Just like to say thanks to Cutiepie, Phidan, SeshatTeirm and Whitewolf for helping me correct the “Buffy/Elizabeth issue. And thanks to every one who reviewed the last chapter – it’s helping me to stay on track.
It was the light, seeping through the gaps in the blind with insidious fingers that finally woke her up, spilling across white cotton and causing her to bury her head under the pillows with a groan. But it was insistent and eventually she pulled herself out of bed, padding across stripped wooden floors warmed by the light, the wood giving slightly under her feet, comforting against her bare skin.
It was very quiet in her flat, the bare minimalism and the lack of furniture that should have echoed every sound instead somehow hushed them, giving the whole place an ambience that was closer to that found in a church or a shrine, rather than the normal habitat of a twenty something woman. But this was her place, her haven and her refuge, and the almost contemplative silence acted as a balm to a spirit that was often in sore need of it.
The light was bright outside and she winced as she pulled open the curtains in the living room, hooking them back as she unlocked the French doors and yanked them ajar. The sun poured in eagerly followed by the distant sound of traffic and the far louder and closer yakking of the birds in the garden as a number of them tried to engage in a territorial dispute.
She slipped out on to the balcony, the concrete cool and rough under her toes and leaned on the railings, just enjoying the view for once, the cool, green beauty of the garden below and the myriad colours of the heath beyond it, its boundaries already shimmering at the edges with the promise of another hot day to come. London in August. The dog days of summer, stretching out across a city that treated every warm day as a potential holiday, and which despite the increasing frequency of such heat waves over the last few years steady fastedly refused to do anything sensible about dealing with them, such as installing air conditioning as standard. It was a very British way to deal with things – just ignore it and it would go away.
It was strange she mused, how aware you became of the weather when you moved out of California. There she had almost taken the sun for granted and it was only when Sunnydale had been destroyed and they had taken up the watch over the Cleveland Hellmouth that she had started paying attention to the Weather Channel. And it was only after Nepal that she had really gained an understanding of exactly how deadly snow and cold could be. She rotated one shoulder lazily, feeling the slight residual stiffness that was the only mark left of what could have been a terminal lesson in exactly how deadly snow and ice, and their respective demons, could be. But at least she didn’t ever have to worry about freezing to death any more. Oz had taught her how to deal with that.
Her mouth lifted in a fond smile at the thought of her friend. There had been an email from him waiting for her when she finally had got back to London last week, he having finally persuaded the monks that being on the web was not in conducive to achieving enlightenment. In typical, laconic style he had mentioned briefly how he and his assorted pack of monks, werewolves and shamans had driven off a pack of Lor’cha demons that attacked the monastery, and also how he had finally just about mastered the finer elements of cooking mixed vegetable Tarkari, giving equal weight to both events. Balance. As he kept telling her it was all about balance. Something that she at times sorely lacked.
She pushed off from the railings with a sigh and went in, to start the next part of her morning routine.
Putting aside her morning coffee she stretched out on the mat, moving through the set of kata poses that she and Oz had established so long ago and far away, where the wind whistling through the halls of a monastery hidden on the roof of the world. Then she slipped down into the lotus position and sank down into herself, seeking that core, that deep peace of stillness that her friend had taught her to look for, hidden far below the tumult of her heart. Sometimes, when she was really deep in herself it was as if she felt his hands on hers, a brief flash of the slight smile and the calm approbation of the wolf man, who was in all honesty the only person these days that she trusted without reservation. And once or twice when she had gone deeper still, she had been sure she felt warmth and the presence of others who reached out to touch her, part glimpses of lovers passed, the brief caress of the loved dead. But despite all the times she had tried she could never touch back. She always surfaced from such trances with tears pouring down her cheeks but it was moments of such piercing clarity that kept her searching and praying. Anything not to feel so alone.
It could have been an hour, or only five minutes but as she started to surface again she knew there was someone in the apartment with her. The combination of high end security and the ward spells that she had one of the Devon Coven witches place on the apartment meant that it wasn’t going to be someone physical or with malicious intent. Consequently she allowed herself to finish the last few stages of her meditation before she opened cool green eyes, tipping her head back to survey the semi-familiar figure standing in her living room, only a raised eyebrow telegraphing her surprise.
The balance demon chewed on his cigar and nodded to her in greeting.
For a moment they just looked at each other, Buffy noticing how little he had changed from the first time they had met, Whistler seeing the changes that time had wrought on the petite body of the original Slayer, the faint hint of scars under golden skin, the clean lines of her face, the softness that had been so prevalent transmuted into something hard and beautiful over time. Blondie was looking good, at least physically, taut muscles sleek under silken skin, the plain white yoga pants and vest top causing her skin and hair to glow golden in contrast. But it was the eyes that worried him. Cool green and absolutely neutral. No joy, no love, no sorrow. Just blank. And from a woman who used to draw strength from the power of her emotions it was a worrying development. He chewed on his cigar anxiously. The Powers needed her in top shape for this next assignment and just now it looked like she was running on empty.
Buffy glanced to one side, breaking the deadlock and sighed. When she turned back some of her weariness must have shown on her face, because for a moment she thought she caught a flicker of something almost like compassion on the demon’s face before he slipped back behind his usual sardonic mask.
“What do you want, Whistler?”
He almost winced at the resigned note in her voice. Usually by now she would have been all spit and fire, but now she was just ashes.
“The Powers need you to do a job for them, Slayer.”
She raised a cynical eyebrow and stretched out her legs, slipping into a split, feeling the pull in the tendon she had strained yesterday.
“Why me? There are a lot of other candidates for the Powers to mess with these days.”
She was referring of course to the other 480 + slayers that the newly resurrected Watchers Council International had identified and brought into the fight after the destruction of Sunnydale. Surprisingly the numbers seemed to hover around the 500 mark despite natural, at least for slayers, attrition, girls hitting puberty and gaining abilities as others fell in the fight. Even with the weight of numbers slayers still died, just not so many and not so young. No body ever said the life of a slayer was meant to be an easy one or long lasting.
Buffy shifted again, pushing her forehead down to her knees, then to the ground before straightening to fix the balance demon with an irritated stare. He shrugged her ire off easily, unbothered.
“You know why, Slayer. We had this discussion.”
Buffy glanced away again, reluctant to acknowledge the truth of his words, but forced to nevertheless. She remembered that “discussion”, or screaming row if she was to be honest, with Whistler explaining how the spell that Willow had cast was only effective through her, rather than being as she had previously hoped, a way to activate each slayer on an individual basis. She smiled sardonically. Despite all her struggling to throw of the mantle she was still “the “ Slayer, the source and fountain, and it would only be with her death that the pure Slayer power would dissipate through all the other slayers without going through her first. Which to be honest, kind of sucked. And also put paid to any thoughts of a happy semi-retirement. And even though sometimes she had contemplated it in the early hours of the morning, suicide was anathema to her. Not to mention that such a selfish act would probably bar her from the Heavens she still dreamed of. So she was stuck. Stuck as the Slayer and stuck on Earth – her purgatory.
“So? So what? The Powers think I’m special. Well whoop de do. Let them go and find another dog to jump through hoops for them.”
She knew she was behaving like a brat but to be honest she couldn’t care less, an almost incoherent rage beginning to bubble up inside her from the depths of her soul. How dare they come to her with yet another thinly disguised order? What did they want her to sacrifice now? Her friends? Done that. Her lover? Done that as well. Her life? Done that twice. Didn’t she deserve some peace? Why couldn’t one of the other hundreds of slayers take over the burden for once? Why couldn’t she just rest?
The demon’s voice held just an edge of reproof and she glared up angrily, noticing with abstract satisfaction how he winced away from the fury in her eyes.
For his part Whistler was almost glad to see the rage, even if it was directed at him at the moment. Anything was better than that dreadful dead neutrality. She would need all that fire and more in the months to come. He shrugged at her unspoken accusations, continuing as though he hadn’t noticed her show of emotion.
“You’re the Champion, Slayer. Them’s the breaks. None of the others can take up that mantle. Not even if you die. They may be slayers, but you’re still the Slayer. It’s your job to hold the balance.”
He glanced down at her, noticing how those mint green eyes darkened as she was reminded of the likely fate of all Champions, and especially that of the most recent, her ex-lover, Angel. He watched her swallow and then raise her chin stubbornly, refusing to give in to the pain welling just beneath the surface.
“Spill it. That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it? Just dump the misery in my lap and bugger off.”
Whistler raised an eyebrow at the very British profanity. Obviously the Slayer’s time with William the Bloody had left an imprint. He pulled the cigar from his lips.
“The Powers wanted me to warn you. There’s a big evil coming soon, but not a normal one like you’re used to dealing with. This one comes from outside our normal sphere of operations and you’re going to have to work with some pretty unusual people to get it done.”
He ignored her snort of disbelief at the mention of unusual people. Admittedly the people she dealt with on a day to day basis tended to be pretty unusual, but this was a whole different ball game.
“Listen to me here, toots. This is serious stuff. These creatures want to enslave the planet. It’s not just your normal apocalypse stuff. These are the big guns. You’ll need an army for this.”
She was still looking at him cynically, scepticism pouring off her in waves, but then she shrugged, pushing up from the ground and wandering over to the fridge to pour herself an orange juice. He noticed that she didn’t even consider offering him something.
“I’ve got an army. Let them come. “
She took a slug of juice, staring at him, just daring him to challenge her. He spread his hands placatingly.
“If you say so, Slayer. But I got to tell you, that that army of yours? They’re going to need a General.”
She looked back at him with burning green eyes and he was suddenly aware of all that she was; all the depths of pain and experience, the thousand fights won and the hundreds lost, the casualties scarred on her soul and the tactics engrained as instinct. What a stupid statement to make. Of course her army had a General. Otherwise what had she been doing to herself over the last 11 years? For that’s what she was – Penthesilea - Queen of the Amazons.
She put the emptied glass down on the countertop with a decisive clunk and fixed him with an angry green stare.
“You can tell the Powers that this big threat?”
She shrugged in a supremely Gallic way.
“Bring it on. This is my turf. Let them come and we’ll see how many go home again.”
And for a moment, staring into those implacable green eyes, Whistler wasn’t too sure; who he should be more wary of – the threat to the planet, or the solution.
Daniel shifted nervously on the sidewalk, switching the wrapped book from one hand to the other and rubbing his suddenly sweaty palm against his pants. The house in front of him was large and imposing, set back from the road with a walled lawn in front of it, and shaded by mature oaks. It breathed peace and money and tranquillity and he suddenly felt a little ridiculous, turning up unannounced like this. He should have just posted his present. But the chance to meet his mysterious rescuer face to face when he wasn’t concussed had been too tempting to resist.
He had stalked triumphantly into the SGC; 24 hours after Janet had banned him from base, waving the precious library card like a victory banner. Once Jack and Sam had got over their initial surprise they had immediately pestered him to get in touch with the girl, recognising that without some form of closure Jackson was liable to continue to worry at the problem for weeks. And although the Colonel’s eyes still held an element of scepticism regarding the whole Ascension/heaven issue he was at least willing to admit that Daniel’s “Mystery Mirage” seemed to have turned out to be a flesh and blood girl after all.
It had only taken a few minutes of Sam at a computer before he had an address and even though he had been tempted, he had declined when Sam offered to dig even further and pull up data on his mystery blond. It had seemed a rather underhand thing to do, investigate her like a suspect when all she had been was a Good Samaritan. Even if she had been a rather unusual one. Instead he had booked a few days leave, an occurrence so unusual that General Hammond’s eyebrows had almost taken up residence on the back of his head at the request, and then had taken the first flight to Cleveland. But now he was here he really wasn’t sure what to do. Should he simply slip the book through the letterbox and hope she responded to the message left inside? Or should he just knock on the door and introduce himself? After all it seemed rather pointless to come all the way to Cleveland and then not see her just because he hadn’t been invited.
No – he should hand it over the book in person and apologise for any trouble he might have caused her. And if she queried why he had come all the way from Colorado to Cleveland just to say thank you – well he already had the business trip cover story down pat. He shifted the book back to his other hand and walked up the gravelled path, taking a minute to admire the beautifully landscaped yard. Somebody had obviously spent a lot of time and effort on it. In fact from the condition of the whole property it was clear that whoever lived there had lavished the place with tender loving care.
He hesitated as he reached the door, noticing the small engraved brass plaque on the wall, the late afternoon sunlight gilding it so he squinted to make out the copperplate writing. “W.C.I – North American Headquarters.”
He frowned. The address Sam had pulled up hadn’t mentioned this place as anything but a private residence. Perhaps he had the wrong address? But no – this was definitely 36 Sycamore Creek. Stranger and stranger. Maybe she worked as a live in caretaker? Feeling even more foolish he pressed the buzzer twice, hardly expecting anyone to be in. After all it was a Saturday and even the most workaholic office tended to close down on the weekend. Surprisingly soon he heard footsteps thundering down a flight of stairs and then the door swung open, leaving him face to face with a short Asian teenager who immediately started counting out some money.
“So that’s the Pepperoni hot, with the extra mushrooms and the mixed vegetable….”
She looked up from counting out the cash, did a double take, craned around him to check for a vehicle, a pizza van presumably, then stuffed the money back in her pocket and smiled sheepishly at him.
“Hi – sorry. I thought you were the pizza guy.”
She shrugged eloquently in a quintessentially teenage fashion and actually looked at him properly for the first time, taking him in, polite wariness replacing her earlier bounce.
“Can I help you?”
He smiled at her, attempting to look as harmless as possible.
“Yes actually. I’m looking for a Ms Summers. A Buffy Anne Summers. Is she in?”
Her face creased in a frown, fine black brows arching together over almond eyes.
Yup – she was definitely suspicious now.
“My name’s Daniel Jackson. I met Ms Summers about a month ago and I was wondering…” his voice trailed off as she turned in the doorway and yelled down the hall.
She then turned back and fixed him with a repressively pointed finger.
“You. Wait right here. I’ll be back.”
Caught by surprise he merely nodded dumbly as she shot off like a bolt of energy back into the house. A few minutes of opened doors and yells followed before two sets of feet padded back along the hall towards the door. This time when the Asian girl eeled around the doorjamb she was followed by an older man, with an eyepatch over one eye and short black hair. A keen brown eye gave him the once over and then the older man gently shoed the younger girl away.
“It’s okay Kaylie. I can handle this.”
The girl – Kaylie, shot Daniel another suspicious look as though she suspected him of being about to cause unwarranted mayhem, and turned back to the older man.
“Are you sure, Xander? ‘Cause I could just stay, just in case…”
The man gave her an amused smile and chivvied her away down the hall.
“I’ll be fine. I’ll yell if I need you.”
As she trotted back down the hall, shooting Daniel one last, suspicious stare, the older man turned back to face him, his expression coolly polite.
“I hear you are looking for a Buffy Summers?”
Daniel almost stumbled over his words in his eagerness to get them out. At last – someone who seemed to know his mystery blonde.
”Yes – that’s right. I was told she lived here.”
The other man frowned slightly. “Who told you? ‘Cause we’re not exactly in the phonebook.”
Daniel smiled sheepishly and proffered the lost library card.
“No one did, actually. She dropped this when I, ehmm, met her.”
The other’s man’s eyebrow shot up in a way that reminded Daniel of Jack, as he took the offered piece of plastic and then he smiled slightly as he saw what it was.
“Hah. Her library card. No wonder she didn’t know it was missing.” The small smile vanished as looked up again, but he seemed a little more relaxed.
“So, where did you meet Buffy anyway? I don’t think I’ve met you before and I know most of her friends.”
Daniel glanced down at the doorstep sheepishly before meeting the other man’s gaze once again. “It was in Colorado Springs. She, ehmm, rescued me from some muggers.”
For a moment the younger man looked blank and then recognition dawned. “Yeah! She mentioned you. She said you got pretty messed up.” He gave Daniel a cursory once over. “You seemed to have healed up nicely.”
“I have, thank you. But I appreciate that I got off comparatively lightly. Thanks in a large part to Ms Summers intervening when she did. I just wanted to say thank you.”
Xander, stuffed his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels slightly, regarding him with a marginally more friendly stare, tinged with amused curiosity.
“Let me get this right.”
He raised an eyebrow at Jackson. Yes – definitely amused now.
“You came all the way from Colorado Springs just to say thank you?”
Daniel shrugged slightly, projected unconcerned urbanity with all his might.
“I was in town anyway for business, and I thought I would use the opportunity to thank her in person.”
The younger man was clearly not convinced, a slight smirk hovering around the corners of his mobile mouth. But he forbore to pull Daniel up on his story, simply nodding in tacit acceptance. It was one of the few times that Daniel really wished he was a better liar. Jack would have swanned in here and whitewashed the issue so convincingly that he would have ended up believing his own cover story. But Daniel….Daniel flushed and felt guilty and was terribly aware of the truth sitting on the edge of his tongue, just desperate to be spilled.
“So, would it be possible to speak to her?”
Xander looked sympathetic, probably at the slight edge of hope in Jackson’s tone, but shook his head.
“Sorry, man. She’s out of the country just now.”
Jackson’s shoulders sagged as the nervous adrenalin poured out of him in a rush. He had been so sure…
Xander caught the brief dash of despondency that flashed across the other man’s face, and moved by some impulse he couldn’t name, he tried to extend a helping hand.
“She’ll be back in a few weeks, if you can stay until then, or come back…” his voice trailed off as Daniel shook his head, regret etched across his face.
“I can’t. I need to be back at work. And I don’t think I’ll be able to come here again any time soon.”
Xander grimaced. He knew what it was like to build your hopes up to something and then have them dashed.
“Well, if you want to leave a message or something, I’ll make sure she gets it.”
Normally he wouldn’t have bothered Buffy with the random declarations of a stranger who turned up uninvited at the door, unless of course it was prophecy related. But there was just something about this guy, something familiar; a sadness like that all the survivors of Sunnydale seemed to carry with them to a certain extent. This stranger had the same feel, perhaps even to a greater level than most, and somehow the melancholy edge to his eyes brought to mind the deep wistfulness he frequently saw in the Slayer’s eyes when she thought he wasn’t watching. And anyway he seemed like a nice guy. Pretty good looking as well. Obviously not a vampire due to hello – sun! And the lack of burning. And Buffy needed to expand her social circle. Hell, Buffy needed to have a social circle to expand.
Daniel looked down at the wrapped book in his hand and hesitated. He really had wanted to give it to her in person, but if this was the best option… He held the wrapped present out to the other man, who took it carefully, and rubbed his now free hand across his forehead.
“Can you just tell her – thank you? And that my email is inside the front cover is she wants to get in touch?”
Xander nodded and on impulse stuck out a hand, which after a moment’s hesitation Daniel took. They shook and Xander, still moved by that strange sympathy, pulled out a business card from his back pocket and passed it over.
“If you want to come back, you can just give us a call to check if she’s here first. I’m Xander Harris. My number’s on the card.”
Daniel glanced briefly at the card and stuck it firmly in his jeans pocket for later examination.
“Daniel Jackson. Nice to meet you.” They exchanged tentative smiles, each man unexpectedly recognising someone who could potentially be a friend in the other. Daniel smiled again, a little wistfully and turned to go, but Xander’s voice stopped him half way down the path.
“See you later Daniel. Hope you enjoy the rest of your business trip.”
He turned back to find Harris smiling at him again, the wry edge now tempered with something like sympathy. Daniel raised a hand in acknowledgment and continued down the path. If he was lucky later would be sooner. But knowing his luck….he signed to himself. It looked like his mystery blonde would remain mysterious for a little bit longer…
A few days later Buffy unwrapped an airmail parcel from Cleveland, containing a small parcel with an attached note in Xander’s messy and angular scrawl.
A guy came to the door to deliver this. He said his name was Daniel Jackson and that you knew him from Colorado Springs. He just wanted to say thank you ‘cause you helped him out. He said his email’s in the book if you want to get in touch. He seemed like a nice guy. Maybe you should?
Hope the London weather is good. It’s as sticky as all hell here (no pun intended).
See you soon,
She pulled the wrapped parcel out gingerly, slayer strength making short work of the paper and turned it over. It was a small hard back, bound in brown leather, quite old by the look of it, with the shabby bashedness that comes from being lovingly handled over a long period of time. She traced the gold letters on the cover wonderingly.
Marcus Aurelius– Meditations.
She flicked open the cover and rifled gently through a few pages, smelling the musty smell of old book. A few lines caught her eye….” From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else…” and her lips quirked in rueful recognition. Intrigued, she turned back to the front page. There was a brief message, obviously newly written, in a bold and curving hand, inked above a carefully printed email address.
It can’t cure the sadness but it can make the weight of it more bearable. If you would like to talk please email me. Earth need not be hell just because it’s not heaven.
Thank you for my life.
Buffy read the message again, and then once more. Thank you for my life. How long had it been since someone had said that to her, actually thanked her for anything? Suddenly curious she curled up on the couch, cup of coffee near by and settled down to read.
A few hours later, eyes still slightly bloodshot from an earlier bout of tears, she sat down at her computer and logged onto her email, unsure exactly what she wanted to say, but knowing somehow, that she wanted to reach out for the first time in a very long time.
Carefully she started to type.
...Hi. My name is Buffy Summers. I don’t think we were ever formally introduced…