By Barb Cummings
Sequel to A Raising in the Sun
The morning paper was still scattered
across the kitchen island: headlines full of anthrax scares, neighborhood
squabbles with the zoning commission, and a string of burglaries down by the
docks. It was both reassuring and annoying, the way the world puttered
on oblivious to supernatural catastrophe. Giles supposed that those
responsible for averting mundane catastrophes would think much the same of
"...no, I don't know for how long. I'm
not even sure if." Buffy switched the phone from one shoulder to another,
broke an egg into the glass of pig's blood and cooking sherry on the counter
in front of her, and stirred vigorously. She was casual this morning
in grey workout pants and a pink spaghetti-strap top, her hair pulled back
in an all-business ponytail. Makeup obscured the evidence of too little
sleep beneath her eyes, and her movements were quick and efficient, but there
was tension below the surface, a sense of clockwork too tightly wound.
"I just need to know if you can take her on short notice. Yes or no,
Dad." She picked up a bottle of Worcestershire sauce in one hand and
Tabasco in the other, examined both with a dubious frown, then shrugged and
shook a generous dollop of each into the mix. "Fine. No, Mr.
Giles or Spike will drive her up if it turns out--Dad, if I have to drive
on the freeway there really will be an apocalypse. I'll let you know.
And thank you." With clench-jawed reluctance she added, "Say hi to
She stood blinking in the middle of the
kitchen for a moment, then rubbed her eyes. "Sorry. Sleepless
in Sunnydale. Did you want anything? Coffee, orange juice, pig's
blood if you're feeling adventurous? Totally covered in the beverage
"Surely after six years I've impressed
upon you that tea is the requisite drink for bad news. At least, until
after four in the afternoon, at which point Scotch becomes an acceptable
"Ah, so that's an English thing, not just
a vampire thing. Got it." Buffy began rummaging through canisters
and pulled out a handful of brightly colored foil packets. "Ummm...
I think these are all Tara's, but she won't mind. Would you like Lemon
Ginger Zest, Ginseng Goodness or Chamomile Raspberry Repose?"
"Er... surprise me." Spike's
gradual insinuation into the Summers household wasn't something he was entirely
comfortable with, but if it meant Buffy's indoctrination into the making of
a proper cuppa, perhaps it was worth estrangement from the Council.
"Morning, pet. Rupert. Won't
call it good." Spike slouched into the kitchen, massaging his temples
as if every separate hair follicle hurt, and proceeded to insinuate his arms
around Buffy. Buffy reached up and cupped the arch of his cheek in one
hand, and the vampire leaned into her touch with a low rumbling growl, nuzzling
her palm in a feral caress. The gesture was both tender and deeply
disturbing, and Giles looked away with the feeling he'd seen something raw
and private, and the even more uncomfortable realization that they'd trusted
him to see it--a trust that made him complicit in something he didn't fully
understand. In refusing Travers's proposal, he'd made a courageous stand
for principle, or the biggest mistake of his life.
Tara appeared at Giles's side as silently
as an apparition, and plunked a foot-tall stack of grimoires of assorted sizes
and degrees of decrepitude down on the kitchen island. Dawn followed
her in bearing the bells and candles. The younger Summers sister turned
mulish as she spotted the phone on the counter. "You're not gonna pack
me off to Dad's, are you?"
"It's one option." Buffy handed Spike
the glass of curdled reddish-brown goo and stuck Giles's teacup blithely in
the microwave. Giles winced and Spike went blank-eyed in horrified sympathy.
She turned to Tara, her face a study in harsh compassion. "Anything?"
"Maybe," Tara said. Her eyes were
red and her nose looked sore, but if she'd been crying, she'd not let it interfere
with her work. "Page ninety-four." She opened the spellbook at
the summit of the stack to the correct incantation and handed it to Giles.
"It's a spellcloak. You can cast it around buildings so only certain
types of people can see through it. There's a place in t-town that has
one--they say you c-can't even find it unless you're a demon or into black
"Rack's place?" Spike took a sniff
of the revolting-looking mixture Buffy'd concocted and disposed of it in three
ravenous gulps. He set his glass down and licked his chops with a nostalgic
air. "Haven't been there in an age. Dru and I used to..."
His eyes went to Dawn, and he cut himself off. "Clem was around when
it went in. He told me it took a full coven a fortnight's worth of
chanting and prancing about to set that one up."
Giles looked askance at Tara. "Are
you certain you're up for this?"
Tara's fingers knotted in the folds of
her skirt. "Willow could punch through any spell I can cast anyway,
so there's no sense in trying for strong. What I can manage will only
last a week or so, and it'll have to be very specific--generalities like 'no
violence' or 'no evil' are a lot harder to enforce than 'No Willow' or 'No
Harbingers.' I thought--I thought that if I used a little of everyone's
energy the finished spell won't 'feel' like any one of us, and maybe she won't
notice it at all."
"A disguise for a cloaking spell?" Giles
closed the book and handed it back to Tara. "That's quite clever."
"I did a spell once," Buffy offered.
"I could placehold. Give me weird words to say and I'll say 'em.
The vampire executed a shrug of studied
and unconvincing indifference. "Done a thing or two in my time.
Could lend a hand."
Tara went pale, then red, and stammered,
"I mean, except, the kind of magic I do and the kind Spike's done don't, um--not
Spike immediately adopted a disdainful
sneer. "Could, but won't. No worries, Glinda. I shan't
be mucking up the good vibrations."
"No, I didn't mean--I mean, I did mean--"
Tara stopped, flustered, and Buffy's eyes narrowed. Her veneer of calm
was beginning to acquire hairline cracks.
"Both of you can just suck it up and deal
with one another," Giles interrupted, exasperated. "Spike, Tara doesn't
trust you completely? Observe my tears. You nearly ate the love
of her life. Stop being a tosser." He rounded on Tara, who jumped.
"And when you're facing a witch who could snuff all of us out like wet lucifers
and someone offers to help, bloody well say thank you very much."
Spike shuffled his feet and buried his
nose in the remainder of his breakfast. "Um. Yeah. Whatever
you need, kitten."
Tara went even redder. "I'll s-start
setting up for the spell. Um... it might make things hard on the mailman."
Buffy, who'd been watching the whole exchange
with the air of someone ready to bring out a squirt bottle if necessary, relaxed.
"All we get is bills anyway. Do it. I called the school and said
Dawn needed another day to kick her flu, so she can minion for you."
Tara nodded and departed for the living room, Dawn in tow. Buffy rubbed
the side of her nose. "Anya and Xander won't be free till after work,
but Strategy Girl is thinking it's a bad idea to sit around and give the
Harbingers time to find a new lair, set up a new altar and get down and be
chanty again. We've got to hit them again while they're off-balance.
Giles--in all the research you did on the First Evil when it went after Angel,
did you ever discover any way of fighting it directly?"
Giles knew exactly what she was trying
to avoid, and the words he had to say were stones in his belly. "I'm
not sure it's possible to fight it directly. It's one of the fundamental
forces underlying the metaphysical universe--one might as well attempt fighting
the law of gravity. You can defy it for a moment here and there with
a flying carpet or an airplane, but sooner or later..."
"So we'll get a flying carpet or an airplane."
Buffy's eyes were polished agate. "It's not invincible, Giles.
That was the mistake I made with Glory. I heard the word 'god' and fell
apart. She was stronger and faster and tougher than me, but like I
haven't fought a hundred creepy-crawlies that fit that description?"
She clenched both fists together on the kitchen island and leaned forward,
tiger-fierce. "Fundamental phooey. I don't care what it is
. All I need to know is what it can do and what it can't do, and I'll
figure out how to beat it."
"At the moment, anything Willow can do."
Giles removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "The problem
we face is that Willow's not simply being tricked or harried by the First's
illusions. She's willingly accepted its power into herself, and the
only way to defeat it may be..."
There was a long pregnant pause, and when
Buffy spoke her voice was clipped and calm and precise. "I am sick and
tired of being strong enough to kill my lovers, my sister, my friends, myself,
rah rah go Slayer--but never quite strong enough to save them." From
somewhere underneath the island came the ominous crack of wood about to splinter,
and Spike laid a hand across hers. She looked down and let go of the
countertop with a guilty start. "There has to be some way to separate
them. We'll find it."
Giles nodded. "I'll go over everything
again, of course." He already knew what he'd find. A part of him
was already in mourning for the blithe red-haired girl who'd somehow slipped
away in the last two years--but then, he thought, watching the Slayer's fingers
twine through the vampire's, it was the nature of children to slip away and
be replaced with bewildering suddenness by adults whom one barely knew.
"In the meantime, as if we hadn't enough to occupy us..." He gave her
a quick synopsis of Travers's phone call.
"So if money's the carrot, what's the stick?"
Buffy wasn't overjoyed at his news, that much was obvious, but equally obviously
the Council's machinations took a back seat in her mind to more pressing problems.
"Are they sending the goon squad again? Pulling your visa?"
Giles turned his glasses over in the knife-edge
of sun which penetrated the curtains, watching it slice shards of light from
the metal rims. "Both, I expect. The first attempts will be feints.
Travers isn't one to waste resources lightly. He's calling your bluff,
but he'd find nothing so satisfying as seeing one or both of us come crawling
and begging him to take us back into the fold."
The microwave dinged and Buffy handed Giles
his tea. "I hope he's got a hobby to keep him busy while he waits.
What I'd like to know is how they found out to begin with. If that guy
with the camera was just getting confirmation--"
Dawn stuck her head back into the kitchen,
brandishing scissors in one hand and a plastic bag in the other. "We
need something personal from everyone. Hair would be good."
Buffy backed away, hands going protectively
to her scalp. "Get thee behind me, Sweeney! The last time you
cut my hair I had to go to the emergency room for severe emotional trauma."
Her sister rolled her eyes, expertly snipped
a lock of Giles's hair before he could object, and advanced on Spike.
"If you'd just stood still it would have matched Malibu Barbie perfectly."
She dropped the sprinkling of platinum blonde curls into the bag with the
pinch of greying brown and her own long dark tress, and handed Buffy the scissors.
"Here, cut it yourself. And I know the Council is what you find in
the dictionary when you look up 'stuffy,' but if you ask me all the moaning
and thumping was probably a big clue."
Buffy went bright pink and almost sliced
off an entire handful of hair. "We do not...thump."
Giles sighed and gave his teabag an unenthused
poke with a spoon. "Dawn does have a point, Buffy. Spike's motorcycle
has been parked in your driveway for the last three days, there's an ashtray
on the front porch railing, it's nine in the morning and the curtains are
drawn, and you're making pig's blood smoothies for breakfast. It doesn't
take Sherlockian powers of deduction to ascertain that there's a vampire spending
more time in your home than his own. The two of you may as well have
left a trail of breadcrumbs for the Council's local informants. Still--"
"Motorcycle and ashtray says 'vampire?'
I could be dating a Hell's Angel!" Giles raised an eyebrow, and Buffy
crumpled. Spike gravely extended a finger and pressed her lower lip
back in. "Anyway, if Travers is making with the ominous hints, Faith
could be in big trouble right about now. I'll call Angel and have him--"
"Buffy...wait." Giles reached across
the island and placed a hand on her forearm. "Perhaps it's a coincidence,
but last weekend while you were in L.A., Angel called me to, er, discuss the
two of you. He specifically brought up the possibility of the Council's
finding out about your relationship. Travers knew the two of you were
together; he did not realize the chip was no longer functioning. A Sunnydale
informant would most likely have known about the latter development."
"No!" Buffy gave a vehement head-shake.
"He wouldn't--Angel wasn't loving the concept of me with Spike, but he wouldn't
do that..." She trailed off. "He wouldn't," she repeated, a little
waver of uncertainty creeping in.
"Wouldn't he?" Spike's lip took on a reflexive
curl at mention of his grandsire. "Not for spite or jealousy, no--he's too
proud of his sodding soul for that. But for your own good? He
thinks I'm taking the piss about sticking to the straight and narrow.
Drop a word in that Travers git's ear, and if all goes well and Rupert cooperates,
you and Dawn are set up for life and I'm out of the way without him having
to sully his hands with my dust."
"And if Rupert proves recalcitrant," Giles
finished, "then you and I are no worse off than we were the first time we
broke from the Council, and the odds are excellent that the Council will try
to eliminate Spike regardless."
"I don't believe it," Buffy repeated stonily,
"Not unless I hear it from him."
Spike sucked his cheeks in and glanced
at Giles; Giles mimed a shrug. There was no use in arguing with Buffy
on this particular subject. "I may be wrong, of course," he said, in
the tone which meant I am anything but.
"There's this, too." Buffy's fingers
closed upon Spike's, the blurred reflection of her hand in the Formica floating
eerily on nothingness. "Point: Willow's right. I shouldn't
be here. I'm upsetting the Balance and I should just let her zap me
back to kingdom come. Counterpoint: Somehow I'm not thinking the Eyeless
Brigade will shake hands, call it a draw and go home when I'm gone.
But say we stop Wills--then what? Balance still all wonky." Her
grip on Spike's fingers tightened. "I have never wanted to die less
in my entire life, but--"
A chilly hand began weaving his intestines
into elaborate knots, and Giles could see with perfect clarity that pale,
peaceful face laid out amidst the rubble once more. This is what a Slayer
does. You know it's only a matter of time. "No! You'll
not be thinking of that, hear?" Spike ground out, putting voice to the protest
Giles dared not allow himself. "Not you. Red said I was buggering
things up by being a do-gooding ponce, didn't she? I've had a good century
plus, and--" his voice went husky for a second-- "My taste of paradise.
So if someone's got to kack it to even things up--"
Spike's motives might be the utterly selfish
ones of keeping his beloved alive, but Giles could have wished Travers here,
just so that he could watch the expression on the old git's face. Buffy
remained unimpressed. "It's not your decision, Spike."
"And why the hell not?" he demanded.
"Since when's it our lookout to keep the bleeding Balance in order anyway?
Powers take a holiday?" He exhaled with an angry snort, warming to his
argument. "What, next time we run across someone sharpening their fangs
on a warm neck in a cold alley, we have to check our quota before dusting
the wanker? What do we tell the dish of the day? 'Sorry, mate,
can't save you, we've been too good this week!'"
"Loathe though I am to admit it, Spike
has a point," Giles cut in. "We can no more hope from our mere mortal
vantage point to understand the workings of the Balance, much less control
it, than we can hope to destroy the First. You are the Slayer, Buffy,
and your task is..."
He had to stop there, seeing the look in
Buffy's eyes; sad and amused. "Kill vampires? The job description's
kind of expanded on me in the last few years, Giles." She sighed.
"But you're right, both of you. I can save the universe, but the day
I start thinking I can run it I'll be playing in Willow's sandbox."
The corners of her eyes crinkled--not a smile, but cousin to one. "Guess
I'll just have to wing it. Think I can manage that?"
"There! See? There goes another
Tanner jerked awake. It was warm,
and he was lying on something more yielding than hard ground or a park bench,
wrapped in clean blankets instead of his ratty old sleeping bag. The
rich scent of coffee teased his nose, mingled with the incongruous slaughterhouse
tang of blood. Couch. He was lying on a couch. In someone's
living room. Tanner rolled over with practiced stealth, leaving the
blankets heaped over his shoulders undisturbed, and surveyed the room through
slitted lids: comfortable, lived-in furniture, slightly worn carpet in that
ubiquitous shade of 70s harvest gold, walls adorned with family photos and
a few pieces of quirky African-themed art. The clock on the VCR claimed
it was after nine A.M., but the dimness of the room made it seem much earlier.
A Christmas tree stood to one side of the unlit fireplace. It looked
half-alive, literally--the tinsel-hung branches at the top of the tree were
supple living boughs, and the base was wire and green plastic.
The Key and the White Witch were on their
hands and knees in front of the empty fireplace, gazing up at the holiday
aberration. They were engaged in setting up what looked like a small
ceremonial altar on the hearthstone. The stained-glass glow of colored
lights played across their faces, red and blue and green and amber.
"It must have started after I went to bed last night," the witch said.
"What's it mean?" the Key asked, rolling
nervous colt-eyes in Tanner's direction. She was a tall slim girl with
long chestnut hair and clear blue eyes--pretty. One day soon she would
be beautiful. And that was all. The bright-blazing corona of emerald
power which had enveloped her was invisible to him now, and the loss left
him so hollow that he almost wept. When you'd lived in a world of liquid
madness for the better part of a year, surely it was best to wean yourself
from delirium gradually. You couldn't just look back, recoil at who
you'd been and what you'd done, and walk way as if none of it mattered any
longer. It was almost a relief when the vampire ambled into the adjacent
dining room and collapsed into a chair. His pale aquiline face looked
ghastly in the jewel-toned shimmer of the tree lights, a comforting hedge
against encroaching normality.
The White Witch stroked the nearest branch
tenderly, as if she could touch its maker by proxy. "It means Willow
hasn't got any magic to spare, and she's pulling it out of any non-essential
Tanner tamped down budding panic.
Were they just planning to hide, then? He had to convince them otherwise.
He could hold sanity at bay just a little bit longer--he needed that last
edge of madness to hone his purpose, because if he thought about it rationally
the hopeless enormity of it all would smother him. He'd show them.
His clothes were nowhere in sight, but
there was a stack of clean ones on the arm of the couch, and all his earthly
belongings were piled neatly in a cardboard box on the nearby coffee table--the
yellow rubber dog, the makeshift crosses, loose change folded in the wallet
that wasn't his--all the pathetic odds and ends of charms he'd contrived
to ward his nights and days. But where was...? The panic blossomed
into full-blown terror. He lunged across the space between couch and
table, scrabbling through the box with both hands, hunting wildly through
the debris of his life. The couch-springs made a horrible SPROING!
as his weight shifted, and the vampire looked up at the noise, pinning Tanner
to the couch with a bloodshot glare. "Oi, Slayer, your stray needs
Tanner ignored him and kept searching.
There it was, concealed under the pocket-rubble--his holy grail, the battered
and dog-eared notebook. Tanner grabbed it and sagged against the table with
a shuddering breath of relief. It was here. Safe. He subsided
back into a jackstraw huddle of bony knees and elbows on the couch.
He could feel the vampire's wintery gaze on the back of his neck as he examined
the pile of clean clothes on the arm of the couch: paint-spattered Dockers,
and a bright yellow Hawaiian shirt emblazoned with purple hibiscus.
Chosen on the theory that even a madman wouldn't run away if it meant going
out in public dressed like that, no doubt.
"Sorry. They're all we had that I
thought might fit you." The White Witch sounded truly distressed about
it. Tanner dropped the offending garment and summoned a smile.
"Beggars can't be choosers. Never
thought I'd mean that literally."
She didn't look as if smiles were part
of her repertoire at the moment, but she fashioned one for him anyway. "The
bathroom's upstairs if you want to shower and change. If..."
"I can help you," he broke in, quick and
awkward. He held out the notebook. "With this. And with
your ward, if you want. I'm not much of a wizard, but..."
"That would be... sure." She took
the ratty bundle of paper and paged through it, confusion wrinkling her fair
brow. "Giles might... I'm afraid I don't..." She closed the notebook,
handed it back to him and dropped to one knee beside the couch. The
clear blue-grey of her eyes had gone cloudy. "Willow," she said.
"Did you see her? Is she all right?"
"She was fine the last time I saw
her. I gather things got exciting after I left the building."
He shot another look at the vampire. It was staring at him--head cocked,
dark brows knit over eyes full of inhuman hunger...but not for blood.
Ravenous eyes, drinking in his grief and shame as if by sheer willpower it
could force itself to a visceral understanding of remorse. Tanner fingered
the regrettable yellow shirt, avoiding that disturbing gaze as he addressed
its owner. "Last night. You saved my life. That's the second
time you've... why?"
Heavy lids dropped over clear blue eyes,
and a sardonic smile touched the perfectly sculpted lips for a second.
"Sixty-four dollar question, innit? Would you believe that it seemed
like the right thing to do at the time?"
Was the mockery in that voice for Tanner,
or himself? "I've held your mind in my hands," Tanner whispered.
The tendons of his fingers twitched with the memory. "It slipped through
my fingers like black glass and fire."
"I'll take that as a no." The vampire
settled back more comfortably into the chair, tucking his thumbs into the
waistband of his jeans. "Well then--I like the fight. I love the
Slayer. I get off on middle-aged poofs showering me with gratitude.
Take your pick. Doesn't much matter, does it? Got the job done.
Turnabout, mate--why'd you help Buffy?"
"The First's done with me. I'm no
more use to it now it's got the Red Witch to play with." Tanner barely
heard the small wounded catch in the White Witch's breath as the fury of betrayal
rose within him again, along with a sardonic inner voice asking Well,
what did you expect? It's evil. "It owes me, and if I can't
get what I bargained for I'll get revenge instead. The Slayer can help
me get it." He laid a hand on the cover of the notebook. "It's
all in here, and she can have it. And besides..." He squeezed
his eyes shut, and the soft glow of the tree lights played over his closed
lids. "It was the right thing to do. I...I used to do the right
Head-tilt. "Yeh? What's it
Tanner laughed, an incredulous chopped-off
bark. "God, you mean that! No wonder the Balance is fucked
up. I envy the hell out of you, you know? No guilt, no remorse.
I've got more chains than Marley's ghost dragging behind me--" Pair after
pair of eyes--terrified, trusting, confused, all of them melding together
in madness as his hands plunged over and over into mind after mind, and he
said the right words in the right order...and all for nothing, all in vain.
"You're free, and--"
In the time it took for Tanner to draw
breath for the next word the vampire was across the room and leaning over
the coffee table, spitting a curse as one hand brushed a pencil-and-rubber-band
cross. Tanner could smell the blood on his breath, cool and rank like
the draft from a meat locker. He threw himself against the back of
the couch, but the vampire only bared white and perfectly human teeth in
a mirthless grin. "Free? From what? Not like I can't feel
guilt when I fuck up, you stupid berk. Just that I don't." He
straightened, exchanging an inscrutable look with the witch. "Usually."
One word, the fulcrum upon which the universe
teetered. The Slayer and the Watcher were in the room now, and the vampire
retreated back to the dining room with an expression that suggested that
the exercise wasn't helping his headache a bit. The Slayer stood with
arms crossed, a cool and distant warrior-queen. "Mr. Tanner. I'd
say we meet at last, but we've already met. You saved my life last night.
Tanner hauled himself upright, clasping
the notebook in his lap. "I..." God. What could he say to this
woman, to any of them? "It was the day for it." He moistened his
lips, feeling a terrible need to make her understand. "I'm sorry, you
know. For all of it. But I was responsible for them. None
of them could hold it together at all. They depended on me--Blondie
and Jim and the Rabbit Guy. All of them. It seemed...I did the
best I could. I never wanted--I tried..." He realized that his
shoulders were shaking and his voice was threatening to run aground on a sob.
They were waiting in ambush for him, every single one, hiding in the winter-bare
groves of his memories, waiting to pounce. Men, women, young, old...minds
he'd ravaged to feed the insatiable hunger of his own decaying brain and
those of his ever-growing horde of followers.
The Slayer's cheeks went pink--angry, or
embarrassed at his outburst? He couldn't tell. He looked at the
Watcher. "You're Rupert Giles, right? You own the Magic Box."
"Part owner, as my partner would no doubt
remind me were she here. Do I know you? Outside our current acquaintance,
"No. No...I've just been in
the store once or twice." How mundane. Tanner pulled out a battered
notebook. "Here. I...I thought perhaps this could help you."
His voice sounded curiously hoarse in his own ears, as if too frequently
left unused. The Watcher opened the notebook, skimming the first few
pages with a frown and then proceeding more slowly through page upon page
of cabalistic scrawls and elaborate diagrams with notes scribbled into every
"I've been afraid to look at it," Tanner
said. "Since...since waking up. Afraid it'll all be ravings and
"Mmm." When in doubt, employ noncommital
grunts. The Watcher skimmed another half-dozen paragraphs, puzzlement
giving way to appalled fascination. He was turning pages swiftly now,
glasses sliding unheeded down his nose as he flipped back and forth, comparing
one crudely-drawn chart to another, double-checking the figures. "My God,"
he breathed, tracing the lines of one of the diagrams with a forefinger.
He aimed a questioning look at Tanner. "A variation on Lieber's equations,
if I'm not mistaken?" Tanner nodded. The Watcher reached the final
few pages, composed entirely of closely-written notes, and looked up, face
ashen. "This--this is astounding. Only a madman would attempt this.
Er, no offense."
Tanner spread his hands. "None taken.
As you say. But I give it to you, if you want it. My vengeance."
He said the words lovingly, reverently; his benediction.
The vampire cocked an eyebrow. "You
gonna translate for the crazy-talk impaired?"
"These..." The Watcher shook his
head. "Well, some of it is completely mad. But this is a series
of geomantic equations." He opened the book to an elaborate schematic
of the water lines plotted against the street map of Sunnydale. "He's
been charting the changes in the physical attributes of the town--traffic
flow, new construction, ratios of distance and angles between existing landmarks,
and so forth, in order to map the Hellmouth's fluctuating energy patterns.
Which in turn yields a decent approximation of the shifts in the Balance
and allows us to predict the Hellmouth's next major reversal. Which
will be, and if it surprises you I despair of you on the spot, on the winter
solstice." He looked at Tanner. "This is extraordinary."
Tanner smiled, almost shyly. "It
was my job. I was a consulting geomancer for the Department of the
Interior. Unofficially, of course. Before..."
Tanner blinked, then laughed. "No,
before I went on assignment to Haiti." He shrugged. He'd long
since resigned himself to the disruption that particular event had wrought
in his life. "When the loa decide that you're one of theirs, they don't
take no for an answer. Glorificus came later."
The Slayer took the book, turning it this
way and that and studying the diagram from several angles. "I don't
get it," she said at last. "Nice to have a timetable for the next big
flip-flop. We'll know to avoid picnics in the sewers that day.
How does this help us fight the First?"
"In itself, not at all. It's what
Mr. Tanner was planning to do when the er, 'big flip-flop' occurred," the
Tanner nodded. "Get her into the
Hellmouth. I wasn't sure how to do that, but you--you're the Slayer.
You're strong enough to get her there at the right time."
The Slayer's face continued the model of
incomprehension. The Watcher closed the notebook and re-adjusted his
glasses. "Think about it, Buffy. The avatar of elemental chaos
and evil, co-existing with the opening of a portal to a dimension of elemental
order and good? Two equal and opposite forces, forced into such proximity--"
"Go boom," the Slayer finished, a glitter
in her eye. The vampire sat up straighter, hangover forgotten at the
cheery prospect of mass destruction. "Collateral damage? Exactly
what boom factor are we talking, here?"
"The equivalent of a major earthquake,
perhaps. We needn't worry about the universe winking out like a soap
"Oh, well, that makes it quite all right,
then," the vampire muttered. "Safety first."
"Considering the fact that the dimensional
walls are so weakened in this vicinity that if Willow succeeds in her plan,
the universe could well do just that," the Watcher said with some asperity,
"Indeed, safety first." He considered for a moment. "Though really,
I doubt the effects would spread beyond this solar system."
"That's why the Harbingers were arguing
against it." Tanner rubbed his chin. The gesture didn't soothe
him. "Not that they care if the town is destroyed, but they'd all be
destroyed too, the First would lose its foothold in this dimension, and if
you think the Balance is fucked up now... The First thinks the Red
Witch will survive, and that's all it needs. It's willing to risk it."
"Willow surviving, of the good," the Slayer
said. "Everyone else surviving too, of the very much better. And
doing this Hellmouth thing would destroy the First? Because if we're
going to lower property values for all of Sunnydale, I think it's not too
much to ask that we destroy ultimate evil along with it."
"Destroy? I very much doubt it."
The Watcher steepled his fingers. "But the very least, it would lose its vessel,
its priests, and its ability to manifest in this corner of the multiverse
for a time--perhaps a considerable time."
"And the losing its vessel part?
You mean lose as in it's kicked out of Willow, leaving her unpossessed and
normal again, right?"
The Watcher looked at Tanner, who
The Slayer pursed her lips. "So basically
I've got a choice between killing Willow before she possibly blows up the
world trying to save it, and a totally untested plan created by a nutcase
which will only maybe kill Willow and definitely trash the whole town in the
Everyone was silent for a moment, and Tanner
held his breath. If they refused, he'd have to bear the weight alone
again--there was no question of giving up now, but if he could pass the burden
of his revenge to younger, stronger shoulders... "An admirable summation,"
said the Watcher.
"All right," the Slayer said. "Let's
get to work. We've got a town to trash."
"What do you mean you couldn't find it?"
Willow demanded. "You went to 1630 Revello Drive, right? Because
there's a Rivelle Drive on the other side of town, and sometimes the mailman--"
The two Harbingers crowded together
in the doorway of the small side- cavern Willow had appropriated for her own
use. Cot, desk, all the comforts of home--it was actually bigger than
the dorm room she'd shared with Buffy their first year at college. The
taller Harbinger cringed, and Willow suppressed her ire. No wonder Evil
Overlords were always strangling minions with the Force or exploding them
with blasts of hellfire; the toadying just begged for it. "Exalted Vessel,
we went to the correct street. The Slayer's dwelling was not to be
"Not to be found how? Was there a
bare foundation with pipes sticking up and a bathtub waving in mid-air?
Exactly what did it not look like?"
The Harbingers exchanged creepy eyeless
glances, at a loss for words. Not all of them had the lids sewn shut,
Willow had observed. Some of them had weird symbols carved or branded
into ruined flesh, comprising, perhaps, some demonic alphabet. At another
time she'd have been eaten up with curiosity to decipher it. If she
stood them all in a row and used her Scooby decoder ring... "We..er...we
were simply unable to find it, Exalted Vessel."
...it would probably turn out to be a commercial
for Ovaltine. They'd poked their eyes out, after all. Willow frowned
at the Harbinger over the liquid-crystal screen of her laptop. "Never
mind. Have the crazies been fed? Go take care of it."
Magic. Had to be. She'd felt
the tentative scratching around the corners of her mind an hour ago.
It wasn't an attack. Tara wanted to talk. Which was worse than
an attack, because it had a much better chance of succeeding. She had
a small army of Harbingers and a dozen human agents she could deploy to fight
off any intruders bent on doing physical damage. They had a secure base
here in the caverns, and after the debacle with Buffy sneaking in on Tuesday
night, Willow'd spent the next twenty-four hours ensuring that the major
tunnels leading into the main cavern were protected with illusions which
would leave anyone attempting to infiltrate wandering in circles. In
that time, Tara must have done something similar to Buffy's place.
It didn't matter. Tara was good,
but no more than good. Her power was the steady glow of a hearthfire,
not a blazing brilliant comet-flare, and Willow had no doubt that once she
put her mind to it she could dispel whatever it was Tara had done.
She had all the magic, all the muscle, and no reason to listen while they
tried to talk her out of this. Willow resolutely ignored her lover's
soft, insistent probing and murmured the cantrip which allowed her aetheric
Googling for grimoires spellbooks heaven
dimensions brought up one hundred and forty-seven entries; she scrolled
down the list, noting the most promising links. Oddly enough, there
were way fewer reference works on heaven dimensions than there were on hell
dimensions. She supposed it made a kind of sense--most people who ended
up in a heaven dimension probably weren't very motivated to come back and
write memoirs. She clicked on the first link and for the dozenth time
in the last forty-eight hours breathed a non-denominational prayer of gratitude
for Project Gutenberg. Cut off from the Magic Box, Giles's private collection,
and her own modest stash, she'd still managed to amass a basic occult reference
library without ever leaving the caverns.
Another Harbinger entered with a silver
tray, bowed extravagantly and extended its offerings towards her. "Exalted
Vessel, I have traveled vast distances and endured great hardships to deliver
to you the objects of your desire--tuna on rye, no pickles, and a cream soda.
Is it to your liking?"
"Very good, Jeeves. Put it on the
corner of the desk." The creature complied and backed out, salaaming,
and Willow peeled back the waxed paper wrapping and took a bite. If there
was one thing she could really get used to in this whole Evil Overlord business,
it was the minions. She had Harbingers in charge of feeding, clothing,
and cleaning up the crazies. She had Harbingers on the run fetching
her the supplies she need for the upcoming rituals. She had Harbingers
bringing her changes of clothes and setting up her office and fetching tuna
sandwiches on rye, toasted, no pickles. True, she'd always imagined
that when she achieved minions, it would be more in the role of a Professor
McGonagall dispensing tart yet insightful advice to adoring students.
Harbingers were a bit of a letdown... but still, minions! It was only
a step from there to a corner office.
She pulled up Word while the new file was
loading and double-checked the modified version of the crazy-curing spell.
All it had required was a few tweaks to buffer Dawn's physical form from the
flow of power, but of course Buffy wouldn't listen when she tried to explain.
Willow pressed her lips together. She'd backed Buffy up through thick
and thin for six years, and what thanks did she get? Big fat zilch,
that was what, because she didn't happen to be a member of the back-from-the-dead
club. Fine. It was Willow Rosenberg's turn to save the world
"Everything humming along?"
Willow started, almost losing her internet
connection. Her vampire self was sitting on the corner of the desk,
swinging her heels and smirking. "Do you have to pop in and out like
"Comes with the territory, Wills."
It leaned over and peeked at the file, incidentally displaying
as much bustier-enhanced cleavage as possible. Willow edged away.
It was just squicky when you came on to yourself. "How's our project
going? Time's wasting."
Willow tapped a pen against her chin with
a frown. Tanner's defection had been annoying, but not fatal.
"There's been a slight setback, but I'm on it. You do your shape-changy-illusion
thing and trick Dawn out of the house. Be someone she trusts, don't
let her touch you, and as long as nobody else sees you not being there, we're
made in the shade. There'll be a couple of the crazies with you to grab
her if she makes a break for it."
"I'm more concerned with the next stage."
Willow's frown deepened. "We've been
over this. Killing them would just make them martyrs to the cause.
They'd be all dead and inspiring and Balance-tipping." Buy it, buy it,
"Mmmm, yes. You painted a very
convincing picture." Vamp-Willow examined her perfectly manicured blood-red
nails. "But somehow I still have all these nagging little doubts."
"I don't see why." Willow could feel
the muscles tensing along her shoulders, rigidity creeping down her spine
and out along all her limbs. There was no indication that this creature
could read her thoughts, but somehow she couldn't feel sanguine. "It's
simple. I send Buffy back, and while the portal's open I nab Spike's
soul. Et voila, Buffy will be technically dead again, and the soul will
mean that Spike's good-deed-doing won't count for a triple word score any
longer. The Balance will be happy, the Hellmouth won't implode, and
once everything's settled down I can bring Buffy back. Everybody's happy."
Vamp-Willow wriggled seductively.
"Oooh, Tish, you spoke French. Sending the Slayer back to her eternal rest?
Yummy. Bringing her back yet again, not so tasty. And your plans for
Spikey..." Her alter ego made a moue. "Dull. Wouldn't
you rather make him our very own puppy, with his very own collar and leash,
and throw him the Slayer like a bone?" She--it --sucked
on an index finger, a cat-smile playing across her lips. "He liked
you before he liked her, you know. You could make him like you again.
He'd be happier. You wouldn't force your puppy to walk on his hind
legs. That's not what puppies do best."
Willow's spine went crawly at the thought
of all those other spells in the nameless grimoire, the ones which clouded
minds and bound souls still living. Not the simple blunt instrument
of a spell of forgetting, but a precision tool for recreating a mind in whatever
image one pleased. Of course, it was harder to do mind-control spells
on a vampire, but what a challenge! Except... she hit enter with more
than necessary vigor. She didn't want vamp-on-a-rope. That was
Buffy's gig. "What did getting a soul do to Angel?" she demanded.
"Make him all hot to go out and fight that evil? No. He spent
a hundred years moping and making exceptionally bad wardrobe choices.
Why should Spike be any different? Already with the bad wardrobe choices--have
you seen the jewelry? He's like an undead Huggy Bear."
"Angelus's soul ends up in left luggage
"I'm working on that." There wasn't
enough irony in the world--Horrors, Spike might lose his soul and stay
sorta goodish! Willow tapped the file currently occupying her screen.
"What's interesting? Angel's curse wasn't even part of the original
Ritual of Restoration. If I can find or re-construct the older version
of the spell there'll be no problems with Spike getting too cheery.
And the sooner someone desists with the nagging and lets me get back to my
research, the sooner I can reconstruct the original spell." She typed
another set of search criteria into Google. "Besides, Spike pretty much
handed his soul over to me to use in the spell to get Buffy back, so I figure
I can do what I want with it."
Vamp-Willow's form shimmered and shifted,
and Buffy lay along the edge of the desk--not right-now Buffy, but bouncy
sixteen-year-old Buffy from the days when she'd had illusions and a figure.
"Did he? Got it in writing, I hope?"
"Sorry. It was more of a handshake
Mirror-Buffy rolled over and waved one sandaled
toe in the air. "Soul-contracts pretty much extra-binding in any form,
hmm? And the consequences for breakage..." A breathless pause;
Willow couldn't quite interpret the expression on its face--was it threatening
her with the consequences of breaking her own agreements again? Or...?
It broke into a blinding smile. "I've changed my mind, Willow-wisp.
Forward march on the soul-having of Our William. It'll be the kick."
She giggled. "In fact, it'll be to die for."
The dead man sat alone in a room in
the Sunnydale Motor Hotel, unmoving, unbreathing, staring at the telephone.
In the old days, telephones had been substantial hunks of metal. You
could beat someone's brains in with one. This one was sleek and weightless,
mocking in its insubstantiality.
Angel leaned forward and reached for the
phone, hesitating over the grid of glowing numbers. Things would have
been so much simpler had Giles been his ally in this. He could have
proceeded openly then, no need for this elaborate subterfuge, but Giles had
lost his edge with Buffy's second death. He'd seen it at the funeral;
something vital had gone out of the Watcher, something beyond the ravages
of grief. Giles had lost the closest thing he'd ever get to a daughter;
now she was restored to him, and there was nothing the Watcher could bear
to deny her... even if it led to something worse than her death in the end.
If you couldn't recruit one Watcher, another
would have to do. He dialed the number Wesley had given him and waited
through one, two, three tinny rings. The drive up from L.A. had provided
plenty of opportunity to second-guess himself. The plan was too complex,
part of him insisted, and relying on the Council for anything was insane.
The other part countered that reliance didn't enter into the equation; they
were a tool, and he was using them. Known flaws could be allowed for,
and the Council possessed the knowledge and resources Buffy needed--even if
they'd been strangely reluctant to employ them on her behalf before now.
The line picked up on the fourth ring,
and a voice said, "Travers."
"Is your team in place yet?"
The other end of the line seethed with
one of the most virulent silences he'd ever heard. "Angel," Travers
said at last, oozing false jollity.
"Can't get anything past that Council training,
Muffled noises suggested that Travers was
talking to someone off- stage. Deep suspicion colored the man's next
words. "I didn't expect you'd be on site. Or are you still in
"I've been in Sunnydale for two days."
Irritation put an edge on his voice; it wasn't easy to drop everything and
rush to Buffy's rescue these days. He had a life, in a manner of speaking.
"I don't have to remind you that this is an operation I take a very close,
personal interest in, do I? Your last attempt at taking down a rogue
Slayer was a little less than successful. I intend to ensure this one
succeeds." Remember, old man, I can make your job simpler--or impossible.
"The team is in place." He spat out
a contact address as if it were poison. "They've been notified of your...interest
in the case."
"Good. And Travers? I can smell
your deceit through the wires. You know who I am and you know what I've
done. I don't give a damn what you do with Spike once you have him,
but as far as the Slayer's concerned, you will follow both the letter and
the spirit of our agreement without fail...or you will be conscious for every
minute of the six weeks it'll take you to die."
"I assure you, my word is as good as the
man it's given to," Travers replied before Angel hung up on him. Travers
would, of course, betray him. You used the tools at hand, he reminded
himself. He lay back on the lumpy hotel bed, hands laced behind his
head, and deliberately raised a vision of Spike in Buffy's room, in Buffy's
bed, in Buffy's arms, before his mind's eye. Jealousy?
Angel probed his soul like a man prodding the socket of a sore tooth.
Some, he had to admit, even now, when he could not for the unlife of him conceive
of a way of fitting her into his world, nor of cramming himself back into
the cramped confines of Sunnydale. He could acknowledge the emotion
without letting it control his actions, knowing that it was irrelevant to
what must be done--Buffy's liaison with Spike was an abomination because of
what Spike was, not because of who either of them were.
He conjured the younger vampire's
angular face, the defiant set of the chiseled jaw as he stared his grand-sire
down: I love her more than I hate you. Even granting Spike had been
telling the unvarnished truth as he saw it, Angel knew exactly what a vampire's
love was--a dark, obsessive thing which couldn't help but defile its object
in the end. Buffy might never thank him for this, but he didn't want her
gratitude; he wanted to see her living the sunlit, happy life he'd imagined
for her, the life that was the only thing which had made his leaving her
He should have just killed Spike,
Angel thought for the thousandth time. Just done it, rammed the stake
into his heart right in the middle of his confident speech about how Angel
could never kill the ones he'd sired, and been done with it. Proved
the cocky little twerp wrong, for once. Unfortunately, the cocky little
twerp was right, on the surface of it at least; Angelus had spawned half
a dozen monsters in his day, who'd spawned more in their turn. Of all
of them, only mad Drusilla and her insolent get Spike still walked the world.
The rest were dust and ash, yet when push came to shove, somehow it had always
been another's hand wielding the stake. It wasn't pity or compassion
that stayed him--Angel had none for the creatures that reminded him too painfully
of what he was, and what he wasn't. It was simpler than that.
He had always yearned for children, and the things he'd sired were as close
as he would ever get. To destroy them was to destroy himself; to destroy Spike...
Was necessity, nothing more. He wouldn't
allow himself to take pleasure in it. Buffy would hate him. That
was a given. But Buffy had hated him before when he'd acted for her
good. He knew all too well the sacrifices she'd be willing to make for
a shadow-bound lover, and how long before Spike began to play on that willingness
for his own ends? Without a breath, he rolled over and got to his feet.
Time to go.
"Next Saturday as in a week away,
not two days from now, right?" Buffy tucked the phone under her ear and did
mental math. That would be the twenty-second, and by that time the
question of world endage would be moot, one way or another. It had
been so long since she'd gone to any real Christmas parties...Mom had been
sick last year, and making merry had been an effort of will. "Yep,
I'm free that night. Should I bring something?"
Sandra's laughter rang through the line.
"Just an appetite. I'll have enough leftovers of my own to foist off
on people. And your boyfriend's welcome too, of course."
"Spike? Um... he's..." Buffy
looked across to the dining room, where the subject of discussion was bent
over a county surveyor's map of Sunnydale and environs spread out across the
dining room table. Contrary to Giles's assertion, Spike was absolutely
not spending all his time at her house. He'd gone home yesterday afternoon,
and only come back half an hour ago. And she'd only seen him for a few
hours last night for patrol and an unsuccessful attempt to find their way
back into Willow's lair. Plus a little down time at the crypt afterwards,
which so did not count, because crypt? Not her house. Quod
erat demonsomething. "...free too, I guess."
"Well, bring him along. Anyone
who puts Hallie in a snit is a pal of mine. We'll see you then."
"Sure." Buffy hung up, bemused.
She was holed up in a spell-cloaked house with a vampire while her key-to-the-universe
sister did make-up homework upstairs with a witch, and what upped the freakage
quotient? An invitation to a Christmas party held by Anya's normal human
friends. Or now, apparently, her normal human friends, a concept too
alien to be examined closely just yet.
She pulled the living room curtains aside
and stared out into the lengthening shadows. The Harbingers who'd swept
through the neighborhood last night like deranged carolers had passed them
by without a glance, so she had to trust that Tara's spell was working.
She let the curtains fall back and rubbed her arms against a non-physical
chill. Until they could come up with a way to lure Willow out from behind
her own magical defenses... stalemate. Strategy wasn't nearly as satisfying
as rushing in and busting heads.
At least it was almost dark, and in
less than an hour she would be out patrolling, relieving her frustrations
on the hordes of the undead. And anything else that happened to get
in her way. Her hand hovered over the phone. Maybe she should
call Giles and see if he and Tanner had made any progress refining the exact
time when the Hellmouth would do its triple gainer, because who knew, maybe
they'd miscalculated and it was tonight and...
Spike looked up, one eyebrow akimbo. "Not
likely they've made a major breakthrough in the last fifteen minutes, pet."
Buffy snatched her hand away and stuck
it behind her back. Sun not quite down yet. No pacing for Buffy,
because pacing never did anything but wear out carpet. Buffy would instead
do useful things like sharpening knives already honed to razor keenness, touching
up nails already polished to gleaming perfection, and re-arranging things
in cupboards which Tara would quietly put back in their original places tomorrow
morning. She spotted a stack of envelopes. Aha. Useful
Buffy would tackle the pile of Christmas cards to be addressed. She
plopped down at the table across from Spike and ran down her mother's card
list with growing mystification--the Finsters? The Aguileras?
Who were all these people? Friends of her parents back in L.A.?
Work contacts of her mother's? Well, stamps were expensive; they all
got voted off the island. With gleeful abandon Buffy drew big fat Xs
in red marker through three-quarters of the names on the list. She could
accumulate her own stable of mystery names for future generations to ponder.
One for Dad, one for Aunt Caroline, one for Cordelia because ex-Scooby even
if she was a three-time gold medalist in the Bitca Olympics, one for--
She hesitated, shielding the next address
with one hand and casting a furtive glance across the table. Spike's
glasses were sliding down his nose again, inciting an irresistible desire
to straighten them for him. His face seemed somehow more naked with them on,
all his remnant humanity close to the surface and vulnerable. Maybe
she should just address this one impersonally to Angel Investigations.
No, that was silly. Spike had to get over his insecure jealous Angel
thing. His and Giles's suspicions were completely unfounded, because
Angel wouldn't... Just wouldn't. She could settle this immediately
by calling him up and asking him about it--Angel was a lot more nocturnal
than Spike, but he should be up by now. She could march right back over
to the phone, dial the AI number, and ask him. And he'd answer.
And that was what she was afraid of.
Distraction good. My, my, wasn't
that a yummy-looking vampire sitting across the table? She hopped to
her feet again and bounced around the dining room table, draping her arms
around Spike's shoulders and burrowing into his neck. "What's with
the zen-like calm, Mr. Impatient? Are you on drugs? And can I
Spike disentangled her slightly and hitched
his glasses higher on his nose, tapping his pen on the map. "All a facade,
love; I'm distracting myself with shiny objects. Namely, lots and lots
of presidential portraits." He indicated Clem's list of potential clients
and the assorted demon lairs he'd marked off on the map. "Go after
the Sluorn hide first, is what I'm thinking, after patrol tonight. Anya
says it'll fetch the prettiest penny, and there's a whole colony of 'em up
by the reservoir."
Buffy skimmed the notes Spike had added
to each entry on the list-- whether the demon in question could be found in
Sunnydale, and if so where; whether it would require a trip out of town; how
much Anya would pay for the items on order and any other salvageable parts--and
her eyes widened. One night of demon-hunting was going to net Spike
as much as she could hope to earn in a week in sales or waitressing.
This wasn't just grocery money. This was re-shingle the roof money.
Maybe even, if it was steady, college fund for Dawn money. Horror of
horrors, Anya had been right all along. "Math isn't my subject.
Is that decimal point in the right place?"
Spike grinned, with one of those sly, sidelong
looks that dared her to ask if he was joking or not. "Yeh. Had
Mrs.-Harris-to-be double-check. Not quite what I could make knocking
over ATMs, but it's a start."
The slippery slope was ever so much
more slippy when cushioned by large amounts of cash at the bottom. Buffy
worried her lower lip. "I suppose it would be overkill to have someone
else along, um, overkilling-- I mean, we don't want the Sluorn to go the
way of the buffalo, and who needs two Sluorn hides anyway? Especially
at those prices."
Spike sat back and regarded her over the
rims of his glasses with all the sultry appeal of a potential wage-earner.
"If this little venture takes off, a partner might come in handy. I've
got your back on patrol; wouldn't mind having someone a bit quicker to the
mark than Clem to watch mine." His big square palm and long cool fingers
enveloped her hand and his lips took on a small wicked corner-curl.
"Love, I don't think you're cut out for a shop-girl."
"I'm not sure my future's in peddling demon
guts, either, but--" The phone rang, and Buffy leaped for it with equal
parts relief and apprehension. "Hello, Summers residence." Might
be Giles, might be Angel, might be...
"Miss Summers," the voice on the phone
said, "This is Darryl, from Oshman's personnel department. We've reviewed
your application, and your recent interview was very impressive. If
you're still available, you're hired. Your hours would be from two to
ten, Wednesdays through Sundays."
"Two to ten?" Buffy asked, dismayed.
In some ways that would work; she could push back patrol with no problem,
and that would actually put her sleeping schedule in better sync with Spike's
preferred hours, which should so not be a consideration... but she'd lose
all her afternoon and weekend time with Dawn. "I'd hoped for--"
Darryl from Personnel made a small noise,
the verbal equivalent of a sympathetic smile. "Yes, I realize that,
but the shift we're hiring for is our late holiday hours. The job would
last until January sixth, and it's very possible that you could be hired on
permanently at the end of that period. We'd like you to start tomorrow."
"I--" She needed this job.
She hated the whole idea of this job. Saving humanity was a cakewalk compared
to placating an individual human who didn't want to listen when you told them
the kitchen was out of the blue plate special. She could bring the
perky; she'd done it before and could do it again and they really, really
needed the money and why did Spike have to sit there waving that warm, juicy
slice of forbidden fruit pie ala mode in front of her nose while Darryl offered
her dehydrated fruit snacks? This was a normal job, a step on the road
to the normal life she'd always wanted, right? Right?
"I'm afraid I've found something else."
Buffy set the phone down, dizzy with freedom and terror. There would
be other interviews, other jobs with better hours and better pay. Jobs
that didn't require risking her life and manicure driving a knife through
the horny carapace of a Sluorn demon in the dead of night. Jobs that
didn't make her blood sing and her heart race or make her feel she'd accomplished
something for the Sandras of the world when she fell exhausted into bed with
the dawn. But until she found one...
Spike was watching her, eyes glinting behind
the lenses of his glasses. Outside it was full dark, and up and down
Revello Drive timers were flicking on and multicolored constellations blinked
into existence, defining the darkness into roofs and trees and fences.
Buffy glanced down at the list of X'd-out addresses, picked up a pen and added
'Sandra Murchison & Family' to the bottom of the list. She reached
across and plucked the glasses off Spike's nose, folded them up and tucked
them in his shirt pocket. "C'mon. Let's go fight that evil."
A block down the street, a motorcycle rumbled
to life. A second later the bike tore past trailing a whirlwind of fallen
leaves, the pale helmetless head of its rider bent low over the handlebars.
Three figures rose from the shrubbery flanking the entrance to Restfield Cemetery
as soon as the engine-noise faded.
"The target's laired in a crypt here,"
Collins said as they passed beneath the wrought-iron arch of the entrance.
Angel had never forgotten that voice, though he'd only heard it once before,
screaming orders over the din of helicopter blades. Now it was friendly.
Unctuous. Ingratiating. Under no circumstances to be trusted.
Obviously Travers had had a word with them, but Angel wasn't in any mood to
assume it had been a good one. "Minimum of two entrances, one above-ground,
one below. Keeps odd hours for a vampire. He's usually up and
about by two or three in the afternoon and he's been seen round town in the
mornings more than once. Spars with the Slayer the local magical supply
store in the afternoons, then takes off on his own affairs for a few hours
and meets up with her again around eight or nine in the evening. They
patrol for two or three hours, sometimes hit the Bronze or the Alibi Room
after, then go back to the Slayer's place or his crypt for a bit, and then
one or the other of 'em goes home. At least, that was the pattern.
Local gossip has it that in the last week he's started staying the night at
"I've heard the local gossip too."
Angel brushed the remains of the local gossip off the knee of his trousers.
"Better the crypt than at Buffy's house; fewer witnesses, and none that'll
The cemetery was full of cold wind
and rustling in the grass tonight. Collins rattled the handle of the
crypt door and jumped back in surprise when it swung open with a creak.
Weatherby grunted and took a firmer grip on his crossbow, eyes darting across
the uneven ground from shadow to shadow, tombstone to tombstone. "Think it's
a trap?" Unlike Collins, Weatherby wasn't making the pretense of cameraderie.
Every word sounded as if it were being dragged out by main force.
"We saw him leave."
"Could've circled round, dropped into the
sewers and come back in through the lower levels," Weatherby pointed out.
"Spike never did learn to guard his perimeter."
Angel pushed forward and shoved the iron-bound door to, stalking into the
dim interior of the crypt. He looked around--expressionless, but managing
to convey contempt in the set of his shoulders. His nostrils dilated.
"He's not here."
Spike's home was less of a sty than most
vampire lairs. Fastidiously tidy, really, considering. He picked
a couple of magazines off the nearest coffin-table and tossed them down again.
Penthouse and Caffiene, and God knew which Spike jerked off
to. Scents of candle wax and cigarette smoke hung heavy on the still
air, along with others barely perceptible to human noses: blood and whiskey,
peanut butter and apples, old upholstery and sex, Willow and Xander...and
strongest and most recently, Buffy. Underlying everything else, making
his hackles rise, the familiar earthy scent of vampire. Of the line
of Aurelius, younger than he, but no fledgling. Angel made an uneasy
circuit through the eclectic mix of scavenged furniture and funerary marble,
an old lion in the territory of an upstart cub grown to unexpected adulthood.
Family, the beast within him whispered. Rival.
He had no inclination to listen to either
Weatherby and Collins followed him in,
cautious despite the certainty that the crypt was empty. "Twenty-five
years in the field," Weatherby muttered, shining his flashlight into corners.
"Seen everything, I thought--and now we're taking charity from him.
Reformed, Wyndham-Price says. Has a soul."
"You want to tackle the Slayer alone, you
just say the word," Angel murmured, examining the layout of the upper level.
They could hide behind the sarcophagus, but it wasn't a prime spot for an
ambush. "But I seem to remember her taking your pal apart into his component
atoms the last time you tried." He examined the smaller 'room,' which
contained a battered mini-refrigerator plastered with photos and old grocery
and to-do lists (why did Spike need three different kinds of olives?)
Another sarcophagus had been pressed into service as a table-cum-counter,
and a set of shelves containing an utterly prosaic assortment of dishes and
dry goods lined the crypt wall. Angel opened the refrigerator and removed
one of the Styrofoam containers (Kohlermann's Fine Meats, Serving Sunnydale
Since 1947) and sniffed. Pig. Almost a disappointment.
Weatherby gestured to the ladder leading
down to the lower level. Collins produced an unmarked spray bottle and spritzed
it around a couple of times as they clambered down to the lower levels.
Angel stopped inhaling; the spray would mask their scents when Spike arrived,
but breathing it in would numb his own sense of smell.
The crypt's lower level was a series
of caverns dug out haphazardly, one from the other, until they broke into
one of the sewer tunnels. It was less tidy down here--clothes and books
in more evidence, along with a CD player, a creaky-looking turntable, and
a record collection which appeared to have been assembled from the dregs of
six other people's discards. Layers of rugs lent an air of sybaritic
decadence. Angel picked his way through the maze to the bedroom.
One of the dresser drawers was open; it contained a small selection of blouses,
slacks, and lacy underthings. Angel stood staring at it for a moment,
then slammed it shut without further examination.
Weatherby and Collins followed in his wake,
examining odds and ends of Spike's possessions with revulsion. "More
places to hide in down here," Weatherby observed. He walked over to
the bed and twitched the coverlet aside with a disgusted snort. "She's
letting him do her, all right."
Bile rose in Angel's throat and he turned
away, though not before catching a glimpse of the small brownish spots on
the creamy expanse of sheet--left unchanged in token of Spike's conquest,
probably. He hadn't wanted final confirmation that despite her denials,
it had come to that. Spike would gloat over them, roll in them, reveling in
Slayer's blood. A red surge of desire rose up in him to kill both men,
that no one might ever know that Buffy had allowed herself to be so degraded--and
it had to have been 'allowed;' Spike's chip would have prevented a real attack.
Angel fought his rage down, hands clenched tight at his sides, and turned;
Collins was checking the flash on his camera. "You don't need that."
"But we do," Collins replied, ever reasonable.
"You seem to think that we're some kind of cloak and dagger operation, Mr.
Angel, and I suppose that's understandable considering our previous misunderstanding
"Double-cross," Angel corrected.
Collins waved the distinction away.
"--but we can't just accuse Miss Summers
of going rogue with no evidence. Slayers heal fast, and we need documentation.
After all, at the moment we have no proof she's done anything with William
the Bloody that she didn't do with... well, with you." He smiled, twisting
the knife for all it was worth, and Angel reminded himself for the hundredth
time that he needed these men for awhile longer. Collins held up the
camera and feigned snapping a picture. "Don't worry. They won't
end up on the front page of the Mirror. Her, ah, counselor will need
to know the extent of her dependancy."
Angel gave him the flat-eyed, inhuman stare
just long enough to make the man start to sweat, then nodded. It didn't
matter, after all. They could videotape the whole operation if they liked,
complete with director's commentary, for all the good it would do them.
A half-excavated niche concealed behind
a bookshelf, where it looked as if Spike had given up a planned expansion
after running into a tangle of tree roots, provided a hiding place for the
humans. Weatherby readied both crossbow and anaesthetic dart gun for
easy access. Collins applied the scent-masking spray liberally around
the lower level and the two Watchers crammed themselves into the tiny space.
Angel took up a separate station behind the wardrobe and didn't bother to
remind the men that if he took the trouble to listen closely, Spike could
hear the blood rushing in their veins. It made no difference to his
own plans if they were discovered untimely.
The wait was interminable. The humans
fidgeted and sighed and thumped in their dank corner, spending their mortal
heat huddled against the raw earthen walls while Angel stood unmoving and
immovable, dark and cold as the night around them. No satisfaction in
this hunt. He didn't want to be here; he had cases to pursue at home--but
how could he turn his back on her?
You did it once before, a bitter
internal voice reminded him. Twice.
He wouldn't let himself hate Spike.
That would give the other too much power. But he could hate that drawer
filled with Buffy's silly, frothy underclothes, and all it implied.
He could hate the fact that the last week had left his hard-won inner peace
in bloody ribbons, hate the fact that he woke up in the middle of the day
wondering--had he done the right thing, really, in leaving her? Or was
Spike, damn his too-perceptive eyes, not entirely wrong in accusing him of
taking the easy way out?
He caught the sounds in the tunnels long
before the Watchers did, and tensed in anticipation. Two pairs of footsteps,
carrying something heavy; two pairs of lungs working almost in unison--was
it someone they weren't expecting...? No, only one heartbeat.
Sometimes it seemed that Spike breathed just to piss him off.
There was a thump and a dragging scrape
as the two of them dropped whatever it was they were carrying, and a moment
later Buffy appeared in the irregular hole leading off into the tunnels, her
nose wrinkling as it did when she'd just killed something particularly slimy.
"Serious second thoughts about my future as a gut-peddler here. Next
time, Spike? If a demon exudes unmentionable secretions, mention them!"
"Oh, come on, don't tell me you weren't
enjoying yourself." Spike's pale head materialized out of the tunnel's
gloom and he stepped over the makeshift threshold a pace or so behind her,
axe balanced over one shoulder and coat flapping wetly against his knees.
"Could see it in your eyes when we encountered that mud puddle." He grinned.
"Explains why Sluorn hides fetch an arm and a leg; it's bloody near what you
have to give up to get one."
Buffy sniffed. "Killing the Sluorn?
Not a problem. Killing the Krallock demon when it showed up to object
to us killing the Sluorn, marginally entertaining. Skinning the Sluorn
and dragging its raw, stinky, drippy hide all the way back to town, beyond
gross." Buffy brushed at the sleeves of her coat, making a futile attempt
to remove some of the still-damp slime off the fun-fur trim. "Besides,
who died and made you the expert on skinning things?"
"Love, don't ask me questions like that
'less you want to know the answer." He replaced the axe on the weapons
rack beside the tunnel opening and followed Buffy into the bedroom.
He struck a match from the bedside table and coaxed life into a candle or
two, and shadows retreated to the corners of the room as the lttle spears
of flame strengthened. "Would it appease the pouty lip if the profits
go straight into your dry-cleaning bill?"
Behind his back, Buffy smiled and tossed
her hair. "Maybe. The pouty lip can be pretty demanding."
"Have to put some thought into satisfying
it, then." Spike shucked out of his duster and hung it on one corner
of the wardrobe, where it began a morose drip-drip-drip on the floor.
"Bright side, pet--least it didn't bowl you into the reservoir."
Buffy divested herself of her own coat
and pulled a space heater attached to a long hunter-orange extension cord
out from the corner of the room. She turned it on and sat down on the
edge of the bed, holding her hands out over the grille and bouncing a little
on the mattress. "I think the axe between the shoulder blades more than adequately
expressed your displeasure. Or, as anyone not Giles might say, wicked
cool move with the axe."
"You ripping its bowling arm out of its
socket wasn't such a shoddy piece of work either." Spike pulled his
sodden T-shirt over his head and balanced precariously on one foot to worry
the knots out of his equally sodden bootlaces, and Buffy leaned back on the
bed to take full advantage of the view. "Now let's just hope its mum
doesn't show up at the Bronze tomorrow night wanting best two of three."
Neither of them gave any sign of noticing
the Watchers concealed only a few yards away--Angel knew he'd have to concentrate
to hear them if he didn't already know there were there, and Spike seemed
safely preoccupied with other matters. Once or twice Buffy looked around
with faint puzzlement in her eyes, her Slayer senses perhaps picking up some
vagrant trace of vampire-other-than-Spike, but that was all. Should
he feel it more or less keenly, Angel wondered, that she no longer had an
infallible sense of his presence?
Spike kicked off his boots, peeled off his damp
socks and jeans and stood naked in the expanding bubble of warm air around
the space heater. He stretched, eyes closing in hedonistic bliss.
Sheer vanity, maintaining that perfectly-muscled body, as a vampire's strength
depended far more on the age and lineage of the animating demon than on the
condition of the dead flesh it animated. The decades fell away and Angel
was in another candlelit room, Darla at his side, the two of them watching
with amused contempt as Drusilla fussed over her new toy. Drusilla had
stripped the funeral suit from newly-risen and extremely confused William
like a doll, dressing him for his first hunt.
It had been a good joke--the scrawny, hollow-chested
young man, hung like a damn Percheron and obviously at a complete loss as
to the proper employment of the largesse Nature had granted him. He'd
cowered there, blanched and ludicrous as a plucked chicken, trying fruitlessly
to conceal his growing erection as Drusilla's hands pinched and patted and
flitted away again, her cruel, innocent sloe-eyes full of unspeakable promises.
And then a sea-change: the sensual tide of demonic lust and hunger, mated
to perfection with the unleashed passion of his human host, rose in his eyes
and William had smiled--that cheeky sex-on-a-stick grin which was the first
harbinger of Spike to come, the same smile he was turning on Buffy right now--bent
down and kissed her.
A hundred and twenty years ago, Angelus
had cuffed William's head very nearly off his shoulders for his presumption.
He felt his fingers clenching and unclenching for a repeat performance.
Buffy was starfished on the sheets, the
shoulder-straps of her top slipping negligently down her bare arms.
Her face lacked the pallor and sunken eyes of the habitual suck junkie--if
anything, she looked even better than she had last week in L.A. Glorious.
Bright eyes and fetching grin and perky little nipples standing at attention
beneath that flimsy pink cotton-knit top. No bite-marks visible, but
that meant little in the face of the damning evidence on the sheets.
Angel could imagine Spike's oily, coaxing wheedle all too easily.
Just this once, to show how much you love me. Felt good, didn't it?
Once more can't hurt... And then fangs would sink into sweet flesh and
that rich hot blood which was power incarnate would flow down his parched
throat, filling him with new strength, and--Angel shook his head with a strangled
gasp, driving the memories away. This had been a mistake. Perhaps
time and circumstance had burnt out the blazing passion they'd shared, but
God, he'd loved her once, and this was torture.
But it didn't seem that the quarry had
the convenience of their observers in mind tonight. Spike took a silver-backed
brush from the dresser nearby--old, real pig's bristle--but instead of settling
in for a round of vampiric debauchery, the two of them curled together on
the rumpled expanse of the bed, Buffy reclining against Spike's chest, while
he ran the brush through the silken fall of Buffy's hair, working out the
fight-tangles for a full hundred long, sensual strokes. Buffy reached
up now and again to tease the snarls from Spike's damp unruly curls with her
fingers. They discussed the fight with the Krallock demon. And
Christmas shopping. And some mysterious problem with Willow, all in
cryptic verbal couple-shorthand, all while Spike played with the shining waves
of her hair, fanning the tawny silk across her shoulders.
The mutual grooming session was revolting
enough, but none of it was what the Watchers had come for. Until Buffy
took the brush away and rolled Spike over. There was an assurance to
her movements, an alien and ferocious grace, a wantonness which both aroused
and terrified--everything Angel had seen and wondered at outside the restaurant
last week, grown deeper and more intense. Her hazel eyes were half-lidded
and misty, the wide mouth that was so firm and determined on the hunt gone
soft and giving. They were nested in the heap of pillows now, nose to
nose, belly to belly, kissing. Just kissing.
Kisses that took their time, kisses that
knew they'd get there eventually. Meandering kisses, nibbling their
way across the translucent delicacy of eyelids and earlobes, trailing down
the smooth ivory slopes of throat and jaw. Small sharp Buffy-teeth grazing
Spike's Adam's apple just so, drawing low exquisite moans. Feather-lipped
kisses, chaste in their hesitancy. Long, deep tongue-kisses, smoky
and molasses-sweet, dark and warm and languorous. Buffy whimpered as
Spike slipped into game face, pressing closer, tongue thrusting hard into
his fangs. Buffy's hands slid up his torso, hands drawing lazy circles
over the muscles of his back and sides as both their bodies thrummed to Spike's
resonant growl. Her head tipped back, her throat bared, ecstacy in her eyes
as the ivory scimitars descended...
Atinic light painted the room in stark
black and white as Collins's flash went off, and a near-inaudible pfft of
air marked the discharge of Weatherby's dart gun. Angel was in motion
even as the flash faded.
He'd been wrong. Destroying Spike
was going to be a pleasure, after all.
Continued in Part 33