Between the motion
And the act
falls the shadow.
--T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
I don't want to complain. Really, I don't. And it seems that's all I ever do to you. But... I look at the kids around me, and I wonder if they ever feel as awkward and graceless as I do. They can't. How could they function? Then again, how do I?
Diary, is Xander Harris ever going to notice me? Notice me as more than his little bud Will? Ever?
Xander wove through the throng of students with more flair than ability, blissfully oblivious of the curses being shouted his way. He pulled to a flashy, unsteady stop at the foot of the stairs leading up to the school and step-kicked his skateboard into his hand. "Willow!" he said brightly. "So very much the person I wanted to see."
Willow ignored the little thud her poor sixteen-year-old heart gave in her chest at the notion. He didn't mean it. Not the way she wanted him to. And truth was, she was happy that they were friends. She wanted more... but more might not want her. Easier to just be friends.
Inside the school, Jesse pounced on them with his normal high energy. "Did you study for chem?" he asked Xander urgently.
"I take chem?" Xander asked, puzzled. "Oh, yeah! I remember. I take chem," he told Willow with a great show of pride for figuring that out.
"We know that," Jesse said, agitated. "But did you study for the test? It's the last one before the science class switches into bio, you know."
"I know? I know? I didn't know. I don't know. Arrrrgh!"
"Guys. It's all right. I studied," Willow assured them.
"Oh, so you know the thing where we always sit behind you on test days so we can copy," Jesse said with a weak smile.
"I kinda... figured it out." The bell rang, interrupting them. "We'd better get to class."
Xander and Jesse had their first class together, and they wandered off with Xander's, "When the hell did I start taking chem?" trailing behind them. Willow gathered herself and headed off to her first class, which she took with her own personal circle of tormenters -- Cordelia and her clique. Entering the classroom with them every day was an act of courage. She never knew when the day would come that she couldn't do it.
But after that she had study hall, she reminded herself, in the library which was nice and quiet and deserted of everyone except for Mr. Giles. She didn't feel awkward around Mr. Giles. He was the only one who didn't look at her funny because of the big words she used, or laugh at her. And he lent her all the books she wanted.
As long as she had the library to retreat to, she would be fine.
Giles shut the tome he was reading, then took off his glasses, rubbing his eyes tiredly. Sighing, he rose to plug in his teapot, absently measuring out spoonfuls of leaves into the steeping basket.
Every book, every prophesy, everywhere he turned, he couldn't escape the reality that a cataclysmic event was about to strike this small town. He didn't have enough information to narrow it down, nothing useful. Only the knowledge that devastation was about to be wreaked, and he could do nothing to stop it.
A boy had been found unceremoniously stuffed into a locker. Dead. Drained of blood. It had begun.
"Buffy Summers," he murmured. "If you would come, you'd best come now. Before it's too late."
The band that night was loud, too loud. Willow fiddled with her drink and sighed, propping her elbow on the coffee bar and cupping her chin in her hand. She had been hoping that Xander would come by the Bronze that night. She didn't come here that much; bad enough to be alone most of the day at school, being alone at the Bronze just screamed wallflower. She supposed she could go bug Jesse, but he was currently getting slapped down by Cordelia for the umpteenth zillion time, and wouldn't appreciate her tagging along. Tagging along. Like a puppy. That's all she ever did.
Willow caught herself blinking back tears and firmly told herself to stop it. Crying into her drink was not going to make her less awkward and more popular, or make Xander notice her. Abruptly, she tossed some cash on the bar and jumped down. There wasn't any point in torturing herself. Xander wasn't coming, he wasn't noticing, and she was giving up and going home.
Maybe rec.tv.x-files.ust had an interesting discussion tonight...
Catherine Madison looked around the crowded, noisy club and smiled, reveling in her secret triumph. No one had noticed. No one. She'd been in her daughter's body for a week and no one had noticed anything. True, she'd been holding back some, but her little loser daughter didn't seem to have many friends. A few had approached her, and Catherine had cut them off. No need to be associating with those types.
After a week, she thought that she knew enough about being a teenager in the '90's to throw herself into the role. First and foremost... boys. Catherine felt her daughter's mouth curve in a smile. Cute boys. Like the one heading toward her. She tossed her daughter's long blonde hair (The one good thing her stupid father gave her...) and slanted a smile at the boy. "Hi. I'm Amy."
The boy smiled back. Slowly. "Hi, I'm Thomas. And we're going to have fun tonight."
"So, um, what did you say your name was?"
"You know, I haven't seen you around before. Are you from around here?"
"No, but I have family here."
"Have I met them?"
"You probably will."
Willow wrapped her arms around her knees and lowered her chin to rest on them. The grass tickled the back of her legs, the bright sun warmed the top of her head, and she just drowsed a bit, there in the sunlight. She'd spent too many hours surfing the Web the night before in an attempt to distract herself, but she felt much better this morning. Except, she thought with a yawn that cracked her jaw, she was sleepy.
"Willow!" She released her knees to look around at Xander's urgent voice. He skidded to a stop beside her, crouching down to look in her eyes. "Have you seen Jesse?"
"Nope. Last I saw him he was being kibble for Cordelia." Willow made a comical face, but Xander didn't laugh.
"He wasn't at the Bronze last night when I got there."
"Neither was I," Willow pointed out.
Xander waved that away. "You're usually not. And we were supposed to meet this morning, and I can't find him anywhere."
Willow started to feel Xander's tension drawing her own body up like a wire. "You think something happened?"
Xander nodded. "Jesse's not a flake. Not like me. He wouldn't stand a bud up. And...."
"And?" Willow prompted.
Xander just shrugged, but wouldn't say any more. He just settled himself beside Willow, leaning against her, shoulder to shoulder. Hesitantly, Willow moved to lay her head against him. Closing her eyes, she just sighed and enjoyed a few moments in the sun.
They found Jesse's and Amy's bodies that afternoon.
"What do you mean you don't know where she is?" Giles demanded. "She needs to be here, now! Yes, I understand that there is danger in many places, but all the signs... No, I'm not overreacting! The peril here is very real... damn you, listen to me! Hello? Hello?" Giles crashed the phone back into its cradle with a muttered, "Bloody fool."
He scrubbed his hands through his hair. No time. There was no time. What needed to be done had to be done now, or else... else what? He didn't know. Every book spoke of blood and death, but he needed to know more before he could precisely pinpoint the cause. His library was enormous, full of more heinous information than he could imagine, but its very comprehensiveness was defeating him.
He sat up when the double doors swung open. Willow stood poised on the threshold, her eyes wide and distraught in her pale face. Rising, he said, "Willow...?"
She made a choked sound and fled for the stacks. Giles remained where he was standing, helpless. After a moment, the sounds of quiet sobbing wound through the library to him. Each imagined tear was a drop of acid on his skin.
"Where are you?" he whispered harshly. "Why the hell aren't you here?"
Where is she? It was light out. There was nothing he could do while the sun was up. The impatience was going to drive him insane. So Angel paced, trying to burn up the energy that was set on consuming his body.
Where is she? She was supposed to be here. Tonight was the Harvest. Unless she prevented it, the Master would walk free. It had to be stopped. But the Slayer was nowhere in sight.
"I came here," he said out loud. "Why the hell didn't you? I'm supposed to help you. This is your job. I can't do it without you. I need you. Where are you?"
Nobody answered him.
Willow didn't move from her hiding place in the library, not even when the final bell rang, not even when the sun began to go down. Finally, gritting his teeth, Giles went up into the stacks and found her curled on the floor, asleep, tear stains streaking her face. Pity and fury welled up in his heart, and he was loath to wake her, to take her from blessed sleep into cursed reality. But when she whimpered slightly, he called her name, unwilling to let her linger in nightmare.
She sat bolt upright the third time he called her, terrified. "It's all right, it's all right," he soothed. "You were dreaming."
"Was I?" she asked with painful hope. "I dreamed...." She moaned softly. "It wasn't a dream. They're dead, aren't they?"
Giles swallowed. "It's dark out. I... don't think you should be walking home at night alone. If you like, I could drop you off at your parents' house."
Willow stared past him, unblinking. Tears were welling up in her eyes again. "They're dead."
Gently, Giles took her arm and helped her rise. She moved, obedient as a doll, following him out to his car. She sat quietly in his car as he drove her home, tears streaking her face. She gave him directions to her house, but didn't move when he pulled up outside of it. After a few moments, Giles said her name. She blinked, then got out of the car and walked to her front door. Without a word.
Giles put the car back in gear and returned to the school. He had to find an answer, find a way to stop... whatever was going to happen. Without the Slayer. There had to be a way. There had to.
Xander wanted to hit something. Kill something. Do something. The rage inside him was choking him, blinding him, darkening his sight and blocking his hearing.
Jesse was dead. They'd found his body dumped carelessly outside of town. Along with Amy. Dead. Xander's fists clenched, but he didn't have anyone to hit. Tears burned in his eyes. Jesse, his bud, had been murdered.
And no one knew who did it.
Xander saw that his wandering footsteps had taken him back to the Bronze, as though somehow, someway, he'd go inside and find Jesse. As if somehow, what was inside the Bronze was preserved from change. Surely there had to be a place where Jesse was alive and this pain was not eating at him. Somehow --
Without warning, someone caught his shoulder and yanked him back. "Don't go in there," a voice hissed.
"Let go! Let go of me!" Xander couldn't shake off the grip. Squinting behind him, he saw a dark-haired guy in the shadows, taller than he was, stronger. Flailing wasn't getting him anywhere.
"You go in there, you die." The guy's voice was flat and expressionless.
"Yeah, right. Sure. What, are two guys with axes standing inside?" Brute Guy didn't say anything. "What's with you?" Xander demanded furiously. "Let me go!"
"Can you help me?" the guy asked roughly.
"What? No way. I'm not helping you." Xander was whipped around and found himself face-to-face with furious dark eyes.
"Everyone inside that club is in danger. Can you help me?"
Xander paled. "You mean it. You really mean it." He swallowed. "Is it the people who killed Jesse?"
The older guy looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "Yes."
Xander closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Then yeah, I'll help you." Adrenaline pumped through his body. He wanted to fight. He wanted to kill. Now, he'd get his chance. "What do we do?"
Giles walked back into the library, determination in his stride. He had little choice but to do what he could. Research was availing him nothing. It was time for something slightly more... active.
He shut and locked the library doors, although it was well after dark and no one came to the library anyway. From a locked closet where he kept the weapons he had intended to train the Slayer with, he pulled out a large disk wrapped in black velvet. Carefully, he carried it to one of the library tables. And then stopped, waiting for his hands to stop shaking.
He didn't want to do this. Long-buried disgust was a ball of lead in his stomach, and his hands were slippery with sweat. Meticulously, he wiped them off on his jacket and resumed his preparations. A jar of holy water, a lit white candle, a few sweet-smelling herbs... and a remembered incantation.
With distasteful reverence, he unwrapped the disk, revealing a scrying mirror made from obsidian. The dark black volcanic glass threw back his reflection in the leaping candlelight with hollows carved under his cheeks and his eyes sunk deep in their sockets. He ignored it, pouring the holy water on the concave surface until it brimmed, nearly over-full, while he chanted in Latin. Scattering the herbs into the surface of the water, he had a flash -- just one moment -- of the last Summoning he'd participated in, and the terrible, terrible price they all had paid. Then the flash went away and he continued. He was not Summoning a demon, he was summoning an image. This was safe. Even if it was the witchcraft he'd sworn never to touch again.
The herbs absorbed the water and drifted downward, disappearing into the shallow darkness. He continued chanting absently, focused on the play of candlelight in the water, watching, waiting...
...waiting until the light resolved into the figures of two boys marching determinedly through an alley. Both were dark-haired, and one was scarcely more than a child, perhaps sixteen. The other was older, taller, and every line of his body was eloquent with rage and determination. They were heading towards a warehouse... he thought... he couldn't see clearly...
Cordelia lowered her arms after the song, flushed and energized. "I love that song," she repeated enthusiastically to her friends. The next one that started was slower, darker, and Cordelia's glow began to fade as a chill shot up her spine. Suddenly, she didn't want to be on the dance floor anymore. "Let's --"
The lights cut out, startling her in mid-order. Then one spot came on, lighting up a figure on the stage. "Ladies and gentlemen, there is no cause for alarm." The shadowy figure stopped and chuckled. "Actually, there is cause for alarm. It just won't do any good."
Cordelia shivered. He looked weird. Some kind of Goth band member or something. But... "I thought there wasn't any band tonight..."
"This is a glorious night! It is also the last one any of you shall ever see." Creepy Guy smiled in absolute satisfaction. OK, we got it, you're scary and dark. The fangs are a little too much, Cordelia thought distastefully. "Bring me the first," he ordered.
Cordelia watched in disbelief as big, burly Fred was dragged on stage by some skinny guy. Fred was the guy who made sure that this club on the bad side of town was always safe. No one, but no one got inside without Fred's OK. And to see him fighting so helplessly...
"What do you guys want, man, huh?" Fred demanded. "Do you want money?" Then, as he got closer, he recoiled sharply. "Man, what's wrong with your faces?" he asked, stark terror in his voice.
Creepy Guy grabbed him by the throat. He wrapped his other arm around Fred's head, almost caressing, certainly savoring.
"Watch me, people," he said, his voice dropping into husky anticipation. "Fear is like an elixir. It's almost like blood..."
Cordelia raised her hands to cover her eyes, but not before she saw. The fangs... weren't toys. Real or not, they sliced into Fred's neck, releasing his blood. On the backs of her lids, she saw it over and over again, and cried out in fear.
The sound of Fred's body hitting the stage was gruesome. More so was the hoarse call for, "Next!" Again. And again. And again...
"I feel the Master's strength growing! I feel him rising. Every soul brings him closer! I need another! Tonight is his ascension. Tonight will be history at its end! Yours is a glorious sacrifice! Degradation most holy."
"I'm going to die," Cordelia sobbed over and over again. "I'm going to die..."
"What do we do?" Xander demanded. The other guy was casing the Bronze, checking windows and doors, finding them all locked.
"We go in, we get as many out as possible." Without looking at Xander, he kept checking out all the possible entrances into the Bronze.
"And we take out whoever's doing this, right?" Xander added.
"No." Abandoning his search, the other guy turned on Xander. "We don't. You can't win against these guys, you'll just die trying. Don't try to kill anyone. You can't. Just save as many as you can."
Xander opened his mouth to argue -- and was cut off by a high-pitched shriek from inside the Bronze. "OK," he said, giving in with poor grace. "But how do we get in?"
Grabbing the door handle, the other guy ripped it clean off, letting the door fall open. "Oh," Xander said. "They don't make doors like they used to, huh?"
"Let's go," he said, ignoring Xander.
"Right." Xander closed his eyes for a beat. "Right. Let's go."
Giles clutched the edge of the library table, unable to move, unable to close his eyes and stop seeing the images the scrying mirror sent him. Child after child went up on the stage, was fed upon, and dumped to the ground below. The vampire feeding upon them had a strange tri-cornered mark on his forehead, and called blessings out to a 'Master' as he fed. As child after child died.
This was what the Slayer was supposed to have stopped. And he had not discovered what was happening. Not in time to stop it. Just in time to watch it.
Shuddering convulsively, Giles' hand jerked. It caught the edge of the mirror and sent it spinning to the floor, breaking into a thousand night-dark shards.
And each one of them reflected the horror he had just seen.
They all stood so still, Angel thought. Terrified into immobility. They couldn't comprehend what was happening, couldn't understand that their nightmares had taken flesh and were walking among them.
Most of them obediently moved when he pushed them towards the open door. No one was guarding it, no one thought that they would have any threat. A steady stream of people disappeared into the night. Safe -- but for how long?
The kid was holding up, he saw. He'd taken one look at the stage, then set his jaw and started shoving people out the door. If they got enough people out, Angel decided, he'd take a shot at taking Luke down. It wouldn't work but... he had to try. Had to do something.
"He's rising!" Luke's bellow froze Angel where he stood. "He's rising. I can feel him! The barrier is broken. HE IS FREE!"
Angel tightened one fist. Too late. Always too damn late. He cut over to where the kid was trying to get a hysterical brunette out of the room, and caught his arm. "Let's go."
"There's still people in here --" the boy protested.
"Let's go," Angel repeated. "It's too late. They're dead. So are we, if we don't get out now."
"No--" he kept trying to struggle free.
"Listen to me: stay here and die with them, or leave and live. Those are your two choices. We've done all we can." When the kid stubbornly dug his heels in, Angel simply hauled him -- and the girl he had been pushing -- outside. "Get to the nearest safe place you can. And stay there."
"Where's safe?" Xander asked helplessly, supporting most of the girl's weight.
"Your house. Or hers. And don't invite anyone in. Vampires can't come into your house unless they are invited."
The boy gulped on the word 'vampire', but didn't disagree. "What about you?" he demanded.
"Just go." When the boy had disappeared down the alley, Angel made his way to his lair. What about him, he wondered.
What was he going to do now that the Master had risen?
What was he going to do to prevent the utter destruction of this town?
What was he going to do without the Slayer?
Willow's head was aching the next morning. The sun was blaring brightly into her room; she'd forgotten to draw the curtains when she had gone to bed. She'd forgotten going to bed too... why did her head hurt? Why were her eyes...
Then she remembered, and wished she didn't. She'd come home -- to find her parents acting as though nothing had happened. They didn't want her to "dwell" on Jesse's death. With a dutiful hug and peck on the cheek, they'd sent her up to bed.
It was very early; she glanced at her clock and read 5:23. Swinging her feet out of bed, Willow took off her overalls and sneakers and dressed in fresh jeans and a sweater. Barely pausing long enough to brush out her long hair, she walked out of her house, back to the school.
It was deserted. Completely. The faint sounds that her feet made on the polished floors, her slight breathing, echoed off the walls. She'd never been here so early, had never seen the school this empty before. Without faltering, she made her way to the library. Opening one of the doors with some difficulty, she stepped inside.
Mr. Giles lay sprawled over an open book, gently snoring. On the floor around him was a mass of glass shards. Willow crossed to stand beside him. She didn't want to wake him, but she did want to know why he had stayed here all night, studying something. She glanced at one of the closed books that lay off to the side, and simply froze.
It read, "Vampyre."
She didn't move, not even when a chill took over her body. The descriptions of Jesse's and Amy's bodies... no. No. Couldn't be. Not possible. Not real. But even while her brain was denying it, she reached for the book.
Light grew and strengthened as she pored over the books that had been gathered here. Many of them were in languages she could not translate, but enough were in English (and in a couple she could pick out the Hebrew she had learned for her Bat Mitzvah) that she got the idea. Vampires. Demons. Hell on Earth.
One of the books slid from Willow's nerveless hands and thudded to the floor. Giles' head snapped up and he rose, automatically holding his hands before him as though to defend himself. His wild gaze took in the white-faced girl before him, and slowly, he lowered himself to sit down again.
Willow shook her head, backing away from the book she had dropped. "It's... it's not real. It can't be. Tell me it's not real," she begged.
Slowly, moving with care, Giles picked up the book she had dropped. It was one he had translated himself, longhand, so he had a fair idea what she had read within its pages. "I can't," he said finally.
"Why not?" Willow demanded.
"Because I won't lie to you." He placed the book on the table.
"It can't be true," Willow whispered again, but she didn't believe it.
"Willow..." Giles began as gently as he could. "I wish... I wish I could tell you anything, anything at all, that you would want to hear. But," he added, with a glance around at the books that she had obviously looked through while he slept, "I have no comfort for you."
Willow clasped her shaking hands, trying to hold herself together. "Vampires killed Jesse and Amy?"
"Yes, they did. And..." Giles' eyes closed, and he flinched.
"What?" she asked.
He spread his hand over one of the books. "One night every hundred years comes the Harvest. It's a day when a vampire -- any demon, really -- who has been trapped but not killed can call upon another to help him rise. There was a vampire here, in this town, who was trapped. Somehow, I don't know. He is called the Master."
"And he wants to rise," Willow surmised. "When... when is this Harvest?"
Giles' expression did not change. "Last night."
Carefully, Willow felt behind her for a chair. She lowered herself into it because her legs weren't going to support her any more. "What... what happened?"
"People died. Many of them. And the Master rose." There was no emotion in Giles' voice, nothing but a searing weariness.
Willow just sat and shook. She thought about throwing up, but she hadn't eaten in almost a day, and there was nothing in her stomach. What had happened to Jesse and Amy... had happened to others. A lot of others. People she knew, probably. The coldness started in her again, sickness, terror.
She didn't know how long she sat there, staring at Giles with stricken eyes. But slowly, slowly, she came back to herself. The shaking didn't stop, but it subsided. The sickness did not pass, but she could manage it. And when she spoke, she surprised both of them.
"What do we do now?"
"Do?" Giles asked blankly.
"What do we do? Can we stop him, kill him? What do we do?"
Giles didn't move for a very long moment. Then, suddenly, determination rushed back into his face. "What we do," he said, rising, "is fight." He began to cross the library, oblivious of the shards under his feet, to a locked cage.
"OK," Willow said, rising with him. "How?"
He turned on her. "You don't. I do. You can't."
"Why can't I?" Willow demanded. "I want to help. I want to do something. I can't stand it. I need to help."
Giles had one hand on the cage door, regarding her with a steady look. The slender girl before him was still sheet-white, but her fists were clenched in determination, and he did not doubt she meant to do what she said. "Willow... this is dangerous. Do you understand?"
"Jesse was my friend. So was Amy. They're dead. I think I understand."
The words were clear, if not calm. That was the first loss of Willow's innocence. Giles didn't flinch at the hard tone of her voice. That was the last loss of his.
When he spoke again, there was no more uncertainty in his voice. "I know you can do research; I've seen you, here, in the library. I won't have time to do much of the research I need to. Can you do it for me?"
Willow nodded. "I can. I will."
Their pact was not sealed by a handshake or a written agreement. It passed from her eyes to his. Giles nodded, once, then opened the cage to begin sorting through weapons. Willow turned to go back to his books, to sort through them and begin to assimilate what she had learned.
The first bell rang for class. Willow glanced up. Then she glanced down again. Ignoring it.
He couldn't find Willow. Anywhere. By the time Xander had rolled out of a nearly drugged sleep, it was almost noon. He'd tried calling Willow's house, and a bland answering machine invited him to leave a message at the tone.
No way she had been at the Bronze the night before, Xander assured himself as he nearly ran to the school. No way. Willow didn't like to go there alone, and she wouldn't have gone out partying after Jesse... no way she was there, Xander repeated grimly. He couldn't lose Willow after losing Jesse.
He hit the school grounds, expecting it to be deserted. The noise and normalcy of it staggered him. How could people be getting up and going to school after what had happened the night before? He didn't know how many had died. He didn't want to know. But people were carrying on like nothing had happened.
Skidding through the halls, Xander looked for Willow. She wasn't in class. She wasn't in the caf. She wasn't in the computer lab. She wasn't in the library...
Just as Xander was backing up to go look for her in other places, Willow came around the corner of one of the stacks on the upper level, carrying books in her arms. When he called her name, she jolted, dropping them at her feet. Xander didn't notice, bounding up the stairs to grab her, to make sure she was all right. "Willow."
Willow clung no less fervently to him, and for a moment, Xander could almost forget everything he'd seen the night before. Then he took a step back and snapped, "Where the hell were you? I left a zillion messages on your answering machine."
"Oh, I better call home," Willow said distractedly, stooping to pick up the books. Xander took them from her, and followed her down to one of the long tables, putting them down with a thud.
"Where have you been?" he asked again.
Willow gestured a bit aimlessly. "Here. Reading. Studying. Oh, God, Xander..." Her voice broke, but she didn't cry.
Xander didn't say anything for a moment. "You know. About last night. What happened last night. Right?"
Willow nodded. "I know. I didn't know you did." Her eyes were sympathetic and steady. "What do you know?"
"It was at the Bronze last night." Xander scrubbed his face with his hands. "I was wandering because... because. Anyway, I ended up near the Bronze and this guy grabbed me and told me not to go in. He said if I went in they'd kill me." Xander stopped and squeezed his eyes shut. "He asked if I would help him fight them. He said they were the ones who had killed Jesse. I agreed. We didn't fight though. We just got out everyone we could. Not everyone, though. A lot didn't make it out. And then this guy on the stage started yelling something about somebody getting free, and the guy who grabbed me just shoved me out the door and told me to get home, and not to invite anyone in." Xander looked straight at Willow, daring her to make fun of what he was about to say. "He said that they were vampires, and you were safe as long as you didn't invite them into your home."
"Whoever he was, he was right." Xander whipped around in his chair, almost rising as the Brit librarian came up behind him. In his hands was a crossbow, a weapon that looked almost ridiculous when compared to the stuffy suit he was wearing. But his level gaze made Xander realize he was very, very serious. "Never invite someone into your home if you haven't seen them in the daylight. And I suspect that will be something that we shall have to learn, and learn well."
"Xander..." Willow's voice trailed off. Swallowing, she tried again. "Xander... it's going to get worse. I've been studying --" she indicated the books around her "--and I know. There was this guy, called the Master. He rose last night, and nothing is going to be the same."
Xander kept looking back and forth between Willow and Giles, trying to take it in. Bad enough that his best friend had been killed. But if that was just the beginning...
Willow got up from her chair and went over to him. She reached out, hesitantly, and hugged him. He didn't move, either to accept or reject it, just sat there. Finally he shuddered, once, and leaned his head against Willow's. The two of them sat like that for a long moment. Then Xander stirred, and looked up at Giles. "What do we do?"
"You shan't do anything," Giles said firmly. "Willow is aiding me with research."
"And you're gonna go fight them. Or is that for shooting apples off of people's heads?" Xander demanded. "I can't just sit here and do nothing. You've got to let me help."
"You're a child," Giles snapped. "I can't let you be killed trying to fight something you don't understand."
"Why not? Something I don't understand has been killing a lot of kids my age." Xander saw he had scored a hit with that one. "If I can't help you, I'll go find that guy who grabbed me last night. He didn't have any problem letting me help him."
"Xander!" Willow took his arm in both hands, as though she wanted to pin him in his seat.
"Well?" Xander demanded. "Can I help?"
Giles put the crossbow down. "This isn't a game. Yes," he said, forestalling Xander's argument, "I know you know it's not a game. But it bears saying. What we have begun is likely doomed to failure. At night, the Master walks among us, and vampires will flock to his side. I cannot overstate the danger you both will be in if you help me fight them."
"Would we be any safer if we didn't know anything?" Willow asked quietly.
"I don't know. All I know is I can't do this alone."
A silence fell that none of them wanted to break. Finally Giles rose, and crossed to the weapons cabinet. "You do not, I assume, know how to use any of these? Here..." Taking up a long blade, he handed it to the boy. Xander took it with grim determination in his eyes, stepping back a few paces to cut the air with it. A slanting beam from the skylight gleamed across the lock of dark hair that dipped into his face, and reflected off the silver in his hands. Giles froze, remembering a line he'd read years before. Under his breath, he murmured, "It seems that, in war, innocence is not enough."
School was out, but it wasn't quite dark yet. Willow knew that when she went home, her mother was going to be disappointed in her. By now the school would have called to say that she never went to any of her classes today. Frowning, Willow tucked her hair behind her ear and hurried through the empty school. All her life, she'd been afraid of disappointing people, of failing all those expectations laid on her. Now... she knew that her mom was going to be mad. Worse, she'd get that heavy, put-upon tone that said that, once again, Willow had failed to live up to what her parents expected of her. And she was not looking forward to it, but she knew that she was doing the right thing. Considering what had happened the night before, school was way down on her list of priorities.
Taking the master key Giles had given her in one hand and her courage in the other, Willow unlocked the lock of the computer lab. The audible sigh of the door opening made her look around, waiting for someone to pop out and accuse her of breaking and entering. But when no one popped, she ducked inside the room and shut the door behind her.
Crossing quickly to the computer she always used, she booted it up and waited impatiently while it loaded. Every second made her more and more jittery. When finally it finished starting up and let her access its files, she pulled out a disk and started loading information on it. She'd kept a hidden folder on the hard drive with stuff, and it took three disks before she'd transferred everything. Finally, she tucked the disks back in her pocket, wiped what had been her secret folder clean, and shut down the computer.
"I don't suppose you want to explain why you didn't come to class today?"
Willow jumped a mile and made a strangled squeak when her computer teacher leaned forward into a beam of failing sunlight. Ms. Calendar braced her elbows on her desk and smiled.
"I-I-I... I couldn't," Willow blurted out. When she tried for a lie, she found nothing would come, and simply stared mutely at her favorite teacher.
Ms. Calendar rose, hitting the light switch and spilling fluorescent light into the room to combat the setting of the sun. She watched Willow carefully, long enough to have the girl fidgeting. When she spoke, it was low-voiced and careful. "It's dangerous to be out after dark. You should be home."
Willow exhaled, closing her eyes. "I know it's dangerous to be out after dark. Especially..."
"Especially after last night," Ms. Calendar completed the thought.
Willow opened her eyes and looked at her. "You know," she said in a quiet voice.
Ms. Calendar's mouth tightened. "Yeah, I know. The signs... I didn't know how to stop it, though."
"That's what Giles said! He said that he knew something was happening, but he didn't know what, and he didn't find out until..." Willow broke off, choking slightly.
Without looking at her, Ms. Calendar said, "Until it was too late." Tilting her head so that the blue-white light from the overheads ran like water over the gold chains in her ears, she said thoughtfully, "So Mr. Giles the librarian knew what was happening, huh?" She didn't sound very surprised. "But that doesn't explain why you skipped every class today."
"Twenty-six kids died at the Bronze last night," Willow clutched the edge of the desk tightly. "And from what Giles said, it's only the beginning. How could I go to school and pretend that nothing has happened?"
"Everyone else did," Ms. Calendar pointed out.
Willow shrugged, unwilling to meet the teacher's eyes. "I'm not everyone else." Funny how different the words sounded now. Twenty-four hours ago, she would have given her soul to be everyone else, to be pretty and popular and outgoing. Now, her weirdness was a badge of honor.
"That's good. Neither am I." Willow looked up sharply, and Ms. Calendar smiled. "Come on. Take me to your leader." Then, very quietly, "I want to help."
Giles barely looked up from his book when he heard the double doors of the library swing open. "It's nearly sundown, Willow, and until we have --" He cut himself off when he realized Willow was not alone. She was bringing that... computer woman. What was her name... Ms. Calendar, yes. "What is... I mean, who... I mean, what can I do for you?"
"Playing dumb, Mr. Giles? How about rolling over and playing dead?" The dark-haired woman put her hands on her hips and stared him down. Giles didn't move an inch, and finally she relented. "Look, none of us here is stupid." She glanced for a moment at Xander, who looked like the quintessential high school about-to-drop-out geek-- until you got a good look at his eyes. "Despite what the rest of this town seems to think, this isn't going to go away by ignoring it. I'm not the sort to ignore what's going on around me. I know what signs mean. What these portents mean. I've seen them coming for days, I just didn't know how to interpret them."
Giles didn't move. The two teenagers took their cue from his stillness and watched her. "Are you a witch?"
Ms. Calendar shook her head immediately. "I don't have that kind of power. I'm a techopagan."
"I would have held those to be mutually exclusive," Giles said dryly.
"Power feeds on power, Mr. Giles. Do you truly think the power that fuels the universe is any different from the power that fuels us? Physics tells us that there is energy and matter. There wasn't any special provision made for things that go spook in the night. Just because science can't explain magic doesn't mean that science can't use it." When Giles didn't speak, she repeated what she had told Willow. "I know that hell on earth is here. I want to help. You haven't got the right to stop me."
"It is my duty--" Giles began, then cut himself off so abruptly that they wondered if he had seen something. If he had, it was an inner sight, one that blinded him. When he resumed, his voice had a different timber. "That duty is in the past. You're quite right. We cannot defeat this evil alone. Although I would wish to protect you -- protect all of you -- I can't. I haven't the strength or the ability. All I can do is give you the chance to protect yourselves, and hope that it is enough."
"We can protect ourselves." Xander spoke for the first time since Ms. Calendar had come into the room. Willow went to stand beside him, and he put his hand on her arm to reassure himself she was there. "I know we can."
"I'm glad you're here," Giles said quietly, looking up to meet Ms. Calendar's eyes. Between the two of them, they knew just how dangerous what they were getting into was. They by no means shared the teenagers' certainty. They shared the simple understanding that they might die trying, but they would certainly die if they did nothing.
"It's getting late," said Ms. Calendar. "We'd better get home. Vampires --"
"-- can't come in unless you invite them," Xander finished. "Right. Vampires." He shook his head as though to clear it. "Vampires."
"You'll get used to it," Giles said.
"I'll take Willow home if you take Xander," Ms. Calendar offered. Don't let him dwell on it, don't let him think too much about it...
"And stay inside once you get home," Giles admonished. Both teenagers nodded. Willow began gathering her bag and notes she had taken during the day. Xander just jumped to his feet, ready to go.
"Ms. Calendar?" Willow asked. "Thank you. I mean... for all of this."
She smiled. "You're welcome. Although, considering everything, I think I can call me Jenny."
Night. And freedom.
The only thing better than those two was blood and death.
Of course, the Master thought, dropping another body at his feet, combining all four was best. The blood rushed through him, reviving him, energizing him. The chase... ah, the chase. He had remembered and longed for the stimulation of watching his meal's panic, their futile attempts to get away, the terror. It was a spice as common as salt, adrenaline, and yet just as tasty. He never tired of it. For too long terror had been numbed before his meal reached him. Trapped below, he'd had to depend on others to feed.
Darla. He smiled, briefly. Poor Darla. He'd wanted to kill her for taking what was rightfully his. But he had not. He was careful. He planned. And she was clever, and valuable, and, most of all, his. And the burns would heal in a month or so, surely. Thomas had been wiser, even if he had the intelligence of a plodding rat. He'd brought his treat untouched to the Master. She had been blonde and sweet, like Darla. So on her, the Master had taken his revenge.
That had been... satisfying.
"Pretty girl," he said soothingly to the little bit of a girl he'd caught. It wasn't practical, he knew as he heard bones break beneath his grip, to keep catching such small things to feed upon. They were sweet, but barely a sip and he was done.
Which only meant he had to take more sips. The finest delicacies came in the smallest containers.
And who would gainsay him? He was free. And the night was his.
It's the end of the world as we know it. Oddly enough... I'm not that scared. I mean, I'm scared. But it would be worse if I had no idea what was going on. This way, at the very least, I know what's coming for me. For us. I'm a part of a "us" and that helps. I keep going around and around on the theory of ignorance = bliss. I can't help but think it's better to know. But if I didn't know, if I had an option, would I wish for ignorance? If I could go back to the day Jesse died and never, ever know why he died... I don't know. I do know Xander would never have been able to stand not having an answer. Is ignorance bliss, or is it a prison? There are too many people around me who seem to be living in blissful ignorance. But, then, I've never really been a part of the people around me.
This was what Giles had warned them against, Willow thought for the thousandth time that night. He'd warned them. Don't go out alone, not at night. Not even if you were aware. Not even if you had a weapon. Willow clutched her cross and stake to her chest even tighter and walked faster.
Somehow, she thought that Giles wasn't going to accept the argument that she didn't have a choice. He and Xander were out hunting, and she and Ms. Calendar... she and Jenny were in the library researching. The four of them had turned into an uneasy unit, with Willow as their common touchstone. Willow wasn't really sure what to think about the fact that everyone looked to her as the center of their band. It warmed her -- and it scared her.
But she had to go out tonight. To find Giles and Xander. Because something was wrong with Jenny. She didn't know what. All she knew was that Jenny had been working on something that she said would protect the library, make it a place as safe as any of their homes. And then she had screamed. Willow shuddered at the memory of the scream, and kept the cross that she held clutched tightly to her body.
They'd said they were going to the Southside Cemetery. There had been a lot of activity down there. A lot of the people who had been killed in the month since the Master rose weren't staying dead. The cemetery was filling up fast. If only they knew how empty most of the graves were, Willow thought with a trace of humor, they could reuse them, and --
She heard the snarl just in time to whip around and point the cross at an attacking vampire. He backed off rapidly, blinking at the cross as though it were a brilliant, blinding light. They stayed there -- stalemate. It was hours until dawn. She couldn't hold him off forever. Giles is gonna kill me, Willow thought wildly, backing up so that there was a brick wall to her back and nothing could sneak up behind her.
Instead, something snuck up behind the vampire. With a wild, unearthly cry, it coalesced into dust that blew into Willow's eyes, made her cough and sneeze. When she blinked her eyes clear, there was a tall, dark-haired guy standing in front of her. "You shouldn't be out here alone at night."
Silently, Willow displayed her cross and stake. He glanced away as though disgusted by her meager resources, and repeated, "You shouldn't be out here at night.
"I have to get to Southside Cemetery. I've got friends there. I need their help."
"Trust me. No one in that cemetery is your friend."
"Two of them are. They're trying to get the vampires as they rise out of the graves."
"Oh." There was a beat while the guy processed the thought. "Come on. I'll take you there."
He walked behind her, a silent ghost in black and white. Willow kept wanting to look behind her to make sure he was still there, but she kept being reminded of the myth of Orpheus and Eurpides. If she looked behind to check if he was there, would be leave? Anyway, oddly enough, she didn't feel uncomfortable with him at her back. He was a stranger -- but he'd saved her life.
When they reached the cemetery, Willow saw a flash of movement off to the side, heard the same demonic cry of fury that came from a vampire's destruction. She turned around, saying, "Thanks..."
But no one was there.
Quickening her pace, she crossed the few yards that separated her from Giles and Xander. "Willow! What are you doing here? I told you--"
"Something's wrong with Jenny. She's... sick, or something. She fainted. I need you to help me."
Jenny was still unconscious when they reached the library, and they dropped their weapons, rushing to her side. Giles took one look at the surroundings and began muttering under his breath in phrases that were so thickly British that the teenagers couldn't understand what he was saying. When he finally deigned to speak in words they could understand again, he asked Willow what Jenny had been doing.
"She said that she was going to make the library safe for us. She..." Willow's voice trailed off and she gestured with one hand.
"I cast a Circle and tried to ward the library," Jenny said weakly. She blinked at all of them and sat up, putting one hand to her head. "Backlash city. Whoa. Need caffeine."
"The last thing you need right now is a stimulant," Giles said, cutting off each word sharply. "Although what I'm considering giving you isn't helpful either."
Jenny took the bottle of water Willow retrieved and sipped gratefully. "I didn't do this for your approval, Rupert. I did it because it needed to be done."
"Don't you think I tried to ward this library? Or do you think I'm an absolute fool? There's something here, some... power here, that resists the effects of what we both tried to do. It," Giles said with heavy sarcasm, "doesn't care for barriers, apparently. On the positive side, it doesn't seem that vampires care for this area much themselves. They are not barred from coming, but they seem to have a certain... distaste for this place. What you did was reckless and careless. You did not ask for help, you did not tell me what you were doing, and you certainly did not warn Willow of the possible effects of what you were doing --"
"Rupert." Jenny's voice cut him off mid-rant. "Look, I'm sorry. No, it never occurred to me that you would have tried anything here. You don't come off as the witchy type. And I wanted to do... something. We've been sitting here for a month and people are dying every day and--"
"I know," Giles said quietly as Jenny just closed her eyes and shook her head. The three of them helped her up and into a chair.
"Better?" Willow asked anxiously.
Jenny attempted a smile that actually looked fairly real. "Better. Thanks for picking me up, guys."
"Hey, we're a team, right?" Xander looked like he wasn't sure if he wanted to pat her on the shoulder or get the hell out of there so he could stake more vampires. Jenny bet on the latter.
Much later, when they had been safely dispersed to their homes and dawn was about to break, Jenny remembered what Giles said. Don't you think I tried? Shivering with the memory of the... thing that had drained her when she had dared to trespass upon it, Jenny whispered, "Who caught you when you fell, Rupert?"
The vampire burst into dust two seconds before it got its teeth in Xander's neck. He slumped against a gravestone and lifted one hand to gingerly probe the skin of his throat. "Thanks. Maybe we should start wearing metal collars?"
Giles didn't seem amused, turning to scan the rest of the cemetery. Xander moved his hand from his neck and knelt to pick up the stake he had dropped when the vampire had jumped him. His hand was trembling, and he clenched it into a fist. He never stopped being scared. He'd thought that when he was doing something, when he was fighting rather than just standing there, that he wouldn't be scared. But he was. He was as scared he'd been the night that the weird guy grabbed him and asked him to help clear out the Bronze. Same weird guy who had rescued Willow when she'd ventured out to find him and Giles. "We should get him on our team," Xander muttered.
For the past several weeks, Giles and Xander had been patrolling the graveyards to stake newly-made vampires as they rose from their graves. It was, according to Giles, the most practical thing to do. They were disoriented and confused, and easy for two mortals to pick off. But it didn't touch the problem of the vampires who rose from cemeteries that they had not visited... or the ones who never got buried... or the ones who were flocking to Sunnydale as a new, demonic Eden. It was, Xander realized, a holding action, and not a very good one at that.
If they were going to do more than just put a band-aid on the problem, they were going to have to do something a little more... offensive. Xander was putting together a plan in his head for blowing up the Bronze, but he didn't want to present it to Giles until he'd worked out some particulars. He knew the girls were working on a plan of their own, involving some of Giles' spellbooks and a few -- OK, a lot -- of things he didn't understand.
If Giles had a plan, he wasn't sharing.
They didn't have any warning. The two of them had been staying within a few dozen feet of each other when they heard a hoarse scream. As one, they turned and ran toward the sound. What they saw was a kid being dragged into the cemetery by three vampires. He was hardly small -- Xander knew better than anyone that Larry was a big, burly guy, good at beating people up -- and he was putting up a good fight, but against three vampires, his fists didn't do much damage.
"Come on," Giles shouted, heading toward the group.
"Right," Xander muttered. "Let's jump three wide-awake and aware vampires. Joy." But he followed without hesitation.
Giles shot one with the crossbow just as Larry tried to smash its jaw. His fist flew through dust and he followed it, carrying himself beyond the range of another vampire lunging for him. The end of the vampire's lunge carried him onto the stake Xander thrust out, and he imploded. The third vampire, seeing his two compatriots killed, decided that cowardice was the better part of valor and ran for it.
Dazed, Larry lay sprawled at their feet for a few seconds. Xander realized that he probably needed a hand up, but didn't move to help. Years of childhood bullying made it hard. Xander could deal with the fact that he'd saved Larry's life. That's what it meant to be a good person. But he wasn't sure he was a good enough person to offer his erstwhile tormenter a hand.
"I think they're gone," Giles said laconically.
"No, really? I figured they'd stick around," Xander snapped back. He supposed he should be jubilant that they'd managed to knock out vamps that were up to fighting speed -- but he wasn't. The terror didn't stop. You just learned to live with it.
Larry had managed to sit up but was staring dumbly at the ground. Giles was scanning their surroundings, alert for an ambush. With a small sound of disgust directly mostly at himself, Xander boosted Larry to his feet. Larry promptly swayed and started to sink back down. "Giles? I think we'd better get him back to the library. Quick," Xander added as Larry's weight started bearing him to the ground.
Jenny and Willow looked up from their books when Giles and Xander half-carried, half-dragged Larry in. "What happened?"
"Vamps were trying for take-out, but they didn't tip the delivery boy very well. Never, ever piss off the delivery boy if you want your meal."
"We surprised three vampires who were trying to feed off this boy. Luckily, we were successful."
Between the two explanations, they got Larry to a chair and Willow checked him quickly over. "No bites," she reported. "And his pulse is strong, if a bit fast."
"You get grabbed by things that look like that and see how fast your pulse is, Whinny," Larry groused.
Willow ignored the elementary school nasty nickname and got him some juice. They'd found that they were spending so much time at the library, they decided to keep it stocked with food so they didn't have to go out as often. She offered a peanut butter sandwich silently, and Larry wolfed it down. Giles, Willow, Jenny and Xander looked at each other and at the stranger in their midst. The usual exchange of information that happened at the end of a night's hunt -- what Jenny and Willow had discovered in their research and what Giles and Xander had discovered in Sunnydale -- was halted by Larry's presence.
Larry finished the sandwich and looked around at the crowd looking at them. "How'd you do it?" he demanded.
"What?" Giles asked.
"How'd you get them? No one else has managed to get any of them. Everyone who has tried is either dead or undead. So how'd you do it?"
"What do you know?" Giles asked, sitting down at one of the tables.
Larry snorted. "Come on, I look dumb, I know, but even I've figured out what's going on. It's not gangs, and it's not aliens, and it's not guys on some serious drugs. Those are vampires. Everyone I know has figured it out by now, but no one wants to do anything. You stay away from the places where they can find you, and they leave you alone. Yeah, right." Larry snorted again, but this time in contempt. "So how come you guys are doing something?"
Larry's question was passed from gaze to gaze along the other people in the room. It landed on Willow, who thought for a moment, then said, "Someone has to."
Larry digested that for a moment. "I want in."
"No way," Xander snapped.
"Why? I'm not good enough? This isn't my town too? These aren't my friends dying? Or is there something special about all of you that you guys get to be the ones to save the day? I want in."
"He has a point," Giles said mildly when Xander would have protested.
"An old enemy?" Giles asked.
"You could say that," Xander muttered rebelliously. Larry squirmed a bit, hunching his shoulders and looking at the linoleum.
"That hardly matters now. Whatever grievances you have need to be put away."
"Yeah," Xander said reluctantly. Then, with more conviction, "You're right. OK, Larry, you may have made my childhood hell, but those guys out there are a lot worse."
"Thanks. I think."
Much later, after they had filled Larry in on the events of the past couple of months, and filled each other in on the night's events, it was time to go home. "Xander and I live near each other," Larry offered. "We can get home watching each other's backs."
"I'm not sure that is a wise idea," Giles began.
"Giles. We're going to have to go out on our own sometime, right?"
"I don't want you taking unnecessary risks," Giles protested.
"And you driving us home in that tin can on wheels is a necessary risk? Come on. If we're going to win this fight, we have to take a few risks."
Jenny watched Giles struggle for a moment, then give in. "All right. But be careful."
Xander nodded and he and Larry headed out. When Larry thought they were out of earshot, he grabbed Xander's arm. He looked extremely uncomfortable, but sincere. "Hey, man. Look... I'm sorry. OK?"
Xander didn't say anything for a long moment. Then he nodded. "It's OK. Hey, at least I know you throw a wicked punch, right?
"No, it's my left that's wicked," Larry said, grinning.
Jenny watched the two of them go off companionably, and smiled. "I do believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
"If they don't kill each other first," Giles muttered.
He should leave. That was the most logical, rational, intelligent thought Angel had had in a long time. He should leave, get out of Sunnydale, go find the Slayer, go anywhere in the world... anything but remain where he could do so little good and put himself in so much danger. Without the Slayer, all he could do was be one against the hoards, an insect to be swatted the first time he didn't duck away fast enough. Staying in Sunnydale would only get him killed.
Funny how he wasn't moving out.
Angel walked the streets. The mortals were learning -- slowly, but learning. They had begun to stay inside at night, altering their lives in response to the danger around them. Except for, of course, the little band of insane ones surrounding the erstwhile Watcher. They seemed ignorant of the fact that they could only fail; went out night after night to do their part to break the Master's stranglehold on the town. As long as they stayed, kept fighting, Angel could hardly leave.
He'd encountered them a few times. The boy, Xander, had swallowed fear and helped him at the Bronze. And the girl, Willow... He'd watched them all, separately and together, and the girl was the center on which they all turned. They were gaining members -- another boy and a couple of girls -- were getting better trained and better organized, but the essence had not changed. They were all fighting to protect their homes, and while Giles was the one they turned to for knowledge, Willow was the one they turned to for inspiration.
He heard the snarl and the scream, and -- almost -- hesitated. After the night of the Harvest, he hadn't worked directly against the Master and his disciples. But when he rounded a corner at a run and saw a kid fighting off a fangy attack, Angel sighed and dove in.
The kid only had a broken guitar to defend himself with, but he had backed himself into a sheltering corner and was managing to keep from being bitten with jabs of the splintered fret. Angel grabbed the wood and snapped down, breaking off a stake. He buried it in the vampire's chest, then turned to the boy.
He had short, spiky hair of a definitely unnatural blond. Blinking, he kept staring at the spot where the vampire had disappeared. "Whoa," he said finally, a wealth of emotion in the one simple word.
Angel offered him a hand, which the kid took, and helped him to his feet. "Didn't you mother ever tell you not to wander the streets at night alone?" Angel asked.
"Yeah, she did," he said, restrained bitterness in his tone.
Angel winced slightly, but wasn't surprised that this kid's mom had been among the casualties. "Look, are you staying or going?"
Glancing back over his shoulder, the kid studied the van piled high with possessions -- including the shattered guitar. "Staying," he said finally.
"Then go over to the high school. To the library." Angel struggled with himself briefly. He didn't know if they would appreciate the recruiting techniques, but more than that, he didn't want them thinking of him as some benevolent guardian. "Tell them," he said roughly, "that Angelus sent you."
"Hey, wait, what--" the kid started to asked. But Angel ignored him, fading into the night. Better for them that they know who he was, and hated him for it. Better all around. He couldn't help them. He could only die trying.
Oz found himself standing outside of the double doors to the library. He usually wasn't that good about taking orders, but when someone saves you from a horrible death, you kinda should take the suggestions they offer. And he was curious, a besetting sin. And he generally thought libraries were cool, although he'd never been inside this one.
And he had no reason not to go.
His entrance was unintentionally dramatic. All conversation stopped and the six people in the room turned to look at him. Oz froze like a deer in headlights. "Um, hi," he tried.
No one spoke. The two adults in the room traded glances, but didn't say anything.
Oz looked at all their faces. They weren't overtly hostile, but they were wary. "I come in peace?" he offered. "Look, some guy named Angelus sent me. After he saved me from a guy who really hates the dentist."
At that, the room came alive. A couple of kids he knew from passing in the halls in more normal times started talking to him, asking questions. The rest of the kids listened.
It was again the adults who reacted differently. The librarian headed for the stacks, a thoughtful look on his face. And Ms. Calendar, the computer teacher... sat as though she had been turned to salt.
Weird, Oz thought. And then went back to listening to what they were all telling him.
Giles and Jenny were the last ones left in the library that night. "Why don't you just put a cot in here and stay?" Jenny asked acerbically as she gathered her things to leave.
"I've considered it," Giles answered her question as though it were serious, most of his attention focused on the book before him. "But considering both of our spectacular failures to ward this place, my home is generally safer."
Jenny leaned against his chair to look over his shoulder. "What are you reading? That doesn't look like any of your spellbooks."
"It isn't." Giles sighed and shut the cover. "It's a diary. And... I'm afraid that things just became more complicated."
"Tell me something new," Jenny groaned. She sat in the chair next to him and braced herself.
"This Angelus... from the description Oz," Giles paused after the strange name, then continued, "gave, it would seem that he was the same person who helped Xander clear out the Bronze on the night of the Harvest, and who saved Willow when she came looking for Xander and I the night you were... taken ill."
"Yeah, it sounds like the same guy," Jenny agreed, her voice careful and steady.
"And yet... Angelus --" Giles flipped open the diary again and ran his finger along the lines of handwritten text, "--was the name of one of the most vicious and loathsome of vampires. He murdered for sport, fed off fear fully as much as blood. And the descriptions match. 'The one with the angelic face.' Young, handsome, etc, etc." Giles shut the diary again, and leaned his head into his hands, massaging his temples. "So is this creature stalking us in Sunnydale for reasons that I can't understand, or is it an entirely different person who happens to share the name of a vampire we would have good cause to fear?"
"Both, I think," Jenny said quietly. She linked her hands on the tabletop and stared down at them, seeing the short nails and long fingers, the twisted gold of one ring, the clear quartz of another.
Startled, Giles looked at her. "What do you mean?" Then, stronger, "What do you know?"
"More than I've told you." Jenny began twisting the gold ring around and around on her finger. "Rupert, I... haven't told you everything. I didn't think I'd have to. It was enough that I knew about magic and vampires. I didn't think you needed to know how I knew."
"Tell me." Giles' voice was quiet, but Jenny recognized the tone. He used it when he meant to be obeyed. Usually, she bristled at him when he used it on her, but she'd already decided that she had to come clean.
Pushing away from the table, Jenny got up and paced. "I wondered... from the description Willow gave I wondered. I knew he was here, I mean, obviously, I knew he was here because that was why I was here, but I didn't know how much he would be involved. I even thought that he'd lose the fight with the demon in him, that it would drag him back to his Master's side. I didn't give him much credit, did I?"
"Jenny." Giles rarely used her first name, and he'd lost the commanding tone. Now he was asking, and she couldn't refuse.
"Angelus was -- is -- a vampire, and a brutal one. You know that. About a hundred years ago, he fed on a gypsy girl and killed her. She was beloved of her clan, and they wanted revenge. Don't mess with gypsies if you can help it, Rupert," Jenny added parenthetically. "They can make your life hell."
"What did they do to this Angelus?" Giles prompted when Jenny didn't seem to want to continue.
"They did the most cruel and most painful thing they could imagine. They cursed him. With his own soul."
"Vampires don't have souls," Giles retorted, more or less automatically. "The body dies, the soul flees, and the demon takes over."
Jenny nodded. "Yeah. But the gypsies had a spell that could restore a lost soul. They found Angel's, and returned it to his body. And that was his curse, to be two beings within one body, to be both human and demon, to be constantly torn in two."
Her words dissolved in the silence of the library. Giles spread his hands on the leather of the diary's binding and said nothing. Finally, he rose and returned the book to its place in the stacks. Jenny waited, because she knew he was turning the question over and over in his mind, was considering and testing...
"How do you know this?" He had emerged from the stacks, and stood at the railing of the level above her.
Jenny shrugged. "The girl was my..." She paused to calculate. "My great, great, great aunt. My clan's hatred of her murderer has not abated since her death. Angel's soul is a punishment, but there is always the chance that he will find some... pleasure in the return of his humanity. Since then, we've kept watch over him, to make sure that he never has a moment's peace or a moment's joy."
"You're Rom?" Giles asked.
Jenny nodded. "That's my deep dark secret, Rupert. Betcha ya didn't think I was keeping anything hidden." She tried a grin, found that it fit fairly well.
"No, I didn't expect that you were keeping secrets. Jenny..." He cut himself off and piqued her interest.
"What? Any deep dark secrets for you to confess? Tonight seems to be the night for it."
"No," Giles said after a silence that was so long Jenny didn't think he was going to answer her. "Tonight is not the night for it."
A glimpse of sun-streaked color caught Oz's attention, and he paused in the middle of giving fight instruction to a bunch of new recruits to track the color to its source: Willow. She stood on the second level of the library, full in the fall of sunlight from the windows, and the light covered her with the brilliance of a spotlight. She was paused at the top of the stairs, distracted by something no one around her could see, dreaming for a moment in the sun.
Or maybe she was just suppressing a yawn. She spent more time in the library -- what Xander had dubbed a few months before as the Headquarters of the Rebel Alliance -- than anyone other than Giles. She was distanced from her family, who continued to believe that if the vampires could just be ignored life could go on in Sunnydale as normal. Around them, everyone was trying to lead normal lives. Curfew restricted everyone to their homes hours before sunset -- but no one remained outside to enforce it. High school went on as high school had gone on for millennia, except for the library. Everyone there had paid a price to be there, whether it was in the loss of people they loved or in having to defy their families to fight for their town.
Two of the new kids called Oz's name, bringing him back from the planet he had landed on when he saw Willow standing there. He had known both of them slightly Before. Now, he had to teach them fight tactics, weaponry; how to kill, how to survive.
He couldn't do that if all he thought about was Willow.
He didn't have a shot, he reminded himself sternly. Anyone with eyes could see that it was Xander who Willow wanted -- except, perhaps, Xander. And, to quote one of the great ones, the problems of the two of them didn't amount to a hill of beans in their crazy world. But he couldn't help being in love with her. She was perfect. No, she wasn't perfect. She was Willow, and that was enough.
Willow rubbed her arms and looked out over the people in the library. There were an awful lot of them, she thought. Some were researching, some were training with the weapons Giles provided, some were just hanging out, bonding with the people who fought with them. She remembered when it had just been her and Giles and Xander and Jenny. It was weird to be a part of such a large group. Weirder that so many of them looked up to her. She'd been here from the beginning, and many of them looked up to her the same way they looked up to Giles. She wasn't used to that, wasn't used to being the center of attention.
She saw Xander heading toward her. "No word?" she asked anxiously.
Xander shook his head. "Nothing." Willow bit her lip. A group had gone out the night before, standard patrolling of the cemeteries. They now had enough people that they could afford to hit several of them a night, stake new vamps as they rose from their coffins.
One group hadn't made it back the night before.
Willow sat down, propping her back up against the railing. Xander sat beside her, and she sighed, leaning her head on his shoulder. He held her hand in his in an unconscious attempt to comfort both her and himself. They knew how dangerous what they were doing was. They knew how easily vampires killed. They hadn't had to face the death of any of their own.
"Emily is good," Xander offered. "She took Tae Kwon Do for her dance stuff, she knows how to fight."
"Yeah," Willow agreed without much enthusiasm.
"And Larry's big and strong. And Jenny isn't dumb, not by a long shot."
"I know," Willow said. It had surprised all the kids when Jenny had insisted on being put on patrol duty. Now that there were enough hands to fight the good fight, Giles didn't have to spend his time out there on the front lines. She could hand the research back to him and go out night after night, risking her life. It had been the occasion of a tremendous shouting match, but, unsurprisingly, Jenny had her way.
Willow stretched her hands out in front of her. She knew all the weapons too, she'd been taught along with everyone else. But no one had suggested that she take up patrol duty, and she hadn't asked. She could tell herself that her computer knowledge was valuable, that research was often the only thing keeping their heads above water. But she couldn't help feeling like a coward because she didn't want to fight. There was hardly a night when Xander didn't go out, even though they had enough people that he didn't have to, not as much as he did.
They sat silent, because there weren't any words that could comfort that weren't lies. And when Larry and Jenny stumbled into the library a few minutes later, bruised and shaken, there was still nothing to say.
Willow scanned along the spines of the books in the stacks, but it was a useless task. She wasn't paying attention. The members of the Rebel Alliance had been shaken by a death in their ranks. Willow had been right when she'd said Emily had been good. She'd been strong and agile. And it hadn't helped her at all. All it had done was help save Larry and Jenny.
The intellectual knowledge that they could die fighting vampires was bad enough. They didn't need reality.
Willow balled up her fist and pounded on the rows of books. Books and books and books. Some of them might have the answer to ending all of this, completely. But there were so many of them, and she didn't know which one, and she didn't know how to help...
"Willow, are you all right?" Giles' voice was as weary as she felt. She remembered how he looked when she first met him, immaculately turned out, suits tidy if completely inappropriate for Southern California. Now, he looked like a teenager himself, if one with stubble and eyes centuries older than theirs behind his glasses.
"No, I'm not." She turned and sagged back against the shelves, folding up to sit on the floor. "I can't help feeling that I need to do something more, that there's something I should be able to do to stop this. And I keep getting stuck on why. Why did Emily die? Out of all of us, why her?"
"I can't answer that," Giles said quietly.
"How can we win? I mean, really. How can we possibly win? How come we weren't taken over by vampires years and years ago? Why now? Why is now different? I don't understand."
Giles turned one of his volumes in his hand, but said nothing.
"We can't win. People are dying every day, and we can't stop it. And we really will die trying. I don't want to die, Giles," Willow said, plaintive demand in her voice.
"There's no comfort I can offer you. I wish there were." Giles paused, weighing his words "There... there should have been someone."
Willow struggled up from waves of depression to understand him. There was an odd note in his voice, something... "What?"
"There should have been someone. The Slayer."
"Who? Who's the Slayer?"
Giles shelved the book he was holding and met Willow's gaze. "The Chosen One. The one girl in all the world with the strength and skill to kill the vampires."
Willow shivered under the flood of cold shock. "There's someone out there who can fight vampires?"
"It is the duty and the destiny of the Slayer to fight vampires. In times past, whenever vampires seemed to have come close to breaking free, to controlling a place and the people in it, the Slayer has come."
"Why isn't she here?" Willow demanded. "I mean, there isn't anywhere else that's this bad, right? There can't be. So why isn't she here? Why didn't she stop this?"
"I only have one answer for you, Willow, and it's a useless one: I don't know." Giles sighed, closing his eyes tiredly. "She was supposed to be here. I came here to wait for her, to be her Watcher, to help and guide her. But she never came."
"Do you know her name?" Both Giles and Willow jumped when Xander spoke. He stepped out from the shadow of one of the bookcases and repeated himself. "Do you know her name?"
"Buffy Summers," Giles supplied. "She was living in Los Angeles; when her previous Watcher died, she was supposed to come to Sunnydale to protect the people here. Likely, she was supposed to be here to stop the Harvest. I can't tell you why she never came. I stopped looking for her, finally. If I was to do any good, I needed to fight, not wait for a girl who might never come."
"Oh, she'll come," Xander said in a voice rich with fury. "I'll make sure of that."
"Xander!" Willow got to her feet.
"What do you want me to do?" Xander asked. "Wait until we're all dead? Maybe then your precious Slayer will show up. I'm not waiting. I'm not waiting for us all to be picked off one by one. I'm going to go and find her and make her come."
"How do you expect to be able to find her?" Giles demanded.
"Go to L.A., and start tracking. There's got to be a way to find her," Xander said grimly. "There's got to be a way to stop this."
Willow shook her head, helplessly. "Xander..." Her voice broke, but she kept speaking, raggedly. "I don't want you to go."
"Oh, Will..." Xander hugged her hard, but there was too much fury in him to make the gesture as comforting as she needed. "I don't want to leave here, either." He looked up at Giles. "But there's no way we're gonna win this way."
Willow clung to him. "I don't want you to go," she said again. But she knew he wouldn't listen. Couldn't listen.
So she just stood still, clinging to him with her eyes shut, hoarding the memory for the future.
We had three new people in today. Every time they come in I feel like asking why they haven't left, run away, gotten out of here. But I know why they haven't: some of them can't, and some of them don't want to run.
After all, I'm here. I can't leave. And I don't really want to.
Jenny's got a plan, I know she does. We spent months discussing... things. OK, this is my diary, and I can say it. She's been teaching me about magic, and spells. And I'm good at it. I find it fascinating. And... powerful. For a while we were working on possible spells and things to stop vampires -- or at least slow them down. But the deeper we got in, the less she told me. And I think she's working on something that she wants to keep from me. And considering some of the things she told me... well, I should be scared of what she's trying to keep secret.
Day 63: No word from Xander.
Willow sighed and rubbed her eyes. The library blurred and came back into focus, hazy sunlight slipping into darkness. She'd just about worked out the latest prophecy; some vampire saint or something had a feast day. The kind of feasts vampires had didn't bear thinking about.
Closing her books, she tucked her hair behind one ear. She'd chopped it off recently, after nightmares of running away and being caught by her long braids. It was one of the few nightmares she had left.
She uncoiled her legs from their folded position and started to rise. Before she really made it upright, pins and needles started burning in her right foot. "Owowowow," she muttered, shaking it out and hopping. "Really got to stop sitting like that --" She tried her weight on it and started to topple over sideways.
A hand caught her arm, supporting her weight until she managed to grab the back of a chair. Glancing sideways, she smiled a brief thanks to Oz. "My feet go to sleep sometimes."
"Yeah, I can imagine. You know what helps?"
"What?" Willow asked, gathering up her notes and tucking them away neatly.
"Standing. Walking, even. Anything except sitting still."
Willow laughed ruefully, arching back to work out kinks. She leaned back a little too far and Oz caught her again as she stumbled. Her laugh this time was embarrassed as she tried to hide her red face behind books. "I'm clumsy today."
"No, you're not. You're just tired." He took the stack of books out of her arms, looking like nothing so much as a schoolboy carrying his eight-year-old crush's books home. "Now... where do these go?"
"Up, um, you don't have to carry those."
"Hey. I'm OK. Where do they go?"
Willow's embarrassment faded as they went back and forth through the stacks, shelving the books so that Jenny or Giles or whoever did research next could find them. The last one was all the way in the back, where the light had faded and shadows held sway. "There," Willow said with relief. "That's it. I should be getting home. It's dark. And you must... I mean, are you out tonight?"
"Nah. I'm off. Willow?"
Willow tucked her hair behind her ear again, turning to look at him. Somehow, with him in the shadows, she felt like she had to really look at him for the first time. Not tall; not that much taller than she was. Spiky blond/brown/whatever hair. Intelligent eyes that saw too much. They were watching her now with the careful, hooded gaze that Oz seemed to turn on everything. It took a moment to get her voice under control enough to ask, "What?"
"Do you want to come over tonight? We could watch some movies or something. Hang out."
Willow didn't speak for a few minutes. "You mean, like a..."
"Yeah, like a. I don't know what an a is, but if I get to do it with you, an a is just fine. An a is perfect, actually. Can you do an a any time, or is it only for special occasions?"
Willow was surprised into giggling, relieving her embarrassment in humor. "A date," she said finally. "I meant, like a date."
"That's what I meant too," Oz told her with no trace whatsoever of sarcasm. She smiled a little. How he could make her feel okay, normal even, when she had just been feeling silly, she didn't know. But he did it.
"If I go over to your place, it'll be late when we're done," she pointed out. "It'll be dangerous to go home."
"Spend the night," he invited. "I promise, I don't bite."
Willow considered it. The members of the Rebel Alliance often stayed over at each other's places; it was safer for two to walk home at night together.
Oz was beginning to look a little nervous -- for Oz, at least. Willow finally smiled. "Sure. What are we going to watch?"
"'Night Wendell, Chris. Sleep well." Jenny unlocked the door to her house and slipped inside. She wasn't sure why she bothered with keys. Burglers didn't work at night any more, and vampires couldn't get in. But a lifetime of secrets kept made her cautious.
Sighing, she undressed and went to take a shower. She'd gotten tackled by Fritz, a kid she used to teach C++ to, and gravel was ground into her skin. Warm water flowed over the scrapes, soothing her.
The letter lay on the counter of her kitchen, arriving once a week like clockwork. No point in staying, Angelus was not and would not be happy, come home. She didn't bother to read them anymore, but she couldn't throw them away. One by one, they were shoved into a drawer. She'd deal with them when the drawer overflowed. Not before.
She wrapped a towel around her hair and pulled on her robe, yawning, wondering if she could stay awake long enough to dig out her blow dryer. Padding barefoot into her kitchen, she leaned into the refrigerator, frowning when she discovered that the peanut butter jar had a crust of beige cement at the bottom.
She whirled, her foot slipping on tile and nearly sending her backward into her cherished hoard of Diet Coke. "Rupert!" she gasped. "How did you get in here?"
"I picked the lock," he said with only the faintest trace of dry humor. The tone made his voice very British, clipped and rich. But the rest of him was... untidy, Jenny decided. His hair hadn't seen a brush since before he'd gone out on patrol, and ash filmed his clothes. Not the properly turned out Brit he had been when she'd first met him at a teachers' meeting before school started, an eternity ago.
"You look like hell," she told him, closing the refrigerator door and reaching up to brush a lock of hair out of her eyes. Her fingers met the towel and she winced at the image she must be projecting. "Were you in the neighborhood, and just decided to perfect your B&E techniques? Where'd a librarian learn to pick a lock?"
The same faint humor curled a corner of his mouth. "Same place I learned to hot-wire a car. I... ran with a fast crowd in my youth. I did a lot of things that I'm not proud of."
Jenny sighed, realizing that sleep was not going to be in the offering. The sun was beginning to rise as she crossed her kitchen to a cupboard, taking down two mugs. "Tea, Earl Grey, hot?" she asked.
"Ah... yes, please." Perplexed by her low chuckle, he took the teapot she handed him and placed it on a burner as she prepared coffee for herself.
"So... you were a rebel with a cause, huh?" she asked, turning to get sugar and cream out of various places.
"Not likely. Mostly, I was just a rebel. I had... tremendous resources for the sort of games my new friends wanted to play. They wanted to dabble in magic." Jenny's hand froze on the Mocha Mix. Giles' voice had kept its even pace and rhythm, tricking her into thinking that what he said wasn't important -- until he dropped the boom.
She turned to face him, keeping any and all shock out of her face. "So you helped them."
He met her eyes. "To my eternal shame, yes. I knew what they were doing. I knew what I was doing. And I did it anyway."
"But you stopped. You left."
The teapot screamed behind them, but neither of them moved. "Yes, I left. But only after one of our number died."
Jenny flinched at the word. Then she moved to the stove, yanking the kettle off the burner. The hiss died abruptly. When she had her voice back, she looked at him. "So you've been torturing yourself for how long? You were a kid, right? So, what, ten, fifteen years of hating yourself for being stupid?"
"No. No, I didn't spend the time castigating myself. There was no point in dwelling on the past. I could not change what happened, but by my actions..." He paused and collected himself. "By my actions, I could make reparation. By fulfilling the destiny I had shunned, by working to help rather than harm, I could begin to pay the debt I owed."
Teapot cooling beside them, they stood in her small kitchen as the light strengthened and grew. "I know what bunk that is. What I found was that I found the work enjoyable for its own sake, that I loved musty books and old pictures and rooms upon rooms of history. Sorting through it all was a vital task, one that could be accomplished without ever having to speak to another person. Indeed, I was annoyed when I was told I was to be Watcher to a Slayer. Only for a moment, of course, but I didn't want to. Deep down, I wanted to hide in my library and translate and catalog and..."
"And do nothing that would ever cause you to act the way you had when you were young and foolish."
He offered her another half-smile. "Perhaps."
Jenny stirred herself enough to go pour herself a cup of coffee. She had to keep it light, she told herself fiercely, had to keep the sympathy and tenderness that she felt out of her eyes and her voice. He wouldn't take pity, she knew. She wouldn't offer it, but he didn't trust that. "I need a thesaurus to keep up with you. Rupert, do you always use big words? You screwed up. People suffered. You were sorry. Do you think that you're going to be punished?" she demanded, to shake him up.
He responded with the kind of painful calm that she knew covered his worst reactions. "I don't know. Somehow, if there's a hell, I think this is it."
Jenny really wanted to joke that no, this wasn't hell, this was a Hellmouth, but she kept her mouth shut, let him work through it.
"This... inadequate defense we have. We have managed to keep a sort of balance. We kill the vampires as they rise. But we can rarely touch the ones that are older, stronger. If the balance is tipped..." Giles made an aimless gesture with one hand.
Jenny closed her eyes, felt the tears press against them. Mentally, she consigned the drawer full of letters to the fire. She couldn't leave. And she couldn't hide any more.
Stepping closer, she slid her arms around his neck, holding him, just holding him. His body stiffened in shock, resisting her gentle support. She'd never touched him more than casually, never let him any closer to her than he had let her near him. There were no words she could offer to ease him, no magic spells, no miraculous solutions. But as his control and will broke and he returned her embrace like a man starved for human contact, she felt her tears burn again. She had to do it. She'd find the strength, somehow. And, with any luck, they'd win.
Dark of the moon.
Jenny breathed once, quick and deep, then opened the back door of her house. Her materials were piled in a basket on her arm, and she walked to a clear stretch of lawn. It was overgrown and wild, yard care being very low on her list of priorities, but that suited her needs just fine.
Her house was safe. Her yard was not. Ordinarily, she would have done this within the shelter of her home, or warded the area around it to protect herself. But that would defeat the purpose of her endeavor.
She cast the Circle, remembering how she had told Giles she wasn't a witch. She wasn't. She'd never been allowed to join her grandmother's rituals, never been initiated into their secrets. By the standards of her family, she was no witch.
But she had the knowledge, if not the right to use it. And if they knew what she was doing, they'd hound her out of her clan forever.
Her skin heated as the Circle formed, power radiating around her. The smoke from the herbs she burned swirled around her head. She chanted softly, almost wordlessly, letting herself relax into the rhythm of what she was doing.
Until the chant became a call, a summons that could not be ignored. For all their sakes, she could not let it be ignored.
I'm getting nervous. No, I'm getting suspicious. Jenny's keeping secrets, I know she is. And considering what she's told us, what she's told me, the things that she keeps secret have to be pretty scary.
I'm scared. And I don't have anyone to turn to. Giles looks so sad, so worried. Oz... I love him and trust him, but he doesn't remember when it was just the four of us. I miss Xander. We don't even know where he is. Or if he's...
It took Willow several moments to realize she wasn't alone in the library. Looking up from her diary, she blinked, then jumped backwards, knocking her chair over. Then she stood her ground, staring wide-eyed at the vampire in front of her.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said quietly, his voice rough with the effort of keeping it expressionless.
Willow nodded, eyes still wide. "I know. You saved me. But you're... you're..."
"I'm a vampire. Yeah."
Relaxing a little, Willow took a step forward. "You saved Jonathan and Nancy the other night, didn't you? And you're the one who warned us about the Master's party. And..."
Shrugging his shoulders, Angel looked away. "That's nothing."
"You've been saving our lives since the Master rose. That's nothing?"
He turned back to her, eyes glowing gold and snarling. Willow screamed and backed up, until the wall cut off her escape. "This is what I am," he said furiously.
The fear died away after a moment. "Oh, I get it. I'm supposed to hate you, right? So you can go around hating yourself. Well, I don't care that you're a vampire," Willow said defiantly. "You've helped us. And I trust you."
That was enough to shock Angel back into his human face. Willow took one step away from the wall at her back. "Jenny knows what happened to you. She told us." Angel closed his eyes and didn't say anything.
Willow took one more step forward. "Why are you helping us? I mean, there's a ton of people here who aren't, well, demony, and they aren't doing anything. Why are you?"
Angel was silent so long that Willow began to hear echoes of her impertinent question mocking her. Just when she was about to blurt out something, he said quietly, "I was supposed to help the Slayer. I watched over her. I thought... I thought too much. I came here to wait for her. She never came."
Willow took an involuntary step towards him. The wealth of pain in his voice was all the more heartbreaking for being so viciously repressed. She closed her eyes over a sudden flash of fury for the all-present, all-knowing Slayer. The girl who couldn't be bothered to come and help them. Willow had watched people around her die. She'd watched Giles become more and more strained as the months turned into years. She'd lost Xander to the quest of finding the Slayer.
The Slayer, the one girl in all the world who could fight the demons that were destroying her home, didn't care. And Angel, a vampire who should have been their enemy, did. That's all Willow knew.
Before Willow could say anything else, Angel's head suddenly snapped up, looking as though a hated voice had called his name. "No," he said, furious.
"What is it?" Willow asked. When Angel stood still, body taut, fighting something she could neither see nor hear. More urgently, she said, "Angel, what's wrong?"
He didn't seem to hear her, couldn't hear her. "Damn you, leave me alone!" he shouted at the air.
Willow only debated a moment. When Angel bolted from the library as though the hounds of hell were after him, she followed.
Angel knew Willow was behind him. He couldn't pay any attention to that fact. Something had invaded his brain, like the night that he had killed that flighty Gypsy girl and been hounded back into humanity for it.
Unable to resist, he followed the call to its source, Willow dogging his steps relentlessly. Infuriated, he tore aside a tattered gate and stumbled into grass that was nearly thigh-high to him.
In the center of a circle of candles knelt a dark-haired woman who watched him with eyes stricken with fear and guilt. He stopped as though his strings had been sharply jerked, and fell to the ground before her, just outside of the circle. Shaking with reaction and revulsion, he raised his eyes to hers.
She seemed just as stricken as he was, terrified and sickened. But she didn't release the call, didn't let him escape. With nothing more than her will, she held him.
Behind him, he could hear Willow, trying to walk silently through the overgrown grass. He knew the moment that Willow came into view, as the woman's eyes shifted up and focused on the girl. "Willow," he called hoarsely, strained with the effort of fighting the spell, "get away from here!"
Abruptly, the woman's gaze returned to him, shock spilling through guilt. "Lady Bless," she whispered, "what have we done to you?"
"Jenny," Willow called out. "Don't hurt him. Please."
"I won't hurt him," Jenny said wearily. "I promise. You know," she told Angel directly, "I wanted to believe that you were helping us just to screw the Master or something. Not out of the goodness of your heart. You weren't supposed to have one."
"What do you want with me?" Angel demanded, gritting his teeth.
"I want your help." Jenny couldn't spare a glance for Willow, frozen in shock, watching the battle of wills. "I need your help. I need to know what you remember of the night that my clan restored your soul."
"Go to hell," Angel snarled.
"What do you think this is?" Jenny demanded.
"Your people were the ones in charge that night. I barely remember. You figure out what you need to know."
"No one remembers. No one knows more than the fact that we did it. And that we used this." With an outstretched hand, she indicated a globe of crystal lying beside her.
"And you think I'd know? I was your victim!"
"Just like that girl was yours!" Jenny shot back. Forcing herself to calm, she closed her eyes. "Angel, if you can remember anything, anything at all."
Suddenly Angel realized she'd loosed her hold. He was no longer compelled to be there. At least, not by anything more than Jenny's entreaty. Furious, he tried to turn away -- only to face Willow, whose eyes were fixed on him with hope and fear in their depths.
Angel rose to his feet, looking from one to the other. "I'll tell you what I remember. If you tell me what you are going to do with it."
Jenny didn't speak for a long moment. Candle flames licked over her face, as calm and smooth as porcelain in the night. Then she sighed and said, "I'm going to return the Master's soul."
"You're mad." That was Giles' penultimate judgement on the matter. "You must be insane to believe that it would work."
"It will work." Jenny clung to her calm. "Think about it."
"I try not to," Giles shot back. "It gives me a blasted headache. What do you think it will accomplish? One vampire with a soul helps us, that does not mean that we should start restoring souls as though they were returned bank deposits."
"I'm not expecting that it will make the Master all of a sudden decide that we're his best friends," Jenny argued. "I just want to slow him down. If we can just get him to slow down..."
Her voice trailed off. Giles clenched his jaw against the fury that wanted to rage through him. She looked weary, and frail, and more delicate than he could ever believe. How was it that he so rarely noticed how small she was, how slight? With the force of her personality beaming out from her dark eyes, she was a warrior-goddess, a dark Valkyrie charging into battle.
Pale with lack of sleep, tired and worried, she couldn't hide the physical demands that her emotional strength put on her.
Giving in, Giles crossed to take her in his arms. He rested his chin on the top of her head as she relaxed into the shelter of his body. He'd lost count of the days that had gone by since he had abandoned the duty that had first abandoned him, since he had enlisted innocents to walk into the fire and fight the demons that they should not have known existed.
"If I could take this from you, I would," he said in a rough whisper.
He could feel her smile. "I know. Me too."
And there was nothing more to say.
There are a lot of different kinds of powers. Sunlight and moonlight and the light in a person's eyes when they're happy to see you and the desire to live and the need to love. I've learned about all of them. And the power in me. I've learned about that, too.
But I'm scared. It would seem like having more power, understanding it, using it, would make you stronger. Why is it that the more we do, the more vulnerable we are?
I wish Xander were here...
They decided on the library to work the spell. "It's a comfort zone," Willow explained to Oz as they sat curled up in each other's arms. He had her hand in his, their fingers interlaced, and he was rubbing her palm with his thumb. The caress soothed her. "We know the library."
"Comfort's good," he approved.
"I'm a little nervous," Willow confided. "I keep remembering Jenny trying to ward the library and it failing. But both Jenny and Giles say that it failed because whatever's down there didn't like being caged. We've done some stuff in there, and it hasn't bothered us. Not big stuff, but some stuff. And we've been watching moon phases and astrological signs and things like that."
"Willow, it's OK to be scared."
Willow took a deep breath, and turned her face so that it was buried in Oz's neck. "I know," she mumbled. "But... this is such a big thing. I mean, really big. We're talking about trying something on the Master. That's like... I don't know, shooting the President."
Oz lifted the hand he held to his lips. Across the back of his own, a livid red scar shone against his pale skin. He'd escaped with his life -- barely. "You and Jenny have been working on magic for how long? You've thought this through. You'll do fine."
"If this works... if it does even half of what Jenny wants it to do... we'll be so far ahead." For such a hopeful statement, Willow sounded downcast. "I don't know what we'll do next."
"We'll be fine." Oz kissed the top of her head. "We'll be OK."
Through the skylights, they could see the full moon rising in the sky. Oz looked up at it, and a faint smile quirked his mouth.
"What?" Willow asked, noticing his expression, and needing distraction. Jenny was making the final preparations for their spellcasting, and Willow had nothing to do but worry.
Oz gestured at the moon. "With everything that goes on in this town, I'm surprised we don't have werewolves every full moon."
"Werewolves are neither demonic nor evil," Giles said absently, scanning texts for last minute instructions. "They would have no cause to wish to come to the Hellmouth."
"Plus, they really hate vampires," Angel supplied dryly.
Oz seemed to consider that. "Cool," he finally said.
"I'm ready," Jenny said quietly. Willow's hand tightened convulsively on Oz's for one moment, then she let go and walked to Jenny's side.
They'd pushed away all the furniture on the lower level of the library and painted a pentagram on the floor. Every tool that they could possibly need was grouped within the boundaries of the five-pointed star -- all centered around the palm-sized Orb that was both magnet and guide for the soul that they sought.
Inside the pentagram, Willow, Jenny and Giles stood, clasping hands and waiting. Oz watched them. He was only here because Willow wanted his support, but he knew there was a another figure with them; Xander, who no one had heard from for so long that they had all begun to fear he was dead. Willow, in particular, could not comfortably talk about him. Oz didn't mind standing with a ghost.
Angel did. But his ghost was the memory of the night that they had restored his soul. He'd known something was seeking him, he could almost feel his own soul chasing his body, finding it, catching it. That night had led to this one, to his active participation in a plan to strike against the Master. The dichotomy of his nature surfaced once again: On one hand, he could wish that he'd never even considered taking that Gypsy girl, never engendered the wrath of her clan, never had them restore his soul. On the other, he couldn't wish to be the sort of creature that flocked to the Master now -- the creature that Darla had made, the creature that had made Drusilla.
With low-voiced instructions from Jenny, Willow performed the opening rituals needed. We've done this before, Willow reminded herself as she held a candle above her head and faced north. This isn't new. You don't need to be scared.
But when it was time to focus on the curse, fear was ice in her stomach, her veins, making it difficult to breathe and see. When she clasped hands with Giles and Jenny again, she felt their faint shock at how cold she was. Jenny's hand tightened on hers, and Willow breathed deep, focusing, finding the calm she knew waited inside of her. When she was ready, she nodded at Jenny.
Smiling at her encouragingly, Jenny released their hands to pick up the Orb and hold it aloft. "As the Orb is round in nature," she began, intoning the ritual that she, with Angel's help, had managed to recover from damaged books and forgotten memories.
She passed the Orb to Giles, who continued, "As the earth is round in nature."
Willow cupped the sphere in her hand. "As the heavens are round in nature, so is the soul," Willow said quietly, and passed it back to Jenny.
"Return from whence you were banished using this Orb as your guide," Jenny continued.
The Orb began to pulse with light in Giles' hand, and he held it higher. "Preserve every essence of the flesh, every essence of the body."
"Every essence of the heart," Willow said, her voice stronger, glancing aside for one moment to meet Oz's eyes.
"Make what lies before us more than the empty vessel that is animal, that is beast." Angel flinched at Jenny's tone, but her eyes were steady on the Orb in her hands.
"Make it even as God created when He separated the firmament of the Heavens from the Earth."
"Come forth now, return, return," Willow's voice suddenly took on a whiplash of power that was nearly out of control. Her eyes widened, and even as she passed the Orb to Jenny to finish the curse, she was shaking her head.
Jenny ignored her. "As the Orb beckons, let life --"
The Orb flared, burning so brightly that everyone in the library cried out. Jenny's scream rose above the others, ending as the Orb fell from her hand and shattered on the library floor.
When Willow recovered her ability to speak, it was only at a whisper. "He knew we were there." She shuddered, wrapping her arms around herself. "He was... laughing at us."
Giles reached for Jenny, who had collapsed. His own hand trembled with weariness, from the energy it had taken to attempt the curse, and the disappointment from having failed. "Jenny," he said heavily. He knelt beside her, placing one hand on her cheek.
"She's fainted," Oz said.
Angel's body was tense. He took two steps forward, and was brought up short by the boundaries of the Circle. But whatever he knew or sensed, he didn't speak. Couldn't speak.
"Jenny," Giles said again. But there was a thread of pain in his voice that made Willow look up. "Oh, dear God, no, Jenny..."
Willow was having a nightmare. Someone she had trusted and loved had turned on them, stalking them, taunting them. She was comforting... someone, she couldn't see who, and the phone rang. Jenny was dead, Jenny was dead for trying to fix things, trying to stop the evilness haunting them...
Willow woke in a rush, sitting up and pushing at the darkness that surrounded her. Before the strangled scream in her throat could fight free, Oz was sitting on the bed beside her, catching her hands in his and soothing her, murmuring nonsense beneath his breath until she shuddered and held on to him.
Most of it had been a dream. She didn't know that house and didn't know the girl who had been her friend. But the rest was true. Jenny was dead.
It was a magnificent beast, Darla decided as she stood in front of it, eyes heavy-lidded from satisfaction and the thrill of power. Carefully keeping her hand from the sword buried in its heart, she watched it as though it were a fine painting, or an engrossing movie -- or a meal.
She could almost feel the power radiating out from it, an itch in her palms, the almost-forgotten sensation of sunlight on her face. She smiled, slowly. This would be what would topple the Master. She was tired of being at his beck and call, tired of always having to please him, to cater to his whims. "Better to rule in hell, than to serve in hell," she murmured, nearly purring with gratification.
And hell it would be. When Acathla opened his mouth, he would sigh and suck the world into his realm. Only she would be in control of him. Only she would rule. And the one whom she now called Master would bow down and call her Mistress, and beg for his pathetic life until she drove a stake through his heart.
There was someone in his apartment. Angel paused before turning on a lamp, then let the light flood the room. "Who's there?"
The figure that moved forward into the pool of light was a shock. For so long he'd known she was in Sunnydale, and had spent months expecting her. For so long she'd ignored him, until he believed that she was never going to approach him. "Hi," she greeted him casually, as though it had not been a hundred years since they spoke. "It's been a while."
Lamplight gleamed along her hair and arms. She was uncharacteristically restrained in her clothing; almost orientally severe in black silk, with her hair in a sleek knot. Against that starkness, her beauty was all the more intense, the force of her will not dimmed by the roles she played in catering to the Master's whims.
For once, Darla was no one's creature but her own.
"What are you doing here?"
"What?" Even with her new restrained image, her voice remained the same -- breathy sex, innocent tone covering darkness. "Can't I come by and see you?"
"You never do anything without a reason."
She smiled at him "You know me so well. Even after a century. Or two."
"You've been following the Master," Angel said cautiously.
"You've been helping those humans," she countered, contempt rich in her voice. Angel remained frozen. It was easier to not react, not let her see how easily she tore into him. "How about helping me for a change?"
"I won't help the Master." It was a low-voiced pledge, but a pledge nonetheless.
"I didn't ask you to. I asked you to help me. He was amused by the little trick you decided to pull. You and your mortals want to overthrow the Master, don't you? You can't do it -- but I can. With your help."
Darla shocked a reaction out of him that time. His head whipped up and his eyes fixed on hers. Wide and startled, he was unable to guard anything from her. "You like that idea, don't you?" she pressed. "Think about it: No more Master with a stranglehold on this town. Isn't that what you've been fighting for?"
"Why would you want to help me?"
Darla smiled, sweet and condescending. "I don't want to help you. I want you to help me. I get what I want -- the Master dead. You get what you want -- the Master dead. It's simple."
"Nothing's that simple with you," Angel said bitterly.
"You're right. But you don't have much of a choice, do you?" Her voice rang with absolute conviction.
Angel stared into the bulb of the lamp he had lit, focusing only on the bright glare. Since Jenny's death, things had become more and more desperate. They were losing too many. And Angel was beginning to understand the terror that had driven Jenny to the risky act that had cost her life.
He looked up to see Darla watching him with level eyes that revealed nothing. A faint bubble of amusement rose in him. Two hundred years before, she'd given him no choice about what she was going to do to him. This time, she was letting him choose.
A blind choice, but a choice nonetheless.
"I'll help you," he said quietly. And knew that he'd probably pay with his life for the fire of triumph that shone in her eyes.
The library phone woke Willow out of a half-doze. She'd nodded off with her cheek pressed against an ancient manuscript, the scent of old ink and paper lulling her into dreams. Oz had been scolding her for the amount of time she spent buried in the library, researching, trying to find a way to slow or stop the hoards that were descending. He was one to talk; he spent as much time as possible on patrol, trying to kill as many vampires as he could.
Neither one of their efforts were doing any appreciable good.
Startled by the phone, Willow made a grab for it and fumbled before she could get it to her ear. The adrenaline jolt made her heart pound and her voice tight as she said, "Hello?" into it.
"Willow? Willow, is that you?"
"Xander?" she said, her voice rising into a strangled squeak. "Where are you?"
"Kansas, believe it or not." He laughed, but it sounded tired.
"Where have you been?" Willow was clutching the phone so tightly her hand hurt. "We didn't know what happened to you. Not for so long... I was afraid..."
"I didn't... I didn't want to call unless I had news. Unless I had something to say."
"For this long?" Willow demanded. "Xander, I thought you were dead! You couldn't just pick up the phone and say, hi, Will, I haven't been murdered or eaten or devoured by some flesh-eating virus or something? You couldn't be bothered to let me know you were alive?"
Willow heard her own words ringing in the silence of the library, realizing that her tirade had brought her to her feet. Slowly, she sat down. "I'm sorry."
There was a long pause from the other end. "Things aren't going well?" Xander asked.
Willow nodded, even though she knew he couldn't see her, her eyes full of tears. "Jenny's dead."
Xander swore, low and vicious, under his breath. "I'm coming home."
"No!" Willow surprised herself by shouting into the phone. "Xander, we're losing. We're losing really bad. You have to find her! You have to find the Slayer. All you can do is come home and die." Willow was crying and she knew Xander could hear it and she couldn't stop. "You have to find her!"
"I will." There was renewed determination in his tone. "I promise."
Willow mopped her cheeks with the back of her hand and sniffled. "Kansas, huh?"
"Yeah, Kansas. And trust me, there's no place like home."
"No Toto?" she asked, laughing only a little hysterically.
"Yeah. And no Oz in sight."
Willow froze for a moment. Xander hadn't known Oz from Before. He certainly didn't know she was in love with him now. And it didn't matter, she told herself fiercely. She loved Oz. And Xander had never loved her.
"Be careful, Xander."
"I will. You too."
Only after she'd lowered the phone back into its cradle did she whisper, "I love you."
Darla's plan was ridiculously simple. "Most of those around the Master don't know or can't believe that you...." She let her voice dangle while she watched him archly, waiting for him to supply a description of his state that she could mock. She wore something thin and gauzy, floating in ephemeral folds around her. Her hair was tousled, tangled across her cheek, but her eyes hadn't yet taken on the protective blankness that masked her ambition.
"They don't know," Angel said bluntly, refusing to give her any ammunition. "And?"
Darla's mouth curled in derision, knowing Angel had thwarted her too easily. "And so, we pass you off as your old self."
Angel's body tensed as though from a blow. Darla could see him trying to argue, deny, refuse her words, knowing that he didn't dare. The thought gave her pleasure.
"Everyone will be suspicious," Angel pointed out when he finally had his reactions under control.
"Let them," Darla said evenly. "I don't expect someone of your delicate sensibilities to be perfectly believable. I just need a traitor in the camp."
Angel just stared at her for a few moments, then turned away.
"It'll work," she said, goaded into impatience by his silence. "The Master sees what he wants to see, always has. He'll love having his beloved Angel by his side again. He --"
Her voice cut off when Angel whipped around again, catching her throat in one hand and pinning her against the wall. The other hand buried itself in her tangled hair and yanked her head back with a force that would have killed a mortal. The wide, delighted smile on his face would have seduced a nun. He nuzzled his head down against Darla's neck, biting her ear until the blood flowed. "Do you," he asked as he lapped up the trickle of blood, "think that this will convince them?"
Darla leaned away from him. He watched her with an unholy gleam in his eyes, purely the vampire she had made. Her plan was falling into place, piece by careful piece. "Yes," she purred. "Yes, I think it will."
She hurt. All over. She was pretty sure that her left arm was broken. A knife had sliced through her lip, trickling blood into her mouth. With the last of her maimed strength, she spat it out.
She was the Slayer. She did not drink blood. Her own or anyone else's.
The corpse lay two feet from her head. The one thing she liked about vampires was their tidiness. Stake and poof. It was rare that she killed other kinds of demons, and she had contempt for their tenacity, clinging to a semblance of their earthly form.
She couldn't move. She ordered her limbs to shift, to support her and get her out of the deserted house that had been both lair and larder for a monster. The stench was unbearable. But she couldn't move.
Sighing, she pressed her cheek to the stained floor. She was so tired, her head spun and the world around her was getting darker and colder. Slowly, she opened her eyes again. The house around her looked different now. Not deserted. Somebody lived here. And there was someone there with her. She couldn't see him clearly, but he was watching her carefully.
"What are you gonna do? What are you prepared to do?" he asked. He wasn't tall, wasn't imposing, but his steady gaze was fixed on her.
Fury poured through her, anger at herself, anger at the world, and particularly at this... thing who kept asking cryptic questions when she needed help. What right did he have to invade Giles' house when Giles was God knows where? When Kendra was dead and Willow was... What right did he have? "Whatever I have to."
"Maybe I should ask, what are you prepared to give up?"
Frustration again. She didn't have time for this. She had to stop Angel, before he destroyed the world the way he had destroyed her, with simple malice and pure evil. "You don't have anything useful to tell me, do you? What are you, just some immortal demon sent down to even the score between good and evil?"
He opened his eyes wide. "Wow. Good guess."
"Well, why don't you try getting off your immortal ass and fighting evil once in a while? 'Cause I'm sick and tired of doing it myself."
His voice was very quiet. "In the end, you're always by yourself. You're all you've got. That's the point."
Buffy closed her eyes and sighed. When she opened them again, she was alone in a dark house with the body of a demon by her head. She didn't know where or who she had been for those few moments. All the people she had worried about... they were nothing. She was alone. Always had been, always would be.
She was the Slayer.
"Darla's the key."
Angel shut his eyes, leaning his head back against the wall. Darla had been right about how quickly he had been accepted back into the fold. A few of the more intelligent ones had watched him warily, but most welcomed him as a long lost brother. And the Master had been delighted.
The plan was to distract him enough that Angel could stake him. After that, Angel didn't care. Nothing on earth could be worse than the Master's domination.
But Darla's plan did not stop at earth.
"Her blood will open the door to Hell," Whistler explained. He was rooting in Angel's refrigerator. "Don't you have anything but blood? I mean, I know you live on it, but what about for fun? Ice cream? Pringles? Anything?"
"I haven't had much time for fun since I came to Sunnydale," Angel said bitterly. "So Darla wants to loose Hell on earth. Keep going."
"Not quite Hell on earth. More like earth in Hell. You see, Acathla opens his big mouth, creates a vortex." Whistler paused, staring into a jar of congealed instant coffee. When he looked up, there was something behind his eyes. "This is why you were here," he said, his voice unusually intense. "This is why I sent you. So why can't you get it right, just once? Every time, something goes wrong. You lose your soul, you get distracted by an old girlfriend. Why can't you concentrate?"
"You sent me here to help the Slayer," Angel countered.
"I gave you something to believe in," Whistler corrected, "because you couldn't believe in yourself." He rolled his eyes in disgust. "Of course, it would have worked better if she hadn't dumped you before meeting you." He looked at Angel, shrugged, and kept going. "Darla's blood will close it. One blow will send 'em both back to Hell."
"I'm supposed to kill the Master tonight," Angel said flatly.
"If you don't mind me suggesting, you might prefer checking out the warehouse down by the docks. That's where Darla's little party is going to be held."
Angel nodded. "OK, what's the plan?"
"Whatever you want. I'm just the errand boy."
"Fine. Great." Angel scrubbed his face with his hands.
When he looked up, Whistler was gone. As he had expected. He was alone.
And a sword was lying on his table.
At sundown, Willow woke. Sighing, she crawled out of bed and opened the shades to let the rich light stream over her face. It was almost summer, the time of the year that vampires hated most. There were only a few hours of darkness to wreak havoc in. It let the Rebel Alliance rest, if only a little.
Quickly dressing, Willow let herself out of the house, intending to walk to the library. She wanted to get there earlier than usual. Larry had promised to drill her in fight techniques. She knew them all, but only as defense. But they were losing enough people that Willow knew she'd soon have to start patrolling with the others. When that happened, there would be no one routinely doing the research.
"Willow." The quiet, gruff voice startled her as she left the shelter of the house. But even as she pulled her stake, she recognized it.
"Angel." The vampire moved out of the shadows. He was dressed all in black, with a long coat that hung to the ground. Do vampires feel the heat? Willow wondered. Or only if it burns?
"I wanted... I wanted to say goodbye." The words were flat to the point of being nearly expressionless.
Willow kept her eyes on Angel's dark ones. "You're leaving, too?"
He shook his head slightly, and Willow thought he looked sadder than anyone she'd ever met. "Not... leaving."
"Oh," she said, understanding. Two years ago, a year ago, she would have begged him to stay out of danger. But she knew the stakes, and knew that if he was willing to sacrifice his life, it had to be pretty bad. "Is there... is there anything I can do?" she asked, feeling helpless.
Desert winds rushed around both of them, sending Willow's hair into her eyes. She pushed it aside impatiently. There was a knot in her chest, a twisted mass that blocked the tears that had come so easily to her before. She'd been devastated by Jenny's death, by watching Giles retreat into a hollow-eyed shell. And now Angel was telling her he was going to die, and she couldn't shed a tear.
"No. Just... if the Slayer ever comes, tell her... tell her I waited as long as I could."
"I will," Willow vowed. Her dry eyes burned watching Angel walk away. If the Slayer had come, the Master would never have risen. Jenny would never have died, and Angel wouldn't be sacrificing himself.
The tears, when they came, were bitter.
Darla raised her hands above her head. A knife was in one of them, picking up the meager light and reflecting it into Acathla's stone eyes. She wore white, a long gown that flowed dramatically around her. "Acathla," she called. "Mundatus sum pro te necavi."
In the thickening shadows around the docks, Angel searched for the warehouse she was in.
Darla's voice rose, echoing hollowly in the empty building. "Sanguinem meum pro te effundam quo me dignum." Triumph rose in her, threatening to strangle the words in her throat. She forced herself to regain control, and went on, bringing the knife down with a flash.
As Angel followed her voice into the building, one of the two vampires who had followed him since he had left his lair that night went to join the Master. The other stayed and watched.
"Esse demonstrem." Quicksilver, the knife cut deeply into Darla's palm. Blood ran down her forearm, darkening the white silk she wore. "Now, Acathla," she whispered, raising her hand again so her blood dripped onto her face. "Be free."
"No!" Angel cried out.
Darla turned. When she saw who stood behind her, she began to laugh. "Oh, poor, poor Angel. Tricked again." She shook her head languidly, letting her long hair fall down her back. Crossing swiftly to Acathla, she put out one hand and drew the sword buried in his chest easily. "I've so enjoyed watching you suffer, resurrecting your former self." She twirled the blade idly in one hand. "It was so... exciting, seeing you as you used to be, and knowing that you hated every moment of it. And it worked, perfectly. The Master ignored all my preparations, all my plans. He was so blinded by you, he didn't see me."
Behind her, the stone groaned. Darla whipped her head around, and stretched both hands toward Acathla. Light spilled from his open mouth, streaked along the sword she still held in one hand, bathing her in golden radiance. She laughed again, delighted with what she had wrought.
"Darla," Angel called. She turned to him. He didn't look terrified, she noted distantly. Odd, that. "You always taught me," he said with great deliberation, "never underestimate the desperation of your victims."
She knew what he was going to do a moment before the sword pierced her body. She cried out in shock at the pain, trying to wrench it free. But before she could, she found herself being drawn inexorably backwards, drawn into the maw of the creature she had awakened. "No," she howled to the night. "No!" Her voice rose to a piercing shriek that was drowned only by Acathla's roar.
The silence was deafening. Surrounded by it, Angel dropped to his knees. Acathla was somnolent, still. No trace of the vortex or Darla remained. Angel cradled his head in his arms, and sighed.
The sound of applause was as startling as a pistol shot. Once, and he was up, on his feet. Twice, and he'd located the origin of the sound. Three, four, five times, and he could only stand frozen while the Master stood, flanked by his followers, clapping in rapturous pleasure.
"Oh, that was well done." Fully satisfied, the Master steepled his hands. "I always knew Darla was going to outreach herself one day. But that it was you, you who turned on her... oh, it was rich."
The Master flicked the nails of one hand in Angel's direction, and two of his minions started that way. "Of course, there's the minor matter of your lying to me. Pretending to be something you're not. Plotting to kill me." He tsked with disapproval. "Seize him."
With a snarl, Angel attacked the first vampire that reached him. Folding his arms, the Master watched the revels. "Don't kill him," he called out. "He might be very useful. It is always good to have bait for a trap."
It had come to this, Giles thought heavily, watching Willow arm herself in the library. Despite his best efforts, they needed people out on the hunt too much. He'd taken a teenage girl and turned her into a killer.
She was terrified, he could tell that. He couldn't blame her. More than two years hadn't quite eradicated his own fear. But every time he tried to rationalize that she could be left behind, tucked safely out of the way, practicality broke him down. She knew what to do. She'd learned along with all the others. They needed every hand they could get.
Ironically enough, it had been Xander who had finally given her the courage to go out and fight. He'd called Sunnydale several more times, with no news but letting the ragged remains of the Rebel Alliance know he was still alive. He and Willow had argued about her fighting until Willow had dug her heels in and insisted that she was strong enough, capable enough and brave enough to do it. Giles never doubted any of the three, but he did think that if Xander wanted her to fight, he couldn't have picked a better tactic to convince her to do so.
"What's the plan?" she asked, her voice nearly breaking.
Standing beside her, Oz put his hand on her shoulder. "We take my van, cruise for stragglers." He and Giles had agreed it was the safest way to introduce her to active duty.
Willow lashes hovered on her cheeks, hiding her eyes. She didn't want them to see her clearly, Giles knew. Didn't want them to worry about her. Didn't want to let them down.
"Well," she said brightly, "that's it, then. Why don't we--"
The crash shook them all. A window heaved inward, scattering razor shards on the floor. Oz automatically grabbed for Willow while Giles lifted the crossbow in his hand. Dead silence reigned when no one dared move.
A shattered groan alerted them. Without thinking, Willow let go of Oz and dashed across the floor to where Angel lay, bound and obviously beaten. She dropped the stake in her hand and started working frantically on the knots that kept him immobile. Glass bit into her knees, but she ignored it.
Angel opened his eyes. Barely able to see through the haze of pain, he focused on her with an effort. "Willow, no..." he managed.
"Perfect," another voice said. Willow looked up from where she knelt by Angel's body, into the eyes of a vampire. "The Master likes it when things go according to plan."
Reaching down, he buried his hand in Willow's hair and hauled her to her feet. "Now listen to me, little girl," he snarled. "You come with us, and your friends live, and this pathetic excuse for a vampire lives. If you fight us, they die. If they fight us, you die. Got it?"
He twisted her around until she could see Oz and Giles. Slowly, they lowered their weapons. Before she could choke out a plea, a word, anything, a hand clamped around her throat. She gasped for air until she slumped in his arms.
There was no sound in the library after they left, dragging Angel behind them. Nothing.
"We've got to call everyone together." Oz's voice was flat, expressionless. Emotionless. Startled, shaken, Giles looked at him. The emptiness in the library was echoed in the boy's eyes. Nothing would live there until Willow was safe. "We'll end them. Once and for all."
It was a little, little room they took her to. Tiny, airless, with candles sucking the oxygen greedily and sending shadows flickering over everything. Even after she had quartered the room carefully, making sure she was alone, Willow kept seeing movement out of the corners of her eyes and jumping, certain that this moment she would die. Or the next. Or the next.
She didn't know how long they left her in there. It was cold. She warmed her hands over the candle flames as long as she could, until they finally gutted themselves out in pools of wax. Then the shadows couldn't frighten her anymore.
The darkness did.
Waiting, waiting -- she couldn't take it. Her agile mind had torn her into shreds in every imaginative way to suffer it could come up with. It prowled, preyed on itself, until she finally forced herself into mindlessness, wrapping her arms around her knees and rocking in the darkness of her cell.
When the door to her prison opened, there was a queer kind of relief in it. She raised her eyes -- and saw the Master.
She'd never seen him. No one had. No one warned her that he was a monster. She knew it, she'd seen what he had done to her home, to her friends, but she didn't know that his face reflected the malignance within.
She cowered there, on the floor of the little cell. But there was nowhere to run as he crouched next to her, trailing the long nails of one hand down her cheek and lower, wrapping his hand around her neck.
"Have you ever watched anything die?" he asked her, reflectively. Behind him, dark figures holding torches cast a flickering light, sending it sliding over his rat-like face. "I mean, really watched the process? I have. Many times. It's interesting, how different things react to different deaths. But humans... they are the most interesting. Take the head, and the body flops around for a surprisingly long time afterwards. Take the heart... take the heart, and it stops."
His fingers began to writhe around her throat. Out of the corners of her eyes, Willow could see snakes at the end of his arm, where his fingers had been. Hear them hissing. Snakes crawling over her skin, biting her, fangs sinking deep. Her last vestige of control broke and she screamed.
The snakes vanished. They had never existed anywhere but her mind. She knew that, but couldn't deal with it, couldn't deal with the idea that such things could be planted inside of her mind. The Master rose to his feet again. "Yes," he said. "You and your friends have been a vague irritant, but I grow tired of dealing with you. You are the heart of the group. What will they do," he said wonderingly, "if the heart is removed?"
The library was full of noise. Arguments, plans, voices raised in fury and denial. None of it seemed to touch Oz, leaning back against the front counter with his arms folded, watching. The plan was largely his, but he betrayed no emotion as it was dissected, picked over, improved upon. He just watched.
Finally, Giles decided it was time to call an end to it. "Quiet!" he shouted. Slowly, reluctantly, the babble died down until his voice could be heard. "Now, then, does anyone have any final objections?" He glared at the crowd around him, but no one dared to speak.
"All right then.. Everyone, keep off the streets until then. Rest. Remain safe in your homes. We'll meet here, eight o'clock? Understood?"
With only muttered objections, the Rebel Alliance filed out and scattered to their own homes. Oz didn't move. "Go home," Giles said gently. "Rest. There's nothing to be accomplished today."
"I can't sleep." Oz's dispassionate voice could have been commenting on the weather or the monthly memorial service for dead students.
Giles shook his head helplessly and turned away. He'd grieved, violently, when Jenny died. Still did, truth be told. This wasn't grief.
When they'd taken Willow, they'd taken Oz as well. It was that simple.
For his sake, for their sake, for the sake of the group who had been shaken by the arrogant audacity of her capture, they needed to save Willow.
After Giles left, there was no break in the silence of the library. Oz doggedly pulled volumes from shelves, familiarizing himself with the Master as much as possible. He had never been on research detail, but he had the sort of brain that remembered everything it read.
None of what he read comforted him.
He didn't bother glancing at the clock, charting the path of the sun across the floor. He didn't mark time at all.
When the phone rang, Oz looked up from his book and stared at it for a moment. On the third ring, he picked it up and put it to his ear. "Hello?"
"Hey, it's Xander. Oz?" Xander guessed. He sounded tired and barely interested.
"Yeah." Oz didn't offer any more information, just traced the illustration on the page before him.
"Is Willow there?"
Oz's finger didn't cease in the tracing. "No, she's not here. They've got her."
Xander's voice sharpened from weariness to alarm. "What?"
"They used Angel as bait and they grabbed her. Right here in the library. As we watched." He could see it so clearly. Kept seeing it so clearly. The moment that she passed outside of his reach. The moment where he could have snatched her back to safety.
"What are you going to do?"
Oz shut the book in front of him. "Tonight. We're going to meet here."
"They're still at that warehouse?" Xander asked.
"Yeah." The one place they'd always known about, but had never been able to take the fight to. The one logical place for them to have taken Willow.
"I'll be there," Xander said. "I'm in Chicago. I haven't found anything. I'm coming back."
The light slanted across Oz's hands. "Hurry," he said quietly, and lowered the phone to the cradle.
How did you know how long a second was? Willow tried to remember. It wasn't a heartbeat. Were heartbeats faster or slower? She tried chanting, "One one thousand, two one thousand," under her breath, but even the sound of her own voice startled her. She'd had to give up singing to herself for the same reason. The cell caught her voice and threw it back to her from all angles mercilessly.
The problem with counting seconds was that if you missed any, counting the rest was pointless. All you could say was that you had been in a cell for x plus two thousand, six hundred and fifty-three seconds. Fifty-four. Fifty-five. If she knew how long she would be in that cell, she could count down. That would be useful.
When they opened the cell door, the light was bright, splitting her eyes. She cried out and covered them and forgot her count. No one paid attention to her struggles as they hauled her out of the cell and dragged her away, dumping her at the feet of the Master.
As quickly as she could, she pulled away as far as they would let her, keeping her head bent and her eyes on the floor. One second of being out of that cell. Two. Three.
"Little Willow," the Master sighed. "Pretty little girl. So many people love you. Those big eyes, that sweet smile. So many would die for you."
Cold metal floor. Scratches and scrapes from use. Rust. She memorized it.
Thirty-three. Thirty-four. Thirty-five.
"So many will die for you."
Willow's eyes raised from the floor. She was in the warehouse on the edge of town. She knew that. They were on a platform above the main floor of the warehouse. It was lined thick with shadows, but her dark-adjusted eyes could see, dimly, figures.
Fifty-nine. Sixty. Sixty-one.
The figures were coming closer. They couldn't see the vampires grouped on the platform. They couldn't see her. They didn't know that she was there. They didn't know the vampires were there. They didn't know they were about to die.
Eighty-six. Eighty-seven. Eighty-eight.
If she called out, she could warn them. She could stop them from throwing their lives away. But her voice refused to work, refused to produce sound. Her lips moved, silently chanting numbers. One hundred and four. One hundred and five. One hundred and six.
The Master grabbed her shoulders and hauled her to her feet. At that signal, floodlights pierced the gloom of the building. Willow's rescuers froze in the brilliant glare, staring up at her above them.
She found Oz in that crowd. How, she didn't know. But he was there, looking up at her. She couldn't move or scream or fight, just silently tell him to run away, to get out of there, to escape. Even after the rolling turmoil below her swept him from her sight, she kept her eyes fixed on the spot where he had been, watched what was happening below.
One fell. Two. Three.
They were dying. And it was her fault.
"Ah," the Master said, a small sound of absolute satisfaction. To their left, stairs rose from the main floor. A girl was being dragged up to them. Willow recognized her. She'd been one of her worst tormenters, one of Cordelia's friends. She'd been late in joining the resistance, but had thrown herself whole-heartedly into the fight. Her once long and lustrous hair was chopped short, her nails ruined, and her eyes hard.
The Master pushed her at the girl. "Kill her," he said. He pressed a knife into her hand. "Kill her now."
Willow shook her head, a silent denial. She'd lost count of the people who had died for her.
The Master smiled with satisfaction. "Kill her now and I'll let everyone in this warehouse go. Including you."
Willow stared at the knife. The girl struggled against the vampires who held her. Below, people screamed. "I can't," Willow said.
The knife fell from her hand to clatter on the metal floor. Before it had finished rattling, the girl was dead on the floor in front of her. Vampires didn't need blades to kill. Her blood flowed over the knife blade until someone picked it up and put it back in Willow's hand.
Below, they died trying to save her.
Willow's hand tightened on the handle. She had to do it. She had to. Everyone else had fought and killed to help Sunnydale. She could. She would. She raised her head and raised the knife.
Xander stood before her. A cut on his forehead ran blood, and his arms were pinned behind his back, but he looked exactly the same as when he left. It was Xander. She knew him. She'd known him her whole life. She'd loved him her whole life. She couldn't kill him. And it shattered her. Backing away, she shook her head, but couldn't speak.
His throat was torn out. Even before he fell at her feet, the glamour that the Master had thrown over him faded, until he was just a dark-haired boy. She used to know his name. She didn't any more.
She couldn't count seconds any more.
She didn't know how long it was that she stood there. Long enough that everyone left. She was alone. She couldn't see anyone there. No one alive.
Slowly, feeling her way down, she descended the steps of the platform to the floor below. The high, bright lights glared through the building. She walked, and looked, and understood.
Silence reigned, until the voices in her head broke the floodtide. Drowning in them, Willow put her hands to her temples and screamed.
Late, late, late. Xander could feel the urgency driving him, blinding him. The library was dark, empty. They must have left already. He had to get to the warehouse, had to get to them.
Had to get to Willow. God, Willow.
He ignored his shaking hands. He knew the streets here, knew every alley and short-cut. Once, he had to duck into a hiding place to avoid a shadowy group heading back the way he had come, back towards the library. He barely noticed them, barely reacted.
He had to get to Willow.
When he reached the warehouse, he flattened himself against the outside wall and listened. He didn't hear anything at all. Cautiously, he peered inside, but the entryway was dim. Wary of the silence, he carefully slipped in. And froze.
Willow was standing in the middle of the floor, surrounded by the bodies of people he'd known, fought with. Her arms were wrapped around her body, and her head was tilted up towards the invisible sky. He could see clearly that she was alone.
Barely glancing at the bodies around him, Xander ran to her. Before he reached her, she opened her eyes and tilted her head down. "Xander?" she asked wonderingly.
Xander had to swallow before he could speak. "Yeah, Will. Oh, God..."
Willow's lip began to tremble. "They tried so hard, Xander. They tried so hard. But they couldn't save me. I just sat up there, and they couldn't save me. And they wanted me to kill you, but you weren't here. But now you are here. And I couldn't kill you, so they killed you anyway. But you're not dead. Why aren't you dead?"
Xander put his hands on her arms, unwrapping them from her body, warming her cold hands in his. "You're not dead, Will, that's the only thing that matters."
"I loved you, you know," Willow said in the same ghostly, little-girl voice. "Always. All the time. Why didn't you love me, Xander?"
Xander's throat closed. She was staring up at him with such grief. And it was his fault. "I do, Will. I love you," he whispered.
Willow's eyes overflowed with tears. "You're lying. You're just saying what you think I want to hear," she accused.
"I've never been so scared in my life. When Oz said they had you... I thought you were already dead." His voice broke, and he forced himself to go on. "I thought I'd lost you and I couldn't stand it. Will...." Unable to speak, he closed his eyes and pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her slight body. He had to get her out of there, had to make sure she was safe. But first he had to reassure himself that she was alive, and well.
"Good," Willow's voice said. "I want you to love me. I want you to love me forever and ever and ever." She pushed back from Xander and looked up at him. Her eyes were glowing yellow with greed and her smile was a travesty of sweetness. "Because you're going to be mine."
Before he could react, her fangs were in his throat. The blood spilled down his arm as she clumsily tore into his throat, lapping at the wetness. In her arms, he sank to the ground, vision pulsing and dying.
"Now," Willow said, kneeling over him, licking his cheek to catch a tendril of red that had escaped her. "You drink from me. Then I drink from you again. And then we're together forever and ever and ever."
Oz leaned his head back against the headrest in his van. He was heading home alone. Funny how when the days got shorter and the nights longer, the heat got more intense. Even at night, the heat lingered.
A figure crossed into the beams of his headlights. Automatically, he slammed on his brakes. His hand shot out for the crossbow even as he made rescue plans. There weren't that many places to take people for safety anymore. Then again, there weren't that many people to keep safe.
Rising out of the darkness, he saw a girl. For a moment he couldn't, wouldn't believe what he was seeing. He wanted Willow to be alive, that's why he was seeing her hair and eyes on some random person. For a long time, he was always seeing her, hearing her voice. He'd had to accept that she was dead the same way that he'd had to accept leaving the bodies of his friends behind in the place where she'd died. Willow was dead, had been for months.
Wine-red in the shadows, lightening to fire in the glare of his headlights, she stood in front of his van. The pure oval of her face wasn't a dream, didn't fade away as he watched. Oz opened the door and jumped to the ground. She didn't move, didn't speak, just looked at him. Crazily, the joy rushed through him. "Oh, God, Willow...." She was alive, and safe, and here, and...
Slowly, she tilted her head to one side, and put one finger to her cheek. A smile crossed her face. Her body shifted, showcased in black leather, and her hair brushed her bare shoulders.
Without thinking, Oz reached into his van. His hand closed over the crossbow, and held on as he watched Xander come up behind Willow, crossing his arms intimately around her waist.
"Oh, look," Willow purred. "It's the Tin Woodman. Or is it the Scarecrow?" she mused, perplexed.
"Scarecrow. He definitely needs a brain." Xander nuzzled her ear, sliding one hand around her hip.
Willow giggled. "That tickles. Yes. Scarecrow. Especially with that hair. Do you remember when we were seven, and you spent the night over at my house and we watched that movie?"
Oz raised the crossbow. The caricature that stood in front of him seared him to the bone. When they had killed her, it had broken him in ways that he knew would never heal. But twisting her, taking her face and her voice and bending them to their purpose, destroyed even the memory of hope and love. "You're not Willow," he said coldly. Without expression, he fired at the thing that had taken over Willow's body.
Moving quickly, Xander yanked her out of the way. The bolt flew harmlessly past, skittering to the street. When Xander looked back at Oz, childhood reminisces had given way to demonic rage.
"Don't kill him," Willow said coaxingly. She put one hand to Xander's chest and stared at Oz. "I want him to live a long, long time. A very long, long time."
Xander's rage faded. "Not as long as us, Will."
"No. Not as long as us. Just... long enough."
Willow kept her eyes on Oz's, even as he put the van in gear and drove away. She lightly touched the middle of her top lip with her tongue, savoring. "Just... long... enough," she whispered.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
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