Title: Hydrophobia

Author: Flywoman

Email: berenbaum@hotmail.com

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Summers without friends can be a real bitch. Post-"Prophecy Girl."

Thanks: To jordan and Becca for beta-reading and endless encouragement

Disclaimer: Joss Whedon and his colleagues at Mutant Enemy are the geniuses who created Buffy; I'm just trying to get inside her head. Parts 2 and 3 are lifted almost straight out of "When She Was Bad," by Joss Whedon.



It had started the night she returned home from saving the world with her brand new white prom dress soiled and still slightly damp. The buzz of slayage and the last slow dance with Angel had worn off, leaving her achy and ennervated, and yet keyed up. Without thinking twice, she'd run a hot bath, but when she started to step in, she began shaking so hard that she found herself sitting down abruptly on the bathmat. Surprise gradually percolated through the drugged exhaustion of her brain cells. A moment later, she tried again, with even less success. Reasoning with herself didn't seem to work - somehow her rational mind had caught in a groove, "Water bad," and her best efforts to talk herself through her discomfort were met only by a racing heartbeat and hyperventilation.

In the end she gave up and drained the tub. She tried showering instead, which worked okay until she accidentally closed her eyes, and the combination of darkness and water against her skin caused a sudden upwelling of dizzy blind panic. Stifling a cry, she flung out her arms to either side to brace herself against a fall, and her left hand slammed into the sliding glass door.

Her eyes popped open; her palm was oozing blood, and the impact had left a violent spiderweb of cracks beside her. Her good hand was trembling, unreliable, so that her mother was pounding at the door before she had quite finished turning off the water. "Buffy! Are you all right? What's happening in there?"

She managed to drape herself snugly in her towel without getting too much blood on it and unlocked the bathroom door. Mom stumbled into the room, wrapped in a robe, eyes bleary with sleep. "Buffy, honey, what happened?" Then the shattered shower door registered, and the sudden shadow of shock, suspicion, and disappointment that crossed her face was almost more than Buffy could bear. "Oh my God. Did you hurt yourself?" She clasped her daughter's dripping face in her hands and peered anxiously into it, as if she expected to see a playback with closed captioning. "Was there drinking after the dance?"

"No," Buffy whispered, trying to shake her head, her cheeks pushed flat against her jaw. "I'm really sorry about the door. I tripped in the shower. I guess I was just really tired." She summoned a small smile. "You know me, clumsy Buffy."

Mom continued to stare for a moment, but what she saw must have satisfied her on some level because she let go and backed up a pace, folding her arms. "Yes, well, no wonder you're tired, it's really late, young lady. I know it was the big dance, but I certainly didn't expect you to come creeping back," her voice broke in a huge yawn, "at dawn. I hope you're not going to behave like this at your father's. He'll say I'm not being strict enough with you."

"Don't worry." Buffy lied, "I'll be okay."

Once her mother had wandered dazedly back to bed, Buffy rubbed herself dry and pulled on her pajamas. She stared at herself in the mirror as she combed out her hair and brushed her teeth, still trying to fathom what was wrong with her, but her reflection only gazed back blankly, with no clues to offer. She even found it impossible to cup her hands and splash the water on her face over the sink, but she told herself that exfoliation was in, and using a washcloth was good for her skin.

***

When she had first been told about her destiny, her innate honesty had made the temptation to take her parents into her confidence very strong. She found herself lying much more easily these days.

When Dad came to pick her up in his glossy new Jag, his eyes strayed to her throat and lingered there, worried but hesitant. The puncture marks had healed, but there was still a dark, symmetrical bruise, like the velvety dust of a crushed butterfly. "Honey, you know I don't mean to butt into your social life, but I hope you're being careful."

"Yeah," she said softly, remembering a candlelit cavern and an ancient and enormously powerful hand gripping the back of her neck. For a long second, murky water sucked at her feet, beckoning her into its cool depths. Then she blinked, and the image vanished. "I'm always careful."

***

The first night at her father's house, Angel came to visit her.

He appeared at the window, smooth skin silvery in the moonlight, his dark eyes anxious but kind. He tapped the pane lightly and mouthed her name, trapped on the other side of the glass. Daddy had long since gone to bed. As quietly as possible, she slipped out of bed and padded over to raise the sash. 'What are you doing here?" she whispered. She was trying hard to appear blasé, but her traitorous heart thumped in a chest too tight to contain it.

"I couldn't wait any longer," Angel confided in a neutral tone that revealed neither shame nor defensiveness. "I had to see you again." He reached for her hand. His fingers curled around hers, cool and deceptively gentle.

Wordlessly she drew him into the room, her finger on her lips. The last thing she needed was for her father to come investigating a noise and find her in the company of a man fifteen times her age. Although, as always, Angel hardly looked his two and a half centuries, except for a certain shadow of old regret around the eyes. He looked... yummy. Sure, it was in the usual mysterious, aloof, and close-mouthed kind of way, but she recognized that he hadn't come all the way from Sunnydale because he didn't want to be with her.

Standing by the foot of the bed, her hand still dwarfed in his, Angel focused his eyes hungrily on her face. "Buffy..." he murmured, a low, gravelly sound, almost a groan. He raised his free hand to her cheek and stroked it softly for a few seconds, then leaned down for a kiss. His lips tasted of starry skies and longing, of wishes that could never come true. Her fingers tightened on his as she pressed into him, feeling time stretch beyond them, trying not to think about how temptingly her carotid pulsed just below his jaw.

Slowly a thought surfaced from the murky depths of her sleep-clogged brain. She broke the kiss and pulled back, frowning a little. "Angel? How'd you- I mean, I didn't invite you in."

The hand on her cheek roughened, and even as she automatically glanced down, it withered and hardened into the gnarled appendage of a being impossibly old, unimaginably strong. Buffy twisted her head violently out of its grasp and found herself staring into the yellowed, malevolent eyes and deeply seamed face of the Master. He bared his carious fangs in a gruesome grin like a death rictus and fell forward, sinking them into her neck. Buffy shrieked-



-and found herself alone, sitting upright in bed, the scar on her neck throbbing in time with her racing heart. The bedclothes reeked of fear and prescience. Moonlight poured through her open window, but the air in the room was hot and still. She sat there, rigid, choking down incipient sobs, for over an hour. Towards dawn, she finally fell asleep again, on top of the damp sheets.

***

The irony of finally being back in the big city after the one-Bronze wonder of Sunnydale was that Buffy hardly left the house after dark. When she first arrived, she dug out her old address book and high school directory; she spent about half an hour running her finger down the names of old friends and sometime acquaintances before admitting to herself that she wasn't about to call any of them. She hadn't been in touch with anyone at her old school since making her fresh start, and after half a year away, it just felt too weird to look up her old clique as if nothing had happened. Of course, if she thought about it, the popular kids who had flocked around her in the pre-Slayer days weren't likely to come anywhere near her now, except perhaps to be able to report that they had spotted the psycho in her native habitat.

The only ones who would want to hang would be the freaky kids that she had avoided out of instinct despite, or because of, her burgeoning reputation as a troublemaker, the ones with tattoos and multiple piercings and no tans who were always caught smoking behind the teachers' lounge and got suspended for smuggling vodka into the Winter Ball. They had never spoken to Buffy the cheerleader, but they were definitely impressed enough by Buffy the arsonist to want to take her under their collective wing. If she got really lonely, she could always contact one of them and exult in her fifteen minutes of fame as a celebrated criminal returned from exile.

As if.

To console herself for her newly contracted case of social celibacy, Buffy spent hours catching up on her soaps, perusing mail order catalogs, and experimenting with novel apparel combinations. At first, she picked up the phone and contemplated calling Willow about a thousand times a day. But with no slaying and no social life, there seemed to be no Buffy worth talking about. After their first awkward conversation three days into her stay, Buffy avoided the phone altogether except for the weekly check-in with her mother. She salved her conscience by sending Will a couple of postcards with vague assurances of well-being and wishes for a good summer. But with each one, Buffy experienced the tug and snap of a severed connection. The loss was painful yet exhilarating; it left her feeling lighter somehow, like a hot air balloon discarding ballast to soar higher, to meet its fate in the eye of the sun.

She licked many a pencil over her diary, but could never quite dredge up the words to explain what was happening to her to her own satisfaction. Ever since she had returned from death at the hands of the Master, something old and secretive seemed to be sliding through her veins, coiling around her heart, calling to her from across the ages in a voice that knew no words but her name. She knew without being told that this voice was her one true companion, inseparable unto death, and that but for it, she would always be alone. Friends were a dangerous luxury, weakness, dead weight. She was the Slayer.

***

The second night, she went to visit Angel.

He was waiting for her in the courtyard of a mansion, dappled by moonlight and smelling faintly of honeysuckle and remorse. He did not rise to greet her from his seat on the crumbling stone side of the derelict fountain, so she settled herself beside him instead. Their fingers crept silently together and entwined.

At last Angel stirred and spoke, his voice hollow and bereft. "Do you have any idea what you're doing?"

"I know what I want."

"You're just a child."

She lifted her chin in quiet defiance. "I'm ready."

He finally turned his head to fix her with fierce yellow eyes in a face carved from cold marble. "Then give us a kiss." He lunged towards her, fangs bared.

She jerked back, using his momentum to pull him past her and send his bulk sprawling on the ground, and followed up with a punishing kick to the base of the spine. Quicker than thought, he rolled and bounced up again, growling, and spun to face her with a grimace of pain mixed with exultation. "Playing hard to get, huh?"

She led him in a frenzied waltz around the courtyard, struggling to stay out of his reach even as she rained blows on his head and torso. But she was growing weaker, slowing down, her breath ragged, while he continued to shadow her easily, not a hair out of place. At last she misjudged a punch that pulled her too far into his territory, and Angel caught her incoming fist in his huge hand. His other arm snaked through her guard and grabbed her by the back of the neck. She cried out as her knees slammed into the concrete.

"You're filthy. Pray to God while I wash away your sins."

He dragged her over the lip of the fountain, scraping icy fire along her ribs. For a second, the moon floated on the surface of stagnant water that smelled of old death. Then it shattered as her face plunged into it, and the foul darkness closed over her head.



Buffy struggled up out of the depths of sleep, choking and spitting. Her shoulder-length hair, soaked with sweat, had plastered itself over her mouth. She scrabbled frantically at her face and succeeded in scoring herself on the cheek with her nails, deeply enough to draw blood. She was disgusting, wild, unclean. She fumbled through a drawer for scissors, her fingers clattering through mixed-up lipsticks and emery boards. Her hair came away in coarse wet clumps that fell around her on the bed like a rain of blond ash.

***

It didn't take much time in L.A. for Buffy to realize that she needed a whole new wardrobe. In fact, she did, because most of the clothes she'd taken with her to Sunnydale had acquired inexplicable tears and a variety of mysterious stains, including blood of several colors, in her six months of slayage there. But even more appalling was the fact that, as she pointed out to her father, all of her clothes were so early 90s that she was traumatized to be seen in them, and he was the parent who could best afford to rescue her from a teenage girl's worst nightmare. So every weekend, they took a field trip to one of the better malls and spent the day racking up the balance on Dad's credit card.

Shopping had the additional advantage of making things easier between them. Conversations with Dad were best centered around the present; the past was too impregnated with complicated secrets, while the future loomed before her like a death sentence on appeal. In the evenings when he returned home from work, they watched the national news together and ventured the occasional comment about safe subjects like euthanasia and the upcoming elections, avoiding the disturbing ones like divorce rates and juvenile delinquency. Sooner or later, though, the pressure of an awkward if loving silence forced Buffy to plead sleepiness, offer a goodnight kiss, and flee to Mister Gordo and her room.

At least in the mall, she could fill the space between them with chatter about the price of tops at Contempo and how she was afraid the dress from Macy's made her look fat. They stopped for ice cream, arguing over the merits of chocolate versus Mississippi Mud ("Yours is classic, therefore boring. Face it, we're dealing with a major generational gap"), and chased each other with the perfume samples. Her father smiled a lot, cracked jokes about having to raise a second mortgage, and bought her practically everything she asked for.

But even when they were both right there, laughing together over some ridiculously extravagant purchase she was pretending to contemplate, Buffy was acutely aware of the distance between them. Too many things half- thought and not spoken seemed to wind around her like spiders' silk, forming a shell that was filmy and colorless but strong as steel. She winced inwardly at the perplexity and frustration in her father's eyes as he tried to penetrate her gossamer armor by teasing, cajoling, mock- threats, and the occasional, almost desperate hug. But it was no use.

***

The third night, Buffy's strangled screams woke her dad.

He pounded authoritatively at the door and then strode into her bedroom in hastily donned striped pajama bottoms. "Buffy?" He sat down on the edge of the bed and wrapped his arm around her, smelling of mint toothpaste. "Is everything okay?"

She swallowed, trying to push her heart back down into her chest where it belonged. "I'm okay. It was just a... a bad dream."

His arm tightened reassuringly around her shoulders as he tilted his head to rest against hers, as he had done when she was little and babbled about monsters under the bed. "Do you want to tell me about it?"

She smiled a little at the memory, was quiet for a minute. "Daddy? You know how little kids are afraid of things that go bump in the night, and then when they grow up they're supposed to figure out that those weren't really what people worry about?"

"Yes," he said, and waited.

"Have you ever wondered if... if maybe they were right to be so scared?"

In response, he drew her close in a comforting hug. She closed her eyes, feeling loved, protected, a little girl again, safe in the unbroken circle of his arms. Not yet the Chosen One, not the Slayer, just an ordinary girl in a simpler time when vampires were frightening figures in fairy tales, not former friends who came back to feast on your blood - or dark knights whose kiss made you want to die. When the world was black and white, and you knew whom to trust, and familiar faces weren't mere masks for demonic *things* that demanded death at your hands.

It was a nice fantasy while it lasted. When Buffy opened her eyes again, she found herself staring down at her father's bare back. A familiar inked design spread its wings over the smooth plane of his shoulderblade. She went rigid, even as sinewy arms tightened around her and sharp teeth buried themselves under her clavicle.

Buffy struggled futilely to free herself for a moment as incandescent pain flared between her neck and shoulder. She could feel herself being drained of will as the blood flowed out of her. With the last of her strength, she thrust her hand under her pillow just as Angel drew back from his feed, fangs dripping. His demonic visage softened and blurred, and suddenly he was staring at her in blank confusion, looking all too human. "Buffy? What's going on?" Then the stake in her fist sheathed itself in Angel's chest, and he exploded into dust with a ludicrous look of surprise on his handsome face.



When Buffy made her way unsteadily down the stairs the next morning, her father looked up from his coffee with a frown of concern. "Are you all right? You look like you haven't been sleeping very well."

"I'm okay. It was just a... a bad dream." She poured herself a glass of orange juice, closed her raw, reddened eyes, and rested them on its cool rim.

***

The nightmares gradually took their toll on her nerves, heightening her senses in an inescapable itch of permanent hyperarousal. And it wasn't the familiar, energizing adrenaline surge that convinced her she could conquer the underworld, but a strange, icky, anxious kind that made her heart hammer in her head and left her feeling dizzy and vaguely nauseated. More jittery than Willow after a third cup of coffee, she found herself stalking shadows and automatically ducking the caress of every breeze.

Every evening, her skin crawled with an awareness that drew her eyes repeatedly to the darkening windows and sharpened her ears for the sounds of distant violence. She paced restlessly around the inside of the house, checking every latch and lock, and eventually ventured out into the yard to peer behind bushes and around hedges like a feral cat nosing for prey. Her hands itched with the unnamed impulse to kill.

Eventually she discovered that the only way to combat this sensation was physical exercise, lots of it. So she gave herself a routine more grueling than any that either of her Watchers had ever inflicted on her. As soon as her father left for work in the mornings, she slipped out of the house and pounded down the sleepy suburban streets in sweatpants and her oldest sneakers. She flew, oblivious, past familiar and then unknown neighborhoods, past the inevitable stitch in her side, past her welcome second wind, until her thighs burned and her feet dragged like lead. Then she would finally make her way home through strange streets, allowing her Slayer's instincts to guide her as the midday sun beat down on her molten gold head.

She set up a discarded punching bag in the garage and practiced in the waning afternoons, pummeling it with flying kicks and punches too swift for mortal eyes. At first, whenever she missed, she braced herself for Giles' voice, raised in mild remonstrance. To avoid the unpleasant pang that pierced her in its unexpected absence, she trained harder, honing her reflexes until every blow landed with deadly accuracy. She would not fail him again. She developed shiny calluses on her knuckles, her elbows, the heels of her hands. Towards the middle of the summer, she had to take a few days off when her battered bare feet began to bleed.

Buffy also brushed up on her gymnastics skills. She'd been pretty good back when she was a cheerleader at Hemery, and her first Watcher had encouraged her to keep up with it, saying that it would give her additional strength, flexibility, and the element of surprise. But Giles had favored more traditional training methods, including a peculiarly dull program of calisthenics and sparring with standard weapons. She had lost a lot of ground during the past six months, making even simple backbends awkward and the splits highly unlikely, but she persevered, disciplining her body back into the same shape it had been in before - possibly even better.

By the time she finally fell into bed at night, she was usually too exhausted to dream. She plummeted smoothly into sleep like a stone into a deep well, the distant splash too faint for human ears. Throughout the night, she lay dead to the world, sprawled under dry sheets, short hair feathering her face. She began every morning somewhat stiff and sore, but refreshed, ready to throw herself into the day's routine.

Swimming in her dad's pool was, of course, out of the question. Never one to neglect her tan, she would lie out on a towel for an hour or two every day, then dip her suit into the water on the end of the pool net before going back into the house to shower off the sunscreen and sweat. She knew that she was being paranoid, that her dad would take any claims to have gone swimming at face value, but she felt better, knowing that the suit was hanging to dry in the bathroom. Somehow the fact that it hung there, still smelling faintly of chlorine despite having been rinsed and wrung out, even made her feel more normal, as if the evidence she had concocted somehow altered what she had or hadn't managed to do.

***

***

Her room back in Sunnydale looked exactly as she had left it three months before. Buffy dumped her duffel bag on her bed and turned to head back downstairs, but her attention was arrested by the image facing her from her full length mirror. The last vestiges of baby fat and uncertainty had been burned away by many weeks of arduous training in the L.A. heat, and she barely recognized this lean, tanned stranger with glittering green eyes, grim and golden as an ancient idol.

Her mother's voice interrupted her moment of self-reflection. "Buffy! Willow wanted you to call her as soon as you got in."

***

Willow wasn't home, but her mother thought she might be out for a walk nearby with Xander. And indeed, Buffy found them together almost at once, on a wall by the graveyard. Her first impulse was to shout to them and break into a glad run, but something in their cozy positions counseled stealth. She couldn't quite hear what they were saying, but she saw Xander lunge in playfully, as if about to steal a kiss, and then raise his hand to Willow's nose, her face. Buffy padded closer, keeping to the shadows, straining to make them out. Had this been going on all summer? Buffy certainly hadn't welcomed Xander's attentions last year, and Willow had made no secret of her long-standing interest in him, but... Her friends were staring into each others' eyes, leaning closer, tilting their heads...

Without warning, Xander drew back; Willow shrieked as he yanked her off the wall, revealing a threatening figure behind them whose dated attire screamed vampire and future victim of the fashion police. Buffy barely registered the frightened shout, "Willow, go!" as she leaped from hiding, automatically breaking into a swift run to close the distance between them. And so it begins again.

Instead of fleeing with Willow, Xander forcefully backhanded the vamp, who roared and staggered a little in surprise, then grabbed him, ready to make him a meal. But now Buffy was upon them, and she'd been practicing for this moment all summer long. With one fluid movement, she spun the creature around and slammed her foot into his face, then jammed her knee in his crotch and flipped him hard onto his back. As nonchalantly as possible, she nodded to her dumbfounded friends: "Hi, guys."

The vamp obviously hadn't quite caught on because he hurled himself at her instead of going with the better part of valor. She lashed out with a sidekick that sent him soaring into the tree behind them; conveniently impaled on a protruding branch, he exploded into dust. She turned back to her friends with a playful smile. "Miss me?"

Willow was the first to recover sufficiently to squeal her name, but Xander lunged at once for a hug, his recent fear overlaying the good boy-smell. And once Willow had gotten her turn, he embraced Buffy a second time, holding on tight as she patted his back, more than a little uncomfortable at this display. "Man, your timing really doesn't suck."

"When'd you get back?" Willow asked, obviously trying to appear cool about Xander's exuberance.

"Uh, just now, my dad drove me down." She added playfully, "And I figured you two losers would be getting into some kind of trouble."

Xander was nodding, but Willow protested, "I think we had the upper hand... in a subtle way."

"Does either of you even have a cross?" Buffy asked disapprovingly. "Very sloppy."

"Well, it's been a slow summer," Xander defended himself and Will. "I mean that's the first vampire we've seen since you killed the Master."

Hearing the name mentioned made Buffy feel suddenly dizzy with the shadows that swirled around her. Fighting for normalcy, she forced a laugh as she commented, "It's like they knew I was coming back."

Xander acted as if he hadn't noticed her discomfort. "So, what about you, how was your summer?" he inquired genially. "Did you slay anything?"

The long, lonely summer of secret fears and solitary confinement trembled on the tip of her tongue for only an instant. At some point during the past few months, self-concealment had become second nature, even with those closest to her. "Uh, no!" As casually as possible, she continued, "Just hung out, partied some... shopping was also a major theme."

"Well, you haven't lost your touch, that vampire-" Xander gestured admiringly with his thumbs.

"I did kinda whale on him, didn't I?" Buffy grinned, relieved at the change of subject.

"Yeah." Xander suddenly pointed at her like a gunslinger with two full barrels: "I LIKE your hair!"

She had almost managed to forget how much shorter her hair was now, and the reason for it. Almost. Again she forced a little laugh, pushing down the darkness. "So how did you guys fare, didja have any fun without me?"

Willow piped up, "Yeah," but Xander groaned, "NO, our summer was kinda yawnworthy - the biggest excitement was burying the Master."

And now the chill, black wings beating at her. "That's right, you missed it," Willow chirped. "Right out by that tree." She pointed towards a particularly hoary specimen that loomed threateningly near the path. The homemade cross beneath it seemed pitifully meager as a marker for the grave of the ancient demon that had threatened the entire world with apocalypse. "Giles buried the bones 'n' we poured holy water 'n' we got to wear robes." While Willow babbled on, oblivious, Buffy couldn't tear her eyes away from the pool of darkness under the tree, which seemed to radiate an almost tangible malevolence.

"Very intense," Xander chimed in, "you should've been." Buffy could only gaze at him, not trusting herself to open her mouth, clamping down on the scream that swelled her throat. Please, shut up, shut up!

"Have you seen Giles?" Willow asked. She probably meant it innocently, but given the three months she'd spent incommunicado, the question stabbed Buffy like an accusation.

She whirled to confront her friend, still freaked and now on the defensive. "Not as yet. I'll see him at school."

"Man, I'm really glad you're back," Xander remarked, sounding sincere.

"Me too," Buffy lied, faking a smile. Here she was, back with her friends at last. Why did her skin shrink from their touch? Why did every muscle twitch with the desire to run right back to L.A. without a backwards glance? She could feel her throat closing up, her hands starting to shake. She had to get out of there, away from them. "Well, I'd better go - I want to say goodbye before my dad takes off."

"Okay, see you tomorrow," Willow called after her as she fled.

***

When she got home, her parents were waiting for her in the living room. Buffy scanned their faces automatically for some sign that they were getting on, that there might be the slimmest chance of her dad reentering Mom's life, but they both looked uncomfortable, he troubled, she anxious, for the split second before they smoothed their expressions over into welcoming smiles.

"Hi, honey. How was Willow?"

"Fine," she said shortly. She looked at her dad. "So, Dad, are you-"

"I was just leaving," he said, getting up from the sofa. "Give your old Dad a kiss. Be good for your mother." She swallowed fresh disappointment and complied.

***

That night Buffy couldn't get to sleep. It was much more than being back in a bedroom that had become strange and shadowed in her long absence. Uneasy thoughts chased themselves like bats around in her head. She had been nightmare-free for months, but her little jaunt past the Master's grave had managed to bring the old, stale fears crowding back, just waiting for her to close her eyes so they could spring. Towards midnight, she changed into sweats and snuck out her bedroom window. No one troubled her sprint through the silent streets of Sunnydale, but she ran as if the hounds of Hell howled at her heels. By the time she got back, her legs trembled so badly that she almost fell climbing back through her window, but her bed welcomed her into a deep, dreamless sleep.

***

Xander and Willow were waiting for Buffy on the front steps when her mom dropped her off at school the following morning. Not having gotten enough hours of sacktime, she was feeling listless and a little groggy. That plus her unspoken reluctance to face her Watcher's wrath, or even worse, disappointment, had her lagging well behind the others as they headed down to their first class.

Suddenly Willow squealed, "Giles!" and Xander seconded, "Yo, G-man, what's up?"

Apparently her Watcher had been chatting up Jenny Calendar at the bottom of the stairwell; Buffy couldn't help catching a glimpse of his face, all lit up like a schoolboy's, before she fastened her gaze on the stairs below her feet.

"It's nice to see you," Giles was saying, "and... don't ever call me that." And now she was close enough to have to look up at him or seem rude. His face revealed only gladness and concern as he asked her gently, "How are you?"

Unable to muster the requisite enthusiasm, she forced a smile and said only, "Alive and kickin'."

"Buffy killed a vampire last night," Willow's announced, none too softly. Everyone else glanced around uneasily as groups of students hurried past on their way to class.

"Uh, I think you can get a little more volume if you speak from the diaphragm," Buffy snarked, pressing her lips together pointedly.

Willow apologized, reddening, but Jenny broke in with a frown, "We've got vampires? I thought the Hellmouth was closed."

"It's closed," Giles acknowledged, "but not gone - the mystical energy that emanates from it is still highly concentrated in the area."

"Which means we're still the undead's favorite party town," quipped Xander.

Giles turned back to Buffy. "I wonder if they're here for any purpose, particularly?" It was quite obvious to her what he was getting at.

Shrugging theatrically, she responded, "You're the Watcher. I just work here." No, Angel didn't come by to warn me about any new developments last night, but thanks for asking.

Giles looked a little surprised but covered quickly with characteristic vagueness. "Uh, yes... I must consult my books." That prompted a gleeful exchange between Xander and Willow about a bet. Jenny shared their smirks, but Buffy was not amused. Was this a game? Unexplained vampire activity requiring research that might well turn up some amazing new prophecy about her death, or worse?

The bell interrupted her bitter musings. "We'd better get to class," Willow said.

Buffy started to leave, eager to escape further interrogation, but Giles stopped her: "Oh, uh, Buffy - I realize you've only just returned, but when you're ready, I think we should start your training again."

"I'm ready," Buffy declared with a devil-may-care shrug that belied the flutter in her stomach. "I'll see you after school." She turned again to go.

Behind her, Giles stammered kindly, "I-I-I'll understand if you want a few days...to..."

Buffy turned again to fix him with a determined glare, and kept her voice steady as she repeated, "I'm ready." She swung around and took off, feeling the weight of Giles' frown following her.

***

The first day of classes passed in an anxious blur. Buffy was all but crawling out of her skin by the time the last bell rang and she was able to change into workout clothes and head for the library. She was eager to prove to herself as well as her Watcher that her summer training had prepared her for whatever her future on the Hellmouth held.

After stretching out, she began with a flawless handstand that allowed her to flip off the balcony railing. She followed that up with a series of perfect cartwheels, walkovers, and flying kicks. Clearly impressed, Giles donned protective padding and passed her the quarterstaff. At first, she landed controlled blows on his mitts, but once she'd gotten bored with the exercise, she found herself improvising in a way that quickly outmatched Giles' ability to defend himself. Soon, a swift kick connected to his chest, unbalancing him. He managed to duck the next swing, but she followed it up with a slam to the chest that knocked him backwards into a chair. Giles just sat there dazedly for a moment, glasses askew, before directing her to a bout of solo target practice while he caught his breath.

This was much better. Facing the target squarely, finding reassurance in the unyielding solidity of its surface, Buffy threw punch after punch with fists and forearms, left, right, left, right. All of her fear, her aggression, focused on that one spot in front of her, she gave herself up to the rhythm of violence. Faster and faster, forgetting the watchful Giles, forgetting the musty light of her surroundings, forgetting everything but the square inch of wood before her.

Suddenly the Master's hideous face flashed before her in mockery: It's not enough. It will never be enough. The surge of extra adrenaline spurred her efforts into a blur of motion. She felt her chest tighten in hypoxia and near-hysteria.

Giles called out sharply, "Buffy, that's enough... " It's not enough. It will never be enough. "Buffy!"

Carried away, on the edge of panic, she lashed out with a vicious sidekick that broke the target right off its post. It crashed to the hardwood floor with a satisfyingly final thud as she drew back and steadied herself, breathing hard.

Giles remarked dryly, "Well, it's safe to say you've stayed in shape."

"I'm ready," she gasped. "Whatever they've got comin' next, I'm ready." Her hands only shook a little she pulled straggling hair back from her sweaty face and nodded to herself. "Yeah."

***

Buffy sat alone in the corner of the student lounge's leather couch, head propped in hand, one brown suede boot on the edge of the coffee table. Despite the vigorous workout, she had tossed and turned restlessly the previous night, haunted by distant whispers and recurring flashes of the Master's face. Now she replayed the moment of his death over and over in her mind's eye with a sickening dread, trying to convince herself that she had won, that he could never trouble them again, yet feeling certain all the while that there had been some mistake. Something that all of them had overlooked.

"Buffy!" She was jerked out of her reverie to find Xander leaning over her as Willow plopped onto the opposite couch.

"Fine!" she gabbled with absolutely no idea how long he'd been there or what she'd just been asked. "I'm fine!"

Judging from Xander's dry "Good! It's good that you're fine," she had not guessed well. But rather than make an issue out of it, he settled himself beside her.

Not so Willow. "What were you thinking about?" she asked, taking an apple out of her lunchbag.

"Nothin'," Buffy evaded.

"Oh come on, you can tell us, we're your bosom friends-" Xander raised his eyebrows suggestively "-the friends of your bosom!"

"Xander!" Willow said reprovingly, but she exchanged a tolerant grin with Buffy. Xander pulled a candy bar out of his own bag, made a face, and caught Willow's eye. She wrinkled her nose at him but consented to an exchange.

Buffy continued to stall, "I wasn't thinking anything, really."

"What'd you do last night?" Willow prodded.

She shrugged noncommittally. "Unh, slept. I had weird dreams."

Xander touched her on the shoulder and declaimed, "Dreams are meaningful," with a sage nod.

"Tch, tell me about it," Willow put in. "The other night I dreamed that Xander-" she broke off, belatedly aware. "Uh-" she shook her head as Buffy and Xander gazed at her with great interest "-it wasn't Xander - in fact, it wasn't me, it was a friend's dream, and she doesn't remember it." With great dignity, she popped a piece of candy in her mouth.

Buffy agreed sardonically, "I bet she doesn't."

Just then, Giles appeared, looking spooked. "Buffy!"

"Giles!" Buffy replied, jumping to her feet, her heart picking up the pace in response to his uncharacteristic agitation. "What is it? You look worried."

Her Watcher blinked nervously. "This... vampire activity, I think I know what they're up to."

"Well, we'll deal with it," she reassured him.

"If it was that simple," Giles said.

For no good reason, Buffy felt a shiver prickle her spine, but she responded firmly, "It is not to worry, trust me."

"Well, I don't know." Then Giles reconsidered and appeared to relax, his mouth stretching into a wide, chilling smile. "I mean, I've killed you once, it shouldn't be too difficult to do it again."

"What?" Buffy was too shocked to duck as Giles backhanded her savagely, hurtling her back onto the table. With the wind knocked out of her, Buffy barely had time to register what had happened before he was on her, clamping his hands around her neck. She grunted in fear, unable to draw breath, twisting futilely in his astonishingly strong grip. Xander and Willow evinced no surprise, merely smiling calmly on the sidelines as she struggled, pushing frantically at her attacker. At last she managed to grab his hair and yanked hard; to her horror, his face peeled off to reveal the malevolent grinning visage of the Master.



Buffy woke suddenly to find herself alone, in her own room. The house was still except for the curtains, wavering slightly in the night breeze from her open window. Heart still galloping, she sat up in bed, rubbing her damp face with her hands. Then some sixth Slayer sense prompted her to look towards the window again, and there was Angel, sitting silently on the sill.

She didn't jump - quite. "Hello," she greeted him with a small, forced smile.

"Mind if I come in?" Angel asked diffidently. As always, he was dressed in black, his dark hair immaculate, his expression sober and yet restrained, hinting at the passion and power he held ruthlessly in check.

Buffy looked down, nonplussed, but replied, "Be my guest." When she'd left for L.A., it had been hard to imagine how she would get through the summer without seeing him. But now that he was here in front of her, she only felt nauseated with residual panic from her most recent dream, not to mention the shadows of the previous ones from months past. Suddenly she was not at all eager to face another vampire, even one as attractive as Angel.

Apparently aware of her ambivalence, Angel didn't budge from his perch. "How are ya?"

She came to a rapid decision and looked up at him. "Peachy."

Angel was obviously a little taken aback by her tone; he shifted his gaze and didn't respond immediately.

He had one last chance. Buffy pressed him, "So is this a social call? It is kinda late, or, well, it is for me, anyway, what is it for you, lunch hour?"

"It's not a social call," he said quietly.

Nope, thank you for playing. "Ah. So let me guess," she said with mock gravity, "that means grave danger." Then, more softly, "Gosh, it's good to be home."

"Sorry," Angel murmured, looking genuinely contrite. "I wish I had better news."

"So..." Buffy prodded, with a false perkiness she knew would get under his skin, "some of your cousins are in town for a family barbecue, and we're all on the menu!"

"The Anointed One," Angel revealed abruptly, finally getting to his feet in agitation. "He's been gathering forces somewhere in town, I'm not sure why."

Buffy blinked and shrugged in forced nonchalance. "Guess I'll find out soon enough, huh?"

"You don't sound too concerned," Angel ventured.

"I can handle myself." Buffy told him. She shrugged again, looking sideways, not wanting to meet the concern in his dark eyes. "Besides, I could use a little action anyway."

Angel shook his head, bewildered, but not ready to quit. Yet. "Don't underestimate the Anointed One just because he looks like a child. He has power over the rest of them. They'll do anything for him."

Buffy couldn't take it anymore. Blinking, with 'tude, she drawled, "Is that it? Is that everything, y' know, cuz you woke me up from a really good dream."

Angel blinked back at her, hurt, uncomprehending. She turned her back on his surprised, sorrowful face and lay down on her side in curt dismissal.

"Sorry. I'll go." He hesitated, and she pictured him pausing indecisively, his back to her, hands braced on the sill. Then: "I missed you."

Double take. She turned sharply. I missed you?... But he was already gone.

She lay awake, watching the window, for what seemed like hours. The moonlight dimmed and the stars shifted, but Angel did not return. It was almost dawn before Buffy drifted back to sleep.

***

In the morning, Buffy hid her tired eyes behind large sunglasses, skipped breakfast, and climbed wordlessly into the car next to her mother. Her disturbing dream, Angel's late night visitation, and the distant voice that had insinuated itself once again in her veins swam around her head like sharks, searching for weakness. She had come to accept that it was up to her to handle whatever the Anointed One had planned. She couldn't rely on anyone else, not Angel, not Giles, not her friends. She was the Slayer.

Her mother finally broke the silence. "How are your classes?"

Good," Buffy replied with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

"Good." Mom paused. "Is there the slightest chance that if I asked you what was wrong, you would tell me?" Buffy turned to look at her, wanting her mother to know that she was not sulking, not ignoring her, but there was nothing to be said. It was no help. "'Course not," Mom answered herself with only a hint of the hurt and concern she must be feeling. "It would take the fun out of guessing."

Buffy turned away to gaze somberly out of the window again. She knew what she had to do.

***

Knowing what she had to do was one thing; actually carrying it out proved much more difficult. Buffy couldn't quite find it in her to be as cruel as planned when Willow and Xander joined her by her locker that morning. She promised herself that she would do better when they met up later at the Bronze. On the other hand, a few minutes with Cordelia was more than sufficient to bring out her inner bitch. She ended the encounter with an insult that made up in virulence what it lacked in wit and left her friends gaping after her. Sometimes you just had to start small and work your way up... or however that saying went.

***

Buffy arrived at the Bronze early that night, dressed to kill in dusky velvet the color of dried blood. The place was already packed with teenagers thanks to the drawing power of the guest band, Cibo Mano, but everyone made way for her as if she were a queen graciously bestowing an appearance on her subjects. This would have cheered her up considerably if her plans for the evening hadn't been gnawing a hole in her stomach. She consented to a proffered seat in a shadowed corner of the bar, blew off the guys on either side of her, and waited.

It wasn't long before Willow and Xander came in together; Buffy promptly slid off her stool and retreated to the ladies' to give them time to order their drinks and find a table. When she decided they'd had long enough, she slipped cautiously back into the club. And there was Angel brooding at the bar; he had his back to her, but he stood out among the brightly-dressed, chattering students like a raven among songbirds. She abandoned her former seat and took up another stool in the far corner, where she would be partially concealed from both the vampire and Xander and Willow.

Her friends didn't seem to be having a very good time despite the presence of one of their favorite bands. Willow was obviously trying her best to hold Xander's attention, to carry on a conversation. But he was clearly anxious, unable to sit still, constantly craning his neck to peer through the gloom in search of someone - probably Buffy. Good, that would make this simpler. Not easier, but simpler. She decided to wait just a little longer, though - telling herself that she wanted him really hungry for her, but knowing deep down that she was just trying to screw up the guts to carry out her scheme.

The lead singer cooed an introduction to the next song, "Sugar Water." A slow, sultry beat began to throb through the Bronze. It was now or never. Buffy gulped and stepped down from her stool in the shadows to saunter towards her friends' table. As expected, Angel turned sharply from the bar as he spotted her, and hurried over to intercept.

Buffy tossed her hair, cool as frappucino. "Hi."

"Hi," Angel echoed, sounding eager and just a little anxious.

Ignoring the pangs of conscience, Buffy switched to her most annoying brand of wide-eyed sarcasm. "So, is there danger at the Bronze? Should I beware?"

Angel shook his head like a cuffed dog, hurt and baffled. "I can't help thinking that I've done something to make you angry. And that bothers me more than I'd like!"

Buffy looked away, hating this, then forced herself to stare back at him. "I'm not angry." With a fake, condescending smile, she added, "I don't know where that comes from."

"What are you afraid of?" Angel asked, gazing at her with the intent expression that always made her feel as if her soul weren't wearing enough clothing. "Me?" Another precise stab, softly goading: "Us?"

Buffy mocked him with a short laugh. "Could you contemplate getting over yourself for a second? There's no 'us.'" Even with all that buildup, Angel looked sharply surprised, downcast. "Look, Angel, I'm sorry if I was supposed to spend the summer mooning over you, but - I didn't. I moved on. To the living," she added cuttingly over her shoulder as she stalked off past Cordelia and her groupies to join Willow and Xander at their table.

"Hey," Buffy greeted them.

"Hey," Willow said. Her voice was glad, but her eyes looked disappointed, and somewhat wary.

Xander, however, seemed unreservedly happy to see her, standing promptly to attention with a big welcoming smile. "Hey!" She was acutely aware of the way his attention had immediately focused on her to the exclusion of the hubbub surrounding them.

Willow looked past Buffy and asked, "What's wrong with Angel?"

Buffy tossed her head. "Beats me." Then, deliberately shutting Willow out, she circled Xander and purred intimately, "Let's dance."

"Uhhhhhokay," Xander stammered, surprised but unresisting. Buffy wrapped her fingers in the front of his soft blue corduroy shirt and tugged him into the center of the dance floor, then raised her arms above her head, swaying her hips suggestively to the beat. Once she had him moving with her, unconsciously matching her rhythm, she pulled his arms around her waist. Xander stared down at her, uncomprehending but captivated, his hands touching her softly at first, then more firmly as his confidence grew. He seemed almost entranced - whether by the slow, hypnotic waves of the music or by the undulation of her hips, she wasn't sure.

When she judged Xander sufficiently enthralled, Buffy turned herself in his arms, putting him behind her. She held Xander's hands locked around her waist as they continued to dance together, enduring the imprint of damp palms on her dress. She kept her eyes downcast for the most part, but she was nonetheless acutely aware of Angel glowering from the sidelines and Willow sitting forlornly by herself. Xander had seemed oblivious to the awkwardness of the situation at first, his mind occupied solely with the incredible, unexpected delight of having Buffy in his arms, but now she sensed him tense, uncomfortable.

She pulled him more firmly against her, skin thrumming with the pressure of Angel and Willow's aggrieved stares. Suddenly, Xander squirmed away, embarrassed, but not before she felt the guilty hard-on beneath his slacks. For a second, she cringed inwardly, embarrassed for him, and shamed by the thought of what she was about to do. Then she turned in Xander's arms again to press up against his chest, her lips almost brushing his. His breath was warm and uneven on her cheeks. "Xander?" she said softly. "Did I ever thank you? For saving my life?"

"No," Xander said frankly, rigid, unable to look away.

Deftly, Buffy disengaged herself from her partner, circled him slowly with predatory intensity, and finally murmured cruelly over his shoulder, "Don't you wish I would?" Leaving him with that thought, she sauntered off the dance floor, wordlessly picking up her purse from Willow's table. On her way to the coatroom, Buffy brushed past Angel, brooding in the shadows, and tried to ignore the sinking feeling in her heart. You did what you had to do.

***

"Buffy!" Cordelia's voice rang out behind her. She stopped short but didn't turn around. But Cordy had never been one to take the subtle hint, or for that matter, the blatant hint. "You're really campaigning for bitch of the year, aren't you?"

SO not her business. Buffy finally turned around with her sweetest smile. "As defending champion, are you nervous?"

Instead of being offended, Cordy smiled. "I can hold my own," she declared matter-of-factly, and began picking her way forward from the shadows, hands on hips. "Y'know, we've never really been close, which is nice because I don't really like you that much-" Buffy could only gaze at her in disbelief "-but you have on occasion saved the world and stuff, so let me do you a favor."

"And this great favor is?" Buffy drawled, at her most sarcastic.

"I'm gonna give you some advice. Get over it."

This was too much, even from Cordelia. "'Scuse me?"

Cordy was only too willing to clarify. "Whatever is causing the Joan Collins 'tude, deal with it. Embrace the pain, spank your inner moppet, whatever. But get over it. Cuz pretty soon, you're not even going to have the loser friends you've got now."

That's the idea, sweetheart. And that goes for you, too. Who died and made you my motivational speaker? "I think it's about time you started minding your own business."

Cordy acknowledged this with a rueful smile. "It's long past."

Buffy turned away. "Nighty-night," she said, flipping up the hood of her coat as she blew that taco stand.

Behind her, Cordy called, "I'll just see if Angel feels like dancing." Buffy didn't bother to turn around.

***

On her way back, dangerously deep in thought, Buffy drifted into an all-too- familiar detour.

When she came to herself, she realized that she had drawn right to the tree that Willow had pointed out the night of her return. The soil below its menacing branches had been ripped asunder, leaving a deep, ragged scar. A deep, ragged, and very empty scar. The Master's remains were gone.

Retreating in stunned horror from the desecrated grave, Buffy fought to catch her breath. The darkness seemed to press in on her like a viscous mass, forcing its way into her mouth and down her throat. Suddenly, she turned to find the Master standing at her shoulder. She flinched, strangling a scream, but just as suddenly, the image was gone, leaving her frantically scanning the empty air. She bolted the rest of the way home.

***

The next morning, Willow and Xander were not waiting to meet her on the front steps as usual. So far, so good. She found them in the student lounge in earnest conversation with Giles, no doubt trying to surmise why she'd behaved like such a bitch the previous night at the Bronze. "-technically dead," her Watcher was saying, seated on a chair, his back to the entrance. Willow and Xander, Buffy couldn't help noting, were seated on the couches in positions eerily akin to those of her recent nightmare. "I don't think she's dealt with that on a conscious level."

At that point, Xander noticed her standing there and reacted visibly, but Giles continued, oblivious, "She's convinced herself that she's invulnerable... for the very reason that she feels-"

Xander interrupted hastily and lamely, "That's a very interesting point about TROUT you just brought up now."

"Trout?" Giles repeated, at a loss.

Buffy stepped forward, stopped beside Giles, and folded her arms, noting Willow's guilty start with a mixture of amusement and regret. If only she could explain why this was so necessary... which would, of course, completely defeat the purpose of it.

Giles recovered admirably. "Trout? Yes. Trout. Is a fish." And then to Buffy, "Good morning. Did you sleep well?"

"Like a rock," Buffy lied, and paused for max emph. "The Master's gone."

Giles greeted this revelation with a polite British frown. "I'm sorry?"

"The Master," she enunciated. "I went by his grave last night, and they have a vacancy."

"Good god," Giles said softly.

Willow asked plaintively, "What would somebody want with Master bones?"

Xander offered, "A trophy, a... horrible conversation piece?"

All very funny, but there was not a doubt in Buffy's mind. "They're gonna bring him back." She turned on Giles, feeling as betrayed as if he had just sprouted fangs and lunged for her jugular himself. "They're gonna bring the Master back to life, and I recall you telling me he was history."

Giles stammered helplessly, "Buffy, I've never heard of a revivification ritual being successful..."

"But you've heard of them?" Then, not troubling to mask her bitterness, "Thanks for the warning."

Willow loyally leapt to his defense. "Buffy, Giles did bury him with-"

Buffy snapped her head around. "Look, this is Slayer stuff, okay, could we just have a little less from the civilians, please?"

Predictably, that spurred Xander to join the fray: "Okay, that's just about enough!"

No doubt things would have gotten ugly-er- if Principal Snyder hadn't happened by at that moment. "I believe some of us have class-" he narrowed his rodentian eyes at his least favorite employee "-and some of us have jobs."

Giles rose hurriedly. "Yes, well, I'll see you all in the library, later. We'll continue this discussion."

"About trout," Willow added unnecessarily on her way out with Xander. Buffy gave Giles one last et-tu-Brute? look and followed them.

***

The prevailing mood was distinctly tense when Buffy joined the others in the library late that afternoon. The conversation died as soon as she entered the room, and they all spent the next two hours in silence except for the occasional scratch of turning pages. She didn't blame them, of course. And it certainly made it easier on her not to have to come up with smartass retorts all the time.

At last Giles's voice rang out triumphantly from the upper level, where he and Xander had been systematically combing through the stacks. "All right, I've got something, it's Latin, so bear with me..." He descended the steps to the main floor, where Buffy perched on the table and Willow sat stiffly in a chair a safe distance away. "To revive the vampire, they need his bones... which they have... and, uh, the blood... this is very unclear... of the person closest to him, someone connected to the vampire."

Duh. "That'd be me," Buffy stated the obvious.

Giles glanced up absently. "Perhaps."

"We were close," Buffy insisted. "We killed each other, it really promotes... togetherness."

Putting that thorny issue aside for the moment, Xander interrupted, "Well, is there anything on where the ceremony might-"

Without warning, the window above his head shattered. Xander ducked automatically as glass rained down around his head; Buffy caught the responsible object, a big grey rock, just as automatically. She turned it over in her hands, puzzled; around it was a piece of paper, secured with a familiar silver bracelet.

"This is Cordelia's," Buffy announced. She unwrapped the note and read it aloud as Xander descended to join them, "Come to the Bronze before it opens, or we make her a meal."

"They're going to cook her dinner?" Xander asked in disbelief, apparently still a bit stunned from the mode of delivery. The others stared at him. Realization dawned. "Oh, pretend I didn't say that."

Willow turned to Buffy. "What do we do?"

"I go to the Bronze and save the day," she answered briskly, her mind already at the scene, estimating numbers, calculating tactics.

"I don't like this," Xander said promptly.

Giles backed him up. "Nor I."

Tough love time once again. "Yeah, well, you guys aren't going."

"What do you mean?" Willow asked blankly.

Didn't they get it? "I can't do it anymore," Buffy told them. "I can't look after the three of you guys while I'm fighting."

Xander looked down, speechless for once, leaving Willow to object, "Well, but what about the rest of the note?"

She was wasting time. "What rest of the note?"

"The part that says, 'P.S., this is a trap!'"

"You'd be playing straight into their hands," Giles agreed.

"I can handle this," Buffy retorted.

"Stop saying that!" Willow looked like she was near tears. "God, what's wrong with you?"

Xander added harshly, "Cordelia may be dead."

She could not afford to back down now. They were weak, fragile, mortal: they would only slow her down or get themselves captured or killed. She alone was the Chosen One. "This is my fight." And Buffy stalked out, grabbing coat and satchel from the main desk on her way.

***

Outside the Bronze, it was quiet. No heat signature, no smell, betrayed the presence of another human being. But Buffy knew she wasn't alone. Yet. She walked a few more steps, then stopped. Without turning, she announced pointedly, "Y'know, being stalked really isn't a big turn-on for girls."

"You need help," Angel stated from the shadows behind her. "Someone to watch your back."

"Sure you don't mean my neck?" Score one for the Buffster.

That got Angel riled enough to show himself, striding around to get in her face: "Why are you ridin' me?"

Honesty lent weight to her deliberate response, "Because I don't trust you." Pause for emphasis. "You're a vampire." Angel's brow furrowed with pain, and his lips parted, but he swallowed whatever protest he had been about to voice. So Buffy pushed even further, her voice oozing sarcasm: "Oh, I'm sorry, is that an offensive term? Should I say 'undead American'?"

Angel still wouldn't give up. "You're gonna have to trust someone. You can't do this alone."

"I trust me," she retorted.

Angel stared at her, into her. "You're not as strong as you think."

That touched a nerve. To cover, Buffy blinked at him and challenged, "Think you can take me?"

"What?"

"Oh come on," Buffy warmed to the idea. "I mean, you must have thought about it. What would happen if it ever came down to a fight, you vampire, me the Slayer, I mean, you must have wondered!" She held his eye, goading him. "Well, why don't we find out?"

"I'm not gonna fight you," Angel replied, but he sounded unsure of himself.

"Come ON." It was her turn to get in his face, hands on hips, as provocative as she knew how to be. "Kick my ass," she enunciated.

Angel started to respond, then visibly controlled himself. She experienced a delicious shiver at that sight, the awareness of the brute force just under the skin of the gentle man before her, before the mask slipped back into place. "Don't you have somewhere to be?"

She recalled herself abruptly. "I do."

"Well, you're wasting time," Angel rasped.

Buffy shook her head warningly. "Stay out of my way." She brushed past him to the entrance.

"Happy to oblige," Angel muttered, just loud enough for her to hear.



Without the usual crush of adolescent patrons, the Bronze was eerily silent but for the sound of suppressed sobs. A dark-haired woman knelt on the floor, shoulders slumped, her back towards them.

Buffy squinted through the gloom, her Spidey sense tingling. "That's not Cordelia." The fashion queen would never have worn that rust-colored leather coat with those pants.

Sure enough, it was a vamp. "Cordelia couldn't make it."

"Where is she?" Buffy demanded.

"I'm not supposed to tell." Make that a vamp with an exceptionally whiny yet self-satisfied voice. Way obnoxious.

"I don't like this," Angel stated from the doorway.

"You don't like what?" Buffy asked. Come on, a hostage situation surrounded by unseen foes, what's not to like?

"There's the bait," Angel nodded towards the grinning vamp. "Where's the hook?"

As if on cue, the pretender rushed Buffy, who flipped her easily and stood over her, stake in hand. "You're right. Why would they send just one?" Buffy waited, head cocked for the sound of a trap's jaws snapping shut. But when none came, the pieces finally snapped into place, and her heart sank. She had seriously fucked up. "Watch her." She thrust the limp vamp into Angel's arms. "Don't kill her unless you have to."

"Buffy?" Angel rocked with the weight of the vamp but held onto her. "What's going on?"

"Be back."

She could not recall ever running so fast.

***

The library had obviously been hit by Hurricane Vampire. Buffy just stood there a moment, fighting the urge to crumple in a self-berating heap. She took in the wreckage of scattered books, broken chairs, and overturned tables. Then, from behind one of them, a body stirred.

"Xander!" She rushed over to help him, but he jerked away from her touch with a snarl of disgust. Buffy struggled to hide her shock and dismay. "What happened?"

"Vampires," he answered. Blood trickled down his face, dripped from his nose. "The ones you could handle yourself."

Not pulling any punches. She wanted to weep, wipe his face, beg his forgiveness... but there were much more important things at hand. "Where are the others?"

Xander shook his head slowly. "I don't know what your problem is... what your issues are... but as of now, I officially don't care." Xander swallowed with effort. He was breathing hard, whether from nausea or emotion she wasn't sure. "If you'd worked with us for five seconds, you could have stopped this."

Unable to face his condemnation on top of her own, Buffy turned her back, fighting to regroup. "W-w-we just have to think... where they've taken them."

"If they hurt Willow," Xander promised, "I'll kill you."

Suddenly a thought occurred to Buffy. She spun around: "Why did they take them and not you?"

Xander frowned, trying to remember. "Giles said the ritual was, um... they needed people who were close to the Master. Physically close, when he, uh-"

Buffy finished for him, "The ones who were with the Master when he died."

Xander ticked them off: "Giles. Willow. Cordelia-"

"Miss Calendar."

"Odds are they've got a complete set by now," Xander pointed out.

Buffy agreed. "We need to find out where."

"How?"

***

Xander followed Buffy back to the Bronze without any protest and only one pause to vomit. Angel was still restraining the vamp, although they both looked a little the worse for wear. Buffy increased the disheveled look by throwing their prisoner onto the floor as Angel and Xander looked on with carefully veiled expressions.

"One more time," Buffy growled, standing over her. "Where are they?"

The vamp smirked at her. "You're too late. Your friends are dead."

Buffy hauled her roughly up by the throat. "Tell me where they are!"

"What are you going to do? Kill me?" the vamp snickered.

"As a matter of fact-" Buffy slammed her onto a convenient pool table "- yes." She yanked the cross from around her own neck, snapping the chain, and caught the soft, sharp intake of breath from Angel. "But since I'm not going to kill you anytime soon, the question becomes... how are we going to pass the time 'til then?" With a sudden movement, she dropped the cross into the vamp's mouth and clamped it shut as wisps of smoke began to rise. Xander and Angel shifted uncomfortably behind her but voiced no protest as she held it there a moment, the vamp wheezing and writhing, her eyes rolling back in her skull in agony. At last Buffy withdrew the cross and dangled it tauntingly above her victim. "So. One more time."

***

Buffy, Angel, and Xander entered the abandoned warehouse cautiously, scoping the place out. There were no sentries posted - very sloppy. A small group of vampires, only about half a dozen, stood in a semi-circle around a table on which lay a polished skeleton. The bones approximated human, but radiated a malice that wreathed them like a miasma. An African-American vamp commanded the others' attention, pontificating about restoring the master to life to bring about a new era, yadda yadda yadda. At his side was the Anointed One, a small boy whose pasty face barely cleared the edge of the table. To the side, Buffy could make out the four victims dangling headfirst, apparently unconscious but hopefully alive.

"Buffy! Buffy!" Xander hissed from behind her. "We gotta do something now!"

Buffy had taken stock and formulated a plan. "You two get the others out of here."

"We need you to distract the vampires," Angel pointed out unnecessarily.

Already on it. "Right."

Xander asked, "What are you going to do?"

Buffy answered matter-of-factly, "I'm going to kill 'em all." She pushed off towards the bat pack. "That oughta distract them."

Preacher Vamp was still yapping, now fingering a wicked-looking ceremonial knife. "For the old one," he intoned. "For his pain. For the dark."

"For the dark," chorused his demonic congregation.

A little slow on the uptake, a long-haired vamp echoed, "For the-" He was rudely interrupted by Buffy's stake from behind. When the dust cleared, she found herself facing the remaining vamps, the Master's skeleton - too close for comfort - on the table between them. The Preacher roared as he recognized her, and all hell broke loose.

The Preacher hustled the Anointed One into the shadows, but the three remaining vampires all rushed Buffy at once. She was able to keep them busy for a while, allowing Angel and Xander time to locate the winch to haul their friends away from the sacrificial altar. But when the Preacher returned, he got wise to them at once. "The sacrifices!" He bellowed, "Stop them!" A burly vamp in a yellow jacket that did nothing for his undead complexion obediently broke away from the pack harassing Buffy and lumbered towards her companions.

Before she could follow, a huge vamp in a really tacky plaid shirt got past her guard and grabbed her. While he held her from behind, Buffy used him as leverage to lash out with her legs at the last vamp, a girl in a faded green coat, praying that he wouldn't have the sense to break her neck. The kicks sent the girl vamp spinning in a satisfying way, but unfortunately weren't very likely to kill her. Buffy caught a glimpse of the Preacher dashing out of the room, doubtless for reinforcements, either more bodies or better weapons.

Plaid vamp was beginning to cramp her style. Buffy freed herself with a fist to the face and a half twist, but realized her mistake when Plaid abandoned her and began moving in on her friends. Disengaging herself from Green Girl, she launched into a spectacular flying leap to intercept Plaid and felled him by slamming a crate over his head. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Angel and Xander lowering their friends' bodies to the floor - and the vamp in yellow almost upon them. Everything was happening so quickly. Before she could do anything to help, Green Girl blindsided her, knocking her to the ground.

In desperation, Angel abruptly transformed into his game face and rose to meet the oncoming vamp. After a brief tussle, Buffy managed to stake the girl vamp who was pinning her to the ground and leaped back to her feet. Angel and his vamp were still struggling fiercely with each other when all of a sudden, the dry-rotted floorboards gave way. Buffy could only watch helplessly as they plunged through, howling, still intertwined in a grotesque parody of an embrace.

The burly vamp in the plaid shirt had finally recovered enough to make another grab for her. Unable to do anything about Angel, trapped below their feet, Buffy took out her frustrations on the vamp by beating the crap out of him. He was completely thrown by her renewed attack; instead of fighting back effectively, the big baby was cowering and trying to shield himself from the flurry of vicious blows that she leveled at his face and chest. A final spinning kick sent him flying into a stack of boxes.

Abruptly, Preacher Vamp reappeared, roaring, "Enough!" Buffy spun to face him, out of breath but triumphant.

"Your day is done, girl." He advanced on her with a fanatical grin, brandishing an enormous hammer. "I'll grind you into a sticky paste - and hear you beg before I smash in your face."

"So..." Buffy said in her best wiseass voice, "are you gonna kill me or are we just making small talk?"

The Preacher howled and rushed her from the right as Plaid Vamp lunged towards her from the left. Without time to think, Buffy grabbed a handy wooden pole topped with a torch, broke it off near the ground, and spun it so that it extended horizontally. It caught both her attackers at once - staking Plaid Vamp neatly through the heart and lighting the Preacher spectacularly on fire. The hammer fell harmlessly to the floor as he burned to ashes.

She had won. Shaken, she dropped the pole on the floor. She looked around. All of the vampires were dead except for the Anointed One, who was nowhere to be seen. Her friends were all there, still alive, pale and shaken but safe.

"It's over," Willow said softly from the catwalk overhead.

Xander's voice, quiet, confident: "No, it's not."

The Master's bones still shone malignantly from the table in front of Buffy, the powerful skull mocking her with its empty orbits, its cruelly curved eyeteeth. It's not enough. It will never be enough. Buffy swallowed, crouched down, picked up the abandoned hammer, tested its weight. She stepped slowly forward, breathing hard, feeling the rage and terror she had been incubating all summer start to swell and spill forth.

With a grunt of effort, she swung the weapon over her shoulder to crush the grinning skull. It shattered gratifyingly into half a dozen pieces that shot off the table in all directions.

She could feel her face twisting painfully as though she might cry, but she was unable to utter a sound. There was absolute silence except for the crack of dry bones splintering under her blows. Harder, faster, every swing releasing more of the pressure that had been building up inside her.

She stood there and ground the Master into dust, destroying the remnants of his power, obliterating his memory. The ribcage, then the pelvis, got pounded into powder. And then, abruptly, that was all. It was over.

All of the tension had drained out of her. Buffy lowered the hammer and covered her face with her hand. Angel came softly up behind her and put a gentle hand on her shoulder.

His tentative but unreproachful touch caused something brittle to snap inside of her; Buffy dropped the hammer to the ground and started to sob. She turned, half-falling against Angel as her wobbly knees gave way, and hid her face against his chest as she wept, each breath a sharp pain that was also somehow a relief. Angel put his arms around her, cool and firm against her back, and rocked her comfortingly from side to side.

They stayed that way for a long time, her friends maintaining an awed silence.

Eventually, Buffy and Angel walked Jenny and Giles back to the school, then Xander and Willow back to their homes, still without a word. At last they arrived at Buffy's house, which was dark and quiet, her mom apparently having given up the watch for her truant daughter and repaired to bed. Still feeling a little shaky in the aftermath of the battle, Buffy allowed Angel to help her up to her bedroom window. He looked up at her with such endearing concern that she bent down and pressed her lips gently to his hand. Then, at last, she permitted herself the single pleasure that had most occupied her mind for the entire long, dry summer.

She went inside and took a bath.



THE END.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: While rewatching episodes from the first two seasons recently, I was extremely impressed by the early foreshadowing both of Faith, Buffy's dark twin, and of the suspicious loner we see in "The Wish." It also struck me that Buffy's behavior in "When She Was Bad" was not just the general antisocial raving of a PTSD victim; there was method to her madness. Buffy wasn't talking back to her parents or pushing down old ladies in the street, she was systematically alienating all of her allies in Sunnydale.

I decided that I wanted to delve more deeply into Giles' halting explanation that Buffy hadn't really come to terms with her death at the hands of the Master at the end of the previous season; Part 1 of this story was the result. But I realized (with a little help from my friends) that it might be more meaningful if the themes were continued in a reworking of the events that had inspired me to develop them in the first place, so I went on to transcribe "When She Was Bad" as well.

Most of the dialogue and actions in Parts 2 & 3 thus can be credited to Joss Whedon. However, the final two paragraphs, attempts to interpret characters' expressions and Buffy's thought processes during the episode, and any inaccuracies in transcription are my own (I did not make use of any previously published transcripts or novelizations).

Thank you so much for reading. Please share your thoughts with me at berenbaum@hotmail.com. All of my fanfiction can be found at http://www.geocities.com/bberenbaum.