"If eyes were made for seeing"
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
It was easier than Buffy had expected to find her way back to the Trial. In the end it had simply been a matter of going to the cemetery (carefully bypassing Spike's crypt), closing her eyes, and trying to retrace her steps. Fortunately it was dark and the streets were mostly deserted, so she didn't look quite as foolish as she expected -- even when she did walk full tilt into a streetlamp.
At least, she hoped she didn't look foolish.
It didn't seem to take as long either. In fact, the journey was a lot shorter than she remembered. Granted, this time she wasn't bleeding, blind, and in agony, but still... Of course, Spike had told her that the Trial tended to move around, so maybe it had relocated itself for her convenience tonight. Buffy had the faint but growing suspicion that she could have walked in any direction, for any length of time, and she would still have ended up precisely where she was -- staring down at an empty pool.
'I trusted him and he made me jump into that?' was the Slayer's first thought.
Her second was: "This had better be worth it."
Then, after one more moment's hesitation, she took a deep breath, closed her eyes...and stepped forward, dropping like a rock.
* * *
Buffy landed gracefully, rolling across a stone floor in a torchlit room that felt just the same as the one she had been in before, coming back to her feet in one smooth movement.
"Welcome back, my dear," a familiar voice said.
The Slayer straightened hastily then turned, brushing her hair back with one hand as she peered into the shadows. It was the Valet. He looked just as she remembered him, from the one fleeting glimpse she had had after her vision had been restored -- small, dark hair, and clothes that looked as if they had been stolen from the set of Masterpiece Theatre.
"Welcome," he said again. "We've been expecting you. Although I did think you might show up rather sooner." He pulled a gold pocket watch out of his vest, glanced down at it then shrugged and put it away.
"Still," he continued. "Better late than never. I'm sure you've been quite busy with the...er...slaying of things."
Buffy frowned. "Let's get something straight," she said. "I appreciate what you did for me, but I still think your methods suck. So why don't we skip the polite chitchat and just get on with it?"
The Valet nodded, staring at her appraisingly. "I quite agree. Time is at a premium just now. But then, it always is. So -- you are here because you wish to know what your champion's sacrifice entailed and why he was willing to make it for you. Correct?"
Buffy stared at him in consternation. How did he know that? Then she remembered -- he could read her mind. For a moment hostility flared within her but she forced her body to relax. What did it matter, really? He could read her mind. Well, so what? If that's what it took to get the answers she had come for...then fine.
Oh, who was she kidding? The thought of anyone sifting through her head, reading her deepest thoughts, was enough to send her blood pressure soaring. In fact, it made her want to kill things. Lots of things. Very slowly and painfully. Buffy focused her mind on the last thought, smiling slightly when the Valet paled and took a step back.
"Ah...may I remind you that violence is not be allowed on the premises?" he said, a little nervously.
The Slayer bit back a laugh of disbelief. "Not allowed? So last week was what? All-You-Can-Kill-Tuesday? Two for the price of one?"
"And neither do we appreciate sarcasm. The Trial is...the Trial. And I didn't hear any complaints from you at the time, as it happens."
"Well you would have heard them if you hadn't been so busy gloating and pouring tea all over the place. I told you that..."
He interrupted her. "So are you saying that you wish to return your prize, Miss Summers? Because we can certainly do that. No trouble at all."
That stopped Buffy cold. She stared at him for a long moment then shut her eyes briefly.
"No," she said at last. "I don't." She certainly wasn't willing to give up her eyesight. One week of blindness was one week too many. Her emotions beginning to cool once more, Buffy gave the Valet what she hoped was an apologetic look (difficult, since she wasn't feel in the least repentant) and said more calmly:
"No. I'll keep the...er...prize, and yes, I do want to know about Spike's sacrifice."
The man still looked cross. "Well did it ever occur to you to just ask him?"
She shifted uncomfortably. "I did. He wouldn't say."
The Valet sighed. "Then it appears that our efforts on your behalf were unsuccessful. Oh dear. This is quite unusual. I told them dealing with Slayers was notoriously difficult, but they said everything would work out in the end. They never listen to me, you know..."
Buffy frowned. This conversation was becoming increasingly surreal. They? They who? And what was that about Slayers?
"How many Slayers have come here?" she asked, genuine curiosity in her voice.
The Valet was still frowning worriedly, his mind clearly on other things. "Oh, not many," he said vaguely. "Most of them don't survive long enough to need our services. In fact, most of them wouldn't appreciate Enlightenment if it was handed to them on a silver platter. Ungrateful lot, on the whole."
"Thanks so much," she said dryly. "Uh...enlightenment?"
His gaze suddenly sharpened, his attention focusing back on her. "My dear Miss Summers -- did you honestly believe that the sole purpose of your trial was just to give you back your eyesight?"
Buffy blinked. "Wasn't it?"
"No, of course not. Really, my dear. Do try to be less obtuse."
Another flicker of anger. "OK," she said sharply. "Why don't you tell me what you're talking about then? And try not to use any big words because I'm just a simple Slayer and might not be able to understand anything with more than one syllable. Or maybe you'd like to draw a picture for me with bright colours and funny animals..."
The Valet pinched his forehead. "Please. Sarcasm."
"Oh very well. I suppose we are obligated since your trial appears to have been rendered null and void. We do guarantee satisfaction after all -- can't have you sullying our good name."
"Yeah, certainly can't have that."
The Valet glowered at her. "This facility's purpose," he began, his voice as near a growl as she had ever heard it, "is not for details such as saving lives or restoring vision, although those are indeed useful by-products of what we do. No, our purpose is Enlightenment. Understanding. The promotion of self-awareness and perception. The..."
"OK, can we fast forward past the infomercial? Because I get it."
"Slayers!" The Valet sighed again. "All right, Miss Summers. Here is your answer in terms which even you will understand -- I hope. The 'point,' as you would say, is that the Trial provides a means of understanding oneself. Your champion, for example, learned something very important, during the course of his trial. You were supposed to learn from it as well, but it would appear that you did not. I suspect it was your antipathy toward young Spike that contributed to that failure."
Buffy glared at him. "I am not antipathetic. And yes, I do know what the word means."
"Then I can only conclude that it was due to your own natural stubbornness. If you would just..."
"Enough already!" Suddenly the urge to just throw up her hands and turn around and leave was almost too strong to bear. She didn't need this. She didn't need this annoying little man and she certainly didn't need the weirdness that had been besetting her for the past two weeks. 'Why me?' Buffy thought bitterly. Why did things have to get so complicated? All she had wanted was a few answers about what had happened to her, a little insight into a certain bleached blond vampire, maybe. But now it turned out she was supposed to find 'Enlightenment'. Or something.
"So what exactly was I supposed to figure out?" she asked drily. "And what did Spike learn?"
"Two very interesting questions indeed." The Valet straightened his shoulders. "All right, Miss Summers. As I said, we are obligated to finish what we began. But do try to keep your displays of temper to a minimum. I do not wish to have to replace another teapot."
"If you get anywhere near a point..."
"And please remember," the Valet went on determinedly, "that our dealings are concluded after this. You will not be allowed to return here. Because, quite frankly, you give me a headache."
Buffy shot him a look. "Likewise, Jeeves."
The Valet frowned at her then abruptly pivoted on his heel, heading towards a small arched doorway that Buffy would have sworn wasn't there a moment ago. She blinked, trying to see what lay beyond it, but could see nothing but darkness and shadows, swirling like fog.
The Valet paused impatiently on the threshold and glanced back at her.
"Well? Are you coming?"
"What's through there?"
"Knowledge, my dear Slayer. Knowledge."
Continued in Part 21