Suggested listening:
"Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
"Girls Talk" by Dave Edmunds
"Love Is All Around" by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

High Midnight

Michael Walker

The piece of paper looked innocuous. It was just a fresh, white piece of 8 1/2 by 11 paper, fastened to the bulletin board by a single thumbtack, fluttering slightly in the breeze created by the bodies of passing students. So why was Buffy Summers approaching it like a chicken around a chopping block?

She had just leaned in and begun to scan the document when she felt a presence behind her. She turned and found herself face to face with Cordelia Chase. A tense moment passed as they stared into each other's eyes, then Cordelia's gaze flicked past her to the board.

"What are you looking at?" Cordelia asked.

Buffy made a sour face. "The partners list for Ms. Brannigan's death march through nature's beauty."

Cordelia frowned. "I wish that woman had never heard of Outward Bound."

"How does she get away with requiring this tick-fest?"

Cordelia glanced at Buffy then returned her focus to the list. "She sold the school board on the idea. She claims it helps girls develop self-esteem and self-reliance."

Buffy looked back at the board. "So does it?"

Cordelia said, "How would I know? I've gotten a doctor's note excusing me for three years running. Unfortunately, I've exhausted my appeals."

Buffy stared at her. "So you have to go this year? You're actually going camping? A tent and a campfire and a sleeping bag on the ground?"

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Please. I'm having nightmares already."

"Hey, you guys checking out the list?" Buffy turned in time to see the speaker take her last long stride and stop. The new girl was tall and leggy, with hair so golden and perfectly tousled that it could only be real, cornflower-blue eyes and the most exquisite dusting of freckles across her photogenic nose and cheekbones. "Excited about the trip?"

"If by excited you mean 'sick to my stomach' then, yes," Cordelia said, packing enough chill into that short statement to cause Buffy to check her lashes for icicles.

"Come on," the girl said. "My family's been to that state park a bunch of times. It's really beautiful."

"Well, that should be some comfort," Buffy said.

"Hey." The girl turned to Buffy and extended a hand. "You're Buffy Summers, right? Bryn McDaniel."

"Hi." Buffy squeezed the offered hand.

"So," Bryn said, "you go camping much?"

Buffy shook her head. "Me? No, the outdoors isn't really my thing, unless you count the terrace at the mall."

"Hey, Bryn." Another girl stopped. She was shorter than Bryn, with short, dark hair and dark eyes and a stockier build.

"Deena." Bryn turned to Buffy. "Do you know Deena Cartwright?" Buffy shook her head in the negative. "Well, you have to get to know her," Bryn said. "She's a real camping nut, into all the outdoor sports. Killer snowboarder." Deena said nothing during this paean to her skills.

"Gee," Cordelia said, "I'm surprised she doesn't have jock itch."

A lazy, lopsided grin spread over Deena's face. She stepped up close to Cordelia; the taller girl gave ground, an uneasy look on her face. Deena said, "Be careful Chasey. Lots of bad stuff can happen to you in the woods."

The ensuing pause was awkward in the way the Titanic was a boating accident. Bryn finally said, "So... do you guys know who you're partners with?"

Buffy said, "Nope. That's what I'm here to find out." She turned back to the list. Cordelia leaned over her shoulder. Buffy ran her finger down the list of names until she saw her own. She stopped and slid to the right where she saw...

Her blood ran cold. "This cannot be happening," she said.

Cordelia said, "No, it cannot."

But there in black and white it read 'Buffy Summers---Cordelia Chase.'


"I cannot believe that you are neglecting your responsibilities to go traipsing through the woods." Rupert Giles was in a state of severe agitation bordering on dismay. His condition had driven him to pacing about the library. This forced Buffy to swivel back and forth in an attempt to keep him in her field of view.

"Excuse me?" The Slayer was indignant. "Have you listened to a word I've said? This isn't my idea. It's a requirement. You know, go camping or fail, something with which I am far too familiar."

Giles completed one circuit of the room and began another. "But surely now, with Mr. Trick here and the Reverend--"

Buffy put her hands over her ears. "Sorry, I can't hear you."

The librarian ran his hands through his hair. "There must be some way around this."

"Trust me, there isn't." Buffy leaned forward for emphasis. "Do you think I want to spend a weekend in a small tent with Cordelia?"

Giles stopped short, blinking. "Cordelia?"

Buffy's voice was as bright and bitter as a new penny. "We're camping buddies. We get to share a tent." Her speech dropped to a more normal grumble. "Which would be of the annoying under the best of circumstances, let alone the way she's acted the past couple of weeks."

Giles patted her on the shoulder. "Try and make the best of it."

Buffy whirled, looking up at him. "Oh, thank you for becoming Mr. Understanding all of a sudden."

Giles shook his head. "I'm sorry. I assumed that this was something frivolous, but given the choice between fighting vampires and being forced to cohabitate with Cordelia... well, there really must be no other choice."

The Slayer scowled. "I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate these little pep talks, Captain Prozac."


Xander was slumped about as low as a person could go and still be considered on the sofa. His feet rested on the table and a bag of M&Ms on his chest. Every so often he would take out a piece of candy, look at it, then flip it into his mouth. His skill at this maneuver was uncanny.

"And if that weren't bad enough, on top of everything else, I'm stuck in a tent with Buffy." Cordelia was in high dudgeon. Xander looked up at her and chewed.

"That doesn't sound so bad to me," he said.

Cordelia looked at him through narrowed eyes. "That would be your response. God, could this weekend get any worse?" Bryn McDaniel and Deena Cartwright walked by. Bryn smiled and waved. Cordelia lifted a limp hand in response, then threw her head back and rolled her eyes. "It was supposed to be a rhetorical question."

Xander held up a red M&M. "I'm sensing you have some sort of problem with Bryn."

Cordelia crossed her arms. "What, a problem with Miss 'Aren't I Special'? She is such a phony."

Xander pulled his head back, looking like a painter checking perspective. "You're jealous, aren't you?"

"Jealous? What are you talking about?" Cordelia's voice was filled with annoyance.

"No, no, you are. But why?" He mimed great thought while Cordelia fumed. He snapped his fingers. "I know what it is. Bryn's pretty-like you-and her family has money-like yours-but she's also a nice person. And everybody likes her."

"Hey," Cordelia snapped, "I can be nice."

"Yes," Xander said, drawing the word out, "but Bryn's consistently nice. To everyone."

Cordelia's face darkened like a cloud-laden afternoon. "I suppose you'd rather have Miss Bryn as your girlfriend... if you can't have Buffy, that is."

Xander considered this for a long moment, then shrugged. "Nah. Bryn's nice, but it would be so hard to maintain a constant feeling of moral superiority around her." He looked up at her, what he hoped was a roguish grin on his face. Cordelia stared back, her face clenched and her eyes hot. Xander thought he detected a slight twitch at the left corner of her mouth. He arched his eyebrows and winked.

"You are so mean." She jabbed him with an elbow.

"Yeah, but that's what makes me so sexy." He wiggled his brows in what he hoped was a devilish manner. Cordelia rolled her eyes and made a gagging noise. Xander leaned in closer, working the eyebrows like Harpo Marx with the DTs. She pushed at his shoulder, annoyed, but he could see the smile struggling to break through. Finally she could contain it no longer; those perfect white teeth flashed like the sun breaking through after a rain. Xander's heart soared. Cordelia's smiles had been fleeting and infrequent the past few weeks. He believed it was connected to her recent abduction; something had happened that she was not sharing. He'd attempted broaching the subject more than once, but Cordelia changed the topic every time he tried. So he tried to make her smile and waited.


"I'll be fine," Lindsay Maeda said as she struggled to get out of bed.

"Like hell," Faith said. "Which is a good description of how you look."

"I just need some juice and a couple of aspirin," Lindsay protested before a coughing fit seized her. The Slayer seized the opportunity to grab her Watcher by the shoulders and force her back onto the pillow.

"You are not going to be okay," Faith said. Your temperature was one hundred and two point five. That's not under the weather, Linz; that's officially sick." She pulled the blankets up to Lindsay's chin. "You are going to stay in bed today."

Lindsay shivered. "Well, it might not hurt me to rest today."

Faith gave her a stern look. "Until you feel better."

Lindsay shook her head. "I need to patrol with you. With Buffy gone--"

"With Buffy gone I'll manage." Faith picked up her backpack. "We got all the way across the country with just the two of us. I think I can handle a weekend. Maybe I'll pick up some help." She paused at the door and looked back at her Watcher. Lindsay was pale and sweaty. She attempted a smile. A bolt of fear raced through Faith as a quick vision of what her life would be like without Lindsay played in her mind. The Slayer shook her head to drive the specter away.

"I'm serious," she said to Lindsay, "you stay in bed and rest."


Joyce Summers pressed the brake pedal, bringing the Cherokee to a smooth stop. She put the transmission in park and looked at her daughter. "You okay?" she asked.

Buffy shrugged, her eyes hidden behind her sunglasses. "This is not my idea of fun."

"You used to like to go hiking."

Buffy smiled at her mother. "This isn't just hiking. Besides, that's not the problem. The problem is being paired with Cordelia."

Joyce pursed her lips. "You're not going to be rude, are you?"

Buffy laughed. "Do you think she'd notice? It's not just the camping thing, either. We have little... tests we have to pass, where we have to work together." She shook her head. "Cordelia's not going to try. We'll fail them all."

Joyce placed a gentle hand on her daughter's shoulder. "Honey, I think you should be a little more understanding. Maybe it's taking some time for Cordelia to get over the kidnapping."

"Well, she's dragging her feet."

Joyce glanced through the windshield at the girls milling around the buses, busy with packing and loading, then looked at her daughter. "Buffy, God knows I've been negative enough about you being the Slayer. What I'm about to say doesn't mean I'm any happier with it, but here goes. Being the Slayer also means that you have strength and resilience that other people don't possess. Be patient with Cordelia. She doesn't have the gifts and abilities you have. Something that's an everyday thing for you might be very traumatic for her."

Buffy took a deep breath. "Okay, I get it." She turned to her mother. "I'll be nice, I promise. Is that good enough?"

Joyce smiled. "That's all a mother can ask."

Buffy got out of the vehicle and took the backpack and sleeping bag out of the cargo area. Joyce waved and pulled away. The Slayer thought carrying everything in one trip, but decided that would be suspicious. She made two trips instead.

Forty girls were making the trip. They were riding in a school bus, the proverbial 'yellow mule', while most of the tents and packs were being loaded in a second van. Buffy put the pack down and stretched her back. As she arched her spine, she spotted her partner.

Cordelia looked like a million dollars, which probably wasn't much more than she'd spent on her outfit. From the Vuarnet sunglasses to the lightweight denim shirt over T-shirt and hiking shorts in perfectly matched shades of khaki to her Birkenstock socks and Salomon boots, she was perfect. Everything looked brand-new and boasted creases sharper than Cordelia's tongue. Buffy walked over, well aware of her own scuffed hiking boots, faded shorts and the ripped pocket on the flannel shirt she'd thrown over a T-shirt.

"You look really ready to rough it, Cordelia."

Cordelia gave her a bored look, eyes invisible behind her sunglasses. Finally she said, "Did you bring the food?"

Buffy jerked a thumb behind her. "It's in my pack."

Cordelia lifted her head slightly, looking over the Slayer's shoulder. "You didn't pack any hickory-smoked anything, did you?"

Buffy stifled a sigh. It was going to be a long weekend. "No, I brought mostly water and dried fruit, some granola bars and, oh yeah, a new attitude for you." Cordelia made a smirky face. Buffy asked, "Did you bring the tent?"

"Yeah. I got one of those big girls from the track team to load it." She was turning away from the Slayer when Bryn McDaniel walked up, trailed by Deena Cartwright. Buffy noticed that Bryn's outfit was very similar to Cordelia's, except for signs of heavy use. Deena wore boots, hiking shorts and a flannel shirt over a T. Buffy glanced down at her own clothing.

"Hey," Bryn said, "did we get a great day to leave or what?"

Cordelia said, "Please."

Bryn pointed at the other girl's feet. "Are those new boots?"

Cordelia glanced down, then back at Bryn. "Yes. Do you have a problem with that?" Everything about her voice and body language was antagonistic.

Bryn shrugged, apparently unaware. "No, but you might. It's a long hike to the campground. Your feet might get pretty chewed up."

Cordelia bristled. "My feet will be fine, thank you very much." Bryn shrugged.

A whistle blew, drawing their attention. A tall, bulky woman wearing a floppy hat and carrying a six-foot long walking stick held up a hand. The girls gathered around her. Buffy occupied a spot toward the perimeter. Ms. Brannigan made her uncomfortable; the Slayer couldn't put her finger on the reason, but it might have been the teacher's disconcerting resemblance to Janet Reno.

The teacher began to speak. "Listen up, girls. We're going to have a great weekend. You're going to learn how to be more self-reliant and independent. Remember that teamwork is the name of the game this weekend, so you and your partner will be judged together."

Deena turned to Buffy and whispered, "Too bad, Summers. Looks like you got the short straw." Cordelia shot her a venomous look. Deena grinned.

Ms. Brannigan finished her speech. "Let's load up and everyone get ready to have a wonderful time."

"Fat chance," Cordelia muttered as she shoved past Buffy and headed toward the bus.


"Hey there, fellow babies," Xander said as he came up behind Oz and Willow. "Top o' the mornin' to ya."

Willow made a yucky face. "That's the worst Irish brogue I've ever heard."

"When is the middle of the morning?" Oz said.

"I have no idea," Xander said, throwing his arms around them as they walked up the steps.

"Let me guess," Oz said, "you're missing Cordelia."

Xander released them. "Maybe a little."

"How is she doing? We haven't seen her much the last couple of weeks." Willow made an effort to sound nonchalant.

Xander shrugged. "She says she's okay, but she's okay like Crispin Glover."

"Do you think it's the kidnapping?" Willow asked.

"No," Xander said as he pushed open the door, "I think it's the fluorescent lights."

Willow gave him a light slap on the arm as she passed. "You know what I mean. She was missing a long time-what, five days?" She looked at Oz. "It could be a PTSD." He shrugged.

"A what?" Xander said. "Is there a vaccine or a cream for that?"

"Dummy," Willow said. "PTSD is post-traumatic stress disorder."

Xander thought about this for a moment. "Well, if it is, I'm sure her parents will provide the best psychologist money can buy." He sauntered away then turned and pointed at them. "Meet you for lunch?" They nodded.


Faith loped up the front steps of the school, feeling as conspicuous as a marble in a bag of marshmallows. She shot sidelong glances at passing students. She felt as though ten panes of glass separated her from them. She brooded about the gulf that separated her from them. Not just the Slayer stuff, either. They were children of California, tan and confident, at ease with themselves and their friends, used to wide-open spaces. She shared not one atom of common experience with any of them.

A beefy guy in a letter jacket crossed her path, giving her a look of frank appraisal. Probably a member of the football team. She could most likely put him through the window if she wanted to, if she felt the look was insulting rather than flattering. Faith smiled at this thought, treasuring the certainty of that fact. The stupid idiot grinned back, thinking she was responding to his manly aura. Faith shoved past him, the mysterious smile still in place.


Buffy swayed slightly as the bus hit an uneven spot in the highway. She sat next to Cordelia in a seat near the back of the bus. So far it had been an okay trip; Cordelia had turned to the window and for all intents and purposes left the building. Buffy concentrated on taking deep breaths and trying to relax. Bryn and Deena were on the opposite side of the aisle, two seats ahead. As if she felt Buffy notice them, Bryn turned around.

"Hey, Cordelia, I've got some ointment you can use if your boots hurt your feet," she said.

Cordelia turned away from the window, her face a flat mask. "I told you not to worry about my feet."

Bryn shrugged and smiled. "Just offering." She turned around and was soon back in animated conversation with Deena. Buffy watched them for a second, regretting the promise she had given her mother.

"They seem to be having a good time," she said.

Cordelia looked at her, then at them, or at least Buffy thought so. The sunglasses made it impossible to tell exactly where she was looking.

Cordelia said, "I guess if you don't know any better..."

"What's that mean?"

Cordelia's vaguely hostile black gaze focused on the Slayer. "If Bryn wants to do hang with tweekos and losers, that's her business. I'm not into social work."

With a great effort, Buffy kept her voice civil. "Could we-you-put away the knives for the weekend?"

The brunette's mouth twitched. "If I'm not happy, nobody's happy. This weekend's about sharing, right?"

Buffy leaned over, placing her mouth close to Cordelia's ear. "How about I share my boot with your butt?" Cordelia made a small angry sound and her head whipped back to the window. Buffy settled back in the seat, a small smile on her face. It was probably immature for that to feel so good.


Faith was bored out of her mind. She couldn't even remember what class she was in, but it was about to be over. When the bell rang she snatched her books up, dumped them in her backpack and shot out of the room, headed for the library.

She pushed the doors open to enter an empty room. "Hey, Giles!" she yelled.

"Please don't shout," he said, appearing from the stacks.

"Sorry," she said, boosting herself up onto the counter. "Just wanted to swing by and tell you that Lindsay's sick."

"Is it anything serious?" Giles asked as he came down the stairs, his baggy corduroys brushing the tops of his oxfords.

Faith shook her head. "Flu. You know, fever, chills, burning the candle at both ends."

"Ah." Giles placed a book on the counter as he went into his office. "Well, thank you for the euphemism."

The doors banged open and Xander strode into the room. The noise brought Giles out of the office. "Ah, Xander. What can I do for you?"

"What, a guy can't just come in and hang?" Xander stuck his hands in his pockets.

Giles looked nonplussed. "Well, I suppose one could, but this is not where I imagine you... hanging."

Xander shrugged as he wandered around the room. "I think I'm kind of at loose ends with Cordelia gone for the weekend."

"Yes, and she's been gone almost--" Giles checked his watch "-two whole hours."

Xander glanced over his shoulder. "Scoff on, but this is all new territory for me. I've always spent my weekends missing girls in general, not one specific girl."

"Bet that's true," Faith said sotto voce. Xander looked at her but said nothing.

"Can't you spend the weekend with Willow and Oz?" Giles was casting about for any solution.

"Yeah, that'll ease the pain of loneliness. I'll play Beaver to their Ward and June." Xander's voice was equal parts sarcasm and melancholy.

Giles blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Skip it."

Giles picked up a short stack of books and headed toward the stacks. "As much as I sympathize with your plight, I fail to see what I can do."

Faith swung her feet and pushed off the counter, landing with scarcely a sound. "You wanna patrol with me?"

Xander stared at her. Giles did a quick one-eighty.

"Do you think that's a good idea?" the Watcher asked.

Faith shrugged. "With Lindsay sick, I could use the back-up."

Xander said, "You heard her, Giles. She desires my manly strength for back-up."

Giles shifted the books in his arms. "I realize that both of you are well aware of the danger, but I wish you wouldn't make light of it."

Faith cocked one eyebrow. "What should we do, Giles? Walk around looking like you all day?"

"Cheap shot." Xander matched her brow for brow. "Cheap, but effective."

"Hey, so I busted your chops," Faith said. "You're a big boy. You want to come with or you gonna sit and pout?"

Xander thought for a moment. "I'll come with."

Giles rolled his eyes. "Fine. I know I can't stop either of you, so just promise me that you'll be very careful."

They offered a simultaneous "Yes, dad."

Giles pursed his lips and said, "Very amusing."


The noonday sun sifted through the leaves of the trees scattered throughout the roadside park. Buffy shuffled forward as the line moved, shaking her head to dispel a nasty flashback to another meal line. When she reached the table she picked up a brown paper bag, then collected a bottle of juice. She looked around, searching for a place to sit. Cordelia sat alone at a picnic table. Buffy strolled to one of the trees and settled at its base. She took a sandwich, a bag of chips and an apple from the bag. She started to bit into the sandwich when a shadow fell across her. She looked up to see Bryn McDaniel.

"Hey," Bryn said, "mind if I sit down?"

"No," Buffy replied as she scooted over. "I'd enjoy the company."

Bryn lowered her lanky frame to the ground. She took out her own sandwich and bit into it. "Mmmm. Nothing like school baloney and cheese." She chewed and swallowed. "I thought you might be eating with Cordelia."

A cynical smile flashed across Buffy's face. "I think I'll wait until we're forced to co-operate."

Bryn looked puzzled. "But aren't you guys friends?"

Buffy stopped, her sandwich almost at her mouth. "I guess so."

Bryn hastened to explain. "I'm not being nosy, I just see you guys hanging at school, so I assumed..."

Buffy shrugged. "It's more like we share mutual acquaintances." She picked at her food. "Why aren't you and Cordelia friends? It seems like you have a lot in common."

Bryn shrugged. "To be honest, I don't really know. We've known each other forever. We used to play together when we were little. But in junior high we just kind of... separated, I guess."

Buffy glanced at the solitary figure at the table. "Has she always been so Cordelia?"

Bryn laughed. "You mean the 'Queen Chase' persona? No, that happened in junior high. Around the time we stopped being friends I guess."

"What happened?" Buffy asked. Ms. Brannigan's whistle sounded. The teacher was calling for attention.

"Girls," she said, "we need to eat as quickly as possible. The forecast is for rain at the park this evening and I'd like to have our campsite set when it starts." She sat down. Buffy turned back to Bryn.

The taller girl shrugged. "I not really sure what happened, but Cordelia stopped being happy like she used to be." She took an enormous bite of her sandwich.

"Cordelia?" Buffy's eyes widened. "Happy?"

"Oh, yeah." Bryn's eyes lost focus as she recalled the memory. "We used to play for hours. Go home all dirty and sweaty. Then she changed. There was that thing with her mom? After that, it was like being popular was her job."

Buffy looked bewildered. "What thing with her mom?"

Bryn's eyes widened and her mouth opened. "Oh, hey, if she hasn't told you, I'd better not. It's not my place."

Buffy held up her hands. "I'm boundary girl, but I thought Cordelia was always popular."

Bryn tugged at her earlobe. "That's the weird part. She was. But it became... different. It consumed her. It sucked all the life out of her. Used to, anyway."

"Used to?"

Bryn shrugged, looking down at the grass. "I'm not sure, but since she started hanging with you and dating Xander, she seems, I don't know, different. Maybe more like the old Cordelia."

"Really?" Buffy was having trouble keeping her mouth closed.

"Yeah. I guess that's why I thought you were best friends." Bryn finished her lunch and crushed the brown bag into a tight ball. "Thanks for the company," she said as she stood. Buffy watched her toss the trash into a can, watched and pondered the ramifications of being thought of as Cordelia's best friend.


"What did you get?" Willow asked as Oz sat down.

"Cheeseburger," he said. "You?"

"Tuna," she said.

"Hey, what's up?" Xander dropped his tray onto the table and slung his legs over a chair. He picked up his burger and took a large bite.

Oz looked at him closely. "You certainly seem caffeinated."

"We thought you'd be missing Cordelia," Willow added.

"Yeah," Xander said as he chewed. "I was Lonesome Jim, but I've got plans now."

"Is it acceptable for us to ask what plans?" Oz said.

Xander swallowed. "I'm going to hang with Faith."

Willow and Oz paused with food halfway to their mouths. They looked at each other, back at Xander, and then back at each other.

"Faith?" Willow asked. "I don't mean to sound harsh, but what are you thinking?"

Xander frowned. "Just a little over reaction, don't you think?"

Willow leaned forward. "Well, what are you going to do?"

Xander shrugged. "Patrol." He took a drink of his soda.

Willow chewed her lower lip. "Do you think that's a good idea?"

"What's the big deal? I've patrolled with Buffy." Xander crunched ice between his teeth.

"The operative word there being 'Buffy'," Willow said. "This is Faith, Faith who fights like Mike Tyson on crack."

"Plus she's burned you a time or two in the past." Oz looked apologetic. "Unless you've forgotten that, in which case I said nothing."

"Okay," Xander said. "I'll admit, I've been the target of an acid comment or two, but I should point out that I was being something of a jerk at the time."

"True," Willow said. "You were being quite the Beavis."

"Agreed," Oz murmured.

"But we danced at Homecoming and seemed to get along well, so maybe we can bury the hatchet and be friends."

Oz nodded. "From one dance to mutual mayhem. Seems like a logical progression to me."

"Ha ha. Very funny, guitar boy. I think you're just jealous that I have exciting plans for the weekend." Xander tossed his wadded napkin onto the tray. As her lifelong friend left the cafeteria, Willow turned to Oz.

"This is so a bad idea," she said.

He nodded. "So."


The park's visitor center was a low stone and glass building that looked as though its designer was aiming for Frank Lloyd Wright but couldn't quite get him in focus. The terrain marched away behind the building in corrugated ravines and hills that grew progressively more rugged. The parking lot was empty save for the buses; Buffy guessed that they didn't get many autumn visitors. The girls milled around the lot, stretching legs and working out kinks as thick clouds began to scud across the sky.

Ms. Brannigan came out of the visitor center, followed by a short, tough-looking woman with short blond hair. The short woman wore the brown and khaki uniform of a park ranger. As the teacher stepped onto the lot the girls drifted toward her until they formed a loose cluster. Buffy glanced to her left. Cordelia was making a great show of looking off into the hills.

Ms. Brannigan smiled what she must have thought was an encouraging smile. "Ladies, before we head into the park, I have asked Ranger Young to say a few words." She stepped back, gesturing to the other woman.

She stepped forward, holding her Smokey Bear hat down at her side. "Hello, I'm Park Ranger Diane Young and I will be accompanying you. It is our pleasure to host this event for the fifth consecutive year. This year will be a little different, though. We're going to a different area of the park. The buses will take us to the outermost point on our drive-through trail, and from that point will have an eight-mile hike to our campsite. Please do not leave the group, as we will be hiking through the most rugged section of the park. I should also warn you about the bridge at Varney's Canyon."

"What's that?" someone yelled.

"Glad you asked." Ranger Young. "Varney's Canyon is a major ravine that bisects a large portion of the park. The suspension bridge we will be crossing is a replica of an authentic nineteenth-century footbridge. It looks scary, but it is perfectly safe."

Another voice from the crowd called out. "Why do we have to take a swinging bridge?"

Ranger Young grinned and Buffy could see the crow's feet around her eyes. "Because hiking around the ravine turns an eight-mile hike into a twenty-four miler over very rugged, inhospitable terrain. Trust me, the bridge is safe. If you have cameras, you'll probably want pictures. Any more questions?"

"Yeah," someone yelled. "What if it rains?"

"Not my area," Ranger Young replied. "It's part of the experience."

Ms. Brannigan stepped forward. "Thank you, Ranger Young. Let's all get on the buses."


The buses ground to a halt in the middle of a wide, gentle left-hand turn. The students piled out of the lead bus and headed toward the cargo bus. In minutes the area was a bustle of activity as packs and tents piled up beside the road. Buffy fished her pack out of the heap and checked the straps and fastenings.


She turned and saw Cordelia standing on the shoulder, a cylindrical bundle of blue nylon at her feet.

"What?" the Slayer said, getting to her feet.

Cordelia gestured at the container. "You can carry the tent."

Buffy walked over to her. "Excuse? What happened to the team concept?"

Cordelia shrugged. "Well, it's my tent, I brought it, and you are Supergirl, so--"

Buffy clapped a hand over the other girl's mouth. "Hey! What are you thinking? All right. I'll carry the tent." She picked it up with one hand and went back to her pack. She lashed the tent to her pack frame, tugged on it to test the knots. Satisfied of its security, she slipped the pack onto her shoulders, bouncing on her toes to settle the load. She looked around and saw Cordelia struggling to put on her pack.

Bryn walked by. "Hey, Cordelia, do you need a hand?"

"No." Cordelia's face wore roughly the same expression as that of a mother wolf who saw her cub threatened. Bryn shrugged and walked away. Cordelia looked at Buffy. Her eyes widened and she kept making small jerking motions with her head. Buffy sighed and went to her.

As she stepped behind Cordelia and picked up the pack, Buffy said, "You do know that was pathetic, don't you?"

Cordelia glared at her. "Bite me."

Buffy held up her hands. "And the wit keeps flowing." Ms. Brannigan's whistle pierced the air. "Well," Buffy said, "love to keep chatting, but it's time to go."


end chapter 1