CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

There was a definite damp chill in the night air. The ground was moist and soft as Buffy walked along the tree lined embankment above the pond, Dodd following a few paces behind her. It was her third search of the area, and the teen had her doubts that anything new would be found. The elderly Watcher was determined to have a look anyway, so in spite of her reservations, Buffy respectively trudged along behind Dodd, her eye always on the pond, watching for any sign of the Rusalka demoness.

An hour into their search Buffy was ready to go home. She was feeling the cold through her light jacket, and had the beginnings of a headache, the latter brought on by the incessant, high-pitched peeping that came from the dozens of tiny frogs hidden in the surrounding marsh. Rubbing her arms to encourage some warmth, she sighed.

“I could sure go for a cup of hot cocoa,” she mused aloud. “Giles always brought along something hot for us to drink on nights like this.”

“I admit I hadn’t anticipated the cool temperatures,” Dodd countered. “Next time I shall remember to consult the weather report before we set out, and prepare accordingly. As for Rupert,” he continued, acknowledging her pointed reference to his colleague’s absence. “I don’t consider it appropriate to allow someone of his age to be traipsing about at all hours of the night. He belongs at home, in bed, where he can’t get into mischief.”

The Englishman stopped a moment, gazing down at the pond before him.

“And you say this is where you had your encounter with the demon?”

“Yup,” she nodded, gesturing toward the patch of tall weeds growing just off the shoreline. “Right out there.”

As the Brit frowned thoughtfully, Buffy sauntered closer to his side. “So, explain to me again,” she nonchalantly challenged. "Exactly why does Giles have to go back to England? Why can’t he just stay here?”

“Because the Council believes it prudent that he does so,” Dodd firmly declared gazing down at her haughtily. “And that is all you need concern yourself with.”

“What if you put a good word or two in for him,” Buffy suggested. “You could say you wanted him to help with research and stuff.”

“If it’s my qualifications that you doubt, Miss Summers,” Dodd returned, his tone curt and annoyed with her persistence. “You may rest assured, I have had all the necessary training to assume my duties as your Watcher.”

The teen pouted, rolling an exasperated eye skyward. It wasn’t Dodd’s expertise that she questioned. There was no denying he was smart. Granted, she did wonder how a man of his age expected to keep up with her physically, especially one against one in a training session. Plus, Dodd seemed way too rigid to her. And narrow minded. He was believer of rules and tradition, unwilling to defy convention, to think outside of the box. That could mean trouble for her, for as a slayer she was the queen of impulsiveness, and relied a lot on her heart and her instinct guide her, and not just her brain.

No, what had her worried was Giles. What would happen to her if he left? She had the others – Willow, Oz, Xander, Cordelia and Angel - to help with the slaying. But it was Giles who had always kept her headed on a straight track, helped her through battle after battle. He spent sleepless hours with his nose buried in musty old books, lending support and moral guidance whenever she needed it, fighting by her side through every crisis unleashed by the Hellmouth. And he did it, not because he was a Watcher, but because her was her Watcher, her friend. Giles was the adult confidant she relied upon for stability in a world rife with the insecurities of being an adolescent slayer living atop a Hellmouth. He was someone she could count on for advice, but without the associated judgmental criticism that came from being a grown up. She couldn’t say Dodd would afford her that same consideration.

The brittle crack of a twig split through the night. Throwing a glance toward Dodd, Buffy saw that the Brit was deeply involved in the inspection of a pile of party trash, and hadn’t heard the faint noise. Overshadowed as it was by the discordant buzz of night flying insect life and assorted noisy indigenous fauna, the brief snap would have been hard for most normal human ear’s to pick up. But her sharp slayer senses had caught it, and she responded instinctively, knowing it meant the possible approach of something dangerous.

Standing motionless, Buffy closed her eyes. Concentrating on the sounds around her, she began to selectively eliminate each voice at its source. First, the gentle wash of water lapping at the gravel beach below. Next, the amphibious choir hiding among the sedge grasses that grew offshore. Crickets and humming cicadas, the rumbling quacking of a duck family, and finally Dodd’s footsteps and the swooshing hiss of his cane as it sliced through the tall weeds, swinging back and forth like a scythe.

She was about to think she’d imagined the noise when a dry rustle drifted out from somewhere in the depths of the dark woods above her. Instantly the teen was alert. Her eyes flew open, and reaching into the back pocket of her pants she withdrew a sharpened stake. With the weapon clenched tightly in hand, she turned and advanced toward the tree line, every sense now acutely attuned.

Whatever was the source of the noise was coming closer. It descended the treed incline, moving clandestinely through the shadowy brush. Buffy tensed. She was certain that it was a vampire. The muffled footsteps were sure and stealthy, those of a skilled hunter with keen night vision. All the better for creeping up on an unsuspecting blood donor, Buffy thought. Well, not this time, Snaggle Tooth. Tonight you’re eating stake for dinner. Surging forward, Buffy entered the forest of shadows, rushing toward the vampire. Her eyes adjusted quickly to the dark, and she darted agilely through the maze of tree trunks, running silently over the tangle of roots underfoot. A dozen yards into the dense copse she saw it, a humanoid shape slipping among the trees up ahead. She raised her hand, aiming her stake at the creature’s chest, her feet flying across the uneven ground as she pounced upon her target.

“Hey, Buffy.” Angel’s voice lilted softly as he stepped forward to greet her. “What are you doing out here?”

Buffy slammed on the brakes, skidding to a halt, but not before her forward momentum threw her against her vampire boyfriend. She attempted to cover the nearly disastrous faux pas with an exuberant embrace, encircling Angel with her arms and giving him a squeeze.

“Hi!” She was panting lightly, her heart beating wildly with an excess rush of adrenaline. As Angel returned her impromptu hug, he cradled her slight body gently against his front.

“This a bad time?” he asked.

“Bad? What? No,” she replied, leaning back to smile at the vampire. “Any time I get to be with you is definitely of the good variety. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, nothing,” he shrugged unconcernedly. “Just some crazy notion I had that the pointy thing you’re holding at my back means I’m not welcome.”

“You mean this?” Realizing she hadn’t fooled him at all, Buffy stepped back, grinning sheepishly as she looked at the wood pike in her hand. “It’s nothing. What brings you out to this neck of the woods?”

“Heard the hunting was good out here,” he responded flatly. Buffy raised an eyebrow in question.

“It better be ‘wascally wabbits’ you’re lookin’ for,” she frowned, regarding the vampire as she twirled the stake in her hand. “Or I may be forced to use this on you.”

“There’s been talk of some heavy feeding going down in this park, especially along the path up there,” Angel explained with a nod toward the area above them. “Thought I’d patrol, maybe get lucky. Catch a little action.”

“Should have been here last night,” she remarked. “Saw a couple vamps myself. One of them almost got Giles.”

Angel’s expression grew concerned. “Is he okay?”

“About as well as can be expected, considering the circumstances.”

“Vampire attacks are unsettling,” Angel observed, his demeanor somber and introspective. “People as a rule don’t like being bitten.”

“That wasn’t the circumstance I was talking about,” Buffy said.

“There’s another circumstance?”

“Oh, boy! Is there ever,” the teen snorted sardonically. “And with a big emphasis on the boy part.”

At Angel’s puzzled look Buffy launched into an abridged explanation of Giles’ recent transmutation. She also filled him in about the Rusalka, the Scoobies’ search for the mysterious Waldo, and the new Watcher sent by the Council, the latter bit being related with less than gleeful enthusiasm and a petulant whine.

“This Dodd guy needs to go,” the teen complained bitterly. She turned and began walking slowly back toward the pond, Angel tagging at her side. “His whole ‘Hello! I’m Mr. Know It All’ routine is really starting to wear a bit thin.”

“Some people can take a little time to get used to,” Angel countered pragmatically. “You and Giles didn’t exactly hit it off at first, remember?”

“That was different,” she argued, but her tone lacked firm conviction. “Besides, you’re missing the point here. Giles shouldn’t have to go away.”

“I agree,” Angel sympathized. “If he wants to stay and work on reversing that spell, then that’s what he should do.”

“Try telling that to Dodd,” she grumbled in return.

They had reached the edge of the woodland. Stepping out of the shadows and into the open of the grassy clearing they were suddenly bathed in the silvery brightness of the moon’s light.

“All he cares about is what the Council thinks." She continued to rant, her voice oozing with bitter contempt. "The man thinks being original is the sin.”

The sound of their approach caused Dodd to glance up from the semi-crouched position he was in. Rising slowly, the Watcher turned toward the slayer, his face registering surprise at seeing that she was not alone.

“Another of your friends?” he intoned with icy disapproval. Dodd’s glare took in the handsome you man at her side. It was obvious that the two knew each other, and judging by their easy familiarity and the intimate proximity with which they stood side by side, they were very close on an emotional level as well.

“This is Angel,” Buffy said, introducing the two men. “Angel, this is Mr. Oliver P. Dodd.”

Smiling pleasantly at the elderly Brit, Angel hid any reservations he might have felt and extended a genial hand. Dodd accepted the gesture with perceptible hesitation, and a cool detachment. As their hands stiffly clasped an expression of alarm fell over the Englishman’s stern features.

“Angel?” Dodd’s lip almost curled beneath his trim mustache as he repeated the name. Releasing the vampire’s cold handshake, he took an involuntary step back, directing an accusatory glower toward Buffy. “Angelus?”

“One and the same,” the blonde teen replied.

There was no doubting that Angel’s identity made the Watcher uncomfortable, a fact that the teen regarded with smug enjoyment. Dodd knew who, and more importantly what, Angel was. Guilt, however, soon interceded, and Buffy had to reluctantly admit her little bombshell hadn’t been fair to Angel.

“But, not the same,” she added, attempting to make a hurried amend. “As in, he’s not evil. He’s good.”

The Watcher’s tone dripped with unrestrained contempt as he spoke. “Before leaving England I was briefed on this…alliance of yours. Highly uncommon. Not at all Bristol fashion.” Eyeing the vampire warily, Dodd continued with impersonal brusqueness, unconcerned with any propriety of civility. “I’ve also acquainted myself with the relevant Watcher’s journals detailing your various exploits. Yours is a very sordid past, indeed.”

“Everyone has a skeleton or two hidden away in a closet,” the vampire countered defensively.

“Yes, well, as I understand it,” Dodd sharply returned. “Yours’ number well into the thousands.” With a thump of his cane he dismissed any further conversation with the vampire, turning his attention instead to Buffy. “There’s apparently nothing to be found up here. Perhaps an investigation closer to the water will prove more productive.”

He didn’t wait for a reply or acknowledgement, moving briskly down the inclined embankment, his cane swinging as his long legs strode off toward the pond below, leaving behind one definitely miffed slayer.

Muttering, the teen shot a withering glare after the departing Englishman. “Think any of the other slayers ever fantasized about killing their Watchers?”

“There’ve always been rumors,” the vampire replied, tucking his hands behind him in thoughtful repose. “I heard there was this one girl, French, around mid-twelfth century, I think. They say she disemboweled…”

Seeing his story was inspiring an acid stare rather than any sympathetic camaraderie from the teen, Angel wisely cut the tale short.

“We can talk history later,” he suggested.

Buffy’s soft grunt signaled an end to the topic. “So,” Angel continued with deadpanned dryness. “He seems like a real friendly guy,” But Buffy had already moved on, venting about what she considered a more pressing problem than Dodd’s lack of personality.

“What’ll I do if Giles goes back to England?” she pouted, complaining to her vampire boyfriend. “England! Do you realize how far away that is? It’s, like, practically on a whole ‘nother continent.”

As he listened to the teen begin what promised to be a lengthy rant, Angel noticed something unusual moving out near the pond’s deep center. A silvery shadow was slipping silently beneath the water’s dark mirrored surface, gliding under the moonlight, heading slowly toward the shoreline.

“Uh, Buffy?”

“I don’t see why if the Council wants to talk to him, they can’t just pick up the phone and call, like the rest of us poor schmucks. It’s not like they don’t have Reach Out America minutes over there in England, too.”

“Buffy -”

“Oh, and another thing,” the blonde continued to ramble without pause, remaining deaf to the vampire’s attempt to point out the creature swimming steadily toward them. “Where do they get off sending me a new Watcher anyway? Okay, so, maybe the way he is now, Kid Giles isn’t cut out to run and play with the big boy demons. I’m on board with that. But, hey, Mr. Dudd isn’t exactly the unopposed heavyweight contender for the Hellmouth Championship either.”

“BUFFY!”

“What?”

She pouted, annoyed at his interruption of her tirade. Angel gestured succinctly toward the water. That was when she saw it, the undulating rippling, and a darting flash of paleness. Immediately, she recognized the shape moving beneath the pond’s dark surface.

Taking off at a sprint, Buffy scrambled down the embankment. Angel followed, lagging a few paces behind the teen as she raced up to Dodd’s side.

“We’ve got company,” Buffy announced.

“What? Ah!”

Dodd exhaled in excitement as he caught his first glimpse of the demon. What had been a gentle bubbling foam suddenly became an agitated eruption as the Rusalka girl’s head thrust upward through the effervescence. The demoness threw back her waterlogged tresses, her comely face lifting toward the moon overhead. Soft light washed over her glistening skin, highlighting her beautiful features, intensifying their radiant glow as the creature basked in the silvery gossamer rays.

Dodd seemed caught up in a spell as he gazed upon the young girl. His expression was one of wonder and curiosity. For several moments he studied the creature as it swam about in leisurely circles, its human guise remarkably convincing in its innocence and charm.

“Fascinating.” Dodd’s whispered complement accompanied the Rusalka’s execution of a graceful dive. “Quite the beauty, isn’t she?”

“Pretty little thing,” Angel murmured in agreement. A sharp ribbing from Buffy’s elbow prompted a further revision. “I mean, as demon’s go. If you’re into that kind of thing.” The teen wasn’t buying it, however, and the vampire tactfully redirected his conversation. “Rusalka, huh?” he queried the Watcher. “That’s Slavic?”

“Correct.”

In spite of his distaste for the undead creature standing at his side, Dodd couldn’t resist the opportunity to sermonize.

“Our fair maiden is a water divinity of Indo-European lore. Rusalki were originally thought to be the incarnation of drowned virgins. Ancient tales say that each spring these creatures would leave the underwater world to dance in moonlit fields with their heads crowned by garlands of flowers. Any mortal male chancing upon a maid was unable to resist the allure of her sweet voice and fell instantly in love. She would then entice him with promises of undying love and bountiful riches, but once he ventured into her aquatic environment he would drown, leaving the princess to seek out a new suitor, perpetuating a cycle of doomed failure. Or, so the legends say.”

Buffy chortled. “Wait ‘til Xander hears he missed out on a chance to be the Freshwater Prince of Fuller Pond,” she jibed.

“Unfortunately, the truth behind the fairy tale is decidedly less appealing,” Dodd frowned. “This particular variety of demon feeds by sucking the life’s breath from its victim. Once entranced by the Rusalka, her prey seldom escapes. Death is an ultimate certainty. Your young friend was fortuitous to have survived an encounter with this creature. Speaking of which -” The Watcher slid a hand into the inner pocket of his suit jacket and withdrew a pair of ear plugs. “Best put these in now.”

As the Brit inserted the small stoppers into his ears, Buffy confronted her vampire boyfriend. “Maybe you should bail,” she suggested. “When the lady sings, anything with testosterone becomes fair game.”

“It’s not like I have to worry about drowning,” Angel countered, voicing his intention to stay. “Vampires’ have no breath.”

“Right,” Buffy nodded. “Plus, being already undead, getting killed not a problem.” She turned, taking another look at the creature she was about to battle. “What do you think? Stake? Silver bullet?” She frowned, her brain rummaging for another possible solution. “Harpoon?”

“What does he suggest,” the vampire asked, inclining his head toward the Watcher. With a resigned sigh the slayer tapped the Englishman’s shoulder to get his attention.

Frowning dourly, Dodd removed one of his earplugs. “Yes?”

“The Rusalka,” Buffy said. “How do I reel her in? Any ideas?”

“The cross is reputed to be a protective deterrent,” the elderly Watcher replied. He ruminated a moment over the problem, calling up his previous research. “There are circle magicks that can be used to entrap the beasts, for purposes of enslavement. Spells, however, provide a temporary solution at best. The problem resides in the Rusalka’s supposed immortality. She simply may not be susceptible to the more accepted methods one uses to dispatch a corporeal being.”

“Yeah, well, in my personal experience most of that immortal crap is just that,” the teen said. “Demons talk real big, but usually don’t have the everlasting to back it up. If I had a dollar for every eternity of being that I cut short I’d be slaying here in a kick ass new outfit and the grand primo of chic in boots. I say, bring on the beast. Let her prove just how immortal she really is.”

“We shall pray your instincts are more reliable than our research,” the Watcher grunted. Using his cane to drag himself upward, Dodd climbed the steep, grassy embankment, the slayer and the vampire walking behind him. “And to that end, we have a reasonably varied choice in weaponry available to us.”

He led them up the hill to where, upon their arrival earlier that evening, he had left a large canvas bag beneath a tree. Before setting out on patrol he had gathered together an arsenal of weapons from the library’s stockpile. Unzipping the satchel he proceeded to spread out an eclectic assortment of genuine antique, medieval arms and working reproductions on the ground. There was a falchion sword with a wire wrapped leather grip and broad, curved blade. A long handled German voulge with sharp spike and scythe-like razor blade, and a Scottish dirk with a crisp edged eleven inch blade were both very utilitarian at getting the job done when the work entailed killing something nasty and evil, as was the wicked looking hunting sickle that she remembered Giles once telling her dated from a slightly earlier period.

Along with the stock and trade armaments were several items Buffy had convinced Dodd to purchase at a local hardware store on their way over to the park. The elderly watcher quickly discovered the most essential aide he could provide his new slayer was that of the financial variety. Buffy’s strange selection of tools and materials had set him back a pretty penny. He could only hope this was a one-time arrangement, and that in the future they would rely more on the ample inventory of weaponry that Rupert Giles had amassed in the library’s return cage.

Hunkering down beside the collection, Buffy began to rifle though the rest of the deadly looking arsenal in the canvas bag. She withdrew a coiled length of chain and several heavy-duty steel hooks. A fishing net came out of the sack next, and a small box full of hefty lead weights. There were also wooden stakes, a strange bolas-like contraption with metal chain traces and three spiked heads, and a tried and true favorite of hers, a crossbow.

With a practiced, fluid movement Buffy brought the latter weapon up against her shoulder and sighted her eye along its top edge. This was not one of those modern reproduction interpretations, all molded from sterile, brushed aluminum and used by amateurs and survivalist geeks. What she held in her hands was the real thing, a sixteenth century contraption of impressive craftsmanship, and one of Giles’ more recent acquisitions. Heavy and substantial, the antique wooden tiller was polished smooth from centuries of handling, with her Watcher being only the latest in a very long line of discriminating owners. As her fingers caressed the smooth stock and shoulder rest, tracing the elaborate etchings along the decorative pewter insert the weapon’s femininity and beauty was not lost on the teen. Giles had other crossbows, both large and pistol sized, but none was as finely designed as this one, or as perfectly suited to her smaller grip. In spite of its deadly connotations, this was definitely a ladies’ firearm.

Pulling back the crank-style cocking mechanism that set back the powerful bowstring, Buffy nicked a bolt into the firing channel. Angel watched as she loaded the crossbow, appreciating the speed and skill with which the young teen handled the weapon. There was no denying Buffy knew how to use the piece, so it surprised him when she stood up and held the crossbow out to Dodd.

“I assume you’ve handled one of these before,” she said, noting the Englishman’s confusion.

“Of course,” Dodd scowled, indignant at what he considered a questioning of his qualifications.

“Good. Just be careful where you aim it. Wouldn’t want some errant arrow hitting the wrong target,” she grumbled snidely with a ticked glance toward Angel.

“Much as I may not agree with this unseemly coalition you have formed,” the Watcher sneered in reproachful distaste. “The arrangement has apparently worked with some success in the past, so for the immediate interim I will set aside my personal reservations and maintain a compact of truce with this bete noire. However,” the Brit continued, his mustache fairly bristling as he delivered a scathing warning to the vampire. “One false move on your part, the merest intimation of wrongdoing, and I shall not hesitate to fulfill my Watcher vows and end your impious vicissitude.”

Angel took the cold threat with calm indifference, but Buffy was less willing to let the act of rudeness pass unnoticed.

“Don’t you worry about Angel,” she snapped curtly. “I can handle him.” Realizing her comment might be misinterpreted as an open double entendre, she nervously blurted out an immediate retraction. “Not that I handle Angel. With my hands. Or with anything. ‘Cause, I swear, there’s absolutely no handling going on between us. None whatsoever. Nada.” The anxious denial was answered by an uncomfortable silence from both men. With a sigh, the teen bent down and began to gather together the makeshift arsenal at her feet.

“Come on, Angel,” she muttered, thrusting a share of the load into the vampire’s arms. “Let’s go fishing.”

Scuttling back down the embankment, Buffy launched herself gracefully over the precipitous edge, leaping to the pond’s gravel shoreline with a soft grunt. After a second’s beat Angel obediently followed suit, his long block duster sweeping back majestically like a cape as he took the plunge. Holding the crossbow at ready in his arms the Englishman reinserted his earplug, and assuming his duty as guard atop the moonlit knoll, watched the pair walk down the shoreline toward what would become that night’s field of battle.

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