Buffy was surprised when she found moss growing on the walls of one of the tunnels. It was the first sign of earthly life she had seen since arriving in this awful, dreary dimension.
She followed the moss-covered tunnel, though she soon began to regret it. There was water dripping lightly from three different places in the stone ceiling, and loud noises penetrated the walls, echoing all around her. There were roars of approval and applause – almost loud enough to drown out the screams of agony.
Her feet couldn’t take her far enough, fast enough – and within a few moments, Buffy found that she was completely turned around. She no longer remembered which direction the ‘Obedience Chamber’ was in, so there was little chance of her finding her way back to it, *or* to Durrak’s office.
All she knew was she desperately wanted to get away from the screaming – from the undeniable proof of the suffering of those that she had just been told that she could not help.
When she finally stopped running, and leaned against the wall to catch her breath, she found that it was dry and gritty again, with no traces of the dripping moisture or plant life that had marked the other walls.
The sounds of suffering, however, had not ceased.
Someone was crying.
Buffy tried to ignore the sound, trekking on; but she stopped when she spotted an indentation in the wall that marked a doorway.
The cries and moans of anguish had grown louder, and Buffy suddenly realized that the source of the sound was right behind the door she had just found. She could tell by the voice that it was a male someone, and tears filled her own eyes as she listened to the heartbroken sobs of a desperate and devastated creature.
She couldn’t bring herself to ignore the sound. She knew she should, knew that she had to find her way back – but she just couldn’t bring herself to walk away.
The wall was jagged and harsh under her palm. The Slayer listened carefully to make sure that that voice was the only one she heard on the other side. She then pushed hard against the doorway, wincing at the sound of stone grating against stone. She stopped for a moment to make sure her presence wasn’t detected, but the sobbing just continued.
The area on the other side of the door was dim, lit only by a few scattered torches. Buffy found herself in a long corridor, with cells on either side. She came out just beside a cell, one with the door left wide open.
There was a reason the door was open. The prisoner inside wasn’t going anywhere.
Buffy covered her mouth to keep her horrified gasp to herself. The male vampire was lying on the cold stone floor, an unnecessary shackle binding what was left of one of his legs. He no longer had feet at all, only mangled stubs just above where his ankles should have been. His entire body was covered with deep, livid burn marks. On his arms and shoulders, and occasionally on his chest, there were a few even deeper burns in the shapes of crosses.
As the Slayer moved hesitantly closer, she could see that his arms had suffered almost as much damage as his legs. One hand looked almost completely melted away, while the other had only two fingers left, the rest of them cruelly burned away.
The only thing left untouched by the burns was his face.
He couldn’t have been any older than twenty two when he had been turned. He had handsome boyish features and warm brown eyes, and his hair was a shaggy mess of dark blonde. Even in complete misery, with dirt and tear tracks streaking his face, he could have been considered beautiful.
It did not take long for him to sense her presence.
The crying suddenly stopped, his sobs forced back. His eyes darted towards Buffy as she came closer, and then immediately away. He kept his gaze carefully down, away from her face, attempting to curl up away from her on his side – but the mere attempt at movement caused a hiss of pain to escape through his lips.
“No,” Buffy spoke as softly as she could. “It’s alright…I’m not here to hurt you…”
His body shook and trembled. He swallowed hard, not saying anything, not really reacting at all – until the sound of a normal, human heartbeat reached his senses. He inhaled sharply, taking in the Slayer’s scent. His eyes darted back to her, still afraid to meet her gaze, but beyond curious at her presence.
His eyes widened when he noticed the stake in her belt.
Buffy noticed the direction of his gaze and immediately put her hands up in a peaceful gesture. “It’s ok…that’s not what I’m here for…”
She knelt by his side, taking closer inspection of his body through the glimmer of tears in her eyes. When she could meet his gaze again, she saw his deep fear as he watched her, but also a faint look of hope.
“It’s alright,” she reassured him in a faint whisper. “I’m here to help you.”
The hope blossomed. He nodded, swallowing hard to clear a throat that was raw from crying and screams. “Please…yes, please…”
The Slayer inspected every injury, and their surroundings. She was trying to figure out a way to get him back to Durrak’s office without causing him even more excruciating pain.
“What’s your name?” She decided to try her best to distract him until she could figure out the best thing to do.
She was shocked to see that he had become completely silent, obviously having to think about her question for a moment.
“Mat-Matthew…” he finally replied, hesitant and uncertain.
Buffy smiled pleasantly. “Where are you from, Matthew?”
Again, he had to think. “S-Sunnydale…California.” He nodded, as if assuring himself that he had answered correctly. “Mistress!” he added fearfully afterwards, his body shuddering at some remembered punishment.
She shook her head, moving closer still, leaning over him. “No, it’s alright, Matthew. I’m not a Mistress. I’m just here to help you.”
He nodded, his plea beginning again. “Please…please, god yes…” He reached out to her, the two remaining fingers of his mangled hand hooking onto her shirt. He used his grip to pull himself closer to her.
Buffy was startled, certain that the contact with his terrible injuries had to be unbearable for him. “Hey, easy…” She wrapped an arm around his shoulders, supporting his head against her own shoulder.
Rocking himself against her body, Matthew’s shoulders began to shake with sobs again. “Please…please, please, please…” Tears began to course down his face and soak into her shirt, but Buffy held him anyway. She brushed his hair gently away from his face, and his brown eyes shot up to meet her green ones for the first time. “Please…” It was nothing more than a whisper now.
Shock hit the Slayer hard. She was looking down into eyes shining with hope – not for rescue, but for a merciful end.
She shook her head. “No…no, Matthew, I can’t do that…that’s not why I’m here…”
The hope faded from his eyes instantly, leaving them dead and empty. A wretched sob tore through him, and he buried his face against her shoulder again in hopeless misery.
She tried quickly to fix her mistake. “Matthew, I’m here to *help* you. I’m going to get you out of here.”
He shook his head, his shoulders trembling. “No…no, no…p-please…please, kill me…I don’t want to be here…I don’t want to be anywhere, not like this…” He raised his mangled hand, curling the two fingers that were left. “Please, just let me die!”
A tear trailed slowly down Buffy’s cheek at the sound of the helpless anguish in his voice. “I can’t…”
Matthew raised his tearful eyes to hers again. He breathed in hard, trying to hold back his pain and stare back at her bravely. “It’s a trick, isn’t it? Just another trick…” His lips trembled as his attempt to be brave began to gradually fail. “I thought someone sent me an angel…but angels don’t help things like me.”
Buffy closed her eyes in pain at hearing his hopelessness. She forced herself to stay calm, for a moment remembering the only other time she had really killed anyone with a soul…when she’s sent Angel to hell.
It had been devastating for her to do such a thing, but she’d had no choice. She had had to kill him to save the world – but this wasn’t that kind of circumstance. Matthew’s existence was not a danger to the world; the worst crime he was committing was smearing a bit of ash and blood on her shirt.
Could she kill this innocent man?
He had been a man – a man from Sunnydale, no less, that she had failed to protect from vampires. Now, he was an ensouled vampire that she had failed to keep from a far worse fate.
Swallowing hard, she opened her eyes and gently ghosted her fingertips across his face.
“Close your eyes…”
He obeyed her without hesitation.
“Now, I want you to do me a favor…” She slid the stake from her belt, then positioned it above his chest, making sure not to alert him to what she was doing by pressing it up against his skin. “I want you to think…of the happiest time of your life. Ok?”
“My eleventh birthday.” It was the only question he had required no time to answer.
“Yeah?” She managed a small smile. “Why that day?”
Matthew kept his eyes closed, a small smile appearing on his face. “That’s the day I met Jenny…”
“Jenny Swanson,” he answered. “That day…I remember it really well…dad was still alive, and mom wasn’t sick yet…the whole family was together. It was really warm, bright and sunny out…they threw this big get together for me, a big party held in our own back yard. There were even four-wheelers, and me and my friends and my brother raced. My best friend, David, had to bring his cousin Jenny along…” He laughed a bit at this. “And I griped because I thought a girl was going to ruin the fun. “
Buffy managed a small laugh.
“She kicked David off the other four-wheeler; we raced, and it was a tie. I demanded a rematch, and we raced each other three more times, before she finally beat me. After that…” He shook his head. “…that was it. I was in love. And it’s been me and her, ever since…we were Matthew and Jenny, you know? One couldn’t be without the other…”
“What happened to her?” She tightened her grip on the stake.
Matthew shook his head. “We were…inseparable…for years. We even went to the same college…then I got turned…” The shame in his voice couldn’t be masked. “I went to her one night…she invited me in…I was going to turn her, make her like me…then she saw my face…” The tears started again, one trailing slowly down his cheek. “She was afraid of me…my Jenny was afraid…and part of me wanted to get off on it…but no matter what I had become, I couldn’t stand that…I couldn’t stand to see the fear when she looked at me. I couldn’t go through with it. I couldn’t hurt her…”
“Sh-she accepted me, you know…she invited me back in…and she said it didn’t matter what had happened to me. But she was lying…” His voice broke after this.
“What do you mean?” Buffy held him close.
“She…she said…a-after I was brought here…she said that I was a monster…that she could never love me, not as a monster…that I was disgusting, she wanted nothing to do with me…”
As she listened to his heartbroken words, Buffy remembered Durrak telling them about the psychic creatures and shape shifters that they often used to confuse and break their prisoners.
“Don’t think about that,” she advised him in a soft whisper. “People say things sometimes…when they’re confused or afraid…she didn’t mean it, Matthew. I can almost guarantee it. She didn’t mean it. Tell me more about your eleventh birthday, Matthew…” Tears obscured her vision for a moment, but she managed to keep the sorrow out of her voice. “I want to hear how happy you were.”
He told her about how golden Jenny’s hair had looked under the bright sunshine, and how his mother had laughed as the boys wrestled and fought over who would race next. When night had fallen, his father had given them sparklers to light up the backyard. This was the same father that had started a small food fight. Jenny had kept up with all the boy’s games, and had even sneaked a small kiss on the cheek before she’d had to go home.
When the stake finally plunged into his chest, Matthew barely took notice. When he realized what had happened, in the instant before it was over, he opened his eyes briefly to look up at Buffy with a world of gratitude shining within them, and then closed his eyes and sighed as he crumbled to dust.
The Slayer standing at the office door looked shaken. Her face was pale and her eyes round and bloodshot. There was ash on her clothing, and on her hands.
“I’ve thought about it.”
Xander could barely hear her, her voice was so small at first. “What did you…?”
“I’ll consider it.” Buffy looked from her friend, to Durrak, who was waiting at his desk. “What you said, about the slaves…we’ll take care of the slavers, first. But, if we don’t find any answers…anything to do about the slaves…then I’ll consider what you said. I won’t leave them here; either way…I won’t let them suffer like this.”
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