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Bring Me to Death

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Chapter 01

Sunnydale, January 2000

Her friends were shutting her out. Her Watcher didn't need her anymore. And her mother…well, her mother had practically moved out of the state to get away from her. Her father hadn't been in the picture for so long, she no longer counted him as part of those who'd left her.

She could have handled it, though. She could have handled every single one of the deserters if it weren't for him leaving as well.

Her love, the one person who'd made any sense in this freak-show that was her life, the single being who walked the night as much as she did, who understood her better than she understood herself sometimes, had left.

He didn't just leave, however. No, he'd torn her heart out from inside her chest and left her bleeding. He saw no future for them, wanted no future for them.

She was finding that she didn't know if she had one that didn't include him in it.

Angel had walked away, silently sliding into the night as he did so many times before. This time, she knew, he wouldn't be returning to her. He left her standing in the middle of the road, outside the ruins of what'd used to be her high school, and disappeared.

He didn't even say goodbye.

He'd told her he wouldn't say goodbye, but she wasn't sure if it she were better or worse for it.

It's been months since she'd last seen him, the shadows of the night swallowing his large form as he walked away, and during these months, she did her best to move on.

But how can one move on when one is still bleeding? How can her chest heal when it is missing the heart?

She tried nonetheless. Encouraged—or, more accurately, pushed—to date other people. None of them were him, and even though she told herself to stop making the comparison, she found her dates lacking. It wasn't their fault, she knew. It was hers. She was the one who was broken. She was the one who couldn't warm up regardless of how many layers of clothing she wore or how close to the fire she stood.

As Buffy stood in the middle of the empty ballroom inside Crawford mansion, she cried silently. With every moment that passed, she felt as though another piece of her soul had crumbled inside her. And the loneliness…it was like a hungry beast, clawing its way inside her, gaining yet another inch of ground even as she tried to fight it.

Her father couldn't handle the problems at her school so he'd left her and her mother and didn't even bother to keep in touch. Her mother couldn't handle the supernatural part of her daughter's life so she'd gone so far as to throw her out of the house at one point. Her friends, the ones who, initially, couldn't get enough of the "action" had decided that they had futures of their own to think of, futures that—apparently—did not include the Slayer in them; it didn't stop them from thinking that they knew what was best for her, though. Her Watcher had clearly decided that she was old enough to handle things on her own and was now focusing on his new business—a magic supply shop he'd purchased shortly after their graduation and the subsequent destruction of the Sunnydale High, his previous place of employment.

It had not been the first time in her life she had felt deserted by these people but, before, there had still been him.

Angel.

Even thinking his name caused her pain now, brought more tears to her eyes.

He told her that she needed to move on with her life. So she tried.

She threw herself into her academics, taking a heavier course load in an attempt to keep her mind busy. She began patrolling for longer periods of time when the nightly dreams left her in pain and feeling empty, for they replayed each and every time Angel had left her, and there were plenty of them, including the morning after her seventeenth birthday.

There had been one memorable, disastrous date with a student named Parker. It didn't take her long to realized that another man's touch left her cold and on the edge of pain, so she'd cut things short and tried to ignore the malicious gossip that claimed she'd ended up in bed with the creep. After that, Buffy became very adept at putting on a brave face, turning down her friends' invitations to "go meet hot guys" in frat parties, and pretending that she was getting better, that she was forgetting.

There had been a small reprieve from her friends' insistence that she date other students to prove to them that she was over Angel. It was when Oz had developed an infatuation with a female werewolf, leaving Willow in need of Buffy's help. That help was painful to give when Oz left, and Buffy relived Angel's departure all over again, but she'd been there for her friend nonetheless.

The reprieve proved to be short-lived.

Willow's misdealing of her grief had caused her to cast a spell that nearly killed all of them as demons and monsters came after Xander. Buffy shuddered as she thought about how Willow's spell failed to affect her, even as it affected all of the others. The only reason she could find for it was that she had grown too cold inside for the magic to touch her heart. That, or Willow didn't really consider her a friend anymore when she said that her friends were demon-magnets.

Crossing the empty ballroom to stand in front of the dark fireplace, Buffy wondered if the second possibility was better or worse than the first.

The mantle was dusty as she touched the cold marble, but the temperature reminded her of him, so she lifted her fingers and wrapped her arms around herself.

Once Willow's spell had been lifted, things went back to how they were before. Perhaps even worse than before, Buffy mused as she gazed, unseeing, into the darkness of the hearth before her. Soon after those events, Willow had met a friend in the Wicca group, Tara, and since then had spent most of her time with the white witch.

Xander, after giving up his dream of touring the country, was now juggling dead-end jobs with a demanding girlfriend in the form of ex-vengeance demon Anya. His hands were too full to notice that he did not hear from Buffy in days, possibly weeks, at a time.

Buffy preferred it that way. When Xander was focusing his attention on her it was usually to give unwanted advice or critique.

When the academic load was no longer enough to keep her head busy and away from thoughts about Angel, she buried herself in the ancient texts Giles held in his house. She would take one of his books, swipe the covers with one of her textbooks, and take the book with her. Once she was done with one book, she continued to the next one, using the same trick. Some of the writings were boring, but others gave her a great deal of knowledge that she had used against the things that she came across during her nightly patrols.

In the past, she'd done her best to avoid research by feigning incompetence. It was easier to keep her friends safe if they thought she needed them to do the research part while she did the fighting. It hadn't always worked, and she carried the burden of every injury caused to them. Even discounting the torture Angelus had inflicted on them because she had caused him to be released, there were plenty of times when Willow, Xander, or Giles had been hurt because of their involvement with her.

Now this was no longer the case. She didn't need to keep her friends away from the danger; they'd had more important things to do than worry about the evil around the corner. And, if truth be told, when they were around, it was much harder for her. They kept pushing her. This time it was toward Riley, a TA at the university, who all of them had deemed to be the right man for her.

Buffy pretended that she was considering it, all the while either avoiding Riley as much as she could or rejecting his invitations for coffee, dinner, or a picnic whenever she couldn't make herself scarce.

So far, it seemed as though she was doing well. Her friends thought that she was finally moving on. Her Watcher was pleased that she was finally taking her calling seriously and patrolling nightly without complaint. To anyone around her, Buffy appeared to be blossoming. No one saw the dimming of the light in her eyes, or the slumping of her shoulders if she thought no one was watching her. There was no fire in her movements, and the quips that used to precede her slaying were nothing but a distance memory.

The Slayer was fading, and she seemed to have accepted her fate. She was replaceable, and for the first time in the four years since she had been called, her imminent death seemed as a possibly welcome event.

Buffy sat down and leaned against the cold wall of the mansion. Her hand came up to her neck, her fingers brushing up against one of the most tangible pieces of evidence Angel had left on her body. She'd lost the ring he'd given her when she placed it on the floor of the room where she was sitting, and Angel was brought back from hell. The leather jacket was too distinct for her to be able to wear it anymore, for every time that she did, nasty comments weren't too far behind. The cross that she never took off was no longer in her possession. Therefore, the teeth impression at the base of her throat was the only thing she had left that she could always carry with her without her friends noticing or pestering her about. As her fingers caressed the mark on her skin, she felt a familiar small tingle forming inside her.

It was getting weaker and weaker, and it was never quite the same as she'd experienced when Angel was nearby, but it was all she had left to hang on to. He'd given her the mark when she offered her life to save his and, initially, she had expected the scar to fade as others had.

It never did.

It was only later that Buffy discovered why, and she almost wished she hadn't after reading the words in one of Giles's books. The mark never faded because Angel didn't simply bite her to drink from her; he bit her to mark her as his eternal mate. The mark would never fade.

Dropping her fingers from her neck, Buffy looked through the windows at the lightening sky as dawn approached. Her eyes caught sight of a tall tower in the distance. It reminded her of the night, not too long ago, when she'd found out that Riley was more than just a TA her friends were actively pushing her toward dating. She wondered if it was that night that started the chain of events that had brought her to the mansion at this early—or very late—hour of the night.

o.O.o

It began with a dream, and Buffy instantly recognized the cryptic images as prophetic. In this dream, she was sitting in a classroom when a young girl entered, holding a distinctively ornate box. The girl was singing a chilling rhyme.

"Can't even shout. Can't even cry.

The Gentlemen are coming by.

Looking in windows, knocking on doors.

They need to take seven, and they might take yours.

Can't call to mom. Can't say a word.

You're gonna die screaming, but you won't be heard."

Waking up in a sweat, Buffy dashed to the Magic Shop to investigate. She had precious few hours to break in, read as much as she could, and make her way out before the store opened. It wasn't until she arrived on campus that she realized that parts of the rhyme had already come to fruition.

A student was found with his heart carved out, and the entire population of Sunnydale seemed to have lost their voices. It had left her shaken up a little. Not the theft of her voice in itself bothered her. It was the fact that it had taken her several hours before she had even noticed it.

She knew that her friends would gather at Giles's or in the Magic Shop, but she also knew that she would make better progress without delaying to speak to them—especially as speaking had been impossible at that point in time. Going to the library to continue her research into finding how to vanquish these demons, Buffy successfully avoided everyone she knew for the rest of the day. Once the sun had set, she went to search for The Gentlemen, having found that a human voice was all it took to kill them. She only hoped she would figure out a way to make a sound before another kill was made.

It was close to midnight when she caught sight of several demons wearing tuxedoes following something that resembled zombies in straightjackets. Catching them off-guard, she killed one with ease and chased the others onto a belfry, where she found several bald demons in tuxedoes holding the box from her dream. During that fight, she'd crashed through a window and ended up in the same room with Riley, who was wearing military fatigues and holding a rifle.

She'd fought the demons, destroyed the box they guarded, and screamed with all her might as soon as she realized that the box had contained the missing voices. The explosion of the demons' heads was distraction enough for her to slip away before Riley could corner her, asking questions she could not and would not answer. There was no desire in her to drag another innocent human into the living nightmare that was her calling.

He wasn't quite that innocent, as it turned out to be.

Soon after killing The Gentlemen, Buffy was able to connect Riley with a military organization known as The Initiative. She'd known the organization existed since discovering they'd put a chip inside Spike's brain to stop him from being able to attack humans, but Riley was her first tangible lead. Spike had been able, albeit reluctantly, to lead her to the exit he used to escape, but the tunnel was blocked not three feet inside, rendering the path useless.

Having connected Riley to The Initiative, Buffy followed him until she'd found another entrance to the compound where the organization hid. Ironically, the center of evil—and Buffy had no illusions that there was evil at the source of the Initiative—was directly beneath her place of study. Just like the Hellmouth was beneath Sunnydale High.

She hadn't told her friends about these recent discoveries at first, though she knew she would have to soon enough. Willow wouldn't stop praising Riley every chance the two girls met, which was not as often as one would think, despite them sharing a dorm room, and Buffy had had enough of "Riley is perfect" lectures.

Earlier that week, Buffy had finally infiltrated the Initiative's compound and saw the dozens of cages filled with demons that they held. She had no idea why they were keeping so many, but she had had a bad feeling about it. Another worry was something called "Project 3-14" that she'd heard mentioned while she was down there. It was a close call, but Buffy was able to see Professor Welsh—her psychology professor and Riley's mentor—entering a room with the number 314 and "restricted area" printed in red on the door.

On her way back outside, she had been able to grab some disks that she hoped contained more information about the Initiative. Upon returning to her dorm room, Buffy thought about asking Willow's help with the files, but she found the room empty. She made another attempt, as she knew that Willow was better at computer hacking than she was, but Willow wasn't answering her cell phone.

Resigned, Buffy had loaded the disks on the computer in the library but found little useful information regarding Project 3-14 on them. She did, however, find references to drugs being administered to the soldiers to make them stronger and increase their stamina. She read that the reason was twofold, but only found one reason that was documented—to give the human males a fighting chance against the much stronger demons they were to face.

The following day, one of Buffy's professors asked to meet her during his consultation hours. It seemed that at least someone had in fact noticed that she'd put a greater effort into her studies, Buffy thought with amusement as she exited the professors office. She'd been able to complete all of the required tasks for the current semester and was offered more for extra credit. This would allow her to graduate earlier—given she lived long enough to graduate in the first place.

Walking outside, she'd noticed a figure in military fatigues disappearing into the shrubbery and decided to follow. She had only taken a few steps toward the edge of campus when pain exploded inside her and everything went dark.

Buffy had no idea how long she'd been unconscious for, but she could still sense that it was dark outside and hoped that it hadn't been more than a few minutes. Her muscles were still throbbing, and she noticed that her hands were slightly shaky as she reached behind her head. She wasn't bleeding, which was good, but the pain was going to take a while before it passed.

Looking at her surroundings, she found that she was in some kind of a cell that had metallic-looking walls. At one corner of the room was a door with a keypad next to it. Her senses were going haywire, and while some of it could be blamed on the blow to the head, Buffy knew it was more than that. There was evil around her. Somewhere close, if she had to guess.

She wasn't all that surprised when she found that her trusted stake wasn't tucked into her waistband, nor was she shocked that she'd been stripped of the spare that she carried in one boot. Fleetingly, she was happy that she hadn't been carrying her dagger. It would have been a shame to leave it behind when she got out of the cell.

In the next moment, the door slid open and a demon was shoved inside.

Good thing I know how to fight unarmed, she thought as she braced herself. This was not going to be easy.

The demon's skin was orange in color, and it had two large horns on either side of its head. Buffy thought that it looked somewhat frail, but when the demon was able to land a hit, she changed her mind about that assessment.

The bastard was strong.

Now it wasn't just her head that was aching, but her arm as well.

Buffy kept her eyes focused on the demon as she circled with him. He lunged at her again. This time, she ducked the blow and was able to land a powerful kick to his midriff. The demon was pushed back against the wall, but it made a quick recovery with a punch to her face.

Her eyesight shaky, Buffy closed her eyes and fought with her senses. She listened for the slight shift of air when the demon lunged and punched to know when to avoid and when the demon was open for a hit.

She kicked him in the head, sending him across the room, and followed up with a series of three more kicks to the same place.

Think, damn it. Think! Buffy told herself as she continued to fight the demon, knowing that she was losing steam quickly.

Orange skin. Kick in the back. Dodge. Horns, protruding shoulders.

Roll on the floor and punch upward. Humanoid, fighting demon. Run up the wall, jump over, and kick. Fighter, perhaps soldier?

Another hit across her stomach sent her sprawling on the floor.

She knew that she'd read up about this demon; it was just at the edge of her mind. Rolling aside to avoid a stomp, Buffy jumped back to her feet and punched the demon in the face.

A spray of something slimy hit the wall behind her, not quite missing the elbow of the shirt she was wearing. Within seconds, the drops that hit her were hardening.

Yuck!

In the next moment, Buffy finally remembered. Fyarl demon! Not too bright, definitely strong, but vulnerable to…

She used the hardened material on her elbow as a shield and shoved it into the demon's stomach.

Silver!

Without a second's hesitation, Buffy tore the silver cross Angel had given her and held it between her fingers as she threw a punch aimed at the demon's eyes.

The effect was instantaneous. The demon snarled in pain, and its hands came up to claw at its face.

With the upper hand now, Buffy continued to punch the demon, slicing into his flesh with the edge of the cross.

"Never thought it would work on anything but a vampire," she muttered as the demon took its last breath and stilled.

Looking around her, Buffy saw that the room suffered no visible damage despite the intense fight and the many times each of them was thrown against a wall. She felt that she was still being watched and decided that there was either a one-way-mirror or a camera somewhere in the room.

Buffy suspected that she had a very good idea as to who might be doing the watching.

There was no furniture in the room, so she sat down on the floor next to one of the walls and took several deep breaths. The demon's body was beginning to smell.

Eyes on the door, Buffy waited for it to be opened again.

The hiss of air was sounded, but nothing moved, and she wondered what was happening around her. Moments later, Buffy found herself once again surrounded by darkness.

Her next waking moment had been on a stretcher, looking up at a very bright light. There were machines beeping all around her, but Buffy didn't think she was in a hospital.

The Initiative. It had to be them.

She tried to move but found herself restricted by leather bindings. Squinting against the blinding light, she tried to look around. She was in some kind of a lab. Her senses were all jumbled, and she had no idea how long she'd been out this time around.

Taking several deep breaths to calm her nerves and center herself, Buffy did an inventory check. Her head was no longer aching as it had before. She was slightly nauseated. Her ribs were still sore. The blows she'd taken from the Fyarl demon hadn't had much of a chance to heal yet, but it had definitely been a while for her head to recover. There was some soreness in her lower abdomen, and Buffy tried not to think about what that might mean.

The feeling of being watched was back again, and this time Buffy saw a camera pointed right at her.

The door opened, and a woman wearing a lab coat walked inside. Buffy didn't recognize her, but the woman apparently knew her.

"Good morning, Buffy," the woman said. "Hope you're not suffering too much from the side effects of the gas we used to knock you out."

"I'm peachy." Buffy smirked, refusing to show even an ounce of weakness. "I guess the stories were wrong."

The woman looked at her, her features smooth as she asked. "Stories?"

"Well, in the book, Dr. Frankenstein is a male." Buffy shrugged, testing the restraints again covertly. "But seeing as I've killed your monster, and you have me locked in some kind of freakish lab, I guess that makes you the Doc."

The woman scowled at her. "I am Dr. Cullen."

"Whatever you say, Frank." She offered the doc a brilliant smile. "Good to see the sex-change operation worked for you, but I'm not interested in one."

Dr. Cullen was barely able to open her mouth to reprimand the young woman before said young woman tore away from her restraints and punched her in the jaw. She slid to the floor with nothing more than a slight groan.

Buffy wasted no time in tearing away the other restraint and jumping down from the gurney. She didn't know how long she had before whoever was watching her sent more guards into the room—that, or activated the stupid knock-out gas again—so she grabbed the doctor's keycard, the lab notes that dropped next to her, and ran to the door.

Luck was on her side. The corridor was still empty, and Buffy slipped outside. Looking around, she pinpointed the cameras scattered in the hallway and tried to think what would be her best route to escape. She knew that whoever had her kidnapped would not give up so easily.

Running as quietly as she could, she passed door after door, hoping against hope that she was running in the right direction to the exit. Soon, she heard footsteps and voices. She halted, plastered herself against the wall and slowly edged toward the corner. Listening carefully, she heard heavy footsteps not far away and someone calling out "Find her! Quickly!"

Damn it!

Using the keycard she had stolen from the doctor, she opened one of the doors. It was quiet in the room, so she hoped it would be empty as well.

"Maybe my luck hasn't run out just yet," she murmured quietly as she found the room was indeed empty, from both people and cameras.

There were several computer stations that appeared to have been abandoned with haste. A map was pinned to the wall behind one of the computer screens, clearly marking the emergency exists from the compound, and there was one right next to the room she was in.

Luck was definitely on Buffy's side for a change. Grabbing the map, she glanced at the screen that came to life. The sight of her name made her pause.

The sound of footsteps was growing closer.

Knowing she didn't have much time, she shut down the computer and used brute force to open the outer casing. Trying very hard not to think about Jenny Calendar who taught her what a hard drive looked like, she pulled out the one inside that particular computer and then methodically twisted the rest of the parts.

If the gods were on her side, it would take these bastards a while to notice that the computer was missing its hard drive.

She took another glance at the map, then decided to take it with her, and made it to the other door in the room.

The emergency exit led to a flight of stairs, and she ran up them. It took several long minutes before she made it to the exit, but when she was finally outside, the air never tasted better.

It was early morning, and the emergency exit brought her right outside the dorms. She didn't head toward her room, though. For the second time during this school year—the first being when she shared her room with Kathy—she didn't feel safe enough to go there. She had no doubt that whoever was after her knew where she stayed.

Instead, she made her way toward her mother's house. Upon arriving, Buffy used the shadows behind the house to check if there was anyone inside. It was still early enough for her mother—if she wasn't away on some business trip—to be at home. When several glances through the windows revealed the house to be empty, Buffy climb up and entered through her bedroom window. She didn't need the neighbors snooping after her and reporting back to her mother that Buffy was cutting classes. Plus, if anyone—say the Initiative, as she wouldn't put it past them to do exactly that—was watching her house, there was less of a chance of them seeing her stop by that way.

After a long scrubbing and several washes of her hair, Buffy exited the shower. As she toweled herself dry, she examined her body carefully. The cuts and bruises she suffered from her fight with the Fyarl demon were already healing. Her ribs didn't feel as though they were broken, though there was still some tenderness in them. Her head was tender as well, but she felt much better having washed her hair.

There was one thing, however, that she couldn't ignore. There was pain where there shouldn't have been. It was reminiscent of the soreness she'd experienced after her night with Angel. Closing her eyes, she wrapped her arms around herself and tried to hold in the tears.

Think logically, she ordered herself. You need to find out what they documented about you. And if…if they did…well, there will be something that you'll have to do as well.

Turning to the lab notes that she'd stolen form the doctor, Buffy quickly scanned through the notes. There precious little information there. The results of a blood test that they'd done on her—which she didn't possess the necessary knowledge to understand those—and some notes about their estimation of her strength and speculations about any additional powers she might have.

It gave her close to nothing.

Well, my luck had to run out at some point.

She needed computer access, and she needed it out of sight. That meant that the public library and the computers in it were out of question. That left the computer at her mother's home office. It was old and slow, but it would work for her purpose.

She stuffed the clothes she'd worn before into a garbage bag. They were ruined, and she honestly wasn't sure that she would have been able to wear them again had they not been so. She went to her closet and got dressed. For once, she was happy that the closet in the dorm room was too small for her to bring all of her clothes with her when she'd moved in.

Finished with that, Buffy proceeded to the next item on her to-do list—find out today's date. She needed to know how long she'd been gone. A part of her both worried and hoped that she'd been gone long enough for her friends to start looking for her.

She'd been taken on a Monday night, and it was Thursday now. That meant three nights that she'd been in the hands of her kidnappers. Might be long enough for Willow or Giles to notice.

Glancing at the phone, she decided that she would call them later. First, she needed to answer a few questions.

It took her much longer to connect the hard drive she'd stolen than it would have taken Willow, but soon the data appeared on the screen. The amount of information there was alarming. They knew way too much about her, including things like her father's home and office addresses that Buffy herself didn't know. They didn't seem to know about Angel, though, and she thanked the gods for small favors.

The hardest folder for her to open was the one labelled "Breeding". There were some lab reports that meant nothing to her, and Buffy knew there was more online research in her future, but the content of the last file made her blood run cold.

Sunday, 3:15 a.m.: HCG administered to subject alpha.

Tuesday, 4:47 a.m.: Nine samples successfully extracted.

Tuesday 5:01 a.m.: Samples I-III fertilized using subject 219's sperm. Sample IV-VI fertilized using subject 117's sperm. Samples VII-IX fertilized using subject 481's sperm. Samples moved to incubator. Check growth in 12 hours.

Tuesday 5:07 p.m.: All samples show vital signs.

Wednesday 5:08 a.m.: Samples II, IV, and V show no vital signs. Continue monitoring samples I, III, VI, VII, VIII, and IX.

Wednesday 5:14 p.m.: Samples I, III, and IX show no vital signs. Subject alpha administered FSH and remains sedated.

Thursday 4:59 a.m.: Samples VI-VIII show normal progression. Monitor and grade in 24 hours.

Buffy didn't know what HCG and FSH stood for or who the numbered subjects were, but it wasn't too hard to figure out what had been attempted. She felt relieved that the rape she'd tried so very hard not to imagine hadn't occurred, but she also felt sick. There were fertilized embryos in their labs, and they'd used her as a breeding mare.

She figured that they'd continued to hold her in case their sick experiment failed, and they needed to extract more of her eggs. She couldn't rely on hoping the last three samples would show no vital signs. And if there were such signs, they didn't have to grab her again in order to continue with their experiment.

She had to destroy the samples, and the sooner the better. Good thing she'd decided to grab the map of the compound before leaving that room. Now she knew exactly where the main lab was located inside the facility.

Disconnecting the hard drive, Buffy cleaned all evidence of her stay at the house, and exited the same way she'd entered.

Stealthily, she approached the trap door through which she'd made her escape only hours before. They wouldn't expect her to return within hours, she thought.

The exit didn't seem to be guarded, so she approached and listened to see if there was anyone on the other side. Silence greeted her.

Buffy held her breath as she opened the door, only releasing the air trapped inside her lungs when it was closed behind her. The facility was much more active now than it had been when she'd made her escape, so she had to walk very quietly down the stairs and stop often whenever a door to one of the levels was opened.

There were convenient janitorial closets spread through the compound, one for every level. She hid inside one whenever she heard someone approaching. She thought she might still be able to use the stolen keycard to enter the lab, but there was a chance that it had already been cancelled. Deciding not to take a change, Buffy watched until a man in a lab coat exit to the stairway for a smoke.

Smoking kills, she though as she knocked the man out. You're lucky I don't kill humans. Though she had to admit that these people made her want to change that.

She stripped the man of his lab coat, keycard, and wallet. She would find a way to know who was behind this, and the details of one of the employees was a good place to start.

It took her another two hours, in her estimation, before she was able to get inside the storage lab. It hadn't been easy to remain unseen. Even with the lab coat and hat concealing her identity, she knew it would be better to go under the radar as much as possible.

Finally, she was able to get inside.

There were a couple of techs inside.

Time to get rid of them. "Why aren't you at the auditorium?" she demanded in an authoritative tone.

The two young males turned to look at her, their eyes widening in surprise. "Huh?"

"Dr. Cullen clearly ordered all technical personnel to be at the auditorium at thirteen hundred hours for a debriefing. You're already three minutes late. What are you waiting for? Move! Or do you want me to report you to the Colonel?" Buffy gave them each a severe stare, having no idea if there even was a colonel. She took a chance that even if she was wrong, the techs were too insecure to question the order.

The two scrambled to obey, nearly knocking a tray on their way out.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Buffy moved to examine the large metal containers. She didn't know where they would store the samples, so she decided to destroy everything she could get her hands on. She began with unplugging all of the electrical cables, proceeded to break every petri dish and test tube in the room, spilled the conveniently-labelled bottle of acid on the computer stations, and finished it all by setting fire to every piece of paper in the room. Her anger and supernatural nature allowed her to move almost faster than the human eye could see. As soon as the fire was going inside three trash cans, Buffy hit the fire alarm and exited the room.

In the hallway, the rest of the personnel were exiting the rooms in an orderly fashion, moving toward the stairs. Gotta love military training, she though as she joined the column of people in lab coats. They would have an internal fire brigade, so she wasn't concerned about burning down the entire facility or killing anyone.

Once outside, she broke away from the others, threw the lab coat into a nearby trash bin, and made a run for the trees. She didn't stop running until she had reached the Magic Shop.

It was time to bring the others into this. Whatever was going on with the Initiative, it required hacking skills that she just didn't possess.

She used the backdoor to the shop and was grateful to find everyone—Willow, Giles, Xander, and Anya—inside. She didn't question their presence there at first, only feeling grateful that no more time would be wasted before everyone was gathered and could spring into action.

If the Initiative was willing to experiment with kidnapping a Slayer and attempting to breed her with, she assumed, their soldiers, then it didn't bode well for what Project 3-14 could stand for.

"Hi guys, I got some news regarding the Initiative," she began, launching into an explanation of how she'd come across Riley in fatigues and had done some research into the matter. She was debating with herself how to tell them about her kidnapping, still reeling with anger and shame that she'd been so easily captured.

It was then that Buffy took the first blow of the evening.

They didn't believe her.

"Riley's not evil, Buffy," Willow had said. "Could it be that you're willing to suspect him because you still haven't let Angel go?"

Buffy took a deep breath and tried to remain calm. She wouldn't speak of Angel. Even without the pain that it caused her, she knew that nothing good could come out of any conversation with her friends that included him in it. "I didn't say that Riley was evil, Will, but he is part of the Initiative and they're—"

"You're implying he's evil because of his connections to the Initiative," Xander interfered. "And you usually like the tall, dark, and evil type."

She glared at him. "The Initiative isn't on the good side! They're drugging their—"

"Buffy," Giles interrupted her, holding his hand up to stop her speech. "The fact that the Initiative is in all likelihood a government organization—and we still don't know that for certain, might I remind you—doesn't automatically mean that they drugging their employees. The Initiative, by all accounts, seem to be trying to do the same thing you are, Buffy. They're trying to fight monsters."

Buffy blinked a few times, not sure what Giles was implying. "I found documents that prove—"

"Documents?" Willow asked. "Where?"

"At their HQ. Look, there is something going on there that's beyond simply fighting evil," Buffy tried to insist. "We need to—"

Xander didn't let her finish. "They're fighting monsters, Buffy. You can hardly cast stones, seeing as this is something that you've been lacking in lately."

Stunned, she turned to look at him. "Lacking?"

Trying to keep the conversation on topic, Giles asked, "When were you at their headquarters? How did you find it?"

"I followed one of their army guys last night," Buffy lied, knowing that if she told them that she'd kept this information to herself for over a week, they'd be even angrier than they already were. She would have told them after mulling it for a few days, but her kidnapping stalled her more than she'd intended. "They have a restricted access area with the numbers 314 printed on the door, and Professor Welsh—"

"Our psychology professor?" Willow asked.

Buffy nodded. "She walked into that room, and I'm sure that there is something there. I could feel…" She wanted to say evil, but she trailed off, seeing disbelief written all over their faces.

"Buffy, how long has it been since you've had a good night's sleep?" Giles asked in concern.

Four years, give or take a few weeks, she thought, before I discovered monsters were real. "Giles, we need to look into this Initiative business."

"And we will," Willow promised, placating. "Giles and I will start looking into this right away. However, before that, there's something else we wanted to talk to you about."

Tension stilled her. She strongly suspected that she wasn't going to like what she would hear next. "What is it?"

Willow turned to look at Giles then at Xander before speaking again. "Buffy, you've been disappearing a lot lately, during the night."

"That's hardly surprising, Will." Buffy folded her arms around herself, bracing for the blow she could sense was coming. "I hunt demons, and they don't usually like to take strolls in the sunlight."

Xander snorted. "Hunt, yeah, right."

Giles shot him a look to prevent him from saying anything more. "Buffy, none of us here have seen you for almost a week, and it has not been a rare occurrence these past few months."

Hoping that they were just feeling left out and feeling guilty for doing just that, Buffy looked down. "Look, I know I've been kind of avoiding you guys lately…"

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Anya, who had been surprisingly quiet up until now, called out. "They think you're shacking up with your demon lover again."

Buffy's head shot up. "What?"

Giles took off his glasses and polished the lenses with the tail of his shirt. "Are you seeing Angel again, Buffy?"

"More importantly," Xander continued, not giving her a chance to answer, "are you working your way into his bed again? Because I'd like to know how long I have before you give him the happy, and all of us will have to skip town."

"I'm not—" But her voice broke as her chest filled with pain.

"Xander," Willow scolded him. "This isn't about attacking Buffy. Remember, we talked about this. 'I' statements only. 'I feel angry.' 'I feel worried.'"

"Fine, here's one." Xander stood up and glared at Buffy. "I feel worried...about me, Willow, Giles, and Anya! Last time around, Angel cared more about killing your friends, Buffy, than he did about killing you. And I don't think we need another Jenny, do you?"

It was a low blow, but Buffy found that she had expected him to say something just like that. Her voice was ice cold when she said, "I haven't seen Angel since graduation."

"Oh, really?" Giles was looking straight at her now, anger and disappointment clear in his expression. "So I guess you've been out patrolling for three nights and three days in a row?"

"You didn't come back to the dorms," Willow added quietly. "You missed all of your classes this week, and no one knew where you were."

"And Cordelia called," Xander said, again not letting Buffy respond. "She said that Angel was missing from L.A. at the exact same time."

So he was in L.A., Buffy thought. For the past six months, she had had no contact with him, so she knew nothing about Angel's whereabouts. One thing she was certain about was that he was still walking the earth, and that was because she felt sure she would have felt it inside her soul had he died. She has been under the illusion that none of her friends knew where Angel was, either. Apparently, she was wrong.

"She said that Angel's been acting all mysterious lately, disappearing for hours and days in a row. She seems to think you two are back together," Willow said, relaying the conversation Xander told them about. "She wanted to know what we're going to do about it."

Since when did Queen C know Angel's whereabouts? Buffy wondered before another worry came over her. Where was Angel disappearing to? Even as her heart began to bleed inside her all over again, she knew that she would have to find out. Wherever it was that he'd been disappearing into, she knew that he hadn't been in Sunnydale. She would have felt him if he were.

"Preferably before we have another meeting with Angelus," Xander muttered

"For the last time, I did not hear or see Angel since graduation. Can we please focus on the Initiative?" Buffy demanded. "They're evil, and they need to be stopped!"

"I've been looking into them since we found Spike, but I didn't find anything that even remotely points toward them being the bad guys," Giles said calmly.

"If anything, Buffy," Anya said completely calm, "you should be thanking them for picking up your slack while you were sneaking around behind our backs to meet your ex-lover."

"My slack?" Buffy whispered.

"I know that Anya can be harsh," Giles said. "I think we all feel that you've been someone negligent of your duties lately."

Buffy found that there had still been a piece of her heart that wasn't torn apart until that very moment. She didn't care about Anya, would have expected Xander to be this prejudice, and could perhaps forgive Willow for being so harsh, but Giles? He'd known her, hadn't he?

"Riley saw the two of you kissing," Anya dropped the final bomb, enjoying the mess she could see forming around her. She still blamed the Slayer for losing her vengeance demon powers, so now she took the opportunity to exact some revenge.

"What?" Xander cried out in panic. "When did you talk to him?"

"I didn't." Anya shrugged. "Heard him talking to some friend of his about how he saw Buffy lip-locked with some mysterious guy. Tall, dark, slightly pale. The description fit Angel."

"Buffy…" Willow wanted to curse out loud. She didn't want believe Xander when he blamed Buffy for Angel's disappearance, even if Buffy had hidden seeing Angel before.

Buffy hated how small they made her feel. "I didn't—"

"No, of course you didn't," Xander scoffed. He glared at her. "You think we haven't seen this before? The part where you just cut us all out and run to your undead lover? This isn't the first time you just stepped away from everyone because you thought you knew better than everyone around you. Do you remember that?"

"I killed Angel," Buffy said with a quiet, ice cold tone. "Do you even remember that? I would have given up everything to be with him. I loved him more than I willever love anyone in this life, and I put a sword through his heart because I had to!"

Willow tried to come to her and calm her down. She could see that the conversation was rapidly deteriorating, and she wanted to stop it before something irreversible was said or done. Buffy's glare stopped her cold.

"You two cheered me on, don't you remember?" Buffy sneered, finding refuge from her pain in anger. "I remember you giving me Willow's message—"Kick his ass", don't you?"

"I never said that," Willow murmured, but no one was paying her any attention.

Giles placed a hand on Xander's shoulder, trying to quiet the boy. "Buffy—"

"This is different!" Xander yelled, wanting to turn the attention away from him before anyone realized what was said.

"It's always different when it comes to you, Xander!" Buffy yelled back. She glanced to see Anya eating candy like this was some kind of a play to entertain her.Figures. "You get down on me for cutting myself off, but in the end, the Slayer is always cut off."

"Buffy, that's not true," Giles said.

Willow rushed to add, "We're here for you, Buffy, always. We care."

"Yeah, right. With friends like you, I don't need enemies." Buffy turned on her heel and headed to the door.

Ding dong, the witch is dead, Anya thought with satisfaction as the door slammed behind the Slayer.

o.O.o

As the tears continued to roll down her cheeks, Buffy tried to think around the pain. Sitting on the cold floor and leaning against the stone wall, she wondered if there was anything left for her to fight for. She could never trust her friends again after this, and she didn't think that her mother could ever really come to terms with her daughter being so far away from what she had wanted her to be.

She almost didn't notice when the earth began to shake beneath her. It was a short but a violent jolt, though not uncommon in California. In Sunnydale, however, earthquakes were also the first sign of an impending apocalypse.

The end of the world, Buffy thought bitterly. Her world had already ended. It had been a gradual process, beginning perhaps on the morning after her seventeenth birthday when Angelus had first broken her heart and confidence. It continued with every time Angel forced himself to leave her until finally walking away for good after graduation. The crumbling remains left after that were now dust after the betrayal of her closest friend and father-figure.

She would try to save the world once again, Buffy vowed silently. It was her duty, after all. Would she survive this apocalypse as she'd survived the others? She couldn't tell. But, as exhausted sleep finally began pulling her under, Buffy found that she didn't care if she hadn't.