by Selena Ulrich
"She's realised the real problem with stories - if you keep them going
long enough, they always end in death" - Neil Gaiman, 24 Hours.
It was a surprisingly warm January day when Buffy Summers walked back into Sunnydale Graveyard. To her surprise, very little had changed. True, the sight of the occasional transient dozing in the shade of the various tombs was new, but the grass was as green and luscious as ever, the headstones were as neat and orderly as the day they had been laid. A soft scent of flowers perfumed the breeze just like it had always done - mostly lilies and roses from the few bouquets she could see dotted around the place, with a few extra oddities she couldn't place.
And the tight cluster of graves were still exactly five rows down and three across, just where she had asked them to be placed all those years ago.
Stiffly she made her way over, her determined - if slightly uneven - stride belying the trepidation she felt inside. She really didn't want to be doing this. She didn't belong here any more and she knew it - her life was outside, in the real world; spanning international boundaries. Not stuck in a small town in California whose only claim to fame, now that the Hellmouth was gone, was her. But that didn't change the fact that there were still things that needed to be done here. Things that she had been avoiding for years and would probably have still been avoiding had certain personal milestones not brought matters to a head.
The graves had been well kept, she was pleased to note, with a clear space in front of them for mourners to sit. Hard ground was still a slight problem with her hip and it took her a few moments before she was sitting comfortably, and a few moments more before she had gathered her thoughts. Then she spoke.
"Hi guys!" she began, her tone an adult imitation of the teenage voice she used to have. "Guess what? I've just turned 40!"
Beats of silence passed as if by way of reply and Buffy sighed.
"OK," she continued, her voice lower now and as mature as her years suggested, "I admit it, that was a stupid way to begin. But I just couldn't think of what else to say. I mean, how do you face people you haven't spoken to in over ten years? Whether they're alive or dead."
Distractedly she started picking at the grass.
"Faith said I should just say whatever's in my heart. But that's just her way I guess: trite advice for every occasion. Not that I'd change her for the world." A soft dreamy smile. "She's mellowed so much these days, you guys might almost like her. Although she still has her moments, like with that real-estate magnate last year, and boy did we have to work to keep that one under control. I'm telling you, our PR departments were working so hard that."
Her words trailed off as she realised what she was saying and more silence followed.
"I'm sorry," she finally managed. "I guess you can tell from that that Slayer's Pride is still going strong. I know you guys didn't approve of it when it started - well, those of you who were still around. But I really feel like we're starting to have an effect now. What with the advertising and my interviews and TV appearances, people are finally sitting up and taking notice. Even the Watcher's Council seems to have accepted that the days of secrecy are over. We're getting so many letters from young girls wanting to find out if they're a Slayer-to-be or people wanting to join the Guild, or offering to be part of our new HellWatch support network on the 'Net, I just."
Her voice trembled slightly.
She paused and wiped a sleeve across her eyes. It came back wet.
"So Jonathon got elected mayor last year," The sudden lightness in her voice as she changed the subject was as brittle as spun glass. "Imagine that - a survivor of Sunnydale High taking the same office that caused so much trouble in our senior year. I was so stoked when he phoned Pride HQ personally to tell me. It was like.everything had come full circle, you know? Like all those who had died walking the halls were finally vindicated, reminding us all that even in the midst of death there is life."
The air grew still.
"And even in the midst of life, there is still death."
There. She had said it. The admission she had been avoiding making for so many years spoken before the symbols of all she had lost. There was nothing else for it now but to say the rest of her piece. No matter how much it hurt.
She took a deep breath.
"I really miss you guys." Her voice was so soft as to be barely audible. "I know you don't believe me but I really do. There isn't a day that goes by without me thinking 'What would Willow make of this incantation?' or 'How would Giles see the Council now?' or 'I bet Xander would have something smart to say to that Robertson creep!' And I really meant to come down here and see you all before now, it's just." Now the emotion was becoming clear. "I feel so bad about everything that's happened! I mean, I'm the Chosen One! I'm the one who put her life on the line for over twenty years, fighting vampires and demons day in, day out! Hell, I'd be doing the same now if I hadn't busted my hip on that Athens job last year! Every prophecy I 've ever read concerning me has foretold that the Slayer would die facing this demon, or the Slayer would die facing that demon, or the Slayer wouldn' t even make it into double figures, while all around her grieved and got on with their lives! Yet here I am, alive and kicking and one of the most recognised faces in the media today, while you guys have long since become worm food! And I think about all the pain and suffering we went through, and I remember how I thought we'd all be friends together forever, and I look at how things turned out and I think 'it's just not fair'!"
Tears began to trickle down her cheeks.
"It's just so not fair!"
As the misery and irony of the past came crashing down on her like a wave, Buffy buried her face in her hands and wept. It was an intense grief, fuelled and nurtured by regret, and filled with so many memories that she found herself lost in it; completely oblivious to the shadow that fell across her until moments later she heard a soft voice say
Startled, Buffy looked up. Before her stood a tall young woman with impossibly wild black hair and skin as white as snow, dressed in tight black jeans and matching halter top and boots. She was leaning against a headstone with such ease that Buffy felt her blood would have boiled were it not for the friendliness in the young woman's eyes and the openness of her smile. Even so, her anguish was still strong enough for her to feel justified in frowning seriously and fixing the young woman with her best aggressive stare as she growled
"I'm not signing autographs today.".
The woman's smile widened. "That's OK. I'm not after one."
(For a moment the sound of the woman's voice was so gentle and reassuring that Buffy forgot her anger.)
"Well, I don't mean to be rude."
(But only for a moment.)
"...but I was kind of in the middle of a personal moment here, so."
"I know." With a casual grace the woman stood up and approached the Slayer. "And I'm sorry, normally I wouldn't be so intrusive. But I was passing nearby and you just sounded so miserable I wondered if there was anything I could do to help."
Buffy stared incredulously at the young woman. "What the hell makes you think I need help?"
"Oh we all need help sometimes." With a perky smile the woman sat down. "We just aren't always willing to admit it, even to ourselves."
"So you hang around graveyards finding people who are in pain and make them admit that they need help?" she asked with scorn
The woman shook her head. "Actually I was in the area for a totally different reason all together. But I've been told I can be a good listener, when people need to talk."
"Well, what if I don't want to talk?"
"That's OK too. We can just sit here in silence and enjoy the peachy keen sunshine." The women turned and looked curiously at the Slayer, "If that's what you want."
Buffy never quite knew why she said what she did next. It hadn't been what she was planning to say - what she was planning to say was 'I'm sorry, I know you mean well, I just really don't feel like talking, especially not to some headcase Goth girl who's too nosy for her own good, so would you please just leave me alone before I get really mad and get my lawyers to slap a harassment injunction on your ass!' But when she looked into the woman's warm dark eyes what she actually came out with is:
"What I want is to have my friends back. What I want is for someone to tell me why they had to die leading such ordinary lives while I went on fighting ever increasing odds and coming out on top every time!"
The young woman smiled slightly.
"Because that's just the way it is."
"Well it's wrong!"
"No it isn't."
"Yes it is!" Buffy was shouting now, her reluctance to talk being replaced by a growing sense of righteous anger. "It's wrong that people should die while their lives aren't in danger! It's wrong that those who gave so much of themselves to fighting the forces of darkness should die so. so easily, just by being forced to fly during stormy weather to get to a gig, or crossing the street while some kid is joyriding at a hundred and ninety, or simply having a body that decided one night to send a blood clot into the brain! I mean, if that's 'the way it is' then quite frankly it's a stupid way, and the universe is crazy for letting it be like that!" She nodded, her head defiantly, as if a point had been made, then looked uncertainly at the other woman. "Don't you agree?"
"It's an idea I've heard before."
The woman just smiled. So did Buffy.
"You don't agree with me, do you?"
"Would it make you feel better if you had died and they had lived?" the woman asked.
"No!" Buffy looked thoughtful. "Well.it would have made more sense."
"Even though it could be argued that the world would have been a poorer place without all that you've achieved?"
"You think?" Buffy sighed. "I don't know. Sometimes I read the newspaper headlines and the opinion columns blaming me and my work for making the world a darker place to live in, and I think maybe they're right. Life is short enough as it is, and everybody has so much to deal with. All I ever seem to be doing is giving people something else to be scared of when they shouldn't be."
"Is that such a bad thing?"
Buffy looked puzzled. "I'm sorry?"
"Well, you said it yourself, life is short. And you're right, people shouldn't have to live in fear of supernatural menace. But that doesn't stop it from being there. And as long as nobody faces up to it then nobody knows how to deal with it and it remains something else to be afraid of. So by bringing it out into the open, you're teaching people not to be afraid. You' re showing them that with a little knowledge and forethought they can walk the streets at night; maybe not free from danger, but certainly prepared enough to face whatever might arise and make it home safely."
"Oh." Buffy considered this. "I guess that makes sense," she said finally. "I've never really thought about it like that before."
The young woman smiled warmly. "Of course you have! Why else would you do it?"
Buffy pulled a face.
"To be honest, I don't think I know any more. I mean, I know why I started it you know, because of Willow and Oz." Her tone became more pensive as she started to think back. "They were such the perfect couple, and I was so happy for them both because she was my best friend and he was like the most grounded guy ever, and so good to her too. And when she told me she was pregnant and they were going to get married after the Dingoes' first tour, and I was the only one who knew about any of this - well, apart from Oz of course - it was just like things couldn't get any better. So when the news of the plane crash came through it almost broke my heart. I just felt so helpless; there I was, with all this strength and experience and knowledge, and I couldn't do a damn thing to make things better. I couldn't bring Oz back. I couldn't get through to Willow - nobody could, she spent about a month sitting in her room listening to 'American Pie' and crying all the time. It drove me nuts. So one day I just decided 'Well, if I can't make things better by changing the past, let's see what I can do with what I've got.' And the very next day I went and told Mrs Rosenberg everything - about Willow's pregnancy and Oz and all she had been through with me, from the Harvest right up to Graduation. No details spared. And a few days later, after some arguments with me, and more with her daughter, and a long and difficult telephone conversation with Mom, she took us all down to the local newspaper and persuaded us to tell them everything that had happened at Graduation. And so Slayer's Pride was born."
The woman smiled. "That was a nice thing you did for your friend."
"Actually, " said Buffy, grinning sheepishly, "it was a really stupid thing, and Willow was so angry with me that she didn't speak to me for almost a week. But that got the ball rolling." Her face fell slightly. "Only it didn't stop rolling after that, it kept on; going faster and faster and getting bigger all the time, until suddenly there was so much happening I didn't have time for anything else! Sure, I kept up the slaying, but when I wasn't doing that I was so busy giving interviews or issuing press statements, I lost track of what was happening with my friends. When Xander got knocked down I only managed a short visit to the hospital before he died. When Willow's house caught fire and she inhaled too much smoke, I barely made it on time to speak at the funeral. And when Giles went to sleep and never woke up, I." She sniffed heavily. "I got my PA to send his family a bouquet of flowers! Oh God, they must hate me!"
"I'm sure they thought it was a sweet gesture."
"Not Giles's family! My friends!"
"I know." said the woman softly. "That's who I meant. Look, Buffy," A hint of steel crept into her voice, "your friends were lucky. None of them died alone or unloved. Cordelia stayed by Xander's side, holding his hand, right up to the end. Willow took too long to get out because she was making sure her daughter escaped safely. Oz was comforted in those final terrifying moments by the thought of his daughter-to-be. And the last thing Giles dreamt of before the clot hit was Jenny Calendar. None of them would have had any of that if you hadn't been part of their lives. You really shouldn't feel so sorry for yourself, they loved you and were proud of your achievements."
Buffy smiled mirthlessly. "Gee, from the way you talk about it, it was as if you had been there and talked to them!" she said in a sarcastically perky voice.
"I was," the woman replied, as serious as ever. "I did."
"Yeah, right!" Buffy smirked in the annoying manner that Faith had taught her. "No offence, but there's no way you could have been present when they died. Not unless you're the spirit of Death."
The woman smiled a faintly knowing smile.
"You're not the spirit of Death." Buffy reiterated. And then, more emphatically, "You're not!"
"Yes I am," the woman said with a cheeky grin. "I'm also the body, personality, and dress-sense too!"
"No you're not!" Buffy was getting really irritated now. "Look, you can't be! Death is just a concept; a process that we all go through when our bodies stop functioning! It's not a person or an individual, and even if it were, it would be like a seven-foot tall, bony skeleton thing in a big robe, with a scythe! Not some skinny chick with a perky smile and annoyingly good looks!"
"Well, you're right in part," admitted the woman. "Except for the seven-foot tall skeleton idea; that was never really a go-er. But that's not all Death is. It's also me."
"Oh yeah? Prove it! Tell me what happens when we die!"
"I can't do that."
"Right, because you don't know!" cried Buffy in angry triumph. "You don't know what happens after death, you don't know what happens during death, and you certainly don't know what my friends thought or said when they died, and do you know why?" She leant forward. "Because you're not Death!"
Satisfied she sat back, certain in her argument this time. 'Death' didn't seem to notice this, however, or if she did she ignored it, choosing instead to stare thoughtfully into space before replying.
"When I met Celia."
(Buffy sat up, instantly alerted by the sound of her late cousin's name)
".the first thing she said was that she knew you'd be upset because Power Girl couldn't save her this time. So I told her there was no need to be sad because Power Girl would grow up to save lots of people. And she said that wasn't the point, you were upset now! I thought that was cute."
It was like somebody had punched her in the stomach. For a minute Buffy could only gape and stare at Death as she tried to come to terms with what had been said and all it implied. She thought she had processed Celia's death years ago when she slew Der Kindestod, but hearing those words that sounded so plausibly like her cousin's, along with the extra detail of childhood, just brought it all flooding back with a vividness that left her unable to say anything but
"But how did you."
"I mean, I never told."
"Not even Mom remembers."
A cold silence followed. Much to her amazement, Buffy found herself glancing nervously around, trying to avoid the gaze of the pale reminder of mortality sat next to her and the dark possibilities raised there. A funeral was starting nearby and she had just enough time to see an usher persuading a long-haired transient man to move along before the sound of a sigh made her instinctively turn back to her companion.
"I should go," said Death, getting up. "I've clearly disturbed you, and I'm running the risk of being late for my next duty as it is."
"Wait!" With much effort Buffy got to her feet and looked Death in the eye. "Don't.Don't I have to go with you?"
Death smiled broadly.
"No. It's not your time. Like I said, I was in the area for other reasons." The smile became a grin. "And before you ask, no, it wasn't Faith either."
Buffy weakly tried to mirror the grin and Death looked concerned.
"I'm sorry I couldn't help you more," she said with compassion. "I hope you find the answers you're looking for soon."
Before Buffy could reply a strong hand clamped itself tightly over her mouth and she gasped in a foul stench of filth and sweat. A prickle in the side of her neck told her someone was holding something sharp there as a sibilant voice murmured into her ear.
"I'm sorry about this, but this is a rather unexpected opportunity for me, and after the fiasco of New York I'm not going to take any chances."
Her assailant didn't get any further. With lightning speed Buffy sharply jabbed an elbow backwards, biting down hard as she did so. She was rewarded with the bitter taste of dirt and skin, but the scream of pain behind her more than made up for this as she reached for the wrist of the hand that wasn't covering her mouth and squeezed with all her might. The prickling instantly vanished to the tune of a second scream and Buffy pulled herself free, following up her advantage with another swift elbow jab back. There was a satisfying THUMP as her attacker hit the ground and Buffy took the opportunity to carefully turn around, curious to see who had chosen to be so foolish as to try and attack her. To her astonishment she saw that it was the same transient man she had seen being moved on from the funeral just a few moments ago. He looked even less appealing close up than he had at a distance, with his grey stubble and lank greasy hair; brushing the dirt of his unpleasantly stained trousers as he got to his knees and hissed.
"Why are you attacking me?" He pointed to where Death was standing. "She' s the evil one!" Not me!"
"Oh yeah?" Buffy let the anger show in her voice. "Well even if I believed that, which I don't for a minute, I'd much rather be around her because she' s not the one who tried to stick a," She looked at the ground then back at the man, "broken bottle into my neck!"
"But she's Death!" insisted the man, shaking with the force of his words. "Her eyes breed flies, her skin is cracked and shrivelled."
"And she sure plays a mean pinball!" finished Buffy fiercely. "Look, I don' t know what your problem is pal but you'd better not try anything else while I'm around or you're going to have one pissed-off Slayer to deal with!"
For a moment the man simply looked at Buffy, and she shivered as she saw the shadows that filled his eyes. Then he threw back his head and laughed; a rough and disturbingly raucous laugh that echoed amongst the headstones almost loud enough to wake the dead
"I should have guessed!" he sneered. "Nothing but the best for the Queen of Corpses!" Slowly he got to his feet. "Don't worry, I'm not going to 'try' anything else right now. This was simply a chance encounter and one that I clearly came unprepared for. I will not make the same mistake next time. After all," He directed his sightless gaze towards Death, "we both know that you will be coming back, sooner or later. And one day," His lips twitched slightly, "I will prevail, oh yes."
Slowly he turned and began to walk away.
"I will prevail."
Buffy watched as the figure of the transient slowly disappeared into the distance.
"Asshole!" she muttered, before turning to Death. "Who was that creep?"
"He calls himself the Eremite," she explained, "and he's really starting to be a bit of a nuisance." Sadly she shook her head. "Listen," She gave Buffy a sober look, "Thank you for protecting me just now. I'm not a fan of violence, but I do appreciate you doing what had to be done."
"Hey, that's OK," said Buffy, smiling in embarrassment. "You know me, little miss Likes-To-Fight, as a certain Cordelia Chase once put it."
Death smiled softly.
"That's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you have to fight. Sometimes fighting is the only choice you have."
"Yeah." Buffy smiled. "Yeah, I think you've got something there. Thanks! And listen, thanks for the other stuff too. You've given me some serious things to think about, but I think it's going to be OK."
"Good, I'm glad." Death mirrored Buffy's smile. "Now, close your eyes."
"What's the matter, don't trust me?" Death grinned. "Don't worry, I'm not going to do anything bad, just close your eyes."
"OK." Buffy did as she was asked.
The sound of her name so startled the Slayer that it made her lose her balance and she started to fall. Before she knew it, there were strong hands holding her under her arms and a familiar Bostonian accent saying:
"Shit, B! Sorry about that! I didn't know you were praying, otherwise I would have kept my stupid mouth shut. Are you OK? How's the hip?"
Buffy glared up at the taller Slayer, secretly as pleased to see her as ever.
"The hip is just as good as it has been every time you've asked that stupid question since I came out of hospital!" she snapped, as Faith helped her up. "And I wasn't praying, I was talking to.oh."
Her words trailed off as she looked towards where the young woman had been, and saw nothing there but an empty patch of grass.
"I dig," said Faith, misunderstanding what Buffy was looking at. "You were talking to your dead. That's cool. Lots of people do that."
"No." Buffy frowned. "No, there was somebody there! A young woman, I was talking to her!"
"Really?" Faith grinned. "Was she cute?"
"Faith!" This time Buffy's glare was genuine. "She was at least half our age, and besides, you're just changing the subject because you don't believe me!"
"No, I believe you," said Faith sincerely. "We've both been at the slaying game for long enough to know that weird shit like vanishing people happens all the time. It's just that I promised Rob we wouldn't leave him looking after the office for too long and we're kind of running late as it is."
"That's what she said," murmured Buffy.
"Nothing, never mind." Buffy smiled apologetically, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be such a bitch. It's just been a really tough day."
"Tell me about it!" Faith replied as the two of them started to walk out of the graveyard, "While I was outside waiting for you, this old guy had a heart attack in the middle of the street. Just totally keeled over and nobody went to help."
"God, that's awful! Didn't anyone even call an ambulance or anything?"
"Yeah, me. That was why I was late; I stayed with him until they told me he was gone."
Buffy paused and stared at her lover.
"Well," Faith blushed slightly, "you know how I am about stuff like that, given everything I've been through. I don't think anyone should be left to face the darkness alone. Especially not in their final moments."
For a few moments Buffy just stood there. Then, without warning, she hugged Faith with a passion and intensity that took both of them by surprise.
"Wow," Faith managed when the shorter Slayer finally let her go. "What was that for?"
"For being you." replied Buffy. "For being the most you-like-you you could ever be and reminding me how happy I am that you're just.you."
"Cool. I've got to remember you said that next time I attack another real estate magnate - ow!" Faith rubbed her arm where Buffy had hit her. "What was that for?"
"For also being you!" Buffy grinned. "Now didn't you say something about us running late?"
Arm-in-arm, the two Slayers made their way towards the car.
"Faith?" Buffy asked when they got there.
"Uh-huh?" replied Faith, distractedly unlocking the door.
"Do you think that Death is a real person?"
Faith looked up at her lover.
"What, you mean like some cute gothette who hangs around in graveyards saying things like 'peachy keen' and offering advice to anyone she thinks needs it?"
"Nah." Faith opened the car door. "That kind of thing only happens in comic books B."
"Gee, thanks F!" Buffy muttered as she got in the other side. "You can be so romantic sometimes!"
With a grin Faith started the engine.
"Yeah, but you love me anyway."
"Yeah, I do."
"Sometimes I lie awake at night, thinking that we're dead. That we died a couple of years ago. And that all this is Death's last joke. That we're living one last dream, before the lights go out."
"And then I think, 'So what's new?'"
" And I roll over."
"And, sooner or later, I go back to sleep."
- Donna Cavanagh, Time of your Life