stunned, then slipped it on, tucking it under the layers of clothing she’d put on to stave off the bitter cold. I’ll get it back to ya, Red. Thanks. Glancing one last time at the neatly scrawled signature, she folded the page and put it carefully into the inside pocket of her jacket, zipping the garment up against the cold when she was done. “You about ready, big guy?” she asked nonchalantly as she picked up her back pack and slung it over one shoulder. Moving the bow that hung from it aside when it swung in her way, she put her arm through the second strap and cinched it down.
“Yeah,” Angel replied as he quickly read over Willow’s letter again. “She says: if it moves, shoot it. Something about ‘translating science nerd for the layman,’ whatever that means,” he noted with a chuckle.
Faith countered amusedly, “If I shoot it, we run. That’s what mine said.” She snickered softly to herself as she watched Angel fidget and bounce. He can’t even begin to imagine how dorky he looks. This might just be worth it on some level just to watch GQ act like a total spaz.
Shortly after Faith turned and started to follow the vampire down the crude trail into the ravine, something hard struck the back of her head. She collapsed onto her knees as Angel sprung to action, leaping over her to kick her unseen attacker. Her vision spotted and she slumped onto her chest. The last thing she heard was Angel grunting painfully, then everything went black.
Smiling broadly, James walked into the security office fresh from his routine after-lunch-flirt with Francine, the pretty receptionist. He entered the room and his face went slack. His partner Harold was slumped over the desk. A puddle of drool had collected under his cheek. There was a very fat, black and white rat sitting next to the puddle. When James walked into the room, the rat put its paw in the drool, causing his partner’s body to twitch. Instead of running, the rat stepped calmly back, watching the unconscious man tremble.
Rubbing his eyes hoping they’d clear, James took a step into the room and shut the door to trap the intruder.
The rat took one final bite of Harold’s hamburger and scurried down the prone man’s form, leaping onto the floor. He slipped under the door before James had a chance to react.
James threw the door open and sprinted to the end of the short hallway in hot pursuit of the rat. When he reached the end of the hall, he ran squarely into Francine as she rounded the corner, knocking them both to the ground. Coffee sprayed from the cup she was carrying, showering them both. The scalding liquid burned his chest and he screamed, “Damn it!” at the top of his lungs. Realizing moments too late exactly how horrible the entire scene looked, he hastily apologized to the coffee-sodden, shrieking receptionist.
Stretching, Buffy reclined back as far as the luggage behind her seat would allow. Hope Will hurries up, I want a shower. All day in a convertible, in the desert—it’s a bad. Her gaze fixed on a young Hispanic man in a black Stetson and she sighed. And I can’t believe we’re in Texas. She smiled and winked without thinking when the guy glanced her way. He’s sorta cute.
He turned to make his way over with a broad smile on his face.
As Buffy quickly smoothed her skirt over her legs self-consciously, her expression filled with distress. Oh, hell no! Please no. Go away. I’m so not interested. My life is a thousand times more complicated than—I so don’t need any help. After quickly checking the button-down shirt she tied around her waist to make sure it was covering the orthopedic brace, she tried to look casual.
“Hola, chica,” the Hispanic man said flirtingly, nipping his lower lip suggestively at the end. He removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair, replacing it before he added, “Como estas?”
“’Kay, so…first thing: I don’t speak Spanish, so much more of that and you’re gonna lose me. Second thing: I’m so not interested. It was a total mistake. I’m sorry you wasted your time. Nice to meet you and all, but—” Buffy offered apologetically. Please, oh please, take the hint.
The Hispanic man rested against the top edge of the door with his forearms, leaning partially into the car as though he hadn’t heard her. “You sure? Pretty girl like you here all alone?” After blatantly checking out her cleavage, he glanced at the empty driver’s seat and turned his attention back to the blonde, leering wolfishly.
Buffy shrunk away toward the center of the car, propping herself against the console. Appearing more than a little annoyed, she countered, “Absolutely, completely, one-hundred percent positive. If I were more positive, there’d be a camera crew documenting my sureness for posterity.”
The Hispanic man leaned in a little further and smiled. “I think your man’s being pretty careless, leaving a pretty girl like you here all alone. I may just have to take you for myself if he doesn’t get back soon,” he offered smoothly, reaching in the car to sweep a lock of hair out of the blonde’s face when he finished.
His hand didn’t make it to Buffy’s face. Bearing down on his wrist, she wrenched his hand away and snarled, “Y’know, it really doesn’t pay to be nice.” After taking a deep breath, she continued to explain, “It never seems to get me anywhere but screwed with. So here’s me—not being nice. I tried—I really did, you gotta gimme credit—but touch me, and draw back a stump. Dent the car—and stump. We clear?”
Struggling to wrestle his arm free, he drawled in a slick tone, “Easy, chica, I just want to take you for a test drive.”
“Oh! Eww!” Buffy sputtered and twisted the arm, forcing him out of the car. “A world of ‘no’,” she gasped with marked distress, “A whole, great big, massive ick!” Seconds later, her brow furrowed with confusion and she asked somewhat more calmly, “Jeez! That line actually works?” The disgust on her face changed to amusement and she prompted, “We clear?” clamping down even harder. We’re right on the edge of wrist breakage. I wonder if he’ll grow some smarts.
A tear threatened to slip out and he put his free hand over the blonde’s trying to pry her fingers away. After working futilely to release himself with both hands, the Hispanic man replied, “Clear,” and the blonde let go of his arm.
“’Kay. Bu-bye now,” Buffy chirruped with a smile. Pausing in hopes he’d take the hint, she shook her head and encouraged, “That would be your cue to walk away while you still can,” as he stared dully at his wrist, clenching his fingers repeatedly. I can’t believe I just said that. She watched him take off quickly down the walkway of the strip mall towards a department store. Cute, but not very bright. Seems to be how it goes with boys. Shame really.
Turning back as he moved, the Hispanic man spat, “Puta de mierda loca!” stabbing his finger through the air.
Buffy rolled her eyes vaguely watching him turn back and keep going. Yeah…he’s a real prize. Sorry I let that one go. Bendejo. Grow up in L.A. and you at least learn enough Spanish to know when to run. It’s a thing.
When he finally disappeared into the department store, Buffy turned her attention back to the UPS Store directly in front of the car. Willow was still standing patiently in line. I don’t know why I did that. It’s not like—even if he had been a nice guy—I could’ve done crap about it—not that I would. It was a stupid impulse, just adding to the drama.
Frustration sullied her features and Buffy propped her elbow against the door, taking her head into her hand. More drama: I kissed Will earlier and it was nice, but I so don’t want anything else. I couldn’t—it’d just be pointless right now. Funny thing is, I kissed her and I meant it, but then not— I mean, she so obviously needed something…something nice…I don’t know what I mean. Hell, I don’t even know if I’m gay. I might just be leading her on.
Buffy raked her fingers through her matted hair in disgust, sweeping it out of her face. She’s cute and all, but I’m clueless. Actually Mom was right, she’s pretty much everything—all the stuff I could wish for, except— But right now it’s just stupid to even consider—utterly pointless. Trouble is, I know she needs it. She needs those little bits of reassurance to string her along. Worse, I don’t know what the reassuring’s about. That things will work out fine? That we’ll have some fairy tale romance? I don’t even know that. How am I supposed to reassure her when I don’t even buy it myself? But I love her, so I try.
A bitter smile formed on her face as Buffy watched her friend move to the counter inside the store. It’s funny, there’s this stupid expression, ‘Y’know it went okay—insert whatever ‘it’ fits—if you’re still able to wiggle your toes when it’s over.’ So my question is, what happens when you can’t? What do you do? How do you get over that? ’Cause I’m still clueless. Do you live your life and fall in love like a normal person? Give the person you love half ’cause that’s all you got? Then slowly fade away ’cause half just isn’t enough? I really don’t understand and I wish someone would explain it to me ’cause it seriously wigs me out.
The clerk passed a large, elongated box over the counter to her friend and Buffy slumped back into her seat, trying desperately to recover. It scares the hell out me that someone like her would want to waste her time on a freak like me. A tear slid down her cheek and she disgustedly smeared it away.
Willow lifted the box, tucking it under her arm, and started for the door.
Buffy returned the smile her friend offered her, struggling to make it look genuine. I feel like I’m stuck in a loop. Every time I think about this stuff, I come back to the same couple points. It’s always the same. Yet somehow in all the sameness—the complete shit heap that is my life—she makes me feel special. Like someone actually cares. Someone takes the time to really see me—to try and understand.
Pushing the door open with her back, Willow swung around with a cheerful expression on her face and made her way to the car.
Buffy groaned with disgust, trying desperately to force herself back into character. Then, if we follow the same spiral, I start to feel bad ’cause she could be so much more without a boat anchor like me. That’s actually a perfect way to look at it too. I weigh her down—hold her back. She’d be out there swimming with the dolphins without ‘Boat Anchor Buffy.’
After stowing the package on top of their luggage in the back seat, Willow slid into the driver’s seat and remarked, “There’s a hotel just down the street. I know how much you want to get cleaned up, so—”
Still working a hammer herself into cheerful-mode, Buffy nodded absently.
Willow glanced over as she started the car. The internal debate showed on her face.
Please drop it, Will. No good can come of this and you know it. Buffy gave her friend a mock reassuring smile.
Willow sighed and put the car into reverse, commenting as she backed out of the parking slot, “Tomorrow’s gonna be a long day. I wanna try and hit San Antonio. It’s about 550 miles. Not so much. Anyway, we need to get some rest. I get how crazy this is making you.”
Breathing out a deep sigh to let the remainder of the unrest go, Buffy replied nonchalantly, “’Kay, Will, you’re the one driving.” She pushed her sunglasses back up her nose and offered apologetically, “Sorry. There was this guy and he was—well, he was just crass in new and imaginative ways. It was a thing. I didn’t slay him.” She chuckled amusedly before adding, “I might’ve been doing the female population of El Paso, Texas a huge disservice, but he lived to annoy again another day.”
After looking over to survey her friend, Willow put the car in drive and pulled into the exit lane of the strip mall parking lot before she replied, “I’m glad you allowed him to continue annoying. Okay, so, maybe not so much with the annoying. What is it with some guys?”
Buffy rolled her eyes. Score one for the blonde. Diversion successful, now I just have to keep her talking and it’ll all be good. “Dunno, Will. I have this theory that testosterone causes brain damage, but proving it—it’d be messy. What with the dissection and the—”
Joyce sat at her desk, mindlessly looking through paperwork. She didn’t actually read the words, but it kept her hands moving while her mind circled, My little girl’s gone.
Absently reaching for another stack, merely because she’d unseeingly reached the bottom of the current one, her hand brushed against a small statuette of a figure skater, a treasured gift from an eight-year-old Buffy. She didn’t notice it teeter on the edge of the desk, or it falling off. With the sound of her heart breaking, it shattered on the floor.
She stared at the broken shards of thin porcelain for a few seconds, before breaking down into anguished sobs.
A soft knock sounded, not disturbing the weeping mother.
The door slowly opened a few inches. “Mrs. Summers? Are you all right?” came Giles’ voice from the other side.
“You!” Joyce screamed. She stood and rounded her desk. Throwing the door fully open, she ranted, “You drove my little girl away! You and your stupid—” self-consciously falling short because of the others in the gallery.
A gasp made Giles look over to see the clerk and a customer standing at the front counter, looking at him in shock.
“It’s all your fault!” she accused. She stood there with tear-stained cheeks and the fierce mien of a mother’s righteous indignation.
Giles gently steered Joyce back into her office. “Joyce!” he said sharply, once the door was shut.
Joyce answered tightly, “Giles,” shaking his hands off her.
Giles tried to counter, “You know that isn’t—” falling silent when Joyce cut him off. He put his hands up in a gesture of surrender.
“If it wasn’t for you and your damn council, Buffy’d be home, where she belongs, instead of out there, running across the country.” Her voice was strident, but reserved enough not to carry.
“You know that— I wish it wasn’t necessary just as much as you,” he patiently consoled her.
Tears streamed down her cheeks. “She doesn’t deserve this. Why did this have to happen to her?” Joyce whispered sadly.
“Oh, Joyce.” He reassured her, “She will recover. You have to believe that.”
“No thanks to your damned council,” Joyce growled.
“Wesley and I are doing everything in our power to assure that she does. The quest that Angel and Faith have undertaken should guarantee her recovery. You will have your daughter back, hale and whole.”
Joyce restrained a wince at the mention of the second slayer’s name, asking sadly instead, “But why did she have to leave?” Plaintively, she whispered, “Why does she always leave?” I just got her back. We were just starting to talk again.
“She’ll be back soon,” Giles promised. “Please believe that. We did everything in our power to guarantee their safely. Unfortunately, sometimes that means allowing them license to leave.”
Joyce sank back into her chair, looking poignantly at the fragments of the figurine.
“You must believe in your daughter now. She’s a remarkable young woman. Willow as well. The two of them are fiercely protective of one another. I’m certain that both of them shall return in good health, inordinately pleased with themselves over their grand adventure.”
Joyce nodded with half-hearted agreement. Damn him! He’s right about how pleased she’ll be. She could almost picture the self-satisfied expression on her daughter’s face. It’s not his fault that she’s growing up—that we’ve grown apart.
“The quest the others are on was completed over a thousand years ago by primitive humans; it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for the combined forces of a vampire and a slayer. They’ll return with the means to restore Buffy to full health quite shortly.”
With slightly more conviction, Joyce nodded again. A sigh crept out as she glared at the shards. I refuse to trust Angel and Faith. I know Angel means well, but Faith? How can Rupert expect me to trust the one that caused this to begin with? Place my daughter’s fate in the hands of her enemy? Stifling any outward signs of her inner monologue, she remarked, “I better clean this up before someone gets hurt.” After wiping her eyes with a tissue, she got out a whiskbroom and dustpan.
“Right,” Giles agreed. He stood and went to the door. “I’ll leave you to it, then. And be confident; there’s little to worry about.”
Offhandedly dismissing a portion of what Giles said, Joyce glanced up from where she’d stooped to sweep up the debris. I have to say something. I was just awful. Her voice was laced with sincerity as she offered, “I’m sorry, Rupert. It was just— Honestly, your timing was terrible.”
“Think nothing of it,” Giles returned graciously and made his way out the door.
Joyce watched the door close out of the corner of her eye while she cleaned up the mess. Setting the dustpan on top of the stack of paper on her desk, she stared bleary-eyed down at the tiny shards of porcelain. Giles is welcome to his opinions. The fact is: if something isn’t done I may never see my little girl again. A tear dripped down into the dustpan, mingling with the shattered figurine.
Angel fixed his gaze on a distant, stark-white mountain shrouded in a layer of mist. It was somehow strangely beautiful set against the hazy, orange and yellow hues of the sky. He watched as it gradually slipped from view around a bend in the trail. Then he turned his attention to the top of Faith’s head.
Faith hadn’t moved since the attack and Angel was starting to worry not that there was a lot he could do about it. The demon that had jumped them had lashed them each between two poles. When he woke up, Faith had been tied on top of him so that her head was roughly at his chest level. He hadn’t seen more than a glimpse of the creature and all he could see of Faith was the crown of her head. The rest of her body, like his, appeared to be cocooned between the two poles. The one positive thing about their predicament was that at least he was warmer.
As the make-shift travois swayed with the movement of their captor, Angel grew gradually more angry and desperate. He struggled uselessly against the mesh of tightly-woven, fine fibers that held him in place. Moving anything besides his head was completely impossible. He growled in frustration and the demon surfaced.
Eventually Angel forced himself to calm and his face shifted back to human. He went back to lazily observing the landscape. At least I can keep track of where we are so we can get back if and when we find our way out of this mess.
Time drifted languidly by. The only thing that changed was the view, albeit slowly. The light level had remained unchanged as they traveled. He glanced up to look at the huge, glowing orb directly overhead, unable to view it for more than a second. It was far too large and bright to be similar to the sun he once knew.
They had made it to the bottom of the gorge, traveled half its width, and were crossing a river on a ferry manned by a decrepit old creature similar to their captor. As the two demons interacted, Angel became gradually more uneasy. There was an extremely high-pitched buzzing sound that accompanied their cooperation, sounding in pulses. Angel imagined that this was some sort of communication, but it only served to make him more aware of exactly how alien this place was. The sounds were right on the edge of his ability to hear and were actually giving him a headache.
The river passage gave Angel a better idea how they had been so easily taken. The creature that held them was roughly eight feet tall when fully erect but, despite his great height, he was proportionally very slender. He moved about on four of his six limbs normally, but was able to stand on his back-most legs and use the other four to manipulate things. His entire body was covered with fine, white hair that blended neatly into the landscape. We must’ve walked right past him. The thing that was most striking about their captor was his head. The vaguely insect-like appearance of the rest of his body led to expectation that his head would be insect-like as well, but instead it appeared more mammalian. His large eyes were forward-facing and solid green, with no clear pupils or irises. While a sectioned carapace structure was perceptible, the white, downy layer of fur made him appear dog-like.
Angel grumbled while he watched the two demons work in tandem to move the ferry. These things look weak. They’ve got that mousey sort of appearance that makes you think ‘low end of the food chain.’ If I wasn’t stacked here like cord wood with my wacky slayer pal I could probably kill them both myself.
As the demon stretched to reach the other dock and tow the ferry inland, Angel spied something unusual. Between the two main sections of the creature’s body was a clear chunk of something foreign embedded in the soft tissue. Angel peered at the oddity, watching the insect-demon’s internal organs work through the strange view port. When the creature resumed his normal stance, the crystalline growth was once again hidden by his carapace. Okay that was weird.
Their captor raised them up to continue on his way and Faith started to come around. The only remark Angel made was, “Don’t bother. Save your strength.”
Faith groaned weakly in reply.
Angel watched the slayer’s head move, surveying their current predicament as they set off again being towed. Soon they were ascending the other side of the ravine and Faith was significantly more alert, though uncharacteristically silent. Angel felt her thrash, despite the advice not to, and could hardly blame her. He could feel the anger welling up inside her. Maybe she’ll have more luck than I did. I can hope. If she does, I have little doubt she’ll kick bug-boy’s ass. And, with any luck, when she’s done making a meal of him, she won’t do the same to me.
Gradually the buzzing noises returned as they rose. Instead of just two separate voices, there were many. They grew louder the farther up the trail they climbed. “Do you hear that, Faith?” Angel asked in a soft careful voice.
Faith stopped struggling just long enough to say, “Hear what?” and went back to trying to break free.
“Nothing,” Angel replied sullenly. Hope she manages to do whatever she plans to do soon. We’re about to have a lot of company. Time slipped away again. Faith’s efforts and the growing din encouraged him to begin again with his own attempt at escape. At least time passes by faster if you’re doing something. He was no closer to breaking free when the cottony treetops came into view on the other side of the canyon. He made a vague mental note as he thrashed. That’s where we arrived.
The slight buzz had turned into a veritable symphony of annoying noises that made Angel feel like his head might explode at any second. He was desperate to put his hands to his ears, but no closer to being able to move. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of these demons lay dead ahead on their current path, though all he could see was the misty layer of haze that hung above the canyon and crept into the forest beyond. When they crested the top of the plateau, the distant, majestic-looking mountain he’d seen earlier peeked up from behind a column of craggy, green rock that rose up from the canyon floor. Again I’m thinking beautiful, but this is the nastiest place I’ve ever been in my life.
Movement ahead made him tense. Then suddenly he and Faith were falling. As they crashed to the ground, Angel reeled and tried to make sense of what was happening. Glancing left and right, his gaze fixed on the head of their captor lying detached from his body in a thick puddle of milky-blue liquid. In no way is that a good sign.
Angel observed their new captor lean over and rip the eyes out of their previous captor’s head. The two demons were similar in many ways, but there was a sinister, capable appearance to the new threat that made Angel extremely apprehensive. Loud cracking noises issued from above his head and he reflexively winced.
A sick feeling in the pit of his stomach accompanied their being lifted from the ground. Angel watched the body of their previous captor disappear from view as they moved down the trail. There was a gaping hole in his side about where the crystalline growth had been located. The same milky-blue fluid seeped from the hole, pooling on the white ground under his body.
All too soon they were passing through a pair of heavy gates. The symphony became a piercing wail once they passed inside the walls. Angel briefly clamped his eyes shut desperate to cover his ears. Similar demons of all shapes, sizes and colors swirled around them. Some stopped to peer at them with puzzlement, or with marked greed.
I just hope we’re not a delicacy or this could be a really short trip. They changed directions, passing between slabs of rock that were being used as tables to display a variety of colorful odd looking wares. Demons were gesturing animatedly at one another, obviously haggling over prices. Yeah, maybe we’ll get lucky and be sold to the one stupid bug-dog-demon thing in all of Hell, so we can escape and… Dream on. We’re screwed.
Quickly enough, they were on a table being bartered for. Angel couldn’t see the potential buyer. He prayed that it wouldn’t be as nasty as their current captor. The build of this creature screamed ‘fighter.’ The demon looked as though he were made to remove heads. There was one truly strange thing about his appearance that jumped out at the vampire. On his right, top-most arm was a very human-looking hand where there should’ve been a sharp, three-fingered claw. The demon used this appendage with marked dexterity to manipulate small items, while the claws on the other three arms appeared to be built-in weapons.
Angel watched the demon, who had been their temporary captor, draw still. They appeared to have settled on a price. A pile of strangely shaped rocks slid across the table toward their captor. He picked them up in the human-looking hand and walked away.
Faith’s voice was thick with anxiety as she asked in a hushed tone, “Did I just see what I think I saw?”
Angel clamped his eye shut again to concentrate through the din. “If you think you saw us being sold for a handful of rocks, then yes,” he replied, carefully muting any edginess from his voice.
“We’re screwed,” Faith commented aridly.
A strange sensation caused Buffy to stir. She groaned and cracked her eyes. After glancing around the dimly lit hotel room for only an instant before she prompted, “Will, wake up.” It felt like ants were crawling all over the arch of her right foot. She was too groggy to immediately put the pieces together, instead it annoyed her. When she started to speak again, “Please, Wiill…” the details connected and she sprang to sitting position, tossing Willow carelessly aside.
Willow came to rest near the edge of the bed. After rolling grumpily onto her side, she croaked, “Wha—?”
Buffy was torn between annoyance, amazement, and sheepishness for having thrown Willow. Finally, she managed to offer feebly, “My foot,” glancing over at her friend.
Willow appeared completely puzzled, even in the low light. “Huh? What foot?” It took her a few moments to process what was happening. She studied the expression on the blonde’s face carefully before she sat up and drew the covers back. After moving down to the bottom of the bed, she took Buffy’s right foot in her hand and began to rub it, questioning with marked curiosity, “Where?”
Buffy was near tears when she responded, “Mostly along the arch, but I can sorta feel my toes too.” The sensations were strange and distant, but there.
Ceasing the gentle massage, Willow asked, “Can you move your toes?”
“I dunno.” Buffy closed her eyes and focused on what she could feel of her foot, wrestling internally with forcing movement from the injured limb. After several moments of strained effort, she released the breath she’d unconsciously been holding as if admitting defeat.
“It won’t all come back at once, Buffy, but this is good. This is really, really good.”
Buffy didn’t need to open her eyes to understand what Willow was feeling—the emotion ran thick in her voice—she was happy, a little too happy. She listened to the stifled sounds of her friend’s weeping. Moments later, when the gentle caress resumed, the slayer surrendered to her tears.
Faith was alone in the dark box, still strapped to the poles she’d been bound to when she regained consciousness. It seemed like hours had passed since Angel had been removed and taken away. An old familiar feeling was consuming her: fear. In the past, fear had been like a friend to her. It had brought feelings of desperation, then finally anger. Anger was something she could’ve worked with. Somehow the wires in her brain had crossed this time and she wasn’t angry. Instead, feelings of weakness and terror threatened to consume her. She could barely form coherent thoughts and the ones that did form were the stuff of twisted nightmares.
Finally, the box slid open again and she was ripped from isolation. She caught a glimpse of a black head crowned with spines and oversized, reflective black eyes as she slid into the light. Then the demon turned away, sweeping up one of the poles to drag her along behind him. The crippling terror leapt up, causing her to hyperventilate. She struggled to regain control.
When they came to a halt, the demon came briefly into view again when Faith was lifted onto a clear slab that reminded her of an ice cube. She was centered on the slab and the demon moved out of view. All she could recall of what she’d seen were large black eyes that looked like chunks of obsidian; the rest had been a blur of darkly hued movement. Looking up, her vision spotted against the blinding white light overhead. When she tried to turn and glance around the room, something seized the top of her head, clamping it into place. Defensively, she closed her eyes against the light.
A pointed object pressed against her chest and ran with mechanical precision down to her groin, laying open all the layers of restraint and clothing down to bare skin. A rush of bitter cold caused her body to thrash, exposing her even more. Agonizing pain coursed through her each time she touched the table with her arms or legs. As she flailed her limbs, searching for something to grab onto, they were seized one at a time and clamped down, until she could no longer move. The remains of clothing were ripped from underneath her and the frigid slab contacted her bare skin. The pain went away when she came to rest.
Her teeth chattered as something was forced into her mouth. She gagged as the invading object snaked down her throat. Breathing came with mechanical ease after the object was inserted and she no longer felt like she was suffocating.
Tentatively, Faith tried desperately to open her eyes again. She caught a glimpse of a mechanical arm reaching down before she was forced to close them again by the overwhelming light. A scream caught in her throat as a sharp object pressed against her breast bone. The excruciating pain blurred as the blade cut into her, finally turning muddy when she succumbed to unconsciousness.
Seemingly unfazed by the absence of clothing, Angel rolled painfully onto his back. He was cold, but not terribly so. His chest ached. Opening his eyes, he peered muzzily down at the new, white skin that was growing in place of the section the demon had removed. It was a perfect oval, right in the center of his chest. He removed my sternum and cracked my chest. I passed out when he spread my ribs. Wonder why he stopped? Must’ve been the chunk of dead meat that passes for my heart.
Oh God! I hope he’s not doing that to Faith! Desperation set in and Angel started to move with difficulty. After propping himself up on his elbows, his attention turned to looking around the featureless, square cell. His gaze fixed on the rough, clear bars that enclosed the front and one side of his prison. A coarse-rock walled hallway and two additional cells were all that was visible beyond the perimeter.
I’m not alone. Two cells down, another man lay curled in a ball, sleeping on the glossy, white stone floor. Before Angel could react, a loud clank echoed from the other side of the wall, causing the strange man to jump to his feet. Angel remained silent when he got a good look at the man’s chest; in the center was a clear port like he’d seen on their first captor. His eyes fixed on the perfect oval window. His expression sagged with disbelief as he watched the man’s heart beat and lungs move. The tissue around the port had long ago healed, fusing to the implant.
They studied each other for what seemed like an eternity before Angel came back to his senses and asked, “How long have you been here?”
Movement on the other side of the solid wall caused the strange man to shrink into the back corner of his cell.
Angel rose to his feet, standing ready for attack as the demon moved into view, dragging Faith along behind him by her ankle. Unlike the previous two, this demon moved on his hind legs, standing erect like a man. He wasn’t much taller than Angel himself, but there was an air of sophistication about him that was lacking in the earlier examples.
Angel’s attention quickly turned to Faith when it occurred to him that sizing up their captor was the last thing he should be worried about. The demon waved his hand and the bars on the empty cell slid into the floor and ceiling. Once they were clear, he slung her limp body into the empty cell and walked away. Angel moved to the edge of his cell to get a better look.
Faith’s skin tone hand an unhealthy blue cast to it. Angel quickly became aware that he couldn’t see her heart beating through the view port between her breasts but, with the bars separating them, there was nothing he could do. She’s dead. Shock and desperate powerlessness consumed him as he stared at the lifeless organs.
Clicking noises issued from beyond the wall and the hair on Angel’s body stood on end. As the air around them charged, the port in the center of Faith’s chest began to emit a low luminescence. He stared helplessly at the slayer, relieved to see her heart stir slowly to life. When she gasped and choked, clutching her arms to her chest, Angel was struck with sudden awareness that something else was very wrong. Both of her hands were missing.
Angel’s mouth fell open in alarm. He peered up at the strange man in the next cell. His eyes fixed on the boney looking, partially re-grown hands graphed to the stumps at the end of the man’s arms. The growths were unlike anything he’d ever seen, the tendons were corded blue fiber and the bones looked clear and cloudy. A milky-white layer of outer skin had just begun to form on the man’s right hand. The tendons underneath were clearly visible through the thin epidermis.
After several moments of dumbfounded study, Angel’s attention returned to the slayer. Something strange was happening to her. The clear port began to blur with a strange, black, misty substance. He glanced up to look at the clear port in the center of the other man’s chest, quickly turning back to Faith. The port continued to cloud over until it was completely black and opaque. Fine tendrils of black fiber began to grow out of the oval implant, cording and weaving randomly together as they snaked across her breasts.
Angel leaned forward against the bars while he watched the thin fibers cover their host, yelping when a jolt hit him, knocking him to his knees. He slumped, reflexively gasping at the severe pain the unconscious action had caused. Once he managed to climb to his feet again, Faith’s chest was entirely encased in a corded, translucent, matte-black cocoon. The hair-fine fibers continued to trail outward. He observed with interest as they coiled into her navel, emerging on the other side, leaving behind a thin black coating that clung tightly to her skin.
Shame reflected on his features while he studied the metamorphosis. It was like watching a train wreck. No matter how much he wanted to, Angel couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away.
Damning himself to avert his eyes, Angel turned his attention to the bloody stumps where her hands had once been. As the black fibers crept down her arm, he found himself once again praying that her hands would return. I should know better. Praying and vampires—it’s a bad combination. When the fibers reached the ends of her arms, they wove around the stumps and stopped. Damn it! No good ever comes of my praying.
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