Buffy Summers shivered and pulled the two cords of her hood, cinching the insulating fabric tighter over her head. She was sure her lips were blue as she trudged miserably through the snow. Her hands were buried in the pockets of her thick coat. Her fingers felt like they were going to snap off.
It was times like these that Buffy almost missed the Hellmouth. At least that kept the smart vampires from spreading out all over the world. At least it kept them concentrated in one place; and especially in a place that had a nice California climate. Stupid Cleveland hellmouth wasn’t even strong enough to stop a bunch of vampires from migrating to Finland.
She muttered angrily to herself as she went along. It was as dark outside as it had been for the last three days, and it would be that dark for at least three more weeks. Winter in northern Finland meant it was dark for weeks at a time.
Stupid Hollywood. Just had to go giving them ideas, didn’t it?
It took her almost an hour to make it to the target. It was a small village of not more than twenty or so small houses, situated on the western side of a large frozen lake. Buffy felt a new chill come over her as she approached. The lights were on in only a single home: the largest of the group. Every other house had been burned down. Her stomach clenched.
Something crunched in the snow to her left. Her nearly numb fingers curled around the stake in her pocket and she yanked it out in one smooth motion as she turned towards the sound.
It was a man. He was big and blonde, with the broad shoulders of a man who worked hard for a living. He held his hands up. Buffy narrowed her eyes at him. He was bundled up as she was, although he looked far more comfortable in the cold. Like many of the locals, he wasn’t even wearing his hood. She shivered at the prospect.
His breath was misting in front of his face, so she relaxed a little.
“You need to get out of here,” she told him, putting her stake back into her pocket. “It’s not safe.”
“I know,” the man said, the thickness of Nordic speech weighing down on his accent. “But they have slaughtered this village. They’ve slaughtered my people. I have to do something about that.”
He looked genuinely heartbroken. Buffy felt a lump forming in her throat. She knew exactly how he felt. She was here for him. She was here in his place, picking up the slack for him. She was here because she hadn’t thought to stop him.
She’d let him walk into places like this over and over again. He’d died doing it.
Buffy sniffed through a frozen nose and looked the man in the eyes. He looked down at her. He was nearly two feet taller than she was, and he had the strong and solid build of a man who was no stranger to physical labor. Still, he wasn’t a Slayer. She was.
“I’ll handle it,” she said. “I’ll deal with them.”
“There is a girl in there. Like you. She could not deal with them. Why do you think you can?”
Buffy stepped forward before the man could react. She gripped him by the front of his coat and easily lifted him off his feet. Then she glared up at his shocked expression.
“Because,” she said. “I’m a professional.”
“I believe you!” he hissed. She set him down again.
“You need to get out of here,” she said again.
The man shook his head. “No. I stay. Strong as you are, there are too many of them in there. You will need help.”
Buffy made to argue with him, but she could see he had that kind of stupid determination that meant he wouldn’t go away even if he might be killed. She had to struggle to keep her lip from quivering.
“Fine,” she said, and tried to keep her tone even. The lump in her throat was rising.
Xander would have died here. She had lost track of the retrievals she’d gone on since taking over his position. She had lost track of all the times she’d had that thought. He would have been killed in each and every one.
Except he wasn’t killed in those countless times. He was killed in the one right before them.
And she’d let it happen.
“What’s your name?” she asked the man.
Buffy nodded and looked back towards the house with the lights on. She took a deep breath.
Then she spun around and punched him right across the jaw. He crumpled towards the ground, but Buffy caught him and lowered him gently to the snow. She made sure to pull his hood up to protect him from the cold. She would finish this quickly, save the girl, and then come back to get him out of the cold. He was not going to die. Him, she could save.
She did her best not to think about Xander as she made her way towards the house. She tried not to think about the blood they’d found in that cave six months ago. It was too much blood. It was Xander’s blood.
The house was three floors high, but the only lights that were on were on the bottom floor. Buffy swallowed away the lump in her throat and approached it as quietly as she could. Every footstep made her grimace as the snow crunched not quietly enough. It took her almost five minutes to make it to the window at the back of the house. Buffy peered carefully into it.
There were seven vampires in the main room. One of them was laughing and shouting to another, so there was at least one more not in the room. The main room had probably once been a living room, but now it was situated with a single cot surrounded by six chairs. There were five dead bodies lying around the room, pale and bloodless. That made for at least eight definite vampires and five potentials.
There was a single living person in the room. She was sprawled out on the cot. Her legs had been shackled to the struts on either side of the cot. Her arms were strapped down at her sides. There were red puncture wounds running up the inside of each arm. One of the vampires was sucking blissfully on the inside of her wrist. Her eyes were staring vacantly up at nothing. The girl was twelve years old. She was a Slayer.
The sight of the corpses hadn’t made Buffy’s stomach lurch, but this did. She stared at the girl. She was extremely gaunt, and her eyes had a hollow, sunken quality to them. Her blonde hair had been chopped off, and there was a nasty gash running along her forehead and hairline. Buffy stared at her.
She was a Slayer. They were keeping her alive so they could keep feeding on her blood.
Buffy felt the lump forcing its way up her throat again. He would have been here, in her place. He would have seen this. He would have tried to stop it.
He would have been killed.
Tears stung at her eyes. She would stop it. That was her job. It should never have been his. She hadn’t stopped him then, but she could take over for him now.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer removed a stake from either pocket of her heavy coat. She placed them carefully on the windowsill, and then pulled her coat off, fighting the urge to shiver as she did so. She grabbed one of the stakes and slid it into the back pocket of her pants. She held the other in her left hand. Then, with the coat held in front of her with her right hand, she dove through the window.
The glass shattered inward as Buffy exploded into the room. She rolled as she hit the ground and threw her coat off to one side as a fluttering red distraction. The vampire feeding off the girl was the first one to get staked. He was already dusted and swirling around them when the first of the vampires reacted. He was big and blonde, probably one of the few local vampires that had been enjoying the winter darkness long before Hollywood had announced the idea to everyone. Buffy hit him hard in the chest with a stomping kick. He crumpled back, lacking even the ability to cry out for help as his lungs collapsed.
Two of them came at her from either side. Buffy kicked out at the one on her left while stretching her body and reaching around the thrown punch of the one on her right. Her hand twisted around his and she yanked him towards her. His momentum and her strength meant he careened past her and fell into the one she’d just side-kicked into the stairs. She quickly lunged at them and staked the both of them before they could get up.
She turned around and then ducked as a skinny woman with blonde-streaked black hair snarled at Buffy and slashed at her face with long fingernails. Buffy surged forward to tackle her and then decided to turn the tackle into a roll as they hit the ground. She somersaulted over the woman, sprang to her feet, and then snapped a hard kick across the woman’s face. Pieces of teeth sailed across the room, followed shortly thereafter by the woman’s body.
The last three that had been in the room tried to surround her. Buffy sprang at the closest one and landed a solid punch to his jaw. Then she executed a quick sweeping kick in a tight circle around her, tripping the second one. The third received a leaping uppercut that turned into a snapping kick across the face of the first one. She landed solidly on both feet, quickly staked the one she’d uppercut, and then brought her stake around and down into the chest of the one she’d tripped. The third vampire was still clutching his jaw and moaning when she punched him hard in the side of the head. He staggered into the wall, where she pushed his shoulder to turn his chest to her and then staked him.
She stepped back across the room and finished off the woman she’d punted, followed by the one whose chest she’d caved in.
That was when someone punched her hard across the face. She staggered to one side and managed to block the next three quick punches. A rush of air warned her about the kick coming from her side, and she brought her arm up against her side to block it. It hurt, but she grunted and ignored it. She had to focus. There had been three vampires in the adjacent room, not just one. And they knew how to fight. The one in front kept throwing quick punching combinations, and because the other two were closing in on her from either side she couldn’t afford to use her arms to block the punches. She had to dodge and weave the attacker from the front while she absorbed hit after hit with her arms and sometimes her legs from either side. Every once in a while she got a solid hit back at one of them, but not enough to even the odds or find an opening.
They were trying to wear her down. They were going to keep at her until she dropped. They were going to kill her the way they would have killed Xander.
She saw the cave. She saw his blood. It had been everywhere.
They had killed him because she wasn’t there. He should never have been there. Not alone. Not at all. It was her responsibility. It shouldn’t have been his.
They were going to kill her.
“Don’t you know who I am!?” Buffy shouted. Then she dove at the one in front of her. She took the hard punch to the face and barrelled into him anyway, knocking him down and tumbling onto the ground with him. She threw quick punches into his sides as they rolled on the ground, doing her best to keep entangled with him so the other two couldn’t go after her, but not so entangled that those fangs could get at her. She wasn’t entirely successful, and received a harsh bite to her left hand during the scuffle.
Of course, he got staked for his trouble.
She was on her feet in the blink of an eye. Her left hand wasn’t gripping very well, so she held her stake tightly in her right hand as she glared at the final two vampires. One was another big Nordic type, although this one had short red hair and a messy beard. The other one was a tall woman with broad shoulders and a square face. They both glared at her.
“Dinnertime’s over,” said Buffy. She adjusted her grip on her stake. Then she sprang at the big man, intent on shoving the stake right into his heart. He caught her hand by the wrist and threw her bodily into the wall. She crashed through it and into a small bathroom.
The female vampire said something to the male, but it wasn’t in English so all Buffy could understand was the mocking tone of voice. Buffy was still pulling herself out of the rubble when something grabbed her by the hair and hauled her out of the hole. The woman was grinning triumphantly as she shoved Buffy against the wall. Her hand went around Buffy’s throat. It was tight, unforgiving, and hard as steel. Buffy grabbed at her arm with one hand and gasped for air.
“Little girl,” the woman said in a thick voice. “You taste good.”
Then she opened her mouth and let her fangs extend. She hissed with desire and brought her face towards Buffy.
Buffy reached up with her other hand and grasped the woman’s arm. With a grunt, she snapped the bone in half.
The woman screamed. She tried to pull her arm back, but Buffy held onto it too tightly. She continued to hold onto it as she thrust-kicked the woman directly in the abdomen. The woman’s arm popping out of her shoulder socket was audible even over her screams. She tumbled back, grasping her dislocated and broken arm.
Buffy looked up to see the man staring wide-eyed at the woman. She took advantage of his momentary lapse in concentration and dove across the room for her one of her stakes. She was three inches from it when the man grabbed her by the scruff of the neck. His fingers dug into her, threatening to snap her neck in his meaty hands. She was lifted off of her feet.
And then she fell back to the floor. Where had once been the redheaded vampire, there now stood a large blond man. He had a small hammer in one hand. The wooden handle had been filed into a stake. Dust was swirling around him.
“Golmen?” Buffy said, gasping.
“Look out,” Golmen said. He pointed behind Buffy. She turned and saw the last vampire, the woman, struggling to get up. Buffy strode across the room, picked up her stake, and quickly approached the woman. She kicked her across the face, causing the woman to sprawl out against the floor, after which Buffy drove the stake through her heart.
There was a moment of peaceful silence marked only by the sounds of Buffy’s heavy breathing.
“You are hurt,” Golmen said. He indicated her bleeding left hand. Buffy held it close to her body.
“You’re conscious,” she replied.
He smiled at her. “I am.”
“You shouldn’t be. You could have been killed.”
“I might have, if I had slept in the snow any longer.”
Buffy scowled. “You were safer out there.”
“I was, but I don’t think you were. Don’t you think this was a bit reckless?”
Buffy shook her head and approached the girl on the cot. The straps holding her wrists down had dug into the flesh. Buffy wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Pride, that the girl had fought? Horror, that she had finally given up?
“It’s not reckless. It’s what I do,” she said as she began undoing the straps. The girl on the cot said nothing. The only thing suggesting she was at all aware of her surroundings was the way her chest began to rise and fall a little faster. Buffy lightly touched the girl’s forehead and said in a quiet voice, “It’s okay now. You’re safe.”
“Yes, you’re safe now, Loviisa,” Golmen said. He approached the girl as well and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry we could not come sooner.”
Buffy finished undoing the rest of the girl’s shackles, and then gently put an arm under the girl’s back. She lifted her up into a sitting position. The girl flinched away from Buffy, her eyes darting around wildly.
“You’re safe now,” Golmen said again.
The girl stared at him. Her big, childlike eyes filled with tears. She lunged at him, her arms wrapping around his chest. Golmen shushed her quietly as she wept into his shirt. His big arms held her with supreme gentleness. He looked like a giant compared to her, and yet Buffy knew this girl could crush the big, strong Norseman in her arms.
Buffy looked up at Golmen’s face. “You know her?”
“No,” he replied. He held the girl a little tighter. It was a chaste and loving embrace. “But neither do you, and you helped her anyway.”
She felt tears stinging at her eyes. She thought of the blood in the cave. She thought of the last thing that she had ever said so Xander. You don’t have to do this.
“I couldn’t do anything else,” Buffy whispered.
Golmen smiled at her. “Maybe. But I don’t think you have to do it alone, Buffy.”
“What? I never told you my name. Who ar--”
“Just a friend.”
Bright white light filled Buffy’s vision.