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Anywhere Out of This World

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Buffy and William lay in bed, bodies nested together. His arms encompassed her. His skin felt warm against hers. With his fingers, he drew maps on her flesh, dividing and conquering as they lay, simply breathing.

She said, “What would you call that? What we just did?”

He hummed, buried his face in her hair.

“Really. Good. Sex,” he said.

“Was it debauchery?” she asked, playfully. “Was I debauched?”

“Hmmm. No,” he said. He traced a finger down her chest, all the way to her belly button.

“Our connection is pure, Buffy. So long as it’s something we both want and we’re in our heads about it, there’s nothing wrong with what we do.”

“Interesting view. Not sure the rest of the world shares it, but…”

“Bollocks to them. Don’t want ’em in our bedroom,” he said. He ran a strong arm over her body, drawing her tighter into the curve of his.

Buffy smiled. She took his hand in hers, pressed his flattened palm to her abdomen.

“Here,” she said. “Feel this.”

“I don’t… feel anything,” he said. Erring on the safe side, she thought. Smart man.

Buffy guided his hand over the small swell of her belly. “This,” she said.

“Oh, I get it,” he said. “Little Bit’s a little bigger. Soon to be a lot bigger, I’d wager.”

“It’s strange, but I feel like she’s every part of me, William. Every tiny cell and tissue. Every breath, every… thing. Is it weird to feel that way?”

“Way it should be, pet,” he said.

“It’s changing,” she said. Saying it made out loud made her feel scared. “Everything’s changing.”

Downstairs, directly below by the sound, they heard a noisy crash.

Buffy and William sprung from the bed.

As he pulled on his jeans, he said, “Some things are the same.”

 


What they thought was random demon activity turned out to be Andrew in an eye patch. He’d taken one of Xander’s for a test drive when he came down to the kitchen in search of orange juice. But with his diminished capacity for depth perception, Andrew had misjudged the height of the counter, and the OJ carafe paid the price.

“Why?” was all William could say.

Andrew slunk against the bar stool while Buffy and William picked up the pieces.

“Because eye patches are way more sexy than severed limbs,” Andrew lisped. He’d gone days now without shaving and had an uneven mesh of fuzz on his pouty chin.

“So the option’s to have… both?” William asked. He pulled a hand towel down from the rack on the oven to swab up the sticky floor.

Andrew sucked breath over his bottom lip. “I just miss my hand, Spike,” Andrew lamented. “I knew the back of it so well.”

Both on hands and knees, Buffy and William exchanged a tired look.

“I can’t even play my game systems because you need both hands to work the controls. Both hands!” He sighed. “I don’t expect you to understand.”

William straightened, taking offense. “I lost both… look out, Buffy, there’s a sharp bit there… I lost both my hands fighting that off-her-nut Slayer, or do you not recall?”

Buffy stood up. “Ow,” she said.

“It did smart. Fiercely. So I do under…” William said.

“No. Ooow,” Buffy said. She raised her hand, palm up, to reveal an inch-long sliver of glass embedded in her palm.

William squinted sharply at Andrew before stalking to the pantry for the first aid kit.

“Lose the eye patch, mate,” William seethed. “Or I’ll give you reason to wear it.”

William returned to the bar with Giles’ tin box of medical supplies. Buffy, having had experience with buckets and buckets of blood in her time, thought it strange that now, the sight of it made her suddenly weak and queasy. She thought maybe it was the feral marathon sex from before that made her legs all trembly, but as she stood there, her palm filling like a cup with her blood, she felt the strangest tingling sensation…

 


 

Buffy opened her eyes. She was on the floor, and everyone was looking down at her. She craned her head.

“Are we playing light as a feather?” she asked. She tried to sit up, but, funny thing, her body refused to comply.

“Just stay put, Buffy,” Xander said. “We’ve got paramedics on the way.”

Worry. She saw worry on his face. Buffy panned with only her eyes, to find alarm, worry and more alarm on the faces of the others.

“Para…medics?” she said. “Strange word. Will there be two?”

“I’m sorry, Buffy,” Andrew mewled. “Thorn of glass… I didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know… what?”

 


 

Buffy opened her eyes again. This time, she was in bed, but not her own bed. This bed had handrails and a remote control attached to the rails and a curtain on a swivel chain to hide the bed from other… patients.

“Oh God,” she said. “Dawn? William?”

Giles stepped into view. He seemed to tower over the bed, like she was sunk deep into the mattress, like a tiny bug stuffed down into the frosting on a cake.

“You’re going to be just fine,” he said. Sounded like he was under water. Or, maybe she was?

“The baby?” she asked. “The Little Bit? Is she…?”

William’s hands took one of hers, curled it between them. “She’s fine, too. Just lost a little blood is all. All about the blood.”

Buffy oozed into the pillows, lulled by the hushed tick of machines at her bedside.

 


 

Across town, Lorne hovered while Willow, Faith, Oz and Connor pored over a hand-drawn map on a crisp sheet of parchment. There was a tension sharp as a Ginsu knife in the room, and while Lorne knew that he had the mixins for an apple-tini in the kitchen, he had been trying to lay off the booze of late.

Anjelica came in from the bathroom, still drying her hands.

She paused, just outside of the silent circle of map-starers, and clasped her hands. “Any decision yet?” she asked.

Willow was shaking her head. “I still feel reluctant to take the Ghuntasch Gate, guys. Big five-headed guardian beast. Plus, supposed pits of oozing gunk…”

Faith threw her hands in the air. “We’ve been over this. Let’s say we skirt the oozing pools. What is it you suggest instead?”

Willow sucked in a deep breath. “The Cotswolds,” she said.

Lorne held up his hands in a time-out gesture. “Hold up, Miss Scarlet. You wanna go through the Deeper Well?”

“Well, yeah. It’s like the Express Mail chute to other dimensions. Non-stop service to hell.”

Oz pinched his goatee thoughtfully. “Sounds… convenient. Why the opposition?”

Lorne chuckled and reconsidered his apple-tini. Less apple, more tini. “Oh, well. Nothing. Unless you wanna occupy the same holding cell as – oh – some thousand or so tombs of ancient dead gods.”

“But if they’re dead,” Connor began.

“Which they are,” Willow said. “Deeper Well spell drained them. Remember?”

Lorne was nodding. “Sure. They are. But you bet your bottom dollar that the inter-dimensional grave robbers will have turned up in droves to disinter the Old One’s treasures. Ever heard of King Tut’s curse?”

“Yeah,” Oz shrugged.

“Well, Pharoah’s got nothing on an Ancient One scorned,” Lorne finished.

Connor put the heels of his hands over his eyes and massaged them. Willow looked at him and could almost taste his frustration. Across the table, Faith chewed the inside of her lip.

“Nah,” she said. “I’m more concerned about finding this Thellian freak once we’re down. Given any thought on which zip code in Hell might be his hang out?”

Oz said, “We can just pull over and ask directions.”

“We do have Maya’s Looking Glass,” Anjelica said, meekly.

“And I’m coming up haystacks and needles,” Lorne said.

Connor pounded his hands on the table top. “There has to be a way,” he shouted.

“Willow can cast a spell. We have to find him.” He looked up at each of them with eyes that flashed with pain. “I have to find him.”

And here they were again. Same place they had been for a week. Every discovery they made had some insurmountable flaw in it, some great risk they didn’t feel the group could take. Connor knew they were stalling, waiting until his shattered shoulder healed up from Lalaine’s gunshot wounds. Meanwhile, Thellian and Luxe were getting further and further away.

And Connor thought of nothing else but the face of the man who killed his father.

“We will find a way,” Willow said, quietly. “But it has to be the right way.”

Connor’s body hummed like a hive of anger. He stared off into a safe middle distance, trying his best not to hate them for their reluctance and concern. It wasn’t their Dad who had died. It was his…

Then came a soft knock on the door, and the mood broke like a Prince Rupert’s Drop. Lorne excused himself, but his feeling of relief evaporated the moment he looked through the peephole to see Nighna standing on his doorstep, dressed to kill in her oxblood leather pantsuit and pointy-toed Prada boots.

Lorne stepped out quickly on the icy walk, closing the door behind him.

Nighna stepped back, balancing precariously on her ridiculously high heels.

“You’re here for Clarisse,” Lorne said. He folded his arms and looked down his straight green nose at her.

Nighna hugged her arms to her chest. “Seems the danger’s passed,” she said.

Lorne narrowed his eyes. Nighna, surprisingly, seemed to wither.

“Did they…” she began. She cleared her throat. “Was there a service for him?”

Lorne tilted his head, confused. “For him? For who? Luxe?”

Nighna scoffed. “Like anyone would mourn him,” she said.

Lorne shook his head. “Who are you…?”

“Andrew,” Nighna said. The name squeaked painfully in her throat.

“Didn’t die, Nines,” Lorne said.

Nighna made a series of befuddled sounds unbefitting of her slick London street clothes.

Lorne wasn’t laughing. “The boy lopped off his hand,” he said.

Nighna sputtered. “His… hand?” She laughed, but stopped herself.

“He’s not so jazzed about it,” Lorne sneered.

Nighna pushed past Lorne and strode into the dazzling neons of his living room. Everyone looked up, and the pressure in the room seemed to crank up a few degrees. Lorne turned up behind her, rushing to explain. But Willow was ahead of him.

“You’re Nighna,” she said.

At the sound of the name, Clarisse turned into a loony bird in her cage, squawking and flinging herself against the bars of her metal cage. Nighna crossed the room, cooing as she walked, until the myna settled enough for her master to remove her from the cage. While everyone watched, completely enthralled, Nighna skimmed her fingers over Clarisse’s glossy black feathers. She offered a Clarisse a scrap of bread from her pocket.

Nighna turned with premeditated grace to face the Lorne’s guests.

“Oh, gods,” Nighna said, smiling. “You’re going after them, aren’t you?” With Clarisse preening on the bend of her elbow, Nighna strutted across the room to examine the map and collected texts on the table.

Oz raised his hand into the air, slowly. “Um… who’s Nighna?” he asked.

Willow leaned in. She whispered, “Andrew’s ex.”

“But I thought he was…”

Nighna turned. “The Cotswolds,” she said. “That’s your best bet. Quick passage. The walls are thin.” Nighna nodded her approval as she squared off with Willow. “But, how do you plan to find them?”

“We were just…” Connor said.

Anjelica hopped in with both feet. “We hadn’t planned that far,” she said.

Nighna paused. She roughed Clarisse’s feathers with her fingertips. The bird made a throaty pleasured sound and fluffed out her plumage.

“You haven’t much time,” Nighna said. She looked then to Connor. “Thellian despises Luxe. They will part their ways soon, and then…”

“Wait,” Connor said. “I don’t give a damn about Luxe. Thellian’s the one I’m after.”

“Oh, but you should,” Nighna said, giving them all a knowing smile. “I know exactly where Luxe is. Anywhere. Anywhen. He is bound to me.”

 

 

Buffy dreamed while she was out. Dreamed of Sunnydale in its Glory days, when Dawn and her Mom had to hide out in the caves under Spike’s crypt. She dreamed of Willow in Hell, fighting forked-tongued devils who wielded flaming pitchforks. She dreamed of Angel putting a dagger through his heart. There were other flashes, too.

Dismemberments. Torture chambers. A strange inverted pyramid spray-painted across a brick wall. Bubbling cauldrons of viscous green gunk that smelled of bad home perm. But more than anything, there was blood. Great red splashes of it in the style of Paul Verhoeven.

This time, when she woke up, she decided it best to just remain awake.

Dawn was at the bedside, sketching in her notebook, which required her to turn the book at odd angles to capture the border of the checked hospital bedspread.

“How long have I been in here?” Buffy asked.

Dawn looked up. “Three whole… hours,” she said. She smiled. “The doc says your blood pressure shot up, hence, the passing out. Kinda girly.”

Buffy looked herself over. Bandage on her hand, but other than that…

“Did I hit my head or something?”

“No, Spike caught you before you could fall down,” Dawn said. She set the book aside and came closer. “Romantic when you think about it.”

Buffy prickled with nagging irritation. She felt an unbearable heaviness settling on her chest, like a metal plate clamped down and tightened with an unseen vise.

“Only if you’re Vivien Leigh,” Buffy said. She slipped from the hospital bed before Dawn could lodge a formal complaint. Alarmed again, Dawn jumped from her seat.

“Oh. Buffy. You’re not supposed to be out of… What if you…?”

“I fainted, Dawn. I’m pregnant. It happens. Where are my clothes?”

“Hey!” William rounded the corner. “You’re out of bed.”

“You’re real astute,” Buffy snapped.

“I tried to tell her,” Dawn said.

Buffy put her hands to her temples. “Dawn, I hate hospitals. You know that.”

“She does,” Dawn agreed. “Can’t we just get her out of here?”

“Rupert…” he said, poised between Buffy and the exit, as if he meant to hem her in.

“Isn’t here,” Buffy said. She swallowed hard. “Where are my clothes?”

“You should lie down,” he said. Eyes narrowed. “Something’s not right with you.”

“Something’s not right with Buffy,” she said. “How original.”

The doctor strode up behind them, eyes fixed on a chart. He said, “Is there some trouble here?” Then he looked up.

“Oh,” he said dryly. “It’s you lot.”

Buffy, William and Dawn halted where they stood. It was the same doctor who had tended to Giles before…

“Dr. Chapman,” Dawn said, suddenly recalling the name.

He did not seem amused. He turned his unamused eyes to William. “You’re the dad, I suppose?” he asked.

William blinked. He was confused and off-guard, like he had just missed a step in a dance, and now he was lost. “Yeah,” he said.

Dr. Chapman’s nostril twitched with distaste. “I’ve just come with release papers,” he said. He leveled his eyes on William’s. “She needs rest. And folic acid. There’s the prescription.”

The doctor passed the clipboard to William and pulled a pen from his breast pocket.

Again, William was lost. He scanned the release form. There was an X marked next to the line for Signature of Spouse.

“We’re not…” William began.

Dr. Chapman gave a derisive snort. He retrieved the clipboard and passed it instead to Dawn. “You’re a blood relative, right?” he asked.

Dawn nodded, then briskly signed for Buffy’s release. She tore to the prescription from the metal clamp and folded it into the breast pocket of her demin jacket.

“That’s all?” Dawn asked.

The doctor was already retreating. “Rest,” he said, forcefully. He backed out of the over-sized door and disappeared into the hall.

Buffy stood opposite William, her body tensely rigid. Not one to back down, he pulled his shoulders up and stared directly into her eyes.

Dawn shifted uneasily between them. “That was weird,” she ventured. “Dontcha think?”

Buffy remained unmoved. “Where are my clothes?” she asked.

Chapter Text

The day after Halloween Dawn left the Flat before anyone was awake. Her goal had been to go to one of those big Gothic English cathedrals. Even though she was not Catholic, nor remotely religious, she had wanted to light a candle in church. As a prayer. Like Maya suggested, she wanted to celebrate the lives of those lost.

But, lots of Catholic folk had turned up for exactly the same thing. Given the cataclysmic loss of lives the world witnessed the previous week, Dawn reasoned that she should not have been surprised.

She was surprised, though. She felt a little left out. Everyone was grieving for someone. Everyone had unanswered questions. Everyone, but not Dawn. She knew the answers, but couldn’t share.

Rather than fight the mourning hordes, Dawn slipped away. She wandered a while, half-blind and breathless as she always felt in the presence of the ancient buildings of London. Her feet finally led her back to the Temple of the Sisters.

Dawn found a park bench across Mercer Street. From it, she had a clear view of the crumbling façade of the temple. She perched on the edge of the bench, took out a ballpoint pen and began a sketch in the palm of her hand.

With her pen, she outlined with bold strokes the shape of the chapel, then filled in the edges with feathery cross hatches. The image came to life in her hand – the light, shape and shadows forming into the most amazingly life-like rendition.

Dawn drew a border of spiky grass along the fat of her thumb. Into the creases of her lifeline, she traced the sun’s light lancing through clouds. When she finished, Dawn sat back to admire her flawless design. She closed her hand and the image winked out like a candle quickly snuffed.

She smiled. Dawn splayed her fingers wide, stretching the image. And as she stared at the perfectly wrought edges of the drawing, a tiny sparrow flickered into view.

Dawn closed her fist. She looked around at the quiet street, thinking that perhaps there were magics afoot. Dawn opened her trembling hand again. The little bird was still there, bathing its soft pen-stroked feathers in the dusty sideyard of the Temple. Dawn licked the fingers of her right hand and scrubbed them into her left palm until she had completely obliterated her freaky little cartoon.

After that day, Dawn began to compulsively sketch. She bought a Bienfang Sketch Pad and a pack of Oriole No. 2 drawing pencils. Nothing had happened yet, not like it had the day she visited the Temple. But she kept trying nonetheless.

 

When William left her, she was snoring. Actually snoring. Not the dainty breathy purring sound all girls think they make when they sleep, but real log-sawing snores. Made him laugh. Which was saying something, considering the morning they’d been through.

William did his best not to think of it. Buffy had slept then, too, but it had been a deeper sleep. She had fallen into an unmovable kind of slumber - one that made her arms and legs like gooey taffy and her eyes roll loosely in their sockets. She had not lost that much blood. He’d seen people down by pints crawl up several flights of stairs to…

William broke off that line of thinking. He wasn’t helping matters, hulking over her and digging up past dirties. She was resting, and he would feel like a knob to disturb her now.

He went downstairs, feeling half useless and all afraid. He found Dawn at the kitchen table, committing furious lines to a page in her sketch book. Across from her, Andrew was busily sorting through the front pages of several UK newspapers. Beside him, his laptop hummed with a sense of great importance. Giles was at the sink, washing out his tea cup with slow, methodical motions. None of them looked up when William came in.

Dawn’s drawing caught William’s eye. It was the crisp, clean-edged image of Connor in profile. Right down to the flat mop of hair, smooth rounded jaw and moody glower.

“Huhn,” William said. The quiet noise startled Dawn from drawing. She carved a deep, dark line across Connor’s cheek and swore.

She threw a sharp look at William.

“Now look at what you did,” she said, glumly.

“It’s a good likeness,” William said. He stepped around her.

Was a good likeness,” Dawn complained. “Why do you still have to skulk around, anyway? Normal people make sounds when they walk.”

“I am… normal,” William said. He went to the fridge for an IRN-BRU, but lingered, his fingers on the handle.

Dawn lowered her eyes, took out her eraser and started scrubbing away the stray mark.

“How’s Buffy?” Giles ventured. He turned halfway to Spike, but kept right on rinsing.

William turned slowly. “Um. Sleeping,” he said. “Good kind of sleep.”

Dawn said, “You look a little beat, too. Maybe…”

“No,” William said. He closed the refrigerator door firmly and joined Andrew and Dawn at the table. “Best I put my energies here. What have you got there, Andrew?”

Andrew eyed William warily. He looked to Giles for help, but the librarian was clearly caught in a loop.

“I’m doing… research,” Andrew explained. “Looking up headlines and stuff for Giles about last week’s cataclysm.” He made one-handed air quotes around the word cataclysm.

William held his breath. He could just taste the boredom. “Right. So. I’m going up to the roof.”

On his way out, he nearly collided with Xander. Xander, who had his bags packed and a 6:30 flight for Houston. Xander, whose doubts about leaving set his face with the deep and unattractive creases of concern.

William skirted him. The tension in the room felt like a pervasive fog of surreality, and he’d had his fill of that at Wolfram & Hart.

“You’re all packed?” Giles asked. He’d finally shut off the faucet, but stood now polishing his green mug to squeaky brightness.

“I am,” Xander said. “I’m thinking… maybe I shouldn’t go.”

Dawn closed her sketch book and pushed away from the table with a frustrated sigh. “You have to go, Xander. Maya’s…”

“An understanding person,” Xander weaved in. “She would get that I can’t come because of the hospitalization of Buffy.”

“But Thanksgiving,” Andrew said. “Turkey and dressing and American stuff, like pie and congealed cranberry in a can. And falling asleep on the sofa while fat old men watch football and eat leftovers, while your mom smokes in the kitchen and complains to her sisters about how she’s getting varicose veins in her legs and how no one finds her attractive. And your brother’s downstairs rewiring the house to accommodate his souped-up GPS tracking device so he can spy on Rebecca Kinsey when she’s taking a shower…”

Xander held up his hands. “Are you trying to convince me to stay or go?”

“Go,” Andrew said. “Obviously.”

Giles’ shoulders sagged. He leaned against the sink and stared into his empty cup. “You should go, Xander. There’s really nothing else we can do here. Nothing, but sit and wait.”

 


With her hip bones touching the scratchy tarred-black surface of the roof ledge, Buffy leaned over to look down at the street. Above her a steady pelting of sleet fell, but it evaporated before it reached the ground. Her breath plumed silver in front of her face. She had awakened to tears that choked her. She came up to the roof for air.

When she heard the scrape of the door opening, Buffy turned to find Giles stepping out onto the rooftop to join her.

She leaned against the ledge. “Hi,” she said. Then she swiped her hands over her face to get rid of the tears.

Giles walked over, his shoes crunching on the roofing tiles.

“What is wrong with you?” he asked. Blunt. To the point. He could be that way sometimes. It irked her to no end.

“What is wrong with me?” she echoed. “Oh. Nothing.”

Giles took off his glasses. He polished them slowly on the tail of his shirt. “Now is not the time for sarcasm, Buffy.”

“Fine, Giles,” Buffy snapped. “You really want to know?

Giles replaced his glasses and nodded that he did.

Buffy paced. “To start, I'll be 25 in a few months… and nothing,” she said, gesturing wildly. The more she spoke, the more the words piled up in her throat . “I'll be a 25-year-old college dropout. A 25-year-old college dropout unwed mother. And nothing. Well. But at least I have my career. Oh wait… No, I don’t.”

“Oh,” Giles said. The image of calm. “That’s what this is about.”

“What is it about? Because I really don’t know, Giles.”

He said, “You’ll be a quartranarian.”

Buffy halted mid-pace. “A what-ernarian?”

Giles came to stand beside her. “It means you’ll be 25, Buffy,” he said. He hesitated at first, but then reached to touch her hair. It was such a simple, tender motion, Buffy felt the turmoil inside her start to dissipate a little.

She said, “I never expected to be any kind of –anarian, unless it was a Slayer-anarian.”

Giles smiled down at her. Buffy went on. “Now I am. Will be, anyway. Giles, what am I supposed to do?”

Giles tilted his head forward in a fatherly way. “Well, Buffy,” he said. “I guess you should have thought of that sooner.”

Buffy stepped back, her anger like a bright red burn. “Are you serious? This is your Dad-ly advice. I lack in planning. I wasn’t supposed to have a future, or much of one. Or did you forget? Giles, I --”

Buffy looked up at Giles’ glasses and caught a sudden patterned flash of light reflected in both lenses. She recoiled.

She heard the scrape of the door again, and this time William walked onto the roof.

He paused, though, watching her with care. “Is this a private rant, luv, or can anyone join?” he asked.

Buffy flicked a glance at Giles. “No. Feel free to hop right in to tell me how irresponsible I am and… and how planning deficient I am,” Buffy said in a breathless rush.

William watched her closely, his head cocked to one side, lips parted as if he couldn’t find words to push through them.

“What?” she shouted.

“There’s no one here, Buffy,” he told her. He moved forward carefully, as if he might startle her if he moved too fast.

Buffy looked to the place where Giles had been and found vacancy. “What?” she said again, this time a baffled whisper.

“Giles is downstairs, with Dawn and Andrew. I just left them,” William said. “Buffy, who was here? Who were you…?”

Buffy ran at him with such force she almost toppled them both. She flung her arms around him and buried her face in his chest.

“Spike, what’s wrong with me?” she cried.

William looked down at the top of Buffy’s head. “Spike?” he whispered. She hadn’t called him that in a long time. He brought his arms around her. Her body was rigid as lamp posts beneath his hands, and he really hated to hear her crying. But he had no answers for her. None at all.

Chapter Text

Buffy wrapped her numb fingers around a mug of chamomile tea. The others stood around her, giving her time, giving her space, while she waited for the tea to steep into the steaming water. She had just finished telling them the whole skinny about her experience on the roof. The story left them all with word loss.

Except for Andrew, who always had something to say.

“Maybe you were possessed,” he suggested.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Giles said sharply. “Of course Buffy wasn’t possessed.”

Dawn nodded. “We can eliminate The First as a possibility. Giles has never been dead.” She looked over her shoulder at Giles. “You still haven’t, right?”

“No,” Giles answered.

“It could be something very simple,” Xander said quietly.

“It is never simple with us,” William said.

“This time it could be,” Xander countered.

Buffy stared down into her cup as the honey gold chamomile leeched into the water like the swirls of a whirlpool in slow motion. “Maybe I was sleepwalking,” she said.

Giles frowned, considering. With a shrug, he said, “I suppose it is possible.”

“Yeah,” Dawn said. “Maybe it’s stress-induced sleepwalking, due to pregnancy.”

“Do pregnant women sleepwalk?” Andrew asked, an annoyingly kittenish tilt to his head.

“We could find out,” Dawn said. She gestured to Andrew’s laptop. “Run a Google search. I’m sure we can learn something…”

Dawn scooted her chair next to Andrew’s and both dived headfirst into a Google quest.

Buffy gripped her mug tighter in her fingers. “I really don’t remember getting out of bed,” she said. Her voice sounded so tired, Giles reached out to stroke her hair. When he did, Buffy flinched away. It was slight, but they all saw her do it.

When she looked up from her tea, she had tears in her eyes. “It was so real,” she said. It was her way of apologizing to Giles. “You were…”

Giles became flustered and stammery. “I would never,” he said. “Buffy, I won’t judge you.”

Buffy covered her mouth with steepled fingers. She knew it, of course, but hearing him say it out loud helped to calm her.

“Ah-ha!” Andrew shouted. So much for tranquil Buffy. Dawn elbowed him in the ribs.

Dawn read from the website Andrew had pulled up on screen: “According to a sleep study conducted by the Keesler Medical Center, incidents of somnambulism increase in women who are pregnant.” She scanned the page, eyes darting back and forth over the text. “And, oh… especially in cases in which the expectant mother has experienced anxiety or stress. Which, I think you qualify.”

“So, see,” Xander said. “Simple somnambulism. Nothing serious.”

Buffy drew a deep breath and offered them a shaky smile. “I’ll be fine,” she said.

“Yeah,” William seconded. “All’s well, right?”

She picked up her spoon and stirred her tea. Nothing but good old fashioned sleepwalking, she thought. But still, she couldn’t feel safe. How could she tell them that? That even with them crowded around her like a squadron of guardian angels, she – the Slayer – felt unsafe.

 

 

“You know,” Nighna said. “You should consider visiting the Cotswolds sometime. When you’re not bent on descending into the Underworld.”

Faith panned her eyes to Nighna and set them to glare. “Yo, why are you talkin’ to me?” she asked.

Nighna pursed her full lips. “In polite society, we make small talk,” she said. On her shoulder, Clarisse ruffled her feathers as if in agreement.

“Well, we ain’t in polite society, Buttercup,” Faith said, bowing up to her.

Lorne swerved in. “Hey, hey, now,” he said. “Let’s not… claw each other’s eyes out.”

Lorne looked from Faith to Nighna. He could read their body language like a Dan Brown novel. Folded arms, rigid posture, flashing eyes. He chuckled uneasily. He knew both women weren’t the kind you wanted to tangle with in any sense of the word. Unless you were Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, then both were game. But the mere thought of them having a throw down chilled his already cool Pylean blood.

They had been hiking west of Tewkesbury Abbey for 45 minutes now. He knew they were cranky and gloomified. All he had to do was deliver them safely to the door of the Deeper Well; afterward he had a bubbly bath and a copy of The Da Vinci Code with his name on them.

Willow caught up to Lorne. “I’m beginning to see why I couldn’t find this place in my astral projections,” she said. “There’s a lot of townage nearby.”

“It’s weird, huh,” Faith said, but didn’t finish.

Nighna sniffed a tiny laugh.

Lorne intervened again. “Um, what’s that?”

“The entrance to this Deeper Well place is so close to all this… holy Jesus stuff,” Faith said, gesturing to the abbey perched on the hilltop behind them.

“It isn’t so strange, when you consider the history of this place,” Nighna said. “Religious leaders are drawn to places of great power. Doesn’t always matter the power’s source.”

“Like Stonehenge,” Connor said. He cleared his throat and stretched his long legs. “Are we there yet?”

Lorne stopped, taking a moment to get his bearings. He’d managed to get this far on his demon perception. Now he felt like the needle in a compass at the center of the North Pole. He sensed the pull of the Well from all directions, which meant they were very, very close.

Oz and Anjelica brought up the rear of the group. They stood together, waiting for Lorne’s lead.

“Feeling the tug?” Oz nudged.

Lorne shook his head. “Like the good old Mississippi.”

Anjelica peered into the thickening twilight around them. “Spike said we can expect a welcoming committee,” she said.

“That was then,” Lorne told her. “Before the Well went dry. Now, it’s anyone’s guess. We could have a troop of hula girls singing ‘It’s A Small World After All.’”

“Guys,” Faith said. “I hear something.”

She pointed to a place in the darkness, marked only by a copse of scrubby trees. After a moment of strained searching, the fuzzed outline of a robed figure appeared.

Faith’s hand went immediately to the dagger she wore on her hip.

“Andrew was right,” Nighna said. “They always wear robes.”

“Shhh,” Lorne said. “Stand ready, Nines. We have no idea…”

“Lorne?” the figure said. It was woman’s voice, and for a moment Lorne couldn’t place it.

But Connor could. He strode forward, meeting the figure halfway across the grassy path. Both stopped, a yard apart. With surprising speed, Connor gripped the girl by her shoulders and spun her into an arm lock. She screamed as he ripped the cowl from her head, revealing Eve underneath.

Connor shoved her to the ground between him and Lorne. Eve skinned her palms on the stony soil and cursed. Before she could bound up and strike back, Lorne casually stepped forward and placed his size 14 boots on the hem of her robe. The others, too dumbstruck to react, simply stood by to watch.

“Hey, Evy,” Lorne sang. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Eve swept her hair from her eyes with her bruised hands. “I could ask the same,” she spat.

Connor gripped the cowl from behind, tightening it around her throat. His face twisted into an expression akin to rage.

“Connor,” Willow whispered.

“You can’t ask anything,” Connor growled. “We ask. You talk.”

Eve’s green eyes glinted in the failing light of the meadow. “Look who’s got a bit of daddy in him after all,” she said. Connor cinched the fabric so tight it bit into her windpipe.

“That’s enough, Cons,” Lorne said.

But Eve continued to smile. “You’re looking for the Deeper Well,” she said.

“Maybe we’re out for a moonlit hike,” Oz said.

Eve shook her head. “Doubtful. Connor here is out for blood, and the rest of you have teamed up to help him find it. But believe me,” she said. “You aren’t gonna find it here.”

Connor gave the robe another twist. Eve made a strangled sound and fell back a few inches to relieve the pressure.

“Why is that?” Connor bit out. “And why are you here?”

“She’s the guardian,” Faith said.

Eve nodded. “Set here by the Senior Partners. A punishment of sorts, for my helping Lindsey…” She flicked her eyes to Lorne’s. Their gazes locked for a handful of seconds, and Lorne was the one to look away. “So now I guard the Deeper Well,” Eve went on. “Guess someone has to.”

Lorne took a step back, releasing her. Connor reluctantly followed his lead. Eve got to her feet, making a show of dusting grass bits and dirt from her robe. Once she was on her feet, Willow stepped forward.

“Look, Eve,” she said. “Bygones being what they are, we really need to get down the Well. We have to find…”

“Oh, I know what you need to find,” Eve said. “The Senior Partners know it, too. You can bet Thellian won’t get far.”

“Hey, hold up. What?” Lorne asked.

“The Senior Partners want Thellian just as much as you do,” Eve said. “He was working with Angel to bring them down, and from what I hear they did some real damage…”

“She’s lying,” Oz cut in. “I can smell it.”

Faith grinned. “Always nice to have a werewolf around,” she said.

Eve blinked. The smile ran away from her face.

Lorne pressed his lips together. Connor looked ready to snap Eve’s neck. Nighna stepped forward to stand side by side with Willow.

“Look,” Nighna said. “Lorne and I are demons, Sugar. You know what that means?”

Eve nodded.

“If you’re all that stands between us and that gateway, we can tear right through you and still find The Deeper Well,” Nighna said. Clarisse shrieked suddenly, and Eve tumbled backward, destroying the flimsy illusion of her composure.

“Fine,” Eve said in a clipped tone. “Have it your way. Follow me.”

Connor, Lorne and Willow fell in behind Eve, taking the gorsy path further into the trees. Faith sidled up to Nighna and eyed her appraisingly.

“That how you do it in polite society?” Faith asked.

Nighna brushed her fingertips over the delicate plumage on Clarisse’s neck. “She caves too easily,” Nighna said quietly. She glanced at Oz and Anjelica. “Keep a wary eye. She cannot be trusted.”

Eve led them to the entrance to the Deeper Well. It was a rather common looking door carved into the trunk of a squat and decrepit oak tree.

“This is it?” Lorne asked. “Seems a bit inauspicious.”

“This is it,” Eve said. She reached for the rough-hewn handle; Nighna saw the others tense around her, expecting a fight or a spell. But when the door opened, they got only darkness and a whiff of dank earth. Eve stepped away from the door, and held up her hands. “Bon voyage.”

Willow walked forward to the threshold of the doorway. She pressed her palms together and muttered a brief incantation. Her hands glowed a faint silvery blue, then faded.

Willow nodded. “It’s safe,” she said. “Or, safe enough for our purposes.”

“Fine,” Connor said. He stepped past Willow and vanished instantly.

Anjelica gasped.

“It’s okay,” Lorne said. “That sometimes happens when you step between worlds.”

Faith went next, followed by Oz and then Nighna. Nighna gripped Lorne’s elbow, and then she was gone. Anjelica clenched her eyes as she stepped up to the door.

“I feel like I need flue powder or something,” she said.

Willow put her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “You’ll be fine,” she said. “Come on.”

After Willow disappeared beyond the doorway, Lorne turned to Eve.

“This is my stop,” he said.

“You’re not going,” Eve said.

Lorne kicked the bare pathway with the pointed toe of his shoe. “Nah. Hero-ing’s not my line of work any more.”

Eve raised the hood on her robe and adjusted it around her face. “That’s too bad,” she said. She shut the door to the Deeper Well, then leaned against it.

Lorne left her, feeling a sense of something left unfinished, like he’d forgotten some key item at the grocery store, but on a global importance scale. As he folded his legs into the front seat of his rented sedan, Lorne couldn’t help thinking: What the blazes did Eve mean by that?

 


As Buffy lay back on the bed, she kept her eyes trained on his.

“What if it happens again?” she asked.

“It won’t,” he answered. He rolled the duvet up to her chin and tucked it firmly around her.

“But what if it does?”

William sat on the edge of the over-stuffed chair by the bed.

“Then I’ll watch over you,” he said. His eyes lit up playfully at the prospect of watching her sleep, and the probable snoring.

Buffy rolled her eyes. “All night?”

“Course, pet.” He put his hand over her cool forehead and swept her hair back from her face. “All night and the day besides, if you need it.”

Buffy’s eyes were dropping already. “I might,” she yawned.

Before he knew it, Buffy had fallen asleep.

Chapter Text

Buffy knew before she opened her eyes that she wasn’t where she was supposed to be. She had been sleepwalking again, only this time she had managed to take herself downstairs and outside into the…

Buffy sat up. She expected garden, but got dirty alley clogged with trash. She rubbed her eyes. Yep, dirty, smelly alley. And there was something else as well.

As Buffy slowly righted herself, she understood what that something else was. The temperature was wrong. It was winter time and cold. She remembered the ice-crusted puddles along Tower Road where she and William had jogged Friday morning. Here, she found no ice and no cold. In fact, she could safely call it balmy.

Buffy walked slowly to the mouth of the alley. Every nerve ending felt tweaked to its highest degree. She stepped out onto the sidewalk, onto the empty street still slick with rain. The traffic lights painted streaks of red across the wet pavement. In the distance she saw the Sun Theater, a bank, the Espresso Pump...

“Oh no,” Buffy whispered. She stepped out into the quiet street.

The traffic signal turned from red to green. Buffy hugged her arms to her trembling body. She stalked down the center line of the street, boot heels clacking on concrete. At the corner, she turned right.

“No,” she said again.

It was the Magic Box, tucked nice and safe into the corner of a rundown retail strip in beautiful downtown Sunnydale.

Buffy stood in the intersection, shaking her head.

“This can’t be happening,” she told herself. She turned in circles, taking it all in. “It can’t…”

A pair of headlight beams swept over her, spurring her to action. Buffy ran up the street, past the occluded front windows of the Magic Box, hanging a left and heading north. She knew the streets well enough, and if it was Sunnydale, she really only had one place she could go.


Apparently, the Neighborhood Crime Watch on Revello Drive had taken a long-term hiatus. And the Neighborhood Association went with them.

Instead of the boxy mini-lawns seeded with St. Augustine grass, Buffy saw that most of the yards now sported cyclone fences topped with razor wire. More than one house had junked out cars rusting in driveways and sideyards. More than a few had big red and white ‘Beware of Dog’ signs posted prominently on front gates. There was trash and weeds and broken glass. Many of the streetlights had been busted. The few that remained struggled feebly to shed jittery, inconstant light on the sad surroundings.

Buffy’s disbelief let her keep thinking that this was all just a dream. Had to be a dream. Couldn’t be anything but dream. But if felt so real. Prone to graphic dream-o-rama though she was, Buffy had never tuned in such psychic Technicolor. Somewhere distant, a siren blared. The dogs all around her launched into a chorus of complaint. As she walked, keeping to the uneven sidewalk, she could smell someone’s dinner frying. She heard the tinsely sound of late-night talk shows on the television.

And then, she was home.

1630 Revello. Windows boarded over like blind eyes. Bull nettle had overthrown the lawn. Mailbox long pulled out like a rotted tooth. Buffy walked up the drive, unnecessarily alert. Glass broken out of the upstairs window – her window. Bricks loose in the front side walk. An old newspaper, pages blanked by months of weathering, fluttered weakly on the front porch. Doorknob stolen from the front door, but the door itself was nailed shut.

Buffy put her shoulder to the door. It sagged inward, then gave up without a fight. Buffy stepped inside.

She didn’t know what she expected, except that she expected something different. The house was an empty shell. There was nothing left. Not a stick of furniture in the kitchen or den. No framed paintings or photographs. No knick-knacky things on the mantle. The carpet had been ripped up in places. Black soot clouded the wall behind the fireplace. The place smelled of uncirculated air and oldness.

Buffy’s heart ached. This was her home, once. A place she both loved and hated. She hadn’t given any thought to whether she had missed it. It was gone from her life. And she had been glad.

Buffy had seen enough. She didn’t need to go upstairs. She didn’t want to see the garden out back. However it was she had come to be here, here was not where she wanted to be. Buffy turned, all too eager to leave, when she heard something.

Buffy froze. She listened, body tensed and ready to spring.

She heard the noise again. A small voice, calling from below. In the basement.

Buffy went to the basement door. She opened it, carefully. It swung soundlessly back on well-oiled hinges.

The darkness below seemed to swell and move like a heat mirage on a desert road.

“Hello?” Buffy called.

Buffy heard a scuffling sound, like someone crawling around in the basement.

Buffy took one step forward.

“Hello?” she said again. This time it was a stifled whisper.

“I hear you…” a voice answered. A girl’s voice.

“Where are you?” Buffy asked. Her body had begun to shiver uncontrollably.

“I hear you,” the voice said again. “But you can’t be you.”

Buffy came further downstairs. She paused, looking over the handrail into the palpable darkness of the basement. It was hot down there, and choked with dust.

“Dawn?” she asked. She felt tears sting her eyes. I could not be Dawn. Could not…

“You can’t be you,” the girl said again. “You jumped…”

Buffy vaulted over the rail. She landed lightly on the paper strewn concrete of the basement floor. Startled, the girl clambered deeper into the recess beneath the stairs. Buffy saw her then. A girl cowering on her haunches, dressed in what was once white, but was now stained and dingy. Her long hair parted in matted black curtains around her thin face, obscuring her eyes in shadow.

“What’s…” Buffy began, coming toward the girl with careful deliberate steps. “What’s happened here?”

The girl sank against the wall, murmuring to herself. “You jumped. You jumped. We saw you. Can’t be you,” she said.

Buffy knelt a few feet away. “Dawn?” she asked again. “It is you, right?”

The girl turned her face to Buffy’s. In the scant light sprinkled through the grimy window, Buffy caught a glimmer like sunlight on a fish’s scales.

Buffy drew back. “Your eyes,” she said.

“Witch did this to me,” the girl said. Her voice was stronger now. Edged with bitterness.

Buffy leaned forward again, creeping closer on her knees. She reached for the girl, and the girl did not cringe away. Not until Buffy’s fingers brushed her cheek.

Dawn retreated, all the way into the corner, wedging herself against the underside of the steps. She clapped her hands over her eyes, hiding them.

“Witch did it. Took my eyes. Made me blind,” she said. Her voice hitched and warbled painfully in her throat. “But you’re here now, right? You’re really here?”

“I am here, Dawnie,” Buffy said. She reached for her sister’s face again. She had to see it for herself. She took Dawn’s head in her hands, turning it to face hers. There were thickened flaps of skin like scales over her eyes, but pearlescent like the inside of a shell. Buffy withdrew her hands and covered her mouth.

“Oh, Dawn,” she cried.

“You came home,” she said. She turned her head, buried it in the crook of her arm. “Spike comes too. He’s the only one. Only one. N-not scared of witches. He made a promise. A promise to you. But you jumped…”

Buffy backed away then. She got slowly to her feet.

“Oh God,” she said. “I don’t belong here.”

 


 

William opened his eyes to find the bed empty, the comforter thrown back, a divot in the pillow where her head had rested.

“Buffy?” he said, sitting up. His instincts were sharp enough to know that things weren’t right. The Flat felt empty around him.

He checked the bathroom first, knowing the she hadn’t been feeling well. When she wasn’t there, he tried the kitchen. Then the garden. Followed by the basement. All the while he called for her, yelling until he’d worn his throat raw.

Afterward, he stood in the entry hall, on the balls of his feet, stricken terrified by the knowledge that she wasn’t in the house. He remembered then one place he had not checked.

“Roof,” he said to himself. He raced upstairs, to the cramped attic stairway and outside to the rooftop.

She wasn’t there either. William ran to the ledge and looked down to street level. Xander’s Volvo had left its usual spot. William tried to force himself to breathe, to think. His brain had clicked over to frenzy mode. He was trying to click it back.

Xander, he thought. They were taking him to the airport. Maybe Buffy woke up and went with. But without telling me? Didn’t seem likely, but he had ways of finding out.

William hurtled down the stairs, slipping on the landing and almost banging his knee on the banister. In the hallway, he grabbed the phone and dialed Dawn.

She answered on the fourth ring.

“Dawn,” he said before she could speak. “Is Buffy with you?”

“No,” Dawn said brightly. “She’s with you. Remember, she wanted to nap and then we were going to watch that new ice skating movie when we get back. You know, the one with the girl in it who looks just like me…”

“She’s not here,” William said.

“What do you mean she’s not there?”

“She’s not here!” he shouted into the phone.

Silence on the other end of the line. Dawn pieced together what William already knew.

“Maybe she’s wandered outside,” Dawn said.

William closed his eyes in relief. He hung up the phone and dashed out the front door.

For many on Meteor Street, their first introduction to William was a frantic pounding on their doors, right at supper time. He went on in his hoarse voice about a blonde girl, yea high, name of Buffy, and had they seen her? And when they said they hadn’t, he bounded down the slick sidewalk to repeat the process at the next house. He had checked every house on both sides of the street. He checked the wide alley that ran the length behind the houses, and the narrow ones that went in between. He looked everywhere, and nothing.

 


 

Dawn had been the one the phone the police. Two men turned up, took statements and left as if it was all a matter of routine for people to simply disappear.

After the initial hysterical storm, the four who remained – Dawn, Giles, Andrew and William – sat around the dining table, each adrift in their own separate tragedies, like drowning swimmers with no hope of rescue. It was late now. The night sky shifted from dull pink flush to slate in a span of minutes.

In William’s mind, one thought turned over and over, curling in on itself. How could I fall asleep, when I promised…?

Giles was the first to speak. He said, “If there were magics involved. A spell, perhaps...”

“I fell asleep,” William broke in.

Giles paused, considering. Then he said, “Things aren’t always what they seem, Spike.”

William turned his head. “They are exactly as they seem. I failed, and she’s gone.”

Gone. The word reverberated in the hollow room like bell tolling.

Dawn said, “Where could she go?”

“She could literally be anywhere,” Giles said.

Dawn sat forward, but still spoke with the quietness of a person sitting beside a sickbed. “How do we find her, Giles?” she asked. “Where do we even begin?”

Andrew flicked nervously at the bandage that still covered the nub of his wrist. He said, “I could ask Nighna.”

“Where do we begin that doesn’t involve more pain?” Dawn re-phrased.

“No. It’s good,” William said. “If demons are involved, she would know it.”

Andrew got up, half-turning to leave.

“No,” William said, also getting to his feet. “I got this one. I’ve got anger needs managing…”

Giles stood as well. “And I’ll contact the coven. If we’re dealing with something powerful enough to take Buffy, surely they would have felt it.”

Dawn remained seated while the others filed from the room. After a few seconds, she said, “I’ll call Xander.”

Everyone froze, then looked at her.

Dawn swallowed hard. The lump in the back of her throat ached like choking down a block of ice. “He should know,” she finished.

Giles nodded. When they had gone, Dawn carried herself into the seldom-used parlor and collapsed into the sleeper sofa. She pulled out her phone and numbly punched up Xander’s speed dial.

She got his voicemail. Of course she would. He was somewhere over the Atlantic, probably asleep and dreaming sugary dreams of Maya.

Only, this news wasn’t voicemail kind of news. It was face-to-face news at best. At worst, it was long distance call news once he had safely landed at International Airport-Houston.

Dawn closed her phone and put it on the arm of the sofa. She dug the heels of her hands against her eyes and gave them a good, hard scrub.

She thought she should be crying. She should be crazed. But all she could do was sit there and rub her eyes like a sleepy child.

And all she could think was, Where is she? Where could she be?

 


 

Buffy sat with Dawn until morning, until the girl – consumed by both grief and exhaustion – fell into a near catatonic slumber.

Even before the sun had risen, the basement felt stale and stifling. Much as she felt an obligation to stay with the girl who was the shadow of her sister, Buffy didn’t feel she could remain in the basement. Not underground like that, with the heat and the squalor. Not with the salty sweet tang of her sweat in her nose.

Buffy climbed the stairs, into her old house, and up again into her bedroom.

It was a husk, like the rest of the place. Time and lots of feet tread the carpet bare, except for the rectangle where her bed had been. It was shabby and prickly, but Buffy collapsed there. She felt a weird sense of vertigo as she lay staring at the ceiling, as though she could feel the world turning on its axis. Inside her intestines felt slick and oily, like she’d just eaten a double order of chili cheese fries from the Double Meat Palace.

Buffy rolled onto her back and covered her face with her arms. She didn’t want to cry, but the tears had minds of their own. If she didn’t let them out, they would stage a coup and strangle her. So she let them flow.

There was too much. Too much to process. Too much to deal with. All she could do now was try to sleep. And maybe, when she woke, wasn’t there a chance she’d be home?

Buffy ran her hands down her body. They came to rest in the shape of a triangle over the swell of her tummy, where the baby rested in its own serene oblivion.

Three months, she thought. Three months today.

Buffy closed her eyes. Soon, she dropped into the welcome darkness of sleep.

 


 

Buffy managed to sleep the entire day. She woke, feeling stiff and sticky with sweat. As she sat up, she realized that she was not home as she hoped. Nope. She was till in Sunnydale.

She went downstairs to check on Dawn. The girl was still sleeping. Seemed to keep a nocturnal schedule, Buffy noted.

Buffy went out to the back porch in an effort to cool off. It was sweltering inside, and she was all itchy from carpet sleeping.

She sat on the top step and laced her fingers behind her neck. She remained there while time crept along, the shadows drawing longer and deeper pools of black across the disaster of a backyard. Buffy remembered how her mother had kept the gardens so neat, the lawn so trim. She would tie her hair back in a manky paisley scarf and don heavy gardening gloves and head out before the sun had fully risen to weed and prune and edge. None of it appealed to Buffy at all. But then, seeing what inattention did for the yard gave her reason to reconsider.

She was reconsidering thus when he appeared at the garden gate. Buffy heard him and looked up in time to see him set a bag of groceries down on the hedge. He moved forward, swallowed for a moment by shadow. He reappeared on the sidewalk several yards away. His eyes, flickering like candle’s flames in the moonlight, never left hers. She suddenly found it very difficult to breathe.

“Well, looky here,” he said, pausing on the path. “Prodigal Slayer’s returned. Gotta say it’s… unexpected. Points for originality.”

Buffy got carefully to her feet. She stared hard at him, at the sameness and difference of Spike.

He cocked his head to the side. He drew his lips into his Joker’s grin. He walked forward, deliberately pacing his steps while he spoke.

“You know,” he said. “When you jumped, it was fine dive. A 9.8, at least. But you only get the silver, see? On count of, you didn’t stick the dismount.”

He stopped at the base of the stairs, looking up into her face.

“Spike,” she whispered.

He shoved her. The unexpected force of it sent her sprawling. He took the steps and was above her in seconds. She leapt to her feet, fists up to defend, trying to be ready for anything.

“Oh, wanna fight, do you?” He growled “Gladly. Can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted this.”

He lunged in. She sidestepped him.

“Spike. Wait!”

He attacked again. Buffy parried, backing off, going Akido.

Spike vamped out. “Done waiting,” he said. He slammed his fist into her face, really connecting this time. Buffy stumbled, shoulder to the wall. He grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her, pushing her face into the cracking paint.

Buffy broke the hold. She spun, planting a foot into his chin. He danced back.

He looked surprised when he touched his chin and found his fingers red with blood. “Lucky shot,” he said.

Spike round-housed. She caught his leg and wrenched it forward, pulling him off balance. His other leg buckled and she rode him down. He hit the rotten boards of the porch with bone shattering force. Buffy vaulted on top of him, pinning him with the strength of her thighs.

Spike looked up at her. In the span of seconds that followed, his face ran through the full cycle of emotions until it settled on the sick look of sorrow.

He put his hands on her hips and eased her back while he sat up. Buffy slipped sideways to kneel beside him.

“It can’t be you…” Spike said.

Buffy blew out a shaky, relieved breathe. “I know it can’t,” she said. “But it is. I am…”

Spike touched the raised white scar that wound a twisted path down the side of her face, all the way to the line of her jaw. She was aware at once how cold his fingers were.

“Where have you been?” he said.

Buffy sat back on her heels. She warred with the tears that threatened; this time she won.

“A better place,” she said at last. It was really all she could say.

Chapter Text

Somewhere between London and Oxford, Oz shortened Anjelica’s name to Helli. It had been an easy work-in to their conversation and seemed a fitting nickname to her, considering their current mission. But it was more than that. The spontaneous abbreviation of her name made her feel like she was part of the gang for the first time since she’d come to England three months ago.

Somewhere between Tewkesbury Abbey and the entrance to the Deeper Well, Oz and Anjelica struck up a conversation over their mutual passion – music. Anjelica didn’t play and couldn’t sing, but she knew most of everything about music from Charlie Parker to Motorhead and a lot of what was in between.

Oz seemed impressed by this, considering her age and presumed lack of experience. Anjelica fell into the rhythm of the conversation, glad for the distraction because, honestly, she thought she might detonate from the stress of traveling into Hell itself.

At first, when they entered the Well, the conversations waned to somber. The passageways were dark and cramped, the close walls sheened with a film that glistened wetly in the pale light of Willow’s glowstones.

After several minutes of solemn trekking on the steady downward grade of the path, Willow said, “Well. Seen one slimy cave…”

“You said it,” Faith said.

Connor walked ahead several yards, then returned to them. “Do we know that we’re going the right way?” he asked.

“There seems only one way to go,” Nighna said, indicating the path ahead with a subtle nod of her head.

Connor eyed them, his features pinched and serious. “We can’t afford to back track,” he said bleakly. “If we take the wrong path, everything’s for nothing.” Anjelica knew the grave look to his grey-green eyes. He was ravening for revenge and that hunger burned like low embers in his eyes.

“Our maps only took us this far,” Willow told Connor, trying to reassure him. “We’re in here-there-be-monsters-land now.”

“I say bring ’em on,” Faith said. The glowstone uplit her smile, deepening the shadows around her full lips, transforming her mouth into a twisted clown’s grin. She squeezed past Connor in the narrow corridor and stalked off into the darkness. With a half-shrug, Willow followed. Connor fell in step behind her.

Oz and Anjelica lingered, unconsciously letting Nighna have some lead. When she was beyond earshot, Oz asked, “So. Helli. What’s your stand on The White Stripes?”

They began to walk again. Anjelica nervously kneaded the tension from her fingers, then forced a smile. She knew he was using the conversation to crutch her along. But she didn’t mind.

“Um,” she said, clearing her throat. “Too much billy, not enough rock-a.”

Oz nodded. “And where do you think lies the blame for hip-hop?”

Anjelica giggled. “Squarely on the shoulders of Madonna,” she said.

Oz gave her what passed as a look of surprise. “I’m gonna have to get you to explain that one for me,” he said. Before she had the chance, they arrived at the place where the cavern bottomed out.

Faith and Connor had already crested the escarpment and disappeared on the other side. By the time Oz and Anjelica caught up, the others had fanned out around the cave mouth and looked in astonished silence upon the Deeper Well. The walls, lined with rows and rows of sarcophaguses, helixed down into darkness miles beneath them. Baleful fires gleamed in places along the Old One’s graves. Whether it was torchlight, or evidence of grave robbing, Anjelica couldn’t be sure. One thing she knew for certain, Willow stood too close to the edge.

“It goes straight down,” Willow said, peering into the void. It was odd, how her voice didn’t echo in all that vastness.

Straight. Down. All the way down. Anjelica felt her knees unhinge. She hugged closer to the stone wall. The urge to hunker on hands and knees to keep her center closer to the earth was damn near unbearable.

“That’s something we’ve never seen,” Oz said.

“There’s a bridge,” Connor said, pointing. “Over there.”

Anjelica didn’t see it at first. And then, when she did see it, she thought that they would all be brainless to try and cross it. The swinging bridge strung across the gaping abyss like the thread of a spider’s web, and reminded them all of something from Indiana Jones.

“Now’s a fine time to point out my incredible aversion to heights,” Anjelica said.

“It’s okay,” Willow said, brightly. “We’re only crossing half of the bridge.”

“Half?” Anjelica choked. “And then what?”

Nighna was looking toward the bridge when she answered for Willow. “Then we see what’s through the Looking Glass.”

“Don’t get why we’re still standing here,” Connor said. He left them and walked around to the entrance of the bridge. Without even testing the strength of the boards or the tension of the ropes, Connor walked out onto it.

Anjelica’s eyes were bugging out. It had always been a problem with her. When she was scared, which was often, her eyes showed too much of the whites and she wound up looking like a deer caught in a poacher’s headlights. She hated it, and hated herself for it. She was a Slayer now and everything, but she couldn’t quell the strangling terror of one very thin, very narrow bridge stretched over the world’s largest deep black pit.

“You coming?” Oz asked.

Anjelica glanced at him. Then at the bridge. Everyone else was already on it and waiting for them.

“Um,” she whispered. “Can you… push me?”

“Sure,” he said. He nudged her shoulder.

“Thanks.”

Anjelica took the bridge one step at a time.

“Don’t look down,” Willow said, then immediately wished she hadn’t. Anjelica gripped the ropes so tightly her nails dug into her palms. Behind her, Oz gave her a gentle push.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Right behind you.”

She locked eyes with Willow and navigated the rest of the way by feeling forward, board by board, with her toes.

When she finally joined them, everyone exhaled a breath they hadn’t realized they were holding. Everyone, except Connor, who seemed to harden with impatience. Anjelica thought for the first time but not the last how ridiculous it was for her to volunteer for this mission.

Connor didn’t waste much time with the glaring, however. As they gathered at the center of the bridge, he unshouldered his pack and – very carefully – took out the Looking Glass. He cradled the clear crystal close to his body.

“Okay, Red,” Faith said quietly. “Stage is yours.”

Willow brought her own pack around to her hip and dug into its front pocket.

“Right,” she said. “Here goes. Everyone. Stick close. When I read the spell, the portal will open up and we should be able to hop right in.”

Willow took out a sheet of notebook paper upon which she, Maya and Dawn had written the three-stanza’d incantation that would tap into the Looking Glass. She cleared her throat and began to read:

Curatis di Asisi take nos hinc 

tribuo nos tutus obduco ut nos eo

Curatis di Asisi rector nos in abyssus

servo nos in nostrum iter itineris

Curatois di Asisi , vindico nos totus tutus 

ut terra of silenti etc quod

permissum nos servo nostrum convoco votum vos

Willow finished reading. They waited. Nothing happened.

“That’s odd,” Oz said. “Usually stuff starts blowing around by now.”

“Yeah. That was terribly uneventful,” Willow said.

Connor stared down into the empty globe of the Looking Glass. He had seen it work at the Royal London Hotel when they had rescued Buffy from his Dad. He knew that it was supposed to pulsate and glow like a creature of living light when it worked. And it wasn’t.

“It’s broken,” he said.

“It’s not broken,” Willow told him. She took the crystal from his hands and shook it roughly like a snow globe. “It can’t be…”

“No. The Well’s broken. There’s no magic left,” Connor said.

Willow scoffed. “It’s impossible. It’s still a portal…”

Frustrated, Nighna said, “Here. Let me see it.” She leaned far forward, reaching past Faith, her fingers outstretched to touch the Glass.

“Wait!” Oz said suddenly. “Don’t!”

Too late. When Nighna’s fingertips brushed the glass, she and Willow vanished. Oz stepped forward…

…And into someplace that was else.

 


 

The switch from dark cave to blinding white fluorescence left him temporarily blind, like being up close to a camera flash. His vision blurred. His ears popped. His tonsils kinda itched.

As the scene slowly cleared before him, he found himself staring across an endless labyrinth of white office cubicles as far as his eyes could see.

“Huh,” he said. “Hell looks just like corporate America.”

His voice fell flat against the gray acoustically-dampening indoor-outdoor carpet. He looked to his left, then his right. No one had traveled with him. He was alone.

“Willow?” he called. Again, no echo reported back. “Hello? Willow? Helli?” He paused. “Neo?”

Oz looked over his shoulder. The infinite cube farm spread out behind him as well. On either side, an unending corridor stretched toward each horizon. After a moment’s consideration, he turned, pointing himself leftward. He walked for a while, until he found another hallway, this one to his right. His werewolf senses weren’t tingling, so he plunged in, not really knowing what to expect.

Every cubicle was exactly like the next. Plain desk, plain chair, Apple computer, 15-inch monitor, mouse pad, empty In and Out boxes and an ordinary glass vase with a single daisy. Creepy. Oz continued along his way, walking at first, then running, peeking into every cube he passed, looking for something – anything – that differentiated it from the last.

After a lot of time passed, he found another corridor, which he entered at a dead run and collided with a girl who was similarly sprinting. They bounced painfully off of each other, and then onto the not-so-padded carpet.

Anjelica sat up, cupping her nose in her hands.

“Oz!” she said, sounding both nasal and grateful.

He sat up. “So glad I ran into you,” he said.

“What is this place?” she asked.

“Hell,” he answered, getting to his feet. He offered a hand to help her up. She took it and got vertical.

“I expected something a little more Freddie Krueger,” she said.

“I was banking on Hell being more relative, too,” he said. “Although, gotta say, this would top my list of worst nightmares realized.”

Anjelica laughed quietly. Then straightened. She said, “About earlier. At the bridge. I’m sorry I took so long. How embarrassing…”

He arched his brows. “Yeah. A whole three seconds we’ll never get back,” he said.

Anjelica lowered her eyes. The red blotches on her cheeks stood out under the unforgiving fluorescent glare.

“Hey. Kidding,” he said. “It’s cool. I was scared too.”

“No you weren’t,” she said. Anjelica sighed and seemed to put herself back together. “So, where do you think the others are?”

Oz caught her elbow and turned her bodily to walk with him. “My guess: water cooler. Probably chatting about the latest episode of House.”

Oz and Anjelica returned to the path from which Oz had departed, hung left and they continued to navigate between the rows of cubes. A few minutes of silence passed before Oz halted and twisted his head to one side.

“I smell… bird,” he said, pointing to the right, over their heads. “That way.”

A few more meters, they came to another intersection. They turned right, and there was Nighna.

Her killer exec suit and stylish accessories looked somehow right at home against the bleak corporate backdrop. The only jarring inconsistency was the black bird napping on her shoulder.

“Spell went wrong,” she said calmly.

“Willow…” Oz said.

“…Should have known better. The spell was well-crafted, but you must pay the ferryman if you want to travel to Hell,” Nighna said.

“Ferryman?” Anjelica said. “If you knew, why didn’t you say…”

“It must be written in blood,” Nighna said, chuckling softly. “The price is always blood. Her spell was written in ballpoint pen.”

“Well,” Oz said. “Where are they? Maybe more importantly, where are we?”

They are not here. We are in Hell. There are nine circles. We’re in the first. Limbo,” Nighna said.

“How do we get out? How do we find them?” Anjelica asked. “We have to find them.”

“Don’t worry,” Nighna said, stroking the smooth edge of Clarisse’s wing. “I have friends here.”

Somehow Oz didn’t find much comfort in that knowledge.

 


 

Faith collided with a dumpster. She really hated when that happened. She bounded to her feet, shook cooked pasta from her hair and got a look at the down low.

“Oh. Alley,” she said with a shrug. She vaulted over the edge of the dumpster, landing firmly on her feet beside Willow’s head.

“Hey!” Willow shouted, rolling quickly away.

“Sorry, Red,” Faith said. She reached down to help Willow up, but before she could they heard a growly noise from the other end of the alley. Faith spun, fists up, as a vampire emerged from the shadows.

“That’s more like it!” Faith shouted. “A fight. Bring it on, baby. I’m just aching for some bloodshed.”

The vampire yelled back in a clipped, decidedly non-demon tongue, then sailed in like an anime wire-fighter.

Faith struck first. Willow rolled out from beneath Faith’s feet just before she could cause trippage. For a second, Willow was speechless by the stunning shadowplay of Faith versus the vampire thrown across the alley wall. And then, the word vampire sent up little red flags in her brain.

“Faith!” Willow called.

Faith didn’t break stride. She axe kicked the vampire to the face, slammed him against the wall, then punched him so hard his head butted the bricks. She pulled her trusty stake from the inside pocket of her jacket and slammed it home.

“God, that felt good!” she yelled to the sky. “Kickin’ vamp ass again, just like I was born to…”

Faith stammered to a halt. She found Willow amidst the muck. “Did I just slay a vampire?”

“Yeah. About that,” Willow said.

Connor stumbled in from the mouth of the alley, clutching his wounded shoulder. “There you are,” he said. “Guys, I don’t think we’re in Hell anymore.”

“We have to be in Hell,” Willow said. “Faith just slew a vampire. I’m pretty sure we killed all those.”

A wave of confusion washed over his face. “Maybe we’re in a Japanese hell dimension, then, because outside it looks like Tokyo,” he said.

“That’s… that’s just impossible,” Willow sat. As she stood, the Looking Glass rolled from the folds of her skirt and across the alley floor. Connor bent to scoop it up. He looked down into the empty crystal.

“Your spell went wrong,” he said. He closed his eyes. “We will never find them now.”

“Wait,” Willow said. “Look.”

Connor opened his eyes. The globe had flickered to life in his hands, filling the alley with spangles of light. Two figures appeared in its icy depths. Red-haired girl leaning against the shoulder of a blond man. Both stared out of an open window onto a wintry twilight.

“Just did,” Willow mused. She and Faith crowded in to huddle over the Glass.

“Yeah, but… where are they?” Faith asked.

In the Looking Glass, Thellian ran his hand over Morna’s auburn curls.

“Safe bet it’s not Hell,” Faith said.

“No,” Willow said. “He’s here. And looks like he may have already made some more of his evil spawn. We just need to find out where here is.”

Chapter Text

William knew agony. Was once best friends with agony. Had it deep in his bones and deeper in his blood, but he had survived.

He knew he’d had suffered greater losses. Buffy had died. Really died. Why did this feel so much worse?

It’s all relative, his mind answered. Pain, death, cost of living. All things relative.

Had he spoken to Dawn, they would have shared a similar realization. Both thought they should be too dumbstruck with grief to even have the capacity to move about. William couldn’t understand why his body continued to walk around, why his legs propelled him forward through the night’s weepy fog in the direction of Triumvirate, when his heart had been removed from his chest and his mind had checked out to look in on the missing bloody heart.

He dimly recalled some psychology mumbo about the stages of grief. When a bod experienced a greater than average kind of loss, it went first into shock and then other things happened. Rage, for instance. Denial. Acceptance. Some such bloody rubbish. If he could choose, he’d go for rage. But shock had him by the short curlies and sent him out to do its bidding like a puppet. A lackbrain marionette. A golem, just like he was made to be.

There was a lot of noise in his brain. A lot of non-congealed thoughts drifting around like ghosts. He felt untethered, adrift, lost. His heart was gone. Yet he survived.

William turned up at Triumvirate in time for some high-to-do sit down dinner. There had been a maitre d’ posted at a podium near the door, just like the one at the Equinox celebration he and Buffy crashed in September. This one was a smallish fellow with a pair of black eyes like shiny beetles. He tried to bar William’s passage by getting in front of him in the doorway. William bounded up the top step, dropped his shoulder and bowled the bloke right over. Took about three seconds, and William was in.

William blitzed through the foyer, black duster billowing in the wake of his own crushing momentum. When he found Nighna, would he be able to not slam her? Whether she was responsible or not, he needed to pound something and she was demon. Hitting her could result in a brawl, and that was just fine by him.

Most of the patrons, a motley mix of demons and humans, stopped to mark William as he stalked across the dance floor. He scanned their faces, recognizing many, but saw no sign of Nighna. No sign of her, but he did see…

Lorne.

William drew up short. Lorne was there. Entertaining, having drinks, completely oblivious.

William’s anger crystallized around him. Suddenly things became quite clear.

“You!” he bellowed. William ran at Lorne, drawing his fist back. The green demon scarcely had time to set down his drink before William left-hooked him across the table. Demons scattered, along with crystal goblets and silverware.

Lorne scuttled backward into a screen of potted palms. “Spike! What the…?”

William shoved the up-righted round table out of the way and hefted Lorne to his feet by his aubergine lapels.

“You said she would be fine,” William shouted into Lorne’s face. William brought his fist up again. He struck Lorne squarely in the jaw. Lorne backpedaled gracelessly, toppling the plants, taking William with him. William rolled with it. He sprung off the floor, leaving Lorne to scramble in spilled potting soil. He went to kick Lorne in the ribs, but caught himself.

That’s right. Kick a dolly when he’s down. That was your way… Dru’s voice, like a cold ribbon of steel, uncoiled in his brain. It was his way. Not now. Not anymore.

William’s palms went numb and cold. He clenched his fists and looked down at Lorne. He’d split the demon’s lip. Blood dribbled down Lorne’s chin and onto his bright orange cravat.

William bent once more and hauled Lorne to his feet. “You said she’d be fine,” William said again, as a means of apology. “You said it, but she’s not.”

Lorne dabbed his lip and cast a surreptitious glance at the demon spectators who had gathered – none of whom, he noted – had even bothered to lend him a hand.

“She’s not?” Lorne asked.

“She’s gone,” William groaned. The word broke painfully in his throat.

Lorne leaned in. “Buffy’s gone?” he whispered.

William’s entire body seemed to tighten in on itself. The muscles in his jaws worked as he warred to keep control. “That’s right,” he snarled.

Lorne looked uneasily at the crowd and laughed, lightly. “Aw, Spike. Of course I have your…” he cleared his throat, “money. Such a card shark. Never play poker with this guy. Great White… ’s what they call him,” Lorne gripped William’s elbow. He guided him swiftly away from the crowd. “Go on about your dinner. I’ll catch up.”

Lorne swept William outside, into the back alleyway behind the kitchen.

“She’s gone?” Lorne said once they were outside.

William put distance between them. He still needed to pound things. His fists found the brick wall of the adjoining building. He battered them bloody, ripping his knuckles to shreds. The more he hit, the harder and longer he wanted to go until the control he had clung to spun away from him in a torrent of blood and shouted curses.

Lorne watched helplessly for a moment, then took the risk of moving in.

“Spike,” he said, quietly.

William wheeled and collapsed against the wall. He wiped his face, leaving a streak of blood across the sharp ridge of his cheekbone. He looked down at his bloodied fists, watched as the mangled flesh sealed over the bones he’d managed to expose.

It didn’t hurt. Not really. Not compared to the howling hollowness of inside.

William raised only his eyes to Lorne’s. The demon felt a surge of pity for the man. Here they’d just survived what seemed an insurmountable battle. They were setting up for the happily-ever-afters, right down to the bundle of joy on the way, and here he was, walking through fire again.

“Um. Spike. Where did she go?” Lorne asked.

William massaged a spot over his brow with the heel of his hand. “Thought you might know,” he said, sounding tired. “Not you, really. Came to find Nighna.”

Lorne’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh. She’s gone, Big Guy. Went with Connor and the Gang into the Deeper Well.”

William’s head snapped up in surprise. “She did?”

“Yeah. Using her connection with Luxe to track Thellian,” Lorne said. He took a step closer. “Look, I don’t want to add to the mountain of misery, but I feel I should tell ya, demons here shouldn’t know about Buffy’s disappearance.”

Lorne let that sink in a bit before going on. When he was sure William was listening, he said, “There’s an unhealthy dose of chaos in the mix, Spike. Vamps are gone, which means we’ve got some schemin’ demons. The Circle of The Black Thorn is kaput. You already know the kind of power those guys threw around. Right now, all of it’s up for grabs, and there’s a pack of power-hungry players on the board. When they start carving up this beast, things might get plenty nasty for humankind. So if they find out the Slayer’s gone…”

William remembered that Rupert had mentioned a possible demon resurgence. That had just traded up to probable demon resurgence. William’s brain was dialing back into focus. His list of priorities had just doubled: Find Buffy. Stop Demon Resurgence.

Simple. Except that no one knew where to begin. William flexed his fists again. Lorne saw this and stepped back.

“Look, Spike, I’ll keep a weather eye for any news that might be useful, all right?” Lorne said, trying to be soothing. “I didn’t see this when you sang for me. But I did see her, and she was happy as dandelion fluff. She was fine. Got my word.”

William swallowed hard. “And the Little Bit?” he asked.

“And the Little Bit,” Lorne affirmed. “They were fine.”

This time William did lose a tear. It ran down his face, cutting across the red mark on his cheek. Lorne looked away, trying to spare William from having to apologize or explain.

“That’s something, right?” William said gruffly. He pushed away from the wall and strode out to the street.

It was raining when William returned to The Flat. Inside it was quiet as tombs. He took off his coat, hung it on the rack by the door and tromped heavily up the stairs to their bedroom.

The bed was unchanged. Empty. Just as he was, without her. Without them…

Where had she gone?

He knew he would have to tell Rupert what he learned from Lorne. He would also have to start patrolling, now that there might be demons about. And then there was Dawn to consider, and the school…

He shoved his thoughts aside. They could wait, dammit. It could all wait.

William dropped into the chair beside the bed and let agony consume him whole.

 


Spike had gone down to check on Dawn, then returned to find Buffy where he left her one the back porch. He kept his distance, fearing perhaps that she was a persistent apparition rather than the real thing. After a moment of awkwardness, he took a place on the step beside her.

Spike and Buffy sat together in silence on the back porch, face to face, but worlds apart. He stared at her, his eyes marking every movement as though he tried to reconcile his memories of her with what was sitting right in front of him.

Finally, Buffy said, “What the hell’s happened here?”

“You mean, since you d…,” he began, and stopped himself. He closed his eyes. “Since you left,” he said.

“I died. I did. And this is all very strange for me, because Willow brought me back,” Buffy said.

“She tried,” Spike interrupted. “Willow tried that. She failed. That was when she,” he licked his teeth, obviously pained. “When things really started to fall apart.”

Buffy tried to do the mental back flips required to adjust the timeline that must have progressed without her in it. It was too surreal for her brain to accomplish. She was much better with the physical back flips.

“But, okay,” she said, feeling her way carefully forward, “why wasn’t another Slayer called?”

Spike laughed bitterly. “Who’s to say there wasn’t? They don’t all pull up stakes and head to Sunnydale. Plus, you might remember Faith.”

“Faith,” Buffy said. “Of course.”

Buffy put her hands to her forehead. The night air felt sulfuric around her. She hadn’t remembered it being so hot in Sunnydale. She felt so disjointed and disconnected that part of her – no, most of her – refused to believe that any of this could be real.

“I want you to know, I kept my promise,” Spike was saying. She was awash with déjà vu. These words he said had been said before. Different time, different place but they were the same. Her heartbeat quickened.

“Stop,” she said. “I already know. I know this part, Spike. You’ve been caring for Dawn all this time?”

“Well, yeah. I promised, didn’t I?” he said.

“Yes, but how?” she said, getting up. Pacing. Had to move around. Catch her breath. Spike remained where he was, aloof but ever-watchful.

“I sold damn near everything that would fetch a price to keep this house,” he said. “Your furniture, your clothes. Weapons. In the end, it wasn’t enough and they foreclosed.”

Buffy looked down at him, too shocked to say anything.

He went on. “Dawn didn’t want to leave, so we had to make the place look abandoned. We wrecked the place and moved downstairs. Made it seem haunted, cursed,” he smiled to himself. “Would’ve worked, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.”

Buffy laughed in spite of herself. Spike grinned back at her, proud of himself at getting the reaction. However short-lived it was.

Buffy sat back down in front of him, closer this time. “What about Giles? Why didn’t you call him for help?”

Spike mimicked a phone with his fingers. “Hello, Rupert. This is Spike… Hello? Hello? Well, you get the idea.”

Buffy shook her head. “No, but the others, then. Where are the others?”

Spike gave the imitation of a long, drawn-out sigh. He said, “Tara… was the first to go. Witches got her on counts of treachery, heresy.” He looked past Buffy in his remembrance, his eyes taking on a haunted, sickened look. “It was a bad scene, Buffy. Willow was already on her way down after your bloody Lazarus spell didn’t work. She… burned herself out. Nothing left but a scraped out skull. Didn’t last the year. That’s. After that…”

“God. Willow,” Buffy said, swallowing down the bitter ache. She sat quietly for a moment, forehead bent to her knees. In her mind, she saw an image of Willow, wearing her yellow sundress and pouring a glass of lemonade for Kennedy. That was the end of the summer, on that perfect day when they’d played soccer in the garden.

“Xander and Anya, they came around for a while, too. But they moved to L. A. after TriadCorp set up shop on top the Hellmouth and we haven’t seen them in…”

Buffy lifted her head. “The what corp?”

Spike nodded gravely. “Military contractors. Some kind of experimental sciences division. They built a base,” he said.

“A military base? Are they part of the Initiative?” Buffy asked, growing steadily more alarmed.

“God, no,” he said. “They’re still in the ground where we left them.”

“But are the witches part of this TriadCorp? And are they the same witches who took Dawn’s eyes?”

Spike winced. “No. TriadCorp has nothing to do with the witches, far as I know. But they are the ones who blinded Dawn.”

“And this was after…”

“After Tara, yes. But before we lost the house and everything in it. About a year ago, right after Dawn graduated,” Spike said.

Buffy held up her hands. “Dawn graduated?”

Spike’s eyes narrowed. “I looked after her, Buffy. Just like I said I would. Kept her in school. Kept her safe. Until the witches came. Thought you were one of ’em, too. Thought they’d found us. But it is you, isn’t it? You’re home now…”

“But, the others, Spike,” Buffy said urgently. “I don’t understand, how are they not here?”

“This is what is, Buffy,” he told her. “This is what’s real. You. And me…” He reached to touch her face. She recoiled sharply from his fingers.

“But, William…”

“William?” he said, eyeing her closely. “Name’s Spike, yeah?”

“Right,” she said. “Right. You don’t have your soul…”

Spike laughed darkly. “Throw that in my face, will you? No soul. Not like your precious Angel. Who didn’t turn up at your funeral, by the way. No garland of ivy from the World’s Greatest Ponce. Oh, and where was he when your darling precious sister lost her sight? Not bloody here.”

“Where were you?” Buffy countered.

“At the bottom of a mine shaft, since you asked,” he spat back. Before she could say anything, he continued. “Yeah, I know. I failed her. Failed you,” he said, “But I am still here. I’m here. And now you’re here. So everything will be fine. Again.”

Buffy shook her head. “I can’t… stay.”

Spike got quickly to his feet. “Don’t say that,” he snarled. His imploring gaze fell on her like the weight of a stone. “Don’t say it!”

“But I can’t,” she explained, trying to sound reasonable. “Don’t you see that? I don’t even know what happened. I have a life and someone…”

She caught herself. That someone was him. Or part of him. Surreal World just got surreal-er.

Spike’s eyes flashed, glinting predatory. She knew Spike. He was dangerous. A killer. An evil, disgusting thing.

An evil disgusting thing that had managed to care for her sister when no one else remained?

Buffy looked up at him. His face, so heart-wrenchingly beautiful in its grief, stared down at her as though she embodied the resolution to all of his searches. And yet, she could think only of William and their child. She had to get home. The Little Bit couldn’t be born in Sunnydale. No way in hell.

She had to get home. Whatever it took.

Chapter Text

Holding Clarisse aloft on her wrist, Nighna guided them through the hushed sterility of the cubicle maze. Time seemed to have slipped as they passed by row after endless row of identical cubes. Even Oz, who was positively made of patience, began to feel a little anxious. The tension manifested as a nagging itch beneath his breastbone that slowly spread into his arms the further along they went.

The twinge itself didn’t bother him. It was the familiarity of twinge, too like the beginning prickles of his wolf rage that had his hackles up. So to speak. Oz knew how to control it. He had dedicated solid months of his life to meditation, in which he traveled to the deepest jungles and remotest mountain temples to find teachers who could show him how to channel his wolfy energy, to balance his chakras, to locate an inner pool of tranquility that made the rage in him subside.

With that deep well of inner cool, he had nothing to worry about. He was reasonably sure that should he lapse in all of his training, there was no moon in Hell. So… everything was covered.

But that twinge…

“So,” Anjelica said, as they hairpinned another turn in the labyrinth. They’d been going on like this for hours. Hours and hours. Maybe even a whole day… “Where is everyone?”

Nighna continued without looking back, as though navigating and talking at the same time was a mild annoyance to her.

She said, “Oh, they’re here. They move at a pace much slower than human eyes can detect…”

“Slower?” Oz chimed in.

“Yes,” Nighna went on. “It is not good for either of you to be here. The longer you stay, the slower you become until at last…”

“You’re in limbo, too,” Oz finished.

Nighna nodded. “Yes.” she said. “Here we are.”

And there they were. In one step, they moved from the sedate row of cubicles and into bustling atrium packed with thousands of people. Oz and Anjelica felt assaulted by the sudden jump in the decibel level around them. The expansive room resembled a featureless airport terminal packed with droves of people, all of whom had missed their flights, had bad meals on the planes and had lost their luggage.

Nighna’s amber colored eyes flicked over the milling crowd. She made a perturbed little clicking noise with her tongue before turning to them. Clarisse, who seemed to fancy the noise even less than Nighna, puffed out her feathers and dug her head under her wing.

“Here,” she said, pointing to a bank of escalators. “This way. Stick close.”

“Not gonna be a problem,” Oz said. He linked arms with Anjelica and followed Nighna’s edict with dogged tenacity.

As they bulldozed their way through the throng, Oz noticed the nettling stab beneath his ribcage again. This time, he attributed it to the sudden flux of chaos pressing in on them. Some of the people had made signs with people names scrawled on them. Some of them were bloody. Some were naked. And the smell… Oh God. It was ripe and rotten yellow smell, like pumpkins left too long on the vine to molder and putrify.

Some aspect of the wolf stirred in him. It felt and heard and tasted the stench of all that wretched humanity.

“I am the man,” he whispered under his breath, drawing upon the considerable reserves he knew he possessed. “I am the man. Not the wolf.”

Though the crowd persisted, the burning sensation did not. Oz had things in check, and that was good. Because he felt they might need to keep it that way.

After a good deal of salmon-like struggling, they broke free from the bulk of the crowd. Nighna led them to a descending escalator, which Oz appreciated because it forced everyone to glide down in single file.

Once they had mounted the steps, Nighna turned to them. “This is an unusually high volume of dead,” she said tightly. “Could be problematic.”

“The vampires,” Anjelica said, with a sudden flash of understanding.

“Yes,” Nighna said. “The earth cannot recover quickly from such a tremendous loss. Neither can Hell easily accommodate it.”

The escalator delivered them briskly to the lower level of the terminal, where it seemed even more recently deceased had gathered. A dissonant tension seemed to swell in the cavernous breadth, like the fetid gasses in a decomposing corpse. It was darker here, and more fish analogies came to mind. Tuna. Sardines. Salmon again. Crabs in a bucket, climbing all over each other in a crazed attempt at escape.

“Helli,” Oz said, quickly taking her hand. They forced their way through, at times losing sight of Nighna, and what an awful prospect Oz thought that would be…

Somewhere close by a fight broke out. People shoved and shouted. A handful of coins like mackerel scales danced and scattered across the hard tile floor, right at Oz and Anjelica’s feet.

All three froze, face to face with the swarm that fell still and seemed to notice all at once that they were not as them. They were not dead. Not yet.

“Um?” Anjelica said.

“Yeah,” Oz answered.

The three watched in horror as the mob devolved into a single writhing creature with a hundred sets of teeth and a thousand greedy grasping fingers.

“Come,” Nighna said, somehow remaining calm. “I know a short cut.”

She gripped them both by the wrists and they fell back toward what Oz had been sure was a plain white brick wall. The crowd advanced, the din growing in crescendo as they gained momentum, their faces contorted into masks of unfettered frenzy.

Oz felt the primal hunger like a hot coals in the back of his throat. Clawing its way to the surface. Ready to mutilate and mangle and shred…

…a vacant parking lot.

Oz looked about, panting. Anjelica, equally shocked, raked her hands through her hair and laughed. The building sat squarely behind them. No door. No portal. They had simply passed right through the wall.

“Did you… I mean, did we just?” Anjelica burbled.

Nighna settled Clarisse on her shoulder with an impatient flourish, then reached into her shoulder bag. She withdrew two folded squares of brown cloth.

“Put these on,” she said curtly. “Follow me.”

Nighna turned on her delicate heel and stalked off in the opposite direction, toward a gradually sloping rise on the other side of the parking lot.

Oz unfolded the scrap of cloth. It was a robe: hooded, unadorned and scratchy like a burlap sack. Anjelica slipped hers over her shoulders.

“Where did she get these?” Anjelica whispered.

Oz inclined his head in a kind of mini-shrug. “Probably best not ask those kinds of questions,” he said.

Nighna had already crested the hill by the time Oz and Anjelica donned their Friar Tuck’s Reject Robes. She sighed dramatically and swore a nasty sounding demon curse under her breath. They trotted up the rise to join her. The land fell away beneath them in a series of rolling gray foothills. Across this wasteland looped a thick line of people zigging and zagging all the way to the far and distant horizon. A wide sign nearby announced: Approximate waiting time from this point – 1,423,602 hours.

“Wow, that’s like,” Oz said. He looked up, doing the calculation in his head, “Fifty-nine thousand three hundred and sixteen days.”

Anjelica’s brows peaked on her forehead.

“And eighteen hours,” he finished.

Nighna turned to them. “Time is a human construct,” she explained. “It’s meaningless. A psychological trick meant to make them –” she gestured over the cliff “ – feel as though they are making progress.”

“That’s… unexpectedly considerate,” Oz said.

“We’re demons. We’re not without refinement. But, we don’t have time for this,” Nighna said. She looked out toward the horizon, eyes scanning back and forth as she plotted their next move.

Anjelica stared out over the crowd. The air above them shimmered like a heat mirage. There were millions…

“They’re not moving. They’re just… stuck.,” Anjelica said quietly. Her heart ached at the sight of so many miserable souls. Or not souls, actually. Souls they lacked. They were soul-free.

“This way,” Nighna said impatiently. “And don’t think of them. You can’t save them. You are all you need to worry about.”

Nighna struck off along a worn path that ran along the brow of the hill.

Anjelica lingered, transfixed.

“Helli,” Oz said. She turned, found him and followed.

After trekking for another mind-and-foot-numbingly long time down steep, slick, rocky trails, they reached a lowland littered with misshapen boulders. Clarisse awoke briefly; Nighna let her fly off and away high above them. Her raucous, honking cries bounced off of the rocks and put Oz and Anjelica further on edge. Fortunately, Oz hadn’t felt any of the wolfy creepiness since the Holding Area of the Damned.

Oz slipped up beside Anjelica. “You had a hip-hop theory worth sharing,” he said.

“The Madonna principle,” she said.

“You really think she’s to blame?”

“Totally,” Anjelica said, some of her tenseness melting. “It all started with Express Yourself. Actually, before that. But once Express Yourself came out, female artists could be as bad as they wanted to be, while still being womanly. It was all about empowerment. For women. And they put the hip in hip hop…”

Clarisse returned, chittering happily in one of her demon tongues. Nighna held out her arm in a graceful arc and Clarisse swept down to her, landing with effortless finesse. Nighna and Clarisse shared an intimate moment of intense staring.

“Ah,” Nighna said, bringing the hip hop discussion to a close. “Very good. Right around this ridge.”

The bird settled back down upon Nighna’s shoulder, still as a statue.

“Do you think…?” Anjelica began.

“This way,” Nighna said in a commanding yet regal tone that left no room for questions. They followed her in silence around the ridge, under an overhang of rock and back out into the bottomlands. The press of people meandered closer here. They could hear them, screaming, groaning, mordantly venting their agonized frustrations. At least they couldn’t smell them…

To their left, a flat plane of green-black water spread out into the thickening twilight. The waves that swelled on its surface undulated like ripples of coagulated tar. The slow-motion effect of it felt hypnotic.

Sensing this, Nighna called a warning back to them. “Don’t watch the river,” she shouted. “Quickly now.”

They passed between a bluff and the riverbank with still enough room to give the water wide berth. The people waiting in their endless line disappeared from view. From this vantage, they could see a broad black dash approaching from across the river. It moved with a swift sureness, edging easily forward over the viscous black.

As they neared, Oz could make out a shape atop the dash, which was, in fact, a flat-bottomed barge. And the figure, it turned out, was a man with the face of a bullfrog. Not a bullfrog in the Dickensian personification sense, either. He was full-on bullfrog. A pair of protuberant yellow eyes sat on either side of his flat head. He wore a broad grimace on his splotchy green face. As he approached, he filled the bellow beneath his chin and yelled, “Stand abacks you rabble! Or you’ll be sent to the end o’ the line.”

This was met with much protest, but they all begrudgingly stepped back from the velvet ropes and waited until he had docked and tethered the barge.

Nighna, Anjelica and Oz arrived at the boat dock just as Bullfrog Guy laid one webbed hand on the velvet rope to let his passengers aboard.

“Looks like you’ve been busy,” Nighna said, her voice now chocolate-y smooth and sultry.

The webbed fingers tightened on the rope briefly, before the man turned to face them.

“Nig’han’het!” He shouted, his spacious chin blushing pink. “It’s been an age! An epoch! Eons, even.”

He clasped the velvet rope closed. This sent up fresh spikes of rage, with people shouting, ‘Hey, no fair!’ and ‘What’s the deal? No cuts allowed!’ But all of these went unheeded.

“Charon,” Nighna said, inclining her head to him. He bowed, all courtly and formal, then snapped his head back up, grinning maniacally.

“This your work?” he asked.

“Not this time,” Nighna said. She stepped aside with Charon and they began to speak in a demon tongue Oz didn’t understand. It was then Oz noticed that her appearance had changed.

“Nice tusks,” he whispered, nudging Anjelica.

“And brow-ridge,” she concurred, giggling lightly.

“I’m beginning to understand Andrew’s attraction…” he said, which earned him a quick but good-natured jab to his ribs.

The crowd grew more restless as Nighna and Charon conversed. After a moment, when the volume rose too high for them to hear one another, Charon filled his bellows again and shouted, “If you haven’t learnt patience yet, learn it now! Trust me on this one.”

This did little to settle the multitude, so Nighna went on, getting quickly to business.

“You know what I’m after,” she said, reverting to her human visage and speaking again in English.

“Oh, aye,” Charon answered. “Seen him, I have.”

“How long?”

“Days.” He shrugged. “Weeks. Who knows?”

“He was alone?”

Charon laughed. “Alone and runnin’, Nig’han. Now I sees why. He bought passage wit dis.”

He opened the front of his striped doublet and pulled out a nicely preserved severed hand.

Anjelica covered her mouth. “Oh God,” she muttered.

Nighna’s eyes flashed, but she continued. “We need to cross, Charon,” she said.

“You can, no prob,” Charon said with a shrug. “These two: lot of live weight to deal with.”

“I’ll buy their passage. They’re my servants,” Nighna said.

Charon’s wide lips pursed as he eyed them appraisingly. Oz shifted uncomfortably. He wasn’t sure he liked being called a demon’s servant, even if it was for pretend.

“You mean to tell me you gots a werewolf and a –” Charon’s tongue shot out like a whip and tasted Anjelica’s forearm. His eyes widened, “– Slayer? As servants?”

Nighna reverted to her human visage. “I do, Charon,” she said levelly.

He spread his sticky fingers. “Won’t be cheap,” he said. “You can kill ’em now and cut the price.”

Oz and Anjelica exchanged wary glances.

“No,” Nighna said. “I need them alive. Name your price. You know how I dislike bargaining.”

Charon cocked an eyelid.

“And I’ll want the boy’s hand as well,” Nighna said. Oz watched her, quietly marveling over her bored-yet-elegant bearing. Her eyes gave nothing away. If seeing her lover’s severed hand used as currency by her rival bothered her in the slightest, she wasn’t giving anything away.

“It’s mummified,” Charon said, sneering.

Nighna yawned. The crowd behind them writhed and pitched, and another scuffle ruptured along the lines. Two men toppled from behind the ropes, rolling and punching like a pair of cartoon dogs fighting over a string of link sausages. They tumbled, screaming, into the black water. Oz and Anjelica witnessed in horror as the two men flash-fried down to their skeletons, then slowly began to sink beneath the surface. But the thing was, they weren’t dead. And they still fought; their blackened bones tore at wisps of frazzled hair on their heads even as they disappeared.

“Okay. Surreal,” Oz said, once he’d mentally jarred himself back to reality. Skewed though it was.

“Oh fine,” Charon said. “I want free passage in Eregnor and a century’s mems to Triumvirate. Plus, a key to the executive washroom at Wolfram & Hart.” He leaned to Anjelica and added with a wink, “Those guys can launder anything.”

“Fifty years membership to Triumvirate,” Nighna said. “That’s all I can currently guarantee. You know how things are.”

“Seventy-five,” Charon said, his frown deepening stubbornly.

“Sixty, and I’ll have a word with the Big Guys downstairs about sending you some help until this influx of dead lets up,” she said.

Now Charon’s smile did seem to split his face in two. “Aw, Nig’han. It ain’t gonna let up. You should know it well as I. End of Days is here. And not just Here. All the worlds come crashin’ down,” he said.

Nighna sighed. “Do we have a deal or not?”

“It’s a deal,” Charon said. Still grinning, he offered Andrew’s hand. “Here, let’s shake on it,” he said, laughing robustly at his own joke. “Shake on it!”

Nighna took the hand and put it unceremoniously into her shoulder bag. Charon was still chortling once he ushered them onto the barge and set sail, much to the chagrin of the roiling mob they left behind on shore.

Anjelica sat down in the center of the boat and stared fixedly at her feet. Oz took a place beside her and waited for her to speak.

When she didn’t, he bumped her shoulder with his own. Even while his mind ran over the facts that Luxe and Thellian had parted company, and that the others were not in Hell but somewhere that was not here, he decided to distract them both by returning to their standby conversation already on hold.

“Hey,” he said softly. “We had a topic going, and I gotta say I’m gonna disagree. Madonna as the spearhead of modern hip hop…”

“This is a horrible, terrible place,” Anjelica said.

“It’s not so bad,” Oz said.

Anjelica balked at him.

He gave a non-committal shrug. “I wouldn’t want to charter a yacht or anything,” he said. “But the people are nice.”

“What people?” Anjelica groaned. “All those poor dead ones…”

“You,” Oz said.

Anjelica blinked. She looked at him as though he had grown a pair of mouths on either side of his face and was singing Ode to Joy in three part harmony. But he wasn’t. Thankfully. He simply sat and stared in that off-putting way he had that made her feel both terrified and eerily calm. He meant her. Meant that she was worth a visit to Hell. He thought she was nice. And she thought… well, her mind had gone completely blank.

“So,” Oz said. “Madonna…”

They debated for the countless hours it took for Charon’s barge to reach the far bank of the River Styx. Nighna listened to them, glad for their incessant chatter. It helped her focus. She kept her shoulder bag cradled in her lap while she plotted their course in her mind.

Luxe. Clarisse told her he was very near. It was only a matter of time.

Chapter Text

Connor stared at them. Hard. Willow didn’t like the tone of his stare, and was just about to get catty with him about it when he spoke.

 

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” he said, forcing his voice to calm. “We can use the Looking Glass to find him. Maya said she did the same thing to find Buffy…”

 

“She also warned us not to be too peeky with it,” Willow countered. “Maya said it can entrance someone if it’s used too much. It’s like a TV set to a gremlin.”

 

Connor crossed his arms. “How do we find Thellian without using the mystical seeking device she gave us?”

 

Willow didn’t like Connor’s tone at all. She said, “She didn’t say don’t use it. She just said…”

 

“Use it wisely. Got it,” Faith interjected. She’d been waiting impatiently on the sidelines, arms crossed. “Meanwhile Thellian’s got a lead on us about five thousand miles wide.”

 

“We could use a location spell,” Willow offered, she of the level-head.

 

“Do you speak Japanese?” Connor asked.

 

Willow’s brows knit. “Well, no…”

 

“Guys,” Faith said.

 

“Do you?” Willow snarked.

 

“How do you plan to get the stuff for your spell…?” Connor began.

 

“Phone!” Faith said.

 

Connor and Willow looked at each other quizzically, then turned their questioning foreheads to Faith. She was busy fishing the phone and other bits of dumpster detritus from her jacket pocket.

 

“Oh!” Willow said. “We’ll call Buffy. It’s perfect.”

 

“No,” Faith said, flipping the phone open. She toggled the page down button, her brow pinched in determination. “Buffy should be picking out the perfect shade of ecru for the nursery right about now. We got this.”

 

“But we should,” Willow protested. “They should know we’re here.”

 

“We don’t even know where the hell we are,” Connor put in.

 

“We’re not in hell,” Faith quipped.

 

“Dammit, you know what I mean,” Connor growled.

 

“Ah!” Faith said, finally settling on a number in her directory. “Knew I had it.” She keyed the dial button then put the phone to her ear. “There’s a Slayer school here. We’ll phone ’em up, see what kind of wasabi is cookin’ in Tokyo-town.”

 

Faith waited while the call went through. It started to ring, and she shifted uncomfortably under the eager stares of Connor and Willow.

 

“Wow,” Willow mused. “A sensible play by Miss Blood’s-A-Boiling.”

 

“You know me, Red,” Faith said, impatient because of incessant non-answering on the other end of the line. “I’m one to keep you guessin’.”

 

Finally, someone picked up at the Slayer School. Young girl, speaking Japanese. Of course.

 

So much for that plan, Faith thought. But she answered anyway.

 

“Hey. You don’t know me,” she said, speaking over-loud into the phone. “I’m Faith.”

 

“Faith?” the girl said. "Really?"

 

Faith paused. “Hearda me?”

 

The girl at the school spoke hurriedly in fractured English about something Faith could barely understand. Grinning, Faith decided to play things up a bit. When would she ever get another chance?

 

She said, “Yeah I did once kill a Berithi with my bare hands.” She glanced at Connor and Willow, rolling her eyes dramatically. “Why yes, I did kill Kakistos with a timber through the heart. Was I scared? Hell yeah I was pissing scared, but you can’t let it stop ya…”

 

On the other end, the girl had gone quiet. Faith said, “Hey, much as I love fight stories, we’re lookin’ for, um,” Faith checked the display on her phone screen, “Mr. Wayara. He around?”

 

While Faith fumbled some more with the phone conversation, Connor turned to Willow. She thought he was going to apologize for being so pushy and rude. He didn’t.

 

Instead, he said: “I think I should carry the Glass. Maya gave it to me.”

 

There was no inflection in his voice, no hem-haw of uncertainty. Just a cold, stark command.

 

Willow cradled the Looking Glass in her arms, faintly aware of how comfortably cool it felt in the bend of her elbow, just like a nice hunk of refreshing ice on an unbearably hot day. Why should he have it? she thought. He doesn’t have the magical sense to tell a lima bean from a magic bean. And she told him so.

 

“I’m the son of two vampires,” Connor said, all Mr. Monotone. “Last anyone checked, that’s not supposed to happen. I think I qualify for things mystical.”

 

“Vamps aren’t mystical, Connor. You can’t even attune to this thing,” Willow said, almost shouting.

 

“All the more reason why I should hold on to it,” Connor said. “Safekeeping.”

 

“Safekeeping?” This time Willow did shout. “Could you be any bossier? I should so…”

 

“Hey!” Faith said, stepping in. She snapped her phone closed and shoved it into her pocket. “What is up with you two?”

 

Willow glanced sideways, more than a little abashed. “Connor wants to take the Looking Glass,” she said.

 

“Maya gave it to me…”

 

“She gave it to us,” Willow said. “And as designated Wicca, I say I should get it…”

 

“Hold up,” Faith said, raising her hands. “You two are bickering over a cheap ass crystal ball?”

 

“It’s not cheap,” Willow said defensively, her bottom lip pudging out in a pout.

 

Faith so did not have the time or patience for this.

 

“Look,” Faith said, making sure her tone held a nice serrated edge. “You kiddies want to fuss and fight ’cause we didn’t wind up where we planned, you go right at it. But you bet sure as Fanny, I will leave both your asses in this alley. Capiche? We got a mission. I suggest you saddle up.”

 

Faith turned on her heel and strutted out of the alley to the curb. With her back to them, she smiled at herself, pleased with how bitchy that monologue rolled off her tongue.

 

After a few minutes, Willow joined her on the sidewalk. Faith didn’t look up, but she sensed the questions simmering in Willow’s brain.

 

“Wayara’s sending a car for us,” Faith said tersely.

 

Connor came up on the other side of Faith. The three of them remained in tense silence on the curb, finally taking in their surroundings. The city street buzzed with lights and the musical beeping and clacking like a bank of Las Vegas slot machines. Throngs of people poured across the street, an unending deluge of them, their conversations flowing into and out of each other. Faith felt edgy with all that human chaos bumping around them. Felt like they were in a jar full of captured bugs and the captor forgot to punch holes in the top. Wasn’t a good way to be, and they needed their wits if they wanted to get out of it alive.

 

In the forty-five minutes it took for Wayara’s car to finally arrive, Connor, Faith, and Willow said nothing to each other. But Faith did notice that in the grab for the Looking Glass, Willow won out. She still carried the crystal like a swaddled child in the crook of her arm. Faith filed it in her brain under ‘Wigged’, then dog-eared it for future reference.

 

 

British Airways Flight 4075 de-planed at Houston International at noon, and Xander, stiff-legged and groggy, followed the herd of passengers to baggage claim. He had one bag, a big army green duffle onto which Dawn had stenciled the name Harris, to make it look extra authentic.

 

Xander thought of Dawn and felt a tug of guilt. He didn’t have the heart to tell any of them – least of all the Dawnster – that he had bought a one-way ticket to Texas. Especially after the blood scare with Buffy and the trip to the ER. He couldn’t tell them that when Maya asked over the phone, “How long can you stay?” Xander had answered, “Dunno. Maybe a while…”

 

Maya had said, “I like a while.”

 

Xander watched his bag tumble clumsily down the carousel, rolling end over end like a topsy caterpillar. He hefted it to his shoulder and followed the signs to Gate D, where Maya said she’d be waiting.

 

Xander could feel the pins and needles of his waking-up legs as he rode the conveyor belt sidewalk. Actually, the needles and pins sensation was an all-body deal. And she was the reason for the tinglies.

 

Maya.

 

He walked briskly on the conveyor belt, wondering why anyone would just choose to glide along at such a pace. He rounded the corner, darting between the slower folk and calling back apologies to the ones he accidentally dinged with the duffle bag.

 

On the way down the stairs, he felt his phone humming in his coat pocket. He stopped on the landing, phone in hand. The LED told him he had one missed call. He scrolled down. One missed call, from Dawn. No message.

 

No news probably being good news, he tucked the phone back into his pocket, reasoning that it was most likely just a check-in call. Dawn did that several times when he was jetting around in Africa. She would call and ask how his flight was, what movie did they show, did he remember to get all of his immunizations?

 

Xander looked up and his heart skipped. From his place on the landing, he saw her reflected in the mirrored ceiling panels of the lower deck. She wore a yellow sundress that exposed her narrow freckle-flecked shoulders and most of her rather-alluring-especially-from-this-angle back. As he watched her, she turned, as if sensing the intensity of his stare.

 

She held up a cardboard sign. On it, she’d written, “Professor X.”

 

“My God, she’s perfect,” Xander said, smiling.

 

Maya blushed to a radiant buttercup pink as he ran down the steps to greet her. Impulsively, he picked her up and twirled her, to the delight of Maya (who squealed) and everyone around them. He felt like a returning war hero greeting his long-awaited love. And that was what he was. What they both were. So he felt justified in the theatrical sweeping-off-of-the-feet.

 

Xander set her back down. She wobbled slightly, leaning on his arms.

 

“Hey,” she said.

 

“Hiya, Maya,” Xander said back.

 

She pulled his arm around her bare shoulder (to which Xander’s mind said ‘Mmmm’) and led him toward the exit doors.

 

“How was your flight?” she asked, matching her stride to his. It took three of her itty bitty steps to each of his one.

 

“There’s this big body of water between England and here,” he said.

 

“The Atlantic,” Maya said.

 

“Ah, you’ve heard of it…”

 

Maya pushed open the glass door and a wave of balmy Texas air greeted them.

 

“C’mon,” she said. “Uncle Leo has barbecue waiting for us.”

 

Xander looked down into her gleaming green eyes. “Barbecue? I like Texas already.”

 

 

After a cramped car ride across the extraordinarily dazzling city of Tokyo by night, Willow, Connor and Faith joined Mr. Wayara in the empty Slayer school. It was nothing like the 1970s Hollywood dojo that Faith’s school in New York and Buffy’s in London resembled. Instead, it looked like a kind of ancient temple with mahogany parquet floors, richly polished to reflect the light shed from actual gas lanterns set into sconces on the walls. On the walls, streamlined elegant dragons of green, gold and red pranced. Their scales glimmered silver and gold in the scattered light. In the center of the far wall sat a squat shrine upon which incense burned. Curls of fragrant smoke twined in the air like ethereal serpents.

 

The ceiling was open to a second story loft. Wayara led them silently through the school to a spiral staircase. The upstairs room was hexagonal; each wall was lined floor to ceiling with books.

 

“Giles would love this place so much,” Willow marveled.

 

“Mr. Giles has been here many times,” Mr. Wayara said, stepping aside to allow Connor and Faith into the library. “As had your Watcher, Miss Lehane.”

 

This caught Faith off guard on two counts. “Hey, how do you…?”

 

Mr. Wayara bowed his head. “Mr. Wyndham-Price came here three times after he quit the council. He spoke highly of your skill and enthusiasm.”

 

Faith felt a little flushed. Maybe it was the shadowy, churchly interior of the place, but her snappy come back dried up in the back of her throat.

 

Willow stepped in. “Mr. Wayara,” she said. “We wanted to thank you, for taking us in. We don’t know how we got here, exactly. But when we arrived, we… that is, Faith, well, she killed a vampire.”

 

Mr. Wayara nodded. He stepped away to one of the bookshelves. Willow watched him, waiting for some kind of reaction, but he gave them nothing. He was younger looking than any Watcher than they had seen, but seemed possessed of the same learned refinement as Giles. His English was fluid and perfect. Willow guessed he had to have been educated in Europe, maybe even grew up there. Physically, he was a trim, efficient man who moved with the deftness of a fox.

 

He plucked a thick green volume from the shelf and opened it. As he scanned the title pages, he seemed to have forgotten they were there.

 

Connor bounced impatiently on the balls of his feet. “Mr. Wayara,” he said.

 

“In Japan, we have many things that you will not find in the West,” Mr. Wayara said. He flipped through the pages, revealing only glimpses of characters and engravings in the text. “Among them is a breed of vampire quite different from those you have encountered. They are… like ghosts as much as demons.” He looked up from the book, making sure he had their attention.

 

He turned the page to face them. The woodcut creature on the page looked vaguely humanoid, with taloned fingers and feet hooked into its badly mangled female victim. Its face contorted into a vampire’s mask, but a double pair of heavy wings spread in leathery folds over its body.

 

“That’s a vampire?” Willow said breathlessly.

 

“A Kuei-shin,” Mr. Wayara corrected. “A hungry ghost.”

 

Willow held out her hand for the book. Mr. Wayara passed it to her.

 

“These guys didn’t exactly get toasted like our vamps, did they?” Faith said.

 

“No, they did not,” Mr. Wayara said. “Their lineage springs from another demon. One for whom no Circle was written.”

 

“Does Giles know about these?” Willow asked. She had turned to other pages, ones that depicted disemboweled spirits floating around the city like grotesque helium balloons.

 

“He does,” Mr. Wayara said. “But unlike your Western vampires, the Kuei-shin believe in discretion above all else. They have existed for centuries beneath the scrutiny of human eyes. They are judges and executioners to those they find unworthy, and they retain their souls…”

 

“They have souls?” Connor said.

 

“Yes,” Mr. Wayara said, inclining his head to show that he understood Connor’s indignity. “Vampires with souls. Heard of them?”

 

Connor, Willow, and Faith stared at each other, feeling the weight of their new discovery settling on their shoulders.

 

“But,” Faith said slowly, “The vamp I dusted looked nothing like that guy.”

 

Mr. Wayara closed his eyes. When he opened them, he went to the rail to look down into the empty school below. “A week ago, one of my Slayers encountered a Western vampire in Akihabara.”

 

“Thellian,” Connor said.

 

“He escaped, but Suyuri managed to kill his progeny,” Mr. Wayara said.

 

“Up to his old tricks,” Faith said. “Where can we find him?”

 

“Of course, it is not so simple, Miss Lehane. There are many factors, many cogs at work in this wheel,” Mr. Wayara said.

 

“Cogs? Factors?” Connor shouted. “I can simple this right up. Give me a location and a pointed piece of wood.”

 

“Hey, that’s my line,” Faith interrupted.

 

“No,” Mr. Wayara said sadly. “This creature made alliances with the Kuei-shin long ago. Alliances that must not be disturbed if we wish to preserve the fragile balance of our world.”

 

“You’re saying we can’t go after Thellian ’cause it’s bad feng shui?” Willow asked.

 

“I understand how you must feel,” Mr. Wayara told them.

 

Rather unexpectedly, Connor rammed his fist through the stone column behind him. “You understand nothing!” he yelled. “This creature murdered my father. I’ll kill him and I don’t care what it unbalances.”

 

“You don’t grasp the precarious nature of our situation,” Mr. Wayara said, raising his voice at last. “Your father’s death on that Circle set certain events in motion against which the Watchers Council has safeguarded for centuries.”

 

Connor froze. He looked down at his bloody knuckles. “You knew my father?” he asked.

 

“I knew him,” Mr. Wayara said. “I am sorry for your loss. But don’t make his death meaningless in this vain pursuit of vengeance.”

 

The muscles in Connor’s neck flexed. Watching him was like watching a dying man struggle for breath. “I can’t just… let him go,” Connor said.

 

Faith was the one to put her hand on his shoulder. He tensed under her touch but said nothing.

 

“So, what now?” she asked, bitterly. “We supposed to just hop on the next plane out of Tokyo? Go back to the home front and wait out the storm?”

 

“Yes,” Mr. Wayara said. “I will handle the arrangements. Until then, you may stay at the Radisson Narita Hotel. It’s near the airport. I will phone you when I’ve booked passage.”

 

On the sidewalk outside, Faith realized how rank she smelled. Eau de Garbage still clung to her hair and clothes. The mini-suites at the Radisson sounded better and better. They waited for Mr. Wayara to lock up the school, but Faith didn’t think they would be able to stand straight up for too much longer.

 

“So that’s that,” Willow said. She sighed heavily.

 

“No,” Connor groaned.

 

“It’s a dead end, babe,” Faith said. “Best we head back home where we at least speak the language, yo.”

 

“No,” Connor said again. He turned to Willow, his eyes wild. “We’re here. For a reason. We were supposed to go to Hell, but that thing,” he pointed to the Looking Glass, “It brought us here.”

 

“It was a mistake, Connor. We dialed a wrong number,” Willow said. “Or, I dialed a wrong number. Point is, spells don’t always work like they should. Even if we think we’re pretty nifty with the casting of them.”

 

Connor shook his head. Mr. Wayara came through the front door of the school. When he turned to secure the door behind him, Willow and Faith looked up to mark his presence.

 

“No,” Connor whispered to himself. “It makes sense that it brought us here. It wants us to find Thellian. It wants me…”

 

Connor kicked Faith hard in the back of her knee, then spun to backhand Willow. She sprawled, and in the confusion, he grabbed the Glass. Faith sprung to her feet, but her knee gave beneath her.

 

“Connor!” she shouted. But he was fast and not looking back. They watched, speechless, as he leapt a stone wall and disappeared.

 

Chapter Text

Giles could not ever remember sneaking up on Spike. It simply did not happen. No matter the circumstance, any time Giles walked into a room occupied by sleeping Spike, the vampire would roll his head in the Watcher’s direction, give him a look of disdain and immediately dismiss his presence.

Of course, that had been many years and, as it happened, many incarnations ago. And now it was William who slept in stony silence in the chair beside his unmade bed. When Giles entered the bedroom, William did not stir.

Giles took a moment to look at him. Despair hung on William like a rumpled suit of clothes. He didn’t look wholly out of place in the bedroom so obviously decorated by Buffy. The honey colored duvet, sheets and pillows cases in shades of off-whites and beige, the amber-toned table lamp that filled the room with a soft-luminescence akin to candlelight – all of this seemed to match and compliment William’s still platinum hair and colorless skin. And when did the man start wearing earth tones? Giles was sure that had been Dawn’s influence, but it was a far cry from the black and red that once dominated William the Bloody’s wardrobe. Giles felt a deep, almost paralyzing bolt of sadness, seeing him like this. Seeing him perched at Buffy’s bedside, as though she might materialize right there while he was sleeping.

And though he slept, Giles didn’t think he rested. Not judging by the heavy furrows in his brow, or by the droplets of dried blood on his jeans. How could he rest, with her gone? How could any of them rest? How had they managed before?

Giles backtracked mentally. Before, she had been dead. They had managed because grieving was a natural part of death. This time, she had been taken. Nothing natural about it. And he had to hold it together if they meant to find her.

William woke suddenly, giving Giles a start.

“Dear Lord,” he whispered.

William craned his neck, but instead of his patented annoyance, he looked achingly lost.

“Rupert,” he said hollowly. “Didn’t hear you come in,” He scrubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands.

“There was a spell,” Giles said, not wasting any time.

William sat up, eyes brightly alert.

Giles nodded. “Yes. One of great power. But,” he paused to underscore the importance of the next words, “not cast on this plane.”

“Not on this…plane?” William echoed. He sat up straighter.

Giles came over to the bed and sat on its edge, careful not to disturb the sheets and blankets. He took a place opposite William and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “It seems someone very powerful was able to punch a hole in this dimension and take our Buffy out,” he explained.

William grew still as he puzzled things together. “Well, narrows the field, dunnit?” he asked. “Only a few powerful someones could throw that kind of juice around.”

“Willow did it. Once,” Giles said evenly.

William opened his mouth to speak but shut it again.

“Spike,” Giles said. “If another version of Willow were to… meddle with that level of magics it is possible…”

“She was in heaven,” William said distantly. His voice sounded bruised.

“Er, yes,” Giles said. “But um, comparatively speaking, this dimension could seem...”

“There was no baby,” William said, more with urgency now. “Buffy came back to us un… pregnant, Rupert!”

“I’m not saying it is our Willow. Or was,” Giles said, trying with much effort to remain calm. “There is precedence for other Willows, other witches for that matter, who might wield such magics. According to the Coven in Westbury, the previous attempts to, erm, capture Buffy may account for the bouts of sleepwalking...”

William flung himself back against the chair. “Bugger it,” he swore. “Why can’t those bitches leave us the hell alone!” He raked his hands through his hair, then clenched his fists at his temples. Giles moved instinctively away, remembering Spike’s penchant for unexpected physical aggression.

But William seemed to curl in on himself, withering within with his grief.

“She was happy, Giles,” William said in a struggling and choked voice. He rubbed at his eyes with trembling fingers. The Watcher looked away.

“I know it,” Giles said. He gave William a few moments to regain his composure before attempting to continue the conversation.

William blew out a shaky sigh and sat forward, his posture mirroring Giles’.

“So, what now?” he said. “Can we get her back?”

Giles lifted his chin, surprised at how quickly William had recovered. “I intend to try,” he said firmly. “I have to go away for a while. I want to work closely with the Coven to find a way to get our Buffy back.”

William’s eyes were wild, but his tone was even. “Yes,” he said. “Fine. Good.”

“Understand such things are exceedingly dangerous,” Giles said.

“No need to read me the warning label, Rupert. We’ve weathered such things before.”

“Dangerous to her. And the child,” Giles put in, making sure that his tone conveyed all of its proper gravity. “Spike, physically crossing between worlds can be a complicated undertaking, and the price is always very high.”

William raised his eyes to meet the Watcher’s. “What is it you need?” he asked.

Giles cleared his throat, not knowing how Spike might take his request. He said, “I need you to watch over Dawn and Andrew while I’m gone. And the school, of course.”

William’s lips curved. A second later, he chuckled darkly. He settled against the chair. “Bet this was never how you pictured me: Fatherly type, holding down a 9 to 5. Me. The Black Menace. William the Bloody.”

Giles uttered a surprised gasp of laughter. “You can’t still want to lug that moniker around, can you?” he said.

“I bloody well don’t know what to do,” William said weakly. “Without her, I’m losing my mind a bit. Can’t drink it off. Can’t fight it off. I just feel… empty.” His voice broke on the last word and he turned his head to look out the window. The November air frosted the windows with a chilly scrim of ice, obscuring his view of the street outside.

Giles nodded, knowing exactly how William felt. With a spark of inspiration, he said, “There is evil left to fight in the world. Shall I leave you a demon compendium? You can start with Abaddon and work your way through to Zuul.”

William pondered the merits of the idea for a moment. Then he remembered Lorne.

“Speaking of demons,” he said. “Found out a bit from my visit to Triumvirate.”

“Did you?”

“Turns out your thoughts of a demon coup may have teeth in it,” William said. He explained everything Lorne had told him, right down to Nighna’s unforeseen move to join the Hellbound party. But he omitted the hitting Lorne for no good reason bit.

“That’s an unexpected move from her,” Giles said. “Kimaris are not known for simply lending hands to help a cause.”

“Yeah, figured that,” William said with a shrug.

Giles gripped William’s shoulder as he got to his feet. “Yes, well, I’ll… make a note,” he said. “In the meantime, the house is in your hands.”

William looked up at him. “Find her, will you?”

“I’ll do all I can,” Giles said. It felt like a vacant declaration, considering. He was a Watcher, not a witch. He wasn’t sure how much good he would be able to do.

But William seemed to take it as reassurance. He stood, stretched, and followed Giles out of the empty room.

 

XXX

“See, Margot. Kali Yantra marks the spot.”

Ariadne Hughes beamed at the older witch, who nodded her approval. Margot Ludston stepped forward from the scorched circle burned into the alley floor. She examined the rough trident-within-a-circle-mark painted across the bricks of the wall.

“Yes. You’re spot on, Ariadne. All your practicing has paid off,” Margot said. She sniffed the air and grimaced as she took in their surroundings. It was a grimy place, plainly American, with more than a dash of pure, ancient evil.

“It has, ma’am,” Ariadne said, puffing up. “Thanks for noticing.”

“So the Slayer’s been here?” Margot asked. She put her nose almost to the surface of the bricks to have an even closer look.

“Oh, yes. Of course, yes. The Yantra don’t lie,” Ariadne said.

Doesn’t lie,” Margot corrected. “Can you track her?”

“Well,” Ariadne said. She took the canister out of the pocket of her overcoat and began to vigorously shake it. “The spell got us this far. The rest is up to us. We’ll have to Sherlock it from here.”

“Honestly, Ariadne,” Margot said. “Your habit of turning nouns into verbs… It’s really quite appalling.”

The beam of an electric torch swept across them, and both women froze. A lean, terribly young figure in a blue uniform stepped into the mouth of the alley behind the beam.

“Oh heavens to Devon, you frightened us,” Ariadne said, still rattling the canister in her hand. “It’s a police officer, Margot. Maybe he can help us locate the Slayer.”

The officer came further into the alley. “Hey!” he shouted “What are you planning to do with that?”

“What? This?” Ariadne asked.

“Put the canister away,” Margot said through a tight-lipped grin.

Ariadne looked from the policeman to the canister and back. “Oh. That’s… It’s not what you think.”

The officer advanced. He kept one hand on the torch, which he trained on the two peculiar looking women – one with choppy white hair and a haughty expression, the other a lithe youthful girl with stringy black hair tucked into a gray fedora. He bounced the beam from them to the spot on the wall onto which it seemed they’d painted an odd occultish looking mark.

“Not what I think, eh? I think the ladies of Ab/Fab need a ticket for vandalism,” the officer said.

“Ticket?” Ariadne balked.

“Vandals? Now see here…” Margot said. Margot moved toward the policeman, and it looked as though the man was about to take a swing at her with his torch. Ariadne raised the canister. A light burst later, the man lay face down on the pavement. His torch spun into a scummy puddle, the sputtered out.

Margot opened first one eye, then the other. “Oh, now look what you’ve done,” she said. She clicked her tongue.

“Oops,” Ariadne said. She bent to touch the officer’s neck. The pulse drummed steadily beneath the skin. “No harm done. Just… resting. In a few years, he’ll be fit as a fiddlehead.”

“He’ll be fine,” Margot said. “Give me that.” She whisked the canister from Ariadne’s hands and pointed it at the Kali Yantra. With it, she sucked the mark and a little bit of the brick right off the wall.

“Now,” Margot said, passing the canister back to Ariadne. “It’s time we found our Slayer.”

 

XXX

Time was slipperier here.

Buffy didn’t know how to explain it any other way. What she felt was unlike anything she had felt before, but it was like she was a loose pebble bumping along a riverbed, with a raging torrent somewhere way above her.

Dawn – this Dawn – wasn’t much help. She slept most of the time, and when she didn’t sleep, she burbled like an infant. Spike kept his distance, too. He was ever-present, but made with the lurking like any self-respecting vampire should.

So Buffy hung around the house. More rightly, around the basement. It wasn’t so bad as Buffy originally thought. In one of Dawn’s few lucid periods, she explained that Xander had been the one to install the cleverly concealed mini-bath and fully-stocked kitchenette in what had once been the Summers’ laundry room. Buffy learned from her own snooping that someone, probably Spike, had tapped into the neighbor’s electricity grid and water main.

So they had really, truly gone underground.

Now, about the why… Buffy had questions, and no one was exactly handing out a crib sheet with the answers.

And time was all slippy. She had no idea how long she’d been here, which: Frustration. To compound matters, Buffy couldn’t stop crying. She remembered reading once, a really long time ago – probably in a doctor’s waiting room when her Mom had been sick – that mood-swinginess was all part of pregnancy. She had no idea she had so many tears in her body. It was like her body had tapped into an internal tear dimension and they just poured forth at random moments. Translation: all the time.

It amounted to a feeling of slowly unraveling. Unraveling and unstuck in time were two very bad things. Without Willow and Giles, she didn’t even know who she could talk to about getting back to her home. She needed to get out into Sunnydale proper to seek an outsider to help, but with Spike’s aloofness, she didn’t feel right, leaving Dawn in her present state.

She had just resolved hunt up Spike (who was “hiding” out back, near the arbor) for a vamp-to-Slayer chat when a shabby homeless type shambled up the front walk.

The guy hesitated when he saw her, but continued up the path at a purposeful limp. Figuring, perhaps, that he wouldn’t have trouble with an equally vagrant petite blonde girl.

Buffy leaned against the column of her front porch and crossed her arms.

“Looking for something?” she asked.

The guy shuffled forward until his face fell under the shadow of the overhang. “A place to stay,” he said. Buffy winced at the pungent waft of scotch that seeped from the man’s pores. “Thought the house was empty.”

“Well, it’s not,” Buffy said. She gestured with her fingers. “Run along.”

The guy took another groveling step forward. “At least,” he said. “Maybe a bite to eat?”

He morphed into vamp face.

“Oh, thank God!” Buffy said. The vampire sailed at her. She grabbed him by the flannel overshirt and slammed his head into the column. It felt so good, she did it again. And again. The guy finally lost his demon mask and begged between poundings for her to stop.

Spike flew in, right in the middle of the first decent slay Buffy’d had in weeks, and twisted the guy’s head the wrong way around.

Buffy whirled on him. “Why did you do that?”

“He was a vampire,” Spike said, adjusting his shoulders within the sleeves of his duster.

Buffy waved her hand, “Slayer here.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Forgot.”

Buffy had been working on a theory regarding Spike. She took a step toward him to test it. Sure enough, he took an equal measure back. Preferred arm’s length, she noticed. And seemed not to fixate on her eyes like before, but instead settled on the scar that ran the length of her face.

And maybe it was best he keep his distance. She didn’t know why Mr. Irritatingly Perceptive hadn’t noticed the extra beating heart in her body, but so far, she was glad that he hadn’t. She remembered coldly that Angel could hear it. And he had wanted to hurt them both.

“Look, I…” Buffy began.

“It’s Sunday,” Spike interrupted.

“Sunday?” Buffy asked.

“That’s right,” he said, going all defensive and glowery.

Buffy frowned. Spike had made it his habit to keep her on the wrong foot with him since she’d arrived. “And that’s the day you and the little missus get all gussied up for church?” she asked.

“Gussied?”

“Spike…” Buffy said. So awkward.

He shook his head. “It’s bath day,” he said, as if that would dispel all of her confusion.

“Come again?”

When he spoke, his words came out in a rushed tumble of syllables. He said, “Every Sunday I take Dawn to the Sunnydale Motor Inn so that she can take a proper shower, wash her hair, and have a bit of Chinese take out. She knows the place now and almost never slips. You’re welcome to come along, but you’ll have to meet us. Bike’s not built for three.”

Buffy gaped at him. She didn’t know which part disturbed her most. No, wait. She did. She said, “You take my blind sister on a motorcycle?”

He glared at her.

“Do you at least wear helmets?” she asked.

“’Course we do,” he said. He rolled his eyes, which half-infuriated Buffy for no good reason.

“And… you don’t… help?” Buffy said. Which sounded innocently enough in her head, but came out all wrong and Spike was aghast.

“Of course not,” he protested.

“Right,” Buffy said. “Mr. Chaste.”

“It’s not like that,” Spike said, not sharing the smile. “It’s never been like that, Buffy. I promise.”

Buffy leaned toward him. It felt so natural to her to reach for him, but this Spike retreated from her touch.

“Sunnydale Motor Inn,” Buffy said. “That’s the one off Highway 8?”

“S’right,” said Spike.

He stalked away, leaving her on the porch to go get Dawn ready for their weekly bathly ritual. Tears welled again in her eyes. She was so disconnected here, so lost. Achingly… lost.

 

XXX

“You're going to work?” Dawn asked. The shrillness of her voice grated his eardrums. The place seemed hushed as the convalescent home it once was, what with Harris and his wispy bint gone off to cattle country, and with the others… He trailed off in his thinking, realizing that Dawn had asked him a question and was expecting him to respond.

“Well, yeah Niblet,” William said, stirring honey into his tea. “Someone’s got to run that school. MK can't run it.” He paused, considering. “Pretty sure there are laws against it.”

Dawn appeared at his elbow. “But what about Buffy?”

William gripped the handle of his mug, seeming for a moment to be mentally and emotionally sinking. But he buoyed back up and turned to her.

“I need to act, Dawn,” he told her. “’m not much for research and bollocks at books. This is what I can do to hang on till she gets back.”

“What if she…?”

“Don’t,” William said, more severe than he intended. She blinked, suddenly teary. “Don’t say it. And don’t cry. We will get her back.”

“How?” Dawn cried.

“Rupert’s got himself a lead,” William told her.

Dawn wiped at her eyes like a tantrumy child. “He does?”

“Yeah. Left for Westbury this morning. Said there was a spell…”

“A spell?” Dawn’s eyes went from weary to hyper-excited in about two seconds.

William forced a smile. “S’right, pet. We’ll have Buffy back by Christmas.”

“Promise,” Dawn said.

Carried away on the wave of infectious Dawn enthusiasm, William spoke before he could stop himself. “All right,” he said, pulling her into his arms. “I promise.”

 

XXX

Buffy welcomed the chance to get out of the house. She navigated her former patrol route by memory, making a few course corrections according to new developments in Sunnydale. As she had noticed before, the suburban population had moved away from the once quaint and peaceful Revello Drive. A distinctly urban populace had taken its place, and this was true for most of the neighborhoods surrounding Buffy’s old stomping ground.

Buffy made mental notes along the way. Hole In The Wall Donuts, where Xander made many a late night coffee run, had become Ginello’s Pawn Shop, complete with a lovely ring of shiny razor wire and a stack of dead TV sets out front. The QuikEE Lube on Redson and Palmer had transformed into a rowdy roadhouse called The High Dive. And the lovely granite-faced Methodist Church on Fifth Street and Canal had burned to the ground.

Buffy didn’t see the most disturbing change to the Sunnydale skyline until she crested the ridge at Lookout Point. There, seated like a fat, black creeping slug, was a series of slick office buildings behind a high iron fence and heavily guarded gate. Right where Sunnydale High used to be. Right on top of the Hellmouth.

Buffy arrived at the Sunnydale Motor Inn fully revved up to grill Spike on the new, powerful presence squatting on the Hellmouth. She burst in and staggered to a halt.

Dawn sat amid paper napkins and empty Chinese food cartons on the bed with her back to Spike. With a wide-toothed comb in hand, Spike tenderly unraveled knots from her sister’s badly tangled hair.

“Come in, Buffy,” Dawn said, without turning to the door. “Pull up some debris. I have lots. And lots and lots and lots…”

Buffy stared at them, feeling oddly excluded by this tradition they shared. Disconnected. She came over and joined them on the bed, careful not to look at Dawn’s frightfully scaly eyes.

“Saved you an egg roll,” Spike said, flicking a nod to one of the containers.

“Um, thanks,” Buffy said. She went straight for it. She seemed to be in permanent ravenous mode, and eating the dry rations at the house didn’t quite cut it.

“So,” Spike said, focusing his attention on a particularly bad snarl. “Get a chance to have a look around?”

Buffy chewed and swallowed hard. “Yep. Sunnydale’s come a long way.”

Dawn groped blindly in Buffy’s direction, her white hands searching across the bedspread.

“You saw the Compound,” Spike said.

Buffy had crammed the last of the egg roll in her mouth. “The Romroud?” she asked.

“That’s right, Scooby,” Spike said, parting Dawn’s hair around the knot so that he could really get at it. “World Headquarters of TriadCorp.”

Dawn’s hand settled on Buffy’s stomach. The girl chirped happily as a nightingale. Buffy looked down and hurriedly brushed her sister’s hand away.

“TriadCorp?” Buffy asked. She wiped a dribble of soy sauce from her chin.

“Some kind of military contractor,” Spike said absently. “Set up shop few years back. Guess you noted its special geographic significance.”

“9021-Hellmouth?”

“Girl’s got it…” Spike sang. He settled with the tangle, pulling the comb through Dawn’s hair with ease. He sectioned out another parcel of hair to comb through.

Dawn reached across the bed again. This time, Buffy linked her fingers with Dawn’s before the girl could make contact. Dawn turned her blank eyes to Buffy and flashed a sparkly smile.

Which meant that even if Spike couldn’t sense the baby, Dawn did.

Buffy didn’t get why, but the idea made her shivery cold.

A frantic thought flew up at her again. Buffy had to get out of Sunnydale. She had to get back home.

Chapter Text

Giles could not ever remember sneaking up on Spike. It simply did not happen. No matter the circumstance, any time Giles walked into a room occupied by sleeping Spike, the vampire would roll his head in the Watcher’s direction, give him a look of disdain and immediately dismiss his presence.

Of course, that had been many years and, as it happened, many incarnations ago. And now it was William who slept in stony silence in the chair beside his unmade bed. When Giles entered the bedroom, William did not stir.

 

Giles took a moment to look at him. Despair hung on William like a rumpled suit of clothes. He didn’t look wholly out of place in the bedroom so obviously decorated by Buffy. The honey colored duvet, sheets and pillows cases in shades of off-whites and beige, the amber-toned table lamp that filled the room with a soft-luminescence akin to candlelight – all of this seemed to match and compliment William’s still platinum hair and colorless skin. And when did the man start wearing earth tones? Giles was sure that had been Dawn’s influence, but it was a far cry from the black and red that once dominated William the Bloody’s wardrobe. Giles felt a deep, almost paralyzing bolt of sadness, seeing him like this. Seeing him perched at Buffy’s bedside, as though she might materialize right there while he was sleeping.

 

And though he slept, Giles didn’t think he rested. Not judging by the heavy furrows in his brow, or by the droplets of dried blood on his jeans. How could he rest, with her gone? How could any of them rest? How had they managed before?

 

Giles backtracked mentally. Before, she had been dead. They had managed because grieving was a natural part of death. This time, she had been taken. Nothing natural about it. And he had to hold it together if they meant to find her.

 

William woke suddenly, giving Giles a start.

 

“Dear Lord,” he whispered.

 

William craned his neck, but instead of his patented annoyance, he looked achingly lost.

 

“Rupert,” he said hollowly. “Didn’t hear you come in,” He scrubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands.

 

“There was a spell,” Giles said, not wasting any time.

 

William sat up, eyes brightly alert.

 

Giles nodded. “Yes. One of great power. But,” he paused to underscore the importance of the next words, “not cast on this plane.”

 

“Not on this…plane?” William echoed. He sat up straighter.

 

Giles came over to the bed and sat on its edge, careful not to disturb the sheets and blankets. He took a place opposite William and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “It seems someone very powerful was able to punch a hole in this dimension and take our Buffy out,” he explained.

 

William grew still as he puzzled things together. “Well, narrows the field, dunnit?” he asked. “Only a few powerful someones could throw that kind of juice around.”

 

“Willow did it. Once,” Giles said evenly.

 

William opened his mouth to speak, but shut it again.

 

“Spike,” Giles said. “If another version of Willow were to… meddle with that level of magics it is possible…”

 

“She was in heaven,” William said distantly. His voice sounded bruised.

 

“Er, yes,” Giles said. “But um, comparatively speaking, this dimension could seem...”

 

“There was no baby,” William said, more with urgency now. “Buffy came back to us un… pregnant, Rupert!”

 

“I’m not saying it is our Willow. Or was,” Giles said, trying with much effort to remain calm. “There is precedence for other Willows, other witches for that matter, who might wield such magics. According to the Coven in Westbury, the previous attempts to, erm, capture Buffy may account for the bouts of sleepwalking...”

 

William flung himself back against the chair. “Bugger it,” he swore. “Why can’t those bitches leave us the hell alone!” He raked his hands through his hair, then clenched his fists at his temples. Giles moved instinctively away, remembering Spike’s penchant for unexpected physical aggression.

 

But William seemed to curl in on himself, withering within with his grief.

 

“She was happy, Giles,” William said in a struggling and choked voice. He rubbed at his eyes with trembling fingers. The Watcher looked away.

 

“I know it,” Giles said. He gave William a few moments to regain his composure before attempting to continue the conversation.

 

William blew out a shaky sigh and sat forward, his posture mirroring Giles’.

 

“So, what now?” he said. “Can we get her back?” (left off here)

 

Giles lifted his chin, surprised at how quickly William had recovered. “I intend to try,” he said firmly. “I have to go away for a while. I want to work closely with the Coven to find a way to get our Buffy back.”

 

William’s eyes were wild, but his tone was even. “Yes,” he said. “Fine. Good.”

 

“Understand such things are exceedingly dangerous,” Giles said.

 

“No need to read me the warning label, Rupert. We’ve weathered such things before.”

 

“Dangerous to her. And the child,” Giles put in, making sure that his tone conveyed all of its proper gravity. “Spike, physically crossing between worlds can be a complicated undertaking, and the price is always very high.”

 

William raised his eyes to meet the Watcher’s. “What is it you need?” he asked.

 

Giles cleared his throat, not knowing how Spike might take his request. He said, “I need you to watch over Dawn and Andrew while I’m gone. And the school, of course.”

 

William’s lips curved. A second later, he chuckled darkly. He settled against the chair. “Bet this was never how you pictured me: Fatherly type, holding down a 9 to 5. Me. The Black Menace. William the Bloody.”

 

Giles uttered a surprised gasp of laughter. “You can’t still want to lug that moniker around, can you?” he said.

 

“I bloody well don’t know what to do,” William said weakly. “Without her, I’m losing my mind a bit. Can’t drink it off. Can’t fight it off. I just feel… empty.” His voice broke on the last word and he turned his head to look out the window. The November air frosted the windows with a chilly scrim of ice, obscuring his view of the street outside.

 

Giles nodded, knowing exactly how William felt. With a spark of inspiration, he said, “There is evil left to fight in the world. Shall I leave you a demon compendium? You can start with Abaddon and work your way through to Zuul.”

 

William pondered the merits of the idea for a moment. Then he remembered Lorne.

 

“Speaking of demons,” he said. “Found out a bit from my visit to Triumvirate.”

 

“Did you?”

 

“Turns out your thoughts of a demon coup may have teeth in it,” William said. He explained everything Lorne had told him, right down to Nighna’s unforeseen move to join the Hellbound party. But he omitted the hitting Lorne for no good reason bit.

 

“That’s an unexpected move from her,” Giles said. “Kimaris are not known for simply lending hands to help a cause.”

 

“Yeah, figured that,” William said with a shrug.

 

Giles gripped William’s shoulder as he got to his feet. “Yes, well, I’ll… make a note,” he said. “In the meantime, the house is in your hands.”

 

William looked up at him. “Find her, will you?”

 

“I’ll do all I can,” Giles said. It felt like a vacant declaration, considering. He was a Watcher, not a witch. He wasn’t sure how much good he would be able to do.

 

But William seemed to take it as reassurance. He stood, stretched, and followed Giles out of the empty room.

 

 

“See, Margot. Kali Yantra marks the spot.”

 

Ariadne Hughes beamed at the older witch, who nodded her approval. Margot Ludston stepped forward from the scorched circle burned into the alley floor. She examined the rough trident-within-a-circle-mark painted across the bricks of the wall.

 

“Yes. You’re spot on, Ariadne. All your practicing has paid off,” Margot said. She sniffed the air and grimaced as she took in their surroundings. It was a grimy place, plainly American, with more than a dash of pure, ancient evil.

 

“It has, ma’am,” Ariadne said, puffing up. “Thanks for noticing.”

 

“So the Slayer’s been here?” Margot asked. She put her nose almost to the surface of the bricks to have an even closer look.

 

“Oh, yes. Of course, yes. The Yantra don’t lie,” Ariadne said.

 

Doesn’t lie,” Margot corrected. “Can you track her?”

 

“Well,” Ariadne said. She took the canister out of the pocket of her overcoat and began to vigorously shake it. “The spell got us this far. The rest is up to us. We’ll have to Sherlock it from here.”

 

“Honestly, Ariadne,” Margot said. “Your habit of turning nouns into verbs… It’s really quite appalling.”

 

The beam of an electric torch swept across them, and both women froze. A lean, terribly young figure in a blue uniform stepped into the mouth of the alley behind the beam.

 

“Oh heavens to Devon, you frightened us,” Ariadne said, still rattling the canister in her hand. “It’s a police officer, Margot. Maybe he can help us locate the Slayer.”

 

The officer came further into the alley. “Hey!” he shouted “What are you planning to do with that?”

 

“What? This?” Ariadne asked.

 

“Put the canister away,” Margot said through a tight-lipped grin.

 

Ariadne looked from the policeman to the canister and back. “Oh. That’s… It’s not what you think.”

 

The officer advanced. He kept one hand on the torch, which he trained on the two peculiar looking women – one with choppy white hair and a haughty expression, the other a lithe youthful girl with stringy black hair tucked into a gray fedora. He bounced the beam from them to the spot on the wall onto which it seemed they’d painted an odd occultish looking mark.

 

“Not what I think, eh? I think the ladies of Ab/Fab need a ticket for vandalism,” the officer said.

 

“Ticket?” Ariadne balked.

 

“Vandals? Now see here…” Margot said. Margot moved toward the policeman, and it looked as though the man was about to take a swing at her with his torch. Ariadne raised the canister. A light burst later, the man lay face down on the pavement. His torch spun into a scummy puddle, the sputtered out.

 

Margot opened first one eye, then the other. “Oh, now look what you’ve done,” she said. She clicked her tongue.

 

“Oops,” Ariadne said. She bent to touch the officer’s neck. The pulse drummed steadily beneath the skin. “No harm done. Just… resting. In a few years, he’ll be fit as a fiddlehead.”

 

“He’ll be fine,” Margot said. “Give me that.” She whisked the canister from Ariadne’s hands and pointed it at the Kali Yantra. With it, she sucked the mark and a little bit of the brick right off the wall.

 

“Now,” Margot said, passing the canister back to Ariadne. “It’s time we found our Slayer.”

 

 

Time was slipperier here.

 

Buffy didn’t know how to explain it any other way. What she felt was unlike anything she had felt before, but it was like she was a loose pebble bumping along a riverbed, with a raging torrent somewhere way above her.

 

Dawn – this Dawn – wasn’t much help. She slept most of the time, and when she didn’t sleep, she burbled like an infant. Spike kept his distance, too. He was ever-present, but made with the lurking like any self-respecting vampire should.

 

So Buffy hung around the house. More rightly, around the basement. It wasn’t so bad as Buffy originally thought. In one of Dawn’s few lucid periods, she explained that Xander had been the one to install the cleverly concealed mini-bath and fully-stocked kitchenette in what had once been the Summers’ laundry room. Buffy learned from her own snooping that someone, probably Spike, had tapped into the neighbor’s electricity grid and water main.

 

So they had really, truly gone underground.

 

Now, about the why… Buffy had questions, and no one was exactly handing out a crib sheet with the answers.

 

And time was all slippy. She had no idea how long she’d been here, which: Frustration. To compound matters, Buffy couldn’t stop crying. She remembered reading once, a really long time ago – probably in a doctor’s waiting room when her Mom had been sick – that mood-swinginess was all part of pregnancy. She had no idea she had so many tears in her body. It was like her body had tapped into an internal tear dimension and they just poured forth at random moments. Translation: all the time.

 

It amounted to a feeling of slowly unraveling. Unraveling and unstuck in time were two very bad things. Without Willow and Giles, she didn’t even know who she could talk to about getting back to her home. She needed to get out into Sunnydale proper to seek an outsider to help, but with Spike’s aloofness, she didn’t feel right, leaving Dawn in her present state.

 

She had just resolved hunt up Spike (who was “hiding” out back, near the arbor) for a vamp-to-Slayer chat when a shabby homeless type shambled up the front walk.

 

The guy hesitated when he saw her, but continued up the path at a purposeful limp. Figuring, perhaps, that he wouldn’t have trouble with an equally vagrant petite blonde girl.

 

Buffy leaned against the column of her front porch and crossed her arms.

 

“Looking for something?” she asked.

 

The guy shuffled forward until his face fell under the shadow of the overhang. “A place to stay,” he said. Buffy winced at the pungent waft of scotch that seeped from the man’s pores. “Thought the house was empty.”

 

“Well, it’s not,” Buffy said. She gestured with her fingers. “Run along.”

 

The guy took another groveling step forward. “At least,” he said. “Maybe a bite to eat?”

 

He morphed into vamp face.

 

“Oh, thank God!” Buffy said. The vampire sailed at her. She grabbed him by the flannel overshirt and slammed his head into the column. It felt so good, she did it again. And again. The guy finally lost his demon mask and begged between poundings for her to stop.

 

Spike flew in, right in the middle of the first decent slay Buffy’d had in weeks, and twisted the guy’s head the wrong way around.

 

Buffy whirled on him. “Why did you do that?”

 

“He was a vampire,” Spike said, adjusting his shoulders within the sleeves of his duster.

 

Buffy waved her hand, “Slayer here.”

 

“Yeah,” he said. “Forgot.”

 

Buffy had been working on a theory regarding Spike. She took a step toward him to test it. Sure enough, he took an equal measure back. Preferred arm’s length, she noticed. And seemed not to fixate on her eyes like before, but instead settled on the scar that ran the length of her face.

 

And maybe it was best he keep his distance. She didn’t know why Mr. Irritatingly Perceptive hadn’t noticed the extra beating heart in her body, but so far, she was glad that he hadn’t. She remembered coldly that Angel could hear it. And he had wanted to hurt them both.

 

“Look, I…” Buffy began.

 

“It’s Sunday,” Spike interrupted.

 

“Sunday?” Buffy asked.

 

“That’s right,” he said, going all defensive and glowery.

 

Buffy frowned. Spike had made it his habit to keep her on the wrong foot with him since she’d arrived. “And that’s the day you and the little missus get all gussied up for church?” she asked.

 

“Gussied?”

 

“Spike…” Buffy said. So awkward.

 

He shook his head. “It’s bath day,” he said, as if that would dispel all of her confusion.

 

“Come again?”

 

When he spoke, his words came out in a rushed tumble of syllables. He said, “Every Sunday I take Dawn to the Sunnydale Motor Inn so that she can take a proper shower, wash her hair and have some take out Chinese food. She knows the place now and almost never slips. You’re welcome to come along, but you’ll have to meet us. Bike’s not built for three.”

 

Buffy gaped at him. She didn’t know which part disturbed her most. No, wait. She did. She said, “You take my blind sister on a motorcycle?”

 

He glared at her.

 

“Do you at least wear helmets?” she asked.

 

“’Course we do,” he said. He rolled his eyes, which half-infuriated Buffy for no good reason.

 

“And… you don’t… help?” Buffy said. Which sounded innocently enough in her head, but came out all wrong and Spike was aghast.

 

“Of course not,” he protested. “There are girlie… parts under there.”

 

“Right,” Buffy said, smiling. “Mr. Chaste.”

 

“It’s not like that,” Spike said, not sharing the smile. “It’s never been like that, Buffy. I promise.”

 

Buffy leaned toward him. It felt so natural to her to reach for him, but this Spike retreated from her touch.

 

“Sunnydale Motor Inn,” Buffy said. “That’s the one off Highway 8?”

 

“S’right,” said Spike.

 

He stalked away, leaving her on the porch to go get Dawn ready for their weekly bathly ritual. Tears welled again in her eyes. She was so disconnected here, so lost. Achingly… lost.

 

 

“You're going to work?” Dawn asked. The shrillness of her voice grated his eardrums. The place seemed hushed as the convalescent home it once was, what with Harris and his wispy bint gone off to cattle country, and with the others… He trailed off in his thinking, realizing that Dawn had asked him a question and was expecting him to respond.

 

“Well, yeah Niblet,” William said, stirring honey into his tea. “Someone’s got to run that school. MK can't run it.” He paused, considering. “Pretty sure there are laws against it.”

 

Dawn appeared at his elbow. “But what about Buffy?”

 

William gripped the handle of his mug, seeming for a moment to be mentally and emotionally sinking. But he buoyed back up and turned to her.

 

“I need to act, Dawn,” he told her. “’m not much for research and bollocks at books. This is what I can do to hang on till she gets back.”

 

“What if she…?”

 

“Don’t,” William said, more severe than he intended. She blinked, suddenly teary. “Don’t say it. And don’t cry. We will get her back.”

 

“How?” Dawn cried.

 

“Rupert’s got himself a lead,” William told her.

 

Dawn wiped at her eyes like a tantrumy child. “He does?”

 

“Yeah. Left for Westbury this morning. Said there was a spell…”

 

“A spell?” Dawn’s eyes went from weary to hyper-excited in about two seconds.

 

William forced a smile. “S’right, pet. We’ll have Buffy back by Christmas.”

 

“Promise,” Dawn said.

 

Carried away on the wave of infectious Dawn enthusiasm, William spoke before he could stop himself. “All right,” he said, pulling her into his arms. “I promise.”

 

 

Buffy welcomed the chance to get out of the house. She navigated her former patrol route by memory, making a few course corrections according to new developments in Sunnydale. As she had noticed before, the suburban population had moved away from the once quaint and peaceful Revello Drive. A distinctly urban populace had taken its place, and this was true for most of the neighborhoods surrounding Buffy’s old stomping ground.

 

Buffy made mental notes along the way. Hole In The Wall Donuts, where Xander made many a late night coffee run, had become Ginello’s Pawn Shop, complete with a lovely ring of shiny razor wire and a stack of dead TV sets out front. The QuikEE Lube on Redson and Palmer had transformed into a rowdy roadhouse called The High Dive. And the lovely granite-faced Methodist Church on Fifth Street and Canal had burned to the ground.

 

Buffy didn’t see the most disturbing change to the Sunnydale skyline until she crested the ridge at Lookout Point. There, seated like a fat, black creeping slug, was a series of slick office buildings behind a high iron fence and heavily guarded gate. Right where Sunnydale High used to be. Right on top of the Hellmouth.

 

Buffy arrived at the Sunnydale Motor Inn fully revved up to grill Spike on the new, powerful presence squatting on the Hellmouth. She burst in and staggered to a halt.

 

Dawn sat amid paper napkins and empty Chinese food cartons on the bed with her back to Spike. With a wide-toothed comb in hand, Spike tenderly unraveled knots from her sister’s badly tangled hair.

 

“Come in, Buffy,” Dawn said, without turning to the door. “Pull up some debris. I have lots. And lots and lots and lots…”

 

Buffy stared at them, feeling oddly excluded by this tradition they shared. Disconnected. She came over and joined them on the bed, careful not to look at Dawn’s frightfully scaly eyes.

 

“Saved you an egg roll,” Spike said, flicking a nod to one of the containers.

 

“Um, thanks,” Buffy said. She went straight for it. She seemed to be in permanent ravenous mode, and eating the dry rations at the house didn’t quite cut it.

 

“So,” Spike said, focusing his attention on a particularly bad snarl. “Get a chance to have a look around?”

 

Buffy chewed and swallowed hard. “Yep. Sunnydale’s come a long way.”

 

Dawn groped blindly in Buffy’s direction, her white hands searching across the bedspread.

 

“You saw the Compound,” Spike said.

 

Buffy had crammed the last of the egg roll in her mouth. “The Romroud?” she asked.

 

“That’s right, Scooby,” Spike said, parting Dawn’s hair around the knot so that he could really get at it. “World Headquarters of TriadCorp.”

 

Dawn’s hand settled on Buffy’s stomach. The girl chirped happily as a nightingale. Buffy looked down and hurriedly brushed her sister’s hand away.

 

“TriadCorp?” Buffy asked. She wiped a dribble of soy sauce from her chin.

“Some kind of military contractor,” Spike said absently. “Set up shop few years back. Guess you noted its special geographic significance.”

 

“9021-Hellmouth?”

 

“Girl’s got it…” Spike sang. He settled with the tangle, pulling the comb through Dawn’s hair with ease. He sectioned out another parcel of hair to comb through.

 

Dawn reached across the bed again. This time, Buffy linked her fingers with Dawn’s before the girl could make contact. Dawn turned her blank eyes to Buffy and flashed a sparkly smile.

 

Which meant that even if Spike couldn’t sense the baby, Dawn did.

 

Buffy didn’t get why, but the idea made her shivery cold.

 

A frantic thought flew up at her again. Buffy had to get out of Sunnydale. She had to get back home.

 

Chapter Text

Charon edged the barge up to the shore with expert ease, having done so countless times. Oz and Anjelica waited in the bow while Nighna said her goodbyes.

“You know I would come with,” they heard Charon say, in a voice rough with a kind of sincerity unexpected in a Hellbeast.

“Charon, you have your hands full. But I appreciate the sentiment,” Nighna said.

Charon touched one webbed finger to Nighna’s forehead. “You takes care of ya’self, Nig’han’net. Rip that Luxe a new set of orifices just for me.”

Nighna joined them on the bow. “Plan to,” she said. With a nod, the three exited the barge and stepped once again onto solid land. Clarisse fanned a wing and preened its length with her beak, managing to still look exceedingly uninterested.

Charon pulled his rudder pole from the sludge and crossed to the other side of his craft.

“Gotta get back before all Hell breaks loose,” he said with another burst of hearty laughter. “Breaks loose!” he howled. The sounds of his continued laughter echoed back to them as they watched the black barge grow smaller and smaller against the horizon.

Oz turned on the path, taking in for the first time the twisted, teeming tangle of trees that lay ahead.

“Spooky forest,” he said. “Kind of cliché.”

Nighna faced them both. “Clichés have roots in truth, do they not?”

“Just sayin’,” Oz said.

Nighna said, “We are entering the Second Circle. We want to pass through as quickly as possible. Don’t stray from the path. Don’t eat the food. Don’t drink the water. Be ever watchful. And never, never give them anything of value.”

“Them?” Anjelica said.

“Gypsies,” Nighna said. “You’ll see them. They have made this place their home since they were banished here centuries ago. They thrive quite well in these woods.”

Anjelica took an instinctive step in Oz’s direction. Nighna noted this with a snag of pain in what passed for her heart. It was so bothersome, getting attached to these silly little humans. They were so messy and breakable and rash. Much worse than puppies. Such thoughts led her to think of Luxe, of how he never cultivated such attachments and condescended to her because she did.

And while she was on that thought path, she rounded the bend to find memories of Andrew. Had he gone along with Luxe rather than chop off his hand, he would be irrevocably dead by now. Luxe would have killed Andrew to lessen the price of passage with Charon for sure. Nighna would have to pull an Orpheus/Eurydice in reverse to get Andrew out, and she knew those kinds of things ended badly. At least now, she had the bit of Andrew that she needed back. All that was left was her craving for vengeance. The Second Circle of Hell seemed a fitting place for such violence. Her hope was that they caught up with him in time.

Nighna returned her attention to her humans. Her humans, she thought gravely. Oh dear. That did not bode well.

The Slayer girl was saying, “No, I’m not a fan. He had a wife and a little girl and so much to live for, but still he put a gun to his head.”

“Not in debate,” Oz countered. “Kurt Cobain’s suicide was his worst career move. But that in no way diminishes Nirvana’s impact on the musical landscape of the 1990s.”

“More musicians,” Nighna said with a smile. “I can recall when Nirvana was just a realm of elevated consciousness.”

“Some parallels can be drawn,” Oz said.

“Please,” Anjelica said. “The only higher consciousness Cobain ever got was injected in his arm.”

Oz lifted an eyebrow. Nighna grinned.

“Well, well,” the demon said. “Aren’t we snappy?”

The girl flushed darkly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not normally so… spunky.”

Oz leveled a steady gaze on her. He said, “Don’t worry. It suits you.”

“All right,” Nighna said. “Enough delay. Here,” she pulled a shimmering dagger from her shoulder bag. Once again, Oz and Anjelica were given to speculation as to where these items came from. Oz was pretty sure an unsheathed weapon of such length would cause problems in an ordinary leather pack.

But wonders being of the non-ceasing variety, Nighna used the blade to hack out a hearty tuft of grass.

“Hold this,” she said, passing it to Oz. Before either could protest, she turned the dagger to her own forearm and cut a deep furrow into her flesh.

At the coppery scent of her rich, flowing blood, Oz felt that twinge again. This time, it caught like a wriggling spider in the back of his throat. He hacked a full-body-wracking cough that shot stinging tears to his eyes.

“Oh, God!” Anjelica shouted. “Oz. Are you all right?”

Oz wheezed. Anjelica caught his arm while he sputtered and rasped. Clarisse, sensing the unease, began to screech and caw and generally make things worse. Nighna stepped in. She pushed Oz to his knees.

“Hold on to him,” she commanded. “It’s the blood, and this place. It will bring out the worst in him.”

Nighna wrenched the grass from Oz’s clenched hands and left them. She moved away from the shore, to a place of relative quiet where she could work. She could hear the girl soothing him, just as Nighna tried to calm Clarisse. Nighna knew just from observing that the boy had considerable self-control. She tried to assure herself that they would be just fine. But the other, more rational self reminded her that Hell was no place for humans.

“I have no idea what I was thinking,” Nighna told Clarisse. “Don’t start with me.”

The bird made a hmph-ing sound. Nighna positioned her arm over the stalks of grass and let her blood mingle with the roots. She began to whisper a Kimaris chant of making. The roots elongated, growing thickly and vigorously into the shape of her desire. She urged them with the flow of her blood to take form. Under her hands, the grass twisted and writhed into four wheels bound together on viny axles. The green shoots weaved themselves into a lush carriage. It wouldn’t last, but it would be enough to take them through the forest.

Clarisse left Nighna’s shoulder to settle on the leafy canopy of the carriage. The bird nodded her approval. Nighna returned to see how her humans were faring.

Much better, it seemed. Oz was on his hands and knees, but the coughing fit had ceased. Anjelica held his shoulders while he steadily regained his awareness.

As Nighna approached, both raised their heads to look at her.

“Sorry about that,” Oz said hoarsely. “It doesn’t usually…”

“I know,” Nighna said. “On your feet now. We must leave these shores. They are soon to become uncomfortably crowded.”

Anjelica twisted her head in the direction of the river. She saw no sign of Charon’s barge, but Nighna was right. It was just a matter of time before it returned, and with Oz going all hairball, she didn’t want him to suffer more than was necessary.

Once they mounted the carriage, the thing sent out shoots of grass that lashed onto objects along the path in order to propel itself forward. Within minutes, the carriage was pulling itself through the underbrush. The forest loomed ahead, full of light and mystery.

Anjelica said, “Gosh, this place is really…”

“Beautiful,” Oz finished. His breathing had settled to its regular pattern. The forest oozed with a kind of invigorating essence that seemed to thrill and calm him at the same time. It smelled of honey and cinnamon and sun-baked greenery. Maybe beautiful wasn’t strong enough a word. Awesome came to mind. As did ripe and gorgeous and dazzling. “I don’t know,” he said. “I figured Hell would be more… hellish.”

Anjelica crawled to Oz’s side and nestled in beside him. Nighna watched them, noting with sorrow how quickly their inhibitions were melting away. She would have to keep constant watch, she resolved. Oz laced his fingers in Anjelica’s as the shadow of the forest at last enveloped them.

 

 

This boy’s hands weren’t like the other’s, Dawn decided. The other’s had been like magic. Those hands had found the place inside her that was hot and weak and thirsty for his touch. After she’d gone off like Mount St. Helen’s, the pictures had flooded her mind and she was finally able to put them to the page.

But this boy…

He was a sweet guy from her school. They had been in chemistry together, before Dawn started ditching. His name was Augie, and he was type to wear sweater vests and Buddy Holly glasses. She remembered once that he admitted liking American country music. That was the extent of her knowledge concerning Augie, except that he had never, ever had his hands on a girl before.

What he lacked in experience, he made up for with eagerness. Dawn tried to adjust around him, to get his fingers in the right place. He had her against the wall, and they were both encumbered by clothes she refused to shuck. She made a frustrated sound as he maneuvered himself into yet another disagreeable place.

“Augie,” she whispered into his reddening ear. “You gotta… kinda like…”

“Sorry, Dawn,” he said, gasping. She felt the knob of his erection against her leg, and for the thousandth time, she wondered what the hell it was she was doing.

But then he managed to put his fingers in just the right spot and her body spasmed against his.

“Oh!” she squealed. “Just there. Stay. Right. There.”

Augie puffed and sweated. His glasses slipped down the blade of his nose. He put one hand against the wall to steady himself. Dawn brought a leg around his hip. The friction between his fingers and the bunch of denim encasing hard flesh that rubbed against her thigh caused a swirling heat in her belly.

“That’s it, Augie,” she said, loving the sultry sound of her own voice, of the power she wielded over this hapless boy who probably never expected this when he went out for comics this morning.

Experimentally, she ran a hand over the hard ridge of flesh in the boy’s jeans. He groaned and bucked at the touch. His body went suddenly still, as did the fingers that had so dutifully worked inside her.

“Wait. Don’t stop,” Dawn mewled.

Augie’s eyes, unfixed and glazed, fell on hers. “I’m sorry,” he said. Dawn felt a spreading warm wetness on her thigh and, with much embarrassment, understood. She choked down a laugh and kept him within the cage of her legs.

“It’s okay,” she said soothingly, running her hands up his arms. She pulled his face to hers and kissed him. “I just need you for a little bit more. Okay?”

He nodded weakly. His fingers squirmed erratically at first, but with a little encouraging undulation from Dawn’s hips, found a rhythm of their own.

Fire bloomed again, fanned out and ignited. Dawn squeezed her thighs around his arm. Once. Twice. On the third time, the flame burst inside her, spilling through every nerve and capillary with molten luxuriance. Dawn’s eyes rolled back, and the images swarmed up at her, flickering in her mind’s eye like a 1940s newsreel. Demons. Fairies. Places. People. Dozen and dozens of flashes like black and white wildfire in her brain.

Dawn pushed Augie away. Breathless, she fastened and zipped her pants, adjusting her panties through her pockets. The embers of her climax aftershocked through her. She did her fevered best to hold on to it long enough.

“That was it. You were perfect, Augie. Thanks,” Dawn said, going for her book bag and her pencils. She darted through the beaded curtain that separated the storeroom from the rest of McBride’s Heroes and flung herself into the semi-dark of the vinyl booth in the back of the shop.

Dawn pulled her sketch pad from her bag and flipped hastily to a blank page. Her hand flew over the page, tracing first the outline and then contours of a distinctly non-human face.

Augie emerged shyly from the shadows. “Dawn?” he asked.

She glanced up from the page, barely noting Augie or his crestfallen expression. She returned to her drawing. She caressed the page with charcoal strokes and crosshatches. The shape of a trident inside a circle formed in the center of the creature’s forehead.

Dawn forgot all about Augie. That was the best part of all of this, what made it every bit worth the effort. For the moment while she drew, she could forget everything: Buffy, Andrew, Connor, Xander, Willow. Nothing mattered but her empty page, which she filled up with her fervent effort of her fingers.

 

 

Entering the forest was like twilight’s swift fall into night. It brought with it a hushed sense of majesty that wrapped around them like a cloak of velvety softness. Light suffused the languid air. Clarisse danced excitedly on the roof of the carriage at the myriad songs and calls of birds and frogs and monkeys. They glimpsed the brightly-colored plumage now and again between the ropy strands of the carriage’s exterior. The sun seemed to coax the perfect blend of jungly scents from the plentiful flowers and fruits that bedizened the trees around them.

Nighna perched, keeping vigil at the front of her carriage. She directed it smoothly along with the force of her will, but doing so did not so occupy her that she couldn’t listen to the sounds of their conversations. She remained watchful, lest she needed to intervene. She noted with some disdain that their tones grew reverent and tender. Their legs entangled at the ankles. Hands intertwined. Heads bowed and foreheads touched.

Of course, they seemed oblivious. But Nighna watched.

This was the place for those condemned of Lust. It had a strong effect on people, especially if they already felt drawn in some way.

“Oh fine,” Anjelica said, pouting. “Let Grohl have his Foo Fighters. He was way better off without the concrete boots that was Kurt Cobain. Why do we even have to bring Nirvana into the discussion where he’s concerned?”

“Well, because,” Oz answered softly. “That’s where he got his start. Otherwise he’d be rootless. Like a tree.”

“A rootless tree,” Anjelica said. She smiled. “You’re staring at my lips.”

“Am I?” He continued to stare.

Just as Anjelica was leaning in, the carriage shuddered to a halt.

“Listen,” Nighna ordered.

Oz sat forward. He did hear something wildly discordant and eerily melodious. It was a whipped, frenzied cacophony of flutes and strings and wailing voices. He felt the crawly itch under his skin again at the sound of it.

“Um, Nighna,” he said calmly. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Nighna crouched in the bowl of the carriage. She opened her shoulder bag and drew out a long sword and a mace.

She handed the sword to Anjelica and pressed the mace into Oz’s hands.

“Be ready,” she said. “And hang on.”

The carriage lurched forward, lashing onto vines to climb steadily higher into the canopy. The forest streaked by them in a blur of liquid green. The music persisted, however, growing in pitch and lunacy the faster they flew.

“There!” Nighna shouted. The carriage levered itself toward a meadow. It swung and dangled and twirled through branches until it landed with a crash in the clearing. Torn leaves showered down on them. Nighna rent a hole in the carriage’s side and clambered from it. Clarisse fluttered onto an enormous glowing toadstool, showing them the trail’s head.

“On foot from here,” Nighna said. “Quickly.”

Oz scrambled from the carriage carcass. The music sounded far distant now, and the crawliness of his skin subsided to a minimal itch. He hefted the mace to his shoulder. Beside him, Anjelica tested the weight of her sword in her hand.

“This is a well-crafted blade made to my exact specifications,” she said. She sliced twice through the air, delighting in the way the blade whistled. “I can effectively wield this.”

“When you talk that way,” Oz said. “It’s kinda sexy.”

“Really?” Anjelica said.

“I’m turned on,” he said.

Nighna groaned. “All right, you two. We’re a long way from cold showers. This way,” she said. Following Clarisse’s lead, Nighna disappeared into the woods.

“Cold shower?” Anjelica snorted. “What does she mean by that?”

Oz shrugged. “I have no idea.”

Anjelica struck off down the path behind Nighna, swinging her blade over her head. Oz watched her for a moment before bringing up the rear.

 

 

Dawn came in to find Andrew had overtaken the entire dining room. He had spread out clippings from magazines and newspapers, photocopies of maps and schematics, printed emails, actual letters and books. Lots and lots of books. His near-mint-condition 1979 Boba Fett kept a heedful watch from its perch on the back of Giles’ chair. Andrew himself stood back under the archway that led into the hall, his hand stroking his stubbly chin. He paid no mind to her as she entered and slammed the front door.

She came to rest beside him, trying to glean what it was he found so consuming from the paper rubble.

“It’s a good thing Giles isn’t here,” she said at last. “He’d freak over the mess.”

“It’s not a mess. It’s organized chaos,” Andrew said without looking up.

“Yeah, well. He’d still freak,” Dawn said.

Andrew moved forward. He shifted one photo of the crater that once was Stonehenge to the left five inches and returned to his stare down.

“Hmm. Good luck with the insanity,” Dawn said. “Where’s Spike?”

“At the school,” Andrew answered.

“Again?” Dawn nearly shouted. “Does he ever come home?”

Andrew finally dragged his attention away from his research disastrophe. “You smell… funny.”

Dawn hugged her arms to her chest. “I do not,” she said, all defend-y. “You’re the one who smells funny. Know the meaning of scrub brush?”

Andrew sniffed her. “You smell like McBride’s. And you have charcoal all over your fingers. You went comicing without me.”

“I –” Dawn began. She hid her hands behind her back.

“Don’t try to deny it,” Andrew said sullenly. “I can smell a plastic sleeve from a mile away. What’d you get? The New X-men? Underworld?” His eyes widened. “You got the new Poison Elves, didn’t you?”

Dawn rolled her eyes. “Look, whatever. Okay? I’m just gonna get some sleep. Tell Spike I need to talk to him when he gets home.”

After Dawn tromped upstairs, Andrew returned to his studies. He had devoted every waking moment over the last two weeks to the task Giles’ had assigned. He clipped every reference to the recent “Cleansing”, as his fellow Watchers were calling it. He pored through his texts and networked his networks in search of first-hand accounts to add to his collection. Every time he cast out his net, he came back with more information than his brain lobes – big and manly though they were – could assimilate.

Even though his task was one of recording for posterity’s sake, Andrew kept getting the sense that there was a pattern in what he read. There was something larger and greater and mightier than he was seeing. Like in Close Encounters, when the guy molded the mountain from his mashed potatoes, Andrew kept feeling that there was a sign. That it meant something.

Andrew scratched absently at the now thinly bandaged nub of his ex-hand.

“Tell me, oh Great Ones,” he muttered to the amassed stacks of pages before him. “Let your secrets be revealed.”

Andrew sighed. “I need Squeezy Cheese,” he said. He went off to the kitchen for a private moment with cheddar from an aerosol can.

 

 

Trudging through the forest on foot was not as pleasant as gliding along in the grass carriage. For one, the moss that clung to the trunks of the baobabs and strangler figs looked deceptively plush and inviting. Every time Anjelica tried to lie down against the cool green carpet, Nighna yanked her up quite painfully and set her back onto the path.

Moreover, the path became less like a path and more like a non-path. With brambles and fuzzy leaves that tantalized and tickled their legs like a thousand fur-tipped fingers. Spores floated around them in an intoxicating drift that left them a whole lot punchy.

Nighna was beginning to rethink her attachment to her humans. They were now very much like annoying, yapping little puppies who strained at their leashes in their rapacious need to discover every wild scent and flower.

Clarisse flew ahead of them and circled back, plainly as frustrated as Nighna.

Nighna caught Oz before he dived into a patch of succulent orange berries.

“I told you,” she said sharply. “Don’t eat… Anjelica!”

Nighna spun in time to pull Anjelica down from climbing into a tree.

A flash of green light caught Nighna by surprise. Fortunately, it was bright enough to snap Anjelica and Oz back to attention. Unfortunately, it was a spright. And she wasn’t alone.

Nighna glanced at the woods around them. The sprights fluttered and flickered like fireflies against the backdrop of the canopy.

“What are they?” Anjelica asked. She brought up her sword to defend the three of them.

“The Gypsies,” Nighna answered. “They’ve caught up to us at last.”

 

Chapter Text

He burst through the rice paper door, leaving caution at the threshold. He held his sword low and to the side as he moved swift as mercury through the corridor of the Subako demon hive.

He could smell the swarm – like burning silk – even before he heard their chittering conversations. Beneath the stench he caught the scent of the vampires, faint but unmistakable. He passed under the close ceiling between rows and rows of hexagonal paper chambers each roughly the size of a coffin.

The dark hallway opened up to a filthy underground spillway. Around it, the Subako gathered, their discussions nothing but a sickening drone in his ears. They’re demons. That’s all I needed to know.

He appeared on the ridge above them. They would scent him out; he knew it, but before they did, he managed a quick count. Forty, at least. Four arms each - that was effectively 160 attacks. A wry smile formed on his lips.

He gripped the hilt of his sword and dropped to the lower level.

The Subako scattered like flies, then instantly regrouped. They regarded him with their pale, glistening eyes as he walked with confident deliberation to the center of their circle.

“The vampires,” he said in English, knowing from experience not to expect a response in kind. “Where are they?”

The Queen of the Subako lifted her four chitin-plated arms to him. Her answer was an insectile clicking that set his teeth on edge. Unbeknownst to him, the Subako shared a collective mind. The moment he crashed their little tea party, the Queen issued her diktat: Surround him. Close in. Rip him to bits.

Whatever. The attack was fine by him. When the drones surged in, he dropped to one knee, aiming not for their armored appendages or spiny head and neck regions. He went straight for the thorax. He spun, bringing his sword around in a strong, even arc. Sparks rained down from the blade, but the scaly Subako remained unscathed.

So much for thorax.

The demons’ attack was a blur of barbed arms and mandibles. He hacked haphazardly to drive them back. He clipped a few claws, and with a slice of luck, took off an arm.

They swarmed in again. He brought his blade forward, punching through the neck of the nearest demon. As he dragged the blade free, the demon popped like a water balloon full of blue goo.

The demons fell back. He grinned. He adjusted the blade in his hands, using it instead like a skewer. Five demons circled him. Now he was the blur. He lanced and spun and kicked, then drove his knee into the body of one while slicing the head off of the next.

More demons poured in. Their clacking cries filled the spillway, deafening and numbing him. He chopped, slashed, elbowed and head-butted. He fell to his knees, laying back far enough to peg the demons behind him. Soon goo pooled beneath his feet. It coated his arms and stuck his clothes to his skin.

Four pairs of powerful claws seized his shoulders. He rolled, pulling them down with him. One pincer nicked deep into his back. He swore as he tore from their grasp. With them all prone, they were easy prey. He turned to re-assess, but found that the remaining few Subako had fled into the tunnels.

Panting but satisfied, he wiped his blade on the leg of his jeans. He struck off along the spillway, ears perked to take in the sounds of retreating Subako, of the spirited traffic above, of the sewer draining into the depths of the Tokyo underground, and of voices hurried and hushed very near by.

He inhaled deeply, their dry, pulpy scent filling his nostrils.

They’re demons. That’s all I needed to know.

He slipped up on them, soundless as smoke. A pair of Kuei-shin, a male and a female, ducked into a niche and discussing in rushed aggressive words that he did not understand.

He beheaded the female first. Her body thunked to the floor. Kuei-shin didn’t dust like Western vampires, which was messy but unimportant. The male Kuei-shin shoved him, but only as an attempt to flee. He pinned the male to the slimy concrete wall. He brought the blade of his sword under the Kuei-shin’s chin. Had he paused to consider, he would have noted the terror in the Kuei-shin’s eyes.

Kuchikukan,” the Kuei-shin said, his voice timorous with fear. “Kuchikukan. Kuchikukan…”

He dropped the blade to the ground. “Sorry,” he said. He closed his hands around the Kuei-shin’s neck and twisted it the wrong way around. “I don’t speak Japanese.”

“Well, well. That was one helluva fight.” The voice, rich and husky and feminine, lilted up to him from the dark.

He turned quickly, immediately regretting the decision to drop the sword.

She emerged from the shadows into the slats of light that sifted down from the sewer drain. “I mean the fight before,” she said with a shrug. “This one… well, let’s face it. This one, you punked.”

"Faith."

“Connor. You’ve been naughty.”

“They’re demons,” Connor said. “That’s all I need to…”

“Shut it. Where’s the Glass?”

“It’s safe.”

She moved toward him. He held his ground. The wound under his shoulder blade began a slow, steady burn. He ignored it.

Faith folded her arms. “Connor, we can do this two ways. You already know ’em, so it’s your pick.”

Connor’s movement was betrayed only by his quick upward glance. He sprung straight up, into the mass of pipes and wires several meters above her head. In seconds, he had scrambled into the jumble of pipelines that made up the skeleton of the Tokyo underground.

Faith breathed a heavy sigh. “Here I am, so not surprised,” she said. She climbed back out of the sewers to put in a call to Willow confirming that Wayara’s source had been correct. Connor was playing one-man wrecking team against the entire demon population of Tokyo.

 

XXX

Anjelica held her sword at the ready, inserting herself as shield between the Gypsies and Oz and Nighna.

“They’re within slaying range,” she said. “May I slay them now?”

In spite of the dire surroundings and the precariousness of their situation, Nighna found herself suppressing a smile. Both the girl and boy, still punchy from the invigorating effects of the forest, had succumbed to yet another of its charms. Namely, bloodlust.

“Give them nothing,” Nighna said. With a forceful arm, she guided Anjelica behind her to stand beside Oz. Clarisse cawed loudly, further unsettling them.

Oz, who looked less than benign now that the raucous band of Gypsies pressed in on them, turned his impassive eyes to meet Anjelica’s. The cautious calm in them quieted Anjelica’s galloping heart. She felt his hand brush hers, and was infinitely relieved when he laced their fingers, clasping them lightly at her side.

The Gypsy caravan swung forward from the trees with the sound of a grinder organ winding down. Like the sprights who served as their welcoming committee, the wagon glowed a soft, effusive X-files green. The roots of the trees shifted to accommodate the wagon and the masked figures who poured boisterously forth into the clearing. When it landed, the Gypsies tumbled from the wagon like clowns from a tiny circus car.

They were small, vaguely humanoid and every one of them was oddly misshapen in different and disturbing ways, like holiday candles left in storage over the summer. Anjelica felt that she had adequate cause to be grateful for the ornate and grotesque masks they wore.

Oz leaned in to whisper into Anjelica’s ear. “It’s like the Jawas meet the Lollipop Guild,” he said. Every whispered word tickled her ear, and her heart set up to pounding all over again. Matters weren’t helped along when the leader of the Gypsies stepped forward and addressed Nighna with a raspy, high-pitched whine.

“Nig’han,” he said, bowing low. “Your worship, we beg to serve thee.” Behind him, the Gypsies spread blankets and set up candelabras. A group of them carried a long pine box into the clearing. They worked the latches on its sides and unfolded a stage, onto which the musicians immediately assembled and resumed their playing.

Nonplussed, Nighna tilted her head slightly to one side. “Very well, Paolo. Allow us swift passage.”

Paolo seemed to puff up proudly and grow to the height of a normal man before their eyes. He bowed again. This time, when he rose, his mask had gone. In its place was a ruggedly handsome, bearded visage.

“You remembered my name, Lady,” he said, his face parting in a genuine smile. Around him, the others similarly morphed into scantily clad, reasonably attractive humans. They erected a campfire and over it, a spit on which a beast already roasted. The Gypsies brought forth jugs of wine and baskets of fruit. Anjelica felt half mad with hunger.

“Give them nothing,” Nighna said in a scolding tone.

“We’re not,” Anjelica insisted. She looked to Oz for backup, but his eyes were downcast.

Much Ado About Nothing,” he said from the corner of his mouth. “Paolo is Senor Benedick…”

In an instant, Anjelica understood. Their frenetic brainflashes supplied the Gypsies with a form Anjelica and Oz would consider pleasing. She was hungry; they provided a feast.

“Please, Nig’han’net,” Paolo said. “Allow us to play for you. It’s been so long since we performed before a live audience.”

“You know the rules,” Nighna said. “They may neither eat nor drink.”

“Well, then, you give ’em sustenance; we’ll give song,” Paolo implored. “Please, Nig’han. Playing for you and your servants would give us great honor. And,” he arched his brows, “I have information which may please you.”

Nighna looked at Anjelica and Oz. They seemed drawn to the Gypsies music, but were both keeping their enthusiasm in check. Oz more than Anjelica, who was already swaying gently to the rhythm of the lutes and drums.

Nighna turned to them. “Fine. Go, and enjoy but…”

“Got it. No eat. No drink,” Oz said. He pulled Anjelica from the path and into the dusky clearing before the stage. A huzzah rose up among the Gypsies.

Nighna felt a resolute tug as she dragged her attention from her humans to Paolo. “Luxe,” she said. “He was here.”

Paolo’s toothy grin glimmered in the firelight. “Aye. Right oaf, that one. Wanted no song or dance. Don’t know what you seen in ’im.”

Nighna fluttered her lashes. Clarisse fluttered her wings. “Neither do I.”

 

XXX

 

“I was enthralled by it,” Willow said. Again. Two weeks, and Red was still beating herself up about it.

“You done exorcising the inner bitch?” Faith said.

Willow sat down at the collapsible table that was the dining area of the capsule hotel room. She unknotted a bunch of ginger root. She picked up the largest and vigorously grated it onto a plate. Her nose wrinkled at the pungent aroma that quickly filled the close quarters.

“No,” she said finally. “I was enthralled. Me. I’m supposed to be Miss Megawitch here, and it… and now it has Connor.”

An hour after Connor had ducked the scene with the Looking Glass, reason worked a magic of its own. Willow shrugged off the pull of the Glass with relative ease, but Connor was proving a much more prickly pickle.

Willow gestured to Faith with the knife. “Every second we can’t find him, that Glass goes deeper into his psyche.”

“Said that,” Faith told her. She went to the porthole of a window that looked out on the Tokyo sprawl. She bounced anxiously on the balls of her feet. Wayara was supposed to call them. Faith wondered what the hold up was.

“I still think we should call Buffy.”

Faith whirled on her. “Agh! Broken record much?”

Willow moped over her ginger root. “They should at least know we’re topside.”

“Hey,” Faith said. “If there’s a second in command in the Slayer World Order, your lookin’ at it. Plus, Wayara and his girls…”

“I know,” Willow said. “I know. I don’t want to worry them either, ’cause it was me who lost Connor and the Glass in the first place. I just… I want to find out how they’re doing.”

Faith crossed the room. She turned the chair around backward, straddled it and sat across from Willow. “Just gimme some time. We’ll get Prodigal Boy back, break whatever hold that thing has on him and get this mission back on its rails.”

Faith and Willow lapsed into their own tense inner monologues. Willow knew that she and Faith had as much pent up anger against Thellian as Connor did. No matter what Wayara said, their mission was to make a zen garden out of Thellian’s dust.

Willow glanced at Faith. Her eyes were closed, her full lips set into a hard line.

“You doin’ all right?” Willow said. Faith started to answer, but Willow broke in. “Not five by five,” she said.

Faith’s eyes opened and narrowed.

Willow picked up another root. “Angel killed Kennedy, not Thellian,” she said, hating the warble that crept into her voice. “But Robin…”

Faith pushed away from the table. She paced the very short distance to the wall and stopped, hands on her hips.

“Number One on his long list of Worst Nightmares. Son of Slayer, made into a…” Faith trailed off. She tilted her head to the ceiling in a vain attempt to keep in the tears.

“We’ll get him,” Willow said.

Faith turned back around. The emotion was reined in tight. Whatever moment of weakness she’d shared had passed. Willow knew better than to press.

“That a location spell?” Faith asked, trying to sound off-handedly interested.

Willow frowned. “Ginger beef,” she said.

Faith shrugged. She stalked back to the window, stretching her arms to work out the knots of tension in her shoulders. For Faith, standing still was death. She had to move, had to get back down to the streets, otherwise she was going to drive herself crazy.

She grabbed her jacket from the hook on the door and headed out.

“Faith!” Willow called.

She ignored the witch. After all, Faith had never been the type of girl to sit around and wait. Wayara hadn’t called, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t hunt up her own brand of action.

 

XXX

Buffy stepped through the arbor and continued along the smooth paving stones of the garden. The hem of her skirt was unrealistically long. It dragged over the grass, licking across her ankles as she turned to admire the dripping vines of morning glory that poured down like a leafy cascade from the fence. A shimmery, diaphanous mist hung in the air, sifting the sunlight through the branches of silver birch and over bursting blooms of every color and variety her mind could conceive.

She ambled. Buffy rarely ambled, but she felt this place was amble-worthy. She strolled (also, stroll-worthy) down the paths, turning her face to take in the sun, inhaling the mingled scents of the blossoms, the fragrant grasses and the soil itself. It was intoxicating. More beautiful than she imagined. More than she remembered.

Buffy paused. She did remember this place. It seemed somehow bigger now, and the plants had grown to tower and tumble over and around her like something from a fairy’s dream. Rich magentas, vibrant yellows, purples so dark they were almost black. She brought her face to a fringed, peppery flower that she was pretty sure had to be tropical. She let the stamen tickle her nose and tasted the pollen that sprinkled her lips.

“Pretty flower for my pretty girl.”

Buffy turned, all slow-motion like, her skirt twirling around her calves like a Stevie Nicks video.

He glowed. The sunlight turned his hair and skin to a lustrous opalescence.

“William,” Buffy said. He crossed the lawn, his movements the physical equivalent of a drawl. He smiled, in a bashful, boyish way as he moved toward her, looking up at her through his lashes.

He closed in, brushed his lips over hers and lay a strong hand on the rise of her unexpectedly large belly.

“This place,” Buffy said, breathlessly. “It’s… incredible.”

William kissed her again. He put both hands on either side of her face, smoothing them down the length of her hair and following the motion over her shoulders and down her arms.

“It’s for you,” he said softly.

“For me? It’s mine? My… garden,” she said. He ran his nose along the curve of her jaw and settled his mouth against her ear. Her knees responded by going slushy. “I didn’t get you anything…” she finished.

“Ah, but you did,” he said. He had the most deliciously persuasive hands. One of them cupped the back of her head as he continued to graze her neck with his equally delicious and persuasive mouth.

“Will,” she whispered, her eyes rolling back. “Will, I missed you. So much…”

“Shhh,” he said. He pulled away from her, his blue eyes leveling on hers. “I just wanted to give you something… living and pure, Buffy. Before.”

“Before?” Around her, the mist chilled. A cloud slipped over the sun, turning the blooms from vibrant to shades of gray.

William gave her a look, like perhaps she was a little slow. Just before he plunged a long, very sharp knife into her stomach.

Buffy staggered, mouth frozen in a silent scream. He shoved her backward into the shrubbery. But as she fell, a hand gripped her wrist.

Buffy snapped awake. She saw Spike’s face and did what she’d done a hundred times – she smashed his nose in.

“Gah!” He rolled onto his knees and clutched his blood squirty nose.

“Oh,” Buffy said, sitting up quickly. Not William, her mind rejoiced. It was a dream. “I’m…”

Forgetting herself, she reached for him and he immediately jerked away. Spike shook it off.

“…Sorry,” Buffy finished.

“Forget it,” Spike said. He may well have said Used to it by now, Slayer. You hitting me for no good reason must be a national past time, judging by his tone. Or maybe it was her filling in the no-banter gaps.

“No, Spike,” she said. “I really am sorry. I was dreaming, and…”

“C’mere,” he said, cutting her off. “I wanna show you something.”

 

Chapter Text

Dawn had chopped off a half a foot of her hair, and no one noticed.

She dyed it a deep shade of cobalt, with a shockingly bright violet stripe down the left side. And no one noticed.

She had taken to painting her eyelids black with kohl. She made her face white as a kabuki mask. She was considering a tattoo; she just hadn’t decided the what or where.

But no one noticed, so what was the big?

Not that she was doing it for attention, anyway. Not their attention.

She’d run into Brodie at Watkin’s Esoteric Bookshop. Her Brodie, who had then been Mickey’s Brodie, until Mickey hadn’t survived the whole vamp cleansing and didn’t Dawn just enjoy the hell out of that irony. Mickey - who had been her best friend until she found out about the witchy ways of Willow and all of Buffy’s and Spike’s freakishness and then turned on her like the duplicitous little fembitch she was – had been turned just in time for all vampkind to bite major dust.

Dawn stopped her internal ranting long enough to assess her reflection in the mirror. She smeared her lips with a coat of lipstick so shiny and dark it looked like patent leather. She ran her hands down the lacings of a leather corset she’d found in Buffy’s things. It was too short and kinda tight on Dawn’s long torso, but she had squeezed and molded the rigid leather around her body, managing to optimize her midriff, her hip bones and her breasts.

She looked down. Yep. Breasts. She had ’em. She shimmied a little and liked the way her body shimmied back.

Dawn was already up on two counts of Buffy-would-kill-her, and she hadn’t even left the house. Dawn glared at her reflection. But Buffy wasn’t here, was she?

After a moment’s sinking stillness, Dawn looped belly chain around her waist.

She was beginning to think that Buffy was really gone this time. Like for really real. It wasn’t like before, when Buffy had died. At least then, they’d had a body to put in the ground and a gravestone around which they could gather flowers and cheery stuffed bears. Dawn despised the word closure, but couldn’t deny that they’d once had it. Closure.

Dawn slipped into Spike’s room. He was never home, and the bed was still unmade. When he did come home, he collapsed in the chair by the bed and did what passed for rest. Not that she could blame a guy. She had her own consuming habits now to keep her occupied.

Dawn didn’t linger. She hated it in here. She saw what she came for on the dresser beside the bathroom door. Little teakwood jewelry box Giles had given to Buffy for her 24th birthday. Dawn opened it and took out a pair of crystal earrings. They didn’t go with Cybergoth, but she wanted them nonetheless.

As she put them on, Dawn forced herself to turn her thoughts to Brodie. About how torn up he was about Mickey. He’d said that nothing he could do helped fill up the hole she left, but he kept trying. Magic was his latest thing.

Dawn could relate and did. She told him about how her sister had mysteriously disappeared. It seemed everyone they knew had someone who was gone. Dawn and Brodie had spent the evening strolling through the vacant city streets, snuggled up close against the chill, not talking about Mickey or Buffy or anyone at all.

Dawn hadn’t realized Brodie was so deep. Maybe the last few months had done the deepening. In the end, it didn’t really matter. It had been surprisingly easy to coax him into an empty tube station bathroom so that she could get his hands on her.

And, well, turned out Brodie had a magic touch.

Brodie with the bright orange hair and pierced tongue. Brodie with the luminous eyes which he lined with a swath of electric blue. Brodie who could do things she never even dreamed of with just his fingers and – so far – a little bit of that holey tongue. Gave Dawn the shivers just thinking about it.

Afterward, she could sketch for hours and hours. They were all demons still, but some of them did move. At least for a little while. Like once, when she’d drawn a Gatnar beast, its spines quivered on the page for two hours before finally winding down to still life.

That was what Dawn was looking forward to. Not the Rave or the music or the Indie kids and their cosplay. She was up for the after party, when she could draw out all of the poison in her heart.

Dawn went into the sitting room to pull on her Zodiac knee boots. While she fussed over the buckle clasp, Andrew wandered by the open suite door, eating sweet potato pie filling from the can with a wooden spoon.

He paused in the doorway and gawked at her as if perhaps his Dawn had been traded in for the Blade Runner version of herself.

“Um, what are you doing?” she asked, hoping to head off his questions.

Andrew blinked. She gestured angrily at the spoon and the can, which he cradled in the bend of his arm.

“It’s Thanksgiving,” he said, sounding flat and un-Andrewlike in his misery.

“Not here,” Dawn said. Which reminded her that Xander hadn’t returned her call. Two weeks, and no call back. He didn’t even know that Buffy was gone. Guess the bliss that was Maya was enough to make him forget all about them. Maybe he just couldn’t get away quick enough.

Dawn stood up, tottering on the extra four inches of wedge heel.

Andrew started at ground floor and looked her all the way up.

“You can’t go outside like that,” he decided.

“Whatever, Captain America. Don’t you have a Mayflower to catch?” She sauntered past him into the hallway, leather and vinyl squeaking softly as she went. Below them, the front door opened. Spike was home.

Andrew squinted at her.

“I’m telling,” he said.

“Telling? Are you six?” Dawn rolled her eyes. She tried to sidestep him. He got in front of her.

“Move, Andrew…”

And move he did. Andrew dashed down the stairs, knowing full well she couldn’t pursue in those shoes. He collided with William in the kitchen archway.

“Steady on!” William yelled, pushing Andrew away. “What the bloody hell…?”

Dawn appeared in the entry hall behind Andrew.

William gaped at Dawn, his disapproval stamped all over his face.

“Bloody well, no,” he stated. "You can't go out like that.”

“Uh. Yes-huh,” she announced with a toss of her shorn hair.

“Not dressed like that, you're not,” he said hoarsely.

“What, you choose now to go all parental?” Dawn asked. She draped her arms around her bare waist. “So nice to know you care.”

“You look like the chick from Underworld ,” Andrew marveled.

“Shut up,” Dawn and William yelled simultaneously.

Andrew stuffed a spoonful of sweet potato into his mouth and shuffled off to the TV room.

William shook his head. “Dawn,” he said. “You… you look like a common trollop. You… I can’t let you outside this house like that. Go upstairs and change.”

“No. I like it. And I’m leaving,” Dawn growled.

William got rather quickly around her.

“Like. Hell,” he said, all tense.

“You can’t stop me, Spike. I have a date, and besides there are no vampires so you’re completely off the hook,” Dawn said. She backed toward the door.

He followed, shouting now. “Off the hook? There are more dangers than vampires, Dawn. And that tragedy of an outfit will have every sick freak and bugger… Hey, those are Buffy’s earrings.”

Dawn froze. And then her anger re-focused. “Don’t see why you care,” she said coolly. “They were from him. ” She hated herself for the hurt look that flashed on his face.

His blue eyes blazed. “Yeah, well they’re hers. Take them off.”

“Make me.” She turned smoothly and stepped toward the door. He clamped a hand over her wrist, squeezed it, and jerked her around to face him.

“You are not leaving,” William shouted.

“I so am!”

William twisted her arm. “You’re staying. That’s final.” She flailed. He held fast.

“Let go of me, dammit! You’re hurting me,” She pulled free and stumbled back into the coat rack. Eyes wide and brimming with tears, she screamed at him: “You are not my father!”

“That’s right, Princess Thinkspace,” he yelled at her retreating form. “Big difference: I’m here. I’M HERE !!”

Dawn fled, slamming the door between them.

William’s whole body quaked with rage. The tremor wracked him so badly he had to clench his teeth to stop them from chattering. All of the anger, all of it he’d been struggling to keep down…

He turned to find his almost unrecognizable reflection glaring back at him in the hallway mirror. All that fury skewed his features, hollowing his razor-sharp cheekbones, and ridging his blotchy forehead.

No, not so unfamiliar after all. Not a vampire, but still a monster. William stared a second longer before putting his fist through the glass.

 

XXX

Andrew swept up the glass in the entry hall. Which was no easy chore one-handed, thank you very much.

But he managed quite well and was pleased. He saw himself as the Professor X of the group; he was the glue. All of his friends were running around, acting crazy, doing weird stuff with their hair and putting on skankalicious outfits… All of his friends being, well, Dawn. But he, Andrew, stayed put, stayed calm, remained rational in the face of surmounting odds.

So they had both run off after their mirror shattering outburst? Andrew could hold the house together in their absence. When they returned, he would be there for one or both of them. There could be cocoa involved…

Professor X must be really lonely, Andrew thought with a sigh.

He dumped the last of mirror shrapnel into the trash bin. He returned to the hall, wondering why they bothered to replace the darn thing when all it ever did was get broken. Then he pondered absently, over whether there was a metaphor in that.

Beyond the entry hall was the figurative brick wall of his research spread out across the dining room table. He had been so sure that it was all connected - that some unseen force was guiding him - but it turned out that he didn’t have the mitichlorians to solve it.

Andrew could feel the pull of the pages. It was drawing him in and he could lose himself – yea, his very sanity - if he was not careful.

Luckily for him, the phone rang. Andrew put the dust pan down, and with a feeling of great import, answered the call.

 

XXX

Xander dragged the door to the phone booth closed and shook rain from his hair like the dog he felt he was. He turned out his pockets, finding only his ID and credit card. He’d left everything else behind.

He dialed the operator with shaking fingers and somehow managed to form words from syllables to put across his intent. He placed the call and waited. After a few moments straining to hear the tinselly connections between Galveston and London, the line started to ring.

“C’mon, c’mon,” Xander muttered softly. The rain pelted down on the booth, great sogging sheets of it. They did things bigger in Texas; Xander guessed that went double for thunderstorms.

Someone picked up on the other end.

“Summers, Giles, Rosenberg, Harris, Pratt, and Wells…” Dramatic pause “…residence.”

“Andrew?” Xander shouted over the line. “Andrew, is that you?”

“Xander. Hey, happy Thanksgiving.” Andrew answered casually. “How’s Maya?”

Xander heard someone speaking, and only Andrew could sound that annoying without comprehensible dialog.

“Andrew?” Xander called into the phone. “I need to talk to Buffy. Is Buffy there?”

Xander looked at the receiver, then bashed himself squarely in the forehead with it. Could he be less useful? If he couldn’t hear Andrew, how the hell did he think he’d be able to understand Buffy?

Lightning flash-fried a utility pole very nearby. Flash and thunder struck simultaneously, followed by the briny scent of sizzling ozone. The phone connection whirred and spat. Xander hung up the phone and plunged from the booth, damned sure that it was the least of all safe places to be in the middle of a raging thunderstorm.

Xander ducked and ran, sliding through gathering puddles across the empty street. More lightning lanced down along the seawall; none of it as close as that last Zeus-like strike.

He found shelter under the striped awning of Gaido’s Restaurant. He found that if he huddled in the backmost corner, the slanting rain would almost miss him. Rainwater seeped into his supposed all-weather footwear and trickled under the band of his collar. The whole place smelled of trash and fish. Or, adventurously thinking: trash-fish.

He cupped his hands around his mouth and blew on his fingers for warmth. The phone call had been frosting-like badness that was the fitting end to an abysmally bad day.

“Swell, Harris,” he whispered as he watched the storm. “Just… swell.”

 

Chapter Text

It took several hours of staring at beer for William to fold his lobes around the thing that brassed him most.

“You are not my father…” Dawn had yelled. And why that? Why had the girl thought to lob that at him as her last ditch effort to get him riled?

He had always been more of big brother to little sis in regard to Dawn. Or, at a stretch, an annoyingly protective uncle. Never a dad-type. Not till now.

Turns out, his trial run at Dad-dom had been a miserable fall-apart. He’d seen it plain enough in her eyes. Dawn was just as screwed up with pain as ever he was. She just dealt with it in a different way. He had been so absentee, he hadn’t noticed.

So that was it. The bitter kernel of it, the rotten core. He sucked at playing Dad. Painfully obvious. He had hurt Dawn and woefully neglected Andrew. Pack up, kiddies. We’re goin’ to Wally World…

And as William sat in the back of Shepherd’s watching the bubbles in his beer and making a point of disregarding the noisy ignorant bliss of a bachelorette party just hatching out up front, he felt the concluding stab of what really wounded.

What if… What if maybe that was the whole deal behind Buffy’s vanishing act? His heart ached for thinking it, but only because he feared it true. He’d played sperm donor, put in the Nephillim DNA needed to give The Slayer a child. His part was done, wasn’t it? He was worthy so long as there was a fight. Otherwise…

Maybe the Powers That Be knew what a tosser he’d be at parenting. Never had much of a role model, unless you count Angelus, and William desperately did not wish to count Angelus. Maybe they had taken Buffy from him because they knew exactly what a tosser he’d be. They would want to get her well enough out of harm’s way, once his deed was done.

William swallowed down that nasty nettling barb with a draught of Guinness.

He knew how Buffy and Dawn felt about their own MIA Dad. Knew how it hurt them that he seemed to move on once he severed ties with Joyce. Right bastard, William knew, but still he didn’t hesitate to hurl that verbal dagger when the chance presented itself.

Now Dawn had stormed out and he stormed out, and it was all a mess, and he was still failing them both. Dawn. And Buffy. Always failing… Always managing to bollocks up a good thing with his mouth, and he didn’t need fangs to do it.

William felt the instinctual tug of someone watching him. He cut his eyes to the formerly vacant chair at the end of his table. The young woman seemed to have materialized from nowhere. She was a biggish type, a girl with a nice bit of meat on her bones, with huge mawkish eyes and white confetti caught up in the curls of her ash blonde hair.

“Not in the mood for chatting,” he said, straight up.

“Fine. Neither am I,” she bit out. “’S just the last free chair in the place.”

William glanced around. She was right. Shepherd’s had well packed in, and it was early yet. He wanted to swing a quick patrol before heading back home to see what peace he could make with…

“It’s not like I was chatting you up, besides,” the woman groused. “I am with the party.”

William got to his feet. He began to pull on his jacket. “Good on you,” he said. He downed the rest of his beer and started out.

“Wait…” she said, catching his arm. “Perhaps I did hope for a little waffling. My mates are all having such fun, and I’m…”

William looked down into the girl’s sad-yet-hopeful eyes. They were beguiling little pools of blue with scatters of yellow in them that conjured a brief yet powerful memory of sailing paper boats in the lake with his dad when he was a boy…

“…I’m an ever-the-bride’s maid type, you know? And you seem such a sad sort, with those gloomy blues.”

William dragged himself and his attention away from the girl. “Off the market, pet,” he said.

It happened so fast, he didn’t see it. One second, she was there in the seat, looking at him, and the next, she’d sunk two very long gray fangs into his upper arm, all the way through the sleeve of his coat.

“Hey…” he managed, just before his mouth stopped working. He stared at her while the world seemed to shut down around him. Lights dimmed. Sounds hushed. Feeling and warmth drained right out of his body. He turned, and his legs buckled. He fell; she caught him.

As he lost consciousness, her lips pressed to his ear. “Sleep, William. This will only take a moment…”

 

 

Paolo’s face flickered in the firelight while a group of the Gypsies set up a tight rope behind the stage. Nighna kept an eye on Anjelica and Oz until she could no longer spare it. At that time, she whispered to Clarisse to perch on a branch above them. In that way, Nighna could stretch her consciousness a small amount to watch them, even though it taxed her mental faculties more than she thought was prudent. Dealing with creatures of the Underworld often meant panning through conversations in search of sub-textual gold. More often, it meant keeping your wits longer than the other guy keeps his.

Paolo swung one leg over a mossy fallen log and gestured for Nighna to join him. She took a seat facing him, legs primly tucked to one side.

“Would you like some wine?” he asked, leaning in close so that she could hear him over the music. “’S made from human tears. Only the finest suffering…”

“Thank you, no,” Nighna said. “Too bitter for my taste.”

He waved his hand. “Figgered as much,” he said. Paolo grinned at her. In the thickening twilight, his teeth gleamed predatory. Nighna folded her hands in her lap and eyed him calmly, waiting for him to open.

Taking her signal, he said, “So you’re after Luxe? What’s he done that’s so worth your trouble? This time, I mean…”

“Not him so much as his companions,” Nighna said. Clarisse flitted in the branches. Oz and Anjelica were sitting in front of the stage, letting the music pour over them.

“The vampires,” Paolo said. “Way Luxe told it, Thellian wanted only the means to restrain his progeny. Which he accomplished before leaving Limbo.”

“Hmmm,” Nighna said, recalling that Charon had mentioned as much. “Wonder how he managed that.”

“Connections and ties, milady. The vampire had many allies,” Paolo said.

Nighna considered this, carefully choosing her next question. Paolo watched her, positively leering. Apparently he enjoyed the fact that he held the higher ground.

“How did Luxe secure passage, Paolo? As I recall, he was not your favorite demon.”

Paolo edged closer. “I despised him utterly.”

“Yet you let him pass? What did he offer?” Nighna knew that Luxe had paid Charon with the only thing he had of value. Luxe bore her mark, and was technically her subservient, no better than a fugitive slave.

“A nightclub in Paris,” Paolo said simply.

Nighna laughed. “Please tell me you can’t be so easily bought, Paolo,” she said.

He shrugged, offering her a coquettish smile. “Real estate upstairs’ll soon be the hottest tomato, Nighna. Especially once all Hell breaks loose… Luxe offered and I’m a grabber. I know a buyer’s market when I see it.”

Nighna rubbed the rough bark of the tree trunk with her fingertips. “You really think this bough’s going to break?”

“Oh yeah,” Paolo said. “In a glorious ring of fire and brimstone. From what I’m been hearing, the imbalance out there’s got the whole world on the totter side. Ash and smoke, Nighna. I’d like a front row seat for that.”

Nighna watched the fire spark in Paolo’s eyes, and though she didn’t trust him, she thought she just might believe what he was saying.

“Fair enough,” she said. “And what would you like, in exchange for our passage?”

Paolo chuckled. “Yours is simple. A kiss is but a kiss,” he said, mouth spread into a wide smile. “But there is blood on your girl. None such simple there…”

“Blood?” Nighna snorted, sensing a bluff. “On Helli?”

“Oh yes,” he said slowly, mulling the words as if savoring the flavor of them. “Can’t you just taste it?”

“She is a Slayer.”

Now it was Paolo’s turn to laugh. He threw his head back and bellowed to the boughs of his trees. “Before, Nighna. I’m talkin’ about innocent blood on her mitts.”

Nighna felt the first flutter of alarm through her tenuous connection with Clarisse. But as she got to her feet, Paolo’s hand vised down on her arm.

His face hovered close to hers as he rasped into her ear, “It’s too late…”

 

 

Dawn thought she just might deserve a BAFTA award for the acting job she managed to put on. When she and Brodie hit the line outside of Fabric, she had swallowed down all of her tears and put on Dawn’s Brave Face Number 28.

She was revved and rave-ready. Until she saw the pounding wave that was Brodie’s friends, who used to be Mickey’s friends, waiting for them at the door.

Dawn halted on the sidewalk, catching Brodie’s elbow. “I’ve an idea,” she said, falsely chipper. “Let’s don’t go.”

Brodie, tall and gaunt and sensitive Brodie, looked down at her, his painted face a study of concern and possibly emo.

“What is it?” he asked. “It is my mates? Because they’re safe.”

“Oh, I don’t think they’re dangerous…” Dawn said.

Brodie smiled. “No. I mean, they’re good on you. They remember you from school.”

Dawn liked the way Brodie spoke. The way he recklessly left off ending consonants, so that school became skoo. She also liked watching his tongue ring when he talked, which meant that she sometimes floated out of the comprehension zone while he was busy trying to tell her stuff.

“It’s just,” Dawn said, ignoring whatever Brodie said. “I was thinking we could do…” she touched his waist teasingly… “Something else.”

“Wha? You mean, now?”

Dawn fluttered her ridiculously long faux eyelashes. “Do you have someplace we can go?”

And no matter how emo Brodie appeared without, he was all teenage horndog on the inside.

He had his hands on her before they even made it inside the house. The fact that his parents were out at dinner and could bust them at any moment only thrilled her more. Dawn maneuvered him upstairs, kissing him furiously, pouring all of her frustrated energy into those fevered biting nips. In the end, he half carried her into the room, slamming her body against the door to close it. She knotted his orange hair in her fists and could feel him so hot and eager and hard beneath her.

But, once the door was closed, Brodie broke away, putting some distance between them.

Dawn leaned on the door, curious and panting.

“Look, Dawn…” he said and broke off. His eyes kept darting to the belly chain and her jutting pelvic bones, which Dawn found infinitely entertaining.

“Brodie. It’s okay. Okay?”

“Wait.” He held out his hands to stop her advance. “I heard ’round school, what happened with Augie.”

Dawn halted. “You know Augie? I mean, what did you hear happened? Because things around school, rumors and things, they aren’t always exactly founded in…”

Brodie nodded. “He said you… used him as some kind of art experiment,” he said.

“I so,” she began. “It wasn’t…”

“No, Dawn. ’S’all right,” Brodie said. “But I’ve a thought.” He hesitated, as if he figured she might laugh at him.

“A thought’s no good unless you share it,” Dawn said, taking another bold step in his direction.

“’Stead of you drawing after, like with… him,” Brodie began. “Maybe if you drew on me. Y’know. Before.”

Dawn’s eyes widened. It was the hottest thing she’d ever heard in her life. “Oh. God…” she said, already feeling the heat spread from her center.

Brodie grinned. “I’ve a pen set,” he said. Dawn pounced and kissed him breathless.

 

 

Oz and Anjelica felt drunk. It was the music. Both agreed without really speaking that it was the best blend of old-meets-new they had ever heard. To Anjelica, it was Nickel Creek and Radiohead. For Oz, it was Beastie Boys meets Beatles, with a twist of Weezer thrown in. So, with their bodies nestled companionably together in front of the stage, they listened to the Gypsies song.

Somehow, at some point, Oz turned his face to hers, their lips met, and they kissed. A long, languid, lush kiss that lasted for what seemed like forever. But when they opened their eyes, they found the forest had faded. Instead, they sat on the edge of an indoor swimming pool. Wan light fell across the water in wavering spangles as a lone swimmer made her way to the shallow end.

Oz felt Anjelica’s body tighten next to his.

“Helli?” he asked, “I may be still dazed by the kiss, but is this a sudden and unexplained scene change?”

She was shaking her head. “No,” she mumbled. “Not here. Not here…”

The girl, a compact little thing completely devoid of anything womanish, climbed from the pool and wiped water from her face. Taking a towel from a bench by the wall, the girl left, bound for the showers.

Oz turned to her. Her face had whitened and she shook almost convulsively.

He got to his feet, pulling her with him. He held her hands, but she was unable to do anything but stand there. “Helli? What? What is it?”

Even as he spoke, the scene at poolside continued. Three young men entered from without. Oz could see their white and gold lettermen jackets, and knew they had to be several years older than the girl. They whispered and snickered to each other as they crossed the slick cement toward the showers. As they walked, seeming to wind down to slow motion with each step, the sunlight caught on the blade of a knife.

And that pervasive, staggering, burning, terrifying twinge seized him again.

“It’s you…” he growled.

“No,” Anjelica shouted. But everything about her said that it was…

“You gave them something,” he said. It twisted under his ribcage, spreading like brushfire through his bones. Oz backed away from her.

Tears splashed from her eyes. “I didn’t,” she said weakly.

Oz felt tingling in his fingers and around his collar. “What…” he gagged. “What did they do?”

Anjelica was backing away, denying, dissolving into tears. The boys had reached the door and were stealthily pulling it open.

Anjelica knew what she was seeing, but did nothing but stand there in mute horror. She watched as his fingers elongated, mouth stretched and contorted into jowls.

“What did they do to you?” he shouted, his voice changing from calm, sweet Oz voice to thick and guttural werewolf growl. “Helli!”

“Please,” she said. She wrapped her hair around her hands. “Please don’t.”

But Oz was gone. She did nothing to defend herself. When he struck, she fell and she could hear – even as she lay bleeding – she could hear the boys screaming as he shredded them. She heard their screams as she had before: shocked, hysterical cries like bruises in her ears. And Oz… was gone.

 

 

Brodie splayed across his bed for her. Dawn sat astride, feeling delightfully wanton as she let the tip of her pen dip and swirl across the smooth planes of his chest. She swept the blade of the fountain pen over his breastbone, loving the way the ink fanned out along the stroke, making crosshatches of its own.

Brodie himself lay breathlessly alert, a perfect living canvas.

“What are you drawring?” he asked, careful not to move too much.

“I don’t know yet,” Dawn answered truthfully. All she had thus far was an outline, but it was more Place than Person or Thing. Which was good. Wagging demon tongues did not equal erotic in Dawn’s book, and no amount of Tattoo Monthly Magazine would convince her otherwise.

She turned the pen in her hand, trailing a steady line down his hairless torso. It tickled and he stifled a laugh. Dawn paused.

Jou must hold steel,” she said in her best bad fake French accent. “I cannot work under zeese conditions.

He laughed again. Then, with a quick return to Sobersville, he ran a hand up her thigh. “Do you want me to touch you?”

Dawn’s hand trembled. “You mean, while…”

He slid his hand under her, working his fingers into the pliable folds of leather pants. She rocked gently against him, eyes sliding closed as the heat bloomed under his touch.

“I don’t think I can… hold steady,” she told him. “Oh. But, go ahead.”

Brodie worked the eyehooks on the pants and pushed his fingers into her center. That one touch and Dawn thought she might explode.

“Here. Let me just,” she said, sliding off of him. He looked confused until he saw her wriggling from her pants. She hopped back onto him. They were both half-naked now; only their naked parts didn’t match up. “There. All better.”

Brodie returned his fingers to their previous occupation. Dawn, managing to conjure fantastic self-control, returned her pen to sketching. Picking up where she left off, she swept a line around his navel. The curve of the line wavered slightly as he rubbed the tender nub of her clit between his fingers. She turned the pen in her hand to close the outline.

Dawn raised her body, giving Brodie a better angle. He turned his palm over and ran a finger all the way inside. An expectant moan escaped from her throat. She found it was easy to forget, so long as he was touching her.

“God… Dawn,” Brodie breathed. “You’re…”

She bent low and shut him up with a kiss. When she leaned back, her hand returned to the sketch, flying now with the light, deft strokes of a practiced artist. Brodie, seeming to read her readiness, thrust a second finger deep into her, massaging her clit with his thumb. She moved against him, feeling the brink of the wave that built within her with every arc and twist.

The sketch took shape as he coaxed it out of her. His erect nipple became a full moon in a starless sky. Beneath it, a wooden platform onto which she began to sketch three figures. One man, two women. A crowd formed along the border of the sketch, and Dawn bore down on it, trying to draw it into focus, to hold on to it, trying to…

stand amidst the crowd, facing the raised wooden platform. Above it, three ropes dangle, the loops of nooses catching circles of dark sky. Three figures – two women and a man – stand beneath the gallows. Their hands are bound with plastic ties, like the kind Dawn has seen on garbage bags. They are bruised and dirty, their eyes downcast, and no one in the crowd moves to save them.

As Dawn watches, she senses a strand of excitement rippling through the crowd, bright as electric wire. A group of hooded figures appear, ringing the platform and the prisoners. Dawn watches, helpless, as one of the figures moves forward to slip the noose around the neck of one of the women. And as the floor drops beneath the damned woman she screamed…

Dawn came shudderingly against him. The sheer pain of it brought her around to the realization that something had gone wrong.

She opened her eyes to find that both of Brodie’s hands were occupied by tightly gripping her upper arms. As she looked down into his shocked face, she tried desperately to put the pieces into some kind of sense-making fit.

“D-Dawn,” he whispered. “Where? You…?” His eyes darted downward, and she followed his cue.

“No.”

“I tried…” he began. He sounded near tears as he fumbled to explain. “I tried to stop you.”

Clearly, Dawn had taken matters into her own hands. The masterpiece she had drawn spilled down his body all the way to the place where their bodies joined. Fully, entirely joined.

“Oh,” Dawn sobbed. She slipped from him and collapsed in a tangle at the foot of the bed. The last waves of her release shuddered through her. Brodie was getting up, coming to help her, saying something incoherent and apologetic. She grabbed her pants and bolted.

 

 

He awoke in a dark place. A halogen blue cast the room in dismal monochrome. She had him sprawled on a stone slab. In the haze of his waking, he still couldn’t see or hear worth a damn. Panic flared when he tried to raise his head and realized he could not. He was bloody paralyzed.

“Oh, you’ve wakened, William. You are strong,” the woman purred. She moved around the end of the table, cloaked in darkness. “Makes it more fun for me.”

She gripped both of his boots and hauled his unresponsive body forward. She stepped between his legs and went to work unfastening his belt. In the absence of light, he saw only white hands and the glimmer of her eyes…

No.

“What luck have I,” she sang. “Lucky thing that I am, to have this task…”

She leaned forward, letting the light fall on a sweep of her hair and the orb of one smooth white breast. Nipple-less. Navel-less. He struggled, inwardly screaming, and that seemed to excite her. She slipped her hands into William’s pants.

“Ah, big boy you are. I knew it. Could sense it. Be a good boy for me,” she said.

William’s cock hardened obediently in her hand. She loosened his pants and tugged it roughly forward. She ran her large hand all the way down its length to the base.

“Gather the seed, the seed. And yours is special, special… My sweet,” she said. She stroked her hand rhythmically as she spoke. With each downward motion, he felt himself stiffen against her fingers.

“Seeds of angels,” she said, throwing her head back. “Mustn’t be spilled. And look how eager you are for my touch.”

“No…” William managed to croak.

She bent her head to take the tip in her mouth. She licked it with the blade of a forked black tongue. William writhed, the stone biting into his shoulders.

“So strong. So eager.” Her strokes fell harder now, swifter. “I will carry your seed in me. As will my sisters. We will make an army from your angel’s seed…”

The surge in him grew. His body, the betrayer. Though he fought until his stomach twisted and his balls shrank against his ass, he knew… his body would do what nature had deemed fitting.

His earlier thoughts seemed cruel in their irony. He was a tool. A vessel. A thing to be used…

But Buffy had seen more than that. Buffy… William squeezed his eyes closed against the swirling, burning pain of his engorged flesh.

“See, he cries. Weeps like a babe. Raw and tender. Will it be nice to take this story home – how the great Spike wept as I made him come for me?” she said. Her motion was frenzied now, both hands coaxing and teasing the long shaft to a crippling hardness.

“Come for me, come for me…” she whispered.

William clenched his fists and his jaw. Her venom was wearing off, but not fast enough. He began to growl and thrash.

“Twist and turn, it’s all the same,” she uttered harshly. “Look how hard you are for me.”

In a blinding motion, she vaulted onto the stone table, pinning his thighs with her knees. She continued relentlessly pumping, her white fists clamped on his flesh, bruising him senseless. He glimpsed her legs, then – plump goat thighs covered with a thick pate of curling gray hair. But her body was smooth and pale and hairless.

He knew what kind of beastie she was. She lowered her sex toward his…

And William released. His semen shot across her abdomen, spilled and spent. He managed a thin, satisfied smile.

The creature gave a throaty moan. “Silly, silly boy,” she said, sliding back. She folded her body in half and lapped the ejaculate from her skin. She raised her head again, licking the milky fluid from her lips. “I can take your seed this way as well. I am the vessel…”

“No. That’s what I am,” he said.

William reacted quickly. Summoning every bit of energy from every last cell in his body, he punched a hole clean through her chest. She stared down at him, yellow bile leaking from her sneering lips. With what strength he had left, he shoved her lifeless body off of his.

Time crept by, and still the paralysis clung to his limbs. He slid down from the table to crouch unsteadily beside the dead Succubus. With his Nephillim dagger, he began the painstaking task of severing the bitch’s head. Took for sodding ever, given his diminished motor skills, but he didn’t stop till it was done. He didn’t want to take any chances…

Afterward, sore and bloody, William dressed himself. He felt numb with guilt and that old self-loathing, at letting himself be used, washed over him.

Couldn’t dwell on it. Not right now. Not when it would be morning soon, and he had a home to get to. Wards to look after. There were monsters in the night, and if he had forgotten, this would be a right sobering reminder. He had let his guard down, and nearly…

William shook his head to clear it. He crept on legs that felt like stilts into a system of sewer tunnels, probably, he would wager, right below Shepherd’s. But the harpy’s poison had done its trick. Each agonizing step took all of his concentrated effort. Even with his rapid healing, it would be hours before he could make it home.

 

Chapter Text

“Yeah, babe… but, all of them?” Lorne paced on his muppet skin rug, his Hot Lips phone in hand to facilitate his pacing. He had been on the phone, wearing down bits of this of rug for three hours, and the reports had gone from ‘hey that’s a bummer’ to ‘holy Robot Chicken, it’s full-on apocalyptic!’

“Okay. Look. I know we can’t get dancers in on such short notice, but we can pick up busboys from the Fat Duck. I know a guy,” Lorne said. He paused, listening to the Brevnar demon on the other end fume and cry Mary.

“I know, big guy… I know,” Lorne soothed. “All I’m saying is that Triumvirate can survive a demon boycott…”

The Brevnar kicked it up a notch, shrilling into the phone on the other end like a cat in a meat grinder. “Hey!” Lorne shouted. “Yes. Yes, I realize our clientele is down by a third since the Vampire Cleansing, but… No, this is not the first demon strike in human history.”

The Brevnar objected. Lorne said, “No, it is not the largest demon strike in history. You’re forgetting the Troll Wars of 300 B. C. Well, I realize it’s hardly the same…”

The demon on the other end raved and sobbed. Lorne heard the thing blow its nose-hole and continue to bawl unintelligibly over the connection.

“Look,” Lorne said calmly. “Nighna entrusted the place to me, and where I come from, that kind of offering isn’t a mere trifle, I can tell you. Now you don’t think I’m gonna let it just topple over like a tiered wedding cake in the Alabama sun? Not this green-faced Pylean…”

But the Brevnar was beyond reason. Thankfully, the call-waiting tone beeped in, letting Lorne off the hook. So to speak.

“Hey, Jeb…” Lorne bit in, trying to talk over the Brevnar’s incessant hysteria. “I, uh, got another call.”

Lorne clicked from one near-mad demon to another. “Well,” Lorne said softly when he recognized the voice of the demon on the other line. “I didn’t expect to hear from you since…”

The second demon was talking, though, in a hard yet hushed way that made Lorne’s blood turn to ice.

Lorne reached through the bar into the kitchen, where he had a notepad and a pencil.

“All right,” Lorne said, scribbling. “Got it.” Pause. “You spell that with two Cs?” Lorne asked. “And a silent… Q?” Lorne glanced at the three lines he’d written on the page. On the other end of the line, the demon informant was silent.

“You’re sure?” Lorne asked, feeling his heart beat in the back of his throat. And for him, that was a quite a climb. Then, “I got it. I’ll tell them.”

Lorne hung up the phone and stared at the circles his feet tread into his bright red shag rug. “Well,” he said, steeling himself with a thorough sigh. “Looks like the end all over again.”

 

 

“I like rice,” Buffy said.

Spike looked over his shoulder at her, but continued to walk. Buffy was nervous chatty. And also hungry. Wiggin’ hungry. She began to wonder if Spike was planning on a drive-thru before this… whatever it was he planned to show her.

“I actually like it plain, with butter,” she went on. “It’s like popcorn. Which I also love.”

She saw Spike smirk with the slight turn of his head. Any attempts she made at small talk Teflon-ed right off of him. He was a big non-stick frying pan of not talking.

Which reminded her… “I like fried rice, too,” she said. “With soy sauce. Or that yummy pink sauce at General Cho’s.”

Spike led the way down familiar backstreets, walking slowly yet putting distance between them.

They were bound for the downtown area, sticking to the back streets she knew and disliked so well. Sunnydale by night was lit up like a carnival. Something big was going down, like a street fair or a block party. Maybe there would be food.

“Right this way, pet. Not much further now,” he said.

“Could we maybe pick up snacks? I’m feeling a bit rice-y,” Buffy said.

Spike drew up short of the street and turned his serious eyes to meet hers. “You may want to save it for after,” he told her.

“After what?”

Spike pursed his lips and watched her – really watched her. She hadn’t seen him eye her with such intensity since her return. Whatever it was he meant to show her, he was having second thoughts about it.

“Spike,” she said. “While it’s sweet that you’re concerned, I’ve slain all manner of goopy, gross monsters – large ones, small ones, some as big as your head…”

“Your point is…?”

“I don’t slay well on an empty stomach,” Buffy said. Her belly grumbled to underscore the statement.

Spike drew up on the corner, scanning the busy street around them. “Well, you’re in luck. No slaying in order. None of my kind will be rearing their bumpy heads tonight.”

“But…”

Spike lifted a finger to quiet her. Normally, this type of gesture would annoy the hell out of Buffy, but she soon saw the source of the distraction.

Ahead of them, a woman had pulled a stroller to the curb. Buffy beheld the chubby waving arms of an infant, and her ability to focus on anything else slid off the face of the planet.

Buffy went immediately to the stroller and peered down at the wiggling child all swaddled up in a green gingham blanket.

“Aw,” she gushed. “She’s beautiful.”

The mom, a thirties-ish woman in a long dress with sneakers and ankle socks, grinned knowingly.

“He, actually,” she corrected gently.

“Oh – I’m sorry. The color’s all gender ambiguous. I didn’t mean to. I mean…” Buffy fumbled.

The mom set about to the task of unswaddling in order to re-diaper him. “It’s okay. It’s the eyelashes. He’s got the longest on record,” she said. “At least, I think so…”

Buffy now marveled inwardly at the prospect of future diaperings and the showering of eyelash praise from random pedestrians. She stared down into the little boy’s radiant grey-blue eyes.

“I’ll say,” Buffy agreed. “He could lasso the moon with those things. H-how old is he?”

“Twenty-two weeks,” she said. The mom unfastened the baby’s diaper. At which point, Buffy turned prudently away.

“Spike,” she said excitedly. “He’s so young he’s measured in weeks…”

“Let’s go, pet,” he said.

Buffy took this abruptness as an unwillingness to witness baby wiping. But once they dipped back off the street, she saw and understood too well when she saw Spike tuck several bills into his hip pocket.

“You robbed her?” she asked, all belligerent and rage-y. “You robbed that woman while she was changing her infant? Just when I think you can’t sink any lower.”

Spike whirled on her. “Come off it, will you? Don’t get your virtue in a twist.”

“You disgust me…”

Spike cocked his head to the side and glared down at her. “Please,” he drawled. “With instincts like that, I give her three weeks. Tops. And that darling little cherub will be just another Sunnydale statistic.”

“No thanks to you,” Buffy bit out. She squared with him, mood swing fully swung.

“Where do you think it comes from? Hmm?” Spike asked.

“What?”

Spike said, “The cameo apples Dawn so adored last week. The bread. The milk. The weekly showers at the motor inn. Someone pays the Culligan Man for the water you both drink. And the clothes you’re wearing…”

“Sack cloths, you mean,” Buffy interrupted.

Spike’s forehead knotted up in frustration. “Dawn doesn’t like restrictive clothing. Makes her itch…”

And for that, Buffy was silently grateful. Loose clothing had so far saved her the need for growing bumpiness of her tummy.

Spike stepped forward, continuing in a steady, reasoning tone. “It costs money, Buffy. How did you think we managed?”

“Late shift at the Double Meat?” she put in, hopefully.

“Rot. A month you’ve been here. Four years before that, I’ve been here…”

“I’ve been here a month?”

Spike heaved a frustrated sigh. He turned and headed up the street, toward the main part of town. Buffy followed, trying now to piece together how it was possible she’d already spent thirty days in Sunnydale.

“My petty larceny’s the least of our worries, Slayer. I’m a vampire. Not exactly suited for your standard 9 to 5,” he said. He came to a stop in the center of an abandoned street and looked up. “We’re here.”

“Here?” Buffy said, glancing around, confused. “Where’s here?”

Spike leapt up, caught the bottom rung of the fire escape ladder and pulled it down. “After you,” he said.

Buffy climbed over the brick ledge and onto the rooftop. It was dark and vaguely romantic, which made her feel a bit exposed and insecure in light of their most recent confrontation. She felt a stab of longing for William. He could piss her off just as royally as Spike, but at least she knew where they stood. Which was together, and that was nice and comfortable. But Spike was so un-any-of-those-things.

“This way,” he said, guiding her almost tenderly to the corner of the rooftop. The angle and shadow from the building adjacent provided adequate cover while giving her the perfect vantage of the downtown square below. She could see the marquee of the Sun Theatre, the Magic Box, the bookshop, the bank annex and several other, familiar storefronts.

New here was the wooden stage set up at the intersection of Main Street and Wilkins Avenue. Police barricades cordoned off the downtown, enabling vendors to set up along the square. She saw face painting booths, booths with balloons and toys and neon glowy necklaces, and food… roasted ears of corn, shrimp and sausages on sticks, bread bowls full of chili, hot dogs, funnel cakes, ice cream in waffle cones. The smell of it drove her to sensory overload.

“Wow,” she marveled, her mouth watering in sloppy, dog-like fashion. “A street festival. Looks like something’s been good for business.”

Spike sat down against the ledge, his body turned away from the activity below. He took a cigarette between his lips and lit it with practiced flair. Buffy hunkered down beside him.

She watched droves of Sunnydale folk strolling along the streets in packs of threes and fours. It was an agreeable night for a party. The weather was pleasant and balmy. There was music and food and laughter. If she squinted and forgot about her action-packed tenure on the Hellmouth, it seemed like a perfectly normal place to live.

“You know,” Buffy said. “This is what I never understood. This place is so evil and Hellmouthy. Don’t they keep death rate and violent crime statistics on record at City Hall?”

Spike chuckled, waving swirls into the smoke that curled from his cigarette. “Yeah, sure. But it’s all one spin away from ‘slice of heaven,’ innit?”

“I guess,” Buffy said. “It’s an excellent place to live for retirees, vamps or people who want their kids devoured by giant snakes. I mean, really. Why do people keep coming here?”

Spike patted the recently nicked cash in his pocket. “It’s the American dream, luv. Buy some land. Build a house. Pop out some kiddies and grub an existence till you die. Some can’t afford the more ritzy digs, so they take their chances here. Meanwhile, big business and demons alike know a ripe plum when they see it. Population’s more than doubled since TriadCorp and the military base…”

Buffy snapped to attention. “Sunnydale’s not on a military base,” she said.

“Is now, Princess.”

Buffy let out a sigh. “Yay for evil big government. We both know how extra-creepified things get when those guys pair up with demons.”

Spike lifted his eyes skyward. “Match made in hell,” he said.

“You were right to turn this place into a roadside attraction…” Buffy muttered.

“Beg pardon?”

She caught herself at the beginning of explanation, but just waved it away. “It’s nothing,” she said. She leaned onto the ledge, resting her chin on her folded hands. “Oh. A crowd’s gathering.”

Without so much as a twitch, Spike said, “Time for the show.”

Buffy perked. “There’s entertainment? Like a speech? Or, oh! A gymnastics exhibition?”

Spike groaned softly. “Just watch, Slayer.”

“This is me. I’m Watchin’ Gal,” Buffy told him.

As if on some unseen signal, the carnival-goers drifted toward the stage. The mood shifted from convivial to downright somber.

“Okay. Watchin’ Girl’s now Concerned Girl,” she said. She glanced at Spike, who sat all noncommittal with his wrists resting on his knees and his cigarette turning to ash between his fingers. “Who called for scene change?”

“Guess it would be them,” Spike said.

Buffy leaned on the ledge. Her pulse quickened at the sound of chanting ruffling around the edges of the congregation. As the noise rose, the people below quieted. And after a moment, several torch-bearing, robed and hooded figures appeared behind the platform. The crowd parted, allowing the figures wide berth. Buffy tried very hard to understand the expressions on the audience member’s faces. She read awe, reverence, fear, hate – but all humor had bled from them. The robed figures, still chanting their discordant plainsong, mounted the platform before a rapt and terrified audience.

Matters worsened when the last figure took the stage: an executioner, clad in black brigandine, complete with an enormous double-headed axe.

Buffy took that as her cue to move. But Spike caught her around the waist.

“Wait…” he said.

She stared down into his face, trying for all that was sane to read him. But he was so impassive he’d give Angel a decent run.

So she waited.

And she counted. Nine robed figures. One executioner. And a mass of people struck suddenly dumb in their presence. She could take them. If she had to, Buffy knew she could take them down.

One of the robed figures stepped forward. With a wave of her arms, the crescendoing chants cut off. The people, their faces upturned, their eyes wide with fear, took a collective step backward.

The figure took down her cowl, revealing the soft face of a regular looking woman. The illusion was ruined when she brought her hands together and an orange orb of crackling energy coalesced between her fingers.

“The witches,” Buffy breathed.

“Wait,” Spike said again.

The head witch spoke. “We are gathered here tonight in the name of justice” she said, letting the orb swell and flow above her palms. “For us, it is swift. It is fair. It is flawless…”

Behind her, the executioner had set aside his axe and had begun to string up nooses from the upper bar of the platform. The other witches ringed the stage, their whispered chants like raven’s wings on the night breeze.

“Oh,” Buffy said, feeling deeply chilled. “I think it’s a gallows, Spike.”

Spike took a drag from his cigarette. “Of course it’s a bloody gallows…”

“We’re in a public place,” Buffy interrupted. “With many on-lookers. All those people…”

“Are gonna watch like good sodding citizens.”

Buffy returned her attention to the stage. The executioner had led three bound and gagged prisoners – two women and a man - onto the platform. Another one of the witches stepped forward, unrolled an archaic scroll and began to read a list of charges: theft, deceit, indecency, debauchery. As the accuser spoke, the orb of energy stretched into a nebulous cloud of heavy orange smoke. It divided into three separate veils that settled above the heads of the condemned.

The executioner positioned each prisoner on a wooden block beneath a noose. Buffy watched the prisoners, watched their dejected downcast eyes for signs of hope. Perhaps a signal for a daring escape attempt. Something. Anything.

“Why don’t they do something?” Buffy asked desperately. Her stomach rolled.

Spike moved close to her. When he spoke, she felt his lips brush her ear.

“What can they do, Slayer? They’re just people…”

Buffy’s pulse raced. She jumped to her feet.

“I’m not…” she said, but faltered. She had no idea what she was all ‘not’ about.

Spike pushed her backward, away from the ledge.

She was crying now. Or rather, crying again. “Why? Why did you even bring me here?” she hissed at him.

But he merely inclined his head, giving her the stubborn resolve face she had come to know so well.

Buffy turned back, compelled as the crowd beneath her to observe the fate of the prisoners. She watched breathlessly as the executioner cinched the knots tight around the first woman’s neck. Another sound rippled through the crowd, spreading chills down Buffy’s arms. The audience had joined the witches’ chanting, suffusing it with an unnerving tonelessness.

She couldn’t just watch… and yet she couldn’t tear herself away. “When?” she wept. “When did Sunnydale go completely Nathaniel Hawthorne?”

Without warning, the executioner knocked down the first block and the prisoner dropped.

Buffy fell to her knees, retching, sputtering and sobbing uncontrollably. Spike looped an arm over her shoulder; she shoved him away.

“This!” she screamed. “How can they let this happen? How can they just watch?”

“They’re humans, Buffy. Weak. Scared. Stupid. It’s what they are…”

“Then they’re part of it. All of them. They…” Buffy caught herself. Not they, she amended inwardly. We. And then another realization struck. One that sent her reeling. “Oh God. These are the witches who hurt Dawn. They did this? Put her up in public like this? They put out her eyes and people just watched? And where were you? Why didn’t you stop them? She deserves better than this…”

Spike gripped her shoulders and gave her body a violent shake. He bore down on her, fangs bared, his lumpy forehead almost touching hers. His voracious yellow eyes glinted as he stared hard into hers.

I was here,” he growled, his claws digging into her skin. “I was here, Buffy. Bound, gagged and down a bloody well… but I was here. And you were not. Dawn’s on-stage tragedy was damaging, but it was merely the second act. Our lives – our whole world – came crashing down the night you jumped off that tower.”

“So this is somehow my fault?” she bit out.

“Not somehow,” he said, morphing out of his vampire face. “Is. How could you think any of us would ever be safe without you?”

Buffy wiped her eyes with a shaking hand. “But I died. Another Slayer was called to take my place. It’s our built-in Plan B.”

“Your Plan B is locked up tight in the San Bernardino State Correctional Facility,” Spike said. He shoved her away and spread his arms wide. “You keep saying you don’t belong here. Keep sayin’ it, but you’re wrong. You are here for a reason, pet. Just take a look down there.”

Buffy turned. Three bodies swung from a gallows in beautiful downtown Sunnydale. The Witches were gone; the crowd was dispersing. But the bodies remained, a pall of sickly orange vapor obscuring their faces. Spike stood behind her, his sharp, cold cheekbone less than an inch from her skin.

“The how and why of it doesn’t matter. You’re here now. What’s important is… what are you going to do about it?”

Buffy smeared the tears away with the heels of her hands. She turned within the cage of his arms. One look at Spike’s pseudo-serene façade and she realized, again, what she really, really hated about him. No matter what his current incarnation, he had a way of showing her exactly what she needed to see. Even if she really, really did not want to see it.

“I truly hate you,” she said.

She could tell by the pleased yet hopeful look in his faded blue eyes that he already knew he’d won. Point made. Point scored. Cheers to old Spike.

“I know it, baby,” Spike said as he lit another cigarette. He took a deep drag and blew out the smoke in a satisfied stream. “I know.”

 

Chapter Text

Every night I burn.

Every night I call your name.

Burn, The Cure

Faith thought the smoke was some kind of incense burned in a funeral offering. Which she didn’t get. Burning stuff for dead people was weird. They were dead already.

Robin was dead. She didn’t burn a thing for him. And since he left nothing but a pile of dust upon departure, Faith didn’t so much as bother to sweep up what was left. Didn’t seem to make much sense. Without much effort, Faith turned her thoughts to things that did.

A six pack of Kuei-shin shot through shadows below her perch on the wall. One thing she could say for the guys – they had some serious non-verbal. They moved like a troupe of choreographed dancers, their green and black uniforms heightening the association. They were well-armed – a pair of sai each and a belt of what looked like shuriken (and wouldn’t that be just the cliché? she thought with a wry smile). Only one – apparently the lead guy – wore a katana slung across his back.

Faith knew she could take ’em. Wasn’t gonna. But she knew with the comfortable confidence she wore as her Slayer’s badge, these guys would be shrimp toast in about 30 seconds if she got the drop.

Dropping was not what she had in mind. She had learned in the last few days that she could sense and track Kuei-shin just like she could the standard variety. This was handy considering that Connor had gone all Last Man Standing on the kindred of the East. Tracking the Kuei-shin led her to her true prey. Sometimes it was one of Thellian’s new get forcibly conscripted to vamp-hood.

And sometimes, it was Connor.

So far when she showed up, Connor pulled his David Blaine disappearing trick. That bugged her. She was an inconvenience to him. An annoying glitch with his demon-icidal scheming. He needed a solid smack down, and Auntie Faith was the one for the job.

Faith moved along the stone wall above them, her shadow trailing like a monstrous beast across the rooftop behind her. The smoke twisted in the air overhead, drawn to tatters by the wind. Faith crouched, savoring the steady flow of adrenaline that pumped through her. The Kuei-shin slipped like water into a pool of shadow.

Then, each twitched up like a line of rabbits, completely wrecking their cover.

“What the…?” Faith whispered.

A heartbeat later, Faith pitched skyward. A sulfuric flash ripped the air, a gout of flame on its heels.

Faith slammed into the stone wall, scrabbled for purchase, missed, slipped, fell. Some twenty odd feet of freefall later, Faith ate pavement. Breath exploded from her lungs. Bones popped like rubber bands. Faith rolled, put her back to the wall and waited, combat ready.

All for naught. The explosion was blocks away, but big enough to flush her from her perch and scare her guys away.

Damn it.

Faith wiped blood from her mouth with the heel of her hand. Lucky thing she was Superbitch, or she’d be spending the next few months in traction at Tokyo General. Besides the dislocated shoulder and the odd scrape, she was good to go.

Faith caught the peppery scent of gunpowder on the wind. Instantly and unwanted, Robin sprung to mind. Robin and a pair of sparklers on the Fourth of July. The rooftop of his apartment building in New York. Watching the best damn display of fireworks the US of A had to offer (his words, not hers). Lady Liberty bathed in smoke and colored flashes of light.

Robin writing his name in the air with the burning arc of spitting flame. The fire reflected in his China doll’s eyes. Body tackling him in the stairwell. Fucking him senseless while the NYPD marching band played a rousing rendition of God Bless America. Again on the fire escape when they’d gone down for ice cream. Later, after patrol, his strong, dark hands splayed over her belly as he entered her from behind. Knowing for the first time in her life the meaning of fullness.

Fuck.

Faith raised her head. She uncoiled her fists. With much effort, she forced her body to work.

Finding fire was easy. All you had to do was chase after smoke. Faith was good at that. Ignoring tender flesh left raw from the fall, Faith pushed down twisted passageways between Japanese buildings that towered over her like Jenga blocks.

Faith rounded the final corner, struck first by a dense wall of baking heat and second by a sense of dizzying familiarity.

Flames engulfed the building and the gardens surrounding. Faith was flat out running toward it before sense could catch her. She vaulted the fence, fingers barely touching the blistering iron bars as she went over. She landed with less than her usual grace. Stumbling, blind, Faith ran across the ash-strewn lawn toward the fire and what remained of the Slayer school.

Even as she ran, she felt her torn muscles mending. Heat from the fire baked her skin and poached her lungs, but it felt to Faith like a revelation. She was screaming when she hit the door and plunged into the broiling pit of a dragon’s maw.

It was quiet within. Though the flames coiled and licked and blackened the walls and rafters overhead, Faith heard only a desolate calm of something already damned. She stood in the foyer, awed by the raw magnificence of that power. It was greater than; she was less than. And it gutted her to know there was nothing – not one damn thing – she could do. But let it burn.

The kaleidoscopic wailing of sirens shook her from her daze. Faith scanned the ruined, crumbling husk, looking for survivors. She saw bodies all over the place. Or, not so much bodies as bits of bodies. None that she could see were human, unless they had Kentucky fried to extra scaly. Which, she doubted.

Faith realized then that she had violated every fire safety commandment known to humankind. Just as reason settled its teeth into her ass, Faith caught movement in the middle of the training floor. Someone was there and still alive.

“Fuck!” Faith shouted. She dived through a standing wave of flames. The lacquer on the hardwood floor blistered and bubbled like molten syrup. Faith slid the last remaining feet, scooped the struggling figure into her arms and leapt like a crazy Ninja warrior through the nearest window.

As they rolled across the charred grass, the full fury of the fire caught up to her. It was a deafening, terrifying howl – like a tortured living thing screaming for release. And they were too close. Too damn close. Faith hefted the body over her shoulder and ran as though worse things than devils pursued them.

Faith collapsed behind a moldering tenement building that smelled of steamed cabbage. She cradled the limp body close to hers while her arms and legs jerked and writhed convulsively from an adrenaline OD. She could hear fire engines and police cars approaching from all directions, and she wondered, dimly, if Japanese procedure for taking down towering infernos was the same as the rest of the world.

The body in her arms stirred.

“Christ!” Faith cried out, jumped to her feet and, in the process, dumped the body to the cobbles.

And for the first time, she got a good look at it.

Faith cupped her hands over her mouth at the sight of the crisped flesh on the back of its skull. Of cotton seemingly fused to skin. All the hair seared away, exposing the raw pink meat beneath.

“Oh God,” she said. She knelt beside the body, hesitant to turn it, but sure she already knew.

As if in response to her unspoken questions, the weak ghost of a voice called her name.

Faith crouched, knees drawn up to her ears like a child. She lay a trembling hand on his chest and rolled him to his side.

“Wayara,” she said. The strength in her legs bled away. She collapsed, her hands fisted into her hair. “What did this?”

Wayara tried to fix his ruined eyes upon hers before speaking. The left side of his face ran like melted wax, but the right side looked wholly unharmed. But that was worse, that half-mask of pain smack against his normal eyes and nose. She felt a tug like a meat hook in her gut.

“The Dragon’s Eye…” Wayara began, but his breath gurgled wetly in his chest.

“Stop. Wait. EMS guys’re comin’,” Faith said. She reached to touch his face, but hovered, fingers inches from his head, afraid to touch him, afraid that it might hurt.

“Too late, Faith,” he said.

“Shut up… ’kay? You’re out. I saved you. You’re…”

“Faith,” Wayara wheezed. “The Slayers.”

Faith sat up, keenly alert. “Jesus, were they in there?”

“Only one. The others… must know.”

“What?”

Wayara’s eyes slipped closed. Faith waited, resisting the urge to shake him.

“What?” she asked. “What must they know? Wayara!”

Kuchikukan,” he whispered. Prayerlike.

Faith got to her knees. “What did you say?”

“Dragon’s Eye,” Wayara said. “Faith, it has him…”

“Him? Who?”

Kuchikukan.”

“Connor,” she said.

Faith got to her feet, sure that he would be there. Sure that she would find him watching from the shadows. But the only sound was the continued cacophony of sirens, combined now with the fevered shouts of firefighters struggling to douse the blaze.

She looked back down at Wayara for confirmation, but the slack look of peace on his mangled face read her the whole story. Another dead Watcher. Another school in flames.

Faith bent to close Wayara’s eyes. She cringed slightly at the heat still trapped in his skin. At the sickeningly sweet scent of scorched flesh and hair.

It was Connor who’d answer for it. Faith got that now. He’d crossed a line; he was on her turf. He was a monster. A destroyer. Those, she got to kill. Born to do it. She was a Slayer.

She squared her shoulders and a wicked sneer worked its way into the corners of her eyes. She would find him. Even if she had to burn the whole city down to do it.

Chapter Text

Xander hated flashing back. Bad enough he had to live through it once, his mind kept hitting the instant replay button as a kind of much deserved self-torture.

“Why?” Maya had said. “Does it matter?”

She switched on the windshield wipers. For seconds the only sound was the swish-whomp of them slicing through the torrents that slashed down on her Daddy’s pick up truck. When Xander didn’t answer, she’d ventured an oblique look at him. Her shoulders were rigid as handlebars against the seat.

And what had he said? Xander curled his hand around his coffee mug and tried to remember the exact words. What he could recall with blinding clarity was the pinch of concern between his own brows that had corresponded with the oh-so-nifty near panic in his heart.

“He called you a succubus.”

Ah, that was it. Post-Thanksgiving dinner, Maya’s longtime family friend – the well-muscled, bronze god of a man, Lance – had laughingly called her a succubus. Xander also recalled inhaling a mighty gulp of Shiner Bock.

Maya had glanced askew again, but kept her focus on the darkening road. Raindrops pelleted the windshield. Xander’s breath, chilled by the AC, bloomed a foggy circle on the passenger side window.

“It was nothing, Xander,” Maya said. But her small, white-knuckled fingers adjusted on the steering wheel.

The cab of the truck drew in around them. Xander drummed his fingers on the dashboard.

“Succulent succubus,” he said, going for breezy. Breezy like a knife’s edge just before it slices through something vital.

“He’s a show off,” Maya told him.

Rain dashed the road, chased by gusts off the bay. The storm was strengthening, almost to the point that Xander would have surrendered to caution and pulled into a diner to wait out the worst.

But Maya plunged on, growing, it seemed, somehow smaller and smaller behind the wheel of her Daddy’s Ram Charger, curling in on herself like she had in her bookshop back in London.

“What’s he showing off?” Xander had asked. Maya had frowned, but did not answer.

They traveled on in silence, the rain pounding on the rooftop. At first, Xander had felt gallant, rescuing Maya from the smiling behemoth football player whose name she had charmingly stretched into two syllables with her deep Texas drawl. Lay-ance had been drinking beaucoup Bud Light with Maya’s uncountable brothers when he recalled a juicy story from their time at Barber’s Hill High.

Now Xander’s flashback was flashing back. His mind showed no mercy.

Xander’s tongue curled behind his teeth at the thought of Lance’s partial retelling of the tale.

“Remember, Maya,” Lance gushed, slurring her name. “Senior Skip Day, when you drank those margaritas…”

Maya had shot a startled half-grin at Xander. “Come on, Lance. No one wants to hear about that,” she’d said.

“Let me tell you, man,” Lance went on. “Maya can’t hold her liquor. She was swabbin’ the floor.”

“Lay-ance!”

Lance had doubled over, knees pulled in, butt thrust out, hands laced behind his head. With clumsy beer-soaked motion, he undulated his hips, groaning with a sickeningly accurate imitation of a girl gone wild.

“Like this, huh, Maya,” he had said, picking up the rhythm. “Succulent little succubus put on a show…”

At which point, Xander swooped in, all knight in shining beer stein. “I think,” Xander had said. “The lady said we didn’t want to hear about it.”

Lance dropped his arms. A meaty pout creased his full lips, making him look like an absurdly pissed off chimpanzee. An absurdly drunk and pissed off chimpanzee in a room full of his beer-guzzling, Stetson-owning, cowboy-boot-wearing pissed off friends.

“That right,” Lance said, drawing up to his full six-inches-taller-than-Xander height. “Cap’n?”

Xander thought he had said something clever, though he couldn’t remember what it was now. He did remember Lance phoning in a punch, which Xander cleverly dodged. Before the fight could go further, he whisked Maya out the front door, down the porch steps and across the dewy lawn where they absconded in her Daddy’s shiny new black truck.

They had driven into quiet velvet darkness, the stars blanked by low riding clouds plump with rain.

When they turned south on I-87 bound for Galveston, Xander had turned on Maya.

“Succubus?”

That word again. Xander tested his coffee, but it was still too hot. And too bitter. The waitress, a muffin colored girl in orthopedic shoes, had neglected his creamer for the third pass running.

Maya’s answer: “He’s a show off.”

“What’s he showing off?” Xander had asked.

“His big boy vocabulary, of course. Got himself a Master’s degree,” Maya had said.

“That guy's got a Master's Degree? Do they just hand them out here in big ol' Texas?”

Xander had gripped the door handle, digging little half moon shapes with his nails into the under side of the vinyl. The steady, insistent drone of the rain roared overhead.

Xander had to raise his voice. “Of course, Freddie called you that…”

Maya sent a wounded his look in his direction. “Yeah, well. We already established the not-niceness of Freddie.”

“What was he talking about?”

“Who, Freddie?”

“No, Lance.”

“No, Xander. We're not talking about this.”

Xander swallowed.

“Why not?”

The pick-up darted beneath an underpass. For one perfect, still moment the rain cut off. Maya whimpered when a second later the rain resumed its assault.

Maya checked the rearview mirror, then cranked the wipers up a notch. “Do you mind if we table this discussion till sometime less perilous?”

Xander sat forward. “Kinda yes. I mind.”

Maya flicked her eyes to him, then back to the road. She fussed with the AC controls. She ran a rather unsteady hand through her short blond curls.

“It was nothing,” she said.

Likely story, Xander mused then and now.

“If it’s nothing, then why aren’t you sharing?” Xander asked.

Maya drove on.

“Maya,” Xander said. His voice swelled like thunder in the cab of the truck. He hated the way she cringed away from him, hated how she seemed to fold her shoulders in like the broken bones of a wounded bird.

“I just think we should be honest with each other,” Xander had said.

Seemed logical. Reasonable, even. He’d just pulled a Prince Charming, after all. Did he not deserve to know why said damsel was distressed?

Maya jerked the steering wheel hard right, skidding over the textured shoulder and into the flattened pale grass that fringed the freeway.

“I’m not telling,” Maya told him.

“Yeah, but…”

She turned to face him. The dashboard lights painted her face into sharp angles of amber and shadow.

“You’ll just have to trust that Lance is an asshole,” Maya said. “And that some stories should not be repeated.”

“I get that,” Xander said. “Believe me, I do. But it’s already brought up and…”

Maya kneaded her fingers into the hem of her powder blue skirt. “I think you should get out,” she told him.

Twelve hours later, still soaked to the spine, Xander couldn’t figure it. And while he balked wordlessly at her unexpected and sudden command, she leaned way over him to unlatch his door.

“It’s raining,” Xander had said.

“I know,” she told him.

And so it was, Xander wound up stranded on the Strand in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. Sure, he had been guilty of prodding, but he hardly thought it was enough to warrant a dumping out onto the roadside. Besides, wasn’t it reasonable if he wanted to ascertain beyond doubt that his current girlfriend was not in fact a succubus?

In the kitchen, the cook and the waitress struck up a murmur of conversation. Xander sighed. Didn’t look as though they were in a rush to earn a buck, and after his double feature flashback, he didn’t think he could eat anyway. He would just pay for his coffee and try calling home again.

As Xander got up, he caught a few words of the conversation. “Kinda sucks,” the waitress said to the cook. “Local girl?”

“Nah,” the cook answered. Xander couldn’t see the man in the kitchen, but could hear him tinkering with the spatula on the grill.

“Makes you wonder, you know? Why a girl’d be out in a storm like that?”

The waitress mopped the counter with a dirty rag. Xander felt his legs go numb as he neared them. All of his Sunnydale experiences sent up flares of dread and he knew.

“What girl?” he asked.

The waitress jumped like she’d been caught not working. She tucked her strawberry hair behind an ear and said, “Oh, some girl drove her truck into the bay last night.”

He didn’t wait to find out if the girl had lived or died. Xander went out into the blinding sun and ran until the seawall met the sand and he couldn’t run any more.

 

Chapter Text

Anjelica opened her eyes. The sound of water rushing filled her ears. She imagined it sounded like the rustling of wings. She could see her feet, bare somehow, toes pointed to the sky, a shadowy bruise on her instep. She could breathe. She could remember. The boys had sliced open her red swimsuit, cutting through it the way you would a lobster to get at the meat inside. Two of them held her arms, pinned her down while the other...

They were boys from school. Boys she never talked to. Anglo boys who all looked the same to her. To them, she was a small, brown nothing.

Small, brown, nothing. It was chant, a taunt they hurled at her since childhood. It was part of who she was. Little Angie: Small, brown, nothing. If she was mousy, that would be something.

Anjelica curled sideways. Someone was shaking her. Someone was talking from far away.

The boys cut her swimsuit away. One of them – the one with braces and a peppering of freckles – ran the flat of the blade down her body to her navel. He was saying something, but all she could think was that she didn’t want his mouth on her. His thin lips like thin strips of liver stretched over the metal brackets in his mouth. She understood they expected her to lie still while they...

“Helli!”

Shaking again. Anjelica rolled her head to gaze into a pair of amber eyes. Nighna. Nighna had her by the shoulders. Nighna was stronger than she looked.

Parts of things came into focus. She saw her feet again, and beyond them the tangles of writhing jungle gone dark. It was not as exquisite as she remembered.

“How bad is it? Can you walk?” Nighna asked.

This confused Anjelica. Maybe Nighna hadn’t seen what happened. Hadn’t she noticed that the dagger was in Helli’s hand? That she’d gotten the better of those boys?

Anjelica ventured a careful glance down her body. She was not clad in her swimsuit; however, her light cotton T-shirt had been shredded to bloody rags.

“Holy cats,” she whispered. She probed her chest with the fingertips of both hands. They came away bloody. She stared in detached wonderment at the bright red blood on her palm.

“It’s not my blood,” she said. “It’s the boys. The boys’ blood.”

Little Angie. Small, brown nothing

“Helli,” Nighna said, her voice calm, steady. “Where is Oz?”

Anjelica felt a trill of panic course through her. “Oz?”

Nighna hauled Anjelica forward. She jostled her shoulders roughly when Anjelica’s head lolled bonelessly backward.

“I need to know,” Nighna began.

“I killed the boys,” Anjelica admitted. “I killed them. N-not Oz. Not him.”

Nighna leaned forward until their foreheads were touching. “There are no boys, Anjelica,” she said.

“But they... they’re the reason I’m here,” Anjelica said. She tucked her chin and sucked her lip to stifle a sob.

if she was mousy, that would be something. Little Angie, small

Nighna shook her again. “Listen to me, Anjelica. I need to know about Oz. I need to know. Did he do this?”

Nighna placed her palm close to the gaping hole on Anjelica’s chest. Anjelica could feel the warmth of fever in the wound, could feel the proximity of Nighna’s hand like a shimmer of warning. But she felt no pain and knew from experience that it meant the shroud of shock had settled over her.

Slowly, Nighna’s concerns congealed around Anjelica’s disjointed thoughts. Anjelica dragged her eyes to meet Nighna’s again.

Nighna nodded, grimly.

“Anjelica,” she said. “Sweetie, we need to know. Can you tell me?”

Anjelica strained to remember. She heard screams. They meshed with the ones in her memory, blending with the wind into a bitter howl that she felt like a pressure behind her eyeballs. What she recalled was how she had managed to wrest free from the boys who’d toyed with her. She remembered the looks on their faces as she’d kicked the knife from Brace Face’s hand.

And how it felt to turn that blade on them. She’d swelled with gladness at the flicker of fear in their eyes.

Not nothing now, she’d said. Not nothing now.

Tears brimmed and burned in her eyes. She’d been glad to kill them. It was the first thing in her life she had ever done really well.

“It’s not what he saw,” Anjelica said, shaking her head. “He didn’t see.”

Nighna rubbed her forehead. She tipped Anjelica’s face to meet hers again. “Sweetie. Did Oz bite you?”

Anjelica made a tired, dismissive sound. “What? No.”

She couldn’t really see the wound. It was high on her shoulder, near the bend of her neck. It was a deep, bloody, mangled mess that ached and burned, but distantly. Had it been much lower, he’d have snapped her collarbone like a twig.

Nighna lowered her eyes. Her head bobbed a single nod of understanding.

“I don’t know,” Anjelica mumbled. Her head floated, paddling toward the deep end of unconsciousness.

Nighna pulled Anjelica to her uncooperative feet. “I know,” she said. Nighna got an arm around her to keep her steady. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

 

The pain was incredible but distant like a scream you hear from a long, long way away. Anjelica followed stumblingly along, tripping, it seemed, over every root and thorny bush along the path. Once, her foot hooked in a cypress knee and Anjelica sprawled.

The roots around her were not as treelike as she had assumed. They were arms and legs and fingers and faces bound up in the trunks and branches, all of them frozen in the midst of tortured cries. The scent of them filled her – like wood smoke and burnt flesh. Anjelica fell nearly eye to eye with one of the wretched souls and screamed.

Nighna lifted her from the slippery tangle. Tendrils of roots stretched toward Anjelica, their mouths contorting around soundless pleas.

“Stop that,” Nighna commanded. “Stop it. We’re nearing the boundary of the forest. I need you with me, Helli. Are you with me?”

No, she thought.

Whispery things darted around her, threading through the darkness. Small. Brown. Nothing. Good little Angie. Don’t leave us here.

Anjelica felt herself nodding. “Yes,” she muttered.

The whispering grew to a scraping crescendo of screams. She felt them in the back of her skull, shuffling around in there, clawing to get out.

Anjelica covered her ears. “It’s changed. What’s happening?” she shouted.

Nighna gripped Anjelica tighter. “It’s not changed,” she soothed. “You see it now for what it truly is.”

“What it truly is…” Anjelica repeated. She settled against Nighna, letting the demon carry most of the weight. Above them, in the trees, Clarisse wailed like a child who’s lost her mother.

 

 

It was darker, at the edge. There was a lip of earth, black as talons, which rose at the border where the forest turned into wasteland. Nighna dragged Anjelica up the slope. With each step the mud sucked at their ankles. Then, inexplicably, the hill began a slow tilt backward like a boat rolling on the swell of a wave. The sod itself ran out from beneath them, and all manner of creatures – demonic rabbits, rats, hedgehogs – slid along in the landslide.

Nighna latched onto Anjelica’s arm and continued to trudge onward and upward, oblivious to the running muck and chaos around them. Ahead, gnarled trees had begun to heel over like tombstones in soggy ground. Birds burst from branches, adding their startled cries to the incessant rumbling wind.

The whispers still called to her, still lapped at her eardrums with their jeers and accusations.

Killed the boys. You killed them, Miss Mouse. Not nothing. Not anymore. Stay…

“I have to stay,” Anjelica said. Blood pounded in her ears. Throbbed and ached in the wound at the base of her throat.

“Don’t listen to it. We’re almost out.”

“But I…”

Nighna stopped. Hell went on around her, rending itself apart, but she got Anjelica by the shoulders. “You’re not dead. Do you hear me?”

They were backsliding, losing ground. Anjelica could feel the wound palpitating with every beat of her heart. The pain of it radiated in dull circles down the length of her arm. So she wasn’t dead. Nighna was right. But they had come to hell for a reason.

And that reason completely escaped her. They had come for a reason. All of them…

“But Oz?” Anjelica asked.

“Oz is an innocent. He must find his own way.”

“And me?”

Nighna’s stern eyes softened with sincerity, even if her tone did not. “You will have to settle with your demons another time. Right now, I need you to get your ass up this hill. Are we clear on this?”

The hill was cresting, throwing its mantle of shadow over them. Pebbles and other detritus tumbled down, coating them in fine brown powder. Chunks of sod and mud broke loose as the wave of earth climbed skyward, groaning and creaking like a capsizing ship.

Anjelica bit back a scream. “How?” she managed to say.

Relief washed over Nighna. Her lips set in a firm line, Nighna slammed Anjelica into the wall of earth.

 

 

Anjelica and Nighna toppled downhill, rolling and rolling, until finally they came to a crashing thump in the bottom of a high-walled canyon.

Nighna got quickly to her knees. Clapping dust from her hands, she said, “Behold the Third Circle of Hell.”

Anjelica lay on her back, staring up at the ribbon of pewter light that ran between the somber walls of the ravine. She felt her heartbeat in her ears. The alleged werewolf bite on her neck seared like an acid burn.

Nighna was on her feet already, one arm outstretched. She whistled a sharp call to Clarisse; within seconds the bird answered. Anjelica saw her wheeling loose circles over the canyon.

“You can rest for a moment, but we need to get moving,” Nighna said. She paced within the bleak, cramped space, her bootheels clocking on rough stone.

Anjelica rolled to her side. Her head felt like a split melon. For the second time that evening – if one could properly call it evening in hell – she’d been lain out flat. Yet somehow, she struggled to her knees. And then, by miracle or extra potent Slayer blood, she got firmly to her feet.

“I’d like to move on now,” Anjelica said. “If it’s all the same.”

Nighna squared her shoulders with Anjelica’s. Her hands rested on her hips, enameled fingernails sparkling in the half-light. She nodded her approval.

“We will start down this road, then. It skirts the marsh and the worst parts of this place. With luck, Oz will reach the citadel before we do…”

 “Nighna, I never thought this would happen,” Anjelica blurted.

Nighna held up one finger. “I am not your confessional, Slayer. Hell is a strange, mutable place. We let our guards down. What fools are we.”

Nighna’s hands returned to her hips. She stood, spine rigid, watching her with such severe scrutiny it made Anjelica’s spine twitch. Though the wound burned and itched, Anjelica didn’t dare move while Nighna watched her like that, like an owl getting ready for a snack.

“I want you to take this,” Nighna said. She reached into her leather sac and produced a small, cloth- wrapped parcel. “Conceal it. Do not let anyone know you have it. It’s like an American Express card down here, and may be our only way out. Understand?”

Anjelica folded back a corner of the cloth. She saw the grayish, blunted tip of a pinky finger and covered it back up.

“Andrew’s hand,” she said. Normally, she would have gagged, but in light of recent events, a severed hand with pinky trauma didn’t quite rank on the gross out scale. “What do I…? What does it do?”

Nighna said, “It’s the last thing of value I possess. It bears my mark, which gives you my protection.” She ran her tongue over her teeth. “I think Andrew would appreciate the irony.”

Anjelica re-wrapped the parcel and tucked it into the pocket of the robe Nighna had given her.

“That way, right?” she said, pointing down the passage made by the steep canyon walls.

Clarisse pecked a light kiss on Nighna’s jaw, then flew down the corridor ahead of them. Nighna followed, her purposeful strides the only sound they could hear.

Anjelica set her jaw against the pain. Her thoughts and memories were returning to proper order now. She had been seduced by the forest, but it was fading. In its place was a pervasive sadness, and something else. Something more and less complicated. While she couldn’t figure it, Nighna would have understood. Anjelica felt guilt. Not only for the boys she’d killed, for certainly there was that, but also for Oz. He was an innocent, so ready to leap to her defense. But Hell had twisted it, turned his inner demon on her.

Perhaps it was just.

Perhaps it was what she deserved.

She strained to hear the whispering voices, but they had quieted. She listened then for the cry of a wolf, and heard none.

Anjelica never minded silence, but this one unsettled her, especially in contrast to the raucousness of the forest. The stones surrounding them were jagged with millions of razor-edged pock marks, as if the ravine had been ravaged by a terrible plague. Remembering the tormented faces she’d seen in the trees, Anjelica trained her eyes on Nighna’s shoulders.

Nighna seemed content with the quiet, but after minutes of walking, Anjelica had to say something, to make some kind connection, if anything, to keep her mind from the pain in her neck.

“So,” she said. “This is the Third Circle?”

“Part of it. On the other side of this canyon, far below, there is a marsh in which those damned for gluttony must lay beneath a ceaseless storm of hail and rain. The marsh is guarded by a three-headed beast of a dog that used to belong to a friend of mine, long ago.”

Nighna sniffed at the remembrance. “Ciacco dressed that animal in diamond collars and employed lesser djinn to trim and file its toe nails. They would polish its coat until it gleamed like onyx. Then he paraded the dog around like some kind of prize. Of course, sometimes Cerberus got loose of its leash and would eat the servants of other nobles. That’s how Ciacco lost possession of it, the great pouf.”

Nighna continued to walk, but her tone switched to something more nostalgic than scholarly. “Demons must prove their rights to something by maintaining control over it,” she said. “It’s something most of our kind have forgotten. Their worth is not in their deeds, you see? It’s in the power they exert to hold onto something.

“For humans, it’s all about the eternal struggle between right and wrong. Demons bad. Humans good. It’s all simple. But demons, they twist that against you. Sin and guilt are such cunning little barbs, Helli. True demons know the art of wielding them with such subtlety, so that in the end, the victim never glimpsed the treachery.”

Anjelica listened. Her breathing shallowed. She tried to puzzle out what Nighna had said, tried to make the words fit into a context that pertained to her situation. But she was a slow girl, never good with riddles or games. She was small and ordinary in all things, save one.

Ahead of her, Nighna halted in the path. Anjelica, lost in her own head, plowed into her. But Nighna stood, still and strong, staring straight into the gloom.

A second later, Anjelica saw the object that held Nighna’s attention. The canyon curved to the left, and in the bend stood a single pike pointing accusingly to the sky. On the pike a rumpled figure dangled, his bare feet caked with dried blood that pooled in dark circles on the parched ground.

Nighna’s hands went to her hips again. “Looks like the game finally caught up to you,” she said.

The man raised his dirty face to gaze at them with baleful eyes. The filthy curtains of his black hair fell over his brow, but did nothing to hide the swollen twilight of bruises over his right temple.

“Nighna,” Luxe muttered, his voice no more than a choked groan.

“Luxe.”

“Cut me down, s’il vous plait,” he said. “I promise, I’ll go home and be… a good little boy.”

Anjelica was shaking her head, but she needn’t bothered. Nighna walked closer to the pike so that she could stare up into Luxe’s broken face.

Mais non, my love. Your precarious position suits us just fine,” she said. “Thellian left here, Luxe. What is it he’s planning?”

Luxe’s body shuddered with a fit of coughs that turned into a painful wrack of laughter. “Thellian? Defeat destroyed him, Nig’han’net. He wished only to find a way to restrain Morna and then go into hiding.”

Nighna stepped closer still. “I can tell when you are lying,” she said.

Luxe’s head bobbled. “No. I swear it to you. He had no plans. Please, mon amor. Release me. I will die here. You know it.”

“Perhaps it’s what you deserve,” Nighna bit out. “You serve the dying order. You do nothing lest it benefit you. And you see how it turns out with us, Luxe. Look at you.”

She half-turned, gesturing to Anjelica with a nod. “Come. We’re wasting time here.”

Clarisse chose that moment to descend and take perch on Nighna’s shoulder. Luxe raised his head and gave them a twinkling grin.

“Ah, Nighna,” he said. “You were bloody stupid to bring that bird.”

As if that were a cue, a crossbow bolt burst through Clarisse’s breast. Her scream shattered the silence, and Nighna dropped in a desperate scramble to catch the bird before she dashed against the stone.

Anjelica spun, searching the cliffs for their attackers. Then, she heard a heavy thump on the ground behind her. She turned back to find Luxe standing at the base of the pike, arms out-stretched, an expansive smile on his face.

Nighna cradled Clarisse to her neck, working her fingers into the downy feathers. “You monster,” she said. “You unbelievable monster…”

“Turnabout, Nighna,” he said as he closed the distance between them. “I am free of your bonds now. Free to leave this place. Free finally to return home. And you. You can die here.”

Nighna bent low, her forehead almost touching the earth. “Why?” she cried. “Why this?”

Anjelica knelt beside her, still scanning the cliffs. But the bolt had come from a lower place. A man moved forth from the shadows of the bend, holding his crossbow upright. Unlike Luxe, he did not seem so pleased at his part in the ambush. As he neared, Anjelica saw who it was.

“Paolo,” Nighna said flatly. “You’re doing this for a nightclub in Paris?”

He shrugged, but managed to muster a look of remorse. “I guess my price was a little higher than I let on,” Paolo said. He leveled the crossbow at Anjelica’s forehead.

“You were so concerned over Thellian, you never guessed my ambitions,” Luxe said. “All Hell is breaking loose, mon amor. The Hellmouths will open, and demons will pour forth, once more taking control of the realm above. It is what I have worked toward for centuries, and the last link of my chains is broken here.”

Anjelica tried to focus on what Luxe said, but too much of it sounded too large to believe.

Luxe rolled his eyes skyward. “They’re just so inventive, Luxe. All of their flaws and eccentricities and relations… they’re fascinating,” he said, in a sickening mimicry of Nighna’s voice. “They are fodder,” he said, returning to his deep and patronizing French. “They’re finished.”

Luxe bent to her level and twisted Nighna’s face to meet his. “Just like you, mon coeur. I imagine you feel quite human now.”

Anjelica caught only a glint of silver; she wasn’t fast enough to stop him. Luxe had plunged a knife into Nighna’s heart.

He left the blade where it was and shoved Nighna aside. Stepping over her, he cupped Anjelica’s face in both of his hands.

“Blessed are the meek,” he said, “They are first to die.”

Anjelica recoiled, then spit in his face.

Displeasure clouded Luxe’s face, but only for a moment. He stood back up, wiping his face with the back of his sleeve.

He said, “You will not die, though. Not little Anjelica Reyes. Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge, la souris. You were Nighna’s servant, which means you now belong to me. Get up.”

Anjelica’s body quaked with rage. She stood up, and though she was a full foot shorter than Luxe, she counted on that anger to level the difference between them.

“I would rather die than be in your service,” she said.

Luxe raised one shoulder. “Very well.”

He made a motion to Paolo and the mistake of turning his back. Anjelica leapt on him, taking him down with the strength of her momentum. She intended to rush him and run, but Paolo’s crossbow smashed into the back of her skull.

And just before consciousness fled, just as Anjelica was sure Luxe would take the dagger from Nighna’s body and use it to finish her off, she thought with all that was left of her hope, that she heard the distant, forlorn howl of a wolf.

 

Chapter Text

Dawn shucked Buffy’s leather bodice like a locust shedding its shell. The scent of her sweat, acrid and saccharine, coiled in her nostrils as she rushed to get rid of her clothes and into the shower.

As if that could help her. As if water was enough to wash away what she’d done.

And just what, exactly, had she done?

No. Don’t think, she ordered. Shower first. Think later.

Dawn’s hands trembled over the hot and cold faucets. She got into the freezing spray and scrubbed her skin raw before giving it the chance to heat up.

She was blind and drunk and frightened. What had she done?

Don’t think.

She was bloody… down there. It was disgusting. She couldn’t even speak the word vagina in her own inner monologue. Proof again she’d gone too far. Buffy’s words of advice had been, “If you can’t say the word condom without blushing, you’re too young to need one.” Same went for the various parts of anatomy Dawn couldn’t force herself to say without flaring pink.

Dawn could laugh at the irony of Buffy’s own lack of condom usage later. Right now, she rinsed and shut off the shower. She stood naked and dripping, listening to the dull thunk of cooling pipes and the gurgle of the drain.

The worst was she didn’t remember any of it. All she remembered was the woman swinging through the air and the snap of the rope when it drew tight around her neck. It sounded like the slap-thwack of jump ropes smacking pavement. It echoed in her head, reverberating like madness until she clamped her fists over her ears and forced herself not to scream.

It was the house, dammit. The house was too big, too quiet, too empty. She hated it. Andrew was around, scuttling inside like a hermit crab, but she couldn’t hear him. He was off, doing Andrew things…

And what would he think? she thought. What would he say to her if he knew what she’d done? Her body ached with the moan she stifled. Andrew would hate her. How could he understand?

Her thoughts wheeled on themselves, winding back to the look on Brodie’s face.

I tried to stop you…

Dawn covered her mouth. She dug her nails into her cheeks.

"I’m a monster," she whispered. "A monster. Oh God, what am I?"

She wrapped her body in a towel and stepped from the tub. Her body quaked, overdosed on adrenaline and cold. Avoiding the mirror, Dawn slipped into her bedroom.

Andrew, looking completely benign, stood just inside her bedroom, a wooden spatula held aloft like a wand in his good hand.

With a flourish, he said, “So, um… cookies or crime spree?”

“Excuse me?” Dawn balanced precariously on the balls of her feet. One half of her wanted to charge at him, hurling her pent up howls at his serene face; the other half hadn’t caught up that fast and was still pondering over the words he’d just uttered.

“You had a bad night,” he explained. “So I was thinking, is it cookies bad, or hittin’ the streets for some JD action bad?”

“My door was locked,” Dawn replied coldly, tightening down the screws of her anger.

“I knocked,” Andrew answered.

“You used a spell on my door?” Her heart palpitated like a pony on crack.

“You didn’t have any wards up. That’s… almost like an open invitation.”

“Really?” she said, advancing on him. “Well then, since you’re here…”

Dawn shoved him backward with one hand, still gripping the top of her towel with the other. He half-stumbled, half-fell against the chest of drawers, fending weakly with the spatula when she pinned him there.

A meager, “Ow!” escaped his lips.

“I’m dangerous, Andrew,” she said. Her voice dropped an octave, and though her pulse was feral and racing, nothing in her tone betrayed it.

Andrew tsked. “No you’re not,” he said.

Dawn shoved him. She watched his eyes. They were blue. Really, really blue. Like, Elijah Wood blue. It was the first time she’d noticed.

She shook her head. “I am. You don’t know. I did something. Hurt someone, and you… you come in here like you know me and I… I could really hurt you.”

Andrew held still. He kept his eyes on hers. He never, never trained them down to the place where only a strip of beige terry cloth separated his clothed body from her naked one. He didn’t sneer, nor did he gasp or choke down his fear, if there was any, which Dawn started to doubt since Andrew was never that great at acting.

Instead he muttered, “Yeah. Maybe. But you’re not dangerous.”

The heel of Dawn’s hand brushed the base of Andrew’s throat. She flexed her long fingers, spreading them under the border of his magenta and gold Hogwarts sweater. The skin felt soft, pliable… and real.

He was real and right there. He wasn’t leaving, and she wasn’t running. They were what made the house un-empty. That had to mean something.

She wanted to tell him that. She wanted him to know it meant something to her that he was standing there, so close and unafraid.

Andrew had done bad things. He and his evil cadre had once gone after Buffy. And one of them put a bullet into Tara’s heart. Before the carnival left town in Sunnydale, Andrew himself had killed his best friend. Yet here they both stood, veteran players on the world-saving stage.

Somehow, the circle had swung its full orbit and if anyone on the planet would understand her wicked ways, it was probably Andrew Wells. And he wasn’t going anywhere.

She wanted to tell him. When she stepped back, she saw he already knew. It was okay.

Dawn took another step back. She adjusted the towel, cinching it securely beneath her arms.

Andrew scratched his head with the spatula. “So,” he said. “You never answered my question.”

“What?”

“The cookies/crime spree conundrum. Remember?”

“What kind?” Dawn asked.

Andrew sucked in his bottom lip thoughtfully before he spoke. He said, “I thought we could do some juvie stuff, like letting the air out of our neighbor’s tires. Or you know, we could hack into the Bank of England using the Watcher Council’s pass codes…”

Dawn could not suppress the smile – wan though it was – that surfaced on her face. “I meant the cookies. Ya big geek.”

“Riiiight,” Andrew answered, half-masting his eyelids. “Oatmeal chocolate chunk.”

The stab of sorrow this time came with its own companion dose of joy.

“Tara’s recipe?” Dawn croaked.

Andrew grinned, triumphant. “They’re magically delicious.”

With a knuckle, Dawn escorted a stray tear from her cheek. “I’ve done something horrible, Andrew,” she said. “You can’t even imagine.”

Andrew seemed to look inward for a moment. Dawn imagined him imagining and thinking he might have done worse.

“Did you kill someone?” His eyes fluttered around the room, uncertain of a safe place to settle.

“Damaged someone,” Dawn admitted. Tears choked her; stung her throat. She finished the thought in a rush to expel it from her body. “I think that can be worse, right? To ruin someone.”

Andrew’s eyebrows perched high on his forehead, a look of almost comic bafflement. “Dawn… how?”

Dawn dropped to the edge of her bed, her body curling in on itself, tight and rigid with grief.

“He tried to stop me, but I…” Dawn strangled on the words. “Oh God. What did I do to him?”

“Him who?” Andrew said. Then added, in a squeak of shock, “Spike?”

Dawn’s head snapped up. “No! Not Spike…”

But Andrew’s attention had turned to the open bedroom door and the figure that had collapsed against the jamb.

“Do us a favor, pet,” William said, laboring over every syllable. “Get Rupert on the line. Tell ’im I’ve just had a… bit of a scrape.”

William tumbled forward, catching Andrew’s shoulder, nearly dragging the boy off his feet. “I ran into… into a…”

William’s eyes rolled back. He crumpled in an untidy sprawl between Dawn’s and Andrew’s feet.

Chapter Text

“This is such a Buffy/Spike plan,” she said in an exasperated voice.

He ignored her. She went on. She knew that part was an idea of the bad as well, but pushing him was becoming more and more of a full time job.

In a purposely mangled English accent, she went on: “There are some caves in the woods north of town. I don’t think the Initiative knows about them.”

Spike drew up short. He gave her an obligatory glare. He knew she was baiting him. And well, she had laid it on pretty thick.

“Have you got a better plan?” he asked, his tongue slicing over the words.

Yes, actually.

“I think we should split up,” she told him.

“Oh, brilliant plan,” he said. “And in horror flicks, that’s right about when the blond gets it. Wait!” He feigned a gasp. “We’re both blond.”

“Sarcastic much?” Buffy said.

She left him on the path, putting some distance between them. It was, fortunately, darker than dark in the woods north of town. It enabled her to hide some of her anxieties, if not all of them. His vampire senses made him obnoxiously astute.

He caught up to her, but she headed him off conversationally.

“We’re never going to find anything Coven-related at this pace. There’s too much ground to cover,” she said.

“We have all night,” Spike said. The incredulous look stitched into his brows made her more eager to get further away.

“Look, I’ll go this way,” she said, gesturing south. “I’ll circle back when I reach the edge of town. You go that way. We’ll meet back in the middle.”

“And if we happen to meet any beasties…”

Buffy exhaled a sigh of frustration. “We won’t engage said beastie. This is strictly reconnaissance. Right?”

Spike studied her, the weight of concern on his shoulders combined with something like suspicion.

“The witches, Buffy. They have a way of knowing things,” he said.

Like the way Adam knew things? Buffy thought.

But that was ludicrous and she knew it. Sorta knew it. Spike had changed. Even if he didn’t have a soul, he was the man – er, vampire – who delivered on his promise to protect Dawn when everyone else had deserted them.

Except, one thing didn’t fit. One thing that was a growing wedge between them. And it was time now to start sorting things out on her own. She needed outside help, and needed him not to know about it.

“They’re not omniscient,” Buffy told him.

Spike hovered, a pinnacle of indecision.

“Buffy, if something should happen to you…” he said in a begrudging growl.

“It won’t.”

On that note, they parted.

As she left, finally stalking away in what must have once been a patented Buffy huff, she felt shaky and strange.

She had been seeking exactly this opportunity for the last week and a half. Ever since that night on the rooftop when Spike showed her the Sunnydale Witch Trial, in which the witches ironically conducted the trial, Buffy had been quietly hatching an escape plot.

Okay, so escape was too strong a word. It wasn’t like she was a captive. She just needed to get away. She had a plan, and for the moment, it did not include Spike.

Buffy veered south, quickening her pace. She put as much distance between them as possible. Around her, the pines towered, heightening the whole foreboding forest feel. Because it was so damn dark, every wind-tilted bough had Buffy leaping like a scared kid in a fairy story.

She never used to be so jumpy. Life in the basement had gone a long way to drive her to the edge of Wiggins. Sleeping all day, patrolling with Spike every night, spoon-feeding Dawn, and rocking her during her hair-pulling tantrums – all of it made them unbearable housemates. Buffy figured the only thing keeping her sane was the Surreal World effect of the whole affair. That, and the cage of hopelessness that was Sunnydale, CA.

Buffy at first felt that she could ride it out. After all, it was so dreamlike, it stood to reason that it must be a dream. Soon, her sleepwalking would start up again, and one day, she would awake in her own bed surrounded by her family and friends. It’d be just like Dorothy returning from a whacked-out Land of Oz. Dawn would be there. William, too. And Willow, and Xander and Giles. And Andrew.

But that changed this morning when Buffy attempted to slide into the elastic-banded yoga pants she’d been wearing the night she turned up in Sunnydale. Seemingly overnight, the baby had grown enough to make them hand-me-downs to someone less pregnant.

Which begged the question she’d been asking herself since she arrived: Why hadn’t Spike sensed it?

Angel had heard the heartbeat back when she scarcely knew the baby existed. She had spent hundreds of hours in close proximity with Spike, and for all of his extra-sensory perceptiveness, he hadn’t even made the first quip at the bottom-ward shift in her body weight.

The way she had it figured there were two potential reasons for it. One was that something was wrong with this Spike. The other, much more paralyzing in its implication, was that there was something wrong with her baby. He couldn’t hear a heartbeat if…

No. Buffy didn’t continue the thought. Had done quite well at keeping an arm’s length on that theory. Besides, a baby wouldn’t continue to grow without a beating heart. Right?

Buffy cranked up her pace again, now almost jogging along the brambly deer path that cut a silver swath through the dew-drenched underbrush. An abandoned railroad track ran parallel to the path until it finally intersected with the warehouse section of Wilkins Avenue. From there, she worked her way downtown, to the Sunnydale Primary Care Plaza.

Buffy reached the sidewalked edge of Wilkins Avenue without incident. Keeping to the shadows, she crept the half-mile to the heart of town.

She had patrolled these streets for a thousand nights. She understood too clearly what was missing. However evil the Coven and TriadCorp might be, they had done wonders for the safety and prosperity of the downtown sector. She knew, too, that vampires and random demon underlings were the lesser evils. Big Evil put the smack down on competition. It was like getting into business with the Mob. Sure, you could walk around at night, but there was a price.

That’s what Spike had wanted her to see.

Or had he?

It was another nettle, another prickle of concern.

“Where were you?” she had asked when she realized that the witches were responsible for what Dawn had become. “Why didn’t you stop them?”

His reply: “I was bound, gagged, down a bloody well…”

She hadn’t heard that part until later, when she turned the scene over and over, looking at it from every angle with her Slayer’s eyes. Bound, gagged and down a well, he’d said.

In her mind, a question floated up like a small red balloon. How did he get out?

That question, coupled with her expanding waistline, propelled her down the sidewalk toward the darkened offices of a Sunnydale clinic. She needed at least one answer. She was capable of calculating. Of thinking rationally. Of looking at things objectively. She hadn’t had a lot of practice in the last months, but she still could make a plan.

Buffy stood in front of the double glass doors of the office suite. Her plan included breaking into a doctor’s office. Sunnydale Primary Care was situated in a strip mall and smelled as such – like asphalt, latex gloves and sanitation supplies. It was a combination of scents she associated with her mother, and with death. Buffy would take Dawn for waffle cones at Cold Stone while her mother went in for routine blood work.

Buffy had seen these kinds of clinics before. She felt sure that this one would have what she needed. Buffy breathed in, then applied steady pressure on the door handle. After several seconds, the door jarred with a metallic groan from its frame.

Buffy waited, stock still, breathless. She expected buzzing alarms or flashing lights, but got nothing but the arid cool of the lobby.

She stepped back from the doors and frowned. Nothing was not what she expected to happen. The silence of the open, broken door proved just as daunting as the screech of sirens.

 

 

“Meanwhile… Somewhere beneath Sunnydale, in a subterranean laboratory, a brilliant scientist hides in a desperate attempt to escape the diabolical clutches of his foes – The Initiative. If they find him, all of his research is for naught. But he has something, apart from his uncanny resourcefulness and rakish good looks. A weapon of inconceivable power that he will use…”

“Hey! Give it!” Jonathan shouted. “I told you, you can’t play with that. It’s a prototype.”

Andrew lifted the bug-eye goggles from his face. He cradled the weapon closer to his body. It was a thing of beauty: a meter-long silver cylinder polished to gleaming, with an ergonomically-designed inset control panel in its base.

“It’s a field test,” Andrew said. “It’s within parameters in my job description to test our inventions.”

Jonathan reached for the weapon. Andrew dodged.

“It’s not ready for a field test,” Jonathan yelled. “And you don’t wanna test it in here.”

“Relax, Hoggle. I’m taking it to the Danger Room.”

“No you are not,” Jonathan said.

Jonathan reached again. Andrew feinted. Jonathan managed to get under him and latched onto the weapon.

“Gimme!” Jonathan groaned.

“You gimme,” Andrew said through clenched teeth.

Both gripped the shaft of the weapon and struggled over it. With a lot of huffing and puffing, they tug-o-warred over the weapon between them. Andrew put his hand over Jonathan’s sweaty face, trying to pry him off. Jonathan bit into the fat of Andrew’s thumb.

“Ow! Release, Cujo,” Andrew shouted. He lost his grip on the control panel. Jonathan seized the shaft with both hands. Andrew recovered a shaky grasp on the weapon. His hand slid to the base…

And with a violent burst, the weapon discharged. The blast struck a bank of metal filing cabinets, turning them into a puddle of smoking molten goo.

Jonathan threw up his hands. “Now look what you did!”

“That was awesome,” Andrew marveled.

Jonathan treaded to the edge of the puddle. With his hands on his hips, he said, “My Battletech Hexgrids were in there.”

Andrew polished the shaft of the weapon with a loving caress. “Who cares? You can buy like a thousand more when TriadCorp sells the patent for The Meltinator.”

Jonathan wheeled on Andrew. “You don’t get to name it! It’s my invention.”

“I designed the ergonomically sound control panel component, Jerkathan,” Andrew said.

“Give it,” Jonathan demanded. “I don’t grant you clearance to test that device.”

Andrew stuck out his tongue. “Already did.”

“Did not.”

“Did too. And, I declare The Meltinator a complete success. Although, the firing mechanism’s a little touchy.”

“Don’t call it that. That is the dumbest name…”

Jonathan grabbed for the weapon again, but this time Andrew held it high above his head.

Andrew heard the scuff of bootheels on the cement floor a second before the burnt-sugar-and-bourbon voice addressed them.

“If you boys are done playing slap and tickle,” he said.

Andrew and Jonathan sprung apart and turned to face Spike just as he lit up a cigarette. Spike – all raw sex and taut masculine vigor wrapped in supple black leather – reclined against a stack of crates, his cigarette dangling from his lips.

But he never came just to chat. Which meant…

“I have news,” Spike said. He sauntered across the lab leaving an elegant trail of smoke in his wake. “Where’s Warren?”

Andrew sucked in his bottom lip. “He’s otherwise occupied these days,” he said sullenly.

“Yeah,” Jonathan concurred. “Corporate jet-setting keeps him real busy.”

“Meanwhile, you two spend a lion’s share of TriadCorp’s research funds making your nifty little toys,” Spike said, eyeing the steaming molten puddle with derision.

“The Meltinator’s not a toy, Spike,” Andrew said, all defensive, ignoring the cut of Jonathan’s eyes.

Spike took a deep drag from the cigarette, then flicked the butt into the pool of smoldering ooze. “Fine,” he said. “You’ll do. Pass this message along: The Slayer’s come back to Sunnydale.”

Andrew and Jonathan exchanged startled expressions. Then, Jonathan said, “Faith’s out of prison?”

“Guess again.”

Andrew pondered. “Then the Dark Slayer is dead. I knew that life in the Big House was bound to wear her down,” he said. “More importantly, how are we going to win the new Slayer over to our objectives? Faith was a really hard sell…”

Spike grinned, full of self-pleasing. “Uh-uh. Wrong.”

At which point, Jonathan and Andrew stood, figuratively head-scratching.

“Buffy,” Spike said.

“But she’s dead,” Jonathan exclaimed. “I went to her funeral.”

“So did I,” Andrew put in.

“You did not, you big suck up,” Jonathan said. It was seldom mentioned, but Jonathan could be so cruel.

Was dead,” Spike corrected. “And yet, she’s back. Mad as ever, to be sure. But I can tell by the dawning concern on your faces that you understand how this complicates things.”

“But Dawn?” Andrew said.

“The girl is secure,” Spike said, in a way that blocked further discussion.

“What does she want?” Jonathan said. “What does Buffy want? Not to mention how did she come back?”

“Yeah,” Andrew said.

Spike rolled his eyes. “All the reasons I need to speak with Warren,” he said.

“Look, just because he took out your chip doesn’t mean…” Andrew began.

Spike gave him a warning glare. “Just let him know the Slayer’s back in town, and that I need a word. With him.”

Jonathan folded his arms. “Fine.”

Spike turned on his weathered bootheel and left them.

“He is such a showman. Always leave them wanting more,” Andrew said.

“Shut up, Leo Bloom,” Jonathan said. “On a scale of badness magnitude, this ranks at least a level Q.”

Andrew holstered his Meltinator. “Don’t be such a bobble head. There’s nothing Buffy can dish out that we can’t handle.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Jonathan said, squinting his eyes into the vague middle distance of their laboratory. “Spike has always had a thing for Buffy. His ability to act rationally has been compromised. We have to inform Warren. Before all Hell breaks loose.”

 

 

Once she made it past the outer doors, the inner offices were simple enough. She searched three offices, going through desk drawers, filing cabinets and closets, but so far, she’d found nothing she could use.

Beside the door of the fourth office, she came across a name she recognized.

Dr. Kriegel. Her Mom’s doctor. The memory brought a pang of bitter sadness to her heart. But with a whispered prayer, she broke the tumblers of the lock and pushed inside.

Buffy went straight away to the desk and began rifling through the drawers. She found prescription pads and patient files aplenty, but not what she needed.

After a moment’s searching, Buffy stepped back, wanting to put her fist through something to vent her frustration.

“Where do doctors keep their stethoscopes anyway?” she asked to no one in particular.

“I keep mine in the glove box.”

Dr. Kriegel stood in the doorway, one hand on the open door, the other in the pocket of his blazer. He was a squarish man, tall and balding. He looked more like Sam the Eagle than a surgeon. Buffy recalled that he would pad the truth for the sake of consoling when the occasion called for it.

“Stay back,” Buffy ordered.

“It’s my office,” Dr. Kriegel said.

“I know,” Buffy said, stepping further into shadow. “Just. Please don’t come any closer.”

“I don’t have any drugs here,” Dr. Kriegel said.

“I don’t want drugs.”

“There’s no money either. All the talk about doctors having tons of cash is unfounded rumor.”

He kept his hand in the pocket of his jacket and Buffy knew he had his pointy finger on speed dial for 911. Either that, or a gun. It was Sunnydale after all.

Buffy fidgeted. “I’m not here for money. I…”

Dr. Kriegel stepped over the threshold. “Not drugs or money? I don’t have blood either.”

Buffy scoffed. “Sunnydale.”

“Look,” Dr. Kriegel said, taking his hand from his pocket and holding them both up for her to see. “I won’t call the police if you just go now.”

“I was serious about the stethoscope,” Buffy said.

“Beg pardon?”

“And vitamins. The folic kind,” Buffy said in a rush. “I need them.”

Dr. Kriegel chuckled. He sounded entirely relieved. “You broke in for – oh.” He paused. “I’m an oncologist.”

“I know.”

“You know?” he asked. He took another step toward her.

And Buffy stepped away. “I mean, now I know. After rummaging. But I was hoping someone in this place would have what I need.”

Dr. Kriegel leaned toward the desk. “You know, there are free clinics in this town. I’ll write the number down.”

Buffy cleared her throat. “I can’t go to a clinic.”

Dr. Kriegel studied her for a long, uncomfortable moment before speaking again. “I think… it might be your lucky night,” he said.

Buffy closed her eyes. “You have vitamins?”

“Is your bladder full right now?” he asked.

“Boy, you’re really random with the questions....”

“Dr. Braden has an ultrasound,” he said. “Much better than a stethoscope.”

With trembling arms, Buffy cradled her belly. “Oh. Really?”

“Really. If you’ll, um,” he gestured toward the hall. “It’s right this way.”

 

 

Buffy lay back on the padded table in Dr. Braden’s office, the paper lining crackling under her as she adjusted to get comfortable. Not that comfort was really an option, with the catheter and all.

“You comfortable?” Dr. Kriegel asked. He had finished tinkering with the ultrasound machine. It was making a series of soft, sonorous wave sounds.

“In a manner of speaking,” Buffy said. “You sure you can drive this thing?”

“I know my way around an ultrasound,” he said, reassuringly. “Shall we?”

Buffy nodded. She focused all of her attention on the blank TV screen that sat on top of the ultrasound. She really couldn’t help herself. Her life and sanity hung in the balance.

Dr. Kriegel seemed to understand.

Buffy rolled up the hem of her faded black T-shirt. To a casual observer, Buffy didn’t even look pregnant. She looked like a college sophomore after two semesters of frat parties and kegs-o-beer, maybe. But prospective mother, maybe not.

“This will be cold,” Dr. Kriegel said, squirting green gel on her belly.

It was cold. Buffy squealed, then giggled nervously. Dr. Kriegel seemed to be enjoying himself. He returned to the ultrasound and retracted the wand thingy.

“Ready?”

Buffy drew in a deep breath. She couldn’t say the word. So she nodded instead.

At first, when the wand met skin, there was nothing. No sound. No image on the screen. Nothing. Buffy squeezed her eyes closed, awaiting the worst.

Then, she heard it. A steady, rapid rumbling.

“Is that…?” she said, and stopped herself.

“Heartbeat,” Dr. Kriegel said. “Yep.”

Buffy pressed her hands to her lips. “It’s so fast.”

“Good and strong. Have a look,” Dr. Kriegel said.

Buffy craned her neck to look at the ghostly blue image that appeared on screen.

“She’s really in there,” she choked out, realizing in the next second how completely ridiculous it must have sounded.

Dr. Kriegel rolled the wand around, giving Buffy the tour de womb. “Do you know the date of conception?”

“August 12th,” Buffy said automatically.

Dr. Kriegel chuckled. “I may be an oncologist, but I’m certain you’re further along than six weeks. I’d put you at 16 to 18 weeks.”

“Um…” Buffy stammered. “I mean April. I always do that.”

Dr. Kriegel’s smile faltered. “You’re… not from around here?”

“No.”

He continued to move the wand over her belly. Buffy couldn’t pry herself from the picture on screen. At one point, she thought she saw an arm. It may have been a leg. It was a wiggly appendage, anyway. The motion and the beating heart meant good things.

Every molecule in Buffy’s body seemed to vibrate. Over and over, two words fell and tumbled like feathers on an updraft. My baby. My baby… For the first time, her hands itched to hold this baby. She wanted to feel the weight of her in her arms. It was the most powerfully frightening instinct she had ever felt. Ever. More powerful than the instinct to protect Dawn. Stronger than the impulse to fight.

“I thought I might have known you,” Dr. Kriegel said, his words hesitant.

Buffy dragged her eyes to meet his. She watched him, wondering how far she could trust him. He’d been her mother’s doctor, all the way to the end. But that was another life, and another Sunnydale. For all she knew, he could be completely Handmaid’s Tale. It wasn’t a risk Buffy felt she could take. Except, he had been extra helpful and accommodating so far.

Dr. Kriegel nodded. “I see things. In this town, I see a lot of strangeness. A thousand times, I’ve told my wife, ‘we should leave this place. I hear Eureka’s nice.’ Hell, I’d bet Tijuana’s got a lower mortality rate.

“But I stay. Even people in Sunnydale get cancer. I think people here need good doctors. That’s what I am. So I stay.”

He paused. Buffy didn’t know which was louder – the sound of her baby’s beating heart or her own.

“I’ll help you, Miss…”

“Pratt,” she supplied. “The name’s Pratt.”

Dr. Kriegel chewed his lip. Buffy understood that he knew who she was, and where he’d seen her before. He also knew that her name was not Pratt. But, it was a secret both were willing to keep.

He smiled. “I can help you, Miss Pratt,” he said. “Vitamins. A place to stay–”

“Clothes?”

“You name it.” Dr. Kriegel replaced the wand on the ultrasound. In the absence of the bubbly, underwater noise of the baby’s heartbeat, the room seemed somehow flatter, empty. It was a sound that would stay with her for always, though. She had her answers. There was nothing wrong with her, or the baby. But there was something wrong with Spike.

Buffy took a deep, stabilizing breath. She could skate right in to the next stage of her plan. Here she had a doctor willing to lend a hand, and an office chock full of long distance service.

“I could really use a phone,” Buffy said.

 

 

Buffy dialed the number from memory, realizing that it had been a long time since she’d been in Sunnydale and by all rights it would have changed.

Dr. Kriegel hung back near the door, giving her space and privacy. After the fourth ring, Buffy was ready to hang it up when someone in LA picked up the line.

“Angel Investigations,” answered a strident, overly confident female voice. “Harris speaking.”

The gears in Buffy’s mind screeched and locked solid. For several seconds she reeled, until finally her brain relinquished the name.

“Anya,” Buffy said. “Anya Harris.” She covered her mouth, but couldn’t stifle her stunned laughter.

The next part of Buffy’s plan just got a little less complicated.

 

Chapter Text

Willow levered her body over a grimy limestone ledge several meters beneath the Tokyo city street. As she dropped to the canal’s edge below, the deafening roar of traffic was drowned by the burbling of a sewage drain.

Sometimes, Willow thought, she really disliked having the levelest of heads.

She had already decided it was time to call home. The game was up. They’d seen nothing of Thellian. Connor had slipped beyond them. Then Faith had tumbled after, having left four cryptic words on Willow’s voicemail: Wayara’s dead. Don’t follow.

Of course, Willow had followed. She went to the Slayer School only to find its burned-out husk cordoned off with black and red police tape.

Wayara was dead. The school, destroyed. Strike another loss for the home team.

Willow had stood in the shadow of the still smoking wreckage, tears stinging her eyes. Helplessness was not a feeling that sat well with Willow Rosenberg.

She lacked the reagents for a proper location spell to find Faith. To her continued annoyance, the language barrier was still a hindrance. She’d enchanted a strip of birch bark with a translation spell to wear around her neck, but that met with less than satisfactory results.

To wit: at the herbalist’s shop she asked for adder’s mouth and came away with what might or might not have been a sprig of foxglove and a bento box. While the hunched woman behind the counter had been noddingly accommodating, Willow was sure that the enchantment covered only the most basic words of greeting. The rest proved too tricky for translation.

Willow had one more thing to try, one last effort before she phoned her defeat to London. And that was to seek the Looking Glass.

She felt the memorable pulsation of the Looking Glass somewhere very close. She focused on the water’s motion, drawing its energy to fan out her senses.

It was risky for her to seek the Glass. She knew it. It was an artifact of dubious origin that appealed to the darker side of her magics. She’d already fallen prey to its pull once. Maybe that explained the perverse satisfaction she got from knowing she could exploit that connection to locate it. She was Willow, the not-so-easily daunted.

She spread her palms and extended her senses. Opening herself this way made everything she saw, felt, heard or smelled became sharper, more intense. She wrinkled her nose at the boiled sweatsock scent of the sewer. The dank air permeated her thin jacket. Shadows thickened. By contrast, the feeble light grew brighter.

Beneath the light, undetectable by normal sight, the Glass stitched the gloom with pulses of sickly green. Willow tracked it, drawn down into a narrow, arched passageway.

The stones were slick. Willow regretted her choice of footwear. Satin slippers: Not suited for sewer crawls. She inched along, sensing scuttling things in the dark, rats and slugs and other things less solid. Chilling things like phantoms and wraiths that you couldn’t feel unless you opened yourself to the night.

She continued along the slimy path, hating the way the moss squished, continuing to dislike the stench and reconsidering for the gillionth time to return to street level, flip out her phone and call Buffy.

After several minutes of steady downward going, the path tapered further and came to an abrupt terminus - a wall notched with a series of steep steps.

Willow stepped back.

“You must be joking,” she mumbled. She glanced at her slippers, then back to the ledge. Slippers also not suited for climbing.

But the tug of the Glass was stronger, she admitted, and she had already come this far.

Willow planted her palms on the ledge and hefted herself to the first step. It was a cramped space, and she had to do a fair amount of wriggling through mucky muck, but she emerged in an elevated circular chamber. There was a storm drain below, semi-clogged with gunk from recent rains. Directly across was another, much wider tunnel entrance.

“Sure. Why take the crawlspace, when you can take the spacious thoroughfare?” Willow muttered.

She inched along with her back to the cool, curved concrete wall. She closed her eyes and spread her awareness. The Glass’s power twisted like a fist in her belly.

She opened her eyes and looked up. It was there - a pale, greenish X-Files glow that cast wavering spangles on the wall and ceiling above it.

“Jinkies,” Willow breathed. She panned her awareness to take in the full circle of the chamber.

It was barrel-shaped, with a grated drain in the wall almost directly above her, and was probably designed as a holding tank to channel exceptionally heavy floodwater during the rainy season. It was sectioned into three tiers, the uppermost fitted with a wide metal shelf once used for maintenance or grid-access or something equally utilitarian. The Glass occupied the furthest corner of the scaffold, and seemed bundled, nest-like, in ragged paper and strips of cloth.

“There you are,” Willow said, her voice overlarge in the confines of the tank. “But where is Connor?”

She took another look around, this time with her non-magic eyes. She found no evidence of Connor – no cast-off clothes or food cartons, no evidence of a cook fire, no scuffs on the walls to show that he had been there. The only bedding to speak of was what someone had propped around the Glass to cushion it.

But Connor wouldn’t leave the Glass there unguarded knowing someone – or something – could just stroll right in and take it. Would he?

She hadn’t sensed any protective wards around it. She supposed there could be a guardian spirit bound to the Glass, a defender that would react only if someone tried to move it. She felt nothing of the sort, but Tokyo was a strange place full of ancient magics she didn’t quite understand. Yet.

What she did understand was that the Glass was present and Connor was not. Did that mean he was out there, hurt or lost or something worse? Questions piled up in the inbox of her brain, along with mental picture attachments of possible scenarios. She knew what the Looking Glass could do. She knew it could send Connor into other dimensions just like that. He could be stranded in Troll Land or the World of Shrimp, or a thousand other equally perilous places. Connor could be trapped in Alice with Freddie and only Willow could save him.

Willow edged toward the Glass, hands behind her back to keep her balance. As she neared, it stirred to life, seeming to acknowledge and welcome her presence.

She faltered. Her breath hiccupped in her lungs. Painfully. She remembered this sensation, and it was not a fond remembrance.

The Looking Glass had power. Had, in fact, more power now than it did before. It was draining someone to get it. It was draining… Connor.

If the Glass was feeding on Connor, the possible outcomes took on a more ominous tone. Maybe the Glass didn’t need a protector. Maybe it was the master. Perhaps the bed of rags was its shrine, with Connor reduced to lowly servitude.

Willow was suddenly angry with the boy. Hadn’t she warned him not to be too peeky with the Glass? But – oh no! – he just had to hang on to it for safekeeping. As if he was the only one capable of safely keeping things. She had loads more safekeeping experience than he did, plus, ahem: Magical prowess.

She wanted to find him now just so she could give him a firm ear-tweaking for being so damn impressionable. He was Angel’s son, for the sake of the Goddess, which meant he had to be All That with the power, and the Glass would no doubt have a whole month’s worth of field days with it.

It was obvious now what she had to do. She didn’t need to find Faith. Not yet. She had to first find Connor, and then destroy the Glass before it could bring them more harm.

So absorbed by this inner conflict was she that Willow did not see the flicker of motion beneath her. She did not see the man who entered the chamber and turned his pale green eyes upon her.

“Well,” came the resonant voice from the pit of the chamber, “If it isn’t the one responsible for all of this chaos.”

Willow turned so abruptly she almost tossed herself from the ledge. Her heart clawed into her throat as her fingers clung to the slick surface of the wall. She managed to scrabble a steady hold, but her heart stammered beneath her breastbone like a startled bird in a cage.

She peered over the ledge into the murk, until her senses picked out his shape. She suspected Connor, but it wasn’t him. It was Thellian.

And then, his words reached the reason center of her brain. When they did, Willow felt a cloak of reassuring indignity settle over her.

“Me?” she said. “Do the words pot and kettle mean anything to you?”

He walked, his pace carefully metered, until he stood directly beneath Willow, and turned his face to hers.

“You don’t know, do you? The ripples caused by your delicate wings?” he said.

Willow planned to unleash a brutal retort, followed by the incantation for the sunblast spell she’d held in reserve for just such an occasion, but – quite unexpectedly – she withheld both. Instead, she studied him, remembering how Buffy had described him.

Intensity didn’t cover it, Willow decided. There was something else about him, something indefinable. And unnerving. And not entirely disagreeable.

“You won’t find him here,” Thellian said, carrying the momentum of the conversation without her. “Not tonight.”

Willow blinked, hating how off-put she felt. “I’m not looking for…” she lied.

“Ah, you seek Faith. And she seeks the boy. You both are misled,” he said.

She made a show of rolling her eyes. “Oh wise one, do impart.”

Thellian’s head tilted slightly to one side. The glow from the grate above her fell on his face, turning his fine blond hair to a halo of gold. Though the movement into the beam felt calculated, Willow couldn’t help but think that the look of concern in his eyes was genuine.

“Luxe went to Hell to raise an army, Miss Rosenberg. Without the vampires holding dominion over the night, he sees this time as his opportunity to strike,” he said.

“You were with him,” Willow retorted. “You were partners in your dastardly schemes.”

“His plans were never my plans,” Thellian answered. “You must see how you and I are complicit in this, Miss Rosenberg.”

“Complicit? We? I don’t think so, buster,” she said. “I don’t see what this has to do with you and I having anything to do with each other. You’re a vampire. Thus, evil. And while I was evil once, now… not so much.”

Willow beheld only a twitch of motion from the vampire’s shoulders. In the next heartbeat, he stood beside her on the ledge.

You resurrected the Slayer,” he said, talking faster now, bearing down on her, while she backed away. “You spread her blood across the earth. You created the imbalance in power that enabled me to tap the Deeper Well.”

Willow caught on, but feigned obtuseness for the sake of buying time. She continued to move in the direction of the Looking Glass. Bad idea though it was, Willow could use the Glass as a means of escape if she had to.

“I don’t see where you’re headed, Mister, but you better turn around and head back because I’m getting testy. And you wouldn’t like that,” she said, pointing a finger at his chest.

Thellian halted. He said, “My plan failed. But the scales, Willow. They waver still. And Connor is slaughtering our allies.”

Willow ceased her retreat. Again, she was forced to weigh his motives. She could and probably should blast him to powdered toast, but something in his tone captivated her. More so, even, than the seductive pull of the Looking Glass. Something about what he said made sense.

“Demons? Allies?” Willow asked. “Clarify, please?”

“The Kuei-shin guard the gateways between this world and Hell dimensions. Without them, the world spreads before Luxe like a feast of rotting flesh. He will lay waste to everything. Connor is systematically taking down our defenses. There will be nothing left for us…”

“Us?” There it was again. The sense-making thing. Our allies. Us . The picture came into stark focus. “You’re asking for my help ?” Willow balked.

It was less than the beat of an eyelash, but Willow saw it: the flash of regret in Thellian’s eyes. It was less than a second’s measure of vulnerability revealed before his composure returned, placid as ever to his aquiline face.

“He must be stopped,” Thellian said.

“I think you’ve missed the whole malevolent vampire party line,” Willow told him. “You and I are not on the same side. You are a genocidal maniac, and you need to die. Now.”

She curled her fingers over her palm, calling forth the energies necessary for the sunblast spell she never thought she’d need again.

Thellian took a step in her direction. The air between them shimmered with the crackling wave of energy that should have been a warning.

But Thellian took another step toward her.

Willow cupped her hands. Sun-bright embers swirled to life and floated above her palms. The temperature in the chamber plummeted. A sudden, violent wind ripped down through the drain above and Willow smiled.

Thellian sought her eyes and pinned them.

“I knew you could kill me with a glance, Miss Rosenberg,” he said. “Yet here I stand.”

Willow tried to blink, to tear her eyes away…

“Willow. Listen to me,” he said.

The sunblast wobbled and danced. It flared brightly, turning their faces to Jack-o-lantern masks.

She said, “It’s your fault we’re here. Your fault Connor’s gone all Mad Hatter.” She was yelling now, her voice a reedy whine over the growing growl of the spell. “You’re fault the world’s in this wreck. Not mine!”

Thellian drew a breath he did not need. “Then release the spell,” he said, keeping still his even tone. “Release it. Release…”

Willow tried to steady the spell, but her concentration wavered. His eyes fell on her like a block of ice cut from a glacier. He didn’t desire death. She saw that. He wanted what she wanted. It was plain to her. He wanted answers.

“Release the spell, Willow,” he said. “Release it.”

“No.”

Willow shook her head. She closed her hands over the fireball, extinguishing it in a puff of smoke. She stared at him, her mouth parted as she panted for breath.

Thellian kept his gaze on hers. His expression betrayed nothing. She remembered wondering, when Angel had passed along Wolfram & Hart’s files on Thellian, what it was that enabled him to live so long when other master vampires became twisted, defiled versions of their inner demons. Kakistos had gone over all cloven-hooves (talk about your footwear issues) and The Master looked like Keith Richards-meets-Dr. Evil on a really bad day.

Meanwhile, Thellian looked human.

Almost… pitiable.

Willow felt a quaver in her belly. She understood in a moment of mercurial clarity exactly how Angel had fallen in step with Thellian’s diabolical plans.

“You knew I wouldn’t incinerate you,” Willow said flatly.

Thellian bowed his head slightly. “I knew it.”

Willow glared at him. “How? How did you know, when I didn’t even know?”

“You know that I am right, Miss Rosenberg. You feel the same stone on your heart. You had such pure intentions, did you not?”

“Stop it,” she snapped.

“I know where he is going,” Thellian countered quickly. “I know that I cannot stop him alone. But if we succeed in this – if we stop him – Luxe will fail. His armies will be bound in Hell and humankind will have a chance again to flourish. If not,” Thellian trailed off, leaving it to Willow to finish the thought.

Willow’s energy had gone out of her. She felt drained, colorless, empty. Even her sense of The Glass had ebbed to a dull ache behind her eyes.

She sighed. “I can’t trust you,” she said. “How can I believe anything you say?”

Thellian nodded. He seemed to anticipate just such a question. He reached into his blazer pocket and drew out a thin parcel wrapped in tattered blue cloth.

“Trust this,” he said, passing it her.

Willow hesitated. He held it out to her, the weight of it balanced between his hands like an offering.

She plucked it gingerly from his palms. After a moment’s study, she unwound its timeworn wrapping, turning it over and over between her fingers, until she revealed the slim wooden box inside.

The wood had been polished smooth by who knew how many years of handling. Willow felt the essence of it the moment her skin made contact with the box, as if the memory of every person who touched it meant something. Because it did mean something. Whatever it was in the box, it was good and pure; an object of faith…

“Open it,” Thellian urged.

Willow turned the box in trembling hands, searching for a latch, but found that the top panel slid open. With her thumbs, Willow back the lid a few inches, enough to see what the box concealed. A shining silver pentacle lay on a bed of silk inside.

Willow was once again without words. Thellian, it seemed, had an endless supply.

“It belonged to Damas, the man who would have been Watcher to my Morna. Here,” he said, taking hold of the silk cord, but careful not to touch the pentacle itself. “You should wear it. It will protect you, just as a cross or blessed water would in the West.”

Thellian dangled the pentacle pendant between them. It twirled capriciously on its cord, casting dalliances of light across his face and hers. Without much thought at all, Willow reached out and took the star in her hands.

 

Chapter Text

Black Friday

Xander wandered aimlessly until the land met the seawall and he had to sit down. The sun rose like a blister of blood over Galveston Bay. He covered his face with his hands and listened to the relentless pounding of the surf on the jetties and the insistent call of seagulls.

He’d gone beyond his ability to feel anything. Which was good. Feeling, at this point, would be bad. So he remained, hiding behind his hands, wishing the sun would drain away.

While he sat there, feeling alternately numb and chilled, then sick and sweating, he drowned out what he could of the world. He could do that – blot it all out. Conceivably forever. He could huddle up like a crab in a shell. He’d done it after leaving Anya at the altar, in a little hotel room not far from Sunnydale, but that was an address on Memory Lane he didn’t much like to visit.

Xander stayed on the seawall, legs dangling over the concrete embankment, while the sun bounced dull copper rays across the listless surf. To his added discomfort, his clothing dried but stuck to his limbs like stiff plaster.

He thought, Just like me to complain about my clothes at a time like this. It’s like me to dwell on what is inconsequential and lose sight of what really matters.

And what did matter, exactly? Saving the world. Big check in that box. Friends safe and secure. Also, check. Then there was Maya, who mattered more than he could express, and he never got the chance to tell her. Now he never would. It had passed him by. That was what it meant be human, and goddammit, did Xander hate being human sometimes.

Maya was good, too. Super good. Like almost saintly, and so not deserving of a watery grave. She was way sweeter than Cordelia (who was dead), and much less evil than Anya, (who was – hello! – also dead).

It was him. It had to be. He was cursed. Any way he looked at it, he brought ruination upon the women in his life.

Xander glanced out over the hazy water, realizing with further misery that his tears would not come. Not that crying ever helped, but something had to give.

At this point, Xander was prepared to wager with the Almighty. Except, he had already given many years of service and one of his eyes to the cause of Good. Barring further loss of limb, he wasn’t sure he had much to bargain with. Didn’t actually matter. Xander was not the type for introspection. But he did want to say that he was sorry. He was sorry for not noticing until it was too late that he had a good, rare, special thing right there in front of him and he let it pass him by. Again.

Xander sat wallowing in boundless despair. He was so wallowed, he didn’t hear the scuff of a tire as it ran up on the parking divider. Didn’t hear the grumble of engine as it cut off. His mind didn’t register the slam of the car door.

“Xander?”

Her voice, all birdsong and plaintive, parted the wretchedness like a burst of sunlight. He stood up, turning, disbelieving, to behold her on the curb beside her Daddy’s black pickup.

“Oh my God,” he said. “Maya?”

She took a trepid step in his direction. “I have been looking all over for you,” she said.

“B-but you. You’re…” Xander stammered. “In the coffee shop, they said.”

“I drove and drove, but you were nowhere, and I was starting to get afraid that something bad had happened,” Maya said. She came to stand a foot in front of him, petite shoulders squared with his.

Xander blinked. “In the coffee shop, they said you were dead. They said there was an accident, and your truck went into the water.”

Maya shrugged lightly. “We had a fight, Xander. I wouldn’t go all La Llorona and drive my Daddy’s truck into the drink.”

“Huh?”

“I tried to call you, even…”

Xander extracted his cell phone from his sodden pocket. The LED was fogged over on the inside.

He released a nervous giggle. “Must have been damaged by copious amounts of rainwater,” he said.

Maya took the phone from his hand. “I am so sorry!”

“Maya, don’t be. Okay. I was Pushy Xander, when I should have been Understanding Xander. I just… I’m the one who should be sorry. And glad. So very, extremely glad that you are not dead.”

Xander’s whole body trembled. The tears were on their way down, and regrettably bringing along many friends.

Maya slammed into him, nearly toppling them both from the seawall. She wrapped her arms around his waist, fisting her little hands into the back of his damp T-shirt.

“I shouldn’t have thrown you out of the truck, though. That was a childish, my-way-or-the-highway thing to do. And then, you chose the highway.” Maya looked up at him and giggled.

She looked radiant against the colorless backdrop of the off-season drab that was Galveston in November. Xander ran his shaking hands over her cap of blonde curls, catching and twirling them in his thumbs. She was solid, substantial, not-deceased Maya.

Xander cleared his throat. “Uh. Maya. I just want to say I don’t care about Lance, or what happened to you long ago at a party far, far away. It doesn’t matter, and I shouldn’t have made a big deal of it. Especially considering, I mean, I know we did just meet.”

Maya nodded along to every word, her green eyes brimming with relief.

“What I’m saying,” Xander said, nearly giving in to the temptation to kiss her, but soldiering on, for the sake of making his point. “Is that, I want to take the time to get to know you. However long that takes. Because, I’m a little slow, it seems, at learning the landmark lessons in life.”

“Me too,” Maya admitted. “On both counts.”

Maya lay her head on Xander’s chest. He reveled in the warmth of her touch in light of his previous thinking that he’d lost it forever.

“Hey, here’s an idea,” Xander said. “Let’s not ever do that ever again.”

“Good plan.” Maya looked up. “I have another one. One that involves a cozy little hotel room. Maybe a shower. Some room service…”

“Oooh. I’m liking that plan. Especially the shower part. I’m particularly… briny.”

Maya’s lips curved in a playful smile. “Yeah, I get that.”

Xander thought that was fair. He put his lips to the top of her head. Unlike him, she smelled like a meadow. One full of promise and fresh, perfect spring flowers. And if she was willing to give him a second chance, well, then, that was all good by him.

 

 

Dawn and Andrew stared down at the unconscious heap that was Spike.

“Spike? Spike?” Andrew said, panic rising in his voice.

“Here,” Dawn said, kneeling beside him. “Let’s get him up on the bed.”

It took their combined effort to heft the limp body onto Dawn’s twin bed. When they managed, they rolled him over onto his back.

“Search for wounds,” Dawn ordered. “Start with the head.”

Andrew pushed Spike’s head back into the pillows, turning it under his fingertips, feeling along his scalp and around the nape of his neck.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have moved him,” Andrew said, his voice timorous. “In emergency situations, aren’t you supposed to leave the injured as they are?”

Dawn tugged at the arm of Spike’s coat, trying to pry it off. “I dunno. I don’t remember. Should we put him back?”

Andrew turned Spike’s head back and forth. Spike’s eyelids quivered, but remained fixed. “No. We should keep him here now. I don’t see anything on his head or neck.”

“Get some scissors,” Dawn barked.

“We’re gonna cut off his coat?” Andrew asked, appalled.

“No. His shirt. We have to check his upper torso for evidence of trauma.” Groaning, she wrenched furiously at the arm of the coat, but couldn’t slip it off his shoulder.

“Here,” Andrew said. He took the other sleeve in his hand. “On three.”

Dawn nodded. “One. Two…”

“Three.”

Dawn and Andrew lifted Spike, peeled down the top of the coat and managed, after a bit of struggling, to get it out from under his body.

Dawn let out a shaky breath. “I didn’t know he was so heavy,” she said.

Andrew shook his head. “Me neither,” he said. They were on opposite sides of her bed now, both staring quizzically at the motionless body between them. He was breathing, thankfully – light, shallow inhalations that scarcely caused his chest to rise and fall.

“Dawn,” Andrew said. “I don’t think we need scissors.”

“What?”

“Look,” he said. He rolled Spike’s upper arm in his hand, turning it to reveal twin punctures that oozed a thick gray, gelatinous fluid.

“Eee,” they said, taking a simultaneous step back.

Dawn swallowed. “What the hell did that?”

Andrew leaned in for a closer inspection. He reached toward it, his fingers jittering like dragonfly’s wings. The pierced flesh had puckered, forming two gaping black holes ringed with pale blue bruises that spread outward like the rings inside a tree.

“Don’t touch it!” Dawn shrieked, batting his hand away.

“Right,” Andrew said, tucking his hand into his armpit. “Why?”

“If it could take him down, who knows what it would do to us?” She glanced at Andrew and watched as his face blanched with realization.

“We have to do something,” he said. “That wound’s going necrotic.”

Dawn’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know that?”

“Dr. House wouldn’t steer me wrong,” Andrew said. “We have to… we have to think, Dawnie. What was the last thing he said, before he went all Snow White on us?”

Dawn was nodded, fighting to recall the words. Then she snapped her fingers. “Giles. He said to call to Giles.”

 

 

Minutes later, Dawn was on the phone to the Coven in Devon, and Andrew, who knelt on the floor beside Spike, was gnawing on the fleshy part of his own knuckles.

“Rapa Nui?” Dawn said, her tone discouraged. “Is that even a real place?”

While Dawn listened to the young witch describe Giles’ mission in the South Pacific, she turned from Andrew to check on Spike again. He remained eerily still, and the wound had darkened. Her heart plummeted all the way into the pit of her belly.

“Well, do you know when he’ll be back?” she asked.

Dawn closed her eyes as she hung up the phone. “Giles is following up a lead to find Buffy. The Coven doesn’t know how long he’ll be,” she said in a strangled whisper. “We’re on our own.”

“’Kay,” Andrew said, hopping to his feet. “Well, so. First, we find out what bit Spike. That’s easy enough. We’ll measure the bite mark, take a sample of the poison and match it with what we have on file in the Ancient Text Storage. Once we know what horrific naughty we’re dealing with, we can either find an antidote or, we make our own.” Andrew squinted his eyes, then nodded resolutely.

Dawn gaped at him. She started to say something quippy, but the words crumbled before they could leave her lips. It was so like him to do the exact opposite of what she expected. She was so accustomed to Panic-Action Andrew that Man-With-A-Plan Andrew threw her even further off her center.

She was about to tell him so, when he was spared by the doorbell.

Andrew craned his head, irritated by the distraction. “I’m not expecting anyone. You?”

Dawn chewed her lip. “Not really…” It was possible, she guessed, that Brodie might show up demanding an explanation, though she thoroughly doubted it.

“Fine. I’ll get it,” he said, turning briskly and purposefully toward her bedroom door. “You probably should… get dressed.” Dawn noticed that he wasn’t looking directly at her. “You’re still wearing a towel,” he said, haltingly, his face flushing pink to the tips of his ears.

Dawn glanced down. To her unremitting horror, she saw that she was clad only in the towel she’d donned after showering. And it had slipped down to reveal a scandalous portion of her breasts.

Tucking the mutinous towel under her chin, Dawn muttered, “Well, Spike. Could this night be any worse?”

 

 

Asking questions like that was foolish, as Dawn knew but often forgot.

After dressing in jeans and her pajama top, Dawn rushed downstairs to find Andrew in the kitchen with Lorne.

Apparently Lorne had planned for a large gathering, for he’d brought along a basketful of assorted muffins and a portable carafe of coffee. When she rounded the corner, he’s green face burst into a genuine grin.

Bella-Dawna!” he bellowed, wrapping her in a tight embrace. “You look…” he held her at arm’s length, and his expression changed from partly sunny to cloudy with concern. “Sweetie, you look like you’ve been bounced around by life’s spin cycle. Are you all right?”

Dawn really, really liked Lorne. He was the most attractive and sincere demon she had ever met.

She offered him her best chin-up smile. “I’m fine,” she lied, entering deflection mode to head off his questions. “What’s with the basket of goodies? Off to Grandmother’s house?”

“Wish I was, Kitten,” he said. “I was just telling Andrew we’ve got demon troubles a-brewin’. I figured the gang could get together to discuss options over a very early breakfast, but uh…”

“We are the gang,” Dawn said.

“Yeah,” Lorne said. “Andrew was also filling me in on Spike. What gives?”

“Some kind of bite,” Dawn told him. “A gray, kind of sludgy poison. Also, it’s going necrotic.”

Andrew nodded, sagely stroking his chin.

Lorne tapped a finger to his lips. “Doesn’t sound good, Chickpea. Not good at all. Got any leads?”

“None,” Dawn said. “He’s a golem, Lorne: created with uber-powerful Nephillim blood. What kind of poison would be strong enough to affect him?”

“It does narrow the field,” Lorne said. “Which brings up the incredibly painful subject of my being here. I’m afraid I’m the bearer of dubious news.”

He paused, as if searching out the kindest, gentlest way to deliver the information. Dawn and Andrew drew instinctively closer.

Lorne said, “One of my Triumvirate contacts reported the arrival of the Sulsket… the Sukskeltet…” he shook his head. “I wrote it down,” he explained. He patted his orange blazer pockets until he found a slip of paper with a long, daunting word printed across it.

Sulskqelawtna.

He passed it to Dawn and Andrew, who held it between them and attempted to puzzle out the pronunciation.

“Sool-squee-lawt-na?” Dawn said. “Sue-squall…”

“Sesquisentennial,” Andrew offered.

“The Q is silent,” Lorne added, helpfully.

Dawn passed the scrap of paper back to Lorne. “What is it?” she asked, coolly.

“Demon clan. Ancient. Deadly. Evil Incarnate. But here’s the twisteroo,” Lorne said. “They’re supposed to have been exiled from this plane for all eternity.”

“And yet they’re… back?” Dawn asked.

“Reportedly,” Lorne said. “There was an attack near Galway last week. There was a stronghold of Fell Brethren there, formerly allied with the Circle of the Black Thorn until we tangled with that prickly rosebush. If the Sool-squee-whatchagigs are behind the attack, you can bet they’re heading here.”

Dawn was about to ask why, when Andrew cut in.

“They want Triumvirate,” he said.

Lorne touched a finger to his nose and pointed with the other hand. “’Zactly,” Lorne said.

“Because Triumvirate is a circle of power,” Andrew said. “Or at least, the um, Big Bads perceive it as such.”

“Without Nighna here,” Lorne said quietly.

“Triumvirate’s a pretty pickle ripe for the picking,” Andrew finished.

“Meanwhile,” Lorne continued, “Things continue to get loopy as Spaghettios out there. The fact that these guys have sprung from exile suggests that some of the dimensional safeguards are collapsing.”

Dawn said, “Couldn’t someone conjure them? The um, Saskatchewan…”

Andrew dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “One or two, maybe. But a whole clan? No sorcerer could manage that without ripping apart the very fabric of space and time…” And then Andrew trailed off, realizing the implication of what he’d just stated.

“Ooh-kay,” Dawn said. “That’s a start. Who would have that kind of power?”

Andrew chewed on the corner of his thumbnail. “I’ll get the Watcher’s Council mobilized on the research. In the meantime, I’ll inform MK not to continue her patrols until we can call in reinforcements.”

Dawn steepled her fingers on her forehead. “The School!” she shouted. “Who’s gonna run it if Spike’s…?”

“It’s cool,” Andrew said. “We’ll put a call into Paris. Since Rita’s been there a while, Naomi will be fine with her returning. They can probably spare a few support Slayers since we lost our girls in the confrontation with Thellian. Plus, we can contact Sylvina in Barcelona and Patrice in Rome to see if they can send a few Slayers our way. They kinda owe me some favors…”

For the second time in a span of less than an hour, Dawn was reduced to speechless by Andrew’s take-charge-iveness.

Not to be outdone, Dawn said, “A-and, I’ll get to work on finding an antidote for Spike, since I’m actually pretty good at potion making.”

“Yes, and I’m not,” Andrew said awkwardly.

Dawn laughed nervously at the memory. “You’re really not,” she said. “In Rome, he blew up his flat…”

“I blew up my flat,” Andrew concurred, his mouth drawing into a sheepish grin.

Lorne gave them an uncomfortable expression. “Right. Um, are you sure you’ll be okay here? You’re both so… new.”

“Sure!” Dawn sang, and it sounded false even to her ears.

“We’ll be fine,” Andrew said. “We’re Watchers.”

 

 

After Lorne had very reluctantly left them, Dawn and Andrew returned to her bedroom to check on Spike. They stood, shoulder to shoulder, staring down at him.

It was difficult for her, seeing Spike that way. Normally, he was overly animated, his emotions flitting across his face like a flickering nickelodeon. Spike had always been in motion, his movements dictated by his myriad moods, and now he lay in stiff repose like the vampire once was.

Andrew squeezed Spike’s hand.

“He’s cold,” he stated.

Dawn nodded once. “I know.”

“He’ll be fine,” Andrew said with mock assurance.

She nodded again, and a tear spilled from her eye. “I shouldn’t have yelled at him,” she choked out, her voice hitching uncontrollably.

Andrew released Spike’s hand and took hers instead. “It’s okay,” he whispered, over and over. Dawn buried her face against his neck and wept.

Andrew pulled an arm around her shoulder and let her. Never once did he tell her she should stop. After everything – Brodie, the vision of the hanged woman, her outlandish attempt to bully Andrew, Spike’s collapse and Lorne’s upsetting news – it was exactly what Dawn needed.

 

Chapter Text

Giles had suffered greater falls. He’d weathered worse traumas to the head. In Sunnydale alone, he’d sustained almost weekly head wounds, but none of them – not one! – bruised his ego like this last, most humiliating tumble.

He lay there, staring up at the world through the screen of motes stirred by his rather spectacular misstep. Dimly, he hoped that she would simply overlook him and leave him there in the pit, because death, surely, would be better than to have her sneering at him over his obvious infirmity.

She had met him at the San Diego International Airport. She wore a sleek, dusky pantsuit that served to androgynise her lithe, American figure. He knew her immediately upon sight, for her spare features and beige hair, which she folded into an knot at the nape of her neck, perfectly matched her brisk East Coast monotone.

As she crossed from baggage claim, her slick travel bag slung over her shoulder, she extended a slim, icy hand to him (ignoring all gentlemanly protocol, thank you very much!) and introduced herself:

“I’m Rachel Greenspan,” she said, “Of the Boston Greenspans.”

And he hated her. It was loathe at first sight.

She was a Watcher, of course. Hand-selected by her great-uncle Piers Greenspan, whom Giles had known briefly and regarded as one of the most frightening creatures he had ever beheld. That meant that the young Miss Greenspan had been under his tutelage since quite probably the age of three.

Giles thought she had to be but a few years older than Buffy; five at the most. Even so, a life time of Watcher training had given her the gloss of the hyper-educated. To put it plainly: she was a know-it-all pain in the ass.

When she appeared on the ledge above him, hands on hips, her lips curved into a feline smile.

“I’m certain the guide said the markings are best viewed from the upper chamber, Mr. Giles,” she said.

“Quite sure,” Giles muttered.

“Do you need help?” she asked.

“No.” He did. But not from her.

Rachel Greenspan of the Boston Greenspans purred with laughter. “Here,” she said, kneeling to again offer him a hand.

Giles rolled onto his side, suppressing the chorus of groans that accompany advancing age. He secured a handhold in the stone and managed, after some effort, to heft himself vertically to the upper chamber to join Miss Greenspan, without her assistance.

She had easily skirted the pitfall that he had generously pointed out to her by dropping himself into it, and had continued down the path without him. With a wince and grimace, Giles followed her into the deeper recesses of the cave.

He knew they were off to a bad beginning on the single-engine Cessna they’d taken from Tahiti to Easter Island. Rachel, dressed then in a plum-colored sleeveless vest and khakis, took the seat beside him and leaned in, conspiratorially.

“So, you’re the head of the Watcher’s Council?” she’d said, her hazel eyes sparkling behind silver-rimmed spectacles. She looked like a stick insect with those great, glittering lenses.

“Um. Yes. Yes, I suppose that I am,” he’d answered. It was not something he had really considered. The burden had fallen rather squarely on his shoulders, and he had taken it on with full gravity that was his duty. He made a mental note to delegate that role to someone else the moment he again set foot on British soil.

Rachel had leaned away from him, her bare shoulder to the window. “Hmmm,” she said. And then she sat, watching him, as if she expected him to answer for something.

“D-do you have a question, Miss Greenspan?” he had pressed.

“Not a question, as such. An observation,” she said. She linked her hands and looped them over one knee, so that she appeared casual, conversational.

“Oh?”

“In light of everything the Council has lost, do you think it wise to have you toddling half across the globe in search of one missing Slayer? I mean, is that really the best use of your resources?” she asked.

Giles had been beside himself. “My resources…” he stammered. It was a cold, inhuman, corporate word - one he would that he would never associate with Buffy. He felt the heat of his anger creeping under the starched band of his collar. “I beg your pardon.”

Rachel interrupted him. “I understand your regard for the girl. Your devotion to her is well-documented. It’s the timing, you see. I would think the global needs of the Watcher’s Council would outweigh…”

“Miss Greenspan,” Giles said, leveling his tone in a precise, practiced manner it had taken him decades to perfect. “First, without this girl, you and I would not be present to have this conversation. Second, Buffy is not simply missing. She was ripped from this dimension by a presence unknown to us, which indicates that we are dealing with something far more formidable than one absent Slayer. And third, while I have noted and will remember this insubordination, I can assure you that I have left the Watcher’s Council in quite capable hands.”

Rachel responded with an enigmatic smile. She said nothing. The silence lengthened, elongated, filled the compact cabin until it was all Giles could feel. It was without doubt the longest plane trip of his life.

Nor did things improve once they landed. She had done the research into the petroglyphs within the Tombs of Satu, in the caves of Rapa Nui. She had maps, annotated texts, illustrations, detailed rituals and first-hand testimonials about the significance of the glyphs, and kept all of it within a hand-held device she affectionately referred to as Gary.

When Giles finally caught up to Rachel after climbing from the pit, he found her waiting in a place where the path forked. She held Gary aloft, tapping its LCD screen with a nimble stylus. The light from the screen cast a sheer glow over her trim face, and for a moment her appearance bordered on human. Giles chided himself, inwardly. Perhaps he had been too harsh in his appraisal of her. They’d set off at wrong feet. She was a young, ambitious girl, brought up with an overbearing American business sense that made her a hardnose, but surely she wasn’t all that bad.

“Climbed out of your hole, did you?” Rachel asked without looking up.

Then again, perhaps she was.

“Are you asking that thing for directions?” Giles asked tartly.

“Gary is programmed to update our location via satellite every three minutes,” she replied.

Giles took off his glasses. “I say,” he mumbled. “Is that truly necessary?”

Rachel glanced at him. “It is, if we don’t wish to be lost. Here,” she gestured ahead using Gary as a pointer. “This is the path we take.”

After a few moments of trekking with only Gary for illumination, Rachel paused long enough to pull an electric torch from her pack. Surprisingly, she passed it to Giles. He was so unprepared for such a move, he nearly dropped it. In the moment’s flicker of light, he caught a sneer of disdain.

She turned abruptly, leaving him to mull his rancor from five paces behind.

“Do you know of the legends of Satu?” she called back.

Giles made no effort to quicken his pace. “Quite a lot, actually,” he said. “The Satu were nomadic priests who formed a shamanistic council pre-dating the Stone Age and were the closest thing in that era to organized religion. They were the keepers of the Sacred Truth, the um, Kali, which as the legend holds, was originally invoked to call forth the First Slayer. Of course, a century after the birth of Christ, the Satu were hunted down as heretics and, much like the Templar Knights, they were tortured and ultimately destroyed. Those who escaped the scourge went into hiding. Their ways passed into myth and legend, thought to be lost forever…”

Giles finally came up for air to find Rachel staring at him. “Wow. That was, um… long-winded. A simple yes would have sufficed.”

Giles took off his glasses and gave them a coarse scrub.

“Their ways weren’t all lost, Mr. Giles,” Rachel told him. “Turn around.”

He turned, sweeping the beam of the flashlight across… a blank stone wall.

“That’s not right,” Rachel said, bringing Gary to her nose. “It’s supposed to be here. Right here!”

Giles felt his smirk all the way to the base of his spine. “I suppose  Gary doesn’t know everything,” he said.

Rachel crossed the narrow, sandy path to the wall. “It’s impossible. All of my research says that this is the place.”

“Yes, well. Perhaps your research is flawed.” Giles found himself terribly delighted.

“It’s not,” she snipped. She clipped Gary to her belt and pressed her palms to the rough stone. “The Maoi guide said that the petroglyphs were here.”

“Unless an ancient Maoi tribesman came along with a sandblaster, I would say they definitely are not,” Giles said. He replaced his glasses and joined Rachel to have a closer inspection of the wall. It was a smooth sheet of white limestone, unblemished and without the slightest trace of weathering. His sandblaster theory didn’t seem too far from the mark.

Giles put one palm to the surface of the stone. It was unmistakably cool to the touch. He’d had plenty of experience with this type of stone, having logged much of his time as Watcher in the cemeteries of Sunnydale.

“Do you feel that?” he asked.

Rachel nodded.

“This is not limestone,” he said. “It’s marble.”

“But what would…?” Rachel began.

Giles felt along the wall, his fingers searching for seams or cracks in the stone. After a few moments, he abandoned his torch to search with both hands.

“Mr. Giles!” Rachel said. “What is it?”

“A marble wall does not belong in a South Pacific island cave formation. Look for an edge to this panel. We’re going to find a way to pry it up. Don’t you see? Your research was right. The glyphs are here, under the stone,” he said.

Working in the opposite direction, Rachel did as Giles said. They scrabbled along, fingers twitching over the chilled white rock, until Giles’ pinky finger hooked into a crease. It was a long, straight seam running all the way to the cave floor.

“Here!” he shouted, excitedly.

Rachel appeared at his elbow, with a pry bar at the ready.

“Good heavens. Where did you get that?”

Rachel shrugged. “Stand back.”

She practically shoved him aside. She put the pry bar into the crease, but strain as she might, she could not force any space between the slab and the original stone wall.

“Miss Greenspan,” Giles said. “If I might just…”

“I’ve almost got it,” she snapped.

“I’m sure that if we…” he tried again.

She struggled against the pry bar, making little whimpering pants with the effort, but still got nothing. The time for manners had passed. Giles muscled in.

“It might work better if we both try,” he said. Together, the gripped the pry bar, and wrenched and wrestled and pushed until…

Giles felt his ears pop. He gaped at Rachel, who stuck a finger in her ear and shook her head.

“It was pressurized,” he wondered aloud. “The chamber was sealed.”

Rachel’s eyes glinted. “Chamber? Let’s open her up!”

With the pair of them working in shifts, they managed to lever a half-meter opening between the marble panel and the cave wall. As soon as it was wide enough, Rachel, not having the foresight or experience to investigate for demon nests, insect swarms, snakes, traps, curses, or a trio of siren-like demonesses, leapt right into the chamber… And presently screamed.

Giles, leading with his electric torch, swung in behind her, dropping directly into a deadfall of brittle, bleached bones.

Rachel remained where she’d fallen, her white hands gripping Gary like a remote control that could turn off the grisly scene lain out before them. Giles stepped from the pile of bones, crunching them underfoot as he crossed to the far wall of the chamber, where four rotted corpses had been arranged across a rough-hewn dais. Each body had been adorned in ornate ceremonial robes with jeweled and feathered crests on their heads. An elaborate silver dagger had been plunged to the hilt into the right eye of each skull.

Giles circled the bodies, making notes in his mind, piecing together the story of their execution.

“Those are ceremonial daggers. Spanish, by the looks of them,” Rachel called to him. He felt her watching his movements, reassessing him and their entire situation. After a moment, she said, “This is not what I thought I’d find.”

“Yes, well… nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” Giles answered.

He ignored Rachel’s groan and knelt to touch the broken staves that lay in a heap above shamans’ skulls. “These were the Satu leaders. Clearly, they’ve been dead for centuries. They were ritualistically murdered and sealed inside.”

“But the marble wall,” Rachel said. “It’s not been here that long. The Maoi said there were petroglyphs, not slain holy men.”

“Yes,” Giles whispered. He wandered the darkened room, letting his torch beam drift from the skeletons to the other ruined artifacts strewn about the room. “Bits of… furniture,” he said, thinking aloud. “An altar perhaps? No texts or scrolls; those would have been burned. Sacrificial animals. Pottery. All of it placed here for us to find. The Maoi, Miss Greenspan, how well do you know them?”

Rachel cleared her throat. It was her turn now to be off-balance. “Well, I… don’t know them. Precisely. I haven’t met them, but my research team did two weeks ago.”

Giles snorted.

“We conversed via email. I assure you, what my team found was legitimate,” she said. He could feel the defensiveness in her voice. She was not accustomed to field work. Didn’t matter. She was about to get a beginner’s course in Archeology 101.

As Giles turned to leave the tomb, the beam of his torch swept across the back wall for a half-second, long enough for Rachel to see that something was there.

“Wait!” she shouted. “Go back.”

Giles glanced at her. “Go back? Where?”

She pointed. “I saw something. There, on the wall. Shine the light there.”

Giles lifted the torch, bathing the back wall in amber light. There had been petroglyphs. That much was true. But in its place was something that made Rupert Giles’ skin feel like it wanted to crawl right off his limbs.

There, wrought in blood, was a Scrawling, the basest desecration known to man since the end of the Demon Age. It was a pattern of twisted, interlocking ellipses curling in on itself like a Mobius strip, like two fanged serpents devouring each other by the tails. Giles knew the mark. He knew with sickened certainty the person responsible for such a symbol.

But even more curious than that was the hastily painted letters beneath the Scrawling that read, in the Queen’s English:

Her life is not her own.

Giles backed away from the wall toward the marble panel and the entrance. His legs had gone numb and all of the blood seemed to drain from his face. That part, Giles knew, had been left especially for him.

“I think we have all we need,” Giles said.

“Are you sure?” Rachel asked. “Shouldn’t we get pictures? I can have Gary upload…”

“I’m quite sure!” Giles barked. “Let’s get out of here. Now.”

 

Chapter Text

“I could drive you to the bus station,” Dr. Kriegel offered. “You could be with your friends in LA before sunup.”

Dr. Kriegel’s moderately priced sedan slalomed through the eerily silent streets of Sunnydale, sliding through patches of somber green and halogen blue.

He glanced at her, his Sam the Eagle eyebrows creased with concern. Buffy had seen the photos on Dr. Kriegel’s desk – two yellow-haired boys kneeling proudly beside an impressive fortress in the sand. He was a Dad, and as such, was looking out for her the best way he knew how: Get her away from danger, and fast.

“Really can’t,” Buffy told him. “There’s someone I won’t leave behind.”

Dr. Kriegel white-knuckled the steering wheel. “All right,” he said.

They continued along, the sound of the road’s imperfections punctuating the silence. With accentuated care, he swung the car into the driveway of 1630 Revello Drive.

“Dr. Kriegel, I just… I wanted to say thanks,” she said. “For everything.” She patted the satiny blue duffel that lay in her lap. It was the promo type pharmaceutical companies gave to doctors, and it matched his wife’s blue sweater he had found in his trunk. The clasher in the ensemble was the roomy gray drawstring pants, but she was miles from complaining. They were cottony, loose-fitting, baby-concealing wonders, even if they could have once belonged to Kirstie Ally.

His generosity didn’t end with clothing either. He had filled the duffel bag with vitamins – the folic kind – Aveeno lotion, and $200 cash that he withdrew from an ATM machine and just handed to her. Zero questions asked.

Now he waited for her next move, hands patiently placed at two and ten on the steering wheel, his foot resting on the brake. And since she had to put her mind behind the motion to enforce her decision, she sprung from the seat, propelled by mixed parts of eagerness and fear. Eagerness to leave; fear that she would never make it out.

Halfway across the yard, Dr. Kriegel called out to her: “Ms. Pratt…”

He’d rolled down the car window and leaned partway out of it, “If you need anything, my card’s in the pack.”

Buffy nodded. “Thanks,” she said. “Thanks again.”

Dr. Kriegel hesitated, but backed out of the driveway. Feeling that the doctor’s kindness had rallied her flagging resolve, Buffy crossed the dewy lawn, walked up the front steps and pushed open the front door.

Now she had to hope that Spike’s affection for Dawn would make him see that Buffy’s decision was for the best. And if she couldn’t persuade him to see it her way, well, the house was full of loose boards just waiting to get pointy.

Inside was hushed, dim, and smelled of moldy carpet. She turned immediately right, toward the kitchen, when Spike slammed into her.

“Who was he?” Spike snarled, game face on, talons hooked into the sweater’s sleeves.

“What-?”

He shoved her against the wall beside the door. Her breath burst from her lungs.

“The man in the bloody car, that’s what. What did you tell him?”

Buffy shook her head. She was wild and frightened - a bird trapped in a cage.

“No, Spike. I-”

“You tell him about Dawn?” He was hysterical. “And why’d he call you that?”

“That what? What are you talking about?”

Spike slammed her against the wall again. This time, an exposed nail ripped through the sleeve and sunk deep into the meat of her shoulder.

“Enough!” Buffy shouted. She pushed him so hard he crashed into the banister, shattering it to splinters.

Spike rolled. He flew at her again. With astonishing swiftness, he sank his fangs deep into her neck. That was when nine years of Slayer training packed its bags and left for Burbank. Buffy’s knees folded, and she tumbled against the door.

Spike fell with her. She hit the floor, but he bounded back, wiping her blood from his lips as if it was toxic.

His vamp face melted back to human. “Something…” he stammered, lurching backward. “Something’s very wrong with your blood.”

Buffy clapped her hand over the left side of her neck.

“What?” She was losing a lot of it. It spurted a warm torrent against her palm. She slid, her vision loose and unfocused. As the ground swiveled upward, she slunk to meet it. Darkness slipped around her like a curtain, and as it fell, she watched his form waver and elongate in the funhouse mirror of her waning consciousness. In the last dizzy moments, she smelled the mildewed carpet and thought how disappointed her mother would be that Buffy let it come to this.

 

 

“Buffy. Pet. Wake up.”

She felt William’s mouth against her ear, warm and welcome as a candle’s flame. William’s hand curled in hers, their fingers laced. The place where their foreheads met burned. Every place their bodies touched burned in her.

“I don’t wanna,” she pouted.

“You have to, luv.” His voice, all silk and smoke. “They need you.”

She was just ready to tell them where they could all go when she heard he hushed excited hiss of whispers close at hand.

Witches.

It was instinct that did the waking. Buffy scrambled to her knees – too fast – and the enclosed space of the entryway doubled and trebled in her wavering sight.

“Oh! Hello, lass” one voice said, her tone bordering on reverent. “We found you. I told you we’d find her. Didn’t I tell you?”

“It was the Kali Yantra that did it. I knew it would work. I knew it,” the other cheerfully sang.

“Yes, yes, Ariadne. It does seem to have done the trick.”

Buffy managed to raise her fists. “Did. What. Trick?”

Two pairs of legs came into view, followed presently by faces as two women knelt in front of her and leaned in way too close for Buffy’s personal boundaries. Unfortunately, she was far from mobile and had to endure the invasion.

“We found you. That was the trick,” the one called Ariadne said. “It was no easy pickle, I’ll tell you that.”

The older, stockier woman jabbed a thumb at Ariadne. “It was my partner’s idea, actually. Rather ingenious.”

“It was nothing,” the younger insisted, blushing.

“Only if nothing is brilliant,” the old woman said, but her tone was stern, like a dour headmistress.

“I invoked the Kali Yantra to summon us if your blood was shed…” Ariadne said.

Buffy leaned against the wall to steady herself, but rather quickly her vision cleared and she could see her surroundings. The two women – both dressed in odd mismatched garments of tweed and cable knit – crowded into the entry hall between her and the prone body of Spike.

“What’d you do to him?” Buffy asked, her words slurred. She massaged the bite on her neck and found it bandaged.

“Nothing,” Ariadne said.

“We stunned him,” the older woman amended.

“We figured you’d want to finish him.”

“It is your duty, after all.”

Buffy shook her head, slowly. “Wait. I’m not getting this. Who are you? And how do you know me?”

“I’m Margot,” the older one said.

“And I’m Ariadne.”

“We’re Witches,” they said in unison. Then both laughed, as if they expected Buffy to join in on the joke.

Recalling what Spike had shown in the town square, Buffy scrabbled away from them and got quickly to her feet, ready to slay.

“What do you want with us?” Buffy snapped.

Margot took a daring step forward. She didn’t flinch when Buffy brought her fists up. “We’re not those witches,” Margot said.

“We’re the ones that called you,” Ariadne said brightly.

Buffy dropped her hands an inch. “Explainy?”

Ariadne stepped forward to stand beside Margot. “We needed a Slayer,” she said.

“We already had one, but the one called Faith has diverged from the path of the Chosen One,” Margot said. “Seeing as she’s Slayer till she dies, we had to call our own.” As they continued the telling, they began to leapfrog one another in their conversation.

“We invoked the ancient rites of Kali Yantra…” Ariadne said.

“…To call a Slayer.”

“The others in Devon said it couldn’t be done…”

“But we found the Rites.”

“Performed the invocation.”

“And the Seer at the Coven,” Margot said.

“That’s me,” interjected Ariadne.

“Yes. She said that the Slayer would arise where she was most needed,” Margot said.

“Here,” Buffy finished for them. “In Sunnydale.”

“Aye,” Ariadne went on. “And we were beginning to think we’d completely Federlined in our endeavor. It has taken wicked long to find you. Of course, I see why… now.”

Both Buffy and Margot turned toward her.

“Huh?” Buffy said.

Ariadne inched backward under their collective scrutiny. “Her blood, of course.”

Something… very wrong with your blood , Spike had said. Buffy’s fingers ghosted over the bandage on her neck.

“You have protection,” Ariadne said. “Keep you safe from those who might harm you. It comes with the child you carry.”

“Child? Oh… dear,” Margot gasped, sounding ridiculously like Giles.

Buffy turned from them. She put her hands over her face. When she turned back, the witches had gathered together, their arms linked.

“You called me,” Buffy said.

“That’s right, lass,” Margot said solemnly. “You’re the Slayer.”

“You called me ? Were there no other Slayers in your book?”

“No,” Ariadne said softly. “You’re the One.”

“The only One.”

“Would you stop doing that?” Buffy yelled at them. “The Fred and George finishing-each-other’s-sentences thing: Really creeping me out.”

“Right,” Margot said.

“Sorry,” Ariadne finished.

“I can’t be your Slayer,” Buffy said. “You’ve totally got the wrong girl.”

“The Kali Yantra doesn’t lie,” Margot said.

Buffy felt feverish. It all made sense now. The sleepwalking. The dimension shift. All of it. The reason behind it was standing right in front of her. Buffy wanted to smash them both to pulp, and then, she wanted to smash the pulp. Then, she’d take the pulp and with a thick, fat paint brush she’d write in big letters across the wall: Fuck off, Powers That Be!

“Here’s a little bulletin you might enjoy: I had a life. What was starting to pass for a career. A family,” Buffy yelled, pointing at them. “I was daring to be chipper for once and... you took it all away!”

Ariadne paled, but Margot merely looked grave.

Buffy took their stoniness for a lack of sympathy. She said, very calmly, “You’ve put my baby in a world of danger. And since you’re the witches responsible, I say you send me back before I’ll do my Slayer duty and tear you limb from tweedy limb.”

Margot seemed to consider these words carefully before responding. “We need you, lass,” she said. “We would not have called if it wasn’t important.”

“Oh, well, since you said it was important ,” Buffy said.

Margot leveled her eyes on Buffy’s. “It is, child.”

“Lemme guess,” Buffy said. “End of the world.”

“Worlds,” Ariadne said.

This stopped Buffy in her borrowed shoes. “Worlds?”

“Aye,” Margot said. “Yours and ours and countless others. I’m afraid the danger is inescapable.”

On the floor beyond the Witches, Spike grunted and stretched his left arm forward. Ariadne squealed.

Margot glanced at the waking vampire. “The Stunning is wearing off,” she said. “He’s got quite a lot of stamina.”

“You have no idea,” Buffy agreed.

Margot glanced backward, and then, in a brisk manner, said, “Not to rush things, but we really must have your answer, dear. Ariadne’s spastic around the undead.”

Ariadne nodded, eyes bulging to underscore Margot’s point.

“Are you kidding me?”

Spike groaned.

They said nothing, but Buffy could tell a ‘no’ answer when she saw one. She knew that witches took on such magics at great risk to themselves and others. She had seen for herself the atrocities of which this Coven was capable. And maybe, if she helped these Witches, they would be more open to finding ways to get her back to where she belonged. But then, there was the peril, and she wasn’t getting any less pregnant, and there was Dawn to consider, and dammit, she was just about to be quit of this place on her own. She had bus money in her pack, for pity’s sake.

“Look,” Buffy said. “I can help you. But, there are some things I have to take care of first.”

“Things?” Margot said.

Buffy nodded. “And then, once I take these witches down, you’re going to help me. Clear?”

“As crystal,” Ariadne said. “Clearer, even. What things need taking care of?”

Buffy looked down at Spike’s lifeless body. “Him. For starters. And we’ll go from there.”

 

Chapter Text

Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost.
Justice urged on my high artificer;
My maker was divine authority,
The highest wisdom, and the primal love.
Before me nothing but eternal things were made,
And I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, ye who enter here."

From the Divine Comedy

As The Wolf, much of what was Oz was lost to the demon. Hell intensified the rage, made him blind and savage and ravenous for blood.

Until he smelled her blood. When Oz caught the sharp, coppery scent of her blood laced with fear, the part of him that was human began its arduous fight for control.

He found Nighna first, her body rent, her blood spilled and dried on the parched red soil. He knew that Anjelica was near then, but by that time, a chorus of other scents joined hers – the panicked, dull yellow scent of torture and agony and death prolonged. His wolf senses strained to follow the trail of Anjelica’s blood, which led him out of the ravine to the banks of the Lake of Fire, where countless souls writhed in fiery pits of rank and steaming pitch.

As Oz crept over the lip of the ravine, careful to conceal himself among the jagged stones, he became aware of a droning din like nothing he had ever heard. He crested the ridge and saw that someone had gathered an army.

Army was putting it lightly, and Oz knew it. He shook the last of the wolf from his limbs and crouched naked among the rocks, watching with a mixture of dread and disbelief.

It was Legion.

Oz scratched at his cheek. He knew, both from the lingering scent on the air and Nighna’s dead body, that Luxe was behind the gathering force below. Didn’t matter, he thought. Anjelica was down there. And he was going to get her out.

 

 

She put up a worthy fight, as was expected, as he had wanted. In the end, he spoiled her, and would leave her to die. Even if this girl had been a Slayer, she was worthless now.

Luxe circled her. She lay face down, unmoving, her bare back torn to bloody furrows from his claws.

“You want another go?” he asked Paolo. Luxe’s voice poured from his mouth like violet silk, and Paolo knew the demon was pleased with himself.

Paolo’s face contorted like a candle gouged with a knife. He uttered a rusty laugh. “I think I broke her this last time,” he said. “She won’t be no fun.”

Luxe knelt beside her. With the tips of his nails, he combed the curtain of hair from her eyes. Even still she recoiled.

“She may be yet,” Luxe purred. He bent to lick her ear with his coarse forked tongue and she spat at him. He took her roughly by the shoulders and bore down on her, ready again to pound the fire from her blood, when he heard a scuffling outside the flap of his tent.

A lesser demon, one of Raggoth’s captains, burst into the tent. Luxe craned his head at the disturbance, unwilling to relinquish the hold on his prey. Anjelica squirmed beneath him, acting now on instinct and lacking good sense. He pinned her under his weight, digging his nails into her palms.

Oui?” Luxe snapped.

The lesser demon bowed low and scraped his bulbous knuckles across the floor. “Begging your mercy, Master,” he gnarled, “but there is a man here to see you.”

Luxe glanced at Paolo, then back to the lesser demon. “And?” Luxe said. He punctuated the word with a stiff thrust into the girl. This time she caved, her legs going slack at his sides.

“He is a man, Sire,” the demon said. “A living man. He is beyond our command.”

Luxe pressed against Anjelica, feeling the loathsome, soft warmth of her against him, before getting to his feet. Every time he had her was like sumptuous revenge against Nighna all over again. Even so, the game was growing old. She fought less, and would soon become boring.

He wiped his hands on the torn cloth of her robe and tossed it beside her. To Paolo, he said, “She’s all yours.”

As he left the tent, he could hear Paolo tussling with the girl again and he grinned. Perhaps she wasn’t so useless after all.

 

 

Oz could feel it. The Wolf lit a cold flame inside him, burning, consuming. Practiced though he was at controlling the monster within, it had just been reigned in from wild, reckless freedom and did not sit well in its constraints. For now, Oz held the Wolf with all of his waning energy. He lacked a plan. He also lacked time. Somewhere below in the valley of the shadow of death, Anjelica was fighting, and losing.

He had to do something. She was dying and part of him was at fault.

The Wolf. Oz closed his eyes. He had one option left to him; one last thing left to barter. Bearing no weapons or armor, Oz left the hillside, bound for the clutch of black tents that ringed the edge of the burning lake.

Never in his life had he felt such fear. Never had he felt the sound of his heartbeat in his ears. Every breath he drew was a fight to stay on course, to not bolt back to the cover of the ravine. Yet he walked, never veering, thirty paces now. And then twenty. Fifteen. At ten paces, the demons fell into eerie disquiet.

Oz continued. He swallowed down the fear that threatened to stifle him. A putrid, oily smoke poisoned the air, making his eyes and nostrils burn. Six paces now. And then two. And then… he breached the outer perimeter.

No demon moved to strike him. Perhaps it was that they had never seen a naked man with gall enough to walk among them. Regardless, Oz continued walking, eyes trained forward, blind but not unaware of the demons – thousands of them – closing behind him as he passed.

Before long, a pair of thick-browed demons with skin like the scorched shell of a lobster barred the path before him. Each carried an axe that was easily double Oz’s size, but even weaponless, their stubbed black hands looked large enough to snap his body in half with barely a flex of their wrists.

Inside, Oz felt himself rattling apart in his skin. He knew it was likely that this would be the last moments of his life. His passage thus far emboldened him, but even so, he reasoned that the best thing to do was keep things on the down-low.

“S’up,” he said, nodding to the demons.

The demons exchanged looks of confusion, which Oz took as a good sign.

“Is Luxe here?” Oz asked.

The largest demon shrugged. “Yeah,” he grunted.

“I need to see him,” Oz said. Inside, he felt the rattling subside to a minor tremor.

The demons considered for a moment, before one broke off from the dispatch and scuttled, crab-like, in the direction of the tents.

Oz waited, the bile of tension rising like a geyser in his throat, while the demon delivered his message. For a moment, he felt a ripple of rage under his ribs, and he knew that for now, Anjelica was still alive. The Wolf could sense it.

The remaining demons closed in behind Oz, growing clamorous again. Oz had never before been so aware of his vulnerability, of how his naked humanity left him entirely at the mercy of a multitude of monsters.

Soon, Luxe appeared, in his true demon form – fingers hooked into long talons, sharp spines protruding from his shoulders and forearms, scaly black wings folded like a cloak over his back. He was shirtless, and Oz couldn’t help but notice the hatch-marks of scratches across Luxe’s chest. In that moment, Oz thought the Wolf would rise again, would bury him for good under a swell of broiling fury.

But he held on.

“I’ve come for Helli,” Oz said.

Luxe’s brows lifted. “You are a servant, petit loup. You have no grounds to claim her.”

All around him, demons surged, ready to grapple Oz at Luxe’s command.

“I’ll work a trade,” Oz tried again. “Me for her.”

Luxe sighed heavily and rolled his eyes. “I have no need for your services,” he said. He turned from Oz and headed back toward the tent.

“Wait!” Oz cried. “I have one other thing to trade.”

Luxe halted and raised a hand.

Oz bit down on his tongue. He warred inwardly. The one thing he could trade was what set him apart, made him strong, made him more than a man. To part with it meant parting with both his destiny and his curse, and yet he knew he had nothing else that would interest a demon.

“Take the Wolf,” Oz said.

Luxe turned fluidly around, his black wings flapping menacingly. As he closed the paces between them, the demons in the crowd scattered backward, wary that Luxe would injure them if it came to a fight.

“That would be helping you, Little Wolf,” Luxe snarled.

Oz shook his head. “See, you’d think that,” he said. “But the Wolf is what I am. Without it, I’m…” he lowered his eyes, “I’m just a guy. No more Superman. No more hero.”

Luxe flexed his clawed fingers several times. “I have an army at my command. I need not another demon.”

“Still,” Oz said. “A demon for a servant. Not a bad deal.”

The demon’s yellow eyes narrowed to slits. Oz did his best to calm his breathing, but he knew that this was the moment of truth; this would decide whether he and Anjelica would escape or die in Hell. The grating clamor of the Lake of Fire with its billions of tormented souls eroded him bit by bit.

Luxe’s hand shot out and clamped over Oz’s throat. He dragged Oz from ground to look him in the eye. Oz felt his flesh scorching under the demon’s palm, could smell the salt scent of his skin blistering.

“Burns, does it not?” Luxe asked, squeezing tighter. Oz struggled futilely, his feet dangling inches from the ground. Only a strangled whisper answered the question.

“I can take la petit loup without your consent,” Luxe said. “Even with it, you are no threat to me, or my plans. And your Slayer: she will be dead in an hour’s time at best.”

Oz kicked. He flailed. His hands flopped useless at his sides. Blood rushed in his ears and behind his eyes. He could hear the snap of his tendons popping under Luxe’s tightening grip.

Yet, through all of that, Oz managed to utter one syllable. “No.”

“Ah, yes,” Luxe pulled Oz close, to within an inch of his face. “You would not believe the things we did to her,” he said. “We bent her in new ways. We broke her body to fit ours. We burnt new holes in her flesh and…” Luxe pressed his burning lips to Oz’s ear and carried on in a low tone, making certain that Oz understood every atrocity they had performed on her.

At that moment, with The Wolf so near to the surface, Oz again lost control. He ripped free from Luxe’s grasp, morphing as he fell through the air. He landed, turned and with canines flashing, leapt for Luxe’s throat.

It seemed for a moment that the demons in the crowd did not know how to react and stood, frozen and dumbfounded while their leader was attacked. But Luxe was not so easily caught off guard. Oz lunged; Luxe caught him with both hands under his ribs and threw him to the ground.

“There you are, Little Wolf” Luxe said, a smirk rising on his lips.

Luxe held up his hand. In his palm lay the charm that Oz had worn on his wrist, the charm he’d found in Tibet that helped him keep The Wolf in check.

“I will collect my payment first, of course,” Luxe said. As he spoke, the charm began to sputter with sparks of crackling energy. As a wolf, he could not reason, not the way Oz could, but he understood that the odd pins-and-needles feeling in his paws meant that his life was draining away.

The last thing Oz saw was the swirl of ochre clouds gathering overhead.

 

 

When Oz awoke, he felt… normal.

He sat up, trembling. He was aware first of silence, when before the air had thrummed with the sounds of an army nearby, and other noises that only The Wolf could detect. They were gone, as were the sulfuric pungency of the Lake of Fire and its stinking swarm of damned souls.

He was normal. He was a man, after all.

Oz took another moment to get his bearings, confused as he was. He found that he was still naked. A cursory glance told him he was still in Hell. And then, he had the sudden sinking feeling that he had been tricked. Luxe had tricked him into lupine rage and left him on the rim above the Lake of Fire.

Panicking, Oz pulled himself upright. If Luxe had taken The Wolf, where was Helli? He searched the canyon wall and the steep drop into the ravine behind him.

There. She was there, in the belly of the ravine, huddled under the shreds of her cloak. But no. He couldn't tell. From where he stood, it could have been a rock formation. Without his werewolf sense, he could no longer tell. And so there was only one way to find out.

Oz scrambled down into the gorge. It became plain after moments of descent that the thing he mistook for a rock was a human form. He hurried along the jagged path, arms out for balance, until at last he knelt at her side.

The flood of relief he felt at seeing her evaporated when she turned bonelessly in his arms. Luxe had made her into a horror. Her sunken eyes had swelled shut. Her left ear had been gnawed upon; it dangled from a strip of skin beside her bruised, swollen throat. Her lacerated lips peeled away from blood-stained teeth.

Oz couldn’t bear to peel back the sticky cloth of her robes, knowing too well what Luxe had done. The demon had admitted it, had boasted of it, and now the pronunciation of death seemed all too certain. Luxe had killed her. Only what will and breath she had left kept her lungs from collapsing, and it would not be long before those things abandoned her as well.

Oz shook her. “Helli,” he whispered. “Helli. Wake up.”

She stirred in his arms. One eye opened just a slit and seemed to stare straight through him.

“It's you,” she answered.

“It’s me. It’s Oz,” he said, his voice no more than a gulping sob.

She wheezed. “He got you? Didn’t he? Got you, too?”

“No,” Oz said, cradling her close. She was like a bundle of broken sticks in his arms. “I got you. We’re gonna get out. We’re gonna get home.”

Anjelica lay very still for a long while, until Oz thought she had to be dead, but she uttered a rusty croak of a laugh.

She said, “This is Hell, Oz. There is no going home.”

“No, there is,” Oz said. He scanned the area around him. All was empty bleakness, flat, without color, without hope. “There has to be a way home.”

“Please,” Helli said. Her blood-red eye rolled in its socket, and she went still.

“Helli!” Oz shouted, shaking her.

When she curled away from him, Oz saw she was still clutching the small parcel to her body. Through everything, it was all she’d managed to hold onto.

Without the force of the Wolf to fuel his rage, Oz felt useless and utterly empty. “My God,” Oz whispered, his throat tightening over the words. “What did they do to you?”

She said nothing. She scarcely breathed. After a long, still, comfortless moment, Oz got to his feet, pulling her with him.

“Come on,” he said. “I’m going to get us out of here.”

 

 

As they started back down through the ravine, Oz walking and Anjelica shuffling painfully at his side, Paolo and a demon – the same captain of Raggoth – appeared on their trail, skulking at a distance.

Paolo said, “Follow them. And if they find a portal, report back. Then we’ll inform our man in Sunnydale.”

Luxe had taken the Wolf and left them both on the ridge. Below them, the demon camp was empty. The Legion had moved on, leaving Paolo to wonder just how long they had been there.

 

Chapter Text

They traveled west ahead of a storm that with its fetid breath contaminated everything with its unbearable mood. The foul weather persisted in its heavy doldrums until they ran aground in an abandoned seaside village called Rosal del Virrey.

There, sandwiched between weather-worn ruins, turista cafes and motley novelty shops, Rachel Greenspan and Rupert Giles finally found the end of their trail.

Their “commandeered” Jeep had stalled in a creek swollen with sludge and debris, and Rachel had spilled the contents of her backpack trying to climb the slippery bank. That humiliation was the least of her worries. Gary, her PDA, was thoroughly destroyed. She had been devastated. Mr. Giles seemed to care less.

After what seemed like hours of running, they came to rest beneath the awning of what had once been a flower shop. The awning was blue, striped, faded and out of place against the flinty stones of the village. The flowers had dried in their plastic buckets, spilling their worthless petals to the sidewalk, which was a cobble of cement and oyster shells. When the rain fell, the drops played a discordant marimba on the shells, and it made Rachel feel lost and bereft of hope.

On the contrary, Mr. Giles remained – as always – completely unruffled. He stood beneath the awning casually smearing raindrops from his glasses and squinting over the rough waters of the Atlantic to the horizon far away.

When Rachel caught her breath, she turned to him.

“I don’t get it,” she said. “Where are they?”

Mr. Giles continued to inspect his lenses as he spoke. “It looks as though the Priestess had great success in this part of the world.”

“The Priestess? What are you–?”

“Makes sense, of course. It’s a place of tourists and nomads. Predominantly a transient population. This mission was set up to service them. God, how they must have spread…”

Rachel opened her fists and gave him a hard shove. “Them who? What the hell are you talking about?”

Mr. Giles stumbled. He regained his balance and dignity like a pro.

“The vampires, Miss Greenspan. I thought you knew.” He replaced his glasses and over their rims shot her a disapproving glare. “There’s no need for violence.”

She turned away, vaguely shamed, but more frightened than anything else. The pelting drops played their music on the sidewalk of a vacant street.

She knew the estimates, of course. Everyone had heard reports. One third of the world’s population vanished in a single puff of smoke: History’s most elaborate magic trick. Her part of the world hadn’t felt it. The country club set of Boston with their secured mansions and private cars lost few to The Cleansing. Her family lost none. But this…

“There’s no one here,” she moaned. “Not a soul.”

“There is someone,” he said. “He would come here. After what we saw in Rapa Nui, I know he’s here.”

Again, she turned to face him. “How can you know? What did you see that I didn’t? There was no message. Just blood on a wall. And why would he come here? You know nothing. You can’t…”

Mr. Giles gave her a shrewd smile. “Ah, but I do know, Miss Greenspan. He wants to be found.”

“How can you possibly?”

“Because he’s right.”

The voice came from behind her, and it chilled her to her core. She craned her head to find him there – a rain-soaked man in a thin, green trench, a sodden canvas hat pulled down over his forehead. His eyes danced with a mischievous light, but they were not concerned with her. She followed his gaze and found them fixedly staring at Rupert Giles.

“Hello, Ripper,” he said.

 

XXX

 

He was terrified.

Really, the idea that he and Dawn could run the house, the school, and The Watcher’s Council v2.0 was idiotic. What were they thinking?

He knew. Save the world, yada yada. Business as usual.

But they were alone!

Andrew gnawed on the tip of the phone’s antennae. He thought, this is what it must feel like to be slowly digested in the Pit of Sarlaac.

Actually, that thought gave him strength. If Boba Fett could survive that, Andrew knew he could do this. He took a deep breath to stabilize, then dialed the number for the school in Paris.

After several calls in which he spoke interchangeably in English, French, Spanish and Italian, Andrew had secured six Slayers from Paris, including Rita, plus three more from Barcelona and possibly twelve from Rome. The whirlwind of multi-lingual conversation left him a little lightheaded, but he was ready to tackle the next big obstacle on his list: finding comfortable accommodations for 21 Slayers and their Watchers. He needed Dawn’s help for that. He figured they could divide up the host families list, thereby covering twice as much ground.

Andrew found Dawn in the lounger in the TV room, her knees drawn up to her chin. The TV was on but muted so that a flickering parade of images played across her face.

He hung on the edge of the chair, bouncing on the balls of his feet, waiting for her to notice that he was standing there. When she didn’t, he said, “So… whatcha doin’?”

She looked up at him, her eyes full and luminous in the reflected television glare.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Oh.”

He waited again. And waited… and waited.

“Oh, you mean nothing,” he said at last. He came around the edge of the chair to stand between Dawn and the TV.

“Move out of the way,” she said, her voice dangerously deadpan.

“If you’re giving up, I’m… not gonna let you.”

“Andrew, get out of the way.” He loved the way she over enunciated every word as if he was someone who couldn’t understand what she was saying.

Andrew folded his arms. “Nope.”

“We’re not them!” Dawn shouted. “I’m not Willow. You’re not Giles. Neither of us are Buffy or Spike. If we had Maya here, or maybe Xander, that would be something. But we don’t! So I’m waiting right here until they get back.”

“What? No,” Andrew said. “No. No. We can do this. Let’s Scooby up. You and me - Scoobies: TNG . Kickin’ it old style with the research and the spells, and the very much kicking of ass. Yeah… oh, yeah.”

“You’re delusional. We’re sidekicks !”

“Speak for yourself. I’m an International Man of Mystery,” he said. He flipped his collar to a sprightly angle and gave her a resolute nod.

Dawn had to admit that with the glow of the TV silhouetting him, combined with his disheveled curls and missing hand, that he did look suggestably rugged. Even though Lorne hadn’t been overly reassured by their combined abilities, Andrew was on the handling side of everything.

“Did you… get the Slayers?”

“Twenty-one of ’em,” he said. “Actually, that’s why I need you. I thought you could help me with the planning. You know, finding places for them to stay, otherwise they’ll all be here, and you know as well as I do that feeding an army of Slayers will seriously dice our research time. And, on that note, I found this Australian conjuration spell that might lead to information on that demon tribe Lorne told us about. You know, Misters Bad Ass Unpronounceable.”

Dawn breathed a laugh.

“Plus, also,” Andrew went on, “I still need to give MK a heads up on our game plan. She should be at the school by now. So if we divide up our list, we could get it all finished in about an hour. Then, we’ll grab some munchage and finally get some sleep before figuring out what we’re going to do with Spike. After that we’ll deal with that oh-so-hard-to-spell demon tribe. I should make a list.”

Dawn lifted her head from her knees. “Shouldn’t you notify her Watcher, too?”

“Who-What?” Andrew asked.

“MK, you dolt. Shouldn’t you notify her Watcher?”

“Oh that,” Andrew said. He gave a hesitant grin. He said, “I am her Watcher.”

Dawn sputtered. “You? Since when?”

Andrew fidgeted with his shirttail. “Since when… Mr. Giles left,” he said. He stared down at the floor for a long moment before sliding his eyes back to meet Dawn’s.

“Well,” Dawn said. She felt inexplicably tingly all over, like she’d just walked into warmth from a bone-chilling rain. She got up from the chair and found herself eye to eye with Andrew.

That was more proximity than he could bear. Flat-footed, she was an inch taller than him, and if that wasn’t intimidating enough, he could smell her fruity shampoo on her still damp hair, which caused a whole flurry of emotions, not all of which were pleasant, and brought back to his mind the fact that he could still feel the subtle burn of her touch on his chest, and he couldn’t deal with it all, so he had to take a step back.

“I was as surprised as you,” he said. “P-probably.”

“Scoobies: TNG? Are you serious?”

“What can I say, Dawnie? I’m a loner. A rebel…”

“Andrew,” she snapped. He shut up.

“C’mon, Dawn. We can do this,” he said in a fervent whisper.

Dawn scrubbed her hands over her face. She was head-spinny from lack of sleep and numb from overwhelmedness.

“Okay,” Dawn said, nodding to herself. “Okay. We can do this. We can. Give me the list.”

 

XXX

 

For a long, tense moment, Ethan Rayne stood in the drowning storm before he spoke again.

“Now is not a good time for you to be here, Ripper,” he said.

“It’s not a good time for you , Ethan,” Giles answered.

“You misunderstand, old chap,” Ethan said. “We’ve got to get out of here. You see, night is falling, and we’re standing on top of a Hellmouth.”

Chapter Text

The fragrance of gardenias mingled with the rich scent of salt and sand, and though the hotel room was both extravagant and lovely, Maya could only think of death.

Xander lay with her, his breathing slowly returning to normal. Her head rested on his solid bicep. She knew what she should be thinking. She wanted to think of the sweet things she would like to say to him, about how really, truly unbelievable he’d been, and about how completely starving she was now, because all of those things were true.

Instead, the fading blooms brought images of the half-remembered dead. One of them, in particular.

“Ahhhh,” Xander moaned. “Just like some lovin’ to solve everything, right?”

Maya willed herself to respond, but could only push a weak, “Mnmmgh,” from her lips.

“I know. That was capital A-mazing,” he said. He wrapped his arm around her neck and drew her close, kissing the damp curls on her forehead. “And now, I’m ravenous. I think we should head back to that coffee shop on the pier and give their Spanish omelet a whirl.”

“I think something’s wrong,” she said.

“You think that place had rats? I thought they might, this being a wharf town. Okay. Room service it is. Saves us the anguish of actually putting on clothes, especially since mine are still soaked with brine.” He took a breath, and a moment to look into her eyes. “Maya?”

“There’s something wrong, Xander.”

“Not exactly the ego boost a man seeks to have after, you know…”

Maya offered him a smile. “That wasn’t wrong. That was very, very right. But something else…” She felt too close to him. She pulled away to arm’s length. “Xander, during, I mean… while we were… I heard something.”

“I didn’t,” Xander said, shaking his head. “Well, except you. And me. And, those sounds…”

Maya interrupted. She said, “That’s the thing, you know? What I didn’t want to tell you. The thing Lance mentioned.”

“I don’t think I followed you around that bend,” Xander said, his brows marked with creases of confusion.

“I guess I should tell you,” she said to herself. She got to her knees, pulling the sheet up to her chin. “I should tell you about what happens.”

Xander sat up too, with his back against the headboard, his chest all bare and sweaty. Maya had to look away.

“Okay,” she said. “Sometimes, when I lose control…”

Xander chuckled. “You’re saying I made you lose control?”

“Almost,” she said, sneaking a glance his way.

He shrugged, crestfallen. “Go on.”

“In times when I’m close to losing control, I can hear Them . The Dead,” Maya said.

“Well, if that isn’t a buzz kill.”

Maya nodded slightly. “I think I heard I Nighna.”

“Who now?”

“Andrew’s girlfriend.”

“Oh that,” he said. He sat all the way up now, his wrists resting on his knees.

“Xander,” Maya said. “I think Nighna’s dead.”

He wiped the sweat from his brow with the heel of his hand. “Well, Maya. She was a hardcore demon wench. It was bound to happen.”

Maya fidgeted with the sheet. “I think something bad’s happened, Xander.”

He swallowed. “Think or know, Maya? Should we call Buffy, because the last thing she needs is for us to ring up with a false alarm?”

Maya considered for a long moment. She tried to recall the image of Nighna, but everything was garbled up with the sweaty desire of Xander’s carpentry-toned pectoral muscles. That was the single worst part of this. She wanted a decent shag with Xander, because it was both their first time and make-up sex, so it was really, really spectacular, and dang, that omelet sounded dang good right about now.

But, why would she think of Andrew’s ex at a time like this? It was just a thought, a fleeting flicker of many images that came to her at times like that, when her mind was else-wise occupied. Instead of her life flashing before her eyes, Maya got bits and pieces of others’ lives. It was unsettling, yes, but it always meant something.

“I think it’s serious,” she said, finally. “I think you should go home.”

 

 

They wound their way downward, running toward the heart of the town and away from the sea. Raindrops pounded the ground as they darted from one overhang to the next. Rachel tried not to look into the vacant windows, tried not to imagine Rosal del Virrey in high season, full of fat Americans in Bermuda shorts and string bikinis – bad tan lines as far as the eye could see. She told herself that the grating, scraping noise was the wind on metal rooftops, but that never set her teeth on edge like this. No, something was coming. Something was close. She felt if she slowed or turned, she’d see it just as it snapped its dripping jaws around her throat.

“Here!” Ethan Rayne called out. He vanished into a stooped doorway. Rachel plunged down the three steps to follow, but Mr. Giles caught her, sweeping her gracefully behind him.

“Ethan,” Mr. Giles yelled. “Stay where we can see you.”

Ethan appeared in the doorway with a shark’s grin on his angular face, his hands held up in supplication.

“Oh, I assure you, if I meant you harm I’d simply bar the door. It’s far safer in here than out there,” Ethan said.

Rachel pushed Mr. Giles, but he stood firm.

“Can’t you hear them, Ripper? They’re coming, mate. They’ve not eaten for days.”

Mr. Giles hesitated a moment longer before pulling Rachel into the dark building along with him. Immediately, he slammed the door and all three set to work dismantling benches and a crude cot to block the entrance. Once it was done, they receded to the shadows of the room, Mr. Giles and Rachel on one side, Ethan Rayne on the other.

“It won’t be enough to hold them,” Rachel whispered to Mr. Giles.

“It will,” he answered. “This was a church. We’re on hallowed ground.”

Ethan chuckled. “This town is theirs now. You haven’t got a prayer.”

Mr. Giles did not answer. He moved closer to Rachel, keeping a cautious distance from the door and from Eathan. Rachel could sense the tension between them, palpable as the static charge of the storm. Generally, she disliked anyone within her 18-inch bubble of personal space, but now was no time to complain about close quarters.

The sound of the creatures, whatever they were, grew in volume with each second. The scraping was soon joined by a calliope wailing, a carnival’s dirge. It was a horrid sound, like something straight from Hell. Which is what it is, Rachel thought wildly. From the mouth of Hell.

Rayne clapped his hands theatrically. “Ah, listen to that lovely Chaos. Ripper, old chap, Order has held sway in this realm far too long. It’s time for some fresh blood in the mix.”

Rachel shook her head slowly. “You can’t believe that…”

Mr. Giles turned to her. “He does believe it,” he said.

Rayne watched them, eyes gleaming. “Of course I do. Change is the great Catalyst, my dear. It’s the very heart of Darwinist thinking. The strong adapt and the weak are devoured whole.”

Rachel squared her shoulders. “The weak? Those are people you’re talking about. Human beings. Fat Americans. Blonde Brazilians. Mayan shopkeepers. Shoeless children begging for change."

Ethan Rayne clucked his tongue appreciatively. “My, my. Look at Rupert, Jr.”

Both flabbergasted by the comparison, Rachel and Mr. Giles stammered, but Ethan went on.

“Yours is a worn philosophy, Ripper. It’s best abandoned like every other false doctrine,” Ethan said. “Humanism has no future. There’s a Kimaris in Hell who means to bring about another Demon Age. With the fall of The Black Thorn Circle, he’s seized the opportunity we’ve all been waiting for…”

“Dear Lord,” muttered Giles.

“That’s right. Pray while you have breath to do it,” Ethan said. “And, since you’re both my prisoner, I’ll be taking the Taonyx Parchments.”

“There are two of us,” Rachel spat. “You’re our prisoner!”

Rayne pulled his left hand from the pocket of his trench coat to reveal the barrel of a heavy pistol.

“I think you’ll find you are quite wrong about that,” Ethan told them.

Rachel held up her hands in surrender, but again Giles remained as he was.

“A gun? Ethan, could you be more clichéd?” Mr. Giles said.

“It does make a rather tired statement, but you see I’m in a bit of a rush,” Rayne said. “I have my orders.”

Mr. Giles put his hands on his hips. “Well, we haven’t got them. You are wasting your time.”

Ethan cocked the pistol and trained it on Rachel. She felt all of the blood rush down from her body and into her legs, leaving her cold. She stared only at the gleaming barrel of the gun.

“We’ll not be doing anything until I have the Parchments you took from the Tomb of the Satu,” Ethan said.

Mr. Giles pursed his lips. “You were there first, Ethan,” he said slowly. “ Her life is not her own? If that wasn’t your message…”

Rayne’s eyes flickered doubt. “Not her own,” he muttered. Then he shook his head as if to clear it. “Ripper, I’ve tracked you across worlds. Don’t pretend you haven’t got it.”

Mr. Giles patted his soaked flannel shirt. “Search us, you twit! Go through everything we have.” He wrenched Rachel’s backpack from her shoulder – she was too shocked to protest – and dumped a few food tins, their flashlight, travel papers and the wrinkled remains of her printed research onto the dirty stone floor.

Ethan’s lips twitched over his teeth. “You’ve hidden it.”

“We didn’t hide it, Ethan,” Mr. Giles snapped, raising his voice over the cacophony outside. “We thought we were pursuing you .”

“You?” Rayne grimaced. “Following me?”

Mr. Giles stared hard at Ethan, and Rachel, who felt incredibly insignificant, understood what it must feel like to be the pawn standing between the bishop and the rook on a chessboard. After a long moment stretched tense, Rayne lowered his gun. With a sheepish shrug, he slipped it into his pocket.

“Well, then,” he said. “My mistake. I’ll just be going.” He tossed a vial onto the floor and it exploded in a puff of purple smoke. When the air cleared and Rachel could see again, Ethan Rayne had vanished.

Mr. Giles was laughing.

In spite of the demonic howling outside, he was laughing. Rachel gaped at him.  “He could have killed us. Those things out there probably will. What can you possibly find funny in all of this?”

Mr. Giles dropped to the ground, picked up the flashlight and clicked it on. On hands and knees, he searched the floor until he found a rough-hewn latch.

“Idiot,” Mr. Giles snorted. “It’s a trap door.” He shone the light down into the narrow metal hatch and beheld a pair of blue eyes gazing back up at him.

Rachel heard Ethan Rayne’s feeble laugh. “You’re not supposed to look for it,” he said.

Mr. Giles pulled a chair from in front of the small niche that had been used as an altar and sat down on top of the trap door. He covered his face with his hands and lightly laughed.

“Is he really…?” Rachel asked, with a nod toward the hole in the ground.

“He is indeed.”

“Amateur,” Rachel sighed. She took another chair and pulled it up beside him. After a long moment, she asked, “So, what do we do now?”

Mr. Giles bent his head low and whispered, “He’s given us everything we need.”

Rachel gave him a searching stare.

He nodded. “Everything,” he went on the same hushed tone. “We wait out the night and head home to London as soon as we can find a pilot.”

After a restive moment, Mr. Giles stretched. He kicked a food tin with the toe of a muddy shoe.

“Can you reach that one?”

Rachel nudged it with her shoe until she was able to pick it up.

“What is it?” Mr. Giles asked.

“I’ve got…” she turned it in her hands “Mandarin oranges.” She raised her brows. “Care for some dinner?”

“Sure, yeah,” Mr. Giles said. He leaned sideways, body precariously balanced on the edge of the chair. He plucked up a tin and turned it upright. “How about,” he flipped it, “Bean dip to go with it?”

“Hmmm. A feast,” Rachel said.

The wind rose up in a chorus of wretched wails. Rachel ground her teeth and tried to ignore them. She popped the key on her tin of oranges and peeled the lid back. When she started eating them, she realized she was famished. She’d gobbled half the can before thinking to offer some to Mr. Giles.

“Um, Ripper?” Eathan called up. “Any chance you’ll let me out? I have information.”

Mr. Giles ignored him. He took a few orange slices and nibbled one.

“Ripper, I do have the gun…”

“Probably isn’t even loaded,” Mr. Giles quipped. 

“Why does he call you that?” Rachel asked.

“It’s a long, long story,” Mr. Giles said.

She crossed her legs at the ankles and stretched. “I’ve got all night.”

“So have I,” Ethan sang.

“Shut up, you berk,” Rachel shouted. Mr. Giles stared at her appraisingly, and then he grinned.

“It’s not a story for now, but I do have others,” he said. “If you’re interested.”

Rachel held her breath. For a moment, she thought she would tell him that she had heard a lifetime of stories about Rupert Giles. Those, in addition to the things she had read in her family’s journals, gave her a fairly full portrait of the man and his life; including some of the details she was sure he wasn’t proud of.

But she had not heard them from him. It was the one thing she’d wanted from the beginning.

“Heavens, are you all right?” Mr. Giles asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “And yes. I’m interested. Please, tell away.”

 

XXX

 

Ariadne and Margot held hands in the bus station, whispering the chant that would let Buffy and Dawn pass through the city limits undetected by the Coven. Buffy watched their sweet upturned faces as the bus shuddered into motion and pulled away from the platform.

They had given Dawn a sleeping draught, knowing that she would not willingly leave Spike. Her sister lay limp against her shoulder, a thick mourning veil concealing her face. Buffy waved goodbye to the Witches as the bus rumbled onto the freeway. Buffy was leaving, finally, but she knew it wasn’t forever.

She sat back and settled into the seat, one hand curled over the bump in her belly. A girl bump. Her’s and William’s bump. Healthy and living and real.

The bus smelled of sardines and feet. The lady across from her was playing Sudoku. Behind her, three seats back, a pair of Latino teenagers was running away to the big city where all of their dreams would come true. Buffy leaned against Dawn and let all of the sounds and her worries fade into the blacktop.

Buffy felt it ironic that the best thing she had done since she came back to Sunnydale was leave. She laced her fingers in Dawn’s and soon fell fast asleep.

 

XXX

Halfway between Sunnydale and Los Angeles, Dawn awoke with violent convulsions. She flung her head against the glass, spider-webbing it and bruising her temple. Buffy got her arms around her sister’s shoulders and hauled her into the center aisle.

Dawn tore at her hair. She whipped the funeral veil from her face. The people around them – mole-eyed from slumber – drew back in fear at the sight of Dawn’s eyeless face.

“Dawn!” Buffy shouted. Dawn continued to flail her arms and legs like a rag doll. She moaned and shrieked and gnashed her teeth while Buffy tried desperately to subdue her.

Dawn wriggled from Buffy’s grasp, sliding half under the seats. The passengers closest to her cringed away; it was as if they didn’t want her to touch them.

Buffy caught her again, pulled her sister into her arms.

“I’m here, Dawn. It’s me,” she said, soothing her, patting her hair. “It’s Buffy.”

Dawn sat bolt upright. She pressed her hands to her eyes and the scales fell away.

She turned slowly to Buffy, blinking against the light.

“Oh my God,” Buffy breathed. “Your eyes…”

Dawn reached with trembling fingers to touch Buffy’s cheek. A tear slid down her own face when she realized that Buffy was really right there, beside her.

“Buffy,” she said, “Where have you been?”

 

 

Chapter Text

We walk through so many myths of each other and ourselves; we are so thankful when someone sees us for who we are and accepts us.

- Natalie Goldberg

 

Dawn had never drawn him.

She sketched everything else under the sun, and then she sketched the sun. Why had she not drawn him?

The answer seemed as uncomplicated as a nose or a wedge of cheese. It was Andrew.

Now she sat across from him at the dining room table. Piles of pages yanked from newspapers, journals and magazines lay strewn like leaves across its dusty surface, collecting around the edges of books, threatening to blow away with one forceful swoosh of the front door. Beside his chair, a stack of moldering volumes tottered. On the other side, an umbilicus of cables linked them and Willow’s laptop and the world outside.

She watched him reading. Her eyes fixated on his lips as they soundlessly formed syllables of languages long dead. She watched the triangle of negative space formed by the bend of his elbow resting on the table, his head resting on the bandaged nub where his hand used to be.

Dawn continued to inspect him. Her fingers itched for her pencils. Since her disastrous night with Brodie, she hadn’t touched them. Three nights. Didn’t exactly make her a paragon of self-restraint, she knew, but Dawn had not felt even the temptation to doodle in the margins of her notebook since that night.

Not until now.

Dawn lifted the top page of her steno pad. She stared down at the blank page beneath her hand. She felt a flush spread into her face. So what if she wanted to draw him? It wouldn’t be like the Jack-draws-Rose scene in Titanic. Which was still one of her favorite scenes in any movie ever, no matter what anyone said. Even though the original memory of watching Titanic had been implanted by the monks, which was an odd detail for them to include…

Dawn raked a hand through her hair. Andrew had jumped full-body into Spike-revival potion research now that the continental Slayers had taken up their posts around London. Dawn envied his tenacity. She should be studying too, but every time she tried to focus on the Rasmus’s Theurgical Treatise of Healing Potions, a suffocating sense of inadequacy filled her. I’m not Willow. He’s no Giles.

But Andrew didn’t listen to that. He never did. Part of him thought he was Giles. Part thought he was Spike. She’d seen him sneak Spike’s coat and strut around… Why couldn’t she be like that?

Dawn continued to watch him with an artist’s eye. She noted the dashes of shadow beneath his eyes, the way the pale winter light fell through the mullioned windows, brushing the tips of his unkempt hair to gold. She followed the shadows into the creases and folds of his oft-laundered Trogdor shirt. This led her to recall with another disquieting jolt how soft his skin felt under the heel of her hand.

Enough. She had to draw something. It may as well be Andrew. There was no harm in it; it was Andrew for God’s sake!

With hesitant fingers, Dawn twitched a fan of pen strokes onto the page. She concealed her work under the top page, feeling like a student cheating on an Algebra test. She lengthened the stroke, filling in the lines of his arm, his shoulder, up the sweep of his neck to the place where his shaggy hair fell behind his ear.

Andrew scrubbed at the stubble on his cheek. He made notations on his pad, scratched through them, tried again. Dawn held her breath, waiting for him to return to read-only mode.

He settled. Dawn traced, slowly at first, the pen moving clumsily in her hand. She felt like a doll, her limbs stuffed with leaves. Her fingers were rusty from three days disuse. She felt guilty for the lack of practice and guilty again for sketching. The last time – with Brodie – it had been so raw and visceral and…

It wouldn’t be that way, Dawn thought. It was Andrew. Safe. Abnormal. Andrew.

She drew a jagged arcing line for the top of his head and his tousled hair. She had no urge to smooth the snarls, not like she did in real life. She preferred the challenge of capturing the scraggly texture that framed his lined forehead.

Therein lay another test – portraying the creases on his brow without making him look like a codger. The Andrew she knew and tolerated was naïve and noisome – again, he was no Giles.

Dawn drew a bordering line downward, setting his jaw and tackling his lips. She looked up long enough to measure the breadth of his nose. Her fingers were flying now, drawing from memory as much as anything. She completed the contour, finishing the neck and shoulder in a series of clean, fluid lines.

Then came her favorite part: the detail. She started with the shadows that dipped and swung in diagonals across his chest. Andrew’s torso was narrow like Brodie’s, but he lacked at least half a foot of the latter’s height. She deepened the shadows, crosshatching to the place where he leaned against the table, obscuring the letters of The Burninator beneath its edge.

Dawn was smiling now but dimly aware of it. She rounded his shoulders, caressing them with chiaroscuro. After a reverent pause, she plunged into the shading of his skin.

She discovered a pleasant mixture of textures in his face – the smooth, even tone of the skin beneath his eyes; the funny, flat shape of his nose that didn’t quite match with the rest of his face; the scratchy prickles of a five-day shadow on his chin; the faded and never-before-noticed indention of a chicken pox scar under the cusp of his jaw. Dawn committed the flaw to the page along with a dozen other scarcely noted minutiae before zeroing in on the eyes.

Her hands trembled. Her throat felt like it was lined with slate. She hunkered close to the paper to get a better view of his eyes before returning to her piece.

Andrew’s eyes, hooded and downcast, flitted over the text he was reading. Dawn took great pains to record the shape of the iris with its variegations of blue and green and grey. She turned the pen in her hand to lightly cast the play of shadow and light along the eyelids.

As Dawn worked in the delicate, precise details of Andrew’s eyes, a peculiar whirring noise like television static droned in her head. She dismissed it, preferring the near-floating sensation of pure, unwavering focus.

symbol looks a little like something from a Julie Taymor play. Pretty sure that one’s mistranslated. Guh, fourth century monks were such shiftless scholars. I wonder why that is? Probably substandard diet of rotten potatoes and the company of slovenly men.

Let’s see. Fourth book down. I’ll take Byzantium for $400, Alex.

Andrew bent sideways in his chair, thumbed through the stack and drew out a crusty volume. Dawn stared, trancelike, waiting for him to return to his reading. She had stopped drawing, her back rigid, her pen poised above the sketch.

The crackling TV buzz filled her again. This time, she felt it in her spine and in her molars. It tremored through her body, riveting her to her chair. Part of her recognized that she had delved beneath the surface; that part did not wish to be reigned in. It was intrusive and she knew it, but had gone past the point of being able to pull away.

what I thought. Naughty, bad translation. Symbol’s flipped. Means… to gather the crop. Useless unless we want Spike the Golem to plant barley. Which we don’t. If I turn it the right way it means… to bind in honey. Hmmm. Intriguing. But still no meshy with the context.

Dawn felt the undercurrent of frustration in Andrew’s head.

It’s been 76 hours since I watched an episode of Doctor Who. That’s gotta be a personal record, he thought.

Why can’t we find anything? The Astragothian transmogrify translation is kicking my ass. I wonder if we have any more of that weird Laughing Cow cheese Lorne brought.

He giggled inwardly. Laughing Cow. That made Dawn smile. She hasn’t smiled much since… I could bake éclairs. That would get a Dawnie smile…

She felt a flurry of unfettered emotions, followed by a confuddled flipbook of images. One was a blurred wanna-be Glamour Shot of Dawn from when her hair was long and full of faux-naturalle highlights. There were others, all of them nebulous and indefinable, until his mind settled on a brief but startling memory.

Dawn witnessed from Andrew’s point of view: him, up against a fence, his fingers laced into the chain link, his plaintive cries echoing in his ears. Two pairs of hands shot out, seized his shoulders, wrenched him around. Dawn tasted the bile of his dread as he faced his attackers. One was a young Warren. The other was like a darker, taller version of Andrew.

And then, quick as it had come to him, the memory disappeared. Andrew mentally clamped a lid down over it, snuffing out the images in her voyeuristic teleplay.

His thoughts resumed, unruffled.

don’t even miss my brother. Don’t even know where he is. Dawn’s managed all of this like a brave little toaster. We have to find Buffy. We have to wake up Spike. Where was I? Right. Transmogrify…

“Your brother…” Dawn whispered.

Andrew shuddered like a puppy shaking water from its fur. “That was… kinda weird. Did you just say something?”

Dawn glanced from him to the astoundingly lifelike sketch on her notepad. She leapt from her chair and backed away.

“I could bake éclairs. That would make her smile,” she muttered, her mouth scarcely moving to let the words escape.

Andrew craned his head to the side, eyes narrowed. “Hey. How did you…?”

“You thought it. You thought it. And then you thought about your brother…”

Andrew blinked. “Dawn?”

“I did it again,” she said. She wiped sweat from her lip. “I… violated you.”

Andrew got up. “No, you didn’t. I’m an open book. Really. Ask anyone.”

Dawn’s retreat was halted by the closed French doors that led to the TV room. “I saw your thoughts,” she said.

Andrew rounded the table swiftly. He gripped her arm just above her elbow. Dawn was shaking her head.

“There’s something very, very wrong with me, Andrew,” she said, in a voice that sounded thick and drowned. Her teeth ground against the struggle to hold back her tears. “I drew you, and I walked right into your thoughts.”

“Yeah, but…” Andrew began. Then he stopped. “You drew me?”

Dawn pointed at the tablet on the table.

Andrew flipped the cover page over to reveal Dawn’s sketch. What he saw there paralyzed him mid-step. She had captured him – right down to the smallest detail. The sketch bordered on photographic quality, and laid bare aspects of him she never dared to see before. It was by far the best sketch she’d done. Still, it had to be dangerous. The magic she used was as baffling as it was volatile.

“Don’t touch it,” she warned.

“It’s okay,” he told her as he reached for the drawing. “It’s just me.”

Dawn wasn’t fast enough. She didn’t catch him. Andrew’s fingers made contact with the page and his body stiffened.

“Oh God…” Dawn muttered. She put a cautious hand out to touch him.

Andrew turned to her, beaming. “Holy potatoes,” he exclaimed. “You did this in pen ?”

Dawn’s body slackened with relief. “Andrew,” she whispered.

“What?”

Dawn stared for a brief-yet-taut moment into his eyes, seeing in them what her artist’s eye had already pledged to the page. There was something deeper in him than she had imagined. She couldn’t unsee it now, couldn’t deny its existence. Whatever it was. She felt it.

Andrew’s expression rolled from flattered to concerned. “You’re all flushed and kinda sweaty.”

“I need help,” Dawn said quietly. “Can I talk? With you? I did something. And, I think I have a… something. I don’t know what it is yet. But,” Dawn trailed off, her attention settling on the image of Andrew she had made. “Will you help me?”

Andrew seemed to get that she was looking at him. Really looking at him. Dawn felt a lightness in her belly; a wobbliness in her legs. If he said ‘no’ right now, she didn’t know if she could take it.

“Yeah, of course,” Andrew said. He brightened slightly and said, “Wanna bake?”

 

 

Spike awoke to find the house dark, the room cold.

He sat up in the bed. He rubbed feeling back into his stiff arms. He looked about, assessing his surroundings.

“Why in the name of Bruce am I in Dawn’s room?” he said to walls. His voice sounded weak and alien. He rubbed his throat before slipping from the bed.

Prickles raced down his arms. A century of well-honed instincts told him that something was wrong here. Dead wrong.

Spike entered the sitting room, conscious of the volume of his breathing against the emptiness of the old house.

“That’s the way with these old places,” he muttered to himself. “Drafty old girls.”

He scanned this room, too. Scraps of paper littered the floor. Oily jumbles of clothes piled in the corners, and a rat gnawed on something near the baseboards behind the laundry hamper.

“Hang on,” Spike wondered aloud. “How long was I out?”

At that, he heard the bare whisper of a voice, the same sound that must have roused him. Spike went to the door of the room he shared with Buffy, put his hand against the wood and froze.

She wasn’t there. He had lost her.

“Spike –”

There it was: A whisper in the dark.

He turned. It was a real voice he was hearing. Someone here, in the house.

Spike bolted in the direction of the voice, into the hallway to find the stairs and half of the landing blasted to splinters. He teetered, arms wind-milling to keep from tumbling over the edge.

A giggle, delicate as a wind chime, devious as the devil, floated into the devastated hallway. He turned in the direction of the sound. It had come from the room on the left. Andrew’s room.

Spike had to shoulder his way into the boy’s room. When it gave, he shoved past the bed and dresser which had been thrown there to block the entrance. He picked over the debris that had been all of Andrew’s accumulated wealth – a Mbamu fish; a scale-model replica of the Millennium Falcon; a cardboard standee of that military wank from Stargate Atlantis ; thousands, literally thousands, of Yu-Gi-Oh cards.

A flash of movement caught his eye. In the corner of the room, where the window glass had been blown in, a figure crouched in the cover of shadow. Spike hesitated, perched on the balls of his feet, while his eyes adjusted to the semi-dark. Something was in the room with him, and it was moving.

Spike paused then to reconsider his status as Big Bad. He felt weak, which was not good, but also scared, which was worse.

However, he was not one to let fear stop him. Once he’d called it best friend. Therefore, following well-established horror movie protocol, Spike took a step in the direction of the thing.

The figure moved again. That sinister laughter filled the room.

A knowing smile quirked into the corner of his lips. Thinking it was the Succubus he’d tangled with earlier, he said: “I know you, Beastie.” He peered about for a weapon. “I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong boy.”

Spike found nothing bash-worthy within reach and quietly cursed Andrew for wasting time on idle toys. However, the giggle monster seemed not to take any notice of Spike’s approach and he had no tosh with breaking her neck with his bare hands. Come to think of it, he rather liked that idea.

Yet when his hands hovered a foot over where her neck ought to be, the robe slid down to reveal Dawn astride Andrew, her hands fisted in his hair, her mouth grazing his chin and his neck with kisses.

The scene produced a strange sensation in Spike. The desire to strangle someone remained, but he thought perhaps Dawn shouldn’t be his target. Yet something in the way she moved and Andrew did not…

“Dawn,” Spike said in a puzzled voice. “What have you done with the boy?”

She flew at Spike, her face contorted in a vampire’s mask, blood streaming from her yellow fangs. He braced, ready for the full force of vampire strength, but when he caught her she disintegrated to ash in his hands. Spike was off balance and he fell, straight through the floor and into the kitchen where he slammed into the breakfast table, turning it to kindling.

He lay in pain on the shattered table, staring up at the gaping hole in the ceiling. He felt the powder of ash on his fingertips. He tasted blood in his mouth. Above him dark motes swirled on stale air.

“It’s a dream,” he told himself. Dust caked in his throat and he coughed.

“It’s not a dream, pretty Spoike,” she sang. He craned only his head to stare at her in the entry hall. She – dressed in a gown of green and gold – stood before a round table. On it sat a wire cage full of vivid blue butterflies. She ran her gloved fingers over the glimmering bars.

Drusilla turned to him, bouncing on her toes as she always did when she was delighted. “Do you like my pretty posies, Willy? They’re made of wishes. Come here and blow them out.”

Spike sat up slowly. “You’re not here, Dru. I know what this is. It’s a dream, because you can’t be here.”

Dru wilted. “But I am here, sweet Willy. Had an invitation. Lovely ribbon, all silk and gold. I wore it over my eyes when the Angel came.”

“Angel,” Spike croaked. He got to his feet and crossed to her. “He’s dead, Dru.”

Drusilla cringed. Her hands fluttered over her heart.

“You’re all dead, yeah? All of you.”

“Oooh, not all of us, not all,” Drusilla sang. “There are other worlds and other parties. A girl’s work is never, never done. She has to dance, even if her shoes are too dainty for a waltz…”

Spike grabbed Drusilla by the shoulders and shook her. “What’s this pish about other parties?” he growled.

Drusilla’s laughter poured from her throat like a song. In a motion that appeared playful, she pushed him away, but there was real force behind it. He stumbled to keep his balance.

“You think she can take off her party dress now the rehearsal’s done?” Drusilla said. She slapped her thighs and made a whip-crack sound with her tongue. “Ch! Naughty Slayer. Her life is not her own.”

“Not her own…” Spike echoed.

Drusilla held up one bony black-gloved forefinger. “Shhhhhh,” she said. “You should know this by now. Should have listened. Now the sheep have lost their shepherd and have all run away.”

Spike shook his head. “No,” he said. “No, it can’t go down like this. I have to find her.”

Dru turned her attention once more to her butterflies. She hummed lullabies to them in her child-like voice, but each note felt like a wasp’s sting in his head. Spike clapped his hands over his ears.

“Stop… singing!” he shouted. “Stop your bloody singing!”

Drusilla gave him a beatific smile. “Hush now, darling Willy,” she whispered. “Shhh. You’ll wake the baby.”

Then Drusilla and her butterflies faded, leaving him to darkness.

 

 

Dawn stirred cookie dough in a large metal bowl. Actually, it looked more like cookie soup. Andrew had busied himself with sifting the flour ever since she’d shared the details of her indiscretion with Brodie. Andrew had sifted the same cup of flour five times now. He seemed to want the World’s Record for the finest sifted flour in the land.

“Um, Andrew?” she said.

“Did you use a condom?” he asked without looking up.

Dawn stared into the bowl. A curtain of hair shielded her eyes. “No,” she said. “I didn’t… give him a chance.”

Andrew banged the sifter on the counter. He crossed the kitchen to the pantry, where he made a lot of noise getting down the cinnamon, the vanilla, and the nutmeg.

Dawn made a perturbed sound. “That’s what you take issue with from all of this? That Brodie didn’t wear a condom?”

“A fireman never goes in without his slicker!” Andrew splurted in one breath.

She stabbed at the batter with her spoon. “I hurt him, Andrew,” she said. “I may have damaged him.”

Andrew spun to face her. “That flash git may have damaged you when he neglected to put a robe on Friar Tuck.”

“What? You sound like Giles…”

Andrew returned to his sifting.

After a few moments, he spoke again. He said, “If Brodie cared about you even in the tiniest, he would’ve slipped on a dunky like a good Captain Kirk.”

“That’s enough,” Dawn said, tossing her spoon into the bowl with a clang. “You’re telling me you wore protection every time you were with Nighna?”

Andrew squared off with her. “See above RE: Condoms.”

“You were together seven months,” she countered.

“Yeah, well. Turns out, she’s a three thousand year old Kimaris demon. We’re talking, like, STDs from Hell,” Andrew said. “That’s… way worse than space herpes.”

Dawn did her best to glower in indignation at him, but she couldn’t. She returned to her bowl of goo. Andrew was missing the point, probably on purpose. He wasn’t seeing like she needed him to see. He was mad, but at the wrong thing.

Dawn rounded the bar. She took Andrew and bodily turned him to face her.

“Look, Andrew,” she said. “Just now when I drew you, I did something. I walked right in on your thoughts and memories. See? And when I was… with… Brodie, I saw something happening. That’s the bad part. The other part is just regular life stuff. And… He tried to stop me!”

Andrew put his hands on his hips. “If he’d really tried, he’d have stopped you.”

Dawn flounced. “I held him down.”

“Yeah?” Andrew said. He took a step toward her, so that they were toe to toe like they had been before, in her bedroom, the night that Spike collapsed. “He’s bigger than me. Hold me down.”

Dawn stepped back. Andrew closed the distance.

“You’re crazy,” she said.

“You’re Dax. I’m Quark,” he said. “Hold me down.”

Before she knew it she was against the counter, and Andrew was continuing with this weirdo macho crap.

“Stop it,” Dawn said. “I’m serious.”

“Me too. Do it. You’re Aryen Sun. I’m Rygel. You’re Gabrielle. I’m Joxer. I’m… Jean-Luc Piccard. You’re the Borg…”

Dawn brought her mouth to his and she kissed him as hard as she could.

A long, long moment of silence passed before her heartbeat leapt back into business. She backed away from him, found the counter still there, and paused while she waited for him to open his eyes.

Breathless, Andrew said, “Point taken; I concede…”

Immediately, Dawn began to backtrack to the place where her thoughts had so catastrophically derailed. She remembered that if Andrew was playing by the same rules she laid down, she could expect a slap across the face any second.

Andrew’s eyelids fluttered open.

Dawn said, “I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.”

Andrew cupped his hands at the base of her neck, drew her close and kissed her right back.

In that moment, when nothing in Dawn’s surreal world felt that it would ever make any sense, this one thing felt right. It was simple thing, really. On a cosmic scale, a kiss is but a kiss, but to Dawn for those seconds the world stopped for her. And it was just Andrew. Her Andrew.

When they parted, he gave her a bashful laugh.

“Hey, do you hear that?” he asked. “I hear bells?”

Dawn listened, her forehead resting lightly against his. “Yeah. So do I. Bells…”

Then a rattle of keys in the lock as someone opened the front door.

“Buffy? Dawn?” It was Xander. He said, “I don’t know, Maya. I don’t think anyone’s home.”

Ten seconds later, Dawn and Andrew tackled Xander in a back-breaking hug and Maya, not wanting to be left out, jumped in to make the reunion complete.

 

Chapter Text

Winifred Burkle leaned against the front counter in the lobby of the Hyperion, sifting through mail, a cinnamon-sugar doughnut dangling from her lips. Wes sat quietly by, reading over the invoice list in search of one Mr. and Mrs. Umbrovich with multiple spectral exorcisms. In the small office adjacent, Angel sat at his enormous mahogany desk, glowering over the LA Times. He sipped his morning pig’s blood from a yellow mug with the words “World’s Best Boss” stamped across it in big block letters.

Fred piled the bills in a neat stack beside Anya’s laptop. Junk mail she fed to recycling. That left her with two letters – the promise of payment lurking behind plain white envelopes with no return addresses. Those she propped against the laptop, knowing that should one of them contain a check for any amount, it would be the cherry on top of Anya’s day.

Fred crossed her legs at the ankles and took a Texas-sized bite out of her donut. It was a normal morning, nice and pleasant-like. The scent of cinnamon reminded her of busy mornings back home before she came to LA, when all felt safe and comfortable and full of possibility. It was the kind of day when things could only go right.

She chewed thoughtfully and swallowed. “Maybe after your paperwork we could do some work of our own?”

Wes looked up from the computer screen. “What’s that?”

In one breath, Fred said, “I have a new dimensional gaps theory I’d like to bounce off you, and if I’m in the right ballpark it could explain why so many higher-level demons have managed to cross into this plane in the last three months even though there are safeguards built in that should keep them from bleeding over to this world…”

Wes gazed up at her, eyes glazed.

“What?” she asked.

“Here I thought ‘work of our own’ might contain the words ‘park’ and ‘picnic’?”

She planted a sugary kiss on his forehead. “Well, I did say ball… park.”

“Winifred. It’s Saturday,” Wes purred, shifting forward to give her a proper kiss. As his lips met hers, they heard the faint tinkling of chimes as the front doors opened.

Fred angled around to see a petite blonde girl drift into the lobby. She appeared frayed and rumpled: a white scar ran down one side of her face and a bandage covered most of her throat. That, plus the haunted look in her eyes, framed her as runaway vamp-bait. That was Fred’s thinking exactly when she heard Wesley’s barely audible swear.

The girl hesitated. Wes, however, got to his feet. He careened around the desk, an expression mixed of horror and disbelief on his face.

“You were dead,” he said.

She shrugged. “I got better.”

“You know her?” Fred asked. The words were lost in the flurry of commotion from the other room as Angel, Captain Keenly Aware, hurried in at the sound of the door.

Angel saw her and froze. The moment suspended between them, upheld by tangible threads of intense emotion. So much , thought Fred, for their pleasant Saturday .

“Buffy,” Angel said.

It was Fred’s turn now to share Wes’s confusion. Fred knew – heck, everyone knew – Buffy died in Sunnydale. Fred remembered when it happened, almost to the day. That was five years ago, so it was impossible for Buffy to be here in the lobby dressed as billboard girl for the homeless hotline.

Matters worsened when the door opened again and another girl ambled in, this one taller and much more raggedy.

Buffy took the girl’s hands. In a curt whisper she said, “Dawn, I wanted you to wait outside.”

Wes and Angel traded looks of alarm. Those, Fred understood. Dawn wasn’t in Sunnydale anymore, and for them, that meant a whole ton of trouble.

 

Team Angel had an impressive War Room. In it, the walls were made of white board. On two of the three white-boarded walls, Fred had scrawled a seemingly continuous, indecipherable formula complete with pictograms, illustrations, and coordinates. Andrew would have fainted.

Buffy sat in swively office chair in the Team Angel War Room, while Angel, Wesley, and Fred speculated over her arrival just out of her ear’s reach. Buffy kept one eye on Dawn, who moved around the lobby with accentuated slowness, running her hands over the glossy marble columns and caressing the waxy leaves of potted plants.

Buffy gripped a mug of tea between steady hands. She focused on that warmth as though it was a tether linking her to the earth while the others fluttered around her like a flurry of snowflakes.

Moments passed, and Buffy remained steadfastly affixed to the steeping cup of Darjeeling. She liked the relative calm and found herself actually nodding off until Dawn wandered out of view. Buffy leaned far forward in the chair, straining to find Dawn among the philodendrons under the staircase. Suddenly, the chair dipped forward, dumping Buffy to the floor. She saved the tea, but all dignity was lost when her knees met carpet.

Sputtering, Buffy popped back up to see equal expressions of disbelief on their faces.

She brushed her hair back and stammered. “I, um…” Buffy began.

The door to the board room burst open, and Cordelia swanned in, a sleepy-eyed toddler snuggled fast to her hip. She strode into the room, oblivious to Buffy’s presence, and pointed a long, manicured fingernail at Angel.

“Staying up all night with Connor while he’s teething is reason for me to be Mrs. Cranky Pants, not you. You already keep nighttime hours. And since when do we call team meetings on Saturday, without all members present?” she asked.

Connor wiggled restlessly. She let him squiggle down to the floor. Buffy gaped at him, amazed at how much mini-Connor looked like his older counterpart, though with fewer teeth and rounder cheeks. But the hair was exactly the same. He crawled under the table, cooing serenely.

Cordelia returned to center stage, both hands free to be on her hips. “What’s with the doomsday expressions? Is it the end of the world again? Don’t tell me it’s the end of the world. I just ordered a new fall wardrobe from Neiman Marcus, and what ?”

“Ah… Cordelia,” Wesley began.

“What is it?” Cordy asked. Fred pointed to Buffy behind her.

Cordy pivoted in her elegant Manolo Blahnik slippers. “Oh my God, it’s Buffy! And she’s dressed like Gramma,” Cordelia said, ultimately cool. “Homeless chic: It’s so last decade.”

“Cordelia,” Buffy said flatly. “You haven’t changed a bit.”

Cordy stared for a moment. She said, “Can’t say the same for you. Wow, do you need your roots done. And your hands? I’ve seen demons with better nail beds.” She looked over her shoulder at Angel. “Come on, guys. She’s a fake. It’s one of Warren’s fembots.”

“I’m not a fembot,” Buffy protested.

“Sure she is,” Cordelia went on. “He’s testing us. He’s put her in the Les Mis  garb to throw us off. And while it’s quite convincing, what with that scar and the bandaged neck, it doesn’t add. Inability to exfoliate aside, Buffy would never let herself go like this.”

“It’s not a robot,” Angel said. Buffy scoffed. “She,” he amended. “I mean, she’s not a robot.”

“Oh, and how do you—?”

“Because Dawn’s out there,” Wesley cut in, pointing through the window. Dawn was in the lobby, pressing her palms to the cool window glass.

Cordelia had her already applied her make-up, so that her Cinnaberry lips formed a perfectly round, “Oh.” Connor tottered over to her, arms outstretched. She hefted him to her hip and squeezed him close.

“Warren and fembots,” Buffy said, eyes widening. “TriadCorp. The Trio. They’ve managed somehow to take over Sunnydale. Not just somehow. They have the Coven’s help. They’re in it together. It makes perfect sense!”

“Buffy,” Angel said slowly, in the tone of a doctor getting ready to dose a patient with Thorazine. “This must be terribly confusing to you.”

“It was, but I’m piecing it together. The guy you’re fighting – Warren – he belongs to a threesome of übergeeks who tried to take over Sunnydale, and since I was dead they got a foothold. Warren’s the hardcase. The others are like matching Achilles’ heels. If we can crack them…”

“We’re not fighting Warren,” Fred said delicately.

“Hmmnwhat? Why not? The guy’s a total smarm. Not to mention, misogynist much?”

Ignoring her, Wesley said, “We need to get the others in on this. If our operatives within TriadCorp are compromised…”

Angel nodded. “Call Xander and Anya. Have them phone the rest and meet here ASAP.”

“I called Xander,” Buffy said. “Yesterday evening. He knows I’m coming.”

Fred and Wes exchanged questioning looks.

“They left early,” Wesley said.

“I figured Anya was feelin’ frisky,” Fred finished.

“Find them,” Angel said.

“Already did,” Cordelia said, pointing toward the front doors. Xander and Anya were there, along with Willow and Tara.

It was strange, the scene that unfolded: Xander and Anya crossing the lobby together, both noticeably older, but moving in a way that suggested togetherness. To Buffy’s relief, this version of Xander was double-eye guy. Willow and Tara fell in behind, their hands linked, their faces grim. None appeared to have seen Dawn, who had moved into the corner to hide in the shadow of the staircase. They saw Buffy through the board room window, but their expressions were not what she would describe as replete with glee.

Angel rounded the table to meet Xander, Anya, Willow and Tara in the lobby. Quite naturally, the others filed out behind him.

Buffy entered the lobby thinking about how she must appear to them with her formless sweater gifted to her by Dr. Kriegel. Dawn’s hair may have been dutifully plaited back each week by Spike, but Buffy pulled hers into a hasty knot. It had been three long months since she thought even fleetingly about manicures, or shoe sales, or – shock and horror: dental hygiene!

And here they were, with their stylish yet affordable clothing and artery-clogging comfort foods – oh yes, she’d seen the donuts! – not to mention decent shelter and the company of faithful friends. Team Angel had done well for itself.

Buffy’s temper flared, burning off the awkwardness she felt. Here they were, lap of luxury, while Dawn had lived in indisputable misery.

Somehow, that anger strengthened her, made her miss her version of things – her Xander, her Dawn, her Willow – even more. Her resolve crystallized. When they all came together, it was Buffy who spoke first.

She said, “Look, I know I’m not your Buffy. I’m not a fembot, a witch, or even a ghost. I’m just Buffy, but I’m from another… time dimension thingy. And in mine, Willow’s spell worked. She brought me back.”

A laden pause followed. In it, everyone watched her, measuring her words, as she hoped they would. Dawn moved silently from beneath the stairs and was staring into her smeared reflection in the brass elevator doors.

Finally, Willow broke the silence. “My spell worked?” Willow asked, sounding relieved. “Really worked?”

Buffy smiled in spite of herself. “Really did,” she said.

“But…” Xander began. “Not that we aren’t bursting with joy to see you, but why are you here? And now?”

“Not to mention how,” Fred said.

Buffy sighed. “All I can say is that two little witches called a Slayer, because apparently the one in your dimension is on extended personal leave.”

“That would be Faith,” Cordelia said, glancing at Angel.

Angel’s eyes narrowed. Buffy couldn’t guess what his expression conveyed. “She’s… occupied,” he said.

Buffy raised her brows. “Oh, is that right?” she asked, astonished at how much she sounded like William. “I was occupied, too. I liked my life before it was so rudely ripped away from me. And I would like very much to get back, which is where you come in.”

“Well now we know it really is Buffy,” Cordelia snapped. She swept Connor to her other hip. “You can’t just show up here and expect us to drop everything to right the wrongs of your life. We have our own demons to fight.”

“Cordy,” Angel said.

She whirled on him. “Don’t Cordy me. I’m busy being indignant.”

Connor, sensing tension, fussed to be put down. She rocked him, and while he seemed somewhat consoled, he chewed ardently on his fist.

“Cordelia’s right, Angel,” Wesley said, leaning forward. “We do have our hands full at the moment. With Gunn trying to mobilize the whole Southside against us and Wolfram & Hart breathing fire down our collars…”

At this point, everyone started talking all at once. And there was much confusion.

“I think this kinda supercedes our vampire troubles, Wes,” Fred said. “She’s been blipped in. This fits with the gaps theory I was telling you about...”

“Nothing supercedes vampire gangs,” Xander said. “We made them our priority.”

To which Anya added, “They cost us a fortune in window replacement. We have to recoup our losses.”

And Willow said, “I don’t think fenestration should enter the equation. This is Buffy .”

Tara was writing furiously on her tablet, Connor began to whimper, Fred and Wesley were arguing in terms that only Steven Hawking or a handful of Trekkies could understand, when Angel intervened by shattering the coffee table to splinters.

Startled and rightfully so, Connor gulped a mouthful of air and began to wail loud enough to wake the undead.

Cordy shot a smoldering glare at Angel, spun, and with her hand cradling Connor’s cheek to her chest, stormed up the stairs.

They waited, silent, as the sound of Connor’s frightened cries diminished with distance and finally disappeared.

With an attempt at remaining calm, Angel said, “Dawn’s presence here makes Buffy’s problems our problems.” To Buffy, he said, “You mentioned witches. Who are they?”

“Ariadne and Margot. They h-helped us get out of Sunnydale.”

Tara hurriedly scribbled on her pad but shared it only with Willow.

“Right,” Willow said, nodding. “They’re from the Coven in London. The ones who didn’t go all Dark Side when…”

Angel gave Willow a dark look; she hushed mid-sentence.

“Why is she writing?” Buffy interrupted. “Why did Spike say that Willow was dead, when, behold: land of the living? You’re not a vampire, are you?”

Tara took the pad back, jotted, returned it.

This time Xander read, and when he did, a tear coursed down his cheek. “It says, ‘Welcome back.’”

Buffy shuddered. “I don’t understand. What’s…” she swallowed hard. “What’s going on here?”

Fred’s expression softened to one of concern and compassion. She said, “You should probably sit down. There’s a lot to tell, so you may as well get comfy. We’ll try to explain as best we can.”

 

XXX

The afternoon proved long and difficult. The narrative passed from one to the other, as each member of Team Angel told their part. The pain lay in the re-telling, though, for there were many pieces of the tale no one wished to remember.

Xander began by explaining that after Willow’s attempt to resurrect Buffy failed, she did go ‘a little Blair Witch’ but she straightened out once the very real threat of the Coven moved into Sunnydale.

“And that’s when Dawn was blinded?” Buffy asked.

“Don’t skip ahead,” Anya scolded. “You’ll miss all the gruesome details.”

Xander sneered. “Okay,” he said. “So, the Coven came in all business. They seemed to know everything about us…”

“And everything about Sunnydale,” Willow added.

“And since there was no Slayer,” Xander went on. “They set up shop over the course of the summer. By September, TriadCorp had moved in over the Hellmouth. The bold new face of Sunnydale took shape.”

“The Compound,” Buffy said. “I saw it.”

“At first, we didn’t think things were so bad,” Willow said. “The Coven didn’t like competition. They killed off any potential bads, and we all thought they were a pack of Glinda Good Witches for that.”

“Yeah, they took out the trash,” Xander said. “But…”

“It didn’t stop there,” Anya said. She sank into the cushions, suddenly sullen.

“They shut down the Magic Box,” Willow said.

“Took it over,” Anya said, incensed. “They stole it!”

Xander nodded. “We all have our tragedies,” he said.

“And then?” Buffy asked.

“Tara became vocal against the witches. She started a petition within the magical community to peacefully ask the Coven to leave Sunnydale,” Xander said.

Willow took Tara’s hand and squeezed it. Xander stared down at his own hands. He said, “She was one of the first… examples.”

Buffy pressed her fingertips to her swollen eyes.

“Like Dawn was an example?”

Tara wrote on the page of her notebook and turned it to face Buffy. “She saw too much,” Buffy read aloud. “They’re really about the punishment fitting the so-called crime, huh?”

“Very Hamurabi,” Anya said.

“So then what? You all came here?” Buffy asked, but quickly added, “That came out way more accusatory than I wanted it to sound. I mean, you left Sunnydale.”

“Not all at once,” Angel said, coming to the Scoobies’ aid. “We had to make it look like we had given up. If the Coven thought they had broken us, we could re-group here and return with more strength.”

“Tara left first,” Willow said. “And then I… faked my death.”

Buffy snorted in disbelief. “You didn’t.”

“Really Guiding Light , I know,” Willow said, grinning. “But necessary, and effective.”

“We were last,” Xander said.

“We visited at first, but then gas prices got so high we had to…” Anya said. Xander tugged the sleeve of her blouse. Anya folded her arms to sulk. “What? It’s true.”

“That explains all of you,” Buffy said, annoyed. “Where does Spike come in?”

Angel leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “We had Spike’s chip removed. He was useless against the witches with that thing in his head. We enlisted Warren. He’s head of R&D at TriadCorp and from time to time, he helps us out.”

Wesley said, “After that, Spike remained in Sunnydale to protect Dawn while keeping a watchful eye on the Coven.”

Buffy could no longer sit still. She was tired and hungry and Dawn’s restless wandering had made everyone on-edgy. None of them wanted to look at Dawn, to acknowledge the fact that she had been the one left behind.

“So you’re saying Spike works for you? He’s your Sunnydale inside guy?” she asked.

“That’s nut-shelling it,” Xander said.

“He really did keep his promise,” Buffy marveled.

Dawn floated across the lobby. Her dingy white gown draped and puckered in the wrong places on her bony frame. Buffy pulled it straight and ran her hands down Dawn’s arms to soothe her.

“I’m tired, Buffy,” she said quietly. “Can we go home?”

Buffy pulled Dawn into her arms. Behind her, she heard someone sniffle. Buffy buried her face against her sister’s shoulder to dry her eyes. After all Dawn had been through, she still considered Sunnydale her home.

“We’re working on it,” Buffy told her. “It won’t be long now.”

 

Chapter Text

The moment the smell hit her, she thought, I want to go home.

It was morning. What dull sunlight there was leeched through clouds of ash, turning the humid dawn into a crucible of rank and putrid death. The hillside, abutted by gray walls of automobile factories and derelict warehouses, gave way to dusty fields completely hidden from the Shin-Oume Expressway. This was handy, considering the few hundred corpses that lay bleeding on the ground between her and the parking lot. The mingled blood – red and grey – soaked the soil. By noon, this place would smell like rotten Hell.

She propped herself against the prone body of a no-longer-twitching Kitsune demon. With a needle she’d sterilized with her Zippo, she made decent work of stitching up the deep tear that nearly took off the top of her left arm. She had made perhaps 40 stitches, all of them neat and straight, and was nearly done when he strode up.

She continued to stitch, drawing the thread tight, wincing as the meat of her arm tugged closed. She watched him, ready should he decide to attack. Instinct told her his fight was done. If he was itching to settle a score, he would have already made his move.

Instead, he took a seat beside her. With a cut of her eyes, she sized him up. Boots – filthy. Respectable gash on his cheek. Blood splattered on his pants – not his blood. He’d done well, considering the odds.

After a moment of watching her work, Connor said, “You’re lucky you didn’t lose that arm.”

“Please. I’ve had so much worse than this,” Faith said. She grimaced as she pulled another stitch taut and stabbed the needle back through.

“You’re lucky, is all,” he said. He looked over the battlefield with appreciation for his work.

Faith glanced at him. “I suppose I owe you a thanks for that? That what you want?”

“It’s not what I’m after, no,” he replied.

Faith pulled the thread. Tightened it. Looped the needle into her flesh. “What are you after?”

Connor returned his gaze to the battlefield. After all the bloodshed, watching her stitch up her wound was what made him queasy. He thought about the last few fevered days: outrunning her, chasing the Kitsune, and then the endless fighting when the demons made their final stand. The Kitsune were small but fierce, with claws like blades and a mouthful of thorn-like teeth. The real danger was their keen, almost magical agility and multiple lacerating tails. But he’d fought them, as he promised he would. He fought and realized he hadn’t felt so alive since he left Quor-Toth, and then, just when he thought the Kitsune would have him for breakfast, Faith found him.

It was, at first, a Kitsune free-for-all: he fought them, he fought her, they fought them. But somewhere in the middle, she turned. And then it was over. Only they remained.

Connor nodded once. “I’m just glad you came around to my side of things.”

Faith dropped her needle and kissed him, hard and without quarter. He felt it all the way to the pit of his stomach (and slightly lower). Like a shot of 90 proof whiskey, it spread through him.

Faith abruptly broke off the kiss, leaving him dazed. She returned to her stitching, pulling the thread high, looping back over, pushing needle through the skin with a pop.

“Who says that I have?” she asked, her voice smoky and dark.

Connor found his sense, dusted it off, put it back in. “I’d say about 700 Kitsune demons would,” he answered. “If they could talk.”

Faith finished off her stitching with a practiced double knot. He could tell she had a lot of experience with this kind of work. She yanked the thread tight, and bringing her upper arm to her mouth, bit off the excess.

Connor started to speak, hesitated as if he thought better of it, then began again.

“I’m almost done with this,” he said quietly. “Soon I’ll be ready to go home.”

Faith sprung to her feet. She wrenched an iron knife from the Kitsune’s thigh and stuck it into the waistband of her black pants.

“You really think it ends here?” she asked, looking down at him.

“Are we gonna fight?”

Faith stared down at the boy. He was exhausted. She was wounded. Besides, she had other things in mind.

“Not today,” she said, and extended her hand to help him up.

Once he was on his feet, Connor turned to survey their work one last time. When he looked back at Faith, she slammed her head squarely against his.

It was a trademark Faith move, one she perfected over the years and was rather proud of. Normally, it took a body down, no question. Connor merely looked stunned, and a little hurt.

“Damn it,” Faith swore. Moving swiftly, she took a small glass vial from her pocket. Connor recovered and lunged. This time, she smashed the vial into his skull. It disintegrated with a puff of lavender smoke. Connor went down, catching her knees as he fell, toppling them both into the deadfall of demon bodies.

Faith shimmied backward, kicking Connor’s unconscious body off of hers.

Reaching out with her mind, Faith called to Willow. It was not her fave form of communication, but Faith knew she wouldn’t have much time.

I have him , she said in her mind. Better come quick. Little bastard’s tough as his old man.

Willow nodded. “Faith has Connor,” she said. She touched the silver pentacle that rested in the hollow of her throat and smiled. “It worked.”

Thellian slipped from his gilded velvet chair, carefully placing the black kitten that slept in his lap back onto the cushion. He dipped a curt bow to Chiyoko, the cleric woman he’d hired to assist Willow in adapting her spells to Japanese components. He crossed the small room to join Willow at the window. Outside the dawn was just breaking over Tokyo. Soon he would rest, and Willow’s work would begin.

He placed a cool hand on her arm and said in a demulcent tone, “I never doubted thus.”

 

 

Willow spread Connor out, then bound him. She tended his wounds, with the help of Chiyoko, who knew, it seemed, every medicinal herb and root in this world and possibly others. They worked in relative quiet; the only sound came from the traffic at street level, thirty-three stories down.

Thellian’s suite of apartments was not elegant. Crowded, Willow would describe it, but not cramped. It smelled of amber resin, incense, books, and sacred treasured items he had collected over his many years and stored here. Shelves lined every bamboo wall, save one, and on those shelves, in every available space, there were trinkets and treasures, books, scrolls, idols of gold, busts of scholars, weapons, chests, copper flasks and cobalt bottles of many shapes and sizes that shone like jewels in the sumptuous lamplight. An enormous picture window dominated the fourth wall, but it was partially obscured by a pair of Japanese armoires carved from teakwood and bedizened in gold leaf.

Faith perched on the arm of a leather chaise in front of the picture window, her bare feet drawn up beneath her, the cigarette between her fingers sending listless curls of smoke into the air.

Willow and Chiyoko worked with calm deftness. The kitten, Scout, washed himself while keeping a dutiful eye on their prisoner.

Faith took a drag from her cigarette, blew it out with a sigh. “He’ll be all right, won’t he?” she asked. “When he wakes up, he’ll be all right?”

Chiyoko passed the mortar to Willow. She ground dried honey into a mixture of Frankincense and bitterroot.

“Free from pain,” Willow answered. “Free from the glowy green Loc-Nar? We’ll have to see. That Magic’s pretty strong.”

Faith leapt from the chaise, stretched, winced at the annoying pain in her arm and came to join them. Connor was bound with silk cord to a rough-hewn wooden table. Chiyoko set out four black candles: two at his hands, two at his feet. At his head, she placed a white candle, a yellow one between his ankles.

“You’re pretty strong, too. Right?” Faith asked.

Chiyoko pointed at Faith and began a shrill and animated tirade, which neither Faith nor Willow could understand. Chiyoko made universal shooing motions, and then pantomimed putting a cigarette to her lips.

Willow chuckled lightly. “I think she’s saying smoking’s bad for the altar,” she told Faith.

Faith rolled her eyes. “All right, yo. All you had to do was ask.” She stubbed it out in an elegant gold dish squeezed between a book about wizardry and an ivory rhinoceros.

“In answer to your question,” Willow said. She poured the ground mixture into a wooden cask. “I am powerful. But he’s pretty far gone. It may take a lot to get him back. But we will get him back. No question.”

Faith studied the boy’s face, so serene and angelic in his slumber.

“He seemed fine,” Faith said. “You shoulda seen him. Never seen a guy fight like that. All teeth and hands and a lifetime supply of rage, you know? But when he talked to me, he seemed… I dunno, sane?”

Willow glanced from her work, but said nothing. Chiyoko brought over a steaming copper kettle. Gripping its handle with a pot holder, she poured fragrant liquid into the cask and capped it with a cork. She nodded to Willow. It was time to begin.

Willow swirled the cask three times clockwise. She lighted the white candle with a match and began to speak the Spell of Release:

“Guardian, angel of the stars,

I call upon you, Diana,

To help and to defend this Childe

For he is a servant of Light

And without defense

From this attack.”

Opposite Willow, Chiyoko lighted the yellow candle. She bent her head as if in prayer as Willow spoke the next rite:

 

“Guardian, I implore you,

Use your force to cut down this evil

Purge it with your crowned fire

Cleanse this iniquity and release him

For he is without defense

From this wicked malice.”

 

Willow opened the cask. She anointed Connor’s forehead, the tip of his nose, his lips. He stirred, as if sweetly dreaming. A smile traced the edges of his mouth. Willow continued to speak:

 

“Guardian, angel of the stars,

Release him,

In this, the name of One Who is All.

Thus it is

And ever will be.”

 

Faith expected a change. She expected fire or shrieking demons or something tentacle-y to jump out at them. The kitten stretched languidly and hopped into the chair. Chiyoko kept her head bent, while Willow ventured a glance first at Connor, then at Faith.

“Did it work?” Faith whispered.

“I’m not sure,” Willow said.

Chiyoko shushed them.

Willow, believing the spell had failed, waited a moment longer before backing away from the altar. Connor’s eyelids fluttered open. He looked around, obviously confused, until his eyes settled on Faith.

He whispered her name. Suddenly, gouts of flame leapt like torchfire from the black candles, accompanied by a low, guttural moan. They jumped clear of the table as the fire climbed high as the ceiling. The flames spread and grew, forming a cage around Connor. It burned away his bonds, and he sat up, panic-stricken as the walls closed over him.

“What are you doing to me?” Connor yelled. “What have you done?”

Faith, not really thinking, moved toward him. Willow caught her.

“Don’t” she said. “This is part of it.”

“He’ll burn up,” Faith shouted, recalling Wayara with a pang of aching regret.

Willow shook her head. “No he won’t.”

The fire closed on Connor. He shrank away from it, his imploring cries lost in the primal gale of flame. The cask ignited, spraying a geyser of sparks into the room. Faith ducked, but the embers that fell on them morphed into fireflies before winking out in the dark.

The fire consumed him, licking over his limbs, crawling into his sinuses and his mouth, boiling his eyes. Faith had to turn away. She did not see how, when the flames reached his chest, they glowed with a scorching sickly green pall. She didn’t see the fiery center redouble its claim on Connor, twisting around him like twin snakes wrought of coals. They crushed Connor’s body under their molten heat, turning his bones to ash. He screamed.

“Willow!” Faith cried.

Willow returned to the altar. “Release him,” she commanded.

A voice, base and indifferent, rose up. “Never,” it answered.

“I’d like to test that theory,” Willow said. She closed her eyes. Her fingers tightened on the table’s edge. She felt her own energy coursing through her, powerful as a river, pure as light.

Liberilo! ” Willow spoke, steady and strong. “ Lascilo intero di ritorno. Non avete alimentazione qui.

The power flowed from her, a torrent so bright none could bear to look at it. The room filled with a resonant hum, like ten thousand bees, and the crisp, clean scent of ozone. Outside the window, unseen by everyone within, the lights of Tokyo blinked out in random increments across the city grid until all was dark.

The final two candles guttered. Willow opened her eyes.

Connor crouched on the altar, his hair plastered with sweat to his forehead, his eyes wild with confusion. Faith and Chiyoko, who had both been knocked down by the blast of Willow’s energy, got cautiously to their feet. Scout arched his back, kneaded his cushion for a moment, and then leapt to the altar to have a closer look.

Connor reached out a trembling hand to touch the kitten. Scout sniffed him, then rubbed his head against the boy’s palm. Connor laughed, but it was a weak, uncertain sound.

“Connor?” Faith asked, moving to stand before him.

He looked at her with genuine curiosity but without any sign of mistrust in his eyes.

“I’ve been away a while,” he said, petting Scout with two fingers. “Haven’t I?”

Willow heaved an inward sigh of relief. She stepped around the altar to stand beside Faith.

“How much do you remember?” Willow asked.

Connor’s gaze dropped. He seemed to study the kitten a long while before he spoke again. “Everything,” he whispered. “I remember everything.”

Willow said, “I’m so sorry, Connor.” 

Faith tousled his damp hair. He looked up at her with only his eyes and she saw now that they were different. He’d seemed sane before, and he had been, but now he was Connor. He was back.

“Hey,” she said. “I’m glad you came around to my side of things.”

Connor smiled. He stroked the kitten’s chin. “So am I,” he sighed. “So am I.”

 

Chapter Text

It’s a shame we have to die, my dear

No one’s getting out of here alive…

This time.

 

DOA, Foo Fighters

 

Oz trudged for hours over an immutable landscape under a vacant black sky with Helli draped bonelessly in his arms. She clung to him, muttering and lashing at times at unseen assailants, and at other times wrenching away from him in agonizing pain. In those times, Oz cradled her to his bare flesh, feeling the heat of her wasted body burn into his skin.

As he wandered, his thoughts drifted like scattered leaves in his brain, random, meaningless remembrances about things he’d lost – his lime green Converse tennis shoes, a guitar pick he’d caught at a Dead Milkman live show, a well-worn Spalding baseball glove stolen from the Sunnydale Diamonds dugout while he played Little League at 9 years old. Odd, he thought, what monotony churned up in the mind. He’d loved that baseball glove, could smell its musky leather scent even as he walked.

Oz thought Hell was sandstorms and baking flesh. But Hell was different for him. He had myriad memories, while Helli – though physically close – suffered apart in unspoken worlds of horror.

Hours bled into hours, into days, and Oz walked. Helli grew still for longer periods of time. Oz did not know if he should be more or less troubled by this. At least she was still alive. The wounds Luxe inflicted were cauterized, so bleeding to death was not among their concerns. Oz shuddered. It was a gruesome thing to be thankful for.

Things continued in this manner for longer than Oz could calculate. The trackless sands effaced what was his life. Those memories he’d sorted through, like a child selecting toys for a yard sale, were gone. The only thing to which he clung was a promise he’d made, and though he had forgotten now the words he’d spoken, it was covenant.

Eventually his motives for movement were stripped away, and in that moment, when only his promise remained, Oz found himself at a crossroads.

With a sensation like waking from a dream, Oz returned to himself. He sat cross-legged at the place where seven roads met. Helli lay shivering in his lap, wrapped in the scrim of her tattered robe.

“Helli?” he croaked. The word strangled him. He doubled over, wracked with spasms as he coughed sand from his lungs.

Oz raised his streaming eyes to find a grisly old man leering down at him.

“Lozenge?” the old guy asked. When Oz only stammered in reply, the old guy’s pale lips withered away from brown teeth in a sardonic smile.

“Son, you don’t belong here,” the old guy said. He laughed, a powdery sound like bones clacking together on a windless night.

“I know that,” Oz answered. He looked the guy over, from the top of his dusty hat to the soles of his scuffed black boots, and decided the old dude looked implacably familiar. He wore a pale green kerchief shirt, a pair of frayed jeans, and a faded canvas duster. Behind him, he dragged a travois laden with sundry body parts – plump, gleaming kidneys; ropy coils of intestines; livers that quivered like raspberry Jell-o. Oz detected the faint odor of formaldehyde.

Oz noticed the old guy noticing him. Neither dropped his gaze. Maybe it was the organs talking, but Oz didn’t quite trust the guy.

The old guy chuckled. He stuck a toothpick between his lips and said, “I’m Walter.”

“Walter,” Oz repeated.

“Where you headed, son?”

“Home,” Oz said immediately. Home. It seemed as distant a place as Pluto, and somehow less real. In his arms, Helli twitched once then fell still.

Walter chewed his toothpick. “Been a long time since I heard that one,” he smiled. “You know how to get there?”

Oz cleared his throat. “Uh. No?”

“Didn’t think so,” Walter said, grinning. “Need a ride?”

Oz glanced at the travois. “I like my insides inside,” he answered. “But thanks.”

Walter’s smile spread to a new level of toothiness. “These are the innards of the damned, son. Don’t want yours. Hers, though…”

“Stay away from her,” Oz growled.

Walter laughed darkly. He unhitched the travois and stepped away from it, revealing an extra set of legs. When he walked forward, it was on inordinately long quadruple spider legs. Oz slipped Anjelica’s body to the ground behind him and stood before Walter.

The demon towered over Oz like a scarecrow, and while Walter was fully clad, Oz was naked and felt a whole world of vulnerable.

Walter looked Oz up and down, and nodded. He said, “I’m what you call an Oracle. You hearda that?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m bound for the citadel,” Walter said.

“Citadel?”

“To Dis. You’re welcome to follow…”

“I have nothing to trade,” Oz said firmly.

“I’m not asking,” Walter said. He stared down at Oz, his brows furrowed over hard yellow eyes. He said, “Someone pursues you across the endless sands. Someone I would like to have words with. Possibly more. You follow me; he follows you. All’s fair.”

Oz looked back over the wasteland and continued to see nothing. Walter’s face appeared at Oz’s shoulder. “Lemme guess. You don’t see nothing.”

Oz shook his head. “Nothing.” He swallowed. Saw nothing. Smelled nothing. Heard nothing. Felt… like something was missing.

“You’re Mere Man,” the Oracle said, in his arid, musical manner of speech. “Your presence among the sandy shoals has been foretold in prophecy and song, m’boy. You don’t see it, ’cause you ain’t supposed to see it. You gave up every last thought and stitch. Now here you are with ol’ Walter who’s got a penchant to help wayward souls. I can take you to Geulph’s Tavern. Someone there can help you on your way upstairs. Afterward, you may wager and dice as you please.”

Oz considered for a moment. It took him zero time to figure that thing pursuing had to be someone working for Luxe. Oz understood clearly with crystal clarity that Luxe would not just let them go, not without a reason. This left Oz and Helli at the pity of passing strangers: a none-too-comforting prospect in Hell.

The situation left Oz with little choice, and so he hesitantly agreed to follow Walter into the City of Dis. Walter returned to his travois, buckled its straps about his waist and struck off down the road without looking back. Oz lifted Helli into his arms. Her body felt cold, her limbs stiff.

A moment of panic struck him. Oz pressed his lips to her ear, breathing her name into the singed flesh. Only then did he feel her faint breath on his neck, and he knew with relief that she was alive, for now.

Oz fell in behind the cockscomb of dust dredged up behind Walter’s gruesome travois. Time continued to pass unmarked, but before long, Oz beheld the imposing slate cliffs that were the walls of the City of Dis.

 

 

The City of Dis looked like a Renaissance faire, only with demons in period clothing, rather than humans. Also, instead of vendors or performers, various torture devices lined the streets. Oz, as he followed along behind Walter, felt again like he was missing part of the Hell experience, not that he wanted it. What he saw was that the demons in Dis gathered around empty racks, vacant vats of boiling oil, empty gallows. They labored over empty stalls, shouting curses and lashing whips over empty air.

Oz understood what Walter had said. Oz only saw the tormentors in the surround-sound Hell scenario. He didn’t know why, but knew that Helli saw the tormented, and suffered with them. It killed Oz that he could do nothing about it, except follow a crusty four-legged Bruce Dern knock-off into yet another Circle of Hell, on the off chance that it would lead them home.

After a while’s meandering through the chaotic streets of Dis, Walter led them to the entrance of a saloon. The placard above the door – a weathered board swinging on hinges that honked like a pair of asthmatic geese – proclaimed that this was Geulph’s Tavern.

“You wait out here, kid,” Walter said. He took the straps of the travois in his cracked hands and dragged it in behind him through swinging double doors.

Oz lingered by the hitching post. He tried without much success to hear the conversation within, and so moved closer to the door.

A woman’s voice, gratingly familiar, asked, “This all you got?”

“Prime cutlets, milady,” Walter answered. “Only the best.”

Oz sneered. He adjusted Helli in his arms, relieved to feel the thready pulse in her wrist.

“Seriously doubt that,” the woman went on. Oz heard the indistinct sound of her inspecting Walter’s wares.

“Okay,” she said. “Livers, I can use. Intestines… bleugh. And the kidneys? They’re like bean bags. What did these people eat anyway?”

“Fast food,” Walter said.

The woman uttered a laugh. “Fine. I’ll give a thousand for the whole lot.”

“Done,” Walter agreed.

The woman snorted, offended. “That was anti-climactic. You’re usually a much better barterer-er.”

“There’s more,” Walter said.

Oz leaned nearer to the door. Helli moaned pitifully. He clutched her tighter, but neglected to notice the group of lesser imps gathering like scavenging rats along the border of the plank sidewalk.

“More?” the woman was saying. “Oh, goodie. Something rare and delectable? Healthy lungs, perhaps. Brain of a mad scientist?”

“The Mere Man.”

“Mirror Man? Walter, you’ve left the land of sense-making. I think you’ve spent too much time in the unbending sands.”

“Unending sands.”

“Whatever…”

Walter spoke in hushed, excited tones. “The Mere Man: He who crosses the endless sands and Hell follows after. The man of the prophecy. That man.”

“Oh, no no no,” the woman said. “I’ve had my fill of prophecy, thank you very much, and you can go now. I wash my hands of…”

Oz heard a scuffling sound, and being absent his wolf-senses, he mistook it for something occurring inside rather than out. A heartbeat later, the imp-rats surged forward, latching on to Helli’s bare legs with glimmering razor teeth. Oz tumbled backward. With the rush of slick, scaly black creatures upon them both, he fell through the saloon doors and into a hazy crowd of demonic patrons.

The imp-rats, detesting all brightness, unlatched and scampered, leaving Oz and Anjelica beside the travois of parts and between six pairs of feet: Four were Walter’s; two belonged to a sprightly dressed blond tavern wench.

“Anyanka,” Walter said.

She backed away, looking hurriedly from Oz to Walter and back again.

Oz sat up. “Anya?” he asked.

Confusion clouded her features. “Oh, it’s you?”  She smacked Walter’s sleeve. “It’s Oz !”

“Pretty much full time,” Oz said.

“You’re naked,” Anya observed.

“That too,” he said. “Look, Anya, we need…”

Anya’s expression turned grim. “Blanca,” she said, snapping her fingers. “Hold down the fort. Tavern. Whatever. Just…” she bent to help Oz to his feet. “We’ll be in back.”

 

 

Anya had a cot in back, stuffed between jars of jellied body parts and barrels of ale. She also had a set of men’s pajamas, dusky blue, covered in flying alarm clocks. They swallowed Oz, but they felt much better than rampant nudity.

Oz placed Helli on the cot, while Anya poured a pair of drinks on top of a stack of crates.

With her back to him, she said, “What is it with you people haunting my afterlife?”

Oz settled on the edge of the bed, holding Helli’s limp hand in his. “Anya. You’re in Hell,” he said.

Anya shrugged. “I suppose,” she said. “I mean, it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? I’m here. I run a profitable establishment at a crossroads between worlds. It’s not a bad existence.” She turned to him, a drink in each hand.

“I can’t,” Oz said, nodding at the drink. “I mean, I don’t think it’d be wise, at this point.”

“Oh, they’re for me,” she said, knocking the first one back. “Humans in Hell can never imbibe of the nectar nor partake of the flesh blah blah blah . You know that, right? Did she?”

“No,” Oz said. He shook his head, as if to clear it. “You can help us.”

Anya drained the second glass, slammed them both down on the crate, and faced him, her hands on hips.

“I can try,” she said. “But don’t overestimate the role of barkeep. My powers are limited to information gathering and shoulder lending, which I hope you’re not gonna need since I’m heading into a rush here. Unhappy hour.”

Oz ran a hand through his spiky hair. “We have to get out of here,” he said.

Anya glanced at the girl. “She’s bad off. Not much to salvage.”

“Don’t count her out, okay,” Oz said quietly. “She’s tougher than she looks.”

Anya went to a shelf in the corner. She broke out a kit and spoke while she assembled supplies – strips of gauze, camphor, distilled water and an acrid smelling cream.

“This is all contraband,” she said. “Most of my trade is white market stuff. You can’t get it down here unless you know the right demons. And, well, what can I say? I have always been adept at commercial endeavors. Scootch.”

Oz slid over. Anya peeled back the upper part of Helli’s robe, revealing the dried blood of a stab wound. She hissed over her teeth. “These are bad,” she said. “You’re very lucky.”

“Lucky how?” Oz asked.

“You have wounds like these?” Anya asked, dabbed the caked blood with a swath of cotton gauze.

Oz shook his head.

“There you go,” Anya said.

Oz watched as Anya gently cleaned the wounds on Helli’s shoulder. He saw with some astonishment that the knife wound looked smaller. Already, Helli was healing.

“The Oracle said you could help us get home,” Oz said.

Anya rolled her eyes. “Oracle, is he? If he’s an oracle, then I’m the Duchess of Kent. Walter is a charlatan. He sends people here looking for a way upstairs, and when they find out I’m just a sexier-than-average tavern keep, they succumb to despair, drink themselves to oblivion, and bam! Walter comes along with a clean-up crew to aggressively bilk them for everything they have left,” she said. “Hence the viscera.”

Anya smeared a dab of cream onto her fingers and worked it into the seared meat of Anjelica’s wound. Helli flailed, violently, her mouth ajar in a stunned but silent scream. Oz got under her, held her body against his, and whispered to her until she calmed again.

Anya nodded to him. “Good,” she said. “But no. The only way you can get up there is if you have an offering of human flesh, and it can’t be your own. It has to be something freely given, and I can’t tell you how rare a currency that is – why are you so hopeful looking? It’s very distracting.”

“We have it. The human flesh,” Oz said.

“It can’t be your own. I just told you.”

“No. We have something else,” Oz said. He opened Helli’s robe and reached into the inside pocket where she had faithfully kept Nighna’s final gift. He passed the parcel to Anya.

Anya opened it and cupped her hand over her nose. “Well now, that’s gamey.”

“It’s Andrew’s hand,” Oz said.

“Andrew’s hand?” Anya echoed. She pouted. “Oh. Poor monkey. Is he? Did he… lose more parts?”

Oz said, “Andrew is fine… ish. He cut off his hand so Luxe couldn’t drag him down to Hell with him.”

Anya got up from the cot. “Luxe! That ambitious son of a bitch. I hope he roasts in…” she paused, considered, then said, “Well, I hope he roasts.”

Oz patted Helli’s arm. “Luxe killed Nighna, but not before she left Andrew’s hand to Helli. And then, Luxe did this.” He closed his eyes and fought to keep from being sick. “But Nighna said the hand would be useful.”

Anya paced the length of the storeroom, muttering to herself and gesturing in obvious frustration. Helli sighed in her sleep and twisted deeper into Oz’s embrace. She was healing. He could sense it, even without his werewolf perception. Helli was improving with each second that passed.

Anya faced Oz. She brushed stray wisps of hair from her face, then planted her hands on her hips. “One thing about being dead,” she said. “You’re really up on the big picture.”

Exhausted, Oz just shrugged.

“I mean it,” she continued. “You see the connectedness of all living things. Like this. Like, have you any idea how infinitely infinite Hell is? Yet here we sit, chatting it up. Point is: it’s all related. It does mean something. There is a purpose to everything, and it unites us all. Even beyond death,” she said, pointing at him with Andrew’s severed hand. “It’s what you always wondered, right?”

Oz smiled, uncertain. “Yeah…"

“Well, now you know,” she said. “And you know what else? Looks like we’re gonna need Walter after all.”

 

Chapter Text

Dawn noticed a lack of response from Andrew when Maya delivered her news about Nighna. Then she noticed that he left the Flat soon after - not that she was spying on him or anything. It was weird, him cutting out like that, and Dawn was worried.

So she slipped on Buffy’s gray pullover (because Xander and Maya were still in her room, trying to figure out a way to wake Spike up, as if she and Andrew hadn’t already tried everything non-magically possible) and followed Andrew to the Watcher’s Council. That’s what friends did for friends, right? She and Andrew were friends. Twice kissed friends. But that was all.

It wasn’t random luck, finding Andrew at the Watcher’s Council. The Ancient Text Storage under the Council’s main building housed the texts they’d recovered from the Circle, and though the vault’s smell of brushed metal and recycled air had replaced the damp leaves scent they’d cherished in the Circle, Dawn knew the ATS was still Andrew’s most favorite place in the world. After all, he’d been instrumental in a lot of its specially designed gadgetry and security features, so if he was going to hide out, the ATS was where she’d find him.

True to form, Andrew was there, dressed in an exquisite Italian suit, keeping up his sham of an excuse that he had “research to do.”

Dawn knew better. He was flipping out. Why else would he wear his super-fancy suit when here it was a Sunday, and nobody would be at the Council to see him and act all impressed with said fancy suit? Learning of Nighna’s death would be the thing to finally push little Andy over the edge.

Dawn’s heart thumped with pity. She slipped through the coded vault door and hid behind a bank of steel-reinforced archival cabinets to observe him.

He was so obviously repressing. Seriously: no tears, no gasping, no clutching his chest in despair, no pitiful whimpering. Even worse, he held a stack of folders in the crook of his arm and was searching through an open cabinet for more. It was time to act. Dawn stepped around the edge of the cabinet, ready to throw herself on the sword of his great suffering.

Dawn paused a moment to reconsider the metaphor of his sword and throwing herself upon it, as Andrew turned around and shrieked, tossing his folders into the air.

She shrieked too. While they stood there screaming like frightened rabbits, they happened to miss the enormous demon that walked in through the vault door which Dawn had, regrettably, left open.

“Great leaping Jesus!” Andrew exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

She folded her arms over her chest. “What are you doing here?” she asked.

Andrew bent down, explaining while he collected his files. He said, “Well, I measured the bite mark on Spike’s arm like we talked about, then I dropped a sample of the poison off at the lab. Afterward, I got a Black Currant Frusion from the vending machine, only to find it wasn’t cold, so I put it in the freezer in the break room. Then I came here to get files about the Sasquatcha demons Lorne told us about…”

“Just stop,” Dawn said.

Andrew frowned. “Spike’s not gonna wake himself, Dawn!” He paused. “Well, he might, but it could take a… way long time. And we don’t have a way long time with those demons fast approaching…”

Dawn’s heart pulled its pity-lurch again. She placed a hand on his arm. “That’s not what I meant.”

Andrew looked from Dawn’s hand and up into her face. She saw a whole mixed bag of emotions: sadness, regret… hope?

So not what she expected. Nor did she expect the gigantic demon that chose that moment to appear.

“Oh God, Andrew…” Dawn said.

“I know,” he said. “I feel it, too.”

“Demon,” she said with a shove. “Behind you.”

Andrew turned to find the demon – all seven scaly-obsidian black-tusks-and-bony-armored-plated feet of it – towering at the end of the row of cabinets.

Ah, nu’ja nay blimbo jah, ha ha! ” it bellowed.

Not missing a beat, Andrew said, “You don’t have clearance to be here.” He took a step in the demon’s direction. “No visitors allowed in the ATS without written consent. Did you not read the sign?”

Dawn was right; Andrew had lost it.

The demon shot a puzzled look at Dawn over Andrew’s shoulder. “ Nu’ja nay blimbo jah! ” the demon howled. “ Wei Taonnoica ?”

“Um, yeah. Restricted. Area,” Andrew went on, managing a level of snark Giles would never achieve. “All archived material must be cleared through the reference desk.”

Amazingly, the demon backed down. Emboldened, Andrew continued in his bureaucratic rage. “Restricted, Big Feller! As in, no demons allowed! Out, out foul demon! Dawn, run.”

“What?” Dawn stammered.

Her reaction was two seconds too late. The demon’s skin turned molten and smoked.

Moltz! ” it roared. And then, it exploded.

 

 

Morning broke, sending spears of light through the flecked windows of the abandoned chapel. Rachel Greenspan lifted her head to find that she had been dozing against the sturdy shoulder of one Rupert Giles.

She pulled away abruptly, patting her hair and rumpled clothing smooth.

“I must have dozed off,” she admitted.

“Indeed,” Mr. Giles said.

She felt embarrassed, and absurdly concerned with morning breath. What was worse, she felt she’d been tricked. He had lulled her into a comfort zone with his soothing baritone and meticulous recounting of his life’s adventures so that when she awoke she had nearly forgotten how intensely she hated him.

Nearly.

Rachel self-consciously rubbed her eyes. “Oh, God,” she fretted. “I snored, didn’t I?”

“No, no…” Mr. Giles assured her.

“Yes, you did,” Ethan’s voice sang from the trap beneath them.

Rachel glared first at Mr. Giles, and then redirected her scorn to the grate beneath which their captor cowered.

“Have we decided the fate of our wannabe Houdini?”

Ethan Rayne answered hopefully, “Let him go?”

“Highly unlikely,” Rachel muttered.

Mr. Giles sat forward, staring at the ground between his feet, but said nothing.

She stood and stretched, feeling awkward and eager to depart. She guessed that finding a Ladies Room in an abandoned village wouldn’t prove too difficult. Judging by the silence, the demons had abated, chased back into shadow by the dawn.

“Reminds me of Night on Bald Mountain ,” Rachel said wistfully as she pondered the barricade, wondering how best to dismantle it.

“Beg pardon?” Mr. Giles asked.

Fantasia ,” Rachel laughed. “Childhood favorite: demons awake in the night – havoc, havoc; mayhem, mayhem – but they’re dispelled by morning’s first light.”

After a moment’s study, she lifted the frame of the cot, leaning it against the wall. Next, she hoisted the edge of one of the teakwood pews, moving it a few scraping inches over the stone floor, expecting Mr. Giles to come to her aid.

However, when she turned to entreat him for assistance, she found him still staring down into the narrow shaft that held Ethan Rayne.

“Mr. Giles?” she asked.

He plucked his glasses from his face to polish them. “What happens in the end? In this… Fantasia , is it?”

“It’s a Disney,” Rachel said. “You’ve really never seen it?”

“Ah, no.”

“Sun comes up. Demons return to Hell. In the end, the angels sing,” she said, smiling at the memory.

Mr. Giles didn’t share her smile.

After a moment, Rachel returned to the quiet work of removing the barrier to the outside world. The effort took longer than she hoped, which cheered her considerably, knowing that the demons from the night before would have had at least a fraction of the difficulty getting in as she did getting out. Once the door was open and the boiled cabbage scent of seaweed wafted in with the humid air, Rachel stepped into baking brightness.

Mr. Giles’ voice followed after her. “Please remain outside, Miss Greenspan,” he said.

Rachel spun. Had he hit her open-handed in the face, it would have hurt less. After what they survived, it gutted her that he would exclude her.

“No,” she said, stamping her foot. “I’m not leaving you alone in there with that... that criminal.”

The hardness of his features shocked her. The benevolent face of her storytelling companion had vanished. In its place, she found a smoldering coldness.

“Rachel,” he said. “Get out.”

Stunned, Rachel closed the door. She put her back against it, straining with all she possessed to blink back her tears.

 

 

When Dawn came to, her ears were ringing, her skin feverish. The blast had blown her to the back wall, but after a cursory check, she figured the damage ended with a deep demonic suntan.

Andrew, on the other hand…

Andrew!

Dawn scrambled around the cabinet to find the smoldering lump that was Andrew. The explosion had sprawled him flat, had seared through his suit coat and shirt, leaving his tie smoking like a fuse. All of his exposed skin looked raw like a peeled red onion. To her great relief, he was breathing - slow, deep, steady breaths like he had fallen asleep. In the Sahara. Without sunscreen.

“Andrew?” she whispered. Gently, she prodded his shoulder. “Andrew, wake up.”

He moaned, then stirred, then opened his eyes. “Wh?” he croaked.

With relieved exuberance, Dawn gushed: “You made that demon explode,” she said. “With your talking. You made him explode.”

Andrew twisted uncomfortably on the floor. Gingerly, he poked the charred skin on his neck and shoulder, wincing and muttering “Ow” with pain at every touch. With Dawn’s help, he propped himself against the metal cabinet.

Andrew coughed. “That,” Cough, cough. “Was awesome!”

Dawn stared at him. “How’d you know you could make him go all combust-y?”

“I didn’t,” he said, stretching painfully. “It was a time-buying ploy so you could get away.”

“Oh.”

Dawn inched toward him. The intensity of her stare seemed to burn him worse than any dynamite demon, and his eyes darted to every place in the room that wasn’t Dawn. He saw the incinerated demon bits that littered the marble floor, but failed to notice how they were slowly drifting together like the iron shavings in a Magna-Doodle.

“Andrew, are you okay?” Dawn asked. She was close enough now to feel the baking heat of his skin on hers.

“A little toasted, but… You?”

“No,” Dawn said. Then, “Yes. I’m fine. But are you okay ?”

“I’m copasetic with a capital K,” he said, again with the looking everywhere but at her.

“You are not,” she said.

He glanced at her. “Maybe a capital C?”

Dawn took his right hand in hers. “Andrew, you are the worst liar. Apart from getting blown up, you’re upset about Nighna. I see things.”

…She didn’t see the piles of soot join together to form larger heaps that likewise drifted toward each other…

Andrew held his breath before he spoke again. “I… didn’t think of her,” he said, his voice thick and gruff. His eyes drifted to the ceiling. “When I kissed you, I didn’t even think of her.”

Dawn swallowed, “R-really?”

…Ash turned to stone which solidified into demon toes, demon feet, demon ankles, the beginnings of well-toned demon legs…

“It’s true,” he said. “And there’s more.”

“You can tell me…”

“Dawn,” Andrew said. “I think I’m in love with you.”

“What?” Dawn reeled. Getting blown up by a demon felt like nothing compared to the shock value of those seven words. It seemed to her that everything got suddenly very small, like she was orbiting above the planet like a satellite, and Spike and Buffy and Xander and everyone else were so far away she couldn’t see them.

…Neither could she see that the exploding demon had re-grown its legs and part of its thickly-muscled torso…

The look of dread on Andrew’s face – the part presently capable of expression – told her that he needed a response.

So she whispered, “You love me?”

“Kind of a lot,” he said.

Dawn smiled. It hurt. She said, “I’d kiss you right now, except my lips are tandoori’d.”

She tried anyway, only to discover that lips are incredibly sensitive when scorched.

Dawn pulled away, smiling. “Okay, so we’ll rain check the lip lock,” she said.

Andrew uttered a dithery laugh. “I have this really excellent burn balm,” he said. “We used it back when we took on the Nezzla'khan. Our first attempt to steal the orbs left Warren with fried palms, but one application of burn balm later we were back in the demon den, Trio-style…”

“Andrew,” Dawn said. “What did the demon want?”

“Mostly to crush us to borscht for stealing its balls,” he said. “Though I like to think recruitment might have been an option.”

She rolled her eyes. “I mean this demon.”

“Right. Mr. Thermal Detonator. He said something…”

“Made demands?”

“He said Nu’ja nay blimbo jah! ” Andrew said, in a remarkably accurate if somewhat caricatured impersonation of the demon. “And then he said, Wei Taonnoica!”

“Translation?”

Andrew attempted to stand, but wobbled. Dawn slung his arm over her shoulder and helped him up.

…By now, the demon had re-grouped enough particles to have its massive pectoral muscles. The remaining scattered pieces skittered and bumped along the floor with growing speed, rolling up the demon’s body to settle back into their proper order…

“Not sure, exactly,” Andrew explained. “I mean, it sounded like Klingon, but with a sprinkling of Greek?”

“You know it?”

“Maybe?” His brow furrowed. Ouch. The skin on his forehead felt sticky. And he smelled awful, like burned feathers.

“Taonnoica?” Dawn said, feeling over the word with her tongue. “I know it,” she said. She gripped his hand and led him, almost running, to the archive cabinet marked T’aa – Tbaul .

“Do you have your key to these cabinets?” she asked.

He snickered. “Of course!” He took out the small gold key he kept on a ring inside his Union Jack wallet and slipped it into the outer lock. The steel door swung open to reveal slim vertical file lockers within. At the top of the locker was a nine-digit keypad programmed with a special access code. That had been Andrew’s idea.

“Which one is it?” Andrew asked.

Dawn ran a finger along the index letters until she located the one that contained TAO.

“This one,” she said. Dawn punched in the access code. When the red display light flashed green, Andrew tugged the bulky metal box from the locker. She took it from him and nodded, appreciatively. “Taonnoica was a city. The word Taonnoica could be Pre-Hellenistic for Taonyx Parchments,” she explained. “We found them in the archive under The Circle. Maybe they’re important?”

“Worth a shot,” Andrew said. “Lemme just gather the cindered remains of my research and we can jet…”

The demon stepped forth and, in a repeat performance, yelled, “ Nu’ja nay blimbo jah, ha ha!

Dawn screamed. “Another one?”

“Same one!” Andrew answered. “Run!”

They fled through the ATS with the demonic time-bomb fast on their heels. They slammed the 10-inch lead reinforced vault door just as it exploded again. Panting, Dawn pounded the alarm button. In seconds, the emergency sprinklers kicked on, inside the ATS and out.

“This won’t hold him long,” Dawn yelled. “We have to vanquish. There are texts and supplies in Magics, Third Floor. Scoobies: TNG , right?”

A crooked smile quirked Andrew’s lips. “Did I mention I love you?”

Dawn grinned. “You did. And then, tandoori chicken lips…”

“Right,” he said. His eyes narrowed. “Let’s vanquish.”

 

 

The door to the little chapel closed with a hollow thonk. Rupert Giles lifted the metal grate and dragged it into the shadows, knowing that the girl – Miss Greenspan – was listening to everything.

“You heard her,” Giles said. “In the end, the angels sing.”

Ethan’s laughter bubbled up from the shaft. “Give me your word, old chap. I’ll come without a fuss if you promise to let me up unscathed.”

Rupert lingered in the shadow beneath the window. “You have my word.”

Ethan stretched Rupert’s patience, taking an eternity on each foothold, until finally his head emerged from the hole in the floor. Ethan glanced around, opportunistic little rat he was, until he picked Giles out of the gloom.

“There you are, old sport,” Ethan said. “Come out where I can see you?”

Giles didn’t move. “As a Chaos adept, I imagine that pistol is quite useless to you,” he said.

Ethan dragged himself onto the floor and rolled to his knees. “Appearances, Ripper,” Ethan said with a grin. “A man need only see a gun, and it’s effective enough.”

“For most,” Rupert said flatly.

Ethan sat back on his heels. He squinted at Giles through haze and shadow. “Aye, for most,” he agreed, chuckling. The mirth withered when he stepped from beneath the light, revealing a brutal expression Ethan had thought Rupert Giles had left behind long ago.

“Ah, Ripper,” he said, his tone resolute. “So it is you after all.”

With startling ferocity, Rupert swung the metal grate, cracking it across Ethan Rayne’s head. Ethan crumpled, blood spurting across the ground in vicious gouts. Rupert descended on him, knees to his guts, searching roughly through Ethan’s clothes… Until his fingers curled around the gun.

 

 

Rachel didn’t know how much time had passed, and she didn’t care. She heard muffled scufflings inside, as well as possible groveling, and she thought that if Mr. Giles was putting the hard brace to Ethan Rayne, she should at least be there for moral support.

So what if Mr. Giles was the head of the Order? They had formed an uneasy bond over the last few days, and she felt she’d earned a share in whatever it was Mr. Giles obtained from Rayne. No, hang that: It was her birthright to stand beside him, no matter what Mr. Giles’ rank and station decreed.

Just as Rachel decided to force her hand, she heard a single gunshot inside – one pure, piercing sound – and then, nothing at all.

 

Chapter Text

Connor crossed the kitchen, two bottles of Shiner Bock in one hand, an oscillating fan in the other. He hadn’t worked out the kinks in the wiring, so everything electrical had to be plugged in to the extension cord that lolled through the kitchen window like a long orange tongue. Items plugged in to the cord – things to which Dawn attested she could not live without – were a string of white Christmas lights, a coffeepot, a flatiron and an outmoded CD player from which poured the sepia tones of Van Morrison’s “Glad Tidings.”

Connor put the bottles on the counter, and with the fan balanced on his knee between him and the cabinet, he struggled with the powerstrip and the flatiron’s cord, wagering that of the things they needed to survive tonight, straight and shiny locks could be sacrificed in favor of a gentle breeze.

Dawn’s laughter lilted like honey into the kitchen, and he glanced over his shoulder at her. She was doing the chopsticks thing again – sticking them in her mouth so they hung down like fangs. Connor kept telling her chopsticks looked more like tusks. She’d slug his arm and say, ‘vampires don’t have tusks.’

Tonight Dawn had swept her hair into a ponytail to let her neck breathe from the day’s mugginess. She wore an embroidered white sundress – backless – and his hands burned to touch the petal-pale skin between her shoulder blades.

Seeming to feel his gaze, she raised her eyes to meet his. He must have smirked, because she laughed again, dropping her chopsticks to her paper plate. In the chair beside her, beyond Connor’s line of sight, his father muffled a laugh.

His father, popping in from California en route to London for Council business, had wanted to see the antebellum house they bought to restore. His father, who had advised him against buying such an ‘antiquated wreck’, especially since Connor still had two semesters left in his graduate program at Emory University.

His father.

His father…

Connor leaned backward, catching a glimpse of Mr. Grumpy Pants (Sr.) through the crystal pane of the open French door. Angel. His father.

The oscillating fan slipped from Connor’s numb fingers and bounced across the tile floor with a crash.

“Crap!” Connor swore.

“Connor?” Dawn called. “Everything okay?”

“Dropped the fan,” he answered.

Connor hefted the heavy bugger by its weighted base. The wire cover had slipped askew, one aluminum blade had bent, but he had it quickly fixed. It was solid equipment, good since the 40s, and buzzed like a hummingbird when he plugged it in. He set the fan on the counter, drinking in the balmy breeze it stirred. He caught the verdurous scent of river clay that permeated the air. Outside the window, the world glowed with a preternatural greenness, like they were living inside a terrarium. Oaks bounded the house with tight-knit, protective arms. Some of them are probably as old as Dad , Connor thought. That was a comforting idea…

Connor rounded the dining room table to take the chair beside Dawn. Without interrupting one of her favorite Drawing 101 tales about a young woman who fainted in class because they were sketching – gasp! – naked men, he passed one bottle to his Dad; the other he placed in front of Dawn.

“And she just… fell over?” Angel prodded.

“Oh yeah. Eyes rolled back, everything. I thought she was convulsing,” Dawn said. “Poor thing. She’d honestly never seen a naked anything. Ever. Could ya guess?”

“She’d grown up in the Bible Belt,” Connor added.

“Yeah, Bible Chastity Belt. I guess it’s nice though, knowing that some girls get to be that sheltered,” Dawn said, twisting the cap from her beer. “No Bock for you?”

“No Bock,” Connor said. “Mid-terms.”

Dawn clinked the neck of her bottle to Angel’s. “Work, work, work,” she sang, toasting them both.

Angel drank, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. In the kitchen, the CD changer whirred, buzzed, clicked, and the song switched to Allison Krauss singing “When You Say Nothing At All.”

Angel reached for the takeout box and scooped low mien onto his plate.

“I’m proud of you, son,” Angel said. “Nice home. Nicer fiancée,” he tipped a genuine smile at Dawn. “You’ve carved a good life.”

Connor rested his elbows on the table. He basked in the ambience of twinkle lights, Chinese takeout, his best girl, and his Dad. All his life, he wanted to be part of something simple, and here they were, within his grasp. Connor breathed it in, feeling it spread throughout his every molecule.

“I’m just glad you’re here,” Connor said quietly, as if speaking aloud would break the bubble and make it all disappear. “I’m amazed you made it out.”

Angel shrugged. “Truth of it, son, I’m pretty amazed myself.”

Connor continued. “When I saw you on that Circle, I thought, ‘Man, there is no way he’ll get out of this one,’” he laughed, incredulous, his eyes wide. “But you did. I mean, look at you!”

Dawn touched his arm. “Connor…”

“I mean it,” he said. “You made it. You pull through everything!”

Angel gave his son an abashed smile. “I try,” he said, humbly.

Connor pulled his hands through his hair. “And then, the Prophecy!”

Dawn fake retched. “Not that again,” she moaned.

“But it’s…” Connor began.

“Amazing,” Dawn said. “And it is, sweetie, but… can’t we have one family dinner that doesn’t dredge up past apocalypses or prophecies? Myself, I’d much rather talk about simpler things, like our house, or your research. Or, oh! Naked people.”

Angel steepled his hands around his bottle. “She’s right,” he said, then scratched his head. “Not necessarily the nudity part, but, um, everything else…” He stared across the table at his son. “It’s okay, Connor. It’s over. I’m back. And I’ll never leave you again.”

Connor’s heart swelled in his chest and he breathed in, holding the elation within the cage of his ribs, promising to never let it go… never .

“You okay?” Dawn asked.

Connor let out a trembling sigh. “I am,” he said, nodding. “Maybe I should have that beer.”

“Stay put. I’ll get it,” Angel said, getting up.

“Hey, and dad,” Connor said. “While you’re at it, could you pass the Shanshu pork?”

Beside him, Dawn dissolved in a giggle fit. She looped her arms around Connor, burying her face against his sleeve.

“Shhhh—” she hissed, eyes streaming. Her laughter was infectious; soon Connor fell in, laughing until his sides ached. Even Angel gave up a mite of a chuckle before disappearing into the kitchen to pull a beer from the cooler.

“Mushu pork,” Connor said between gasps. “I meant Mushu.”

Dawn wiped her eyes with the back of her slender hands, her engagement band glittering silver in the fairy light of the room. “Connor!” she snorted. “You waited all evening to slip that in, didn’t you? You are so bad.”

“I know it, baby.”

In the kitchen, Angel’s cell phone rang.

Connor straightened in his chair. “Don’t answer it,” he said.

Not hearing him, Angel fished the phone from his pocket, flipped it open, and began a conversation in severe tones with the person on the other end.

Dawn pouted. “Demons?” she asked.

“Sounds like,” Connor answered. He poked cheerlessly at a water chestnut with her chopstick.

“You going with?”

“Got to,” Connor said. “He’s my Dad. And they’re demons. That’s all that matters…”

Dawn bent forward until her forehead met his temple. “I have plans for you, you know?” she whispered.

Connor continued to watch his Dad pace in the kitchen.

“Right,” Connor said. “Home and hearth.”

“Think…” Dawn ran her hand along the inside of his leg, all the way up, “lower,” she said.

He felt her breath on his cheek and blushed.

“You saucy little vixen.”

She lowered her eyelids. “I have everyone fooled,” she said.

When Angel returned, Connor imagined he could see cartoon thunderheads scribbled over his father’s head.

“It’s bad,” Angel said. “Demons.”

Connor stood. Wielding the chopstick like a stake, he said, “I’m ready.”

Dawn slipped her hand into his. She whispered, “Don’t worry. We’ll be family, Connor. Together, forever. It's going to be beautiful.”

 

XXX

Connor awoke to stillness, from a world of green to one of cobalt and gold. But this dream was no less detailed than the last. Or the one before that. Each dream supplanted the previous, and Connor no longer knew which was real and which was not. Not that it mattered. Not anymore.

A quick appraisal of his surroundings told him he was in a cupboard decked with shelves that were crowded with jars, flasks, books, and trinkets. The air was heavy with the scents of garlic, onions, ginger, incense...

Connor heard his breathing in his ears as he slid from the canvas cot that was his bed. His shoulders ached deep in his bones. He rolled his arms backward and felt a painful stab pinch under his ribcage.

Okay, so in this dream he was injured. He was also ravenous. He smelled something savory cooking somewhere beyond the storeroom and his stomach rumbled. Connor couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a scrap to eat, so, braving all, he left the cupboard in search of food.

The darkened corridor was lined on both sides with haphazard stacks of books and periodicals. At the nearer end Connor saw a study with a gilded Edwardian writing desk upon which a single candle bloomed against the darkness. Connor stood transfixed by the flicker of light, until his stomach rumbled again, urging him in the opposite direction.

He found the kitchen through an archway at the corridor’s end. It was dark, too, and cluttered with the same assortment of intricacies that spilled like a wave through every cramped room he passed. A bulky wooden table crouched in the center of the room. On it, a plump black kitten slept. Both table and cat seemed familiar to him, but he ignored them in favor of the pair of women conversing in conspiratorial tones beside the stove.

Connor crossed the kitchen soundlessly, scanning the room as he did. An athame rested on a chopping block on the far counter. Antique swords and daggers lay in cases and on display mounts around the kitchen. If he needed a weapon, he had several within reach.

As he approached the women, the kitten roused and stretched. Connor tickled its chin and it prrred delightedly.

Willow and Faith turned, surprised.

“Hey, it’s the Sleepyhead,” Willow said.

He blinked. “Hey.”

Willow shot a glance of concern at Faith, who shrugged, non-committal.

“You were out a long time,” Willow said. She picked up a wooden bowl and brought it to him. “We were worried…”

Connor snatched the bowl from her hands. Rice! Fried rice, cashews, mushrooms. He shoveled it into his mouth with his fingers. After the first few bites, his stomach cramped, but he plowed through, forcing himself to choke it down.

Willow stared at him, astounded. “We were worried you wouldn’t wake up,” she went on. “Spell whammy packed quite a punch…”

Connor swallowed the mouthful of rice and tried to speak, but his throat felt like powder.

Willow returned to the stove, her red hair catching the lantern light. For a moment the moonglow of her beauty held him mesmerized. Faith eyed him warily, her dark eyes like patches of night sky. Willow lifted a kettle from the burner and poured him a cup of tea.

She returned and tousled his hair. “It’s good to have you upright again,” she said.

“Where’s Dawn?” Connor asked.

Willow glanced at Faith. “Uh. London, I presume,” Willow answered. “What do you remember?”

He cleared his throat. “Where are we?”

Faith stepped in. “What say you answer the girl first, huh?”

Connor’s heart jittered in his chest. His eyes flicked to the athame on the counter. He saw Faith tense. Her Slayer senses clued her that he’d noticed the weapon.

Instinctively, Connor knew. They were hiding something. Connor looked beyond them, at the shelves along the opposite wall. He noted the mismatched relics – Japanese swords, Egyptian urns, various curios and texts from a dozen civilizations. Whoever lived here was widely traveled.

“Wayara,” he mumbled.

Faith’s fists clenched. “Dead. Killed by you.”

Connor’s eyes flashed at the accusation. “No,” he said. He remembered the fire, though. He remembered... “No. Not like that. It wasn’t like that.”

Faith closed in on him. Willow interceded. “Hey. Let’s keep with the civil tongues,” she said. To Connor, she added, “What was it like?”

Connor ignored her. “Who lives here?” he asked again. “Where are we?”

Faith shot another wary look at Willow. “Japan,” she hedged.

Connor shoved her with his free hand. “I know that,” he bit out. “I mean, here . In this place.”

Willow flashed an uneasy grin. “Connor, before you leap in blades-a-blazin’, hear us out, okay?”

But the bolt drove home. Connor understood.

“Thellian,” he said, his gorge rising.

Faith, for her part, looked disgusted; she had the decency not to dispute it.

Connor leapt at the counter, scattering rice and crockery. Faith caught him, but not before his fist closed around the hilt of the athame. His face an inch from Faith’s, Connor snarled, “How could you bring me here?”

“Just let us explain,” Willow said.

Connor brought the athame to within inches of Faith’s throat. “Yeah. Better explain how it is, Willow. Explain fast.”

Faith vised Connor’s arm between her hands. “Best be certain you can kill us both, cowboy,” she hissed in his ear.

He laughed darkly. “C’mon, Faith. You really wanna fight me? I heal as fast as a Slayer, and I’m not a dried up hag.”

“Oh, you didn’t…” Faith said.

“He did!” Willow answered.

“Bring it on,” he said through clenched teeth.

Faith pressed her body against his. “Oh, it’s brought.”

Connor jerked his hand back and slashed down. Faith caught his arm, twisted it back. They struggled, but she kept him pinned, as slowly, very slowly, he dragged the point of the dagger to her cheek.

“I think you’re under his thrall,” Connor growled. “Both of you.”

“Willow!” Faith relented.

Willow gave a fretful sigh. “I wish, I wish it hadn’t come to this,” she said. “ Artreoth dormis ,” Willow shouted.

At first, Connor looked as though he’d shake it off, but then his grip on the athame relaxed and he tumbled face first into Faith’s arms.

Willow collected the knife from his limp fingers.

“Sleep sweet, little prince,” she said, patting his cheek.

Faith wrestled his body onto the table where only two days earlier, they’d cast the spell to free him from the lure of the Glass. Scout leapt nimbly to Connor’s chest and curled into a ball.

Faith turned to Willow. “Great, Red,” she said. “Now we have two of them.”

Willow took a dish towel from the counter and pillowed it beneath Connor’s head. “He’s just… it’s like he’s been pulled from The Matrix. We can’t know what he felt while under the influence of the Glass,” she said.

Faith brushed Connor’s hair from his forehead. “He’s a good kid. Damn weak-headed is all.”

Willow sighed. She crossed the kitchen to peer into an adjacent sitting room swathed in veils of copper silk.

Faith came up beside her. “How we gonna pass these guys through customs?” she asked. “Or, here’s a thought: What gives if Wonder Boy wakes up somewhere over Siberia and guts the plane with us in it?”

Willow stepped into the room. In it lay a slim wooden box – not so much a coffin as a display.

“Don’t worry, Faith,” Willow said, keeping a reverent tone. “Up Top’s got a plan.”

Willow stared into box, where Morna’s sleeping form had been packed and arranged on a bed of lavender silk. Willow stroked a perfect ringlet of the torpid vampire’s red hair, trailing her finger along the curls until it met the ruffled edge of the green taffeta costume in which the girl had been dressed.

Faith narrowed her eyes. “Yeah,” she said bitterly. “A plan for us all.”

 

XXX

Connor awoke when the textbook he’d been skimming – Current Discussions on Insect Biotechnology and Genomics – dropped with a dull smack to the porch below his hammock. He sat up quickly, almost dumping himself out. Dawn would have just loved that.

“Hey, Sleepyhead,” she said, rounding the corner of the porch. Today she wore daisy dukes and flip flops, and her hair flowed loose down her back.

He grinned sleepily. “Didn’t like that dream anyway,” he said.

Dawn’s features clouded. She slid into his lap. “Oh, poor baby. Nightmares?”

Connor rubbed his eyes. “Not sure. This one's better.”

Dawn cocked her head to the side. “Silly Connor. This isn’t a dream.”

Connor hooked his thumbs in her belt loops and dragged her body snug with his. “I know it, baby,” he said.

Dawn gave him a sly look. “Any grand adventures planned for today?”

Connor cocked an eyebrow. “Well... I was planning to mow the lawn.”

“Ooh,” Dawn said, leering. “Forecast of shirtless Connor with an 80 percent chance of hot and sweaty.”

He sighed. “It’s a peril I’m willing to face.”

“I have a better plan,” she said. “It may even help you, with that peril facing thing.”

“Yeah?”

Dawn kissed him again, long and deep and fierce. Her hands roved down into places best left for bedrooms, bathrooms, and occasional stairwells.

Connor caught her hands in his. “Here? Now?” he asked. “The neighbors…”

“Let ’em watch,” Dawn said, stripping off her shirt. She eased him backward, caging him with her slender legs. “Together, forever. It’s gonna be beautiful. And in the end, the angels sing.”

 

Chapter Text

“’Kay, the way I see it, we have three areas of major concern,” Andrew said. He’d outlined them in red dry erase marker on his beloved white board. With his whip-like pointer wand, he indicated the first bulleted item to address.

“The first, as you can see, is Buffy’s absence. Giles is in the field following leads in that area. The second is Spike’s cucumber-ish state. We have samples at the lab and teams assembled to that effect. Therefore, the third, probably most pertinent problem is the Shamma-lamma demon tribe that seems to be headed for the nearest seat of power, which Lorne has determined, is Triumvirate. Are there any questions at this point?”

Xander and Maya, who crowded with Dawn and Andrew into the dining area which had, in the absence of the others, become more and more like the Round Table O’ Research at the Magic Box, glanced at Dawn for reassurance, who nodded fervently. Xander raised his hand.

Andrew pointed at him with the wand. “Yes?”

Xander sat forward, hands on knees, and said, “Can we get a rousing chorus of Duh ?”

Andrew, unfazed with his Teflon Watcher’s shield, proceeded. “You say Duh , but I say: look deeper. Now, with Giles in Peru working out the Buffy conundrum, the rest of us should divide into teams to address the other two predicaments. Seeing as Dawn and I have experience with demon liaising, we’ll take the, um, Sssusudio…”

“Sulksquelawtna,” Dawn volunteered.

“They Who Shall Remain Unnamed, while you two,” Andrew continued, sweeping enthusiastically over Maya and Xander with his pointer, “Can take Spike. Which leaves us with this,” He swished the wand and thwacked the metal box on the table. “The Taonyx Parchments, which we know the Kerploding Demon wanted, but we know not why. As of yet.”

“As of yet?” Xander piped in.

“Know not why,” Andrew said.

“By the way, Xander,” Dawn put in. “The vanquish spell and subsequent… kerplosion… damaged some of the cabinets in the vault. You might want your crew to look into that.”

Xander sucked air through his teeth. “How is that? Those cabinets were nigh indestructible.”

“For which reason we’re standing here today,” Dawn said.

Maya touched his arm lightly. “C’mon, Xander. Give them some credit. They vanquished it, didn’t they?”

Nigh indestructible!” Xander seethed.

“Okay,” Dawn said, cutting him off. “How ’bout we tackle some research?”

“Here’s an idea,” Xander said. “Let’s don’t.”

“But… But Buffy and Spike,” Dawn said, unable to fathom Xander’s sudden onset of stubbornness.

“This I know, Dawnie,” Xander said. “But I think we should call Giles.”

Andrew tapped the white board with his pointer. “Already did. Peru. Covered under Bullet #1.”

Again, Xander raised his hand. Andrew’s upper lip twitched into a sneer, but he answered, this time with strained patience, “Yes?”

“Who died and made you King of the Watchers?” Xander asked. Maya shifted uncomfortably in her chair.

Dawn replied,  “Giles did, actually. Well, not did so much as bequeathed. Andrew’s a Watcher now,” she added, with a distinct note of pride in her voice.

“Yeah,” Andrew said. “I’m bequeathed.”

“Andrew? A Watcher?” Xander said doubtfully. “Isn’t there a rigorous screening process? Tests? Some sort of, I dunno, quality standard?”

“Xander!” Maya hissed.

Xander leapt from his seat with such force the chair wobbled like it was throwing its own little fit. “That’s enough. I’m calling Giles.”

He left the room before either Dawn or Andrew could tell him not to bother, that Giles had been out of pocket for quite some time. In the ensuing silence, Dawn felt the low ember of a blush stoke up to a full flush of fury. Doing her best to keep a damper on her temper, she stood, stiffly, and followed Xander into the hallway, leaving Andrew and Maya alone together in prickly silence.

“He’s really stressed,” Maya explained. “Flight delays. Airline food. Impending doom. Brings out the worst in people.”

“I’m okay with it,” Andrew said. He ran a finger along the table’s edge. “Wanna see my naked stump?”

Maya’s eyes widened, but softened when Andrew revealed the bare nub of arm, stitch and bandage free. She breathed out a relieved sigh.

“Kerplode-y demon burned off my bandages. And most of my arm hair. See?” Andrew explained. “It doesn’t look too bad.”

“No. Not at all. It’s the, uh, best amputation I’ve ever…” she averted her eyes. “I’m gonna check on Xander.”

Maya left. Andrew collapsed his pointing wand with a flourish and stalked upstairs to lose himself in mindless online RPG.

 

 

Oz thought the sand smelled like dried blood, like scabs, and he tried not to focus on it. It was making him sick. He thought this must be what it felt like to live on Tatooine, right up to the harsh irony and the sand that smelled like blood.

Anya had persuaded Walter to leave his organs in her contraband freezer (which, she pointed out, was difficult to come by, given their location) while they traveled into the desert to prepare for the ritual that would open a portal back home. They used Walter’s travois to carry Anjelica, who remained semi-catatonic since their arrival at Geulph’s Tavern.

And now, some time later, Walter and Anya stopped mid-trackless desert to argue, leaving Oz to think of dried-blood sands and Anjelica, who had roused enough to speak one word: Luxe.

Oz crawled to her side. “No,” he said soothingly. “Don’t say his name. Okay, Helli. Don’t say it.”

Anjelica rolled her head in the direction of Oz’s voice. Her eyes were still swelled shut – a mercy, Oz thought, considering the fact that she could see hellish things beyond his comprehension.

“Is he here?” she wheezed.

“No,” Oz said again. “It’s just me right now. Anya and Walter are…” he glanced to see them drawing a speculative circle in the sand, “…debating. Something.”

Miraculously, Anjelica sat up. She made a motion like she might try to stand, but Oz put a hand on her shoulder to still her.

“I’m fine,” she told him, but her voice sounded hollow.

“Right. Because you don’t need unbroken bones in your legs to stand on,” Oz said. “Give it time. You’ll mend.”

Anjelica covered her heart with her hands. “Not me. I’ll never mend.”

A knot rose in Oz’s throat. “I’ll get you home, and you will. You will .”

Anjelica stared beyond him. “There was a hint of regret when he killed her,” she said. “Just a glint, you know? Sadness for an adversary passed.” Anjelica turned her blank eyes to face Oz, and a chill shook him to the core. “I think he loved her.”

“Helli, no,” Oz whispered. “He’s a monster. A monster. He’s incapable of love.”

“Is he?” she moaned.

Oz laid a hand on hers. “Yes! Look at what he’s done to you.”

Anjelica’s gaze dropped to their joined hands. “To me, yes,” she whispered. “We were monsters once.”

“What?” Oz said. But she curled inward on herself, a morning glory withering in the sun. Oz tried coaxing her back, but she was gone.

A shadow fell over him. Oz glanced back to find Anya there.

“Let it be,” Anya said gently. “She’s in shock. It’s as good as arguing with cats. Actually slightly better than…well. Here,” she passed a familiar dirty, cloth-wrapped parcel to him. He took it with a shudder.

“We’re almost ready to begin the ritual,” she went on. “When we do, things will go fast, so be ready. Walter wants to get this done before Luxe’s henchman catches up to us.”

Anjelica twitched violently at the sound of his name, and Anya swore a nasty sounding curse under her breath.

“Good,” Oz said, getting to his feet. “If Paolo shows up – when – all the better to kill him.”

Walter sauntered crab-like toward them. “Your’n no fit state to fight, son,” he said. “’Sides, we aim to getcher back home in one piece.”

“Unlike poor Andrew,” Anya said. She pulled a short, shiny dagger from the knot in her hair. She poked it toward Oz, conversationally. “I can cast this portal faster than rabbits can breed,” she suppressed a shudder of her own, “and get you two home in time to let Buffy & friends know what Luxe is up to. Besides, you’re not the Big Bad Wolf you once were, Oz. Leave lynching the henchman to the professionals. All right?”

Oz considered this for a moment. Beside him, Helli twitched like a patient undergoing electro-shock therapy. Her robes fell away from the portion of her shoulder where Luxe had burned her; it was healing fast.

Oz could get her home, and she would be okay. She would heal and live to fight. She was a Slayer. She was strong.

She deserved better than this…

Oz nodded. “All right,” he said.

“There you go,” Anya grinned. She took Walter aside and together they began to scribe a circle in the sand.

Oz dropped to his knees beside Helli. He cradled Andrew’s severed hand in the bend of his arm. Sand clung to him, thick and sticky, but the first hopes of home brought thoughts of hot showers and black coffee and eggs-over-medium. They’d get back and it would all be better. He had hope enough for them both, even if Anjelica couldn’t see.

 

 

Hours passed and Runequest didn’t absorb him as he hoped. Andrew settled then for re-arranging his action figures. He put Riker on the dresser face down, with Deanna Troi, Beverly Crusher and Data poised to kick him in his ribs, while Captain Piccard, at Riker’s head, stood with one arm out as if sanctioning the act of barbarism. Then, Andrew arranged a dais out of Yu-Gi-Oh cards and placed the venerable Admiral James T. Kirk upon it like a Pharaoh overseeing the event.

Andrew, looking over his tableau, saw that it was good. As he was deciding where to position Mr. Spock, he heard a knock on his door – a brisk, resolute rapping: Dawn.

He opened the door to find her once again dressed in wooly knee socks and Buffy’s yellow duckling jammies. She’d taken to wearing them, just as he, secretly, had been taking Spike’s T-shirts from the laundry and wearing them under his flannels.

“Hey,” he said.

She gave him a look that was part-sympathetic, part-apologetic, with a twist of sardonic in her smile.

“Andrew,” she said with a nod, and added, “Mr. Spock.”

Andrew dipped a hasty glance at Spock, still in his hand, and tucked him in his pocket. “Xander still dissing my authori-tie?”

Dawn stepped forward. “Can I come in?”

“Uh. Sure,” Andrew said. He closed the door behind her.

Immediately she went to the chest of drawers whereon he’d assembled the crews of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Dawn smiled appreciatively, then turned to him.

“Good old Captain Kirk,” she said.

“Kirk gets the best seat, on count of he’s senior officer, and because of his commanding style sense,” Andrew said.

“Of course.”

Andrew crossed the small room and took up his nervous habit of tidying his bed while he spoke. Dawn liked the way Andrew’s room smelled – of peanut butter, fabric softener, and chlorine bleach. A deep breath took her back to their last days of Sunnydale, when he insisted that fabric softener would soothe the savage tempers of a dozen Potential Slayers camped in her living room. That, and funnel cake. Dawn couldn’t see it then, but had to admit now that the smell of his meadow fresh sheets did have a certain calming effect.

Andrew tugged the lopsided comforter straight, and said, “Maybe Xander’s going parental, you know, because he feels bad that he wasn’t here when Buffy got all abductified and Spike got catatonic.”

“He said as much,” Dawn said. “He said he hated to be the last to know about Buffy.” She shrugged. “No one likes to feel useless.”

Andrew looked up. He punched his pillow to optimum fluff. “Yeah.”

“Careful,” she said. “Your OCD is showing.”

Andrew smiled. Dawn smiled back. Then she said, “Spike is still in my bed.”

“Oh! You can have mine. I have this Royal Army sleeping bag Giles gave me. Goose down, with built in heating strips to keep your feet warm in case you’re ever in the Yukon or crossing Siberia with a team of sled dogs. I’ve wanted to try it out. The bag, not the dogs. I’m not really suited for Siberia…”

Dawn took a hesitant step forward. “I don’t want your bed,” she told him.

He squinted. “You want the sleeping bag?” he asked.

“You’re cute,” she said.

“I... what?”

“Cute,” she said. “And no, I don’t want the sleeping bag either.”

Dawn was sure she looked as foolish as she felt. She bounced on her heels, impatient for his reply.

Andrew smiled, still unsure. “Oh. You mean…share the bed. This bed?”

Dawn blushed. Andrew paled.

“What about Xander?” he asked.

“The bed's too small for three of us. Four if you count Maya. They're not invited.” Dawn continued in a rush. “Look, we’ll be like bunk mates. Bed sharing bunk mates who are best friends. Best friends who sometimes kiss. God, I’m sorry. It’s just, this is a big house and you’re the one who makes it not empty.”

He grinned. “Yeah. Okay. Good. It’s good.”

Dawn took the last step remaining to cross to the bed and sat down. “I think I liked it better when it was just us,” she said.

Andrew sighed and sat across from her. “Me too,” he said.

Dawn and Andrew faced each other from opposite sides of the smallest bed in the house, staring for what felt like eternity.

 

Chapter Text

Los Angeles sunlight sifted through the greasy windows of the Hyperion Hotel, stretching gritty gold parallelograms across the floor of the lobby. It was morning, just a smidge over 24 hours since Buffy and Dawn had entered and made chaos of Team Angel’s already messed lives.

The whole huge lot of them assembled in the War Room around an impressive board room table – secondhand, by the looks of the scuffed mahogany surface – but still, quite dramatic. Angel sat at the table’s head, of course, with Cordy and Wes flanking him. Xander and Anya sat together, opposite Tara and Willow, while Buffy and Dawn occupied the seats way at the further end. An electric tension surged through the room, stringing them together like high voltage wire. Connor alone enjoyed the privilege of mobility; he toddled beneath the table, crawling into random empty chairs and laps as the mood struck him.

Once, when he strayed close to Buffy’s feet, she muttered, “Let’s see you hit on my sister now.”

He gazed up at her, his eyes luminous and deeply knowing. Buffy, in spite of herself, reached down to ruffle his honey-blond curls. The response she felt to that touch was one of pure joy, and she pressed a hand to the swell of her belly under the concealment of the board room table. It was hers and Connor’s secret.

Fred entered in a flurry of nerves, dressed in a dowdy (and unnecessarily formal) hounds-tooth suit. She had prepared information packets for everyone and passed them around, apologizing for the haste and sloppiness of the margins. Buffy took one look at the inside page, saw words like differential equation, Lagrangian formalism and postulatory unification and promised herself that she would never do it again.

Dawn, however, opened to the middle of her binder and became immersed in a diagram that looked like a Victrola funnel with wavy lines springing out of it.

Fred stepped behind the podium, pushed her glasses up her nose and tapped her stack of pages into order.

“Ahem,” she said. She stared across the room like a stage-frightened actress in a high school play. “I’d like to thank you all for coming. I have been working for many months on a dimensional gaps theory and literally years before with the Quantum Physics Department at the University of…”

“Fred, dispense with the lecture format,” Angel said in a too-harsh tone which drew offended glares from Cordy, Anya, Willow and Tara. He glowered. “We’re not the Watcher’s Council, okay. Just, cut to the String Theories for Dummies portion of the presentation.”

Fred looked to Wesley for support; he nodded encouragingly.

“Well, all right,” she said. She stepped away from the podium. “The equation behind me represents something called a dimensional gap. The official definition is on page three of your packet. In layman’s terms, it’s a point at which the barriers between dimensions have broken down. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.”

Fred walked to a section of white board and erased a broad swath. When she heard Wes’s sharp gasp, she turned and explained, “Honey, I’ve got it all up here,” she said, tapping her forehead. “The white board is for your benefit.”

She drew several lines that looked like waves in a child’s drawing of the sea. Dawn pointed eagerly at the diagram in her binder.

“So,” Fred said. “These are strings. Well, obviously, they’re strings.”

“Fred,” Angel cautioned.

She cringed. “Sorry. I’m nervous,” she said, sending a thin smile Buffy’s way before continuing. “Um, strings are like dimensions. We’re one dimension, but there are thousands of other dimensions. Millions. Infinite, really. There’s the dimension of only prawns, another with no prawns at all.”

“The Land of Trolls,” Xander pitched in.

“Or the land without shrimp,” said Willow.

“Exactly,” Fred said, drawing more squiggly lines between her strings. “The strings resonate. And sometimes, they vibrate into each other, creating a nexus point at which…” she drew an X between two of the strings “…with the proper exertion of energy, a kind of portal can form.”

“How much energy?” Anya asked. “Are we talking a megaton of C4, or the radiation of a thousand suns?”

“More the latter,” Fred said, brushing wisps of hair from her face. “Theorists have guessed that it would take the equivalent of five hundred thousand nuclear bombs to create even the smallest dimensional portal, and that’s only if the conditions line up exactly. The odds against it are-are astronomical!”

“So, why’s it happening?” Xander asked. “Someone knitting an inter-dimensional afghan?”

Everyone gave him an obligatory scowl as Fred moved to explain. Except for Buffy, who felt a tinge of nostalgia.

“Um, well, what Angel and Wes believe, based on information from TriadCorp, is that The Coven is using The Hellmouth to channel a force great enough to collapse the strings in on each other,” she said. “To create a quantum singularity.”

Tara scribbled on her pad, and passed it to Willow.

“Collapse them?” Willow read. “Why would they want to do that?”

Fred smiled as if Tara had just asked the big money question. “Fewer dimensions means that they have greater control over the Universe,” she said.

Angel leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “Wes thinks that adepts of Chaos are compressing the dimensions into one, so that they can effectively control everything.”

“But that would be bad,” Willow said. “Really bad. Really, really bad for other dimensions, right? Like, for instance, Buffy’s dimension…”

“And the Land of Trolls,” Anya added.

Buffy felt a flutter in her stomach. “That’s what Margot and Ariadne said. They said the fates of countless worlds rested on taking out The Coven.”

“Ariadne? Margot?” Cordelia asked.

“A pair of Witches in Sunnydale,” Willow said. “You missed that part on count of Angel breaking stuff. They brought Buffy here.”

Cordy frowned at Angel. He said, “We’re getting off topic.”

“We have been working on an angle for taking out The Coven,” Wesley said. “But it’s still too risky. We’ll need far more firepower…”

“Plus, so much more with the spell ability,” Willow said.

Then everyone did that talking-at-once thing that Team Angel seemed so good at doing.

Dawn had taken a pen from the center of the table and was drawing intricate lattices on the back of her handout. Connor appeared once more at Buffy’s side, reaching up to her with his plump little hands.

He was so unbelievably beautiful, and sweet, and he smelled like apple sauce. Buffy couldn’t help herself; she pulled him into her lap. Then she got all transfixed by the lined pattern on his denim overalls, and the way the sunlight and shadow played along the folds of his clothes, in his hair, on his darling puffy baby cheeks, in the irises of his stunning baby blues.

Something about what they were saying didn’t click. While Buffy stared at the adorable child in her lap, her brain was busy figuring things out.

“That’s what Spike was supposed to be doing,” Angel said gruffly. “Now we have no idea, because Dawn is here and all contact with Jonathan and that other guy…”

Dawn leaned to Buffy. “I’d like to see Spike now,” she said.

“Why Chaos?” Buffy blurted.

Angel cleared his throat, and everyone stopped talking. “What?” he asked.

Buffy pressed her lips together, and then spoke. “It seems that Chaos would want less control. I mean, Ethan Rayne, when he wrought destruction upon Sunnydale wasn’t going around saying ‘Bring all things under my power.’ He loved the chaos for the lack of control. And then, with the band candy: more of same.”

Angel looked annoyed. It was a brow thing. He said, “What is your point?”

Buffy sighed. “Merely suggesting that Chaos isn’t the right angle. They would want more dimensions, not less.”

Fred positively beamed. She looked from Buffy to Angel and back to Buffy. “That’s what I’ve been saying all along. Angel, she is not a ditz!” Fred returned to her white board. “And, hey! What a perfect segue to my dimensional gaps theory.”

Fred replaced her strings with the Victrola vortex diagram. “This,” she explained, “is a dimensional gap, like I mentioned earlier. Somehow The Coven has enough primal power to create these gaps, and when the vortices form, they create more gaps. The ripple effect is very controlled, very ordered. Like it’s for a specific purpose.”

“Collapsing to a something singularity,” Cordelia said. “You said that already.” She gestured down the table at Buffy and Connor. “You want me to take him?”

Buffy waved her off. “Doesn’t sound very Chaos-like,” Buffy said.

“It’s not,” Fred agreed.

“Now wait a minute,” Angel said. “The information from TriadCorp…”

“No one ever said Chaos,” Fred said. “That was…”

“My idea,” Wes interrupted, his syllables neatly snipped with indignation. “But it is based on solid fact. Ethan Rayne has had dealings with The Coven in the recent past, and who but a group Chaos adepts could muster that kind of power?”

“Adepts of Order?” Willow asked.

“Is there such a thing?” Cordy asked.

“It would stand to reason,” Anya said, levelly. “The one wouldn’t exist without the other.”

Tara was scribbling. Willow read it. “Who?” she asked, nodding at Tara. “Who would do this? These gaps, they’re destroying millions of dimensions…”

“Billions,” Fred corrected. “Infinite.”

In the silence that followed, Dawn spoke, her voice faltering and small. “Why would they want to destroy so much?” She turned her deploring eyes to Buffy’s. “Why, Buffy?”

Buffy covered her sister’s hands with her own. “I don’t know, Dawnie,” she said. “But we’re going to find out. It’s why I have to go back.”

“Uh, like Hell,” Angel said plainly.

“I made a promise,” Buffy said.

“Unmake it,” Angel said.

Buffy huffed. “Won’t. Can’t. Besides, you just said that you haven’t heard from Jonathan or Andrew, and that Spike could be in danger, for which I’m partly responsible.” She stroked Connor’s cheek with the backs of her fingers. “I really can’t believe I’m saying this, but… I have to go back to Sunnydale.”

“You can’t go back to Sunnydale…” Angel shouted.

“I am the Slayer,” Buffy said. She gathered Connor in her arms, stood up, and placed him back in the chair. He grappled her binder and began gnawing on the plastic spine as if Fred had soaked the thing in sugar water.

Buffy backed away from the table. Just watching them, she knew they would all side with Angel. He said she couldn’t go back to Sunnydale; they’d do the Apocalypse lock-step to keep her here. For her own good, naturally. It was Angel’s show and Buffy was the guest star, locked in her own protective plastic bubble.

“It was a mistake to come here, to think you could help,” Buffy said. She left the table, but about four paces into what she hoped was a forceful storming off, she felt the room go all swimmy around her. She stumbled a few steps before regaining her balance. Her first thought: tremor. Second, much more distant thought: an actual pregnancy-induced swoon.

When she turned to find everyone watching her pull a mime-against-the-wind act, she guessed it had to be the second thought.

Buffy rushed to explain. “I, um…”

Her eyes rolled back. She saw everyone rush forward in an attempt to catch her. She landed in the arms of a large, rather snazzy green demon who’d just entered behind her.

Buffy turned her grateful eyes up to him. “Lorne!”

“Small… blonde girl!” he answered, as she slipped through his grasp and crumpled to the floor.

 

 

Mr. Giles, on his knees, paid Rachel no mind though he knew she was there. Ethan lay with his face to the stone floor, his arms folded beneath his body, and Rachel thought, irrationally, that it must have been awful to have fallen in such an awkward position. Meanwhile, Mr. Giles searched through Ethan’s pants pockets, turning up scraps of paper, several kinds of coins – pesos, quarters, pence – a creased Polaroid, a paper clip and a pewter pin in the shape of a snake.

Only seconds had passed since the gunshot. Rachel thought she could still hear it ringing in the small room of the abandoned chapel. Mr. Giles still held the gun tightly in one hand while he turned out the dead man’s pockets.

“We’ll have to press on,” Mr. Giles said. He collected the things he’d spilled from Ethan’s pockets. “We must put as much distance between us and Rosal del Virrey as possible. This place is on hallowed ground, but the chances of finding another holy place are…”

Mr. Giles looked around. He found Rachel’s pack, and began to sweep all of the items he’d dumped out of back in, along with Ethan’s belongings.

This propelled Rachel into action. She snatched the pack from Mr. Giles’ hands.

“Don’t,” she snapped, her voice ragged. “Don’t put his things in with mine.”

Mr. Giles sat back on his haunches. He gave the gun in his hand a cursory look before shoving it into his pocket.

“We may need it,” Mr. Giles said. “For protection.”

Rachel stooped to collect the rest of her things. Once she had everything, she returned to the door to wait. She realized that the sharp odor in the room was not just gunpowder, but also blood. Before she could be sick, she forced herself outside, into the humid, over-bright coastal morning.

A handful of heartbeats later, Mr. Giles exited, striking out along the shell sidewalk at a steady pace, no doubt expecting her to blindly follow. When she didn’t, he paused at the corner.

Without looking back, he said, “Once we reach the next town, we’ll put the call into London, tell Andrew about the Parchments and secure a plane home.”

Rachel stared blankly at him.

“Really, Miss Greenspan,” he said. “We should be going.”

“Are we going to leave him there?” she asked.

Mr. Giles took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“It had to be done,” he told her.

Rachel blinked like a sleepwalker waking. “I know that,” she said.

Mr. Giles waited a small moment longer, but turned without a further word, bound again for the jungle, knowing that Rachel would follow.

 

­

Buffy opened her eyes thinking that if this whole fainting thing was going to be a regular occurrence, it would be really inconvenient. From where she lay on the ground, she caught a widescreen view of the Hyperion’s lobby, where Tara and Dawn were trying to distract Connor with a striped purple bouncy ball.

The rest crowded around Buffy. Fred fanned her face with one of the presentation binders. Cordelia and Angel knelt alongside Fred, with Anya, Xander and Willow perched somewhat comically behind them. Only Wesley hung back, but his expression was one of concern rather than unease.

Reluctantly, very reluctantly, Buffy raised her head. She was leaning on what turned out to be Lorne, who was much cushier than she would have guessed, and decided to remain recumbent, at least until such time as everyone backed off.

“Oh my God,” Cordelia whispered. “You’re pregnant. She’s pregnant.”

Buffy stammered.

Xander said, “Oh, don’t be ridiculous.”

“She is,” Cordy said. “We’ve dealt with two mystical pregnancies here. All your weight shifts, your balance is off. And that would explain those tacky, loose-fitting sweats…”

Angel said, “Cordy, ix-nay on the egnancy-pray.” He tossed a nod in Dawn’s direction.

“Right,” Cordelia whispered. “So, which is it, Buffy? Regular or mystical?”

Buffy leveled her eyes on Angel’s first, hoping to convey to him her level of distress at having this conversation in front of so many people. He either didn’t get it, or didn’t care. Possibly both. He simply stared right back.

“Yes,” Buffy said, finally. “I am pregnant. And it’s regular. I think. It’s also why I have to get home. I made a promise to Ariadne and Margot that if they helped Dawn get out of Sunnydale, I would return to help them roust The Coven.”

“Yeah,” Xander said. “I’d say this puts a wrap on your rousting days, Buff.”

“No,” Buffy said. “Not yet. This whole me passing out part was not supposed to happen.”

“But it did,” Wesley said. “Angel…”

“I know, Wes,” Angel said through steel-trap teeth.

No one said anything for a while. The only sound was Connor’s jubilant belly laughs as the rubber ball bounced from him to Tara to Dawn.

“All right,” Angel said at last. “Buffy goes back to Sunnydale.”

“What?” It was Cordelia who shouted it, but everyone else clearly reflected the same sentiment.

Angel sighed. “She goes back,” he said firmly. “But she doesn’t go alone.”

 

 

Rachel Greenspan’s world narrowed to one of primal action – running. For hours uncounted, she saw only the green vines before her just as they were chopped away by the rusted blade Mr. Giles had found before leaving Rosal del Virrey. She felt little else beyond the pressure of his hand clamped over her forearm. She scarcely felt the uneven ground beneath their feet as they fled, nor the insects that buzzed and bit her, nor the serrated reeds that whipped at her limbs and clawed her face.

As evening fell, Mr. Giles led them to a lush valley netted with mist and mosquitoes. He had spoken at times, earlier, but Rachel had not heard him. She found she could not see him; as though his face had been replaced by a bright light unbearable to look upon. Likewise, his words became a white noise, a static of nonexistence.

When they finally came to rest in a cluster of whitewashed buildings, Mr. Giles released her and she cloistered herself into a tiny, ruined cubicle…

And sobbed.

The room was like an upright coffin with only enough space to stand. She gripped the walls with her filthy hands and wept - great rasping sobs that rent her heart.

She closed her eyes and saw him: Ethan Rayne laying face down on the stone, his nose smashed like a tomato, his arms pinned beneath his body. He had died before he could catch himself. He’d died gracelessly, like a drunk who died forgotten in the snow. No one deserved to die that way.

Rachel’s tears abruptly ceased. As she wiped her eyes, she understood. She wasn’t crying for Ethan Rayne, though the sympathy she felt was not misplaced.

She had been glad. She opened the chapel door and saw Ethan on the floor, and felt relief. Relief that it had not been… him: Mr. Giles.

Rachel buried her face in her grimy sleeves and cried anew. The knowledge that she loved him didn’t make matters better, only infinitely more complex.

She would have to tell him, of course. He would have to know everything. Rachel knew that. She just didn’t have a clue where she might begin.

 

 

Giles understood the girl’s need for solitude. Seeing Ethan’s body that way had been traumatic for her. It had to be done, Giles knew. Ethan, for all that he was not, had possessed an astonishing temerity. Ethan would have dogged their heels all the way to London, had Giles not put a definite end to it.

He glanced at the collection of derelict buildings, which might have been a medical station. Night was thickening around them. They had not made the progress for which he had hoped, but the girl was beyond breaking point. He would fend for them as best he could. Perhaps, should they survive the night, with providence, they could reach Natal before the sun could set again.

Giles found the bonnet and axle of a wrecked jeep. He hacked away the brush, swiped an enormous skittering centipede away, and poured their supplies onto the metal surface. They were short on bottled water, shorter on food. They would be pushing their rations if…

His eyes fell on the crinkled photograph he had found in Ethan’s pocket. He’d not looked at it before; there hadn’t been time. But now, in the fading light, he stared in breathless disbelief.

The gritty image in the Polaroid – a young woman looking for all the world like Ingrid Bergman in the closing scenes of Casablanca – was none other than Rachel Greenspan.

 

Chapter Text

Buffy put Dawn to bed. Weird though it was, tucking in her adult sister, Buffy felt relieved that Dawn was at least sleeping trouble-free outside of Sunnydale. In fact, Dawn had weathered the transition well, considering the sudden restoration of her sight and the equally abrupt loss of her steadfast guardian, Spike.

Conversely, Buffy could not find sleep. When she lay down on her back, she felt a prickly sort of pressure on her kidneys, caused, presumably, by the baby’s weight. It wasn’t bothersome, but it kept her awake, and she really, really wanted to sleep.

After an hour she abandoned all attempts at rest. Buffy left Dawn alone in the room they shared, padding along the hall, feeling the threadbare carpet under her toes. Thirty seconds out of her door, Buffy understood that sleep was doing a fine job of evading everyone else in the place. The Hyperion Hotel reminded Buffy of her home in London then with its hive-like buzz of constant activity.

The strong yearn to return home mingled with her reservations at having Team Angel’s help. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate the offer, it was just so very much to ask.

Buffy found Angel’s and Cordy’s room easily enough. It was the one redolent of baby lotion and overflowing with little boy giggles. She paused at the open door to watch them. Cordy was busy getting together Connor’s bath towel and pajamas, chattering non-stop, while Angel knelt at the foot of the bed, puffing Connor’s bare tummy. The baby squealed with laughter, his balled fists jabbing wildly at the air.

Cordelia asked Angel a question – something Buffy couldn’t hear – and he turned to respond. When he did, Connor swung and clocked his Dad in the ear, good and proper. Angel’s head rocked back. He had to put a hand on the floor to steady himself.

“You all right?” Buffy heard Cordy ask.

Angel rubbed his temple. On the bed, Connor continued to wriggle, oblivious.

Angel grinned. “Helluva right hook, my man,” he said, marveling.

Buffy stepped into the room. “I’m thinking apples and trees,” she said.

Angel and Cordelia stood quickly. The cheerful family moment broke like a bubble. It saddened Buffy to see it happen on account of her. She used that to strengthen her resolve.

“Angel, may I have a word?”

He and Cordelia exchanged a knowing look that seemed devoid of smug. He stood (a little shakily, Buffy noticed) and crossed the room. He met her at the threshold and lingered without crossing into the hallway.

Buffy started to speak, but became mesmerized by the act of Cordelia playing with Angel’s son. Cordy’s son, Buffy corrected mentally. Cordy was the only mother Connor knew in this version of things. They looked good together. They looked like a family. Which was why…

“I don’t think you should go,” Buffy said.

Angel folded his arms over his chest and leaned against the door jamb. “It’s already been decided,” he said.

Buffy grimaced. Her intestines tangled. She plowed on. “Much as I appreciate you all swooping in, playing the part of the cavalry, and when they say chivalry is dead – you won’t hear me – but truly, really, I’ve got this one.”

Angel considered briefly, but shook his head. “No. No. And no,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for this a long time and my guys…”

“Your guys?” Buffy asked.

“That’s right.”

Buffy pouted. “I had them first.”

“Buffy.”

She backed away, arms swinging restlessly. “Angel, take a look around, will you? You have a good thing here.”

Angel moved into the hallway, pulling the door almost closed behind him.

“I know that,” he said. He paced the hall a few steps, hands on his hips. “No one – least of all you – needs to tell me how good it is, because I know. I know . I fight down Angelus on a daily basis, Buffy, because I have never been this close to perfect happiness…”

Buffy cut her eyes at him.

“Well just that once, but here, it’s…”

“Daily?” Buffy asked.

“Yeah,” Angel said. He stopped pacing. “Point is: I’m winning.”

Buffy folded her arms across her chest. “So don’t do this,” she said. “Stay here. Raise fat, handsome babies and man the second front in case I don’t make it.”

Her head swam as she heard the words ringing so familiar in her ears. Not much with the damseling , she’d said. I need a second front, and I need you to run it.

Angel had responded by leaving.

Buffy stalked away from him, to the end of the hallway. The window, with its floor-length crème colored damask curtains, looked out over an empty alley. She stood in the lacy light of the streetlamp, trying to soothe herself, to regain her composure, to remember why she was telling Angel that he needed to stay and let her return to Sunnydale on her own.

Angel joined her. “You won’t make it, Buffy,” he said quietly.

“Think I can’t take on a bunch of little witches, Angel?” she asked, not feeling the bravura she heard projected in her tone. “I’m a Slayer. It’s what I do.”

Angel pressed his lips into a thin line. “Okay. What’s your plan?”

“I go in,” she said. “And I kill them.”

“It’s not that simple. They have something…”

“Like a weapon?”

“Or worse.”

“You mean you don’t know?” she asked.

“We only know that The Coven has something of great power at their disposal, to make this sort of dimensional squishing,” he said.

“Squishing?” Buffy asked, doubtfully.

“Fred’s term,” he said. “Besides, we do have some semblance of a plan, and it’s more than, ‘go in and kill’. We even have maps and schematics of The Coven’s lair.”

“Schematics?” Buffy snorted. “Step back! You’ve got a crack team of cartographers.”

“Lay off it, will ya?” Angel said gruffly. “The set up here: it’s good. I know it. We all do. Which is all the more reason we are going in.”

“But…”

Angel steamrolled over her. “We have been waiting, Buffy. Biding time. Building strength. You may have forced our hand, but we’re ready. We’ve just been looking for a sign to fight.”

Buffy wheeled away from him, her face burning. She could hit him, and thought that was probably not the best action to take. When she turned back, Angel was right behind her, staring hard into her upturned face.

He traced a finger down the twisted white scar that ran the length of her face. “What did this?” he asked.

Buffy dropped her eyes.

What kind of evil has us fighting its war with the blood of our children? She had asked .

Don’t be naïve, Buffy. That’s how all wars are fought…

She closed her eyes. “You did,” she said.

She felt him step away. After a moment, he asked, “And the baby?”

Buffy opened her eyes. Outside, a dust-colored cat streaked noiselessly across the alley. Down the hall, Connor was trilling a high-pitched, warbly noise. She heard muffled conversations behind closed doors nearby, and in the lobby, Lorne was singing a kicky rendition of “It’s Not Unusual.”

She smiled. Once again, the skewed sense of familiarity assailed her. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she said.

“Try me,” Angel said.

The door to Angel’s suite opened, halting their conversation. The volume of Connor’s gleeful shrieks increased momentarily as Cordy stepped into the hall. She came toward them, looking slightly harried.

“Connor’s had his bath. He’s ready for Daddy to rock him,” Cordelia explained quickly. “And I’m not pulling another all-nighter, mister. I already look like I can store the contents of a Fendi handbag under each eye.”

“My shift,” Angel said, turning to go.

“Here,” Cordy said. She thrust a pillow-like package at Buffy. It was wrapped up in jewel-toned tissue paper tied with a strip of gold ribbon.

“I… but,” Buffy sputtered. Angel seemed equally surprised.

Cordelia heaved a belabored sigh. “I was pregnant once,” she said. “It didn’t last, but I had this, and thought it would be of more use to you.” Cordelia looped her arm with Angel’s and pulled him in the direction of their room. They disappeared behind the door, leaving Buffy alone in the hall.

Curiosity compelled her to open the package on the spot. As she pulled the paper wrapping apart, the velvety material poured out like a silken waterfall. Buffy drew it between her fingers, letting the tissue float to the ground. It was a robe of deep sapphire, its sleek surface embossed with a leafy pattern.

It was exquisite and elegant and much better than the clothing so generously donated by Dr. Kriegel, for which Buffy had been extremely grateful.

She clutched the robe to her chest, breathing in its softness. She understood, then, that she was in no position to refuse what they offered. Not when she needed so much.

Buffy returned to her room, where Dawn still slept in one of the room’s two full-sized beds. Buffy peeled off her shabby drawstring pants, her ill-fitting underpants, and her t-shirt. She drew on the slippery sleeves, savoring the cool texture of the fabric against her skin. She cocooned the robe around her body and lay flat on her bed. Her belly curved, round as a melon, beneath her fingers.

Buffy realized that for the first time in a long while, she felt safe. She was calm. And she felt comforted. She found herself daring to hope. She had no answers or guarantees; just assurances, and the assurances of familiar friends had proved worthy in the past.

She was not alone. Even here, not alone.

And that felt really good.

 

 

Mr. Giles built a small fire behind the shell of a military Jeep and sat waiting on a bare wheel well, stirring the embers with the end of a long, charred stick. Rachel joined him, puffy-eyed and weary, and for a long while, the pair sat watching the erratic flames.

Finally, Mr. Giles raised his spectacled eyes to hers. “How long did you know Ethan Rayne?” he asked.

Rachel tucked her frizzled hair behind her ears. “I never met him before yesterday,” she answered, her voice hoarse.

Mr. Giles felt around the inside of his mouth with his tongue. “Never?” he asked.

She gave a dispassionate nod, and returned her attention to the fire. Their world had shrunken to the circle of flickering yellow light, bordered by fathomless dark beyond.

“Yet you reacted so strongly to his death,” he said.

Rachel blinked as if waking. “Because you killed him.”

“Miss Greenspan, you have been quite out of sorts. And your reluctance to leave his body in Rosal del Virrey. You expect me to believe you did not know him?”

“Out of sorts,” she repeated. “Yes.”

“In the Tombs of Satu, you played your part so completely,” he said, coolly. “The information in that contraption of yours must have come from him. He passed it along, hoping that with my assistance, you could find what he did not. And here we are, two children in the wilderness, lost…”

Rachel gaped at him, as if she’d not heard him until now. “What are you talking about?”

Her life is not her own ?” Mr. Giles said. “You have played me from the start. Neither of you knew where to find those parchments and so led us on this less than merry chase.”

Rachel stood abruptly. “I’m afraid you are mistaken,” she said. Her racing pulse made her voice tremble, her tone reedy.

“Am I?” Mr. Giles said. He was maddeningly composed.

“Entirely,” Rachel said through clenched teeth.

“Care to explain this, Miss Greenspan?” Giles asked. He passed the picture to her. She passed it back.

“Really, Rupert. I’m surprised at you. Did you even bother looking at that picture?”

Giles stared at the young woman before him, trying to settle out what it was about her that he found so troubling. Stripped of her lacquered Boston veneer, Rachel Greenspan seemed little more than a slim girl in impractical shoes. When she had borne up to the challenge of their jungle trek, he felt that he had underestimated her training in the Watcher’s ways.

However, upon seeing her in the photograph he’d plucked from Ethan’s pocket, Giles had begun to doubt that Rachel Greenspan had such connections at all. He had recalled Gwendolyn Post – a rogue Watcher intent on securing dark power for her own ends – and placed Miss Greenspan alongside Ethan as a woman of alternate ambitions.

Giles took a moment more to study the lone image in the photograph. The picture was grainy, taken in poor light, but the resemblance was unmistakable: the same pointed chin, same trim build, and the disapproving glint to her eyes – identical.

But they were not the same. All at once, Giles understood. Icy comprehension flooded his veins. He gripped the picture between his tremulous hands, as Rachel began to speak.

“Of course, I know all about you, Mr. Giles,” she explained, in a practiced, scholarly tone. “I studied the family’s chronicles with rapt eagerness for every small mention of the celebrated Rupert Giles. I traveled twice as an adolescent to London with my uncle Piers, where with guileless enthusiasm I pored over countless volumes in the Watcher’s archives with the sole purpose of gleaning the every last morsel of information about you…”

“Miss Greenspan,” Giles whispered. She continued as if she had not heard him.

“Imagine my disconsolation at reading that the regard you held for your Slayer was more like that of a daughter,” she said, her voice fracturing on the final word. “The woman in the photograph is not me,” Rachel went on. “It’s my…”

“Mother,” Giles finished. “Dear lord. Muriel Snow was your mother.”

Rachel narrowed her eyes. “Yes.”

Giles folded the photograph into his hands. “No wonder you hate me so,” he whispered.

Rachel uttered a short laugh. “Hate you? No,” she said. “How could I? Surely I could not regard with such strong emotion the man whose inattention left my mother a ruined, loveless husk…”

“Miss Greenspan,” Giles uttered. “Rachel. I can explain.”

“You destroyed her. She died because of you.”

Giles lowered his head. “I’m wrong. I can’t explain it.”

Rachel stared down at him. “So that’s it, then?” she challenged. “That is all you have to say?”

He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again, knowing that nothing he offered could make anything any better.

“You!” Rachel shouted. She rounded the fire and snatched the picture from his hands. “You were supposed to be this legendary thing: A man of extraordinary character and cleverness. But you are none of those things.” Her face crumpled with beneath the burden of her disappointment. “You’re just… a man.”

Rupert Giles rested his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands loosely, as though he didn’t know what to do with them.

“I never knew what happened to her,” he muttered, his words almost lost to the crackling of the fire.

Giles peered into her scornful face. In a flash, he saw that it was his features in Rachel that had leavened her mother’s dark looks – his high forehead, his sandy hair, his green eyes. These were the features in her which he had found so irksomely familiar.

“I never knew about you, either,” he said. “Though I can’t say that I had known things would have been different…”

Rachel knelt opposite him. She picked up a stick and stabbed at the embers, sending sparks into the murky canopy. “Well, then,” she said. “Let’s just leave it at that. Shall we?”

Giles nodded. It was not over. They both had questions; neither had the strength to ask them.

After a while, Rachel curled up on the ground to sleep, but Giles could not. The ghosts of his past had pursued him, as relentless as the demons that plagued the Hellmouth at Rosal del Virrey, but this time had taken on a most unexpected form. It was more than regret that bore into him, than in his pursuit to find Buffy, Rachel found him.

Rachel Greenspan. His daughter.

 

 

Three days passed. Three days of mind-numbingly pointless research, of waiting on lab results, of failed and rather stinky waking potions that rendered the kitchen inaccessible for hours at a stretch. Three days of resisting – and succeeding against – the urge to draw. Three days of reading Frost and Blake and Yeats to Spike, in hopes that poetry would be the miracle cure to rouse him.

In three days, they had received neither word nor warning from Lorne about the Sulskquelawtna-majigs. As Dawn saw it, this was a good thing. The only event worth mention was that the school in Tokyo had been burned to its base by some sort of destroyer demon, and that their Watcher had been killed. Robson dispatched a new Watcher and a fresh group of Slayers to re-establish control there.

Three days passed since she and Andrew had begun to share a bed. So far, they slept side by side, innocent as sister and brother, and that, for its part, was a comfort. So far, too, Maya and Xander had been too wrapped up in life, work and each other to notice the sleeping arrangements. Not that Dawn was complaining.

But she was mighty frustrated. For three days, she and Andrew would wake and sneak about all morning, behaving like shy, sweet children. It was time to put a stop to that. Three days, Dawn figured, was long enough.

On the evening of the third night, Dawn entered the bedroom to find Andrew already there, busy with hanging up his clothes. He was near-religious with his laundry. For him, a wild kick was doing an extra load of towels on a Wednesday night. She shut the door behind her, twisting the lock on the knob with a deliberate click.

“Hey, Dawn,” Andrew said. She couldn’t believe it; he was blushing. Little scamp. “I left a fresh towel in the bathroom for you, in case you wanted to…” he said absently. He continued to try to thread his suit pants onto the hanger, but clearly his concentration was shot.

“Condoms,” Dawn said. “You have some?”

Andrew's hand jerked. He dropped his freshly-pressed pinstripe slacks on the floor. “What?”

She raked her hands through her hair. “Do you have some?”

Andrew performed the necessary mental calculation, then said, “I have three.”

Dawn crawled across the bed, sending his carefully tended laundry all willy-nilly, kissed him fiercely and broke away. “Good,” she said, pulling him down with her. “You’re gonna need them.”

 

Chapter Text

It's these little things, they can pull you under.

Live your life filled with joy and wonder.
I always knew this altogether thunder
was lost in our little lives.

Sweetness Follows, REM

 

Maya made the perfect pot of coffee. Not too strong. Not too weak. The best part was she knew how to make exactly four cups so that they could split the pot between them without wasting one… single… drop.

Xander liked that in a woman: generous, yet efficient. And he really liked her. From her perfectly perked pot of java to her perky… personality, he liked everything about sweet little Maya.

Except for this one miniscule thing. It was, in fact, so small it was barely worth mentioning.

Xander drained his coffee mug thinking how grateful he should be to have such an amazing – not to mention non-evil – woman willing to share his bed and points beyond. Furthermore, she had bid farewell to a family with whom she had been parted for five years so that she could return with him to London where (almighty Zeus knew) Andrew and Dawn desperately needed adult supervision.

It was just… No. It was nothing. Less than nothing. Even less than less…

Xander got to his feet and left his suite when he heard Maya open the hallway bathroom door. He took that as his cue to join her for his second cup of coffee. At present, Maya insisted on sleeping in the fold-a-bed in the seldom-used parlor. She took her showers in the spare downstairs bathroom rather than using his, even though their relationship was fully consummated.

That was okay, he figured. She needed to keep her independence, which was all well and good, but they did technically share the same address...

However, when Xander saw her standing in the tiled hallway, her pale skin scrubbed shell-pink and her blonde curls clinging damply to her scalp, all of Xander’s thoughts melted and ran like chalk drawings in the rain. She wore a sunny yellow robe over her gown and a pair of careworn fleece slippers, but still she shivered slightly in the drafty hall.

“One thing I never got used to,” she said, apologetically. “English winters.”

Xander pulled her into a quick embrace. Her hair smelled of candied cherries. “We can fix that,” he whispered, nipping at the delicate whorl of her ear.

“Xander!” she said, batting at him playfully.

He steered her toward the kitchen. “I meant with coffee. I saved you some,” he said.

She wrinkled her nose, smiling. “Thank you,” she said. “And you? You’ve had enough to brave the London cold?”

“Oh, aye,” Xander said, tipping a salute. “My furnace is fully stoked.”

Maya reddened. “Mighty pleased to hear it, Captain,” she said.

They entered the kitchen making googly eyes at one another. At first, they didn’t see Andrew there, his soaking hair trickling down his forehead, his arms, and the back of his WizardCon T-shirt. Said shirt clung wetly to his body.

Upon their entry, Andrew spun around, banging the cabinets closed. Maya noticed though Xander did not, that Andrew had something concealed behind his back.

“Hey, guys! How goes the research?” Andrew said, breathless and overloud.

Ignoring his question, Xander glared. “There’s this thing called a towel,” he said. “Look into it.”

Andrew, his eyes darting to the doorway, answered, “Thanks, Xander. I’ll do that.”

Xander cut him off with a wave. As he poured a cup of coffee he said, “You seen Dawn?”

Andrew shrank against the cabinet. “No?”

“Well if you do,” Xander went on, passing the cup to Maya, “tell her Robson called. He said something about an Australian conjuration charm...”

“Oh that,” he said, with a patent Andrew nod-and-squint. “It’s didgeri-done.”

Maya laughed. Xander merely sneered. “And?”

“Ineffectual against Succubus venom,” Andrew said, talking in rapid staccato. “My disappointment is twofold: A) my nifty and rather complicated Aboriginal charm failed to do its waking, and B) that our guys at the lab matched the poison and bite marks of Spike’s wound with that of an Eastern European Succubus, one of a rare and powerful clan who prey particularly on nobility and clergymen. In fact, it’s miraculous that Spike survived; the venom from a Succubus bite is unequivocally fatal.”

Xander’s eyes had glazed. “Uh-huh,” he said, snidely. “Well, we gotta find something effectual, and soon. Sleeping Ugly’s really giving me the creeps.”

“Okay, I’ll let Dawn know Mr. Robson called…” Andrew said off-handedly, trying to squeeze past Xander like a cat squirming free from the clutches of a veterinarian.

Maya peeked around Andrew’s sopping shoulders. “You have honey?” she asked, her voice light.

Andrew looked uncomfortable. “I have… tea? Brewing?”

Maya tilted her head.

Andrew tossed his drenched hair from his face. “Upstairs. And also… a file download. Very sensitive. Pertinent. Well, bye!”

And with that, Andrew disappeared.

“Fuh-reak!” Xander shouted. He poured his second cup of coffee and returned his attention to Maya.

Maya shrugged. “I think he’s cute.”

Xander’s eyes narrowed. “I’m ruffled by that,” he said.

“Not as cute as you, of course,” she said. She went to the refrigerator, took out the non-fat creamer and poured a dollop of it into her cup.

“Bad enough I have to occasionally carpool with the guy, now I have to keep an eye on my girl,” Xander said.

“Oh p’shaw! It’s not like that.”

Xander arched his brows. “Good, ’cause it’s not like I’m running with a spare…”

Maya tapped Xander’s chin with her spoon. “Besides,” she said, “I think he has other interests.” She scooted onto the barstool and began spooning ample heaps of sugar into her cup, so that the finished product looked more like butterscotch pudding than coffee.

Xander gave a brusque nod. “I always got that vibe from him, too,” he said. He sipped his coffee, then peering into her cup, asked, “How do you drink it like that?”

“It’s sweet,” she said, her lashes aflutter. “Just like I like it.”

“My thoughts precisely,” Xander said, leaning in for a kiss. Maya’s lips met his, and they shared an unblemished moment of bliss.

Xander was the one to break away. He drained his cup, straightened his tie and his eye-patch, and said, “Well, I’m off to the BDG.”

Maya made a question mark with her brows.

“Big Daily Grind,” he explained. “Lunch?”

Maya nodded. “Gotcha. I’ll be here, potioning away,” she said. “I think we may have something.”

“Oh?”

Pointing to her stack of potion books piled near the pantry, she said, “I’ve found what appears to be an anti-sleeping draft used by monks during the Crusades. Dawn’s been working on the translation, and we think it might work. Or, it could turn him into a marmoset.”

“Spike the Marmoset,” Xander rubbed chin. “The idea has merit.”

“Xander, stop!”

“Right. Stopping,” he said. He kissed the tip of her nose. “I’ll see you at lunchtime and not a minute past.”

Maya held her breath until she heard Xander leave through the front door, and then she sighed.

Xander, she knew, was a good guy, but there was something about him she just didn’t understand. It was a little thing – one puny pixel out of place in the big picture that was their relationship, so it hardly bore the mentioning, but…

It was just… No. It was nothing.

Maya heard a bump upstairs, followed by a trill of muffled giggles, and she smiled.

It was really nothing at all.

 

 

Dawn could only describe it in the terms of what it was not.

It was not frightening. It was not frenzied. It was not guarded, or lewd, or false. Nor was it rough. Certainly not in the way Buffy had hastily intimated in their few uneasy, sterile talks about it. It was not dirty or unpleasant, and thanks to the heavens for that.

Dawn lay on her back in Andrew’s bed, feeling daring and naked and still damp from their morning shower. As luck had it, Andrew was quite earth-conscious and argued that they should always take showers together when they could. You know, in the spirit of conservation. Who was she to disagree?

She laughed at the memory, stretching her long legs like a cat beneath the crisp sheets. The room still smelled of her honeysuckle shampoo and his plain Ivory soap. Outside a glaze of ice formed over the edges of puddles and around gutter-drains. Inside, though, it felt like a greenhouse in July – all languid and sultry – and Dawn wanted nothing more than to spend the whole day in bed.

With Andrew, she could not imagine how truly horrified she had been of the act of sex. A week and a day had passed since their first endearingly awkward time together when she had finally worked up the moxie to pounce on him, but it seemed much longer, and the memories of Augie and Brodie and the others who’d touched her had faded like old photographs in her mind.

On that first night, when Andrew lay at last beside her, she turned to him and whispered fervently, “So that’s what all the fuss is about!”

Since that night, they carved out every spare moment their schedule afforded them to be together. They scarcely had time to be afraid or worried or upset over anything, with their days so full of research, of Watcher’s Council-ing, of Spike-sitting, of Maya and Xander evading, and sex. Lots and lots of sex.

Dawn closed her eyes. She trailed a hand experimentally over the smooth oval of her stomach, imagining it was his dabbling caresses, and she felt herself blooming with color at the thought.

At that moment, Andrew burst into the room, slamming the door shut behind him.

Dawn sat up, the sheet falling away from her body.

“Did you get it?”

He passed the Honey Bear to her. “Mission accomplished,” he said. He stripped off his drippy T-shirt and knelt beside her on the bed.

Dawn toyed with the bear, walking it down her long torso to her belly button. “Okay,” she purred. “Now what do we do with it?”

Andrew licked his lips. “Blindfold him, probably. He’s way too young to witness what we’re about to do.”

Dawn rustled through her things on his bedside table, and, finding one of her hair scrunchies, looped it twice over the Honey Bear’s eyes. “There,” she said, tapping the cap. “All better?”

“All better,” Andrew said, nodding. Droplets of cool water rained down on her, sending chills across her creamy skin. She arched her back, and Andrew’s eyes bulged in his head.

Mia tesora ,” he whispered, tracing the paths of the drops over the lines of her ribs and the curve of her breasts, making her body tense and writhe deliciously beneath the weightless touch of his fingers. “ Mia fresca .”

Dawn’s forehead creased. “My fish?”

“No!” Andrew said, laughing. “My peach.”

“Right,” Dawn said. She curled toward him, stretching her arms over her head. She delighted as the desired acknowledgment flickered across his face. “Really, though,” she said, running her hand up the inside of his thigh. “What do we do with honey?”

“Uhhhh,” Andrew droned. “So many things. Many, many, many, many things,” he whispered.

“Tell me,” Dawn said. She tucked her hand into the waistband of his pajama pants and tugged them. “You’re the Jack of Sexual Experience. I’m the Queen of None.” She pursed her lips in a pout. “Almost none.”

Andrew flicked the Honey Bear’s cap open and coaxed her to squeeze a drop of honey onto his finger. He smoothed it onto her lips and then kissed her.

It was a long, deep, enveloping kiss, and she wrapped him in her arms, drawing him down into it until he warmed her body with his own. Timeless moments later, he ended the kiss, giving them time to savor the lingering sweetness.

Sweetness.

That was it – the word she sought. What she had with him; it was sweetness. Together, they were sweet, simple, pure, uncomplicated.

Dawn ran her tongue over her lips, knowing well that he loved the shape and fullness of them. He bent to kiss her again, but she pressed the palm of her hand to his chest to stop him.

“Do you feel guilty at all that we’re supposed to be hard at work this very moment, looking for ways to find my sister and wake Spike so that we can stop the fast-approaching Apocalypse?” she asked.

Andrew paused for a fraction of a second. “We are hard at work,” he said, “This helps us think.”

Dawn breathed a relieved sigh. “Good answer,” she said, twining her legs with his and wrapping them both into the mellifluous warmth of Andrew’s narrow bed.

As for the Honey Bear, Dawn found plenty of use for him, though most of it came as quite the surprise to all participating parties. It was sufficient to say that from that moment onward, neither Dawn nor Andrew could look at a Honey Bear with a straight face ever again.

 

Chapter Text

Dark angels follow me
Over the godless sea
Mountains of endless falling
For all my days remaining


Why should I cry for you? by Sting

Thellian, dressed in a cream-colored suit and a shirt of aubergine, stood on the tarmac, a balmy Pacific breeze against his face. The horizon slowly swallowed the last quarter of the ruby red sun. The broad expanse of the harbor burned from fire to ash as the dwindling rays drew another day to a close.

He pressed his fingertips together, making a church of his hands. Behind him, he heard his girls disembarking from the plane, grateful for the chance to stretch their long legs after so many hours in flight. With his sensitive vampire ears, he could pick out the thread of their conversation. Willow still teased Faith about her lack of geographical knowledge. Faith had long lost her sense of humor about it, but dammed her temper behind a wall of mulish resolve. Willow and Faith were endlessly debating, the red-head and the brunette. It made him smile.

That lone characteristic set them apart from his other girls – the ones previous, the ones he knew he had to forget if he would continue to survive.

The night before he had dined with Willow and Faith in the close confines of the plane, the two sleeping captives beneath them in the cargo hold. Thellian had observed them with his intent watchfulness. He breathed in Willow’s conflicted attraction to Faith, bittersweet, like dark chocolate or strong coffee leavened with sugar. He likewise sensed Faith’s wary reserve.

So different they were. Thellian found Willow to be a ready adherent, almost eager to have someone to direct her actions. Faith, however, needed no one to guide her. It was reason that persuaded her to his side of things, but she remained – thus far – unattached.

As the sun sank, the scent of the air changed as it always did. Nearly a million nights he had seen come in this fashion, but for Thellian it never lost its splendor. The wind carried with it the scents of green bananas and hibiscus leaves. He breathed in, savoring the salt of the ocean beyond. Stretching further, he could smell the petrol of a shrimp boat anchored off shore, the sweat-and-stale-saki of the sailors aboard. He could even know that the fishermen on that vessel had captured a woman, had tortured and raped her, but that she carried a wasting disease which she had transmitted to all those who had misused her. Even now the pestilence worked in their blood to undo them all.

That was the frailty and beauty of humankind. Death prowled in its black malignancy at every door, but rarely did they see it.

Willow crossed the tarmac, the heat of the asphalt baking her bare calves. She bore him no fear, no reservation. She, like Morna before her, was his. Willow came to stand behind him. She waited for him to acknowledge her before moving to his side.

After a moment, she said, “The sun didn’t make you go poof.”

He gave a small smile. “It did not,” he said, turning toward her. “Like your friend Angel, what I strive for most, I will become.”

“Human?” she guessed, shrugging.

“Nearly,” he said. “The restraints. They are holding?”

Willow clasped her hands in front of her. He felt the hum of her agitation. “I had to zap Connor again after we landed. I’m afraid it’s turning his brain to a mushy, cottage cheese-like substance.”

“He will recover,” Thellian said.

She shrugged again. “I’ve never had to use so much Magics on one person before. What if I…?”

Thellian placed a cool hand on her shoulder. He felt the warmth of her blood rise under his touch. “You are doing only what you must. Once we land in London, we can release him and then perhaps Miss Summers and Mr. Giles can persuade him to join our side against Luxe.”

Willow took a deep breath, trying to steady her thudding heart. She twirled the silver pendant star at her neck between her fingers. “Maybe if I release him now? I could restrain him physically, and then we could, you know, talk some sense into him? I’m sure once I explain who was behind The Looking Glass, he’ll…”

Thellian brushed the backs of his fingers over the curve of Willow’s cheek, silencing her. Then he smoothed her hair behind her ear. Once again, the warmth bloomed in her, turning her skin the color of rosebuds.

“You are not invulnerable, Willow,” he whispered. “Should anything happen to you…”

Thellian heard Faith approaching, her boots tromping heavily against black paved tarmac. She halted several paces away.

“Hey,” Faith said roughly. “Pilot says the plane’s refueled. Let’s clear off this rock.”

Willow bowed her head. Thellian felt the tension stretched taut as wire between his girls, and knew it would not be long before the one could no longer resist the other. When they succumbed, he would have them both where he needed them to be.

Thellian lowered his hand. Willow raised her fingers to the place where he’d touched her.

“Very good,” Thellian said, catching Faith’s eyes and deliberately holding her gaze.

Faith stared hard into his eyes, unrelenting. Her strength was magnificent, but he could feel her drawing toward him. Even her. Curiosity would win out, every time. He had built empires upon that one simple truth.

Humans, Thellian thought. Gods, how he loved them.

 

 

Sometimes I see your face
The stars seem to lose their place
Why must I think of you?
Why must I?
Why should I?

Why should I cry for you?
Why would you want me to?

 

Why Should I Cry For You? by Sting

Darkness enfolded William once more, but after a time, the dim outlines of morning painted itself into the creases of the speckled kitchen tile. He rolled to his side, conscious of a numbing ache in his left arm and an iciness in the back of his neck. As he sat up, his head pounding, he noticed the red-brown stains on the floor between the breakfast bar and the kitchen sink.

“This is where Buffy cut her hand,” he mumbled. He felt disoriented. “This is where it all began. Right here.”

William crawled to the edge of the pool of blood. It had crusted to black around its rim and looked more like horror movie blood than the real thing. He found that oddly comforting. He peered down into the pool, at his own bloody reflection. His hair, silver white in the morning dimness, made him seem old and drawn. He watched in the reflection as a set of fingers sporting black-tipped fingernails roughly tousled his curls.

He leapt to his feet, his heart hammering in his ears.

She was in the hallway again, this time in a luminous chemise of white lace.

“Pretty Spoike,” she said, teasingly. “You have seen better days and noights.”

He sighed wearily. “Not you again.”

She pouted. “I’m the one what brought you life, delivered you, made you mine,” she said, swaying like a corpse on a gallows. “They’ve taken my darling dolly away. Poor Spoike has been unmade.”

He walked toward her. “You’re a ghost, you are. A shadow.”

Drusilla disappeared into the shadows of the dining room beyond the entry hall. The room elongated and deepened until she seemed nothing but a small child in a vast emptiness. She danced with exaggerated grace, her movements like that of an intricate marionette. William felt compelled to follow her.

She vanished momentarily, winking out of sight like a guttering candle flame. When she reappeared, she was right beside him.

William stumbled away from her, and she laughed.

“The Hanged Man you are now. Unwrought,” she whispered, rolling her head far to one side. “What’s a word means upside down?”

“Reversed,” he muttered.

“The Sevens gave you seed but never meant you to spend it,” Drusilla said. She spun in pirouette, arms stretched high above her.

“The baby, you mean,” he said.

“Shhhhhh,” she hissed, whirling away from him. Shadows cloaked her, and she was distant again.

William rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. He was tired of this. Tired of wandering, tired of feeling lost, when he wasn’t lost, he was in his own house. It was Buffy. Buffy was the one who was lost!

He heard Drusilla’s laughter again, winding its way to his ears from a long way off. She sang, “You see hoops and think they’re yours for jumping, but the Heirophant knows his hawks from hounds…”

William shouted. Only then did he get the true scope and depth of the cavernous room in which he stood. His voice rumbled and echoed down numberless corridors. He pressed his fists to his temples.

“You know, I hate it when you talk this way,” he growled, picking a direction at random and stalking into it. “You’re dead – it’s time you made some bloody sense!”

She materialized again before him. This time her eyes glinted scarlet, and her black curls furled over her bare shoulders like dozens of twisting asps.

“The child will one day lead to her death – and yours as well, my sweet prince, my lovely Spoike,” said Drusilla.

“Rubbish! All of it.”

She whimpered and twitched her skirt with her black-tipped nails. “All blind, all gone… ooooooh…”

William grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “What do you want from me? Are you just a spook come to torture and haunt? ’Cause if you are, I think I can manage well enough on my own…”

Drusilla’s grin spread across her face, revealing a pair of ice-gray fangs beneath her fierce red lips. He remembered something and recoiled, but she snared his wrists. A black forked tongue flicked out of her mouth, tickling his chin.

“I’m the Black Queen come to warn of the dawning storm,” she said, her voice doubling with Drusilla’s as her form shifted and reshaped in his hands. “I’m the wriggling twisting fingers I your brain, making dirty gray streaks of your sanity. I’m the one who put you here, and here you stay, pathetic and weak…”

William struggled to break free of her talons. Her face twisted, no longer Dru’s, no longer human. It was her, the Beastie…

He shoved clear of her.

“No,” he said through clenched teeth. “Not you. Not again.”

The Succubus moved toward him on prancing goat legs, moving with the same stilted grace that had dictated Drusilla’s marionette movements, and William understood. It was never Dru.

And it was never the Succubus bitch, either.

It was him.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” he muttered to himself.

“You’ll never escape my clutches. You’re utterly useless, worthless… insignificant,” she said, weaving between patches of light and dark.

William rolled his eyes. “Oh, shut up!” he said.

He turned heel and left her. She continued to wail and scream, but soon she was nothing more than the fruitless echoes of a dejected specter.

Soon he found his way to the entry hall once more. Like before, it was lit with the half light of morning, as if no time had passed.

“Because it hasn’t,” William said. “It’s a dream. Only a dream.”

He looked up the hall and down. To his right was the front door. On his left and further down the hall were the back door and the garden beyond.

A flood of memories assailed him.

Her hand in his, she’d said, Whatever happens. Whatever is coming. We survive. We make it through, okay? We get to see the end .

William closed his eyes. He swallowed. His throat felt like it was filled with sand.

“We make it through,” he said. He opened his eyes and strode to the back door. Flinging it open, he stepped outside into the empty garden. The plants had grown wild and tall, making him and the Flat seem Lilliputian by comparison. But he was lucid now in his dream and could cope with enormous flowers far better than spectral Succubi? Succubusses? Bitches with goat legs…

Starlight picked out the stone path before him. William smiled. He had no choice but to follow.

 

Chapter Text

Mid-morning, Dawn stood at the bar in the kitchen, eating cold lentils from a plastic bowl and flipping idly through a collection of New Age restorative potions Maya had printed from the Internet. There was nothing here; both girls knew it. Still, Maya felt more productive if they exhausted every possible avenue, and every last drop of the printer’s ink.

Dawn was debating another session of poetry recitation for Spike – this time Percy Bysshe Shelley – when Andrew tottered into the kitchen with an enormous black book in his arms. Literally, it was so big Andrew looked like a cartoon figure trying to carry an anvil.

Dawn laughed.

“What is that ?” she asked as he let it drop to the bar with a dull thud.

Andrew puffed to catch his breath, and then grinned like a feline. He swiped a layer of dust from the cover to reveal the bold black letters branded into the leather cover.

Black Magick ,” she stated doubtfully. “Not exactly original, are they?”

Andrew, choking on the dust he’d unsettled from the cover, coughed into his hand. “It’s Voodoo,” he said, once he could speak. “I nicked it from the Council Library.”

Dawn arched her brows. “Since it’s Voodoo, shouldn’t it say Le Black Magick ?”

He joined her at the bar, turning the book to face them. “According to this book, there’s more to Voodoo than zombies and karmic pincushions,” he said. “Turns out, there’s sex involved.”

“Is that right?” she said, oddly intrigued.

“And I thought, since we’re involved,” he dropped his voice to a conspiratorial hush, “…sexually… We could try this. To revive Spike.”

Andrew parted the book to a pre-marked page and pushed it toward Dawn. She studied the dense lettering that read much like a recipe. Her eyes drifted to the woodcut engravings which depicted, in vivid detail, the various physical aspects of the ritual.

“Illustrations,” she said, feeling her face burn. “How… considerate of them.”

Andrew rushed to explain. “It’s a ritual used to wake people under the Vodoun sleeping hex.”

Dawn traced her finger over the first illustration. “Spike’s not under a Vodoun sleeping hex,” she pointed out.

“Right you are. But the principle is the same. See, this ritual helps the caster channel mystical energies to wake the hexed, thereby breaking the curse,” he said.

Dawn studied the series of images, which were X-rated at the very least. The woman in the illustrations – drawn in bold, curvaceous lines – seemed to have beaucoup power and control. Dawn felt at once intrigued and repelled. She had done things with Andrew she never imagined herself doing, not ever, but…

“Maybe,” Dawn muttered.

“I thought we could get a room, you know, in a hotel, so we could make all the noise we wanted,” he whispered. His eyes sparkled, alight with mischief.

Dawn bit her lips. “This spell now sounds suspiciously like a date.”

“Maybe... both,” he said.

Dawn hesitated. “Worth a shot…” she began.

“Great!” Andrew said. He slipped two sheets of folded parchment from his pocket and passed one of them to her. “This is our supply list. I divided it up for simplicity’s sake. We’ll meet back at The Stafford Hotel at 7 p.m. The room’s listed under Wells.”

Dawn gaped at him. He responded with a look of grand satisfaction.

Secretly, Dawn was impressed. She liked it when he was all take-charge-y. But she couldn’t let him see that. Outwardly, she had to seem detached according to some learned, possibly instinctual, unspoken code among women.

“Seven o’clock,” she said.

Andrew was never quite hip to aloof. “ Mia farfalla ,” he said.

He kissed her, quick and deep, then hefted his book to his shoulder and was gone.

 

 

By 4:45, Dawn had everything on her list: a crystal goblet, a long-stemmed red rose, two black candles, two white candles, a box of black pepper, a packet of pink coral sand, two raven’s feathers, a silver athame and a black dress with silver buttons all the way down its front.

Dawn showered. She washed her hair, which now had mottled black streaks in it where the dye was rinsing free. As she applied her make up in Buffy’s full length mirror, she felt a whir of excitement humming in her veins. This was a date. A real date. Okay, so it was also a freaky sex ritual intended to wake her missing sister’s comatose boyfriend, but it was still a date.

Dawn smiled at her reflection. She felt a pang of guilt for feeling so giddy with Spike still unconscious, Buffy still gone, and the rest – Xander and Maya excluded – in grave peril.

Dawn decided she could dwell on such things later. She pulled on her red velvet wrap, gathered her spell components and a change of clothes into one of Buffy’s leather shoulder bags, and at 5:45, left the Flat bound for the 6:14 train to Green Park Station.

 

 

Andrew had reserved one of The Stafford’s Master Suites – two capacious rooms with a behemoth bed draped in scarlet sheets of Egyptian cotton, a massive claw-foot tub, and a bathroom bigger than his bedroom at the Flat. He studied the wine bottle, trying to figure out how he might uncork it one-handed when Dawn burst into the room in a flash of dazzling velvet. Sleet pattered down outside; the frozen raindrops dusted her hair like the sparkling of diamonds.

“You made it,” he said, sounding comically relieved.

Dawn glanced around the room: Marble tiled floors, elegant original furniture pieces, an armoire of carved walnut, curtains of burgundy damask with pale green sheers. Andrew stood beside a low round table of polished wood laden with fruits, flowers, a silver tray filled with sugary pastries – all of her favorites – and an ice bucket for the bottle of wine he held in the crook of his arm.

Andrew looked handsomely disheveled, his unruly curls swept back, his four-in-hand tie loosened about his neck. Tonight he looked nothing like the boy with whom she shared a twin bed no wider than a canoe. That was okay. She bore no resemblance to the girl who cut off her hair and dyed it in a pathetic attempt to seek attention.

She crossed the room with measured steps; all Veronica Lake meets Jessica Rabbit, making sure that her gleaming high-heeled shoes clicked deliberately on the tile floor. He watched her, his mouth ajar, as she sauntered toward him.

“My list called for a black gown,” she said in her smokiest voice. “Silver buttons.” She threaded her gloved fingers around the hem of her crimson cloak. “I didn’t have one of my own, so I found… this.”

Dawn whipped the cloak open and let it fall theatrically to her feet, revealing the pillar of floor-length black satin flowing over every curve of her lithe form. It was off-the-shoulder with tapered sleeves that accentuated the column of her throat, her delicate collarbones, and her pale, smooth shoulders. Twenty-five silver buttons like glimmering stars fastened the dress down its front.

She savored his reaction: a low, gargling sound, barely audible, emerged from his throat.

Dawn pressed her lips together, immensely pleased with herself.

Andrew shook his head as if to clear it. Once he regained his composure, he set the wine bottle aside and lifted a brown paper sack from the table.

“My list called for a silver horn,” he said, his eyes narrowed in what she thought he thought was a sensual expression, but looked merely like he had plaster dust in his eyes. “I didn’t have one either, so I found this…”

Andrew ripped the paper back with a flourish to reveal an old-fashioned bicycle horn with a ruddy rubber bulb on the end.

Dawn looked at it. She looked at him. His face was tres grave , but she stared at the thing in utter disbelief. He squeezed the bulb and it wheezed a lamely forlorn honk like an asthmatic goose.

“I, uh,” Dawn licked her lips. “Andrew, I don’t think they meant this kind of… horn.”

“I’m only kidding.” He compressed the bulb again. It emitted a breathy, half-hearted groan.

Dawn dissolved into giggles. Andrew bent to kiss her neck, but she shoved him again, playfully, and they both began laughing.

“You… you…” Dawn managed between giggles.

“I actually have this ,” Andrew said. He plucked another parcel from the tabletop. This time it was a small rectangular case, like a portable backgammon board. He snapped open the locking clasps to reveal an intricately wrought silver hunting horn on a bed of green velvet.

“It’s on loan from the Watcher’s Council,” Andrew said, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “Don’t tell Giles I borrowed his sacred virility horn. I’m not sure how he’d feel about that.”

Dawn smirked. “Cross my heart,” she said.

Andrew nodded. “Wine?” Andrew asked.

Dawn laid her hand on the curve of the silver horn. She stroked it with her thumb. “I want to make some magic,” she said.

She didn’t have to ask him twice.

 

 

The ritual involved the inscription of a Circle in coral sand under the space which they would consecrate as an altar. Sprawled on their bellies on opposite sides of the bed, Dawn and Andrew met their first obstacle.

“The bed’s bolted to the wall?” Dawn asked, incredulous. “They have a lot of bed theft in these parts?”

Andrew shrugged, not an easy feat in the cramped space. “Maybe it’s to protect the wall from friction,” he suggested.

Dawn felt herself flush. “Right. Friction.”

“It’s okay,” Andrew said. “We’ll inscribe the Circle and then make sure we don’t move much while were having the ritual sex.”

Dawn squinted. “Andrew, we’re talking us here. We are the sexy hokey pokey.”

“Discipline, Dawnie!” he said, pounding his fist on the floor in mock sternness.

“Whatever. Just keep your arms and legs in the Circle at all times.”

Andrew stuck out his tongue. Dawn poured the arc of coral sand under her side of the bed, and then passed the packet to him. Once they each finished each side of the circle, they affixed one of the raven’s feathers to the headboard of the bed, the other to the footboard, directly opposite of each other. They set the candles on the floor, each equidistant from each other and the circle’s center. Andrew placed a straw broom at the foot of the Circle and one of Spike’s faded T-shirts on the pillow behind their heads.

With the Circle drawn, and the four candles lighted, Dawn referred to the spell book, which they spread at the foot of the bed, in case they needed it during the rite.

“Okay,” she said, tapping the illustration. “I undress you, and then you cut the silver buttons from my dress with the athame.”

Andrew ran his unsteady hand through his curls. “About that,” he said. “Do you think we can skip this one teensy part?”

“It won’t work unless we complete every step,” Dawn said. “We can sew the buttons back on, Andrew. No big.”

Andrew dropped his eyes, and Dawn understood. He was thinking about the last time he had a dagger in the proximity of a friend. Funny, Dawn thought, that she had almost forgotten that this Andrew was the same Andrew who had stabbed Jonathan to death.

“I just don’t fancy the notion of clumsily slicing into the tummy of my girlfriend,” Andrew said.

“You won’t,” she said. With careful movements, she loosened his tie, unbuttoned his shirt, and shoved them and his jacket from his shoulders to the floor. She unhooked his belt and his pants, and then had to suppress another smile.

“Strong Bad boxers?” she asked.

“They’re hella tight!”

“More like hella loose,” Dawn said. Off they went, followed by shoes, then socks.

“This is so unfair,” Andrew said, standing utterly exposed before her. “And it does nothing to steady my already wobbly hand.”

Dawn pressed the athame into his palm. She took the crystal goblet into her hands. “I have faith in you,” she said. “Start at the top and work your way down. I’ll catch the buttons in the cup.”

And so he did. He cut the first two with trembling trepidation, but the satin thread rent with the gentle yield of a spider’s web. In the end, he was on his knees, working deftly, dropping the remaining silver buttons into the crystal cup which he had placed on the floor beside him.

He looked all the way up her body, pleasantly distracted by the way the dress parted, button-free, revealing a swath of her incandescent skin. “All done,” he whispered. He lifted the cup to her.

Referring again to the book, Dawn said, “Now we cover the buttons with a cupful of red wine and the petals of the rose. Then, sprinkle with black pepper and ignite. While it burns, we recite this incantation.”

“And for this course, the garcon recommends the veal,” Andrew said with a wry grin.

“Har har,” Dawn said. “Get the corkscrew.”

They followed to the letter of the spell, first with the wine, then the rose petals and the pepper. As Andrew touched the match tip to the surface and they spoke the opening words of the ritual, Dawn felt the effect immediately. The fire flared brilliant blue, then faded to the yellow-gold like of the setting sun in autumn as the alcohol burned away.

Dawn didn’t understand the words, only that Andrew spoke them in perfectly inflected French. Euphoria spread over her and through her like a wave of flame. The colors of the room deepened and the light seemed to swell. The peppery scent mingled with the wine and roses, leaving her tongue dizzy and her head numb.

He faced her.

“Now we bind our hands,” she said to him.

He gave a half-smile. His movements seemed slow now, lethargic, like those of a drunken man. “It’s a good thing I lopped off Lefty,” he said. “In retrospect, I mean. Otherwise…” He placed his palm against hers.

“Otherwise we couldn’t do this,” Dawn finished. She glanced at his eyes and wondered if hers were half as radiant as his.

Dawn looped the black silk ribbon around their wrists three times and tied it tight. It couldn’t slip off during the third part of the ritual. Their hands had to remain bound. According to the illustrations, that part was essential.

“Ready?” he asked.

She looked down. Her dress, now buttonless, fell open revealing a tantalizing strip of bare flesh and her lacy black panties.

“Uh,” she said with a laugh. “I think I was supposed to take these off before binding our hands.”

“We can get ’em off,” Andrew slurred.

Dawn grinned. “That is the idea.” Then she smacked her forehead with her free hand. “Condom!”

Andrew nodded. “In my coat pocket. You’ll have to put it on…”

“Oh fine,” she said. It took some wriggling, but they managed to get the underpants off and the condom on. At last they crawled into the bed, carefully positioning themselves in the center of the smooth, cool sheets.

“Now I’m ready,” she told him. “You remember your incantation? And then you blow the horn?”

“Of course!”

“Sometimes you get all nonverbal when we…”

Andrew’s eyes shuttered. “Only sometimes,” he said. And then he muttered, “And I still think the girl should blow the horn.”

“Andrew, focus,” Dawn said. She twisted her body around to get a look at the next illustration.

Dawn swallowed. She hadn’t realized how much she was hoping for this, not until just this moment. Dawn laced her fingers in his. “Okay,” she repeated. “You kneel here, like this and I…”

The first half hour was like human origami, or, as Andrew put it, the World’s Most Erotic Game of Twister. They moved through the positions and incantations with sophomoric awkwardness, which led more to outbursts of laughter than anything else. They felt like silly, intoxicated children playing at a game whose rules they did not understand.

Then as they finished the final rites and incantations, it was normal sex: her body linked with his, moving with his, slow at first and then in their splendid rhythm. She bent to kiss him, her hair spilling around his face. She felt herself opening like a rosebud as the spell coursed through them.

On the bedside table, the flames consumed the rose, filling the room with a golden effusion. It spread through their skin, down their throats as they drew in breath, into every cell and molecule of their joined bodies. Dawn pressed into him. She felt pulled beyond her control, like she was slipping out of her skin and floating. The one thing that bound her was the tether to his hand.

She heard herself speaking, as if from a distance, calling his name. She knotted her free hand in his hair. A stray breeze tugged the curtains, ruffled the bed liner, rippled the surface of the wine in its burnished glass. Dawn sat back on her heels, her head thrown back, her eyes shut against the force of the energy building inside of her – too much, too much! – it would rend them apart. It would destroy them!

Everything blurred, was overbright. Dawn felt herself sliding. Her outlines lost definition. She was losing him. Her Andrew! She was losing him. She locked her knees against his legs and bent forward again, still moving within the stride of his motion, but it was like trying to keep her head above water in a raging storm. She could see nothing, hear nothing. The taste of burning roses filled her throat, choking her, but she did not fight it. Andrew and Dawn were locked within each other, oblivious to everything now but the endless circle of their joining.

Dawn’s eyes rolled back. She was burning. She was aflame. In the room around her objects began to fly about – books, papers, the floral arrangements – all of it came crashing down. In the lamps and the chandeliers, the bulbs glared and suddenly burst, showering them with powdered glass.

Dawn felt their energy burst through her, bright as sunrays, strong as the sea, and she let go. It filled her, every part of her – her fingernails, her hair, her brain, heart, lungs, breasts, her sex – all of it burned with a sweet, consuming fire.

And then she heard Andrew’s voice again, distant but steady. The incantation, followed by the sound of the silver horn. He remembered. Of course he remembered . She bowed her head and felt herself reeling toward him, returning home, gliding back to the place where they lay, two normal humans joined in a simple act of love.

Dawn opened her eyes. He stared up at her, breathless, a goofy, lovesick smile on his face. She knew that look. It matched her own.

“That was…”

“Freakin’ amazing!” he finished. “Timothy Dalton never had sex like that! Sean Connery never had sex like that. Captain Kirk… well, probably he didn’t, but…”

Dawn convulsed in laughter. She bent to rest her forehead against his.

“Do you think it worked?” he asked.

“How could it not work? Did you feel that?”

“Oh, I felt it.”

Neither could wait to find out. They dressed in quick excitement like a pair of fugitives, leaving Dawn’s de-buttoned dress and the wreckage of their spell behind in the suite.

 

 

Walter towered over Oz and Anjelica, his shadow, black and twisting as it stretched long over the endless grinding sands.

Oz was weary. He crouched with Helli in the Circle’s center, waiting and waiting and waiting for Walter and Anya to complete the spell. Everything in Hell seemed to elongate, drawn into a protracted agony of nagging suspense.

Walter had conjured fire in the center of the circle, and Oz knelt beside it, with Helli leaning heavily against his shoulder and Andrew’s severed hand balanced uncomfortably on his left thigh.

After Anya finished reading the spell from a parchment she held unrolled between her trim, steady hands, she raised her eyes to meet Walter’s.

“You ready for some magic?” she asked him.

Walter nodded and spat on the ground. It withered, black and chitinous, and crawled away. “Ayuh,” he said.

Anjelica’s eyes flitted behind her eyelids. Oz pulled her close.

“You hear that, Helli?” Oz whispered, hoping to settle her, to penetrate the haze of her anguish. “We’re going home soon.”

Helli’s mouth twitched into a frown. “Soon…” she moaned.

In the far distance, Oz saw the horizon blur to the dull brown of smeared, dried blood. The sky was filling with sand.

Oz got his arm under Helli’s shoulder and waited.

Soon.

 

 

Dawn and Andrew stood at William’s bedside. She was not sure what they expected, except that they had expected something, and received the opposite thereof.

They found the Flat shrouded in icy November quiet. Furthermore, and to their dismay, William remained unmoved. His pallid form lay statue-like in Dawn’s bed, his white curls perfect on the lavender pillowcase. The dark holes in his arm looked like black pools of water in the surface of a frozen lake.

Andrew linked his hand with Dawn’s. “Well,” he said with a sigh. “We could always try again…”

Dawn nudged him, trying for levity in light of their disappointment. “Except we will never again be welcome at the Stafford.”

Andrew waved it off. “I’ll expense the damages to the Council,” he said.

Dawn gawked at him.

“What?” he asked. “It was legitimate Council business…”

Dawn gave him a half-smile. “Definitely the funnest spell we’ve tried so far.”

“So far,” he agreed.

“Andrew,” she said, pressing her hand to his chest.

Si, caramia ?”

“Let’s go to bed.”

 

Chapter Text

Lorne closed and latched the front doors of Triumvirate after the last Brevnar – a stunted rum-pot fellow called Klank - had finally called it a night.

It was a cold one, and the green-skinned demon more suited to balmy climes, shivered at the skim of frost that had formed along the seams of the door’s paned window glass. He rubbed his hands together as he left the foyer. Across the dusky dance floor, he picked out the pale, flabby form of the bartender counting out the till behind the carved mahogany counter.

Lorne crossed the dance floor, moving slowly, his mind drifting over the details of the night – the swank sounds of a 1940s big band, the gentlemen’s urbane conversations, the ladies’ frisky formal wear. Human and demon alike, the evening had played out in splendor and peace. Lorne liked it that way.

“Big night, Boss,” the bartender called in his nasal baritone. Lorne glanced up and smiled.

“Like old times,” he answered. He cut a Fred Astaire-ian spin on the dance floor before bounding up the steps to the bar.

“Play it again, Clem,” Lorne said. “You played it for her, now play it for me.”

Clem’s already folded forehead creased three-fold more. “Play… what exactly?”

Lorne sighed. “It’s nothing. It’s a quote from Casablanca . I was just going with it.”

“Oh! Right!” Clem said. He pantomimed shooting himself in the head. “Of course it is. And you worked in my name, ’stead of Sam. Gotcha.”

Lorne rested his elbows on the bar. He stared out into the ballroom, now cavernous and echoing without its multitude of patrons. Birds of Paradise and Resurrection lilies streamed down from the second floor loft, their vibrant color scattering the scant light that filtered down from the skylights. In the summertime Nighna hosted rooftop parties where guests could look down to watch the dancers weave and spin across the imported marble dance floor.

Triumvirate was a place adrift in time. Like Caritas, it was a place apart from all worlds, where all manner of creatures could come to just exist.

Lorne adored it. Loved it. He didn’t want to let it go. Not ever.

“Somethin’ on your mind, boss?” Clem asked. He polished a glass tumbler with a damp cloth.

Lorne shrugged. “Just that… when Nines comes home, she’s gonna want this place back.”

“Maybe she won’t,” Clem said, eyeballing the stubborn spots on the glass.

“Nah, she will,” Lorne said, sighing again. “Who wouldn’t? It’s got beaucoup ambience, stellar PR, a varied clientele…”

“Protection spells.”

“…Protection spells,” Lorne agreed, in a whimsical tone.

“Yeah. It’s been a sweet landing pad for me, too,” Clem said. “After Sunnydale, it was run, run, run. Man, I’m too old for that crap. I’m more like: Jog, sit for a while, drink a Shasta.”

Lorne smiled, but it faded. Today was the last day of November, and the feeling in the air didn’t sit like it should. It felt like…

“Things’re a-changin’, boss,” Clem said. He stepped away from the bar to shelve the tumbler. As he did so, Clem sang, pitifully off-key, “ It’s still the same old story. A fight for love and glory. A case of do or die.

Lorne staggered, his hands flying to his temples, as he received a ghastly cinematic of precisely how much things were about to change.

He blinked his eyes to clear them. “It’s the redhead kid. The one who went to Hell with Nines…”

“Wha?” Clem asked.

Lorne grabbed the flabby demon by the scruffs of his neck and jerked him over the bar in one clean motion. He shoved the stunned, stammering Clem hard between the shoulder blades, herding him in the direction of the dance floor. The light was the same in the vision; there might still be time.

“Boss!” Clem shouted, throwing his hands up in surrender. “What’s with the sudden Last Man Standing ?”

Lorne stood panting, shoulder to shoulder with Clem. Both demons faced the front door, waiting. “On my signal, duck.”

“Duck. Okay,” Clem said, darting a glance at the demon’s face. “Why?”

Lorne swallowed hard. The sharp lines of consternation replaced his normally jovial expression. He clenched his fists.

“They’re coming.”

Chapter Text

Dawn lay in bed, eyes open wide, the satisfying weight of Andrew’s head on her shoulder. She raked her fingers through his honey-colored curls, smoothing them over her fingers while he slept, utterly spent, a dolphin’s smile curved upon his lips.

She breathed deeply and stretched. The box springs of the bed sighed a rusty groan and Andrew stirred. Behind his eyelids, his eyes darted back and forth like a typewriter’s carriage. She combed his hair back from his forehead, delighting in the damp cornsilk feel of it in her fingers. Her lover was dreaming.

Lover. Dawn bit her lip to suppress a smile. She twirled a curl over the tip of her index finger and studied the shadows and patterns of the light as it fell over his hair, her palm, his face, the creased sheet and rumpled blanket, and her fingers began to itch. She thought, though it was only a half-thought, that if she could draw this moment…

Dawn blinked at the spark of thought that flared in her brain. She pressed her hand to her cool forehead. Nothing was that simple. Nothing was ever that simple, but if she could draw...

Suddenly she craved her pencils. What would it hurt to just try, she wondered? In the past, her drawing had been unfocused, like doors opened into random rooms and repulsive places full of formidable, frightening things, but the spark that inspired her then had been freaky at best, and at worst, well, she didn’t like to think of it at worst.

Now, though, things felt safe. She felt calm, and certain, and sure.

The idea blossomed in her like an underwater flower, full of glistening bubbles and light. She thought, If I could draw something like what I have here with Andrew, but for someone else…

But her thoughts felt blurry without the focus of her pencils.

A fist of anticipation closed around Dawn’s heart and squeezed once as the bubbles of her thoughts broke free, flooding her with schemes and images and ideas, more than she could contain.

She edged gently from the bed, filled with a thrumming exhilaration, but moving as carefully as possible, sliding Andrew into the bosom of his pillows. Quietly, stealthily, Dawn slipped her arms into Buffy’s threadbare bathrobe, tiptoed down the hall, and took her sketchbook from its place of abandon on the table in the sitting room.

Past midnight on the first night of December, Dawn opened the door onto the rooftop. She dragged a tottery striped lawn chair to the roof’s edge so that she could see the serene street three stories below glistening under a fresh layer of frost, laid out before her like a scene out of a Dickens tale. Winter pinched crimson into her cheeks and chafed her throat, but she felt invigorated, like her whole body was aflame.

Dawn, naked save for Buffy’s robe, damp hair swept into a knot, drank in the night, savoring every heartbeat, every breath.

She sat for a moment, feeling the thrill of night air with every breath, her pale pink toes nipped by cold, her pencil poised above the page, waiting, waiting...

How long had she been running? Dawn wondered idly, while she waited for the spark to catch in her and burn through to the page and into whatever world beyond. Now that she was calm, what would she do? What couldn’t she do?

She thought, if only a person had a place, a sanctuary like this, and a new love, or an old one, the world could be saved. Under these auspices, with great hope in her heart, Dawn began to draw….

 

 

The path, crafted of cobblestones from the time of his boyhood, were the same stones that paved the street where he had hidden while the building in which his father held his practice had burned. It curved and wound beneath the stalks of dandelions and sunflowers and sweet peas that rivaled in height the Sears Tower and the Chrysler Building. The wan light faded, turning the blooms to colorless fans, but the path shone like silver, guiding him forward, step by step, until he reached a garden gate.

William paused, not certain he could trust this dream from the last. The gate, a towering filigree wrought on scale with the flowers, pushed open with the barest nudge. He drew a breath, and stepped inside.

Beyond the gate lay a silent churchyard full of willowy trees, great graceful things they were, their branches swaying lithely in an almost imperceptible breeze. The path continued to weave between them, and he followed it, entranced by the night’s ethereal splendor. The sloping path that looped like a silver chain among moonlit hills stood a chapel made of something like crystal or glass. Its facets and buttresses and arched windows twinkled in the starlight like the faces of a sapphire on a velvet cloth.

William, for reasons he could not quite grapple, thought that the air here felt different, fresher somehow. The breeze that brushed his hair back from his forehead held the mingled smoky scents of black pepper and rose petals, but somehow that didn’t seem odd to him at all.

Before he had known it, William had arrived at the chapel, and had wandered beneath the vaulted starlit ceiling for time untold, his feet bare on a lush carpet of peat moss, when he saw her.

She wore a gown of green velvet brocade, tied at the waist to reveal a V of pale skin and the cleft of her breasts. Her hair, now ash blonde, had grown wild and spilled over her shoulders and her face, so familiar with its strange mix of strength and inquisitiveness.

But it couldn’t be her.

He remained rooted to the spot as she turned, tilted her head, and fixed him with a canny expression. Then her eyes softened as she walked forward, crossing beneath a bowery of shadow, her long, white fingers splayed on her hips.

“William?” she asked.

His breath caught. “Buffy,” he whispered. He closed the distance between them, praying, praying that she would not evaporate beneath his touch, or worse.

Face to face they stood, and she held up a trembling hand, and William, mirroring her, pressed his palm to hers. He could smell her. He could taste her, the heathery scent of her – his Buffy.

“It’s you…” he muttered, lacing his fingers in hers.

“Oh, thank God,” Buffy breathed.

And then she jumped into his arms.

William tumbled with her, falling back in the cool green grass, bathed both in starlight and in the honeygold of her. Her mouth found his, and he felt her smiling as she kissed him. He squeezed his eyes closed and melted into it, body and soul.

Buffy sat astride him and smiled down into his upturned face.

“It’s you,” he said again, his voice tinged with sadness.

She smoothed her palms over his chest, up each side of his neck to cup his face in her hands. “Didn’t expect to find you here, either,” she said, dipping to kiss him again.

He stopped her. “But how? What is this place?”

Buffy gazed up into the starlit chamber, so breathtaking in its ethereal beauty. “I don’t know,” she marveled.

The green robe parted over her body and pooled over their entwined legs. Her skin had blushed to the color of a sun-ripened pear. He slipped his hands under the hemmed borders of the robe and pushed them back to reveal the swell of her belly…

William shook his head. “Good God, Buffy… You’re huge,” he said.

She boxed his shoulder, a playful grin curving her lips. “I know,” she admitted. “I’m like a Buddha. You can rub me for luck.”

His half-smile drained to empty. He placed his open palms on her belly, remembering how once, not long ago, before they went to the Circle and took Thellian down, he’d wondered if he would last long enough to see this. He spread both hands and found that they didn’t begin to cover it.

“How far along?” he asked.

Buffy leaned back against the tent of his legs. “Months,” she said plainly.

Tears welled and sparkled in the corners of his eyes. His let his head fall back on the soft shoulder of the ground. “How?” he asked. “And where?”

She stared at him for a long moment. She raked her fingers through his hair. “Hey,” she said. “I’m safe, okay. I’m working on a way to get back. And I even know how I got where I am, so there’s half the mystery solved…”

William closed his eyes, wringing out a single tear. He caressed her stomach, gently, then grimaced.

“I could use some luck, luv,” he said quietly.

Buffy took his hands in hers. He shifted his weight to sit forward, pulling her into his lap. She gave him that quizzical half-smile, like she knew what he was about to say, and it was something sentimental and silly that he was taking too seriously and she was gonna rib him for it later.

“What is it?”

“Made a mess of things, I have,” he said. “You were gone, and…” he glanced at her, then closed his eyes. “There was a… Beastie. Got the best of me, and I flat out abandoned Dawn and Andrew. Right git of a dad-type I’ve been, and now…” he sighed. He looked at her. “Months?”

She nodded, “It’s this whole time thing.”

William set her down on the grass and put his head into his hands. “I can’t… I can’t do this alone. They… We need you.”

Buffy pulled his hand into both of hers and squeezed. “William,” she said. “There’s something coming. Here, where I am, and there, with you. And they’re gonna need you.”

William laughed a deep, low, bitter sound. “No no no… I’m down for this count, Buffy. It’s you they need. Always you.”

Austerity creased a line between her brows. “You are not down,” she told him. “You are the strongest man I have ever known, and they are gonna need you if they’re gonna make it through this alive. You have to lead them.”

William gaped blankly at her face before breaking into sobs of bitter laughter. He got to his feet and stalked a tight circle in the grass. “I’m no leader, Buffy. I’m a lackey at best, and you know it.” He stabbed an accusatory finger at her. “You’ve seen my best laid plans. Hell, you’ve thwarted my best laid plans. Besides, none of it matters. Beast Bitch bit me, and I been wanderin’ ’round in the Between-lands since, no soddin’ clue...”

“Spike!” Buffy snapped, all irritated. But immediately she amended her tone, and said, “William. Listen to me.”

The self-possession in Buffy’s tone stilled him.  She raised her eyes to his. “You have to lead them,” she repeated. “Until I get back - and just know that I am doing everything humanly and demonly possible to do that, and I will be there. Soon. But until then, lead them.”

William bowed his head. His heart trumped his head, as it always did, and he found himself nodding. “For you, pet. Anything.”

He dropped to Buffy’s side, placing his hands on her belly again. “And for you, little bit. Just so you know.”

“It’s a girl, William.”

He snapped his gaze to hers. “Wha?”

“Tara Joyce Summers Pratt,” Buffy said, smiling. “Whaddya think?”

A swirl of dizzy joy dazzled and dazed him, left him a stammering, stuttering mess, but he managed, finally, to say, “I love it. Her. Yeah.”

Buffy kissed him hard on the mouth. William knew a challenge when he saw it. He pulled her down to the ground and rose to meet it.

 

 

Hours past into what may have been days before Buffy and William resurfaced long enough to notice that the scenery had changed. In the east, the sky gleamed pale like the luminescence of a pearl, and the multitudes of glass facets caught and scattered the light in a thousand prismatic gleams and shimmers.

Buffy stretched her arms over her head, delighting in the familiar weight of his body against hers. She kissed him, knowing that their time was, for now, near an end.

“What is this place?” she asked again.

He craned his neck to peer out of the mullioned windows. “I have no idea,” he said, truthfully.

She looped her arms around his neck. “The air feels good here,” she said. “Feels…”

“Safe,” he finished. He nuzzled her neck. He could feel his eyelids growing heavy, and even though he fought to keep them open, he felt like a child on Christmas Eve trying to wait up for Santa Claus.

“It is safe,” she whispered. “And if we found it once, we should be able to find it again. Right?”

“What are you sayin?” he slurred, sleepily.

“Come back to me, my William,” she whispered into his ear as he drifted, blown like a snowflake into the pristine whiteness of sleep. “Come back to me, and I’ll come back to you.”

 

 

William opened his eyes. His vision blurred, refocused, blurred again, and he saw that the two white peaks that loomed in front of him were not mountains but his own two feet under the sheets.

Took him a moment to realize this, but once his equilibrium settled, he understood.

He was in Dawn’s room, in Dawn’s bed.

Dawn’s room? He thought. How the hell’d I get here?

He sat up, much too quickly, and stars exploded behind his eyes. After much blinking and swearing, he swung legs stiff as stilts over the bed’s edge. He felt a numbing ache in his left arm and an icy tension in the back of his neck, but after running a quick tally, everything else seemed right as rain.

William was just about to try his hand at standing when he heard a piercing shriek of a timbre and pitch that could only come from Andrew.

Some things, it seemed, never changed.

 

Chapter Text

The sky filled with sand. A thunderous roar pounded down upon Oz and Anjelica in the center of the Circle as Anya’s and Walter’s chanting spun and weaved in and out of the nightmarish cacophony.

Oz lifted Helli in his arms. The ground beneath them bubbled and roiled like a vat of pitch coming to a boil. He spoke to her, muttering calm reassurances, but she had lost consciousness and her head lolled loose on her shoulders like a tattered rag doll. He wondered, not for the first time, whether or not they would get out soon enough, whether they had been too long in Hell to save her.

The walls of the Circle shot up suddenly, spraying like a fountain of sand. Faces and claws and wagging tongues leered out at them, contorted tortured forms screaming for release. The bubbling sand at their feet lurched, pitching them to their knees. Immediately, Helli began to sink. Oz gripped her under her arms and hauled her out, and as he did, he stumbled. His elbow sank into the living wall of sand. He screamed as it flayed skin from flesh, leaving a raw, ragged hole in his upper arm.

But Oz, partly in shock, partly too terrified to think, pushed past the pain and pulled Helli to her feet. The walls surged higher, buffeting them on an updraft until they stood high above the desert floor, teetering on a column of quaking sand.

Oz got one shoulder under Helli’s limp body. He gripped Andrew’s cold, dead hand in his own. Several stories below, Anya peered up at him, her face underlit by the flames of the fire she’d set to spark the Circle. She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted to him, but her words were drowned by the fierce, constant wail of the vortex of sand.

“Helli,” Oz panted. “Helli, it’s time. Be ready…”

Helli slid from his grasp, dropping to her knees, her head bowed, her palms flat against the moving pillar of sand.

Oz knelt and tried to take her hand.

“Get away from me,” she growled.

Oz swallowed. He blinked sand from his eyes. “No, Helli. It’s me. It’s Oz.”

She rolled her head to fix him with a steady, baleful glare. Her eyes took on the dull red of a dying fire, and the guttural sound in her chest was anything but human.

“I know who you are,” Helli screamed. “Get the hell away from me.” She leapt to her feet, knocking him flat. He scrambled to his knees, but was too late. With one last glance at him, Helli spread her arms and let her body fall.

Oz scrabbled over the pitching sands to catch her, but could do nothing but watch as she tumbled. The desert rose up and engulfed her whole.

Helli was gone. Once she vanished, the wind died and Oz heard Anya’s fervent cries:

“The hand! Throw it in the fire! Do it, Oz! Do it now!”

Oz glanced at the hand. He looked to the place where Helli’s body had fallen and disappeared. She was gone. Just like that, gone.

“Throw the hand in the fire,” Anya screamed.

Oz released Andrew’s hand – the final sacrifice – and let the tempest take him, too.

 

XXX

The spell broke and Dawn lifted her pencil. Her breathing faltered, and droplets of sweat beaded on her forehead. She stared down at the page, at the exquisitely wrought glass chapel she had drawn on a cliff side overlooking the sea. She had never drawn, nor had she ever seen, anything like it. It was like… magic.

She stood and stretched. She crossed the rooftop and touched her hand to the doorknob when she heard it – shrill and pained and terrified. Andrew, screaming.

Dawn fled down the stairs half-blind. She burst into the bedroom to find him curled and writhing on the floor, screaming and drenched in sweat, his bedclothes tangled around him. Dawn dropped to her knees beside him, but he continued to twist as if he couldn’t see or feel her.

Moments later, Xander burst into the room, an umbrella held over his head like a sword. Maya followed after, wielding the handle of the broom.

“What is it?” Xander cried.

Dawn ignored him. She got her arms under Andrew’s shoulders and wrenched his body around to face hers.

His eyes and jaws clenched tight against the pain, Andrew gripped his severed arm above the place where his wrist had been, and they watched in stunned horror as smoke formed the outline of bone, and then white hot smoldering embers gave way to cindered muscle and cartilage that filled the room with the sickening sweet scent of burning flesh.

Dawn gripped his shoulders and shook him.

“Andrew!” she shouted.

His eyes sprung open. He brought his hand up and stared as the skin crisped then pulled tight and smooth around the place where Nighna had marked him. The circle-and-triangle shape burned a sudden fiery red, and then disappeared, leaving Andrew whole.

Andrew turned his hand over and over in mute disbelief. Xander and Maya filed into the room.

“Holy double heck,” Xander said. “Your hand. It…spontaneously un-combusted.”

Andrew’s mouth twitched wordlessly a few moments before he managed to say, “Yeah, I noticed.”

“Shyeah. But how?”

Neither Andrew nor Dawn had anything in the way of explanation, and were spared besides, when William wandered in all sleepy-eyed, leaned against the door frame and asked, in a groggy voice, “What the bleeding hell is going on in here?”

Chapter Text

“Who’s coming?” Clem asked. “And… when?”

Lorne scanned the skylight and the empty booths across the restaurant. “Hold your horses,” he said. “It’ll happen. It saw it.”

They paused, holding their collective breaths. “Any second now,” Lorne said. And they waited.

And waited.

Clem said, “How long’s it been since you had your empathy filter cleaned? ’Cause, me, I’m of the supernatural ilk, and I’m reading a nada on the paranormal scale.”

“No n-no no no,” Lorne said, turning a sharp circle. “They were here. Right here.”

Finally, Clem couldn’t stand it. He asked, “Who’s they?”

As if in answer to Clem’s query, the dance floor split open before them in an earth-shattering sinkhole of spraying sand and ash. Both demons teetered, arms pin-wheeling, cursing as most demons are wont to do, on the edge of a black abyss. Lorne shifted his weight backward, thankful for all of his Akido lessons back at Wolfram & Hart, and taking Clem with him, they tumbled backward, away from the gaping, howling maw.

Over the screaming wind that filled Triumvirate, Clem shouted, “Duck now, Boss?”

Lorne swallowed a mouthful of sand, but choked out a ‘No’ as they crab-crawled backward to the tiered steps that led into the dance floor.

Then just as suddenly as the hole had appeared it began to iris closed, with a small lifeless figure dangling above it, drifting in the air. Lorne and Clem watched in terror- as the figure looked as though it would drop back in, when the sinkhole vanished, dumping the figure and a few windblown swirls of sand.

Lorne rolled to his knees. “It’s him,” he said. “Red-head kid. Stick by me.” Lorne crawled with urgency toward the prone figure.

“Don’t touch it,” Clem cautioned as they neared the body. “It’s probably diseased, or poisoned. It’s Hell’s version of Typhoid Mary. We’re talking lesions. Boils. Re-runs of What’s Happening?

Lorne gave Clem a quizzical look, but crawled onward. “It’s not. He’s back, which means…”

He looked toward the doors as they rattled in their frames. A heartbeat later, shadows formed in the frosted glass. Tall, looming shadows that filled the windows top to bottom.

“They’re here,” Lorne muttered. He trembled from the tips of his horns all the way down to his purple polka dotted socks. He pulled himself upright, dragging Clem with him.

“Think unified front,” Lorne said. “Think circle of protection. Think… let them do the talking.”

“And duck on your cue?” Clem double-checked.

Before Lorne could nod assent, the front doors splintered open, showering them with glass.

Lorne had heard stories about the Sulksquelawtna, children’s stories meant to frighten any demon who thought about taking the high road right back on to the straight path. Their ruthlessness was legendary even among demonkind. Fierce, blood-thirsty, craven and depraved, they would kill for the slightest slight, or for fun, or to just stay in practice. And all of that was probably compounded due to the fact they’d been in exile for millennia. He had no idea what to think or feel when he saw them. Fortunately, instinct had him hard-wired for blind fear, and really, what else do ya need?

There were twelve of them, each 8-feet tall, dressed in armor that appeared to be crafted from bones and torn strips of steel-belted radials. They entered through the wreckage of the front doors in pyramid formation, the leader and his two lieutenants flanking him, the others fanned out in perfect staggered rank. As they neared, Lorne felt his knees quiver like a plate of lime Jell-o. He felt the fist of panic wrench his heart, squeezing and squeezing until he thought it might burst. But it didn’t, and in its next beat, he stood looking up into the face of the Sulksquelawtna Clan Leader, and Lorne found himself in a shallow and unexpected sea of calm.

He had seen this part play out when Clem hummed “As Time Goes By.” As he figured it, Lorne had an edge, and he could use that.

The Clan Leader had a mouth full of jagged red teeth, like he’d spent his afternoon casually shredding hunks of raw meat. His skin appeared gray and transparent, like latex balloons filled with sewer sludge which jiggled nauseatingly when he breathed. His breath gave off the same sewer water stench. But it was the demon leader’s eyes that gave Lorne the jeebiest heebies. They were the color of rotten egg yolks with concentric rings of gray all the way to their black centers. They fixed Lorne with a hateful stare, appraising him, and correctly assuming he was in charge, the demon leader addressed him.

“I am Sabnock, Grand Marquis of Hell. Clan Despot of the Sulksquelawtna, most feared, most reviled, most hated of the demon lords in all Circles,” he said in a voice that grated like two plates of steel ground slowly together. “I claimeth this place, this Triumvirate, in mine own name, and will rippeth out the entrails of all who oppose me, and weareth them as garments to our victory fires.”

Lorne opened his mouth, not knowing what might come out, and was surprised at what did. “No can do, big fella,” he said, forcing a smile. Then he paused involuntarily as Sabnock’s lieutenants sneered with a haughty smugness that told Lorne he was next on the menu. He hastened to explain. “You see, this one belongs to Nig’han’het, of the Order of Kimaris, as circumscribed by her Circle…”

“The Circle is broken. Her claims, forfeit,” Sabnock growled. His clan-mates growled in what might have been laughter, but sounded the utmost in creepy. Sabnock swiveled his eyes to Lorne and went on, “As are the lives of all who served her. Their blood will water the soil where the seeds of war are sown.”

“Where seeds of war are sown,” Lorne reiterated the words to himself. This was it, the part he’d seen…

“Now!” Lorne cried. Clem dropped to his knees beside Oz. The downward stroke of Sabnock’s scimitar screamed through the air less than a quarter inch above Clem’s head. Lorne himself reeled backward, but he caught himself and stood firm in the face of the imposing demon clan. Beside him, Clem uttered a small ‘whew’ of relief.

Sabnock studied Lorne for a long, agonizing moment – so long that Lorne desperately hoped that Sabnock wasn’t craving flank of Pylean. Finally, the demon grunted. He said, “Dost this establishment serve chili-cheese fries?”

Lorne stammered. He’d only seen as far as Clem’s demise. That successfully dodged, they were on their own, empathically speaking, and he had no idea at all what the demon had just said.

“Certainly it dost-est,” Clem answered, raising a flabby forearm.

Lorne flashed him a warning glare, knowing full-well it certainly didst not.

Clem tilted his head forward, as if to say, Don’t worry, this one’s on me .

“I’m the cook in this joint,” Clem told Sabnock. He got up from his knees, but kept his head bowed, either out of fear or subjugation, Lorne couldn’t be sure which. “I can whip up chili-cheese fries, a blooming onion, a mean guac-queso. You name it.”

Sabnock paused, considering. “Guac-queso,” he said, rolling his wormy tongue over his teeth.

Clem nodded fervently. Lorne smiled and bobbed his head along.

“Put raw flesh in it, and thou hast a deal,” Sabnock said at length.

“Done,” Clem answered.

“I’ll have a diet Coke,” ventured the lieutenant to Sabnock’s left. Two others echoed the desire with couple of staggered ‘Me too’s.

Clem started to absent himself, and fast, when the leader spoke, halting him. “It is good,” he said. “We shall set up operations here. Thou shalt servest us.”

“Not to throw monkeys or wrenches into your machinations, big guy, but remember Nighna’s protection?” Lorne said. “Triumvirate belonged to her. This place marks the X of neutrality.”

The leader’s eyes roamed to center on Oz. “Nig’han’het hast perished in the flames of Hell. Her Circle broke-est to allow this one’s return. By our count, two of the final seven seals, broken. Hell hath been unleashed. Nig’han’het is dead.”

Dead? Lorne thought. Was it possible? Could Nighna actually be dead? Lorne looked down at the still form of the red-head kid. He remembered that this was the one who joined up with them late in the game, but who’d known Buffy and the gang since the beginning, or almost. Lorne was unclear on all of the details except for one, which stared him in the face: Hell had opened up to let this kid through. And only him. Whatever became of the rest? Lorne knew he could only have the answers if – when – the kid woke up.

Lorne swallowed hard and tried to blink back his tears. The kid laid there with the responsiveness of a Cabbage Patch Doll, which is to say, not much responsiveness at all.

“Yes,” Sabnock pronounced. “We shall rule here. Cede your surrender, prove thyself worthy in our service, and you may leave here with your lives.”

All around him, the Sulksquelawtna spread out, making themselves at home by upending planters, tables, booths, and bar stools. Somewhere behind him Lorne heard the discordant crash of broken glass, followed by the twisted-gears sound of their laughter.

Lorne felt his knees weaken with a sapping kind of sadness. He dropped to the floor beside the red-head kid and inspected him closer. Oz. The name swam up to him, along with Eve’s final words before Oz and the others disappeared into the Deeper Well.

“Hero-ing’s not my line of work anymore,” Lorne had said.

To which she responded in her noncommittal cryptic, “That’s too bad.”

Lorne had wondered then what she meant by that. Now he thought he was getting it.

“Hey,” Lorne whispered. “Can ya hear me? Oz?”

Oz rolled his head toward the sound of Lorne’s voice. Sand scaled his eyes and clogged his ears. His lips, parched and cracked, parted to utter one word: “Luxe.”

Lorne’s flesh crawled. “Oh. That guy.”

“He’s on his way,” Oz said. He tried to sit up, but Lorne placed a discouraging hand on the kid’s chest to keep him down.

“Best not to mention it. Yet,” Lorne said, glancing around. He saw Clem come out of the kitchen with one of the large waiter’s trays laden with a bounty of steaming appetizers. The Sulksquelawtna descended upon it like carrion birds on fresh road kill. Clem scampered away, fearing that they just might add him to the menu.

Oz tried to shove Lorne’s hand aside, but had the equivalent strength, it seemed, of a paper napkin.

“We have to tell them,” Oz groaned, sounding miserable in his defeat. “Luxe is on his way, and Hell is coming with him.”

Lorne watched the Sulksquelawtna making mince of his lovely Triumvirate, which had been more a home to him than a place of employment. He watched as Sabnock dipped his meaty claws into the koi pond, plucked out one of the plump and glorious golden carp, and bit its head clean from its body. Strings of slimy fish guts dumped down Sabnock’s torso, and the demon let out a triumphant howl of satisfaction. Lorne retched, and averted his eyes.

“Hate to tell ya, kid,” Lorne said. “Hell is already here.”

Chapter Text

They set a mug of tea in front of him.

A mug of tea. Like that would help. What he needed was scotch, followed by vodka, followed by bloodshed, since scotch and vodka no longer packed its numbing punch.

Still, he sipped and listened to them bicker. Stupid sods. That was always the way with them: nattering on about who should do what, and when, and to what end. They usually stalled in this manner until Buffy sorted it out in her head, and then, in a shimmering epiphany, would lay it out for them.

God, he missed her.

“What do you think, Spike?” Dawn asked.

He lifted his head and, realizing he’d not heard a smidge of their conversation, felt it best to offer a noncommittal shrug.

“Behold: Exhibit A,” Harris said. “The not-readiness of Spike.”

William jerked his head up. “Hang on. Ready for what?” he asked.

Everyone seemed too stunned to speak, as if they had all just let slip that someone had run over his puppy, and they’d just blown cover. None of them expected him to respond so quickly. It was Dawn who finally broke the fragile silence.

“Ready to return to the school,” she said, tucking the tendrils of her hair behind her ears. “They could use you.”

“They?” William said. “Last I heard it was Tiny at the helm, all by herself with the normals.”

Andrew leaned forward. “Yes. It’s true that MK was there by her lonesome. It is also true that she took over for the mundane clientele once you fell into your deep and peaceful sleep, but…”

“Andrew called in reinforcements,” Dawn said, picking up the thread of Andrew’s narrative. “Rita returned from France, and brought with her twenty Slayers from all around Europe. They’ve been at work since, keeping the city clean, but Rita said there’s been a lot more demon activity in the last few days.”

“How much more?” William asked, sitting up, feeling his blood stir.

“A way lot,” Andrew said.

“That’s the technical term,” Harris said.

Maya glanced at Xander, but said, “We’ve kept Willow’s wards around the house and the school… which reminds me, we need supplies from the magic shop. We’re fresh out of Wolf’s Bane and Calendula.”

Andrew reached for his notepad on the breakfast bar, but Dawn said, “Xander, can you handle that? Andrew’s got his hands full with Council work at the moment.”

Dawn beamed, then, and bowed her head to hide her blush. “Hands full. Get it?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Harris groaned. “Got it. Meanwhile I’m relegated to shopping.”

A tight moment of suspense lapsed in which it seemed that Maya, Andrew, and Dawn were trying to decide if Harris was setting up for a joke. The moment spun between them, sliding from anticipation to awkwardness.

“Important shopping,” Maya ventured.

Harris waved it off. “Make a list,” he said. “I’ll pick it up on the way home from work. And speaking of…”

Harris went on to exhaustively recount some repair work he had been commissioned to do for the Watcher’s Council. William felt right bored enough to slip back into a coma, but he caught a strand of his dream like a shining iridescent ribbon, and he followed it, trying to remember what it was, exactly, he had seen that woke him in the first place. Had Buffy been there? Had she been present, in his arms? And there was something else, a glimmering connection as intangible as the sunlight’s reflection in a pool but just as effectual to his wounded, wandering soul, and he had awakened…

Dawn squeezed his hand. William snapped awake.

“It’s okay,” she whispered. “We’ll find her.”

He stared into his mug, watching the orange-brown liquid coalesce from the tea bag, making a swirl of light and dark in his cup, of murky and clear, and he had an inkling that perhaps – somehow – he already had.

 

 

Buffy awoke, propped in a plethora of pillows, her hands primly folded across her belly, like she had fallen asleep in a lounge chair at poolside.

She sat up. She was starving. Star-ving. Her craving was multi-layered and intricate as a Shakespearean sonnet. She wanted honeydew melon, split in half and de-seeded, with two scoops of strawberry ice cream, with a wedge of white chocolate like a Spanish fan, the whole thing sprinkled with cinnamon. As she climbed from bed, she could feel the coolness of the ice cream on her tongue and in her throat. She tasted the smooth texture of the melon as she imagined her teeth sinking into the juicy flesh.

Buffy went to the bathroom, went briskly through her morning ritual, and was thinking that raspberry sherbet would be better than strawberry ice cream, and maybe slices of kiwi would be nice, when Willow entered with a tray.

“Hungry?” the red-head asked brightly. “We figured you would be, so we made breakfast.” Willow set the lovely wooden tray on the end of the bed and lifted off the cover to reveal a plate of eggs and sausages, two steaming biscuits and a mini-jar of orange marmalade.

Buffy felt overwhelmed. “You remembered?” she said, moving forward to touch the little jar on the tray.

“Of course I did,” Willow said. “Joyce always had marmalade for her Buffy.”

“And red plum for Dawn,” Buffy said. Then she glanced at the other bed, unmade, unoccupied, on the other side of the room, and a burble of panic trickled up from her stomach. “Where is she?”

Willow touched Buffy’s arm. “She’s in the garden. It’s okay. Tara’s with her.”

Again, Buffy felt absurdly whelmed-over with emotion, and tears stung her eyes. She sat down beside the tray, picked up a biscuit and started to nibble at it. Soon her hunger overtook the need to converse, and Buffy plowed through the eggs with her fork and ate the sausages with her bare fingers, while Willow silently watched.

Finally, Willow said, “You should probably breathe while you eat…”

Buffy choked down a bite of biscuit, then gulped down half her juice.

“I know,” she said, catching her breath. “It’s just… ’m unbelievably hungry. Like, plague of locusts hungry.”

“Just so long as you confine your decimation to the plate,” Willow said.

Buffy gave a weak laugh. “I dunno, Wil. These throw pillows’re looking mighty tasty. Don’t get me started on bath soap…”

Willow grinned. “Unorthodox cravings?”

“Mainly the regular kind. Except for the lead paint and gasoline.”

“Indigestion?”

“Heartburn.”

Again, with the Willow grin. She sampled a bit of Buffy’s biscuit to thinly conceal her desire to launch into a pretext.

“What is it, Wil?” Buffy asked, aware that they had slipped into the conversational rhythm expected of old friends.

Willow edged onto the bed. “Look, Buffy, I know that you probably want to return to Sunnydale all on your own and stuff, and while I support your right to personal vendettas, I-I just don’t think it’s a great idea…”

Buffy shook her head fervently. “No, Wil. You couldn’t be more wrong. I need help. Really, really need it like I haven’t needed it before. I haven’t been on patrol in months. I’m incredibly out of shape. Except, pear is a shape. And I know I haven’t been here on count of my being dead, but…”

“We’ll be there,” Willow said. “Buffy, whatever it takes, we want to help you.”

Buffy reached for Willow, but the tray was in the way. She moved it aside and clenched Willow in a long, welcome embrace. “You can’t imagine how good it is to hear that.”

“Besides,” Willow said, speaking into Buffy’s hair. “Angel’s been waiting for his chance to get at the Coven and TriadCorp. We’ll make garters of the entrails of some evil corporate conglomerate witch-types.”

Buffy had to laugh again. “Willow: Small, yet terrifying.”

“Yes. Know me, and know the meaning of…” Willow began, and was interrupted by Tara’s excited entrance into the room. She beckoned to them to follow and then darted into the hallway.

Buffy and Willow exchanged questioning looks. Tara came back in seconds later, waved more furiously, but with an expression more of awe than concern, then disappeared again. And so they followed.

 

Dawn tracked William to the garden, where he was hiding out, smoking. She paused at the door, her sketchbook clutched close to her body, feeling the spicy tinge of the smoke in her nose. Before she could chicken out, Dawn pulled the door open and stepped onto the flagstone patio.

Something strange had happened in the garden. Dawn had been vaguely aware of it, but in a peripheral way. It occurred to her as she crossed the verdant grass that she had not ventured out of doors since she’d followed Andrew to the ATS, and the reason for that was extreme wintry conditions, such as slippery ice and bitter sleet.

That was the front of the house. The garden in back? Now that was…

“What magic do you think accounts for the Club Rio Resort here?” Spike asked Dawn, without looking up from the grassy patch between his booted feet.

Dawn took up the space beside him on the picnic table. “Maybe Willow’s protection spell doubles as a pocket of paradise deal?” she ventured.

He shrugged.

She put her sketchbook on her knees and watched him, scolding herself inwardly for not coming right out with what she wanted to show him because now she felt her nerve slipping away like water down a street drain.

After a long moment, Spike said, “S’pose you didn’t come out to chat about the unseasonal greenery.”

Dawn turned her body to face his, and he could read from her rigid posture that she had something weighing on her mind. She took a minute to compose herself. He took a moment to stub out his cigarette – stale bugger that it was – and flick the butt into the yard.

“I have been feeling… something…” Dawn began, haltingly, her eyes averted, “Even before Buffy disappeared, something strange has been happening. With me.”

She paused. He said, “Go on, pet.”

Dawn breathed deep, then opened her sketch book to the first page. The first drawing he had seen before: the likeness of Connor in profile, his forehead a little too high, the nose too long, but still recognizable as Angel’s brooding son. He recalled with astonishing clarity the morning William had sneaked up on Dawn while she sketched – the acrid scent of burnt coffee, the yellow light streaming like dust through the high window above the sink, Giles washing his mug over and over and over.

“It’s a good likeness,” William said, remembering how he’d spooked her, causing her to score a deep, even line across the boy’s face.

“Now it is,” Dawn agreed, smoothing her finger over the barely visible mark which she had erased and concealed with subtle shading so that it looked more than a scar than an artist’s error.

“So?” William said.

Dawn flipped slowly through the next few pages. Her stomach twisted as she recalled the events that brought about each sketch. She stopped at the fifth.

Dawn couldn’t even remember the name of the boy she’d…used for this drawing, but the image had long since stopped twitching. The magic that animated its toothy mouth and tentacles had faded.

As William stared at the page, a myriad of expressions flickered across his face.

“This is a Pishacha,” he said at last, his brow creased with concern. “You drew this?”

Dawn nodded. She flipped the page. The next image, snarling and visceral, seemed to leer out of the book, and William felt his flesh crawl. It was astonishingly lifelike in its horridness. He could practically smell the sulfur and brimstone.

“And this?” he asked. She felt him studying her and her own skin prickled with the heat of embarrassment and shame. This one she’d drawn after Augie.

“Do you know what it is?” she asked.

“Do you?”

She shook her head.

“It’s a Subako – Japanese, I believe. They live in hives and are rarely seen by humans,” William said. “What’s this about, luv?”

Dawn skipped the next few pages, then paused, her finger and thumb on the corner of the page. “That’s nothing,” she said. “This is what I wanted to show you.”

She turned the page to reveal a hideous seven-headed hellbitch with a skull full of quivering quills that still quivered. As William stared into the drawing, the demon grew aware of him. She brandished a barbed halberd at him and screamed soundlessly, her lipless mouth elongated a la Edvard Munsch.

William drew back. “It’s uh… it’s uh…”

“Live. Yeah. I know. It’s not always demons, either. Sometimes it’s places or people, but never anything I have seen before. Her, for example.”

The hellbitch stamped and pranced, dragging a long scaled tail behind her in a way that seemed comically haughty. William poked the demon’s chest. She stumbled back, but then erupted in a blur of gracefully frenzied movements that held him mesmerized.

“How?” he asked.

“Magic,” she said, feeling that the word by itself was inadequate.

“Not like any I’ve seen,” he said.

“There’s more, Spike,” Dawn said. She turned the page again, which seemed to greatly offend the hellbitch’s sense of self-importance.

“The night we argued,” Dawn said, and now William was the one to lower his gaze. “I went out, and…”

“Dawn,” he said. “Did some beastie get you?”

She laughed, bitterly. “More like the opposite,” she said.

William grew still, and Dawn rushed to answer the question in his eyes. “It was just a game we played. But things went wrong, and I went too far. Someone got hurt.” She swallowed hard, pressing her palms flat over the page in her sketchbook. “I hurt someone,” she forced herself to say. “I hurt Brody. I drew on him, and got carried away with it, like I do. When I draw, I get lost, sorta, gone with it, and I saw something – something so real and so frightening, and when I came out of the spell or whatever, I…”

Dawn trailed off, hoping desperately that William would fill in the blank for her. She felt her body tense and her shoulders tremble in the anticipation of his reproach, but he said nothing. She finally managed to glance at his eyes, and was shocked to see not disapproval or disappointment, but understanding.

“You lost control,” he whispered.

She sighed, and with a final shove of her resolve, pushed the burden of the truth from her shoulders.

“That’s not all I lost,” she muttered.

Tears filled her throat, hot and stifling, but she choked them down and continued. “Anyway, it’s done. I quit. After that night, I stopped drawing.”

William bowed his head toward her until their foreheads touched. “Ah, Bit…”

She felt herself crumbling inward, all of the pain and loathing she had dammed up behind her time spent with Andrew began to erode.

“It’s not true,” she said. “Even that’s not true. I also sketched Andrew and walked right into his thoughts. I was in his mind, actually witnessing his memories.”

William snorted. “Must have been an odd little jaunt into disjointed thought,” he said.

An unexpected giggle rose up in her chest.

Encouraged, William went on. “Was it Lieutenant Uhuru-meets-Captain Janeway in Jabba’s Palace? Or Casino Royale?”

Dawn chuckled at the image, feeling the last of her inner masonry tumble down. She hunched over her sketchbook, shoulders quaking, and for a long moment, she couldn’t tell if she was laughing or crying. Soon everything blurred to hysteria – the fiercely green garden, her vivid sketches, Andrew, Spike, the Flat, Buffy, Xander, Maya – everything. She felt ridiculously miniscule and childish.

“Hey now,” William said, caressing her shoulder. “Dawn?”

She raised her face to meet his. With her hair in her eyes and her cheeks bathed in tears, she looked exactly as she had so many years ago, after Joyce had died. It wasn’t grief he had seen then, but a kind of reckless determination. Yet it was only a glimpse before the young woman - calm, self-possessed, bordering on austere - took over.

Dawn said, “Fine now.”

William fumbled the pack of pilfered Pall Malls out of the pocket of his duster and knocked one between his fingers. With a snick of his Zippo, he’d lit it and then sucked the hot smoke into his lungs.

“So,” he said as he exhaled. “The spell that did the waking, and the spontaneous regeneration of Andrew’s long lost limb. Also your work?”

Dawn dropped her head slightly and nodded. “Andrew’s discovery. We… performed… the rite. Together. The hand thing was unexpected, but…”

“Hang on,” William said. “You? And Andrew?”

Dawn forced herself to meet William’s gaze. His brow was furrowed; his look, guarded. She hurried to explain herself.

“I don’t know what I would have done without him. I mean, literally. Everybody else was gone, but he’s been keeping things sane around here. Without him, I would have been… well, I was a mess. Total. Complete. But we got through,” she rambled.

William leaned away, studying her with measured caution. At length, he said, “Be careful of the boy. He can’t help how he feels.”

Dawn blinked. It took her a moment to read together the words and his expression. She remembered that look on Spike’s face when she’d confronted him about his one-night slam with Anya. The lovesick look. And she got it.

“No,” she said, quietly at first, then, “No. It’s not like that. I… he’s...” She smiled, bit her lip. “I cherish him.”

“Cherish?” he asked, sounding doubtful.

Dawn said, “Look, I haven’t had much time to think about it, but I know what it is, about Andrew and me.”

“Okay, I’ll bite. What is it?”

“You recall when I was the Key?”

“In vivid Technicolor, luv.”

“Of course,” she said, feeling stupid for stating something so obvious. She went on nonetheless. “The monks made me and inserted me into your lives. You didn’t have a choice. Everyone who knew me had to love me. All part of the plan.”

“Wouldn’t say ‘had to’,” William interrupted.

“You so did. I was the Dawn Summers love injection.”

He arched a brow.

“You know what I mean. But Andrew: He’s the first person who ever chose me for me. He likes post-key Dawn. And we were friends first, then more than friends, and then way more…”

He held up his hands. “Not requesting a playback, pet.”

Dawn colored deeply. “Sorry.” She tucked her hair behind her ears again. “You’re so sweet, being concerned for him…”

“Bite your tongue,” William said. “I was just checking for the sake of morale.”

“Sure. Okay. But I wouldn’t hurt him,” Dawn said, still smiling. “It… feels good to talk. About everything. You’re not at all freaked or upset.”

William let out a relieved sigh. He ran his cigarette-free hand over her hair. “No, pet. Not a bit. Harris and Flower Child know nothing?”

“Nothing” Dawn said. “We’re not in a sharing place. Not that we’ve talked about that part yet. Plus, it’s nice, having something all our own.”

“Got it. Agreed,” William said, getting to his feet. He took a drag from his cigarette, then stubbed it out on the table. “And I am ready, for the record. I’ll start back at the school tomorrow. Buffy would want it…”

Dawn shifted back on the table, stretching her slender arms behind her. When she did, William saw something on the page that sent a shiver over his skin. He came around the side of the table to look at the sketch from Dawn’s perspective.

“Lemme see that,” he said, swiping the pad from her lap.

“Hey!” she said.

He gripped both edges of the pad between his hands and stared down into an image of such exquisitely fine detail it looked like more a black and white photograph than a drawing. His breath returned to him in a ragged gasp as he struggled and failed to say, I know this place. I’ve been here.

Dawn leaned in close to better see what he was seeing. For her, it was just the drawing from the night before. For him, it was the key to unlocking all that he had dreamed, with the succubus, with Dru, with Andrew and Dawn, and with Buffy.

“Buffy,” he muttered.

“It’s okay,” Dawn said. “We’ll find her.”

“No. No, you don’t understand,” William said. “I was here, in this place. With her. With Buffy.”

Dawn gave him an incredulous look. “I don’t understand,” she said.

William responded with a knowing half-smile. “Yes you do, Nibblet,” he said. “I think you do.”

 

 

Tara led Buffy and Willow to the garden, where Dawn had cleared a section of the English ivy from the stucco outer wall of the Hyperion’s atrium. When they arrived, Dawn was still at work, her nimble fingers a blur as she scraped over the surface with a shard of gray pottery.

Buffy could only make out the extremities of a large mural: the outer border of a building with peaked roofs, a series of faceted domes, and the intimation of stars in a cross-hatched sky. She stepped closer, trying to see around her sister, but Dawn seemed able to cover more space than was possible with her busy arms and voluminous white gown. Buffy glimpsed a scruff of hedges abutting a low rock wall that blended into the ivy that remained as a boundary to the mural’s edge.

“I didn’t know she could do this,” Buffy marveled, stepping closer.

“Me neither,” Willow said. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah…” Buffy sighed, as her heart began to pound. She took another step, just as Dawn backed out of the scene to reveal her completed masterpiece.

“The chapel…” Buffy gasped.

“You know it?” Willow asked.

Buffy was shaking her head, but Dawn had clasped her hands together like an excited child about to receive a present.

“Dawn, how did you…?” Buffy said.

“I’m the key. Always the key,” Dawn sang. “I know what to do. I know what I have to do.”

 

Chapter Text

Lately, Dawn existed in a constant state of hurry, for she knew that if she could find all of the magical items she needed in five minutes or less, she could spend the remaining nine or fifteen with him before the others awoke and crammed their busy schedules in with his and hers.

Dawn, her thoughts percolating with caffeinated randomness, took the key to Willow’s rooms from the roll-top desk on the second floor landing and bounded upstairs. She wondered, idly, as she turned the key with a snick, why they bothered locking doors if everyone in the house knew where they kept the keys.

Willow’s rooms smelled of rose-oil, sage, and amber resin, like a woodland cabin belonging to an apothecary. Her canopy bed was made, buttoned up and tidy with its bronze satin duvet. Her lavender robe lay across the foot, patiently awaiting her return.

Dawn breathed deeply, feeling Willow’s presence in the room. It felt like so long since Willow left with Connor and the others to travel into The Deeper Well. Even though it had only been a few weeks, Dawn missed her.

Not now, Dawn thought, getting stern with herself. No time .

She went to Willow’s writing desk, pulled open the upper drawer and began to rifle through the field journals and books there. The book Andrew wanted – the one with the hammered-tin cover and grey leather ties – had once been here, in the drawer of this desk. How Andrew had seen it, though, Dawn was unclear, but also, not overly concerned. Willow had lent him her spell books before.

However, this little journal, which had been a gift from Ariadne way back when Willow first came with Giles to the Coven in Devon, was not in the lap drawer of the desk.

Dawn pivoted on the braided rug. Where else could it be? She thought. Simple, in any one of two dozen other shelves and drawers in Willow’s bedroom, which seemed, now that Dawn thought of it, more like book storage than a place where Willow actually slept. And of course, that had been true. Willow had lived in the Westbury house with Kennedy. She resided at the Flat on weekends when she wasn’t on magic missions for Giles or was off on a foreign jaunt to find newly-awakened Slayers who seemed to crop up like mushrooms after a spring rainstorm. And what if the book they sought was there, in Westbury, gathering dust on one of those hundreds of shelves?

The hairs on her arms bristled as she effortlessly extended her awareness. Dust and sunlight sharpened as it floated through the splintered light of the curtained windows. For a moment of spiraling dizziness, Dawn felt as though she was floating near the ceiling, looking down on the room the way a hawk sees a field or the flat, glittering surface of a mountain pool. There, from the corner of her eye, she caught a glint of silver – just a flash, and she returned with a sudden rush to herself.

Dawn darted to the bedside table where she found, not the book, but a silver case with the same triskele design tooled into its shining lid. She opened it and found inside a deck of Tarot cards.

She took them into her hands, knowing that she did not have the time to dabble with Tarot, but could not resist the rose and honeycomb design on the back of each hand-painted card. The motif of each cardback was wrought with lithe and elegant lines, like the delicate fairy-tale strokes of a Froudian elf.

Dawn paused, wondering why she felt so drawn to these cards, like maybe she was meant to find them. She fanned them face down on the bed, experimentally, and then restacked them. She cut two-thirds into the deck.

When she turned it over the top card, the image of The Lovers did not surprise her. The pair of androgynous figures lay on their backs side by side on a stone slab strewn with dusky rose petals. The left hand of one figure nested in the open palm of the other’s right hand. Their heads lay almost touching, but in the place where their faces should have been there blazed a diaphanous haze of brightly burning light.

Dawn brushed the surface of the image with the tips of her fingers. She traced the outline of the figures – the shape of a heart made by the curves of their shoulders, the lines of their arms, their linked hands, the blind blankness of their eyes as they stared forward together, not fully knowing, but trusting anyway.

It was…

Dawn clutched it to her chest. She felt tears sting her eyes. She knew she had to have this card. She needed to take it, to share it, but she thought taking a card from a witch’s Tarot had to be the worst kind of mojo. And besides, she thought as she replaced the card on the top of the deck, she would draw it herself, re-create it on her own. That was something she knew she could do.

Dawn left Willow’s suite, feeling content with what she found, even though it was not what she went looking for.

 

 

Xander awoke with the certainty that he was the only one awake. It was like a kind of radar – awake-dar? – and he had no particular use for it except to ensure that he got the first cup of freshly-brewed dark roast every morning.

But before that, he had to shower. What was it about arguing , he wondered, that made women want the sex? When it came down to a mighty screaming match, Maya turned out to be no different from Anya in that category. Not that he wanted to compare them. Ever.

However, comparing them did call to mind some naughty and arousing imagery.

Xander chided himself inwardly as he slipped from his bedroom into the drafty hallway, and then into his small bathroom.

It had been a needle of bother to him that he was the only person in the entire house to have to share his bathroom. Granted, Giles was old and everyone else was a girl, with the barest minimum of exception being Andrew, but Xander paid his share of the rent same as everyone else. Why was it he had the communal toilet? The one used by visitors or anyone downstairs who didn’t want to take their business all the way upstairs to their own… place of business.

Xander dwelled on this while he took out his electric razor and a blue and white striped towel. He patted his stubble, scratched in all his manly places, and then removed his eye-patch in order to get in close for optimal shaving.

As he did so, he noticed a smudgy place on the edge of his mirror, which resembled, to his reckoning, a lowercase r turned on its side. He cocked his head to have better look.

The smudge was more or less eye level, about the width of his hand, and reminded him, curiously, of a bird’s wing. He placed his palm over the mark and tried to think about what might have imprinted it on his mirror.

After a moment’s thought, he dismissed it. “It’s practically a public toilet,” he said to his reflection. “Who knows how it got there?”

And he proceeded then to shave.

 

 

Dawn found Andrew in the kitchen, brewing tea. She slipped up behind him, prepared to jab him in the side, when he turned suddenly and pinned her between him and the kitchen sink.

“Hey!” she said in a harsh whisper. “No fair, using Watcher’s training against your girlfriend.”

Andrew’s laughter bubbled deep in his chest. “Not Watcher training, little girl. Deep meditative samurai warrior training.”

She shoved him. “You wish.”

He shrugged. “I saw your reflection in the oven door.”

Dawn pushed him again, but he held firm. She locked her eyes with his. “Get off,” she said, playfully.

Andrew shook his head.

“Do it,” she said through her teeth.

He stuck out his tongue. “I am sooo the boss of you.”

“Not even.”

“Even,” he answered with a resolute nod.

“Fine, I relent. Basement or bedroom?”

Andrew grinned in a very Spike-ish way. “Basement. Seven minutes.”

“Too long,” Dawn said. “Someone will come in here and interfere.”

Almost as if in answer to her statement, the whir of an electric razor bit into the morning’s silence. Dawn jumped.

“Two minutes,” she said. “Go. I’ll make sure the coast is clear and will be down in two minutes.”

Andrew disappeared into the basement, closing the squeaky door with the greatest possible care he could deliver under such circumstances.

Dawn glanced around the archway of the kitchen into the hall. A thin wedge of pale light fell across the floor in front of Xander’s bathroom. Dawn blushed at the memory a day and a half before, when she’d ambushed Andrew and coerced him into taking her standing up against Xander’s full length mirror while Xander and Maya ate a peaceful dinner in the next room.

Andrew had whispered, “But we don’t have condoms.” Such a sensible lad.

Dawn had responded by slipping one into his palm.

“You are the perfect girl,” he’d gushed.

She kissed him hard and said, “I know.”

Dawn was sure that two minutes had passed, and even if it hadn’t, their hiding games would soon be at an end. She opened the basement door and closed it behind her, not nearly so worried about its infernal rusty-hingedness as Andrew.

 

 

And Maya, who had witnessed Andrew’s and Dawn’s kitchen conversation from her fold-a-bed in the seldom-used parlor, also watched Dawn from the mirror that hung in the entry hall which showed a slice of the kitchen, the breakfast table, and all of the basement door. Once Dawn disappeared and the door was firmly shut behind her, Maya went into the kitchen to dispose of Andrew’s abandoned cup of tea. She returned to the snug blankets of her fold-a-bed and pretended to go back to sleep.

 

 

Things got downright porny in the basement. This was because, in Willow’s absence, no one ever went into the Spell Room in the basement except for Dawn and Andrew, and they weren’t down there to mix potions. Since the place was all their own, they made good use of Willow’s overstuffed floor pillows, and Andrew’s army surplus sleeping bag with built-in foot warmers, which they also did not use as was factory-indicated. It was, after all, both cold and dank in the basement.

After getting their early morning groove on, Dawn and Andrew lay together in semi-swoon in a tangle of limbs and tasseled orange Indian organza. Dawn realized with a measure of humor that she still had on her woolly knee socks, and that Andrew had only managed to take off one sleeve of his Miskatonic University sweatshirt before they had tackled each other.

Dawn caught her breath and propped on one elbow to look down at him. His face was flushed, his blond curls damp with sweat and clinging in an attractive way to his temples, and she had to think, Was this the same boy they once tied to a chair and slapped senseless because of his connection to The First? Could that even be possible?

But as she stared at him, she decided, No. It was not . He was different. She was different. Utterly. Entirely.

She understood, then, how Buffy and Spike could finally have made amends after all they had been through. They were The Lovers in the Tarot, their faces blank but not empty, their hands joined but open.

Andrew touched Dawn’s face with his fingers. He said, “Ground control to Major Dawn?”

“I was just thinking,” she said lightly. “Maybe we should tell Xander. About us.”

Andrew held up his hands in mock surrender. “Augh! Xander! Put down that Plus Two Sword of Wounding!”

Dawn shoved him. “He won’t do that.”

Andrew craned his head to the side and said, “He might.”

Dawn considered a moment more. She said, “He might. But his aim isn’t what it used to be, so one of us might make a clean getaway.”

Andrew shrugged, but still looked doubtful. “Maybe.”

“Besides,” Dawn said. “I already told Spike.”

Andrew ran an uneasy hand along his throat, as if recalling with vivid detail the tasty treat he’d almost become at the fangs of Spike.

“He’s fine with it,” Dawn assured him.

Andrew’s concern melted into visible relief. “Really?”

Dawn nodded. “Really really.”

Andrew rolled onto his back and stared into the murky damp of the basement ceiling. Then his brow clouded again. He said, “Maybe we should wait on Xander, at least until we have a Fortress of Solitude of our very own.”

“Fortress of Solitude?” Dawn asked.

Andrew grinned weakly.

“That’s a Superman reference.”

He massaged his forehead and groaned.

“Points for me, Andrew,” she giggled, jabbing him in the ribs. “Thought you could slip that one by, but I caught it. Advantage Summers!”

“Ha! I got you yesterday on the Ryan and Sharpay reference. It’s a deuce…”

“Did not!” she protested.

“Did too, Jazz Squares,” Andrew shot back, and Dawn gaped at him, wordlessly, while he donned a look of smug.

After a beat of silence, she said, “Place of our own. You really think about that?”

Andrew eased back into the pillows again, his bare arm looped in hers. “All the time,” he answered. Then thought for a moment before saying, “It would have to be close to the Council, of course, and near enough to the tube station so that you could still get to your classes, you know, ’cause you promised Buffy you’d finish school and Mr. Giles even called in favors.”

“Wait,” Dawn said, in complete seriousness. “You think we could afford that? You as a Watcher and me, a student?”

Andrew scratched his cheek. “Well. Yeah.”

A whole new line of thoughts and images bloomed in Dawn’s mind. She pictured one of those stylish flats near Wapping, two bedroom deals with polished chrome and blonde wood, with plates of picture window glass that overlooked the park, or the Thames, depending on which side you signed on for. The beaded Bohemian lampshades alongside an attractive second-hand settee, with end tables ordered from Pier One.

And then she saw them stretched out on a sleigh bed, him reading from a Watcher’s journal, her sprawled with schoolbooks and her laptop and a lipstick-marked cup of fragrant Chai tea.

The thought of it felt exhilarating and frightening at the same time, and she could think of only one thing that she wanted more, and that was Buffy.

“Wow,” Dawn whispered, and she kissed him.

Andrew hazarded a grin. “Is that a yes?”

“Resounding yes for Fortress of Solitude,” Dawn said.

“Ha ha ha! Advantage Wells,” he shouted.

Dawn elbowed him in the ribs. “You can’t count that. I just got you with it.”

“Rules is rules,” he said, airily, folding his arms in a way that cut off further discussion.

Dawn sat up. “Whatever. I’m hungry,” she said. “What have you got planned for today?”

“Staying in,” he said, simply. “Figured now that we woke Spike, I can return the focus of my research to the pan-spectrum geographic anomalies I was studying before.”

“And that’s techno-jargon for…?”

“Places of concentrated Big Badness,” he said. “I think there’s a pattern. I also hypothesize that the Taonyx Parchments might offer fresh insight into the location of the paranormal-slash-geographical hot-spots.”

“And this theory is based on?”

“Pure hunch,” Andrew admitted.

Dawn shrugged. “Oh good. For a second there, I thought you were getting too concrete.”

She sat up and began to pull on the mist colored negligee she had worn beneath her bulky flannel PJs. Taking her cue, Andrew threaded his arm back into the sleeve of his sweatshirt and started to hunt for his pants. Then he remembered.

“Did you find Willow’s spellbook?”

“It wasn’t there,” Dawn said with certainty. “I think it must be in Westbury. We can pick up this evening, if you’re up for a train ride.”

Andrew rubbed his chin. “I wish I could remember that rhyme. The one about the angels.”

Dawn wasn’t sure which rhyme he was talking about. She wasn’t even sure it had been Willow who had told them. All she knew was that it had some link to the Sisters who had made Spike, and it was not the one about The Rose, the Key, and The Willow Tree. This was one of Andrew’s entreaties into randomness, and she just had to trust that it would come to make sense to them both in time.

They heard the clang of the oven door upstairs simultaneously, and Dawn’s eyes flicked to Andrew’s.

“You first?” she asked.

He glanced down to indicate that he was in a higher level of undress than she.

“Gotcha,” she said, fastening her robe with its terry cloth tie. “Come up in ten minutes. I’ll see you at breakfast. And the Xander thing: I’m okay with waiting.”

Andrew kissed her, and Dawn floated upstairs.

As Andrew lingered in the semi-dark, watching her glide up and away from him, a partial thought came to him like a tiny fray in a blanket. He pulled at it, but in seconds, it had gone, and so had she.

 

 

Dawn stepped into the kitchen to find Xander bent over the frying pan, grumbling.

“Hey,” she said, a little too brightly. She skirted him, stairway bound. She paused in the archway, and turned. “You’re a little Squidward this morning. What’s up?”

Xander knew he had to play it cool, if his hunch about the wing-shaped mark on his mirror turned out to be correct. He knew that she had to disappear, if he meant to corner the other one… the whelp.

He seethed. “Spike used my towel,” Xander lied, but found that easy enough to manage, so he went with it. “Whole linen closet full of towels, why does he use mine? I’ll tell you why. Fancies himself Alpha, that’s why.”

Xander went to the refrigerator, took out the carton of eggs, plopped it on the counter. “I’ll tell you what else. He’s been awake less than 24 hours, and he’s already managed to drink all of my Beck’s. Mind you, I only had two left, but it’s the principle, see? You don’t horndoggle another man’s ale!”

“Horndoggle?” Dawn giggled, her arms cradled over her belly like she was about to have a good laugh, like she did when she was an innocent little girl...

Xander was sweating now.

Dawn hovered in the entry way. “Maybe you shouldn’t cook when you’re so clearly incensed?”

Xander glared at no one in particular. He snapped off the burner with a click and stormed out of the kitchen. A few minutes later, once he was sure Dawn had vacated, Xander returned to the kitchen and waited.

 

 

Andrew checked the time on his Scooby watch and guessed that roughly ten minutes had passed. He climbed the stairs, thinking of Dawn and the potential of a flat near Wapping, of the Sisters and the topple-down cathedral on Mercer Street, of a day’s worth of unbroken research stretching as far as his eyes could see. He was not thinking of someone waiting for him in the kitchen, so that when he opened the basement door, the left hook that caught him squarely in the chin knocked him for two kinds of loops.

Andrew jarred against the door, knocking it closed with an insolent groan. Xander rounded on him and twisted his hand into the collar of Andrew’s sweatshirt.

“Were you just canoodling with Dawn in the basement?” Xander bit out.

“Canoodling,” Andrew said, swallowing hard, trying to evade the question. “Sounds like making spaghetti in a kayak.”

“Sit down,” Xander said sternly.

Andrew obeyed.

Xander paced, his fists clenched. He said, “We’re going to have a man to… boy chat.”

Andrew was aware that he was cornered, aware that Xander had ambushed him, and so he merely sat by and watched while Xander prepared his tirade.

Xander stopped pacing. “Let me tell you a story,” he said.

Andrew looked hopeful. Xander grimaced.

“Once upon a time, there was a really beautiful, really special girl. A lot of bad things happened to this girl. Lots of changes. All of them bad,” Xander said.

“That’s really unfortunate,” Andrew said encouragingly.

“Don’t interrupt,” Xander said. “So this girl kept doing things to try and get a handle on her life. But nothing, I mean, nothing worked out. But, as fate would have it, she met a boy.”

Andrew started to say something. Xander cut him off with a slicing gesture.

“Someone who adored her,” Xander went on. “Would do anything for her. Someone who was both weaker and totally devoted. And, presto, she finally found that one thing in her life she could control. But that was all it was.”

A lingering pause passed between them.

Andrew said, “You’re talking about Buffy, right?”

“No,” Xander said, with a tight-lipped smile.

“Anya?”

“No!” Xander shouted, with a tight-lipped not-so-smile.

Andrew squinted. He said, “Claire from Lost ?”

Xander heaved a sigh. “I’m talking about Dawn.”

Andrew looked confused for a long moment, and Xander took this contemplative look to mean that the whelp was listening to Xander’s argument and taking it to heart. Andrew, on the other hand, had thoughts that were elsewhere.

After a moment of this, Andrew glanced down at his hands. “You mean…” Andrew said.

“Yes!” Xander said, relieved that Andrew was finally getting it. “I do mean.”

“She wouldn’t,” Andrew whispered.

Xander knew he had to at least fake some sympathy. He said, “People do… really strange things in the midst of chaos.”

“Chaos,” Andrew repeated. And then Andrew suddenly, finally heard everything that Xander had been trying to say. Andrew looked up at him. He said, “I gotta...”

And then, he left.

 

XXX

Xander did not feel proud when Andrew squeezed past him and disappeared into the entry way. The elation he expected when he heard Andrew slam the front door behind him did not come, and in fact disappeared entirely when he turned to find Maya’s bewildered face reflected back to him in the entry hall mirror.

He shuffled from one foot to the other, and offered a feeble grin. “Heard that, didja?”

Maya, her bird-like shoulders tense to the point of quaking, said, “Believe it or not, the sound of a man’s heart breaking… it resonates. I felt it.”

Xander knew then that he had made a mistake, handling it this way with Maya in the next room, but it was too late to stop the events he had set in motion. Dawn and Andrew, they were blind and young and stupid. There was no way Andrew could make their Dawnie happy. Xander understood this.

“It’s for the best, Maya,” he said in a tone he hoped would put an end to discussion.

Maya came in to the entry hall, her white face aflame. “How can you do that to him? To Dawn? They are happy together,” she said, almost shouting. “You have no right…”

Xander scoffed. “Aww. Wittle Jimmy Olsen has a cwush?” he said. “He’s not in love. It’s sick obsession, just like with Buffy and Spike.”

Maya’s shoulders went slack. “Oh my God,” she said.

“Don’t look that way,” Xander said. “You have that… don’t look that way.”

Maya leveled her eyes on his. “You did this with them. With Buffy and Spike. What gives you the right to interfere with their lives, Xander?”

Xander swelled with indignation. He said, “You don’t know what Andrew’s done, Maya. He’s…” he laid it out before her like a poker player who has reserved his winning card. “Andrew’s a murderer.”

Maya looked both hurt and doubtful.

“That’s right,” Xander said, “Back in Sunnydale, he murdered his best friend. His only friend. And don’t start me on the crooked lane that is Spike…”

“And yet Andrew has lived with you for half a year,” Maya countered suddenly. “He lived with Buffy and Dawn in Rome before that. They trust him.”

Xander smirked. “He’s valuable. Hence, with the using.”

Maya uttered a weak laugh. “You’re unbelievable,” she whispered. “You would think that of your friends?”

Xander cocked his head to the side in disbelief. “You’re twisting this around, Maya. And you don’t understand. You haven’t been… You weren’t here.”

Maya’s eyes had filled with tears. “No,” she said. “I think I do understand.”

Xander tried to place his hands on her arms, but she recoiled. He went on, anyway. “Deep down, Andrew knows as well as I do,” Xander said. “He’s not worthy of a girl like Dawn.”

Maya took a series of deep steadying breaths before she raised her eyes to once again meet Xander’s. She said, “Xander, I’m not sure you’re worthy of a girl like me.”

 

Chapter Text

Connor opened his eyes to find himself imbedded in solid pavement. Fissures in the concrete fanned out in all directions, foretelling the force with which he had been thrown from the explosion that destroyed… everything.

Cinders and sparks drifted through the watery green canopy like wayward fire sprites. He tried to sit up, but found that the bones in his arms, his shoulders, his spine – they were shattered, ground to pulp. The back of his skull felt sticky like a bowl of stewed cherries, and his hair stuck in bloody knots to his face. He tried to call for help, but heard only a pathetic foamy gurgling in the back of his throat.

Pathetic. The demon had taunted Connor with that word. Pathetic. Worthless. Ineffectual. Then the demon proved it by crushing Connor to mash in front of the one he most hoped to protect.

She had been in the house when it exploded. Connor might survive it, but she… No. His mind rejected the image. The idea caused his stomach to violently revolt, and in his wretched state, Connor could only choke and writhe as the surges of molten hatred wracked him.

While he lay there, gagging on his own bloody vomit, a pair of glossy black shoes appeared in his line of sight. A figure knelt down and a familiar hand brushed a crusted lock from Connor’s face.

“Connor,” a voice whispered. There was palpable tenderness in that voice, and a note of shared regret. “You have to get up. It’s not over.”

Connor felt himself drowning in his liquefying lungs. The blood that rose in his gorge poured from dozens of internal wounds, and yet this disembodied voice somehow thought Connor could stand? He couldn’t even breathe, and it would be over, soon.

“It’s not finished,” the voice said, levelly. “You have to get up, son. You must avenge her. You must stand.”

Connor made a strangled sound. His vision blurred and he rolled his head to one side in a last-ditch effort at refusal.

He felt a hand on his arm like a white-hot vise, and Connor cried out in agony. But the hand remained firm, and the heat spread over Connor’s skin in a nullifying whiteness. In the next second, his father’s face loomed close to Connor’s. Angel’s black hair framed a white face and shockingly green eyes.

“You must go on, Connor,” Angel said, pulling Connor painfully upright. “Nearby, there’s a weapon. With it, we may be avenged.”

 

 

William found the glass outer door of Summers School locked, so he broke it. The lock, not the door. Breaking glass would call too much attention, and he sought to arrive unannounced.

Inside, twenty girls (whom he had never seen before) gathered in knots of four or five, each engaged in some kind of training: hand-to-hand combat training, weapons training, send-your-enemy-to-Hell-in-bloody-screaming-pain training, etc. In the back of the training studio near Buffy’s office, the tallest, sveltest of the crew stood at the head of a table ringed with four other Slayers, busily strategizing.

One tow-headed lass spied William’s reflection in the mirror and moved to intercept him.

“Sir! Sir, you can’t be here,” she said in the prim, clipped accent of a high-money Londoner. She caught up to him as he made his way toward the strategy table, and latched onto his arm with a her deft Slayer-strong grip, not guessing that he had experience with her kind and could not be stymied by the strength in the deceptively skinny arms of a west London school girl.

William felt the old stir in his blood despite his non-vampness. He twisted the girl’s arm behind her, barred her throat with his forearm, and pinned her wrist between her shoulder blades.

“Can and am, pet,” he purred into her ear. William smiled when he noted that the action had earned an appropriate reaction: Every Slayer in the room turned to confront him.

William recognized two familiar faces. The svelte girl at the head of the table was Rita, returned from Paris. Beside her and grown a half-foot was MK. The girl’s features had taken on a lean ferocity since he’d seen her last, and he felt an inexplicable swell of sadness over that.

MK said, “Spike, what the heck?”

“Right,” Spike said, releasing his pale captive with a push into the crowd of Slayers. “So, Tiny… Miss me?”

MK left the table. Rita, he noticed, closed around the table’s edge, blocking his view of whatever lay on its surface. Her lieutenants – a compact young woman with short cropped black hair and a blond with a wicked scrawling scar on her neck – took up positions alongside her.

“Mr. Wells didn’t say you were coming,” MK said.

William snickered. “Mr. Wells now, is it?”

She folded her arms and glowered. “As a matter of fact…”

Rita interrupted. “Why are you here?” she asked.

“Came to lend a hand. Heard there were demons in need of killing. I’ve an illustrious career doing precisely that,” he said.

Rita leveled icy grey eyes on his. She said, briskly, “We don’t need your help.”

“That right?” he said, smirking. “Got the drop on your girl.” He tipped his head to the pale girl, who blushed deep scarlet.

MK rushed in to say, “She means we know you have your hands full, finding Buffy.”

Rita shot her a scathing glare, and William understood that the younger girl had spoken out of turn. His fondness for MK rose a notch. He always did have a soft spot for her.

William nodded, slightly. “Buffy’d want me here,” he said. He settled his eyes on Rita’s; she was the first to glance away.

To the other’s she ordered, “Resume your drills.” Turning to her lieutenants, she said, “Keep trying to figure those coordinates. MK, take Susan into the weapon’s room and run her through the exercise for breaking holds.”

MK tipped a nod to Rita, shot a hard look at William, and then led the tow-headed girl across the wooden practice floor.

Rita motioned for William to follow her in to Buffy’s office, which he did.

As soon as she had the door closed behind them, her manner transformed from drill sergeant to actual human being. Rita, he knew, was somewhere between 18 and 20, had been, in her life before Slaying, a college student studying marine biology, and had an American father - Native American, if her high cheekbones and ebony hair counted for anything. Rita was, by all accounts, a solid, capable fighter who was more than competent in brainworks as well. In Buffy’s absence, Rita would be the logical next-in-command, even without seniority.

She turned to him and said, “Mr. Wells mentioned you were back but didn’t say you’d return so soon. We didn’t have time to debrief the girls on your profile or your part in the mission. And then right off, you attack Susan.”

“Didn’t attack the girl…”

“You chicken-winged her,” Rita shot back. “What sort of reaction did you expect?”

“Not an Amazon song-and-dance,” William admitted. “And what’s with the arsenal? Looks like large-scale Apocalypse preparation.”

“Mr. Wells didn’t inform you?”

“Oh for…” William snapped. “It’s And rew, right? Mr. Wells is his absentee father. And no. He’s told me little on count of I’ve been knackered on my back for two weeks, pumped full of Succubus venom.”

“It’s bad, and soon to get worse,” Rita told him. “An ancient demon clan has escaped from its exile and set up headquarters here. Mr. Wells believes they are trying to seize what’s left of the Circle of the Black Thorn, since there is no one left to claim it. And if that wasn’t enough, the Coven sent word yesterday that the boundary between here and Hell was breached recently, and…”

“Hang on,” William said. He paced the small, white room. “Who could breach the gateway of Hell?”

Rita gave him a tight smile. “I’m a soldier, not a sorcerer,” she said. “Besides, that’s not the bad part.”

“Go on.”

“Anytime a boundary is breached, things spill over,” she said.

“I recall,” he said, remembering the various horrors that Hell spat forth the time Dawn’s blood opened Glory’s gateway for a mere matter of seconds. “What manner of beasties this time?”

“Demons, imps, slithery things: The usual. We’ve already experience an increase in demon attacks, and now this,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest as if the thought of it chilled her. “Doesn’t matter. We’ll fight it, whatever it is. It’s what we do.”

William stopped pacing. He placed his hands on the desk and lowered his head. Under the thick, scratched glass of the desktop, Buffy had slipped one of the pictures Andrew had taken of them at their end-of-summer barbecue. It was a blurred, too-close-up image of them both smiling and sunblind, with a hazy Dawn making her fishy face in the background. He smiled at the memory of that day, at the soft kiss they shared in the cool shadow of the house, with everyone watching but not saying a word.

How bloody fantastic it felt, to love and be loved in the open! He wanted that back with every molecule of his being. Even if Buffy wasn’t here, physically here , William knew where he belonged. And he knew what Buffy would want…

“William?” Rita asked, stirring him from his recollections.

“I want my life back,” he said. “Being here. Fighting. It’s what I do, see? Because this…” he placed his palm over the picture and felt only the cold of the glass beneath his skin. William was afraid. Really afraid this time. They were apart for this apocalypse. Failing might mean...

William pressed on. “If things are unraveling like Mr. W– Andrew – seems to think, it means danger on all fronts. You may not need me, whatever. I need to be here,” He swallowed hard. “I have to be here. For Buffy.”

Rita tossed her black her hair over her shoulder. She studied him a moment before she asked, “Are you up for a fight?”

William grinned, feeling that stir in his blood once more. He said, “That is a bloody stupid question.”

 

 

Andrew did not believe Xander.

Could not. Would not. Did not. Should not believe Xander. Although, part of him did.

Andrew let his slippered feet lead him through the icy streets of London. Throngs of working folk bundled into the tube station, which steamed like tea kettles in the frosty morning air. Andrew avoided them. He wore his jammies and corduroy slippers, and looked, he was certain, like Crazy Homeless Guy. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and let his feet carry him farther and farther from home.

Dawn wouldn’t use him. That he knew.

Buffy had used Spike and didn’t love him. She did now, but not then. Oh, it was all too confusing.

Andrew crossed against traffic signals and heeded not the posted detour notices. He crossed yellow-taped boundary lines, disregarded orange pylons, and skirted road blocks with their blinking amber lights without paying them any mind. Just as he ignored the scores of vigils at every street corner - the fading flowers, posters and guttered candles dedicated to those who had vanished during The Cleansing - which had become so commonplace Andrew no longer saw them. Nor did he pay attention to the Missing Persons posters, hundreds of them, which lined the windows of storefronts and bus depots.

He’d been too busy to notice. First, there was his Council research, in which he had been tracking the geographical frequencies of demon attacks. Then, Spike went all Han Solo-frozen-in-carbonite. And then Dawn. After that, everything kinda blurred…

What Xander said, it hurt him. Xander punching him hurt him, too. It wasn’t why he left, though. Andrew had to leave, because at that moment, he remembered precisely how it felt to sink a blade into Jonathan’s belly. He recalled with grim clarity how the knife slid into Jonathan’s guts like a toothpick into Jell-O, with barely any resistance at all, and then the almost pleasant spurt of Jonathan’s warm blood on his hand.

That was why Andrew left. He recalled killing Jonathan and knew how easy it would be to cut-and-paste the process with Xander. It was surprising, how effortless the thought popped into his brain. Never mind how much good Andrew had tried to bring to the world, who he was seemed forever less than a step behind him.

Andrew did not notice the dull, dark stains that splattered the alley wall and drain. If he had, he might have dismissed it as motor oil, except for the pulverized fragments of bone and brain that flecked the surface of the blot. He stepped in the blood, slipped around in it a little bit, but continued on his un-merry way.

And was he naïve then to believe that Dawn could really know him and love him?

Xander was right about people doing strange things in the midst of chaos. Andrew understood that he had been kidding himself. He could not deserve Dawn’s love.

So Andrew believed Xander after all.

With this cumbersome epiphany, Andrew came to a stop. He stood at the mouth of an alley, having passed through it, and looked upon a familiar hulking structure. Its bricks, grimed by years of soot and slime and disuse, gleamed black with a thin sheen of ice. Cords of dried ivy clung in lifeless clumps to its broken peaks and spires, and its windows, which must have once possessed stained glass, looked blindly out into a dusty courtyard full of derelict playground equipment. The front door still lay open like a dead lolling tongue from its last encounter with Spike and Angel.

Andrew never thought a place could look as forlorn and empty as The Temple of the Sisters. Feeling a kind of kinship to it, Andrew went inside.

 

 

Dawn flitted downstairs, feeling like she could take on anything. After her shower, she had sketched a preliminary outline of The Lovers card as a gift for Andrew. She imagined it, finished and framed, on the wall of their future flat. For so long, she thought of nothing but the end of things, of doom, destruction, loss, and finally death. The image gave her hope, and for the first time she could envision the possibility of beginning.

At the base of the stairs, Dawn turned headlong into a confrontation ensuing between Maya and Xander. Maya stood, arms crossed, in the archway of the seldom-used parlor, at right angles to the stairwell and Xander, who was in the hallway, his fists and teeth clenched like a man about to launch himself from a diving board into freezing water.

Dawn paused, hesitant to pass between them lest they slice her with the lasers from their eyes.

Surprisingly, Maya turned to Dawn. She said, “Honey, Andrew’s left. Do you know where he might’ve gone?”

Dawn blinked. “Left? He didn’t say he was going...”

Maya inclined her head in Xander’s direction, but he remained implacable. In a flash, Dawn understood.

She turned to Xander. “What did you do?”

Xander forced an incredulous laugh. “Told him the truth. It was time for it, dontcha think?”

“The truth?” Dawn asked.

“Look, I know, all right,” Xander said. “Don’t play games or pretend.” He paused, but when they said nothing, he explained. “You’re using him.”

Dawn felt the blood in her entire body turn cold. Her whole brief life, she’d heard that expression; now she knew how it felt. “W-what?” she said.

Xander shrugged. “We were gone, so who else could you turn to? You needed someone, I get that. But we’re here now. We’re home, and you can back out of whatever it was you think you had…”

Dawn was retreating from him without realizing it. The coat rack blocked her escape. She couldn’t read the expression on Xander’s face. Was it pity? Disgust? Both? Did he really think…?

He took a step forward. Dawn put out a hand to halt him.

He said, “It’s for the best. You know that when all of this is over, you’d both be hurt, and none of us can afford that now…”

Maya made a derisive sound, but Dawn barely heard it.

“You said I used him?” Dawn muttered.

Xander gave a slight nod. “Yes, Dawn. I did.”

Tears stung her eyes. She said, “He believed you?”

“Oh Dawn,” Maya said, moving toward her.

“Don’t!” Dawn snapped, and Maya stopped mid-step.

Xander said, “Well he left, didn’t he?”

Dawn felt her limbs fail her. She sank into the coats and fell with the rack against the wall. Before she collapsed, she caught the edge of the entry hall table to steady herself. Then the anger welled up inside, white and hot and obliterating.

“You!” she bit out. “You think you know. You think you have everything figured out.”

Xander made another move forward.

“I was wrong about you,” Dawn said. “You don’t see. You don’t see anything!” With that, Dawn ripped her coat from the rack and raced for the door.

“Dawn, where are you…?” Xander began.

“I have to go find him,” she said, and she fled down the front steps.

 

 

To say that the Temple had seen better days: understatement. Since Andrew’s last visit, when he and Dawn had discovered the link between The Sisters and the newly-incarnated William, things had degraded due to the temple’s lack of door. The wind had blown in news pages, leaves, Cornetto wrappers, and other junk, which matted into the cobwebs that clogged the corners of the chapel.

Andrew wandered in, daring more in the wan light than he did the day he first ventured here with Dawn. He came to a stop in the place where he had twice drawn a circle in chalk, and found a remnant of its outline there.

He knelt beside it, thinking of Jonathan – the Tattoo to his Mr. Roarke, the R2 to his Threepio – and how he’d ruined everything by betraying his best friend.

Andrew couldn’t dwell on it for long. He had research to do and the world to save. All he needed was air and time to focus. Much like Luke on Dagobah, he needed to get some perspective before tackling the next task. And where oh where was his Yoda?

A swell of self-loathing rose in him. How could he think of Star Wars at a time like this? He bowed his head and felt wretched.

A moment later, lithe brown fingers touched his restored left hand, and Andrew leapt backward with a rabbit’s yelp.

She wore a gown of white, with strands of gleaming pearls twined into her tumbling black curls. She knelt on the ground, her skirt pooled around her like a bank of fresh snow. She raised her face to him, and smiled her beguiling smile.

“Andrew, my love,” she said. “You should not be out all on your own.”

“Nighna,” he said, breathless. “Maya said you were dead.”

She rose, her immaculate white robe flowing about her like liquid moonlight. She said, “I am dead, sweet.”

Andrew felt a pang of sadness. “You’re like my Obi-Wan?”

“I must be,” she said. She crossed to him and circled around, caressing his shoulders as she passed. “Andrew, you must be ready for what is to come. You no longer possess my mark,” she said, taking his left hand in both of hers. “I cannot protect you.”

Andrew twisted his hand to clasp hers. “Is it the Soolsqueekagigs? Are they here?”

“Those, I fear, are the least of your concern now,” she said.

Andrew paled. “Wait wait wait. Worse than those guys? They’re like the Galactus of demonkind. Do you mean They Who Shall Not Be Named weren’t the ones who ripped the veil between worlds?”

“Luxe is coming, Andrew,” she said. “He brings with him all the armies of Hell. My darling, it is a matter of hours now before they break through the membrane that separates our worlds, if they haven’t already.”

Andrew made an ‘ew’ face. “Membrane?”

“The veil you mentioned. Someone in Hell opened a gateway. Luxe will have used it to his advantage. He was lying in wait,” she said. “He wants a return of the Demon Age, Andrew. He has the forces to make that a reality.”

Andrew’s hand slipped from Nighna’s. His shoulders dropped, as if bearing the new weight of this news. “What can we do?” he asked.

She circled him again, her movements slow and intoxicating as a single snowflake’s drift from the sky. She said:

Kingdoms crumble, rumors of war

Look to the east, the rising star

And wish not for an early sting

When in the end the Angels sing.

 

In triskele form, we take the three

The rose shall wilt, the Son will see

And fell the final death bells ring

When in the end the Angels sing?

 

In heather bed, where lovers lie,

When earthen circles fall and die

The King will take his silver ring

And in the end, the Angels sing.”

 

He repeated, “In the end, the Angels sing. Hey, that’s…”

“It is the verse entire,” she said. “As the Nephillim wrought it, centuries ago, the key to the encrypted parchments you hold. It was lost, along with so many things in this world. Rupert recovered it, with you and Dawn, and its message returned to the world.”

“Can I get you to write it down for me?” he asked.

“You will recall it when it is needed most,” Nighna said, bowing her head.

Andrew stared at her form until he thought he saw her aura burning around her, the fiery pale blue of newborn stars.

He said, “You’re not really her, are you?”

Nighna raised her eyes to meet his. With a pensive smile, she said, “I wore her visage to bring comfort. Know that she perished with her soul, and not parted from it.”

Slowly, the pearlescence of her gown faded as the woman assumed her own form. Buffy would have recognized her as Ea, one of the seven Nephillim. She was timeless, careworn, and endlessly beautiful. Beholding her reminded Andrew of the loveliness he knew in the presence of Dawn, and he urgently wanted only to go home and be with her, for always, or for at least as long as they had remaining.

Andrew started to speak again, to thank her, but the woman had vanished.

He remained still for a moment more, before thoughts of a global-scale demon assault spurred him to action. He had to tell Dawn. He had to alert the Council. Teams of Slayers had to be coordinated and mobilized. First, he had to write down that rhyme before his ADD-addled brain pulled its flip-flop-hop on him, and he wound up with Prophecy Soup.

He searched feverishly, and found the back of a sodden concert pamphlet, but nothing with which to write. He cursed himself for not heeding the Watcher’s Codex Rule #171: never leave home without some form of writing utensil, which you can use for record-keeping, and as a weapon, should the occasion arise.

Andrew resolved to sing the rhyme to himself as he ran like mad through the streets toward the Flat.

He couldn’t know he would never again see the way to his home.

 

Chapter Text

“A galaxy of ‘No,’” Buffy said.

“No?” Angel countered.

Everyone else gave a collected sigh of exasperation.

“Why ‘no’ now?” Xander asked, gripping the edge of the war room table, as if his knees were giving out on him because he had been standing there a long time, because, in fact, he had. Everyone – Fred and Wes, Tara and Willow, Xander and Anya, Cordy and Angel – opted to take this meeting standing up, which Buffy found particularly straining because her feet had begun to swell, which was not swell at all.

Buffy, who had been standing just as long as Xander, thought he was being overly dramatic, answered, “Tara stays behind.”

Now it was Willow’s turn to shout – and why not? – everyone else had. “Buffy, you have no right…” she yelled.

“It’s my mission,” Buffy began.

“One for which you asked our help,” Cordelia snapped. She hovered in the doorway, Connor bouncing on her hip, so that she could keep an eye on Dawn who had taken up a twitchy, staggered pacing in the lobby ever since they dragged her from her spookily life-like drawing in the courtyard.

“Besides,” Willow cut in before Buffy could speak, “Tara should go. She owes them.”

“Precisely my point,” Buffy said evenly. “Everyone who goes has to remain objective, or The Coven will spin us so fast...”

“Lived it,” Willow said. “We know what they can do. So if Tara stays, I stay.”

Buffy sagged. She hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but had sorta known it would. Buffy needed Willow; Willow knew it. Going without out her would be like traveling back in time and intentionally booking tickets on the Titanic . In short: disaster.

Buffy rolled her eyes heavenward. “Fine,” she hissed. “Tara goes.”

Willow danced a triumphant jig, which Buffy felt unnecessary and inappropriate, given that Willow had signed her speechless girlfriend up for a possible suicide mission.

“But,” Buffy went on, “she goes with Xander and Anya after you and Wes have established contact with Margot and Ariadne.”

“Agreed,” Willow and Xander said in accord.

“Then that leaves Dawn here with Cordelia and Connor,” Buffy said.

“No!” Angel said, which produced an even greater ripple of protest than Buffy’s objection to Tara.

“What?” Cordelia asked. “I thought we agreed it was best that Dawn remain behind.”

Angel shoved away from the table. “We did,” he said. “But you’re not staying here.”

“Ah,” Xander said, knowingly. He glanced at Wes, who nodded, and Buffy felt a wave of loathing at how tight-knit they were. Tight-knit, and smug about it.

“The Halliwells,” Wes said, brow arched. Fred and Cordelia squealed enthusiastically.

“It’s perfect,” Fred exclaimed. “Circle of Enduring Protection, a Book of Shadows in the attic, and a white-lighter. Plus, Piper’s expecting…”

“Who cares about that?” Cordelia gushed. “Phoebe has the best collection of designer shoes and handbags west of Topeka. Feature me there.” She looked around at the assembled group and guiltily added, “Us. Feature us there.”

Buffy raised her hand. “Um, hello? The Halliwells? Is this some kind of mystical department store?”

“They’re the Charmed Ones. They live in San Francisco. Cordy and Connor can’t stay here alone. If Gunn attacks while we’re gone,” Angel began, but trailed off, as if speaking it was too much for him to bear.

Buffy glanced from Angel to Cordelia and felt a deep pang of longing; not for Angel, those embers had long died down. But they did remind her of her life back in London - her William, her Dawn, her family. Buffy promised herself that she would tell Angel that she understood his anxiety. She knew how much Angel stood to lose by helping her, and she wouldn’t forget it.

“So it’s settled,” Angel said decisively. “We’ll leave at nightfall. Buffy and I will take Wesley’s boat up the coastline. We should arrive behind the compound before dawn.”

Wesley nodded along. “Meanwhile Willow, Fred, and I will establish a base in the sewers under the old Magic Box,” he said. “Once we’ve contacted your witches, Willow will signal for Xander, Anya, and Tara to join us.”

As a plan, Buffy found it loose and generally iffy. They had Gunn’s reconnaissance of Sunnydale, but it was out-dated by three years. Willow possessed some hard schematics she’d managed to steal by hacking into TriadCorp’s mainframes, but even these felt fallible.

But at least they had a plan.

“Good,” Buffy said. “Can we eat before we go? I’m ravenous.”

“Ditto the ravenous,” Willow agreed. As the lot of them hastened to leave the war room, talking animatedly about their plans, Dawn drifted among them, dancing lithely on her bare toes. She turned a floaty pirouette and came face to face with Buffy.

With an enigmatic smile on her lips, Dawn said, “I’m the Key. Remember?”

Buffy felt her heart in her throat. “I remember,” she said.

Dawn kissed her sister’s eyelids, first one, and then the other. “Don’t forget, okay?” she whispered. “Tell Buffy. But don’t let Andrew know.”

 

 

Ed Busby never had a job so cinchy. Red-head was a canny lass; brunette was lush hottie and wore get-ups he’d seen in the pages of Razzle. Plus, they paid cash, up front, dollar bills American, and he charged them extra to cover the exchange rate.

All he need do, says they, was drive his panel truck and ask no questions. Just like a Bond flick. No barney, no probs.

Only hitch was the cargo. Cacky, it seemed. Gave him the right willies. Three pine boxes, it was. Like something out of an American horror movie starring Gary Oldman. Questions – he had. His restraint in keeping to their terms had to be none short of remarkable.

On the eve of December 5th, Ed piloted the truck north and west out of London proper. Night before, he’d met them at Gatwick, had their delibs, and they had engaged his services. Red-head pressed a square white envelope full of ker-ching into his hand, promising an equal amount upon arrival at their destination.

As he passed out of the city and into ’burbs, Busby began to feel the squicks. He wanted to be quit of this gig and in the pub, ASAP, where he would relate to his mates the peculiar particulars of his latest score over a round of pints paid for by yours truly.

Red-head, who rode shotgun, pointed and said, “Take a left on Meteor and drive past the park about a mile.”

Busby did, and rolled the truck down a narrow divided lane lined with red-brick row houses divided up into flats. This was one of the old neighborhoods that had been nicely done up in the 90s to accommodate middle-to-uppers, artists, university students, and the like. Good digs, if you could get them.

Busby thought perhaps the pine boxes in back contained works of art, yeah. Statuary. Except that did not account for Barbarella standing guard in back.

The truck grumbled past the park, which was choked with brown weeds and looked more like a graveyard with its fence lined with vigil candles and pics of MIAs, all faded and blown to tatters, which gave Busby the chills.

Red-head kept her eyes on the road ahead. Without looking at him, she said, “We’re at 2319. You’ll want to pull up to the front walk, close as you can get.”

Busby found the addy, and sidled up behind an emerald green Volvo parked out front.

“Here’s the place, madam,” he said, pulling his bill cap from his head and swabbing his inordinately sweaty brow with a questionable handkerchief. “That’ll be my eleven-hundred.”

“Wait,” Red-head said. She opened the sliding panel above her head to address her dark-haired friend. “Faith,” she said. “We’re here.”

He heard the other respond with, “Call Buffy. We can’t move ’til sundown.”

“Sundown?” Busby interrupted, feeling alarm like a whole orange shoved in his gullet. “Nobody said nothing ’bout sundown.”

The women ignored him. Red said, “It’s late enough.”

“No, Willow. Too risky,” the other replied.

Willow, Faith, Buffy. No way they was real names. And Busby began to suspect he was neck-deep in dealings nefarious.

Red-head sat still a moment, thinking. Busby thought she smelled nice, like fresh baking things, and felt a fool for believing her to be involved in anything less than capitol. After a bit, she pulled a phone from her pocket and speed-dialed a number.

Busby and the one called Faith watched intently as she waited for an answer.

“Xander,” she said. Another a. k. a. most like, thought Busby. “Yes. Yes, it’s Willow,” she said, excitedly. “It’s good to hear your voice, too. Look, I need to speak with Buffy. It’s imp-”

Red-head glanced at the other. “Well, when will she be back?” she asked.

Silence.

“How long?”

Pause.

“Weeks? But how?”

Dark-haired lass said, “Willow, what’s up?”

Willow responded with a brisk slashing gesture, which Dark-haired girl did not appreciate, not one bit.

Willow went on. “Xander, I need you to do something for me, okay? You trust me, right?”

Pause.

“Good. I need you to open the door. We’re right outside. – Yes! – On the street. Open the door, and let us in… Yeah, that’s it.” She laughed, a pretty noise like breaking glass. “Just let us in.”

One called Faith motioned to Busby. “You,” she barked. “Up-n-att’m. We got cargo to move, and it’s gotta be quick.”

Red-head was sliding from the seat and running, seemed like, before even touching ground. Ed’s heart was in his throat as he popped the lock in back and slid the door up. Faith shoved the wooden box at him.

“Take it!” she ordered.

Next thing, he was jogging along, carting this giant wood box up the front walk of a red-brick row house. Boy inside the house flung open the front door, but just before entering, Red-head stopped. She held out her hand for Busby and Faith to halt, which they did.

Then, bowing her head to the box, she whispered, all tender-like, “Thellian Ventrusca, I invite you inside.”

Busby and Faith carried the crate into the entry hall, passed the American boy, this Xander kid, who appeared to have had his stomach pulled out through his nostrils.

“No no no no NO!” Xander shouted. “Willow, what have you done?”

Red-head briefly met his eye and then made sure that Busby got the crate settled.

Ignoring the American boy, Red-head lay her hand on Busby’s arm. She said, “Two to go. Let’s move.”

“Two?” Xander yelled. “Willow, no!”

Xander put himself between the girls and the door. One called Faith shot out an arm like a whip, pinning him to the wall by his throat. Ed felt bad for the boy, but felt worse for his own neck should he run astray of the lasses in charge.

Faith turned her pretty face to Ed’s. “Hey,” she barked. “Lady said move.”

“Right,” Ed said. And he followed Red-head out to the truck to fetch the second crate.

 

 

Angel anchored Wesley’s boat, playfully christened the SS Minnow by Fred, to which Wes had taken great offense, outside a cave once used by pirates for smuggling. They rowed ashore in an inflatable raft to a strip of sandy beach much utilized for parties by fraternal organizations of both human and demon denomination.

Neither Buffy nor Angel had much in the way of weapons, and had even less in the way of conversation. Buffy had four stakes and a 14-inch ceremonial Pakistani dagger. Angel had fangs, claws, and a double-headed battleaxe, which he slung across his back as they climbed the bluff overlooking the beach. Buffy had a pack containing flares, a radio, and fruit snacks because Buffy got the pregnancy shakes any time her blood sugar dropped. Which seemed like always.

They climbed steadily along a slick rock path toward the hazy sodium-arc lights that marked the seaward side of the TriadCorp military compound.

“How much time ’til sunrise?” Buffy whispered.

Angel sniffed the air. “An hour.”

She hauled herself over a boulder, using a tuft of grass as a tether. Angel followed, she noted, with much less fatigue.

“We’ll have to find one of the sewer entrances,” she said, trying hard not to sound out of breath. “Hole up there ’til nightfall.”

“Here,” he said, taking a seat on the cool, flat surface of the boulder they just mounted. “Take a break.”

Buffy pushed on. “No, Angel. We don’t have time.”

He glanced up. “We have time.”

She tottered slightly, then gave in. “Fine,” she said, tugging her pack into her lap. “Fruit snack?”

“Pass.”

Buffy spilled the packets into her lap. To her chagrin it was too dark in their nook of the path to read the labels. She wanted raspberry; she came away with peach. With a shrug, she ate them anyway.

“Who’s Andrew?” Angel asked.

Buffy chewed thoughtfully. “He’s my Dawn’s best friend. Kind of a Watcher-in-Training. This Dawn never met him, far as I know.”

“There’s a connection between this Dawn and your Dawn,” he said.

“I know it,” Buffy said. “I just don’t know what it means.”

Buffy couldn’t read Angel. He annoyingly did not breathe and so gave nothing away. His features were obscured by lack of light. She decided to change the subject.

“I wanted to thank…”

He stood up abruptly. “Don’t do that, okay. You ready?”

“Uh,” she stammered. “I guess?”

“Good.” He extended his hand to her. She zipped her pack, re-slung it, and got to her feet without his help.

In minutes, they managed to scale the remaining 30 feet to the crest of the bluff. Buffy scrambled gracelessly over the muddy ridge, grabbing fists of grass to aid her. She rolled onto her back as Angel climbed up beside her. She got to her feet and walked a few yards before the grisly scene on the hillside caused her knees to liquefy beneath her.

Two crosses stood in stark silhouette against the harsh nimbus of the sodium-arc lights. Buffy crumpled at the foot of the first, and she knew. Even before looking at his face, she knew. She raised her eyes to the level of the dead man’s chest where a wooden placard swung from a rusting chain. On the placard was one word in Latin: TRADITOR .

“Traitor,” Angel said, needlessly translating.

“No,” Buffy muttered. Her gorge rose. She got clumsily to her feet.

“Buffy,” Angel said, his tone filled with dread. “The other one…”

“No,” Buffy said again, swiping tears from her eyes. She whipped her knife from her belt and started toward the first cross. At its base, she finally braved a look at his face. It was the bruised, pulpy, bloated yellow of the several days dead. Seabirds had pecked out his eyes and torn away the tender flesh of his eyelids and ears. Several fingers had been hacked from his splayed hands. They had tortured him.

Buffy looked down at her feet; she still wore his wife’s running shoes.

And she knew. Buffy knew. This was because of her.

“Buffy,” Angel called. “It’s Spike.”

Buffy turned to face the second cross. Angel stood glaring up at the unconscious form of his childe and former nemesis.

This spurred her to action.

“Cut him down,” she ordered as she hoisted herself up the base of the first cross. “Spike’s still alive, or he’d be dust. They’ve staked him out for sunrise…”

“No! Buffy! Leave them,” Angel shouted. “They’ll take it as a sign we’ve been here.”

Buffy dropped to the hard-packed ground. She didn’t bother to conceal the note of desperation in her voice as she said, “Angel, they know. This might as well be a bright orange banner that reads ‘Welcome Back Buffy Summers’. Now cut Spike down, and I’ll get Dr. Kriegel. We may have time to get them back to the boat before…”

“I’d say decidedly not.”

The voice that drifted from the shadows penetrated Buffy’s heart like a sliver of ice. She knew that voice, so distinguished and proper, but it couldn’t be…

In the next moments several things occurred at once. Armed Initiative soldiers ringed Angel and Buffy, materializing as if from the mist. A figure lurched toward them, leaning heavily on a polished black cane that glinted with every forward step. Buffy glanced at Angel, signaling a retreat. He responded with a curt shake of his head. They were surrounded.

The figure came to rest between the crosses, with several meters distance from Buffy. His mangled left hand rested on the ball of his cane. A breeze ruffled his sandy hair, but his features remained lost beneath a mask of shadow.

“Your sister made this capture stunningly simple,” the figure said. “The Coven sees what she sees. The trick is really… quite ingenious.”

Buffy was shaking her head. The figure took another lurching step forward.

“Stop,” she said. Tears spilled from her eyes. Distantly, she felt Angel’s hand on her arm.

The figure began a slow, staggered procession toward her. He said, “You really have no idea what’s going on, do you? You think it’s coincidence, your being here?”

“Not you,” she whimpered, her voice thick with tears.

The figure halted. He raised his pale green eyes to hers. She saw a measure of defiance there beneath the badly mauled features of his face as he came closer to her. The rest of the world faded and fell away, until, to her, only they remained, frozen in a circle of recognition and disbelief. She felt her knife slip from her fingers and fall useless between her feet.

“Into each generation a Slayer is born, one girl in all the world…” he said. “But you already know this. Don’t you, Buffy?”

“Ripper,” Angel said with a snarl, speaking before she could answer. A heartbeat later an Initiative soldier bashed in the back of Angel’s head.

Ripper’s grin was lop-sided and monstrous under the mask of his scars. Buffy stood before him - alone, defenseless, guileless and afraid. The Watcher took a final lumbering step toward her.

“I shouldn’t have come back,” Buffy muttered, turning away from the grostequery that had once been her Watcher. “I shouldn’t have…”

Giles tilted his head forward in a fatherly way. “Well, Buffy,” he said. “I guess you should have thought of that sooner.”

Buffy looked up as Giles’ glasses caught a sudden patterned flash of light reflected in both lenses. She recalled her sleepwalking dream from the rooftop, so long ago…

Giles placed a ruined hand on her shoulder, and she recoiled.

“Welcome Back Buffy Summers,” Ripper said.

 

Chapter Text

8:32 a.m.

5 December

London

Dawn had left the house in blind rage, but once she realized how icy it was, she got hold of herself and began to formulate a plan for finding Andrew. She remembered that when he’d been upset before, she found him at the ATS vault beneath the Watcher’s Council building.

She checked there first: Nada .

Next, Dawn looked in at McBride’s Heroes. McBride was there, was surprised and mildly embarrassed to see her, because he knew she used to hang out in the stacks with Augie, and well, comic book geeks who aren’t used to getting action had a tendency to boast when they did. However, McBride admitted that he had not seen Andrew in a week or so.

Dawn paused at the corner, unsure which direction to take. It was December 5 th , just over one month since ‘The Rapture’ as They were calling it. Every street corner, every newspaper box, every storefront contained flowers, cards, candles and stuffed toys. People set up vigils for those who had disappeared. Others tacked flyers to utility poles – Have you seen this person?

The world was only beginning to understand the magnitude of its loss. Dawn had heard an NPR bulletin that estimated one-third of the world’s population had vanished – poof! – just like that.

Nobody knew where they went, Dawn thought with a sardonic smile. The straggling business folk, their newspapers tucked under their arms, the A. M. crowd packed in at Logan’s Coffee - they speculated about what happened over their lattes and scones and biscotti, yet none of them knew what really happened.

But she did.

Dawn felt that was the defining condition of her life: being on the outside, looking in. Was she so unlike them? Today she was simply searching for someone she’d lost…

Dawn’s eyes rolled back. She swayed sideways, and a man who passed by wearing a gray wool coat steadied her.

“What you doing out, wivout a proper coat?” the man asked, gently. He held her at arm’s length to look her over. “And decent shoes, at that. It’s 2 degrees above.”

Dawn blinked. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, lass. Love is the golden thread that ties our hearts and souls together,” he said. “You know who said that?”

Dawn shrugged. Taking a stab at it, she said, “Winston Churchill?”

“A worthy guess,” the man said with a laugh. “Was Mother Theresa what said it.”

With a tight grin, Dawn shoved her hands in her pockets, and then realized a moment too late that she’d seemed impatient and ungrateful to the man. He was kind to her, and she’d brushed him off.

The man continued to watch her with an unfaltering smile. “Get home,” he chided. The ‘Don’t Walk’ sign switched from red to white. He hurried through the crosswalk.

“I’m trying,” Dawn said. She closed her eyes again, and thought of Andrew.

 

 

11:41 a.m.

5 December

Andrew tried to get home. Really, really tried.

Halfway there, he found his path blocked by the following tableau:

One dark alley, the filthy, smells-like-boiled-cabbages kind. One traffic barricade, its amber warning light flashing burnt-orange on count of a smear of dried blood. Andrew had sniffed it to make sure, and yep, blood. One group of four shabbily dressed men huddled beside a dumpster, bouncing in unison on the balls of their feet, their backs to the street. Andrew did not smell them; didn’t need to. They smelled like urine and sulfur – a bad combination no matter which way you encountered it.

That was not the truly disturbing part, not in the least. What the four men held between them – and more importantly – what they were doing with it: that was the disturbing part.

Really, Andrew saw no point in squeezing past them. Also, he felt that backtracking might draw their attention. Therefore he stayed put, partially concealed behind an upturned sofa, where he watched as the men cheerfully devoured the flesh from the upper thigh of a severed female leg.

Andrew considered his best chance might be inching away over the course of an hour. Hopefully, that would give him time to get back to the alley entrance where he could bolt like the madman he surely would be at that time and warn Dawn about what he’d seen, without giving the men enough time to finish their feast and find flank of Andrew Wells on the menu. He had lost enough appendages, thank you very much.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. He was still a long way from his alley entrance when Dawn walked into the opposite end, and shouted, brightly, “Oh my God. Andrew! I found you!”

He made a hasty ‘silence, you fool’ gesture, but it was not quick enough. The flesh eaters turned their milky eyes to Dawn.

She screamed. Then, she did something completely different: She darted down the alley, skirting the monsters, and, catching Andrew’s arm, hauled him at a run to his side of the alley.

They burst onto the sidewalk beyond, hung a hasty left and ran. The few people on the sidewalk ahead of them scattered from their path. Andrew and Dawn cut through the corner of an open-air forecourt, and when they did, Andrew crashed into a display of citrus fruit, spilling them and him into the roadway in a spectrum of orange, green, and yellow fruit and ash-gray sweats. Andrew scrambled to his feet with Dawn behind him, and they continued down the sidewalk, causing quite a stir in the lookers-on who peeked out of the forecourt to gawk at them.

Andrew began to scream hysterically as they ran, and then, realizing this, he began to laugh uncontrollably until his sides hurt and his eyes streamed with tears. He and Dawn had the same idea to cross at the corner of Clarendon and High Streets, heedless of the interchange signs, and were nearly flattened by oncoming traffic.

At the opposite corner, Dawn took his hand. They plunged through a crowd who gathered in vigil outside St. Phillip’s Church, scattering pamphlets and at least one collection box, then turned left again, leapt the low iron fence, and darted into the park. Dawn hit the grass embankment, twisted her ankle and slid, pulling Andrew with her, all the way to the trough of a steep-sided ditch, where they tumbled together in a sweating, panting heap.

After a bit, Andrew said, “Well…” he panted. “I think we lost them.”

“What the Hell were they?”

“Zombies,” Andrew said.

“No, don’t say that,” Dawn said.

“What? Because it’s ridiculous? Because we’re not using the zed word?” Andrew asked bitterly.

Dawn sat up, glancing watchfully around, which renewed Andrew’s nervousness, and he began casting about as well. “No,” she said. “They were humans, but the demon-possessed kind. Remember? From the Watcher’s Codex?”

Andrew nodded. “No?” he said.

“Think,” she ordered. “They’re the ones that take control of human hosts. The Shalom?”

Andrew’s brow furrowed, but he found he could focus with her beside him. It was easier to be brave. Then, with a sudden jolt, he remembered all that had passed since he left this morning.

“Dawn,” he said. He stared hard at her, and found it completely impossible to speak.

Dawn seemed to read his thoughts. “Shut up. I love you, okay?” Dawn said. “What are they called?”

Andrew colored, but shortly recovered his wits.

“Um, you’re thinking Shedim,” he said. “According to Christian mythology, they’re the fallen Kyriotates, which are – were – angels. A Shedite inhabits a human host and corrupts them with their foulness. Kind of like a Duran Duran fan at a Josh Groban concert.”

Dawn smirked. She gave in to her temptation to tease him. “Andrew. Josh Groban?”

“He’s the virtuoso of his generation!” Andrew whined. He crossed his arms. “It’s his destiny to be under-appreciated in his lifetime.”

Tears stung her eyes. “Oh, Andrew...” she said. “You dork.”

He bowed his head, smiling. “Earlier,” he said. “What Xander said – I didn’t believe him.”

Dawn breathed a shaky sigh of relief. “You didn’t?” 

Andrew stared at her with a longing intensity that finally made her blush uncomfortably.

“Uh... The Shedim,” Andrew continued awkwardly. “They, um, possess a human host, defile it with revolting and unpleasant acts of depravity. Then they vacate, leaving the host with the full memory of what they’ve done, plus the bonus of whatever physical havoc the demons managed to wreak while they were in there,” Andrew explained.

“As in devouring a lady’s leg like it’s a 40 pound ham?” Dawn asked.

Andrew shuddered. “Imagine what they did to her before they ate her,” he said.

“Ugh. I’d rather not,” Dawn said with a sneer. “How do we stop them?”

“Exorcism. We’re talking like real life Linda Blair here. Plus, also the exorcism almost always kills the host, so...”

“They’re despicable,” Dawn said.

“They’re demons,” Andrew answered.

Dawn got to her feet. “They’re back…” she said.

Andrew stood up beside her and looked to the place on the embankment where the original four Shedim had gathered, plus a bevy of reinforcements.

“Holy Corellia,” Andrew muttered.

Dawn gripped his hand in hers. “We have to get back to the Flat. We can alert the Council and the Slayers from there,” she said. “Do you know the way?”

Truth was, he hadn’t a clue. This was a part of town with which he was not familiar. But he had his girl by his side, and as the Shedim began to try sliding down the grass embankment toward them, Andrew closed his eyes and picked a direction.

“That way,” he said, pointing to the right, which would lead them along the ditch, up a culvert and back onto the High Street.

One of the Shedim tumbled down the steep embankment and began to wail like a Body Snatcher that had just sighted its prey. Actually, Andrew thought, Body Snatcher was not far from the mark. This thought broke his paralysis. He pushed Dawn ahead of him, and together they fled, hand in hand, in the complete opposite direction of the Flat.

 

 

5:38 p.m.

5 December

 

Xander leaned on the wall, gingerly pressing his thumbs into the finger-shaped depressions left there by Faith.

Willow and her lackey, a chubby fellow called Busby, used a crow bar to pry open the wooden crate containing one very ancient, very enterprising vampire. Faith had taken up guard duty, thereby dispelling any thoughts Xander had about ramming Dawn’s carved likeness of Epona through the vampire’s chest.

Xander decided tactful conversation should be the way to go. Unfortunately, he had scored zero for the day on tactful conversations.

Still, one had to try. He said, “Though this seems like madness, surely you both have a reasonable explanation for inviting the world’s best-dressed mass murderer into our safe and comfortable abode?”

Busby sneered at Xander. “Want I should pop him? I won’t charge extra.”

“No,” Willow said. She passed him the crow bar and wedged her fingers under the crate’s lid. “Help me get this off.”

“With pleasure,” Busby said, leering over the lid at Xander. With Busby’s assistance, the lid came free, revealing the seemingly sleeping Thellian inside.

“It’s a statue,” Busby crowed. “’m I right? ’S a statue?”

Willow flicked her eyes to Faith, who followed through with an elbow to the bridge of Busby’s nose. The guy did not see it coming and stood blinking for eight seconds before toppling backward into the seldom-used parlor.

Inwardly, Xander high-fived himself for not following through with the Epona-staking maneuver. Outwardly, he took a step away from Faith and her flying elbows.

“Let’s open the other two,” Willow said.

That was where Xander drew the line, then stepped over it. “Wait. Willow, just wait. You need to give me something here, because here I am: In-the-Dark-Guy, and I should at the very least be Cowering-For-the-Sake-of-Knowing-Too-Much-Guy.”

Faith and Willow exchanged a glance.

“And would you stop that! The clandestine glancing: Officially creeping me out.”

Willow folded her arms. “Where’s Maya?” she asked.

“Okay, not much by way of an answer,” Xander said. But Willow seemed impenetrable, and Faith had fists (and other parts) of steel, so he went along. “She’s in the basement.”

“Get her,” Willow said, coldly. “She’s involved.”

 

 

Connor and Angel crouched on the roof of a railroad car, looking down at the assemblage of demons in the grassy field adjacent to the train yard. The sun had set, leaving a greeny twilight that smelled of river clay and the baked creosote of railroad ties.

There were four demons, but two of them had come to a disagreement. One of them bashed the other in the face, and it fell prone to the powdery earth. Presently, one of the demons left the group, disappearing momentarily into a dusky copse beyond Connor’s field of vision.

“Do you feel the weapon’s presence?” Angel said in a low voice.

Connor nodded. He’d felt its power like the growing surge of a swift and terrible storm. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. The weapon was near; he could feel it in the discordant hum of the unsettled air. It jarred his teeth and made the muscles in his legs and arms writhe and twist with the yearning to wield it.

“If this handful of demons is all that stands between me and it…” Connor said through clenched teeth.

“Wait a moment longer,” Angel cautioned.

Connor shook his head. “There are only two. I can take them.”

“Not yet,” his father said, and the rumble of his growl seemed to shake the world all the way to its horizon.

Angel leveled his vivid green eyes on Connor’s. He patted his son’s shoulder. “Just a moment longer, and you shall have it, son. We’ve waited this long…”

Seeing his father’s wisdom, Connor hunkered down and waited. “We’ve waited this long,” he repeated to himself. “I can wait awhile longer.”

 

 

5:42 p.m.

5 December

 

Their situation had gone from merely bothersome to quite dire. Not only were they lost, but they were also cold, and the horde of demons pursued them with infernal tenacity. Whenever they thought they were making progress in a homeward direction, they met the Shedim, each time in greater numbers, and now that night had fallen, both were terrified beyond their natural wits.

Additionally, Andrew had worn a hole in his right slipper. He tried to ignore it, but with the cold and possibility of frostbite, they had to stop every few blocks to rub feeling back into the bottom of his foot. On two occasions, they attempted to enter a chemist’s to purchase socks and possibly a Toblerone, or rather steal them, as neither had any money on their person. Both attempts had been blocked by the demon squad, or by people who at least appeared zombie-esque in their shambling manner.

“Most of the shops have closed anyway,” Dawn said, massaging the stitch in her side.

“There are so many,” Andrew said. “How can there be so many? There’s like, a hundred.”

Dawn shook her head. “Not that many,” she assured him. “Two dozen, maybe. I dunno,” she said. “What I do know is that we seem to have made one big, giant circle. Look.”

Dawn pointed. Across the street, all buttoned down for the night, was the same garage forecourt they’d busted through earlier.

“Oh Twizzlers,” Andrew said.

Dawn looked around. The shops and buildings blocked their line of sight. If they could just get higher…

Her eyes fell on a rickety fire escape on the wall of a stone building that abutted the silent square. “There,” she said. “If we can get on the roof of that building…”

Andrew grinned. “We can see our house from here?”

“How’s your foot?”

“Climb-worthy,” he said. “Your ankle?”

“Ready to rock.”

“Let’s go.”

They crossed the square, stacked a series of loading pallets, climbed them and mounted the fire escape. The whole endeavor took ten minutes, made minimal noise, but managed to attract the attention of every Shedite in a 12 block radius.

 

 

6 p.m.

5 December

“Oh, joy,” Xander said. “The Evil MC is awake. Let’s stoke up this sassy soiree, shall we? I think we still have a pint of O pos. in the fridge from when Angel was here.”

“Xander,” Faith said. “Shut up.”

Thellian held up a hand. “It’s all right. He is the aggrieved party, after all.”

Maya had come into the kitchen with Xander, and stood behind him. Faith and Willow flanked Thellian on the opposite side of the breakfast table. Thellian was resplendent in a cobalt robe of embroidered silk.

“Aggrieved?” Maya asked. “What’s he talking about?”

“Just… hear him out, okay,” Willow said. Xander he caught the first glint of imploring in Willow’s expression that he’d seen in all night. Still, though Xander trusted his Willow with every last molecule of his being, he could not extend the same allowance Thellian.

“I don’t want to hear him out,” Xander said. “Willow: meet Thellian. Y’know, the guy who orchestrated Kennedy’s death, who turned the London Slayers into his pet brigade of blood-sucking hellspawn. In the category of Greatest Cause of Suffering, Destruction and Death the World Has Ever Known, this guy takes the Gold. No, I don’t need to hear what he says. What I’d like to do is make openings into his ribcage using wooden kitchen utensils.”

Faith lunged; Thellian stilled her with a smooth motion of his hand.

“You will want to hear this, Mr. Harris,” Thellian said. He inclined his head in Maya’s direction. “As it concerns Miss Rose.”

Contrary to the Maya Xander thought he knew merely ten days previous, ‘Miss Rose’ did not shrink against the basement door, nor did she cling to him for support against Thellian’s accusation.

She stepped around Xander. “What is it that concerns me?”

Thellian’s explanation was cut short by the sudden, sharp sound of splintering wood.

Faith darted another glance at Willow. “Morna?” she asked.

Willow looked out into the hallway. Reflected in the entry hall mirror, she saw the kindling remains of Connor’s crate. “Worse,” she said. The front door was closed, the crate blocking the exit, which meant... “Faith, he’s upstairs.”

“On it,” Faith snarled. She rushed from the kitchen and bounded up the stairs two at a time.

At first, Connor was plunging down on the demons from his perch atop the railroad car. As he fell, however, the scene wheeled and flipped so that he was not falling but springing up through some kind of heavy wooden doorway.

Connor hurdled forward onto a black-and-white tiled entryway. He shook sawdust and splinters from his hair as he spun a quick circle to establish his bearings.

The place felt familiar. It smelled of dusty books, crumbly plaster, and, faintly, of dried herbs and flowers. He saw a library to his left, a parlor to his right, a door directly behind him, and the kitchen ahead. The weapon was somewhere above him. He felt it, beckoning him. His palms burned to touch it.

In one great leap, Connor sprung from the entry hall to the second floor landing. He scrambled over the handrail, ripped the door from its hinges and entered Buffy’s sitting room.

His father was there, his green cat’s-eyes glinting in the half-light.

“It’s here, son,” Angel said. He spread his arms with a flourish. “Right here.”

Connor felt its power. He clenched his jaws against the resonating force of it. He could not have resisted its pull now if he wanted to.

“It’s through that door,” Angel said, gesturing to the door on the right. “Take it and finally have your vengeance.”

Connor kicked in Buffy’s bedroom door. The room pulsated with a venous crimson glow that, when he entered it, soothed all of his pain and sorrow and loss. Connor lifted the bed, tossing it aside as though it was made of paper.

The weapon lay there, an elegant curved silver blade on one end of its scarlet haft, a sharpened wooden stake fitted into the other. The light radiated from The Scythe, beating as if to the rhythm of its own heart.

Connor seized it with both hands.

Faith stepped into the doorway. She watched entranced as Connor gripped the weapon and spun it between his hands.

“Connor,” she said.

He raised his eyes and smiled.

“Try and stop me now,” he grinned. The blood-red glow of The Scythe contorted his features into a twisted mask of malicious glee.

Behind Faith, Willow yelled, “Wait!”

But nothing could stop him. Connor had taken The Scythe and leapt to his freedom through Buffy’s second story window.

After a moment, Faith said, “Did you see that?”

Willow closed her mouth, opened it to answer, and then closed it again.

“Connor’s a boy,” Faith said.

Willow started to speak, but managed a feeble, “Heeh...”

To which Faith responded, “But Connor is a BOY. Only a Slayer can...” she trailed off.

Willow finally found words. She said, “Only a Slayer can feel the power of the Scythe.”

Thellian had stepped into the room behind Willow. Faith glanced from him, to the window and back. Simple decision, really. Without explanation, Faith dived through the broken window, picking up where she left off in her pursuit of Connor.

 

Chapter Text

Ripper, escorted by five masked Initiative soldiers, led the Slayer down the stony path toward the TriadCorp compound. Surprisingly, she put up no kind of fight, and Command Squadron Captain 042 massaged his jaw in secret relief, remembering the uppercut she’d once planted on his robot girlfriend.

Two others soldiers remained behind with the CSC – Numbers 009 and 028 – to take care of the vampire, who lay motionless on the mossy ground between them.

028 said, “Shall we dust this guy and be done with him?”

CSC 042 gave a noncommittal shrug. “Ripper left no order. It’s probably best we take him to Containment.”

“It’s the Day of the Raising,” 028 argued, a note of fanaticism in his voice. “No one’ll mourn one less vamp in the world.”

CSC 042 thought it unfortunate he was stuck with 028. He was a zealot, a hardcore Coven minion. CSC 042 cast a cursory glance at the pair of crosses looming like scarecrows behind him. Thinking fast, he said, “I’d hate to be in the wrong and dust some vitally important figure in Ripper’s schemes. If he wants this vampire poofed, let ’im do it himself, and later. Till then, I say we should get the stun ray out of here.”

Soldier 009 twitched. He scratched his neck and fiddled with the shoulder holster of the weapon. Solider 028 squared shoulders with his Captain.

“What did you just say?” 028’s voice grew deadly cold as the edge of a finely polished knife.

CSC 042 cleared his throat, struggling mightily against the urge to take a retreating step. “I said, ‘maybe we should get the stun ray out of...’”

A blinding red flash sizzled through the air, and in the next second 028 was a smudge of black ash on the ground beside the unconscious vampire.

009 peeled his mask up to his forehead and said, “Oopsie.”

CSC 042 ripped his mask from his face in turn. “Way to go, you freakin’ Gungan! Green is stun. Red is incinerate!”

009’s shoulders slumped. “I can’t see in this mask” he whined, “and these gloves limit my manual dexterity. Also, this turtleneck is itchy.”

CSC 042 snapped, “Whine more, please.”

Behind them, they heard a scuffling followed by a thud. They turned to see a familiar blond vampire striding toward them, rubbing the raw red patches on his wrists where the ropes had chafed his pale skin.

Relieved, the captain said, “Spike. Took you long enough.”

“Was a bit tied up,” Spike said, without irony. He bent to pull Angel to a sitting position. He examined the bloody gash on the back of Angel’s head. He’d seen worse. Hell, he’d caused worse. Spike slapped his sire’s face in an effort to bring him around. When that didn’t work, he tried again with more fervor, and had to admit to himself a small jolt of satisfaction at the sanctioned roughing-up. After four or so smacks, Angel groaned and feebly brought up his hands to block another blow to his bruised cheekbone.

Angel recoiled from the trio of figures, scuttling away before collapsing into the dust of Number 028. He then turned, tried to stand, but managed only to get to his knees before his vision seemed to clear enough for him to see.

He shook his head. “Spike?” he said.

Spike cocked his head to the side. “’Ello, Peaches,” he said. “Have a nice nap?”

“They’ve got Buffy,” Angel said, urgently.

“I got her, I got her,” CSC 042 said testily. He turned to 009. “Get to Surveillance. Tell Echo 2 to run through Kessel Sequence Kappa. I’ll meet you at the designated rendezvous point at oh-nine-hundred. Copy?”

009 scratched his nose. “I thought I was Echo 2.”

“Go!” Spike growled.

009 yelped, tugged his mask down over his face, and ran up the path toward the compound.

CSC 042 turned to Angel. “You have radio equipment on you. I’m guessing Buffy does, too. If Ripper didn’t already know about the others he does now, which gives us so little time at this point, I can’t even believe I’m still talking. More important, though, is getting you both underground. The sun’s due to rise in…”

“Eight minutes,” Spike said.

“Six minutes,” Angel said.

“Whatever,” the captain said. “Follow me. No time for questions.”

“Just a second,” Angel said. Spike uttered a low growl.

“We haven’t the time, Mr. Poncy Pants,” Spike said. “Now go as the man says.”

Angel got to his feet with agonizing slowness. At his full and most intimidating height, he turned to the captain en fang , and demanded, “Who the hell are you?”

The captain shrugged. With the faintest trace of a smile, he said, “Dude, I’m Warren Meers: CEO of TriadCorp most days, but Command Squadron Captain today. It’s a disguise.”

“A disguise?” Angel said doubtfully.

“Yeah,” he said. “You gotta believe me, man. I just saved your life. Or, un-life, such is the case. More importantly, I’m gonna save your girl.”

“Not his girl,” Spike hissed.

“His girl, your girl… Right now, she’s Ripper’s girl. C’mon,” Warren said, warbling slightly with imploring. “I’m the good guy.”

Angel looked to Spike, who gave a nod of assent.

“In my experience, people who say they are good guys are never the good guys,” Angel said.

Spike groaned. He clenched his jaws and kneaded his fists. “Angel, would you just…”

Warren said, “Look, trust me or don’t. You can bite me as soon as we’re in the sewers. But believe me, you’re running out of time, and I’m not talking about the rising of the sun here.”

Angel did not trust this hairy, fast-talking guy any farther than Fred could possibly throw him, but the way he saw it, with the sun fast approaching, Ripper in possession of Buffy and his friends in danger, he didn’t have any choice.

“Fine,” Angel said reluctantly. “Lead the way.”

Warren let out a shaky sigh and pulled his mask down. He nodded to Spike, and the three of them took the left branch of the path that wound beneath the foot of Dr. Kriegel and the cross formerly occupied by Spike. They had to run the last six hundred yards and dart across a desolate strip of road, but they climbed into a dank open sewer culvert just as the sun’s rays spilled over the hilltop and spread like copper dust across the choppy ocean beyond.

There, Warren left Angel with Spike. He repeated the instructions he’d given to the other soldier: Meet at the rendezvous at oh-nine-hundred. Before Angel could ask anything else, Warren was gone.

 

 

The word was catatonic.

Buffy had been there before, when she’d lost Dawn to Glory, and she felt in herself a sense of receding, of sinking into the inner depths of despair.

She could not afford that. Not this time. But fighting it was a lot like trying to wriggle free from a pit quicksand with no tether or handhold within sight. Whatever thoughts she’d had now scattered like leaves before a tortuous wind, which left her with the stark tabula rasa of instinct.

Giles guided her along by her elbow, but she scarcely felt his touch on her skin. Four armed Initiative soldiers flanked them, another one in the lead, and they continued along a scuffed cement path until they came to a high concrete wall trimmed in shining razor wire. Buffy concentrated on the sound of the soldier’s boots, clomping in unison, keeping time with the thudding of her heart.

The concrete wall curved and soon they arrived at an iron gate with the kind of keypad she expected to see in a spy movie. The lead soldier typed in a code on the keypad and the locking mechanisms sprung open with a heavy shunk. Buffy instinctively noted the sentries posted above the gate on either side – two men with semi-automatic weapons, the pointy muzzles of which were trained on her.

Giles nudged her. Numbly, she fell in behind the lead soldier. After a few paces, she heard the gate clunk once more into place.

Whatever hold she had, she felt it slipping. Her fingers and toes tingled, as if the blood flow had reversed in the effort of self-preservation, and she thought, crazily, dizzily, that if her platelets had taken up the call of retreat, who was she to argue with her own cellular biology?

And then, so unexpectedly that it made her jump, Giles spoke. He said, “Your timing is perfect as always.”

Her ears registered that he’d spoken, but she could only groan miserably in reply. In the way of comeback, it was eons away from snappy.

“Ah, yes. The Slayer has come home,” he said, more to his soldiers than to her. The two ahead of her jerked their heads up, but lowered them simultaneously as if unsure they were expected to respond. Buffy got the impression that severe punishment might be in store if one of them misspoke.

She smiled at that, in spite of herself. That was encouraging.

“Look at you, Ye of the Iron Fist,” she said quietly. “You must get a real kick, seeing them scrape and bow before you.”

Buffy watched his marred face for a reaction; got none. They walked on in tense silence. They reached an interior building in the compound, a squat and unattractive structure of pewter gray stone. They reached the eastern wall, and the lead soldier turned left, taking them along the sidewalk toward another gated checkpoint.

Absurdly, insanely, Buffy decided to push. She was with the Man Behind the Curtain; after all, she may not get another chance.

“It was you,” she said. “You cut out Tara’s tongue. You took Dawn’s eyes.”

“Improvements,” he replied coolly. “All in the name of Progress.”

“Progress?” she repeated, appalled.

“Restoring order to this town was not a simple task,” he said. “After the mess you left, did you honestly think I could reclaim it without spilling some blood?”

“Order,” Buffy said. “You call this order? It’s fascism.”

Giles chuckled darkly. “So you paid attention in World History. However, you’ve always been a little slow,” he said, his condescension chilling her. They went on in silence while she struggled to find another soft spot to mentally jab, but Giles was right: mind-games were never her forte. Buffy was about to settle on mentioning The Coven when Giles surprised her by speaking again.

“Dawn should have died. Was a bloody mercy, taking her eyes. It was her destiny, not yours,” he said.

Buffy tried then to pull away, but his grip on her arm was astonishingly, unaccountably strong.

“I’m here now, Giles,” she said, trying to sound sympathetic. “It’s not too late to stop this…”

His grip on her elbow tightened painfully. “You stupid bint,” he said through clenched teeth. “You return here, knocked up like a common whore. How completely –” he spun her to face him, and his expression was one of devastating disappointment underpainted with revulsion. “Ordinary.”

Buffy’s hands twitched instinctively toward her belly, but within her two dominant emotions raged – protection versus aggression.

Defense won out.  She opted for a catty muttered comment. “You should really see someone about that lingering Anger Phase,” she told him.

Giles merely laughed. They had come to the second checkpoint now. The lead soldier keyed in the pass code, and the three soldiers ushered them through into a gleamingly white tiled corridor that looked more like a hospital than a prison. They turned immediately right. The lead soldier remained behind, but the other four continued along with them in the wide hallway.

“I predicted accurately,” Giles said. She didn’t look at him, but could feel the grim smile in his words. “I knew you would attempt an appeal to my sense of humanity.”

Buffy, more alert now, paid attention to the turns and twists they took. At the end of the first corridor, they took a left into a shorter hallway lined with dentist’s office-style doors, a white card-swipe pad outside each one. This hallway terminated in a stairwell leading in one direction: down.

This sent a flutter of panic into Buffy’s stomach. Four guards, she thought, and Giles. She thought maybe she could handle the odds in a fight, but getting back out… that was a whole other inconvenience.

Her thoughts were quicker now. “So you’re saying basically that you have no heart left?” she asked with a derisive snort. “Now who’s ordinary?”

“You haven’t the slightest inclination, have you?” he asked in a tone that suddenly recalled Thellian to Buffy’s mind. She remembered his imperturbable calmness and reserve, his passionate indifference. Giles was like that now. Her heart sank.

They reached the top of the steps. Buffy could see that they doubled back on themselves as they led down by several flights into comparative dimness. Below them lay what must have once been The Initiative. TriadCorp gave them a public face, but the underground laboratories needn’t go to waste.

She found herself once again incapable of contemplation. Her throat went dry. Her stomach rolled. He pushed her, and she took a hesitant step down. She let him and his soldiers guide her down the staircase and into a grimy, scant-lit corridor below. The walls, which were stained with rust, glistened with dampness under bald halogen bulbs. The left side was lined with matte black windowless doors, which Buffy counted as they passed. The first two soldiers stopped in front of number 19. Giles himself stepped forward, keyed in a code, and the locking mechanisms thunked inside. The door hissed inward. Buffy looked into the cell, and the tears finally came.

A satisfied smile traced his lips. “There are no prophecies for what I’m about to do, Buffy. Have you any idea at all what that means?”

“Giles, please…”

He pushed her into the cell, and she turned to see him framed in the doorway, a smirk twisted his scarred face.

“One thing is certain,” he said, leering. “The world is definitely doomed.”

 

 

At 7:19 a.m., Cordelia stood outside the Conoco Truxtop on Highway 1, bouncing a groggy Connor on one hip, her cell phone pressed to her ear with her free hand.

A terse voice answered the line.

“Okay, bad news,” she blurted.

“Me first,” Angel said. “Call the others. Have them fall back. Soldiers were waiting for us. They knew…”

“Yeah? Well, I’ve lost Dawn,” Cordelia said, panic apparent under her sarcastic tone.

Angel turned away from Spike to face the cave wall. Under his breath, he said, “Lost her? How could you lose her?”

Cordelia adjusted Connor, who in his sleepiness was sliding down her thigh. “She gave us the slip,” she said, agitated.

“She’s practically an invalid…”

“I know that!” Cordelia answered in a hiss. “She had to go to the bathroom, so she went. And now she’s gone. She pulled a David Blaine and vanished.”

Angel turned back to find Spike watching him intently, his fists clenched at his sides, his pale blue eyes almost white with restrained fury.

“Just find her,” Angel ordered. “But call the others first. And Cordy… be careful.”

Cordelia looked out over the empty parking lot and the vacant roadside beyond. The sun’s first rays had just brushed the low clouds with a heavy and unattractive shade of ochre, which did not bode well.

“I will,” she said, and since she couldn’t kiss Angel, she kissed Connor, who made a perfect proxy. “You, too.”

She hung up the phone and speed-dialed Wesley to signal a retreat.

 

 

Maya leaned out of the window with Xander, watching in disbelief the place where Faith had just disappeared around the corner in pursuit of Connor. Both had fled with inscrutable speed and grace, and now were gone, leaving Xander and Maya alone with Thellian, Willow, and a third unmarked person-sized crate downstairs. Maya could not help feeling more than a little intimidated by the present company, especially since Thellian had leveled an accusation on her downstairs, before Connor erupted rather unexpectedly from his wooden confines.

Maya turned then to face her accuser and found him staring at her with an implacable expression that made her feel like one of those poor, helpless bugs pinned inside a display case. Behind him, Willow leaned in the doorway, and though she looked casual enough, her slim hand resting on the jamb, Maya got the impression she would bar her passage should Maya decide to bolt.

She dared a glance at Thellian’s startling green eyes and wished she had not. They were warm, inviting, accepting, and she thought, wildly, that she could look nowhere else but at his eyes for the rest of her life, and that would be fine by her.

Distantly Willow said, “Let’s go back downstairs. We have stuff to talk about.”

Equally distantly Xander said, “Why not talk here? You said ‘she’s involved’. Involved in what?”

“It’s better if you sit down,” Willow said.

“Willow, stop the cryptic,” Xander replied. Maya felt Xander’s shoulder brush hers as he came to stand by her side. She was touched by that, but also slightly annoyed because it divided her attention from Thellian’s breathtakingly deep and placid gaze.

But whatever Willow was going to say was interrupted by the sound of screeching tires, followed by a loud grinding crunch on the street below.

Maya tore her attention away from Thellian. She and Xander returned simultaneously into the window sill to stare down at the black sedan that had just crashed into the redbrick fence that framed the Flat’s front yard. The long bonnet crumpled against the column, and coils of white steam curled into the frosty night air.

After a few seconds, a young blond woman sprung from the driver’s side. She wore mud-streaked khaki pants and a sleeveless black tunic, her hair pulled back into a messy knot at the back of her neck. She struggled on the icy sidewalk to pull open the back door.

“Please!” they heard her cry out, and then she managed to wrench the door open. A pale hand reached to take hers, but missed, and the figure slumped sideways. Clumsily, the young woman caught him, dragging him to ungainly feet, where he stood dazed as a newborn deer beside her.

“Willow, uh…” Xander began.

The young woman looped the man’s arm over her shoulder and began to guide him with obvious tenderness up the front walk to the Flat’s front door. But there was something wrong with the way the man walked – more like a somnambulist, and Maya hoped it was the lingering effects of just having endured a car crash, though something told her it was much worse.

“It’s Giles,” she said suddenly, turning to Willow. “Something’s wrong.”

With an exchanged glance that was almost telepathy, Willow and Xander charged downstairs to greet the young woman and Giles as they reached the front door.

Which left Thellian alone with Maya, and though she knew how dangerous that should be and how scared she should feel, Maya couldn’t help feeling grateful.

 

Chapter Text

William crouched in a recessed doorway facing Fortbridge Road, which was empty of all humans since the sun had set, leaving everything bitterly cold and coated with a glaze of glittering ice. Across from him, Rita knelt on the stone front fence of a three-storey flat with a faded redbrick façade, one of about a hundred like it anywhere in these parts of London. Behind her, twinkle lights from a Christmas tree glimmered in the flat’s front window.

Rita’s group, which consisted of three other Slayerettes, all of them hardcore in matching gray fatigues and knit sweaters, had fanned out along a pre-designated perimeter. His group was performing the same sweep on his side of the street.

Thus far, it had been quiet. William breathed in the frosty air and smelled snow. He smiled. It felt good to be out in the night again. Even if he was out to battle monsters, the crisp wintry scent always recalled fond memories of his boyhood when he would sit up at night by a dwindling fire, drinking mulled cider while his mum told him stories of princesses and pirates and far away lands.

A sound recalled him to present day. He turned to find one of his team, a girl named Serina, slipping through a side-yard behind him, her small feet leaving black prints in the frozen grass. In a silent graceful movement, she vaulted a chain-link fence and came up the walk to stand with him.

“Anything?” he whispered.

“Nothing,” Serina said, not concealing her disappointment. “Neighborhood’s dead.”

“Understatement, pet,” he muttered. He glanced across the street. Rita remained perched like a sprinter ready to take the track, and he suddenly felt a swell of frustration. Rita was good, but too straight-laced and by-the-sodding-books for his tastes.

“Look, we are miles from the mark,” he said quietly. “I say we head north, toward central London where the tourists hang. Any demon worth his brimstone would be where the humans are.”

Serina gave him a hard look. “That is not our order,” she said. “Besides, Lori and MK will have their units patrolling that area.”

Lori, William recalled, was the briskly efficient girl with short-cropped black hair and lesbian vibe, though he was sure Dawn would call him a pig for noticing.

William pulled up his shoulders and exhaled sharply. “So… I’m out,” he said, without troubling over the volume of his voice. He struck off across the road toward Rita.

Midway into the street, a brilliant green burst of light brightened the sky to the north. He froze while the ground shook with the delayed rumble of an explosion. Simultaneously, the cacophony of car alarms and breaking glass filled the brittle silence.

Rita was beside him in a flash. The other Slayers gathered in a loose formation behind them. Along the horizon to the north a tremendous fire blazed, backlighting rows of quiet suburban houses, turning the low banks of snow clouds a sickening shade of chartreuse. Up the street and down, scattered people tumbled out of their houses, angling their awed faces to the sky.

Rita drew herself up straighter. “This is it, girls,” she said. “This is what we’ve been training for.”

William knew – deeply knew – that no amount of training could prepare them for what they were about to face.

 

 

The building they climbed abutted a second, much taller building, which, unfortunately, blocked most of the southeastern vantage Dawn needed to establish their bearings. Add to that the unbearable cold, her sore ankle, his near-frostbitten toes, the almost stifling fear of pursuit by the Shedim, and not to mention hunger: yeah, they were miserable.

Dawn craned her neck to study the slick black windows of the building adjacent, trying to figure a way to scale it, when Andrew lightly tugged at her sleeve.

She ignored him. It was an office building, she was sure of that because all of the rooms were dark. There was a wide wrap-around balcony fifteen feet above them. Standing back, she could pick out a scattering of café-style tables, their striped umbrellas all buttoned up for the winter. If they could manage to climb onto that balcony…

Andrew touched her arm again. She turned to him. “If we can get up there,” she said, pointing, “I’m pretty sure I can locate Clapham Common.”

“Do you have a pen?” he asked.

She raised an eyebrow. “Sure. Right here with my chapstick, cash card, and Ruby Slippers,” she said.

His brow darkened. “I guess you don’t have paper either?” he asked.

“Uh, no.”

Dawn turned away, annoyance gurgling in her stomach. She scrutinized the wall of the office building again, looking for drain pipes or gutters or anything climbable. She saw nothing but several rows of louvered windows with iced ledges each only a few inches deep.

With a sigh, she gave up. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll have to lean out over the edge of this building to get a fair look. You’ll have to hang onto me, okay?”

Andrew looked at her doubtfully.

“It’ll be fine,” she assured him. “I trust you.”

“I need to write it down,” he said, distractedly. “I’m kinda already forgetting it.”

“Forgetting… what, exactly?”

He blinked and went on as if he hadn’t heard her. “I bet we can break this window. Offices are full of pens and letterhead. Sometimes leftover crullers.”

“Andrew,” she said, aiming for patient but coming off stern. “We’re trying to not draw attention to ourselves. Setting off the alarms of some minor corporate hub, probably not the way to stay low-key.”

“Right,” he said with a faraway nod.

Dawn dragged him toward the edge of their rooftop. “Focus, please,” she said through her teeth. “Now’s not the time to go all Ensign Barclay.”

Andrew gave her a pained smile, as if to say he appreciated the Trekkie reference, but wasn’t going to let it drop. “I need to tell you what happened, at the Temple,” he said.

Dawn gripped both of his forearms. “You can tell the whole gang when we get back home,” she said. “First, we have to find where that is. Here, hold my hand.”

He did, and to his horror, she shimmied onto the narrow rim of the roof’s ledge to lean out over the street. He grappled her arm with both hands and held tight, his eyes clamped shut. After a long, agonizing moment, he felt her fingers on his shoulder.

“Well,” she said, with faux confidence. “I think I got it.”

He opened is eyes slowly and fixed her with a questioning stare. “You do?”

“The river’s that way,” she said, gesturing left toward the office building. “Which means that is Latchmere Road. Most likely,” she said, indicating the opposite direction. Speaking it out loud gave her confidence. “If I’m correct, once we find Latchmere, we head south toward Clapham and we’re home free. Anyway, we should be safe if we keep heading south.”

“I need something to write with,” Andrew said.

“Andrew!” Dawn snapped. “Risking life and limb here to find a homewardly direction; the least you could do is offer some gratitude.”

“Thanks,” he said weakly. “But I’m, like, bad at remembering, and I’m supposed to remember.”

Dawn huffed in frustration. “Okay, we passed an ATM vestibule about a block up. They have deposit slips…”

“But we have zero money,” Andrew said.

Blank deposit slips, Andrew,” Dawn said. “Little pens on chains so people can’t walk off with them. I’m certain you’re familiar with the setup.”

Andrew swallowed hard. Dawn noted for the first time the waxy pall to his skin. She realized that he was on the verge of totally unraveling. She felt a guilty for being so abrupt with him.

“Blank slips,” he said with a wan smile. “You’re a regular Velma Dinkley.”

“Andrew–?” she began. She was interrupted then by a shockingly bright burst of light, followed by a deep, monstrous grumble that rattled the building beneath them. They stumbled together, into each other’s arms, as the night awoke with the wails of alarms and sirens.

Then the constant light from the blaze brought another thing to their attention: they were not alone on the rooftop. Six of the Shedim had crowded onto the fire escape and were crawling over each other and the building’s ledge toward them, their milky eyes burning in the eerie light.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Shedim had been joined by another demon, smaller and far more grotesque. The new guys looked a lot like frogs with elongated arms and torsos, their back legs shorter but banded with ropy muscles under skin that resembled alligator hide. A trio of the froggish demons, each a meter tall, leapt ahead of the Shedim. The one in the lead held out its knobby fingers, seemingly pointing at them, but in a quick jolting motion, a bony protrusion jutted from its palm.

“Get down!” Andrew shouted, pulling Dawn backward. She felt something zip through the air near her cheek, and a lock of her hair fell to the frosted rooftop. She stared at it for what felt like forever – a limp black curl like a question mark against the sparkling gray tile – before Andrew tugged her backward again.

Dawn skinned her palms, but Andrew kept dragging her toward the far corner of the roof where at least they could guard their backs.

They slammed against the wall of the taller office building. Dawn felt Andrew’s warmth against her back, his breath on her neck. It was a small comfort, considering the battalion of demons crowding onto the roof before them.

“What are they?” she panted.

“Kosztchie demons, found traditionally in Siberian grottos, not English rooftops!” he shouted accusingly.

“Breaking the window doesn’t seem like such a wild idea now,” Dawn said.

“It’s Plexiglas,” Andrew muttered. “I’m sorry, Dawn.”

They had nothing. No weapons. No defense. Not even a pen. In the darkness, Dawn found Andrew’s hand.

 

 

In the moments following the explosion, pandemonium erupted in the street. Several dozen demons rained down on them from the sky, attacking in a brutal blur. Once the initial panic subsided, William felt a surge of relief (or perhaps adrenaline) at having something to pound on. The demons made for fairly worth adversaries, too. They were toadish in appearance, with long, sinewy arms and the ability to produce bone-like darts from their bulbous fingertips. He’d seen this brand of demon before, while working for Wolfram & Hart: Kostzchie demons.

William had pulped five of them, leaving cartilaginous lumps steaming on the frozen pavement, when Rita shouted for a retreat.

Appalled, he turned to yell at the bint for pulling out when things were getting good, but saw that one of her girls had been bitten by a Kostzchie and lay dead. So they were venomous, William thought, his lips curling into a sneer. Ah, this was going to be fun.

The Slayers followed Rita’s orders, and the demons followed the Slayers. A pair of them leapt onto Serina, pinning her down. William dived, rolled, came up beside her, round-housing the nearest Kostzchie into the grill of a parked Subaru. He hauled the second up by its squishy shoulders and flung it into the window of the nearby flat, where it crashed through the glass and into the Christmas tree, which sputtered and sparked as the demon sizzled to death.

Before Serina could thank him, the Kostzchie swarmed the street again. They emitted a low, warbling whine, more like locusts than amphibians, and William saw that three of the girls became disoriented. They simply stood there while the demons overcame them.

“Get the girls!” Rita yelled to William as she and two other Slayers held off a half-dozen of the demons. “Everyone else, fall back.”

He whipped his dagger from his belt. All around him, the Kostzchie warbled and screeched as he slashed the blade through their papery hides. They were remarkably easy to kill; problem was there were so damn many. He cut his way through a hip deep crowd of writhing Kostzchie, managed to save one of Rita’s unit. Regrettably it was lights-out for the other. William watched helpless as the girl tumbled backward against the curb. The frogs latched onto her, pink fangs dripping, as they sucked her dry.

William hefted his rescuee onto his back. A demon scrambled up his thigh, its broad open mouth exposing rows of tiny pink teeth. William sunk his dagger between the frog’s protuberant eyes and booted it into the gutter before joining the others in retreat.

The remaining five from both units gathered in a side-street to regroup. The human crowd had long vacated, and good for them. Rita knelt with Serina, helping pull a seven-inch barbed bone knife from Serina’s upper thigh.

“We lost three: Ana, Alexa, Jess,” Rita told them needlessly, but William knew she had to talk it out to get her head around a plan. “We gotta get back to the school and re-arm.”

Serina gritted her teeth as Rita struggled with the bone blade, but it was stuck too deep and wouldn’t budge.

“I’m thinking flame throwers,” said another Slayer as she kept lookout. “Grenades. Distance weapons.”

A tear rolled down Serina’s cheek. “Just pull it out,” she groaned.

Rita shut her eyes as she yanked the bone blade from Serina with a horrible ripping sound. Serina cried out, involuntarily, and the Kostzchie rose collectively to their tiptoes, their viscid pink tongues flicking out to scent the air like lizards. In a moment, they caught scent of what William knew they would find: the perfume of Serina’s blood. Always blood...

“Get the hell out of here,” he said. “I’ll dust these chaps.”

Rita whipped her eyes to his with a look of incredulity. “You can’t…”

He gave her a grim grin and said, “Bloody well can. Now go.”

Rita and the Slayer on lookout got Serina to her feet. The five of them fled, leaving William alone in a murky London side-street, the scent of fresh blood stinging his nose, bringing all of his senses to life.

It was just like old times.

 

 

Connor whipped along the city’s rooftops in the wake of the explosion, the Scythe singing in the wind as he ran. He saw the demons’ shapes glowing like phosphorescence in a night tide. He could see them, spreading like a cancerous malignancy into the suburban street.

At the point of their greatest concentration Connor swung down, dropping the three stories to street level like a gymnast dismounting the parallel bars. Effortlessly, he landed on the icy pavement, bringing the Scythe around in a clean arc, slicing through the first wave of the demons and sending the second wave scattering. They sent up a chirruping cry of alarm; he ignored it. He spun, lunged, swept through the demons until every last one lay slain on the cold concrete.

Angel was beside him, his eyes like twin green stars. He said, “Good work, m’boy. But there’s more. So many more.”

Connor brought the Scythe up to his forehead and bent over it in prayer. “I will kill them, Father. To the very last.”

Angel smiled. “That’s what I wanna hear.”

Connor tore away from the scene, cold air coaxing tears from his eyes. He took the nearest building at a running leap and continued his flight along the peaks and gables of south-London skyline.

William stepped out to survey the slimy green carnage. He watched the shadowy form of Connor darting along the rooftops, pursued at a distance by another figure who matched him leap for sinuous leap.

“Bollocks,” William muttered. Sucking his teeth, he sheathed his weapon and joined the chase.

 

 

The Kostzchie had herded Andrew and Dawn like sheep to the furthest reach of the roof. Now that they were cornered, Dawn noticed the demons had stalled their attack, drawing the snare tighter with excruciating slowness, as if to prolong the game. The Kostzchie had begun to chitter excitedly to each other as they circled. Behind the frog demons, the Shedim murmured in tones too close to human for Dawn’s liking.

Andrew, his eyes squeezed shut, muttered a mantra of his own, equally unintelligible. Dawn glanced over the roof’s edge, which made her dizzy, but gave her an idea.

“Let’s jump,” she whispered.

He opened his eyes, closed them again. “It’s certain death.”

“Better that than frog food,” she decided.

She leaned over again, and her throat constricted. It was a long way down.

“In the end the angels sing,” Andrew muttered to himself, his fist pressed to his lips. “In the end the angels sing.”

“Andrew. Jump. Now!”

Dawn leapt onto the ledge, her eyes stinging but her mind clear. She pulled Andrew with her, and the demons surged forward, their urgent screeches piercing the air. Dawn closed her eyes. She felt Andrew’s warm hand squeeze hers, and they let go.

Instead of falling forward, she felt a strong tug that sprawled them backward. She scrambled, tangling with Andrew, and sat up in time to see their rescuer land with such force the entire rooftop quaked. He squared his shoulders, throwing his hair back in a way that appeared savage and not quite human. In his hands he held – but her mind reeled in disbelief – he couldn’t wield that weapon.

Only her sister could.

Only a Slayer…

Yet he brought the Scythe to bear and Dawn heard its characteristic wail as Connor used it to slice the first four Kostzchie into frog-kebabs. The Shedim rushed forward, arms grasping for something to mutilate. Connor decapitated two, plunged the stake into the chest of a third. He dropped to one knee, cut the legs out from the next Shedim and toppled it into the writhing, groping crowd that still clawed forward in blind attack. Dawn spotted a clear path between them and the fire escape, and knew what they had to do.

Without thinking, she wrenched Andrew to his feet and they fled, vaulting over the lip of the roof and onto the ice-glazed metal platform. Bone darts showered down, glancing off the handrails, taking chunks of pitted iron with them. Andrew screamed, but they didn’t slow down.

At the base of the fire escape, Dawn and Andrew leapt down to the sidewalk, sliding on patches of black ice as they darted around the corner.

Amazingly, people crowded the street. Non-Shedim people gathered together in front of darkened shop windows and on corners, dressed warmly and conversing in worried tones. When they saw Andrew and Dawn burst into the street, crossing full speed against traffic, none of them seemed at all surprised. Everything changed, however when a brigade of meter-high frogs raced around the corner, bounding over the cars, showering bystanders with bristling darts of solid bone.

Not surprisingly, Andrew had taken the lead. He clung to Dawn’s hand with a lobster-like vise, weaving them beneath awnings and over bus-stop benches, until he dived around another corner, crossing the street oblivious to oncoming cars whose blaring horns and squealing brakes were all that let Dawn know how close they’d come to being road-kill.

At the next block, Dawn ventured a backward glance; the Kostzchie still pursued, but at a greater distance. She watched as two of them pounced onto the top deck of a tour bus, their bulging fingers splayed over the front window as the driver slammed the bus into a light pole, sending both demons soaring.

“This way,” Andrew shouted, slipping suddenly sideways into Clapham Junction.

They plowed down the wrong side of the stairwell, bowling several stunned tourists aside. Dawn shouted an apology, but Andrew kept his head and continued to run. They jumped the turnstiles and dashed into the gleaming white tube station, where they stumbled to a breathless halt.

“Which way?” Dawn panted. “Do we… wait for… a train?”

An echoing yowl from street level answered her question. Andrew planted his hands on her shoulders, turning her toward the tracks.

“That way. Go, go!”

Dawn saw Problem One right away. A train had just departed, leaving thirty or so people on the platform, all of them ambling in a way to suggest they had heard about the explosion but had no clue about anything else. Dawn glanced about wildly, but the demons had yet to descend.

“Run!” she shouted to the townsfolk. About half of them turned to gawk at her; the rest pointedly ignored her. She tried again. “Run! The monsters are coming!”

At which point they all ignored her.

Andrew dropped down from the platform and onto the tracks just as the Kostzchie swarmed into the tube station. Which called to Dawn’s attention Problem Two. Another train was arriving, its halogen blue headlamps glaring in the black tunnel on an in-bound set of tracks. This time her choices were death by frog demon, or death by train. Andrew held up his arms to catch her. She slid quickly from the platform, into Andrew’s arms.

They were running before her feet had time to touch the ground. Dawn heard pedestrians screaming behind them. She heard the triumphant wailing screech of the demons and the high-pitched screech of the approaching train. The pungent scent of diesel assailed her, made her knees weak and her head swimmy, but Andrew plunged ahead, pulling her with him.

They jumped the first set of tracks, then another, then the third. The oncoming train showed no sign of slowing. She felt the shriek of the brakes rattle in her molars, the pebbles beneath her feet skitter and dance. When they crossed the fourth, Dawn felt a snag at her sleeve and knew with certain horror that a bone dart had grazed her shoulder. The frogs gained on them, bounding from one track to the next with inhuman grace.

The train hurtled from the tunnel and into the station. Dawn and Andrew leapt the final track, found what they sought: a metal service ladder. They scaled it. The demons, having no prior knowledge of subway trains, neglected to dodge when the train slammed into them at 75 miles per hour.

But as Andrew heaved Dawn up once he reached the top, a fine mist of blood sprayed across Dawn’s throat and shirt.

“Dawn! Dawn!” he yelled, panicking, patting her arms and her shoulders and her chest, in search of the wound.

“I’m fine,” she said, her eyes wild. “Andrew, I’m fine. It’s not… me.”

She froze, her arms forming a circle with his, as simultaneously, they looked down. A bone dagger sunk deep into the space beneath his ribs – so deep that only a half-inch remained exposed in the folds of his Miskatonic sweatshirt.

Andrew made an annoyed sound. And then he crumpled to the floor.

 

Chapter Text

Dawn knelt beside Andrew, watching helpless as he writhed and floundered and then rather quickly sank into shock. Around her, people fled screaming and panicked, but she heard only the aftersound of her voice calling his name over and over and over again.

Color faded from the world. Blood pooled around his body, spreading in a slow widening circle – an outline of black under the colorless fluorescents above them. His eyes slipped closed. In a matter of seconds, the hue of his lips drained from pink to pale gray. At last, his grip in her hand slackened.

Dawn brought his cool fingertips to her lips. “Andrew, no,” she whispered. “It’s not true. Oh, please. It’s not true.”

The lights sputtered and flickered. A handful of people raced past her, stairway bound. One of them, a balding man in a gray wool coat, knelt beside her, urging her to follow. He said, “Here ya go, luv. Gotta get out. Power’s out across the grid. The whole city’s…”

Angry tears dashed from her eyes. “Get out,” she said.

“’s all I’m saying. Power’s out, see? Let’s go…”

She twisted her fingers into the sleeve of Andrew’s sweatshirt. “Get out get out GET OUT!”

Every fluorescent bulb in the station burst, showering them with silver sparks. The man backed away, gaping like a beached fished, then bolted, leaving them alone in the dark.

A tense moment passed before emergency generators shuddered to life in the tunnel behind them. The steady electric thrum dulled the sound of her heartbeat, her breathing, the pulse of the street above. Pallid, inconstant light filtered down from iron-mounted fixtures, turning the platform into a study of contrast – black, white and emptiness.

Seeing his body traced in blood brought a memory: High school art class. She couldn’t remember the teacher, or the name of the boy who stood beside her, the boy on whom she’d had a major crush, but she recalled his hazel eyes, and the teacher’s words, clear as raindrops on a windowpane.

“Remember, we’re not drawing the object,” the teacher had said. “We’re drawing the negative space around the object. We just draw the edges, and then give a sense of the spaces around. The space in-between.”

The boy had said, “Yeah, what’s that all about?”

Buffy appeared then, with the news of their mother’s death. Dawn had called her a liar. Had hit her. Had collapsed.

“No. No. It’s not true. You’re lying. Please, it’s not true!” The same denial. The same powerless despair.

Dawn felt a sticky wetness on her hand. She raised it to find his blood on her fingers. She smeared the blood, and it spread like ink across her fingertips. Her breath caught with the promise of an idea. Negative space. Space between.

She thought, Not powerless. Not this time.

Dawn dug her nails into her palms hard enough to prick the skin, bringing her own blood to mingle with his.

“Don’t leave me,” Dawn choked out. “Don't you dare.” She gripped Andrew’s shoulders and with a rough, quick movement, she dragged Andrew’s body across the platform to the curved wall behind them.

“Sp…gles,” he gurgled in protest.

The wall was wide expanse of white tile.

Dawn dipped two fingers into his blood. “It’s not true. Not yet.”

And she began to draw.

 

XXX

 

Rachel guided Giles inside before his legs buckled beneath him. He collapsed in an ungainly heap in his swivel chair and caught himself with one hand on the table’s edge.

She heard footfalls on the stairs behind them and turned to face a young red-haired woman and a man in an eye patch. She took her father’s withered hand in hers and gave it a firm squeeze before turning to meet them.

“Giles!” the young man shouted. He sprinted from the base of the stairs, knocking Rachel aside. “What have you done to him?”

“Xander,” the redhead said, stepping around him. “Don’t go all Incredible Hulk. Give ’em some space.”

“Willow,” Rachel said, and was pleased when she reacted with confusion. “We don’t have much time. We just escaped from the airport. The whole city’s locked down. They think it’s a terrorist attack…”

Willow’s face hardened. “What happened to him?”

Giles blinked a few times and craned his head in Willow’s direction. Annoyed, he said, “I am sitting exactly here. When did you arrive? You were in Hell when we last…” and then Giles trailed off, his eyes hazy and slightly unfixed.

Xander pressed his fingers together. “As we were saying: What happened to him?”

“He said they were wights,” Rachel explained. Against her palm, Giles’ fingers twitched. She rubbed her thumb along the back of his hand to calm him. “Wraith-like creatures. Gatwick’s overrun.”

“Is it permanent?” Xander asked.

“Well, the police had cordoned off …” Rachel’s eyes welled with tears. “You mean him, of course. That, I don’t know.”

Xander scratched his head. He looked past Willow and leveled his one eye on Rachel. “Who are you?” he asked.

“Rachel Greenspan,” she said. “Of the Boston Greenspans.”

Xander and Willow stared blankly at her, until finally Xander said, “That clears everything up. Thanks.”

Giles inhaled sharply. He reached for Xander, and they saw that his left arm had been withered to something resembling beef jerky. His fingers hooked into a claw-like talon around Xander’s wrist.

“Leave her be, Xander,” Giles wheezed. “There’s more import…”

Xander recoiled from Giles’s ruined hand. “Uh, Willow?”

Giles paused, and for a moment they thought he had zoned out again, but he leaned forward in the chair to peer at the accumulated stacks of papers and scrolls left behind in research central. He rifled over loose articles and clippings with his good hand, sending them a-scatter like a clutter of leaves.

“Parchments?” Giles muttered.

“Mr. Giles,” Rachel said. “Are you all right?”

“Pages, parchments, articles, maps…” Giles said in a rush. “All of them dated, painstakingly referenced, but what was he after? What was he after?”

“Giles, sit down,” Rachel said, looping her arm over his shoulders, steering him toward the chair. “We need to talk with Willow and…”

Giles shrugged her off, tottering dangerously as he did so. “Hellmouths. Of course,” he said. “But where? More importantly, how?”

“Giles. Listen to the woman. Women. Just sit,” Xander said. He tried to strong-arm Giles into the chair, too, but Giles pushed him off with surprising forcefulness.

“He knew it. He knows,” Giles went on. He pulled himself along the table, shoving books and articles to one side, revealing a broad map of the world. “Where is he? How on earth?”

Willow looked at Xander. Both thought it likely the wights he’d encountered at Gatwick had withered more than his left hand.

To underscore their feelings, Giles began to laugh hysterically. Chuckling madly, he said, “Boy’s figured it out. I mean, clearly. Clever. Clever lad. What does it mean? What does it mean?”

“Mr. Giles,” Rachel said. “Mr. Giles, please.”

“Is he here? Can he explain this?” Giles said. A bit of spittle beaded in the corner of his mouth. He rounded on Xander and tried to push past him. “Andrew? Come down here? It’s all in black and white, but what is the connection? The unifying force… Unifying. Andrew!”

“Mr. Giles,” Rachel said again. He brushed her aside, stumbling into the entry hall.

“Andrew!”

“Dad,” Rachel said. Giles stopped. His shoulders drooped. His body listed sideways like a tree about to tumble in a storm.

Xander caught him, eased him into the chair again.

“Dad?” Xander asked.

“You’re his…” Willow began.

Rachel wiped her forehead with a shaky hand. “Daughter. Yes. And a member of the Watcher’s Council. Where is Mr. Wells? We must speak with him.”

Xander grimaced. “About that.”

“He’s gone.” A girl appeared at the top of the stairs, her blonde curls like a feather-cap around her face. She crossed the landing to the handrail and then rushed urgently down the steps.

She shot a cold glance at Xander and said, “Andrew left this morning. Dawn went after him. Are they in danger?”

“I’m afraid it’s rather desperate,” Rachel said. “You are…?”

The girl extended a hand to Rachel. “Maya.”

Giles made a startled noise. Wobbly though he was, he sprung from his chair and managed to pull Rachel behind him.

“What in Heaven’s name is he doing here?” Giles shouted, gesturing with his shriveled hand to the figure at the top of the stairs.

Rachel knew who he was. Even before he spoke, she knew. Thellian. A vampire. The vampire.

Rachel noticed two things at once. First, she saw how Xander, Willow, and Maya involuntarily angled themselves to face Thellian as he glided down the stairs to join them, moving the way plants always do when facing a source of light. Rachel struggled to focus, but found the task difficult in Thellian’s presence. Second, she noticed the three wooden crates in the entry hall: one open, one splintered to kindling, one sealed and silent and waiting.

Thellian rounded the banister and joined them.

“Ah, Rupert,” he said, his voice inviting like the strains of violins warming up for a symphony. “Welcome home. You’re just in time.”

 

XXX

 

Dawn could not recall the specific details of the doctor’s face, nor could she frame the exact corridor of the hospital in which she might find him. At the same time, she knew it didn’t matter. This was negative space, not detail. She could feel around the subject in the dark, calling it to focus in her mind, until second by agonizing second, she had the vague idea of form.

As Dawn drew, the white tiles grew translucent, like frosted glass. She exerted her will, channeling it into her fingers, into the blood, and found the medium surprisingly yielding to her efforts. Soon she felt herself fully absorbed, her fingers darting and shaping, adding perspective, adding texture, until soon the outline of a stark hallway emerged. Into the hallway she painted gurneys, a nurse’s station, a pair of undefined figures in the background, running to open a pair of double doors the size of slabs.

Speculation soon transformed to fact, and Dawn knew what she saw was real. The connection in her mind sent a shock like lightning down her spine. She funneled energy to her fingertips, feeling for the doctor’s shape in the foreground. Behind her eyes, she felt an odd twinge, a resistance, exactly like when the poles of two magnets repel each other. Dawn knew that feeling – the doctor was resisting her contact. In spite of herself, she laughed. She’d found him.

Dawn hazarded a glance at Andrew. His eyes were closed, and he was dreaming. Dawn lifted his fingers to her lips again, quickly, breathing in the living scent of him. With a grim smile, she returned to her work.

The doctor had attended to Giles’s first, and then Buffy. Dawn recalled the slickness of his oiled black hair. She committed it to her drawing. She recalled his glasses - Buddy Holly horn-rims. Dawn drew the rumpled lab coat, the name tag above the pocket slightly askew: Doctor Chapman, M. D. S.

At that remembrance, Dawn felt a swooning sensation, like the ground shifting. She bore past it. She added more detail – the doctor’s patchy black beard, his long, straight nose, his sympathetic yet stern blue eyes. She drew the clipboard tucked under his arm.

Sounds flooded her mind now. Footfalls padded by thick-soled orthopedic shoes. A loudspeaker calling indistinctly. People shouting, crying, begging. The light grew brighter around her, an ice-white halogen radiance. Her nose filled with the scents of ozone, urine, disinfectant, blood.

When the tingling began in her fingertips, she knew it was close. She stooped to grip Andrew’s arm with her left hand as she continued to press her connection with the doctor.

In a reeling instant, her perspective shifted. She saw through his point of view - jogging down the corridor, dodging aside to allow a gurney and a swarm of doctors and nurses pass him. Part of a song swirled in his head, repeating over and over – And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to father time. As I stared at my shoes in the ICU that reeked of piss and 409...

Yet he resisted her contact. She felt his agitation. She felt his distraction. She felt the headache pinching behind his brows.

He paused at the nurse’s station, took off his glasses, massaged his eyes.

A young black nurse hurriedly passed him another chart and said, “It’s a mad night, Kelly. Best strap in.”

Dawn heard him say, “Seems this whole damned town’s gone flipping acorns. Dr. Wallace is here already?”

“That’s right.”

Dawn sensed the time to push.

“Please let this work,” she prayed. And then, she stepped forward.

She felt something like tearing thick, wet cardboard. In the next moment, they crossed from Clapham Junction to Parkside Memorial. She stumbled, feeling like the earth lurched beneath her. The doctor turned, bound for the ER, but unexpectedly found Dawn crouched in his path, with Andrew curled at her feet, an extraordinary amount of blood caked into the sleeve of his sweatshirt.

The doctor nearly tripped over them. He gasped, incredulous. “How the hell did you get here?”

She held her bloody palms up for the doctor to see, as if they provided an explanation.

Recognition lit up the doctor’s eyes. “I know you,” he said, helping her to her feet. “I remember your sister.” Then he had his arm around her, guiding her to the desk, where he called for assistance.

“It’s all right,” he soothed her. “You’ve done best, bringing him in. We’ll take it from here…”

After that, things grew hazy and confused. Nurses lifted Andrew onto a gurney, and he’d screamed so loud it brought fresh tears to Dawn’s eyes. She tried to hang on to him. She tried to keep up, but they bustled her aside in their haste to help him.

In the end, she stood aching and alone in the corridor, his blood on her hands.

Even then, Dawn knew the truth.

“I’m the Key. Always the Key,” she whispered, understanding. “I know what I have to do.”

Chapter Text

Behind him, the city blazed. Little green demons thronged him, gurgling their strange, strangled cries as they circled him.

He grinned. When the first leapt at him, Connor sliced it cleanly in half. The others poured down on him – a cartilaginous wave with fangs, but the Scythe cleaved and swept and pureed them and Connor scarcely had to react until –

One sank its pink fangs into the meat of Connor’s left thigh.

At first he felt nothing, but then the wound burned and froze like a hundred tiny shards of dry ice embedded in his skin. Connor gnashed his teeth against the sensation and clocked the wretched frog between its protuberant eyes. The beast spread its mouth in a slack-jawed grin before it oozed to the rooftop. Connor squished it with his booted foot, but staggered backward under the weight of the pain.

Seventeen frogs pressed the gap, ready to charge him. Connor dropped to his right knee and brought the Scythe up. Behind him, his father whispered, “Get up. Don’t let them take you.”

“I won’t,” Connor gritted out.

The demons thought collectively. They sailed to Connor’s left, their slimy bodies glistening green in the baleful light of the fires. He parried the first out of the air, but noted with mild horror that it spread its arms and legs like flying squirrels to glide unharmed out of sight.

Everything slowed. The remaining demons flew at him. He brought the Scythe back in a broad arc – too slow. Three grappled him: head, torso, right shoulder. Three more wrapped around his legs. Two were preparing to bite, and the one on his head wasn’t writing Christmas cards.

Desperate now, Connor began to flail. The bite on his leg turned icy and the cold was spreading which could only mean…

“Poison,” Connor said.

“We’ve had worse, Connor,” Angel said. “Kill the bastards and get on with it. We have work to do.”

Connor stood again, pulling the writhing demons with him. Beyond them, a ring of filthy Shedim stood, bouncing in unison on the balls of their feet like a grotesque performance troop waiting to take the stage. They weren’t attacking, but Connor kept their positions in his mind. Gripping the Scythe in both hands, he spun in a blinding arc, splattering the frog demons like gunk-filled piñatas. He raised the Scythe over his head, preparing to hilt-slam the next demon when he encountered resistance.

He looked up, thinking perhaps he’d lodged the blade in the concrete cornice of the adjacent building, and found instead a pair of hands, slim-yet-muscular arms, and the unhappy upside-down countenance of Faith. She hung suspended with her feet crossed over the railing of the balcony overhead.

“Hey,” she said, “This is mine.”

Connor sneered. He pulled down on the haft with all of his waning strength, hauling her and the blade toward him.

She’d anticipated this move, however, and turned midair, landing nimbly, squashing four of the frog demons and booting another over the roof’s edge, just for the hell of it. But never did she loosen her grip on the Scythe’s haft.

“It’s time to go home, Connor,” she snarled.

Behind him, his father said, “We have no home. Demons destroyed it.”

Connor said, “Demons destroyed it.”

“We have to kill them,” Angel said.

“Kill them,” Connor repeated. “Kill them all.”

Bracing herself, Faith heaved the Scythe in a wide semi-circle. Connor held firm, following the inertia until he collided with the Plexiglass windows of the office building. Cracks fanned around him like fissures in an ice pond, but he held onto the weapon. Faith brought her boot to his throat, pinning him against the wall.

“You’re the Destroyer,” Faith said. “That’s what they called you.”

“That’s what you are,” Angel said into Connor’s ear. “They made you.”

“They made me,” Connor said. Faith pressed her boot under his chin. Behind her, the frog demons inched closer, mucus dripping from their fangs. One leapt in. She sent it flying with an elbow to its face.

“Not they,” Faith said. “ It . The Glass.”

“Kill her,” Angel said plainly.

Connor hesitated. “Dad?”

“Dad?” Faith said, and for a split-second her guard fell.

Connor wrenched the Scythe and twisted. Faith’s balance wavered; Connor dived. She held the Scythe and fell backward with him. Together they sprung back up, stalemated again, but this time surrounded by six grinning Shedim.

Faith let out an irritated breath. “Fuck.”

And she released the Scythe.

 

 

“Millennia ago,” Thellian said. “Luxe first took human form. It is a gift all Kimaris have; makes them ideal predators. Among them, Luxe became legendary because though he could wear a human’s visage, he bore them no kindness, no… humanity.”

“What does this have to do with Maya?” Xander snapped. He was at the bar, rolling an orange between his hands on the Formica surface.

Willow, who had taken up position behind Thellian, shut Xander down with an arch look. Thellian appreciated that connection between Xander and Willow. He knew he could count on it to keep them both in check.

Thellian nodded once, then continued. “During his tenure at Wolfram & Hart, Luxe came upon many objects of power, which he used to bring creatures under his control.”

Maya cocked her head, color rising in her cheeks, as if mentally preparing her self-defense. Thellian suppressed a grin as he followed the girl’s thoughts.

“Around two hundred years ago, Luxe formed an attachment to a human female, a Romanian called Frieda Dieschel,” Thellian said. “Luxe gave Frieda a gift, an item of true primal force, which he had stolen from King Ludwig II, the Dream King of Bavaria, a vampire. This artifact came from the time before mankind – a relic of the Demon Age called The Dragon’s Eye.”

Thellian observed Maya closely, but she had recovered now, perhaps counting herself off the hook with the mention of this other woman. He sat forward in his chair, steepling his hands in front of him.

“But Luxe is not a creature who freely gives anything to anyone. Even then, he had a plan, though I doubt even he might have guessed how it would play out,” Thellian said. “He planted a seed; that is all.”

Directly across from Thellian, Rupert spoke for the first time since they adjourned to the kitchen. He said, “This Dieschel woman, what became of her?”

Thellian studied Rupert and Rachel for a half-second before answering. “She bore a child,” Thellian said. As he’d predicted, Rachel’s body angled instinctively toward Rupert’s. Humans , Thellian thought with delight, always so readable .

Xander tossed the orange backward and forward between his palms in agitation. “Thus that child bore a child, and that one, too. Big circle of life. Your point?”

Nonplussed, Thellian continued. “Frieda Dieschel passed this artifact to her daughter, who in turn passed it to her daughter, who passed it to her son.”

Thellian turned in his chair to tip a meaningful look at Willow, indicating that she could deliver the tale’s conclusion.

Willow said, “Her son left the Glass to Maya.”

 

 

His moment of surprise ended when Faith gripped the nearest Shedim by the shirtfront with both hands and lifted him over her head. She tossed it like a sandbag at the other five, which drove them back a few feet before they surged forward again.

“We have to get off this roof!” she shouted. “We’re swarmed!” She kicked at a group of frogs, who veered shy of her boot and hissed.

Connor stared at the weapon in his hands as if seeing it for the first time. He took in the tense form of Faith, her body crouched low, ready to defend; sweat beaded and ran down the back of her neck and her arms, where he saw a twisted scar still stitched with coarse black thread. A strand of conversation wound through his mind, beyond his reach. He remembered watching the needle as she drew stitch after stitch…

“You’re lucky you didn’t lose that arm,” Connor mumbled.

Faith hazarded a glance over her shoulder at him. The Shedim had recovered and they, along with uncountable frogs, were hemming them in.

“Please,” she said. “I have had so much worse. Like we’ll have soon, if you don’t use that Scythe.”

“Kill her,” Angel bit out. “She’s in the way.”

Connor raised the Scythe like an axe over his head. “You’re lucky is all,” he said.

 

 

Maya blanched. “Freddy,” she said, the truth dawning on her. “The Glass. But I…”

Xander jumped up from his barstool. “You bastard,” he said, wielding the orange like a grenade. “You must feel so high and mighty, implicating her? You know she had no idea…”

Willow moved from her place behind Thellian to stand in Xander’s line of fire. “Of course she didn’t know,” she said, in her peacemaking tone. “Xander, we’re not going all Salem Witch Trial.”

“We? Like you plus him equals we?” Xander said. “Willow, don’t you know what this thing is?”

Willow’s fingers went to the silver pentacle she wore at her throat, the one Thellian had given her in Japan. “Of course I do, Xander,” she said, her lips pouting like they had since Sunnydale Elementary. “Just as I know what I am, and what you are.”

Xander squeezed the orange so hard it left indentations in its dimpled skin and his wrist began to quake. But Maya appeared behind him.

“The Glass,” she said, quietly addressing Thellian. “You said it’s an object of great power. How great?”

Thellian got up from his chair and stepped toward Xander. As the vampire expected, Xander retreated to stand shoulder to shoulder with Maya.

“It has a will of its own,” Thellian said. “It seeks the greatest source of power, and attempts to exploit and deceive by showing you what you most desire,” Thellian explained. “Before Freddy met Maya, he was that power. You entered the picture, and the Glass sought you. After that…”

Maya lowered her eyes and uttered a bitter laugh. “I brought the Glass here,” she said.

Rupert shuddered. “Where you handed it to the most powerful creature it had ever encountered,” he said.

Xander looked at Willow, who pressed her lips together and shook her head. He was confused, and took a wild guess. “Connor?”

Thellian nodded appreciatively, and Xander felt an involuntary spring of pride, like a student who had finally won his professor’s approval.

“Connor,” Thellian affirmed. He ran a cool hand along Willow’s shoulder and down her arm. “Willow has great power, but it is bridled,” he explained. “She controls it. Connor lacks such discipline. The Glass has overtaken him completely. He is an instrument of pure instinct and destruction. Luxe knows this. He will use it to his advantage. Connor must be destroyed, or Luxe will use him to destroy us all.”

 

 

Connor gripped the Scythe so hard his knuckles whitened. The ragged bite above his knee thrummed with dull fire. The frogs were getting ready to spring, and the Shedim crept closer and closer, their filmy eyes full of voracity.

“Do it, Connor,” Angel said. “Get it done. Now.”

Connor closed his eyes. He felt his heartbeat in his throat. “I can’t.”

“We can,” Faith said. “The fire escape – it’s right over there. We’ll cut a path.”

“Cut a path,” Angel said. “Clear the way. You have to clear the way.”

Connor opened his eyes again. “Clear the way for what?” he asked.

“Don’t do that,” Faith answered. “Don’t give up. We have to get home.”

Connor clenched his teeth. A tear slipped from the corner of his eye. “Home,” he whispered.

“Destroyed,” Angel hissed.

“NO!” Connor brought the Scythe down.

He cleaved the first Shedim collar bone to hip, and had to kick its body free of the blade as he brought the pointy end of the Scythe to meet the next Shedim between its eyes. Frogs pelted them with a full assault, but he found that if he kept moving, he could shake them free before they could bite.

Faith was right behind him. She snapped the neck of a Shedim, but it continued to attack, unfazed by the fact that its head was on sideways. It managed to lock her arm when a dozen frogs scaled her legs and back. Connor wheeled, chopping the Shedim’s arm at its elbow, which gave Faith the chance to pound the frogs to pulp.

Connor reached back and grabbed her wrist. Together they made a break for the fire escape. The frogs sent up a chirring yowl of excitement that seemed to pierce Connor’s skull like an ice pick. His leg had gone stiff as a stilt, and he realized that he was slowing her down. Every other second, they threw off two or three frog demons, and more than twice he felt the tug of one of them coming too damn close to landing another bite.

At last they slammed into the low ledge of the roof’s edge.

“Here,” Faith yelled. “Gimme that!”

She swiped the Scythe from him, easily this time, and shoved him over onto the fire escape platform. Connor landed wrong, being wholly unprepared, and his leg bloomed with excruciating fire. As he struggled clumsily to right himself, he heard a series of thwacking sounds, followed by the wailing song of the Scythe as it whirled through the air. Another heartbeat later, Faith was beside him, and then she was dragging him down the dizzying spiral of the fire escape.

Connor was fading, and he knew it. The poison climbed with every breath and heartbeat. By the time they reached the lowest level and dropped to the street, with him falling in a crumpled heap in a patch of oily ice, he was barely conscious.

Faith lifted him by his shoulders and pressed him against the wall. She clutched the Scythe in her hand, and its scimitar blade lay against the brick close to his head, reflecting his blue eyes back to him.

“My Dad’s eyes,” Connor recalled. A weak cough wracked his chest. He could taste the sour sweetness of poison in the back of his throat. “They’re… brown. Not green.”

“Don’t do this,” she said, shaking him. “Damn you, don’t do this!”

Connor looked down into her stern face, her beautiful dark eyes like twin pools of midnight. “It’s done,” he said.

She pressed her body against him, burying her head against his shoulder. He brought his left arm around her in a loose embrace. He raised his eyes to the low gray clouds and beheld a glittering of snowflakes spiraling toward them.

“This is real,” he said. “I’m home.”

He let his eyes flutter closed.

Against him, Faith’s body shuddered, flooded with grief and rage and she twisted her hands into the fabric of his coat. And then she kissed him, hard and without quarter, and swung him over her shoulder. “You’re not home, yet,” she said.

 

Chapter Text

9 p.m.

London

 

“Somebody should call FEMA,” Clem said, drying his hands on a greasy rag. “’Cause this kitchen’s a disaster.”

Clem had begun the evening as fry cook, but ended up frightened bystander as five of the Sulksquelawtna invaded the kitchen to play with their food.

“I think FEMA’s an American institution,” Oz said. His eyes were still swollen, but his voice had gained strength. “Strictly speaking.”

Behind them, a tower of silver chafing dishes crashed to the floor with a deafening clamor. A trio of wrestling Sulksquelawtna demons rolled amongst the debris, their heavily-plated arms flailing wildly. Clem and Oz scrambled to the other side of the kitchen and watched.

“Maybe there’s a… UK version of FEMA?” Oz wondered aloud.

“Doesn’t matter,” Clem said. “We checked the phones while you were still, y’know, recumbent. They are dead deadity dead.”

To their left, the grill ignited in a belching tower of scorching yellow flames. Another demon tossed a frozen side of beef onto the fire, sending spatters of searing grease across the floor. “Dude, where’s Lorne?” Clem asked.

Oz glanced over his right shoulder. Through the round porthole window in the kitchen’s swinging door, he saw Lorne in deep debate with Sabnock, the leader of the Sulksquelawtna. He couldn’t hear a word of the conversation due to the WWDemon match in the kitchen, but he knew that once Sabnock was bored with the present situation, he would add Lorne, Clem and Oz to the top of the bill. From where Oz was standing, Sabnock looked pretty bored.

If Sabnock sought entertainment, Oz had an idea about how to find it.

“We should talk to him,” Oz said.

Clem looked uneasily from the writhing demons to the flank of burning cow-flesh to the little circle that framed Lorne and Sabnock. “I think Lorne’s a little <i> pre-occupado</i> at the <i>momento</i>…”

Oz opened the swinging door with a shove. “Not Lorne,” he said, pointing at Sabnock as he walked into the demolished lobby of Triumvirate. “Him.”

 

 

Anya dusted the sands from her hands and put them on her hips.

“Dust to dust, eh Walter?” she asked.

He grunted.

“Shame about the girl,” Anya said. “I could tell she’d been a cutie. Y’know, before the infernal torture and...”

Anya trailed off and found herself staring absently at the sands that bordered the circle she and Walter had wrought for their escapees. The outer edge had burned so hot the sand had turned to glass. After her sacrificial swan dive, the girl had vanished, swallowed up by the desert. Since the portal closed, they’d seen not a smidge of movement.

“Ayuh,” Walter said. He stared into the middle-ground, eyes squinted against the shimmer of heat. “Way of Hell, I guess.”

Anya sighed. “You ready to go haggle over some tripe?”

Walter sniffed. “Hold tight a sec, ’kay.”

Anya rolled her eyes. “Sure, but you know unrefrigerated entrails equal less profit for you.”

Walter’s four legs straightened to maximum lift, his torso elongating to his full nine feet in height. He continued to stare off into emptiness, but he said, “They’re yours, Anyanka. I’ve a score to settle.”

Anya folded her arms. “So, what? You’re just going to give me a travois full of guts? Here Anya, have some viscera. It’s on me! Hey, and while you’re at it, why don’t you take my jawbone? I only use it part-time anyway. What is it you even see out there, Walter? I don’t see a damned thing.”

But then she did see a damned thing. Two of them, actually: little black specks in the otherwise uninterrupted wasteland.

Using her hand to shield her eyes, she stared at the pair of figures. After a moment, she said, “Paolo?”

“Ayuh.”

“Son of a bunny!” Anya said. “Finally out of the forest!”

“And into the frying pan,” Walter finished. He reshaped his hat, ran his tongue over his teeth. “You want dibs on parts? ’Cept for the heart, o’course. That’d be mine.”

“’Course,” Anya said. She smiled, relishing the idea. Everyone who ever passed through the Second Circle of Hell lost something to Paolo. Some more than others. Anya had lost a series of dear and highly detailed memories, some of her most favorite from 1,100 years of existence. She couldn’t get them back, but she could get revenge. A devious smile brightened her eyes, and when she turned them up to Walter’s face, he understood in a flash what part of Paolo Anya desired most as a souvenir.

He grinned in kind. “As you wish, m’dear,” he said, and he left her beside the circle.

 

 

9:03 p.m.

London

 

Walking through the once elegant main hall of Trium