Act Four, Part A
Buffy froze as a scream cut through the fresh night air. It wasn't really the best time to freeze, considering where her hand was, and where Faith's hand was, and just how much happy those hands had been bringing right before the scream.
Talk about a mood killer.
"Did you hear that?" she asked, really hoping she had imagined it so they wouldn't have to stop and investigate.
"Yeah," Faith mumbled against her throat. "Just kids mucking aaeound."
"Just kids, lots of candy, sugar rush, perfectly normal." Buffy nodded and sought out Faith's lips again.
It was like a game of pin the Buffy-lips on the Faith-lips every time in the complete darkness. In places the half moon shone through barer trees to illuminate the silver mist rising from the ground, but right here, beneath their tree, every touch had to be fumbled for. Fumbling was underrated, she decided as Faith's soft lips tripped up and over her chin before their mouths connected in another fiery, tongue-heavy kiss.
The scream came again and lasted longer this time. Buffy groaned as she pulled away.
"What if they're not mucking aaround?" she sighed.
"It's Halloween, B!" Faith twisted them so that Buffy ended up against the tree. "Nothing's gonna be in these woods to hurt them anyway."
"Don't believe everything you read in the Slayer handbook, Faaaith." Her name accidentally came out on a high moan as Buffy's head lolled back against the tree trunk, her mouth open. "Oh God, don't stop."
"Finally we agree on something." Buffy could hear the grin in her voice and it made her smile too.
After so long of waiting to be this close, this connected - especially physically, because she was feeling very physically connected to Faith right now, her smile turned into a grin - this felt so good. No, good wasn't strong enough, and great was equally lacking, it was... okay, fantastic would have to do, because no other word was presenting itself; oh, what about magnificent? Tremendously marvelous? Buffy's brain burbled away to itself as she slowly started to lose all sense and reason.
Maybe this would all still backfire on her, maybe Faith was just full of bullshit, maybe this was the biggest mistake of her life, maybe, just in case, she should just shut the hell up and enjoy it.
And do her best to make sure Faith enjoyed it too. "Oh, yeah, Buffy, like that...!"
This time when the scream pierced their ears, it just went on going. Buffy jerked out of the moment, trying to push Faith away.
"No, no, no, no..." Faith murmured, not letting her.
"I know that scream. It's Dawn!" Buffy said urgently.
"Well, she's kid; she's probably just tearing it up with the rest of them," Faith tried to reason.
"I know the difference between happy-Dawn squeals, and her screaming in terror!" Buffy stared into the woods frantically, not having a clue which direction to run in.
"Shit, okay, come on!" Faith grabbed her hand and started running deeper into the trees.
Buffy ran with her, hoping her girlfriend had better sonar than she did.
Dawn had just felt the twin pinpricks of death slide into her neck when the crashing behind her caught up.
At first she assumed it was Buffy running to her rescue, because that's what Buffy did, but it was Kennedy flying out of the trees and landing hard on the Vampire's back, her momentum ripping the fangs painfully from Dawn's skin and leaving her standing there, holding her bleeding neck, shaking, while they both fell to the misty ground fighting.
"A Slayer?" The Count drawled, and sounded far too happy about it for Kennedy's liking. "How so much better than otter blood!"
Nope, definitely not liking the sound of that. Kennedy liked it even less when he floated back up to his feet, laughing at her violent punching and kicking. His body absorbed the blows with no apparent side-effects.
"You are not yet strong, Slayer. Did you only rise tonight?"
"Slayers don't rise!" she grunted angrily, trying to be a little more choosy about where she was landing strikes seeing as her brute strength wasn't doing much but humiliating her. "We get Called!"
"On the contrary. You used to get Called, you used to be special, but now you are as common as the fledgling Vampire and just as easy to destroy. You have spread yourself too thin, Slayer." The Count smiled at her, deflecting hit after hit so fast she barely saw his hands move, just felt them slapping away her own. "But, never mind, you still taste good."
"You have no idea what you're talking about," Kennedy sneered. "There's more of us than ever."
"Exactly. The essence inside you was only ever supposed to be contained by one girl - to make her strong, fast, something of a challenge - now there are many of you, but the essence has not been altered. Your leader turned that opportunity down. Such a shame. The more of your kind that accept the destiny only a few were ever supposed to endure, the easier your army will fall to us; the better we shall dine."
"Can't you stake him already?" Dawn asked, not liking the calm, collected, effortless way this well dressed Vampire was beating Kennedy.
"Little hard without a stake!" Kennedy was already cursing herself for not having one, but she'd been going to a party! On Halloween! The night all her elders had said Vampires didn't venture outside of the cozy little crypts! And okay, so she may have been a little bit tipsy... "How do you know all this anyway?" she demanded.
"I receive the family newsletter." The Count, tired of playing with his food, struck Kennedy in such a way she ended up on her back. He went down onto one knee beside her, staring intently into her eyes and holding her down gently with one hand on her shoulder. Well, he wasn't really holding her down at all; she could get away if she wanted to... when she wanted to... Um?
"What you have received will never be enough, you already know this," he told her softly. "I can give you more. I can see that you receive your true birthright instead of this second-rate mockery of your strength. I can teach you the history of your power, show you the limits and teach you how to overcome them, give you what you need to be true to your ambition!"
"Kennedy!" Dawn shouted at her, trying to get her to move, to do anything but get lost in the Vampire's eyes.
"Not interested," Kennedy told him dreamily.
"Of course you are," he said. "I can feel it rolling off you in waves. The envy you feel, the jealousy, the fear that you will never get what you truly want; what you so greatly desire. The true essence of the Slayer instilled in your soul!"
Kennedy blinked, ripped from the enchantment. "I'm not interested in that."
"Yes, yes you are. I can see the resentment, smell the longing..."
"Yeah, for Willow, you dipshit," Kennedy snapped, her hand groping the mist-covered woodland floor. "I'm already plenty Slayer, thanks."
"I don't understand," The Count's brow furrowed.
"So let me make it simpler."
Kennedy thrust up with the pine branch she'd found. It wasn't the most effective stake, being a little bendy, but the Count didn't stick around to see if it would have worked or not. He dissolved into silver mist, matching what was already laying ankle high from the ground.
"You fool! This is a decision you will soon regret!" His disembodied voice promised her before that too disappeared completely.
Dawn helped her up, both of them looking around at the trees to see where he had gone to, and more importantly, if he was coming back.
"Well, that was..." Kennedy didn't finish her sentence as she brushed debris from her shoulders. "Are you okay?"
"Nothing a band aid won't fix. I hope. What happened to you there? You, like, froze! That's not normal Slayer behavior."
"I don't know what happened," Kennedy admitted. "I just... didn't really want to fight him."
"Well, the stuff he was saying, it was interesting, some of it."
"What?" Dawn asked louder. "He was a blood-sucking fiend! My blood sucking fiend! And I'm pretty sure he was on drugs too. That's not interesting, that's scary."
"Maybe," Kennedy looked back again and then set her sight forward, wherever the hell forward was, "Come on, let's try and find our way to the road."
"Okay, please Kennedy, tell me the only reason you don't seem traumatized by what just happened is because you are so traumatized it's like reverse psychology on your brain or something?"
"I'm fine, Dawn. I staked him, didn't it?"
"I just wish I knew what he was talking about. About the essence and birthright and stuff."
"That's what you have a Watcher for," Dawn reminded her.
"Yeah, except I haven't had a Watcher since mine got gutted by Bringers last year," Kennedy reminded her right back.
"Oh yeah," Dawn murmured uncomfortably.
Rona had kept running until she was pretty sure no one was following her, but it was hard to be sure with all the noise coming from the main rooms in the house. What the hell was going on out there? Surely her knocking a picture down hadn't caused this much fuss?
She had a feeling the mysterious group she thought she'd been so stealthily following, had made it out into the party and were causing whatever kind of trouble they'd been planning in the library. Which made her feel like an idiot seeing as she gotten herself trapped inside the walls looking for them.
The tunnel - well it was starting to feel like a tunnel now, pushing in on her with its darkness - had taken a few left and right turns while she'd been running for her life, and now she had no clue whereabouts in the house she might be. Not that she really cared where she popped out now, she just wanted to pop out alive.
And that likelihood got less likely again when the sound of scurrying met her ears once more. She stopped, thinking, 'For Christ sake!' and wondered whether to turn and run the other way again, but she'd had enough now. She was a Slayer, and she might not be much of one yet, but it still had to count for something.
All this running away was starting to seriously dent her pride!
She pulled the wooden spoon out of her pocket and stood her ground, waiting for the scurrying to come closer.
Reece had lost his bearings somewhat inside the house, but he felt like he must have made at least a circuit of it by now with the way the corridor kept twisting and turning.
He'd been steadily following the scampering footsteps for a while, speeding up when they did, and slowing down likewise. The occasional muffled cursing he could hear had convinced him it wasn't Rona he was following, or anyone else American for that matter, and he didn't know why this person - or thing, quite possibly - was running around here behind the walls, but he felt it was his duty as a member of the Watcher's Council of England to find out.
He had no weapons on him, but he did have some loose change in his trouser pocket. He scooped it up in his hand and rattled it gently until it was a nice roll in his fist. He didn't know how effective it was, he'd only ever seen it done in films, but it did make his hand feel heavier and hopefully it would pack a punch.
He turned another almost pitch dark corner and realized the scampering footsteps had stopped not far up ahead. He could hear harsh, anxious breathing and the smell of vodka invaded his senses again.
From the very faint light coming through the slit of a window at the far end of the corridor, Reece could see a silhouette. The figure was taller than he would have given the footsteps credit for, but not as tall as he was. They appeared to be waiting for him, but there was a chance, as he was in the deeper darkness, they didn't know how close he was.
This was it then. Holding his breath he inched closer, raising his money clenching fist in the air in case he was attacked before he was ready to attack.
'This is it then," he repeated to himself. 'Time to see if I've got what it takes.'
"This is stupid!" Buffy dug her heels in and pulled on Faith's hand to get her to stop running. "For all we know we're going around in circles. We're never going to find Dawn this way."
"Well at least the screaming stopped," Faith tried to reassure her. "That's... probably a good thing."
Okay, so she wasn't very good at the reassuring thing, but Buffy would give her points for effort later, when she wasn't so worried about her little sister.
"What if it's not a good thing?" Buffy spun around, but in the dark every way looked the same. They all had trees and mist and stupid amounts of obscurity. "What if she's...?"
"Hey," Faith cut her off soothingly. "No point thinking like that. Don't you have your phone on you?"
"Huh? What? My phone?" Buffy worked through the problem as quickly as possible. "My phone! I do! It's in your pocket!"
Faith wisely didn't waste time asking how it had ended up in her pocket - because Buffy hadn't brought a handbag and there was only room in her cleavage for her money - and just dug it out. Buffy took it almost before Faith could hand it over and pressed the speed dial button for her sister's number.
"Come on!" she muttered urgently, pacing between the trees.
"Dawn! Dawn, is that you?" Buffy shouted into the phone, not caring about her sister's attachment to her hearing.
"Whoa, Buffy? Yeah it's me. Of course it's me. It's my phone. What's wrong?"
"I heard you screaming. Are you okay? What happened?"
"How did you hear me screaming? Where are you?"
"I'm in the woods... somewhere." Buffy looked around as if that would tell her. "Where are you?"
"Also in the woods somewhere."
"But you're okay? Why were you screaming?"
"Uh, the woods are scary at night and, uh, there was this bat and it made me scream, but I'm okay now."
Dawn was hiding something, Buffy just knew it.
"Well, what are you doing in the woods alone?"
"I'm not alone; I'm with Kennedy."
Buffy frowned. "Okay, what are you doing in the woods with Kennedy? You shouldn't be in the woods at this time of night, Dawn. Kenny knows you're not supposed to go patrolling unless I agree to it first."
"We weren't patrolling. We were running, uh, walking, uh, taking a shortcut home from the party."
"Through the thick woods over a mile from Boudenver?" Buffy's frown deepened. "Where exactly was this party?"
As Dawn hesitated, Buffy saw Faith grinning at her and rolled her eyes.
"Okay, let me make this simple for you. I'm supposed to be on a date tonight, a date that was going very well until ten minutes ago when I heard you screaming your head off. Now you have two choices: Tell me the truth about this party and all you'll get is me being pissed off when I finally get out of these woods and home, or don't tell me the truth and you're grounded until Christmas."
"You can't ground me; I'm nearly seventeen!"
"I beg to differ, baby-sister. Mom was still grounding me when I was eighteen. And if you refuse to do as you are told, I'll just get Giles to stop paying you research money, and I'll make sure no one gives you a ride anywhere and if you even thinking about getting your friends to pick you up, I'll get Xander to lay bear traps on the driveway - front and back."
As there was a deep sigh from the other end of the phone, Faith nuzzled her neck from behind, whispering, "I take it back, you getting your guardian on is hot!"
Buffy giggled and shushed Faith so she could listen to Dawn's fantastical tale about her night. Except not that fantastical, because she should have really known something like what Dawn was describing would happen, because when on Halloween didn't it?
It hadn't taken long for every teenager in the house to figure out something they hadn't signed up for was going on, from 'ghosts' in the wall to panthers and wolves running around and Mummies and bats and foreign dudes trying to electrocute them.
They'd all fled as fast as their little legs could take them and as Owen was joined in the center of the ballroom by his sheepish friends, all that was left of them was the squealing of tires on the gravel drive outside.
"Well..." Owen began looking around at them all.
Zeke's tail gently thumped the floor in embarrassment. Ptah held his bandages above his downcast eyes. Victor fiddled with his sleeves and fidgeted in his guilt and his friend just stared at the far wall, not meeting anyone's eyes. The Count whistled casually between his fangs to hide his smile.
Igor finished his tune with a discordant thump of the keys, left the piano and jumped cheerfully off of the stage.
"Well," he called, gamboling jovially over to them. "I think tonight wath a roaring thucceth for human/thupernatural relationth everywhere, don't you think?"
The shamefaced tension broke on his joke and even Owen found himself laughing.
"Come," he said, still smiling. "The monsters left us a little food. Let us take some though to the drawing room and have a drink."
As they all grabbed dishes and bowls and bottles, the Count asked casually,
"So where is Paddy? Is he still chasing the humans off?"
Owen looked around, realizing he hadn't seen him all night. "Oh dear."
Paddy was cornered, trapped; there was nowhere left to run.
His legs were tired, his drunken good cheer had long since been on the wane and he'd eaten his glow worm hours ago... It hadn't tasted as good as it looked.
He'd been racing around these dark, dusty house innards ever since disappointingly realizing he wasn't tall enough to reach the handle lever to the wine cellar door, and then more alarmingly realizing he couldn't reach the handle lever to any of the bleedin' doors!
It had been scary enough to think that he was going to have to wander these lonely passageways alone all night; but nowhere near as scary as finding he wasn't so alone after all.
There were kids in here with him. Kids! The cruelest creatures known to earth. And they'd been hunting him all night long. Sometimes stalking him, sometimes trying to run him down. He didn't know how many, but if had to guess, he'd say at least a dozen were in the walls with him. They were everywhere. It didn't matter how fast he scurried, or how many turns he made, there was always one there, either in front or behind, watching, waiting, ready to get him.
And now he was done for, they'd got him, sandwiched him between them and there was no lucky side corridor to dash down this time. Trembling with fright, he held his long carving knife out in front of him again.
"Let dem try an' use me for a football dis time. Clap if they can toss me aboyt wi' only wan 'and!" Paddy muttered under his breath, tensed and ready for a scuffle.
Hearing what sounded like a muttered threat, Rona leapt in from one side and Reece from the other, both figuring they should end it before the other could start it.
Reece's coin-filled fist sailed high over Paddy's head and landed hard on Rona's cheek. She yelped in pain, but it didn't stop her wooden spoon's harmless trajectory over Paddy's head from slapping with a sharp sting against Reece's nose.
Paddy looked up fearfully at the commotion above him and realized they seemed strangely intent on beating the blazes out of each other. Was he supposed to join in? If he could knock one of the silly beggers over, he could stand on them to reach a door handle.
"Nah. Feck dis 'assle!" he decided and, pushing his way through Rona's legs, he ran for it again.
"What the hell...?" Rona stopped trying to push her spoon up Reece's nose when she felt something go roughly between her legs, nearly making her lose her balance.
"Rona?" Reece let go of her shirt and lowered his fist.
"Reece?" Rona sounded even more surprised than he did. "Is that you? Why are you attacking me?"
Reece relaxed his grip on the coins. His hand hurt from punching with them. "I thought you were something else. Why are you trying to stir my nostril?"
Rona pulled the wooden implement away from his face. "Me too. I was following a something else, but somehow they ended up following me."
"So if we were both following it, where is it?" Reece turned to look around him but it was impossible to make out anything more than faint outlines in the dark.
Rona looked behind her, remembering the sensation of something pushing between her knees. "Shush!"
Reece obeyed automatically and instantly they could both pick out the sound of scampering feet echoing away from them.
"After you," Reece gestured courteously.
Rona rolled her eyes. "Try and keep up."
"I'll do my best," Reece muttered to himself as Rona raced off ahead of him.
"It doesn't matter that I told her now, right?" Dawn asked again, partly for something to say and partly because the intricacies of social etiquette were still eating at the back of her brain. "I mean the party's over. It's not really like I snitched or anything, right?"
Kennedy walked indifferently beside her, hands in her pockets, eyes on the trees as they loomed out of the mist towards them. "Well, you told Buffy where it was, when it was, who some of the guests were and some of the stuff that happened."
Dawn frowned pitifully at her, not liking her chances now the charges against her were being read aloud. "It's not like I had any choice! And I didn't rat out any of my friends, well, except you and Reece. Sorry." Dawn tried an ingratiating smile now, but was surprised Kennedy even flicked her eyes around to receive it. "The only other guests I mentioned were the alternative ones."
Kennedy shrugged off her apology. "I don't answer to Buffy. Not when it comes to my personal life anyway."
"I think she's madder that you took me with you to an unsupervised party in an abandoned house."
"I took you?" Kennedy asked. "You told her I dragged your protesting, innocent butt to the Halloween party you didn't even bother inviting me to?"
"Not exactly," Dawn hedged. "That was just the conclusion she leaped to; and I swear she had to make a real big leap from what I said to... to there."
Kennedy rolled her eyes and actually grinned a little bit. "I'm gonna tell her I only found out at the last minute and insisted on coming so I could keep an eye on you. That should cover me if Willow asks why I went without saying anything too." Adding in a lower voice, "Though that's a pretty big 'If'."
"Maybe not," Dawn said, grinning optimistically. "I mean she must have missed you by now."
"If she has, it's not bothering her too much. I've been checking my phone every half hour since we left home and I haven't had any 'Where the hell are you?' texts yet. She's obviously too tired out from her day to care where I am."
Dawn wasn't sure what to say. She wanted to contest Kennedy's assumptions, if only on the basis that she knew Willow better than the new Slayer, but that was just the thing, she did know Willow better and it made the assumptions kind of hard to contest. She would have texted or called if she was worried, surely, so the lack of contact had to mean she was distracted by something else, something the Witch felt was more important. Not exactly an ego-booster; Dawn winced on Kennedy's behalf.
Kennedy looked over after the long silence, obviously expecting some response.
Dawn shrugged. "At least you care again. That's a start, right?" In the dim light of the moon, she saw Kennedy's features harden, and realized she may have been a little blunter than she had meant to be. "Oh, I didn't mean that... that..."
Kennedy let her off the hook with a little shrug of her shoulders. "Don't bother, you have a point. I know I haven't been much with the caring and sharing recently. Sorry."
Dawn chuckled nervously. "Why are you apologizing to me for?"
"I'm not sure," Kennedy admitted. "But I know I've been pissing you off, and I'm not quite sure how, but I figure it's a side effect of my terminal black cloud."
"What makes you say that?"
"Because apparently I'm pissing a lot of people off," Kennedy muttered, adding sarcastically, "Just by being myself; quite the achievement."
"That's just it, Kennedy. You haven't been yourself."
"That's what your boyfriend said. All of a sudden everyone knows me better than I do."
"Maybe you knew, you just didn't want to admit it."
"Maybe I was just burying my head in the sand, you mean? Waiting for my problems to solve themselves? Pretending I don't care so that when Willow dumps me for Osborne nobody will guess how much it bothers me?"
"Well, it was just a theory," Dawn said uncomfortably.
The woods were quiet apart from the cry of some night bird warning his friends of their approach.
"So it would bother you?"
"Of course it would bother me," Kennedy muttered.
"Only, that's kinda news to me, which means it's probably news to Willow too."
"Yeah, well I don't do things by halves."
"Except love Willow."
Kennedy didn't shrug off Dawn's bluntness this time; she stopped walking and leveled her with a fierce glare. Dawn didn't back down either, or apologize. If Kennedy was ready to talk about this now, she was gonna talk, and shying away from the more dangerous comments wouldn't do her any favors. Of course, it might not do Dawn any either, but she was trying to be a friend here! Plus there was the fact that Kennedy had pissed her off tonight, even before she'd caught her on the bed with Reece.
"Well?" she asked, when Kennedy just kept glaring. "Do you love her or not? Because it seems like you don't give a crap one minute, and then are all worried she's gonna leave you the next."
"I give a crap!" Kennedy said slowly, but angrily. "I give a big freaking crap. It's her that doesn't."
"So you do love her?"
Kennedy finally looked away and Dawn breathed a silent sigh of relief. Not that she'd really been worried... but Kennedy had one hell of glare on her. Kinda like Buffy's.
"Yeah, I'm in love with her. Really, really in love with her," Kennedy said softly. "And I don't wanna lose her."
Even more relieved, Dawn smiled. "Thank goodness for that. For a while there I thought I was going to have to find a way to kill you in your sleep."
Kennedy looked back at her in surprise. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Dawn frowned as she tried to find the best way to explain. "I love Willow. Ever since Mom died, she's sort of filled that role in a way. Don't get me wrong, I know Buffy tries hard, and she's good with the strict, but it's always been Willow that really got me, you know? It was always her that, her little dark patch aside, made sure I was... nurtured..."
Kennedy smiled and frowned at that at the same time. "Come again?"
Dawn rolled her eyes. "I don't know how else to explain it. Sure, Buffy cared for me, and put a roof over my head and food in my tummy and made sure I went to school and made sure I was safe from evil creatures and stuff, but it was Willow and Tara that made time for me and listened to me when I was upset, even if it was about stupid stuff, and... and when they split up it was awful... almost like my dad leaving all over again."
Confused, Kennedy stepped closer. "I don't get what that has to do with..."
"When Tara died it was even worse than when Buffy did!" Dawn knew she wasn't explaining this well - hello, there had been reasons why she'd shied away from having this conversation with Kennedy, the 'near tears' feeling she was having right now at merely the memory of last year being just one of them. "I don't mean just for me. I was devastated when Buffy died, but she came back! I knew Tara never would... she never will... and it nearly killed Willow, literally! It ripped out her heart."
Kennedy stepped back again, throwing up her arms. "If it's not Oz, it's Tara! I am so sick of hearing those names! Can you see why I've been acting so crazy lately? I love Will and I'm trying to be with her, but I'm constantly getting her exes shoved down my throat; and now my supposed best friend is threatening to kill me in my sleep because I'm not Tara-the-freakin'-wonder-Goddess!"
Dawn slapped Kennedy's face hard, surprising them both.
Kennedy swiftly raised her hand to retaliate and Dawn flinched back. Sighing angrily, she rubbed her stinging cheek instead as she bit off, "You get a free one because I was being stupidly insensitive. Now get to your point."
"It's simple," Dawn said, her voice trembling a little. "I don't ever want to see Willow hurt like that again. Especially not if it can be avoided."
"I think you're over-estimating my ability to hurt Willow," Kennedy said more casually than she felt, and started walking along the rabbit track they'd found again.
Dawn walked right behind her. "Of course you can hurt her, you are hurting her! That's my point! After Tara, none of us ever thought she'd love again, seriously, she was that screwed up. But then she met you."
"She doesn't love me."
"Maybe, maybe not, I don't really know," Dawn admitted. "But I do know she's been happier in the last six months than she was for the six months before that. Maybe it's too soon for her to be in love again, I'm not an expert, but you are making her happy. Or you were, until you started acting like a dick!"
Kennedy turned and smacked Dawn on the back of the head.
She shied away from the stinging blow. "Hey, I thought I got a free one?"
"You already used that up and I'm pretty sure neither Willow or Buffy or Tara would like you using that language," Kennedy smirked.
Dawn rolled her eyes again and upped her pace so that she could walk next to Kennedy. "So does this mean we're friends again?"
Kennedy shrugged. "Can't speak for you, but I never stopped."
"Cool, so what are you going to do to get Willow back?"
Kennedy paused again, looking worried. "Do I have to do anything? I mean, do you really think I lost her already?"
Stumped, Dawn gave her a regretful look. "I don't know; maybe?"
Willow went around the living room lighting candles with a long thin stove lighter, craning her neck first this way and then that so she could keep Oz in sight as she told her tale.
"I've never seen anything like it before, and I've been a ghost!" she gestured emphatically with the lit pointy thing, her voice rising with excitement as she remembered.
"They weren't ghosts though, were they?" Xander said. He'd moved to the other end of the couch now that Willow wasn't sitting there; which was less weird than him and Oz sitting so close to each other in just their underwear. "They were... what were they again?"
"Poltergeists, I think Giles said. Spirit manifestations of the children this old woman had abused while she was looking after them. Buffy and Riley woke them when they were having lots of the sex and stuff." She grinned before asking, "Do you remember Riley?"
"Vaguely," Oz nodded. "Big guy? Psyche TA?"
"That's him." Willow nodded too. "He and Buffy started dating just after you, uh, left..."
She refrained from adding the 'me' to the end of that sentence. After all, it wasn't like he would have forgotten and she'd made her peace with his decision when she'd chosen to stay with Tara, no need to bring it all up again. She carried a couple of apple-scented candles from the bookcase to the coffee table and lit them.
"And they woke up really cranky!" she continued.
"And horny... scarily horny." Xander shuddered. "I will never be able to play an innocent game of Spin the Bottle ever again."
Oz smiled. "What did they do?"
"Well, I didn't see Spin the Bottle," Willow said a little enviously. She'd never played the game before, and while the grown up part of her brain told her it was silly and childish and she had missed absolutely nothing, something deeper admitted it would have been nice to at least have been asked, just once in her adolescent years, to play. "But they made everyone act weird. There... there was an orgasm wall apparently," she blushed a little at saying that word in front of Oz. "And... and some people were kissing indiscriminately."
"While others were in a closet cutting their hair off," Xander put in.
"And little ghost boys were getting baptized in baths," Willow remembered with a frown.
"And people were just zombie-ing out and speaking all biblical and stuff," Xander said.
"And when I put my hand on Tara's knee, she, like, totally freaked out and ran off." Willow's frown deepened and she set her gaze on the quiet television.
She'd been talking about Tara a lot tonight. It was only natural, she supposed; after all, they were swapping ghost and horror stories of the last few years with Oz, and Tara had been around for most of them. Like the time Jonathan had become Super-Jonathan, and the time they'd brought Buffy back from the dead... they probably should have left that one to last. The sex-ghosts were a good story, but it wasn't going to top Hellions and ripping people from the beyond. Although, Oz hadn't looked very happy when Willow had described the feeling of the snake coming out of her mouth so maybe it was better to finish with something a little lighter.
"And then, when all that fun was over," Xander had taken up the story in her silence. "The house started shaking, like the Earth had chosen just that spot to quake on, and we all had to run for our lives."
Shrugging the discomfort away, it wasn't like Kennedy was around to get upset about it anyway, Willow came back to the couch and perched on the arm next to Xander.
"But once we were outside, we realized Buffy and Riley were still in his bedroom," she said.
"They kept on going right through the earthquake?" Oz grinned. "That takes some stamina."
"I think they thought the earth was just moving for them," Xander grinned back.
"But it wasn't, obviously." Willow tucked her bare feet under Xander's thigh; it was getting chilly. Underwear parties in Cleveland in the Fall were not a good idea, she decided. "So then we went to get Giles, and he was..." she paused so that Oz would get the gravity of what she was about to say. "...singing!"
Oz cocked his head at her slightly. "In the shower?"
"In public!" Xander said with another shudder. "And therein lies the horror in this story."
"I thought it was the horny ghost children."
Xander shook his head and Willow leaned forward enough to hit his shoulder.
"He's a good singer! And he plays the guitar! You're just jealous."
"You'll have to forgive Will. She has a little crush on AcousticRock-Giles."
"I do not!" She denied hotly, feeling her cheeks growing warm. "I just think it's kinda sexy," she admitted in a quieter voice.
"I always figured," Oz said.
"What?" Willow asked in alarm. "What made you figure that?"
"Well he owned a bunch of classic vinyl for one; he obviously had a good ear for music..."
"Oh, that kind of figuring, that's okay then." Willow breathed a sigh of relief with no idea why.
Why would it matter if Oz figured out she'd had a totally innocent crush on Buffy's Watcher in high school that had admittedly resurfaced for about fifteen minutes when she'd watched him performing at the Espresso Pump? Just like why would it matter if Kennedy caught her saying Tara's name more than once per nostalgic conversation? It wouldn't. She was just on edge because things were weird. Oz was back, and that was strange-making all on its own. And Kennedy was being... awkward, or maybe just Kennedy, she hadn't figured that out yet. And where was she anyway?
Willow glanced at her watch. It wasn't really late yet, but she'd been back hours! It would have been nice to get a message, if not a phone call, from her girlfriend to say where she was and an estimate on what time she'd be back. She leaned to the side to pick her beer from the coffee table and took a long desolate swallow. Maybe Xander was onto something with his drowning the pain thing.
"So what happened after that?" Oz prompted her, seeming to sense her mood change.
"Well the usual research thing," she shrugged. "Then we went to see the old lady."
"And what an old lady she was," Xander grimaced. "She seemed like a sweet old Grandma to start with, but I tell you, if any chick should be forced to live in a shoe, it was her."
"Yeah, she was horrible," Willow agreed. "But Anya pushed her for the dirt and we got to the bottom of it. And then while me, Tara and Giles called up the ghost kids - which was way spookier than I like my spooks if you're wondering..."
"Ahn and I went back to the house," Xander said. "Then, some much strenuous cutting through thorny vines and yours truly nearly getting drowned in the bathtub later, we eventually made it to Riley's bedroom door."
"And?" Oz was leaning forward, engaged in the tale.
It was a rare sight and Willow loved him like this. He'd always saved this level of interest for the more life-threatening monster discussions or their own heart to hearts and it was nice to have him hanging on her every word again, or in this case Xander's, but same difference.
"Well, knocking got us nowhere but stabbed by more vines, so I opened the door..."
"What were they doing? Had they realized what was going?"
Xander's eyebrows went up at the first question. "Well they were doing what any normal healthy people do when they're behind their bedroom door, and no, no clue whatsoever, as was proven by the five minutes Buffy spent shouting at me about privacy and the rules of knocking."
Oz chuckled and reached forward to grab his beer from the table. "If I'd known the rest of Freshman year was going to be so interesting..."
He left the sentence hanging, casting an almost sheepish glance Willow's way. It was an unusual expression on him, but totally endearing. Strangely, it made her need to mention Tara yet again.
"Interesting in a really bad way. It was so interesting I'm surprised Tara ever even spoke to me again! It freaked her out a lot; she still wasn't really used to our lives back then."
"See, now I think of that night more fondly." Xander smiled, surprising her. "Before the party, Anya was on the verge of realizing I was never going to make her happy and she was about to leave me for greener orgasmic pastures. Until, that is, the little hormonal, homicidal phantoms made her forget that stellar idea." Xander's smile turned sad, but it was still a smile. "Maybe I should have just let her go."
"No," Willow said firmly, prodding him with her toes. "You shouldn't have."
"Might have saved her a lot of bother in the long run."
"You would have robbed her of a lot of happiness too," Willow countered.
Xander shrugged and said quietly, "What is it Watchers say; the end justifies the means?"
"Only the bad ones or the ones who think they have no choice."
Xander shrugged again. "Well I wouldn't really know, not being one and all."
He sounded bitter, and Willow didn't know why. Long gone were the days that she could read him like a book. Actually, she still could, but there were passages in that book that took time to translate and a spur of the moment interpretation could lead to her getting it completely wrong.
Oz made a small noise like he was clearing his throat, probably aware of the sudden tension in the candle-lit room.
"That's some ghost story, but now it's my turn." Willow gave him a grateful smile over Xander's head as he changed the subject and he returned it with a warm smile of his own. "So, I was in Istanbul, chasing down a shape-shifter. He was supposed to be primo when it came to fluidity and I was hoping he'd teach me a few things. The address I had was for an abandoned monastery, only when I got there I could tell it wasn't as abandoned as everyone thought..."
"...For fifty years I have reserved that abandoned monastery in Istanbul every summer." The Count sniffed in disgust and took a sip of his brandy-laced blood. "I thought I had a rapport with the townsfolk - I stayed away from their virgins and they stayed away from me - and then they have the audacity to give my whereabouts to some tourist!"
"Did he come with a flaming torch?" Victor asked sympathetically. "My villagers are always sending men with flaming torches to my door. It's like they have forgotten that without me they would never have discovered the joys of electricity. So ungrateful."
"Perhapth they're thtill a little thore about the way you introduced them to electricity," Igor said with a roll of his lopsided eyes.
"It was only a little fire," Victor said hastily. "And I sent you and the lad down to help them put it out."
"I still hear the screams," his friend intoned ominously.
They were gathered in the living room now, spread out comfortably on the various items of antique furniture, as they drank and talked of better times and swapped scary human stories.
"I can't even remember the last time I saw a flaming torch," Zeke was lying on the hearth rug again - he liked hearth rugs - lazily poking at the fire he'd persuaded Owen to light. "Don't get much of that sort of thing where I live now. Don't get much of anything, really." He mused, resting his head on his paws. "It's kinda lonely."
"That's because you choose to live in a log cabin fifty miles from any kind of civilization. What do you expect?" Ptah asked as he finished another lettuce and tomato sandwich and washed it down with a Vodka and soda water.
"It wasn't my idea, my last shrink suggested it. Better to be away from all temptation for a while, he said. What's your excuse for shutting yourself up in that big, sealed pyramid all the time?"
"Its home; and besides, I'm never lonely. I have the souls of fifty soldiers and twenty handmaidens to keep me company." He sighed ruefully. "I'm actually considering moving to a smaller tomb for some peace and quiet."
"What about you, Olwyn?" Igor asked their host. He'd been rather quiet since they'd all settled down. "Do you get lonely living in this huge, old house by yourself?"
Owen sipped from his brandy, smiling slightly. "No, I like the quiet. And I have friends in town who are most convivial if I wish it. And I have never suffered with the mobs and the lone hunters as you all have."
"That's because you're one of the good guys." Zeke's tail thumped the floor a few times as he grinned.
"Yes, but it has its downsides." The Count smiled. "You can never truly know the meaning of adrenaline until you are chased across rooftops by pitchforks and flaming torches."
There was a murmur of nostalgic agreement from everyone.
"Well, I think after the show we put on tonight, I may know of that pleasure sooner than you think," Owen replied, trying not to worry about it.
"This must be the driveway," Buffy said as the trees finally gave way to gravel.
"Lets hope so, 'cause I'm getting sick a' trekking through a damn forest in the dark," Faith complained. "So what did Dawn tell you we should expect again?"
"A whole garden variety of monsters apparently. She was a little jumbled to be honest. She said there was definitely a Vampire. I think she said a mutant bat chased her. And Kennedy saw a werewolf, a black panther and a Mummy." Buffy ticked the list off on her fingers, grinning. "Just your typical Halloween bedlam."
"A Mummy?" Faith frowned. "Never met a Mummy before."
"I have." Buffy started to lead the way up the gravel drive. "In fact, she stayed at my house for a while."
Faith glanced at her, figuring there had to be a story there, but it could wait. "So Mummies aren't evil?"
"Depends how you define evil, I guess. She killed people, but if you go into the shades of grey area you could kinda see that she didn't have a choice, or she did, but not one that any sixteen year old should have to make."
"Okay, so do we kill this Mummy or not?" Faith checked. "Considering the whole ambiguity thing?"
"What exactly are you planning on killing it with?"
"I don't know," Faith shrugged. "What kills Mummies?"
"No, I meant do you have any weapons at all on you? Because I know I don't."
Faith's shoulders slumped a little, "No. I guess that was pretty stupid, huh?"
"Don't feel bad." Buffy slipped her hand into Faith's. "It's not like we expected to be clearing up after Dawn tonight. We're supposed to be on a date, and I have no problem with you not bringing weapons on our dates."
Faith chuckled, squeezing Buffy's hand a little. "So we're just gonna have to be creative. Make good use of the weapons we were born with. Dawn say anything else helpful?"
"Only that she thought something magick might have happened, and that the house seemed less abandoned when they left than when they arrived." Buffy said, frowning at the lack of help that gave them.
"Well it would do after a party," Faith shrugged. "Uh, how exactly do you fight a bat?"
"I've no idea."
The house came into sight now. A magnificent mansion, bathed in the light of the half moon, it looked spooky and mysterious despite the soft light coming through the first floor windows."
"You ever been here before?" Faith asked, as they both stopped to take it in.
"No, but Xander has and he said it was derelict with a capital D," Buffy breathed.
"Doesn't look so derelict right now. I've lived in derelict. This looks pretty brand-freakin'-new."
"Aside from the fact that it's a big Gothic mansion, you're right." Buffy nodded. Taking a deep breath, she added, "Shall we?"
"Yeah, why not."
Faith let go of Buffy's hand, wanting both free just in case something surprised them, but she stayed close as they walked towards the open front door. Her eyes scanned around warily in case anything was lurking in the bushes.
"Hey, wait a sec. Isn't that your truck?"
"I don't have a..." Buffy began before she saw what Faith did. "That's the Slayer Wagon!"
"No ones come up with a better name yet," Buffy said absently as she walked over to it. "We use it for distance patrols. And, FYI, it's your truck too now."
"Guess this is what Dawn and her pals came in," Faith said as she looked through the passenger window into the dark interior.
"But I know why Dawn didn't use it. A: she can't drive yet and B: she was being chased by a bat. But she said she thought everyone was out, so how come no one used it?"
"Maybe they all got chased out and didn't have the chance?"
"Or maybe whoever had the keys didn't make it out?" Buffy looked up at the house again. "She did say she didn't know where Reece was."
"Guess we got some rescuing to do then, too." Faith started for the front door again.
"But Reece?" Buffy groaned as she followed her. "Do we have to?"
Paddy ran up a narrow stone stairway to the second floor of the house, using hands and feet to balance himself in the complete dark.
"Surely they won't folly me up 'ere?" he muttered, his breathing ragged now from all the running.
Behind him, he heard a lad shout: "It went left! I saw a flash of something go to the left!"
And an annoyed lass shout back: "I know! Damn! Watch out for the steps!"
Muttering angrily to himself all the while, Paddy started dashing between the walls of the upper floor.
"Did we lose it?" Reece was panting as he tumbled up the top couple of steps after Rona.
It was pitch black up here, so the sweat running into his eyes at least wasn't impairing his vision, but his lips tasted salty and his shirt was stuck to his back. All in all, this wasn't as much fun now as it had started out.
Rona was standing quietly by his side, not even breathing hard yet. It was enviously impressive.
"This way, I think," she said and took off running again.
With one hand on the wall for orientation and the other out in front of him in case of obstacles, Reece followed as fast as he could.
"What do you think it is?"
"Don't know, still new at this," she replied.
"As it's running away, is there a chance it's not dangerous?" he asked next, wondering if they could give this up and get back on the right side of the walls before the party was completely over.
"It might not be. The big carving knife I saw probably is."
"It has a weapon?" Reece hadn't known that, and while he realized this meant they couldn't give up the chase, he couldn't help wanting to a little more.
He didn't much fancy being attacked by some unidentified creature with an edged weapon. Especially in the dark when it could come at them from any angle. The fact that they were chasing it right now held little comfort thanks to the way the corridor kept twisting and turning. Now and then he could feel a strong draught wash over him and he knew they were running past side passages that they couldn't even see. All the thing had to do was duck into one of them and then stab as they ran past.
"Are you sure it's still in front of us?"
"I hope so," she grunted, adding sharply, "Two, ow, three steps up. Don't really want it behind me."
"Are you worried about the knife?" he asked, relieved he wasn't the only one.
"I have a spoon! Of course I'm worried about the knife!"
"A spoon?" Reece grinned despite the burning in his lungs. "That's a novel choice of weapon."
"It's wooden, I thought I was following a Vampire and my options were limited." She sounded pissed off with him, but was still good enough to groan out: "Holy... Sharp right!" before he could copy her by slamming into a solid brick wall.
"Yes, but that's what you attacked me with? A wooden spoon?"
"Consider yourself lucky I didn't find a wooden stake instead!"
"I do," he promised her sincerely, "But, a wooden spoon? That's a pretty daft weapon..." and then the floor went out from under him and there was nothing but air beneath his feet. "What the...?"
He felt himself drop and his feet hit solid ground again after a moment of freefall. Shaky, but unharmed, he gripped the wall tight with both hands, having to pause momentarily to get over the unexpected three foot plunge.
Rona was laughing up ahead. "Sorry, four steps down. Forgot to warn you."
"Bet you did," Reece muttered under his breath, deciding it might be beneficial to just follow her in silence for a while, less chance of pissing her off and breaking his ankle that way; besides, he didn't doubt a wooden spoon could do a lot of damage if she wanted it to.
They were having a humorous argument over whether to play Pictionary or Charades - Iggy was of course pushing for Twister, as he did every year - when Zeke suddenly lifted his nose to the air.
"Hang on," he said, holding up a paw.
The rest of the gentlemen looked at each other and around them, wondering what he had sensed that they hadn't.
"Is it Paddy?" Owen asked quietly. His absence was still a mystery, and one could only hope he had simply found a dark corner to sleep off the vodka in.
"No, not Paddy," Zeke shook his head. "But someone..."
"We're about to have some more company," the Count smiled, his fangs showing. "How nice."
Zeke sniffed the air again and his tail banged the carpet a few times "Women, I think."
"Well, that'th better than charadeth," Iggy grinned.
"Oh dear," Owen groaned, fearing the worst.
Up the front steps littered with untidy pumpkins and an unkempt plastic skeleton the two slayers crept, into a foyer brightly lit by a glittering chandelier.
"Pretty," Buffy breathed, glancing up at it.
Faith smiled at her. "Wouldn't wanna be the guy who has to light all those candles though," she whispered back. "And what the hell kind of music were these kids listening to?"
Buffy took a second to listen. "Sounds orchestral. Maybe it's classical Goth or something."
Her Wonder Woman boots made a sharp tapping noise on the shiny tiles as she walked deeper into the roomy entrance hall. From here she could see into the grand ballroom through its double doors, and the far end of the lavish banquet was within sight.
"Look at all that food!" Faith said appreciatively as she came up behind her. "Think anyone's gonna eat it now?"
Buffy shrugged. "Hard to say. I don't think there are any kids left in here, but I also don't think that's the kind of spread high-schoolers lay out for the average keg party. I think it's better to resist temptation than find ourselves in a Goldilocks situation later."
Faith had wandered into the ballroom but did no more than look around before joining Buffy again. "Okay, but I don't think there's anyone still here, B."
"There does seem to be a distinct lack of monsters," Buffy agreed, opening a closet door to find nothing more than shoes.
Faith walked down a short corridor, pushing open random doors that all led to empty rooms. In one of them a bottle of champagne, three quarters full, sat in the middle of a desk. Shrugging, she grabbed it and strolled back to the foyer, meeting Buffy at the foot of a grand, central staircase.
"Think Goldilocks'll mind if I drink this?" She held the bottle up.
"From what I can remember, it wasn't Goldilocks who had the problem, it was the bears... or in this case, werewolves and panthers."
Faith took a long swallow from the bottle. "Can't say I've met many werewolves or panthers that drink this stuff anyway... not that I've met any panthers," she added in afterthought. "Maybe all big cats are heavy drinkers, who knows?" she grinned and offered Buffy the bottle.
Buffy took the bottle and inspected it. "Don't know too many high school kids who drink it by choice either, or who can afford it. This stuff doesn't come cheap." On that thought, she took a long swallow herself. "Ooh, Bubbles!" she wrinkled her nose, laughing.
Grinning, Faith moved closer, sliding her arms around Buffy's waist and kissing her.
"What was that for?" Buffy smiled.
"Couldn't help myself. You look cute with bubbles up your nose."
"Do I? In that case..." Buffy took an even bigger swig, and leaned in for another kiss.
As soon as Faith indulged her, Buffy had to pull away again, spluttering. Waving one hand in apology she covered her coughing with her other.
"Sorry, took too much that time," she said embarrassed, her eyes still watering.
"Don't worry about it." Faith used her thumbs to gently wipe away the tiny droplets beneath her eyes. "You're still cute. So do you think we missed the monster bash?"
"Looks like," Buffy sighed, handing back the bottle and curling her arms around Faith's neck. "Oh well, we tried."
"Yep." Faith ran her free hand up and down Buffy's back. "And it's not our fault we didn't know where we were going."
"Plus it was really dark out there," Buffy's fingers slid into one of the tears on the back of Faith's t-shirt.
"Can't save the day every time, I guess." Faith nodded, her nose brushing Buffy's as her fingers fluttered over the ass of her hot pants.
"And we're supposed to be on a date," Buffy said, sounding a little huffy. "Shouldn't even be having to run off to do spontaneous slaying."
"That's a hell of a point," Faith murmured. "But just to make sure we've fully done our duty, we should probably take a look around upstairs."
"Check the bedrooms, you mean?"
"Yeah, well, just the first one we come to." Faith said casually, desperately hoping she wasn't completely misreading Buffy's signals here.
Buffy pulled away, her breathing already heavier than usual. "Sounds better than my plan of doing it on the stairs. Come on!"
"You sure?" Faith checked, letting Buffy catch her hand, but not instantly moving when she tugged on it.
"Well, yeah." Buffy looked down, toeing her boot into the second step. "They're all lumpy. You can't tell me that will be comfortable."
Laughing, Faith pulled her back down to the ground floor. "I meant..."
"I know what you meant." Buffy kissed her.. and kissed her... boy, did Buffy kiss her! When she finally pulled away, her eyes looked bright green with desire and Faith's legs were - what the hell? - wobbly!
"Okay," she panted. "So we better motor, or it's gonna get lumpy real soon."
As they started to run up the stairs a door swung open to the side of them, and there was a loud, "Ahem!"
Both Slayers froze guiltily and then slowly turned their heads to look at one another. Together, they whispered, "Damn!" and started giggling.
"I really don't think this is the right way," Miranda piped up timidly.
"Well, your way wasn't the right way either, was it?" Alison jibed back. "And neither was Cici's. And we're running out of ways to try."
"Perhaps we should just stay here until its light?" Cici suggested.
All three of them looked around at the dark, hostile, thistly, partially boggy patch and shook their heads.
"Or not," Cici answered herself.
"Find me a nice open field where I can stretch out and look at the stars, I'll stay put, but not here," Alison said.
"I believe the open fields were somewhere over that way." Cici pointed in, well, a direction; it probably wasn't the right one.
"Besides it's too cold to not keep moving," Miranda added. "And it's too damp here to build a fire."
"And none of us know how to build a fire," Cici chuckled despite their depressing situation.
"I bet I could build a fire," Alison replied, but when the other two looked at her expectantly, she added quickly, "If it wasn't so damp."
"Okay, so which direction now?" Miranda asked.
"Rock, paper, scissors?" Cici suggested.
"How does that pick a direction?" Alison asked.
"I don't know," Cici groaned. "I'm lost, I'm cold and I'm so tired I'm seeing unicorns."
"What?" Miranda and Alison asked in unison.
"Over there" She pointed wearily deeper into the thick trees. "The moon reflecting on the mist looks like a unicorn," she explained through a yawn.
Miranda's eyes bulged as they focused. "That's not moonlight!"
Alison's eyes were equally filled with wonder. "That's a frickin' unicorn!"
"You're shitting me!" Cici blurted out loudly and then covered her mouth with a grimace. "Oops. Excuse my language, but... but..."
Alison and Miranda laughed at her, both of them felt a little giddy all of a sudden. Certainly the gloomy, irritable mood that had overtaken them in the past hour had gone.
The creature had noticed them now, or had just finally deigned to look their way. It stood majestically, whiter than the mist that wreathed around its hocks, and stared them down.
"It's beautiful," Cici breathed.
"It looks like it's glowing," Alison murmured in agreement.
"Look at the size of its horn!" Miranda whispered, and then blushed.
Alison and Cici both nudged her, grinning.
"May I ask what you are doing in my home?" asked a voice full of dignified authority.
Slowly the Slayers turned around to see a motley collection of... well, people might be pushing it, in the foyer below them.
"We thought the place was abandoned," Buffy said.
"We heard there was a party," Faith said at the same time.
"But we saw lights," Buffy continued.
"So is there a party?" Faith also continued.
The man who had addressed them was clearly dressed up as a wizard, in flowing robe and a big pointy hat. Although he looked too old to be playing dress-up, he also looked vaguely familiar.
He sighed now. "As you can see, the place is clearly not abandoned, and the party is for private guests only."
"Oh, sorry," Buffy said.
"Our bad," Faith shrugged.
They walked down the few steps they'd made it up together, neither sure what to make of the group that stood in front of them. It was clear they weren't all human, but none of them seemed threatening; in manner if not in looks.
"It doesn't have to be that private," said a short, bald, lumpy man to the side of the wizard.
The wizard groaned, pulling off his hat as he turned to him, "Iggy, please. Do you not think tonight has been fun enough?"
"Shop-keeper?" Faith suddenly blurted.
"Excuse me?" He hurriedly pulled his hat back on, tugging the brim low over his eyes.
"You work in that shop." Faith pointed in the general direction of Boudenver. "You gave me the soap, and the towel."
Buffy crossed her arms as he spluttered. "Now isn't that interesting."
"Slayer?" Deep, Slavic tones rolled from a figure at the back of the small crowd.
Recognizing that voice with a sinking heart, Buffy's eyes picked him out easily. "Dracula?"
"Well isn't this a nice surprise," he purred, coming to the fore to stand next to the Wizard.
"Speak for yourself," she said dryly, really wishing she had a stake with her now.
"Wait... Dracula?" Faith was staring at him in a kind of awe.
Buffy rolled her eyes. "Yes, this is Count Dracula. Don't look so impressed, you'll only be embarrassed by it later."
"Dracula," Faith said again, smiling and clearly not listening to a word. "But wait..." she said again, and now she turned to Buffy. "...you two know each other?"
"Oh yes, we are old friends."
"No, we're not," Buffy said firmly. "He bit me, I staked him, end of story."
"Oh come now, there was much more between us than that," the Count smiled around his fangs.
"There was?" Faith turned to Buffy with an eyebrow raised.
"Not that kind of more," Buffy said hurriedly, before shooting Dracula a harsh look. "So it was you who tried to eat my little sister in the woods?"
The Count began to laugh, but curbed it when Owen turned to him. "We were just playing a game."
"Yeah, well I remember your games. They suck."
There was a growly laugh, "She's got you there, Vlad."
Buffy focused on the speaker. "And I take it you're the werewolf who chased everyone out of the house."
He looked sheepishly at the floor, pushing his big hairy paws into his pockets, muttering, "'M not a werewolf."
"Really, because those big teeth you have, grandma, say different."
"I'm an anthropomorphic representation," he mumbled.
"A what now?" Buffy looked at Faith to see if she knew what that meant, but the other Slayer was still sizing up the famous Vampire.
"He crossed a witch and she cursed him," the Mummy explained for him. "What, about four hundred years ago now?"
The wolf-headed being nodded. "About that."
"How did you cross her?" Buffy asked, "Must have been something pretty bad."
"I don't remember." When Buffy looked at him in disbelief, he added, "What do you want from me? I was a wolf, we don't go in much for the remembering past misdeeds thing. I probably ate her pig or something. All I know is one minute I was hunting for my dinner and the next I was really embarrassed because I wasn't wearing pants!"
"Okay," Buffy said, still eying him warily. "So what's your story?" she asked the Mummy man.
He was about to answer amiably enough, when a little man at the back piped up, "Just who do you think you are, young lady? Coming in here and demanding to know all about us when you have yet to introduce yourself?"
Buffy stiffened her pose, "I'm not the one with the furry face or the..."
Faith cut her off. "He has a point, B. I'm Faith." She smiled, offering her hand to Dracula.
"I know," he smiled, and kissed the back of it.
Buffy rolled her eyes.
"Ath we're all getting acquainted, why don't we go back through to the parlor," suggested the lumpy man.
Owen sighed. His cover was blown now anyway, being cordial was probably the only way to prevent this appalling situation from becoming worse. He stepped aside and gestured to the door.
"You can not be serious, Olwyn?" The rude little man objected. "I understand the fiasco earlier could not be avoided, but to invite these women to join us now is simply preposterous!"
A gentle nudge to his back made him stagger forward and he turned questioningly.
"Perhaps it would not be so bad." The whisper was deeper than a baritone and instinctively drew Buffy's eyes over and... up!
It even made Faith finally tear her eyes away from Dracula, and they widened as she did so. "Dude!"
The big man started biting on a big square thumbnail, his eyes flicking shyly between Buffy and the floor.
"Why would...?" the little man began, but then recognizing something in his friend's expression he glanced back long enough to give Buffy a once over before getting a pained look on his face. "Really?"
The big man didn't have to answer, his eyes said it all.
"Very well." The little man walked back into the living room with a defeated air.
"What just happened?" Buffy asked nervously, eyes shifting from being to being for clues.
The troll-sized man gave a great, gurgling giggle - more like a bath draining than a mountain spring - and ran after his friend. The floor shook slightly as he went.
"That was surreal," said the Mummy man.
"Yeth, I can count on one hand the amount of timeth I've theen him like that," said lumpy. "Thix times!"
"Huh?" Buffy asked, still feeling like she'd missed something.
He held up his hand to show her and she took a step back, creeped out. No one should have that many fingers!
"Doth that mean you don't want to thake handth?" he grinned.
"Yes!" she blurted, and then tried to remember her manners. "I mean, there's no need to be so formal. You can just tell me your name... from over there."
"Iggy." He stood aside and gestured gentlemanly for her to go into the room first.
Buffy hesitated, but Faith walked through without a second thought. So with her eyebrows up near her hairline, warily watching as many of them as she could, she followed.
The living room was beautiful in the way she imagined an English Manor house might have been centuries ago. The only modern appliance that she could see was a radio, and she was using the word modern in a very broad sense. Other than that, everything was old, but beautifully restored. The shopkeeper must have spent half his life going to flea-markets and auctions, and the other half fixing and touching up his finds.
She gingerly shook the hand that was offered to her. The bandages felt dry and warm, and a little crinkly. He smelled of smoke and dust and morgues, but seemed friendly enough.
"You're a Mummy?"
His eyes shone in his yellowed face and he smiled brightly. "Yes! You can tell?"
She just looked at him, her expression saying, 'Duh!'
"I suppose to the trained eye I'm a little obvious," he admitted with embarrassment. "So... you're a Vampire Slayer. How are you finding it?"
"I, ah..." Buffy perched on the edge of a long red velvet cushioned stool. "Okay, I guess. I've been doing it a while now."
"I knew one once. Well, I suppose you could say I still know her. Stunning girl. She's just as brave and vivacious now as she was when she was alive."
"How can you still know her?"
"Oh, she was locked inside my pyramid when I was entombed. I was a Pharaoh; it was law that all of my greatest warriors should join me in the afterlife. And I had no greater warrior than Ankhet," he said wistfully.
Buffy's eyes narrowed. "So you let her die, just because you did?"
"Of course, that was her duty..." Ptah finally caught on to how his reminiscing might sound to a Slayer's ears. "But it was all her idea!" he added quickly. "No one forced her to drink the Hemlock! And we still laugh about those days now! And... I think Victor's calling... excuse me!"
Buffy watched him stride over to the other side of the room, where the little rude man had definitely not been calling him, but looked eager for the company all the same; wondering how she'd ended up at this little soiree of the living dead.
She looked for Faith, hoping to find she was ready to excuse herself too, but no such luck.
"So you can really turn into a bat?" Faith asked as she flopped down on to the chaise lounge.
"I can." The Count followed her down, sitting close. "I would demonstrate, but Olwyn gets upset with the acidic droppings on his antique furniture."
Faith grinned. "Maybe later then?"
"Of course." He picked his glass of blood from the table and took a sip. Noticing Faith watch him, he asked, "Are you thirsty?"
"Yeah, actually." She'd put the bottle of Champagne down at some point. She couldn't remember where... or when... or why.
"Do you like blood?"
"Can't say I've ever tried it."
"But you are open to new experiences, am I correct?" he asked.
He offered her his glass and she wrinkled her nose. Not from disgust, just from uncertainty.
"It's otter, very good," he said in encouragement.
"Thanks, but I'm pretty choosy about which bodily fluids I let in my mouth," she politely declined, trying to ignore the voice at the back of her mind calling her a pussy.
"It has brandy in it," he said in a last ditch attempt.
"Really?" she looked a little more convinced, but it faded fast. "Any chance I could just have the brandy without the blood?"
"Of course," he gave in. Looking about he saw Zeke with the Brandy bottle and clicked his fingers above his head for it.
Zeke just cuffed him on the back of the head with his paw as he walked past.
"Would you like a glass of Brandy?" he asked Buffy.
"Uh," she looked up in surprise. "I think the, uh, big... man?" she made it sound like a question and he nodded. "Is getting me a glass of champagne actually."
"Oh." Zeke looked down at the bottle and the empty glass he was carrying, kicking himself for taking too long to ask.
"But thanks," Buffy smiled.
"No problem," Zeke grinned. "Can I get you something to eat then?"
"I'm not really hungry right now," she began and saw his face fall. "But maybe in a minute."
"Okay." His grin came back. "So, uh..." as he tried to think of something to say that she would find interesting, he made to sit down next to her on the big red stool, but before he could he was almost knocked off his feet as her other admirer barged him out of the way.
"Oh," Buffy uttered as the big man sat down next to her, nearly toppling her off the side, and handed her a tall glass of champagne. "Thank you."
Zeke gave a low growl and settled for sitting on his haunches close to her feet.
Buffy looked from one to the other, smiling nervously. "This is, uh, very cozy."
Haughtily, Dracula stalked towards Zeke and snatched both the Brandy and the glass from him, giving him an extremely frosty look that the wolf-man ignored. As he moved back to the chaise lounge he poured a large measure into the glass and handed it to Faith as he sat down.
"Thanks." Grinning, she took a big gulp from the glass.
Her nose wrinkled at the taste, she wasn't used to the finer alcoholic varieties; beer had generally been all she could afford before, and maybe a bottle of Jack Daniels on birthdays and Christmas... if she could sneak it without her mom realizing. Which, actually, had been pretty easy on birthdays and Christmas' on account of her Mom having already drunk a few bottles of the stuff to get in the spirit so to speak. She sure as hell got into the spirit alright, any spirit she could lay her hands on...
Why in hell was she suddenly thinking about her Mom? She knew better than that. Some issues were better left dead and buried, just like the bitch herself. She shook her head, willing the thoughts away again. Obviously she really had been out of therapy too long. Or this Brandy was stronger than she expected.
She looked over to Buffy, expecting it to comfort her, but the blonde was being drooled on by Wolf-man and Monster-man - literally in the wolf's case - and seemed to be enjoying every second of it. Not so much with the comforting.
"So, Faith, tell me about yourself."
She turned to smile at Dracula - still a little overwhelmed that she was meeting the vamp himself. "What do you wanna know?"
"Everything," he said simply, but with so much feeling in his low voice and dark eyes that she found herself willing.
"Well I grew up in Boston with my Mom. My dad split when I was, I don't know, little. Went out for a beer one evening and never came back, ya know? I guess you could say that left me a little insecure with men..."
"So, uh..." Buffy looked up at the man next to her. It felt like he was towering over her, even though he was sitting on the same stool. Starting a conversation would be the polite thing to do, especially as he'd been nice enough to get her a drink. "Uh..."
His one attractive feature was his eyes. They were nice, adding warmth to his otherwise somber face; although one was a different shade of brown to the other, she noticed.
"Yes?" he asked, his voice a soft rumble.
He couldn't be human. Nothing with hands that big, with a forehead that high, with that many stitches holding his brain in, could be human. She tried to unthink that last part. Maybe they were cosmetic, like Faith's stitches around her throat, but just really really real-looking. And the bolts in his neck too?
"So, uh..." she began again. "What are you?" she winced, oh that was polite. "I mean, what are you dressed as? What's your costume?"
"I am a monster." He ducked his head to look at his dull black size 16 shoes.
"Well, it looks very authentic," she smiled awkwardly. "That's because it is, right? Like, you're the real monsterrific deal?"
He nodded. "I am sorry."
"Why sorry? None of us can help the way we're made..." she winced again. "Not made, just, uh, created." That didn't sound any better so she forged ahead with another smile. "So are you, like, the Frankenstein?"
"Oh." She felt a little disappointed. "Only if you were it would have been pretty cool." She saw his face drop, and on a face like his, that was saying something. "Not that meeting you isn't cool, you seem nice; but from the Slayer-y point of view, meeting actual Frankenstein would be as awesome as the time I met..." she trailed off, glaring at Dracula.
There had been nothing awesome about meeting him! He was just another loser vampire who happened to have a few fancy party tricks up his long lacy sleeves. God, he was such a poser! And now he had his poser-y, tricky hands all over her girlfriend! Well, not literally maybe, but Buffy could tell that's what he was shooting for. And Faith was just eating it all up. Giving him the old doe eyes... since when did Faith even have doe eyes? Well, she had them, she had beautiful eyes, but she never used them like this... correction: she'd never used them like this on her!
The sudden shout, well, not a shout, just her new friend speaking normally, made Buffy sit up and pay attention again. She looked at him questioningly and then caught movement on the other side of the room, where the rest of the guests had congregated.
The small rude man with the slicked back hair was making his way over. Buffy wrinkled her nose at him and then turned her expression downwards to see what was making the pressure on her feet.
"Comfy are we?" she asked.
"Thought I'd keep your toes warm," Zeke grinned, wriggling a little.
He was lying across her boots on his back. From this angle he mostly looked like a big shaggy dog with his front legs sticking straight up and back legs splayed like a frog's. All she could think was 'Thank God he's wearing pants'.
"They weren't cold," she said firmly.
"Oh well," he didn't seem bothered. "Seeing as I'm here, any chance of a tummy rub?"
She saw Faith look over, so obviously she wasn't ignoring her completely, just acting like it.
Buffy gave Zeke a big, encouraging smile as she said too quietly for Faith to hear, "No chance at all."
Faith bounced to her knees on the chaise lounge so that she was facing Dracula; actually, she was practically straddling him!
"Guess what I am?" she pointed both thumbs at herself.
"A Slayer?" he asked, amused.
"Nope." Grinning flirtatiously, she tilted her head far to one side and ran a finger down her neck. "Check out my stitches."
"You are a zombie?"
"Got it in two. Which is quicker than most."
"Why would there be any doubt?" he asked. "It is extremely authentic."
"Thanks dude." She smiled at him and sat back again. "Nice to have my effort recognized, ya know."
Buffy pressed her lips firmly together and swooped down to lay her hand over Zeke's cotton shirt about where his tummy would be. Surprised, he stretched out his front legs and wiggled his back under her hesitant touch, his grin wider than ever.
"This isn't sexual, is it?" she hissed down to him, suddenly worried what his friends might think.
"It's better than sex," he promised her, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.
A shadow fell over Zeke, and Buffy, so grateful for the distraction, sat up to see the small man standing in front of her.
"What is the problem?" he asked in a clipped European accent.
'No problem,' she thought, 'other than a horny wolf-man crushing my toes and a monster who gets self-conscious if I breathe wrong. Oh and a girlfriend who would rather...'
"Buffy would like to meet you," the monster-man said, his deep voice like faraway thunder.
"I would?" she asked, wiping her hand repeatedly on her cape.
"You know who I am?" The man asked, a little bit of pride creeping into his voice, but then he sounded suspicious as he asked, "How?"
"Um?" Buffy looked to her big new friend for inspiration.
He sighed, rolled his mismatched eyes and sounded like a frustrated teenager as he said, "The book, Dad. Remember?"
"Don't call me Dad. It's uncouth."
"I'm lost," Buffy said.
Zeke gave a growly sigh and waved one of his paws in the air as he made introductions. "Buffy, this is Victor Frankenstein. Vic, this is Buffy, the Slayer."
"So I've heard." Victor reluctantly offered to shake hands.
Buffy accepted just as reluctantly. "You're Frankenstein?"
"That is correct." When she let go - as quickly as possible - he subconsciously wiped his hand on his too-big jacket.
She frowned. "I thought you'd be bigger."
"Everyone does," he lamented.
"And, no offense, but more... monster-y..." Realization struck and she turned excitedly to the big man sat next to her. "You are Frankenstein!"
"No," he intoned slowly. "Frankenstein is my father. I'm Fred."
"Fred Frankenstein?" Buffy started giggling.
"Do you want me to help you over?" Andrew offered his hand from the other side of the fallen tree.
Naomi smiled at him gratefully but shook her head. Having seen how he'd fared climbing over the huge rotting trunk of the American Chestnut, she couldn't help feeling she would do better on her own.
They'd been following a narrow track through the woods for some time already when they'd met this obstacle. The briars on either side were too dense to push through, leaving up and over as the only sensible course of action. Funny really, considering it was liable to break her neck.
"It's easier if you use that branch like a step first," Andrew said helpfully. "And try to avoid the moss along the top if you can."
"Is that what tripped you up?" Naomi shone her penlight around, assessing his directions for practicality.
"No, that was what slipped me up!" Andrew complained, rubbing his elbow again for emphasis. "It was the creepers all over it that tripped me up."
"Creepers?" Naomi looked for them. "Ah, that's just the thing."
"Do you always carry a flashlight in your handbag?"
"A good watcher must always be prepared," she murmured by rote. "Okay, I think I have it. Could you hold this a moment?" Awkwardly she passed the penlight across to him and directed the beam where she wanted it. "That's it, keep it steady just there."
Grabbing a hold of the long smooth creepers - already checked for flickering tongues and scales so no need to think of snakes - Naomi heaved herself upwards.
"So how come you're a Watcher and not a Slayer?" Andrew asked conversationally.
"Excuse me?" Naomi's pump became caught in some thorny tendrils and she had to shake her foot, feeling them bite in further before she could free herself. At least she hadn't worn heels.
"Well, I thought girls were Slayers and guys were Watchers, but you're a girl and a Watcher," Andrew mused thoughtfully; he was probably tapping his chin in that rather endearing faux-intellectual way he had. "What's up with that?"
"Well, Slayers are mystical beings. They have a... a type of magick flowing through them which makes them more than human."
"I already know all that."
"Well," Naomi felt she really should be paying more attention to what she was doing instead of trying to carry on a conversation, but still... "I don't have that. I'm human. I don't have the mystical powers that enhance my body, spirit and mind to such an extent that I can viably fight the forces of darkness on a night to night basis."
As if to prove her point, as she made it to the top of the fallen tree trunk, her foot slipped on the wet moss Andrew had warned her about. She gave a little squeal as she fell forwards, arms flailing. Andrew ran the few steps forward to catch her and she nearly flattened him.
"Are you okay?" he asked from beneath her.
"Yes, yes thank you." Embarrassed, she swiftly bolted back to her feet and brushed her knees off. "So as I was saying, er... um..."
She laughed self-consciously and then mentally told herself to cut it out. What was she worried about losing poise in front of Andrew for? Andrew had fallen off of the blasted tree three times, and only the last of those had been in the right direction.
"We should probably keep going." She took the penlight back from him. "So, yes, as I do want to fight the forces of darkness one day, hopefully soon," she sighed, "and as I don't have the mystical Slayer abilities, I choose to be a Watcher. Or rather I was chosen to be a Watcher."
"I thought only Slayers got chosen?"
"No, Watchers do too, just not in the same way. Slayers all come from the same source, that of the first Chosen one. They can be traced back through lineage to the first girl ever endowed with the spirit of the demon. Of course, that was millennia ago now, which is why there are so many potential candidates these days, and why so many Slayers were activated in May. Naturally no one would be able to trace their own ancestry back that far, but I believe there was a... a family tree of sorts in the Council library in London that had the name of every Slayer ever called... Oh dear."
"What's wrong?" As Andrew stepped level with her, she had to put an arm out to stop him. "Oh dear," he echoed.
The track ended in a black abyss.
"Any ideas?" she asked him as she shone the light downwards.
It didn't help much. Her torch was powerful, but small - it had to be to fit in her handbag - the beam was strong, but too concentrated to reveal anything more than rocks roughly twenty feet below them.
"I think I can hear water," Andrew said. "Fast water."
Naomi nodded. "Do you know of any fast running rivers near the camp?"
"No. Oh wait, um, sort of, uh, maybe..." Andrew moved his hand around as he imagined a map was in front of him.
Naomi waited patiently, now trying to pick out any sign of land directly in front of them to see how wide the gorge was.
"You know that waterfall Craig likes..." Andrew began.
"It's not really a waterfall," Naomi interrupted offhandedly.
"Yeah, well, Craig likes it and when we were down there the other day we decided to follow the stream as far as the lake road. There's a little bridge, and it gets faster on the other side. Could this be it?"
"If this is the same stream, all we have to do is follow it," she said hopefully.
He nodded excitedly, but then joined her in looking at the thick bushes on either side of them and his excitement dropped. "I'm getting déjà vu!"
She looked at him, but for once he didn't expand on his thoughts.
"Okay," she decided. "We need to get down there and walk along the edge where it's not so bushy."
"How? I don't mind falling off a log, but rocks are hard."
"We'll be okay," she promised, hoping her wince when she shone the light down again went unnoticed. "It's not a straight drop and it's probably more like fifteen feet than twenty."
Beside her Andrew made a groaning noise.
"We'll be fine," she repeated. Opening her handbag she shone the penlight inside as she instructed, "Ten yards back we passed a tree with big leafy branches, do you remember?"
"The one that tickled our faces?"
"That's the one. Go and break off as many of the branches as you can. They're only thin so it shouldn't be hard."
"How am I supposed to see which one it is in the dark?"
She handed over the light, she'd already found what she was looking for in her bag, and the light of the half moon would allow her to do the rest.
The snapping of branches could be heard, along with Andrew occasionally saying "Ow!" - Which made her smile - as she unwound a length from her ball of string and wrapped it twice around the sturdiest tree trunk near the edge of the drop. Truthfully, the trunk wasn't as fat as she would have liked but it would do.
Andrew came back before she'd finished tying the knot, carrying so many of the branches she couldn't see his face through the big leaves.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Giving us something to hang on to on the way down," she explained. "Stand right next to me and then just drop the branches straight down. Don't throw them! Just drop them."
He did so and they heard them land with a fluttery noise.
"Could you get some more?" she asked, just to be on the safe side.
He did so and she finished making sure her knot was secure by tugging on the rope as hard as she could.
When Andrew came back, he repeated the dropping process and then asked, "Do you think we need even more?"
"Honestly, I'd be happier with a mattress down there, but if we're gonna mess about all night we might as well just walk back the way we came and hope we don't get even more lost."
"Okay. Are you sure that's going to hold us?" he asked, nodding at the string in her hands.
"Its light-weight Vectran," she explained, instead of actually answering his question. "With an enhanced design thanks to the Council technicians."
"Okay," he said, so trusting it made her feel guilty, even though she was planning on taking the same plunge as him.
"We probably shouldn't use it at the same time though," she admitted. "We don't want to over-stress it. I'll go..."
He'd been looking over the side again - he still had the torch - but interrupted her now. "No I'll go first. Just in case it's not safe."
"You don't have to do that."
"Yes I do. You're a Watcher." He took the ball of string from her. "You have more to contribute to the world than I do."
She put her hand on his arm. "You shouldn't think like that! The world would lose just as great an asset if you died as if I did."
"I just meant the world wouldn't end if I was laid up in bed with a broken leg. Sure the house might get dusty and no one would eat a decent meal, but you're a Watcher... wait, are you saying I might die!"
"No, no," Naomi chuckled. "At least, it's unlikely. Besides, Watcher or not, I actually contribute less to the household than you do right now."
"Okay, well here goes... Uh, how does here go exactly?"
"Hold the ball in your weaker hand and play it out with your stronger hand and just walk backwards slowly." She followed him to the edge and then took hold of the taught string with both hands, just as an extra measure. "Don't look down."
He faltered for a few seconds once his feet were against the ledge and he was basically leaning back over nothing but thin air, but after a deep breath, he gradually started walking backwards down the almost vertical slope.
"So tell me what it's like being a girl-Watcher?" Andrew asked.
Naomi was keeping the beam from the penlight on his hands so she couldn't see his expression, but he sounded like he was talking through clenched teeth.
"I'm afraid I wouldn't know," she replied, and her teeth were clenching a little too, although not from fear. "I could tell you what its like to be a girl-Watcher-in-training if you like?"
"How come Reece is a real Watcher but you're still a trainee?"
"Who knows? Uncle Rubear has yet to give me a satisfactory answer to that question."
"Well, I don't think it's fair. I think you'd make a much better Watcher than Reece."
"Thank you," Naomi smiled. Although she didn't doubt Reece's abilities herself, it was always nice to be compared to him and found in favor.
"Maybe Mr. Giles just doesn't want you getting hurt?" Andrew's voice sounded fainter now, mixing with the rush of the water below.
"I'm already on active duty. It's only the responsibility of a Slayer I've not been granted."
She had to admit it rankled her badly. Especially when Reece had no qualms about parading Rona around in front of her. She was every bit as qualified as he was, and there was the added reassurance that she wouldn't be trying to get into their knickers, but no; and whenever she asked about it, she was told: 'All in good time, my dear.'
The thin rope went slack in her hands at the same time as Andrew called up, "I'm down!"
"Are you okay?"
"My legs are a bit shaky. And I have rope burn on my hands. And I think there's a beetle in my ear..."
Naomi grinned as she put the penlight back in her handbag and hooked it over one of her arms. "But you're basically okay?"
"Uh huh. It was easier than I thought it would be."
"I hope you're right." Naomi turned herself around, got a good two handed grip on the rope and braced her feet. "So are you really fed up at the camp, then?"
"No. What makes you say that?"
"Only, twice tonight you've said how menial you feel your role is." Naomi went hand over hand down the rope skilfully. It wasn't that different to the practice wall at the Academy if you didn't let yourself think about the jaggedy rocks at the bottom. "I thought perhaps you were becoming disillusioned with working for the Watcher's Council."
"I don't work for the Watcher's Council. I'm just Mr. Giles'... maid!"
Naomi chuckled. "On the contrary, in the broadest sense, Mr. Giles is the Council. That makes you the Watcher's Council maid at least."
"Still not exciting enough?"
Her feet touched rock bottom and she breathed a sigh of relief that it was over as she fished in her bag for the penlight again.
"I don't mean to sound ungrateful," Andrew hurried to explain. "I'm happy to serve the Council of Watchers and the Slayers of the Vampyres in any capacity I can, and, also, you know, having a place to live is nice too seeing as my bedroom at home was kinda swallowed up by the Hellmouth along with the rest of my house."
"But?" Naomi asked, wondering what to do about her rope. It was too expensive to leave behind, but then if she climbed up to untie it from the tree, it would have made the tying it up and climbing down in the first place a pretty pointless exercise.
"Is cooking and cleaning all I'm ever going to be allowed to do?" Andrew griped plaintively.
"You do more than that now. You help Mr. Harris."
"Yeah, I fetch and carry and sometimes he lets me hammer stuff, but that's it. He even lets Faith do more than me, and she only just started helping him!"
Naomi decided to leave the rope for now and come back for it in daylight; it wasn't as if it was going anywhere in the meantime. The rocks were uneven and not that easy to walk on, but the moon had good access into the narrow stream valley which meant at least they could see where to step for the best footing.
"Well, what about looking after Goorzar?"
"That just gets me yelled at. Even when it's Kennedy's fault."
"Well, Craig says you can summon demons..." Naomi tried.
"That gets me even more yelled at!"
"Yes, I suppose it would. Uh, what about research? You could do research."
"I do research. Nobody takes any notice of it. I tried explaining to Mr. Giles about the Sekopiluthian Hedray's and he said 'Bless you'. What kind of answer is that to knowledge that could potentially save this town from total annihilation!"
Naomi laughed. "Well, I'm sure things will get better."
"Oh really?" Andrew snarked, getting in his groove now. "How many Watchers do you know that started out as... as houseboys?"
"Well, none, but you have your foot in the door; that's a start at least. Is that what you'd like then? To be a Watcher?"
Andrew shrugged. "I'd rather be a Scooby. You know, part of the special forces, the elite evil attack squad, getting to go where the real actions is... but they're even harder to get into than the Watchers, so..." he shrugged again.
'Blimey,' Naomi thought as they walked the rocky ledge in mopey silence. 'He really believes in it, all of it. He's more intense than half the cadets at the Academy ever were. No wonder he's so frustrated with his lot here. I know I am and I at least have the title and the training.'
A rather disturbing thought occurred to her. "What you said earlier, about being a super villain? You were joking, yes?"
"Yeah," he said despondently. "I was never that good at it. I mean, I tried hard, but Warren always took over anyway and he never let us try out our own dastardly plans. World domination had to be all about him, you know? And then when the jetpack hits the roof, who ends up in the big house? All I'm saying. Meh-hi-ko was nice though."
"Ohh-kay," Naomi said slowly. "I'm starting to wish I hadn't asked now."
"Oh, it's okay, those days are behind me," Andrew promised quickly. "I'm a trainee-superhero now, but one like Batman not Superman, because I don't have any... any inherent super abilities. Hey, we're the same," he realized with a smile.
"Goody," she murmured, wondering how much boredom and frustration it might take for an under-appreciated trainee-superhero to slip back into his super villainy ways. "Does Craig know about your, er, past?"
"Um..." Andrew hesitated.
And then he was saved from answering by the giant leaf-shattering crash from above, the terrifying yelling and, finally, the huge splash as the leaf-shattering yeller hit the water at speed.
The spray of cold water hitting her stirred Naomi from her initial fright-induced paralysis and she stepped back, reaching out to pull Andrew back with her and nearly tripping on the uneven surface they were using as a path.
Their eyes went wide as a figure rose from the watery not-that-depth, coughing and spluttering as water ran off of it.
"What is it?" Andrew whispered fearfully.
"I don't know," Naomi whispered back. "But I think we should run before it spots us."
In obvious agreement, they didn't waste any more time on discussing their plan. Side by side they ran across the rocks in the direction they hoped was home. Andrew was faster, but Naomi was more sure-footed and together they helped each other along as swiftly as possible.
The figure finished choking up the river water and wiping it from his eyes.
"Man I'm freezing!" he complained out loud as he looked around. He was surprised to find himself all alone. "Uh, hello?"
He did a three-sixty in the river in case he'd landed facing the wrong way or something, but there was definitely no one there but him. Soggily he trudged to the edge and clambered out onto the rocks.
"Well, that was a waste of dry clothes and daredevil skills. Coulda sworn I heard their voices down here."
Shivering, Craig started following the stream uphill hoping he was going the right way this time.
At some point, Buffy had allowed herself to relax. Maybe it was seeing Faith enjoying herself that reminded her tonight was about fun, or maybe it was seeing Faith enjoying herself while completely ignoring her that convinced Buffy to show two could play that game.
Either way, when Fred stood up and offered her his arm she reached up politely to take it and let him lead her into the ballroom. Zeke was walking close enough to her other side that his tail tickled the backs of her thighs as he wagged it. He walked on two legs as comfortably as he walked on four; maybe his knees were double-jointed or something.
"Foods over here," he pointed a paw at the long, food-laden, hard to miss table.
She gave him a small smile. "Thanks."
"Would you like me to get you a plate?" he asked hopefully, ignoring the thunderous look the monster was giving him.
"Uh, thanks, but I can manage myself." She probably shouldn't be touching this food at all, but if she was going to, the more hairless her plate the better.
She let go of Fred's arm and found it hard to make her shoulder work properly at first; it had gone stiff with the unaccustomed height. She gave it a surreptitious rub as she walked to the table, flanked by her new best friends.
All of this attention was certainly flattering, it was just a pity it wasn't coming from the one person she actually wanted the attention from tonight. Sighing softly, she watched Faith, further up and on the other side of the table, laughing wholeheartedly at some joke Dracula and the many-fingered lumpy man was telling her as she piled a plate high with goodies.
Sighing again wistfully as she remembered how only an hour ago she had made Faith laugh like that, she nearly dropped her paper plate when Fred dumped a ladle full of three-bean salad onto it from one side and Zeke dropped a whole roasted wood pigeon onto it from the other.
"Hey!" She had to act quick to stop the plate from bending under the weight and spilling everything back onto the table. Once that was achieved, she cast wary glances at her admirers. "Okay, a little less chivalry all round might be nice."
"Sorry," Fred apologized, dropping the ladle and taking a half-step back. Not completely out of her personal space, but obviously trying. "You were holding your plate out. I thought you were waiting to be served."
"Your Dad has you well trained, huh?"
He shook his head. "Iggy taught me. When I was... new. He always said with my looks and personal history I was a natural candidate for Igor-ing and he wanted me to have a good head start."
Buffy licked some salad dressing from her thumb. "Igor-ing?"
"It's slang for..." he hesitated, but it seemed he was prepared to tell her anything. "... for Mad Science Technician."
Buffy's eyebrows went up and slowly lowered again. "Okay."
Hot breath on the back of her neck made her turn around. Zeke was laughing, mouth wide and showing lots of sharp teeth. He hadn't stepped back at all and didn't look in the least apologetic.
"Yes?" she asked pointedly.
"Try the pigeon," he said. "It's good."
"I've never tried pigeon," she admitted, giving it a closer look. "I didn't even know you could eat pigeon."
It looked, well it looked like a small plucked chicken, and it smelled good.
"Try it," he urged. "And there's rabbit. I bet you've never tried that either."
"No, I'm not big on eating my childhood Disney favorites, which means..." she looked up and down the table at all the rich meat dishes. "I should probably stick to the three-bean salad and this pigeon."
Or there was always Faith, more appetizing than anything else on offer, but it looked as though she was planning on being eaten by someone else. Buffy's eyes narrowed as she watched the brunette flirt with Dracula, touching his arm and throwing her head back at jokes that just couldn't possibly be that funny. What was her deal anyway? She had always been down on her for falling in love with Angel, even though it had been none of her business back then, so how come she was suddenly all okay with slayers cozying up to vampires?
She happened to catch Faith's eye, a miracle seeing as she only seemed to have eyes for tall, dark and creepy right now, and gave her a cool look, before deliberately turning her back and biting into her pigeon.
Faith stared as Buffy's red cape swirled, her grin slipping away as the cold look registered. What was that about? The last few times she'd caught the blonde's eyes only to have her turn away without a smile, Faith had let it go, assuming she was reading it wrong or something, but now it was starting to piss her off. They'd come here because Buffy wanted to, they'd both agreed to stay, Buffy had been having a blast with her two admirers hanging off her every word, they'd even come to get food because Buffy wanted to - not that Faith was complaining about that - so where did B get off with throwing attitude her way?
Faith focused on the Count again, her smile automatically coming back when she did. There was just something about him. Maybe that was Buffy's problem. They knew each other, right? And of course she'd say that was all innocent now, to her, but with B's track record where vampires were concerned, what were the chances? Perhaps she was jealous; wanted the celebrity all to herself? Even if Buffy hadn't ever boinked him, she probably figured Faith was moving in on her claim to fame. Meeting Drac wasn't such a big story to woo the newbies with if Faith had done it too, right?
Well, whatever. She wasn't exactly happy with Buffy ignoring her in favor of a couple of freaks either, but she wasn't making a big deal out of it. She chucked a couple of hard boiled quails eggs in her mouth, chewing and grinning as she listened to Iggy tell a story, trying to figure out exactly what made this pale streak of piss of a Vampire so sexy.
"Foie Gras?" The Count caught her staring, smiled and offered her a dish with something brown and squidgy on it.
"Yeah, that sounds about as appetizing as it looks," Faith waved his hand away. "I think I'm gonna grab a leg of Bambi instead." She turned towards the roast stag.
He touched her shoulder and she looked back at him expectantly. Tilting his head, he looked her in the eye and said, "Olwyn wants the Stag for sandwiches... Try the Foie Gras."
"I said..." her brow furrowed as she gazed at him.
He leaned a little closer. "Please?"
"Yeah, sure, why not, looks good..." she took the dish from him and lifted the whole lump up in her fingers.
"You're not going to..." Iggy began, raising his hand as if to stop her from putting it in her mouth. He was too late. He gave the Count a mildly disapproving look, but his voice was genial as he said, "You're good, I'll give you that."
Dracula merely smiled around his fangs.
Still chewing up the enormous lump of goose liver, Faith looked between them, aware that she'd missed something. "What?"
"Nothing, my dear," he drawled in his suave accent. He lightly touched his cool fingertips to her shoulder and held up a silver chalice. "Would you care to try another new experience?"
"Like what?" She looked down into the fancy cup and saw the thick redness inside. Wrinkling her nose and shaking her head she began, "No dude, already told you that's..." she looked up at him as she refused and met his intense eyes. "...why not, guess I'll try anything once."
Before she could take the chalice, the Wizard was there to snatch it away.
"A word, Vlad," he said sternly as he walked off. Laughing, the Count followed him.
Igor grinned and gamboled away. Faith looked around, wondering again what she'd missed.
From further up the table, Buffy had seen everything.
"Excuse me a sec, Guys."
She went to hand her plate to Zeke, remembered her hair issues and handed it to Fred instead, and then walked purposefully up to Faith.
"What are you doing?"
Faith looked startled by the abruptness of the question. "Mingling, same as you. Why?"
Buffy crossed her arms. "That didn't look like mingling."
"Then what did it look like?"
Buffy didn't know for sure, but definitely not mingling. "Look," she began. "I just don't think it's a good idea for you to be so pally with Dracula. He's..."
"Well, you're all pally with the Big Bad Wolf and Frankenstein," Faith countered.
"His name's not Frankenstein," Buffy corrected absently. "It's Fred."
"Fred?" Faith started chuckling.
Buffy grinned in agreement, but then quickly shook it away. "That's not the point. Zeke and Fred are harmless."
Faith gave them a good look. "By what standards?"
"By the standard that they are not vampires!"
"I think you just shot the hole in your own logic there, B. Vampires are the one thing I know I can handle."
"This one's different."
Faith regarded her closely for a moment before asking. "Like Angel and Spike were different?"
"What? No!" Buffy shook her head. "Definitely not!"
"Only, you seem jealous."
"I am not!"
Well, she was; very jealous. After all, her date was not only choosing to mingle rather than spend time with her, she was also defending her right to cozy up to that damn egotistical vampire instead of spending time with her!
"Well, maybe it just seems that way," Faith said calmly enough to irritate. "because even though you have those two dudes drooling all over you, you still can't stand the fact that the only vamp in the room would rather make time with me."
"That's not it. I don't care who makes time with you. Every vampire in the world can make time with you if you want. Just not him."
"So you guys were a thing?" Faith was pulling funny faces now, smacking her lips a little and waggling her tongue about. "I knew it."
Buffy frowned at her. "We weren't ever a thing. We had a thing, but not the kind of thing you're talking about and it was not a thing of good. He's dangerous, Faith, and not just vamp dangerous, but... but tricky vamp dangerous, as in he has tricks and he's not afraid to use them." The faces Faith was pulling, like she was trying to turn her mouth inside out or at least get her tongue to walk away, were putting Buffy off, but she tried to explain better. "He can turn into things like..."
"A bat, I know." Faith looked like she wanted to spit the words out.
"And fog and stuff! And he has thrall, Faith!"
"Thrall! Like mind control! With his eyes! And you've spent a lot of time looking in his eyes, I've seen you."
"Yeah, I've been talking to him, so what?"
"'What' is that he is thralling you! God, how can I make this any simpler? Faith, he has you under his thrall, okay, he's..."
"Controlling me with his eyes? I think I'd know if he was doing that, I'm not an idiot. I'm not under any thrall, B, I'm just..." Faith stopped talking to belch really loudly, looking sick she rubbed her fist over her watering mouth a few times. "Shit, what did I frigging eat?"
Buffy held her hand out as if to say, 'there ya go!'.
"What? So rich food doesn't always agree with me. What's that got to do with anything?" Faith asked irritably, still trying to get the nasty taste from her mouth.
Buffy rolled her eyes and reached across the table to grab an abandoned glass of champagne. She handed it to Faith. "You nearly drank blood!"
Faith downed the bubbly and burped again. After, she looked a little better. "I wasn't gonna drink it. I was just messing with him."
"No you weren't."
"Actually, yes I was." Faith handed her back the empty glass and took a step back from her. "Maybe he thralled you once upon a time and that's got you all concerned for me now, and that's sweet, B, really, but I can take care of myself. Besides, we ain't the same on that score, don't matter how hot he is, no vamp is gonna mess with my head, so just chill."
Buffy re-crossed her arms; better to keep them tangled up so they couldn't accidentally lash out and strangle Faith. The most infuriating part of it was, Faith didn't even seem to realize she had offended her. Which made getting mad seem pretty pointless; because was she gonna get mad every time Faith spoke her mind? She either had to learn to accept it, or... something she didn't want to think about.
"Just chill?" she repeated instead, and it would have been hard for her to get much chillier at this point.
"Yeah." Faith nodded. "Go back to your new friends. We still gotta figure out what these dudes are doing here, right? And make sure half of Dawnie's school ain't locked up in the dungeon or someplace."
She had a point.
"Okay," she conceded, dropping her arms to her sides. "Maybe you're right, but just be careful. Don't look him in the eye or anything."
"No problem, you know I only got eyes for you, B." Faith smiled at her.
Buffy rolled her eyes, but found herself smiling as well. She hated that Faith could make her do that, but she kinda loved it too. Faith's eyes drew her in, and she thought they were about to kiss, which was fine by her, until a voice beside them said: "Faith, Olwyn suggested you would like some ale," in a sexy, Slavic kind of way.
"As in a beer, hell yeah."
Buffy only just avoided planting her lips on the side of Faith's head as the brunette turned sharply towards the offer of a real drink. She steadied herself with a hand on Faith's shoulder and gripped it painfully tight to get her attention back.
Faith glanced at her as she took the tankard of ale, and then looked back at Dracula, grinning. "Oh wait, no blood in it, is there?"
"Alas, no," he drawled. "It is merely ale."
Faith turned the grin on her, "See, Babe? Nothing to worry about."
Buffy fumed at her silently, waiting for the reason for her anger to register. It didn't. Faith was already caught up in the poser vampire again.
"I thought we were talking," she ground out.
"I thought we'd finished," Faith shrugged.
She duly turned herself back around to hear what else Buffy had left to say, but the little smiles she was giving out were going straight over Buffy's shoulder.
"What is your problem?" Buffy whispered harshly.
She knew Dracula would be able to hear her, hell, half the room had probably heard the whole conversation, but it didn't matter. This wasn't work related, it was personal, which meant she could tell it to the whole damn world if she wanted... and okay, so that didn't actually sound like something she should want to do, but damn it, Faith was pissing her off!
At least Faith didn't look embarrassed by her whispered outburst, just annoyed. "I don't have a problem, Buffy. I'm fine. We're at a cool party, and I'm just trying to enjoy it. And I really wish you didn't have a problem either, but you obviously do, so just let me have it instead of hissing and glaring at me."
Oh, I have a problem, F! It's called you being so under this jerk's thrall you can't even see it. And God forbid you might actually take my word and trust me for once. Oh no, doesn't matter that I've been there, done it and busted out of it! No, just because I happen to have slept with one - okay, two - vampires in my past, my judgment can't be trusted. What about all the guys you've slept with! And women probably! I probably shouldn't trust your judgment on humans! But I do, or I would if it ever came up, but no, of course you always know better. Which is pretty damn weird seeing as you don't even know the basics in human psychology, like how stupid it is to ignore your date in favor of an evil Vampire all night!
Buffy rolled her shoulders and looked Faith squarely in the eye as she said aloud, "I don't have a problem, everything's fine."
"Good," Faith nodded. "Because I just wanna have fun tonight."
Buffy followed Faith's gaze to a smirking Dracula and then looked at Faith again - who wasn't even bothering to look back at her!
Sneering, she said, "Yeah, you wanna have fun so bad you don't even care who you have it with! Well, don't let me stop you, go for it!"
Furious, Buffy stomped off to where she could see a nearly full champagne bottle on another table.
Faith stared after her, her mouth open in surprise. She turned back to Dracula for a second, and then looked at Buffy again, who was now guzzling champagne straight from the bottle.
"Damn," she muttered, giving the vampire her full attention. "Not sure what the hell just happened, but I get the feeling it's gonna cost me later."
"The Slayer will be fine, I am sure," the Count said genially. "She is very resilient from what I remember."
"So you two really do go way back, huh?" Faith asked, perching her ass on the edge of the table.
"No, we met only recently."
"Just how recently?" She asked, feeling some jealousy rising again.
The Count thought about it. "About three years ago, I believe."
"That's recent?" Faith relaxed and took a sip from her tankard.
"It is to me. So, tell me, what has it been like to forever live in her shadow?"
Not liking that question at all, Faith's eyes narrowed. "It's been fine. So what are you guys doing here? Did you just fancy partying in an abandoned house, or do you all, like, mansion-share here or something?"
"It's Olwyn's house..."
"The Shopkeeper guy?"
"He throws a party for us every year at this time."
"Really?" Faith asked suspiciously.
Dracula nodded. "Yes, why?"
"Only, the way I heard it, monsters stayed at home on Halloween."
"Well, Olwyn is our family," he waved his arm to encompass everyone in the room. "So, in essence, we are all at home."
"Huh." Faith mused on that for a second or two, but couldn't find anything in it big enough to dispute. "Okay. So what, you all just have a quiet little get-together? Toasting Satan and roasting humans over an open fire?"
Dracula laughed, showing lots of white fang. "None of us are particularly religious these days and Olwyn has strict policies about humans."
"Prefers them boiled?" Faith cast a glance at the Wizard. He was standing with the tetchy short guy, but his eyes were on Buffy. She looked at him harder, trying to guess what he was thinking.
Dracula laughed again. "Prefers them alive."
"Oh." That was kinda reassuring. She turned to the vampire again, but couldn't help her gaze going now and again to Owen, wondering why he was so interested in Buffy.
"So, Faith, why are you here?"
"B's little sister said she got chased outta here by a bat, so, we came to investigate," she said without really thinking about it.
"No, I meant why are you here?"
He spoke softly, and Faith looked at him sarcastically, ready to repeat what she'd already said, but as she met his gaze she faltered slightly. She swallowed and cleared her throat.
"Well, uh, for B. It's her little sis, ya know?"
The Count tilted his head to one side without breaking eye contact. "Why are you in Boudenver?"
Faith swallowed again. "Uh, for B... for Buffy."
"But why? You could be anywhere. You could be doing anything? Why be here, where you are so unhappy?"
"I'm not unhappy."
"So you are happy right now, with Buffy?" he asked softly, sounding surprised.
"Well... yeah. I think so."
"You don't sound very sure."
"I'm not used to being happy," she admitted. "Not totally sure I know what it's supposed to feel like."
"From what I just heard, it doesn't sound like she makes you happy," Dracula said sympathetically.
"She's... difficult," Faith said awkwardly. "Or I am. I don't know. She has high standards. I don't know if I'm ever gonna be able to live up to them."
"That's a lot of pressure on you, Faith..."
"No, I can handle it..."
"I know you can." He paused long enough to let his belief in her sink in. "But should you have to?"
Faith looked pained. "Huh?"
"Don't you have standards of your own? Dreams of your own? Everyone longs to be more than what they are in this moment. Do you think you can achieve that as things stand?"
"I don't get what you..."
The Count interrupted her gently, "Don't you want to find redemption on your own merits?"
"Of course, but..."
"And do you really believe you can do that while living by another's rules?"
"I don't know."
"Especially when those rules are simply confusing you more and more?"
"I... I... don't know another way."
"There are many paths to enlightenment, Faith, and the one you have chosen is by far harder than what is needed... I can show you a better way."
"You can, huh?" Faith cocked her head, studying him, trying to read what was behind his eyes. It wasn't easy, so she looked harder; figuring there had to be some sign of his intentions in there. The guy just seemed genuine, which normally would be suspicious all on its own, but she was trying to let go of that kind of negative thinking. Relaxing, she gave him a bright smile. "I'm all for an easy life, man, so go on then, let's hear it."
Buffy took another pull on the champagne bottle, hoping it would cure her hiccups. It didn't and all the bubbles were making her feel sick.
"Stupid... hic... fizzy wine," she grumbled. "Goes with the stupid...hic... party."
She had her back very pointedly to Faith and Dracula now, but she could see how very much Faith wasn't bothering to come after her in the reflections on the long, dark windows.
"Clueless bi...hic...tch." She watched the Count seducing her through narrowed eyes. "An' as for...hic... you, you sleazy...hic... show boater..."
Her fingers fiddled with a pair of wooden salad tongs. They weren't the ideal weapon, being mostly blunt, but - she smiled nastily - she could make it work.
"You do realize that staking him would only make him more infuriating," said a soft melodic voice by her shoulder.
Buffy looked up to see the wizard, or shopkeeper or whatever he was, standing there. "Actually, I was thinking of staking her," she pointed the salad tongs at Faith's reflection. "But I think the same warning applies... hic... anyway."
Frustrated, she dropped the salad tongs, took a big, deep breath and held it.
Owen smiled and politely gestured to the chair next to her. "Do you mind if I sit down?"
Buffy shrugged, still holding her breath as she counted to sixty in her head.
He took the seat and waited patiently until her breath exploded out and she slowly drew in a fresh lungful. Feeling confident she'd banished the annoying hiccups, she began,
"You can sit where you like, after all, it's your house...hic... apparently... Damn!"
"Yes, about that..."
"We were told this place...hic... was abandoned."
"Well, it might have appeared that way to some..."
"By the deputy sheriff...hic... You know Alex, right?"
"Of course, very well in fact."
Buffy nodded. "So how come he didn't know you lived out here?"
"He's never needed to."
That seemed reasonable. Buffy knew she should be interrogating this guy. He'd been on the suspicious customer list for a while now, and this bumped him right to the top, but she had bigger things on her mind. Faith and Dracula looked like they were whispering secrets to each other and she was looking in his stupid smoky eyes - hadn't she warned her about that?
Fine, get bit, look like an idiot in the morning, see if I care. At least I had the decency to do it behind Riley's back.
Buffy flicked her glance at Owen again, and then up and down him, taking in his long, deep blue robe and impressive - and slightly ridiculous - pointy hat.
"So Zeke is kinda like a real wolf...hic... and Fred is a real monster, so does that mean...hic... you're a real wizard?"
Owen gave her a strange little smile. "Do you believe in wizards?"
"I believe in witches, so...hic... by default, I guess I must do, but...hic... I've never met one that actually wore the pointy...hic... hat. My friend Willow would probably say you were a phony because you're...hic... trying too hard. Do my hic...hic... ups seem to be getting worse to you? Maybe I should...hic... stand on my head and...hic... drink a glass of water...hic..."
Owen smiled as he lifted his arm and pulled his wide sleeve back from his hand. "Why on your head?"
"Because you're supposed to...hic... drink it upside down, or so I heard. What are you...hic... doing?" She pulled her head back as he tried to place three fingertips against the column of her throat.
"Apparently regressing to my youth," he said, managing to get his fingers where he wanted them. They were a light, warm pressure against her skin. "Please, could you make an 'Ahh' sound."
Buffy shrugged; at least he wasn't asking her to cluck like a chicken. "I thought it was only...hic... Doctors that made you go 'Ahh'" she said, before actually going, "Ahhhhhhhhhhhh."
He motioned for her to hold it, but when she hiccuped mid-ahh, she was about to give it up when he suddenly flicked her windpipe sharply and said something in Latin.
"Hey ow!" She pulled back again, rubbing her stinging throat. "What did you do that for?"
"I was proving myself to be real. Although I am now acknowledging that it perhaps would have been better to leave you believing I am nothing but a silly old man that likes to dress up on Halloween."
"So far, you haven't changed my opinion," Buffy said irritably, still tenderly touching her throat. "Except, now I don't just think you're just a silly, old man; I think you're a mean, silly old man!"
Owen chuckled. "Pride before a fall. When will I learn to stop trying to impress beautiful girls with my powers, I wonder?"
Buffy frowned at him. "Creepy, mean, silly, old man. You're old enough to be my grandpa! I thought you were going to cure my hiccups for me, not get dirty old man thrills from touching my throat, that's... that's..." Buffy paused as something occurred to her. She waited a few extra seconds just to make sure, and then she smiled. "They're gone."
Owen simply nodded, smiling.
"Cool. Thank you." She looked at him more closely. "So you really are a wizard?"
He didn't say anything.
"Living right here on the Hellmouth, too. Is that a coincidence?"
He still didn't say anything, just gave her that tiny little cryptic smile.
"I doubt it," she answered herself. "Sunnydale had all sorts of shady characters living behind the scenes. Shoulda expected the same to start showing themselves around here too sooner or later."
"So you haven't met any others yet?" he asked curiously.
"Nope, you're the first," she eyed him suspiciously. "First normal sized one anyway," she added, thinking of the Piskies. "So, if I tossed you in the air - and, believe me, I could - which side would you land on - Heads for Good or Tails for Evil?"
His smile grew. "If I was evil would I have cured your hiccups?"
"Could be all part of a bigger plan of wickedness," she said perkily, starting to enjoy this conversation, just as she saw Faith pulled - laughing - onto the dance floor by Iggy. "Hang on, totally evil trumps ambiguously evil."
She stood up and started walking towards Dracula.
"One moment," Owen called out, and she turned to him impatiently. "From one character of the shadows to another, will you keep my secret?"
"Firstly, I'm retired from the shadows," she said quickly, but she mused on the actual question for a moment before she said, "Secondly, I don't know yet. I guess we'll see."
She stormed up to the Count now, who smiled when he saw her approach, he dropped it though when she pushed him so hard his ass hit the edge of the table and he sat on a dish of caviar.
"How dare you, Slayer!"
"Oh, I dare. I dare a big freaking amount, you son of a bitch. Stop using your mind games on Faith!"
"I am not doing any such thing."
"Yes, you are. I've been watching you and ever since we got here you've been hitting her with your dark power-y seduction routine. I get it, you like the challenge of doing it with a slayer. You're not the first, and Spike's approach was way better than yours."
"Spike! That little runt?" Dracula growled in his throat.
"That's right," Buffy smiled. "So stop the games now!"
"I am not playing," he said, his eyes icy. "I am very serious about making Faith mine."
Buffy punched him, or tried to; he caught her hand before it could connect with his finely chiseled nose.
"Never gonna happen!" she said through gritted teeth as she roughly pulled her hand back.
"How can you be so sure? She was born to be my bride. She is so beautifully dark inside..."
"No, she's not."
"You know she is," he smiled.
"We're working on it," Buffy said without missing a beat.
"She's attracted to evil men."
"No, that's me. Faith just wants a daddy figure."
Dracula tilted his head to one side as he thought. "That would keep my other brides from becoming jealous. I will take her."
"I'm not giving her away!"
"I'm not asking."
"That works out fine, because you're not having either."
"We shall see." He dramatically pulled his cape around him as if he was going to stalk off.
Buffy pushed him back onto the table. "No we shall not! Get over it, because this is never gonna happen. You want a new bride; go find one that doesn't belong with me."
He tilted his head again, fangs just showing through his cruel smile. "And where would be the pleasure in that?"
"You son of a... You're only doing this because you know she's with me." Seething, she jabbed a finger at his chest.
"How quickly she catches on," he mocked her. "You will rue the day you made a fool out of me, Slayer!"
"You're gonna find I don't rue much, vampire, and when I do, I save it for important stuff, like wishing I'd gone for the donut instead of the granola bar, or regretting not getting my hair done before Faith came back from prison, because now when I go I'm gonna come back about six shades lighter and that's gonna be noticeable. So you see why I don't have time to rue over anything to do with you? I'm all rued out. So," she prodded him sharply in the chest with her finger three times as she said, "Leave...Faith... alone!"
He leaned backwards across the table with the prodding. When she'd finished, she crossed her arms and glared at him threateningly.
He sat forward again with a smile. "No."
Buffy was ready for war now and about to launch herself at the infuriating bastard, when Faith appeared beside them, flushed and still laughing from the dancing.
"Hey, guys, not interrupting anything am I?" she asked, slinging an arm around Buffy's neck and resting her hand on Dracula's shoulder.
"No, and are you ready? It's time we left," Buffy said firmly.
"I haven't finished my drink yet. Besides I was in the middle of a conversation with Drac here." Faith unhooked her arm from Buffy as she looked around for her tankard.
"We have plenty of beer at home." Buffy caught her hand, trying to keep Faith by her side.
"That's not the point." Faith looked down at their joined hands and Buffy saw repulsion flash in her eyes. It was only there for a breath before being replaced by uncertainty as Faith glanced around the room uncomfortably.
But it had been there and so Buffy didn't fight it when Faith gently pulled her hand free.
The Count was giving her a smug smile. She wasn't going to let it get to her. So Faith felt uneasy holding hands in a room full of strangers, that wasn't weird. What was weirder was that she didn't feel uneasy about holding hands in private too.
She bet if she offered to do Faith right there on the banquet table between the pickled mushrooms and the roast stag it would be a different story - not that she was going to test that theory. Unless Dracula really raised his game.
"There isn't a point," she said, turning to meet Faith's eye. "There is just us going home. Please. Now."
Faith slowly crossed her arms and just looked at her, a mildly sarcastic smile playing on her lips. Buffy glared back, waiting for her to back down, but it was futile, the longer this battle of wills went on for, the less chance there was of Faith admitting defeat.
"Why you in such a hurry, B? You sick or something?"
"No, I just want to leave."
"And I don't wanna. So do you wanna end our first date with a fight, or do you wanna compromise, huh?"
Buffy still glared at her.
The Count filled her silence. "There is another option. You can always go home if you wish and perhaps Faith will follow you later."
"Follow, my ass," Faith muttered to herself as she looked around for her ale again.
Buffy blinked a few times, weighing up her options, it really was tempting to turn on her heel and storm right on out of there. And, not that her luck made it likely, perhaps Faith would get lost on the way home and have to spend the night in the cold, damp woods all alone. But what if she got lost on the way home? That wasn't such an attractive thought and she didn't know the woods around here that much better than Faith did.
"What was your compromise?" she asked through gritted teeth.
"You relax. I finish my drink." Faith raised her reclaimed tankard. "And we get to know these fine gentlemen a little better. What do ya say?"
"I say that sounds more like us doing exactly what you want than an actual compromise."
"Fine. We'll leave as soon as you find the keys to the truck." Faith gave her a pointed look. "Can't go without 'em, right?"
Right, missing keys, missing annoying English boy, maybe Faith wasn't quite so enthralled as she seemed, or maybe she was prepared to use her sacred duty to get her more time with the infamous vampire?
"Why do I have to look for them?"
"Because I'm talking. Drac's gonna tell me how much fun the party was when all the little kiddies were here." She gave Buffy another pointed look.
Buffy sighed and turned away, leaving her to do what she wanted, she was obviously going to anyway. She turned on the spot, checking out the room, wondering where to start looking.
"Have you lost something?"
She jumped at Fred's deep voice right behind her. "Uh, yeah, car keys."
"I will help you find them," he offered.
"Thanks. Uh, I don't know where to look."
"Let me sniff you." Zeke appeared on her other side.
"What?" Buffy took a step away, bumping gently into Fred's huge torso. "I really don't think so!"
Rolling his big, brown eyes, he picked up her hand and sniffed it gently.
"Oh," she muttered. "What will that do?"
He dropped to all fours and said over his shoulder. "I'll be able to trace the keys by your scent."
"Oh, that's pretty useful... but I never had the keys," she explained. "One of the kids at the party drove here in our truck and the truck's still here, so... we figured he must be too, uh, I mean, they must still be... too."
Zeke sat on his haunches and looked up at her. "Squirts all got chased outta here hours ago."
Fred nodded, "Yes, we could hear their screams echoing in the woods all around."
Buffy stared at him for a moment, shuddering slightly at the solemn delivery of that line. "Well, what if one or two of them didn't quite make it out?"
Ptah had joined their loose circle. "The youths were like sheep, when one ran the rest followed. Why would one or two not have?"
"I don't know," she said carefully. "Perhaps... perhaps..."
"Just what are you insinuating?" The sour-pussed Victor asked as he joined them too. "That we have kept one of your children for our own nefarious purposes?"
"I'm not insinuating anything," Buffy backtracked quickly, "Except, you know, exactly what you just said."
Victor's pompousness deflated as he muttered, "They all ran too fast."
"And the rest of us," Ptah said quickly, almost over the top of him, "have no use for youths, nefarious or otherwise. In fact, we couldn't get rid of them soon enough."
"That is true," Fred nodded.
"Plus, me and Vlad had a look around when we got back, just to make sure there weren't any cowering in a corner somewhere you understand," Zeke grinned. "We didn't find any."
"Really?" Buffy wasn't sure if she should believe them, but even if she did, it still didn't address her problem. "So if you guys were chasing them out of here why didn't the slayers use the truck? It would have been a little faster surely."
"Maybe they ran too fast," Ptah shrugged.
"Maybe." Buffy looked around suspiciously again.
They seemed pretty dead set on stopping her from looking around for them herself. That had to mean they were hiding something, right?
"If you don't believe us, woman, don't be so shy; come out with it," Victor snapped at her.
"I never said that," she snapped back.
"Take a look around if you would like," Ptah offered politely, although there was hurt in his eyes. "But I fear you will only be wasting your time."
"Yeah, you're not going to find any of your kids bound and gagged in any of the rooms," Zeke said seriously, and then his mouth opened into a wide grin. "But if you wanna check every last one out, I don't mind helping."
"Me too!" Wow, so Fred could speak quickly.
"No, no, I trust you," she said fast, pushing the monster back a little bit to give herself some space. She wasn't traipsing around for hours with these two in tow, that was for sure. "I believe you haven't kept any kiddie meals in a spare bedroom. But where the heck does that make Reece and the keys?"
She looked around again, exasperated.
"This is getting very tiresome!" Reece grunted as he ran down another pitch dark corridor.
Without being completely sure, because strangely enough the inside of one wall looked a lot like the inside of every other wall, he thought they might be up as high as the third story now. They hadn't passed an exterior slit of a window in a while either so that last sharp turn must have directed them back towards the middle of the house.
"Really, 'cause I thought we passed tiresome hours ago." Even Rona sounded a little out of breath now.
"Then stop yer feckin' chasin' me," squealed the creature ahead of them with an Irish brogue.
Reece nearly fell over his own feet at hearing the thing shout. It had only muttered unfathomably so far.
Rona was unfazed. "We'll stop chasing when you stop runnin'!"
"Well, oy ain't gonna stop runnin' until yer stop chasin'!"
"Good grief," Reece muttered, "this is going to go on forever."
"Fine," he heard Rona shout ahead. "You keep running. We'll just find a way outside and set the place on fire. Let's see how much you enjoy running around a burning building!"
"You know we can't actually do that, yes?" Reece checked as they ran.
"Why not? You got your lighter on you, don't you?"
"Yes, but there are civilians in the house," he said, not knowing that most of them had cleared out hours ago.
"So? They can all leave when we do," Rona said, and then shouted the last bit. "Not like any of them are trapped in the walls, is it?"
There was a resounding crunch and a holler of pain as Paddy jumped and tucked his legs and head in, letting his momentum cannon ball him through the wooden door at the end of the corridor. There was muffled swearing and some clanking as he tried to quickly extricate himself from the cupboard with the false back on the other side.
"What happened?" Reece shouted, fumbling to get his Zippo out of his pocket as he ran.
"I flushed him out," Rona said with a hint of pride in her voice. "Can't believe he fell for it."
As Reece flicked the Zippo alight, the exit sign above the door ahead glowed a faint green. He just had time to make out a big hole in the bottom of the door before Rona pulled it open. Holding the lighter above their heads, he crowded her into the small space to help her get the other side open.
"Hey, watch it," she complained as they burst into the room beyond together.
They both froze in surprise, so did the little man trying to push a high backed wooden chair towards the main door. At about two and half foot tall, he was a lot bigger than a Piskie and barely half the size of a man. The thick ginger beard and ruddy complexion ruled out five years old though.
As soon as the tableaux had frozen, it erupted into real time again as Rona went from nought to sprinting across the room in an instant. Paddy gave a high squeal, abandoned his chair and started tearing around the room away from her.
Reece went to intercept him, but Rona stopped him,
"Maintain our line!"
"What?" he asked, confused by the order at first. "Oh, you mean cover the exit?"
"Whatever," she snapped as she ran around the table. "Just don't let him outta that hole."
Reece pushed the door shut and leaned against it. He wanted to contribute more than this, but he had to admit it was nice to have a breather. According to the clock on the mantelpiece in here - assuming it was telling the right time - he had been inside the walls for nearly three hours. And for two of those at least he'd been chasing this blighter around. Well, they had him now.
Rona ran around and around the table trying to get her hands on Paddy, but he was just a little too quick. Plus he had the advantage of being able to duck underneath the table, and when she dropped to her hands and knees to scurry between the chair legs after him, he popped out the other side!
The dining room they were in was pretty much like the one she'd raided earlier for her wooden spoon, but much more intimate. The table was half the size, probably only able to seat four at the most, although with the half-melted candles and the rose in the tall glass vase, maybe it had been intended just for two.
And she was sharing this romantic space with a homicidal little person, and Reece. Who had she pissed off to get this lucky, huh?
Paddy continued to dodge and duck her attempts to catch him, muttering threats and mild expletives the whole time. He'd cornered himself in here, which was an eejit thing to do, but he had to have more stamina than the average human. They'd drop from exhaustion sooner or later. The lad already looked full of fatigue. He just had to keep out of the lassy's reach and he'd be okay.
After the third time of her fingers grazing his little green duffle coat just a fraction too late, Rona stopped running in circles and in a swift, easy move that thrilled her more than she expected, she turned the solid table over and sent it crashing to its side.
The candles bounced off and rolled away and the glass vase tinkled into glittering pieces as she gave the exposed Paddy a satisfied smirk.
Paddy stared at her, once again immobilized by surprise.
"Well, catch him then," Reece called over, breaking the spell.
"I am," Rona barked at him, lunging forward to do just that.
Paddy pulled his carving knife from out of his coat and waved it at her. "I'd loike ter see yer try."
"Rona, be careful!"
She rolled her eyes. "'What else am I gonna be? I thought my Watcher was supposed to teach me stuff I didn't already know," she grumbled to herself.
Checking her lunge, she brought her foot up instead to kick him. He jumped backwards to avoid it, rebounded off of the underside of the table and slashed at her boot as he involuntarily came forward again.
"Don't you put a slice in my boot," she warned it. "Giles hardly gives us a cent for clothing allowance."
"Keep yer damn boot away from me then!" he suggested, slashing again as she kicked out.
"Put down the blade and I won't squash you like a bug," Rona negotiated, still kicking.
"Yes yer will!" he countered, still slashing.
To Reece it looked like some highly exotic, but only mildly dangerous, performance art. He wondered, stifling a yawn, if they'd even notice if he sat down and had five minutes of shut-eye.
Paddy's six inch blade bit deep into the leather of Rona's boot - there was another of those perfectly still moments - and then Rona yelped in pain and Paddy tried to run, didn't matter where as long as it was away. Rona helped him out with a furious and pain-fueled kick to his arse with her other foot.
"Ahheeeiiiieee!" He cried as he sailed through the air at high speed straight towards the solid wall.
Gravity started pulling him down to thankfully miss smacking straight into the brick and plaster, not so thankfully he crashed once again through solid wood and the same gravity that had been his friend a second before started pulling him in a freefall through the darkness.
Reece rushed to the center of the room. "Where did he go?"
He looked around frantically, the moonlight coming through the bare windows lit the room up fairly well, but there were still areas of deep shadows, especially in the corners.
"I heard a crack," Rona said as she gingerly pulled the knife from her boot. A little blood dripped from the edge and she looked around the room instead of thinking about it. "There, look. In the wall."
She limped closer and reached out to the wooden panel in the otherwise brick wall. It was large, about three by three foot and there was a handle at the top.
"Let me look at your foot," Reece insisted, dragging a chair upright for her to sit on.
"Like we have time for you to play nursemaid," she told him harshly as she pulled on the handle.
The wooden hatch pulled downwards to form a shelf. Inside it looked like a small elevator shaft.
"What the hell?"
Reece sighed loudly at her stubbornness. "It's a dumbwaiter."
"It's a lift for food. There would have been a box to put the food in and then you can pull it straight up here from the kitchen. Saves the kitchen staff from making trip after trip up the stairs and it means the all food arrives hot and relatively at the same time."
"So this goes directly down to the kitchen?" Rona pointed down the hole.
"Yes, and probably every other room on this side of the house that people might eat in."
"So this goes straight down to the first floor!" she said, like he was missing her point. "The floor where all the high school kids are and the way out?"
She was balanced on the shelf with her head already down the shoot before he could add anything else.
"What are you...?"
"He's not getting away," she insisted, her voice muffled.
Reece just stared as her feet disappeared. "You're gonna land head first in a confined space, you bloody twit," he shouted. "And probably on top of that... that... small person," he finished with a helpless wave of his hand.
Realizing he had to do something; he dashed to the main door, yanked it open and ran blindly through the dark looking for the staircase.
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