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Andrew's plan for the following Saturday consisted of American barbecue and a game of one-sided soccer. Kennedy suggested they use her recipe for Thai barbecue, which Andrew insisted was right out since Thai was not American. Kennedy then called him a narrow-minded hypocritical racist man-swine. Thus, Andrew caved, and Dawn called him a spineless weenie-head.

The compromise for Kennedy's Thai barbecue ribs was Buffy and Dawn's contribution of the famous Joyce Summers' summer potato salad. Xander constructed a national park style picnic table for the flagstone patio. Willow was in charge of party favors, ambient lighting and lemonade.

Giles bowed out of the preparations. He assented to attend the event, mainly because he was still trying to smooth things over with Buffy after trying to have her boyfriend bodily removed from this plane of existence. Again.

And so, on the evening of the big shindig, Giles wandered down from his suite just before twilight to prepare a cup of tea. He had been sequestered for most of the day, preparing for the next day's research trip to Amesbury with Andrew and Dawn. As he loitered in the kitchen feeling dreadful, unfamiliar sounds met his ears. He dropped a teabag into his cup and followed the noise into the garden. What he saw when he arrived was enough to humble his Watcher's heart.

They were laughing. And having fun. Giles stood there, quite flummoxed, teacup held aloft as he observed them. Andrew had crafted a makeshift soccer net out of clothesline and bed sheets. He played the part of impartial goalie for both teams, which consisted of Buffy and Spike versus Kennedy and Dawn. Giles had no idea what team was winning, but they were without doubt the source of the calamitous commotion. Kennedy barked commands at Dawn. Andrew, clad in padding more suitable for a hockey match, whined an almost constant, "Hey batter-batter-batter. Swing!"

While Giles watched, Dawn zipped past Buffy, setting up to score. Spike grabbed her by the waist, spinning her off course.

"Spike!" she shouted, laughing. "Stop that. There's no tackling in soccer!"

"Soccer, is it?" he said, tongue in cheek. "Here I thought you said football."

"Cheater pants!" Andrew cried out, "Cheater pants! Cheater pants!"

Spike released Dawn. He gave her a pat on the head. She shoved him, but in a good-natured you're-like-an-older-brother-and-one-day-I'll-have-my-revenge kind of way. Buffy came up beside him and they high-fived. Kennedy stuck out her tongue, then left the playing field for quick rendezvous with Willow over a glass of lemonade. Xander reclined in a lounge chair with a copy of the Guardian and pretended not to watch.

Giles returned his attention to the game, only to witness more snogging. He grimaced at first to see William bend to kiss Buffy right there, in front of everyone. But Giles noticed two things worth noticing. The first was the way Buffy's eyes closed. He saw a distinct lack of tension in her face. And the second was that no one else seemed to take note of their kissing. Not even Xander, who had previously made an art of flinging zingers in the face of Spike any time they occupied the same living space.

A thought occurred to Giles as he took in the scene. It seemed, in that scant sun-splashed space of time, that his plans had been successful. The Flat, the School, rebuilding the Watcher's Council on his own – all of it had been a good strategy. Perhaps his most capital plan ever. From where he stood, this group of people whom he had been fortunate enough to gather (plus others who simply would not go away), could overcome anything. And, perhaps, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, they could once more save the world and survive the next apocalypse.

Kennedy returned to the playing field and the game resumed. Giles felt himself venturing a small yet hopeful smile. Nothing was impossible, so long as they held fast to each other. Yes. He was sure of it. Everything would be all right...

Just then, the soccer ball collided with his head. His glasses flew askew. Scalding tea splashed his shirtfront.

Giles cursed and spluttered. He could hear Willow's sharp intake of breath. Giles suspected Andrew first, Spike second.

But no, once he had adjusted his glasses he saw that Dawn had Andrew pinned in a headlock. He was trying to pry himself free like a cat attempting to wriggle from its collar. Dawn clamped her hand over her mouth.

"Sorry!" she said, through her fingers.

Giles sighed.

"The world is definitely doomed," he muttered and went back inside to change.

@*@*@

Morna, dressed in white linen starched stiff, ran through the loft, dragging her toy along behind her like a reluctant dog on a long leash. Thellian and Lalaine could hear her, tromping from room to room in her mute yet earnest style of exploration.

Lalaine's lips peeled from her teeth in an expansive grin.

"She will know every centimeter of this place by morning," she said.

"That's our girl," Thellian answered. He studied the spread of city lights beyond the broad picture window. The traffic streaked through the streets, all of it frenzied. All so pointless. Running about like blood in veins, oblivious to everything beyond their own heart and clutch of arteries.

Lalaine lifted her long form from the lounge chaise. Her thinness of limb often produced a dizzying effect on people. To exploit this fact, she dressed herself in skirts that fluttered past ankle's length and tailored blouses with odd asymmetrical closures. After all these years, she had never cut her rich auburn hair, which flowed like rivulets of ringlets to her waist. Most could not resist the desire to touch it. Most lost fingers if they did.

She drifted to stand beside Thellian.

"You are thinking of Angel," she said. She traced her fingernail down the back of his arm. It rasped over the ash-colored silk of his Italian suit.

"No," Thellian said. His focus lingered on the streets below.

"Not Angel?" Lalaine purred. She moved behind him, dragging a smooth bare arm across his shoulders. She nipped at his ear. "What then?" she whispered.

Thellian grinned. He said, "Ah, look at all the lonely people."

Lalaine pressed her temple to his. "We have plans for them," she said.

Thellian turned to Lalaine. She craned her neck, exposing to him the blue veins that lay beneath her bloodless skin. He pushed the mass of her hair from her shoulders. It whispered like wind in aspen trees. Thellian took a moment to appreciate the exquisite cut of her shoulder blade jutting from black satin. No man knew perfection such as this. No work of God or man compared in its grace.

Thellian dipped fangs into flesh. He drank from her, tasted her. She grasped his hand, bit into the fat of his thumb and drew him in. Thellian closed his eyes, but parted from her. He preferred to watch her feed. She remained ever his fervent girl, one of insatiable appetites. He pulled his hand through her hair, knotting his fist at the nape. When Lalaine released him, she licked his blood from her lips.

"Here," Thellian said, turning again to face the window. "Italy is behind us. All of this awaits," he said, sweeping his arm in a grand gesture. "Luxe will find Angel. When he does, Angel will find us. Until then, let us make this city ours again. Shall we?"

Morna pounded down the stairs, slapping her bare feet on each wooden step. Arm in arm, Lalaine and Thellian greeted her. The bony girl dived at them, one arm flailing wildly, the other still clinging to her latest, most cherished possession – her toy.

Lalaine caught her sister before the gangly girl could tumble face first into the window. Between them, they heaved Morna to her feet.

"Look out there," Lalaine said, in the whisper-tone of a nurse speaking to a near-despondent patient. "See them all, scurry scurry. What do you think? Huh? Think we can have some fun here?"

Morna raised her filthy fingers to scratch her nose. The toy's hair raveled around her hand and wrist in a foul tangle. Lalaine lifted Morna's arm by the elbow. She clucked her tongue.

"This one's got all dirty," Lalaine said. The toy dangled, bobbing slowly to reveal its staring, milky eyes, but Morna pulled it back. She cradled the head, twisting its face to hers.

"It is old," Thellian told Morna, trying to soothe her. "We can get you a new one."

Morna slumped. Lalaine waited a few moments, then began the prudent process of removing Morna's beloved toy.

"She's attached to this one," Lalaine explained to Thellian.

"Of course she is," Thellian said.

"She brought it all the way from Rome..."

Thellian dismissed it with a wave. "Now, now. We will get another one," he said, indulgently. "Tonight if she wishes it."

Lalaine bent to Morna's eye level. "Would you like that?" she asked.

Morna remained still. Lalaine continued to work the grubby strands free from her sister's hand, tearing at them roughly when necessary. When she wrung the last lock free, the head fell with a dull clunk to the thin sea grass mat that covered the loft's expensive green marble tile. Morna jostled her stiff skirts with her fists. She pressed her hands to the glass, then pointed outside, showing Lalaine. Out. She wanted to go out.

"Yes," Lalaine said. "It is that time. Is it not?"

Thellian's face parted in a satisfied smile. "It is," he said.

"Come," Lalaine said, taking Morna by the hand. She led the younger girl back upstairs to find her shoes.

Thellian, alone now, continued to survey the sparkling London skyline – Big Ben, London Bridge, the Eye – all of it spread out for him like jewels on an azure drop cloth. Much had changed in London since their last visit. But the important things always remained the same.

He glanced down at the severed head staring blankly at him from the floor. Thellian toed it with the tip of his Bruno Maglis. It wobbled, its gray lips frozen in a grimace of slack horror. In days it would soften and putrefy, the way humans did when they died.

Thellian kicked the head under the coffee table. He would have Felix dispose of it before Morna saw it and latched on again. In the meantime, he wanted to take in the town with his girls. What wondrous plans they had, he thought.

It was good to be home.

@*@*@

When Angel last stood on the Tower Bridge, the city relied on gaslights for illumination. The air in that time felt gritty with soot from coal smoke spewed from ten thousand chimneys. A mass murderer prowled the streets of Whitechapel in search of bonny lasses gone astray. Tuberculosis killed people in droves, and the poor huddled cold and derelict in putrid alleys, ripe for the picking. Angel had yet to receive his cursed soul, so the afflicted city of London lay like a bruised whore at his feet. And how Angel loved his darkly nurturing mistress then...

Angel watched the swirling turgid water far below. No telling what filthed the Thames these days. Humans added a plentitude of poisons to the list of things dumped daily into their rivers. Pesticides. Petrol. Sewerage. Industrial waste. From his perch on the bridge, though, the water looked much as it had a century earlier. The difference now was the dalliance of multicolored lights that danced on the river's surface. Like birthday candles on a train wreck, he thought. Festive.

All right, so he was bad moody. His ego had taken some fairly startling knocks. Losing Buffy to Spike... well, that painful barb nettled its way deep into his parched and useless husk of a heart. To compound things, he was still in hiding after his suicide maneuver to take down the Circle of the Black Thorn. Angel had nowhere to go (while Spike enjoyed a nice warm bed in the nice warm arms of Buffy).

Oh, and the best part: the injuries he sustained in the battle plus a few subsequent wounds, yeah, these had resisted Willow's treatment. By subsequent wounds, he meant those caused by the dagger that lay like a weight against his chest. Angel drew the D'Ganti Blade from the breast pocket of his coat. By appearances, the blade was a tarnished hunk of pocked and rusted rubble from an excavation site. Its snub-nosed blade bore an irregularly serrated edge. Scraggly, almost amateur-looking symbols scrolled its length. It looked crude and ugly, but Angel knew first-hand its effectiveness. A crew of Scottish vampires bent on taking out the Slayer had turned the blade on him. That one small knife-wound in the back – seemingly inconsequential – was draining the life from him drop by drop.

"If you throw it in, who knows what horrendous fiends might conjure it back," Connor said, from several yards away.

Angel turned to look at his son, dressed in jeans and I Heart New York T-shirt, with an oversized tweed coat pulled over it. Connor gave Angel a forced smile. He came a few feet closer.

"Maybe some demonic crocodile with a clock lodged in his gullet will swallow it," Connor continued. "Or a demonic great blue whale with an Italian toy maker trapped in--"

"I'm not going to throw it in," Angel interrupted.

Connor came to stand by Angel. He rested his elbows on the guardrail, then leaned over to take a look at the river. They stood silent for a moment, drinking in the busy sounds of the street. Tourists and students ambled across the bridge, enjoying the autumnal nip to the evening air. Angel, historically unmoved by the change of the seasons, turned the dagger thoughtfully between his hands.

"It was forged to kill the Slayer," Connor said.

Irritated, Angel murmured, "I know that."

"So maybe you should give it to her."

"Certain elements in her house I just don't trust."

"Dad..." Connor said.

Angel turned on him. "Look, Connor. My thanks to you for finding it, but I'm of the mind that the safest place for a cursed blade is right here. With me."

His tone had been sharper than he had intended. Connor had almost winced, but kept his cool. However, for Angel, the bitterness in his own words unsettled him. He had not intended to be so forceful. Connor, after all, was his one remaining ally.

"I'm... I apologize, Connor," Angel said.

"Don't do that, Dad," Connor said, shrugging. "You don't need to say sorry. I have been right here with you. I've seen."

Angel felt no better, but patted his son on the shoulder anyway.

The pair watched the water again, but soon Connor turned his gaze to the horizon.

"I could take it with me," Connor said, carefully feeling his way with his words. "Back to LA."

Angel smiled for the first time all night. "You're going back?"

"Yes, sir," Connor said. He laughed. "Sure. I mean, I figure I can ease back in just in time to fail my midterms."

"Nah. You won't. You'll be fine," Angel said.

"See to that, all right?" Connor said. He leaned against the damp stone column of the bridge and folded his arms. "You could come back, too."

"What? No. Hunted, remember?" Angel said. "And the last few weeks notwithstanding, I'm not in the whole 'saving the world' business to place you in danger. Kinda runs counter to my mission statement."

"Got it," Connor said, inclining his head. "Thought it might be worth a shot."

Angel shrugged. He palmed the hilt of the dagger. Feeling its icy weight in his hand sent waves of dread through his body. Angel could feel its curse. Could almost taste its hunger. A demon blade forged to kill the Slayer... They were lucky to happen upon it when they did. And Angel could not chance it falling into an enemy's hands.

"I'll just hang onto this," Angel said. He tucked the blade back into his pocket. "Safekeeping."

Connor nodded. "Where will you go?" he asked.

Angel turned to lean on the rail, his posture mirroring his son's. He watched the red lorry busses trundling their double decker loads of passengers across the bridge's thoroughfare. Beyond the bridge, he saw Westminster Abbey and the Parliament buildings lighted up like golden display cases. This had been his home once, long ago. It wasn't so bad a place, as places go. So what if Spike was here. Angel was not the type to surrender lightly...

The image of them in the garden came unbidden to his mind. He saw again how she laced her fingers with his, how her head fit against his shoulder, like pieces of a puzzle finally put into proper place. Angel ground his teeth. The mark of the Circle on his chest seemed to writhe. When he clutched at it, Connor caught him.

"Dad," he said, keeping an even tone. "You should leave here. You don't have to go back to Los Angeles, but, you know, go find Nina and lie on that nice sandy beach with her. You qualify for down time."

Angel laughed, bitterly. "Nah. Beaches aren't really my thing. All that sun," he said. He titled his head back to take in the muted gray sky. He pasted on a stiff smile. To Connor, it too closely resembled his demonic side.

"Besides," Angel went on. "I like it here. London is my kind of town."

@*@*@

The village of Santa Esperanza was in flames. Above it, on the ridge overlooking the canopy, the blackened husks of the mission's outbuildings stood out in stark contrast to its whitewashed chapel, which remained unscathed.

The Priestess left the huddle of burning huts ablaze, knowing that the rain would wash them out, just like the Itsy Bitsy Spider. Her work here was done. She looped her arm around the shoulder of a brown-skinned adolescent boy who walked beside her. She called him Pepito, just because. She had to call him something, didn't she? He was such a sweetie-bear, after all.

Blood ran down from his neck in twin trickles from the wound she had made. She wiped it away with her fingertip, then painted it onto her lips. The boy bowed his head, reverently. She tilted it back up, clicking her tongue softly.

"No need for that, Pepito. You're mine, now. Part of us," she sang. "Village, too. All mine."

He didn't speak English, so words were meaningless. He knew he was not alone. He was part of something, just as she was. Part of something grand and beautiful. Like an amusement park with a carousel and cotton candy and unicorns. And she was so loving her job these days.

She pointed to the church with its steeple jutting skyward through the trees.

"The others are waiting there," she whispered. "You can go join them now."

He gazed up at her with an expression of naked adoration. That was yet another perk, this complete gaga attitude from the ones she turned. Men and women. What a freakin' rush. So what if her hair had gone black in the transformation. She had always been a summer coloring, and the raven mane had taken some getting used to. Really, though. None of that mattered now. What mattered was blood. His blood. Her blood. It was all the same – now.

The boy understood. He nodded to her.

"Hurry along now," she told him, patting his head. "Be a good little minion. Gather souls for the master."

He gave her one more soulless smile before scampering off toward the last remaining outpost of Santa Esperanza.

She swirled her black cloak theatrically, like a silver screen Nosferatu. She just adored the wicked noir thing. It definitely clicked.

Yeah, she had done well for a girl from Sunnydale.

Chapter Text

"I'm just saying, I don't see how you can fight in them," William said. "They're three inches too high to be effective."

Buffy stopped in her muddy tracks. She planted her hands on her hips.

"I have always worn them. And I have never fallen," she said.

He looked down at her feet, shaking his head. "They're bloody clogs."

"They're espadrilles. And they're cute..."

"Were cute. In 1992," he said.

She turned on the heel of her leather upper espadrille and marched further into the Wallace Home Memorial Park. After their spectacular defeat of Team Kennedy in soccer earlier, both felt fairly light on their feet and were sparring accordingly.

Buffy halted again. "Anyway, how do you get be Joan Rivers here? You had the same look for what – forty years?"

William shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat. "Thirty. If you're counting," he said. "Besides, it's different for vampires. We're iconic."

"Uh-huh," Buffy said, smiling. Behind her, the bushes rustled. She held up a finger. William leaned against the dampish wall of a marble mausoleum.

The vampire who attacked was stereotypical Sid & Nancy variety – ripped jeans, wife-beater T-shirt, spiked hair dyed black. He even wore a padlocked chain around his neck. The vamp leapt in, chains rattling, way over-balanced. Buffy swiped him on the fly by. He sailed headlong into a grave marker. As he regained his footing, Buffy turned to William.

"Watch this," she said.

The vampire showed them his pointies. He charged straight for Buffy. Just before he struck her, she sidestepped. She caught his arm, swung him to the spot between her and William, and kicked the vampire squarely in the face with the thick wooden platform of her shoe.

The vamp clapped both hands over his face. He staggered back into William. "Oh blimey!" he said, all nasally. "You've banjaxed my nose." And then he evaporated to dust.

William tucked the stake into his pocket. Clapping dust from his hands, he said, "Standing corrected."

Buffy simpered. William pursed his lips. She continued down the path ahead of him, quite pleased with herself. She found a cube-ish headstone along the path and reclined against it.

"Got the papers?" Buffy asked. She crossed her legs at the ankles.

William pulled the Guardian from his coat. He passed it to her. She flipped to the film listings.

William's brow crinkled. "Buffy. There's a thing," he said.

"I got it," she said. "No Catwoman. I told you I'm down with that. I'm of the opinion that Halle Berry winning an Oscar is a sign of the coming apocalypse."

"No, no," he said, waving his hand. "About vampires. There's a thing. Iconic..."

Buffy curled the edge of the page back. "You figuring things again?"

William nodded, fervently. "Vampires don't change. They don't grow. Can't evolve. Get it? They're in a state of stasis. Suspended like... like fruit bits in a gelatin salad."

Over the page, Buffy said, "That's it? Your big vampire epiphany: They're fruit. Trapped in Jello?"

"Trapped," William said, pointing to her. "Yeah. Like that."

Buffy looked skyward. "Well," she said. "You changed. You've been a regular Evolve-o-matic."

"I was hardly typical, luv," he said. "But it is important. Or will be..."

"Yeah? Well, here endeth the lesson, Professor. Our movie starts in," she checked her watch, "22 minutes."

"Fine," he said. "Which is it, then?"

Buffy grinned. "13 Going on 30," she said.

William's eyes flashed in panic. "N-no! I can't do it. Not again. There must be something else?"

Buffy eased onto her feet. "I was only kidding, William. I, Robot?"

He sighed, relieved. "Better," he said.

They started down the path together.

"By the way," William said. "Movie theaters: Big vamp hangouts, traditionally."

"That so?" she said.

"Oh yeah. Dark, loud, lots of people. Dinner, and a show."

Buffy gave him a sidelong glance. "You never shared that tidbit," she said.

William scoffed. "I had to have something for myself, didn't I?"

@*@*@

Sunday morning was the first genuinely chilly morning of the year. The first in which Buffy awoke thinking they had left the air conditioning on over night, only to discover that they didn't have air conditioning, and that the clamminess in the September morning air was actually the reason Englishmen drank so much Earl Grey, hot. She came downstairs in stocking feet and her blue flannel pajamas to find Dawn, Andrew and Giles packing for their excursion to the hidden archive Giles had discovered near Stonehenge.

Giles, wearing a formless, dishwater colored canvas hat pulled down over his forehead, stood with Dawn in the dining area going over their extensive excursion gear. Around the corner, she could hear Andrew in the kitchen, tooling around with the blender.

"Hey guys," Buffy said. "All set for the field trip?"

Dawn wriggled with excitement. "We each have our own pick ax and rock hammer," she said.

Buffy frowned. "Giles, you've transformed my sister into a geek," she said.

Giles looked up from his clip-boarded checklist. "Um, what's that?" he said. Then, "Oh yes, Buffy. There you are. We've almost finished packing up, and I wanted to go over a few things..."

Andrew came in, balancing three extra tall plastic tumblers in his steepled fingers.

"Here we go," he said. "Breakfast smoothies. Dawn, yours is up front – soymilk. Big on berries. Good morning, Buffy. Giles, big on banana. Oh, and I added just a squidgen of lemon, you know, to ward off scurvy."

Buffy arched her brows. "Because what? You're going on a long sea journey?" She appraised the gear spread out on the tabletop, then eyed Giles. "This is a day trip, right?"

Giles sipped his smoothie and nodded approvingly. "Right. We should be home well before sundown."

"Good," Buffy said. "Dawn has classes tomorrow. She can't afford to miss."

Dawn gave an obligatory groan.

Andrew said, "We have to pack a lot, you know, because Watchers must be prepared for any possible outcome. So we have stuff for cataloguing, and excavation work, and also weapons in case there are guardian beasts guarding the entrances. Oh, and I packed a picnic lunch because, well, nobody does their best on an empty stomach. Speaking of, want a smoothie?"

"You should have one," Dawn said. "Andrew's the sultan of smoothie." 

Buffy shook her head. "No. Thanks." She looked to Giles. "Guardian beasts? Should I worry?"

"No reason to worry, Buffy. It is just an archive," Giles said.

Dawn's enthusiasm resurfaced. "One that's been sealed for five hundred years," she said, eyes glimmering.

"Well, yes," Giles said, nodding. "Specifically sealed by the Watcher Council. All records were lost. Intentionally lost. I managed to uncover them only by chance when I took on the task of rebuilding the Council."

"So there's really no telling what you may find down there?" Buffy said, brows still worry-furrowed.

"I assure you, nothing points to beasts or demons of any kind. But before we go, I did want to follow up with you about your experience the other night. With the Sisters. We haven't had the chance. That is..." Giles trailed off. He stared at her, unsure and uneasy. He had been that way since the night of the disenchant spell. A little distant and a lot stammery, like a dad who's just learned that his daughter has a sex life. It was one of those best-drop-it topics.

Buffy decided to rescue him. "There's not much to tell, really," she said. Wasn't exactly the truth, she knew, but how much of the whole time-warp caterpillar wrap could be pertinent information? Plus, her paying a visit to William's childhood... that part seemed too intimate a thing to just share out with everyone. She didn't even understand why she felt so protective. But she hadn't told anyone, and didn't want to.

"Well, Buffy, as you know the smallest detail can have significance," Giles said.

"Yeah. Like who would have ever guessed that tiny little drain in the base of the Deeping Wall could bring down the whole of Helm's Deep?" Andrew asked. A dollop of smoothie cream clung to the tip of his nose.

Buffy gaped at him. She said, "I never know what you're saying."

Dawn gestured to Andrew to wipe his nose. Giles went on.

"You said that you met with one," Giles said.

"Yep. Ea. One of the Seven," Buffy told him. "She went on about being some kind of protector. Daughters of the Nymph-phylum. Or something. I didn't quite catch..."

Giles held up a hand. "Nephillim?" he said, quietly.

"Sure. Okay. Nephlegm," Buffy said. "That a big deal?"

"The offspring of angels," Dawn replied.

"Yes," Giles said. He took off his glasses and polished them slowly. His features took on the look of grave concern.

"Angels are good, right?" Andrew said. "We're still on the good side with angels..."

Giles said, "The Nephillim are the product of a union between human and angel. They were legendary giants. Demigods. It is said that the Nephillim could be dismembered, their various parts scattered to the ends of the earth, then once re-assembled, would return to life..."

"That's... brutal," Dawn said.

"As well, they are said to possess phenomenal strength and agility, much like the Titans of Greek mythology," Giles said.

"These ladies had all that going on," Buffy said. "But not the giant part. They were woman-sized."

"You said daughters of the Nephillim," Giles went on. "They must be the next generation. This... this changes things, Buffy. Don't you see?"

Buffy, Dawn and Andrew all shook their heads to indicate that they did not yet follow along.

Giles replaced his glasses. "The return of the Nephillim is a harbinger of what is to come," he said. "Our final battle is at hand."

The heavy truth of it rolled into the pit of Buffy's stomach. "The world will witness," she said. She thought she might actually be sick.

"I'm afraid so," Giles said.

Buffy edged instinctively closer to Dawn. Giles studied the equipment strewn across the table, and sighed.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Dawn said.

The four of them stood in solemn silence, staring blankly at nothing.

"Yeah. Um..." Andrew said, hands on his hips. "I call shotgun!"

 

@*@*@


Maya finished her breakfast of buttered wheat toast in front of her computer station. She dabbed crumbs from her mouth with her fingers. The monitor's screen showed a single flashing cursor in its top left corner. It was waiting for her.

She felt less cozy today. The morning press of workers on the street seemed less daunting, somehow. She thought she might step outside once the sun rose, just to the recessed black steps that fronted the shop. Maybe she could catch a few amber rays without the strangling fear that usually overtook her when she ventured too near the threshold of her humble bookstore.

Or, more likely, she would log online time, like she always did. It was safer that way.

And yet...

Maya got up from her wooden stool. She crossed to the counter under which she kept a small, carved ebony box. The box was a perfect cube, its edges worn smooth over time. Inside, on a bed of flaking black velvet, rested a looking glass.

Not a mirror, though.

This was a real looking glass – a sphere of slightly pinkish, wholly flawless polished crystal. It had been a gift from her horribly romantic, terminally frail ex-boyfriend Freddie. An heirloom passed down from his great grandmother, the looking glass was her one remaining link to the world beyond the walls of Go Ask Alice. It was also, regrettably, the last positive link she ever shared with dearly departed Fred.

Maya unceremoniously removed the looking glass from its box. She balanced between her hands its familiar icy weight. Soon, it warmed with her touch. A thin ribbon of light blossomed inside the sphere.

"Who will I see today?" Maya whispered. "Mom again? Or..."

The thread of light pulsed at the timbre of Maya's voice. It fanned out like sunrays slicing through water.

"I know," she said, eyes brightening. "Show me Xander."

The glimmering blurred to a haze. Within it, waves of light swam together to form a scene. There was Xander, in the dining room of a modestly furnished house. One wall of the dining room was lined with books. Maya raised her brows. It was her kind of place...

But Xander seemed to be searching for something. He bent to look under the table, moved chairs out, scanned bookshelves, but didn't find what he sought. After a few minutes of this Chaplinesque searching, a petite blonde woman came into the room. Maya watched as the pair launched into an animated discussion.

Maya shifted the weight of the crystal to her left hand. She dragged a dusty composition notebook from beneath the register. She opened to a blank page and wrote: Xander + Blonde Girl?

Seconds later, another man entered the room. This one was white-blond and very thin. When he came in, he kissed the blonde woman.

Maya grinned. She scribbled underneath: Blonde Girl + Pale Bloke.

She watched the silent interaction of the three with rapt fascination. Obviously, Xander disliked Pale Guy. Was it a love triangle? Was the blonde Xander's sister? Maya wished, as she always did when she sat at the looking glass, that she had popcorn. And volume control. It had been ages since she had seen a movie. Or daytime TV, for that matter.

After another minute or so, a red-headed girl joined in. Her presence smoothed over whatever the drama between Xander and Pale Bloke. Xander returned to his search. Maya wrote: Xander + Red Head.

But, no. A dark-haired girl with mean eyes came in. She kissed the red head. Maya tapped her pen on the page.

"That's interesting," she said. Xander, it appeared, did not match up to anyone. Yet he was there, bright and early, on a Sunday morning. Maya had assumed he lived there, but maybe he didn't. Maybe he just left something there and came over early to find it...

Suddenly, the overhead lights in the shop flickered twice. The looking glass went dark. Maya cringed, trying to make herself small, tiny, insignificant. She concealed the sphere, cradling it in the space between her chest and her lap.

The lights blinked again.

"All right," Maya said. Her voice was a croakish groan of fear and supplication. "I'll put it away. Please. Don't..."

She didn't finish the sentence, didn't need to. The computer screen beside her stirred to life. Maya bowed her head, still unable to breathe. With shaking hands, she placed the looking glass back in its box.

She turned to the monitor. Through her tears, the tiled desktop images blurred into a cold, pitiless blue.

"I promise, I won't look away," she whispered, almost prayer-like, to herself. "I promise. I'll be good."

Beyond the counter, a line of dawning sunlight drew itself across the dusty, buckled floorboards of the store. Maya didn't see it. She moused over the icon for Internet Explorer, launching the browser window. Her inbox contained nine new messages. He was waiting for her to answer.

Chapter Text

Most nights, William's dreams either began or ended in the kitchen. It defied explanation. William was never on-board for the whole lucid dreaming trip. That was just too much work. Didn't seem right, driving them around when dreams were supposed to be about the ride.

Still, the whole kitchen dream scenario had started drive him bug-shagging. He would dream of going to the refrigerator in search of a pint, only to find the crisper drawer full of severed limbs. Not so much the treat it once was. One night William opened the oven to find Andrew's head in there, floating in a jar full of murky greenish fluid. William had closed the door before the talking head of Andrew could go all Haunted Mansion.

So tonight when William wound up in the kitchen again, he decided the lucid dream tack might be the way to go.

Get your bloody coat, he told himself. Head down to the docks. Fill your head with a nice violent demon fight. Or dream of dolphins in the Thames, for pity's sake. Just get out of the sodding kitchen.

When he strode through the arch, he just appeared again under the contrasty light of the kitchen by night. This time, Anya was there.

"Oh. Bollocks," he said.

Anya sat atop the counter, long legs dangling. She wore a candy striper uniform, a triangular paper hat on her head. In her hand, she held a small object – a stone idol, perhaps, or a doll. She traced its contours with her smooth white fingers. Since she took no notice of him, William tried again to cut out of the scene.

He appeared again in the kitchen, right under the light. It was unsettling.

Anya dragged her attention away from the object of her reverence.

"Spike," she said, sounding dazed. "Hey. Look at you. Finally ousted Angel and secured a spot among the Scoobies. Well played."

William stammered. "That's... not how it went down."

Anya dismissed him with a wave of her hand. "Please. I see things. Not that I'm bragging about it, but being spectral entity does have advantages."

William opened his mouth to say something, but closed it again. He focused on the thing in her hand. Had it changed? Was it moving?

Anya went on. "It's not like I'm spying, really. You people do all your talking in the kitchen. I can't help but overhear. In fact, I could spy, if someone wanted me to..."

"Anya," William said, cutting in. "Why is it I'm the only one can see you?"

She pouted. "You're the only one who wants to see me, Spike."

"No, I don't," he said, too quickly. She frowned. "I mean, no I'm not," William amended. "Xander wants to see you."

Anya scoffed. "Oh that's great. Couldn't let go in life. Can't let go in death. That's what he'd think. 'I'm haunted by my ex-vengeance demon ex-fiancée' is what he'd think. He'd never get the penance angle. Never."

"What have you got there? In your hand?" William asked.

Anya cupped the object in her palms. It was a polished sandstone carving of a dragonfly with lovely articulated wings.

"This thing?" she asked, her cheeks flushing pink. "I kept it by the register in the Magic Box. It was my Pending Mail Orders paperweight. I called him Snappy."

"Uh-huh," William said. "And where'd you get it?"

Anya returned again to running her hands over the shape of the dragonfly, feeling out its wings and the thin blade of its body with her fingers. "My guardian angel," she said. "Or maybe... parole officer? He's French. At least, I think he is. He speaks with a French accent. And sometimes he gives me things. Cherished little things. They help me feel less lost. I'm kind of alone here, Spike. It's not so easy."

"Oh don't give me that," William spat. "I was all ghosty myself not so long ago. I do know what it's like, pet. And it's not the same for you. Your situation here seems pretty sweet."

"Sweet?" Anya said, bewildered. "How can you say that? I am on the outside; able to see all of you but you don't even know I'm here. I'm ineffectual incorporeal Anya..."

"And who decided that, Anya? You?"

"No. Of course not me."

William stared hard at the dragonfly she held in her now white-knuckled grasp. Quietly, he told her, "Seems to me, you're on the inside, luv. Inside, looking out. At us."

Anya blinked.

William reached around Anya's waist. He turned the faucet on full blast, then leaned in close to her.

"Find out all you can on this so-called Clarence of yours," he said.

"What? I don't understand..."

"Guardian Angel," William said forcefully. "Get a name, get anything. Got it?"

Anya was shaking her head. "I can't do that, Spike. It can get a lot worse for me. A lot worse."

"Howling abyss? Gaping gorge of eternal torment? Yeah, seen that," he snapped.

"But... how?" she protested.

William gripped her forearm hard enough to make her flinch.

"Hey!" Anya cried. She raised Snappy over her head, then brought it down to clobber him. It passed through him, as he knew it would. William pried the dragonfly from her reluctant fingers, then smashed it on the counter.

"No! Spike, you rotten bastard!" she shouted. She raised her fists to hit him, but he grabbed her wrists, holding her steady. "You mean-spirited, villainous..."

"You can do it, Anya," William said. "Do it, and I can help you be a more effective phantom."

Anya's eyes panned from one of her pinned arms to the other. "How?" she asked.

William released her. "It's just an application of will," he said.

He left the water running when he walked from the room. This time, when he crossed beneath the kitchen's arch, he continued into the entry hall. He woke before reaching the front door.

 

@*@*@


William sat up, trembling. He chased the fragmented images of dreams around his head. Buffy stretched beside him. In her sleep, she mumbled, "Marzipan, you... vamp."

He smoothed back the curl of hair that had flopped over her temple. Touching her in this way seemed to iron out the lurches, even though his heart continued to flutter like the undisciplined git it was these days. Everything was fine. Everyone was asleep. The clock on the bedside read 4:23 a.m. Nothing amiss here. Nothing but the unexpected domestic bliss.

But he did recall something odd about the kitchen. Vaguely, he remembered Anya. The more he worked to assemble the memory of his dream, the more he dreaded the certainty that seeded in his belly. Their house was not so safe as it seemed.

@*@*@

Morna twirled around and around and around. Her skirts made a soft hsssshing sound as she spun. Lalaine knelt on the hard-packed earth still warm from baking all day in merciless sun. She held the head of the woman who drank from her wrist.

"There, there," Lalaine said softly, running her palm over the woman's tangled black hair. "Drink of me, and be forever found."

The woman broke away from Lalaine, sobbing, her body shuddering as the new strength found its way into her bones. Lalaine allowed the woman a few moments to gain her composure. Morna danced, feet bared again, toes rust-brown from the dust. From her fingers she dangled the gauzy veils torn free from the women's faces. The veils swirled in the wind created by Morna's dance, lilting like flags. Lalaine licked her lips. Two villages down, two to go. Not bad progress for one night's work. Lalaine knew that Thellian would be pleased.

The woman raised her head. Lalaine could see her seeing things clearly for the first time.

"Liberating, isn't it?" Lalaine said. "All of that power. All for you."

The woman got steadily to her feet. She plucked the veil from her head and tossed it to the ground. Morna stopped spinning. She struck a ballerina pose, poised on pointed toe.

"Eee?" Morna said, pointing to the veil.

"Yes, take it," Lalaine said, nodding to her sister. "We'll not be needing that anymore."

Lalaine turned the woman roughly by her shoulders. She looked down into her eyes.

"You understand what you must do next?" Lalaine asked her.

The woman looked momentarily afraid. But then understanding welled into the dark irises, and Lalaine knew she understood.

"Hunger," Lalaine said. "You feel it. Of course you do. But you must remember to share. Do you understand 'share'?"

The woman hesitated again, watching Lalaine's face. Seconds later, she gave a curt nod. She morphed her face to demonic form, then back again.

Lalaine laughed. It was a sound like breaking glass. Behind her, Morna clapped her veiled hands together.

"Good woman," Lalaine said. She kissed the woman's forehead, then turned her to face the road. The woman departed, running at her newfound preternatural speed, in the direction of the larger village of Uttarkashi.

"Morna," Lalaine called. Her sister dropped to her knees and began sifting the paprika sands through her fingers.

"Morna," Lalaine said again, this time more firm. "It's time, dear. Other places to see. Others to find. Are you ready?"

Morna smeared the sand over her face, drawing three pumpkin orange lines – one down her nose, the other two on either side, down each cheek.

"Ungg," Morna said. She held her arm aloft, pantomiming a knife strike.

Lalaine tilted her head to the side. "Now you resemble mother," she said.

Morna smiled, showing her teeth like a savage. Lalaine took her sister's hands, hauling her to her feet. Morna mimicked the striking dagger again, this time pretending to stab her own chest.

Lalaine sighed, suddenly feeling tired. The exhilaration had bled out of their evening's fun and games. Not that Morna could understand, Lalaine knew. Their mother had died so long ago, and Morna's mind had gone before that.

"Yes, yes," Lalaine said, hollowly. She caressed Morna's brow with her fingers, dusting away the sand that caked there. "Just like our mother."

@*@*@

 

Angel wandered nights through the streets of London. He told himself it was to gain his bearings, to familiarize himself with his surroundings. He knew it was a lie, though. He knew that his reason for staying ended and began in the same place.

It was a bad decision, too. Wrong-headed, wrong-hearted - plain wrong. Really, though, where else was he supposed to go? He was hiding out from two of the most powerful demon organizations in this plane. Plus, Buffy and Spike together? Please. Both seemed to attract trouble the way Matthew Perry brought in bad press. Angel would have adequate opportunity to step in and bail out. And, with Spike's propensity for screwing things up, Buffy was bound to see...

Angel had been prowling Kensington Park, walking along its broad, mostly empty promenades, when he caught a suspicious movement behind him. Someone was tailing him.

Angel stopped short. When he turned, he fully expected to see a scythe-bearing or axe-wielding someone breathing down his collar. But there was nothing. A breeze ruffled the leaves. A knot of tourists cut across the park, heading in for the night. Otherwise, the park felt empty. Angel decided to add paranoid to the list of traits he currently carried as baggage.

Angel turned, then leapt back. A man was standing there, leaning on the wrought-iron guardrail.

"What...?" Angel said.

"You looked lost," the man said, his words accented with a light, fluid French sound to them.

"I'm... not lost," Angel said. "What are you?"

The man moved with the same fluidity as his voice. He glided from the shadows into the light that pooled under the lamppost where Angel stood. He wore a denim jacket, scuffed brown loafers, baggy jeans cuffed at the ankle. His short-cropped black hair made him look like a university student on holiday. But humans didn't move the way he did.

"Monsieur Angel," he said. "You find that you know who I am. Just as you knew we would find you."

"We..." Angel said, nodding.

"C'est ça," the man said. He smiled. "The Senior Partners are most pleased with your work."

Angel balked with genuine surprise.

The man spread his arms. He took a step closer.

"No cause for the humble act, Monsieur Angel. Your ingenuity continues to impress the Partners. As you know, they are not easily surprised."

Angel was incredulous. "Excuse me," he said. "Just, let's time-out a minute. What is your name again?"

"I am Luxe..."

"Luxe. Right. And you must be the new Liaison," Angel continued.

"Indeed. Your Liaison to the Senior Partners," Luxe said.

Angel laughed. Hard.

Luxe talked over him. "You stemmed a hostile takeover plot which originated within the ranks of your team. You removed an insurgent threat spearheaded by Lindsey McDonald. Moreover, you established yourself as the head of a multi-dimensional demon organization, thereby asserting yourself as a formidable ally. Congratulations, Charlie. You've just won the keys to the Chocolate Factory."

"I'm afraid you've got it wrong, Luxe," Angel said. He covered his mouth to stifle his laughter.

Luxe ignored him. "You are the last remaining member of the Circle of the Black Thorn, Monsieur Angel. Entitled to their vast accumulated wealth and power. So I believe that it is you who has it wrong."

Angel quickly sobered. "The brand..." he said.

"The mark of the Circle," Luxe commended. "You see, you have the Senior Partners' undivided attention. You have no cause to feel so... impotent."

Angel's forehead wrinkled. "I do not feel impotent," he said, quietly.

Luxe gave a knowing nod. "We also know of the other survivors: Bloody William and the Dethwokian Lounge Act. They are of no consequence. But the Slayers and the Witch..." Luxe trailed off, letting Angel map out his own conclusions.

Angel felt a sickening tug in his guts. This was exactly how Wolfram & Hart worked. This was how they would try to drag him in again. They didn't get to be the Senior Partners of the most powerful demonic law firm on the planet by playing fair.

"What about them?" Angel said, taking the bait. Wouldn't hurt to learn what he could.

But Luxe backed off. "We have plans for them," Luxe said.

"That's great, Luxe," Angel said, going for aloof and cagey. "Except I'm not playing. I don't care what you have planned. I'm out. You can tell the Senior Partners yourself, or I can shoot a memo..."

Luxe held out his hand, palm up. A trick of light and puff of smoke later and a skeleton key appeared. At first he took it for a corroded hunk of metal, but when Luxe turned it over in his fingers, Angel saw that it was chipped obsidian so dark it seemed to swallow light.

"The Partners thought you might say that, of course," Luxe said. "And so they give you this, as an offer of good faith."

Angel chuckled. "Good faith? From the Senior Partners?"

Luxe's words took on a coddling tone when he spoke again. It made Angel really dislike him.

"Monsieur Angel, Wolfram & Hart recognizes power when they see it," Luxe said. "They also know that you are not a stupid man. However, they are aware that you have a destiny. You signed a contract with the Circle of the Black Thorn. These things are not easily broken..."

"So this is the key to what? Restoring my humanity?"

Luxe grinned a Cheshire smile. "No. This holds far more power than that. This is the sole key to a vault beneath the city - one that can be opened only by the turn of your hand. When you decide you are ready for it, you will find it. Until then, its secret will wait. And so will we."

Angel shook his head. Waiting games, he knew, were often wasted on immortals. He could technically hold out forever... But something told him they knew he would not.

Luxe patiently proffered the key in his hand. Even though Angel knew it was a baited hook, he took the lure. Whatever the key unlocked it had to be a powerful something. Angel could turn it to his favor, could in fact bring whatever it was to the Slayers, to Buffy.

And as William pointed out, it was all about her. Wasn't it?

Angel closed his fist around the key. The moment he did, Luxe vanished without even so much as a popping sound or swish of the wind. Angel was glad to be rid of the arrogant bastard anyway. He gripped the gnarled shape of the key, feeling out its edges with the cold skin of his palm.

Two realizations came to him in the seconds that followed. The first was that he was no longer hunted. He could move as he pleased. Big relief there. The second was that he suddenly had a lot of money and power to throw around. His accounts through Wolfram & Hart remained open, not to mention all of the amassed fortunes and armies that once belonged to the Black Thorn. Best of all, though, was that he could use what he needed and it could all be his secret. He could donate it all to charity. Help the helpless. Give hope to the hopeless. For Truth. Justice, and Soccer Moms.

Or, an even better thought: bankroll it all behind a non-profit organization set to take down the beast from within. To bottom-line it, Angel was free. With that knowledge, he felt better than he had in a long, long time.

Chapter Text

Unable to return to sleep, William decided to go downstairs for a cuppa tea. This was something he could never do if others were awake to witness him doing it. Drinking tea was what Rupert did. It was far too nancy a thing for William, even though he secretly enjoyed a drop of Darjeeling now and again.

When he came downstairs, however, he overheard voices in the kitchen. The sound sent prickles of chills up his neck as he recalled with disjointed clarity the contents of his dream. He crept to archway of the kitchen, straining to put names to the voices he heard.

"Maybe she isn't wrong," one of the voices said. That one was easy: Xander. Someone else spoke in a tone too hushed to hear. William listened a moment more before giving it up. Better to be on the dropping in side of the eavesdropping, was his theory.

He stepped into the kitchen. "Maybe she isn't wrong what?" he said, off-handedly. He went straight for the cupboard, took out a cup and turned around to find Willow and Xander seated knee to knee at the breakfast table. The collective bewilderment on their faces made the whole morning worthwhile.

At first, neither seemed up to sharing. Xander watched William with the usual unleavened distrust. Willow picked at her nails. After a moment's thought, she said, "It's Kennedy. She thinks the school should take a more offensive stance against the forces of evil in London."

William leaned on the counter. This was not at all what he had expected to hear. "Well," he said. "Way to re-enforce the militant lesbian stereotype," he mused. He flicked a glance at Willow. "No offense, Red."

Willow shrugged. Her face pinched up in thought.

"And Blindey the Pirate here agrees, I take it?" William said.

Xander cringed. He splayed his hands on the table, restraining his urge for pre-dawn violence.

"It's not that I agree with Kennedy. Assface," Xander said through clenched teeth. "It's just we know Big Evil is out there. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to let the girls log field time."

William thunked the teacup against his thigh a few times, thinking. He said, "Girls are green, give you that. But Buffy does have a plan."

"Which you're all privy to, and we're not?" Xander asked.

It was William's turn to shrug. "Can't say as I am," he said. He turned to the teakettle. "Is this hot?"

Willow's eyes slitted. She muttered, "Temperis solem," Then, "It is now," she said.

William poured a near-boiling cupful of water. He went to the pantry, plopped in a teabag and returned to face Xander and Willow. They stared at him, speechless.

"What?" he said, copping nonchalance. "It's for Buffy."

Willow straightened her shoulders. "See? She has a plan. And Giles has a plan. So Kennedy should just stick to said plan." Willow rapped her knuckles on the table. "So should we."

A door opened and closed upstairs. The three of them paused, listening to the muffled sounds of footsteps in the hallway.

Xander pushed his chair back. "All this fighting talk makes me hungry," he said, changing the subject. "Who's up for bagels?"

William took that as his cue for leaving. He didn't get out of the kitchen in time to avoid Dawn, who was followed closely by Andrew.

Andrew was saying, "And we could even update the web site to reflect our findings, if we wanna get Wiki with it..."

Dawn pinched the skin on Andrew's elbow.

"Ow," he said. He looked around the kitchen. "Right. Hey, look at all the Ben Franklins. Except Spike, you're probably a late-to-bed type, huh? Did you guys slay any vampyres on last night's patrol?"

"Sure. We did," William said, sounding non-convincing. "We got one," he admitted. "Night was slow."

"Oh," Andrew said. He deflated slightly.

"Hey Dawnie," Willow said, stepping in. "Xander's making bagels. You guys want to partake?"

"Sure. Hey, is Giles awake yet? He said we're going through our findings from the archive tonight," Dawn said.

William chose that moment to exit stage left. He intended to go forthwith and share his findings about Kennedy with Buffy. That was his plan, but sometimes things go awry in wild ways...

@*@*@

Buffy was sleeping.

He crouched beside the bed, whispering her name. He held the teacup in his left hand. With his right, he stroked her face.

"Buffy," he said. She didn't stir. He tried again, nudging her this time.

She reached for him then, bringing her mouth to his, twisting her hands in his shirt."Bmfffx," he said. William wasn't sure she was even awake, was the thing. He struggled, mainly to keep his balance. He pulled away, but she was Slayer-strong and clearly out of her head.

"Buffy," he said, louder. "Concerned now. Pet?"

Buffy opened her eyes. There was a wild look there, took him by surprise. She kissed him again, harder, with more purpose. She drew her legs around him, pulling him down with her. Lucky for them both, he managed to set the teacup on the bedside table before they tumbled to the floor.

@*@*@

"Well," Kennedy said when Buffy opened the front door to Summers School. "Look who's showing up almost on time."

Buffy, nonplussed, walked in removing her raincoat and gloves. "Well, you know. Those bill thingies. Apparently you have to attach checks to them and mail them in."

Kennedy was already dressed down and warming up.

"We have some time before the girls arrive," she said. "What say you and me give it a go? Been a while..."

Buffy eyed Kennedy, sizing her up. "All right," she said. "Let's do that."

Kennedy continued to stretch her shoulder muscles. Buffy was feeling extra spunky thanks to her pre-breakfast work out with William, which she had yet to fully to explain to herself. She crossed to the center of the studio to stand opposite Kennedy.

"You ready?" Kennedy said.

"Been ready," Buffy said, cracking her neck.

Kennedy took the first shot, aiming high as she always did. Buffy sidestepped, answering with a swift elbow to Kennedy's ribs. Kennedy was fast though. She dodged enough to get a graze.

"You're awfully spry," Kennedy said, whirling around.

"Had my Wheaties," Buffy said.

Kennedy kicked, low and solid, connecting with Buffy's hip. It stung. Good hit.

"Guess you did too," Buffy said, trying to hide the wincing.

Kennedy hopped back, bouncing on the balls of her sneaker feet.

"I'm just getting started," she said.

Buffy struck a ready stance, fists up. Kennedy swung again, going for the high shot. Buffy ducked, dropped, swept shins. Kennedy jumped, too late. Buffy's foot struck shinbones. Kennedy spat a curse, danced back.

Buffy spun, kept close to the ground. She rose in a swift arc, turning, guarding. Kennedy backed off.

"This'll rankle," Kennedy said, catching her breath, "so I'm just gonna come right out and say it."

"Go on," Buffy said, keeping her defense up.

"I took the girls on patrol last night," Kennedy said.

Buffy blinked. Her hands dropped, but Kennedy held her ground.

"You did what?" Buffy said, flatly.

"Just four," Kennedy said.

"Which four?"

"Rita, Carmen, Renee, and MK."

Buffy actually felt her jaw unhinge. "MK?"

Kennedy made a lame attempt to keep up the workout act by rabbiting a weak punch at Buffy's shoulder.

Buffy swiped Kennedy's elbow. Hard. She turned in, gripped Kennedy's shoulder and threw her down to the mat. Kennedy landed on her ass, but sat up, laughing.

"I said it'd rankle..."

"MK is 13," Buffy bit out. "She should be at home lip-synching to Hilary Duff and playing with dollies."

"She's a Slayer," Kennedy said. She bounded to her feet, arms out-stretched. "Like us."

Buffy resumed her on-guard stance. "She's a kid. And not a frontliner. And you had no right to make that call."

Kennedy scoffed. "That's great," she said. "Just great. Your name's on the sign outside, Buffy. But I'm one-half of the decision making in this school. And I say they're ready."

Buffy shook her head. "You are not one-half," she said.

Kennedy leapt in, fists a-flying. Buffy blocked, pushed her back.

"Not one half?" Kennedy said. Her dark eyes flashed. "You think you're the one calling all the shots, Big Girl? You're the Power?"

"No," Buffy said, playing cool. "I'm not one-half either. There are ten of us at this school. We're all one tenth. One tenth, Kennedy."

Kennedy's nostrils flared. Buffy got set. Kennedy windmilled. She was playing her size and strength, but Buffy saw her from a long way off. Buffy caught her leg, bent it the wrong way and tossed her back.

And now Kennedy was pissed.

"Rita took out a vamp," she said. "By herself. First time out. They want to be in on the action."

Buffy advanced, feinting two swift kicks to get in close, followed by brisk strikes to the collarbone and neck. It was kinda pretty. Well, not for Kennedy. She blocked, or tried to, but Buffy was rolling.

Buffy said, "They will have all action they'll ever want and more. They'll have carnage enough to choke on it. You are so hungry to have all that power. Are you ready to have their blood on your hands? Are you ready to call MK's parents, or her Watcher, to let them know the little girl they entrusted to us was slaughtered?"

Kennedy drew her body to full height. The muscles in her arms and legs flexed. Her jaw clenched tight. Her eyes sparked as she curled her hands to fists. She flew at Buffy, throwing her weight around. They rolled. Buffy crashed to the hardwood, her breath bursting from her lungs. Kennedy pinned her. Buffy broke the hold, then butted Kennedy's seriously hard head.

Buffy sent Kennedy sprawling. She got up again before Kennedy regained her footing.

"They're not ready," Buffy said. She stood over Kennedy, looking down at her, arms crossed over her chest. "You're not ready either."

Kennedy unfolded her body with slow, deliberate motion. Her nose was swelling and bloody.

"I'm not ready?" she said, laughing darkly. "I'm the next wave, Buffy. You unlocked the Slayer's power, spread it all around. You're part is done. We can take it from here."

"Really?" Buffy said, sneering. "'Cause looks like all you're taking is an ass-whipping."

"Go ahead. Be flip," Kennedy said, circling. "Admit it: You're tired of the fight. You're in a comfort zone. You'd rather be taking in a midnight show with Captain Platinum than out on patrol."

Buffy sputtered. "I... would not," she said. "It was a 9:20 show. And we patrolled beforehand..."

"We can take this fight to the next level, Buffy," Kennedy said. "I've already talked with Willow..."

"Willow?"

"We could clean this city by Christmas," Kennedy said. Her voice rose with almost palpable excitement. "We're an army, Buffy. A force! A power! We just need to push..."

Buffy pushed. She shoved Kennedy full force. Kennedy sailed backward, colliding with the mirror wall. Several cracks spider-webbed across its length from the impact. Kennedy didn't fall. She looked over her shoulder at her fractured reflection and grinned. Buffy's reflection grew larger as she walked toward her, giving yet another little speech.

"You're all about the pushing," Buffy said, keeping an even tone. Inside, the uncomfortable bitterness of anger wrenched knots in her belly. "You're bloodthirsty. I've seen it before. But just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. Less blood. More thirst. You have so much more to learn..."

Kennedy drove her elbow into Buffy's stomach, then uppercut to her chin. Buffy staggered. Her feet tangled and she sat down hard. Kennedy planted her hands on her hips and strutted over to Buffy.

"I think I've learned enough," Kennedy said. "You're older, not wiser. You're weak. You've lost your edge now that you aren't the One and Only. You don't have that anger any more. We're gonna take down every vampire in this town, in this country. And then, we're going Continental."

Buffy gingerly pressed her fingers to her stomach. She smeared blood from her chin. Kennedy was lording over her, gloating. Buffy tasted the vinegary bile of real hate toward Kennedy.

"You think you're the first Slayer to wage a war against all demonkind?" Buffy said. Her voice sounded gravelly and gruff with exhaustion. "Other Slayers have tried. Just ask Joan of Arc. Wait. You can't. And why's that? She was betrayed and burned at the stake."

This gave Kennedy a moment's pause. She stared down into Buffy's face, mouthing soundless words.

"Yeah," Buffy said. She drew her legs beneath her like she was getting ready to stand up.

Kennedy was saying, "She was one Slayer. One. Our ranks grow stronger every day..."

Buffy slammed her heel into Kennedy's ankle. It made a grindy sound. Kennedy crumpled. She swore. She rolled onto the floor, clutching her foot.

Now Buffy was the one looking down on Kennedy.

"They are gonna die, Buffy," Kennedy half-groaned. "We can't save them. We have to be ready. Step up their training."

Rita, Carmen, and Renee walked in. They exchanged looks of surprise, but didn't venture even a good morning greeting.

Quietly, Buffy said, "Giles and I have a plan, Kennedy. We will be ready. We always have been. If you're not on board, walk out now. We do this my way, or you do it not at all. Got me?"

MK came in behind the others, sneakers tied by shoestrings and slung over her shoulder.

"Good day, mates!" she said brightly, oblivious to the fightiness of her teachers.

Buffy turned to them, brows wrinkled in grave consternation. "You four: You think you're ready to patrol? We're about to test your limits, so step up."

@*@*@

Buffy came in ready to jump into the shower. Her frantic yet fleeting sexual encounter followed by brutal cattiness with Kennedy set her up for an all-day GI Jane training fest. As she entered the room, she heard the shower shut off.

William.

Buffy grinned. She closed the bedroom door and reclined against it, waiting, ravenous...

He entered, not seeing her, toweling his hair, wearing only his not-yet-fastened jeans. Half way up the length of the room, he paused.

William looked up. He chuckled, lightly.

"You know, you have that look again," he said.

She pounced. "I know," she said.

Pants off. Mostly.

Shirt, torn. Hers.

"Dammit, I liked that one," she whispered.

"Me too."

"What is it with us?" she said. Breathing, ragged. "We're alone three seconds and we... paw at each other like rabid wolverines."

Pants in the way. Hers. He tugged. "Panic response," he said.

She nipped his ear. His eyes rolled back.

"Huh?" Breathless.

Pants off, bra off. Thong... He admired the thong.

He shook his head. He felt all hazy. It felt great.

"It's panic response," he said again. Against the wall now, hands on her hips. "Big Bad out there somewhere. We're sorting out tension. Done it before."

Arms around his neck. Body around his, containing him, consuming him.

"Yay us," she said, kissing him. "Finding creative outlets for stress."

"We should..."

"No talking," Buffy said. "Just..."

She closed her eyes. She felt the warmth of his arms, the blood in his neck, the way he trembled.

"Oh God," she whispered against his skin.

Someone chose that moment to knock on the bedroom door.

"Ignore it. Ignore it," he said.

Buffy bit her lip against a fit of giggles.

The someone knocked again. The someone, being the Dawn someone, was very persistent.

"Oh balls," Buffy said. William bent his head to her shoulder, trying the not laughing and failing.

"Buffy?" Dawn said. "Buffy. Giles is here. We're going to show off all our relicy texts from the archive."

"Coming," Buffy said.

William quivered, again with not laughing. "Well, not quite," he said.

She pinched his shoulder. "Stop it stopit stopit."

"Buffy?" Dawn said. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah," Buffy called. "Be right out."

On the other side of the door, Dawn turned to Andrew.

"Do they honestly think we don't know what's going on in there?" Dawn asked under her breath.

Andrew said, "They are so Mulder and Scully..."

For Buffy and William, the moment had passed. At least they were still all smiles.

"What say we put clothes on, pretend to be interested in musty old scrolls, then toddle out for a nightcap patrol," William said.

"On board," Buffy said. "Except for the clothes on part."

William sighed. "I know. It was a nice way to bookend the day, but..."

Buffy lay her head on his chest. "Day's not over yet," she said, quietly.

"We're crazy, you know that?" William said. "Desperately bag-buggered, carrying on like this when who knows what is out there and we know it."

"Panic response," Buffy said. "Enemy as yet sight-unseen, and bigger beyond comprehension. All we have to go on is the appearance of the Nephil-ladies. So, yeah. How else are we supposed to carry on?"

William's breathing rose and fell, gradually coming under control. Buffy felt all muzzy and serene – not even a tiny bit panicked. She didn't want to move from this spot, where things were safe and made some semblance of sense. They had been here before, exactly here, when she was busy avoiding the scary side of life.

Kennedy had been right about some things. Buffy was in a comfort zone. She looked up into William's face, but his eyes were closed. Looked like she wasn't the only one shacking up in the zone. Buffy knew – at that moment she knew – they were full on headed for trouble.

 

@*@*@


Downstairs was like a party. Dawn, Andrew and Giles cracked open their canvas bags full of books and spilled the crumbling things across the dining room table. Xander and Willow brought in nibblies – carrot sticks, biscotti, cashews, and lahvash pinwheels made with fresh rosemary, red peppers and soy cream cheese.

"So when's the big unveiling," Xander said, snagging a pinwheel. "And what's the big unveiling? Did you find a giant map leading to the lair of the bad guys with a huge X on it marking their weakest point of entry?"

"Wow," Dawn said. "That was drawn out and specific. But, you'll just have to wait and see."

Andrew sipped from a juice box, anticipation barely contained.

Giles hovered near the table, hands on hips, overseeing. He was not so secretly proud of their find, and of Andrew and Dawn's enthusiasm for the whole endeavor. Granted, on the way to Amesbury, he began to have serious doubts about including them when the pair got into a slappy fight over a game of rock-paper-scissors. Giles actually heard himself say, "If I have to pull this car over, you are both going to regret it." But upon arrival, they became suitably reverent and sober. Giles began to feel that the new Watcher's Council might at least be in eager hands.

There was a feeling of grandness in the air. It was so infectious that no one noticed when Buffy and William came downstairs to join. Buffy could feel her face going sheepish, and she knew without looking that William wore the mask of Smug Man. But it mattered not. Nothing could douse the buoyant spirit of Dawn. Not even Kennedy, who remained behind in the kitchen noisily unloading clean dishes from the dishwasher.

"Wow," Buffy said, when she saw the plethora of dusty books heaped on the table. "Again, with the wow. There must be like a hundred books..."

Andrew jumped in. "Just the tippiest part of the treasure," he said. "There are, like, a gazillion more. You should see it."

"I can't wait..." William said. He sounded bored but in a put-on way.

"No, you really should," Dawn said, beaming. "I mean, I was like a geek in a comic book store."

"And I was like me in a comic book store," Andrew said.

Buffy and William stood with Xander and Willow in a loose circle around the archway that led into the dining room. Buffy could tell that Willow was just waiting for the signal to jump in and start a Translate-a-thon.

Buffy decided to take the lead. She stepped into the room and picked out a random gray volume. Its leather cover felt bumpy under her fingertips. She flipped it open to a yellowed page that contained the faded diagrams to an ancient floating temple. Its design was unlike anything she had ever seen.

"Where?" she said, genuinely curious. "And how?"

Giles started to speak, but Dawn took the floor.

"Giles found it," she said, excitedly. "It was mentioned in a Watcher's diary, and he, with the research and the help of the Seers at the Coven, he found it."

Buffy lay her hand on Dawn's arm. Dawn vibrated with teen zealousness.

"Yes, well," Giles said, going humble. "Harold Damas was a Watcher in the mid-1600s, during a time when the church had declared outright war on magic users. He collected together all of this," Giles waved his arm over the table, "and hid it away in a sealed archive..."

"And - best part," Andrew said, wide-eyed, "it's under Stonehenge."

"Get out," Xander said.

"Circle of permanent protection," Willow said. "Makes perfect sense. But, then, how were you able to open it?"

Giles lowered his eyes. "W-Well," he stammered, "That part was tricky. There were Celtic markings, Druidic symbols, all very difficult to decipher, but I managed..."

"And so what?" Dawn said. "We're in. And you should just read what some of these books contain. Here."

Dawn sorted through a few of the books on the table. She plucked a fat, weathered book bound with an engraved wooden cover. Its pages fanned out as though it had suffered water damage.

"This one is a whole book of prophecies concerning the weather," Dawn said. Her excitement brimmed, but everyone else stared at her.

"Like, um, a Poor Prophet's Almanac?" William offered.

"Well, sort of," Dawn said, wrinkling her brows. "Okay, the gist: Get used to wearing layers."

"Hmm," Willow said, and Buffy nodded concurrence.

Seeing that they were not exactly dazzled, Andrew selected another book and slid it over to Dawn.

"Oh!" Dawn said. "This book." She lifted it, teacher-like, to display it. A silver skull snarled on its cover, with scores of blocky, slashy characters embossed above it. Dawn opened it. The pages were dull black with darker black letters, probably written in blood.

"This book," Dawn said again. "It should never again see the light of day. Very dangerous. Should be titled 'Demon Summoning for Dummies.' Some idiot upper school Goth queen could be pulling the likes of D'Hoffryn from the Umbra in just one short chapter."

"Keep that one far, far from me," Xander said. Then, pointing to Andrew, "And far, far from him for good measure."

"Actually," Giles said. "We were hoping you and Willow could help us on that point."

"We?" Willow said. "A project involving we?"

"Due to the sensitive nature of so many of these texts, we are going to need a vault to house them. A locking vault, protected by magic..." Giles told them.

"Yeah. We could do that. Build it. Hide it," Xander said. "Hide it where, exactly?"

"Why not here?" Buffy asked. "We already have major magics protecting the place. Plus two Slayers, a Wicca, a Watcher and a..." she turned to William, "what are you?"

William shrugged.

"Not here," Giles said. "Even with all of our combined strength, it's too risky keeping all of it in one place."

"Too many eggs, not enough basket," Willow said.

"The Watcher Headquarters?" Xander offered. "Beneath it, I mean. We're still in rebuild status. We could renovate the basement, turn it into a first class Ancient Text Storehouse. We could call it ATS for short, for secret agent-y, stealth purposes."

"And we could use retina scanners for identification, like in X-2," Andrew said.

Giles was nodding, thoughtfully, pointedly disregarding Andrew. He said, "Perhaps. It would be a useful addition to our resources. When agents of the First exploded the former Watcher offices, we lost so much that can never be recovered."

Buffy said, "Well, the biggie question is: Do you think this archive will help us? Will it give us information about whatever it is we're up against next?"

"Most assuredly," Giles said. "Damas' writings suggest that the texts secreted in this archive are critical to understanding the end of..."

"So, Giles," Dawn interrupted, still barely keeping the lid on her simmering enthusiasm. "When do we get to go back?"

"Yeah, and when we do," Andrew said, "Let's pack some playing cards or something. The license plate game bites in the UK. No states."

"I would like to return this weekend. Opening the archive means that the texts have been exposed to the elements. The sooner we collect them into a safe, dry, hermetically-sealed environment, the better," Giles said.

"What do you say, Buffy? Can we?" Dawn asked. Buffy thought her sister's eyeballs might pop from her head and dangle on her cheeks like some over-wound Pomeranian.

"It's official, Giles," Buffy said. "You've transformed my gawky sister into a book nerd. Congratulations. Of course you can go. And, I must in the obligatory way include the following statement: Keep up with your schoolwork."

Dawn and Andrew squealed like, well, like girls.

Willow crossed her arms, all saucy. "Hey, some find that book nerds are the sexiest specie of nerd," she said.

"I do," Kennedy said, stepping into the circle. She cut her eyes at William and Buffy. "There's lemonade and coffee in the kitchen, in case your thirst expands beyond that for knowledge."

The crowd migrated to the kitchen, chattering amicably.

"Thanks, Kennedy," Willow said. "Did you miss the whole show?"

"I caught enough," Kennedy answered. "Besides, I'm a Slayer. Specifics are kinda lost on me. Just show me where to point the stake."

Willow frowned. "It is exciting, though, finding this wealth of information. It's like we stumbled upon the Lost City of El Dorado or the Holy Grail, only less golden-y."

Kennedy wasn't listening. She watched over Willow's shoulder. Willow followed Kennedy's line of sight to find William and Buffy talking quietly beside the potted fichus.

"Hey," Willow nudged. "I'm the jealous type, remember?"

Kennedy shook her head.

"She's unfit, Wil," Kennedy said. "Look at her."

"Not this again," Willow whispered.

Beyond them, just audible enough for them to hear, William said, "Let's be wicked and have chocolate for dinner."

"Mmm," Buffy said. "And then?"

Kennedy made a flabbergasted noise.

Willow tried again to soothe her. "They're harmless, Ken," she said. "See?"

Kennedy's face blazed. "That's exactly what we're afraid of," she said. Kennedy then made a dramatic show of storming from the room.

@*@*@

Thellian watched from the patio, drinking in the moonlight. Lalaine let the breeze lift her hair. She turned her face to the ocean, which looked to her like a sheet of black steel hammered thin. The lights of the villa behind them transformed the tropical foliage into dark cutouts against a star-stippled sky. Below, the beach was strewn with wreckage. The ship had run aground. It was unfortunate. But everyone aboard had survived. More or less.

"Where's Morna?" Thellian said, coming up from his reverie. "She would love to see the beach tonight."

"Morna is caring for the servants, Thellian. Telling them all their bedtime stories," Lalaine said.

Thellian stood, stretching his long, white limbs. He wore embroidered robes of midnight blue silk that ruffled in the wind.

"You did well in India, Lalaine. The seeds are sown. So there will be no more hunger, and no more grief," Thellian said. He moved through patches of moonlight and shade like a thing made of liquid and light.

"We have so many now, in so many places," Lalaine said. "Have we balanced our scales yet?"

Thellian slipped behind her, lacing his arms around her lean frame. "Not yet," he purred. "But soon. When we return to London, we'll know more from Luxe about Angel, and the others. And we'll give our gift to Angel."

Lalaine's mouth curved into a bloodless smile. "Poor Angel," she said. "Poor fool."

Thellian's laughter growled deep in his chest.

"May I?" he said, dipping his face to her throat.

"Please," Lalaine answered. She craned her neck to let him have her. She lay a cool palm against his cheek. "Drink, Thellian."

His tongue found the marks he had made before. He did not want to scar Lalaine's perfect, perfect neck. So he sank his teeth there, drawing slowly and with practiced tenderness. Her body stiffened in his embrace.

"Me next," she whispered, forming the words with her lips pressed to his cold skin.

"Yes," he said. He closed his eyes and drank her in.

Chapter Text

(Minutes from weekly Scooby meeting, as transcribed by Willow Rosenberg)
Thursday, September 16, 2005

Minutes seconded for official record by Rupert Giles, Watcher

Scoobies present: Buffy, Xander, Andrew, Dawn, Giles, Kennedy and Miss Rosenberg. Also present, but in a self-labeled advisory capacity, William, formerly the Bloody, a.k.a. Spike.

Motion made by Andrew to include white board and markers in weekly meetings. Motion emphatically denied.

Topic presented by Rupert Giles: Slayer school in Paris (that's Naomi and Dominique's school) requested extra recruits sent to bolster their ranks, as there has been extra demon activity with the nearing of holiday season. Motion made by Buffy to send Rita Bellamy. Motion seconded by Giles.

Motion disputed by Kennedy. Argued that Rita lacks sufficient training. K. wants noted for the record that Rita is (so far) only student from Summers School to pass her trial & is therefore necessary to keep in ranks for training purposes.

Motion put to a vote – Rita to Paris: Carried. 5 to 1, with K. the only nay vote and Spike abstaining.

Motion presented by Buffy for allotting extra training time to Kennedy for Carmen, Renee, and Althea with express focus on heavy weapons. K. stated 'that's more the hell like it.'

Motion made then by K. to have Buffy and Giles let the rest of us in on their BIG SECRET PLANS. Buffy & Giles denied such plans were secret. Willow (me) made a statement on behalf of Watcher and Slayer basically attesting to the fact that they don't generally keep secrets. At least not important ones. Dawn then concurred.

Furthermore, Buffy stated that as Slayers their job was to wait for the bad guy to show up and then kick his or her ass. William then noted that K. should, until such time, 'shut her yap and keep training.'

K. then said, for the record, that it wasn't fair to exclude her from the Slayer/Watcher love fest. She went on to say that the last Watcher Council collapsed under its own bureaucratic weight. (Very insightful...) She then stormed from meeting.

(Remaining notes compiled by Andrew)

Willow has nice handwriting. Giles wants to return to 'secret' archive Saturday. Andrew has date with fair Nighna. Must pick up champagne. Or is that too cliche? Must ask Dawn. Hey, we need a slogan. I wonder why Buffy never had a slogan? Maybe it's something stupid like, 'Die vamps' or 'Taste my Slayer Wrath, Fiend.' Oooh, I know: 'Vampires Suck!'

(Meeting convened: 9:06 p.m.)

@*@*@


Saturday mornings were Dawn's favorite. Everyone converged in the kitchen no matter what his or her plans had been the night before. They usually sat around for a couple of hours, drinking tea or coffee, reading the papers, generally lazing about. It was like the meetings now held on Thursdays, but less formal and often more productive. But the best part was how everyone took part. They wanted to be there, basking in extended family goodness.

Dawn and Buffy were already downstairs in the kitchen. Dawn was setting up coffee to brew when Xander ambled in bearing the sodden Saturday edition of the Guardian. Buffy was her usual morning self much resembling cave Buffy without the unattractive brow ridge and dread-locked hair. Boiled down to crabby, grunty, carb freak. For her, waking was like slowly unwrapping layers of gauze. This was especially true after a hard night's slay.

"Blessed Goddess of the Hearth," Xander said. "Thanks for the pick-me-up percolation, Dawnie. You're a fine woman."

Dawn scooched onto the counter.

Buffy groaned. "Need coffee," she said. "You're too chipper."

"Poor Buffy. Morning is just not your thing," Xander said.

Buffy clunked her coffee mug on the table. "Need coffee," she said.

"So," Dawn said. "Big plans today?"

"Nada plans. Unless lying around watching rugby constitutes plans," Xander said. He unrolled the top sheets of the soaking paper. "Do you think if we microwaved these, they'd come out legibly dry?"

"Hmm. Maybe. Would they shrink?" Dawn said.

"Newspapers?" Buffy said. "No shrinkage. Maybe stinkage."

"Hello friends and friends," Andrew called from the entry hall.

"He'll wake the house," Buffy complained.

"Think he means to," Xander said.

Andrew came into the kitchen. Sparkles shone from his beaming bright smile. Birds sang. Butterflies danced. Yada yada.

"Good morning, all my lovely, lovely people," he said, breezing in. "Yes, I am just now returning from my night with Fair Nighna, and yes, I have brought a surprise for breakfast."

He glided into the kitchen with a long cardboard box balanced on his forearms.

"Donuts?" Buffy said, perking.

"Ordinary," Andrew said, with a flip of his hand. He slid the box onto the bar with a flourish.

"It's... sushi," Dawn said flatly, lips curling back.

"Sushi for breakfast?" Xander said. "Interesting choice unless you live in Japan."

William came in, rubbing at his eyes. "What's with the noise? Normal folk sleep in on Saturdays."

"Look," Dawn said. "Sushi for breakfast."

Andrew opened the box to reveal a dozen or so variously colorful sushi rolls each wrapped up like delicate candies on squares of waxed paper. "It's from my date last night," he said.

"Moreover, you doggie bagged it," Buffy said. "Can one safely do such a thing?"

"We weren't long in the restaurant," Andrew said. He winked and licked his lips. "Didn't wanna, ya know, waste it."

"I've just lost my appetite," Xander said. He sat down across from Buffy, ruffling his pages. Buffy, still groggy, turned her coffee cup in her hands.

William ventured forth. Dawn met him at the bar.

"Well, Niblet? Up for a risk?" William said.

Dawn shrugged. "Wouldn't happen to have a California roll, would ya?"

Andrew pointed to one. Dawn lifted it gingerly.

William popped a tuna roll into his mouth. He chewed, nodding his head. "You know, it's not bad. A break from the same old. Try it, pet."

"Well, here goes," she said, lifting it to her lips. Dawn bit into her California roll. "Mmm," she said. "Avocado."

"Did you know it's a fruit?" Andrew said, leaning in.

"Avocados are fruit. Get out," Dawn finished off the roll. She and Andrew continued talking while she munched.

Xander folded the paper over. "What kind of universe is this?" he asked. "I mean, Comic Book Kid here is getting more action than the X-man."

Over his shoulder, William said, "It's the only universe we've got. If you're so ponced about it, maybe you should get out and enjoy it."

Buffy squinted. Dawn gave pause. Andrew flushed pink to the tops of his pointy ears.

"Coffee," Buffy muttered. William went over to the pot. Still brewing.

"Not yet, luv," he said.

Buffy grumbled. She snatched the comics section from the paper. Xander grumbled, too, not to be left out. And Andrew just kept talking.

"And this one time we went to this restaurant called the Fat Duck. She had the poached salmon with licorice. Oh, and smoked bacon and egg ice cream for dessert," Andrew said.

"Mmm," Buffy said.

Xander looked up. "Bacon and egg ice cream gets your yummy noise?"

"Hmm?" Buffy said, looking up. Her stomach had been rumbly. She just didn't realize it till then. "What? It sounded good."

"Okay," Xander said. "This from a girl who thinks pineapple pizza is the height of culinary sophistication."

"It's fruit. And pizza," Buffy said. "The mind boggles."

"Yeah," Xander said. "Like me getting relationship advice from a guy who once dated a robot."

"Hey," Dawn said, offended. "Mom once dated a robot."

Xander waved his hand. "I'm just saying, the world's starting to feel all cattywumpus. Like everything's gone polar opposites. I mean, the Wonder Boy and Spike..."

"What's it got to do with us, mate?" William said. "You're the one playing house matron when you're not hammering your life away for Giles."

"Maybe Giles can find someone else to play Sir Fix-a-lot. Let you have some time off," Andrew said.

"That's a good idea, Xander," Dawn said. "You could go sightseeing in the city. You never know what might happen. Andrew met Nighna by accident."

Andrew placed his chin in his hand, putting on a scholarly air. "It was as Plato might have envisioned. Two souls cast apart, then reunited against all odds. Gather round for the tale..."

"They met in Greece," Dawn interrupted. "He ran over her foot with his Vespa."

Andrew looked uncomfortable. Then he gave a boyish smile. "She swears she stuck it out there on purpose, just to get my attention."

"You had a Vespa?" Xander asked.

Dawn snagged another California roll. "I love that story," she said. "When do we get to meet Nighna?"

Andrew bent his head forward, conspiratorially. "I dunno. Maybe soon. Next weekend? We're having drinks this evening, once we return from the secret archive."

William came over to the table and took the mug from Buffy's hand. He kissed her. It was a deep and unexpected kiss that did more for waking her than coffee ever could. The fact that it was no longer a secrety, forbidden thing made it all the more thrill-ranked.

William broke the embrace before she had a chance to react. It was a thing he did. He was on his way to the coffeepot with her cup when he called back over his shoulder, "You need to find yourself a girl, mate."

The lights in the kitchen flickered then went black. Andrew shrieked. Everyone else froze where they were.

"Dawn?" Buffy said, after a few seconds lapsed. "You okay?"

"Power outage. Just a power outage," Dawn said. "Normal families have power outages, right? Nothing unusual going on."

Xander, being Practical Man, clicked on a flashlight. He tossed a second to Buffy. "I'm gonna go check on Willow and Kennedy."

Buffy said, "I'll see about Giles. It's not like him to sleep late."

William remained behind with Andrew and Dawn. He turned a quick circuit, scanning the dark. "That's strange," he muttered to himself. The way the light shone in through the window above the made him think that he was missing something. Or that something was amiss. "Very strange," he said.

@*@*@

Kennedy was packing. Willow, Little Miss Bucket of Organization and Planning, had packed on Friday. Of course, Willow was only going so far as Westbury. Kennedy would add Paris to her list of destinations since she was escorting Rita to Naomi and Dominique.

"It's just like her," Kennedy said. She was full on rant. "Just like her. Get Kennedy out of the way. Sure. Send Kennedy to Paris. Have you seen my black leggings?"

Willow sat cross-legged in the center of the duvet, eyes closed, red hair streaming over her shoulders. An aura of flowy, mountain fresh energy permeated the air around her.

"Black leggings," Willow said, in hushed tones. "Under the bed."

Kennedy stalked toward the bed. She threw back the comforter and retrieved her pants. "She knows I'm stronger. She just hates a threat. It's just like in Sunnydale."

Willow's eyes flitted open, then closed. "Shhh," she said, tapping her forefinger to the edge of her eyebrow. "Concentrating. Requires all my concentration."

"How can you be so calm? What are doing anyway?" Kennedy said.

Willow drew a deep breath. The space around her shimmered like sunlight on water.

"I'm checking out the wards around the Flat. Fortifying the perimeter. Looking for weak spots. Then I'll widen the circle, feel out the Westbury house and double check the area for the presence of malice. Which, interestingly enough, kinda tastes like black licorice," Willow said.

Kennedy edged onto the bed, pouting. "How do you do it?" she asked. "How do you stay so focused and un-mad."

"Didn't and don't," Willow said. "But I try every day. Buffy needs that from me."

Kennedy got up as though the bed were crawling with ants. "It's all about Buffy. Buffy Buffy Buffy. I really don't know if I can take it."

Willow held up her hand. "Shh."

"Don't shush me. I'm serious. Willow?"

A painted lady butterfly drifted from the circle, whirling on an unseen current of air.

"Is it supposed to do that?" Kennedy asked.

"I didn't..." Willow said.

The sphere of energy around her paled. The colors in their room faded into it. Traces of crimson and gold streaked out in shocking vibrancy. They coiled like tentacles of smoke, probing outward over Willow's shoulders.

"Willow?" Kennedy said again.

Willow's eyes remained closed. Her skin took on a storm cloud pall. Her head titled back, exposing her soft neck in a way that made Kennedy distinctly on edge. The sphere bloated outward, growing fat and bulgy on one side. A stretching, tearing, moaning sound accompanied, growing louder as the energy filled the space above the bed.

"Hey!" Kennedy yelled. She leapt forward, but suspended mid-air like a fly trapped in honey. She hovered, looking down into Willow's open mouth, down and down into a depthless abyss. Willow made a hissing sound, like a tire going flat, in the back of her throat.

Kennedy hated helplessness. She hated not moving, not kicking, not being able to reach. It was cold. Light faded. She was alone in an abandoned, sunless place. Forgotten. Wasted. Despised.

Something wrenched her forward. Something threw her to the ground. She collided with a thud, then curled there, cursing her useless hands. She heard dim voices behind her, distant, inconsequential. Kennedy rolled on the carpet, pulling arms and legs around her to form a little ball. There was no pain. Yet. Someone knelt beside her, hands on shoulders, turning her. It was Buffy.

"Willow?" Kennedy croaked. Voices in the room. Voices, not their own.

"Giles has her," Buffy said. "She'll be all right. She'll be fine. Xander, we need water."

Willow was near convulsing. Giles held her as best he could.

"They're talking," Kennedy said. "Can you hear them? Chanting? My God, do something?" In her mind, she was screaming, but Buffy barely heard a word.

Dawn came in, reading staccato passages from one of her books with near-panicked urgency. Moments later, the chanting ceased. The pain was gone. The spell's hold was broken.

"Voices," Willow was whispering. "Voices, not our own."

"Can you hear us?" Giles said. "Willow? Can you...?"

Willow sat bolt upright. She shook her head, not comprehending. She looked at each of them and tears filled her eyes.

"There's a hole in the world," she said. "A hole..."

Willow covered her eyes and cried.

@*@*@

On the underside of the world, the Priestess of Nyr knelt, wrists upturned and veins drawn out. Blood ran from her in rivers, coursing into the Deeper Well, filling it, replenishing the Blood.

Her acolytes waited to cut her free when the last drop fell. Blind though they were, they could smell the dying. She would be gone, but they would carry the news to the Triumvirate.

One of them entered, carrying with him the sacred cloth. She could smell the myrrh oil and felt faintly touched. After all of these millennia, he remembered...

The Priestess had not spoken in so long, her voice trailed out in a whisper.

"Tell Thellian it is accomplished," she said. "And tell him the witch bore witness, as he hoped she would."

The acolyte nodded. He drew a ceremonial blade from his belt and slashed her body free from its venous bonds. The priestess did not cry out. She turned her sunken eyes to the acolyte. Tendrils of blackness radiated from the hollow places, effacing her face as they clawed forward.

"I'm free," she whispered. "We are all free now. Tell Thellian, it is done."

The blood fell like rain through the Deeper Well. Sparks raced along the tombs of the Old Ones like synapses firing.

The spell was complete.

@*@*@

Angel awoke several hours after sunrise. His heart pounded under his breastbone, pounded with a force he hadn't felt...

He got to his feet. He pulled open his shirt. The brand on his chest blazed plasma orange and pulsed with every slowing beat. Soon enough, it faded to a somber burnt ochre. The pain remained, stubbornly affixed to the memory of what it felt like to be a man. To be human.

As the pulse stilled in his blood, he felt new strength coursing.

Angel clenched his fist. Seemed strong. Wicked strong. He kicked the wall. The whole thing tumbled down.

When the dust cleared, Angel mopped his brow.

"I'm thinking this is... not good," he said.

Chapter Text

Downstairs, in the kitchen again, everyone gathered around Willow, who was too weak to stand. Giles passed her a glass of water.

"Give yourself time," he said. "You don't have to speak until you're ready."

Willow drained the glass, swallowing hard. Buffy stood beside her, a steady hand on her shoulder.

Xander stalked under the kitchen archway, wanting to smack something but seeing as there was no target, he settled for glaring emphatically. Willow wiped her mouth with the heel of her hand.

"I have to speak now," Willow said. "It's bad, Giles. It's..." Her eyes welled with tears again, but she bit them back.

"Just get your breath, Sweetie," Kennedy said.

"No. No. There's a hole in the world," Willow said.

"Yeah there is," William said.

Everyone turned to look at him.

"You knew?" Buffy said. "But you didn't tell anyone."

"Not something you can work into conversation, is it? 'Bit of trivia. There's this hole. Goes all the way through the earth to the other side,'" William said.

Giles took Willow's water glass. "The entrance is in the Cotswolds," he added.

"You knew too?" Buffy said. She paused, figuring things. "Cotswolds. The Watcher retreat. Connection?"

"It's the sacred resting place of the Old Ones – demigods who inhabited this plane before demonkind. Naturally it is the seat of immense mystical energy," Giles said.

"But," Willow said. "What about volcanoes, plate tectonics, sea floor spreading? I'm Science Girl 101, remember? What about the upper crust, the mantle and the molten core made of nickel?"

"Demonic activity covered by modern scientific chicanery and government conspiracies," Giles said simply.

"Fictions!" Kennedy protested.

Andrew clasped his hands in prayer. "God bless you, Mulder," he said.

"But it's impossible," Willow went on. "A hole that goes all the way through?"

"To New Zealand," William said. "Apparently."

Buffy was shaking her head. "It doesn't add. Giles, what is it? Other than the burial ground for ancient dead gods? What's in it?"

"After what it did to Willow, I think it's safe to rule out a fluffy cream-filled center," Xander said.

"It contains sarcophagus... es. Sarcophagi?" William said. He started over: "There were tombs. Lots and lots of tombs."

"There were voices," Willow said, remembering.

"Chanting," Kennedy added. "It was a spell."

"But not directed at us. I saw it by accident. A random spell sighting. Any Wicca this side of the world could have, if they'd been tuned in," Willow looked up, eyes wide. "Giles, the Coven. If they were meditating, they could have..."

Giles strode from the room, leaving silence in his wake. Seconds later, they heard him speaking over the phone to someone in Westbury.

Buffy turned to William. "You've been, haven't you? You..."

William dropped his gaze. "There was a girl named Fred. Got hijacked by one of the Old Ones. Illyria..."

"The one who fought with you and..."

"Angel. That's right. We tried to stop it – her – from overtaking the little bit," William said. He looked back at Buffy. "We failed."

Giles came back in. "Ariadne did say they sensed a disturbance..."

Andrew looked eager to chip in, but Giles shut him down with a scathing glare.

"However," Giles continued, "they saw nothing like what you described."

"Which means..." Dawn said.

"Whoever did this. Whatever they are. They meant for Willow to see it," Buffy said, picking up the thread.

"It may give us insight into what we're dealing with," Giles finished.

Willow tried to stand. Several pairs of hands pushed her back into the chair.

"Guys, enough with the infirm old auntie treatment, okay?" Willow said. "The sooner I get to Westbury, the better to get the mystical whips a-crackin'. So far, we've got nothing, as in goose egg. As in hole-in-the-earth nothing. I don't wanna get caught with our pointy hats down."

"We won't," Buffy said. "We'll all get our various whips a-crackin'. Dawn, you guys dig up all you can from that archive. If this Damas guy believed it was a key to the End of Days, we've got to unlock its secrets. Quicker equals better. Something out there is both searching and acting. We've got to find out the why and the who. Giles, do you think any of your Watcher trainees might have turned up anything?"

Giles took off his glasses and cleaned them. "It's worth a try. They are very inexperienced, apocalyptically speaking. Most of them wouldn't know where to start."

"Give them a starting place," Buffy said. "And have the Slayers hit the streets, check the local demon haunts..."

"Nuzzle up to the vamp population," Kennedy quipped.

"Not helping," Dawn said.

"We have a network," Buffy said. "Our strength is our connection. It's time to put that to the test."

Giles replaced his glasses. "Good then. Andrew, Dawn... let's get on the road to Amesbury by 9 a.m. We will beat the tourist rush if we can arrive before lunch."

"Can I...?" Andrew said.

"No, Andrew. You may not drive," Giles said.

Before leaving the room, Giles squeezed Willow's shoulder. "You sure you'll be all right?"

Willow pressed her pale lips into a thin smile. "Of course I will. I'm a Sunnydale girl," she said.

@*@*@

Xander felt better with a plan of action. Problem was, he had no part in said plan.

As Dawn was leaving, he caught her elbow.

"Hey Dawnie," he said. "About that spell book you used. You know? With the speaking-in-tongues chant and the whole Willow-Kennedy rescue thing. Good job on that, by the way..."

"Oh," Dawn said, turning pink. "Thanks. The Vendregills. I didn't steal it. I mean, it's not mine. It belongs to Giles. I borrowed it. He doesn't know I borrowed it, but it wasn't off limits or anything. He just had it in with the books from the archive. I picked it up..."

"It's okay. I'm not Accusation Guy. I'm Overdue Book Guy," Xander said.

"It's a library book?" Dawn said doubtfully. "I'm pretty sure they don't have these kinds of books in vanilla libraries."

"No," Xander said. "I borrowed it from a shop..."

"Xander!"

"Not that kind of 'borrow'. Look, it belongs to a girl named Maya and I promised to bring it back, but Giles had it, then you had it. Now I'd like to have it, so I can, y'know, give it back," Xander explained.

"Oh," Dawn said. Then, "Oh! Better ask Giles. He uses it in the archive sometimes. He may need it today."

"Right," Xander said, not hiding his disappointment.

"Or, you know, you could recheck it," Dawn said.

"Right!" Xander said.

"So, Maya huh?"

"It's not like that. With the moonish eyes and the... I know what you're thinking. It's just about the book. And my sense of overwhelming guilt at having never returned Watership Down to the Sunnydale High library, " Xander said. "So it's not about that. Just the book."

"Okay, Xander," Dawn said, but she still had that look as she left him, and that made Xander feel... unnerved.

@*@*@


Maya dusted on Saturdays. Not that there was any point to it. Go Ask Alice was practically made of dust, but that was how exciting her life was. She moved dust from one place to another.

After dusting, Maya typically blogged for a few hours, then catnapped by the sink in the utility closet so that she could hear if random customers wandered in off the street. It did happen. Once in a while, she did get actual customers. Sometimes, they even bought books.

It was still mid-morning when Xander found the shop, now purporting itself as The Water Hole on the easel sign outside.

Maya looked up from her computer screen. She wished desperately that she had thought to remove the magenta polka dot scarf from her head. She minimized the windows on her desktop and tried to look industrious.

Xander held out a brown paper bag in his hands like an offering. "I have no book," he said. "Giles begs to keep it, or recheck it. Do you recheck?"

"Um, sure..." Maya said, grinning.

"Instead, I bring food," Xander said, crossing the store quickly as if she might throw him out for suggesting such a thing. "I know you said – with the tea and the bad break up and all. But here." He placed the bag on the counter. "It's a lahvash roll."

Maya, still smiling, unrolled the top of the bag and looked in.

"Lahvash? Like the French word for cow?" she said.

"Sure. But no cow," Xander said. When he started explaining, he found he couldn't shut himself up. "It's vegetarian lahvash. My roommate Willow made it. She's not vegetarian. She's Wiccan. And also, lesbian."

Maya took out the lahvash and sampled, trying to hide what she thought must be a baffled expression. But Xander caught it.

"It's vegetarian for Dawn," he explained. "She's no go for carnivore fare."

"Dawn?" Maya asked.

"Another roommate," Xander said, wishing he hadn't. He could feel his skin going prickly on the back of his neck. "Or flat mate, I should say. We all share a house. We're like the Brady Bunch. Except instead of Alice, we have Andrew. And instead of the gay dad, we have Giles, who isn't gay but British. He sort of took us all in when our hometown fell off the face of the earth. So I should probably stop talking now. Yet, somehow I can't. Maybe you should take the wheel and drive this conversation back onto the regularly paved highway."

"Have some lahvash?" Maya offered.

Xander looked relieved. "Yes, have some," he said.

They ate quietly, not looking directly at each other. Maya was busy trying not to make a mess of herself with the cream cheese that kept sliding out of its lahvash confines.

"Well," Maya said. "Your flat seems..."

"Crowded?"

"I was going for nice," she said. "Drink?"

"Sure."

"I only have tap water. And I only have luke warm," she said.

"My favorite. The perfect complement to day-old refrigerated lahvash rolls," Xander said.

Maya left. She returned with Dixie cups filled to brimming.

Xander looked from the paper cups to Maya's face. She was smiling, but it seemed forced, like it was a put-on for someone else. He looked again at the blurred holiday photos on her countertop. All the colors fuzzed and bled together around her while she remained in focus. Peculiar...

"You should come for dinner," Xander said, taking a gigantic swerving leap from what he intended to say, which was 'thanks for the water.'

"I don't get out much," Maya said simply.

"I get that. You should," Xander said.

Maya seemed to curl in on herself like the leaves of a touch-me-not. "I... shouldn't." Then, recovering like a pro, she added, "Besides, you haven't returned the Vendregills so how do I know you're the upright sort of man."

"Oh. I'm upright. Wait." Xander coughed.

Maya ignored him. "Mr. Giles having trouble unsticking some mystical pickle jar?" Maya asked.

"What?" Off guard now, Xander thought. Shot down and spiraling. May Day, May Day!

"It's my lame attempt at a joke. Vendregills was a Celtic portal mage. He also wrote clever crosswords. But his true gift was writing sealing spells and opening portals," Maya said.

"Oh, well... I guess," Xander floundered.

"Thanks for the lahvash," Maya said. "I was hungry. Variety is not something I get a lot of here."

Xander got a glimpse of that face facade again. She was either hiding something or afraid. Maybe both.

"You believe things happen for a reason?" he said, venturing again into Boldland.

"Hmm," Maya said. She considered for a while. "Yes," she said, finally. "Yeah, I do."

"That's something," Xander said. He backed away from the counter. "I'll be back."

He nodded, firmly, then turned to leave.

"Wait," Maya called out. Xander paused but didn't turn.

She went cold and shaky. She knew it meant trouble, what she was about to say...

"I'm o-open. On weeknights," Maya said. She couldn't believe herself. "You should see my specials. Book specials. That is."

Xander's face stretched into a wide smile. "Hey, I'd like that," he said.

He walked out feeling taller and stronger than he had in weeks. He felt awake. And so what if there was a hole in the world. He was thinking he knew of ways to fill it.

@*@*@

"God damn, but New Orleans is a filthy city. I thought New York was bad, but this place is trash. Am I right?"

Faith sat astride a Berithi demon. She struck a match on her boot heel.

"Wood, am I right?" she asked.

Wood trained the double barrels of his shotgun at the Berithi's throat. "You got it," he said, deadpan.

The Berithi had given up the struggle. Goopy yellow fluid oozed from its many wounds and orifices.

"I've had my fill of filth," Faith said. She lit a cigarette, took a long drag, blew it out. "Catch me? Just nod if you catch me."

The Berithi nodded. Its folded neck flesh waggled and flopped.

"So you gonna give me what I want?" Faith asked. She raised the cherry of the cigarette to the demon's flabby face, almost touching its reddish scaly skin. "You gonna give me what I want, Sugar?"

The Berithi nodded some more. Wood risked a glance over his shoulder. Jacque's Roadhouse had cleared out when they took on the Berithi and dusted three of his vampire henchmen. The bartender, a swine-faced human proprietor, hid out behind the blasted jukebox, whimpering occasionally.

"The priestesssssth you thseek," the Berithi hissed. "Thshee no longer rethsides on thisss continent."

"Stop with the sibilants, will ya? I'm getting soaked," Faith said. "The priestess, yeah? Where'd she go?" The cigarette at the demon's cheek slowly turned to ash.

The Berithi quivered all the way to its tri-pronged toes. "If I tell you, thhhey will kill me."

"Who's they? You tell us. We kill them. We kill evil things, remember?" Faith said.

"I'm not evil. I'm juthsssed confuthsssed," the Berithi said.

"Enough," Faith said, raising her voice. She pressed the cigarette to his skin. It sizzled, then smoked. The Berithi bucked and rolled, thrashing its legs. Faith held him. She wiped sweat from her widely broadcast cleavage. "It's hot. We're all tired. Quit with the stalling game, or I'm gonna get really friendly with Mr. Zippo. Got me?"

The Berithi stilled. Its three bulbous eyes scanned the room. Seeing only Wood, he raised his head a few inches from the floor.

"The Triumvirate," he said.

"The what-irate?" Faith said. "Boy, you best not be telling lies. My man here has a shotgun, and he hates it when a creature lies."

The Berithi shook its head. "The Triumvirate called the priestesssth. Thssssent her to the islandsth."

Faith held up her cigarette again, aiming for the demon's eye. "Be more specific. There are lots of islands."

"Haiti, I thhhink. Thhhey may have thsaid Haiti," the Berithi said, quivering. "Fire. Fire bad. Pleasssthe."

Faith tossed her hair. "Fire is bad, baby. You've just had the little taste. Now. Tell me about her followers."

The sound of breaking glass outside gathered their collective attentions.

"Faith," Wood said. "Time to close up shop."

Faith cinched the Berithi's throat in its shirt collar. She heaved him up so that they were face to face. "Looks like your lucky day. But if you're lying, my girl Shannon'll finish the job. New Orleans is her city. Got that?"

The Berithi's eyes rolled in their sockets. "Okay okay okay," he blubbered.

Faith got up. She kicked the Berithi while it was down.

"Haiti?" she said to Wood.

"Good a place to look as any," he answered. "Let's get outta here."

As they crossed the glass-strewn floor, Wood heard something. It started out soft, like the steady purr of waves.

"Do you hear that?"

"Sounds like... water?"

"Getting louder," Wood said.

"By the second. Hang on." Faith opened the door. Twilight fanned out over the treeless delta where the roadhouse crouched like a wart on a bayou toad. But what used to be a waterfront deck was now six feet deep in black gumbo sludge. Fish stranded by the sudden change of tide flopped helplessly on the shining mud.

"What the...?" Faith said. "Where'd the bayou go?"

Wood searched the horizon. Then he spotted it.

"Faith, look," he said. His throat went dry. "There's a hole."

The Berithi joined them on the porch. "Ithhh's a thsssalt dome, geniusth," the demon said, looking smug. "Looksth like my thssecret diesth withh you, ThSlayer. I have gillsssth."

"What the hella good will gills do?" Faith said, advancing on the Berithi.

"Oh," Wood said. The shotgun fell with a clatter to the split-wood planks. The hole spread rapidly in their direction, great sodden chunks caving wetly in.

"Faith. Run," Wood said.

They leapt the porch rail. The mud sucked at their legs, dragging them down.

"We can't outrun it!" Faith yelled. She turned back just as Jacque's Roadhouse went sliding down.

The ground under her feet shuddered. They were going down. When the earth opened up, she looked down into its throat. It was black and full of filth.

"Oh f..." she said, and she was gone.

Chapter Text

Buffy and William made a sweep through the warehouse district and the usual cemeteries. All quiet on the West End front. They decided to hit Camden on their way back to the Flat. After the morning's big scare with Willow, Buffy was on the talkative side. She got that way when something made her nervous, especially when the something was a great big unknown.

"Kennedy's always leading high. Like this," Buffy said. She imitated Kennedy's right hook, aiming for William's chin. He parried it like a bear swatting at a butterfly.

"Yeah, I've seen it," he said.

"Meanwhile, she all like, 'You're weak. You're not trying. You can't be the Slayer without all that misery... blah, blah, blah," Buffy said.

"She's an upstart. A Slayer with vision," William said, gesturing widely.

They meandered through dark alleys behind clubs long closed for the night, taking their time. They ran across a few straggling clubbers bound for the trains, but no demons.

"Did you talk with Willow?" William suggested.

"Oh, right. 'Hey, Wil. You're girlfriend is a pain in my ass, so I had to smack her down.' Plus, after today's insanity..."

"Kennedy remind you of anyone?" William said.

Buffy fidgeted. "Yes. Okay? But she shouldn't. They're really not that similar."

"No, they're not. But Kennedy wants the same things Faith did. She sees the lot of you, finishing each other's sentences, borrowing hairbrushes and shoes. She wants a part of it. Not to mention the massive back story she'll never share," he said.

"Okay. Granted. But Kennedy's going about it in the wrong ways. She's always pushing. She questions every plan or lack thereof," Buffy said.

"So she has the people skills of a Borentz demon, but..." William stopped walking. "Wait. You do have a plan, right? You and Rupert?"

"Of course, I have a plan," Buffy said, becoming more animated as she spoke. "Once Carmen, Renee and Althea finish with their weapons training, we'll take them out to patrol with us. Give them the whole London undead tour. Then they'll be ready for the trial. If they pass – and I have no doubt that they will – we can divide the city into sections, ya know. Each Slayer with her route of her own. Keep them close to their host families to start. The last thing we need is a bunch of scared girls running around in the middle of the night. They aren't gonna be alone in this. We can overlap, set up a grid. Keep us safe. What?"

William was smiling. "Good plan. Kudos to all that. Except, I wasn't talking about them."

"No?"

"No. I was referring to the Bigger Bad. The one that caught Willow in its Deeper Well spell. Any plans there?"

Buffy glowered. "No plans as such. Unless you call waiting for Bigger Bad to roll into town and then kicking its Bad Guy ass a plan. Besides, Giles is Plan Man. Leave the thinking to the thinkers, William. We fight the fight."

"Speaking of," William said. He pointed in the direction of the alley's end, where a gang of burly biker vamps loitered. They were smoking, talking, looking menacing.

"And hey, here's a chance to prove my point," Buffy said. She pulled a stake from her pocket.

Buffy walked right up to them. "Hey," she said. There were four chaps-and-chains guys. They did not look pleased to see her.

"Like, what are you guys doing tonight?" Buffy asked, going valley. "Wanna... play?" She brandished her stake.

The first of the four cocked his bald head to the side. He seemed wider than he was tall. His fleshy belly spilled out over a razor strap belt.

"As a matter of fact, we do," he said. His hammy fists shot out with bat-blinding speed. Buffy sailed back. She crashed into dustbins and stacked wooden crates. William rushed in, leading with a kick. Booted foot smashed into biker face, but the vamp barely flinched.

The other three didn't wait for a signal to charge in. William backhanded one. He ramped off the wall, slamming elbow to vampire ribcage. Buffy was up again. Two flanked her. She lodged her stake in one vampire's eye. She kneed his chin, stunning him. The second dug claws into her shoulder and arm. Felt like he tried tearing it off. She jammed her heel into his knee. It was like kicking boulders.

William fared no better. The first vampire got his fists around Will's neck. He hefted him off the ground, ready to play the tossing game again. William groined him. The vampire's hold weakened. William slipped down, gasping and choking. The second vampire seized William from behind, looping his arms under his shoulders.

"More like it," the first vampire growled, fanging out. "Nice of you to present a target."

William broke free. He rolled the second vamp over his shoulder, into the path of the first vamp's bite.

Buffy squared off with her two attackers. Both lunged. William slung one into the wall. Buffy caught the second, dropped, carrying him down with her. She flipped him over, straddled him, went for the staking. But he threw her off.

"Damn it," she spat. She and William were shoulder to shoulder now. "That usually works."

"Something's not right here," William said.

The four vampires regrouped, closing off the mouth of the alley.

"Fall back," Buffy said, quietly.

"What? Run?" He looked scandalized.

"No." She was out of breath. They needed the higher ground. "Sort of. Follow me."

Buffy backed away. The vampires advanced.

"Scared, Slayer?" the first one taunted.

A little bit, yeah, she thought.

The alley ended in a 'T' intersection. Buffy nodded to William, indicating they take the left. They bolted down the dark passage with the vampires close behind. The alley veered hard right, then forked. Letting her instinct fly, she chose left again. And came smack to the dead end of the path.

"Cornered? Us?" she breathed. "How did this happen?"

"Shh," William said. They could hear the vampires, very near.

Buffy scanned the area. Glass bottles – useless. Stacks of newspapers – no good. She looked up. A ragged canvas tarp draped from the rooftop three stories above.

Buffy turned to William, eyes wide. "How long can you hold them?"

A faint, intrigued smile appeared. "How long do you need?"

He followed her gaze, then nodded. Buffy squeezed his hand. The shadows swallowed her as she shimmied up the gutter pipe toward the roof.

Buffy slid over the ledge just as the vampires found William. She heard him say, in his familiar, strident tone, "Well, boys. Let's have us a jaunt, shall we?"

The tarp was wider than she counted on. Better for them. It was secured over a pile of bricks, probably to protect them from the London damp. Seeing as water damage was not high on her priority list, she yanked the tarp free.

Buffy dragged the musty thing along behind her to the edge of the roof. Below, William was fending them off, but barely so. She eased onto the fire escape. Through the metal mesh floor, she saw the vampires almost directly below her feet. If she timed it just right...

The bald vampire had William by the throat again. Must go now. She flung the tarp over the edge. She jumped with it, riding it down like a magic carpet. When she landed on the very surprised vampires, she rolled off, taking one edge and pulling down hard. William did the same on the other side. They all came tumbling down.

"Got em?" Buffy called out.

William was climbing over the top, stake in his right hand, stabbing down through the squirming canvas. Buffy slammed her fist into a vamp body. It sprawled. She tackled. They took out three in the onset confusion, but the last one wriggled free. He vanished, leaving William and Buffy panting and bloody.

They collapsed on the canvas tarp adrift with dust.

"Plan worked," William said. A cut along the bridge of his nose was closing up. "Thinking to the thinkers? You can put a check mark next to brains."

Buffy tried to steady her breathing.

"They were strong, yes?" she panted.

"Eating their spinach."

"But they..." she began. She noticed something very wrong with the sleeve of William's coat. "Your arm. It's on backwards. It's broken."

William sighed. "Was broken."

"Oh," Buffy said slowly. Her brow creased with concern. "I have to reset it."

William winced involuntarily. "Please say there's whiskey involved."

"C'mon. To the bar. Let's go."

They crouched together near the mouth of the alley where they first encountered the super-amped vamps. Buffy went inside and returned with a bottle of Jack Daniel's that William downed like a professional drunk. He caught his breath, then waited for the familiar burn to ignite in his belly.

"I feel... nothing," William said. He sounded woozy. Buffy took that as a good sign.

"Nothing's good. Nothing is the desired end," she said.

"No. I feel nothing. At all. The boozing up has up and gone," he said. Pain flashed in his eyes. Followed by realization. He chuckled softly. "Oh. This is a bloody riot. Regeneration's got the new liver on hyperdrive. Whiskey might as well be water."

"You're saying alcohol has no effect?" Buffy balked.

William looked heavenward, then rolled his eyes back. "Good to know the Sisters have got a sense of humor," he said.

"William, take off your coat," Buffy said.

"Don't think I can, pet." His teeth clenched.

Buffy took his arm in her hands. "I have to re-break it. You can't walk around like this. You look like a little teapot."

William caught her wrist. "Don't be a ginger about it. I've had..."

The bone cracked like a rifle shot. William screamed. Buffy did too.

"Ah, bugger it," he gulped. He smashed the empty Jack Daniel's bottle against the opposite brick wall. "I should've known."

Buffy smoothed her hand down the now straight sleeve of his coat. "I did what I had to," she said.

"Nah. Not that," William said. He bent his arm at the elbow, at the wrist, swiveling it around. "See? Full range of motion restored. I should have known, about what I am."

William was not one to wear the weight of his age. Eternal youthfulness seemed his permanent press. At that moment, though, his face held all of his many years. He looked unbelievably old and tired and sad.

"I'm a thing, Buffy. A different kind of thing, but still..." He swallowed. "A thing."

Buffy laced her fingers in his. "A good thing," she said.

William had his doubts. She allayed them. Three little words.

He said, "We should be getting on. Don't want to miss our train home."

Chapter Text

Buffy slept solid through morning. It was the deepest sleep she'd had in years. Her muscles hurt in ways she didn't like to think about. She raised her head to find the bed empty. The digital readout on the clock blurred. She squinted, bringing the red slashes of numbers into focus.

"It's after 10? Oh, that can't be right."

Buffy eased herself by parts out of the bed. She went to Dawn's room. Knocked. No answer.

Giles was just coming out of the kitchen with a cup of tea when Buffy made her way downstairs.

"Ah, there you are," he said. "I was just coming to find out if you were all right."

Buffy smoothed her hair behind her ears. "I'm Little Miss Sleeps In, apparently. Where is everyone?"

Giles said, "I just got in myself."

"Oh? Long night at the library?"

"Early morning, actually. Had to retrieve a text from my office," Giles paused. He swirled his tea. "Um, Buffy. We've all been so busy, what with the archive and the impending doom. I haven't... well, I haven't checked in. How are..."

Buffy always did enjoy watching Giles attempt warm fuzziness. His Dad Senses must have been tingling.

"It's okay. I'm fine," Buffy said. She realized she was starting down the avenue of reassurance. She came to a screeching halt. "Well, no. That's not exactly true. I got my ass kicked last night by a group of super vamps. So I guess that means falls into the 'not fine at all' category."

Giles put down his mug on the entry table. "Super vampires?" he said, quietly.

"Remember the Turok-Han?"

Giles looked momentarily mortified.

"Not that strong," Buffy said, reassuring again. "But close. Like double first cousins close. We had to pull circus tricks to beat them."

"Were they...?"

"Joe Vampire, foot to fangs. But wicked strong and wicked fast," she said. "Giles, I think if I had been alone, I might not have..."

The corners of Giles' mouth turned down as if he'd just bitten into a moldy cashew.

"They were strong, Giles," she said, keeping her volume down. "Like Gem of Amarra strong."

"Buffy, whatever this is that we're up against, they aren't holding back. They are going global," Giles said.

Buffy felt the twinge of a muscle cramp under her shoulder blade. "I know. The Sisters said the world will witness," she said. "Am I correct in assuming that it's all connected? The Deeper Well spell, the supercharged vampires..."

"The Sisters and Spike's return," Giles said.

Buffy studied Giles, waiting for him to explain. When he didn't, she narrowed her eyes.

"Don't even start," she said.

She stepped around Giles into the hallway. The kitchen was empty, but she heard garbled noise in the direction of the TV room. She headed that way. Giles followed.

"Buffy," he said, trying to catch her. She ignored him. The TV room was empty. The garden, then.

Giles got in front of her. "Look, I'm aware of what you must think. I'm a fretful old ninny with too much to worry over than to criticize your choice in men," he said. "But, I do worry. I am a ninny. And I do have my doubts."

"I don't," she said. "You taught me to trust my instincts. So, while I appreciate your earnest honesty, I'm good on this one. And," she added, "I would never call you a ninny."

Giles shrugged. "Yes, well. With our precarious situation, it is particularly important that we choose our alliances with extreme care. Just try to consider all possibilities."

"Fine," Buffy said. She stepped passed him again. "Consider them considered."

The noise turned out to be The Clash played at just below ear-splitting volume on Andrew's iPod. No shock there. Finding William in the garden up to his elbows in topsoil and wielding a trowel took them both by surprise.

Buffy stepped out onto the flagstone patio. She toggled the off button on the iPod. William kept singing and continued digging for a few seconds before understanding that the back-up track was gone. He stood up quickly, turned to them and stammered.

Buffy craned her neck to see around him. A row of seedlings lined the back garden wall, their leafy green tops just peeking from the mud.

"Are you... gardening?" she said.

"Is that my sombrero?" Giles said.

"Well. Yeah," he said, clinging to dignity. Not really clinging so much as slipping.

Buffy stepped out onto the lawn. "Really?" she asked, disbelieving.

"Sure. Yeah. I'm a helpful sort," William said.

"Helped yourself into my rooms for your sun hat," Giles said.

"I have fair skin, don't I?" William answered.

"You regenerate," Giles yelled.

"Don't get your knickers in a twist, Rupert," William said, rolling his eyes. "Willow's the one got the hat and the gardening gig. She asked me to plant these, seeing as I'm the one who's home during the day. They're meant to strengthen the shield 'round the house. Growing things. Positive energy. It's good feng shui."

Buffy cast an 'I-told-you-so' look over her shoulder at Giles. William dusted soil from his hands and joined them. And he removed the hat. The three of them headed back indoors.

"By the way," William said. "Some bloke name of Bairdley phoned. Said there was a complaint from Anjelica's host family."

"A complaint?" Giles said.

"About Anjelica?" Buffy asked. "She's all silent type. What did they say?"

"Something about her making weapons out of their silver. Didn't catch all of it. I'm not Message Boy," he said.

"Well now, that's hardly cause for complaint," Giles said. "It's extraordinary, making her own weapons. Girl should be commended for her ingenuity."

"Though I'd hate to see what she's using as a forge," Buffy said.

Giles, all flustered and paternal, went to the phone stand to return Bairdley's call.

@*@*@

Xander and Dawn were in the basement, sorting through books from the archive. Dawn had loaded a loose assortment of incantation texts, grimoires and personal spell books into a cardboard box labeled 'Mystical Misc.'

"So she invited you back during the week," Dawn said. She taped the box lid down. "I'm thinking, good sign."

Xander hefted the box. "Well, okay. But, there is something weird. Is this the only one ready for now?"

"Yep. Giles'll want these in with his private Watcher stash. We can pack them in the car," Dawn said. They started up the basement stairs with Xander toting the bulky box of books. "What's weird about her?"

"Huh? Oh. Maya," Xander said. He smiled. Then frowned. "It's like a hermit crab, you know? You try to pry it out, but it keeps retracting into its shell. But you kinda get the idea it wants to come out and play."

"Hmm," Dawn said. She opened the door.

"So I'm thinking, witness relocation program or twisted demon curse holding her captive within the store," Xander said.

"Or maybe just possessive ex-boyfriend," Dawn countered. "Normal things can make people wig out and hide in the old shell sometimes. So I've heard. Hey, maybe I can come along next time and check her out."

"Yeah?"

"Sure. I'd like to see what an enchanted bookshop looks like," Dawn said. "And I promise not to mention your ex-demon fiancée, your love spell attempts gone horribly awry, or the whole musical demon conjuring extravaganza."

Xander put the box down on the entry hall floor. "Second thought, maybe don't need your help."

"Help with what?" Buffy said.

"Xander's new girlfriend," Dawn said, all chipper.

"Xander has a girlfriend," William said, digging in. "Well met. Is she half blind, too?"

Xander's incoherent protest was cut short for at that moment Andrew burst through the front door, slammed it, then ducked into the closet beneath the stairs.

"Um... What was that?" Buffy said.

Something outside rammed against the front door, jarring it in its frame. Dawn shrieked. Buffy ran to the door but she knew before she opened it that whatever had been there was already gone.

Giles came around the corner from the phone stand.

"What was that? Was someone here?" he said.

Buffy walked out onto the front steps, scanning the street up and down. She stepped back inside.

"Whatever it was, it's gone," Buffy said. "But Andrew..."

Dawn knocked on the door. "Andrew? We've got an all clear. You can come out of the closet now."

"Go away please," Andrew said, his voice muffled by the musty coats and umbrellas in the closet.

Dawn pulled on the doorknob. "Come out. No part of this is funny."

Andrew held fast, tug-of-warring with her and winning. "No, I'm not coming out. Not ever."

Xander banged on the door. "What have you done, muppet weasel?" Xander growled.

"Xander, back off," Buffy said. "Andrew, it's us. Okay? Come out and tell us what happened."

Andrew didn't respond.

"Fine," Buffy said. She casually ripped the door from its hinges.

Andrew crouched among galoshes, tears streaming. He turned a whiter shade of miserable.

"I think Nighna's a demon," he said, gulping air like a Brittney Spears fan. "And I think she followed me here."

They stood there, soaking in the words. Finally, Xander gave a tiny snort of laughter. They all stared at him, appalled, which made him laugh a little more.

"Come on. I can't be the only one who sees humor in this," he said. "Somebody sharing my pain. I'm no longer alone in the 'My Ex is a Demon' parade. Andrew can throw ticker tape."

"Xander, shut up!" Dawn snapped. She whirled on Andrew. "How could you let this happen? You led a demon to our doorstep. All the protection for this house is for nothing..."

Andrew crumpled inward even further. "I know. I didn't know what else to do. Please shut the door."

"Get out of there," Buffy said. She hauled reluctant Andrew to his feet. "We need to conference. Now."

@*@*@

Maya awoke mid-morning, in the mood for the leftover treacle pudding in the fridge. The buckled floorboards creaked as she walked sockless across the chilly half-room that served as bedroom, kitchen and dining area. The smell should have warned her. But she could be pretty oblivious where treacle was concerned. By the time she reached the mini-kitchen, it was too late.

The stench. It was like a kick in her belly. Maya doubled over to the blue and black tile floor.

"What?" she gasped, nearly gagging. She raised her head. The freezer door stood ajar by a few inches. Thin red fluid pooled in a sticky puddle beneath it. Maya's body trembled and went cold.

"What did I do? What did I do this time?" she whispered, her voice frail and shaking.

She crawled toward the refrigerator. She opened the door, knowing full well what she would find inside. All spoiled. All ruined. And, as a free gift, full of maggots.

Maya shut both freezer and fridge doors without further peeking. No need, seeing as it was neither her birthday nor Christmas, and who wants squirmy things for presents? She retreated from the kitchen area, itching to scream, knowing no good would come of it.

She screamed anyway.

"What did I do?" She smashed fists against the wall. "What? Tell me," she shouted.

The light bulb above her glared white hot, wailing like a kettle.

"No," Maya mouthed. She dropped to the floor, shielding her face with her arms. The first bulb blew. The others bulbs followed like a string of Chinese firecrackers, leaving Maya bleeding in the dark.

For a long while she refused to move. Refused to pluck the slivered glass from her skin. She heard the computer click on behind the store counter, cycling through its startup with bristling efficiency.

"No good asking questions," she murmured to herself. As if she needed more of a reminder.

@*@*@

Angel stood in the ruined lobby of the Royal London Hotel. It was his problem now – every shattered window, every wrecked floor. He possessed the resources to revive the whole shambling mess.

Somehow it didn't fill him with the sense of purpose he had hoped for. Here he was with home base, the keys to the kingdom in his hands, and yet he still felt muddled. His inner compass turned lazy wheeling circles, guessing for North and coming up Nothing.

The big question still skulked around in his head: why exactly was he here?

London had demon societies. They were anachronisms, staid and entrenched. Had been that way since before the birth of Christ. Demons in the UK weren't so ambitious as those in New York or LA. Or Tokyo. Now there was a scene for scheming demons. So this was perhaps an unlikely location to set up his new W&H HQ.

It isn't mine, he reminded himself. He was just piloting the evil ship to its demise. With a lot of luck, he wouldn't be the captain when said ship went down. Until then, he had the Royal London Hotel to call home.

Angel glanced around the dingy lobby. It was not what it used to be, but it could be restored. It had been a lavish palace in an earlier time, one with sweeping promenades, a posh supper club, lushly cushioned fringed divans in the sitting areas.

Angel detected a movement behind him. He knew who it was without turning to look.

"What do you want, Luxe?" Angel said.

"I forget, you have heightened awareness," Luxe said. He picked his way daintily over the rubble. "Even more so now, I would wager."

Angel turned. "You know?" he said, suppressing his surprise.

"Of course," Luxe said. He drew up short of standing beside Angel, wisely remaining beyond arm's reach.

"Another gift, courtesy of our good friends, the Senior Partners?" Angel asked.

"I have much I could share with you, Monsieur Angel," Luxe said. "But now is not the time."

"Not the time...?" Angel began.

Luxe produced a black envelope emblazoned with an ostentatious silver trident on its seal. He held it out. Angel made no move to take it.

"It is an event, to commemorate the Equinox. You needn't make a grand show. Our table is commonly concealed in the balcony overlooking..."

"What is it, an amorality play?" Angel said.

"It is a ritual sacrifice," Luxe deadpanned. "And I think you will learn many useful things should you attend."

"Thanks, but I've seen slaughter," Angel said. He began to walk away.

"You may learn of those responsible for your new strength," Luxe said.

Angel paused.

"You must understand, you are not alone," Luxe said. "Every vampire the world over shares the Old Blood. And with it new vigor. Things have changed, Monsieur Angel. The scales will balance. The world will witness our glory..."

Angel raised a hand, cutting Luxe off mid-sentence. "You've made your point. As you can see, I have a lot of work here. So..."

He stared at the seal and the fine-milled black paper of the invitation in Luxe's hand.

"Ah, Monsieur," Luxe said, his voice no more than a purr in his throat, "you cannot resist the knowledge we represent. In truth, we want the same things as you. You know you cannot attain or protect anything in this world without power."

"You just keep talking," Angel said. He snatched the invitation from Luxe. Without looking at it, he slipped it into the breast pocket of his coat. "You may go now," he said.

Luxe bowed his head. He left Angel alone in the sifting dust and rotting timbers of his tomb of a hotel.

@*@*@

Andrew hyperventilated. It was like watching a cat trying to sneeze. Giles fetched a paper sack from the kitchen while the others waited all tense in the dining room.

After breathing in and out of the bag a few times, Andrew settled back into the comfy chair. A skim of perspiration slicked his brow, matting his hair to his forehead. Other than that, he looked properly terrified.

"All right, Andrew," Giles said. "Start at the beginning."

Andrew tried to speak, but it came out croaky. "I think I need a glass of water," he whispered.

"Just get to the tale," Dawn snapped.

"Fine," Andrew snapped. "After I left Nighna's flat this morning, I got almost all the way to the trains before I realized I forgot my watch on the night stand. It's a collector's edition Scooby Doo wristwatch. The second hand is a Scooby Snack so that when it sweeps it looks like Scooby's trying to..."

"Andrew," Buffy said in a cautioning tone.

"Right. Well, I had to go back for it. It's a really keen watch. So I went up I called for Nighna, but she didn't answer. I thought she was in the shower. I let myself in, but she wasn't in the shower. She was right there, only she'd gone freak show, with the scaly skin and pointy teeth. And horns," Andrew said. He shuddered.

"You mean that's not how she was normally?" Xander said. Dawn cut her eyes at him.

"Ha Ha. So very funny to be nearly eviscerated by the one you love," Andrew said.

"Been there," Xander said.

Buffy cut in, "So she attacked you."

"She said she was done with me anyway. And then she attacked. I fought her off," Andrew said. "Actually, I didn't. I didn't fight. I panicked. I reached for the watch but got this instead."

He slid a black envelope onto the table. William, who was sitting on the edge of the table, turned it around to have a better look at the seal.

"Your girlfriend's a demon and you still reach for your watch?" Dawn said.

"It's a collector's edition..." Andrew said.

"Hold on," William said. "I know this symbol."

"You do?" Buffy asked.

"It's Triumvirate," William said. "It's a club."

Giles took the envelope from William's hand to study it.

Andrew said, "You mean like a clandestine demon organization bent on world domination?"

"No," William said. "It's a nightclub. Swank place. Means your ex hangs with the elite."

"How do you know about it?" Buffy asked.

"I've been there," William said. "Long ago. I was never a formal member. More Angeles's crowd than mine. A lot of poncy poofs strutting around like they rule the universe."

Giles took off his glasses and massaged his forehead. "Andrew, we'll need to know everything you've ever told her. Is there any possibility she may know about all of us?"

"Not from the mouth of this little sparrow. No way," Andrew said. "I've been John Steed, 007 all the way. She thinks I'm an archaeology student getting my master's degree at Oxford."

"There must be a reason for her to have followed you here," Giles said. "You didn't let something slip? About The Council? Or Vampires?"

"The Archive?" Dawn put in.

Frustrated, Andrew slumped further into his chair. "I'm not that stupid," he said.

"Then maybe she knew all along," Xander said. "You guys met in Greece. Maybe she was working with someone while you all were in Rome."

"The unsolved demon attack," Dawn said, urgently. "She may have had something to do with it."

"She didn't look like those demons," Andrew said.

"Not like demons haven't worked together before," Xander said.

Buffy leaned in. "Guys, we need to find out what she knows. She followed Andrew here. She's got our number."

Giles cracked the silver seal on the envelope. "Perhaps this can shed some light."

He removed an invitation from the black envelope. It was printed on a sheet of vellum so thin they could see through it. The page bore the same silver trident seal embossed across the top.

"Fancy," Buffy said. "What does it say?"

Giles read over it, silently first, then gave them a rough demon-tongue-to-English translation:

"You are invited to Triumvirate's annual alban elfed, um, that's Autumnal Equinox, September the 22nd, 16:29."

"That's it?" Xander asked. "No dance afterward? No slaughtered innocents? Just a yearly demon shindig?"

"It's not just a party," William said. "It's a gathering. A convergence. Demons from all over Europe will show, and you can bet the evil equivalent of the bloody Queen of England will be there."

Andrew brightened. "You could go," he said.

"What?" Xander and William said in unison.

"Spike could go. Pretend to be evil. Work his way into their Inner Circle," Andrew said.

William shook his head. "Bad plan. Find another way."

"But it would work..." Andrew went on.

Giles interrupted. "You were never wholly convincing anyway. Far too incompetent."

"What? I...Incompetent?" William said, scandalized.

"No, it's true," Xander said. "You were mostly just annoying."

"I was a villain!" William countered.

"To what, stuffed bunnies?" Xander said, enjoying himself.

"I almost killed everyone in this room," William growled.

"Operative word being 'almost,'" Dawn said.

"Besides, you never almost killed me," Giles said.

"Oh, but I wanted to..."

Buffy raised her hands. "Hey, we're getting off topic. I think..."

"I am not playing the part of double agent. Those plans always turn out wrong," William said. "Any doubts on that, just ask Angel."

Everyone fell quiet. William picked up the invitation and pretended to read it.

Andrew, still sullen, said, "I thought you were scary."

"Thank you, Andrew," William said.

"Andrew thinks Teletubbies are scary," Dawn said.

"Guys," Buffy said, taking the conversational reins in hand. "We're looking at this the wrong way. We've been stabbing in the dark at an unseen enemy. That invitation is our ticket to make them visible. If Nighna was using Andrew, trying to get close to us, we can turn the game around on her. We have the invitation. I'm going."

William scoffed. "First off, Annie Oakley, this is not like Willie's Roadhouse back in Sunnydale. Slayers don't just stroll into Triumvirate..."

"That was then. This is my town now," Buffy said.

"Second, you're forgetting the juiced up vamps we encountered last night. They're likely to be out en force. Emphasis on the force," William said.

"Oh ho. Hold up. Juicy vamps?" Xander said. "Did I skip ahead in this story somehow? Or fall behind?"

Buffy turned to him. "No. And yes. We fought some extra powerful vampires. But we dusted them just the same."

"Not just the same," William objected. "Remember the arm on backwards and the Flying Summers on trapeze?"

"They're dead. We're not," Buffy said. "We can debate this later…"

"Maybe this is a matter for the Super Slayer Friends. Get all the girls on board," Xander suggested.

"No," Buffy said firmly. Then, "Bringing the whole troupe kinda blows the subtle black ops angle."

"Then I'm going too," William said.

"But you just said..." Dawn interjected.

"You can't," Buffy said. "There are a couple differences about you they are bound to notice."

"Look, you want to crash this party right and proper or not?" William said.

Xander sighed heavily. "Smooth. Spike just turned your covert operation into a date," he said. "I think we should all head to Shepherd's for an afternoon pint. Andrew, you look like a man who could use many drinks. What say we wallow in shared misery?"

Andrew pouted. "Yeah. Okay," he said.

As Xander and Andrew left the room, Giles returned his attention to the invitation.

"I'm not certain this is the best course of action," he said. He ran his fingertips over the raised letters of the words.

"Neither am I," Buffy admitted. "But at least it's a plan."

"Nonetheless, I feel we should at least notify Willow. See if she can figure out what's behind the new vampire potency, and whether it has any connection with the spell she witnessed," Giles said.

Dawn got up. "I'm on that. I'll give her a ring," she said.

Giles put his glasses on. He leveled his hazel eyes on Buffy's. "It's time for your girls to take their own patrols," he said.

Buffy was shaking her head. "But Giles," she said.

"Whether you feel they are ready or not, it's time. It is far too dangerous for any of you to be out there alone," he said.

"But we're not alone," Buffy said. Her heart ached.

"Buffy, you cannot shelter them forever. They are Slayers, and you have taught them well," Giles said. He patted her head in a fatherly sort of way, then left the room.

Buffy struggled against tears, but tried not to look like she was struggling with tears. They are Slayers. The words echoed in her head.

"Well," Dawn said. "Kennedy will be happy to hear that."

William slid from the table's edge, stretching his arms. "Kennedy doesn't feel the weight of it, now does she?"

"The weight..." Buffy mumbled. She looked up at Dawn. "What did I do to them?"

Dawn thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Buffy. It's okay. They're good, and strong. And they'll be fine. All you did was open a door."

That didn't make Buffy feel any better.

Chapter Text

Harmony Kendall had done of lot of skeazy things in her time at Wolfram & Hart. A lot.

But this last one – not so bad. He bordered on cute, in the hollowed-out heroin chic kind of way. Hooded eyes. Bruised bones of a ribcage. And a mouth on him like a lawnmower. Of course, with the accent, she barely understood half of what he said.

And it wasn't like Glasgow was Paris or even LA, but she and Des did know how to have a good time. He was (had been) an activist against the evil capitalist regime by day, and a rock star crackhead by night. Now he had a new job and a new addiction. And, he belonged to her.

The only pitfall in her paradiso was his friends. They made pigs look like Nobel Prize winning scholars. They were like ADHD kids hyped on espresso, even before the bonus vamp strength and speed. She was beginning to feel like that lady whose house was made of so many shoes. Or was it house made of children? Anyway, keeping track of them was no trip to the mall.

Point of fact, Harmony was observing from her bench in Glasgow Green as three of Desmond's mates tore down the wrought iron fence that stood between the park and the street.

"Um, Des," Harmony said. "Not that ripping stuff apart isn't riveting but... I'm kinda bored."

Desmond put his fists to his temples. "Hit the shops, Harm. Nick something pretty. Boys and me got some barney to cause."

"The shops all closed at 7," Harmony said.

"Open 'em up!" Des yelled.

Stan tore a fence post from concrete. "Open 'em up!" Stan roared, hoisting the post like a javelin over his head. "Open 'em all up, yeah!" The other two started jumping up and down, screaming to the sky.

"Whatever," Harmony said. She got up from the bench. When she did, she spotted three familiar bald, fat men - all shirtless and wearing belted tweed slacks that billowed in bulky folds under their bellies. They were drunk and oncoming.

"Uck," Harmony said. "You were supposed to vamp those guys, Des. Are you my minion or not? 'Cause Thellian was pretty clear about his objectives and his timeline and..."

Des' hand shot out to grip Harmony's throat. She grinned at him, lashes fluttering.

"Baby," he said. "You are my goddess."

She shoved him away. "Then do your job," she said. Then added, "Slave."

Des eyed the approaching sots. He sneered. "If I sire them, I'd just have to stake them. You do it."

"No. Way. I am not touching them. They have... flab. I have issues with flab," she said. "Besides, you can't kill 'em. Thellian said."

"Thellian said," Des mocked.

Stan and Jamie were fencing with the fence posts. Christian had moved on to the Glasgowegian's fave fab past time: spray painting anything that didn't move, and some things that did. He chose as his canvas the backside a wide vinyl promotional banner. Harmony watched as he patiently sprayed out capital letters in sky blue paint: A-N-O-T-H.

The three belly boys bellowed to Stan and Jamie. There was much carousing and too much physical jiggling for Harmony's liking.

"Des," she said. "Dessie. Please vamp the sweaty beefy men for me," she said. She ran her tongue down his cheek, "I'm wearing pink cashmere tonight. Wouldn't wanna get it... dirty."

Desmond growled deep in his throat. "I'll take care of it, luv," he said. He went over to join his mates, and the Loathsome Threesome. Meanwhile, Christian painted away.

– E-R S-W-E-E-T-E-R W-O-R –

Harmony watched the words taking form, spellbound. Christian was a little weird. Even as a vampire, he did prissy things like using a handkerchief to dab his mouth after feeding. Oh, and he wrote things. Poems and stuff.

Stan and Jamie were screaming again. The three oafs started screaming back. They all bent forward in a semi-circle, mouths open wide and tongues lolling out like stupid, red-faced monkeys. Then they were jumping, totally spazzing out.

Stan yelled, "Hey! Let's go burn stuff."

"Oh," Harmony said, rolling her eyes. "Not again... Des!"

Harmony's cell phone rang. The ringtone - Pachelbel's Canon in D - meant the Big Guy himself.

"Oh thank God," she said. She fished her phone from her shell pink Hello Kitty handbag. "Here, Boss," she said, raising her voice.

All of the Rugby Rowdies fell silent, including the tubby brothers, as Harmony took the call. Only Christian kept his focus on his paints.

- L-D I-S P-O-S-S-I-B-L-

"Sure," she said, brightly. "You bet. Absolutely, Boss. We're on it."

When Harmony ended the call, her whole body quivered with excitement.

"Good news, boys," she said. "We're needed in Amsterdam."

Des and his crew did the whole hooligan twist and shout again. Harmony felt a headache coming on, but it was nothing a little blood at 98.6 wouldn't fix. Christian was shaking the spray paint can, adding on the final letter of his sweeping epitaph. Harmony read it aloud, but not so as anyone else but her could hear it.

"Another, sweeter world is possible," she read. Harmony gave Christian a lopsided smile. "The boy's got the big idea," she said.

@*@*@

Thellian snapped his phone closed with a click. He said:

"She must stop killing them, Lalaine."

Lalaine trailed her gloved fingertip around the edge of her wine glass. "I know it," she said.

"They are no good to us if they are dead," Thellian reminded her.

Lalaine eased her shoulders against the smooth fabric of her chaise. "Thellian," she purred. "She's only following your example. You killed nine of them..."

"They were priests. In opposition," he said.

"She doesn't understand the distinction..."

"She should," Thellian said. His green eyes glinted. He glimpsed around the dining room that once belonged to the Bali Tropik Resort and Spa. Stacked bodies lay like cordwood against the walls. Bodies Morna had mangled.

Lalaine followed to the end of Thellian's line of thinking. "It is a small loss for the big cause," she soothed.

Thellian pushed back from the table. He stalked to the edge of the room, peered out into the hallway where Morna played hopscotch between the patches of light and dark.

"It's the spell," Lalaine said. She sipped from her glass. "Morna didn't understand what was happening. We should have guessed that added power might make her jumpy."

"Jumpy," Thellian said, not smiling. "Lalaine, I need you to keep her from being jumpy. I am counting on you."

Lalaine watched him through her spiky black lashes. "I love it when you talk this way. So focused," she said.

Thellian crouched beside her. "We are focused. Our plan, Lalaine. It is working. My unlife's work."

Lalaine brushed blond sweeps of hair from Thellian's face. "Balance and restoration and a brave new world for us," she said. She cupped his face in her hand.

"I need you in Japan," he said, quickly.

"Japan?" she clicked her tongue. "Exciting."

"I have business in Moscow. We can reunite in London with Luxe and the others in a fortnight. Do you want Morna with me, or with you?"

Lalaine paused, considering. "She has such fondness for the little girls in their Prussian school clothes," she said. "Makes her nostalgic for the old days. The Judas Cradle. The gibbet. Remember?"

"Remove your glove," Thellian whispered.

"You do it," Lalaine said.

With his teeth, Thellian tugged the glove down from her wrist. He pressed his lips to the blue traceries of veins that laced beneath her skin. "Watch her," he said.

"Don't worry," Lalaine said, listening to the sound of her sister turning clumsy cartwheels in the hall. "We're family."

@*@*@

When Amy was a rat, Willow bought one of those round plastic globe-y things for her. She did this under the misconception that, as a rat, Amy would like to get out of her rodentia confines once in a while to stretch her ratly legs. Amy, however, seemed to detest the thing. She rolled it to the nearest wall where she cowered until Willow returned her to her cage. Willow wound up giving the ball to Xander, who filled it with pennies which he later traded for comics.

Walking through the astral plane invariably reminded Willow of Amy's rat ball. It was like pushing through the umbra in a membranous bubble propelled by the force of her willpower. It was tricky work, getting from place to place while leaving your body parked in physical storage. But with the constant contact of the Coven to keep her focused, Willow usually got to where she needed to be.

Except for this morning. She had been all around in her In Between Bubble, but not to the place she really needed to go. She wanted to find her way to the Deeper Well, but her path kept going all wonky and veery. No matter how hard she pushed, Willow kept returning to the same address in the Twilight Zone.

Frustrated, she put on a pot of tea and went through her progressive relaxation routine again. Without much success. She decided it was time to try something more soothing. She took a jar of Nutella from the cupboard, and dipped out a big-honking spoonful.

It was just... she kept thinking about Kennedy. About how upset Kennedy had been that they were losing Rita. And how upset she'd been about being sent off to France. Then, the big unexpected spell kablooey. It left Willow's mind amiss, what with the upsetness of Kennedy.

Thing was, the Westbury house was really Kennedy's house. Willow wasn't used to being in it without her. So there was this Kennedy shaped hole there that Willow didn't know how to fill.

Willow sighed. "This is just stupid," she said. She had a few minutes while the teapot went from simmer to boil. She brushed the round tabletop with a sprig of sage and sat down to find her center.

"Right," Willow said. She inhaled. Exhaled, slowly.

"Here comes me, In Between," she sang. She closed her eyes and pushed.

And there she was again, tooling through the ethereal plane like a little white astrally-projecting mouse. Blackness at first, followed by a windswept moor. Willow envisioned the Cotswolds. Never having actually been there, she had to draw on photos and descriptions from a travel web site. Which, now that she thought of it, may be at the heart of her umbra tumbling trouble.

Yet she persevered. Trees now, then rocky hills flecked with of moss and patches of heather. Pretty. Dark clouds coalesced, as they always did. She felt with her keen witch's intuition that this meant she was getting close.

A loose ring of trees loomed ahead. Old trees, by the looks. Getting really close.

Willow tuned in the focus. Back in the kitchen, her fingers knotted into the embroidered table runner. She mentally muscled ahead. Into the woods. Into the trees. Into the... corridor?

"Not again," she muttered. Willow found herself in a crumbling hallway looking out into a dust-choked plaza. In its center, on a mound of green sod, stood a single rose under a glass globe.

Willow glided down the hallway toward the plaza. A drift of dry leaves scattered along beneath her seemingly buffeted by her passage. Which was impossible, she knew. She wasn't really bodily there. It was interesting, though, the concessions her mind made...

As Willow drew closer, the corridor opened up to the sky, which shed only starlight onto the rose and its tiny thatch of earth.

"How very Antoine de Saint-Exupéry," Willow said. "But, so not what I'm looking for. Not that roses aren't swell but..."

A figure appeared in the opposite corridor, the shape of which stopped Willow cold.

She wore blue. Her hair flowed over bare white shoulders. She kinda glowed, like she might have been superimposed over the scene. At any rate, Tara was the last person Willow expected to see.

Willow moved into the room.

"Tara?"

"Sweetie," Tara said. "The thing you're looking for. It's not here."

Willow blinked. "What?"

Tara stared at her. There was a kind of serenity that instantly soothed Willow, and simultaneously made her achy inside.

"The thing you seek..." Tara began.

"Wait. I know. I'm not seeking it here. I don't even know where here is. Somehow I keep coming back to this place. Are you the reason? Are you... leading me?" Willow asked.

Tara said, "The Deeper Well is dry. Its purpose fulfilled. You seek the rose."

"Apparently," Willow said. "But, what is it? And, where is it, really? Am I supposed to use it for something?"

"The rose is the missing piece, Willow," Tara answered. "The completion of a Circle."

"A Circle?" Willow asked. She moved forward, hovering close now to the globe and its blossoming ward within.

"I wish I could tell you more. But I can only share what I know," Tara said.

"You always were mysterious. Oh, but in the cute, approachable sense. Not in the dark, menace-y sinister sense," Willow said. She felt the familiar flutter of enchantment that always came with the nearness of Tara.

"You have grown so strong, Willow," Tara said. "I am so proud of you."

Willow suddenly felt the need for the kind of reassurance only Tara could give.

"Is it...? I mean, will it be enough?" Willow asked. "Will I be strong enough?"

Tara turned serious. "Draw on the strength of your friends. You will need each other now more than ever. But Giles and Xander will need you most. And Andrew, Willow. He will need you, too."

"Andrew?"

"Yes. There is more, so much more. But you have to go now, Willow," Tara said. The light in the corridor grew overbright. Things behind her began to shift and elongate like images in a funhouse mirror.

"But," Willow said. Slipping. Willow struggled to hang on. "But I don't wanna."

Tara reached for her. Her fingers were starting to fade. "I'm sorry, Sweetie. Someone is calling..."

Willow snapped back to attention at her kitchen table. She had torn the table runner to ribbons. The teakettle wailed like a freakishly pissed off old crone. Somewhere, a phone was ringing. Someone was calling. Willow pushed the chair back, but couldn't find the strength to stand. She managed to stumble to the stove, where she lifted the teakettle to the back burner. The answering machine clicked on.

Minutes later, Willow had regained her legs enough to wobble into the parlor. The message light on the answering machine flashed twice in succession. She had two messages. Two missed calls.

Willow pushed play.

The first message was from Kennedy. She said, "Hey. Willow. It's me. Look, um. Naomi needs me here, in Paris. So I'm thinking I'm gonna stay awhile. I'll call again, okay. Take care."

Willow felt like emotional cocktail – all mixy, no moxie. Mainly, she felt relieved. Which made her feel ten plus on the guilty scale.

The second message was from Dawn.

"Willow," she said. "It's Dawn. Strange things afoot here. Which is, pretty much the usual. Giles wants you to come home. Well, we all do. See, there were these vampires, only they were the super variety. And now, turns out, Andrew's dating a demon. Giant-sized surprise there. Anyway, Nighna – demon Nighna – Dorkus Rex Andrew led her right to us. She knows where we live so we need renewed protection to unlist the house. Can you give us a call back? Oh, and, hope you're okay. Bye."

Willow was reaching for the phone before the message ended. What she didn't see was a postcard in the little brass mail tray by the phone. If she had noticed the little picture of Buckingham Palace, she would have found a simple yet cryptic note written in careful blocky print on it that read:

Angel has the blade

- Connor

Chapter Text

Dawn collected a file folder full of information on Nighna. It contained Andrew’s ludicrously detailed descriptions of her in both human and demon forms. The file also held actual data, which she looked up by herself since Willow had to remain in Westbury with the coven for an equinox ritual of their own. Willow had assured them, though, that the wards on the Flat would keep them safe against anyone who meant to bring them harm.

Dawn’s readings and cross-references led her to believe that Nighna was a Kimaris demon, or one of Kimaris’s legions. She could take human form; in fact, preferred to do so. In some of the archive texts, Dawn learned that Kimaris demons operated in Africa around 300 B. C., where they sowed seeds of discontent among tribesmen there, causing a great and bloody tribal war that lasted centuries.

Quite recently Dawn uncovered the important detail that Kimaris demons of today were regarded as political masterminds – the demonic equivalents of Republican spin-doctors. Or, rather, they were exactly like Republican spin-doctors. Either way, Dawn figured on sharing the tidbit with Buffy.

She opened the door to their rooms to find William attired in full on Spike wear. Torn jeans, shredded shirt full of safety pins, hair like a Rebel Yell...

“Whoa,” was all she managed to say.

William looked pleased with himself.

“Are you wearing eyeliner?” she asked.

“Part of the part, Niblet,” he said. “What you got there?”

“Nighna notes. Thought you might like a peek before heading into the fray. Know thy enemies and stuff,” Dawn said. Then, “Eyeliner?”

He snatched the file folder. “Kimaris, eh? Worked with them before. Diamond cufflinks crowd. Spiteful buggers, the lot of them.”

Buffy came in, searching for something, still wearing her training clothes.

“Hey,” Dawn said. “You’re gonna be late.”

“Yeah, and you never want to be late for a ritual sacrifice,” Buffy said, distracted. “Have you seen my crystal earrings? The ones from...”

“Your boyfriend wears make-up,” Dawn said.

“Hey...” William said.

“He’s not my...” Buffy began. She stopped her hunt to look at them both. “You’ve gone punk? I thought this was a formal thing. And you really are wearing make-up.”

“Hello? Icon,” he said. “I’m supposed to be a vampire. Since I can’t make my scary face anymore, the costume will have to do. Furthermore, since I’m not your boyfriend, I’ll just be taking your attractive younger and much taller sister...”

William spun Dawn and unexpectedly dipped her, tango style. Dawn squealed. Buffy grabbed his arm.

“Hey, Lady Madonna! Unhand my sister,” Buffy said, laughing.

Xander, on his way down from Giles’ room, chose that moment to travel past the open door to witness the tableau of the Summers girls rassling with Spike.

“Oh my God,” Xander said. Shaking his head, he wandered away, looking lost.

William righted Dawn. She smoothed her hair back into place. “Wackiness ensues,” Dawn said. “I love it when that happens. Oh, but. I have stuff. Informative stuff, about Nighna.”

“Oh, good. Gimme,” Buffy said. She took the file from Dawn, flipped through it.

“So, um,” William said. “How is Andrew? Off suicide watch yet?”

“Oh,” Dawn said, hands fluttering. “That whole Spiderman thing on the roof. That was just a blip. We’ve since stepped up his therapy. Tonight: all Girl Power movies. You know, Ever After, Xanadu...”

Little Women,” William said, not serious.

“Oh, he loves that one,” Dawn said. “The Winona Ryder-Susan Sarandon version, not the Katherine Hepburn...”

Buffy interrupted, “Hey, did you find any references to the rose thingy Willow mentioned?”

Dawn rolled her eyes. “Only a gillion. The rose is one of the most frequently occurring symbols in history. I’ve got everything from the Priory of Scion to The Yellow Rose of Texas. It’ll take a while to narrow down the search.”

Buffy handed the folder back. “Good, good. Keep up the excellent work,” Buffy said. She looked around, confused. “I know I came in for something...”

“Earrings,” Dawn said. “Last I saw they were in my jewelry box, where I put them after taking them without permission. Sorry for that, and I’ll go get them.”

“Do that,” Buffy said, severely. “Now.”

Dawn left them. For a moment, William and Buffy were awkwardly quiet.

“What?” William asked.

“You tell me. With the gardening and the make-up, I’m thinking the Sisters may have shared more than just blood. Like maybe estrogen,” she said.

“At least I’m dressed,” he returned. “You’re still in sweats. Which would be fine if your intent is to offend everyone to death.”

“Hey, I need my earrings...”

“Yeah, those must be from your other icon,” he said.

“Stop it,” she said. “I didn’t mean...”

“Forget it,” he said.

Dawn came back in, the Austrian crystal drops in her palm. “I lost the back-y things,” she said.

Buffy swiped them from Dawn’s hand. “I’ll just go shower. Wouldn’t want to offend anyone to death.” She left the room, slamming the door behind her.

“Yeah, she gets that way when I take her stuff. When will I ever learn?” Dawn said. She left the file folder on the writing desk.

William flicked sullenly through the pages in the file, but said nothing.

Dawn said, “Okay. Well, I’m going to check on my patient. You kids have fun.” She made a quick exit from the room.

@*@*@

Andrew sat on the stairs, staring through the rails at the empty dining room. Dawn came down and took a seat beside him.

“So,” she said. “We have drama on Floor 2.”

Andrew made a strangled sighing sound.

Dawn tried again. “Get this. If you change the letter ‘v’ in the word lover to an ‘s’, you get loser.”

Without looking up, Andrew said, “That’s me. Big looo-ser.”

Dawn touched his shoulder. “I meant her,” she said.

Andrew flinched. “I mean me. All that time I spent with her, I didn’t see. How did I miss the whole evil alter ego? I’ll tell you how. I just...” he sighed again, deeper this time. “I just really thought she liked me.”

“I say, too bad for her if she didn’t,” Dawn said. “Besides, Spike and Buffy will give her a what-for. They’re just itching to slam something.”

Andrew turned to Dawn. “Yeah?” he said.

“Oh yeah. That’s the plan. Pound of two-faced demon flesh,” Dawn said.

Andrew nodded. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“I’m down with that.”

“Good. So, you wanna get some take away fish and chips? You’re fish, I’m chips,” Dawn asked.

Andrew got sluggishly to his feet. “Guess I’m down with that, too.”

@*@*@


The little black dress Buffy chose to wear defied logic. It was at once high-necked, sleeveless and backless, with an uneven fluttering hemline longer in back than it was in the front. Garmently-speaking, it was an impractical choice going in to a fight. Otherwise, it was the most beguiling thing William had ever seen cut from cloth.

Though they were subdued for in the taxi ride over to Triumvirate, the rancor had gone out of him to the point that he’d forgotten what upset him in the first place. Buffy sat all prim, hair upswept and crystal earrings sparkling, with the invitation clasped beneath her folded hands. They instructed the cab driver to avoid the whole red carpet scene by dropping them at the corner. Buffy was surprised and annoyed that there was an actual red carpet scene.

“We should have hired a limo,” Buffy whispered as they worked their way through the crowd to the door. “I’ve never been in a limo.”

William scanned over the crowd, keeping a sharp eye for Nighna.

“It may have been more difficult to blend in that way,” William said. He looked over at her. “By the way, that dress is...”

Buffy grimaced. “You wanna go there, Robert Smith?”

“Stunning,” he said, wholly unabashed. “You look stunning, Summers.”

Buffy felt herself blushing. She smoothed a hand over the silky bodice. “Yeah?” she said.

William took the invitation from her. He cut through the crowd to a podium where a wall-eyed possibly half-demon man stood. He presented the invitation, and they were ushered inside without incident.

They moved into the elegantly tiled foyer where people milled about to talk and drink tall cocktails in slender fluted goblets. There were humans mostly, with a smattering of various demons in the mix. So far, none of them were ones they recognized.

Buffy hesitated on the threshold of the main room. “Wow,” she said. “Swank.”

“Told you.”

The walls gleamed like they were made of hematite. They diffused the topaz lighting in a subtle, very tasteful manner. The floors were of polished inlaid marble in deep blues and mauves, with veins of ivory and gold. Probably real gold. The main room was open to the second floor, with a loft that overlooked the dance floor. Lush flowering plants streamed over the edge in a classy 1940s lounge kind of way.


Buffy and William followed along the outer edge of the dance floor, avoiding fellow guests, to a bank of plush booths that faced outward to the main room. A towering silver fountain dominated the back corner gurgling gouts of red wine. At least, Buffy thought it was wine...

“Is that blood?” she leaned in to ask.

William inhaled deeply, then shook his head. “Might well be corn syrup for all I know.” He dredged the tip of a finger in the lower-most basin. Tasted it. “Nope. Real blood,” he said. “Good year.”

“Oh. These guys are so going down,” Buffy said.

Across the room, someone struck up light jazz on a baby grand piano. Couples wandered out onto the dance floor. Others mingled, chatting over glasses of champagne. She saw a lack of evil-doing going on and no sign of ritual sacrifice anywhere.

“Is this the face of modern demoning?” Buffy asked. “I mean, where do we start?”

A husky dark chocolate voice responded from over their shoulders. “You might start right here,” she said.

William and Buffy turned. Nighna stood behind them in a gown of flowing silver. Her black curling hair fell around her dark shoulders. She dangled a glass of blood from the fountain between her trim fingers.

She said, “Hello, Spike.”

Spike ran his tongue over his teeth. “Nena. I might have known,” he said.

“You know him?” Buffy asked. Then, “You know her?”

“We were associates,” she said. “It’s Nighna now. Though you must also know that. Spike, I thought we were quite clear on your never returning here again.”

“Big surprise of the evening: I rebel,” William said. “Not like I wanted to belong to your nancy club anyway. Regulation chanting and unionization? You’re supposed to be demons.”

Nighna laughed in a condescending way that made Buffy really dislike her. “You were exiled from England, Spike. Did he not tell you?”


This did shock. “He failed to mention,” Buffy said, annunciating each word. She turned to him. “You were voted off the island? Of England?”

“It was a long time ago, pet,” he said.

“Thing with immortals, Spike. We have long memories,” Nighna said.

Buffy stepped closer to Nighna. “This isn’t about Spike. This is about a boy, name of Andrew Wells.”

Nighna did not appear threatened. “Ah, Mr. Wells. Poor darling. How is he?” she asked. She pursed her broad burgundy lips in mock sympathy.

Buffy shoved her backward. “What did you want with him?”

Nighna held her ground, losing only a few steps. The blood in her glass barely swirled.

“Now, now,” Nighna said, tongue clicking. “Let us not be uncivilized. I am in my castle, after all.”

William gripped Nighna’s arm just above the elbow and twisted. “Castle or not, you will talk. What were you after...?”

Nighna attempted to shrug free, but William held fast.

“Isn’t this a sticky situation?” Nighna asked quietly. Her smug, simpering smile never left her eyes. “You want something from me. You think force will get it?”

William wrenched harder. Nighna seemed to enjoy it. She said, “The Slayer and a vampire, come to help out their little friend. Valiant to the end. But your egos have blinded you. Andrew Wells was my target all along.”

“What?” Buffy said. “Again, what? You are kidding. Aren’t you?”

“Not a bit. Andrew was... smart and funny. He does this thing,” Nighna smiled to herself.

“Not needing description,” William said.

“More to the point, then,” Nighna said. “Mr. Wells holds knowledge about dimensional technology and demonology that my kind find especially enticing. It is... was... a great disappointment that he had to discover my true form before I had a chance to explain and recruit him.”

“You wanted Andrew?” Buffy said.

“I did,” Nighna answered. “Of course, now I have much more useful information. Who would have guessed that mild-mannered anthropology student Andrew Wells roomed with the Slayer and all her super pals?”

“We’ve heard enough,” William said. He flung Nighna backward full force into the fountain. Blood, everywhere. Also, shattered glass and lots of noise. The crowd halted as Nighna, spluttering and spitting, clawed her way from the wreckage. She switched into to scaly scary demon form.

Buffy got set for a fight. Nighna stuck her forefingers into the corners of her mouth and whistled. On command vampires popped out from everywhere, flanking them on all sides.

“Really should’ve seen that coming,” Buffy said.

William tossed a stake to Buffy. She attacked the nearest vampire. It was an easy dust, given that he didn’t expect her Slayer swiftness. The second one, not so simple. As she figured, also extra with the vampire voltage.

The fight lasted all of two minutes, resulting in two staked and two more with bruises, before someone brought in shackles and chains. She and William were clapped in irons and dragged out to the dance floor.

Nighna recovered rapidly, her dignity restored by the quickness of their capture.

“Now this is embarrassing. Yet... gratifying,” she said. She paced in front of them. Demons and vampires all gathered around to witness the spectacle.

“And here we thought we weren’t going to have a floor show tonight,” Nighna went on.

Buffy looked over at William. He sported a gouge over his brow, but looked ready to brawl.

“How’s that eye, Will?” she asked. She jostled her chains, testing them.

“It’ll heal,” he said. He leveled his gaze on Nighna. “And there it goes.”

“Look at you,” she said, clapping her hands. “Not a vampire after all. Pity. Now is not a good time to not be a vampire.”

Nighna pranced about in true villainous fashion. “Triumvirate planned this evening as a celebration of the changing times. How fitting it is that you have blundered your way here. You will make the perfect commemoration sacrifice. Out with the Old Order. In with the New.”

“Preachify all you want, Nighna. The Old Order will remain. Killing us won’t change that,” Buffy said. She made what she hoped was a really strong show of not being afraid.

Nighna cocked her head to the side. “Kill you? Oh no. Not kill you. Spike here doesn’t look the type for dying. We prefer torture. It makes a far more lasting impression.”

Nighna turned to the assembled crowd, arms outstretched. She cried, “Do you want to see how much she can take? How long before we see the Slayer cry?”

The crowd let them know that they wanted nothing less.

“Stop it,” William yelled. He strained against the chains. “Just... stop.”

“Or you’ll what?” Nighna said. She slunk beside him, cradling his face with her hands. “You’ll watch like a good little boy. I seem to recall you like to watch...”

A green skinned demon pushed his face in close to Nighna’s face, grinning like a mad man. The hulkingly handsome demon seemed slightly tipsy with his apple red fedora and sloshing cocktail.

“What’re we watching?” he said. “Looks as though I’ve missed all the fun.”

“Lorne, it is lovely as always,” Nighna said. She stepped away from William.

“What do we have here, Nines? Have you started the bloodshed without me?” Lorne asked.

“It’s a Slayer and Spike,” Nighna said, waving her hand. “Just a little pre-Equinox slaughter to get the party started.”

“A Slayer?” Lorne said. He glanced at Buffy, but gave no flicker of recognition. In a conspiring tone, he said to Nighna, “You can’t harm a Slayer. Not here. They’ve got protection. They can shut us down.”

Nighna chuckled. “That was then, Lorne. They can’t shut the Triumvirate down...”

“Still,” Lorne said. “Bad idea provoking their collective wrath, Sugar Beets. And Spike... from what I hear he has connections that run all the way to,” he lowered his tone to barely audible, “Wolfram & Hart.” Spike, playing along, menacingly rattled his chains.

Nighna glanced up, impressed. And also, luckily, deterred. But she said, “My boys want blood, Lorne. They had their palettes set for Slayer.”

Lorne considered for a moment. He said, “They’ll just have to settle for flank steak of lion, Nines. The arena’s all set for them downstairs. You just shoo the guests along. I’ll take care of these two.”

Nighna held out, unresolved.

“Nines,” Lorne said, nudging. “She’s THE Slayer. You had her bound in chains. How many of your contemporaries can say that and live to tell of it. Am I right? Huh?”

Nighna showed her rows of white teeth again. “Fine. This show is over.”

There was much grumbling among the ranks. Nighna turned to them, arms out once more. “Let us convene downstairs where the real ritual will take place.”

She looked over her shoulder at Buffy. “After all, it is likely we’ll see this pair again.”

Lorne stood between the beshackled Buffy and William until the entire crowd ambled out. One of the vampire henchmen passed the keys to Lorne as he left.

Buffy was entirely shamed. She stood in utter bewilderment. William was incensed and raving about catching up to them, killing them to the last, and how dare they even dare?

Lorne stepped in. “Let’s us just get out of here, while we have a chance. Shall we?”

Once they were outside, Lorne hailed them a taxi. He took William to the side. Buffy remained on the curb, massaging kinks from her wrists where the cuffs had chafed her.

“Look,” Lorne said, going grave. “You have to be more careful.”

“More careful? Lorne, we fight demons. It’s not a safe line of work...”

Lorne cut him off, “All the same, things have changed. And don’t bring her around to places like this. Creatures here... they sense things. You copy?”

William shut up. He tilted his head to the side. He had questions, but kept them all down. “Yeah. All right,” he said. The taxi sidled up to the sidewalk. Lorne put them in and sent them on their way.

@*@*@


Angel observed everything from his balcony seat. The tension that twisted in his body felt like a screw tightening into solid rock. Every time he made a move to make to stand, Luxe caught his arm and cautioned him to just watch.

When Lorne swooped in to save the day, Luxe sat back wearing a satisfied smile on his fine-featured face.

“You see,” Luxe said. “They are clueless. Lost and utterly useless.”

“Why do you show me this, Luxe? You know I want to help them out. Give them the edge,” Angel said.

“As I have said before, Monsieur Angel. We are not on opposite sides here,” Luxe said.

“That’s doublespeak for we are on opposite sides. You are Wolfram & Hart,” Angel growled.

“Just as you are,” Luxe said.

Angel sat back uncomfortably in his seat. After a moment’s reconsideration, Angel said, “You told me I was to meet the ones responsible for the global vampire spell. Yet here we are, alone. Where is this so-called mastermind?”

Luxe nibbled at an olive from his plate. “In a sense, you were looking at her just now.”

“Nighna?” Angel asked, doubtful.

“Not her,” Luxe said.

Angel sat still for a while before speaking. “Buffy,” he said at last.

“She created the imbalance that made the spell possible. Before the Slayer’s bloodline was unlocked, no one could harvest the strength of the Well,” Luxe explained.

“Yes, but... she was not the one harvesting.”

Luxe rolled his eyes. “Hardly. She seems far too inept for such magics.”

Angel’s eyes flashed. “You have no idea of what she is capable...”

Luxe reclined. He drummed his fingers on the tablecloth. He watched Angel with a kind of removed interest. “Your regard for her is obvious. It must sting, seeing her with the other...”

Angel clamped down his jaw. “Let’s get back to the topic, shall we? Who is responsible for tapping the Well?”

Luxe tapped the edge of his plate, lazily. “Fine,” he said. “No more games.” He pulled a thick manila envelope from the briefcase in the chair beside him.

“This document contains information on the spell itself. Components. Chants. Timelines. Key players... all of it. I understand there is a witch among the Slayer’s people, one of great power. No doubt she will find this information quite helpful,” Luxe said.

Angel placed a hand on the file. Luxe held on to it a moment longer.

“The person responsible for this spell is one with whom you are acquainted, Angel. It is Thellian Ventrusca,” Luxe said. He waited while the realization of his words made their way home for Angel.

“Thellian,” Angel repeated.

“Oui,” Luxe said.

“I thought that zealot self-destructed in 1782,” Angel said. But he sat back in his chair and thoughtfully chewed on his thumb.

“It was then that he learned his true strength,” Luxe said. “Thellian is no fool. Nor is he impatient. I think you begin to grasp what this spell means to your kind.”

Angel nodded his head, slowly beginning to see. “I get it. Not just another apocalypse. That’s too small,” Angel said. “But I still don’t get why you’re handing this to me.”

Luxe patted the paperwork, almost affectionately. “Wolfram & Hart seeks to preserve what has always been, Angel. We profit from human suffering. Torture and death, grim though they may be, they keep us in penthouse suites and luxury cars. We keep disorder in our pockets. Save it for a rainy day. You know this song by now. Thellian represents a threat to all that we hold dear. And, to all those you hold dear. Here we find ourselves, on the same side. We need you. You need us...”

Angel swept the envelope from the table. He was up and walking away. Over his shoulder, he called back, “I do not need you. And I’ll be the one to determine whether or not this will be of any use.”

@*@*@


Xander stepped in to the doorway of Go Ask Alice before dusk. He chose to go on foot since the evenings still felt nice but verged on nippy. He didn’t know how long the fair weather would hold out.

Before going inside, Xander looked through the grimy windows at the young woman inside. Through the gloom, he watched as she intently built a fort and a teepee out of plastic forks and knives on her sales counter. By the time he worked up the nerve to go inside, she was constructing a fence, presumably for paper cows and horses.

“Plastic Ware Pioneers? Can I play?” Xander called to her from across the room.

Maya, startled, sent plastic spoons skittering. She recovered quickly, though. She tucked one behind her ear. She said, “I don’t know, Xander. I’m pro. My plan is to take down the entire British Empire with my cunning use of disposable cutlery.”

“I could assist with that plan,” Xander said. He moved across the room, into gathering dark. “Is this lighting meant to convey a certain mood? Say... foreboding?”

Maya returned her attention to her wrecked plastic fort. “Here it is Wednesday,” she said. “Wednesday evening and here you are.”

“Um. Yes I am,” Xander said. He peered up into the darkened ceiling. He saw the broken bulbs in the fixture and a ribbon of apprehension went through him.

Maya saw him looking. She said, “Did you bring the Vendregills?”

“I did. Giles copied out the passages he thought he might need. Look, Maya, I have a ladder. I could fix those,” Xander said, pointing.

“No!” Maya said, urgently. “I mean. It’s too dangerous.”

“They’re light bulbs...” Xander said.

“Dangerous ones,” Maya said.

“What do you know about vampires?”

“Interesting segue,” she said. “I have a whole section in back about vampires. Vampire mythology. Vampire symbols. Vampire history. Vampire romanticism.”

“I don’t mean book stuff. I mean, real stuff,” Xander said.

Maya eyed him sidelong. “They don’t exist, of course. They are literary metaphors for homosexuality and drug addiction.”

Xander exploded with laughter. Then stopped, seeing that she didn’t catch the joke. “I’m sorry. It’s just, I haven’t heard that one before. How about witches?”

“Oh. Um. Lesbianism, and drug addiction,” she said.

“Huh,” Xander said.

“Yep,” Maya said. She tucked her tousled hair behind her ear. When she did, Xander caught a glimpse of the gash on her forehead. He reached for it. She grappled his hand.

“Don’t,” she said. Her wide eyes darted around the shop, as though she worried something might have seen.

“What is going on?” Xander said.

“Thanks a bunch for returning my book,” Maya said. She backed away from the counter. “I’m closed now. Bye.”

“What about demons? What do you know of those?” Xander shouted.

Maya’s shoulders went rigid. “You should really go,” she said.

“I am not going anywhere. You invited me here,” Xander said.

“It was business...” Maya said.

“Are you a vampire?”

“What? No.”

“A witch, then?” Xander said.

“I beg your pardon?” she said.

“Possessed by a demon? Have you now or have you ever been affiliated with demonhood?”

“Xander, what are you going on about?” Maya asked.

Xander’s shoulders raised. “Look, you live in a haunted book shop. Your lights are busted. You have mysterious cuts and build things from sporks. Certain conclusions must be drawn,” he said.

Maya’s face lost its usual warming pertness. Genuine fear took its place. “You have the wrong idea, Xander Harris. You’re looking at me like I could be the answer to a lot of your questions. But I am quite happy here. Quite happy.”

Xander knew she was lying. He knew she knew as well. But she was on the other side of her counter. Hauling her out might result in arrest and imprisonment if he was wrong. So he held up his hands.

“Fine. I think you’re wrong, but fine. I’ll go,” he said. And there he left her, alone.

@*@*@


“I thought I was pretty clear about it not being an all-out brawl,” Buffy shouted.

“You might have said something...” William shot back.

“I did say something. Right before we got into the taxi, I said ‘Let’s not have an all-out brawl,’” she said.

William squinted at her. “I was distracted, by the dress and the bloody fountain. And it’s not like it was a total loss.”

“But it was total loss, Will. We sold ourselves out to the demon society in London. Which, by the way Giles, we didn’t even know about,” Buffy said.

“I did know about them,” Giles said, weakly.

Giles was sitting in the dining room chair between Buffy and William, who were squared off at one another. He tried very hard to keep still, partly because he was afraid one or the other might accidentally strike him aiming at each other, and partly because they might strike him on purpose.

“Would have been useful knowledge,” Buffy snipped. “Hey, let’s go into a fight unawares. Let’s get chained up and humiliated in front of all of demonkind. The shackle bracelets didn’t exactly go with my dress…”

“It wasn’t all of demonkind. And how else might we have prepared?” William asked. “Make up flashcards? Know your demons and vampires? Could we have guessed little Andy was the one they were after all along?”

Buffy planted her hands on her hips. “It was supposed to be undercover. What part of tossing her into the hors d’oeuvres was covert?”

“We were getting nowhere. I thought a little muscle...”

“Oh, you thought,” Buffy bit out. “Giles, did you know he’s been excommunicated from the United Kingdom? Bit of information he might have shared. Not only is he supposed to be in hiding from one of the largest corporate entities on the planet, he’s also been evicted from his homeland. Way to go, William the Bloody.”

“News flash, Princess. I’m not the passport toting type. And why would Wolfram & Hart be hunting me? Hmmm? Refresh my memory, I’ve been dead since then,” William said.

Giles covered his ears, which had begun to ring. “If you will both please stop shouting. I think I have gone deaf. Or would rather like to.”

“Oh, but that’s not even the best part,” Buffy said. “No, we learned nada about the super vamps. We got nothing. Not one scrap about what has made them such powerful pains in my...”

A fat legal-sized envelope slid with a smack across the dining room table. Its sudden arrival got everyone’s attention.

“They have backing,” Angel said.

Buffy, William, and Giles stared across the table at Angel, who enjoyed a private moment of personal triumph.

“Angel,” William said. “So nice of you to stop by. You can go now. We'll take it from here.”

“Will...” Buffy said.

Angel came forward into the dining room. He rested both hands on the back of the chair. “I saw you take it, back in Triumvirate. It was quite a show.”

“You were there?” Buffy said, incredulous.

“Front row seats. You guys should tour,” Angel said.

“Enough,” Giles said firmly. “Angel, what is this about?”

“It’s about an enemy you aren’t ready to face,” Angel said.

Giles opened the envelope. He shook the contents out onto the table, fanning through them and reading at random various paragraphs.

“Where did you get this?” Giles asked.

“Not important,” Angel said. “The file contains the vampire juggernaut spell you’ve come to know and love so well. But that’s incidental, too. The real deal is the name attached to the spell. A vampire named Thellian.”

“Thellian?” William said. “Never heard of him.”

“I have. And I can tell you he’s not like anyone you’ve come up against. Power means nothing to a creature like Thellian,” Angel said. Buffy pulled out some of the pages, too. As she skimmed, she asked, “What does he want, then?”

“I don’t know yet, but you can guess it’ll be big. Thellian is not some fly-by-night vampire with a penchant for destruction. He’s a visionary. Oh, and the best part, he’s over 2,000 years old,” Angel said.

Giles looked up from the pages of the spell. “Good God. That would make him...”

“The oldest vampire alive,” Angel said.

William was thinking, taking it all in. “So,” he said. “You swan in here with your ‘saving the day’ and sweeping revelations and we’re supposed to what? Believe that you just tripped over this highly relevant document while traipsing through Kensington Park?”

“What are getting at, Spike?” Angel said.

“I’m getting at Wolfram and bleeding Hart, is what I’m getting at,” William said.

“I have loyal sources. Some of them do have ties...”

“They still have their hooks in you, don’t they?” William asked. “And you’ve got a share in the vampire stock. You must have...”

Buffy rapped her knuckles on the table. “Can it be undone?” she asked, talking over both of them.

Angel shook his head. “What?”

“The spell. Can we undo it?”

“That’s why I brought it here. Obviously,” Angel said. “I thought Willow might have a look.”

Buffy scrubbed her forehead. “Good. Willow will be home soon. I think. I’m...” she swayed a little.

“Tired, pet?” William said, quietly.

“Really am,” she said. Fatigue draped over her like a sodden velvet curtain. She was weak, too, and more drained than usual.

“Go on up,” he said. “We’ll close shop down here.”

Buffy felt she didn’t have much choice. If she didn’t get to bed soon, she would drop.

Before she left, she stopped beside Angel.

“Thanks, Angel,” she said. “For the information. We won’t forget it. And we need all the help we can get.”

Chapter Text

The earth and the fullness with which it is stored,
The world and its dwellers belong to the Lord;
For He on the seas its foundations has laid,
And firm on the waters its pillars has stayed.

Psalm 24

Spike was leaving his crypt for the night, pulling on his coat and partway out of the door, when she appeared.

"Oh, what are you doing here?" he asked.

She pushed past him. She walked to the center of the room where a shaft of moonlight slipped through the windows. She faced him, but said nothing.

"Right. Well. I was just leaving," he said. "You're welcome to stay."

He moved through the door. She remained, sheathed in the shifting light that fell around her.

"Hey, Somnambu-lady," he shouted. "I said I was leaving."

"Don't," she said, quietly.

Spike leaned on the door. He smirked.

"I can smell you, Slayer," he said. He inhaled deeply, then closed his eyes, savoring her scent. "Your blood is just simmering."

Buffy was disgusted, but still she stayed.

Spike walked back to her. As he passed, he reached for her hand to lead her. She pulled away. Which hurt him. He was slow to learn. He held his hand out instead. "After you," he said.

Buffy climbed down into dark tomb. Spike followed. He lighted a single candle, knowing that she preferred that one small light in the dark.

Buffy undressed, slowly, methodically, while he watched. She would not let him touch her. He knew that. Not unless ripping was involved. Not unless she first undressed him. Those were her rules. Her game.

She lay back naked on the bed, his bed. And as he removed his clothes, she averted her eyes. She heard only the sound of her own breath – calm, level, measured breaths.

As Spike slid over her, cold hands on her hips, she brought her body to meet his.

But he froze. He studied her face.

"Well, Slayer," he said, half leering, half-disbelieving. "This is unexpected."

Buffy stared up at him, defiant. "What do you even mean?" she said.

Spike dipped his head to her navel.

"You must know," he said. With only his eyes, he looked up at her. He ran his tongue over his lips. "Menstrual blood."

Buffy tightened beneath him. He pinned her.

"I want it," he said, voice rough with need.

"No," she said. She struggled, but he held her fast.

"Let me, Buffy," he said. "Let me have it. It's blood."

"No. Let me go," she said again. She dug her nails into her shoulders, pushing him.

Spike bent to her belly again, caressing the skin with his cheek.

"Let me have it," he begged. "It's blood I can have..."

Buffy's face twisted in revulsion. She gripped fistfuls of his hair. "Get off me, Spike," she said, trembling. "As usual, this was a mistake."

"Yet you're here," Spike said, taking her small wrists in his hands. The weight of his body pressed her down. "You meant for me to have it."

She bucked against him. "Skip the Freud. Just..." Buffy swallowed hard. She relaxed her hold on him. She smoothed her hands over his ears to the back of his neck. She shifted beneath him, trying to capture him within the cage of her legs.

"No no no," he said, "I want blood. Your blood, Slayer. The fullness of the earth. Let me have it."

She was pushing him away, turning his face aside even as he fought against her. With her open palms she shoved at him, slapping him, forcing him away. But then, fists finding hair again, she guided him down. Her knees buckled as she drew him in.

The cold blade of his tongue met her flesh. He tasted her blood. Drank her in. Buffy fell back, broken by the sacrifice. She fought against the climax when it came, held against it in the same way she resisted him. It was the lowest surrender, yet it swelled in her, a blinding, tearing pain that consumed her as he consumed her. The spreading, nullifying fire that devoured her, destroying everything.

It overtook her, drowned her. Not pain, but so near it stopped the beating of her heart. Her breath seized in her chest. For a moment, she was dead again.

"Stop," she said, when at last she could draw breath. "Stop, Spike. Please."

But he didn't. He would not.

She took his shoulders roughly and flipped him onto the bed. In a movement so swift he barely saw it, she was astride him, molding her body to his in a kind of ravening desperation.

Now she had him where he belonged again. The defeat in his eyes shamed her.

"You've ruined me," he whispered raggedly. "You know it. You have ruined me."

"Shh," she soothed him. She caressed his face with the backs of her fingers. "It's a dream. It's not real," she said.

"Oh, thank god," he said. Spike gazed up at her, visibly relieved. Not Spike. William. "For a minute there I thought..."

"It's so easy, confusing the two," she said.

"But you gave him your blood. Didn't you?" he said. But it wasn't William who spoke. It was Angel.

"What?" Buffy said.

Something... went wrong. She was alone in a dark place where slimy things groped at her. Crawling in a filthy cave, naked and exposed. The voice fell on her. Bitter, disappointed, disapproving. Angel's voice. She was afraid and so ashamed.

You gave him your blood.

Buffy awoke, unable to breathe. Heart pounding. The dream was still all over her. She thought she might be sick.

She clawed her way from the bedclothes. Stumbling, she raced to the bathroom. She drew a glass of water, then sat rolling the cool glass surface back and forth over her forehead. She lingered, eyes closed, willing her pulse to slow.

The line between memory and dream blurred. She had done things with Spike, deplorable things. But had they…? Had she? Tears welled behind her eyelids. She let them fall - big, slow, useless tears. But they seemed to help relieve the tension within. She brought her breathing under control. She shook off the shakiness. Soon she felt physically fine. Slayer healing seemed to cover even dream trauma.

Only Angel's words haunted her, sickened her with dread.

You gave him your blood…

@*@*@

Buffy splashed her face with cold water. She cracked the bathroom door enough to look out at the bed. Still asleep. Good. She held on to the door, watching him. The first part had been remembrance, she knew. Not dreams. She tiptoed from the room with the absurd feeling that everyone would know, just as Angel had known and was displeased.

To her relief, downstairs was sedate. Dawn and Xander were immersed in books at the dining room table. Dawn had her smoothie on hand; Xander his coffee mug. Giles was in the kitchen, brewing tea. He waved to Buffy her as she passed. No bleak chasms. No dirty little secrets. Just friends, with books.

"So," she said. "What's with the Research World Cup down here?"

"Hey Buffster. Grab a seat. Have a read," Xander said. He barely glanced from his page.

Dawn looked up. "Morning, Buffy. You sleep okay?"

Buffy sat down, affecting a look of nonchalance. "Yeah. Why?"

"No reason. I'm just initiating small talk. It's a thing," Dawn said. She sipped from her smoothie glass.

Buffy pulled a dusty volume forth from the stacks.

Xander said, "Dawn's got roses. I have demon curses. It's hardly fair, but..."

"Demon curses? Has someone been demon cursed? Is that added to the list?" Buffy asked.

"His is a sidebar project. He should be looking up all references to that Thellian guy," Dawn said. Xander, ignoring her advice as he had all morning, continued to read.

Buffy flipped idly through the book. The yellowed pages, crisped by centuries of dry rot, contained sentences aplenty in languages she couldn't read. "Thellian," she repeated to herself. "What kind of stupid name is...?"

Xander closed his book, marking his place with his finger. "What's up?" he asked.

"You mean other than the public humiliation and general overwhelmed-ness?" she asked. "Oh, nothing."

"So it's true, what Giles said about Triumvirate?"

"Monster mashed us. If Lorne hadn't turned up, I'd be sporting a new line of piercings right now," she said.

"I don't get that," Dawn said.

"They were planning on torture," Buffy explained.

"No. Not that. What was Lorne doing there in the first place? He's supposed to be in hiding," Dawn said.

"And why didn't Angel swoop in a la Errol Flynn? One would think, him being the hero type, that he would hop in and bail out. Score some Robin Hood points with the leading babe," Xander said.

"Well, I..." Buffy floundered. She closed the book with a thunk. A puff of dust drifted into the air. "You know what? I don't know. I mean, I used to know. I used to be pretty good at this. I keep fumbling around like this, someone's gonna get dead and..."

"Buffy, stop," Xander said. "If you haven't noticed, we aren't in Sunnydale anymore. This is London. It's a big, established city with things older than Angel, or Spike, or even Giles..."

From the kitchen, Giles called, "I heard that."

"But London's not on a Hellmouth," Buffy protested. "Low on the demonic barometer."

"True, but..." Xander said. He leaned in. "I think of it like this: In Sunnydale, we were world champions at air hockey. Best of the best. Unbeatable. Because it was small town Sunnydale. Hellmouth bred chaos, which was in our favor.

"But here, we've stepped up to the big leagues, only it's not air hockey any more. It's ice hockey. Way more dangerous. Way more organized. I mean, we're talking highly entrenched teams of toothly evil," Xander said. "So we just need to regroup and adapt. Get organized. Keep an eye out for details, which we're doing..." he gestured around the table at the books. "Meanwhile, we'll Frodo through like always."

Buffy gave a quick nod. "You're right. From now on, I'm Organization Girl. I'm Details Girl. I'm... Willow!"

This left Xander scratching his head until he saw Willow in the entry hall.

Buffy grabbed Willow in a rough embrace.

"You're home," Buffy said. She buried her face in Willow's hair.

"Emotions much?" Willow laughed. "I was only gone a week. Are you feeling okay? Where's William?"

Buffy stepped back. "What? Are we joined at the hip? Whither thou goest..."

Xander, again, was scratching his head. "I feel a case of better-stay-out-of-it-ness coming on," he said.

"Again, I ask," Willow said. "You look... have you been sleeping okay?"

Buffy felt her shoulders drop. She scrubbed her hands over her face. "There have been nightmares."

Willow looked alarmed. "Were they prophetic? Did someone try to kill you? Were spiders involved?"

"No. At least, I don't think so," Buffy said. She moved away. She felt all skittish again. "They were just dreams."

"Normal people have nightmares all the time," Dawn said. "I've read about it."

Willow brushed Buffy's hair from her shoulders. "Well, if it makes you feel any better, we beefed the obfuscation spell on the Flat. If demons decide to make a house call, we're officially unlisted."

Giles came in, snacking on a scone. "That's excellent news. Good to have you home, Willow. Now I've another project, I'm afraid."

"The supervamp spell. I've been itching to get a peek," Willow said, rubbing her hands together.

Giles interrupted. "Actually, this one supercedes for the time being. We'll need it for our trip to the archive this evening. One of the texts we uncovered is locked with a tricky incantation..."

"Oh, did you try Vendregills?" Willow asked.

"I did, and nothing. It pre-dates his work, I'm afraid. Will you have a look?"

Willow's brows wriggled. "There's not a book crafted this witch can't crack," she said.

"Good," Giles said. "I'll go get it."

Xander turned to Buffy. "They're going to the archive tonight. I'm going with. I'm the muscle. There could be tunneling," he said.

"Nighttime tunneling? Should I be concerned?" Buffy said.

"Not at all," Dawn said. "Xander's providing all the proper lighting and tools. Plus, he knows the safety procedures. And we're going at night to avoid pesky tourists with cameras and questions."

Giles went upstairs as Andrew was coming down them. Andrew skirted Willow, Buffy and Xander without raising his eyes from the floor. He slammed his book down on the table.

Willow said, "Hey Andrew. You okay?"

Andrew spun theatrically in his chair. He glared up at them, eyes steely.

"Scaly bitch got my Scooby watch," Andrew said. "Bitch's going down."

"I give you the new face of Andrew," Xander said. "He's achieved the anger phase."

@*@*@


Giles went into his rooms with only the thought of the book on his mind. There were dozens heaped on his writing table. He cursed to himself for keeping such a cluttered work area, but he really had been engrossed of late. So much so, he never saw William come in.

"We need a word, Rupert," he said.

Giles cut his eyes at William.

"I don't think we do," he said. He continued to shuffle through his books.

William collared him into the chair. Giles made a weak effort to keep his feet, but fell just the same.

"You see, Spike," Giles said, miffed. "This kind of behavior gives weight to my reservations."

"Save it, Rupert. This is about Angel," William said.

Giles smoothed his shirtsleeves. "Yes, well. He's remaining in London, you know."

William edged onto the corner of Giles' desk. "Good. Safe here," he said.

"Do come to your point, Spike. Willow's waiting for me," Giles said.

William said, "Angel mentioned signing away his part in the Shanshu Prophecy."

Giles shook his head, at a loss.

"Can he do that? Sign off on a prophecy?" William asked.

"I-I suppose it is possible. I'm sure it depends on many variables. Why the concern?" Giles said.

"Can he get it back?"

Frustrated, Giles said, "I don't know enough about it..."

William's brow creased with concentration. "He's unique in the world again, yeah? Vampire with a soul. One and only, now I'm a real boy."

"Yes, I supposed, but..." Giles said.

"Can he get it back?"

"Get what back?" Giles asked, firmly.

"The prophecy, Rupert," William said. He scoffed. "They call you a quick study."

"Perhaps I'm at a loss for why you would want to help Angel," Giles said.

William crossed his arms. "I've been helping out for years now. Got my soul back."

"Yet I still recall the century of evil-doing before that," Giles said.

"Fine. I was evil. I got over it," William said.

Giles got up from his chair, sputtering. "You don't get over evil like it's a bad stomach bug," he said. "It takes years of penance and atonement. Preferably in a remote monastery in Argentina."

"Oh, you'd like that," William put in.

"Obviously," Giles said.

"How many times do I have to die to prove my loyalty to you?"

"I'd say at least once more," Giles said.

William slipped from the desk and squared with Giles. "Sod off," he said. "I'm not going anywhere. I don't care what you would or would not like. I'm here for Buffy," he said. "And Dawn. Willow, too. And sometimes even Andrew."

"And Angel, apparently," Giles said.

William backed down. "The Shanshu Prophecy says that a vampire with a soul will play a pivotal role in the apocalypse," he said.

Giles sat back down. "But which apocalypse? We've had several."

"I'm thinking it's bigger than that," William said.

Giles looked up, then down again.

William said, in a quieter tone, "I've never seen this prophecy thing. I don't know much about the way they work. But if Angel signed something over to the Circle of the Black Thorn, he was counting on having a Plan B. Get it?"

"You," Giles said, getting the picture.

"And now he doesn't," William said.

Giles sagged against the wingback arms of his chair. "Oh dear," he said.

"Bloody well right, oh dear," William said.

Giles got up again. After a handful of seconds, he renewed the attack on the stacks of books on his desk. "We'll, um, look into this Shanshu business. We must have something recorded in our archives. As for signing pacts with devils, I don't think I need to tell you how treacherous such matters can be."

"Then we'll keep a lookout for him, too," William said.

@*@*@

Nighna spread a map across the lacquered mahogany table. She poked a sharp, plum-colored fingernail at a street so insignificant in the scheme it looked like a varicose vein.

"This is where I found him," she said. "But my men have been through this area again and again. And nothing. Witch moves fast."

Across the room, Luxe stretched his legs on the supple suede lounge chaise he knew could only belong to Lalaine. He swirled a three-malt scotch in its crystal tumbler.

"It does not matter," he called back to Nighna. "Once the Priestess arrives, she will crack their shell."

Nighna moved to the chaise. "You're calling her Priestess now?"

"She prefers it," Luxe said. He craned his neck to see her. "Drink?"

Nighna flicked her wrist. "Thanks. No," she said. "Does Thellian know you're drinking his scotch?"

Luxe drained the tumbler, refilled it. "Thellian cares nothing for scotch. It is for his guests," he said.

Nighna drifted toward the picture window. Everyone who visited the apartment did exactly that. The view had an almost hypnotic effect. She watched the daytime traffic parade under the window. The lorries, the tugboats, the trains – the great back and forth of it always made her chuckle.

"You aren't his guest, Luxe," Nighna said.

Luxe drank down half his glass. He felt luxuriant and pleasantly buzzed. "You are right. I am a high-stakes house sitter," he said. "The keeper of keys."

"You're drunk," Nighna said. She clasped her hands behind her. She knew Luxe was a tell-all, forget it later kind of drunk. Her day was looking up. She slipped over to the bar, picked up the crystal decanter and joined Luxe on the leather chaise.

"Tell me," she said, refilling his glass. "How does Thellian intend to rid Angel of that bothersome soul of his?"

Luxe eyed her. "It will take more than fine liquor to get me to talk," Luxe said. His words slurred sloppily all over his languid French accent.

Nighna fingered Luxe's earlobe. She tucked his hair behind his ear. She bent close and whispered, "Now you're playing my game."

Several hours and the rest of the scotch later, Nighna plied Luxe for all he was worth. And then, she plied him again for fun. They managed to get to Thellian's bed, which, as far as either could tell, had never been slept in.

Nighna curved toward him. She let her hands rove where they wished beneath the sheets.

"Your Priestess, she wouldn't mind this," Nighna asked.

Luxe laughed. It was a groggy, throaty sound. "We are not bound by their rules," he said. "In fact, this would be her style. You, and me."

Nighna arched her brows. "You naughty little Frenchman," she said.

"And what of your scholarly petit amis, Monsieur Wells?"

"I still have hopes for him," Nighna said. "Right now, my interest lies with Angel."

"Why is that?" Luxe said.

Nighna withdrew from Luxe's embrace. "No fair, Luxe. You said you would play," she answered.

"C'est vrai," Luxe said. "Thellian has no plan to dispose of Angel's precious soul."

Nighna recoiled now. "You... can't be serious. You are a liar."

Luxe licked his lips. He reclined against the pillows. He said nothing.

Nighna realized then that her game had played out. It was over that fast, and she had lost.

"Surely you don't think you can try the same trick twice, Nighna. I recall Vienna too well, my darling," he said. "Besides, I gave you an answer to your question. Perhaps next time," he skimmed her shin with his toes, "you can ask the right one. Or, an even better idea: You can ask him all about his plans when he gets back from Russia."

Nighna leapt from the bed, enraged. Luxe watched with amusement as she plucked up her scattered clothes and stalked from the room without a further word.

She would be back. It was their way. Had been for, oh, centuries. Still, it felt good to be the one on top.

@*@*@

William found Buffy in the kitchen. She was standing over the sink, a canister of mixed nuts in her hands. She would shake it, sift through the contents, then shake it again.

"Looking for the toy surprise?" he asked.

"Ugh, no. Cashews," Buffy said. "Why do they even put peanuts in here?"

William came up beside her. "Presumably to eat," he said. "You don't like them?"

"Only as peanut butter. And then, only creamy. Others all gone?" she asked.

"No, they're here. All but Willow. She's picking Kennedy up at the airport," he said.

Buffy turned the canister. "Good. That's..." she sighed. "Much as I really, really hate it, we need Kennedy right now. Hmm. Almonds are good, too." She found one, ate it, did the can shaky shake again.

"Did you ever see the fish in a peanut?" William asked.

Buffy glanced at him. "A fish? In peanuts. Get out."

"No, look," he said. He took a whole peanut from the canister. "Hold out your hand."

She did. He put the kernel in her palm and split it lengthwise with his thumbnail. It broke neatly in half. He turned both halves over in her hand, and there it was. A perfect little fish shape, complete with tail, right in the head of a peanut.

"Look at that," she said. "A fishy. How did you...?"

"My mum," William said. A small smile twitched the corners of his lips. "She had a garden and grew them."

"You can grow peanuts?" Buffy said.

"Yes. Contrary to the popular belief that they are hatched," William said.

Buffy laughed. "I'm still reeling from the revelation that the earth is hollow," she said.

And then, awkward silence ensued.

"About the other night," William said. Only making things more awkward.

"No. Don't. Worry about it," Buffy said.

More awkwardness. More silence.

Finally, they both said, "How...?"

William held up his hands. "No. You first."

"How did we survive the things that happened before? Not 'we' as in us, but humans we. And by before, I mean..."

"Wait," he said. "What?"

Buffy started again. "Okay, I do mean we. How do you and I survive the things before? What we did to each other? How do we expect...?" Then she changed course completely. "And this thing thing you have going on. It's your thing, not mine. And what does fullness of the earth mean, anyway?"

"Have you gone completely Bridget Jones?" he asked.

"Just hang on," Buffy said, fervently. "I'm off. See? Off in right field. Off my nut. Off the wagon. Whatever. Just off. William, we have to do better."

"Oh," he said. Then, "I know. I know it. I'm off, too. Rebuilt from an atomic level, outside and in, but I still have the same geography of scars. I continue to make the same... bone-headed mistakes. But, it's not what I think we should talk about."

"It's not?"

"We need to talk about Angel."

"Angel," Buffy said, her voice small.

Buffy examined the little fish in the peanut. It was a simple, surprising little detail she would never have noticed. She never even knew to look. That kind of thing happened with William – the daily small things that made her feel that there were still the favorable kinds of mysteries to see.

The mere mention of Angel turned all of that upside down. She could never sufficiently explain to herself why reason and logic left her anytime he came in to the room. Nor could she tell herself why she felt he could always see her, even when she tried to hide.

"Hey, Somnambu-lady," William said.

Buffy jolted from her thoughts. "What did you say?" she asked.

"You were zoning," William said. "You all right?"

"Yeah," she said, hazily. "I think you need to tell me everything about when you worked for Wolfram & Hart."

"I never..." William said quickly.

"With Angel," she amended. She tried and failed to conceal the fact that she stumbled over saying his name.

He shrugged. "There's a lot to tell," he said.

"It may be important," she said.

Giles came into the kitchen. He drew up short, realizing he'd interrupted their conversation. He shot a crabwise glance William's way before turning to Buffy.

"We, um, intend this to be an all-night expedition. There should be nothing to worry about, but should you need us, call this number," Giles said. He produced a slip of paper from his breast pocket. "It's my beeper. We'll be several meters below ground most of the time, so our phones will have no reception."

"I take it Willow cracked the code on the mystery tome," William said.

Giles was unable to conceal his pride. He said, "It was remarkably simple for Willow. She said it was like picking the lock on a teenage girl's diary."

Andrew and Dawn appeared in the doorway, burdened with gear and heavy packs.

"So I was thinking," Andrew said, continuing his conversation from the stairs, "creepy dungeon crawl equals campfire comfort food. I packed a thermos of hot cocoa, stuff for s'mores and licorice whips."

Dawn crinkled her nose, "Ew. Red or black?"

"Red. Duh," Andrew said. "I also brought some printouts of some ghost stories, in case we wanted to share a few..."

"Andrew's returned, bearing snacks," William said.

"Dawn," Buffy called. "Be careful, okay?"

Dawn wobbled over to her, penguin-like, and kissed her on the cheek. "We'll be fine. Xander's already in the car, though, so we should head out."

Giles gave Buffy's knee a squeeze, then shouldered his own pack. He and Dawn left.

Andrew said, "We'll be back tomorrow night, so don't worry. And it'll be great, because I'm fixing Mexican."

"With real avocados?" Buffy asked.

"Muy buena, Senorita," Andrew said, saluting to them.

They heard Andrew open and close the front door. Neither spoke, though, until, seconds later, they heard the door open and shut once more. Andrew always forgets something, Buffy thought.

Once they were sure the others were gone, William told Buffy everything about his time at Wolfram & Hart, from the day he pulled his Genie-in-the-Bottle act to their final battle. By the time he finished the tale, dusky clouds had clotted the sky, and Kennedy's plane from Paris landed at London-Heathrow.

Chapter Text

The cemetery at St. John's Church held few new graves. Most of them dated back to the 1800s. Any of the vampires that failed to spring from those tombs were far from springy now, and therefore represented no danger to the Slayers. However, the row of crumbling mausoleums that ringed the outer circle of the cemetery was like luxury vampire condominiums.

Buffy stood in front of the gate, with Kennedy and William flanking her. Three girls faced them: Carmen, Renee and Anjelica. Twilight drained the sky to the color of ashes, and the almost full moon filled the night with watery blue shadows.

Carmen and Renee looked less than intimidated. They were wiry, confident girls who, as twins, inclined toward each other when they stood together. They reminded Buffy of the Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp. Both had chosen to fight with short swords from the weapons chest. They mimicked Kennedy's rigid posture as Buffy prepared to lay down the rules of the evening's trial.

But Anjelica: whole other story. With her short-cropped beige hair and small brown eyes, she had the looks of a girl who'd weathered her share of tempests. Kennedy openly called Anjelica Miss Mouse during training because of the girl's drab gray timidity. Anjelica had chosen a halberd for the test, which Buffy felt was a bad idea. Anjelica choked up too far on the haft in training, and sometimes even managed to trip herself.

Yet here they all were. Saturday night in a cemetery – Buffy's idea of a good time.

"Behind us is a nest," Buffy said. "Eight vampires, in eight crypts. You all have been patrolling. You know what we're up against. But even with their supercharge, you have something they don't. You are Slayers. You have each other. And you will beat them. Tonight."

Kennedy stepped in. She said, "Right. The trial will go as follows. You three will attack and kill the vampires in this bone yard. Rely on each other. Rely on yourselves. If one of us has to bail you out, you fail."

"Willow is in the tower," Buffy said, pointing behind the girls to the burned out husk of an abandoned bell tower on church grounds. "She'll be our comlink and surveillance."

"Except not for me," William interrupted. "I don't fancy having extra voices in my head."

Buffy continued. "Willow will be able to clue you in to the vamps' whereabouts if and when they leave their crypts. Will, Kennedy, and I will keep the perimeter, but we will only jump in if you're about to die."

The color drained from Anjelica's already waxen face. Carmen raised her hand.

When Kennedy acknowledged her, Carmen asked, "Um. Why are we doing this at night, when it would be an easy dust during the day?"

Kennedy flashed Carmen a satisfied smile. "Because you need the practice," she said.

"Right," Buffy said. "It's time."

She, William, and Kennedy left the cemetery yard, slamming the iron-gate behind them. Kennedy and William struck off in opposite directions to take their positions along the outer wall. Buffy lingered a few moments to watch the girls. They shuffled about, unsure of themselves, for all of about three seconds. Then, just as she expected, Carmen and Renee calved off together, leaving Anjelica to fend for herself.

Buffy climbed to the top of the archway. As she did, she heard Willow's voice in her head.

Kennedy and William are in position, she said. Let the games begin.

From Buffy's perch aloft, she could see the girls. Carmen and Renee split off left, together. Anjelica lingered, awfully conspicuous. Buffy's stomach twisted. She felt not good about the whole thing.

"Move," Buffy whispered to herself. "Move, silly girl."

As if hearing Buffy's words, Anjelica moved down the right-hand path on her own.

Carmen and Renee took on the first mausoleum they came to. Renee kicked in the metal door. It splintered with an echoing crack. Dust settled, and nothing. The crypt was empty, and they had just blown all hope for surprise. Four doors down, a massively muscled vampire stepped from his vault. This one was probably on the freak show circuit before getting vamped.

He hulked over them, bare-chested and wearing studded leather chaps. The twins were taken aback for a fraction. Then they launched at him like a Cuisinart, blades drawn and expertly chopping. Buffy thought it would be a quick, painful kill for them until two of his buddies joined the fight.

On the other side of the graveyard, Anjelica remained disengaged in fighting. At the sound of conflict, she ducked from Buffy's view.

Buffy focused on her connection with Willow. Can you see Anjelica? she asked.

Busily cowering, Willow sent back.

"Not good," Buffy breathed.

With their impressive with-it-ness, Carmen and Renee dusted one of their trio. Buffy made a mental tick mark. One down...

They swooped with feline fierceness on the second. Buffy almost felt sorry for the vampire. Renee cart-wheeled a kick to his head. At the same time, Carmen sidestepped under his defense. She hacked into his spine. Renee brought her sword up in a brutally smooth arc. Their blades met mid-throat. The vampire's head tumbled from its shoulders like a bucket full of dust. The one that remained darted deeper into the cemetery.

Willow said, The others are wakey. All six have gathered near the obelisk on the other side of the tower.

"Oh, dammit," Buffy said. Now she couldn't see any of them. She dropped down from the gate to stand guard. For a moment she only heard the clangor of engagement. Crushing bones. Tearing flesh. Skin popping from musculature.

How're they doing? Buffy asked.

Two more down. Anjelica's struggling... Then, Oh! Anjelica got one!

"Yes!" Buffy said. She shifted weight from one foot to the other. She chewed her lip. To Willow she said, Tell them to bring the conflict around so I can see it.

Then Buffy saw Anjelica stumble backward onto the path, a vampire bearing down on her. Before getting to her feet again, Anjelica sent a frantic 'help me' look in Buffy's direction. Buffy fought back the fierce instinct to leap in. She waited, ready to rescue.

The assailant vamp was a ragged, scrawny thing. What he lacked in size, he more than made up for in quickness. He rabbited Anjelica between the headstones. She seemed to have forgotten her weapon. He drove her backward into one of the mausoleums below William's guarded wall.

Willow... Buffy began.

Wait, Willow sent back. Another vampire approaching from outside. Right behind Spike.

Buffy glanced up. William had left the wall. Buffy broke into a run.

It was too late. The interloping vampire leapt to the top of the outer wall, descending in a swirl of black leather. He was snapping vampire neck by the time Buffy arrived.

Buffy paused at the vault door, panting, prepared for the worst. Anjelica lay on the crypt floor, powdered with vampire dust and looking both grateful and amazed. The other vampire looked out of the bleakness with eyes agleam.

She stared at him, puzzled herself. It wasn't until he shook off his demon face that she understood.

"Angel," William said from behind Buffy. "Can't a guy take a hint?"

Buffy started at the sound of William's voice.

Angel reached down to help Anjelica to her feet. She began immediately to pound the dust from her clothing.

"Angel, what are you doing here?" Buffy finally managed to say.

"I smelled blood," he said.

Buffy stepped back. "You did?" William glanced at her but said nothing.

"Smelled blood? What, you were just passing through the neighborhood?" William said.

"I was on my route," Angel said, all Mr. Smooth. "Heard noise. Smelled blood. Cemetery nearby. I drew the necessary conclusions."

"You ruined our test," Buffy said, recovering her composure.

"Test?" Angel asked.

Outside the crypt, the final vampire ran behind them screaming like a siren. Buffy staked him without looking back.

"That's right," William said, enjoying a bit of turnabout. "Slayer Rite of Passage. You just ballsed it up. Nice work."

"I thought she was in danger," Angel said.

Kennedy stepped up. "She was in danger," she said. "Miss Mouse, front and center."

Anjelica's dark eyes flicked toward Buffy. She walked out of the tomb like a woman being led to her execution. Carmen, Renee, and Willow joined them. They all formed a loose circle with Anjelica and Kennedy in the center.

Kennedy towered over Anjelica. She brought her shoulders back to lengthen the advantage of her size. "You were pathetic," Kennedy bit out.

"Kennedy..." Buffy warned.

But Kennedy went on, unheeding. "A disservice to yourself and your Sister Slayers. You fail. And you're out."

Buffy stepped in front of Anjelica. She said, "That's not your call." Her tone was like ice water.

"She failed the test," Kennedy said, voice firm.

"The test was botched by Sir Forehead the Brave," William added. "We'll have to re-try her."

"Yeah, besides," Willow put in, "It wasn't a 'fail and you're out' kind of deal. It was a 'let's see what we need to re-teach' test. Which, by the way, Carmen and Renee... no re-teach required."

Kennedy planted her hands on her hips. "Is that right? Well, your huggy-feelly American teaching style will take you all to your graves. Mouse's got the skills and grace of an albatross. If you want that around your neck..."

William stepped in, eyeing a fight. He said, "Park your angst, Ani DiFranco, If you don't like it..."

Kennedy clenched her fists.

"Guys," Buffy intervened. "Not here, not now. Anjelica has other abilities. She stays. We'll retest."

"We don't have time for that," Kennedy said, raising her voice. "Where will we find another vamp nest? You saw Willow's sweep. Not another one for..."

"There're a few in Camden," Angel offered.

Buffy blinked. Willow knitted her brows.

"Sure," Angel said. "It's a train ride away. I can show you."

"But how do you..." Buffy began.

"Because Angel still has ties to the Evil Empire. Isn't that right?" William said.

"I am a vampire, Spike," Angel said. "I can help out, if you let me."

"No th..." William said.

Anjelica sat down hard on the path. She touched her fingers to her scalp where a deep cut ran along her crown. The blood Angel had scented was hers.

Willow dropped to her knees beside the girl. Buffy, Carmen and Renee crowded in.

"She may be concussed," Buffy said, after a quick once over. "We need to get her to a hospital."

Kennedy said, "We'll go. You've got your hands full with Darth Vampire."

Buffy hesitated. Willow put a reassuring arm around Buffy's shoulder.

"Yeah, we'll make sure she gets home just fine, too," Willow said.

Buffy lifted Anjelica's chin with her hand. "You'll be all right," she said. "It's a little thing, okay?"

Anjelica nodded, then winced. Carmen and Renee each got under one arm and helped Anjelica to her feet.

Buffy felt a surge of uneasy queasiness well in her stomach when Willow and the others had gone. That she chalked up to being left alone with her ex, and her ex ex.

Right away, Buffy turned to Angel. "So, are you or are you not with Wolfram & Hart? Be straight with us, Angel."

Angel paused, considering his words with great care. "I know how it must seem," he said. "But you both have to trust that I'm doing what's right here. You have to have power to protect."

"Not that power," Buffy said. "It has to come from what's good and right, Angel. You're playing a game you can't win."

"No, I'm not," Angel said.

"Yes, you are," she said.

"But I'm not..."

"What do you think this is, an argument clinic?" Buffy cried. She put her hand to her forehead to massage away the headache that was forming there. "William told me, about Cordelia and Wes and Fred. About everything that happened to you. Wolfram & Hart is fueled by evil..."

Angel held up his hand. "Buffy, can the pep-talk. I know what I'm doing here."

"Then it's not safe for us to be chance meeting like this," she said.

Angel took a step in her direction. "I know that," he said. Buffy held her ground, knowing William was right behind her.

"If we are on opposite sides, you have to stop helping us. For all our sakes," Buffy said. The words fell like stones from her mouth. She turned in the path and walked away.

@*@*@

William wandered the house. He opened cabinets and closet doors, checked under sinks. There was something he misplaced, but as was the way in dreams, it eluded him. As always, he wound up in the kitchen. He swung open the pantry doors. Dried pasta. Kidney beans. Boxes of fruit juice. Breakfast cereal. All perfectly normal, nothing out of place.

He turned around. Beside the refrigerator, there was a new door. He went to it, pulled it open.

It was a linen closet, shelves packed to bursting with towels, sheets and pillowcases. Crammed in between them, was Anya.

"Anya, you're in the linens," he said.

"I know," she said, in an exaggerated whisper. "Where else can I hide?"

"Finland?" he offered.

"Oh, that's great. Bait me with the geographically impossible. This was your idea," she said.

"What? How is that?" he said.

"That parole officer/guardian angel I mentioned. Turns out, he's no angel at all. In fact, I think he's a demon. A particularly nasty one," she said. "Probably Kimaris."

William was barely paying attention to her. Instead, he found himself compelled to drag out a suspicious looking set of sheets.

"You've got blood on these," he said. He held it up to show her. "Buffy'll be miffed."

"Spike, you aren't listening to me. This demon, he's keeping tabs," she said. She dropped her voice to a whisper again. "He can hurt me. And I don't think you can remember our conversations once you wake up."

"You'll have to leave a message," he said, pointing to her. "Write it in the steam when we're in the shower."

"I can't! I can't leave the kitchen," she said.

"Bollocks," William said. "You're a bloody spook. You can't be bound by rooms or places."

Anya gathered sheets around to hide all but her face. "I can. I'm a prisoner, Spike."

William looked away from her, over his shoulder. He started to close the closet door. "I have to go now. I'm searching for something," he said.

"You're searching for me!" Anya shouted.

William paused, considering. Then, "No. I don't think so, pet. You're a right catch, and if I were non-corporeal, you'd be the girl for me..."

"Spike," Anya said, voice full of force. "Don't wake up. The guardian, remember? The Frenchman with the dragonfly? His name is Luxe. Spike!"

William awoke to an eerily empty feeling in the house. On the nightstand, Buffy had left a note on a scrap of wrapping paper:

Gone to shops.

Be home soon.

Buffy

He padded downstairs, rubbing his eyes, head still groggy from his dream. He'd been looking for something... He opened the refrigerator, still puzzling out the fragments, when he heard a noise in one of the back rooms. Immediately, he thought of Angel.

William crept down the hall toward the TV room. The door to the bathroom was open and the light was on. He slipped to the door, full stealth engaged, every muscle tensed to pounce, every nerve on full alert.

Just as he was ready to burst in, Buffy said: "Don't come in."

He relaxed, then pushed on the door to enter anyway.

"Stop it..."

"Buffy, I've seen you from every angle," he said.

"Just... give me a second," she said.

"Fine," he said. He leaned against the wall beside the bathroom door. It was then that he saw the brown paper package on the phone stand, and the little torn open box poking out it. He went over, all casual, all everything-is-like-Sunday normal, and picked up the box.

Later, when recalling this moment, William would marvel at how calm and removed everything seemed, like he was watching the whole thing unfold on an episode of Passions. He brought the box back over, and leaned against the wall.

"Funny," he said. "I always figured you for a BC girl."

On the other side of the door, Buffy repeatedly smacked her forehead and cursed Freud.

"What would the point be, exactly, given my history?" she said. Her hands were shaking. But William couldn't see that. She elaborated out of sheer nervousness. "Let's see, we have a rogue's gallery which includes Angel and you. Both vampires. Riley was Condom Lad. Parker, one night stand and Charlie was an Immortal. They're nixie on the need for family planning."

"The Immortal's name is Charlie?" William asked. Then refocused. "Guess we should have thought of this, since I returned endowed with... fluids."

"When you say it that way," Buffy said, "Really gross."

She came out of the bathroom, holding the wand in both hands. Little stick of plastic held their full, unbroken attention.

"Now we wait," she said.

"How long?" he said.

"Few minutes."

They both watched, unblinking, unbreathing.

"That's... blue," William said.

Buffy made a whimperish sound.

He looked from the wand to her and back again. "Is blue good?" he asked. "Is blue bad?"

"Blue is... blue," she answered.

"Bollocks," he breathed.

"W-We can't tell anyone, Will. Not until we're sure. We don't know. I mean, how accurate can a little plastic wand thingie be?"

William held up the package. "Box says 99 percent."

"What do boxes know?" she asked.

"Well, we should tell them. Tell 'em all," he said, with the not-so-calm anymore. "Safety in bloody numbers. And full stop on patrolling..."

Buffy fled. She pushed past him, hands pressed to her face like a la Edvard Munsch. She needed air and space around her. She couldn't breathe.

William followed, persistent. "...and no more wine with dinner. No shellfish. No caffeine. Or hormone-injected beef. Oh, and avoid all public transport."

Buffy stepped out onto the patio with him close behind her. "Stop it," she said, rounding on him. But he looked as vulnerable as she felt.

"We are the biggest, dumbest big dumb idiots on the planet," she said.

"I know it," he said, nodding. He swallowed hard.

She went over to the picnic table and sat down on the bench, the wand still in her hand. Every part of her was in chaos, and she didn't know whether to laugh about it or cry.

Quietly, William crossed the yard. He took the seat beside her, lay his hand on her back. They waited together in the stillness of the garden, knowing that everything had suddenly and irrevocably changed.

Chapter Text

Maya was on a ship and sinking fast. Water spilled in a heavy green deluge over the deck. Ashy smoke curled in the rigging, but the fire was still below. A more pressing problem was the rat-men. They burst from the attacking ship like angered bees from a hive, pouring over the rails in a twitching, squeaking, wet-furred mass. There was something especially loathsome about their bald, pink whippish tails. She hunkered beneath the debris of the mizzenmast, clinging to the hope that if she just kept her head down, all would be fine.

Trouble was, her mom was there. And her mom was loud.

"Hey Peaches," she called, completely oblivious to the Rat King and his pals. "You clear away those baobabs?"

Maya shushed her. Her mom shook her head, not understanding over the battle cries of invading rodentia.

Her mom sloshed over to her. In an exaggerated whisper, she said, "Those sheep, honey. Remember? They were eating up..."

One of the rats leapt over the fallen mast. Maya and her mother shrieked. They held each other, skirt hems drenched and pulling them down.

"There you are, Pretties," the Rat hissed. Spittle frothed on his chisel-shaped cheddar-colored teeth. "I have you now."

Maya gripped her mom's hand. She said, "We will never submit, you pointy-faced fiend."

The rat drew a long curved blade from its scabbard. It gleamed red in the fading sunlight. "Oh, but you will, Maya. You can't hold out forever."

The rat slashed down. Maya and her mother screamed.

Just then, a flash of red streaked across the sky behind rat boy. While they watched, a fencing blade burst from the rat's belly. The rat's eyes rolled, whites exposed, and he fell away dead.

Maya clapped her hands. Her mother swooned.

"It's you," Maya sang. "I knew you would return."

"Of course I would. I fear not, for I am Xander Man," Xander said. "I gave my eye in the fight against evil. I will gladly risk other body parts to save you."

Then he gathered her in his manly arms and carried her to the edge of the ship. Together, they peered down into the black swirling water.

"We'll never make it," she said.

"That's what they always say," Xander told her. With her still cradled against his chest, he leapt onto the ship's rail. "And they are always wrong. With the body parts and the risking, how can we fail?"

Through the thunderous clamor of the raiding forces, Maya heard a doorbell ringing.

Xander looked down at her. His soft sable eye seemed full of warmth and strength and possibility. "Do you hear something?" he asked

"It's nothing," she said. She snuggled into his arms. "Ignore it."

The doorbell rang again. And again. Then several times, rapid fire.

"I think you have a visitor," Xander said.

Maya's chin slipped from her fist, and she awoke with a start. The doorbell buzzed, but it wasn't a guest at the door. Instead, it was the attention getting buzzy noise from Messenger. The message window popped up.

Maya? U R There.

Tears stung Maya's eyes. On her keyboard, she keyed Ctrl+I to ignore the message and its sender. That hot key combo would be the first on her keyboard to wear out she used it so much. But he always found a way to come back. She had a few minutes, though. If she acted fast, she could send a message to her mom.

Maya's fingers trembled on the keys as she accessed her email program. She typed her mother's address in the window, then tabbed to the body of the message.

She typed:

Dear Mom,

Not much time. I miss you so much. Turns out London's not what it's cracked up to be and Freddie

But instead of what she typed, this message appeared:

Dear Mom,

London is grate. Not missing Texas AT ALL! Having fab time. Yesterday I went down to the shops and found

Maya glanced at the screen.

"What?" she said. She gulped down her frustration. "Oh, no you don't," she said.

She typed furiously:

Turns out Freddie is an ego-maniacal bastard with delusions of homicidal grandeur and atrocious spelling

On the screen, these words appeared:

some Xcellent produce, farm fresh brown eggs, and some figs.

"Figs!" Maya shouted.

The message continued without her:

I also found this terrific recipe I wanted to share. (See attached). Talk to you more when I have time. Busy busy. Freddie sends kisses as always. Lots of love, Maya

"It's not like she won't know something's up. She's my mother," Maya yelled.

The send/receive button flashed, and the message disappeared into cyberspace. The Messenger window popped up again. The screen ID FreddieDX1974 appeared on the window bar.

"Cos she's been sooo observant the past 4 yrs. The cage U made for us won't hold me forever, " he typed.

"As long as I'm here, you can't get out," Maya shot back.

"Not so. Every day I get stronger," he typed.

Maya swallowed hard. She looked up at the shattered bulb still in its socket. She massaged the tender skin around the cut on her brow.

She typed: "You could let me go."

"Y would I do that? I'm an egomanical bastard w/delusions of homicidal grandeur," he answered.

"But..."

Freddie continued to type. "U and I R bound Maya. Nothing U can do 2 change it. Or R U still dreaming someone will come 2 save U? Mr. Goofball Pirate maybe? He'll be busting thru the door NE minit."

Maya shoved away from the computer. "There are other ways," she said. Her body went rigid with determination.

The message window flashed: "Just what do U think U R doing, Maya?"

Maya lay her hands on the ebony box under the counter. "I can do it, Freddie," she said. She kept her voice calm, even, cool as Coca-Cola. Inside, whole other story.

"U wouldn't dare," Freddie typed.

"What else do I have to lose?" Maya said. "You already took my sunlight. And my regular light. Ruined my food. Scared away the delivery guys. What's next? Gonna explode my hot water tank so I can't take a bath?"

As soon as she said it, she wished she hadn't.

Freddie typed, "LMAO. Thanx for the idea, Daisy."

"I am not your daisy," Maya said, teeth clenched. She flipped the lid of the box open. "I'll do it."

"U don't have the strength. Didn't before, & U'R worn down now. Not a chance in hell," Freddie typed.

"Wanna bet?" Maya said. She felt a billowy swell of exhilaration as she tore the glass from its moldering bed of velvet. She knew the words, of course. Knew them before setting the trap. All part of the plan, though none of it had turned out the way she envisioned. She only had to say the words, and look into the glass.

"Firistak," she said. The air around her stirred the fine blonde hairs on her arms.

Freddie typed: "U can't, Maya. It means goodbuy. U'r 2 weak."

"It's good B-Y-E, idiot," Maya said, surprised at her own boldness. "Firistak, Imultien..." The crystal hummed and droned against her fingers.

The computer screen went suddenly blank. Maya's pulse thrummed. Her blood rushed in her ears. "Hebristed. Ahntak. Firistak..."

Tendrils of smoke curled from the back of the monitor. The acrid scent of burning filled her nose. Her eyes watered. The glass lifted from her palms, turning slow circles in the air. Maya dared to smile.

"Habanay. Ahntakya," she said. "Ishmu—"

Blue-white lightning arcs shot from the computer. Electric current surged into Maya's skin. Her body tensed. Her head snapped back. The looking glass settled into her splayed palms and sat like a predator, waiting.

Maya's head lolled back on her neck. She fought to open her eyes and lost. Consciousness slipped to stasis, and she was gone.

@*@*@

Xander, Dawn and Andrew shouldered their packs and struck out across the dusky moor. Giles followed behind, toting a satchel full of books, maps and arcane trinkets. In his jacket pocket he kept his beeper, a notepad and the wood-bound book Willow had managed to make quick work of earlier that afternoon.

Dawn and Andrew, already knowing the way, forged ahead of Xander and Giles. They crossed the gravel service road, leaving Stonehenge over their left shoulders. The wind that swept across the open field brought forth the soft, grassy scents of autumn. A nearly full moon hung low in the colorless sky. With Dawn in the lead, they tromped down the steadily sloping field. They arrived at an escarpment from under which peeked the narrow mouth of a cave. The way the land seemed to bend back on itself reminded Xander of a fold-over sandwich.

"Someone had to move a lot of earth to get in there," Xander said, off-handedly.

Dawn stopped in her tracks. She panned her gaze slowly to Giles.

"You?" she said.

Giles made a weak attempt of protesting, but the look of guilt was almost comical.

"What did I say?" Xander said.

"You caused the earthquake?" Dawn said, incredulous.

"Had I known of the instability, I would have never..."

"Wait, earthquake? You did that?" Andrew said. "That's major cool."

"It's not," Xander said. "Not cool. Should we expect more tectonic harmonics, or did you get them out of your system?"

"N-no. I mean, yes," Giles stammered. "It isn't like I planned for an earthquake."

"Nobody plans for an earthquake," Dawn said. "Well, they do. Disaster plans and such. But, we've been coming to these caves for weeks Giles. What if something...?"

Giles' brow furrowed. "Now, just a minute. I would never have knowingly put the lot of you in danger. After the initial seal was broken, the area stabilized. We should be fine. We have Willow's spell craft to help us this time. Before, I... well, I tried it alone," Giles said. "The incantations are quite complex."

Dawn stood firm for a moment longer. Then she said, "You're right. Besides, we all want to know what's down there. It could be the answer to everything."

"Or it could be the secret hide-out of Jim Morrison and Jimmy Hoffa," Xander said. "For all we know, it could be nothing."

"Not nothing," Giles said. He patted the text his in coat pocket. "This book contains maps and descriptions that indicate a labyrinth of subterranean chambers..."

"Catacombs," Andrew said, making his voice warble like a Saturday night TV horror movie host.

"Burial chambers, perhaps. Further archives," Giles said.

"Ancient mummies, booby traps, a giant boulder on a trigger mechanism..." Xander quipped.

"I'm inclined to think not," Giles said, blandly.

Dawn stepped in. She said, "Guys, let's get inside before someone notices us hanging out and accuses us of making crop circles. Again."

They started up the path once more, with Andrew jogging along in the lead.

The mouth of the archive was a cave about the width and height of a very large troll or smallish giant. The first thing that struck Xander when they entered was that it smelled exactly like the Sunnydale High School Library – dusty, with a hint of disintegrating leather bindings and Earl Grey tea. Come to think of it, it smelled a lot like Giles. Xander thought it funny that this was the first time he'd made the connection.

Xander equipped the battery powered halogen flashlights (which Giles insisted on calling torches). The carved stone corridor ahead sloped down at a gentle grade into total darkness.

Before entering Andrew gave them a stiff, forced smile. "This is the first time we've been here after dark. Kinda Edgar Allan Poe, huh?"

"Only if you intend to wall one or more of us up in the walls," Dawn said. "Come on. This part we know." Dawn and Giles plunged ahead into the darkness. Their flashlights cut a wide circle of light through the gloom.

After several minutes of brisk walking, the swath of light fanned out as the corridor widened. The walls fell away replaced by the feeling of general wide-open airiness. Xander held up his flashlight, but the beam illuminated only them. The ceiling, so far above them, remained cloaked in black.

"Holy Grail!" Xander breathed.

"Neat, huh?" Dawn said. She stopped for a moment to share in his excitement.

"This is the first chamber," Giles said. "I found only primitive weapons here, and a few broken shields. The path continues on..."

"How is it that National Geographic hasn't hopped all over this place?" Xander said. "Seems like Jacques Cousteau or one of those fancy science types would have a blast with a discovery like this."

"It's a hidden archive," Giles said, simply. "The glamour spell concealing it keeps out anyone who doesn't know of its existence."

"Like the Isla de Muerta," Andrew offered.

"Then how did you find it?" Xander asked.

Giles opened his mouth to explain, then closed it again. He struck off down the path without answering. The others followed, continuing their descent into the murk.

After a while, Andrew said, "This part's pretty boring even in daylight. The next chamber's the good stuff. The archive is all big and spacious, and there are carved stone shelves full of books."

Just as Andrew had described, the next chamber contained wall to ceiling stone shelves crammed with books and scrolls of every size and color.

"Hey, look at that," Xander said. "Add a saber-toothed tiger skin rug and a pterodactyl record player and you've got the Bedrock Public Library."

"This archive contains some of the most valuable and precious books ever printed, by man or demonkind. And the scrolls," Giles said, breathless. "It's possible they are the last remnants of the Library of Alexandria. Not originals, most likely, but copies secreted here in a time when the church waged war on the dissemination of knowledge."

Xander leaned to Dawn. "Does he do this every time?" he whispered.

"So far," she answered.

"Oh fine," Giles said. "Belittle our discovery with comparisons to 1960s cartoons all you like, but this is just the beginning. Andrew, bring that light over. The sealed chamber is this way."

Andrew, Dawn and Xander followed Giles to the far wall of the archive chamber. The sealed doorway was a recessed niche carved into the rock, but appeared to have no seams or hinges at all. Down the center of the niche, in what appeared like swirling, ornate renditions of cartouche letters, was the arcane incantation.

"Maybe it's in Elvish," Andrew said, hopefully. "Speak friend, and enter."

Giles ignored him. "Hold the light steady," he said. He removed the book from his pocket and turned to the first page. The elegantly curving letters burned into the thick paper matched those engraved on the wall.

"Now," Giles said. "Let's hope Willow's ancient Pictish is better than her Latin."

Xander, Dawn and Andrew took a collective step backward.

Dawn giggled. She said, "They're Pict-o-grams."

Giles gave her a wan smile. He then raised his hand, dramatically, and spoke four words: Focala Uachtar Muid Skhar.

A stream of dust rained down from the top of the niche. Otherwise, nothing.

"Maybe you said it wrong," Andrew said.

"I didn't say it wrong," Giles answered. Frustration edged up in his voice. "I said the words, exactly as she recited."

Dawn was nodding. Instinctively, she knew, without really knowing how she knew. She took the can opener from the bungy on Andrew's backpack.

"Giles, step back," she said. When he did, Dawn centered herself before the niche, then gouged her thumb.

"Hey!" Andrew and Xander shouted together.

Dawn traced the symbols with her blood. "Read them now," she said, as she outlined the final sweeping curvature.

"Focala Uachtar Muid Skhar," Giles said again.

Immediately, the symbols burned bright as a brand. Her blood ignited, filling the room with the sweet, cloying scent of honeysuckle.

"Wow," Xander breathed.

As the fire faded, Dawn pressed her palm to the center of the door and gave it a shove. The niche slid smoothly back several inches, revealing a cramped path behind it.

"It worked," Giles said, "You did it."

"I did," Dawn said. She exhaled a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. She pushed further, and the doorway opened all the way to a back wall. She turned to look at them. "Shall we... go in?"

"We can't come this far and not," Giles said.

Stepping from the archive chamber into the hallway was like crossing the barrier between worlds. It was dark in the sense of the absence of all light, and the air felt cool in a preternaturally air-conditioned way not found in most ancient underground archives. The path itself was tiled with smooth, polished stones but only wide enough for them to walk single file.

Giles took the lead, bearing the only flashlight, as the others were overkill in the narrow hallway. The excitement that ran between them was like a fourth member of the party, or, rather like a beach ball they bounced back and forth as they tread along a path unwalked for centuries.

"What do you think we'll find?" Andrew asked, for the five hundredth time in the first half-hour.

"Maybe it is a corridor between worlds," Dawn said. "A pathway that opens up onto every dimension thinkable."

"A superhero dimension?" Andrew asked.

"A dimension of only shrimp," Xander said.

"Your first guess was more probable," Giles answered.

"The pathway between worlds?" Xander asked.

Giles came to an abrupt halt. The others did a three stooges to keep from bowling him over. He held the flashlight out in front of him, illuminating the first handful of steps that would lead them further down.

"Catacombs," Giles said. "Stick close, all of you. As usual, we never know what we might encounter."

But for an hour of careful descending step after even step, they encountered... only steps. After much complaining, they broke for tepid cocoa and non-melty s'mores. Then, onward, downward into more darkness.

By Xander's Indiglo read-out, it was 2:14 a.m. when the stairway ended and the other corridor began.

"This is very Escher-esque," Dawn observed. "The path is a Mobius strip. Any minute now we're going to appear on the roof of the original archive chamber and we'll all have such a laugh."

Giles continued on, doggedly refusing to slow his pace. An hour later, they finally reached the end of the line. The corridor terminated in a square cubicle roughly the size and shape of an elevator.

"A dead end?" Dawn said, disbelieving. "It can't be..."

Giles held the flashlight in front of him. "It's not. Look."

There was another recessed niche, this one in the floor. A second incantation was engraved in the sandstone. The ridges of the symbols stood out from the stone with fresh precision, as if it was freshly carved.

"No weathering," Dawn said, voice vibrating with her enthusiasm. She unwrapped her thumb and pinched the blood back to the surface. Xander and Andrew cringed as she traced the letters. They all removed themselves back to the corridor.

"Um, all right," Giles said. He flipped the page to the next set of symbols. "Let's see: Focala Scuab an t-urlár."

As before, the symbols blazed. The scent of summer flowers filled the room. Dawn stepped forward onto the panel. With her weight on it, the niche slowly began to descend.

"Wait! Dawn," Xander said. He grabbed her, hauled her backward before the floor disappeared into the dark beneath them.

Dawn smacked his arm. "Why did you do that?"

"Have we thought it through to how we'd get back?" Xander asked.

"We just would," Dawn said, panting. "There would have to be a way."

"No," Giles said. "Xander's right. We need spelunking gear."

Dawn shook her head. "Spelunking gear? No. We're meant to go on. We have to."

"We will, Dawnie," Xander soothed. "Just, not tonight. We'll get ropes and pulleys. Hey, a rope ladder would be keen."

Andrew came over to stand beside Dawn. Together they perched on the edge, looking down into the abyss. He kicked a stone over the edge. They listened as it ricocheted down the shaft, then plunked finally to the panel down below.

"Spelunk," he said. "Good word. Like onomatopoeia. Like if you drop something in a cave, that's the sound it would make. Speeee-lunk."

Dawn folded her arms. "Yeah. Good word."

Behind them, Giles was shaking his head. "It is actually an amusing word," he said. "Dawn. I know you're disappointed. I am, too. It's late, but we will come back..."

Dawn turned. "When?" she asked. Even to her own ears, she was starting to get whiny. "Tomorrow? Tomorrow night. It's a school night you realize and Buffy's been all Joan Crawford since the supervamps..."

Dawn didn't understand what happened next. Didn't comprehend the shower of pebbles, or the hard shove that knocked her flat.

"Hey, watch it!" she yelled. She turned, tangling over her feet. For a second, Andrew seemed to hover there like a cartoon coyote. The rocks under him gave way and he plummeted without a sound into the dark.

Chapter Text

The pair of them weren't much to look at. She knew it. They had been crawling through rain-soaked ditches for days. Her jeans and T-shirt were tattered to a rough Lita Ford look. The cast on his arm was ruined. It would do him no good at all, slogging through muck with his arm all torn to hell. But he was not the listening type and she was not the nagging type. She told him not to come along. He did, and injury or not, he had yet to slow her down.

Faith glanced at him. "How you holdin' up? You look pale, and for you that's..."

"I'm fine," Wood said. He coughed into his good hand. "Any sign of them?"

Faith peeked between the slats of the whitewash fence. She saw concrete, slick with rain, steaming wetly with the acrid scent of broiling motor oil. The parking lot and the dingy buildings beyond appeared abandoned. A lone sky blue church bus was parked askew in the lot, looking forlorn against the bad weather backdrop.

"Man, Haiti's not what it used to be," Faith said.

"You been here before?" Wood said. He flopped against the grimy wall, grateful for the overhang. Even a few seconds abatement from the constant seasonal rains made him feel almost good.

Faith continued to stare out from the gaps in the fence. "No," she said, distracted. "It was, you know, an observation."

Wood uttered a forced laugh. He closed his eyes. Faith looked back at him.

She couldn't believe Wood survived the whole salt dome implosion. Turned out, Slayer strength did get passed down in families. She had done the pulling to shore, but Wood kept up his end of the bargain by continuing to breath.

And yeah, Berithi had gills. Didn't matter when she snapped his neck.

They lost a little ground with his convalescing in a New Orleans hospital, but regained what they could. The Priestess made stops in villages along the Southern coast of the Dominican Republic before moving on to Port-au-Prince. Signs said she was damage bound for the coastal villages, but here they were in Jeremie and zip. No evil Priestess. No vampire acolytes. No burned out huts or bombed out cars. Just denuded hillsides and buckets of piss-warm rain.

"She's moved on," Wood said, quietly. "Moved on, or called back. Either way, I think we lost her."

"Nuh-uh," Faith said. "No way. We have come this far. We are not losing her this time."

"Faith, look at us. Even if we caught," he coughed. Began again. "Even if we caught up to her, all we could really do is effectively glare her to fits of gleeful laughter."

Faith pressed her face to the fence, as if looking harder with her whole head might make something appear.

"Give up," she said. "Do it. What do I care? Not my style, but hey..."

"Faith," he said.

She held up a hand to silence him. She heard a pitter-pattering of lots of feet.

"Hey," she said again. "Hey, look at this."

Wood got up with a painful groan. He came over to look out with her. Four boys, elementary school age, ran up the sidewalk together. All four were soaked. Their bare feet slapped the wet pavement.

"They're kids," Wood said.

"Ya think?"

"They don't look so good," he observed.

"Poverty's a real bitch, 90210."

"No, look at the knees. Scrapes. Holes in the clothes. They're running. Like us," he said.

As they watched, one of the boys dragged a panel of wood back from the boarded up windows. The other three darted in like ducks. The first boy did a double take on street level, then ducked in himself.

"Hide-out in Haiti-town," Faith said, clamping her hand over Wood's wrist. "Let's go."

Faith was halfway up the fence when Wood hauled her back down.

"Hey, watch it," she yelled.

Wood looked very, very concerned. "Listen," he said.

Faith directed her attention at the lack of sound. "I don't hear anything."

"My point exactly," he said. "Fits her MO."

"No," Faith said. She strained to hear any kind of noise. Bird, cricket, frog, surf... None. She looked back at Wood, alarmed. "She can't. It's daylight."

"Shh..." He pointed. Across the street, a black shadow stretched. From their place behind the fence, they watched it grow longer, then somehow more dense like a cloud of ink. Tendrils of it whipped forth, twisting and dragging forward. And then, she appeared.

Faith started up the fence again.

Wood pulled at her legs. "Stop. Are you crazy?"

"She's gonna find them," she called down.

Wood dropped to his knees, dragging her with him. Faith scrambled up. The Priestess hovered in the curling vines of smoke, black hair waving back like a Medusa's mane. Thick ropy veins stood out on her face and neck and arms. Her eyes burned in her skull like the dull embers of a forest fire thought long dormant.

While they watched, The Priestess outstretched her arms. The air ahead of her shimmered. There was a sucking sound, and the boards over the windows bulged.

"Oh, no she isn't," Faith seethed. She was on feet and kicking the fence down before Wood could say Parcheesi.

Faith ran out into the parking lot. She screamed, "I'm the one you want, you skanky, veiny wannabe witch-bitch!"

The Priestess revolved silently, riding on the wave of her own malignant power.

"Ah, Faith," she said. "Hi. I'm kinda busy right now, bringing the world to its knees. You're not really in my way and I could bat you aside, but... how about a little intimidation instead? Fireball, maybe? Or, ooh. Maybe a case of suppurating sores."

"Save the chit chat," Faith said. "I can take all you got and then some."

The Priestess wrinkled her nose in a way that looked almost human. "Babe, I really don't think so," she said. She flicked her hands open. Bursts of flame ruptured the air in front of Faith.

Priestess was fast. Faith was faster. She dived over the fire, rolled, then leapt at the Priestess. Immediately the tendrils twisted around her, binding her wrists. Faith responded with a kick to Priestess face.

The Priestess's eyes sparked to a Chernobyl glow. "You had one freebie. You just spent it," she said.

The Priestess cupped her hands. They filled with molten greenish fluid. Faith was at close range and had to get away fast. She flung her body backward just as the Priestess flung her demon mucus. Faith rolled, avoiding the smoking pits the green acidy stuff had made.

Faith glimpsed a sign of movement from the corner of her eye and knew it was Wood, heading for the kids. She just had to keep the be-otch busy long enough. She leapt to her feet.

"Yeah? I hear you talking," Faith said. "I'm more of an action over words girl."

The Priestess sailed in, inky blackness billowing. "Silencio," she hissed.

Faith opened her mouth, but made no sound.

"Now you really are action over words," she said. She began to a slow circle around Faith. "Let's see, Dark Slayer. You found me. I get to take you apart. I'm glad you'll be my first. The other Slayers don't have your reputation."

Faith made a hand gesture that proved again that she didn't need words for expression.

"Well, if you're gonna be that way," The Priestess said. She raised her arms, energy crackling.

Then Wood slammed into her with the bus.

The Priestess bounced like a Living Dead Doll. She rolled, end over end, to the curb. The black curling wisps started to dissipate the moment she lost consciousness. And so did her control on Faith's voice box.

"Wood!" she yelled, voice hoarse. "Fry me up in canola, that was hot."

He leaned out of the open window. "Let's get those boys and get out of here."

"You get 'em. Gotta skewer me some varicose queen," she said. Faith picked up a ragged shard of whitewash fence and advanced on the unconscious Priestess. She heard Wood behind her, calling to the boys in the abandoned building. Faith crossed the parking lot, muscles tensed and ready for the typical horror movie ending, where the bad guy comes back for one more good scare.

Not one to disappoint, the Priestess sat up, skin sizzling in the sun. The glamour dropped for just a sliver of a second. No eerie veins or Bride of Frankenstein hair. Just a girl...

Faith skipped to a halt.

"Hey," she said. "I know you..."

The Priestess bent forward on broken shins. There was a sound like water sucked down a drain and the snaky hell-harpy returned. Red lightning sizzled from her fingertips.

"Five points for the girl in black," The Priestess growled. "Wonder if the others will reach the bonus round? After all, Buffy's next and I've been meaning to pay a visit to Willow."

Faith lunged in. With the flick of a finger, she flung Faith back into the ditch. The force of the fall knocked the breath from her lungs. Shattered bits of wood dug into the skin of her arms.

As she struggled to her feet, the Priestess advancing like a hurricane gale, Faith remembered. She knew whom she was dealing with. She scanned the street, then found what she needed two blocks up.

It was a pay phone.

@*@*@

"Andrew!" Dawn screamed. "Andrew! Hello?"

Xander lay a hand on her shoulder. "Dawnie, he didn't answer the last twenty times."

"He's probably unconscious," she gulped. "Maybe I can wake him. Maybe he'll hear us..."

"And maybe you'll bring this pit down around us. Ever heard of landslide?" Xander said.

Dawn whirled on Giles. "You! You said it was safe. You said this wouldn't happen," she yelled at him.

Giles was shaking his head. "I-It was. It is. And I wouldn't. Dawn, I swear it," he said.

Dawn pushed away from him. She stood on the lip of the chasm, straining to see beyond what the light gave them.

"I know," Xander said, inspired. "I'll call someone. The fire department. Send a truck, with a ladder and one of those winch pulley things." He took out his flip phone.

"Xander we can't," Giles said, alarmed.

"Right. We're under like a mile of solid rock," Xander said. "I'll go up."

Giles lay a firm hand on Xander's arm. "I mean, we can't," Giles said. "Others, down here. We can't risk exposing this place."

Xander puzzled this out for a few seconds. Then said, in a quiet tone, "Giles, it's Andrew."

Giles' face looked set and stern. "I know that," he said.

"We can't leave him down there. He..." Xander leaned in, whispering, "He just saved Dawn's life."

Giles closed his eyes. After a moment, he said, "Go. Phone Willow."

Xander got ready to slide by Giles, when they heard Dawn mutter a quiet incantation. Xander turned back in time to watch her begin to take a step over the edge.

"Hey!" he shouted, catching her arms.

"What are you thinking?" Giles asked, visibly shaken. "We have no idea how deep this shaft goes."

"But I thought Watchers scoffed at gravity," Xander said.

"Honestly," Giles said. "I have no idea where you get such notions..."

Dawn turned on them, her body rigid with rage. "Guys, I got this. Let me go."

"No can do, Rapunzel," Xander said.

"It's a spell, Xander. I know a spell. I can get down there, see if he's okay," she said. She shrugged from his grip and stepped to the edge. "We have to know if he's okay."

"Dawn, wait," Xander said, getting a hold on her again.

"It's a levitation spell," she snapped. "Kinda doesn't work if you hold me back."

Xander felt his heart thumping in his throat as he released her.

"Wait," Giles said.

Dawn glanced back, perturbed.

"Um, take this," Giles said, handing her his torch. He slid his pack from his shoulder and passed it to her. "There's a first aid kit. Take it, too. Just in case."

Dawn nodded. She went to the brink of the void, then, closing her eyes, took the next step.

She fell faster than she guessed, drifting like a feather buffered on a soft downdraft. But she controlled the speed of her descent by flexing her hands like wing-flaps. In another context, it could almost be stress-relief.

She counted the seconds as she dropped. 20-25-30-35. After forty seconds, her tennis shoe touched the panel on which she had scribed the symbol in her blood. In the darkness, the corridor had a dank yet spacious feel. She switched on the flashlight and panned it around.

Dawn gasped in wonderment. She stood in the center of a vast cavern with catacombs like tenebrous holes branching off in all directions. She swept the flashlight twice more before finding Andrew crumpled at the base of an incline not far from the panel.

She went over to him, bent beside him. She listened for breathing, holding her own breath. At first she heard nothing. Then, a very faint wheeze.

Dawn swallowed hard. "Andrew?" she said. "Andrew, can you hear me?"

No response.

She shone the light on him, doing a brief Florence Nightingale. A thin stream of blood trailed from his mouth. Which made her queasy, because that couldn't be a good sign. She prodded ribs, felt along arms, then legs. Her fingers came away sticky with blood. Dawn directed the light at his left thigh. She wasn't sure, but in her educated opinion, bones should not stick out through skin.

"Oh... no," she said, shaking him. "No. Andrew, wake up."

Not even a stir.

"Fine, then," she said. Her tone was desperate. "Star Trek sucks. James Bond is a Tory wanker. And when I know you're not looking, I put fingerprint smudgies all over your computer screen."

Still nothing.

She pounded his chest with her fists. "Wake up, wake up!" she yelled.

Andrew uttered a tiny exhaling sound.

"Dawn!" It was Giles. "Dawn, what the devil is going on down there?"

"He's... he's breathing, but unconscious. His leg's broken. It's too dark to see," she called back. "But he is alive."

She could hear the relief in Giles' voice. He said, "Xander's gone to get help. Just hold tight till then."

Andrew stirred.

"Don't move," Dawn cautioned. "Just... lie still."

"I've endangered the mission," he said. "I shouldn't have come."

"Hang on, Skywalker," she said. "It'll be okay. Okay? You just, you know, survived a really big drop into a deep deep, dark dark, deep dark pit."

Andrew tried to sit up. She nudged him back down.

"I think the marshmallows broke my fall," he said, weakly.

Dawn laughed. "Scout Safety Tip number four-oh-eight: salvation by s'mores," she said.

He lapsed again. Dawn sat back on her heels. A wave of weariness over-swept her. She wondered at how late it must be. Actually, late was wrong. They had moved past late into early.

"This, just like Rome," Andrew said. His words slurred. "Always the one to fall."

"Shhh. Are you in pain? I wish I'd learned soothing and healing spells," she said.

"Um, yeah," Andrew said. Then, "You... the one, Dawnie."

"What?" she said. She looked at him sharply.

Andrew began to ramble incoherently. He said, "The spells. One with the spells. Open all the doors. Forgot to cancel the DVR recordings and all my Smallville reruns will bump Iron Chef. Spike hates it when..." His eyes rolled.

"Oh, stop that. We'll be having none of that." She slapped his face.

"Ow," he whined. "Quit it."

"I will not," she said. "We may be down here a long time before someone comes to get us. So, don't do something stupid. Like dying. Got me?"

"Man, I hate catacombs," Andrew whispered. His whole body shuddered. Dawn knew this. Andrew was going into shock.

"Hurry, Xander," she whispered to herself. "Please just hurry."

Buffy had been relationship ambushed. It amounted to so much more than his toothbrush beside hers in the cup on the sink.

There were other creeping details. For instance, the actual photographic evidence. Digital pictures from their end-of-summer soccer bash, which Andrew had printed and Dawn had trimmed with pinking shears then stuffed under the edges of the Buffy's dressing mirror. Candid shots of them, together.

His blocky yet strangely illegible print was on the refrigerator list. He had a sock drawer. He had side of the bed that was designated 'his' as opposed the 'hers'. His shoes were by the door. His plants in the garden.

They were there, too.

It was so surprising to her how something so material could result from their inattentiveness. He had not crept under her defenses though. No, they were co-conspirators in the total lack of planning.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder at the picnic table, she and William were stunned to numb silence. Unable and unwilling to move, they watched the potato bugs trundling busily along on the flagstone patio. Eventually, Buffy knew, something would come along to change things. Something would spur them to action. Willow and Kennedy would return from Westbury. Giles and the gang would bring their noise and bustle back from the archive. Until then, she was content to not think, to not move.

On the same page, William let out a long sigh. "Look at us," he said. "The poster couple for unplanned pregnancy."

"Pregnancy," she repeated, hollowly. It was a word she could never recall having said before. "It's such a weird, clunky word, isn't it? It sounds so... pregnant."

"What are we gonna do?" he asked.

Buffy shrugged. After a moment, she said the only thing that came to mind. "I am so hungry."

William looked up. "No wonder. Time has lost all meaning. We've been out here for hours. You've had nothing at all to eat."

Buffy got to her feet, an action that seemed to take forever. She stretched.

"Andrew's Fiesta Night tonight," William said. "Queso enchiladas. Guacamole. Beans twice fried with lard."

"Oh God. Don't remind me. Not sure if I can..." she paused. "Wait. Shouldn't we have heard from them by now?"

"It's early yet," William said.

Buffy's face clouded with concern. "No," she said. "Something's... not right."

In the house, the telephone rang.

"Maybe that's them," he said.

Buffy nodded, uneasy. "Maybe," she said. She went inside, picked up the phone.

There was a series of loud clicks over the line, followed by scratchy static.

"Hello?" Buffy said.

"Buffy! Can you... me?"

Buffy knew the voice instantly.

"Faith?" The connection rasped like a damaged vinyl 45.

"Buffy? Buffy. I don't ... if you can hear me. The Priestess..." Faith said. The static droned overloud in Buffy's ears.

"Faith? Faith, I can't hear you," Buffy said.

"Wood, get them outta here!" Faith yelled. "She's..." More static, more clicks.

"Faith? Who?" Buffy yelled.

"She's coming," Faith said. The line went dead.

Angel stepped from the elevator with Luxe one pace behind him. He took a moment to take in the surroundings. Black marble floors. Smooth blond wood accented with brushed steel and glass. Ultra modern accoutrements for all your expeditious business and killing needs. The London branch of Wolfram & Hart was an exact match to its counterpart in LA.

Luxe, dressed in charcoal gray with an azure sweater vest and silver shimmer shirt, looked more like something from a Dolce & Gabbana catalog than someone from the lawyerly world of Wolfram & Hart. Could he be more pretentious?

"Ahead are you offices, Monsieur Angel," Luxe said.

"I know the way," Angel said. He strode across the floor with mock confidence. Luxe had to jog along to keep up with him. Angel could feel every pair of eyes mark his passage from the bank of elevators to the empty front desk.

"Do I have a secretary?" Angel asked.

Luxe drew up to his side. "She is on assignment in Amsterdam," he said, smoothly. "I will assist you until her return."

Angel felt little trepidation at standing in front of the doors to his office. He liked to think of them as provisional offices, anyway. His intent was to dismantle the various departments within the London branch and relocate them over long periods of time to the Royal London Hotel. Beat bureaucracy on its own terms. A move like that on a firm this big could take years. He twisted the knob and entered.

"Same desk, same chair. Same leather sofa," Angel said, scanning the room. "Same weapons on the walls. My ready room?"

Luxe gestured to a red paneled door in the back corner of the room. "You will find it all the same, Angel. The only difference is..."

"The windows," Angel said. The LA version held floor-to-ceiling windows made from necro-tinted glass. This wall was blank. Angel felt a small pang of disappointment.

"London has no need for such flair," Luxe said. He stood before Angel's desk. "You will find we're more civilized than that."

Angel rounded the hulking behemoth of a desk, then dragged out the chair. This was it. The moment to take the helm. The wound in his side, the one that resisted treatment and his natural tendency to readily mend, twinged smartly as he sat down.

Luxe studied Angel, not one to miss much. When Angel made no move to explain, Luxe lay a thin brown file folder on the desktop.

Angel glanced at it, then at Luxe. "That's it?" he asked.

"A light case load, to start," Luxe said, lightly. "Ease you in. You have one appointment today, but I am sure you will agree it is one of great importance."

Angel lay his hands on the folder. Waited. He curled the edge of the folder under his thumb.

Luxe said. "Do you have any other questions, Monsieur Angel?"

"Only one," Angel said. Waited again.

"Yes?" Luxe said. The model of professional decorum.

"What's in the vault, Luxe?"

Luxe raised his brows. "I had thought you'd forgotten," he said.

"I don't forget," Angel said. "What's in it?"

"There is Balm in Gilead, Angel. The vault, it holds the cure for all that ails you."

"Yes, but, what is it? Exactly?"

"It will take away the pain," Luxe said.

Angel flinched. "What pain?"

"All of it. The hurt. The betrayal. Loss," Luxe said. "That pain."

Angel looked at the file folder under his hands. "What if I don't want it gone?" he asked.

Luxe's eyes darkened. "You wouldn't be asking me," he said. He bowed curtly and left Angel alone.

Hurt, betrayal and loss. Angel thought those were his defining characteristics these days. The weight of it he felt, every day, all the time. And the brand over his heart, it was getting stronger. He had to find the answer soon. He didn't have much time left.

Angel drummed his fingers on the file folder. He opened it.

Inside, on a sticky note, was Angel's one appointment for the day:

Thellian Ventrusca

5 p.m.
Triumvirate

Chapter Text

Before leaving London proper, William pulled Xander's car up to a curbside take away place to get them some fish and chips. The boy behind the counter had a sort of fresh-as-a-slice-of-lemon look: Doughy skin, shiny red hair that poked up in odd spots, and actual freckles. He may have been 17, but that would be stretching.

"That your girl?" he asked William while they waited for his order.

William followed the boy's line of sight to Buffy, who was already sleeping in the front seat.

"In an unspoken sense, yeah," William said.

"Innit the way?" the boy asked. "Pretty girl. You want vinegar?"

"On mine, not hers," he said.

"Where you headed?"

"Oh, Stonehenge," William said, offhand.

"Place's closed on Sundays. 'Sides, there's a wet wind whipping up south. Promises a drencher. Big storms coming," he said.

William looked out at the tumult of ash blue clouds building to the south. A bitter breeze whisked the humid air around him, sneaking up the sleeves of his jacket and the legs of his pants.

"Seems like," William said. "But we'll weather."

The boy slipped their Styrofoam containers into a plastic bag. "We always do, don't we?" he said, all boyish and chipper. "Plasticware and napkins in the pack. That'll be 9 pounds 50."

William slid currency across the counter and left. On the way back to the car, the strange feel to the air gave him a sense of inexplicable surreality. The closeness of the clouds gave him the creeps.

Buffy's words sprung to mind, and he shuddered. So much at once. All of it coming for us.



"How long has it been?" Andrew asked.

"Twenty minutes," Dawn lied. It seemed to settle him.

They had been in the catacombs a little over two hours, but Andrew had no concept of time anymore. Made no sense to worry him. His breathing wheezed, which worried her. She used her untried first aid training to stem the bleeding in his leg. The sound of his screaming still lingered like bruises in her ears. Didn't seem as though he remembered, which, maybe again... not a good sign.

"This is like in Rome," Andrew said. His speech was slurred and slow.

"Maybe it's best if you don't talk," Dawn said.

"Why am I always the one who falls?" Andrew asked.

"If it makes you feel any better, it used to always be Xander," she told him. She was getting antsed. Giles and Xander were working on making a rope ladder so they could get down the rabbit hole. She doubted they could get Andrew back up that way. For that, they needed Willow. And she was still an hour away.

"I'm the weakest link," Andrew said, quietly. "You should let me die."

"What?" Dawn spat. "Just... stop talking that way. Stop talking full stop."

"It's true. I should've died in Sunnydale. Been on time borrowed," Andrew said. "Soon, it will be over for me. My life is fading, and all will be darkness. But you must carry on, Little One."

"Oh God. Please hurry, Willow."

The flashlight sputtered and went out. Andrew whimpered lightly.

"Told you. Darkness," he said.

"Shhh." Dawn felt around in the sudden blackness. "I didn't conserve the batteries because we don't need the light."

"Death in a dark pit," Andrew whined, his voice wavering. "I knew it. I'm gonna die like The English Patient girlfriend."

"You are not going to die," Dawn said. She found what she needed on the cave floor – a small flat pebble about the size of a nickel. "And we don't need the flashlight. Illumis Solem," she said. The stone glowed with a watery light that cast spangles of light around the cave.

"What...?" Andrew said, trying to raise his head.

"Stay down," Dawn ordered. She chanted, softly, "Solem solara. Solem enai."

The pebble lifted from her palm, emitting tiny sparks like a Fourth of July firecracker. She closed her eyes and pushed it. She could feel it, without feeling it, like it was connected to her. It sent shivers of thrill through her skin.

"Oh look," Andrew said. "Particles and rays. Are you doing this?"

Dawn pushed a little harder, envisioning the stone in her mind. She willed it to burn brighter, to pulse and spin like a miniature sun. A twinge of pain formed between her eyes, like she was holding her breath too long under water. She bore down on it, on the pain and the connection. A sizzling sound filled her ears.

"It's... um, Dawn?" Andrew said, sounding concerned. "It's burning. Is it supposed to..."

"Hush now," Dawn said, her voice alien and flat. She opened her eyes. She forced her breathing to level out. The stone burned with the white-hotness of a welder's torch, scorching twin afterimages on her corneas. Further, she thought, pushing out. Pain throbbed in her ears. Her breathing rattled.

"Stop it, Dawn. You are scaring me," Andrew said.

The stone burst. The shock wave drove Dawn flat on her back. But when she opened her eyes, she could see.

"Look," she said, amazed. She wiped her bloody nose.

"Look what you did," Andrew said, also rightly amazed.

Scattered particles of the stone stuck to the walls and ceiling of the cave. And with the brand new ambient lighting came new insight. There were seven cave mouths, outlined in a green-gold light. Above each was a symbol carved into the arch like a keystone. Not the Pictish symbols from the sealed doors in the archive, but another language – one she and Andrew had seen before.

"Andrew," she whispered. "You're a genius."

"Wh-what?"

"The symbols. It's the Sisters," she said.




Instinct is a stupid thing.

When Angel first entered his rooms at the Royal London Hotel, his first instinct was to phone Buffy. Not that he could disclose anything from his meeting with Thellian. He wanted to hear her voice. That was all. He considered calling the Flat to see if she had a message recorded on their machine, but ruled against it. More than likely, Giles would be the qualified party for formal voicemail messages.

Angel called Connor instead. Since coming to London, he made quick weekly calls to Stanford to check in. Still, as Angel dialed the number, he felt a pang of guilt for having thought of Connor as a second choice.

Connor answered the phone with, "Hey! End of the world, or Dad Moment?"

Angel chuckled. His demeanor smoothed the moment he heard Connor's voice on the other end. "Go with the latter. How are things in Palo Alto?"

"Sunny. Warm. Girls wearing hoodies and shorts. What sense does that make?" Connor said.

"Do girls ever make sense?" Angel said.

"Wouldn't be nearly as much fun if they did," Connor said. "I'm serious about that whole end-of-the-world thing. You'll keep me in the loop, right?"

"I won't storm the castle without you," Angel said.

"Hey, I'm thinking about going into law," Connor said, breezily. "Follow in the old man's footsteps."

Angel felt something hard lodge in his throat. He coughed.

"Dad? I was joking," Connor said.

Angel tried to swallow. "Not... funny," he gulped.

"I'm going into education," Connor said.

Angel spluttered. The something hard felt suddenly like stifling hot coals stuffed into his chest. Angel put a hand on his chest and came away with blistered fingers.

"Connor," he croaked.

"Also kidding," Connor laughed on the other end. "Sciences, all the way. Cross my heart. Nothing but serious study."

Angel stumbled backward. He caught the edge of the bar just as his muscles spasmed. He made a strangled sound over the phone.

"Dad?" Connor said. "You okay?"

Angel fell to his knees. The phone skittered across the tile floor like a plastic crab. Angel flopped back against the wall. He tore at his shirt. The brand – the Circle of the Black Thorn – glowed with the brilliance of molten stone.

"Not yet," Angel growled through clenched teeth. "Not the hell yet."


 

Dawn, Buffy, William and Giles assembled together in the twinkle-lighted cavern when Xander finally led Willow down the rope ladder he had crafted. Buffy, William and Giles clustered together, talking quietly when Willow appeared. Andrew lay at the center of their circle. Under another set of circumstances, Dawn knew he would be basking in the collective concern. Under these circumstances, he was just a moaning, miserable mass in the bottom of a cave.

Willow knelt beside Andrew. She approached the situation like a battle-hardened field medic. She even brought her magics bag, which was like a cross between a doctor's medical kit and a tackle box.

"Sorry I couldn't make it sooner," she said. She lay a cool hand on Andrew's clammy forehead.

"It's just good you're here," Buffy said. Willow caught a note of melancholy in Buffy's voice. Not that it was misplaced. Hiding out in a dank catacomb with an injured friend was no way to pass a Sunday evening, but Willow thought it was more than that.

Andrew's eyelids fluttered. "Why couldn't you, um, apparate or something?" he asked.

"Because I never went to Hogwarts, Sweetie," she said. She began unpacking her components – an altar stone, her crystals and foci; mini-baggies filled with powdered herbs and dried insects.

"Noticing very much the absence of Kennedy," Xander said. "She didn't want to come with?"

Willow continued setting up the circle for a healing spell. "Kennedy's not part of the group," she said. She cleared her throat, and amended, "She's taking tonight's patrol."

Willow slipped a pouch on a white silk cord around Andrew's neck.

"I should've had these ready for you," Willow said. She removed two more from her witch's bag.

Andrew looked down at it. "What is it?" he asked, shakily.

"Protection-y goodness. Like a mystical flu shot," she said. She rose to her knees and looped one around Xander's neck. "Made them on the train."

Xander held his out and eyed it with his good eye. "Wow, Wil. I didn't get you anything."

Willow turned to Giles. "Put this on," she told him. "Wear it always. Promise me."

Giles slid the cord over his head.

"There's not one for Spike," Dawn said, quietly.

William, who was standing a distance away from the rest, glanced up but said nothing.

"Spike's got protection of his own. Tara said they would need protecting," Willow said.

Dawn's eyes widened. Before she could say anything, Willow jumped in. "So, illumination spell. Your work?"

"Oh, yep. Just basic illumination," Dawn said. "I tweaked it a little."

"More like a lot," Willow said, taking a very brief moment to admire the shimmering flecks of glittering light.

Dawn smiled.

"You should have seen it," Andrew mused. "It was like when the Starship Enterprise went kablooey in Generations."

"I'm almost ready to begin," Willow said.

"Will it hurt?" Andrew whimpered.

"A little," Willow admitted. Addressing the others, she said, "It's gonna be on the tricky side, especially getting the bones all mendy. I'll need stillness and quiet while I work."

"We were just speaking of further exploring the caves," Giles said, keeping a tight rein on his scholar ardor. "I have the guidebook right here. And the keystones are in Nephillim script, which adds a whole new dimension to the context of these catacombs. Actual Angelic writing. It alters the purpose of the whole construction..."

"Can you tone down the enthusiasm, Bert Lahr?" William said. "Boy's got a jutting femur."

"Right," Giles said. He turned away. Buffy and William followed. Then Buffy turned back. She knelt down beside Willow.

"Faith called," Buffy whispered.

"Faith?"

"She said a Priestess was coming," Buffy said.

"A Priestess?" Willow said. "There was a Priestess mentioned, in the spell paperwork Angel gave us. But she had to off herself to complete the spell."

"Well, offing doesn't always mean bright shiny light at the end of the tunnel where we're concerned," Buffy said.

Willow nodded. "We'll look into it."

Buffy gripped Willow's shoulder before she left them. Xander and Dawn remained behind, for moral support. Dawn reached to take Andrew's hand.

Willow closed her eyes, pushing all the straggling figments of thought from her mind.

"Now's when I should bite down on something hard? Like a stick or a leather belt?" Andrew said.

Willow opened her eyes. "Spell Albuquerque," she said.

"What?" Andrew said.

"Spell it."

"A-L-B-E-K..."

Willow snapped the bone back in with a loud crack. Andrew screamed until he had no breath. And then he fainted.



Morna ripped a sheet of marble from the floor in her room and flung it against the door.

Lalaine pounded her fists bloody on the other side. Morna ignored her. She crouched, knees to her ears, tracing lines and shapes around her in the white dust.

"Morna," Lalaine called. "Open the door, my darling."

Morna bit into her thumb, then squeezed. A drop of ruby blood spilled into the dust. Morna mixed it, grunting with pleasure. She inscribed wide arcs in the blood and grime.

Downstairs, Thellian opened the door to their loft.

"Thellian!" Lalaine cried out, sounding desperate. She struggled against the door.

Thellian took the steps in three bounds. Together he and Lalaine edged the door open wide enough for them to slip in.

Morna looked up at them, hands powdered with dust and teeth bloody.

Lalaine stretched her long neck to the side, eyeing her sister with a mixture of curiosity and pity.

"The Circle," Lalaine said, quietly. "She remembers..."

"And they've found it," Thellian said. He pursed his lips. "It's all a matter of time for us now."

Chapter Text

Giles's flashlight beam bounced on the stone pathway ahead of them; everything else fell away to darkness. Giles paused to check the wood-bound book. He shone the light on the book, illuminating the diagrams burned in reddish-brown lines on the page.

"What is it the Dungeon Guide is supposed to show us, anyway?" William asked.

Giles glanced up the path. "Apparently there are three interlocking chambers ahead, the center of which houses a sarcophagus."

"Ancient dead things," Buffy said. "Should have known."

"Anyone special?" William asked. "Demon? Nephillim? Little green men?"

"Boadicea," Giles said.

Buffy grinned. "Best known for his grinding medieval street beats. 'Shake yo Boadicea,'" she said.

Giles sighed heavily. "She, Buffy. Boadicea was a fierce warrior who became Queen of Iceni around 48 A. D. She led the bloodiest attack against Roman forces in English history. Her forces razed London to the ground. Legend holds that the fire burned so hot it melted the remains of the city into a layer of red clay 10 inches thick in places."

"Hell hath no fury like a warrior queen scorned," Buffy said, impressed. "Was she killed?"

Continuing with the narrative, Giles went along the trail, holding his book aloft. Buffy and William fell in behind him.

"Of course, no one is quite sure," Giles said. "Historians debate the cause of her death. Some say she fell in a final battle against Suetonius Paulinus. Others maintain that she drank a powerful poison that killed her in seconds before the Romans could capture her."

"How very Shakespearean of her," William said.

"Indeed," Giles said. He stopped again, pointing with the flashlight beam into the inky murk. "It's right ahead."

"Too bad we don't have Dawn's exploding disco ball illumination in here," William said, peering into the vast shadowy shape of a cave mouth.

Buffy wove between them. "I'm not afraid," she said.

William looked at Giles. "Neither am I," he said.

Buffy slipped ahead, beyond reach of the light. The vast gloom seemed to whisper to her, compelling her forth. She knew that, in general, it was best practice to avoid voices in the dark. Even with that knowledge, Buffy crossed into the tomb.

The air felt cooler inside. Somehow drier, too. It felt to her as though she passed beyond a hidden barrier upon entering the chamber. One of Giles' favorite phrases popped into her head: hermetically sealed.

Buffy moved forward, feeling blindly along, until her toes bumped against a stone ledge. She took the step up, inching her way ahead, hands outstretched. The light swept across the object in front of her just before her palms brushed against it.

Buffy stepped suddenly back, colliding with William. She jumped.

"Easy, Slayer," he whispered. "It's the sarcophagus."

From behind them, Giles trained the beam on the shape of an intricately carved likeness of the resplendent Celtic warrior queen. The statue lay on its tomb, arms crossed in Pharaoh fashion.

"That was easy," William said. He stepped onto the ledge beside Buffy. "It was right here for us to find it. No traps or trick doors. Just a fancy funeral box under several hundred meters of solid rock."

"We found it," Giles said, ecstatic. "It really is here. Andrew and Dawn, well, they'll be thrilled as canaries."

He panned around the room with the flashlight, revealing carved niches into which sconces had been set. Beneath the niches in shallow stone shelves were rows and rows of scrolls in leather cases.

Giles went straight away to the scroll repository. He knelt down, taking most of the scant light with him.

Buffy placed both of her hands on the unweathered surface of the sarcophagus. "Why did she?" Buffy pondered, mostly to herself.

"Do herself in?" William asked.

"Yeah," she said, tracing lines in cold stone. Buffy's fingers crept along the knotwork that bordered Boadicea's likeness. The tips of her fingers brushed against something strangely silky. Buffy laced it around her fingers.

"Giles," she said. "Take a look at this."

Giles came to stand on the other side of her, brandishing the light across the sarcophagus. Her fingers wrapped around a braid of shining black hair interspersed with runic beads. Attached to several such braids was a silver funerary mask forged to the shape of Queen Boadicea's face.

"It's..." Giles said.

"Beautiful," Buffy finished. She felt drawn to it, compelled to take the mask into her hands, to press the cool contour of it to her face.

William and Giles weren't swift enough to stop her. Buffy slipped the mask over her head. Instantly, the cavern vanished.


 

Angel retrieved the phone from the floor.

"Connor?" he asked. He dabbed blood from his lips, tasted it on his tongue.

"Dad? What was that? Are you all right?"

"Fine, son," he said, his voice calm. "It must have been something I ate."

Connor was quiet on the other end of the line. "Yeah," he said, a long moment later. "Must have been."

"Look, Connor. I don't want to... keep you, or worry you. I just wanted to check in," Angel said.

"You sure you're all right?" Connor asked. He sounded doubtful.

"I've got to go now," Angel said. "Call me if you need anything, all right?"

Connor hesitated, then said, "I will, Dad. Take care."

Angel hung up. He straightened his shirt, then headed for the door. He had work to do.



Connor's hands felt sweaty. He dug through stacks of schoolbooks and papers on his catchall shelf to find the card with Lorne's number scratched onto it. He found it stuck between his copies of Burchat's Theory of Dark Matter andHolder's Demonic Anthropology of the Villages of Anatolia and the Middle East.

He leaned against the wall to dial the number.

Lorne answered with a bright, "Helloooo."

"Lorne? It's Connor."

"Well, land's end, kid. How are ya?"

"I need you to check on my Dad," Connor said.

Lorne sat down, hard. "Already?" he asked.

"What do you mean, 'already'?"

Lorne closed his eyes tightly. He envisioned many bottles of bourbon in his future. "It's nothing, kiddo. I have been meaning to pay a visit to old Angel Face," he said.

"Thanks, Lorne," Connor said. He got off the line knowing one thing for certain: Lorne couldn't lie to save his life.



Buffy stood on bare ground strewn with carpets. Immediately, she struck a defensive posture, circling to take in her surroundings. Great hall, walls made of thick timbers, squat brazier blazing behind her. Wind howled in the rafters above her. Low stone table strewn with a menagerie of maps, prisms and various archaic tools.

And, vampires. Three of them.

She reacted without thought. Buffy seized the first by the arm and thigh, throwing him into the brazier. The vampire shrieked, then cindered. Burning oil splashed across the carpets, setting them alight. The remaining vamps took the en garde stance. Buffy aerial-kicked the nearest vampire in the face, spun, elbow to throat then fist to nose. His face crunched.

The second caught her arms from behind. She butted him with the back of her head. He held firm. Buffy dropped to her knees and hauled him over her shoulder. She rolled. The fire spread behind her, hemming her in between the table and the vampires. The first vampire, the one with a bloody nose, cursed her in an unknown guttural language.

She said, "Sorry, I don't speak freak." At least, that's what she planned to say, but her response came out in the same tongue the vampire had spoken.

Her moment of confusion gave the vampires cause to attack. Buffy parried the first attack, feinted, ducked and rammed her fist under the second's rib cage. The other kicked low, grazing her hipbone. She rolled sideways, popped up, fell back to the table. They advanced. The fire whipped in behind them.

Buffy leapt to the table. She waited two seconds, then scissor-kicked each one to the head. She dropped to her knees. Without warning, her hands shot out, snaring the one weapon on the table. She swung it to pointe, the blade singing in the air.

Disbelieving, she stared first at the weapon, and then her skin. Blue tattoos swirled down the backs of thin, olive-skinned hands. But the blade was her Slayer's blood right. It was the Scythe.

"Buffy. Stop it!" It was William.

She ripped the mask from her face. William knelt on the floor a few feet away. She'd bloodied his mouth and his nose. Giles lay in the doorway where she had thrown him. He was trying unsuccessfully to roll onto his side.

Buffy stared, mouth ajar. She held her hands up before her eyes. Plain, white hands – weaponless.

"Oh my God," Buffy panted. "Boadicea. She was the Slayer."



Buffy staggered backward. She collapsed onto the stone ledge and bit her tongue. The coppery taste of blood bloomed in her mouth.

"The Slayer?" Giles asked, slowly, as if he had never heard the word before.

Buffy turned the mask in her hands. The flashlight lay on the floor a few feet away. In the dim glow, Buffy saw herself mirrored in silver.

"I have to go back in," she said.

"Fine," William said, getting up. "When we get home, we'll chain you to the basement wall where you can do no harm to yourself and others."

"We are not chaining Buffy to a wall," Giles protested.

"Oh, right. You could do it to me..."

"You were a monster," Giles said.

"She just tossed you like a tin toy," William said.

Buffy interrupted them. "I have to find out," she said, almost desperate. "I think she wants me to know what happened. Why she... and who..."

"We can do all that another time," William said. "I mean, look at you. You're all run out, with the..."

Buffy locked eyes with him and he faltered.

"...Lack of proper sleep and sustenance," he said.

"It'll be different this time," Buffy said. "I know what I'm going in to. And you guys will be prepared."

"On guard, you mean," William said.

"This is important," Buffy said.

William knelt in front of her. He gripped her shoulders. "I know it is, pet. But you need to take care of yourself."

Buffy shrugged free. "I'll be fine."

Giles watched from across the room with growing concern. In an attempt to diffuse the tension, he said, "We'll watch over you. Keep you safe in case..."

"In case what, it gets messy? In case she bashes in your skull with a scroll? We are not doing this. Not here," William said. His voice echoed back at them from the cavern walls.

"This is the place where it all goes down," Buffy said, keeping an even tone. "The mask. The archives. Even the Sisters left their mark. Do I need to connect the dots? We're meant to be right here, right now. We were meant to find this."

William stood up again. "And I suppose Andrew was meant to tumble down the well? Scoobies all huddled and scared in the dark. Rupert sporting a nice dent in his head. Not that I care, officially..."

"William," Buffy said, determined. "I need to do this. We've been fumbling around in the dark all this time. And this Thellian guy – he's so clearly organized and powerful. It's connected. All of it. We need this. And I need you to help me."



Kennedy played a helpless girl act with surprising effectiveness. She found it ironic, her being the butchy tomboy-type, that she could mimic the role so convincingly. Yet, here she was, alone in an alley, trailed by a vampire. He'd been tracking her for blocks, doing the stealthy run-along-the-rooftop routine. She had him pegged, though. She would let him box her in, then she'd be in there like swimwear. Poor helpless little Slayer with a pocket full of wood.

Literal wood. Not the figurative kind.

Kennedy reached the dead end. She turned back and forth, swearing to herself, pretending to be lost.

"You can drop the guise," the vampire said.

Kennedy was sincerely taken aback. He moved fast. She hadn't even seen him drop down to ground level.

The vampire took three deliberate steps forward, moving from shadow to light. "I thought you girls were supposed to be hunting in packs," he said.

Kennedy recognized the voice. She crossed her arms, displaying the stake she had hidden in her pocket. "Got my own rules to follow," she said. "Besides, I don't need back up."

"Ah. But Buffy feels differently," the vampire said.

Kennedy exhaled sharply. "If I could go one day without hearing that name," she said.

The vampire took another careful step closer. "You know who I am," he said.

"We've met. You're Angel," Kennedy said.

She attacked, stake aimed high. He blocked. Sidestepped into shadow again.

"And I don't care," Kennedy said, circling. "I don't need any of this 'his is a long journey' crap. Soul or no soul, you're a vampire. I'm a Slayer. I've got zero issues with slamming this pointy piece of wood in your chest."

Angel uttered a short laugh. "Better Slayers than you have tried," he said.

Kennedy struck again. Again she aimed high. Angel caught her wrist, pulled her close.

Kennedy stiffened. She said, "From the way I hear it, one succeeded. Sent your sullen ass to hell."

"Yeah, I got over that," Angel said, releasing her. "Can I buy you a drink?"

Kennedy blinked. She rubbed her ear, as if he didn't quite hear him right. "Let me count the ways you are not my type," she said.

"Doesn't matter," Angel said. "I'm here to help."

"Was I unclear on the pointy piece of wood part? The line between good and evil doesn't blur for me," Kennedy said.

"Point taken," Angel said. He spun on his heel and started to walk away. Then he turned back. "But, see. The other night, I sensed tension. Dissention in the ranks. I may be guessing – and if I'm off base, just say so – but you think Buffy's not leading a hard enough fight."

Kennedy slammed her fist into Angel's stomach. He doubled over.

"That hard enough for you?" she asked.

Angel came back up, pointies showing.

Kennedy felt a surge of adrenaline. Her night was looking up. "Buffy thinks we can win this war with an honorable fight," she said.

Angel attacked. Kennedy batted him aside. He spun around. She taunted him.

But he shook off the demon face. "She's wrong," he said.

Kennedy drew up. "Come again?" she asked.

"I've met Thellian. The old ways won't work..."

"You've met who? And what?" Kennedy asked.

"Thellian," Angel said. "Guy responsible for giving us all the vampire equivalent to Red Bull."

Kennedy gave a bitter laugh. "I'm so far out of their loop, I'm on the straight. And for me, that's saying something," she said.

"Can't believe they didn't tell you," Angel said, quietly. "Seems like pretty important information."

"Yeah, well. They're real concerned about the not caring," Kennedy said. She leaned back against the brick wall. Angel leaned beside her.

"Look, I didn't mean to cause friction," Angel said.

"It's cool."

"No, it isn't," he looked over at her. He watched her for a long moment, his face grave. Then, he said, "If you're looking for a bright center of the universe Kennedy, they're it."

Kennedy kicked away from the wall in a huff.

"Wait," Angel said. "Hear me out."

Kennedy stopped, but didn't turn back.

"You just have to keep pushing. Keep with them, and don't let go. Because once you're out..."

Kennedy faced him again. "Keep pushing? That's all I do is push."

Angel nodded. "You're the bloodline. You have all that power bound up inside. You want to save them? Be part of them? You know what needs to be done," Angel said.

Angel waited while Kennedy puzzled things out. He could almost see the scales tipping in her head.

She said, "You say there are nests in Camden?"

"Several," Angel said. He smirked.

"I'll go rally the girls," Kennedy said.

"No need," Angel told her. "We can take these on our own. Besides, I've been itching for a good brawl."

Kennedy flashed him a broad smile. "So have I," she said. "So have I."



"The fairy lights are fading," Xander said. "That our cue for bedtime, Tinkerbell?"

Dawn and Willow knelt facing one another, hands linked over Andrew's body. Dawn shifted her weight, then opened her eyes. The lights were indeed dimming.

"That's my doing," Willow said. Her eyes remained closed. "Healing spells require energy. I don't want to drain you or Dawn, so I'm using other sources."

"And for that, we're all very thankful," Xander said.

The atmosphere in the cave seemed preternaturally calm. Xander wondered if that was the effect of the spell or delirium due to sleep deprivation. Either way, he felt like lapsing into a little dreaminess to pass the time. Trouble was, caves are made of rock – not generally conducive to comfortable sleep. Then Xander felt guilty, seeing Andrew sprawled out like a science experiment gone wrong. Sure, he slumbered. But not in the good counting-sheep, sugar-plums-dancing kind of way.

Dawn seemed equally unsettled. She adjusted from one knee to the other. Only Willow, well trained in art of meditation, remained un-fidgety.

"He didn't seem afraid," Willow said.

Dawn felt a flutter of apprehension. "Is he...?"

Willow smiled. "No, he's fine. Will be, anyway. It's just, he could have freaked out, which would have made things majorly worse. But he didn't. Because of you."

Dawn wriggled, uncomfortably. "Me? No, I..."

"You were a good friend to him," Willow said. "You, coming down here. It was a very Scooby thing to do."

"Hey, yeah," Xander said. "Big with the heroics. It's a Summers family trait."

"But once I got down here, I couldn't do anything," Dawn said.

"I wouldn't call the twinkly lights not doing anything," Willow said.

Dawn's concentration wavered. She said, "Wonderful. I'd be great at parties. But it's just a trick I've been practicing. This – what you're doing – this is what I want to learn. And the astral projection, and the protection spells. All of it. Can you show me?"

Willow's mouth twitched into an enigmatic smile. "Sure, Dawnie," she said. "But I am a harsh task-mistress. My students in Westbury call me the Blessed Be-otch when they think I'm not listening."

"I think I can handle it," Dawn said.

Andrew's eyelids fluttered. He swiveled his neck carefully to look at Dawn then Willow.

"This is just like a dream I had one time," he said, weakly. "Except Kennedy was involved."

"Andrew," Willow chided.

Dawn breathed a sigh of relief. "I think he'll be okay," she said.

Xander laughed. "Actually, I've had that same dream," he said.

Andrew tried to sit up. Willow and Dawn both pushed him back down. Dawn swept his hair, which had dried to crusty curls, from his forehead.

"Just rest until Buffy gets back," Dawn said. "They should return soon."

"I should have some luke-warm cocoa in a thermos somewhere," he said.

Willow sat back on her heels. She felt completely drained, yet wholly satisfied. "Yep. I think he's gonna be just fine."



Buffy took several deep, centering breaths.

"I'd like to say once more how against this I am," William told her. Giles paced along the shelves like an impatient jungle cat.

"Noted," Buffy said. She slid the funerary mask over her head.

The transformation was instantaneous, as before. But this time, it was daylight. Buffy stood in a room flooded with it. Bright sunshine spilled through windows in blinding gashes. There was an enormous bed piled with blankets the color of barley. In it lay a withered looking man. Three men and two women clustered on the side of the bed opposite her. Buffy heard their muffled sniffles and cries. She felt a deep, crippling grief and understood.

Seeing through Boadicea's eyes, she narrated what she saw to William and Giles.

"Boadicea's husband died." she said. "Prasutagus was her lifelong friend, and his death – it was devastating to her."

The scene changed, gradually bleeding from her husband's deathbed to a kind of throne room. The throne itself remained empty. Boadicea gripped the arm of the wooden chair. A pair of teenage girls, one redheaded, the other brunet, stood close beside her. Roman soldiers, clad in red and gold Centurion armor, marched in through the great hall's oaken doors.

Buffy said, "Her husband gave all of his lands and titles to the Emperor, with one condition: that his wife and daughters be allowed a comfortable existence."

Buffy watched powerless as the battalion of soldiers began ransacking Boadicea's home. They ripped tapestries from the walls, overturned tables, and crushed pottery. Boadicea moved to guard her daughters.

"The Romans were insulted by the idea that a woman could hold property or power," Buffy said. "Bastards. They wrecked the place and..."

A Roman captain passed an edict to Boadicea. Buffy read it through her own eyes. It was in Latin, which Buffy herself could not read, but she understood it all the same.

"They ordered her to surrender everything to Rome and leave. If she did this, her family would be spared," Buffy said.

Boadicea spat on the Roman captain. Then she backhanded him. The captain, cheekbone fractured and pride shattered, gave the order to arrest them.

"She refused," Buffy said. Her breathing quickened. "They dragged her out. Boadicea and her daughters. Hauled them by their hair into the road..."

Buffy tried to avert her eyes but found she could not. In the cave, she was inching away. Her heart hammered in her chest.

The Romans tied Boadicea and her daughters to chariots. They...

"Dragged them through the mud to the square, where they bound her to a post. They ordered her to profess her loyalty to the Romans. But she would not. They told her to surrender her home. But she would not..."

Buffy felt Boadicea's fear and anger rise in her like a fountain of fire. She looked out over the crowd of people – her kin. They were paralyzed and useless in their terror. Dozens and dozens of Romans in gleaming armor surrounded them. The Roman captain she had struck mounted the wooden platform.

"Oh no," Buffy said.

The captain raised a hand to hit her. She didn't flinch. He...

"Stripped her naked, then beat her. In front of everyone."

Buffy felt the bite of the whip as it tore away Boadicea's flesh. Naked, horribly exposed, the soldiers leering and laughing.

"She would not give them the satisfaction of crying out. They split her kneecaps with a sledge. They beat her until she could no longer stand, but she didn't scream. Not until..."

Boadicea's blood dripped like candle wax to the wooden platform. Her eyes had swelled to slits, but she could see enough. The Roman soldiers thrust her daughters onto the stage.

"No," Buffy breathed. "Not my girls."

Boadicea only heard the sound of her shallow breathing. She strained against the chains that bound her wrists and ankles oblivious to the shrieking pain they caused her shattered bones.

"They raped her daughters," Buffy said, choking on the words. "Raped them."

"That's enough," William growled. He reached for the mask. Buffy snared his arm like a vise.

"I failed them," she said. William saw tears streaming down Buffy's neck.

The scene changed again. Not gradual this time, but with jarring force. Boadicea on horseback bore down on the walled citadel of Londinium, with thousands of her countrymen behind her.

Buffy swallowed. She could feel the heat of the fires baking her skin. She said, "Boadicea attacked London. She rode on a wave of pure rage, and she slaughtered every one of them. To the last Roman man, woman and child. They burned the city to the ground, to avenge her daughters' honor. She thought them dead, but..."

They were not dead. The surroundings transformed again. Once more, it was night. Boadicea stood before a war table – the same one Buffy had seen when she first donned the mask. Her weapons were arrayed, the scythe included, all within arm's reach. Boudicea held a letter in trembling hands.

"Her daughters weren't dead," Buffy said. "A Roman general wrote to her, explaining that he had spared them."

Buffy watched as Boadicea ripped the scroll to shreds. She screamed, and Buffy's body filled with a deadening agony.

"I don't understand," Buffy whispered. Her arms and legs went limp.

"Get it off her, Rupert," William said. "That's enough."

"Let her finish," Giles snapped.

Boadicea picked up a corner of the page, showing Buffy the name scratched in ink on the parchment: Thellus V.

"Thellian," Buffy said.

The giant doors of the great hall creaked open. The dark-haired daughter stepped inside, arms out-stretched as if her mother would welcome the embrace. Behind her, Thellian waited for an invitation he knew Boadicea's daughter would give.

"He turned them," Buffy said. "He made her daughters into vampires. Then they came for her."

Boadicea lifted the vial of poison to her lips. She died before they could touch her. Buffy felt the swirling blackness of Boadicea's death pressing down on her. And she heard her final, dismal thoughts before the heartbeat stilled in her chest.

I failed them.


William pulled the mask from Buffy's tear streaked face.

She recoiled from him.

"Don't touch me," she snarled. Her voice hitched uncontrollably. "Either of you."

Buffy curled against the lifeless stone of Boudicea's grave. She covered her head with her arms and wept.

Chapter Text

Fight or Flight

Think of every town you’ve lived in
every room you lay your head
and what is it that you remember?

Do you carry every sadness with you
every hour your heart was broken
every night the fear and darkness
lay down with you?

Hem, Half Acre

 

It was morning again, and the whole gang, Kennedy included, crowded into the kitchen. It was a rare moment – all of them together. They looked like extras from an episode of Lost, with all the dirt and scuffs and bandages. In the hallway, they could hear the indistinct mufflings of Giles on the telephone to New York.

Together though they were, Buffy felt like she lived in a soundproof booth between two panes of frosted glass. She had yet to recover from her encounter with Boadicea and the funerary mask. It was as though she left part of her down in the dark where Boadicea’s body lay. Fortunately, no one seemed eager to press the subject. For that, she was grateful. Reliving it was not something she wished to do in this lifetime.

Dawn sat at the table with Buffy, industriously plaiting her sister’s hair into French braids. Andrew drowsed in the chair opposite. He lay with his head on the table. At the bar, Willow busied herself with list making. Kennedy brewed coffee. William perched on the counter beside the refrigerator, looking beat and reproachful.

“Say,” Xander said. “How about I man the toaster? Nothing says post-claustrophobic’s nightmare survived like frozen waffles.”

“We have blackberry syrup in the pantry,” Dawn said. “It’s Buffy’s favorite.”

Buffy said, “I’m not hungry.”

Willow looked up from her list. “Coffee’s ready,” she said. “Buffy likes her coffee like she likes her men.”

“Dark and bitter?” Xander said, trying to nettle William. And coming up zeros.

“Sweet and blond,” Willow said. She patted William’s knee. He looked away.

It seemed that the temperature in the room dropped by several degrees.

“I’ll just get that syrup,” Kennedy said.

“Step off, Blue Laser!” Andrew shouted, snapping awake. Everyone gaped at him. He wiped drool from his mouth and smiled, sheepish. “Sorry,” he said. “It was a... dream.”

Willow tapped her list with the end of her pen. “Okay,” she said. “I think I have this. There’s good news, and there’s bad. I’ll start with the bad, because that’s what everyone seems to want to hear first anyway. The Deeper Well spell: it’s irreversible.”

Blinks all around.

Dawn said, “Supervamps here to stay?”

“’Fraid so,” Willow said. “This Priestess of Nyr used her own formidable life force as a catalyst to drain the Old Ones’ power and spread it around to the vampires of the world.”

“So Jill came tumbling after, and the Deeper Well’s gone dry?” William said.

“If we can trust this document, yes,” Willow said.

Dawn fastened a butterfly clip to the end of one of Buffy’s braids, then began on the second. “But this Nyr chick is not the same one that Faith said is coming, right?”

“Different Priestess chick,” Willow said.

“So what about the good news?” Andrew said. “Is there a secret Fount of Power in store for the Slayers and we just have to find it?”

“No,” Willow said.

Andrew slumped.

“But the actual spell text contains a clue that I think is important,” Willow went on. “It mentions a Circle, and when I was doing my astral projections...”

Willow halted. Kennedy froze, syrup in hand.

“Go ahead. Tell them,” Kennedy said.

Willow dived into her notes to avoid Kennedy’s gaze. She said, “During my astral projections, Tara also mentioned a Circle. She said that we should look for a rose, and that it would be the completion of a Circle.”

“Cryptic also goes well with waffles,” Xander said. With thumb and forefinger, he plucked a piping hot waffle from the toaster and gingerly tossed it onto a plate. “Who gets dibs?”

They all looked at Buffy. She looked the palest of the bunch. Considering that Andrew had spent the better part of the previous night bleeding and unconscious that had them all a bit concerned.

Buffy scanned their faces. “Guys, I’m fine. Okay?” she said, in a weak, wholly unconvincing tone. “I think Andrew should go first.”

Dawn finished the second braid, then patted Buffy’s head. “All done,” she said. “You’re Swiss Miss Buffy.”

Xander put the plate of waffles down in front of Andrew. Kennedy awarded him the syrup.

“So what’s next?” Xander asked, returning to the toaster.

“I think we should tackle the scrolls Giles brought up from Boadicea’s tomb,” Willow said. She checked Buffy for reaction to the Slayer’s name. When she didn’t respond, Willow continued. “Given their location and proximity to her final resting place, I think they must contain vital information.”

“Good,” Buffy said. “That’s... good.”

Kennedy knelt down beside the table. “I can cover your classes today,” she said, quietly. “You look like maybe you could use the rest.”

This unexpected show of compassion on Kennedy’s part brought Buffy back to Reality-ville.

“No,” Buffy said. Her brows crinkled. “I really am fine. I need to be with the girls now. I need to be there.”

William slipped from the bar. Before he could tempest from of the room, Giles stepped under the archway into the kitchen. They could tell by his even-more-sober-than-usual expression that the conversation had not gone well.

“I just got off the phone with Embry in New York,” Giles said. “It appears that Faith and Wood left three weeks ago, in pursuit of this Priestess. They hit a snare in New Orleans involving a Berithi demon and an imploding salt dome. Wood wound up in a hospital. Embry was sure they would return home after that, but then...”

“Faith didn’t give up. She continued to track the Priestess,” Buffy said. “Did Embry have any idea where they were headed?”

“No,” Giles said. “And there’s more. The Watcher assigned to the school in New York – a young fellow by the name of Curtis Logue – he’s committed suicide.”

“What? Why?” Buffy asked, standing up too fast. A laser show of sparks sprayed across her field of vision. She gripped the edge of the table to steady herself.

“I mean to find out,” Giles said. “I’m going to New York. I’ve booked a flight for this evening. Andrew and Willow, I’ll need you to take charge of the research here. Are you up for it?”

Andrew gagged on a bite of waffle, then swallowed it down. He clapped a hand over his heart and said, “It is my finest day. Andrew Wells, Watcher Extraordinaire.”

“And I’ll just go get ready for school,” Dawn said, then added, hopefully, “Unless?”

Buffy pointed into the hallway. Dawn stomped off.

Willow said, “Do you really have to go? I mean, New York: it’s on the other side of the Atlantic. And there is so much work to do here. And I’m fairly certain in a city like that you will have to use that charmy necklace thing I gave you.”

Giles looked genuinely touched. “You all have gotten along just fine without me in the past,” he said.

Buffy drifted from the kitchen, weaving between them like a ghost.

“Buffy?” Giles said.

She made no remark, but slipped up the stairs. When they heard the door close, Xander rounded the breakfast table.

“Okay,” he said, hush-voiced. “So not liking the traumatization of Buffy. It’s almost like she’s back from the dead again again.”

William lowered his head. “It’s exactly like she’s back from the dead again,” he bit out. “Put her in a grave is what we did.” He flicked a seething glance at Giles.

“It was necessary,” Giles said, hiding behind his Watcher facade.

“You have no idea what you put her through,” William snarled.

“No more than you ever have...” Giles said, coldly.

William leapt at him. Xander was there to hold him back.

“Hey! Hey,” Willow shouted. “Not a time for scrapping among... house mates. Okay? We need to be cool.”

“Cool like Fozzie,” Andrew said.

William shrugged free and left them.

Giles was shaken. He removed his glasses with trembling hands and made a mess of trying to clean them.

“Giles?” Willow said.

“Actually, there is something more,” he said. “Harold Damas...”

“Archival architect guy,” Andrew pitched in.

“Yes,” Giles said. “He referenced a kind of Compendium of Prophecies. It is supposed to reside in the archive, but I have begun to doubt its existence.”

“A Compendium? Like a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book for prophets?” Xander asked.

“It was a hobby for him,” Andrew explained. “Yeah. Some guys collect toys or stamps. The whole entire Damas family liked to collect together and edit prophecies.”

“You Watchers,” Kennedy said. “Very, very dull bunch of guys.”

“Yes, well,” Giles said. “Search through the scrolls. Andrew, go through the boxes in my office. I know there are more recovered volumes in the basement. Leave no page unturned. If you find this Compendium, seek out any reference at all to the Shanshu Prophecy.”

Willow was scribbling in her notebook. “Shanshu,” she said. “Got it. Anything else?”

Giles studied each of them with a sense of knotting trepidation. He said, “Take care of each other. I’ll return as soon as I can.”

 

 

Willow shared a tendency with Einstein in that she blocked out certain things when she was really deep in thought. For instance, she was upstairs, in the hallway, going over her notes, when Kennedy tried and failed to catch Willow’s attention. And she was in the bedroom, on the bed, still going over notes, when Kennedy pounced her.

Willow squealed.

“I like that noise,” Kennedy said.

Willow sat back up. “Kennedy. I don’t think now is a good time.”

Kennedy removed the notebook from Willow’s grasping fingers. “Now is the right time,” she said. “What I have planned will only take a few minutes, but the effects will last all day long.”

Willow kept her body upright. “Kennedy,” she said, plaintively.

Kennedy laced her fingers behind the small of Willow’s back. She stared at Willow in a way that drove out other thoughts – once more Einstein-esque.

“A ‘no’ answer is not an option,” Kennedy said, firm in many ways. “This will be good for both of us.”

Willow felt herself getting bendy. “Hmm. Hands in good places,” she whispered. “What’s gotten into you, to make you so... with the emphatic temptiness?”

Kennedy leaned close to Willow’s ear, easing her backward as she spoke. “Something happened, made me realize you’re worth fighting for.”

“And you didn’t know that before?” Willow asked. Her eyelids slid closed involuntarily.

Kennedy slowly worked the buttons on Willow’s blouse. She said, “I knew it, Willow. Just didn’t know I did.”

 

 

“You’re dressed,” William said.

Their bedroom was dark. In the absence of light she was a creature of quicksilver and shadow.

“I am,” she said. It seemed every syllable she spoke caused her pain.

“You’re going?”

“Yes.”

William crossed the room. He welcomed the lack of brightness. Gave him a chance to shake off the venom he harbored toward Rupert. Gave him a chance to be with her, without looking at her.

“Please stay,” he whispered. He touched his thumb to the cusp of her collarbone. When she did not shy away, he lay his palm over the hollow of her throat.

“I can’t. I have to tell the girls. I know what we have to do,” she said. “We have to find Thellian. And I have to kill him.”

 

 

Xander considered himself on this side of things. Yeah, he had lost an eye in the epic battle against the ultimate evil and most of his friends possessed super powers, but he was Mr. Conventionality.

Play by the rules.

Look both ways when crossing the street.

Punch the time clock at 8 a.m. and not a minute late.

He had seen enough of the real-life jeebies to make Vincent Price duck and cover, but at the end of the day, he was glad to call himself the straight man. Even if it meant that when push came to shove, it usually shoved him.

And yet...

Here he was in traffic on his way to work, with the nagging feeling that something felt not right. He had watched this movie on cable a few nights back, before the whole Mines of Moria extravaganza at the archive. He couldn’t remember what it was called, but it had the girl who played Rachel on Friends in it, and the ending had really cheesed him off.

The movie was about this girl who lived in the middle of Boredsville, and at the end, she had a choice that could change it all. On the left, she had a wild, messy, exciting kind of life with this boy she kinda loved. On the right, she had day-to-day zombification at the local Safeway. She chose the dull. It spun him completely. He went to bed thinking, why would anybody actually choose that?

Yet here he sat, in traffic on a Monday morning, getting ready to wedge his Volvo between an articulated lorry and a tourist bus.

He thought, If I take a left at Waterloo Road, I can head in to the site and continue my very important work on the ATS (Ancient Text Storage – a name he coined himself and was very proud of). But if I take a right and cross Waterloo Bridge, I can swing by Go Ask Alice to check on Maya.

Even though Maya had now thrown him out of her shop twice.

Even though Maya bore all the earmarks of a book that had long lost its table of contents.

He still thought about her, and when he did, his knees went wonky. Xander knew wonky knees had to mean something.

The light changed from red to green. Xander Harris had a choice to make. Left or right.

Maybe it was the Holden Caulfield overtones that got him. Xander clicked on the turn signal and turned right onto Waterloo Bridge, not having the inkiest inkling how such a small decision could change his life forever.

 

Chapter Text

Xander parked his car on the street a block down from Foyles. He was in a whistling mood as he walked up the sidewalk to Go Ask Alice. The morning felt brisk and cool and full of possibility. He felt jazzed with the excitement of doing something out of character. Heck, he figured after Maya threw him out of the shop, he might just go jay walk and tread on the grass in Kensington Park.

When he got to the bookstore, Xander found the shop darkened. No big surprise there. He had seen the broken light bulbs himself, and the ceilings were exceptionally high. Without a utility ladder, Maya probably had to learn to navigate the shop by memory.

But there was something else.

Droplets of condensation veined down the front windows. Xander pressed his face to the foggy glass to have a better look. At first, he wondered what kind of reindeer games she might be playing today with her head canted so far back, eyes closed, soft, slim white neck exposed. Something below counter level pulsed softly with undulating bands of watery light.

Xander banged on the window. “Maya?” he called.

No movement within. Clearly, that would not do. Xander went to the door, tried it. Locked. Of course it was. Why would it be unlocked?

Xander pounded again. Sweat beaded on the back of his neck. He had to get in. He felt a flicker of panic. What if he couldn’t get in?

Xander shouldered into the door. It rattled in the frame, but stuck. He turned, surveyed surroundings and found the chalkboard placard. He tested its weight – good, heavy, wood and brass. He neglected to check what was written on it. If he had he would have paused to read it, he would have seen: the lion, the witch and the wardrobe.

Xander closed his eye. He hefted the sign over his head and slammed it full force into the window. The pane caved then splashed into a million shards across the floor. Xander reached through and worked the dead bolt on the other side.

All that noise, yet Maya still sat raptly at her counter.

Xander stepped inside. The odor struck him first. He knew the smell – a basement scent halfway between pickle juice and moldy sponges. A few paces in, Xander saw the ice crystals on Maya’s eyebrows.

“Oh God,” he said. He rushed to her. Jumped the counter. Swept her into his arms. Her body was cold but not lifeless.

“You?” she said. Her lips didn’t move.

“I’ll get you out,” Xander told her.

Maya’s green eyes blinked slowly. “Too... late,” she said.

Xander looked down into the glass globe she gripped with brittle white fingers. The flowing light within moved like the graceful drowning ebbs of the ocean. He knew without really knowing that to stare too long meant bad business for them both.

Maya had bird bones. Made it easy for him to carry her right out from behind the counter. On their way across the store, Maya twisted her neck to look up at his face.

“Xander... idiot,” she said.

“Hey, now. Is that any way to talk to your rescuer?” he said.

She cradled the glass against her. “Trap,” she murmured. “Get it?”

Xander squeezed her cold shoulder. “I’ll get you outside. In the sun, where it’s warm,” he said.

The moment they touched the threshold, the room ripped to shreds.

Xander awoke to fresh agony. His skin felt as though he’d had a full body shot of Novocaine and it was just wearing off. A strange vibrating sound filled his ears, like fingernails scritching over piano wire.

As the room dialed back into focus, he recalled things in snapshot flashes. Dazzling flare. Blazing pain. Followed by... a waiting room?

Xander lifted his head, then regretted it. Muscle seemed to shrink on his bones like a too-tight suit of clothes. At that moment, he knew what an overcooked chicken must feel like.

His memories had been correct. He was in a waiting room, the kind with walls the color dandruff shampoo. He realized that he had curled into an unmanly fetal position on the threadbare carpet. As he craned his head, he beheld a pair of booted feet at the brim of his peripheral vision.

“Did I just get zapped into the Beetlejuice dimension?” he asked.

Booted foot slipped under Xander’s chin. It tilted Xander’s head upward. A face with a bulging, sweaty forehead and protuberant eyes looked down.

“So, the little succubus has snared her another one,” he said in a prissy Lancashire accent.

Xander sat up quickly. He ignored the shrieks of pain protesting in his limbs. He wanted to look this guy eye to eye.

He was small man with thinning hair and eyes of brilliant vermilion. He clicked his yellowed teeth together and said, “Welcome to Alice.”

 

 

William dropkicked the bedroom door, making as much noise as necessary.

Angel leapt from the bed. A second later William arm-barred him to the wall by the throat.

“Why did you do it?” William snarled.

Shaken, Angel said, “Spike, if you’re trying to get on my good side...”

William pressed the point of a stake to Angel’s heart. “I don’t give a damn about your good side,” he said.

Angel’s laugh resonated deep in his chest. He said, “Go ahead. Kill me. That would round out the symmetry rather nicely, wouldn’t it?”

“Why, Angel? Don’t get dodgy,” William said.

“Why what? I have done quite a lot of things.”

William dug his forearm deeper into Angel’s throat, cutting off his speech.

“You poncy, arrogant, self-centered, pointy-haired bastard,” William said. “You bloody well know what. Your precious sodding prophecy. Why did you sign it away? What could you...”

“O-o-o-h,” Angel said. “The Prophecy. That’s why you’re here.”

William released Angel. “Yes. That. Why the hell else?”

Angel scrubbed the raw skin on his neck. He ambled over to his mini-bar.

“Drink?” Angel asked.

“No,” William answered blandly.

Angel took out a bottle and poured a tumbler full.

“It’s touching, really.” Angel said. “I didn’t know you cared.”

“I don’t,” William said. “But you signing away your destiny affects more than you and me.”

Angel swirled the blood in his glass. He said, “Let me ask you something, Spike. When we pulled our little coup in LA, how long was Wolfram & Hart out of commission?”

William used the sharp end of the stake to scratch his head. “I dunno,” he said. “Weeks?”

“Twenty-two hours,” Angel said. He drained his cup and refilled.

William breathed out a heavy sigh. “That’s it?”

“Maybe even less. And that was just one branch in the great Tree of Evil,” Angel said. He stared down into his crystal cup. After a long pause, he said, “I have a plan, Spike. It does not include you.”

William glared. “Oh, right then. Pay no attention to the man behind the bleeding curtain. And just what is your secret master plan this time? Gonna paperwork them to death?”

“It’s not like that,” Angel said.

“The Prophecy, Angel,” William said, adopting his self-righteous impatience. “You signed it away. Is there any way you can get it back? You are in Land of the Loophole with the whole evil law firm at your fingers.”

“I didn’t sign it away,” Angel said, simply.

William shook his head, confounded. “Come again?” he said.

“I signed away hope,” Angel said. His voice broke on the last word, but he did his best to cover it. “I can still fulfill the Shanshu. Whatever part I play, I either die forever or remain as I am. A vampire with a soul. I will never again be a man.”

Angel brought his eyes to meet William’s. William dropped to the edge of Angel’s bed. After a moment of stillness, William said, “You are playing a game you cannot win.”

“I’m not playing to win,” Angel said. He downed the second cup of blood.

William swallowed hard. “Angel...” he said.

Angel went on, “But I did not sell my humanity for less than a day’s downtime for the bad guys. They have their claws in a rat full of cyanide. All I have to do is hang on long enough...”

“Thellian,” William stated, flatly.

Angel tripped over his words, clearly not expecting the mad swerve in conversation. “Who?”

“You know him,” William said.

“Right. Thellian. I know of him,” Angel said. “We’ve met.”

“Buffy is looking for...”

“She’ll never find him,” Angel cut in. “He’s buried. After two millennia on this earth, he’s learned to keep a low profile.”

“But you could find him,” William said. He narrowed his eyes.

“Just like you found me,” Angel countered.

William scoffed. “You’re a creature of habit, Angel. I could track you even without nifty vampire senses.” He took a moment then to take in his surroundings. Bed had a lived-in look and slept-in feel. Mini-bar stocked with blood. Heavy brocade curtains in a masculine forest green. “You’ve done quite a bit of restoration to the place.”

“I am at the helm of a near omniscient global super power,” Angel said.

William dug his hands into the pockets of his coat. “You’re in real deep, aren’t you?” he said.

Angel’s expression looked impassive as ever. He said, “You should go.”

“Check. Mate,” William said. As he left, he glanced back at the damage he caused the doorframe. When he was gone, Angel bowed forward, nearly brushing the mini-bar with his forehead. The mark on his chest, which itched almost constantly now, began a slow dull aching throb.

Without raising his head, Angel reached for the phone. He dialed the number by touch, then placed the receiver to his ear.

A woman answered. Her youthful sounding voice had the smoothness of vanilla ice cream.

“I need to speak with Thellian,” Angel said.

“Yes,” she said. “Just one moment.”

When Thellian answered, Angel said, “We have a problem.”

And for a handful of seconds Angel wished that he had let William the Bloody finish him off when he had the chance.

 

 

Maya floundered on the sidewalk outside the shop. Instantly, she flung herself against the door. Her breath caught. Worn boards covered the windows and doors, as though Go Ask Alice had been out of business for years.

It had, of course. She knew that.

Now she was outside, in an odd kind of bright rainy sunshine that filled the autumn air. Maya swallowed down the terror in her throat. Perspiration soaked her thin yellow dress. Not perspiration, she remembered. She had nearly frozen to death. And Xander...

Maya cupped the looking glass with both hands. She licked her parched lips and croaked, “Show me Xander.”

Swirls of gray and blue appeared, like a storm on a moonless night. No sign of Xander at all.

A tear slipped from the corner of her eye. “No, Freddie,” she whispered. “Oh, no.”

Maya collapsed against the door, almost blind with fright. The hour was all wrong. Somehow it was late afternoon already. The going-home crowd would hit the pavement soon. The press of all those people bursting forth like seeds from a pod terrified her to paralysis.

She closed her eyes. She fought to still the panic in her blood.

The looking glass weighed heavily in her hands. Maya peered into it. The thought struck her like a cloudburst. Suddenly, she knew what she had to do.

“Show me Xander’s house,” she said.

The particles eddied together to form the image of the front step of a cozy little flat.

She uttered a tremulous sigh of relief.

“Now,” she said, more determined. “Show me how to find it.”

 

 

Willow spent the morning carefully unrolling the twenty-one scrolls Giles brought up from Boadicea’s tomb. The quickie Kennedy intimacy had done the trick to restoring Willow’s focus. It was nice, being in the good with Kennedy again. Seemed sometimes that they had left the fun behind them in Rio de Janeiro. There was probably a lounge song about that very thing.

After unfurling each scroll, Willow discovered that they were in splendid condition considering the length of time they were interred underground. Twenty of the cases were simple, leather bound affairs. The final case was carved from sandalwood and inlaid with twining silver filigrees. All of them contained crisp sheets of fine white vellum, a meter long by half a meter wide.

She removed each scroll with Scully-like precision, carefully noting the direction in which each scroll was loaded into the case, how they were rolled and the order in which she opened them. Even with the forensic analysis, Willow could scarcely contain her Galilean curiosity.

The most intriguing part, of course, was the text written on each scroll. Not so much the text itself, which she could no more read than Xander could comprehend applied calculus, but the way it was written. Passages scribed in sharp indigo letters scrawled at odd angles across each scroll, filling in almost every centimeter of space. Cerulean lines of varying widths curved and snaked around the passages in bold swirling patterns. As Willow spread them out across the dining room table, three deep and seven wide, she knew only one truth: This was a job for Giles.

Or, at the very least, the combined efforts of the Scooby gang.

Since she lacked the aforementioned, Willow cozied up to the notion of a long day of up-to-her-elbows-in-texts hard work. However, by lunchtime she had yet to decode even one of the passages. Willow had exhausted all of the reference language texts she had on hand at the Flat. She considered magical means for translation, maybe a spoken word spell or a librio veritas. They took a lot of time to prepare, she knew, and by the time she had all the components together Dawn would be home from school.

Frustrated, Willow sat back in Giles’ cushy chair. The arm caught the corner of a scroll. She swiveled back, accidentally tugging the page forward. Before she could catch it, the scroll slipped with a swish over the table edge.

“Bad scroll,” Willow said. She picked it up, delicately as to not wrinkle it. As she did so, she noticed a miniscule mark in the top right corner on the back of the sheet. Willow brought it close to her face to examine it. A trill of excitement coursed through her.

“I know that mark,” she whispered to herself. Willow scanned the pages assembled on the table. She rolled back the right side of another one. Sure enough, another mark. Another familiar mark.

A grin traced the corners of her mouth. Willow ran. She took the stairs two at a time. Her green notebook was in her desk drawer. She frantically flipped it to the page on which Dawn had traced the symbols from the Temple of the Sisters. Breathless, she counted them.

“Twenty-one,” she said. She laughed to herself. “I don’t believe it.”

Willow raced back downstairs, clutching the notebook under her arm like a schoolgirl late for morning classes. She checked the back of every scroll. Each bore a mark corresponding to the symbols Dawn had drawn.

With the notebook open in Giles’ chair, Willow ordered the scrolls according to the arrangement in Dawn’s depiction of the altar. And, as Willow suspected, the central page – the one from ornate case – carried the mark of the Pleiades.

A pattern emerged. The scrawlings and lines matched up to form a triskelion circle. Each leg of the triskele held another symbol. One was distinctly rose-like. The second, topmost symbol was a kind of stylized tree. The last bore the image of an ornate triangle. The text flowed around the borders of the circle like the twining tributaries of a river.

Willow covered her mouth with her hands.

“Go me!” she said. “I think I figured it out. Except, now I need to figure out what ‘it’ is.”

 

Chapter Text

Protection

 

That evening, everyone seemed to appear at once.

Andrew came in first, waving a wedge of rained-on printed pages.

“Does Giles ever check his email?” he called from the entry hall. He shook out his umbrella.

Willow stepped backward from her work into the hall, beaming.

“Andrew. Come look at this,” she said, her voice warm with enthusiastic confidence.

Andrew continued to talk while he removed his sodden London Fog trench coat. “One hundred and eight email messages from Watchers and Slayers the world over. Giles sent out this mass email requesting information, you know, about the deadly Super Vampyres. Well, they responded,” Andrew walked toward Willow, still ranting. “Worldwide confirmation of the Super Bads, plus, more aggression directed at urbanites. Important...”

Andrew froze. “Great Jupiter’s spot,” he muttered.

“I know,” she said. “Who’s the woman?”

“You are so the woman,” Andrew said. He marveled over the scroll puzzle laid out across the table. “What does it say?”

“That’s a whole other can of bookworms,” Willow said. “But Tara mentioned the completion of a Circle.” Willow gestured in a manner befitting a showroom floor girl. “Tada: Circle.”

Andrew bent over the scrawled and wavy lines of text, squinting. “Dawn is Language Girl,” he said. “She read The Lord of the Rings just because Tolkien was language-obsessed. She can speak Elf,” he said. He grinned to himself. “That is so hot.”

“I was thinking that too,” Willow said. “The Language Girl part, not the hot Elf tongues. Which just sounds disturbing.”

Dawn burst through the front door, red raincoat fluttering.

“What’s going on? Besides torrential rain?” Dawn asked.

“Hey, it’s Language Girl,” Willow said.

“I prefer Language Lady. Or Language Woman,” Dawn said. She sidled up between Andrew and Willow. Her reaction was much like Andrew’s, only without random astronomical references.

“The key to whole thing was on the back of each scroll,” Willow explained. “And we have you guys to thank for that part. The symbols are arranged according to this.” Willow picked up the gloss green notebook to show them Dawn’s scribbled Nephillim script.

“The Sisters?” Andrew said.

“The Sisters,” Dawn said. She moved in. She took off her raincoat, passed it to Andrew. “Take this. I’m drippy.”

“Do you know the language?” Willow asked.

Dawn smoothed her fingers almost lovingly over the winding text. “No,” she said. “But I can find out. I need my copy of the Habbalissa Codex.”

Behind them, the front door opened and closed again. This time, it was Buffy and Anjelica. Both were thoroughly doused.

“Buffy!” Willow said brightly, getting ready to share their great big discovery with the premier member of the gang. But Willow’s enthusiasm quickly faded.

Buffy swayed on her feet. Her skin appeared worn to near translucent. Dark smudges underscored her eyes.

Anjelica said, “Kennedy said I should bring Buffy home. She needs rest.”

“Kennedy said...” Willow began.

“And you let her?” Dawn growled. She rushed to Buffy’s side.

“She needs a smoothie. STAT,” Andrew said.

“No,” Buffy said. “I’m not hungry anymore. I need... where’s William?”

Willow shrugged, looking doubly concerned. “I don’t know. He left just after you did.”

“I’ll get you upstairs. You haven’t slept since...” Dawn trailed off. She laid her hand across Buffy’s forehead. “She’s clammy. That’s not good, right?”

“Clamminess sounds so clammy,” Andrew said, grimacing.

Willow, Dawn, and Andrew crowded close to Anjelica.

“How long has she been this way?” Willow asked.

“Pretty much all day,” Anjelica said, fidgeting with the hem of her T-shirt. “She gave us a non-peppy pep talk about this Thellian guy. We were all fairly unclear on it, so Kennedy cut to the fight scenes.”

“We should never have let her out of the house this morning,” Willow said.

“Yeah right,” Andrew recanted. “She’s Buffy. All down with the destiny. Besides, since when does she listen to us?”

“She listens to me,” Dawn said, firmly. “You’re my sister. You’re sick. Should we – I don’t know – call for a doctor?”

“No,” Buffy said, urgently. “No doctors. I need sleep. That’s all.”

“Fine then. I’m putting you to bed,” Dawn said.

Buffy said, “I think...” she said. Her eyelids fluttered unevenly.

“I think you’ve done enough thinking,” Dawn said. “Up you go.” She linked arms with Buffy and led her up the stairs.

By Dawn’s estimation, Buffy was already asleep. She took the stairs like a convalescent patient pumped full of muscle relaxants. It was a strange sensation for Dawn. An uncomfortable bit of deja vu struck her, especially in the context of what Spike had said at breakfast about Buffy returning from a grave, this time in a metaphorical sense.

Buffy didn’t resist when Dawn peeled back the duvet and top sheet on her bed. She obediently slipped under the covers, actually allowing Dawn to tuck her in. That had not happened in ever.

Before Dawn left the room, she smoothed Buffy’s hair back from her forehead. It was a motion half intended to check for fever, and half to do the maternal instinct thing.

“Who better to look after you than me?” Dawn soothed. “I’m your family.”

 

 

“So, what now?” Xander said. “Are we supposed to fight?”

The bulgy headed guy bunched his legs up under his body in the chair. “No,” he said. “No point. You’re stuck here.”

Xander giggled. “Stuck? Whaddya mean, stuck?”

The guy flashed a smile so big his face seemed positively made of teeth. “You fell for Maya’s trap. What did she use for bait?”

“Bait?” Xander parroted.

“Yeah. Was it the wounded little flower routine?” he asked.

Realization was dawning in Xander’s eyes. “Trap,” he said. He chuckled softly to himself. “She told me that. She said as much. Foolish me, acting the big hero.”

The guy chewed the edge of his thumb. “Well, be gleeful. At least you’re not dead,” he said.

“Dead. Don’t say dead. Dead bad,” Xander said.

The guy squatted forward in the seat. “You don’t say?” he mocked. His orangey eyes blinked rapidly like a frog’s. “I don’t get it, though. She must be getting better at it. You got to keep your skin sack. See: bitch killed me when she pulled her little rabbit-out-of-the-hat-trick. She must have plans for you.”

Xander glanced about the sparse waiting room. There were no exits. It was just a 7’ by 7’ cube with uncomfortable chairs, a laminate coffee table, out-dated magazines featuring golf and civil engineering, and scratchy green Astroturf.

“No,” Xander said, shaking his head. “No. I have to get out of here.”

 

 

William came in from the increasingly bitter rain, out of breath and bearing a single, partly wilted red rose.

“Oh,” Willow whimpered, making puppy eyes.

He started to say something flip or snide, but Anjelica’s presence drew his immediate attention.

“Hey, Head Wound,” he said. “What’s up?”

Anjelica’s face flushed. “It’s, um,” she fumbled.

Willow said, “She brought Buffy home.”

William started up the stairs. Willow snagged his arm.

“No. It’s okay. Dawn’s got her,” Willow said.

William lingered on the step, uncertain of what he should do. If he stayed out of it, maybe Buffy would share with Dawn their bit of news. And maybe that would be the best thing for Buffy. Maybe then, she would get some rest.

“Here. Let’s get this into water,” Willow said, simplifying things. She slid the long stem of the rose from his hand.

“Yeah,” he said, following her into the kitchen. “Except that it’s been in too much water. That’s its problem.”

Andrew and Anjelica loitered in the entry hall. Andrew tucked his hands in his pockets. He said, “I heard about the head lumps.”

“I was concussed,” Anjelica said.

Andrew sucked his teeth. His eyes sparkled. “Ooh. I’m kinda jealous,” he said.

She shrugged. “Don’t be. It’s in the hairline. No visible scar,” she said.

“I have one,” Andrew said. He yanked the collar of his turtleneck down. She leaned in close to have a look. “It’s where Spike bit me.”

“Ow,” she said, touching the same spot on her own neck. “Did it hurt?”

Willow and William came back in.

Andrew narrowed his eyes. “Pain? Watchers laugh at pain,” he said. Then he dropped the facade. “It hurt really bad. And it almost got infected.”

Willow turned to rescue Anjelica from Andrew’s treatise on vampire bite wound care. She said, “Would you like some tea? You going back out into that storm – bad idea.”

The door upstairs opened then softly closed. Dawn came back stairs to join them.

“She’s...” William said.

“Sleeping,” Dawn finished. “Yes. I’ll go check on her again in a...”

They heard a timid rapping on the door. Willow felt a faint stirring of chills on the backs of her arms.

“Who’d be out in this gale?” William said.

Not following the general sense of trepidation, Andrew stepped forward and opened the door. Then slammed it again.

He screamed, “It’s the Priestess! The Priestess!”

William clamped his hand over the boy’s mouth. “Don’t wake the house, Andrew. I may not have fangs, but I can still bite you,” he said.

A gust of rain bit against the door, and again the tiny pecking sound of someone knocking.

Dawn moved forward.

“Don’t open it,” Andrew moaned. “She had a crystal ball. The Priestess.”

Dawn didn’t listen. She flung the door open to give both she and Willow a clear line of sight.

There, on the stoop, cowered a drenched rat of a girl. Knees bloody, hair and rain streaming down her face, the girl took a tremulous step toward them. She held out the glass globe in her hands like an offering.

“Help,” Maya said. “I need help.”

The crystal glowed and pulsed like a living, breathing thing. It held them transfixed. Until Maya moved forward again.

“Gri-Gatay,” Willow said. Maya’s body stiffened. She tried to move, but couldn’t. Her eyes rolled desperately.

“I’m looking for Giles,” Maya gushed. “Please, I need your help. It’s Xander.”

 

 

Rupert Giles arrived in New York just after 9 a.m. His flight had given him plenty of time to think about and feel guilty over Curtis Logue’s suicide.

Logue was Andrew’s age. He had been a sober young man with a penchant for eating pistachios. Giles always knew when Curtis was in the Watcher archives. He could hear the boy cracking open the shells with his teeth. It had been a deplorable noise that set Giles’ own teeth on edge. He would deride him for making such an intolerable racket.

Giles had also known Curtis’ father, Trenton. Trenton Logue had been old style British – the stiff upper crust George Banks type. Trenton collected maps and antique cars. He played polo. At his summer home in Wales, he owned a canary yellow twin engine plane, which he had taught Curtis to fly. He guarded over his only son like a lone wolf with its cub.

Trenton had died in the explosion that destroyed the Watcher’s Council. When Giles and Robson put out their call for Watcher recruits, Curtis Logue was among the first to respond.

The more Giles thought about him, the more he was convinced that Curtis Logue was not the type for suicide. Something must have gone very wrong in New York.

Giles took a taxi from the airport straight to Faith’s training school. He hoped to catch them in action. Embry had assured him that their group of Slayers – all twenty-two of them – had continued with their training even in the absence of their leaders. But when he arrived at the studio, he found the place was empty. More disturbing, though, was the fact that the front door was unlocked.

Giles noted the prickling chills that crawled up his spine as he entered the empty school. He examined the door, but found no signs of forced entry. It was a spacious place, much larger than Summers School, but the set up much the same. Giles moved slowly across the bleached wood floor, footfalls echoing in a most hollow, unsettling way. He checked the weapons chest. Stakes, crossbow, short knives, Holy Water in clear glass vials. Nothing appeared to be missing.

But something was amiss. He heard a sound, or rather, a kind of unsound. It was New York, after all. The street had been a jungle cacophony of car horns, machinery and four thousand cell phone conversations bleeding into one. Inside the school was dead silence. A knot wrenched in Giles’ gut.

Instinct told him to run. He glanced in the mirrored wall in time to see the door swing open on its own. Giles bent to take the cross from the weapons chest. By the time he whirled around with it, she was standing inches away.

“Hi, Mr. Giles,” she said. “Remember me?”

Giles gathered himself to full height. His outward calm belied the sickened horror in his heart. She wore elbow length gloves of clotting blood.

“Of course I remember you,” he said. He brought the cross to bear. “Amy.”

Her veined face split open in a malicious grin. She gave a cursory glance to the cross. “Aw, you shouldn’t have. I mean, you really shouldn’t have.”

She spoke a guttural curse. The cross crumbled to dust in his hand.

“You know, I should have guessed they’d send you,” Amy said. “All you non-conformist types are just alike.”

You are The Priestess,” he said, shaken.

Amy arched her brows, further contorting her features. “You’ve heard of me,” she said. “Good. That will make all of this so much simpler.”

Giles tried for the weapons chest, but she descended on him like a carrion bird. She sank her teeth into his neck.

“God, no,” he said, struggling weakly against her brutal grip.

The Priestess eased him to the floor, mind racing with the infusion of his unexpectedly potent blood. She crouched beside him, delighting in the futile way he strove for breath.

“Poor Watcher,” she whispered into his ear. “God doesn’t live here any more.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Completion

 

“You’re her,” Dawn said. “You’re Maya. The girl from the haunted book shop.”

“You know this bird?” William asked.

“Of her. Xander likes her,” Dawn said. Her brow crinkled.

Willow clenched her fist, tightening her magical grasp on Maya. “What have you done with Xander?” she asked through her teeth.

“Please,” Maya said. She was sobbing now. “I didn’t mean... You have to help.”

William sussed the girl out in seconds. She was the easy kill, the soft-touch doe-eyed type he fancied in the early days. A ready victim brought up like a puppy on sweet milk - the kind that quietly begged for death.

“Oh for mercy’s sake,” William said. “Bring the girl in. She’ll drown from the runoff out there.”

Dawn shook her head. “Don’t. What if she really is the Priestess? What if it’s a trick?”

“It’s not,” Willow said, “If she meant us harm, she wouldn’t have been able to find us. The protection on the house hides us from evil intent.”

“But that would mean Nighna never...” Andrew said, suddenly going very still.

Ignoring him, Dawn said, “Maybe she means no harm. What if she intends to lead us to someone who does?”

“Because it’s Xander,” Willow said. “We let her in because of Xander.”

Willow released Maya. The girl stepped inside, cradling the crystal globe to her chest. Her elbows and knees quaked as she stood before the semi-circle of strangers with whom rested her fate.

“I’m not evil. I swear it,” Maya said. “But I may have harmed Xander. In fact, I’m certain of it. I set a trap, see? But it wasn’t for him.”

“A trap?” Dawn said. “What kind of trap?”

Maya lowered her eyes. “A magical kind,” she said.

“We have to get him out,” Willow said.

“That should be easy work, right?” William asked. Then, turning to Maya, he said, “You’ve lucked out. Willow here’s a Charmed One. Connected to the Power.”

“No,” she said, furiously shaking her head. “No, it’s not that easy. Freddie is in there, too.”

“Freddie?” Willow said.

Maya shifted the weight of the globe in her arms. “Freddie... is my ex,” she said. “He’s a warlock, and a demon. Well, half-demon.”

William eyed her closely. “What did he do to you?” he asked, a note of severity in his tone.

Maya winced. “Xander... Nothing,” she said, playing stupid.

“Not him,” William said, sternly. “The fox you’ve snared in your trap. What did he do?”

What was left of the color faded from Maya’s face. She watched William with a mixture of curiosity and dread, as if he had just kicked up the corner of the rug under which she’d been sweeping all her most appalling secrets.

“How do you...?” she began.

“Right. So,” William said, having all he needed to know. “How to kill the wanky ponce.”

“He’s powerful?” Dawn asked, hurriedly.

“Not so much as he used to be. I drained a lot of his power summoning Alice,” Maya said.

“Alice?” Dawn inquired.

Maya’s mind was racing now. She said, “Alice was a ghost. Now she’s a place. She agreed to help me. I talk to ghosts.”

“You’re a necromancer,” Willow said.

“Mondo cool,” Andrew added.

“I’m a bit lost here,” Anjelica interjected, quietly.

“So am I, Sweetie,” Willow said. “Okay, Maya. Half-demon Freddie’s bound up in a ghost that’s now a place. Sounds pretty complicated, like you had to go through a lot of trouble. We need to know why.”

“We don’t have time for why,” Dawn said impatiently.

“You’re right. You don’t,” Maya said. “I’ll just sum up, okay? Freddie was planning to slaughter his coven in exchange for a kind of Demonic Ascendancy. Everything was signed in blood. Eyes blackened. Crosses burned. But I couldn’t let him. I knew I wasn’t strong enough on my own, so I worked a spell with the Looking Glass.” Maya held up the crystal, which had seemingly gone to sleep since she entered the Flat.

Willow bent forward, nose almost touching the globe. Pinpricks of light shimmered like fireflies at its core. “It’s a real Looking Glass, then?” she mused. “Not just the parlor tricky kind Gypsies use in side shows?”

“It’s the real deal,” she said. “The catch of the whole spell was that there had to be a Guardian. Someone present to man the gateway to the cage. Or woman, as is the case.”

“So you did it,” Andrew said. “You were the Gatekeeper.”

Were being the operative word,” Dawn said, urgent-like. “Without you guarding, where does that leave Xander?”

“That’s just it,” Maya said, her voice going gulpy. “Last week, after Xander came to visit me, I decided it was time to close up shop. I planned to end it. Take Freddie down and me with him. Stalemate. Lose-lose. Get both of us out of our creepy little picture show for good.”

William said, “Then Xander swept in all Rhett Butler and wound up switching places with you.”

“He’s in there with Freddie right now,” Maya said. She warred with tears and lost. “But I think he’s alive. I don’t think I k-”

“He is alive,” Willow asserted firmly. Her lips curled in a sneering smile. “Xander is under my protection. No matter how strong this Freddie freak thinks he is, he can’t touch him.”

“That’s all well and good, Red,” William said. “But how are you going to fish the boy out?”

She leveled her eyes on his. “You up for a fight?” she asked.

“That’s a bloody stupid question,” William said. He turned to Dawn. “Buffy?”

“I’ll be here,” Dawn said. “Go. Be heroes.”

Willow was already bound for the door. She said, “Let’s go kick some half-demon ass.”

 

 

Dawn, Andrew and Anjelica stood in a vacuum created by the absence of the others.

In an absent-minded way uncustomary to his normal absent-mindedness, Andrew said, “So, I’ll just take Anjelica back to the school.”

“I’d rather not,” Anjelica said, ducking her eyes. “Kennedy planned some Slayer maneuvers for tonight, which I would prefer to avoid. I’m sure she would prefer me to avoid them, too.”

“Right,” Andrew said. “I’ll just go get some supplies.”

He left them at the base of the stairs.

“Supplies?” Anjelica said. “For taking me home?”

Dawn waved her hands. She was looking past Anjelica into the dining room, already thinking of ways to analyze the text written around the circle. “It’s an Andrew thing,” she said. “Hope you like Fruit Roll-Ups.”

Andrew came back downstairs with his backpack slung over one shoulder. His lips were pressed into a thin line of determination, which Dawn did not notice.

“Well, bye,” Anjelica said.

“Yep,” Dawn said.

No sooner than they were gone, Dawn was at the table, fingertips itching with excitement. She tucked her hair behind her ears.

“Okay,” she whispered to herself. “Let’s see what you are all about.”

 

 

Xander measured the room by paces and then by cubits. He looked under each chair and the coffee table. The underside of the coffee table bore a stamp in black which read Made In Bora Bora. He then flipped through each of the magazines. They all bore the date of July 1998.

“You think I haven’t done all that you just did?” Freddie asked.

“Well, sure,” Xander said. “But it never hurts to have a fresh pair of eyes. Or eye,” he amended, “as the case may be.”

“What are you?” Freddie asked, not sounding amused.

“I’m a carpenter,” Xander said.

“That how you lost your...” Freddie made a jabbing gesture to his eye while simultaneously clucking his tongue.

Xander uttered an inappropriately loud snort of laughter. “Uh. No, actually, that I lost in a fight against the First Evil.”

Freddie cracked his knuckles. “That right?” he said.

“It is a fact,” Xander said.

Freddie’s face turned rubbery, stretching into a contorted lumpy demonic mask. “I think we’re gonna have to fight after all,” he said.

Xander sighed. “I thought you might say that,” he said.

The buzzing inconstant fluorescence sputtered. Freddie flung out his arms and grew to fill up the floor to ceiling space, which Xander knew from a mad quick calculation had to be at least five cubits. Bony protrusions ripped through the denim sleeves of Freddie’s jacket. The shredded skin from his arms and back draped on his bones like tattered wings.

“Way to go all Hall of the Mountain King,” Xander said, surprised at how unruffled he sounded. Freddie continued to bulge in all sorts of uncomfortable places. The scritching piano wire sound warped into a high-pitched keening vibrato.

“You dare interfere?” Freddie groaned, voice thick in his newly muscled throat. “Maya belongs here, not you. She’s mine.”

Xander chuckled. “Yeah? Eat me,” he said.

Freddie clapped his hands together above his head. Writhing arcs of lightning crackled between his palms. The sharp scent of ozone filled Xander’s nostrils.

Fire rained down. Xander dived beneath the coffee table. The lightning zapped it to splinters. Freddie sneered. Xander stared at the guy and could not stop laughing.

“Right Said Fred: One. Coffee table: Zero,” Xander said. He reclined back on one hand. Freddie’s body turned flaming red.

“You dare!” he wailed. The electrical charge built in the air around them, whipping the magazines on unseen currents of wind.

“Oh, I dare,” Xander said. He jumped to his feet. “You’re pathetic,” he said. “Just a no-count bully with a few magic tricks up your bone-spurred sleeves. If you were half as great as your brow ridge, you’d have sprung this cage long ago.”

“I will pound you to dust,” Freddie raged. He threw down another thunderclap. This one zinged off of Xander, then ricocheted from the wall to the chair to the light fixture and back to Freddie. The blast left a smoking scorch mark on his demon carapace.

“Are you serious? With the pounding to dust bit?” Xander asked. He was unimpressed. He sat down in his chair, picked up a magazine and pretended to read.

Freddie huffed and growled and stomped, but Xander ignored him. Before long, Freddie slowly reverted to his scrawny human form. The coffee table re-appeared. The lights shimmered back to life.

“So it wasn’t convincing?” Freddie asked after a long while.

“Not remotely,” Xander said. He flipped a page in a copy of Golfer’s Weekly.

Freddie perched on his chair, chin in his hand. Minutes ticked by uncounted. Soon, Xander heard the sound of muffled voices somewhere far below.

He glanced at Freddie.

Freddie’s eyes gleamed. “You’re about to witness my real power, boy-o,” he said. “Maya’s come home.”

 

 

Buffy wandered in the wilderness; this wilderness being bereft of trees, water, animals and all other things wild. She walked barefoot over scorching sands so baked that each footfall broke through a crust of dry earth.

Black cloth wound around her body, covering everything from her ankles to the top of her head. A thin scrim of muslin shrouded her eyes and her mouth. The cloth swaddled her arms to her body, but that changed nothing. As she walked she thought, what use for arms in a place like this?

The path she tread felt familiar to her, inevitable even. A wall of sand swelled before her, unblemished. She crested the dune, leaving a twisting scar in the sand behind her, like the imprint of a snake’s spine. From her vantage on the ridge, Buffy looked out across a wasteland, empty and daunting. A forlorn wind wailed like a falcon’s cry across the barren valley.

She watched, impassive, realizing it was only a dream. It seemed that she never slept so deeply that she could not dream.

As inevitability goes, she knew she would fall. She knew before climbing the dune. She knew before she fell asleep. She rolled, sideways at first then end over end, gaining momentum, spraying sand. The cloth unwound. The dune transformed from dust to sloping hillside covered with fragrant waves of white gold grass.

At the base of the hill, Buffy sat up. Behind her, the cloth cut a black swath across a field of barley. She examined the pale fingers of her small white hands. She took her time getting to her feet, feeling out each movement. Stretching, prolonging, indulging herself in the freedom of her motion. She raised her eyes skyward. Stars stood out stark and perfect over the ring of stones before her. This place felt familiar too.

Tara appeared beside her. This felt natural as well. It felt right. Tara’s image flickered the way a flame does when it’s blown by the wind. Buffy felt Tara’s fingers join with her own.

“The Circle is complete,” Tara said. “All you need now is to wake it.”

Buffy felt no solace from Tara’s words. She said, “I don’t want to.”

She could not explain the sudden pall of dread that weighed on her heart. The stones in front of her seemed dense and remote, like the indifferent stars that whirled above them so many millions of light years away.

The wind gusted, blowing Tara’s fading form to ash.

The Circle is complete.

 

 

Dawn tapped the tip of her pencil to the blank page. She marked her place in the Habbalissa Codex with her left wrist. The first symbol had been the rose. After consulting The Book of Superstition and Symbolism and the Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, she decided that the third must be the Willow Tree.

It was the middle symbol she did not understand. It was not a pyramid, nor was it a simple triangle. She was close, though. So close.

Dawn perched in her chair. She traced the triangular shape with her fingers, marveling at the cleanly inked lines so painstakingly committed to the page. It was thicker at the base, she noted, with wavy lines curving upward, like the cartoon depiction of a heat mirage.

Heat, she thought. Her brow creased. She recalled something from chemistry class, the one she had missed so much this term she was bound to fail it. But they had studied the application of heat to chemical reactions, and hadn’t there been a symbol for it?

Dawn leaned forward, tapping the pencil eraser to her teeth. There had been a symbol. It was the Greek letter Delta.

Dawn sat back, suddenly breathless.

The triangular shape was the symbol for a catalyst – the key to a reaction. The Key...

With quaking fingers, Dawn wrote:

The Rose

The Key

and the Willow Tree.

 

 

Maya, Willow and William arrived to find not so much a bookshop as book soup. Pipes had burst, and the whole place had flooded to the windowsills. An exposed clutch of wiring shed brilliant sparks in the back corner. Elsewise, all was dark. The three huddled in under the shop’s awning while the fitful gale breathed down between the surrounding buildings.

“Well,” William said. “Hell or high water.”

“Looks like both,” Willow said. She waded in, with the other two behind her.

Inside, the bookstore had a cooled sweat feeling that put Maya on edge. She felt an absurd pang of loss looking at her beloved books floating around, swollen like literary jellyfish. They trudged through book sludge in thigh-deep water, Maya in the middle. William and Willow fanned to either side, flanking her.

“Time may be a little slippery in here,” Maya cautioned. “I’ve lost a measure of control, being out and all.”

“Control?” Willow said.

“Hmm, yep,” Maya said. “The shop is a pocket dimension I pulled out to keep us all isolated.”

“Pulled it out? Of where?” William asked.

“Well, the umbra I guess,” Maya said.

Willow glanced back at the girl. “Where did you study?” she asked.

Maya’s face brightened. “I graduated from Rice University,” she said. “I was a children’s librarian. Hence, with the books...”

“I mean, where did you study magics?” Willow said.

“You can major in magics?” Maya marveled.

Willow snapped her mouth shut. Then opened it again. “We’ll talk later,” she said.

William came to the counter and the dead-as-coffin-nails computer sitting upon it. “Here,” he said, taking Maya’s elbow. “Up you go, to the counter. No good will come of it if those wires touch the water.”

“Flash-fried Maya,” she said, sticking out her tongue. She climbed up, clumsily tripping on her soaked skirt. “What about you guys?”

“Mayhem? My favorite!” William said with mock enthusiasm.

“It is?” Maya said.

Willow got to the countertop beside Maya. She bowed her head prayer-like, then raised only her eyes. The crackling bunch of wires sizzled, then snuffed. Willow said, “We’re set. Release him.”

“Release him?” Maya balked. “No. No, I can’t do that. Can’t you just--” she waved her arms expansively, “--poof him away?”

“’Fraid it doesn’t work that way,” Willow said. “You have to make him all materialized before we can de-materialize him.”

“About that,” William said. “How are we going to kick this guy’s ass if he lacks the appropriate body part?”

“You just get ready to fight. When he’s released, I’ll see to it he’s solid enough,” Willow said.

William nodded. He took up a defensive stance in front of them. They waited for Maya to act.

Willow turned to Maya. “Now would be a good time, honey,” she said.

She shifted the looking glass from one hand to the other. Its surface had gone gummy with the moisture in the air.

Maya’s hands were shaking. She peered into the glass, waiting for the words to come. They seemed lodged in her throat. Instead, she said, “I don’t think I can do this.”

Beside her, unseen, the computer screen on the counter quietly stirred to life.

 

 

Dawn internalized. It was her thing.

The more she thought about Xander at the mercy of some demented half-demon, the more she immersed herself in her books. It made her feel industrious and resourceful. More productive. Less useless.

She escaped into the intricate interwoven lines of text around the Circle, hoping they would lend more insight about the three symbols. She discovered quickly, however, that none of the text on any of the scrolls carried references to roses, keys or trees of any kind.

Ponderous, considering that they were dominant features of the Circle.

Damas had chosen to write his entries in Latin – a logical, scholarly choice. Fortuitous, too. Dawn could read it. After a cursory glance through the passages, Dawn picked up on the obvious pattern in the text. Each passage contained paired couplets marked with Roman numerals. The assigned numerals appeared to be random but she knew there had to be a code somewhere to unlock it all – an ancient crib sheet that would make all of the tumblers click into place.

Dawn sat back, massaging the tension from her neck. She knew beyond doubt that she was The Key and that Willow was The Willow Tree. That part was all too plain, but she wanted some other knowledgeable person to back her up.

With that thought in mind, Dawn left the table. She had no idea how much time had lapsed since the others had gone. The storm had abated outside, and the street had long since retired for the night. She gasped when she saw the LED clock on the microwave in the kitchen. The display said 11:49.

Hours had passed. Something had gone wrong. She knew it. And Andrew... where had he run off to? It wasn’t at all like him to skip off when high profile Watcher work was afoot.

Dawn hovered in the hallway. The Flat seemed suddenly like a hulking shell full of empty chambers. Only she and Buffy...

The thought of her sister spurred Dawn to action. She went upstairs to check on Buffy, who slept in exactly the same position Dawn had left her that afternoon. Dawn left her undisturbed. She slipped into the dim sitting room, still shaken by her uncertainty.

A terrible thought occurred to her. She thought, What if Willow and Spike couldn’t defeat this Freddie guy? She had assumed the whole rescue mission would take zero time, and they would all be home to have supper. But what if this time was different from all the times before? What if she and Buffy were all that were left?

There had definitely been a time when Dawn may have wished for exactly that: Quaint, quiet normalcy with a side order of good old-fashioned boredom. Standing there in the dark between her room and her sister’s, she could think of no greater hell than trading her life and her friends for some stupid Preskool Playset Family Ideal.

Dawn rushed to the phone. She punched in Andrew’s cell phone number. She waited, holding her breath, while the connection went through. As the ringing tone sounded in her ears, she heard a tinny rendition of the Star Wars theme playing nearby. Dawn slammed the receiver down, flung open her door and ran for Andrew’s, prepared to give him a thorough browbeating for not having the courtesy to let her know he was home.

Just outside his door, she realized that Andrew had left his phone in his room.

“Great job, Dorktropolis,” she said, sulking. “How are you going to call me if you drop yourself in a cave? Again.”

From where she stood on the landing, Dawn could see the dining room table with the scrolls spread out across its surface. The Circle and the meandering texts around it looked pretty from this distance. It reminded her very much of the illuminated lettering found in the Book of Kells.

Dawn leaned against the railing. She clasped her hands together, bringing her mind into focus. Her concern for Xander and Andrew threatened to claw its way up and choke her. She forced it back down.

“I can do this,” she told herself. She went back down stairs to her books. “I can do this. For them.”

 

 

After walking Anjelica home in the storm, Andrew further braved the bitter rain, bypassing the Flat in favor of the abandoned church on Mercer Street better known to them as the Temple of the Sisters.

A nervous fluttery feeling filled him as he opened the buckled plywood door using the same knock spell he’d used before. He entered the bleak cavern of the chapel. He unshouldered his pack and lighted a compact, highly portable oil-burning lantern he had taken from Watcher Headquarters.

He held up the steady glowing lamplight to take in his surroundings. The Temple looked as it had before with its water stains and dismal matting of cobwebs. The slate-tiled roof did very little to keep out the rain. The constant, almost musical sound of the dripping kinda creeped him out.

But here he was, and he was determined. He refused to back down now.

Andrew walked purposefully to the center of the chapel. He found a relatively flat area, knelt and started to unpack. His gear reminded him of the list of murder weapons in a game of Clue: a crimson candle, a hunk of chalk, a silk rope, a spell book, a silver knife. He also laid out a slab of turkey jerky wrapped in foil, a packet of Jaffa Cakes and a Granny Smith apple pre-cut into eight equal slices. He knew he would be there for a while. Wouldn’t do to wuss out over a growly belly.

Andrew unwrapped the jerky, tore into it carnivore-style. While he chewed, his lip curling into a sneer, he took out the chalk. Over the slick flagstones, Andrew inscribed a circle within a larger circle. He bisected the inner circle, then added the proper ornamentation at each pole – a waning crescent moon north and full moon south.

He was careful to keep himself out of the circle while he inscribed. Doing that could throw the whole thing out of whack. He needed it in whack. This was something at which he would only have one go. Once the circle was complete, he arranged his objects. He bunched the silk rope in a figure-eight loop on the right side. He placed the crimson candle to his left. He sat cross-legged in his position just below the full moon – the current lunar phase – and waited.

Not patiently. Patience was not an Andrew virtue. But he waited nonetheless, in a cold, dank place with a spell book across his knees and raindrops dripping like something out of a country song into fattening puddles around him.

At midnight, he lit his candle and began the chant of conjuration.

 

 

“You have to, Maya,” Willow said. “Let Freddie go. We’ll do the clean up.”

Maya shook her head vehemently. “He’ll kill us,” she said, panting. “I can’t let him go.”

The doorbell buzz blared, jarring them all.

“What the bloody hell was that?” William called back to them.

Maya closed her eyes. “He’s here, he’s here,” she chanted. Her bird-bright demeanor eroded before their eyes.

“She’s lost it,” Willow said.

William heard a skittering sound in the ceiling, like rats in the ventilation ducts. “Find it, Red,” he said. “There’s something here.”

Willow kicked the monitor so that it faced her. A message window popped up.

Hello Maya Welcome Home.

A smile quirked the corner of Willow’s mouth. “He’s using the computer,” she said. “I can get him out.”

“Don’t,” Maya said. Her voice had changed. There was metal underneath her Texas twang. “You going in may hurt Xander.” She held out the looking glass to Willow. “Take it,” she said. “Be ready. When I speak the words, he’ll fly at you like a mad red wasp.”

Willow felt an upwelling of power the moment she touched the Looking Glass.

The computer screen flashed:

What R U doing, Maya?

Maya swallowed. “Neteru ce’eth,” she said. “Let the prisoner be released.”

The ceiling fell through like sodden paper, hemorrhaging a heavy gush of tepid water that washed over William and broke like a filthy wave at the counter. Willow and Maya screamed. William swore. Xander and Freddie landed with a splash in the center of the room. Xander, being human, flailed about in half-blind panic.

Freddie bounced. He descended on Maya in a flash. She froze, going to her knees. He seized her face, putting his thumbs to her eyelids. William, still spitting out floodwater, tackled Freddie, dragging him into the deluge. Freddie writhed, seeming to have more limbs than an aspen. He clawed William’s face with glassy black nails. William dunked Freddie’s head under the water.

Willow leapt from the counter to help Xander right himself. He spluttered and coughed.

“Willow!” he said. “Always glad to see you. But today, especially so.” He slipped on a book and took another splash. He had lost his eye patch and spent much of his energy trying to hide the gaping hole where his eye used to be.

Freddie fought above the surface, scratching and biting. William immersed him again.

Maya yelled, “Now may be a fair time to mention: Freddie can control electricity.”

Willow lifted Xander. “To the counter, before he can charge...” They bolted. Willow and Xander clambered up just as Freddie zapped William. The pulse deafened them like a sonic boom. Willow, Xander and Maya huddled as the magnesium-bright burst rocked the room. When it cleared, William was still standing, hands gripping firmly to the sleeves of Freddie’s flannel coat.

“What are you?” Freddie gasped.

William enjoyed this part of it. He wrapped his hands around Freddie’s throat, ready to make a clean break. He said, “I’m the guy who’s sending you to hell.”

“No, don’t kill him!” Maya cried.

“What?” William and Xander said in accord.

“Don’t kill him. He’s already dead. Sort of. Killing him gives him an all access pass to Demon Land – which is exactly what he wants.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Freddie said. His voice warbled in his throat. “She’s lying. I don’t want to die. I’m not any of the things she’s told you. I’m just a guy. And she’s a jealous, controlling hoax. You’ve set me free. Please don’t kill me.”

Maya shook her head. “No. Not true. I gave up five years of my life to keep you from harming your coven. And they weren’t even my friends...”

“See. You kept me locked up in some parallel dimension all this time because you were envious of my power, and my friends. My job...” Freddie said.

Willow, William and Xander looked back and forth like Ping-Pong spectators.

Maya said, “You were a dishwasher at my parent’s restaurant until we came here. Then – on the dole.”

“My other job,” Freddie said. “Remember. Demon fighting?”

“Yes. You fought demons,” Maya said. “Then Luxe came along and made his Godfather offer.”

“Luxe?” William said. The name rang with familiarity. He cast a sideways glance at Willow and Xander. Freddie saw it as an opportunity to attack. William pushed him down by the forehead, holding him at arm’s length like a bitey puppy.

“No one’s buying your victim act,” William said. “Can I kill him now?”

“Fine,” Freddie seethed. “You’ll all be damned. Maya bears the mark of a curse. You tie your ways with her, you will all suffer. Underneath, she’s all thorns.”

“He’s lying,” Xander said finally. “He told me, in Alice. He said I’d witness his real power.” He turned to Maya. “All this time you thought you were holding him prisoner.”

William shook Freddie roughly. “You are a real piece of work, aren’t you?” he said.

“What do we do with him?” Xander said.

Maya looked up, tears brimming in her eyes. “Alice wants him back,” she said. “Let her have him.”

“No,” Freddie said, desperately.

“Think we have a winner,” Willow said.

Freddie wrenched free from William.

“Get him!” Willow shrieked.

Freddie leaped from bookshelf to column with the agility of a feral fox. He seemed to draw heat from the air, coalescing it in the palms of his hands. He aimed for Maya. Willow deflected. The energy rebounded like ball lightning, shredding shelves, filling the air with acrid smoke.

“He’s getting away,” Willow called out.

“No he’s not,” William said. He swung up to a shelf. Freddie zapped again, leaving a burning hole in the counter beneath Xander’s feet.

Maya’s eyes rolled back to the whites. She wavered. Xander caught her. He heard a tiny susurrus noise in her throat.

“Maya?” he said.

Her eyes rolled forward, first the right and then the left. “Get to the door,” she said. “Quick.”

“To the door!” Xander barked. He and Willow collected Maya. Freddie jumped to the counter, getting behind them. William followed with a swift, heavy boot to the head. Freddie sprawled, collided with the monitor and tumbled behind the counter.

“Spike,” Willow yelled.

The glass in the windows bulged inward. The wood wainscoting moaned like the creaking rigging of a ship. William vaulted from the counter, splashing across the room as the walls buckled. The building was folding in on itself like an origami bookstore. The floor came up to meet William’s face.

“Alice is coming,” Maya said, frantic. “Get him out. She’ll take him with her.”

Spike clawed up the swiftly tilting floor. Filthy water and clumps of wet paper mash spattered his body. He could hear the grinding, popping sound of something big consuming pipe and wood and sheet rock. His boots squelched, useless on the slick floor. This Alice bird was tearing the place apart and he was next.

“Bollocks,” he shouted. “I’m being eaten alive by a blighting bookshop.”

Xander’s hand gripped William’s forearm. “No you’re not,” he said. He hauled William forward. The boards beneath his feet ground to sawdust. Behind them, Freddie began to wail. Vivid bursts of violent light shook the air. William kicked, gained ground, then barreled into the three of them. They tumbled from the bookstore to the street just as the front windows caved in. There was a kind of rewinding crunch sound. Then the whole place gutted itself leaving only its empty outer facade.

The four of them remained still, panting and stunned, for a long while. Xander started to laugh. William and Willow followed suit.

“That guy was such a punk,” Xander said. “I don’t know what you saw in him.”

Maya put her head down. “You guys were amazing,” she said. “And not at all normal. Also, does this count as an Act of God for insurance purposes. Fairly certain Act of Demon is not listed in my policy. And...”

She looked up. The sky blanched with the first hints of sunrise. Fringy clouds tinged pink feathered their way over the rooftops.

“I’m free,” she said, smiling through tears. “Oh my goodness. I’m finally free.”

 

 

With his chant complete, Andrew tossed a single lighted match into the Circle. In a puff of yellow smoke, she appeared, dressed in the baby blue satin PJs he really liked a lot.

She gaped at him.

“You... conjured me?” Nighna asked, incredulous.

“Damn right,” Andrew said. “I did.”

“You could have just called,” Nighna said, eyelashes fluttering. Then she turned grave. “Andrew, this is not something one does in polite society.”

“I’m through being polite,” Andrew said. His voice kept hitching in unbearable ways, like he was a scaredy teenage boy in speech class all over again.

Nighna’s face softened. “Look at you,” she clucked. “All this borrowed bravado. Did your friends put you up to this?”

“Leave them out of this. You tried to hurt them,” he said.

“I succeeded. The humiliation on the Slayer’s face was very rewarding,” Nighna said. She stepped toward him.

He brandished his silver knife, but she didn’t flinch.

“Hey,” he said. “I conjured you. I get to be Mr. Talking Guy. You get to be Shutting Up Girl. Woman. Demon.”

Nighna curtsied playfully.

“Why?” Andrew asked. Not playfully.

“Why what, Mr. Wells?” Nighna said. Another step forward.

“Why did you want me? Why am – was – I your target?”

Nighna moved smoothly to the edge of the circle. “Would they have you believe you are devoid of desirable qualities?

“You’re a Kimaris,” he said, retreating. “You’re up to your proboscises in plans.”

“Actually, only the males have proboscis,” Nighna corrected.

“I liked you,” Andrew said. “You used me.”

“I like you still, Andrew,” Nighna said. She reached for him, but an invisible barrier blocked her, caging her inside.

Andrew looked and felt smug. “What are your plans?” he ordered, surprised by the firmness in his tone.

“I’m not going to share,” she said. “But if you would like to engage in some torture, I’m game. I am fond of flagellation.”

“Go flagellate yourself,” he said.

“Andrew,” Nighna purred. “Sweet boy. The whole world is doomed this time. The Slayers and Vampires are going to war it out. When they do, they’ll leave behind a shell. A burned out husk. You can conjure demons, and I bet I’m not too far off in guessing you know a thing or a thousand about crossing the borders between dimensions. That is why I want you.”

Andrew watched Nighna’s deep well eyes. He was aware of her drawing him in. He could feel himself falling, inching forward. The candle guttered, drawing his attention. He snapped back to himself.

“Hold it right there, Uhuru,” he said. “You can’t draw me in with flowery lies and pie crust promises.”

Nighna bent her head forward. “Then maybe with this,” she said. “What I have for you is real. Whatever it is. I think of you. And I hoped you would find me, so we could chat this out. And, see? I have this...”

She held up her hand, revealing his Scooby watch secured to her wrist.

“I wear it always,” she said, quietly. “Keeps you near.”

Andrew’s arm shot out, seizing her throat. He laid the blade to the artery with a shockingly steady hand.

“I murdered my best friend,” he said. “Don’t think I won’t put this knife through your breast bone.”

Nighna’s blood raced. “This,” she said, excited. “This is what I saw in you. Just under the surface lurks a well of rage and hate and strength. You have such potential; a cub with real teeth. You just need someone to show you.”

She smoothed her hand over Andrew’s face, then traced her fingers down her neck.

“Show me,” he said, slipping into a trance state.

“I can show you,” Nighna said. She glanced down. Andrew’s toes had breached the chalk circle he had drawn. It was almost too easy. She enfolded him into her arms, and they disappeared.

 

Chapter Text

Triangle

 

When you need direction,

I’ll be your guide.

When you feel embarrassed,

I’ll be your pride.

For all times.

For all times.

Passenger Seat – Death Cab for Cutie

 

Buffy wandered into the kitchen. Dawn scribbled on a pad, turned the page over, scribbled more.

“If that’s regular school work, you should definitely get an A,” Buffy said.

Dawn jumped up from her chair. “You. Are awake. And making jokes,” Dawn said. “Awake and joke making, which I guess means you’re feeling better.”

Buffy gave a sleepy smile. “I am feeling better. And I wasn’t joking,” she said. She took a seat next to Dawn’s and turned the text toward her. “More stuff about the Circle?”

Dawn lingered behind her chair. She said, “I could fix you some oatmeal. We have the kind with fruit. Little brown sugar and butter.”

Looking up, Buffy said. “Yeah. Okay.”

None of the writing in Dawn’s book made any sense to Buffy. Seen one demon hieroglyph, you’d seen them all. Dawn busied herself at the counter, vigorously tearing open the packet of oatmeal, adding water, then vigorously stirring.

“What’s up?” Buffy said.

Dawn tucked her hair behind her ears. “I’m up,” she said. “Been up... oh, seventeen hours straight and getting nothing but a silly line like something from a children’s folk story.”

“What’s the line?”

The Rose, The Key and The Willow Tree,” Dawn said. She moved fluidly from the counter to the microwave. “Way I figure it, I’m the Key. Willow’s the Willow Tree. The Rose is... Completely elusive possible figment of my exhausted brain. Except that Tara told Willow.”

“Tara,” Buffy repeated. “I saw her, too.”

Dawn spun around. “You did?”

“While I slept. Tara showed me Stonehenge and said the Circle is complete. All we need to do is wake it,” Buffy said.

“What does that even mean, wake it? Like it’s living?” Dawn said.

Buffy said, “Isn’t it a school day? Don’t you have classes?”

Dawn sat down. She took Buffy’s hands. “I’m not going.”

Buffy started to protest, but Dawn cut in. She said, “I’m not going, because Xander’s in trouble.”

“Xander?” Buffy said. She glimpsed around the kitchen, looking lost.

“It’s this big long story, Buffy. But they left...”

“They? All of they?”

“Well, Willow and Spike. Andrew took Anjelica home. Now he’s gone too,” Dawn said.

The timer on the microwave dinged. Dawn sprung up, hoping to hide the worry lines she knew must be showing on her face.

“And you’ve been waiting up,” Buffy said.

“Been useless, is more like. At one point, I fell asleep and dreamed the Boobahs were the Big Bad. Very vivid, very horrible nightmare,” Dawn said. She brought the bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with sugar. “But as far as the Circle and the giant riddle-slash-puzzle, nothing. I’ve got nothing. And, by the way, no reference at all to Thellian. But, I’ll keep looking.”

Buffy stirred the oatmeal in her bowl. Then, she put down her spoon. “Dawn,” she said. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

With that, the Scooby gang burst boisterously through the front door.

 

 

 

Andrew was had.

He awoke in a familiar bed, beneath familiar gunmetal gray sheets. Familiar brown arm looped over his chest. Well-known splash of ropy black hair in his face. And he felt like an all-over-body bruise.

“Oh boy,” he whispered.

He thought, Maybe I’m dreaming. He bit his tongue.

“Ow,” he said, tasting blood. Not dreaming. Not good.

Andrew slid soundlessly from the bed. He found his shorts by the door. He put them on right away, then crept from Nighna’s bedroom. His turtleneck was on the stairs. Pants in the foyer. Shoes... He looked around for his shoes. Impossible for them to be upstairs, seeing as he had lost his pants down here.

Andrew pressed his hands to his face. He could feel his stomach doing the twist. He always did have a puny constitution. He decided to just leave the shoes, walk home without them. People who did shameful things often went shoeless.

Andrew opened his eyes. He saw an odd mark on his wrist, which at first he took for a bruise. When he lowered his hands, he saw more clearly that it was drawn there. It was a triangle, with a reverse triangle within it. And inside that, a lidless eye. It looked like charcoal, but when Andrew tried to smear it off with his thumb, no smudgy. Super creepy.

He slipped on his pants in the foyer, then tugged the turtleneck over his head. In the room adjacent, he heard the feathery stirring of Nighna’s pet, Clarisse. She was a Mynah. She was Nighna’s Mynah. She was nice enough, as birds went, but hyper smart and wicked noisy. Andrew got out of there before Clarisse could wake the whole house, namely Nighna.

He was outside on the stoop before he felt something heavy in his pocket. Expecting maybe a human jawbone or a stolen precious gem, Andrew put his hand slowly into the pocket. What he withdrew was neither gross nor contraband.

It was the Scooby watch.

Andrew slipped it back into the pocket. He trudged home barefoot, feeling like the most ginormous palooka on the planet. What slammed him was the thought of what Dawn would say when she found out. She was going to flay him skinless and make lamps from his hide. Then, whenever people came to visit, she would turn on the lamp and say, “This is my ex-friend Andrew. He’s much brighter now than he was when living.”

 

 

Dawn and Buffy met the others in the entry hall. Maya and Xander leaned on one another, with William and Willow on the outside to support them both. They were dripping and gunky, but uninjured save for the odd scuffmark. Dawn sailed in, tackling Xander with a near frantic hug.

“You did it,” she cried. “You saved Xander. I knew you would.”

Xander swayed under the added weight of Dawn. He persisted in covering his bare eye with the palm of his hand. That part of him was not something he wanted to share with anyone, least of all Maya.

“Actually,” Willow said. “It was a bit of rescue all around. Things got a little crazy in there.”

“Buffy,” Xander said, half-choked by Dawn’s embrace. “This is Maya. Maya, Buffy.”

Maya actually curtsied. Buffy thought she was the cutest thing since buttons on underwear. Whatever that meant.

“It’s nice to finally meet you,” Buffy said. “And hear of you...”

Dawn released Xander. She flicked him on the ear.

“Ow,” he whined. “What was that for?”

“Stupid. We were worried to almost death. You’ve been gone for hours and hours. No call, no magics-o-gram. You could have been in a ditch somewhere. Don’t get me started on Andrew,” Dawn said. Willow steered them all toward the kitchen so that Xander could sit down. He made a good show of not showing it, but Willow knew that Xander had sustained deeper wounds from the fall than he let on.

“That was my fault,” Maya said, following them. “Freddie fried my phone when he thought I was flirting with the pizza delivery guy. Also, time differential.”

Buffy remained behind in the entry hall. William stayed as well.

“How are you?” William asked, after a long time of studying her.

“Fine,” she said. “Better.”

William made a move in her direction. The door opened behind them.

“Bollocks,” he mumbled.

Kennedy stepped inside. She gave them an obligatory get-a-room glower before she started removing her muddied boots.

Dawn darted around the corner. “Andrew?” she said.

“Sorry to disappoint,” Kennedy answered. She moved her limbs with leaden tiredness. “Just a Slayer. Returning from Slayer duty. You remember what that’s like.”

Buffy cut her eyes at Kennedy. She said, “You know, I really don’t need your attitude. I have my own.”

Kennedy tossed her boots aside. She crossed the room, almost strutting. William and Dawn both moved to get in her way. “You look like you’ve seen better days,” Kennedy said. “I think you...”

Willow entered the hallway. “Kennedy,” she said, sternly. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” Kennedy said, holding up her hands. “Up to bed for me. The twins have the school for the day. They’re in charge, since you seem pretty much housebound these days.” She tromped up the stairs, making sure that everyone below her knew she was there.

Willow’s mouth dropped open. “Is she always like that?”

Buffy leaned on the banister. “Usually. But that was particularly venomous.”

“Just say the word,” William growled. “One word. One less Slayer.”

“Spike, you can’t solve all your problems by killing people,” Dawn said.

“Right. I know it. But,” William sighed. “She could do with a caning, that one.”

Willow looked miserable. “No. I’ll talk to her. Something’s eating her, I can tell.”

Once Willow had gone upstairs, Dawn, Buffy and William joined Maya and Xander in the kitchen. Xander launched into the retelling portion of the whole Alice-Freddie-Looking Glass tale. Buffy sat close to William, still feeling muzzy and distant.

Dawn leaned over. She whispered, “You were going to tell me something?”

“Yeah,” Buffy said. William eyed her expectantly. But Buffy faltered. “Yes. Just, I wanted to tell you how proud I am of you, working like you have. That’s all.”

William pursed his lips. But he crossed his little finger over hers. She figured that meant he at least understood.

 

 

Andrew could hear Xander’s jocular masculine narrative in the kitchen when he slipped in. Andrew guessed that meant all had gone well with the Maya mission. He inched the door closed, making sure that the catch made the tiniest snick sound he could manage. After that, he crept upstairs.

No one noticed him come in.

That, he knew, was for the best.

 

 

Later, when twilight waned to the half-light of evening, William found Buffy in the garden, filling the pockets of her jacket with stakes.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“I’m going on patrol,” she said, sounding perturbed that he would ask such an obviously nonsensical question.

“Oh no you’re not,” he said.

Buffy scoffed. He saw the look in her eyes, the you’re-gonna-try-and-stop-me look.

Maintaining her frosty veneer, she said, “I have to patrol, William. It’s a destiny calls kind of deal.”

She moved to step around him. He blocked her way to the door.

“Let the others take tonight’s patrol,” he said. “No one expects you to go out.”

Buffy shook her head, resolute. “No,” she said. “I need to get back out there. If I miss again, they’ll suspect something is up.”

“Something is up,” he snapped.

She pushed past him, opening the door. He slammed it shut. The windowpane split beneath his hand, tracing a deep slash across his palm.

“Oh, that is great, William,” she said. “Think a little display of violence will get me to change my mind? Hey, while I’m at it, let me slip into a burka and stand barefoot in the kitchen.”

William squeezed his wounded hand. Tiny storms of pain bloomed then faded as the gash healed before their eyes.

“You are not going,” he said. His voice trembled.

“Yes I am. I don’t need you or anyone else coddling me.”

Buffy wrenched the door open, ducking under his arm. She was leaving. He was losing her.

“I’m scared, Buffy,” he said.

She halted. She closed the door again. Without turning, she said, “What do you have to be afraid of? You’re Mr. Invincible.”

He was disgusted. He gripped her shoulders and turned her bodily to face him.

“You think that’s what this is? Some chauvinistic hold-over from the 19th century?” William said. He blinked to hide the meniscus of tears in his eyes. “You daft, insensitive girl. I’m invulnerable. You’re not.”

Buffy shoved him away. She struck out blindly across the grassy backyard – so not the way she intended to go – ignoring the dewy grass burs that clung to her pants legs. William followed for half the distance, but stopped when she came to rest.

He said, “Buffy, I’ve never had more to lose. So you go out there tonight. Get yourself in a tussle. Have you considered what would happen if some random vampire lands a lucky kick to your belly? Have you thought about what it would do to you?”

Buffy’s throat felt dry and achy. She said, “I haven’t thought that far.”

“Don’t you think you should?” he countered.

Buffy’s fingers went numb. She clenched both fists over her breastbone and squeezed, trying to drown out the sound of his voice in her ears. She heard his footfalls slowly working his way toward her through the weedy yard. It was nearly October and already shivery cold. Evening light had changed. The elms from the park behind the Flat had blown papery brown leaves into their garden. She wondered, absurdly, whether Londoners would soon be thinking about snow.

She looked down through tears at her knuckles clenched to white. “What if it’s too late?” she said, voice scarcely more than a whisper.

“No,” he said. So sure.

Buffy covered her face with her hands. “But we’ve already been in so many fights. And that time I sparred with Kennedy. That was before we even knew, so how can we know...?”

William slipped his arms around her from behind. She stiffened momentarily, but lacked the energy to go another round.

“How do we know?” she asked again. Her voice had gone croaky, which she hated, which only made it worse. “What chance do you think we have?”

“We just...” he began.

“You. Me. We can’t be parents. It’s... ludicrous.”

“Nature has other ideas about that, pet,” he said.

Buffy closed her eyes. She struggled to keep her thoughts inside, struggled to swallow them down. It was as though speaking them made them more true.

But she said it anyway.

“Slayers don’t make good moms,” she said. “You know that.”

William slid his face into the bend of her neck. “Buffy,” he said, caressing her skin with the sound of her name. “Buffy, death is not your only gift.”

She dissolved against him. She was all blurry and mixed up. He was wrong. Had to be wrong. She broke free, stumbling forward.

“Yeah?” she said, furious now. She just wanted to hit him, to beat the rational certainty out of him. Why couldn’t he understand that all of this not knowing was driving her insane? “Tell that to Tara. And Anya. Hell, tell it to you. I am the Slayer, William. I’m on borrowed time. I will never live to see my 25th birthday, and you know it. So why want what’s impossible? Why want what can only bring pain?”

William winced. “Pain,” he said. The word resonated between them like an auditory afterimage.

Buffy turned away, this time with less conviction.

“I’ll go,” William said, near pleading. “Just for tonight. We can go together tomorrow. Just take care of yourself. Give yourself one more night to heal.”

“I’m not wounded,” Buffy said.

“Rot,” William said. “Emotional scars are hardest to heal. No one can understand the damage but you. No one else can see it.”

Buffy’s vision doubled, then trebled. She wavered, on the verge of caving. He sensed it, of course.

“Just for tonight,” he said.

Buffy scanned the ground. The sparkling grass, the rows of herbs and plants William had planted, it was still green. The frost had killed all the lawns in London but theirs. Buffy resigned herself. She put her hands in her pockets.

“All right,” Buffy agreed. She turned to face him, but did not look at his face. “You’ll need these,” she said, passing the stakes from her pockets to his open hands.

William took them. He brushed her forehead with his lips. “Get some rest,” he said.

He left her standing in the garden, where she remained until the color drained from the sky and the warmth left the ground. Sunset fell faster in London. She could measure the difference between light and dark by mere minutes. In Sunnydale, the light seemed to linger for hours even on the deepest winter nights. Or maybe that was her naive remembrances returning to haunt her. Either way, here she stood in sudden darkness, stripped of her weapons. Besides, she thought, what use were arms in a place like this?

Inside, the telephone rang.

Buffy went in. She picked up the receiver.

Long pause, then, “Buffy?”

It was the one voice that always sent her spiraling.

She answered. “Angel.”

 

 

Thank you for this bitter knowledge.
Guardian angels who left me stranded.
It was worth it, feeling abandoned.
Makes one hardened but what has happened to love?
You got me writing lyrics on postcards.
Then in the evening looking at the stars,
But the brightest of the planets is Mars.
Then what has happened to love?
So I will opt for the big white limo.
Vanity fairgrounds and rebel angels,
Who can't be trusted with feathers so hollow.
Your heaven's inventions: steel-eyed vampires of love.
You see over me; I'll never know
What you have shown to other eyes.
Go or go ahead and surprise me.
Say you've lead the way to a mirage.
Go or go ahead and just try me.
Nowhere's now here smelling of junipers.
Fell off the hay bales, I'm over the rainbows.
But oh Medusa, kiss me and crucify,
This unholy notion of the mythic power of love.
Look in her eyes, look in her eyes.
Forget about the ones that are crying.
Look in her eyes, look in her eyes.
Forget about the ones that are crying.
Go or go ahead.

Go, or go ahead – Rufus Wainwright

 

Thellian perched The Histories in his fingers, reading aloud for Morna while they waited for Lalaine to finish dressing.

“Hence,” he read, “As the wind did not abate, he was carried on to the coast, when he went ashore, landing at the Salt-Pans, in that mouth of the Nile which is now called the Canobic. At this place there stood upon the shore a temple, which still exists, dedicated to Heracles. If a slave runs away from his master, and taking sanctuary at this shrine gives himself up to the god, and receives certain sacred marks upon his person, whosoever his master may be, he cannot lay hand on him.”

Morna cooed at him from the chaise. Across the room, Lalaine snuffed the candles with bare fingers. She wore a dress of translucent gold silk that flowed and rustled around her like wrapping paper.

“You know she understands nothing of what you just read,” Lalaine said. She glided across the marble tiles to scan the page over his shoulder.

“Matters not,” Thellian said. He smoothed Morna’s brittle hair from her forehead. “It’s all in the tone. Besides, I believe she comprehends more than we know. You are breathtaking.”

“Of course she does,” Lalaine clucked. “And you have no breath to take. But thank you, anyway.” Morna flapped her fingers excitedly, humming to herself like a dove.

Thellian snapped the book closed. “Daylight’s almost gone. Shall we?”

“Hmm,” Lalaine said. “Celebration.” She savored the word, drawing out each syllable. She folded herself into his lap, pouring her arms around him.

“Our first phase is complete, Lalaine,” Thellian said. His eyes glinted like a falcon’s. “The world has already changed. Angel is days away from breaking. Once he understands his part in the Circle, he will take care of anyone who wishes to oppose us. All we need do now is wait.”

“To delegation,” she said. She tilted her head. The curtain of her hair parted, flowing on either side of the perfect slender column of her neck.

Thellian dragged his tongue over the cold flesh, breathing in the funeral flower scent of her skin.

“I’ll drink to that,” Thellian said.

 

 

Scaffolding masked the facade of the Royal London Hotel. The courtyard, which had a month ago possessed only a dumped sofa the color of rotten guacamole and three dust-choked chinaberry trees, now boasted an arbor adorned with white twinkle lights, a winding walkway paved with imported river stones and a gurgling fountain stocked with yellow koi.

Buffy pushed through the double doors, then froze. These were the same splintery side doors through which they had bundled Angel when they found him, but the ruined husk of hotel was gone. It its place was an exquisite grand ballroom. A double staircase of white marble dominated the far end of the room. Where the skylight had been, a gold and crystal chandelier dripped from the ceiling. On her right, the front desk and cocktail bar swept in an elegant curve along the wall. A stage slept behind ruby velvet curtains to the left. She imagined she could hear a nostalgic tune played on the piano, just soft enough to underscore the high-brow conversations of future patrons in the bar.

Buffy drifted through the lobby, drinking in the ivory and marble, the white damask upholstered chairs, luscious red roses swimming in sparkling cut glass bowls. The decor sang the subtle symphony of Angel’s style – a bizarre blend of Japanese-meets-Victorian-meets-Manhattan. She sensed him in every fabric swatch and carpet sample.

“It’s not much, but it’s home,” Angel said.

Buffy turned slowly, seeking his form in the shadows. She never cared much for his hiding games.

“You’ve outdone yourself, Angel,” she said. “All this, and you still have time to save the world?”

Angel moved from the darkened space under the stairs. “It’s a pet project. I’m draining every possible Wolfram & Hart resource to restore the place. You should see the upstairs. Opulence the likes of which the Russians would envy,” he said. He tucked one hand casually in his pocket. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Buffy glanced away. She could smell the roses. Their saccharine scent made her stomach turn.

“Angel, you said on the phone,” she began.

“I know I did,” Angel said. He took five steps in her direction, then came to a stop. She kept a watchful eye on him. Something about his movements felt calculated, like he had mapped out his side of the conversation in advance.

“You have information about Thellian?” she asked. Straight cut through to business always served her well.

Angel frowned darkly. She had seen that look before.

“Do not start, Angel,” she said. “I am only here because you said you needed help.”

“I guess you’re done then?” he said, turning the declaration into a question.

“Done?”

“Baking. Cookie Buffy,” Angel said. He chuckled. “You’re done.”

“I guess I better be,” she muttered, mostly to herself.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Buffy said. She fidgeted with the leather lapel of her coat. “Look. Angel. What is it?”

Angel gave her a lopsided grin. “I just want to know about you,” he said. He swallowed. “How you are.”

“I’m fine,” Buffy said, not concealing her impatience. “You called because...”

Angel interrupted, “What do you see in him?”

Buffy made a derisive sound. “You mean apart from his unswerving devotion?”

“Yeah. Apart from that,” he said. The humor bled from his face.

“Well, it helps that he’s a bad ass,” Buffy said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Angel said. He advanced swiftly down the steps into the waiting area where she stood. She held her ground, but shifted uncomfortably as he approached.

“It means he’s there with me. Every day. Fighting by my side. He’s there, Angel.”

Angel’s brow furrowed. “Don’t do that, Buffy,” he said. “You asked me to leave.”

She rounded on him. “Not the first time. You left, and it killed me.”

“But the second time, when you were battling the First. You were the one who told me to go,” Angel countered.

Adrenaline pumped in her blood, quickening her anger. “You think I didn’t try with him?” Buffy said. “You think I didn’t push him away? But he kept coming back. Stronger. Not even death...”

“Well pardon my surprise, Buffy,” Angel spat. “I didn’t get that the way to your heart was to become co-dependent Stalker Boy.”

“Would you stop?” Buffy said, half-turning to go.

“You’re settling,” Angel said, changing his course.

“Settling?” Buffy said. She faced him again.

“That’s right.”

“You make it sound like a packet of bran flakes. ‘Contents may settle.’ It isn’t like that,” she said.

“Ah, but it is,” Angel said, tone suddenly acetic. “Emphasis on the flakes.”

Buffy set her jaw. “That is enough,” she said.

“I would say it is,” Angel said.

Buffy gestured around the ballroom. “You know, I don’t think I need a lecture on settling from Mr. Better Crypts and Coffins.”

“You love me,” Angel said.

A stab of pain struck her heart. “I do,” she said. “Doesn’t mean we get to be together.”

“It should,” he said. He hazarded another step in her direction.

“We can’t,” Buffy said, quietly. “You know we can’t.”

“I think we should try,” Angel said.

Buffy retreated. “You choose now to try? You come in with this ‘him or me’ edict and expect me to react how?” she said. Her throat closed around the words, choking her.

“Do you love him?” Angel said.

Buffy said, “It is none of your concern. But you asked, so I’m telling,” Buffy said. Her cheeks flushed. She felt stronger with every word she spoke. “His pulse quickens when I touch him,” she said.

“Buffy…” Angel said.

“No. No, let me. He cheats at soccer. He secretly likes Joni Mitchell. He knows about the fish in peanuts,” Buffy laughed. “And if you give him a chance – half a chance – he’ll surprise you. Every time. What I have with him, it’s solid and real. I can trust it. Why would you want to take that from me?”

“It’s Spike,” Angel said, biting out the name.

“It’s not,” Buffy said. “Spike died in LA. This is William. This is what he may have been, had he never met you.”

“He slept with Harmony,” Angel mumbled, flippantly.

Buffy held up her hands. “You know what? I’m sick of this. You really don’t change, do you?” She turned again to leave, then whirled on him. “I did not come to rehash our breakups and unsettled scores. You know what we’re up against. You know how dangerous it is for us to meet you. You told me you needed help.”

Angel’s eyes clouded. “I do need help.”

“Help with what?” Buffy said, impatience percolating.

“I’m slipping, Buffy,” Angel said. He sunk both his hands into his pockets. “I need... I need to know that there’s a place for me in your life. That there can be something for us beyond the epic struggle. Please, say that we can have something.”

Buffy winced. “I... can’t,” she said.

“Why not?” Angel seized her arms. He pulled her tightly to him. “Tell me why.”

Buffy felt herself slipping into the force of his embrace. It was an involuntary motion, like a comet drawn into a black hole. She fought back, but he held her still.

“You have a monster inside you, Angel. Something within that hates me enough to kill me,” Buffy whispered. “Hatred is what we have, and it will destroy us both. When I kissed you, it felt like the world was ending.”

“Save me,” he said. She felt the cold firmness of his mouth brush against her lips.

Buffy pulled away. “I’m trying,” she said. “Come with me. Leave this place. Maybe Willow can...”

“Not her,” Angel said, voice etched with bitterness. “It’s you, Buffy.”

“It can’t be me,” Buffy said. “Please. Angel.”

Angel encircled her once more, dragging her in with his terrible gravity. She sagged against the strength of his arms.

“Please... don’t,” she said.

Angel opened his eyes. He released her. He stared into her face for a long, long time.

“Go,” he said, turning aside to let her leave.

Buffy felt a catch unclasp within her heart at the utterance of that one syllable.

She left Angel behind in his stately castle. Buffy felt at first a numb devastation – a winter’s grieving for summer days lost. But with every step that brought her nearer to home, she felt a dawning sureness. Soon, she was running with the bracing wind combing tangles into her hair. Buffy knew, and understood: Her strength had returned.

 

 

William hammered on the pansy purple front door of a High Street brownstone. After a few moments of door abuse, he heard the flat’s lone inhabitant complaining to himself in an absurd and slightly slurred fake Jewish accent.

A klog is mir,” he said, twisting a series of deadbolts and unlatching locks. “Hold the cannoli. Any schmendrik out this late needs a few extra lochs in the kup.”

The unsliding of bolts ceased, followed by a prolonged silence. Presumably caused when the tenant finally took a peek through the peeper.

William tapped his boot on the sidewalk.

At last, the door swung inward.

Lorne, properly swizzled, toasted William with his fishbowl martini glass.

“I was wondering when you’d pop by,” Lorne said, sanguine lips uncharacteristically unsmiling.

William plowed past Lorne into the Austin Powers Shag Palace. Chartreuse and aquamarine carpet. Plasma screen TV the size of a helicopter pad. Fuzzy red couch upholstered in what looked like Muppet skin. And of course, black lights and neon-glow lava lamps. It was a like a Lorne suit had been dissolved in LSD then sprayed onto the walls. William had to admit it was hard to stay nervous in Elmo’s World.

“Guess you’re relishing the whole ‘not needing an invite’ these days,” Lorne said. He swirled the octane blue liquid in his glass. “Drink?”

“Piss it,” William said, shrugging. “Why the hell not?”

Lorne slunk into the kitchen. Through the cut-away bar, he called back, “Shaken. Stirred. What’s your modus operandi?”

“I’m a straight up sort these days,” William said.

“Nyeh,” Lorne answered. He poured four fingers of Jack Daniel’s into a magenta tumbler, then mixed himself another Mexican Margarita.

“I had reservations about coming here, after seeing you at Triumvirate,” William admitted.

“Figured as much,” Lorne said, forcing a lilt of lightness into his voice. “Not a card carrier of the club myself, but I am safe there.”

“Yeah? How’s that?” William asked. He ambled over to Lorne’s aquarium. It was appropriately stocked with clown fish.

“Nighna owes me a plethora of favors. And it’s never a good plan to be on the bad side of a Kimaris demon. It’s like the old saying goes, ‘No one can out Kimaris a Kimaris, except a Kimaris.’”

William stared blankly into the kitchen. Lorne, feeling the tension of a failed joke around his neck, kept up with the merry drink making.

“You know why I’m here,” William said, raising his voice a notch over the noise of the blender.

Lorne poured his drink, giving himself time, giving Spike time. Before leaving the kitchen, he closed his eyes and whispered a pseudo-prayer Tao de Ching meditation. It didn’t pack the spiritual punch of tequila, so he downed half his drink before heading back in.

“I do know why you’re here,” Lorne said. He passed the whiskey to William.

“I need to know what you saw, when I sang for you,” William said. He turned the glass absently in his fingers. “I need to know if she’s okay.”

Lorne pressed his mouth into a thin, red line. “You might want to finish that,” Lorne said, inclining his head toward the drink.

“Won’t matter if I do,” William said. But he drained the glass, wincing at the initial fire. “So.”

“So,” Lorne echoed. “Look, Spike, my empathic hoodoo is by no means infallible...”

“Let’s not mince. You saw something. I want to know,” William said.

Lorne shrugged. He took another sip. “It’s Angel,” he said. “He’s going to betray you.”

William had braced himself, but he eased up a bit. “Not exactly a monumental surprise there,” he said.

“That’s not the worst of the tsibiles and sausage,” Lorne said. “When it happens. When he does it. You have to let him.”

“Come again?” William said, deliberately obtuse.

“It’s the only way the others will know,” Lorne said. “They only way Buffy will know that...”

“That Angel’s not playing for our side,” William said. William chuckled. He stalked across the room, pacing a tight circle like a caged cat. “So, what then? I’m to wait around for Angel to act and when he does, make sure I present a target?”

“That’s the can of kidney beans,” Lorne said. He grimaced.

“Just happens to be polar opposite of my fighting style,” William said. He came to a halt. “You would know that, of course.”

Lorne kept a steady eye. “I hear what you’re saying, Spike,” he said, sounding forlorn. “But I’m not in this with Angel. I’m beholden to none since our last outing included me killing Lindsay.”

William was dumbstruck. “You did that?” he asked, feeling a sudden shift in his appraisal of Lorne.

“Pulled a gun. Pulled the trigger. So I’m out,” Lorne said. “Wicca Red’s the one who brought me back into the fold. I didn’t want to hear your soulful rendition of Buckley’s Hallelujah.”

“It’s Leonard Cohen,” William declared.

“Whatever,” Lorne said. “I heard you sing it. I got the full, techni-color picture complete with stereo-surround. Angel’s passed the point of no return. You’ll be in his way soon, if you aren’t already.”

“Well, fine,” William said. “I’m the Energizer Bunny these days. Obviously without the floppy ears and fluffy tail, but principally unkillable.”

“He finds a way,” Lorne deadpanned.

William crossed to the Muppet skin sofa. He dropped to it, heavily, all the strength leeched from his legs. He bent forward, covering his head with his arms.

Lorne hesitated, not sure what to say or do. Finally, he said, “Hey, Big Guy. Let me get you another drink.”

“Won’t help,” William said, his voice hoarse and nasally. “Part of the deluxe ‘holy vessel’ package. Imbibing spirits produces no effect.”

William raised his head. Lorne came over to sit beside him.

“I bloody well don’t know which is worse,” William said. He sighed. “Being forever on the outside meant I never knew what I was missing. But I had a clue – the barest shred – I knew it was beyond me. Forever beyond.”

William shook his head. He grew very still and contemplative. It was a side of Spike that Fred had witnessed, but one Lorne had never seen. Kinda made him ansty-dancy. “Now I’m in it. Part of something larger, you know? I have it within my grasp, what I know I have always wanted. It’s worse knowing I don’t get to see it through. It’s the perfect irony. The fitting end. It’s what I deserve, of course. After all I’ve done.”

William clenched his eyes shut. He sprung from the couch. “No. I have more than I’ve deserved,” he said. Pacing again, limbs trembling, he went on. “If this last bit has been some Jacob’s Ladder epilogue to my life, so be it. It’s worth it. It’s worth it for her and for...”

He halted, then whirled. Lorne watched him with a look of sad-clown sympathy.

“How much did you see?” William said, alarmed.

“It’s safe with me,” Lorne said. “That secret you’re keeping. You’re right to keep it. Lock it up. Build a fortress. Dig a mote. Hell, hire dragons. But keep it secret.”

“It’s important,” William realized.

“Right-o, muchacho,” Lorne said. He swilled the last of his margarita. “Big picture important.”

William felt a growing, deepening mournful ache in his chest. It was the kind of pain he used to assuage with hard liquor and bloodshed. At least he still had the patrol to look forward to. Plenty of vampires in need of solid thrashing.

It wasn’t enough.

Lorne extracted himself from the sofa. It seemed to take him a long time to do so. He raised his glass to William and said, “To life.”

“Drink to that,” William agreed.

Lorne clinked the edge of the martini bowl to William’s tumbler. When he did, William peered into both glasses. They were empty. He never put much weight in bad omens, but drinking to life from an empty cup felt like the worst kind of luck.



 

Maya watched as Xander made up the sofa bed in the seldom used front parlor with mix-matched sheets from the linen closet.

“You really don’t have to do that,” she insisted. “I can easily sleep on the couch myself. I’m a compact. Travel-sized for convenience.”

“Wouldn’t have it,” Xander said, trying and failing at the hospital corner tuckage. “You are the guest, and the guest gets the bed. Just like the Farmer in the Dell takes the wife and the cheese stands alone. It’s part of an ancient custom with which we never argue. Goes hand-in-hand with the tradition of guest towels and special glycerin soaps for company.”

“You have soap you can see through?” Maya chirped. “I love those.”

Xander grinned. He billowed the top sheet, letting it flutter over the bed.

“There,” he said, “I’m all set for a fold-a-bed night’s sleep. It’ll seem like camping.”

“You can pretend the lumps are tree roots,” Maya offered.

“No,” Xander said, waving his hand dismissively. “No lumps. Don’t be silly.”

Maya edged onto the sofa’s cool Naugahyde arm.

“So this house is really big,” she said. “And you all really do live here.”

“Yes, and yes. It used to be a convalescent home,” Xander told her. “Before that, it was some well-to-do family’s London address. And before that, big field full of sheep.”

Maya laughed. It was a tinkling sound, like ice in a glass of sweet tea. “Don’t you love it when places have layers of stories in it? Like, think about peeling back the corner of the wallpaper in a place like this. What’s underneath? And what’s under that?”

She was gripping the edge of the braided rug with her big toe as she spoke. The action, combined with the downy sway in her voice, drove him to the other side of distraction.

“I come from a place with six miles of topsoil,” she told him. “Six miles straight down, nothing but layered sediment. Geologist’s dream come true. I was wondering - could I use your phone?”

“Phone,” Xander said. He watched her petite ankle pivot to the side. “You have tiny little feet,” he said.

“I’m sorry?” Maya said.

“Phone,” Xander said again, realizing with embarrassment that she had intended her words to convey actual meaning. “Of course. Maya, you don’t even need to ask.”

She edged from the sofa, wringing her hands. “It’s just. Overseas calls. I didn’t want to presume.” Halfway across the room, she paused. “I daydreamed this moment a thousand times in my head,” she mused, softly.

“This moment here?” Xander said, confused.

“Calling my Mom. Hearing her voice. It was five years in July. Do you think they have the same phone number?” Maya asked.

“Well, yeah. If they knew you were missing, they wouldn’t change it just in case you had a chance to send them a message,” Xander said.

“They didn’t know I was missing,” Maya said. “I sent an email a day with a full status quo report of my fabulous life with Freddie. Only it wasn’t me. It was him. So, they have no idea. What if my Mom has forgotten my voice?”

“She wouldn’t,” Dawn said, from the doorway. She held bundles of folded clothes in her arms.

Xander started. “Hey, Dawnie! Way to scare a guy skinless,” he said.

Maya didn’t want to come across as too needy, but she felt herself blinking back tears. She said, “You think she’ll know who I am if I call, right?”

“Moms don’t forget,” Dawn said. “All the little kids at Pizza Palace, you know? There can be a hundred Moms bumping around with a hundred kids, but they always know if it’s their kid who’s skinned a knee or gotten lost in the ball pen. She’ll know you, Maya.”

Maya looked reassured. “What time is it in Houston, anyway?”

Xander did the mental calculation. “It’s like 4 p.m.-ish ’round about Texas way,” he said.

“Perfect,” Maya said. She did a little stompy-foot jig reminiscent of the Snoopy dance. Xander thought he might fall over. “Where’s the phone?” she asked.

Xander grinned. “In the hall near the kitchen,” he said. As she capered from the room, he said, “Dial direct.”

When she was gone, Dawn pressed the stack of clothes onto him. “These are Buffy’s. She’s about Maya size,” Dawn said. “Have you heard from Andrew?”

Xander scratched his ear. “He’s upstairs, isn’t he?”

“What? No, he can’t be,” she said. “I mean, he would have said something to someone. Checked in with one of us?”

Xander shrugged. “I don’t know, Dawnie. I think I heard him banging around upstairs earlier. What’s up?”

Frustrated, Dawn tugged down the hem of her hoodie. “I need the Damas journal. Willow and I have gone through all the lines of text around the Circle twice each. We have to find the key to decode it. I think it might be in that book. And I think he has it.”

At that moment, a muffled crash thunked on the floor directly above them. Andrew’s bedroom.

“I don’t believe it,” Dawn said, eyes slitting like a cat’s. “He is home. I am so gonna thrash him.” she said. She stalked from the room, fists clenched on her hips.

Xander watched her pound upstairs, smiling to himself. He was glad he wasn’t on the business end of that wrath.

 

 

Dawn burst through Andrew’s door without knocking.

“All right. Where’s the Damas journal? Please do not say Giles has it...” she said. Then tread on something lumpy on the floor.

Andrew was sprawled on the carpet with an empty bottle under his arm, incessantly humming the main theme to “The A Team.” She nearly tripped over his body.

“What?” she exclaimed. “Andrew?”

He scrambled wildly to crouch behind his twin bed. “You are not supposed to be here,” he slurred. “I’m not hiding. I’m just... hiding. Please don’t turn me into a lamp.”

Dawn stepped forward. “You’re drunk,” she said, incredulous.

“No I’m not,” Andrew said, miserably. “I’m not drunk. It’s the alcohol talking.”

Dawn rounded the bed. Seeing him kneeling all mouse-like and terrified sort of bled the anger right out of her.

“Come on,” she said. “Get up.” She took the bottle from him. Sniffed it. Gagged.

“I got it from Giles’ office,” Andrew explained. “It was in a locking cabinet. I have a key. I have a key.” He wheezed a drawn-out, buzzing laugh.

“Wonderful, Andrew. Drunk on stolen booze. Really, way to go,” she said. “Get up.”

“I don’t wanna,” he said. “Up and me, not in agreement.”

Dawn got under his shoulder and hefted him. He drooled like a salted slug.

“What are you doing?” he whimpered.

“Intervening.”

Andrew dragged his feet. “No. I need this,” he said.

“Why?” Dawn asked. She was stronger than he was, but the alcohol had given him a kind of slipperiness that made him difficult to hang on to.

“Character development,” he said.

“Oh, shut up,” Dawn said. She dragged him into the bathroom. She smelled the sharp bleach scent of his shower curtain, which he washed faithfully every Tuesday, his self-declared whites day. She turned on the cold water of the en suite shower. Andrew began to flop about like a catfish caught on a trot line.

“Stop it,” Dawn shouted.

She gripped his wrist and shoved him fully clad into the icy spray.

Andrew wailed. He flapped and clawed. He tried to bite. She slapped him, knocking his glasses askew. He attempted to right them, slipped and fell, dragging her in with him.

“Damn it,” Dawn said. The ice water felt like stinging nettles on her face.

Andrew leaned against the tile wall.

“No fair,” he said.

“No fair? We don’t have time for shower frolic,” Dawn said. She shut off the showerhead, then got to her soggy feet. She held out a hand to help Andrew up. Clearly, he couldn’t make it on his own.

But Andrew remained stubbornly on the tile floor. “Everyone else has had their various addictions,” he sulked. “You’re nipping my budding alcoholism before it can shrub out.”

“That’s what friends are supposed to do,” she said. She waved her hand in his face. “Road block you before you do something stupid.”

“Too late,” Andrew admitted.

“What do you mean?” Dawn said. She eyed him suspiciously. “What did you do?”

Andrew tucked his chin to his chest. “Why am I so... the way I am?” he moaned.

Dawn shrugged. “You’re Andrew. Now get up,” she said.

He lingered a few seconds more, drunkenly considering.

“The Damas book,” Dawn said again, putting more force behind it. “We need it. And we need you. Whatever this is about, it can wait.”

“It... can’t,” he sobbed.

“Get up,” Dawn said. Losing her temper now.

Andrew reluctantly put his hands in hers. She heaved him to his bare feet. He swayed, crutching against her for balance.

“Better?” she asked.

Andrew smacked his lips. “I think...” he said.

“Good,” Dawn said. “The book. Do you have it? If so, where?”

His eyes rolled back. He tumbled forward. Dawn steadied him, but it was a close call. An inch either way, they might have had a reenactment of Hitchcock’s blood-down-the-drain scene from Psycho.

“Right. Okay. To bed you go,” Dawn said.

Dawn dragged Andrew’s limp body to the bed and slung him into it. She was going to leave him there to sour like day-old laundry, but took pity. She peeled his ripe smelling turtleneck over his head. When she did, she spied the curious mark on his wrist.

Dawn twisted Andrew’s wrist, examining the mark. She tried to smear the ink just as he had done earlier. It was more than a mere drawing; it was a demon’s brand. Not just any demon, she knew. Dawn recognized the symbol from her research. It was Kimaris.

“Oh God,” Dawn breathed. “What did you do?”

 

 

Just seeing Angel felt like a betrayal.

Buffy sneaked into the Flat, hoping to skirt possible unsettling questions from the others. To her relief, the place seemed quiet. Everyone was otherwise occupied, doing productive things.

Not as though she hadn’t done her fair share of those, Buffy thought. Then laughed at herself. Productive. Funny as in ‘Ha, ha. So not funny,’ she thought.

Upstairs, Buffy slowly stripped off her clothes. She ran the shower as hot as she could stand it, then sat on the tub’s edge, the steam building around her like banks of fog. She breathed it in, feeling the warmth of it spread across her skin.

She eased into the tub, letting the water drum down on her. Sitting with the shower running was a comfort thing, something her Mom let her do when she had a fever or a case of the blue weepies. The water raining over her had a way of coaxing out her most stubbornly oppressed feelings, where she could confront them in a safe and comfortable setting.

The most resounding emotion was shame. Not just at taking the risk to see Angel, but at the fact that William seemed more conscientious of certain facts than she did. It shamed her to realize that he understood it all better than she did.

Buffy could not look at that part of her body. She hadn’t in days, not since the little magic wand pronounced them prospective parents. Certain words lodged in her throat when she tried to whisper them to herself. Words like child, womb, conceive, mother.

Buffy combed her fingers through her hair. Water coursed down her face in a mimicry of tears. She had become huddled and impermeable again. Keeping them out. Hiding. Retreating. It was not her way, but...

What she said to him earlier reverberated in her mind. She had not thought that far ahead. In fact, she had refused to. Why want what’s impossible?

The answer swam up to her: It’s what humans do. Humans always wish for impossible things.

And with that, another truth broke in her like the last levee holding back the flood. Something inside her was not hers alone. Part of it – the child – belonged to him.

It was real. She had told Angel as much. What she had with William was real, and solid. He would stay, and they would hang on to hope with all they had.

With that epiphany came the real waterworks. Buffy hugged her knees to her chest and let it all wash over her.

 

 

Kennedy stretched her thigh muscles for a ten-count. She jogged in place, swinging her arms, puffing out her breath in what Willow called her Rocky warm-up. She had slept five hours. Plenty of re-coup time for her, fit as she was. Anticipation of the night’s raiding party had her hard-wired.

She and the girls planned to take down the last big vampire nest on the north side of town. These weren’t the average street-thug prowlers, either. They were London elite – vampire aristocracy. Angel had arranged the whole thing.

Since that first fight with Angel, she and the Slayers had been sweeping the city, clearing cemeteries, warehouses, abandoned buildings. She and Angel shared the same vision: dust them all and let Hell sort them out. London was on its way to being vamp-free well ahead of her projected schedule.

Kennedy smiled to herself. She rolled her shoulders. Loosened neck muscles. Threw a few right-hooks. Still shadowboxing, she turned to find Willow watching her.

“Yo, Adrian,” Kennedy said, faking a bad Sly accent.

Willow’s face was like stone.

“I know what you’re going to say,” Kennedy said, arching her brow. “So don’t say it, okay.”

“You need to leave,” Willow said.

“You’re asking me to leave?” Kennedy balked.

“No, I’m telling you.” Willow remained stoic and poised. “I’ll get my things from the Westbury house this week, but you need to go.”

Kennedy’s face blazed. “Because of Buffy,” she said. “You want me to go because I said some rough things to your friend and she couldn’t take it.”

Willow’s body seemed to hum with rage. “She shouldn’t have to. We’re on the same side, Kennedy. The saying goes ‘divided we fall.’ Get it?”

“I get it,” Kennedy said. She stepped up to Willow, standing toe to toe, their noses almost touching. Willow refused to budge. She could feel Kennedy’s warm breath on her lips. “You’re choosing her over me,” Kennedy said.

“I am,” Willow said.

“Fine,” Kennedy said, backing off. She raised her hands. Willow read the hurt in Kennedy’s eyes despite her best efforts to hide it. “That’s fine. I’ll go.”

At the door, Kennedy turned back. “But I’m not leaving the girls,” she said. “They need a leader. They follow me. And if Buffy doesn’t like it, she and I can sort it out over a few rounds. You can tell her that.”

Willow said nothing. She kept her mind and body calm by mentally reciting her meditations. Otherwise, she would have rattled apart like an old jalopy on a country road.

Kennedy hesitated in the doorway. “You were better in Rio,” she said, in the sullen tone of a child who hadn’t gotten everything she wanted for her birthday.

“Yeah?” Willow said. “You were better in Sunnydale.”

Kennedy stalked from the room. Willow waited until she heard the front door slam before she let herself relax.

She felt guilty, but not for throwing her out. Kennedy was gone, and all Willow felt was relief.



 

Luxe kept a sparse existence since he attached himself to Wolfram & Hart. His single occupancy room at the Park International Hotel on Cromwell contained his one travel-worn suitcase, a laptop computer and a cage that housed a cantankerous redwing blackbird named Francis. The room’s furnishings boasted a TV-set mounted to the dresser and faux watercolors by an artist named Lennox.

He had just showered and committed himself to a night of debauched television viewing, when he heard tapping on the door.

He knew who it was.

Luxe got up from the bed. He crossed to the door and opened it without checking the viewer.

Nighna swept in wearing red with a matching smug grin on her dark lips.

“Guess what I just found out,” she said, her voice smooth as chocolate mousse.

Luxe grinned. He returned to his spot on the bed and resumed his recline. “I don’t know, Nighna. Entertain me.”

“The Slayers know about the Circle,” Nighna said. She beamed.

Luxe laced his fingers behind his head. “I already know that,” he told her.

Nighna simmered. “Ah,” she said. “They know about it. But they have no idea what it does.”

Luxe shrugged. “That’s inconsequential, Nighna.”

She edged onto the dresser, blocking his view of the 9 o’clock news report, which he had been watching on mute.

“I have a mind to take what I know about the Circle to the Slayers,” Nighna said. “What kind of edge do you think they would have then, if they knew?”

Luxe waved a hand, cutting his eyes to her in a way that suggested that she was bluffing in the most ludicrous fashion. “You wouldn’t,” he said. “What could you possibly gain?”

Nighna crossed her legs at the ankles. “Nothing from them,” she said. “Something from you.”

Luxe raised up on his elbows, arching his brows. “You snared the boy, didn’t you? Your little wannabe Watcher.”

“Yes,” Nighna said. “He fell for the same tricks that bested you in Venice.”

Luxe lay back down. “I pray for his soul,” he muttered.

“Speaking of,” Nighna said. She slid from the dresser and straddled him in one Olympic gymnast moment.

Surprised though he was, Luxe kept his frigid French exterior. “You are using the Circle as a bargaining chip? Pretty pathetic, Nighna. What side are you on tonight?”

“Fine talk from you, Mr. Hedging All Bets,” Nighna said. She tightened the muscles in her thighs around his hips. “You’re playing both sides.”

“No,” Luxe said, catching her wrists. “You want a return of the Demon Age. I say our kind has squandered their time here squabbling amongst their clans, and for what? They lack foresight, my love. Just as you do.”

Nighna bent her forehead to meet his. She kissed the ridge of his brow. “Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong,” she said.

A second later, the window blew in with a deafening crash. Glass rained down like splintery confetti. Nighna and Luxe had zero reaction time before the rush of black taffeta swirled into the room. Francis was an explosion of feathers inside the confines of his cage. Nighna raised her eyes. The girl at the center of the gothic-dress-gone-bad turned her inky eyes to them. She tossed a man, whom she had been lugging like a sack of old clothes, into the corner.

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” she said.

Nighna swung her legs over Luxe’s prone body. “Oh, look sweetheart,” she said, drawing herself to full height. “It’s the Wicked Witch of the West. Too dramatic to use the stairs?”

The Priestess flicked her snarled black hair over her shoulders. “You must be the ex. I’ve heard so very little about you.”

Nighna took a step forward. “Is that what he told you we are? Ex-es?” she looked back over her shoulder at Luxe and licked her lips. “Naughty darling. It’s a bit more complicated than that.” Nighna returned her attention to The Priestess, obviously taking great pleasure in the moment. “May I say a word about the veins: Disgusting. All this supposed power, yet you can’t control what it’s done to your complexion.”

Sparks of static crackled at The Priestess’s fingertips. Nighna cocked her head to the side.

The disheveled man in the corner stirred. His body seemed to unroll like a sleeping bag.

Luxe sat up. “Who is this man, mon choux?” he asked.

“None other than Rupert Giles,” The Priestess said. She glanced quickly from Nighna to Giles, then back again.

Luxe snapped, “You were supposed to...”

“I know it,” The Priestess growled. “Witch Bitch cast a protection spell.”

Nighna giggled.

“I can unwrite it,” The Priestess said. “Until then I’ll keep him drained and unconscious.”

“Hmmm,” Nighna said. “And how will that fit in with Thellian’s plan?”

“She knows of Thellian’s plans?” The Priestess asked. Nighna thought she saw the dark wisp of a forked tongue lick out over her lips. Unattractive.

Luxe stepped around Nighna to get in between them. “She knows nothing,” he said, quietly. If he hoped Nighna would stand silently by and let him talk to this flashy yet insecure new plaything, he should have known better.

“I know more than you wish,” Nighna purred. She looked deliberately from Luxe to the blackbird, and then squarely into the obsidian pools of The Priestess’s eyes. “I could share such secrets, little cabbage. I could show you how to bring this man to his knees. I’m part of this. However it ends. Welcome to our little corner of Hell, Priestess.”

 

 

Andrew sat up abruptly, then wished he had not. Pain stabbed between his eyes. The same pain seemed connected to his stomach in a way that made him feel as though he had swallowed a gallon of liquid detergent.

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I’m gonna be sick,” he moaned.

“Don’t you dare,” Dawn said. She grabbed his trash bin, just in case.

He was sick. Surprisingly, Dawn didn’t flee to the next room. Instead, she passed a damp cloth to him.

“Want some water?” she asked.

He dabbed his mouth. “No,” he said, weakly. He set the bin aside.

“You need water. I just read online that the headache you get from over-indulgence in alcohol is caused by dehydration,” Dawn said. “You should have water. I could go get it...”

“I slept with Nighna,” Andrew said. His stomach hemmed and hawed. The look on Dawn’s face only made it worse.

“What? How?”

“I conjured her,” he said. He swallowed. His throat felt like powdered cheese.

“Why? Why would you do that?” When he didn’t answer, Dawn decided to prod him, “Andrew,” she said. “What happened?”

“She tortured me,” Andrew said.

Dawn shook her head. “Oh...” she said.

“I see stuff in flashes,” Andrew said. “I think she made me watch Seventh Heaven.

Dawn took Andrew by his bare shoulders and gave him a rough shake. “What did you tell her?”

“I think I could use that water now,” Andrew whined, pitiably.

Dawn backed away from him. “Does she know about the Circle?

“I think she already knew,” Andrew said. He couldn’t look at Dawn.

Dawn shook him again. He felt the acid in his stomach begin to stage a second revolt.

“What do you mean, you think?” she yelled at him.

“Please stop with the shaking,” Andrew said. “I’m like Han Solo waking up from carbonite. Everything’s too bright and all damp. And I’m gonna be sick again.”

Dawn shoved him back. “Fine. Be sick. How could you do this? And you better not say it’s about that stupid wristwatch or I, myself, will personally kick your ass before I tell Buffy what you’ve done.”

Andrew took the Scooby watch from his pocket. Dawn slapped his face so hard he toppled from the end of his bed. The watch jangled across the floor. Andrew sprung back up, suddenly very sober.

“Hey, that really hurt,” Andrew said. He pressed his fingers to the already-raised Dawn fingerprints on his face.

“What does the mark mean?” Dawn said through her teeth.

“I don’t know,” Andrew said. Tears welled in his eyes. “I don’t know.”

She clamped her hand over his wrist. He responded by kissing her hard on the mouth.

Dawn reeled back, astonished. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “No,” she said, voice trembling. “No, Andrew. Why did you do that? Never do that.”

Andrew hovered in a state of shock. He put his hands on the top of his head like a surrendering fugitive.

“God, Dawn. I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m... sorry.”

Dawn retreated backward until she bumped against the door. She felt behind her to work the knob, then let herself out. She ran upstairs, slamming the door to her suite behind her. A wave of strange shaky queasiness washed over her. Dawn went to Buffy’s door, but heard the shower running.

What did she plan to say, anyway? Hey Buffy, we’ve got all this important end of the world stuff going on, but Andrew just kissed me and now things are really weird.

Dawn went into her room. She sat on her bed. Oh yeah. Things were really weird now.

 

 

Kennedy positioned the girls around the warehouse at various points of entry. They were on the leeward side of docktown not commonly associated with the upper crust of anything. Tonight was special, though. Tonight, a cadre of walking cadavers held a small celebration inside. Through the milky windows, Kennedy could see paper lanterns and tables trimmed with... she was pretty sure they were human pieces.

She signaled to Renee, letting her know that she was in position. Renee in turn passed the cue down to Carmen, then Jessica, Gwen, and Althea. Renee returned a thumbs-up sign, indicating they were all in place. Kennedy felt an excitement akin to arousal. There were roughly 30 supervamps inside. Five to one. She liked those odds.

Kennedy was ready. She leapt to her feet. The girls followed. On three, she signaled, holding up her fingers. One... two... three...

Kennedy kicked in the door. The others crashed in around the building, scattering glass and shreds of corrugated tin.

Both groups, Slayers and vampires, took a long, astounded moment’s pause. It gave Kennedy a handful of seconds to scan the room.

It was an art exhibition. Not the typical oil-on-canvas or even mixed media kind one found in civilized society. Here, the art was people – living humans grotesquely arranged in various states of torture and dismemberment. The table settings she had glimpsed were the appendages removed from the art objects scattered about the room. It reeked of rotting flesh and coagulating blood. The people, the “artwork” dangled from hooks and stakes, writhing limply and whimpering for mercy.

Angel had said nothing about this. The girls had had their share of stakeouts, but they were not prepared for what they witnessed. Gwen’s knees buckled. Several of the vampire patrons smiled. Kennedy wasted no time. She kicked the nearest vamp in the head.

The fight felt like a speed blur. It was all body parts, some dust, then more body parts. Just when it was getting kickin’, the six Slayers found themselves back to back in a circle facing the remaining eighteen vampires. And the vampires suddenly sported Tasers.

Kennedy scraped a tendril of sweaty hair from her eyes. “What is this?” she said.

One of the tuxedoed vampires stepped forward from the circle. He raised a white-gloved hand. Floor-to-ceiling sliding doors parted behind him, grating with a shrill, ear-bleeding keen. Three silhouetted figures stepped through, lighted from behind by very dramatic spotlights.

The doors groaned closed again, cutting off the light. This allowed the Slayers a clear view of a polished looking blond man flanked by two girls in party clothes.

The girl in gold held Kennedy transfixed. The gossamer folds of her dress revealed every perfect curve of her adolescent body. An ocean of auburn curls cascaded to her waist, seeming to diffuse the light around her. She laced her arm around the man’s elbow.

“Darling,” she said, her voice like caramel. “It’s been so long since we attended a good massacre.”

“Kennedy,” Renee whispered. “Who are they?”

Kennedy held her breath. The man walked forward, passing between two of the hideous exhibits. The smaller girl danced beneath pieces, her slipper feet rasping in the dust.

“It’s Thellian,” Kennedy said.

Thellian grinned. “Angel said you were a quick one,” he said.

Kennedy spat on the ground at the vampire’s feet.

Thellian clicked his tongue, disapproving. He smoothed a gloved finger over Lalaine’s hand and she released his arm.

“None of that, now,” Thellian said, walking closer, breaking through the circle of Taser-wielding vampires. He came to rest in front of Kennedy. “You’re setting a poor example for your girls. I’m surprised, though,” he said. He glanced at the others. “The real leader is missing.”

“I’m in charge,” Kennedy said. She sounded less than confident.

Thellian tapped Kennedy’s chest with the silver tip of his posh, decorative cane. “You’re doing a bang up job, dear. I see you see things clearly.”

“It’s an ambush,” Kennedy said. She swung at Thellian. He caught her fist.

“No one has dared hit me for a thousand years,” he said. He closed his hand around hers, listening to the bones snap like dry kindling. Kennedy ground her teeth to remain standing.

“Morna,” Thellian called. The smaller girl swanned in, arms outstretched, pretending to fly. “Choose one,” he told her.

The girl wove among them, circling, chanting in a throaty, inhuman voice, “duck, duck, duck.”

“You think we aren’t gonna fight?” Kennedy said, adding force to her voice. “Think we aren’t gonna take you down like the punk you are?”

Thellian shrugged, disinterested. He turned his back and joined the girl in gold.

Kennedy attacked the tuxedo vamp, leading with her off hand. He and two others casually zapped her with their Tasers. Carmen flung her last remaining stake at the vampire. It bounced off his back like a Lincoln Log.

Morna, circling, weaving, in and out of the Slayers’ circle, finally placed her hands on Althea’s shoulders. She cringed at the Morna’s touch, but remained perfectly still.

“There’s the goose,” Lalaine said. “Well done, Morna, my darling little dove.”

Thellian spun around like Fred Astaire. He pointed at the Slayers with his cane. “Take them apart,” he said.

Kennedy heard the rustling crack of the eighteen stun guns building up a charge. She heard the fight, but could only see the blurred struggling. The last thing she remembered was Althea’s headless body crashing to the ground beside her.

 

 

Angel lapped up the darkness. There were shadows aplenty in his garden patch, and he indulged himself in a good wallow. He held the key, turning and turning and turning it in his hand.

So his conversation had not gone exactly as planned. Buffy had not been the savior he sought. Angel had managed to spare her from Thellian’s party. That bought him some self-satisfaction.

Yet he felt empty. He was a hollowed out husk. He was a lonely, static buffoon. His progeny was more adaptable than he was, and that bit Angel where it hurt.

That place was the mark on his chest, the ever-present reminder of his netherworldly obligations. The brand itched and burned pretty much constantly these days. It was only going to get worse, and Angel didn’t think he could hang on much longer.

Angel turned the key. Despite its rugged, gnarly appearance, it refracted the light in mesmerizing ways. The weight of it, so familiar, seemed to comfort him. Angel fathomed in an epiphany flash that it was not a hunk of clunky earth as he had thought. It was primal. It was part of the earth. Volcanic stone forged...

Angel stood quickly. He shifted the weight of the key from his palm to his fingers. He possessed another item forged from the same stone – the D’Ganti Blade. Without knowing how he knew, Angel concluded that the Blade had once been held in a vault beneath the city. The pathways and tunnels to the vault collated in his brain. He knew exactly where he needed to go.

Something in that vault belonged to him. Something that would make all the difference in the world.

 

 

Make me a witness

take me out

out of darkness

out of doubt

 

I won't weigh you down

with good intention

won't make fire out of clay

or other inventions

 

Will we burn in heaven

like we do down here?

Will the change come

while we're waiting?

everyone is waiting

 

And when we're done

Soul searching

as we carried the weight

and died for the cause

 

Is misery made beautiful

right before our eyes?

Will mercy be revealed

or blind us where we stand?

 

Will we burn in heaven

like we do down here?

Will the change come

while we're waiting?

everyone is waiting

Witness – Sarah MacLachlan

 

William had been trying to off himself for years. Not that he was proud of it. All of his games, even his initial attraction to Buffy, had begun with that deep-seeded desire for death.

He had twice been successful, too. But circumstances kept bouncing him back. It was like the Powers that Be had run short on kamikaze martyr types; they kept having to recycle him.

Now, though, he had something he really wanted to hang on to. Except it seemed Angel was going to make sure William the Bloody’s check cleared this time. No more bouncing back.

Part of him kept up with the internal monologue of reassurance. That part insisted it would never happen. Angel would not betray him because Angel was good. Angel had a soul. Angel would do what was right. They could count on it. Except the other more rational, more nagging part of him kept saying that it was possible Angel would believe he was doing the right thing. William came home with a head full of thoughts that led him into dark places he’d rather not visit.

He had comfort waiting for him. A warm bed. A pleasant house. A modern breed of pseudo extended family like something from an American sitcom. It was something Angel did not possess, and William felt a twinge of pity over that.

William found Buffy already asleep. Actually, it was strange. She slept on top of the covers, damp hair drying to frizz on her pillow. She wore an appealing little number in chocolate colored silk, trimmed with black satin piping and cream-colored lace. Also, it was new. Had to be. One of those reserved for special occasions. They had been through all her underthings; he was sure he would have noticed this one.

A picture painted itself in his mind. He almost didn’t permit himself to think it, but the evidence seemed to suggest that she had dressed for him. After he left, she had showered and put on this 1940s Claudette Colbert goddess-of-the-silver-screen negligée, then fell asleep waiting for him to come home.

She’d waited for him, and he’d missed it. Spent his night drinking up bad news with Smiles-A-Lot. Hardly seemed fair. Except, she was at rest. Peacefully resting. She needed that.

William sat on the edge of the bed. He placed his hand on her belly. He splayed his fingers, wondering at the way he was able to cover all of it with his palm. He thought, how long would that be so? And would he last long enough to see her blow up like a puffer fish?

A deep agony struck him then, a pervasive ache from the back of his eyeballs to the balls of his feet. It hurt, all the way to his soul.

Buffy’s eyelashes fluttered.

“Hey,” she said. She smiled a sweetly sleepy smile.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said. “I, um...”

“It’s okay,” she said. “Did you slay any demons?”

“Only the personal kind,” he said.

“I hear they’re the worst,” she said.

They stared at each other for a long moment, neither one speaking. Buffy slipped her hand into William’s, lacing her fingers with his.

“I love you,” she said.

She might well have struck him with a mallet.

Biting back the pain, he said, “You know, I think you do.”

Buffy tugged him forward, half-playful but fully awake.

William committed to his mind every detail, every touch. The way her hair fell around his face when she kissed him. The way his thumbs rested on her pelvic bones. The feeling of silk against her skin, against his hands. The scent of vanilla sugar. How they fit together. They fit.

It was right, being humbled this way; being brought to bear by love.

He was sentimental. He was a fool. And he was lucky to have lasted this long.

 

 

Angel drifted, the key clutched in his hand. He saw nothing of the world around him. The only thing that mattered was the web of lines and markers in his mind that led him down into sewer tunnels, beneath utility mains, and deeper, into catacombs long forgotten by man.

In a dim place deep within the earth, Angel found it: a solitary door carved into stone.

Being a vampire, he was already breathless, but the anticipation coiled inside him like a snake. He raised the key to the door. A triangular notch lit up from within the stone.

Angel clicked the key into the lock and turned it. The door dissolved to a colorless glow. Beyond it, he saw a stretch of pristine beach. The ocean spread out smooth as a polished metal, reflecting the gold of sunrise at its brim.

Buffy was there. Of course, she would be. She waited for him at the shore. Waiting, and watching. It was the picture of taintless serenity, and it was his.

Without thinking, Angel stepped through the door. He crossed the soft sand, marveling at the warmth of it between his toes.

She didn’t turn when Angel took her hand in his. She simply smiled and said, “I knew you would come. It wouldn’t be heaven without you.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Dawn did not want to sleep, but her body vetoed the attempt to remain conscious. She crashed, fully clothed right down to her Pumas, onto her bed. It wasn’t counting sheep or bluebirds-over-rainbows for her, though. She slept the fitful sleep of the recently disturbed.

In the next room, Buffy and William lapsed into a dreamy kind of post-coital restfulness. Which was good, because they needed all of the above.

Willow dozed with her nose in books. It was a favorite pastime.

Xander and Maya talked for two hours about the socioeconomic impact of labor regulations on border towns in Texas and California. Not as boring as one might think, especially when framing the entire conversation within the context of Tex-Mex cuisine. After which, Xander drifted into the calmest sleep he’d had in years, while Maya lingered for a half an hour longer making scissor motions with her feet, enjoying for the first time in five years the feeling of freshly laundered sheets.

Andrew drank a liter of water. Was sick again. Drank more water. He spent the rest of the night huddled and miserable in the corner of his room. He fell asleep with the Damas journal cradled protectively in his arms, waiting for the sound of movement downstairs so that he could dutifully hand it off before deciding on his next move.

Across town, in a hotel room that smelled of stale smoke, recycled air and brimstone, Rupert Giles hugged his knees to his chest in a desperate effort to keep what little warmth he had left in his body. At the same time, he listened to the conversations of those around him – Amy, Nighna, Luxe. He had their names. He repeated them to himself so that he would not forget.

Giles feigned stupor, or, more rightly, enhanced stupor, biding his time. If he could get free, he knew where to hide. London was his town, after all. He could get back to Buffy to tell her what he had seen.

Nearby, a cell phone rang. The fellow called Luxe answered it.

“Yes?” Luxe said, his languid French accent suddenly crisp and businesslike. “And you are certain of this?”

“What is it?” Amy asked.

Giles sneered inwardly at the sound of her voice.

“Thellian will be most pleased to hear it,” Luxe said. Then, “Of course, I will tell him you were the one to deliver the message. You have earned his favor.”

The cell phone snapped closed.

“What is it?” Amy asked again, her voice shrill with excitement.

“Please tell her, before her eyeballs pop out like a Pekinese,” Nighna said.

“It is Angel,” Luxe told them. Giles could almost see the grin on the Frenchman’s face. “He has used the key.”

 

 

Buffy sensed the dawn without opening her eyes. She lay for a long time with her arms starfished across William’s chest, her head rising and falling with his every inhalation of breath. He traced a lazy figure eight with his thumb on the bare skin of her shoulder.

It was a kind of peace that reminded her of solemn places, of cathedrals and graveyards, in which people spoke in the hushed tones of reverence.

“William,” she whispered. Speaking felt like tromping through an unspoiled field of snow.

“Hmm?” he said, barely audible.

“You’ve seen the Great Wall of China,” she said.

“Yep,” he said. He kept her precedence of speaking in library tones. “Big mass of stones, all cobbled together.”

“But you’ve seen it,” she said.

“Course I have, pet.”

Silence, punctuated only by the ellipses of breathing.

She asked, “What about the pyramids?”

“I have,” William said. “Big mass of stones all cobbled together, but in the desert.”

“Niagara Falls? Grand Canyon?” Buffy asked. “Great Barrier Reef?

“Yes. Yes. And no. Never been Down Under,” William said. He moved his hand to stroke her hair. “What’s all this about?”

“I’ve never been to any of those places,” Buffy said. “Not even the Grand Canyon, and it was practically in our backyard.”

William shrugged the shoulder that wasn’t under Buffy. “It’s this big hole in the ground,” he said, affecting blasé.

“Stop it,” she said. “I’m serious.”

William sighed. “I know you are,” he said.

After a long moment of quietness, she said, “I don’t want to die.”

William winced as if stung, which also jarred Buffy.

She raised her head a few inches to stare up into his face. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said. It sounded forced.

“What is it?” she asked.

A muscle in his jaw twitched. “My father died when I was a boy,” he said. “There was a fire, and much confusion.” He closed his eyes, feeling his way through the words. “After that, I cared for my mum. Until I met Dru. My mum would have died of consumption, see? It’s likely I’d have followed her to her grave within a year. Two at best. Never would have met you.”

William drew a deep breath. He said, “I regret so many things, Buffy. So much I’ve done that can’t be undone. But… how can I mourn that path, when all the time it was leading me here? With you, and the other. The, um...”

William ached. He wanted to tell Buffy what Lorne had said. He wanted to come clean of the whole business. Instead, he said, “You’ll be fine, Buffy. And you will see all of those places. The whole world, if you wish it.”

Buffy lay her head back down. William chewed the inside of his mouth.

“This is it, isn’t it?” Buffy whispered. “The big calm-before-the-apocalypse?”

“You feel it too, then,” William said.

Buffy nodded. “Thellian’s going to make his move soon. We still have to find out what it is, and where this circle thingy figures in.”

“We’ll figure it,” he said. He started tracing circles on her shoulder again, picking up where he left off. “We always do.”

Buffy thought back to Sunnydale, when Spike had lain with her the night before they confronted The First. His had been the still voice in the darkness. He had been her heart and strength when all else had abandoned her. Together, they were strong. So much stronger than when taken apart.

She placed her palm over his heart.

He said, “We could just stay here. Sleep through the whole thing.”

“No snooze button for the destiny clock, is there?” Buffy said.

William said nothing. He didn’t have to. They both heard the telltale sounds of breakfast making going on in the kitchen. Soon, the whole house would grind into gear.

“I’m ready,” she said.

 

 

Willow wo-manned the griddle to show off her pancake making skills for Maya. She poured three blobs onto the skillet to form a Mickey Mouse – her specialty.

Maya was all chattery; definitely a morning type. She sipped a cup of orange pekoe in between bursts of sunny conversation.

“I have a ticket waiting at Gatwick,” she told Xander, excitedly. This was the fourth time she’d told him; he was counting. “All I have to do is pick it up.”

“Yep,” Xander said. He refilled his glass of milk. “Said that.”

Willow cast a backward glance, knowing his tone.

Maya, not yet well-versed in Xander-isms, went happily on. “So much has happened since I left. Apparently, Freddie screened incoming mail, too. I mean, I always suspected as much but... he made these ridiculous excuses for me. Like, when my little sister got married, he told my parents that I couldn’t be there because I was rescuing a rare breed of baby sea turtles from an oil spill off Mitak Island in the Indian Ocean, and that I would be out of contact for three months because of concerns over terrorist acts toward American scientists and activists.”

Willow patted the grilling pancake with her spatula. “And your parents believed him?” she asked.

Nodding vigorously, Maya said, “They are very trusting people.”

“You don’t say?” Xander put in.

“No, it’s true,” Maya said. “My mom used to always say: Maya Rose, it’s always best to trust first and ask questions later.”

Willow dropped the spatula with a clatter and turned around.

“Say that again,” she said.

Maya gave her a funny look. “Trust first and ask...” she said.

“No,” Willow said. “The first part.”

“My mom used to say,” Maya said, bobbing her head.

“Okay. The middle. Say the middle,” Willow said, frustration tempering her tone.

“Pancake. Burning,” Xander sniffed.

“Oh. Maya Rose,” Maya said, grinning. “That’s me.”

“Rose,” Willow said, disbelieving.

“From a long line of Roses,” Maya said.

A smile dawned in Willow’s eyes. “You’re name is Rose,” she said again, to herself.

“We get it, Wil. What’s with the repeat-o-gram?” Xander said.

“The Rose, The Key and the Willow Tree,” Willow said, excitedly. “Xander. She’s right here. The Circle is complete. That’s what Tara told Buffy and she’s right here.”

Xander wielded the spatula like a pointer. He said, “You must have me confused with someone who has a clue.”

Dawn came in, squinting against the not-harsh kitchen light. “What’s going on?”

“Maya’s the Rose,” Willow squealed.

“Please stop saying that,” Maya said.

“How so?” Dawn asked.

“Pancake burning!” Xander said again. He leapt up to rescue the pancake, but it was too late. The pancake had passed.

“My name is Rose,” Maya said. “Last name. I’m not sure what she’s getting at.”

“Here,” Willow said. She took Maya’s hand and led her into the dining room.

“Oh. Pretty,” Maya said.

Dawn, catching quickly on, moved Maya to stand beside the symbol of the rose laid out in the scrolls across the table. “Stand here,” she ordered. “Willow, you...”

“Got it,” Willow said, stepping to the sign of the willow tree.

Breathless, Dawn took her place beside the triangular shape of the key. “And I’m here,” she said.

Xander strolled in, peaked fingers pressed to his lips. “Is...something supposed to happen?” he asked.

“It’s Latin,” Dawn said. Willow nodded. Maya shook her head, looking frightened.

“Say your name in Latin,” Willow said.

“Is it Rosa?” Maya said, uncertain.

The symbol on the page glowed a sudden blazing red. Maya leapt like a firecracker.

“Dawn,” Willow said. “What’s the word for key?”

Clavis,” Dawn said. The symbol blazed like molten gold.

“Two for two, Dawnie,” Willow said, marveling.

“And the final round question,” Xander said. “What’s Latin for Willow.”

Salix. Say Salix,” Dawn said.

Salix,” Willow repeated. The third symbol, the willow tree, shone equally bright. The three together emitted a white humming noise, like static from a radio tower.

“It worked,” Dawn breathed.

“What worked?” Maya said.

“The Circle,” Willow told her. “It’s awake. I can feel it.”

“Me too,” Dawn said. “Kinda tingly.”

Maya took a broad step away from the table. The glowing abruptly stopped. “I don’t know,” she said, lips going white. “I don’t what this is about at all. I think... I should go.”

She twisted away, running before she realized she was running. Xander hopped from one foot to the next, unsure how to go. He looked at the others.

“Run after her. Hello?” Dawn prompted, rolling her eyes.

“Right,” he said. He turned, and followed.

 

 

Angel had showered. Put on fresh clothes – a nice suit worthy of GQ. Spiked his hair. Brushed his fangs. Had a bite to eat. Went in early to the office.

There he sat, behind his executive-sized desk, signing away page after page with his elegant Cross pen.

Luxe entered.

“Your 9 o’clock is waiting,” he said.

“Good,” Angel answered, not looking up. He flipped a page, signed at the bottom, flipped to the next.

“How was your night?” Luxe asked, eyebrows arched but brown eyes steady.

“Very enlightening,” Angel said, flatly.

Luxe rocked forward to the balls of his feet. “Glad to hear it,” he said.

Angel scribbled, flipped. Continued. His face was a taut mask of impassivity.

“Takes the weight of the burden, doesn’t it?” Angel said.

Treading with extra care, Luxe ventured forth. “What is that, monsieur?” he asked.

“Knowledge,” Angel said. He paused, pen in hand. He flicked only his eyes in Luxe’s direction. “You know what I’m talking about,” he said.

“The key,” Luxe said.

Angel returned to his paperwork. He said, “It wasn’t perfect happiness. But it was close.”

He let his eyes slide closed. For a brief moment, he remembered. And the pain of it shook him with startling intensity.

“She forgot everything,” Angel said.

Luxe shrugged. “It is what humans do. Memories fade. It is how they deal with living,” he said.

“And dying,” Angel said. He signed the final sheet. He stacked them together, fastidiously lining up all of the edges before tucking the documents back into their folder. “Is this all for now?” he asked.

Oui, monsieur,” Luxe said.

Angel passed the folder across the desk.

“Tell Thellian I’ll be with him shortly,” Angel said.

Luxe took his leave.

Angel drummed his fingers on the desk. The clock on the wall, all brushed aluminum and fancy roman numerals, read 8:57. Angel slipped open the well-oiled desk drawer. He drew out an object wrapped in plain white cloth. He was careful, unwrapping it the way a child sneaks peeks into his Christmas gifts. The D’Ganti Blade lay in his palm like an obsidian scorpion, a black malignancy.

With what passed for a sigh, Angel slipped the dagger into the concealed pocket of his jacket.

Clock read 8:59. Angel got to his feet. It was time.

 

 

“You can’t go,” Xander said.

“Don’t be such a Fraggle,” Maya told him. “Of course I can go.”

Maya was making up Xander’s sofa bed like an Olympic class sheet folder. He inched around the bed next to her, trying to discourage her without actually touching her. Touching her, he wagered, might result in the loss of further body parts.

“I know you can go. Of course. I’m not holding you hostage,” Xander said.

Maya made a bewildered sound.

“You’re disgruntled,” he said.

“I am. I am far from gruntled,” Maya told him. She lifted the mattress edge. The springs beneath sighed a rusty complaint. She tucked and folded the bed sheet under the mattress in a perfect hospital corner.

“They need you,” Xander said. Simple and to the point. It was something she liked in the man.

Maya tugged wrinkles from the top sheet. “You can’t even put me in the same category as Willow,” she said. “I felt her magic. She’s got control and finesse coming out of her ears. It’s like comparing Charles Schultz with Caravaggio.”

Xander said, “Don’t knock good man Charlie Brown. The blockhead has his place in society.”

Maya dragged the blanket onto the bed. “Look, Xander. I’m free for the first time in five years, so I would really like to go home now. Plus, if the world’s gonna end like you guys say, I’d really like to see my mom before it does,” she said.

“Maya, stop,” Xander said. He took the risk to take her hands. “You’re part of the Circle. You are kinda meant to be here. It’s possible they can’t work the big final mojo without you.”

“Oh, right,” Maya said, weakly wriggling from Xander’s grasp. “Petite blonde girl’s gonna save the world.”

Xander grinned. “That is kind of the idea,” he said. “Buffy’s done it a dozen times over. And when it all comes down, I’m putting my money on the blonde girls. But not in the sleazy strip club way that just sounded...”

Maya sank to the bed. “I’m weak, Xander. There’s no way I can do it.” She looked up at him, eyebrows arched high on her small forehead. “I have a ticket at Gatwick,” she explained.

“I know you do,” Xander said. He sat on the bed beside her. “And when you’re ready, I’ll drive you to the airport. No one’s gonna force you to stay.”

Maya nodded. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Xander patted her knee. “Nah, don’t be. I mean, we haven’t even had a proper date and here I am, asking you to save the world.”

“Yeah,” Maya said.

“For the record,” Xander told her. “Any girl who can fend off a her psycho ex-boyfriend for five years in a separate hell dimension that resembles a dentist’s office waiting room can in no way be classified as weak.”

Maya laughed, lightly. She lay her head on Xander’s shoulder, which let him know that however things happened today, she was still undecided. He knew better than to press the issue. In general he would have to agree with Maya’s mom: it was better to trust first and ask questions later.

 

Chapter Text

Put me back together
or separate the skin from bone
Leave me all the Pieces,

Then you can leave me alone
Tell me the reality is better than the dream
But I found out the hard way,
Nothing is what it seems

Duality, Slipknot

 

Kennedy opened her eyes. She had to be dead. Had to be. Except, she expected death to feel different. Less real. Less painful.

Yet when she carefully unfolded her legs, she felt two things. The first was shrieking pain from dozens of bruises and wounds she had sustained between the Slayer ambush and her futile struggle to escape capture. The second was the firm familiar mattress and white lace comforter of her bed at the Westbury house.

If she had to choose a heaven for herself, Westbury would not be it. England was too damn cold. The British were too damn cold, too. She preferred the spicy climate of Rio and her parent’s plantation to her temporary and sporadic dwelling with Willow in Westbury.

So if she was dead – she doubted it – but if so, hell it was. Kennedy forced her swollen eyelids apart. Through the haze, she saw her teakwood armoire with its stark-straight art deco lines that didn’t match Willow’s Victorian bedspread. Above the armoire, she caught the room’s reflection in the mirror. The image of it appeared like something out of a dream. Soft sunshine spilled through floor-length white curtains. Willow’s tatty brown sweater, the one that looked like a bath robe, lay over the back of a squarish 1950s recliner chair. She heard children playing outside, at the parochial school at the end of their cobbled lane. It didn’t seem like hell.

Kennedy ventured to raise her head. Her vision sloshed like a ship in rough seas. She gripped the border of the lace comforter with both hands. Pushing it back seemed to take every shred of her summoned strength. She had to sit on the bed’s edge for several minutes just to will her body into motion.

“Slow,” she mouthed to herself. “Just go slow.”

Not that she had much choice. But getting up and moving around gave her the chance to better appraise her injuries. Her shoulders hurt. Her wrists bore angry chafe-marks from being bound. She felt deep tissue bruises in her thigh muscles. Whatever it was that tried to hold her down, she felt reasonably sure she had booted it mightily in the head.

Kennedy slipped stealthily from the bedroom, avoiding her own reflection in the mirror. She didn’t need to see her face to know it was banged up beyond belief. The taste of blood in her mouth and stingy puffy eyes told her all she needed to know.

Her ass had been kicked. It didn’t happen often, but she survived. The loss was huge, but not total. She survived.

Still, questions remained. How did she turn up here? Had Angel come through and rescued her? Did Willow have some magical contingency set up that would deliver her safely home if things went suitably ill? Or had she by some odd miracle managed to pull off a spectacular escape? She imagined herself crawling into the back of a taxi cab in North London with only her Westbury address on her lips.

There were no answers here. Kennedy knew that much. She left the bedroom, limping but gaining momentum. She had to get to the telephone. She had to call Willow. She had to let Buffy know what had become of their school. And if there was a chance, however small, that Angel had betrayed them, it might be a good idea to let someone know.

Kennedy took the stairs with care. The landscape seemed clear. She heard nothing but the drone of the refrigerator in the kitchen. From what she could tell, the house was empty. Nothing out of place.

Except…

The corner of the runner rug at the base of the stairs curled over on itself. Kennedy toed it over with the tip of her bare foot. As she scanned the hallway, a knot twisted inside her belly. Slayer instinct could be a bitch sometimes. Nine times out of ten, you saw demons in shadows where there were just shadows. Every dank alley was suspect. All mullet sporting punks out past 9 had an alter ego with fangs.

But on the tenth time out, it was correct. The car parked at the curb beyond your driveway really did hold a pair of demons packing hard-core devices of torture. And the phone that normally rested on the entry hall table beside the ornate brass dish that held the mail was really gone. Removed.

Kennedy lifted the severed phone cord from where it still lay on the table. This was the only phone in the house. Control-freaky as Willow could be, Kennedy felt certain Willow would not have moved the phone.

This only sparked more questions in Kennedy’s mind. She peered outside through the peephole in the front door.

“Damn,” she whispered to herself. “So I didn’t imagine the demon stake-out.” Slayer instinct was batting a thousand today.

Kennedy stood in the entry hall, body swimming in hurt; head drowning in indecision. She had to get out. But even if she did, how far could she get on her gimped legs? The safest place had to be the house. In theory, Willow’s protection spells would help keep the good things in and the bad things out. That went nowhere in explaining the missing telephone.

Kennedy planned to make a dash for the kitchen. She could dart down the back steps, cross the field and make her way to the Coven… but the corner a photograph on the hallway table caught her eye.

Kennedy tugged the postcard from the stack of junk mail in the brass dish. Buckingham Palace by Night. Splash of photo-bright fireworks above Big Ben and Parliament lighted up in cheerful gold tones. Fanciful script proclaimed “Wish You Were Here!” like a banner across the top.

She flipped the card in her mangled hands. She read the inscription twice, mouthing the words to herself, feeling with dreadful certainty that she was missing something. Something huge.

“Angel has the blade,” she whispered. “What blade? Tons of help, Connor. Thanks.”

Kennedy crumpled the card in her hands, her frustration boiling over.

She heard the dull thunk of footfalls on the front steps too late. She turned, ready to brain whoever it was with the brass letter holder. To her sickened amusement, she discovered that the front door was unlocked. The handsome, youngish man stepped inside, all very prim with this chocolate black hair, faded relaxed-fit khakis and glossy Versace dress shoes.

“Ah, you are awake,” the man said in a supple French accent. “Very good.”

Kennedy opened her mouth to speak, but the Frenchman continued without heeding her.

He said, “I am a representative of Wolfram & Hart. Monsieur Angel’s liaison to be exact. My name is Luxe. Angel sends his regrets in regards to last night’s tragedy.”

“Luxe,” Kennedy said. Her head ached. Her stomach churned. Angel. Wolfram & Hart. The names connected, broke apart, rejoined. Nothing made sense.

“Monsieur Angel asked me to deliver you here,” Luxe said. “Until arrangements could be made for your safe return to London.”

“Safe return?” Kennedy asked.

“Ah, oui. Your attack last night caused quite a stir, mademoiselle,” Luxe said. “Quite a stir in vampire and Slayer circles alike. It did not turn out well, now did it?”

Kennedy shook her head in disbelief. “It was Angel’s plan,” she said. “We had no idea Thellian would show.”

“Even so,” Luxe said. He shrugged. “Word has reached the Slayers and the witch. You are no longer safe…”

“Willow?” Kennedy asked. Fissures formed in the thin ice of her resolve. They spread deeper, threatening to break her into pieces.

“Angel felt it best for you to leave here, once you regained consciousness. You show remarkable constitution, considering the extent of your injuries. We had no idea you would wake so soon. Regardless, Angel can shelter you. His reach through Wolfram & Hart is exceptionally long,” Luxe said.

Kennedy shook her head, temporarily clearing it. “The phone,” she said.

Pardonez-moi?” Luxe said.

“You pulled the phone. Why?”

Luxe nodded once. “To prevent you from calling your friends. For your own safety.”

“And you can enter the house…”

“Because I have no intent to harm you,” Luxe said. “Of course.”

Kennedy twisted the postcard in her suddenly clammy hands.

“I don’t believe you,” she said, quietly.

Luxe seemed to swell with smugness. “It matters not. You see, you have fallen into a kind of choicelessness. You live now only because Wolfram & Hart wills it. The only thing you must decide is whether you will come along quietly or with a fight. Either way, your ultimate fate rests with Angel.”

Kennedy lunged for him, thumbs hooking for his eyes. She was injured and he was a demon. He took her down with a quick open-palmed smack to her already damaged ear. Kennedy bounced into the hall table on the way down. The table caught the edge of the gilded mirror that hung above it. It crashed down on top of her in a deafening mess.

Highly annoyed by this, Luxe rolled his eyes and sighed. “I said I had no intent to harm you,” he told her unconscious form crumpled at his feet. “I didn’t mean I that would not.”

Luxe fireman-carried Kennedy out of the house. The Berithi demons in their black Continental pumped her veins full of morphine for the trip to Amesbury. Luxe took no note whatsoever of the wrinkled postcard Kennedy had dropped on entry hall rug, in the hope that Willow would find it and understand.

 

 

Memories haunted him, more persistent than any poltergeist. It had been perfect. For her.

For Angel, it had been a moderate facsimile of perfection. Except he knew he did not belong.

Lifetimes of wishes and promises fulfilled beyond his hopes, yet she let them all go. Her friends ripped her from their bliss, leaving him alone in a running pit of sewage beneath a rotting city.

She had forgotten he was even there with her.

Angel sleepwalked through the building that presently housed Wolfram & Hart. Thick-armed workers, some men, some demon, all in dust blue coveralls, lugged boxes into the hallways, stacking them to precarious heights. He heard a lot of grumbling over the uprooting of root-of-all-evil offices, but he had put his CEO foot down. Relocation was part of his master plan. Yet, as he meandered, he caught the stolen glances from his displeased employees. He didn’t give a damn about them. Not giving a damn covered a lot of things at this point.

Angel left the caring to Thellian, who waited beyond the double doors of the main conference room. Thellian was the real plan man. Angel believed with what was left of his heart that Thellian could pull it off, could finally do what every halfwit diabolical fiend had failed to do since the Demon Age had passed into history.

Angel entered with purposeful flourish. Thellian sat dead center of the conference table, facing the doors, an expression of placidity on his face. A woman wearing a white corseted dress of sheer taffeta and ostrich feathers lingered near the bookcase, lithe fingers plucking her way through the volumes in search of something she fancied.

When Angel entered, she turned. It was like watching a feather drift on the surface of a pool.

“Angel,” she purred, crossing to him. She looped her gloved arms around him. They slithered like satiny snakes around his neck. “It seems like a hundred years since last we met.”

He stared back at her. Then recognition struck. “It has been,” he said. “Lalaine.”

“You have changed. And changed again,” she said. Her lilac eyes sparkled.

“So have you,” Angel said.

“No,” Lalaine said, withdrawing her arms. She slipped away. Instantly he craved her nearness. “I’m the same as ever.”

Lalaine rounded the conference table. She drew herself around Thellian, caressing his neck with her dove-white skin. “I’ll leave you boys to talk. I promised to take Morna to the catacombs to play.” She nipped playfully at Thellian’s chin. “She loves to chase the rats.”

When Lalaine left, it seemed most of the color had drained from the room. Thellian remained seated, long hands folded on the table in front of him. He held himself with the patience and poise of a spider on its web, waiting for his prey to find him. Angel moved to the bookshelf, sliding his fingers along the dustless spines just as Lalaine had done.

“Last night went well,” Thellian said. “But it was not a whole success.”

Angel continued to walk. The heels of his expensive shoes clacked on the hardwood floor.

“Three were missing,” Thellian went on.

“Three?” Angel said, genuinely surprised.

Thellian waited for a beat. Then, “Yes. Three: Mikayla Ford, Anjelica Reyes and Buffy Summers. Kennedy assures us Miss Summers was not part of her raiding party, and that the others were conscientious abstainers.”

Angel chuckled. “Dissention in the ranks. Built-in Slayer trait of fighting alone. It’s Chosen One, after all,” he said. Angel reached the end of the bookcase. He continued his slow stalk along the back wall directly behind Thellian. “How is Kennedy?”

“Recovering nicely. She will remain at her home in Westbury, until it is time for her. As for Miss Summers,” Thellian said.

Angel moved to Thellian’s right side. He put his hands on the table. “She’s not the one we need to worry with. The real wild card is Bloody Willie,” he said.

Thellian rolled his eyes up to look at Angel. Humor cast a sparse net of lines around his lips, but the smile never reached his eyes. “The Legendary Spike,” he said. “I have yet to make his acquaintance.”

“Yeah, well,” Angel said, resuming his deliberate march around the room. “He never fails to disappoint. Been a thorn in my side for a century. Now he has the supplemental benefits package of life eternal.”

Thellian’s stillness was unruffled. “Everyone can be killed, Angel. No one is immune to death, no matter how invulnerable we seem.”

Angel laughed again. “Oh, he can be killed. Trouble is, he keeps popping back. A regular Spike-in-a-box.”

“There is a weapon,” Thellian said.

Angel ground to a standstill.

Thellian nodded. “One of extraordinary power. A demon-forged blade created for the purpose of killing The Slayer.”

“The D’Ganti Blade,” Angel said. “I’ve heard of it. A ritual weapon.”

Thellian’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. “I found it,” he said.

Angel eyed him, not daring to move.

“In Italy,” Thellian continued.

Angel waited.

Thellian smiled, all too knowing. “Miss Summers evaded the Berithi I hired to capture her. Shortly after, she relocated here and the dagger was lost.”

“Lost?” Angel said.

“Yes.”

Angel took up his stride once more. “Then it can’t help me take out Spike, can it?”

“The blade is here,” Thellian said. “In the city.”

“We know this for certain?” Angel asked.

“We do.”

Angel cast a backward glance. Thellian remained impervious, but Angel knew that he knew.

“The dagger,” Thellian said. “It prevents a wound from healing. Its victim bleeds to death.”

One corner of Angel’s mouth drew into a lopsided smile.

“As for the others,” Thellian breezed. “They will soon fall. I’m not concerned. The Priestess already has their Watcher. You see, the advantage to longevity is patience. I don’t need everything I want tomorrow, or next month, or even next decade. My plans have spanned centuries. No human can grasp the scope of something that extends beyond his or her pitiful allowance of years. That’s the beauty of it.”

Angel came to rest. He sat down in the chair at the head of the table. “I think we should drink to that,” he said.

Thellian tilted his head. “Tonight we will drink. To longevity,” he said.

“Tonight,” Angel agreed.

In the seconds of silence that followed, Angel realized that the brand in his chest no longer twisted or burned. In place of the dull, unwavering ache, he found clarity. The memories of his time with Buffy lay like prints in sand, but they were only memories to him. Now.

Angel drew the blade from his pocket. He placed it on the table between them.

Thellian said nothing. No part of him betrayed any hint of surprise.

 

 

“Can we tie her to a chair?” Dawn asked. “Because we have done that before.”

Willow thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No. We can’t,” she said.

Buffy entered the dining room. “Can’t what?” she asked.

Dawn brightened. “Keep Maya here against her will,” she said. “Oh, maybe you could talk to her. Convince her that the saving-the-world gig has many perks. I mean, other than the world-saving. Obviously.”

“Niblet, you’re one of our sanest. And you’ve just made no sense,” William said. He came up behind Buffy and slipped his arms around her. “No blinking phone light, pet. No message from Rupert.”

Dawn appeared on the ragged side of things. It seemed to be going around. Her usually smooth hair was less than lustrous, like she had showered but forgotten her Frizz-ease. She puffed out her breath, underscoring the hypothesis of lack of sleep.

“Maya is the Rose,” she said, pointing to the symbol on the scrolls. “Her name is Maya Rose.”

Buffy studied the pages spread out before them. “Part of the Circle,” she said, under her breath. “The Circle is complete.”

“Yes,” Willow stated. “And we woke it. We stood around and said our Latin names. Scrolls went all glowy. Then, poof. Maya freaked and pulled an Andrew act.”

“And after all we did for her,” William said, sardonically.

“Yeah,” Willow said.

“We need her,” Buffy said. “Maybe she just needs adjustment time.”

“We don’t have time,” Dawn keened. “Her parents wired her money for a one-way ticket back home. Unless Xander can convince her...”

“It’s a tinner’s rabbit,” William said. He parted from Buffy and came to the table’s edge.

“A what-ers what?” Dawn asked.

“Tinner’s. Rabbit,” he said. He touched his fingers gingerly to the page. “A maker’s mark for a tin-worker. A tinker. It’s, um, a circle of three hares that begins as one thing then changes into something else... something unexpected.”

“I hate unexpected,” Dawn said.

They heard a thunderous noise behind them and turned to see Andrew pounding down the stairs. He brushed past Buffy and threw a book into the center of the dining table. Scrolls scattered like leaves across the room.

“Hey!” Willow cried, looking aghast.

“Here’s your stupid book,” Andrew yelled, whirling on Dawn. He tried to storm out, but Dawn caught up to him.

“What is wrong with you?” she said, forcefully.

“I’m on a mission. I don’t have time to chat,” he said. Andrew sucked in his cheeks. He tried his best to look steely-eyed, but his hair stuck up in unflattering clumps. His red-rimmed eyes looked rheumy and bloodshot. Worse than that was the sallow, bloodless look of his skin. It was the haggard disposition of the presently hung over.

Dawn pulled him aside, ignoring the questioning looks from the others.

“Okay, drop the Spy vs. Spy,” she whispered. “You aren’t going anywhere until we know what that mark means.” She pointed to his wrist, which he concealed by tugging down the cuff of his sleeve and tucking it into his fist.

“It’s my problem. Not yours.”

Dawn jiggled her head. “Yeah? Well, you made it my problem when you went out and got yourself seductified.”

Andrew glared. “What bothers you more: that I have put us all in danger, or that I got lucky?”

Dawn raised her hand to slap him again. He recoiled. A swell of guilt spilled over her.

“That’s the dumbest question ever,” she said.

“I’m gone, gringa,” Andrew told her. He headed for the door.

“Andrew,” she said.

He paused.

“It was an accident, okay? A stupid, alcohol-induced mistake. I’m sure you didn’t mean to...”

Andrew wrenched the door open.

“Where are you going?” Dawn said.

“To fix it,” Andrew bit out. He slammed the door when he left.

Dawn returned to the dining room. Buffy, Willow and William were picking up the pieces of the puzzle while trying to pretend they hadn’t heard anything.

“Well,” Dawn said. “That was intense.”

“What’s with the boy?” William asked.

Dawn knelt, feigning to fumble under the table for the Damas journal to hide the tears in her eyes.

“He, uh, recorded over his James Bond marathon with info-mercials about skin care products,” she said. She closed her fingers around the Damas journal. “Of course it’s my fault because I held on to last week’s TV Guide to read the tell-all article about Orlando Bloom. So he had the wrong listings. Blah blah blah. No Bond. Wah.”

When Dawn stood back up, she had managed to quell the teary-ness. She clutched the journal to her chest like a shield.

Willow smirked. She said, “Right now Giles would say, ‘Now children. We have more important things to worry over than missed programs and the availability of celebrities.’”

“So true. Right down to the spot-on Giles accent,” Dawn said. She sighed. “I’m going to take this upstairs for a light dissecting. Willow, can you put the puzzle back together?”

Willow bent to retrieve a scroll. “Sure, unless it’s changed in the last half hour,” she said.

“Don’t say that,” Buffy said. “You know what happens when you say things like that.”

Willow uncreased the corner of the scroll. “It won’t,” she said, blandly.

Buffy squeezed Dawn’s shoulder. “You sure you won’t have breakfast with us? You look a little peaked.”

Dawn gave them a wan smile. “You sound like Mom,” she said.

Buffy’s skin blushed a rosy pink. She felt the blood warm her face all the way to the tips of her ears. “I do?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Dawn said. “You really do.”

 

 

The Priestess left her charge alone in the hotel room, knowing full well that he could not manage to escape on his own. She had an appointment with Thellian, and couldn’t be dragging around useless weight with her. It was too unprofessional.

Once she had gone, taking the door this time instead of the window, Rupert Giles squirmed his way across the gummy carpet, feeling every centimeter as if it were a mile. His vision blurred and his ears filled with the oceanic sound of what was left of his blood rushing in his veins. He collapsed into a stupor at the foot of the bed.

After languishing there for time untold, he felt a pair of strong arms hefting him to his feet. His head swam. He tried to reach for his glasses, but his hands hung useless at his sides. He opened his mouth to speak, but his parched throat allowed only a weary croaking sound.

“Hush.” It was woman’s voice. Slightly familiar.

Giles struggled to keep his feet below his body. They had other ideas and wanted to roam about independently. She held him steady. She opened the hotel room door, guiding him. Once they were safe within the cracker box of an elevator, she let him lean against the mirrored wall. He squinted to see the blurred shapes in the polished metal. Seeing her reflection made the last remnants of strength run out of his legs.

It was Nighna.

“But...” he managed to say.

“Don’t get excited, Mr. Giles. It’s not an act of mercy. It’s attrition,” Nighna explained. “They have plans for you. If you think them through to a logical conclusion, you already know what they are.”

Rupert stared only at the rumpled man reflected in the scratched mirror. The bite marks on his neck still caked with blood. Bruises underscoring his eyes. Long twisted slash marks through his sleeves. He looked like hell. He looked dead.

The cord of the necklace Willow had given him peeked through the torn collar of his shirt. Without it, he would be dead. The Priestess – Amy – would have killed him. No, not killed him...

And just like that, Giles got it. He slowly craned his head to look at Nighna.

He made a strangled little noise.

The door of the elevator slid open.

“Quickly now,” Nighna said. “Lean on me. I have a cab waiting.”

Nighna, possessed of demon strength even in human form, was able to practically carry Giles to the taxi that had curbed in front of the hotel. She put him into the seat, then knelt beside him. He could feel the heaviness of her body against his, which felt quite unpleasantly light.

“There is one more thing,” she said. “Angel’s soul. He needs it to fulfil his destiny. Thellian wishes him to keep it because one way or the other, it all falls on Angel. Do you understand me? Nod if you understand.”

Giles nodded. Red and black spots swirled across his field of vision. Spike had been right. The Shanshu...

Giles tried to say something, to ask questions... something, but the words clotted in his throat. All he managed to utter was a thin sentence of spittle from his lips.

Nighna disappeared. He heard her direct the cab driver to Parkside Memorial Hospital. In moments, he was speeding away through the sun-spangled streets of London, to safety, and to death.

 

 

Andrew used his knock spell to get in to Nighna’s flat. In seconds, he acquired the target.

There was a small Italian table beside the cage on which Nighna displayed her collection of rare perfume bottles. A silver brocade cloth covered the table. Andrew ripped the cloth from the table, scattering the precious glass curios like chips of ice across the floor. He covered the cage and the startled bird inside. He left as quickly as he arrived. The entire operation took less than seven minutes.

Andrew knew a thing or two about Kimaris demons. He knew they preferred their human disguises to their demon forms. They folded themselves into society, embracing the culture, the literature, and the arts. They found political intrigues far too delicious to resist. These were all common factlets any amateur demonologist could find.

But Andrew managed to unearth one little known fact in his demon studies. Unlike most demons, Kimaris had souls. Discorporeal souls. Nighna’s could be found within a needle of gold, concealed within an egg, which was hidden inside the body of a bird.

Clarisse was the link to Nighna’s powers. Sever it, and Nighna became a normal girl. Forever.

 

Chapter Text

 

Don't worry about the world coming to an end today. It's already tomorrow in Australia."
Charles Schultz

 

A light dissection for Dawn turned out to be completely unbinding. She had an idea, but to get it to work, she had to take the journal apart. Literally.

Dawn locked her bedroom door. She took the foot-soak pan from under her sink. She filled to a depth less than a quarter of an inch, adding a squirt of hand soap. Then, Dawn placed the spine of the Damas Journal into sudsy warm water. She could hear Giles flipping out somewhere across the Atlantic, reminding her in his crimped British tone that the Damas book was over five centuries old and one should never, ever submerse an invaluable text in any liquid, least of all water.

After a few minutes soaking, she opened her desk drawer and removed a silver letter opener. She inserted the blade into the end of the book, under the softened leather binding. She sliced through spine. Its lacing popped wetly, like spaghetti noodles. The journal fell apart in sections. Dawn wiped away the water, careful not to smear the entries Damas had so painstakingly inked.

Dawn separated the pages by hand, one by one, laying them across her bed in order from the first to the last. When she was done, the crisp, warped pages covered all of her bed, the floor between bed and bedroom door, her desk and the seat of her chair. Dawn stood back, having papered herself into the corner. She tucked her hair behind her ears.

“So, Mr. Damas,” she said. “What is it you’re trying to tell us?”

 

 

“Okay,” MK said. “Your turn next.”

Anjelica shook out the tension from her hands. She raked her plain hair back from her forehead, then tossed it playfully over her shoulders. Pursing her lips, she pranced in front of MK, exaggerating every heel-toe motion of her foot. She came to a stop inches from the smaller girl, striking a commanding pose.

“All right, Miss Mouse,” she barked. “What the hell kind of vampire you gonna slay with moves like that?”

MK shuddered, chewing her lip.

“What are you laughing at, maggot?” Anjelica bellowed, riding on the wave of MK’s enthusiasm. “Did I say something humorous?”

MK burst into peals of laughter. Anjelica joined in.

Buffy witnessed the whole charade from the glassed-in lobby and couldn’t resist the opportunity to bust in on their game.

“What is going on in here?” Buffy yelled, all drill-sergeant-y.

Anjelica and MK bounded to attention. MK squeaked. Both girls relaxed a little when they saw that it was Buffy.

“We are so glad to see you,” Anjelica said.

“And glad that you’re feeling better,” MK added.

Buffy crossed the training floor to form in a rough triangle with them. “Where are the others?” she asked. The sense of wrongness that Slayers often get in some situations crept into her belly.

Both girls leapt to explain.

“They went out on patrol with Kennedy,” Anjelica said.

“And they never came back,” MK finished.

Anjelica said, “We’ve been here all night...”

“...Because Kennedy said we were either with her...”

“...or with you. Which was against her,” Anjelica said.

“What?” Buffy said.

“It’s true,” MK said. “They were taking out a nest...”

“And they never returned,” Anjelica said. “So we’ve been waiting.”

Buffy wrung her hands. This felt bad. Major bad. She said, “Why didn’t you call us?”

Anjelica glanced at MK then nodded. “We tried that,” she said.

“Busy for hours,” Anjelica said. “Finally we gave up.”

“We fell asleep,” MK explained.

Buffy chewed on her thumbnail. Right now that protein-rich breakfast Willow and William pressed upon her wasn’t sitting so well.

“Get the weapons. Take as many as you can carry,” Buffy said, with a nod of finality. “You’re coming with me.”

Anjelica headed toward the storage room, with MK in tow.

MK stopped halfway. She said, “What about the others?”

Buffy swept a look around the school. Heaviness settled on her, and with it, certainty.

“There are no others,” Buffy said. “Let’s go.”

 

 

Autumn in London had once been his favorite time of year. A century ago, fall began with the smell of burning, of fires lit in hearths to carry warmth to the families who snuggled down so peacefully, so obliviously in their cozy beds. There was also the wet, smoky scent of burnt leaves that conjured memories of massacres with Drusilla at his side.

It was a Halloween scent, one of haystacks and scarecrows, of death and blood and divine destruction. How he treasured it.

William could smell it now. October. He breathed it in. Could almost taste it.

“You’re smoking?”

William opened his eyes. Xander stood on the flagstone patio, hands shoved into pockets, the look of ‘I-knew-you-were-up-to-no-good’ on his face.

He scoffed. “Allow me this once vice,” William said. He took a long drag from the cigarette, drawing the hot smoke into his lungs. He closed his eyes, almost prayerfully. Then, blowing it out, he said, “Took all the rest, they did.”

Without a word, Xander joined William on the picnic table.

“How’s the girl?” William asked, after a bit. He mashed out his cigarette on the tabletop.

“Going home,” Xander said. “She’s scared. Been through a lot. We can’t expect...”

“Course not,” William said. “But you did expect. Am I right?”

“Damn right. Can’t she see that there won’t be a home to go to if she’s not here to play her part in the saving of it?” Xander said. “I get that she’s put off by the whole predestination thing. That’s a bitter pill to swallow if you’ve never had to wonder what the plural is for apocalypse. That said, she seems well-versed with magics and alternate dimensions, yet...”

“She needs her family,” William said simply.

“You know, I never really cared for you,” Xander said.

“I never cared for you not caring,” William answered.

“Shut up for a second,” Xander said.

William shrugged.

“I never really cared for you,” Xander repeated. “Until just, like, last week. Sometime.”

Furrows formed in William’s forehead. “Is that right?”

“You really have no idea, do you?” Xander said, with a giant-sized sigh. “You are one lucky bastard, and I don’t even think you know it.”

William looked tired. He shook his head. “Believe me,” he said, bitterness choking him. “I know how lucky I am.”

Xander squared his shoulders, staring straight at William. He said, “You’re just...” he swallowed. “You’re the guy who’s got our Buffy. I wish to everything it wasn’t you. But it is. So. Just don’t let her down. Okay?”

William glared at Xander with a mixture of bland amusement and seething dislike. “Remind me later to thank you,” he said. He practically vaulted from the table and stalked off toward the back door.

“Thank me for what?” Xander called to him.

William hesitated, his hand on the door. “For saving my life,” He jerked the door open and went inside.

 

 

Having witnessed the hole in the world firsthand, the cave system beneath Stonehenge was a less than stunning revelation. Angel arrived there at sunset with Thellian. They navigated the chambers and vaults, descending into the catacombs below.

Buffy had been there. Not only her, but all of them. He could smell them all over the place.

Until they reached the final chamber, the one that the Priestess herself had unearthed beneath Boadicea’s tomb. At that point, the only scent he could smell was her sickly yellow taint of corruption.

The Priestess, for all her crackling fury, made no impression upon Angel. He knew that the trouble with dark magics was that they fed off the life force of its user. People who abused the black juice usually shriveled up like human jerky. But The Priestess had found a clever way to circumvent this problem. She became a vampire. The dark magics suddenly had a renewable resource in the form of fresh blood.

Angel doubted strongly that The Priestess, also known to him as Amy the Rat Girl, could have managed such a feat on her own. Someone must have acted as her benefactor. Judging by the way Thellian sneered at her, Angel also doubted that it was any of his vampire clique.

They found the Priestess strutting and swishing around the cavernous room, flourishing her dark energy tendrils, like they were all that. Thellian greeted her with a bow devoid of affection.

“You are fourteen minutes late,” she said, sliding her purplish forked tongue over her blistered lips.

“Time means nothing, Priestess,” Thellian told her. “Your impatience is a human attribute.”

The Priestess’ eyes glittered in torchlight like water beetles. She placed her hands on her hips and quietly fumed.

“Where is our captive?” Thellian said, maintaining his calm command.

“In the next chamber,” The Priestess hissed. “She is already on the Circle.”

 

 

Andrew returned to the church of the Sisters where his chalk drawing, blurred now by humidity, remained etched into the dust. He put Clarisse aside, concealing her in shadow. The bird, too damn clever for Andrew’s own good, told him to go to hell in several languages, some demonic, before he put a drop cloth over the cage. This only muffled the mynah’s raucous chatter.

He began the conjuration ritual anew, changing the phase of the moon by erasing a sliver of it with the heel of his hand. With the circle drawn and the objects arranged, Andrew perched, legs crossed, to wait again for midnight. The conditions were less than ideal, and trying this conjuration again could be disastrous, like he could summon a Volkswagon van full of demonic spiders, but Andrew had to try.

Nighna waited until Andrew stopped fidgeting before approaching him.

“There are wards against what you’re doing,” she said.

Andrew popped up to his feet with a strangled squeak.

Nighna walked purposefully toward him, dangling a silver device between her finger and thumb. “Cell phones,” she told him. “You should look into them. Can’t believe you haven’t, actually. You are the consummate technophiliac.”

“How are you here? Did I conjure you then fall asleep?” Andrew asked.

Nighna lowered her eyelids. “Sweetheart, as I recall there never was much actual sleep with us.”

Andrew brandished his chalk at her, thinking (or hoping) that it was a cross. Then he dropped the chalk, realizing that it couldn’t help him. And neither could a cross, for that matter. She was a demon, not a vampire.

So he went for the thing that would. Andrew darted backward, picked up his knife, and crouched beside Clarisse’s cage.

Nighna froze. For a moment. Then she started her patient procession toward him. “Well played, Andrew. But you won’t do it.”

Andrew ripped back the cover. He rammed the knife’s blade between the bars. Clarisse’s cries shattered the air, sending waves of pain into his skull.

“Stop,” Nighna shouted.

Andrew waited. Clarisse rattled inside the cage, molting black feathers like a cat sheds in the summer.

Nighna took another cautious step forward.

“Freeze,” Andrew said. “Andy’s done playing.”

“All right, Andrew. What do you want?” Nighna asked.

Andrew scrubbed his shaking free hand over the side of his face. He felt dreadful. He knew what cucumbers must feel like having been pickled.

He said, “The crayola scribbling on my hand. What is it?”

Nighna slid her feet over the stones, inching between a checkerboard of light and dark.

“No toucha,” Andrew said. “Or your bird gets it.”

“It’s my mark,” Nighna said. “You are under my protection.”

“Liar!” Andrew raised the blade. Clarisse howled.

Nighna threw out her hands. “It’s the truth, damn it. I’ve marked you to keep you safe.”

“Safe from what?”

“From Thellian. From Wolfram & Hart. They have a plan, Andrew. It has already advanced beyond the point of no return. Those who aren’t marked are dead. I swear it to you,” Nighna said. All of the smiley flirtatiousness had drained from her face. Andrew looked from her to Clarisse. Unmanly tears welled in his eyes.

“How can I believe what you swear?” he said. “You’re a vile demon seductress who steals men’s shoes and marks them for death. You’re like Emma Frost...”

“Andrew.”

“Or Jean Grey before Dark Phoenix, when she found herself drawn to both Cyclops and Wolverine.”

“Andrew,” Nighna said, louder this time.

“Or Enchantress. You’re the Borg Queen, but I don’t want to be assimilated.”

“Andrew!”

“What?”

“Your friends are doomed,” she told him. “All of them.”

“You’re just trying to frighten me,” Andrew said, gulping like a guppy. “It won’t work.”

“Mr. Giles is in ICU at Parkside Memorial. I put him there myself. Thellian took out the Slayers last night,” she said.

“I’ve been tricked before, but not this time. You’re lying.”

“I’m not. Andrew, the Circle is awake. Thellian will invoke it soon, if he has not already. When he does, any one who does not bear a mark of protection will fall. Understand?”

Despite the sluggishness of his weary mind, Andrew compiled all of this news quickly. It appeared to Nighna that he was eroding, giving in, giving up like a good boy. In a flash, Andrew flung the cage door open, seizing Clarisse by the throat. She pecked him savagely, but he held tight.

Nighna rushed in. Andrew pointed the blade at her.

“You want the bird? I’ll give you the bird,” Andrew said, toying with her. He sounded like a cross between Simon Cowell and Clint Eastwood.

Nighna held still.

“The Circle, Nighna,” Andrew said through clenched teeth. “What does it do?”

 

 

Kennedy flickered in and out of consciousness. Her burning face lay against cool stone. Everything else faded, effaced by the billowy effects of morphine.

They dosed her twice that she could remember. Once, at the Westbury house. Another time, in an armored truck on the way to Amesbury. She caught things in flashes, but now the earth materialized around and beneath her.

Kennedy knew. She was in danger. She felt numbness in her fingers and was slow to realize that her hands were bound behind her back. She licked her lips; they were sticky with blood.

“She’s coming to,” someone said. His voice was laced with a French accent. The same W&H bastard from the house in Westbury.

“Hit her again,” said another.

They came at her with a syringe. Without thinking, she swept to her knees. She head-butted the kneecaps of the nearest blurred figure, then tumbled backward, dashing to her feet.

The world reeled and wavered. Kennedy stumbled into spires of rock – stalactites. She was in a cave. The slick floor betrayed her. She sprawled, clocking her forehead on the stone.

A heavy, scaled hand gripped her by the scruff of her neck. She kicked, scratched, bit, screamed, but the syringe drove deep into her upper arm. Seconds later, she drifted away.

Time passed unbidden. She awoke again to the sounds of voices echoing like water droplets in a pool. Three this time – two men and a woman. Kennedy summoned what was left of her wrecked wits and strength.

“Give a gold coin to the man in black,” The woman said, humorlessly. “The irony here is that The Slayers have already done a bunch of the work for us. They uncovered the Circle, which had been lost for centuries. They opened the Seals, giving us direct access to this chamber, and recently, I have been informed that they succeeded in waking it. The Ritual has begun, and they don’t even know it.”

“And how do we finish it?” one of the men asked. Kennedy knew that voice.

“Angel,” she said, her mouth barely moving.

“Her blood is the key,” said the other man. His voice drew everything together. Thellian. And Angel. Kennedy squeezed her eyes tightly shut.

“Oh Willow,” she whispered miserably. “I’m sorry.”

Angel lifted Kennedy by the shoulders.

“It’s my blood or yours,” he explained.

Kennedy spat in his face. Angel made no move to wipe it away. He twisted his fist in the collar of her shirt.

“I’ll kill myself before I let you vampify me,” Kennedy growled.

Angel’s laughter hummed deep inside his chest. “Good thing that’s not what I intend,” he said.

And without a further word, Angel sliced Kennedy’s throat.

“A vampire with a soul will play a pivotal role in the Apocalypse,” Angel said. He dropped her to the cold rock while she struggled in vain to draw breath.

The last thing Kennedy saw was the icy blue-white tracery inlaid in the stone. She touched it with the palm of her hand and felt nothing.

 

 

Regrets

 

He said I'm gonna buy this place and burn it down
I'm gonna put it six feet underground
He said I'm gonna buy this place and watch it fall
Stand here beside me baby

in the crumbling walls
Oh I'm gonna buy this place and start a fire
Stand here until I fill

all your hearts desires
Because I'm gonna buy this place and see it burn
Do back the things it did to you in return

He said Oh I'm gonna buy a gun

and start a war
If you can tell me something

worth fighting for
Oh and I'm gonna buy this place,

that's what I said
Blame it upon a rush of blood to the head

 

A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay

 

The Scooby Gang had practice at making accommodations. In Sunnydale, they had been like a youth hostel for wayward Potentials. Xander was hoping it didn’t go that far, with the teenage girls forming lines outside the bathrooms and daily brawls over low-fat dairy products. The horror...

Still, he was a good sport in surrendering his sofa bed for Mikayla and Anjelica. Maya agreed to hang out one more day to help with the cooking. This was a particularly generous offer, considering that Andrew had phantomed on them and Willow had returned to Westbury to confront Kennedy on her anti-Buffy slay-fest. The arrangement displaced Xander to the fold-a-bed in the game room, but he couldn’t complain. He knew how to cook in a beans-n-weenies on a hot plate way. Dawn had been banned from the kitchen for her outlandish experiments with tofu and Wheatabix. And Buffy once made toast.

Maya busied herself in the kitchen making King Ranch casserole, substituting nacho chips for corn tortillas since London groceries lacked such. She was politely dodging Dawn, who came downstairs for maybe the fortieth time to reference something on the Circle against a scrap of paper. Maya had suggested Dawn just bring her work downstairs. Dawn grunted dismissively and plodded back to her room.

Xander came up from the basement, toting pillows. Maya said, “Is Dawn always so tenacious?”

“Did she insist upon soy cheese in the casserole?” Xander asked. “Because if she did...” He shuddered bodily.

Maya chopped canned chilies into a fine green paste on the butcher board. “No. But she’s been researching for hours without a break. Should we intervene? And by we, I mean you,” Maya said.

“Oh no,” Xander said. He slipped a pinch of grated cheese from the bowl on the counter. All cheddar. No soy. “I vowed to never intervene on Dawn’s behalf. I still have the scorch marks on my neck.”

“Scorch marks?” Maya fluttered.

“Long, really long story,” Xander said. “Hey, corn chips!”

Buffy came in from the hallway. “Corn chips. Gimme.” She snatched the bag from Xander.

“They’re for the recipe,” Maya protested.

Dawn came back downstairs. She hovered at the dining table, hair all mussed, pockets under her eyes large enough to hold loose change.

“Hey, Dawnie. What’s up?” Buffy said, taking the chips with her. Maya trailed along, thus Xander followed.

Dawn turned to them as if seeing them all for the first time. “Oh, um...”

William came in. “The mini-Slayers have had the full tour,” he said. “I’m off duty. Xander can play RA next round.”

“Will there be a next round?” Xander asked.

“Dawn,” Buffy said, more firm. “You have worry face.”

Dawn said, “You hate corn chips.”

Buffy glanced from the bag to William, then handed the chips off to Maya.

“You defaced a book. Bad you,” Xander said. He pointed to the frayed and discolored edge of the pages Dawn clutched in her hand.

“More like de-bodied,” Dawn said.

“Giles is gonna have you kneel on dry beans and recite Hail Mary’s,” Xander said.

“It’s the Damas journal,” Dawn said. “But I need Willow. And I need Andrew. It’s all big chunks of not making sense.”

“Why’d you debook the book?” William said.

Dawn raked her hair back. “Remember when Giles said we needed to search for the Compendium of Prophecies? That it was Damas’ favorite pastime?”

They all nodded, vaguely. William said, “Yeah, niblet. What of it?”

Dawn gestured to the scrolls that formed the Circle. “This is it. The prophecies. But they’re in code. See?”

This drew a round of blank faces.

Dawn tapped the pages with her fingers. “These pages, the entries, they aren’t dates. I noticed a connection between the couplets on the scrolls and the numbered entries. So I dismantled the journal, and I’ve been pairing them up,” she said. “Chock full of prophecies. But the going is slow, with me as solo translator.”

Xander, Buffy and William were dumbstruck. Dawn smiled a little in spite of herself.

“Well,” Buffy said, at length. “Anything of use yet?”

“Yes,” Dawn said. “Maybe.” She searched the scrolls, looking for a particular couplet. “This one,” she said, pointing.

The others gathered in. Maya got so close to Xander, the chips crunched in the bag between them.

“This one relates to the prophecy regarding the Master,” Dawn said.

Xander shrugged. “Would have been helpful, oh, say, seven years ago...”

“And this one,” Dawn said, indicating another couplet. “Talks about a prophecy about something having more demons than to shake a pointy stick at. That’s a rough translation.”

“What about Thellian?” Buffy said.

“No direct mention. Yet,” Dawn said. “But my bedroom floor is papered with the pages of this book, so I still have lots of ground to cover. And I did find one, which may be relevant.” Dawn located one of the couplets near the symbol of the Rose. She shuffled her pages and read the corresponding entry.

“Here,” she said, clearing her throat. “It says, ‘A vampire with a soul will play a pivotal role in the apocalypse.’”

“Shanshu,” William stated.

“You’re sure?” Buffy asked.

William blew out a long sigh. “I’m sure.”

“There’s more,” Dawn said. “The sea will run with blood and the world will witness...”

“The world will witness Destruction as it has never seen,” Buffy said. They all looked at her. “The Sisters,” she said. “It’s what they said.”

“Okay,” Xander said. “Getting heebies of the jeebies kind.”

“Seas running with blood,” Maya said. “That’s Revelations.”

“I think you’re getting the picture,” Buffy said. “What else is there?”

Dawn skimmed the page. “There are words here... Demonic words, I think. I need Andrew to be sure about them. But, again, very loosely, it says, ‘A Circle forged in the demon age will awaken with a dual purpose, or it may be nature. With a vampire’s blood, a lineage undone, or by the blood of a child which unites the blood of a Champion with the seed of a virgin. This child will bring ruination or grant succor...’”

William’s brow wrinkled. The furrows there were becoming permanent lines of apprehension. He bent to whisper in Buffy’s ear. “Pet, I need a word.”

She said, quietly, through constrained smiley teeth. “Wait is a word.”

He nudged her. “Now is a word. I need that word. Now.”

“Oh fine,” she said. She went along with him, through the back room and into the garden. The others they left behind to wonder.

William closed the door firmly behind them.

“If you’re going to entreat me not to patrol, I might knee you to the groin,” she said in a faux chipper tone.

“Buffy,” he said. He struggled to say something, but promptly tromped away. It was nippy out, and she was not in the best of moods. That whole ‘Kennedy mutinied and took all my students’ thing was not how she wanted her week to wind up.

William prowled back and forth across the lawn, flattening the grass beneath his boots.

“William,” she said.

He babbled as he paced. “We thought it was us. Of course we did. Chosen Ones, all about the power and the pre-ordained weaponry. But it’s not us. Not us. They wanted what was inside,” he said, gesturing wildly. “What was inside. Holy vessel. Seed of a virgin. Joke’s on old Spike. Couldn’t see it, but it’s bloody there in bold print...”

“So hating the channeling of Drusilla,” Buffy said. She was impatient, yes. But also concerned. He was talking like he had when the First had its feelers in his brain.

William strode up to her. He smoothed his hands down the length of her arms. “Buffy,” he said. “The prophecy with the child...”

Buffy looked heavenward. She put her hands to her temples, smiling gently. “Look at Mr. Paranoia,” she said. “It can’t be us. It said ‘virgin’, William. I mean, I’m no Madonna, but I have had...”

All color had fled from William’s face. “I was born in a different, very different time,” he said. “I was son to a respected doctor. A gentleman.”

Buffy looked confused.

“And as such,” he went on, clenching his jaws. “Buffy, men in my time, in my station. There were things not done. Things not considered in polite society.” He paused, waiting for her to catch on. Still she only stared.

William made a pained sound. “My first was Drusilla, Buffy. After I became a vampire,” he said. “Don’t you see? I am the virgin in question.”

A stunned silence elapsed. Full twenty seconds of complete and utter shock, before Buffy burst into laughter.

Appalled, William watched her, laughing at him. Which made her laugh even more.

“Bit vulnerable here, luv,” he said, quietly.

She slapped the sleeve of his shirt. Tears squirted from her eyes. William bit his lip, but couldn’t help himself. He started laughing too. After a bit of this, they had to hang on each other just to remain standing.

Xander popped his head through the door, bringing their laughapalooza to a speedy halt.

“We sane people inside want to know what could possibly warrant such an outburst,” Xander said.

Sobering quickly, William said, “We were just remembering a... movie.”

“Very humorous movie,” Buffy added. “About...”

“Vampires,” William offered.

They knew they sounded nothing like convincing. Sensing a cover up, Xander decided to push.

“Which movie?” he said.

“What?” William asked.

“Movie,” Xander said. “You said vampire comedy and I’m thinking I’ve seen every title.”

Dracula 2000,” Buffy blurted. “Very funny. Like vampires would do any of those things, with the... stuff.”

Xander said nothing. He shut the door, leaving them with his best fatherly glare.

With the laughter gone, Buffy felt scoured out and scared.

“It can’t be us,” Buffy repeated.

“It is us,” William said.

He touched his forehead to hers. He felt like an ant under a magnifying glass, like the best he could do was make sure she didn’t get herself blackened.

“We should go,” Buffy said. “We can talk more when we’re on patrol.”

 

 

Blood stained Angel’s hands. It spread across the cave floor in a black pool. It matted in the tangled fan of Kennedy’s black hair.

“It didn’t work,” Thellian said. It was a statement bereft of emotion.

“What do you mean, it didn’t work?” The Priestess snapped. “How do you know?”

Angel stared at the smears of blood on his fingers. Absurd thoughts of Rorschach ink blots floated like ghosts in his mind.

“She is not the one we need,” Thellian said.

The Priestess stormed around the outer rim of the Circle. “You did it wrong,” she shouted, pointing a bony finger at Angel. “You sabotaged us.”

Angel raised his eyes. The look in them brought her to a hasty stop.

Thellian rested his hands in the small of his back, arms akimbo. “Angel knows what this means,” he said.

Angel pressed his lips into a thin line.

“Well share, big boy. Let’s have it,” The Priestess said.

Luxe cut his eyes at her, but she, being one with her infinite badness, ignored him.

“It means,” Angel began. He wiped his hands on the tails of his shirt. Then started again. “It means Buffy is the one.”

The Priestess watched him, eyes glinting predatory. Then she threw her head back and cackled. The sound was like thousands of flapping bats in a belfry, and it unnerved Angel to the point that he decided he’d like to kill her before all of this was done.

“That’s rich,” The Priestess said, between her hideous hacks of laughter. “Buffy is the alpha, after all. It makes sense. Still, it was worth the try with this one. Now we know.”

“Maybe Faith...” Angel offered. Immediately, he wished he had not.

Thellian stepped over the spreading pool of blood. He measured Angel with an alien precision. A silence ensued. Even the Priestess with her limited grace knew better than to break it.

Only Thellian had that power. He said, “Can you do it, Angel? Can you slay the Slayer?”

Angel remained still. He turned the blade in his hand.

“Perhaps you don’t understand what’s at stake,” Thellian told him. “Perhaps you have lost your ability to see the whole picture.”

Angel shook his head. “I can’t do it,” he said. “Don’t ask this.” Angel turned, ready to exit, ready to wash the blood from his hands.

“Your son, Angel,” Thellian said. The words rang out like crystal bells in the dark.

Angel gripped the hilt of the dagger so hard its ragged edges bit into his palm. “What about my son?” he asked.

Thellian came to stand inches behind Angel, near enough to put his hand on his shoulder. “The Slayers know of the Circle. It is only a matter of time before they discover its secret,” he said.

“And that is?” Angel said, raising his tone.

“That the Circle turns both ways,” Luxe said, stepping in. “They kill you, and it is your bloodline that dies.”

“Vampires,” Angel said.

The Priestess leered. “Pretty un-nifty, huh?”

“Not just vampires,” Thellian said. He measured out every syllable for the perfect theatrical effect. “Tell me, Angel. Connor’s mother: she was what exactly?”

Angel’s heart twisted and lurched like a drowning creature. “Darla was a vampire,” he said.

“And you,” Thellian said. “Also a vampire.”

Angel faced Thellian. “You knew this. All along, you knew that Connor...”

Thellian walked slowly away from Angel. He nudged Kennedy’s chin with the toe of his eel-skin shoes.

Luxe said, “In truth, we hoped it would never come to this. We wanted the Circle to remain buried. I went to great lengths to ensure that its conservators kept it secret.”

Thellian continued his deliberate steps. He said, “Ironically, it was Miss Summers who awoke the Slayer line. She accelerated my plans. I could have held out forever, Angel. I could have waited until the civilizations of today lay crumbled beneath layers of sand. Yet here we stand.”

“It’s our destiny,” The Priestess said, echoing him like a perfect little crony.

“And Connor is your blood,” Thellian said.

Angel wiped the D’Ganti blade on his pants leg. He felt the weight of it against his palm, and swallowed the lump in his throat.

“Connor is all I have left,” he said.

 

 

The front door the Westbury house swung open, crunching over glass in the foyer. Willow stepped gingerly inside, not knowing what to expect.

She found the hall table had been uprighted. The mirror that hung over it had been smashed. Shards of mirror-glass littered the Persian carpet she and Kennedy had bought together at Notting Hill. Icy tendrils of fear spread through Willow’s body. She bent to the rug, searching for blood. She found the brass mail holder trailing a dozen or so unopened letters and cards. Willow scooped them up, tucking them into her shoulder bag before moving beyond the foyer.

Willow strained to hear the sound of voices. She hoped against what she already knew that perhaps Kennedy and the girls were upstairs. Maybe there had been a disagreement. Slayers tended to be a temperamental lot.

Willow centered herself. She reached out with her mind to check the wards on the house. They hummed with a warm goldeny glow, just like they were supposed to. Her protection spell was unbroken, which meant that whatever happened here, it all went down inside.

She heard nothing. Felt nothing. The house was a barren shell. Worse than that, Kennedy and the others were gone.

Foreboding filled her. Willow covered her mouth and nose with steepled fingers. She regretted the things she and Kennedy said to each other. She swore, should she have the chance, she would make it right. She prayed for the chance to just make it right again.

Willow turned to leave. As she did, her foot kicked a crumpled piece of mail across the glassy floor. Willow bent to retrieve Connor’s postcard. She turned it over, smoothing it out between her steady hands.

“That’s odd,” she mumbled to herself. “Angel has the blade.”

Willow tucked the postcard into the front pocket of her purse. Angel has a knife, and Connor wants us to know about it, she thought. More importantly: Why?

The house felt cold. Willow hugged her arms to her chest. No point in staying if the reason she was here was gone. Willow decided to check in with the Coven before heading back to the Flat.

Maybe Buffy would have better news.

 

 

They never made it out to patrol. When Buffy and William reentered the hallway, the telephone was on its second ring. Dawn beat them to the receiver.

“Andrew?” she asked. Dawn listened for a moment, then looked up, eyes wide. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, she’s here.”

Dawn passed the phone to Buffy.

“Yes. I’m Buffy Summers,” she said. “Who’s speaking?”

Buffy was nodding. She steadied herself against the phone stand. “That’s right. We’re his family,” she said. “Is he... all right?”

“What...?” Xander mouthed.

Dawn said, “Hospital.”

“Parkside Memorial?” Buffy confirmed. “I’m on my way.”

Buffy slammed the receiver into its cradle. She was tugging her jacket from the coat rack when William snagged her elbow.

“Let me go,” she said. All at once, she was pulling away and imploding.

“Buffy,” Dawn said, gently. “What is it?”

“It’s Giles,” she said. “He’s hurt.”

“Oh no,” Maya said. “How bad is it?”

Buffy appeared lost. She said, “I have to go.”

“Wait,” Xander said. “We’ll all go, Buffy. I mean, he’s our Giles too.”

Buffy bowed her head. “There’s just so much...” She choked on her words.

“Let’s go,” William said. “I’ll drive.”

For once, Xander didn’t object.

They were on their way out of the door, when Xander saw Maya teetering in the hallway, not sure whether she should join them or return to her cooking.

He slipped back inside.

“Maya, I hate to even ask but,” Xander began. “They just got here. Plus, Andrew may come back with information.”

“I can stay here,” Maya said. “Wait with the minis till y’all get back.”

Xander firmly kissed her forehead.

Maya watched them go. She felt a silly surge of protectiveness, like she didn’t want them to leave.

“I can do this,” she told herself. She went back to the kitchen and her chopping board. Soon, she had pulverized a whole peck of peppers. “Yep,” she said. “I can do this.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Lorne opened his purple door.

“That’s it,” he said. “I’m going to post a sign that says ‘Dethwok in Hiding.’ That way, everyone can just drop in. I may put up a velvet rope, hire a bouncer...”

Connor brushed past him. He looked as though he had leapt from bed in California, slapped on some flip-flops and caught a plane to London. His Vote for Pedro T-shirt had a rumpled, slept-in look and smelled of airline coffee.

“Have you heard from my Dad?” Connor asked. He kneaded his hands into fists.

Lorne shut the door. “No, kiddo. Not a peep,” he said. “You want a... soda?”

Connor swept his hair back from his forehead. “Did you call him?”

Lorne knew Connor wouldn’t like the answer, but spilled anyway. “I did, Cons. Thing was, Angel spent the day tied up in meetings. Had to leave a message. And he never called back.”

“Meetings?” Connor said. “What sort?”

Lorne absented himself into the kitchen. Kid didn’t want a drink, but it was absolute necessity for Lorne.

“You’re not telling,” Connor said. “Which means I’m right.”

Lorne peeked out from the pass-through bar. “Right about what?”

“My Dad’s in trouble,” he said.

Lorne stared. His red mouth drew down into a rigid grimace. He said, “You gotta trust that Angel knows his barley from his hops, his wheat from chaff. Your Pop can handle himself.”

“No,” Connor said, heading for the door.

“Kiddo. Wait. You just got here,” Lorne said. “Where are you going?”

Connor stepped out onto the quiet street. “To get help,” he said.

 

 

They met Dr. Chapman in a first-floor emergency suite. It was the kind of ward that held several patients sequestered behind drawn sterile-blue curtains on runners. All six beds were occupied; the doctor stopped them just inside the doorway before they could locate the one in which Giles slept.

The doctor wore a resolute frown on his young face. His sparse wavy hair, which was already going gray, clung to his forehead in sweaty strings.

“Which of you is Miss Summers?” the doctor asked.

Buffy stepped forward. “How is he?” she asked, immediately.

The doctor drew back the nearest curtain.

At first glance, he seemed to be resting peacefully, partially reclined in the hospital bed like a man who had just come down from a minor procedure in the oncology ward. And maybe that was because that’s what they all wanted to see.

The light was dim, so the marks presented themselves slowly. Yellowed bruises banded his wrists. Several short gashes – claw-marks – serrated his hairline. Bulky bandages around his neck concealed the worst of his wounds. They all knew what those were. A plastic tube snaked around the bedrail, delivering blood to Giles’ body from a near empty pouch suspended from the rack above his head. Other various wires linked him to machines that whirred and hummed at the bedside.

Buffy lay her hands on Giles forearm. Her stomach churned in an uncomfortable way. She half-expected to find the skin cold. To her relief, he was warm. Just resting.

“He’s sedated,” Dr. Chapman told them.

After a moment, Xander said, “Sedated? Why?”

Dr. Chapman removed his Buddy Holly glasses. He tapped the earpiece to his lip, thoughtfully, and in a very Giles-like manner, as if searching for the most diplomatic way to put the news.

“He tried to escape,” he told them. “He refused a transfusion. Kept ripping the IV feed from his arm. He had lost a great deal of blood, you understand. He was delirious. We restrained him, of course, but...” Dr. Chapman chuckled. It was hollow, weary sound. “He’s much stronger than he looks.”

“So you gave him a sedative to treat him?” Buffy said.

“It was the only way. Once we got him stabilized, we could set our minds to the task of finding his relations,” Dr. Chapman said. “It was bloody near impossible, I can tell you that. He came in John Doe this afternoon. No identification and near unconscious.”

“How did he get here?” Buffy asked. “I mean, when last we heard he was in New York.”

The doctor shrugged. He slipped his glasses into the pocket of his coat. “Taxi cab dropped him at the emergency room doors,” he said. “We assumed by the nature of his injuries that he was held captive for a time and escaped. God knows how. The neck wounds are similar to many I’ve seen on patients of late.”

William shoved in, almost toppling the Doctor Chapman.

“Thanks, doc,” he snapped. “We’d like a moment alone with the patient.”

Dr. Chapman blinked, stunned to uselessness. William hefted the young man by his shoulders and moved him three feet to the left, and released him. The doctor scurried backward, bumping into Dawn in his retreat.

“What are you...?” Buffy whispered harshly. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Why would Rupert want to escape from a hospital?” William asked, keeping a hushed tone.

“Why would you send the doctor toddling off to find security?” Xander spat.

William fisted his hand in Xander’s shirt collar. “Look, you ignorant blighter,” he said.

Buffy slammed into both of them, forcing them apart.

“What are you doing?” she asked William. Her eyes were shining with tears. “What’s wrong with you?”

William laughed his age-old Spike laugh. “Why am I?” he asked. “Buffy, I know why Rupert wants out of this place. I understand it all now. And so does he. We didn’t win in Sunnydale.”

“What?” Buffy asked.

Xander made a derisive snort. “Beg to differ, Blondie. We walked out of there, and Big Bad, lacking legs, did not.”

“Yes, you walked out. At the expense of an entire town,” William said. He bit his lip. “Do you think vampires need our towns? They don’t. They like us to destroy. It’s then that we do their bloody work for them.”

Dawn, playing the part of the voice of reason, slipped in beside Buffy. “What does any of this have to do with Giles?” she asked.

William swaggered to the foot of Giles’ bed. “Wanna know how evil vampires can be, little bit?” He drew out the ‘e’ sound in evil. He ran his tongue over his teeth for effect. “Ask me. I know.”

Buffy leaned in. “Why are you doing this? Talking like this?” she whispered.

“This is what you’re signing up for, pet. This is me. Ask me what I know. I’m a walking, talking encyclopedia of blood and death,” he said.

Buffy shook her head. A hollowness filled the space under her ribs. As Jack Nicholson as he sounded, she began to get where he was heading.

William continued. “Vampires, Buffy. They’d target a hospital. What terminal patient could refuse the lure of life eternal? Hope to the hopeless. My guess: they’d take orphanages next. Followed by homeless shelters. Asylums. Power to the powerless.”

Dawn lifted her eyes to his. “Oh my God,” she said. “He’s building an army.”

“Who is?” Xander asked.

“All those starving nations no one ever sees,” Dawn said.

“I think you’re catching on,” William said.

Dawn nodded, fervently. “And Tara said to protect him, and Xander and Andrew. They’re all human.”

Buffy held up her hands. “Wait. Wait,” she said. “Can we stop with the Aldous Huxley here? You’re saying the Big Bad is vampires? Those we handle, remember? It’s all in the job title.”

“Right. You handle them,” he said. William came close to her. He lowered his face to hers, their noses nearly touching. “I bet your sweeps in Sunnydale never once included staking a child. And revenants, Buffy: Ever encounter one of those? Vampires who lost their minds before they were turned. Different breed of animal. They eviscerate and maim for the primal pleasure of it, drinking marrow from bones, painting their bodies with the blood of...”

“Okay. Enough,” Xander said, peeling William away. “You’ve made your point.”

Dazed, William said, “Have I? I’m not sure that I have. Every vampire we slay equals human casualty. They were people once, get it? Human. Like us.”

“And now they’re part of the Evil Empire,” Xander said. “Conscripted soldiers...”

“Fighting Thellian’s war,” Dawn added.

“We have to find him,” Buffy said. “We have to stop him.”

“What if it’s already too late?” Dawn asked, voice edged with desperation.

Buffy took Dawn’s hands. “It’s not,” she said, firmly. “We will find a way.”

Buffy saw the questions in Dawn’s eyes, and inwardly thanked her sister for not asking them. She wouldn’t know how to answer; she couldn’t answer the list that was growing inside her own head.

“So,” Xander said. “I’m just gonna ask. Please don’t slam me.”

“Can’t promise,” William muttered.

Xander’s good eye twitched. “What about Angel?” he asked.

Buffy did a poor job of hiding her sudden wince. “What about him?” she asked.

“Man with connections. Man who is also a vampire,” Xander said. “He must know something,”

Buffy held her breath, considering.

“I’ll find him,” William said.

“No. It’s too dangerous,” Buffy said. “For both of you. Besides, I need you here.”

William glowered. “Need me here for what? To play nursemaid for your Watcher?”

“To patrol,” Buffy said. She flicked her eyes to meet his. “Remember?”

William breathed a wavering sigh. “Course I remember, luv. But you belong here. With him. In case he wakes enough to jailbreak.”

Giles stirred slightly. His gown opened at the throat, exposing part of his thin chest and a crosshatching of scratches. The white cord of Willow’s charm lay against his sallow skin.

Buffy adjusted the sheet, tucking it in around him. His mouth parted, but his eyes remained shut. She swallowed hard. “Okay,” she said. “Guys, from now on, no one goes out alone. We’ll take shifts guarding Giles. I’ll go first.”

“And I’ll be here for the second shift,” Xander said. “Bright and early, with coffee and cream.”

“Good,” Buffy said. “Keep your phones nearby. If you hear from Willow or Kennedy, or any of the others, let me know. And I’ll take just cream, Xander. No coffee.”

“No coffee for Buffy?” Xander asked. “That must be a sign of the Apocalypse.”

William and Buffy exchanged a brief, beleaguered look.

Dawn said, “I can stay with you. Keep you company,” she said. “There could be card games.”

“I need you working on the Circle,” Buffy said. “Boadicea was a Slayer. The scrolls were hidden in her tomb. There has to be a connection somehow. Find out where it fits in.”

“I will,” Dawn said. She hugged Buffy, her gangly arms fitting all the way around her sister’s narrow shoulders. Xander and William hugged her as well, each in turn.

“Be careful,” she told them.

They swore to her they would.

 

 

Nighna raised her arms in an expansive yet fake yawn. She got to her feet.

“That’s all I know,” she said to Andrew. She looked down at his upturned face. “Find the dagger before he does, and your friends are home free.”

Andrew seemed to consider for a long while. He relaxed his grip on Clarisse’s feathered neck.

“Peckerhead,” the bird snarled, full of more venom than he thought fowl could contain.

“I guess,” he began. His throat was dry and sticky. He tried again. “I guess you can have your bird back. She’s pretty upset with me.”

Nighna offered a somber smile. “I think it best she stay with you,” she said. “I have told you enough tonight to warrant the necessity of keeping us far apart. For now.”

Andrew lowered his head. “I’ve placed you in danger,” he said.

“I did that myself,” Nighna said. She laughed. It was the vocal equivalent of chocolate. “Better or worse, it’s beyond my control. Andrew Wells.”

Nighna moved from the patch of light to dusky shadow, heading for the door.

“Uh, Nighna,” Andrew said to her back.

She paused.

“Maybe when...”

“Don’t say it,” Nighna interrupted. She continued into deeper darkness, and then was gone.

After a moment, Andrew closed the cage door. He wasn’t sure any of his actions had been good choices. He’d learned lots, but had the feeling he had lost a lot, too.

“Bad boy,” Clarisse scolded, making it plain to him just how she felt about her present situation.

Without a word, Andrew gathered his gear and the wire-frame cage. He walked out into the still, quiet night, feeling that everything had changed.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Seriously,” Lorne said. “Is my address posted on the Internet? Can you Mapquest this place? Because this is really...”

This came almost two hours after Lorne’s previous visitor stormed in and out of his flat in under fifteen minutes. He felt like Taco Bell Lorne. Now, here was Andrew, looking shabby in his chalky-kneed black jeans and ripe smelling turtleneck. Oh, yeah, and he carting a squawking, shrieking mass of beak and feathers in a flimsy cage, the kind you buy imported from Mexico at one of London’s street markets in the spring.

Andrew pressed in beneath Lorne’s attempt to strong-arm the door.

“You have to take my bird,” Andrew cried.

Lorne stammered, “You can’t give me the bird.”

Andrew set the cage to the floor. He bent over double to catch his breath.

“Wicked bad,” Clarisse declared.

“You have to take her,” Andrew said. “She’s not safe with me.”

“Hey, Mr. La Cage aux Folles,” Lorne said. “I am not a bird sanctuary.”

Andrew clapped his hands to his temples. “Look, Lorne. It’s temporary. Clarisse needs a home and Dawn’s, like, allergic to feathers.”

“Clarisse,” Lorne said. “As in Nighna’s Clarisse.”

“Yeah,” Andrew said.

“I heard you two were a hot item,” Lorne said. “You and Nighna. Not the bird.”

“We’re in an off-again phase,” Andrew said. “Buffy mentioned you guys were super-best pals.”

“Hold the guacamole, Sancho Panza,” Lorne said. He massaged the bridge of his nose. A headache was forming behind his eyes. “Nighna is not what I’d venture even close to calling compadre. She owes me, and Nighna’s all about business.”

Andrew considered for a moment. He said, “Then consider Clarisse currency.”

“Wanker!” Clarisse exclaimed.

“She always says that,” Andrew said, coughing in an embarrassed way into his hand. “She doesn’t mean it.”

“Look, kid,” Lorne said. “Much as I might enjoy minding a mynah with Turret’s, I’m all about avoiding the danger. I’ve made a clean break.”

“It would be a ginormous favor,” Andrew said, steadily growing shriller. “For me. And for Buffy. As in, Slayers of the world unite. As in, major good cause. I just got the DL on a whole bunch of pertinent material, which makes me Mr. Anti-Safety Dance. Fate of the world may depend...”

“’Kay!” Lorne said. “You have made very good points.” Lorne walked a very tight circle on the shag rug on his living room floor. It made him dizzy. “You know what this bird means, right?”

Andrew nodded. Very studiously, he recited the Watcher’s Codex entry regarding Kimaris demons. “Inside of the bird is an egg. Inside that egg is a needle made of gold. And inside that resides a Kimaris’ soul,” he said. “Nighna’s soul.”

“So you get a stamp for good studies,” Lorne said. “You must know she’ll come looking for her. They’re linked.”

“She won’t seek her out,” Andrew said, quietly. He avoided Lorne’s eyes.

“Something happen to Nines?” Lorne asked.

“She asked me to take her for now,” Andrew said. He smoothed his sweaty hands on his jeans. “So, Clarisse eats, like, berries and seeds and crickets. And she really loves Junior Mints, but you have to put them in the refrigerator first. If you give them to her warm, she just drops them in the bottom of her cage, and that draws slugs.”

Lorne grimaced.

“So, are we Coolsville?” Andrew said. He squinted at Lorne.

Lorne knew it was no use resisting. He had officially become the bird-sitter.

Before leaving, Andrew knelt beside the cage.

“It’s okay, Clarisse,” he told her. “Lorne’s cool in a pointy green demon sort of way. Kind of like pistachio ice cream. Also, he wears strangely vibrant clothes with paisleys. You’ll like him.”

Clarisse pecked at him through the bars. “Bite me,” she said.

Andrew stood up, uncomfortably. “You too,” he mumbled.

 

 

William patrolled. Ignoring Buffy’s edict that they all pair off, he went it alone. What he wanted was good, old-fashioned Sherlocking followed by a man-to-vamp chat with Angel. William stopped by the Flat long enough to arm himself with his fancy Nephillim dagger before turning himself out to the brisk, autumny London streets.

With the comfortable weight of the blade beneath his fingertips, William made his rounds. He found the cemeteries disturbingly quiet. He didn’t know if it was paranoia due to his revelation at Rupert’s bedside, or if there was something with teeth in it. But the city seemed empty. Void of unlife. Calm, before a storm.

After his patrol turned up nothing, he ventured back toward the Flat, detouring, as he knew he would, to check in on the Royal London Hotel. He discovered Angel’s quaint Zen garden, its ridged plow-marks like soft-serve ice cream scattered with fallen leaves. The double doors into the ballroom had been barred. The place was dark.

Without his heightened vamp senses, William had to use his brain-mass to find the quickest, quietest way to determine whether or not Angel was present in the penthouse suite. Which meant, he was buggered.

William shrugged. He tore a bare ash sapling from the soil. He raised it over his head, ready to crash it through the glass doors.

But he drew short. He heard scuffling sounds. It was a brawl in the alley adjacent.

William looked heavenward. He mouthed, “Thank you.”

 

 

William found two vampires in the alley; one with a cricket bat, the other with a chain and padlock. Both seemed intent on clobbering a figure cowering beneath a fort of wooden pallets.

William sauntered in, sure to make as much noise with his boots as possible.

“Hardly seems sporting, two cats after one mouse,” he said. His voice bounced back at them from the rooftops.

The vampires, a bit miffed at the interruption, turned in accord to face him.

Even before they attacked William was bored. They were newbies to the vampire game. They relied on scare tactics to intimidate their prey. Flash of fangs and swagger routine had most people falling over themselves to get away. If that were the case, they wouldn’t even need the weapons in their hands to win.

That, however, was not the case.

William parried Padlock’s chain strike with his forearm. The links lashed around. He caught them, smoothly ripping them from the boy’s hand. The boy looked alarmed.

“Problem with you vampires,” William said. “You always jump right to the fighting.”

William tugged the boy forward. Cricket Bat had to sidestep, missing his chance at a shot. William brought his knee into Padlock’s underbelly. Then he head-butted him, squashing his nose like a stewed red pepper. Cricket Bat took a reluctant step backward.

Padlock cupped his squirting nose. Cricket Bat remained guarded. William swung, hoping to dust him, or drive him off. Both vampires lunged in. William thrust his dagger to its hilt into Cricket Bat’s eye. He reeled backward, taking the blade with him.

William swore. He shoved Padlock aside. Cricket Bat crumpled against the wooden palettes. Improvising, William pried a slat from a palette and hammered it down into Cricket Bat’s chest. The vampire disappeared in a puff of dust. The dagger dropped through the slats.

William scrambled for it. He heard Padlock’s footsteps grinding toward his back. A small hand seized the dagger, passing it to William. He gripped it just in time to slash blindly backward. It was a lucky stroke, but Padlock fell, headless, before disintegrating at William’s boot heels.

William stood up. He shook powdered vampire from his coat.

“You can come out now,” William said. “It should be safe.”

“I think I’ll stay down here awhile, if it’s all the same,” a voice answered.

“Hang on,” William said. He reached under the palettes to haul Andrew to his feet. “What the bloody hell are you doing here?”

“They weren’t supposed to attack me,” Andrew said. He displayed the mark on his wrist like an FBI badge. “I’ve got protection.”

William chuckled. “You’ve got the mark of Kimaris,” he said. “Not exactly the same as protection.”

“But Nighna said...” Andrew protested.

William rolled his head back. “Oh, and demons are known all ’round for keeping their covenants. You are like a divining rod for evil, aren’t you?”

Andrew frumped. “I have to believe what she said.”

William stepped closer, leaning in to underscore his seriousness. “You were had by a demon,” he said. “End of story. You best get back home now, where you really are safe. Besides, Dawn needs you.”

“She does?” Andrew looked hopeful.

“Yeah. For translation purposes, since Willow’s out and Rupert’s hospitalized,” William said.

Andrew’s eyes widened. “That part was true? Nighna told me that,” he said. “Ergo, other things might also be true.”

William put his hands on his hips. “What part of ‘had by a demon’ are you not getting?”

Andrew continued to prattle. “Other things, like Thellian tricking the Slayers UK, and this ancient ceremonial blade used in a blood rite on the Circle. That’s what I was looking for when the Toothsome Duo attacked me,” he said.

“A blade?” William said, slowly. He resisted the urge to double-check the Nephillim knife in his pocket. “What sort of blade?”

Another voice answered. “It’s called the D’Ganti Blade.” It was Angel. William would know that voice anywhere.

William turned. Angel lingered at the mouth of the alley, knowing better what a mistake it was to let oneself get boxed in.

“You keep turning up in dark alleys, people are gonna start believing those vampire stereotypes,” William said. He moved slightly, putting himself between Angel and Andrew.

The corner of Angel’s mouth quirked into a grin. “Is that any way to talk to someone who’s trying to help you?”

William tilted his head. “No thanks. I’ve already got a sidekick.”

Andrew leaned in. He whispered, “I don’t think Buffy sees herself as a sidekick.”

William licked his teeth. He said, “You are the sidekick, Andrew.”

“Right,” he said. Andrew stuffed his hands in his pockets and shuffled back to scowl from a safe distance.

William’s ears perked up at the sound of an approaching motorbike.

“You expecting someone?” William asked.

Angel cocked his head. “Maybe. But they would be very early or very lost, turning up here,” he said.

William’s brow creased with concern. He cast a worried look over his shoulder at Andrew, who was now scowling so hard he looked as though he might sprain something. The bike had a high-powered whine to it – a sporty Japanese make, William knew, and not the burly grumble of the hog he had back in Sunnydale.

Half a minute later, a sleek black Ninja bearing two passengers zipped through Angel’s Zen garden, spraying white sand across the sidewalk. The bike spun out on the grass median and came to a fitful halt mere inches from Angel’s feet.

The Ninja’s driver pulled off his helmet and appraised Angel with an insolent sneer on his pouting cherub’s face. He ran a gloved hand through his choppy hair, making it even more stylishly spiky on top. William hated him immediately.

“Where’s my mates?” he said. He settled his squinting glare on Angel. “They was meeting us here. So where the hell are they?”

Angel was unamused. “Who the hell are you?” he asked.

The motorcyclist heaved a severe and condescending sigh. He said, “Oh, brill. American vampires.”

“I’m not American,” Angel said.

“I’m not a vampire,” William said.

“Spikey?” Her voice, muffled though it was under the helmet, was unmistakably grating.

“Oh bloody hell,” William said. “Harm.”

“Harmony,” Angel said. “Of course.”

Harmony pulled off her helmet. She had serious helmet-hair, and unlike her boyfriend, no amount of finger-combing was going to save it.

“Hey, boss,” she said. “Guess we’re a little… punctual. We finished our assignment in Amsterdam a bit early, so…”

“You’re my new secretary,” Angel said, chuckling. “Again, of course.”

“Harm,” the motorcyclist snapped. “You know these dobs?”

Harmony extracted herself from the bike. “Well, yeah. This is Angel. My boss. And that,” she said, pointing at William, “is Spike. He’s my… ex. And, oh my God. Aren’t you Tucker Wells’ brother?”

“Harmony,” Andrew said, bashfully kicking the dirt with the toe of his shoe. “You look good.”

Harmony beamed at him. “Guys. This is Dessie. We met in Scotland. I vamped him myself…”

“Harm!” Dessie snapped. “Sod the reunion. Where’s my mates?”

William took a step forward. “Were they two lads, about yea tall, one with a bat, the other with a chain?”

Dessie sneered. “Yeh,” he said.

“Oh, those two,” William said. “I dusted them.”

“You did what?” Dessie said, striding forward, full cockiness ahead. Harmony caught his arm.

“Believe me, baby. You don’t want to do that,” she said.

“Any why not?” Dessie said. He bowed up to William, chest out, gut in, nostrils flaring. “He said himself he ain’t a vampire.”

Angel crossed his arms, enjoying the show.

“Wait. How is that, Spikey? You were a vampire the last time we were together. I still have the bite marks,” Harmony said, hooking her fingers into pantomime fangs.

“So do I,” Andrew said, massaging his neck.

“He killed Stan and Jamie!” Des bellowed.

“Um, yeah. About that,” Harmony floundered.

“And he’ll kill you, too,” Angel said. “Trust me. Harmony will have to cart your ashes around in a Faberge urn.”

Dessie glared hard at Spike and then at Angel. He shook his arm free from Harmony’s hold, then strutted back to his bike.

Harmony fidgeted indecisively between staying behind with Angel or consoling her ego-bruised boyfriend.

“Strange bedfellows, eh Harm?” William said.

“You’re one to talk,” she said, lowering her eyelids.

“He’s no good for you,” William said, watching Dessie over Harmony’s shoulder. “It won’t end well.”

Harmony snitted. “Like you would know what’s good for me,” she said. She spun on her heel and stalked off to join Dessie.

Before slipping back into her helmet, she added, “See you tomorrow, boss.”

Dessie flicked down his visor, revved his engine and left them all in a cloud of exhaust.

“Cheeky bugger, that one,” William said.

Angel turned to him, all business. “You were looking for the blade,” he said. “You think it may be around here?”

“I cast a location spell, but it fizzled,” Andrew said. “And I got kinda lost, too. It’s been a rough couple of days.”

“Andrew,” William said. “Please stop talking.”

William paused. He considered Angel. His appearance seemed just too coincidental. It felt wrong. William said, “In fact, best you head on home now. No stops along the way, got it? Bad folks about tonight. Willow should be arriving home soon. You tell her all you know. Angel and I can look for the dagger.”

Andrew seemed less than convinced. He wobbled from one foot to the next, then said, “You sure, Spike? It seems kinda weird.”

“It’s fine, Andrew,” William said. “It’s Angel.”

 

 

“This is getting like an episode of 24,” Xander said. “No one’s getting any sleep or bathing or going to the bathroom.”

Dawn nodded. He noticed a lot of not laughing. He couldn’t see her expression. She was standing at the edge of the dining table, studying the Circle. It was as though she had never done anything before or after it came into their lives. In her hand, curled close to her shoulder, she held a commuter mug full of Maya’s Texas-grade black coffee.

Xander and Maya had just finished clearing away the dinner dishes for the meal that no one really touched. Maya, sensing Xander’s need for down-time with Dawn, remained behind in the kitchen, where she shredded all of their groceries receipts into confetti.

MK and Anjelica sat, almost crouched, across the room by the window in the dining room, as if they were posting a lookout. Neither had said that was what they were doing. It just seemed that instinct, combined with lack of rest, had set them to a weary kind of watchfulness.

“Anything new?” Xander asked.

“There must be something, you know?” she said. “I get the feeling that it’s right here. Everything we need is right here, but I just can’t figure it out.”

“You can, Dawnie,” Xander said. “If anyone can, it’s you.” He paused. He joined her at the table’s edge. “Still no word from the Lone Watcher?”

Dawn shifted uncomfortably. Anjelica glanced over her shoulder at them.

“You mean Andrew, of course,” Dawn said. “No. And that calls to mind all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. Along the lines of the brutal images Spike painted in the hospital.”

“But no, Dawn. Remember? Willow’s amulet of protection?”

“Didn’t work on Giles, did it?” Dawn said, more bitter than the coffee.

“Well,” Xander said. “He is alive. Attacked by vampires is a lot better than being turned into one.”

Dawn considered. Then, she said, “I just think that if this Thellian guy’s as ambitious and organized as Spike says, he would have found a way around Willow’s lucky charms.”

“Excuse me,” Maya said. Both Dawn and Xander jumped. She came in to the dining room all shrugs and apologies. “Sorry, but I just have to ask. What did Spike say about scary scenarios, again?”

Xander drew a deep breath. He said, “Basically, Spike thinks that Thellian’s up to his no-good vampire eyeballs building an army by preying on humans who are weak, vulnerable or otherwise powerless. He provides them with Marvel superhero strength and speed, not to mention the whole extended warranty of living forever.” Xander rocked forward on the balls of his feet. “And not to add nauseum to my ad nauseum, but Spike does have a good point.”

“Yeah,” Dawn said. “Seems extra plausible, considering. We can add in to the equation Thellian’s two thousand plus years of plan-time. No need to rush into anything if you have all of forever to hone those Machiavellian skills.”

“What’s his next move?” Anjelica asked. She leaned forward on the table, resting her chin in her hands. “What’s he planning?”

Dawn thoughtfully ground her teeth. She wished again for Andrew and Willow. Willow knew this stuff. She was the woman with the experience. And Andrew, well, he kept up morale. Or, at the very least, was like pounding your toe with a hammer when you had a headache. He annoyed her so much she usually forgot about the really bad stuff.

Since Dawn wasn’t taking the lead, Xander took a turn. “Okay,” he said. “Since we’re thinking down these rutted lanes, we need to think like an ancient evil creature of darkness. We already have Supervamps. Spike seems to think that we’re headlong into amassing the armies phase.”

“Take out the Slayers,” Anjelica piped up.

“What?” MK stirred like she was coming out of a dream.

Anjelica sat up in her seat. She looked at each one in turn, recognizing that they all shared MK’s sentiments.

“Thellian’s next step,” she repeated. “Take out Slayers. Then he’ll have no one to stop him.”

 

Chapter Text

Everyone in the house seemed able to sleep except for Dawn. Not that she didn’t try. She did. She tried every insomnia remedy Buffy ever shared with her, from having a glass of warm milk to toasting socks in the microwave. She wound up with stomach pains and scalded feet.

And still no word from Andrew. Bad as she felt about slapping him before, she wanted even worse to smack him again. Until he turned up, they were stuck on the Circle’s translation. Even Willow was LD in demon languages.

Dawn remained diligent, though. She curled up in Giles’ swivel chair with her speckled composition pad on her knees. She studied Damas’ paired references until all of the sentences ran together, like prophecy soup.

She was dozing thus when the telephone rang. It was past 3 a.m., and the sound seemed to split the silence. Dawn darted from the dining room. She pounced on the phone before the third ring.

“Andrew?” she asked.

“Sorry, no.” The voice sounded familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it.

“Who is this?”

“It’s Connor. I don’t know if you remember me...”

“Yes. Your Dad once tried to kill my sister,” she said.

Connor was quiet on the other end. When he answered, his voice came slowly, “That’s right,” he said.

“What do you want? It’s, like, 3 a.m.” Dawn said.

Again, quiet. Connor seemed unsure how to proceed. Finally he asked, “Have you heard from my Dad?”

“Not since he helped Giles try to have Spike disintegrated,” Dawn snapped. Lack of sleep had eroded all of her manners. It was the only excuse she could give herself for being so short with an almost stranger.

“Look,” Connor said. “I am sorry to call so late. I wouldn’t except that I have a feeling bad things are about to start happening...”

“Bad things already have,” Dawn said. “We haven’t heard from Angel. We don’t exactly keep tabs on sometimes evil arch nemeses, and if you would like to leave a message, you are welcome to. But I can pretty much guarantee it will never reach him.”

Dawn got the feeling that Connor was holding his breath.

“Hello?” she said.

“I’m right outside the door,” Connor admitted. “Can I...? Could you just let me in?”

Dawn felt a surge of adrenaline. She cast a glance over her shoulder at the front door. “Why did you call? Why didn’t you just knock?”

“Didn’t know anyone was awake,” Connor said. He paused. “I think my Dad’s in trouble. I think he’s in over his head, and he’s going to do something stupid. Like really soon. And I need help if I’m going to stop him. So can you let me in?”

Dawn tiptoed across the entry hall, phone still in hand. At the door, she drew a steadying breath before turning the knob.

Connor had a straightforwardness to him, a kind of All-American wide-eyed-ness that made Dawn feel less uncertain the moment she opened the door.

“Hey,” he said, still speaking into his cell phone.

“Hi,” Dawn answered. She stepped back, and Connor walked in.

 

 

Come on, oh my star is fading
And I see no chance of release
And I know I’m dead on the surface
But I am screaming underneath

And time is on your side, its on your side, now
Not pushing you down, and all around
No it’s no cause for concern

You can say what you mean
But it won’t change a thing
I’m sick of the secrets
Stood on the edge, tied to the noose
And you came along and you cut me loose
You came along and you cut me loose

Amsterdam, Coldplay

 

William felt like a colossal prat, following Angel back into the Royal London Hotel.

Angel’s excuse for going back in was flimsy as wet newsprint. Had to have a drink. William knew Angel didn’t need a drink.

Yet he followed. A bizarre tingling tension filled him foot to forehead, but he wasn’t yet alarmed. He wasn’t scared, even knowing what Lorne had shared with him. All the same, William skirted the heavy and no doubt painfully pointed chandelier that dominated the remodeled ballroom ceiling.

He was as impressed as Buffy had been upon seeing the ballroom’s transformation. More so, given that William had known the place in its previous incarnation. He had to hand it to Angel. William was sure the man had missed a calling as an architect, or something more suitably poofter. Interior decorator, perhaps.

Angel kept things brisk, professional. Their last meeting included punches for punctuation. Angel didn’t seem to want a repeat. He crossed the open lobby area to the wrap-around bar. The roses in their crystal bowls had withered to papery husks. That was when William began to sense...

“Why are you here, Spike?” Angel asked, without turning.

“Oh, you know Angel,” he said slowly. “Powerful play goes on... all that rot.”

“Cribbing lines from Shakespeare now?” Angel asked. He leaned with his elbows on the glossy lacquered bar. It was falsely casual. Both men knew it.

William felt strangely like a man on trial. In the mirror above the stairs, he glimpsed himself - a small man in a grand room, seemingly alone. He smirked at himself.

“It’s Walt Whitman,” William said. “But, great minds...”

Angel folded his arms, studying William with lawyerly speculation. Attempted intimidation. Vampires were all alike.

William sighed, affecting ennuyé. “You’re thinking ‘All the world’s a stage,’” he said.

“Right,” Angel said, tersely. He pushed away from the bar, treading in quick steps toward William. “Why are you here again?”

“The dagger, Angel. The DeGriffindor Blade. You mentioned it to the boy. Remember?” William said.

“Ah, the boy,” Angel said. He walked a slow ring around William. “And why was he here?”

“I dunno,” William said. “I was fetching him from a scuffle. You know how I love to help out.”

“You’re a real hero,” Angel said, bitterness dripping.

William understood. In a flash, he knew: This was it. His heart bumped against his breastbone, threatening to choke him.

Lorne’s words came back to haunt him. That’s not the worst of it, Lorne had said. When it happens. When he does it. You have to let him.

Like Hell, William thought to himself. He dead-bolted his anger. In his pocket, his fist closed around the hilt of his own sacred secret weapon.

Angel had moved to the other side of the room, to the curtained stage with its ivory piano. William tracked him by the sound of his voice.

“You know, Spike. You are a little dim, so you just don’t get it,” Angel said.

“That’s where you’re wrong, mate,” William said. “I understand now. About Buffy.”

Angel turned on his heel. “Do enlighten us,” he said, laughing.

“You’re bent ’cause she chose me instead of you. You said yourself I didn’t have a chance in this world. But I get it. See, she may have loved you more,” William said. “But I’m a better match.”

“You poor, sad fool,” Angel said. “It isn’t about her.”

William whispered, knowing that Angel could hear him, “It’s always about her.”

Angel began his deliberate circling again. “No, Spike,” Angel said, in a patronizing tone. “This time it’s someone else. It’s time for the final act. Time for the key players to take their places. It’s a big game we have all been playing...”

“You already have the dagger,” William said. “Of course you do,” he scoffed. “You’ve got the most powerful law firm in the world at your command. Can find anything from missing car keys to unholy artifacts.” He clutched the Nephillim dagger, feeling its carved wedge handle chew into his sweating palm.

“It’s a big game, Spike,” Angel continued. “And you’re not the leading role. You are important, don’t get me wrong. You’ve been a real thorn in my side. But it’s time now for the lead characters to take the stage,” Angel said. “Too bad for you. You’re not one of them.”

William could not see Angel’s reflection in the mirror above the double staircase. He couldn’t see it, but he knew Angel was there, right behind him.

William fought every impulse in every shredded tangle of nerves in his body. Instinct screamed at him to lash out, to fight back, to do what it was in his nature to do. He could take Angel in a fight. He could pound him to dust, then pound his dust, then go home and curl up beside Buffy and wait for the end of the world to come...

You have to let him, Lorne had said.

I can’t let him, William thought. He closed his eyes. He knew what he had to do.

William released his weapon and let go.

“Angel,” William said. His voice was rusty. “You’re an ass,” he said.

Angel sank the dagger to its hilt under William’s ribs. He twisted it, ripped it along the path of his spine. It was a dull blade; Angel had to put his considerable force behind it to snap the ribs.

William swallowed his screams. The pain was blinding, but he held his own. Angel turned him roughly by the shoulders so that they stood eye to eye.

“Let’s see you come back from this one,” Angel said. He calmly sliced William’s throat.

The blood spilled down William’s shirtfront. It was peculiar, he realized, that he could no longer breathe or speak. William stared unblinking at Angel.

Blood flowed down his arms to his fingertips. It dripped to the sea grass carpets. His heartbeat slowed and was at rest.

Before he died, Angel tossed William’s body backward to the floor, where it lay with arms outstretched, eyes open to the ceiling where the skylight had been all those years ago.

Angel left the clean up for later. He had more important matters to attend to.

 

 

Willow decided to just walk the distance from Southwark Station. The clear air would defoggy her head, which was just what she needed after her trip to Westbury.

The coven had nothing for her. Nothing. The most powerful group of Wicca north of the Equator, and they hadn’t sensed even one second’s disturbance since Thellian’s ordering of the Supervamp spell. For that matter, neither had she. She thought about it on the train ride down from Westbury, but all she got was a circular Circle argument.

When she worked the magics on the Scythe, Willow had been able to feel the Slayers awakening all over the world. It had been this flowing powerful force that seemed to fill every pore of her body with yummy, life-affirming energy. Now, though, she felt the absence of those magics like a cavity caused by excessive sweet tooth.

But it had to still be there, Willow reasoned to herself. On a magical level it felt a complex algebraic equation in which the positive and negative integers cancelled each other out. It was the kind of problem she loved to solve in high school, but she much preferred it when the x and y variables were abstracts and not Slayers and vampires.

Willow was busy pondering this when she turned the corner onto Meteor Street. Her feet ached, and the upholstery from the train seat made her skin itchy. She tucked the stack of mail she brought from the Westbury house under her elbow, and was thinking of fishing out her keys when she caught a movement from the corner of her eye. She faltered a bit, tripping over a crack in the sidewalk. When Willow looked up, Amy was there.

Amy – reclining against the passenger door of a parked car, feet crossed at the ankles, arms folded over the bodice of a red satin corset. She wore a plaid parochial schoolgirl skirt and a malicious grin to match. While not the fashion diva, she looked like regular Amy.

But her energy – her aura – felt extremely irregular. Willow felt the hairs on her arms stirring.

Amy’s smile broadened. “I never could resist a party,” she said. “Especially one that’s packed with Sunnydale alum.”

“Oh look. It’s the Wicked Witch of the West,” Willow quipped. “You should leave now.”

“Or what?” Amy scoffed. She shifted her weight from one hip to the other. She looked over Willow’s head at the darkened windows of the Flat. “You know, Willow, I couldn’t find this place. Even after I got the address, I searched and nothing. Really effective protection spell you’ve got there,” Amy stuck out her lower lip, feigning a pout. “But then I realized I was going about it all wrong. No need to find the house. I just needed to find you. And here you are.”

Willow let her mail fall to the sidewalk.

“Second thought. Stay,” Willow said. “Your ass needs a solid kicking.”

Amy held out her arms. “If you think you’re up for the task...”

Willow clapped her hands together. “Calaam!” she called out. Amy slammed backward against the car. Her spine made a sickening crunch.

Amy cracked her neck. She craned her head slowly.

“First blood,” Amy said. “Nice one. My turn.”

Amy threw her head back. Her mouth elongated into a grotesque hole. She spewed torrents of red-black energy into the air around them. Whips of snaking, grasping, putrid creepers that twisted around her fingers in malformed bulges. Black veins snaked out all over her body, drawing deep score marks in her putty colored skin.

“Ew,” Willow said. She took an involuntary step back.

Amy threw her arms forth. A wave of the slithery blackness rumbled over her, shaking the sidewalk and rattling windowpanes. Willow struck the bricks so hard she saw sparks. Her breath exploded sharply from her lungs.

Now she was pissed.

Willow shook off the cloud of weirdness. She held out her hand, palm up. After a second’s concentration, a ball of silver light appeared. “Elin,” she whispered. She lobbed it at Amy.

The sphere of light merely grazed her.

“You’ll have to do better than pretty party lights,” Amy said. She tossed her sable hair from her shoulders, letting her face take its vampire form.

Willow balked. “You’re a vampire?” she asked.

Amy charged forward with such unexpected, savage force, she managed to knock Willow sprawling.

“I’ve always been kind of a hands-on girl. Figured that was more your speed, anyway,” she said, leering over Willow. “Let’s have a taste, shall we?”

“Bite my ass,” Willow said through her teeth. She drove the heel of her boot into Amy’s shin. Amy swore. She hobbled back a few steps, enough to let Willow regain ground.

Amy cackled. It was quite the convincing witch cackle. “You know,” she said. “It was something to watch your little girlfriend die. She didn’t even have a fighting chance...”

Willow reeled. Her first thought, which would pain her later, was that Amy was speaking of Tara. Then Willow got it.

“Kennedy...” Willow said. She was too stunned to say anything else.

“Yeah,” Amy said, sprightly. “Tough way to go if you’re a Slayer. Apparently, she wasn’t even the right one. Too bad for her. Such a waste of skin and blood. You really know how to pick ’em.”

“Shut up,” Willow cried.

“Oh. Clever comeback,” Amy said. She slashed out with a whiplike tendril. It gouged Willow’s cheek. “By the way, where is Buffy?” Amy growled.

Willow’s breathing hitched and lurched in her chest. She fought to control her anger, to remember her connection to the earth and all that was true and good. Her love... Her family.

“I’m sorry, Kennedy,” Willow whispered, hiccuping over the words. When she squared off with Amy, her whole body was trembling. “You will never harm them,” she yelled. “Goddess of Uran, Giver of Light. Blind this malevolent creature of Night.”

It was spectacular spell, all bright and flashy fireworks with sunlight-like intensity. On most vampires it proved effective. On Amy, it simply annoyed.

“Gee, Willow,” she laughed. “I already told you. Pretty light show won’t stop me. The power I have is like an evil charge card with unlimited spending. No way you can beat that.”

Amy raised her hands high above her head. She began a slow, throaty chant. The dark energy she had conjured before erupted again, this time from her fingertips in a gushing fountain of carnage – bits of bone and brain and gouts of blood in swirling spectral blackness. It climbed to the height of the rooftops, gaining velocity. A thunderous bestial groan grew with it. Car alarms went off up and down the street.

Inside the Flat, Dawn and Connor were just getting to the part where she explained how Willow pieced together the Circle from the scrolls they found in Boadicea’s tomb, when the noise reached her ears.

“Did you hear that?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

Then came blaring car alarms.

“Yes,” he amended. “I hear that.”

Dawn dropped to the floor. “Get down, Connor,” she commanded. “It’s another earthquake.”

Willow muttered the words of her protection spell. She lingered on the last syllable, waiting for the piling wave to crash down before giving away her defense.

The column spiraled skyward, curling in on itself. Willow felt it sucking the life from the air as it grew. Amy’s face contorted into a mask of perverse pain and pleasure.

“Release,” Amy hissed. She brought her arms down in a swift arc. The twisted mass crashed down, into Willow, into the Flat. The front door splintered. Windows vaporized. But after the initial surface-y damage, the wash of evil evaporated like a cloud of smoke belched from a chimney.

And Willow stood firm, barring the doorway, completely unscathed.

Amy’s nostrils flared in an unattractive way only vampires can manage. “How?” she demanded.

“There is one thing on this earth more powerful than evil,” Willow said, quoting Buffy. “And that’s us.”

Dawn stepped onto the step behind Willow. She crossed her arms. “Didn’t count on two powerful witches...”

“Make that three.”

Willow and Dawn didn’t turn, but they knew that Maya was there with them.

Amy shook off her demon face. She clicked her tongue, chiding them. “So that’s how it is?” she asked. “Three little witches. Just... precious.”

“Think you can take us all on?” Dawn asked. “Because I’m feeling a need to go a little Salem right about now.”

Willow lay a hand on Dawn’s arm. “Wait,” she said.

The sun was turning the sky scarlet. Red sky in morning, Willow thought. Amy, sensing the coming sunrise and realizing her protection was down, decided it best to beat a hasty exit.

Dawn was dumbstruck. “We can’t let her escape, Willow. She knows where we live. She could...”

“Kennedy’s dead,” Willow heard herself say. She turned to face Dawn and Maya. “Where’s Buffy?”

Dawn glanced at Maya, then back over her shoulder at Connor. Xander, MK and Anjelica were standing in the hallway, looking equal parts scared, sleepy-eyed and confused.

“She’s at the hospital with Giles,” Dawn said. “Come inside. We’ll, um. We’ll talk.”

 

 

The dream had a shabby, fuzzed-edge feeling to it, like the shoddy silent shows he had seen long ago in nickelodeon theater houses. In it, William was searching for something but the lighting had gone all crackled and wonky. He felt like a man who had been dosed with chloroform and morphine. He wandered, half-blind, finding his way with only his benumbed feelers.

He blundered into the kitchen. He squinted to cut the glare from the high-bright pool of light over the breakfast table. Two figures huddled at the table. They seemed to be bickering over something. A puzzling blue-white light shone from the room behind them.

“It’s always the kitchen,” he muttered. “Must be some kind of spiritual tether.”

One of the figures took notice of him. “Oh, look. He’s gone all Jim Morrison,” the figure said. It was a familiar voice, feminine and distinctly annoying.

William fumbled toward the light, until her outline crisped into focus.

“Anya?” he asked. She was wearing her candy-striper uniform again, open to the third button to reveal the saucy cleft of her breasts.

“Of course it is,” she said. “Who else would it be?” She turned to the other figure. William saw that she was dealing from a deck of cards. “Except look who else is here, Spike. You’re not the only one comes to visit me.”

“Wait,” the other voice said. “He comes to visit you?”

William panned right, slowly. His eyeballs ached as though he’d earned himself a strong hangover. “Buffy?” he said in a tone barely above a whisper.

Anya said, “Oh yes. Spike comes here to comfort me.”

“But I...” William objected.

Buffy’s mouth gaped comically. “You dream about Anya?”

“No,” he said. His reactions were treacherously slow.

“You dream about comforting Anya?”

“Now, hang on...”

“Because I seem to recall not liking the comfort you gave each other,” Buffy said.

“It’s not like that,” he explained. He stepped forward. His hip bumped into the back of the chair.

“It’s really not,” Anya said, waving her hand. She scooped up her own cards. “He has total dreamnesia. Forgets everything I tell him. The moment he wakes up, he’s all blah-di-blah Buffy and blah-di-blah Dawn, and let’s have a shag before patrol, baby.”

“What the —?” Spike interrupted. “Buffy, I don’t...”

“You know what? Forget it,” Buffy said. She slid five cards across the table to him. “May as well play the game. We have a long time to go before sunrise.”

William stared down at the cherry-red lattice pattern on the backs of the cards. The lines seemed to move like the static on a busted TV screen. He heard a sound, too. A not so pleasant whirring, like white noise and humming computer equipment. And a clean, pungent scent that almost burned in his nostrils. Like Clorox mixed with... was it ozone?

“Come on, Spike,” Anya prodded. “We’re waiting on you.”

“Sure, yeah,” William answered. He pulled out the chair. He lingered, trying to suss out what he’d been searching for.

He turned to Buffy. She was busy studying her cards, setting them up between her fingers.

“Shouldn’t you be with Rupert?” he asked.

“It’s okay,” Buffy whispered. She looked over her shoulder at the blue room behind them. “I brought him along, too.”

The image grew clearer like a bubble climbing to the surface of water in a glass. It was indeed the hospital room, adjoining the kitchen where the dining room should be. Rupert rested peacefully on plumped white pillows, the sedative and transfusion tubes trailing over the bed’s edge into nowhere. Somehow, in dream-logic, this satisfied everyone. With a brisk nod, William took his seat and his cards.

He didn’t look at his hand. He sat there, floating along, trance-like. It was a maddening sensation of being there while not actually being there.

“I’m not here. Not really,” he said to himself.

Buffy reached for his hand without looking up from her cards. She squeezed it. “Of course you are. We’ve been through this. Don’t be silly,” she said. Then, to Anya, she said, “I’ll take two.” She released William’s hand, lay down two cards and picked up the ones Anya dealt to her. “Oh!” she said. “I’m going to win this round.”

Anya put down three of her cards. “Dealer takes three,” she said. “Let’s hope I get a better draw this time.” She drew from the stack, then swore under her breath.

“No such luck, huh?” Buffy asked.

“What’s the ante?” William asked.

Anya chuckled. She fanned herself with her cards. “There’s no ante. We’re just playing for fun, Spike.”

“It’s William,” he said. His brow creased. Impulsively, he slid all of his cards across the table. “Deal me a new hand,” he said.

“Kinky,” Anya said, eyes twinkling. She peeled five cards from the top of the stack and passed them his way. “Speaking of, do you think it’s wise, her being here in her condition? I mean, what with Luxe and all...”

Buffy was astonished. “My condition?” she breathed, disbelieving. “You told her? I thought we weren’t, with the telling?”

William balked. “I did not. I wouldn’t...”

Anya raised her hands, still gripping her cards. “He didn’t, I can assure you,” Anya said. “No one tells me anything. But I can tell. I can see it. You’re glowing. Don’t you think? Isn’t she just glowing?”

He looked at Buffy then. She was bathed in halogen kitchen light. It fell on her hair and skin in a way that lessened the shadows. It wasn’t just the dream. She was glowing.

Buffy flashed him a weary smile. “Your turn,” she said.

He turned the cards over in his hands. Three eights. Two Aces. If it hadn’t been so cliche, he might have laughed. Instead he reeled back from the table, letting the cards slip from his fingers.

William turned to Buffy. “Well, that’s it, then,” he said. “I’m done in.”

“What?” Buffy said. She patted his vacant chair. “You can’t be done. The game’s just getting started.”

William knelt beside her chair. He turned her body to face his.

“William...” she said, as if he was behaving like a ridiculous child.

At the table, Anya leaned way over to collect his cards. She flipped them face up, then said, “You folded on a full house? Bad idea.”

He shook his head, trying to clear it. “I didn’t make it, pet. I know I promised to stay, but my curtain call falls short of the final act. I don’t get to see how it ends.”

Buffy touched his face. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s a dream. We’re dreaming.”

“That’s right,” Anya agreed. “Dreaming, remember?”

“No,” William said, putting force behind his words. “Don’t you get it? I’m dead. I’m tied here for I don’t know how long because of Willow’s magics. But I have to tell you...”

“Stop it,” Buffy said, pulling away from him. “The Sisters gave you healy powers. You can’t die. You can’t be killed.”

“Angel’s found a way,” William said.

She blinked as if he’d kicked her. “No,” she said.

He smoothed his hands down the sleeves of her sweater. Her arms trembled beneath the smooth fabric. “Listen,” he said. “There’s a dagger.”

“Shh,” she said. She lay her hands on his face. “It’s a dream.”

“Then you might want to consider waking up now,” Anya said slowly.

“It’s not a dream,” William said. He shook her gently. “It’s Angel, Buffy. He’s found a way to take me out of it for good this time. But don’t let him know you know. I don’t need to tell you what a megalomaniacal bastard he can be.”

“Yeah, he’s coming, Spike,” Anya said. “Get her out of here. Now would be good.”

William swallowed hard. “You have to go now,” he said.

“No,” Buffy said. “No. I don’t want to.”

“He’s coming,” Anya said. She got up from the table.

“Buffy, wake up now,” William said.

Her hands fluttered over his face, down his neck, to his shoulders. “We survive, remember,” she said, weakly. “We get through this.”

“Buffy, Spike,” Anya said. “Get the hell out!”

William took Buffy’s hands in his. “Keep yourselves safe. If I can find my way back to you, I will.” He pressed her fingertips to his lips.

Anya wedged herself between them. She shoved Buffy backward in her chair.

“William!” Buffy cried out. She jolted awake.

“Buffy?”

She heard his voice and froze. He hulked at the end of the bed, hands in pockets. He slouched a little, like he always did, like he was uncomfortable with how tall he was. A trace of a smile crooked one side of his mouth.

Buffy had dozed. She was in Giles’ room at Parkside Memorial. She had been dreaming. And Angel was there.

“What are you doing here?” she asked him.

“I found Thellian,” he said, simply.

Buffy drew herself up in the chair. “Where is he?”

“Here. In the city,” Angel said. “I can take you to him.”

Buffy glanced over Angel’s shoulder at the clock on the wall. “Xander will be here any minute,” she said. “I’m not leaving Giles...”

Angel shrugged. “Sunrise, Buffy. I don’t have much time. If we want to catch him today, it has to be now.”

Buffy considered for a sum of seconds. Her heart felt leaden, like winter storm clouds ready to shed themselves into snow. Somehow, she summoned the strength to stand. She followed him outside to a sleek black car that waited for them at the curb.

Her mind spun like a whirlpool, or a hypnotist’s wheel, black and white twirling and twirling - It was a dream; it wasn’t a dream – until it all blurred together into a bare ice-gray. Her body remembered better than her mind. She felt William’s hands in her own. Don’t let him know, he said. Don’t let him know.

The part of her that remembered was focused and cold.

Angel opened the door for her.

“After you,” he said.

Buffy hesitated, her heels on the curb. The sky was lighting up from underneath, turning the sky to strawberries and cream.

She looked back one last time before sliding into the cool interior of the Angel’s corporate car.

 

Chapter Text

 

In fourth grade, Willow’s earth sciences teacher, Mr. Bosch, handed out sheets of black poster board to the class. The assignment had been to draw the galaxy. Which Willow did with her customary tenacity, using swirls of silver glitter to represent 100 cagillion stars.

Then Willow looked around at the work of her classmates. To her astonished horror, every one of them had the scale all wrong. They crafted the swinging arms of the Milky Way in glitter just as she had, but added dollops of yellow paint for the sun. To add to the travesty, most of them placed a circle of blue and green to stand for the earth, but put it on the opposite side of the galaxy from their blobby sun. Willow had been aghast. She went around the classroom, pointing out the error to her classmates, which earned her even more ridicule. They already considered her the biggest McSmarty Pants in Sunnydale Elementary School.

Willow finally implored to her teacher.

“Tell them they’re wrong,” she begged. On her galaxy model, she pointed to a fleck of gold almost lost amid the silvery ones. “This is our sun,” she told him. “And the earth, you can’t even see. That’s how big the galaxy is. That’s how small we are.”

Mr. Bosch looped his arm around her shoulder and gave her arm a firm squeeze. It was the only consolation he could supply. It was a gesture that said, ‘I’m sorry you’re the only student in the school system that understands the concept of insignificance. You’re the only one who gets it. Everyone else is lost.’

She remembered how it felt, that sudden draining rush of understanding. She felt the whole vortex of stars jostling around her in its mad dash to the enigmatic center, like water rushing down billions of gutters into one massive drain.

Willow crouched on the floor in the entry hall, feeling that same cyclone rush as she quietly swept up bits of variegated mosaic glass from the hand-made vase she and Kennedy had bought at Notting Hill. Dawn’s explanation of Thellian’s plan rang in her ears. It made her feel the smallness of earth and its mobile of a solar system all over again. The insignificance of one tiny human being amid billions...

“Here. Let me,” Dawn said. She knelt beside Willow. She began to sort the shards of colorful glass from the plain clear glass of the windows.

“No, Dawn,” Willow said. “I got it. Really.”

Dawn paid no heed to Willow’s words. She continued to pick through the ruined glass.

Connor came from the basement with the broom and dustpan. When he saw the delicate nature of the work, however, he abandoned both and joined the girls on debris detail.

After a moment’s silence, he asked, “Are we searching for anything in particular? Contact lens, perhaps?”

Willow bounced the irregular shapes of glass in her palm. Her face bore an absent expression that had Dawn concerned. Willow said, “Kennedy found this at an antiques booth. It was exactly the kind of thing I love and she hates. I’m all about the color. She prefers black and white... brushed aluminum. All those ultra-modern accoutrements you find at IKEA. Those were more Kennedy’s speed.”

“It’s possible Amy was lying,” Dawn soothed. “It may not be true. You know those vampires. Not always known for one hundred percent forthcoming-ness.”

Willow caressed the fragments with the index finger of her other hand. “It is true,” Willow said flatly. “I feel it. You know how you feel things sometimes? Like sometimes you can feel the pull of the earth, and it’s almost like a memory?”

Dawn raised her hand to brush Willow’s bangs from her face.

Willow lifted her tear-free eyes. “They are too strong, Dawnie,” she said. “They’re too strong. I don’t think we can win.”

“Don’t talk that way,” Dawn said. Connor felt the steel beneath the words. “Don’t even say it.”

“She’s the Priestess. And she’s a vampire. Did you notice the crushing wave of icky badness? Someone’s juiced her up on the high level black stuff, then gave her an endless power supply.”

“You’re more powerful by a way lot. And she didn’t beat us,” Dawn said. “See? We’re all still here.”

“So she didn’t beat us. Not yet,” Willow said. “But how long do you think we have?”

Andrew stepped in over the threshold, his tennis shoes crunching on broken glass.

Abercrombie and Fitch,” Andrew whispered. “What happened here? What the hell happened?”

 

 

The apartment building was on the swanker side of the Thames, facing the London Eye and a broad panoramic of the city. It was the kind of renovated brownstone that business folk clamored for these days, and this one had an enormous lofty penthouse with picture windows large enough to screen movies.

Buffy followed Angel to the elevator in silence. A doorman greeted them. He was a vampire. Buffy marked him as they passed. She suspected that this building housed many of his kindred. She began to consider ways of torching it to cinders.

The elevator door slid closed with a soft hum. The back wall bore a brassy mirror in which only her reflection shone.

“This is where Thellian’s staying?” Buffy asked. “’Cause it’s ritzy digs for a vampire.”

Angel faced forward, watching red numbers tick by on the LED panel. He said, “Thellian’s not like any vampire you’ve ever encountered.”

“He’s a murderous fiend,” Buffy said. “That’s exactly like every vampire I’ve ever encountered.”

Angel looked down at her. If her words stung him, as she hoped they had, he made no show of it.

“It isn’t like that,” he said.

“Then how is it?” Buffy asked, pressing harder. “How is it, Angel?”

Angel kept up his impervious demeanor. It unnerved her how un-flinchable he could be, how utterly calm and distant. She wanted to yell at him, to hit him, to smack his head and scream, “What is wrong with you?”

But she held her breath. He was about to deliver Thellian, whether that was his intention or not. Angel was about to witness a two-thousand-year-old vamp bite the dust.

The elevator came to an almost imperceptible halt. The doors slid open, revealing an elegant marbled corridor. The floor was like a shining pool of onyx. Indirect lighting diffused the air in a high-dollar department store fashion. The hall terminated into a set of dense iron wood doors. To which Angel had a key.

Buffy walked along with him, coming suddenly face to face with the idea that he had set her up.

She said, “Thellian’s been here all along.”

“He left Italy when you did,” Angel said.

“How long have you known?” Buffy asked. Her legs threatened to turn to rubber bands, but a surge of bright anger kept them from buckling beneath her.

Angel shrugged. He pressed his lips into a firm white line. He put the key in the lock, turned it and opened the door.

“After you,” he said. His voice was lifeless, his eyes impenetrable.

Buffy stepped into the room. Angel closed the door behind her. She heard it lock with a distinct click.

 

 

Dawn got quickly to her feet.

“You?” she said, instantly boiling over with anger. “Where have you been?”

“Well, I...” Andrew said.

“Did it occur to you that we might need you here? Hello? Mass destruction?” Dawn seethed.

“I conjured Nighna again, please don’t hit me,” Andrew said, cringing.

Connor stood up beside Dawn. Willow remained dazedly gazing at pottery shards.

“How could you even go near her after what she did to you?” Dawn asked.

“You conjure demons?” Connor asked.

Andrew ignored Connor. He poured all of his focused attention to Dawn. He said, “I can explain. Actually that would take, like, a really long time. I’ll highlight the key points. See, Nighna is a Kimaris. They were the keepers of the Circle before the Celtic Druids overtook it some time around the birth of Christ, give or take a century. She told me the Kimaris want the Circle back. If they can reverse the Druidic mojo, they’ll be Queens of the Demon Age. She also said there was this weapon. It’s a ceremonial dagger...”

“The D’Ganti Blade?” Connor asked.

Andrew sneered. He cast a suspicious eye in Connor’s direction. “How do you...?”

“Angel has it,” Willow said. She wheeled slowly on Connor, like a coma patient waking up from a dreary sleep. “Your postcard...”

“I sent that weeks ago,” Connor said urgently.

“Kennedy!” Willow said miserably. “She set it up at our house in Westbury. She must have meant for me to find it, but I only did just last night. She... I mean, I haven’t been home...”

“But Angel can’t have the blade,” Andrew cut in. Then his face blanched. “Unless...” he trailed off.

“Unless what?” Dawn said. “You can’t just say unless and leave it. Not when there are demonic weapons concerned.”

Andrew’s mind was racing. “I cast this locate spell to find the dagger, but it failed. It took me to this hotel, and some vampires jumped me, and Harmony was with one of them, and then Spike turned up all Captain Picard to rescue me...”

“Was it the Royal London Hotel?” Connor interrupted.

“I think so, yeah,” Andrew said. He had a sick look on his face.

“My Dad’s,” Connor said.

“Well, but Spike’s immortal now, right?” Dawn said. “No reason for concern.”

Andrew shook his head. “Nighna said the dagger was forged to kill supernaturals, specifically Slayers.”

“So there may be a need for worry,” Connor said.

“No need for worry. Fenestration is my forte. I’ll have those windows fixed in no time,” Xander said. He came in from the kitchen, where he and Maya had made an attempt to soothe the traumatized mini-Slayers. Maya had made hot chocolate, which MK drank. Anjelica still sat motionless and rabbit-eyed in the kitchen chair.

Willow took Xander’s hand, squeezed it. She opened the palm of her other hand to display the varied grains of glass from her vase.

“Kennedy...” she said.

“I know, Wil,” Xander answered. He closed Willow’s hand around the fragments. “We’ll find her.”

“Kennedy’s dead,” Andrew blurted. Willow’s body jolted as though she’d been struck by lightning.

“Andrew,” Dawn shouted.

“Do you know for certain?” Xander asked. “And if so, how?”

Andrew nodded. “Nighna said she and the other Slayers were led to an ambush. She said Giles is at the hospital...”

Xander and Willow exchanged a look of agony.

“It’s true,” Willow sobbed.

“Maybe it’s not,” Dawn said, urgently.

“Probably not the best time to interject,” Connor said. “But Spike may be in danger.”

This seemed to sober Willow considerably. “We need a plan,” she said. She drew a stabling breath. “Xander, get to the hospital. Tell Buffy what’s going on.”

“All right. Good,” Xander said. “Liking the plan.”

“Connor, you and I will go to the Royal London. We’ll look for Spike and Angel,” Willow said.

Connor was nodding. Xander was not.

“Not so keen on this part of the plan,” Xander said. “Spike can handle himself. And what if the Priestess returns?”

Dawn glared. “I’ll handle the Priestess,” she said. “Besides, it’s daylight and she’s a vamp. I doubt she’ll be showing her skanky Dark Side ass till sundown. Plus, now that Andrew’s decided to show up, he can translate the demon segments of the Circle that I haven’t been able to figure out.”

“I’ll go with,” Maya said. She nodded to Xander. “You said Buffy told us not to go out alone, so...”

Xander watched her, trying to size her up. “Yeah,” he said. “I can swing by Gatwick on the way home, so we can send you on your way home.”

“We’ll worry about that another time, if there is another time,” Maya said. Her eyes were level. Her voice, clear. “Get your coat. There’s a draft. Oh, and you drive. My license expired.”

When they all had gone, Dawn and Andrew stood on opposite sides of the splintered door, facing each other.

“So,” Dawn said.

Andrew shuffled, uncomfortably. “So,” he said.

MK came in. “So what do we do now?” she asked, tentatively.

Dawn sighed. She conjured up strength from somewhere around her ankles. “We clean up this mess, for one. Then you’ll translate. And we’ll wait for Buffy.”

 

 

Thellian watched the sun rise over the nervous landscape of London from his picture window. He did not spectacularly combust.

Buffy walked in, carefully measuring each step. Thellian did not turn, though he certainly knew she was there. He waited, his hands clasped behind his back, as she approached. Buffy crammed her hands in her coat pockets. She had one stake. But one was enough. She closed her fingers around it.

“Miss Summers,” Thellian said. His voice was like warm brandied pears. “It is nice to put a face to the legend.”

Buffy faltered. Then she saw her reflection in the smoky glass of the window.

“Have you ever noticed how all cities look the same from a certain height?” Thellian asked. “From space, for instance, London must look a lot like Rome or New York. It’s extraordinary.”

“I’m not big on geography,” Buffy said.

Thellian turned. He leaned against the window. “You see, most humans are like that. They fail to see the intricacies of the world around them. Many would laud written language or the personal computer as the single greatest human accomplishment, but I for one would disagree. It’s the cities. They’re almost like living creatures,” he said. “Here. Have a look.”

Buffy remained where she was. She cocked her head to the side. She was the model of self-possession.

Thellian lifted his shoulders. “Very well. To business then. No doubt Angel apprised you of the situation.”

“You mean you really plan to take over the world with your evil vampire spawn,” Buffy said. “How lame is that?”

Thellian moved forward. He kept his eyes on hers. They were intensely green, like polished emeralds, like a whirlpool of seawater that threatened to drown. She could feel the serenity of centuries behind them. What Angel had said was true. Thellian really was unlike any vampire she had met.

“Evil,” he said. “Evil is such a relative term.”

“No,” Buffy said. “Evil is evil.”

“You should know,” he said. “You bed down with one of history’s most sinister. William the Bloody. You ruined him, you know. Such wasted potential in that one.”

“He has a soul,” Buffy said. “Ergo, not evil. Not anymore.”

Thellian chuckled, lightly. “You believe it’s a soul that makes a person evil or good? Look down at that city, Miss Summers. From here you can’t tell it, but you know. In your heart, you know. Humans commit acts of atrocity every day. They murder and rape and destroy and take what is not theirs. The visit such horrors on each other, on themselves. On their children. Yet every one of them has a soul.”

Buffy closed her eyes to keep in her sudden tears. She recalled with burning clarity Boadicea’s daughters, raped by Roman soldiers. She saw Boadicea herself, strung up and tortured. All of them brutalized by ordinary men.

Thellian came to rest on the opposite side of Buffy, close enough for striking range. She gripped the stake so hard splinters dug into her palm.

“Only a person with a soul can truly suffer, Miss Summers,” Thellian said. His voice was scarcely above a whisper. “Only a man with a soul can know grief and loss. It takes a soul, you see, for one to become truly twisted.”

Buffy opened her eyes. Sunlight poured from the clouds in bands of copper light, splitting night from morning. Busses and cars thronged the already crowded streets. The crosswalks were clogged with people – businessmen and women, school children, tourists. When the lights changed, they burst forth like beads from a broken necklace, and none of them were safe. None.

Her hands in her pockets had crept protectively toward her belly, but she stopped herself. She was in the lair of the Beast. It would not do to expose any weakness.

“I knew your Christ,” Thellian said. He took up his pacing again. It was clear that he had planned for this meeting. He might have rehearsed exactly what he would say. That was the thing with villains. They loved to talk. “I met him. I had been a vampire for near six centuries, and yet his wife washed my feet with her hair...”

“And that makes you, what?” Buffy interrupted, “The Holy Roman vampire?”

Thellian grinned. “He welcomed me, Miss Summers. He understood what I must do, well before I knew it myself. Then, three hundred years ago, I had a vision. A vision, from Christ. Grant them mercy, he said.”

“You’re crazy,” Buffy told him.

Thellian came to a brisk halt. “Humanity has squandered its chances, Miss Summers. What do vampires care if you bomb each other to dust? What do we care if you poison the air or lay waste to your cities?” He gestured toward the window at Exhibit A, “And seas that run with blood? Call it our Utopian paradise.”

Buffy’s heart beat at a gallop. Her breathing raced to keep up. “You’re the predator. You need us,” she said.

“As McDonald’s needs cows for Quarter Pounders,” Thellian said. His eyes twinkled as though he had known exactly what she would say.

“And once you’ve consumed every drop of human blood? What then?” Buffy said.

Thellian pressed his palms together. “There are other worlds,” he said.

Buffy shook her head, still disbelieving. “It’s genocide,” she said.

“No,” Thellian answered. “It’s evolution.”

Buffy clenched her teeth. “Yeah? Evolve this,” she said. She wheeled backward, stake perfectly aimed for Thellian’s heart.

But her attack glanced off. She staggered forward, completing her revolution. Thellian gripped her wrist and wrung her arm the wrong way around.

“Body armor,” he said into her ear. He wrenched the stake from her hand. “Adaptation, Miss Summers. I have outlived hundreds of your kind. With the help of your blood, we will outlive you all.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Clarisse pecked at the olive Lorne held between his fingers. They had a little game going on. Clarisse, it appeared, had a natural aptitude for plucking the pimento from olives. It was a talent Nighna must have shared with the bird, and maybe it was the martini talking, but it was infinitely entertaining.

Until Clarisse dropped the olive on the cage floor. That angered the bird considerably. She called him every name in her extensive human and demon vocabulary, then tried to pluck out his fingernails.

Lorne sat back on his heels. He sighed a drunken cloud of amicability. “Score marked for opposable thumbs,” he slurred to Clarisse. “Pylean evolution - one. Bird - nada.”

Clarisse cocked her head birdwise and shot him a remarkably scornful look. As he watched her sullenly preen her black feathers, a sense of deja vu swam over him.

Lorne’s all-effacing buzz evaporated in rapid fashion. Along with it went the last scrap of illusion that he could stand quietly by, bird-sitting, while the world beyond his purple door went to hell. Deja vu meant more for him than it did mere mortals. It meant that something he had foreseen had come to pass. And he knew with reasonable certainty what that thing must be.

He got to his heavy feet. He dragged his reluctant body to the bar where he found his cell phone in the bottom of an emptied wine flute.

Lorne flipped the phone open. The wallpaper on his phone display remained unchanged from his days at Wolfram & Hart. Oft times her picture was a tetchy reminder to keep up the drinking. But today, Winifred Burkle’s smiling face told him she needed a hero.

“Hey, Sweetcakes,” he said to Fred’s lab-coated and bespectacled image. “I’m on my way.”

He spoke Connor’s name into the speed dial. It rang twice before the boy picked up.

“Hello?” Connor asked.

“Hey, Kiddo. How’s about a hand from your Uncle Lorne?”

 

 

Xander drove up High Street toward Kensington Park. The heater on the Saab was a bit blinky. That was how Giles described it, anyway. Xander thought it would have been more accurate to say it was chock-full of not warming. The penny-bitter autumn air had chafed Maya’s nose and cheeks to an apple red, a fact for which she could not be more apologetic.

“When we get to hospital, do you think they’ll just release Giles and we can all go home?” Maya asked. Chattering incessantly seemed to keep her teeth from chattering.

Xander turned a wide left onto King’s Way. He glanced at Maya.

“Home?” he asked. “You do realize we aren’t in Kansas anymore.”

Maya bowed her head. “I do, Xander. I feel like...” she bunched her shoulders up. “I don’t think I should go yet. I mean, if that’s okay.”

“You kidding? It is okay. If it’s not too Fragglish of me to say so,” Xander said.

“You guys just rescued me from Mr. Psycho Bug-Eyes, and you didn’t even know me,” Maya said. “You know how in some cultures if you save someone’s life you owe them a debt?”

“Like Chewbacca and Han Solo,” Xander offered.

“Exactly like that,” Maya said. “So, I feel like I should, I dunno, stick around, help out. Besides, if I don’t – whole world could end. And then where would we be?”

“Mind if I reserve my answer to that question?” Xander asked. He turned another left onto Tower Road. A scrim of chilly fog clung to the riverbanks. Cirrus clouds fractured the fiercely blue sky.

Maya ran her fingers down the seam of the jacket she’d borrowed from Dawn. Xander noticed that her hands were trembling.

“Maya,” Xander said. “We don’t want you to feel like you’re obligated to stay...”

“It’s not that,” Maya said. She folded her hands primly in her lap. “It’s not. It’s more just a feeling of impending doom that has me spinning. Like, do you notice how quiet the street seems?”

Xander listened. He heard the pathetic shushing of the car’s heater. He heard the cacophony of street sounds. Something did seem amiss.

“Nobody’s talking,” Maya said.

Xander raised his shoulders. “Do they ever? I don’t recall striking up many conversations on my way to work in Sunnydale. Of course, we were in America then and traveled everywhere by car, just like we’re doing now, and did I ever tell you about the time in my life when I drove an ice cream truck?”

Maya’s brows drew together in concentration. She was the type who sought patterns in everything, in the stripes painted on the road, in the cracks of the pavement, between gaps and lulls in conversations. There was a whole subtext most people missed, but Maya picked up on them. Always had. This morning, the pattern felt like a spiritual flatline. It was as though...

“The scales have balanced,” she blurted.

“Scales?” Xander asked.

“They will come for us now,” Maya said slowly. Her voice no longer sounded like the chronically chipper Maya voice. “Come for us who remain behind.”

“Maya?” Xander said. He watched her for a long time. When he looked back at the road, he found the car was aimed at a concrete pylon. He swerved hard. Cars behind him veered around, horns blaring. A spotty old guy in a Macintosh squealed by, pumping his meaty fist out of the window and spouting curses in Gaelic.

Maya’s eyes were wide and fixed on a spot just beyond the hood.

Xander pulled the car into the breakdown lane. He unbuckled his seat belt and slid across to her.

“Bad me,” he whispered. “Bad, bad me. Maya, are you hurt?”

She faced him. “They’re gonna kill us all,” she said.

 

 

Dawn scribbled in her notebook. Andrew scooted the chair back and wedged himself in beside her. He had his own notes to make. In the kitchen, MK and Anjelica were banging around, searching for breakfast cereals.

“Slide over,” Dawn said. She nudged his ribs with her elbow.

“You slide over,” he said.

Dawn made no move to move.

She scratched furiously on her page. He tapped the end of his pen to his nose. Supposedly, he was deep in thought.

“You’re in my personal space,” Dawn told him. She shouldered him hard enough to knock him two feet to the right.

“Hey!” he whined. “Quit it. I’m translating here.”

“Really? What do you have so far?”

Andrew checked his page. “Demon articles. A. The. An. And I have one conjugated ‘to be’ verb that may or may not also mean ‘was once a long, long time ago.’”

“Hmm,” Dawn simpered. “Very helpful.”

Andrew folded his arms. “It’s gonna take some time, Miss I Can’t Speak Kimaris,” he said. “So, like, step off.”

Dawn flicked her hands. “Fine. Stepping off.”

They worked in silence for all of twenty seconds. Andrew said, “What’s wrong with you, anyway?”

“Let’s see,” Dawn said. She dropped her notebook and adopted a hands-on-hips-so-I-can-tell-you off-stance. “Giles is hospitalized and unconscious from near-fatal neck wounds. Big Bad Wolf just blew our house in. Kennedy may be dead. Spike’s in danger. And you just spent an all-night conjure-a-thon with Nighna.”

Andrew glared. “Jealous?” he said.

Dawn stormed out of the dining room. Andrew chased after.

“Oh yeah,” Andrew said. “Like you weren’t all hand-holding with Skippy the Wonder Boy once the debris settled.”

Dawn whirled on him. “What?”

“Connor,” he said. “I saw it. He made with the googly-eyes, crawling on his hands and knees.”

She blinked. “He was?”

“Yeah, and you were like, ‘I’m a walking Popsicle.’ As in school, comma, too cool for,” Andrew said.

Dawn sighed. “I was not. And he was not. Besides, you’re changing the subject. You’re forgetting the not calling us amid the probable demon boinking...”

Dawn glanced at the bar. MK leaned against it, chin on her fist. She had a banana in her hand, which she had apparently forgotten in her rapt attention to Dawn’s and Andrew’s conversation.

“Don’t mind me,” MK said breezily.

Anjelica brandished a cake cutter with an elaborate floral handle. “Is this real silver?” she asked.

“Um, sure,” Dawn said.

“There was no boinking,” Andrew said. “She was helpful and knew stuff.”

“Demons aren’t helpful unless they get something in return, Andrew,” Dawn said.

Andrew opened his mouth to speak, but Dawn went on. “I’m not talking about sex,” she said.

“Then what are you saying?”

Dawn folded her arms. “Maybe I’m concerned that you’ve sold us out to your little demon nymph. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time you betrayed your best friend in the face of evil.”

Andrew sucked in his bottom lip and slumped. “That’s... really not fair. I’m not a Grey Knight anymore. My alignment is neutral good. I’ve seen the error in my ways and have chosen the narrow bramble path to fight for the higher good.”

Anjelica placed a tarnished tea service and a cheese knife on the table. “How about these?”

Dawn and Andrew gave the objects a cursory glance.

Andrew shrugged.

“Yep,” Dawn said.

Anjelica looked pleased. She took her cache from the bar and left the kitchen.

MK pointed her banana at Andrew. “What did she say?”

“Who?”

“Demon girl. Your ex,” MK said. “You said she helped you. Give us the how?”

Andrew stuck out his chin. “Well. She did say Wolfram & Hart had a spy in the house.”

Dawn looked incredulous. “A spy? How would Wolfram & Hart get a spy in here, with all of Willow’s protection to keep the evilness out?”

“Maybe it was Kennedy,” MK chipped in. She grimaced at saying it, but followed through with her thinking. “She drew a line with us. Told us it was her way or Buffy’s.”

Dawn thought for a bit. “They did disagree a lot,” she allowed, “and Kennedy was big on being vocal about disliking Buffy’s way of running things.”

“But would Kennedy work for Wolfram & Hart?” Andrew said. “She was always pretty clear on being anti-Powers-of-Darkness.”

“Still,” Dawn said. “Angel worked for Wolfram & Hart. So did Spike. Maybe she was playing a double agent.”

“Like George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” Andrew whispered, reverently. “Cool.”

Dawn lowered her head. She was really feeling the need for serious sleepage soon. It seemed the majority of her synapses had already put up ‘on-break’ signs in their office windows. Her anger at Andrew had waned a little now that she had exorcised it by rite of yelling at him. Unfortunately, it also left her exhausted.

“Look,” she said. “You’re here. You’re home. And you’re the only one who can translate the demon text of the Circle. I’m going to rest for two hours. 120 minutes. Then wake me.”

“I’ll sweep up the rest of the glass in the foyer,” MK volunteered. “I’m too juiced to sleep.”

Dawn went upstairs. She had forgotten that her bed was covered with the pages of the Damas journal, rendering it unsleepable. She went to Buffy’s room only to discover that bed strewn with glass.

She was too tired to clear away the glass, and too frustrated to go back downstairs. Dawn peeled the sheets and blankets back, took an afghan from the linen closet and curled up on the bare mattress.

 

 

Thellian pushed Buffy into the corridor in front of him. At the end of the hall, Angel awaited. A slender young woman with hair like the cover of Vanity Fair slipped around him.

“Thellian,” she said, an edge of urgency in her voice. She saw Buffy and came to an uncertain halt.

Buffy felt Thellian’s hold on her weaken just a little.

“Lalaine. What is it?”

Lalaine was not forthcoming. Buffy sensed that she was the cause of the secret-y apprehension. Good, she thought. Maybe there was something she could use.

Lalaine gave him a curt nod that said, Not now, not here.

Buffy realized then that she recognized the girl. She knew her right away.

“You’re Boadicea’s daughter,” Buffy said.

Lalaine averted her eyes. She sent a pleading look in Thellian’s direction.

“Your mother was a Slayer,” Buffy said. Disgust welled inside of her, turning her stomach sour. “She died because of you. Both you and your sister. How can you...?”

Thellian hesitated a moment longer before shoving Buffy toward Angel.

“Take her. I will meet you at the site,” Thellian said. Thellian brought his eyes to meet Buffy’s. “I need not be present, should you wish to begin without me.”

Buffy glared at Thellian. Her anger was misdirected and she knew it. When Angel seized her wrists, that was when the real rage began.

Angel twisted her around to face the elevator. The doors rolled back; Buffy strode in, leading Angel. No way she was letting him drag her along.

When the doors closed, she said, “That was pretty pointless.” She hoped the bravado held up long enough to get her out of the building.

Angel said nothing. He pressed the button labeled B for basement. The elevator began its hushed descent to the underground.

“You sold me out,” Buffy said. “Why?”

His cold hands clamped tighter around her wrists. “Stop talking Buffy,” he said.

“Because a man with a soul can be truly twisted. Is that it?” she asked. “Tell me if that’s it so I can die knowing I was killed by a foolish, arrogant coward who fell in step with a pseudo-religious psychopath.”

Angel slung her away from him. The force of it surprised her. She cantered back into the mirrored wall, crushing her wrist beneath her body.

“That’s it. Fight me,” she bit out. “I want you to fight.”

Angel took a step back. “You don’t remember,” he said.

“I don’t remember what?”

Angel shook his head. He said, “You forgot... everything.”

“Forgot what, Angel? What did I forget?” Buffy said. She glanced over his shoulder at the red digital readout that displayed the floors as they passed them. Six. Five. Four.

“I was with you, Buffy,” Angel said. His voice had gone gravelly.

“With me? If you’re talking about that one time, all those years ago, I am way over it…”

“I’m not,” he said. “It… it wouldn’t be heaven without you.”

“No,” she said. But something rang true to it. He didn’t have to say where they had been; she knew.

“You said it. Not me. I was given a gift. I was with you. When you died. You were...”

“In heaven,” she whispered. “I do remember.”

Angel raised his shoulders. “You forgot. You promised you wouldn’t, but you did,” he said. “Thanks.”

What could she say to him? That she was sorry? That she did everything she could to forget because that was the only way she could survive? The truth of it was, she half-believed she dreamed it all. She never once considered that he had really been there.

“How?” she asked finally. It was all she could do to push that single small word from her throat.

Angel looked away. His chin jutted out at that stubborn Angeles angle she had come to know and love so well. Her Angel, the one she knew and adored and cherished, was gone. Even if his soul remained intact.

If I can get past him, she thought, I can get to daylight. Handy natural deterrent when fighting vampires.

The elevator continued its descent. Angel continued to avert his eyes. Three. Two.

The elevator slowed.

“Angel. You can’t... I was,” she floundered. “It was difficult for me, when I came back. I couldn’t remember anything clearly.”

One.

He turned to her. The animation flooded back into his face, and he grinned. “It’s not just that, Buffy. It hurt, yeah. But it wasn’t enough.”

“Enough for what?” she said.

The elevator continued its slow descent.

“It is either you or me. But you already know that. Hell, we’ve both known that for an age. In the end, it comes down to you and me,” Angel said, leering now as though this brought him a perverse kind of joy. “I have to look out for what is mine. What precious little I have left. You understand that, of course. You would do the same.”

Buffy felt around the edges of what he was saying, trying to make sense of it. And she thought, why the hell isn’t the elevator opening?

“You know it did my heart good, seeing you with Spike,” Angel said. He gave her a tense, extremely forced smile.

“Angel, stop it,” Buffy said.

“I think you don’t get to say that to me,” Angel said. He paused. The elevator lurched gently, coming to rest finally in the basement. Buffy got ready to spring.

“This is about blood,” Angel went on. “My blood. I have to hold on to what is mine.”

Buffy suddenly got it. The final piece clicked into place.

“Connor,” she said.

“My blood,” Angel growled protectively.

The doors slid open with an absurd, artificially pleasant ding. Beyond the doorway lay not the basement, certainly not the parking garage as she suspected, but a dark, slimy pit of stench. It was a sewer – perfect mode of daytime transportation for a vampire.

Buffy had her back against a wall. She would fight instead of run. Her position was ideal for making a stand. She gathered strength into her legs and waited for him to reach for her.

Angel didn’t reach for her. Instead, he drew a rusted, pitted dagger from his pocket.

Buffy looked from the knife to Angel’s distorted face.

“There’s already blood on that blade,” she said. Her throat tightened. She thought she had dreamed it. Hoped she had.

“Alas, poor William,” Angel said, lightly. “I knew him well.”

Buffy’s vision wobbled. “Angel, what did you do?”

“It was disappointing, actually” Angel said, matter-of-fact. “He went out like a punk. Didn’t even fight. You should thank me.”

“No!” Buffy shouted. She lashed at Angel. She pushed him into the button panel. Angel swung the blade. Buffy dodged its wide, flailing arc, but the tip nicked her right eyebrow.

Angel laughed darkly. “Can’t spill all your blood here,” he said. “We need it for the Circle.”

“Angel, why?” Buffy said. Ice flooded her veins. Numbed her. Made her weak. Blood thickened to a rivulet and streamed down her face. She sagged against the wall.

Angel hulked over her.

“I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. It’s not you, Buffy,” Angel said. His eyes slid down her body in the predatory way a jaguar seeks out the softest, most tender spot. “I can hear its heartbeat. You gave him your blood. Didn’t you?”

Something snapped inside. Something blind, rushing and primal raged at him, teeth and claws bared. Later she would not remember how she got past him. She would only recall the mocking echo of his voice as he pursued her into the catacombs beneath London.

You gave him your blood, he said.

And with that, a certainty: Angel knew.

 

Chapter Text

Buffy ran until her body unexpectedly collapsed beneath her. One second, her feet held faithfully to the ground. The next, she found herself tumbling. When she landed, her consciousness swam away and back again, like an afterimage of candle flame suddenly snuffed.

It was dark, of course. So black she could not see her skinned palms in front of her face. Her heart thudded dully against her breastbone. Her knees and elbows shrieked in bright pain. She scrambled off the path into a root-knotted hollow where she listened for sounds of pursuit. Of sounds that Angel had followed this far.

She gingerly touched the flap of skin above her brow where he had flayed into her. It was still bleeding, which was bad. Worse, though, was that until the flow stemmed, Angel had a trail that led him to her no matter how quiet she was.

When she was sure she heard nothing but the far-off sound of water rushing, Buffy resolved to take stock, to get grips, to take hold of what she could. She pressed her cheek against the cold, grimy stone and felt herself floating away again. It was strange, she thought, how time seemed to grow fuzzy in total darkness. It lost shape and meaning when you lacked the ability to measure the lengths of shadows and sunlight.

Buffy had been hanging on by her nails, emotionally-speaking. Now she had skittered over the bleak edge where anger and grief bled together into one nullifying torrent. It leeched the energy from her bones, made her want to lie down and rest until...

No. She lifted her head. She would not just lie down, not when so much rested on her. She needed more than anything to find her way back to the surface. She had to find the others before Thellian and Angel...

Buffy’s eyes filled. The others, she thought grimly. Kennedy, the girls and now William: All of them, dead.

Not dead, she whispered like an inward prayer. Not dead. Not him.

She pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes. William said he was dead. Her William. Where ever he was, he was no longer here. His absence filled her the way the echoes of the sea fill a shell.

Except part of William was with her, curled up and sleeping inside. Angel had sensed it, and that knowledge made it all the more real. He had heard the beating heart of her child. The child that she had barely begun to acknowledge could exist. Even bigger than that was the immediacy of her instinct to protect what her body already cherished.

That part she understood. Slayers lived by trusting that instinct. Mostly it meant “kill, dismember, destroy.” But it also meant, “defend.”

Buffy twisted her hands into the earthy smelling roots to pull herself to her feet. There was no time for grieving, not now. William knew how it was. She suspected Kennedy had too. It was part of the life of Slayers and defenders. Buffy dragged her reluctant body along through darkness, to Dawn, Willow, Xander and Giles, and to the others around and within who needed her.

 

 

Lorne arrived via taxi to find Willow and Connor huddled outside the under-construction front facade of the Royal London Hotel. Despite the cold, the pair had waited for him before going inside. Connor, still sporting his drawstring shorts and flip-flops, looked like a misplaced frat boy on laundry day. Lorne felt a surge of sympathy for the kid. He knew Connor had been through a lot in his short life, and the ride was far from over.

When Lorne stepped from the cab, Willow went straight away to greet him. Connor hesitated and cast him a suspicious look. Then Lorne remembered: Connor had never seen him in his festive human outerwear. The glamorous glamour courtesy of Willow kept him hidden in non-demon circles. This was nice because he had become attached to a hole-in-the-wall Thai kitchen that would have sliced Lorne into Chop Suey if he’d turned up in his Pylean form to order his favorite dish of gam garee with glass noodles.

After seconds of tense chitchat with Willow, Connor noted the gold beaded Indian shoes, gold pants, matching beaded blazer and red satin shirt that only Lorne could wear.

Connor stepped into conversation.

“Did you...?” he began.

“Hear from your dad?” Lorne finished for him.

Connor shuffled. “I sound like a skipping CD?”

“A little,” Lorne said. “But with good reason. Cause for concern on the rise here. I had a bit of a spell earlier that makes me think something bad has come to pass.”

“Something involving Angel?” Willow asked. Her brows sank into deep furrows of thought. “And something involving Spike,” she said slowly. “Was it... did you see something, when he sang for you?”

“Bing to the girl in the red,” Lorne sighed.

Willow walked purposefully around them to the barred front entrance doors. She lay both hands on the tinted glass and muttered a choppy incantation.

“Open,” she commanded. The bar glowed white, then clanged noisily to the ground. The door swung inward without a sound.

“Any idea what we might find on the other side of that door?” she asked.

Lorne could feel his Pylean heart beating in all the wrong places of his body. This was the part of the job he despised. It was what he had run from all those months ago at Wolfram & Hart.

“It’s...” he began, then decided it best not to spare them. “It won’t be pretty.”

 

But the interior of the Royal London Hotel was pretty. It gleamed with poshness like a polished pearl. To Connor it was a marvel, especially since he’d last seen the place as a post-seismic shambles.

“So, okay,” Connor said into the echo-y lobby. “Dad has been busy.”

Willow, Lorne and Connor entered with caution, as though a dozen vampire henchmen might leap from behind the bar or charge down the double-staircase and begin a Matrix style confrontation.

“It’s quiet,” Connor said. It was more a question than a statement.

“Always the time when the blonde gets it in the horror flick,” Lorne said. He glanced at them both. “Lucky for us, we’re non-blondes.”

Willow took point position. She flexed her fingers nervously at her sides. She entered the ballroom ahead of the others. Her skin felt goose-bumpy at the utter stillness. It made her mind play second-guessing games. If something ill had happened, she thought, wouldn’t I sense it?

She did sense it. Before glimpsing the reflection of the body in the mirror above the stairs, she felt the hairs on the nape of her neck stirring. Willow froze.

“Guys,” she whispered. She pointed. Not to the mirror, but to the shadow-strewn ballroom floor.

“God, no,” Connor said. He ran to the body, but stopped a few feet short.

Lorne came to stand elbow to elbow with Connor. Willow joined them, reluctantly. She recognized the coat and the boots. She knew it wasn’t Angel’s body that lay there with his throat split open like a science experiment gone wrong. The brutality of it stood out in sharp contrast to the lavish ballroom.

She clapped her hands over her mouth. Her body quaked. Stinging tears filled her eyes.

“Who did this?” Connor asked softly.

Lorne frowned deeply and hated himself. “Angel did it.”

Connor looked helplessly disheveled. He looked at Lorne, trying to decide whether or not he would lie about such a thing.

“The D’Ganti,” he said at last, accepting what he already knew. “My Dad had the blade. Looks like he used it.”

“It’s too much,” Willow said, choking on the words. She stumbled to the arm of the nearest chair and caught herself before collapsing. “It’s just too much. First Kennedy. Now Spike.”

After seconds of almost prayerful silence, Connor added, “Wesley Wyndham-Price. Cordelia Chase.”

Lorne drew a shaky breath. He said, “Charles Gunn. Winifred Burkle...”

“They’re taking us apart, one by one,” Willow said, her tone ragged and bitter. She didn’t try to stop the tears that fell from her face to the collar of her sweater. “How can we hang on? How can we live like this?”

Neither Lorne nor Connor had an answer. The three stood over William’s body. Each lapsed into a spell of personal reverence, in which they stared into a vague middle distance and marked the lives of those lost.

When Willow’s cell phone split the silence, they all jumped. She stepped away from the body as if speaking too near it would be a sign of disrespect.

“Hello?” she asked in a croaky whisper.

“Willow?”

It was Xander.

“Yes. It’s me.”

“You okay?”

“Something awful has happened,” Willow said.

“Uh...” Xander paused. “There too?”

Willow felt a flutter of alarm. Xander was at the hospital. If something bad happened there, it meant Buffy or Giles...

“Xander, what is it? What’s happened?” She didn’t know if she could take his answer.

“I’m here with Giles, but no Buffy,” Xander said.

Willow cast wild glances at Lorne, at Connor, at William’s murdered body. Taking the hint, Lorne and Connor huddled near her.

“Buffy’s gone,” she told them, nearly shouting. “She’s gone?”

“She wouldn’t just leave, Wil,” Xander said.

“Oh God...” Willow felt like the floor was sliding out from under her.

“Willow,” Xander said, “What’s happened there?”

Lorne mouthed to Willow, “Is it Angel?”

She held up her hand. “It’s Spike,” she said. “Angel’s killed him. He’s dead, Xander. I think...”

In the hospital ward, Xander locked eyes with Maya. He said, “Angel has Buffy.”

“You sure?” Maya asked. She was busy unwinding tubes from Giles’ arms, unhooking monitors and various machines.

Xander nodded. “Willow? What do we do?”

“Get Giles. Get back to the Flat. We have to circle our wagons,” Willow said. “Xander, we have to get her back.”

Giles’ hand shot out and gripped Maya’s shoulder. She yelped and leapt back.

“Xander!” Willow shrieked over the line. “What was that?”

After a handful of muffled seconds, Xander came back to the phone. “It’s Giles. He’s awake. We’ll get back home. And we’ll see you there.”

 

 

Willow snapped her phone closed. “They have Buffy,” she said. She was in motion. She was a blur. “We have to get Spike’s body back to the Flat. I can cast a location spell to find Buffy, and if we’re lucky we can find her before...”

Connor held up a hand. “Hang on. We can’t take the body,” he said. “Not if we’re in a hurry. H-how can we carry him?”

Willow stopped mid step. “We can’t just leave him here. Not after. I mean. He’s like almost family,” she said. “And we can’t just leave him here.”

“Boy’s right, though,” Lorne said. The corners of his mouth quivered downward. “Best we can do is cover the body and come back for it later.”

Willow warred visibly between smacking them both and taking their advice.

“Here,” Connor said. He strode across the ballroom, vaulted onto the stage and ripped down a jagged section of the velvet curtain. He brought it to her. “This should do,” he said.

Willow took the curtain from his hands.

“We should say something,” she said. She knelt beside his head. “We should say how he tried. How hard he tried.” Tears choked her again. She brushed her fingers along his temple. And the skin did something entirely unexpected. It smudged.

Lorne sucked air through his teeth. Connor took a broad step backward.

“He’s...” Lorne began.

“He’s clay,” Willow said, marveling. “He’s made of clay.”

Connor rubbed his chin. “He looks... remarkably human.”

Willow touched the carpet just under the edge of William’s coat. “No blood,” she whispered. “Wounds like this would bleed.”

Lorne crossed his arms and hugged his elbows. “Yes, unless the assailant’s a blood-sucking vampire,” he stated.

“Uh-uh,” Willow said. “No bite marks. Look,” she went to move William’s head to the side, but remembered the smeary spot and held back.

“What does it mean?” Connor asked.

Willow cupped her hands over her mouth. She stared hard at the gash torn across William’s neck, looking at it now with a scientist’s eyes instead of a friend’s. The skin around it was unbruised. She could find no trace of blood around its edge.

“Knife wound like that,” she said, mostly to herself. “Blood, everywhere.”

“Pools and pools of it,” Lorne added.

“But what does it mean?” Connor asked again.

Willow stood up. “William was not human. So it means he may not be dead,” she said. “It means we need Maya.”

 

Chapter Text

I lit my love and watched it burn

Asking nothing in return

Except the lessons I have learned

Involving crazy faith.

 

I’ve been touched by that bright fire,

Down to the root of my desire

Watching smoke that’s rising higher

Over crazy faith.

 

You’re not asking if I love this man.

I know you don’t, you don’t believe you can.

Yet I’ve seen love open like a dancer’s fan.

It’s crazy I know,

But my heart says so.

It tells me.

 

-- Alison Krauss, Crazy Faith

 

8:04 a.m.

 

Buffy felt her way forward in the darkness, a centimeter at a time. She moved with one arm extended in front of her body and the other feeling along the seeping cement wall. She had fallen more times than she could count. The ground was craggy, broken by what she assumed was tree roots or two hundred years of weathering. The ever-present gush of water remained constant in her ears, always below and to her right, always distant.

As she crept, she thought, this is what faith is: Feeling along blindly in the dark, hoping that the light is there, somewhere, waiting to be found. Even if there was no proof that she would ever find it again, the hope was there.

That kept her fingers inching forward, fighting for whatever handhold she could grasp.

After a long while, she lay back against the wall. Her muscles ached. Her spine complained. Her throat felt like it was lined with sandpaper. Buffy rested her eyes just long enough to almost doze. When she did, she felt a small pair of cold hands link with hers.

Buffy pulled her hands away as if she had touched a hot iron. The tunnel was too narrow for her to turn, so she backpedaled, fighting to keep her feet on the uneven ground. Her shoulder blades struck the wall. Buffy lashed out with a controlled and very precise right hook. The owner of the hands ducked the attack.

“Vampire,” Buffy panted to herself. She kept her spine to the wall and her arms up to defend. All she had to do was wait for the creature to advance.

But again, the hands linked with Buffy’s. Tiny fingertips brushed over Buffy’s palms.

Aconda,” the vampire said. The voice was throaty, no where near human, but oddly familiar and gruffly feminine. She nudged Buffy forward, impatient as a small dog on a leash.

Buffy held firm. That word. It sounded so familiar. Where had she heard it?

“What are you?” she asked.

The vampire pulled Buffy’s arm again. “Eya. Aconda.”

Whatever she was saying, Buffy understood that the vampire could see in the dark. She also guessed that the vampire was trying to lead her somewhere. Probably to Thellian or Angel.

Somehow, though, Buffy doubted it. Her instincts whispered to her to trust. To have faith. To believe that the small hands that sought to guide her would not lead her astray. Scared as she was, lost as she was, Buffy had to trust that.

Sensing her decision, the vampire entwined her hand with Buffy’s. She took a careful step forward then waited for Buffy to follow.

 

 

9:12 a.m.

 

Dawn awoke drenched in tepid sweat. A shrill pinging noise had shattered her sleep. It was a constant metallic hammering, and reminded Dawn of a dentist filling a cavity. She sprung from Buffy’s bed, but in her confusion she had forgotten the broken glass scattered across the floor. Several sharp shards drove into her bare feet. Dawn yowled in pain, then danced, bleeding, into the bathroom.

After plucking thorns of glass from her skin, Dawn swaddled her feet in gauze from under the sink. She felt all jittery and tense, like she had just awakened from a horribly graphic nightmare. Then she looked into the mirror. Her hair fell in stringy curtains around her pasty white face. Her eyes had a haunted, hollow look to them. Basically she looked like Dawn of the dead.

With a weary sigh, Dawn wrenched her hair into a twist and splashed water on her face.

Dawn hobbled downstairs on the heels of her feet. The dreadful clanging hammer sound was louder and more droning. Dawn figured it was construction on street level, probably due to some of the damage caused by Amy’s black magical outburst.

Dawn expected to find Andrew dutifully at work in the dining room. However, and much to her continued dismay, Andrew was absent. Someone, thankfully, had removed all of the offending glass in the entry hall and dining room. That same someone had taken the time to rearrange the scrolls on the dining room table and duct tape black garbage bags over the windows.

MK came out of the kitchen with trash bags draped over her arms. She wore the roll of duct tape on her wrist like a bracelet.

“You’re awake,” MK said, not masking her concern. Dawn watched the girl’s eyes dip to take note of Dawn’s mummified feet. “And wounded?” she asked.

“Glass,” Dawn said, flatly. She had wrapped the bandages too tightly. Now she could feel her heartbeat in the soles of her feet. “Where’s Andrew?”

MK bobbed her head. “Um. Watching TV,” she said.

Dawn boiled. “TV? You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope. Want me to bag the windows in Buffy’s room too?”

Dawn slid past the girl. She waved her hand as if to say, yeah whatever, just keep out of my way.

As MK had said, Dawn found Andrew huddled in the back room watching television.

She pounced on him with the full and spitting fury of her righteous rage.

“What are you doing?” she shouted. She snatched the remote from his hands.

Andrew bounded to his feet. “Hey!”

“You’re watching the news?”

Andrew swiped for the remote. She bapped his temple with it.

“Ow,” he whined. “It’s research.”

“Passive research?” she said. She struck at him again, but he batted her away.

“Quit it!”

“You were supposed to be deciphering the Circle, Andrew,” she yelled.

“I was...”

“I hate you,” she sneered.

Andrew withered. Briefly. Then retorted with, “Yeah, well I hate you.”

“I hate you with every fiber of my being,” Dawn hissed.

“Really?” Andrew said, in tones reminiscent of Spike. “Is it sweater resentment, or full-on 300 thread count hatred?”

“What is wrong with you? Don’t you know what’s happening?” she said.

Andrew folded his arms and waggled his head. “Ye-es,” he said. “World’s ending.”

Dawn looked past him. The news report showed several office buildings burning against a matte black sky. The jiggling camera panned out to show a handful of men lobbing flaming gas cans into the charred remains of the buildings.

Dawn pressed the volume button. The British news anchor, with her crisp over-annunciation, stood out in stark contrast against the violence that played out on the screen.

“...mimicking Detroit’s infamous Devil’s Night, arsonists in Cleveland, Ohio, seem to have gotten an early start this year, resulting in millions of dollars damage to property in that city,” the anchor woman said. “Police officials in Cleveland declined to report whether or not...”

“It’s on every channel,” Andrew said, softly.

“Just Cleveland, or is it...?” Dawn said.

Andrew took the remote. “No,” he answered. “It’s everywhere.” He flipped to the next channel.

And to another news report: “...bikers in droves have overrun the city of Amsterdam. As you can see Joyce, they have torn down the facade of the Parliament building. There are fires burning. Reports of public torture, executions, even cannibalism. It’s total chaos. Traffic into and out of the city has ground to a halt as people flee for their lives...”

Andrew clicked to the next channel. “...scientists have been baffled by the unseasonable locust swarms in the African countries of Zaire, Kenya and Ethiopia. Dr. Raimon Mobarek of the International Ecological Initiative believes that the recent occurrence of abandoned villages, or ‘ghost towns’, could account for the problem, due to the fallow fields the former inhabitants of these villagers have left behind...”

And the next channel: “...further violence erupted in San Antonio, Texas, where a stand-off between Latin gang members and police ended in a bloody fire fight, resulting in two officers killed in the line of duty. The situation worsened when three young men stormed into the River Walk, taking five as yet unidentified tourists hostage...”

Andrew held the remote out to change channels again.

“Stop,” Dawn said. She dragged her attention from the television set to Andrew. It was then that she got a good look at him. If it was possible, Andrew looked as haggard as she did. His poky hair stuck up in like the pelt of a greasy alley cat. Cobwebs and chalk laced his turtleneck. His skin looked waxy and almost translucent.

“I already solved the Circle,” he told her. He cinched his lips, trying for smugness but looking more like a child whose feelings were unjustly hurt.

“I thought you were stuck on conjugating Be verbs,” she said.

“Yeah, well... once you get through those, the rest just clicks into place,” Andrew said. “Did you know you were only asleep for, like, fifty-six minutes?”

Dawn sagged against the stuffy chair. “This has been going on all around us,” she said, gesturing to the TV set. “We’ve been so busy fighting evil, we haven’t noticed all the evil.”

Andrew narrowed his eyes. “Forest for the trees kind of thing.”

“Yeah,” Dawn said. At the moment the throbbing pain in her feet seemed kinda trivial.

“So,” Andrew said. “Do you really...”

“Dawn!” Xander called from the entry hall.

She elbowed her way past Andrew. Xander waited with the door open behind him. Dawn halted. Andrew, who had puppy-dogged after her, bumped into her.

“You’re here?” Dawn asked. “You’re supposed to be changing shifts with Buffy...”

“Dawnie,” Xander began, holding up his hands. Then, “What happened to your feet?”

“Why are you not changing shifts with Buffy?” Dawn said. Her eyes widened.

“Willow called,” Xander said. “She gave me a list of stuff she needs. Magical stuff. And she wants both of you to come with me.”

“Where’s Buffy?” Dawn said. She swallowed. “Where’s Giles?”

Xander took a prudent step forward. “Giles is in the car with Maya,” he said.

Dawn seemed incapable of movement. It was like she had finally short-circuited and the last command to her brain was ‘stand there and look dumbstruck.’ Andrew, sensing Dawn’s system malfunction, stepped up beside her.

“What’s on the list?” he asked.

Xander patted his breast pocket, then withdrew a scrap of paper torn from the cover of his car’s maintenance manual. He recited the list to them from his shorthand.

“Have Andrew bring anything useful for a location spell,” Xander read. “Also the Malm’s Treatise on Healing Spells,” Xander said. “Any of this handy?”

Andrew nodded. “Go on.”

“Okay, and anything from the Kabalistic studies Dawn and Andrew did on creating golems. Oh, and some lemongrass,” Xander said. “Willow needs some tea. Nerves.”

“Golems?” Dawn said. She lifted her eyes to meet Xander’s. Xander scrubbed his hands through his hair.

“Hurry, Dawnie,” he said. “We’re wasting daylight.”

 

 

 

9:21 a.m.

 

Andrew was sandwiched between Giles and Dawn in the back seat. Xander glanced at them in the rearview mirror just before putting the car into gear.

“Wait!” Maya shouted. She leapt from the passenger seat, slamming the door behind her.

“Maya?” Xander called. She disappeared around the back of the car, then raced up the front steps into the Flat.

After a few seconds of silence, Andrew said, “Unpredictable. I like that in a woman.”

Dawn jack-hammered his ribcage with her elbow.

Xander uttered an uneasy laugh. “How you doing, Giles, old sport? Hanging in there?” he asked in an excessively chipper voice.

Giles’ lip twitched. “I’m not a convalescing uncle, Xander,” he said, all upper crusty. “No need to speak in coddling tones.”

“But I was just...”

Maya hopped back into the seat. In her lap, she cradled a small round object bundled in dishcloths.

“Something useful in a location spell,” Maya said, breathless. She buckled her seatbelt. “By the way, MK says she’s in charge of the house until Buffy gets back.”

Xander shifted the car into reverse. Once more he got a rearview full of the haggard backseat occupants, and his heart lurched. If Buffy gets back, he thought before he could stop himself.

But he said, “Great. A thirteen-year-old Slayer with her mighty roll of duct tape. Fear us, ye legions of evil.”

 

 

10:37 a.m.

 

Maya, Dawn and Willow took their places around William’s body. Willow at the head. Dawn at the feet. Maya stepped up to his right side, her toes nearly brushing the coat sleeve of his outstretched arm.

“Oh my God,” Andrew whimpered. “He saved my life, and now look…Can’t we cover his face or something?” Andrew whined from across the room.

“No,” Willow snapped. “Just, stand over there. And keep quiet.”

Andrew, not good with carnage, had lost his breakfast at the sight of William. Keeping his distance was not going to be a problem. He spread his map of London out on one of the round dining tables in the bar and began to array amethyst crystals at each compass point. It was difficult to see the street names through his streaming tears, but he figured he’d manage.

Maya, on the other hand, was nearing an all-body flake-out.

“Is now a good time to point out the fact that I’ve never done anything like this before?” Maya asked. She twisted a lock of her short-cropped hair over and over the end of her forefinger.

Willow centered her body. She drew in a deep breath. Released it. “No one in the history of ever has ever done this before,” Willow told her. “He’s not human, technically. And so, technically, he can’t be defined as dead. Not really. All you need to do is find him and talk him back home.”

Maya imitated Willow’s posture and breathing. “Oh, easy,” she said, trying her hand at Scooby sarcasm. “I feel so much better about it.”

“It’s okay,” Dawn said. She winced at the stabs of pain in her feet. “You’ll find him. I know you will.”

Maya lifted her small white hands over William’s body. “By the power of three times three, come to me. Come to me,” she said. Maya felt like a hack amateur magician, using such ouija board words in Willow’s presence, but they were all she knew.

“By the power of three times three,” Dawn said, taking up the thread of Maya’s incantation. “Come to me, come to me.”

And then Willow joined them. “By the power of three times three. Come to me. Come to me.”

The air stirred within their circle. All three felt it.

“It’s working,” Dawn breathed.

Willow always smiled when the magics flowed through her. “We can do this,” she urged Maya. “Keep pushing. Have faith.”

Connor, Lorne and Xander huddled together near the bar, drinking warm pints of Guinness and watching the women work their magic. Giles sat in a nearby high-backed chair sipping orange juice and blearing in and out of wakefulness.

“Ever feel like the unnecessary part of the human species?” Xander said.

Lorne toasted the air. He said, “Make a Xena reference and I’ll smack you.”

Xander inhaled foam and laughed a nervous little titter like he always did when he felt way out of his depth.

“No, it’s true,” Giles pitched in. “We’re bloody useless. We’ve never once rescued Buffy. It’s always been the other way around.”

“I don’t get it,” Connor said.

“See, they’re women. All with the power and the sacred feminine,” Xander said. “And we’re basically tools.”

“No,” Connor said. “My Dad. I don’t think he could do this. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense. Why would he kill Spike?”

“Well,” Xander said. “Could have a lot to do with the fact that they both love them some Buffy.”

“Doesn’t add though, Gilligan,” Lorne said. “They’ve fought over that before. Came to serious blows, too. But both fighters came away with their gloves up. They’re hero types.”

“Yeah, but that was before Buffy made a choice,” Xander said. “Before that, it was still anyone’s guess.”

Connor pushed away from the bar. “No,” he said, forcefully. “It’s not him. Angel would not throw his very long life’s work away – not to mention his soul – over a girl.”

“He did it before,” Xander said.

Connor seized Xander’s jacket collar. Lorne clamped them both on their shoulders, attempting to insinuate himself between them.

“Stop this,” Giles hissed. “Now is not the time. Are you insane? One of our own has been murdered, stabbed in the back, in cold blood. It is highly likely that Angel did this because he is one of the only men in this world who could.”

The corners of Connor’s mouth twitched. Xander looked away. Lorne, who knew the truth of it anyway, continued to watch Giles’ bruised and swollen face.

“And if that is true,” Giles went on, softening his tone, “if Angel has taken this path, then we are in far more trouble than we dared imagine.”

 

 

Anya tucked the next three cards into the discard pile, then dealt three more. She checked her stacks but found nothing on which she could play her Jack of Hearts.

She swore, then discarded. He was watching her. Anya could sense now when he was watching.

So she played her Solitaire. Two of spades. She placed it on her Ace, played the Nine of Diamonds. Dealt again.

“Where did they go, Anyanka?” Luxe asked her. He materialized suddenly, all Cheshire cat – no grin.

“Where did who what?” she asked. She reached the end of her stack, shuffled the discard pile and re-dealt.

“The Slayer and her lover. Where did they go?” he asked. She could hear an uncharacteristic bristle of agitation beneath his usual silken tone. Causing him further irritation would be just the bonus to make her day.

“They weren’t really here, you know,” she said.

“Of course they were,” Luxe said. He moved around the bar to the table where she played her game. “This is a nexus point. They were drawn here.”

“I made them,” Anya said, in her matter-of-fact way. “I dreamed them. Out of boredom.”

Luxe considered the possibility. Then discarded it. “Then why are they gone now?”

“You broke my concentration,” she said. She played the four of spades, giving her an open row. She moved the King of Diamonds and turned over the Queen of Spades.

“Yes!” she said to herself.

Luxe banged his fists on the table hard enough to make the cards dance. Anya started, but lagged only a second before dealing out the next three in the deck.

“Temper, temper,” she said. “Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the rack this morning.”

“You want to play games, Anyanka? I serve the master of ceremonies in this three-ring circle of Hell. I doubt you have the stamina to go rounds with me,” Luxe said.

Anya swept her cards into a pile. She stacked them fastidiously into a deck, then set them aside.

She leveled her hazel eyes on his. “You know what I think?” she asked. She smoothed her tongue over her lips.

Luxe stood motionless, not answering.

“I think you have bled this well dry, Cowboy,” Anya said. “Why don’t you just run off to your master and tell him I’m no longer his little songbird?”

Luxe was on her in a flash, his hands clamped tightly over her throat.

Anya pouted. “Aw. You know, it hurts me you think this hurts me.”

“I know your game,” Luxe said, breathless. “You think you can push me into doing something foolish.”

Anya shrugged. When she did, she blinked from Luxe’s grasp and re-appeared on the other side of the bar. “Nah,” she said. “I’ve just learned the tricks of your game. It’s much more fun this way. At least, it is for me. But then, I’m not a power-tripping frog with an 80s hair band denim jacket.”

Luxe rubbed his hands together. “Very well. I concede. You have finally realized this isn’t the real world. Given how long it took you to figure that out, I doubt you can outmatch me in a battle of wits.”

“I was really hoping it could go like this,” Anya said. She reached behind her to the butcher block knife stand. She slung the first blade she could grab, hurling it at Luxe’s chest. He didn’t move to defend himself; there was no need. The knife’s handle bounced off of the breast pocket of his jacket and clattered across the floor.

“Damn,” Anya said with a nervous laugh. “That sorta played out differently in my head.”

“Tch,” Luxe muttered. “They were here.” He moved toward her. As he did so, the light in the kitchen dimmed, drawing the shadows deeper around them in menacing pools. Anya backed away until she brushed against the counter. “Why were they here, Anyanka? And where did they go?”

“I’m through, Luxe,” Anya said, almost hiccupping over the words. “No more spying or listening in. I’m not your girl. Not anymore.”

Luxe shoved her into the counter. Surprisingly, Anya did not fall back or even wince.

“It’s over,” Anya told him. She kept her eyes on his. She was serious this time. But Luxe already had a plan.

“I can do things to them. To your friends,” he said. He waited for a heartbeat, enjoying with perverse pleasure the flicker of doubt that crossed her face. “Things even you could not imagine, worse than anything you wrought in your demon days, the most inhuman of tortures. Do you want that for them?”

Anya tried to compress herself further, to meld into the cabinetry. But it was indeed his realm and his rules. He had her right where he wanted her.

“Of course I don’t,” she said.

“Then tell me. It will all be painless. For them. For you…”

Anya felt something squeeze her right hand. She had the wherewithal to pretend to ignore it.

“The Slayer,” she said. “And um, who… again?”

Luxe clamped his hands onto Anya’s shoulders. “Anyanka!”

The squeeze again, and this time, a voice. “I’m here with you,” it whispered. “Right beside you.”

Anya saw that Luxe heard nothing. She almost glanced over her shoulder, but caught herself. And suddenly, she understood. She wasn’t alone this time.

“Right. Wait. I got it,” Anya sputtered. “Um… The Slayer. Buffy. And Spike, right?”

Maintenant, Anyanka,” Luxe said. “I am losing my patience with you. Do you wish for your friends to find your beloved Xander in a ditch somewhere?”

“Well, actually,” Anya said. “It’s somewhat humorous, you see. Spike’s still here. He’s right behind you.”

Luxe darted a quick look over his shoulder. Anya looked down. She caught the glimmer of silver just as it slipped into her hand. It was a dagger. A bright and silvery one. This one looked and felt much more effective than kitchen knives.

Luxe returned his attention to her. She wore an expression of perfect nonchalance.

“I have had enough of your games,” Luxe said. He lunged for her. She brought the dagger up to his nose.

“I was just thinking the same thing,” she said. “By the way, can’t believe you fell for that one…”

Luxe sighed, unimpressed. “More knives? I had hoped you would be more inventive. After all, you worked eleven centuries with D’Hoffryn and he is legendary…”

Anya turned the dagger in her hands so that the scant light gleamed across its surface. Even in the false glow of the dream-kitchen’s feeble light, Luxe recognized the unmistakable power of the triangular shaped blade in Anya’s hand.

“Where did you get that?” he asked.

Anya brandished it at him. “Let’s just say I have friends in high places,” she said.

Luxe took several reeling steps backward as she advanced.

“I’m thinking, since I’m already dead and this place is a constructed reality, there really are only two things of consequence in the whole room,” she said, slicing dramatically through the air between them. “You. And this. I bet this can really hurt you. Let’s find out, shall we?”

Anya brought the dagger down in a bright sweep toward Luxe’s face. He put up his arm to block, but the blade cut clean through it. And at first, he thought it was a trick of the light, that the blade made no contact at all with his skin. Then he glimpsed the first drops of blood spattering the tile floor between his feet.

“Oh, lookit,” Anya said. “I was right.” She grinned at him. “Guess you better have that looked at.”

“Anyanka,” Luxe roared. “You…”

“I what?” she laughed. “Looks like the rules have changed, Luxe. And I can end all this, right here, with no one winding up in ditches or mysteriously missing limbs. Well, except, maybe for you.”

Luxe lunged at her again. Anya clutched the dagger high above her head. She brought it down, hilt-first, cracking the bridge of his nose. It squashed like an overripe tomato, spurting blood down the front of his face in an embarrassing gush.

“Let me go,” Anya growled.

Non! C’est impossible,” Luxe said. He danced backward until he collided with the breakfast table.

“Talk American, you Kimaris freak,” Anya spat. She slashed wildly, growing bolder with every stroke. “Let me go and leave my friends alone. Or I gut you… you… fat pig.”

“I cannot,” Luxe said. He batted lamely at Anya’s attacks until his hands and wrists were scored with twenty or so minor lacerations. “I cannot let you go.”

Anya ceased attacking. “Cannot? What do you mean, you cannot?”

Luxe leaned heavily against the table, grimacing at the pain from the cuts in his hands. “I hold you under the authority of Wolfram & Hart,” he said. “I cannot release you. Please understand… I am already in enough trouble with them as it is. Were I to let you go, it would mean bad things for me.”

“Aw,” Anya said. “Come now. Nobody likes a sullen sycophant. Tell me, what did you do?”

Luxe rubbed at his nose. It was droopy and red and ludicrously swollen, like a pear with a sunburn. “I do not wish to speak of it,” he said.

Anya backed off. She folded her arms, surreptitiously concealing the dagger. “C’mon. You can tell me. Might as well, right? I found it helps, talking things out. Especially to strangers,” she said.

Luxe shrugged. “We are hardly strangers, Anyanka,” he said. He managed a watered-down smile.

“I have come to almost enjoy holding you prisoner here.”

Anya shifted uncomfortably. “I know what you mean. That whole slave-master paradox. So,” Anya arched her brows. “What did you do?”

Luxe rolled his eyes. He went to the counter to pull the hand towel from its rack. He pressed it firmly to his nose, so that when he spoke his words came out snuffly and slightly garbled.

“It is not so much what I have done, but what I did not do,” Luxe said, with a sigh. “I have let one of Wolfram & Hart’s weapons get out of control. It isn’t that I worry Angel will find out, but there are others who did not wish for her to become so powerful so fast.”

“The weapon’s a her?” Anya said. She edged onto the bar. “Interesting. Go on…”

“And then there was the fiasco with Monsieur Wells,” Luxe said. “We were supposed to recruit him. He is a simple human boy, Anyanka. How is it that he could slip through Nighna’s snare?”

Anya raised her shoulders. “Maybe she really liked him,” she said.

Impossible,” Luxe hissed. “How could she?”

“He can be surprisingly insightful,” Anya said.

Luxe shuffled his feet. His fingers had begun to twinge uncomfortably. His throat was dry. And his nose felt feverish under the constant pressure he applied to stem the bleeding. “Look, Anyanka. We are both victims here in the sprawling bureaucracy. I’m under a tremendous amount of pressure, you see. You cannot imagine… Even if I wanted, which I don’t I have no power to release you.”

Anya thought for a moment. She scratched her chin with the tip of the blade. “So don’t,” she said.

Quoi?” Luxe sputtered. “You mean to try and kill me, then?”

“Oh I should,” Anya said, enjoying his general squirminess. “But we can call it square if you just leave and, you know, never come back.”

“Never come back…” Luxe repeated hollowly.

“That’s right, Repeato Boy. And leave my friends alone too. Just forget I’m here,” Anya said. “And I’ll just keep nice Mr. Shiny Blade here in case you change your mind.”

Luxe seemed to consider this for a long while. The blood continued to flow from his nose and many cuts on his hands. The cuts seemed to grow more tender with every second that passed and had now begun to throb with a raw ache. Luxe did not like pain. He liked death even less, and the magical dagger Anya now wielded would be enough to do the trick. He was not willing to wager his life on a lucky shot from Anya’s enchanted blade.

Luxe already knew his time on this plane was almost over. Between Thellian and Wolfram & Hart, Anyanka didn’t really rate high on the list of VIPs.

“All right,” Luxe said. He wiped his nose on the sleeve of his jacket.

“All right? Really?” Anya said. She held the dagger out to get a better look at it.

Oui. Really. In the grand scheme, Anya, neither of us is very important,” Luxe told her. His voice sounded all reedy and plaintive through its fragmented cartilage. “I do not know what will become of you.”

Anya waved dismissively. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “Really.”

With that, Luxe teleported away with a less than dramatic swoosh of air.

“Yeah, well… back atcha,” Anya called out to the void once occupied by her captor. She bounced on the balls of her feet, feeling the remarkable lightness of her freedom.

“Did you see that?” she said, overloud. When there was no answer, Anya lay down the dagger on the counter top. “Come on. I know you’re still here. You had to see.”

William materialized soundlessly beside her. “Can’t believe he pulled the old ‘leave your loved ones in a ditch’ threat,” he said. “And all that about Wolfram & Hart’s renegade weapon. That was for my benefit?”

“Hey, don’t mention it,” Anya said. “I saw a snag and ran with it. Could be useful, huh?”

William folded his arms around his body, hugging himself tightly. “It could, sure. If we both weren’t dead. You know, Angel killed me with that blade in the pocket of my coat,” he said. He pursed his lips. “Glad it could be of some use.”

Anya picked up the dagger again. She turned it in her hands, studying the elegant curve of the triangular blade, and the sweeping tracery of the language scrolled down its length.

“It was a big help,” she said. “But you aren’t dead, Spike, so I can’t keep it. Much as I would like to. I mean, Luxe is bound to turn up again. Wouldn’t let me off that easy. I suppose I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it.”

“Wait, Anya,” William said. “I did die. Angel offed me, remember? I just had a heartrending moment with Buffy about it. Plus I think the…”

Anya cocked her head to the side. “Aw,” she said, pudging out her lower lip. “Poor Spike. You really think he could do that? Angel can’t kill you. It’s okay. You’re dreaming, William. William – you’re dreaming.”

 

 

11:06 a.m.

 

Maya’s eyes rolled like marbles behind her eyelids.

“I have him,” she said. She was silent a long while after that.

“You have him what?” Dawn ventured. “Is he...?”

“You’re right. He’s not dead,” Maya answered. “He sleeps.”

Willow wrung her hands. “Well, wake him.”

Seconds passed, and no one breathed.

“I can’t,” Maya whispered. “He’s with someone else just now. He…”

William’s eyes flew open. Willow and Dawn sprung back, startled.

“Spike?” Dawn said.

William blinked. “…Poncy bastard ruined my coat,” he said.

“Oh my God!” Dawn said. “It worked. You did it. It worked.”

“I didn’t,” Maya said, her cheeks turning pink. “I talk with the dead, not the slumbering.”

William raised his head to get a better look at Dawn. “Hey, niblet,” he said. He cringed in pain even though his wounds seemed well on their way to mending.

“You shouldn’t move,” Willow said. “You should definitely lie down. Or remain lying down.”

“Right,” he said. From where William lay on the floor, he could see their faces fine enough. He ran through the count: Dawn, Willow, Maya, Andrew, Connor, Xander, Giles and Lorne. All of their faces. One was missing. By his reckoning, the most important one.

“Where’s Buffy?” he said.

 

 

Love is lightning, love is ice.

It only strikes the lucky twice.

Once so you will know the price,

And once for crazy faith.

 

-- Alison Krauss, Crazy Faith

 

6:04 a.m.

New York

 

Ten minutes after landing at La Guardia, Faith ran into trouble. Trouble with traffic and the cabby who had refused to turn back. Lincoln Tunnel was shut down due to some big ass car crash, but the driver told her, “This ain’t a Hollywood picture, Missy. I can’t just bust my way through cars. Looks like you’ll just have to wait like the rest of us.”

He had scarcely finished this line when she skipped out on the fare. Faith wove her way through back streets in the gloomy predawn. It was never truly dark in New York City. The sky was always the color of murky rainwater at night. That was why she loved it. She could always find her way.

Soon her feet tread the familiar haunts of her patrol route. She was half a mile north of 45th when she sensed the eerie disquiet she had come to associate with The Priestess. Faith knew the truth of it. The Priestess had come to New York. That was fine so far as Faith was concerned. New York was home base. Nobody could take her here.

Faith cut south along Park, walking fast. The sharp scents of sweat and blood filled her nose. It was ever-present since Haiti. She thought she might never smell anything else. A bitter seaward wind blew in down the ravine-like walls of the buildings. Faith crossed at the corner. There was a newsstand owned by an old guy named Ollie. She knew it was usually open by now and thronged with people in identical gray suits buying morning editions of the New York Times to consume with their Starbuck’s and Marlboro Lights. Today, the plank front window was closed and padlocked. Stacks of the Times stood untouched, still bound with poly-wrappers. Faith checked the date. October 21. Delivered this morning.

She quickened her stride. Two blocks down, she ducked between tenement buildings. The alley was a bricked path with a narrow ditch snaking down its center. There, she found five vampires huddling over the body of a woman, probably homeless, all the way dead.

One of them caught Faith’s scent and lifted his lumpy head. The others ignored her, intent on their feasting. That kinda pissed her off.

“Looks like you should have ordered this meal to go,” Faith said, raising her voice. The vamp that had looked at her managed to actually seem bored before returning to his dinner.

Faith put her boot through a wooden crate. It snapped to pieces with a reverberating crack. That got their attention. No vampire worth his salt ever disregarded the sound of splintering wood. All five turned to watch her kick a stick of wood into the air and catch it.

“Now that I have your attention,” she said. “The Priestess. Where is she?”

Of the five vamps, three were female and until recently were streetwalkers and/or junkies. The men may or may not have been pimps, but judging by their baggy clothing and excessive blingage, were definitely pushers. They were hardcore types, accustomed to getting rough with authority. Clearly, if they knew anything, they wouldn’t share it with her. She’d just have to settle with the rough-and-dust routine.

Faith threw the first punch. She ground her fist into the rodenty face of a woman wearing hot pink cheetah print. Faith rode the body down, staking it so that she rolled through the vampire’s dust before striking the second in the knees. The third female vamp twisted her fists in Faith’s hair.

“Bitch!” Faith yelled. She slammed the stake backward into the vampire’s thigh. That one sprawled prone, taking the stake with her. The two men seized Faith’s arms. Faith kicked behind her, clocking one in the back of the skull. They all heard it thunk like a watermelon against a sidewalk. He spiraled away, clutching his ears.

The other male vamp sank his teeth into Faith’s shoulder, all the way through her jacket. Her hand shot down; she closed her fist around his genitals and squeezed until he let her go. By then, both remaining female vampires were up again. The one with the thigh wound broke off the makeshift stake, determined to give back what she got in spades.

Faith found herself in the middle, with nothing but balls and claws on her side. That, and the approaching sunrise. She wondered, as she had so many times in her life, whether she could ride it out to daylight. Or would this finally be her last fight?

Faith brought up her fists. “The Priestess,” she said, again. She kept her breathing level.

“We don’t know no Priestess,” the woman in the orange vinyl coat said. Faith saw a flash of gold on her pointed teeth when she smiled.

“You’re lying,” Faith said.

“Maybe,” said one of the men. “And maybe you won’t last long enough to find out.”

Faith shrugged. She moved with blinding speed, tackling the vampire to the ground. She spun before they could jump her. In the few seconds it took for them to register what had happened, Faith scanned the alley for a weapon. She saw only a wooden door wedge probably used to prop a kitchen door open during summer. Faith dive-rolled for it. She snagged it, bounding back up as they leapt on her. Four pairs of hands like steel shackles pinned Faith’s arms and legs.

Faith kicked one off of her, only to have him pop right back. He slipped his hand under her coat to shove his fingers into the place where he’d bitten her. The pain of it sliced through her. Her knees turned watery. She would have fallen, but they held her up. There was sickening tearing sound as the vampire forced his nails deeper into muscle. Through the glaring pain, Faith felt him hook his fingers around her collarbone.

The vampire brought his meth mouth close to hers. “Looks like you picked the wrong gang to fight. We already rid the city of your breed of trash,” he said. He licked blood from his teeth. “Slayer.”

The others tittered like hyenas. Their laughter transformed to a horrible licking noise as all four prepared to feed.

After that, things happened very quickly. Faith didn’t see the creature at first. She heard a ripping, popping sound, like skin being pulled tight over a drum. In seconds, the leering faces of the vampires disappeared. Faith fell hard to the bricks. For a moment, she thought the bones cracking must be hers. She rolled to her side, holding her wounded left arm at the elbow.

Two of the vampires were running right at her: Orange coat and the one she’d groined. Faith sprung up, catching the female with a doorstop to the heart. The other seemed more intent on fleeing. Faith still felt his fingers worming under her skin. Yeah, he was going down. She adjusted the door wedge in her hand. She took aim and nailed him. He ran a few feet more before leaving a trail of dust.

Faith turned her feral eyes to face the empty alley. She waited for the body that belonged to the approaching footsteps. The creature paused. She could hear it sniffing the air. She braced herself, knowing she was no go for more fighting. Whatever it was, she hoped sunlight would send it packing.

Faith heard that strange stretching, popping sound again. And then a voice, oddly familiar, called her name.

Her vision blurred. Through the haze, she saw the slight shape of a young man in green corduroy pants and a bomber jacket. Between her labored breaths, she said, “Who did you date in high school?”

“Willow Rosenberg,” he said. “She was kind of a one-and-only.”

“Oz?” Faith asked.

“It’s me,” he said.

“You were wolfed out,” she said. Her eyes rolled back. “I was setting up an ambush.”

Oz knelt beside her. He flipped her jacket open and sucked breath over his teeth. “Not your usual style. Just saying.”

Her eyes flashed, then flickered. “Why are you even here, yo? Don’t you have a bitchin’ rock show to get to?”

“Finished one in Cleveland last night. Girl named Vi asked me to check in on you guys in NY,” Oz said. He took off his jacket and plumped it under her head. “What happened here?”

“How the hell would I know?” Faith said, but without the usual punch to her voice. “I was in Haiti till like four hours ago.”

Oz patted her good shoulder. He disappeared momentarily, and when he did, she thought she heard him talking to someone else. As she lay there she recalled her stint in Sunnydale Memorial as a comatose patient. She had experienced times of semi-lucidity when she saw and heard things, but her consciousness had been like a bubble near the surface of an aquarium tank. When Oz returned, his face floated over her.

“You wolfed out,” she said. She tried to sit up, but he eased her back down. “How much control do you have over that?”

“Total,” he said. “Look, Faith. They didn’t all die.”

“Huh?”

“Your Slayers. They didn’t all die,” he said. “Tall girl. Super-model legs. Threw ninja stars...”

“Sabine?” Faith said.

“That’s the one. She and six others found Vi and Rona. They’re in Cleveland, too. Kind of a fire/frying pan deal, but...” Oz said.

“Lucky seven.” Faith said. She despised crying. Couldn’t remember when she had last shed a tear, but could safely bet she had not been long out of diapers. This news was enough to make her throat go froggy.

“Yeah, but they were a little Dali on the details. Hence, why I’m here,” Oz said.

“Good girls,” Faith said. This time she did sit up. The pain in her shoulder burned like a chemical spill, but she owed some payback to an evil witch that needed some serious killing.

She held her arm to her body as she gingerly got to her feet.

Oz watched her with obvious concern. “Super-Slayer healing aside, shouldn’t you, I dunno, sit or something? Maybe an ice pack? Or a fifth of Jack Daniels?”

Faith attempted a shrug. The pain of it sent shocked tears to her eyes. “Bones not broken,” she managed to say, gritting her teeth. She leaned against the wall. “You got any cash?”

“A bit. Looking to play the lottery?”

Faith smiled at that. “Yeah, ’cause my luck’s bound to change...” she said.

Behind Oz the sky turned the color of faded denim. She had survived one more night. That had to count for something. “Got another plane to catch,” she told him.

“You just got here,” he said. He added, blandly, “Plus we have so much to catch up on.”

She barely heard him. Faith was moving, plowing ahead on unsteady legs, held up by the puppet strings of her own stubbornness. Oz sprinted to catch up to her.

“Where are you...?” he said.

“London,” she said, gaining momentum.

“Because there’s a Buffy and the Scooby gang holiday reunion special?” Oz asked, matching her stride.

“Because that’s where The Priestess is going,” Faith said.

Oz caught Faith’s elbow. He stopped, pulling her to a halt with him. “The who is what and why?” he asked.

“Hey, guy,” Faith said, pulling free. “Really don’t have time for chit-chat. Four hour flight though, if you wanna come with.”

Oz added things quickly. He nodded once, and they left the alley. Still no Ollie in the newsstand. Still that eerie disquiet in the morning crowds that had begun to trickle in. Faith turned north, walking against the stream of foot traffic. Oz tugged on his jacket as they walked briskly up the street. At the corner, he turned to her.

“Where’s Wood?” he asked.

“He didn’t make it,” she said. She flinched almost imperceptibly, but said nothing further. The light changed. They crossed the street. An hour and a half later they were airborne, and although Faith filled Oz in on the whole pursuit of the Priestess story, she said nothing more about Robin Wood. Oz, being of the clever sort, decided it best not to ask.

 

 

 

11:54 a.m.

 

Before long, Buffy and her guide were darting through patches of light and dark at a ludicrous speed. But Buffy trusted every step. She didn’t need eyes to run.

Time passed, and though the vampire was tireless, she seemed to know when Buffy needed to rest. They came to a culvert through which a trickle of water seeped. Scant rays of golden light lanced through the grate at the end of the tunnel, turning swirls of dust motes into twinkling embers. The vampire released Buffy’s hands. She gestured excitedly to the grate.

“You want me to go in there?” Buffy asked.

The vampire nodded vigorously. In the meager light, Buffy could see the girl’s shape and dress. She was a small thing with knotted hair that hung in untidy clumps over her shoulders. She wore a dry-rotted petticoat, yellowed with age and hemmed with irregular patches of mud. Even though her face hid in shadows, Buffy knew her. Lalaine was the eldest, but this girl had Boadicea’s features. She was the younger. The name came to Buffy like a line from a beloved children’s poem.

“Morna,” Buffy whispered.

The girl made a choking, gurgling noise. She rubbed her filthy hands together. “Eya,” she said. “Ugluck. Owt.” Morna waved her hands in a shooing motion. She was telling Buffy to go.

Buffy crawled into the culvert. It was a cramped, squalid cement tunnel three meters long. The grate at the end was a circle half clogged with chunks of sod and debris from recent rains. Buffy clambered down the length of the hole on hands and knees. The light that fell on her felt welcome and warm.

When Buffy reached the grate, she laced her fingers through the metal mesh and gave it a good shove. She didn’t expect it to move, not really. That would be too easy. And it didn’t budge, even with her full Slayer strength to back her up. But it was light, and Morna had led her to it.

Buffy pressed her eye to the grate. The culvert served as drainage for a boggy area in a park. Beyond a grassy ditch maybe fifty meters away, Buffy saw a pair of women chatting together on a wrought iron bench. She heard children playing, and the metallic wheeze and whine of swings sawing back and forth. Her heart quickened at the sound. There were actual people out there, within hearing distance. People who could go for help. People who could get her out.

Buffy twisted around in the tunnel. She put her feet in front of her and kangaroo-kicked with all her remaining might against the grate. She screamed, thinking that would add to the force of her kicking, but the mesh held.

Solid British engineering, she thought. She cursed it.

Back in the tunnel, Morna babbled something unintelligible.

“It won’t bend,” Buffy called back to her. “No bendy?”

Morna grunted, returning to her messy chattering.

Buffy put her face near the grate again. She started yelling for help. The women on the park bench heard nothing. Buffy began to wish for random joggers with curious little puppies. She yelled herself hoarse, but no one could hear her over the buzz of children and mid-afternoon traffic.

Buffy flung herself into the curve of the tunnel. “No one’s coming,” she said. “No one can hear me.”

Silence in the cave. Morna was gone.

Buffy held herself very, very still. She strained to hear the slightest trace of noise beyond the tunnel. After a moment, she caught the scrape of slick-soled shoes on concrete. Morna had been barefoot. Someone else was in the cave.

Cold laughter bubbled up to her.

“I wouldn’t say no one can hear you,” Angel said. “I can hear you just fine.”

Buffy scrambled to the checkerboard of sunlight, knowing it would be poor protection if Angel chose to come for her.

“Stay away, Angel,” she warned.

“Or what, Buffy?” he said, laughing again. “You may as well come along quietly. You’re cornered. You don’t have your back up. Don’t think you can win this one.”

Buffy tried to think, to reason, but her thoughts scattered, useless as dead leaves. She grasped at random thoughts, hoping to stall long enough for someone to see her.

“What was the price, Angel? How did Thellian buy you off?” she asked.

Angel was quiet. He didn’t want to play. In the silence, Buffy ran down the list of possible strings Thellian could pull. It was a short list, and the answer seemed obvious when she fell upon it.

“Connor,” she said. “He’s using your son…”

Buffy thought of her own child, then. Right now it was no bigger than a hummingbird, but it slept within her. It was part of her. What wouldn’t she sacrifice to assure its safety? Everything. Anything. The knowledge of it enraged her. She could see Thellian’s face, so calm, so utterly composed. Why shouldn’t he seem serene? It wasn’t his child on the altar.

“Angel,” Buffy said, trying to sound rational. “What kind of evil has us fighting its war with the blood of our children?”

After a moment’s consideration, Angel gave his bitter reply. “Don’t be naive, Buffy,” he said. “That’s how all wars are fought.”

The simple truth of it broke over her in waves. She shuddered. She held back tears, knowing that giving in to them would wash her away. She wouldn’t realize it until later, but in that handful of seconds, her life had irrevocably altered. Everything she knew had changed.

“That’s how all wars are fought?” she whispered. She felt the words with her tongue. Her eyes narrowed. She crept forward in her tunnel, leaving the safety of the light behind.

“Not this one,” she told herself. “Not this time.”

Buffy crawled from the culvert to meet Angel face to face.

 

Chapter Text

12:16 p.m.

 

It was too simple to say that William’s throat was dry. His throat felt as though it had been slashed open and collecting dust for the better part of the day. Since that was the truth, he felt compelled to drink liters and liters of water.

He was miffed about the coat, and about being dead long enough to let Angel get his mitts on Buffy and his as-yet unmentioned unborn. Otherwise, he had recovered reasonably for being recently deceased. Enough so to be annoyed that the Scoobies were going so bloody slow about their rescue efforts. He paced like a caged cat while Andrew scryed repeatedly over his twenty-quid tourist map of London.

“I can’t find her,” Andrew whimpered. “Oh, God... does that mean?”

“She’s not,” William said. “I’d feel it.”

Giles looked anxious in his doubtfulness. He and Xander hovered, fretting silently over how little each could actually contribute. Giles was still groggy from his draining encounter with the Priestess, and Xander was, well, Xander. After William filled them in on Anya’s spectral presence in their kitchen, Xander had lapsed into an uneasy fit of not so helpful restlessness.

“Keep trying,” Dawn urged. “Try the northwest quadrant again. I think we noticed a tug there.”

Maya kept her eyes on the map. She gnawed on a tag of skin around her thumbnail while Andrew searched. She turned to Willow and Xander, exasperated.

“I have an idea,” she said. “Not only how to find her. But maybe to bring her back as well.”

“Well, speak up, Sweet Potato,” Lorne said. “Watching Mr. Potter here play Mapquest is driving me bats.”

“I’ll second that,” Giles said. “What’s your idea?”

The sudden added attention made Maya squirm. She backed up until she bumped the arm of the nearest sofa. She had hidden the Looking Glass in the cushioned corner of the couch, just in case they might need it.

Maya reached behind her. She pulled the Glass into her lap and unwound the dishrags to reveal its glimmering surface.

“Hey!” Willow said. “We can use it to find Buffy. That’s wonderful.”

“But it won’t help us if she’s,” Maya stopped herself. She cleared her throat. “It won’t be so easy as bringing William back, if she has... That is to say, William was dead, but not really dead and if Buffy is…”

William pounded his hands on the table, sending Andrew’s scrying crystal skittering. “I said, she’s not.”

Dawn said, “You thought bringing Spike back was easy?”

Once again, they were all staring at her as if they expected an answer. Maya’s throat constricted. It suddenly seemed to her that there were fifty people in the room, all of them watching her with austere scrutiny. Her palms grew sweaty under the weight of the Glass. Her eyes flicked to Xander’s. He was concerned, but nodded to her to continue.

She drew in a quick breath and said, “Freddie’s Grammy once told me that people used Looking Glasses like this one to travel from place to place. She said the spells for that kind of travel were lost, as was most of her people’s magic. But if we can find Buffy, we can form a pathway – a kind of spiritual conduit – to bring her to us,” Maya told them. “But it’s tricky, because I have no idea how to make it work. I don’t even know where to begin...”

“I do,” Willow said. She reached for the Glass. “Do you mind if I have a look?”

“Not at all,” Maya said. She happily relinquished it.

Willow balanced the globe evenly between her hands. Everyone in the room leaned in to watch over Willow’s shoulders.

“Show me Buffy,” Willow commanded.

Mist formed then swirled like a colorless anemone within the heart of the Glass.

“I don’t see anything,” Andrew said, quietly.

“Shh,” Dawn said.

Buffy appeared, a ghostlike shape huddled in a pool of nebulous light. Even from their point of view outside of the sphere, it was a cramped and dismal place. They watched her as she attempted to push her way through the metal grate.

“Oh God,” Dawn said. “Where is she?”

“Not the bloody Land of Oz,” William said, grimly. He rubbed his hands together nervously. “Tell me you have a plan, Red.”

Willow glanced from him to Giles, then back to Maya. A place behind her ear began to itch with infuriating persistence. She ignored it, keeping her eyes and hands trained on the globe in front of her. With all of them looking at her, she got a taste of how Maya had felt a few seconds before.

“I could try astral projection,” Willow said, talking through her thoughts. “That gets me there, but not back. And not with Buffy. But at least we would know she’s okay, and she would know we’re looking for her.”

“It’s safe to say she knows that,” Giles interrupted. “We would always come looking for her.”

“Yeah, but, what if she thinks we don’t know something’s wrong,” Xander said. “She left the hospital this morning with Angel. Maybe she didn’t know Angel had shish-ka’ed Spike. I mean, until you three found his body, we didn’t know for ourselves that Angel had boarded the crazy train.”

“He hasn’t done that,” Connor said.

“Is that right?” William said. “The dagger he jabbed between my ribs suggests otherwise.”

Connor looked miserably pale. “We don’t know that he’s... in control of himself. Maybe Wolfram & Hart figured out a way to make him not him anymore.”

“Maybe he lost his soul,” Andrew suggested.

Xander choked. All present, with the exception of Maya, avoided looking at everyone else. Maya turned her wide and curious eyes to William.

“What happens if he loses his soul?” she asked, innocence brimming.

“He didn’t,” William said, flatly.

After a moment’s palpable silence, Xander said, “It would explain...”

The muscles in William’s jaw flexed. The tension in him seemed to buzz like high voltage current. “No,” he said, indignant. “Buffy wouldn’t. I know her. You call her your friend? I should pound you for even suggesting...”

“No. No,” Giles said, bringing his hands up. “Nighna said that Angel needs his soul to fulfill the Shanshu. Whatever it is he’s doing and why, it is safe to assume that Angel still has it.”

“Nighna?” Andrew asked, all shrill.

“Guys,” Dawn snapped. “Look.”

“Oh,” Willow breathed.

They observed the Looking Glass Buffy slide out of a dark recess and land, fight-ready, several feet in front of Angel.

“What are they saying?” Dawn asked, sounding panicked.

“No volume,” Maya explained. “I learned to lip-read.”

“Look at him,” Dawn said. “Have you ever seen him look so mean and angry?”

“Yeparoo,” Lorne said.

“Once,” Giles said.

“So have I,” William added. “Willow, if you’ve got any tricks in your top hat, now might be a good time.”

“I’m thinking,” Willow said. A strangled, worried sound escaped her throat. “Okay. Maya, Dawn and Andrew – form a circle around me. I’m gonna link our minds.”

“Ooh,” Andrew said. “Very Vulcan.”

“Contain your geekness,” Dawn cautioned. She reached for his hand. Maya, on the opposite side, joined hands to link them around Willow.

Willow’s eyelids fluttered closed as she sent out little tendrils of telepathy to each of them.

Can you feel me? She asked. Each nodded that they could.

“Now what?” Andrew asked.

Dawn and Willow shushed him. He frowned.

Now came the tricksy part. Willow sensed that if this went wrong, they could all end up trapped in the flip side just like Freddie. Maya was the most powerful natural witch Willow had ever encountered, but she lacked training. Willow knew from experience how dangerous that could be.

“I’m making contact now with the Glass itself,” Willow said. “When I do, I’ll need you three–” she nodded once each to Dawn, Andrew and Maya, “–to keep the conduit open. William, get directly behind Angel. When the gateway opens – if the gateway opens – get him. And we’ll get our Buffy.”

 

 

Buffy was tired. Tired of hiding in shadows. Tired of running, of being three steps behind her enemy. Tired of seeing her family and friends haggard and hungry and scared. When she dropped from the cave in front of Angel, she meant to end it. She did not allow herself to think that it was Angel standing opposite of her. He was the enemy – just another vampire. And she was The Slayer.

“I have to admit, I’m surprised,” Angel said, without a trace of humor in his voice. “I expected you to pull one of your trademark Houdini escapes.”

“I am not giving you the chance to just keeping taking from us,” Buffy said. The more he talked, the easier it would be to find him in the near total darkness. She kept her back to the wall and remained alert.

She heard him take a mincing step toward her. “I don’t see you have much choice, Buffy,” he said. “You’re alone in the dark. You’re defenseless. If memory serves, you need a weapon of some sort to kill me. I’m the only one in this cave with one of those.”

“I can kill you dead enough with my hands,” she said, but her voice lacked conviction.

Angel said, “Doubt it. Even before Thellian’s supercharge, you could never kill one of us with your bare hands.”

“So you’re one of an ‘us’ now? What happened to the singular vampire with a soul? What would Connor think if you knew what you’re doing?”

“Don’t you know what’s happening?” Angel asked. He uttered a rusty laugh. “It’s over, Buffy. Thellian has already won.”

“So, what? You give up the good fight as soon as you think the tide has turned?” Buffy said. A sickened feeling curled into her abdomen. He wasn’t taunting or jeering at her in the way that delighted Angeles. “This isn’t you, Angel. The Angel I remember was not a coward. The Angel I knew took on all of the Black Thorn Circle not because he thought he could win, but because it was right. I look at you now, all I feel is disappointment and regret,” she said.

“That’s enough talk now, Buffy,” Angel said. He stepped forward again, moving from darkness into the sprinkling of light that shone down from the cave. He held the D’Ganti Blade out in front of him. Buffy instinctively touched the open gash on her temple where he had sliced her before. She waited for him to move four inches closer. Just a little closer and she would strike.

“No good forestalling,” Angel was saying. He inched forward, careful and slow. “No one’s called the cavalry because there is no cavalry to call. Besides, I can’t kill you here. I need your blood on the Circle.”

In the next second, several things happened at once. Angel raised the blade in a high arc above Buffy’s head. She charged at his midsection, hoping to topple him. She never connected, though, because at that moment, a wild burst of light exploded around them. It drove Buffy backward against the stone wall so hard she bit her tongue. Angel wheeled, arms flailing to keep his balance. He collided with William, who seized Angel’s arms and gripped them tightly to restrain him.

“Surprise,” William said.

“Will!” Buffy said. She blinked, disbelieving. A pale green sphere of luminescence filled the sewer tunnel, encompassing the three of them. Willow stepped out of the air on Buffy’s right.

“We did it,” Willow shouted. “Buffy, are you okay?”

Buffy didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She turned to Angel. Nearly managing a smirk, she said, “Guess I do have my back up.”

Angel attempted to wrest himself free from William. He held on to him, but just barely.

“Time to fly, little bird,” William said, forcing a strained smile.

Willow gripped Buffy’s hand. She dragged her along to the center of the sphere of light.

Buffy understood. It was doorway back. They had found her. They were safe.

“It’s a dream,” Buffy said. “It must be a dream.”

“It’s not,” Willow said. “Let’s go.” She pushed Buffy in front of her, into the place where the light seemed denser and more solid. Buffy heard voices beyond, familiar voices calling to her, beckoning her to join them.

But before she could leave the sewer tunnel, Buffy recalled the dagger and its gory purpose.

“The knife,” she called back over her shoulder. “William, get the knife.”

Angel heard her, of course. He dropped his shoulders and slipped neatly through William’s fingers. Knowing he was beaten, Angel darted back up the path in the direction he had come.

“Dad!” Connor yelled after him.

Angel skidded to a stop and turned. Connor read a fleeting glimmer of remorse in his father’s eyes. Angel lingered, hovering on the brink of indecision, before he turned to flee deeper into the cave.

The sphere of light was irising shut. Willow shoved Buffy through a kind of membranous wall. Buffy stumbled into the center of their Circle. Dawn and Andrew stood on either side of her, with Connor and Lorne flanking them. Willow, Maya, Giles and Xander were directly behind her. She could hear them all holding their collective breath, waiting for her to speak. And William, quite impossibly, was right in front of her.

Buffy covered her face with her hands. Dawn and William moved forward at almost the same time. They each got their shoulders under Buffy’s arms and helped steer her toward the sofa. The rest streamed along, waiting tensely but saying nothing. Dawn eased her sister into the mammoth over-stuffed sofa. As she settled her weary body in the pliant cushions, William knelt with her. He bent his cool forehead to meet hers.

Buffy pressed her lips to William’s ear.

“He knows,” she whispered. William’s head snapped up in alarm. Buffy brought her lips to touch his. “We have to tell them.”

 

 

Chapter Text

So many things that I had before
That don't matter to me now.
Tonight I cry for the love that I've lost
And the love I've never found.
When the last bird falls
And the last siren sounds
Someone will say what's been said before
It’s only love we were looking for


But if you break down
I'll drive out and find you
If you forget my love
I'll try to remind you
And stay by you when it don't come easy

When it don’t come easy.

 

When It Don’t Come Easy, Patti Griffin

 

12:33 p.m.

 

Oz proved his jack-of-all-trades genius by crafting a makeshift immobilizing splint for Faith’s arm out of the carry-on handle of a suitcase and the olive green mini-blanket provided on their flight. It did what it was supposed to do – it kept her from moving her left arm. It did not in any way hinder her ability to wield a crossbow. Therein was its true brilliance as far as Faith was concerned.

They turned up in London after noon. Oz had a phone number and address.

“We should probably call,” Oz suggested. They had just stepped off the bus on the corner of Meteor and King Street. The day was over-bright and dry to the point of brittle. Oz shaded his eyes with his hand to read the street signs.

“Nah,” Faith said. “Calling ahead’s not my speed. I’m more the ‘drop in and cause a ruckus’ kind of girl.”

“I get that,” he said. Oz pointed up the street. “They should be up on the left, about ten blocks in.”

Faith struck out in that direction. It creeped her out how quiet the city seemed. Even as the metro areas around the bus stop gave way to pin-neat row houses, the noise level dropped to suspicious silence. Just like New York.

“It’s happening here, too,” Oz said, keeping his voice unnecessarily low. Faith was en garde, her crossbow concealed beneath Oz’s leather bomber jacket, which he’d slung over her shoulders for specifically that purpose.

“Yeah,” she said slowly. She scanned the blank windows of the houses that lined Meteor Street. They were older buildings faced with faded red brick. Tufts of brown grass and wilted garden plants lined the tiny front lawns, victims of the recent frost.

They knew they’d found the right house when they came upon glittering glass strewn across the front sidewalk.

“What the...?” Faith began.

“You said it,” Oz said. He headed up the front steps. Faith bounded up beside him. She kicked the front door open and swung inside, leading with the crossbow.

They stepped into the entry hall. The only sound they heard was the gentle sucking noise of breeze ruffling through the plastic bags taped over the windows.

“Looks like Priestess work,” Faith said. She moved forward, poking her weapon around the corners – the dining room, the seldom used parlor across the hall, the kitchen.

Oz sniffed the air. Faith waited for his cue, waited for him to pick up a scent. Faith was thinking how handy it was having a werewolf as a lookout. Her thoughts turned with brief stabbing pain to Wood, and how she’d lost him in Haiti. It wasn’t easy, having to leave that cesspool of an island behind without being able to find his body. Squaring with The Priestess was what kept Faith on a medium flame. Exacting the appropriate measures of justice meant Faith had to keep a level head. She would turn up the heat in time for face to face confrontation, and not a moment before.

“That way,” Oz said, pointing toward the kitchen. “But not your witch.”

“How can you tell that?” Faith asked before following his indication.

“Evil smells different,” he said. “Kind of like black licorice.”

Faith accepted this with a shrug, but kept her crossbow ready.

A girl with choppy black hair emerged from the kitchen wearing a roll of duct tape around her wrist. The girl’s head bobbed to a tune she hummed softly to herself. She took no notice of Oz and Faith; a stack of printed pages absorbed her full attention.

“Hey Cutie,” Faith said, leveling the crossbow. The girl lifted her head and froze.

“Where’s Buffy?” Oz asked.

MK’s mouth went slack. “Um. Buffy,” she said. Her eyes settled squarely on the point of the bolt notched into the bow. “She uh...”

Another girl scrambled out onto the landing above them. “MK!” she shouted. And then, rather unexpectedly, she vaulted from the banister, aiming to take the new intruders down with her own body.

Faith reacted. The bolt grazed Anjelica’s neck seconds before she landed on them. The three crumpled into a confused heap of flailing arms and kicking legs. This gave MK time to rush in as well. She had no weapon, but grabbed Giles’ black umbrella from the hat stand and struck Oz squarely in the forehead.

Faith was the first to shimmy from the fray. She caught MK with a powerful a powerful roundhouse to the abdomen, sending her soaring. The papers that had so fully commanded her interest before fluttered around them like giant flakes of confetti.

Anjelica, moving with surprising speed, drew a stake she’d tucked in her belt. She aimed it at Oz’s heart. He batted her arm away, retreating. When he saw its shiny metal tip, he moved even faster. She advanced, her face twisted into a contorted mask of frenzy. She slashed down, carving a neat line into his forearm. It sizzled; Oz yowled. He clamped his other hand over it before colliding with the wall behind him.

“Wait!” Faith yelled. “We’re not vampires.”

MK skidded to a halt, her umbrella poised to strike. Anjelica continued her attack.

“Really? Lucky for you I failed my Slayer training,” she snarled. Anjelica’s stake knifed through the air. Oz brought his arms up to block. Faith caught the collar of Anjelica’s sweater and hauled her back.

“Chillax, girl,” Faith ordered. She looped her arm around Anjelica and twisted her body around so that they stood side by side, looking into the mirror. “No hablas vampiros. Compredé?”

Anjelica’s shoulders dropped a few inches. Then she tensed again. “His skin burned when I cut him,” she said. She struggled against Faith’s vise-like grip.

“Lemme see that,” Faith said. The bomber jacket had slipped from her shoulder. Both girls took note of Faith’s injury. Faith, missing nothing, dared either of them to try something. Anjelica watched Faith’s dark eyes in the mirror for a long time before reluctantly raising her stake to eye level.

“Is it silver-tipped?” Faith said, not concealing her approval.

“Yeah,” Anjelica bit out. She added, just to sound tough, “What of it?”

Faith released her. “Oz here is a werewolf,” she said.

MK and Anjelica exchanged worried glances.

“We kill those too,” MK announced. She held her umbrella a pointe.

Using the wall to help gird himself, Oz rose to his feet.

“Where’s Willow?” he asked.

“You know Willow,” Anjelica said. She cast a look over her shoulder at Faith. “And you know Buffy?”

“We’re Super Best Friends,” Faith said, rapidly losing patience with the situation. “Where are they?”

“Well, see,” M. K. began. “Buffy was with Giles at hospital. Xander went to relieve her but she was gone, which isn’t like Buffy since she said she would wait out the night to protect him. So our guess is that Angel got her, so everyone is currently out trying to find her.”

Oz and Faith took a few moments to process all of this.

“And you’re here because?” Oz asked.

Anjelica took up the narrative. She said, “Kennedy led the other Slayers into an ambush that resulted in their deaths. Now we’re standing guard because some scary evil chick called the Priestess pulled a Big Bad Wolf and blew our house in.”

“Priestess was here,” Faith said. “Priestess is still here. Likely she’ll be back tonight, finish the job.”

Anjelica shook her head vehemently. “Willow and Dawn renewed the spells on the Flat,” she said. “It’s hidden against those who seek to harm us.”

“Then why the hell did you attack us?” Faith asked.

Slashes of bright pink appeared above Anjelica’s pale cheeks. MK opened her mouth to say something, then abruptly closed it.

Anjelica cleared her throat. “Um. Pre-slay jitters?” she offered.

Faith and Oz shrugged in begrudging acceptance.

MK held out a hand to Faith. “I’m MK,” she said. “I’m one of Buffy’s students.”

Faith shook her hand. “I’m Faith. You’ve met Oz. Who are you?” she nodded, indicating Anjelica.

She stuck out her hand to Oz, forgetting the silver-tipped stake she was holding. Oz recoiled instinctively.

“May I?” he asked, cautiously examining the weapon.

“Oh. Yeah. Sorry,” Anjelica said. Oz took it gingerly by the wooden handle and studied its gleaming silver surface.

“You made this?” he asked.

Anjelica’s blush deepened. She absently massaged the raised welt on her neck where Faith’s crossbow bolt had narrowly missed her carotid artery.

“It’s Anjelica’s thing,” MK blurted. Not liking how that sounded, she quickly amended, “I mean, it’s what she’s good at. She makes weapons.”

Oz held it up, turning it back and forth in his hands, so that all four could see their elongated reflections mirrored back to them.

“So, Anjelica,” he said. “You failed your Slayer training? ’Cause I’m thinking this makes up for it.”

 

 

Angel returned to Thellian’s loft above the city to find him in a fervent discussion with Lalaine. Which they ceased the moment he entered the room.

“Buffy escaped,” Angel announced.

Thellian pursed his mouth. “Did she?” he asked.

Angel came further into the room. He tossed the D’Ganti blade onto the lacquered rosewood table. “And your fancy knife here didn’t work on Spike, either,” Angel said. He stood before them, shoulders down but eyes up, as if he wasn’t sure what kind of response to expect from Thellian and Lalaine.

Thellian’s chest rose in the imitation of a sigh. He swept a wave of Lalaine’s hair from her ivory shoulder, then caressed the skin he exposed.

“Can you do it, Angel?” Thellian asked. “Can you kill her?”

A

 

ngel stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I don’t have a choice,” he said.

Lalaine made a soothing sound. “Oh, but we always have a choice,” she said. She gave him a look of genuine concern. “Always, Angel.”

“My son is with them,” Angel said.

Thellian squeezed Lalaine’s hand, then released it. He moved over the floor, crossing half the distance between Lalaine and Angel before he said, “Do you think he will join their side?”

Angel considered this. He said, “Connor will do what he feels is right. But when the witch rescued Buffy, he was there.”

Thellian nodded. He placed his hands on his hips and thought for a long while. Lalaine moved listlessly away, turning her attention to the wide window and the world beyond it.

Angel shifted his weight from one foot to the other, growing more restless by the second. At length, Thellian said, “It’s a bad piece of irony, you being the one to bear this burden. Especially given your history with the girl. The boy – Connor – will come to understand things in his own time. He will realize that we do what we must to protect our children.”

Angel moved uncomfortably, again shifting his weight. He said nothing.

Thellian fussed with his cufflink. “So the question remains: Can you do this task? Can you kill her? It’s safe to say that she can kill you. She’s done it before.”

Angel winced, but tried to downplay it. Lalaine was standing at the window, watching him from the corner of one eye while pretending to survey the land below with the other. Thellian was more direct with his scrutiny. He stared at Angel, unflinching. Watching for cracks to form. Seeing none, he nodded once and moved to join Lalaine at the window.

“There is something else?” Thellian said.

The question caught Angel off guard. He couldn’t quite grasp what Thellian meant by it. “Come again?” Angel asked.

A subtle change occurred in Thellian’s eyes, as if he suddenly reasoned out a matter of substantial gravity. He said, “The Slayers are not really our concern, Angel. Our plans go forward regardless of their actions. As for Miss Summers, we will know where to find her.”

Angel kept a look of well-practiced impassivity on his face. “Will we?” he asked.

Thellian lay his hand over the hollow of Lalaine’s throat.

Lalaine gave him a relieved and knowing smile. “She really doesn’t have anywhere else to go, does she?”

“No,” he said, “She doesn’t. And we’ll be waiting for her. All of us.”

 

 

“You’re alive,” Buffy said. She touched the faint thread of pink that traced its way across William’s throat.

“About that,” he began.

“Buffy,” Dawn interrupted. “We have to...”

“Not now, Dawnie,” Willow said.

“But Willow, The Priestess and the house, which has been haunted all these months…” Xander exclaimed.

“Not to mention Thellian and the Circle,” Giles added.

“And my Dad, with the big jaggy knife,” Connor said.

“Legions of vampyres taking over the world with their evil vampyre spawn,” Andrew whined.

“Then there’s the partridge and the pear tree,” Lorne said, not to be left out.

“Guys!” Willow intervened. She looked at Buffy and William. It was clear neither had heard a single thing they had said. “Give them a minute, okay?” She opened her arms and shooed them like an old woman in a park herding up a gaggle of geese.

William brushed his fingertips over the angry red gash on her temple. Buffy cringed.

“Sorry,” he whispered. “That’ll scar, you know.” Buffy nodded. She was leaning for him, all misty eyed, their brows nearly touching.

Willow felt even more intrusive. It was obvious to her that William and Buffy were sharing a much needed moment of privacy, a little calm after the recent violent storm. She had dreamed of such encounters with Tara and knew with eerie clarity what Buffy must be feeling. Willow herded the others back to the center of the room where she, Connor and Lorne had first found William.

Giles bent his head into the huddle and whispered harshly, “We have little time for such reunions.”

“Hello?” Willow said, “Spike just came back from the dead. We just rescued Buffy from Angel. I think we have all earned half a minute’s breathing space. But especially them.”

“Giles is right, though,” Xander said. “We need to plan. We need to act. We need to keep in motion or I for one will become paralyzed from sheer terror.”

Maya finished re-wrapping her Looking Glass while listening to the conversation. In the two-second lull that followed Xander’s terrified comment, she said, “Why not plan without them?”

“Plan without Buffy?” Xander scoffed. “Hey, wait a minute. We can do that.”

“Sure,” Dawn said. “It’s been a while, but...”

Andrew crossed his arms. “The last time you all planned without Buffy, Faith led the Potentials into a trap and got half of them exploded.”

“Thanks, Andrew,” Giles said blandly. “Helpful as always.”

Andrew looked pleased with himself until Dawn cut her eyes to him in disapproval.

“All I’m saying is we can start, and then catch them up to speed once they’ve finished,” Maya said.

“Start what?” Buffy asked.

She and William stood just outside the circle, side by side. “Finish what?” William added.

Willow looked from them to the others. She uttered a weak laugh. “Um. Job well done, I guess. Now to the planning.”

 

 

Luxe wiped his dripping bloody nose on a scratchy EconoLodge hand towel. With his free hand, he shoved his few belongings into his Nike duffel bag. He had to leave London before the Senior Partners had a chance to perceive his most recent failure. Actually, fleeing this plane altogether was looking more and more appealing. He went into the bathroom to collect the mini soaps and shampoos (he loved those things), when he heard a tapping on his door.

He craned his head momentarily, then resumed his packing. He knew who it was. She had found him. Again.

Luxe tried working the zipper one-handed, but managed only a few inches purchase. It was the hotel towels he’d filched. They swelled the bag to near bursting, but it was in his nature to take them. He lowered the ruddy hand towel for a few seconds, but drops of blood splattered everywhere. He launched into a raunchy stream of curses when a fine dark hand reached in to take control of matters.

“I did not ask you in,” Luxe said, voice gone even more nasal from the blood in his sinuses.

She ignored him. “You should have that looked into. You might well hemorrhage,” she said. She patted the bulging Nike bag with her slim hands. “There. All fastened up.”

He gave her a scathing glare. “Nosebleed is the least of my worries, Nighna,” he said.

She plopped to the edge of the bed with a girlish bounce. “Yeah, you’ve really bollocksed things up, I hear. Lost control of a Wolfram & Hart spy. Got the bile kicked out of you by a ghost,” Nighna said. She examined the plum-colored enamel of her nails. “There was one other thing. What was it?”

Luxe narrowed his eyes.

Nighna simmered in her gloating. “Oh yes. Your girlfriend. She lost your Watcher captive, didn’t she? Badly played.”

“She wasn’t important,” Luxe said dismissively. “Not to me. Only to Thellian’s cause, and my part in that is nearly done.”

“So he’s still pulling your strings,” Nighna said. “You really don’t learn new tricks, do you? Every near-Earth shattering event in history, you’ve always played Gepetto’s good little stick of wood.”

“Why are you here, Nighna?” Luxe asked. “Trying to find out what’s next?” He shouldered his bag. Behind him, the redwing blackbird shuffled on its perch excitedly.

Nighna crossed her smooth legs so that she was sure Luxe heard the rasp of her stockings. “I always see you off when you run away. Why should now be any different?”

Luxe laughed through his dabbing cloth. It was a dark, bitter sound. “Maybe because you have chosen a side this time,” he said.

Her smile faltered for the first time since she’d entered the room. But she recovered beautifully.

“I serve the Order, as always,” she stated.

“Careful Nighna,” he said, his lips spreading over his teeth in a dry smile. “Your humanity is showing.”

Nighna actually hissed. Luxe gleaned immense satisfaction from that.

“You’ve fallen for him. It may as well be branded all over your skin. Or his, knowing you. Your little whelp; that milquetoast Watcher. Ah, Nighna, it pains me that I will not be around to see you crash and burn,” Luxe said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nighna seethed. “Humans and vampires will exterminate each other, and I will be left standing. That’s what the Order of Kimaris has wanted all along. It’s what I want still.”

Luxe hefted Francis’ cage from its stand by the window. “The return of the Demon Age is what I want,” he said. “I am a Kimaris. You are confused. I do not envy you, Nighna. Not one sliver.”

Luxe strode to the door.

“You don’t get to condescend to me,” Nighna said, her voice as cold and hard as stone. “You understand nothing. You care for nothing.”

He opened the door. Before passing through it he clucked his tongue and said, “Poor Nighna. Once you were magnificent in your cruelty. Now you are foul and useless in your compassion.”

Luxe closed the door, leaving Nighna to stew in her confusion.

 

 

Buffy stepped into the circle. She took a few moments to look at the faces around her, to gather her thoughts and settle her nerves. They all looked worse than she had ever seen them. Even when they had gone up against the First, they had managed to slip in some basic hygiene and halfway adequate sleep into the mix. But now, they appeared scraggly and gaunt. They were bruised and frayed and frightened. And they were looking to her to put an end to their fears.

“Dawn,” Buffy said.

Her sister nearly snapped to attention. Buffy felt a tug of admiration in her heart.

“I need to know everything you have about the Circle,” Buffy said. “Every detail you’ve managed to unearth. We need to have it.”

Dawn nodded. “Well, actually, we should probably start with Andrew. He completed the Kimaris translation this morning.”

Buffy turned to him. “All of it?” she asked.

Andrew stepped forward. “I was gonna prepare a PowerPoint presentation on my laptop,” he said. “I could scan in the pieces of the scrolls and put the Kimaris bits in order so that you all could get the full picture of...”

“Andrew!” Dawn, Willow and Xander all said at once.

“Nobody appreciates the presentation,” he sulked.

“Can you just skip the visual?” Buffy said. “We can go with bare bones for now.”

“’Kay, so, well,” Andrew began. He had actually rehearsed this part in his head. “Travel back with me to the height of the Demon Age. It all starts with the Order of Kimaris about 6,000 years B. C. These guys were like judges in the demon world. They did stuff like publicly torturing and executing political criminals and performing ritual sacrifices to keep the Old Ones satisfied.”

“Old Ones,” Lorne said. “Like Illyria.”

“Sure,” Andrew said, briskly waving off the interruption. “So, these guys were the first ones to inscribe the Circle. The bits I wanted to scan are what remains of the original.”

“But what did it do?” Buffy said.

Andrew paused to let the dramatic tension build. He said, finally, “The Circle was designed to destroy a whole lineage. First to last. By using the blood of one, they could eliminate every descendent. It was the ultimate Kaiser Sose death sentence. Make the wrong demon mad and your whole family gets it.”

“So,” Willow said. “The Kimaris could sacrifice one member of a certain demon clan and the whole line would die along with them.”

“Very well stated, Little One,” Andrew said, steepling his fingers. “Over time, the Kimaris altered the spell so that it served a more specific purpose.”

“Eliminate the Slayer line,” Giles said. “Of course.”

“Wait,” Dawn said. “What about the parts Willow and I translated from Damas? And how does the Shanshu tie in?”

“Well, it’s interesting,” Andrew said, relishing his moment before an audience. “See, the Kimaris Circle predates that one by several millennia. Around A. D. 90-ish, a band of Druids uncovered the Circle and its dark purposes. Knowing that the power of the Demon Age had sufficiently waned, the Druids overlaid their own magics on the Circle. They lacked the power to erase the Circle entirely, but were able to add in a kind of anti-demon post script.”

“Like in Sleeping Beauty, when Merryweather changed Maleficent’s curse on Princess Aurora from instant death to eternal sleep until her prince awoke her with true love’s kiss?” Maya excitedly put in.

This drew a mixture of mirth and bafflement from the group.

William said, “You had stuffed unicorns in your bedroom at home, didn’t you?”

Maya seemed to shrink slightly until Dawn said, “Actually, it’s a good analogy. Instead of eradicating the line of Slayers, the Druids gave the world another option. If a vampire with a soul sacrificed himself on the Circle – poof – no more vampires. The spell was reversed.”

Giles removed his glasses and thoughtfully polished them on his sweater. “Extraordinary,” he said. “And because Damas collected and translated prophecies, he learned of the Circle from the Shanshu, which originated in Japan. He must have seen how it all tied together...”

Dawn was nodding. “I also found from dismantling the Damas journal that he belonged to the same Celtic order that first inscribed over the Circle. That organization later became part of the Watchers.”

“It is all connected,” Connor said. Until now, he had been numbed into silence. “All of it, preordained. My father is part of it. He never had a choice...”

“He does now,” Willow said, slicing in to the conversation before Connor had a chance to get too distraught. “The Circle calls for blood sacrifice. His blood, or the blood of a Slayer.”

“Not the blood of a Slayer,” Buffy said. Her voice was shaky and her body went suddenly cold. “The blood of a Slayer’s child.”

The words sank like stones through icy waters while they contemplated this new bit of information.

“We know a Slayer’s child,” Xander said. “Do you mean to say Thellian’s been after Robin Wood all this...”

“Not him,” Buffy said softly. “Mine. Ours. It’s the blood of my child he’s after.”

After a long, long comfortless silence, a stifled sound escaped Dawn’s throat.

William glanced up to find Lorne watching him with a look made up of equal parts awe and anguish. It was troubling to see those expressions on the demon’s usually jovial face. Though William knew it did not bode well seeing them in light of recent events, he decided he could live without knowing what Lorne still knew about the battle ahead.

“Lemme just get this straight,” Xander spoke up, breaking the tension like a glass ornament under a hammer. “Spike’s a dad?”

“Use my blood,” Connor cut in.

Everyone looked at him, stunned.

“What do you mean?” Dawn asked, a note of shrillness in her voice.

“If the Circle wants a Slayer’s child and not the blood of a Slayer, why wouldn’t my blood work for his? I’m the son of vampires. I have a soul. Use my blood,” Connor said.

Buffy lay her hand on his arm. “It won’t work,” she said. He began to protest, but she continued. “You were right when you said pre-ordained. It’s Angel’s destiny, and he knows it.” Buffy lifted her eyes and her voice to address them all. “Angel knows, about the child I carry. Even with that knowledge, he... he would have killed me.”

“Oh, Buffy,” Willow said. She gripped Xander’s elbow and held on tight.

“Look, guys,” Buffy said. “I know what’s going on out there. Every vampire they sire is a loss for humanity. Well, Thellian knows that too. He sent the Priestess...”

“Oh, by the way” Xander said raising his hand to interrupt. “The Priestess. None other than Sunnydale’s own former rat queen.”

Buffy nodded slowly. “The Priestess is Amy. Good to know,” she said. “Looks like the gang’s all here,” she said. She thought for a time before continuing. “He sent her – Amy – to turn the humans in our group into vampires. Yay for us that she failed. He drained the Deeper Well to make vampires stronger. He wanted us to witness his strength, to show us that we had no power to stop him. But the worst of it is that Thellian thinks what he’s doing is good and right. He believes it, so much so that I think Angel does too.

“Now there are so many vampires, we can’t beat them alone. It’s like...”

“It’s like trying to dam Niagara Falls with Lincoln Logs,” Giles said.

Buffy swallowed. Her throat was dry and her legs felt wobbly from fatigue. “Just like that,” she said.

She felt William behind her. She felt his strength and drew on it. She closed her eyes and whispered an inward prayer of thanks that he and the others were still there.

“What do we do, Buffy?” Dawn asked.

Buffy had known one of them would ask. She showed them a grim smile.

“They have a Circle. But it is bound on all sides by death,” she said. “I say, we have a circle of our own. Us.” Her eyes danced from Willow, to Dawn, to Xander and Giles. She glanced from Lorne, to Maya and then to Andrew. “They can’t touch us. I say, Angel wants blood, he’ll have it. But not ours. Not ours.

“Tonight we’ll assemble our forces all over the world. We’ll make a stand, Kennedy-style. She wanted this city cleaned out by Christmas. We’ll be slightly ahead of schedule. Tomorrow, we march on the Circle itself. Destiny says it comes down to Angel or to me. So I plan to meet him face to face.”

 

Chapter Text

Do you realize

That everyone you know

One day will die?

 

Instead of saying

All of your goodbyes

Let them know you realize

That time goes fast

It’s hard to make

the good times last.

 

But you realize the sun

Doesn’t go down

It’s just an illusion caused

By the world spinning ’round.

 

Do You Realize, Ben Folds

 

I got soul, but I’m not a soldier

 

All These Things That I’ve Done, The Killers

 

88 A. D.

 

The girl wore floor length robes of indigo, trimmed in gold thread. She spun in them, around and around, so that the heavy hem lifted and swirled about her ankles. She flung out her arms for balance, but had been whirling for such a long time, it was clear she was bound for an ungainly collapse. Her red hair danced in the hazy sunlight, thrown back by the force of this mercurial girl.

A pair of figures watched the girl from the canvas awning of a tribunal tent, one of many gathered for the Solstice festival that assembled every other year in Londinium. One was Boadicea, the girl’s mother. She was a statuesque woman dressed in flowing silk gowns of black and gold. The second was a foreigner, though well known to these lands. He wore a mane of thick, curling black hair and had skin white as ice. His most outstanding feature was his glacial blue eyes.

“Are you certain?” Boadicea asked. Her eyes never left her daughter.

The man at her side had answered this question twice before. But he understood, and would give the same response no matter how many times she queried.

“It is true,” he said. “It has never happened thus, but the Seers in Devlin are sure. Should you die, the mantle will pass to her.”

As if she heard the adults nearby conferencing about her, the girl abruptly stopped. For a moment, she teetered on the edge of dizziness before scampering to join her mother and her visitor.

“Morna,” Boadicea said, giving a smile that belied any trace of concern. “You recall the merlin?”

“Master Damas,” the girl answered, curtly. “You are the one who brought us the turtle shoes.”

Damas’ placid face brightened. “Tortoiseshell,” he corrected. “And yes, that was I. Where might your sister be this afternoon?”

Morna’s brow darkened playfully. “Lalaine thinks only of boys,” she said. “Likely she’s off letting them chase her near the brook.”

Her mother inclined her head. “Is that so?” she asked.

Morna burst into mellifluous laughter, but never gave her mother an answer.

Boadicea did not share in her daughter’s delight. After a few seconds, Morna picked up on this and grew still.

“What is it?” Morna asked. She turned her green eyes to the merlin. “You bear bad news. Every time you come to us, my mother cries.”

“Morna,” Boadicea scolded.

“No,” Damas said. “It is true. And Morna must know why.”

Boadicea grew even more agitated. “Then I will be the one to tell her,” she snapped.

Damas lowered his eyes.

Morna watched her mother. Boadicea had always seemed impervious to fear, yet now she trembled. That sent chills prickling across Morna’s skin.

“You are a Slayer,” Boadicea said at length. “Or you will be. If I die.” She considered for a moment, then added, “When I die.”

Morna giggled. At first. She did not deal well with frightening things. Then she said, “A Slayer of what, exactly?”

Damas took over then to explain the finer points of Slaying, from vampires to demons and every evil supernatural being in between.

Before he could get carried away with his narrative, though, Boadicea stepped in.

“There is something I must ask of you, Morna,” she said. “There is a spell that must be wrought, and it calls for blood.”

“Blood?” Morna asked. She glanced at her mother and paled. Her first thought was that her mother was planning to die in some arcane blood sacrifice and that she, Morna, would have to assume this Slayer role immediately. If that was the case, she would not so politely refuse and tell Damas where to stick his runic scrolls.

“Your blood,” Damas said. Morna shot him a scathing look. “Not all of it,” he quickly added.

“What is he going on about?” Morna asked.

Boadicea lay her hands on both sides of Morna’s face and kissed her daughter on the forehead. Her heart swelled with pride at seeing how strong and audacious Morna seemed, in light of such heavy news.

“Here,” she said, taking Morna’s hand in hers. “It’s best that we show you.”

 

 

Boadicea and Damas led Morna away from the festival gathering, to the place where the druids had held many of their more solemn rituals – the Henge. Morna had witnessed two of these ceremonies. She saw both in secret, and at the urging of Lalaine, who was far more curious than Morna.

In the first secret meeting she and Lalaine observed, the druids in their sacramental robes had gathered at twilight. She and Lalaine had watched as they formed a circle around the stones. Each druid carried with them a large vessel of water, which they used to fill the small mote that ringed the stones. Morna knew from the stories her mother told her that the mote itself was the henge. The druids used the water in their rituals to reflect the stars, though for what purposes Morna could not be certain. They seemed far too complex for her young mind to comprehend.

Morna felt the same way toward the day’s happenings as she followed her mother and the merlin into the Druidic ceremonial ground. She had been lost in her own troubled thoughts when Damas spoke the incantation that opened the door in the earth. Morna had been forced then to see the merlin in a very different light.

“You’re a mage?” she asked. She turned to her mother. “Have you always known this?”

Her mother nodded once. “Step inside, Morna. Before someone sees.”

Morna did as her mother asked. Damas led the way into complete darkness. Morna walked between the merlin and her mother. Soon, she relied only on Damas’ sure and deliberate footsteps in the absence of light. She would have been afraid if not for her mother’s immutable presence behind her.

It was difficult to mark the passage of time, but Morna understood that they had left the sun-blessed ground above just after lunch, and she was hungry again when they finally saw light. Meager though it was, it stung her eyes as they approached it. Torchlight from a dozen sconces affixed to the cavern walls licked long shadows across the formations. And in between the wavering pools of light, a group of six druids waited. They formed a loose ring around a wide triskele drawn in black sand at the center of the cave floor.

Morna halted at the perimeter, suddenly aware that Damas was no longer in the lead. He had dropped down to a ledge below and was making his way to greet the druids. He was very careful in the confines of the space not to let his robes mar the edge of the triskele.

Boadicea came to stand beside her daughter.

“What is this place?” Morna asked.

“It is the Circle,” Boadicea said.

Morna bit the tip of her tongue before saying, “Yes, I see that. But...”

“Your blood on the Circle will seal a pact with the Sisters. One that may save the world,” Boadicea said.

Morna was familiar with the Sisters. The children in her land said prayers to Ea and her sisters, the Pleiades, to protect them from monsters and stomachaches and bad weather on fair days. They were the wardens against misfortune, but Morna couldn’t see how they – or she – could save the world.

Morna was about to question her mother further, when she caught the expression on her face. In the deep shadow of the torchlight, Boadicea had never looked more beautiful or more lost. Morna’s heart skittered like a small bird in her ribcage.

“I wish it were not you, Morna,” Boadicea said. “I would have this power pass to someone else, had we any choice. I wish many things. So many wishes...”

Damas’ strong voice cut through her mother’s words from across the room. “They are ready for her, Boadicea,” he said.

Boadicea’s head dropped to her chest. “You must go,” she said. Morna had never seen her mother weep; she did not want today to be the first. She slipped from the ledge, following the footprints Damas’ had left in the sand. Morna stomped toward him, fuming.

“What is it you need of me?” she growled.

Damas glanced at Boadicea before handling Morna. But the mother was both removed and resolute. She was not happy with any part of it, but would not interfere.

Damas produced a triangular shaped dagger from the folds of his robes. It gleamed malignantly in the inconstant light. Morna felt a cascade of fear tumble through her.

“Take this,” he said, passing the blade to her. “Go to the center of the Circle. DO NOT disturb the sand. Once you have reached the heart of the mark, cut open your palm.”

Morna made a face. Damas went on. “You must let your blood flow onto the Circle. It will seal the mark and we will all be forever in your debt.”

Morna twisted her head around so that she could see the Circle.

“What if it doesn’t work?” she asked.

Damas held his breath, considering this. “If it does not work, we all are doomed.”

Morna examined the dagger in her palm. She looked at the druids who stood silent as statues guarding the Circle. She looked at her mother, who looked at nothing. With a shrug, Morna stepped over the boundary of the Circle. She hiked her robes to her knees and picked her way over the intricate traceries with a dancer’s grace. At the center, she did as Damas asked. She drew a gash across her palm and let the blood spill onto the sand.

She expected nothing to happen. But the moment her blood touched the mark, it ignited. Blue-white sparks raced along the tracery like gunpowder.

“Morna!” Boadicea cried.

“Don’t move,” Damas shouted to them. “Just watch.”

Cerulean fire fanned out, illuminating the rings and hooks of the triskele, morphing black sand to radiant silver, fusing the mark to the cavern floor. As the Circle widened, beams of light shot up from the mark, filling the room to blinding. And then, quick as a flash, the light was gone.

Morna stood astounded in the Circle’s center. Twin afterimages swam like snakes before her eyes. She started instinctively toward her mother, but caught herself.

“Is it safe to move yet?” she asked.

“Yes,” Boadicea said, laughing. “It’s safe. Come to me.”

Morna raced to her mother, jumping over the still-glowing silver loops of the Circle. Morna flung herself into her mother’s steady arms and buried her face into the folds of her gowns.

“The Circle is complete,” Damas said, rather unnecessarily.

Boadicea smoothed her daughter’s hair. Then, with nervous vigor, she began fussing with the bloody gash in Morna’s palm. “Yes. It’s complete,” Boadicea said, her voice quavering. “But will it last?”

Morna turned her face to Damas’. She had many more questions, but would settle for now with the answer to this one.

“Will it last?” Damas asked. “Of course it will.”

 

 

 

Morna lay with the side of her face pressed to the Circle’s heart. The earth felt smooth and cold, and Morna combed her own fingers through her hair, remembering.

The Circle was there. Still there. It was waiting. And so was she.

 

 

2:55 p.m.

 

Andrew was the last to step over the threshold into the Flat. Willow closed the door behind him and spoke the word of concealment to lock them safely inside.

She turned back to the crowd in the entry hall. They all looked at her expectantly.

Willow dusted her hands, mainly out of nervous energy. “That should hold ’em,” she said.

William glimpsed the bagged and taped windows. “You sure about that? Looks like we’re nice and exposed.”

“It won’t matter,” Willow explained. “The spell is strong. We can hold out here until forever.”

“Or until the food runs out,” Andrew chimed in, sounding morose. “Then we’ll have to make a break for the shops and hope that the vamps aren’t lying in wait for just such an occasion to attack us and turn us into their evil vampyre spawn. Hey, I have a zombie contingency plan we can adapt for vampyres…”

Buffy glared at Andrew before turning to the others.

But Giles shook his head. Willow wore mixed up expression of shock and bewilderment on her face. Xander pointed at something over Buffy’s shoulder.

When Buffy looked back, the rest of the gang followed her gaze.

Faith stood in the hallway, flanked by MK, Anjelica and Oz.

“Hey, B,” Faith said. “Nice place you got here. Love the open floor plan.”

Buffy gaped. “Faith… and Oz,” she said. “Gang’s really really all here.”

Faith hooked thumbs in belt loops. She said, “Me and Oz are tracking The Priestess. And you know me. I always show up in time for the big fight. Hope you’re not planning on charging in without me.”

“We’re not. Not tonight, anyway. The city will be crawling with vampires,” Buffy said. She heaved a tired, dejected sigh. “And we aren’t up for the fight.”

“Maybe we should discuss not fighting,” Giles suggested, weakly.

“Now wait...” Buffy said.

“He’s right, Buffy,” Dawn said. “You’re in no fit state for fighting.”

“Dawn,” Buffy said. “Just stop. We aren’t discussing this.”

Xander snapped his fingers excitedly. He said, “Hey, Willow. Check it out: An American werewolf. In London.”

With that, the discussion skidded to an abrupt halt.

Oz said, “Thanks, Xander, for that side order of cheese.”

Giles seized the opportunity to redirect the conversation. “Buffy,” he said. “Look at us. Myself, I can barely stand. Spike’s been dead most of the day,” (To this, Oz and Faith exchanged looks of concern) “Dawn’s had enough sleep to sustain a goldfish. Faith and Anjelica have wounds that bear some explanation. And you...” Giles shook his head. “Well, you know to what I refer.”

“Hiding is an option,” Dawn broke in. “Like we tried to do when Glory was after us. Only that’s a bad example, given what actually did happen with you dying and all.”

Buffy raised her hands to halt their discussion. “Stop. It’s settled. No more hiding. No more running. We are marching on the Circle tomorrow. What William said was right. Every vampire equals human casualty. We can’t afford to lose any more time...”

“Now you stop,” William said. He took her hands in his. She felt in that moment how near panicked he was by the way his hands trembled. “Forget what I said. Look, we’ll pack a bag. We’ll get in a car, and we’ll drive...”

“To what. our secret desert compound? Or maybe we’ll board a spaceship?” Buffy said. “There will be no place for us to hide. If we leave this house, Angel can track us. You know that,” Buffy said. “But we know where he will be. And I have to face him.”

“Bollocks,” William snarled. “It’s my child you carry. I think I should have a say.”

“Wait. Hold up,” Faith interrupted. “B is PG?”

“I am, okay. Yes. I’m pregnant. And I am as scared as any of you. I’ve never had more to lose.” She glanced at William, then lowered her eyes to the floor. She said, “Destiny decided it has to be me versus Angel. Fate’s decision. Not mine.”

“Fine,” Dawn said quickly, hoping to end the debate. “You’re right. And since you plan to fight, I hereby order you to bed. After I take a look at that cut on your head.”

“I’ll get the first aid kit,” Xander offered.

Willow seemed to leap in front of him. “No. Let me,” she said. She ducked from the room, averting any chance of conversation with Oz.

An air of static tension filled the entry hall. Andrew shuffled nervously from one foot to the other. MK stepped timidly forward.

“Buffy,” she said. “We have some news. Actually, good news. See, Anjelica spent the afternoon making weapons, and I was sifting through Slayer mail…”

Buffy felt like a swimmer slowly resurfacing. “Weapons?” she asked hollowly.

Faith grinned. With her injured arm, she tugged a silver-tipped stake from her hip pocket. “Check this out, B. Girl’s made a Supervamp-piercing stake.”

Faith awkwardly tossed the stake to Buffy. She caught it with both hands. When she held it up to admire it, everyone leaned in to have a closer look.

“Where’d you get the silver?” Lorne ventured.

A wan smile quirked on Oz’s lips. “Best not to ask those kinds of questions,” he said.

“It’s bloody brilliant, Head Wound,” William said.

Anjelica blushed. She tucked her short hair behind her ears.

“It’s more than that,” Buffy whispered, testing the weight of the stake by balancing it in her palm. “It’s evolution.”

MK turned to Giles. She plucked a stack of wrinkled pages from the entry hall table and pressed them into his hands.

Giles tugged his glasses down his nose to read the top page. “Wh-What is this?” he asked.

Frustrated, Andrew swiped the pages from Giles. “It’s email from other Slayers and Watchers around the world,” he said, crisply. “Reports. Queries. Detailed documentation. Rupert, you never check your inbox.”

“I have been a bit preoccupied,” he said. He looked at Faith, his expression suddenly grave. “Your school in New York. Your Watcher…”

“I know,” Faith said with a nod. “Priestess. We’ll talk.”

Giles nodded, knowing better than to press the subject. Everyone was restless now. They wanted to get out of the cramped entry hall and break away for the night.

“It’s okay, Mr. Giles,” Andrew said, looking over the top of the email pages. “Best thing about the World Wide Web: It’s world wide. We can put the word out. A call to arms. They’re waiting for orders.”

“Meanwhile,” Dawn said. “We’ll prepare to fight. And we will all be ready.”

Faith tipped a nod in Buffy’s direction. “All of us,” she said.

All of us,” William agreed.

It was covenant repeated prayer-like by every person in the room. With these words, it was decided. They would strike at sunrise, spending one last night at home.

 

 

----- Original Message -----

From: Rupert Giles

To: Kyle Barriston

Date: 22 October 2004

Time: 3:04 p.m. GMT

Cc: Joseph Ernest Richards ; Jeremy Land ; Lindsey Lowery ; Monroe Oxley ; Edwan Mann ; Matteo Meyka; Kearney J. Gravis ; Christopher Altnau; Baker, Adams and Tryst ; Paul Chapman; Tobias Loerh; Amber Shupback; Ginnia Lindzey; Rona Catchercyde; Cornell Hollins; Preston Almanza; Jonatha Sanchez; Tangine Bunton; Naek Salamzi; Mylinski Sharron; Richard Fralin III; Robert Boschman; Eoin Cooper; Katherine Cleavey; Geremy George; Timmon Blackwell; Petr Ryzevkic; Cho Yin Kim; Bryan Weo; Pol Milligan; Erik Reeves; Jon Lamb; Seetha Narayanan; Bill Powell ; Brenda Randall ; Bryan Larmore ; Charles Henry ; Chris & Lisa Kirchner ; Dave Hoover ; Dwayne Lavengood ; Glynnis Coalter; Heather Thomason; Jeff ; Jessica Kostroun ; Joyce Sims ; Kathy Zittel ; Lacey Johnson ; Lori Powell ; Marina Mungia ; Monica Rodriguez ; Shane Miller ; Teresa Rodriguez ; Thale Gaupset ; Tim Sheffield ; Travis Woodley ; Treva Sheffield ; Wendy Shores

 

Dear all,

No doubt you are facing difficult times. As Watchers we have witnessed many changes in recent weeks, and many of those near us have died in our constant fight. This message may not reach many of you. For some cities, we are sending this too late. For those of us who remain, we must take our stand. We must be ready to fight.



Draw all that you may from your resources. Leave nothing in reserve. Treat this as our final battle against the forces of darkness. Some of the survivors from the Slayer schools in London and New York have merged. We plan to strike at the head of the beast. If all goes well, we will take back the ground gained by the vampires. If it goes ill, you are the last hope for humanity.



May you be blessed in the final hours.

Sincerely,

Rupert Giles

 

 

After the Scoobies dispersed from the entry hall, Willow slipped without a word into the basement. Her excuse for doing this was to double check the wards on the house, but she already knew they were strong enough to withstand a better part of a direct onslaught from Hell. In truth, she was Avoidance Gal. She felt ashamed, sheepishly secreting herself in the basement. But it was better than a face-to-face with Oz.

Instead she swept the non-dusty floor. She tidied the already tidy altar. She mooshed the stuffing around in her gem-colored ornamental floor pillows so that they were all equally fluffy. Then, she sat down on the bottom step and hid her face in her arms. It was the first moment of stillness she had given herself since... she could not remember when. In that quiet handful of seconds, Willow realized that her whole body, her mind and her heart ached with an intensity that stifled her.

A sob broke inside her. She moaned to herself, feeling wretched. If Kennedy was here, she thought. But stopped herself. She felt the presence of someone watching her.

Willow raised her head.

And there was Oz, on the landing. She hadn’t even heard him open the basement door.

“Sorry,” he whispered. He made no move to leave. Which was what she wanted him to do.

“What are you doing here?” she asked. She tried to make her voice sound put out. She came off sounding whiny.

“I came with Faith,” he said.

“Oh, did you?” Willow said. She got to her feet. “And what is she doing here?”

“Came to find The Priestess,” he said simply. “Seen her?”

“Yes!” Willow said. As in, obviously.

Oz pressed his lips into the thinnest possible smile.

“Why are you all Smirky Pants? You don’t get to smirk,” Willow said.

“I’m not...”

“Yes, you are. Came to sneer at poor Willow, with her loop-holey magic that gets her friends almost killed and her house almost kablooey. Or maybe you’d like to poke fun at the fact that she’s outlived not one but two girlfriends in the last four years. Some powerful protector I’ve turned out to be...”

“Willow,” Oz said, raising his voice a decibel. “I would never. It’s me, okay? It’s Oz.”

Willow sat down hard. She batted tears away from her eyes, furiously.

Oz, taking his chances at getting zapped, took a place on the step next to her. “I didn’t know you’d be here,” he said. “I knew there was a chance, but I...”

“Kennedy wanted to stay,” Willow blurted. “In Brazil. She wanted to stay there. And I wanted to come here, after Buffy and Dawn were attacked in Rome. We had a Slayer school there, in Sao Paolo. Kennedy’s family is in Rio. She wanted to stay, and I made her come here.”

“And she died,” Oz said.

Willow buried her face against her knees. “I think, yes,” Willow said. Her words were muffled and tinged with bitterness. “I think Angel may have killed her.”

Oz stared at the back of Willow’s head, not sure about what to do or say. His instincts told him to reach for her, to comfort her. But brains held him back.

“There is so much death,” Willow sobbed. “We have lost so many. I don’t blame myself for Kennedy. I really don’t. But how can we stop all this death?” Willow raised her red-rimmed eyes to stare at him. “Is there any way to stop it?”

Instinct won out. Oz put an arm loosely around Willow’s shoulders. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Point is, we keep trying.”

It was an Oz thing – that economy of speech that allowed him to say so much with the fewest possible words. And it seemed to be exactly what Willow needed to hear.

 

 

“Okay, so the rules are simple,” Xander explained while dealing cards around the folding table in the game room to Lorne, Andrew, Dawn, Maya and Connor. “You play only like colors, unless you have a number card of a different color that matches the number of the card in play. If you don’t have the same color or number, you draw. And you keep drawing until you get what you need, or one of these nifty wild cards. Regarding Draw Twos and Draw Fours...”

They crowded into the cramped, somewhat fusty game room because, without admitting or even realizing he was doing so, Xander was avoiding the kitchen. Being observed by the spectral entity of Anya was troubling to the deepest unexplored center of his psyche. The only way to combat this, to his thinking, was constant motion and card games.

“I do know how to play UNO,” Connor said. He deftly swept the cards Xander had dealt him into his hand. Xander had loaned the boy a pair of jeans and an asparagus green pullover, which perfectly matched Connor’s eyes. Connor’s feet had been too big for Xander’s shoes, so he still sported his California flip-flops.

“Oh,” Xander said, a little disappointed. “I thought you said you grew up in an alternate demon dimension.”

“I did,” Connor said. “But Wolfram & Hart gave me a family and implanted regular childhood memories in my brain after I was returned to this dimension. Therein lies many long evenings around a dinner table, drinking root beer floats and playing Skipbo, Trivial Pursuit, Risk and UNO with foster mom, foster dad and two pesky foster siblings.”

Dawn perked up across the table. “That’s just like me,” she said. “Except instead of root beer floats, it was banana splits and I had only one pesky sibling.”

Connor closed the fan of cards into his palm. “Wolfram & Hart lodged memories in your brain too?” he asked, somewhat incredulous.

Andrew studied Connor through slitted eyes. “Dawn was the Key,” he said. “Duh.”

Maya looked over her cards at Xander. “Key to what?” she asked.

Xander’s brow furrowed. “Um, inter-dimensional gateway thingie,” he said, fumbling over the words.

“I was ancient cosmic energy forged into a human being and sent to Buffy for protection from this skeazy hell bitch who sought to use me to open a portal between this world and her own,” Dawn said. “So, basically my whole childhood: elaborate fiction.”

Connor stared at Dawn with intensity so palpable the whole table could feel it.

“Takes some getting used to, doesn’t it?” he asked. He spoke to her as if they were the only ones in the room.

The tips of Dawn’s ears blushed bright pink, but she pretended to focus on her cards. “I guess so,” she said. “Sure.”

Xander flipped over the top card to start the game. “Green,” he declared. “Good color, green. Andrew, you start.”

Andrew skimmed his cards. Right away he had to draw. And draw again. Five cards later, he grumbled, “Who shuffled this deck, anyway?”

“It is weird though,” Dawn said. “Knowing that what you remember didn’t really happen. That you weren’t there, not really. Only you and everyone around you thinks you were, and that makes it so.”

“Yeah,” Connor said, leaning forward on his elbows. “My parents had this whole other life before me, and I know that. But to them, I am and always have been their oldest son. They don’t even know who my real dad is.”

“And I don’t even have a real dad,” Dawn said, excitedly. “How weird is that? It’s almost like I was reproduced by budding.”

“Like Spongebob,” Andrew said. He finally lay a green seven onto to the discard pile. Maya played a yellow seven.

“Ah,” Lorne said. “Don’t that just butter my muffin. Draw Two, Xander my man.”

Xander played a blue Draw Two on top of Lorne’s yellow one. “Ah, already the game takes a dirty turn. Draw Four,” he said to Connor. Connor absently drew four cards from the deck. Dawn played a blue Reverse.

“I guess we have a lot in common,” Dawn said. “More than we thought.”

“Yeah,” Connor answered. He had gone goofy during the short course of a card game, and everyone could see it.

“So, Connor,” Maya said. “If Angel is Spike’s grandsire, does that make you like his uncle or something?”

Connor blinked and resurfaced. “Huh,” he said. “Yeah, I guess so. Never really thought about it, though.”

“It’s your play, Wesley Crusher,” Andrew sulked.

Connor folded his cards up and placed them face down on the table.

“You wanna get some ice cream?” Connor asked.

Dawn stammered “What?” she said.

“I’m thinking bad idea,” Xander said. He laughed as though they could not possibly be serious.

“We have plenty of daylight,” Dawn said. She put her cards down and began heading for the door.

“We are only blocks from Haggen Daas,” Maya said.

Not helping,” Xander said. He jumped in front of Dawn and Connor. Lorne was at his side in seconds, ready to bar their passage if necessary.

Dawn looked at him pleadingly. “We’ll only be gone half an hour. One hour, tops,” she said. “Please, Xander. World may end for us tomorrow. I could really go for a banana split right now.”

“Buffy would have a total spazz attack,” Andrew mumbled from his corner.

“We don’t have to tell her,” Maya said. “She should be sleeping now anyway.”

“So should you, Dawnie,” Lorne pointed out. “No offense, kiddo, but you’ve got circles big as the tires on a HUM-V under your eyes.”

“I’m bed bound, I promise. Full eight hours the moment we return,” Dawn said.

“Plus,” Connor put in, “It’s not like we’re defenseless. I can hold my own in a fight, and she is both the Slayer’s sister and a witch. We’ll be fine.”

Xander liked none of it. But he liked denying Dawn even less. “Okay,” he said, reluctantly. “But be back in one hour. Keep to crowded places. Don’t get separated. Take a cell phone and...”

“Don’t talk to strangers. Got it,” Dawn said. She pecked him on the cheek. She was simmering with excitement. “Thanks,” she added. She took Buffy’s suede jacket from the rack in the hall before she and Connor disappeared down the front steps.

Lorne, Xander and Maya lingered a while longer, before each dropped silently into their seats.

Andrew scowled at his cards.

“They’ll be fine,” Maya said, bright as a blue jay.

“Nothing more innocent than ice cream,” Lorne said, shrugging. “I should’ve put an order in for a pint of pistachio.”

“Yeah, but can we trust the guy?” Xander asked, returning to his cards.

“Want me to find a shotgun? Or, maybe vodka?” Lorna asked.

Maya’s gaze lingered on the hallway for a moment. “Nah. Connor’s a good sort,” she said. “We can trust him. Remember, he sent Willow that postcard…”

Andrew pushed away from the table, tossing his hand into the discard.

“Dawn doesn’t do dairy,” he growled. He stomped out of the game room and up the stairs to his room.

Maya looked from Xander to Lorne and back to the chair Andrew had vacated. She understood then what Lorne and Xander hadn’t pieced together yet.

“Oh,” she said. Her heart sank in sympathy for Andrew.

“Oh what?” Xander said.

Maya picked up her cards. “It’s nothing,” she said. “Whose turn was it?”

 

 

Buffy billowed a clean white sheet over the bed she shared with William. She could hear some of the others below, playing games around the kitchen table to ease their tension. Upstairs, Giles was talking strategy with William and the other Slayers. Buffy had been commanded to shower and then to sleep, in that order. Buffy had stubbornly objected, but now her tired limbs and troubled mind were grateful.

Buffy smoothed the fitted edge of the sheet around the mattress, loving the smooth, cool feel of it against the back of her hands. She inched along the bed, tucking the cloth as she went. The mundane mechanics of the task lulled her so much she didn’t realize Faith was there until she felt a snag of resistance from the other side of the bed.

Buffy raised her eyes to Faith’s. An odd sensation of deja vu slipped between them.

“You should let me,” Faith said, resuming her work on the top corner of the bed. “I mean, in your condition...”

Buffy scoffed. She yanked the sheet firmly down over the last corner and went for the top sheet. “I am ten weeks,” she said, indignant. “It’s not like I’m tottering off balance here. I’m not even showing.”

Faith grinned. She enjoyed watching Buffy sputter and hiss like a cat in a trashcan. “Yeah,” she agreed. “But it won’t be long.”

Buffy unfurled the top sheet. Faith took one corner and smoothed it into place.

“Spike looks good,” Faith said.

“H-he is,” Buffy said, not glancing up. “Hands off.”

Faith flinched. “I wouldn’t...” she began.

Buffy stammered, cursing her cross-ness. “I know. I’m sorry. I’m just so tired. And I... I am really wigged, you know?”

Buffy straightened, finally bringing her eyes to meet Faith’s.

“You should be,” Faith said simply. “Got loads to lose.”

“Yeah,” Buffy whispered. She massaged the tiny jabs of pain in her lower back. She didn’t want to ask her next question, but it was hanging above them. It would do no good to just leave it.

Reading Buffy’s expression, Faith said, “You wanna know where Robin is.”

“Where is he?”

“Died in Haiti, rescuing a busload of boys from The Priestess,” Faith said. She was aiming at casual conversation with her tone, but wound up with thinly veiled rage. She kept her hands busy making the bed while she spoke. “Thing is, I told him not to come with. Told him he would slow me down. See, he got his arm all fouled up by this Berithi prick’s prank down in The Big Easy, and I said, ‘Wood, you’ll only get yourself dead if you come with me to Haiti.’ And guess what: that’s exactly what he did.” Faith paused. “That’s why I’m here.”

“There’s no guarantee she’ll be with Angel and Thellian at the Circle,” Buffy said. “She is a vampire, but that doesn’t necessarily mean...”

“She’s connected, B,” Faith said. “All juiced up on borrowed power.”

“And you think Amy could never get that powerful without someone backing her?” Buffy asked.

“Wolfram & Hart someone,” Faith said.

“Angel,” Buffy stated.

“That’s my guess, B. But hey, I have been wrong about the guy before,” Faith said. She folded back a few inches of the top sheet, then ran her hands over the seam to crease it. “There,” she said, stepping back, “All done.”

“I really...” Buffy began.

“Don’t,” Faith said quickly. “I heard it already. Everyone’s sorry. But don’t be. He died saving a bus full of kids. It’s hero stuff, man. I mean, they were kids.” Her voice broke painfully in her throat.

Angel’s words replayed in Buffy’s mind. That’s the way all wars are fought, he’d said. It made her sick inside.

Faith glanced at the doorway. “Hey, silly me,” she said. “It’s beddy-by time for Buffy.”

Buffy looked over her shoulder, following Faith’s eyes. William stood in the doorway, leaning on the jamb.

“You two getting along?” he asked.

“We’re five by five,” Faith said.

“Good,” he said. “Rupert wondered where you got off to. He’s got more Priestess questions.”

Faith rolled her eyes skyward. “Duty calls,” she said. She clomped from the room, making sure to give William plenty of space.

After Faith had gone, William remained in the doorway as though he still needed an invitation to enter.

Buffy took a small step toward the bed. When she did, her toes brushed against the lacquered box beneath. The Scythe lay inside, dormant since its last use against the First in Sunnydale. Buffy knew that it was the one weapon she would take with her when they left in the morning. Her fingers itched to drag the case out right then to make sure it was still comfortably lethal.

Now was not the time. The bed was made. At some point Buffy was going to have to lie in it.

 

 

The Priestess burst in to Thellian’s loft apartment, tendrils snaking out behind her like a mass of furious water moccasins.

“Have you seen him?” she demanded. “Was he here?”

Thellian cocked his head to the side, mildly curious. If her abrupt interruption displeased him, he made no show of it. That is to say, he left it up to Lalaine.

“How dare you just tear in here and demand things? Your lack of upbringing appalls me,” Lalaine hissed.

The Priestess placed her hands on her hips. “I grew up on the Hellmouth, babe,” she said. “Deep psychological scarring sorta supersedes good breeding. I’ll ask again: Luxe. Is he here or not?”

“Luxe?” Angel asked. “I didn’t tell him about this meeting. Why would he...?”

“Oh, Angel,” The Priestess said. She wiggled her fingers in the grotesque approximation of a girlish wave. “Didn’t see ya there.”

“You played me,” Angel said.

Thellian’s expression did not alter. “I did not,” he said. “Our objective has always been the same: To take down Wolfram & Hart. The Kimaris are part of the Circle, Angel. His appointment in your law firm seemed quite logical from our standpoint.”

“He’s Kimaris,” Angel said, chuckling. “Of course. I knew that accent couldn’t just be French.”

“’Kay, so I’m bored now,” The Priestess said. “Are you gonna give me some answers or waste-my-time to death?”

“Enough,” Lalaine said, gliding toward The Priestess. “You have already overstayed your welcome here, and soon you will have outlived your usefulness.”

Thellian stepped between them. Angel noted rigidity in the vampire’s posture he had not seen before. And Angel understood. Thellian did not just dislike The Priestess. There was a hint of fear in there as well. She was more powerful than she should be. More powerful than could be trusted. Things had gotten out of hand with her, and Angel wanted to know how.

“What’s your connection with Luxe?” Angel asked.

“We’re lovers,” she answered. She licked her lips with her vile serpentine tongue. Angel suffered an involuntary shudder.

“Beyond that,” he deadpanned.

The Priestess cocked her head. She cast a sidewise glance at Thellian and Lalaine.

“Me? I’m the Stealth Bomber,” she said. “All the power of a wicked Black witch, but a vampire, too. Sorta sidesteps that pesky backlash problem mere mortals seem to have. I’m the Eve of Destruction, baby.”

“And it was your plan?” Angel asked, looking to Thellian.

“Yes,” Thellian affirmed. “With all the backing of Wolfram & Hart behind her.”

Angel took a moment to consider it all, from the moment he met Luxe in the park, to the meeting with Thellian at Triumvirate. Nighna would have to be involved as well, he guessed. She was Kimaris, too. Thellian had orchestrated everything so carefully Angel had never even sensed the snare in the trap.

“You must be murder at chess,” Angel muttered.

“I have no time for games,” Thellian said. He diverted his attention to The Priestess. “Luxe is not my concern. His part in this is nearly done. He will likely convene on the Circle with the remaining Kimaris and wait for his next cue.”

Thellian turned briskly away, so graceful he was almost dancing. He returned to the window to watch the city while The Priestess attempted to figure her next step. Unfortunately for her, Thellian had already planned three moves ahead.

“What is the next cue?” The Priestess asked. Angel squirmed, trying to conceal his amusement. She had no idea that Thellian was baiting a hook.

Thellian kept his eyes on the westering sun through the necro-tempered windowpane. He said, “To wait for the Slayers, of course.”

“The Slayers?” The Priestess sneered. “What are they doing?”

“Fighting back,” Thellian said.

“Buffy won’t attack. Not tonight,” Angel said quickly. “They were bone-ragged when I saw them. And their Witches will need time to recuperate from whatever that spell was.”

The Priestess hissed. “The Witches,” she seethed.

“No,” Lalaine said, shaking her hair from her shoulders. “They won’t march on the Circle tonight. They are human, after all. They tire so easily.”

“It matters not,” Thellian said. “Pittance of sleep won’t aid their fight.”

The Priestess waited for him to explain. When he did not she said, “And why is that?”

Now he did turn. He wore a leer of mischief on his flawless face. “We have a few surprises in store. Don’t we Lalaine?”

She grinned back at him, as if he was sharing a prized secret to which only she had been privy.

“What is it?” The Priestess asked, never one for patience.

“We will be at the Circle,” Thellian said, looking first to Lalaine and then to Angel. “And we are ready for them.”

 

 

4:23 p.m.

 

The day had shaped up as fine as raspberry sherbet – bright slanting sun, crisp breeze blowing loads of yellow leaves into the gutters, the sharp scent of chimney smoke in their noses.

After a few blocks of quiet walking, Dawn said, “Maybe it’s not so bad as all that.”

Connor scanned the tree-lined sidewalks. A pair of women in knit jumpers trotted along, toting sacks of groceries. Several business-clad men and women, noses poked into papers, waited for the 3:30 lorry to Leicester Tube Station. There seemed to be about thirty or so normal folk milling about, looking into shop fronts and chatting on cell phones.

“It does seem safely ordinary,” Connor replied.

“In Sunnydale, it was mass exodus,” Dawn said. “Even the people at the power company left.”

“That bad, huh?” Connor said.

Dawn nodded. The tip of her nose had chapped in the constant wind. She was suddenly mortified that it would get all runny and drippy, and she would have to wipe it on the sleeve of Buffy’s suede jacket. In front of Connor. Except, in comparison to possible apocalypse, nasal drainage probably didn’t rate.

“So,” he said. “End of the world. Any regrets?”

“I never saw Coldplay in concert,” Dawn blurted. She shook her head. “How lame is that?”

“It’s not,” he said. “They put on a good show.”

“You saw them?” she shrilled.

Connor smiled. “In California. And in real time and space, too. Not Implanted Land.”

They walked along a few paces with Dawn apparently struck dumb with awe and envy.

“What about you?” Dawn asked, regaining her senses. “What do you regret?”

Connor stared down at her as they walked. He thought about it for awhile, then said, “Ask me later, okay?”

Dawn swore inwardly. Here he was walking around with the knowledge that his Dad was part of a conspiracy to destroy the world, and she was asking him questions right out of a teenager’s game of truth or dare. He was probably a locust swarm of wishes and regrets.

They kicked through piles of leaves at the next corner, then turned north. Haggen Daas was an actual restaurant on Leicester Square that served only ice cream cocktails. It was hugely touristy and best avoided by locals (which Dawn prided herself in being), but if you were going out for ice cream on the day before the last day of your life, it was worth the exception.

“So,” Connor said, working up his courage. “I thought you and Andrew had maybe something.”

Dawn balked. “No. Please. Like I would date a guy who keeps all of his important documentation in a Babylon 5 lunch box.” She paused. “You don’t, right?”

“I do have a Lone Wolf & Cub pencil case that I bought on eBay,” he said. “Uh. It’s... not important.”

“Do you keep your passport and birth certificate in it?” she asked.

“No,” Connor said. “Just... pencils.”

“Do you know, he organizes his socks by theme?” Dawn ranted.

“Socks have themes?” Connor said.

“I know!” she shouted. “And he never wears red shirts. Do you know why he never wears red shirts?”

“I haven’t...”

“Because the ensigns of Star Trek who wore red shirts always died,” Dawn said.

“But you two are friends,” Connor said.

“Sure, if you call it that,” Dawn said. “I mean, we were there together in Rome when these demons attacked us. We hid underground, and there was blood and dirt and the unforgettable scent of catacomb. Then when we came here, we were like the unstoppable duo. Like Superman and Robin.”

“That’s... Batman and Robin,” Connor said, wincing.

Dawn went on without hearing him. “We were like ‘Watchers of the World unite.’ Then he was dating a demon. And then he wasn’t. And then he kissed me. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, what is up with that? And he goes and hooks up with the demon again.”

“Are you sure there’s nothing between the two of you?” Connor asked, wishing he hadn’t.

“Just your average boiling hatred,” Dawn said. She stopped walking. “Make that confusion. No, wait. Make it just plain hurt.”

Dawn studied the cracks in the sidewalk. Connor moved toward her, but felt awkward. He didn’t know her well enough to offer a hug, and handshake seemed too stiff. He settled for simple proximity.

When Dawn raised her eyes again, they were full of tears.

“Why did he do that?” Dawn asked. “Why did he go and do a stupid thing like kiss me? We were friends., and the – bam – lips.”

Connor thought the answer was obvious. Saying it, though, opened an avenue to further awkwardness. Also, part of Connor, the selfish part, wanted to withhold that bit of evidence just in case, by some odd miracle, she felt the same way about Andrew. If Dawn was in love with him, Connor lost his chance. That was not a risk he wanted to take.

So he said, “I don’t know. It’s complicated.”

Dawn uttered a breathy laugh. “Complicated. Finally, I get to be complicated.”

Connor found himself staring at her again. This time, she stared back.

“Ice cream, right?” she said.

“Huh?” Her conversational course change rivaled her sister’s; it was a Summers’ family trait to always keep a guy guessing.

“The shop’s this way,” Dawn said, pointing. “Two blocks. We might have to get cones to go. It’s already so late.”

“Yep, ice cream,” Connor said. But it was on a list of the least important things in his mind just then, right up there with dental floss, life insurance and commuter mugs.

Connor’s heart suddenly surged with anger toward his Dad, and Buffy, and anyone else who couldn’t just leave the world well enough alone. All Connor could see was the world was ending, and it meant not having enough time to live out the normal life he wanted. It meant not getting to say goodbye to his foster family. It meant never seeing another football match in Reilly Stadium.

And it meant not having more time for getting to know her.

 

 

William came into the room. He closed the door behind him.

Buffy went to the closet. She opened it and stared inside, trying to remember why she had come to it in the first place. Seconds stretched around her so that everything seemed surreal and out of order.

“Buffy?” William said. He sounded a long way away.

She saw clothes in the closet. Shirts. Shoes. Coats. Spare bag of stakes. All of these things belonged, but were like pieces of separate jigsaw puzzles. She couldn’t pull them together.

“Pet?” William said.

Buffy shook her head to clear it.

“Did you guys decide anything in your meeting with Giles?” she asked.

She heard him take two small steps in her direction. “Only that Rupert is not on the list of names should we have a boy...”

“It’s a girl,” Buffy said quietly.

“How do y..?”

“I feel it,” she said. “Kind of a destiny thing.”

“A girl,” William mused.

“Turn off the light, will you?” she whispered, running her fingertips over the scratchy bandage Dawn had affixed to her temple. “It’s too bright in here.”

He did as she asked. When he turned back, she was standing right in front of him.

“You died again,” Buffy said.

He held his breath. “I did,” he said.

She thumped her fists hard against his chest.

“Hey...” he said. He brought his arms up to block her.

But she relented. “Stop that,” she said. “I need you. So stop it.”

“Well, I...” he began.

Buffy collapsed against him. He didn’t need to see tears to know she was finally crying. All of her invulnerability vanished when she was alone in the dark with him. He circled her with his arms, pulling her close.

“Wait,” she said, tugging away from him. She could barely see him in the feeble light that leaked through the whispery garbage bags that covered the windows.

“Wait? For what?” he said. He reached for her again.

“Would you kill me if it meant saving the w...?”

“No,” William interrupted.

“But it would mean we all die,” she said.

“Sod them all,” he said, his voice rough. “I’d let the world choke on its own ashes if you’re its asking price. Especially now. I’m no hero, Buffy. Not like you are. So, no. I’d not kill you. Even if it meant saving the world.”

Buffy clasped her hands together. She brought them to her lips, like in prayer.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

William put his arms around her hunched shoulders. He kissed her hair and held her until she was ready for them to rest.

 

 

5:50 p.m.

Dusk

 

Once Dawn and Connor had returned from their ice cream escapade, Willow placed a dampening spell on the Flat. It was a marvelously effective charm that not only sealed them safely inside the house, it prevented any sound from outside its walls from being heard. It also worked wonders against the bitter autumn draft that blew in from the sea, threatening to bring sleet before sunrise.

Buffy and William were asleep. At least, everyone assumed such. Still, to be on the safe side, the Scoobies gathered in the basement with Lorne and Oz posted at the kitchen table as lookout. Faith perched on the first landing of the basement stairs, studying the Scoobies from behind what she hoped was a mask of disinterest. They bickered and nagged and disputed what their next step should be. Frankly, Faith thought they were all whiny at this point, but she cut them some slack. They’d been ridden hard. Now it was time to make the tough choices, and not one of them could push a strong enough argument to get it done.

Willow, Xander and Giles stood at the core of the gang. Xander brought down a ladderback chair from the kitchen for Giles to sit in, but instead he stood behind it, using the top rung as a crutch. Sweat sheened Giles’ high forehead and wisps of gray sprinkled his chestnut hair. Even after a shower, a shave and a fresh set of clothes, he looked as though he had aged ten years in the last month.

Dawn and Andrew were standing as well, forming a loose semi-circle around Giles. Faith saw Dawn sway a few times; the girl was exhausted yet she refused to give up her side of the argument.

Maya and the two Slayer girls sat together on a clutch of jewel tone pillows near the back of the basement. They watched the whole discussion without comment. They reminded Faith of women who watched public executions in foreign countries as though attendance was something you had to do as a matter of public service.

The only one who had yet to weigh an opinion was Connor. Faith watched him with strained anticipation. He leaned in the corner, glowering in ways reminiscent of Angel. Faith noted how he watched the others. Definitely the outsider wanting in. She got that, more than he might guess.

“I hate this!” Dawn shouted suddenly, tearing Faith’s attention away from Connor. “I hate that we’re down here making decisions behind Buffy’s back. And I hate that we’re hiding out in a basement while the fight for the world goes on beyond our door. And we’re getting nowhere here, just going around and around in circles and I’m dizzy just thinking about it.”

Xander shot a questioning look at Willow. When she merely shrugged in response, he turned to Giles for answers.

Giles wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I, too, am much aggrieved that we’re here, making these plans,” he said. It was so formal, Faith guessed it had to be rehearsed. Even Giles wasn’t that stiff. “But it must be done. We have to formulate a course of action that will keep Buffy here, and safe.”

Andrew’s hand shot into the air. “Um, and just what decisions have we made without our Picard, Commander Riker? None. Nada. Zippo,” he said.

“We cannot let Buffy go into this battle,” Giles snapped.

The room was silent under the weight of this proclamation.

Xander sucked in his cheeks, then blew out an exaggerated sigh. “Great,” he said. “Excellent. Except, how are you gonna keep her here?”

“That’s what we’re here to decide,” Willow said. “I figure if we get Spike on board...”

Faith uttered a derisive chuckle. She said, “You mean you don’t already?”

Since she’d been quiet till then, her remark garnered everyone’s attention. She soaked it up like a sponge. Faith slid from her place on the stairs, landing firmly and with as much noise as possible on the concrete below.

From the back of the room, MK. said, “He doesn’t know we’re down here. We figured it best to hone the details before getting him to sign on.”

“Plus, you heard him earlier,” Willow said. “He doesn’t want her near the Circle…”

“It is in his best interest after all,” Giles broke in. He blinked his eyes as though he’d just gotten grit in them. “Keeping them... safe,” he finished.

Faith was shaking her head. “Lemme just get my head around this,” she said. “You’re going into battle? Sans Buffy?”

Willow looked at Faith as though she were a very small, very slow child. “She’s pregnant. And Angel wants her dead. He wants the blood of her child. You think he can get it without going through her? So, as I was saying...” Willow went on.

“We need the big board,” Andrew said ruefully. “Maybe we should vote. I could tally the votes.”

Willow went on as if she hadn’t heard him. “I figure we need transportation. Something big yet safe. Taking separate cars could lead to trouble once we’re out of the city. We’ll also need weapons, which Anjelica has already gotten a big leap on...”

“Willow, just slow down, okay?” Xander said. “We all saw the slitted throat of Spike. None of us doubt what Angel’s capable of,” Xander said. “It’s just... We can’t possibly think of making this decision without her.”

“Xander, don’t be an imbecile,” Giles said tartly. “Thellian and Angel will have gathered their forces at the Circle come sunrise. They will be waiting for us and they will be ready. And the one thing they need is Buffy...”

“You’re right,” Faith said. She took her time, slowly circling the group. She came to rest opposite Giles. “You know it is so sweet, your playing the doting Granddad. But you are miles from the mark, Rupert.”

Giles drew himself a little taller to match her stance. “I don’t see how you...” he began.

“Look. Guys,” Faith said, cutting across him, talking hard and fast, “Thing is, you’re up against a thousand year old prophecy that calls for the blood of a Slayer’s kid. Buffy turns up with child, and you’re all acting like you’re obligated to keep her out of this round? I mean, come on! The fact that Spike’s the Dad only adds cred to the theory that maybe there are bigger and badder forces at work here.”

Faith scanned the grim faced lot of them. They were frightened, but they were listening. Which was good, because Faith knew – deep down in her blood she knew – this time, she had it right.

“Not to mention Angel’s part in the prophecy,” Faith continued. “Vampire with a soul ringing some bells here? This has been coming for years; you can’t play surprised. So, yeah, this guy Thellian’s got the drop. I say we give him a run for his money. ’Cause what he really wants is to put Buffy on the Circle while Angel has that skanky demon blade in his hands.”

Faith caught her breath and ran her restless hands through her hair. This was the part of leadership she both hated and loved. She had to say all the difficult things, but she got to be a bitch at the same time. Which, when she thought about it, was more fun than most people would admit to themselves.

“So,” Andrew ventured, all timid-voiced. “Until then Buffy’s safe?”

“Yeah,” Faith said. “Because if she dies before Angel’s had his way with her...”

Dawn’s face whitened. Maya blinked as if slapped. Xander’s good eye squinted to the size of a watermelon seed. And she wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard Andrew whimper.

Giles put his hands out to grip the top rung of the ladderback chair. “No one will touch her,” he finished weakly.

“Except to bring her to the Circle,” Willow said.

“Which is where we come in,” Faith said. “We get to play human shield.”

Connor stepped forward into the circle, taking a place beside Dawn. “We make it so that Buffy gets the knife,” he said, finally speaking up. “She gets the D’Ganti, instead of him.”

Faith nodded. Connor met her eyes briefly, but then he looked away. She still couldn’t tell which side he would play for, blood being thicker and all that. But he seemed for the moment to be with them.

“Good,” she said. “That’s good. Now, we’ll still need to gather weapons and some sort of super-sized SUV is in order, but lay off keeping Buffy out of the loop. She’s in this. She knows it. So does Spike. They’ve accepted that. We’d be damned fools not to do the same.”

 

Chapter Text

October 24

6:41 a.m.

Dawn

 

Morning smiles

like the face of a newborn child

innocent unknowing

Winter’s end

promises of a long lost friend

speaks to me of comfort

but I fear

I have nothing to give

I have so much to lose

here in this lonely place

tangled up in our embrace

there’s nothing I’d like

better than to fall

but I fear I have nothing to give

 

Fear, Sarah MacLachlan

 

Morning came too soon. Buffy woke with a start, having just dreamed that she and Dawn had been fleeing into the desert in a Winnebago with Glory close behind, straddling a black Harley, her hair snaking out behind her like tongues of flame. The mountains behind Glory and the sky beyond that had burned to cinders in her wake.

Buffy awoke with the same feeling of ruthless desperation she felt then. That no matter how far she ran, no matter how fast, the crushing destruction of apocalypse was inescapable. And she had to be the one to stop it.

So really, it was just another day in the life of Buffy. What was the big? She had been able to stop it every time before.

Buffy inclined her head. Her arm was thrown protectively over William’s sleeping body. He shifted in response to her movement, turning his face to hers. His placid breathing belied the imminent danger of what they would face within a few hours time. As did the silence of the Flat, which was normally bustle-worthy even at this hour. Dawn and Xander would be up fussing over lactose-free breakfast matters. Andrew, Willow and Giles usually followed with their pert chatter and discussions over tea and scones and the London Times Guardian.

Buffy slid from bed, careful not to disturb William’s sleep. As she tiptoed across the bedroom, she thought she heard muffled footsteps in the sitting room beyond. She stepped quickly outside to find Dawn, clad in PJs, trying to sneak through the door carrying a cup of steaming hot coffee.

Dawn froze, cup aloft. “Buffy!” she said, too chipper. “I, um, didn’t mean to wake you...”

“You didn’t. It was a... bad dream,” Buffy said. “You drink coffee now?”

Dawn swept her still wet hair back with her free hand. “Um, no,” she whispered, nodding with exaggeration at the still sleeping figure on the sitting room couch. “It’s for him.”

Buffy craned her neck to get a closer look. Connor looked as though he had to fold himself in half to sleep on the glorified loveseat that on most days served as the Summers’ laundry catchall.

“He can’t have slept well,” Buffy said, grimacing.

“Hence, coffee. Thought it would be a nice pick-me-up before the massive Supervamp throw-me-down,” Dawn said.

“Good,” Buffy said, nodding. “Good plan. We should get moving. Where are the others?”

Dawn continued in hushed tones. She said, “Giles is in the basement with Willow and Maya. Willow’s made a whole bunch of these nifty glowy rock things for when we’re in the caves. Faith’s out back, training with the Minis. Oh, and Xander took Oz, Lorne and Andrew on transportation detail. Willow figured we needed...”

“Wait,” Buffy said. “They’re outside? They can’t...”

Dawn checked the watch on her wrist. “Sun’s been up seventeen minutes,” she said. “We made plans on our own; had a little WWBD action.”

“What?”

“You know, What Would Buffy Do?” Dawn gave her sister a sidewise grin. “We wanted to let you guys sleep in, you know. With the baby and all. Thought maybe you deserved some together time.”

Buffy laughed a little in spite of herself. “It’s the best sleep I’ve had in a really long time,” she said. “I guess...”

Connor chose that moment to sit bolt upright, startling both girls. The coffee sloshed from the mug in Dawn’s hand, scalding her.

“There you are. I didn’t feel you get up,” Connor said to Dawn. He scrubbed a hand through his straw-colored hair. It was disastrously disheveled.

Buffy flashed Dawn a quizzical look. “Feel you…” she began.

“Oh. Hey,” Dawn stammered. “It is so not what you think.”

Connor glanced at Buffy and turned a rather brilliant shade of scarlet.

“I think Angel’s son just spent the night with my sister,” Buffy snapped.

“It wasn’t like that,” Connor said, getting quickly to his feet, dragging the bed sheet with him.

“Oh sure it wasn’t,” Buffy bit out. “Have you seen your hair?”

Dawn shrugged, conceding. “Okay, it is a little of what you think.”

“What?” Buffy growled.

“Oh, but it’s not bad. We went out for ice cream. And then, we talked some. Then there was… snuggling? He was distraught,” Dawn said, again with the sheepish. Connor glanced down at his partially unbuttoned shirt, then clapped his hand over his chest before casting a guilty look at Buffy.

Anger bubbled in the pit of Buffy’s stomach. She suddenly wanted very much to punch Connor squarely in his wholesome boy-next-door face. Connor seemed to get that. But instead of retreating like a smart person, he stepped around the end of the couch, putting himself into the highly dangerous zone between Buffy and Buffy’s baby sister.

Buffy kneaded her fists against her thighs, itching to use them. She said, “We have the battle of our lives to fight and you use it as a line to get my sister into bed?”

“It’s not like that,” Connor said. There was no glint of humor in his face now. “I like her,” he said.

Buffy clamped down her jaw. Through clenched teeth she said, “Better have more than just like.”

“Buffy!” Dawn said.

Her body quaked. “He’s Angel’s son,” she shouted.

Behind Buffy, William opened the door.

“Did the battle for earth begin already, or did Andrew forget the soy milk?” he asked.

William scanned their tense expressions and surmised the cause. He stepped up beside Buffy, folded his arms menacingly and said. “Well, well. Let’s have a look at Jack and Sally.”

“Guess what they’ve been up to?” Buffy said.

“Bet it’s nothing to do with playing cards,” he said.

“Well, Dawn. What do you have to say for yourself?” Buffy asked.

Dawn folded her arms and said, “Just that you sound exactly like mom.”

Buffy opened her mouth to argue, but then shut it again with a snap. She pointed an accusatory finger at Dawn and then at Connor. “We will talk about this later,” she said. That said, she whirled and stormed from the sitting room.

William caught up with Buffy in the kitchen, where she was hastily downing a super tall glass of milk. When she finished, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Don’t say it,” Buffy said once she caught her breath.

“Buffy,” he said. His eyebrows arched high on his forehead.

“You have Worry Face,” she pouted.

“There may not be a later,” he said.

“You think I should proceed with the terse lecture then?” Buffy asked.

William smoothed his hands down her arms. “No,” he said soothingly. “No. Go easy on the girl. Because there may not be a later.”

Buffy’s shoulders slumped. “I told you not say it,” she said.

“No harm in an innocent snogging the night before the end of the world,” he said. “Y’know, panic response. All perfectly normal.”

“You are not helping,” Buffy said. She sulked.

William ran his fingers through her hair. “I understand, you know. The fear. What we’re about to face. What we stand to lose. But we have had worse.”

She put her hands on her hips. “When?” she asked.

“Well, we don’t have a vampire chained up in the basement. So I figure that’s a step up…”

He looked down at her, into her eyes that looked back at him. He felt his heart pounding in his throat and his fingertips went inexplicably numb. He was leaning to kiss her when she stopped him.

“Promise me,” she whispered.

His lips brushed hers. “Anything,” he said.

“Promise there will be a later.”

They could hear Giles, Willow and Maya climbing the basement stairs, carrying on an animated yet vague conversation about circles of protection. Plans were already in motion, plans that would carry them two hours south and several hundred meters underground where someone’s blood would spill. Odds were, it would be hers.

Soon, Faith, MK and Anjelica joined them in the kitchen. MK set about making breakfast from everything that remained in the kitchen while Maya and Willow continued to debate whether enduring circles of protection could be used on moving objects like cars and airplanes. By the time Dawn came downstairs, her eyes flashing dangerously with the righteous indignity of the wrongfully accused, the kitchen was filled with a brisk, mechanical kind of tension. No one wanted to say anything. For that, Buffy was silently grateful. What could they possibly say, anyway?

Maya passed around platefuls of buttered toast, microwaved tofu squares and black currant yogurt. Dawn plucked moodily at the crust of her toast.

“I guess no one’s hungry,” she said, looking around at the sullen lot of them, none of whom had touched their food.

Maya ventured a brave face. “We should eat,” she urged. “Need our strength, don’t we?”

“When will Xander be back?” Dawn asked, cutting across her.

Willow shook her head. “Dunno, Dawnie. Soon, maybe. He has a cell phone, though. In case there’s trouble.”

“I don’t think he should go,” Buffy blurted. Willow and Dawn looked scandalized, but she went on despite their looks of disapproval. “Andrew, either. And Giles...”

“We have already discussed this, Buffy,” Giles said. “You go, we all go.”

“Don’t be bloody stupid,” Buffy shouted. “You can barely stand, with your... blood loss. Andrew and Xander: they’re human. You three need to stay here. Protect the house...” she finished lamely.

“There’s nothing here to protect, if you lot aren’t in it,” William said.

Buffy glared at him for not taking her side, but one sweep around the room told her it was no good. She wasn’t about to win this argument.

“You go. We all go,” Willow said delicately. “Eat your breakfast.”

Buffy looked glumly at her plate. It wasn’t exactly what she hoped to have as a last meal, but Maya was right. They did need their strength.

 

 

“I told you no one would give a feather about that ruddy bird,” Lorne said. He peered ahead into the alley between a Thai walk-up restaurant and a garage forecourt, then motioned the others to follow him onto the street.

“Then why did she want me to protect Clarisse so bad if no one was out to get her?” Andrew shot back. He had been sure that they would find an apartment full of scattered black feathers when they’d turned up at Lorne’s to check on Nighna’s soul-bound bird. When they arrived to find Clarisse unharmed and sulky as ever, Andrew had felt somewhat maltreated.

“I never said that no one was out to get her,” Lorne said hoarsely as he led the way up the quiet street. “Merely that her enemies would have flown the coop by now. Kimaris don’t live to be several millennia old by hanging around during apocalypses. They are what we in the demon world call skedaddle specialists.”

“Is that a technical term?” Xander asked.

“Loose jargon, my friend,” Lorne said. “This is King’s Cross. The station should be...”

Andrew, Xander and Lorne drew up short behind Oz.

“Great Magneto’s ghost,” Andrew said. “What is that?”

Xander squinted into the milky fog that clung to the bare trees up the street. A pair of headlights, slightly askew, beamed at them from several blocks up.

Oz sniffed the air. “Tour bus,” he said.

“You sure?” Xander asked, still trying to make sense of the fuzzy shape in the fog. Then he heard a garbled scream coming from the direction of the lights that made his heart leap in his chest. Oz was charging ahead before the others realized what was happening.

Oz arrived at the mouth of an alley. The stench of dead things struck Oz first, but it was the grisly scene that knocked Xander’s knees from beneath him. By his count, there were six vampires and two victims. The first lay face down with his arms twisted the wrong way around behind his back. The sleeves had been ripped from his shirt. Distinct marks that could only be made by fangs perforated the man’s skin.

Lorne and Andrew skidded to a halt beside Xander. They each seized an arm and hauled him to his feet. The vampires were too busy draining their second victim, the bus driver by the looks of his uniform, to notice them.

“Ah, God,” Andrew moaned. “It’s like something out of Silent Hill.”

He backed away from the alley dragging Xander, and thereby dragging Lorne. Oz followed, standing guard, all of his werewolf senses tingling.

“Good fortune’s with us,” Andrew said. “Key’s still in the ignition. They probably just stopped in at King’s Cross to refuel for the day’s tours...”

“Good fortune?” Xander said. “Not for them it isn’t. Shouldn’t we do something?”

“What can we do? Can you bring back the dead?” Oz asked. He seemed to consider for a moment, then said, “That was rhetorical.”

“Andy’s right,” Lorne said. “Best we can do is get out of here, before they catch our scent and decide on a third course. Besides, it’s almost daylight.”

“But they’re vampires...” Xander said.

Lorne shoved him toward the bus. Andrew was already behind the wheel. “That guy’s too far gone,” Lorne said.

“Let us not forget Typhoid Amy and Thellian’s plan to take over the world one vampire at a time,” Oz said, hopping on board. “We’re lucky they are all we’ve seen.”

With Xander and Lorne on the bus, Andrew twisted the crank that sealed the doors behind them.

“Slide out,” Xander said. “I drive.”

Andrew laughed in a hollowly theatrical way. “Stand aside, squib,” he boomed. Then, in his regular voice, he added, “This is my ship.”

“No, seriously,” Xander said.

Lorne tugged on Xander’s sleeve. “Better take your seat, Ahab,” Lorne said, pointing out of the frosty window.

The squeal of the closing bus door had roused the vampires. There were seven of them, not six, and they had all gathered on the sidewalk, leering at them with their bloodied fangs.

“Oh for God’s sake – Drive!” Xander shouted.

Andrew slammed the bus into reverse, hammering the pedal at the same time. The sudden motion flattened Lorne and Xander. Oz bounced over the first seat as the bus lurched jerkily over the bench it had straddled. Andrew twisted the steering wheel hard left and floored it.

Xander peeked through his fingers. “Not left! Not left you id...”

There was a sickening crunch, followed by a couple of jostling thuds as the tour bus plowed over the bench and several of the vampires before Andrew corrected course, turning them back into the proper lane of traffic.

By the time Lorne and Xander plucked up the courage to stand, Andrew was cruising along, grinning and quite pleased with himself. The streets ahead were relatively empty, so that maneuvering the rather bulky tour bus was not the challenge it might have been. The sun appeared like a molten disc between the buildings. It would burn its way through the morning’s chilly fog, forcing the vampires underground and putting an end to their immediate fears.

“How many do you figure you got?” Oz asked, when he could talk again.

“I dunno,” Andrew said. He breathed out a shaky sigh. He glanced at them briefly in the over-large rearview mirror before returning his eyes to the road. “Only a spare.”

Lorne patted Andrew’s shoulder.

“Mission accomplished,” Xander said, sliding into the seat behind Andrew. “Secured transportation, and took out a few hostiles in the bargain. Good man.”

This heartened Andrew so much that by the time he’d successfully navigated the tour bus to Meteor Street he was whistling a jaunty rendition of the old Star Trek theme. Things didn’t seem so dire once they were home. Nighna’s soul was safe, the sun was shining and the Flat hadn’t burned to the ground in their absence. Plus they had a bus big enough to deliver them all safely and comfortably to Stonehenge.

Maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed...

 

 

“This is bad,” Buffy said. She stood in the doorway of the house, looking down into the expectant faces of Xander, Andrew and Lorne.

“But it’s transport big enough for all of us...” Xander said.

“And is in no way conspicuous,” Buffy said.

“Oh dear Lord,” Giles said as he joined her on the front step.

“But it’s not bad,” Andrew explained. He felt strangely diminished standing between Buffy, who was decked out in her hip-length leather coat with silver-tipped stakes jutting from her pockets, and the double decker tour bus he had managed to procure. “It’s good. See? It’s a tour bus. We can change the sign to match our destination. Very non-conspicuous.”

Dawn slipped between Giles and Buffy, hands on her hips.

“Just like you, Andrew. Big with the overkill,” she said, disapproval darkening her features.

“Wait, now. Hold up,” Lorne said, pushing his way between Xander and Oz. “We all thought...”

But Andrew had squared off with Dawn. He crossed his arms and glowered. “Did you just turn my glowing achievement into a character flaw?” he asked.

“If the cape fits, Superboy,” she sneered. She lingered on the bottommost step, giving her the full advantage of height.

After several tense moments of heated staredown, Andrew was the one to back away.

“We so don’t have time for this,” he said. He still glared from beneath his tightly squinched brows, and his face was still wore a dull pink flush, but he was backing down. There was a modest dignity in his retreat that Buffy had to admire. It was an earmark of maturity that she had witnessed before. She’d seen it in Spike.

“You’re right,” Buffy said. “We don’t have time. The bus will suit us fine, Andrew. It’s a bit... bulky, but we’ll manage. We only need it for a couple of hours anyway.”

“Thanks, Buffy. Back to you,” Andrew said quietly. Dawn continued to stare coldly at him, and he seemed to squirm under her gaze like an ant under a laser beam.

“Dawn,” Buffy said. “Why not go tell Willow that the bus is here?”

Dawn hesitated a moment longer, then flounced up the front walk in unmistakable Dawn fashion.

After a few seconds of strained silence, Lorne attempted to break the mood. “That is one spitfire you have for a sister,” he said.

“Well, she is a veteran at this whole world ending thing,” Xander said, massaging his neck at the not-so-faint memory of the time Dawn had Tasered him when he had tried to get her out of Sunnydale before their final battle against the First. Not a pleasant trip down memory lane, Xander shook it off and returned his attention to Buffy. “Should we start packing? This baby’s got trunk space you wouldn’t believe...”

“Yeah,” Buffy said coolly, returning to her composed, business-like Slayer exterior. “Load the rock climbing gear and camping stuff into the luggage compartments. But keep the weapons and medical supplies up front. We don’t know what we’re driving into.”

 

 

The ride south to Amesbury was a somber one, a fact not helped along by the presence of pointy weapons within arm’s reach of everyone. Andrew drove, having won the task by simply keeping hold of the keys. At the onset, Faith and Dawn reminisced lightly about the day they rode out of Sunnydale in a school bus with Buffy clinging to its roof. That story fizzled when William pointed out that he had not made it on that particular trip.

To worsen things, a slate of ice-blue clouds banked in the Northeast, threatening sleet and slicing winds. But Maya, always one to see the bright side, pointed out that they would be underground where rain would be of no consequence.

Buffy sat in the sideways facing seats at the front of the bus. She had to wonder about the storm clouds; would they provide enough cover for the supervamps to attack them before they reached Amesbury? She wondered how long it would take for the vampires to find them, once they were inside the archive beneath Stonehenge. Or would they simply have an entourage to greet them. It seemed likely; Thellian and Angel had plenty of advanced warning. Her eyes searched the countryside for signs of devastation, for evidence that Thellian’s vampire army had taken to destroying the picturesque little shopping villages that dotted the moors south of London. She saw nothing, though, that would indicate mass destruction.

As the green and gold shoulders of land streaked by the bus windows, Buffy thought of Boadicea and how her rage brought down one of the most powerful cities in the world. All for the love of her children. Her daughters. Lalaine and Morna.

Buffy had the Scythe across her knees. She gripped it so tightly her knuckles turned white. This was the same weapon Boadicea had used nearly two thousand years ago. Now Buffy would wield it, in defense of her own child...

Buffy looked from the Scythe to the busload of people around her. She had begun to compulsively count them, which was ridiculous, she knew. There were fourteen present; the number was not likely to change while they were en route to Stonehenge. And then, an even more ludicrous thought occurred to her: Here she was, pregnant, on a tour bus packed with weapons, with her closest family and friends (and Andrew) heading into what may be one of the most important battles in history. She hoped the other Slayers in other cities had fared well in their fight the night before. But as always, she knew it came down to them. And they were only fourteen.

God, she thought. This is the longest bus ride ever.

Then, before she knew it, it was over.

They had come full circle.

 

 

Andrew drove the bus over the grassy shoulder, dashed through the wire fence and rolled to grumbling stop at the base of the trail he knew would lead them underground. They filed out of the bus, all on high alert, with Buffy in the lead and William and Willow close behind her.

There were no cars at the site, no signs whatsoever that anyone had been there.

Faith sidled up to Buffy. “Looks like the party ended without us, B,” she said.

Buffy turned a slow circle, studying the purplish bruise of the horizon. Wind tore at her hair, doing its best to ruffle her.

“No,” she said. “They’re here. I can feel them.”

“Over there,” Giles said, pointing to the crevice he had once inexpertly opened himself. “They’ve gone underground. The Priestess must have...”

“Priestess is in there?” Faith asked. Without waiting for an answer, she stalked toward the hole.

“Wait,” Dawn said. Faith lingered without turning. “Giles, you know what it’s like down there. It’s dark, and most the passageways are narrow.”

“In short, they’re caves,” Faith said. “Saddle up.”

“Faith,” Buffy said. “She’s right. We go in with a plan. We stick together...”

Faith slung around to face them. “With you in the center, I get it. I got no problems taking point...”

“Then take this,” Willow said, passing a glowing white crystal rod to Faith. One end of it was honed to a hard pyramid shape. “It’s an ambient light, but can also be used to poke things.”

“Nice. Sharp. I like it,” Faith said. “Now can we go?”

“Just... hang on,” Buffy said. She stepped up onto an outcrop of stone so that she could see all of them. MK and Oz were in back, each wielding a crossbow. Anjelica, Giles and Andrew had vials of Holy Water crammed into all available pockets and into several pouches and slings. Dawn and Xander each had their trusty two-handed swords left over from their Sunnydale days. Connor, mostly because he was second tallest next to Lorne, got the battleaxe. Lorne and Maya had settled for loads and loads of Anjelica’s silver tipped stakes. There were plenty of those to go around; they all had half a dozen of them shoved into pockets, belt loops and ankle holsters. They each had one of the glowy crystals Maya and Willow made. The luminescent stones were lighter and more durable than flashlights, and much more reliable.

Then there was William with the long triangular dagger given to him by the Sisters, and Faith, who had decided that simple shanks of whittled wood would suit her just fine. The time for fear had passed, and here they stood, ready to fight.

“I’m not going to give a speech,” Buffy said. “I’m not gonna stand up here and tell you that we will make it through this. We may not.” Her eyes drifted over them, but she could not meet their gaze. “If we get separated, try to make your way back here. Once we’re down there, it will be insane. Try to stay together. Try to stay alive. Keep to the circle.”

Buffy closed her eyes. She could feel Connor and William watching her, as if both knew what she was about to say. “And save Angel for me.”

They were silent, then. The only sound came from the wind shushing through acres of grassland.

“All right,” Faith said, nodding curtly. “Let’s fall in.”

 

 

What was especially unnerving was that they trudged through dark tunnels for two hours, starting at every odd sound and still they found nothing. It wasn’t until they came to the vast, echoey main chamber into which Andrew had fallen several weeks before that they found any confirmation that vampires had been there at all.

Faith had leapt from the last three rope ladder rungs to land at the heart of the chamber. Behind her, Andrew, his hand drawn map clenched in his teeth, said, “Wha du ooo thee?”

“Footprints,” she said, casting an eye around the chamber. “Lots of ’em. And twinkle lights.”

Andrew dropped down to the stone with much less grace. Once he’d clumsily unhooked his tennis shoe from the bottom rung, he removed the map from his mouth. “Dawn’s,” he said, swelling with pride and gesturing around expansively at the lights. “They’re still here.”

The others joined them, one by one, until they all clustered in the chamber with their backs to the center of the circle.

“Wow,” Willow said.

“Yeah,” Faith said. She held her crystal light wand aloft to spread more light over the seven caves that branched off into darkness. Even in that insubstantial light, they could see an impressive number of footprints.

“Maybe it’s just a couple of guys doing a lot of exploration,” Andrew said hopefully.

“And maybe Glinnda the Good Witch will pop by to tell us all to click our heels three times...” Dawn shot back.

“Guys,” Buffy said, in a cautioning tone. “Do you hear anything?”

They all listened, all of them holding their breath.

Finally, Oz said, “I hear... water?”

“Underground rivers,” Giles said, touching the wood-bound book he’d tucked inside the breast pocket of his coat. “The book alludes to some deep beneath the surface.”

“I hate catacombs,” Andrew muttered.

“Anything else?” Buffy asked.

But Oz shook his head. “Nope. Nothing.”

“Well,” William said, sounding bored. “There are seven halls. Which one’s the lucky...?”

As luck or fate would have it, William and Buffy faced the hallway that contained Boadicea’s tomb. And from that corridor, a lone figure emerged. He was dressed in a black silk suit cut in an Eastern style, ultra-modern in its sleek luster. He wore a fresh white rosebud in his lapel. The waves of his blond hair seemed to ensnare the light. He moved toward them with calculated grace. Buffy could hear MK and the others behind her, turning instinctively to get a better look.

“Don’t turn your back,” Buffy warned. “Keep the circle...”

“Ah, Miss Summers,” Thellian said. His voice was warm and silkily inviting. “Such good advice.”

“Where are the others?” she demanded. “Where’s Lalaine. Where’s Angel?”

Thellian clicked his tongue. “In good time,” he said, spreading his hands. “I trust we all know why we’re here.”

“Shyeah,” Faith called loudly. “To kill us some vamps.”

Anjelica shushed her.

Thellian laughed. “Fair enough,” he said. He began to pace, slowly, and with deliberate steps so that everyone had a chance to see him. “Faith, is it?” He peered forward into her incredulous face. “Ah, yes. I have heard so much about you. About all of you. Really. I feel like we’re already family. I believe in family, Miss Summers. But you must already know that.”

“Enough of this,” Giles said. He drew a stake and a cross from his pocket and readied for the charge. But Dawn caught his arm so tightly, he swung around and almost fell.

“Look,” Dawn said. She pointed to the hollows of the caves before them. There were others, obscured by blackness.

“Well spotted, Dawn,” Thellian said. He raised one hand high above his head. The other vampires moved silently forward, gradually becoming more material as they approached.

“No,” Faith breathed. “It can’t...”

MK clamped a shaking hand over Faith’s mouth.

Seconds later, Buffy saw what MK and Faith already knew. She saw the distinctive shapes of Carmen and Renee among them. There was no mistaking the way the pair naturally inclined toward each other when they stood. Jess and Gwen flanked Lalaine, who sported a machine gun as a rather unexpected accessory to her full-body Trinity vinyl suit.

They were vampires. All of them. Her Slayers.

“Oh, bollocks,” William said.

Buffy heard a sharp intake of breath beside her. She turned only her head to see Robin Wood emerge from the gloom.

“You bastard,” Faith said. “You goddamn bastard...”

“Oh, now,” Wood said. “Looks as though I’ve lost my Faith.”

This time Faith rushed forward.

“No!” Buffy shouted.

Oz caught her. Faith wrenched free, but he grappled both arms and pinned them behind her back.

“Don’t break the circle,” he whispered.

The Scoobies echoed his words to each other, holding firm to their places. Buffy could hear it in their voices; they were positively terrified.

Thellian had made a complete circuit around them. He took a place beside Lalaine, and upon their signal, the vampires stopped advancing.

“So now you’ve met my family,” Thellian said. “I wanted you to see a few familiar faces so you can understand. We don’t want to kill you.”

“No Kennedy,” Willow blurted suddenly. Tears spilled down her face.

“No Kennedy. No Althea,” Anjelica added.

“And where’s The Priestess?” Faith yelled. “Where’s the rest of your family?”

“Now, let’s be patient,” Thellian said. “Before we proceed, you must understand what I ask of you.”

“Enough talk already,” William said. “We got the bloody point. You want the Slayer...”

“Not just any Slayer,” Thellian corrected. He pointed at Buffy. “That one.”

“Yeah?” William said, “You’ll have to go through...”

“Gladly,” Thellian said. Lalaine raised her gun and fired into William’s chest. Dawn shrieked; the rest ducked, clinging to each other at the sudden ear-splitting cacophony of gunshots.

William staggered. He shot a perplexed look at Buffy before he crumpled to the ground.

Buffy swayed. “Oh God,” she muttered. “Oh...” She swung her Scythe around to attack.

Behind her, something large and furry blurred past. She heard the distinctive metallic rasp of swords drawn from sheaths. Willow shouted something in Latin, and a white flash tore through the darkness.

After the first burst of confusion, Buffy felt something cold grip her arm. She spun, Scythe singing as she struck. She cleaved one of Gwen’s arms off at the shoulder. The girl’s face twisted into the demon mask that contorted the features Buffy once knew so well. Without pause, Buffy swung the Scythe again, burying its point in the girl’s chest. She vanished in a puff of dust.

Buffy had no more than lifted her head when a fist slammed into it. She reeled back, tripping over William’s body. She had little time to register that fact before a booted heel connected with her shoulder, sending her sprawling. Buffy scrambled. Somewhere to her right, Lalaine’s machine gun fired again. The staccato strobe-effect of the gun dizzied Buffy, but she still managed to block the next kick aimed for her head. Buffy rolled backward then bounded to her feet to find herself face to face with Renee.

“Hey!” Renee said. “Look what I can do.” She vamped out her face and showed off a mouthful of fangs.

“Not a good look for you. You might consider exfoliating,” Buffy said. She slashed down with the Scythe, but Renee danced back. “Where’s sis?”

“She’s around,” Renee said. She flicked a glance over Buffy’s shoulder. Buffy read it and roundhoused Carmen to the ground. Renee responded with a spectacular butterfly kick, which Buffy parried, only to have Carmen sweep her ankles from behind. Before Buffy toppled, Renee caught her shoulders and firmly head-butted her. Sparks burst behind Buffy’s eyes. She felt her legs go watery. She recalled with grim clarity how they had reminded her of a Cuisinart during their Slayer trial. But then Buffy also remembered that they didn’t want her dead. Not yet. Which handed her an advantage.

Buffy let her body go limp. It was so unexpected Renee just let Buffy ooze to the ground.

“You hit her too hard,” Carmen complained.

“I didn’t!” Renee said.

Buffy jumped to her feet between them. “You really didn’t,” she said. She swept the Scythe across Renee’s chest, then shot it back stake first into Carmen. Three down.

Panting, Buffy lifted her head. Nearby, Lalaine was struggling with a massive bulky beast made of teeth, claws and hair. It had torn the sleeves of her vinyl suit to bloody ribbons, but had not yet succeeded in wrenching the gun from her grasp. Somewhere close behind her, she heard Dawn, Willow and Maya chanting in Latin. Buffy couldn’t tell what they were casting, but the cavern was filling with dust and smoke. She glimpsed Connor and Xander fighting a clutch of fresh vampires close by. Apparently the Slayer-vamps and Wood had only been the Welcoming Committee. Through the noise and shouts and confusion, she’d lost track of Thellian.

But that didn’t matter just then. There, a few feet away and face down, was William. She clambered toward him. When she turned him over, he spluttered and his eyes opened at odd intervals.

“Will!” she said. “Get up. Come on. Get up.”

His eyes rolled until they focused on her. “Guess I should’ve seen that coming,” he slurred.

“You okay? Does it hurt?”

“Not so much, but I don’t think I’ll pass airport security,” he said. He pulled himself upright. “We winning?”

Buffy glanced around. Connor had disappeared. So had Faith. She saw Giles cram a vial of Holy Water into a vamp’s eye then shin him while MK cracked the vamp’s head with a flat rock. Lorne was backed against a cave formation fighting three to one.

“Too soon to tell. Can you fight?”

William licked his lips. He tasted blood and scoffed. “Can I fight?” he said. He drew Ea’s dagger from its scabbard with a flourish, then sailed into the fray to assist Lorne.

“That’s my guy,” Buffy said. She scanned the chamber again, looking for Faith or Thellian. Finding neither, she decided to help out Xander and Connor and their nasty swarm of evil undead.

Buffy plunged in, raking through vampire flesh with renewed ferocity. She sent parts flying. No sooner than the vampires understood she was there, she offed them. Soon she stood face to face with Xander. He was standing guard over Connor, who was knocked flat but conscious.

Xander embraced her briefly. He was seriously rattled.

“What happened?” Buffy asked.

“Shot. That Matrix Wannabe shot him,” Xander said.

Connor, gripping his arm at the elbow, tried sitting up.

“No. Stay down,” Buffy ordered. “Xander, stay with him. Lalaine couldn’t have wanted to shoot Connor. It was an accident, and when Angel finds out...”

Willow, Dawn and Maya continued chanting. The volume had raised by several decibels, and now the three of them were shrouded in a hazy yellow light. Whatever it was they were planning on doing, Buffy hoped they pulled it off soon. The smoky dustiness was not helping.

“Oh crap,” Xander said. Buffy shot a cursory glance over her shoulder, following his line of sight. “More vampires. Buffy, we can’t do this.”

She straightened. Through the thickening smoke, Buffy saw them. Scores of them.

“I know,” she said.

They heard a piercing cry that could only belong to Andrew. The light that emanated from Willow, Maya and Dawn suddenly wavered and danced.

“Keep focused,” Willow shouted. The low droning of the energy between them became an unstable warbling keen.

“Buffy!” Dawn screamed. “Buffy, help them.”

“Stay by Connor,” Buffy told Xander. “Don’t let them take you.”

Buffy charged at the pack of vampires that had overtaken Andrew and Anjelica. At first, she couldn’t see them through the carnage and feared the worst. Things worsened, though, when they realized she was attacking. Five vampires clamped on to her various limbs, determined to root her to the spot. One of them was Wood.

“Hey Buffy,” he said, nearly purring. “It’s been a while.”

“You’ve really changed,” Buffy said. “I…”

Wood pouted. He said, “Don’t be so glum, Buffy. The Priestess saved my life. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be here today, enjoying the look on your face right now.”

Buffy struggled, but the other four were rather convincing in their grip. The others in the mob who had been so intent to rip Andrew and Anjelica apart merely waited. There would be time, it seemed, to shred Watchers and Slayers alike once Wood delivered Buffy to Thellian.

Surprisingly, Andrew managed to shoulder through the group to slap Wood across the mouth.

“Let her go,” he barked.

“Andrew,” Buffy said, fighting to free herself. “Stay back. I can handle this.”

But Wood cocked his head to the side. “Little Andy,” he said. “You hit like a girl.” Wood wrenched Andrew’s wrist around in a say-uncle hold.

Anjelica smashed her fist into Wood’s face. He stumbled backward, but held on to Andrew.

“I hit like a girl, too,” she said. She waved one of her silver-tipped stakes at Wood and his gang. “I believe we said let her go.”

Wood glanced at Andrew’s wrist. “Nice tattoo,” he said, distractedly. “Tribal?”

“It’s Kimaris,” Andrew snarled.

“Is that right?” Wood said, slowly.

“They’re gonna get that spell done, and you’ll all be dust,” Buffy said, panting. Her eyes streamed from the smoke. She heard screaming in the distance, but it wasn’t a voice she recognized.

“Doubt it,” Wood said. With a nod, he indicated to the others to move. “Take them both. Get this one to Luxe. Let’s go.”

With a crash, William and Lorne slammed into Wood. There was a comical moment when Wood seemed to hang in the air, suspended like a cartoon coyote. At the same time, Oz, wearing mucho fur, plowed through the vampires between Buffy and Andrew. For a split second, she caught the look of relief on Andrew’s swollen, bloody face. Afterward, the world filled with a blinding, searing, deafening roar of whiteness. The vampires nearest to the circle poofed instantly as a wave of energy rippled through the cavern. Buffy crouched, shielding her eyes as the light washed over them. It weakened as the wave widened outward, but even Wood and the vampires surrounding him got fairly scorched.

As it dissipated, everyone waited in stunned silence while the light faded back to the dull glow of what remained of Dawn’s twinkle lights. The sudden darkness and quiet seemed exaggerated in contrast to the constant drone of the spell and the din of battle. Buffy wasted no time getting to her feet. Some of the singed vampires fled deeper into the tunnels, fearing another wave, but Buffy could see from where she stood that wasn’t about to happen. Willow and Dawn stood stiffly erect, their breathing clearly labored. Maya glanced up at Willow. She swiped absently at the blood that streamed from her nose. Willow darted forward in time to catch Maya before she collapsed.

The vampires witnessed as well. They surged forward, renewing their attack. Wood seized Buffy’s arm and twisted her around to face him. She raised the Scythe, but Faith slugged him in the back of his bald head.

“No way, B,” she panted, striking him again with a bloody palm. “This one’s mine.”

Buffy ducked away. She fought her way through to Oz, who was now fighting back-to-back with Anjelica. Buffy sliced through one of his attackers caught unawares. Another stepped forward to fill the void, and there were three others clawing forward behind that one.

It was getting more desperate by the second. Still there was no sign of Thellian, and no sign of Angel.

Buffy realized then that it was foolish to think they would show. Thellian was a General with an army at his disposal, and Angel’s blood was as precious to the Circle as hers was.

“William!” she cried.

“Oy?” he called back. He and Lorne were tag-teaming a group of vampires on the other side of Andrew. Buffy clawed and elbowed through them, ramming the stake through the final one with frustrated vigor.

“I have to find the Circle,” she said.

“Uh, no...” he said. He looked at her as though she’d gone daft from getting hit in the head.

“Angel’s already there,” she said. “Don’t you see?”

“It’s a trap,” he said. A vampire charged in. He caught it without looking up and neatly sliced its throat.

“I know.”

“I’m going with you,” he stated.

“You have to protect the others,” Buffy said. She was rapidly backing away from him, disappearing into the mob. “Protect Dawn!” she shouted.

“Buffy!” he yelled. She turned away from the sound of his voice, running with fervent determination, straight for Boadicea’s tomb.

 

 

The chamber containing the tomb was vacant and preternaturally still. She slipped in unnoticed, heart rattling against her rib bones. The battle sounds fell away and soon she found herself facing Boadicea’s sarcophagus.

Buffy steeled herself inwardly. She closed her eyes and tried to calm her breathing. With the Scythe held ready, she jumped onto the ledge that bore the tomb and kicked the stone lid with all of her strength. It slid back with a thunderous crash. A whiff of ancient dust sifted into the air, followed by the unmistakable scent of brine. Buffy leaned over the tomb. When she did, a draft of cool air tugged at her hair. She hoisted her enchanted glowy stone over the edge and peered into the black below. A rickety ladder snaked out of sight.

With shaking hands, Buffy pulled herself over the lip of the tomb. She dangled her legs down until her toes touched the ladder. Then, with one hand clutching the Scythe, she began her descent into Boadicea’s tomb.

 

 

William panicked. In his panic, he berserker-frenzied nine vampires before finding Dawn and Willow.

Willow had scrabbled a hasty circle of protection around them while Dawn tried without success to revive Maya.

“She’s gone,” William practically screamed at them.

“No,” Willow bit out, still concentrating on the ring of protection. “She’s over-exerted. She’ll be fine...”

“Not her. Not her. Buffy,” William said. “She’s gone.”

A vampire lunged at him. He batted it casually away with the flat of his blade.

Willow’s eyes filled with tears. “This can’t be happening. It can’t...”

“Stop it,” Dawn said in a low growl. “Keep to the circle.”

“That’s what she’s done,” William said. “She’s gone to find it.”

Just then, the room seemed to grow colder by several degrees.

“No,” Willow said. “Not now.”

William blinked. “Not what? What is it?”

Through a gap in the fighting, William saw for the first time what Faith and Willow had already seen: the telltale twisting tendrils of The Priestess.

“Get everyone back here,” Willow commanded. “Draw them back together, or she’ll take us apart...”

William saw Faith running head-on for the mass of black tentacles. Dawn scrambled forward, clasping Willow’s hands.

“Get them, Spike!” Dawn said.

Faith crashed into the Priestess, screaming with fury. The dissonant collision gave him a brief gap in which all of the vampires ceased fighting, seemingly to get a better view of the brawl. William located Anjelica, MK and Giles strong-holding behind an outcrop of rocks. They scampered back to Willow and Dawn. Oz loped back to the circle on his own. William glimpsed Xander and Connor attempting to slip through the vampire ranks. Both were injured and leaned heavily on one another. William attempted to make his way to them when he tripped over the confetti-ed body of Lalaine.

She caught his ankle and twisted it. He rolled, but smacked against the cave floor hard enough that his dagger flew from his hand.

There was loud crack, followed by a purplish flash. Faith swore and the Priestess shrieked. William would have given a lot to see the kind of wound Faith caused. As it was, Lalaine had him flat on his back. She crawled over him, pinning his arms with surprising force.

“Werewolf friend,” she groaned. “Tore pieces of me. Not hospitable...”

Lalaine pushed him against the rock, turning his face to expose his neck. He wrenched and twisted, but she held him down.

“Plans for you,” she said. Her mutilated face, still somehow excruciatingly beautiful, hovered inches above his. “We have... such plans.”

“Spike!” Dawn cried.

He tried again to wrest himself free, but Lalaine buried her fangs deep into his skin. As she drank, everything seemed to dim around him, the grinding and crunching of Faith’s fight with The Priestess, the shouts and jeers made by the vampire mob, Dawn’s constant frightened pleas for him to get up. He could hear his own heartbeat rushing in his ears, feel his pulse in his temples, taste the blood in the back of his throat...

Lalaine sat back, tossing her luxuriant hair. Her face was whole again and her eyes shone with a fierce fire. “Your blood,” she purred exultantly, licking her fangs. “It’s...”

Lalaine blinked rapidly as if she might start weeping. She patted at her chest and shook her head fitfully. Her fingers hooked into claws and she ripped at her throat. William tried to push her off of him once more, but she gripped him convulsively with her thighs. Patches of seared flesh appeared in her ivory neck. It spread through her veins, turning to white-hot embers until her skin burst into flames. She screamed as she tore at herself. Her eyes smoldered and her lips blackened.

William at last broke her hold. Lalaine’s body turned to ash in his hands, then crumbled, leaving nothing but a few scant wisps of auburn hair.

“Holy vessel, yeah?” William whispered, undeniably shaken, breathing ragged in his chest. He turned, bound for Willow’s circle, but a small girl with matted red hair gripped his wrist, spinning him around to face her. She glowered up at him through the tangled mass of her hair. In her hand she clutched his triangular blade.

William cracked his neck. “Well, come on then,” he said.

Eya,” she said, brandishing his knife beneath his nose. “Ell ataya. Ea. Aconda.”

“What did you say?” he asked.

The girl drew another blade from behind her back. She held them both up for him to see. The second blade was twin to his own.

Ea...” he said slowly.

Her green eyes flashed acknowledgement. “Aconda. Eh?” She jerked her head slightly as if telling him to follow.

There was another crack of violet lightning as Faith forced her fist down The Priestess’s throat. William snatched his knife from the girl’s hand, and she was off. He dove after her, pursuing her with mad persistence through winding caves and crawl spaces, until the sounds of the battle faded and all he heard was the distant susurrus hush of rushing water.

In his single-minded chase to catch the girl, William never guessed that someone had followed.

 

 

The ladder terminated into a narrow shaft no larger than a suitcase. She lay on her belly and wriggled through the crawlspace, nudging her enchanted rock ahead of her. A short time later, she pushed the rock ahead and it disappeared through a round vent in the floor. She heard it clatter on stone below, letting her know that it would not be too far for her to drop. Buffy also knew, though, that if she had wanted a surprise attack, she’d just spoiled her chance.

She needn’t have worried, however. Buffy found herself in another empty hallway. This one was more cramped than the chamber that held Boadicea’s tomb. The walls and floor were smooth and unadorned. She retrieved her rock and soon discovered that this corridor was a one-way only deal. The path sloped gently downward in one direction; the other was a dead end of blank stone.

Whether this path led her closer to the Circle, she could not be sure. But she did feel a connection to this place, an almost naked kinship to the earth. It was as though she had been here before.

The corridor expanded as she walked. Buffy sensed its cathedral-like vastness open up around her. Before long, she saw the dim flickering orange of torchlight ahead. Buffy pocketed her glowstone, giving both hands to the Scythe.

The Circle awaited.

 

 

The Priestess couldn’t say she was upset when Lalaine fried. It was a flat knock to vamp morale, but as soon as she wasted Faith the Vengeful Slayer, there’d be nothing to worry about.

“Guess you didn’t like the little gift I gave your boyfriend,” The Priestess simpered. She dangled Faith’s writhing body from her coiling tendrils. Every twist and struggle the Slayer made gave her a little jolt of raw power. “Truth is he wanted it so bad. He was aching to have something that would make him strong as you.”

“Liar!” Faith screamed. Her voice was hoarse. Her strength was running out.

“Ah, God,” Xander moaned. “We have to do something.”

They were huddled together, those who remained, within the protection of Willow’s circle. Xander cradled Maya’s slack, sweat-soaked body against his shoulder. Dawn crouched between Willow and Giles. Oz and Lorne, figuring vampires would prefer not biting them, kept up a perimeter guard. Anjelica knelt with them, wildly alert, a silver-tipped stake in each of her steady hands. They were all bleeding, some of them from not so superficial wounds, and Xander was fairly certain he had broken several bones in his foot.

Thellian’s army of vampires ringed the circle, all clawing and snarling and dripping blood. Occasionally one streaked forward to test the strength of Willow’s boundary spell, only to get freshly zapped. Willow knew but did not say that every time the vampires did this, her control weakened. It was just a matter of time...

There was no sign of Andrew or Connor. Spike and Buffy had vanished. And Faith...

“There are a hundred vampires between us and Faith,” Giles whispered. “We’re trapped.”

“Can’t we do a spell?” Dawn pleaded.

Willow slowly shook her head.

“We can’t just watch...” Xander said.

“It’s all we’ve done so far,” Lorne said, miserably.

The Priestess raised Faith high above their heads, toying with her like a puppet to the delight of the on-looking vampires.

“Buffy’s little dolls,” The Priestess cooed. Faith’s head lolled back bonelessly. “Come out and play. This one’s gotten... boring.”

Faith’s eyes fluttered open. She wrenched her torso around to once again face The Priestess. She swung her fist, but it moved as though she punched through a wall of gelatin.

“Oh, please,” The Priestess said. “Give up. You’re only pathetic now.”

Dawn watched wordlessly with the rest of them. Her insides were screaming to run out, do something heroic, but her body remained paralyzed with fear.

Then Dawn saw Faith reach for something. It was the glowing crystal Maya had given her. A glimmer of inspiration sparked within her.

“Willow, I have an idea...” Dawn whispered.

Willow’s eyes had rolled back slightly with concentration.

“’Kay. Shoot,” Willow managed.

Dawn watched as Faith raised the crystal high above her head, poising to strike. Just as Dawn hoped she would.

“The crystal,” Dawn said. “On my count...”

Faith brought the crystal down in a slow but powerful arc. The Priestess laughed at this final feeble attempt.

Willow was nodding. “Illumis solem,” she breathed.

“One,” Dawn said.

“Shield your eyes, quick!” Xander barked. He tucked his head under his arms.

“Two...”

The Priestess’s shrieking laugh filled the cavern. “You can’t kill me with stone,” she wailed. “I’m a vampire...”

Heedless, Faith drove the crystal spike into The Priestess’ eye.

“Three!” Dawn yelled. Willow seized her hand.

Illumis solem,” they chanted in accord. “Solem solara. Solem enai!”

The crystal erupted like an atom bomb. For a second time, a shockwave of light rushed through the cave. Only this one carried a billion gleaming razor sharp shards of molten glass. Faith somersaulted backward, tumbling like a ragdoll through the panicked vampire mob. A tremendous sucking sound like water drawn down a drain filled the air, followed by an earsplitting crack. And then, total silence.

Dawn lifted her eyes. The Priestess was gone. Obliterated. She couldn’t tell from her vantage in the Scooby huddle, but it looked as though the nuclear grade radiation at the Priestess’ ground zero might have taken out a serious chunk of the vampire horde.

“Guess it was time for that bitch to see the light,” Xander said, catching his breath. He coughed lightly into his hand.

“Oh no,” Dawn said softly.

Fear rippled through them.

“Oh no what?” Xander asked.

The vampires seemed to pick up on it, too.

“Willow,” Giles said, nudging her. “Willow? Are you all right?”

“Guys I’m sorry,” she said.

They knitted tighter together as the vampires pressed their new advantage.

“I let the circle fall,” Willow said weakly. “I let it fall.”

 

 

The Circle gleamed like a disk of cold blue steel set into stone. She could just make out the darker blue etchings of the triskele under the somber light thrown about by the torches.

Seeing it at last made every nerve and muscle in her body thrum. Its slumbering power called to her, beckoning her forward. She thought she felt the sleeping child within her stir, and that gave her pause. She lingered on the ledge above the Circle, answering her instinct for caution.

Angel emerged like a wraith from the shadows. “I knew you’d come,” he said, lifelessly. “I always knew.”

Buffy remained rigidly fixed to her place opposite Angel. He moved forward, coming to rest at the heart of the Circle.

They stared at one another, locked together in doubt and fear and anger.

“They’re dying, Buffy,” Angel said. “You can’t save them.”

“No. They’re strong,” she said.

“Thellian plans to revamp Spike,” Angel said. “Make him what he was...”

“Stop, Angel,” she said. “This is about you and me. Not him. Not Connor. Not...”

“Then why are you still standing over there?” he asked. His eyes narrowed to slashes of black. “No sense in wasting more time,” he said. He raised the D’Ganti blade to catch the light on its gnarled surface.

Buffy flew at him, striking with taut ferocity. The Scythe sang and wailed as she spun it. She aimed a blow for his chin; he dodged. She lashed at his chest, tearing his coat to tatters. She struck high; parried haft, scissor-kicked, lancing backward with the stake. He caught it, twisted hard, shoved her. She rolled sideways, turning with a dancer’s grace to attack again. Every sweep he parried or blocked, but she was swifter; he was unable to counter.

Finally, she broke off the attack. She bent low, taking a defensive stance.

“Angel,” she said, careful to hide the way her breathing hitched. “This is not you. You wouldn’t want what Thellian wants.”

Angel chose the cover of shadow, knowing he could see better in near dark than she ever hoped to.

“Why is that, Buffy?”

“You have a soul,” she said. “You understand how evil vampires are. How destructive...”

“What I understand,” Angel bellowed, “is that a soul does not a great man make. Buffy.”

“And Thellian is a great man?” she asked.

Angel said nothing. He was circling her, she knew. Playing the role of predator he loved so well. She said, “Answer me, Angel. If he’s such a great guy, where is he now? Huh? Left you to do the bloody work. Left you to sacrifice...”

Angel dived in from behind. Buffy dropped her shoulder and rolled with him. They tangled, each trying to disarm the other. Buffy elbowed Angel to the nose. He clutched her throat and tossed her to her back. She scrambled, but he was already lunging. Buffy lost her footing on the slick stone. He crashed into her, sending the Scythe spinning into shadow. She jabbed him with a knuckle strike to the throat. It didn’t even stun him. He wrapped his fist into her shirt and hauled her to her feet, knifepoint to her neck.

Buffy strove to free herself. She struggled and kicked, but he was so strong. He didn’t tire as she did.

“This is not the way I would have chosen,” Angel hissed. He brought her face close to his. “This is not how I would leave the world, but I have no choice...”

Buffy choked and sputtered as his fist twisted tighter. “Angel...” she choked. “Please...”

“I have to protect what is mine,” he said. She looked into the deep wells of his eyes and saw nothing reflected in them. “I have to do what is right. It comes down to me.”

Angel released her. She massaged her throat, but remained where she was, still within his reach. Tears threatened, but she held them back. If he meant to kill her, he would not have the pleasure of seeing her cry.

“This world, Buffy,” Angel said. There was defeat in his voice. “It’s already dead. Man’s evil corrupted everything that was beautiful and good. They are weak, Buffy. Poisoned by greed and fear. They don’t deserve what they have.”

Angel turned the blade in his hand, chuckling softly as he watched the facetious light contort it. “Funny, isn’t it. You and me. Full circle. You should thank me. You would never be happy...”

“It’s not true,” Buffy said. “None of it. People still have grace and strength in them. They can still be redeemed. I know it now. It’s not too late, Angel. Please...”

Angel was no longer listening. He traced a finger down the line of her jaw. “Buffy,” he said. “Close your eyes.”

 

 

Morna vanished with the appearance of the light. William skidded to a halt in the hallway, straining to find her. Somehow she’d managed to merge with the stone because he found nothing.

But he did hear voices.

He crept along the path in the direction of the light, listening to every muffled syllable. He understood too late that it was Buffy and Angel. Just as he was ready to run, someone very strong caught his arm and wheeled him around.

Connor.

“I can’t let you,” he said.

William blinked. It took him several seconds to realize what was happening.

“Like hell!” he shouted. William used his wicked left-hook on Connor’s jaw. The boy staggered back to the cavern wall, banging his bad arm against the stone.

William didn’t wait for Connor’s reaction. He darted blindly toward the smudge of light and Buffy’s strangled voice. Was she pleading? As he ran, he heard Connor racing behind him. William was a fair runner, but Connor had his father’s strength and extra long legs. They managed to arrive on the cliff above the Circle at almost the same time.

Both men froze as the scene unfolded below them. William saw that Buffy was defenseless. The Scythe jutted from between rocks several meters below, useless beyond her reach. Angel had his back to William and Connor.

“Buffy,” they heard him say. “Close your eyes.”

William watched in horror as Buffy, with a small sigh of resigned regret, did as Angel asked.

Angel raised the blade and brought it swiftly down...

“No,” William screamed. His paralysis broke. He plunged down the cliff face, with Connor sliding along the sharp, stony cliff behind him.

Buffy crumpled forward. The shock of it filled her. Angel caught her arms as she fell. Both tumbled to the center of the Circle. She stared down in stunned horror at the blood that spread in a widening rosette across the barren stone.

“Angel... What did you do?” she sobbed.

She heard the pounding of footsteps ringing like heartbeats in her ears. She glanced over Angel’s shoulder to see William running toward them. And Connor at his heels.

William ignored Angel. He dropped to his knees and knelt with her, cradling her. The blood stained his jeans and his hands, but he didn’t see...

“Will,” she whispered in a tremulous voice. Tears spilled down her face. “Wait...”

William turned to face Angel, ready to rip him to shreds.

And Angel drew the D’Ganti blade from his chest.

 

Chapter Text

Wood led Andrew into darkening depths, dragging him at times, until the flailing Andrew could hear murmurous voices ahead.

Luxe twisted Andrew’s already tender wrist back the wrong way, just as Robin Wood had done in the chamber above. A thin breathy squeak escaped from Andrew’s throat.

“It is the mark of Kimaris,” Luxe said, grinning. “He will suit your purposes.”

Wood said, “The battle’s going well upstairs.”

Luxe looked Wood over, eyes narrowed contemptuously. “Really. You look a bit singed, Monsieur Wood.”

“Witches cast an impressive spell, but when I left, your Priestess was handling the clean up,” Wood said.

“Bon,” Luxe said. “And the Slayer?”

Wood dipped his head. “We think she’s gone to the Circle.”

Luxe looked over his shoulder at Thellian and grinned. “You were right, of course.”

Thellian turned his eyes upon Andrew. “Of course,” he said. “Return to the battle. You know what to do with those who remain. Do not kill them, Robin. They are valuable to us, only if they live.”

“All right,” Wood said. He nodded once to Luxe before disappearing into shadows.

Andrew locked his knees and wrenched his wrist away from Luxe’s grasp. He staggered away before collapsing in the dust outside of Thellian’s flashlight beam.

“Stay…” he croaked, choking on his tears. “Stay away from me.”

“A feisty one,” Thellian said, flatly. “Why am I not surprised?”

Luxe knelt like a man trying to coax a puppy out from beneath a truck. “Here, boy,” he said. “You should consider yourself fortunate. Unlike your friends you are going to survive this battle.”

Andrew scuttled deeper into shadow. He covered his head with his arms. “She said, she said, she said,” Andrew said, rocking himself.

Luxe clucked his tongue. “What did she say to you? What promise did she make?”

Andrew craned his head around so that the light caught on the lenses of his glasses. “She said it’s a mark of protection.”

“Ah, but it is,” Luxe said, exuberant. “That is why you are coming with us. We need a gate and boarding pass. You are the boarding pass.”

“What?” Andrew breathed.

“There are other worlds than this,” Thellian explained.

Andrew sat down hard, his back to the cave wall. Luxe inched forward on his haunches. He reached into his jacket to produce a thin metal case.

“I knew you were a smoker,” Andrew sneered. “Your hair is frizzy and your skin is all Leatherface.”

Luxe narrowed his eyes. He popped the latch on the case, revealing several folded sheets of yellowed paper.

“Oh,” Andrew said, chewing the inside of his cheek. “Heh. Well, good. That’s good. Smoking’ll kill you. And you can always use a crème rinse for your…”

Fermez la bouche, Monsieur Wells,” Luxe snapped.

“Ooh. I don’t speak French, see,” Andrew said nervously. “Habla Espanol?”

Luxe kneaded his fists. “Shut up, Andrew,” he said, “This case contains a spell, which you will translate for us.”

Andrew shook his head. “You do it, Starbuck. You’re the Kimaris.”

At this, Luxe’s fine featured face split into a hideous grin that turned his glimmering eyes to pools of pitch. “You will do it,” he spat. “Or I will pluck out your eyes and…”

“Feed them to me?” Andrew said, surprised by his boldness. “I don’t think so, Inspector Clouseau. I have protection from more than one super powerful woman. You can’t touch me.”

“He is stalling,” Thellian said from behind Luxe. He sounded very far away.

Oui,” Luxe said. He placed the open case on the cave floor between himself and Andrew. “Would you care to test your theory?”

Andrew kicked at the case, spraying powder-fine dust into Luxe’s face. “Test this.”

“Very well,” Luxe said, leering.

Luxe rushed Andrew. He twisted Andrew’s tattooed wrist above his head and tacked it to the solid rock wall with a foot-long Kimaris blade.

Andrew screamed. He writhed on the floor, stifled and blind from the pain. Luxe straddled his body. He slapped Andrew’s face, jarring him back to consciousness. Andrew gripped Luxe’s shoulder with his free hand in a vain attempt to push the demon away. But the Kimaris was stronger. Andrew knew he couldn’t win. There was no way he could Obi Wan out of this one.

Luxe’s face loomed like a Kabouki mask above him. “You will read this spell, Monsieur Wells, because it is Nighna’s fault I cannot read it myself. You see, I succumbed to her trickery once, just like you. Now I am an exile, bound to this plane. But this mark –,” Luxe leaned heavily on the handle of the dagger, digging its thick blade deeper into the tattoo on Andrew’s wrist. Andrew howled. His eyes lolled liquidly in their sockets, “This mark is our safe passage back to Hell.”

Luxe released the knife and sat back on his haunches. Andrew dangled like a beached fish twisting on a hook. He could feel the steel grinding between the bones in his wrist. He felt warm blood trickling down into his shirtsleeve and down the side of his back. But still, he shook his head.

“No. I won’t. Buffy’ll kill Angel,” he said. His voice croaked dryly in his throat. “Your boss’ll be dust. So no persimmons for you…”

Luxe’s expression seemed to soften. He unfolded the page of parchment with the gentleness of a maestro unveiling his newest masterpiece. “I thought you might say something like that,” Luxe said, quietly. “But in fact, you must read the spell. I will not die in this conflict, Monsieur. Whether Slayer or vampire wins, I am a demon. If I do not pass through the gateway that this spell will open, I will make certain that those you love will pay.”

Andrew opened his mouth to speak, but Luxe continued before Andrew could manage a syllable.

“I have had a spy in your house all these months,” Luxe said. Andrew looked even more ashen. “Ah yes. I know all about your fondness for the younger Summers girl. I can hurt her, Andrew. The pain you feel now. It is nothing compared to what I can do to her.”

Andrew ground his teeth, trying to feel or see or think beyond the pain. It radiated downward now to his elbow in bright, blinding spikes of agony. He turned his face to his arm, feeling nausea sweep over him. He wavered in and out of consciousness, like a swimmer near drowning. It was possible, he knew, that the others were already dead. But if not, he knew Luxe would make good on those promises. He had Andrew quite literally up against a wall.

“All right,” Andrew whined. With his free hand, he swiped away his tears. “All right. I’ll do it.”

Thellian joined Luxe on the floor before Andrew. The flashlight’s beam burned into Andrew’s retinas and he recoiled. The knife bit deeper into the flesh of his wrist and he sank deeper into sickened swooniness.

“Let the boy go.”

Andrew thought at first that he imagined this new, gruffly feminine voice. But then he watched as both Thellian and Luxe turned almost in slow motion to face her.

“For centuries I have waited for this moment,” she said. “I have watched you from my shadows, and listened, waiting with the patience of angels…”

Andrew heard the sound of footsteps grinding over the fine sand toward them.

“I had hoped it would never come to this,” she continued, the sound of her deliberate footsteps punctuating her words. “That I would never have to choose a side. The side of my father… Or the side of my mother.”

The woman stepped into the ring of light cast by Thellian’s flashlight. Not a woman, at least not the one Andrew expected to see, but a girl. She parted her matted hair to reveal a pair of eyes like twin green wells that contained the sea.

Thellian took one faltering step backward.

“Morna,” Thellian mouthed, so quiet it was close to prayer.

The girl brought her hands together, palm over her fist. She said, “Pater, quod absit adimpleo hoc.”

Andrew closed his eyes in relief. Through his tears, he murmured the translation like a mantra to himself: “Father, I cannot let you do this.”

 

 

“Oh God no. Dad,” Connor said. He removed his coat in a feeble attempt to stem the flow of his father’s blood. Beneath them, the droplets of Angel’s blood on the Circle began to meld with the stone. A soft blue light emanated from within, growing stronger with every drop that spilled.

Angel patted Connor’s hand, but pushed the bloodied jacket away. He stared hard at Connor for a long while, then said, “I am sorry.”

Connor struggled, fighting back tears. He watched the dark stain of his father’s blood as it spread across the heart of the Circle. The light within it grew brighter with each passing second, turning now to a marbled watery blue that sent spangles of wavering light through the chamber.

“Don’t do that. Don’t apologize,” Connor managed at last. “You saved the world.”

Angel cringed against the pain. “I can’t take from you to save.. my own…Our children, Buffy,” Angel groaned. “The Circle... it’s draining me. You should... go.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Connor protested. Angel tried to shrug him off, but he was right. The Circle was weakening him. Connor tried again to pull Angel to his feet. He cried out, “You’ve done enough. It doesn’t need all of your blood.”

“You’re right,” Angel growled. “Get out of here.”

Far below, they felt rather than heard a distant rumble.

William leapt to his feet. “Time to fly, little bird,” he said.

Buffy stood on uncertain legs. Another, stronger tremor shook the chamber.

“Angel...” Buffy said.

“Go. I don’t want you to see the way this ends,” he said. “Connor. Go with them. I don’t know what this will do to you.”

The marbled blue of The Circle raced outward along its intricate traceries. When its outmost arcs were complete, the Circle ignited, illuminated from within like sunlight through a sheet of ice, sending forth sprays of blue-white sparks. This time, the ground quaked with enough force to send them sprawling.

William didn’t wait any longer. He pushed Buffy ahead of him and they darted across the Circle toward the cliff wall through which he and Connor had come. Buffy detoured to the outcrop of rock long enough to pick up her Scythe. When she did, she and William looked back to see Connor crouching before his father.

“I can’t,” Connor said. Angel replied but their voices were slipping away under the thunderous sound beneath them.

William hesitated.

“Wait,” William said.

When Connor felt William’s hands on his shoulders, he made no move to shrug away.

“Connor,” William said. He knelt beside him, gripped his shoulders and nudged the boy to his feet. “Let’s go.”

Angel locked eyes with William. The relief in them was undeniable. William nodded once.

“Dad?” Connor asked. His body shuddered. William guided Connor with brisk deliberate steps away from the Circle, away from Angel.

William and Connor joined Buffy at the base of the slope. Connor half-turned. William stopped him.

“Don’t look back,” William said.

But the words were like a spell, commanding them all to take one last look. Angel had lain down on the stone now. A pearlescent shimmer hung in the air above him, coalescing like tendrils of fog. The bands and swirls of the triskele sparkled, glowing white hot like molten silver.

“Goodbye, Angel,” Buffy said. One tear slipped from her eye.

The ground beneath them bucked and pitched, sending down a shower of loose stones like pebbles down in a slide. The three started from their momentary daze to realize that the cavern was coming down around them.

“Climb!” Buffy ordered. She reached for the first likely foothold she could find and hoisted her body up. She moved quickly up the cliff face, hunkering down with every tremor.

Connor, moving like a zombie, followed Buffy’s lead with William close behind him. Two minutes later, they crested the ridge, panting and ragged with bloody scrapes. Buffy tugged William to his feet.

“This way,” he shouted. The earth buckled and surged like a fitful sea. Connor dropped to one knee. When he did, he caught a glimpse of the Circle chamber, and an image he would never forget.

The Circle erupted. Connor watched in mute horror as a column of fierce blue light burst from the center of the Circle punching through the stone ceiling of the cavern.

Connor staggered backward in shock. When his eyes cleared, he clambered to the edge of the ridge in a desperate but futile last attempt to somehow save his father. His ability to see was cut mercifully short as chunks of rock from the chamber rained down upon them.

 

 

“You speak,” Thellian said.

“I speak,” Morna told him. “I speak. I watch. I listen. And I am patient. Just like you. But I am losing my patience, father. I said, let the boy go.”

Andrew watched them, holding his breath, until Luxe ground the dagger deeper into the cave wall.

All of his life, Andrew took his bones for granted. They were like the Easter Island Heads and the toy prize in Cracker Jacks. Even though he knew they existed, he had never seen them. But now, with Luxe pressing down on him, he felt beyond doubt the presence each separate bone in his wrist and forearm grinding against the steel of the Kimaris blade.

“Read the spell, Monsieur Wells,” Luxe whispered. “Forget the girl. She cannot save you.”

His vision doubled as he strained to read the faint, faded letters on the page. Andrew focused so hard on the portal spell, he barely heard the exchange between Thellian and the vampire girl called Morna. He only hoped that she could manage to kill them both before he managed to read the full incantation. Andrew dragged it out as best he could, but with the blade sitting uncomfortably between his bones and the blood loss, he knew it was a race he probably would not win.

Andrew read the first line, breathlessly articulating the chunky syllables of each Kimaris word. Luxe watched him closely, his hand resting heavily on the haft of the dagger, ready to twist or jostle it if Andrew breathed one hint of a mistake. Andrew knew the spell would be successful after the recitation of that first line. Behind him, where the blood dripped down from the mark Nighna had inscribed on his wrist, the wall began to fade and grow insubstantial, like a sponge. An effusive gray light poured through the stone.

“Good. Good,” Luxe said. “Keep reading.”

Andrew rubbed at his nose. His insides slipped and looped like a Tilt-a-Whirl. He pressed his eyes tight to squeeze out the tears and proceeded to read the next line.

But he stopped short. Over Luxe’s shoulder, Andrew spied a flicker of movement. Morna had been steadily advancing on Thellian, speaking in her guttural yet girlish tones. The flash that got his attention was the sudden bright gleam of the weapon she now waved at Thellian. Following Andrew’s gaze, Luxe twisted his head around to watch as well, granting Andrew a temporary reprieve from spell reading.

Thellian, for his part, remained shaken, not stirred. He glanced at Morna’s dagger but remained nonplussed. Until she started speaking.

She said, “All this time, you thought the Slayer was to blame, Thellian. She opened the vein of the Slayer’s line, let all their blood spill to the earth. They were a threat, ’tis true. But not your undoing. I was here, you see. Two thousand years ago, with my mother and the merlin – Damas was his name – and together we sealed the Circle. Don’t you see?”

Thellian nodded grimly. He wore a pitying expression on his face, like a man who has just found a wounded deer beyond saving. “I see that your mother took great risk with her youngest daughter,” he said. “Sealing the Circle with your blood. It would make you hunted by all of demonkind.”

“I was already hunted, Thellus. My mother was the Slayer,” Morna said. She stood in front of him, her bare feet almost toe to toe with his expensive Italian shoes. She looked way up at him, the way a child looks up at the rain from beneath a protective awning. To Andrew, she seemed perilously small before the formidable figure of Thellian. They stood thus, the father staring down into the eyes of the daughter, for a long still moment.

Luxe shook his head, dragging himself free. “Read,” he breathed through clenched teeth.

Andrew felt drowsy now despite the adrenaline pumping in his veins. His fingers felt numb, like he wore caps of candle wax over the tips. He focused on the lines of the spell, but it was harder to see the words. The lines of text kept scrolling out of focus.

“I can’t,” Andrew moaned. His head drooped.

Luxe leaned on the knife, sending fresh evidence of Andrew’s wrist bones to his brain. Andrew screamed, but only a miniscule squeak passed from his lips.

The small yet very sober vampire girl absorbed Thellian’s entire attention. He kept his hands fixedly at his side.

“I sealed the Circle,” Morna said, her lips twitching into a portentous grin. “I am a Slayer’s child. And you, my vampire father… you are the virgin. Because until you made me your first disciple, you had made no other of our kind. To undo the Circle’s magic, to kill the Slayers, you would have to go through me.”

As if in response to the girl’s proclamation, the earth suddenly shook beneath them. Thellian seized the girl by her arms, shoving her backward. Luxe lost his balance and fell across Andrew’s legs. In that brief moment, Andrew realized he had no intention of passing through the portal with Luxe. The dim edges of a plan emerged in his brain and he grasped for them. With is free hand, he clutched the spell. He began a rapid recitation, sputtering and stammering in his haste.

Morna continued talking. She was lost beyond the flashlight beam now, but her voice seemed to fill the cavern. Andrew listened to her peripherally, all of his thoughts focused on the spell and the yawning maw that opened in the wall beside him, threatening to suck him down.

“My sister died among the Slayers,” she droned.

“Morna, stop,” Thellian said. It was the first and only moment of ruffledness that Andrew would see in Thellian.

“It’s true. And now you and I will die,” she went on mercilessly. “It is over, Thellian.”

Andrew spoke the final words of the enchantment in one over-exerted breath.

Luxe patted Andrew’s forehead. “Not over,” Luxe said, getting to his feet. “Just beginning.”

The cave wall and part of the floor fell away. A draft sucked through the chamber, tugging at their clothing and hair. Dizzy and delirious, Andrew peered down into the yawning black maw he had just opened. Dark. Devoid of warmth and light. Not a place he wanted to spend all of eternity. It only strengthened Andrew’s resolve.

Thellian, not letting his guard down, glanced askance at Luxe. He smiled like a man who never had any doubts that his plan could fail. Even though the ground grumbled and pitched now like constant thunder, he remained the pinnacle of poise.

He backed toward Andrew, scanning the shadows for Morna.

The earth leapt shockingly forward, rising up to meet them like a standing wave. Luxe and Thellian crumpled in a tangle of limbs. Morna streaked forward, a bright white slash in the dark. She fell upon Thellian, fingers hooked like talons, her dagger raised to strike. Luxe twisted. He shoved them both into the gaping portal. They disappeared without a sound into the lightless abyss.

Andrew turned his tired eyes upon Luxe. He fixed him with what he hoped was a look of bald terror. Andrew figured he achieved the desired affect when Luxe smiled, seeming to drink in Andrew’s suffering. Luxe lifted Thellian’s abandoned flashlight. He touched it to his temple. “And now it is our turn,” Luxe said.

Luxe bore down upon him with a stunning swiftness, but Andrew was ready. With his right hand, Andrew reached for the Kimaris blade. In one quick motion, he swept the dagger from the wall. His bleeding left arm fell useless to Andrew’s side. But Andrew held the dagger in his good hand. It was his key to freedom.

Andrew closed his eyes. He muttered to himself, in a squeaky, barely audible voice, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine…”

Another tremor shook the chamber. It knocked Luxe’s legs out from beneath him. He tumbled headlong toward the portal, seizing Andrew’s left arm just above the Kimaris mark and the dagger that pinned him. Luxe spiraled over the edge in mute astonishment as Andrew chopped off his own hand.

 

 

Angel heard them leave. But he did not feel alone. Beneath him, the chamber floor swelled and swayed like a restless sea. The motion soothed him. He could feel the Circle’s energy pulsing in him, through him, like breath and heartbeat restored.

Angel opened his eyes. Traces of light moved through his veins, illuminating them like a network of wires beneath his skin. He saw the luminescent vapor above him, felt its warmth on his face. The scent of it was like late summer apples, like the earthy perfume of evening after a day of much needed rain.

A line drifted up to him from the depths of his soul: “All our bitterness, tinged with sweet.”

It was fitting that he remember this line, once spoken by Drusilla, who had once been the object of his demented obsession. He could hear her, and feel her, the girl he had tortured and destroyed.

Angel understood. In his final moments, he realized. He got it.

It was not death, but mercy. In a way, Thellian had been right.

Grant them mercy.

When the Circle burst forth, using him as the conduit for its energy, Angel felt no pain.

The light filled him, and the chamber around him, blinding, effacing, opening the chamber to the world beyond. In that light, Angel saw what he had always sought.

Redemption.

Angel was free.

 

 

When the first tremor shook the upper chamber, Giles fell. The battle had turned to a nightmare of claws and teeth up until then. But the tremor seemed to signify something to the vampires. Whether Buffy or Angel had triumphed, the vampire army spent a full ten seconds trying to sort out their basic fight-or-flight wiring.

The Scoobies were well into flight mode. Giles, on hands and knees, scrambled to Maya, who was just regaining consciousness. She opened her eyes. All she saw was dozens of legs towering like very active trees around her. The nearest pair belonged to Xander. He stood protectively above her, his brave legs fending off the resurgent vampire legs.

Giles gripped Maya’s hands.

“Maya, can you stand?” he yelled at her. She saw his mouth moving, but heard no sound. Maya shook her head. When she did, her ear drums popped. Her head felt like a lime in a press. In a rush, the bone-grinding crunch and clangor of the battle surged over her.

She said, “I don’t think these vampires are the metaphorical kind.”

Giles shook her. “Can you stand?” he asked. His forearms were bloody. A wet gash on the top of his head spread blood along his part.

“I-I think so,” she said. She scanned the area for others. Dawn was on one knee nearby, fighting off two vampires with her sword. A vampire had ripped spectacular claw marks into her neck.

Giles lifted Maya’s chin, pulling her attention to him. “Good,” he said slowly. “We’re leaving.”

Xander glanced down at them, relieved. The earth bucked. Xander fell face first into the attacking vampire mob. The pack bowled over, sprawling and kicking and clawing.

“No!” Maya yelled. In her mind, she leapt to her feet. Her body lurched while her mind raced to figure out the inconsistency.

“You’re recovering from the…” Giles began. A vampire latched onto his shoulders from behind. Sank his fangs into the back of Giles’ neck. Giles looked annoyed at first, then realizing what was happening, began to scream.

Maya lay on her back, kicking at the vampire’s shoulder, trying to dislodge him. A hand clamped her wrist. Pulled her backward. She twisted to free herself. Another vampire loomed high above her. He brought a heavy black boot down upon her breastbone. Her breath exploded from her lungs. Showers of white sparks lit up behind her eyes.

“Maya!” A girl’s voice.

Maya rolled her head painfully to the side. Anjelica, crouching, called to her. Her words didn’t meet the movements of her mouth. The vampires were lifting Maya’s body like a sack of wet cloth. Anjelica rolled forward, moving with unexpected grace. Maya didn’t understand what was happening until the vampire holding her aloft suddenly stiffened then evaporated. Maya dropped to the cave floor.

Nearby, Oz had pulled off a similar rescue for Xander. Anjelica, Xander and Oz converged to save Giles from the back-sucking vampire. They scrabbled over a low rock ridge and crouched together, at least relatively unexposed.

They were losing ground.

“Dawn!” Giles called.

She ignored them, still fighting. Her attackers were unarmed, but bearing down on her. She couldn’t risk the heads-up.

“Where’s Willow?” Oz panted, still wolfed out.

“Last I saw, she was with Faith,” Xander said. He pointed. “Over there… somewhere.”

“There are so many,” Maya said. “We’re so outnumbered.”

Anjelica nodded, determined. “As long as we fight, we win. Keep fighting.”

“No, we have to get out,” Giles said.

“Leave? But how…?” Anjelica asked.

“We climb,” Giles said. “Oz. Xander. You provide cover while the others scale the rope ladder and get to safety.”

“That’s the worst plan ever,” Xander hissed. “They’ll be completely exposed.”

“What part of collapsing cavern do you misunderstand?” Giles yelled. His voice was hoarse. “The tremors…” he began. He struggled to cling to the remnants of reason. “They mean that the Circle has... And the vampires are still here.”

“Slayers are still here, too,” Anjelica said firmly. She looked into the faces around her. “At least, this one still is.”

The cave floor rocked violently. A building, rushing howl filled the chamber. The vampires, with their heightened senses, sensed what was up and chose that moment to flee. A column of thunderous light lanced first through the cave floor and then the ceiling above. Needle thin rays sliced the air, threading through the heart of each vampire, lacing them together like gruesome beads on a string. This held the vampires paralyzed for a handful of seconds before turning them all into dust.

The burst of energy dissipated, leaving the cavern eerily bright and calm.

Dawn coughed convulsively, choking on the dust as it settled around her. She got to her feet.

“She did it,” Dawn said to herself. She craned her head, blinking against the sudden brilliant sunlight that spilled into the chamber. Lorne, who was lying on his back several meters away, lifted his head and peered cautiously around.

“Did we live?” he asked, rubbing his forehead. “Are we dead yet?”

Willow stood up. She was on the other side of the chasm, nearly invisible in the swirling motes of sunlit dust. “Xander? Dawn?” she called. Her voice was tiny and echo-y.

“Willow!” Xander covered his mouth with shaking hands. Giles leaned way forward, forehead to his knees. His shoulders rose with a huge sobbing sigh of relief.

Dawn turned a deliberate circle, scanning the shadows for the others. She saw Xander and Maya, Oz, Anjelica and Giles. Willow was kneeling, trying to revive someone – possibly MK or Faith. Lorne was getting up and coming toward her.

“Where are the others?” Dawn asked. “Where are Buffy and Spike? Where’s Andrew?”

She locked eyes with Lorne, as if holding him accountable.

“Where are they?” she demanded. Tears welled in her panic-stricken eyes.

Lorne pulled a cheetah-print handke