DL 2.14

Aug. 13th, 2005 02:21 am
[identity profile] eee1313.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] dancing_lessons_archive
Episode Fourteen: Call to Arms

by Nmissi
How You Remind Me by Nickelback
Sinner by Neil Finn


*

Buffy crunched her way through the crisp leaves underfoot. In normal circumstances, the cemetery would be better kept, even this late in the year. Sunnydale had always paid its graveyard workers generously, but even good benefits packages had failed to lure potential employees this season.
She rather wondered if there was anyone left alive in Sunnydale to do that kind of work. Somehow she couldn’t see the hoards of stumbling newborn bloodsuckers worrying about their 401K plans.
Suddenly the leaves beneath her feet swirled out of her way as the air grew cool and damp. She halted as she awaited the inevitable.
“Oh, look. It’s Count Chocula.” She regarded the sudden influx of mist with unconcealed annoyance. The stake in her right hand felt good; she clutched it for reassurance, and fell into a battle stance. “Come on. Materialize already. I haven’t got all night.”
“I wish to speak with you in the manner of civilized beings. Put away your weapon and I will take shape.”
The count’s voice held none of its usual majesty and eloquence. Rather, tonight he sounded irritated, even upset. Buffy rolled her eyes.
“Sorry, no can do. It’s the way this scene works- You poof, I stake you, you unpoof. Haven’t you figured it out yet?” she said.
The voice grew even more agitated, its words gritty as it struggled to maintain composure. “I’ve come to discuss terms of truce, an alliance with you. I cannot do that if you insist on dismantling my corporeal form every chance you get. It is not conducive to conversation.”
“What makes you think I’d make a truce with you?” she asked.
“You have done it before; to defeat Angelus. I have heard much of William’s treachery.”
Again, that voice. He didn’t sound …right. Not his usual pompous self. Buffy relaxed her fighting stance and pocketed the stake.
“I was younger then. Besides, you’re not Spike.”
“And the Master is not Angelus. He is far more deadly, far more cunning.” The mist swirled around her feet, and she took an involuntary step backward. He was touching her. It was …
Icky.
“Okay, breezeboy. Talk.”
The mist took on the shape of a man, and then filled itself in, becoming solid. He stepped back, his feet crunching in the leaves. “I have come to make you a valid offer. I will give you the master and Darla. You will not harm my brides in the battle, and you will permit us all to leave Sunnydale unmolested.”
She took in his appearance. His hair was disheveled; his face appeared even more gaunt and angular than usual. His posture held none of its usual arrogance.
“Why would I do that?” she asked him.
He glared at her. The rage behind his dark eyes was discomfiting. “Because you cannot hope to defeat him and his companions. The mouth of Hell will open, and all of your kind will perish, unless you accept my help.”
Buffy’s eyes narrowed. “And why would you want to do that?”
He looked away. “I have my reasons.” It was the sort of response she’d come to expect from him, very mysterious and broody. It was also a complete façade, one that was faltering quickly. He was visibly rattled. Something about that fact shook her; it violated certain physical laws. The sky was blue. Chocolate was good. Dracula was confident.
That he wasn’t so confident anymore disturbed her greatly. She put up her most aggressive front.
“Something got your panties in a bunch, Vlad?” She gave him a withering glare. “What happened, The Master wasn’t happy to see you again?”
His eyes flashed in anger. He hissed and moved away, darting just out of her reach. She pursued him, intent on dispersal. She’d had enough talk for the night.
She got in several good punches, but he guarded himself well, managing to twist out of her reach repeatedly. She fell into a rhythm of kicks and punches, looking for an opening to stake him. It should have been easy; but his actions were all defense, a careful set of moves that protected his heart.
Slippery bastard.
She looked around for Xander, and cursed his teeny bladder for its poor timing. He would miss all the action.
Belatedly she realized the fight was moving her farther into the trees. A glimpse of movement at the edge of her vision made her heart sink.
It was a trap.
She was surrounded, battling Dracula amid a circle of his minions. Armed with archaic weaponry, they stood silent sentry around them: forty or so new undead.
Dracula dissolved into mist before her and she turned her rage on the nearest of his soldiers, leaping at him. He was dust in mere seconds.
The whistling downstroke of a double-headed axe blade alerted her, and she moved her head just in time to prevent its removal. As she brought her stake down towards another chest, she felt cool air and moisture all around her. Suddenly her vision blurred as thick, dark mist drifted into her eyes and surrounded her. The stake was jerked out of her hand, and reflexively she punched that direction, making contact with nothing. Her stomach clenched with fear; the feeling of blind helplessness brought back memories of the Cruciamentum. It was the sensation of nightmare, of terror.
She could not see to defend herself. She was going to die like this.
The mist whispered into her ear. “Slayer, you are outnumbered and weaponless.”
Then he called out to his little army. “ Fall back to your positions.”
Suddenly the mist withdrew, and she could see again. Dracula stood before her, her stake in his palm, a smug smile on his thin lips. Behind him, a line of vampires stood.
They were armed with maces, flails, swords, and spears, yet they wore the clothes of their human lives. They shared no race, age, or ethnicity. Her high school chemistry teacher hefted a broadsword, and stood beside Hal who ran the comic shop on second.
The line of vampires parted, and three figures moved through it. Buffy’s heart skipped a beat as she took in the sight of her friend, dangling unconscious between two of the minions. As she watched, they brought him forward and dropped him unceremoniously at her feet. Wary, she crouched down to feel his throat. It pulsed warmly against her fingers in reassurance. She raised her eyes to regard her foe. He watched her with bemusement, and she slowly rose to stand before him again.
“Take your weapon,” Dracula commanded. He extended his arm, clutching her stake by the point. She took it from him.
“What is this?” she whispered. He stepped to the side, and swept his arm across the throng, indicating them as a group.
“This is your army,” he said. “They will fight and die for you. They will obey you second only to me.”
She regarded him with suspicion. “And what’s the catch?”
He turned back to face her again, his jaw tight, his words cold.
“Return them to ash, my Maker and My Sister. And permit me to take my family home.”
***
He slid the body carefully to the street. He wiped his mouth along the back of his sleeve as the other hand rooted through the pockets of his victim. Officer Stephanie Castillo, Sunnydale P.D., who would have been twenty- four this February fourth. He pocketed her cash and credit cards. Her service revolver already rested comfortably in the back of his jeans, easily concealed under the Sunnydale U sweatshirt. Her stake lay several feet away, not far from where he’d poured out her holy water.
She didn’t look peaceful, so he closed her eyes tenderly with one hand.
“You know, it could be worse,” he said amicably to the corpse. “I could have turned you.” He chanced a glance around. Now that he’d taken the edge off of his hunger, he was disturbed by the openness of his location- not half a mile from the police station, and not far off Buffy’s usual route. He grabbed the body under the arms and dragged it towards the Dumpster down the alley. “I mean, this way, you get to keep your dignity. Death. Funeral. Crying family members who’ll remember you young and pretty.”
He propped her up against the Dumpster. “And a hero, too. Officer Castillo, who died honorably in the line of duty, protecting the citizens of Sunnydale. They might even give you some kind of a medal or something.”
He stepped back, and his voice became a little contrite. “They’ll probably find you in the morning, when they come for the trash. If the trash men are still running, I mean. But they should be able to find you here, once it’s daylight out. I didn’t mess you up too bad either.”
He checked himself for evidence, but he'd done better this time: a few drops on his shoes -- hardly noticeable; a tiny bit of blood on the cuff of his sweatshirt. He pushed up his sleeves. Problem solved.
A quick once over confirmed he’d torn his jeans too, fighting her. But it didn’t look suspicious. Guys rip jeans. Occasionally they get stuff on their shoes. Nothing Buffy should pick up on. Besides, if she hadn’t noticed his peculiarities by now, maybe she wasn’t looking for any.
A light fell over his shoulder, and he sensed the approach of a human heartbeat.
“Agent Finn?”
Riley turned away from the remains of his supper. Sorrow filled his voice.
“Officer Velasquez, I think we’ve got another victim.”
***
They gleamed with promise, a small mountain in red, green, and gold foil. Buffy, Dawn, Willow, Xander, Giles. There was even a small bottle of pricey cognac for Spike. Multicolored lights cast glittering shimmer on the glass baubles tied in amongst the tree branches. At her request for seasonal cheer, Giles had transformed his bachelor apartment into a wonderland of real pine and velvet ribbon. She had contributed the paper chains and icicles; Giles the Christmas crackers and potpourri.
A small voice inside her tried to tell her she didn’t deserve these things. All her holiday memories were stark and cold. She’d never known a holiday that looked like a TV Christmas Special. She’d never had a pretty velvet dress and twinkling lights; she’d never baked a Christmas Cookie in her life. But there was a time when she’d wanted those things, wanted them so badly it ached.
“Overcompensate much?” The voice asked her. She smacked it down ruthlessly.
“Never too late to have a happy childhood.”
Faith studied the clock. Xander should have been back by now. He’d promised to stop by after Buffy’s watch and help her move the biggest boxes to the back of the tree.
She eyed her injured wrist with annoyance; its bright fuchsia cast like a badge of incompetence.
She gathered up the scraps of ribbon and the bits of paper from the floor, tossing them unceremoniously into an empty shopping bag. She tied it shut and got to her feet, gingerly picking up the tape and the scissors as she headed for the kitchen.
She heard a thump outside the front door.
“Faith, it’s me. Open up. Xander’s hurt.” Buffy’s staccato voice urged her onward. She unbolted the door and flung it wide.
Outside, Buffy carried Xander. He was tossed up over one shoulder, his arms hanging loosely down to her middle. Slayer strength belied the small frame. He seemed impossibly awkward like that.
“What the hell happened to my Watcher?” Faith asked. There was more violence in her tone than she’d intended, and her heart thudded in her chest.
Buffy directed a wayward look at Faith’s hand. “Uh, Faith? Do you mind?”
The brunette looked down to find she had the scissors clutched point up in her bad hand, and aimed at Buffy. The shopping bag dangled in an oddly comical fashion from her elbow.
Sheepishly she turned the scissors away and moved out of the doorway. “Sorry, B. I forgot I had them in my hand.” Buffy moved past her into the room, and she followed her as the blonde Slayer laid him on Giles’s sofa. “What happened to him? How bad is it?” She wished Buffy would move out of the way, so she could see better.
Buffy turned back to her, confusion in her gaze. “Dracula. He did this.”
Faith dropped her burdens onto the coffee table and then turned back to her Watcher. Carefully, she turned his head left, then right. The good hand moved to his shirt and she began unbuttoning it.
“What are you doing?” Buffy’s startled voice was nothing to the scandalized expression Faith caught in her eyes.
“I’m checking for bite-marks, B. They’re not always in easy-to-find locations.” Methodically she examined him. He was warm. His pulse rate was a little slow, but nothing out of the ordinary. Gently she turned him over. “Here, help me get his shirt off,” she asked.
Buffy tugged a sleeve down. “Faith, I don’t think he’s been bit.”
The other girl ignored her, looking for damage. Her palm slid up his shoulder blades, to the base of his neck. “Nope, I don’t think so either. Here, feel this.”
Faith guided Buffy’s hand to a small lump on the back of his head.
“Ouch. Nice goose-egg,” Buffy commented.
Faith raised bewildered eyes to Buffy. “Why did Dracula knock him out? I mean, wouldn’t it have been more his M.O. to, I don’t know…get him all thralled and bug-eating again?”
Buffy shook her head. “I think Dracula and his minions just wanted to get me alone tonight,” she explained. She saw fear and worry in the other girl’s expression. “It’s no big, Faith. I’m okay.” Biting her lip, she went on. “Besides, he and Giles have been laying the watcher-training on thick. Maybe the mind-whammy didn’t work tonight.”
Faith stood up, and headed purposefully towards the closet. She rooted about inside for a minute, before coming up with an afghan. “So. Anything you want to tell me about tonight, then?” She came back to the couch and spread the cover across her watcher. “Anything ole Vlad the Impaler wanted in particular? Or was it just a social call?”
Buffy sank down onto the arm of the sofa. “I’m not really sure what to believe,” she began. “I… He…” She shook her head. “I don’t know where to begin.”
“Begin at the beginning. Did you run into him out on patrol? Was he looking for you two? When did he hit Xander?”
Buffy raised her hands defensively. “No, it wasn’t like that, He wasn’t--”
“Spit it out, girlfriend. What did he want with you?” Faith struggled for patience.
Buffy raked one hand through her hair, and shook her head. “He says he wants a truce. He had me tonight, Faith. I was disarmed and outnumbered. Then when I think he’s going to kill me, he calls off his people. His boys bring me Xander. He gives me back my stake.” She raised her head to regard Faith as she went on. “Then he tells me his army is mine to command, if I kill the Master and Darla and protect the dracubabes in the battle. His “brides”, he called them.” She shook her head. “I guess chivalry really isn’t dead. It’s just undead.”
The silence stretched between them as Faith tried to digest this information. It was broken by Xander, as he began to regain consciousness. He groaned painfully, and blinked himself awake. He sat up slowly, and Faith put an arm behind him to steady him. “Careful, you. How do you feel?” she asked him.
He made a face. “Like something hit me upside the head,” he said flatly. “What happened?”
Buffy spoke up. “You left to go answer nature’s call. Then a couple of fanged wonders brought you back and dropped you on my feet. In between, there was some Dracula fightage and oh yeah… He offered me command of his army to let him take the Brides back to the old world.”
Whatever smart comeback had been at the ready, it died on his lips, as Xander realized he’d left Buffy to fight alone. “God, I’m sorry, Buff. Are you--"
She cut him off with a wave of her hand. “I’m fine. I’m just really glad you’re awake.”
They exchanged meaningful looks in the silence; Xander’s guilt telegraphed in the set of his shoulders, the lowering of his head. Buffy got up and moved closer to him, resting a gentle hand on his arm. “It’s okay, Xander. Stuff happens. I’m fine, and you’re fine. That’s what counts.”
Faith studied them from her perch atop the coffee table. “I don’t mean to interrupt the mutual lovefest- okay, maybe I do. But has anyone thought about what this all means?”
Buffy swung around to study her. “What do you mean?”
Faith gave a wry grin. “If Drac is willing to throw in with you, then he’s scared of something. And somehow I just can’t get all excited about that.”
Each of them tried to imagine what it took to worry Dracula, and a mutual frisson of fear danced through the room. Visions of apocalypse and horrors past taunted their imaginations, as they wondered how much worse it could get.
Xander broke their silence with an ill-timed query. “Umm, girls? Not knocking it, or anything, but…where is my shirt?”
***
“Dawn, relax a little. The power is inside you, you only need to channel it. The blood is just a conduit. We can make a different one.”
Willow’s voice sounded steadying and resolute inside her head. Dawn took another deep, cleansing breath, and focused on the task at hand.
A small window flickered before her. Without the blood it didn’t want to get any bigger. It hovered some six inches off the floor, above her crossed ankles, measuring about six inches square. Each time she tried to enlarge it, it collapsed in on itself and had to be reopened.
She let the power go, and watched as the portal sides fell in, and vanished.
“Willow, it’s not gonna work,” she insisted. “It doesn’t feel like before. I mean, it’s not coming like it did. It’s like, I don’t know.. like I’m running on low batteries or something.”
Willow’s brow furrowed. “Like driving, with no power steering, I guess.”
Dawn gave her a quizzical expression. “Huh?”
The redhead bit her lip, deeply in thought. “Never mind. Here. Why don’t we, umm … take a snack break or something. You go ahead, go get a soda. I’m gonna do a little research.” She looked up at the girl and smiled brightly. “It’s gonna be okay, Dawn, really. I think you’re onto something. But we can’t have you opening up a vein every time you wanna do this. Believe, me, blood’s a real pain to get out. Just ask Buffy.” She caught sight of Dawn’s worried face.
“Dawnie, we’ll figure it out. I promise.”
Dawn nodded, and headed towards the back of the magic shop. “You want anything?” she called back over her shoulder.
Willow mumbled in reply. “No thanks.”
Something … something Dawn had said was vital. She could feel the pieces of it, like a puzzle trying to form a picture in her head. It teased her, just out of her reach. Willow racked her brain, even as she headed up to the restricted area of the shop.
“Okay, Will … think. The blood is the conduit. You’ve been trying to make Dawn herself the conduit. Which is all well and good, only it’s not working out too much.”
She had a thick magical textbook in hand when it hit her. Like a proverbial ton of bricks, it all made sense.
Willow dropped the useless book to the floor hard.
“The key is power. Energy. And it has to live inside of Dawn herself, all the time, every day of the year….”
This wasn’t magic, it was science. Basic, sixth-grade science.
“The blood’s a conductor. Dawn’s an insulator.”
***
The church was dark, and the smell of mold and incense overpowered his senses as he entered. Hundreds were hard at work all about him- polishing metalwork, arranging the candles, and assembling the ritual implements for Solstice. On the altar, chalices of blood and bile awaited the sacred fire.
He could do this. His mind stole backwards in time, to the Sultan’s palace, among the Turks. He had been humiliated before, and would be again. It was of little matter. He was Vlad the Impaler, the Voevod. He understood the mechanics of suffering. He understood betrayal and vengeance. But above all else, he understood time. He would live beyond this wretched night, he would be here when the others were again dust.
“Well, well! My beloved brother,” spat Darla as she sidled out of the shadows to stand at his side. “Have you come to grovel? Or are you looking for information you can carry back to your Slayer? Tell me Vlad, just between us …how good is she?”
Her meaning was clear, as was the hate in her eyes. Women’s jealousies were a petty tool, but so easy to command. He smiled at her with affection he did not feel.
“Sister, you should be more careful. Envy does not become you.”
She glared at him, and he stepped away from her and gestured behind him.
“Bring them in,” he said. A throng of vampires moved forward with their arms laden; gold and silver trinkets, holy relics, and artifacts from his personal collection.
“The gifts my Master requires of me,” he said.
She got out of the way as his minions carried the gifts to the front of the church. He moved past them towards the sacristy, steeling his nerves, Darla hot on his heels.
After this night, he need never again call anyone “Master.”
He entered, and beheld his nemesis dressing for the ritual. Darla pushed past him rudely.
“I was just coming to help you with those,” she cooed, as she slipped the velvet robes over his shoulders.
The Master pushed her away lightly, and regarded Dracula with cold eyes.
“You’ve returned, I see. Did they tire of you already? Your treachery precedes you, Vlad,” said the Master, sorrow in his voice. He sank heavily into a chair. “Do you actually think to stop me?”
Dracula bit his tongue and forced his features even. He fell to one knee. “It pains me to be at odds with my family. In the antechamber are my gifts for you, Master. I have come to beg forgiveness.”
“Leave us,” The Master commanded. Darla withdrew quietly, her skirts brushing up against Dracula’s hand as he genuflected.
“Be a good boy, or your blood will join with theirs,” she whispered.
Dracula ignored her, keeping his face down. He allowed himself to imagine a sharp wooden pale emerging from her fuzzy head. If he did it properly, he could skewer her end to end and never pierce the heart. That was the interesting thing about his kind. They lived on.
“Rise,” the Master bid him. He did so, and moved closer at the old man’s instigation.
“In a few hours, hundreds of our kind will fill this church to witness my greatest moment.” He gave Dracula a searching look. “Do you understand that? Do you understand what it is I am trying to achieve?”
He shook his head. “No, Master. I do not. But it is enough for me that you command it. I want to be at your side, if you will permit it. I would learn wisdom from you, my maker.”
The wizened face cracked a smile. “Why, Vlad. You’ve the tongue of a diplomat in you. Whatever did you do with the rest of him?”
***
The bright morning sun warmed the training room inside the magic shop. Dawn Summers stood inside a circle on a training mat, looking irritated.
“Willow, it tingles,” the girl whined. “Are you sure this is safe?”
“Perfectly, Dawn. It’s just a charged atmosphere. Basically I’m allowing the electrons in the targeted area to move more freely, I’m speeding up their motion and improving your ability to conduct energy.”
Dawn looked at her strangely, a mix of confusion and disbelief in her blue eyes.
Willow shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s a really simple lil spell. Totally beginner’s level, honest. I can teach it to you to cast it on your own later. Maybe once we get the window-thingies under control. Why don’t you go ahead and give them a go?”
Dawn relaxed into a meditative state, and reached for the power inside her. It did seem to come easier now, with the spell on her. The power flowed out of her freely. She opened her eyes and regarded her portal.
It didn’t blink as before, its edges were definite, the view of her locker inside it as clear as crystal. But it was only a small portal still. She reached her hand into the six by six space before her and retrieved her walkman.
It closed behind her as she withdrew her hand.
“It’s easier to open,” she began. “And it’s not blinking in and out on me anymore.” She raised tired eyes to her mentor. “But why is it so small? Willow, if we’re ever gonna use these things for an escape or something, They’re gonna have to be bigger. The one Spike brought me through was bigger. Why did it work then and not now?” she asked.
Willow’s brow furrowed. “Must be more to it, something I’m missing,” she speculated. “Tell me more about when it happened before. When you did it at Doug’s, and later. Tell me everything you remember,” she insisted.
***
Buffy bit her lip as she listened to the ringing on the other end. An uncomfortable knot had formed in her stomach, and she had the terrible urge to hang up before he could answer. Would he be willing to do this? What if he read more into the offer than was really there?
What would she do if he did?
“Hello?” Riley answered. Buffy swallowed her pride and began.
“Riley? It’s me. Buffy. Umm … how are you?” she asked.
“I’m okay,” he replied. But there was confusion in his voice, and a trace of hopefulness that was like a kick in her stomach.
“Listen, Riley… I need a favor from you. If you’re available, that is … I mean, if you don’t mind ...”
Her nervousness made him smile. He adopted his warmest, most conciliatory tone. “Buffy, I’m always glad to help you. What do you need?”
“That’s great, Riley. And I really, REALLY appreciate it.” The gratitude in her voice was balm to his wounded ego. “Faith is still not up to snuff yet. And we’ve decided to double up on Slayer patrols. So from here on, I’m sending Spike out with her at night. Giles and Xander are going to patrol the north side, Faith and Spike the east. I’m going to take the center of town, and I need a backup.”
“Works for me. We do make a pretty good team, Buffy. What time should I meet you tonight?”
As he hung up the phone a smile danced on his lips.
She needs me again. The thought gave him tingles.
***
“Okay, Willow. I’m ready,” Dawn began.
The other girl nodded, a worried frown on her lips. “You sure about this, Dawnie? I mean… ”
“Totally. Come on. The day’s not getting any longer,” Dawn grinned. “Besides … I’m the Scooby Secret weapon.”
Willow laughed. “Yeah. You’re locked and loaded. Spell’s good. And remember… they’re just thoughts. No matter how real they seem, they’re only memories.”
Dawn swallowed hard, She was more nervous than she was letting on, but she was pretty sure Willow knew that. “It’s a very scary place you’re going to,” the witch had reminded her earlier, while instructing her on the particulars, and devolving briefly into little bits of Peter Pan. “Happy thoughts. You need happy thoughts to fly,” she’d explained.
Only Dawn needed scary thoughts. Big, ugly memories, childhood terrors … Stuff that packed the right emotional wallop.
Things like having your first kiss try to kill you.
She focused, and tried to remember that night. The smell of the rain outside, the dampness of her hair, her clothes. The way his lips had felt when they passed over her collar bone.
Her heart in her mouth as he crushed her against the desk. Her absolute certainty that she was about to die.
The power trickled out of her at first. It became a rushing river of emotion as she relived that night, relived the horror.
“It’s working, it’s working!” Willow’s exuberance pulled her out of her ruminations, and she briefly glimpsed a portal the size of a garage door, sharply delineated against the backdrop of the magic shop.
What she viewed through it stopped her cold. The magic froze up, the energy flow cut off, and the door fell in abruptly.
“Dawn? What happened? Why’d you stop?” Willow asked, coming around to the other side of the table to join her. She put warm, loving hands on Dawn’s shoulders, and the girl realized she was shaking.
“It’s okay, Willow. I’m fine.” Dawn reassured her. “I just- I didn’t want to go there, that’s all.”
The twisty-lips of Worried Willow were back again. “What was it, Dawn? I couldn’t see inside from over there.”
The girl shrugged and quiet crept into her voice. “It … it was Doug’s house. They … they haven’t torn it down yet.”
***
So far things had proven quiet; she’d dusted a few vampires on her way to meet him, but there’d been no one since. In fact, she found it a little uncomfortable to be so alone with Riley. She’d have welcomed a few more just to take the edge off her nerves.
“This is nice,” he said. “Sorta like old times. We make a good team.” His footfalls in the grass grated on her nerves. Had he always been so loud?
Buffy nodded, her tone measured. It kept him at arm’s length. “Yeah, it is good to have you on our side. I mean, even though we didn’t make a go of it, it’s good that we can still be friends.” She put a special emphasis on the word ‘friends,’ hoping to remind him that was all she wanted to be. She wasn’t really in the mood to fend off Riley’s little trips down memory lane tonight. There was work to be done, vamps to be staked. She could sense their proximity even if they didn’t reveal themselves. The whole town was full of vampires.
Her words cut through him like a knife, and he fought to maintain his human façade. “Yeah. I guess I’d rather have you for a friend than not have you at all,” he offered. “Especially at a time like this … It’s important to have people you trust, people you can count on.”
She thought about that a moment. He was right. She might not be interested in him anymore, but she knew she could count on him.
Her smile soothed his wounded pride. “Yeah.” She realized how uninvolved that sounded, and tried to draw back into the conversation. “ I trust you, Riley. And I’ve missed you a lot.”
He grinned at her. “Back at you, Buffy. Missed you too.”
They walked on a ways. Buffy came to a stop outside the Sunnydale Public Pool. She peered through a hole in the fencing, a faraway look in her eyes.
“What is it?” Riley asked.
Buffy shrugged. “Nothing. It’s just. … My mother used to bring us here in the summertime. I used to hang out with Willow. Mom would drop me and Dawn on her way to work, and pick us up in the evening.” Her mouth formed a grim line. “I miss her so much, sometimes. But I’m glad she’s not here for all this. What’s happening to Sunnydale, I mean.”
He put a hand on her shoulder. She shook him off. “Come on.”
The attack came unexpectedly from the side of the clubhouse. A group of thugs in street colors-in life, they’d have been a gang.
“Guys? The bandana look? Lame. It’s so Willie Nelson.” She launched into battle, her fist connecting with the nearest chin. She ducked a punch, and caught sight of Riley doing battle to the right. He had a couple of vamps, but he seemed to be holding his own. Her attention returned to her own fight as a tough-looking girl armed with chains came at her, grinning.
“Ooh. The Slayer.” Over her shoulder to the rest of the boys, she called out. “I think I’m gonna enjoy this one. Chiquitita looks like fun.”
Buffy sidestepped the first swing, but the backlash of the chains got her on the thigh. Ignoring the burn, she focused on her opponent, studied the swing of the weapon. Counted the timing. One, two, three…
“Oh I don’t know about that,”- it was the right moment. She grabbed the end of the chain and jerked it suddenly from the vampire’s hand. “See, this looks more like fun to me.” She swung it viciously at the girl, raking the chain links across her face. She drew away hissing, and several more of the gang drew back, uncertain.
“Aw, come on! You don’t mean to tell me nobody wants to play?” Buffy swung the chains menacingly, the arc causing her opponents to give enough ground that she could reach Riley.
He had two of them up against the side of the building, behind some trash cans, busily thumping their faces into the brick.
Why doesn’t he just stake them already?
“Riley?”
“I’m good. I’ve got these,” came the terse reply.
The gang came at her in a rush, a good half-dozen at once. She looped two of them in the chain, releasing it to stake them.
I lose the best weapons that way, she thought, observing the chain dust along with the vampires. The others surrounded her. She traded blows with them, until she saw the opening she was waiting for. A clumsy move by one of them broke their line. She staked one, and then another. Falling back she avoided a deft kick at her head. Oh, you again. She leered a little at tough-chick and egged her on.
The fight moved them from the side of the building, as the Vampire’s punch knocked Buffy through the hole in the fence and onto the concrete beside the shallow end of the pool. Deckchairs scattered as she rolled to her feet, and came up swinging.
Suddenly the vamp girl caught sight of Riley. He turned away from the wall as his victims dusted and moved to intercept the fight unfolding by the empty poolside.
“Riley?” she asked, shifting out of gameface. She turned towards Riley. “What are you--"
He sank the stake with unerring precision. Buffy finished off the remaining two gang members quickly, and turned to find Riley brushing the dust off his clothes.
“What was that about?” she asked him.
He shook his head. “What?”
She gave him a sharp look. “She knew your name.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t recognize her. But maybe she knew me.”
Buffy regarded him with distaste. Could do without the big red INFIDELITY sign flashing over his head.
“Whatever. Come on. We’re not finished yet.” She moved past him, towards the deep end, and the exit beyond.
He ran to catch up. “What? Buffy, what is it?”
“Nothing,” she answered flatly.
He reached for her, stopping himself just short of her arm.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Forget it. Look, I’m over it, okay? It was just sort of weird. Running into one of your- let’s just drop it. Please?”
He stepped away from her. “Buffy, let’s not drop it. Let’s deal with it. We should have a long time ago.” His voice lowered. “Maybe if we had, things would be different between us.”
She cut him off. “No. No, they would not. Yeah, we both made mistakes. I kept you out. You cheated on me with prostitutes.” Her expression was cold. “Ours was not a healthy relationship.”
He rolled his eyes. “And you think this thing you have with Spike, you think that is?”
“Not going there with you, Riley.” She looked away from him.
The earnestness crept back into his voice. “Why? Why is the Spike thing so much better? What is it? The kinky thrill of doing the dead? ‘Cos I gotta tell you-”
“Can we stop now? Because this is the part where it gets icky.”
He sighed, and leaned back on his heels. She could see him trying desperately to put the words together right, to make her see his point. She anticipated him with a wince.
“Spike tried to tell me once, that you needed more monster in your man. Was that it? I wasn’t the bad guy, so I couldn’t be the guy? Would it have helped, Buffy? If I’d have -” He broke off, uncertain. His shoulders slumped, and he looked at her in honest confusion. “Look, I don’t know what you want from me. I tried to be what you wanted. You wanted sunshine and picnics and romance. I did that. You turned me against everything I stood for, everything I believed in, and that was okay- It didn’t matter, because I could believe in you. But then you pulled away from me. You had all this pain going on inside of you, and who did you take it to? Not me. Spike. This thing that it was your sacred duty to kill. Only you kept on not killing him, Buffy!”
She watched as he grew agitated, gesturing ever more erratically as he went on.
“You chose him over me, and you did it over and over. You kept things from me, but never from him. How do you know he’s really the best you could do? You never even gave us half a chance, not a real one. You wanted a strong right arm. I was that. You wanted a nice-guy normal boyfriend you could take home to Mama, and that’s what I was. I did everything right, I was loyal, and I loved you, Buffy. But you know, sweet and loyal; like a dog. Maybe that’s why you treated me like one.”
He was suddenly predatory, his hurt expression growing malicious. The change in his body language disarmed her. She watched in horror as his face rippled, as his features grew strange and distorted. Her heart sank into her stomach as he came at her, his amber eyes flashing their hatred.
She sidestepped the punch, and blocked his next one. Her hand gripped the stake uncertainly.
How can I have been so blind? How can I have missed this?
She deftly maneuvered against him for a time, blocking and ducking, never realizing he was herding her backwards all the while. Her foot reached the end of the concrete, and she stumbled over the edge.
He was still ranting at her from above as she rolled painfully to her feet. The pool bottom was lined with leaves and mud, with puddles of stagnant rainwater here and there. The faint smell of chlorine bit at her memory, just out of her reach …
“You know how much I loved you. I’d have done anything for you. I went against God and Country for you, I left behind a life where I was somebody. Can you understand that? You with your mission, and your calling. Can you even begin to understand what you did to me?”
He leaped in after her, landing nimbly and advancing.
“I’m sorry, Riley.” She ducked a swing and moved left. “I’m sorry I wasn’t enough for you. I’m sorry I didn’t love you the way you wanted me to. But- God! This- this was not the answer. What, did you think I was going to like you better this way? Is that what all that earlier was about?”
His laughter stopped her cold. “You self-centered bitch … You think I did this for you?” He shook his head, his mouth twisted into a mocking sneer. “I didn’t choose this! Darla murdered me in order to get to you. She saw an opportunity, and she took it. I never asked for it.”
The game face dissolved and he was Riley again. Sweet, mortal Riley, with his sweaty palms and his nervous laughter, his weird sense of humor and his amazing loyalty.
It was a horrible trick; that he could look like someone she cared about. Could he be in there now? Those were his words, his pain, his voice. The seed of doubt that had begun with Spike had flowered with Doug. Now it grew in her mind, fertile in the hope she cherished that Riley could be reclaimed.
She steeled her resolve. If Dawn had been right -- if Spike was not unique, then she could save him. If she could save anyone, it would be Riley. Who else possessed such deeply rooted loyalty, such a strong sense of right and wrong? She could see the conflict in his tormented eyes. “C’mon Riley. I know you. I know you’re still in there somewhere. I know your sense of honor.” She beseeched him. “You can fight this if you want it bad enough! You don’t have to be one of the monsters, Riley.” She took a chance. She relaxed her defensive stance. She dropped her weapon.
He sneered at her. “No. I don’t. And from day one, from the minute I woke up this, this thing, I’ve fought it. I refused to give them information. I lied to them. I worked with the police against them.” He turned back to her, his expression full of pain. “But it’s not enough, Buffy. It’s never enough. I can’t stop myself, sometimes.” He moved toward her, and somehow she had to fight to stay still- the urge to get away from him was nearly overwhelming. “I don’t mean to do it, Buffy. I try not to ... but a guy has needs.” He looked at her, despairing hope in his eyes. “I’m not like Spike was, Buffy. I don’t have a chip, I don’t have anything to stop me. And it’s so hard sometimes.” He shook it off then, calming his nerves. His voice grew calm, reasonable again. He kicked away the stake at her feet with no particular aggression. It vanished into the mire. “I think it will get easier when you’re gone,” he said. “I have so much anger at you. I think that’s why I tear them up, why I have to hurt them so much before they die.” He gave her a sorrowful smile. “When I’ve worked through that, worked through my anger with you, I won’t have to do it anymore. I’ll be able to stop.”
He gripped her shoulders fiercely, and in that instant she saw the truth in his dark eyes. It was like a knife to her gut. He was Riley. But he would never be the Riley she had been close to, never again. He was a threat now to everything and everyone she held dear.
He morphed into game face, and she shoved him backwards, hard. He sprawled away from her in the muck but her stake was gone. Her eyes frantically searched the scene, as he got slowly to his feet.
“Is that how it’s going to be? Are you going to kill me, Buffy? You keep your pet vampire around, but you’re going to kill me?” There was such pain in those amber eyes, such torment in his voice.
“I wanted to love you, Riley. I tried. But you screwed things up for us. It wasn’t my fault. No, I wasn’t perfect, but I was plenty good enough. But I couldn’t fight your insecurity for you. You don’t need a Slayer for that, you need a therapist.” Unarmed, she punched him, hard. He slipped in the mud and reached out an arm, seizing her as he fell. She fell on top of him with a wet thump, struggling, but the slick leaves and mud left her no purchase.
“Riley, please. You don’t have to be like this. I can help you! Spike can--”
His hands wound round her neck, and strangely, his face was still human, still Riley-- but the hate in his eyes was alien and animalistic. She fought him as he rolled her, turning her face to the rank water underneath, and pushed her down. His fingers bit into her neckbones hard, his knee in her back.
“Ssh. Sssh. Buffy, it’s okay. It’ll be over in a minute,” he whispered.
Her hands still groped madly in the rotting leaves, in the brackish water that choked her.
She felt him kiss the top of her head as blackness threatened to overwhelm her. At that moment her fist closed over the smoothness of wood. Not a stake, but a stick, windfallen. She brought her arm up, around his back. Impossibly awkward and strange, the gesture mocked an embrace. She found his heart with luck born of experience and necessity, and turned over, choking for air and gasping on his dust.
She staggered away from the remains of Riley Finn, heartsick. She wanted to vomit. On shaking legs she climbed the ladder of the empty pool. Faith stood at the top of it, breathless, and reaching out her good hand to help her up. Buffy didn’t take it.
“God, Buffy, I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe I didn’t catch it, didn’t sense it.” She searched awkwardly for comfort-words, but they didn’t come.
"Where's Spike?" Buffy asked faintly.
"Coming around the other side of the pool house. We were following the vamp-gang. I-“ She broke off, uncertain. “We didn’t get here fast enough, I guess.”
"I guess not,” said Buffy flatly. Her hands shook, clenching and unclenching at her sides. “I can’t- I don’t”-
Faith took in the hollow expression in her eyes, and clarity dawned.
“Oh, no you don’t,” began Faith. “I know this. You’re losing your nerve. You’re thinkin’ maybe it didn’t have to go down that way.” She shook her head. “B, that way is trouble. That kinda thinkin’ is like to get you killed. You did what you had to do. He- he wasn’t really Riley anymore. You know that.”
Buffy regarded her coldly. “Do I? I wonder.” She turned her back on Faith, and started to walk away.
“B! Wait a minute! Come back! I think we should take you home. You shouldn’t be out here alone!”
Faith’s voice trailed after her, but she shook her head.
“Leave me alone.”
I don’t want to do this anymore, she thought. I don’t want to be part of this.
Dimly she was aware of Faith shouting after her, of Faith calling for Spike. But Buffy ignored her as she staggered through the hole in the fencing, and out into the street. She didn't know where she was going; she didn't care.
***
She found herself on the other side of town some time later. She was tired and thirsty from her wanderings. She glanced around, swiping at tears with one hand.
The campus. She was on the campus. Oh, God-- whatever had driven her to come here?
Right there. They’d picnicked in the grass under those trees. Over on the other side of the quad, they’d meet sometimes right before her morning class. He’d worked out of that building over there, by the science wing.
The reminders of Riley were everywhere. Weary, she sank into the grass.
It’s done. I’m finished. I can’t do this any more. The tears had stopped. She was too empty to weep anymore. What’s the point, if it’s always going to end like this? If all my friends have to die?
“Buffy? Where the hell have you been?”
It was the most welcome sound in the world, the sound of home, of safety and love. She turned her head towards the voice, and saw him walking across the quad towards her. Her tears returned afresh. His pace quickened, and he was at her side in an instant.
“Ssh. Ssh, Buffy, I’m here. I’m here now. It’s all right.” His arms enveloped her as he crouched down at her side. She clutched the lapels of the duster and buried her face in his chest.
“No. It’s not all right. It’s never going to be all right. And it’s not fair! I’m so tired of this.” She breathed in his familiar scent like oxygen. “Riley’s gone. I staked him.” She raised tear-stained eyes to his face. “He came back because of me, to try to win me back, to make it up to me. He came back, and I got him killed, I got him turned, and then I staked him.” She pulled away from him and swiped at her eyes again. “I- I wanted to give him another chance. I wanted him to be like you. Why couldn’t he be like you?”
Her despair tore at his heart. How could he make her see? He had to, because these doubts were tearing her up inside. And one day, they were going to get her killed.
“Because he was not like me. None of them are. Love, he wasn’t Riley anymore. He wasn’t. And you did what you had to do.” He cupped her cheeks in his hands, gazing into her eyes with all the love in his heart.
“You did right by him, Buffy. Your hero wouldn’t have wanted to live that way. He wouldn’t have, and you know it.”
Riley, the Riley she’d known … he was a good man. And he was dead.
She knew now that Spike was right. There was nothing she could have done. Riley was beyond saving. They were all beyond saving. Spike was a miracle, a one-time thing.
Somehow that knowledge didn’t comfort her like she thought it should.
She pushed free of him and stood up. “Maybe. But I’m done. Do you hear me, Spike? I’m done. When this is over, when it all goes down and the Master is gone, I’m finished. I quit. There’s a reason Slayers don’t live to be as old as I am. I’m not doing this any more.”
He stood up alongside her and reached for her hand. “You don’t have to sell me on it. I’ll back you all the way. We’ll take Dawn, and we’ll just go. Somewhere. Anywhere. A nice, long vacation. God knows you’ve earned it.” He gave her a meaningful look. “But Buffy, it won’t be forever. You’re the Slayer. And it’s not something you can retire from. It’s part of who you are.”
He paused, catching the sound of human voices not far away. “Come on.” he took her hand. “I want to show you something.”
She was alert now. “What? What is it?”
He shook his head, and pulled her along the walkways outside the science building, towards the Arts building.
She could hear it, now that they were closer. The sound of people talking, of people singing …
It was coming from the auditorium. Cautiously, they approached the double doors.
Spike balked at the entrance.
“Look,” he whispered, motioning to the guards on the other side of the entrance. “Buffy, I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to try to go in there. But maybe you’ll find some of your answers inside.”
He pressed a kiss against her cheek. “I’ll be waiting out here for you when you’re finished.”
Perplexed, she watched him disappear into the shadowed bushes along the side of the building. Then she stepped through the doors.
“Stop right there,” said a guard. They were both young, perhaps sophomores or even freshmen. He shoved a silver crucifix in her hand. Satisfied, he stepped away from the door and nodded to the guard armed with a water pistol. “She’s clean.”
He lowered his gun and unblocked the door, a welcoming smile on his face.
“Come on in. There’s food by the stage, if you’re not too picky, and there’s clean blankets along the bleachers.”
She thanked him quietly and went on in.
The auditorium was filled with life. People huddled together in clumps, sleeping, or eating, or talking; a tattered cross-section of Sunnydale’s human population. Maybe a hundred people here tonight.
Along the left side of the room, some sort of demonstration was unfolding. Detective Grant stood alongside a young man, a full size dummy between them. She drew nearer, intrigued.
“These are the killing zones,” Grant stated. “The heart and the head. A stake through the heart is sufficient to cause the creature to disintegrate.” He indicated on the dummy where the heart should lie. “My assistant will demonstrate,” the officer said.
The assistant struck fast and firm, hitting the target spot easily.
The officer began again. “Please come forward, one at a time. Feel how deeply you must sink it, feel the force with which you must strike the blow.”
She watched, entranced, as several people came forward to heft the stake and try it on the vampire dummy.
“A vampire can also be killed by removing its head,” the officer droned.
Buffy’s eyes widened as she got a better glimpse at the assistant; a boy she knew all too well from school. He withdrew a machete from a sheath on his hip, and turned to address the throng of spectators.
“Excuse me, please. Can I have a little more room here?” he asked.
They moved back, and on command he demonstrated how to cut off its head. His swing was good, his arm strong. Wow. Maybe he paid more attention than I thought. All those times I saved his butt; maybe he learned something.
As they concluded their presentation Jonathan caught sight of Buffy.
“There she is!” he announced excitedly, pointing in her direction. “The Slayer!” He rushed to her, pocketing his blade and smiling. “Buffy! I’m so glad you’re here!”
He grabbed her hand, and then realized that he had been a touch too familiar. He released it and wiped his own absently on his jeans. She was reminded of the muck she’d recently rolled in, and quickly tried to smear some of the mud off of herself.
“Officer Grant, this is our Slayer,” said Jonathan proudly as the policeman joined them.
The older man looked at her with a warm smile. “We’ve met. It’s very good to see you again, Ms. Summers. Agent Finn speaks very highly of you.”
A shadow clouded her face. “Riley is dead.”
He took note of her somberness, and lowered his voice. “How did it happen?”
“Line of duty.” It was. He was doing his job, he was fighting the good fight, whenever they turned him. I know he was.
Detective Grant took off his hat, holding it over his heart. “He was a good man,” he said.
“One of the best,” she answered. Her throat ached and tears threatened again. She searched for something to hold her attention long enough to get control of herself.
“What is going on here?” she asked.
Grant gave her a grim smile. “A self-defense seminar for the citizenry. What’s left of it, anyway- those who aren’t running for the hills, or burying their heads in the sand.”
Jonathan interrupted. “Father Sanchez set this up. For the refugees. The orphans and such.” His face fell and his gaze became distant. “So many people who’ve lost so much. They can’t go home.” He shook it off and straightened up. In the process, Buffy would almost swear he’d grown a little bit taller. “We’ve been sheltering them here for about a week. Father Sanchez says mass here every evening at dusk. We get a lot of folks right before then. Every night, more and more of them.”
She took another look around, really seeing them this time, not as a bedraggled knot of people, but as individuals. There were a couple of guys she recognized from school. And Mr. Martin from the florist’s shop. He was so nice to me when my mother died. And there’s Mrs. Warner, from Mom’s work. She sat beside a strange man with an overweight Pug in his lap.
She saw one of the little girls Dawn had babysat for last summer. Bonnie? Betty? Something like that. She was settled fast asleep in the arms of a woman Buffy knew was not her mother. The woman stroked her hair and stared off into space. Bonnie. That’s definitely it. But where’s her sister? The obvious conclusion was wrenching.
Buffy turned away from that sight, towards the group of volunteers. Jonathan was passing out stakes and lighters, and doing a fair job of providing some leadership. He glanced up at her and gave her wan smile, before moving farther into the group, getting further away. She smiled after him, a warm feeling of pride and camaraderie growing in her chest.
There was Mrs. Martin, who’d lost a lot of weight, whittling stakes next to the Randall boy. The priest up front, consoling the grief stricken. Mrs. Miller and Mr. Guitierrez handing out blankets, the twins soothing the children. Neighbors tending to the wounded on the floor over there, more neighbors handing out food up by the stage. All these valiant people, fighting for their survival.
“This is it. This is what I’ve been fighting for,” she said softly.
Detective Grant beckoned her from the left. “I thought maybe you’d like to lead the next demonstration,” he offered kindly.
She stepped toward him. “How are they doing? I mean, do you think they really have a chance in a fight with the vampires?”
He nodded. “We’ve not done too badly. And a lot of these people- they’ve lost their loved ones, their friends and family.” He gave her a hard look. “They want vengeance. They’re going to look for it. I’d prefer they did it with the proper training.”
She looked around the room, mentally tallying. “How many do you think are ready to fight the vampires?”
“None of them are ready, Ms. Summers. But who ever is? We see a hundred or so people a night here. Of that number, maybe half go through the training course and are physically able to do battle. Why?”
“Because I’m going to need all the help I can get.”
She called them together, the next batch of volunteers, and hoped she had the words to motivate them.

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