The second time I found Ms. Summers leaning against a vehicle outside my apartment, I was considerably less surprised-- and considerably more relieved-- to see her.
She was also much more sensibly dressed-- for her, anyway-- in an ensemble of rugged dark jeans, a long-sleeved green silk shirt, and a pair of little black leather boots with two inch heels. Which was just as well. Much as I'd appreciated the acres of creamy skin and gentle curves of feminine flesh over lean muscle she'd had on display on her previous visit, this wasn't exactly a social occasion-- and she wasn't the only tough blonde within ten yards of me, either. The cost-benefit analysis of my devolving into drooling male at that juncture would not have been pretty.
"Buffy," I said, nodding to her as I approached Charity's minivan. "Good to see you. I wasn't sure Thomas would be able to reach you in time."
"He said it was urgent," she shrugged, then stepped away from the van. "Sounded like my kind of party." Something long and rigid moved with her as she approached, attached to her back; a scabbard of some kind, though I couldn't get a good look at the weapon from that angle.
Charity stiffened at my side at the young woman's flippant attitude, but her voice was coolly polite as she stepped forward, hand outstretched. "I'm Charity Carpenter," she said. "You're a friend of Harry's?"
Buffy smiled at her, a narrow, wry flash of teeth that was nonetheless about five times as warm as Charity's tone. "More like professional acquaintance with an option on friendship; I just met him a few months ago," she said, trading a firm grip with the older woman. Charity was several inches taller and much more visibly muscular than Buffy; but I had my suspicions about Buffy's ancestry, and she was at least as experienced in hand-to-hand combat as Murphy. She didn't back down.
"I'm Buffy Summers," she continued, as two sets of knuckles whitened. "I work with the Watcher's Council out of Cleveland; your husband's helped us out before, and I've had some experience with phages."
Charity relaxed a little at that, trading a nod with her. "Yes; I remember hearing about the Watchers. You work with a lot of girls Molly's age, don't you? Thank you for coming," she said.
"No problem." Buffy's smile gentled around the edges as they let go of one another's hands. "A lot of us were seventeen and in over our heads, once. We'll get your daughter back."
Murph had been suspiciously quiet while mother and Slayer introduced themselves; literally suspicious, eyeing the younger woman from head to toe with thoughtfully pursed lips. I winced. I'd told her a while back that I'd met one of the Watchers' key fighters, and then committed the epic fail-- Billy's wording-- of describing Buffy to her as Kincaid levels of badass in a Murphy-sized container.
I had not meant to imply that there was anything inferior about the contents of the original, but I can be a little slow, sometimes. She hadn't let me forget it for weeks.
"And you must be Lieutenant Murphy," Buffy said next, turning to the five-foot-and-change presence at my side.
Buffy had maybe an inch on her, minus heels; as they faced each other, hands out like weapons drawn, they looked as close to equals, visually, as I'd ever seen anyone with the petite director of Chicago's Special Investigations. Buffy was wearing more makeup, maybe, and her clothes had the edge in terms of price tag; but Murph made up for any monetary disadvantage with the sex-and-danger quotient inherent in a chick wearing guns. The blockbuster level of steel-jacketed cuteness going on in that handshake was going to live on in my memory for a long, long time.
I exchanged a quick glance with Thomas over the girl's heads, just to be sure it wasn't just me.
It wasn't. He raised an eyebrow back, a vague air of Hunger seeping into his expression, more than a trace of silver showing in the brightness of his gaze.
"Ms. Summers," Murphy replied, politely. "I've heard a lot about you from Harry."
Buffy grinned at her tone. "I'll bet you have. Which story did he tell, the one about the Black Court vamp and the totally egregious argument in fake Latin? Or the time he came to Cleveland on what was supposed to be Warden business and ended up covered in syrup and feathers in the Council House kitchen...?"
Murphy cocked an eyebrow at that last. "Do tell," she murmured to Buffy.
I replied with an exaggeratedly innocent expression. A guy's got to keep some secrets, doesn't he?
Buffy laughed. "Later, I promise."
"So which stories did he tell about me?" Murphy continued, intrigued.
"Enough to be glad you're coming with," Buffy replied, sobering again as she steered the conversation back to the order of the day. "Pretty smooth, taking down an agent of Faerie with a chainsaw. Too bad we can't take one with us today."
Murphy smirked. Yeah; she'd pretty much worn the monster-kicking boots in that particular endeavor. Tonight's Winter hunt wasn't going to be anywhere near that simple, but it was better to go in confident and loaded for bear than tiptoeing tremulously through the snowflakes. Buffy's years of experience were showing again; she'd been in the monster-hunting business at least as long as I had, despite being several years younger. I was very glad she'd made it in time to join us.
"And this is Thomas," I said, making the final introduction as my half-brother stepped forward.
Unlike Charity and Murphy, however, he stopped several feet shy of her, inclining his head respectfully. "Slayer," he said.
She stiffened in surprise-- and the sheathed weapon on her back suddenly lit the air around her with a tingling weight of energy that reminded me of nothing so much as the spiritual presence of Charity's husband's blade, the faith-imbued sword known as Amoracchius. "Vampire," she replied, warily.
I swallowed. Yeah, I'd kind of forgotten to share that tidbit before. "Is that going to be a problem?" I asked, carefully.
She turned to me, pupils wide and dark with surging adrenaline. "You trust him?"
I shrugged, as casually as I could manage. "He doesn't exactly sparkle, but you could call him a vegetarian," I said.
The tension in the air ratcheted down a notch at that; she snorted, and the watchful presence of the blade she wore dimmed again until it was almost unnoticeable. Almost, but not quite; it really did remind me of the swords borne by the Knights of the Cross, now that I knew it was there.
"I'll take your word on that for now," she said calmly, and nodded back at Thomas.
Introductions over with, we all piled in the minivan and headed out. I rode shotgun; Murphy and Buffy took the middle row of seats, and Thomas rode in the back, watching our six while I followed the magical trail toward Molly Carpenter.
It was going to be a rocky ride. I knew I'd be more than grateful for each one of my companions by the time we were through.
From the moment Buffy drew the thing she called the Scythe from the sheath on her back, I could hardly keep my eyes off her and on my own path through the battle.
It wasn't as though I'd never seen a blesséd weapon in action. I'd fought alongside Charity's husband more times than I could count, and I'd been within a bladeslength of the other Knights of the Cross when the Denarians had come to my city baying after the Shroud of Turin. The silvery light and humming aura each Sword emits in battle is unmistakable, imbued with a power wrought of the pure essence of belief that transforms simple steel into the glory of God-touched metal.
The difference was, though there was no denying Buffy's weapon worked along the same principles, it was equally clear it drew from another source of Power entirely. One that did not ask its followers to turn the other cheek.
An umber light radiated from the sharp edge of the blade, a color that left the taste of rich loam and withered leaves on the back of my tongue. Neither the frigid dearth of Winter nor the virile warmth of Summer, its glow parted the flesh of Mab's minions like wheat before the harvest sickle. It was clearly a weapon meant to oppose the shagnasties on their own turf: a blade meant for the guardians who stand within the Gates to the Nevernever, rather than stamping out intrusions on our side.
Buffy spun and dodged, a focused avatar of destruction: dancing in the chain mail Charity had lent her as though it weighed less than tissue paper, the polished edge of the blade licking along the Scarecrow's limbs to draw forth rivers of green-white fire. Wherever it moved, she was there first. Wherever the dark blaze and low murmuring tone of the Scythe touched grotesquely shaped flesh, the ancient fetch flinched away from it in pain.
I'd known what a Slayer's role was, intellectually, before that battle. Hells Bells, I'd seen her fight Black Court vampires before, and she'd sliced and diced the minions guarding the old theater on the other side without so much as breaking a sweat. But watching her wield that eldritch weapon in the heart of Winter's home, I began to get an idea of the true freight her title carried. The Scythe had flared into livid light as we broke free of the fetches below to follow Charity up to the parapet, illuminating a garden of Fae trapped in ice-- and limning Buffy's profile with the color of drying blood. She looked fierce, in that light: both more and less than human, and as far from the laughing girl I'd broken bread with as it was possible to be.
I wished I'd had her with me the year before, facing the Erlking; or even better, back when the former Summer Lady had lost the plot and tried to destroy the balance between Seelie and Unseelie. And no wonder, in retrospect. Had the heart of Faerie ever opened so near to the formation of a new Hellmouth before?
The hair standing up on the back of my neck as I whipped my blasting rod into position and unleashed another Forzare owed at least as much to the horrified speculations ticking over in the back of my mind as it did to the adrenaline-fueled exertion of the ongoing battle. Whatever was stirring in the supernatural world-- whether the apparent traitor in the White Council had caused it or was simply harnessing the chaos it provided as a natural amplifier to his work-- I had a sneaking suspicion we had barely begun to see the tip of the iceberg.
But mid-fight was not the time to be panicking about some distant future. I summoned every erg of energy I could get from the scraped-thin ache of my magical reserves as Buffy and a broadsword-wielding Charity fenced the thing away from Charity's daughter. As strong as they both were, even with Buffy's Chosen blade in her hands, the powerful fetch could probably endure long enough to outlast them. But they could keep the thing busy: intercepting lashes of vines aimed at each other, tag-teaming to hack at the downward arch of its foot when it moved to flatten Molly, and generally keeping it too distracted to focus on what I was doing.
Of course, by the time I realized I was too tired to feel wonder or fear, and connected that that calmness with a corresponding weakening of the Scarecrow's abilities, I was already running critically low on my own resources. But we were all still standing, thanks to the efforts of two of the toughest women I had ever known, and after I drew on the Summer fire in Lily's gift to blast the fetch off the parapet of Arctis Tor I managed to save enough back to hurry us out of the citadel in advance of the wave of slowed time that would have trapped us there as gift-wrapped presents for Winter's army.
Of such things-- nails disguised as hours preserved and wounds averted-- are kingdoms lost and princesses saved. If we'd been even a few minutes slower, caught in the edges of Maeve's 'helping hand' like flies in amber, I hate to think what the consequences might have been for us when we finally left the Nevernever. A little less rest, a little more desperation; who knows what fall-out for Murphy and the tiny flock sheltered with Father Forthill, and my own clarity of mind when the time came to face the Council.
Regardless, by the end of the next evening I had a new apprentice cleaning up in my shower; forty young wizards had been saved by her father's hand; and I stood in the open doorway of my apartment with Buffy, trying to think of a way to send her off that wouldn't trip off my tongue with a thud and drag down our 'acquaintanceship' with it.
I'd suspected she might pay a visit to find out how things had wrapped up, since she'd wanted nothing to do with any meeting of the White Council. I didn't blame her for that. But her timing could have been better-- and I had no clue what to say to her.
"So. Fun day, huh," she prompted me, weariness etching lines at the corners of changeable green eyes.
I tried to picture her again as the friend I'd been so glad to see when she'd arrived at Thomas' call; as the lively, bantering object of mystery I'd shared a table with at Mac's the first day we met. But I kept seeing the flat, grim curve of her mouth backlit by her unholy weapon instead, and feeling the strength of her grip on my arm as she'd pulled me past a crucified and groaning Lloyd Slate when I'd wanted to stop and investigate what had happened to the former Winter Knight.
Between that dissonance, and the left-over stress from my conversation with Michael about Lasciel after the meeting, I was too unsettled to smile at her half-hearted joke. I couldn't help but wonder what she saw when she looked at me, too, after everything; I knew she'd seen more of my own darker side that week than I'd shown her in the months since we'd met.
And maybe I should have realized it sooner, but it was the little thread of embarrassed worry that followed on the heels of that thought that really put the cherry on my sundae of squirming discomfort. I wanted her to think well of me. I wanted to think well of her. Stars and stones, I wasn't a teenager anymore, where the hell was this all coming from?
I flushed, heat prickling under the five o'clock shadow on my cheeks, and cleared my throat. "Yeah," I said. "Thanks for coming-- I have a feeling things would've gone a lot worse without your help."
"Oh, I don't know." She gave me a lopsided smile. "I think you would've made it through just fine. You're one of the stubbornest people I know."
"Still...." I said.
She shrugged petite shoulders. "No, I get it. I was glad to help." Then she stretched up to wrap her arms around as much of my shoulders as she could reach. "I can tell you have plans," she added, "at least I hope you do or I'll kick your ass later for not asking me in. I'll call you later, okay?"
That sounded alarmingly like 'I want to talk to you' to me. But I returned the farewell hug with equal intensity, and stayed in the doorway, watching until she passed beyond the limits of my wards.
Then I shoved the door closed, took a seat by the fire, and settled in to await Molly's inevitable attempt to seduce me.
...Which fairy tale am I living in again?
No wait, don't tell me. I think I'd prefer to be surprised by the ending.