The young man turned up the collar of his coat as he walked slowly through the cemetery. It was a chilly night and the brilliant stars twinkled crisply. One hand was stuffed deep into his pocket, fingernails digging into his palm, while the other clutched a small bouquet. He looked neither right nor left as he made his way along the gravel path, eyes fixed on the ground in front of him.
Instinctively, he paused at the foot of a grave, the earth only just settled from the relatively recent burial. He blinked in misery at the newly erected headstone that read
Moving forward, he brushed glittering frost from the arch of the stone with great care and then positioned the flowers within a slender marble vase. That having been accomplished, he stood with head bowed and took a deep breath, swallowing a huge lump in his throat. He said nothing for several moments, appearing to be searching for something appropriate. At last, he sighed.
"Hi, Nancy." His lips formed a smile, brief and trembling. "It's Paul. I brought you some flowers. Orchids. Your favorite." He stared sorrowfully at the little vase and its contents. "I-I'm not sure how long they'll last out here. It's so cold. So cold."
His voice wavered and he stared upward at the sky, as though he were unable to bear looking upon the tombstone or his token offering for a moment longer. His face twisted with pain as he turned sharply and retreated from the gravesite before coming to a halt by the edge of the pathway. As his chin dropped to his chest, he failed to notice a mound of freshly tilled earth begin to stir behind him.
"I've been trying, ever since—" he muttered piteously, but was forced to abandon the statement. "I keep thinking that it's all my fault," he continued. "If it weren't for me, we'd both be home right now, making fun of TV and eating those little cheese crackers that you loved." He swiped the back of his hand across his eyes. "I always thought they were so gross. I found a half-empty box of them in my apartment yesterday. I can't bring myself to throw them away."
The ground churned more violently as a body struggled to break the surface. Still, the young man was oblivious to the ongoing efforts.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry. I just wish ... I hope you can forgive me."
"Don't worry, lover—" assured a voice at his shoulder.
As a cold hand caressed the nape of his neck, Paul whirled to find himself face-to-face with a female vampire. His eyes opened wide in shock and terror.
Her tiny smile soon became a wide sneer, exposing wicked fangs. "I forgive ..."
She leaned purposefully toward the hollow of his throat but then abruptly paused. The pair stared at each other, expressions frozen for the most part, but discombobulation obviously reigned.
"Who are you?" both asked in unison.
"You ... called me ..." said Paul, trying to quell the anxiety that was quickly rising.
Releasing her hold, the vampire took a step backward. "Oh, wow. Hey, what a complete— I thought you were someone else. Totally. With the mourning, and the guilt, and ..." She sniffed at the air and focused on the young man. "Is that Obsession?"
Paul shook his head somewhat dumbly. "Eternity."
"Funny how I'd mess that up, now of all times!" she returned, and then took a deep breath to excise her embarrassment. "So yeah!" She grinned ruefully. "Sorry about that."
"That's okay," said Paul, obviously still floundering in a state of confusion.
The vampire regarded him seriously for a moment. "You're sweet," she finally assessed. "Thanks, uhh ..." she prompted, arching an eyebrow and apparently waiting for a name to be supplied.
"Oh! Paul," he provided, startled into civility.
He extended his hand and she accepted the cordial gesture with all due politeness.
"Pleased to meet you," acknowledged Paul with a small nod as the handshake came to an end. He shivered a little and then rubbed his palms together. "You're cold."
"Am I?" queried Rachel. She shrugged. "It's hard to judge. I don't really feel it anymore."
Paul's forehead crinkled in a befuddled fashion. Obviously in some shock, he attempted to cope with his present situation to the best of his limited ability. Trapped in some bizarre social ritual where the rules didn't apply, he played by them anyway since there appeared to be nothing else he to do.
"You here visiting family?" asked Rachel pleasantly.
Paul blinked and swallowed hard. His eyes drifted back to Nancy's grave and the grief returned in full measure. "My girlfriend," he murmured sadly, indicating the tombstone.
Rachel followed his gaze with sympathy. "Vampire?"
"Like me," clarified Rachel, but Paul remained baffled.
She made exaggerated 'quote' motions on either side of her head and clarified, "Neck trauma?"
Paul stared for a moment. "Uhm, no? It was a car accident."
"So she's probably not coming back then, huh?" said Rachel, her tone laced with compassion.
"What?" he said yet again.
"Which also means she doesn't have dibs!" Rachel told him brightly.
Paul frowned, trying his best to follow along and failing miserably.
"So why all the guilt?" queried Rachel curiously. Nostrils flaring, she sniffed at him again. "I can just smell it pouring off you. I guess Calvin Klein's miracle machine only goes so far."
Paul's expression became stricken. "I was supposed to pick her up from work, but ... but I got distracted and was running late." He shuffled miserably. "She told me not to worry about it, that she could get a ride with a friend, and—"
"Hey, Paul?" interrupted Rachel.
Lunging forward, she seized his shoulders and pulled him toward her, sinking her fangs into his throat. Paul instantly shrieked in horror, eyes wide with panic, but then Rachel was abruptly yanked backward. Stumbling, she fell across Nancy's grave, toppling the little marble vase and crushing the flowers beneath her weight. Unable to move, Paul's brain tried desperately to process. His eyes flickered toward the girl who stood defensively between him and the sprawling vampire.
"Run," Buffy ordered firmly.
Paul clasped his hand to his neck, face white and ashen. "She bit me!" he whispered.
"Bandage it," said Buffy curtly. "Wear a scarf."
On the ground, Rachel was beginning to regain her senses and struggling to get to her feet. Noticing where she had fallen, Paul pointed toward the pathetic ruination of marble vase and orchid petals and was instantly offended.
"Nancy!" he protested.
"Unless you want to join her, you'll run. Now!" informed Buffy, losing patience.
But she had no further time to argue the point. Moving into attack mode, Rachel launched an assault. As the pair grappled, Paul snapped out of his stupor and apparently decided to take Buffy's advice. He fled the scene as fast as his quivering legs could carry him. With her height advantage, Rachel had managed to gain some leverage, but Buffy was not the Slayer for nothing. Still, Rachel had Buffy by the lapels and was shaking the blonde like a rag doll.
"That was my dinner!" she growled menacingly.
Forcefully driving her arms upward, Buffy easily broke the hold. "Hey, vamp girl?" she said matter-of-factly. "Nobody cares."
Rachel's mouth contorted into an ugly snarl, which promptly became a grunt of agony as she exploded into a cloud of dust. The stake protruding from her back tumbled into the dirt as Buffy brushed her jacket free of particles and Faith approached from the shadows.
"Good aim," Buffy told her approvingly.
"I'm ever strapped for money, the Red Sox are a definite consideration."
"Was that the last one?" asked Buffy, keenly surveying the immediate area.
"Hope so," returned Faith as she retrieved the stake. "Is it just me or is the vamp action gettin' mad crazy lately?"
"It's not you."
Faith nodded. "Figures. Only ever right about the bad stuff." She glanced at her wristwatch. "Better check on the Legion of Substitutes. They start facin' more'n like ten a night, I get twitchy."
Her boots heels crackled against the frost-tipped grass as Faith strode briskly into the night. Buffy lingered a while, quietly appraising her surroundings, taking stock of that section of the cemetery in general. Before too long, she followed in Faith's footsteps and was soon within speaking distance.
"Maybe it goes in cycles," she pondered. "Like, instead of wabbit season, we get vamp season."
"Whatever. All I know is, I got a serious jones for a stack of waffles like that big." Faith held her hands a considerable waffle-portioned distance apart.
The pair plodded along in companionable silence for a few moments.
"How many vampires would you say you've Slayed?"
Faith gave the question due consideration. "Dunno," she finally admitted. "I stopped keepin' count when this shrink I had got on some kick about a competitive complex."
"Hundreds?" probed Buffy.
"Doubtful," came the sardonic response. "I spent one year in a coma and the next three in jail. 'Bout the most I Slayed there was cockroaches, so unless they got some steamy subculture I ain't aware of ..." She turned and grinned in Buffy's direction.
"I think I must've killed thousands by now," mused Buffy.
"Probably," acknowledged Faith. "I mean, you're the Queen B, right?"
"Yeah, that's me," said Buffy without enthusiasm. "Buffy, Queen of the Slayers."
Faith twirled the stake between her fingers. "Hundreds, thousands ... You wanna badge or somethin'?"
"I've been thinking about it little lately." Buffy tossed Faith a sideways glance. "A lot little."
Buffy sighed. "The vampires."
"It's probably just some cycle thing, like you said," dismissed Faith.
"Not that part," said Buffy with a quick shake of her head. "That girl said something to me. Denali, remember her?"
"Slayer chick, long hair, bad attitude," confirmed Faith wryly. "Don't get that combo much."
"I brought her out here." Buffy jerked her thumb over her shoulder, indicating the area near Nancy's grave. "Just over there, actually. I was trying to make a point about how not all demons are bad."
Faith was amused. "Given how that all turned out? Great job."
"Yeah, not my best speech effort," admitted Buffy. "She said some stuff though, that's sort of been at the back of my mind ever since. And I've just been thinking ... Angel and Spike, when they got the chance, they did good. Some real, serious, bonafide hero-type good."
"Uh-huh." Faith's reply was noncommittal.
"So ..." continued Buffy. "So maybe all vampires have that capacity. You know, with some serious help. And possibly a curse or two, but if there's even a little chance ..." She looked to Faith for some sign of affirmation, an indication of agreement.
Expressionlessly, Faith returned the gaze. "What?"
"What do you think?" asked Buffy.
"You mean besides the fact that you're freakin' nuts?"
Buffy frowned a little at that but pursued her theory anyway. "Doesn't it sound, I dunno ... logical?"
Coming to a halt, Faith turned to her companion, also bringing Buffy to a stop. The pair faced each other.
"Shovin' souls down the throat of every vamp we come across?" said Faith with no small hint of accusation. "You do a spell, you curse 'em, and then what?" Buffy blinked at the outburst. "You gonna babysit 'em through the next few months – years – of crazy? Just so you can force 'em to spend the rest of forever tortured by what they are? Knowin', every day, they can't be happy, not ever, cuz'a what's in here?" Violently, Faith thumped her own chest. "No, B, that ain't exactly hittin' the logic center."
"But Angel—" Buffy protested.
Disbelievingly, Faith threw her hands to the side. "Were you maybe not payin' attention to what Angel has to go through every single day?"
"Of course I was!" returned Buffy angrily. "Don't you think I know that? I know. I know better than anyone. But Angel faces it. He does it because he can help people. Because it's the right thing to do."
Legs astride, Faith folded her arms. "An' there's just so many people already with a perfectly good soul who stand up an' help people because it's 'the right thing to do'."
But Buffy didn't respond immediately and the pair scowled at each other for a moment.
"I don't get it," Buffy eventually puffed. "How can you not think about it? The death, with a side of death, and for dessert, how about death? It just never stops, and ..." She sighed and looked at Faith wearily. "Don't you get tired of it?"
Faith shrugged her shoulders. "Things live. Sometimes they die. Sometimes we kill them." She turned with finality and resumed her journey. "I did my thinking about it. It's done," she threw over her shoulder.
Buffy stared at Faith for a moment as she walked off. Thrusting her hands into her pockets, she hurriedly caught up and the two Slayers continued on in silence.
As soon as they were some distance away, a young man emerged from behind the trunk of a tree. Despite his shock of white hair, he was certainly no older than 20 and possibly a year or two younger. He exuded something of a nervous and disheveled air and there was a certain cast in his eyes, a hint that things upstairs weren't exactly as stable as they should be. Nonetheless, there was no doubting the sanity of the penetrating gaze which bore into Faith's retreating figure – or the open display of unbridled hatred.
Like a mute shadow, a woman materialized from the gloom to stand at his side. Her skin was the color of sienna and her facial features angular. While far from attractive in the conventional sense, there was something strangely alluring and exotic about her – glossy chestnut ringlets tumbling halfway down her back. She draped an arm around the young man. Her curling fingernails dug into the flesh of his upper arm while her sharp chin rested on his shoulder. But he didn't react and seemed almost unaware of her presence.
Peering into his face with rapt attention, the tip of her nose brushing against his cheek, the woman observed the young man's fixed expression for several seconds, an interested smile playing about her thin lips. Then, her mahogany eyes drifted toward Faith and the smile widened into a broad grin.