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 11 - Put Out the Light in My Eyes

After sweeping up the glow-stick, Faith turned her back on the vampire and began to move toward the sound of lapping water. Cautiously traversing the rough terrain, it took several minutes for her to reach the shoreline.

She looked down at the water that swelled up onto the beach. The sand was deep, clear green and shimmered like crushed beer bottle. Chunks of jagged, polished rock poked arbitrarily out of the glimmering sand. The effect was surreal as the glow-stick cast an eerie, blue light on the glittering beach. She resisted the urge to reach down and scoop up a handful of sand. Turning her attention past the limits of the small circle of illumination, she noticed the light that radiated from the passage reflected off the tips of waves as they surged toward the shore.

Angel’s voice sounded out, tearing her from the daze, “I’m tempted to say, ‘beautiful,’ but every time I find myself thinking that, this place hands us our asses. Let’s get moving.”

Tearing her attention from the water, she nodded, peering vaguely at the vampire. The beam of light behind him silhouetted his form, making him hard to look at. She turned away and began to pick her way along the shore.

As they traveled together, her eyes began to adjust to the muted light levels and more detail came into view. Just inland from the coast, the terrain turned craggy and mountainous. Despite the elevation changes, the light of the passage was never out of view. Least we’ll be able to find it…if we survive.

They’d been skirting the shoreline for only a short time when another sound caught her attention. Instinctively, she turned from the coast to move toward the sound of rushing water. The path they followed was treacherous. Sharp rocks jutted up from the dark ground as they ascended from the beach. She carefully picked a path, climbing steadily up. When they reached the top of the rise, a valley spread out below them, teaming with lightly colored vegetation. On the far end, a waterfall poured into a large lagoon that stretched out into the center of the basin.

Without thought, she began to work her way toward the waterfall. As they drew closer, the already foul air filled with another, more noxious odor. Her sinuses began to burn and her eyes welled up. “What is that smell?”

Angel replied, “Alcohol,” over the thundering din of the falls.

Another crashing realization overcame Faith, making her uncomfortably aware how alien this place really was. Any similarities with the world she was from washed away in that instant. The waterfall wasn’t water at all.

As they moved closer to the fall, Angel commented in a distant manner, “Think about it, Faith, water would freeze, as cold as it is. All of the ‘water’ we’ve seen has been the same—not water at all. I’m surprised you didn’t smell it sooner. The air smells pretty bad to begin with, though, so another disgusting stench just sort of blends in. Atomized like this, it gets pretty obvious.”

At the base of the fall, the spray made her intensely cold. Her eyes burned and streamed with tears, but there was something that compelled her closer as much as she wanted to turn way. Finally it occurred to her what it was, the waterfall radiated with mild glow as though it was subtly backlit. She moved to the side to try and peek behind the cascade of noxious chemical. Her vision blurred as she struggled to look. She could just barely make out that there was a fissure in the rock behind the fall. Her body trembled from the wet and the cold as she moved toward it. Seeking desperately to avoid the flow of the falls, she slipped into the cavern entrance, quickly moving inside.

Once out of the range of the mist, she stooped over. Putting her hands on her thighs, she struggled to resist the light-headedness that threatened to claim her. Her stomach knotted and she choked back the sickness rising in her throat. She wanted desperately to rub her eyes, but knew it would only make them worse. Fumbling around through her jacket pockets, she located a bandanna and began to wipe way the dew that clung to her skin.

When she was finished, she started to look around. Several small, radiant clusters of clear rock protruded randomly from the dark interior of the cave, providing a delicate, natural light source. The narrow passage appeared to continue inward, but the view was obstructed by outcroppings of jagged rock.

Once she was able, Faith pressed forward, remarking in a low whisper, “Dunno why, but I got a feeling this is it.”

“Lead on,” Angel replied reassuringly.

Completely flummoxed by the sudden change of course, Willow gasped, “Wha—?” as she followed her girlfriend through the doors of the Hustler Hollywood store. She instantly felt the heat rising in her face. This is just mean.

“C’mon, Will, it’ll be fun,” Buffy prodded in a light cheerful tone.

Willow rolled her eyes at the sideways glance and the giggle she received. Though she wanted to, she didn’t resist as she was towed past all the various brightly colored displays. “For you maybe,” she grumbled. When she began to focus on the stock, the awkwardness faded. This is actually pretty tame stuff. The movies are all R–rated, there’s some lingerie. She shrugged. But it’s brightly lit—nothing seedy about it. Oh! And there are books! I can relate to books.

Her attention fixed on an end cap as they passed by it and she gently pulled, hoping the blonde would stop. ‘Lesbian Sex 101: 101 Lesbian Lovemaking Positions’ Umm…’kay, so…not stopping. But! But! But! Books! She sighed. Oh well. I’ll come back. They were headed for the stairs and Willow took a wild guess that the stock upstairs would be less tame and prepared herself. She’s trying to embarrass me. Not gonna budge. She took a deep breath to set her resolve.

When they arrived upstairs, Willow looked around at the displays of porn and sex toys. Yeah, okay…been online before. No big. She continued to follow but put on her best ‘bored’ face; it wasn’t that hard because she wanted to go back downstairs and look at the books. She was a bit surprised when Buffy pulled them both up to a salesperson dressed in a black Hustler tee-shirt.

“Excuse me,” Buffy said to get the clerk’s attention and continued in a mock curious tone, “I’m looking for a copy of ‘The People vs. Larry Flint’.”

Willow turned her gaze from the young man, who decidedly reminded her of a young Jon Cryer, to the racks of porn DVD’s. The bottom row of each display was filled to capacity with the requested title. This should be mildly entertaining, she mused, directing her interest back to the clerk. Despite wearing a variety of facial piercings, the salesclerk had a boyish charm that was instantly endearing. Again…not exactly what I’d expect, but—

The salesman responded first with a chuckle, then began to explain, “Oh, that? Yeah, if over fifty percent of our stock is R-rated and below, we aren’t a porn shop. It makes things lots easier to deal with from a legal standpoint. So, we pad the stock with—” he gestured to the display of adult DVD titles. “I mean, it’s his store, right? Why not?” After offering a warm smile, he added, “So, is there something I can help you ladies find?”

“Oh, no, just browsing,” Buffy replied in a casual tone, “Thank you. Knew there had to be a story.”

“There always is,” he noted with a chuckle. As the salesclerk went back to straightening displays, he added, “If you need any help don’t hesitate to ask.”

Something caught Willow’s attention and she moved off from the pair toward a row of glass cases at the back of the store. She stood staring at the largest piece of Pyrex she’d ever personally seen. When she felt Buffy approach, she began to comment sarcastically, “So, the only thing that comes to mind is, ‘this and a steel fifty-five gallon drum and you could attempt to break the record for world’s largest Bundt cake.’ Otherwise, I’m drawing a total blank.” Willow smirked as her girlfriend chuckled and spun her around.

Appearing slightly disappointed, Buffy asked, “Not enjoying this, are you?”

Willow shrugged and glanced over her shoulder at the glass case full of sex toys before she answered, “It’s not that I’m not enjoying. It’s that I don’t see the point.” Meeting her girlfriend’s gaze, she pulled her close and whispered, “Thing is, when you decide you want me to touch you again” — she cupped Buffy’s cheek and slowly traced a path with her fingertips from temple to chin as she murmured — “I want it to be me. I want to feel you under my fingertips, to taste the salt on your skin, to smell—” A little shaken, she took a deep breath to clear her head and whispered in the blonde’s ear, “You smell amazing.”

Obviously uncomfortable, Buffy looked down.

Willow guided them around, pressing her girlfriend gently against the counter and persisted, “Remember how it felt?” She grinned wolfishly, taking in the effect she was having.

Buffy was trembling, her pulse had jumped slightly and she was taking deep, determined breaths.

Willow gently forced eye contact by hooking her fingertips under the blonde’s chin. Her voice turned silky as she continued, “Knowing exactly what I was thinking. Feeling what I felt when I touched your skin. So close, we were almost one person. I want that and I don’t think I need any of this to have it. All I need is you.” She leaned in, giving her girlfriend a tender kiss and released her.

Turning for the stairs, Willow glanced back to say, “Now what I do want is a book. I’ll meet you downstairs when you’re done and we can head for the club.” She winked at the slack-jawed blonde and walked off. Two can play that game, Missy.

I’m not sure why I come here. Micha’s gaze traveled around the room, drifting over the skulls that covered the walls and the mass of drunken people. I don’t like this place. It’s unseemly. Look at how they paw at one another—feeding on each other’s flesh. Filling themselves with that foul, red swill. Becoming evil by playing at the role. Only a fool would welcome evil.

After sliding over against the wall of the booth, her attention fixed on a pair of women that had just seated themselves at the bar. You embraced evil once—wrapped it around you like a warm soft blanket. The dark haired woman threaded her arm around the blonde and bent in to whisper in her ear. As the blonde leaned into the embrace, giving the dark haired girl a lingering kiss, Micha’s stomach turned to ice.

She studied the blonde, suddenly struck by feelings of familiarity. Her fine cheek bones and brow framed blue eyes that spoke of experience earned too early in life. Her complexion was far to rich to fit in with the pasty faces around her. While Micha watched, the blonde’s full lips curved into a smile that lit the room.

Micha could feel the heat of her shame pouring from her face. Her gaze traveled down fixing on a plain silver cross that rested just above the blonde’s full bosom. Vivian? Vivian, do you not see? ‘Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?’

Confusion tearing at her, Micha peered down at her hands. Blood poured from open wounds and she struggled to blink it away. Instead, the thick crimson flow crept out onto the table, trailing down her wrists. She fought to choke off the scream that threatened to flood the room, drawing attention to the solace of her corner. Faintness overcame her and she was defenseless to stop it. She dropped her head into her bloody hands, feeling the sticky moisture bathe her skin. The world around her turned murky, dimming as it was washed clean in the blood.

Michael wiped his hands across his moist brow and cheeks. Raising his head, his gaze set on his bloody palms. Silly sow, she always brings me here to search for her precious Vivian. The fetid crimson swill faded as he stared, giving way to a wash of pure, cleansing light that bathed his form. Vivian is dead! She paid the ultimate price for her repulsive behavior—for corrupting a blithering idiot, too weak with lust to see how she made Father weep.

After caressing one of the skulls, he slid out of the corner to get a better view. He looked expectantly around the room for the blonde woman he knew he’d find. Where’d she go? Michael stood quickly, then paced a lap around the room, slipping past the unclean vermin that stood in his way. When it became clear that his prize had stolen away, he set off, frantically searching the rest of the nightclub.

Moments later, Michael pushed back the heavy wooden door and stepped outside. He ran to the street, swinging around to scan both directions. A flash of blonde hair in the crowd caught his eye near the end of the block and he set off in pursuit. It’s always the same. Time to bring peace.

Angel pushed past the slayer, taking point. Okay. She’s starting to make me crazy. I get that she doesn’t care, I even sort of get the ‘why,’ but she’s trying to get us killed. This place has enough dark recesses and blind corners to drive me nuts without dealing with the slayer who acts like she’s taking a walk in the park. He glanced back to wink and Faith glared.

After careful study, he slipped around the corner into a large, open chamber. Shadows hung thick around the edges of the cavern. The only light sources were a few clusters of crystal that emitted an eerie, green glow. The surface of the walls and ceiling made him feel as if he were inside a huge geode. Jagged spikes of clear rock projected out from almost every surface. The ground was uneven and covered in crushed, colorless rock. It was as though, over years of use, the crystals had broken down underfoot. He clung to the darkness as he skirted the edges of the large pond that occupied the middle of the room.

Faith tapped Angel’s shoulder, startling him. He swung around and she pointed. His eyes grew wide as the shock hit him. He stood, mouth agape, for several seconds, peering through a piece of clear stone set into the rough wall. Outside the natural viewport, fan-shaped, white plants grew out of clusters of polished, clear stone. Seeing the plants billow in the flow of the current, he realized that they were beneath the ocean.

The awe and wonder of the moment was cut short when a large black face rose up to peer through the portal. Angel reflexively drew his weapons as he locked eyes with the demon.

This demon looked like another step up the evolutionary scale from the previous ones they’d seen. His eyes were like faceted obsidian. The surface of his face wasn’t smooth; instead, ribbed, convex channels ran in geometric patterns over the surface of his carapace. The finish of the conduits was glossy, set off by the matte surface of his under-shell. A jagged row of spines crested the top of his head.

The slayer skirted back round the pond, picking a projection of rock to stand behind for cover. She notched an arrow and drew back, aiming at the pool.

As Angel watched this peripherally, keeping eye contact with the demon, he prayed that the slayer had not loaded an explosive arrow. When the creature swam away, Angel saw rows of jagged points cresting his back and the outsides of his arms. Well, he’s just lovely. Turning, he slipped back into the shadows to await the inevitable.

Faith let the arrow fly the instant the demon erupted from the pond. The shot was good. It broke through the soft tissues around the demon’s neck. Instantly smoke started to billow from the wound. She dropped her bow when Angel leapt from the shadows to attack the surfacing demon.

Swinging both weapons into the demon, Angel carried the momentum around into a brutal kick. All three blows connected, leaving gashes across the creature’s chest. He staggered back into the pool. A cloud of milky-blue clouded the clear water. It swirled as the demon launched himself at Angel. He swung his weapons to parry the attack.

Faith used the distraction to slip between the demon and the water. Swinging in a crossing motion, she brought her sword down into the creature’s neck as her dagger slipped through a joint in his body shell. She spun around, carrying the demon with her. She ripped the dagger out as she moved. His head hit the floor at her feet seconds before his body splashed into the pool.

She glanced at the vampire and smirked, then turned to kick the head in the pool. Stooping down, she began to wash her weapons in the cold alcohol. Wordlessly, she slid them into place and went to pick up her bow. Once it was retrieved, she motioned for Angel to lead on.

He bent to quickly rinse his weapons and slid them into the harness on his back. No wonder she’s not worried. I’ve never seen anything move like that in my life. I’m fast, but she makes me look positively human.

The humid night air hung heavy and warm around Buffy as she walked, just barely keeping pace with her exuberant girlfriend. She leaned heavily on the cane, relying on it to keep her standing. As they left the crowds of Bourbon Street behind, shock overcame her when Willow picked her up and swung her gently against the side of a car.

The crush of soft flesh overwhelmed Buffy’s senses. A hungry mouth sought out her neck while eager hands caressed her body. Yeah…I’m doomed, she mused as soft lips met hers. She returned the passionate kiss with equal enthusiasm. It’s a good kinda ‘doomed,’ though. As ‘doomeds’ goes—it could be worse.

Wedging her thigh between her girlfriend’s legs, Willow started to move in a slow, firm rhythm.

The pressure forced Buffy to break the kiss, groaning into her lover’s mouth. Hands came to rest on her breasts, thumbs tracing circles through the fabric of her corset directly over her nipples. Her mind went fuzzy and her body started to tremble. She could feel beads of sweat forming on her forehead. After propping her cane against the car, she seized Willow’s ass and took control of the movement. If I don’t stop this, our second time’s gonna be on the hood of a car—at least it’s not a police car! See what I get for letting her read? No more books for Willow. Yeah, that’ll be the day.

Moderating her strength, Buffy turned, rolling Willow against the car. My turn. As she started to assert herself, gently nibbling the moist, salty flesh of her girlfriend’s neck, something very strange happened, Willow went limp. What the hell? Then a sensation similar to a bee sting caused Buffy’s shoulder to burn. She winced with the pain. A dizzy feeling threatened to overcome her.

A strange pair of hands grabbed her. She swung around. Catching hold of the cane as she moved, she lashed out at the attacker. She missed but used the momentum to flow into a counter-move.

This time the cane connected. Their assailant reeled, quickly shaking herself off.

Buffy’s focus lapsed as the tranquilizer took hold. The cane was wrenched from her weakening grip. Seconds later, she felt it connect across her lower back. Oh God! Her left leg folded and she collapsed onto her side. Pain erupted across her shoulders. She rolled onto her back to try and block the blows. After summoning the last of her strength, she sat up.

The aggressor slipped from view. Buffy yelped when a blow came from behind, striking her right kidney. The cane impacted her right clavicle, sweeping her over backwards. Tears welled up in her eyes. Her right arm lay entirely useless. She tried to move it. Sharp pain shot from her shoulder when the broken bone dug into her muscle.

The attacker started to use her feet to break through Buffy’s feeble defenses. Between the sedative, the kicks, and the cane, she was overwhelmed. Closing her eyes, she screamed as the dark-haired woman struck her. Her cry choked to silence when she felt her ribs snap. The air rushed out of her lungs and she lay in agony, gulping for breath. Tears leaked out between her closed eyelids.

It became impossible to follow where the blows were landing. Soon her entire upper-body was on fire. Allowing her head to fall to the side, she opened her eyes. While the woman beat her, she peered dimly at Willow. I’m so sorry. Her mouth tasted like tin. She swallowed to clear the blood, remembering the salt.

I failed. It was my job to protect her and I failed. In that instant, nothing else mattered. Her heart broke, rendering the pain meaningless. All of the sensations blurred and Buffy started to slip away. Terror clawed at her—not for herself, but for Willow.

Sinking into the shadows, Faith listened to the sound of something approaching. It was impossible to tell exactly what was coming their way, only that it was big. She looked around the corridor where they were hiding and turned her attention to Angel. She made a jerking motion with her head to indicate they ‘fall back.’ When Angel nodded in reply, she began to slip through the shadows toward the chamber with the pond. At least we’ll have room to move.

Once they arrived in the cavernous room, Faith moved back to her previous hiding place and notched another arrow. When she was ready she glanced over at Angel. He was shaking his head. Jeez! What’s wrong now? She strode noiselessly over to the vampire and whispered, “What?”

“No poison, Faith. If this thing is what we want—”

She cut him off by holding up the plain hunting arrow. Looking annoyed, she stated frankly, “No poison,” not bothering to suppress her voice.

He nodded and mumbled, “So long as you know,” appearing mildly self-conscious.

She abandoned the vampire and returned to her post.

When the demon finally entered the room, it headed straight for the pool.

As she lined up her shot, Faith mused, These things just aren’t getting any prettier. More bumps and spiky shit than that last bastard. Hope this is paydirt ’cause, they get much nastier, I’m askin’ for a missile launcher.

The demon caught sight of the body in the water and reared back, bellowing out a piercing wail.

Faith let the shot go. Before the arrow hit, she had her weapons out and was halfway to the demon.

The cry fell silent as the arrow tore into the creature’s throat. It turned its attention to the slayer unleashing a series of vicious blows with all four arms. After it swung, its upper right hand went to its neck and tore the arrow out, casting it aside.

Yeah, faster and stronger too. Parrying all but one blow, Faith reeled from the onslaught. A grunt slipped out as Angel moved behind the hulking demon. Recovering within seconds, she flowed into a series of counter-moves.

The demon easily deflected the blows as Angel lined up and took one brutal swing. His blades connected along a ridge of barbs where the demon’s spine should’ve been. Silvery-blue blood flowed for only an instant before the wound began to close over.

The creature spun, driving a clawed hand into the vampire’s gut. Angel flew backwards across the room. Smashing into a column of quartz and shearing it off.

Faith took the opportunity to unload. Bringing her blades down into the demon’s left shoulder as it turned. She finished with a brutal kick that sent the demon flying across the pond. Not letting up, she descended on the creature as it flailed to stand. Don’t do well on your back, do ya? Dodging the swinging limbs, she drove the sword down into the demon’s cracked carapace. That sword was blocked, but the dagger slipped through. It laid open her victim’s throat. Shimmering blue blood flowed freely from the creature.

Yatzee! It’s different. Same shit, but full of steel filings. Sounds healthy! Yum! She drove a foot into the demon’s healing chest. About half her blows were countered as she focused on collapsing the beast’s upper body. The sound of splintering shell soon filled the room.

The demon lay defeated and broken moment’s later. Blood welled up in its crushed chest. Faith took out a heavy black plastic bottle and dipped it into the pool of fluid. Instead of closing the lid, she raised the bottle and whispered, “Here’s to your health, B.,” then tipped the bottle up. After draining the contents, she made a face and wiped her mouth. Okay, not yum! That was just gross! Giving the demon another brutal kick to slow the repair, she bent down and filled the bottle again. This time, she capped it tightly and shoved it into the inside pocket of her coat.

Grabbing up her weapons, she turned away from the demon. Her gaze fixed on Angel. He still wasn’t moving. She ran toward the vampire half-afraid of what she’d find. He’s not dust, so it’s all good. When she reached his side, he was stirring. Blood still poured from the gaping abdominal wound. “You gonna be able to stand, Boss?” she asked as she offered a hand down.

Struggling to sit on his own, Angel groaned, “Yeah. Give me a minute,” and accepted the hand.

After helping the vampire to his feet, Faith went over to the pool to wash her weapons and put them up. As she worked, a flourish of movement and a shower of something wet caused her to wince and spring to her feet. What she saw shocked her. The demon was fully repaired. Angel hung, suspended by the base of his ribcage, on one of its arms. It was obvious he had stepped into a blow meant for her. She rolled her eyes. Hero types. Do they come any dumber?

The demon was about to rip him in half when she attacked, opening with a low, sweeping kick. The demon’s legs folded. As it collapsed, Angel was thrown across the cavern. Faith continued to focus low on the demon, tearing into its legs. Careful to stay out of range, she hacked until one of them came off. Moving around as it floundered; she concentrated on the right arms. The majority of her swings were blocked for the first few seconds until she did enough damage to break through. When the right arms were severed, she quickly moved to the head. The leg was already starting to reattach. Sensing the pressure for time, she took one vicious swing and cleaved the head off.

She rushed to stow her weapons and ran to Angel. The gaping abdominal wound was much larger. He winced when she threw him over her shoulder. Again, not dust. He’ll live, but y’know that’s gotta smart. Leaning down when she passed her bow, she snatched it off the ground as she fled.

The sound of hammering caused Willow to stir. Her eyes fluttered open, but her vision was too blurry to make anything out in the dim firelight. Tilting her head in the direction of the noise, she blinked, trying to clear the distorted image. There was something hard in her mouth and it burned. She tried to swallow. Instantly regretting it as acrid salt washed down her throat. While she struggled, the board across her back bit into her shoulders. She kicked out futilely with her bound feet.

A raspy female voice growled out of the haze, sounding along side the pounding, “Were they ashamed because of the abomination they had done? They certainly were not ashamed and they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall. At the time of their punishment, they shall be brought down.”

When Willow’s eyes focused, her heart stumbled. Gasping, she started to gag on the salt in her mouth. She felt sour acid rise up in her throat. With her mouth taped shut it only added to her sickness. Panic ripped through her when the woman turned her way with blood pouring from her nose.

The woman sprang to her feet and swung around to face the witch. As she moved, still clutching the claw hammer, she snarled, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

Trembling, Willow peered into the woman’s malevolent face. Tears streamed down her cheeks, flowing into her ears. Sweat beaded on her skin. Her breathing grew erratic. The tape across her lips billowed in and out, pulling at her skin. Numbness paralyzed her as she grappled with the certainty that she was about to die.

With each step the woman grew weaker. Blood began to leak from her ears. When she reached the witch, she slumped onto her knees. Spittle mixed with blood and ran down her chin. It dripped onto her dirty, white tee-shirt as her neck sagged, no longer supporting the weight of her head.

Willow tried to scream, only to choke again. Confusion tore at her. She didn’t understand why the woman was injured. The limp body dropped on top of her. It took her several moments to grasp that the other woman was dead. When the reality finally crept in, Willow tried to scream again. She gagged and acid rose up into her mouth. The sound of her own heartbeat was deafening. The weight of the other woman across her chest was making it hard to breathe.

Fighting to remain conscious, Willow focused on the ropes that held her right hand to the board. The knots were hard. As she struggled to loosen them, she grew faint.

Angel felt like he’d been swept into one of those crazy video games the kids played at the mall. The tunnel walls blurred as they rushed by, weaving and dodging. As they rounded a corner, his head came dangerously close to a sharp outcropping of rock and he winced. He was amazed by how smoothly the slayer ran. Her footfalls barely jarred the wound in his stomach. It was the view instead that was causing alarm, making him sick.

He cringed when the demon came into sight behind them down a long straight stretch of tunnel. The creature was picking up speed as it healed. A clawed hand hit the catacomb wall as the beast ran, sending a shower of rock down behind it. Angel closed his eyes when Faith started to weave again. If one of the sharp chunks of rock was going to hit his head, he sure didn’t want to see it coming.

Fine mist coated his skin. Oh! Thank! God! We’re out. He opened his eyes in time to see the waterfall moving into the distance. Then things turned peculiar for an instant. He was being thrown. Flying through the air, he landed on his back, just in time to see the slayer draw her bow. Oh hell! His eyes fixed for a moment on the arrow tip and he screamed, “No!” It was too late. The arrow flew as the demon burst from the waterfall.

Angel’s hands reflexively covered his face as the slayer dove on top of him. Time hung for just an instant. Strange how comforting it is—having her protection. He grappled with this thought for a second or two before the world around them turned to fire.

He found himself flying again. This time he wasn’t alone. Faith clung to him. They bounced and tumbled, shearing off rocks in their path.

When they came to a rest, Angel pulled his hands from his head and swept the slayer’s singed hair from their faces.

After rolling off him, she asked, “You okay?”

Struggling to sit, he replied, “That’s a relative thing. It depends on what you mean.”

Faith smirked and offered wryly, “Still not dust—you’ll live.”

Angel began to chuckle despite the pain as he stared at the fire that poured over the cliff into the burning lagoon. Falling silent, he remarked, “Subtle—somehow, I have a feeling that word just isn’t in your vocabulary.”

“It’s not a very useful word,” she supplied with a grin. Giving the vampire a sideways glance, Faith asked, “You gonna be okay to move or do you need—?”

The look on her face told him everything he needed to know. He peered shame-faced at the wound in his stomach as she held out her bared wrist.

“You’re useless to me that way. Get over it and drink before company comes,” she stated frankly.

When he pushed the arm away, she added, sounding mildly amused, “Be happy. I got the goods. So, let’s get over it, get outta here…and save your princess.” She pushed her arm back under his nose and added, “Sound okay to you?”

He was surprised when Faith winced at the bite. Withdrawing, he looked questioningly at her.

She sat like a statue, obviously waiting for him to finish.

What the hell changed? He watched the blood well up from the wound that instantly started to close. She’s right; we don’t have time for show and tell. If this doesn’t attract attention, nothing will. As he drank, he could feel his injuries repairing. He didn’t take a lot. He didn’t need to. The blood was the most incredible thing he’d ever experienced. After a few moments, he sprang to his feet, completely healed and feeling better than he could ever remember.

Faith collected her bow and bounced to her feet. Smiling knowingly at the vampire, she asked, “Better, Boss?”

Ignoring the question, Angel wordlessly set off for the passage. Eventually, after his face changed, he said, “Thank you,” just out of sheer courtesy.

When Willow’s right hand ripped free from the board, she tore the tape from her mouth. Turning her head to the side, she spat the salt rock out and vomited. After heaving the corpse away, she rolled over, immediately starting to work on her left hand. It took several minutes of struggling with her shaking hand to loosen the rope. Once her hands were free, she turned her attention to her feet.

Finally, she pushed herself to standing. She staggered to keep her balance and tripped over the body. Her right wrist made a loud cracking noise when she landed. Tears welled up in her eyes and she resigned herself to crawling.

After slowly dragging herself across the dirt yard, she slumped over next to Buffy. The first thing that crossed Willow’s mind was to feel for a pulse. She put her hand to her lover’s throat and started to weep. She’s alive. Her gaze fixed on the blood soaked rope and the nail that held her girlfriend’s right wrist.

I need to think, but I’m so tired. After struggling to sit, she began to look over the injuries. As she gently pulled the tape and removed the salt from Buffy’s mouth, reality sank in. There was nothing she could do. She sagged over shaking and sobbing. Repeating pleas for forgiveness, she wept until her head started to pound. Her grieving ended with a whisper, “I’m so sorry,” and a kiss. I need to stop with the guilt and do something!

Anger at her own foolishness strengthened her resolve and Willow sat up to take a look around. An old cabin sat up on stilts about twenty feet from where she was. There was a late-model minivan sitting next to it. The fire pit that provided scant illumination to the clearing was to her right and a marsh lay to her left. Two massive, gnarled cypress trees that had grown together at the base of their trunks stood near the edge of the water, shrouding the clearing.

She started to inch back over to the corpse that lay between her and the cabin. I need to see if she has a phone. If not I’ll try to get in the cabin. I don’t think I can drive, but I may have to find a way. I won’t leave her, though. I don’t care what it takes. I refuse.

After reaching the body, she rolled the woman onto her back. Willow’s hands were shaking so hard she could barely thread them into the pockets of the woman’s jeans. I did this. I’m not sure what terrifies me more: that I did it or that I don’t understand how I did.

Locating nothing useful on the body, she began to crawl to the cabin. It seemed to take forever to even reach the steps. She pulled herself up, holding onto the door for balance. The hasp that held the rickety door closed was loose. She turned the knob and stepped into the cabin. On an old table by the door, she found a purse. Dropping to the steps, she began to rummage through it.

After quickly locating keys and a cell phone, she dialed nine-one-one. Her heart skipped a beat when the phone actually began to connect. This is good! We’re not so far off the grid that there’s no cellular signal.

The phone rang twice and a neutral male voice declared, “Nine-one-one operator, please state your emergency.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks as Willow stuttered into the phone, “I-I was—I mean, my friend and I—we were abducted. She’s really badly hurt and I-I don’t know where we are.”

“Is the person that abducted you still there?”

“Y-yes,” Willow forced herself to say, quickly stammering to add, “But sh-she’s dead.”

“Please stay on the line. We can attempt to triangulate your location. Can you reach your friend?”

Trying again to stand, Willow fought to keep her balance as she replied frankly “I can get to her. It’ll take me a minute.” After a moment, she sluggishly set off across the dimly lit dirt yard. About half-way across, she collapsed to her knees, grunting when she hit the packed dirt.

“Are you okay, Ma’am?”

“I-I’m fine—well, as fine as you’d expect. I just fell. I’m not walking—w-walking is bad,” Willow stammered to explain and started to drag herself on her side, pushing off with her legs.

“We have your location and are dispatching an ambulance. When you get to your friend I need you to take her vitals for me. Can you do that?”

“Y-yes,” Willow gasped as she struggled to move.

“Can you tell me something about where you are? Anything would be helpful. We can get a rough fix on your location, but it’s impossible to be exact.”

“It’s an old cabin in the bayou,” Willow said, fighting to keep her tone even, “There’s a black minivan in the driveway and a fire burning in the yard.” Heavy bruises had started to rise on Buffy’s exposed skin. Willow began to weep again as she drew closer.

“Are you alright, Ma’am?”

“Sh-she’s hurt re-really bad,” she choked through the tears.

“Are you with her yet?”

After creeping the last few feet, she replied, “Yes.”

“And you have a watch?”

“Yes,” Willow stated, already starting to take her girlfriend’s pulse. There was a short pause and she offered, “She’s bleeding really badly from her right wrist” — she began to untie the rope from Buffy’s left wrist — “I’m going to try a tourniquet. I’ve never done one, but I get the principle.” So stupid! If I’d done this when I first got to her she’d—


“Her pulse is weak and thready—forty-three beats per minute. She needs a blood transfusion,” she rattled off, understanding what was being asked. When she got the rope loose, she threaded carefully behind the injured arm. Before the task was finished the phone went dead. “Hello?” No answer came and she pitched the phone aside. Once the arm was tied off, she curled up in a ball facing Buffy.

Fear reasserted itself and Willow began to sob. She lay watching the fire cast warm radiance over Buffy’s broken form. I’m afraid to touch her. It looks like all I could do is cause her more pain. I’ve already caused her enough. She’s— She gasped, shaking as she struggled with the thought. She’s dying because of me.

After several moments, she shut her eyes. Her body shook as she fretted. The cricket song overwhelmed the watery breath sounds of the body next to hers in waves. Occasionally, a pop from the fire disrupted the melody. Severe fatigue and the serenade of the bayou eventually lulled her into a deep, fitful sleep.

Faith was starved. Sitting with unusual restraint on the cold ground next to the Norseman, she mused, A coupla cheeseburgers, a bucket of coke, and three large fries. Her mouth started to water. Oh! And another bucket of ketchup! That’s what I’m gonna ask for. I don’t really care about much else. After living on bugs for who knows how long in that creep’s cave and this freeze-dried shit for a couple weeks after. Hell, I dunno how long it’s been, really. There’s no night here. It seems like a lifetime. All I know is gimme real food! She patted the lump in her coat made by the pouch Willow had given her as she watched the vampire dig.

Angel pulled the duffle bag out of the ground and began to remove the items.

Her heart lurched when he set the skull on the ground and began to cut into the top. I’m seriously going home. Crazy after all this. The really weird thing? I don’t hate him anymore—either of them, actually. We depended on each other too much and they never let me down—not after we got free. Angel didn’t let me down before that. I’ve never been happier to see anyone then when I saw Siggy dropping that damned rope. And I think Angel was right, Siggy here’s not a bad guy. He was just a guy put in a bad spot. What kinda name is Sigvaldi anyway?

Angel lifted the top of the skull off and opened a few bags of dried herbs, crushing them before sprinkling them into the skull. He glanced up, making eye contact with Faith before pouring the venom over the top.

Faith smiled brightly. I’m going home! She felt like her face might split open from the smile when the first drop of venom produced a wisp of smoke. A tear trickled down her cheekbone, freezing before it reached the hollow of her cheek. It’s gonna work. Pulling the locket from under her clothing, she mumbled, “Hear that, Red?” The portal crackled to life. She stood up and moved towards it. Now the question is: besides food, what the hell am I gonna do? Her body trembled as the energy of the portal washed over her. Take it one day at a time.

When she stepped through into the warmth of their world, there was a crash. She jumped at the sound. The portal faded behind her and the world went impossibly dark. A thud to her right made her flinch again. Instinctively, she fled the sound.

As she collided with a wall, Giles’ voice muttered out of the blackness. Giles and he’s talkin’ to someone—someone who’s scared. Blinking reflexively to clear her eyes, she heard the Norseman gasp and choke as though in trouble. Her nerves settled while she listened to the exchange. He’s comforting him. Siggy’s freaked out. Well, I guess that’s expected. Guy was sorta trapped in Hell forever.

When her eyes finally adjusted, Faith had trouble understanding what she was seeing. Giles stooped over the Norseman, holding his hand while the other man convulsed. A putrid foam poured from Sigvaldi’s mouth as Giles muttered something about ‘Valhalla.’ That’s like Norse heaven. He’s dying. Why’s he dying?

Faith stood stark still staring in slack-jawed disbelief. When the Norseman finally passed away, she was no longer hungry.

As Buffy drifted on the edge of sleep, she gradually grew aware that her head was throbbing. She cracked an eye and quickly snapped it shut against the bright lights. Her head pounded its thanks. Bad idea.

A wave of nausea gripped her as a fragment of memory returned. She swallowed hard to try and regain control. Willow’s unconscious face hung in her mind’s eye, haunting her. Willow? Willow was hurt! Panic gripped her and she screamed, “Willow.” Instead, her voice sounded like a weak croak.

“I’m here, Buffy. You’re safe.”

Oh thank god! Buffy tried to move her arm. It jerked, hitting the bedrail. Wait! What’s wrong with her—her voice, it’s wrong—distant, detached. She winced reflexively. Her arm dropped back to her side before she rasped, “What’s wrong, Will?” It hurt to speak, but she struggled to finish, “Is something wrong? You’re scaring me.”

“There’s nothing to be scared of.”

That voice. It’s wrong—it’s hollow and wrong—like she’s trying to hide something. Buffy was getting really uneasy. Her stomach knotted again as another memory returned. I was being beaten—watching Willow and being beaten. I was with Will—so happy. There was another woman—a dark, angry woman—empty eyes, gaunt face. She looked sick.  “Will, please, the light, could you turn it off? I need to see you.” Why’s she not touching me? I need her. Last time I needed her she was holding me when I woke up. What’s wrong?

Her girlfriend was moving and Buffy could sense it. As Willow neared, it was like a weight lifted from the slayer’s chest. She could hear the other woman’s heartbeat; it was strong and healthy. Willow was nervous—her respiration was a little heavy—but uninjured. There was a strange lope to her step as she walked past the bed, but she dismissed it. It’s minor. Will’s okay! She’s really okay!

The lights went out and Buffy’s eyes fluttered open. She wasn’t surprised to be in the hospital. What did surprise her was that Willow had continued out the door. Why? What! She looked down at herself. Both of her legs were in traction. The bits of bare skin she could see were deeply bruised. No wonder she’s afraid to touch me. I wouldn’t want to touch me either. I look like shit. ’Kay, so…calming down—breathing normal—I’m not gonna get sick.

When Willow returned to the room, there was a nurse right behind her. “The nurse is going to give you something to make you feel better, ’kay?” she said in a temperate tone.

“What’s wrong with you, Will?” Buffy begged when her girlfriend limped right past her.

Willow came around to the other side of the bed and took a seat before she spoke. “Nothing, Buffy—well, actually I have a broken wrist and a sprained ankle, but I’m fine. I just feel bad, y’know?”

“Yeah, okay…” Buffy replied uneasily. She turned her head too quickly when the nurse touched her I.V., instantly regretting it as her head answered by pounding. Her eyes started to water. “Wh-what is that?” she asked, nervously eyeing the needle.

“Something to help you relax, dear,” the nurse replied in a reassuring tone.

Buffy felt the flow of cold liquid enter her vein and her vision blurred. In a matter of moments she drifted away.

Giles pulled the Citroën into his usual parking space at the school and climbed out. His face filled with concern as Faith caught his attention again. He’d never imagined that she could look so ragged and unkempt. You’re acting like a mollycoddling old biddy. Do show some self-control.

Faith offered a weak, reassuring smile as she climbed from the car. Barking a laugh, she remarked, “Get a grip, G. A shower and some food, I’ll be good as new.”

Giles replied with waning concern, “Yes, quite right, you look at though some rest might do you some good as well.” Turning, he matched pace with the slayer as they moved toward the school. When they reached the doors, it occurred to him that he hadn’t seen Angel exit the vehicle. He stepped away from the entry to have a look around and asked, “Where on earth did Angel go?”

She shrugged vaguely and opened the door. Meeting Giles’ gaze when he turned toward her, she remarked flippantly, “How long’s it been, G.? You should remember he does this crap all the time. It’s no big.”

Casually answering the question with little thought, “Nearly two weeks now.” He didn’t delay passing through the entry as the slayer held it open for him. Giving her a sideways glance, he set off down the corridor toward the library. It shouldn’t surprise me that they’ve become accustomed to one another’s habits, as long as they’ve been gone. What does have me a bit bewildered is Faith’s behavior; I didn’t imagine that she would be nearly so friendly when she returned. In fact, I thought quite the opposite would occur. I suspect there’s an intriguing story to be had if we could prompt either of them to speak of their experiences.

“The others should be here shortly,” Giles remarked as he pushed open the door to the library. He was a bit taken aback to see Angel standing with Xander by the stacks, whispering.

As Giles approached, Xander set off for the door at a brisk pace, offering a hasty, “I’ll be back in a few, Giles, gotta get something from the car.”

Furrowing his brow, Giles took a seat at the head of the study table, his attention fixed on the vampire. He’s looking remarkably better. His skin is still grey, but the blackness around his nose and mouth have faded. It’s remarkable, given the condition of the Norseman, that Faith seems to have suffered very little damage. Her skin was obviously chapped, but one would think, with the extensive frostbite the other man had— Well, at any rate…we’ll call it a small blessing. Taking her to the hospital with severe frostbite would not have been enjoyable at all.

As Angel silently made his way to join them, Giles began to examine the slayer’s hands again. Neither one of them are willing to share any of the details. I suppose that is fitting. One can tell, just by looking, that they’ve been through quite an ordeal. He took in the black bone and tendon structure that showed through the translucent skin.

Faith smiled, twiddled her fingers to allow Giles a really good look, and placed her hands in her lap.

Giles turned his attention right to address Angel. I really must stop gawking, he chided himself before asking aloud, “Might I see the sample you’ve returned with?”

Angel nodded to Faith and she pulled the container out, placing it on the table as she remarked, “There you go, G., the miracle cure-all.”

Giles picked the bottle up and opened the lid. It was full to the brim with a light blue-grey fluid. He quickly replaced the cap and set the bottle in the center of the table. Shifting his attention between the two as he spoke, he offered sincerely, “We are all in your debt for doing this. It’s quite remarkable, really.” As he fell silent, Angel nodded and walked toward the door.

Faith smiled and snarked, “Well, I’d say, ‘No trouble, G.,’ but I get you not likin’ the lyin’. It’s cool though. It got me outta the ’Dale for a few weeks.”

Turning to see where the vampire had run off to, Giles replied, “Indeed.” He sat puzzling over the details while Angel and Xander both reentered the room. Xander quietly took the seat across from Faith and Angel sat next to him. Yes, that would indeed explain it. His gaze fixed on the bottle. This fluid—this blood is said to endow the person that imbibes it with remarkable regenerative abilities. It would stand to reason that, given an opportunity, Faith would partake. That doesn’t explain her hands. That is unless they were— Dear Lord! It’s no wonder she doesn’t wish to speak of it.

“G-Man?” Xander asked, appearing concerned. He snapped his fingers in front of Giles face.

Pushing the hand away, Giles glared at Xander and grumbled, “Xander, if I told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times, please do not refer to me that way.”

Xander put his hands up in a ‘surrendering’ gesture and offered apologetically, “Sorry, you were just zoning pretty bad.”

Turning toward the younger man, Giles offered truthfully, “Terribly sorry, Xander. My apologies. I just have a great deal on my mind.”

Silence hung over the room for a time and the attention of the entire table fixed on the bottle in its center. Finally Wesley and Joyce entered through the side door. The others turned to greet them.

Once they were all seated, Joyce took out the cell phone and hit the send key. “I’ve already tried this twice. It worries me that they’re not picking up. I suppose it’s nothing. They’re probably just out to dinner.” When no one answered, she hung up the phone. She smiled self-consciously at the attention she was getting.

“Not to worry, Joyce. I’m certain, as you say, that they’ve just stepped out,” Giles offered reassuringly, “Once they see that they’ve missed your call, they will return it in short order.”

Wesley chimed in, “Until we have some notion where to deliver this miracle serum, there really isn’t much to be done. Might I suggest we allow Faith and Angel to go tidy up a bit?”

“That sounds like a reasonable plan,” Giles returned, “That is unless they have something to report?”

After rising from the table, Faith replied casually, “Nada, G.”

As Angel rose to leave, both entrances to the library opened. Four men in black tactical gear, carrying assault rifles, rushed in through each door, surrounding the table.

Quentin Travers strode into the room through the main doors and asked smugly, “Do you seriously believe we weren’t watching?” He gestured to Faith and Angel and four of the men broke formation, seizing them by the arms. He went directly to the table, sweeping up the bottle.

The slayer growled as the men both pressed the muzzles of their guns into her ribs.

Travers began to pace as he spoke, “Tobias uncovered evidence to suggest that this” — raising the bottle so the others could plainly see it — “is the Holy Grail: ‘le san gréal,’ or rather the Royal Blood: ‘le sang réal’ it was fabled to contain. I always did love a good pun, no matter the language.” He chortled, “Rich with irony, this magical liquor of Christian legend actual comes from deep within the bowels of a demon dimension.”

Removing the top of the bottle, he started to drink, then paused, returning to gloating, “Did you have any idea, Mr. Giles? Did you see the connection, or did you just send these two festering piles of shit to Hell on a hunch?” He leered at Faith, giving her a contemptuous grin.

Faith tensed, pulling against the two council goons who held her arms. She looked over at Angel who gave her a slight head shake and she stood down.

Turning to glare at Giles, Travers continued his sermon, “Documents buried deep within our vaults suggest that Widukind was beheaded during the Bloody Verdict of Verden along with 4,500 other Saxon leaders. There are those who believe he still walks the earth today. While this may be folly, it is clearly documented that, after the slaughter, Widukind dedicated his life to erecting churches to honor the Christian God.” His tone turned venomous. “And you honestly expect me to sit by while you grant this miracle to an impudent wretch who defiles our great council’s name with her very life?”

“What I expect from you is betrayal,” Giles snarled, “I expect egotism and cruelty. Good of you not to disappoint.”

Travers smiled sweetly, appearing even more evil for the effort. “Yes, yes, very well, Mr. Giles, show what a big man you are by casting rubbish insults around. Now we see who the better man is,” he said in a patronizing tone and turned the bottle up, draining the contents.

Chapter 12 - In the Beginning is My End

Finding it impossible to contain himself any longer, Xander allowed the impish grin he’d been restraining to show. Angel said, ‘piss in it,’ but—well, I just couldn’t stop there. Besides…demon blood—it just wouldn’t’ve been right. Bet this makes him sicker than a dog. He gave Angel a sideways glance and burst into peels of laughter when Travers dropped to his knees and started to retch.

Faith looked at the two men like they’d lost their minds and grumbled, “Failing to see the funny.”

Angel wheezed, trying to calm himself enough to speak, and said thickly, “You guys really need to get a new act.”

Faith quirked an eyebrow when Travers began to vomit a sickly, blue-green paste.

“Sleight of hand, Faith,” Angel gasped, “I asked Xander to get another bottle and piss in it. What that is—well, umm…I have no idea.” Tilting his head, he gave the young man a questioning look and asked, “What is that?”

Struggling to get a grip, Xander choked and said, “Well, it’s what you asked for and—I have no idea. I found it in the cafeteria.” His brow furrowed thoughtfully. “I’m thinking vanilla pudding. It sorta looked like it before the blue dye.”

As the room filled with laughter, Angel turned deadly serious and barked, “Now!”

The instant the command came, Xander watched Faith jump into a back flip just as her assailants pulled the triggers of their weapons. The two men staggered while blood poured from their stomachs. Not wasting another second, Xander plummeted under the table and grabbed Mrs. Summers by the ankles.

The sound of automatic weapons fire roared through the room. This is really, really mean, he considered as he dragged a struggling Joyce underneath, but Angel was right. Joyce was too wigged to duck. He took in the horrified look on her face and said above the chaos, “Relax, Mrs. Summers, it’s just me.” It took him a couple of tries to break through her hysterics. When he finally had her attention, Xander pulled the bottle from his jacket pocket and handed it off to her. Her expression filled with shock again.

Once Joyce had settled, Xander chanced a peek under one of the chairs. His view was blocked. Shifting his head, he peered around the council goon’s legs. What he saw stunned him. Faith was standing, bent over near the steps to Giles’ office. When she straightened up, he stared at her blood-coated hands clutching her stomach. Oh! Sweet Jesus! That’s so not good!

His gaze traveled up to her face. Her matted hair clung to sweat-covered cheeks. The look on her face was haunting. It spoke of pure malice. The man’s weapon fell clattering to the ground. Xander quickly swept it under the table. His attention returned to Faith. She was grinning, head bowed, glaring up at the man. A string of bloody saliva dangled from her lower lip. She moved her hands and revealed a hole in her tattered, blood-stained tee-shirt. The skin underneath was healed. Shit!

Xander didn’t stick around to watch the carnage. As he redirected his attention to Joyce, there was a snapping noise that made him cringe. The council goon’s body dropped to the ground beside them. After shutting his eyes tight to wipe the alarm from his face, he offered reassuringly, “I think it’s under control.”

Joyce was half sitting under the table, propped up on her elbows. She clutched the bottle to her chest with both hands.

Making eye contact, Xander said in a slow careful voice, “Listen to me, Mrs. Summers. Angel’s gonna let us know when it’s safe. Angel and Faith are gonna take you to the airport and drop you off. When you hear from the girls, you’ll fly out with Giles. Okay?”

When Joyce nodded with understanding, he returned the gesture and continued in a soft reassuring voice, “Just ignore the—it’s okay, I swear. I know this is really wiggy.” Falling silent, he glanced over to look at Travers. The pompous Englishman was lying on his side, his back to them, clutching his stomach, in a puddle of putrid sick. Serves the old bastard right.

Xander turned back to Joyce and instructed, “Put that in your purse.”

She obeyed as Angel’s voice sounded out, “It’s clear.”

Wesley and Giles poked their heads around two of the lower level bookshelves when Xander emerged from under the table. Good! They were smart enough to duck too. I was worried. After climbing to his feet, he offered a hand down to Mrs. Summers. “I’m really sorry about that,” he remarked sheepishly as he helped her rise.

After fastidiously straightening her clothing, Joyce replied aloofly, “No, Xander, its fine.”

Releasing her hand, Xander was a bit bewildered when she set off immediately for the coat rack.

When Joyce turned around, she held one of Giles’ umbrellas. Stepping carefully around the bodies of Travers’ fallen men, she made her way to the Head Watcher. She stood just outside the puddle of sick and peered down at the pathetic man.

Uh-boy! I know that look. Badness—that look means total badness. Xander glanced anxiously around the room, taking in the attention Joyce had garnered.

“I hope this will be a lesson to you,” Joyce stated firmly as Travers peered dully up at her. “I get the feeling that you’re not a man that listens to reason.” She twirled the umbrella in a circle as she continued to rant, “The obvious tends to elude you.” She whipped the umbrella down across his shoulders. “What really speaks to you is pain.” The umbrella bent when she beat him over the head.

Travers whimpered, covering his head with his arms.

When Joyce brought the umbrella down again, the vampire swept across the room and caught it. Angel carefully pulled the umbrella from her grasp while he offered soothingly, “That’s enough, Joyce. Just let him slither away.”

Tears welled up in Joyce’s eyes.

’Kay, so…the planet’s gonna start spinning backwards at any minute, Xander mused when Joyce slumped into the embrace Angel cautiously offered. Yup, cats and dogs are gonna be frolicking in the sun together. Oh! And it’ll start raining toads. It’s always fun when that happens.

Angel put his arm around the elder Summers and led her to the door.

As Faith walked over to escort Giles to the car, Xander gave Wesley a sideways glance and smirked. He joined the younger Englishman and said, “Hungry? ’Cause there’s this great pizza place just down the street.”

Wesley peered wide-eyed around the room at the bodies and replied, “Someone should really stay and—”

Xander shrugged and turned to leave. “Suit yourself. Given the choice—pizza or cops—I’ll pick the pizza every time.”

Wesley rushed to catch up, remarking as he went, “Did you say you liked sausage on your pizza?”

Holding the door for the other man, Xander answered, “Love it.”

Once Wesley passed by, Xander set pace next to him. He watched vaguely as Angel’s car sped away. Sirens sounded in the distance and he picked up the pace.

When they were clear of the school, Wesley leaned in to ask, “What just happened?”

Slowing his gait, Xander stuffed his hands in his pockets. As he strode casually down the sidewalk, he commented softly, trying to suppress the bitterness from his tone, “Y’know, no one ever pays much attention to me.” He fell silent when the street lit with the glare of flashing lights.

The fleet of squad cars careened past without so much as slowing and Xander resumed, “All around me I’ve got slayers, and watchers, and vampires, and even Will” — he directed his attention to his feet — “not that she’s here now—but she’s really smart. What am I? Just Xander. But I figured it out tonight. I do have a power: if I want, I can become invisible—like that girl.”

He gave Wesley a sideways glance, surprised to see he had his full attention. “You weren’t here for her. She turned invisible—like really invisible—because of the ignoring. Whatever. Point is: all it takes is the right words and Giles completely tunes me out. Y’know I told him I was going to my car when I left to get another bottle?” He chuckled. “I don’t even own a car. Faith was looking right at me when I swapped the bottles. She turned away as I did it.”

Xander cleared his throat and directed his gaze forward before concluding, “Angel was right. No one saw me.” He sighed wistfully. “But whatever… What happened was this: Angel saw another one of those black vans outside. When you and Mrs. Summers came in, I switched the bottles. Then Travers showed exactly how much of a creep he is. And from there, I’m thinking, ‘lots of kicking and punching,’ but I’m not really sure—what, with the hiding.”

“I see.”

Xander glanced over to take in the pensive look on the watcher’s face.

As the lights of the pizza place came into view, Wesley chucked wryly and asked, “So what are we doing tomorrow evening?”

“I was considering having a movie night. Have you ever seen Apocalypse Now?”

Detective Richard Lawson scanned the barren clearing, rapidly taking in the teams working the scene under the flood of artificial light. After a few moments, his partner Danny poked his head out of the shabby little cabin and walked over to greet him. Ah…kid said he was hitching a ride with Parish. Regular little eager beaver. I remember when I cared.

The younger blond man shook his head ruefully and offered, “Helluva way to start the weekend, eh, Rick?”

“You know it,” Richard replied, “So, what’ve we got?”

“The perp’s name is Micha Dresden, age thirty-six” — Danny gestured to the body in the center of the yard — “diagnosed at fourteen with schizophrenia, in and out of mental hospitals most of her life—a genuine nutcase—one of the documented few that actually developed multiple personality.”

“So, the perp, how’d she die?” Richard asked, peering into the dark waters of the marsh, past the techs from the coroner’s office as they worked to bag the body.

Turning away from his partner, Danny studied the yard as he responded, “Won’t know until we get the autopsy results. Brain aneurism or something? I don’t know. It’s the damnedest thing. Looks to me like she fell over.”

Richard observed the techs carrying the body away. “So why was she out?”

Danny put his hands on his trim waist and replied, “From what I gather, her condition was perfectly manageable with meds. System shows that she was fine last time she got out. Course that was years ago. Taxpayers don’t like paying to keep a healthy person in a psych ward and the patient doesn’t like being there. So, they let her go.”

Rubbing his scruffy chin, Richard prompted, “So, she dropped her meds?”

Danny cleared his throat before he answered, “I really wish it was that simple, but, yeah, you’re right. Trouble is: cabin over there’s full of religious propaganda. From the piles of pamphlets and other stuff, she was a Christian Scientist. You know, that whole ‘God will heal you, modern medicine is the work of the Devil’ line of crap.”

After letting out a deep belly laugh, Richard remarked sarcastically, “Great! So we’ve got another religious nutjob on our hands? We just don’t get nearly enough cultists.”

Combing his fingers through his collar-length hair, Danny shrugged and responded, “Yeah…looks that way. She’d go in and after awhile be just fine, once they pushed the drugs down her throat long enough. Then she’d get out and stop taking them. She played the cycle a few times. After a while, she just dropped off the radar.”

“And the vic?”

Danny answered dispassionately, “Vics. Two girls: Anne Rouche, twenty; and Danielle Williams, twenty one” — starting to stroll across the yard to where the two women were found — “just moved here from Arizona. Both clean. I got to interview Williams before they took them both to Ochsner. The other one, Rouche, was too beat up.” He stopped and began to gesture indicating where they were laying. “They were both here when we arrived. The Williams girl had passed out. I thought for sure we had three bodies on our hands to look at them. They were really bad off.”

Richard looked at the scuff marks in the packed earth before he remarked, “Sounds to me like those girls got lucky.”

Danny gave his partner an incredulous glare before commenting, “I’m not sure I’d call getting nailed to a board ‘lucky’. That’s how we found the Rouche woman.”

“Fair enough,” Richard mumbled, “Poor choice of words.”

Danny gestured and set off for the two bald cypress trees near the water. “Come look at this. The lab techs took samples to determine how many we’re talking, but you can tell just to look it’s going to be at least twenty.” He snapped on a pair of latex gloves, mostly out of habit, and pulled out a pen light. Using the light he started to point out the nail holes in the tree for the other detective. “I counted twenty-two.” He stepped back and pointed out the two u-shaped brackets on each trunk of the huge tree. “See the brackets—like you see in old barns to hold the doors—?”

Peering up into the gnarled old trees, Richard shuddered before interjecting, “Yeah, yeah…you can stop now. I get the picture.” Long as I’ve been on the force—stuff like this still gives me the willies. His gaze lingered on the blood soaked bark for a moment before he turned away.

As Richard started to make his way back to the drive, Danny kept pace beside him, commenting softly, “We’ve got a team coming out to dredge the swamp at first light. It’s an open and shut case. We just have to figure out which missing persons’ reports line up.”

Richard paused at the edge of the crime scene tape to ask, “Think the Rouche woman will know anything more than Williams?”

Holding up the tape for his partner, Danny concluded, “If she ever wakes up, I doubt it. My gut’s telling me we’ve got all we need. Those girls have been through enough. Fact is: we may never know who they all were.”

Buffy drifted on the edge of sleep listening to a muffed conversation in the hallway outside her room.

“It’s your turn, Denise.”

“I’ll take old man Hannover off your hands if you’ll do this for me, June.”

“What’s your problem with these two? They’re just a couple of girls.”

“It’s the Williams girl. Have you seen how she looks at us?”

“Not really—I mean, sort of, I guess.”

“She’s like some kind of predatory animal protecting her mate. She freaks me out.”

“Alright—I think you’re nuts, but alright, you take Hannover. I don’t get you, Denise. You’d rather have a dirty old man grab your ass than deal with a couple of lipstick…”

A weak chuckle slipped out, muting the rest of the statement, and Buffy turned her attention to her sleeping girlfriend in the corner of the room. Hear that, Will? You’re scaring the help.

“She just gives me the creeps, June. I wish she’d go home and at least get cleaned up. She’s really got me worried.”

As the two nurses moved away, returning to their rounds, Buffy studied her friend. Mate? Interesting choice of word. But, whatever. Fact is, Will, the nurse is right—you need to go home—whatever that is. She took in the dark, hollow look on her girlfriend’s face. The effect was made more striking by the smeared black makeup. You look like that guy from that movie. What was that? The tragedy mask guy. It’s a bit creepy. Not to me, but I can see the—

Willow stirred. Meeting the gaze and holding it, she sat unmoving and silent.

Refusing to break eye contact, Buffy peripherally inspected the slings holding her legs. Yes, Will, I know the truth. Despite the drugs—in spite of all your work to keep me out—I’m paralyzed. I get that. How do I feel about it? Nice of you to ask. It’d be nice if you did, but you don’t need to. You know—you know I’m not sure yet. You get that I’m desperate and angry, but too fucked up to do anything about it. You’re keeping me that way. You blame yourself. I can feel it. That and I know you. I don’t need to feel to know.

The flourish of movement from the corner of the room didn’t surprise Buffy. Watching her guardian remove the blanket and stand up, Buffy rasped, “Go home, Will.” Back to sleep. That is, if the nurses will listen to you again.

Buffy followed the limping figure as Willow set off wordlessly out of the room. You can’t keep me like this forever, Will. Eventually I’m gonna wake up and you’ll just have to deal. You’ll have to deal with me…and you…and ‘you and me’…and ‘us.’

Bristling, Faith’s attention snapped to the door of the hotel room when the lock issued a couple of clicks.

As Joyce pushed the door open with her back, she stooped to pick up a handful of shopping bags.

Faith slumped back into the chair, visibly relaxing when Mrs. Summers entered the room. Her gaze moved back to the ice bucket that contained the blood—the blood she’d given everything for. I didn’t want her to go out alone, but it’s what she wanted. And she was totally right. No one would notice her alone. Me? I stick out like a sore thumb. She looked down at the dirty, ripped clothing she wore. I look like a fucking bum. Her attention turned to Joyce as she drew near.

“I hope I did okay. I’m used to shopping for Buffy,” Joyce remarked, handing off the shopping bag to Faith.

Faith poked her nose in the bag, lifting the items aside to look. Her face lit up when she saw the black jeans, plain black button-down cotton shirt, and boots. “It’s perfect, Mrs. S. Thanks!”

“Alright, you go get showered and I’ll drop off Angel’s things. I got him a Hawaiian shirt he’s just going to love,” Joyce replied cheerfully and set off out of the room with the second bag.

Faith chuckled while she looked through the remaining bags. Locating toiletries, she went into the bathroom to shower. As she removed her old clothing, she piled it into a trash bag. The shower was the best thing she’d experienced in recent memory and she had a hard time leaving it. When she was clean, dried, and dressed, she returned to the room with her hair in a towel.

Joyce was sitting in one of the chairs patiently waiting. Gesturing to the floor at her feet, she offered, “Please, come here.”

Faith went over to take a seat at Joyce’s feet.

Joyce giggled lightheartedly and made a twirling gesture with her right hand. “Turn around.”

Furrowing her brow with uncertainty, Faith followed the directions. She flinched when Joyce removed the towel.

The tone of Joyce’s voice was warm and kind. Despite the distrust, Faith found herself calming as Mrs. Summers began to touch her hair and speak. “Its okay, Faith. Relax and get comfortable. I used to do this for Buffy when she was little. Truth is, I sort of miss it.”

When Joyce started to brush her hair, Faith was stunned. She expected it to pull, but it didn’t. The touch was very gentle. Joyce carefully sectioned off clumps of knotted hair, working from the bottom to remove the tangles. Faith had trouble imagining the patience it would take to remove all of the snarls. I wasn’t sure how I’d deal with this. My first thought was crew cut.  “Mrs. S., you don’t have to spend the whole night on me. It’s cool. I’m good,” she said nervously.

“If you have something you’d rather do, I’ll stop” — Joyce let the hair she was holding fall from her fingers and set aside the brush — “but right now we’re just waiting,” she responded frankly, “I thought I could return some of the kindness you’ve shown us.”

Faith turned so fast it made Mrs. Summers jump. Raising her hands to show she meant no harm, she gave the older woman an incredulous glare and stammered, “Kindness? Mrs. S., I caused”— she stabbed her chest — “it was me.”

After the alarm passed, Joyce responded patiently, “Yes, it was. I haven’t forgotten. But, Faith, what makes a person good isn’t the mistakes we make, it’s how we deal with those mistakes.”

Faith’s brow knit with confusion. “I was forced to do that. Angel made me.” This motherly shit’s makin’ me crazy. I don’t deserve it. She took in the kind, patient look on the older woman’s face and grew angry.

“And you were forced to see it through?”

Faith folded her arms across her chest and snapped, “If I wanted to go home. The bastard hid the stuff to get us back.”

Joyce was unaffected by the outburst. Motioning for Faith to turn, Mrs. Summers stared obstinately until the slayer obeyed and went back to brushing her hair.

Faith rolled her eyes when Joyce started to speak. Great! More wisdom from the peanut gallery. Just what I need.

“People make mistakes, Faith. Sometimes they do all the right things for all the wrong reasons. That’s part of being human. Sometimes you have to look past the reason and simply look at the action. Then hope that something good will come from it.”

Faith started to calm again. The anger drifted away and she sat listening to the soft, serene voice. The fingers moved across her scalp reminding her of what she lost and what she had gotten back. “I was a monster,” she mumbled.

Making a soothing hushing noise, Joyce stated frankly, “Just listen.” After several moments of imposed silence, she began to reflect, “When Buffy was fifteen, she got into a bunch of trouble at school. It was a parent’s worst nightmare.” She paused to chuckle bitterly. “Hank and I were beside ourselves. Did you know she actually burned down the gym of her old high school?”

Faith nodded and the story continued.

“I didn’t know what to do, so I let Hank do what he felt was best. He said she needed help. At first I agreed—she was ranting about vampires; how could that be real?”

Faith felt the other woman grow still. When it became obvious that Joyce was crying, Faith tensed with uncertainty. As she started to move away, Joyce began to speak again and the slayer froze.

“It was slowly draining the life out of her. My little girl—the one person in the world I’d do anything for—was dying in that place.”

Faith puzzled for a moment. They had her committed? When she settled back in her spot, the gentle, soothing touch resumed.

“So I did the only thing I could: I made a choice. I left Hank and brought Buffy with me to Sunnydale.”

There was another drawn-out silence and Faith slumped into the comforting touch. Is this what it’s like—having a mom who cares? A tear rolled down her cheek.

“Last year. It started again. Just when I thought we were okay—everything was fine: Buffy was doing well in school, making friends, living a pretty normal life. Then, out of the blue, she started up with the nonsense again—telling me she was ‘the slayer’.”

“She showed me some things that frankly just scared me. I reacted badly and I lost her again.”

Yeah…she said she bailed—went to L.A. I wondered why she didn’t just stay gone. I think I get it now. Faith sat patiently waiting for more of the story. During the break, she absently wiped away the tear.

“When this all happened, we were just starting to talk again. Most of what I heard was really hard to accept, but we were talking. Then she was gone again.”

“But the thing you have to understand, Faith…the reasons don’t matter. You’ve given us another chance. I don’t care why you did it. The fact that you did is all that matters—you and Angel.”

The contact lapsed for several moments and Faith turned to peer up into the peaceful, tear-stained face. She flinched when Joyce took her hand and started to examine it. The sensations were all muted and the scrutiny made the slayer uneasy.

“What’s more, I know what you gave up.”

Faith steeled herself when Joyce drew her into an embrace. I will not cry! If I start, I’m not sure I’ll stop. A tear slipped down her cheek, causing the slayer to cringe. Dammit! As the older woman began to caress her back, Faith broke down and wept.

Willow put the key into the lock and entered their room. The afternoon sun radiated into the space, giving it warmth. She took a deep breath. It smells like her. Strange after only a few days.

After shutting the door behind her, Willow’s jaw clenched with resolve. I need to do this and get back. I can’t stop to think. If I do, I’ll cry. And if I cry, I won’t stop. She started to shed the filthy, rumpled clothing and made her way to the shower. Piling the foul mess of black leather, lace, and cotton into a corner of the bathroom, she turned on the faucets. Looking down at her injured wrist, she began to peel off the brace and Ace bandage.

Her reflection caught her eye and she looked into the mirror, meeting the smeared, dirty gaze. At first she was astonished by how bad she looked. It was like the face wasn’t even her own. As she peered into the deep, sunken eyes, she grew comfortable. I look like what I am: a monster.

She turned her back on the monster in the mirror. Climbing into the shower, she started to hastily bathe. At least I’ll be a monster that smells nice. There just aren’t enough good smelling monsters in the world. Maybe I can set an example for monster hygiene.

Though, in all fairness, the Master’s progeny were all pretty clean. Willow chuckled, falling silent as she started to wash her hair. Heck, Angel’s practically metrosexual. When we met him, he wore more eyeliner than I do now. Glad he stopped that. He looked like such an idiot.

When her hair was rinsed, she applied some conditioner and started to carefully wash her face. Me? Well, at least I don’t have to drink blood. I’d never get past that. But I don’t need to. All I need to do to kill—to destroy the woman I love—is this oversized brain of mine. I can kill with a thought. That’s way more scary than the pointy, bitey routine. They’re all amateurs.

After lingering a moment, she stepped out of the shower and began to dry off. Tucking the towel around her, she met her reflection again. I look harmless, like I couldn’t hurt a fly. She drew back and punched the mirror with all her strength. Drawing back bloody knuckles, she stared at her fractured likeness. That’s better. She ignored the pain throbbing through her mangled hand.

Seconds later, without a conscious thought, she began to paint the face back on. When the monster met her gaze again, Willow left the bathroom to dress. I need to get back and make the nurses drug her again. If I don’t, she’ll wake up and see what I’ve done.

A beep caught her attention as she sorted through her clothing. The cell phone sat on the desk, emitting a metered tone. She walked over and picked it up.

After hitting the send button twice, she listened to the monotonous chime until Joyce’s excited voice replaced it. “Yes,” Willow replied, waiting patiently through the eager speech. When Mrs. Summers fell silent, Willow responded with six simple words, “Anne Rouche, Ochsner Baptist, New Orleans.”

“What? What is that, Willow?”

“Her name and the name of the hospital,” Willow answered dispassionately. As Joyce pled for information, the remainder of Willow’s heart turned to ice. She hung up the phone and cast it aside.

After rushing to dress, she gathered one suitcase of clothing and her laptop. Seizing her jacket, she picked up her bags and walked out of the room.

Leaning against his shovel, Angel stood back, watching the slayer pour the last scoop of dirt onto the grave. I’m not sure what the difference is. One of them is in the ground; the other’s walking around. Yet they both had the same thing done to them. Maybe it’s the slayer—whatever that is—the thing that makes her a slayer. Maybe it’s just the time they were there.

Faith turned away and picked up the fifth of Maker’s Mark. Raising it, she muttered, “Rest in peace, Siggy,” and took a healthy gulp.

Maybe it’s the fact that she drinks like a fish? Eyeing the slayer, he asked, “So that’s the plan? After all this, you’re gonna get drunk?” Whatever it is, the fact remains that Sigvaldi died of exposure. His body couldn’t handle this atmosphere. I have to wonder if the effect will be the same—if it’ll just happen slower for her. When no reply came, he drew his favorite sword and buried it almost up to the hilt at the head of the Norseman’s grave. He stepped back, leaning against a tree, and whispered, “Safe journey, Sigvaldi.”

As she turned to meet his gaze, taking another swig, Angel pulled the Norseman’s blade from his back. He stood for a long time, examining the sword in the moonlight while the slayer watched him and drank. Eventually, he began to whisper, “There’s an ancient tradition. When two honorable men become brothers as a result of their journey, they trade weapons. Carrying a brother’s sword is a sign of fealty.” A sardonic smile tugged at the corners of his mouth and he admitted, “That and this is just such a nice sword. It’d be a damned shame. This thing really belongs in a museum.”

Faith chuckled and passed him the bottle. “I’m surprised you gave the other up.”

After propping the sword against a tree, Angel took a sip before he responded, “It’s important we do something to mark the grave.”

When she had the bottle back in hand, Faith tipped it over, allowing a portion to dampen the fresh-turned earth. She stood, quietly observing the grave for several moments prior to asking, “What’s gonna stop someone from just taking it.”

He met the slayer’s gaze again and responded matter-of-factly, “The same thing that holds the rest of our world together: magick.”

Faith took another swig and passed the bottle before replying, “Fair enough.”

Taking a sip, Angel prompted, “You never answered me,” careful to keep his tone neutral. This is it: the moment of truth. Will she go back to stumbling or forward to something else? It would be incredibly arrogant to think I have all the answers she needs, but I think I can help her find a few. Maybe, if she’ll give me the time—whatever time she has.

A harsh laugh slipped out and she smirked at the vampire. After swiping the bottle out of his hands, she began to reflect honestly, “I figured I’d get a buzz, yeah. S’not like I’ve got tons of other things hangin’.” She made a sweeping gesture with her arms and tipped up the fifth, taking another sip. “’Sides, where I’m from, when a friend dies, you drink—it’s tradition. And the hangover the next day—it’s a lot like mourning—” she took another healthy gulp “—or at least you mourn what’s left of your head.” Staggering slightly, she passed the bottle back.

Drinking another swig, he returned the bottle and asked, “And then?”

Faith took another belt off the fifth and passed it back. After mopping her mouth with the back of her hand, she remarked, “Best I got is: one day at a time. I know I can’t stick around here. Too many people want me dead or locked up…or worse. Think I wore out my welcome in the ’Dale.”

He replied frankly, “You and me both. Look, Faith, let me be blunt. I’m leaving and, if you want, you’re welcome to come with. We’ll try to figure it out together. I’ve not got a lot to offer except an ear, but I promise to listen.” Falling silent, he raised the nearly empty bottle to the grave and took another small sip.

When it was offered, Faith accepted the fifth, turning it up to drain the last few drops. She whipped it into the air, listening to it sing as it sailed away. When it finally landed in the woods, crunching the leaves, she met the vampire’s gaze and winked. “Buy me another bottle and you got yourself a deal,” she remarked flippantly and started to walk away.

After sliding the sword back in place, Angel picked up the shovels and turned to leave. Rushing to join her, he mumbled, “You drive a tough bargain, but I think I can handle that.”

The light of the laptop display glowed, illuminating her corner of the dim room. Movement in the hallway caused Willow to glance up from the webpage she was studying. The door cracked and light poured in. Ignoring the disturbance, her gaze fixed on Buffy.

Two familiar voices broke the silence, invading her solace. Willow turned her attention back to the display, peripherally taking in the fuss Mrs. Summers was making over her daughter.

Giles moved toward her asking, “What on earth happened? Joyce has been beside herself since you returned her call.”

Willow filtered out the chiding tone and replied bluntly, without looking up, “We were attacked.”

Rounding on the chair, Giles stood over her obviously struggling to understand. Eventually, he managed, “Attacked?”

Willow pressed the power button on the laptop and snapped it shut. After setting it aside, she folded the recliner closed and stood up. Giles was studying her like he might something disturbing, yet curiously fascinating. She disregarded the scrutiny and answered impassively, “You heard me, Rupert.”

Pushing Giles aside, she moved to the foot of Buffy’s bed and waited for Joyce to administer the blood. Buffy looked up and their eyes locked. The expression on her face wasn’t accusing. Willow had half expected it would be. Instead it was bewildered, like her friend was trying to understand something very alien to her. Willow held the gaze, allowing the blonde her examination.

Joyce interrupted the exchange by putting her hand behind her daughter’s head and lifting it up. “Honey, I need you to drink this,” she instructed in a soft, patient voice.

When Buffy made a face at the request, a soft grin curled the corners of Willow’s lips. It swiftly faded into the same vacant expression she’d worn since they left the bayou together. She watched Buffy drink. I don’t think they get this—how violent it’ll be—how damaged she is. I wouldn’t have stayed, but they need me. She needs me one more time.

A thick silence hung over the room as the four waited for some sign that this miracle was working. They stood motionless, listening to the beeps of the monitors. Again, Willow patiently allowed the blonde her study. Ripe questions seemed to tug at her friend’s lips, but thankfully she remained quiet. I don’t have your answers, Buffy. I’m sorry I don’t.

Movement in the hallway caught Willow’s attention. Without disturbing the tranquility of the room, she bid the nurse to pass by. She doesn’t need your drugs now.

While Willow stood engaged in this wordless dance, silently placating, she felt them—millions, perhaps billions of microscopic stars, little pulses of energy, coursing through her friend’s body. She sensed them fanning out, carried by the new blood. Any moment now. Her friend’s pulse jumped and Willow stifled the machine, forcing it to keep their secret.

Terror reflected back at her from the bed. Willow ignored the expression and continued to focus, calming the machines, holding the trembling limbs still, keeping their silence. When a scream bubbled up in her friend’s throat, Willow snuffed it out. Shhh… I know it’s hard. I know it hurts. I know you’re scared. Just hold on. It’ll be okay. I promise.

As Buffy grew calm, a tear rolled down Willow’s cheek. Yes, it’s almost over, love. I’m here.

When peace rested over the room, Willow turned away, paying no heed to the stunned looks.

“Will?” Buffy pled desperately, “Will, please?”

Willow continued to the recliner. Quickly bagging her laptop, she brushed off the shock of those around her. After slinging the case over her shoulder, she limped out of the corner. Exhausted, she pushed past Giles. Ignoring the barrage of questions, she started for the door.

Joyce stepped in her way and Willow stopped out of respect.

“Willow, please,” Joyce appealed as she reached for her purse. After a moment’s search, she pulled out the locket and tried to hand it off. “Faith wanted me to see this was returned to you.”

Taking a deep breath to suppress a cringe, Willow replied, “Hold onto it for me,” and gently pushed past Joyce. Determination hastened her step as she passed through into the corridor. That skanky bitch! Rage welled up inside her. That skanky bitch kept her promise! She helped! She did everything right! She made it better! What’d I do? I screwed everything up! I made it worse! I hurt her! Me! The one that loved her—loved her more—more than I loved—more than I love…myself.

Tears poured down her cheeks. Willow ignored the stares—ignored Giles. She could feel him behind her. Her ankle shrieked with pain. She ignored that too, moving as quickly as she could to the exit.

She broke through into the moist night air. The sterile smells of the hospital faded and she was grateful to be outside. Free—free of the guilt. A weight lifted as she made her way across the concrete bridge to the parking garage. Please, just leave me be, Giles. Let me slip away. I need this. I have to go. I can’t stay—not after this. I’ll just hurt you. You can’t trust me. You should see that.

When she passed into the parking garage, Willow hit the button on the key fob and the Mustang chirped to life.

Giles caught her shoulder, spinning her. “Willow, wait! You must listen! We can help you,” he pleaded. Pointing desperately at his chest, his trembling voice turned faint as he added, “I can help you.”

Wind whipped past the concrete pillars, whistling as it circled around the witch’s form. The fury returned and Willow spat at Giles, “You can help? You really think” — she seized him magically and shoved his body into a pillar — “you can help me? You want to?” Rounding on the fearful Englishman, she continued to rant, “When did we change, Giles? When did your mission statement change? When did the good guys start defending murderers? Did someone forget to send me the memo ’cause I thought you were supposed to catch the murderer and defend the innocent?”

Eyes widening, Giles gaped, slack-jawed at the witch. Wind whipped violently around him. Pieces of debris caught in his hair as dust pelted his skin.

Closing the distance between them, Willow rose off the ground. Her voice dropped becoming low and dangerous. “Take a good look at me, Giles. Tell me you see something to save.”

She paused to inspect the speechless man. The air around them drew painfully calm. Outside the bubble they stood in roared a hurricane. His breath issued in puffs, hot and steamy. She could feel his heart laboring to pump blood through his body at a frantic pace. Her voice was barely a whisper when she finally broke the silence of their communion, “Now let me go. There’s nothing here to save.”

Suddenly without warning, she willed it all to stop. The air snapped completely still as Giles slumped into a pile on the ground.

Turning her back to the life she once loved, Willow hobbled the last few steps to her car and climbed inside. The engine roared to life and she drove away without glancing back. I’m really, really sorry, Giles. You needed to see. You had to really see me to understand. I’m dangerous. I kill.

Staggering sideways, Faith began to sing, “Nobody liketh meeee!” taking a few creative liberties.

“Shhh…” Angel hissed as he caught her, steering her around a shipping container. And I left my duct tape at home. Leaning in to speak, he whispered into her ear, “Faith, we need to be quiet now.”

“Quiet?” Faith slurred inquisitively, tipping up the fifth in her hand to take a large gulp. She wiped her mouth sloppily and added, “Oh…’kay…shhh…”

“Yes, Faith,” Angel mumbled, putting his finger to his mouth, “Shhh…”

“’Kay…got it, Boss,” Faith whispered, sounding like a little girl. She snapped a stiff salute and whacked herself in the forehead.

Shaking his head, Angel turned to look at the ship. Chinese, that’ll work. It’s been a long time since I was in China. Last time I was there it was on fire. I hear they’ve rebuilt.

“Everbodeeeee hateth meeee!” Faith began to wail again, “Guess I’ll go eeeeat worrrrms!”

“Faith!” Angel barked in a restrained voice. When her face crinkled into an exaggerated pout, he quickly amended apologetically, “We’re being sneaky.” Way this is going…first town we hit—angry mob. I can rate most of the world based on their ability to assemble an angry mob…and the Chinese—they throw together one hell of an angry mob. Very focused people—they’re good at violence. Maybe China’s a bad idea.

Faith sulked for another moment or two and took another sloppy gulp off the bottle. Attempting to lean against the container, she landed flat on her ass and started giggling.

He stood back putting his hands on his waist and peered down at the slayer. That second bottle was a bad idea…and the third? The third she snuck off with was bad beyond measure. So, now I’m stuck with a slayer who’s had enough alcohol to put two full grown Irishmen in a coma. There’s only one thing to do. Stooping down to meet her unfocused gaze, Angel asked,“Faith you want to go to China?”

“Yeah! China’d be wicked cool!”

“Okay,” he confirmed and reached down, tossing the slayer over his shoulder. Once she was settled in place and thankfully hadn’t gotten sick down his back, he said, “We’re going to China then. Please try not to get us killed.”

Faith wiggled for a minute and grumbled, “Fuck it,” then raised the fifth, “Here’s to you, B.,” taking another long drink.

Shrugging, Angel began to walk toward the gangway. I hope this is actually what she wants. It’s going to get pretty tough to change our minds soon.

After taking another swig off the bottle, Faith broke into song again, “Long, thin, slimy ones…”

Angel chided, “Hush, Faith,” starting to board the cargo ship.

She continued as though she hadn’t heard him, “Short, fat, juicy ones.”

Slipping behind a crate, Angel sighed before he interjected, “Sneaky, remember?”

“Yeah…sneaky,” she replied, putting her finger to her mouth and hissing a sloppy, “Shhh…” When they started to move again, she caught sight of the pier and waved. Slurring the words, “Bu-bye, B.,” she took another drink and added, a little too soberly, “I hope it worked.”

Rolling her eyes, Buffy peered into the fractured mirror as her mother’s anxious voice sounded from the bedroom. It smells like her in here.

“Buffy, we only have two hours until the flight leaves.”

After stripping off the scrubs, Buffy turned on the taps and started the shower. Why’d you have to leave me, Will?. I don’t get it. Happy ending! We got our happy ending. You love a good happy ending. Why aren’t you here to enjoy it with me? It was one hell of a ride, but here I am, walking, talking, standing, dancing Buffy. Only I don’t feel like doing any of that without you.

Rustling sounded from the other side of the door followed by Giles’ voice, “Yes, Buffy, do try to hurry.”

Her eyes welled up when Willow’s face entered her mind. She blinked away the tears. Turning her attention to the parted shower curtain, she vacantly watched the water swirl down the drain. In memory, she was peering down the length of her bed at a face. Eyes like black marbles stared back at her from deep, darkened sockets. Her friend’s face was pale and gaunt, like she hadn’t eaten in days. The expression was something new—empty, yet somehow deeply focused. Light crackled around Willow’s form as she stood statue-like, helping. Buffy remembered the sensations, filtering out the pain. Strange, it felt like she wasn’t involved—like she was an outsider.

What the hell happened to you, Will?

Snapping out of the daze, Buffy called out, “Going as fast as I can! Chill!” and climbed into the shower. My luck I’m gonna get grounded again. That’s how this all started. Doesn’t matter, though. They can ground me. Watch me twenty-six hours a day, ten days a week, and it’ll all be the same.

As she started to wash up, a wave of nausea hit. A vinegary taste welled up in the back of her throat. It was so bad she could smell it. Uh-boy…I don’t feel so good. After parting the curtain, she leaned out into the room and hung her head over the toilet. This is one hell of a note. I feel great…except… And they want me to fly? They’re outta their minds. The hot water pounded on her back and shoulders as she retched. The sensation made her feel like she might be gagging up her toenails but, when it was over, thankfully it was over. She glanced at the pool of icky blue sick and shut the lid of the toilet.

After rinsing her mouth in the spray, she went back to hastily bathing. Well that was pleasant. Think that might be the first time I’ve ever puked in the shower. Glad the bathroom’s small. Wonder what fun-filled adventures life has in store for me next. Maybe I can get hit by a bus before I leave this goddamn city.

Her gaze fixed on her left hand as she poured shampoo into her palm. That’s weird. I could swear I had a scar there. She furrowed her brow and dismissed it, choosing to work the shampoo through her hair instead. Anyway, this place doesn’t seem to spare the hate. Neither does Sunnydale, but at least that’s the sort of hate I can relate to. Shove a chunk of wood in its heart and the hate usually turns to ash and blows away in the wind. There are times when ‘Sunnydale hate’ can be hell on the dry cleaning bill, but that’s about the ‘it.’

She moved around in the mist, letting her hair and body rinse off. I hope you left this place, Will. I hope you go far, far away. I hope you’re alright. Well, that’s way past my normal level of stupid. Of course she’s not alright. If she was alright, I wouldn’t be alone. But then that might be awkward too. Mom and Giles in the next room and Will and me in the shower? A wry grin flickered across her features. Yeah…interesting picture, but one I’d like to avoid.

Dammit, Will! Why? A deep scowl settled in place of the grin. I’d trade all that awkward and more to have you here with me, right now, in my arms.

After applying a handful of conditioner to her hair and rinsing it, she grabbed a towel and stepped from the shower. Wrapping the towel around her body, she leaned in, turning the faucets off, and flushed the toilet. That’s better. Wow! I actually feel good. How long’s it been? Was it—? It was before my birthday.

She stepped over to the vanity and wiped the glass to clear the steam without thinking. “Ouch!”

Joyce’s concerned voice sounded through the door, “Are you okay?”

“Fine, Mom,” Buffy called out, looking at the small drop of blood that beaded up from the cut. As she watched, the nick sealed over. Oh, that’s cool. I mean ouch, but…umm, er…wow! She rinsed the blood off and grabbed another towel to dry the broken mirror.

Absently grabbing her toothbrush, she began to brush the foul taste from her mouth. I don’t get why? Why was she— I’ve never seen Will upset enough to break anything. It’s not like her. In fact, it’s anti-Willow. She likes things neat and orderly. Brokenness is bad in her world.

When she leaned in to spit, it hit her. After all the blank staring, she knew something was wrong, but she couldn’t place it. Her face drew with confusion as her mind jumped tracks. Holy shit! It’s, well it’s not gone, but— She examined her neck carefully. There was a scar there—like a huge scar—from where that Master jerk bit me. It’s fading. It’s almost gone.

Quickly rinsing her mouth, she took a seat on the toilet and started to frantically look herself over. I had a scar on my knee from ice skating. Well, not so much ‘skating’ as ‘stumbling and falling.’ Whatever. Gone. My hands. I had about a billion scars from a billion different stupid things. They’re all fading. Most of them are gone. This is totally weird. It’s me, but not.

Rising to her feet, she started to dry off and get dressed. Done wigging. But that’s just too cool. I could seriously get into this. If this is true—like really true—none of my mistakes count anymore.

She snapped completely still as the thought hit her, But what does that make me? If I did get hit by a bus, what would happen? Would I die? Or would I lay there for a few minutes in pain, then get up and walk away? What am I if I could walk—if I can walk away? ’Kay, so…stretching, it was one small cut, but my back—

Peered into the fractured mirror again, she whispered, “What am I?”A noise from the other room prompted her to get going again. Moving, before the bitching. Hear that, Mom? Pre-bitching movement happening here.

When she finished dressing, she began to gather the toiletries and bag them up. Her mind drifted back to the previous musing as she worked. Something’s different. When I was called, it was like running from my home end-zone to the fifty-yard-line. I looked back at my friends and wondered what I was.

She finished picking up and stared at the lump of clothing on the floor. Will, I need your help. I need to talk. The football metaphor is seriously dorky, but I’m just a cheerleader, or I was. Now I’m just too weird to be much. I know you could come up with better. But if this—this new thing—whatever it is—if it is what I think it is, I just ran into the visitors’ end-zone—the enemy end-zone and there’s no looking back.

Turning to gaze at herself in the mirror, she mopped away the tears that had started to flow. My friends are all dots on the other side of the field now. I’m not human. I may look like one. I may be able to go to the doctor—not that I’ll need to—and not get funny looks. All my pieces and parts are in the right place. But really I’m as human now as Angel. Maybe less.

Sitting with her back propped against a crate in the dark cargo hold, Faith stared at her hands. The effect was sobering. She pulled out her shirt to peer inside and gasped. I’m a nightlight. Handy…but can I just say, ‘What the fuck?’ I don’t feel bad, but…this is just too weird.

Her skin tingled as Angel moving around the hold behind her. Slayer crap. ‘Danger! There’s a vamp!’ Yeah, okay…what if you don’t give a shit? Can I turn it off ’cause it’s seriously on my last nerve?

When he drew close enough to call, she let out a hiss and whispered, “C’mere. Tell me what you think of this.” And if you call me ‘firefly,’ I’ll break your legs.

As he caught sight of her hands, she felt him tense. She raised her hands, twiddling her fingers, and reflected, “Pretty wicked, eh?”

When she started to unbutton her shirt, Angel grew uncomfortable and replied, “Yeah, ‘wicked.’ What the hell are you doing, Faith?”

“You need to look at this too,” she offered anxiously. Parting her shirt, she revealed her glowing sternum. “So, whatcha think, Boss?”

After averting his eyes, Angel responded, “I don’t know what to think.”

“Well, that’s helpful,” Faith remarked coolly and started to button her shirt. When she was done, she stated bluntly, “Look, I get that you’re still hung up on Blondie, but that wasn’t what I was askin’.” All of her insecurities surfaced as she added, “Should I be worried?”

Before replying he took a seat next to her. “Would it really help if you were?”

Allowing him to take her hand, Faith replied honestly, “No.”

“Well, then don’t,” he directed in a firm tone, “None of us knows what’s coming.”

Nodding, she went back to studying her free hand.

“Look, when we get to China, we’ll get you in to see someone,” he offered kindly, quickly amending, “Not a doctor. Don’t freak. The Chinese are an ancient, deeply-superstitious people. There are lots of people there who understand things that Westerners ridicule.”

Consumed by her musings, Faith nodded absently.

A tear seeped out as Buffy sat crosslegged on her bed, regarding the knife. There’s something you don’t see everyday — her gaze traveled from the hilt to the tip of the dagger that pierced her forearm — if you’re lucky. She grimaced and her jaw set as she pulled the blade out, dropping it onto the towel in her lap.

Blood welled up, running trails down her arm. It dripped from her elbow onto the towel. As she sat, silently observing the healing process, a picture she’d seen earlier in the newspaper hung in her mind. She looked sorta like that girl from the Matrix—only her hair was long. Though, honestly, you see one dark-haired chick with bedroom eyes and great cheekbones, you’ve kinda seen them all. They’re a dime a dozen out here. This bitch was lots plainer, but—

Using the towel, she wiped up the mess off her arm and cleaned up the blade. It was a good picture, anyway. Why they used a good picture—it makes no sense. When everything was tidy again, she dropped the dagger and towel into her weapon bag. She was smiling. I wouldn’t have guessed she could. All I remember is rage. I remember her trying to kill me.

After shoving the duffle into her closet, she fished out Mr. Pointy. The polished wood felt comfortable in her hand. So she’s dead? That’s what the paper said. Zipping the bag closed, she randomly piled stuff on top of it. I didn’t look long. Giles and Mom were doing their protecty bit—I didn’t want to answer a ton of questions—so a glance was all I got, but a glance was all it took. I turned the question game on Giles. Boy, was he ever uptight, but he told me enough. Will blames herself for a death. Has to be her.

She pulled on her tennis shoes and peered down, taking in the tank top and sweats. So, I won’t look my best for the first vamp I dust. Not like he’s gonna tell anyone. Shrugging, she went to the window and her thoughts snapped back on track. But if she killed her, that means she saved me—she saved herself—it was totally self defense. Why the wig?

After lifting the sash, she crouched on the window sill, momentarily savoring the night air. My brain keeps spinning over the same crap. It’s totally annoying. Repeat-o-girl for the win. There’s something I’m missing and I have no clue what it is. Will wouldn’t wig over—would she?

As she dove to the ground, a memory returned: a pencil stuck, half-buried in a tree. Hitting the lawn, she collapsed and rolled onto her feet, using the momentum to propel herself forward. She heard Faith’s name and…badness. She was running at full speed when she reached the front of the house. ‘Emotional control.’ Pressing off the fender of a parked car, she launched herself into the center of the street straight into a passing car.

The car struck her and she tumbled across the hood, not stopping. Glancing over her shoulder, she called back, “Sorry,” in a restrained voice. That’s it! Someone trying to kill you…ergo: emotional train wreck. I can’t believe I was that stupid! She lost control and now she’s scared. It’s so simple.

Her ankle throbbed as she continued to run, cutting between two houses. I have to find her. The pain passed and she poured on more speed, leaping a privacy fence without slowing.

Buffy tore through the gate of the cemetery and slid to a halt. I’m back. Did you miss me? Taking a deep breath, she scanned the rows of monuments.

Starting off again at a leisurely pace, she couldn’t suppress a mischievous smirk. I need to find her…and I need to spank her for shutting me out. Her brow furrowed with doubt. She might like that, though. Besides…I totally get the ‘needing to get away.’ I can respect that. I get that things can pile up.

As she slipped into the shadow of an ancient mausoleum, her skin prickled. But it’s the principle of the matter. She saved my life and this time she didn’t get a kiss. It’s just good manners. Someone saves your life, you give them a kiss.

She rounded the corner of the mausoleum and her gaze fixed on a tall, slender vampire with long, wavy, chestnut hair. Smirking at his outmoded fashion sense, she stepped out of the shadow and looked over his black velvet frockcoat, ruffled shirt, and fitted trousers. Uh-boy. Not another one. She let out an exaggerated sigh before offering conversationally, “Haven’t seen you around here before.”

The vampire’s brow furrowed with indecision as he turned to face her.

There was a bounce in her step when she moved toward the vampire. Holding out her hand, she commented cheerfully, “Welcome to Sunnydale. My name’s Buffy.”

When the befuddled vampire took her hand, Buffy twisted his arm, flipping him head over heels onto his back. Peering down, she smiled brightly and chirped, “I hope you enjoyed your stay,” as she drove the stake into his chest. Huh. He looked a little like Brad Pitt. Kinda cute. Uncertainty crinkled her face for just an instant. Oh well, too late now.

Turning her back on the pile of ash, she put a hand to waist and cocked her hip. Yeah, that’s just what I need…another broody vampire. I’ve got enough issues with my wigged out Wiccan.


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