The streets of downtown Trillium were deserted and eerily silent, save for the light breeze that whipped at the debris littering the gutters of a discarded day. The moon was engaged in a game of hide-and-seek with the scuttling clouds, bathing the area below in silvery light one moment and then draping it with dense shadow the next. A foraging cat, gray against shadows, emerged into the mouth of an alley and stalked a fluttering candy wrapper for a moment before disappearing into an air duct located at the base of one of the buildings. It fled with a furtive glance behind, ears twitching at the sound of approaching footsteps.
A petite figure, chest heaving with exertion, rounded the corner. Her nervous silhouette paused for no more than a pounding heartbeat before she began to sprint along the length of the narrow back street. She peered constantly over her shoulder as she ran, feet often stumbling in their flight toward hopeful sanctuary, but the terrified glances revealed nothing of consequence. Continuing to draw deep breaths, the figure, head downturned, collided heavily with a lurking form which had suddenly materialized unnoticed. She staggered backward and almost lost her delicate balance, but the looming menace swiftly seized her upper arms and tugged her close.
Beneath the moonlight, his face revealed how much he had been enjoying the chase. Although obviously entertained by the pursuit, his gleaming fangs also indicated the overwhelming desire to draw blood. He leaned forward, savoring the moment of victory.
"You know there's no escape," he chuckled softly, brushing his hand down the girl's cheek in a grotesque pantomime of affection. "I told you that, sweetheart. You can't get away from me. Not ever."
His captive whimpered pitifully as the vampire lifted her out of the shadows and pinned her against the brick wall. An overhead streetlight bathed the girl in weak light. It was Buffy. With wide eyes, she bit her lip and then whimpered once more, virtually paralyzed with fear.
"You can run and run," he grinned, darting out his tongue, "but I. Will always. Be there. Even if you got away, I'd still be there. Haunting you. Hunting you. You'd never feel comfortable in the dark again. You'd always wonder, 'Is he out there? Can he find me?'" He paused for effect. "And you know the answer, don't you sweetheart?"
Buffy trembled, her eyes widening even further.
"Help," she choked, her voice little more than a stifled sob.
The vampire cocked his head. "What's that? What'd you say?"
"Help," she repeated with more strength, the words ringing out into the night. "Help!"
"Help, help!" the vampire yelled in his loudest voice. When there was no answer, he threw back his head and laughed heartily. "You donít have anybody, sweetheart. Your friends, your family ... Nobody's left to help you. Nobody. There's only you." He frowned as though a thought had suddenly occurred. "Oh, and me," he added with a toothy smile.
The joviality was fleeting. Baring his wickedly sharp fangs, the vampire moved deliberately toward Buffy's exposed neck. There was no mistaking his intentions and Buffy was spurred into action. Struggling violently, she managed to free her hand and slashed at the vampire's face with her nails. Growling angrily at the unexpected assault, the vampire hurled Buffy to the ground.
"You, me, and that little spark of defiance you've got left," he amended with a snarl, dabbing gingerly at his ripped cheek. "Luckily, I got the cure."
Straddling the blonde, he loomed over her and began to fumble at his belt buckle.
Buffy's eye roll was nearly audible and all trace of fear had completely vanished. "Oh my god," she sneered, her tone one of undeniable boredom.
Suddenly she was in motion and Buffy kicked straight upward. The vampire's eyes protruded just for a moment before clenching shut in agony. He doubled over with a muted but agonized groan. Swinging her other leg around, Buffy connected solidly with the vampire's jaw. His moaning abruptly cut short, the vampire crumpled to the ground, hands still cupped protectively around his earlier injury. Easily rolling to her feet, Buffy deftly spun a wooden stake that had appeared from nowhere and took a meaningful step toward the vampire.
"Ah-ah-ah!" came a warning from the shadows.
Accompanied by an irritated puff of air, Buffy whirled, eying the entrance to the alleyway with frustration. Perched atop a stack of crates, Willow sipped on a mocha and bounced her heels against the wood. Next to the redhead leaned Xander, tapping purposefully upon the crystal of his wristwatch while regarding Buffy with an unspoken accusation.
"Oh come on!" urged Buffy with something of a pout.
"You've still got ..." Xander briefly consulted his timepiece, "one minute and twenty-six seconds to go."
From the concrete, the vampire stirred slightly. "A minute ..." he muttered painfully through gritted teeth.
"And twenty-six seconds," Xander added helpfully.
Lost in utter confusion, the vampire blinked and then eyed Buffy warily as she turned to look down at him, shrugging by way of explanation. "It's my dare."
The statement did little to clarify things for the unfortunate creature.
"Which ya could've avoided if you'd just taken 'truth,'" Willow pointed out with the faintest touch of admonishment.
Buffy's attention returned to her friends. "Please, from Xander? I shudder to think." She gave a cursory shudder for emphasis.
"And you talk to procrastinate," charged Xander. "Come on." He tapped the crystal again. "One-twenty-six. The clock will not resume without you."
Exhaling with an extremely heavy and a very put-upon sigh, Buffy rolled her eyes. In a totally flat, completely unbelievable monotone she began her dispassionate soliloquy.
"Ah, help. Help me. Oh god, please. I am distressed and in grave peril. Behold the excruciating peril that is Buffy."
The vampire struggled to his feet. "Buffy?" he questioned, as though he couldn't possibly have heard the name correctly.
"Buffy," she verified. "The Vampire Slayer."
The anxious query went ignored.
Crinkling her nose, Willow shook her head. "I'm just not feeling it."
"No, I'm forced to agree," Xander concurred wholeheartedly. "It lacked depth."
"I couldn't empathize with the title character."
"It was a wooden performance."
Buffy narrowed her eyes at Xander's exceedingly bad pun.
"It lacked punch," Willow continued, seemingly content to continue the critique well beyond its amusement freshness date.
Presumably believing he had all but been forgotten, the vampire decided to take full advantage of the continuing banter to make his move. He crept up on Buffy from behind and lunged. He didn't see the back of the blonde's fist until it caught him squarely on the bridge of his nose. His eyes registered mild surprise before they became clouded once again. Then, he fell back onto the cold concrete with a dull thud. Without missing a beat, Buffy leveled a glare in the direction of Willow and Xander.
The redhead obviously approved. "Punchy," she acknowledged, sucking noisily on her straw.
Xander, on the other hand, was less appreciative. "That wasn't very helpless-like."
Buffy declined to respond. Instead, she calmly sidestepped the now recovered vampire, who was charging at her back. As he flashed past, she grabbed a fistful of shirt, executed a 180° spin and flung him headfirst into the wall. He slumped the ground with what was proving to be rather tedious regularity.
"Yeah, see," sighed an exasperated Xander, "I can't help but think you're sort of missing the point."
To his credit, the woozy vampire was struggling to his feet yet again. Grabbing his lapels, Buffy lent aid to his cause.
"I guess—" she stated, landing a well-aimed punch to the vampire's chin. His head snapped crisply to the right. "—I don't have—" she continued, hooking his jaw so his head jerked in the opposite direction. "—the right motivation!"
She paused and then hefted a fist that found its mark directly between the eyes. The vampire let out not one single solitary moan as he slammed into the brickwork for the last time. Indeed, he never even felt the stake pierce his chest.
The vampire now little more than a pile of dust, Buffy turned back to her friends, slipping the stake into her jacket. "And really, isn't that the director's fault?" she asked pointedly.
Willow stared into the depths of her mocha. "It was a dumb dare anyway," she announced, glancing sideways at Xander's accusing look. "I mean, come on. 'Pretend to be weak and helpless for the first five minutes of your next vampire encounter'?"
Hopping off the crate, the redhead joined Buffy and handed her the drink. The offer was gratefully accepted as the pair walked away arm-in-arm. Xander hastened to catch up.
"It was supposed to be funny," he insisted.
Buffy arched an eyebrow. "And was it?"
The carpenter considered his answer carefully. "I thought you screamed like a girl really well," he told her. "You know, for a ... girl. Besides, I didn't think you'd actually run into one, and then you'd be indebted to me for life by forfeiting your dare."
Frowning, Willow reached out to take back her mocha. "Okay," she remarked thoughtfully around the straw, "see I missed the part of the rules where there was indentured servitude."
"Oh, I just made it up," admitted Xander with a shrug.
Buffy nodded. "You're right though, I didn't think we'd find a vamp either. They've been sorta scarce for the past week or so, even for a town full of Slayers."
"Maybe they all got smart and decided to move somewhere without like fifty supernaturally empowered protectors of humankind?" suggested Willow with a sunny smile.
The trio chewed over the proposition before declaring, emphatically and in unison, "Nahh."
"Still plenty of demons and ucky slimy things though," Xander noted.
"Yeah," agreed Buffy. "Demons o' plenty. It's not like there's less evil, just that the evil slide rule has been nudged to the left a bit. But I digress. Okay Will, truth or dare?"
"Truth," stated an unhesitating Willow.
"Chicken," accused Xander.
"Silly dare maker-upper," she shot back.
Buffy's forehead creased with concentration. "Truth, truth ..." she murmured quietly to herself.
"Ask her about her rollicking sex life," proposed Xander with a grin.
Willow was suitably shocked. "Xander!"
"Please," Buffy scoffed with a roll of her eyes. "I have Slayer hearing. I already have way more information than I ..."
Willow's expression immediately moved up a notch on the distressed scale, and the blonde hurriedly backpedaled.
"Did I say 'way'? I meant ... gray. I have gray information. In that the information – of which there is the sparsest of sparse amounts – is very ... fuzzy. And sort of grayish." She flashed a brief but hopefully endearing smile before acknowledging defeat. "So, about that rollicking sex life?"
Her mouth opening and closing several times, Willow tried desperately to go on the offensive. "Oh yeah, well ... well what about your sex life?" she demanded, poking her mocha at Buffy and then immediately regretting the act as she lost possession. She turned to Xander and jabbed at him with her finger. "Huh? O-Or yours? There's not just me, you know!"
Xander peered over the top of Willow's head as he and Buffy exchanged a look.
"Actually, there kinda is," he replied.
"I would have to agree," affirmed Buffy. "The two of us are sitting in Spinster Alley." She frowned as she glanced at Xander. "Or I am, with the female thing and all. Is there a male word for 'spinster'?"
"I think it's 'lucky'," smirked the carpenter.
The redhead's expression fell as she regarded Buffy seriously. "But what about ... uhm ..." She waved her hand in the air as she searched for an appropriate name.
"Mark," she finally announced, at the exact same moment Xander supplied, "Dave."
"Roger," Buffy corrected them both.
"Or him," Willow amicably agreed.
The blonde shrugged. "Eh. He was okay. There just wasn't that 'something' you know? I like my guys to be ..." her voice trailed away in thought.
"Room temperature?" ventured Xander with a grin.
Buffy's eyes narrowed into a glare. "Different," she clarified. "I'm looking for that special something and Roger—"
"—just don't have it," finished Buffy. "That's okay though. All my big relationships have been so super intense, it's nice to just go out on a few normal dates that don't end – or begin – with violence and death."
Xander nodded. "That's a good plan. I'd use that, if I ever date ever again ever."
"You could date," Buffy told him firmly.
"I could," he readily agreed.
"You should date," continued Buffy, just as firmly.
Again, Xander expressed no denial. "I should."
"Butcha won't," came Willow's assertion.
"I will," he stated with resolve.
The trio passed by the entrance to an alleyway, like many on the downtown streets. Nobody bothered to give it a second glance. Instead they continued down the sidewalk, thoroughly engrossed in their conversation, which could be easily heard even as they walked further away.
"But first," Xander was demanding, "I want to hear all about this rollicking sex life of yours."
Willow jutted out her chin defiantly, clearly staking a claim on the high road. "My lips are sealed."
From the shadow of a building within the narrow alley, a vampire emerged. He was a hulking creature, nearly twice the size of the one Buffy had battled earlier. His physique was more toned and his countenance far more threatening. He made no attempt to stalk the trio. Indeed, he stood perfectly still and moved not a single muscle, content it seemed to simply observe their imminent departure.
"Fine, fine," the carpenter's aggrieved tone echoed. "Need I remind you of the whole slavery issue for forfeiting? Plus, you know I'll just use my next turn to dig all the juicy details outta the human Supersonic Ear."
"Hey, don't drag me into this!" Buffy protested as they continued their journey straight ahead. "A Slayer must choose her battles wisely. I wisely don't choose this one."
Still, the vampire remained unmoving, although it was rapidly becoming obvious that his rigidity was caused less by personal choice and more by fear. From behind him stepped a Japanese girl. She was young, appearing perhaps no more than 14. Fine-boned and fragile in build, she gave the impression of an exquisite china doll – something dainty that should be locked away in a museum and guarded for safekeeping. She seemed out of place in the darkened back street, her aura of delicacy strangely at odds with the stake in her hand that was partially embedded in the vampire's chest, directly over his heart.
The sharpened stake remained motionless, neither withdrawing nor moving to finish the death it had started. The girl paid the vampire no mind, focused solely in the direction Buffy, Willow and Xander had taken.
Clearly fearing for his existence, the vampire swallowed hard. His eyes darted from the stake in his chest to the person who held it there; otherwise, he didn't dare to even twitch.
"That girl," the vampire's captor finally spoke. Her words were in perfect English, but her voice was heavily laced with an oriental accent. "The blonde. She is Slayer?"
Skittish but obviously desperate to please, the vampire was quick to confirm. "Yeah. Yeah, she's a Slayer. The big one around here. There was another, but she's not around, she—"
"Those with her?" the girl interrupted.
"Her friends," he hastened to reply.
"Friends. Friends are weakness." Her words held no reproach.
The vampire shrugged as well as possible, given the circumstances. "If you say so. She seems plenty strong if you ask me." As the girl's almond-shaped eyes fell upon him, he retreated into groveling mode. "Which you didn't, so never mind."
Cocking her head to one side, she considered the vampire for a moment "For the information," the girl finally stated, "I thank you."
The vampire was immediately hopeful. "So ... I can go now?" He glanced warily at the stake and winced. "Cuz I gotta say, besides the burning agony here, I can just feel that thing about a centimeter away from ground zero and it's making me—"
"You are evil." The statement was made without malice. It was a simple undisputable fact.
The air between them grew thick as the vampire seemed to be waiting for a continuation of the accusation. But no continuation was forthcoming. The girl simply observed him, patient and examining.
"Well ... yeah," he finally admitted. "Sorta comes with the gig, you know? They drunk, I drunk, lose the soul, replace with demon ..."
"I know this."
The vampire laughed. It was an uneasy sound, brittle and far too high-pitched for one with such a burly frame. "Of course you do!" he assured. "Of course. So ... So yeah. Evil. That's me." He paused and grinned nervously. "Rrr."
She nodded, as though his words had carried with them great wisdom. "There must be balance. Evil is necessary."
The grin on the vampire's face grew broader. He shuffled his feet a little, apparently believing that freedom was within his grasp.
However, there was barely time for the smile to turn to surprise as he found himself being speedily and efficiently dusted. The girl's hand darted out as she allowed a small pile of the residual ash to sift gently into her palm. Bringing it closer, she scrutinized it with open interest.
"You are not," she finally determined.
Opening a leather pouch, worn and ancient, she carefully poured the dust inside, securing it tightly with a slender strap. Glancing up, she gazed into the distance, where Buffy, Willow and Xander were continuing their walk, now little more than vague shades in the moonlight, moving further and further away.