For those who have stuck with me, I am thankful and I want to dedicate my special surprise to them. Not only am I updating the story within 10 days of the last chapter (don't faint!), but I've completed two chapters! (Okay, this one got too long and I had to split it in half). I will update with the more exciting Chapter Eleven in a couple of days.
I have smelling salts if anyone needs them...
Chapter Ten – Emptiness
Buffy’s first view of Little Darrow was a brief one as her taxi ferried her from the station. It zipped through the tiny village without stopping to take in the scenery, but it was enough for Buffy to spot the landmarks of her dreamscape, stark and real in daylight. There at the end of the row of dainty cottages, the pub waited expectantly for trade. On the other side of the road, was the smooth expanse of the small lake, reflecting the sharp spire of the little church beside it. Its watery doppelganger was broken only by the wake from a young pair of swans as they danced together, necks entwined. Behind the church, the bare trees at the edge of the woods waited silently for the unwary to stray from the footpath.
From the village, it was a short, but scary drive to The Retreat. The taxi driver drove at an insane speed along the winding country lanes, seemingly without regard for the narrowness of the road or oncoming traffic, in a way that reminded her of the few times she’d experienced Spike’s kamikaze driving style. She was greatly relieved when they finally pulled up beside a large set of black iron gates.
“This is the place,” the driver told her, pointing to the gates.
Buffy looked out of the taxi window. From the road there wasn’t much to see. The gates were set in a high wall that sat firmly on the boundary of the road. Through the tall iron bars, at this angle at least, all she could see were some trees and a long gravel driveway.
“Thanks, how much?” she asked as she looked for her bag.
“Ten pound fifty, Miss.”
She handed over a twenty-pound note. She received back a waxy fiver and a handful of change, still uncomfortably warm from the driver’s pocket.
As she put it away, the driver added. “Good luck in there, Miss. And be careful at night.”
Buffy paused. “Why’s that?”
“I’ve heard things about this place; weird goings on and all that. And what with the disappearances lately…”
The driver nodded. “It’s been on the news. A few people in the area have vanished without trace. Just like that. There’s even a whole family missing in the next village; husband, wife and two young boys.”
“And no one’s found anything?”
“No, the police haven’t found a trace of them. It’s as if they upped and disappeared into the night. Took nothing with them. I reckon there’s a serial killer hereabouts.”
“I’ll watch out.” Buffy opened the car door and stepped out into the lane.
“I’d do that,” the driver leaned out of his window. “I’d say it had something to do with this place,” he waved a hand towards The Retreat, “but I haven’t heard of anyone coming up here for months. Not since that bomb in London. Killed a lot of them, didn’t it?”
Buffy avoided the man’s eye; the less she told him the better. She grabbed her bags off the back seat. “So I was told.”
He didn’t seem bothered by her lack of explanation. “Still, a lot of people round here thought they were into the occult. I hope you haven’t got involved with anything like that.”
Buffy smiled and shook her head. “Not really.”
“That’s good to hear.”
As the taxi pulled away, the driver waved in thanks and she was left alone in the quiet lane. She picked up her bags and walked over to the gates. On the post of local creamy stone, there was a small and neat brass plaque, now grimy and weather-stained with neglect, which read:
This was the right place.
She tried the gates, testing them with a shake that rattled them against their hinges. When they didn’t open, she searched for the padlock that had slipped through the bars and the matching key on the fob she’d been given. The gates clanged as they moved easily to her push, swinging wide as they opened onto a broad drive. It curved gently round a spacious lawn to the porch of an impressively large house.
The Retreat was, as Giles had told her, a small Elizabethan manor that had seen many alterations over the years, but that description hadn’t prepared her for the pretty reality of the old Hall. Built in strata of red brick and thick wooden beams, the house brooded silently in shabby Tudor splendour under the creeping ivy strands; all sharp gables, leaded glass and columns of twisty chimneys, rising skywards in a Mexican wave across the dark tiled roof.
As she trudged up the drive, Buffy noticed signs that the house had been abandoned for some time; the long grass of the unkempt lawns slowly returning to meadow; the gravel crunching under her feet, sludgy with autumn leaves unswept from the year before and turning to mulch between the stones.
The dark rooms she glimpsed through grimy windows as she passed were empty of life. Still furnished in the type of old fashioned finery the Council favoured, as antique as some of the Watchers she’d met recently, it looked like a dolls house, but life-sized and forgotten.
Buffy reached the grand porch that framed the large wooden door. It opened on elaborately cast hinges into a spacious hall, dominated by an enormous staircase constructed from dark polished wood. The only significant light shone in through an upper storey window, filtered through intricate leadwork windows that cast interesting patterns across the rooms heavy wooden panelling. The darkness of the walls and the thick heraldic tapestries seemed to close in, making the space feel gloomy and oppressive. She dumped her bags and felt around for the light switch, which she eventually found beside a looming coat rack. She turned it on, but nothing happened. Flicking it again to no avail indicated that the electricity was no longer connected. That wasn’t a great surprise to her, Giles had said that it might take a day or so. She’d just have to make a few calls to get the services running again. There was a phone on the reception desk to her right. She picked up the receiver and listened for the dial tone. Nothing. She added the telephone connection to the list of jobs she’d have to do; her cell phone would cover for now.
Moving through the Great Hall, she made her way towards where she thought the kitchens might be in search of candles. It would be dark soon and she didn’t want to get caught without light. A high, beamed ceiling formed a lofty arc over two long banqueting tables that spanned the Hall’s length waiting patiently for the feasts to return. From the tall walls, Council luminaries kept a vigilant watch, their portraits a millennium of testimony to their calling. Buffy took a moment to look at them. They were all Watchers; the vast majority men and there was not a Slayer amongst them. At one end, Quentin Travers, smug and sure in his fine leather chair, presided, as if he was the epitome of his profession. Buffy unhooked the picture and, once she’d found the kitchens, dumped it into one of the bins.
The kitchens were modern and the surfaces were of professional stainless steel under the fine layer of dust that covered everything. The place would need a thorough clean if they were going to use it. She tried the tap over a large Belfast sink to check the water supply. A gush of cool, clear water almost soaked her. There was no problem there. Further inspection revealed a number of utility and storerooms. In the laundry she found enough clean linen to make up her bed. The larder appeared empty of food supplies beyond a few cans of soup, but she found what she needed; candles, matches, a flashlight, and fresh packets of batteries in a utility cupboard.
From the stores, she explored the rest of the house. In the other wing from the Great Hall and the kitchens, she found a comfortable lounge complete with a well stocked bar that was still operable. The pumps promised a variety of beers and ciders, but what they poured looked stale and flat with age. Beyond that room, there were lecture halls and a vast library, which, judging by the disarray and shelves that appeared to be missing books, had been raided for its knowledge after the bombing. Back in the reception hall, she climbed the staircase to the second floor. Upstairs were dormitories, bathrooms and some more comfortable bedrooms, with facilities en suite. She picked one of these for herself and made up the bed. After her busy day travelling it looked inviting, and she lay back on the covers and sank into the fine pillows, staring up at the beamed ceiling. Keeping herself busy had stopped her dwelling on the conversation she’d had that morning with Willow. On the train she’d gone over what she’d said and had started the process of working through the raging tempest of emotions inside her, which were long overdue for sorting out.
It was easier to admit she loved him now that he was dead. In the past, she’d believed that if she could somehow categorise her feelings for Spike, keeping them separate from each other and away from conscious thought, she might be able to cope with them. Confused, conflicted, complicated, they’d taken a long time for her to acknowledge, but she could no longer deny that they had been there. Now that his evil past no longer cast its pall over the present, the mess of their turbulent history was irrelevant. It was effortless to love him when there was no moral ground to recover, no relationship to justify or plan out, no risk to her heart from the minutiae of his vampirism or the darkness of his past. But all that meant nothing now. She’d dumped him. He’d finally died. Death shouldn’t be enough to stop a survivor like him.
One day, if she allowed herself to be fanciful, she’d think she’d turn around and he’d be there as if nothing had happened. There were times when she thought she could still feel him; a movement in the moonlight, the feel of a soft arm around her as she slept, a ghost, a shadow at her shoulder, watching her back like he used to, a voice on the wind whispering, “Slayer”. She’d known they weren’t real, but she’d pull her coat tighter and feel warmer inside all the same, going over all the images of him that would stay in her mind forever. The night he’d first told her he would kill her. The first time they’d fought. The first time they’d fucked. His face the day she left him and again the night he'd tried to take her back by force. The night he had draped his flesh over a cross to cauterise his tormented soul. The way his sexuality, once so vibrant, had fizzled away, like a light put out, hidden away from her and the world, leaving her guessing if it was the soul or the shame that had caused it to retreat. The way she knew he wanted to look at her, release all that longing in his eyes, but wouldn't, if as he was too ashamed of what he'd done to give himself that much. The sweet smile as he relaxed with her on the final day, edged with a little pain, shyness or the loneliness he would never admit to, and that she hadn't really noticed while he was around, but missed so deeply now. They weren’t happy memories, but there were too few of those.
She pulled out her cell phone. It didn’t matter what she did or didn’t feel, life continued and he wasn’t coming back, whatever the stupid dream had said. Moping over the past wasn’t going to get the services back online. She flipped the lid of the phone open, but there were no bars on the display. No signal. Typical. She was going to have to find a phone in the village.
Previous parts are here.
Thanks as usual to hesadevil, calove and gamiila for the betaing.
It occured to me reading shapinglight's LJ, that people might be interested in progress reports of how I'm getting on with chapters. Are you?