"Wow, college is kinda scary, right?" Willow said, a huge smile spread across her face.
"Yeah it really kinda is," Buffy agreed. "It's so surreal. I never saw college in my future since the whole you are the Chosen One gig barged into my life."
The girls walked up Revello Drive, still excited about their day.
"Well hey, Giles is totally behind you getting an education, and you're still on the Hellmouth, so it's not like you're abandoning your sacred duty. Who says you can't do both?"
Buffy grabbed the handle of the door, preparing to push it open as she answered.
"I did. Or at least I used to. I mean, I wanted to go but I never thought I'd have the chance. Still living on the Hellmouth isn't exactly my dream, but there's not much I can do about that. Having my best friend around makes up for it though."
"Aww." Willow was about to say something else when she was cut short by walking straight into Buffy, who had frozen on the doorstep.
"There you are, Slayer," Spike drawled from the couch, where he was… watching TV with her mom? "Was waiting for you."
"Hi Honey, hi Willow," Joyce said, smiling up at them. "How was the open day? Did you like the dorms?"
"Spike?!" Buffy repeated, temporarily unable to move past her surprise. Behind her, peeking over her shoulder, Willow let out a squeak.
"Well don't just stand there, come in and join us. We're watching Lawrence of Arabia."
There was a half-full wine glass on the table in front of her mother, and Spike cradled a glass filled with a brown-ish liquid that probably wasn't coke in one hand. Between them was an almost empty bowl of nacho chips.
"Bloody good movie," Spike explained helpfully when Buffy just gaped at them.
Buffy turned her eyes to her mother who was sitting quite comfortably next to Spike, looking at them expectantly. Behind her, Willow's mouth was partly open in shock, and she started tugging at the hem of Buffy's shirt in a silent plea to do something.
"What is he doing in our house?" Buffy asked her mother, before turning quickly back to Spike. "What are you doing in my house?"
Spike stood up, put his glass down on the table next to Joyce's and stuffed his hands into his pockets. "Told you, I was waiting for you and watching a movie with your Mum."
"That doesn't explain anything." Buffy folded her arms impatiently, wishing she'd brought a stake with her. "You showing up here out of the blue is getting old. Shouldn't you be off torturing your crazy girlfriend or—wait, let me guess, she dumped you again."
"Spike comes to your house a lot?" Willow questioned.
"Look, Slayer. What happens between me and Dru is none of your business, and maybe if you bothered to disinvite me, the Big Bad wouldn't be able to walk into your home. That's pretty lax security on your part, Chosen One. Or do you want Joyce to get eaten?"
"That's it. Willow, get me a stake."
Spike glared at Buffy and Buffy glared right back while Willow nervously began to edge towards the stairs. Joyce stood up, putting a barrier between Spike and her daughter, and gave them all disapproving looks.
"That's enough. There will be no fighting in my house. Buffy, you're being rude to our guest."
Buffy's mouth fell open, and she squeaked in outrage, at a complete loss for words. Behind Joyce, Spike grinned.
"Mom!" Buffy was furious at the smug look on Spike's face and thoroughly confused that her mother was taking his side. "He's a vampire. An evil vampire, not a guest. He's dangerous, and the last time he showed up he had Willow and Xander trapped in the factory. Cordelia was seriously injured because of the mess he caused."
"Really?" Spike asked. "Someone got hurt? Sorry I missed it."
"See?" Buffy gestured at Spike frantically. "Evil!"
"He came here looking for your help, Buffy. To me, that's exactly what he's wanted every time he's been here. Help from you. We were having quite a nice time until you started threatening him. Can we please all just sit down and discuss things reasonably?"
"'S all right, Joyce. Look, Slayer, your Mum's telling the truth. I need help."
"Well, I'm not going to argue with that," Buffy said, dryly.
"Don't get cute. Thing is, there's something happening up in the woods north of Sacramento. A lake spirit is in trouble."
"A lake spirit?" Willow asked, suddenly curious. "What kind?"
"A Manitou," Spike replied.
"So some spirit wants help? If you're involved, it's clearly evil. So why should I care?"
"It's not evil. It's a spirit of nature, and it's in trouble. Something's killing the land and whatever it is, it's dangerous."
"So you've gone eco-friendly. Yeah, not buying it."
Spike scowled at her. "I'm being serious."
"Again, I ask why I should care? It's not hurting anyone if it's way off in the woods, and this entire story reeks of one of your hair-brained schemes. I'm not helping you."
"You should care because it is hurting people."
"Campers," Spike said, pointing a finger at her, looking pleased he had an answer. "Campers and… and hikers. Yeah, people have gone missing up there. You, as a protector of said people, have to care about that. Plus, it's your thing to help. You and your little friends being such goodie-two-shoes."
Buffy rolled her eyes and opened the door. Giving Spike a cheerful smile, she held the door wide-open and gestured outside.
"That's nice, and it's cute that you think I'd believe you."
"Buffy," Joyce said, looking annoyed.
"But Buffy, what if he's telling the truth?" Willow chimed in. "What if there's something out there really hurting people? I've read about the kind of nature spirits he's talking about and they're peaceful creatures. If one is in danger—"
"You guys, he's making it up! Why would Spike ever do something good? He's only doing this because he wants to get something out of it, and whatever it is, it's better he doesn't get it. Campers and hikers go missing all the time in the wilderness. It doesn't prove anything. I'd appreciate it if you left now and never came back," she added to Spike, gesturing at the open door again.
"You know what, fine! Be that way. Don't come crying to me when the world ends because the Slayer is too selfish and lazy to get off her arse and do something about it." Spike stormed past Buffy, black leather coat swirling around his legs as he spun to jab two fingers up in the air at her before continuing to stalk off down the driveway.
Buffy frowned and swung the door closed behind him. She turned around to be met with looks of disappointment and anxiety from her mother and Willow respectively. Buffy sighed and her shoulders slumped.
"Giles!" Willow called out as she hammered the door with her fist, the other hand juggling her laptop, a stack of newspapers and a carry-out container with coffees.
"Yes, yes," he replied, patient as always. "Where's the fire?"
"In the woods," she answered, and pushed past him to unload her burden on the table before she collapsed under its weight. The laptop hummed to life under her fingers.
"The woods that Spike was going on about," she clarified.
Buffy had of course immediately called her Watcher after Spike's visit the night before to relay what he'd said. Giles had, to Buffy's immense relief, agreed with her that it likely was some kind of scheme, much to Willow's disappointment.
Certain that there had to be more to the story, she'd gone home and begun her own private research. It had taken all night, hence the coffees. She took a long sip from one of the cups and held out a couple of newspapers for Giles to look at.
"Thomas Sheldon," she said. "You remember. I tutored him in chemistry all last year?" Then, clearly pleased with herself, she added "He got a C, almost a C plus, but you know how strict Mrs. Finnigan is and he kinda messed up on the formula for the—"
"Yes, but as interesting as his grades are, would you mind explaining what he has to do with anything?"
"Oh, right," she said, and took another sip. "He's disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Giles echoed and, his interest now spurred, unfolded the first of the newspapers to look at the headlines. "Oh, he was one of those boys that got lost while camping a few weeks back?"
"Exactly. Only they aren't lost."
Willow began opening all the websites she'd bookmarked through the night. "Look," she said, and pointed at the screen. "As far back as there are records of this sort of thing, people have gone missing in this one particular area, north-west of Lake Tahoe. Nobody lives up there, so it's all hikers, campers and park rangers. Oh, and two years ago, a professor and a grad student from Berkley went there to get some water samples for a Hydrology project, and they never came back either."
Giles accepted another, much older newspaper from her hands. "I do remember that incident," he said, as he skimmed through the article detailing the 'mysterious disappearance'.
"Yeah, there was a lot of writing about it at the time. The park rangers found their camp site, like they usually do, but there was no trace of them. Of course accidents do happen, and there are wild animals and all, but…"
"But not with such a large amount of people involved."
"Something's wrong," Willow concluded, nodding. "I think Spike was telling the truth."
Giles appeared as though he was warring with himself over the possibility that the notorious vampire might actually have been truthful.
"He talked about a lake spirit," she went on. "A Manitou, needing help. I've looked it up and," she pointed at another website dealing with Native American lore, "they're ancient spirits that can communicate with the living."
"You think it's connected to the disappearances?"
"Spike said that something was killing the land. That sounds pretty evil to me. What if whatever it is, is also causing all those people to go missing?"
Giles removed his glasses for a predictable polish. "I just can't wrap my head around Spike caring about something like this."
Willow chewed on her lip. "Well, maybe he does have some kind of ulterior motive, I don't know, but I still think we should at least investigate. Thomas was a good kid, and he was so excited when he told me he was going camping with his brother and some friends after graduation. He even got me a box of candy as thanks for helping him pass, Giles. None of the other guys I tutored did. Maybe he's still alive."
She was treated to A Look, but he refrained from commenting on her hopeful ramblings. "I'll call Buffy." He paused, lost in thought for a moment, then: "You wouldn't happen to own a tent, would you?"
"So, exactly why do you own a tent, Wills?" Buffy asked, eyeing the pile of bags and gear sitting next to her on the back seat, all stuff they couldn't fit in the trunk.
"I used to be a girl scout. It was short lived," Willow replied, craning her head around to look at Buffy. "Plus Xander, Jesse and I used to camp out in the backyard some nights. Xander liked to get away from being stuck inside the house with his parents, and even before finding out demons were real we knew it wasn't a smart idea to go camping in the woods in Sunnydale." She paused, then added as an afterthought, "Also it would have been scary."
Buffy smiled at her friend while Willow faced forward again to study the map. Giles was driving, Willow was navigator and Buffy—well, Buffy was bored. Willow murmured something to Giles, pointing at the map, and Giles nodded, focused on his driving. Buffy slumped back in her seat and stared out the window.
They would make it up to the lake tonight which was both good and bad. On the one hand, no more motel rooms, on the other hand—no more motel rooms, just woods and a tent and—Spike.
Buffy frowned. She still couldn't believe Giles and Willow had convinced her to travel all the way up here based on something Spike had told them. Okay, so there was evidence something weird could be going on. It still didn't seem like a threat.
"Stupid sacred duty," Buffy muttered.
"Pardon? Did you say something, Buffy?" Giles asked, looking at her in the review mirror.
"Umm, I wanted to know what this thing was?" Buffy lied, holding up something she saw peeking out of one of the bags next to her. She realized she honestly didn't know what it was and her brow wrinkled in confusion as she held it from every angle possible in faint hopes that it would resemble something useful.
"Oh, it's um, a sort of camping cooker. Do be careful with it. We will need to eat during this trip and I don't fancy foraging in the woods, especially considering the reason we're driving up there."
Buffy wrinkled her nose but put the weird looking cooker thing back. She was curious about what else her companions had packed and started rifling through the bags. She came across a stack of books underneath two hurricane lanterns and held one up.
"Okay, camping cookers and lanterns I get but why books?"
"We might need them for research," Willow piped up, twisting around in her seat again. "We have no idea what's really going on out there since Spike wasn't very specific on what's hurting the Manitou."
"Of course not," Buffy said, putting the book back to continue her search.
"The point is, we don't know what we'll be facing or how we're going to stop it. Hitting the books only works if you bring them along. Always be prepared," Willow said, grinning.
"Yeah, well, looks like you guys are plenty prepared. All I brought were clothes, snacks and make up. Oh, and weapons, obviously."
"Including Mr. Pointy?" Willow said with a knowing look.
"Co-operating with Spike works best if he has an incentive to behave." Buffy took her stake out of her pocket and gave it a twirl.
"Plenty of trees and branches where we're going, you know."
"Yup, but this stake will always be within reach," Buffy said, and put the stake back, smiling. "You know, this is the longest trip I've ever been on."
"Really?" Giles asked. "You never went on holiday with your parents?"
"Nope. They were always too busy working. I went to Disneyland, but that doesn't really count considering how close it was to home. Figures my first real camping trip would be because of Slayer business."
"When all this is over, we should totally start doing the camping thing more often," Willow said, her resolve face firmly in place. "It won't exactly be an exciting trip away from Sunnydale but it would be fun. A backyard can be a whole new place when you're in a tent."
"I'll bet. Maybe we should hold off on planning a camping trip until we see how this one pans out. Something tells me it might turn me off the experience."
They sat in companionable silence for a while before Giles started to slow down, peering at something in the trees.
"What's up, Giles?" Buffy asked.
"I think I see something—I do believe it may be a car."
"Way out here?" Willow asked. "The map says the turn off we want is just up ahead. That must be a parking area. We'll have to hike the rest of the way."
"Let's have a look, shall we?" Giles suggested, turning off onto the small laneway that circled back into the trees.
"Hike?" Buffy asked, glancing at the large packs next to her filled with incredibly heavy gear and supplies.
"I don't know what you're complaining about," Willow said. "At least you have Slayer strength."
They pulled into a small parking area and Giles stopped the car. They got out and walked back to where Giles thought he'd spotted another vehicle. Close up, it definitely resembled a car covered in branches and leaves. Moving aside some of the branches, the three of them stood back to get a better look at it.
"Oh yeah, this definitely belongs to Spike," Buffy said, crossing her arms and assessing the beast in front of her.
"How can you tell?" Willow asked.
Buffy quirked an eyebrow and looked at the car again. It was old, the paint was black, and it was a monster. Plus the windows had been blacked out.
"I'm betting if you opened it, you'd see beaten up leather, lots of empty bottles and cigarette butts. It probably stinks so I wouldn't recommend it," she added.
"Yes, well." Giles circled the car then glanced around at the surrounding woods. "It would seem Spike returned here after he came to visit you in Sunnydale. At least we know we're in the right place. Let's um, cover it back up and get our gear. It could be quite a hike to this lake."
It took them a while to even get all their stuff out of the car. It took even longer for Willow and Giles to decide who should carry what and how to distribute the weight. Buffy was not impressed at being used as some form of pack mule just because she had super strength.
"This is really unfair," Buffy griped as she was handed another bag. "You're the ones who brought all the heavy stuff."
"We merely brought items that we considered essential. I have to keep a hold of my compass in order to keep us on the right path. You'll thank us when we get there and encounter—whatever it is we're going to encounter," Giles said, adjusting his glasses and attempting to get his bearings.
"There's a trail right there," Buffy argued, pointing to the beaten track leading into the woods. "We just have to follow it. This doesn't bode well for your camping idea either," she added to Willow, who was struggling to adjust the strap of her rucksack.
"C'mon Buffy," Willow said, cheerily, finally getting the strap the right way round and tugging it up on her shoulder. "Smell that fresh air. Hear the sounds of nature. This is gonna be fun!"
"Are we there yet?"
"No, we're not there yet, Buffy. Just like we weren't there yet the other five times you asked," Willow replied.
"But my feet hurt. I think I've got blisters. I'm getting seriously sweaty and gross, and somehow I don't see showers in my future."
"Let's make a rest stop once we reach the top of this hill," Giles suggested from behind them.
"Sounds glorious. Can there be snacks involved?"
"I don't see why not."
"Awesome," Willow added. "I'm getting pretty hungry."
They pressed on in silence until they had scaled the hill. It wasn't really a very large hill, more a steady incline that just kept going and going, but as they were all rather inexperienced hikers, they were nevertheless pleased with themselves once they stood at the top.
Ahead of them, the land flattened out and the dense woods they'd become accustomed to cleared and revealed a lake, tucked away in a small valley like an egg in a nest. Surrounding it were pleasant looking meadows dotted with wildflowers, the occasional outcropping of rocks and the forest in the background.
"Wow," Willow said.
Buffy lifted her sunglasses and took in the scenery as she got her breath back. "It's really gorgeous up here, isn't it?"
"Quite," Giles agreed, then, shading his eyes with a hand, he gazed intently at something. "Is that a building over there?"
"Where?" Willow asked.
Putting her sunglasses back on, Buffy squinted in the direction Giles was pointing. "Looks abandoned, it's all sunken on one side I think."
"Let's investigate." And with that, Giles set off at a trot.
"But you said we'd have a break!" she whined.
"It's not that far," Willow said, always the diplomat. "And maybe this is the lake that Spike was talking about. If it is, then we've officially arrived!"
"Yay," Buffy said with a sigh. She loved her best friend dearly, but her optimism could sometimes be a little tiresome, especially when you were in constant pain that got worse when you moved your feet. She definitely had blisters.
Happily, Willow was right, and it only took a few minutes to go around the lake and reach the other side where the mysterious building stood on the edge of the woods. It was a building, and it was abandoned. The entire left side of the roof had caved in and there was a dank, rotting smell coming from the rooms where the weather had been allowed free rein. The floorboards looked decidedly unsafe, so they only peered in through the broken windows at the mess of destroyed furniture and half-decomposed fabrics. The right side on the other hand, appeared relatively undamaged.
The front door had been knocked halfway off its hinges and was tilted horizontally in its frame, but it was just possible to sneak through. Buffy dropped her rucksack with a satisfied grunt and fished out a flashlight.
"You're not going in there, are you?" Willow asked.
"Sure," she replied. "Gotta make sure there's no evil spirits in there, right?"
"Do be careful," Giles warned, but he knew better than to try and stop her.
She easily dodged the door and found herself in a dim hallway. The room to the left must have been the living room going by the remains of the furniture in there. To the right was a small corridor. She carefully swept the flashlight around and counted three doors. A tattered calendar hung on one wall, proclaiming the year to be nineteen eighty-two. She couldn't tell what the picture had been of; it was too moldy and faded. The floorboards seemed solid enough however, so she made her way over to the first door and pushed it open.
A bedroom. There was a small window that had long since lost its glass; the rotting curtains swayed slightly with the breeze. She didn't need the flashlight to see that the bed had collapsed on itself, sagging all the way down to the floor in the centre and would never again be slept in. There was a battered nightstand with a missing drawer, the remains of what was probably once a rug, and little else of note. She walked back to the front door and peered out.
"It's safe enough in this one room. The window's gone and it's smelly, but we can probably store some of our stuff in here?" she suggested, gesturing for the others to come inside and check it out for themselves.
"That would be very handy," Giles agreed, ducking under the door. "I'd brought rope and some tarpaulin to hoist our food supplies up in a tree, but a room would certainly be easier."
"You were gonna hang our food in a tree?" Buffy asked, confused.
"Bears," Willow explained. "They can smell the food. They come into the campsite and wreak havoc getting at it. You should always keep it out of reach from them."
"Bears," Buffy repeated. "There's bears? Nobody told me there'd be bears."
"And mountain lions."
"Coyotes as well," Giles added.
"Great, the entire lethal part of the zoo."
"Well, at least we don't have to worry about wolves," Willow said. "They've been extinct in California for decades."
Buffy let out a sigh. She had no problems dealing with demons and vampires, but animals were a different matter. She sincerely hoped she wouldn't be put in a situation where she'd have to kill one. It was different, somehow.
Fishing out her cell phone from a pocket to check the time, she heaved another sigh. Reception up here would be spotty at best, and it made her feel cut off from the real world. It was getting late as well. Since the cabin was too unsafe, smelly and drafty to stay in they'd have to set up camp somewhere else before it got dark.
"Okay guys, if you move our stuff in here and find us a good spot for the tent, I'll explore the rest of the place."
She got the flashlight out again. "Let's see what's behind door number two," she said to herself as she pushed it open.
A bathroom. Well, that was anticlimactic. It looked pretty much intact, though very small, and the décor left much to be desired. The mirror had a large crack in it, and the toilet and sink were yellowed and dirty, but otherwise it was all usable.
Or it would be, had there been any running water. She tested the tap, but it didn't so much as groan in response. Next to the toilet was a disintegrated wicker basket with what had once been magazines. Pointing at the mess with her flashlight, she nudged them with a boot and was rewarded with a fresh waft of Eau du Rotten. Yuck.
"Hey, there's a bathroom here," she called out. "Smells worse than any I've ever been in though, and there's no water."
Willow poked her head around the door. "Oh cool, we could fetch water from the lake in a bucket and clean it out. We could use it to wash and brush our teeth and stuff."
"Where's your camping spirit gone, former girl scout Rosenberg?" Buffy joked. "Thought you were looking forward to the rugged life."
Willow grinned. "When we camped in the backyard we'd always run inside to use the toilet and stuff."
Despite the teasing, she was pleased. Trying to do your makeup with only a small pocket mirror available was not an ideal situation, and she'd been unclear on how one would go about maintaining proper hygiene while out in the woods. The sink, despite its current state, was a welcome sight.
"What's behind that one?" Willow asked, nodding down the corridor towards the last door.
"About to find out."
Buffy walked over and opened the door to a yawning chasm of darkness. A damp stairway that appeared to be rotting in places led down into the doom and gloom.
"Basement," Buffy said, resigned. "Of course there's a basement."
"Wow, I don't envy you having to go down there," Willow commented.
"Gee thanks," Buffy said, holding her flashlight up and peering into the darkness. The beam of light did little to illuminate the area and, with a reluctant sigh, Buffy placed a tentative and still aching foot onto the first step, applying pressure to see if it would hold. Satisfied, she put her full weight on the board and winced at the loud groan that came from the long disused plank of wood.
"You'd better stay here where it's safe. I'll check around and make sure we have the all clear."
"No objections to that plan," Willow said, heading off to help Giles.
Buffy sighed again and turned back to the basement. "Okay, here we go."
She pointed the flashlight straight down at each individual step, checking to make sure they were sturdy so she wouldn't fall and break her neck. The wooden railing provided no help as it was rotted away in places and barely clung to the rusty nails holding it in place.
She had to skip one step with a large crack in it that appeared ready to collapse. Getting over that one to the next step safely proved to be a challenge in and of itself. She took a deep breath and instantly regretted it when she inhaled the damp, musky odor clinging to the cabin. Wrinkling her nose in disgust, Buffy pushed away the urge to retreat and continued on. She was only halfway down judging from the still empty blackness in front of her.
Two steps further on her slow descent she heard a rustling sound and paused. There was unsettling silence for a few moments before the rustling came again. Buffy waited, wondering if it was just an animal or something else. Actually, she wasn't sure which was worse after her little chat with Giles and Willow. A few seconds more of silence and there was a low squeaking noise followed by a skittering sound.
Buffy exhaled and gripped her flashlight a little tighter. Rats. It had to be. She tried to imagine them as lots of tiny Amys and forced herself to keep going. She was relieved when she could finally see the floor. Despite a few leaves and a whole lot of dirt, it looked sturdier than the one upstairs.
Having reached the bottom at last, Buffy swept the flashlight around the room. There wasn't much to see down here; a few shelves that were empty but in fairly good condition, wooden chairs and a small table. It seemed like the basement had been used mostly for storage. She spotted a workbench against one wall, the green paint peeling off in flakes that were scattered across the floor. She noticed a smudge mark next to the flakes of paint and bent to investigate. It looked kind of like a footprint.
Wincing in pain from her blisters, Buffy warily turned to investigate the other side of the room. She paused when the beam of her flashlight landed on some indistinct white shape in the shadows. Cautiously, Buffy approached, pulling out her stake with her free hand, feeling instantly better with a weapon. As she got closer, she realized she was looking at a dead body. The skittering noise came from behind her again and she spun around quickly, stake raised and poised to attack.
There was nothing there. Relaxing a little and berating herself for her paranoia, Buffy turned back to the corpse that was—lying on a blanket? And wearing jeans. Black jeans. Tight black jeans. Buffy grimaced and shone the flashlight higher, to the vampire's face. Spike.