Recommended listening:

"Red Right Hand" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

"All My Favorite People" by Over the Rhine

"It Makes No Difference" by My Morning Jacket

The Valley of the Shadow of Death


Michael Walker

Kenneth Singleton zipped up his jacket. The winter nights got cold this far north in California. No one had told him that when he'd moved eight years ago. Granted, it was a lot warmer than Ohio, but when the wind cut through like tonight, it made a man grateful for well-insulated coat. The fluorescent-yellow reflective strips crackled as he moved his arms. He went down the five concrete steps and crossed the rail yard. When he reached the edge of the yard lighting, he clicked on his MagLite. He felt the fool, stumbling around out here in the dark on loose gravel, all because somebody on the 2:30 southbound thought they saw something on the side of the track. 'Pretty big' was the description. Singleton snorted. Probably a trash bag, caught on spike or a switch. Let those things get flapping around in the dark, they could spook you pretty good when you saw them out of the corner of your eye. That's what he was going to find, and he'd groan and bitch about it, but it had to be checked out.

His radio crackled to life. "Hey, Ken where you at? You there yet?"

He keyed his transmitter. "Hold your horses. It's still a ways."

"They said it was before the eastbound switch, so you should be coming up on it pretty soon. Unless you're moving even slower than usual."

"Screw you," Singleton replied. "Twenty-two months till retirement."

"Not that you're counting."

"That's right, not that I'm counting." Singleton laughed as he played his flashlight beam along the ground. "Hey, I think I see whatever it is. Call you back when I got it." He stopped and looked at the shape, a dark bulk against the night and the oil-stained gravel. He touched his mic. "Looks like we got somebody sleeping one off. I'll move 'em along." He walked forward, his approach noisy over the gravel. Jeez, how drunk was this guy? Didn't even move. Singleton played his flashlight over the body as he drew nearer. His mouth turned down in a frown as he grabbed the radio.

"Dispatch, we need EMTs out here immediately! Do you read me? Get an ambulance out here right now!"

The EMT bumped the gurney against the bumper to collapse the legs. The stretched slid smoothly into the ambulance and locked into place. He clambered up into the vehicle. The vehicle rolled forward, red and yellow light flashing. He picked up the radio.

"Sunnydale Medical, this is unit two-two-three. We are inbound with a white male, age approximately eighteen to twenty-two. He appears to have a broken radius and ulna, blunt force trauma judging from the large hematoma in the upper left quadrant of the back. His left leg is injured, extent unknown, but I'm guessing tears of the anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate, and medial collateral ligaments with possible rupture of the patellar tendon. Subject is semi-conscious and may have suffered some form of head trauma. ETA is ten minutes."

As the ambulance turned onto the surface street the driver flicked on the siren.

Willow Rosenberg lay flat on her back. Her eyes rolled back and forth like someone speed-reading, but there was nothing written on her ceiling. Her arms and legs trembled; her body arched slightly beneath the covers. Suddenly she gasped and fell back, limp. She blinked and moved her arms and legs. Satisfied that she controlled her limbs, she swung her feet over the side of her bed and sat there, head in her hands.

The ER doctor snapped the X-rays into the light box and flipped the switch. "Oh, wow," he said. "Look at that knee." He turned to the nurse. "Get this guy at the top of the list for an ortho consult ASAP." He moved to the next set of pictures. "Both bones broken, buuuuut pretty cleanly. Huh, look at that. Looks like it's the second time he's broken this arm. We'll cast that Is he out of the MRI yet? Any neuro damage? Okay, then, let's cast the arm, drain the hematoma and clean and dress the various surface lacerations and abrasions." He turned off the light. "The knee gets checked tomorrow—check that, later this morning—and a neurologist takes a second look at the MRI, see what kind of eggs got scrambled." He blew out a breath. "What did this guy do, tangle with a train? What? Well, I feel like a jerk."

Cordelia Chase rolled over on her back and looked up at the ceiling. One arm lay on her stomach; the other was thrown across her forehead. The trees on the lawn swayed in the wind, their branches painting a moving pattern as they passed through the beams of the security lights. She lay there, no possibility of sleep, listening to the sounds of the house and her own breathing as it came in short hitches and gasps.

"Motherfucker!" Mr. Trick screamed. "Motherfucker!"

Delilah rushed into the office. He turned on her, eyes yellow and forehead ridged. "Get out!" he shouted. "Get out!" Delilah complied immediately, carrying only a brief glimpse of an overturned chair and a smashed desk lamp. Two of the security staff met her in the hallway. She held up a hand and shook her head. The three vampires stood in the hall, flinching at the sounds of breakage and swearing. They stood there for a long time, until at last the sounds slowed and faded. Delilah shifted nervously from one foot to the other.

The door was flung open and Trick stepped out, straightening his tie. "Get that cleaned up," he said as he stalked past her, "and order replacements for everything." Flustered, Delilah nodded and hurried into the office.

She stopped short, unaware of the two vampires bumping into her. She simply stood and stared open-mouthed at the office.

The furniture had been reduced to sticks and splinters. Lighting fixtures hung from wires, the computer smashed and sparking, holes in the drywall. Her eyes took it in and she turned slowly to the others.

"Get some people down here right now," she said in a shaky voice. "Fix this quick and fix it right." They hurried away to do as she commanded. Delilah turned back to survey the wreckage. A tight little knot formed in the pit of her stomach.

Buffy fought her way to wakefulness like a non-swimmer trying to breach the surface—slowly and with a great deal of thrashing. With a great, gasping heave she sat up in bed. She looked around wildly, her gaze falling on her mother. Joyce stood in the doorway, leaning against the jamb.

"Mom…" she said in a small voice.

Joyce nodded. "I know. Willow told me."

Buffy's head dropped to her knees. "Mom, what'll I do?"

Joyce crossed the room and knelt beside her daughter's bed. "Buffy, listen to me. Listen to me like you've never listened before." The Slayer turned her head until one eye stared at her mother. Joyce placed a gentle hand on Buffy's head and continued. "This is not your fault."

"Mom, I-"

"Hush." Joyce smiled. "That's probably not good parenting, but I'm not going to listen to you blame yourself. What Faith did isn't your fault."

"But there are things you don't-"

"I know that Faith's Watcher died. I know that you were involved. I know it was terrible, but I also know that it's been eating you up inside. And I know Faith is angry, but she's not angry at you."

A bitter smile touched the visible corner of Buffy's mouth. "I was pretty much the direct object last night. She was very clear about it. To the point of pain."

Joyce shook her head. "I doubt if she even realizes it. If you could ask her, she'd say she was mad at you, but it wouldn't be true. She's throwing it at you because it's too painful to admit what she's really angry about."

Buffy's head came up. "Then what?"

Joyce patted her daughter's arm. "I think for the first time Faith realizes how awful her old life was. Her parents failed her, everything failed her. Before she became a Slayer, she didn't know that. It was just her life, but now… now she's seen that not everyone is alone and scared and unloved. Worse, she didn't just see it from the outside. She experienced it with Lindsay, and even, I think, with you." Joyce shook her head. "Losing Lindsay frightens her, because to Faith, it means she's doomed to go back to that old life, and she doesn't want that. But it's too hard for her to ask for help, or she doesn't have the skills to recognize that, so she falls back on what she always had. Anger." Joyce smiled a crooked smile as she rubbed Buffy's arm.

"Mom, that was really… deep," Buffy said. "When did you start channeling Sigmund Freud?"

Joyce took a deep breath. "Oh, I don't have to do that. Do you realize how much I blamed Mr. Giles when you ran away? How I combed over our relationship looking for the mistake I'd made that caused this? How much I wanted to accuse Xander or Willow of being bad influences?"

Buffy's eyes widened. "Mom, I-"

Joyce held up her hand. "I know. And I knew it then, but it was just too hard to live with the idea that my daughter was gone for no good reason. So I invented reasons until I finally had to admit that it had just happened. And that was the hardest thing of all, because if I couldn't find the cause, then I couldn't fix it." Joyce's eyes gleamed. "Faith doesn't know how to fix it, so she's doing what seems like the next best thing to her. She's breaking it." She stood up. "Now, breakfast?"

Buffy's eyes widened in astonishment. "What?"

"You can't go to school on an empty stomach."

"Mom, I can't even think about-"

"Yes, you can." The Slayer's mother cut her off in mid-sentence. "You can't lie in bed and wish it all away. I spent three-" Joyce's voice caught; she swallowed and began again—"three months scared and worried out of my mind about you. The worst days were the ones where I just sat on the couch and came up with horrible story after horrible story of what might have happened to you. What happened last night was bad, but it's not impossible to bear. Xander's not the first boy to cheat on his girlfriend. Cordelia's not the first girl to have her heart broken. Faith's not the first girl to sleep with another girl's boyfriend. I understand that there's a… subtext to all this for you, but it's still what it is. And you're going to school. Because you need to, and because my daughter, Buffy Anne Summers, does not run away from anything. Not anymore."

The Slayer bolted from the bed and grabbed her mother in a fierce hug. "I love you, Mom."

"And I love you too. Now, get dressed while I get breakfast."