Trick turned off the water and leaned his forehead against the cool tile of the shower wall. He remained there for some minutes before slowly stepping out of the stall. He dressed in a pair of loose black silk pajama pants and black espadrilles, then stretched out on his bed.
"So how was it?" Delilah asked.
Trick grinned. "Baby, it was the best. Turning a Slayer into my own private Pinocchio? That's worth about any amount of pain."
She rubbed his shoulders. "You seem pretty tired."
"That's because I am pretty tired. I'm tired like triathlon tired."
Delilah leaned down and whispered in his ear. "Is there anything I can do?"
He rolled over onto his back. "Why don't you leave me alone. I'll see you tomorrow." He was asleep before she closed the door.
Buffy stumbled down the stairs, her hair a disheveled mess and her pajamas twisted like a politician's integrity. She dropped into a chair at the table and lowered her head onto her folded arms.
Joyce looked up from the stove. "Hey there. I'm making eggs." She was determined to download June Cleaver.
"Sorry, mom. Not in the mood for chicken fetus," Buffy groaned from underneath her hair. Joyce put down her spatula, turned down the heat under the eggs and sat down at the table.
"Honey, I know this is an awful, terrible time, but it's not your fault."
Buffy's head came up. "But that's where you're wrong. I held Faith while they killed the person she loved more than anyone in the world. That translates into blame."
Joyce picked at the place mat in front of her. "Mr. Giles said that something happened, that you weren't in control. I don't see how you can hold yourself responsible for that." She took a deep breath. "Willow's coming over. She said she'd walk you to school."
The Slayer shook her head. "No. Not happening. I cannot go to school."
"Buffy, you've missed three days. The only time you've left the house is to try and find Faith. I know this is a horrible, horrible time, but the world will not stop." Joyce's voice was strong but her eyes were bright with tears. "You can't make life stop. This seems like an unbearable burden now, but you have friends who will help." She reached out and took her daughter's hand. "And you have me."
"That's a nice speech. Are you still going to make me go to school?"
Joyce nodded. "Oh yes." She stood. "Now, do you want some breakfast? Because Willow's going to be here in about fifteen minutes."
Buffy was grateful that Willow didn't try to fill the silence with banter. They simply walked. Buffy concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other while Willow tried to not shoot too many glances out of the corner of her eye.
They merged with the stream of students approaching Sunnydale High. Surrounded by laughing, shouting kids, Buffy felt a sudden urge to start punching people. How could they be so happy? Didn't they know someone had died a sad and hateful death? The answer, of course, was that they did not know. Lindsay's demise was a secret burden shared by only a handful of people.
Xander and Cordelia waited for them at the top of the stairs. Xander wore garish plaid pants and a powder-blue western-cut shirt with navy-blue yoke and cuffs. Cordelia was dressed in a short-sleeved gold mock T and leopard-print mini.
"Hey, Buff," Xander said. "How are you feeling?"
"Dehydrated," Buffy mumbled.
"I gotta go," Willow said. "Tutoring session." She touched Buffy's arm. "See you at lunch." The redhead hustled off down the hall.
Buffy regarded Xander and Cordelia. "So you guys are the honor guard, huh?"
The couple exchanged glances and Xander shuffled his feet. "Yeah, we're sort of the last detail. You know, make sure you get to class and stuff."
"Stuff like running away?" Buffy lifted her chin and stared him in the eye.
"Pretty much exactly that," Cordelia said. "After all, you did flake the last time someone died a grisly supernatural death you couldn't prevent."
Xander winced but Buffy simply stared into Cordelia's bored gaze. "Thanks for laying it all on the table, Cordelia. Even if I was planning on running away, I'd stay now just to spite you."
"Hey." Xander broke in. "How's Faith doing?"
"Don't know," Buffy said. "She hasn't been at what passes for her home."
Cordelia examined her nails. "Well, she punched your lights out and took off. Maybe she ran away."
"You have a plan?" Xander must have noticed how Buffy's hands curled into fists.
Buffy gave Cordelia a last penetrating glare then turned to him. "Only in the most basic sense. It goes 'get through the day, meet with Giles, then check the motel again.' Not exactly worthy of Sherlock Holmes."
Xander shrugged. "I don't know, I think it has a certain directness and simplicity that work. You know, minimalist-wise. Do I babble?"
"Indeed you do." Cordelia turned to Buffy. "Let's go. Time's wasting."
"She means well. I think," Xander muttered as they walked down the hall. Buffy felt a perverse comfort. If Cordelia could be rude, then maybe, perhaps, someday, life might return to normal.
Willow checked the clock again and tried to remain calm. Tyler Pittman was already ten minutes late. She took out a notebook and opened it. Might as well make the best of the time and review Calculus II.
The hinges on the door squeaked. She looked up and there he was, all gangly limbs and sullen expression. Willow tried to make her face an annoyance-free zone as he slouched into a chair. "You're late," she said, trying to keep her voice mild.
"Flunk me," he said. "That'll teach me a lesson."
"Actually," she said, "I thought we'd just start with Civics and Government." She tugged a thin book from the stack in front of her. The collection tottered and she reached out to keep it from falling.
"Hey, what's that?" Tyler yanked on the corner of a book sticking out of Willow's backpack.
"That's my personal stuff." Willow reached for his wrist and without her steadying grip the textbooks came sliding down across the table. She tried to stem the tide and by the time her attention was once again focused on him, Tyler had pulled the book out and was leafing through it. "Hey," Willow said, her face flushed. "What are you doing? Don't you have any respect?"
Tyler held up the book and flapped it back and forth. "The Kabbalah? Interesting. Especially when I see that there's another book in there on spellcraft. One of these things is not like the other." His heavy twang made 'like' sound like 'lahk.'
"Well, that's my business," Willow snapped as she reached for the book. Tyler pulled it away, holding it just out of reach.
"Come on," he said. "All this time spent tryin' to engage my interest and now that it's engaged, you wanna pull it back."
"First of all, you need to get your schoolwork done, not take my personal things." Willow glared at him. "And second of all, that sentence was grammatically atrocious."
He shrugged. "Still don't tell me why you're readin' these books."
"Maybe I'm doing a report."
He shook his head. "Uh-uh. If you was, you'd have two books on the Kabbalah or two on spells, not one on each. You're trying to use these."
Willow tried to act innocent and offended. "What are you talking about?"
A sly grin creased his face. "Yeah, that's it. You're such a little control freak anyway, I bet the idea of big bad magic really turns you on, don't it?"
Willow's eyes narrowed. "Who are you calling a control freak?"
"You. Look at yourself. This whole tutoring thing's turned into a big contest of wills. You're convinced you can make me do well in school in spite of myself. What's more about control than that?"
"It's my business why I've got those books."
Tyler shrugged. "If you tell me what you're after, I might be able to help."
Willow pulled back. "Help with what? Are you saying you believe in this stuff?"
"This stuff?" Tyler waved at the books. "No, but not for the reason you think," he hastened to add when he saw the sparks in Willow's eyes.
"What reason, then?"
"Tell me why you've got the books."
Willow's lips almost disappeared as she tried to stare a hole through him. "I have a... condition, and I think there might be some help in those books."
Tyler shook his head. "You're not thinking big enough. Those books are like swimming lessons, which are fine, unless you're going out into the ocean. Then you've got to surf."
Willow cocked her head. "That made no sense."
"That's what I meant when I said I don't believe in them. I believe in what's behind them. You go with those books and you're going to make the mistake of believing that you can control the other world, but you can't. It's too big. You've got to learn to go with it."
Willow frowned. She hated herself for it, but she was intrigued. "And what you're talking about is different how?"
Tyler leaned forward. He was more alive than Willow had ever seen him. "I can show you how to walk in their world."
Buffy's feet dragged as she approached the library. 'Dread' was not a strong enough word to summarize her feelings. The day had been awful. She couldn't even muster the pretense of interest in her classes and most of the teachers seemed to home in on her stupor like bees to a field of marigolds, so now she felt stupid in addition to everything else. Now Giles wanted to debrief her.
The library doors clicked as she pushed them open. The late afternoon sun streamed in through the windows, the golden rays guiding the eye to the table in the middle of the room. Giles sat at that table, his attention focused on the books in front of him. He looked up at the sound of her approach. Buffy slid into the chair across from him, the tension stretched like blown glass, hot and fragile. Giles closed the books and rested his clasped hands on the table.
"How was your day?" he asked. The complete banality of his question took the Slayer off-guard. She felt the air grow breathable again.
"How was my day? It was, hmm, let's see... Oh yeah, the word is 'sucked'."
Giles nodded and fiddled with his tie. "I'm sorry I couldn't do this sooner, but I've been busy with... other arrangements." Buffy winced. "Now," he continued, "I'm waiting for a reply from the Council, but I believe that I know what happened."
"It had something to do with this, didn't it?" Buffy tapped the Band-Aid on her neck. The bite wounds were almost completely healed, but she could feel their presence.
Giles nodded. "Yes. I discovered a reference in Reuchlin to 'der griff des vampire'."
"What does that mean?"
"'The grip of the vampire.' It's ability of certain vampires to control their victims by means of a psychic link established during feeding."
"Whoa." Buffy stared at him, her mouth open. "You never thought to tell me about this little possibility?"
Giles took a deep breath. "There are many items of popular vampire lore that are patently false. For instance, the belief that a vampire must sleep in a coffin containing the soil of its home. It's a load of bollocks; they can sleep anywhere they like. This power that Trick exercised fell into the same category-a creative addition grafted on by storytellers to further frighten their audience. At least, that's what we believed. In fact, the Reuchlin isn't a description, it's only a passing reference, and a joking one at that. It did point me in the right direction, however. It's not as though sources were thick on the ground. This power hasn't been manifested in over twelve hundred years."
Buffy fell back in her chair. "Trick did something that hasn't been done in twelve centuries?"
Giles nodded. "When you fought the Master for the last time, what did he do?"
Buffy stared at her Watcher. "He raised his hand and pointed at me and... I froze."
"Exactly. He could hold you in one spot, but he could not make you move."
Buffy frowned. "But even that trick didn't work up on the roof. Shouldn't he have been even more powerful? After all, he bit me too."
Giles nodded and pursed his lips. "Well, that's because his power... that is the connection between you... You died. That rendered the bite powerless, although I daresay that stasis would still have been the best he could achieve."
"Okay." Buffy waved a hand. "What does this mean now?"
Giles shrugged. "Well, obviously you can't face Trick directly. The results could be disastrous. The research arm of the Council will try and determine the exact nature and limits of Trick's ability, as well as any possible remedies."
A moment passed in silence, then Buffy said, "Giles, what happened to... the body?"
The librarian looked down at the table. "The Watchers Council looks after its own."
Buffy digested that, then stood up. "I've got to go."
Giles' brow furrowed. "Where are you going?"
"To try and find Faith."
The Watcher frowned. "I'll come with you." He started to get up.
"No." Buffy held out an emphatic hand. "I have to do this by myself." A bitter smile wreathed her face. "But you might stay close to the phone tonight. I may need you later."
Buffy trudged across the cracked concrete in front of the ValleyView in a listless funk. She'd come here for three days and Faith was nowhere in evidence. She was probably gone; it was a response Buffy understood.
She stopped in front of the door to #6. She raised her hand, brought it down, and nearly tumbled to her knees when the door was jerked open before her knuckles could make contact. The Slayer caught herself and straightened up to stare into Faith's eyes.
Faith's normally pale skin was all but translucent. Her eyes were dry and shiny, like someone with a high fever. Dark smudges resided underneath. Her dark hair hung lank and unwashed. She stared at Buffy, and if looks could kill the blond Slayer would have been laid out with a lily between her crossed palms.
"Faith," Buffy croaked. "I... uh, was worried about you." Faith said nothing, just stepped back into the dim, musty room. Buffy entered like she was walking on eggshells. Faith stood in the middle of the room, between the sagging twin beds. Buffy swallowed hard, trying to clear the goose egg that had suddenly appeared in her esophagus.
"Faith, I'm... I'm so sorry," she began.
"Well, that means a whole hell of a lot." Faith's voice was raspy. "You come to try and clear your conscience?"
Buffy looked down at the floor then back up at the other girl. "No. I came to tell you how sorry I am."
"Sorry? Sorry?" Faith bristled. "You kept me from saving the only person who gave a rat's ass about me, and you're sorry?"
"Faith, what happened wasn't me, it--"
"Sure as hell looked like you."
"It was Trick. He worked some sort of mojo on me. Giles can explain it."
"I bet he can." Faith's words dripped scorn. "I bet he has some great explanation that makes it all not your fault. Am I right?"
Buffy changed her tack. "What are you going to do now?"
"I'm going to kill them. Not because I'm the Slayer. For Lindsay. " Faith's voice was hard. "And I'll kill anyone who's between them and me. You might remember that."
"Where will you live?"
Faith spread her arms wide. "Hey, the old ValleyView's paid for. All I need's a place to crash anyway."
"Don't stay here." Buffy extended her hand. "Come home with me. Stay with us."
"Why? So I can see your face every day and remember what you did? No way."
"Faith, it's not healthy for you to stay here."
"I don't wanna be healthy. I want to remember Lindsay." Faith's face twisted and tears began to seep from her eyes. "I don't even know where she'll be buried. The only person who ever cared about me and I can't even put flowers on her grave."
"Don't say that." Buffy stepped forward. "I care about you. Giles cares about you. Willow and Xander, and my mom, they all--"
"I bet they've all been telling you how it's not your fault, haven't they?" Faith shook her head. "You'll always have them to fall back on, just like now. I've got nothing, nobody." She sank onto the bed, her head cradled in her hands. "Lindsay... For a while, just a little while, I knew what it felt like to be special to somebody." A racking sob tore through her slender frame. Buffy reached out and touched her shoulder.
Faith came off the bed like a rocket. Buffy stepped back, her hands rising in an involuntary response. Faith's breath came in great gulps and pants. "I think you should go," she said. "Get the fuck out of my sight."
Buffy stumbled out the door. She turned to make one last-ditch effort to persuade the other girl. For a split-second Faith stood framed in the doorway. The door was only a cheap, splintered hollow-core wood veneer. No way should it have sounded like the door of Hell's own dungeon closing when Faith slammed it in Buffy's face. The blond Slayer turned, her eyes burning, and disappeared into the deepening gloom.
She walked for a long time.
The sidewalk under her feet seemed very familiar. Her heart sank. She could taste ashes as she raised her head. She was here again; she always ended up here. Her feet turned into the driveway of their own volition. The mansion loomed over her, its dark bulk threatening to topple over and crush her.
The dim interior was cool; she felt a chill pass through her. The house was quiet. The sound of her footsteps didn't echo but seemed to be swallowed by the silence. They must have been loud enough to reach his ears because he materialized in front of her. His dark clothing blended into the surroundings, leaving his face and hands as pale shapes in the gloom. They faced each other like two wary fighters, each waiting for the other to throw the first punch. Angel shuffled his feet.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"There's a lot of that going around," she said.
"I mean it."
"Do you?" She suddenly felt exhausted. She wanted to lie down right there on the rough flagstones and go to sleep, possibly forever.
Angel made an awkward gesture with his hands. "Is there... anything I can do?"
"I'm not sure there's anything anyone can do." She leaned back against the wall. "How did this happen?" Her voice held a choked sob.
"I tried to warn you."
Buffy looked at him sharply. "Did you? Because I don't recall anything about 'Oh, by the way, Trick can make you dance like a puppet'."
"I didn't know he could." He swallowed and looked at the walls as though he wanted to turn into a spider and scuttle away to a high, far corner. "I guess I thought it was a legend," he finally said. He shook his head and spoke almost as if to himself. "You hear... I'd heard stories about ancient vampires that could actually bend people to their will, but I thought they were myths. I was wrong."
Buffy frowned. "You said ancient vampires. But Trick's not very old."
"No, he's not. Do you realize how much concentration, what kind of focus it takes to do what he did? And in the short time he's had to learn it?" Angel rolled his head on his neck, trying to loosen a knotted muscle.
"Do you know anything else about it?" It felt so morbid to ask these questions but at least it gave her a focus, put some picture in her head to replace the image of Lindsay collapsing in a gushing torrent of blood and death.
Angel's face was a bleak mask. "That's all I know."
Buffy stared at him, her expression grave. "No, it isn't. Angel, what are you hiding?"
He stiffened. "Do you really think you can come in here and demand something of me?"
Buffy started to snap out a reply and thought better of it. "No, I can't. But I know you, Angel. You're holding something back."
"Don't I have that right? Maybe I don't want to be part of your little adventures."
"Why?" Even as she spoke, Buffy wanted to retract her words. "Because you're afraid it will happen again? What is it, Angel? Do you fear me or hate me?"
He took a step backward, like a man who had taken a heavy blow. "Neither," he said. "But Trick's not here by accident. There are... things here that shouldn't be."
"What kind of things?" She leaned forward, searching his face.
"Bad things. Even worse than you're used to. Things from... that place."
The anguish on his face pierced her heart. She reached out, extending her hand toward him. "Angel, I--"
"I won't go back there. I won't." He was shaking.
Buffy frowned. "Angel, that won't happen."
He shook his head violently. "You have no idea what it's like."
"Then give me some idea."
He stared at her. "Is that some schoolgirl challenge?" He grabbed the open collar of his wine-red velvet shirt and yanked. Buttons flew, chattering against the walls and floor. One hit Buffy on the chin, startling her. She blinked, then looked at the now-shirtless Angel. "Oh God..." she whispered.
His torso seemed so familiar, the smooth ivory skin, the dense musculature. But that well-known body was overlaid with a ghastly web. The scars were even whiter than his flesh, razor-thin crosshatches across his chest and stomach, interrupted by the puckered welts of healed burns. She stepped forward as one in a trance. His eyes narrowed as she approached. When her hand touched his chest it felt like blue fire leaped between their skins. She lifted her eyes to meet his. He saw the sparkle of tears.
"I did this to you?" she whispered.
Angel's eyes went to a faraway place. "I can still smell it," he said. "You can't imagine that smell. The stink of burning fat... the gutters full of blood and tissue... the screams." He grabbed his head in both hands. "I hear the screams all the time. The moans."
"Stop it, Angel. You're scaring me."
A near-deranged laugh bubbled from his lips. "I'm scaring you? If they're coming for me..." His voice dies away.
Buffy felt the ridges of the scars beneath her fingertips. His skin was cool to her touch. "Why do you think they're coming for you?"
Angel grasped her wrist and pushed her hand away. "Didn't Willie tell you about Trick? He's a gun for hire, a salvage expert. I think I have a pretty good idea of what he might be here to salvage."
She might not have heard him. Her eyes glazed over as they took in the sight of those scars, those permanent reminders of what he had gone through, a journal of torture written on his flesh. Her gaze settled on one scar, neither thin and precise nor ugly and welted. It was a simple flattened oval, perhaps two inches long, just below the ribs on his left side. Her hesitant fingers brushed against it. "God, how you must hate me," she whispered.
"Hate you?" The bewilderment in his voice caused her to look up into his confused eyes. "I don't hate you." His eyes clouded and his voice became very far away. "It's... it's really complicated. Somehow I got vomited back here... and then I saw you... and it all gets so tangled up. I don't hate you, but I can't forget that you sent me there. I... When I was there, the only thing close to hope was what I felt when I thought of you." His hand reached out; his thumb brushed away a tear. "I know you didn't really have a choice."
"Angel, I..." Words failed her. The edges of her vision grew blurry. His face floated in an ocean of blackness; his dark eyes seemed huge. She pushed herself up on tiptoe and kissed him. For the blink of an eye he did not react, then his arms closed around her. The kiss was long and somber, not the fumbling of two groping adolescents but the slaking of two souls thirsty for each other.
Buffy broke the kiss and pushed away. She stared at him, wide-eyed. "I'm sorry," she stammered. "That wasn't... I shouldn't have come here." She spun and raced out the door.
"Wait," he said, but she was already gone. He made a move as if to follow, but his steps faltered halfway to the door. He stood there, silent, unmoving, a statue of pale marble in the moonlight. His fingers touched his lips. He could still feel her residual warmth. He stood there for a long time.
Trick pulled his legs out of the manhole cover and began to strip off the orange coveralls he wore. He kicked free of them and straightened his tie. For once he felt good about the no reflection issue; it kept him from seeing how badly that hazmat getup had wrinkled his suit.
"You seem very concerned about your garments." The voice echoing from the deep shadow was probably meant to startle Trick. Too bad, nice try. He spent an extra second smoothing the line of his trouser leg before straightening.
"Yeah," he said, "but this is Italian. I mean, you spent, what, thirteen-fifty, fourteen dollars on that outfit?"
Othniel Hampton offered a flint-eyed stare in response. "You care greatly about the material things of this world."
Trick shrugged. "Yeah, but you know... If you're gonna be stuck here for eternity you might as well know the difference between a good red wine and Mad Dog." He looked around, noting the cavernous space stretching away on all sides. "Man, nice place like this sitting here empty and you shack up in that crappy house. Why?"
Hampton's upper lip curled. "Did you call me here to bait me?"
Trick shook his head. "No, no I didn't. I'm sorry, brother. It is your dime." He ran his thumbs underneath his lapels, trying to smooth the silk. "Actually, I wanted to thank you for your help. Plan couldn't have succeeded without you, and I know it cost you."
Hampton's face darkened. "My followers died for the sake of your plan. To allow the Slayer to leave our house was almost more than I could bear."
"And that's why I'm grateful. I know it wasn't easy. That's why I wanted to make you an offer." Trick tugged at an earlobe.
"Your plans are too complicated and costly. I think we will go our own way." Hampton crossed his arms.
"Agreed. We've been temporary allies. Doesn't mean we need to be joined at the hip. But here's my concession to you. I'm only here to fulfill a contract. As a gesture of respect, I'm declaring Sunnydale off-limits to my crew. No partying. No late-night cruising for kills. I will send a small group out every other day to collect what we need for food. That will be our only presence."
Hampton turned this over in his mind. Trick could almost see him searching the proposal for trapdoors. Finally the Reverend replied. "So that we may part as equals, I accept." He turned in swirl of his billowing coat and disappeared into the shadows. Trick waited for five minutes, then struggled into his orange jumpsuit, slipped his oxfords off his feet and stowed them in one of the suit's many huge pockets, then stepped into the heavy rubber boots and dropped down the manhole cover again.
"That ignorant cracker," he said to Quisling. His minion wore an identical orange rubberized suit and boots. "Did you hear him? 'So that we may part as equals.' Just to let me know that he thinks this is payment for a debt. Serves him right."
"I'm assuming that it was nothing of the sort," Quisling said, his silvery hair glinting above the garish orange outfit.
"Are you kidding? Faith's out for blood, so to speak. She's going to stomp a hole in any demon that moves. Let her whale on Hampton's rednecks. Hell, they'll probably get off on it and everybody can have a big funeral pyre." Trick began to slog up the tunnel. "Dumbass probably won't even realize he's been played."
The first rays of the rising sun crept through the small opening between the heavy drapes and the stone window casement. Angel sat in the heavy chair and watched the pinstripes of light waver as the drapes rippled in the morning breeze.
End of "The Bad Touch"