the Human Touch
Copyright December 2003
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
She was holding herself together quite well, I thought, but the tension of the evening was beginning to tell on her all the same, and when she caught me checking my reflection in yet another store window, she turned on me with a swirl of flowing skirts. "Are you going to keep doing that all night?" she demanded.
I gave her a smile of apology. "I'm sorry," I said. "I just can't get used to this face." Which was true as far as it went, but in all truth I was still marveling at being able to see a reflection at all. There were other long-forgotten sensations as well, and with some hope I asked her, "Are you hungry?"
Her answer was a sigh, and she indicated our companions. "Not really. And can you see us trying to get them to behave in Bucky's Fondue Hut?"
"I can behave," Selina informed her haughtily. "When I feel like it. And did I ask for a babysitter?"
Where Nancy's apparel was an unlikely mix of Arabian and rural Armenian — I suspect she had meant to appear as a gipsy princess — Selina was clad in form-fitting black leather. One wondered how she contrived to breathe adequately, but it didn't appear to discomfort her, and she had amply demonstrated that it did not interfere with her freedom of movement when quick movement was required. Indy's eyes, as usual, were moving over her abundant contours with prurient appraisal, and his voice was the equivalent of an open leer. "You tell 'em, sister. Say the word, we'll ditch these two and check out the town on our own."
I could have told him he was wasting his time, but seeing him exhaust his repertoire of tawdry blandishments was high among the entertainments this evening had to offer. He was a rugged-looking brute, I had to acknowledge, but like most of his ilk he had become so accustomed to having women swoon over him, he simply couldn't recognize it when he encountered one who was repelled by such crude overtures. Nancy, at least, had not been subjected to his unwelcome attentions; in fact, to his credit, he treated her with seeming respect when he spoke to her at all.
Selina ignored him, but I thought I could detect a hint of longing in the way she fingered the whip looped at her belt (a cat-o'-nine-tails, which Nancy had found significant for some reason). "Yes, I see what you mean," I said to Nancy. "Still, we might get something from a sidewalk vendor." A hot dog, for instance, or perhaps one of those enormous pretzels, I had long wondered how they might taste …
"Anyone with any sense is staying indoors tonight," Nancy said. "Which is where we'd be if — Hey, where are you going?"
Indy paused to look back at her, adjusting the disreputable fedora and favoring her with a grin I'm certain he thought was disarming. "Just looking to see what's down this next block. Don't worry, I can cross the street without a nursemaid."
Earlier, we might have argued, but we had already seen how little effect remonstrances had on these two. Nancy was resolved to safeguard whoever Selina had been before her present incarnation, and I had determined that her opinion of me would be markedly lessened if I didn't show the same solicitude for the nameless individual beneath Indy's persona, so we had quickly established the tactic of accompanying them and trying to divert them from the most extreme dangers, rather than making the fruitless attempt to control their motions. "Okay, why not?" Nancy said, and I wondered if anyone else could hear the faint tremolo of frustration and fear underlying the resolute nonchalance of her tone.
I was not fearful, myself, and this was a marvel to match the others in my unexpected new manifestation. I have existed in a state of near-constant fear for the greater part of a century, and for several decades before that, and to find myself free of it was as much exhilaration as mystery. No logic to it, of course, this body had significantly less strength than the one to which I had become accustomed; assurance must have been imprinted into its genetic structure, however, for I strode the darkened streets with an uncharacteristic absence of trepidation. Extraordinary, and delightful.
The transition to another block made little difference in our surroundings, and Indy's dissatisfaction was as apparent as Nancy's relief. We could hear sirens to the west of us, and what might have been crowd noise, but our immediate environs consisted of closed and darkened shops. "Maybe you were right, Bruce," Nancy said to me, trying I think to cut in ahead of the scowl growing on the man's face. "It might not be a bad idea to find a coffee shop or something, rest for a minute …"
"Nothing doing," Indy said. A sweep of his arm took in the untenanted buildings around us. "I can hear things happening, but we never can catch up with wherever it is. I want to get the low-down on what's going on."
"For once I agree with him." Selina punctuated the statement with a sinuous shrug. "I'm not spoiling for a fight, but I wouldn't mind seeing some action." She looked around. "We could cover more ground if we boosted a car."
Indy laughed. "Slow down, sister. It's one thing to borrow some transportation if you can hop across a border before the word catches up with you, but we're in —" He stopped and looked to Nancy. "California, you say?"
"That's right," she began, but stopped — as did we all — to watch as a small glowing figure flittered across a side-street ahead of us, six feet above the pavement, followed closely by a boy dressed in green leaf-patterned tunic and hose, shouting to wait. When this apparition had passed, she looked at the rest of us and added, "More or less."
"Forget coffee," Indy said, still staring at the empty space ahead of us. "Find us a bar."
Nancy looked hopefully toward me, and with some regret I told her, "I'm sorry. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the neighborhood."
She shook away her disappointment and turned to the other two. "I only know of one place that would let me in," she said to them. "And it's a little … weird … at the best of times."
"Weird? Really?" Selina's smile was languid and predatory. "Why don't you take us there? I've always wanted to see if I could handle 'weird'."
I knew exactly what establishment Nancy meant, of course. What else could it be?
The city of Sunnydale is something of a conundrum. With such a small population it shouldn't be able to support the number of civic resources available: multiple parks, an extension university and a private college of some prestige, a quite adequate museum, a large and modern hospital, a zoo, manufacturing plants out of proportion to the number of available workers, a sizeable mall, shipping docks, an airport, a rail station … and yet, with all that, the outlets for after-dark recreation are surprisingly limited, and especially for those not yet of drinking age. The Bronze capitalized on this shortage, catering primarily to the high school population and those college students not yet sufficiently skilled or resourceful to acquire a false ID. Liquor was available, for those who could verify their adult status, but by and large its accommodations and entertainments were centered on the 'teen' crowd.
Getting in posed an unexpected problem; Nancy wasn't carrying cash, not having expected to need it during an evening of recreational trick-or-treating, and the metamorphosis that had transformed our costumes hadn't bestowed any currency on me or Selina. Indy wasn't happy about it, but this stop had been his idea, so he extracted a battered wallet and paid the cover for all of us: with, I noted, banknotes printed in the 1930s.
Inside, the theme quite naturally was one of masquerade. Indy's appearance elicited some approval, and Nancy was likewise accepted; Selina was so striking that most of the males regarded her with appreciation (and some of the females with obvious wariness), though no one seemed quite sure what personage she was supposed to represent. To my surprise, the most pronounced response was to me; several persons remarked on the verisimilitude of my impersonation, and more than a few requested me to perform something called "Born in the U.S.A." I demurred, and joined my companions at the bar.
Again, Indy was the one paying, and he was horrified by the astronomical prices now being charged for libations. We had to reassure him that this was not unusual for the current era, and he covered the round with poor grace. He and I were served without question; the bartender studied Selina doubtfully for a few moments, but either she genuinely appeared to be of acceptable age (in the last several decades I've lost much of my visual judgment regarding human vintage, so I couldn't say) or the look in her eyes discouraged challenge, for she received her order without any question being voiced. Nancy, of course, contented herself with a carbonated beverage.
The drink was a surprise to me. Some of my compatriots enjoy alcohol — Spike in particular, and you want to stay well clear of him when he's feeling the effects — but I myself had found that my departure from human existence had made liquid intoxicants almost completely ineffectual upon my new frame. Tonight I was mortal again, however, and the first swallow gasified in my throat and forced its way out of my nostrils in hot vapor; I almost sprayed the bar, but was able to control my reactions. Indy and Selina tossed theirs down neatly enough, and though it clearly pained him, Indy ordered refills for the both of them.
"You were right about this place being unusual," Indy remarked to Nancy as he waited for the second round to arrive. "I've seen some pretty wild dives in Mexico City and Shanghai, but … hell, even the musicians are in costume here." He glanced up at the stage. "Okay, Halloween and all that, but they're getting just a little too much in the spirit. They hopped up on something?"
Actually the band was fairly conventional by today's standards, though I could understand how a man accustomed to jazz combos and swing orchestras might be thrown off his stride by the verve they were demonstrating onstage. "Kid stuff," Selina said dismissively. "Real kid stuff, this is a juvie bar. Do they ever have fights here?"
"Sometimes," Nancy replied. "But when that happens, it's usually better to go under a table until it's all over. Fights here …" She paused, choosing her words. "They tend to involve some really rough, really bad people. The kind you want to leave alone."
One of Selina's eyebrows went up, with what looked like interest, but she didn't comment. "Don't worry about that," Indy reassured Nancy. "I can take care of myself. Her, too, from the looks of things."
Indeed, the few moments I had seen of Selina's reaction when we were accosted (by a group of what Nancy had referred to as Klingons) had been quite impressive. Nancy seemed doubtful. "Just, please, if anything starts up, stick with me and do what I say."
I could see resistance about to manifest, so it seemed incumbent upon me to point out, "She knows the dangers of this area better than we do. And it wouldn't do to leave her unprotected." They accepted that, and Nancy shot me a glance replete with gratitude.
Of all the surprises attendant to my new state, my response to the girl's approval was among the foremost. I felt … affectionate toward her. My fellows have accused me of sentiment (by which they mean weakness) because I have maintained a love of learning, but I had no difficulty distinguishing what I felt for the mute company of books from what I was feeling for Nancy. Not infatuation, of course, I had not forgotten what I was or the unbreachable difference between us. But I truly liked her, and wanted her to continue thinking well of me for so long as it could be effected.
The next opportunity was quick in coming. Indy tilted a licentious smile in Selina's direction and began, "So what d'you say about a dance —?", and Nancy and I were rising in unison. I think she meant to interpose herself between the two of them, but I chose a different method of diversion. "Excellent suggestion," I said heartily; and then, to Selina, "Might I presume upon your generosity, mademoiselle? If not, I shall immediately withdraw."
Nancy promptly fell in with my approach, telling Indy, "I'd love to. Thank you so much."
Selina, who had indeed been moving as if to initiate physical retaliation for the man's gauche behavior, quirked her lips at the flummoxed expression he turned on Nancy, and to me she said, "Sure, I'll give it a shot."
One advantage of actual performers over recorded music lies in the greater adaptability of the former, and tonight's band demonstrated that capacity as we took to the floor. They had been midstream in the instrumental portion of something loud and forceful, but when Selina and I joined the gyrating crowd in the principal milling area, they transitioned with a few quick chords to something else, a piece with a fast, driving rhythm. The other dancers gave way to us with smiles and even some cheers, and Selina asked me, "So, is that what we're doing? Dancing in the dark?"
"I'm afraid I don't understand," I said, and held out my hands. Selina regarded me with some small puzzlement, then shrugged and accepted my formal embrace, and we began to move together.
What was taking place around us could be classified as dancing only if one expanded the definition to the point where it was almost meaningless; furthermore, the floor was too crowded to allow much space for maneuver, especially as each couple — when couples could be identified — were thrashing it out in their own relatively fixed positions. Still, I led with the most modern thing I knew, a foxtrot timed to coincide with the main rhythm, and found Selina beautifully responsive to my rather hesitant lead. We held our movement within the confines of a tight circle, keeping the pattern simple while we acquired a feel for one another. It began to seem that this could be carried out smoothly and pleasantly …
But, for some reason, the others drew back to allow us a wider area, and began to clap in expectation of something beyond my knowledge. Without my understanding why, we had become the center of attention, the lead singer blaring out something about a gun for hire. I added such flourishes as I could recall from my more sociable youth, and among these ignoramuses it may have appeared impressive, but I knew how limited was my store of technique. Selina was not to be gainsaid, however; she spun out of my grasp and began a sequence of solo moves, seeming to blend gymnastics, interpretive dance, and some that I would swear were martial body-shifts. Before I could falter in confusion she had rejoined me, whirling around me and back into my arms, and we moved together in a series of gliding steps before she again separated to perform on her own. More confident now, I began to incorporate turns and reverses I couldn't have attempted with a partner, concentrating on maintaining rhythm and coordination; Selina came to me again, again we proceeded in a quick pattern of movement before again moving apart. Three more times we reconnected before the song wound to a close, and a forceful clench of her hands froze us together in a bowing sweep as the piece ended in a thundering crash of drums.
We received ragged but substantial applause; others had continued to dance, but the majority of the floor had been given over to our performance. Selina relaxed her grip, and we left the floor to return to our companions. "Thank you," I said to Selina. "That was pleasant, and remarkable."
"If I'm going to do something," she said, "I want to be the best at it."
I had seen quick glimpses of Indy and Nancy, moving more conservatively on the floor during Selina's and my theatrics, but they had found a table by the time the dance ended, and we went to join them. I saw Selina's lips tighten, and I raised my voice to carry. "I agree, anything you did after that would be anticlimactic. I hope you won't mind my tendering an invitation to the other charming lady, however."
Selina glanced from me to Indy, whose face was settling into rueful resignation, and favored me with the tiniest of smiles. "Suit yourself," she said, as loudly as I had. "Me, I'm done for the night."
Nancy was regarding me with some reluctance as we reached the table, and she began, "Are you sure that's a good idea —?"
"Just one, and we won't go far," I assured her. "With all the demands of the evening, we've not really had much chance to talk."
She blinked at that, but quickly smoothed her expression and rose. Yes, we most definitely could use an opportunity to speak privately; and, unless I missed my guess, she might well benefit from a few moments' freedom from responsibility.
I had no reason to suspect that she would be as accomplished as I had found Selina to be, and so it proved. The music was fortunately slow, and I held her lightly and closely, maintaining a simple rhythm for the sake of aesthetics but placing no inordinate demands on her. "God," she said, settling into my arms. "I feel like I'm losing my mind."
"You're doing very well," I said, with unforced sincerity. "They're like children — large, aggressive, extremely hormonal children — but I would say you're taking the right tone with them. Certainly they would never accept direct command."
"That's how I saw it," she sighed; she would have moved in the wrong direction, but I had already forestalled it with a more emphatic lead than I had employed with Selina. "When I saw what she turned into … The thing is, I don't even like her. But I couldn't let her wander around loose in the middle of all this craziness."
"Of course not." I guided her into a lateral half-turn; a full twirl, of course, would be entirely beyond her. "That's essentially how I wound up with … him." Not so, of course — my passing connection to Indy had been entirely accidental — but the fiction was necessary for my more desirable affiliation with Nancy.
"So," she said. "Have you remembered anything yet about who you were before all this started?"
"I regret to say that I haven't," I lied blithely. All told, it seemed simpler to claim a blank slate than to try and maintain a harmless biography; and the truth would not, of course, have served. "I know I'm not … 'the Boss' … but I have no memories of my own. I suppose I should be alarmed, or worried, but I'm not."
"I'm sorry you don't know who you are," Nancy said. "But I'm not sorry you're here. Until you came along, I didn't know what I was going to do."
"You appeared to be coping well enough," I said. The music ended; we turned to check the table, but our companions were sitting peaceably. The next song was also decently slow, and by unspoken agreement we resumed our shared motion. "You're a quite determined young woman," I went on. "I have no doubt that you would have proven sufficient to the challenge."
"I'm just happy I didn't have to." Again she sighed. "I'm hoping that whatever is causing this, it's tied to Halloween, and it'll wear off as soon as the night is over."
"That sounds plausible," I acknowledged. It was primarily intended to comfort her, however; I was by no means confident that the matter would resolve itself so simply. I wasn't even sure why I had found myself included among those caught up in the grip of the mysterious enchantment. I suspected the red bandanna had something to do with it; I had found it on the sidewalk, and absently tucked it into a trouser pocket, perhaps twenty minutes before being unexpectedly transformed, and the process had somehow repositioned it, folded and knotted as a headband. A clue, but far from being an explanation.
If the spell didn't end with the sunrise, if I remained bound in human form, that would very definitely require some adjustments in my lifestyle.
Nancy clutched herself closer to me, as if seeking to bury her fears in the diversions of the moment. I turned with her in my arms, and for the first time allowed myself to recognize the question that had been whispering in the back of my mind since her company first intersected mine.
Which did I desire more? Which would I choose, if the choice were mine?