Book One: Lost

By: Aurorarose13
Chapter One - Winter's Arrival


The sprawling metropolis sprouted like a giant's garden before her very eyes. Tall, thin, stony stalks of concrete plants flourished even in the biting weather, taking the harsh lashings of wind as though they were nothing but invisible breezes. The insects scuttling at their bases, however, were not so lucky, for they felt every freezing gust Mother Nature offered, and they shivered even through their thick shells of fur and wool. The silver and gray blades—speckled with shimmering flecks of glass—of a macabre stone and steel grass jutted from the asphalt soil and scraped the sky with their needle-like tips, manipulating the black clouds surrounding them. The lack of color within the realm was frightening, like something straight out of a horror novel. Everything was gray and white and black… everything. And the worst part of all was that all three hues melted together to form a grossly painted mural, stretching from one end of the horizon to the other and resembling the kinds of paintings Salvador Dali created.

A blast of icy winter wind snapped Buffy's ankle-length jacket roughly against the back of her thin legs, and she lost her concentration momentarily—thankfully. Pellets of silver ice rained down upon her blackened figure and coated her hair and shoulders with a ghostly layer of white. Wispy, ethereal fingers of steam radiated out from underneath the ice, melting into the clouds of fog drifting lackadaisically past her bony face. The thickly polluted air wound its way into her eyes, stinging them with a hot fire, and a single, solitary tear slipped down her cheek. Buffy imagined the water beginning to freeze already, so she wiped it quickly away with her jacket sleeve; and with the tear she managed to also wipe away all of her hopes of leaving this God-forsaken city.

By now Buffy was in too deep into her own mess, and she wished more than anything that she were back home, in her little town of Sunnydale with her friends and family. She loathed the new life she had here: the low paying waitressing job; the dingy apartment she owned, furnished with but a few scant decorations; her mediocre day-to-day routine. Each interminable day Buffy found it harder and harder to believe that she actually missed her slayer lifestyle. Yet each day further she thrust herself into the crowded city, overflowing with strange new faces, the more she found herself yearning to go back to it. Back to the very thing that had driven her away in the first place. Back to the very same people who had driven her away.

Here, Buffy had no friends; of course, she didn't have any enemies either, only acquaintances. Here, she was but another face in the herd of people, just another number with no name or characteristics to set her apart from anyone else. Here, she was just as much a stranger to the rest of the world as she was to her own self, and there wasn't much she could do to change that. Work offered her little to no chance to get to know anyone. Everyday it was just more faces, all new, yet all seemingly identical to one another. Their physiognomies wore dark shadows as masks, concealing their true identities under the protective shades of black. The only way she could even learn anything about someone was if he or she were a repeat customer, who he or she rarely ever was—at least, in Buffy's section of the restaurant the customers were hardly ever the same.

As Buffy sauntered through the chichi section of town and fought her way through the gatherings of shoppers racing about pell-mell, she took notice of how much more active New York was than her home town back west. Cabs screeched by, slamming on their brakes as potential customers flagged them down with their bags filled to the brims with their precious merchandise. The phlegmatic traffic jams clogged the roadway for miles, stretching out like a line of ants under the artificial canopy of skyscrapers and high-rises. Small shrubs and the sporadic tree dotted the sidewalks, and window boxes congested with dead ivies and withered flowers of all sizes draped gloomily from the sills, browning tendrils grasping urgently for a lifeline.

A mix of ice and wet snow poured forth from a slit in the belly of a single, enormous cloud dangling over the bustling metropolis. Minute piles of the mishmash collected on the millions of shoppers and the thousands of cars filling the streets. The frosted windows of the buildings, looming over the former slayer, appeared to her as the glazed eyes of the hundreds of cadavers she'd seen before in her other life, the one to which she yearned so desperately to return.

Buffy rolled her shoulders uncomfortably underneath her jacket as she passed as quickly as she could through the streets lined with the faces of foreigners. All she could think about was how she would never know these people for who they really were. Some were probably drug dealers, others the drug users; some might very well be royalty, and yet others were probably just like her, struggling to get by in a world where no one really knew anyone else, nor did they give a damn.

Strands of her golden hair slipped icily around her neck, slowly freezing into creepers of stone and forming tightening fingers which asphyxiated Buffy. The wind pressed insistently into her body, ignoring the protective shield of her jacket and piercing right into the core of her. Like a child’s game, it chased the warmth right out of her body, leaving her shuddering in the cold. On days like this, Buffy always found herself wishing she were in California, where the weather was continuously warm and there wasn't a flake of snow in sight for miles and miles.

The dingy skyline glowed a filthy gray as plumes of smoke and toxic fumes met the clouds of pollution previously collected in the air, dancing an intricate ballet of unrequited love and romance. Snow fell from these clouds and onto the roofs of row houses practically lost in the smog, dirtying the sides of humongous stone giants, which teetered precariously in the fantastic, whipping wind. The former slayer stared intently at the sight as she made her way back to the apartment in the no-man's-land in which she dwelled—not her home, but simply the place in which she dwelled. People say home is where the heart is, and as Buffy reflected, if that were true, home was in Sunnydale—not here in Sunnyside—and always would be.

As Buffy steadily neared her apartment, she observed the decline in class, evident by the types of housing and stores established in each region. She had gone from the lustrous, golden neighborhood of the wealthy, to the average neighborhood of the Tom, Dick and Harries of New York, to, finally, the darkened, bleak sector of the poverty-stricken lower class.

This was the section of New York where the tourists never dared to venture. This was the section of New York where crime originated. This was the section of New York where its citizens who made minimum wage to support a family of four lived. This was the section of New York where Buffy resided. Here, within the disintegrating walls of an ancient apartment complex choked with dead vines and 100-year-old grime, was Buffy's house. Before it was a mass of litter strewn carelessly about its stony feet, almost like an offering to the garbage gods. Everything from spoiled food to badly worn clothing was scattered along the sidewalk. Cigarette butts were the most common item in the mess, and, consequently, were the things considered as luxuries of the rich to almost all of the people living here.

Looming ominously in the distance was the formidable structure that was Buffy's apartment complex. Its walls were stained smoke gray; however, a splash of brick red glimmered magically under the glare of a dwindling sun, conveying a message of hope to all its onlookers and, in doing so, deceiving them into believing they could escape the tortuous life contained within the prison walls. Huge cracks in the mortar wove their way up the building's façade, noticeable as tiny snakes of black between the bricks even from a distance. Vines of crumbling, dead ivies held—or so it appeared—the building together, practically keeping its sides from exploding outward. The windows were ashen in appearance, dirtied by a century of heavy industrial pollution and human abuse. Tattered curtains rustled visibly inside almost every apartment because the seals on the windows were so old that the wind just bullied its way through them, freezing each apartment's inhabitants.

The closer Buffy got to the lurking monster, the further into her depression she sank.

When she was but a few short steps from the glass door, Buffy halted abruptly, frozen by a fear hardly unknown to her. This was the fear of entering this place and not ever being able to turn back and leave it again… the fear of being swallowed up by the beast. Her delicate hand remained inches from the tarnished brass doorknob, wavering as a feather in the frosty breezes. The wintry air dusted her hand with sleet, which quickly melted into the oblivion from whence it came. The cold worked its way up through her veins, icing their walls and freezing her blood. Still she could not bring herself to open the simple glass door. Her fingers trembled along with the rest of her body as each new gust battered Buffy's slender silhouette. She looked around warily.

It was so hard for Buffy to enter 754 Ganesh Street, Apartment 44, knowing that from then on this was all she would probably ever know—poverty, emptiness, a mediocre life. The blonde wondered how drastically her future would have been altered had she remained back west with her family and friends. How much brighter would it have been? What would she be doing right now instead of shivering in the biting wind? So many questions, all completely rhetorical. If she could only go back…

No, not any more. Any chances she had for going back were wiped out four years ago. Now it was too late; the damage was done. No one would want to see her face in Sunnydale ever again—they'd be too disgusted with her. Buffy left in a time of great hardships for everyone in the Scooby Gang. She'd been weak, and instead of standing up to her fears and confronting them, she ran. Ran as far away as she could get with the money she'd had! And now she was here and thinking about going back. Stupid woman!

Eventually Buffy's hand fell reluctantly upon the knob and she twisted it harshly, her eyes closing almost painfully as she pulled open the trembling door. It squeaked noisily as it swung outward, its cries the same as Buffy's when she cried. The slayer tried to slip in as quickly as she could in an attempt to get it over with before she would freeze… or have second thoughts, whichever came first.

In the barren lobby of the foreboding structure, Buffy stood tensely for a few moments in an attempt to gather her bearings. How often she had stood here, amongst the beaten sofa, weathered chairs and shoddy, 1000-year-old lamps, doing this exact same thing? It was completely ridiculous that a slayer of her caliber should do this every time she arrived at Hornwaggler Apartments, but Buffy couldn't help it. The musty, dank room was littered with wrappers and cigarette butts, junk and junkies. One other door graced the lobby, and that was the door leading to Mr. Hornwaggler's own well-furnished apartment—the only aesthetically pleasing one in the entire building.

This was the start of Buffy's fifth year in the Big Apple, and, as she had observed, the first weeks of each new year here were always the toughest for her to become accustomed to. Making matters even worse was the simple fact that about this time every year—when it grew colder and darker earlier—Buffy felt ennui and alone. The thought of warmer weather in Sunnydale, where she could no longer go, riddled with her friends didn't help soothe her much either.

Before anymore time elapsed, her muscles relaxed and her breathing became steady once more—much opposed to the previous scene outside—and Buffy felt infinitely better because she knew she had overcome a great obstacle (although she felt that way every time she did this). With each new day that passed, the slayer felt freer of her past than she ever had, but she expected this with the progression of time. However, Buffy predicted, and wisely, that it would truly take forever for her to get entirely over Sunnydale. Still, she felt as though she was moving on with her new life, and Buffy was as determined as ever to do so. But so often in these wintry months, she found herself slipping into these unwelcome lapses of memory, feeling alone and powerless with not a soul to turn to for help. These were the kind of bizarre demons that now plagued the Queen of the Night.

The surprising rustle of her winter garb echoed emptily throughout the claustrophobic stairwell of the five-story complex. As Buffy made the perilous journey up the four flights of stairs amongst the shadows of the twilight, she sifted through the clouds and smog to her room, the whimpering of her winter clothing trailing her. It was a doleful sound, soft and tragic to the ear, yet it cut like a razor into the soul. The loss of innocence. The perversion of youth. The deletion of hope. That's what this strikingly simple sound really consisted of, not the simple swishing of clothing, but of pain and suffering and quiet anguish.

Up. Up each treacherously narrow step. Always up. Up high into the sky to become one with the clouds. Or so it seemed to Buffy. She made this trip so many times that it had become part of her daily routine, but strangely it was the one thing Buffy always noticed most of all. No, never the trip down; or the walk to work; or work itself; nor the phantasmagoric visages of her customers; not the walk home either. Simply the climbs up the stairs. Naturally, the always curious slayer began a serious introspection (per usual in her dreary new life) as to why this was, all the while dragging her hand languidly along the banister.

Second floor.

Buffy thought back five years ago, back to when she was seated on a bus without an inkling as to where it was headed, nor did she care. The veils of fog that clouded these memories wafted away like a stage curtain to reveal a tragic scene behind them. A mere slip of a girl, but 17 years old, slouched in her terribly uncomfortable bus seat, fidgeting restlessly and twiddling her thumbs. It had been a long while since the last stop in Las Vegas and she was getting antsy for a stop. Obviously bored with the scenery outside and tired of waiting, Buffy decided to read a book she had managed to smuggle from the library in Sunnydale High School. A trashy romance novel. No one knew she read them, not even her mother, and she tried hard to keep it that way. Of course, now it didn't matter where she read them or when she read them; now that she had run away, no one would ever care again.

The bus came to its last stop on its trip, and those who had not departed at the other stops filed out together, each and everyone of them moaning and groaning about how his or her ass hurt—all except Buffy. She didn't feel like talking. Nowadays she never did, for she had nothing to talk about and no one to share it with anyway. Besides, she didn't even know where she was. As she walked into the depot with the rest of the crowd, the slayer noticed the merry greeting sign overhead that read: "Welcome to Salt Lake City! Where dreams become reality!" Yeah, right. It was at that exact moment that Buffy realized this was the saddest day of her life. Nothing compared to the tremendous losses she had suffered, to the incredible amount of unending emotional torment and pain she experienced, to the eternal darkness she saw encompassing her. And even though Buffy knew that no matter where she went those memories would haunt her, she took her few remaining dollars and purchased yet another Greyhound bus ticket, this time with the full intention of knowing where she was going. Buffy bought a one-way ticket to New York City. Hopefully there she could wrangle out a living for herself, one she might actually accept living.

The slayer knew full well that her past was inescapable, but at that low point in her life, she viewed the fantastic city as a city where she could start anew, with a clean slate—as they often say—and best of all, no one would know who she was. In her mind she could see the glittering lights of Time Square, the bedazzling diamonds in the windows of Tiffany's, the wonderment of the Statue of Liberty, and the sheer immensity of the Empire State Building. Buffy imagined herself standing amidst the throng of sightseers, buying hot dogs from one of those mobile concession stands placed strategically along the sidewalk and shopping on Fifth Avenue (doing all the things a tourist would do).

If she had only known what she knew now...

Third floor.

Buffy had nothing when she arrived; merely a suitcase full of clothes and other supplies, $45 to her name and a whole head full of silly hopes and fantasies of what she would find. But all thoughts stopped when she glanced through the front window of the bus, at the city off in the distance, literally glowing in the dark like a glimmering jewel dancing with a million reds, whites and golds in the velvet cape of night. The flashing lights above the city winked in unison at Buffy as if enticing her in with some sort of spell, which some people would testify it had the capabilities of doing. The lure of New York was just too much for the slayer to resist, and soon she found herself totally enraptured. The high, full moon masked by veils of fog, which did little to dull the ethereal lunar light, let loose a milky white glow down upon the valley of the stone and steel giants, making the place even more aestically pleasing to Buffy than before. Buffy could smell the city, the actual city, for it had a million distinct smells that no other in the world possessed, and when they mashed together they created a symphony for the senses.

Closer and closer she came to the inner city. With each turn of the bus' wheels, her excitement grew tenfold and the anticipation was almost unbearable.

The thunder of the tires beating against the steel grating on the Brooklyn Bridge as it crossed into Brooklyn for its final stop filled Buffy’s ears with a strange whirring sound. She’d been over so many bridges on her cross-country adventure, but none had sounded so new, so wonderful, so different, yet entirely the same as all the others. There was something special about this particular bridge, something totally unique to it that made it stand out against all the others. Whether it was because she believed she was moving on to a new life, or whether it was just the aura of exhilaration surrounding the swarming anthill, it meant nothing to Buffy either way—it was just an outlet for the pain.

Fourth floor.

Her first few weeks were spent in a YMCA. They were hellish weeks meant to test her capabilities of handling fast-paced city life. She passed, though hardly with flying colors. Quite a few times she broke down completely and ended up crying herself to sleep on her sagging bunk bed. But soon she felt the itch to escape the shelter, and Buffy knew then that she had to get her own apartment. Whilst she applied for job after job under the alias of Anne Winters (she wanted something easy to remember, so Buffy took her middle name and simply choose another season for her last name), Buffy did any odd jobs she could to earn fast cash. After weeks of waiting for any replies to her job inquiries, she soon found that nowhere would hire her. But Buffy never gave up, which was ironic because that’s exactly what she had done a couple of months ago. She applied for even more jobs, still hoping that one might just respond.

Finally, Anne’s patience and perseverance proved well in the end, and she received a job as a waitress at Skippy’s Diner. Although a neophyte when it came to waitressing, Anne managed to do extremely well. The facts that she was a sedulous worker and seemingly infallible when it came to working elicited a good response from Skippy. In need of cash and eager to do some real labor, Anne accepted immediately without even caring to ask how much pay was.

Though her first day was a disaster—she spilled her trays four or five times on the patrons and frequently delivered the wrong food and took the wrong order—Skippy was convinced Anne would be a success, and within the span of a week she had proven him right. Her handle on her job became more controlled with every order she took, and within no time she was a professional.

Although Skippy’s Diner was a lower-class establishment, the place remained popular and made very good business. Anne’s wages were okay, too, and the tips normally weren’t bad either. Plus, she was only a few blocks from her residence in the middle-class area of town, though her apartment was far from average. Still, Anne was relatively happy with the life she was leading in New York. She had money, her own place, even a close friend (Skippy).

But merely three years later the diner was bought out from under its own feet by a bevy of wealthy women hoping only to increase that wealth and gain power. When they took over, Anne found them to be contemptible to all of the employees, herself in particular. They were snobby and pretentious, always thinking they were so very cosmopolitan and educated compared to the lowly working class. Naturally, they needed to show off their riches to the world, especially these middle-class types, so they remodeled the quaint little diner in their ostentatious image, turning it into a fancy French restaurant entitled the Palace of Versailles.

Somehow Anne managed to get hired at the Palace, although she didn’t really want to work there. But because it was the only place that would hire her, she took the position gladly. Wages were better here as were the tips, but the quality of the people working in management left a lot to be desired. Anne missed Skippy as well as her fellow coworkers. Dealing with the five witches everyday for two years certainly had been trying on her nerves and patience, but she’d survived. She was a slayer after all. But now a dread filled her every time she put on her uniform. It was the same kind of dread that she felt at the entrance to Hornwaggler Apartments: the gnawing, painful fear that this was where she would always be stuck.

Apartment 44.

Though now thoroughly disheartened by the recent, unwelcome backlash of memories, Anne thumbed numbly through her coat pocket for her room key. In the blackness of the hallway she could hardly read the severely tarnished brass numbers on her door let alone find her key. She searched for a while longer, and upon locating it, she then proceeded into the shadowed apartment. A single window cut in the kitchen wall provided the only light in the whole place, and even then that light was a dim twinkling from the city street lamps glowing brilliantly below. The blonde flicked on the light switch, forcing most of the eerie, inky ghosts to disintegrate quickly as light disseminated about the cramped living space.

It was times like this, when she could actually see her place, that she hated it. Anne glanced contemptuously around the room, scrutinizing it with her falcon’s eyes. A sofa, a battered wooden coffee table, a worn and badly frayed Oriental carpet and a small table lamp were all that graced the tiny living room. The clattering and rattling of the slayer’s refrigerator sounded loudly inside her little abode, mixing with the heater whirring along the baseboard. The smell of dust and dirt befouled her nostrils and left a revolting taste in her mouth. Yessiree, Anne despised Apartment 44.

Blustery winds of change roared outside the building, and because the superintendent was too cheap to seal around the windows properly, the chilly air seeped into the house, forcing the blonde to rub her still coat-covered arms to keep warm. With her mind now focused on the window, Anne stared beyond the thin plates of glass, past the over-crowded row houses, over the countless bodegas and bars and right at the Brooklyn Bridge. From here it looked like nothing more than a flimsy toothpick structure a child would create in first grade. The marvelousness Anne had once seen in it failed to make itself known to her again because she had stared at it every night consistently for almost five full years, so it had eventually lost its luster and magnificence. Its appeal had faded just like everything else in both Buffy’s and Anne’s existences had. Faded and died. Crushed ruthlessly by forces still unknown to her.

Finally, Anne shrugged off her jacket and hung it carelessly on the back of the sofa. As she headed into her poor excuse for a kitchen, the slayer prayed that she would find something hot to drink that would assuage the chills running rampant inside her, the blood-curdling chills that originate not from outside the person, but from within the person.

Searching through her barren cabinets like Old Mother Hubbard, the slayer found one packet of instant hot chocolate and a tin of Maxwell House Coffee with a single scoop left in it. It was a tough decision, but Anne decided to save the coffee for the morning and drink the chocolate now. Anyway, it was getting late, and she didn’t want to be up at ungodly hours looking around a place she couldn’t stand to look at for more than a minute. Besides, what would wake her up in the morning?

She turned on the burner and went to remove the kettle from its cubbyhole in the wall. When she did, Anne remarked to herself how new and beautiful it was, shining and clean, quite different from everything else she owned. The glittering copper metal sparkled under the simple hanging bulb in the kitchen ceiling. The fancy gooseneck spout, delicately wrought handle and the overall integrity of the kettle made it the most valuable item in Ms. Winter’s whole household. It was a treasure to both look at and hold. It even made the dim, tiny room seem a little brighter and cheerier.

Memories of purchasing the remarkable object gradually poured into Anne’s head as she filled it with water and rested it on her ancient gas stove. Ah, the little antiques shop in an alley off of Broadway. It was a queer place packed full of strange and exotic things to both bedazzle and mystify. She remembered spotting the kettle and instantly wanting to buy it, but Anne harbored a fear of spending her little surplus of money so capriciously. However, in the end she gave in to her id. It had been a good decision.

While she waited for the water to boil, Anne relaxed on the weathered couch, kicking off her heeled shoes and melting into the tattered fabric of the cushions. Her eyes closed—she was so exhausted from work—and she slipped into a light, but troubled sleep.

Suddenly, Buffy heard the blast of a train whistle in her sensitive ears, and she felt the ground moving underneath her feet. Her whole body swayed with the motions of the train, and she was rocked into a trance. Looking out the window of the speeding train with a newfound curiosity, Buffy watched the landscape breeze by her, the mountains and the valleys forming into a single pulsating mass of earth and undulating under the heat of the burning-red, summer sun.

As the train gradually slowed to a stop, Buffy began to recognize her surroundings. The station up ahead; the houses in the distant; the school on the minute hillside. The train had reached its final destination of Sunnydale, California. As she exited the passenger car, the slayer glanced up at the sun shining so brilliantly down from the silver and blue empyrean, and she thought to herself, “This is going to be a wonderful day!” There was not a threatening cloud in sight, only large, fluffy white ones floating lethargically across the heavens.

Buffy had been dreaming of this moment for months: the chance to go home and see her friends and her mother; to reunite with the Scooby Gang and make peace; to conquer Angel’s spirit once and for all. She had hoped for a day like today, but hadn’t really expected it. The slayer only prayed it was a good omen for the storm that was about to arise.

It had been a little over four months since she had left her hometown in the midst of the terrible tragedy of losing her Angel and moved to New York City. In that short span of time she had managed to wrangle a decent job and a livable apartment—both of which Buffy had abandoned when she’d returned home. But it was just as well because she was never going back there; Sunnydale was her home again. Finally. Her intense curiosity about what the gang had been up to while she had been away had plagued Buffy for months on end, and she could hardly wait to share her own adventures with them.

Because the kids were back in school, Buffy had the whole early afternoon to herself. Normally, being the impulsive woman that she was, the slayer would have bounded to the school to see them, but as far as she knew, she was still wanted for Kendra’s murder. Not a mess she would want to immerse herself into as of yet. So, Buffy spent the day bumming around town, revisiting old haunts, shopping in her favorite stores, and just sort of reminiscing.

Then, when nightfall set in like it always did in Sunnydale—so fast it made your head spin—Buffy started her search for Xander, Giles, Oz and Willow. First, she checked all of their houses one by one, inspecting every one for any signs of life within it. Finding every one empty, Buffy cruised over to the Bronze, Sunnydale’s only good hangout. When she ventured in she found that, although it was packed to its maximum, none of the Scooby Gang was to be found there.

Finally, Buffy arrived at the cemetery. Once she remembered that Sunnydale no longer had a slayer in operation, she realized that quite possibly that they would be there, patrolling for her. As it soon turned out, she was right.

The moon glimmered amongst the stars and shone down on four black figures, lighting certain features on each one of their faces. Sauntering coolly through the headstones was Xander accompanied by Willow and Giles. The fiery tinge of dyed red hair revealed to Buffy that Oz was there, too, hanging behind to cover their backs. It was quite evident by their rigid structure that the group had worked out a very precise system for patrolling for and staking vampires. Stealthily, the clan slipped through the graves, their light breathing camouflaging with the gentle, silent breezes.

Abruptly, the silence was shattered when a particularly vicious-looking vamp exploded from his resting-place and roared with incredible rancor toward her friends. It grinned evilly and wiggled its claws contemptuously before their eyes.

Immediately the four went into their assigned battle positions—legs spread shoulder-width apart, eyes narrowed, muscles tense, brains alert—and readied their wooden stakes. While Giles and Willow attempted to distract it with taunting, Oz and Xander inched their way around the freshly opened grave and surrounded the creature of the night as the watcher prepared to launch the killing blow. However, Xander attacked it from behind, sweeping the demon’s feet out from underneath it. But, expecting something as rash as this, the vampire caught itself before it fell and managed to swing a fist at the young slayerette, scoring a direct hit to the face. Xander carelessly dropped his stake as he grabbed for his smashed nose, which oozed a sanguine liquid. “You sonova…” the boy snorted before Willow interjected.

“Xander! Duck!”

And within a moment it was all over. Giles charged the vamp as it stood laughing at the bleeding boy, jamming his stake into its chest and watching it burst into a cloud of dust. Xander sniffled wetly as some dust tickled his bloody nose, and everyone ran to his side. Even Buffy. She stepped out from behind her tombstone to go see him and congratulate them all on their terrific fight, but quickly stopped when they started to talk.

“It always looked so much easier when Buffy did it,” Willow commented, handing Xander a tissue.

A smile formed on Buffy’s lips.

“Can we please not bring her up?” requested Xander miserably.

Now she frowned.

“You all know how the topic of Buffy Summers affects me. So let’s please drop the subject. Besides, I think we’re doing just fine on our own. We’ve almost got this routine figured out perfectly. We don’t need her, and we never did.”

Giles looked disapprovingly at the boy. “Oh, come off it, Xander. Had Buffy never come to Sunnydale, we’d all probably be dead by now. You know we need her; we always have, and we eternally will—especially you.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Giles.”

“Oh, I think I do,” the Brit said smartly.

“Even if that’s true—and I’m not saying it is—she obviously didn’t need any of us. Didn’t need me…”

“Xander,” Willow whispered.

“The truth hurts, doesn’t it, Will? That’s something I’ve learned firsthand. But you can teach yourself to live with the pain, as I did. It always helps if you stop seeing the person as a goddess so high above you and think of her as just another face in the crowd, featureless and plain. A few bad words help, too.” He smiled at his lame joke and blotted his nose with the Kleenex.

Tears had formed in Buffy’s eyes and stained her beautiful face. Each word that Xander spoke lashed her like a cat-o-nine-tails. She had never known that was how he saw her. Not anymore though. So far as she could tell, Xander hated her for leaving, as he rightly should, she knew. Why had she come back at all? They obviously didn’t need her or want her, for that matter. They could fight the vampires and monsters on their own; no need for a slayer that would only annoy them. God! All that money to come here, the loss of her job and maybe even her apartment, for what? For nothing but a handful of hurt feelings. She was just going to have to return to Brooklyn anyway.

From the shadows, the slayer watched the gloomy precession leave the cemetery and lose its way in the inky black folds of night. This would be the last time she saw any of them ever again, for she decided this would be the last time ever returned to Sunnydale or California. It was officially part of her past.

The following morning, Buffy clambered onto the first train leaving for New York. A final mournful whistle initiated from the train as it chugged off slowly across the country. The world blurred around her yet again, and the next thing she knew the train was like coyote baying at the moon as it pulled up to a station in the Big Apple.

Anne awoke to the high whine of the steaming kettle on the stove. She was startled momentarily, thinking she was still on the train four years ago, but regained her senses when she recognized the sound. It took all of her remaining strength to heft herself up off of the couch and drag herself into the kitchen.

Since her mind was still preoccupied with the recent flood of long-forgotten memories, Anne wasn’t paying close enough attention when she was pouring the boiling water, and, consequently, the blonde scalded her finger. As pain inched up her arm, the slayer dropped the coffeepot—whose cataclysmic boom practically rocked the whole flimsy building—and sizzling water spilled all over the floor. “Damn!” Anne cursed loudly as the warm liquid permeated her thin cloth slippers.

While Anne was running her finger under the faucet, she commented to herself, “At least I have enough water to make my hot chocolate. I guess every cloud does have a silver lining.”

Outside in the cold, unfriendly world, dirtied ashes rained down from the heavens—tiny twirling ballerinas with grace and poise. In the city’s ever-glowing golden haze, they winked at Anne with their intricate, lacy wings as they fluttered about aimlessly on the breezes that chilled the rest of New York as well as the Winter’s household.

White lights blinked out all over the city as hard-working men and women eagerly went home to their expecting families. It was at this time of night that Anne always did her most serious thinking. Everyday when she came home from work, Anne wished she had someone there to greet her—a mother, a father, someone… anyone. She was so lonely in Brooklyn. It never failed to seem totally ironic to her that she could be in a city packed with over a million residents, yet she felt hopelessly alone. These people were just strangers though, not friends; hardly any of them were even acquaintances. And Anne couldn’t help but notice the knowing look in these people’s criticizing eyes when they passed her—like they all knew about her past and the way she had treated her friends. Their hard expressions gave her the sensation that they could listen to her thoughts and know her most private feelings with just one simple glance. They perpetually wore scowls that appeared to be etched into their stony, otherwise featureless faces, which said to Anne that they wanted nothing more to do with her. So the slayer remained on the outside looking in, like in Sunnydale. At least back west she’d had a few friends whom understood her. But no more.

Through the abrupt hallway and into her cramped bedroom, Anne traveled with her cocoa, treading lightly, for her shoes were sopping wet and her feet ached from standing on them for a straight eight-hour shift. She sat wearily down on her jerrybuilt bed and inhaled heavily, smelling the rich aroma of chocolate drifting through the stiflingly thick air of the room. She glanced around and remarked to herself how strange it was that everything else she owned in the world was basically junk; nothing was expensive here except for her kettle and her hot chocolate. Hot chocolate was the one thing she was never, ever cheap about; it was the best, or none at all.

Further proving that point was the television that sat across from the bed on a tiny, wooden table. It was black-and-white and certainly nothing special. The screen was severely scratched and dusty; the top was stained a hideous color from the continuous spillage of drinks; the faux cherry wood sides were marred with claw marks; and two knobs were missing from the front panel. Still, with her current lifestyle, it was all Anne could manage to afford, and for the meantime, it was her only window to the world (aside from her clock radio). Besides, she never had much time for TV anyway. She flipped aimlessly through the stations—what few of them she had—and upon finding nothing particular that piqued her interest, she turned off the television.

Anne slipped out of her uniform—a white blouse, black skirt and stockings—and into her baby blue nightgown. She switched off her bedside lamp, letting the serene darkness that was her second home overtake her. The lullaby of the city soothed Anne’s ragged nerves and rocked her mind into a calm state ready to accept a sleep that wouldn’t normally come.

Eventually, the blessing of rest was bestowed upon her, and for a brief eight-hour period Anne escaped her nightmare job, hell apartment and the miserable day-to-day routine that was her life to dream of Sunnydale and her mom and friends waiting back there for her.