Summary: Take Buffy Summers and cultivate the more egomaniacal tendencies she was displaying in Season Seven, then drop her into Season Eight. Because that only makes sense, right? We don't see some big emotional growth spurt in between the seasons. Joss just says 'you're all better now' and 'poof' like magic we have a more grounded character in Season Eight. I didn't like that, so I made snarky, sulky, separatist, socially scary Buffy come to life and I gave her a toy…one that made sense to me.

Author's Note: For those of you that are new to my worlds, Thirteen Steps was an early attempt of mine to write Buffyverse fiction. It was pretty immature, but there was a certain charm. The setting is Season Eight.

These pieces have been entirely reworked. They bear some similarities to my previous offerings under the same titles, but make no mistake, this is all new stuff with a new plot. I attempt to work around a few of the plot flaws and retcon in Joss Whedon's world and create something quasi-original and interesting.

The first truly striking difference you'll notice is that the Buffy Summers in my world rides. I did this because it made sense to me. And because it was a combination of things I was very familiar with. They went together well.

Riding a sportbike has much in common with dancing. It's more of a full body experience than driving a car. Where you put your weight matters. I could see the combination of being grounded miles away from civilization and the influence of the Isle of Man TT filtering through into Buffy's life.

Rating: FRT: Contains Mature Themes: Parental Supervision Suggested. Mild expletive use and sexual innuendo.

Word Count: 13,285.

Beta Reader: Howard Russell.

Pairing: Hints of Buffy/Willow, but this is way, way, way pre-slash. At this point in the story they're doing well to act like friends.

Disclaimer: The characters I portray are, for the most part, the intellectual property of other people and corporate entities with more money than God, but less than Bill Gates. I simply put them under a light and watch them grow. Of course, more often than not, being the juvenile delinquent I am, that light is focused by a magnifying glass and what really grows are smoke and embers.

Dedication: It's a really special thing when you find someone that believes in you. I've been blessed with a few. My friend De is one such a person. Rewriting this piece is a tiny token of gratitude. The Thirteen Steps series is still lists among her favorites. God knows why. Giving her something fresh and new, but at the same time old and familiar was the least I could do.


The Outsider


Dammit!

I pull out the drawer of my nightstand and drop it on the bed, leaning over to rifle through the contents for the tenth time tonight. It's not here. This is where it should be.

Dammit!

Stooping, I open the cabinet underneath in hopes the little blue bastard slipped over the back of the drawer and fell. No such luck.

Dammit!

I've looked through everything in this stupid room twice. This is so not fair!

Inspiration hits and I drop to the floor. Maybe it's under the bed?

But no

All I find is darkness and a few dust bunnies. I should really clean under here.

Not now.

Later.

Y'know…it'd be just peachy if one part of my life would normal up. But do I ever get normal?

Pretty much never.

I tried like hell to force normalcy for awhile. It was a complete waste of time. The minute something enters my world, it just goes all 'Twilight Zone.' Or worse 'Tales from the Crypt.'

I guess it's just me. It's not like there's tons of other working theories. I'm the one constant. And the weirdness definitely sticks…like stink on a Britney Spears perfume ad.

I had to move to Scotland to get that. In Sunnydale it was simple enough to blame it on the Hellmouth. We're sorta Hellmouthless in musty ol'. Yet here I am and the creature feature…it just keeps playing, right along with all the associated hijinks.

But not just…

No, we're actually dumb enough go looking for it. Like this is how I want to spend my life.

Thing is, I don't get a choice. Or if we voted, I missed it.

That's another theme I'm a little sick of.

It's funny, when I turned my home into a great big, gaping pit, I sorta saw an end. That plan…

I was so totally snowed.

Silly me!

I should so have a mascot, or some sort of announcer. That little Crypt Keeper guy would be pretty cool. I could have him follow me around and read 'off-camera' commentary, announcing the current bad. It's not like things could get much more bizarre. Considering the normal level of weird, he'd go totally unnoticed. And I'd have a clue what to expect.

But I guess that's Xander's job. He's lots less creeptastic than that Serling guy…or even the spooky little Muppet.

So, what kind of moron brands a sunrise on his chest? Or lets himself get branded?

Maybe that was a sunset?

Sunset?

Setting sun…?

Oh! The Chemical Brothers. I could go for—

Nah. That song has some really weird harmonics that are pretty hard to get past. Like I'm not already…

I'd hit something.

I rise to survey the wreck that is my room. All the junk from my closet's now on my couch. Or pretty much all of it. There's not really a piece of furniture that's not buried in the debris that is me…or the remnants of my screwy, twisted, messed up life.

It looks like hurricane Buffy blew through, gale force winds and all. She's one of the more destructive forces I know. She has this gift for driving people away and laying waste to…umm—well, rooms and pretty much anything else in her path.

I used to be so neat—kinda compulsively so. But you have to care for that.

And I really don't.

I wish I could.

Military idiots, that's what kind. Boy, that sounds promising. Like we don't already have enough—

I just don't see why when something like this happens we have to instantly snap to some huge conspiracy. Why can't it be a tiny conspiracy just this once?

Why can't this be a couple wigged fanboys with too much time on their hands and a soldering iron? They went off their meds or took too many and listened to the ultra-rare, super duper, double top secret dub of Setting Sun 'Nails on a Chalkboard'—the one that's rumored to make cats howl too—remixed for but never released with the wildly unsuccessful, largely ignored, completely unknown indie film The Devil Ate My Underpants. It liquefied their brains and badness ensued.

Yeah. That makes perfect sense. All better. Now I can relax.

Or not.

In the bed, maybe?

'Kay, so…not exactly a fortune cookie, but…

That's another thing I don't get. Why can't a song just be a song? Even if it's a really good song, why do I need a dozen different copies of it? Why not just the one and call it—?

When I grab the covers by the bottom and rip them down, the drawer goes flying.

Oops!

Uh…

Like everything else that went badly. Oh well…

I toss my pillows aside.

Nope. Not in the bed. No cookies for me.

It's official. My room's a total disaster and I'm no closer to…

Y'know…it'd be nice to have a little human contact that didn't involve hitting or kicking. That's all I've got. I train with the girls, or slay stuff. There's nothing else.

Slowly turning, I survey the wreckage. It's not like I'm asking for much. Last I checked I wasn't totally trollsome. Actually, I'm pretty good at that stuff…

Or I was before Famine, Petulance and Death.

Trouble is…

I'm trapped here where everyone sees me as this thing—this leader thing, 'General Buffy.'

Yup, that's me.

My gaze drifts over the picture above my desk. I've looked at it so much that, even after I stop looking, I still see it. I have every detail memorized. No idea why, but it grabs my attention. I return to it and fixate, staring intently into our smiling faces.

The Scoobies.

We're not that anymore. What we are is way different. We're each an island unto ourselves.

How was I happy?

Actually, that was the last time, one last genuine smile.

It was also the last time I saw my best friend. The person I was supposed to share this little shindig with. I don't even know where she is. She dropped off the map. I guess I want too much. She has Ken to share stuff with. That's what's right. I shouldn't expect her to keep hanging on.

My friends all went 'poof.' And now all I have is 'yes, ma'am,' 'no, ma'am' and other assorted, equally scary shit…

Since when did I become ma'am-worthy? I mean, I get the 'store clerk' thing. They're sorta supposed to call you 'ma'am.' But everyone calls me 'ma'am' now. I just don't get it. It's like I suddenly became…

But I suppose that's just another symptom of the same disease.

If I show anything else—another face, if I sink to their level, I blow that…along with all their ridiculous expectations. So I'm pretty much stuck and fu…

Eh…

Or not…

That's a big part of the problem.

I chuckle.

It's not a happy sound. Bitter and cynical are way more like it. The sound actually makes me shiver. It's pretty bad when you can make yourself shiver with a laugh.

Only twenty-four and already type-cast. There's no one outside this life: the slaying gig. If there was, I might have some hope.

Yeah…I'm pretty much hopeless.

I don't get to be human. I've been railroaded into a sitch where I'm an icon. I'm about as real to these people as a statue.

Maybe that's it.

I replace myself with a statue. She…er, uh…it could do the job. Then I could run off and get a real life.

Uh, yeah…it's not like that's a new trick. Too bad that stupid robot got scraped.

I wonder whether they'd notice. Maybe, but it might take them a while.

They're not the brightest crayons in the box.

I should chill. That wasn't nice.

Dawn could be right. Running away might just be my best trick. It's certainly easier than dealing.

And on that cheery note, it's time to hit the big red button.

I'd have bailed six months ago without one. Just me, a backpack and the road. That idea still holds a certain appeal. I doubt 'responsible for me and me alone' ever will. Lose its appeal, that is…

Dodging piles of junk, I cross the room and grab my jacket off the back of the desk chair. When I snatch up my helmet and start for the door, a timid peck of a knock freezes me dead in my tracks. I glance around at my trash heap one more time.

It's probably one of the girls wanting…

Oh, who knows?

Half of them look at me like they're star-struck, moon-eyed cattle.

Instead of following my first impulse—bursting through the door and pushing past whoever's bent on bothering me—I go and answer it.

Stupid me.

The 'Island of Xander' greets me, looking concerned.

Shit!

I knew it! I should've followed my instincts! They're usually right…like a little too disturbingly so in a self-preservationy sense.

I wipe the surprise off my face and give him a good, solid, 'what the hell do you want' glower.

Social call?

Not likely. That'd actually be friendly.

He hasn't visited on anything unofficial in…

I don't even remember.

You can pretty much bet this is a 'job related' thing too and I'm so not in the mood. If they expect me to slay something else, I may just start with him.

He comes out of the gates sheepish. "We should, uh…" circling the drain "…er…I-I'd like to talk, umm…that is if you're…uh…" and finally trailing off to total mush after he gets a good look at what's left of my room.

That's right, Xander…

I don't give him an inch. He doesn't deserve it. If I still have a friend left in this hell, it's him, but… "Not so much," I mutter. It's a solid footnote to the essay.

Hints never come easy to Xander. Poor guy's just missing the interpreter. Somehow, out of that monosyllabic scrap of nothing, he sees an invite. And that was about as uninvitey as I get. But brave or clueless, he pushes past me, picking his way across the fallout to sit on the one piece of furniture not consumed by my quest, the desk chair. As he moves, I follow him with my eyes, putting on my best glare, the one I reserve for things that are gonna fertilize the roses.

Totally oblivious…

Speaking of bright crayons, Xander's pretty much burnt umber, raw sienna, or one of those other equally drab, totally neglected shades. The ones we never used. They'd be all nice and pointy while the yellow, corn flower and carnation pink were nubs.

Well, I can't exactly slay him for being burnt umber.

After setting my helmet at my feet, I slip on my jacket, hoping he'll take a clue. No such luck. With all the savvy of a blind person at a silent film, he mumbles, "What's up, Buff?"

That's it! Burnt umber or not, he's gonna die.

I stare at him in disbelief from my place by the door and grumble, "What do you mean, 'what's up'? I thought you had something when you said 'we should talk'."

And what possesses me—why I stay—again, I'm as freaking clueless as he is. I should really turn and walk away. It'd be so much safer. Am I really that hard up for company, companionship, commiseration, or what-the-hell-ever?

Maybe.

He doesn't see me as the second coming and that's a step up from my usual.

In spite of myself, I sigh.

Finally firming up, he lifts his hands, gesturing surrender. He offers in a weak voice, "I'm just worried about you, 'kay?" There's something almost pitying about his tone. It makes my skin crawl.

Jeez…

I suppress yet another urge to bolt. That'd be the smart thing. But since when do I…?

He motions to the bed.

We'll assume he means well and look on the bright side. It'll be almost like old times, something a little nostalgic.

Yeah, uh…

And could I sound more deluded?

I close the door, cross the room and sit on my bed, placing my helmet next to me. I may need it. You just never know. Besides, it makes a functional armrest. Bailing would still be the best plan. Instead, the 'stupid' streak holds and I get comfy, putting my armrest to use.

This ends when he gives me actual pity. I'll take his head off. I could use a new candleholder. Xander's skull would make a good one.

Expectant looks are all I have. This is his show. If it does anything besides spiral, that'll all be on him.

"It's just…" he begins lamely.

And we start with the swirl action. I sigh, this time sounding miffed.

Taking a deep breath, he summons a little resolve and tries again. "It's just that you've been—well, you haven't been around. And when you have…" He clears his throat. Total nervous tic, but I give him the benefit of the doubt. "I'm worried, okay? Is there something I can do?"

Your benefit period just expired.

It's a bit late to make with the grand gestures. Maybe six months ago when I could still smile without feeling like a total hypocrite, but now?

Uh…

"Nothing," I mutter. It's all I've got, really. My home's gone. My family…uh, well, there's Dawn, but jeez is she ever a freakishly economy-sized mess. My friends…

This is beginning to look a lot like that one kid's science fair project. I think we were in eighth grade. Who knew a sterilized jar full of beans could explode? It was just plain gross. Class became an outdoor thing that day.

In keeping, it might be time for this class to move outside.

Forgetting himself, Xander whispers under his breath, "I knew this wouldn't be eas—" His voice fails when I narrow my eyes. Could be he's forgetting me. Hearing's not one of my issues. There are tons of others, but…

My glare's back and I didn't even put it there. It just happened.

His IQ climbs twenty points, or so it seems. He drops his attention to the clothes strewn all over the floor by my bed.

I say, "If this isn't easy, whose fault is that?" It's a warning. One that's not really necessary.

He finds something interesting to stare at. No clue what. My luck, it's probably one of my few remaining friends. Go figure, they're all made of plastic and metal. There's no substance. No troublesome personalities to cope with.

"It's just you've been really closed off," he mumbles, "I've been sorta worried that something's up—something bigger."

"Look, Xander, I appreciate the effort," I reply. Then I think better of the platitude and amend, "No, actually I don't. What I'd appreciate is being left alone. Face it, you're late. Nothing new."

His attention snaps to me. He gives me an incredulous glare and grumbles, "Late? How can you be…?" Lucky for him, his voice peters out again. That might've been the proverbial straw.

But I can't resist. I need him to finish. Venomously, I encourage him. "How can I be what?"

Throwing down might be just what the doctor ordered. Screaming at someone—someone who desperately deserves it—might just save Giles thousands in therapist bills.

Like I give a shit.

Of course, there are the other bills to consider. I wonder what it costs to set a broken nose. We may just find out.

Magically, he finds his voice. "How can you be so dense?" It's a beautiful thing when Xander gets brave. Y'know all hope's pretty much gone. He has to be 'back against the fence' screwed to be this bold.

Nothing left to lose.

I raise an eyebrow. If I were standing, my hand would be on my hip. I'm half tempted to put it there anyway, but I'd just look dumb. "Dense?" It's the question of the minute.

All fire and brimstone, he retorts, "Yeah…dense. You heard me."

I giggle. I can't help it. He's like one of those yappy little dogs. Somewhere inside, he knows he's playing with something that might just get him squished. He should be pissing himself. Thankfully, at least for my poor chair, he stands his ground.

I can kinda respect that.

Not hard to predict, the giggle isn't helpful.

He gains steam, working toward a full rant. "How can you—?" an exasperated gasp slips out "—you—" he rubs his cheek "—you're the one who shut us out!" His hand drops to his lap.

It's my turn for incredulous. But somewhere in the back of my mind there's this annoying nag: He's got a point. Dammit! So not helpful. It just makes me madder.

I put the impassive mask back on. But it's too late. He sees my tell and reacts. Almost eerily calm, he remarks, "You started building your own personal 'Fortress of Solitude' back in Sunnydale. You do remember that, right?" Pausing, he examines me for signs of stress. There's lots of stress, but I don't give him that.

"I don't need to explain, do I? You get it," he murmurs, scruffling his five o'clock shadow thoughtfully. "I bet you feel abandoned, don't you? That's a natural reaction." As the study continues, I start to feel like a particularly interesting exhibit. His eyes narrow before he adds the real gem. "But you don't get to feel abandoned, Buffy. Not since you pushed us away."

It's insult to injury time. I spring off the bed, helmet in hand. I always thought this thing would make a good cudgel. Never tried it. Might just be time.

The distance separating us evaporates before he can flinch. Locking eyes with him, I reach across and collect another little metal friend, my iPod. I can't forget my iPod. It's been better to me than he has. Still glaring, I put the earbuds in and turn it on before I pocket it.

Music.

I don't even care what music.

I whisper, "If it makes you feel any better, you can blame me." My voice is a little shocking, even to me. Broken, raspy and not quite right, it's almost tearful. I couldn't find tears now if I tried. It sure does a number on Xander. He looks like I feel…only more…

He flinches when I reach across him. All I do is set my helmet down and collect a hair tie from a small glass dish. I put my hair back, remarking, "I'm used to it." I grab my helmet and give him some space. "While you're working on that careful examination of the past, you might want to remember that in nearly a year, this is the first time you've stopped by just to visit."

I'm so out of here.

I turn my back on him and repeat, "Visit?" Transformed again, my voice sounds just above the level of the music, low and dangerous—more of a hiss than anything else. A cold snicker serves as perverse punctuation.

As I start for the door, he attempts to acquit himself. "This place didn't become livable on its own…" He falls flat when halfway to the door, I turn on heel.

That does it.

I close the gap between us again, muttering, "You can keep your excuses, Xander. I have about as much use for them as—" He can fill in the blank. It's not like there'll be a test.

His expression silently pleads for me to leave. Funny, that's what I've been trying to do.

I catch a piece of the song I've been ignoring. 'What'll it take to get it through to you, precious?' A humorless grin tugs at the corners of my mouth. I so don't need the help. 'I'm over this. Why do you wanna throw it away like this?' And that's about enough of that. 'Such a mess. Why would I want to…?' You really wouldn't.

I reach into my coat and skip forward.

Music: this time a nice, commentary-free instrumental.

Better.

Sadly, I think the thing that made us friends was swallowed along with our home.

But really, I've always sorta thought he blamed me for Anya's death.

That'd make two of us.

And it'd explain a lot.

All of this shit's my fault, even if all I'm doing is reacting. Violence and death just follow me around like a shadow. Any friends that step into my shadow are eventually doomed to lose an eye, or worse.

So, if I'm a little standoffish…

Boy, I sound conflicted.

I want companionship. I need it. I even crave it. But it scares the hell out of me because the people I love always get hurt.

Whatever…it's better for them if they go away. I'd remove myself from the picture if I could, but there's this little issue of the epic mess I made out of a few thousand girls' lives.

Right or wrong, guilty or innocent, friend or not, it doesn't matter. He's still gonna pay.

After switching my helmet to my left hand, I reach down and grab his lapels. We might be getting to the part where he clues up and gets it figured that he's a little dog. I should put him somewhere where he can't pee on anything important.

Important?

There's no such thing.

Slowly, I drag him to his feet. He expects me to stop. I can see it in his eyes. I have a better plan. I raise my hand to eyelevel. His feet leave the ground. He's totally freaked and asking me to stop. I could give a crap.

Well, that's totally untrue, but I want him to take a hint. Subtle didn't work, so…

I move to the door and lift him up until the pleat in the back of his leather jacket snags on a coat hook. Then I let go.

Just a little reminder.

He'll be yelling in a sec. As a remedy, I crank my iPod. The heavy, driving bass provides fuel for my exit. No more delays. It's time to spend an hour or so with my only friend. If anyone can cure this rotten mood, Bernadine can.

And hey, bonus…I can't exactly get her killed.

I'll take a sec to regret this later. The regret's nothing new. I'll just add it to the pile.

Xander's eyes are wide with shock when I reach for the doorknob. He tries to grab me, but I just twist my arm free. He's not pulling himself down that way. Kicking might help, but really, screaming and waiting are his best choices.

Nicer than I want to be, I forget to turn the lock. I want him gone when I get back. If I didn't, I'd totally lock him in. As my door clicks shut, others open. The one across the hall's first. Leigh peeks out, appearing concerned. I just smirk. It's all I've got for her. You can pretty much figure Xander's the reason for the look-see. I can't hear him, but…

I set off down the hall at a brisk pace as others poke their noses out to see what's what. I'm sure they'll be talking about this for weeks, like they haven't been talking about me already. Nothing's gotten back, but they treat me like I might be a vial of Ebola at times.

There's a fine line between fear and respect. Sometimes you have to create fear in order to gain respect. I've given these girls healthy doses of both. I shouldn't be surprised about the 'ma'am' thing. I've planted their faces, asses and various parts on the ground so many times…

You'd think they'd learn, but it's like they're Scotchguarded against it.

As I hit the stairs, I reach into my coat and bump the volume down. A couple of the younger slayers steer wide to avoid me. Fear: I see it in their eyes. They're really green and still training with their peers. When they get to me, I'll be happy to introduce them to their fear. Better me than some demon. They'll live longer if I can teach them how to face it.

Making a quick left, I burst through the doorway into the main lobby. There are a few girls seated around the room on the various couches. When I enter, the room goes dead. But it's like their voices hang in the cavernous hall for a second after I enter. I can almost hear their cheerful banter. Isolated, apart from that, what I get are a few more fearful looks. I shrug them off.

Nothing new.

That's really what this little concentration camp's about, teaching them the skills to keep them alive. I don't need any more blood on my hands. It doesn't matter how much I shower now, I never feel clean. There are deaths almost weekly because of what I did.

Pushing the doors aside, I step out into the brisk night air. Scotland. I draw in a deep breath. The air's heavy and fragrant with woodsy smells. There's no moon, but the stars are breathtaking. I'm not really used to stars. Even after all this time, they still catch me by surprise. You don't see them much in Southern California. They kinda get blotted out by the city lights reflecting off the smog layer.

Whose idea was Scotland anyway?

No clue, probably Giles. He'd want me close, but not too close.

Pretty lame.

Why am I just getting around to asking?

Yeah.

I just went where I was sent.

There's a path, but I never bother. I jog across the small lawn and weave through a clump of trees that separate me from the stable. There's something good about being outside, even here and now in this entropically conjured hell.

Swinging the stable doors open, I set my eyes on my one true friend. She's kind of ugly, in a really pretty sorta way.

That doesn't make sense.

It's just, if you place the Ducati nine-nine-nine next to its peers, there's something kind of off about it. The lines aren't quite swoopy enough, the angles wrong. It looks a little chunky. Poor Bernie's even got a fat ass. She's not a classic beauty.

Quirky.

I think that covers it. She's quirky.

Weird, when you look at the nine-nine-six, but it's all about the designer. Just like with fashion.

I back my counterpart out of the stall and turn her around. When she's pointed down the path, I hop on and dig her key out of my jeans pocket. After placing it in the ignition, I put my helmet on.

I wanted the Aprilia or the MV, but Giles took one look and Bernie was it. He muttered something about the dangers involved and looked at the numbers. After I pointed out the 'me, backpack, road' formula, Bernie won the British codger award as the least dangerous of the bunch. Like there's a real diff. The Duc just doesn't look as aggressive.

I'm sort of glad Bernie won the toss. We match. She's damned sexy, but a little off.

When I tap the starter button, she rumbles to life and a little tingle flows down my spine. Unlike the earlier tweak, this one's the right kind. A faint vibration between my thighs is the only sign I have that she's alive. I reach into my pocket and turn down my iPod. It's great for tuning stuff out, but…

I run my fingers over the gas tank. It's a bit silly to pet a machine, but I cuddled a stuffed pig for years too. I'm failing to really see the diff.

Reaching for the clutch, I flip the side stand up and put Bernie into gear. This is always the fun part. Wet grass is our friend. Carefully feathering the clutch and throttle, I get going without that annoying 'sideways' thing that sometimes happens. It's fun, but it's also scary, just like me.

I maneuver down the cobblestone path and onto the driveway.

I can't touch Bernie without seeing their faces. None of my friends were convinced. I think Will still has night terrors over Mom's jeep.

That was bad. This isn't.

Beauty.

It's a really subjective thing.

Will's one of the most beautiful women I know. She's just—

When I hit the drive, things get dicey. They always do. Weaving the width of the asphalt strip, I clean and warm the tires.

Yeah.

'Clean' and 'warm.' There's an excuse to play if I've ever heard one, but it sounds convincing.

On the fifth curve, I snap the bike upright and channel all the bad into a twist of the wrist and a slip of the clutch. The front end lofts, just a little. I keep it in check with the clutch. It hovers a couple feet off the pavement as I launch forward.

Gone.

It's that.

That's why this works for me. Nothing else did, but this works. I'm connected…connected to something that's doing eighty-five miles-an-hour on a narrow strip of asphalt. Correction, one-hundred…

And I feel alive.

The cool air gets icy quick, but I don't care. My hands and throat sting. And somehow, even past all the plastic, the wind cuts through my jeans like they aren't even there. I just do what I'm best at, I ignore the bad. If I couldn't do that, my life would suck beyond the telling. It doesn't. Not really.

Shifting, I back off the throttle as I start the descent from the castle. Bernie makes this funny chugging noise when the engine's loaded. All I know is, it sounds like she wants more. I pop her up into the next gear to reduce the urge and the drag.

Up another gear and go for option 'B.' The instant I sit up, the wind catches me, pushing me back, or trying…and causing the bike to slow. If Giles had a clue that the poster girl for 'Slayer Inc.' was fucked up enough to close her eyes and take her hands off the bars, it'd give him a coronary. The slowing continues as I grip the tank with my knees to hold on and extend my arms.

I need a throttle lock.

Oh, that'd really make him faint. He has this delusion that I'm an angel unless someone here's cleared that up for him. I went through every safety course known to man. And nowhere did they say this was good.

Imagine that.

It's kind of kitchy 'Titanic,' but this just feels amazing. It's almost like falling, only not. I'm sort of going the wrong way. It's an almost horizontal—descending down the driveway from the castle—freefall. There just aren't enough freefalls in life.

Beauty.

The prettiest girl in the world can make herself ugly. It's all about what you do. It took me years to get that through to Will. I'm not even sure it was me. She might've missed my message, but she totally got the message. Last time I saw her…

Umm…

Time, yeah…out of time. I open my eyes. The bike's drifted just a little to the right. Typical. I grab the bars and center it in the lane.

I'd do that again, but it's almost time to dance. Reaching into my pocket, I bump up the volume on the iPod and zip my jacket. It's damned cold out here.

Dropping down two gears, I open the throttle. Last time I hit this first corner at eighty-fiveish no problem. I think I can go ninety and it'll be fine. Pouring on the speed, I position the bike at the right edge of the narrow lane.

At the entrance of the turn, I let off the throttle and grab the front brake, brushing the back with my right toe. The front end dips slightly and I glance at the speedo, ninety-twoish?

Time to throw down or die.

Either's fine by me.

This makes no sense to me, but I do it anyway 'cause it works. Maybe one day, I'll get to ask Will why…

I turn right to go left.

Yeah, uh…

It works. The bike leans and I shift my weight in the saddle. The angle of my wrist naturally sorta opens the throttle. I don't really have to pay much attention. It's all about feel. When the bike starts to drift, it's really nifty. That's the goal, a controlled slide. The back always breaks free first. With a little more, just a touch, the front gets that nice wishy-washy feeling.

The rest is all about setting your line, or so they say. You straighten out the corner, outside to inside and back to outside. But halfway through, I'm way out of shape. I should be on the left side of the lane, not in the middle.

Or die…

If I die, the advanced class will be bruise-free tomorrow evening. They may even thank me.

Well, maybe not, but…

In the past, I've had trouble staying dead, so it's kinda hard to say.

As I gently apply the brakes to scrub off some speed, I shift my weight. My entire body's off the bike. I feel like a circus performer, hanging from a trapeze. If I moved my shoulder down just smidge more, it'd brush pavement.

Not gonna do that.

Steering any more would put me on the ground too. This is gonna be close.

Constant, even throttle…I don't need more speed. But I do need to keep this balancing act up. It's a precarious thing. Sharp movements pretty much equal badness.

Drifting and shifting, I slide to the very edge of the lane.

And it's over.

As I center the bars and side my ass back into the seat, I suck in a deep, shaky breathe. One second to relax and take pleasure in a job well done, then on to the next.

Y'know, the whole unsticky deadness thing was because of my friends. I'm sorta missing those, so…

Besides, I think Will used up all her badass wicca points with Osiris last time around.

I may actually be on the last of my nine lives. But there were only three. I wonder if I should feel gypped.

I don't even bother to look at the speedo this time. It feels right. That's what matters. This is about feel. It's a dance, just like flirting and moving with the music. I could flirt like this if there was anyone to flirt with.

Naturally, I'm alone. That's pretty much my life. Even when I'm around others, I'm alone.

Shifting down, I find my lane position, this time on the left edge, steering left to go right. That'll probably always tickle me. It speaks volumes to how I live. Sliding my ass in the saddle, I play pendulum. 'Buffy the amazing counterweight,' that's me. But on Bernie, that's my job. Every part of me matters. I provide ballast and balance for a delicate waltz.

The headlight illuminates a patch of forest. I peer off into the trees as I dangle from my trapeze.

This time everything's perfect. I apply throttle, building speed. Rationally, I know I am, but the world around me's crawling. When I reach the right edge of the lane, the inside of the corner, I glance down. Grass, grayed out in the low light, rushes under my shoulder. I shouldn't be able to, it makes no sense that I can, but I pick out the individual blades.

My attention shifts again, along with my body, the bike, the dance. Repeating the steps, this time I go left. This corner's not as tight as the other two. I can relax. Go faster. There's no deceleration, no need to scrub off speed. I can let go.

And I do. Shifting down, I open the tap. Bernie, unlike the others, just does what I ask. Exactly what I ask. If anything goes wrong, it won't be her fault. It'll be mine.

The big problem is this one's the last one. There's a short straightaway, then a long, sweeping left, then highway. If I don't slow down at the end of this corner, I get to experience highway as a passing, or maybe that'd be a crossing thing. It's kind of a shame. I hate it when fun stuff ends.

There's the ditch to consider and the trees if it does become a 'crossing' thing. There's a certain splat factor. My luck, I'd time it just wrong and get hit by a truck.

I really wish I could care.

I glance at the speedo as I enter the bend, one-thirty. And if I stopped to think, I might realize just how nuts this is.

Not stopping.

Steering the wrong way, playing trapeze artist, shifting gears and twisting my wrist are all preferable activities.

Battered by the wind at one-thirty-five and moving at a standstill, I look down. This time what I see is a blur of blackness, like I'm hanging over an abyss. It's beautiful. I have trouble taking my eyes off the nothing. I want to let go and fall.

I don't.

Really, I couldn't do that to Xander. He'd blame himself…or some part of him would. Maybe tomorrow I'll get to see what's down there, but tonight…

I tear my gaze from the hazy darkness.

And not a moment too soon. I'm almost out of road.

How far can I push this?

One-thirty-eight…and suspended in a tunnel. The trees on the side of the road are nothing but streaks of gray and black.

The world's catching up with me.

Reality check: if I brake now, I may not die.

I do.

One-twenty-five and counting down…

Shifting down…

I position myself in the middle of the seat and clamp the tank with my knees. Even if I am still turning, the sharp deceleration threatens to tear me off my perch. All of the weight's thrown forward. I run out of corner and center everything. When the bike rights itself, I drop another gear.

It's almost over.

As I grip the front brake like a vice, it's no surprise that the back end lifts. I let off to bring it down and clamp the lever again. It's another balancing act.

Downshift and hang on.

Almost outta road.

One-twenty-five to twenty-five in…jeez, I dunno, but it's…

It's not quite enough.

It's also late enough that there's pretty much no traffic. A snap decision sends me left. I drop the bike into a low, graceful turn rather than put it in the ditch. It's the better choice.

Once I'm headed in the better direction, I just keep going. Another twist of the wrist and I'm on my way, just like that was planned.

Planning's so overrated…

The music that was drowned out by noise is now crisp and happy. I'm not even sure what it is, some girl band. Probably something one of the slayerettes gave me. It makes me smile nonetheless.

My heart pounds against my ribs. It's weird to actually feel it. Poor thing might just explode.

That'd be fine too.

Note to self: ninety-twoish is a wee bit fast. I'll try something sub-ninety next time. Might be safer. That and one-thirty-eight's a good way to die. If it'd been daytime, I'd have ended up a hood ornament.

The road's impossibly flat and straight for the first mile or so. It makes me twitchy, but I have to behave. Sixty-miles-an-hour, poor Bernie feels like a lion pacing her cage. I'm right there with her. It'd suck to be stuck on the driveway. Neiman's is having a sale next week.

Shoe sales. Now there's a reason to live. All I have to do is watch the paper and I'll always be set. There'll always be another. It's the order of things. Continuing commerce is one of the few certainties in this morally bankrupt world.

Or simpled up, everyone wants to make a buck.

What am I doing?

Well, besides getting farther from my erroneous home…

Clueless.

But farther's good…

I didn't bother with a playlist. I really should've. So what I end up with is musical potpourri. Another girl band comes on, this one's different, angrier, but it works. The Distillers maybe? It sounds like them. L.A. indie music just makes me miss home that much more. For some reason, girl punk bands always do.

I wonder why.

Sarcasm's supposed to be one of the lowest forms of humor. It's right at home with prayer and terrorism as last recourses of the desperate. Little wonder that I'm so good at it. If prayer gets you nowhere—it never does—and you can't resort to violence, try a little snark. It always keeps 'em guessing.

But there's only so much snark. And when it runs out, the guilt usually sets in. I get quiet enough and the first thing that pops into my damaged brain is Xander. He was terrified. Does that mean he doesn't trust me?

Probably…

And not without reason.

He's not the one who's spiraling.

I am.

Worse, I get that I am. I even get why. It sucks to be conscious, cognizant, conscientious…all those c-words and more. It makes me appreciate the appeal of drugs and alcohol. Not that I could, but I totally get it.

A drunk slayer just isn't pretty. I've been there. I left a trail of broken stuff, like bread crumbs. Only it wasn't just glasses, ashtrays and the expected breakable stuff. No, stylish me, I broke the usually unbreakable, or the sorta stuff people don't worry about. There were doors and even a wall. It was bad.

Oh, and speaking of bad, we can't forget the 'cave slayer' incident. Four years later, I'm still trying to live that one down. With Xander around, it's impossible. Stuff like that's irresistible to him. He regales the girls with amusing tales of my past debauchery. It's his brand of flirting.

No wonder I have to scare the hell out of them to earn their respect, what with Xander working as my counteragent.

The first mile or so of gray concrete rolls by along with one long, featureless corner. I'd have to flirt with jail time to really enjoy it. Avoiding jail's a good. So I lie listlessly suspended in a bubble of plastic and feminist rage. But I just can't shake Xander. Despite everything, I still see his fear. I can practically smell it.

I assaulted him for telling the truth. Rational, prudent and fair…that's me.

And just when things couldn't be better, the iPod bites my ass too. The misandry gives way to melancholy. I'm too damned lazy, not to mention cold, to unzip my jacket and skip forward.

Like a good little masochist, I don't just ignore it, I sing along. "But I'm still right here, giving blood, keeping faith…" I'm probably the only idiot in history to ever cry to a Tool song. Sad, I recognize it. I'm not even sure how I got it. I must've liked one thing and ended up with the entire CD. That happens to me. By the refrain, I want to rip off the headphones and throw them.

'Be patient.'

I forgot my backpack. I guess that means I should head back soon.

After my departure, once the seething ends, Xander will probably worry. He's been dropping subtle hints about me taking it easy. It's hard to hear stuff like that and not wonder if it's me he's worried about, or what I stand for. 'Slayer Inc.' would lose its figurehead if I wrapped myself around a tree.

Is that what's important?

To them, probably.

To me…I'm not even sure what's important to me. I used to know.

That's probably not fair.

What was it Dawn said about me? 'You're an arrogant, self-absorbed bitch. Way too wrapped up in your own drama to give a shit about how miserable you're making everyone else.' I think that was it. I'm not even sure how I replied. There's not much. I could've gone totally first grade and said, 'I am rubber and you are glue. Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.' But I think my mouth just fell open.

That's the real problem with her. She usually nails it. But there's this huge flaw in her plan. She's always more worried about how whoever—usually me—is failing her, than she is about her own crap. It's easier to point fingers, than it is to own up.

I get that I've been a bitch. The job actually demands it. I can't be nice. But there's more to it. Like the 'oh, poor me' part. That was the 'too wrapped up in your own drama' thing.

Yup, I feel sorry for myself. It's just horrible.

Really, it's tedious.

It's pretty bad when the behavior's owner finds it tedious.

Could be a sign.

So what can I do to fix it?

Get a happy?

Tried that. Didn't work. Nothing works right for me.

God, it's been so long since I was actually happy—happy, like really happy, I think I've forgotten how. But that's really it. I need to answer that question. What would make me happy?

And not break anything else, or accidentally cause an apocalypse. Me happy might just be world endy.

Hell of a stipulation, it doesn't leave much.

Regular, this might be helpful, minus the snit. Riding pissed off may just be off the list. I got the memo. I can't handle it. Much more of that and I really will end up killing myself. I'm still not convinced that'd be bad, but it might make one or two people genuinely upset for the right reasons. There might be one or two left.

And it'd put a few of the girls back on regular duty. They'd be pissed. The one living in Paris actually likes it. But there'd be no reason for the subterfuge if I was dead.

Nah…

Giles would just keep it up and hide my death.

Boy, that makes me feel really important in the—

Uh…

Was that a city limit sign?

How fast am I…?

Oops!

Grand and schemey seem lots less important as I nail the brakes.

I was only doing double the posted limit. No big.

What town is this?

That's funny. I just passed the stupid sign. Good time to ask. Maybe I should flip a bitch and go see? It's not like breaking another law would be a bad. With any luck, this quant little hamlet doesn't have the budget for cameras. I haven't seen anything yet, but then I didn't see the city limit sign, so…

The rub, there's a cemetery off to my right, wrought iron fences and granite mausoleums. It's all spooky and stuff…like something straight out of a Tim Burton film. Mid-block, I turn onto the cobblestone drive and veer right when it splits.

Like a kid with a cookie, I just can't resist.

Now I really am being a hypocrite. I want out more than anything, but I just can't pass up a good cemetery. It's a little sick. Thing is, in a tiny place like this, one vamp could be bad. I'll write it off as a public service and call it even if they will.

I roll past row after row of mismatched headstones, some of them newish and standing, others so old they've toppled over. There are big gnarled trees here and there. Their black twisted limbs add to the creep-factor. This place is lots bigger than it looked from the street. It just kinda keeps going.

A layer of wispy fog coats the ground at first. As I travel down the slight grade, its level grows higher. It rises as I sink.

Fog in low lying areas isn't new, but soupy white fog like this…

Only in Scotland.

It adds to the Béla Lugosi theme night.

The obligatory white marble Virgin Mary effigy stands on a pedestal that's consumed by the fog, near the side street entrance. It's great. Perfect in fact. There's a layer of lichens, moss and grunge built up in its nooks and crannies that make it look like it's been here hundreds of years.

It probably has.

Ignoring my better judgment, I pass them both.

I dunno what's setting me off. I normally feel comfortable enough to picnic in places like this. It's creepy, but there's also this strange sort of beauty. The mausoleum I pass has the coolest lion-headed gargoyle on each corner, at the edge of the roof. I stare as they make my point for me.

Chills…

Weird, tingly chills…

They're annoying. Sort of Spidey sensey, only worse. More. And that's totally setting my teeth on edge.

I'm being watched.

Period.

But from where? I usually have an idea what direction. This isn't like that. It feels like it's all around me. It's badness.

I should bail.

What the hell does that mean? 'Setting my teeth on edge'? What retard came up with that line? Your teeth are on edge. Unless I'm missing something and they have to move to be there. If I am, and they do, it's kinda painful, not wigsome.

Or so I hear.

I snicker.

Or so I've seen.

Come to think of it, I may've set a few things' teeth on edge. Messy. And shortly after their 'on edging,' they hit the ground. The teeth and their owners.

That's it. I'm boycotting that non-sensey phrase. It's just stupid.

The rough cobblestone drive gets really decrepit at the back of the oval. I have to slow down. The bike's shaking so hard, it makes me wonder if I left the road. I haven't hit anything yet, so I'm guessing that's a 'no.'

When I glance down, I can barely see the top of the fuel tank. It's like I'm floating, but not. The not: my jeans are getting damp from the fog. It sucks.

It'll suck more when I leave.

I'm not used to it being so dark outside. There's no light, except for my headlamp. That's it. It casts an eerie glow beneath the fog. Thick cloud cover's pretty much killed the stars. There are a few patches where they show through. But this little adventure entered the realm of the bad horror flick a couple of tombstones back and it's not getting any better.

I refuse to become the token squeaky girl you wanna slap. Misfit I am, I always took some sort of perverse, silent pleasure in her death. It meant an end to the whining. The movie always got better after that. Not that horror flicks are ever good, but annoyance always improves with its absence.

Anyway, if I were in the role of the screamer, the pissing and moaning would've started before I passed Mother Mary back there. I'm practically shivering from the severe wiggage. Ignoring my internal badness meter isn't good.

So what do I do? That's right. Once the road evens out to something a little less washboard-like, I stop.

I may be able to nail down another one of my many issues.

I like being scared. It gives me a happy.

Yeah, I'm a little twisted.

Moving on…

I shut Bernie off, remove my helmet and grab the key. It bugs me that there's no good place for my helmet. I put the sidestand down and perch it on the top of the fuel tank. It could be worse, at least it's flat.

After pocketing the key, I reach into my coat and turn down my iPod. When I withdraw my hand, I'm armed. It's crazy, but I never go anywhere without a stake. I even take one to the mall with me. That's a little wrong, but…

I guess it's not as nuts as it sounds. There are wardrobe limitations to riding. It's not like I have twenty jackets I feel comfortable doing this in. There are two and both have stakes that live in them. I forget to take them out.

Not that I've met any omnipresent vamps. This is something way different. 'Armed' is totally relative. I may just be walking into the proverbial gunfight with a piece of wood.

Oh, well…

If I'm gonna be that Kelly Bundy, I may as well get a move on.

Standing on the pegs, I swing my leg over Bernie's fat rear. I put a little spin and a bounce into my dismount so I land a few feet away. Up to my waist in fog, I start off, heading for the middle of the cemetery. The darkness is really oppressive. I have to practically move at a crawl, cautiously picking my way through the graves.

'Kay, so…standard solo patrol. It's been awhile, but it'll probably come back to me. It's a lot like riding a bike, right?

I glance over my shoulder. All I can see is the very top of my helmet and Bernie's windscreen. It may be fun finding her again if this gets any worse.

There's a landmark. Just a little bit off the road, a huge mausoleum blocks my path. It's big enough to be a family crypt, or the vampire Hilton.

Nothing changes.

But I'm not sure if the massive prickly badness is throwing everything else off. That thing could be crammed full of vamps and it wouldn't feel this wrong.

And making things all that much better…my iPod develops a sense of humor. As I round the crypt, 'Staring at the Sun' by The Offspring comes on. Snarky punk music…exactly what I need. Thanks.

After removing my headphones, I reach into my coat to stash them and turn my cranky little friend off. When I look up, still moving and—like a good slayer—paying more attention to my clothes than what's around me, something catches my eye. I fixate on it.

A marble angel looms in the distance. It's huge, at least double normal people size.

And it's beautiful.

Most of the stuff I've seen like this has been sorta cheruby. Pudgy, childish faces. This isn't. This graveyard's guardian is like a classic representation of Michael or Gabriel. A holy warrior, complete with a big stone sword. He stands with his feet dipped in the pool of fog. His wings wrap around him, framing his muscular body.

Not paying nearly enough attention to anything else, I inch toward him.

Y'know…they went all out dipping into the pool of iconic Christian imagery, but I haven't seen one cross. 'Kay, well, there may've been one on a headstone, but…

It'd be nice if they firmed up and took a clue. A big ass cross would be so much more useful than Gabri—

I glance down just in time. Walking over the vamp who's digging his way out of the ground is badness.

Not to mention, just plain graceful.

Reflexively, I say, "Oh, hi…" sounding a little too cheerful as I scan the tombstone to find his name "…uh, Sean." Sean Harris, born in seventy-nine…died, umm…two days ago. Huh, if it's not one Harris, it's another. He's only a few years older than us.

And he's stuck.

It happens.

I giggle and offer him a hand. His hands are all grubby and bloody, but I ignore it. I've been there. It sucks. When he takes hold, I shake first and pull next. Good manners are still a thing. Whatever's holding him snaps; a root, the coffin lid maybe? With it gone, the pulling's lots easier. I say, "Pleased to meet you, my name's Buffy," still sounding too damned cheery.

Whatever. I get him to his feet.

Poor guy. He's kinda little for a guy, but not bad looking. Or I guess he's not bad looking. It's hard to tell with the bumpies. He's also really confused, not to mention hungry. They're usually hungry. Digging out of a grave isn't easy.

Right on top of him like this, my Spidey sense sorta works. I can kinda feel the bad through all the other bad. It's unnerving, but I do the other thing I'm good at. I tune it all out and plaster on my best smile.

Funny how my two real skills involve ignoring stuff that bugs me. Or maybe it's just one big skill and lots of multitasking.

Not much of a talker, this one. His interest sets on my throat.

Yeah, this is gonna be one of those. Sean's a little stupid. It's advice time. Maybe he'll firm up long enough to listen. "Sean, look at me." It'd help. I snap my fingers in front of his face and trace a line between our eyes. When I have his attention, I say, "You wouldn't believe the night I've had. Have you ever jumped out of a helicopter?"

Still dumb as a post, but he manages to shake his head.

It's progress.

Pouring on the casual, I comment, "It's really fun. I'd recommend it. But something tells me you're not gonna get the chance." Stopping to fold my arms, I explain, "I'm gonna give you a sec to realize that you're still sorta…" Totally expected, I sidestep his lunge and keep talking, "Well, you're still kind of alive…" I track the sprawling vamp's fall. "…but not in the strictest sense." He hits a headstone. It looks painful.

"You still have motor functions at least," I remark with a smile. It doesn't last. They never do. And I bet this one looks wolfish and maybe a little smug. If there's a threat here, it sure isn't Sean.

"Hurts, doesn't it?" I murmur. He deserves a little sympathy.

He flounders onto his back and peers up at me like I just grew another head. Nodding feebly, he mutters, "Yes."

Despondent's a funny look with the fangs and the yellow eyes. Who thought he'd make a good vamp? Someone had to, what with the…

Yeah, he needs a little slack. I extend my hand down. I could just dust him. It wouldn't be hard. That might even be the kind thing to do. Instead, I help him up and continue my thought, "I'm gonna give you a head start."

He doesn't move, so I ask, "Oh, by the way. Where am I?" I grin. And once I get started, my mouth keeps running. "I'm just sorta curious. Clueless too. I usually don't come out this way. Anything worth doing's sort of the other way." It's a major flaw. One I should work on.

Someday.

When he answers with more mindless gawking, I get annoyed. "You do know where you were buried, right?"

"Cloyntie," he mumbles. It's huge progress, but he's still not moving.

As I reach out, snatching his lapels and jerking him closer, I plunge the stake into his chest.

The pain gets his attention. Finally, real progress.

I pull the stake out and drive my point home. "Next time I won't miss."

Pain can be an amazing motivator. Sean takes off like there's something truly scary on his six.

He's got no clue…and I'm not gonna help him out.

I reach into my coat and pull out my iPod. After navigating to a playlist called 'Slay,' I put the earphones in, turn up the volume, pocket my iPod and zip my jacket.

I need to come up with something slightly more imaginative to call this.

Whatever…it works. Burn by Three Days Grace sets the mood, my pace…it's amazing when rock bands actually remember that they're rock bands. Good stuff.

I break into a full run in Sean's wake, vaulting over row after row of granite slabs. He's just too stupid to live. But if he does, I could set him up with Harm. They'd be like the perfect couple.

Too bad for Harm, he barely makes it to the road before I dive after him. Catching the backs of his legs, I throw us both face-first onto the ground. The diff? I roll, turning onto my knees and spring up while he's still tumbling across the cobblestones.

Time's up.

On my feet again, I lunge and plant my stake just under his left shoulder blade, angling it down. And 'poof,' no more Sean.

I sort of feel a little sorry for him. I bet he was one of those nice, quiet guys, the stuff of urban legend. Go figure, there's one out there—like a unicorn—and someone vamps him, then I dust him. No wonder this world sucks.

I'm still having trouble getting my head around what kind of vamp would think he'd make a good vamp. Vamps don't just happen. They get chosen for a reason, which is, I guess better than what happened with me. I'm not sure what was up with that. You gotta wonder about the criteria involved if I end up at the front of the line.

Or Faith, for that matter.

It's a little scary.

It's also ancient history. Massively successful, ancient history. Who'd've guessed it?

I shrug and pocket my stake. There's more something, but it's not vamps. Or if there are vamps, I can't tell. You'd think after that little show, if I was gonna have company, I would.

Still alone…

Or I suppose, alone again after attacking both of the sorta people I ran into tonight.

You'll have that with me.

Unzipping my hand pocket, I pull out my cellphone, glance at the clock and put it back.

Uh…wow. It's after two. Time to go. This is a good spot. I'll have to come back.

I jog down the drive and almost pass Bernie. She's buried in a thick coat of white mist. Naturally, my helmet's wet, along with the seat and every other thing. I should park closer to the road next time. I just hate announcing my presence. It seems stupid.

I use my shin to squeegee the seat and my thigh to wipe the face shield of my helmet. If I wasn't soaked before, I am now.

Good thing I don't get sick easy. This is like the perfect recipe for a cold.

I put on my helmet, fish the key out of my pocket, hop on and get moving.

Water beads up on Bernie's shiny, black paint. It glistens in the streetlight when I turn out of the cemetery. It's kind of pretty. The appeal ends as I build speed. The drops fly back, splashing into an already soggy me. One of them hits my neck, making me flinch. It'll be over soon enough. My neck and hands will stop burning and go numb. They always do.

As I leave Cloyntie, a weight lifts. The nagging creepiness fades. It's funny though. I'm shaking worse from the cold than I was from the creeps. I may build a fire when I get home. I'm not sure I'll be able to get warm any other way. I could just pile all the crap in the fireplace and kill two birds with one stone.

In relative calm, I click through the gears, lie down and try to behave myself. It's hard. The desire to just get there eats at me. When you're freezing on a bike, sixty just isn't that much different than one-twenty. Sure, the wind chill gets worse, but…it's all pretty much relative.

Miserable is just miserable.

And miserable is just what I am from point 'A' to 'B.' So of course, I'm stuck with an aggressive, bouncy mix of techno, dance and rock music. I think my iPod hates me. Happy music! And I could actually go for something melancholy now.

Go figure.

This playlist is so gonna be toast when I get home.

The ride melts into a total blur of boring gray pavement, icy wind and one really irritating song after another. Before I know it, I've shivered my way into the stable and parked.

It takes me a sec to move. My legs are almost a total loss. Clumsy as hell, I climb off, take the key and shut the doors. I don't even touch my helmet until I'm halfway to the castle. When it comes off, so do the earbuds. Other times that might've annoyed me, but now it feels like a blessing. I just let the damned things hang out of the neck of my jacket.

I could go for a bath. Maybe I'll do that instead of burning things. Or I could do both—both and some hot chocolate. That'll work.

An act of will opens the door. It has to be me, but I'm not driving.

The thing that sucks most is my jeans never really dried. As the feeling returns, there's this sticking thing that happens. It's more than a little gross.

I trudge up the stairs, all three fights, counting as I go. Fifteen steps per flight. Huh. Pretty much useless, but good to know.

I guess…

Not really.

Down the hall, almost to the end. My room. There's no one up. No one to bother me. It's a little annoying that the door's still unlocked, but I'll live. I slip quietly inside.

It's uh…

The disaster's gone. Everything's spotless. The bed's even made.

I stare numbly at the disturbing retentiveness before I move. It's so weird. I guess the girls…

That was really sweet of them.

I turn toward my desk. There's a fire lit in the fireplace. It feels so good in here. I almost forget how miserable I am.

But there's something else different. Something truly bizarre. There's someone on my couch. All I see is the back of her head, long ginger hair, pulled back from her temples in two French braids that are clipped at the nape of her neck. Her head's bowed. She's reading something.

She doesn't react to me at all. I have to wonder if it's just wishful thinking and a vivid imagination gone totally tweaked from of the stress.

Reacting to her just as much as she does me, I walk over to my desk to stash my iPod in the dock and hang up my jacket. There's a mug on my desk. When I'm done, I cup my hands around it. It's warm. I stand stupefied for another sec, just enjoying the warmth, then I let go. A change of clothes sitting folded on the bed catches my eye as I turn.

'Kay, so…that might be a hint. One I really don't need. I leave the cup behind and grab up the pile of clothes. Wordlessly, I pass the apparition on my couch, disappearing into the bathroom.

I wash my hands first. It seems like a plan, given. And by gradually increasing the temperature of the water, they regain feeling.

A minor miracle, but I'll take even the little ones.

It requires more effort than I'd like to peel off my damp jeans. The bathtub calls me as I strip and toss my clothing into the hamper, but I ignore it. If that wasn't some sort of huge neon sign telling me I need a vacation, I—

I—

I don't even know. I'm not sure what to say. What can I say?

Where've you been?

Yeah.

That's not lame. Like she'd even answer me. She dropped off the planet for a year.

Like she even should. Where she's been isn't any of my business. After everything, I get the need for slack. God knows, I could use some slack. If I could take it, I'd totally go. I'd disappear. 'Poof,' no more Buffy.

I dress in the clothes laid out for me by my phantom guest. They're snuggly, warm and comfy, an undershirt, panties, a soft cotton tee, sweats and a hoodie. I feel nearly human when I finish. Another fraction of the human returns when I brush my teeth, wash my face and brush my hair.

I crack the door, half expecting nothing. What I get is close. It hurts a little, but she doesn't even look up. I cross the room and get the tea she made for me.

Or I guess she made it. That's all I've got. No more stalling. I return to the couch and take a seat next to her.

Still nothing.

I sip the tea, racking my brain for something. There has to be something to say. I could tell her how much she hurt me.

That never ends well.

I could tell her about my life.

Uh…

Yeah, no…a world of no

I could say hello?

"Hello," I mumble, feeling a little bit stupid for not getting there sooner.

Totally aloof, she replies with the same.

Umm…

Well, either my imagination's really getting better and I've totally cracked or that's actually Will. The first thing has this really unpleasant ring, so I'm gonna go with the second.

Oh, she's the one that cleaned up.

Uh…not good.

I have to…

No, no, I don't. No, I really, really don't.

I offer with genuine gratitude, "Thanks," despite the minor wig. I don't need to know, do I? What else is in that drawer?

"No problem," she replies, sounding completely nonchalant. She's still reading. I wonder what's so interesting.

There's lip gloss in that drawer. That's it. My lips are sort of chappy from the ride. Lip gloss…

I go get my lips gloss. And that's a truly awful idea. Everything's right where it should be, sitting in its case. Not exactly Peter Cottontail…

Well.

That's loads more than I ever cared to share. Wondering where she found it just makes things that much worse. As my demented brain conjures images, the blood drains from my face. Accompanying the evacuation, my mouth drops open, followed by heat, lots and lots of heat…

But I guess, in the big picture, this beats, 'I'm screwing Spike.'

Oh…'kay…

So…

Still an adult. It even says so on my driver's license. Why am I so wigged?

I'm not.

I take a deep breath, grab my lip gloss and turn toward the couch.

She hasn't moved a muscle. This time, I'm grateful.

I reclaim my seat, put on some lip gloss and take another sip of tea. All three things add to the feeling human. It's nice…feeling good again. My legs are actually warm. I didn't think they'd ever be warm again.

The tea she made is really weird, kinda tart, rich and really sweet. There's this strange sort of smokiness that's…well, it's strange. That's the best I've got. It tastes good, but it's unlike anything I've ever had before.

Small talk. It's as good a way to start as any. The big talk's gonna be traumatic. "What kind of tea is this?"

"It doesn't have a name," she replies. "A Chinese herbalist I know makes it. It's good for you. Drink it."

Okay, then…

'Willow's nameless, good-for-me tea.' That's as good a name as any.

And she just keeps reading.

I lace my fingers around the cup in my lap and silently watch her.

She's spoken, I've spoken…we've spoken, but so far nothing's been said. This isn't how I imagined this happening. I'm not sure what I expected, but her being more interested in a stupid book than me wasn't on my list.

I arrive at one single, undeniable fact from my study: Willow's grown up.

There are a few, just a couple of fine lines around her eyes. Her skin's deeply tanned. She used to hate the sun. Willow on the beach was funny. Somehow, in a swimsuit, she'd have more clothes on—it was a serious production to even get her out there. She might be darker than I am now. It's not like Scotland's the best place for sunbathing. And tanning beds—?

Not so much.

She's dressed in jeans, a loose knit, white sweater with a white scoop neck cotton shirt underneath and calf-length, black leather boots. There's nothing dressy about it, but she makes it look refined. She could be at home anywhere. There's a casualness about her that's totally alien to the Willow I knew.

I find myself gawking. I guess it's my turn. Maybe Sean rubbed off on me? Or it could be that…

Beautiful.

She didn't need my advice. She found it on her own.

I jump when she shuts her book. It's heavy and black with symbols on the cover in place of a title. I guess that answers that. Like the tea, her book is nameless. She sets it on the coffee table and turns to face me, sitting sideways on the couch.

She examines me for a moment or two before she speaks. Those moments…they take an eternity. When she's finished, I feel about as tall as my cup. "What're you doing?" she asks.

Funny, her voice is barely above whisper, but—

My mouth goes dry. I sip my tea, hoping it'll help. It does, but only sort of. The dry turns pasty. I take another sip. I could tell her I'm drinking nameless tea that's supposed to be good for me. I have it on reliable authority that it is.

Uh, yeah…

That's not what she wants.

Ashamed and feeling like a chastened child, I mumble the truth, "I don't know."

She rests her arm against the back of the couch. And propping her head casually in hand, she replies, "I see that."

Heat rises again. At first I'm not sure whether it's shame or anger. I just feel kind of numb and prickly. Seconds later, when it finally catches up, I seethe, "I'm doing the best I can. It's not like I've had bunches of help." I rake my fingers through my hair, pulling just to feel the pain. "And pressure...no, I'm not under any pressure. No stress at all. Not even a little. So, yeah…I lost it tonight. But you—" I gulp in a starved breath "—if any of my so called friends had stuck around to help…"

A tear drops into my cup. That's it. I can't go on.

I can't look up.

I can't…

I weep.

It's all I can…

And I guess that's all I need.

She takes the mug from my hands, sets it aside and reaches for me. I pull away at first, but she doesn't take 'no.' She insists on holding me while I fall apart.

Three words…

Three stupid, simple, pathetic, fucking words…

I don't have an answer.

I don't know what I'm doing.

Clueless.

Gently rocking, she hushes me and strokes my hair out of my face.

She cares.

I'm not sure if it's better or worse, but she really cares.

She whispers stuff about how sorry she is. I listen to her, but over the bad, I don't really hear. She's sorry. I get that part. That's the important part.

I'm worse for the meltdown, but I might be better. It could be better. Is she gonna leave me?

If she doesn't leave, I'll be better. I'll do whatever it takes to make it better.

Just don't leave.

No!

She'll get hurt. I always hurt.

I push away. She's so soft and warm…it feels so good to be held, but I push away.

I can't let her get hurt. I've hurt her enough for three lifetimes. My third lifetime. Everything I touch turns to shit.

Hugging my shins, I curl up in the corner of the couch, putting as much distance between us as I can. I rest my forehead on my knees.

Small again.

How does she do that? No one else does that to me.

And there's nothing. No answers.

She watches me. I really wish she wouldn't.

"I hoped you'd forgive me, but I get that you can't," she whispers. Her weight shifts. She stands before continuing, "But I need you to understand something." Her soft, delicate voice fades, moving further away. "I had to answer that question…" I draw in a harsh, shaky breath, fighting to stifle the tears "…that one and a couple others. I needed to know. It was dangerous for me not to know."

She's leaving!

"No!" I snap, focusing in her direction. Where she should be…

She's there, but a little closer to the door than I thought.

"Please stay," I mumble.

My skin feels alive with ants.

Shivery.

When she turns, it gets a little better. The look she gives me, it's more than a little weird, like she's trying to figure me out.

I'm a puzzle. A broken puzzle. I wonder if I still have all my pieces.

"Are you sure?" she asks.

No.

Somehow, I find stunning new levels of conflicted and nod my head 'no.'

But when she returns, the creepy-crawly eases, so I must be onto something.

I am.

I'm onto totally losing it.

I can't look, but that's okay. Or I guess it is, because I manage to speak. "I-I just…" summoning courage, I take a deep breath "…I don't want anyone else to get hurt." Well, at least that matched. It sounded as pitiful as I sounded. That's a step up from conflicted.

Silence.

It drags on so long, I nearly look up. I guess there's nothing to say. If anyone gets it, she does.

"You're not gonna hurt me. Not in the way you mean, at least."

There's a frankness to what she says and how she says it that makes me want to look even more. She's completely certain. How can she be certain…of anything? None of us know what's coming. She sounds…

That does it.

I look up.

The instant I do, I'm sorry. She's smirking. She's not even looking at me. I'm not—

And she's smirking. So, I'm falling apart and she finds it amusing?

How can she…?

When I sigh, she faces me.

I want to stay mad, but I don't have it in me. I'd forgotten this. Or at least, it wasn't something…

This is it, that other thing, the thing that makes her different, the thing that first drew me to her. I couldn't resist it.

Even in the low light, there's this twinkle, this light in her eyes. It's like 'smart' became a tangible thing, like I could reach out and touch it. She glows with it.

But that's not it. What makes her unique is the mischief. Impishness. She's not just beautiful.

'Kay, so…I'm circling cliché and plummeting dangerously close to corny. It'll be a miracle if I don't find it.

But that's it, she's dangerous.

Yeah…that's corny, but that's totally it, that's the appeal. And that's what makes her so special.

Cordy couldn't hope for that. They all thought I was being stupid. That my generosity had somehow overwhelmed my commonsense…

Yeah. Not so much.

And all these years later…how long's it been? Nine years? We've grown apart and I still see that thing I loved.

Loved?

No, love

It fits.

The mischief fades. Weird, I'm sad to see it go. I should be really offended. I should've stayed offended.

"We're not gonna fix this tonight," she whispers, "We shouldn't even try."

That sounds…

She smiles. I know I look like hell, but I return the smile. I can't stop myself. It's so genuine. There's so much warmth in her smile—actual affection—if I didn't…

Again, charmed, I just can't resist.

"You're tired, you should get some rest," she whispers.

My eyes are so heavy. I fight it. It's useless.

Helpless, I shut them.

She lifts me up and puts me in bed. It feels so good. The covers move without being touched, tucking around me.

I want the contact, but she doesn't touch me. Just a hug, minus the melty badness, would be nice.

The gray I see behind my closed eyelids shifts to dull orange, telling me the glowing embers of the fire are the only light left.

"If you need me, I'll be here. I promise…"

But I do need you.

My door clicks shut.

Warm, fuzzy darkness…

Like falling…

An angel beckons me.