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.
FEEDBACK: valyssia[at]gmail.com
ARCHIVING: A master list of my fiction can be found here. Please do not archive or distribute without my permission.

By Valyssia

Chapter 9 - The Lame and the Blind

Still wet from the shower, Buffy tugged modestly at her robe and lay down on the bed. After glancing over at the medical text her friend was reading, she struggled to control the anxiety she was feeling by closing her eyes and metering her breathing. Finally, she asked in an arid tone, “Are you sure about this?”

Willow glanced up from her book just long enough to reply, “Positive.”

Buffy started to counter, “But, Will—” then broke off, hearing the argument again in her head. She’s right, it needs to happen. It’s not like I want to wear this thing for one minute more than I have to. Now that I can sorta feel the bag and—it’s a major bad. I came within inches of removing it in the shower. But again, she’s right: careful is a good.

Willow took one look at the blonde and blushed deep red, then began to babble nervously, “I’m really sorry, Buffy. I just can’t think of any other way to— Well, you could do it yourself. I could tell you how. It’s not hard, but then they say there might be pain and well…I’m not sure you want to—what, with the painful—I’m not sure I want to, with the—”

“It’s okay, Wi—” Buffy tried to interject but quickly fell silent when the former redhead cut her off. Oh boy. My life just wasn’t quite interesting enough. I can just imagine how much fun the ’spainy would be. Might be amusing, but I think I’ll take a pass. Over with—like right now—it’s a total plan.

“I mean, it’s not like I can’t do it—I can—you could,” Willow stammered nervously. Taking a deep calming breath, she added, “This should be our last night on the road. When we get to New Orleans, I’ll sit down and setup medical records for you, but right now there’d just be too many questions. I didn’t expect this so soon, so…umm…yeah.” She shrugged. “You could wait.”

After glaring at her friend for only an instant to express her distaste, Buffy broke into a smile meant to reassure. When it had exactly the opposite effect, she couldn’t help but tease, “Gee, Will, I think Xander was right.”

Willow couldn’t have looked more nervous as she stammered, “Ah—about what?”

“It’s just—the whole ‘playing doctor’ thing—” her friend’s pout made Buffy giggle “—you totally missed the point…or at least you missed the ‘bedside manner’ part of the game,” she commented, becoming gradually more amused as she spoke. At least she’ll be in the right area this time. Baby-steps for our Willow. We get her in the right neighborhood, and then—

Pouting, Willow poked the blonde in the side and replied defensively, “Be nice to me,” returning to her book.

When her friend eventually placed a towel between them, gesturing for her to move, Buffy parted her robe and complied. After letting go the breath she was holding, she ignored the thick swallowing noise Willow made and shut her eyes.

Trying to get her mind off what was happening; Buffy reflected in a distant tone, “I’m still not sure I get this. Why so sudden? And why’s it all broken up? I mean I can feel most of my thigh, calf and foot—” she stifled the urge to gasp when her friend touched her “—but not my knee. And the feeling—it’s all patchy and weird—pins and needles sorta stuff in places. It makes all kind of the sense that’s not. I sorta thought it’d be a ‘top down’ kinda thing when I got it back.” ’Kay, so…why am I praying for the painful to start? It’d be so much easier—’cause my brain…it’s turning to mush. And well…is she answering because, well—? Would I know if she was? The contact went away and she breathed a sigh of relief. Thank god that’s over! Awkward much?

“’Kay, all done,” Willow said as she rose from the bed and moved away toward the bathroom still speaking, “So, yeah…it’s gonna be random and weird.”

If she ever touches me there again it’ll be ’cause I’m showing her the right way to ‘play doctor.’ Buffy lifted herself up with her one good leg and pulled the towel away, tossing it on the floor. Not that I’m overly cluesome, but— As she lowered her pelvis back to the bed, she drew her robe closed and smoothed it down. At least that stupid thing’s gone. I’m almost human again.

Willow returned to the room, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. “It’s only been ten days, Buffy. I didn’t expect you to—but then that was the point—why no one would say. I read a case file online about a guy who took ten years to heal from a similar injury. It’s just different for everyone. Some people take six months, others years. Then there’s the whole ‘slayer’ thing. I only found one case.” Continuing without pause, her voice fell off to barely a whisper, “It was buried and the language was very cryptic. I got the idea” — turning choked — “sh-she died shortly after. It was bad.”

Buffy glanced up to see her friend wiping away a tear and offered reassuringly, “S’okay, Will. That’s not me.” She sighed before adding, “Only because of you, though.” When what she said was met with only brooding silence, Buffy rose from the bed and grabbed her crutches. “I’m gonna go get ready for bed. Thanks for—”

Willow nodded vaguely.

After quickly getting into a pair of sleep shorts and an oversized tee-shirt, Buffy returned to the room to find Willow already curled up in bed with the lights out. She leaned her crutches against the wall and slipped into bed, pulling her friend up close. I dunno exactly why or how, but ‘not sleeping alone’ has been a major good. It’s only been a few days, but it feels like weeks since I was near anything that felt like home except her. I need—I miss it. Homesick for a place that lies over the mouth of hell. Go figure.  “So, would you explain that again? I sorta lost you somewhere between the—and the—”

Nuzzling into the slope of the blonde’s shoulder, Willow gasped, “Oh,” and breathed a deep sigh.

Buffy could feel the smile form on her friend’s face and giggled in response. “Umm…yeah…now that you’re not—would you mind repeating the answer for those of us who weren’t in the room?”

“Weren’t in the room? I’m not sure whether to be flattered or upset.”

“It was distracting, ’kay?” Buffy replied dryly as she absently ran her nails over Willow’s back. Hope she’s not getting the wrong idea. She fell still at the thought.

Willow snickered and said, “’Kay,” growing obviously more pensive before she responded, “All that stuff—the sexual stuff and, well—it’s controlled from the sacral region of the spine. In other words the very, very bottom—the part that attaches to your hips. Swelling pinched it off. No more swelling and—”

“A much happier Buffy,” the blonde filled in with a chuckle.

“Yup,” Willow confirmed as she rolled onto her back. “The rest of it is that the actual injury was to the region of the spine that controls the knee. I’m not sure how it’ll go from here. I know that some of the fadey weirdness you’ve been complaining of is probably from residual swelling” — she turned onto her other side, facing away from her friend — “but—well, we’re back to not really being able to speculate.” She yawned deeply as the blonde tucked in behind her. “The thing that was seriously weird was the ‘just one side.’ I mean, I’ve read lots of other cases now, but ‘one side’ is just strange.”

Buffy wrapped her arm around her friend’s slender waist and took her hand, setting in for sleep. “How many of those were people that got shot with an arrow? Seems like it’d be a pretty rare thing.”

“None,” Willow answered simply, then quickly continued to fill in, “Lots of broken backs. Lots of gunshot wounds. Sorta similar, but lots faster and a much smaller projectile. Because of the faster, I’m guessing there’d be a lot more trauma.”

“Doesn’t seem like it’d be even close to the same,” Buffy whispered. Sighing softly before she admitted, “I have flashes of numbness in the left leg too, when I move sometimes. I didn’t want to worry, so—and what with the—it just didn’t seem important.” She released Willow’s hand just long enough to sweep the hair away from the nape of her friend’s neck. “It worries me, but because it’s so random I sorta guessed it was pinching. The brace—the one around my middle—helps a bunch. It’s pretty rare.”

Willow exhaled sharply as though she were holding her breath. When she finally replied her tone was so even it sounded forced, “You should keep wearing that for a bit. Even if—I know it can’t be comfortable.”

After letting go of her friend’s hand again, Buffy knocked on the hard plastic brace and whispered, “Not taking it off,” reclaiming the hand, “Well, just to dry it. The numbness—it’s a bad sign.” What’s worse, I totally get the wig. I wasn’t worried about it then, but now—it’d be good if it never happened again.

Willow gently pulled on the arm around her waist, forcing the blonde closer as she whispered, “’Kay. Be careful. I want you all better.”

Yielding to the demand for more contact, Buffy tucked her good knee in behind her friend’s. Awareness that her hand was between Willow’s breasts made her slightly uneasy. Well, so much for the right messages. So much for—I can’t exactly pull away. Well, I could, but she probably doesn’t realize and it’d wig her out worse. Struggling to keep her tone neutral, she answered, “I’ll be careful. Promise,” and forced a sleepy yawn. Sleep’s a good. I’ll be able to get my hand back.

“You better,” Willow mumbled drowsily.

Faith dimly focused on her surroundings, barely aware of her own shrill, agonized shrieking. Not opening her eyes, she curled into a tight ball. The entire surface of her skin felt like it was being grated away as she moved. Pain shot from her hands and she raised them to eyelevel. Her eyes snapped open. Another terrified scream poured out as she recognized they were gone.

Praying that the nightmare would end, Faith blinked. When she opened her eyes again nothing had changed. After several moments of grappling with what she saw, her gaze traveled up the surface of her arms. The weave of black wires that covered the stumps of her wrists coated her entire form. She forced herself to a sitting position, feeling the anguish intensify. It was like she was wearing a body suit that was three sizes too small. Every time she shifted around, thousands of fine wires ground into her skin.

As she moved, a matted clump of blood-soaked hair stuck to her face, partially covering one eye. Without thinking, Faith tried to sweep it away. The stump at the end of her arm contacted the mesh covering her face and she screamed again.

“Faith! Stop moving!”

The words repeated over and over. Faith couldn’t make sense of them. Peering down at herself in a state of panic, she finally understood why Angel was screaming at her. She was sitting in a puddle of blood. With every movement the puddle grew. Raising her arm, she watched blood drip from her elbow.

Her senses dimmed. She was barely aware she was falling until she struck the floor. Then everything went mercifully black.

Willow lingered behind the young porter who was carrying their luggage to their rooms to wait for her friend. Stairs and Buffy—they just don’t mix well yet. She understood that part of the slowness was simply the blonde’s nature. She was dawdling to take in the almost two-hundred-year-old manor. At least we’re finally here. Getting lost didn’t help. I’m beat. I could sleep for a week.

“Are you sure this isn’t a bit much?” Buffy whispered into her friend’s ear.

Willow shrugged before replying in a muted tone, “I booked in advance and it’s an off-season. It wasn’t that bad. Really, it was only a little more than a hotel.”

Buffy smiled cheerfully and continued to look around as they made their way up the stairs.

The porter passed them on the winding staircase as he went to get the rest of their luggage, tipping his hat politely.

When they eventually made it past all of the crystal chandeliers and beautiful antiques to their rooms, Willow remarked, “Pick which room you want. I really don’t care,” struggling to suppress a smile when the blonde’s face sagged with confusion.

“I thought—I mean, on the road we sorta—I thought it’d be the—”

Smiling on the inside, Willow said, “I thought you’d want your own room, Buffy. I guess we could change it if you wanted. I dunno with the advanced booking. Want me to go ask?” I stopped getting rooms with two beds ’cause she kept just crawling in bed with me. It seemed like a waste. She stood in the hallway patiently waiting for the blonde to decide which room she liked better. She’s either really, really clingy ’cause of the homesickness, or really, really confused. Probably a little of both, and not feeling good because of her leg. What I read about that said one thing to me: unpleasant. Letting her decide what she wants is best.

Buffy poked her head out of the room on the right long enough to say, “I like this one,” and disappeared back inside.

Following dutifully, Willow looked around at the large four-poster bed and the sitting area with two Victorian style chairs. “So are we keeping both?” she asked patiently.

After taking a seat in a chair next to the marble fireplace, Buffy replied, “I dunno, Will. I sort of got used to you, but if you want your own room I totally understand.”

Moving the crutch aside, Willow sat in the chair next to the blonde and offered honestly, “It wasn’t for me. I just didn’t want to be pushy…what with the weirdness.”

Buffy’s gaze fixed on the painting above the mantel as she said sullenly, “I get it.”

Willow got up, speaking as she moved to the door, “I’ll go talk with the nice man at the front desk. You have the porter move all the bags in here.” Turning to smile and wink before she left the room, she added, “It’s no big.”

“’Kay,” Buffy replied with a distant expression on her face.

Angel pulled his knees up to his chest, dropping his head in his hands. He could still smell the blood. Though her skin had slowly grown back over the mesh of wire, Faith still reeked of it. It was in her hair, caked on her lips, even the soft tissues of her groin smelled rich with the life giving stuff. He listened to the sounds of her whimpering from the next cell.

Angel glanced up just long enough to make eye contact with the strange man, taking in the fresh bruises forming on his chest and jaw. I wonder if she realizes how many days she was actually in his cell before he touched her. He’s barely spoken a word, but the few he’s said sounded like Scandinavian. Once we figured out that communication wasn’t going to be possible, he clammed up. It’s like he’s watching and listening—waiting for something.

Suddenly, as if in answer to a prayer, water began to rain from the ceiling, purging the smells. Angel looked up into the fine, chilly mist and began to tremble.

Turning his attention to the slayer, Angel watched her shiver and weep. She probably doesn’t remember much. How do I even begin to tell her about that thing replacing her implant? Once was bad enough. Would it be better if all that just stayed in the realm of nightmare? Probably. If she asks, I’ll tell her; if she doesn’t, I won’t.

When the water stopped falling, Faith sprang to her feet and screamed, “What am I?”

The sudden movement caused Angel to flinch. Then he looked up in disbelief as the slayer struck the rough bars between their cells. The skin on her forearms ripped away. A charge coursed through the remaining water. He jumped to his feet, but it did little good. He was knocked to his knees again before she struck the bars a second time. “Faith! Sto—” he tried to say before she hit the bars again.

Faith grabbed the bars with her boney, black hands and asked again, “What am I?”

Doubling over in agony, Angel couldn’t answer. When the slayer finally backed away from the bars, he scrambled to the other side of his cell and looked up. She was staring at him expectantly. The smell of fresh blood made him cringe. He cupped the cracking skin of his hand over his mouth before he answered, “Faith: the vampire slayer.” It was the only thing he knew to say. He blinked as the torn, charred skin on her arms sealed over the gore-drenched black mesh right before his eyes.

“No,” Faith screamed, “What am I?” tearing the skin from her upper arm with a boney finger as she raged.

Angel peered up into her frightened face and replied, “I don’t know, Faith.” As he studied the slayer, she fell to the ground again, starting to sob and sway back and forth. Frightening—frightening is what you are.

Giles took in the crestfallen appearance of the younger Englishman as he exited the office. This promises to be terrible news. He needn’t say a word.

“Toby extends his condolences,” Wesley muttered en route to the counter where Giles was cataloging the final few returned texts before replacing them on their shelves.

Dropping the book he had in hand, Giles choked “He what—?”

Wesley leaned against the counter, meeting the gaze of his senior before he explained, “Apparently a new slayer was called several days ago and the council, in its infinite wisdom, did not see fit to inform us.”

Without further comment, Giles took off in a mad dash towards the door.

Leaning forward in the chair, Buffy dropped her face in her hands and peered gloomily at the oriental area rug. I dunno what I was thinking. Night before last, I’m freaking—’kay, so…that’s a bit overstated—I’m uncomfortable because my hand ended up somewhere—umm…uncomfortable. I wish I could ask Mom if this brain damage runs in the family, ’cause it’s seriously unflattering. It’d be nice to have someone to blame.

Buffy groaned and swept her hand through her hair, appearing completely annoyed. We get here and I start feeling abandoned. Abandoned? And just ’cause she got two rooms? I need to get this figured ’cause I’m seriously making it worse.

Slouching forward again with her forearms on her thighs, Buffy peered down at the bracelet Willow had given her. Funny thing, I’ve been a complete nightmare and I know it. Through the whole thing, she’s been nothing but sweet. It’s not like I didn’t see it or— No huge revelations—just people telling me the obvious—even Mom, which was totally wiggy. She’s in love. Completely one-hundred percent hooked… A wistful sigh slipped out. On me. Buffy bit her lower lip. The watching makes it different. She’s even—she showed me—she keeps showing me. It’s really subtle, too—gentle.

Not really focusing on anything, Buffy began to play with the bracelet, watching the light reflect off the silver and tiny gem stones. It had everything to do with that night…and yet nothing at all. The hard part—the confusing and painful part—I love her too. I always have. But I’m not sure what that means. I need to figure it out…and fast. Hurting her—it’s so not in the plan.

The bathroom door cracked open and Buffy stirred from her reverie. When she caught sight of her friend, shock caused her face to sag with uncertainty. What’d—?

Willow entered the room smiling deviously.

The grin did nothing to calm Buffy as she looked over the black, strapped corset with a deep-crimson, plaid appliqué on the front and leather belts at the waist. Her gaze traveled down to the black, lacy, ruffled mini skirt and ripped fishnet stockings, resting on the black, high-heeled platform boots laced through a series of silver o-rings. Finally she looked up at the heavy, black eye makeup and deep-red lipstick her friend wore. The red streaks in her shaggy, rumpled, black hair were the final touch.

Where’d she put my Willow? I know I keep asking that, but— What the hell? I get the goth, but…umm…wow! Hearing and seeing— Again with the totally different. I guess there sorta was that once, but that wasn’t my Willow. You don’t suppose she got turned in the bathroom? She was gone a long time. Nah…probably took her at least half an hour to stuff herself into that corset. Wardrobe should seriously start sending out memos ’cause the freaking…it’s not flattering. Recovering enough to speak, Buffy snarked, “So, the blue tinge—is that makeup or are you having trouble breathing?” and started to giggle.

Willow rolled her eyes and commented dryly, “Your clothes are in the bathroom.”

Uh-boy…this should be funny. Buffy rose to her feet and limped gingerly across the room, winking before she disappeared through the doorway. Whoa! That was different. Let’s see what sort of punishment I earned. More of the funny, Will actually looks good in whatever she wears. Me? A blonde goth chick? This should be… Her gaze came to rest on a very plain pair of black leather pants that looked like they’d fit her tight at the hips but flared just enough at the leg to allow her to wear the brace underneath. Hanging on top of them was a corset, in a similar crimson plaid to the one Willow wore, that looked very much like a men’s suit vest. She examined it and decided that the brace from the hospital could go provided she was careful. Rounding out the ensemble was a pair of practical looking, black Doc Martens boots and black nylons to keep the brace away from her skin.

Buffy removed her robe and began to dress while she listened to Willow speak from the bedroom.

“You should get the ‘why,’ Buffy.”

Buffy called out as she sat and slipped on the nylons, “I do. Doesn’t make it— It’s just different, Will. You look—well…umm…you look amazing—” she sighed and lowered her voice “—but it’s just weird.” When no comment was returned, she asked, “When did you go shopping?” She put the leg brace on next, then struggled a little to get the leather pants on over it while her friend responded.

“Back in Sunnydale. I actually stumbled across this, surfing months ago. I thought I gave you the details?”

“You did.” Buffy winced as she recalled the one memory that would probably never fade: a police evidence photograph of a mangled, half-eaten female torso, partly buried in silt and tangled with debris, that had washed up in the Mississippi bayou. They were vacationing in New Orleans for Mardi Gras two years ago. Janet Williams was identified by a birthmark and distinctive tattoo. The case was never solved. Her partner, Alison Rouche, went missing at the same time. When Janet’s body was identified, Alison was presumed dead too. They were the one mistake—the two people that were actually missed.

“What, with all that happened, it just seemed like the thing to do—a way to do some good. I don’t think this is mystical. I think it’s a human predator. I could be wrong, but it just doesn’t seem right. Vamps sort of feed on whatever; this thing’s smart. It preys on a group of people that won’t be missed. In fact, kids like this are sort of expected to come up missing.”

“Yeah…I get it.” After putting the corset over her head, Buffy removed the hospital brace and cinched the corset down as best she could without twisting.

“Thing is, ’cause the disappearances are happening in a few different towns—Mobile, Houston, and here—the cops haven’t clued to them being linked. But they’re all the same. All these women had three distinguishing features: young, lesbian, and riot grrl or goth—the sorta people that most of Middle America doesn’t care much about. Most of them are just labeled ‘missing’ because of the not caring.” After a short pause, Willow added, “Well, that and the whole lack of physical evidence.”

“Will, would you come help me out for a sec?” Buffy asked as she stood and zipped up the leather pants.

Willow entered the bathroom and, without prompting, began to tighten the corset.

When her friend was done, she winked and walked out of the room, leaving Buffy to finish. After taking a seat on the bench again to try and put on her shoes, Buffy found that she couldn’t reach her feet. Oops! I should’ve put the shoes on before the corset, ’cause touching my toes—it’s not gonna happen. Oh well, I’ll get Will to help once I’m done. A snicker slipped out and she stood to do her hair and makeup.

Several minutes of silence passed, trying to make conversation, Buffy called out, “So, do you just spend your time looking for stuff like this? Is there some sorta twisted hobby I should clue into?”

A bit perplexed by the lack of response, Buffy poked her head out the door to see Willow on the emergency cell phone. Oh shit! Her mind raced. That was supposed to be—are we being called home? She gave her friend a questioning glare and received the phone for her effort. “Mom?” This so can’t be good. She’s wouldn’t call just to check in, would she? Buffy tensed at the thought. Doesn’t she trust us? I mean she knows this is—we’ve only got so many minutes before we have to give Topp Telecom a credit card number. Then these things are totally useless—we may as well hang a neon sign.

“Buffy? Oh god, it’s good to hear your voice,” Joyce replied, her tone thick with worry.

“Is everything alright? Do we need to come back?” Buffy asked anxiously.

“No, dear,” Joyce replied simply. A nervous intake of air caused the phone to hiss and she continued, “I’m not sure how to tell you this, but Mr. Giles is here and he says that Wesley discovered through a council contact that a new…” Unable to complete the statement, she trailed off.

Buffy puzzled for only a moment and prompted, “A new slayer?”


Struggling to catch up, Buffy fell silent for a short time, finally remarking, “You know that doesn’t—” she sighed “—it doesn’t mean she’s dead. I mean she could’ve—” Her voice failed mid-thought.

“I know, dear,” Joyce responded, “It’s good to hear your voice, but we should—”

“It’s good to hear yours too. Mom, I miss you,” Buffy offered, making eye contact with an expectant-looking Willow. “We miss you,” she amended, “And Giles…and Xander. I’m not quite to the point of missing Wesley or Cordelia yet, but give it time…and give the first two our love.”

“I will. I love you.” Joyce’s voice sounded choked with emotion.

“I love you too, Mom,” Buffy replied, struggling to keep her tone more reserved. The desire for contact won out and she offered, “We’re fine—actually, a little better than. I’m walking again. Well, limping, but— Not perfect, but good—better than I expected,” trying to reassure her mother.

“That’s wonderful news, honey.”

Buffy glanced up to see her friend looking at her watch. “Mom, y’know I don’t want to, but—” Saying goodbye—? I can’t—I can’t let myself think this is the end, but we’ve only got so much and this is gone. I don’t want to be pushy. Mom’s got the facts, same as me.

“You take care of Willow. Her parents are beside themselves with worry.”

“I will.” Buffy didn’t want to press the disconnect button, but she finally forced herself to. It took them long enough to notice. Stupid people.

“Faith died?”

Buffy didn’t take her eyes off the cell phone for several moments. She wasn’t sure what to make of the news, or even the tone of her friend’s voice. There was something strange about it she couldn’t place. More confusion—like I needed more. When she finally tore her gaze from the phone, Willow was observing her keenly again. She handed the phone back and replied, “Yeah,” in a monotone voice, turning back to finish her makeup. She was standing in front of the mirror minutes later putting on a thick layer of eyeliner, when she sensed her friend approaching. “I can’t tell you why, but I don’t think she’s dead,” Buffy offered reassuringly.

Willow confirmed, “I know,” with a light, habitual tap on the door. After stepping inside, she remarked offhandedly, “Probably bad timing—in fact, definitely bad timing and I’m gonna have to stop doing this ’cause you’re gonna get more impossible than you already are, but here—” she handed Buffy an elegant, slender, hawthorn cane with a turned knob handle and a silver tip and collar “—I thought it might be useful.”

“Thank you, Will. It’s beautiful.” Buffy accepted the cane and examined it before leaning it against the wall. Smiling, she pulled her friend into an embrace. Leaning back to make eye contact, she prompted, “Okay, so…you plan to explain?”

Willow asked, “The gift?” looking puzzled, “You needed one…or you were going to—”

Buffy rolled her eyes and made a hand gesture to indicate her friend should ‘try again.’

Withdrawing from the hug, Willow shrugged and replied in an almost disinterested fashion, “Oh, Faith? I tagged her. Well, sorta. I put a protection spell on her. If she died for more than a few minutes I’d feel it.” She paused to tease her hair in the mirror and added, “Anyway, I half expected the call,” then turned to leave the room.

Snickering, Buffy went back to applying makeup. That’s my Will.

Angel glared at their demon captor as he entered the hallway, towing the slayer along by her wrist. I thought I knew evil. This thing makes me look like an amateur. I was just playing the role. This creature actually is evil. No hope of redemption—it is what it is.

As the demon reached out to open the Scandinavian man’s cell, the man pressed himself tight into the back corner.

Angel watched with dismayed interest as Faith was thrown once more into the other man’s cell. The slayer sprawled unmoving onto her back. What’s it been doing to Faith? I wish I knew, but she’s still gone more than she’s here and, when she’s here, I’d prefer she was gone. That’s terrible to even think, but she’s starting to scare the hell out of me.

The demon lingered at the mouth of the cell, clutching something similar to a polished glass rod in one of its four, very human-looking hands.

Angel observed this new behavior with concern. I wonder what this thing’s got in mind. The sound of Scandinavian man’s tortured screams didn’t surprise him in the least, but he still winced.

There was no change in the appearance of the glass rod as the demon used it to herd the stranger over to Faith. Then the demon simply pointed. His meaning couldn’t have been plainer.

Dread filled Angel and he wanted to avert his gaze, but found he couldn’t. He’s been studying her. He’s figured it out. He’s trying to breed them. More humans to torture—a never-ending supply.

Suddenly the demon turned, fixing its empty, black eyes on Angel. It moved with startling grace and speed, closing the Scandinavian man’s cell and making its way over to Angel.

Angel peered up into the black, wolfish face of the demon. The matte, felt-like surface of the demon’s form seemed to absorb the light around it. In a world where brightness was the standard, the effect—which, anywhere else, would’ve hidden him—screamed for attention. When the pain came, Angel doubled over, fighting not to cry out. I will not give this piece of shit the satisfaction of hearing me scream!

After removing the paper umbrella, Willow took a sip of the fruity concoction the bartender’d handed her and mocked a cheerful smile. We’re having fun, remember? Yup, darn tootin’! Fun I say.

Doesn’t matter that Buffy’s been in a funk since her mom called. I can’t really blame her. I miss them too, Xander especially. We haven’t been apart this much, well…ever. Swiveling on the bar stool, Willow glanced around the large dance floor, taking in the movement and the flashing colored lights. The enthusiastic rhythm of the overly-loud music was almost annoying. Fun! Yay!

Leaning in to speak over the racket, “Not really sure this is—” Buffy grumbled, “Would you mind if we moved on?”

Willow rose from her seat, abandoning the overly sweet cocktail without regret, and replied, “Lead the way.” She followed the blonde as she pushed through the crowd, emerging onto the sidewalk in front of the club. The night air was so warm and humid it felt like it clung to her skin. She looked down the narrow street at all the brightly lit signs and colorful awnings.

Buffy stepped around to her friend’s right, leaning her weight against the cane as she moved. “So where to?”

Willow smiled when the blonde took her hand and reflected, “I’m willing to follow your instincts. You lead.” She never fails to surprise me. I should just clue up and quit. It’s just—she adapts so quickly. Yesterday she was using crutches; today I can barely tell she’d been hurt.

As they set off at a relaxed pace together, taking in the neon lights and rush of music that poured out onto the busy street, Buffy’s gaze fixed on something down a narrow side-street. After crossing onto the sidewalk on the other side of the intersection, she commented wryly, “You sure that’s what you want?”

Willow shrugged. “Wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t mean it.” She glanced at the blonde and peered down the side-street to see what had caught her eye. Her gaze fixed on a sign with a skull and skeletal torso draped in cloth announcing the club name ‘Ye Olde Original Dungeon.’

“Goth connection, meet goth bar,” Buffy muttered under her breath and started down the cross-street toward the sign with Willow at her side. “As much of this stuff as we’ve seen that’s real, the fake—it gets all the more funny.” They were soon crossing the bridge that led to the heavy, wrought-iron-banded, wooden door of the club.

Willow glanced over to see an amused grin warming the blonde’s features when the entry opened up into a mock torture chamber. At least she seems happier. This place is pretty funny. Sorta like a really campy horror film set. As they passed under a stone arch into a large, black-walled room lit in red light, the beat of the music sent vibrations through her body.

It was Friday night and the club was packed as they moved past the throng of patrons to explore. The remainder of the place was a veritable cornucopia of haunted house clichés. They wound their way through wrought-iron gates; up narrow, creaky staircases; past creepy-looking, fake monsters; and through mazes made from bookshelves. Beyond each obstacle they passed, they discovered more large rooms full of party goers, each one with a similar theme: black walls with red accent bricks painted in, red strobe lights, and fog machines.

Buffy let out an amused giggle that was nearly lost in the flood of sound from the P.A. when her gaze fixed on the ceiling.

As they passed into what appeared to be the third and final main room of their journey, Willow glanced back to see what had been so amusing. An ornate sarcophagus hung, suspended by chains, near the ceiling of the previous room. Yuppers, serious camp. She shrugged, quickly turning her attention forward to take in the next room. It was a little smaller than The Bronze back home and much more comfortable, except that is was lined floor-to-ceiling with fake human skulls. They made their way to the bar in the middle of the room and each took a seat. Despite the décor, it was quieter and Buffy began to visibly relax.

“Anything prickly?” Willow leaned in and asked, already knowing the answer.

“Nada. No self-respecting vamp would be caught dead—” Buffy snickered at the poor choice of words “—in a cliché like this. But vamps’re not what we’re after, so…”

When the bartender came around to offer them the club standards—dragon’s blood or witch’s brew—Buffy ordered an orange and grapefruit juice and Willow ordered a diet cola.

Yup, fun! Willow mused as she glanced over at her friend. I’m not sure how to drag us outta the dumps. Regardless what Faith did, the news was still upsetting. Suppose I should’ve warned Buffy, but it honestly didn’t cross my mind. It’s not like the spell sets off flashing lights and sirens in your head. It’s way more subtle—more instinctual.

Willow suppressed the urge to sweep a clump of hair from the blonde’s face, considering the action too forward in the moment. Instead she searched through her purse, locating money to pay the bartender. Then you’ve got the extra goodness of Buffy’s mom calling to make sure we weren’t… That had to be painful for her. I should’ve probably suggested we stay in and watch a movie. But with the dressing up—I don’t think she would’ve. She’d’ve wanted to make me happy.

Accepting her cola, Willow passed the bartender a bill and took a sip. This place really isn’t— I’d try to get her to dance to cheer up, but I know walking—it has to be hard. Doesn’t matter how well she’s doing—I can still feel the stress. That, and the kind of dancing—I mean, that transy, weird dancing they do in these places—it doesn’t even look fun. Dancing should be fun, or snuggly…one of the two. This doesn’t look like either, which—it’s pretty pointless.

After taking a drink of her juice, Buffy casually put her arm around her friend’s waist and asked, “What’s wrong, Will?”

“Honestly?” Willow chuckled “I’m worried about you.” She shut out all the movement and noise around them and focused her attention on her friend. When the admission was answered with a giggle, Willow began to unwind.

“Y’know, I probably shouldn’t like this place, but I do,” Buffy reflected, “It’s almost like a bad parody” — absently stirring her juice with a swizzle stick — “might be wrong—I dunno.”

Willow took a sip of her soda before she responded, “Could be just ’cause of what you said before: any self-respecting vampire wouldn’t be caught dead here. Sorta takes the pressure off.” She giggled, glancing over her shoulder before she added, “Plus the people watching potential—it’s just like the place, every bad parody known to monster-kind. There’s enough black velvet and white pancake makeup in here to supply the set of the next Anne Rice film.”

“Yup, pretty much,” Buffy agreed and took a drink of her juice.

Willow found herself getting caught up in simply enjoying the company. It was nice. “So what do you wanna do tomorrow? There’s lots of stuff to see if you wanna get all touristy.”

“Has potential. Do you have something in mind?”

“Well, there’s Jackson Square. I sorta wanna go there. It looks really pretty from the pictures and there’s lots of local artisans that come to—” Willow offered, breaking off when a hand closed over her shoulder.

A soft, breathy, female voice whispered in her ear, “You should ditch the pathetic Barbie doll and come home with me.”

Willow was just about to remark about how rude it was to interrupt a private conversation when Buffy leapt to her feet. By the time she got turned around, Buffy was in the other woman’s face. She watched, slack-jawed, as the slayer stared malevolently at the much larger woman.

“’Kay, so…I’m gonna keep this really simple ’cause you don’t look all that bright,” Buffy snarked.

Wow! Buffy’s been really short-fused since she got hurt. Willow looked the other woman over. Like the other club-goers, she was dressed in black with a pallid complexion made more striking with makeup. She was actually very pretty and Willow found this somehow even more flattering. There was an air about the woman that said, ‘capable,’ but Willow knew that made little difference, given her friend’s abilities. She also got the distinct impression that this woman dabbled in magick.

Leveling on Buffy, the woman snarled, “Not bright? Somehow that just doesn’t mean much coming from you.”

Ignoring the retort, Buffy continued, “Three things.” She raised a finger on her right hand, “First: private conversation—get a clue.” Another finger rose, “Second: I’ve only been pathetic a couple times in my life. Last time” — she gestured to Willow — “she was the one that clued me up.”

“The message, it must not have stuck,” the woman growled.

Completely unaffected—raising the third finger—Buffy resumed, “Last thing—and you might wanna listen ’cause this is the most important of the bunch—” her tone turned low and dangerous “—she’s mine.”

Willow’s mouth fell open. ’Kay, so…this—this is completely unflattering. Clamping her mouth shut, she watched helplessly as the slayer used her cane to effortlessly sweep the larger woman off her feet. No, Buffy! We’re here to find— The woman hit the ground and sprang deftly back to her feet. The first nibble and you go all defendy. The next thing she knew, they were being escorted from the club by security.

As they passed into the humid night air, the woman turned to Willow and said, “Offer still stands.”

Willow couldn’t keep from smiling when she felt the slayer tense. “I’ll pass tonight.” Wow! Buffy’s always been protective, but—

The woman winked at Willow and turned, pushing Buffy aside to make her way down the sidewalk.

Faith’s eyes fluttered open. This is getting a little old. Ignoring the men, she touched her chest, starting just under her collarbones and ran her partially formed hands roughly over her skin. She couldn’t tell very well but her skin felt wrong, like it was too rigid. The inspection halted when she reached her hips. Why can’t I feel? It’s freaking me out. She brought her hands to her face to examine them. They’re a lot closer to mine, but not. I can see the bones through the skin. Turning her hands over to examine the back, she cupped one over the other, hoping again she might feel something. No fingernails…and no sense of touch. Nothing! They aren’t really mine—just cheap imitations.

As Faith rolled onto her side to face Angel’s cage, a strange sensation caused her to flinch. I can feel. She put her hand between her legs shamelessly, ignoring Angel. He looks like shit. She looked over the cracked skin on the vampire’s face and met the bleary unfocused gaze. Drawing back her hand, she was stunned not to see blood. What? Not that I’m not thrilled—hungry vamp and that would suck, but if it’s not—then what the hell?

Hoping he would hear her, Faith prompted, “Angel,” and continued to repeat the name until he snapped out of the daze. When the vampire appeared to be listening, she crawled over to the very edge of her cell and tore away the skin of her wrist, then carefully threaded her arm through the bars. I gotta feed him. He’s useless like this. Besides what’s the worst that can happen? I die? I’m already pretty much dead.

Angel shied away, cowering in the corner of his cell.

“Angel, look, you gotta eat.”

“I can’t,” Angel replied weakly.

Faith rolled her eyes and remarked, “You’re totally useless like this.” Snapping cold and commanding, she ordered, “Eat.” When Angel finally emerged from his corner the wound had healed. “I’ll just let you handle it, Boss. Just don’t leave any scars.” She snickered. Scaring’s one of the things I lost. I can peel half the skin off my arm and—nothin’. Not a mark. That’d be too human…and I’m not. Glancing over, she watched the vampire feed. I didn’t even feel him bite down. “Take what you need. It’s not like I can bleed to death. I’ve tried,” she commented distantly.

When Angel withdrew, he slid way, turning his back to the slayer.

Faith went back to lying on her side, facing the vampire’s cell. “What happened to me, Angel?”

“The demon put something in you,” Angel croaked.

As if brought by Angel’s words, a flash of memory returned. The anguish Faith could no longer feel came back in a vision as hooks ripped into her, flaying her skin. Knives cut into her chest, coring her like an apple. There was a sharp cracking sound and the hallucination faded into murky blackness. She clamped her eyes shut, struggling to steady herself. Eventually she focused enough to rasp, “Not that. I got that much figured. The other—what happened to me last time he took me?” A thick frustrated sigh poured out and she prompted, “Lemme guess, you were too out of it to notice?”

“No,” Angel whispered as he slid further away from the bars.

Growing markedly less patient, Faith asked, “What then?” He knows. And if he doesn’t tell me this is gonna end badly.

“H-he,” Angel began, but his voice cracked. Swallowing hard, he tried again, “The demon put you in the cell with” — pointing over his shoulder to indicated the other prisoner — “and tortured him until—”

“Until what, Angel?” Faith growled. I wanna hear it. I wanna know. If it’s what I think I’m gonna kill ‘em all. I’ll get outta here and they’ll die, startin’ with the fucker who raped me.

Angel winced at the slayer’s tone. Moving to the other side of his cell before he answered, “The demon made him.”

Faith shot to her feet and snarled, “Made him what?” smashing her body against the bars. She continued to bludgeon them until the vampire spoke again. When she failed to hear, she snapped, “What?”

“Until he had sex with you.”

Faith looked down at the blood on her arms and shoulder before she answered in a low dangerous voice, “They call that rape, Angel.” Something I swore— Her thoughts surfaced in a violent outburst, “I’m in control,” she stabbed at her chest, “Me! I decide who touches me!” Self-control returned and she fell silent. I use them!

“There was nothing he could do. If anyone raped you it was the demon.”

“Bullshit!” Faith screamed, “No excuses, no lies. It is what it is.” Whirling around, she threw herself against the bars between her cell and the rapist’s. “When I get through these you’re gonna die! You get me? I’m gonna rip your fucking heart out!” She pounded on the bars with all her strength, hammering over and over.

Accepting Willow’s help, Buffy climbed carefully into the white, mule-drawn carriage. A bright smile lit her face as her friend climbed in beside her. She’s been acting really weird since last night. Wish I knew what was up. It’s like she’s forgotten that she’s Willow. She usually makes a dozen cute observations before breakfast. Today: nada. She’s acting like she’s mad, all except for the stomping around and the mean looks. Maybe she is mad and she’s just forgetting to stomp around?

Glancing over to take in the very neutral expression on her friend’s face, Buffy furrowed her brow. Totally par for the course: we’re in paradise and she’s miserable. Briefly shutting her eyes, she took a deep breath and sighed. The air was thick with the scent of jasmine and freshly cut grass. Looking around at the green lawns and perfectly manicured shrubs of Jackson Square Park, her gaze fixed on the tall spires of the cathedral. That church is just amazing. At least I can look away without more of the awkward.

The driver said something, but Buffy filtered it out, allowing her friend to answer. She’s fine with talking to other people—just not me. They started to move and she leaned back in her seat, enjoying the sunlight and scenery. Finally, she managed to strengthen her resolve enough to ask again, “What’s wrong, Will?”

“Nothing’s wrong, Buffy,” Willow returned without pause.

Buffy examined the expression on her friend’s face. Nothing’s right. Her expression: nothing—not happy or sad, just there. She could feel disbelief and concern tugging at her features. Unable to mute the shortness from her tone, she demanded, “It’s not selling. There’s something. Now spill.”

Willow rolled her eyes and replied in a painfully unaffected manner, “Nothing’s wrong, I swear. I’m just thinking.”

Buffy lost control and snarked, “’Kay, well…maybe if I had a clue what you’re thinking about, I’d be less worried that aliens broke in last night and sucked out your brain.”

A sigh slipped out and Willow responded patiently, “No aliens, I swear—just me in here working some stuff out.”

The cranky won out and Buffy grumbled, “And if I got what this top secret stuff was” — going back to observing the scenery — “I probably wouldn’t be worried, but…” Her voice trailed off.

“You really wanna know?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “No, Will, I want you to continue being mystery-girl. I like not knowing why you’re acting weird.”

“It’s pretty simple: you’ve changed and I’m trying to figure out how I feel about it.”

Buffy swung around to look at her friend so quickly it made her jump. “Huh?”

After dropping the hand in her lap that had reflexively leapt to her chest, Willow exhaled a deep calming sigh and replied, “This isn’t just about you, Buffy. I have stuff, big stuff that I’m dealing with. And last night—it made some of that stuff more real.”

Quirking an eyebrow, Buffy gestured for her friend to continue.

“I’m used to you protecting me,” Willow offered patiently, “That’s expected, but last night you were possessive. It was like you owned me.”

The shock didn’t wear off with more details and Buffy responded defensively, “I didn’t mean—I-I just wanted her to leave.” I so wasn’t.

Willow turned away to look at the scenery on her side of the road. “That’s not gonna work, Buffy. I know you too well.”

Several moments of thick silence passed between them and Buffy started to feel guilty and confused. I was just protecting her. Possessive means jealous. Am I jealous? That chick was pretty, but did I really feel threatened? Mad? Yes—she was a total bitch. But threatened? Not so much. I’d have to be worried that Will might leave me and I know she won’t. Stifling the guilt, she commented aridly as a means to test the theory,“Look, Will, I don’t want to make things any harder for you than I already have. Maybe I should just do this on my own.” The rage that reflected on Willow’s features when she suddenly turned to make eye contact almost caused Buffy to wince.

“Don’t you dare talk about running away. You’ve done it once and it broke my heart.”

Searching her friend’s face for answers, Buffy took a couple of deep breaths to calm her nerves and asked, “Then what, Will? What do you want?”

The anger faded and Willow replied honestly, “Time—same as you—and some slack to figure stuff out.”

“Okay, but I want a couple things too,” Buffy countered fairly; “We need to talk. It freaks me out when you get all broody, so you gotta talk at least some.” More silence hung between them, but this time Buffy used it to examine Willow’s expression. She’s back to nothing—thinking.

Willow finally broke the stalemate by prompting, “That was one thing.”

“Yeah…I never was good with numbers,” Buffy quipped amusedly and leaned in to give her friend a gentle kiss. When Willow’s tongue grazed the surface of her lips, insisting the kiss deepen, Buffy yielded to the demand without a moment’s hesitation or thought. All of the confusion slipped away in that instant. It was just them and it was good. She pulled her friend into a tender embrace, sensing nothing but the softness of her form and the warmth of the sunlight that shone down on them.

Angel peered blearily up from where he lay on the floor. His body trembled and he uselessly willed it to stop. The pain still coursed through him. He looked around to find the slayer still lying in an unconscious lump on the floor of his cell. Guess it was my turn. That thing probably figured, since he could make me, if he left her, I’d either do what he wanted, or— A thick sense of dread came over him. Or she’d wake up.

Allowing his head to flop to the side, Angel fixed his gaze on the bars of her cell. It’s not like she was all that sane when we got here, but I’m pretty sure the capacity to beat herself unconscious is a new thing. The cracks in the bars were gone and so was the Scandinavian man. His hands were fully developed. He’ll no doubt return without them.

Angel shut his eyes, blocking out the harsh light. So now I wait.

The babbling sound of the fountain was soothing, but it also had an annoying side effect. Crossing her legs, Willow looked around the tiny, private garden behind the boarding house, taking in all the tropical plants. I’ll go inside in a few minutes. It’s so nice out here.

Willow turned her attention back to the paper. Huh, systems analyst position, twenty-five bucks an hour. I could totally do that. Grabbed a pen from the table beside her, she circled the ad in the paper. It might not be the life I envisioned, but it can still be a good one. At least, it will be if she ever comes back.

Willow lowered the paper enough to glance over the top. Buffy was still sitting in the lawn chair, staring at her lap. I don’t think she’s moved since we got back. Guess it’s her turn. I suppose I should’ve been nicer—just let her give me another one of those friendly little pecks she keeps giving me, but—darn it—I’m tired of beating around the bush. She treated me one way last night. If it wigs her out when I behave that way—it’s totally not my fault.

’Kay, so…three job leads. Now: apartments. Willow turned the pages of the newspaper until she found the ‘for rent’ section. I can look online too after we get back from the club tonight. That is, if she snaps out of it before then. I’m not gonna push. I totally get the confusion. It’s like I told her: I’ve got my own. I think she thinks that I’ve already got it all figured—that I know exactly what I want. That’s sorta true, but then there’s another part of me that’s worried. What I know is that I love her. The other stuff—all the complicated stuff—I have no idea what to expect.

Willow circled an ad for a two bedroom apartment in the French Quarter and peered over the paper again. “Would you like something to eat?” she asked in a soft, careful voice, “I’ll go get something if you’ll eat.”

Not looking up, Buffy replied aridly, “I dunno, Will, I guess.”

After folding the paper setting it aside, Willow queried, “What would you eat?”

“Doesn’t matter. Anything, really.”

Ice cream…there’s a store just down the street. It’s a physical impossibility to sulk with an ice cream cone in your hand.  “’Kay. I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Willow remarked as she rose to her feet.

Looked up to meet her friend’s gaze, Buffy responded, “Okay, I’ll be here.”

Willow wanted to hug the blonde, but thought better of it. Instead she offered a small, sad smile as she took in her friend’s tear-stained face. I’m an evil, terrible, awful person. I didn’t mean— She turned her back and started to slowly walk away. I’m the bad. I promised her I’d give her time to figure it out. But she pushed and I—I pushed back.

Buffy’s voice carried from behind the thicket of taro plants, “Will, don’t wig out. I’ll be okay. I promise.”

The light shone in her eyes again, but Faith fought anyway, even knowing how hopeless it was. Soon she found herself clamped to the table anyway. I wonder what the fucker’s gonna do to me this time? I don’t think I have anymore orifices to probe. Maybe he’s found a new game.

The pressure on Faith’s wrists increased and with it an overwhelming sense of fear came too. I was kidding! As pain shot from her wrists, her body began to spasm and beat wildly against the slab she was bound to. Her mind reeled with the certainty that she was about to lose her hands.

Then suddenly a cracking noise issued from the table. She was certain her hands were gone. Instead her left arm pulled free.

Reflexively, Faith brought her limp, injured hand to her face, guarding her eyes against the light. Despite the minor amount of control, her body continued to flail against the table. Soon another cracking noise issued signaling the freeing of her other hand. Both hands were ruined. She tried to make a fist and found the fingers wouldn’t move.

The demon was on her before Faith could sit up. Intense agony ripped through her. It felt like every remaining nerve ending had been commanded to cause pain. Her brain was still telling her to curl into a ball and make it stop when her body demonstrated that it had other plans. The table cracked as she swung an elbow into the demon’s chest. Before she knew exactly what was happening, she was on her feet facing the staggering demon.

Somehow, through all the strain, Faith understood that she wasn’t in control. She relaxed and just let it happen. Her foot crashed through the demon’s chest and he slumped to the floor. As he fell, she lashed out again, connecting under his chin and sending him over backwards. When he came to a rest, she jumped, landing on the center of his head. The sound of splintering shell echoed through the huge room.

Chapter 10 - Something Subtle, Intangible and Inexplicable

Reflexively, Faith leapt away from the carcass of the demon. When her slimy, bare foot touched the polished floor, she slid, reeling to regain her balance. She toppled over backwards, trying to break her fall. A cracking noise sounded from her right wrist as she landed. “Shit!” Sharp pain from the ruined joint caused her stomach to lurch.

Faith sat up and placed her hands in her lap, staring at the deep cuts across her wrists. Her right hand was halfway severed from the arm, while the left wasn’t quite as bad. Blood welled up, obscuring the injuries. She redirected her attention to the chalky-blue slime on her feet and glanced over her shoulder at the demon. Well, at least the bastard’s not moving. That’s a start.

What now? With both hands injured, there wasn’t a great deal she could really do and she knew it. She stared at the knotted muscle of her forearm. The realization that the tendons had been pulled away from the joint came to her. So, it looks like I hit Fang up for help. Should be a barrel of chuckles. Glad I didn’t off him when I had the chance. Sorta decided I needed him to get home, but whatever. He’s still kickin’.

She rose carefully to her feet. Her hands swung freely on their ruined joints as she moved. The resulting pain was disquieting, yet at the same time strangely comforting. Next question is: how do I get to him? She turned to face the demon’s corpse and stood silently considering it. As much as this slimebag brought me here, I took in a couple details. He used his hand to open the cells. I wonder if I can just— Cautiously standing on one of the demon’s outstretched hands; she drove her other foot into the elbow, hearing a cracking noise. Another hard kick broke the forearm free.

When I woke up, this is exactly how I wanted my day to go; she mused as she punted the arm along in front of her. Sad part: actually it is. I woke up wanting to be free. After exiting the lab, she set off down a long corridor, still moving her trophy along with her feet. Didn’t much care what it cost either. She glanced back at the heavy blood trail she was leaving. As she approached the entry way to their cage, a feeling of faintness threatened to make her collapse. She fought the blood loss and continued on.

Kicking the door aside, she launched the arm through the entrance and pressed inside. When she recovered the arm and made her way to Angel’s cell, he gaped at her. After pushing the arm between the bars of his cell with her feet, she slumped onto her knees. “Remember what I said about bleedin’ to death?” she mumbled, “I may’ve made a mistake.”

The next thing she knew, Angel was scooping her up. Her vision dulled, finally going dim as they set off out of the room.

Reclining back in the seat of the Mustang, Buffy absently watched the scenery pass by. A banner caught her eye and she puzzled over it for only a second before asking, “Hey Will, what kinda tigers are Geaux Tigers?”

After obviously struggling to stifle a snicker, Willow prodded gently, “Go Tigers.”

Buffy turned away and put her hand to her face to conceal the embarrassment. Dunno why I bother with school. A year of French and…I swear my mind eats anything useful. It’s like a gaping black hole. Anything worthwhile gets sucked in and crushed faster than an empty beer can on a frat boy’s forehead.

The car slowed and Willow pulled into a driveway.

Buffy opened her door and picked up her right leg, lifting it over the doorjamb. She rose to her feet, using the door and the side of the car for leverage. One thing, I guess I’m lucky ‘one thing’ is all. Reaching behind the seat, she pulled out her cane and shut the car door. All the really yucky pricklies are gone—well, most of them. Will says that L3 controls the ability to raise your lower leg when sitting. So, this might be it—the wall we figured would come. I can fake my way through almost everything. I can walk and even look pretty much normal. That is—post brace mod—Will got creative. I suppose I’m lucky, but I still don’t feel very lucky.

The realtor held the door for Buffy while she slowly made her way there.

When Buffy passed into the foyer, she offered an aloof, “Thanks,” and started to slowly climb the stairs, allowing Willow to speak with the realtor. Once they made it to the third floor, it took about fifteen minutes for the spiel to wind down. In that time she wandered through the apartment, intentionally lagging behind to avoid the others. Twelve-foot ceilings, hardwood floors, and plaster walls were the theme. In the bathroom she found an ancient, claw-foot tub that was practically large enough for two people. The rest of the place was clean and airy feeling. The kitchen was pretty modest but, with all the amazing food New Orleans had to offer, all she really wanted was a cold place to store some yogurt.

Buffy went to the balcony to wait for Willow and the realtor to finish up once she had made a full lap. ’Kay, so…the rest of the place is okay, but I want this balcony. It’s beautiful. After setting her cane aside where it wouldn’t fall, she leaned against the wrought iron railing and looked out over the park across the street.

When Willow passed through the double French doors, making her way onto the patio moments later, she asked, “Whatcha think?”

Without looking back, Buffy replied in a playfully flippant tone, “When do we move in?”

Willow tensed slightly as she played the party pooper, “We don’t, Buffy—least not yet. You know this is just research.”

Buffy’s mood soured. “I know, Will.”

“If nothing happens, it’s yours,” Willow remarked frankly, then sighed. When she continued, her voice was laden with regret, “I’m sorry. We just…I can’t begin to think that seriously yet. I have to give them a chance, even if it’s looking bad. They should’ve been back—what, with the ‘time distortion’ thing. I just…I guess I needed to start looking, so we’re not just sitting around waiting—we’re actually doing something.”

Turning to face her friend, Buffy offered patiently, “S’okay, I get it, Will.” The ‘not knowing’ part’s starting to make me a little crazy. Guess it’s the same for her. Is this some sorta vacation? If it is, we should be enjoying it. But the ‘not knowing’ makes it impossible to just kick back.

Willow wrapped her arms around the blonde and replied apologetically, “I know you do.”

Buffy nodded, understanding that Willow had simply over-reacted. It’s weird how strained things are. We need to find some way to talk it out. Course, if the talking’s left up to me—total badness. My foot lives in my mouth so much there’s a permanent forwarding address. In an attempt to lighten the mood, Buffy leaned back meeting her friend’s gaze and asked, “So, when you gonna go back to being a redhead? I miss it.”

Willow’s brow furrowed at the sudden subject change. Sounding puzzled, she reflected, “Umm…I dunno. I hadn’t really thought about it. I’ll go to a salon and see if it’s even possible after we finish up with the club, ’kay?”

Leaning back, Buffy started to play with Willow’s hair, remarking pensively, “You might wanna look for a magickal fix. I’m not sure you’ll—” she sighed “—I’m pretty sure the chemical way—it’ll go badly.”

“’Kay, I’ll look, but I’m pretty sure there’s not much except glamours,” Willow replied. “Let’s get outta here. Breakfast sound good?”

Buffy picked up her cane and started to follow. “Well, you know me—food always sounds good.”

Angel stirred the pasty, clear goop in the jar and shrugged. No idea why this is working, but it is. It was pretty obvious when that thing took their hands that there was some catalyst involved in sealing the wound and promoting growth. Something tells me I should take this stuff with us.

Peering down at the flesh and fiber he’d peeled away from Faith’s right arm, he located the end of a tendon and clamped down on it with something similar to a pair of forceps. He wiped his brow with his forearm and pulled the tendon out straight, then applied a dollop of the goop to the end. There should be lots of bleeding, but there isn’t. Since I held the wrist joints so they could fuse back together, she’s barely bled at all.

As he stretched the tendon, matching it to the corresponding mate, Faith winced. The ends of the black, fibrous tendon fused together while Angel held them in place. I’m not even sure what to make of this. She was right to ask what she is. The answer: I have no clue—‘something new’ is the best I have. She should be in excruciating pain. Instead, she occasionally flinches like I pulled her hair.

When the final tendon was repaired, Angel carefully moved the black mesh back over the muscle and onyx bone of Faith’s arm. As he brought the two halves together, they knit back in place. He repeated the process with her skin and it sealed up leaving no trace of the invasive surgery he’d just performed.

Angel prompted, “Try moving your fingers,” and watched amusedly as she twiddled them.

“Good as new. Thanks, doc,” Faith chirruped and rose from the table.

Angel stood silently, watching the slayer cross the large, dish-shaped room. The light from the open ceiling bathed her form, making her appear otherworldly when she paused in the center to stare down at the broken surgical table. I wonder what’s going through her head.

Inserting two quarters into the slot, Giles opened the door of the newspaper box. He extracted the Tuesday edition of the Sunnydale Press to read over lunch, then continued into the café. After taking a seat and ordering a cup of coffee and a ham sandwich, he began to casually leaf through the paper, initially just skimming the front page. When his sandwich arrived, he folded the paper neatly and began to read the cover story.

The headline read, ‘Police Chief Robert Russell In Custody Following Shooting.’

Giles scanned down, ‘Lifetime Sunnydale resident and Chief of Police, Robert Russell was taken into protective custody early Monday evening following the shooting of fellow officer Samuel McCoy. Sergeant McCoy,37, received two gunshot wounds, neither immediately life-threatening. Sergeant McCoy was transported to Sunnydale Memorial Hospital where he is listed in ‘stable’ condition at this time.’

Shrugging slightly at the news, Giles took a bite of his sandwich and began to leisurely chew. Yes, yes, so the poor chap came unhinged. It’s no small wonder given the state of this town.

He skimmed a little further and one word caught his eye: ‘rat.’ Oh dear. Picking the story up a line above the offensive word, Giles read, ‘The investigation into the mysterious cause of the shooting continues. Chief Russell claims a rat instigated his action. He was quoted as saying, “Evil little bastard was just sitting there staring at me, so I shot him.” Sergeant McCoy was seated at his desk in the adjacent office when the shots were fired at around five p.m.’

Oh! My! Lord! Giles sprang from his chair and pulled out his wallet. After tossing a bill on the table, he ran out the door of the café, nearly colliding with an elderly woman who was entering. He tried to pardon himself with the long forgotten bite of sandwich in his mouth, “Thuth me!” and swallowed thickly, setting off quickly down the sidewalk.

Once he was finished dressing, Angel threw his pack over his shoulder and picked up Faith’s. The small room just off the lab was full of supplies, including the gear they’d brought with them. He was relieved to be dressed. When he reentered the lab, Faith clenched her right hand into a fist and didn’t look up. He walked over to her and wordlessly placed her pack next to her on the floor.

After glancing down to look at the demon’s body she seemed to be studying, Angel set off out of the room to free the other prisoner. This should be a laugh-a-minute. I know she’s going to want to hurt him, but he’s a human being who deserves a chance, same as her. I just hope I can get that through her thick skull.

When Angel reached the cells, he opened the door and began to lay out clothing.

The man stared up at Angel, obviously bewildered by what he saw.

Angel sighed and crouched down, moving the stack of clothing closer. He gestured to his own clothes and then to the stack. Once the man had the idea, he filled in, “Middangeard” — using his hands to make a ‘walking’ gesture — “We are going to Middangeard.”

The man glanced up, appearing stunned, and rasped, “Midgard?”

“Aye,” Angel replied with a nod, “Midgard.” I knew it’d be close. Been a long time since I read Beowulf, but I figured it’d translate.

The Scandinavian man stood up and rushed to dress, immediately having trouble with the strange fasteners.

Cautious not to alarm the edgy man, Angel offered some assistance. The clothing was obviously foreign to him and his hands were only partly formed.

Once they were finished, Angel gestured for the other man to stay back. “Faith,” he said, pointing to her cell. When the man nodded and croaked the name, the vampire continued, “She’s not going to be happy to see you.” He tried to fill in his meaning by making a face, unsure whether he’d gotten through. Well, here goes nothing.

As they set off out of the detention area, the caves shuddered ominously. Rock rained down on them from the ceiling. Angel dove to the floor, covering his head reflexively. He climbed to his feet once the rumbling stopped and said more simply, “Faith not happy.”

The Scandinavian man reached up to take the vampire’s hand. Clambering to his feet, he repeated, “Faith not happy.”

Angel couldn’t suppress an amused smile. “Now you’re firming up.”

Willow took a seat on the steps of St. Mary’s Church, staring across Chartres Street at the Old Ursuline Convent. She glanced over when Buffy took a seat on her right. The blonde had appeared distant and contemplative since their stroll through the church. Dunno if I should talk or not. This place sorta speaks for itself. ‘Incredibly old and beautiful’ is all you really need to hear. There’s nothing like it in California. There are things as old, but they’re all yucky and…umm…old. Anyway, it was worth the walk just to show her something totally different.

After leaning her cane against her jean-clad thigh, Buffy broke the silence by prompting, “There’s a story. You wouldn’t just bring me here without one.”

An amused grin warmed Willow’s features as she started to fill in, “The Old Ursuline Convent” — gesturing at the gate house across the street and the white building that rose up behind it — “is believed to be the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. The attic of the nunnery is supposed to be haunted and was sealed in the 1960’s. ‘Sealed’ is sort of a poor term. Actually every entrance was closed and screwed shut using thousands of gold screws blessed by the pope, including the shutters.”

“So, the church even thinks it’s haunted?”

Willow glanced over to take in the pensive expression on her friend’s face. “Yeah,” she confirmed. After combing her fingers through her hair, she continued, “In 1978, two young women setup video equipment right here.” She gestured to the stairs of the church where they sat. “The next morning their exsanguinated bodies were found. All of their equipment was destroyed. No one really knows what happened. I mean, we can assume vamps, but then there’s the attic. Maybe they saw something they shouldn’t have.” She shrugged and rose to her feet, turning to offer a hand down to the blonde.

Taking the hand, Buffy pulled herself up to standing. Pausing to peer thoughtfully down at the stairs, she asked, “Wanna go buy a cordless drill? There’s a little hardware store not far from here, Mary’s Hardware or something. Sorta strange for a hardware store to have—”

“I’m told a gay couple owns it,” Willow remarked, “Makes the name all the more funny.” Sighing before she answered firmly, “No, no way are we breaking into the attic of the Ursuline Nunnery. Forget it. One of the stories says that the attic was packed full of plague victims—French refuges that succumbed to yellow fever. The last thing I want is to come down with a case of mystical yellow fever on my vacation.” After waiting for a car to go by, she crossed the street and entered the gatehouse with the blonde in tow.

Once they passed through into the courtyard of the nunnery, Willow stopped to look around. The red brick sidewalk was bordered by short hedges in a geometric pattern, six triangles that formed a rectangle. I wonder if there’s some significance. I’ll have to look it up.

“Oh, c’mon, Will, it’ll be fun,” Buffy prodded pluckily.

Willow glanced over at her friend and grinned before asking wryly, “Which part?”

“Whatcha mean?”

Starting for the door, Willow looked over her shoulder and clarified in a dry voice, “The bleeding from the mouth and eyes or the jaundice?” laughing when the blonde’s face sagged. She turned forward and quipped, “Oh! Maybe you mean the vomiting, high fever and the inability to pee. Sounds like fun to me.”

After propping herself against one of the columns in front of the convent, Buffy asked, “Is that really what this is?”

Willow casually leaned into the adjacent column, facing her friend, and shrugged. “I really dunno, Buffy. I wish I did. Whatever it is, though, there’s no reason not to enjoy it a little.”

Faith removed a thick nylon strap from her pack and looped it around the base of a tree. After clipping six arrows into the quiver on the side of her bow, she hung it from her shoulder with an improvised carry-strap.

As she started to slowly ascend the tree next to the wall of the demon bazaar, Angel pleaded, “Faith, look, this is stupid. You can’t take them all on alone.”

Coming to a halt, the slayer glared down at the vampire and snarled, “That’s why I hoped you’d help—you and your pet.”

Angel appeared completely aghast.

Faith rasped, “Here’s the deal: You got to keep your pet,” glaring at the other man with distaste. Directing her attention to Angel again, she continued, “Now for the big trade: you let me have my revenge. One more word—anything but a nod—and I come down. My feet hit the ground and his neck’ll be snapped before you can move. You get me?”

Angel’s grip tightened on the ancient sword he carried for the other man. Pulling his own axe from his back with the other hand, he nodded and turned to lead the stranger away to dig in and wait.

She continued up the tree. When she was far enough up, she let go, pushing off. Guiding her fall, she dropped down onto the wall. The top of the inward angling wall was like the edge of a jagged knife. Silently cursing, she struggled to maintain balance as she quickly scanned for a better place to stand. A short inspection revealed a spot where the tips of the clear shards of rock were broken. She moved deftly to take station in the area with better footing. Her job was going to be hard enough without the constant danger of falling.

Once in place, Faith crouched down. She was relieved to have not been spotted by the mob of demons moving around below her. So, my bet is they won’t be able to climb. The wall leans in. Odds are they’ll all bunch up at the entrance. The choke point makes things good for me—bad for them.

Scanning the crowd, Faith spied what she wanted and continued to take inventory. Once she had her targets marked, she notched the first arrow and sent it flying. Before it hit, she had the second arrow ready to fire. As acrid smoke began to roll from the first demon’s body, she launched the next arrow. It struck a bulky demon close to the first. There was a short delay before the explosion. Her first target looked up, noticing her, and slumped to the ground. She smiled. Piece of shit. Trade me for a handful of rocks and see what it gets ya. When the second arrow detonated, it leveled everything around it. The wall she was on quaked while gore rained down.

There was a surge of movement toward the gate and the third arrow flew. It hit a large demon that was struggling to heave open the narrow gate. Others crushed against him making the task impossible. The result was extremely effective. When the arrow blew up, it reduced his body to shrapnel. The mangled pieces tore through the crowd, tearing dozens off their feet.

One of the gate doors wobbled dangerously. It fell as Faith let loose the fourth arrow. The heavy gate crashed to the ground, crushing more of the fleeing demons. The fourth arrow hit a large, dark demon, much like her torturer. His body began to smolder. She loaded the fifth and fired it into the crowd bottlenecked at the gate. The explosion brought the other door smashing down on the crowd.

Faith notched the final arrow. Before firing, she scanned the carnage, reassessing the best target. The market was almost empty. The few remaining demons were clambering over the ruins to escape the scene. Randomly picking a target, she let the arrow go and flipped backwards off the wall.

After sweeping her gear up, Faith called out, “Time to bail, guys!” and set off at a brisk pace. Man that was fun! A bright smile lit her face as she tightened her pack down and broke into a run.

Racket across the room startled Giles, causing him look up from his book. Clifford was running frantically on his little wheel. Sighing dismissively, he tried to return his attention to study, but was interrupted by the sound of Wesley’s voice.

“How exactly did you say you came to be the keeper of not one, but two rats?”

Giles caught himself starting to roll his eyes and quelled the urge. I’ve been spending entirely too much of my time with youth of Southern California.  “The first rat belonged to Willow. She left Amy in my care,” he replied aloofly and glanced at the female rat who had wisely chosen to hide in the corner of her cage. He debated telling Wesley the entire story, but decided that the truth about Amy might be entirely too much for the lad. “Clifford is another matter which I would rather not discuss.”

“I see,” Wesley remarked in a dry voice.

After taking a careful sip of his tea, Giles removed his glasses to clean them. Something will have to be done about Clifford and soon. The constant chatter is quite disruptive and I can only imagine how it would be if the crafty little chap got free. Should she ever be restored, Amy Madison will be sufficiently bewildered without feeling maternal instincts towards a random litter of rats. He drew out a handkerchief and ran it nervously over the lenses of his spectacles, replacing them when he was done. Tuning out the ruckus, he asked pensively, “Have you made any progress?” and met the younger man’s gaze.

Sighing, Wesley answered truthfully, “Not as such.”

Giles smiled encouragingly and remarked, “Well, we haven’t lost hope that the others will find success. It is, however, good to have another strategy on hand should the first one fail.”

Wesley’s chin dipped in a very subtle nod.

Taking in the discouraged look on the younger man’s face, Giles continued, “Wesley, it was a brilliant plan, one worthy of much praise.” When Wesley smiled proudly, Giles paused to return the gesture. “We were privileged with the opportunity to send two extraordinary champions to accomplish the task. Regardless of my personal opinion of Faith and Angel, they are both very capable. Do not despair yet.”

“Thank you,” Wesley responded graciously and went back to his book.

“Your thanks are appreciated, but misplaced. We all owe you some debt of gratitude,” Giles reflected warmly, sighing at the clatter coming from the breakfast bar. “I will find something to do with Clifford tomorrow. This really is unacceptable.” It would be quite horrible were Amy to suffer a heart attack over the sly little devil. Willow would be devastated and I doubt I would ever forgive myself.

Stretching, Willow settled back onto the bed and fluffed the pillow, tucking it behind her head. As she lay waiting for her blonde bedfellow, her mind wandered. This is the strangest, non-relationship relationship I’ve ever been in. Not that there’ve been a bunch. In fact, I think this is a first—the grand total of Willow’s non-relationship relationship experience is pretty much zero, zilch-o, nada…

Willow groaned, resisting the urge to grab the other pillow and bury her face. It’s pretty much a ‘we are,’ but ‘we aren’t.’ All of the commitment…none of the smoochies. It’s starting to make me a little crazy. At this point, I’m not even sure I…well, that’s not true, but how do I know if she does, that she doesn’t—that she isn’t just settling?

As Buffy climbed into bed, Willow flipped off the light and automatically slid over into position. How do I know I’m not just some consolation prize? I don’t want to be a consolation prize—the person she ends up with ’cause she thinks no one else wants her. After snuggling into the crux of her friend’s shoulder, she chided herself, I suppose that’s not really fair; it’s obvious she loves me. I mean, me, here, now—should be a clue.

Willow suppressed a shudder when the blonde started to absently caress her back. If anything about this was normal, it’d be easy. I’d just back off and see if she followed. Nothing normal here—she’d follow…even if we were back in Sunnydale, she’d follow. We have the extra complication of the ‘friends’ thing to make this a truly confusing nightmare.

Stifling any sign of her discontent, Willow shut her eyes and began to force herself to relax for sleep. I wish I had a clue what to do. All I can do is be patient. Patience sucks! I could push. I could wait for the right time and just jump her bones. Yeah…that’d go well. She’d totally wig. Good idea, Willow, she wigged over a kiss, she might explode over sex. I vote 'not.’ What we want is an accepting Buffy and I have no idea how to get her there. Yeah, ‘patience’ bites big fat patootie.

Falling still, Buffy asked with concern, “You doing okay, Will?”

Willow snapped instantly nervous and guilty. After drawing in a deep breath, she hoped would promote calm, she stammered, “Yeah, I’m fine, Buff. Absolutely, positively, fine…the picture of fineness. In fact, I’m finally fine.” Boy, I suck!

An exasperated sigh rolled out of Buffy’s mouth in response, sounding more like a growl.

Willow moved away. After propping herself on her pillow, she waited patiently for the pending storm.

Buffy strained to mute her aggravation, but failed miserably. “Will.”

At least she sorta tried. It’s kinda funny how she can take a minute to say my name, or at least it seems like a minute. So, here’s the question of that minute: do I really want to try and have a relationship with someone who can tell by my posture that I’m upset? Turning onto her side, Willow propped herself up on her elbow, cupping her head in her hand. The nervousness passed and she answered demurely, “Yes, Buffy?” Yes, yes, I do…more than anything. Jeez, Willow, masochist much?

Buffy took a deep breath and with marked restraint, demanded, “Talk to me, Will.”

Without pause, Willow replied plainly, “You so don’t want that.”

“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t wanna know. Just tell me. I’ll try not to get upset. I swear.”

Willow considered this for a moment. It sounded absolutely genuine. Deciding that she really didn’t need to look at her friend’s face to say what was on her mind, she slumped back onto her pillow. Her tone was heavy and almost annoyed when she finally spoke. “How do I know?”

Buffy sounded bewildered as she asked, “Know what?”

“Know that you’re not settling. Know that you haven’t given up. Know that you—because you’ve got this thing—this blindness thing—you don’t notice all the people who notice you. Know that you’re not—not settling for me ’cause you don’t think you can do any better.” Ignoring the multiple gasps that her friend made as she spoke, Willow switched attacks with barely a moment’s pause, “You’re all worried about this other stuff—meaningless stuff. Don’t you get it? Relationships: they’re about who you love—not gender. They aren’t about sex. They aren’t about what other people think. They’re about who you’re willing to give your heart to. Nothing else matters, Buffy.”

Turning away from the blonde, Willow fell silent. Shame welled up inside her as she listened to the stifled sobs.

Eventually calming enough to speak, Buffy softly rasped, “I’m just afraid—afraid that I’ll screw this up the same way I screw everything up.” After taking a deep shaky breath, she continued, “The last two people I had a thing for: one went to Hell after—” her voice failed and she swallowed thickly. “I know that story’s gotta be getting old. But think about it, couldn’t you say the same about Ford? I dunno. All I do know is I didn’t save him.” She slid in behind Willow, tentatively touching. “What does that say about me, Will? I kill the people I love.”

“I’m so sorry,” Willow murmured, not shying away from the embrace. Instead she guiltily listened to the muted hiccoughing noises her friend was making.

Buffy brushed the hair from the nape of Willow’s neck, giving it a gentle kiss before she whispered, “I’m a nightmare, Will…and it scares me.”

Gently moving the arm aside, Willow flipped herself over to face her friend and began to whisper, “I don’t believe that had anything to do with you—other than the bad choices. But even that’s not really fair—it’s not like you consciously chose. I will tell you this: I’m not a vampire, nor do I have some secret, hidden desire to be one.”

She tilted her head; gently resting her forehead against Buffy’s and closed her eyes before continuing in a soft, soothing voice, “My soul is my own. I’ve never lost it. And frankly, I don’t want to—I’m pretty fond—sort of attached. You’ll never hear me call vampires, ‘The Lonely Ones.’ I’m totally onboard with Xander in thinking they’re the ‘Nasty Pointy Bitey Ones’.”

Leaning back to study the blonde’s face, Willow took in the sad, sentimental smile and concluded, “What I am is a pretty normal girl—” she sighed “—well, a pretty normal girl with an I.Q. of one-ninety-five. Sorta puts me outta the ‘normal’ camp, but not really—not emotionally. And emotionally what I am is completely in love with you.” When Buffy’s eyes fluttered open, she added sheepishly, “Now if the ‘girl’ part of that, or…umm…the ‘genius’ part doesn’t scare you then—”

After rubbing her eyes to clear the tears, Buffy replied honestly, “I was bothered at first—by the ‘girl’ part—but I think it was an excuse—a reason to hide. The ‘genius’ part just makes me wonder what the hell you see in me.” An amused smile played at Buffy’s lips then faded as she concluded, “This isn’t easy for me, Will, but I do love you.”

When her friend drew her into a gentle embrace, Willow surrendered with pleasure. The kiss that followed made her weak.

Angel fixed his gaze on the back of the slayer’s head as they moved along, single file through the forest. From the increasing light levels up ahead, it appeared they would soon be leaving its cover. It was still there. I’ll take the small miracles. At least I assume it was still there. The ground was like I left it. It’s not like I could stop and check. It’s no mystery to me that the reason we’re still moving is that Faith has no idea how to get home.

Glancing down, Angel took in the sword he held. Almost four-feet-long, pattern weld blade, deep fuller to reduce weight, heavy pommel to give it balance. It’s a fine weapon. It’s also a very specific type of weapon—a misnomer—which in this case happens to be true—a Viking sword. This one is so well preserved you couldn’t imagine how old it is.

The forest thinned as they traveled, finally giving way to a vast sheet of white covered in a thick layer of fog. Something tugged hard on Angel’s coat and he stopped. I kind of knew, but wouldn’t let myself believe. The look on his face when I found this told me all I needed to know. He was one of Tyrik Turgeis’ men. I’ve spent centuries in Hell fighting to survive, but I was free. I can’t begin to imagine millennia in captivity.

The Norseman bravely ran forward to catch the slayer before she took another step. “Nei,” he stammered, “No! Vent!”

Angel cried out as he watched with dismay, “Faith, stop! Don’t hurt him. I think he’s trying to tell us something.” I tried to tell Faith, but she wouldn’t hear. She couldn’t relate so she brushed it aside.

“Nei vent!” the Norseman croaked, “No!”

Faith pivoted on the ball of her foot, facing the frantic stranger. “What about ‘vent’?”

“He’s saying ‘wait,’ Faith. At least I think,” Angel explained, “Just relax and hold. Let me figure out what’s wrong. Okay?”

Faith appeared extremely impatient. “Alright. Whatever.”

Angel followed as the Norseman walked back into the forest. They were soon shrouded under a canopy of white.

The Norseman pointed to a straight white branch that hung low on one of the smaller trees. He made a sweeping motion with his arm to indicate he wanted the branch.

Angel drew out his axe and chopped the limb free. After he cleaned all the leaves and small branches away, he handed the Norseman his new staff. “That what you wanted?”

The Norseman clumsily took the branch in his ill-formed hands and nodded thanks, then turned to leave. When he arrived at the slayer’s position, he began to tamp the ground.

Angel watched for only an instant before he got it. “He’s afraid of thin ice and hidden fissures, Faith. Actually, it’s really smart. Out on the ice your eyes can play tricks.”

Faith nodded when the Norseman handed the staff off. “Makes sense.” Continuing on, she tapped the ground the way the Norseman showed her. When he nodded, she picked up the pace.

Rushing to catch up, Angel said as he fell in line, “Thanks.”

Glancing back, Faith prompted, “For what?”

Angel fixed his gaze on the distant mountain that loomed on the horizon, reflecting honestly as they moved, “For the patience. I know it’s hard. I got exactly how hard back at the market. I know you want to kill and move on. Trust me I get that. I lived it.”

“Yeah, whatever…I’m pretty sure you don’t get it at all,” Faith stated dismissively.

Angel took a breath for patience and the cold burned his lungs. After a short pause to gather his thoughts, he offered coolly, “Then explain it to me, Faith. We’ve got nothing but time.” The Norseman was right, visibility’s terrible. There could be a gorge in front of us and I’d never know.

Faith’s tone was flat as she explained, “You looked at me like I’d lost my mind when I blew up the lab. I had to. I needed to know if Red’s arrows were gonna work on these demons. Only way to know’s to test.”

“Fair enough,” Angel replied, “It makes sense you’d want to know.”

“I wasn’t worried I’d get hurt, ’cause—well, look at me. Thanks to Doctor Zoidberg back there, I kinda can’t…hurt, that is.” Sighing at the tedium, she commented offhandedly, “Could this get any more boring?”

He chuckled. “I doubt it.”

“Anyway, I hit the market. I know you didn’t like it, but I knew if I played it smart, I could do it and they’d never have a clue what hit ’em.” Taking a quick break to shift the pole to her other hand, she resumed, “It felt damned good. I’m not gonna lie to you there. It wasn’t the killin’ that was good though. It was the satisfaction—the revenge, like I said. I killed that bastard that sold us first. He saw me and knew he was dyin’.”

A long silence hung between them as they slowly crept across the ice. The fog thickened as they moved. Angel finally called halt and dug into his pack for rope. Handing the end off to Faith, he remarked, “Tie this around your waist,” and began to fashion a loop for himself. He stepped back and nodded to the Norseman. When the man raised his arms, Angel tied him in the chain. After coiling the rest of the rope, he hung it from the other man’s waist and asked, “Okay?”

The Norseman nodded.

“So, why are we headed this way?” she asked, striking off again into the murky white.

Angel snagged his pack, securing it as he spoke. “Because of something our friend kept repeating: Niflheim.” When Faith paused to give him an expectant glance, he continued, “Niflheim is a misty realm from Norse mythology that borders Hel. That’s with one ‘l’ and it’s not quite the same. I mentioned Midgard to him. Midgard means ‘Earth’: where we’re from. If this is Niflheim, then Hel should be on the other side of the fog. Really it was a guess, but his people did it before us. For my part, I just picked where the fog was the thickest.”

She quirked an eyebrow and looked back at the vampire, “So, you guessed.”

“Kind of, but mythology is usually based on something. Is it impossible to imagine that the person that described the Norse Hel was once right where we are?”

Continuing to plod along, she mused, “Nope, but it’s still just a guess.”

“Fair enough.”

Buffy smiled at the attractive, auburn-haired woman behind the counter and said, “A dozen long-stemmed, red roses with some baby’s breath and a vase, please.”

Returning the smile, the florist asked, “Anniversary?” When her customer’s brow knit, she apologized, “Sorry, that was too forward wasn’t it? I do that. Just ignore me.”

“Oh, no, it’s cool,” Buffy replied in a light cheery voice, “Nah, ‘in the doghouse’.”

“Gotcha. How about I fix you up with something special? Guaranteed to get you off the couch,” the florist prompted.

Leaning casually against the counter, Buffy replied, “I really shouldn’t.”

“Trust me; I can do better for less,” the florist said with a wink.

“Alright, you sold me.” Buffy turned to have a look around the small shop as the florist began to work. I have a feeling—if we stick around—this florist and I are gonna develop a relationship. She’ll see me coming and start working on apology bouquet number three or some shit. ’Cause if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to screw up.

The florist called Buffy over and she moved back to the counter.

“Tahiti Sunrise Butterfly,” the florist remarked, displaying a marbled flower hued in salmon, coral, orange, and yellow, “It’s an orchid. You think—?”

At the prompt, Buffy answered, “She’ll love them.”

The florist smiled warmly, giving the blonde a polite nod as she went back to work.

Buffy leaned against the counter again to watch as she waited.

The florist glanced over her shoulder from the work bench behind the counter to ask, “So, how long you two been together?”

“We’ve known each other a few years, but the ‘together’ part—it’s still sorta happening,” Buffy answered honestly, quickly clarifying, “At least it is if I can stop being a moron.”

“Ah, that explains a few things.”

Buffy gasped, “Huh?” appearing confused.

Stalling, the florist wiped her brow with her sleeve.

“C’mon, spill,” Buffy prompted curiously.

The florist went back to placing sprigs of greenery and other smaller violet flowers around the orchids. “It’s just, you didn’t set off my gaydar. I know that sounds lame, but there’s a sense you get…and you—”

“Fair enough,” Buffy replied, “Will’s my first and I’m completely clueless. Any advice? I could use it.”

“Lots of chocolate and ice cream when they’re grumpy, Ben and Jerry will become your saviors,” the florist said with a good-natured chuckle, “Flowers are good—less fattening too.”

“Gotcha,” Buffy said, falling silent and pensive.

Allowing the blonde a break, the florist finally asked, “So, you’ve dated guys, right? This isn’t like you’re first big relationship, is it?”

I wonder what she’d say if I told her the truth.  “Yeah, not many—I’m pretty picky,” Buffy admitted. My last boyfriend was a 243 year-old vampire that I’ve sent to Hell twice now. Typical teen stuff. She filled in silently and smirked as she imagined the face the florist would make.

“The first really serious one’s always hard. It doesn’t really matter what gender they are. I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s a little worse for same-sex couples. All that extra social crap gets tossed in the mix,” the florist muttered as she turned to place the bouquet on the counter.

“I wouldn’t know about the latter, but ‘oh, yeah’ to the former,” Buffy quipped as she examined the bouquet. “This is gorgeous. What do I owe ya?”

“Make it twenty-bucks…and a tip,” the florist replied. When Buffy tried to hand her thirty, she passed the ten back and remarked, “I don’t want your money. Just promise you’ll try to do right by her and we’re square.”

Cocking an eyebrow in disbelief, Buffy commented, “Fair enough—actually more than fair.”

“Oh! I almost forgot,” the florist said with a blush, “Pick out a card,” and pointed to the display rack by the counter.

Buffy began to look through the selection of cards, admitting as much to herself as the florist, “I have no clue what to even say.”

The florist shrugged. “You can make a huge production out of it. Go searching for the perfect thing. What’s usually best is to just be honest.”

Buffy’s expression washed with confusion. “What? Tell her I’m an idiot?”

“How about, ‘I love you. Please forgive me’?” the florist filled in with a giggle, “Not that the ‘idiot’ thing isn’t good. God knows, Trish makes me feel like one half the time.”

Accepting the pen the florist handed her, Buffy quickly wrote on the card. “Thanks. It was really nice to meet you…?” she said graciously and tucked the card into the bouquet.

Offering her hand, the florist supplied, “Julie.”

A bright smile lit the blonde’s face as she offered, “Buffy.”

As they pulled up in front of the house, Joyce placed her hand over her date’s and said, “I had a lovely time, Edward. Thank you for dinner.” That sounded convincing enough, but if I never hear another word about his ex-wife it’ll be too soon. She glanced toward the house and her brow knit with concern. What’s Xander doing here? She opened the car door and stepped out. Leaning back inside she pardoned herself by saying, “If you’ll excuse me, that’s one of my daughter’s friends. I need to go see if everything’s okay.”

“Yes, no trouble, Joyce. I had a wonderful time too,” Edward replied. Offering a charming smile, he quickly added, “Perhaps we could do it again sometime?”

Joyce returned the smile and replied, “Perhaps.” In my worst nightmare. After quickly shut the door, she set off up the sidewalk. He looked nice enough. Maybe I should just give up?

Xander rose from where he was seated on the steps and asked anxiously, “I’m not interrupting something, am I?”

“Not at all, Xander, it’s good to see you. Is everything alright?” Joyce responded amiably as she approached.

“Everything’s fine, Mrs. Summers, I just stopped by—” Xander replied, falling short. He appeared extremely self-conscious as he added, “I should go. I didn’t mean to bother you.”

Joyce skirted around the young man and moved to the door. Placing her key in the lock, she looked back and said, “It’s okay, truly it is. If anyone understands missing—” Her voice failed and she turned the key, opening the door. She offered a warm, sympathetic smile before adding, “Could I invite you in for some hot cocoa, maybe? I could use the company myself.”

Putting his hands in his pockets, Xander took a sudden interest in his shoes. Shifting his legs nervously before he said, “You sure, Mrs. Summers? I don’t wanna intrude.”

“You’re not intruding,” Joyce stated firmly, “It’s barely eight o’clock. I was just going to sit down in front of the television again. The company will be nice.”

Xander looked up and gave Joyce a charming, boyish smile and replied, “Thanks.”

Leaving the door ajar, Joyce made her way directly to the kitchen, setting her purse aside en route. In an effort to make conversation as she busied herself with cocoa preparation, she asked, “So, how is school?”

Xander leaned against the archway between the dining room and kitchen. “It’s okay. Graduation’s a week from Saturday. I can’t believe it’s almost over.”

Turning to glance at the young man, Joyce queried, “Do you have any plans for after graduation?” I will not think about them missing graduation. Dwelling on that would do neither of us any good at all. I need to steer this toward something positive for both of us.

“I was thinking about going on a road trip. I’ve lived here my whole life and—I dunno, I’d just like to be able to say I’ve been somewhere else.”

After taking the powdered cocoa down from the cupboard next the sink, Joyce fished through a drawer until she found measuring spoons. Spoons in hand, she paused and turned to look pensively at Xander. A warm smile lit her face before she offered, “You know, I did something very similar just out of high school. Some girlfriends and I went off on what we thought would be a grand adventure. It was fun.” She glanced up at the ceiling in amusement and ran her tongue over the inside of her cheek. A light-hearted giggle slipped out and she continued the thought, “Until the car broke down fifty miles from Reno. Patty’s father drove all night to pick us up. He wasn’t very impressed.”

Moving over to take a seat at the breakfast counter, Xander chuckled and reflected, “Yeah, it’ll probably go that way for me too, but I gotta try, y’know?”

A sentimental smile played at her lips and Joyce muttered her agreement, “That you do, Xander. That you do.”

Angel stooped to one knee and requested pensively, “Come here, Faith, take a look and tell me what you think.”

Moving forward to join the vampire, Faith looked down and snarked, “Gee, Angel, that’s a great big hole. You seriously need my help with that? We’ve only seen a dozen or so now.”

“Look at the shape,” Angel prompted hopefully.

Clearly unenthusiastic, Faith replied, “It’s a great big, round-ish hole. And…?”

Angel sighed heavily before he spoke again. “See the other side?”

Quirking an eyebrow, Faith answered, “Yeah, the ground slops up,” failing to see the point.

Glancing over to give the slayer a significant look, Angel filled in, “We’ve reached the mountain.”

“Just spill, Angel. The guessing game’s getting old.”

“The Norseman said something else that stuck out. He said it several times like it was important, ‘Ligtnemenscer’,” Angel reflected pensively. When she simply shrugged in reply, he continued, “I think he was talking about the demon that hurt you.”

Faith folded her arms and responded crossly, “Great, so the thing had a name. You really think I care?”

“Just listen, Faith, it’s all I’m asking,” Angel remarked tolerantly, “Look at the details: everything here’s light, so the demons that live here are light. If you think about it, did the one that held us really seem to fit here? The only one that’s shown any technical proficiency was him. At market did you see a single lightly colored one running a table?”

Anxiously biting her parched lower lip, she admitted, “Nope.”

“What if there’s a caste system working here? The light ones are the bottom rung on the ladder. The dark ones are on the top rung. All the others fall somewhere in between. Ligtnemenscer is probably like doctor or scientist. Some higher social title, maybe?”

“So you think the dark ones are from another place?”

“Yeah. We’re looking for something pretty specific: the ability to regenerate. That’s what we’re talking about basically. Only something that’s technically proficient on some level will have that. I think the one that worked on you was on the low end of the top tier of the ladder. His big brothers are going to have what we need. He was probably young or weak and out here working his way up—feeding on the lower end to reach the top.”

She was silent for several moments, piecing together the puzzle Angel had given her. Finally, she replied, “So lemme get this straight…you wanna descend into Hel to find something worse than—?” When Angel responded with a nod, she groaned, “Have you lost your mind?”

“It’s what we came here for, Faith,” he stated simply, “And I’m not leaving without it.”

Faith glared at the vampire and growled, “Alright, but when we get home, what’s left of you won’t fill a Ziploc.”

Angel was completely unaffected by the threat. “That’s fine. Just do this. I’ll bare my chest and let you stake me. I’m not what’s important.”

After rolling her eyes at the martyr act, she asked, “So how you planning on getting to the bottom of this hole? I don’t see anything to tie off to.”

Rising to his feet, Angel made his way to the Norseman, gesturing and speaking in hushed tones.

Faith didn’t like being cut out of the loop. Guess he’s trying to con the Swede into doin’ something stupid too. Typical. He’d sell his mother for Blondie—that is, if he hadn’t killed her a couple hundred years ago. Whatever…not my problem. If the Swede’s dumb enough to help, that’s on him. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the other man gesturing wildly. Looks like the Swede’s smarter than I thought. Give him credit there. When Angel finally approached her, she rose to her feet and asked, “So what’s the scoop, Boss?”

“You and the Norseman are going to lower me,” Angel explained, “Then he’ll lower you. We’re leaving our gear all except our weapons, so he can make camp and wait.”

She began to loosen the rope around her waist and take off her extra gear. “So what was the deal with all the hand waving? Looks like the Swede wasn’t so happy to help.”

As he freed himself from the rope, Angel responded, “He’s not Swedish, Faith. He’s Norwegian…and he was trying to talk me out of it.”

“Least one of you’s showin’ some sense,” Faith grumbled, “But why should I trust him?” while she removed a sword from her pack frame.

After taking off his pack, he reached into and outer pocket and located a bundle of glow sticks before answering, “Because he wants the same thing as you.”

Lashing the sword to her back, she replied aridly, “Away from you?”

After giving the slayer a mock wounded look, Angel bent a glow stick and dropped it into the hole.

Faith glanced up to ask, “How deep?” and grabbed up a quiver, clinching it down across the sword.

“About thirty feet,” Angel responded as he shoved the rest of the glow sticks into his pocket. Waiting for the others to prepare, he coiled the rope around his gloved hands. When they were ready, he stepped off backward into the hole, using his legs to steady his descent.

When the rope pulled free, she groaned. I can’t believe I’m doing this. Guy rapes me and now I have to trust him not to drop me? Even better, I gotta trust him to be here when I get back? Angel’s lost his mind. After slinging her bow over her shoulder, she grabbed onto the rope and started to slide down.

When Faith reached the bottom, her senses reeled. It took her a moment to catch up. She let go of the rope and looked at the glow stick that appeared to be hanging in space. Then she crouched down, staring slack-jawed at what she thought was the ceiling. Angel’s shoes appeared upside-down in her field of view and she gasped, “What the hell?

“Exactly,” Angel responded helpfully, “Just roll out. Gravity’s reversed.”

After crawling out onto the altered ground, she watched the rope retract into the hole and commented, “You don’t see that everyday.” She rose to her feet, continuing to peer into the hole. The rope dangled and weaved as the other man pulled it up. I feel like I should be lying on my back watching this, but—

Turning her attention to more pressing matters, she gazed muzzily out into the darkness. The only source of illumination was the hole that shone light in from the other world. She peered up into a great black void. There were no stars, moon or sun—just emptiness. “What now?”

“Now we figure out where in Hel we are.”

The pact must be satisfied. I’m the only one that can save her. Michael peered from the darkness of the back corner booth at the blonde woman who sat at the bar. Without me she’d be lost—no, damned—damned to wallow in the filth—damned to an eternal hell. I bring clarity. I am justice.

I am bored. Sighing morosely, he propped his elbow on the table and took his cheek in his hand. Would you please move already? This is always the worst part.

As he sat, dully awaiting his moment, Michael studied the blonde. She’s always the same. She looks like she’s trying to fit in. Like a lost lamb. ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.’ She is beautiful, but she uses her beauty to corrupt and, for it, will be condemned. Her heart—her heart is stained by lust—by unnatural urges she is too weak or too self-righteous to resist.

The thudding music and chattering of the crowd had begun to give him a headache and Michael rubbed his temples. Though, the real filth of this place hasn’t yet crossed her lips. Her body hasn’t been marred by the chemical waste the others seem to thrive on. All the better. She’d be useless if it had.

The blonde leaned in to give her raven-haired companion a kiss, then stood up from the barstool.

Michael averted his gaze, taking in the skulls that lined the wall of his booth. Disgusting, sinful creatures. When the couple turned to take their leave, Michael rose swiftly from the booth and set off after them. It’s always the same and I always bring peace. I restore the natural order. He carefully avoided contact with the wretched scum that frequented this place as he went.

Winding through the maze of bookshelves, he continued into the second large chamber. Red lights, fog, and the drone of the music made him uneasy as he carefully scanned the crowd for the blonde. When it became apparent that she wasn’t there, he moved on toward the entrance, systematically hunting as he went.

Moments later, he emerged outside and made his way to the street. He peered in first one direction then the other, searching the crowd of barflies making their way between nightclubs for his prey.

When the marshmallow she was carefully toasting burst into flames, Willow exclaimed, “Fudge!”

Buffy commented amusedly, “I think you’ve had enough, Will.”

Willow pouted and blew the marshmallow out before peering up at the blonde and answering in a snit, “It wasn’t for me.” Her attention shifted to the poor, burnt marshmallow as she continued her rant without pause, “I wanted it to be perfect…and now look at it—it’s all black and yucky. It was pretty and brown…”

Buffy’s elevated voice broke through, “Will. Umm…Will! I like them burnt.”

Willow glanced up, completely mortified. “Nu-uh,” she replied dismissively as studied the pajama clad blonde reclining in the Victorian wingback chair in their room. It’s weird—like I’m just really seeing her for the first time.

Reaching down from her perch, Buffy gestured for the stick and prompted, “I do. Lemme have it. It’s getting cold.” She carefully pulled the blackened shell off the gooey marshmallow and popped it in her mouth with a smile.

Willow’s eyebrow quirked in disbelief and she grabbed the other stick off the hearth, beginning to toast another. Ignoring the marshmallow, she glanced over her shoulder to watch her girlfriend. Girlfriend. She giggled softly. She is though—like really—no joking—all mine. She even said so. Course, she still thinks we should take it slow, but the moratorium on smoochies is lifted. She did an inner happy dance. And that’s good enough for me—least for now.

Buffy broke off a graham cracker and a piece of chocolate, assembling a smore with the melted center of the marshmallow. When she was done, she passed the treat down to where Willow sat on the floor and took a sip of hot chocolate. “Y’know, Will, I’m pretty much sold. Camping is just better with room service.”

Willow took a bite of the smore and carefully rotated the marshmallow over the coals in the fireplace. When she swallowed the bite of smore, she set the rest on her pajama knee and picked up her cocoa. Taking a drink before she asked, “I thought you were cutting me off?”

Buffy replied amusedly, “What can I say, ‘no’s not really a word that’s in my vocabulary when it comes to Willow.”

“Really?” Willow chirruped, “That sounds useful,” and abandoned the cocoa in favor of the smore.

Appearing to think better of what she’d said, Buffy amended, “Don’t push it.”

Before turning her attention back to the poor marshmallow, Willow flashed her best playful pout at the blonde.

Buffy groaned and mumbled, “I’m doomed.”

Chapter 11

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