As the days dragged by, Buffy began realize exactly how and why people go mad.
She'd talked about going crazy before, but she'd never really known what that meant. Now, though, she was starting to get an idea.
Maybe she looked normal on the outside, she thought. The others didn't look strangely at her, save Frances when Buffy botched another target practice. They didn't mention the fact that she went to bed earlier than any of them, got up later than any of them, ate less. Her form improved slightly on the weapons, but Buffy didn't care. Sometimes it seemed as though every voice she heard was from a great distance, or that her limbs were heavy and slow, not worth lifting. She was caged, she thought -- within this century she was never meant to see, in this compound that seemed more like a jail every day, in her own tired, terrified mind.
Nobody in this world cares about me, Buffy thought. I'm not a person to them. I'm only here to be a Slayer, and I'm not even that anymore, apparently. What's the point?
She no longer thought of her lost friends and family and lovers as they had been, laughing and fighting and alive. She thought of them lying quiet in the ground, still and untroubled. Buffy envied them so much she almost hated them, then hated herself for the feeling.
The other Slayers didn't feel the way she did; Buffy never asked them, but she knew. They'd lived to be Slayers, and so long as they remained Slayers, they had a purpose. Buffy knew that Xiaoting still cried at night when she thought about her Watcher, heard Agatha praying for the soul of her fiancé during her morning devotions. Noor's pent-up anger had to come from someplace. But all of that apparently mattered less than being the Slayer. And to Buffy, being the Slayer had never mattered less.
Buffy only tried to talk about it once.
"I mean, why am I here? Without my friends or my family, it feels like there's just -- no reason."
Sumiko looked at her, confusion plain on her face. Buffy sat across from her in the training room, wiping tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. She had come to the training room for solitude, to taste that silence and stillness she was craving. Instead, she had found Sumiko and, to her surprise and Sumiko's probable dismay, started venting.
"I mean, I jumped into that portal for a lot of reasons. I wanted to stop it all, I know that. I wanted to end it. But I wouldn't have just killed myself, no matter how hard it was, or how bad I wanted to. What I wanted was to save them all. I knew I could do it, and it would be okay, because after that I wouldn't have to lose anybody else, not ever again. So I jumped to save them. And instead -- it feels like I killed them."
Buffy was trembling, could feel her lips curling as she tried to stifle the sobs that threatened to overwhelm her. "And I woke up here in this place I hate. I mean, I HATE it. It's cold, and it's gray, and apparently there's vampires all over the place waiting to kill us. Who would ever want to be here? Who wants to live like this?"
She looked over as Sumiko, who was looking back with the same patient incomprehension as ever. Buffy started to cry in earnest. "Look at who I'm talking to. I m-mean, it's worse for you. You don't even speak the language, and, and, you lost your friends and family too, whoever they were. You're probably more weirded than I am. But at l-l-least you can fight. You're still a Slayer. You've got that. I, I don't even have that anymore. Oh, God. I wish I were still --"
Buffy's voiced choked off before she could say the final word. She leaned over, bending double with her sobs until her forehead touched the floor. For a few long minutes, she kept crying harder and harder, starting to run out of breath between sobs.
Then she felt a soft, hesitant touch atop her head. After a moment, Buffy felt Sumiko begin to comb her fingers through Buffy's hair. And then Sumiko started to sing.
The words were in Japanese, of course, and the melody didn't correspond to Buffy's general idea of music. But her voice was surprisingly light and sweet, and her intent was clear. It was the first kindness Buffy had known in this century.
She continued sobbing, but something deep within her was comforted.
For a little while.
Eventually she tried other ways of centering herself.
Journal Entry: March 20, 2353
Markwith says we go public soon. We get our big debut at the Council meeting -- apparently there's, like, 200 people on the Council now. Imagine the tweed. He's going to apologize for using dark magic to pull us out of our graves, which I would think would take a while, but he says will just take a few minutes. And once the Council gives us the go-ahead, we get to go out on patrol.
I get to fight vampires again, and that's the only thing I've felt good about in a long time. And that scares me.
Because I'm not thinking about winning.
I imagine it over and over. Fangs in my throat, or hands snapping my neck, or falling through one of these windows -- I missed the fall last time I died, though I must have fallen. I wonder how long it takes. Or even drowning -- it didn't take that first time, but it was quick enough --
Spike told me one time that Slayers were all a little bit in love with death. I thought he was full of shit. But now I wonder. I mean, the way I think about it all the time -- I'm daydreaming about it like I was obsessed. The only other time I acted this way? When I was dating Angel and I would imagine making love with him. It's that same kind of dreamy feeling, like there's these images in my brain that I play and rewind, play and rewind, again and again and again, and it's never enough.
I used to believe it's wrong to want to die. I remember yelling at Angel, that Christmas when it snowed -- I was so mad at him for being ready to give up. But if he felt as bad as I do now, maybe I was wrong to tell him to keep fighting. I've learned since then how terrible it feels, to truly want to die.
Buffy put down her pen and frowned at the paper. This isn't helping, she thought.
But it increasingly seemed as though nothing would.
"We're going to the Council meeting in a tank?" Buffy said.
She and the other Slayers were all staring at their transportation -- a large, armored vehicle that, Buffy decided, looked less like a tank and more like Spike's Winnebago from hell, if he'd been able to afford cast-iron siding. It was black, windowless and altogether not the ideal family car. Already, she could feel herself losing the slight lift in her spirits she'd known when they'd finally left their few monotonous rooms.
"This looks very heavy," Agatha said. "How many horses do you need to pull it?" Sumiko was also staring at the vehicle in what was obviously utter bewilderment.
"We need something substantial. It's nighttime," Frances said, as though that explained everything.
"I apologize for moving you so late at night," Markwith said. "It might have been better if you could have seen the city during the day first."
"Besides, we ought to be the safest people out there," one of the other Watchers -- Noor's, a sad little man who already seemed to have given up on reaching his sullen charge. "Five Slayers along for the ride? We'll be fine."
"When did five Slayers become necessary protection to move through the streets of London?" Agatha murmured as they clambered into the vehicle.
"I don't like this," Noor said.
"You don't like anything," Xiaoting said. Noor turned as if to snap at her, then saw Xiaoting's pale, drawn face and remained silent.
Frances got in what must have been the driver's seat (though Buffy saw no steering wheel) and began pressing faintly lighted areas on the console before her. They started moving forward, and large doors slid open before them.
Buffy craned her head forward to see out of the only opening -- the windshield area. Almost as soon as she had done so, she wished she hadn't.
The streets looked like a war zone. Nobody was out -- at least, nobody who was willing to be seen. Windows were broken. Some buildings had torn-up or smashed-in walls. Now and again, they would drive by a building that had obviously burned down, perhaps long ago, and never been repaired. A few buildings were lit up, and in the windows Buffy could see what appeared to be crowds of people huddled together. A couple of abandoned vehicles -- bulkier than the cars Buffy remembered, but not so formidable as their own transport -- lay about, one of them with open doors and a dark smear along its side in the vague shape of a handprint.
Frances, Markwith and the other Watchers did not seem to think anything was wrong.
At first, Buffy was horrified; after a few minutes, though, she felt herself begin to ease into the idea. So this is what it looks like, she thought. The place where I'm going to die. For good, this time.
Finally they turned around one bend to reveal a building that stood apart from the dark and damaged ones around them -- a tall, imposing dome, built of some white stone that was almost unscarred by the warfare around them. Rings of light around its different levels shone out in every direction.
"Home at last," Frances said.
The Slayers were all in a small room a hallway down from the main Council Chamber. Earlier that day, they'd been instructed to put on their best clothes, which to Buffy looked just like the sleep clothes. For the occasion, Xiaoting had tied her tunic back to show off her curves, and Agatha had spent some time braiding some elaborate updo for her white-blonde hair. Noor, less enthused about the proceedings, had contented herself with creating a wrap that hid her hair to her satisfaction. Though Sumiko couldn't have understood the details, she seemed to have picked up on the new energy; after watching the others all afternoon, she had carefully folded a cloth to create a wide sash for her waist.
Buffy sat slightly apart from them, slumped against the wall. Her clothes were the same as ever, and she hadn't bothered washing her hair. It seemed like too much work.
Despite what they had seen earlier, Xiaoting seemed determined to be cheerful. "This is exciting, isn't it? Finally being known to the world?"
Noor seemed determined not to be cheerful. "I do not think this will be as simple as Markwith claims."
"Probably not," Agatha said. "But -- I do think it's rather a relief. I was so frustrated before; I spent my nights fighting every manner of demon, and in the morning I had to feign a swoon if a mouse ran across the floor. It will be nice, not pretending."
"That's not the best of it," Xiaoting said with determination. "We're finally going to get some payback. All those years of work and sacrifice, and we never got any reward."
"Saving the world is reward enough," Noor insisted.
"You'll need another audience for that line," Xiaoting said. "I did my work in obscurity and did it well, but I'll be twice as happy to do it for a world that knows and appreciates it. Come on! You know we're owed a debt. Don't tell me you're unhappy that a little of it is finally going to be paid back."
"I don't mean to be immodest, but Markwith did say we'd get a warm welcome," Agatha said with a little smile. "I shouldn't mind that at all."
"I bet we get stoned," Buffy said. "Not the Grateful Dead kind. The Biblical kind."
"The grateful dead," Noor said. "This is an unusual name -- is it a vampire cult?"
"Forget I mentioned it," Buffy sighed. "But I don't think it's gonna be all peaches and cream out there. If it were, they wouldn't have kept us secret to start with."
She'd said it mostly to shut Xiaoting up; Buffy was tired of thinking about how much better the others were at coping with all of this. Now, though, as they considered what she'd said for a few silent moments, Buffy started to think about it too. "They do not trust each other," Noor finally said. "They lock their doors, fear one another. My Watcher told me there are thefts even in the inner chambers of the compound. If senior members of the Council cannot trust the others even with their possessions, then whom will they trust with us?"
"I think we're being a bit melodramatic," Xiaoting said. "Besides, they don't look at us as their property, not anymore --"
"That is what Markwith said," Noor said. "But he has kept us locked in these few small rooms for two weeks."
"For our protection!" Agatha said.
"From what?" Buffy said.
They were all silent a few moments longer. Then Noor got to her feet. "Markwith has gone to prepare the Council. I think we should prepare ourselves."
"What do you mean?" Agatha said.
"We leave this room. We find their Chamber. If we cannot see what is happening, we can hear."
"Eavesdropping?" Agatha said, a faint blush in her pale cheeks.
"For somebody who used to behead people for a living, you can be really prissy sometimes," Buffy said. "Sounds like a plan to me."
Noor shot her a quick glance of approval. Great, Buffy thought, I'm on the same page with the hostile, paranoid one.
Xiaoting looked as though she might object, but instead got up and opened the door herself. "They're going to be furious," she said. "But I suppose it will be easier if the fury's spread among all five of us."
Sumiko hesitantly got to her feet, apparently willing to follow. Agatha sighed. "This is completely unnecessary," she insisted. But she came along too.
Xiaoting looked around and signaled that their way was clear. They hurried down the hallway with predators' silence; nobody was near. In perfect, quiet accord, they would stop at each door -- Noor would lean forward and listen, then shake her head -- and they would continue on.
After a few minutes, though, they heard it for themselves -- a low rumble, as though dozens of people were arguing at once. "Bingo," Buffy said.
"They're near," Agatha said.
"I just said that," Buffy said.
"No," Noor said, her ill-temper apparently restored. "You said one of your strange, meaningless words."
"Have we come here to talk or listen?" Xiaoting snapped.
Buffy quit glaring at Noor as they came up to wider doors -- old-fashioned ones made of wood, a grand entrance. They could hear, even without pressing their ears to the doors; four of them leaned forward anyway. Sumiko just watched them, a little sadly.
"Why did you think this was necessary?" said a woman's voice, thick with an Australian accent.
"Any step we can take -- every step we can take -- to turn the tide of this war is necessary," Markwith said. His voice echoed slightly, and Buffy wondered just how big the Chamber was.
"Many steps were available to us that did not involve using dark magic," another voice said.
"But no other step that would so inspire the hope of the people," Markwith said. "They look to the Slayer as their savior."
"Not anymore," the Australian woman said. Wait, no, Buffy thought. Not a woman -- a girl. "I know I'm new at it. But if you think you need more than one Slayer to do the job --"
"That's not the case at all, Sky," Markwith said soothingly. "No one doubts your ability."
"Then why d'ya think you have to bring in other Slayers to do my work for me?"
"Don't be preposterous --" Frances began, but another voice cut her off.
"The Slayer's right to speak is sacrosanct," said a man -- old, even in his voice. "Let her speak."
The Australian girl -- Sky the Vampire Slayer -- continued on. "You've all been saying how it gets better once the people are done grieving for the old Slayer. Then they accept the new one. But how will they ever accept me now?"
"They will accept all of you," Markwith said.
"They'll have favorites," Sky said. "And I won't be one of them. Five legendary Slayers, you said. You mean, five Slayers better than me."
"A little perspective would be nice," Xiaoting muttered.
"If you don't think I'm good enough to take on Kean, good enough to do the job the Powers chose me for --"
Kean again, Buffy thought.
"Of course not, Sky," the old man said. His voice had an unmistakable ring of authority; Buffy wondered if perhaps this was the person in charge. The Quentin Travers of the 24th century. Oh, joy, she thought. "This was done without this Council's permission. The Council did not believe this necessary. But -- it is now done. It cannot be undone. We must make the best of it."
Another man's voice rang out. "Then let's be sure we have the whole truth in the record."
The crowd murmured for a long few moments; when the sound had stilled, the last voice spoke again. "I know that I don't often speak in this Chamber. But I still have the right to speak. And I want it in the record exactly what Markwith's done."
Frances' voice was shrill. "Brought back our fallen heroes from the dead? Helped turn the tide of this war?"
"Slayers fight our war for us, and they pay a terrible price. And we've brought these Slayers back from the dead so that, eventually, they can die for us again. How much do they have to sacrifice? How much do they have to suffer? The price is too high."
Buffy's heart was slamming against her chest. She felt numb, dizzy, utterly overwhelmed. She could feel her palms, hot and sweaty, against the door.
"Is there a price too high for saving humanity?" Markwith said. "I don't think so, though I suppose you might."
"This is no time for another of your endless arguments," the old man said tiredly. "And certainly not the place."
"This is exactly the time, and exactly the place. Markwith's making this Council his pawn, and if none of the rest of you will speak out about it, I will."
"I think, sir, you forget your place," a voice called, apparently from the back.
"I remember it as well as most of you remember yours. We're here to protect humanity, not to deceive it. We're meant to do our work for its own sake, not for public glory."
"Spoilsport," Xiaoting muttered. Buffy opened her mouth to try to speak, but no words would come out. She couldn't find the breath.
"Markwith tries to take people's mind off the fight with his bread and circuses. If people have figureheads to love and worship, they don't remember the trouble they're in. Is that really the best we have to offer? I don't think so."
"You insult me," Markwith said, almost gently.
It can't be true, she thought. It just can't be true.
But if it was -- oh, if it was --
Buffy jumped back as if shocked; certainly it seemed as though electric current was running through her body. The others stared at her, but she didn't care. It didn't matter.
Nothing mattered except getting into that room --
Buffy ran through the doors, slamming into the wood with a bang that echoed through the Chamber. As she looked around wildly, she saw that the room was larger than she had thought -- a circular amphitheater, filled with people in the same drab clothes. A very old man with skin the color of Noor's -- the man she'd decided was in charge? -- was sitting in an elevated chair at the inner rim of the circle. Almost all of the 200 people or so in the room -- all of whom were staring at her or turning to their companions to join in the buzz of confused and excited reaction -- were seated. Markwith, however, was standing. So was Frances. So was a young girl, perhaps 15 years old, tree-tall and rail-thin, with coal-black skin and a wounded expression.
And so was the person she sought.
Buffy ran forward, taking him in at a glance. The same shapeless clothing as the other Watchers -- hair that was boot-camp short --
But the face was the same.
As she ran to him, she cried, "Angel!"
Angel looked at her, and the moment she saw his eyes, she felt the tears start.
Oh, thank God, she thought as she ran to Angel's side. Thank you thank you thank you.
She ran to him, almost leapt at him, clutching him close in a desperate embrace. Any moment now, she would finally feel his arms around her again --
But his body went tense, and she pulled back in shock.
Angel only stared at her, as though he had never seen her.
Or never wanted to.