Summary/Setting: A hypothetical "missing episode" set between "Ted" and "Bad Eggs" of season two. There's also a thing with hearts, hence the title.
A/N: Written for a2zmom through the CYA ficathon, for her request of an "episode"-style fic set Season 2 before Surprise/Innocence.
Disclaimer: I don't own them.
Rating: If you can watch the show...
Thanks: for the help from my fabulous betas, LillianMorgan and Kyria.
Giles leaned forward as he rested one hand on the table and reached up to massage his forehead with the other. "Buffy, I had hoped you knew better by now. Patrolling as often as possible is the only way to control the demonic population surrounding the Hellmouth. To think that you would avoid your duties so that you can attend these... these…"
"Giles, chill," Buffy replied, cool in the face of critique. "It's been really quiet lately, and I did do one sweep. But we had to go to the Bronze last night – the Dingoes were on."
Giles shook his head and turned to Willow. "I trust you can translate?"
Willow blushed. "Um, 'Dingoes Ate My Baby'. It's the name of a band, and Oz – um, Daniel Osbourne? He's in it. We like – we like their music."
Buffy's face turned into a sly grin and she cocked her head at Willow. "If that's what you want to call it. Actually, I think their music's okay, but Willow has a liking for one of their members, and–" Willow gave Buffy a swift but ineffectual kick from under the table, but Buffy was undeterred. "And Willow likes to go see him, but doesn't like to go alone, so you know I had to go and be the supportive friend…"
Xander rolled his eyes. "Because ogling men with guitars is just so much more important than protecting the world from evil."
"Thank you, Xander." Giles nodded firmly, pleased that someone was on his side in this.
They heard the door swing open and turned to see Cordelia enter, looking flustered as she marched over to join them at the table. "Did you hear about Paul Hensley?" she asked, not bothering with a greeting. "As of last night, he's way dead."
Buffy looked up suddenly, the teasing look on her face only a moment ago shifting into alarm, and then a tinge of guilt. "Vampires?"
Giles flicked his head towards Buffy at the sound of her voice, and then back to Cordelia, with a similar concern written on his face.
"No, I don't think so," Cordelia replied, shaking her head. "It's really weird; they said he had a heart attack or something. Like, there was no sign of an attack – his heart just… stopped beating."
Buffy sank back into her seat, her body language expressing a mixture of alarm and relief.
Willow frowned. "Was he sick?"
Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Do I look like a doctor?"
"A kid our age having a heart attack – there's got to be something more to it, right?" Xander said, looking around the group for reassurance. "That would be pretty scary. At least when it's death-by-demon, Buffy can kill the demon."
Guilt sneaked back across Buffy's features. "If it turns out there's anything to kill here, believe me, I'm on it."
Buffy tore her lips from Angel's, pulled herself out of his arms, and resisted the urge to turn right back into his embrace. He was supposed to be the responsible, grownup one here, but this was one occasion when he wasn't making any effort to get her to focus on the mission. He stepped toward her one more time.
"No," she held up a hand in protest, silently demanding distance between them. It was the only way to keep her sane. "We have to focus. A guy died last night, and I can't stand thinking it might have been because I wasn't doing my job properly."
Angel nodded in understanding, but continued to move toward her until he rested a hand on her shoulder. "I know this is upsetting you, but we've been out here for hours and we haven't seen anything. You said the boy's heart stopped – there wasn't any sign that it was a demon. Even if he seemed healthy, there's a good chance something was already wrong with him that hadn't been found yet, that his heart was just weak. Don't you think it's about time for you to get home? It's late."
Buffy put on her stubborn face. "Not like Mom would notice."
"You need the sleep," Angel argued gently, reaching out to cup her face with his hand and running the pad of his thumb across the top of her cheek, focused on the dark circles that were beginning to form under her eyes.
She nodded and reached up to pull down his hand to link his fingers with her own. "Okay. You're right – I know you're right. If we haven't found anything yet, we're not going to tonight." They walked side by side as they headed for the exit of the cemetery. "It's time to go home."
On the opposite side of the cemetery, a young girl's hands fell from where they had been clutched in front of her heart, and her body dropped to the ground.
Once it was certain she wouldn't be getting back up, the satisfied demon nearby began to walk away from her lifeless form, wearing a serene smile. He had taken barely three steps when he stopped suddenly, raised his face and sniffed the air.
"Slayer…" he murmured softly, and his smile grew.
"This is all my fault."
"Don't say that!" Willow hurried to sit down next to Buffy and touched a hand to her arm comfortingly. "You tried. You couldn't have prevented this."
Buffy stood up and walked restlessly several feet across the room. "Tried? Going to the Bronze to watch boys playing guitars is trying? Going home last night before I'd found anything – that's trying? That's not trying. That's failing. That's letting people down, letting them die. First Paul, now Ellen. I could have saved them."
"Buffy, you're being much too hard on yourself," Giles argued gently, shaking his head. "You were on patrol for hours last night. You're not omnipotent; you can't see everything that happens everywhere. If anything, I am as much to blame for this by assuming there was an ordinary, rational explanation for the young man's poor health. Two victims is now too much of a coincidence, and I'll be doing all the research I can to explain this. We will stop whatever is responsible for these incidents."
"Whatever. Just let me know when you have something for me to beat to death," Buffy huffed, and exited the library without waiting for a response.
Willow gave Giles an apologetic look before heading after Buffy.
Giles was deeply focused on the sixth book out of the twenty he had laid out on the library table. So focused, in fact, that he didn't notice Jenny's entrance until she was more or less standing right over him. He looked up and gave a slight jump.
"Oh!" he gasped, and quickly composed himself. "I wasn't expecting you. Are you well?"
"Yes, I am." She gave a polite, but vague, smile. She settled herself down in the chair across from him. "You have a lot of books here. I take it there's some new big evil?"
Giles leaned forward eagerly, happy that she'd brought up a topic he could actually talk about and continue to sound reasonably intelligent. "We have reason to believe that the two recent heart failures have a more supernatural cause – demonic, I believe."
Jenny shook her head and sighed. "Yeah, I heard about that. That really is terrible. So why haven't you called me?"
Giles suddenly found himself unable to think of any actual words.
"I mean, it's just such a tragedy! Two perfectly healthy kids, and now they're just dead. Lying there, unmarked, like they didn't even have the chance to put up a fight. I swear, Buffy, you better find this thing and kill it, like pronto. It could have been me!"
Willow glanced wearily across the cafeteria table at Cordelia. "Or any one of us, even."
"Yeah, whatever," Cordelia responded. "Think about it! Tonight, I could be walking home, minding my own business, and come across a big, nasty demon and before I can even make a run for it, I'm just dead. God, can you imagine?"
"Yeah, I've been imagining," Buffy answered curtly. "I mean, I've been imagining what Paul and Ellen have already been through."
"Yeah, well, sucks to be them, but they're already dead." Cordelia scooped up her lunch materials and stood. "It's time for your priority to be about the living, and making sure none of the rest of us get all corpse-like."
The three remaining at the table watched her retreating form for a moment before turning back to their friends and food.
"Trust Cordy to make it all about her," Buffy remarked dryly.
Xander argued, "Hey, we're all upset and worried about this. This is just her way of dealing with it. You know, why don't you lay off her for once?"
Buffy and Willow exchanged surprised glances. "Okay!" Buffy replied. "I didn't realize you and Cordy had gotten to be such close friends."
"No, I'm not! You are!" Xander responded quickly and defensively.
Buffy gave him an odd look. "What?"
"I'm sorry, I have to go," he replied, looking back and forth between his two friends. "I have vending machine needs. The lack of sugar in my blood is making me all jumpy and crazy. I'll see you guys later."
Willow turned to give Buffy a puzzled look once Xander was gone. "Did he seem weird to you? He seemed weird, didn't he?"
"He seemed weird," Buffy confirmed. "But we have more important things to worry about."
"Oh! Something! I found something!" Willow exclaimed, picking up her book and racing over to place it in front of Giles. "This could be it, right?"
"A Vasknad demon. How very interesting!" Giles remarked and leaned over the text to examine it more closely. "It can magically stop the beating of the heart through the power of its voice."
Willow pointed at a section further down the page. "Not just its voice. A particular tone of humming. Like a mating call in animals – except with not so nice consequences."
"Right, well, thank you, Willow," Giles replied, already engrossed in the book as he pulled it away from her. "You've certainly devoted yourself to this long enough. Please go and enjoy the rest of your evening – I can keep researching from here, see if I can find a mention of how to kill the Vasknad, and I'm sure you have better things to do."
Willow nodded. "Yeah, I'm meeting Xander at the Bronze later. But first I have to do homework. You know – for my classes. Where the teachers are."
He looked up curiously. "I don't claim to be an expert on American public schools, but I am actually aware of the fact that the teachers are in charge of the classes."
"Well, good." Willow nodded resolutely. "Just making sure. So you haven't called Miss Calendar recently, huh?"
Giles' attention fully left the books when he exclaimed, "You talk about me with her?"
"It came up."
"In class?" he mumbled, cringing.
"After class." Willow picked up her backpack before commenting, "You know, if you want this thing to go anywhere, you really should call her."
He shook his head in bewilderment. "But I – but I see her in school every day."
Willow shook her head at him. "That's not the way to make a girl feel special, Giles – talking to her when you happen to bump into her in school. Women like it when you make a little more effort – like seeing them isn't just a matter of convenience. Like you really want to talk to her, so much that you can't wait until the next day."
Giles still looked flustered. "Uh, right, well. Weren't you leaving? Didn't you say you had homework?"
"I can take a hint," Willow replied brightly. "I'll get out of your hair. Good luck with the rest of the research. I'll see you tomorrow!"
For the second time in one day, Giles was left with a serious inability to focus on the books in front of him.
Buffy was packing a bag of weapons on her bed in preparation for patrol. She haphazardly threw in half a dozen more stakes, and then went back to her collection for more knives.
Angel, who had been sitting on the bed watching quietly, grabbed her arm the next time she came back to the bag. "I think we have enough, Buffy."
Buffy sighed. "I know." She sank onto the bed next to him and pressed her face forward into her hands. "God, I know."
He got up from the bed and came to a kneeling position in front of her, and gently pulled her hands away so he could clearly see her face. "Hey. Hey, what's going on? We're going to beat this thing. Why are you so upset?"
She shook her head sadly. "They died because I wasn't there to protect them. Because I didn't find this thing and kill it first."
He intertwined his fingers with hers. "Buffy, we've been over this. You can't be held responsible for every death in Sunnydale. You've already done so much for the people here, but you can't be everywhere at once. You can't kill every demon before they get the chance to strike first."
"But lately I've been so distracted," Buffy argued. "I haven't been out there as much as I should be. I've been with my friends, or with you, and – and I'm supposed to kill them before they get the chance to strike… second."
"You're being too hard on yourself. You have a right to a life, too. You're still out there, all the time. You risk your life every night." When Buffy still didn't look anywhere near happy, he added softly, "You know it's true."
"Is it?" she challenged. "Why don't we ask Paul? Oh, no, that's right! We can't. He's dead."
He lowered his hands to her waist and held her gaze even more intensely. "Every vampire you kill, you're saving hundreds of potential victims. Thousands, depending on the vampire. You're their savior. You're a hero."
"I'm just a girl."
He shook his head and stood up, agitated. "No, you're not. I mean, you are, but you're more. Why do you insist on pretending you're less than you are? Goddamn it, Buffy, I know it better than anyone because I can't stand to think about who I might be today if it hadn't been for you. You've been my savior. Can't you see that? Don't you know that you're my hero?"
The corner of Buffy's mouth turned up slightly. "'Cause I'm the wind beneath your wings?"
Angel hesitated a moment. "What?"
She shook her head, her smile widening. "Nothing." She stood up and faced him to give him a quick kiss and a hug. "Thank you, for telling me. And for what it's worth, you're my hero too."
He pulled back a few inches, smiling encouragingly. "So should we go kill the bad guy now?"
She nodded at her weapons bag. "Just as soon as I lighten the load to a sane person's level."
"Good." He nodded. "Since I'm planning to be chivalrous and carry it for you."
"See? Total hero," she said with a grin, before starting the process of putting several of the superfluous weapons back in their place.
Willow was walking home as quickly as possible, fretting about how late it had gotten. She was always happy to help Giles with the research, but at this rate she wasn't even going to have time for calculus before it was time to head to the Bronze, let alone biology.
She'd only made it halfway home when she found an enormous, scaly demon blocking her path. She let out a shriek and began to run back the way she'd come. She was unfazed when her backpack fell to the ground – she was faster without it anyway.
She'd been running for barely half a minute, though it felt like an hour, when the demon caught up to her and grabbed her by the throat. She began gasping for breath and trying to fight the frightened tears that were threatening to spill.
The demon sniffed slightly. "You've been close to the slayer."
Willow had been tugging at his arm but now tried to reach her arms out to cover her ears, mindful that this could the demon that could kill her with mere humming. The strain on her neck increased and she cried out, her hands never quite reaching her head before returning to pull on his arm.
Surprisingly, the grip quickly loosened. "You're coming with me," he ordered, before his hand moved to grab her arm and he began to pull her away from the well-lit streets.
Buffy and Angel had only been making their way through the town for ten minutes when they found the backpack lying in the street.
Buffy bent down and inspected it, touching it carefully, reverently, before grasping it tightly and standing up. She was shaking when she looked back to Angel.
He grabbed her shoulders, made eye-contact, and tried to get her to focus. "You go find Giles, find your friends. Find out the last time any of them saw her, and let them know what's going on. I'm going to search the area, okay?"
"Okay," she muttered softly, nodding. She quietly took her weapons bag back from him and weakly turned to walk away.
"Buffy?" She looked back. "You are doing your job. And we're going to find her."
She nodded, and continued on her way with more determination.
Xander and Cordelia were sitting together in awkward silence at a table at the Bronze. Cordelia checked over her shoulder, not for the first time in the night, to the entrance.
"I thought you said none of your other friends were planning on coming tonight," Xander commented with a false air of calm.
"Well, that's what they said, but what if they show up anyway? Better to be prepared for a surprise visit," she replied.
"Because being seen sitting here, with me, of your own free will, is just about the worst humiliation imaginable, right? Social suicide," he sneered.
She didn't pick up on the tone. "Well, yeah!" She looked over her shoulder again. "Hey, there's Buffy."
Xander looked up in relief and practically jumped out his chair when Buffy approached. "Buff! Hey! What are you doing here? I thought you were on patrol-duty tonight. Come join us, sit down! Please!"
Buffy was too distracted to pay attention to his overly-eager greeting. She got straight to business. "Have you seen Willow?"
"No." He shook his head. "Actually, she should have been here by now. Willow being Punctual Gal, I'm about two minutes from calling in a search party."
Buffy solemnly held up Willow's bag in display.
Xander's face visibly changed into panic mode, and he felt as if his heart dropped to his stomach. "You go back out and hunt. Find her. I'll go find Giles."
Buffy nodded and took one step away before turning back to give him a quick, tight hug, handed him Willow's bag, and then marched back out purposefully.
Xander turned to Cordelia. "I need you to drive me back to school. Now."
"Excuse me? How about a 'please'?" Cordelia huffed. "I don't know what you think we've got going on here, but it doesn't involve me taking orders."
"Cordelia? Please. It's–" Xander's impatient tone broke and wavered. "It's Willow."
She nodded, but the look on the face and the tone on her voice made it clear she wasn't happy about giving in to him. "Fine. Let's go."
The moment she agreed, Xander rushed for the exit and her car, leaving Cordelia trailing behind.
Willow had been sitting quietly in the corner, on the cold stone floor of the crypt, watching the demon pacing around impatiently. He had yet to make any move to actually hurt her, but she was getting more and more nervous about what exactly he was waiting for.
Eventually, when she couldn't take the silence anymore, she murmured, "The Slayer's going to come for me, you know. She'll find me, I know it."
The demon turned to her with a sinister smile. "That's what I'm counting on."
Xander rushed into the library, again leaving Cordelia behind, struggling to catch up. "Giles! Giles!"
Giles hurried out of his office at Xander's urgent tone. "Yes? What is it?"
"Willow. This thing got Willow." He threw the backpack on the table for emphasis.
"Good Lord," Giles murmured, pressing a hand to his heart. "She's–"
"Buffy was still looking to find her, so I'm figuring there wasn't a body and there's still a chance. Tell me everything I need to know."
Cordelia snorted. "Please. What can you do about it? Stand around and look scared? Try to kill this thing and lose your pulse in the process?"
Xander whirled and glared at her. "I'm going to find Buffy again. I'm going to tell her what she can do. And she's going to kick ass and save Willow's life. So, are you going to delay this process even more, or are you going to shut up now?"
Cordelia blinked and for once, she was at a loss for a retort.
"Now," Xander said, turning back to an uncomfortable Giles. "What do you know about this thing?"
"Well, earlier Willow discovered that it could be a Vasknad demon, which stops the victim's heart through a meditative humming. In looking up how to kill it, I found the simplest and most effective solution to be beheading."
"Humming. Beheading. Got it," Xander said, and turned for the door.
"But!" Giles stopped him and referred to another book that was still in his hands. "I also came across another possibility. A Bivyda demon has the same effect on the victim, but uses a hypnotic form of eye contact. It's reasonably large, strong, has a keen sense of smell, and is killed with flames."
Xander looked a little less confident, but repeated, "Guy kills with humming – take the head. Guy kills with eyes – fire. Okay, I'll remember."
He ran out of the room without even a glance at Cordelia.
Buffy was advancing through the cemetery with determination, looking around for any signs of a struggle, or anything else Willow may have dropped as a clue. She circled it twice and found herself lingering at the same crypt both times. All of the other crypts on the grounds were completely dark, but this one had a dim light pouring out of its holes and cracks, as if there were candles lit inside.
As if there were someone inside who had need for a light source.
She decided it was the most likely candidate for the demon's hideout, and was approaching the door when Xander came rushing up to her. He was coming so fast that his momentum got the better of him and he crashed into her before he came to a full stop. She steadied him and stood back expectantly. "What is it? What did you find out?"
He leaned over, one hand up in a signal to wait and the other pressed to his knee while he caught his breath enough to speak, and after a moment he straightened up. "It could be one of two demons – one has the power to stop your heart with humming. One does it by hypnotizing eyes."
Buffy nodded. "Okay, so I'll avoid eye contact and… keep my ears covered? I guess I'll have to rely on kicking." She slipped the stake from her hand into her pocket, and took a mini-sword from her bag to attach to her hip. She left the bag with its remaining contents on the ground, and made to enter the crypt.
"Wait!" he said. "Don't you think you should get Angel to do this? His heart's already pretty, you know, motionless."
She shook her head and glanced around the cemetery. "I don't know where Angel is right now, and I don't have the time to gamble when it's Willow's life at stake."
He nodded in understanding. "Oh, and Giles told me how to kill them: if it's the eye guy, you behead him. If it's the humming guy, you set him on fire." Buffy nodded. "No, wait! I think it was the other way around. Damnit, I know I can remember this, Giles said–"
"I'll figure it out!" Buffy cut him off. She opened the door of the crypt and entered.
The moment she entered, there was a split second to absorb everything: Hands over ears, Willow, alive, big demon, don't look at eyes, keep focus below the neck, a punch is coming, kick!
Her leg swung out and connected, flinging the demon back before his punch had a chance to hit her. From that moment time sped up; every move came from instinct, except that with her hands covering her ears she had to compensate for the lack of the use of her arms.
It took her several moments to realize that even with that level of protection, she could still hear the demon, throwing insults and taunts at her. Her hands weren't an absolute barrier against sound, and if the demon used humming, both she and Willow would be dead already.
She took a chance, uncovered her ears, and started fighting in full force. The demon became silent rather than creating more noise, focusing on the fight that he was now clearly losing.
Buffy noticed out of the corner of her eye that Angel had entered the crypt. He looked like he wanted to step into the fight, or take over, but she waved him away and hissed, "Get Willow out of here!" The fight was very nearly over and she wasn't about to step down now.
Angel obeyed and moved to help Willow up, wrapping an arm around her shoulders to lead her trembling form to the door.
After one last blow that caused the demon to fall to his knees, Buffy grabbed the creature's own sword and cleanly sliced off his head.
The head rolling on the floor began to chuckle and mocked, "You'll have to do better than that if you want–"
Before he could finish his sentence, Buffy had grabbed one of the nearby candles and lit both the body and the head.
"It was bound to be one or the other," she pointed out, as the remains slowly turned black and lifeless.
Giles sat wearily down in his chair after hearing the whole story. "And you're both alright? Willow? Buffy?"
"Practically perfect in every way," Buffy responded brightly.
"And, hey, look, you guys even saved my bag," Willow commented with a smile, happy at the thought that she could still get her homework done.
Xander came to a standing position. "All right, team! I'd say we've had a full night of good work accomplished. Now I'm ready to hit the hay, how about it?"
"It's about that time," Buffy agreed.
After saying their goodbyes to Giles, the other five began to make their way out of the building. Xander lingered several feet behind and motioned for Cordelia to walk beside him.
"Listen, about before," he started in hushed tones. "I'm sorry I snapped. It was just–"
"I know," she answered curtly. "It was just that it was Willow. Willow means the world to you. It makes you crazy when she's pulling the damsel in distress act. I get it. You don't have to apologize. It's not like what we've been doing is in any way real or meaningful."
Xander was slightly taken aback at that response, but quickly covered it with a relaxed facial expression. "Yeah. I mean, meeting up in broom closets. It doesn't exactly suggest a future here."
"Exactly." Cordelia picked up the pace to join the others, raising her voice as she offered, "I've still got the car if anyone needs a ride."
Xander's face fell again when Cordelia was far enough away. He looked up to see Angel glancing at him curiously over his shoulder. He blinked, and then Angel was focused on Buffy once more.
After the others had left, Giles made his way into his office, picked up the phone, and only put down the receiver twice before actually dialing.
When Jenny answered, he responded with an excited, "Hello!"
There was a short pause on the other end of the line. After a moment, Jenny replied, "Rupert, I'm really glad you finally called. But next time, could you maybe call before midnight?"
"Oh!" He chuckled nervously, lifting his wrist to check the time. "Yes, of course. I'll keep that in mind."
The others exited the school and began walking through the parking lot.
"Wow, I'm so tired," Willow commented. "It's been such a crazy night; it just hit me. And I haven't even started my homework."
Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on. You got kidnapped. Like the teachers wouldn't let you off the hook with that excuse?"
"Actually, I don't think that's one I'd like to try explaining in class…"
Xander, having caught up to the group, replied, "You know, Will, the teachers here love you so much you probably wouldn't have to give an excuse. You could just say 'something came up' and they'd automatically assume that it was something important. Ooh, could you try the 'my dog ate it' excuse? I bet they'd buy it, coming from you."
"Or, hey, how about you work yourself up to good academic standing till they love you and then you try it?" Willow countered.
Xander appeared to consider it for a moment. "Nah, too much work. I seem to be a lot more attached to my sleep time than you are. I mean, aren't we all exhausted by now?"
Buffy smiled. "I don't know – I'm feeling kind of charged."
Angel looked at her worriedly. "But you need to get some sleep tonight."
She grinned. "Not to worry! If I'm still lacking bed rest by tomorrow, I've got history first period, which is the perfect opportunity to catch up on my naptime."
He pulled her in for a kiss good night, and whispered sternly, "Go to sleep."
She rolled her eyes, but nodded reassuringly before she and Willow climbed in Cordelia's car for the ride home. Xander had opted to walk. He and Angel stood and watched the car retreat until it turned a corner out of sight.
Xander looked at Angel for a moment before looking back in the direction the car had gone. "Look, if you heard something earlier, what me and Cordy were talking about–"
He turned back and Angel was gone. Typical.