The California sun was particularly brutal after months in the cool Swiss mountains, and Buffy, not for the first time, wished that it wasn’t deemed strictly necessary for young ladies to wear quite so much clothing. But throwing her shirtwaist into the air would probably have provoked an eyebrow raise or two from the other attendees at Cordelia Chase’s garden party, so Buffy simply helped herself to more lemonade.
In any case, as dull as the party was, it provided a welcome respite from Buffy’s recent activities. She had been home for two weeks now, and it felt as though every second of that time had been spent listening to Mr. Giles, looking after her little sister, or killing vampires.
According to Giles, Sunnydale was a Hellmouth, making it exponentially more likely to attract demons. (Which might have explained some of the other guests at this party, Buffy reflected.) Hopefully, he’d said, once word got out about the presence of the Slayer, all but the most powerful would be scared off.
“That doesn’t help much, though,” Buffy had said. “Aren’t the powerful ones the ones I’ve got to worry about?”
“Well, yes. But, with a strict training schedule, I’m confident we can get you to a place where you’ll be strong enough to handle them.”
And he hadn’t been lying about the strictness of the schedule, either. Buffy had punched, kicked, snapped, and staked her way through nearly a dozen of the mannequins Giles had brought with him. He’d sent away for more, but until they arrived, Buffy had persuaded him to let her save the dismemberments for evening, and let her have a bit of social life during the day.
But this garden party could hardly be described as lively. Cordelia Chase had seemed friendly enough when she’d come by Buffy’s home to extend the invitation earlier that week, but none of the other young ladies present seemed at all interested in talking to the new girl.
“So, Buffy,” Cordelia said, leaning over from her wicker chair, “how does our little town compare to boarding school in Belgium?”
“It’s, erm, very different,” Buffy said cautiously. “For one thing, there’s a good deal more men.”
Cordelia smiled. “Oh, yes. Though, honestly, the caliber of the society here is hardly anything to be proud of. A few of these interminable parties is enough to make one want to take the next boat to Paris!”
“Have you been to Paris?”
“Oh, yes. My mother took me for my eighteenth birthday last year. It was splendid. I underwent what can only be described as a fashion rebirth. Oh, if I could only go back!”
“I’m sure it must have been lovely,” said Buffy, “but I scarcely think you’d want to go back now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the war.”
“Oh, yes, that’s why you left Holland, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s what I meant.”
“Yes, the school sent us home as soon as the Archduke was killed.”
“Simply dreadful,” Cordelia sighed. “It’s very inconsiderate of all those rebels to wreck Europe like this. I mean, I ordered new dresses ages ago, and with all this fighting going on, who knows when they’ll come in?”
“Yes, indeed,” Buffy said absentmindedly. Her eyes had been caught by the appearance of a small, redheaded young woman at the far end of the garden. Cordelia followed her line of sight.
“Ugh! You’ll have to excuse me. I have no idea what’s she’s doing here.”
“Who is she?” Buffy asked her departing hostess.
“Willow Rosenberg. A poor relation. She’s only staying with us until she can find employment as a governess. Practically no better than a servant, so why on earth Mother would have let her into the party, I don’t know…”
As Cordelia’s voice trailed off, Buffy stood up herself. She’d spent enough time sitting still for one day. Time to go looking for trouble.
She turned around, and very nearly collided with a large, dark-haired young man.
“Oh! Pardon me, miss...Buffy?”
She looked up at his face, scanning the features for some hint of familiarity. “Oh my heavens! Xander Harris!”
“Yes! I’d heard you were back in town, but I certainly didn’t expect to run into you here, at Miss Chase’s fancy to-do.”
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t have expected you to be here. What on earth are you doing at this hen party?”
“I, um, I work here.”
“Pardon me?” Buffy raised her eyebrows delicately.
“Yes. I don’t think you’d remember, seeing as the last time we saw each other we were just children, and all that, but, yes, I’m not quite, well, in the same class as you and Cordelia. But Willow--Miss Rosenberg, her cousin, you know--got me a job here. As the gardener.”
Buffy looked her old friend up and down. Indeed, he was wearing dirtied work clothes, there were calluses on his hands, and his face had been tanned with the summer sun. Xander Harris, whom she’d played with every afternoon until she left for boarding school at twelve, had grown up to be a manual laborer. It was--awkward, to say the least. Or, Buffy reflected, it didn’t have to be. Why on earth should she let a little thing like money get in the way of a perfectly good friendship? This was the twentieth century, after all! If humans could fly across the sky, why couldn’t they be friends with people poorer than they were?
“Well,” Buffy said, “you’ll have to tell me all about what it’s like to work for Cordelia! It was awfully kind of her cousin to get you the position.”
“Yes. That’s Willow for you, though. Always helping people out. You’d like her. She and your sister get along awfully well.”
“That’s no very convincing recommendation,” Buffy said dryly. “You may remember how extremely annoying I find my little sister.”
“Oh, she’s not so bad,” Xander said, shaking his head. “You’re just biased.”
“Anyway, come and take a walk with me around the garden! I want to see all of your floral handiwork.”
“I’d be happy to show you around, Buffy, but I’m not supposed to fraternize with the party guests, according to Cordelia. Maybe another time?”
“Of course! And you simply must come to tea at the house one of these days. We have so much to talk about.”
“I’ll be sure to,” Xander said, and, with a wave of his hand, disappeared back into the hedges.
Buffy stood, hands on hips, and looked into the distance. Perhaps Sunnydale wasn’t quite so devoid of friendly faces, after all.
“I saw Xander Harris the other day,” Buffy said to her mother, to break the silence in their sitting room.
“Oh, did you really, dear? Such a nice young fellow. A pity about the job, of course, but really a very good friend for you. I take it you saw him at Cordelia Chase’s party?”
“And what did you think of her?”
“I’m certain we’ll be great friends,” said Buffy, even though she wasn’t.
“Excellent.” Mrs. Summers looked up as the clock chimed three. “Oh, Buffy darling, would you mind running over to Cordelia’s now and fetching Dawn? That nice young Willow Rosenberg has been helping her with mathematics.”
“Of course,” Buffy said, keeping the resentment from her voice. Just barely back from Switzerland, and already she was running errands again, carting Dawn to and fro.
But she was determined to be a good daughter, so she went.
As she walked, she reflected on how oppressive the sitting room had seemed. She had always been able to talk freely to her mother, always told her everything on her mind--but this new development in her life, this responsibility of being the Slayer, had to be kept from her, and it left such pregnant gaps in their conversation that Buffy found herself wanting to be away from her mother, if only to reduce the chances that she’d blurt out everything.
Giles had made it perfectly clear that she was to tell no one about her secret identity, and there were to be no exceptions. “Of course,” he’d said, “some people will already know. The Hellmouth has a fair number of witches, too, and others who, like me, have made a life study of your legacy. But be guarded around ordinary humans.”
“Why?” Buffy asked flippantly. “I’m fairly certain I can handle ordinary humans.”
“I’m not speaking of you fighting people,” Giles said, sighing. “But it would be rather inconvenient for humanity to devolve into mass panic because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut.”
“Point taken,” Buffy said, pouting. “There’s no need to scold.”
“With you,” Giles had concluded, removing his glasses, “it seems there will often be a need to scold.”
But as annoying and preachy as Giles could be, at least she didn’t have to hide herself from him. It was strange that this man she’d only just met could know so much more about her than her own mother. “Not as strange as vampires, though,” Buffy said aloud, mostly to herself.
“Oh, come on now,” a voice from behind her purred. “That hurts my feelings.”
Buffy whipped her head around and drove a roundhouse kick firmly into her follower’s chest. Fumbling in her pocket for the stake Giles had insisted she keep there, she stopped him in his attempt to stand up with a swift elbow to his chin, then drove her stake into his exposed chest. He collapsed into dust, and she slumped over, panting.
“Tired already?” another voice asked, and Buffy whirled around again--but saw no one.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry,” the unseen man continued. “I’m not about to attack you, Slayer. Although, if you’re breathing so heavily after only one vampire, I almost think I might be able to take you.”
“Show yourself!” Buffy snapped, gripping her stake tightly, her knuckles white with tension.
“Not with you in that mood,” the voice laughed. “Besides, I prefer to remain in the shade.”
“You are a vampire, then?” Buffy asked.
“In a sense.”
“I don’t know what you mean by that. Either you’re a vampire or not. There’s not a lot of in-between.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“Do you think you’re funny, or something? Because I’m not laughing.”
“I can see that. It’s a pity. You’re much prettier when you smile.”
“Tell me who you are and what you want,” Buffy said, gritting her teeth, “or we’ll see how much of a vampire you really are when my stake hits your chest.”
“I’m a friend. Willow knows me. You can ask her. As for what I want...believe me, if I knew that, I wouldn’t be lurking around talking to you.”
“Do you have a name? I can’t very well march up to Miss Rosenberg and say, ‘Oh, this mysterious voice was chatting to me earlier, he said he knew you, have any idea whom it might be?’”
“You can call me Angel,” the voice said, in what might have been either a laugh or a sob.
“Oh, honestly?” Buffy asked. “Angel? Are you supposed to be my guardian or something? Or a dark prince? Should I just cut right to the chase and call you Lucifer? I say, are you even listening to me? Hello? Hello?”
But Angel had apparently gone.