Buffy leaned into the trunk of the tree, feeling the rough bark against her cheek. She scanned the forest below her by moving her eyes. Her head remained still. The clouds rolled overhead and a cool breeze whispered through the trees. She was glad she was wearing long sleeves. She attempted to tune out the gentle shoosh of the air through the branches, to listen past it. She was certain that she would hear them well before she saw them.


Cordelia lay flat on her stomach, the tarp cold and heavy against her back. Every now and then a pine needle would tumble down across her face. They tickled and itched, but she lay as still as possible and resisted the urge to scratch; instead she reviewed the plan again and again. It was simple, which was a plus, but it also had an infinitesimal margin of error, which was a minus. She had been lying here for hours, at least it seemed like hours. She knew Buffy was out there somewhere. She hoped the Slayer was up to the challenge.


The ValleyView sign was visible for two blocks and audible for half that; the blue neon buzzed like an angry bee in a jelly jar. Xander and Faith passed beneath it and continued down the row of doors until they reached Unit #6. Faith scowled; her funk had remained unbroken since their encounter with Mr. Trick. She had even refused to go to the Bronze.

"Are you all right?" Xander asked as they stopped in front of her room.

"Man, we had him. He was right there in front of us."

"Yeah." Xander nodded. "Which was probably his plan. Do you really think we just happened to cross paths tonight? C'mon, that's beachfront property in coincidence city."

Faith tossed her head back and looked up into the night sky. "Maybe, but I can't believe that I didn't take him."

"Lighten up," Xander said. "He probably choreographed the whole thing. Besides, it's not like he's going anywhere. I'm willing to risk five dollars right now that says you'll get another shot at him."

"That's true." One corner of Faith's mouth lifted. "I am being kind of narrow and obsessional, aren't I?"

Xander's eyes widened and he leaned back as though shocked. "Kind of? More like sort of."

Faith looked down and when she looked up she was smiling. A slight, ghostly smile, but a smile nonetheless. "When exactly did you start making fun of me?" she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

"Ah, grasshopper, some would say that before I met you I mocked you." Xander folded his hands in front of him and bowed his head. "It's kind of a Zen thing."

Faith's smile grew into an actual grin. "I'm starting to see why B lets you hang around." Her expression sobered but her eyes continued to dance and spark. She lunged forward and grabbed Xander in a clumsy hug that almost cracked a rib. "You're a... you're all right," she mumbled then released him. She hopped up on the concrete step. "I'll see you later."


Buffy could smell rain in the air; the storm was not over. The lightning had returned, but instead of jagged arcs flashing across the sky it was a muted, behind-the-clouds luminescence. She stifled a yawn and blinked. Questions and fears began their steady march through her mind.

What if the creatures were advancing by another path? What if there were more of them tonight? What if they did separate? What if they were already in the camp, running amok in a cruel display of carnage and death and-

She forced the thoughts out of her head. She had detected no other trail. She had made a decision and formulated a plan; now she had to live with it. She made a conscious effort to relax each muscle.

She heard them first. Not the sound of their passing; the wet forest floor and their uncanny ability to pass lightly negated any sound. Instead she heard hushed chittering noises that must have been their speech. She held herself in utter stillness as they passed beneath her. They were at the crucial spot; she held her breath without being aware of it. The pack moved down the trail with skittish little hops and mincing steps. Whatever they were, these creatures were meant to run flat out and their movements at lesser speeds lent them a faintly comic air. Buffy was not amused. She watched them as they drew farther away-ten yards, thirty, forty...

They reached the tree, an old pine long ago splintered by lightning. Buffy pushed off and dropped out of the tree, landing on the forest floor. As she'd expected, the creatures heard the thud of her landing (for all she knew, they heard the swish as she passed through the air) and began to turn. She ignored them. Microseconds counted and any attention directed toward her foes would only slow her. As she landed her knees bent to absorb the shock. She went with the momentum, bending low and thrusting her hands out and down, into the thick layer of pine needles and pulling out what she had buried earlier. As she went to one knee she twisted the cap off the first flare and placed the arrow to which it was taped against the bowstring.

Almost before the arrow cleared she dropped the bow and grabbed the second arrow. Twist, nock, sight, release. The mental rehearsals and the adrenaline flooding her system produced a savage clarity. She moved in a blur, compensating for the unfamiliar bow and the arrows, nose-heavy and clumsy due to their added pyrotechnic cargo. All six arrows were away in less than four seconds, blazing missiles trailing their phosphorescent spoor.

The first projectile sliced through the air and went through the neck of one of the creatures. Its scream was cut short as the blazing flare smacked it between the shoulders. It spun, reaching for the protruding shaft, but before it could pluck out the makeshift brand the fire caught. The thing began to blaze like a torch. Another arrow slammed into the chest of another creature as it turned. In seconds it too was ablaze. A third arrow hit one of them in the side, but it struck a rib, or whatever they had in their thorax, and bounced off, the target point unable to penetrate. The remaining three arrows whistled away into the night. The four survivors flinched away from the glare and flame, then screamed and began to sprint toward her at blinding speed.

Buffy tossed away the bow and took out the knife and Cordelia's black Mag-Lite. The things crossed the space that separated her from them with frightening speed and fluidity. She took a deep breath. They passed the tree with the strip of duct tape on its trunk.

"Now!" she screamed and Cordelia stood up and hauled on the rope, throwing her weight into it. The yellow nylon sprang free of the leaves and needles they had piled atop it and snapped taut between two trees. The first two creatures ran into it at full speed. The rope caught them across the chest; their feet flew out from under them and they fell to the forest floor, howling in outrage. The two followers tried to stop and only succeeded in becoming tangled with their fallen fellows. The rope was whipped from Cordelia's hands. She winced and grabbed a flare, twisting off its cap. It hissed and popped, erupting in a guttering flame as she tossed it through the air. The torch landed on the far side of the creatures. They recoiled from it. Cordelia tossed another flare, and another. And as the disoriented monsters drew back from the harsh glare the Slayer entered the fray.

They sensed her coming, even through the painful light, and turned toward her. One of them swiped at her with its long claws and she blocked it with the Mag-Lite. It screamed in pain and Buffy felt a surge of triumph. They were right! It was the metal that hurt them. She plunged the knife in, feeling the blade grate along an unfamiliar skeletal structure. Her assailant howled and fell at her feet. The eerie pinkish light and utterly black shadows of the flares surrounded Buffy as she hopped over the body and met the next one, clubbing it between the eyes. It shrieked and fell back. She felt something to her left and turned. The flashlight beam caught the thing in the face and Buffy froze. The thing's face was female. High, unnaturally slanted eyes, long hair that was more like moss, a jaw line and chin impossibly long and pointed, but female nonetheless. Then it struck at her and she stabbed it through the throat.

Something in her primitive monkey brain flashed a warning through her nervous system and she rolled forward in a somersault as razor-sharp talons slashed the space she had occupied heartbeats before. As she twisted up out of the fall to face her attacker she saw the fourth creature dashing toward Cordelia. Buffy had just enough time to scream the other girl's name as she returned to her own battle.

Cordelia was twisting off the cap off a flare when she heard her name. She looked toward Buffy and saw one of those freaks coming at her. Cordelia's brain took a vacation; she blanked out completely. Her hands finished their task and the flare blazed into life. Without thinking, Cordelia thrust it in the direction of the charging thing. The creature was too close to change direction. The flare stabbed through its eye. Its shriek was like a knife being scraped across bone. Cordelia screamed and let go. The fiend staggered away, clawing at the flare lodged in its eye socket as the flames began to pierce the back of its head.

Buffy pulled the knife out of her last assailant and turned. She saw the final creature fall to its knees, engulfed in flame. Cordelia was on the ground, shaking and twitching. Buffy raced to her side and dropped to her knees. Cordelia was crying, huge body wracking sobs as the tears coursed down her face. The Slayer's looked for blood, protruding bone, anything.

"Cordelia," Buffy said as she searched for an injury, "what's wrong? What's wrong?"

Cordelia's tear-filled eyes looked at her. "My feet are killing me."

And it began to rain again.


It's my own fault, Xander thought. It's what I get for having my head up my ass. He turned in a slow circle to get a true fix on his predicament. Yep, he was up to said ass in vampires. They had materialized out of the woodwork as he wandered along the street. They looked pretty tough, too; bald, grizzled veterans of dozens of street battles. Xander took a deep breath.

"Hey, mind if I cut in?" He turned toward the voice and there stood Faith, clad in black leather and holding a stake point down along her right thigh. The vampires snarled and she attacked. Before Xander could register her actions, she had dispatched them all.

He looked around at the layer of dust, then up at her. She stood there, tendrils of mist floating around her, a mysterious smile on her lips. He gulped.

"Hey," he said in a scratchy voice, "what happened to your clothes?" She stepped out of the mist, naked, and drew him to her. Their lips met in a soul-melting conjunction. He closed his eyes-

Xander's eyes snapped open. He looked down at the pillow he had clutched to his chest. Laying it aside, he sat up, his feet on the floor and his head in his hands. When his breathing slowed, he got up and went to the bathroom. He ran water into a paper cup and drank it in one swallow. He filled the cup again, saluted his reflection in the mirror over the sink, and tossed the contents of the cup into his face. He watched the water drip down the face in the mirror.

"I don't know what that was," he said to his reflection, "but I don't think it was good."


The rain stopped a little before dawn and the clouds began to break up. The storm was spent. A thick morning mist had rolled off the two hills and settled over the camp. As Buffy and Cordelia came staggering out of the fog they looked like two soldiers at the end of an old World War II movie. Buffy's face burned from several small scratches, inflicted by whip-like pine boughs. Cordelia limped along, walking on her heels in a vain attempt to lessen the pain. Twigs and pine needles were entwined in their hair, the makeup/camouflage smeared across their faces, and they were dirty. They came to their tent and stopped.

"Boy," Buffy said. "We are a mess."

"I've been worse." Cordelia's voice was quiet and for a split-second her eyes hardened. Buffy knew what she was talking about.

"We did it, Cordelia," the Slayer said. "We did it."

"Yeah, yay for us. I just want to lie down."

"What happened to you guys?" Bryn came race-walking toward them.

Buffy glanced at Cordelia, then back at Bryn. "Uh, we had to... go to the bathroom and we got a little lost, so we decided to just wait it out instead of stumbling around in the dark."

"You were out there?" Bryn pointed toward the woods.

"Yeah." Buffy nodded. "But we didn't see those weirdoes."

Bryn squinted, looking at their faces. "What about the...?" She motioned toward her face.

"Oh, this." Buffy huffed out a quick breath. "Well, we... uh, we thought it might..." She drew a blank.

"Keep the mosquitoes away," Cordelia said.

"Yes." Buffy nodded for emphasis. "What she said. Keep the mosquitoes away."

"Uh-huh." Bryn looked down at Cordelia's feet. "Are you all right?"

"No," Cordelia snapped. "I need to be in a wheelchair."

"Oh. Sorry." Bryn looked at Buffy. "I have some good news. The clouds are breaking up. They should be able to send a chopper with EMTs and a couple of rangers around noon. The injured go out in the helicopter and the rest of us will hike out with the rangers."

Buffy nodded. "It better be a big helicopter."

Bryn glanced over her shoulder. "This feels so creepy."

"What does?" Buffy asked.

Bryn's lips trembled. "All I've thought about is how happy I am to be getting out of here. How can I feel that way? People died. Other people got hurt. How can I be happy?"

Buffy bit her lip. "I don't know what to say."

Cordelia half-sighed, half-snorted. "Bryn, stop it. Just stop it." Bryn looked at her, eyes wide as though she had been slapped. Cordelia continued. "It was life and death. You lived. They died. It wasn't your fault. Being glad you're alive doesn't make you evil. It doesn't mean you enjoy the suffering of others. It makes you normal. I know." She crawled into the tent.

Buffy looked down at the ground, then at Bryn. "I'd like to apologize for her. It was a long night, she's tired, her feet really hurt--"

Bryn interrupted with a wave of her hand. "Don't. She's right. I am glad I'm alive." She looked at Buffy. "What did she mean, 'I know'?"

Buffy shook her head. "I'm sure I have no idea."


Buffy walked through the camp, weaving between the EMTs carrying stretchers and the girls packing their stuff. Half-a-dozen small bandages adorned her face and arms, covering the surface abrasions and scratches she had accumulated. Body bags were being loaded into the helicopter. Deena sported a new white cast on her broken arm. The activity proceeded at a frenetic pace; everyone wanted to be gone from this place.

Cordelia sat on a stretcher, her feet swathed in bandages. Buffy squatted beside her. "What's the word?" the Slayer asked.

"Well, I won't be wearing open-toed shoes anytime soon." Cordelia waved a hand at her feet.

Buffy steadied herself by placing one hand on the ground. "What you said this morning really helped Bryn."

Cordelia's eyes rolled. "Oh please. I am so tired of her Joan of Arc 'tude. 'I'm in such torment', 'why wasn't it me?'" She snorted.

"You might give her the benefit of the doubt." Buffy's voice was a little sharper than she'd intended.

Cordelia cocked her head at the Slayer. "Excuse me, but if this is going to be a big 90210 moment, I'll retch."

"Suit yourself." Buffy stood up. "Oh, I also wanted to say thanks. I couldn't have done this without you." She walked away. The helicopter engine whined and the rotors began their slow revolution.


"It sounded very dramatic on the news." Willow took a bite of her sandwich. The autumn breeze stirred the branches and chased fallen leaves across the school lawn.

"Believe me, they didn't get half of it. Have you heard about Ms. Brannigan?" Buffy tore off a piece of bread and tossed it onto the lawn, trying to lure a squirrel closer.

Willow shrugged. "Well, the good news is, she'll miss the rest of the term. The bad news is, she'll be good as new next year." She took a pear out of her brown paper bag. "By the way, in case you're interested, I think those things that attacked you were gwyllions."


"Yup. They're all female, live in the forest, attack at night and are scared of metal. Sound about right?"

"Yeah," Buffy said. "All female, huh?"

Willow shrugged. "That's what the books say."

Buffy turned to Willow. "Say, let's try something wacky and different. How about we leave the morgue talk behind and get back to what passes for normal. How was the weekend?"

Willow shrugged. "Pretty much of the boring. Oz and I went to the Bronze. Xander patrolled with Faith. Lindsay got over the flu. Giles... I'm not sure what Giles did."

"Buffy! Hail the conquering hero." Xander strolled up, hands in pockets.

Buffy smiled at him. "How's Cordelia?"

Xander tilted his head to one side. "Doctor says it will be the end of the week before she can even get out of bed."

Buffy mock-shivered. "Sounds grim."

Xander held up a hand. "You'd think, but you'd be wrong. Apparently this is a chance for me to perfect my waiting on her hand and foot skills. Which I'm doing mostly over the phone."

Buffy laid a hand over her heart. "You're a prince among men," she said in an exaggerated voice.

Xander's eyebrows arched. "Why didn't you say that when I was single?"

Buffy smiled. "Seriously, this time she was part of the solution, not the problem. Or at least a bigger part of the solution than the problem.

Xander thrust a fist through the air in front of his belt. "A ringing endorsement if ever I've heard one."

Buffy turned to Willow. "Now, I want to know-were there smoochies?"

Xander jumped. "What? What are you talking about? Why would you--" He noticed the 'are you crazy' looks that Buffy and Willow directed at him "-would you even care about what Oz and Willow do. Can't you give them some privacy?" He stood there, hands out, palms up.

"Yo." Buffy turned her attention away from Xander and toward the sound of Faith's voice. The dark-haired Slayer loped toward them across the lawn.

"Okay," Xander said. "I really gotta go. Bye." He hustled off, head down, as Faith reached Buffy and Willow.

"Hey, B, good to see you're back," Faith said.

"What's up with Xander?" Buffy said, watching the retreating figure.

Faith shrugged. "I got no idea."


End of "High Midnight"