Again, it wasn't as difficult as she thought it would be. She didn't break down into tears when she stepped through the familiar double doors as she'd feared she might. It was almost like it wasn't the same place. Something had gone from it. Then she realised. It didn't feel like home any more. That warm, safe feeling she always used to get here, the feeling of stability in a changing world, of timelessness and familiarity that came with the scents of dust and old leather and fragrant tea - it had gone. It was just another room. Still the same smells, the same bars of warm sunlight that set the dust glistening, but not the same. *He* had gone, and with it whatever had made this place so special.
"Weird," muttered Xander behind her. She knew the others could feel it too - the sense of dislocation between the outward and inward appearance of the place.
"Excuse me, can I help you," came a curt, clipped voice behind them. The group turned around and found themselves face to face with a middle aged woman wearing gold-rimmed spectacles and a straight navy suit, her iron-grey hair pulled up into a severe bun.
"Um, we know what we’re looking for, thanks," Willow said. The remaining Scooby Gang exchanged glances, and hurried up to the stacks.
Here at least nothing much had changed. There was the same sepulchral silence, the same warm darkness, the same smell of old paper.
"That must be Principle Snyder’s latest recruit," Xander said, nodding back towards the new librarian.
But Buffy barely heard him. She was thinking about a time three years ago when she had been in a very similar situation. "Can I help you?" Those had been his words too, but said so differently. If only she had known then what he would become.
BY OUR FIRST STRANGE AND FATEFUL INTERVIEW,
BY ALL DESIRES THAT THEREOF DID ENSUE.
<Who's doing this?> she thought desperately. <Why are they doing this to me?>
She became aware that
<Why are they doing this to me?>
* * * * *
Buffy pulled her leather jacket around her slender form and shivered, violently. It might have been
"B, will you wait up!"
Buffy sighed, and slowed her pace. She didn't want to talk to her fellow Slayer, but the others still didn't like her going out on her own, and the last thing she wanted was to alienate her partner. And she *needed* to keep Slaying. It was the only thing left to her. She idly tapped her stake on her hand while she waited for the younger Slayer to catch up.
"Geez, what's with you tonight B?" asked Faith as she ran up.
"What do you mean, what's with me?" asked Buffy, her face carefully blank.
"Well, not wanting to speak out of turn or anything, but you're acting really weird at the moment."
"Yeah, right," scoffed Faith. "I mean, I love a good staking as much as the next girl, but that vampire was practically a greasy film on the sidewalk by the time you were done hitting him. I mean, I guess I wouldn't mind so much if he'd actually attacked you or anything -"
"Gee, if doing violence to vampires upsets you, I think you're in the wrong line of work," said Buffy, imitating Faith's distinctive
"Yeah, or maybe you like it a little too much," she said quietly, copying Buffy's response. For a moment Buffy turned and looked at her, and Faith took a step backwards. The look in her eyes was not one that inspired confidence.
"I'm fine," said Buffy, her voice intense.
"Look, I know you're not really yourself at the moment, kind of...off balance, what with everything that's happened..." Faith could feel her words slipping away from her in the light of Buffy's cold stare, and tried to focus her eyes somewhere on the ground. "It’s good that you’re having fun with the Slaying, but I just think you should be more careful at the moment," she muttered.
Buffy's silence was unnerving her. Faith risked a glance into her face, and found her expression hadn't changed.
"I don't need you to watch me all the time," said Buffy, slowly and quietly. "I don't need you scrutinizing my every move. I don't need your advice, or your words of caution. I don't need a new Watcher." She turned away and began to walk on through the silent graveyard.
"Buffy -" began Faith, hurrying after her, but Buffy didn't stop. Faith stopped for a moment, watching the retreating figure. Then she noticed the shape on the ground a few rows of graves away. Raising her stake, she walked forward slowly. The shape was clearer now. Faith knelt as she reached the man's side, taking in at a glance the mottled blue black bruises that covered most of his exposed skin, criss-crossed with thread thin cuts, and speckled with burn marks.
"B, get over here!" she shouted, checking the man for a pulse, and not finding one. She didn't hear Buffy approaching, but caught sight of her standing impassively at her shoulder. "Don't just stand there!" she hissed. "Call an ambulance or something!"
Then the man stirred, and moaned in pain. Faith jumped backwards.
"He...he was dead," she stuttered.
"Well, yeah," replied Buffy without surprise. "Vampires usually are."
"Are you sure he is one?" asked Faith dubiously.
"No, dead people move so often," said Buffy sarcastically. "Well, stake him then."
Faith frowned. "Aren't you sort of curious about what did this?"
"No," said Buffy. "It just means less work for us."
Faith looked up at Buffy nervously. She wasn't usually a person given to introspection, or for looking deeply into other people. If there was one person supremely not suited for being an agony aunt, it was Faith. But Buffy's behaviour was really beginning to scare her now. And, much as she disliked it, she knew that for now she had to be the responsible one, and try to do the right thing. Whatever was up with the other Slayer was probably best sorted out by the other members of the gang.
She turned to the vampire, who was beginning to come round. She pulled a small cross from around her neck, and dangled it in front of the vampire's face. He cowered away, hissing in fear, but Faith moved forward again keeping the cross just in front of it.
"Tell us what did this," she said quietly.
"Take it away!" he hissed, shying away.
"Not until you tell us what happened."
"I displeased our master," said the vampire, unwillingly.
"What master?" asked Faith. "Mister Trick?"
"Him?" answered the vampire with a short laugh. "He was the first to be killed in the purges. I mean our new master."
"What new master?" asked Faith, punctuating each word by pushing the cross a little closer to the demon's face. The creature writhed in pain as the metal brushed its cheek, scorching the already damaged flesh.
"If I tell you, he'll kill me!" he whimpered in pain.
"And if you don't, I'll kill you," said Faith calmly. "Which sounds worse?"
The demon laughed, hoarsely. "I'd rather die quickly now than slowly at his hands. You'll have to kill me."
Faith blinked in amazement. That was one response she hadn't expected. She hesitated for a moment just before she plunged the stake home. The look of resignation on the vampire's face was more terrifying than any look of fear or anger. She stood up as the creature exploded into dust, brushing off her hands on her jacket. Buffy's hadn't moved.
"I don't know who this new master is, but he sounds wicked bad, B," Faith commented, trying to get a response from the other Slayer. Buffy didn't look very interested.
"Should we tell the others?"
"No," Buffy said quickly. "There’s no need to get them involved. There’s nothing they can do anyway."
"Do you want to go over to Willy's and see what he can tell us?"
"Whatever," said Buffy blandly. "You go. I'll finish patrol."
"Buffy, with this new guy around, maybe you shouldn't patrol alone -" began Faith before Buffy cut her off.
"I don't need you to protect me," she said harshly. "I've been Slaying for three years and counting, and I think I'm doing great without you."
Faith stood up, her patience exhausted. "You know what? Fine," she snapped. "Screw you. You get killed, it's your own damn fault." She stalked off into the night. For a second Buffy stood still, carefully ignoring the part of her mind that was screaming at her to go after the other girl, to apologise, to do something. That voice had been getting quieter lately, swamped in the ice cold cloud around her brain. She turned to continue her patrol. Maybe she could find some nice unsuspecting demon to vent all that angry energy on.
* * * * *
There was another flower and another note on the windowsill of her room. The note was only a line long, in the now familiar print.
I WONDER BY MY TROTH, WHAT THOU, AND I DID ‘TILL WE LOVED.
Buffy carefully placed the note by the others on her dresser. Then she knelt down by her bed, and reverently pulled a heavy, hard-backed book from under her mattress. She had been reading it every chance she got since she had purloined it from Giles' apartment. In some ways it felt almost dirty, to be reading his Watcher's diary, the one thing that had always been off limits to her, but the admonishing voice in her head was quieted by her desire, her *need* to feel him close to her. When she read the lines in his strange, scrawling handwriting, it was almost like she could hear him speaking to her. This was the only time she would let the tears flow freely, the tears she always kept hidden as if they didn't even exist. It was a form of self-flagellation, in a way.
She had never imagined the things he wrote about her - sometimes humorous, sometimes too perceptive to be comfortable, but always ringing with so much pride it hurt her to read. It was the gaps that hurt most of all, though. One late-February 1998 - when Jenny had died. One summer 1998, interrupted by occasional lines detailing fruitless searches around the country, looking for her, the handwriting even more scribbly than usual, as though the act of writing was painful. He had written things here that he would never have said aloud - his hopes, his fears, always revolving around her. In a strange way, she had learnt more about him in his death than she ever had in his life. That hurt. Had she really been so shallow and egotistical she had never taken the trouble to look at him?
<Probably,> she admitted. God, why? Life was so short. Too short to waste on ignoring the people that mean most to you.
<Too short not to realise how much you need someone.>
* * * * *
The computer lab had become the unofficial new base of operations for the Scooby gang. The library was pretty much out of bounds now, and the new computer science teacher trusted
"Dammit, where is she?" Xander said, twirling his pencil between his fingers.
"You waiting for someone?"
"Faith," Xander began. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you, actually," she said. "Have you seen Buffy? I stopped by her house, but her mom said she'd already left for patrol."
"I know," Faith agreed. "Especially after last night."
"Last night?" Xander asked. "Last night is what?"
Too late, Faith realised that she'd put her foot in it. She attempted to brush it off, but it was to no avail.
"Just tell us what happened,"
"It's no biggie, really," Faith said. "It's just...we saw this vampire, no surprise there, but he was kinda doing an impression of a sidewalk painting. We asked him what had happened, who had done this to him, and he started yammering on about a new master."
"That doesn’t sound like a happy thing," Xander said.
"He refused to tell me anything ‘cause he was too scared his ‘Master’ might hurt him. So then I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna kill you anyway,’ and he said that he’d rather die quickly now than painfully later."
Xander’s eyebrows did a nice little quickstep along his forehead. "Okay.." he began. "Not feeling better about the new master guy."
"Do you think Buffy went out there to try and find him?"
"I hope not," Faith replied.
"What do you *think*?"
"I *think* she’s unstable. She’s losing herself in the battle and she’s not caring about who she hurts in the process." The dark haired girl looked uncomfortably at her feet. "I know what it feels like to go psycho like that. All she wants are some nice, easy kills to take away the pain."
"Yeah, well there’s one little problem with that. This Master Vamp doesn’t sound like he’s going to be all that easy to kill," Xander told her.
"Well maybe that’s what she wants now. Something a little…harder. Higher risk factor. Less chance of survival.."
"Look, I’ve been there. She’s stopped caring about herself. All she wants is the kill - that’s all she’s got left now that Giles is…" she trailed off, still unable to say the words that hung constantly in the melancholy air. "Look," she said. "I’d better get out there. I’ll try and find her. You two go home. I’ll call you as often as I can and if I find her I’ll bring her straight to you, I promise."
"Be careful," Xander said.
Faith shook her head. "I’m not the one you need to tell that to."
* * * * *
Buffy stalked through the dark cemetery, as silent and deadly as the prey she hunted. She had managed to get away for patrol before Faith could catch up with her. Hopefully she wouldn't have to run into her all night. She had also managed to avoid
She couldn't remember the last time she had gone out, or done normal teenager things. She couldn't remember the last time she had been a normal teenager. Had she ever been?
She didn't care. Nothing touched her now. She had the night, and the hunt.
From around a corner Buffy heard a nervous scuffing and ruffling of leaves. Raising her stake in preparation, she confidently stalked forward, hungry with the desire to find a nice, weak vampire ahead of her, someone she could beat to a bloody pulp before watching him explode in a pained cloud of dust and ash.
Peering around through the leaves, watching closely, Buffy jumped back in sudden shock as the green of the bushes was interrupted by a bloom of blood red. A rose. It was sticking out of the branches, a small card hanging from its stem, stained with that all-too familiar black scrawl.
SHE, SHE IS DEAD; SHE'S DEAD; WHEN THOU KNOWS’T THIS
THOU KNOWS’T HOW DRY A CINDER THIS WORLD IS
<What the hell?> Buffy thought. Creepy had just been upgraded to scary. This was more than just a sick joke, this was a threat.
The voice she heard behind her was trembling with fear. Buffy smiled, cruelly, before she turned. A nice, simple kill was just what she needed. Somewhere in her mind something was asking why a vampire should be not only not running away, but also seemed to have been actively looking for the scourge of the underworld, but that voice didn't bother her too much any more. She turned and faced the demon that stood behind her, somehow poised between the desire for flight and something else that made sure it stayed.
"You called?" she asked sweetly.
The creature threw something on the ground between them.
"Compliments of my master," he muttered.
Buffy frowned, and stooped to pick up what lay on the green turf of the cemetery, not taking her eyes off the demon.
<What gives?> she wondered. <Some sort of trap?>
Then her fingers felt the soft freshness of petals, and for a moment her heart stopped. She looked down. Another rose, freshly picked, and a card. Slowly, she picked it up, read the dark letters by the light of the full moon that streamed around her.
ONE SHORT SLEEP PAST, WE WAKE ETERNALLY,
AND DEATH SHALL BE NO MORE; DEATH THOU SHALT DIE
The card dropped from her suddenly nerveless fingers.
The vampire shifted uneasily. It was probably the worst thing it could have done. Buffy felt a cold fury grip her.
The vampires. All this time it had been the vampires. <How dare they?> she thought incoherently as she stood. <How dare they!>
She attacked like a thing possessed. There was no discernable fighting style in the blur of blows, just a silent, deadly determination, an overwhelming desire to inflict as much pain as possible on this...this thing that had brought the hateful gift.
Then there was nothing left but an expanding cloud of dust. Buffy looked blankly at her trembling hands, at the blood that shone in dark stains over their whiteness in the moonlight.
She heard the mocking applause just behind her before she even realised there was anyone there.
"Bravo, Slayer. Your technique is improving."
Buffy went as pale as death. That voice...
"You never used to have that cold ruthlessness before," continued the voice, its sardonic English tones mocking her in their courtesy. "It will make things more of a challenge."
She turned around slowly, her heart not certain whether it was going to pound away in triple time or stop beating altogether. <It can't be, it can't be...> she repeated in her head. <Please God, don't let this be happening.>
A tall shape, swathed in a full black coat, who seemed to wrap the night around himself like a second skin. Features muffled by darkness, but still horribly familiar.
"I thought the roses were a nice touch," commented Giles in an off-hand manner. "So many associations. You can't imagine how much I've been looking forward to this evening."
"Giles..." whispered Buffy.
"Not quite." The man who had been her Watcher grinned, ferally, before his face contorted into something ridged, inhuman, evil, his eyes glowing yellow as a cat's. "I prefer 'Ripper'."
And then Buffy did something she had only done a couple of times in her life before.
She ran away.