Sorry this has been so long, I first wrote the wrong chapter, then this one was painfully difficult to write and wouldn't stop! I had to split it half in the end. Still that means the next two chapters are both pretty much done and only need some polishing work. I may get back on schedule get!
Okay, believe me when you see it. :)
Chapter Sixteen – Circles
As she sleeps, his cold hand strokes her face with the lightest of touches, fingertip feathers floating over the slope of her cheek. Long fingers, bound in silver goth-punk rings, run through a twirling lock of her hair as they gently tuck it behind her ear, out of the way of his seeking lips. His kiss is adoring, yet hesitant, afraid to wake her, stealing this moment of calm as he thinks she dozes.
She sighs, smiling into the downy pillow. She remembers this. His light touch, his sweetness; the way his large hands could make her feel so cherished in the rare moments she’d let them. They make her feel safe now. They’re here to protect her.
“I’ve missed you,” she whispers to this dream.
She turns and opens her eyes. She looks up eagerly to meet his. She wants to see him again.
But he’s not there.
Buffy drifted awake, opening her eyes to a very different reality.
“Spike?” she asked tentatively, sleepily. Hoping against hope.
There was no answer. As expected, she was alone. She took a deep breath, choking back the hollow ache of sorrow, there was no Spike anymore, no comforting arms of vampire coolness, no miracle this time. He had left the earth forever - she had to remember that, even if a world without him annoying someone, somewhere, was impossible to imagine.
He’d been on her mind a lot, what with The First taunting her from within his body, it figured that he’d turned up in another dream. Yet there was something else. His ghostly caress had felt so real and she could still feel it as it faded upon her skin. Something had touched her. Only a brief, fleeting brush of fingers across her cheek, but it had been there, just like the spectre that had tried to strangle her in the night.
The more she thought about it, the more she was sure. She sat up in the big bed, checking around for more evidence of evil influences or the ghosts of the house playing their wicked pranks, hoping that maybe she was wrong and it had been Spike reaching out to her from the beyond. The room was quiet. Nothing appeared to be lurking amongst the elegant old furniture and antique bric-a-brac that seemed to occupy every available shelf, and there wasn’t anything near her that she could have mistaken for the touch of a soft, loving hand. With disappointment, she concluded that it could only have been another of The First’s ghosts invading the sanctuary of her dreams. Less with the horrific this time, more with the tease - a nasty phantasmal trick.
She slipped out of bed and pulled open the curtains. All looked serenely normal outside, as if she hadn’t just had the night from hell. It was getting towards mid-afternoon; the sun had reached its zenith and had begun its slow meander down towards the horizon, but she turned her back on the sinking sun and padded to the gloomy bathroom, relieved that her sleep had held no more horrors, just more cruel reminders of a love she’d lost.
Her face in the mirror was a crazy Picasso patchwork of light and shade. Dark marks clouded the skin beneath her sleep-puffy eyes like sable shadows. An elaborate choker of death, fingerprint petals circled her throat with a roseate necklace of fading snapdragon bruises where she’d been attacked. She looked pale and drawn, as fragmented as her reflection, broken up into bits by stress and fatigue. The marks on her neck were proof that the events of the previous night had been more than the savage nightmares she’d hoped they’d been. The ghostly disturbances seemed distant now, but still they cast a long shadow over the waking world, as if they’d appeared in a fragile, dreamlike reality where such terrors faded away in the daylight like smoke. Yet Buffy knew the world of the night too well and she knew she couldn’t fight this alone.
Enough was enough. She needed to leave. In a few short days, the Retreat had ceased to be her refuge from the evil rattling at its gates and had become her prison, cold and confining in its isolation. She was no longer felt comfortable in the old house. But whatever she did, she couldn’t abandon the village.
The First needed to be put down for good this time. She’d bring back her own army.
Buffy took to the footpath again, but this time she avoided the damned village, heading instead out across the farmland in the opposite direction. She hoped to reach the next town before the night drew in again. She didn’t believe it was going to be far, she’d spotted groups of lights across the fields from the windows of The Retreat, and everywhere she’d been in England had been dotted with settlements. There had to be someone still living nearby, The First’s macabre influence couldn’t have reached far - not yet.
The sky above her was a low blanket of heavy grey clouds, their dark bellies quickening with rain. They cut out the sun, stifling the world with an oppressive twilight, as if the day had never broken into dawn. Under their looming shadow, she followed the path along the boundaries of the fields and over quiet, overgrown farm tracks until, after she’d walked a few miles, the rain finally started. Not the thin, miserable drizzle she had become used to, but thick, solid curtains of water that swept across the landscape in great waves and soaked through her coat to her skin.
Sullenly, she pouted at the sky and got a face full of water. She screwed her eyes shut and made a face, “Ugh. I hate this sucky British weather.”
She turned up the collar of her coat, wishing, for the first and only time, that Giles had persuaded her to buy a warm practical raincoat rather than the slinky red one she’d found on Oxford Street. She walked on, following the line of the hedgerow until it broke at a battered metal gate, which had sunk into a patch of mud made sticky and smelly by dairy cows passing through on the way to milking. There was no herd to be seen through the rungs today, but she could see the silent beacon of a church steeple, which pricked the sky as it rose up over a dense band of thick woodland, and where there was a church there had to be people. Real live living ones and not their walking undead corpses.
Buffy avoided the cloying mud as much as she could, daintily picking her way through the worst looking bits to save her boots, all the time wishing for concrete and roads and other nice city things. She clambered over the gate and rejoined the footpath while she planned what she was going to do when she reached the new village. The pub would be open now; if the village had been turned, she would soon find out there. Maybe they would have a roaring fire and a nice Mocha waiting for her. And coverage for her phone - she could call Giles in comfort and have a good dinner while she waited for reinforcements. It sounded like a great plan.
The prospect of warmth and food made her spirits rise and she quickened her pace. The field climbed uphill for a while, and then dipped down onto a steep but shallow slope on the leeside, where the path skirted the edge of the wood. She was almost running by the time she reached the lane at the bottom; keen to reach the cottages she could now see beyond where the deep ruts from the tractor tyres became twin trails of black mud across the tarmac. The lane wound past the farmhouse, a pretty chocolate boxy building with a wide gate and a collection of barns beside it, to a crossroads lined with a group of houses built so close to the road that their front doors opened right onto the street.
But before her stood a sign on the verge and it read: ‘Little Darrow'.
Her heart sank. “Oh crap.”
Cold, wet and defeated, she trudged unhappily into the village, which was ominously quiet in the lashing rain, which beat down on the darkened houses as if a personal grudge. Bitter and relentless, the water came at her with all its seething fury, the raindrops stinging as they hit her face. She suspected more than a whiff of magic about this. It had to be a spell. She knew, one hundred percent, that she had been walking away from this village when she’d left. The footpath had not curved or deviated, and she was certain that it had not turned back on itself. She had followed it straight for a mile or two, there was no way she could have ended up back in Little Darrow without some magical intervention. She knew exactly who was to blame.
She couldn’t figure The First out. Its plans baffled her. Something wasn’t right. It had always been such an up close and personal villain, a nuisance, invading her space and her home, an unwelcome and uninvited guest - much like the owner of the flesh and bone it was now inhabiting had been, she supposed sadly – but there had been a change since the events in the Hellmouth. It had never once tried to enter the Retreat, preferring instead to taunt her within it’s own domain. It kept its distance now, using those over whom it held dominion to terrorise her. With this new body and an army of vampires at its command, she couldn’t imagine the limits of what it could achieve. But despite all its bluster, it hadn’t even tried to kill her. She’d escaped their every meeting with only its laughter to wound her. Even in the Church it had let her go. She realised with a rising dread that it was waiting for something. It was obvious. It was trying to keep her here, manipulating the landscape and the weather so she couldn’t leave until the appointed time, whatever that was.
The rain was now like acid to her already unhappy mood. She wanted to kill something to vent her frustration, preferably on something impersonating the dead and bloodsucking. But although the sky was almost dark enough for vampire complexions, it was daylight and evil still slept.
Nonetheless, she was determined to look. Small as it was, there were still parts of the village she hadn’t seen. From this approach, she discovered that it held other treasures. Nestled between a defiled War Memorial and the burnt out remains of the Church Hall, she found the village store. The people inside had tried to barricade themselves from the horrors outside but the door had been broken open with some force and there were bloody, watery footprints on the step. They hadn’t been successful.
An old bell tinkled jauntily as had entered, alerting the two vampires guarding their hoard inside. The shop had been trashed. Some of the shelves had been ransacked; some had just been destroyed for the fun of it. They sat in the middle of a floor strewn with porn magazines and the kind of lewd tabloid newspapers that Xander had found particularly interesting during his short stay in England. They were young, male, barely teenagers, thirteen or so she guessed, and dead before they’d even had a chance for their voices to break.
One looked up guiltily from the pile of chocolate they were both systematically stuffing into their mouths. Though a clumsy mouthful of Cadbury’s Crème Egg, he managed to splutter, “Shit, it’s the Slayer!”
“That’s me.” She pulled out her stake, daring them to rush her. These two would be hardly be difficult. She would have to find more. “Sorry to interrupt your little slumber party, I need to stake you now.”
They tried to run, each heading in opposite directions. A good strategy, she thought, but within the confines of the small shop they couldn’t make a quick getaway. Buffy dusted the first vampire before he’d barely got to his feet, planting the stake through the shiny polyester of his jacket and firmly into his heart. The other vamp made a break for it, using the time it took for his friend to vanish to scramble over the counter and out into the back of the shop.
Buffy smiled, if this one was going to make this a chase of it, maybe she’d get a decent slay after all. She gracefully vaulted the counter and followed the vamp through into the dark depths of the storeroom. It was cramped, stacked high with stock, and he used the tight space to his advantage, ducking down the narrow alley between the boxes. When he reached the far wall though, he was stuck, left with nowhere to go but outside. He wavered for a moment, stalling for time, and then pushed over a tower of tinned vegetables to slow her down while he darted out of the Fire Exit. As they fell, the tins broke free from the thick plastic film that bound them together and spilled under her feet.
“Ow!” A heavy tin of peas rolled under her foot and turned her newly healed ankle. She stumbled and was sent sprawling amongst the dented cans.
While she was picking herself up, she heard a frantic yelp of pain and surprise. The double doors framed the vamp as he searched desperately for shelter from the sun he was too new to remember he was supposed to hate. He’d already started to smoke even in the weak light that penetrated the storm clouds, but the rain made no safe shadows. He was trapped, caught between the fires of immolation and the pointed end of the Slayer’s stake.
The choice was made for him as soon as he begun to sizzle and sprout with tiny flames. He screamed. Buffy saw the wild panic in his eyes as he turned back and dashed inside again to seek shady safety, only to receive a swift kick in the gut from her muddy boot. He crumpled from the blow and she flipped him neatly onto the floor, her staked raised and ready.
“Don’t kill me!” he begged, shielding himself with his hands.
She snatched him up by the collar. “And why should I do that?”
“I know stuff! Put me out!”
“You hardly smoking anymore.” She grabbed a three pack of tea towels from a box and patted out the last flame on his face. He had a few nasty looking burns, but his jacket had prevented his upper body from even smouldering. She pinched a bit of the fabric between her fingers. It was coarse, shiny but felt cheap. “Ugh. What is this made of?”
“Dunno, but my mum said it was flame retardant.”
“You know, you should really start dressing yourself,” Buffy took hold of him again. Back to business. “Okay. What do you know?”
The vampire wriggled in her grip, its amber eyes darting about, looking for escape.
She raised the stake again. “Oh no you don’t.”
“There’s ghosts in your house!” it snivelled, its eyes on the stake not on her.
She rolled her eyes. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
“There’s a thing in the attic,” he gibbered. “A magic circle or something. A sigil. It attracts all the ghosts from around here. They’re supposed to drive you mad.”
“Yup, it’s working. I’m getting really mad now.” She gave him a shake for emphasis. “What else?”
The vamp shook its head. “Nothing! We’re not told us much, only to make sure you don’t try to leave. Please don’t kill me!”
“Sorry, it’s my job.” She plunged the stake in. A moment later a bitter cloud of smoky dust that had puffed up in his place and made her cough. “Ew. Flame grilled vamp.”
She wiped the dust from her hands with the tea towels and stood up. She needed to get back to the Retreat as soon as possible; she had a sigil to destroy. But as she turned for the door, her empty stomach growled, reminding her that she was surrounded by food.
Suddenly, she was ravenous, the missed meals of the last few of days catching up with her all at once. She ripped open a few boxes to see what she could find, sampling the goodies she found. There was everything she needed; bread, vegetables, fresh meat - though that smelled a bit iffy, - and cheese, loads of it!
She bit into a thick wedge of Mature Cheddar and smiled. Maybe tonight wasn’t going to be a big pub dinner, but it was still going to feel like a feast.
Previous parts are here.
This time my thanks go to myfeetshowit for the beta.
And my best wishes go to hesadevil who isn't well. Get better soon! And calove who's lost her muse. If you find him can you send him back asap?