Buffy stirred out of a painful doze to the sound of a distant, muffled buzz; not the hum of mechs that had haunted the few minutes of sleep she'd managed to catch that day, but a distinctly mechanical, human sound that told her Hal and Maggie hadn't listened to her after all.
At the moment, she couldn't care less-- as long as they weren't bringing another flood of Skitters behind them. The hobbled group of rescuers and rescued had made their slow way out of Boston mostly in the shadows of its remaining buildings, breaking line of sight with the flyers' preferred paths as much as they could and detouring at the slightest rasp of noise that didn't come from their own feet. They'd still been unavoidably ambushed once more during their escape; they only had a handful of Scythe bullets left between them after taking down the party of searching Skitters, and the mech rounds were almost gone, too. Eventually, though, their evasive tactics had paid off; they'd picked a bridge with enough space beneath it to nap in and enough cool concrete overhead to shield them from eyes in the sky, then curled up for a few hours to recharge.
That had probably been a mistake on her part. Her wounded leg had stiffened badly, inadequately pillowed against the chill autumn earth; she wasn't going to be any kind of asset if it were bandits rather than the scouts of the Second Mass approaching. But it had probably done Mason some good; she could see him stirring as she blinked her eyes open, the first time he'd been conscious since they'd left that woman Sonya Rankin's apartment in Boston.
He nodded solemnly at her as he got to his feet, one hand pressed against the shoulder he'd removed the tracking thing from, then back out a few feet to look up at the bridge. Kennedy was already standing there, gun in hand, and she gave him a long look before handing him another-- a suspiciously familiar looking one, too. Buffy patted at her holster, then sighed, aggrieved, as she realized where it had come from. Not like she'd been using it. But still. She'd cried when Mr. Pointy met its demise; she'd missed the weight of the Scythe in her hands for weeks after its breaking; and her gun was equally hers, hand etched with fanciful symbols by Andrew in one of his artistic phases.
The sound grew closer, and closer-- then sprouted another level of engine noise, the throaty sound of an aging, hard-used truck. Zahra perked up at that, darting out to stand next to the others, then started jumping up and down and waving her hands as their imminent visitors grew closer. "Stasia!"
Buffy closed her eyes and let out a heart-felt sigh of relief. Then she braced a hand on the sloping bank and pushed herself creakily to her feet. She'd been half convinced some lingering force of karma was going to even the score on them, punishing them for surviving against all odds by taking Stasia; but if she was here, that meant they'd all made it out. Somewhat the worse for wear, but they'd effectively carried out a raid on the mothership without losing anyone. That was more success than she'd had-- than anyone human had had, that she was aware of-- in all the long months since the alien apocalypse.
She felt a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as she reached Kennedy, leaning her weight against the taller girl's shoulder as they waited for their rescue.
Stasia flew down the bank a moment later at full speed, practically tackling Zahra and exclaiming over the bullet graze on her arm. Hal was equally frantic to reach his father; they stood there with fists wrapped in the back of each other's shirts for a moment, reassuring each other they were alive, before Mason pulled back a little and gestured to the harnessed girl wrapped up in radio-wave blocking tinfoil.
"Karen? You got her, too?" he said, lit up as though his Christmas had come early, bringing out the sixteen-year-old she'd rarely seen inside the already experienced soldier. "What's with--? Is that because the harness--?"
"So your dad says," Buffy nodded at him, then at Maggie, looking down from the bridge above. "It's probably better if we don't stay out here any longer than we have to, though."
"No duh," Stasia said, breaking away from Zahra to give Buffy and Kennedy a once-over. "Shit, Buffy, after all that talk about not sacrificing anyone you sure look like you tried your damndest to go out in style."
"Yeah, well, you know me," Buffy smiled back at her wanly. "Haven't met a death that would stick yet; and if you think I'm ready to allow you guys out into the wild without me, you've got another think coming. Like, just for example: totally appreciative of the rescue, but you know I told you to hole up with Hal and Maggie, not come back for us."
Stasia scoffed at that. "Puh-leaze. Like I'd let Zahra bogart all the action."
"I don't think you have to worry about that," Kennedy said, nodding to the abused backpack resting atop their meager pile of gear beneath the sheltering cover of the bridge. "You saved our asses by leaving that with us. Way to be prepared, Slayer."
"Colin Powell said there are no secrets to success," Mason spoke up, brow wrinkled a little, probably at Kennedy's word choice. "It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure."
Hal snorted, still smiling widely as he bumped his dad's shoulder with a fist. "Now is not the time for one of your lectures, Dad. Save it for later, all right?"
Mason flinched at the pressure on his wound, but smiled back at his son. "All right. I do have a lot of questions, though-- Buffy? Did I get the name right?"
"I'm surprised you understood that," Buffy grinned at him. "But, yeah. I'm Buffy Summers. And don't worry; we'll be staying with the Second Mass, so there'll be plenty of opportunity to talk."
"Good." He turned, finally, and started up the hill, half leaning on Hal; Maggie came down as soon as they'd cleared the top, skidding down to Karen's position to haul her up. She made a face at the crinkle of the aluminum, and shot a worried look up after Hal that Buffy was pretty sure she hadn't meant anyone else to see, but she shouldered the girl without complaint to carry her up to the truck.
Zahra went for the packs. And Buffy? She yelped as Kennedy picked her up in a stereotypical bridal carry, and couldn't stop herself from giggling as they went up the hill. Relief washed through her in a cool wave; she rested her head against Kennedy's shoulder, and just breathed as they made for the bed of the truck to settle in for the ride out past Acton back to the new camp.
It had been almost exactly twenty four hours since they'd set out when they rolled off the road into the secluded creekside area Dr. Glass had chosen for their camp, the stars just winking into view on the deep velvet of the sky as Maggie turned the engine off and Stasia and Hal coasted to a halt on their bikes. They'd taken the long way 'round to hopefully throw anyone following them off, though they'd probably still have to move camp in a day or two to be sure; but in that moment, the last of the light lingering on Kennedy's profile as Buffy rested against her shoulder, she felt more at home than she had anywhere in months, not even with the Fifth Massachusetts.
What seemed like half the camp came to greet them: Weaver steel-jawed with the tiniest glint of wetness in his eyes, gruffly requesting a debrief after they'd got some sleep; Pope whistling with admiration over the state of their injuries and the depletion of their ammo; Mason's younger two sons rushing up to wrap themselves around him in a way that reminded her of how the younger Slayers treated Andrew; Dr. Glass following more solemnly behind them with open tears on her face--
Oh, there was definitely romance brewing there. Buffy smiled and wolf-whistled with the rest as the doctor wrapped her hands around the professor's face, then leaned up to taste his lips in a kiss that looked like it would have gone on forever if he hadn't twitched when she dropped her arms to wind them around him. Then came the scolding, which soon grew into an invitation for all of them to join her in the clinic tent. Whatever the hour, the doc was a lot more rested than they were.
Buffy wasn't going to argue with that. She limped at the back of the group, arm still around Kennedy's waist, pausing only to accept fervent, careful hugs from Andrew, Danielle, Erin, Persey, and Mason's littlest, the impatient Matthew.
"Thank you for saving my dad," he said.
"He helped save us too, you know," she told him, gently ruffling his mop-top of hair. "Your dad's a big damn hero."
He giggled a little at the tame swear, then let go, running off to join his brothers. Ben smiled back at her as Matt joined him; she nodded to him, then smiled to herself in satisfaction.
"Today was a good day," she murmured to Kennedy. So much for her curse. Despite all the pain and hardship, the uncertainty, the death she'd dealt, the things they'd learned about the Skitters and their masters' superiority complex-- they'd done a lot of good, and for the first time in awhile it looked like there might be a lot more after that. The Second Mass were good people.
So had the Fifth been, of course, and their group in Ohio. But they'd struck back today. They hadn't lost anyone doing it. And some tiny part of her that had been unanchored ever since Giles' death was already latching onto Mason.
This time around would be the charm. She was suddenly sure of it.