Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer
"I wish that Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale," declared Cordelia.
Anyanka turned around. "Done."
"So Cordelia wished for something?" said Oz. "Well, if it was a long, healthy life, she should get her money back."
"She said something about everything being different," Giles frowned. "That the... the world wasn't supposed to be like this. It was, um, better. Before."
Larry blinked, disbelieving. "Okay. The entire world sucks because some dead ditz made a wish?"
"'In order to defeat Anyanka, one must destroy her power center'," Giles read out loud. "This should reverse all the wishes she's granted, rendering her mortal and powerless again.'"
Buffy shrugged. "World is what it is. We fight. We die. Wishing doesn't change that."
"I have to believe in a better world," Giles told her.
"Go ahead," said Buffy. "I have to live in this one."
A crowd of vampires gathered alongside a wooden cage full of humans, including Oz and Larry. In the centre of the room was a machine. Up on stage, the Master stood at a control panel.
"Vampires, come! Behold the technical wonder, which is about to alter the very fabric of our society," he gloated. "Undeniably we are the world's superior race. Yet we have always been too parochial, too bound by the mindless routine of the predator. Hunt and kill, hunt and kill. Titillating? Yes. Practical? Hardly. Meanwhile, the humans, with their plebeian minds, have brought us a truly demonic concept: mass production!"
Appearing in response to Giles' summoning ritual, Anyanka snarled at him, "Do you have any idea what I do to a man who uses that spell to summon me?"
"What's the plan?" Angel anxiously asked Buffy.
She held out a stake. "Don't fall on this."
"Cordelia Chase. What did she wish for?" Giles demanded.
"I had no idea her wish would be so exciting!" Anyanka laughed. "Brave New World. I hope she likes it."
Battle raged as the captive humans were released from their cage. Vampire Xander dusted Angel during the battle, only to be dusted in his turn by Buffy. Oz, meanwhile, dusted Vampire Willow.
Anyanka pinned Giles to the wall, choking him, but he noticed the amulet around her neck glowing green and grabbed at it, wresting it from her neck. Startled, she let go of him and he sent her staggering across the room with a heavy backhand punch.
Buffy engaged the Master in combat.
Giles scrambled to his desk, lay the amulet on it and snatched up a marble paperweight.
"You trusting fool!" Anyanka shouted, scrambling back to her feet. "How do you know the other world is any better than this?"
"Because it has to be," Giles proclaimed.
Raising the paperweight, he started to swing it down with full force at Anyanka's amulet, and the vengeance demon cried out in alarm.
Buffy was dazed by a vicious backhand swing from the Master. Taking advantage, he seized her by the shoulders and pulled her to him. Grabbing her head, he gave it a hard twist, snapping her neck. He watched as her body began to fall, and then moved on.
Giles smashed the paperweight onto Anyanka's amulet. It shattered, emitting a burst of blazing light.
The flash of brilliant light faded, and the vengeance demon's iron grip vanished with it.
Giles staggered slightly upon being released so abruptly, then caught his balance once more and spun around, half-turning in all directions to scan the room. Searching for Anyanka. Searching for…something, anything – some sign that his destruction of the creature and her amulet had worked. For some sign that the nightmare was over at last.
Nothing had changed.
"W-what? Why…?" Horribly, painfully dismayed, Giles could only stammer his incomprehension. He'd been so sure. So sure it would work, that it would save them all….
Almost numb with overwhelming, crushing despair, he reached out to sift through the shattered remains of Anyanka's amulet, heedless of razor-sharp edges as he allowed the shards to run through his fingers. Just for a moment. A moment to absorb – to wallow.
Then he drew in a long, shaky breath, steeling his nerve to just keep going, rushed back to his books and frantically began to turn pages once more.
It was carnage. Absolute carnage. Bodies everywhere. Blood everywhere. Vampires everywhere, creating more bodies and more blood. There were so many vampires. Too many. They'd lost their strongest fighters, but it made no difference; they just kept coming and coming, too many to fight off and no place to hide.
Larry twisted and rolled and managed to break free of the vampire he'd been struggling with, just in time to see another one sinking its teeth into a girl right in front of him. Brunette. Pretty. He knew her; they'd had math class together. Or maybe chem. Something. And now she was dying, right there, right in front of him.
He rushed to pull the creature off her.
Tried to, anyway. With his eyes on the girl instead of the room, he'd left himself wide open and got sideswiped by yet another vampire. Maybe the same one he'd been struggling with a moment earlier. Vamp face on, they all looked pretty much the same. Caught out by the unexpected shoulder charge, Larry slammed painfully against the wall and the vampire had him pinned before he could catch his breath. Trapped, with no leverage to employ against his attacker, he could only squirm and cringe at the hot breath and fangs against his neck.
The fangs grazed but failed to break the skin.
Puzzled, Larry opened his eyes again as the pressure against him lightened, just in time to see the vampire crumble into dust.
Oz was standing behind it wielding a chair leg.
Larry started breathing again. Offering his friend a quick nod of thanks for the save, he turned back to the girl he'd been trying to save. Cathy. That was her name. Cathy from bio.
She was dead. A cold, bitter wave of rage and frustration washed over him. He couldn't save her. Couldn't save any of them. Probably not even himself.
"Larry!" Oz smacked his arm, and Larry turned to see what the other boy had spotted. A way out – a door, with junk piled up in front of it, the curtain it had been hidden behind now torn half down. Unguarded. The vamps hadn't seen it. Yet.
They had to fight their way out, but that was hardly new. They were used to relying on themselves these days. Each other. The two of them had lasted longer than any of the other White Hats – except Giles, of course. Surviving was something they'd both gotten good at, the past couple of years.
Larry reached the half-hidden exit first, shoving enough junk aside that he could pull the door open, just wide enough to get through. He made it through without any setbacks, but got no more than a few steps the other side before he realised that Oz was no longer with him.
Giles' hand trembled as he dropped the appropriate herbs into the golden goblet once again. Whether with anger, fear or despair he didn't like to enquire of himself, focusing instead on the task at hand. It had to work. It had to. They couldn't go on like this. He glanced down at the book he was holding open with his free hand, finger pointing to the appropriate passage. Anyanka's summoning ritual. Again.
"Anyanka, I beseech thee, in the name of all women scorned." He could hear anger in his voice, tried to swallow it as he added more herbs to the fire, but succeeded only in allowing a more desperate note to slip through. "Come before me, dammit! Tell me what went wrong!"
Oz choked as a powerful arm wrapped itself around his neck and squeezed, his feet leaving the ground as the vampire hauled him away from the door he'd been heading for and threw him against a nearby wall. Hitting hard, he dropped to the floor half-dazed, and had no time to regroup before the vampire lunged at him again.
It never reached him, as Larry re-appeared seemingly out of nowhere and slam-tackled it to the ground with a yell. Oz hastily caught up a piece of wood from the floor and held it out to his friend, who snatched it from his hand and rammed it into the vampire's back.
Straight through the heart first time. They'd both had plenty of practice.
The boys didn't hang around to watch it crumble into dust, instead wasting no time sprinting for the exit once more, escape the only thought on their minds.
They'd made it.
With Oz hard on his heels, Larry collapsed against a handy nearby wall to catch his breath after exiting the building at speed, anxiously scanning the alleyway for any randomly lurking vampires. He couldn't see any. That didn't mean they weren't there.
"C'mon. We can't stay here," he warned, catching Oz's eye. Oz nodded his agreement and they straightened up, preparing to make tracks at speed. This had been such a bad night. And it wasn't over yet.
"Hey, wait up."
Both startled on hearing a voice behind them. Larry shot a puzzled frown at Oz, who looked equally wary, as he whipped around on high alert.
There was another boy exiting the same door they'd just come through. He looked about their age or maybe a little younger, kinda scrawny, dirty, bruised and scared. Seemed human enough, but then all vamps did, until they didn't. And if one potential vamp could follow them out that passageway, so could a lot more.
"Don't leave me here," the boy pleaded, distractedly scrubbing his fingers through dirty blond hair so that it stood on end in all directions. Way too panicked to be faking, Larry decided, relaxing just a tiny bit. A vamp from that crowd in there wouldn't bother playing games; it would just attack and have done with it. "Us here," the boy amended. "They're gonna kill us!"
There was another boy right behind him, Larry now saw, a little shorter but equally battered and scared. This one Larry recognised immediately, and he groaned. "Man, of all the things I did not need tonight…"
"I-I-I…w-we were gonna die in there…" the little dweeb Larry knew to be Jonathan stammered.
"I saw you find this door," the other boy added. "So I kinda thought…and then they…and I didn't think we'd –"
Larry glanced at Oz, who shrugged. "Least they're alive," he pointed out, attention shifting as yet another escapee made it through the door more or less intact. A girl this time: blonde, taller than the two boys, but just as scared. "Harmony," Oz evenly greeted her.
Of all the dim-witted airheads that could've escaped the vampires' lair.
"Oh, you gotta be kidding me," Larry snarled, disgusted.
"Don't be like that!" she shrilled, indignant and borderline hysterical. "I just almost got killed and stuff. You have to help me!"
"No," Oz sombrely cautioned. "We all have to get out of here, now, before they follow us."
It was a good point. Larry nodded. "We're going," he announced. Glancing around to make sure the coast was clear and that no one else – like, oh, say a vampire or five – had followed them out, he strode away down the alley, vaguely aware that Oz had hesitated for a second to eye the other three worriedly before following…and that the three themselves were not far behind.
It was way dark. Too many streetlights broken.
The big guy, Larry, he'd gone striding ahead so fast Jonathan didn't think he stood a chance of keeping up. Figured. Larry hadn't changed that much, even now. But then the other one, Oz, he'd taken the lead, and he set a slightly more reasonable pace.
Jonathan didn't really know Oz – he'd had always just been one of those cool kids Jonathan had admired from afar, wondering how he managed it, without ever actually speaking to. Larry, though, Larry he knew only too well. And not in a good way, either. Knew him as a typical jock, a mindless thug who liked to pick on anyone he thought was weaker than him, which definitely included Jonathan. At least, that was what he'd been like before….
Well, just before. But since – well, since was another story. For everyone.
Larry and Oz were both super alert, Jonathan noticed as they hurried along: scanning the streets all around, peering into shadows, glancing over their shoulders. Nothing was going to sneak up on them, that was for sure!
That kind of vigilance should have been reassuring but really all it did was drive home the fact that the danger might not be over, which: not so reassuring.
With a shiver that had nothing to do with cold, he pulled his coat a little tighter around him and tried to imitate their watchfulness. Couldn't hurt.
Harmony was keeping as close to Larry as possible, he noticed – scurrying along clutching at his sleeve and stubbornly resisting all attempts to shake her off. Larry was the biggest of the group; she probably figured she was safer sticking with him. Just in case. Jonathan might be tempted to do the same, if not for that history he and Larry had. And his manly dignity, of course. What there was of it.
So where was the other kid? Andrew, wasn't it?
Jonathan turned to see Andrew trailing behind, staring all around with wide eyes as he trotted to keep up with the pace being set. This was all a nightmare, they were trapped in a nightmare, but Andrew seemed…strangely exhilarated by it.
"I never usually come out in the night," he said, seeing Jonathan looking at him. He sounded nervous but excited. "It's dark, and there are always vampires and stuff. Is it safe for us to be out here like this?"
"It's Sunnydale. It's night," said Oz from just up ahead. He shook his head, glancing back at them. "It's not safe."
"It's safer out here than it was in that filthy vampire-infested factory," Harmony declared with a fastidious little shudder.
Glancing around warily again and seeing nothing but shadows – anything could be hiding in there – Jonathan decided he was going to have to just bite the bullet and voice the fear he hadn't been able to shake off ever since the escape. "You don't think any of them followed us, do you?"
"Why are any of you following us? Go home!" Larry snapped, sounding tired and angry, and Jonathan recoiled instinctively, fearful, wondering what he would do if the others left him behind. If the vampires had followed….
"Yeah, as if!" Harmony shrilly protested. "I figure we're much safer sticking together as a group. That way, when the vampires attack, I'll have time to escape while you guys fight them off."
Larry gritted his teeth in exasperation and increased his speed, while Oz turned his most inscrutable expression toward the girl. "Nice to know you're thinking of us," he told her.
"T-that was him, wasn't it?" Jonathan quavered. "The master vampire no one ever sees – the one they all work for?"
Oz nodded, grim, while Larry huffed, slowing down just a little to match the pace of the others once more. "Yeah. You got to see the Master," he growled. "Make you feel all special?"
Jonathan blinked, remembering the horror they'd just escaped from. "N-no, not really. Mostly, it just made me feel scared."
"Wow. We faced the Master, and we survived." There was awe in Andrew's voice. "That's so cool!"
Larry huffed again, practically radiating frustration. "Where exactly are we going, anyway?" he snapped at Oz, who had taken the lead once more.
Oz looked very, very serious. "Giles needs to know what went down tonight."
Giles sat in silence, staring at the mess scattered all around him: books strewn across every surface, with spell-casting paraphernalia spread over the table and fallen onto the floor. It was all over. His one chance. The one chance of changing things. And it had failed. The better world he so desperately wanted to believe in had not materialised, and all hope for a better future was gone.
"'Destroying the power center should reverse all wishes', my arse," he muttered to himself, glaring at the page bearing those words. He'd wanted, so badly, to believe that the scribe who wrote them had known what he was talking about. "Nothing was reversed, nothing at all! How is this a better world?"
The doorbell rang, startling him. Surprised, he glanced toward the door but made no move to answer it, instead slouching back into his chair. What was the point? What was the point of any of it?
The doorbell rang again. And again. Giles determinedly continued to ignore it, gritting his teeth.
The bell rang again, and this time kept on ringing. Frustrated by the interruption, Giles stared at the door, waiting to see if whoever was out there would take the hint and go away.
The bell kept on ringing.
Giles sighed and stood up.
Larry couldn't remember when he'd been as exhausted as he was tonight. God, the last couple days had been brutal. Nancy's death. The factory. Having to fight their way out…and Larry had been fighting vampires for a while now, but he'd never seen so many all in one place before, broke out in a cold sweat just thinking about it, now that the adrenaline rush was wearing off. And then having to deal with Harmony and Jonathan and Andrew all the way here, man, it was a nightmare.
Resting his head against Giles' front door, he kept his thumb pressed on the doorbell so that it rang continuously. Giles had to be home. He had to be. Where else could he be? What would they do if –?
He almost fell face first into Giles' arms when the door suddenly opened.
"All right," Giles wearily said. "I'm here. What's wrong?"
"Trouble of the major league variety," Larry announced. That pretty much summed it up in a nutshell.
Giles sighed, and opened the door a little wider to let them in…then blinked in surprise when he saw Andrew, Jonathan and Harmony.
Yeah. Larry knew the feeling.
As the boys and their rather unexpected tag-alongs trooped into the apartment, Giles closed the door behind them, brow furrowed as he tried to imagine a reason they might have brought these other teenagers to him in the middle of the night. They both knew better than that, surely. Trouble of the major league variety, Larry had said, but that could mean almost anything.
He turned to see Oz and Larry looking around the lounge in surprise, and frowned again. They'd both been here before, many times, what would…? Oh. Of course. Yes. He'd made a bit of a mess, between the struggle with Anyanka and its fallout.
It didn't matter. The more pressing issue was just why the boys had taken it into their heads to bring their classmates to see him so late at night. He eyed the three interlopers suspiciously: the boys gazing around the room, wide-eyed, while the girl – and she, at least, he already knew, unfortunately – was already nosing about, looking bored.
"Uh, excuse me?" He couldn't keep the sharp edge from his voice, and felt it was justified, at any rate. "I'm sorry, what exactly is the meaning of this invasion? At this hour?"
"I'm Andrew," one of the boys eagerly announced, thrusting out a hand, which Giles rather bemusedly shook. "Wells," he added. "And this is…" Turning to the other boy, Andrew frowned. "Who are you again?"
"Jonathan," said the lad, looking nervous, as if he wished the ground would open up and swallow him.
"We're kind of like…like refugees!" Andrew enthused. "Seeking sanctuary from the –"
"Harmony's acquaintance, of course, I've already had the displeasure of making," Giles interrupted, frowning at the girl, who merely grinned as she continued to poke around, examining the contents of his lounge with disinterested disdain. The insult didn't even register, passing straight through her feather-brain without triggering so much as a single neuron. "But a round of introductions isn't quite what I was looking for," he continued, glancing toward Oz and Larry. "I thought I told you boys to go home and get some rest."
"Tried," said Oz. "Didn't get very far."
"Vamps pulled a great big cattle round-up on us," Larry continued as Giles removed a statuette from Harmony's hands and replaced it on the mantel, ignoring her petulant pout. "Ended up caged like animals, just waiting for the slaughter."
Giles blinked. Whatever he'd been expecting, that certainly wasn't it. "Good Lord," he murmured, mind racing with possible implications of this development. "How many?"
"Three, maybe four dozen," Oz estimated, and for the first time Giles registered the cuts and bruises the youngsters were sporting. Cattle round-up, they'd said. People caged like animals – four dozen people caged like animals, for the vampires to feed from, presumably. Dear God. They must have fought their way out, and the thought of it was chilling. These boys were all he had left. How much longer could they go on fighting a losing battle like this?
"But we escaped!" Andrew burst in. "There was, like, this huge epic battle, a bit like the start of Jedi when Luke rescues Han, and, and everyone from Jabba the Hutt. Except for the –"
"Three dozen?" The melodramatic ramblings of the unknown quantity that was Andrew was not quite the narrative Giles was looking for. He looked at Oz and Larry with alarm, cutting across Andrew's babble to anxiously ask, "A battle? A-and…and how many escaped?"
The boys flicked grim side eyes at one another and then glanced toward Andrew, Jonathan and Harmony. Their meaning was clear: these were the only survivors they knew of. Giles' heart sank. He took his glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling impossibly weary. "T-the Slayer. Buffy. She was here – she went after the Master…."
"Blonde chick with a scar?" Larry gestured to his lip to indicate the location of the scar.
Giles felt cold. "Yes," he confirmed, almost sick with dread. "It appears my many calls had some impact at last, and s-she arrived here spoiling for a fight. W-what happened? Is she…?"
"Dead." Oz bluntly confirmed his worst fears, and Giles felt his knees turn to jelly as he slumped onto the nearest armchair, shattered. "Took out a couple vamps en route, though," Oz added, rather more gently.
"Xander? Willow?" Larry chipped in. "Dust. Along with a goodly number of the Master's other chief lieutenants, I might add, and thanks in no small way to Oz and me. We killed as many as this Slayer of yours, and got out alive."
"Yes. I-I suppose that's something to be grateful for, yes," Giles murmured, barely even aware of what he was saying. "But the Slayer…"
He couldn't go on. Long before the pendant of Anyanka gave him a Plan B to shoot for – futile though that too had proved – all his hopes had been pinned on the Slayer. The Chosen One. The Promised One. He'd believed, with all his heart, that if only the Slayer would come, things could change. She would save them all.
And he'd succeeded. He'd brought her here, finally, just when all hope seemed to be lost…but for what? She had dismissed his experience and expertise utterly, gone charging in unprepared, lacking any kind of plan, and she had failed. She'd gotten herself killed, within hours of her arrival in town. It had all been for nothing.
"There's more," said Oz, apologetic.
"Yes." Giles felt very old and very bitter. "Yes, of course there is. There's always more."
"Giles?" Oz frowned.
"Tell him about the machine," Harmony interrupted.
Wait – what? "Machine?" Giles' interest was piqued. How did vampires and machines fit into the same conversation?
Oz quirked an eyebrow. "Ever wondered what to get the vampire who has everything?" he whimsically asked.
"Not really, no," said Giles, impatient. He appreciated the boy's droll humour under normal circumstances, really, he did, but there was a time and a place, and this was neither the time nor the place. He wanted information, not prevarication.
"It was a blood-sucking machine!" Andrew eagerly chipped in, awestruck as if it had been the most exciting experience of his life. Who knew? Maybe it had been. "They put this girl in it, and sucked the blood right out of her!" he continued, wrinkling his nose with distaste although he still sounded enthusiastic enough about the story he was telling. "And then it poured the blood back out like a cocktail, only without the little umbrella. Or the spirits, or –"
"Holly." Harmony let out a choked sob, face crumpling unexpectedly. "It was Holly," she whimpered.
Giles glanced awkwardly at Oz, who shrugged, while Larry fidgeted uncomfortably alongside him. Evidently none of them knew what to do with a sobbing Harmony – or with sobbing females in general, perhaps. They'd been too focused on war and survival for too long for such niceties, while Jonathan and Andrew looked equally taken aback.
With shoulders to cry on in short supply, Harmony glared at them all, annoyed, her tears drying up as swiftly as they'd arrived. "Well, she was my friend, and now she's dead, and I nearly was, too," she pouted.
Giles patted her on the shoulder. "There, there," he absent-mindedly offered by way of comfort, and then turned back to Larry and Oz. "Tell me more about this machine."
Things had calmed down a little now. Harmony had even fallen asleep on the couch and was snoring away as if nothing had happened. As if she hadn't just barely escaped with her life only a few hours ago.
Unsure what he was supposed to do now – dawn was approaching but still a ways away, and it wouldn't be safe to try and get home until then – Jonathan had found a corner to hide in, out of everyone's way. Larry and Oz and the librarian, Mr Giles, were lounging around a table nearby, talking in quiet voices and looking tired and despondent. Worried, Jonathan tried to listen to what they were saying. He'd known about the White Hats and what they did. Of course he had. He'd even known who they were…but from a distance. He'd never seen them close up before. Never thought about what it must be like for them, fighting vampires all the time, protecting people, saving people. Being heroes.
Up close they were just people – people who were worried, scared, depressed and in over their heads. Just like him. It was weird to think that, because they weren't like him, not at all. They were strong and brave and they knew what they were doing, knew how to fight. How did they know?
Well, of course, Larry had always been a jock, always loved throwing his weight around and getting into fights, but Mr Giles? He was a librarian. And…Jonathan had always written himself off as too short to be good for anything, just like the rest of the world always seemed to, but Oz was barely bigger than him, and he was out there fighting vampires.
What was it about these people that made them take a stand like that? Why would they even try, when they were outnumbered and overpowered and stood no chance at all, and there were vampires everywhere? The thought of what was out there in the dark made Jonathan quake in his boots. But instead of running and hiding, like the rest of Sunnydale, the White Hats said no and fought back, even though there were hardly any of them, and they were just people, no different than anyone else, and they died at the hands of vampires, just like everyone else. They were a team, and they made a difference. It was –
So." Andrew's voice cut right across his train of thought. "D'you think they'll let us stay?"
"What?" Jonathan asked, distracted.
"For the rest of the night," said Andrew, nodding at the window. It was still really dark out there, too dark to risk prowling vampires. "Y'know – until it gets light, and…y'know, safe again." He wrinkled his nose. "The librarian seems kinda tense."
"I think he'd have made us leave by now if he was going to," Jonathan murmured, trying to tune him out so he could listen to the muted conversation over at the table, wanting to know what was going on. He'd always buried his head in the sand up till now, ostrich-style, and he hadn't really even realised he was doing it….
"So this patron saint of the vengeful thing was a total bust, then?" Larry grumbled.
"So it would appear." Giles bit the words out; the failure still rankled. "This volume," he explained, tapping the book, "suggested that destroying Anyanka's power center might reverse all wishes. The only effect, however, was to banish – or perhaps even destroy – the demon herself, and –"
"And now you don't even have the power center any more, so you can't try anything else with it," Larry huffed, and Giles told himself not to take the implied accusation personally. This had been a bad night for them all, just the latest in a long line of bad nights, stretching back for almost two years now. Far too long, and there was no end in sight.
"No," he said, harsh and bitter. He'd so badly wanted to believe that the nightmare that was their world could have been changed, somehow, anyhow, into something better. That the horror could have been ended. He'd pinned his hopes on the Slayer, pinned his hopes on Anyanka and her pendant, on the incoherent ramblings of a confused teenager. But none of those hopes had been worth a damn. What hope did any of them have now?
"But we're no worse off, right?" Oz suggested, and if he hadn't been feeling quite so despondent Giles might have given the boy credit for at least trying to be positive.
"The Slayer is dead," Giles pointed out, voice flat and defeated. The demon and its power center had been an outside bet from the start, wishful thinking at best. The text had said that destroying the pendant would defeat the demon, and it had, she had vanished immediately – but it had only said that it should reverse all wishes, not that it would. There had been no guarantees. There were no real guarantees that any wishes had even been made, for that matter, other than Cordelia's word and Anyanka's malicious ramblings, and both were dead now anyway. But the Slayer? The Slayer had been their one true shining hope, and she was gone. It was over.
"But there'll be another one," said Oz, determinedly optimistic. "That's how you said it works. One dies, the next one gets called."
"That won't help us, will it?" Larry snarled, angry at the whole world, a sentiment Giles understood only too well. "They can call as many Slayers as they like – they never send them here where we need them!"
"Larry is right." Giles sighed heavily. "In fact, you're both right. There is no reason to suppose that the next Slayer will be posted here any more than this last girl was. We've coped without a Slayer before, so we shall just have to continue to do so."
Oz nodded, looking determined. But the thought of the endless fighting and suffering and loss was exhausting to contemplate, and Giles sighed again. He had never felt so utterly defeated.
"And yet…" he admitted, slowly, as the half-formed thought took shape. "I can't help feeling that it might perhaps be better if we simply cut our losses before it's too late for all of us."
"You mean run away?" Larry frowned, startled. "Leave town?"
Oz shook his head firmly. "Can't. Family's here, what's left of it. And, you know, other folk."
"Yeah," agreed Larry, his anger and frustration vanishing as if by magic, replaced by wholehearted determination. "We do good work. Who else is gonna keep the vamps down and protect all those suckers out there?"
"You could die doing that good work," Giles pointed out. "We all could. So many already have. We were barely managing to hold back the tide as it was, and now…" Loss piled upon loss, never-ending, seemed to be all he could see, and a wave of bitterness flooded over him. "What good does it do, in the end?"
"Might save a few first," said Larry. "You taught us that."
Such simple words, and so resolutely spoken.
Depressed as he was, Giles couldn't help but smile as a warm and much-needed surge of pride flooded through him, reminding him that for all the loss and devastation all around, he had achieved something. He had trained these boys to survive: to protect themselves, each other, and anyone else they could help, even if only for one more day of life.
Maybe it was enough. Maybe each 'one more day' was enough to live and fight for.
"Seriously," Larry continued. "Where else could we go, what would we do, after this?"
Oz nodded. "This is our world. Might as well accept that and get on with it."
"Yes." Resigned, Giles sighed, reluctantly accepting his fate – and theirs. "Yes, you're right again." He drew in a deep breath, firmly pulling himself together once more. Back to business – no more wallowing. There was too much to be done, if they were to continue with their work. "Now," he briskly added. "I suppose we should prepare for what's to come."
"Oh, now that sounds like something to look forward to," Larry groaned.
"The Master has suffered a serious setback," Giles lectured. "And at great cost. His position has been severely weakened with the loss of his most valued supporters, and he's likely to be extremely angry about that. Now, I've no doubt he'll need some time to re-group, but once the, ah, dust is settled, reprisals are almost certain. We must be prepared for that." He regarded the two boys very seriously, feeling tired and worried. "And yet, our own position is far weaker still, our numbers dwindling more with each passing month."
Larry's jaw tightened and Oz looked down at the table. They'd lost a good friend and teammate just yesterday. Nancy. The latest in a long, long line of loss.
They couldn't dwell on the loss, not if they were to stand any chance of carrying on with this. But they couldn't ignore it, either. Grief had become an only too-familiar sensation, something the people of Sunnydale lived with every day of their lives. It never got any easier. But time and experience had taught them all how to carry on as if it did.
"And recruitment is far easier for the vampires than it is for us," Giles soberly continued. "All we have is the three of us –"
"Four of us," an anxious voice interrupted. "I-I mean you. Uh, us." Startled, Giles span around to see Jonathan standing nearby, looking petrified but determined. He plunged on rapidly, as if afraid of losing his nerve if he hesitated. "I've seen too many people die. I can't just ignore it. Not now, not after everything. I-I know I'm not really good for much, but…I-if there's anything I can do to help you, I want to try. I-if, I mean, if you want me…"
The boy's voice tailed off and he hung his head. Fearful of rejection, Giles realised, of not being taken seriously. He was offering to help, wanted to help, and God knew they desperately needed help. But how much use could a lad like this possibly be? How much understanding could he have of what was involved – the sacrifices and the danger? How could Giles in all conscience allow him to get involved, a mere boy?
But then again, he already had, hadn't he? More than once. He had built up a team of fighters to hold the line against the vampires and most of them had been students, no older than Jonathan, some considerably younger – and too many of them already had given their lives to the cause.
Giles glanced at Larry and Oz to gauge their reactions to the offer. Both looked dubious. Thinking hard, weighing up pros and cons, he turned worried eyes back upon Jonathan, who fidgeted anxiously, shoulders hunched and eyes glued to the floor, as if trying to make himself invisible. Maybe even wishing he could take the offer back, in which case –
"And me!" The other boy, Andrew, came bouncing over to stand at Jonathan's side, radiating excitement and eagerness. "I want in, too," he enthusiastically declared.
"Are you all completely crazy?" Harmony interrupted before Giles could say anything. Her head appeared over the back of the sofa to stare incredulously at the boys. "I don't know about you jerks, but I came here because I thought it would be safe," she huffed. "Not to join an army."
"I kinda think joining this army might be the only way to be safe," Jonathan anxiously said.
"I wouldn't be so sure about that, if I were you," Giles warned. At the end of the day, the decision whether to hide or fight back was a matter of individual conscience, was safest and most efficient as part of a team effort, and they needed all the help they could get. Whether Jonathan and Andrew were likelier to be a help or a hindrance was another matter entirely…but at the very least, he wanted to be absolutely certain that they each knew what they were getting themselves into before they made any decisions. "You might want to think long and hard before signing up for this."
"Also, this really isn't an army," Oz interjected.
"Yeah," Larry grumbled, scowling his annoyance that Giles was even considering letting these two join their team, no matter how short-staffed they were. He was a level-headed boy, as a rule, and a strong fighter, but did, even now, automatically incline toward prejudice against anyone not as…as athletically inclined as he was. "An actual army has, like uniforms. Real weapons. And, you know, whole platoons of soldiers."
A wistful look came into his eyes. What they wouldn't give for a whole platoon of soldiers – even half a platoon, given what they were up against, given the tremendous odds they'd already battled against, for so long, in such small numbers.
"What do you call yourselves then?" Jonathan asked.
Oz shrugged. "Us."
"Can you say 'scraping the bottom of the barrel'?"
Busy sorting through weapons with Oz, while Giles attempted to repair the broken lock on the book cage, Larry couldn't keep from glancing over his shoulder to keep a watchful and irritated eye on their new so-called team members. After the late night conversation last…no, early this morning, Andrew and Jonathan had tagged along to the library with them, and had done nothing but get under foot ever since – and Larry had way too many cuts and bruises making themselves felt to even try to be patient.
Right now? Right now Andrew was messing around trying to figure out how a crossbow worked, with Jonathan glued to his side watching. Useless, both of them. Only thing they'd be able to hit with that thing was each other.
"I mean, what use is Jonathan going to be?" he grumbled. "He's, like, four feet tall."
"I'm not tall," Oz mildly pointed out, stuffing stakes into a duffle bag. He had a fair few bruises and scrapes from recent skirmishes, too, including a long cut along his right cheekbone that remained unstitched and heavily scabbed over. Would probably scar.
They were both building up quite the scar collection these days.
"You're taller than he is," Larry countered, not about to let a good point go to waste. "Plus, you've got, you know, coordination. You know how to handle yourself. Put Jonathan in a fight with a vamp, he'll fall over his own feet and land on his own stake."
"Yes." Glancing up from his door repair job, Giles sighed. "I must admit I'm forced to agree with Larry here. Jonathan is certainly willing to help, but his ability to do so may be, uh, somewhat limited. And as for Andrew…"
Larry groaned. "Andrew's worse. Much, much worse. God, please spare me."
"Keen, but clueless," Oz observed.
"Jonathan at least seems to know what he's signing up for," said Giles, looking worried. "But I'm far from convinced that Andrew has any real idea what is truly involved in this work."
Larry scowled across the room at Andrew. He was still messing about with the crossbow, as if it was a toy. "He thinks its cool, dork like him playing with the big boys," he bitterly complained, thinking about some of the good friends he'd lost in battle these last couple years. They'd spin in their graves if they could see who – no, what was replacing them. "Thinks it's a game. It isn't."
Oz shrugged. "He'll learn soon enough. At least they're willing."
Giles sighed again. "Yes. They want to help, and – unfortunately – we're in no position to be choosy." He glanced at his watch, and then across at the clock. "You'll be late for class if you don't go now. We can finish this later."
Larry snorted. "Class? You know how many people weren't in homeroom yesterday?"
"If you don't go, you could wind up listed as missing, presumed dead," Giles very reasonably pointed out. Larry hated it when he was reasonable. Made it hard to argue. "And that would only lead to a scene when you then turned up again. Have you forgotten when Nanc–"
He broke off, freezing up as if Nancy's name had gotten stuck in his throat, halfway out, with that look on his face, the one he always got when someone died.
Larry kinda knew the feeling.
Damn. Was it really only a couple days since she got killed? Felt like longer. But at the same time…felt like it just happened, just now.
Everyone always died, in the end; Larry tried not to think about it too hard most of the time, although the rage was always there, bubbling away. But Nancy'd been good. What made Andrew Wells of all people think he could do any better, last any longer? Damn, damn, damn.
Oz broke the silence, quiet and subdued. "We'll come back after class."
Giles nodded vaguely, not looking at them, eyes fixed on that damn broken lock. It'd hit him hard, that slayer finally showing up and then getting herself killed like that, coming on top of Nancy and all.
Larry caught Oz's eye as they headed toward the door. He looked worried too. Then he turned to call Andrew and Jonathan, who were still messing about with that damn crossbow…but before Larry could vent a little frustration by yelling at them about it, Andrew suddenly figured out how to work the trigger.
Un-aimed and flying wild, the bolt skimmed past Jonathan's ear – and, man, the look on his face was priceless – and just barely missed Giles…who didn't even seem to notice.
Larry felt his jaw drop. Blinked a couple times, then sucked in a breath, opened his mouth to yell –
"Hey." Oz got in first. Didn't sound mad, didn't sound surprised – couldn't tell from his tone if he was pissed about the careless use of a crossbow or just trying to get their attention.
Larry had no idea how he did that.
Either way, they just about jumped out of their skins, both of them wearing the guiltiest of guilty expressions, like a pair of kids caught with their hand in the biscuit tin.
"You two girls might want to leave the weapons testing to the experts and get to class," Larry snarled.
It was almost funny, the way they jumped to and skedaddled the hell out of there. Almost…if they weren't expecting to be taken seriously as new White Hat recruits.
Shaking his head in dismay, Larry glanced back at Giles as he headed out. Hands still clutching at the cage door he was meant to be fixing, he was just staring off into space in absolute despair. Larry felt depressed just looking at him.
How long could they go on like this? Yeah. They were definitely better off not even thinking questions like that.
"No, no, not that one," Giles cautioned Larry, seeing the lad pick up a crossbow he knew to be faulty. "The, uh, trigger mechanism jammed last time. Unreliable."
They were packing weapons, ready to go out on patrol later that night. Battles came and went and losses stacked up, but patrol continued regardless. Giles had to believe that they were making a difference, even if, in a terrible week like this one, it really didn't feel like it.
Too many lives had been lost already this week. But that was already the past whereas what had to matter most was the now. Today he had finished repairing the door to the book cage in readiness for Oz's next confinement, had been visited by two whole students in search of actual books for actual study, perish the thought, and tonight he would take his small team out to defend the streets once more.
A painfully small team it was, these days – and yet not as small as it might have been, for whatever that was worth. Andrew and Jonathan might be rather keener than they were qualified, but they certainly seemed determined.
They kept coming back, at any rate. While Larry helped Giles pack weapons for patrol, Oz – displaying enormous patience, it must be said – was showing Andrew and Jonathan the correct way to handle a crossbow.
Rather more unfortunately, Harmony had also shown up, seemingly for no reason other than to get underfoot.
"This one's fixed, right?" Larry asked, setting the broken crossbow aside and picking up another one.
Seeing Harmony drifting over to play with the broken crossbow, Giles frowned, distracted, as he replied, "Uh…yes. Yes, I believe so."
While Larry stowed the approved crossbow away in the large bag they used to transport weapons, currently lying open on the table, and then turned to gather a few more weapons together, Giles took the broken crossbow off Harmony, feeling his already tenuous patience straining to its limits. "Please don't play with that," he instructed, as politely as he could manage, in the circumstances.
As he turned to put the weapon safely away, Harmony huffed in annoyance and pulled herself up to sit on the table. Larry then turned back, arms full of crosses and freshly carved stakes, only to find her sitting right in front of the weapons bag he was trying to pack. "Do you mind?" he fumed.
"Do I mind what?" Harmony blinked, oblivious, as usual. How the girl managed to navigate through life so utterly insensible of her surroundings was a mystery.
Larry waved a fistful of crosses and stakes, grumbling, "I'm trying to work here."
Harmony simply stared at him in absolute incomprehension for a moment before she finally grasped his point, glancing behind her at the weapons bag.
"Oh!" she shrugged, sliding herself further along the table to allow him access to the bag.
"Finally," Larry muttered. His temper tended to be uncertain at the best of times. Having Harmony underfoot was not improving it any.
"Well, sor-ry," she petulantly snapped.
"What are you hanging around here for anyway?" Larry demanded.
"This is the only place I feel safe now," Harmony retorted, defensive – and strangely vulnerable. "All my friends are dead."
Silence fell upon the room, just for a moment. As shallow as Harmony might be, she had touched upon a raw nerve. They had all lost too many friends since the Master rose and brought hell on earth to Sunnydale.
Larry broke the silence, glancing up at Giles. "You know, I'm not even sure this is such a safe place anymore. Public property. It's too easy for the vamps to get in, like the other day when…"
Like the other day when Willow and Xander had led an assault on the library, killing Nancy en route and then murdering Cordelia in front of Giles. Giles couldn't quite hold back his flinch at the reminder of yet another painfully raw memory.
"It's true," he wearily admitted. "School property is highly vulnerable to attack, by night at least, should the vampires choose to do so again. And yet where else would allow us the space and convenience we have here? Besides…"
He hesitated slightly, aware that Oz was glancing across from the Crossbow 101 session he was delivering, giving at least part of his attention to the conversation.
Giles selected his words carefully. "Unless we can find somewhere more suitable, we, ah, we still need the cage for Oz's, uh…special circumstances. The first night of this month's cycle is just a few days away, remember."
Oz flushed slightly, dropping his eyes to the ground, while – predictably, perhaps – Andrew's ears pricked up instantly. "What special circumstances?" he eagerly asked, not so much as a shred of tact in evidence.
Oz gave him a black look. He never liked to be reminded of his condition, and certainly was not going to be willing to talk about it with these virtual strangers. The adjustment had not been easy for him – still wasn't, truth be told. He shouldered the crossbow, picked up a set of spare bolts for it, and left the room without saying a word.
Andrew looked genuinely bewildered. "What?"
"It's probably something really embarrassing," Harmony dismissed, picking at her nails looking bored. Then she glanced sharply up at Larry, suddenly interested in potential gossip. "Is it? Is it something really embarrassing?"
Larry looked at Giles as if seeking guidance. Giles could only shrug. Their new recruits might as well know the truth, since it seemed they may indeed be in for the long haul.
If they lived that long.
Larry pointedly ignored Harmony, firmly addressing his reply to Andrew and to Jonathan, who was lurking silently at his side. "He's a werewolf. Stays in the cage at full moon. It isn't a big deal."
Although Andrew and Jonathan's eyes instantly went wide and their mouths dropped open in amazement, Harmony looked supremely unimpressed. "If it isn't a big deal, then why all the fuss?"
Larry ignored her again. Shouldering a bag of weapons, he followed Oz out of the room, no doubt anxious to check on his friend's mood.
That left the new recruits for Giles to round up. He eyed them speculatively to see how they were taking the news of their new teammate's supernatural condition. Harmony merely seemed disappointed Oz's problem wasn't anything more interesting, but Andrew and Jonathan were trading wide-eyed stares of utter incredulity.
"Whoa!" summarised the awe-struck Andrew.
"Ugh. What a complete waste of time that was," declared the vampire Darla as she and her enforced travelling companion, Luke, ventured out from the sewer tunnels now that the sun was setting. She brushed herself off fastidiously. "How I despise travelling by day. So unsanitary."
Luke stood alongside her and loomed, something his enormous bulk made him exceptionally good at. "The Master will be waiting for us," he impatiently announced, exactly as if she didn't know as much already, then strode away down the street without so much as a backward glance.
Such a gift he had for stating the blindingly obvious. There was a reason Darla spent as little time as possible in Luke's company, unless directly ordered, as she had been on this occasion.
No, actually there were many reasons Darla spent as little time as possible in Luke's company. His limited intellect and mind-numbingly dull conversational range were merely the tip of the iceberg.
Darla strolled along rather more casually in Luke's wake. "The Master will regret that the journey which kept us from his gala event was such a complete and utter waste of both time and effort," she retorted. "Thanks to –"
"You!" Luke snarled, half-turning.
The effrontery of it! Trying to pin the blame for this debacle on her.
While Luke increased his speed, Darla stopped dead and glared at his back for a moment before following once more, a defiant swagger to her step.
"That wasn't what I was going to say," she drawled.
"Is this going to take long?" Harmony whined.
The rag-tag team of White Hats, prospective White Hats, and their less-than-welcome hanger-on were loading up the van ready to patrol.
That was, the team of White Hats were loading up the van ready to patrol, while Jonathan was trying hard and mostly succeeding in being useful, and Andrew rather less so, hindering as much as he was helping. Harmony, meanwhile, was simply hanging around still, chewing gum and blowing bubbles.
"You don't have to come," Giles pointedly told her.
"Well, I'm not going to stay here on my own, am I?" she retorted. "It's too dark to go home by myself now."
"You should have gone straight home after class," Giles pointed out.
"I was scared," she rather disarmingly protested – once again strangely vulnerable and sincere, for her. "My Mom is out of town."
"Does this take long?" Jonathan curiously asked.
"Depends," Oz rather vaguely replied.
"Why?" Larry derisively interjected. "Afraid you won't have time for your homework?"
"I was just wondering," Jonathan defended, looking just a tad offended – enough that he was willing to stand up for himself, for once. "I thought it would be good to know how it plays out."
"Quite right," Giles approved. It was the right attitude to be going on with, at the very least. The better prepared they were, the better their chances of surviving the night.
He was still deeply concerned that allowing these untested novices to join them on this evening's patrol was a bad idea. There had been so little opportunity for training of any kind – no opportunity at all, really. What chance did they stand? Yet there was safety in numbers, and the sad truth, born of bitter experience, was that they would learn soon enough, on the job. If they lived that long.
They would, at the very least, be at least marginally safer with the team than out there on their own.
"We already know everything we need to know," Andrew told Jonathan, and Giles closed his eyes in pain at such a reckless statement. "We drive around and around until we either get really dizzy or see people that need saving," the boy enthusiastically continued. "And then, if we see people that need saving, we save them – swoop in to the rescue like Superman…only with a van and not flying." He frowned, considering the analogy. "Maybe more like Batman, if he needed to use crosses and stakes. Or –"
"Enough with the geek," snapped a deeply frustrated Larry. "Let's go."
Rather to Larry's annoyance, Giles had called shotgun and was sat up front with Oz as they circled through the darkened streets, which meant Larry had to supervise the nosy newbies in the back.
"So who does the guitar belong to?" Andrew piped up, staring around at the assorted kit Oz kept back here these days. It was mostly weapons now, but there was at least some stuff left from before.
"Oz," Larry tersely replied, keeping his eyes peeled for possible vampire action.
Trying to, anyway. It was easier said than done with Andrew rabbiting away and Harmony popping her gum in his ear.
"Kinda looks out of place back here, with all the weapons and stuff," Andrew tactlessly observed, swivelling toward the driver's seat to enthusiastically address Oz. "So are you in a band, then?"
Oz didn't take his eyes off the road. "Was."
Even Andrew wasn't so thick-skinned that he couldn't grasp the meaning behind a statement like that. A clueless little idiot he might be, but he lived right here in Sunnydale like the rest of them. "Oh," he murmured, deflating.
However, even Andrew had more tact than Harmony. And that was saying something. "I dated their lead singer for a while, you know," she nostalgically interjected, looking pleased with herself.
"You went out with him twice," Larry flatly reminded her.
"Well, it might have lasted longer, if he hadn't gone and got himself killed," she retorted.
In the silence that followed, Larry heard Giles' sharp intake of breath, saw the terse little glare he tossed at the girl. As for Oz…well anyone who didn't know him as well as Larry might not have spotted his reaction. His grip tightened on the wheel. Eyes forward, that was about it. Larry had gotten good at reading the set of his shoulders though, this past couple years. Devon and the others had been good friends of his, and what had happened to them was….
Was not pleasant to remember, even now. No one deserved to die like that.
Oz would never say anything. But Larry was annoyed enough for the both of them. "He'd already dumped you long before then," he snarled at Harmony. She huffed at him. Didn't even know what she had done.
Why was she even here again?
"We used to get all kinds of really cool bands playing in town," Andrew wistfully remarked. "You know, before things got so…you know. It was cool. There was stuff to do in the nights."
"There's still stuff to do in the nights," Jonathan chipped in. "Only less fun, and more about staying indoors than going out. Which, okay, isn't such a big change for some of us."
"All anyone ever does now is go to school and die," Andrew sighed.
For once, Larry had to agree with the little dweeb. "The dying part does tend to make the going to school part feel a lot more pointless."
Giles promptly twisted around in his seat to address them rather sternly. "A solid education is vital for young people today, in Sunnydale as much as anywhere else."
"I can't believe you just said that with a straight face," Larry snorted. "You saw the size of the graduating class last year."
"Well, the numbers would have been swelled by two if you boys had put in a little more effort," Giles firmly replied. "I trust you'll be trying harder this year?"
Larry rolled his eyes. "If we live that long."
"A little less cynicism and a little more focus might help," Giles rather loftily suggested.
"I don't think any amount of focus would have got me through finals last year," Larry told him. "Way too much crazy, all around."
Giles sighed. "Last year wasn't easy for any of us," he admitted.
This year wasn't going much better so far, either, but Larry decided not to mention that part. This conversation was getting way too depressing and that was not the best kind of mood to take into active patrol. "Oz flunking out was the big shock," he teasingly remarked by way of lightening the mood. "He's meant to be some kind of unflappable genius – so much less excuse for failing than me, brain-wise."
"Yes, well, Oz's circumstances were…difficult last year," Giles admitted, refocusing his attention on Oz, who was very deliberately not reacting to being talked about to his face – or to the back of his head, rather. "However, I trust things will be different this time around, now that there has been time to adjust," Giles rather sternly continued. "Quite frankly, it would be ridiculous for a boy of your intelligence to repeat a second time."
"Well, I'm hoping not," Oz mildly remarked, keeping his eyes fixed on the road. He braked suddenly. "We're in business."
The humans really should know better by now than to wander the streets after sunset. Really, picking off the imbeciles who continued to flaunt themselves so was doing the entire race a favour, Darla mused as she and Luke gave chase to a promisingly athletic looking man they'd happened across on their journey across town. He looked flavoursome enough that the slight detour should be more than worth their while.
Luke took the man down just as a van screeched to a halt alongside them and those blasted White Hats sprang out brandishing sizeable wooden crosses, stakes and loaded crossbows.
Not quite their usual almost-polished operation, however – one of the scrawnier ones immediately dropped his cross and hastily stooped to pick it up again, stumbling against the legs of another one, equally scrawny, and almost tripping him. New, both of them – Darla had seen the team in action enough times to recognise that. They must really be scraping the bottom of the barrel if this was the best they could manage. The two combined would barely make a passable meal.
The stuffy old librarian, however, she did recognise, ignoring his incompetent little underlings utterly as he shouted, "Back off!"
It really stuck in the craw to obey the command of a mere human, but taking a crossbow bolt through the heart was even less desirable, so Darla obliged by taking a step back, rolling her eyes. Humans could be so tedious.
Growling, Luke released his prisoner, who scrambled around frantically in a way that was very nearly amusing before regaining enough of his wits to scurry nearer to his rescuers, prompted by the urging of the beefiest White Hat – the only one of the lot of them that might almost be worth eating.
Scrawny White Hat the First, having regained both his weapons and his feet, was trying hard to imitate Beefy's bold stance…but, having neither the stature nor the build to pull it off, it was a laughable attempt. Or would be, if it weren't helping to thwart a long overdue supper.
The young fool had, however, edged a little too far away from his companions and Luke, seeing an opening, lunged for him, swiping the cross out of the boy's hand and grabbing him by the throat…before he could snap the boy's neck like a matchstick, however, a crossbow bolt took him through the shoulder. Dropping the boy, who at least had served as a creditable human shield and thus prevented a direct dusting, Luke snarled with pain and rage.
Darla rolled her eyes. "Idiot."
It was the werewolf who had fired, still sat at the wheel of the van, and he was already reloading. Scrawny White Hat the First, suitably terrified by his narrow escape, stumbled backward, tripping into the man he was supposed to be rescuing, so that both of them fell again.
It was farcical. Darla felt embarrassed for them.
With a groan of exasperation, Beefy yanked Scrawny back to his feet and into the van, while the librarian hastily did the same for their rescue-ee, both performing these operations one-handed rather than leave Scrawny White Hat the Second as the only member of the team wielding any effective anti-vampire weaponry. That, at least, was sensible.
Having all piled back into the van, they took off at speed. Darla and Luke glared disconsolately after them, Luke grunting in pain as he yanked the crossbow bolt out of his shoulder.
"Those damned White Hats," Darla pouted. "I was hungry."
God, it was farcical!
"What the hell happened to you?" Larry snarled furiously at Harmony, who hadn't so much as poked her nose out of the van the whole time they were confronting the vampires.
"What?" she indignantly protested. "I never said I was joining your posse of wannabe vigilantes. As if! I just came along for the ride: to stay safe. Not to go throwing myself right back into danger. That's what you guys are for."
God, her selfishness and thoughtlessness were breathtaking. There was a hell of a lot more Larry wanted to say – to her, to Andrew and to Jonathan. It should have been such a simple operation, they had screwed it almost to hell, and his rage was bubbling over.
Oz interrupted before he could launch into his rant. "I recognised those vampires."
"Yes, so did I," Giles agreed, sounding both thoughtful and worried. "Luke and Darla. So the Master hasn't lost quite as many of his more powerful cohorts as we'd hoped."
Oz raised an eyebrow just a tad in acknowledgement of the badness of this news. "I don't remember seeing them at the factory last night," he observed.
Larry cast his mind back. It had been such a scrum, he hadn't really noticed who was or wasn't there, but he had a sneaking suspicion his friend was right.
"Which means that they missed the battle and are back just in time to help the Master rebuild," Giles grimly concluded.
The battle had certainly taken its toll – on their numbers, on the atmosphere and on the décor. Largely confined to quarters until sundown, disconsolate vampires lounged all around, albeit fewer of them than there should be, using their human prisoners both as punch bags to vent their ire and as a source of replenishment after the battle, feeding to aid healing.
The Master, lord of all he surveyed, was slouched in a torn, faded armchair up on what had once been the stage, sulking.
Just below, Darla dropped a female prisoner she'd been feeding from and wiped her mouth, lip curling in disgust. Still alive and unrestrained, the woman promptly tried to crawl away, as if she really thought she might make it. Rolling her eyes, Darla finished her off with one quick snap of the neck and kicked the body aside.
"Darla," the Master reproved. "There was still good eating left in that one."
"Growing stale fast," Darla was quick to assure him, springing up on stage to join him in one light bound. "You would not have enjoyed her, Master."
"So sour," he mocked. "Still not recovered from your disappointment last night?"
The loss of a good meal to those ridiculous White Hats still rankled, it was true, but she saw no need to dwell on it, not when there were larger issues at stake, such as her good standing. "My disappointment was but a trifle compared with yours, Master," she cooed.
"Come now," he chided. "You know I remember that you never cared for the concept of my machine."
Darla smiled seductively. "Perhaps I do still prefer the thrill of the kill, but I care that you care. Perhaps the machine can be repaired?"
"Oh it shall, rest assured of that," he assured her, glowering. "But not quickly."
"Those damned White Hats have interfered too often," Darla declared. "Would you like me to remove them for you? It would be a pleasure."
"What a very tempting idea," he allowed. "And yet, no. We have lost too many of our people just lately."
Darla carefully chose not to take offence at the implied lack of faith in her ability to complete what would surely be a relatively simple task, if planned carefully. "I am sure the humans would say the same," she smiled. "And not all of those we lost are any great loss."
"Xander and Willow." They had been favourites of the Master, but he seemed amused rather than displeased by the reference to their demise. "You never liked them, did you?"
"Young upstarts," Darla contemptuously snorted, hastily adding, "But I know that you were fond of them."
"I was – such youth and energy. It pleased me." He frowned thoughtfully. "Yes. I should very much like to rid this town of all do-gooders. An example should be set. We must make it plain to all that human heroics will not be tolerated any longer. Yes."
"I could take a team tonight," Darla offered, pleased. "And –"
"No," said the Master. "I have a better idea."
Giles wandered out of his office, the arm of his glasses gripped in his teeth as he peered down at the rather battered copy of Ars Goetia in his hand. He drifted past Larry, who was trying very hard to teach very basic self defence to the decidedly inept Andrew and Jonathan – had been for a couple of days now, with somewhat limited success – and ambled over to the central table, where Oz was repairing a crossbow and Harmony was painting her toenails.
He sat at the table, still engrossed in his reading. The only sounds were the grunts and groans of the boys as they trained – or tried to train. Larry was not making it easy, and nor should he.
At the very fringe of his attention, he was dimly aware of Harmony puffing at her painted toenails for a few seconds, replacing the cap on the bottle and then gazing around the room to see if anyone was doing anything she might consider interesting.
Apparently they were not. She huffed at the room in general, bored. "This is so dull; I might as well be in class."
"Pick up a book," Larry called across. "That'd clinch it."
Suddenly realising the time, Giles glanced up from his book with a puzzled frown. "Yes, why aren't you in class? Any of you?"
Carefully tuning the crossbow, Oz didn't look up as he replied, "Lack of staff starting to prove a problem."
"Yeah," Harmony agreed. "My chem teacher got eaten last week, and they can't even find a temp to fill in, 'cause – who'd ever come here?"
"Free periods are starting to pile up lately," Larry added, leaving Andrew and Jonathan to continue scuffling as he wandered across and leaned against the table to join the conversation. "Plus: monthly memorials getting a little less monthly and starting to edge toward weekliness."
"There were rather more deaths than usual this week, even by recent standards," Giles had to admit. "If things continue like this, the, ah, the authorities might be forced to sit up and take notice at last."
Larry and Oz both regarded him with deep scepticism – as did Harmony, for that matter.
"If they haven't by now, they're never gonna," said Larry. "Face it – we're on our own."
It was a depressing thought and was followed by complete silence as they all paused to contemplate it – all except for Andrew and Jonathan, that was, who were still playing at sparring. Moments later, a resounding crash rang through the room as one of them went flying into what sounded like the card file cabinet.
Giles winced, but opted not to turn and look.
"Ow," said Jonathan.
"Sub-contracting? That was your big idea?"
Fuming, Darla stalked across the former dance floor, where a couple of lesser vampires were idly torturing a human prisoner for the Master's entertainment. Up on his 'throne' drumming his fingers on the arm of the chair, predictably enough he appeared to be finding both the spectacle and the wails of the victim highly amusing. He turned to her, untroubled, and lifted an eyebrow. "You don't approve?"
"Oh please. No hired assassin can ever be trusted to commit to a truly thorough job," she argued, angry enough not to care what he thought of such impertinence.
"Perhaps as a general rule," the Master admitted, readily enough. "However, I believe this one to be efficient enough."
"Why? Does he take great pride in his work?" Darla sarcastically snipped.
"His pride means nothing to me," the Master dismissed. "He is a cold-blooded killer whose greatest pleasure is to wreak death and destruction wherever he goes and enjoy himself so doing. That should suffice."
Laughing, he clapped his hands as a particularly agonised scream was wrested from the hapless torture victim just behind Darla's back.
Unconvinced, Darla opened her mouth to argue the point further, but before she could begin, Luke interrupted, dragging with him a terrified human child. "A gift, my Master," he pompously announced.
The Master was delighted. "Ah, Luke," he exclaimed, taking the child and setting it on his knee. The child sat in his arms, rigid with fear.
Darla rolled her eyes. "Toad."
Stroking the child's hair, the Master turned to Luke. "And what say you to my latest venture? Darla, here, disapproves."
"I regret only that the pleasure cannot be ours, Master," Luke declared, stolid as a block of wood.
"The pleasure of knowing that those do-gooders suffered immensely on their way out of this world will more than satisfy me," the Master smiled, sinking his fangs into the child's neck.
Jonathan concentrated hard as he helped Mr Giles and Larry get ready for patrol, anxious not to make any mistakes.
These last few days had been incredible – such hard work, even harder than he could ever have anticipated when he made that spur of the moment decision to volunteer. He must have been mad, he was sure of that, in quieter moments. Larry'd been training him, and Andrew too, of course, and it really was hard. He'd always known he would never be any good at stuff like that.
He didn't want to give up, though. It was hard and it was dangerous and it was scary, but it felt so good to be part of the team. Even if Larry was angry all the time and Mr Giles was kinda intense and Oz was not only impossible to read but also, apparently, a werewolf – and since the moon was just about full tonight, Jonathan was really starting to wonder now exactly what that meant, in practice.
So, maybe not the most regular of teams, and maybe not completely welcoming, but still a team, and Jonathan was part of it now and he was determined not to give it up.
He wasn't sure why Harmony was allowed to hang around all the time, though. It wasn't as if she ever did anything useful.
"But how did it happen?" Andrew's voice just outside the door alerted them all to his imminent arrival, but it was Oz who entered first, with Andrew just behind, badgering him fiercely. "Did you always know you were a werewolf? Or was it, like, a total bolt from the blue? How did you find out?"
Yeah. Andrew was really interested in the whole werewolf sitch, as well, and he'd been pestering Oz for details pretty much ever since they found out, even though no one seemed to want to talk about it, Oz least of all.
While Giles glanced across with some concern, Larry shot a furious glare at Andrew, but he didn't seem to notice.
Oz was ignoring him completely. He was real quiet, which was pretty standard, but visibly more worked up than usual, clearly not liking all the questions. He went straight into the cage, pulling his jacket off. Mr Giles quietly closed and locked the door after him, while Andrew, looking both fascinated and confused, kept right on chattering. "I mean, doesn't it cause problems? Having to stay in here days at a time and not go out and help with patrolling, and everything? And what happens if someone comes in?"
Oz stopped stripping – and Jonathan really couldn't blame him for that, what with the audience and all, but still couldn't tear his eyes away, wondering what was going to happen, what it would look like. Oz did turn his back on Andrew, though, since he was unable to walk away from the non-stop questioning, being locked in the cage.
"Man, don't you ever shut up?" Larry fiercely snapped.
Andrew blinked. "What?"
"Take a hint," Larry fumed.
"I don't think anyone wants to talk about it," Jonathan helpfully told Andrew, since he didn't seem to understand what a hint actually was.
"Andrew," Mr Giles sternly interjected. "Perhaps you could come and give me a hand over here?"
Forced to give up, Andrew looked regretful at his continuing lack of knowledge, but agreed readily enough. "Sure. Okay."
Everything went quiet, other than the sound of Harmony popping her gum. But just a few minutes later the sound of pained grunts started to come from the cage, and she let out a little squeak. "Eew!"
Intrigued, Jonathan span around again to stare at the wolfing-out process, aware that Andrew was doing likewise.
It looked horrible – painful.
Mr Giles and Larry just carried on with what they were doing, without looking, so Jonathan thought he probably shouldn't be looking either – he just couldn't help himself, although he did try not to make it too obvious that he was staring.
Andrew didn't seem to care. He drifted back over to stand right in front of the cage, staring in absolute fascination as the transformation became complete.
"How do you get to be a werewolf, anyway?" he asked, awestruck, as the werewolf prowled around the cage, snarling.
"You don't give up, do you?" Larry growled. He sounded really annoyed, and Jonathan found himself edging away from the bigger boy.
"Not usually," admitted Andrew, who never seemed to notice anyone's mood. "How does it work?"
"Easy," Larry curtly replied, maybe hoping that answering the questions might shut him up. "Another werewolf bites you. End of story."
Andrew's eyes went wide. "That's all it takes? Wow."
Jonathan risked taking a step closer, and the werewolf promptly threw itself against the cage, snarling, all its teeth showing. He hurriedly backed off again, telling himself it had been a stupid move. "How do you get bit with teeth like that and not lose, like, an arm?" he wondered. "Or…or a head, or something?"
"By getting bit when the werewolf is human," Larry explained, his frustration levels still rising.
Jonathan recoiled at the mere thought of it, trying to imagine the kind of circumstances in which a human might bite someone and coming up all Casa Erotica. Andrew's reaction was pretty similar; his bug-eyed expression an absolute picture. Harmony eew'd again, and Larry rolled his eyes.
"It was his cousin, all right?" he snapped, sounding tired all of a sudden. "A little kid."
"Little kids can be werewolves too?" Andrew breathed, awestruck all over again. "Wow." Then he frowned. "So if Oz gets locked up here at full moon, what happens with the kid?"
Larry shot an uneasy glance at Giles and then flatly replied, "Nothing."
Jonathan was shocked. "It goes around biting people all night?"
"He's dead," said Larry, grim.
"Oh." There didn't seem to be much else to say in response. Jonathan looked at the werewolf again, still prowling around his cage, and found that pity had replaced fear. Kinda. Death and loss were things they could all understand.
"Turns out there's a whole bunch of folks out there who'll pay big bucks for werewolf skins," Larry added rather more calmly, keeping his eyes fixed on the bag he was packing. Then he spun around and glared at them. "Don't go getting any big ideas."
Jonathan wrinkled his nose at the thought of it. "Skins?"
"That skanky fur?" Harmony added, thoroughly wigged out. "Eew."
Andrew looked totally shocked – which was kinda funny, given what Sunnydale had become since the Master rose. "They kill little kids?" he gasped.
"If the price is right." Larry had a bleak look in his eyes now. "Dude was in town for weeks. Almost got Oz, too – more than once. Couldn't shake him."
He shook his head and glanced worriedly into the cage, and Mr Giles now decided to intervene.
"Please don't pester Oz on the subject," he very firmly said. It was definitely a command, rather than a request, and he paused for a moment, like he wanted to be sure he'd been heard and understood, before pointedly continuing, "Some boats are best left un-rocked."
Larry nodded and glared around the room, menacing and protective. "He doesn't like to talk about it. Ever. The werewolf thing is just something we deal with every month, no big deal. Okay?"
Jonathan meekly agreed, Andrew and Harmony adding equally meek agreement, as Giles glanced up at the clock, then at his watch. "We should get going," he said. "I would suggest that Harmony, perhaps, remain here to watch the cage, but –"
"I'm not staying on my own with that thing!" Harmony interrupted, appalled.
"Quite," said Giles, checking the cage door to make sure it was secure – neatly avoiding a swipe by the caged werewolf while he was at it – then picking up a bag of weapons and turning toward the door. "So perhaps Jonathan, or Andrew –"
He broke off, staring at the door…where a very large demon was standing, all spines, teeth, horns and claws.
Harmony screamed very loudly as Andrew panicked and Giles and Larry sprang into action, dropping bags and grabbing weapons.
Jonathan inhaled sharply and clutched desperately at the handle of a handy axe. He could do this, he could, he could use it if he must…but that thing was huge and it had horns and claws and fangs and this was supposed to be a safe place, they were supposed to be safe here, not like going out on patrol where they knew there'd be danger.
Axe or no axe, how the hell was he supposed to survive this? How were any of them supposed to survive this?
The demon was very huge and very strong. Giles and Larry rushed at it in a desperate, hopeless attempt at defence, but it just casually swiped at them, claws flashing – and they both went down without even managing a single strike on target.
They were all going to die. He just knew it.
The demon advanced further into the library and Harmony backed off, still screaming, weaponless and defenceless. The demon ignored her, focused on Jonathan and Andrew now. Probably thought they were the bigger threat. Maybe because of the weapons, maybe because they were guys…but they had barely any training behind them, barely any experience out in the field, and now they were going to die, they really, really were.
Jonathan tried hard not to hyperventilate, fingers sweaty around the handle of his axe.
Alongside him, Andrew was frantically searching through a pile of weaponry as the demon got ever closer, trying to find something suitable – but discarding everything he came across in his panic, and he wasn't going to be ready in time, it was almost on top of them now, and…
Jonathan swung his axe wildly at the demon in desperate self-defence as soon as it was close enough, and he actually managed to connect, as well, but he just couldn't get enough power behind the blow to cause any damage to the demon. Maybe if he had arms like Larry it would be different, but he didn't, he was Jonathan and he had arms like pipe-cleaners and he'd been such an idiot to ever think he could do this.
The demon picked him up and tossed him at Andrew like a bowling ball – a long, drawn-out moment of absolute terror, all rushing air and freefall – and they both went down like ninepins. Limbs hopelessly entwined with Andrew's, Jonathan frantically struggled to disentangle himself and keep track of what the demon was doing now, if only because he thought he should at least know about it when it killed him.
It had turned toward Harmony now, the last man – well, girl – standing. She was still screaming. The werewolf was howling furiously in its cage, as well, and between the two of them the noise was deafening.
As the demon advanced on her, Harmony started throwing things at it, anything that came to hand. Mostly books. It barely even noticed. But then it was distracted by a counter-attack from the rear. Larry. Jonathan hadn't even seen him getting up.
The demon swung around and lashed out at Larry again, needle-sharp claws raking across his chest and drawing blood. Larry stumbled backward, and Giles then attacked from another direction, sword in hand, only to receive similar treatment.
They carried on like that for a while: Larry and Giles taking turns to attack and retreat, both taking more damage than they managed to inflict.
"Man, this thing's got, like, rhino hide," Larry shouted, jumping backward to avoid another crushing blow. "Dino hide, even."
Jonathan hauled himself back to his feet, determined to do his bit. He'd watched them, seen what they were doing – he could imitate that method of assault. He could. He could do this.
Giles saw him and shouted, "No, get back!"
The warning unnerved him, but it was too late, he was committed to the charge now, and his timing was wrong, he was wrong – so stupid to think he'd ever be able to do this – and the demon picked him up and threw him again. This time he hit the wall hard and crumpled to the ground, head spinning and shoulder on fire from the impact.
He was just aware enough to see that Andrew had taken his place, having finally found a weapon he felt comfortable with, a sword. It was too big and too heavy for him to handle properly, but maybe that was the point, the bigger the better, and it was at least long enough to improve his reach considerably. He slashed at the demon, and actually managed to get in a slice or two before it knocked him aside and turned back to Giles and Larry.
It actually looked like it was enjoying itself. Jonathan felt weirdly indignant about that.
The demon picked up a table and threw it at Giles and Larry, and they went down in a heap and stayed down.
Everyone was real still.
Someone had to stop the demon.
Jonathan tried to get up again, but his head still felt like it might fall off at any moment and his shoulder hurt and he just couldn't do it. He watched through slightly unfocused eyes as the demon turned to Harmony again. She'd backed off into a corner, trapped and whimpering, with nothing left to throw and no weapons to defend herself with. Helpless. They were all so helpless.
Growling deep in its throat, the demon took another step or two toward her…but then the werewolf howled again, catching its attention. Turning, it saw the werewolf howling and throwing itself at the cage door, enraged.
A werewolf was apparently a much more attractive opponent than a girl – the demon actually ripped the door off the cage to get to him, it was so keen to fight. The werewolf sprang at it, equally eager to fight, and then there were teeth and there were claws, and they were rolling around, slashing and gnashing, blood everywhere, and it was horrible.
Jonathan couldn't watch. He turned away – just in time to see Larry beginning to stir. Jonathan watched as he crawled out from under the table and pushed it away from Giles, and then checked that he was alive and was apparently satisfied that he was. Then Andrew, too, began to push himself up onto all fours, groping for his lost sword.
Jonathan tried again to stand up, and this time made it all the way up onto wobbly legs – leaning hard against the wall, sure, but upright. It was a start.
Nearby, Larry was keeping low and staying as unobtrusive as possible, anxiously studying the demon-werewolf fight as he reclaimed his weapons – an axe in each hand. There weren't really any openings to use them, though. He could just as easily hit Oz as the demon, and it didn't take a genius to figure out that he was reluctant to risk that. He crawled across to Harmony, who clutched at him, terrified.
"We're going to die. We're going to die!" she hissed in a shrill whisper.
Larry gave her a little shake, pointed her to the counter. "Over there. There's a gun – tranquilliser," he urged. "Go get it, quick."
Without waiting to see if she obeyed, Larry pulled himself onto his feet and the demon promptly flung the werewolf across the room and then rounded on him with a vicious snarl. But it had at least been weakened by that tooth and claw fight with the werewolf, dripping blood from numerous wounds and wavering on its feet a little.
Larry gripped his axes firmly, steeled himself, and then charged at the demon. It was becoming a little sluggish now at last, after expending so much effort, and Larry managed to avoid its claws and get in a couple telling blows with his axes – aided by Andrew, who unexpectedly launched a surprisingly effective attack on the demon's rear at the same time. It couldn't concentrate on them both at once, and that gave them at least a smidge of an advantage. But it wasn't going to be enough.
Don't just stand here – help them, Jonathan told himself, furiously blinking off the remnants of his daze and looking around for the axe he'd dropped.
Rage and adrenaline in full flow, roaring maniacally, the demon lashed out and knocked Larry off his feet once more.
Jonathan thought fast. He might have arms like pipe-cleaners, but he'd sat through physics class often enough to have a vague idea that the speed of the demon itself might be all the power he needed if he could just get into position in time. If he could just pull this off without screwing it up. If he was right.
If. If. If. Too many ifs.
Axe in hand, he scrambled onto the table.
Nearby, Andrew fell back as the demon spun around with a malicious snarl and charged toward him.
Jonathan swung the axe, at full stretch.
The demon ran straight into the blade, took it right through the eyes.
Eyes wide, lip curling in disgust, just barely managing not to hyperventilate, Jonathan let go of the axe. The demon tottered, toppled…and fell, the axe still sticking out of its head. Dead.
It was dead. He'd killed it and it was dead. It was going to kill him, but he'd killed it instead, him, and it was dead.
Wild-eyed, Jonathan stared at Andrew, who stared back, equally wild-eyed…but then Andrew's eyes grew wilder still as he saw the werewolf, now back in its feet and lunging toward him. Gasping, he took a step backward, but the wall was behind him, no escape. The sword was still in his hand and he half-lifted it, not knowing what else to do.
Jonathan didn't know what to do, either, still standing on the table with no weapons and no nothing, and anyway it was Oz, so he couldn't use a weapon, could he? Except that Oz was a werewolf and he was about to eat Andrew – and it was too late to do anything about it.
Rather unexpectedly, the werewolf collapsed to the ground at Andrew's feet.
There was a tranquilliser dart sticking out of his back.
Jonathan stared at it for a moment, trying to remember how to breathe, then looked at Andrew, who seemed to be having a similar problem, and then looked to see what had happened.
Over by the counter, Harmony stood with the tranquilliser gun to her shoulder, still in firing pose, her expression rigid with horror.
Larry was now picking himself back up. He looked from Harmony to the downed werewolf, across to the dead demon, and back to Jonathan and Andrew, dazed and grim and disbelieving.
Behind him, on the floor, Giles started to stir.
"I don't feel so safe in here anymore," Harmony quavered.
Since Harmony was the one in the room not injured in some way, first aid duties had fallen on her. Not that she was any good at it, of course, not to mention having the exact opposite of a bedside manner. Andrew and Jonathan were whimpering like little girls under her none-so-gentle ministrations.
"Look, do you want me to do this or not?" she snapped. "It wasn't my idea, you know. You should be grateful that I'm generous enough to help."
"I'd be more grateful if you were generous enough to be gentle," Andrew sulkily retorted. "It stings! Ow!"
"Such a baby," she contemptuously told him.
Shaking his head, Larry turned away and set about helping Giles drag Wolf-Oz back into the cage. The cage didn't actually have a door any more, but still. It was the principle of the thing. Or something.
Larry and Giles both were still dripping blood from their own untreated injuries, but the werewolf…the werewolf was a mess. He'd fought tooth and claw with the demon, inflicted a lot of damage, but taken just as much in return, and was bleeding from numerous wounds all over his body.
Larry regarded him appraisingly. "He's gonna need patching up when he's awake and approachable," he observed. Understatement, maybe, but it needed to be said.
"Yes," Giles wearily agreed, taking his glasses off – one lens was cracked, anyway – to wipe blood out of his eyes, trickling from a gash across his forehead. "Patching up is something we could all use a little of right now."
Grimacing, Larry pulled at his torn shirt, which was sticking to collection of bloody lacerations across his chest. "Sounds more than good to me," he sighed – but then glanced across to where Harmony was still ministering to the other two and grimaced again. "But not by her, okay?"
Giles followed the direction of his gaze and gave a tiny, involuntary shudder. "Agreed," he fervently declared, then crouched to check on the unrestrained werewolf at their feet once more, thoughtful. "We can't leave him like this till morning – we'll need to do something to stop the bleeding. But we, ah, we won't be able to do much more than that until he, uh, turns back."
"All that fur gets in the way, huh," Larry tiredly noted, leaning against the wall.
"Quite," said Giles. "We'll also need to find some way of restraining him before he wakes again. A-and we'll have to stand a guard until morning, to be on the safe side. He may need to be tranquillised again if he seems likely to break loose once more, although I'd like to avoid administering a second sedative if at all possible."
"Because it just had to break the cage door – again," Larry sighed. "Just when we really need the lock. What the hell was that thing, anyway?"
Giles looked over at the dead demon, puzzled and concerned. "I wish I knew."
A piercing scream rang through the air.
Giles started awake in the straight-backed chair in which he'd spent the night, almost dropping the tranquilliser gun held loosely in his lap, and looked up just in time to see the school cleaning lady sprinting out of the library at speed, leaving her trolley behind.
There was a muted yell and thump nearby as Andrew fell off the table he'd evidently been sleeping on – top and tailed with Jonathan, their feet in one another's faces, by the looks of it – while on the floor nearby Larry and Harmony started awake only to find that Harmony had been using Larry's stomach as a pillow. Sitting bolt upright, they gaped at one another in disgust. And Jonathan, too, was stirring, awoken by the kerfuffle.
They'd all fallen asleep, then. So much for standing guard.
Blinking the sleep out of his eyes, Giles peered fuzzily around the room, wondering what had scared the cleaner so. They'd cleaned up the worst of the damage – and blood – and, most importantly, had disposed of the dead demon in the school incinerator. The library remained in something of a terrible state, however, with most of the furniture in the room either damaged or broken and books scattered every which way, while the twisted remains of the book cage door lay against a wall, and – ah. Yes. Of course.
Giles turned to regard the book cage itself, wherein Oz lay unconscious still on the floor – human once more, bound hand and foot in chains, and completely naked. Carefully cleaned but as yet un-bandaged demon-inflicted wounds were clearly visible on his exposed body and a few appeared to be still bleeding sluggishly.
No wonder the cleaner had taken fright. They could only hope she wouldn't raise the alarm; they didn't exactly present the most easily explainable tableau ever.
Stiffly pushing upright and setting the tranquilliser gun aside, Giles glanced first at his watch and then up at the clock and was startled. "Good Lord, is that the time?"
"Is it late?" Picking himself up off the floor, Andrew blinked at him and then looked at the clock. "Oh. It's late."
"I guess we all kinda…slept," Larry sleepily remarked, clambering rather laboriously to his feet with a grimace, his numerous cuts and bruises no doubt as sore as those Giles was sporting. He glanced into the cage at Oz and frowned. "Doesn't he usually wake up at, like, sunrise?"
"Usually," Giles agreed, stepping into the cage to check on Oz's condition. He'd been satisfied during the night that while the injuries looked unpleasant they were not in fact serious – it took a lot to kill a werewolf, after all – but it was as well to be sure now that the boy was human once more. "But the last sedative had to be administered rather later than I'd have liked. It wouldn't have had time to clear his system before he turned back, and it was rather a hefty dose for a human. I imagine he'll sleep for a while yet."
Jonathan, Andrew and Harmony came over to peer in at Oz's limp form as Giles knelt to check him over, but Harmony was quick to turn away from the nakedness and blood. "Eww," she declared.
Jonathan wrinkled his nose. "Is he okay? He's kinda…still."
"Oh, yes," Giles assured them, starting to remove the chains from Oz's hands and feet. "Yes, he'll be fine. Sore, but fine."
"Aren't we all?" said Larry, dropping heavily onto the chair Giles had vacated, evidently the only one remaining with all four legs still attached, and grimacing as he stiffly rotated a shoulder.
"And we can dress these wounds now that he's human once more," Giles continued.
"But what about the, uh…" Jonathan nodded toward the door and the trolley that the cleaner had left behind, evidently concerned still by her reaction to what she had seen.
"She'll repress," Larry calmly told him, rising once more to pick up the first aid box from the counter.
"You think?" Andrew disbelieved.
"They always do," Larry matter-of-factly stated, bringing the box over to the book cage.
"Yes. Remarkable though it may seem," Giles concurred, taking the box from him and opening it to peer inside, assessing the contents. "And now, I'd say some breakfast was in order, wouldn't you?"
"Ahhhhh. Food!" Andrew longingly sighed, closing his eyes.
"Breakfast right now would have to be your best idea all week," declared Larry, peering around until he spotted Giles' jacket and casually helping himself to the wallet from the inside pocket, then bringing the jacket over to the cage. "Donuts?"
"Jelly for me," Giles told him without looking up, draping the jacket over Oz to preserve whatever unconscious dignity he might have left after everyone had already had a good look, and then continuing to rummage through the first aid box, assembling everything he was going to need.
"We get donuts?" Jonathan squeaked.
"Of course we get donuts," Andrew happily smirked. "Why wouldn't we get donuts? We're, like, heroes now!"
Giles caught Larry's eye and couldn't help but smile as the boy grudgingly admitted, "You did good."
Andrew excitedly nudged Jonathan, grinning from ear to ear. "Hear that? We did good!"
Jonathan smiled, quietly pleased, and said nothing.
Now sitting on the table, Harmony was also beaming from ear to ear. "I know. Even I helped, so you can't say mean things about me any more," she chirped.
Larry shook his head in mock despair, but he looked amused, and Giles was almost surprised by how nice it was to see it in place of the anger and frustration the boy usually carried around. The general situation in town remained bleak and their new recruits remained perhaps rather less than entirely competent, but their enthusiasm was, at the very least, somewhat infectious, while if the unexpected but successful battle last night proved anything it was that all hope was not yet lost.
Unless, of course, that was just the adrenaline rush of victory speaking.
No, make that everything. Everything hurt.
Oz slowly prised open an eye, the other reluctantly following suit.
The world failed to come into focus, and the light jabbed at his brain kinda like a needle, white hot, so he allowed both eyes to close once more. Dark was better. Moving could wait.
"Good morning, sleepy head!" a bright, bubbly voice chirruped from somewhere nearby, and it turned out? Sound was almost as bad as light. This particular sound, anyway. Shrill. Too shrill.
It took a moment to match voice to name, but he got there in the end. Harmony. Huh.
With a little groan that he couldn't quite hold back, Oz managed to get his eyes open again and blinked a couple times until his surroundings swam into focus.
Library. Book cage. Floor. It was full moon, he knew that much, so…so far, pretty much to be expected. But…the grogginess and the wooziness – the hangover? The pain? Not so expected.
Waking up naked in public? Never got any more comfortable, no matter how often it happened. Turned out, though: waking up injured and not knowing how it had happened? Was worse.
Stiff and sore, he slowly levered himself up into something approaching a sitting position, and as he did so the blanket that someone had thrown over him fell away, revealing blood-spotted bandages that definitely hadn't been there last night.
That would explain the stiffness and soreness, then.
"You all right?" Larry called over, and Oz looked up to see that he was sitting at the table with Giles, surrounded by books, both of them pretending to read while actually surreptitiously watching Oz as he woke. So, they'd been concerned. Library looked pretty trashed, as well – actually, so did they, now that he came to think about it. Something big had happened, and he'd been part of it – at least, the wolf part of him had been part of it. But the part of him that was Oz had slept through the whole thing.
Also something that never got any more comfortable.
Oz glanced down again at the unexpected bandages adorning his body. "Apparently not," he observed with another wince as he shifted position slightly. "I miss something?"
"You missed heaps," announced Harmony, who was also sitting at the table, doing her nails. "Even though you had, like, a ringside seat, with hands on audience participation, and everything." She wrinkled her nose. "That must suck."
"You're not wrong," Oz murmured under his breath, shifting position again, still uncomfortable – in too many ways.
"Someone out there really hates us. That's about as much as we've worked out so far," said Larry, picking up some clothing and bringing it over to the cage. He then offered a hand, and Oz wasn't too proud to take it and allow his friend to help him onto his feet, torn and bruised flesh protesting the whole way. "Need a hand?"
Oz shook his head, taking the clothes with one hand and hanging onto the blanket with the other to preserve what was left of his modesty. "No," he said, since he might be sore but wasn't so busted up that he couldn't dress himself. "Thanks."
With a nod, Larry left him to it and returned to the study table.
"So, what happened?" Oz asked as he slowly and stiffly pulled his clothes on, while the others courteously enough kept their eyes averted.
"An attack," said Giles. "On the library – last night shortly before patrol."
"The patrol that didn't happen, as it turns out," Larry added.
"Yes, quite," Giles agreed. "We were, uh, rather sidetracked by a visit from a particularly vicious and destructive demon."
"Quite a party," Larry summarised.
"And according to these files," Giles continued, indicating the books open before him. "Although this particular demon takes great pleasure in maiming and killing, it generally only does so for a price."
"Hired assassin," Larry concluded. "Like I said – someone out there really hates us."
Now clothed, Oz limped out of the cage to join them at the table, carefully lowering himself onto a chair that had evidently seen impromptu repair work in the recent past and half expecting it to collapse beneath his weight. It held, for now, so he allowed himself to relax a little. "So. Payback's started early, then," he sombrely noted, mulling over the implications, which pretty much led to nothing but unpleasant conclusions.
"Apparently so," Giles grimly agreed.
"You know that your 'cold-blooded killer' of an assassin failed, right?" Darla snarled, too infuriated to care how the Master reacted to such an impertinent tone.
He was not in the best of moods either, of course. "Well, then – let us be glad that we had the foresight not to pay the creature up front," he curtly snapped back.
"There's a lesson to be learned here," Darla pressed. "If you want a job done properly – do the killing yourself. That way, you have both the pleasure of getting the job done and the satisfaction of knowing that it's done."
"The matter really isn't important," the Master irritably dismissed.
"Isn't important?" Darla disbelieved. "I thought we had agreed that it was time to put down those ridiculous, do-gooding White Hats, once and for all, before they could cause us any more aggravation."
"The would-be Watcher and his merry band of White Hats really are quite insignificant in the grander scheme of things, my dear," the Master scathingly condescended. "A minor irritation."
"That's not what you were saying a few days ago," Darla snapped.
"I have far more important things on my mind," he rather loftily told her. "My machine being just one."
Darla rolled her eyes. "Had you considered, perhaps, that the factory scheme might best be abandoned now? That was yesterday's design. Surely we could come up with something more –"
"The machine will be rebuilt," the Master interrupted, very annoyed and very firm on this point. "Its like shall be the future for our kind, and –"
"Master." It was Luke's turn to interrupt, and the Master frowned as he turned to see the great oaf striding into the room.
"Luke. You have news?"
"Yes. There have been stirrings in Mayor Wilkins' camp," Luke reported. "Questions are being asked."
The Master glowered. "He will have learned by now of your return, empty-handed."
"And whose fault was that?" Darla muttered, and Luke scowled at her.
"We cannot afford to lose the Mayor's favour," the Master mused.
"Why?" Darla protested. "He's just one man –"
"Don't underestimate him," the Master insisted, looking thoughtful. "No. I may not know exactly who or what he is, but I do know that Mayor Wilkins is far more than merely a man – and that, should he choose, he could make life extremely difficult for us. No. For now, at least, we must do what it takes to keep him on side." He glared at them both. "And your failure this week will not make that any easier."
"And the White Hats?" Darla pressed.
"Their time will come," the Master smoothly declared. "Rest assured of that."
On stage, the school principal read out the names of the deceased or merely vanished in the dull monotone of one who had performed this morbid duty on a regular basis over a too long period of time – and yet the man hadn't even been here all that long. He was the fifth principal in a little under two years. How swiftly this town wore good men down.
Momentarily tuning out the disheartening litany of death, Giles ran tired eyes over the hall, which was little more than half full – and this was a good day for attendance. The school had become so sparsely populated. He automatically picked out his little team of White Hats, scattered among the other students, satisfying himself that they were all present and accounted for and therefore still alive to face another day.
Nancy Glover. Cordelia Chase. He'd known the names were coming, yet still felt both strike hard as they were read out: two more depressingly young lives cut short, deaths that he could and should have prevented. They had been in his charge, both of them, in their separate ways, and he had failed them.
Giles instinctively found himself picking out his ragtag team of White Hats once more: Larry skulking around at the back of the hall and Oz lurking over on the other side of the room, Jonathan and Andrew huddled together near the front and Harmony in the middle, whispering to another girl. Not for the first time, he promised himself that he'd do better this time, that this time he would not allow his brave young allies to pay the price for his failure – that somehow he would find a way to keep them all alive.
Darla hung back in the shadows and watched as Luke delivered a package to Mayor Wilkins' assistant, bowed deep, and then swept away into the dark without waiting to see if she was following.
Job done. Finally.
Darla watched for a moment longer, wondering what the man intended to do with their offering, but then decided that she didn't really care all that much. It was still early enough for a spot of hunting and she was hungry. Mayor Wilkins and his mysterious plans could wait.
She drifted away in search of prey.
Giles sat at the central table, purportedly studying one of his dusty old tomes, although in the absence of any truly pressing matters for research he had allowed his attention to wander, instead watching his young allies training nearby.
Over near the stacks, Oz was showing Harmony how to work a crossbow – which was proving rather more easily said than done. She might have fluked a direct hit on a moving werewolf with the tranquilliser gun in a crisis, but the principle of the crossbow seemed to be passing her by entirely.
As Giles watched, she took aim at a target, pinned to the wall opposite…but her finger slipped from the trigger as she squeezed it, and the bolt dropped harmlessly to the floor. "Oh, damn! I broke a nail," she squealed.
While Harmony fussed over her fingers, the ever-patient Oz calmly picked up the bolt and re-loaded the crossbow so that she could try again.
Across on the other side of the room, meanwhile, Larry was still working very hard to instil a little basic self-defence into Andrew and Jonathan – and today, for the very first time, he actually seemed a little bit pleased with their progress.
"That's more like it," he declared, satisfied, as Jonathan managed to toss Andrew.
Yes, Giles thought to himself: this was indeed more like it.
Another night, another patrol.
A lot of time and training had seen a marked improvement in the ability of the new White Hat recruits to play an active role in patrol and rescue missions – even Harmony had her moments, very occasionally, as strange as it still seemed to admit it.
And yet tonight's rescue – attempted rescue, that was – was not going well.
What should have been a simple grab-and-run had turned sour when the lone vampire attacking an unfortunate pedestrian turned out to have considerable backup lurking nearby. Several more vampires were now menacing the team in a tense standoff, surrounding the van, with all escape routes blocked.
The team stood their ground, weapons in hand, holding the vampires at bay but anticipating the coming strike at any moment. They were going to have to fight their way out of this, and it was not going to be pretty….
Suddenly, struck as swift and silent as lightning, one of the vampires dropped, dusted.
A long, frozen pause followed, no one quite sure what had just happened.
Then a stranger – a girl – launched herself into the fray, kicking and back flipping, and dusting vamps with brisk efficiency.
It was…it was quite remarkable.
The bemused White Hats made themselves useful where they could, tripping the odd vampire back into her path if it looked likely to escape…but on the whole the girl did not appear to need much help, so that all the team really had to do was stand and gape at her, dumbstruck. Help – especially super-powered help – was not something they had ever really experienced.
It really was remarkable.
In no time at all, the vampires were gone. The stranger stood before them, straight-backed, arms folded across her chest, head held high. She was young, tall and athletic, with dark eyes, coffee-coloured skin, and long brown curls pulled back into a tight ponytail, her expression just a tad supercilious.
Could it really be?
A moment of absolute silence followed, absolute stillness. The girl stared at them; they stared back at her.
At length Giles broke the impasse, taking a step forward and holding out a hand. "Y-yes, well, uh – congratulations," he stammered, scarcely able to believe it. "And, ah – many thanks. M-my name is Giles, Rupert Giles…and I believe you must be –"
"I am Kendra," the girl announced. "The Vampire Slayer."
written October 2009