Once upon a time, it had snowed in Sunnydale. But that was a long time ago.
A breeze stirred the yellowing leaves of the old oak - not warm, but nowhere near cold or strong enough to strip the leaves away and reveal Addie's hiding place. The bark beneath the soles of her sneakers was worn almost smooth. Who knew how many other feet had perched on this convenient branch, how many other girls peered out through the tattered veil of leaves? You could see the whole block from up here, rows of inflatable snowmen standing guard beneath eaves dripping with electric icicles. There weren't any plastic monstrosities in this yard, unless you counted the headless Barbie doll spreadeagled beneath one of the rose bushes. Addie huffed into cupped hands, wishing she'd thought to bring gloves. But cold fingers were a fair trade for carrying her scent away and masking her heartbeat from the demon on the porch below.
No one looking at them would have known there was a demon in the bunch. They looked like any other family: newly-minted Mom and Dad, showing off the baby to the doting grandparents. But then, no one looking at her would realize that behind the snub nose and freckles lay a seasoned vampire Slayer, either.
Pretty seasoned, anyway.
It was like that all over Sunnydale now, she'd discovered - you never knew what perfectly ordinary front door might open on someone with horns or a tail or a few too many fingers. Her Watcher had told her what to expect, but it was still creepy. Making no more noise then the leaves, Addie shifted to a lower branch for a better view of her quarry. She'd been shadowing them for the last week. Antonia Palatino. Human, according to the Council's sources. One of the hundreds of Potentials left high and dry when the rogue Buffy Summers had called the Slayer power into the world for good. Which made Toni doubly a traitor, but no match for a real Slayer.
Her husband didn't look dangerous - slim and bespectacled, with an unruly mop of mouse-brown hair and an engaging grin. William "Bill" Summers-Pratt Junior, recently appointed co-head of Bloody Vengeance Inc., a supplier of specialty demon parts for half the magic supply houses on the West Coast. And just incidentally, a vampire. Not a particularly dangerous vampire - he handled the business end of B.V. Inc, while his Slayer sister, ironically, handled the demon hunting part, and while reports indicated he'd had basic self-defense training, it was Connie Summers-Pratt she'd have to worry about in a fight. Still, Addie knew from experience that the only harmless vampire was a dusty vampire.
Of course, if the Council recon was accurate, if she drove a stake through Bill's heart, she'd be left with a big-as-life body instead of a tidy pile of dust. Bill Summers-Pratt was no ordinary vampire - like his infamous father, he was alive as he could be. Which meant he'd leave inconvenient forensic evidence if he was killed, but it also meant he could be the father of the squirming pink-flannel bundle in Antonia's arms.
I'll save you, baby, Addie vowed. You'll grow up with your real sisters, where you belong.
Or she would, anyway, if they'd just stop yakking and drop the baby off.
"You're sure it's no problem?" Antonia said anxiously, dithering on the top step of the porch. "Because we could go next week - "
Bill hid his grimace of despair by adjusting his glasses. "Toni, we've only got - "
"Don't be silly," the woman silhouetted in the doorway interrupted, holding out her arms. "I can remember what it's like when they're that age - if you don't get time off for good behavior occasionally, you'll go nuts." Her tone implied that she considered this a scenario already in progress. "Leave her to us, and you two go have some fun that doesn't involve scraping strained peas off the wall."
"You've got the milk, right? I pumped two bottles and left them in the refrigerator - "
"Milk, check." Grandma whisked the baby from its mother's reluctant arms.
"Don't forget, her binkie's in the rocker!"
"Binkie, rocker, check and check." The screen on the front door shut firmly.
"And you've got my cell number? And Bill's cell number? And her pediatrician? And the poison clinic, and the - "
Grandma handed the baby off to a dark figure behind her and waved a PDA. "Check, check, and check-a-roony."
At the bottom of the steps Toni whirled around. "Oh, wait! I forgot - "
Bill lifted her bodily off the ground, draped her over one shoulder, and proceeded down the walk to the car. Toni's initial indignant yip dissolved into giggles. "We'll be back around one," he called over his shoulder.
"Take your time, lad," a male voice from inside the house replied cheerfully. "Chuck her in the boot if you have to, it's what I had to do with your mum to peel her away from you the first time!"
"He is so totally lying!" Grandma yelled after. "I chucked him in the trunk!"
Addie froze. No. It couldn't be. She was positive she'd overheard them planning to drop the baby off with Antonia's parents. That was the whole reason she was here, now, tonight, because for these few hours, her target would be left in merely human hands. Not -
Barely waiting for the sound of the car engine to fade, Addie skinned down the oak tree and crept across the kid-scuffed yard. Between California water restrictions and salt creeping in through the old Hellmouth tunnels as the sea levels rose, there weren't a lot of lush green lawns in Sunnydale these days. Someone was spending precious water on the roses, though, half a dozen huge, gnarled bushes that must have been half as old as the house itself. She crouched in the shelter of the thorny green canes and looked up. The street address was tacked to one of the porch pillars, elegant black numbers reading... 1630.
She slumped down against the cold concrete of the porch, burying her head in her hands. Oh, crap, crap, crap. She'd followed Bill's little hybrid here on her bicycle, so intent on keeping him in sight without being spotted that she hadn't paid any attention to the streets they were taking. But she didn't have to trot down to the corner to read the street sign; every Slayer in the world knew that address.
For a minute she thought about aborting the whole mission. Then her chin came up and her mouth firmed. She was a Slayer, and she had a soul to save, and no one, but no one, was going to stop her.
Not even Buffy Summers.
The living room was warm after the nippy breeze outside. Gingerbread and pine beat frankincense and myrrh any day. Jess and Vicki sat cross-legged under the Christmas tree, stringing popcorn and cranberries into garlands. Brows knit in concentration, Vicki wielded her needle with geometric precision. Her younger sister, fair curls in disarray and a bloody straggle of gut-stabbed cranberries draped around her neck, was engaged in the far more interesting pursuit of selecting presents for an experimental shake.
Their father paced back and forth in front of the unlit fireplace, jigging his granddaughter in one arm and growling into his cell. "...tomorrow morning? That the best they can do?"
"Is that Alex?" Buffy asked, gathering up an armful of discarded mugs from the coffee table. You could always tell who'd been using which by the varying proportions of cocoa and congealing pig's blood crusting the bottom. Ew. Easier to wash them herself, or ride shotgun on one of the kids? To heck with it; dishwasher time.
Spike nodded. "Yeh. Flight's been canceled. Fallout from that mess at LaGuardia." He performed an acrobatic maneuver intended to prevent Nita from glomming onto his phone and investigating its properties as a teething ring. "Oi, Jess! Leave off or I'll staple your fingers to the carpet!"
Jess dropped the brightly wrapped box with a guilty squeak, knocking over the bag and sending a flood of cranberries bouncing across the carpet. "Jessicaaaaa!" her sister moaned. She stabbed an escaping cranberry with a martyred sigh and held up her handiwork in dismay. "She's not helping at all! I've been stringing this stuff for hours and there's only, like, three feet! And Jess ate half the popcorn!"
"I'm sure you've got enough." Buffy eyed the loops of garland pooling at Vicki's feet, exactly six puffy yellow kernels threaded between each bright red berry, and estimated the ratio of bugs per kernel she'd have to deal with if any of it got forgotten behind the couch. There was a reason decorating technology had advanced beyond food items. "In fact, more might be too much."
"You think so?" Vicki asked hopefully.
Buffy nodded. "My mom always said you should always take off the last thing you put on the tree. Or, well, not Mom, Coco Chanel. And not trees. But the principle? Sound. And if you never make the last thing you would have taken off, then hey, you've saved a step. Jess, sweetie, pick those things up before someone..." Spike swept past on his rounds, and Buffy kicked a cranberry out of his path, "...smushes them into the carpet."
"Right, then, your mum or I'll be there to pick you up. If I burn to a crisp, sue the sodding airline." Spike broke into a grin. "Yeh, well, I've been bloody Americanized, haven't I? See you tomorrow."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, give her here," Buffy said, appropriating Nita as she squealed and made a last-ditch grab for the cell phone. "No bogarting the new baby smell."
"Hands-free my arse. I swear I'm getting one of those implant oojahs," Spike grumbled. "He's been rescheduled for nine o'clock tomorrow. Bleeding unnatural hour."
"At least I don't have to give up my room for another night," said Vicki, perking up. "I don't see why Alex can't sleep on the couch since - "
"Since his sister is such a kind and considerate person," Buffy finished. She buried her nose in the fine dark fluff on top of her granddaughter's head. Mmm, powdery. "And speaking of bed, it's after ten. If you want to come meet your brother at the airport tomorrow..."
Identical wails of "But it's too early!" split the air. "Yeh, it is," Spike agreed. He bent down and ruffled Jess's hair. "We're a cruel hard lot, your mum and me. Come on, peanut, no whinging. Off to bed, or Father Christmas will get you."
"Yaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!" Jess leaped to her feet, waving an imaginary sword and managing to upset most of the cranberries she'd retrieved. "He'll never take us alive!"
Vicki aimed a theatrical eyeroll at her younger sister, and bent to arrange her popcorn garlands carefully around the lower branches of the tree. She stepped back and surveyed the results with a critical head-tilt. "I guess it doesn't look too awful." She looked despairingly up at her father. "Tell the truth. People in Victorian times had really teensy weensy trees, didn't they?"
"Christ, no," Spike said gravely. "Generally had to cut a hole in the ceiling to fit 'em in. Bad luck for us if it snowed." He hoisted Jess up to drape her more lopsided effort around the tree's crown. "'Course, that was all we got to eat, most years, times being so hard. All that vision of sugarplums bit? Pure bollocks. It was stale popcorn 'n raw cranberries all around."
"Daaaaad," Vicki admonished as he set her sister down. "She's still immature enough to believe that stuff."
"Am not!" Jess hollered. "And anyway, Dad likes mine better. Yours is boring!"
"Like 'em both," Spike said diplomatically, neatly taking advantage of Buffy's momentarily distraction by runaway cranberries to reclaim Nita. "Just like the ones I used to make. I'll just put the tyke down, why don't I, while you take care of all this?"
Buffy regarded him narrowly over the rim of an empty cocoa mug. "You are clever, Mr. The Bloody, but I shall have my revenge. No little marshmallows for you."
"Tell us a story about when you were bad!" Jess demanded, as Spike herded the girls upstairs.
Jess wasn't quite old enough to understand exactly how bad Spike had been, back in the day. Maybe she never would. Buffy still wasn't entirely clear about the soul status of her fangier children. Oh, they had something - spirits, demon souls, whatever that Lorne guy had said, just like Spike did now that he was alive. But how those compared to regulation human souls? No clue. Sometimes she thought it was better not to know for sure. Other times...a little shiver chased down her spine despite the house's warmth.
It was, she decided, cold enough outside to justify a fire. Their household carbon allowance only gave them a handful of burn days each year, and there wasn't any better time than Christmas Eve to use one up.
Wrestling with the flue led to a shower of soot and a hasty counter-attack of clean-upiness, and by the time Spike got back downstairs, there was firelight and candles and appropriate seasonal beverages and one of Mom's scratchy old Christmas records on the shiny new turntable, because someone insisted that vampire ears proved the superiority of analog sound. When she ran out of things to do, Buffy stood in the middle of the rug, sipping eggnog and gazing at her reflection in the big front window. She didn't hear Spike come up ghosting up behind her, but she felt him, the vampy tingle between her shoulder blades an entirely agreeable chaser to the earlier shivers. When cool strong arms wrapped around her waist, she relaxed into the complementary cool strong chest with a little sigh. "Say something that will convince me I don't actually want another baby."
Because she didn't. It was just evil pre-menopausal hormone voodoo. Nita might be all wondering brown eyes and tiny perfect toes and a pink spit-bubble O of a mouth now, but in another year she'd transmogrify into a toddler, the larval stage of that most dreaded of creatures, the teenager.
Spike pursed his lips consideringly. "'Oooh, Spike, I want another baby!' is exactly what Dru used say to me come Christmas morning."
"Oh, you're good. Urge to spawn falling. In fact, we may never have sex again."
"Yeah, we'll see about that," he murmured. "You look pensive, love."
Buffy sighed and twined her fingers into his. "Do you think it was a good idea to retire so early?"
He cocked his head, puzzled. "What, from Bloody Vengeance? We can afford it. Past time Bill n' Connie got a chance to take the reins. Was getting bored with it anyway. Too much like work. And you were chuffed enough when you got the chance to cut the group classes out of your schedule at the rink. Still want to travel when Jess's a bit older, yeh? Just like we always wanted." Buffy nodded unhappily. "'Sides, I'm not retired exactly. I'm a consultant. Emeritus."
"That's just a fancy name for retired."
She couldn't see the shrewd look in the window, but she knew Spike well enough to know it was there. "What's all this about, pet? Not my employment prospects, I'm thinking."
"Oh, I don't know! I was just thinking... I love Nita to pieces, and after all Toni went through to have her, it's just selfish of me to even think it, but... this is it. I'm a grandmother. No more running, no more hiding. I'm officially old." She turned in his arms, butting her forehead against his shoulder. "I'm only fifty-four. Isn't that too young to be old? I mean, God, Jess is only nine! Didn't the baby boomers pass a federal statute against being a grandmother before your own kids are all in their teens?"
Spike chuckled, nipping at her ear. "As I recall, my own mum was forever chiding me for not making her a grandmother considerably younger. And depending how you count, I'm either fifty-nine or a hundred and eighty-two, and I'm doing all right, so you've a ways to go yet to reach total decrepitude."
"Well, yeah - " Buffy pouted at her reflection, leaning on Spike's invisible shoulder. She wasn't going to claim she didn't look good for her age - really good; slaying and skating kept her in top shape, and forget diamonds, moisturizer was a girl's best friend. "But you can't deny things aren't as high and firm as they used to be."
"Mmh." Spike's lips traced the line of her jaw, with just the barest pinprick of fang to make the down at the back of her neck rise, and bring her nipples to eager attention. "You ever gonna let me live that down?"
She arched her neck to give him better access. "Nope. It's ammunition till the day you die, buster."
"Ah, well, then." His voice fell to a sultry purr and his hands fell with it, to caress her hip, to cup a breast, thumb drawing purposeful circles around the nub tenting the silk of her blouse. "Soft...round...very squeezable, this. Could be you're right. Think I need to do a detailed inventory of the goods for comparison purposes."
It was different for guys, Buffy reflected as Spike bore her down on the couch and proceeded to take very thorough inventory indeed. Ever since the Mohra blood, Spike got older, sure. Each passing year etched the laugh-lines around his eyes a little bit deeper, frosted his temples with a little more grey. Maybe in the last few years that little hint of tummy he developed whenever he got too busy to keep his workouts up to their usual level of fanaticism had started to hint ever so slightly more insistently than it used to. But all in all? Spike at almost-sixty wasn't that much different from Spike at almost-thirty. And lines and grey hair which were sexy and distinguished on him were just plain old on her.
Of course, it was hard to feel too sorry for herself with a sexy, distinguished vampire coiled around her like an amorous python, lazily tonguing her breasts while his fingers kindled a slow burn between her thighs. Spike vamped out, fang-points snagging in her bra as he suckled her through the lace. Buffy swallowed a whimper and tangled her fingers in his hair, tugging his head up to lick and nibble along the line of stubby little horns sprouting from his brow ridges - okay, fine, so silver threads among the gold weren't the only sign of age a vampire had to deal with. It had been freaky when she'd first started to notice that his game face was getting...well...gamier as time went by, but by now, she was almost curious about how far it would go - full Pylean monty by the time he was eighty?
She lipped his ear, tongue-tip flicking across the matte gleam of scales dusting the hollow of his cheek, nuzzling along the arch of bone. Spike made little growly-groany pleasure noises - she'd made him come just by stroking his brow ridges once, and she really ought to try that again some time - but his fingers never missed a step in their maddening, unhurried waltz. Half-moon amber eyes misted into blue as the flex of his hips docked his stiffening cock against the curve of her mons, and she gasped, her own hips rising to meet him. This was the dance they'd been doing since the day they met, the dance that for all its familiarity still held an element of challenge - measured out now in breathless moans and fervent touches instead of taunts and blows. If the steps were more leisurely now, the music still kept time to the rush of their own blood.
She reached down to fumble with his zipper, savoring the weight of him in her hand. "Hey, Santa," she whispered. "Wanna come down my chimney?"
"Naughty girl wants her presents early," he purred, like the rumble of a freight train heading for a tunnel. And then he froze, his eyes flashing gold. "What's that noise?
Everyone at the creche knew that story. How the Slayer and the vampire shared a night of perfect happiness, and the vampire lost his soul, and the Slayer had to send him to hell to save the world just as his soul was returned. Even the Watchers told it, saying that it showed how you had to put the mission before everything - before love, before family, before life. It was the kind of story that hurt, but made you stronger.
The only problem was, the story hadn't stopped there. The vampire came back from hell and left the Slayer and mislaid his soul again anyway, but this time, instead of sending him to hell, the Slayer made him human. That would have been a good ending, too, a real happily ever after. Except that in the meantime the Slayer had gone rogue and fallen in love with a completely different vampire, who didn't have a soul and ended up alive but not human at all.
It was all complicated and stupid, and pretty much ruined the first story. If she were writing it, Addie had decided a long time ago, things would have happened very differently.
Crouched on the branch overhanging the gabled roof, hugging knees drawn up to her chin, Addie reviewed her options. She could call it all off, and try again some other night. But would she ever get a better chance? This situation wasn't perfect, but they were occupied with making out on the couch, and her target was upstairs now, with only a couple of - not kids, she reminded herself. Vampires. But baby vampires, not much stronger or faster than any other girl their age. The older one looked like she was about Addie's age, so she might be just starting to come into her adult strength, but she wouldn't be any match for a Slayer. Not yet.
She tapped the stake at her belt, the cross at her throat, and the vial of holy water in her jacket, a Slayer's genuflection. All in order. The claw of the Auriel demon she'd killed in the sewers last night was safe in her pocket. She tugged the little herb pouch on its cord around her neck out from under her sweatshirt, extracted a couple of cloves of garlic, and dug her nails into the plump white flesh. Pungent juice dribbled down her fingers as she worked the cloves into a mash, smearing it across her face and underneath her shirt. It wouldn't stop a vampire from biting her, but it would sure as heck disguise her scent.
Addie hopped off the branch and onto the porch roof, creeping up the shingles towards the gabled window of the second floor bedroom. The house was an old one, but the window was a lot newer, with a modern polyurethane frame. Addie held her breath as she levered it open, but there were no ominous creaks or groans as she eased over the sill and into the room beyond. She paused by the window, muscles tense, ears straining. After a moment, reassured that she wasn't going to have to dive back outside and run for it, she relaxed and looked around.
Compared to a bunk, a trunk, and three square feet of wall, a whole room, however small, seemed an extravagant luxury. She could make out a scattering of clothes on the floor, and a clutter of jewelry boxes, lip gloss, and hair clips on the dresser. What must it be like to grow up in a room like this, with no sisters in the bunk above to whisper to? There were posters on the walls, pictures of boys with carefully choreographed slouches and designer sneers, tattooed girls with artfully ripped jeans and retro piercings. Addie didn't recognize any of them, but they were carrying guitars, so probably a band. She'd never had time for that kind of thing, what with her training schedule. Sometimes the world of average, everyday teenage girls seemed even stranger and dangerous than mere vampires.
No electric lights, Addie noted. Only candles. She supposed the dim light was easier on vampire eyes. So much for average and everyday.
A quick glance at the bed showed the older girl curled on her side, bundled up beneath the covers as if she actually needed protection from the cold. Her hair (the same sandy brown as her father's, but falling around her ears in tousled waves instead of springy curls) fanned across the white pillow and caught in the dark lashes veiling the ivory curve of her cheek. Addie took a step closer, dread and fascination playing tug-of-war in her belly. The vampire was breathing, ever so slowly, pink lips parted, small new breasts rising and falling beneath her flannel pajama top. If those eyes opened, would they be her mother's grey-green, or her father's blue? If she drove a stake into that thin chest, would they stare at her in death?
The vampire's's nose twitched, and she sneezed. Remembering the garlic, Addie backed hastily away. This wasn't what she'd come for; even if they hadn't been demons, it was already too late for the older ones. She took a good grip on her stake and picked her way to the door, slipping out into the darkened hallway. At the opposite end of the hall was the master bedroom, with a bathroom and a smaller bedroom sandwiched in between. Where would they have left the baby?
After a moment's hesitation, Addie headed for the master bedroom. A glow from the stairwell was star enough to steer by. She could hear the skip-skip-skip of the record downstairs, as the as the needle bumped against the spindle, forgotten, and the low murmur of voices. Part of her hoped they were just kissing down there, because anything more would be gross, but the sensible, Slayery side reminded her that the more distracted they got, the better.
The door to the master bedroom wasn't locked - wasn't even closed. Addie crept inside. A big, sturdy four-poster bed with a patchwork silk counterpane took up most of one wall. There were more clothes on the floor, and more clutter on the dressers, but this time with some masculine touches: scuffed boots under the bed, a pack of cards and a long-stemmed pipe carved out of something like meerschaum on the bedside table, a belt draped across the back of a chair. Addie took a deep breath, inhaling an alien and strangely comforting potpourri of powder and tobacco, leather and perfume. It smells like parents.
Which was stupid - her mother had died before her second birthday, and her father was just a code number in the Council's medical records. She had no idea what parents smelled like.
She found what she was looking for in a wing-backed chair beside the bed. The baby was asleep in her carrier, one chubby fist crammed into her mouth. Addie knelt down beside the carrier, heart in her mouth, and eased the vial of holy water out of its case. The Council's intelligence had been almost positive this one was human, too, but she had to be certain. Carefully she worked the stopper free, and tipped out a drop of water. One, two, three, droplets plashed on the baby's forehead. No smoke, no red mark, no wail of pain - yes!
Addie looked around - there was the diaper bag on the foot of the bed, stuffed with bottles and toys and clean clothes. She'd take that with her; there'd be supplies at the Council safe house, but she didn't know how long it might take her to get back there - with all the connections that the Summers-Pratt family had with the Sunnydale police, she didn't imagine that there wouldn't be a search. She considered taking the whole carrier, but decided against it. It would be too clumsy trying to climb down the tree with it.
She fished the Auriel claw out of her pocket and raked it several times down the bedstead and across the carpet, leaving it snagged in the nap. It wouldn't fool anyone for long, but it should confuse matters a little. She slung the bag over her shoulder and scooped up the baby, who let out a thin, startled cry. "Shhh, shh," Addie whispered, patting the tiny soft head awkwardly. "It's going to be all right, it's - "
Addie spun around. The younger vampire girl stood foursquare in the doorway, spindly arms spread wide to block her escape. She scowled at Addie, chin jutting and golden eyes glaring accusingly. "What are you doing in here?" she demanded.
A second later, her older sister skidded into view, whispering furiously, "Stop playing around, Jess, and get back to - " Her eyes (blue) widened as she saw Addie, and her mouth opened -
"Scream and I'll kill her!" Addie hissed.
"Vicki..." Jess whimpered.
The older girl's eyes were as yellow as her sister's now, but she shut her mouth with a snap of fangs and clapped a hand over Jess's mouth. Addie swallowed hard. How long could she keep this bluff up, if they could hear the racing of her heart? "Back away from the door," she ordered, "and go into the middle bedroom, and stay there. Don't make a sound. If you do, I'll - I'll break her neck."
"How's about I break yours instead?" said a voice behind her. Addie whirled. Spike was climbing in the bedroom window behind her. "Been quite awhile since I've done for a Slayer, but I hear it's like riding a bicycle. You never quite lose the knack."
Her Watcher had pointed out once that when the average Slayer lasted for two or three years, tops, it only made sense that at any given time there had to be dozens of vampires in existence who'd killed one. It wasn't that big a deal. Except when the vampire in question was looming over you with a grin full of razors. Addie clutched the baby to her chest and broke for the door, barreling into the two girls at full speed. Vicki froze and Addie slammed her aside, into the hallway. Jess tackled her knees, and she felt needle-sharp teeth graze her ankle before she could wriggle free. The baby wailed loudly as she raced down the hall, waving its tiny, angry fists. She dashed into Vicki's room, past the cute hairclips and posters of bands she didn't know.
No time to think, no time to plan. Just to act. She dove out the open window, curling to protect the baby as she hit the porch roof, rolled, bounced to her feet and launched herself into space, past the oak tree, past the roses, slamming feet-first onto the scruffy lawn. A dark figure was rounding the corner of the house, running fast, but not as fast as she could run. Addie tore out of the yard, yanked her bike out of the neighbor's hedge, plunked the screaming baby into the basket, and leaped on. She pedaled off down the street, legs pumping, heart pounding, faster than she'd ever gone before. She could do it. She could. They were old, and on foot. They'd get tired. And she -
An ear-shattering roar split the night, and something black and shiny whizzed past her in a cloud of heat and stink - an old-fashioned full-combustion motorcycle. Spike was bent low over the handlebars, helmetless, fangs bared. A second, smaller rider clung to his back like a burr.
The motorcycle slewed around with a screech of tires, cutting her off. Addie jerked the bike into a sharp turn, zipping up a driveway and onto the sidewalk. The motorcycle snarled at her heels. Addie swerved into the street again. The motorcycle leaped the curb, insanely close now, and the smaller rider leaned across the gap. Addie caught a glimpse of blowing blonde hair and storm-grey eyes, and then a pair of black-gloved hands snatched the baby out of the basket. The motorcycle righted itself and peeled off, its engine howling in triumph.
"No!" Addie screamed. Lights were coming on all along the street, people roused by the noise of the motorcycle's unmuffled engine. What now? Get out of here, stupid, the sensible half of her said. She had a bus ticket in her pocket; if she was fast enough, she could lose herself in the last-minute shoppers downtown while they were taking the baby home, and make it to the Council safe house in Santa Barbara by morning.
Headlights blinded her, and the motorcycle rocketed past again. Cold fingers clamped on the back of her neck, yanking her bodily off the bike. As the motorcycle started to unbalance from the extra weight, Addie kicked out, catching Spike in the jaw. He let go and Addie tumbled to the asphalt, cracking her head on the pavement. She staggered to her feet, dizzy, wiping blood from her eyes, almost sobbing with frustration. "That's not fair!" she yelled after him.
"Nope," said Buffy Summers, and punched her in the nose.
Her cheeks burned at the thought of the disappointment on her Watcher's face. Captured, like some pathetic wannabe. Well, so what? She was a Slayer. She didn't give up. Opening her eyes a sliver, Addie scanned her prison, which turned out to be less on the dark dank oubliette side and more on the side of being, in fact, the Summers-Pratt living room. She was lying on the couch, an icepack on her head and an afghan covered in festive poinsettias tucked around her shoulders.
"...all my fault!"
The source of the vampire tingles stood by the fireplace. Game-faced with distress, Vicki huddled in her father's arms, while Spike stroked her hair. In the light, the family resemblance was more striking: his greying curls were cropped short and slicked back rather than falling into his eyes, but he shared the sharply-defined lines of cheek and jaw with this daughter and his elder son. "Hush, love," he crooned, his voice a raspy, soothing rumble. "You did what you thought'd keep Nita safe, yeh?"
"At least Jess tried to bite her, and she's just a little kid!" Vicki hiccuped. She raised mortified eyes to meet her father's, and it struck Addie that they were the exact color of dandelions, a sunny summer gold at freaky odds with the harsh lines of her brow ridges. "I just stood there!"
"And dunno as I'd've done any different, at your age." Spike glanced over at Addie. "Sleeping Beauty's come to. Time we rang up the wicked stepmum?"
Addie's gaze swivelled unwillingly towards the new voice. It was her. There in the archway leading to the dining room, with a fretful Nita in her arms and a big-eyed and silent Jess hanging on her sleeve, the rogue herself, Buffy Summers. The oldest living Slayer - the oldest ever Slayer. "Get me Nita's bottle, Jess honey - it's in the warmer."
Jess scampered off, and Buffy turned an appraising look on Addie. When Addie's classes in twentieth century Slayer history covered Sunnydale, they tended to use shots of Spike in bleached hair and eyeliner, and Buffy in miniskirts and go-go boots. She'd looked up more recent pictures as part of her research for this mission, of course, but it was still weird, seeing the eyes of the girl in those old photographs looking at her out of a grown woman's face. Buffy was trim and curvy in a holly-green chenille sweater and slim black slacks, and there were lines at the corners of her eyes and her generous mouth, as if at any moment it might twitch into a smile. She looked like someone's pretty and stylish mom, but there were twenty-six apocalypses and counting in those eyes.
"Adele McElroy," she said, musingly. "What on earth am I going to do with you?"
"It's Addie," Addie shot back. She wriggled her feet beneath the afghan, testing the non-existent give of the wire. "And you can let me go, if you know what's good for you."
Buffy accepted the bottle from Jess, tested a drop on her wrist, and popped the nipple into Nita's mouth with practiced ease. "You're assuming I want to keep you, which? No. Seriously no. Prisoners are way over-rated. There's the feeding and the cleaning up after and - speaking of which, are you hungry? We have... well, mostly pig's blood at the moment, but there's leftover chicken salad and low-fat yoghurt. Oh, and gingerbread!"
Addie regarded her distrustfully. What was this, the 'Come to the Dark Side, we have cookies,' speech? "I'm not hungry."
Her captor shrugged. "Suit yourself. Anyway, you're not getting a stainless steel facial any time soon. On the other hand, the fly and be free thing?" Buffy shook her head. "Not an option till I'm sure you won't ping-pong back for a repeat performance next week. Odds are your Watcher can keep a closer eye on you than I can, but - "
Uncertainty and fear vanished in the indignity of being sent home like a naughty child caught stealing apples from the neighbor's orchard. Addie scrunched sullenly into the couch cushions, wishing they were slightly less comfortable. "What makes you think my Watcher didn't send me?"
"How old are you?"
The question caught Addie by surprise. "Fifteen," she said, and then, as the corners of Buffy's eyes crinkled in amused disbelief, she added grudgingly, "Next April."
"So you've had Slayer powers for what, six months? A year, tops?" Buffy handed Nita, who was now sucking greedily, over to Vicki. "I know, you've probably been in training since you were six. You think on your feet. You're smart enough to know when to run. It's not everyone who can kick Spike in the head and get away with it." Addie squashed down the flicker of pride that the approval in the older woman's voice elicited. "But. Still a rookie. Last time I checked, the Council had a dozen Slayers on the payroll who're less Gabrielle and more Xena. Slayers who just might have gotten away with it, with some half-decent backup. No offense, but getaway by Schwinn lacks a certain panache."
She regarded Addie with a quizzical head-tilt. "So my bet is, you're on your own. Which makes me really curious about exactly what La Chalmers will say when I tell her who's crashed out on my couch."
Oh, crap. Addie cringed inwardly. It was bad enough imagining her Watcher's reaction when her colossal screw-up came to light, but she'd forgotten Lydia Chalmers. If there was anything scarier than being captured by a rogue Slayer, it was the thought of explaining all this to the formidable old woman who headed the Council of Watchers.
"Hear how her heart jumped there? Smell the change in her sweat?" Spike murmured. Vicki nodded, her moist pink lower lip caught in her teeth. "That's real fear. 'S different from the nerves they get when they're just lying."
"It smells... good," Vicki whispered. She was wearing her human face again, and her eyes were the deep drowned blue of violets.
Spike's tongue slicked over his teeth. "Doesn't it just?"
Addie tried reining her galloping heartbeat in to a trot, with minimal success. They were trying to freak her out. They wouldn't dare... would they?
"If I don't call the Council," Buffy continued equably, "I'm calling the police. And pressing charges. Breaking and entering, attempted kidnaping, and assault. Your call."
Addie went cold. In Sunnydale, demons were infiltrating everywhere, but the opposite was just as true: human bureaucracy was sinking its roots into the demon underworld as well. There was no way she could count on the local police having no experience with Slayers - not in Sunnydale, not these days. Not with Buffy's oldest daughter serving on the force, and half a dozen senior officers indebted to Bloody Vengeance Inc. for services both clandestine and above-board. She could get arrested. She could get convicted. She could go to jail. And would the Council want to expend the effort to get her out? "Fine," she spat at last. "Call the Council. I don't care."
Spike gave Vicki a last shoulder-pat and prowled across the room to the comfortable old armchair. He dropped into the chair and relaxed into a deceptively lazy sprawl. He might have been an inch or two shorter than Bill, but his battered motorcycle jacket masked the compact, muscular build of an experienced street-fighter. "Cared enough a bit ago." He rubbed his jaw, where the bruise from her boot heel was already starting to fade. "Question I've got is, why? You don't know us from Adam, nor we you - so what the bloody hell's your game?"
They were all looking at her, three vampires and a Slayer. Jess glowering at her from the safety of her mother's side; Vicki cradling her poor doomed niece like a sacred trust, like she was keeping Nita safe from her. Like they didn't all know. "Do you think I'm stupid?" Addie turned her face to the back of the couch. "Just call Ms. Chalmers and leave me alone." She whipped around again, expression as fierce as she could make it. "Just don't think I'm going to be the only one! Sooner or later someone else will figure it out, and sooner or later, someone on the Council will listen. And then - " She subsided, fuming, unable to think of anything more cutting than And then you'll be sorry!
"Figure what out?" Buffy asked.
"How to fix what you did!" Addie wanted to stomp a foot. How could she be so stupid?
"I've done a lot of things," said the world's oldest Slayer. "Pick one."
Once upon a time, there'd been only one Slayer at a time, and when she was killed, another Slayer rose at once to take her place. Slayers could die, but the Slayer line would go on forever. Buffy Summers had changed all that. There were lots of Slayers now - fifty or sixty, at least - but the line had never been more vulnerable. The power they wielded no longer came from Somewhere Else, but lay instead in their own blood and bones, born with them, and dying with them.
So Slayers weren't expendable anymore. Addie was lucky to be born now, her Watcher told her, when the average life expectancy of a Slayer was twenty instead of sixteen, and creeping upward all the time. The next generation depended upon some of them surviving long enough to pass that power on to their daughters - or at least, long enough to donate their eggs to the Council's cryogenic banks, to be fertilized by carefully screened sperm donors and implanted in well-paid host mothers. It would be a waste of resources to let working Slayers get pregnant, after all.
"You stole the source of Slayer power from the Shadow Men," Addie accused. "Demon power! And you put it inside us. Changed us. Made us part demon." Her voice cracked with passion. "Because of you, we're all going to hell."
"Put the fangs away, peanut," said Spike, with a mildness as deceptive as his boneless chair-sprawl. "And princess, you take Nita and your sis upstairs."
Vicki hugged the baby tight, her cheeks as pale as the flannel of her nightgown. "I want to stay." The gold simmering in her eyes made Addie's toes curl and her Slayer's senses zing. "I need to stay."
Her parents exchanged looks, and after a moment, Buffy assented with a terse little nod. "You can come back down after you get Jess to bed."
Jess shot Addie a last baleful look as Vicki gave her a sisterly shoulder-prod towards the stairs. "I still think we should eat her."
Addie couldn't help but relax a little as the vamp-vibes in the room lessened, but lowering her guard was the last thing she could afford right now. They'd have to untie her so she could pee, right? If there was a window in the bathroom, maybe she could escape that way. She just had to bide her time, and be ready to take any chance that came her way.
"Now," Spike said, "this hell business. How d'you figure that? Only makes sense a chap like me's bound for perdition, but a slip of a thing like you hasn't had time to chalk up sins enough to make a vicar blush, much less earn you a one-way ticket to the fires eternal."
What had sounded dire and portentous when she and Alicia had huddled together over musty old tomes in the restricted stacks of the Council library sounded overwrought and a little foolish amidst the prosaic comforts of an ordinary living room - even a living room with vampire-friendly blackout curtains. "It doesn't work like that," Addie muttered, trying mightily not to sound sulky.
"So how does it work?" asked Buffy. She folded her arms and propped a hip on the back of Spike's chair. "I've died twice, and I'm pretty sure that wherever I was, it wasn't hell."
"You died before you stole the power." Addie gave an exasperated wriggle. "Look. We read Wyndam-Pryce's Psychotheological Implications of the Ritual of Restoration in our Magical Ethics class. Only something with a human soul can be damned, right? Because only something with a soul can choose to be evil. Demons don't choose to be evil - they just are. So vampires with human souls are damned, just because of what they are - a mixture of human and demon that was never supposed to happen."
Spike made a rumbling noise deep in his chest that might have signified amusement, or annoyance, or both. Addie plunged on. "In the old days, Slayers were - their power might have come from a demon, but it wasn't really part of them. It was in us. Now it is us. "
She took a deep breath. "So tell me. How is a Slayer with a demon different from a vampire with a soul?"
"Aside from the whole undead creature of the night thing?" Buffy's brows knit in a frown more thoughtful than angry. "Did you hear all that from your Watcher?"
"No," Addie countered, scornful. "I figured it out by myself." OK, she'd had a little help, but not from her Watcher. "I suppose you're going to tell me I'm wrong."
Buffy studied Addie's face, lips pursed, head to one side, as if the truth could be divined in Addie's freckles. "I don't know that you are. Of course, I don't know that you're right, either." She slid off the back of the chair, walked over and dropped to a crouch beside the sofa, balancing on the balls of her feet, fingers laced between her knees. "But either way - what's that got to do with kidnaping my granddaughter?"
Addie clenched her teeth, since she couldn't clench anything else. "Because I found a way to fix it. A way to separate us from the power. It only works if you don't have Slayer powers yet. It's too late for me." She jerked her chin in the direction of the stairs and Nita. "But she's just a baby. I thought if I saved her, they'd have to believe me."
"Watchers not on board the gospel train, then?" Spike asked, slinging one knee over the leg of his chair. Something in the vampire's posture told Addie that he was considerably more interested in the answer to this question than in any talk of heaven or hell. "Exactly what's this fix of yours consist of?"
"I'm not gonna tell you anything more."
"Why not?" Buffy sounded perfectly serious. "If you are right, why wouldn't I want to save her, too?"
That was the last question Addie had expected to be asked. "I don't know! It's all your fault to begin with! If you had to steal the power, why didn't you just keep it? Why'd you have to shove it into everyone else?"
There was a sigh. "Doesn't the Slayer's Handbook mention that part?"
Not really, Addie had to admit. The books went into great detail about what Buffy had done. But why she'd done it was mystifyingly vague, and none of her teachers seemed to know anything more than was in the books. The Slayers had plenty of theories, swapped like ghost stories beneath blanket tents in the glow of purloined flashlights. She'd done it so she could become the leader of a vast Slayer army, but the Council had foiled her plans. She hadn't done it at all - the demon power had possessed her by force and made her its pawn, in order to invade the earth. The more romantically inclined girls whispered that she'd done it so that she could be demon enough to bear her vampire lover's hellspawn, and the power slopping over to others was just an accident.
Buffy was still looking her. Addie twitched away from that cool grey gaze, pressing her nose against the nubbly fabric of the sofa. "I don't remember," she said. Definitely sulky now, and not caring. Vicki appeared around the corner of the stairwell - Addie hadn't heard her footsteps on the stairs at all, another reminder of how human the other girl really wasn't. She'd brushed her hair till it shone, and pulled the glossy brown waves up in a pink-ribboned ponytail. She held her head high and her chin firm as she entered the living room, as if Addie's presence were an ordeal to be endured. Stupid stuck-up vampire.
"I did it because the Slayer line was broken," Buffy said. "And that was the best way I could come up with to fix it. I'm not saying it was a perfect solution. But it was better than the alternatives." She made a 'what can you do?' face. "And maybe you've got a better one, but I'm just a little bit leery of attempts to fix things that currently aren't broken." She rose to her feet, fluid and easy. "So. You worked out this theory. And you've found a spell or something that you think can make things the way they used to be. You told your Watcher about it, and she blew you off. Am I in the ballpark?"
Not just in the ballpark, rounding third and headed for home. Addie scowled at her afghan-covered toes, determined to reveal no more. Part of the secret wasn't hers to tell, anyway.
"The Council never wanted more than one Slayer," Buffy continued. "The thing that scares them most isn't demons and vampires, it's the idea of a bunch of us getting together and taking over. But once they had them? Multiple Slayers, undeniably useful. And as long as they control more Slayers than are running around loose, the status is quo enough for them. So if you really think this is the right thing to do, you might want to think about who's more likely to help you do it." She beckoned to her daughter. "Vicki, can you keep an eye on her? Your father and I have a phone call to make."
Vicki gave an apprehensive nod, and Spike uncoiled himself, ceding his chair to her with ceremonious gravity. "Yell if she gets stroppy, love." With a last lazy glance at Addie, he followed Buffy into the kitchen.
"If 'ifs' and 'ands' were pots and pans..." Spike opened the refrigerator and helped himself to a beer. "Kid's got balls, but she's not exactly Thomas Aquinas, is she?" He fanged the cap off of his bottle, and settled against the counter beside her, slipping his free hand around her shoulders. Buffy leaned into the curve of his arm - not warm, but comforting nonetheless. "If I'm headed anywhere, it's for a one-on-one with Old Scratch, no doubt. But I can't feature any child of yours following in my footsteps."
The tenderness in his voice cut like a scalpel. Sometimes his faith in her, in what they'd made together, was so pure and sharp it hurt. "What, you think we live in a fair and just universe all of a sudden?" She managed a bitter little laugh. "Here I've been obsessing about the state of Jess and Vicki and Bill's souls, if any, all these years, and it turns out I should have been worrying about Connie and Alex."
"Bit of hubris there, Slayer?" Spike drawled. "Room assignments in the hereafter are a bit beyond our purview."
She punched him in the shoulder. "You know what I mean. Jerk."
He didn't. Spike still didn't really get the whole guilt thing. But they both pretended otherwise really hard, and most of the time, they could pull themselves up by their own suspended disbelief. Spike gestured towards the living room with his beer. "I'm more worried about the consequences in this life than the next. It's a bleeding convenient revelation, innit? Spunky, adorable freckle-faced bint discovers awful truth about Slayers, and coincidentally finds a cure for damnation, which won't work on tough-minded birds like the present company. But no worries.
"Council wouldn't want the likes of you back any road - too much trouble. But the next generation... how many of the Slayers Faith and Rupert cozened away from the Council are mums like you?" He took a swig of his beer, set the bottle down on the counter with a clink. His pale eyes were hard, calculating - the villain's perspective, he called it, something he had an invaluable insight on. "Could be this damnation business is bollocks. Could be it's not. How many of 'em, do you think, 'd give up their little 'uns to save their souls?"
Buffy wrinkled her nose. "So to sum up, the current crop of Slayers may or may not be damned, and one Adele McElroy, junior Slayer extraordinaire, may or may not have discovered a way to un-damnify them, which the Council may or may not have wanted her to find. Got it." She picked up the phone and clicked into the Council website.
It took two minutes to locate the contact information for Addie's Watcher in the membership pages, and half an hour and three trips back to the living room to convince her that Addie was alive, unharmed, and only a prisoner in the technical sense. Honoria Thackeray was an earnest, apologetic young woman with trendy urban-tribal tats, who looked barely older than her Slayer was. The worried circles under her eyes argued in favor of the idea Addie's scheme had come as a complete surprise. "...can't tell you how terribly sorry I am about all this, Mrs. Summers," she said, blinking unhappily.
"Summers-Pratt," Buffy corrected for the third time.
"Oh! Right. Sorry." Honoria ducked her head in the sideways scrunch of someone attempting the impossible task of peering a little further around the corner of the webphone display, in hopes of getting a better view of the Pratt in question. "Addie's very, um, imaginative, and her teachers mentioned that she was very interested in the coursework on Mr. Wyndam-Pryce's theories, but when she disappeared last week I had no idea - I'm so relieved she's all right." She gave a nervous little laugh. "There's no need to bring this to the attention of anyone, uh, higher up on the food chain, is there? This is my first field assignment, and I can't tell you - "
"As long as I get my couch back by noon tomorrow it's all good," Buffy interrupted, before Ms. Thackeray could expand at even greater length on just how much she couldn't tell. She glanced at the time in the corner of the display; Bill and Toni would be coming back to pick up Nita any minute now. "We'll meet you at the airport. Buh-bye!"
She flicked the phone off and pressed the heel of her hand to the bridge of her nose. Slayer vision was twenty-twenty, but at times like this she could see the appeal of a pair of glasses to polish. "Well, that was... uninformative." Not that she'd expected Ms. Thackeray to start twirling a cape and monologuing or anything - even if the upper echelons of the Council were Snidely Whiplashing like crazy, field Watchers were rarely kept in the loop. "Anything?"
Spike shrugged. "No more 'n you. Can't smell her, and those speakers won't pick up a heartbeat." He surged off the counter with enviable energy - even after thirty years of keeping a sort-of-human schedule, he was always at his best in the wee hours. "Whether the Council's in on it or not, next step's sussing out what this so-called miracle cure is, yeh?"
"Good luck with that. She's fourteen. Adults are The Enemy. Particularly adults who actually are The Enemy."
"Ah, but we've a spy in the enemy camp." Spike nodded towards the living room, where Vicki was watching Addie with straight-backed vigilance.
She didn't like the sound of that at all, but that was Spike's job, to bring up the ew-flavored options so she could shoot them down...
Addie groaned and burrowed down into the warmth of the afghan.
"Addie, it's time to wake up."
She came to with a start, almost falling off the couch. Buffy stood over her, one hand on her shoulder. Vicki was still perched in the armchair, though now she was fully dressed and in the middle of a jaw-cracking yawn - vampires and early mornings, Addie guessed, didn't mix well.
The last thing she remembered was the staring contest with Vicki while Buffy and Spike talked with her Watcher in the kitchen. Stupid! Addie berated herself. How could she have just dozed off like that in the enemy's stronghold? Not that the hold seemed particularly strong at the moment. Christmas morning - the tree was lit, podcast carols were playing on the home theater system, and the smells of sage and frying bacon wafted from the kitchen mingled with the strong odor of pig's blood. The living room curtains were flung wide open on a front yard washed in long blue early-morning shadows. Winter sunlight gilded the roofs of the houses across the street. Addie could hear the shrieks of kids down the block, trying out heelies and new bikes.
"Breakfast's almost ready," Buffy said. "We're leaving for the airport in two hours. Your Watcher's flying in to pick you up. Vicki can take you upstairs so you can wash up and change clothes. Some of her things should fit you." She turned to her daughter. Maybe that blue sweater?"
"Mom!" Vicki looked aghast. "She practically tried to assassinate us! You expect me to give her my favorite sweater?"
"Not really. I expect you to give her your least favorite and use it as an excuse to con your father into buying you a new one, but I'll take what I can get," Buffy said cheerfully. "Get a move on."
Addie rubbed her eyes and squirmed upright - her hands and feet were already free; they must have taken last night's agreement with Ms. Thackeray as reason to untie her. Her headache was gone, and the scrapes and bruises she'd accumulated during her escape were well on the way to being healed. She stretched, wincing as the last few knots in her spine unkinked. She'd promised her Watcher last night that she'd stay put - but she couldn't help noticing that the front door was only a few feet away from the foot of the staircase. Maybe...
Vicki was blocking the path to the door with zippy-quick vampire speed before Addie could take a second step,. "Oh, no," she said. Her chin was set with determination. "If you're not at the airport when your Watcher shows up, she's going to think we ate you or something. And then there'll be this big thing with the Council, and - "
"Like I care," Addie snapped, and headed for the stairs. After almost a week of slinking around Sunnydale, hiding in bushes and crawling under cars, hot water and a change of clothes sounded awfully good, but darned if she'd let them know that. She was staying for Ms. Thackeray's sake, not her captors' convenience. "You guys were the ones who captured me, remember? Besides, your sister was doing everything but pouring barbeque sauce on my toes last night."
Vicki's perfectly glossed upper lip curled in disdain, like a cat's, revealing a flash of pearl-white teeth. "We don't eat people," she said. "And even if we did, I wouldn't eat you."
"Oooh, I'm so insulted. Not." Addie momentarily wished she had a ponytail to flip, to properly convey the colossal proportions of her indifference. "Why not? Isn't eating people what vampires do?"
"Because it would be dumb." Vicki strode ahead of her, down the upstairs hallway to the bathroom. She pounded on the door, then rattled the knob. "Jess! Get out of there! Mom said we were supposed to let the Slayer wash up!"
"I'M NOT DONE BRUSHING MY TEETH!" Jess hollered back. "And if you break the door again Mom's gonna ground you for a YEAR!"
Vicki's cheeks went the palest of pinks, and her eyes flickered gold. "Fine. And while she's grounding me I'll ask her if she's interested in finding out who ruined the tension on her good crossbow - "
The door burst open and a cloud of steam boiled out into the hallway. Jess, wrapped in an enormous pink towel and dripping all over the floor, pulled a face full of fangs and toothpaste-foam at her sister. "I hope you get staked!" she said, and pelted off towards her room.
"She's such a little pill," Vicki muttered. "There's the bathroom. Go ahead and take a shower if you want, but it's probably cold - if Dad leaves any hot water, Jess uses it all up. Clean towels are in the cupboard. I'll bring you some clothes." The vampire frowned, head cocked to one side, as if Addie were a math problem she wasn't sure of the answer to. "You can use the shampoo in the pink bottle if you want. That's mine. It's better than the guest stuff."
With a flick of her ponytail (which was lame and totally unlike the way Addie would have flicked hers if she'd had one), Vicki disappeared down the hall. Addie stepped into the warm, steamy bathroom with the trepidation of an explorer venturing onto the surface of the moon. Feeling strangely furtive, she unscrewed the cap on a bottle of conditioner and sniffed - cucumber and jasmine. Or maybe grapefruit and honeysuckle. Something nice. She wouldn't have thought twice about sharing with Jess - she was used to sharing a utilitarian head with five or six other girls at once. The very idea of having a bathroom to herself even for a few minutes every morning was just...weird. And wasteful. And who cared, anyway? She wasn't some easily-impressed little kid on her first trip outside the creche. She knew what normal people lived like.
She'd just never figured that Buffy Summers would be normal people. But they weren't normal people, were they? They were demons, who didn't eat people not because it was wrong, but because it was dumb. Whatever that meant. All this - the decorative tile in the shower stall and the fluffy rugs underfoot and the little ceramic bowls filled with cloves and dried rose petals on the back of the toilet - was just... camouflage. There should have been a corpse in the bathtub instead of a soap ring.
Addie rubbed steam off the mirror with her fist, and grimaced. Greasy auburn thorns of hair spiked around a pale face. Her freckles stood out like copper coins against the yellowy-brown of healing bruises. Ugh. No matter how tempting the shower was, the thought of pulling a shower curtain against a house full of vampires was too Norman Bates for comfort, so she settled for a sponge bath and washing her hair in the sink. She laid washcloth and soap out like weapons and attacked the week's accumulation of crud with grim determination, taking off only one article of clothing at a time. She managed to locate the pink bottle (or a pink bottle, anyway) amidst the miniature cityscape of conditioners and sprays and moisturizers on the counter and lathered her hair with furious strokes.
No matter how hard she scrubbed, it couldn't erase her failure. She'd gambled everything on being able to get the baby back to the creche with her, test out her fix, and present her Watcher and the Council with a fait accompli. Now... without the living proof Nita would have provided, no one would ever believe her. They'd label her unreliable, and she'd never get another field mission again. The only consolation was that so far neither Buffy nor her Watcher had caught on that she wasn't working completely alone.
If she scrubbed her hair any longer, there wouldn't be any left. Addie turned the water on full blast and dunked her head in the sink. She almost cracked her skull open on the faucet when Vicki knocked on the door. Hurriedly wrapping herself in a towel, she yelled, "Come in!"
The door opened a crack and Vicki's arm appeared. She dropped a pile of folded clothes on top of the laundry hamper. "Here. See if these fit. I didn't give you anything new because I'm probably never going to see them again."
The clothes weren't up to the standards of the cute slacks and pretty cashmere jumper Vicki was wearing - just slightly worn jeans and a t-shirt, socks and sneakers and plain underwear - but they were blessedly clean, and they didn't fit too badly. The door was still ajar; Addie couldn't see Vicki's reflection in the bathroom mirror, but she knew that the vampire was still standing guard just outside the door - Addie could hear her occasional little sighs and shifts of position as she stared out into the hallway, back resolutely turned while Addie changed.
"You weren't scared," Vicki said abruptly. "Last night. You weren't scared at all."
Addie braced a foot against the rim of the bathtub to tie her sneaker. "You were the one who said you smelled fear," she replied crossly. "And by the way, going around smelling people is gross."
"That was later," Vicki snapped back. "I mean when you were fighting Mom and Dad. And if you don't want me to smell you, then stop stinking."
"There wasn't time to be scared earlier. And I don't stink!" Or not anymore she didn't; she cringed a little to think about how she must have looked to the Summers-Pratts last night.
Vicki cocked her head again, eyes bright, nostrils flaring. Her slim chest rose and fell as she inhaled. "No. You don't. You smell good." She spun around. "Come on. Breakfast's ready."
"I thought vampires didn't eat," Addie said at last.
Spike chuckled around a mouthful of pancake and Jess gave a scornful sniff. Vicki popped the last of the bacon into her mouth and favored Addie with a tiny, superior smile. "We're special vampires."
Addie was rather guiltily contemplating a second helping when the doorbell rang. Jess leaped up with a whoop of "I'll get it!" and raced for the front door. A second later she danced back into the living room, her eldest brother and his wife in tow - Bill bearing an armful of brightly wrapped boxes, Toni carrying Nita. There was an instant bustle of hugs and back-thumps and cooing over Nita's holiday onesie. Buffy helped Toni settle Nita into her rocker, while Spike and Bill engaged in the manly pursuit of wrangling over the best way to fit presents into the few bare spots beneath the tree.
Staying in the dining room and drawing as little attention to herself as possible seemed the wisest course of action, but Addie's gaze kept stealing back to Bill. He just didn't look like a vampire. You could tell just by looking in Spike's eyes that there was something - something missing, or something extra, you couldn't exactly tell, but something different, something not human. But Bill Summers-Pratt, with his mop of sandy curls and his trendy glasses and disarming grin... looked like a guy. Just a guy, a guy who went to the gym and doted on his wife and daughter and worked some normal, everyday job. The sort of guy someone might want to have for a -
And then Bill straightened and caught sight of her, and all of a sudden he looked very much like a vampire, low growl rumbling deep in his chest, eyes flashing gold above bared fangs. Addie tensed, fingers curling around a stake that wasn't there. Bill might not be quite in Spike's class as a fighter, but his shoulders looked just as solid beneath his long-sleeved sweater. Toni laid a hand on her husband's arm, and with a blink, Bill's eyes were a startled grey again. He raked one hand through his riotous curls with the expression of a cat which had suddenly remembered that it was a cougar after all, and wasn't entirely certain what to do about it.
Toni regarded Addie evenly. She was short and sturdy, with dark hair and eyes as black as olives, and a bit of leftover baby-tummy, but the flustered young mother of the night before was nowhere in evidence. "You're Addie, right?"
What did you say at times like this? "Yeah," Addie muttered.
"I don't get it." Bill had his father's dark velvety tenor, minus the accent and about a hundred years worth of whiskey and cigarettes, but his eyes were his mother's, and just as unnervingly direct. "Why Nita? Why our daughter? What the hell have we ever done to you?"
Addie scrunched into her chair, wishing she were invisible. She couldn't feel bad about stealing Nita away from a vampire, but Toni was as human as she was - more human, since the power that had awakened in Addie in the last year would never waken in her. "I - " But there wasn't anything else she could say, not without giving absolutely everything away, and the treacherous little voice in the back of her head whispering Maybe he's got the right to know wasn't any help at all.
"My parents gave me to the Council when I was three," Toni said. She dropped to her haunches beside Addie's chair and took Addie's hands in her own. "So I understand where you're coming from. I really do. Now understand where I'm coming from. If you ever touch her again, we will press charges. Got it?"
"You were one of us!" Addie burst out. "Don't you want - "
Toni shook her head. "Was." She bit her lip, rocking back and forth on her toes. "By the time I was ten, the Watchers figured out that none of us - none of the hundreds of Potentials they were tracking, or the dozens they were training - were ever going to get called. So they dumped us for the new model: you." Maybe there was a wistful note in her voice, but no anger. "I don't hold it against them. Most of us would have been sent away eventually, when we got to old to be called. Either way, it's not my world any longer." She rose to her feet and glanced back at her daughter, placidly blowing spit bubbles in her rocker. "And it's not going to be hers."
Before Addie could dome up with a suitably zingy response, Buffy cut in with, "We're leaving for the airport in fifteen minutes." She took Addie's arm, steering her inexorably into the living room, and turned back to her son with a brilliant smile. "You two can stay and watch Jess, right?" Without waiting for Bill's reply, "The turkey needs to go into the oven at eleven if we aren't back - the stuffing's in the refrigerator. Vicki, are you ready?"
"Yes, Mom." Vicki materialized at her mother's side, zipped into what looked like a powder-blue ski-suit, complete with boots, gloves, and a balaclava which left only her eyes visible. Form-fitting goggles as dark as welder's glasses perched atop her head.
"What's that for?" Addie asked.
Vicki adjusted the goggles over her eyes and cocked her head, weirdly insectile. She plucked a sleeve with gloved fingers. "It's UV-resistant," she said, her voice muffled by fabric. "SPF 50." Oh. "Come on," Vicki beckoned imperiously towards the door. "If we get in the car now, maybe we can rip Mom away before she and Toni can get into the inside-or-outside argument about the stuffing."
Addie followed her out onto the porch. Vicki didn't flinch when she stepped out of the shade and into the bright December sunshine, but Addie almost did. What was it like, knowing that the sun in the sky was your death warrant? "Isn't this dangerous for you? Walking around outside in the daytime?"
Vicki strode off around the roses, towards the driveway where Buffy's hybrid SUV was parked, and Addie broke into a trot to catch up. "I'm fine as long as I have my suit on. It would take me a couple of hours to burn to death if I get caught outside. I've never been out in the sun that long." Addie couldn't see her expression, but Vicki's voice darkened. "Dad's never bothered with one. He just dares the sun to get him, and so far it never has. He gets burned a lot, though." She thumbed the unlock button on the SUV's remote. "Bill wears one sometimes, if he knows he's going to have to be outside in the day for a long time. Jess wears hers for soccer, because Mom makes her, but she hates it. So it's just me that's the chicken."
Chicken? Addie glanced up at the sun with a shiver. Vicki was like an astronaut, almost, living on some alien planet that would be forever hostile to her kind. There was no reason on earth she should feel sorry for a snooty, annoying vampire, but... "You know, it's not - I'm not especially brave or anything. It's just that I'm a Slayer. I've trained all my life to face things way worse than your parents. You haven't."
Vicki's shoulders tensed, her hand frozen on the door handle. "I could have."
If she'd had the chance to train with Buffy Summers and William the Bloody... Addie frowned. "Why didn't you?"
"I just didn't want to." Vicki slid the goggles up on top of her head again, blue eyes scowling at Addie through a porthole of spandex. "It's easy for you. You've always known who you were supposed to be."
Addie chewed that over as she slid into the back seat of the SUV. What would she do with her own life, if she hadn't been born a Slayer? It had never occurred to her that 'vampire,' in and of itself, wasn't much of a job description. She tried to imagine Vicki lurking in a sewer somewhere, chanting some lame spell to raise the Old Ones.
"So why did you go after Nita?"
"What?" Addie craned her neck out the window. How much longer were they going to take?
"There are dozens of Slayers where you come from, right?" Vicki persisted. "Some of them have to be young enough to have no powers yet. Why didn't you try out your cure on one of them? Is it dangerous?"
"No! Or - " Sort of, maybe, sometimes, depending... But even if the answer was yes, did it matter? "So what if it is? It's better than frying in hell for eternity."
Vicki's eyes sparked yellow, and she snapped her seatbelt closed with a decisive click. "You don't even know for sure that's going to happen."
Addie set her jaw, resisting the urge to fire back a "Do too!" "Demons go to hell," she said stubbornly. "That's where they come from."
"Well, I'm a demon, and I've never been there!" Vicki shot back. "Besides, didn't the Old Ones live here first?"
"Oh, shut up," Addie replied crossly. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Fine! Be that way!" Vicki tugged her goggles down. "Hell's a stupid idea, anyway."
Buffy smacked the back of his head. "She's fourteen. And hair care? Always vital." She shouldered her purse. "Besides, she volunteered. And I'm not asking her to do anything more than talk." So why did it feel like she was ordering her baby girl behind enemy lines? Not like it was the first time. How old had Bill and Connie been when she and Spike started making like The Incredibles with fangs? Or even Alex? Sometimes she wondered if she was really any better than Lydia Chalmers. She glanced over at Spike, who was standing beside the half-open front door, head cocked. "Think we've given them enough time?"
"'s just getting interesting out there." Spike swung his leather jacket over his head. "But if we leave it too long, Joan d'Stake'll start to smell a rat."
"And it's impossible to get rat-smell out of the upholstery. Let's go, then." Keys, cell, wallet, spare stakes and a handful of throwing daggers - the usual. "Bill, call Willow and your Aunt Dawn - we need to crack a few books and find out if this cure thingy is even possible." A wave of longing for Giles broke over her, but rousting her Watcher out of his well-earned retirement for a maybe-someday problem wasn't fair. "Toni, if you've got any contacts left inside the Council, now's the time to call in favors."
Toni nodded solemnly over the top of Nita's head. Buffy started after Spike, then whirled in the doorway. "And also? Stuffing goes inside the turkey."
So Addie sat and stared out the window, chin resting on her folded arm, wondering how many of the cars on the road with them came equipped with vampires in ski suits. In a way she almost wished that the Summers-Pratts had been more villainous. If they'd locked her up in the basement for awhile, fed her on watery gruel instead of excellent pancakes, maybe she would have gotten weak and confused, and been forced to confess all.
It wasn't like she was racked with doubts or anything. Still, she was starting to think that maybe telling someone the whole story would be, well, reassuring. Not that Ms. Thackeray was nobody. But she hadn't really taken any of Addie's oblique questions seriously. Or yeah, she had, but only to give her a pep talk about discipline and fortitude and how with the Council's guidance, a Slayer could use her power for good instead of evil and everything would be fine, just fine.
Addie sighed, her breath misting the window-glass. Ms. Thackeray meant well. There was probably a course at the Watcher's Academy about how to give your Slayer The Talk about the birds and the demons, and she was pretty sure Ms. Thackeray had gotten an A. But she wasn't worried about using her power for good - that had never been in question. The problem was, even if she did, would it make any difference?
"Here we are," Buffy said as they pulled into the covered parking, brisk and cheerful. "Your Watcher's plane should be in first, Addie."
"Great," Addie said without enthusiasm. Her daring and noble adventure was ending in a big fat zero.
Vicki hopped out of the car and immediately began peeling out of her ski-suit, which she tossed back into the trunk before dashing after her parents. The terminal wasn't as crowded as Addie had expected, but she'd almost forgotten that it was Christmas. Most people would have traveled the day before or the day after, she guessed. Once inside, Buffy headed for the nearest touchscreen to check on arrival times, and Spike staked out a spot near the security checkpoint, where he could see down the corridor leading to the gates. That left Addie and Vicki to stare at the shelves of over-priced t-shirts and scented candles in the gift shop.
"You can text me," Vicki said abruptly, without looking up from the flashy teardrop earrings she was examining. Shedding her sun-proof skin and fluffing her hair in the viewscreen of her webphone seemed to have put her in a better mood. "If you want."
Addie inscribed cabalistic patterns in the rust-brown carpet with one toe. "Sure. I guess."
"Don't strain yourself." Still refusing to meet her eyes, Vicki shoved a crumpled and slightly sweaty pink Post-it into Addie's hand. Her phone number was scribbled on one side.
Addie flattened it carefully, folded it in half, and tucked it into her jeans pocket. "Thanks," she muttered. Vicki made an indistinct noise that might have been "Whatever," but her cheeks were mantled with that delicate pink again, almost the color of the Post-It. Addie shoved her hands into her pockets and stared at the rows of souvenir shotglasses emblazoned with state mottoes, wondering why she felt so uneasy. She was as good as home, so why was her stomach tying itself in knots?
"Girls!" Buffy called, and Vicki spun around and headed for the concourse. Addie sighed and followed her towards the door, trying to figure out if she were relived or annoyed at the interruption. Well, it didn't matter. In another couple of hours, she'd be back at the creche, at square one again. Or more likely, square negative twelve thousand.
Vicki froze on the store's threshold, her eyes saucering in panic, and clapped her hands to her ears. To a vampire, Addie realized, the noise must be actively painful. Half a dozen security guards popped out from behind racks and from underneath counters, surrounding the two of them in wall of gold braid and khaki. Spike materialized out of nowhere, like a conjuring trick - one second he was halfway across the concourse, the next he was in the biggest guard's face, his expression halfway between a snarl and a wince. The alarm shut off, and the snarl won out. "What's the fuck's going on here?"
"What's the matter, um, officer?" Buffy asked, a trifle more diplomatically. Addie had actually seen her move, but she hadn't wasted any time getting there either.
"Are you her parents?" the guard with the greatest number of faux-military patches glued to each sleeve asked, jerking a thumb at Vicki. Addie frowned. He looked strangely familiar. Had she seen him around town in the last week? At Buffy's wary nod, he appropriated Vicki's clutch and flipped it open, pulling out a small sparkling object - the earrings she'd been looking at earlier. "I'm afraid your daughter's been shoplifting."
Buffy's face fell - Addie thought she'd never seen anyone look so woeful in her life. "Oh, honey! Not again!"
Vicki cringed. "But Mom - "
"Bloody hell, princess," Spike growled, "How many times have I told you? We don't nick shite 'nless it's an emergency! Or it's a dead cert you won't get - ow!" He rubbed the spot on his ribs, where Buffy's elbow had very likely left a bruise. "Yeah. Stealing. Wrong. Like I said."
"But I didn't!" Vicki protested. "I just looked at them! Why would I steal something that crappy anyway?"
The head guard's yeah, right expression didn't waver. "From what I've heard, your kind just can't help yourselves, can you?"
Vicki's eyes crackled gold. "That's not true!"
The guard nodded solemnly at Buffy, as if this proved his point. "If you'll all come with me," he said, "we can settle this somewhere in private."
The march down the service corridor made the drive over seem like a picnic in the park. Spike stalked ahead, glowering - obviously this was all just an irritating inconvenience to him. Vicki was both angry and embarrassed; but it was Buffy, Addie thought, who had to feel guilty for all of them. Vicki and her mother lagged behind, engaged in whispered and impassioned argument. "...want to believe you, but - "
"I know! But I didn't do it!" Vicki insisted, practically in tears. "Not this time! Addie was right there, she saw me put them back! Tell her, Addie!"
Addie swallowed. She hadn't. She hadn't seen Vicki stuff them into her clutch, either, but Vicki was a vampire, after all, with super-speed, and apparently she already had a criminal record. "Um... Would Vicki be dumb enough to steal something with a mag alarm?"
Buffy stopped dead, embarrassment flash-firing to purposeful fury. "Those earrings didn't have a mag - Vicki! Get back!"
The multiple soft snik-snik of hammers cocking filled the narrow hallway as Buffy swept her daughter and Addie back against the wall. Spike closed ranks in one panther-smooth leap - wheeling to Buffy's left, Addie noted, so that both of them would have their dominant hand free when the fight broke out - interposing himself between Vicki and Addie and the drawn guns of the guards. The two of them shared a microsecond glance, and Addie could practically see the calculations spinning in both pairs of eyes - the caliber of the pistols, the positions of the guards, the chances of a ricochet hitting her or Vicki...
Addie hesitated for a second, then shouldered forward. Buffy shot her a look, then a minuscule nod, acknowledgment for a fellow-Slayer in the ranks. Something blossomed within her at the approval, eager and yearning, and for the first time, Addie knew exactly why the Council really warned them away from Sunnydale. Buffy Summers's well-earned respect was a way more dangerous lure than the dubious pleasures of going rogue for the heck of it.
Tense silence ruled the hall, broken by the crunch of bone as Spike dropped into game face. "Six of you, three of us," he said, baring razor-sharp fangs in a lazy grin. "Question is, which three of you want to die while the others take us down?"
The door at the end of the hallway swung open. "I don't think anything quite so melodramatic will be necessary," a crisp voice interrupted. The ramrod-straight figure in the doorway stepped forward to reveal a woman perhaps ten years Buffy's senior, her silver hair pulled up in a severe bun above her flawlessly-cut suit of heather tweed. She gestured to the guards, who lowered their weapons and stepped aside. "Mr. and Mrs. Summers-Pratt? Lydia Chalmers. I believe introductions would be superfluous."
"What the flipping heck is this?" Buffy said through gritted teeth. "I called Ms. Thackeray to tell her about Addie in good faith!"
"Quite so," Lydia replied. "Unfortunately, events dictate that - "
The current head of the Watcher's Council was interrupted by the unceremonious arrival of Honoria Thackeray, who popped out of the door behind Lydia, blinking behind the big round lenses of her retro-chic glasses. "Addie!" Honoria cried, and dashed down the hall in a flurry of bandana skirts and jingling bracelets. She plunged between the startled guards and grabbed Addie's shoulders, giving her a distracted little shake. "Adele McElroy, you - you infuriating girl! What were you thinking?" Before Addie could answer she turned to Buffy in anxious apology. "I'm really very sorry," she said, fluttering one hand in Lydia's direction. "I'd planned to do everything just as we'd arranged. But Ms. Chalmers insisted on the, um, escort."
Ms. Chalmers, now flanked by matched pairs of Slayers - Addie recognized Zeidel and Lauren, two of the older girls she didn't know very well, and Gertruda, who was only a year ahead of her - made an impatient noise. "We're wasting time."
The fourth Slayer was slim and high-cheekboned, and if the hair that curled over her shoulders was a shade or two blonder than Vicki's, her eyes were just as blue. "Alicia?" Addie squeaked. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to rescue you, you dope." Alicia sashayed past the guards - of course, Addie realized, that was where she'd seen the man before; he was a Council field op who occasionally rotated through the San Diego creche. Alicia gave Addie a playful thwack on the arm. "When Chalmers said she needed muscle, of course I volunteered."
Addie rubbed her arm. That thwack had hurt. Her mouth felt awfully dry all of a sudden. "Does this mean - "
Alicia's lips (upper narrow, lower full, just like - ) thinned. "A week ago," she said. "Right after you disappeared." She gave a bitter little chuckle. "I'm a full-fledged Slayer now. Just like you."
So it had all been for nothing anyway. Addie's shoulders slumped in defeat. Her eyes stung, but she wasn't going to cry, not here, not in front of everyone. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry. I tried. I really tried." Just not hard enough. She turned to Buffy. "Um. This is my friend Alicia. We're in the same year at the creche. We trained together, but I got my powers first, and..." And there really wasn't much else to say, except and I wanted to save her from hell, and I totally screwed it up.
Buffy's eyes darted back and forth between Alicia and Vicki, the sharp little line between her brows deepening. "Hello, Alicia. I'm Buffy." Spike said nothing, watching Alicia with the ravenous, all-consuming attention he must once (still?) have lavished on his victims. He breathed deep, as if memorizing her scent.
Alicia's lip curled. "I know." Her gaze flicked from Slayer to vampire, dispensing disdain enough for both. "Come, on Addie. We're here to take you home."
"In that case," Buffy eyed the nearest guard up and down, "we'll be going. My son's plane is due in half an hour."
Alicia grinned, and raised a compact mini-crossbow, already cocked, the quarrel aimed straight at Buffy's chest. Lydia Chalmers smiled in turn - the expression might have been charming, in another context. "I'm afraid, Mrs. Summers-Pratt, we have some matters to discuss first."
She hadn't survived this long by either under- or over-estimating her own abilities. She and Spike were good. Better than good. But the cold fact was, they were both a few years past their prime, and even at that prime, tackling six armed men and four, possibly five Slayers head-on would have been a plan of last resort. The only furniture was a flimsy plastic patio table and a scatter of matching deck chairs straggling across the depressing slate-blue carpet - useless for any serious exercise in flinging, clubbing, or smashing. The ventilation grid high on one wall didn't look any more promising, escape-wise, nor did the ancient and obviously deactivated security camera. Given a few hours and some broken knuckles, she and Spike could probably smash the door down, but they'd have to take the guards out first.
"Mom," Vicki whispered, "what's going on?"
One thing at a time. Buffy squeezed her daughter's cool hand tightly. "Don't know, but stick close to me and your father."
At Chalmers' nod, Alicia sauntered over and began patting them down for weapons. Buffy caught Spike's eye as the young Slayer frisked Vicki with brusque efficiency, and his shoulders lifted in brief, puzzled response to the question in her gaze. The stamp of those Pratt cheekbones was unmistakable. Alicia could have been Vicki's sister. But that was impossible. Yeah, sure, in theory Spike was physically compatible with any Slayer, but in practice? The idea that he had been catting around on her was laughable.
Lydia Chalmers tugged her sensible tweed jacket straight and tucked a flyaway wisp of greying hair back into her severe bun - no concessions to vanity there. "Do pardon the dramatics, but this isn't a conversation I wished to conduct in the lobby." She waved at the chairs. "Please, have a seat."
Buffy shook her head. "Rather stand, thanks."
"As you will. I'll be brief." Chalmers raised her eyes to the ceiling for a moment, as if divining her next words from the patterns upon the acoustic tile. "Ms. Thackeray informs me that Adele has told you about her theories regarding the state of Slayer souls, and her claim to have a remedy for this condition. I suppose it would be too much to hope that you kept the information to yourself?"
"It might have come up once or twice in conversation," Buffy said, examining her nails. There were better ways of ensuring privacy than at gunpoint; something was up here.
Chalmers made an irritable noise. "We of the Council are not monsters, Ms. Summers-Pratt," she said, "however satisfying it is for you to paint us as such. There is a price for everything. You made the Slayer power an inseparable part of those girls - "
"Quentin Travers would have had them killed if I hadn't!" snapped Buffy.
Addie's eyes widened, and one of the other Slayers shifted uneasily, but stilled as her partner elbowed her.
" - at the possible cost of their souls," Chalmers went on, unperturbed. "Now Adele wants to save those souls, but that, too, carries a price. The ritual she stole hasn't yet been tested on Slayers whose powers haven't manifested, but in older Slayers, the results are... less than optimal."
"Wait - you've already tested it?" Addie burst out. She turned wounded-puppy eyes on Ms. Thackeray. "You told me you'd taken my idea to the Council and they said it could never work!"
Honoria Thackeray adjusted her glasses and looked miserable. "I really am sorry, Adele. But after the preliminary tests went so - the results weren't - " She waved both hands to indicate the enormity of the forces arrayed against her. "Ms. Chalmers ordered me to, er, quell your curiosity."
Chalmers' nod was both economical and elegant. "Indeed. The first volunteer died. The second..." For a moment her iron mask slipped. "Begs me on a regular basis to kill her. Even if performing the severance ritual on a younger Slayer proved to be safer, the whole point would be to leave the subject entirely human. The consequences of using the ritual incautiously could be the wholesale elimination of the next generation of Slayers - and since their deaths will no longer call others to replace them... in the hands of an enemy, it could destroy all Slayers, forever." Her keen eyes shifted Buffy's way. "Exactly what you fought to keep Angelus from doing thirty years ago."
Damn. She hated it when the bad guys had a point. Addie had gone pale beneath her freckles - had she not thought about the long-term consequences? Heck, Addie was fourteen. To her, 'long-term' was next Saturday.
"Whether or not it was your intention, Ms. Summers-Pratt, by creating more Slayers you've done great good," Ms. Chalmers went on. "In the last thirty years, the Council has been able to expand its operations to a degree previously undreamed of." She placed a slim, well-kept hand on Addie's shoulder, and her tone was not unkind. "Adele is an extremely bright girl, and to give her the credit she is due, it was her speculation which led our researchers to develop the ritual. Eventually, with further study, our adepts may come up with a method for employing the ritual safely, and then, perhaps, we may be able to offer the girls in our care some form of, er, retirement plan. Until then, it's in everyone's best interests to..."
"Hush it up," Spike drawled, hooking his thumbs into his belt. "So the Council can keep a monopoly on your so-called cure an' dole it out as you see fit."
"Avoid endangering more girls with a half-tested and possibly unnecessary spell," countered Ms. Chalmers. She spun on her heel, pacing like a general in sensible shoes. "I need to know who else knows about Adele's visit, and how much they've heard. We intend to talk to them, nothing more. Perhaps employ a minor glamor to cloud memory if it seems warranted. And then this incident will be closed." For a moment, her flinty eyes were wistful. "It was all so much easier when we operated in secrecy."
Buffy shrugged. "It was never that easy." And never that secret, either. If there was one thing she'd learned as she'd gotten older, it was that there was a big difference between not talking about the weirdness, and not noticing the weirdness.
It wasn't like Lydia Chalmers was the enemy. Both of them were in the world-saving biz, after all. They just had... philosophical differences. Buffy bit her lip. "Look... whatever this de-Slayerizing spell is, obviously it's not just add eye of newt and stir, or Addie would have done it in my bedroom instead of making with the baby-snatching. There's a spell to make vampires human, too, but how many ex-vampires do you see thronging the mall? If the ingredients are hard enough to get - "
Addie looked up, hopeful. "It only works if you have the Guardian's axe."
"Adele!" For the first time, Chalmers sounded angry.
A mutinous expression flashed in Addie's eyes, and her cheeks flushed behind the freckles. "It doesn't matter if she knows if you're going to make us all forget about it, does it? They call it a scythe." She nodded at the Watchers. "But it's really an axe."
Buffy's throat went tight. For a second the years fell away and she was a girl again herself, standing in the stuffy, somnolent warmth of the Guardian's lair. Of course. She should have known. The scythe-that-sure-looked-like-an-axe. The weapon forged to kill the last of the pure demons, the weapon that could, in the right hands, cleanse the world of all the rest. Her own voice echoed in her ears: What does 'cleanse' even mean? Do half-demons only get half-cleansed? The scythe's Guardian hadn't had any answers for her then, and she'd turned the gift down - too many strings attached, and she'd had enough of being prophecy's puppet. "But the axe - scythe - whatever - the Guardian still has it, right?"
"The Guardian is dead," Chalmers cut her off. "And the Scythe is in the Council's care, as it should have been all along, and - "
The voice was soft, but there was steel in it, drawing every eye to the speaker as if by magnets. Buffy felt her muscles tense in preparation for whatever was coming. Alicia took a step forward, her chin rising defiantly. "The Guardian chose me to take the Scythe, before she died."
Everyone startled - the Council Slayers had been so silent. "So she did," Chalmers replied, impatient. "To use under our guidance."
Alicia shook her head, fair curls bouncing, jaw set in a stubborn line that Buffy found all too familiar. "No. She gave it to me." She turned to her comrades. "To a Slayer, for all Slayers. Now!"
All four Council Slayers spun on the nearest members of the Council's wetworks team, crossbows firing in unison. One man went down immediately; three more staggered, screaming. For a second the other two froze in surprise; then they returned fire. Chalmers whipped a little automatic from her purse, aimed, and squeezed the trigger with indefatigable cool.
The Slayers were already a blur of motion as the triple volley of gunshots rang out. Bullets pinged and whined off the reinforced walls. The room was a maelstrom of punches and kicks. "Come on!" Buffy grabbed Vicki's hand and sprinted for the door, Spike right behind her, game-faced and snarling. Behind them she heard an anguished wail from Addie's Watcher as one of the ricochets struck home. She threw a glance over one shoulder - Addie crouched frozen in the thick of the fray, looking as bewildered as Buffy felt.
"Slayer," Spike growled, "No time to play the fucking hero! Whose side are we on, anyway?"
It wasn't a rhetorical question. A guard's cosh started its downward arc towards Addie's head. "Hers," said Buffy. She flung Vicki into her father's arms, and leaped.
"Who's us?" Addie screamed back. The choice was made for her as a guard lunged - training took over as Addie ducked under his blow, grabbed his wrist, and slammed him to the ground. Two guards down. Lauren and the guard she was wrestling tumbled past in a tangle of plastic chairs. Across the room, Spike launched himself at the door and bounced off, leaving a shoulder-sized dent in the metal. Zeidel and Alicia had boxed two more wounded guards into a corner at the back of the room, and Gertruda was covering the Watchers, confiscated pistol in one hand and the other pressed to the scarlet flower blossoming across her belly. Which meant that the sixth guard had to be -
Addie whipped around in time to see Buffy's heel intersect the sixth guard's hand with the sick crunch of snapping bone. The guard's cosh whistled past Addie's skull and grazed her shoulder as she threw a hard left to the man's jaw. The guard slammed back against the wall and collapsed to the floor in a crumpled heap.
The young Slayer stared at the older one for a long moment. The corner of Buffy's mouth quirked. "Watch your back."
"Good advice. Too bad you didn't take it yourself."
Alicia was standing behind Buffy, the muzzle of the fallen guard's pistol pressed to the back of the older Slayer's skull. For all her advantage, her voice was shaking and her breath was coming hard and fast. Vicki screamed, "Mom!" Spike spun away from his assault on the door with a snarl - in the stark fluorescent light, his demon mask was more bestial and terrifying than any vampire's Addie had ever seen.
Alicia gestured with the pistol. "You! Vampire! Get over there, with the Watchers. Bring the girl with you."
Spike's growl ratcheted up a notch, but Buffy's expression was almost serene. "Spike, don't," she said, and whatever Spike had been about to do, he didn't. He gave Vicki's shoulder a squeeze, and whispered reassuringly into Vicki's ear, something too low for Addie to hear. Vicki gulped and nodded, shadowing her father as Spike stalked across the room to stand with Ms. Chalmers and Ms. Thackeray. The Watchers didn't seem any too happy with his company, but Spike's golden gaze never moved from Alicia's face.
Ms. Thackeray clutched her left arm where the bullet had grazed the skin - blood was dribbling down her arm and spotting the ugly carpet. "Alicia, this, this - this is insane! Addie, you can't - "
"Do be quiet, Honoria." Ms. Chalmers sounded more weary than anything else. "They can, and have."
"Shut up, all of you." There was still a tremor in Alicia's voice, but her hands were rock-steady as they held the pistol. How much of this, Addie wondered, was she making up as she went along? "Lauren, those plastic wrist things are in that knapsack in the corner - tie everyone up. Zeidel, cover her. If anyone moves an inch, Zeidel or I will blow off a body part. Addie, get the first aid kit and fix Trudy up."
That was it. Addie flung up her hands. "Maybe I'd like to know exactly what we're doing before I get all rah-rah about it! God, Lish, this is rogue territory! We can't go back to the creche after this, not without some serious deprogramming! What's the freaking point here? There's only five of us, and we need to get Trudy to a hospital! The whole Council will be on your back so fast - "
On cue, almost, Trudy gave a little moan, eyes rolling back as her pistol slipped through her lax fingers and thudded to the floor. She thudded to the floor right after it. Alicia's mouth pinched up, and she glared at Addie, eyes accusing. Addie clenched her teeth on her questions and dropped to her knees to pillage the first aid kit. Alcohol, scissors, hydrogen peroxide, gauze, adhesive - why couldn't Ms. Chalmers have picked a secret hideout with running water? Trudy's shirt was a mess, blood everywhere, and while Ms. Thackeray's injury seemed superficial, she was pretty sure that the guards were wounded pretty badly, too. Maybe she should just call 911. Except that would get everyone arrested, and what the hell was Alicia thinking?
She snuck a sideways glance at her friend's set and determined face. OK, fine, Alicia had been really upset over their discovery - both the things she'd told Buffy, and the things she hadn't. But it wasn't the Council's fault that they were bound for Hell. If Ms. Chalmers was telling the truth, the Watchers had a good reason to keep the ritual secret.
Trudy gasped a little as Addie pulled powder-burnt scraps of shirt away from the wound. Her dark skin had taken on a weird yellowish undertone, and sweat beaded her forehead. "You doing OK?" Addie whispered. Stupid question, but she had to ask.
The other girl grimaced. "This sounded way more exciting back in the creche."
"I'll bet." An argument had broken out behind her, but Addie couldn't spare the attention for it now. Slayer strength and speed were great as far as they went, but in a contest between Slayer and bullet, bullets still won. She ripped Trudy's shirt up and doused it with hydrogen peroxide, swabbing off as much blood as she could. The entry wound was a red, angry hole a few inches below Trudy's ribcage. The exit wound was lower and even larger. Crap. She packed gauze front and back and taped it all down; Trudy still looked sickly and sweaty and awful.
When she came up for air, Zeidel and Lauren had finished trussing everyone up. Buffy was still staring at Alicia like she was trying to solve the mysteries of the Pyramids or something, but Spike was doing what he did best - aggravating people. "Chit's gut-shot, you stupid little cow. Punctured bowel. I can smell it." The vampire bared his teeth in possibly the least friendly expression Addie had ever seen. "She'll need more'n a Band-aid if you don't want her dying by inches, poisoned by her own shite."
Alicia's lip curled. "Like you care."
Spike's mirthless grin grew wider. "Not a lot, but that's more'n you do, apparently. Considering what I am, that might make you think a bit."
The uncertainty that flashed across Alicia's face was a relief - maybe the girl Addie thought she knew was still in there somewhere. But it vanished in a quick shake of golden curls. "Slayers die. I can't stop that. I can stop them going to Hell when they do. Trudy knew the risks." She turned to Addie with a deep breath, as if she'd rehearsed this a lot. "I swear, I wanted to tell you, but I was afraid you'd tell La Thackeray. I never figured you'd try this on your own, but when you did I knew they'd try to stop you, so we had to stop them. You've heard for yourself how they're lying to us, using us - " She was earnest now, almost pleading. "The Guardian warned me not to trust them, and she was right. But it's okay now - we're together! I brought the scythe with me, and we can go get the baby and do the spell just like we planned."
Slayers died, yeah, but Addie hadn't lost so many of her own creche-sisters that she was used to it. Alicia had always been the take-charge type, and till now she had always been willing go along, but... With a twinge of guilt for ruining her borrowed clothes, Addie wiped bloody hands across her thighs. Oh, well, maybe Vicki would think eau de Slayer's blood smelled delish. "When we made the plan I didn't know the Watchers had already tried the spell on anyone. It's too dangerous."
"You can't seriously think Ms. Chalmers is telling the truth?" Alicia sounded disappointed, but unsurprised. "They're not even going to try to cure us! They don't care if we go to Hell as long as they have their Slayer army."
Addie cast an agonized look at her Watcher. Ms. Thackeray's eyes were damp and entreating behind her glasses; she'd bound up her arm in one of her numerous scarves, and was making a desperate and mostly successful attempt to emulate Ms. Chalmers' calm, but she couldn't entirely suppress a distressed meepy noise every now and then. Addie wanted to go over and hug her, but... Ms. Thackeray had lied to her, after all. Even Spike seemed to think the Watchers might not have the best interests of the Slayers at heart. But if anything went wrong with the ritual... "What if Nita's not like us after all? Her mother was only a Potential - maybe she's not a Slayer at all. What about the seeking spells - the ones they use on the eggs we donate, to see which ones carry the Slayer line! We could cast one on Nita to make sure - "
Alicia wasn't buying it. "You'd have to revise it to work on a live baby instead of an egg. And that would take days, and the Council would find out and stop us. We don't have much time, Addie. It's too late for you and me. But there are plenty of girls back at the creche we can still save." A doubtful note entered her voice. Under the bluster and big talk was the same scared kid who'd cried on Addie's shoulder the night they'd found out the big secret. "You trust me, don't you? We're still friends, aren't we?"
She was waiting, Addie realized, for her to cave, just like she'd caved every other time Alicia's plans clashed with hers. "We are," said Addie, throat aching. "But I still can't let you do this."
Alicia's shoulders slumped, and her head drooped. "I wish things were different." When her head came up again, the pistol was aimed right at Addie's chest. "Lauren, tie her up too."
The plastic wrist restraints cut into her skin as Lauren pulled them tight. Addie stared at Alicia through the whole humiliating procedure, gaining small satisfaction from the fact that Alicia wouldn't meet her eyes.
"That's everyone," Zeidel said. "Here's the key cards for the door. Now what?"
"I'm going to get that baby." Alicia took a deep breath, steeling herself. "You and Lauren stay here with Trudy and keep an eye on things." She surveyed the incapacitated guards and Watchers with a grin of satisfaction - Addie wondered what her reaction would be if she knew how very much like Spike's it looked. "By the time anyone back at the creche worries I'll have the cure." She grabbed a suspiciously knobbly gym bag from the pile of luggage near the door and slung it over one shoulder. She smirked at Ms. Chalmers. "And once the rest of the Slayers find out how you've been lying, how many of them will stay with you?"
"I'm not lying, you obstinate child!" The fabled Chalmers cool was cracking. At any other time, Addie would have been awed. "The ritual is more dangerous than you can imagine!"
"Wait." Buffy cut through the argument with no apparent effort. "There's a very easy way to tell if Lydia's telling the truth. Test it on me first. I've been a Slayer longer than anyone else alive, and if you're looking for some kind of revenge - "
"You don't know anything about me!" spat Alicia. She set the gym bag down and eyed Buffy, considering. "You think you can do something to stop me if you come along. All right. I'll let you. On one condition."
She bent over the ravaged first aid kit, and pulled out a plastic-capped syringe and a small bottle of translucent amber liquid. Addie didn't need to see the label to know what it was. You could keep a secret like the Cruciamentum when there was only one Slayer at a time, but not when there were hundreds. Alicia looked back at Buffy. "They had to change the formula after what you did," she informed the older Slayer. "It's stronger now. You're just going to be an ordinary old woman."
Buffy shrugged as Alicia uncapped the syringe, stabbed the needle through the rubber cap of the bottle and sucked up ten milliliters of industrial-strength adrenal blocker. "If your ritual works, I'm just getting a head start on the rest of my get-out-of-Hell-free life, right? And if it doesn't, it won't matter." Her eyes locked with Alicia's. "If it doesn't work on me, I want your word you won't do anything to Nita."
Alicia's mouth firmed. "It'll work."
She jabbed the needle in, none too gently. It would only take a few minutes for the drug to kick in, Addie knew. Vicki scrunched her eyes shut and whimpered, leaning into her father's shoulder. A muscle in Spike's jaw twitched as he watched, and the look in his eyes wasn't one Addie ever wanted to see turned on her.
Buffy didn't make a sound. After a minute Alicia undid her wrist restraints, turned half away, and whirled back, throwing a punch straight at Buffy's face. The eldest Slayer flung her arm up in an automatic block, but Alicia's fist slammed through her too-slow, too-weak defense and right into her jaw. Buffy staggered backwards and managed to turn her fall into a roll - all the muscle memory of how to fight was still there, but the muscles were only human now. Wiping the blood from her split lip with the back of one hand, she got to her feet. "All right," she said. "Let's get this over with."
Alicia grabbed the gym bag again and swiped the key-card for the door, hustling Buffy out into the hall. "Keep an eye on the Watchers, and don't listen to a word they say. I'll call as soon as I've tested the ritual."
"Wait a minute," Lauren pointed at Spike and Vicki. "What about them? These wrist things may not be strong enough to hold him for very long, so what do we do if - "
"If he makes trouble?" Alicia patted the gym bag impatiently. "What do Slayers usually do with vampires, Laurie?"
And the door slammed shut behind her.
Her semi-captor sat in the seat beside her, hands gripping the Scythe across her lap, staring stonily out at the electronic billboards whipping past along the highway. At least Alicia had left the pistol behind. One teeny weeny thing in Old Lady Buffy's favor. "There's one thing I'd really like to know," she said. "Why is it so important for you to test this ritual out on Nita?"
Alicia's lips trembled, and then pressed tight. "Addie didn't tell you."
"Addie was very discreet."
"And you couldn't figure it out." Only a teenager could pack a Wikipedia's worth of concentrated scorn into ten words or less. "Why would you even have bothered? Take that exit."
Damn. So much for accidentally ending up halfway to Los Angeles. "Can we take my ignorance as given?"
Silence. Then, "We don't know who our fathers are, in the Council creche. We know which one of the older Slayers donated an egg, but they never tell us who the sperm donors are. So it's kind of a thing, when you get old enough, to snoop around in the files and try to find out." Alicia made a small noise of disgust. "I think the Watchers make it easy. So we think we're getting away with something. The password protection for that database is a joke." She was quiet for a moment. "Addie and I broke into our files three months ago."
"According to those files, the same person was the sperm donor for both of us. We were really excited at first. We were sisters for real. But then we pulled up his picture. He had straight hair like hers. And like the Slayer who - gave birth to me." She gestured at her own curls. "So where did these come from?"
Buffy was going to put the queasy feeling in her stomach down to the adrenal blockers. "I take it the answer's not Miss Clairol." Alicia gave her a look of baffled contempt. OK, maybe her pop culture references were a little out of date.
"I always knew I was special," Alicia continued. Her tone was matter of fact. "My Watcher was always giving me tests that none of the other girls got. When I was seven, the Guardian asked to see me. I didn't know who she was. She was just a nice old lady who gave me tea and cookies. After that, Ms. Chalmers called me into her office and told me how the Guardians had made the Scythe and hidden it from the Slayers for thousands of years, when it could have been put to use saving people, until all of them died but one. And how the last Guardian had tried to get you to take the Scythe, but you were selfish and refused it. And the Guardian was so old and so discouraged that she finally came to the Watchers, and offered to give them the Scythe, but only if she could choose the Slayer who got it.
"The Watchers couldn't take it away from her. So Ms. Chalmers asked me to do whatever I needed to do to get her to give me the Scythe." Her sidelong look was fierce. "I would never have lied to her - the Guardian, I mean. She gave me the Scythe because she knew it was meant for me."
Buffy pulled up at a traffic light, fingers curling and uncurling around the steering wheel. "She wasn't an easy person to lie to. I was the one who suggested she make peace with the Council, by the way." Alicia's expression was pure 'Yeah, right,' but if she could only keep the girl talking... "It's stupid when the good guys spend more time fighting each other than the bad guys."
"When we realized my file was fake, I kept looking." Alicia stared straight ahead. "I broke into the encrypted server. I found my real file. I found my real father."
Her stomach felt as if she'd swallowed a whole tray of ice cubes. "What - what was your mother's name?" Buffy asked. Crap, were they at Revello Drive already?
"You don't even remember her!" snarled Alicia. "It was Kerry. Kerry Morris."
"No," Buffy whispered. "I remember her." Oh, God. Bill's doomed high school fling with a visiting Council Slayer - they'd been seventeen and in love, and it had ended, predictably enough, in tears: Buffy knew all too well what it cost a Slayer to love a vampire, and had never blamed poor overwhelmed Council-bred Kerry for being unwilling to pay that price. At the time she'd silently congratulated herself that teenaged heartbreak was all the affair had ended in. It could have been so much worse. And apparently, had been. "I swear she never told us - not me or Spike, not Bill - if we'd known - "
Alicia rounded on her as they pulled up in front of 1630, eyes bright with fury, and maybe something else. "Do you think it matters to me whether you knew or not? I'm a Slayer! And my father's a vampire! Do you have any idea how wrong that is?"
"I'm a Slayer, and three of my children are vampires," Buffy rejoined. "I've got some idea."
"Shut up! You never even thought about why my mom ran away - you were just glad to see her gone! And the Council only made my mother have me so they could have one of your freak descendants to experiment on! The only person who ever cared about me was the Guardian, and she gave me this - " she shook the Scythe viciously, "so I could make things right!" She flung the car door open and started for the front door. "And I'm going to, right now!"
Vicki was huddled beneath her father's arm, watching the Slayers with wide, frightened eyes. Ms. Chalmers was watching them as well, with a gaze far more speculative and predatory, and Ms. Thackeray was watching Ms. Chalmers. The older Slayers exchanged unhappy glances, their attention divided between Addie and the Watchers on one side of the room, and the vampires on the other. Lauren and Zeidel were almost nineteen, Addie thought with exasperation - shouldn't they have better sense?
"Addie..." Lauren sounded more tired than rebellious. "You don't get it. You think this is bad, but we were in Cleveland last year when the Hellmouth flared up. Twenty of us went down there to hold back the Turok-Han. Eighteen Slayers and two witches." She nodded at Trudy. "And us three are the only ones who came back." She shook her head. "If there's even the smallest chance that's where we're headed when we die..."
Spike snorted. "There's an infinity of hell dimensions, you wet little girl. By some accounts, we're sitting in one right now. And as someone with a passing acquaintance with evil, I can tell you that sacrificing babies to save your own sorry hide is generally the sort of thing that gets you a one-way ticket hence."
Zeidel's jaw clenched. "Shut up. It's a fucking demon. It doesn't count."
An insolent grin curled across the vampire's face. "That what you tell yourself when you wake in the wee hours of the night? I love the smell of hypocrisy in the morning." The muscles in his shoulders flexed, relaxed, flexed again, but the restraints held. He was still in vamp face, his eyes molten gold, his voice a hypnotic, mocking rumble. The files had been very clear that William the Bloody wasn't capable of thrall, but he sure as heck knew how to play an audience. Slayers and Watchers alike were riveted. "Stands to reason that when you start mass-producing Slayers, the quality goes down."
"I said shut up!" Zeidel took a step forward, finger tightening on the trigger of her pistol.
"Keep quiet," Vicki whispered in Addie's ear.
It wasn't a confident voice. It sounded, in fact, like Vicki was about to pass out at any minute. Addie froze as cool fingers fumbled with the wrist restraints, swallowing a yip of pain as Vicki's penknife nicked her wrist in Vicki's haste to saw through the plastic. Of course. Vicki'd been such an obvious non-combatant, whimpering and cringing through the whole fight, no one had bothered to search her. Or pay any attention to her while Spike was chewing the scenery. "Do mine," Vicki hissed, pressing the handle of the knife into Addie's hands as the plastic cuffs fell away.
The knife was tiny, with a pink plastic handle, more of a toy than a weapon, and cutting through one set of restraints had dulled the crappy stainless-steel blade. Only the fact that she was stronger than a human let Addie savage her way through Vicki's restraints. She caught Ms. Chalmers' cool steely gaze; she'd noticed what was going on, at least.
"And why should I believe anything you say?" Zeidel was yelling. "You've killed a million babies, so just - "
Addie took two swift steps forward and chopped for the older Slayer's elbow with all her strength. Caught off-guard, Zeidel yelped and dropped her weapon. At the same time, Vicki jumped Lauren. Lauren's gun went off with a deafening bang and a metallic pweeeng! as the bulled ricocheted off the ceiling. Addie ignored it and feinted for Zeidel's jaw as the other girl turned, followed by a kick to the kneecap.
"Traitor!" Zeidel screamed, spinning around the kick and unleashing a furious barrage of blows. Addie danced backwards, out of reach; Zeidel was older, stronger, faster; her only hope was to keep aiming for the same weak spots and wear her down. From the corner of her eye she caught Vicki hanging desperately on to Lauren's arm, her fangs sunk into the Slayer's neck while Lauren kicked and punched at her with her free hand, yelling "Get off, get off, get off!"
Something plowed into Zeidel with pile-driver force, knocking the air out of her and sending them both tumbling to the floor. It was Spike, Addie realized; his hands were still tied, and he'd head-butted them. Before Zeidel could draw fresh breath, Addie boxed her ears and punched her hard in the solar plexus. Zeidel went down with a moan. "Vicki!" Spike roared, staggering to his feet.
Vicki was standing, swaying, her mouth stained with blood and Lauren limp and woozy in her arms. She looked at her father with eyes of lambent gold. "It's... good." She sounded surprised.
"Don't get used to it," Spike growled. "Put her down and get these sodding things off me."
His daughter licked her lips, inhuman eyes narrowing. "She wanted to kill Nita. Why shouldn't I eat her?"
Spike made an exasperated noise, half-snarl, half-groan, as if this were the question he was least equipped in the world to answer, but he was going to take a shot at it anyway. "I thought you said eating people was dumb," Addie interrupted. She wasn't terrified. She wasn't. Vicki wasn't going to smell any fear on her. She was... disappointed. Which was her being dumb, because what had she expected? With teenaged scorn, "I guess you're just an ordinary vampire after all."
Vicki's eyes flicked from Addie to Lauren, pride warring with newly-wakened hunger. At last her fangs receded and the gold of her eyes kaleidescoped into blue. She set Lauren down almost primly, and straightened her sweater. "I wasn't really going to eat her," she said sulkily.
"Course not, pet." And Spike's exhalation wasn't really a sigh of relief, either, though whatever it was, Addie suspected that it was more for not having to explain a dead Slayer to Buffy than anything else. "Come on now, let's get us untied."
"What about us?" Ms. Thackeray asked plaintively, as Addie struggled with Spike's bonds. The jackknife was a total loss by now, but she managed to put enough of a notch in the plastic that Spike was able to snap them on his own.
"Eating you having been ruled out..." Spike tossed Ms. Chalmers the blunted jackknife. "If you can cut yourself loose, be my guest." He pursed his lips, surveying the two groggy Slayers. "Is there any more of that witches' brew they shot Buffy up with? Dose the both of them good."
Unhappily, Addie complied. Spike was right; Lauren and Zeidel would do everything they could to escape, and they were no less competent than, well, she was.
"Can we break the door down?" Vicki's voice was small and scared again.
Her father eyed the dented but still formidable door sourly. "In time, yeah, but time's what we haven't got." Spike pointed at the vent overhead. "I won't fit through there, but you two might. Crawl through, find security, and have them let us out." He rubbed his shoulder and grimaced. "I'll keep pounding away from in here."
With a boost from Spike, Addie was able to reach the vent opening easily enough, and rip off the grill covering it. There was a faint glow of light about thirty feet down, most likely an opening for an air conditioning vent opening into the hallway outside. She squared her shoulders, then thought better of it and scrunched them in. There was no point in putting it off any longer. "OK," she said. "I'm going in."
"But that's not possible," Bill repeated, bewildered. "Kerry and I were - we only - it was just the once, and I never bit her!"
"You must have, or I wouldn't be here!" Alicia's voice cracked with fury.
"Bill," said Buffy, teeth clenched. "Are you sure?" She and Spike had given the kids the birds and the bats lecture early on. The peculiarities of live-vampire reproduction meant that birth control was usually just a matter of keeping one's fangs in their sockets, but she knew better than anyone how easy it was for things to get out of hand in the heat of the moment. If she'd known... maybe she could have talked to Kerry. Worked out something. She and Spike could have handled one more, couldn't they? And if Kerry really, really hadn't wanted this, well, the Sunnydale Planned Parenthood office was no stranger to 'unusual' pregnancies. God knew that throughout her own pregnancy with Bill she'd kept a slip of paper with their address on it in her purse like a talisman, long after she'd made her decision to go through with it, just as a reminder that it had been her decision.
Bill looked from his mother to his presumptive firstborn, clutching a handful of unruly curls in distraction. "I don't know! She was hurt, that night. We ran into a couple of Fyarl who were looking for trouble, and – I don't know, maybe I tasted a little. I don't remember! It was fifteen years ago! Kerry would have told me about something that important. Wouldn't she?" For a minute he was an abandoned seventeen-year-old again, baffled and heartbroken. He straightened and shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose, resolute. "Look, it doesn't matter. Alicia, I... I believe you. You smell like her. And now that we know, I can - "
"What, bring me home and give me ice cream and adopt me into your happy little family?" Alicia's voice trembled, but her hands on the scythe were still rock-steady. She shot a poisonous glance at Toni. "She'd have something to say about that, I bet. You're not my father. You're just a... a sperm donor. I don't need you. I've come here to get rid of any trace of you." She thumped Buffy on the back. "Give me the baby, or I'll kill your mother."
Toni backed up a step, eyes flinty. "Do you have any idea what I went through to have Nita? Two miscarriages, two rounds of IVF. I'm only human, not part of your little supernatural glee club. Look, I'm sorry your mother had a hard time, and I'm sorry you've had a hard time, but you're not the only one who has. If you want my daughter you'll have to kill me first."
"If you really were a Potential, then you know how powerful this is!" Alicia gave the scythe a shake, and Buffy winced as the blade drew a bright line of pain across her neck. She could feel the trickle of blood down the curve of her throat. Alicia went on, "The Guardian told me that in the right hands, it can banish demons. And my hands are the right hands. If you really cared about your daughter, you'd be happy to let me cleanse her!"
Bill's eyes were going yellow - his temper, once roused, was every bit as savage as his father's, though he was more likely to strike out with words than with fists. "Nita's your sister," he said. "If you really cared about her, you wouldn't be willing to risk killing her to get back at me." He cocked his head, narrowed his golden eyes. "That's all you really want, isn't it? Revenge. On me. On Nita. For having what you didn't. Deep down you're hoping this does kill her." Buffy couldn't see Alicia's face, but from the way the young Slayer's knuckles whitened, she imagined it had gone pale. "Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm a lying vampire who lies. Prove me wrong."
Alicia hesitated, unwilling to let go of her bargaining chip and seemingly uncertain of her next move. Buffy felt a pang: however strong and determined these girls were, they were only fourteen, child soldiers in a war they'd never asked for. Alicia was an angry, confused teenager acting on half-thought-through impulse, not a demon overlord with a well-crafted plan for world domination. Not that that would make her any less dead if Alicia's hand slipped. "Alicia," she said, trying to keep her voice level. She might not have Slayer strength at the moment, but she could play good cop with the best of them. "You promised you'd try the cleansing spell on me first."
"Everyone makes promises. Why should I be the only one who has to keep them?" For all her bravado, there was something terribly lonely in the girl's voice. "It's not fair!"
"I'm keeping mine," Buffy pointed out. She shot a warning look at her son. "Bill, I volunteered for this. If Alicia puts away her sharp pointy objects, you have to put away yours."
"Mom, no." Bill looked anguished, but his fangs receded grudgingly. Equally grudgingly, Alicia lowered the incongruously shiny blade of the – who the heck had started calling it a scythe, anyway? It was obviously an axe of some kind. "You don't have to do this because you feel guilty, damn it! Even if they're right about this stupid hell business, and there's no evidence that they are, you couldn't have known – "
For a being who supposedly couldn't feel guilt himself, her eldest son sometimes had an uncanny insight into its workings in others. He took after his father in that way, Buffy supposed. "No. I couldn't have. But that doesn't matter, does it? Any more than you not knowing about Alicia matters." She dabbed a finger to her neck, and brought it away speckled with blood. She took a deep breath. "OK. The whozits and whasits for the spell are in your duffle, right, Alicia? Let's get this over with."
It occurred to her that Vicki couldn't even see the light, because Addie's body was in the way. "We're almost there," she whispered.
Vicki made a gulping noise. "If we can find a phone we can call my sister – my older sister, I mean. She's on the police force."
Addie gave a dubious nod, which she belatedly realized that Vicki couldn't see either. She was only a few feet away from the vent. It was covered by grill similar to the one in the holding cell, but probably newer – it was vinyl, not metal. She shoved at it. It didn't give. With a little scream of frustration, she punched at the grill, hard. The angle was terrible and she couldn't get much power behind the blow, but the screw in one corner popped out, letting a little more light into the duct. She hitched herself closer and punched again, and the grill went flying. Addie stuck her head out and looked around.
They'd come out into the service hallway; down the corridor behind them she could see the door to the holding cell. It shivered, and a loud THUNK echoed through the corridor – Spike, true to his word about working on it from the inside.
"What's the matter? Why did you stop?" Vicki hissed behind her.
"I don't want to fall out on my head." But she was going to have to; there was no way she could turn around in the confined space of the duct. She slithered forward until her torso was mostly through the hole – there was nothing to hang on to, and her hands were sweating so hard she probably couldn't have held on to anything anyway. She took a deep breath, and heaved herself forward. Her hips cleared the vent opening in an ungraceful rush, and she drew her knees up almost immediately, somersaulting in mid-air. She managed to come down on her butt instead of her skull, which was pretty good, all things considered. Addie scrambled to her feet and looked up, expecting to see Vicki flailing, but the vampire was already halfway out of the duct and clinging to the ceiling, her fingers punching holes in the acoustic tile to grab hold of the metal supports it rested on. Vicki pulled herself the rest of the way out, carefully, and hung there for a moment before dropping to land on her feet.
Rats, why hadn't she thought to do that? "Come on," Addie snapped, and took off down the hallway. Vicki slapped dust from her sweater, lips pinched in disapproval, and dashed after her.
They burst out onto the concourse in a matter of minutes, into a hurrying stream of passengers trailing wheelie bags and briefcases. Addie looked wildly around. In old movies there were always ranks of big clunky land line phones in airports, just standing around for anyone to use, but she couldn't see anything like that now. She'd left her own phone behind when she set off on this expedition, so no one could track her though it, and the Watchers had taken everyone else's phones when they'd been captured. All of them had been in the duffle bag that Alicia had taken with her. Could they convince anyone to listen to them? The Watchers must have made some kind of arrangement with airport security, so if they just waltzed up to the nearest information desk and demanded to call 911, what kind of reaction would they get?
"Alex!" Vicki screamed. She grabbed Addie's shoulder and jumped up and down, waving. "It's my brother! Alex! Over here!"
Addie spun around. A young man of nineteen or maybe twenty was weaving through the crowds towards them, backpack slung over one shoulder. At first glance, Alex looked like a changling from someone else's family had wandered into the Summers-Pratt nest by mistake; he was stocky where his siblings were slim, and his wavy mop of hair was a nondescript brown. But his hazel eyes had a telltale trace of his mother's green in them, and there was a hint of his father in his easy grin. "Hey, Vick!" he said cheerfully. "There you are! I've been looking all over for you guys! Mom's not answering her phone – "
"A crazy Slayer broke into our house and tried to steal Nita and now her crazy friend has Mom and Dad's captured by Watchers and we need to get him out and go save Mom and call Connie RIGHT NOW!" Vicki wailed, flinging herself into her startled brother's arms.
Alex blinked. "Okay." He pulled out his phone, tapped out a text, and shot a quizzical glance at Addie. "By the way, who's she?"
"I'm the crazy Slayer," Addie informed him. She frowned. "You're not a vampire."
"Nope." For someone dropped head first into the middle of a daring rescue, Vicki's brother seemed remarkably collected. "I just date one." His phone blipped, and he tapped a reply, then shoved it back into his jeans pocket. "Connie's gonna meet us at the curb. Where's Dad?"
"This way!" Vicki tugged at his arm, dragging him back the way they'd come.
"I was in heaven once," she said. "I mean, I think I was. There wasn't a sign on the door. If I got in – "
"That was before you changed everything," Alicia replied shortly, deploying another candle.
"You know, if you really wanted to be sure this would work on you, you'd test it on yourself," Bill said from his vantage point from across the room. Still with the uncanny insight, her boy. If it came to a fight, he was the only one of them with a chance at taking Alicia on, but despite the vampire strength and speed, he wasn't a fighter by nature. Plus he'd be at a huge disadvantage, trying to protect all four of the rest of them at once. "Instead of on an old woman and a baby."
"Hey!" Buffy objected, in tandem with Alicia's "Shut UP!" "I'm not old, I'm... late middle-aged. Ish."
Alicia shot a poisonous look at her father and brandished the scythe. "If you say one more word..." She took a deep breath. "Inceptus Est!" Eldritch energies crackled along the haft of the scythe, sparking out from the blade to catch the nearest candle alight, and thence around the rest of the circle. A column of pale fire enclosed Buffy like a tame aurora borealis. "There. If anyone tries to break that circle before the spell is finished, whatever's inside will burn up. So you'd better just sit there and be quiet, or I'll break it myself."
Alicia might be lying, and a vampire who could hear the speed of her pulse and smell the fear in her sweat was in a better position to determine that than Buffy was. Which made it bad news that Bill subsided. Alicia took a fresh grip on the scythe and chanted,
Audi, O Numina Orientis!
Propugnatrix in hoc circulo stat
qui daemonis et mulieris.
et sit mulier tantum!
Buffy had watched Willow make with the bells and smells often enough to tell that the Latin was iffy at best, and Alicia wasn't an experienced witch. But she was the wielder of the scythe (should it have a capital letter?) and that seemed to be enough for the spell to take and run with. The wall of translucent flame in front of her eyes pulsed, shooting up fat white sparks to whirl overhead. The air fizzed with power, and she could feel the fine hairs at the nape of her neck lifting.
How would it feel, to not be a Slayer? Right now, her power was only sleeping; what would it feel like when it was entirely gone? Weak? Or worse, incomplete? She'd wanted nothing more than this, once. She'd have volunteered eagerly, at fifteen, seventeen, twenty. Slayer had been a burden thrust upon her from outside. But everything had changed in the cave in the realm of the Shadow Men, when she'd looked the source of her power in its non-existent eyes, and realized she no longer feared or hated it. Realized that she could make the choice to make it hers, wholly and completely. Could define what Slayer was, instead of letting it define her.
Audi, O Numina Occidente!
Miles populi intra circulum est,
miscentur daemonibus, qui sanguine sanguis.
Impurum, pura iterum!
Immundum, munda iterum!
From the circling sparks a dozen spears of white light lanced inwards, penetrating her body, flensing her soul. Buffy threw back her head and screamed. Dimly, she heard Bill cry "Mom!" and through the veil of fire saw him leap for Alicia. Alicia ducked and swung the scythe in a deadly arc, laying his thigh open to the bone. There were more screams, then, from Jess and Toni, screams of fear, screams of anger, but they all faded to nothing against the white-hot supernova of pain. She could see herself as if from the outside, lit up like a Christmas candle, her aura a complex mottling of black and gold like the pelt of some great, deadly cat. The scythe's power was methodically slicing her in two, separating the black and the gold with laser precision, nerve by nerve and cell by cell. A filmy shadow of herself was peeling away from her body, dispersing into the aether in a million million particles of jet. As quickly as the demon black disappeared, the lattice of mortal gold remaining crumbled in upon itself, and what remained was neither black nor gold, but merely grey – grey, and dead.
Auribus percipite verba mea, O Numina Aquilonis
Mihi, Numina Notis!
In hoc circulo est filia Sineya.
Non sanguis sanguinis sui,
non caro carnibus,
quae hodie ut renascantur,
Sineya non filia!
All magic has consequences. Maybe there had been another choice she could have made all those years ago, when she beat the Shadow Men at their own game, and took the power they hoarded on her own terms. Something else that could have reached across an ocean in time to stop Quentin Travers from implementing his cold, logical, inhuman final solution. Whatever it was, she'd missed it, and now she was going to have to deal with those consequences. Buffy was the Slayer now, and the Slayer was Buffy, and neither could survive without the other.
"Stop it!" Bill was yelling. "Turn it off! Can't you see it's killing her?" He was lying on the floor – why would he do that? Oh, yeah. Blood pooled around his leg, staining the oatmeal of the living room carpet a vivid crimson. Rats. Now she'd have to have it shampooed. Maybe it was a good thing she hadn't vacuumed, after all.
Alicia's face was sickly pale. "She's too old!" she screamed back. "I told them she was too old! That's why I wanted to try it on the baby all along! It's still got a chance! Give it to me!"
Toni threw a frantic look at Bill, who clenched his jaw and nodded – don't worry about me, run!. She broke for the door with Nita in one arm, dragging Jess after her with the other. Bill, fangs bared in pain, lurched for Alicia, and managed to fling his arms out just far enough to grab her by the ankle. Alicia shrieked in frustration and rage, and whipped around to slam the haft of the scythe against her father's head. Bill jerked aside and the wickedly sharp stake narrowly missed his eye, gouging a bloody furrow across his forehead and over one ear. He lost his grip, and Alicia vaulted an armchair and flew across the room, smacking Jess out of Toni's grasp with the flat of her weapon. Jess collided head-first with the newel-post of the bannister, and fell to the floor of the foyer, motionless. Alicia dropped the scythe and grabbed Nita, hauling the baby and Toni bodily away from the door, brushing Toni's one-handed kicks and punches aside like pesky flies. The Slayer and the former Potential spun around each other, twin planets circling a common center of gravity. The baby was wailing in terror now, tiny fists waving. Alicia's face was frozen in a rictus of mad determination as horrifying as any vampire's game face.
Buffy struggled to move, but she was pinned like a beetle by the light. She was falling apart, disintegrating. Was this what Spike had felt, years ago, when Willow's botched resurrection spell almost pulled the animating demon essence out of his undead body? Or again, when the Mohra blood had brought that same body back to life? Somehow, he'd held on, kept body and demon together. If he could do it, so could she. Backwards and in high heels. That black-smoke shadow-self being pulled from her fiber by fiber was hers – it was her. She would call it back, she would get up, she would step outside the circle, she would she would she would --
Alicia and Toni bounced off the coffee table and careened into the Christmas tree, which toppled over with a crash, sending popcorn strings and wafer-thin shards of ornamental glass flying. Bill was up on both hands and one knee, half-blinded by his own blood, his left leg trailing useless behind him. Toni's only advantage was superior height and weight, and she used it now, to lean into their spin and then let go. Alicia lost her balance, and she and the baby fell backwards over the coffee table. Bill lunged. Blood-smeared glasses askew, he wrapped both arms around Alicia from behind and pulled her down to the floor with a snarl.
And the front door burst open.
Crammed into the back seat of the patrol car, Vicki hunched down between Addie and her brother, trying to avoid the sun. Under other circumstances the ride would have been exciting. Connie Summers-Pratt was as small as her mother, with big blue eyes and a mane of chestnut curls currently confined to a severe braid and piled up under her cap. She had a badge and everything, with a little separate pin beneath it saying "Supernatural Liaison Department, SPD." Her driving habits, however, were pure Spike. Sirens wailing, they blew through three red lights and a funeral procession on their way to a screeching halt in front of the house on Revello Drive.
Spike almost tore the door off of the car in his hurry to get out, and Connie wasn't far behind him. "Mind yourselves, this is serious," Spike snapped at Alex, who put an arm around Vicki and nodded. But he didn't tell them to stay in the car. To Addie, "You, come with me." Without waiting for a response, he pelted for the front porch in complete indifference to the mid-winter sun beating down overhead.
He and Connie had already flattened the front door by the time Addie made it to the front porch, with Alex and Vicki hovering nervously in her wake. She could feel the unbridled hum of power even over the vampire-tingles assaulting her from all sides, and her heart sank. Alicia had already started the spell, and the Summers-Pratt living room was a maelstrom of whirling energies, surrounding a figure frozen in torment. Bill Summers-Pratt had Alicia in a ferocious bear-hug, and Toni was prying a wailing Nita out of her arms. They both looked up with cries of relief. The scythe lay abandoned in the middle of the foyer, its candy-apple red blade gleaming and the haft alight with spell-fire. Just as she'd imagined it would look, when she was first putting the spell together. Addie couldn't help herself; she bent down and picked it up. The haft fit her hand as though it had been made for her. She'd never been allowed to hold the scythe before, and she could feel the power pulsing in her hands.
"Shit," Connie said, surveying the damage. "I always miss the good stuff. Hey, bro." She kicked a few ornaments out of her way, pulled a pair of handcuffs from her belt and snapped them onto Alicia's thin wrists. "Don't bother trying to break out of those, they're spelled. Kid, you're under arrest for... let's say kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, and vandalism for now. You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used against you – "
"Enough gab." Spike pointed at the vortex. His face was human, his eyes blue, but his voice was as chill and deadly as the blade Addie was holding. "Stop that thing. Now."
Alicia spat in his face. "I can't. Even if I could, it's too late." She was sobbing, more from anger than fear. "It's her own fault! It would have worked if they'd let me use the baby!"
It was like the Alicia she knew had been replaced by this mad-eyed stranger. Or had she ever known her best friend as well as she thought she did? Alicia had always been single-minded. It was the reason she was so good at everything. The teachers back at the creche used to joke that when Alicia wanted something, she didn't stop until everyone in her way was dead, and looking at Spike's merciless eyes, it hit Addie like a snowball to the gut where she'd heard that phrase applied before. But Spike's eyes weren't just merciless; there was a world of love and fear and pain and confusion there as well. It might be only selfish demon love, but she'd seen how terrifyingly strong it was. If Alicia had given him the smallest crumb of hope... Spike could be swayed, if you found the right words, at the right time. Which meant that his prodigal grand-daughter could too, if only, if only.
"Alicia... please." Addie knelt beside her friend and laid the scythe across her knees. "This is me talking. We wanted to save people, not kill them. And this is killing her, just like Ms. Chalmers said it would. We have to stop it, and we can't try it on the baby, either. If this is what you have to do to get into Heaven, I don't want to go. Help us stop this."
Her best friend looked up at her, flat-eyed. "I hate you," she said. "Go to hell. I'll be seeing you there."
Addie dropped her head and squeezed her eyes shut, as if that could squinch out the hitching pain in her chest. Alex and Vicki were cutting off the leg of Bill's ruined jeans, and binding up the wound in his leg. Off to the side, Connie had her phone out, and was talking to someone – Aunt Willow? Emergency. How soon can you get to Sunnydale? and a part of her thrilled to the thought that she might get to meet Willow Rosenberg, souled vampire and the greatest theoretical witch of the twenty-first century. But as she knew from personal experience, merely theoretical witches had to take planes, trains, and automobiles like everyone else. She opened her eyes again and looked up at Spike. "I'll do it."
It took a second for the vampire to realize what she was offering. His dark brows drew together. "You sure you're up to that, pet? Taking over a spell mid-course is dicey business."
"I know." She clutched the scythe harder. It couldn't stop her belly from turning to ice, but there was something strangely warming in that unprompted pet. "But it's my spell. They made it from my notes. If anyone can stop it, or change it, it's me. And I have to do it now."
Spike held her eyes for a moment, measuring, and then nodded. Addie picked her way through the wreckage to stand in front of the shimmering column of power in the living room. Inside the circle Buffy sat statue-still, head tipped back and her eyes tight shut. Her mouth was half open, and the cords of her neck strained against the skin. Her aura had drawn in tightly around her body as Buffy held it – held herself – together by sheer force of will, a cloak of black and gold pulled tight against the storm. That couldn't last forever. Buffy's edges were unraveling, shriveling under the unrelenting light. Addie suppressed a whimper. If she were Willow Rosenberg, she'd know exactly what to do. Even as a vampire who couldn't connect to the living source of magic, Willow could famously create rituals on the fly, riffing on the Laws of Similarity and Contagion like a jazz master.
But Willow wasn't here, and she was. Addie studied the pattern of bones and crystals that anchored the circle, the symbols drawn in red chalk and black salt which connected them, the mix of sage and rosemary burning sulkily in the little smudge pot. Three candles surrounded the circle in an equilateral triangle, white, silver and purple. And last of all was the athame, the ritual dagger, its blade painted red to match the scythe, laid flat on the rug so that its point aimed inward at Buffy.
She couldn't just break the circle and stop the spell. She had to reverse it, and try to put back the Slayer essence it had already drained. Power wasn't a problem, with all the mystical might of the scythe to draw on. She just needed to figure out which spell components she needed to switch out, and how to do it without disrupting the spell. Addie dropped into a crouch, running through lists of materials and their properties in her head. "I need white chalk and a blue candle," she said. "There's one in the bag. And some mint, and a little mirror."
Candle, mint, and mirror appeared in record time. Licking dry lips, Addie took the chalk and began to sketch, adding a symbol here, altering one there. White over red, open wound healing to pale scar. She set the makeup mirror Vicki handed her behind the athame, and flipped the dagger so that the point faced outwards. Her reflection in the mirror was white and strained in the spell-light, her freckles standing out like pennies on marble. She used to think that if she hadn't been born a Slayer, she'd have wanted to be a witch, but no, hitting things was so, so much easier. She lit the blue candle with Spike's lighter and switched it out for the purple one, fast as Slayer reflexes could do it.
Something was happening; Buffy's eyes were open now, and tracking her movements. Stepping back, Addie held the scythe out in front of her. There was no time to work out the Latin, and her Latin sucked anyway. All the bones and candles and herbs were just window dressing in the end, a ritual scaffold for the power of the scythe. And the scythe was...
Alicia's. Addie hoped that wouldn't make a difference. She was a Slayer too.
"Okay," she said. "Here goes."
Powers of the Four Quarters, I beseech you
What you have sundered, reunite.
What you have parted, bring together,
What you have broken, make whole again.
The wild, ancient power of the scythe surged through her, and the radiant spears of light transfixing Buffy flickered and retreated. The oldest living Slayer gasped as the taut lines of her body went slack.
By the power I here hold,
By the Guardian's blade,
Let Slayer and woman be made one again,
Let the –
In the split second when everyone's attention was focused on Addie, Alicia wrenched herself free of Connie's hold and into a forward roll. With a wordless cry of triumph, she lashed out with one foot and hooked Toni behind the ankles. Connie and Spike were both upon her in an instant, but it was too late.
Toni stumbled, her dark eyes wide with terror as she realized that her fall was going to intersect the spell-circle, taking Nita with her. A Slayer or a vampire might have been able to twist themselves away in time, but Toni was only human. All she had time for was to thrust Nita towards Addie. A fresh coruscade of sparks arced from the scythe as Addie dropped it to catch the baby, and the magics spun up and out of her control. Toni was gone, swallowed up in pale flame.
Then someone fell into her lap, and the broken circle went up in flames around them, just as Alicia had threatened. Buffy clenched her teeth as icy blue fire engulfed them. She could stand this. Whatever Addie had done had changed things. The flames were less intense. If she could only hold on for a few minutes longer, if only someone would stop screaming. Oh, God, it was Toni. Toni didn't have a full Slayer's tolerance for pain, nor her capacity to heal, and Toni was burning alive, the rich peacock green of her aura scorching to a washed-out teal.
I'm sorry, Buffy held her daughter-in-law tight. I still can't think of any other way. She'd done it before, long ago, passing on power to those who needed it more than she. She had little to spare now, but this was a power made to be shared: the Shadow Men had told her it would live and grow inside her, but even they had had no idea exactly what that meant. Buffy reached down into the molten center of herself. God, she was so weak – was this all she had left? She felt Toni gasp and stiffen in her arms, not with pain this time, but wonder, as their auras merged and a questing tendril of ebony unfurled, seeking. This is my gift, Buffy said. If you take it, nothing will ever be the same.
There were no words, but Toni's dark eyes met hers, in a place beyond pain and fear. Do it.
Ebony tendrils crossed from gold to green, blossoming into moire patterns of jet, infinitely repeated eyes in the peacock's tail. Buffy moaned. It wasn't enough, it wasn't enough – she was still too weak to give Toni as much power as she'd need to survive this, and she was dangerously close to draining herself. Outside the circle, Addie was brandishing the scythe, shouting words lost in the roar of runaway magic. The scythe. Power incarnate in steel. The Guardian had offered it to her, once, and she'd refused it. Buffy had always assumed that meant that it would refuse her, too. But when the flash of Slayer intuition struck, it was to be followed. Without hesitation, Buffy reached through the curtain of fire and grabbed the haft of the scythe.
Bill was vamped out and struggling to get to his feet, obviously intending to jump into the maelstrom after his wife. "Don't mess with it!" Addie screamed. "You'll just make it worse!" Connie tightened the last of the industrial-strength pull-ties with which she was hog-tying Alicia, yanked her brother back down on his ass, and smashed a fist into his jaw, full-strength. Bill went out like a light.
"Vicki, take Nita outside! Alex, get Jess out of here!" Spike bellowed, and the two of them lost no time in hustling their younger relatives to the door. Addie wrestled the scythe back into the perpendicular, while the spell fought her like a living thing, eager to devour its prey. Her arms were trembling and her eyes burned, tears streaming down her face in the eldritch wind pouring off of the vortex. She could do this. She had to do this.
A hand emerged from the pillar of fire, fingers clawed and flailing. Buffy's hand. The fingers brushed the haft of the scythe and clamped on between Addie's. A jolt ran through Addie as energies realigned, just as they had when she changed the components – oh. Oh!
You chose material components for their symbolic value. Like produced like. Once part of something, always part of something. Those were the laws upon which ritual magic operated. It was why she'd chosen the scythe as the focus for this spell to begin with: nothing was more symbolic of Slayers than the weapon which had been forged for them in the dawn of time. But it worked both ways. Where the scythe was concerned, nothing was more symbolic than a Slayer.
Once upon a time, Buffy Summers had made the source of Slayer power a part of her, blood and bone. She'd given part of that power to Addie's grandmother, whoever she had been, and Addie's grandmother had passed it to Addie's mother, and Addie's mother to her. Just the way a vampire's demon buds from sire to get. Addie shook that not-so-reassuring thought aside. The point was, they were all connected, whether that connection was mystical or physical. Across the room, Connie's eyes widened, and in a heartbeat she was standing at Addie's side, her hand on the scythe-haft beside her mother's. Three generations of Slayers – four if you counted the tiny, sleeping ember of power in little Nita – and the power living and growing within all of them. .
The words rushed up from somewhere deep inside of her: Quatuor plagis potentiis exaudi me! Revertere ad requiem tuam, et relinquunt indivisum Propugnatrices! Her Latin was still terrible, but it was the will behind it that mattered now. The howl of the spell-wind fell in pitch, and the wild looping gyrations of the energies overhead calmed. The scythe flared with the sunny yellow of her own aura, Connie's blazing crimson, Buffy's ragged gold. Archipelagos of ebony flowed along the scythe-blade, meeting, mingling, pouring into the empty places where filigrees of gold were already expanding to knit them into place and repair the older's Slayer's tattered aura.
A second hand emerged from the circle, younger and darker than Buffy's, spell-burnt and shaky. Addie made room for it. She felt power pouring out of her in a great rush, through the scythe, into Buffy, into Toni – was this how Buffy had felt, all those years ago? She laughed, exultant. Now it was her turn to share. Overhead the energies of the spell-circle rippled and slowed, swirling downwards as they faded. She could see Toni's face now, the familiar expression of astonished joy as the Slayer power coursed through nerve and sinew for the first time. Could we do this for any Potential? Addie wondered, but there was no time to think about that now.
The last of the spell-fire dissipated. In the circle of chalk and bone, Buffy stood, half-supporting Toni, whose burns were already starting to heal. Connie staggered, her hand falling away from the scythe, which glimmered briefly with dark foxfire, and was still. Only wood and steel now. Dimly, Addie heard the clunk as if fell from her nerveless hands to the floor.
The last thing she remembered was Vicki's anxious face as Spike carried her upstairs.
In a perfect world, Buffy would have happily followed Addie into unconsciousness, to be awakened by breakfast (and an agreeable vampire) in bed, well after the adrenal blocker wore off. The world being imperfect, she followed Spike upstairs instead.
"Put her in Vicki's room," she directed. Slipping past him, she twitched the curtains closed so Spike could cross the bedroom unsinged. Outside she could hear sirens – Connie's backup, arriving at last. Well, Connie could deal with them. "I'll get her settled. You'd better get back to the airport and make sure La Chalmers and crew haven't gnawed their own legs off trying to escape."
Spike snorted. "If that lot gnawed their legs off they'd likely poison themselves." He laid Addie down on Vicki's bed with a grimace and straightened, rubbing his shoulder. He met Buffy's appraising look with one of his own, but whatever he saw in her eyes must have passed muster. She gave him a nod in return. His lips brushed the top of her head, and he was out the door and down the stairs.
Buffy sighed, ground the heels of her hands into her eyes, and set to work getting the unresponsive Slayer out of her grimy, bloodstained clothes and into a pair of Vicki's Vampy Cat pajamas. The owner of both bed and pajamas materialized in the doorway just as she was tucking Addie under the blankets. Buffy braced for objections, but Vicki, for a wonder, wasn't fretting about potential damage to her spotless white counterpane. She flung herself at her mother with a shriek of, "Mom! You're okay!"
Once your kids hit their teens, taking shameless advantage of life and death situations was your one sure source of PDAs. Buffy hugged her back, hard. "For creaky old lady values of okay. I'll be better once this shot they gave me wears off. Where's Jess?"
"Dad sent her out to the shed to find that old pair of crutches for Bill." Vicki glanced at Addie, lying pale and still beneath the sheets. "She'll be all right too, won't she?"
Well. This was something new. Vicki had never worn her heart on her sleeve, the way Bill did, nor committed herself fiercely to causes like Alex or Connie. She reminded Buffy of her pre-Slayer self at times, in a way that simultaneously charmed and dismayed her. Vicki was pretty and popular, and liked being so. She had friends aplenty, but her friendships weren't usually... deep. Not the sort of deep that provided a failsafe against the occasional urge to eat the people that annoyed you. This... this could be good. Or terrible. The alchemical mix of human and vampire could produce gold. Or a block-leveling explosion.
"I think so." Buffy smoothed an errant curl from her daughter's forehead. "Willow used to get like this sometimes, when she took on more magic than she could handle. She just needs to rest."
Vicki bit her thumb and gazed down at their guest, meditative – almost brooding. "Do you think the Watchers will still take her back to San Diego?"
"Probably, honey. It's where she lives. They're her legal guardians."
"I guess I should tell her goodbye, then," Vicki said with entirely unconvincing nonchalance. "When she wakes up."
Buffy's laugh was half groan. "Fine. Just be quiet, and don't let Jess rampage around up here when she gets back in." What time was it? God, not even two in the afternoon. She hadn't even got the turkey in the oven. Christmas dinner was going to be pig's blood and baloney sandwiches. She paused in the doorway. "And don't go all Edward Cullen and sit there watching her sleep."
Vicki flushed, to the minimal extent that any vampire could. "I wasn't going to – fine."
Leaving Addie to her sleep, and her middle daughter to hover in a not entirely un-Cullenish fashion, Buffy made her way down the hall, stopping off at the bathroom to splash water on her face. Her reflection looked back at her, exhausted and almost pale enough to pass as a vampire herself. Sometimes it was a surprise seeing the let's-call-it-mature Buffy that others saw, and not the fresh-faced girl who still existed somewhere in the back of her head. Today she noted the lines at the corners of her eyes, the slight loosening of her skin, with neither regret nor dismay. This was her face, every year of it. The eldest of four generations of Slayers.
Not a bad thing to be.
Self-acceptance, unfortunately, wasn't magically revitalizing. Every step down the stairs still felt as if she were trudging through wet concrete. In the living room, Toni was talking with great vigor to a pair of slightly shell-shocked police officers, while Bill hitched restlessly back and forth on the fabled crutches (souvenir of one of Dawn's college skiing trips). Even with vampire healing, it took a few days for tendons to re-knit.
Shoving weariness aside, Buffy planted her hands on her hips and the rest of her in her son's path. "Bill, stop that; you're tracking blood all over the carpet. Jess, sweetie, don't bother your brother when he's bleeding out. Did you see the carpet steamer while you were out in the shed? Well, go back and look for it, we're going to need it."
"It's okay," Bill said. "They already took pictures. It's not evidence any longer." But he seemed glad enough of the excuse to ease himself onto the sofa; he'd never been as good at I-laugh-in-the-face-of-major-organ-damage as Spike. He looked younger without his glasses, more vulnerable. Strange that it had always been the other way around with his father. In response to her unasked question, he added, "I'm fine. Or not fine, exactly, but... functional." His fingers clenched over his injured thigh. Today had been really hard on clothes. "It just hurts like a sonofabitch."
His head drooped, and his voice fell to an anguished whisper. "Oh, Mom, I screwed up. I screwed up so bad. I should have smelled that she was pregnant."
And there was the block-leveling explosion aspect. Buffy sat down beside him and covered his cool hand with her warm one. "Oh, Billy...it's not easy to tell, that early on. Or so your father tells me. I feel like I should have known somehow, too. But we couldn't have. We just have to... go on from here."
Bill didn't look particularly consoled. He might have been immune to human guilt in the strictest sense, but he'd definitely inherited her over-active sense of responsibility. They sat shoulder to shoulder while the officers took innumerable pictures of the wrecked living room and everyone's injuries. There were forms to fill out and interviews to conduct, and Buffy dutifully ticked every check box and answered every where were you on the night of. Sometimes she could sympathize with Lydia Chalmers' nostalgia for the bad old days, when they could have swept all this under the rug and exacted a more personal brand of justice.
But on the whole, Buffy thought as Connie finally bundled the sulky, uncooperative Alicia into a patrol car which would convey her to the special cell in Sunnydale's Second Precinct, a police department that could take rogue Slayers in stride was a win.
The DeSoto pulled in just as the police cars were pulling away. Spike eased out, still favoring his shoulder. A minute later Ms. Chalmers and Addie's Watcher emerged from the back seat, both looking a little green around the edges (a perfectly normal reaction after one's first ride with Spike). Ms. Thackeray broke away from her superior and all but ran up the front walk. She pushed her way past the ruined front door and looked around at the wreckage, frantic. "Where's Adele? Is she all right?"
"Upstairs," was all Buffy had time to say before Lydia Chalmers strode in with a sweeping, outraged gesture at the departing police cars.
"Don't tell me they've taken Alicia away!" the Head of the Council fumed. "Surely you realize that this isn't a matter for the courts!"
Toni looked up from tucking a fretful Nita into her carrier. Her dark eyes were anthracite-hard, and she straightened with a sharp exhalation, like the warning snort of a bull. "I warned her I'd press charges if she caused any more trouble. I realize she's a screwed-up kid. But she's dangerous, and I need to be absolutely certain she's not coming within a mile of my daughter again."
Squashing her urge to jump in wasn't easy, but this was Bill and Toni's fight. Buffy got up, gave Bill a shoulder-pat, and sidled over to Spike. "What happened to the other Slayers, and the Council ops?"
"Took half of 'em to hospital, and dropped the other half off a block away from that Council safe house on Jefferson they think we don't know about. Don't think they're an issue for now; they're a sad an' sorry lot at the moment." Spike bent down with a grunt and pulled the Christmas tree upright again. It wobbled, but stood. "And a good thing; I've got a foot and a half in the sad and sorry camp myself. Chalmers kept pestering me with questions 'bout how you survived the spell. Told her I was no magician, and hadn't a clue what happened, but she's going to suss it out sooner or later."
Damn. She'd hoped they could keep that development away from the Council for a bit longer, but Buffy supposed that had always been a pipe dream. Addie was too conscientious, and Alicia too vindictive, to keep it a secret for too long. She gave the tree a critical once-over. A little lopsided from the fall, but probably salvageable if they fluffed it up a little. The carpet underneath was soaked, though. Pity the water couldn't have spilled on the bloodstains. "Yeah. Let's just root for later."
Spike cocked his head at her. "You all right, pet? You look a bit peaky."
"I feel peaky. Whatever that is." For someone who'd lived in America for decades now... sometimes Buffy was convinced Spike scoured the internet for annoying British slang. At least he'd got over the cheeky Nandos phase. "Half of it's just that stupid adrenal blocker. I always forget how sucky it is to feel like a normal person."
She leaned into his side with a sigh, and felt him lean back; even odds as to which of them was holding the other up. Once upon a time, they'd have been frantic to sneak off for victory sex about now. At the moment, a victory nap sounded more attractive. Though possibly after the victory nap, a victory bath with accompanying victory backrubs were in order. But first....
With icy composure, Ms. Chalmers was saying, "Rest assured, the girls who participated in this... debacle will be monitored very closely. They will also be receiving regular doses of adrenal blocker until we determine that they are no longer a threat to the Council's authority."
"That's great, but I'm not all that impressed with your monitoring so far," said Bill. He'd struggled to his feet again, and stood swaying but determined. "There's another thing. I can't force Alicia to acknowledge me as her father. But I can't just forget she's my daughter, either. I want her to know that having me in her life is an option."
"You're asking for... visitation rights?" Ms. Chalmers' pitch and eyebrows both rose ceiling-wards. "I can't possibly agree to that, if for no other reason than to honor her mother's wishes. Kerry Alford's liaison with you was unwise to say the least, and she made it quite clear that she wanted her daughter kept away from your...destabilizing influence."
"I'm sure Kerry had her reasons." The slight lisp in her son's voice told Buffy that he'd sprouted fangs, and she edged around the Christmas tree to get a better view of the argument. "But I can't see that keeping Alicia from knowing me has done anything but mess up her head."
Ms. Chalmers at least had the grace to look troubled. "Kerry did what she thought best for her daughter. Take a look in the mirror, young man. No – you can't, can you? At this late date, Alicia will never see you as anything other than what you are: a demon. The very thing she was born to slay. If I were you, I would do my best to forget about her. It would be advantageous for both of you."
Bill's growl turned into an exasperated huff, and he shook off his game face. "You're not me." The stubborn he got from both sides of the family. He shot a covert glance at Toni, who hesitated for a moment, then gave him a reluctant nod. "Here's the deal. We won't press charges, if and only if you give your word that you'll let Alicia know that if she ever wants to meet me, text me, phone me, whatever -- I'll be there."
For a long moment Ms. Chalmers wavered, visibly weighing the inconvenience and expense of a trial and probable conviction against the inconvenience of a vampire with a legal existence entangling himself with Council affairs. At last her mouth clamped tight, acknowledgment without approval. "Very well. We can work out the details later."
Her phone chirped, and she answered with a tch of annoyance. "I'm rather busy at the – nothing? Have you tried another airline? Yes, I realize it's the holidays. All right, if that's the best that can be done..." She slipped the phone back into her bag with an expression that on anyone else would have seemed impassive. "The next available flight to San Diego is tomorrow evening. Where has Honoria got to? It appears I must go downtown to see to Alicia's release, and we need to take Adele back to our, er, hotel." Spike probably heard Vicki's small, disappointed noise from the stair, but Buffy wasn't sure anyone else did. Lydia extended an imperious hand. "The Scythe, if you please. The Guardian did entrust it to our care."
The most powerful Slayer weapon of the age was leaning against the arm of the couch, its blade still crusted with Bill's blood. Buffy felt a momentary pang; she hated to see a beautiful weapon treated badly. Although this particular beautiful weapon had caused so much trouble, part of her hoped it would rust. "What are you going to do with it? I'm assuming Alicia's lost her all-access pass."
Ms. Chalmers looked, for a moment, every bit as tired as Buffy felt. "When the Guardian offered us the use of the Scythe in exchange for sanctuary in her final years, I felt that the risk was an acceptable trade-off in order to gain access to an artifact of such power. I'm no longer certain that was the correct course of action. And yet..."
"You can't just stick it back in a stone again." Buffy walked over to the couch and picked the scythe up. The balance was perfect, the weight likewise, as if it had been custom-made for her. It was like that with every Slayer, she knew; part of the thing's intrinsic magic. The power in it sang to her, but like any siren song, it only led to destruction. "Too many people know it exists now. You either use it, or lose it."
"I suppose you're generously offering to take it off our hands?"
Buffy laughed. "If I'd wanted it, I'd have taken it thirty years ago." Chalmers looked nonplussed at the amusement in her voice. "It's your problem. But it seems to me that the solution's right under your nose. Or up the stairs."
Chalmers gave her a frosty nod. "I'll take the matter under advisement. And now, if you'll excuse me – "
"Lydia, wait." Buffy extended the scythe, haft-first. "I'm guessing this wasn't how any of you expected to spend your Christmas. It sure wasn't how I expected to spend mine. Tomorrow's Boxing Day, and I've got a thirty-pound turkey that isn't going to eat itself. If any of you want to carpe the weird British holidiem, you're invited. Dinner's at two. And since Addie's out cold, we'd be happy to let her spend the night here. "
She didn't really expect a yes. The Head of the Council gave her a curious look, wondering, perhaps, what her nefarious secret plan was.. "That is... extremely gracious of you under the circumstances," Lydia Chalmers said at last, guarded. "I would not have expected you to turn the other cheek quite so far."
The oldest living Slayer's grin grew downright impish. "Not saying I can change hearts and minds with the power of green bean casserole, but hey, the last mortal enemy I invited to a turkey dinner did end up marrying me, so. Worth a shot."
Addie woke up feeling as if a giant had picked her up and wrung her out like a washcloth. She could smell something incredible cooking – turkey? Her stomach growled. She rolled over, squinting. A knife's edge of light sliced through the blackout curtains at the window, illuminating the band posters on the opposite wall, and a pair of big blue eyes staring straight into hers.
"Moooooooooom!" Jessica Summers-Pratt trampolined off the bed and raced out into the hall. "She's awake!"
Vicki's room. Vicki's bed. Addie looked down at herself. She was wearing pajamas adorned with sharp-fanged, creepy-cute cats. She ran a hand over the soft flannel. Once, when she was younger, she'd asked for a Vampy Cat backpack for Christmas and gotten socks, a rattan practice sword, and a lecture on the dangers of normalizing demonic influence. It only stood to reason that an evil vampire would have evil pajamas. Even if they were really cute evil pajamas.
No normalizing, Addie told herself sternly. She struggled out from under the blanket, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and sat there waiting for her head to stop spinning. Even easing off the bed as carefully as she knew how, her knees wobbled and gave out on her almost as soon as her feet touched the floor, and not even Slayer reflexes could save her from falling flat on her butt.
Buffy Summers-Pratt stood in the doorway, kerchief around her head and apron around her waist. Her nose was smudged with flour, and she had a pile of folded clothes tucked into the crook of one arm. Addie scrambled to her feet. "Where's Alicia?" she asked. "How long have I been asleep?!"
"She's safe," Buffy said. "Not happy, but safe. And since yesterday. I gave Willow a call last night, and she said that was pretty normal after something like you did." The older Slayer shook her head. "She was impressed, by the way. And also said to tell you to never, ever do that again."
I impressed Willow Rosenberg? Addie swallowed. "That sounds good to me."
"Unfortunately," Buffy went on, "Lydia Chalmers is also impressed. Even if she's not quite sure what it was you did yet." She regarded Addie gravely. "The Council is going to be very, very interested. Even more interested than they were in your original spell."
Addie rubbed her forehead. She'd done the exact opposite of what she'd set out to do. Instead of finding a way to safely de-power a Slayer, she'd discovered a way to make more of them. Right now the number of Slayers was limited by the unyielding constraints of biology: A Slayer could only donate so many eggs to the breeding program, so fast, and children only grew so quickly. The need for Slayers in the field was in constant conflict with ensuring the existence of the next generation. But before the change, there had been thousands of Potentials – and oh, gods, Toni was a grown-up. Make that tens of thousands, if you counted all the ones who'd aged out of their Calling years.
Ms. Thackeray's worried face flashed before her, and part of her wanted to protest that no, the Watchers wouldn't do that. They couldn't do that. They still had no idea whether her idea about Slayer souls was right or not. But she couldn't get the words out. Tens of thousands of trainable Potentials, ranging from teens to old – uh, women Buffy's age. How many of them would jump at a second chance for power, regardless of the cost? Or push their children to take it? Of course the Council would be interested. Addie sat down on the edge of the bed, a queasy knot tightening in her belly as the implications spun out of control in her brain.
But she couldn't have just let Buffy and Toni die, could she? Looking back, she couldn't see what else she could have done. Was this how Buffy Summers had come to doom them all (maybe) to Hell? No grand, arrogant fall from grace. Just the moment-to-moment scramble to do the right thing.
"All of this is my fault," Addie said miserably.
A lot of grown-ups would have rushed to reassure her that it wasn't, but Buffy just sighed. "Some of it, maybe. I think there's more than enough blame to go around." She laid the clothes down on the foot of the bed, sat down beside Addie, took her hand and squeezed. "I can't order you not to tell Lydia about this. She'll find out sooner or later anyway." Her expression was serious in the dim light. "Just think hard about what you tell her, and when."
Addie bit her lip and nodded. After a moment, she said, "Things... don't always turn out the way you expect them to."
Buffy's smile was small and rueful. "No, they don't. When I was Alicia's age, more than anything else, I wanted my life to be normal. When I got a little older, I realized that I just wanted it to be mine. I wanted so badly to give all of you that same choice, and I hate that by doing it, I may have taken another choice away from you." She turned to look at the window, squinting at the line of bright, pale December sun, filtering through the oak leaves. Almost to herself, she said, "All we can do is what seems right, right now." She straightened and patted the stack of clothing. "I've got to get back downstairs, or Spike will steal all the liver bites. Go ahead and get dressed. Your Watcher brought you a change of clothes. Dinner's in an hour or so."
A little reluctantly, Addie pulled off the cute (but evil) pajamas, and dressed herself in the utilitarian workout clothes Ms. Thackeray had provided. Amidst all the grey cotton, there was a bright green and totally non-regulation scrunchy for her hair. If she asked, Addie knew her Watcher would just blink vaguely behind her glasses. It made her smile anyway. The comb and toothbrush she'd used the other day were still in the bathroom, so Addie made use of them before heading downstairs.
Voices, along with a loud banging noise, became audible as Addie reached the head of the stairs. The banging was Spike, hammering a sheet of plywood across the broken-down front door. Buffy, Toni and Alex were engaged in various arcane rituals in the kitchen, while in the dining room, Connie and a tall, dark-haired man with a bemused look and a distinct frisson of vampire were setting out plates and silverware. In the living room the Christmas tree was upright again, though a little the worse for wear, and Vicki, Jess, and Bill were re-hanging the surviving ornaments on the branches. The crimson stain in the middle of the rug had been reduced to a faint pinkish-brown smudge.
"Adele!" A scarf-swathed bundle appeared like a summoned genie at the foot of the stairs, and resolved into her Watcher, fumbling one-handed with her glasses. Ms. Thackeray's arm was in a sling, but she trotted up the steps and enveloped Addie in a one-armed, patchouli-scented hug. Her wrists still sported circlets of scrapes and bruises from being tied; it was a guilt-inducing jolt to remember that for a regular human, it might take a week or even two for those marks to heal. "Oh, my dear, I am so relieved that you're all right!"
Addie hugged back, overwhelmed with relief and affection. Maybe if Alicia had had a regular Watcher, instead of always being a special pupil of Ms. Chalmers... it wasn't like the Head of the Council had time to bond. "Are you okay? Did – "
"Adele, come here at once. I don't care to shout."
It was Ms. Chalmers. She sat stiff and straight in the very center of the Summers-Pratt's couch, so that it seemed like a throne. The scythe was propped up against the arm beside her. It gleamed a menacing and vaguely Christmas-y red in the light of the tree. The Head of the Council raised one imperious hand and beckoned; Ms. Thackeray gave Addie a look both apologetic and reproving, and fell away.
The Summers-Pratt's living room felt miles across, and although Addie was standing, she felt terribly small by the time she reached the couch. From the cover of the Christmas tree, Vicki was watching, blue eyes wide, white teeth indenting her pale pink lip, and that, if nothing else, made Addie stand straighter and square her shoulders. This was it. She was going to be dishonorably discharged, or cashiered, or something. There were always rumors about what happened to Slayers gone rogue. Stories of raving, vicious girls confined in dank, dark cells or musty attics, hidden away somewhere beneath Council Headquarters in London, or hunted down by their own sisters like the demons they'd allowed themselves to become. Addie snuck a look at Buffy, who gave her a small, encouraging smile from the archway. She'd met real live rogue Slayers now, and it wasn't like that.
The Head of the Watcher's Council studied her for a long moment, lips pursed, eyes implacable. "Adele McElroy. You acted with decisiveness and courage yesterday morning. You saved at least two lives, possibly more, and your actions may have prevented more devastation than any of us know. I am perfectly cognizant of how much we owe you. At the same time, it was through your willful disregard of the rules that this situation arose." Chalmers picked up the scythe and laid it across her lap; the candy-apple red blade looked distinctly out of place on her heather tweed pencil skirt. "We return to San Diego tonight. You, Alicia, and all the girls who supported her will report to Doctor Braden-Thomas as soon as we return to the creche, where you will undergo an immediate psychological evaluation. You will be confined to the grounds of the creche until we're confident that nothing like this will happen again. In addition, your allowances will be docked until you have paid for the damage done to the airport, and to the Summers-Pratt's home. Do you understand?"
Addie nodded shamefacedly. "Yes, ma'am." She looked up. "Trudy's all right, then? And Alicia? And – and those men? The ones who got shot?" A week ago she couldn't have imagined quizzing the head of the Council, and she didn't feel too good about it now, but she had to know.
Ms. Chalmers didn't look entirely displeased at the question. "Gertruda is in intensive care at Sunnydale General Hospital. She's expected to make a full recovery. As are the other operatives who were wounded, though in their case it will take considerably longer." Addie let out a shaky breath as Ms. Chalmers went on, "Alicia currently occupies a cell in the Sunnydale Municipal Jail. Mrs. Summers-Pratt's oldest daughter assures me that the jail, and the police force, are capable of handling a Slayer. Regardless, she's been given a dose of the adrenal blocker as a safeguard. As have you."
"Oh." Was that why she felt so weak? "I thought I felt like this because of the spell."
"You do. You overstrained your magical capabilities considerably. Obviously we will have to enrol you in accelerated magical theory classes at once – " At Addie's gasp of delight Chalmers raised a quelling hand and added, "This presumes that Doctor Braden-Thomas authorizes it, of course. Slayer-witches are quite valuable, and without the proper training, quite dangerous. Do not imagine this will give you more latitude than you've enjoyed in the past. Less, if anything."
"Yes, ma'am," Addie whispered, her head whirling. If she were allowed to take the advanced magic courses – could she maybe fix the spell someday, so it work the way she'd hoped it would? Even if that was possible, would the Watchers really let her do it?
"One final question, Adele. From all we've been able to determine about the structure of that spell, the younger Mrs. Summers-Pratt should have died. And yet she seems to be unharmed. Remarkably so. Are you able to replicate what you did to save her?"
"Uh." Addie felt the pit of unintended consequences yawning beneath her. Should she tell Ms. Chalmers? Toni had wanted the power, but what about the ones like Alicia, the ones who didn't? She was no longer certain that she'd give up her own power, not when she could do good with it here and now. But would Lauren or Trudy, who'd seen the Cleveland Hellmouth from the inside, feel the same way? And was having a demon's power alone really enough to condemn you? Surely it mattered what you did with it? "I – I don't know. I was just kind of... making it up as I went along."
Ms. Chalmers watched her closely for a moment, and sighed. "Disappointing. But perhaps not unexpected. If you do remember, Adele, you must come to me at once. It could be quite important. Please consider the problem when you're able to take up your studies once more."
"Canapes?" Buffy materialized beside the coffee table, brandishing a tray of cheese and olives beneath Ms. Chalmers' nose. Rogue Slayer to the rescue, once again. "Dinner's almost ready; we'll eat as soon as Alex's girlfriend gets here." She gave Ms. Chalmers a doubtful look. "Uh... the smell of pig's blood doesn't make you queasy, does it?"
Several hours later, presents had been opened, crackers had been popped, and turkey had been devoured. Buffy was curled up on the couch with Spike, and Jess had fallen asleep with her head in her father's lap, making a strange soft rusty sound. Ms. Chalmers had already left, to see to getting the rest of the Council forces to the airport. Ms. Thackeray perched nervously on the edge of her chair, observing Bill flipping in and out of game face to amuse his daughter, and Alex maneuvering his sort-of-girlfriend Evie under the mistletoe. Connie and the dark-haired man (Sam Lawson, who was something to do with the Initiative) were out on the porch.
"Probably making out," Vicki said with a sniff. She applied another coat of Christmas polish to Addie's nails. "They're always sooooo extra. She was so mad at him when he drank that Mohra blood, she didn't speak to him for a month. I wouldn't make myself mortal just for Connie, that's for sure."
"You're already mortal," Addie pointed out.
"But if I wasn't. Hold still. See, you paint a stripe down the middle first..."
"You have... quite a lot of vampires in the family, Mrs. Summers-Pratt," said Ms. Thackeray, holding her glass of pinot noir in front of her as if it were a cross.
"They do seem to have accumulated over the years," Buffy allowed, taking a healthy sip from her own glass.
"Heavens, look at the time." Ms. Thackeray's good hand dove into her multitude of scarves and whipped out an old-fashioned pocket watch. "Adele, we had best be on our way to the airport."
"Right now?" Addie protested. "Can't we wait till my nails dry?"
"Unfortunately not. You know what airport security is like these days. Now, say good bye to your, er, little chum – "
Addie turned an apologetic look on Vicki, who looked stricken, and whispered, half to herself, "Oh, I knew I should have changed! I look grotesque!"
Considering that Vicki's complexion was flawless, her curls smooth and bouncy, and her skirt and sweater set perfectly coordinated, Addie really wanted to ask her how she defined grotesque. Vicki didn't give her the chance. "Wait here!" she said furiously, and dashed for the stairs at vampire speed, narrowly avoiding trampling her brother underfoot.
Spike grinned and sing-songed, "Too late, Watcher. Some-one's got a pash."
Ms. Thackeray, now fluttering nervously at Addie's shoulder, adjusted her glasses. "Oh, dear," she muttered. "Oh, dear."
Adults were so stupid. No one had anything, Addie thought crossly. And it wouldn't matter even if they did, because soon she'd be back in San Diego with a million years of detention, and Vicki would be here in Sunnydale, with her stupid sweater sets and her stupid Carlos-perfect hair. A moment later Vicki reappeared, the faintest possible wash of pink mantling her fair cheeks as she handed Addie a small, flat, hastily-wrapped package.
"I just wanted to say thank you," she said. "For saving Mom and Toni."
Vampires might not be able to blush, but freckle-faced Slayers sure did. Addie squirmed, but took the present. "You're welcome. But I couldn't have done anything if you hadn't untied me. That – that was really was brave of you." She peeled back a corner of the wrapping. "It's a book? Pippi Longstocking?"
"Yeah. Sorry it's kind of old and beat up, but it was my favorite when I was little, and it, uh, reminded me of you." Vicki couldn't go pinker, so she settled for examining her newly-laquered nails for flaws. "When I was a kid I always thought she must have been a Slayer."
Ms. Thackeray was steering her determinedly towards the kitchen door, but Addie called back over her shoulder, "I've still got your number. So, uh... thanks. For the book. And for not eating Lauren." She grinned. "Because then I'd have to kill you."
Vicki sniffed again, but her cheeks went the tiniest bit pinker after all, and before the door closed, she smiled the tiniest possible smile. "Well. You could try."