She hasn't been in Sunnydale a week, and everything is already the worst. The Harvest. Hellmouths. Really. Like there's no better time and place for a big grim vampire rising ceremony? It has to be the tiny random town her mother picked?
Well, of course it has to, says a voice in the back of her mind. She's the Slayer. That's how it works. (Ugh.)
So she's frantically running through a graveyard with two people who really aren't made for stake-wielding trying to find a third person who just got kidnapped by vampires, and truth be told Buffy Summers is ready to punch destiny in the face. She's also going to deck Jesse when she sees him and confirms he's not dead or dying or in danger or in a graveyard or… well, she's going to punch him eventually.
Unless he's already dead, says a voice in the back of her mind. After all, that vampire looked like she had taken a good long bite…
It's a stroke of luck, the sort of thing you think of when someone says "dumb luck," that they find the doorway. Willow finds a dropped something-or-other, Xander trips trying to look at it, and then there's a cavernous hole in everything and the sound of muffled arguing below. They're not that far ahead, the vamps, and they're distracted. She charges.
It's also a stroke of luck that, when the whole group is fleeing the graveyard — she's injured, Jesse's unconscious in her arms, Willow is out of breath and shaking and Xander is stifling sobs — with a crowd of vampires on their tail, that the van pulls up right then and there with headlights and loud music and startled boy behind the wheel.
"Hospital!" she yells at him, for lack of anything else to yell at the moment, and he nods and they all pile in and then he guns it away. Vampires are fast, but they're not meant to chase cars on foot. (Even old dingy vans.)
Jesse lives. He's hurt, of course he's hurt, and he's out of school for an extended period of time, but he lives and Xander really does cry and that makes Willow cry while the boy with the van just sort of sits there and doesn't ask why people are babbling about vampires. In fact, he doesn't ask anything at all, except whether anyone needs a ride back home. (They don't. Parents have been called by then.)
Of course, that's not the end of anything, but the relief she feels is so solid she could practically reach out and cuddle it. No deaths. She doesn't even argue with her mother, doesn't try to explain that no, she wasn't being reckless, no, she doesn't want to get hurt, no, she was trying to save people. Exhaustion follows relief, and she falls asleep in the front seat of the car.
(She dreams, for some reason, about butterflies. It's stupid. It's better than monsters.)
Of course, it's back to awful the next day, the next night, but that's killing monsters. That's okay. That she can do. She's not going to have to be at a classmate's funeral. Xander and Willow aren't going to lose their friend. With that in mind, the vampires at the Bronze are a piece of cake to fight. Okay, not really— she'll have bruises for a week and she ends up tricking the big one, but it's close enough. They're dust, and the sun rises, and everyone's talking about muggers and PCP and gangs. And there's no funerals.
"There should at least be an assembly," says Xander wearily. "I mean, the dead rose." Giles goes off about mystical convergence, just then, because he never seems to pass over the chance to lecture, and she makes a joke of it because it's not like she'll pass over a chance to ruffle her Watcher's feathers.
In bright California daylight, everything looks okay. Everything looks normal. She almost believes it. If she thinks it hard enough, maybe it will come true.
She tries out for the cheer team, but it doesn't work out. Immediately after, it works out even less — there's a witch and there's body-snatching and Buffy's mom almost thinks she's gone nuts (again) and Giles does magic in a chemistry lab, and really that's all ridiculous — but Amy is friendly when she's herself and the curses get reversed and Jesse comes back to school, pale and tired and but not dead and not a vampire. She'll take it. It's not like being on the cheer team is that important. (It is.) She's not the girl she was in LA, so it doesn't matter that she can't have any part of her old life back. (It does.)
"Did you get stabbed in the neck?" someone asks Jesse in the hall.
"With an evil barbecue fork," he confirms. Xander laughs, and the unfamiliar girl beside them looks dubious.
"How'd you know it's evil?" she presses.
"Well, it was used for evil," Jesse says with a shrug, and mimes stabbing the girl at an awkward angle. "Instead of hotdogs."
So she can't be a cheerleader, so what, and she can't be popular, whatever. She'll be… she'll be something else, and that something else should, possibly, study, to make up for the classes she's missed. Not that she'd tell Giles that. She leaves Xander and Jesse to their evil barbecue forks and heads off to find Willow.
Willow says she should talk to Dr. Gregory after class, because — "really Buffy, you've missed almost two weeks of bio and I feel like you'd like it." Dr. Gregory is old and stodgy and would probably be a Watcher if he wasn't a biologist, but whatever. She fixes a face into her best cheerleader smile and goes to plead her case.
Dr. Gregory would, absolutely, be a Watcher if he wasn't a biologist. He doesn't ask why she's missing classes, but looks at her the way Giles does and suggests she stay after the classes she can get to so that she can make sure she grasps the topic.
"My office door is always open to students," he says.
It's dumb luck that she picks one day over another to come in for a remedial study session, dumb luck that she's there when something scratches at the door and dumb luck that she jumps up to answer it because Dr. Gregory is old and sitting down. The monster she sees turns her stomach, but she slams the door and bars it with a desk and watches the monster scuttle away. Dr. Gregory says it looks like a mantis, only giant. Ms. Calendar, who teaches the computer class, says it looks like a demon.
"A demon?" says Buffy, who is pretty sure it does look like one of the beasties from Giles's books yeah, but doesn't expect Ms. Calendar of all people to say that.
"Of some kind," Ms. Calendar hedges, then suggests she stay with the startled Dr. Gregory while Buffy go do Things. She says Things with an audibly capital T. Luckily "a giant praying mantis that may be a demon" rings some bell in Giles's head.
The man in leather from the Bronze comes back to warn her, obliquely, about yet another problem. (His name's Angel. He may be yet another problem.)
"What are you going to do, go around asking 'Hey, anyone see a giant monster bug or a dude with a fork hand?'" Xander asks. There aren't words for how much not-helpful that is.
"Maybe someone would say something, though," says Willow, wide-eyed. "I mean, if you ask."
"Yeah, that you're nuts," says Jesse. "C'mon, guys." Not that he offers a better idea.
In the end she winds up wandering fork-man's usual haunts, hoping to catch him if nothing else, but that night she comes up empty.
"It's not safe, you know," says a voice behind her, and she almost jumps. There's a man in an idling car, watching her. He looks old. "Not even if you know what's in the dark." She could take him, she thinks.
"Well, there's a guy with a fork for a hand and a giant demon praying mantis," she answers flatly. "Seen either of those around?" The man laughs aloud at that.
"The gentleman with the claw, briefly," he answers, somewhat to her surprise. "Try the north end of the park. Demon mantis, though, that's new. What delightful little town you've got here."
"Can't beat a Hellmouth," she says.
"You have no idea," the man replies. "I'll keep an eye out for your demon bug." And he pulls away from the curb and drives down the empty street.
Long story short, she does find fork-man and demon bug, which isn't exactly a demon in the strictest sense according to Giles as much as it is a gigantic shape-shifting monster bug. She can still kill it, though, and marks another 'no funerals' day on her mental calendar. Dr. Gregory gives her extra credit for "dissection."
(The night she kills the mantis, she dreams of butterflies again. It's possible it means something, but she could care less.)
Owen is nice. Owen is handsome. Owen is human. Owen is not involved in Slayer business. Owen, she thinks, is someone she can really get used to. Of course, it can't last, because Hellmouths and Orders of Whatever and vampires and Anointed Ones, and she hates it. She's sixteen and can't even have a date, for pity's sake.
When the Anointed One takes Owen down she wants to scream but can't feel her mouth through the rage. Owen lives, he wasn't hit that hard, but it's way too late for anything now, and she hates being the Slayer more than she can express. She hates it even more because Owen wants to get involved. She hates him for not staying nice and normal and person-y.
She still cries for hours when she breaks up with him.
Buffy has never heard of a bad thing happening at a zoo. Zoos just aren't bad-thing-happening-y places, overall. They're for kids. She knows they're for kids because she's been to this one as a kid, and not much has changed except the hyena house. The hyena house is under quarantine, though, and anyone who approaches it ends up falling over backwards.
"That's weird," Willow says, when the fifth person fall in the exact same way. A British man is arguing with a zookeeper in the doorway of the quarantined building, both of them speaking quietly. When she listens really closely she can hear snatches of their conversation. "Primal" is a fairly okay word to use in a zoo, she supposes, and so is "predatory," but the suit and the zookeeper are talking about rituals and possession too, and that's not a normal zoo discussion. (Though it is a normal Sunnydale discussion, she has to admit.) She wants to investigate, but the barrier throws her backwards too.
On the way back, the barrier is gone, and so are the two men. This time she does go investigate, only to see the Brit burst out of the building, shouting about tragic accidents at the top of his lungs. The zookeeper, she learns quickly, is dead— he fell into the enclosure trying to feed one of the new animals. By the time the authorities arrive, there's a crowd of people talking and no sign at all of the mysterious interloper.
Giles has helpful explanations about Primals and all sorts of other weird cults. It seems the zookeeper was some sort of cultist, then, because the hyena house is quickly boarded up and a group of British men confiscate everything in it. Giles says they're from the Watcher's Council. Maybe the interloper is among them.
A group of bullies try to kidnap the new school mascot, a little piglet. It's a Slayer's duty to stand up for the innocent, so she throws them around and delivers the piglet safe and sound to the principal's office.
"He's not going to stay that small, you know," says Ms. Calendar, who apparently knows more than the average person about both demons and piglets. "They can weigh over three hundred kilos– that is, more than 700 pounds."
"Then he'll really be a ferocious razorback!" says Buffy, who is trying very hard not to think about demonic possession. Ms. Calendar just laughs and shakes her head.
"Hey, Giles?" she asks a few weeks after the zoo incident. "What do you call a witch that's a guy?" Giles sets his teacup down with an audible clink.
"It depends on the type and situation, generally. Why?"
"That guy at the zoo was one," she explains. "The Primal or whatever. He made it so that no one could come up to the hyena house without falling over. That's magic!" She's been thinking about magic that day, about the sort the Master was using and the sort Amy's mother had used and the sort she'd seen Giles use, and how it could possibly be used to stop the Master from rising. It's not giving her any good ideas.
"The Primal?" Giles echoes. "I can't imagine… setting up barriers like that is a different field of study than what he appeared to engage in. There are different schools of magic, you see, and one has to take the values of the cultures that created them into account. The Masai—"
"Okay, then maybe it was the other guy with him. My point is, no one could get near it. I wonder if there's a way to vampire-proof something like that…"
"It would be a different spell entirely, as it would have to be focused on the undead— and the demons within them — rather than simply humans, but with a suitably powerful sorcerer it ought be possible to hold something like that for at least a few hours," he says. "In the long term, it would not be a viable plan but — what other guy?"
"The one who saw the Primal die," she says. Has no one gotten Giles the deets yet? "He was tall and … British." That's not really a good description, but she remembers the crowd and the yelling kind of a lot more than she remembers the guy.
For some reason this puts GIles's hackles up, and he interrogates her for a solid five minutes about the British witch-guy. When she can't provide even a hair color, they go ask Willow, who scrunches up her face and says the guy was British and tall too. Xander just recalls the British part, Jesse has no idea who they're talking about, and that's about when Cordelia decides to walk in.
"Oh, the creepy British guy?" she asks. "I didn't get a good look at him. Didn't really want to— there's some people you don't look at because then they'll get ideas."
"Quite," says Giles dryly.
"Ugh," Cordelia adds. "He's not hanging around, is he? Because I bet—"
"No, no, nothing of the sort," says Giles. "Nothing to worry about." (Well, that even sounds like a bald-faced lie.)
Guy-witches are quickly put on the back burner because the Master sends vampire assassins into the Bronze, like some sort of tacky jerk. It's the pre-fumigation party! Can't a girl have just one night to dance around roaches? Mysterious lurky Angel comes to the rescue, but ends up getting stabbed for his troubles. She sneaks him into the house, manages to convince her mother nothing's amiss, and hides him in her room for a full day while he recovers from the stabbing thing. He's dark and mysterious and handsome and nice and well-spoken and he takes her seriously and she doesn't have to keep being the Slayer a secret from him and it's really not a big deal that he's a bit older than her, is it?
And then, of course, he's a vampire, because the Slayer isn't allowed to have anything nice in her life at all ever.
The Slayer is probably not even allowed to have a mother, she thinks, once the ambulance takes her mother away and adrenaline-fueled rage gives way to bleak despair. This stupid, stupid destiny is going to take everything away from her. She got home in time this time, but what about next time or the time after that? What about Willow, who'd open doors for anyone, or Xander who'd run head-first into trouble? What about Giles with his tweed and his books? What about the school? It's not like any of them could fight off a vampire, not properly. She wants to cry, but what good would that do, now?
No, crying is no help, but a crossbow is. Standing in the dark in the Bronze, though, she knows she can't kill him no matter how loudly the voice in the back of her mind screams about it. She can't shoot him and she's too shaken after talk of curses and souls to go toe-to-toe with the girl vamp who shows up, but Angel comes through in a pinch. (The crossbow works. Crying doesn't.)
Everything is supposed to be okay, after that. There's even a post-fumigation party, and Angel kisses her in the Bronze like a normal person would before vanishing off into the dark. She clings to the surface normal-ness of that, and pretends she's just a girl with a new boyfriend.
She's sick of vampires. She's really truly sick of vampires. With that in mind, it's a relief when Willow gets an online boyfriend and Giles and Ms Calendar manage to bicker for fifteen minutes without pause. No time to think about the supernatural now that she has a mystery Malcolm to track down. It's the perfect perfectly ordinary sort of mystery that she can get behind, trying to figure out if Malcolm is someone she knows or where he lives. Dave in the computer lab almost jumps out of his skin when she mentions the guy, so he's a worthwhile suspect. Though why he'd need a fake identity to talk to Willow is beyond her — they do talk in real life, and Willow isn't exactly Cordelia. Well, she'd rather have Willow than Cordelia, any day.
Ms. Calendar is entirely right when she says Giles doesn't live in this century. His best suggestion for tracking down Willow's boyfriend is to stalk Dave, which is what she ends up doing anyway because Willow's the computer expert and isn't about to investigate her own boyfriend, right?
He goes somewhere called CRD. It looks secretive and full of security cameras and sneaky people, so she doesn't try to break in. The voice in the back of her mind says she should just kick down the door and get it over with, but she ignores it. (They end up going with that plan later anyway, because sometimes kicking down doors is the best solution, but that's later.)
Ms. Calendar arrives, possibly to continue arguing with Giles, and that's about when the phone rings. Buffy grabs it instead of leaving, because Giles definitely can't come to the phone right now. She tells the guy calling as much.
"No, no chance he'll take my calls, is there?" the man complains. "All he ever–" There's an audible beep on the other end of the line. He's got mail, apparently. "No matter. Do tell him this particular bit of chaos isn't mine, would you?"
"I literally have no idea who you are," she says, as Giles and Ms Calendar abruptly stop arguing in the background. "So you're gonna have to be more specific." Giles says something slightly panicked about Moloch the Corruptor. "Or, I mean, call back and leave a message at the beep, because I think Moloch's my cue to run."
"Moloch the Corruptor?" asks the man on the phone almost gleefully. "Oh my, you really are in trouble!" Buffy opens her mouth to point out that there's always trouble on a Hellmouth, when the man continues, calmer. "It collects a cult, you see. People who think they love it, and then they do all sorts of unpleasant things in its name. Find the cultists, and you find Moloch. Abrupt obsessive devotion to a stranger is… easy to identify."
"Willow," she whispers before she can stop herself. Willow who's been missing classes and staying up late and ignoring her friends and — "Can Moloch use email?"
"You're on a Hellmouth," says the man on the phone. "Anything's possible." And he hangs up on her. (The nerve!)
She tells Giles about the cult and about Willow and randomly helpful phone guy, and Ms. Calendar looks pensive rather than freaked out.
"Obsessive devotion," she murmurs. Buffy waves her hands.
"He's got Willow!"
"He has more than just Willow," says Ms. Calendar. Then she smiles, grim and not-very-teacher-y. "And I have a plan."
The plan involves a power-cut and trapping possessed (entranced?) teenage boys in janitors' closets before rallying what Ms. Calendar calls her cyber-coven while Buffy goes to play damage control at Calax Research and Development. It goes… not so well, but she does eventually trash the Molochbot and break the spell, so it's all good.
She just wishes Malcolm had been a normal creep. A normal human creep. But it's the Hellmouth, so that's probably impossible. Willow agrees. Xander starts to.
"Though, I mean— Jesse almost got eaten and he's got a girlfriend now," he adds, thoughtfully. "Maybe we just need to get almost eaten." Buffy vetoes the idea as vehemently as she can.