disclaimer in first part
Interlude: Conflict of Interest
"I wanted to kill him, Giles," Buffy said. "It wasn’t a ‘temper’ or a ‘fit of pique’ or any other way you might want to Britishize it. I didn’t want to just slap his face and move on. I wanted to kill him."
After a silent, sullen, and quickly-eaten dinner, Buffy had fled the UC Sunnydale campus for Giles’ house, where she now sat on his couch, staring into space with a cup of hot cocoa (which Giles now kept along with his tea) cooling in her hands. Giles sat in a nearby armchair with a cup of Earl Gray, listening. Xander and Anya, who had also stopped by for a visit—and to sell magazine subscriptions—listened from the kitchen, where they were preparing their own snacks.
"Very well then," Giles said. "I shan’t try to ‘Britishize’ it. It’s a good thing Riley stopped you."
"Is it?" Buffy demanded.
"The world has only one Slayer, Buffy," he began. Then he paused for a moment, recalculating. "Well, two, but the other went rogue and is now in a coma."
"Which should serve as a warning to you!" Anya called from the kitchen.
Giles sighed and bowed his head, as if praying for strength. "Anya, please. This is serious."
"I wasn’t kidding. I was trying to assist you in delivering your high-minded lecture."
Giles sighed again.
Anya turned to Xander. "That wasn’t the appropriate response?"
Xander shook his head. "Giles likes to do his own high-minded lectures. Nice try, though."
"This isn’t a joke, Xander!" Giles snapped. "Buffy is no use to the world from a prison cell!" He turned back to Buffy. "And even if you thought you could get away with it, turning your powers on humans is a path you don’t want to start down."
Buffy leaned forward and locked eyes with him. "Actually, I think I do."
Giles was taken aback. He stared back at her, trying to formulate a response, until Xander dropped onto the end of the couch opposite Buffy. "I know it’s not a joke," he said softly. "You’re the one who’s not getting it. Buffy’s the Slayer. She’s supposed to fight evil. So she goes out every night and she kills vampires and demons and all the oogie-boogies that go bump in the night. But she runs into this human monster, and she can’t touch him."
"Racism if you ask me," Spike called from the bathroom.
"No one did," Xander called back.
"Come on—seriously! If it was me pulling this shite, I’d already be dust."
"Remind me again why you aren’t?" Buffy called menacingly.
That shut him up. Xander continued after a moment’s pause to be sure that he wouldn’t be interrupted again. "In fact, not only can’t she touch him, as the Slayer, she has to protect him."
"There are human institutions…" Giles protested weakly.
"They’re failing," Anya interrupted. "They always do." She sighed as she sat down beside Xander. "By the horns of D’Hoffryn, I wish I still had my powers. This is just the kind of job I could get creative with and really enjoy."
For once, this oft-repeated wish was met with nods and murmurs of agreement. After that, the conversation fell into a lull, and probably would have moved on to another topic. After all, no topic, no matter how dire, can occupy all of a person’s attention, all of the time. In fact, Giles was just opening his mouth when the phone rang.
"Let the machine get it," Giles said, although no one had moved toward it.
"You have a machine?" Buffy teased.
"There are some pieces of twenty-first century technology that even Watchers approve of," Giles grinned back.
The phone rang four more times, then there was the click of the machine picking up. "Hello. This is—"
Willow’s voice came on over the recorded message. "Buffy, are you there?"
"—Rupert Giles. Please leave your—"
"Buffy, if you’re there, please pick up the phone."
"—Name, number, and message—"
"Giles, if Buffy’s not there and you see her, please send her home. I mean, our room."
"—at the tone."
Willow’s voice broke. "Something awful has happened."
Giles leaped up and reached for the phone, but Buffy was already out the door.
They hadn’t seen a single vampire that night.
Probably ‘cause they’re all in hiding, Willow thought as she watched Buffy pacing the graveyard plot. Which they are, if they’re smart. But then, how many vampires have we ever met that are smart? I mean, how many figure out that Buffy’s the Slayer and then run away? Ohhh no, they just keep coming.
"I don’t believe this town," Buffy said for the third or fourth time, interrupting Willow’s reverie and giving the being-smarter-than-usual vampires yet more warning. "I mean, the ‘gangs on PCP crap’ is bad enough—how many gangs and how much PCP do they think there is floating around in this town?—but suicide? How many people commit suicide by stabbing themselves in the throat with a barbecue fork?"
"Probably not a whole lot," Willow allowed sadly. "But I think they were able to pull it off this time because, well…they had a better-than-average candidate for suicide." She glanced at the grave that Buffy was pacing in front of. The grave that they had come for. Sung’s grave.
Buffy ranted on as if she hadn’t heard. "And where did all that blood supposedly go?" She demanded.
"We don’t know, because there was no autopsy." Willow said bitterly. Again. It was both a reminder and an agreement.
"Which doesn’t look at all like a cover-up," Buffy growled. "Uh-uh, nothing like it."
"What I can’t believe is that the city went and buried her right away, before they even contacted the family." Willow declared heatedly. "Bureaucratic mix-up my hiney. I’m glad her family is suing. I hope they take Sunnydale for everything it’s got."
"But that won’t matter," Buffy countered. "Because they’ll just counter-sue and block and delay and keep the Olsens from digging Sung up until she’s either dust or decayed and either way their asses are covered!" With that, Buffy spun around and kicked the nearest thing at hand—a gravestone, which sailed off into the night in four big, broken chunks and an assortment of granite powder and splinters.
Buffy stood still for a moment, looking at her handiwork. Then she said "ow" in a tiny voice and limped over to sit beside Willow.
"You know you just lost the right to ever pick on any guy for punching a wall," Willow said.
"I know," Buffy said. "That’s okay. I think I understand why they do it now."
"Did it make you feel better?"
"A little. For a moment."
"Wow," Willow said wistfully. "Maybe I should try it."
Buffy shook her head. "I wouldn’t if I were you. I’m the Slayer. You’d probably break something."
"Maybe you could—I don’t know, blow something up," Buffy suggested.
Willow shook her head and sighed. "Too much work. Doesn’t have the same primal impulse factor."
"Oh. Sorry, then."
Ordinarily, Willow probably would have continued with something about it not being Buffy’s fault that she was all unbreakable. Instead, she just nodded and they fell silent for a moment, staring at Sung’s grave.
"I hate this part, Will," Buffy said softly. "When they first rise from their graves, they haven't done anything wrong. Did you ever think about that?"
Willow shook her head. "But they will," She pointed out.
Buffy nodded. "Yes. They will. Because they always wake up hungry and they’ll go out and kill and eat somebody if I don’t kill them. So I do. And it’s easy—hell, it’s exciting. It’s almost fun. If I don’t think about it."
"Think about what?" Willow prompted. She had a pretty good idea what Buffy was going to say.
"That they used to be somebody," Buffy answered. "That’s easy when it’s just some stranger who I never met before they were a vampire. But this is Sung Olsen. I’ve met her. I maybe even know her a little. I’ve tried to help her. But now—" She paused. "She was victimized once, when she was alive, by Date-rape Darren. Then she was victimized again by the vampire, and it killed her. Now, if she rises up out of that grave, I’m going to have to kill her again, even though she hasn’t done anything wrong. Yet. And that just sucks beyond all telling."
Sung Olsen didn’t rise up out of her grave that night. Buffy greeted the sunrise with a sigh of relief, shook Willow awake, and returned to the dorm.
That day, the case against Darren Edwards the Third was dropped for lack of a plaintiff. Buffy gritted her teeth and spent the next three hours destroying one of the punching bags in the Initiative—and that night slaughtering as much of the vampire population of Sunnydale as she could get her hands on—but resigned herself to the fact that he was going to get away with it. There wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it. She was the Slayer, he was human, he was out of her jurisdiction. Case closed, however disappointingly. Move on.
The next few weeks were bad ones for the women of UC Sunnydale. For the first thing, Phi Kap had a big party to celebrate Darren being cleared of all charges. Bad enough. But there was worse to come.
"Two dozen. In the last three weeks," Willow said, hitting one last key on her laptop, then turning it around to display the colorful screen to Buffy and Riley. "That’s a spike in the graph, even for Sunnydale."
Riley leaned across the table—one of the round iron ones outside the student union—then leaned back in his chair and sighed. Buffy kept looking intently at the graph Willow had drawn, one where a red line came to a sharp peak while a blue line remained flat. "And all of the extras were female students here at UC Sunnydale?" She asked.
Willow nodded. "The program allows for the standard background level of deaths, disappearances, and random badness in Sunnydale. It only shows deviations from the norm."
Buffy nodded in acknowledgement. "Any connections?" She asked.
"Other than they’ve all disappeared?" Riley said. "Just one that we know of. They all left very similar notes: ‘I’m sorry, I won’t be back, don’t come looking for me’—something like that. I can get copies from the evidence locker if that’ll help."
"It may," Willow said, turning her laptop back around and starting to tap at the keys again. "I’ve tried everything else, and I haven’t found a single common denominator. They’re all different races, different economic classes, different physical types, different class years, a couple different nationalities…I’ve looked and looked, but they don’t share a single factor."
"They do share one," a voice from behind them announced.
All three of them whipped around.
"Parker! Hi!" Willow greeted him. "We’re just—uh, we’re—"
"That’s okay," Parker said, sitting down at the table. "I won’t ask you any questions, so you won’t need to tell me any lies."
The other three fell silent and watched him warily. Without a word, he pulled Willow’s laptop over and examined the screen for a few moments, grim, unsurprised confirmation on his face. When he was done, he pushed it back to her. "You two are freshwomen," he said, nodding at Willow and Buffy. They both scowled, but nodded back. "And you, Finn, you just transferred in this year. That’s why you don’t know." He pulled the laptop back over and turned it around to face the other three. "Every one of these girls," he said, tapping on the screen. "Is someone that Darren got to."
Buffy, Riley, and Willow gaped first at him, then at each other in astonishment and horror.
"Oh, my God," Willow breathed.
"Thank you, Parker," Buffy said, in a way that was clearly a dismissal, if a grateful one.
"Glad I could help," Parker said, rising to his feet.
"Parker," Riley called before Parker could go far.
"How long did you eavesdrop on us?" Riley asked.
"Just the last couple seconds as I was walking up. I was coming to talk to you about that anyway."
"Why?" Buffy asked.
Parker shrugged. "It’s hard to miss what’s been happening around here. I just figured that this was the kind of helping people you were good at." With that he turned and left.
"Willow?" Buffy said as she watched Parker go.
"Remember when Sung told us that Darren sent her across campus, by herself, at four in the morning?"
"When she said that, I wondered if he was hoping she’d get eaten, so he didn’t cause her any trouble later."
"But she didn’t," Willow said. "So she did. Get eaten. Cause trouble. I mean—oh, you know what I mean."
"Right," Buffy agreed. "So now that he’s got real trouble for the first time, just how far would he go to make sure it went away? There’s plenty of Hellmouthy things that like money just as much as anyone. Vampires come to mind. Maybe that barbecue fork was paid to stab her in the neck."
Riley frowned doubtfully. "I don’t know," he said. "Darren’s definitely a suspect, but why take it that extra step? Not everyone in Sunnydale knows about HST’s. Especially not people like Darren who just came here for college."
Buffy shrugged. "Call it a hunch." She paused for a moment, looked at Willow, then grinned sharply. "Better yet, call it a hypothesis. Now I go out and start gathering data, see if the evidence supports it."
Riley was momentarily dumbfounded. Buffy put her hands together and bowed to Willow, who did the same in return.
"I, and High-school science, have taught you well, young grasshopper."continue