I was dreaming.
If you're flying and there's no plane then chances are its a dream.
Anyway, I'm flying or floating and looking for something. Something elusive and something that I feel that I've been searching for all my life. First I'm flying through water which feels comfortable and warm. But, every time I think I see what I'm looking for, it slips away. Next I'm flying through the earth which feels even more comfortable, like being wrapped in a thick duvet, but I still can't find it. And then, pop, I'm in the air and I just know that this time I have it cornered.
"Hi honey, I'm home!"
I wake up abruptly at the sound of that sickeningly cheerful phrase.
I take mental stock of myself as I hear her move through the flat. I hear the slap of the leather backpack on the floor and the twin thud of boots hitting the back closet wall. I determine that my migraine has been downgraded to a bad headache. I hear the sound of the TV and the radio being switched on and I determine that my eyeballs are not going to explode when exposed to daylight. I hear kitcheny sounds and I get out of bed.
The sound of the late morning news and the latest top 40 tune muffle my approach and I clear my throat just before I enter the kitchen. I have learned my lesson regarding startling her. Namely, don't.
"Willow," she says, hastily trying to hide the milk carton behind her back.
"Buffy," I answer, trying hard to keep a straight face.
"You're home," she says, opening the fridge door with a toe and trying to shield the milk carton with her body.
"Migraine, mostly gone," I explain, reaching for a paper towel.
"Good," she says."I mean bad migraine, good mostly gone." She is beginning to look smug, as if she got away with something. I smile as the last of the headache disappears.
"Got milk?" I ask, wiping the moustache from her lip and then leaving her.
And here I thought she just washed the glass each time.
Feeling somewhat like a ten year old caught with her hand in the cookie jar -or drinking milk from the carton- I followed Willow into the living room. She was dressed in a sensible terry bath robe and still looked mussed up from sleep. Usually she had left for her job at the university before I got home.
"Called in sick?"
"Mmmm," she nodded."Sick day. Now that the headache's gone I might go in though."
"No," I started and then realized that I didn't have an end."I mean, you wouldn't want it to come back. The headache."
Willow looked at me curiously."Okay, what where your plans?"
"Sleep, breakfast, movie, patrol, weekend."
"How about I work at home today and join in at the eating bit?"
It sounded like a homey plan."Sounds like a plan," I said. "You choose the movie," I added.
With immediate regret.
"Why do you insist on renting Indian movies?" she asked.
"Buff, they make more movies in India than in all English speaking countries combined."
"This is a point how? More french fries are fried at Bobby's Burgers then hamburgers. That doesn't mean I have to eat only french fries."
While working through that logic we were attacked.
"But," I said, forcing a vamp into the doorway of a crypt with my cross, "you still eat french fries."
She shot one vamp with the pencil gun and roundhouse kicked another over three headstones and into a tree.
"But not if the fries are totally incomprehensible," Buffy complained, shooting the groggy vamp as he tried to get up.
I flicked one of the pencils at a back of a vamp, giving it a Wicca push to get some speed and force going.
"Well, you have to try the fries, every now and then. Even Xander liked trying fries every now and. . ."
She stumbled, going down with two vamps on top of her. The pencil gun fell to the side and I watched the quick furious fight.
I had noticed a change in her style since my return. No longer was she using hand to hand to get them groggy and then finishing them off with a stake. Now she fought with more efficiency, taking them down with the pencil gun or crossbow as soon as she had a shot. Mr. Pointy was a last resort.
The last two exploded into dust and, still kneeling, she shook herself off.
"Buffy are you. . ."
She shook off my hand and rose by herself.
"Fine." She paused and looked at me as if I were a stranger. "Don't mention his name again. Ever."
And then she was gone.
Part of me felt bad. Mostly I felt dead. You go through your days and life feels like living and then you remember the dead part inside.
I had been wrong to bring her. Wrong to be happy that she hadn't run back to England. Wrong to take her on patrol because with her there I acted like some cocky and immortal seventeen year old.
"Buffy? Want to talk about it?"
No. I really didn't. "No."
I became aware of where I was, sitting on the ground and using some tombstone as a back rest. She was sitting cross legged in front of me. Looking as if she were scared of me.
Or for me.
"Buffy, are there more vampires? I mean, there seems to be but I don't know for sure."
I nodded. "More. Weaker usually, but more. Last two years the ratio has been skewed. Usually an increase in the lesser vamps equates to either one or two strong controllers or a decrease in the population of the other demons. And the last two months have been really. . . what, did I say something funny?"
She smiled, "You sound like a stock broker."
I could feel the last little bits of me shut down."Nah, just the dumb Slayer," I said, pushing myself up and away. I glanced back once, and she wasn't even looking at me but at the gravestone. I headed back to the patrol, leaving her behind. She was a big girl and could look after herself.
There is a calmness about the courtyard garden when seen with only the ambient light of Sunnydale and a full moon. I'd been here thinking and watching the moon for a couple of hours, waiting for her to return. I'd come straight home from the cemetery after she had walked off, vaguely aware that she was following, keeping an eye on me. I can look after myself. Mostly. The comfort of her following me was more from having her still care rather than the physically safety that the Slayer's presence brought.
The tombstone had told me nothing I didn't know. Date of birth. Date of death. Actually, I had forgotten his full name although I remember teasing him about it in the third grade. He'd much preferred the nick name. The death notice that I had pulled from the online version of the Sunnydale daily had had less info than the tombstone. I'm afraid they're still forced to put quantity over quality.
But it didn't tell me why she'd reacted like she had.
It was late and I leaned back in the wicker chair and rested my eyes. I must of dozed because I awoke abruptly to find her sitting on the edge of the opposite chair.
"Hey," she said.
She nodded and bowed her head but didn't say anything. She looked so tired, hands loose between her knees. I scooted forward so that we where sitting knee to knee and touched her hand briefly but she caught my fingers.
"Buff?" I asked after a few seconds when she didn't say anything or let go of my hand."Are we okay? Do I need to make some guilt cookies?"
She glanced up and a brief smile flickered and was gone.
"I'm sorry, too, Will. Maybe I should help with the cookies. "She paused and then continued, head bowing again so that I couldn't see her expression. "I shouldn't have snapped at you. You didn't know that it would. . . that I would. . ."
I squeezed her fingers and she nodded. Sometimes I can read minds. Well, Buffy's mind.
"Are we okay?" she asked. I dug into my pocket with my other hand.
"Do pigs fly?"
"Actually, Will," she started when I released the little plastic toy and sent it gliding around her head in lazy circles. She watched it, a delighted smile on her face. Well worth carrying that damn toy pig around for two weeks.
"Kinda love you, Will."
It took awhile. Nearly two weeks before patrolling with her felt natural and she didn't have that haunted look behind her eyes. And she seemed to like having a partner, something that I hadn't been until now. When Xander and I had patrolled with her she had always had her attention divided. Not like with Angel or Faith or even Riley who could protect her back instead of merely watching it.
Equal is better than sidekick.
We beat off another group of a half dozen vamps, Buffy shooting one in the back as he high tailed it over some bushes. Vamp groups had been steadily getting bigger if not more powerful, sort of like they were traveling in gangs for protection. Which is kinda amusing if you think about it.
"Remember when they use to travel in ones and twos?" I asked, dismissing the spell so I could walk closer to her as we entered the flat later that night.
"Yeah, but I haven't seen a solo vamp in a couple of months."
"Since I arrived," I said slowly and she looked at me as if I'd just grown a second head.
"Ego much, Will?"
I blushed but didn't back down. "Think about it. You said it's been growing. You were attacked and they tried to turn you and you called me and I came back to Sunnydale and then you say it's been getting even worse and," I paused for breath and the sheer arrogance of what I was saying hit me. "And you're right. Forget it. Coincidence."
But the look of doubt was gone and replaced by one of calculation."No," Buffy said."I had it wrong. Maybe the Slayer isn't the target this time. Maybe it is you. They'd have to know that I'd not . . . succumb right away and that I'd call for you. And you would be the logical choice to call. Obviously. So they're increasing the pressure, wearing us down. Making us, or rather you, look for alternatives that you might not ordinarily look at."
"Why? I mean, I'm just. . . me."
"Ego not," she muttered to herself. "C'mon Research Girl. Let's see who wants some hot Wiccan computer hacker and demon expert on their team. Other than me, that is."
"Oh. I like where I am."
"Not thinking of switching teams, eh," she asked, picking up the soda tin and taking a sip. And then the conversational subtleties hit her and she began to gasp and choke.
"I'll just go research," I said, hiding the smile and giving her some peace to regain her poise.
"So, have we found the big money for the Willow draft?"
I shook my head and punched a few keys to log out of the databases. It's amazing what universities put on their computers. Or rather, what you can find on university computers.
"Really, any demon in their right mind either wants the two of us dead or working for him. It. Insert pronoun. Whatever." I paused while my train of thought returned from where ever it went. "If they really thought about it they wouldn't want you dead though."
"Why?" she asked.
"Well, you've been around, what, 10 years? They know you. Well, the ones that you didn't kill. Better the enemy you know than. . ."
". . . some unknown sixteen year old with a brand new stake and an attitude."
"Right. And it's not like they're in a rush, really. Well, except for when the planets align or two headed calves are born and then there is a bit of time management needed but actually, you know, when you live forever who cares? Just wait until-"
She stared at me, waiting for me to finish. I was not going to finish that thought. Topic change.
"So I figure," I continued, "we're looking for a demon we encountered while I was living in Sunnydale."
"Well, that's like, what a couple of hundred?"
"That you didn't kill," I added.
"Oh. That would be?"
"The only two I can remember are your old college room mate's dad and that vengeance demon who tried to recruit me. Plus maybe a half dozen vampires that you scared out of town like Dru and Spike."
"So, how do we contact them? Flush them out? Get their butts to where I can kick them?"
"Ah, well," I said."Easiest way would be for them to contact us."
She looked at me. "You mean I should toy with them for a bit to see if they have a message before staking them?"
"Um, yes. In essence. Sounds kinda daft, I know."
"Kinda. I can toy, though. You come with me though."
"So's you can watch out for me?"
She blushed. "Actually so that they're more likely to contact you and get this over with. But can we go with your interpretation?"
"Yours is the official version," I assured her. "Let's go patrol."
I may have mentioned that patrol is mind numbingly boring.
After three nights we'd finally calmed down enough to again chat while patrolling. Over the next week we pretty much covered all the minutia of life since I'd left. But just the little things; big, major, angst ridden topics were still off topic.
"Buffy," I started, deciding to take advantage of the peace to finally ask. She looked up alerted by my tone that a capital T topic was about to be broached. "Buffy, can I ask about-"
All hell broke loose.
There were about twenty of them. Mostly unarmed although a few had bats and chains. They just swarmed us, coming from all directions. I could hear the little pphhttt noises of the pencil gun and the slight popping noise of vampires being dusted but more were coming. The fight ebbed around me, my cross and protective spells guarding me as I moved to get my back to a tree so that I could see Buffy. And felt my heart stop.
She was surrounded and fighting for her life. Both guns were gone but she had acquired a bat from one of the vamps and was laying into the group. Without a stake all she could do was try to drive them back to buy room and time. She gave a sudden yell, charging forward in a feint and taking the opportunity to grab for Mr. Pointy as the vampires leapt back. Not seeing the vamp who had been playing possum leap to his feet, bat connecting with her head with a sickening thud.
And surprisingly enough they all stopped, turning to face me. Or, more accurately, the person approaching from behind me.
"Ms Rosenburg. Willow."
I turned, cross biting into my hand. It wasn't human, a demonkind of some sort, too tall and too perfectly proportioned to be a man. He was smiling, waving off the vampires who melted into the darkness. I moved slowly towards Buffy until I could feel her body with my foot. He reached out, as if to shake hands, but ran into the bubble of magic. He jerked his hand back just like on Star Trek as the spell sparked against his finger tips. He smiled a smile which reminded me terribly much of the Microsoft recruiter.
"Ah, I see you're coming into your power nicely. D'Hoffyan reported that you had latent abilities that were quite staggering."
"D'Hoffyan. Vengeance demon. Told you about me. He was your friend?" I asked. I had thought that demons didn't have friends or were into networking.
"Demons don't have friends," he said, waving one hand in a dismissive gesture, "But we talk." He regarded me, as if sizing up a hunk of meat or a prospective employee. Same thing.
"What can I offer you? Full and instantaneous access to the power? Your own little Wicca DSL?"
He waved his hand casually and I could feel the sudden surge of power flowing through me; as if I'd just spent hours setting up a spell. But before I could be tempted a memory of a dark night in a college science lab countered the desire. And answered that question for me. Power for the sake of power had never been very tempting to me.
"No," I said. Trying to sound defiant.
"How about the Slayer?"
Another surge but this one had no memory to counter it. Far from it. A hastily envisioned cold shower helped a little.
"This is just the start you know. A score of vampires will seem like child's play in a few months. I can kill her anytime but I'd rather you came to me with at least the illusion of willingness. Join me and things will return to normal within the vampire community."
"We'll take our chances," I said, the defiance still shaky but stronger.
"Well, well, a strong bargainer. How refreshing. Greed, lust and fear aren't enough. Don't think that it's over, witch. I'll think of something, little one. Something too. . . delicious that your little Judeo-Christian moral stance can't resist."
And then he was gone.
I bent down and helped a groggy Buffy to her fee."Let's get you home. I think it's over for now."
While she rarely needed stitches trial and error has proven that a bandage sped up the already fast healing. However, it was time to restock the first aid kit. Barney band-aids were not in the Slayer image. She has simply shrugged and mouthed the word sale when I'd held one up. I was using up the last of the gauze, surgical tape and antibiotic cream on her.
"What did he mean?"
Panic struck. I thought she had been unconscious for the little bargaining session.
"I thought you were unconscious," I said, stalling and putting an totally unnecessary piece of tape over the gauze bandage on her forehead. Maybe she meant about the Wicca DSL thing.
"You're stalling. What did he mean by 'how about the Slayer'?"
"Ah. Well." Panic was not abating and babbling seemed to be in order. "Who knows? I mean he's a demon. Prince of lies. Mind games."
She didn't look very convinced. God and Goddesses, I wasn't convincing myself what chance did I have with her? When evasion fails try lying through misdirection.
"Maybe he thought I was mad at you. Because, um, because hanging around you could get me dead?"
That was so lame. I waited. I could see in her eyes that she didn't buy it, not one word, syllable or letter.
"Yeah, Will," she said softly. "That was likely it. Stupid of him to think I could ever be angry at you."
She leaned forward and paused, switching from my forehead to my lips and I felt the shock of contact. And it was this shock that helped me not lean into the kiss, not return it, not pull her close. To. Just. Not.
She pulled back, turning and heading off to her bedroom before I could speak or see her expression. Leaving me wondering what exactly had just happened and cursing my latest little Judeo-Christian moral stance.
I wondered, in a kind of abstract way, what the hell I had just done and pushing the 'why' of the question right out the window. And what she had meant when she had whispered twenty eight against my lips.