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Xander swung his axe, and the snarling red demon jumped back, out of range of his weapon. As soon as the axe passed, it darted back in, raking its sharp claws across Xander’s midsection. Xander glanced down in shock when he realized his borrowed chainmail shirt had protected him from harm.
He smashed his elbow into the Plautect demon’s face, and it staggered back a couple of steps, which put it far enough away that he could swing the axe in its direction in a rather awkward backhanded strike. It didn’t do much damage, but it put him back in the right position to swing the axe around again, this time slicing deep into the demon’s neck. It gurgled at him for a second or two, then collapsed to the ground, nearly taking Xander’s axe with it, but finally he was able to jerk his weapon free.
Since it looked like he was out of demons for the moment, he glanced behind him at Willow, Tara and Anya. The witches stood with hands clasped, chanting steadily, while Anya pulled strange and smelly powders and liquids out of a bag on the floor and mixed them in a bowl, checking a list as she listened to the chanting. Giles was on the other side of them, sword drawn, but since the rest of the Plautects were focusing their attention on Buffy and Spike, it looked like they had a little breathing space.
“Are you all right, Xander?” Giles’ voice was strained and Xander took a closer look at him, worried that maybe he’d been hurt.
“Yeah, I’m good, G-Man, how about you?”
“I’d ask you not to call me that, but I’m sure it would do no good. I’m fine, if slightly winded.”
The chanting behind them grew in volume, and suddenly, Xander felt a huge, invisible force rush past, headed right for the fighting where Buffy and Spike swirled and kicked and sliced their swords right through the dark red skin of the demons. Xander knew how tough that skin was to penetrate, so he was duly impressed. But even more impressive was the blast that blew the demons into little pieces, spattering both Buffy and Spike with their pale pink blood.
“Woo hoo!” shouted Xander, “Way to go, witchy women!”
Willow and Tara slumped up against the wall behind them, gasping for breath. With all the fighters gone, Spike and Buffy blinked at each other for a long second before noticing that the sorcerer the Plautects had been protecting was making a run for it, a large beaker clutched tightly in one hand.
“Buffy!” Giles cried, “Don’t let him get away!”
He was headed for the doorway about twenty feet from Xander’s position, and Xander took off running, thinking he could block the way and hopefully distract the guy long enough for Buffy to get there and finish him off. Xander stood in the doorway, brandishing his axe, and the sorcerer stopped short, his eyes going wide when he saw the chainmail shirt Xander wore.
He glanced over his shoulder at Buffy and Spike who were fast closing in on him, then swerved, putting his back against the wall, Xander on one side and Buffy and Spike on the other. He held the beaker in front of him, chanting quickly in some tongue-twisting language that Giles was probably fluent in. The green liquid inside the beaker started to glow and sparks flew out of it as it hissed and bubbled, like it was full of Fourth of July sparklers.
The beaker made him nervous and Xander wanted to back away, but he knew if he did, the sorcerer could get past him and out the door. That wasn’t going to happen – the bastard had already sacrificed five children in the last week, there was no way he was getting out of here alive if Xander could help it. So he gripped his axe handle tighter, and clenched his jaw, hoping that between Willow, Tara, Buffy and Spike, they could bring him down without Xander having to pay for stealing the guy’s chainmail shirt.
Besides, he wasn’t even using it; it was just hanging in the guy’s laboratory when they snuck in. How was Xander supposed to know that once he put it on, it wouldn’t come back off again? The sorcerer kept chanting, pointing his finger at Buffy and Spike who’d separated, so they now surrounded the sorcerer on three sides, although none of them really wanted to get too close to him at the moment.
Xander adjusted his grip on the axe, unfortunately attracting the attention of the sorcerer. He froze, not happy about the look in the guy’s beady eyes, and Buffy took the opportunity to jump him, Spike only a few seconds behind her as they tackled him to the ground. The sorcerer threw his arms wide as they hit him, the beaker flying out of his hand and tumbling through the air, directly at Xander. Instinctively, Xander lifted his arm to block the beaker, but the liquid was airborne by then. He closed his eyes as the first drops hit his face, sizzling like a shock of electricity over his skin.
He could hear the struggle going on to his left, as Buffy and Spike subdued the sorcerer, the sound of the witches chanting in the background humming in his ears. He was afraid to wipe his face, he could feel the liquid soaking into his skin, popping and fizzing. It didn’t hurt, which was good, but he wasn’t sure what he should do.
“Don’t kill him, Buffy!” Giles shouted, just as Xander heard the loud cracking of bones.
“Oops. Why not? Wasn’t that the idea?”
Buffy was obviously upset, and Xander was a little confused himself. That had been the plan. But then, that was before Xander had gotten attached to the guy’s chainmail or vice versa; and before the guy had thrown an entire beaker of sparkly crap all over Xander’s face. It occurred to him that they now had no way of finding out what this stuff was.
Xander reached for his face, but someone grabbed his hand.
“Don’t touch it, mate. Let the Watcher look at it first.”
Willow’s cry was high-pitched and shaky. Xander automatically wanted to tell her everything was fine, except that the fizzing and buzzing that he could feel boiling under his skin made him think it might not be.
“Xander, are you okay?”
Willow sounded tearful, but Xander refused to think about why that might be. Nope, not thinking at all.
“Don’t speak, Xander.” Giles ordered. “Simply nod or shake your head. Did the liquid get into your mouth?”
Xander pressed his lips together, shaking his head vigorously. That seemed like a good thing to him, and he was hanging onto every good thing that came his way.
“Good, good.” Giles sounded relieved. “What about your eyes?”
He shook his head again.
Giles immediately started ordering people around. He was good at that, especially in a crisis. “Anya, break out the first aid kit. Willow, soak this handkerchief in one of those bottles of water. Buffy, you and Spike keep watch, in case there are more demons in the house. Tara, see if you can get some of this liquid in a container of some sort – we might need samples. But don’t get it on your skin, is that clear?”
“Ye-yes, Mr. Giles.”
He could hear everyone scrambling off to their prospective tasks, and Xander relaxed slightly. It didn’t matter if there was something green and sparkly clinging to his face. The Scoobies were on the job. They’d take care of everything.
Spike came down from the attic shaking his head.
“All clear, Slayer.”
He had no idea why they were still here. If the slain Plautect sorcerer had been dimension hopping, then he probably had friends who knew how to do the same. They were vulnerable while they stayed in his lair. The Slayer seemed to feel the same way, her shoulders were tense, her eyes sharp, darting from place to place, as if she expected a trap around every corner. They headed down to the ground floor, walking cautiously, despite the fact that they were fairly certain by now that they were alone in the building.
“I’ll see if I can’t hurry them up. Stay here, and keep watch. We’ll be up soon, then we can get out of here.”
She headed back down the basement stairs, and Spike prowled the main rooms of the first floor, his senses alert to the smallest details. It was a big place. Not as large as Angelus’ monstrosity on Crawford street, but bigger than the sorcerer had needed, since most of the second floor and the attic had been unused for years, if the collection of dust covering every surface was any indication.
There were odd looking figurines and knick knacks all over the place, and Spike was tempted to lift a few – they looked expensive, he could easily get a quick bob or two for them, if he took them to the right people. But after what happened to Harris down in the laboratory, he was nervous of touching anything. The last thing he needed was to be stuck to some piece of arcane jewelry that gave no indication of its purpose.
Well, alright, armor was armor, wasn’t it? But that didn’t explain why it seemed to be permanently attached to its current wearer. The mail had been splendidly displayed; the golden-copper color of the finely rendered links contrasted beautifully against the black velvet of the dresser’s dummy the piece had been draped over. It was a work of art. Built like a half-sleeved shirt, the hem of the closely knit links fell a few inches past the waist. It was shorter than most of the mail hauberks Spike remembered studying as a boy, pouring over the words and illustrations as he got lost in the stories of the heroic medieval knights.
Spike’s eyes had been drawn to the shirt as soon as he stepped into the room. He’d concentrated on his job, though, and turned back to give the all clear into the room. It was obviously part of the sorcerer’s laboratories, if the vials and beakers, and strange magical implements were any indication. He and the Slayer had carefully approached the only door leading out of the room, Spike warning her that he heard at least three heartbeats on the other side.
He’d turned back to the room in time to see Harris smoothing the golden-copper links down over his chest with a look of awe. Spike had sped over, stopping Giles from giving them away by reprimanding the boy aloud. When the Watcher ordered him to take it off in a terse whisper, Xander looked as if he were coming out of a dream, blinking down at the armor shirt as if he had no idea where it came from. He’d gripped the hem to remove it, but try as he might, neither he nor Giles could get the damned thing to come off. It was as if it had melded right onto his body, his obscenely colored t-shirt barely showing through the tight links.
There hadn’t been time to deal with the issue properly. Plautect were known far and wide for their knowledge of magic and the arcane arts, and this one had already proved himself to be devious as well as dangerous. Their only chance of success was to strike before he was aware of their presence. Having clashed with him once already, they knew that he relied on his magical defenses, and had little, if any, skill at hand to hand combat. So the plan was to let him get comfortable, thinking he was safe behind his minions. Once they were taken out of the equation, the sorcerer would fall to the Slayer and Spike.
Despite the complications, their plan had worked. What they hadn’t planned on, however, was the goop the damned bastard had managed to get all over Harris’ face. Spike ground his teeth, uncomfortable with the feelings raging through him. He thought he’d managed to keep his emotions separate from the gang of do-gooders he found himself temporarily allied with. But somehow they’d managed to sneak past his defenses, and against all common sense, he had become attached.
He blamed himself for what happened tonight. He should have been faster, should have stopped the bastard from throwing that shite in Harris’ face. He should have done <i>better</i>. And now, one of his was hurt. They were his – all of them. Spike’s demon had accepted them into its clan, and now he’d failed to keep his own safe. He heard footsteps on the stairs, and sighed, relieved that they were finally going to get the hell out of there. Shoving his thoughts back, he concentrated on making sure he didn’t let them down again.
Harris managed to get from the car to the Watcher’s flat on his own two feet, shaky and somewhat unsteady, but moving under his own power. His face was covered with faint green splotches, but at least the dark green blisters Spike had seen bubbling up on the boy’s face were gone. That was a relief. They’d looked pretty nasty at the time.
They’d all trouped inside, dropping weapons and bags of supplies where they stood, most of them far too tired to do more than collapse onto the furniture. Giles struggled with making tea until Demon Girl quietly took over for him and Giles slumped down onto a stool at the bar that separated the kitchen from the living room and watched her work. He kept up the questions, though, and they finally got the lowdown on the mail shirt.
“I honestly don’t remember putting it on, Giles.”
Xander sounded utterly drained, and who could blame him? He’d been hit by interdimensional magic twice in the course of twenty minutes – that had to be a record of some sort, even for this bunch.
“I saw it as soon as I walked into the room. I wasn’t going to touch it, I swear, but it was so beautiful.” Even now, he couldn’t stop stroking the coppery metal links, as if it were a pet that begged for attention. “It was as if… As if it was calling to me. I could <i>hear</i> it saying my name.” He shook his head to clear it. “The next thing I knew, you were telling me to take it off.”
Anya handed Giles a cuppa and crossed over to the chair Xander was collapsed into.
“Is that copper? That seems like much too soft a metal to make a mail shirt out of, don’t you think?” She ran her fingers over Xander’s shoulder, then pulled back with a frown. “That’s odd. It’s awfully warm. Should it be that warm to the touch?”
Spike came over and tried to slide his fingers under the hem of the sleeve, to get a feel for the metal, but try as he might, his fingers kept slipping off to the side, and he couldn’t get a solid grip on it.
“There’s something odd about it, all right. It’s almost as if it’s <i>alive</i> or something.”
There was a gasp from Giles, and he jumped off the stool, stumbling a few steps before he got his footing back. He crossed to one of the many shelves Harris had built for him in the last year to hold the huge boxes of books the Watcher had pilfered from the school library right before they’d blown it sky high. He mumbled to himself as he scanned the spines of book after book, searching for something. Finally, he found the one he was looking for and sat back down at his stool, flipping rapidly through the pages.
“I’m afraid I’m not an expert at Plautectian, it’s rather a rare language to come across in this dimension, but fortunately, the last owner of this book was a watcher who specialized in rare languages, and many pages of the text have his notations in the margins.
“As a child, I was fascinated by knights and their armor, and when I came across this illustration, I was shocked by the similarities to the ‘ring maille’ of the Middle Ages.” He stopped searching, his fingers tapping on the page. “Ah! It’s shorter than a haubergeon, but the build is very similar.” Giles crossed over to Xander, putting the book on the arm of his chair.
Xander stroked the page, the way he’d been stroking the hem of his new shirt of armor. “Wow, Giles. Except for the color, this looks exactly like mine.”
Spike got close enough to see, and nodded his agreement. Too short for most Medieval armor, except maybe the waist-length coats popular at the time. “Looks almost like a byrnie, doesn’t it? Except for the color, of course.”
Giles glanced up at him in surprise. “Ah. Of course. There was a revival of all things Medieval during the Victorian era, wasn’t there? It’s easy to forget that, despite your crass nature, you were once a Victorian.”
Spike frowned at him with narrowed eyes. “No need to call names, ‘Ripper’.”
His eyes were drawn back to the page. The book was old, and musty, and the pages seemed to be made of some kind of thinly stretched leather rather than paper, but the illustration was quite detailed, and despite the faded condition, the matte black of the mail shirt seemed to suck up the color from the surrounding page, leaving it pale and fragile looking. He was suddenly quite jealous of the man wearing the armor, and only barely managed stop himself from growling at Giles as he took the book away.
“Yes, here’s what I was looking for.” Buffy scooted over, giving Giles room, and he perched on the edge of the couch as he read. “The shirts are considered living armor, and are said to be very stubborn as to who they allow to wear them. They choose their partners carefully, searching for heroes they can aid in their struggles.”
“Heroes?” Xander laughed. “Heroes?” He glanced down at his chest, his fingers tapping at the coppery links covering it. “Hey, buddy! You picked the wrong person. The hero is over there!” He pointed at the Slayer, who shook her head and grinned at him.
“Thanks, Xander, but I think I’ll pass on the chainmail fashion accessory.” She shrugged. “It wouldn’t fit me, anyway. It’s skintight on you, but it would hang off me and get in my way.”
“Actually, Buffy, the mail fits itself to the form of whomever it chooses. If it were attracted to you, it would fit you like a second skin.”
Harris grinned. “Oh yeah. That, I’d like to see!” He glanced back down at his chest. “You sure about this, buddy? Buffy’s got curves you’d love to hug, I can promise you that.”
“Ewwww. That’s just creepy. No, you get to keep the armor with a mind of its own.” She got up and crossed to the refrigerator, grabbing a bottle of water. Xander struggled out of his chair and followed her.
“But Buff, I’m not a hero. I’m the guy that holds the hero’s books while she slays the bad guys, remember? I’m not the one who saves the day, I’m the one who saves collector’s plates based on scifi shows.” He turned back to Giles, since Buffy seemed to be ignoring his pleas. “Giles, we’ve got to fix this. I can’t be a hero. I’m <i>not</i> a hero.”
Giles walked back to his stool and picked up his lukewarm cup of tea, sipping it with a frown. “From the description in this book, it’s fairly clear that the shirt seems to have chosen you for a reason, Xander.”
Willow roused herself enough to come to sit on a stool next to him. “But isn’t that thing bad? I mean, we found it in the home of a sorcerer who was sacrificing children. That suggests badness to me.”
“I’m not so sure of that, Willow. The sorcerer might have owned it, but I didn’t get the idea that he wore it. Perhaps he bought or stole it, and was trying to find a way to make it accept him.” Giles tapped on the book he still held in his hand. “We’ll need to research it further, but from what I understood from this book, the shirts are only attracted to…” he scanned the page to find his place before reading aloud, “’true heroes with pure hearts’.”
“That’s not me, Giles!” He was beginning to panic, but the Watcher plowed through his objections.
“You may not have a Slayer’s agility or strength, but you’ve fought at her side for many years now, and as the book implies, your heart is pure.”
Spike snorted at that, earning himself a frown from Red. “I’ve seen his porn collection, mate, I wouldn’t say that.”
“Spike!” He laughed at both the witch and the whelp, their mutual cries of shock and dismay music to his ears. He smirked. He was still evil, no matter whose company he was currently being seen in.
“Do shut up, Spike. Xander, your heart <i>is</i> pure, no matter your private habits. I see no reason why you should not be selected as a hero; you’ve proved yourself many times over.”
“But Giles, I fall over my feet on a regular basis. I have no fighting skills. I have no skills whatsoever!”
“You’re quite good in bed, Xander. You gave me many excellent orgasms before we decided we made better friends than lovers.” Anya’s honest praise had Spike staring at Harris in speculation. With one thousand years of experience, if Demon Girl said he was good in bed, Spike believed her.
Anya noticed that Giles was frowning at her, and her eyes widened as she realized what she’d said. “Not to say that you’re not good in bed, Rupert! I’m perfectly happy with the many and varied orgasms that an experienced older man like yourself has to offer.”
The Watcher’s little children all managed to ewwww at the same moment, and Rupert’s face turned four shades of red. Spike laughed. It was times like this that he enjoyed being afflicted with this little band of do-gooders. They were all so uptight about the oddest things. It was quite enjoyable watching them flail and panic.
Xander shook his head, as if trying hard to clear it of the image of his former girlfriend and his father figure in bed together. “The point is, I’m not a hero. Do I have super hearing? No. Super sight? No. Super smell? Don’t answer that. Do I have super anything? No! I’m not hero potential, folks. I’m just normal old Xander!” He stepped up to the fridge, pulling the door open.
With a crack and the groan of over-stressed metal giving way, the refrigerator door pulled away from its hinges. It hung easily from Xander’s hand by its crushed handle as he gaped at the door in shock.
Spike laughed at the incredulous looks on everyone’s faces. “I guess that’s a yes on the super strength, then, wouldn’t you say, Harris?”