CHAPTER TWENTY

Oliver P. Dodd had over fifty years of training as a Watcher and a veritable lifetime of experience in the service of the Council, but everything he knew fled in the face of what looked like the grim uncertainty of his continued life. He was under the assault of two very formidable demons, each savage and deadly as any supernatural hellbeast could be. With their twin toothy visages and nightmare inspiring snarls they produced a seizing throe of terror within him. He could feel his body shaking, his legs quivering, threatening to give out their support at the moment he needed them most.

In a brief flash of clarity the Watcher remembered the weapon in his hands. As the slayer raced toward him and dove to the ground at his feet, he swung the crossbow upward, taking aim. A trembling finger squeezed the trigger, releasing an arrow. The missile took flight with a satisfying twang, whizzing over the blonde’s head to find its target.

Buffy heard a sickening thunk of pierced flesh, followed by a guttural groan that told her Dodd’s arrow had struck something firm and solid. Rolling onto her side, she tucked her legs and vaulted nimbly to her feet, fist clenched, prepared to confront the wounded Rusalka. Instead, the sight that greeted her horrified eyes was that of Angel, his hands clutching at a wooden shaft buried deep in his upper chest. With a look of shock the vampire stumbled, collapsing to his knees as she screamed his name out into the black night.

Seconds became an eternity. Buffy felt her heart stop. She waited in agony, anticipating the explosion of dust that would be Angel’s end. But it didn’t happened. Pitching forward, Angel flopped to the ground, his body twisting to protect his wounded shoulder. Dodd’s shot had missed his heart by mere fractions of an inch, but that was enough, and Buffy breathed a grateful sigh of relief as she realized the vampire would survive.

Her joy was short lived. Dodd had begun to reload his bow. Whirling around on the Englishman, Buffy knocked the weapon out of his hands, catching it in her own.

“Are you insane?” she yelled, confronting with Watcher with an outraged scowl.

The fury of her righteous indignation was lost on Dodd as the specter of the Rusalka loomed up behind the teen. Buffy, however, seemed completely oblivious to the danger hanging over her shoulder. She never looked around, never acknowledged the demon’s presence, even when it opened its ghastly jowls and let loose with a raging howl.

Retreating backward a step, the elderly Brit raised his hands to his ears. In spite of the protective barrier his earplugs provided he was unable to shut out the booming noise. The demon’s shriek increased in volume, the excruciating echo filling his head, blocking all thought, and leaving behind a painful emptiness that robbed him of consciousness. His legs giving way beneath him, the elderly Brit sank at last to the earth, overcome by blackness and falling in a spent, broken heap.

A heartbeat later the veil of darkness lifted. Everything had gone quiet. Tentatively opening his eyes, Dodd looked up to see the slayer standing over him, the crossbow held at ready against her shoulder. At some point during his blackout the teen had apparently turned on the Rusalka and fired her weapon. The evidence of that action lay writhing in the grass at her feet. A crossbow bolt wedged deeply in its neck the Rusalka had been silenced by the shot, its vocal cords pierced and unable to render forth any sound but the feeblest, ineffectual gurgle. And though it thrashed about desperately, raking its claws at the feathered shaft protruding from its flesh, the creature could not dislodge the offensive object penetrating its body.

Throwing aside the empty crossbow Buffy ran to Angel. Helping him to his feet, she slipped her shoulder under his arm, supporting his weight as she walked him over to a nearby tree. There she propped him up to sit, and carefully pulling aside his blood soaked shirt, inspected his injury. The arrow had struck just above the heart and was oozing a dark, viscous fluid. A life threatening wound for a mere mortal, but Angel was one of the undead, and though the damage was definitely grievous, it was also non-lethal.

“Oww!”

Angel flinched as she reached around his back, her fingers exploring the extent of the damage. The arrow’s tip had made it completely through his body. Snapping the pointed tip cleanly from the shaft, Buffy took hold of the feathered end again, her gaze seeking Angel’s. He knew what she planned to do. Bracing against the tree behind him, Angel gave the teen gave a curt nod, indicating he was ready.

Jerking out the wooden bolt Buffy tossed it into the woods. Angel groaned, clamping a hand back over the leaking wound, his lips curled back over his fangs in a pained grimace.

“I’m okay,” he assured her. Inclining his head toward the wounded Rusalka he grunted. “Go on. Finish it.”

The bleeding was already slowing. Satisfied that Angel wasn’t playing the brave martyr for her sake, Buffy left him sitting against the tree and returned to finish off the Rusalka.

During the few moments she’d been busy with Angel the demoness had managed to crawl several feet down the embankment. She’d sustained considerable punishment from the arrow’s assault, and was attempting to escape toward the pond. There she could hide and recuperate, safe from the blonde menace that had caused her such agony.

Skittering down the incline, Buffy snatched up the length of chain dragging behind the beast. The tether was still firmly wrapped around the creature’s neck, the links caught up with the arrow’s shaft, and the gaffing hook at its end embedded within a fringed gill. There was no doubt the Rusalka was hurting. Every breath she took was a rasping, painful sounding burble. The glistening sheen of her silver scales had dried to a dull gray pallor, and she moved with a forced, tired undulation, slowly slithering across the grassy ground, leaving a trail of bloody slime in her wake.

Buffy gave the chain a hard yank. The Rusalka struggled a few moments, flopping at the other end of the taut line, trying to get away. Eventually she gave up, and rolling onto her back, fixed her unblinking eyes upon her vanquisher. With a piteous honk she succumbed to her defeat. A convulsive shiver wracked her monstrous bulk, and her breathing lapsed into shallow, spasmodic gulps as she slid the last few feet down the embankment and dropped to the strip of gravel beach below.

Pushing back her tangled hair Buffy returned the creature’s blank, sad stare. As she stood contemplating how best to finish off her foe, the Rusalka began to change. Scales became flesh. Claws, tail and fins disappeared. Muscles shrank and reformed, and gradually the beast took on the diminutive shape of a young, human girl.

With a frail sigh the girlish Rusalka lifted her head. Buffy raised her fists, ready for an attack, but the creature turned its face toward the pond. There was a hopeless desperation in her eyes as she stretched out her slim arms, reaching for the shoreline only a few feet away. She scrabbled forward an inch, fingertips straining toward the water and its promise of sanctuary. Buffy found the girl’s pathetic struggles difficult to watch. The nagging twinge of sympathy quickly disappeared, however, when she reminded herself of the heavy death toll the Rusalka had exacted over the past decades, a list that nearly had included two of her own, close personal friends.

Her expression hardened to a calculating resolve. Hopping down to the beach, Buffy calmly stepped over the demon’s prone body, her wet boots crunching the gravel beneath them as she walked toward the pile of weaponry she and Angel had carried down earlier. Selecting a short gladiator-style sword from the heap, she returned to the Rusalka, her jaw set with a cold professionalism.

“This one’s for all the guys out there,” she deadpanned in a level, emotionless tone. Raising the sword in a two fisted grip she brought it down with a swift vengeance, impaling the creature’s heart and pinning its body securely to the ground.

The Rusalka choked out a whispered cry, its green eyes flashing angrily as it glared back at her over its shoulder. Its small hands fluttered and twitched, scratching at the pebbled ground. The glowing fury in its gaze quickly dimmed, and with a shudder the beast rolled its gaze toward the heavens, gasping out a wet death rattle from its ventilated throat. As her fingers closed around a tiny nugget that had washed up upon the beach, the Rusalka released its final breath, the light in her eyes dying with her.

A shadowy figure approached, blocking the pale moonlight that fell over the body at Buffy’s feet. Without looking up the teen addressed the presence standing beside her.

“They sure don’t make immortals like they used to,” she observed thoughtfully.

Angel grunted, sliding an arm loosely around her waist. “Some of us aren’t so easy to get rid of,” he retorted.

With a sigh Buffy relaxed into his embrace, taking care to avoid the vampire’s injury. Like slayers, the undead were quick to heal, and already Angel was showing signs or recovery, though he would continue to feel the effects of this night for some time to come. The wound might slow him down, but it wouldn’t stop him. She knew he would carry on as always, stoically enduring the painful nuisance, acting the part of the brooding hero that he was without complaint.

“I don’t know about you, but I could sure do with a change of clothes and a warm bath. Not necessarily in that order,” the teen announced, reluctantly breaking from the comfort of her boyfriend’s hug. Buffy’s nose wrinkled as it caught a whiff of something foul in the air. “I hope that’s her I’m smelling, and not me,” she pouted.

Angel smiled. His vamp face was gone, his features smooth and handsomely human. Reaching up he plucked a strand of decaying vegetation out of Buffy’s hair.

“You are starting to get a little ripe,” he teased the blonde with a low chortle.

“This from the guy wearing Eau de Pond Scum cologne,” she quipped back. Running a critical eye over Angel’s soggy person she broke into an impish grin. “Hate to break it to you, but the wet look is so over, especially for vampires.”

“While this Mud Goddess thing you’ve got going is?” he returned with a defensive smirk.

“Hey, I’ll have you know a lot of women shell out big bucks for an all natural mud facial like this.”

“I think they usually wash it off before venturing out in public,” he said, wiping at a smear of muck streaking the teen’s forehead. “But don’t worry. On you it looks cute.”

“Thanks,” Buffy snipped. There was more than just a slight undertone of sarcasm to her acknowledgement his back handed compliment. But as Angel’s fingers continued to gently brush the mud from her face, she felt the tickle of a romantic urge surface. She could see her emotions mirrored in the vampire’s dark eyes, as well as the reflection of the moon overhead. Tilting back her head, Buffy waited, anticipating the decent of Angel’s lips to her own. But just as he was about to kiss her, a gruff voice interrupted the moment.

“Move away from her, Angelus.”

It was Dodd. With a sigh of frustration, Buffy craned her neck around to glare at the Watcher standing on the ridge above them.

“You can put that thing away now,” she frowned, indicating the loaded crossbow the Englishman had in his hands. “She’s dead. No thanks to you,” she added in an acidic mutter. The Watcher seemed not to have heard her, however, and refused to lower his weapon.

Probably still wearing those stupid earplugs, she mused bitterly. With an impatient grumble she gestured toward the carcass lying on the ground.

“It’s dead!” she said, raising her voice and taking great care to exaggerate each word.

“No more monster. The Rusalka is officially deceased. An ex demon. Departed. Expired. Gone on to that Great Fishbowl in the sky.”

Dodd’s arm never wavered from its position. Suddenly Buffy realized it wasn’t the Rusalka he was concentrating his aim on. It was a spot somewhere behind her, just over her shoulder. His weapon was pointed at Angel.

“Please step aside, Miss Summers,” the Brit admonished with stern force. Dodd’s demanding tone riled the teen, as did his presumptive attitude. Unable to ignore the Englishman’s snobbery any longer, Buffy gestured at her own ears, then waited impatiently for the man to take the hint. As Dodd obligingly removed his earplugs she crossed her arms before her, shooting a defiant glare at the Watcher.

“What’s with the unfriendly fire?” she challenged. “Angel’s on our side. So, back off there, William Tell, and put the crossbow down before somebody gets hurt.”

“Miss Summers,” Dodd pronounced haughtily. The razor sharp inflection of her name set the teen’s nerves on edge, and it took all her self-will not to scream out at the elderly man. “Need I remind you, I am the Watcher. I give the orders here. And as the slayer it is your duty to execute my commands, not question them. Now, stand aside at once.”

The teen remained in the line of fire, her body shielding the vampire’s vulnerable heart. A thousand insolent and sarcastic comebacks ran though her mind, but it was a single word, spoken calmly and emphatically that passed her lips.

“No.”

“I will say this one more time,” Dodd gruffly responded, his steely gaze meeting the young girl’s with assuming assurance. “Move away from that creature this instant.”

“Or what? You’ll shoot me?” Buffy snorted, shaking her head. “I don’t think so. I mean, think how that would look. First time out your slayer winds up dead, and you’re the one responsible for pulling the trigger? Trust me. Not the kind of thing you want on your resume. And when the Council finds out, you can kiss any thoughts of promotion good-bye. You’ll be spending the rest of your Watcher days watching from the outside.”

“Your insolence is bordering on subversion,” Dodd growled back. “My intentions do not include the termination of your life, but rest assured, Miss Summers, I will take any disciplinary measures that I deem necessary. As for the Council, I have their full support in this matter, so you needn’t concern yourself with my personal career goals. Your former Watcher may have been fool enough to stand by while that fiend butchered innocents, but I shall not be coerced into profaning my vow of duty by joining in league with the devil.”

“Okay, first, Angel is not evil,” the teen retorted. “And he’s not the devil, either. You’d think someone with your background would know his demons better.”

“I know all that I need to about that one,” Dodd snarled contemptuously. “I can understand how a young, impressionable girl such as yourself could be taken in. He’s a clever one, what with his beguiling charms and comely good looks. But a vampire is a creature of pure evil. Nothing can alter that truth. And there is no act that could ever possibly atone for the heinous sins he has inflicted upon mankind. Therefore, I insist you put an immediate end to this unseemly union. Forget this ridiculous notion you have of a ‘good’ vampire. No such soul exists. And never will. It is a fairy tale delusion, and this wretched aberration of a man is nothing but a blood thirsting charlatan.”

“You’re wrong, Mr. Dodd,” Buffy replied. “Because Angel is good, and he does have a soul. Too bad I can’t say the same for the vampire standing behind you.”

The teen’s statement puzzled Dodd. His first thought was that the girl was playing some trick, hoping to distract him from his targeted objective to allow the vampire to escape. Then a dark shadow fell upon him from behind, his peripheral vision detecting a slight movement. Something was there, lurking over his shoulder, and it wore the unmistakable scent of death and decay. He understood then that the slayer had been speaking the truth, and his life was in mortal danger.

Ignoring the frantic beating of his heart Dodd collected his courage and turned to face the specter behind him. Reality was worse than his darkest nightmare as he discovered himself staring at a hideous creature of human-like form and build. The thing was as tall as he was himself, and carried a good forty or fifty more pounds of muscled bulk on its thick frame. It was dressed in dirty denim jeans and a studded leather jacket that was stained with traces of blood from previous meals, and the features of its face were twisted into the grotesque, threatening mask of a vampire in full feeding frenzy. Opening its mouth the demon displayed its elongated fangs, and what could only be described as a dental chamber of horror in rotting and broken teeth.

Forcing aside his feelings of revulsion, the elderly Watcher raised his arm, training his crossbow on the vampire. He had only seconds to get off his shot, and this time it had to be perfect. He pulled the trigger, and the arrow whizzed across the few feet separating him from the monster. The missile struck home with a solid whunk. A strange expression fell over the vampire’s face, its yellowed eyes widening with surprise. Then before Dodd could catch his breath the beastly creature dissolved into dust before his eyes and was blown away in the evening’s light breeze.

There was no time to savor the exhilaration of his triumph. The vampire he had dusted had been only the first wave of an attacking force. Emerging from the woods above him were two more of the creatures, a pair of lean and scraggily looking females, and it was obvious from their intensely hungry visages that they intended to make him part of their next meal.

A flash of blonde suddenly raced past him from behind, heading toward the tree line like a bullet. The slayer had seen the vampires, too, and leaping up the embankment was mounting an uphill charge at the duo. Dodd watched in fascination and awe as the teen launched into a graceful, acrobatic flying kick that caught the nearer of the two creatures square on its chin. The blow stopped the beast’s forward rush instantly and knocked it to the ground, where it landed flat on its back, stunned and, for the moment, incapacitated.

Touching down in a four-point crouch, Buffy immediately sprang back upright, whirling around to take on the second vampire. The demon swept down upon her, its black hair whipping through the air like an unleashed tangle of writhing snakes. Like her now dusted male hunting companion, she was outfitted in jeans and leather, and a sleeveless tee shirt that revealed hardened, muscular biceps. But where the male had leaned toward the bulky build of a sumo wrestler, this beast was angular and slim, almost boyish in figure, and moved with the fluid grace of a well-toned athlete.

With a cat-like pounce the demon leapt at the slayer. Buffy retaliated with a kick. The coiled tension in her leg bounced off the creature’s washboard midriff, lifting the vampire cleanly off its feet and throwing it toward a nearby tree. There was a dull thud of dead flesh against wood as the vampire hit the sturdy trunk, and for a moment the body hung there, suspended, defying the laws of gravity. Finally, it slid downward, falling in a crumpled heap at the tree’s base, motionless and, for the moment at least, unconscious.

Buffy had precious little time to reflect on her handiwork. The first vampire was back up on its feet again. She was a thinly built blonde with neon purple streaks in her long, dingy mane. Buffy met her aggressive attack with a full body slam that sent both parties reeling backward a step. Grabbing one of the demon’s wrists the teen dug her fingernails into the undead flesh, and with her enemy at arm’s length used her free hand to deliver a volley of upward jabbing gut punches to the creature’s exposed ribs. With an enraged snarl the vampire reciprocated, slapping at the slayer’s blows, trying to block their aim with little success. Changing tactics, the demon snaked a long reaching kick by Buffy’s defenses. The unexpected blow struck Buffy’s sternum with a thump, knocking the wind from her lungs and forcing her down to her knees with a gasp of pain.

As she fought to catch her breath Buffy cast her gaze about, looking for something sharp to use as a weapon. Her eyes fell upon the broken shaft of an arrow lying in the tall grass. It was the one she had pulled from Angel’s chest and discarded earlier. Stretching out a toe she hooked it under the slim piece of wood, and sweeping her foot upward, tossed the bolt into her open palm. Her fingers curled around the makeshift stake, and with a forward lunge she aimed the splintered tip at the vampire’s heart. But the creature had anticipated the move. Deflecting the deadly thrust, she stripped the weapon from the slayer’s hand, sending it flying though the air toward the woods. The wayward shaft bounced off a tree, narrowly missing the dark-haired vampire that sat beneath, slowly shaking off the latent effects of her own encounter with the blonde slayer.

“Hey!” the recumbent demon sullenly snapped at its hunting companion. “Just whose side are you on?”

“Sorry,” the purple-streaked blonde returned. Grunting, she fended off a near hit from the slayer’s fist. “I could use a hand over here,” she growled, ducking another blow. “Feel free to jump in at any time.”

Bounding to its feet the medusan-tressed vampire rushed toward the slayer in a low tackle. Abandoning her assault on the dirty blonde, Buffy nimbly sidestepped the oncoming stampede and sprang into a front flip that hailed back to her cheerleader days at Hemrey High. Sailing over her attacker’s head the teen did a heel over head twist in mid-air and landed lightly on her feet behind the dark-haired demon. Snapping into a defensive stance, Buffy raised her clenched fists, ready to take on whatever came her way next.

As she thundered past her cohort the black haired vampire grabbed at the streaked blonde’s outstretched arm. With a powerful jerk the blonde whipped her companion around in a tight arc, redirecting her back toward the slayer. In synchronized tandem the growling beasts flanked the teen, lunging at her from either side. Buffy met the dual attack with another leap, this one launching her straight up to a height of five feet. With a perfect split she shot out both legs at opposing angles, each of her heels slamming into a foe’s jaw with bone crunching accuracy. Dropping back to earth in the same spot, she touched down long enough to whirl around in an about face, reversing her direction, before bounding upward in the same spot once again.

Wobbling on unsteady legs the vampire pair was thrown back by the slayer’s next split kick. They collapsed to the ground in a stunned stupor, and before either could recover Buffy was on the ground and drawing a stake from a back pocket. She sprang at the dirty blonde, pinning her to the earth with the points of her knees. Driving the wooden weapon through her heart Buffy watched the demon’s horrified mask exploded into a dusty shower before her eyes as its body caved in beneath her, dropping her to the grass with a teeth-rattling lurch.

Buffy scrabbled to her feet and turned to seek out the last remaining vampire. The dark-haired creature was crawling on all fours, scuttling across the ground like a crab. She managed to get up on her feet at last, and with panic fueling her desperate flight of self-preservation, she fled from the slayer, racing like the wind with long, ground chewing strides.

Dodd had observed the contest between the slayer and the vampires with an enthralled professional interest. Buffy Summers moved with an agility that rivaled one of the larger species of cats on the hunt. In his service as a Watcher he’d had the opportunity to meet with various slayers waiting for their calling, and he had always considered those young girls to be the most consummate of athletes. But the superior proficiency of their combined abilities paled in comparison to the dazzling quick reflexes the blonde teenager exhibited. Every block and punch she threw was like a well-practiced routine, and her kicks were an unsurpassed ballet of martial arts dexterity. The teen’s ability for improvisation was especially impressive. She hadn’t shown any signs of such a high level of intelligence in their conversations thus far, but he could clearly see now that the slayer was not only bright, but gifted. All she lacked was discipline, something he would have to address, along with some elementary instruction on the use of social graces, and, of course, her scholarly studies.

Wrapped in his musings the elderly Watcher had forgotten about Angel. The vampire, however, was keeping attentive watch over the unfolding drama and was therefore acutely aware of the constantly changing nuances developing in the bigger battle picture before them. As the female vampire leapt to its feet he noted that her path of escape would take her within feet of the Englishman. Any creature of the night with a modicum of intelligence would have figured out by now that Buffy was no mere human, but the legendary slayer. Logic would then conclude the man accompanying aforementioned slayer would naturally be her Watcher. And while not as noteworthy for inspiring tales of fear among the undead, the boasting rights one would garner for killing a Watcher would be more than the average vampire could resist. That, combined with the unmistakably murderous gleam in the dark-haired creature’s glower told Angel that Dodd was in serious danger.

For all the negative inconveniences inherent in being one of the walking undead – the inability to go out in direct sunlight, existing on a diet of blood, the lack of a reflection – the one saving grace Angel was actually thankful for was his power of rapid healing. The injury he had sustained from the arrow was already on the mend, and though it would be several more days before his recovery was complete, he could move now with enough speed and strength to dive headlong into the thick of battle. With his fangs bared in a menacing grimace Angel charged up the embankment. The female vampire was almost upon Dodd, with Buffy sprinting after her in frantic pursuit, but it was looking doubtful that she would nab her quarry in time to save the Watcher. Loud and passionate as she had professed her hatred for the obnoxious Brit, Angel knew Buffy would come down hard on herself if anything happened to the old man. So that was why he ignored the ache in his chest, and snatching up the cane that the Watcher had set aside against a fallen log earlier, he brushed by the startled Englishman, intercepting the other vampire’s head on attack and skewering it with the ebony rod.

The dusty cloud that had seconds before been her prey momentarily blinded Buffy. She came to an abrupt halt as she crashed into something strong and solid. Arms flailing the air she tried to disperse the shower of vampire particles swirling around her, but musty powder clung to her damp clothing and flesh, melting into a dank, fetid sludge that coated her body in an unflattering layer of grime.

The last traces of soot scattered on the evening breeze the air around her cleared and Buffy saw that it was Angel she had run into. He was back in his human face and looking only slightly disheveled for the experience. She hadn’t managed to get off quite as lucky. An self-conscious check of her clothing and hair told her that both failed to measure up to even the most minimum standards of presentability. Unless Angel was into some swamp water chic thing she didn’t know about, she didn’t stand a chance of getting any smoochies that night.

As if reading her mind Angel ventured a brief, but thoroughly disarming smile. Immediately Buffy felt her reservations disappear. It didn’t take a siren song to make her go a weak and wobbly in the knees. Angel could do it with a look, just like the one he was giving her right now.

Leaning forward into his opening arm, Buffy eagerly moved to answer the wordless invitation to taste her boyfriend’s kiss. Her face tilted back in anticipation of that wonderful, rapture inspiring moment when their lips would meet. She felt her pulse suddenly race, her heart thumping wildly in excitement. She was inches away from transported bliss when Dodd’s voice interrupted and brought her rudely back to reality.

“That was truly the most extraordinary exhibition of combative technique I have ever had the privilege to witness,” the Watcher gushed with enthused animation as he approached the embracing couple. “I myself have trained with several noted masters in my early days, I’ve even had the fortunate opportunity to work with a slayer, though that was many years ago, and she hadn’t received the calling. But as exceptional as she was, her talents pale in comparison to what I just saw. Your strength, dexterity, ingenuity…remarkable! I must say, a magnificent performance.”

The unexpected compliment sent a surge of heated color to the teen’s cheeks. For a moment the staid Englishman seemed human, almost tolerable, but the key word in the equation was “almost”, for Buffy hadn’t forgotten that the Brit had tried to kill Angel, and all the praise in the world couldn’t make up for that.

“Since you’re feeling generous with the complimenting, how about throwing a little of that laurel and hearty praise this way,” she said, gesturing toward the vampire standing beside her. “It was Angel that just saved your neck from a terminal piercing. Pretty decent of him, don’t you think? Especially seeing as how you so recently attempted to make him Dust Buster fodder. I think some conciliatory sucking up to may be in order here.”

Stiffening noticeably, the Watcher glared at the vampire, his thin features drawing into an uncomfortably pinched grimace. The experience had obviously failed to change his negative opinion of his rescuer. He harbored a deep loathing for what he still considered his enemy, though Buffy thought she detected a minute hint of compromise in the stern set of the Brits’s jaw line as he turned and addressed Angel with a cold, but polite show of civility.

“It would appear that I am in your debt,” the Englishman grudgingly gruffed.

“All in a night’s work,” Angel replied, his casual body language shrugging off the incident as nothing special. But Buffy could read through the vampire’s feigned indifference. There was a tense animosity seething just beneath Angel’s deceptive courtesy. As the two men continued to glower in silent combat, she took on the role of intermediary and forced a cheery smile on her mud-streaked face.

“Looks to me like our work here is done,” she announced, tucking a soggy strand of hair behind her ear. “What say we wrap this up and head on home. Some of us could make do with a bath and a few hours at the hot end of a hair-dryer.”

“There is the matter of the Rusalka that needs attending to,” Dodd returned, indicating the body lying on the beach below.

“I’m pretty sure she’s dead…” Buffy said, frowning at the motionless corpse. “If you want I could chop her head off, or, oh!” she blanched contritely, realizing the Watcher was not debating the demon’s state of lifelessness. “You mean removal and disposal.” An impish twist turned at the corners of her mouth as she ticked a sly glance toward Angel. “That was Giles’ department, wasn’t it?” she asked the vampire, cocking an eyebrow upward in a silent hint.

Playing along with the slayer’s ruse Angel nodded his agreement. “You did the dusting, and he took care of burial duty. You did remembered to bring your shovel?” he pointedly queried the elderly Watcher.

“Well, I -” The flustered Brit didn’t seem to know what to make of the challenge. “I-I hadn’t anticipated -”

Clucking her tongue, Buffy gave her head a shake. “First no cocoa, and now this. Honestly, you Council guys could stand to learn a thing or two from the boy scouts. They’re always prepared.”

“Don’t be too hard on the poor man,” Angel gently chided the teen. “He can’t help it. After all, he’s only human.”

Dodd opened his mouth to protest the sarcastic remark, but Angel cut him off with an overly hearty slap on the back.

“That’s quite a fancy stick you’ve got there, Mr. Dodd,” the vampire grinned, thrusting the man’s cane into his hands and forcing him to juggle the silver handled staff with the crossbow already in his arms. Stepping in closer, Angel leaned toward the Watcher’s ear, his breath grazing the Englishman’s neck as he dispensed a whisper of advice. “I’d hang on to that thing real tight if I were you. Never can tell when you might need it again.”

It was all Buffy could do to hold back the smug grin that tugged at her lips. The expression on Dodd’s face was priceless. His pallor had literally purpled with his rising indignation, and she could see his mustache bristling, the hairs standing on end as he fought to maintain his composure. With a stifled giggle she hooked her elbow through Angel’s and pried him away from the Watcher.

“Let’s get out of here, Angel. We don’t want to keep Mr. Dodd from his work.”

She walked the vampire down to the beach where he retrieved his coat, then hand in hand they made their way back up the grassy knoll to the woods and the dirt trail that led to the jogging path above. Surrounded by shadows and the screening barrier of trees the teen took a moment to stop and gaze back toward the pond where the elderly Watcher was busy picking up the weapons they had left behind.

“Think he can handle it by himself?” she asked Angel. The vampire grunted, pushing ahead through the dry brush.

“He’ll be fine,” he assured her. “The Rusalka’s not that big. Of course,” he added, a pensive look coming over his pale face. “Things could get awkward if somebody, say the police, decided to stop him and have a look in his trunk. Finding a naked dead girl in chains tends to freak those authority figure types.”

“Think they’d deport him?” There was more than just a touch of hope in her question.

Buffy quickly dismissed the idea, however. “But how do I know the next guy the Council sends will be any better? I could be trading in one pompous twit for another. Besides, we’ve got a couple days before Giles has to take to the friendly skies. That should be plenty of time for us to find this Waldo weirdo.”

“I’ll ask around,” Angel offered. Holding back a prickly branch he allowed the teen to pass him and lead the way again. “I know a few demon hangouts you might not be so welcomed in.”

“Thanks. We can use all the help we can get on this one. The clock is ticking, and we’re pretty much going nowhere fast.”

They had come to the top of the dirt path. Nudging apart the brush, Buffy stepped out onto the paved jogging path. Angel followed on her heels, and moved around to her side as she took a moment to get her bearings. The park was quiet, the night tranquil and serene. Overhead the sky blazed with dozens of sparkling stars as the moon’s soft light illuminated their surroundings with a magical glow.

The sound of rhythmic footsteps slapping briskly at the pavement alerted the pair that they were not alone. Coming around a bend in the path up ahead was a jogger. Looking somewhere in his early thirties, the man was running at a steady clip, his shirtfront stained with the sweat of his exertion. As he approached the couple the jogger did a quick double take, his curious gaze glued on the soggy young teen. Realizing how conspicuous she must look Buffy shyly melted against her companion’s side, burrowing her muddy face into the loose folds of his coat to hide. With a last look back over his shoulder the jogger snapped his head around, focussing his concentration on the path before him as he sprinted toward the next turn and faded into the night.

Peeking out Buffy saw the coast was clear again. With a slow sigh she slipped an arm around Angel’s waist and snuggled against him. His return embrace lacked human warmth, his vampire body mirroring the chill in the air, but that didn’t matter to her. Angel’s touch provided a deeper comfort that went beyond anything physical. When she was with him the world took on a rosy euphoria that contrasted sharply with the violence and stress that consumed the rest of her hectic slayer life. It was what made these fleeting moments of peace special, and she treasured every one as if it might be their last.

Shimmering above the treetops the moon lit the night with a fairy tale romance and all around the park amorous couples were taking advantage of the inspirational atmosphere. Murmuring their sweet promises and holding hands they remained unaware of the drama that had transpired that night. For Buffy and Angel it had been another evening of triumph and success. Evil had been vanquished. Good once more prevailed. And the park was again a safe place for the happy people of Sunnydale to visit.

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