This story is set (sort of) in Season Five, with "No Place Like Home" as the official spoiler. Unlike most of my tales, this one actually features nearly the entire Buffy crew (again, sort of), under circumstances that Joss would probably find somewhat alarming.
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and related characters are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Productions, Twentieth Century Fox and the WB Network.
During the brief chase she had permitted herself to be steered into a blind alley, and now she stood facing her pursuers ten feet from the wall at the end, as far as she could draw them in and still have room to maneuver. There were four of them, and this could get tricky; somehow she had to keep a straight face for the next twenty or thirty seconds.
The obvious leader swaggered to the fore, creaking and jingling with the leather and chains of the archetypal biker bad-ass. "What's the matter, little girl?" he taunted. "Nowhere left to run?"
She really would have broken down laughing if it hadn't been so pathetic. Vampires as a rule weren't long on imagination, and this guy had zipped straight to one of the more common and ludicrous routines for would-be masters: he had gathered a harem, three females doubtless chosen for their living beauty and unavailability. When would these morons recognize that the women always rebelled and killed their self-appointed overlords?
In a single tiny spark of originality -- or more probably the fulfillment of a long-cherished fantasy -- he had made his grouping multiracial, one Asian, one black, one Caucasian redhead. "Please," she said, unable to keep a tremor of mirth out of her voice. "What's this supposed to be, affirmative action for bloodsuckers? Newsflash, people: even diversity can be carried too far." Ten seconds.
He scowled, the harsh not-quite-handsome face flushing with anger. "Well, maybe I'll just make you part of our little rainbow quilt," he shot back. "Or maybe ..."
"I don't like this," the Asian girl broke in. "She should be scared. Why isn't she scared? Could she be the Slayer?" (Okay, note to self: this one was sharp. And the black girl had been watching her with the unblinking intensity of an ocelot ever since taking her position. They'd be trouble, both of them.)
The leader quelled the protest with a sharp gesture. "Nah, the Slayer does her schtick in southern California. This skirt's just seen Blade too many times." He turned back to his intended victim, his features shifting to feeding mode. "Time for your close-up, sweet meat." Twenty seconds.
The Asian girl wouldn't be silenced. "I tell you, something's not right here. Why isn't she afraid?"
"She will be," he said, and darted forward with cobra-strike swiftness.
Dumb, dumber, dusted. She killed him even as he was reaching for her -- one down -- and then the black girl was on her, fast, too fast, launching herself straight through the collapsing cloud of ash that had been her sire, seizing her enemy's wrists and driving for the throat. Back and around, twisting desperately, she had to get this vampbitch off her, she spun into a springing hip throw that slammed her attacker into the side wall, and swung back just in time to meet a ridgehand strike from the Asian girl. She blocked it, but the black girl had bounced to her feet as if from a trampoline and snapped in a horizontal roundhouse kick, smacking the stake from her hand, and the redhead was coming in from the other side, don't panic don't panic you can do this --
The black girl screamed and dissolved in shuddering dust, and she used the distraction to recover the stake with a diving forward roll, taking out the redhead in a lightning exchange of chop and block and thrust. There was no point in going after the only survivor; again demonstrating her intelligence, she had fled the instant the odds shifted below acceptable tolerances, and now sprinted for the alley's outlet, where a silent figure placidly awaited her. Stand, relax, watch. Can't get there first, so leave it to your partner, he can hold his own.
This time he was denied the opportunity. Ten feet from the alley's mouth, the Asian girl hurled herself upward, passing over him in a twisting flip, well out of his reach. He swiveled without hurry to watch her land on her feet in the street beyond; she was running again the moment she touched solid ground, and vanished from view an instant later.
"Whoa." He shook his head, and returned the stake to the narrow pocket in the leg of the painter's pants he wore, then bent to retrieve the folding crossbow he had leaned against the alley wall. "Hey, Buff. You gotta admit, that was a cool move."
"Yeah, kudos to Matrix Girl." She stepped past him to gaze down the street. Empty, of course. "That was one we couldn't afford to lose. We'll never find her now, she'll change territories and stay out of sight, maybe start a nest of her own." She sighed. "I hate it when a smart one gets away."
He passed it off with a shrug. "Well, vampires ... you know ... suck. Can't expect 'em to line up for you. And you got three."
"Two," she corrected him. "Loved your timing, picking that one off when you did. Another couple of seconds and it would have been Ladies Night at the all-you-can-drink Buffy bar."
"You've handled worse odds than those," he replied with offhand confidence. "So, what, Szechuan?"
Buffy considered. "Actually, I'm in the mood for Greek food. Not that I expect Dallas to be overrun with places that serve stuffed grape leaves. Hasn't anyone here ever heard of ethnic cuisine?"
"This from somebody who spent two years scarfing down Bronzeburgers." He had collapsed the crossbow and stowed it in the oversized backpack, which he now slung casually from one shoulder. "Come on, we'll find something."
As always, he drove. It was a matter of continuing embarrassment and frustration to her that, however proficient she became with sword or bow or rocket launcher, she still spazzed out whenever she got behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. That hadn't been much of a problem in a small town like Sunnydale, or in big cities (L.A., for instance) with extensive public transportation. Now that she'd taken the Slayer gig on the road, though, she would have been severely handicapped if not for ...
Well, him. Not just for transportation, either, his aid and support were indispensable in more ways than she could name. Remembering the impression he had made the first time they met (unprepossessing, extremely not-macho, a little strange), she could hardly believe how important he had become to her; his capabilities had grown so gradually and unobtrusively that she largely took them for granted.
That thought brought another. "Back in the alley," she said, "could you tell she was going to jump like that?"
He gave her an absent nod. "Right before she did it, and no way to stop her. I don't have your throwing arm."
And that was plain fact. He was now her better at hand-to-hand combat; not because of speed or superior technique, he simply knew what an adversary was about to do next, and was already striking at the opening an attack would create at the same instant the attack itself began. She could still take him in unarmed sparring, the strength differential was too much for him to overcome, but put a stake in his hand and not one vampire in a hundred could last five seconds against him.
The original intent in training with him had been to give him an edge in those too-frequent situations that spun out of her control. When exactly had she stopped taking it easy on him during practice? How reliable was her recent suspicion that he might now be going easy on her? Watching that last vampire race toward him, she hadn't been worried at all ... at least, nothing past the normal tension accompanying any lethal encounter. They meshed so smoothly that it was no longer possible to clearly distinguish individual contribution; they were a composite entity, more than a team and only barely less than a single combined consciousness.
It had come upon them so slowly and with so little fanfare -- and had felt, still felt, so perfectly natural -- that she had been allowed the luxury of accepting it without having to notice it. It was the same way with the rest of their relationship; only, could it really be called a relationship? People used the word to mean something personal, intimate. What they had was less than that, and incalculably more. He was simply there for her, and had been for ...
Could it really be almost two years? She had fled Sunnydale, so blind with the pain of multiple losses as to barely be sane; and he had found her, somehow, and been by her side ever since. Asking nothing, offering nothing, providing whatever she needed without question or comment, never speaking of his own wounds. Looking back on how she had been, she was certain she wouldn't have lived a month without him beside her.
She owed him more than she could ever hope to repay, but that wasn't the point. This was about facing reality. The events just past had brought ... not a realization, exactly, more the one-time-too-many that finally made it impossible not to recognize what she had known for longer than she had been willing to admit. With his help she had ridden the currents, going wherever they led; now it was time to actively embrace what fate had brought her.
No less sensitive to her moods than to the intentions of an enemy, he was already pulling over to the curb as she turned in her seat to face him. "Yeah?" he said, eyes as grave and gentle as the soul that had been her salvation.
It was almost a replay of the confrontation in the alley, only this time she was the one wondering why she wasn't afraid. She was about to change everything, set the course of the rest of her life, and there was no hint of indecision or anxiety inside her. It was the thing to do, and long past time.
She looked to the man who had been her mainstay since a week after her eighteenth birthday, and said, "Oz, do you want to get married?"
When nearly a minute had passed without an answer, she observed flatly, "Not exactly drowning in the flash-flood of enthusiasm here."
"Buffy, I ..." He shook his head. "It's complicated."
"Really?" She could hear the brittle edge in her voice, and hated how desperate it made her sound. "And I was just thinking that 'yes' or 'no' pretty much covered the spread."
He gave her the small, crooked smile that was theirs alone. "When did we ever get anything that easy? We play with a deck where you never know if a card's wild till after you throw it. Same thing here, this is a major deal and we have to know the layout before we can move." Something must have shown in her face, for he reached out to take her hand in both of his. "Believe me on one thing, Buff: there is no way you can love me more than I love you. It's just, there are issues. We can check 'em together, but they gotta be checked."
She forced herself to relax, to disregard the abrupt and unexpected fear of rejection. Whatever else might change, Oz would never lie to her. (And he had said he loved her. Said he loved her. Loved her.) Gathering the courage she had never suspected she would need, she said, "All right. What issues?"
He nodded, accepting her trust. "So. Back when I was working at burying the wolf, part of it meant looking inside myself and admitting how much of him came from me. Y'know, the whole 'beast within' riff. Wasn't pretty, and I can be kinda stubborn, so it took awhile." Again the tiny, conspiratorial smile. "Thing is, once you look at any truth straight-on, you start being able to see the truth other places, too. That's how I know what a vamp's gonna do next when we're jamming: I got no illusions between me and what's in front of my eyes."
"Oh, yeah." Buffy let out a shaky laugh. "Seeing what you want to see, instead of what's really there. I never have that problem, nuh-uh."
"Right. Now, this thing between you 'n' me, we've been headed that way for awhile and I'm down with it. Step back and scope a wider view, though, and ..." He broke off, eyes downcast, and sighed. "Okay, let's try it this way. Three years ago, looking at personal, who'd you think Giles would wind up with?"
"Miss Calendar," she responded automatically. "And then when she ... well, this may sound totally icksome, but after she died I kinda thought he and my mom might hit it off if they ever gave it a chance."
He favored her with a raised eyebrow. "Huh. Didn't think of that one, but I can see it. Okay: Willow."
"Xander," she said, then stopped with a stricken expression. "Oz, I'm sorry, I didn't ..."
"That was then," he told her, his tone gentle. "You're telling me what you saw, it's what I asked for. Me, I really thought she and I would make it work. And there's no secret who you expected to be with."
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. The name that was never uttered ...
He patted the center console of the van, where he kept the enhanced Palm Vx that had been their roving communications center for a year now. "All right, we know how things are, back in Sunnydale. Wes, he's kept us pretty much up to speed." (So many things left unsaid there. For her to communicate with Giles -- or either of them with Willow -- had been unthinkable, so the e-mail link had been arranged with Wesley Wyndham-Price, information moving both ways without the snares of old personal interaction.) "Some of what we hear makes a weird kind of sense, but ... well, come on, Buff, could any of us have predicted how all this turned out?"
"Life on the Hellmouth," she said, in a dismal attempt at levity. "Keeps you hoppin'."
"Yeah, we caught the sharp end on plenty of that. But the way it is now ..." He stopped again, gazing out the window while he gathered his thoughts. "There was this poem I saw in English Lit: Herrick, I think, or at least in that period. I kept wishing there was some way to update it and set it to music, it was just so, well, cosmic. The guy spends seven verses talking about how him and his lady are right for each other, only fate keeps pushin' 'em apart, and then he winds up:
Therefore the love which us doth bind,"That's what I'm feeling here, only ... not. It's the opposite, it's like something is pushing people together even if they don't necessarily belong together."
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.
Buffy's voice was steady but faint. "You think ... we don't belong together, you and I? That it's wrong somehow?"
"It feels right," he said, with a ghost of the old quirky smile. "It feels so right. But that's kinda the point, y'know? The more I want you, the more I have to be sure you're not being crowded into a place you don't belong.
"And there's something else," he added before she could respond. He opened the console and took out the Palm Vx. "I got a post this morning, been running it through my mind all day. Had to tell you, no question there, but that still left deciding on the when and how."
She knew. Knew what he was going to say, or at least the main thrust of it, and knew that her own decision tonight had somehow been triggered by the pensiveness she had sensed in him without recognizing it. She waited, wondering why you could never find something to kill when you needed it.
"It's not from Wesley," Oz told her. "It's from Giles. He wants us to come back. Something's going down, and he says we need to be there."
He had scrupulously reviewed Giles' reports and journals, interviewed the girl's friends, even studied the few available photographs in an attempt to develop some general sense of the essence of this Slayer. Even so, the first sight of her brought a shock. She was tiny, smaller even than Willow, with a porcelain beauty he would certainly have construed as fragility had he not known otherwise. She was approaching the end of her twentieth year -- had in fact completed her fourth as a Slayer -- but she could easily pass for sixteen.
He realized he had been staring, and recovered himself as smoothly as he could. "Yes, yes, by all means come inside." He stepped back to let the girl and her companion enter, and added, "Wesley Wyndham-Price, at your service."
"Right," she said, with no discernible enthusiasm. She glanced around at the modest flat he had leased upon his arrival in Sunnydale. "Not the smartest thing in the world, inviting us in."
"I was expecting you," he pointed out. "And you were standing on my doorstep, in daylight, without combusting. It seemed a negligible risk."
"Man knows the score," Oz murmured, and at the sound of his voice, the faint antagonism Wesley had felt from Buffy seemed to recede. Oz looked back to Wesley, asking, "Who else is here?"
"You're the first to arrive," Wesley told them. "None of the others are present yet."
A moment later he realized he had misspoken, for Harmony emerged from the kitchenette, wearing one of her innumerable bare-midriff outfits and carrying a large plastic 'big gulp' cup with a flexible (and safely opaque) drinking straw. "Buffy!" she squealed, in an exuberant pleasure he knew to be genuine, if with no more depth than a sheet of onionskin. "When did you and Izzy get in?"
Buffy gave her a glance sharp with annoyance, but Oz took it without a flicker of expression. "Just drove up," he said. He nodded to Wesley. "Ahead of schedule. Good directions."
"Thank you." Wesley gestured toward the meager central room that served as a den. "Make yourselves comfortable, won't you? I have refreshments, if you like."
"Got mine warmed up already," Harmony chirped, waving the cup. Buffy rolled her eyes.
"Buff," Oz said, soft but reproving. "Tea?" She nodded, and he turned to Wesley. "There's this herbal stuff we like, I brought some if you have a kettle."
In the kitchenette Wesley let out a sharp breath. "Well. That didn't go ... too badly, I suppose."
"Gotta be some tension," Oz agreed. From no apparent source he produced a baggie half-filled with indeterminate vegetable matter, and began preparing the tea. "You guys've been living with it, you got used to it and worked through some things. We're coming in cold. It's rough." He looked to Wesley. "Thanks for setting up the meeting here. That lets off some of the pressure."
"Yes. Quite." Wesley sighed. "I will confess, this situation is as convoluted as one of your more outrageous daytime dramas. I've been hard-pressed to stay current even on developments since my arrival; despite Mr. Giles' attempts at explanation, I'm still in something of a muddle regarding events before then."
"Things were crazy," Oz admitted. "I don't know if anybody has the whole story, and ... well, then there's the deal with perspective. We must make Rashomon look like Curious George."
There was no time for an answer, for the doorbell rang then and Wesley rushed to answer it. He hadn't worried about leaving Buffy and Harmony together -- though they had little regard for one another, they were unlikely to come to blows after only a few minutes unattended -- but most other conflicts were rather more stringent, that being the principal reason he had taken it upon himself to host this gathering. In a twist of almost malicious irony, his home was the closest they had to neutral ground. At the door he paused for an extra second to compose himself, then opened it.
Willow, and Faith. Both carried motorcycle helmets, Faith's black to match the leather jacket but Willow's a bright, cheerful orange that invariably clashed with her other apparel (a yellow windbreaker, today). Peering past Wesley, the smaller girl asked nervously, "Is she ... have they ...?"
Faith's laugh was humorless but not unkind. "We saw the van, Will, we know they're here. C'mon, time to bite the bullet." She pushed inside, towing the reluctant redhead by the elbow.
In the lounge, Oz had joined Buffy at the sofa, while Harmony sprawled blithely in the largest armchair. Willow and Faith stopped in the entryway, and Wesley stepped around them. "Um, Harmony, if you would ...?"
"Huh?" She gave him a blank look, and then her eyes lit up with understanding. "Oh. Oh, right." She stood quickly, flashing the newcomers that sunny, foolish smile. "You guys want anything to drink? Wesley has the cutest minibar ..."
"Yukon Jack, straight up," Faith said without looking at her; then, to Buffy: "Hey, B. Been awhile."
"I know," Buffy said.
Willow stared at the two sitting on the sofa, apparently not aware that she was clutching the sleeve of Faith's jacket for support. Face drained of color, she breathed, "Oz ..."
He acknowledged her with a barely perceptible nod, no change showing in the bland, imperturbable expression, and said, "We'll have some tea ready in a few minutes. A little like something you used to drink, if I remember right."
"Tastes change," Faith said, and settled into the armchair Harmony had vacated. She looked to Willow. "But you are still big on that boiled-grass stuff, right?" Willow nodded, pale and mute, and perched herself next to Faith in one of the folding chairs Wesley had set out.
Wesley studied the new arrivals, trying to visualize how they looked to Buffy and Oz. His assignment to assist and evaluate Rupert Giles had brought him to Sunnydale just after (and because of) the older Slayer's departure, so her last memory of the two girls should roughly match his own first impression. From his perspective, Willow had blossomed since graduating high school, and especially since she and Faith had taken an apartment together; she was more assured in her bearing and more adventurous in her choice of style, though her color sense could be jarring. The change in Faith was more subtle but, to his mind, more meaningful: she had almost entirely dispensed with cosmetics. Her original makeup style had projected an exaggerated, truly threatening kind of predatory femininity, dangerous and impressive but almost cartoonish. Now she was a lovely, vital young woman with nothing to prove, the surface flashiness supplanted by a more lasting sense of quality.
Harmony brought the drink to Faith, with a vexed look at the usurped armchair, and Wesley recalled his obligations as host. "I believe the kettle has come to a boil," he announced. He looked to Oz. "Would you prefer to steep the tea yourself, or should I see to it?"
"I'm on it," Oz said, and went on into the kitchenette.
Another awkward silence settled over the room, and Wesley was about to break it with a (one would hope) diverting comment when Buffy abruptly said, "You can all relax, I'm not about to do a Rodman here. I'd rather be somewhere else, but I didn't come looking for a fight." She turned toward Willow and asked, "So, still shooing off the headhunters from Microsoft?"
Willow nodded with an eagerness that was close to pathetic in its obvious relief. "I worked up some protocols for database-driven web apps, just an outline, really, but a lot of people are excited about it ..." She broke off, her former shyness returning. "Actually, I'm starting to look into witchcraft. I've cross-indexed the stuff I've been inputting for Giles and Wesley, and I think if you organize and weight it all with inferential logic ..."
Buffy laughed. "Hacker Gal joining the cauldron crowd? Next you'll say you're going on tour with Barenaked Ladies." There was no derision in her tone, only genuine wonder and amusement, and Willow smiled and opened her mouth to reply, and the doorbell rang again.
Mercifully, the arrival process was to be extended no longer, for when Wesley opened the door he found Xander at the fore, with Anya and Giles a few paces behind him. Xander's smile was a sad simulacrum of the easy, loopy grin of old, but he spoke with the same ironic bravado. "Citizen Harris, reporting for stoning."
"Ah," Wesley said. "You, er, you didn't travel together ...?"
"No," Giles replied, distant and brusque. "We simply reached our destination at the same time."
"Right," Xander added. "It's not like I'd just keep circling the block 'cause I was afraid to go in by myself."
The atmosphere in the lounge palpably changed when Wesley ushered in the newcomers. He had anticipated that, but not its extent. Buffy sat with glacial expressionlessness, Oz with watchful stolidity; Willow closed her eyes and drew a ragged breath, and Faith's and Harmony's faces showed active hostility. Surprising, really; over the past twenty months most of them had worked together in various groupings to meet one crisis or another, without any manifestation of this ... supercharged paralysis. Apparently the addition of Buffy to the mix (or, rather, her return to it) had altered the dynamic beyond his experience or expectation.
Giles and Anya quickly found seats, but Xander stood in the entryway, arms folded. "Okay, this brings back memories," he announced. "Guilt, resentment, palm-sweaty fear ..." He surveyed the ring of faces before him, and nodded with a wry twist to his mouth. "Oh, yeah, nothing like nostalgia."
Anya, characteristically more direct, looked to Wesley and demanded, "You made everybody check their weapons at the door, right?"
"Like I'd need a weapon," Harmony scoffed, giving Anya a smile that showed rather more teeth than was strictly polite.
"Harmony!" Wesley said quickly, and she subsided with a pout; Giles placed his hand over Anya's without speaking, and she closed her mouth and sat back. It was a pattern they had all followed many times before, those not directly embroiled in particular conflicts interposing themselves as a buffer between more volatile parties. (Which incidents usually involved Xander, who seemed to go out of his way to draw acrimony on himself.) In the four days between the arrangement of this meeting and Buffy's arrival with Oz, all concerned had been allowed the opportunity to prepare themselves for the ... confrontation ... but in some ways that had served to augment the tension as much as to relieve it.
As before, it was Buffy who broke the silence. "I enjoy a good stare-fest as much as anyone," she observed, "but Oz tells me there's a reason for calling this ex-Scooby summit meeting. Can we get to it, or do we just break out the sticks and start swinging?"
"You're quite right," Giles said. Of them all, he appeared the least overwrought by this gathering; except for Oz, of course, but where the younger man's calm was that of a soldier who knew combat was some distance away yet, Giles' seemed to spring from a weariness to which he had at last acquiesced. He stood in automatic resumption of his long-ago-relinquished role of meeting chairman, and addressed them all. "Anya knows the underlying purpose of this reunion, but I've discussed it with none of the rest of you before now. I didn't wish to favor one party over another, and ... well, to be honest, it wouldn't have made much difference."
"Let me toss out a guess here," Xander said. He had moved from the entryway to lean against the small, essentially ornamental fireplace. "Big evil brewin'? Gloomy prophecies, dark forces rising, the end of the world?"
"Well, basically, yes," Giles admitted, clearly thrown off his stride. "No prophecies, that's part of the problem, but ... yes. As you said, the end of the world."
Buffy snorted. "Big whoop. We've done this dance before, and according to Wesley's net-grams, you've done it since we left. Sure, it'd have to be major for you to want to call in the whole crew, but apocalypses have a pretty soggy track record around here."
"Yeah, what she said," Faith threw in. "We find it, we kill it, we party. Always boils down to that." She leaned back, hanging one leg over the arm of the chair. "Go for the 'nads, Rip-man: who's doin' the nasty and how do we squish 'em?"
"Would that it were so simple," Giles said. "In the past it has indeed sufficed to, as you say, locate the threat and put paid to it. Unfortunately ..." Without looking around, he held out his hand, and Anya reached up to intertwine her fingers into his. "Unfortunately, in this instance, it is we who constitute the threat."
* * *
The reaction was predictably chaotic, with protests and demands for explanation, and Giles merely waited for it all to end. When the initial hubbub had subsided, he went on with that same resigned equanimity. "As most of you are aware, Anya's experience in centuries of quasi-demonic activity has made her an invaluable assistant in research. Less well known is that, though her own power was stripped from her, she retains a ... sensitivity, to certain supernatural forces. Several weeks ago she told me of some intuitions that had troubled her. My investigations established that they were, regrettably, all too well-founded."
While Giles had been speaking, Anya had picked up a whiskey glass -- Faith's, Wesley noted with distant shock -- and taken a long swallow from it. Now, as all eyes turned to her, she paused to announce, "You're not real." She took in the room with an airy wave. "None of us are."
Faith stared at the pilfered drink, then at Anya, and surged upright. "You want to see 'real,' skank-woman ...?!"
A touch from Willow, a freezing glare from Giles, and again bloodshed was averted. Harmony sulked disappointment (she was on good terms with neither girl), and Xander drawled, "Okay, Alex, we don't seem to be getting anywhere with the 'Chick-Fight' category, so I'll take 'Armageddon' for $200."
Giles didn't pretend not to understand the reference; his association with the ex-vengeance demon truly had mellowed him. "What she meant is that this existence, this world we live in, is unrooted, ephemeral. It is a deviant branch of the true reality, and will eventually undercut and destroy it unless we restore the balance."
"Wait a second," Willow interjected, leaning forward. "Are you trying to say that the parallel timeline where Anya lost her amulet, that's supposed to be the real world?"
Giles shook his head. "Not at all. That was an interpolated reality, never meant to be more than a shunt. All the same, it illustrates the basic principle. Our current timeline -- what our senses perceive as reality -- is more far-reaching than the one created by Anyanka, but no less artificial." He removed his spectacles and rubbed at his eyes. "Unfortunately, it is less firmly reinforced, and each day that passes increases the threat that it poses -- that we pose -- to the original reality."
"I get it!" Harmony said brightly. "It's like when Nancy did that augmentation spell, and everybody thought she was this supermodel / brain surgeon / covert ops / astronaut person. So we just break the spell and everything goes back to normal, right?"
"Harm," Wesley said, with as much patience as he could muster. "We've been over this many times. None of that happened, it was some dream or Hellmouth-induced fantasy that you've superimposed onto your memories ..."
"It did so happen!" Harmony insisted. "I don't know why you all have to be so mean about that, you could remember if you'd just try --!"
"In any event, that's beside the point," Giles said, breaking in with soothing gentleness. "This wouldn't be a matter of dispelling an illusion, or of peeling away false memories. Our reality, however tenuous, is nonetheless entirely distinct from that of the original timeline. We exist, it exists, and the two cannot be reconciled."
Oz was the first to understand. "You mean, if we're gonna save the other one, we gotta pull the plug on this one."
Giles nodded. "Yes. I'm afraid so."
There was a long, stunned moment; and then, "SCREW THAT!" Faith stood in an explosive motion that put her back to the wall (readying herself, consciously or not, for combat?). "You're all set to wipe out the whole friggin' world just 'cause little Miss Death-to-Men says so? The hell you say, I want a second opinion!"
"Hey!" Anya expostulated, likewise coming to her feet. "Let's not forget, I'm the expert here, okay? I wielded the Wish for eleven hundred years, I've done my share of time-shifting. You think I don't know a contingent sidestream when I'm living in it?"
"Yeah, sure," Faith sneered. "And where exactly was it you lost your precious amulet? Temporal fold, wasn't it? You're a stone pro, all right."
"This is appalling," Wesley said, finally finding his voice. "Do you truly contemplate ...? And on nothing more than the assurances of a creature who spent a millennium wreaking havoc and spreading misery? This is unconscionable, we must contact the Council at once --!"
"We shall do no such thing," Giles said to him, and despite the cultured tones Wesley couldn't prevent himself from taking a half-step in retreat. "I believe you will agree," the older Watcher went on, "that of late the Council has consistently shown an inadequate appreciation of the exigencies of life at a Hellmouth. Were I to speak of these matters to them, they would insist on a thorough review, freeze it all for months in committee. We haven't the luxury of such delay. I will make my researches available to all of you -- and you will see, Wesley, that I did not rely solely on Anya's testimony or on my personal findings, but have acquired confirmation from several sources -- but I did not call this meeting to seek advice or permission."
He paused to look around at them, meeting each set of eyes in turn, and in his own could be seen no trace of doubt or compromise. "Within six weeks, this divergent reality will have destabilized to the point where it can no longer sustain itself; it will crumble, tearing down its parent in the process. Our end is certain, only the timing is in question. Within four weeks, at most, it will no longer be possible to prevent that mutual destruction. I propose to sever the connections, two weeks from now, and allow this existence to cease before it can impel the obliteration of both. I called you here to tell you so that you -- so that we all -- may come to terms with the inevitable. Make our peace, as it were."
There was no answer any of them could make; Giles' assurance was monolithic, unassailable, shatteringly convincing. In the new stillness in the room, Oz murmured, "Huh. This is new."
"Is ..." Buffy's voice was dry, and she swallowed and started again. "Is it worth it, Giles? This other reality, the one you say is the original; is it so much better than ours that we can be okay with ... dying to save it?" She held up a hand as he started to speak, and went on, "I believe you when you say we don't have a choice. I just want to know that it's worth it."
Giles sat down again, settling back into his chair with a deep sigh. "Part of my researches involved calling in a, um, colleague, to help Anya scry into the other timeline. There are limits to what can be discerned in such transtemporal probing, but we were able to learn certain things." He looked to her. "In all honesty, I couldn't state with authority that the parent timeline is either better or worse than our own. Ours is preferable in some ways, the original in others. I can only say that our counterparts would certainly feel that their world is worth preserving."
Faith was still standing, but no longer seemed poised for instant mayhem; she, like the rest, had obviously been shaken by the certainty in Giles' exposition. "Better and worse how?" she wanted to know. "I mean, what is it exactly we're looking at on the other side of the tracks?"
Giles half-turned. "Anya ...?"
"Sure," Anya said. "Okay, let's see. They never figured out how to stop the Mayor's Ascension, so they just waited till he transmogrified and then blew him up. Along with the school, yay." She pursed her lips, eyes fixed on nothing. "Um, Buffy stayed in Sunnydale, she's in her second year of college, I think she roomed with Willow that first year. Xander never took the firefighter's exam, over there he's doing construction work. Faith is in high-security lockup in Los Angeles, they're looking to try her for murder ..."
"Damn," Faith said, and collapsed into the armchair. "Amy? You know I didn't have any choice about that."
"No, I'm pretty sure Amy's still alive over there." Anya grimaced in vexation. "I can't tune in on her for some reason, but I've seen traces of her aura. Cordelia's in L.A., too ..."
"Hold on," Faith interrupted again. "If I'm in the slammer, who's taking care of Dawn?"
Anya stopped, glowering at the brunette Slayer. "Your brat sister is living with Buffy's mom, okay? Don't ask me why, because I don't know. Oz isn't around, and nobody seems to want to talk about him. Harmony didn't get vamped until Graduation, and -- barf-bags, people -- she's with Spike. Their Snyder is dead instead of in a sanitarium, their Vwilla got sent back to the temporal fold, so at least they haven't had to deal with her ..."
"Wait up a second." This time it was Xander. "Awhile back you started to say something about Cordelia."
Yes, Wesley thought, Xander would want to know about Cordelia. Her disappearance still haunted the boy, all the more so because he held himself responsible for her ill-fated relocation to New York. Xander had much to regret, but for some reason that one had hit him hardest, worse even than the dreadful results of Amy's accumulated bitterness; perhaps because Cordelia had been the first he had so inexcusably used and discarded.
Once again Anya was annoyed by the interruption. "Do you mind? Yes, Cordelia's there, bothering everyone in Hollywood who carries a clipboard. She's a pitiful excuse for an actress and she's not even trying to sing anymore, but she's still following her Tinseltown dream. And Wesley's with her, or maybe not 'with' her but he's around, they're doing the whole big standing-against-the-forces-of-darkness thing with that person Ang"
Giles' warning hiss was a fraction of a second too late. Anya halted, looking back at him. "What?" she demanded. "What now?"
She was the only one who didn't get it, not even Harmony was that insensitive. Buffy's face had gone white, and she literally swayed where she sat on the couch. She stared at Anya, and then at Giles, and her whisper was so faint that only the total sudden hush around her made it audible: "Angel ..."
In that instant Wesley knew -- as, no doubt, did anyone with eyes and ears -- what Buffy Summers' decision would be.
The minivan driver hit the brakes and horn at the same time, but Faith didn't swerve or hesitate. There was no need, she had gauged it perfectly, she slid past the front bumper of the skidding vehicle with an entire quarter of an inch to spare. Without breaking stride she hurdled a parked motorcycle (Kawasaki, nice lines but it didn't matter, you rode a Harley or you were nothing) and switched from pavement to grass, racing through Hammersmith Park in the growing dusk. Pushing herself, punishing herself, trying to drown out the raging voices inside her with all-out exertion.
Fat chance. She was in peak condition, with a cardiovascular system Wesley had estimated at seven times as efficient as baseline human; unless wounded or ill or drugged, she could run all day without tiring, but there was no way to outdistance the turmoil that drove her. She tried anyhow, threading through the trees and bushes and occasional benches at breakneck speed, cursing the exhaustion that eluded her.
Again and again she had been told how much she had changed in these past two years. They kept repeating it, stressing it, reinforcing the encouragement and praise till it started to look like they thought she'd fall apart without her monthly dose of positive strokes. Well, she had changed, she had an address that wasn't a motel room and a permanent somebody in her life, and it had been a long time since she'd caught any store clerks giving her the hairy eyeball in the shoplifting mirrors. Her life was different now, and she welcomed the difference and wanted to preserve it (not much hope of that now!). One thing hadn't changed, though. When she got messed up, hurt, too much crap coming at her at once, she had a simple procedure for how to handle it:
|1.||Find some evil supernatural things and kill them;|
|||or, if none were forthcoming,|
|2.||find some human jerkweeds who needed a lesson and beat the living snot out of them;|
|||or, in the highly unlikely event that human jerkweeds were equally unavailable,|
|3.||find something big and tear it apart.|
On her way to California in 1998, fleeing the vengeful Kakistos and her own shameful memories, she had detoured to an aircraft graveyard in the Nevada desert and spent three solid days destroying a derelict C-130: pounding at the propeller with her naked fists until the aging metal broke, and then using the blade to hack away larger pieces, repeating the process until the hapless freighter was reduced to a pile of tortured junk. That, and thirty hours of sleep afterward, and she had shown up in Sunnyhell a week later looking as close to normal as she ever got.
Nothing like that at hand right now. And punching trees just didn't bring the same satisfaction. And she couldn't get any of the soulless, gutless, undead wimp-bastards that haunted this sorry-ass burg to come out and fight her.
Not fair. Not fair. Not fair. It pounded in her head as she ran, resonating with the swift, smooth coursing of blood through her veins. To come so far, to gain so much -- self-respect, hope, friends (of a sort, let's not get gooey here), love -- and then to have it all snatched away, without any hope of fighting back, without even an enemy to face ...
She screamed with all the power of a Slayer's lungs, all the passion and despair and impotent hate in her soul, screamed until her vision fuzzed over with red-black haze and her knees gave way beneath her. She knelt where she had fallen, head down so that her hair spilled across her face, fingers sunk into the grassy earth as if to anchor her to something real and solid, shaking with sobs that rasped from a raw throat.
Didn't mean it wasn't true.
She was up and walking again, all but blind to the park around her, tears striping her face unnoticed. Willow, Willow would be worried, she shouldn't have just taken off like that ... it had been blind instinct rather than anything resembling choice, but even now there was no way she could make herself return. It just hurt too much. She could take a saber in the guts or a sledgehammer to the chest, but not this. Not this.
The park was behind her now, and the habits and memories of two years of night patrols guided her through the streets and light traffic with no attention from her conscious mind. That still seethed, endlessly recoiling from and returning to the unthinkable truth that had speared into her life. Sunnydale, gone. Giles, Dawn, Wesley, gone. Memories, victories, dreams and losses, guilt and hope and lessons learned ...
... Willow ...
Threads of awareness tickled at her, and she stopped mechanically, letting the vague alert gradually register without fully noticing. At last her eyes came into focus, and she looked around her with recognition and dawning satisfaction. Yes. Ooohhh, yes, this was exactly what she needed.
The double doors crashed against the walls, every eye in the place -- not to mention antennae, ciliary sonar, and infrasensing pads -- turning toward the sleek, deadly figure that stood framed against the lights from the street. At the bar, Willy made a frantic snatch to recover the bottle that had slipped from his fingers, and groaned, "Jeez, Faith, you can't do this to me, we got a truce ...!"
"Chill, gerbil." Faith swept the occupants of the dimly lit barroom with scornful eyes, and raised her voice. "Ahright, hellscum, it's your lucky night. Listen up, 'cause you'll never get a better chance than this." She stalked forward, looking around to confirm that she had their full attention, feeling the old reckless snarl twisting her lips. "I got a major mad-on to work off, and I don't wanta spend the rest of the night chasing down sparring partners, so here's the deal: parking lot out back, right now, I'll bust you up but I won't kill anybody, long as you just come at me one at a time." She laughed, tingling with the first flush of anticipation. "Somebody'll break the bargain sooner or later, 'cause you're all evil stinking pus-wads, and that's when I cut loose ... but the ones at the head of the line get to take their best shot at me and know they'll live through it. Sound like a plan?"
The reply came from behind her, from the forgotten doors, the voice musical and caressing and obscenely familiar, freezing her where she stood. "Aw, come on. We can do lots better than that, don't you think?"
Faith was in motion with the final words, her paralysis broken by sheer furious will; but even as she turned, she already knew she was screwed.
The message was all but unintelligible through the hiss and crackle of the cheap police scanner, but Xander effortlessly deciphered it, evaluated it, and dismissed it as unimportant without really noticing that he had done so. In the same way his gaze flicked here and there over the darkening streets, assessing shadows and terrain and patterns of movement, comparing them to the stored memories of many other such self-appointed solo sweeps and judging the results as automatically as his hands turned the wheel of the gray Olds Cutlass. (He would have liked a convertible, he had developed a hankering for them during his time in the "QUEEN C" and the brief loaner from his Uncle Rory, but an open car after dark basically made you Meals On Wheels for the various uglies that walked, wafted, slithered and sloshed through Sunnydale at night.) So far this was looking like a quiet evening, which suited him perfectly; he'd come out mainly from habit, but what he really wanted was a chance to think.
He snorted. Right, if you could call it 'thinking'. Mostly it was just the same thing running through his mind over and over: I should have known.
He had known, in a way. How many times since Buffy had been driven away by repeated betrayals, or since the horrible botched burglary of City Hall, or since Cordelia had dropped off the face of the earth somewhere in the middle of the Big Rotten Apple, had he looked back on recent events and tried to figure out just where it had all gone to hell? It was his fault, there had never been any question there, but exactly how had he managed to screw things up so totally with what, when you stripped away the mystical frills, was really just ordinary sordid male piggery?
Unfamiliar motion caught his eye, and he reached for the million-candlepower spotlight plugged into the cigarette lighter jack. Quiet evening or no, there were always a few eager beavers who wanted to drink early and then spend the rest of the night looking for a party. Usually he just marked them down and passed the word to Willy, who would then relay the tip to Giles, but if one was actually in the process of noshing down on a victim, he'd have to try and break in on it ...
He returned the spotlight to its place without triggering the beam, and continued down the street. It was just a three-man team of the military ninja types -- the Demon-Detox Crew, Faith called them -- revealing themselves for a few seconds as they crossed from one patch of shadow to another. For them to have ranged clear of the immediate environs of the UC/Sunnydale campus might mean something was in the works, but they posed no direct threat in themselves. It had taken several sharp scuffles to convince them that they didn't want to tangle with a Slayer, and longer yet to communicate that Harmony, too, was absolutely off-limits, but the two groups had reached an eventual understanding of mutual avoidance. About five months ago there had been some kind of major shake-up on the other side -- the details weren't clear, nor just how Willow had come by them -- but they were still a presence, even if their mission seemed to have scaled back since then.
Once more he quelled the impulse to turn his car toward the house on Revello Drive. This definitely wasn't the time. Buffy was back, he'd always known she would return eventually, and there were so many things he needed to tell her; but she and her mother would be negotiating an uneasy homecoming, and for him to show up on the doorstep right now would just be a serious weird factor. He had messed up so many things, hurt so many people, there was no way he was going to start it all up again, not when he finally had a chance to set it right ...
He let out his breath in a long huff of disgust. Oh, yeah, world ending in two weeks, countdown to the big Adios, absolutely the perfect moment to confess undying love and finally behave like a decent person. Gotta admire the guy's timing. Again it came back to the old refrain: I should have known.
Okay, so 'normal' in Sunnydale basically consisted of one mind-numbing coincidence after another; even so, you'd expect a guy who was once the leading contender for Biggest Loser on the Planet to notice something a little unusual when one woman after another began to drop into his
life like ripe plums off a tree. Not just any women, either: extraordinary women, supernatural women. Looking back to his previous experiences with Natalie French and Ampata, he could readily have believed it had all started even before Amy's miscast love spell (his fault, again). Still, Giles had been emphatic about the source of their misfortunes; and then there were Cordelia and Willow, neither of them showing the faintest glimmering of mystical potential, but fixating on him just as disastrously as all the others, and being every bit as brutally used and sloughed off.
He had never questioned his change of fortune, had just dived headlong into the bounty appearing before him. And what was the result? Broken hearts and alienation, betrayal and tragedy, the once-and-former Slayerettes coming apart at the seams, and all of it traceable back to Alexander Lavelle Harris. Kendra, Amy, Veruca, dead. Cordelia, vanished. Harmony, finishing high school by dint of night classes and online lessons hastily compiled by Willow and Giles, and never speaking to him directly except to curse him; Anya, who generally refused even to acknowledge his continued existence. Buffy -- once the most important thing in his life -- gone for nearly two years in voluntary exile. Faith and Willow ... okay, never mind political correctness, there was just no way that was natural, it had to be some freak side-effect, still hanging on even though the spell itself had been removed. (Not that he would ever voice the thought; he'd already hurt Willow enough, and Faith would probably frame her rebuttal in the form of a chainsaw vasectomy.)
Whoa! Key words jerked his attention back to the scanner. "Possible gang activity," they'd said, and the location, approximate as it was, encompassed the block where Willy's sat ... but no, "shots fired" didn't sound much like demons. Xander entertained himself for a minute by imagining the fate of any gang dumb enough to try and stick up that joint, then returned to his previous musings.
It might have gone on indefinitely -- "pump 'em and dump 'em" had been Faith's coarse, blistering and only-too-accurate description of his behavior during that period -- if the anonymous, stuttering female caller hadn't babbled something to Giles about Xander's "aura" before abruptly hanging up. Then, finally, Amy's handiwork had been detected and countermanded ... and Xander had been slammed in the face with the knowledge that he had done more damage to the group than any enemy they had ever faced.
It would have been simple enough to blame his actions on Amy's spell. The others would have bought it; they'd all had to deal with mind control of one type or another these past few years, and most of them still, deep down, wanted to believe in him. Sure, lay the rap on Amy, she's not around to argue and even if she was, she's pretty much burned her bridges in her embracing-the-Dark-Side performance with the Mayor ...
Nuh-uh. That would have been an easy out, and he didn't deserve it. He could still remember Willow describing her helplessness while under the control of the Bezoar's parasitic offspring, and his guilty realization at the time of how fundamentally that differed from his own experience with hyena possession. Willow and the others had been robots, bodies directed by an outside force, whereas he had been Xander-plus-hyena, something added to his own psyche to darken and redirect the things that were already there. The effect created by Amy's imperfect reversal of the already flawed love spell had been slower to work, more insidiously subtle, and less dramatic in its visible results ... but the bottom line was that he'd been given power, and he had abused it and reveled in the abuse, and a lot of people had been hurt in the process, and atoning for that didn't include dodging the responsibility for what he'd done.
And now there was a new guilt to add to the old. Something had twisted this reality away from what it should have been. Was it some other, unseen act or enchantment, or -- as all his instincts insisted -- had these changes spun from his own heartless eagerness to nail down every possible conquest?
I should have known.
Known, or wondered, or shown some miniscule fragment of sense or pity or caring for any of the ones who had cared so hopelessly for him ...
He almost missed it, a Chevy Blazer was coming out the other end of the motel parking lot and the high-set headlights momentarily dazzled him. Even the split-second glimpse had been enough, though, some details were impossible to mistake and he'd just been flashed with a lulu, he swung the Cutlass behind the car wash even as he was reaching for the cell phone. He should be able to contact the others in fairly quick order, at Harmony's insistence none of them went anywhere these days without a cell or pager -- "Come into the twenty-first century, people!" -- and right now they might need all the quickness they could muster.
He hit the first number on the speed dial at the same moment he braked and killed the headlights, and he was focusing the binoculars before the first ring. What he saw made him draw in a hard breath that was only barely less than a gasp, and he gripped the cell phone with useless force, whispering urgently, "Come on, come on, come on ...!"
This was not good. This was just SO not good.
She knew when his car pulled into its assigned parking space, her enhanced hearing easily recognizing the distinctive putter of the Volvo's muffler, so there was more than enough time to turn off the VCR and switch the station to CNN. She had long ago learned to tape this particular program and watch it in private; Wesley was a pussycat about most things, but when it came to Ross and Rachel he was acidly disdainful, and just the sight of Joey could launch him into a twenty-minute, precisely enunciated vituperative diatribe. That had only been funny the first couple of times, and besides, she wanted him to mellow out tonight, so ixnay on the iendsfray.
He entered to find her artfully reclining on the couch, her hair spread out on the cushions and a bare foot dangling crimson nails inches above the carpet. "Hey, Wessie," she cooed. "How'd it go?"
His face was drawn, but it relaxed substantially as his eyes took her in. Good, right on track so far. She stood with a practiced, liquid motion, posting one hip and tilting her head to the side in just the way that made him melt. "Not too well, I fear," he was saying in reply, but already the corners of his mouth were beginning to tilt upward. "I reviewed Mr. Giles' analysis; much of it, I must confess, well outside my own realm of competence ..."
"You'll work it out," she assured him, moving forward to place a hand on his chest. "You always do."
He shook his head in rueful denial. "Your confidence is heartening, my dear, but I know my limitations. As you are aware, he and I have frequently disagreed ..."
"Like when I decided to move in here," she broke in again, still indignant at the memory. "He was just stinky about that. I still say you should have put the screws to him over Anya, after the way he acted --!"
"Yes, yes," Wesley said hastily. "You're quite right, but I preferred not to revive old conflicts. The thing is, though we've been at loggerheads in the past, I've always had the utmost respect for his capabilities as a researcher, and his tactical judgment ... please believe I'm not denigrating myself when I say it has several times proven superior to my own. Differ as we may in methodology, what I could understand of his work certainly seemed sound. I haven't the slightest doubt that he's earnest in his beliefs and, given the evidence I can comprehend, he appears to be correct as well."
She gave him one of her trademark pouts, and a dismissive shrug that only coincidentally caused one of the spaghetti straps to slide off her shoulder. "Well, if you say so," she replied, observing with satisfaction that his gaze was following the line of her neck and shoulder and arm. "It just seems to me he's giving up awfully easy."
He smiled fondly at her, and she could absolutely see the thoughts passing through his mind: So beautiful, and SO stupid, and so utterly irresistible … It didn't bother her a bit, that was exactly what she was shooting for. "We've none of us given up just yet," he told her, voice soothing. "The colleague of whom Mr. Giles spoke, he's supposed to meet with us early tomorrow to explain some of the more obscure data; and Giles himself, though he seems confident of his conclusions, remains open to the possibility of our finding some, er, escape clause in this situation." He raised his hand, tracing along her cheek with the tips of his fingers. "I realize you've no particular affection for him and Anya, but even you must concede that he has no more reason than we to relinquish life without good cause."
She returned the smile, nodding eagerly, noting the subtle changes in his posture as tension continued to ease out of him. Okay, so she wasn't exactly the brightest bulb on the marquee. So what? Wesley was brainy enough for both of them. For her, it was enough to zero in on what mattered: find a man who treats you right, and give him whatever it takes to keep him happy. (That was something she'd never been able to understand about all the I-Am-Woman types. What was the point in being your own person, if that person was alone?) And she didn't really need to be all that smart, as long as she was smarter than anybody thought she was. "Well, you know best," she told him with blithe cheerfulness. "So what's on for tonight?"
Immediately his expression clouded. That wouldn't do at all. "I'm not altogether sure," he said. "I have some private texts that might contain material with some bearing on this matter, and there are a few acquaintances I could ring up for further consultation ..."
She slid a sidelong glance at him, arching her back just the least bit. "None of that could wait until later ...?"
He studied her with one eyebrow raised, and she hid her triumph as she saw the last few preoccupied segments of his attention overrun with more immediate concerns. "As always, my dear," he said, his tone dry and amused, "I defer to your superior sense of priorities."
Four minutes later her dress was draped over the back of the couch, and she was luxuriating once again in the wonderful delicious warmth of his lips and fingers on her skin. A minute after that, the telephone rang. Another minute, and the two of them were in frantic motion.
The citizens of Sunnydale are not, as frequently described, entirely clueless about the nature of their fair city. They simply don't talk about it, or normally even think about it. Most of those who have grown up there have a subconscious recognition of certain facts, and newcomers (the ones who survive long enough) generally develop a similar unspoken awareness within three or four years. This being so, the noise in the apartment parking lot attracted no particular attention, and the few who noticed it didn't bother to go to their windows.
If they had, they would have seen a lean, bespectacled man, his shirt half-buttoned, dragging a stumbling, protesting blonde girl clad only in abbreviated green satin tap-pants with a matching camisole. He shoved her quickly but not roughly into the passenger seat of a brown Volvo sedan, threw a silk print dress in after her, and leaped to the driver's side.
As the vehicle screeched into the street beyond, the girl was trying to struggle back into the dress; and from the few shrill words that leaked out into the night air, she was very very far from pleased.
In some ways, Giles reflected as he sorted quickly through the weapons in the cabinet, the most unsettling aspect of this situation was how right it felt. Familiar, comfortable, as if the world finally had turned straight again for a few moments. At the main desk, Willow's fingers chattered across the computer keyboard with a rapidity and sureness that could scarcely be credited as within human capacity. Buffy paced, keyed-up and impatient, in front of the main doors, absently swinging the sword he had given her (the same one that had brought an end to the malevolent Angelus, though she appeared not to have noticed); Oz held his folding crossbow at quarter-arms, seeming totally relaxed but never removing his eyes from the single window inside the 'rare books' cage. Behind him, at one of the broad tables, Anya droned through the words of the protective chant; she would never possess the immense natural talent and inborn power that Amy had shown, but given the proper materials and instructions she could competently carry out the technical requirements of basic spellcasting.
For his own part, he chose or rejected assorted tools of combat with encouragingly steady hands, making his decisions on the basis of their suitability for various persons. Some were standard (stakes and holy water vials he had in abundance, and these would be parceled out to almost everyone), others were specially related to individual capabilities. Faith was doing quite well these days with the sharpened staff, and it would serve her ably against multiple opponents. One of the crossbows he set aside for himself, the other for Willow; after the Slayers, she was the most reliable shot with such an implement. The double-bladed axe, he would probably add that to his own armament (though he, too, might elect to go with a sword). Wesley also favored an axe, but there were several of those from which to choose. The speargun ... hmm. That was an idea that hadn't quite worked out. It had never been as accurate or powerful as a crossbow, and replacing the thin metal harpoons with wooden arrows, to make the weapon effective against vampires, had rendered its aim even more chancy; still, further modifications had made it possible to loose three such missiles before needing to reload, a pronounced tactical advantage, and Xander had shown an aptitude for selecting the most important targets ...
Anya finished the chant, and a moment later the thick candle hissed out, the accompanying odor telling him that she had, as dictated by the ritual, snuffed it with fingers moistened by her own blood. "Do you need a bandage?" he called back to her.
"I set it out on the table before I started, along with the razor blade," she answered, then gave an ostentatious sniff of annoyance. "Why did this one have to involve self-mutilation instead of a sacrifice? I'm good at sacrifices."
"I don't doubt it." He turned to her. "At the moment a more pressing question would be, did it work?"
Anya closed her eyes, opened them three seconds later. "Yes. No spell or magic-charged entity can breach these walls between now and sunrise." She frowned. "Unless we're dealing with a mage-class sorcerer. Or unless the spell has already been cast. Or unless someone's spent a day working up a major ritual and is about to slam us with a ton of dammed-up energy. Or unless ..."
"Incoming!" Willow called from the computer monitor. "No alarms from doors or windows, warm-blooded, heading this way fast. And only one, I think." She looked up to them, eyes as haunted as her voice had been clipped. "Xander ... or Faith."
"Probably," Giles agreed. "All the same, we'd best prepare." He tossed one crossbow to Willow, caught up and steadied the other. Anya lunged for the weapons cabinet (she'd select twin daggers, Giles thought automatically, she liked to get in close and make it hurt), and Buffy took a ready stance, holding the sword raised to strike. Oz never moved from his own position.
Xander burst through the double doors, checked as he saw the assemblage of lethal hardware arrayed in his direction, then did an instant inventory of the room's occupants. "Well, that's most of us, anyway," he observed. "Any word from Faith, or Wes and Harmony?"
"I spoke to Wesley, um --" Giles glanced at his watch. "-- four minutes ago. He and Harmony should be with us directly. Faith hasn't answered the pager alert, but we all know she's more inclined to action than verbiage, so I see no clear cause for anxiety just yet." Giles looked to Xander. "It was you who initiated this emergency gathering, claiming imminent danger to us all. I took you at your word and began phoning the others, but now I would appreciate an explanation."
"We all would," Buffy said in a dangerous tone. "I had to ditch my mom right in the middle of promising I'd never just take off again. This had better be five-alarm important, or you're going to spend the next two weeks in the doghouse." She paused. "Literally."
"Yeah, yeah." Xander took the proffered speargun from Giles, then went to the book cage and picked up a couple of stakes, which he thrust into his belt. "Okay, look, I was out for a drive, trying to get my head clear, and out of nowhere I saw Ichabod and three other vamps hustling some guy into a municipal van." He turned back to Giles, one eyebrow arched. "This 'colleague' of yours, would he by any chance have been staying at, say, the Sunnydale Motor Inn?"
"Oh, dear Lord." Giles sat down, feeling the evening suddenly grow even less cheerful. 'Ichabod', so nicknamed by the Slayer's entourage because he was six and a half feet tall and weighed barely nine stone, was a conveyor of orders rather than a leader or aggressive predator; if he was supervising a hands-on operation, something serious indeed was in motion. And from the burr of sarcasm in Xander's voice, he had seen -- and recognized -- the face of the man at the motel.
"Two more," Willow announced, bending over the monitor. "No, three: two warm, one room-temperature. And they're moving really fast." From her expression, she was afraid to let herself hope. "Still no intrusion alarms. These could be ours, too."
They were, Faith and Harmony all but carrying a gasping Wesley through the library doors twenty seconds later. Willow started for them, questions spilling from her lips, but Faith cut her off with a savage gesture. "All the guards up?" she demanded of Giles as the others lowered their weapons.
"Yes, the various security measures have been made active. Wesley found you?"
"I saw their car two-three blocks back, I was about to phone you when your pager call came in to me so I just headed straight here, snagged a ride when we ran into each other." She looked around at the assembled group. "Looks like something hit the fan somewhere, that's for sure."
"We were responding to a priority scramble from Xander," Giles agreed. "But it would appear that you've already had an eventful evening."
Her hair was wild, blood crusting in long scratches down the side of her face, and the left sleeve of the biker jacket was torn almost completely free. Faith emitted one of those berserker laughs, and said, "Hizzonner sent six of his vamp-soldiers to pick me up, with everybody's favorite S&M leatherslut leading the pack. Ain't I got fun?"
At the Slayer's words, Willow's complexion had gone the color of dirty milk, and she stared at Faith with disbelieving eyes. "Her? No, it can't be, she's in San Francisco, it can't be --!" She collapsed into the nearest chair, her face in her hands, and began keening, "Nononononononono …"
Faith crossed to her in two quick strides, seizing the smaller girl by the shoulders and yanking her upright. "Get a grip, Will!" Despite its gentleness, her tone held a harsh insistence. "You're not seein' the larger picture: if she's back, it means we can finally kill the bitch."
"Excuse me," Buffy said. "Translation for those of us who were Hellmouth-free for the last couple of years?"
"Willow's vampire doppelganger," Giles explained. Bloody hell, this night just kept getting better by the moment. "You'll have heard of some of her activities in the reports we sent through Wesley. She's a formidable adversary: cunning, resourceful, unpredictable, and far more capable in direct combat than one would expect."
"Yeah, well, break out the shop-vac," Xander said tightly. "She may have ridden into town as the Dominatrix from Hell, but she's leaving as dust."
Even in the midst of crisis, Giles couldn't stop his mind from turning to speculation. During Faith's and Xander's week-long imprisonment, Vwilla (so later designated by them because 'Vampire Willow' had proven cumbersome) had shuttled between their separated cells, using pilfered clothing and the dreadful summer heat and their own ignorance of her existence to make them believe she was a similarly captive Willow. Thanks to Veruca, they had been found and liberated before the demonic female's ultimate purpose had been realized or even revealed -- if in fact she had ever possessed one that went beyond her own sadistic amusement -- but, given that Amy's spell was still operating full-strength in Xander at the time, and given Vwilla's rather indiscriminate appetites, and given the venomous hatred the two of them had evinced for her ever since, Giles had long uneasily suspected that in her successful impersonation she might have seduced both Xander and Faith before their rescue.
Of course, none of that would explain the desperate terror she could invoke in Willow even now ...
"Please don't think I'm questioning your abilities," Wesley put in, still wheezing slightly, "but you never did explain how you escaped this, er, arresting party."
"No offense." Faith shrugged angrily. "I coulda taken her, you all know that, and I coulda taken her buddies in a running fight, but I'm not too proud to admit the whole crew was more odds than I could handle. Nah, we were tearin' up Willy's and I was getting the rough end of the process, and then bam-bam-bam!" She smacked a fist into her palm to punctuate each sound. "Somebody starts squeezing off shots, the bloodsuckers start falling off me screaming, and Miss Leather-and-lace takes a dive over the bar and splits through the back." She shrugged again, this time in obvious bewilderment. "I look over and there's this woman in a long skirt and corduroy vest, she has bleached hair in long braids and the kinda lipstick I used to wear, and she's got on sunglasses, indoors, at night. She looks down her nose at me and says, 'This makes us even,' and then just walks out."
"You knew her?" Harmony squeaked.
Faith shook her head. "Nuh-uh. She knew me, or acted like she did, but I don't have a clue. Just one more mysterious female in Sunnydale."
All eyes turned to Xander. He opened his mouth to protest, caught himself, and simply said, "Doesn't ring any bells with me, either. I musta missed that one while I was cutting a manly swath through all the super-babes."
Snarls and recriminations started in several mouths, but Anya's clear, flat voice cut through it all. "Ichabod leads a group to snatch our independent consultant, and Vwilla tries to do the same with Faith. Somebody's moving on us, three guesses who. I just have one question." She pointed at Harmony. "Why is she barefoot?"
The shrilling of the telephone forestalled a reply, snatching at their attention; even Oz glanced briefly away from his heretofore unblinking watch of the window. Buffy sighed heavily and said, "Ten to one that's my mom. I told her we were headed here, and ... well, you know how she is."
Giles nodded to her. "Quite." He moved to the phone and picked up the receiver, saying, "Sunnydale High School Lib--" He stopped, his face stiffening, and after several seconds he murmured, "Yes, yes, I know your voice." Pause. "Do you really think this is the time for ...?" Pause, this one longer. "Ah. Yes, you have a point. Very well, we shall be expecting you." He returned the receiver to its cradle.
"Y'know, I may be taking a blind shot here," Oz said to Buffy, "but I'm gonna guess that wasn't your mom."
"No," Giles said. "It was Mayor Wilkins. He's on his way over."
"Uh, do we really want to do that?" Xander looked from Giles to the others. "I mean, bad guy, right? Evil soulless politician ... okay, that's redundant, but still, hundred-years-old, built-Sunnydale-as-a-demon-taco-stand, I'm-gonna-eat-the-Class-of-'99? This is who we're inviting over to shoot the breeze?"
"That was, indeed, my own initial reaction." Giles shook his head. "But as he pointed out, we're better to meet him in our own stronghold, with all of us together and forewarned, than at a time and place of his choosing."
"He's trying to give it a positive spin," Buffy scoffed. "I'm thinking we just reacted too quick for him to pick us off one at a time, so now he's coming by to mess with our heads and scope our defenses."
"She's never actually dealt with the man," Wesley observed to Giles, "but it would be consistent with his prior behavior."
Giles nodded. "That's true. But we don't know why he chose this time to move against us, after distancing himself from any confrontation for more than a year, and perhaps we can goad him into revealing something. At any rate, as I said, he's already on his way."
"Do you think ... she'll be with him?" Willow quavered.
"I hope so." Faith took up the pointed staff from the table where Giles had laid out the weapons; blocked high, swept low, then stabbed viciously at empty air. "You know what I always say: life's a bitch, but I'm a bigger one."
Shoes were found for Harmony, cross-trainers Buffy had left behind so long ago. (The fit was less than perfect, but for once Harmony didn't complain; it was a necessity, and there were more important matters to be addressed, so she accepted it with welcome patience.) Additional weapons were dispensed, basic tactics discussed. Though the return of Buffy and Oz required readjustments of thought and approach, the fundamental situation was long familiar to them all, so that soon they were simply waiting.
Not for long, however. "We have motion," Willow announced from the tracking monitor. She had recovered some of her mental balance, but only by placing herself firmly in Central Dispatch mode, so that she spoke now with crisp, dispassionate objectivity. "From the trace patterns, I'd say thirteen of them. Only one with human body temperature."
"You notice she didn't say 'one human'?" Xander observed. "I'm betting that's the Mayor."
Willow ignored him. "They've stopped, a little off the main lobby," she said. "Just sort of milling around, I can't see any —" She broke off, and a moment later she looked up to Giles. "Now they're headed this way, right about walking speed. All of them, no sentries or people sent off on special errands."
"None within the scope of our sensors, at any rate," Giles agreed. "I would imagine he's aware he would need more than a dozen minions for a serious attack, so it appears he was earnest about wishing only to meet with us." For now, he reminded himself. Experience had shown just how quickly such an encounter could shift from conversation to death-combat.
"They're at the door now," Willow said a minute later, and indeed her words were promptly followed by a brisk rapping from the other side.
"It's not locked," Giles called. There was no need to signal the others; they were in position, weapons at ready but -- as a minimal courtesy -- not actually leveled at the doors.
The door swung open, and Richard Wilkins III, Mayor of Sunnydale, stuck his head inside. "He-e-ere's Johnny!" he said cheerily, then beamed at the semicircle of dour faces turned in his direction. "Okay, I know it's not original, but you can't go wrong if you stay with the classics."
It had been agreed that Giles would act as their spokesman, for so long as the proceedings were limited to verbal exchange. "You wished to meet with us," he said. "We now are meeting. May I inquire as to the subject of this discussion?"
"Give me just a second here," Wilkins said. He stepped the rest of the way in and off to one side, lifted a cell phone to his ear, and said, "Now, Jerry."
Faith started for him with the staff raised to strike, stopped as Giles checked her with a gesture. From the monitor, Willow said, "We just lost water pressure."
"Oh, yes," Wilkins said, nodding pleasantly. "This is supposed to be a friendly gathering, and I'm pretty sure I trust you more than you trust me, but I didn't want to expose my people to whatever nasty stuff you might have added to the sprinkler system." He raised his voice. "All clear, boys!"
They came in behind him, spreading out on either side to stand facing the Slayers and their allies. Two of them wore human faces, but in the rest the demon was clearly manifested. Eleven, Giles noted, and the Mayor made twelve, so one was still outside. For whatever reason.
"Now we can get started," Wilkins said. He surveyed them with benign amusement, ignoring his henchmen. "My goodness gracious, does Principal Krupps know he has this many library volunteers? Nine of you here, after hours, and only one actually drawing a salary. That's dedication. It certainly warms the heart to see there are still people willing to give back to the community."
Giles nodded. "Indeed. Especially given the current lack of respect for local government." It was childish to indulge himself with the rejoinder, but the man's spurious joviality grated on him as much as ever.
"Well, all right," Wilkins said. "If you want to get straight to business, we'll do that." He allowed the eternal smile to fade, but still somehow retained the air of being pleased with himself. "Tell me, why do you insist on seeing me as the villain here?"
"Oh, small things, I suppose." Giles gave him a controlled shrug. "Selling your soul for power. Orchestrating the various demonic depredations that continue to infest this city. Trying several times to have us killed. Trivialities, perhaps, but we tend to be sensitive about such matters."
"Little men, little minds," Wilkins said with a sigh. "Idealists never bother themselves with the nitty-gritty of how things actually work. Oh, sure, you're great with the flashy, obvious menaces, but do you have any idea how many things I've saved Sunnydale from over the years?"
"So that, at the opportune moment, you could sacrifice it to ensure immortality for yourself," Giles replied sharply.
"Well, yes," Wilkins said. "And now I'm doing it to keep what small power I still have, but the point is that I'm doing it, and precious little thanks I get from your personal vigilante group. It wasn't you who stopped the plague limpets, or called out the troops to squash Maggie Walsh's little cut-and-paste project, and it doesn't look like you even know about Glorificus."
"You mentioned a point," Giles observed, "but I see scant evidence that you're approaching one."
"You know, you are just killing that stereotype that the British are more polite." Wilkins shook his head. "All right, you want brass tacks, you'll get 'em. We've differed in our methods the past few years, you and I, but we've always had the same basic goal, to keep this city protected from the more over-the-top threats. So imagine my surprise when I hear that you're working up one of the very doomsday scenarios you've always been so gung-ho to prevent." Again the bland politician's smile. "I've got to say, you just don't strike me as having the aptitude for that kind of thing."
Giles could only hope the others were guarding their expressions as carefully as he. "That is an extraordinary statement," he said evenly. "I feel it calls for an explanation."
Wilkins chuckled. "I just love a straight-line like that. I can't help it, it brings out the ham in me." Again he raised his voice. "One explanation, please!"
She strolled through the door with a languid unconcern that was itself a kind of insolence, the lethal grace of her movements not a bit hampered by the prisoner who stumbled ahead of her. (Wait, two more made fourteen in all; had Wilkins' permanent transition state between demon and human somehow made him invisible to Willow's sensor system?) She no longer wore the bustier that had occasioned so many 'dominatrix' insults -- in its place was a crimson half-tee beneath a black leather vest punctuated by metal studs -- but she had retained the high boots and skin-tight trousers. She held the man with one hand, black-lacquered nails resting like talons at his throat, and though no one spoke or moved or drew an audible breath, Giles felt the tension in the library thicken and chill.
Vwilla ... and her captive was Ethan Rayne.
They were all watching her, and she basked in the effect she knew her entrance had made. Not enough fear there to suit her, but that would change soon enough; and for now she was satisfied at confirming that, even if they weren't quite shaking in their shoes, no one took her casually.
"Hello, my yummies," she lilted, lascivious mockery in the lazy smile she gave them. "Miss me ...?" And then she was fighting for her life.
She had done an instant check as she came through the door, knowing at a glance that her softer twin would never nerve herself to face her, but that the dark Slayer and her one-time toyboy were ready to erupt at a touch. It amused and aroused her, so that she had let herself forget the other person with a long-standing grudge. There was barely time to hurl the Brit into the clutch of an obliging lackey, then she was fully occupied with shrieking blonde ex-cheerleader.
It was pathetic, this limp little rabbit didn't stand a chance against her, but the girl's mindless attack had snapped the two groups into reflexive combat, and she had her hands full for crucial seconds while two Slayers rampaged through the minions. She slammed the rabbit to the floor with enough force to crack the tiles, a lightning glance around and something sang toward her and she snatched the arrow from the air inches from her breast. A hand closed on her ankle, the silly little bitch wouldn't let well enough alone so fine, she dropped astraddle of her, anchoring the squirming rabbit by the throat while she raised the arrow to plunge it into the heart of her prey --
"STOP!" and she did, it was Mayor Demon's voice and she looked up to see that everyone else had likewise frozen, except for one minion who chose to press his attack on the smaller Slayer and was headless a moment later. "You really need to control your people," the Mayor chided this-world's-Giles. "This was supposed to be a friendly get-together, remember?"
Other-Giles lowered his own crossbow. "That was the intention, yes. My apologies." He looked her way, studying her with arctic eyes."Clearly we underestimated the animosity Harmony harbors for her progenitor. I assure you, it won't happen again."
She laughed, watching other-Willow cringe at the sound, and said, "Not if I kill her, it won't. What do you say, snuggle-bunny?" She prodded Harmony with the arrow. "Living forever not agree with you?"
The blonde girl glared up at her, hissing, "You are just so dead."
Willow laughed again, and caressed Harmony's cheek. "And loving it," she crooned. Other-Willow looked as if she might faint. Better and better.
"You know, my girl has a point," Mayor Demon observed genially. "Four of my people gone in, what, five seconds? Not that they can't be replaced easily enough, I grant you, but 'Sorry, we'll be more careful next time' doesn't really seem like a fair trade. What if I'm in an eye-for-an-eye mood?"
The third Brit -- Wesley, she remembered, the twitchy one -- stepped forward with his jaw set. "If you order your creature to strike," he said, and she listened for the quaver in his voice but it wasn't there, "or even if she does it on her own whim, you know full well that any discussion or negotiation ends in that instant. We will simply kill you all, without mercy or hesitation."
Mayor Demon's smile widened. "Hear that, Willow Anne? Now they're going to kill us." To Wesley he added, "Seems to me you haven't been having much luck in that department. My girl's too sharp for you, and as for me ..." He spread his hands. "Invulnerable, remember?"
Wesley-wimp didn't back down by a hair. "I remember. And you may remember that imperviousness to harm doesn't protect you from imprisonment. Except this time it wouldn't be merely a holding action, to immobilize you until the Hundred Days had passed; force my hand, and I'll see you entombed at the bottom of the ocean, in accommodations designed to last centuries. Or longer."
Harmony wriggled beneath her, and she stilled the girl with another warning jab from the arrow. "Threats," Mayor Demon sighed. "I come in for a civil airing of matters that concern us all, and what do I get? Disrespect, violence, and threats." He looked back to Willow. "Don't kill her unless I give the word, but don't let her go, either. She makes a nice, fluffy bundle of collateral, don't you think?"
He had to be kidding. "Bor-ing," Willow pouted. "Get somebody else to do it."
Mayor Demon wagged a finger at her. "Ah-ah. I can't trust anyone else to give the job the proper attention. Besides, if it comes to it, don't you want to be the one to do the honors?"
Well, yes, there was that. Willow smiled down at the defiant girl beneath her. "Give me an excuse, little rabbit. Any little twitch will do."
Wesley-wimp seemed ready to explode, but it was Faith who spoke, savage with hate and frustration. "Oh, sure, she's all Mistress of Bad now, but the last time I saw her she was barreling out the back exit so fast the door never touched her bony butt."
Willow smirked at the dark Slayer. "And the last time I saw you, there was a pile of sweaty guys on top of you." She flashed a jagged grin. "Bet that brought back memories."
Mayor Demon clucked reproachfully. "Ladies, please. We're trying to conduct business here." He turned to other-Giles. "Not that I've gotten much cooperation from you and your hooligans. I'm a believer in polite discourse, and you've all just been downright rude."
"If the subject is politeness," other-Giles said, "I might point out that we've been under an armistice for months, which you rescinded with this evening's initiatives. Dual assaults, doubtless linked to others we contrived to avoid."
"Okey-dokey," Mayor Demon responded. "And then I point out that a minute ago we were talking about your ringing in the Apocalypse. If that isn't copyright infringement, I don't know what is." He nodded toward Ethan Rayne, who had been squirming in the grip of the minion to whom Willow had flung him. "Your old school chum has been giving us an earful, believe you me."
Other-Giles spoke very, very softly; dangerous, even. Oooh. "Ethan ...?"
Rayne shrugged, or tried to. "Sorry, Ripper. I'd've broken under torture, we both know that, so why not save myself unnecessary discomfort?"
"I trusted you," other-Giles answered, his expression hard. "Your past actions aside, I thought you at least had a sufficient grasp of the wider issues to recognize all that was at stake here, and to behave with some responsibility."
Rayne gave him a rather wan smile. "Out of my hands now, I'm afraid."
"In that, if in nothing else, we are in agreement." Other-Giles looked to Mayor Demon with stony eyes. "As you know of my intended course of action, you must know as well the reasons behind it. While I've no particular interest in justifying my motives to the likes of you, surely you recognize that such an amoral and self-serving individual as my 'old school chum' --" (a curl of the lip) "-- would hardly aid in facilitating his own destruction unless there were indisputably good cause."
Mayor Demon chuckled. "Actually, it looks like he's been working on a spell-sequence to trade places with his other-universe counterpart. Can't be done, I'm afraid: etheric dissonance, irreconcilable affinities, all sorts of technical details. But at least he has the right idea, which is to find some way to survive the meltdown you're so set on triggering. I thought it was you and yours who were into the 'never say die' business."
"I've already investigated every acceptable alternative," other-Giles replied. "Even if such a substitution as you say Ethan was attempting were possible, I wouldn't trade someone else's life for my own." He indicated the other White Hats with a curt gesture. "None of us would."
"Your funeral," Mayor Demon said with a shrug. "But that doesn't mean you have to drag the rest of us down with you. According to Ethan, here, Willow Anne and I don't exist in this other reality, and she's already made one crosstime jump. There's nothing to stop us from switching over --"
"No," other-Giles said. That fast, that flat.
Mayor Demon's smile lost some of its congeniality. "We're not just talking about jumping ship, Mr. Giles. I know a thing or two about sorcery; with you here and us over there, working together, it might be possible for us to stabilize and balance the two realities. Save them both."
"No," other-Giles repeated. "First, it can't be done. This timeline has become more and more perilously overextended for what must have been years; any attempt to shore it up will only precipitate the destruction of its stronger parent. Second, I don't trust you; if we did in fact transport you, I see nothing to prevent you from writing us off and going your merry way." He regarded them with unconcealed loathing. "And third, I doubt that even the survival of our own reality would be worth loosing the two of you on a world now happily rid of you both."
A kind of stillness settled over Mayor Demon, and Willow wondered if it was visible to the human eyes of the White Hats. She licked her lips; fun times comin'. "Well, that's just darn ungracious," MD was saying; and yes, she could tell by their sudden alertness that they could hear the difference in his voice. "So it's like that, is it? I come to you with a good-faith offer of cooperation, and you reject it out of hand."
"Are you surprised?" other-Giles said. "Did you truly believe we would even consider such a cynical and transparent proposal?"
"Not really, no," Mayor Demon said. His chuckle was as affable and reassuring as the skirr! of a buzz-saw. "But it got us past the little spell barrier you set up. Now, Willow Anne." And as he pulled the gold statuette from beneath his coat and began to speak the words of the incantation, Willow rammed the arrow through the heart of the girl beneath her, and shouted the command to attack.
A human with a stake facing a vampire was like a man with a knife fighting a leopard: he could win, but the smart money was on the leopard. These were no ordinary humans -- two were Slayers, and the others had learned to provide supporting fire from the sidelines while their supernatural cohorts carried the brunt of the action -- but then, Willow was no ordinary vampire. Besides, they didn't have to win, only to keep the breathers busy while Mayor Demon finished unwrapping their little surprise package.
Willow was on her feet even as she drove the arrow home, and Faith was coming straight for her but this wasn't the time for it, she darted behind two of the minions and feinted at other-Willow. The girl was so pale they looked more alike than ever (except for the haircut, that was just sickening), but her fear didn't stop her from bringing the crossbow around. Willow did a round-off to take her out of the line of fire and slammed a kick into Wesley-wimp's hip (oh, pooh, she'd been aiming to break ribs with that one, but the Watcher went down anyhow), and behind her she heard Mayor Demon's voice turn into a liquid choking, he'd taken an arrow in the throat from other-Xander and his damned speargun! She hurled herself at that taunting face, so familiar and once-cherished and weak now, smashed aside the flimsy weapon and drew back to take out his own throat with a sweep of her nails, and only at the last instant twisted away from a crossbow snap-shot by another of the White Hats, the short grunge-punker with the ridiculous hair.
Okay, things were getting out of hand here. She snatched up a book and winged it at him, didn't wait to see if it struck, she was already seeking another target. There, the smaller Slayer was occupied by a minion swinging a chair, she had lost the sword but thrust between the rungs of the chair with one of those stakes she always seemed to have handy, and Willow leaped for her as the minion disintegrated. She'd been wanting a taste of this one, she struck the stake from the girl's hand and then they were face-to-face, trading a flurry of punches, blocks, kicks -- this was glorious, this was perfect, they were fighting with the same style! -- and then the tiny blonde allowed a punch to slide through, took it without flinching, and nailed Willow dead solid center before she could load for a follow-up attack.
She flew backward, hitting one of the tables and flipping over it in an involuntary somersault. She came up, demon-face out and thoroughly pissed, and this time she was in no mood to dodge when she saw Faith coming for her again. She deflected a jab from the pointed staff, trapped it momentarily in the crook of her arm, and with her free hand she powered a palm-heel strike straight into the taller girl's face. Faith staggered, swinging blindly with the staff ... and then with surreal suddenness they had changed partners, another minion grabbing Faith with a roar while a charging body slammed into Willow from behind.
She went down, twisting and lashing out with a booted foot, and it was the rabbit, why the hell wasn't she dead? The idiot girl swarmed atop her, babbling incoherent curses, and Willow cut loose with everything she had: fists, elbows, knees, head-butts, smashing at any vulnerable area with every ounce of her strength and cunning and vicious fury. It wasn't working, Harmony shrieked and snarled and yelped at every blow but she kept on coming and her own hits, inept as they were, were beginning to exact a toll. Willow caught a wrist, jerked the girl around and cranked on a sleeper-hold, grinding it in desperately as she felt her assailant finally begin to falter ...
The library wasn't especially small, but it was still an enclosed space, and within those walls the sound was like a bomb blast. Willow actually felt the skin on her face stretched back by the concussion wave; bookshelves tumbled like dominoes at the upper level, and the single window blew out, glass spraying with a sound her ringing ears couldn't register. She rocked back, numb, the slack body of the rabbit sprawled atop her, and struggled to collect her wits. Had the White Hats managed to sneak in some kind of detonation spell ...?
No. In the space where they had fought, the minions were gone; all but one, and he was semi-conscious and tangled in the fragments of a broken table. The White Hats, too, had been slammed off their feet, so that the only ones now standing in the room were Mayor Demon -- throat healed, hair unmussed, even his damned coat was straight! -- and a thin, birdlike middle-aged woman with dark hair and seething eyes.
"Steady there," Mayor Demon was saying to the woman. "You'll probably be disoriented for a few seconds, we discussed this during those facilitated telepathy sessions. Just stand for a moment and let it pass." His smile would have done credit to a mako shark. "Then the festivities can really begin."
The blonde Slayer was the first to recover, diving for the dark-haired woman with her mallrat-Barbie face set in a glower of determination. Mayor Demon barked a warning, and the girl was flung back as yellow-orange light erupted from the woman's raised hand. "There," he said, beaming with satisfaction. "You see, Catherine? It's just as I told you: nothing has changed, they're still ready to attack anyone outside their little cabal who has any kind of power. They're the ones who imprisoned you, they're the ones who exploited and betrayed our Amy ..." His pointing finger speared at the other Slayer, delectable Faith, who had been trying to stealthily gather herself for a leap of her own. "And there is the one who killed her, gutted her like a trout when she refused to let them control her any longer!"
Willow propped herself up on an elbow, not bothering to shove the rabbit off her. (Made a nice, lumpy blanket, actually.) Things were about to heat up, and for once she wouldn't be doing all the fighting. Fun was fun -- and it had been fun -- but you had to pace your pleasures or they'd start to pall on you; besides, she might miss some of the savory details if she was jumping around in the middle of it.
Some of the White Hats had pulled themselves together while Mayor Demon was tuning up the newcomer, and as Faith sprang at her the grunge-punker loosed another bolt from his crossbow, while other-Xander looped a single-bladed battle axe at the woman with an overhand heave. The woman -- Catherine -- threw up both hands, and the air vibrated with a jolt of invisible force; the crossbow bolt flared and vanished in a streak of smoke, the axe veered away as if on rails, and Faith was smacked backward into the midst of her colleagues.
"Three and a half years," Catherine said with acid intensity; her voice was scratchy, and the intonations were subtly off, but the passion and meaning were impossible to mistake. "Couldn't move, couldn't feel, couldn't beg for help or release, couldn't even look away from the endless parade of empty-headed adolescents passing by in front of me." Her hands were glowing now, and she moved them, palms up, as if testing the heft of unseen objects. "But I was never as helpless as they believed. I could think, and I could plan. Oh, yes, I could plan." She turned to the man beside her. "Can you even begin to imagine the kind of plans someone would make over more than three years of frozen confinement?"
Mayor Demon gave her a tut-tut expression and said, "Ahm, Catherine, I wouldn't dream of trying to tell you what to do, but ..." He gestured at the White Hats, back on their feet and readying weapons. "I've learned from experience that it's never wise to give these people a chance to develop a strategy."
"You're right," Catherine said. The energies she held had brightened and grown to the point where it was uncomfortable to look at them, and she stretched and shaped them with matter-of-fact adroitness. "It's time to do what I came here to do." And she raised her hands and loosed a silent, shattering blast of cold fire.
In the eighteen months they had worked together, off and on, Willow had never seen Mayor Richard Wilkins look surprised. She saw it now, in the timeless instant before he was torn from existence by that torrent of searing light. In the abrupt, shocked silence that followed, Catherine stared at the vacant space where he had stood, and spat, "That was for my daughter, you megalomaniacal prick."
Willow lay unmoving, suddenly glad she hadn't called any attention to herself, and watched the woman turn back to face the White Hats ... who appeared, in fact, to be just as stunned as Willow was. "Did he think I wouldn't know?" Catherine demanded of them. "Did he think I just stood there for three and a half years? I could see, and I could hear, and your mind gets very sharp when you have nothing to do but think." She looked from one to another of them, not so much seeking an answer as daring them to offer one. "My mind was free," she went on, "and I could still feel the forces running through this town, and when Amy started using my power, I was able to tap into it, and watch things happen through her eyes."
The single surviving minion struggled to his feet, staggering, his eyes still only half-focused; once again the silent flame leapt from Catherine's hands, and he was gone before the scream could form in his throat. She seemed hardly to have noticed; she began to pace, and as she passed the double doors Willow saw that one of them was ajar. Ethan Rayne was nowhere in sight, she realized, and knew with gut-level certainty that he had seized his chance to flee during the second clash between White Hats and Black. Catherine was talking again. "I watched my scatter-brained daughter fall in with your group, and I watched it all turn sour. There was a time when I wanted to kill her myself, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed seeing that grinning snake seduce her with flattery and misdirection, use her own jealousy and insecurity to turn her into one of his tools ..."
Without warning she turned toward where Willow lay, and the hidden vampiress truly felt her blood run cold as Catherine added ominously, "And don't think I've forgotten your part in it all, you undead bitch-dyke sleazepot --!"
Willow threw Harmony off her and bolted for the door, only to bounce back as a wave of power slammed it ahead of her. She was in the open, there was nowhere to run and no weapon to use and no time left, the woman's hands were pulsing again with that unrelenting fire. Willow looked to the watching White Hats and said in exasperation, "Oh, fu--"
And then the light took her.
Catherine the Great turned back to the little huddle of people in front of the main desk, and lowered her hands. "You used to keep a percolator back in that office there," she said conversationally. "I hope you have a pot going right now, because after three years I would just kill for a good hot cup of coffee."
It was interesting to watch the way they dealt with the woman: courteous, cautious, restrained. Quite familiar, actually, though it had been years since anyone had treated her with any such deference. Not that it was difficult to figure out why: she had lost her power when she regained her humanity, whereas Catherine Madison currently possessed both.
The subject in question had gone through three cups of coffee, and was now finishing off a clutch of stale doughnuts Willow had unearthed from beneath the counter. She had also talked non-stop while gorging, mostly moans of pleasure and demands for more. "Those are terrible," she said, swallowing the last bite and dabbing in the box for flakes of crusted sugar glaze. "God, those are terrible, it's just heavenly. What else do you have?"
Wesley looked alarmed, Giles pensive; Buffy and Faith, in response to pointed glances and tiny hand-gestures from Giles, had faded back and were staying quiet. Which was logical enough: Buffy had trapped the woman inside some kind of little statue, Faith had killed her daughter to save Willow ... with someone this powerful, everyone she might have a grudge against would have sense enough to keep their heads down.
Or not. "Um, I think I've got a PEZ dispenser here," Xander offered, rooting around in his pockets.
"PEZ?" Catherine shivered rapturously and held out her hand. "Give."
It was really very annoying, all these people standing around and no one willing to bring up the main thing on their minds. "All right, then," Anya said. "Now that you aren't a bowling trophy anymore, will you be trying to kill everybody, or did you have other plans?"
Xander froze with his hand extended, and Wesley looked as if he was choking on his own spit. Giles let out one of those deep, deep sighs. (What? somebody had to ask.) "Plans?" Catherine said, reaching out to take the PEZ dispenser from Xander. "Yes, I did mention plans, didn't I? Right before I sent Mayor Dick and his X-rated vampqueen spinning down the trash chute to Hell." She emptied the dispenser into her mouth, clicked it a few more times to be sure it was exhausted, and tossed it back to Xander. "Well, let's see. I plan to go out and have a whole lobster in butter sauce and four or five piña coladas, then watch movies until the theaters close, then find a motel and stand in the shower for an hour or two, then feed quarters into the vibrating bed and let my brain turn to marmalade. Oh, and I'm pretty sure there's a monster banana split in there somewhere, and a day or so down the line I think I'll lie out in the sun until I toast like a cinnamon bun." She looked around with a smile that wasn't especially nice. "I don't have any particular plans to kill any of you. Oh, I'll be happy to do it, if you're feeling neglected, but now that I've lit up those other two, it's just not at the top of my 'To Do' list."
Anya could feel the others relaxing, and Giles began, "That's, um, that's very encouraging ..."
"Except for him, maybe," Catherine said, jerking a thumb at Xander. "I haven't made up my mind on that one yet."
Giles got that expression that said he was about to do the honorable thing and stand up for Xander despite his own feelings. Right. Anya cut in ahead of him. "I hope you decide not to," she said to Catherine. "Don't get me wrong, we'd love to watch you slap him around for awhile, but if you try to kill him we'll all have to try and save him, and none of us really want to do that."
Catherine laughed. "I can imagine. I'm, what, the only female in this room he hasn't slept with and then blown off? I'm surprised you didn't break out the tar and feathers a long time ago. So why should you care what I do to him?" She looked to Xander, her smile tightening. "Amy was one of his playmates-of-the-month, and she wound up dying for it. I wasn't exactly the greatest mother in history, but it seems like I shouldn't just write it off under the heading of These Things Happen."
"Hey." Xander stepped away from the others. "You want a whipping boy, here I am. I've earned it."
"Be quiet, Xander," Giles said to him without looking his way; then, to Catherine: "He behaved deplorably, none of us deny that, and he injured us grievously in the process. We've no way of knowing, however, to what extent he was acting of his own free will during the course of your daughter's enchantment, and regardless of his personal behavior he has remained a steadfast ally. We won't desert him, nor stand idly while he is singled out for vengeance."
"You'd rather I came after the whole bunch of you?" Catherine turned her hands palms-up; no magical energies flickered there, but her point was clear. "I could take out the whole school, you know, bring it down around your ears, and none of you could stop me. Most of witchcraft is mental discipline, and I had plenty of time to work on that, so threatening me is a bad idea. You want him to live, you need to be giving me reasons why I should let him. And while you're at it, bring me some more coffee."
"Very well." Giles nodded to Willow, who took the empty cup and scurried to refill it. "You look to Xander and see a pattern of behavior which you quite properly judge to be unacceptable. I am more inclined to view the results of Amy's unrecognized spell-residue as a series of events, of which Xander was the primary instrument but not truly the cause. These events affected us all, for good or ill, and we all acted in response ... again, for good or ill."
He paused, and Anya wondered if he was thinking again of his voluntary staging of Buffy's Cruciamentum. That, coming so soon after she had been haunted by the First Evil appearing in the image of an accusing Angel (and that following so close on her finding Willow and Xander in flagrante in the ruins of the factory), had been the trigger that drove Buffy away, and Giles had been seared by guilt ever since. Tiresome, though she had learned not to say so.
"The point," he said, recovering himself, "is that we made choices. Xander may or may not have been fully responsible for his actions at the time, but we unquestionably were responsible for the choices we made in reaction to them. I ... betrayed my Slayer's trust, placing obedience to authority ahead of what I knew to be right. Wesley attempted magicks he didn't understand, with consequences that were fortunate in the immediate instance --" (a nod toward Harmony) "-- but could very well have been catastrophic. Faith used her brief telepathic abilities for amusement and petty gain before we could cure her, without regard for the feelings of those whose personal secrets she was plundering, and further exacerbated the rifts that had already begun to form in our group. And Amy, out of pride and jealousy and resentment, made a deliberate choice to ally herself with evil. She was one of us, and I grieve for her, and wish we could have seen the bitterness she bore and what it was doing to her ... but in the end she died because of her own choices. Not ours, not Xander's. Her own."
Willow had returned with the coffee, and Catherine sat sipping from the cup as Giles concluded his statement. Something about her ... Anya studied the woman more closely, trying to clarify whatever it was that was trying to get through to her. Catherine pondered for ten or fifteen seconds, then nodded slowly. "Okay. That's not enough by itself, but we'll call it a foundation." She looked around. "Next?"
Willow looked like she had something to say, but Harmony beat her to it. "Hey, Xander doesn't deserve to be charbroiled, even if he is a dick." There was an embarrassed silence, and she frowned at those staring at her. "What? He doesn’t."
Faith snorted. "She may be a total ditz, but she's got a point. I went in with my eyes open, and I might have wanted to break his neck afterward, but I didn't do it so that's that. And Anya already knew he was a two-timing dog, she came to Sunnyburg in the first place 'cause he screwed B over so bad, so she was taking her chances just like the rest of us. We could see it and we still didn't have any better sense, so how's that his fault?"
"If I might ..." Wesley cleared his throat. "The long and short of it is that all of us here either have been misused by the young man, or deeply care for someone whom he did so misuse. However the ladies might feel, I believe I speak for the men when I say we pity him more for what he lost, than resent him for the damage he did in the process."
"Wait a second." Buffy stepped around Oz, who had been trying to stay between her and Catherine, and to Xander she said, "You were with all of them?"
"Uh, well, yeah." Xander had that rather-be-anywhere-else look, but he didn't try to dodge it. "And ... a few others besides. I was just this big Bug-Zapper o' Love for mystical women. Well, and for Cordelia and Willow."
Buffy took a long breath, and for a moment Anya thought she might launch herself at his throat; but then she relaxed and let the breath out slowly. "I never realized how bad it had gotten," she said, looking to Catherine. "I knew that ... that things had happened, and Wesley told us about them finding the spell and finally breaking it, but I didn't know how deep it had all gone. Look, the Xander I knew might have hurt Willow without realizing it, but he would never have done it on purpose. That's just not Xander."
"And he fell in love with Buffy the first time he ever saw her," Willow added softly. "Once they were together, he wouldn't have thrown that away ... not for me, not for anything. Amy's spell had to have been messing with his mind as much as with ours. You can't blame him for that."
"Can't I?" Catherine turned to Anya. "So far most of the others have said their piece. Do you have anything to throw in?"
"Yes," Anya said. "How long are you going to keep jerking us around?"
Again the pained sigh from Giles, and Catherine's eyebrows rose. "Oh, you think I should just jump directly to incineration?"
Anya sat down across from her at the broad table. "You've deceived these others, but I'm a different matter. I was a vengeance demon for a thousand years, and I may have lost my powers when Buffy made that pitiful wish about never coming to Sunnydale, but I still know the look of a woman seeking retribution. You had it when the Mayor first brought you back; it isn't there now." She shook her head. "You don't intend to do anything at all to Xander, do you?"
Catherine laughed. "No, I don't. It was a thought, but I was never really serious about it." She turned her head to smile at the others. "Not that I haven't enjoyed watching you all tiptoe around me, and then scramble for reasons why I shouldn't fricassee the little crumbball, but it's time to get down to the real business at hand."
Giles coughed delicately. "And that would be ...?"
"Right." She looked back to him. "That end-of-the-world stuff you've been planning? You can forget about it. Not only is it not necessary now, you'll find it isn't even possible."
"I, um, I don't ..." Giles stopped, peering at her warily. "Would you care to, er, to be more specific?"
"Sure. Just don't interrupt." She leaned back, stretching until muscles cracked audibly. "Aahhh! Okay, you already understand that we're in a parallel timestream. It always amazes me that people talk about things like that as if they understand them. It's 'parallel universe' this and 'alternate timeline' that, they take the concept for granted and never stop to ask themselves basic questions ... such as, what made it split off to begin with? and if it's separate now, why is it still linked to the original?"
"Hold on there," Anya said. "I understand those things, I used to work with them, so you don't need to be patronizing."
"Really?" Catherine looked mildly interested but not particularly impressed. "Then maybe you can follow along with me here. The two questions I was talking about? the answer to both of them is the same: me. This whole separate universe exists because of me, and I am -- or was -- the reason it was on the brink of tumbling down before Mayor Dick stepped in and saved the day."
"Saved you, you mean." Anya shook her head. "You're very conceited. I'm told people find that unattractive."
Catherine's laugh was sharp and contemptuous. "No, he really did save the world, the slimy bastard. Didn't know he was doing it, and I'd have burned him regardless, but with the worst of intentions he did exactly what was needed to set everything straight."
She stood up and began to pace again. "You have to remember, I was always aware of where I was. For three years and nine months, day in and day out; I didn't even sleep, sleep is a bodily function and I didn't have a body. For the first year I raved and plotted revenge, and a lot of good it did me. Then Amy started exercising her talents, calling on her birthright and some of my old spell materials, and I could feel it tickling at me but I couldn't get hold of it. When your oversexed friend blackmailed her into doing the love spell, though ... that was a major undertaking, and I locked onto it and wouldn't let go."
"I think I see," Anya said. "Except for scrying and divination, almost all spells operate at the probability level. So if you caught that one at the moment of casting --"
Catherine nodded. "Exactly. With no voice and no hands, the only effect I could have was by way of sheer mental pressure, but I gave that everything I had. I couldn't take the power for my own, I couldn't reshape the spell to suit myself, all I could do was push and hope that it would somehow work out to my advantage." She sighed. "And I guess it did, in the long run."
"You created a contingency vertex," Anya said. "Except, one of those will collapse back in on itself if left unattended."
The answer to that was a derisive snort. "Unattended, my eye! I could feel the shift, and I wasn't about to turn loose. It was all I had, it was the only thing I could even try, so I poured all my concentration into it. Day after day after week after month ... I channeled every wisp of stray energy I could snatch from the Hellmouth, kept up the pressure and added to it every way I knew how."
"Right," Anya said, her voice quickening. "The Hellmouth itself is a locus of probability flux, and you used it to set up a bare-bones feedback loop, and the overflow from the loop to shunt power and substance to a shift gradient. You stretched the probabilities out of shape --"
"-- and then one day the accumulated potential crossed a threshold," Catherine finished for her. "Just like that, it snapped from what-really-really-could-be to what-sort-of-is-now."
"Uh, excuse me," Xander said. "It's really bracing, listening to you two ladies talk shop, but ... are you saying that you're the one who made Amy's spell go wrong? That all the craziness we went through, you did that?"
Catherine glared at him. "Don't press your luck with me, boy. I may have mellowed some while I was stuck inside that God-damned trophy case, but your life is still hanging by a thread as far as I'm concerned. Amy cast the spell, you took what it gave you and ran wild with it. All I did was push it up a slope and hope that, when it started down the other side, I could hang on and be pulled out of where I was. I didn't know what would happen with the outside world, and by the time I did, there was no way for me to stop it."
"Ignore him," Anya said, flicking one hand dismissively. "What you’re saying is that this timeline was created by your attempt to escape. And the link that held the two realities together, that threatened to destroy them both ..." Her eyes narrowed. "That was you, too, wasn't it?"
"Bingo!" Catherine snapped her fingers. "I was the link, locked inside the cheerleading trophy; I was still part of both universes, and the farther they diverged from one another, the more stress the link put on both of them. I didn't understand it at first, but I could feel things getting more and more strained, and finally I could see it wouldn’t be long before the foundations cracked. I was ready to give up and let it go, let the two universes pull back together and merge --"
"-- because what's the use of escaping if there's no world left to live in?" Anya supplied for her.
"Exactly! Only right about then, Mayor Dick broke out his communing crystals and started priming me as a weapon to use against the bunch of you. That's when I knew I was home free, and ..." She leaned back and spread her hands. "Here I am. I believe applause is in order."
Giles harrumphed! "What you say is, um, it ..." He stopped, and did what he always did when he needed to gather his thoughts: he took off his glasses and began to polish them with his handkerchief. "It's, it's deeply interesting. If I understand you properly, you are maintaining that ...?"
Catherine cut him off with an impatient wave. "I'm saying that, with me out, it's all over. No more crisis. You might not be ready to take my word for it, but look it over for yourself. Read all the signs again, recheck your measurements, do whatever it takes to satisfy you; you'll see that I'm right. This is a new creation now, and we all have the rest of our lives ahead of us." She stood up. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I hear some cherries jubilee and a full-body massage calling for me. Bottom line? stay the hell out of my way or I'll make you sorry you didn't. Otherwise, enjoy."
"Please don't consider this interference," Giles said, "but you've been, er, incommunicado for quite some time. And, given what disappearances in Sunnydale usually mean, I'm sure you were officially declared dead some time ago. Do you think you might need anything? transportation, financial assistance while you ... readjust?"
Catherine stopped at the double doors. "Funny. You're funny. No, thanks, I'd say I have that covered." And she passed through the doors and was lost from sight.
They looked to one another, hesitantly, as if afraid to hope, and Oz was the first to break the silence. "I don't want to commit to anything," he said, "but this is good news, right?"
"I believe her," Anya said. "She's very knowledgeable, for a mortal."
Giles' voice could have been that of a ghost. "So it would seem. We, um, we of course must confirm the salient facts, but ... yes. So it would seem."
Xander rolled his eyes. "Whoa, careful there, G-man, the British government will revoke your citizenship if you don't rein in all that wacky exuberance. Me, I just want to ask one question."
He swung his arm in a wide gesture that took in the broken furniture, the tumbled shelves, the intermittent heaps of gray-brown ash. "Be straight with me, I can take it: do I know how to throw a party, or what?"
They were most of the way back to the apartment before Wesley spoke. "Are you dreadfully upset, my dear?"
Harmony sighed tragically. "No, just really disappointed. Not only I didn't get to kill her, I didn't even see her go." She shook her head. "That just sucks. And believe me, I know."
He patted her hand. "You can perhaps take consolation from the knowledge that you played a significant role in her demise. The struggle initiated by your assault thinned their ranks, so that when it came time to battle in earnest, she found herself overextended; and, of course, you engaged her a second time and effectively immobilized her at the end ... oh, my word!"
"What?" Harmony looked to him. "What's the matter?"
"The gem," he told her. "We forgot to return the gem to Mr. Giles for safekeeping. I didn't wish to raise the subject while Mrs. Madison was present -- alarming woman, really -- and by the time that extraordinary conversation was ended, it had quite slipped my mind."
"Oh," Harmony said, and shrugged. "Well, it's no big deal. Who's going to look for your Gem of Armani on my toe, under these cheap ugly shoes?"
"Harm," he said patiently, "the entire point of reserving a mystical artifact for use in emergencies is to return it to protective storage once the emergency has passed." He checked the street signs, obviously looking for a place to turn around. "We must go back immediately."
"Wes." She touched his arm. "We just wasted the Civil Servant of Doom and a dozen of his top soldiers. Don't you think the forces of evil would really rather just take the rest of the night off? I know I would." She smiled at him. "Besides, what's the rush? You know what we've never done together?"
"Not offhand, no. You've been rather dismayingly adventuresome." He looked to her in sudden alarm. "I say, you're not suggesting ... well, bondage, or some such?"
She giggled at the thought. "Ooh, kinky. No, I was thinking how nice it would be if we just went down to the beach and sat on the sand and watched the sun come up together."
"Mm. Yes. Yes, that would be pleasant, wouldn't it? And safe, so long as you wear the Gem." He glanced to her with something that was more sadness than fondness. "Shall we swing by the flat and pick up a thermos for you?"
"Sure." She leaned against him, nestling in as he put his arm around her. "And swimsuits. Sunrise won't be for awhile yet, and while we're waiting we can play lifeguard and grateful swimmer ..."
"Ah," Wesley said. "Yes. Yes, quite." He pressed his foot down on the accelerator, and the Volvo surged forward.
They had been sitting in the van for close to ten minutes, neither of them saying a word. There was no awkwardness in the silence, but at the same time it lacked the easy companionship that had been second nature to them for so long. Finally Buffy said, "So."
Oz nodded. "Yeah."
"You were right," Buffy said. "The effect Xander had on us all, the pressure from Witchmom's push to get out of the trophy ... you were right, we were being moved around by stuff we never saw."
"Looks like," Oz agreed.
"I just feel sick," she said. "All this time ... was any of it true?"
"I pretty much go with Giles on that one," he told her quietly. "We may have had outside stuff nudging us toward each other, but the things we did when we were together, that was us. Clear down the line."
She sat, unspeaking, unmoving, digesting the thought. "Why did you come after me?" she asked at last. "Two years ago, I mean."
"Because I couldn't stand to be around Willow." The words were as dry and soft as ever, and no remnants of old pain showed in his face. "She really did try, after we were able to talk again, but I could see it wasn't gonna work between us. Even if it wasn't her fault, something had gotten broken and it wasn't ever gonna heal right. And you were alone, and hurting, and you needed somebody, and there was nothing left to keep me here."
"So I was a pity case."
An economical shake of his head. "You were someone I cared about."
Buffy looked to him with reluctant hope. "You weren't in love with me?"
"Not for the first year." The faint, ironic smile had crept back. "All that time I was propping you up? I was leaning on you, too. We got each other over the worst of it, and never tried to make any more of it than that. More came later."
She was nodding. "Yeah. No fireworks, but it was real. Even if nothing else was real, that was." She took a deep, shaky breath that was very near to being a sob. "Oz, I don't know what to do. I'm afraid to try and hold you, afraid I don't have the right. But I can't stand the thought of letting you go."
"Then don't," he said, and reached for her. The kiss was light but not hesitant, their lips barely touching, and his arms went around her with an undemanding gentleness unlike anything she had ever felt from Angel or Xander.
No fireworks. No blistering flame of passion. Only an even, steady glow that would warm them for a lifetime.
* * *
He had parked down the block, and when he came up the sidewalk he could see her waiting on the porch. Lights spilled from the curtained windows, and happy music, and voices pitched with that giddiness that follows surviving a battle to the death. As he went up the front steps he could hear one voice raised for attention:
"... and then she walks up to him, calm as you please, and says, 'Mister Rayne, I don't believe I've had the pleasure.' And he's starting in on how actually they met back during the Band Candy thing in '98, when she fires a front kick straight into his crotch. Lifted him up on his toes, let me tell you. And then he's down on the grass curled into this little whimpering ball, and she says, 'I know we've met. I said I hadn't had the pleasure. Now I have.'"
Laughter rocked the windows, other voices clamoring for details or offering them. Xander looked to her, shaking his head. "Man. Sorry I missed that one."
She sighed. "If you want to know the truth, it didn't feel nearly as good as I thought it would."
"Maybe. But it sounds like it was fun to watch." He paused. "So, how'd it go?"
"You were right," she told him. "The Mayor had another dozen or so waiting outside, I suppose for some kind of signal. We tried to move in quietly, so we could hit them when they started to join the others, but they spotted us and we had to open fire."
"No harm," he said. "Thanks for backing us up."
"Thanks for keeping me in the loop. I was pretty sure something was happening when Buffy left so suddenly, but she still thinks she can protect me from the truth."
"Like you're protecting her," he pointed out.
"I suppose that's true." She sat on the porch railing, and after a moment he did the same, a few feet away. "Tell me," she said, "was this just some personal grudge match, or was it one of those things where the earth was about to open up and swallow the whole city?"
"Little of both. But it's all taken care of." He nodded toward the window. "They're all in a good mood, so I take it nobody got hurt too bad?"
"No, that paintgun idea of yours worked like a charm. We'll be getting some more of those. And you'll have to show us how you fill the paintballs with holy water, so we can make our own ammunition."
He grinned at her, pleased. "That good, huh? I've been wanting to try it out, but the nights have been quiet lately. Not that that's a bad thing," he added hastily. "As for the paintballs, I got the idea from those inkjet-cartridge refill kits. I just use a hypodermic with a heavy-gauge needle to suck out the paint, and another one to put in holy water. Little dab of epoxy to seal the puncture, and it's, 'Go ahead, Lestat, make my day.'"
She nodded understanding. "It made a big difference. None of the vampires could get close to us ... and luckily, there was only one conventional demon in the bunch."
"Whoa!" He leaned forward. "Didn't think of that. What happened?"
"It was scary for a minute there." She shook her head. "When we realized the holy water wasn't affecting it, Larry and Calvin tried to wrestle it down. Calvin almost got his shoulder dislocated, and Larry will need a few stitches for claw marks, though his jacket stopped most of it. Then Loryn came roaring back in that big Suburban of hers, blaring the horn, and when they dived out of the way she hit the thing head-on."
"Cool," Xander said. "Didn't hear that, we musta been pretty busy about then. Demon pizza?"
"No, but after that he didn't want to fight us anymore. He took off, we let him go. The important thing was to keep them out of the library, and we accomplished that."
"In serious kick-ass style, sounds like." Xander gave her a lopsided smile, and added very casually, "You know, our new principal may have been trying to make an impression. I think he kinda has a thing for you."
"You may be right," she said, and sighed again. "Calvin is a good man, and he's very earnest about the work we're doing here. I'll do my best to go easy on his feelings."
"Okay," he said. The silence stretched out, and after a minute he stood up. "Well, I'll let you ..."
"Xander," she said. "Were we looking at the end of the world?"
"Uh ..." He sat down again. "Why do you ask?"
"I could see there was something Buffy wanted to tell me, but she couldn't think of how to start. The last time she acted that way ... well, I just wanted to know."
"Well ..." He shrugged uneasily. "For awhile it looked like we might be. Turned out it was a false alarm."
"Would you have told me about it?"
He shook his head. "Buffy would have. Once she was back, it wasn't my place."
"I see." She folded her hands on her lap. "You've been straight with me on everything else, so I suppose I can believe you on that."
"Straight," he said, his voice going bleak. "Yeah."
"Xander." She spoke with that no-nonsense firmness that meant, Pay attention, boy, this one isn't up for debate. "You had sex with Buffy, and then you cheated on her with her best friend. I'm not about to excuse that, and if I'd known all the details at the time I probably would have strangled you. But I only know them now because you told me yourself --"
"Right," he interrupted. "After she'd already been gone nine months. I let you blame yourself when it was my fault all along --"
"Xander, shut up." She fixed him with a practiced glare. "You didn't have to tell me at all. And you've never tried to make excuses; just the opposite, you've made sure nobody forgets anything you did. Well, that's been going on long enough." Her eyes softened, and she went on more quietly. "You brought me into the world Buffy always shut me out of, and you showed me a way I could actually make a difference. You've made sure your people don't know anything about this, and neither do mine. You've had this whole 'silent penance' thing going, wallowing in guilt for all you did wrong and hiding the good you've done since. And I kept letting you do it, because I blamed you, too."
His mouth twisted. "No more than I deserved."
"Maybe. I won't argue the point, because I'm telling you: it stops now." She stood suddenly. "The world almost ended. Do you know what that means? It means that anything we might have wanted to do, but didn't, there wouldn't be another chance. It means that anything we felt, but didn't say, would never be said. Dying is one thing, but knowing you never lived the way you wanted, never told people how important they were to you ..."
"Yeah." He looked at his hands. "Yeah, I was kinda feeling some of the same stuff. But I didn't think that ..."
"You're good at not-thinking." She smiled at him. "You practically have a patent on it. You're young enough to learn better, eventually, but until you do, I'll think for both of us."
He sat with his eyes down, afraid to speak. Finally he looked up, and said slowly, "I kinda have a history of taking things the wrong way, so I've gotta ask: does this mean --?"
"It means," she said, "that I don't want us to meet secretly anymore. The rest of it, we'll work out as we go."
"That's ..." He stopped, swallowed. "That's good. That's great." He stood from the railing. "Tomorrow?"
She nodded. "Tomorrow's fine."
"Okay." He gestured toward the door. "I guess you can get back to partyin' down with the Secret Slayer Auxiliary."
"Not right away," she said. "I used it as an excuse to come out, once you called me back, but I really do need to wait until my head stops pounding."
"Another one of those pull-the-hatchet-out-of-my-skull migraines?" He studied her with a frown. "You ought to see a doctor about that."
"It's a fact of life, Xander: middle-aged women get migraines." She smiled. "And young women. And young men. It's an equal opportunity beast. Don't worry, once it goes down a little, a stiff drink or two will handle the rest."
"Well ..." He shuffled from one foot to the other. "Okay. Tomorrow."
"Yes," she said. "Tomorrow. Good night, Xander."
"Good night ..." He stopped, looking to her uncertainly. She nodded, her eyes on his, and he drew a steadying breath. "Good night, Joyce." And he turned and went down the front steps, his chest suddenly tight.
Getting onto the Interstate fast was good when you were trying to make a quick departure, but only if you didn't flip the sodding car, which he almost did when the woman said, "You're a slick one, I'll give you that. Almost made it out of range before I caught your track."
"Bugger me!" Ethan wrenched the wheel back into line, shot an incredulous glance at the new presence in the passenger seat. He hadn't seen her appear, it was as if she'd been there all along and he just hadn't noticed, which was simply bloody impossible. "What the bleeding hell --?"
"We haven't been introduced," she continued coolly. "I'm Catherine Madison, and you're my ride and my bankroll until I say otherwise."
He bit back the pungent retort that had leapt to his lips, took an extra second to steady himself, and said, "I see. To what do I owe the honor?"
She smiled in a way he found not at all reassuring. "Two things. You were available, and you were headed in a direction I didn't mind going." She considered, and added, "Three things, actually: you're the kind of worthless weasel I could burn down to charcoal briquettes without a second thought."
"Ah. Yes, I do have that effect on some people." He took another look at her. "Might I inquire what it is in Los Angeles that interests you?"
She shrugged. "Anything. Everything. You name it, I want it. I've been in solitary for close to four years, and I'm ready to just roll in fun and frolic." Another of those disquieting smiles. "Hope you have deep pockets."
Ethan had spent decades sizing up people, automatically assessing their potential for exploitation or threat. Every ounce of his experience told him this Madison woman wasn't running any kind of bluff: she had both the power and the willingness to do as she had said. Why he had let Ripper talk him into coming back to this miserable hamlet was a mystery; you'd think he'd bloody learn ...
"I've got enough boodle to carry us a bit," he said, "but not if you're bent on painting the town. Been in a bit of a dry spell, you see, plus there was a costly attempt to reconcile chaos theory and the laws of chance at the gaming tables ..." He stopped suddenly, his pulse quickening. "I say, if you're looking for sensual diversion, we're headed in the wrong direction. For sheer spectacle and variety, one can hardly do better than Las Vegas, over in your state of Nevada." And if the woman's abilities should happen to include a facility at reading cards or influencing dice ...
Her eyes were cold. "I'm hearing something I don't much like: it's the sound of someone who just struck an angle. I know your rep, Rayne. Do you have any idea what I'll do to you if you try to screw me over?"
Ethan kept his smile, though it might have stiffened somewhat. "You have the advantage of me, dear lady; I've not been at all informed of your reputation. Would I be far afield, however, in postulating something in the range between instant death and protracted torment?"
Again the smile. "Not bad. If you've got as much sense as you have insight, you might even keep on living."
He was recovering both from the first shock of her appearance and from the first bristling reaction to her cavalier commandeering of his person. His history of calculated self-preservation was well-known and well-founded, but the fact was that a truly dedicated coward wouldn't be in this business at all. There was power here, and opportunity, and this Catherine Madison showed a casual unconcern for traditional proprieties that might fit in well with various scenarios he'd been contemplating.
Besides which, dangerous or no, she was a rather handsome woman. Actually, the danger added a certain delicious frisson to the situation ...
With all his considerable charm and a genuine measure of good humor, he said, "I am your servant, madame. In fact, I believe this association might prove to be of benefit to us both."
She shook her head and turned in the seat to look at the highway ahead. He paid it no mind, he was feeling the excitement that always came with the start of a new game, the appearance of a wealth of new possibilities.
"Tell me," he said, "have you ever given any thought to the pursuit of chaos ...?"
Note: The poem Oz quotes in Part I is "The Definition of Love", by Andrew Marvell.
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