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Food Fight

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1. Toaster Pastries (Without a Toaster)

There is an entire box of PopTarts hidden at the bottom of the drawer beneath the register.

Buffy stares at if for a solid minute, wondering if she’s progressed to hallucinations after three days without food. The store has been looted before, and not carefully either. The doors are busted open and the dead were all over the place before she cleared it. What food was left has been spoiled by the rotting undead. They still don’t know how the virus is transmitted, by blood, by saliva, by sheer contact, and she won’t risk any food that has been in contact with dead flesh and rotting skin.

And now this. An entire box. Of PopTarts.

Two hours ago, when she slipped out of their makeshift camp in an abandoned hunting cabin, Xander laughed roughly and whisper-called after her, “Bring me PopTarts!”

It was a joke. A damn stupid one, too, especially since she didn’t want to go in the first place. Didn’t want to leave him. But Xander’s gotten even more stubborn in his old age, sent her anyway. Knew she needed out. Needed to move. Do something. Mindless action, movement, violence. Purpose, so hard to find at the end of the world. Buffy is made for the before-times, the middle of catastrophe, the bright blast. This slow dying aftermath, the dying embers of human civilization, they’re not for her. At this point, the slayer is supposed to have died in battle, victorious and bloody.

She’s not supposed to hang around after the end, to watch mankind cave in on itself. Extinction event, Giles called it, during one of their last phone calls. The wiping clean of the slate.

Buffy is not meant for this world and Xander knows.

At thirty-one and thirty-two, respectively, they have known each other literally half their lives, give or take a few months. Loved each other. Not even him banging her sister could change that.

That’s why they’re here, in Bumfuck, Georgia, in the first place. Because of Xander banging Dawn. Because of Xander marrying Dawn. Because they’re actually family now and, “We haven’t had a family vacation in forever, Buffy, come on, please.”

It sounded like two weeks of too much sun, Georgia peaches and expensive wine, long, winding roads and comfortably sticky togetherness. If she hadn’t agreed… but she did. And then the roads shut down, too fast for them to make it even out of state. Willow called, said to stay put. “We’re sending the girls home. They want to be with their families. And it’s not like it’s supernatural.”

Until the dead came back to life.

Until… They haven’t heard from Willow in four months. She said she’d find them, do a spell. Then, nothing. That was before the heat turned sweltering, before, before.

Then, Dawn.

It’s just Xander and Buffy now, camping in a rundown cabin, hungry, hot, alone, and tired. So tired.

Now with added PopTarts.

Buffy giggles, sheathes her knife and hauls up the box, tucks it under her arm. Too big to fit her bag, already mostly full with a few cans of food, some basic first aid stuff. She’ll have to carry the box. The streets are mostly clear, though, so she should be fine, as long as she’s quiet.

Hiding.

She hates hiding. It’s against her very nature. Maybe she’ll come back, clean the whole town, later. Later. After.

For now, Xander ordered a snack.

She pauses by the broken glass doors, listens. She can hear crickets, nothing else. It’s good. The animals tend to go silent when there’s larger numbers of deadites around. Crickets mean no biters.

They don’t call them zombies. Zombies are magic, lore, masks and spells. Things they can fight. Things they can defeat. This is nothing like that. A virus, a sickness. The only one who knew anything about this sort of thing was Willow. And Willow….

She steps outside. Blinks against the sudden brightness. Indian summer in Georgia. Worst time ever to go survivalist. But then, the late heat is a godsend compared to what is to come. She’s not looking forward to the winter she expects to come clawing around the corner any night now.

To her right, a trigger mechanism clicks quietly.

“What’cha got there, girl?” the body attached to the trigger asks.

Buffy turns toward the crossbow aimed at her and the dirty man behind it. He squints at her, hands dead steady.

Turns of phrases including the word ‘dead’ somehow have acquired a new flavor of gallows’ humor. Xander delights in any and all variations. Buffy wants to curl up and sob every time he does.

“Nothing I’m sharing,” she says, plants her feet, switches up her grip to let the box drop at a moment’s notice. She carries knives in neat rows at her belt and he’s just a man. Once, that would have protected him.

But then, Dawn.

“Lot o’ damn sugar for one girl,” he drawls. With his battered jeans and boots, his sleeveless flannel shirt and the backwoods accent, he’s got redneck white trash written all over him. Well. Not like it matters anymore. Buffy doesn’t think she looks much better, jeans, ripped shirt, three different belts with knives attached to them. The last time she saw running water was a week ago, and that was a river. She and Xander fought about who would have to take downstream.

She considers playing on the man’s sympathies. Mouths to feed, blah, blah. But all that would tell him is that there’s a camp around, something potentially worth looting. Talking doesn’t work anymore. Dawn tried. Dawn held up her hands and used quiet words, soft smiles.

Dawn isn’t here anymore, now.

He looks like those men did, comfortable with weapons, comfortable with violence. Comfortable making little sisters go away.

Jaw tightening, she fights the urge to just let one of her blades fly. Headshot. Even if he managed to get the shot off, she’s probably quick enough to avoid it. A graze, at worst. Acceptable risk.

But. But, she thinks, Giles’ voice echoing in her head, tinny and distant across the years. He’s human. She wonders what her watcher makes of this new world. Wonders if he is still alive to witness what it has become. Some nights, she hopes he’s not.

Human, human, human. Giles. Dawn. Nature. Nurture. What she learned before and what she learned after.

She shakes her head. “I’m not handing over that box. So either shoot me, or leave me the hell alone.”

“That so?” he demands. His grip still isn’t wavering. He’s used to this. Danger. Stress. Endurance. In another life, she might have called him salty goodness, all violence and competence wrapped up with nice guns to match. Once, she liked her men rough around the edges.

This is not that life.

“Yeah.”

“And what if I take it?”

“You can try.” She could use her knives to disable. Cut his arm, a leg. He’d bleed, attract deadites. Wouldn’t be able to fight properly. But it wouldn’t be her fault. Self-defense. Some lines are awfully blurry these days. It was easier, before Dawn. The living and the dead. Now there’s a whole new category. She doesn’t have a name for it, that third category, but it exists. Giles would be disappointed. Dawn might still be alive.

He opens his mouth, face set in a scowl, probably to give her one last warning, when something rattles behind him.

A lone walker, tripping over an empty gas canister. Buffy’s been watching it come closer, isn’t surprised the way he is. When he startles, she darts back into the store, toward the back. The employee entrance is locked, but she kicks it open easily, bangs into the alley beyond. A dumpster, the roof, leap, leap, chain link fence to slow her descent and off she goes, into the woods at the edge of town.

By the time the redneck gets done swearing, she’s already half a mile away, box tucked under her arm.

+

Xander is right where she left him, sitting in the salvaged remains of an old couch. Mostly, it’s stuffing under a blanket, piled into a corner. He grins when she plops in through a busted window, door long since barred.

She strikes a dramatic pose just to make the expression on his face last a moment longer, then drops the box in his lap. He blinks up at her, stupidly.

“You know I was kidding, right?” he asks as he opens it one-handed, his bad arm hanging limply at his side.

She beams at him, as widely as she can manage. “Your friendly neighborhood slayer lives to serve, didn’t you know?” she kids, even as the word ‘slayer’ scalds her tongue like acid.

‘Slayer’ meant ‘killer’ once, until she turned it into ‘protector’. It’s ‘killer’ again, now, in a dead world, full of dead people. It’s just that some of them still breathe.

She isn’t meant to be here.

“Crap, Buff, you forgot the toaster!” Xander curses, trails off in a cough. Wheezes. Twists into himself against the fever pain wracking his body.

Passing him an open bottle of water, she shrugs, “Whoops. Knew I forgot something.” The jokes fall flat, the lines sound rehearsed, like watching a movie with the wrong voice track. Nothing matches. They try only for the sake of trying, anymore.

He drinks, lets his ragged breathing slow down. Then he scoots backwards, more upright. Rips one of the little baggies open and sinks his teeth into the untoasted pastry.

After chewing for a moment, he groans. “Refined sugar and chemical taste. Best meal I’ve had in months.”

His teeth, as he smiles, are stained pink with icing and he swallows noisily. “You know I love you, right?”

Buffy squeezes her eyes shut to the point of tears. “Yeah. Course I do. I love you, too. You’re my Xander-shaped friend. Now let me change your bandages, mkay?”

He shakes his head. “Waste of supplies. Just… just…”

“No,” she cuts him off, shakes her head. No. Her slayers are gone, spread across the globe with no rallying point and no way to find them. Giles and Willow have been MIA since they ventured outside the Council house to try and look for a solution. Dawn is dead. Xander…. No.

“I’m bit, Buffy. I’m turning. I don’t wanna be one of those things. I wanna die as me. Come on, you promised. Remember when we were kids and we promised we’d never let each other turn into vampires? This is the same. It’s just the same.”

“It’s not! You’re not dead!”

“Yeah, I am. I’m just too dumb to lay down and hold still.”

He sounds so tired. Buffy slumps down on the dirty ground beside him. There are tears on her face, cutting a trail down her dirty cheeks. She doesn’t sob, hasn’t cried loudly in years. It’s just tears anymore. She can’t stop those.

He chews noisily, swallows. Let’s the flat cheer drop for good. Lets her accept this. His eye is fever bright and endlessly dark. She’s never seen him this serious. Through Jesse and Angel and Anya and Dawn, through a tower and a cave and the end of the world, she’s never seen him this solemn. She hates him a little for it. Hates that she won’t be able to ignore whatever he is going to say next.

“Promise me you won’t give up. You’ve always been the best us, Buffster. You gotta keep going.”

“What for?” She demands, hotly angry because she knows she’ll promise, knows she’ll pinky-spit-double-super swear because it’s Xander and he’s asking her to.

A shrug, half-apologetic, like he knows what he’s condemning her to, but will keep going anyway. Good old Xander, bull-headed to the last. “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”

“Shit,” she laughs, raggedly. “I am so tired of everyone throwing that back in my face!”

He nods but doesn’t apologize. Waits.

When did he get to be so patient?

“I promise,” she whispers, after minutes of silence.

He nods. Then he takes another bite of his disgusting PopTart, like it’s just another lunch break, all the way back in high school, eating and talking. “Give me my gun, Buffy,” he orders, his voice light. “Can’t keep the others waiting.”

He smiles at her. Brightly, like the boy she remembers, the one with the jokes and the donuts. The one with both eyes and a whole heart. Their heart. She’s only the hand, has only ever been the blunt instrument for her friends to aim and wield. He’s always been the heart of them.

But she can’t break her promise, can she? So she rolls to her feet, picks up the bag she dropped earlier, stuffs the remaining water bottles into a side pocket. Makes sure the revolver is loaded.

When he tries to push the box of pastries on her, she shakes her head. “Nah,” she tells him. “Got them for you. I’m not eating that crap. Hell on my hips.”

She stares until he lowers the box back into his lap, takes another bite.

“Love you,” he smiles and she bends down abruptly, presses a hard, tight-lipped kiss to his mouth. Sometimes she wishes she could have fallen in love with him. Could have been happy with him. But he had Cordelia, Anya and then, later, Dawn. He was good without her and she never could be right for him.

“Love you, too.”

Setting the gun in his hand, she shimmies out the window to the sounds of chewing and labored breathing. When her feet hit the packed dirt outside, he calls her name.

“Yeah?”

“Don’t come back to bury me, okay? There’s no point and you don’t have to see that.”

Wiping furiously at her nose and eyes, she nods, realizes he can’t see, croaks an affirmative. Foil crinkles as he opens another baggie, then another. He’s on the fourth PopTart by the time she can finally will her legs to move.

Just as she reaches the tree line, a single shot echoes through the clearing.

She breaks into a run.

+

2. Soda Bombs (What Mentos Taught Us)

PopTart Town is a lot bigger than it seemed at first. She came in at a funny angle, half the town hidden by a geographical quirk, a sloping hill twisting sideways. On her second run-through, she finds a bigger shopping district closer to the center, and a ton of empty homes to pick through.

First, though, she clears it. The whole damn place. Before, she had Xander to return to, to protect. Now… now there’s no reason not to take risks. She made a promise, but if the deadites get her… . So she starts at the little shop where she ran into the redneck and just keeps slicing and stabbing until nothing moves anymore.

She sleeps.

She gets up, she bangs on a few cars, draws some more undead, starts over.

It takes a week and in the end, rotting corpses fill the streets, but then it’s done. Nothing moves, anymore. Not even the crickets.

She finds a half empty pool in a backyard, uses a bucket to clean the worst of the muck off the surface, washes herself. Her clothes are goners, so she picks through a few bedrooms, finds sturdy jeans and a cute green camisole. Puts both on, layers up. Brushes her teeth with a dead stranger’s toothbrush and leaves toothpaste clumped in a kitchen sink. Finds more knives, takes them. Finds a compound bow with two fistfuls of arrows and takes those, too. Leaves the shotgun.

Sleeps some more.

When she wakes again, it’s late afternoon. The heat has finally broken, the leaves seemingly turning overnight, and a cold wind blows through the dead streets as she walks. She picks a trail through the corpses lining the streets, toward a little corner store with intact doors.

Most of the food has spoiled or needs to be cooked, but there are some things she can eat as is. Canned stuff. Jerky. Some candy. Five cans of diet soda. Dawn used to joke that the hordes of evil would have taken over long ago, if they’d ever figured out that the big, scary slayer could be bribed with diet soda like a three-year-old with candy. Give her a can of sugar-free chemicals with fizz and she’s happy to let the world burn. It was funny, then.

The soda’s off-brand, cheap and probably disgusting, but it’s the nicest thing she’s found since… since the PopTarts.

She drinks one right then and there, warm and sticky, feeling the fizz fill her up like she’s a balloon, make her stomach churn. Not the best idea after not eating for days. She finishes it off in a long pull and crushes it in one hand. Drops it.

Somewhere, glass shatters.

Must have missed some deadites. And… yep, there they go, groaning and moaning. Just a few blocks away, from the sound of it.

By the time she’s made it there, there’s a drove of them, at least thirty or forty, all converging on one guy. He must have broken a shop door or window, set them free. In the early days, people sometimes shut them away. Like locks and chains would keep them safe. The man curses, sprints a few feet toward the middle of the street to keep himself from being cornered, all the while keeping his weapons close. Fighter. His voice is vaguely familiar, but it’s the crossbow on his back that sparks recognition.

It’s the redneck she met… that day. And he’s obviously trying to get himself killed.

With a grunt, she pulls free two of her knives, a machete and a smaller double-bladed one, and wades in. The first two go down easy, stabbed through the back of the skull, but then they notice she’s there and while that’s good for the redneck, it means bad things for her.

She surges forward, kicks one down and stomps on its head, gets another through the eye. A running leap lands her at the man’s back. He whirls on her, takes two beats to recognize her, or maybe just ascertain that she’s human, then goes back to fighting.

He’s good at it, too, using his crossbow to alternately shoot and bludgeon, stabbing with his arrows as much as he fires. Efficient.

When one of the dead comes at him from a bad angle while he’s distracted, she kicks its knee sideways, finishes it off. He nods his thanks at her, points her toward the now empty storefront.

“Gotta bottleneck them,” he grunts between stabs. It’s not a bad idea.

He starts moving while he’s fighting, clearing a path. She follows. When they get there, he kicks out some more glass from the empty frame of the door, covers her while she slips through and starts looking for something to barricade the doors partially.

Tipping over some shelves, they retreat further into the store. The deadites have to move through a narrow opening now, no chance at swarming anymore. Picking them off is almost leisurely, between the two of them. She throws some of her smaller knives, he keeps firing, retrieving his arrows during the brief lulls when the corpses block the way of the next wave.

It’s strangely hypnotizing, working with someone at her back, someone she doesn’t have to worry about. Not only because she doesn’t care about him particularly much, but also because he’s competent as hell in what he does. A good fighter, smooth, automatic. Xander and Dawn were never like this, Xander because of his handicap and Dawn because she was Buffy’s little sister and she hates herself a little for thinking it, but it’s better with this stranger. She ducks to pull knives from empty eye sockets and he steps forward and into her side, covering the move until she flows backwards and takes over in time for him to reload.

It’s like having Spike or Angel there, if they hadn’t burned long ago. It’s almost funny, how they and Anya were the oldest people she ever knew and they never lived to see this. They went out thinking the world was going to keep on turning the way it always had, never knowing it could be like this, back to back with strangers, fighting off the dead in a broken world.

It’s almost funny, how Buffy should have been one of them. She curses Xander for making her promise and stabs another biter through the face with vicious ferocity.

In the end ten, maybe a dozen of the things are dead that way before more glass shatters and the display window caves inwards, bringing with it half a dozen more.

And now they’re in a crowded, enclosed space and the dead are still hungry.

Cursing, Buffy spins on her heel to look for a back entrance, finds only a small storage room. She frantically searches for something useful, finds a hatch in the ceiling. Roof. Better than nothing.

“Hey, you,” she calls. “There’s roof access. You’re taller. Switch!”

He double checks her intel with a quick glance toward the ceiling, then trades places with her so she’s the one holding the door shut. A moment later, a ladder slides down and then they’re up, up, up, just as the door gives way. She kicks at the ladder until it breaks, crumbling down.

Now they’re stuck on the roof.

Buffy dumps her bag and starts scouting around the edges, looking for a way down. There isn’t one, predictably. Walls on two sides, an alley, locked down tight, on a third The front is still crowded with corpses, which would get them right back where they started.

When she turns around to tell him that, he’s kneeling by her bag, digging through it.

“What the hell are you doing?” she demands, stomping forward. He holds up one of her soda cans, gives it a shake.

“Need a distraction.” He grabs two cans in each hand, starts shaking them like mad as he makes his way to the front of the building, scopes out a newer model car across the street and down the road a ways.

When he deems the cans shook up enough, he takes aim. Buffy can tell what he’s about to do, and it’s smart, yeah, but it’s her damn diet soda. Hers. She found it. She found it and remembered Dawn, laughing as she held a can above her sister’s head, Xander and Willow snickering in the background, Giles cleaning his glasses. It’s hers. She wears stolen clothes, walks in stolen boots, fights with scavenged knives but these cans are hers. Something from before. A link. A memory. Dawn….

She found those damn things and she missed them and they were the first nice thing since… since Xander shot himself in the damn head to keep her from having to do it, alone in that damn shack, shaking and chewing on disgusting PopTarts, alone because she wasn’t strong enough to stay with him, because he made her promise, because he loved her, but he loved Dawn more and after she was gone, he was never the same, movie with the wrong voice track and then bang.

Slayers aren’t meant to survive.

She’s so pissed at the stranger, she wants to haul off and break his face in. Just keep hitting him until she feels better.

Less like the dead below.

Those cans are hers.

But if killing hundreds of deadites didn’t fix her, killing one man won’t either. She bites back her angry scream, fists balled tightly, and watches him aim and let the first can fly. It falls short, explodes on the ground in a banging shower of foam and calories. All that wonderful, too warm fizz.

Gone.

Gone, gone, gone.

A few deadites take notice, but they don’t wander off. Not yet. The second can hits the trunk, bumps it. The third is enough to set off the alarm but the forth is already flying in another direction, hitting another car.

The alarms howl in discord and the dead take notice, drawn by the sound, already forgetting about the juicy steaks upstairs. She wonders, sometimes, how much memory they have. How long does it take them to forget where someone hides? She’s seen some of them operate doorknobs and others too dumb to walk around an object in their path.

When they finally clear out, except for a few stragglers, she picks up her bag – lighter now – and slings it back over her head. Her companion dangles himself off the roof before letting go, landing surely on his feet. She doesn’t bother, just skips over the low wall and lands ten feet below without a sound.

They don’t pick a direction, just start running, taking out stragglers as they go, quick and silent.

Five streets over, he finally stops, out of breath. Before she can think about it, Buffy pulls back her arm and punches him square in the jaw.

“That’s for taking my stuff, asshole!” she hisses, anger still thrumming in her veins. Those were her cans. Hers. She found them. They belonged to her and they were the nicest thing….

Gone, gone, gone.

“What the hell, you f’ckin’ bitch!” he howls, holding his face. “I saved our asses, you psycho cunt!”

She wants to hit him again. And again. And then bash his head in and go back and kill all those corpses and get back her damn diet soda. She wants to rewind time and save Xan, save her sister, her friends, her family, her girls, her world. She want this virus to never have gotten out, wants Sunnydale to still stand, Angel and Spike to be alive. She wants to be fifteen and innocent. She wants the world to still make sense, instead of… of this.

She was right. The night they brought her back, she climbed on top of a tower, looked down and saw hell. And she was right.

Hey, she thinks, suddenly, stupidly, wiping at her cheeks. She finally figured out how to make the tears stop. Her face is dry.

“Stay the fuck away from me,” she spits, profanity sharp on her tongue. Satisfying.

He calls something after her that sounds like, “As if I’d get within a mile of you anymore, fucking bitch.”

She doesn’t really care.

+

3. Jerky Jerking Jerk (There are no Vegetarians Anymore)

They reach for the bag of beef jerky at the exact same time. He’s reaching around the end of the aisle and she’s just coming out of a crouch by the opposite shelf and if the world were still whole, if this were a supermarket before the apocalypse, she’d smile, flirt a little and walk away with the jerky.

If this were a supermarket before the apocalypse, she wouldn’t be getting jerky at all because she’s been a vegetarian since Dawn’s senior year in college, when she decided to go green and dragged Buffy along, kicking and screaming.

But then the world ended and now here she is, fighting over a bag of dried meat with a guy she keeps running into. Seriously, the world is mostly empty. Why the hell do they keep running into each other anyway? And always over food, too.

She grunts, pulling on the bag. He pulls, too, and she regrets, fiercely, that she let her guard down long enough for him to sneak up on her in the first place. But even a slayer can only keep up the constant vigilance shtick for so long before white trash rednecks with crossbows sneak in under the wire.

He looks up at her slowly, hand tightening on his knife, and starts spitting curses as soon as he places her face. Not that it’s all that hard. They seem to be the only breathing people in a fifty mile radius. “Fucking hell, what’re you doin’ here, bitch! Shoulda shot your skinny ass last time!”

Well. There’s an idea. One that, somehow, hasn’t crossed her mind even once until now. Killing him. She’s not… she has, before, after Dawn. But not… him. Not for more than half a heartbeat on… that day.

There used to be monster and there used to be human. But then the monsters mostly left the building – dimension, whatever - while it was on fire and the deadites… they’re not evil. Vile, rotting, yes, but mostly, they’re like animals. They want to feed, nothing more. They have no spark, no intelligence for actual evil. They’re not malicious. People are. People do. And the ones that are left are generally not the nice ones.

Monsters. People. That’s how it used to be. And slayer in the middle, right by the line, keeping the two neatly separate.

And now the people are monsters and killing them, it’s not right, not what slayers do, but it’s already been established that that word doesn’t mean what it once did.

Yet she’s never considered killing the asshole across from her. He’s never made a move on her beyond the instinctive aiming at a stranger. In fact, when they fought together, he fell in with her like he’d always been there. Helping her, working with and around her. Willingly. He didn’t try to leave her behind, use her as bait. Nothing. Under the positively foul shit he’s still spewing at her, he might be a decent human being.

One of the good ones.

She grunts, annoyed with herself. She hates apologies. He finally runs out of steam and gives the jerky another yank. “Sorry about punching you in the face,” she grits out between clenched teeth, white knuckling the dried meat. Maybe because he’s the only human she’s spoken to in two weeks. Maybe because she’s sorry for so many things that she needs to apologize for something, even if it’s only this. “Now let go of my dinner.”

He snorts. Loudly. Angrily. Still defensive, still ready to duck a blow and maybe she deserves that, but she doesn’t think it’s all for her. He looks like he’s always like this, always ready for the next punch to come. She wonders what he was, before, and then shuts that line of thought down quickly because it doesn’t matter anymore. Pauper or king, they all die the same in the end. And then they rise again. He snarls at her, half-rabid. “You mean my dinner, woman. I found that shit.”

“I had it first!”

“No, ya didn’t!”

She’s having Black Friday flashbacks.

“It’s mine!”

“We need it!”

It’s a slip of the tongue, she knows it the moment he realizes what he just said and blanches a bit under his anger and sunburn. We. As in, more than one. As in, he’s not only feeding himself, but someone else. Someone he doesn’t take on runs with him. Someone dependent on him and probably defenseless.

All this time, she figured he was just like her, a lone survivor. Someone who’s better off alone. A fighter. Not… she didn’t even consider that he might have people. Might have a Xander, a Dawn. Hell, for all she knows, he might have a wife and four kids.

She lets the bag go like it burnt her. “There’s more of you?!”

He tries to backpedal immediately, clumsily, not good with words, but they both know it’s a lost cause. And a dangerous situation. If he thinks she’ll use the information against him, she’s a threat to him. And if she’s a threat to him, he’ll try to kill her, because that’s how the world works. That’s how this man works. Hurt it before it can hurt you.

So Buffy blurts the first thing she can think off to stick the pin back in the grenade without knowing why she cares so much. Why she shies away from killing him.

That’s a lie. She knows.

“Why didn’t you just say so?” she asks, waving her hands at the jerky, ostensibly moving them away from her weapons.

He looks a bit blindsided, hand halfway to his mouth, like he just stopped himself from some nervous gesture. She can see him scoping out exits, getting ready to run. Back to his people. To protect them. Buffy knew that feeling once.

“Why’d I do that?” he demands, half angry, half something else.

Fair point. “Take it,” she tells him, not bothering to answer his – rhetorical anyway – question. “I… take it.”

She remembers them, Dawn and Xander and the elderly couple they traveled with, for a while. The two teenagers Dawn coaxed into the warm circle of their camp fire one night.

The men that shot her little sister in the belly when she smiled and offered them their food, but not Margret’s meds, please, she’s got a heart condition.

She attempts a smile and knows, from the expression on his face, that she misses her mark. Waving a hand toward the back of the small store, she adds, “I cleared it out earlier. There’s boxes back there. You should have a look. I’ll just,” she hooks a finger over one shoulder. Leave.

She meant to take those boxes, haul them back to the place she’s holed up in. She’s been stockpiling for a while, against the impending winter and slayer metabolism, but it’s not like she needs that much food. It’s just something to do. To keep her busy and her mind off… things.

Before she can actually make with the leaving, the man finally shakes off the Summers-weird induced stupor and asks, “Jus’ like tha’?”

He swallows just about every second letter, twang so heavy in his voice she has trouble parsing his words. In the end, she figures it out, though.

A shrug. “I thought it was just you. Same as me, one guy. But you’ve got… people to protect.”

“They ain’t weak,” he says in a tone of voice like he can’t quite believe he’s saying that, but it’s not a lie, either. He wants his group to look strong. Puff up your numbers, bluff, and just tough it out. She’s familiar with the routine. Pretend there’s seven bruisers waiting in the wings when it’s really just you, alone in the cemetery. You and your stake and a death wish growing in the shadow of your heart.

“They’re not out here with you, either. Look, I don’t want trouble. I don’t even want people. Just… leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone, alright?”

Hands up, look Ma, so harmless, she backs away. He still stares at her like she’s purple and just made him a dirty offer, but he lets her go.

+

She follows him back to his camp. His people. Hides herself up a tree a good distance away and lets the slayer senses do the work. She needs to know what she’s up against, she tells herself.

It has nothing to do with the fact that the angry guy she just gave her jerky to is the only human being she’s seen since Xander died. His presence is tainted with the memory of that day, of the PopTart box, of Xander dying less than an hour after their first run-in, but he’s human. He talks and walks and fights and that’s precious, nowadays.

She hooks her chin over bony kneecaps and watches as he storms back into the small clearing filled with people, two duffels full of food with him.

They’re a ragtag bunch. The youngest hasn’t hit puberty yet, while the oldest is rocking his seventies. A bubbly teenage girl, a mid-twenties couple, a mid-thirties one, the woman sporting a definite baby bump, which, good god. A black dude, a woman with a grey pixie cut. They’re all armed, but their weapons are makeshift and she doubts most of them have had much experience with them. The pregnant chick has a crowbar by her side and Buffy just can’t imagine the woman has actually used it before.

The young couple, baby daddy, the black dude and Crossbow are just about the only ones that look like they’re any good in a fight. Their campsite looks temporary, like they’re only staying a day or two. There are two cars and a bike parked close by, but gas is rare and engines loud. Buffy can figure out their strategy, no problem. The group is slowly working their way around the town, always a safe distance away, protected by the fighters, while their hunter – and he is a hunter – is scavenging for supplies.

It explains how she’s been running into him for weeks even though the group is on the move.

They greet Crossbow happily enough when he comes out of the tree line, but she notices no-one touches him, or even gets really close to him. They all circle him, like he’s something volatile. Still, he’s clearly a part of them.

“Daryl,” the pixie cut says, relieved, “you’re back!”

Daryl. Huh.

He grunts, drops his bags in front of the young couple, who immediately start digging through them. The guy – Asian, armed with a baseball bat of all things – makes an appreciative noise. “Mhm, tomato soup,” he declares, holding up a can. “After all the canned fruit, I can honestly say that I’m looking forward to that.”

The girl piles more cans on the ground beside their feet. “Four cans. If we add some water, that’s dinner.”

The people around them grin excitedly and Buffy feels something lurch in her chest. For their ability to still find happiness in this mess of a world. For the fact that those cans are the ones she pointed Daryl towards, back at the store.

He ignores their praise, sits down next to baby daddy and the old guy. “Ran into crazy girl again,” he grumbles and it takes Buffy a moment to figure out that he’s talking about her. She’d take offense, but, yeah. She hasn’t exactly been acting very normal, has she?

The others would be so disappointed in her. Xander made her promise to stay alive. But there were no conditions attached to how she has to do it.

“Did she punch you again?” baby daddy asks, a teasing smile on his face.

“Screw you, Rick,” Daryl answers, visibly fighting the urge to touch the fading bruise on his jawline. Instead his fingers start flying over his bow, checking, tightening, cleaning. “An’ nah. She figured out I ain’t on my own.”

Everyone stiffens. “What did she do?”

A shrug, a grunt. “Yell at me f’ not tellin’ her b’fore. Then she gave me ‘er loot.” He waves a hand toward the bag.

The old guy frowns. “She just gave you her food?”

“Said she figured I was on my own, too, like ‘er. Gave me the food.” Another shrug.

Rick, who seems to be a leader, frowns. “Do you think we should invite her to the group?”

“What’d we do that for?” Daryl asks.

“She helped you against that herd, she’s a good fighter, and she gave up her food to help us out.”

True.

“She takes unnecessary risks, punched me in the face over some fuckin’ soda, and now knows we got a camp close by.”

Also true.

“Still. We could use someone like her. And none of her actions so far make me think having her with us would be a bad idea. We need more fighters, Daryl. We’re too damn vulnerable out here. I know it’s a risk, and we’ve been burnt before, but I think it’s worth takin’. Hershel?”

His voice carries the tinge of a leader at the end of his rope, of desperate measures that keep failing. His group has more defenseless people than fighters, children, old, pregnant. People who belong in offices and classrooms, not in this world. They’re all too skinny, with dark bags under their eyes, bruised, scratched, dirty. Even the kid is subdued, too serious. They barely carry any provisions, not even tents. Hell, they’re going to share four cans of soup between them and call it a feast. Something needs to be done, and it falls to Rick to do it. She’s been there. She’s made those mistakes. He doesn’t want to let her in. Doesn’t want to risk it. But they can either protect their own or go on runs, not both. They can’t keep going like this and at this point, after three run-ins, Buffy figures she’s the known devil. The lesser evil.

The old man tilts his head thoughtfully. “Honestly, Rick, I’m not sure. We don’t know how long she’s been out there on her own. What Daryl’s told us makes me think she’s… damaged.”

Damaged. Buffy doesn’t listen to the rest. It doesn’t matter anyway. She doesn’t need people, doesn’t need to get attached only to bury them again. These are not her people to protect. Instead she silently drops out of her tree and starts running.

Lately, it seems to be all she does. She runs until her feet hurt and her lungs ache, until she’s rounded the entire town twice, killing a dozen stray deadites. Runs until she stands in front of a rundown hunting cabin in the woods with a barred door and a broken window.

The sound of her harsh breathing fills the air. Below it, she can hear the faint buzzing of flies inside the cabin.

Pink icing. She never even checked what flavor the PopTarts were, can’t remember which ones have pink icing. Can’t remember Xander’s favorites.

She stays standing there, waiting for something. Wisdom, maybe. Some kind of memory to keep her going, an epiphany that’ll make her realize that there’s still hope in this world, after all. But all she can think is that the flies she’s hearing are swarming her best friend’s corpse and she can’t even bury him, because she promised.

Just like she promised to live.

It takes her a very long time to walk away.

+

4. Instant Anything Still Takes Too Long (Kids Love This Stuff)

“This stuff is so disgusting,” she says, holding up a can full of chocolate pudding.

Behind her, Daryl lets the roof access door fall shut with a quiet click and takes a few steps closer. She’s watched him work his way down the street for the past thirty minutes, checking out shops that were already empty before she came to town. He and his group have got to be about ready to leave. Maybe, she fancies, he came to say goodbye to the crazy girl.

He noticed her up on the roof about halfway through and she just shrugged and kept watching him. Once, when a deadite snuck up on him, she killed it with an arrow through the brain. She really likes that compound bow. She would have let him get bit, but she’s not quite there yet, apathy wise. He’s still the only human being she’s talked to in seventeen days and… a few hours. Xander died in the afternoon.

He hands her back the arrow now, leans against the waist high wall next to her perch. “You’re crazy,” he says, but he sounds a lot less hostile than last time. Maybe his fearless leader sent him to recruit. He sure looks uncomfortable, standing there, thumb at his lips, hand hovering over his knife. Buffy twists herself sideways, keeps him in her line of sight.

She rolls the can between her hands. “You want it?”

He reads the label, shudders.

She laughs. Mom used to make the instant stuff for her and Dawn when they were kids. They’d eat it straight from the pot, all three of them, watch Disney films and stay up way past their bedtime. Dawn always insisted on the Lion King. After Mom died, Buffy bought this stuff, once. Canned pudding. She kept burning the instant and thought maybe this would be enough. Maybe it’d make things alright with Dawn, with that yawning emptiness where a mother was supposed to be.

She almost puked after her first spoonful, but Dawn loved the stuff. Never had any taste buds to begin with. She just kept shoveling until the entire can was gone and Buffy had to fight not to barf all over the sofa.

It became their own ritual, over time. Romcoms instead of Disney and canned instead of instant. She imagines trying to make instant pudding now, with expired milk over an open fire. She’d probably set herself ablaze.

She shakes the can, listens to the sickening slopping sound the pudding makes inside, then flings it at the man silently watching her.

He catches it. “Maybe the kid’ll like it,” she tells him, unthinkingly. “He’s that age, right?”

His eyes narrow sharply and she realizes she’s not supposed to know that they’ve got a little boy in their camp. Maybe he’ll shoot her. She’s a threat to his people and just proved it. She’d shoot herself, if she were him.

“I doubt his ma’d let him eat that shit,” he says, after a very long, silent minute of consideration. Apparently, he’s not shooting her. “Keep it.”

“Nah,” she shakes her head, refuses the offered can. “I’d barf.”

She only took the can out of sentimentality.

The next time she looks up at him, he’s chewing on his thumb, eyes narrowed in a squint. “’S bullshit,” he finally informs her.

“What?”

“You. Ain’t no-one out there didn’t lose someone. Don’t see ‘em goin’ nuts.”

Buffy looks down herself, her mismatched hands folded in her lap, one of them heavily burned from holding onto Spike as he went up in flame. At her ragged clothes, spattered with blood and gore. At the wild braid over one shoulder, leaves and debris stuck in it. Her belt of knives. She’s never looked more like the first slayer than now and, at the same time, she’s never felt more removed from her ancestor. Slayer without purpose. What use is guarding the gates of hell when hell is already here?

“What makes you think I lost someone?” she asks, too late.

His squinty glare is sardonic to the extreme, but he removes his finger from his mouth long enough to answer, “Found that cabin, out west. Found a box of PopTarts, too.” He says it quietly, almost respectfully. It’s the only reason she doesn’t kill him where he stands.

“Did you touch him?” she asks, voice sharp as razorblades.

He shakes his head, body tensing for the fight he can see coming. “Nah. Took the gun, though. No use to the dead.” Defiantly. Like he expects her to argue.

She wants to.

Xander would yell at her for denying a man a weapon to defend his people with.

People. Monsters. Buffy wonders where she stands, these days.

When Daryl understands that she won’t come flying at him any second, he takes a tense step back, relaxes a fraction. “He your man?”

“Brother-in-law,” she answers, unthinkingly. Xander loved the title. He kept calling her sister until she threatened to strangle him and Dawn watched, rolling her eyes so hard. And because that doesn’t feel like it’s good enough, second degree association via sibling, she adds, “He was my best friend.”

“That why you’re going up against herds on your own?”

She rolls her shoulders in a shrug. “I’ve been told my coping mechanisms suck.”

He snorts, looking her up and down derisively. “Wha’s tha’?”

They’re having a conversation. And actual, real conversation, Buffy realizes.

“Kill everything. Burn everything.” Another shrug. Keep going until nothing moves anymore.

Daryl throws a pointed look over the edge of the roof. Whole world out there to burn, he says, without saying a word.

She looks away. “You should take the damn pudding.”

He smirks at her, almost friendly. “Nah. That shit’ll make you puke.”

He takes it anyway.

+

5. Squirrel Tastes Just Like Chicken (That’s a Lie)

For the past few days, Buffy has widened her nightly patrols to include the ever-changing campsite of Daryl’s group. Not because she cares, not really. Simply because it’s something to do when nightmares keep her awake.

Something real. Something that reminds her of when her job still had a purpose. Of when there was still something worth protecting in this world. She thinks that, if she’d died first as she should have, she’d want someone to look out for her family, too.

That’s all.

It’s why she’s in the woods close to sundown, noiselessly moving between trees and wishing she’d taken the time to dress warmer because the weather has finally collapsed into the first stages of winter. The chill bites.

Maybe that’s why she misses the twanging of a bow releasing until the arrow it fired slams into a trunk less than three feet in front of and above her.

“Whoa!” a young voice whoops, excitedly, but still more quiet than any child would have been half a year ago. “Did you see that, Dad?”

Pinned to the tree by the arrow is a squirrel, its beady little eyes bugging out at her.

That kid just shot a squirrel.

He comes striding into view a second later, intent on unsticking his kill from the tree and, good god, they’re gonna eat that, aren’t they? But then an arm, his father’s, presumably, slips around him and stops him just before he gets within reach of Buffy, still half hidden by the dense foliage.

A sleeveless arm plucks the crossbow from the boy’s grip and within two seconds, it’s armed and aimed, Daryl squinting at her over the sights.

“What’re you doin’ere?”

Out. For. A. Walk. Bitch.

She giggles quietly to herself and repeats Spike’s words out loud. Well, the first four. “Seems the weather for it,” she quips, “you know, apocalyptic with chances of bloodshed. How can a girl resist?”

He mumbles something that sounds like ‘shitty coping mechanisms’ to himself and lowers the bow without putting it away. The man loosens his hold on the boy.

“You’re the one who gave Daryl food for us?”

Oh dear. Gratitude. She shrugs, hooks a finger over her shoulder at the dead furry. “Didn’t seem to last long if you’re eating tiny woodland creatures.”

The kid, who’s just about vibrating out of his skin with pride and excitement, finally buts out of daddy’s hold to skip to his kill. He gives her a wide berth, though, staying out of easy reach.

Smart kid, weariness in his eyes and a weapon at his belt. He reminds her of Dawn, fifteen and wielding a sword with one part skill and nine parts fear, too young and so damn old.

Buffy takes a large step back, away from the squirrel. The kid’s father and Daryl keep her within their sights anyway. She almost smiles. Almost.

“Food’s food,” Daryl announces and somehow, she musters the energy to keep up the easy banter, to return, “Yeah, but that’s a squirrel. Not food.”

The kid, offended, rounds on her. “It’s my squirrel. I’m not sharing!”

“Carl,” his father scolds, whether for being a sassy little shit or for talking to the potentially psychotic lady, Buffy doesn’t know.

“What’s squirrel taste like?” she asks.

“Chicken,” comes the answer, Daryl again. Rick and the kid – Carl – are both giving him looks, like he’s doing something out of character. Or maybe talking bullshit.

If everything tastes like chicken, Buffy remembers Dawn saying, what’s chicken taste like?

Ashes.

She shakes her head, dislodging memory and denying his claim at the same time. “Enjoy,” she offers to the kid, suddenly exhausted beyond measure.

People. She wants to be alone now. Turns to leave.

“You could stay with us,” Rick calls, as she takes the first step. “For dinner. It’d only be polite, after all you’ve done for us.” When she stops to look at him, he takes that as permission to go on. “I’m Rick, by the way. This’s my son, Carl. And you know Daryl already.”

“Buffy,” she answers, out of some leftover reflex, regrets it immediately. Daryl snorts.

“No.”

Rick nods, understanding. His hands wander to his son’s shoulders, holding on like a lifeline. “Then I guess this is goodbye. We’ll be leaving the area tomorrow.” He hesitates. “Thank you, Buffy. And good luck out there.”

He turns Carl and his squirrel back toward camp, leaving her alone with Daryl. She half expects him to say something, about going nuts, maybe, or about Xander.

Xander, rotting in that cabin, with a box of PopTarts in his lap and no gun anymore. For a moment, she considers going with these people tomorrow morning. Leaving this town. Leaving Xander. The last link she has to Dawn. To before. To herself. The thought leaves her dizzy, bile rising in her throat.

Daryl watches her for a long moment, the way a hunter watches prey. “Ain’t so bad,” he finally says, and while she’s still wondering if he’s telepathic somehow, he expounds, “Squirrel, I mean.”

With one last look at her, something almost friendly, he turns, shoulders tense as he gives her his back, moving away.

“Who’d you lose?” she calls after him, not really meaning to.

He grunts a question.

“You said we all lost someone. Who’d you lose?”

Silence. Then, “Ma brother.”

“D’you miss him?” Stupid question really. He glowers at her over one shoulder, but says nothing. Resumes walking.

“I bet it tastes like shit,” she finally mutters, petulantly, to herself. There’s no-one else there.

 

+

1. Hello Deer (That One Time Bambi Came for Dinner)

What she told Daryl on that roof is true. Kill everything. Burn everything. Keep going until there’s nothing moving anymore.

She grieved her innocence by burning down a gym, grieved Angel by razing a hell dimension to the ground, grieved him again by burning yet another school and on, and on, until she collapsed her entire town into nothing.

But this isn’t one enemy, one problem. This time, her grief can’t be solved by her usual mechanisms because even after a month in this damn town, she still finds hidden pockets of deadites. After a month, there are still more coming from elsewhere.

Always more.

The whole world is filled with them and Buffy is just one girl. A killer, yes, but even she can’t fight these numbers. She tries to do the math once. If the USA had around three hundred million people before all this and even only half of them are walking now, that’s still a hundred and fifty million walkers for her to slay. Not counting the ones that might migrate from South America or Canada, because she doesn’t think borders are really a thing anymore.

How many has she killed since this started? Five hundred? A thousand? Even if it were ten thousand, it wouldn’t make a lick of difference.

So here’s the ultimate question: what do you do when your usual coping mechanisms don’t work and the only exit on the highway to hell is blocked by a promise given to a dying brother?

“You knew this is how it’d go, didn’t you?” she asks Xander as she nails the busted window on his cabin shut, reinforces the door. Ignores the buzzing of flies.

Her pack lies a few feet away, waiting for her. “You knew,” she hisses, angry and half-laughing with it, because god. God. He knew she couldn’t live like this, knew her promise would stop her from not living at all, leaving her with only one possible solution. Another way to live. A way, perhaps, with trees in the desert and firemen to hold back the flood. He always knew her far too well.

She presses her hand against the door, takes a deep breath. She doesn’t thank him for making her do this, for forcing her hand from beyond the grave. Maybe she never will. This is the kind of world she lives in now, one without thanks or happy endings. Then she shoulders her backpack, and, machete in hand, sets off.

+

Daryl and his merry band of prey have a week-long head start on her, but it’s not like there’s many large groups of the living around these parts, anymore. She simply follows the widest swath of dead walkers for a few days, slayer stamina eating up the miles. Sometimes she detours, takes out a small herd here or there.

Then she gets back on the road.

Even with the cars, they can’t move fast because they have to find and clear out available shelters, have to secure them far better than she ever bothers. They have to loot for food and other provisions for nine, instead of one. By her estimation, they barely make ten miles a day.

It’s Daryl she finds first, because of course it is, slinking silently through the woods, crossbow in hand and a dead doe over his shoulders.

He stops as soon as he sees her, weapon half-ready, waiting. Gauging her intentions. Since Buffy’s not really sure how to say, “I promised not to die and I know I won’t manage to keep that promise for long if I keep going the way I have, because I’ll go completely bug shit crazy, so can I use you people as props to hold me up, please thank you?” out loud, she just stands there like an idiot. Waiting.

They both wait for a very long time, before he shrugs, a tiny twitch under the weight of the deer and says, “C’mon.”

The camp’s maybe a mile further and he carries his bounty without visible strain the whole way. He doesn’t complain, though, when she takes care of the straggling walkers they run into.

Once they reach the camp, he dumps his load by the small fire pit they’ve dug and hooks a thumb in Buffy’s direction. “Look what I found,” he announces and then turns around and marches straight back into the woods. Asshole.

“Buffy,” Rick says, looking surprised, wary, happy. All of the above. “How did you find us?”

She shrugs. “Followed the bodies with arrow holes in them?”

There is some shuffling around, uncomfortable with implications of the word ‘bodies’, maybe, or her blandness, hard to identify as what passes for humor these days. Crap, Buffy used to be good at people.

Rick finally nods and Carl gives her a little grin and he’s really sort of a cute kid, all bright-eyed and crap. His mother immediately tucks him tighter into her side and glares. Nice. Monsters. People. Buffy looks down at her hands again, one burned one not.

In her peripheral vision, Daryl slinks back into camp, settles against a tree. She’s stupidly grateful for his presence, as if she knows him any better than these people he runs with, and maybe she does. She knows how he fights, knows what he fights for. She knows the way he twitches away from movement and keeps constantly and always aware of everything around him, hyper vigilant and ready to lash out at a moment’s notice. Maybe she does know him, scars and avoidant gaze and all.

“Are you here to join us?” Again the group ripples, obviously not all on board with this development. Rick ignores them with the panache of a communist dictator.

She shrugs as nonchalantly as she can, wonders if this is the time where she enumerates what she’s done for them. Given them food. Saved what seems to be their only proficient hunter. Kept the town clean enough for them to return to it for weeks, although the probably wouldn’t believe that one if she told them. Or maybe they would. Daryl’s been around enough to have seen her taking on a herd or two. He must know, at least, some of what she’s capable off.

Slayer means killer and killing is all she does, these days.

She could rattle all those things off, but they know them already and she’s not desperate. She’s just… Xander. Damn him.

“Guess so,” she says, instead.

Lead Man cocks his head to one side. “You don’t sound so sure?”

“People,” she answers, a bit too slowly. “Not a big fan.”

The fifteen-year-old Californian cheerleader in her weeps. But really, what’s one more sobbing ghost?

“Then why are you here?” the teenage girl with the sweet, sweet face asks.

Safety in numbers, sleeping for more than two hours a night, peace, shelter, warmth. Survival, plain and simple.

“I made a promise,” she answers, darkly. She expects the girl to rear back from her angry response, but all she does is set her jaw and nod, like she understands that. Who knows, maybe she does.

Beat of silence. Then Rick nods to himself. Apparently, that’s good enough. He starts pointing out people, naming them off. The sweet girl is Beth Greene, the old man her daddy, Hershel, the young woman her sister, Maggie. The Asian kid is her boyfriend, Glenn.

Carl’s mom is Lori, the pixie cut is Carol, the black guy T-Dog, which, what? And that’s the intrepid team. There’s gaps in the way they sit, more ghosts in the spaces between them, where people used to be. Carol sits close to Carl, the way a mother would, but there’s no child for her in sight. Beth is young enough that there should be a mother for her, somewhere, too.

Daryl’s brother.

Willow. Giles. Faith. Andrew. Dawn. Xander.

Buffy nods at them politely, introduces herself with a curt, “Buffy Summers, hi.”

Rick puts a hand on his son’s shoulder, leans a little forward. “We have rules here, Buffy. No guns, no noise. You pull you own weight and you keep no secrets because secrets get people killed. And you do what I say.”

Dictator. She guessed right. Pack at her feet, she straightens herself out, answers, “I don’t use guns and I don’t play loud music after eight pm, no worries. I’m probably better at extermination than any of you and the only secrets I keep don’t matter anymore.” Takes a deep breath and tries to shake half a lifetime of being the alpha bitch. “I’ll even follow your lead, up to the point where you’re going to get people killed. That happens, all bets are off.”

She can see Rick’s mind working, evaluating. She likes that he doesn’t cockily assume that situation will never happen. He seriously considers her, how much he needs her, how much she needs them. In the end, though, he comes to the only possible conclusion.

“Alright. Sounds fair.”

That seems to conclude the formalities, because Daryl grunts in annoyance and makes his way to his kill, kneeling down with a knife in hand. He starts dressing the doe without comment or hesitation, leaving the others to back away a little from the gore.

Buffy stands in place for a moment, at a loss how to proceed, watching the hunter’s hands stain red with Bambi’s blood as he clears out guts, careful not to taint the meat.

Thumper will be awfully lonely now, she thinks, quietly starts humming Circle of Life without really noticing, until Beth giggles from a few feet away and joins in for a few moments, her voice sweet and clear. Their gazes meet across the distance and the young girl smiles.

“You know,” she asks, conversationally, as if they’re friends already, “I used to be a vegetarian.”

Against her will, Buffy laughs.

+

+